Money, money, money ... that is capitalist wealth

The wealth of nature

There are still those who merely offer a mirror image of bourgeois ideology, with the claim that workers create all the wealth. Jack Conrad argues that nature more than contributes: it is primary

Tony Cliff’s original, 33-strong, Labour Party-embedded, Socialist Review Group not only evolved through the International Socialists into today’s largely paper-membership Socialist Workers Party: it spawned a couple of dozen imitators, clones and breakaways in other countries besides.

True, most of the SWP’s ‘sister organisations’ have disappeared, gone native or survive as nothing more than micro-sects. Going through the International Socialist Tendency and its national sections is an uninspiring exercise. Other than broken links, what is ‘real’ amounts to a pot pourri of shrill liberalism, routine trade unionism, crass tailism and bowdlerised Marxism. Eg, when it comes to nature, there is a similar problem on display.

For many years, for decades, the SWP’s Socialist Worker carried this formulation in its ‘What we stand for’ column: “Workers create all the wealth under capitalism. A new society can only be constructed when they collectively seize control of that wealth and plan its production and distribution according to need.” (Proposition 1).

Sister and former sister IST organisations still loyally present, champion, uphold their own versions of this proposition. Five examples.

1. In the United States the now liquidated International Socialist Organization: “Workers create society’s wealth, but have no control over its production and distribution. A socialist society can only be built when workers collectively take control of that wealth and democratically plan its production and distribution, according to present and future human needs instead of profit.”1

2. Its diminutive, IST rump, Marx 21, likewise declares: “We believe that workers create all the wealth under capitalism, which is a system run by a tiny, wealthy elite. A new society can only be constructed when we, the workers, collectively seize control of that wealth and plan production and distribution according to human need.”2

3. Up north, in Canada, the International Socialists have: “Capitalist monopolies control the earth’s resources, but workers everywhere actually create the wealth.”3

4. Down under, in Australia, there is Solidarity: “Although workers create society’s wealth, they have no control over production or distribution.”4

5. Then, finally, in terms of our potted IST survey, we have Workers’ Democracy in Poland (formerly Socialist Solidarity). Exactly in line with all the others we are told: “While workers create social wealth, they have no control over the production and distribution of goods. In pursuit of increasing profits, global capitalism, cultivated by corporations backed by the power of the strongest and richest countries in the world, leads to a progressive stratification of income.”5

For those unacquainted with the ABCs of Marxism these formulations might appear perfectly acceptable. Yes, they are superficially anti-capitalist and apparently militantly pro-working class. But, as we have repeatedly argued, there is a problem.6 It lies not with the call for the working class to “collectively seize” control of the wealth they create and then “plan its production and distribution”. No, the programmatic poverty, the economism, of the IST tradition announces itself in the very first sentence: “The workers create all the wealth under capitalism” … or words to that effect.

The fault is twofold. Firstly, the IST statements are simply wrong. Workers do not create all wealth under capitalism. Secondly, it treats workers merely as wage-slaves, the producers of commodities - not feeling, thinking, emotional human beings7 - a mirror image, in effect, of capitalist political economy.


Let us discuss wealth. To do that we must first outline some basic Marxist concepts.

Wealth for capital concerns value, surplus value and accumulated surplus value - its general form being money. Marx gives this simple algebraic formula: M-C- M′. This movement sees the capitalist laying out money to purchase commodities in order to realise more money in the market. In the embryonic form of mercantile capitalism, the secret of making something out of nothing is to be found in the existence of distinct ‘world economies’. A ‘world economy’ being an economically autonomous geographical zone, whose internal links give it “a certain organic unity” (Ferdinand Braudel).8

The merchant’s ships, wagons and pack animals join and exploit each separate ‘world economy’. Eg, Muslim Arab traders bought cheap in India and China and sold dear to Christendom (Byzantine in the east and Europe in the west). Merchants parasitically acted as intermediaries between such spaces. Mark-ups on spices, silks and ceramics were fabulous. Way beyond the cost of transport. There were no socially determining capitalist relations of production. Unequal exchange was the key to the merchant’s wealth and capital accumulation.

Under fully developed capitalism, however, surplus value derives from the surplus labour performed by workers during the process of production. Hence this (extended) formula for the circuit of money: M-C…P…C′-M′.

Through repeated acts of parliament, state terrorism and relentless market competition, the direct producers had been separated from the means of production. Small peasants and petty artisans fall into the ranks of the proletariat and have to present themselves daily, weekly, monthly for hire. It is that or grinding poverty. Yet on average capital purchases labour-power at a ‘fair’ market price. As sellers of that commodity - labour-power - workers receive back its full worth. Again on average. Wages buy the means of subsistence necessary for the production and reproduction of the worker as a wage-slave. Only as human beings are they robbed.

Of course, capital, as an individual entity in its own right, has no concern for the worker. Capital, because it is only interested in self-expansion, would compel workers to work for 24 hours a day and seven days a week if such a feat were physically possible. Nor has capital, again as capital, any particular concern for the commodity created by the combination of labour-power, the instruments of labour and raw materials - albeit brought together under its auspices. The resulting commodity could be of the highest quality or complete rubbish. But, as long as it sells, and sells at a profit, that is what counts. Hence, for capital, wealth comes in the form of value, surplus value and above all money. In other words, exchange-value.

The slackers, the parochial, the small fry are gobbled up or driven out of business. To survive, capitalists are, therefore, compelled to lay out money in order to realise more money … and not just once, not just twice, but endlessly, time after time. Growth and overcoming all barriers to growth becomes the cult which they must fanatically serve. Capital rises above the capitalists themselves: it becomes their demonic master, their “real god”.9

Of course, for the capitalists, as individuals, wealth also comes in the form of use-values. Despite the myths of Max Weber and the so-called Protestant work ethic, no-one should imagine them living an ascetic, self-denying existence, which sees all profits ploughed back into production, and using money to make more money.

Capitalists indulge themselves … and often to extraordinary excess. Billionaires buy up private islands, football clubs, famous art works, entertain aboard luxury yachts, rocket off into near space and flit from one sumptuous residence to another. Even when it comes to mere CEOs, Lear jets, chauffeur-driven limos, English butlers, Pilipino maids, Saville Row suits, vintage wines, trophy wives and the right to grope female employees are considered mere perks of the job (yes, most of them are male, sociopathic and aggressively self-entitled). Meanwhile, half the world’s population has no ready access to clean drinking water.


So, for capital, wealth is self-expanding money or value. But, for the human being, wealth is use-value - what fulfils some desire, what gives pleasure, what it useful. Because use-value so obviously relies on subjective judgement, Marx quite correctly gave the widest possible definition. Use-value, he said, must satisfy a human need of “some sort”.

Whether these needs arise from the “stomach or from fancy” makes no difference.10 Use-value is therefore not just about physical needs: it encompasses the imagination too. Indeed, a use-value may be purely imaginary. Its essence is to be found in the human being rather than the thing itself. The consumer determines use-value (ie, utility).

Obviously use-values are bought on the market for money and come in the form of commodities produced through the capitalist production process. However, capital not only has an interest, a drive, to exploit labour and maximise surplus labour. In pursuit of profit, capital also seeks to maximise sales and therefore to expand consumption. Capitalists, in department I, sell raw materials and the instruments of labour to other capitalists: steel, electricity, machine tools, computer chips, etc. Capitalists in department II sell the means of consumption to other capitalists … and to workers too (food, clothing, housing, drink, etc).

While the individual capitalist, the particular capital, attempts to minimise the wages of the workers they employ, capital as many capitals, capital as a system, pushes and promotes all manner of novel wants and artificial needs. Hence celebrity endorsements, influencers and the huge advertising sector, which works day and night to transform the “luxury goods of the aristocracy into the necessities of everyday life”.11 That, and the class struggle conducted by workers themselves, combine to constantly overcome the barrier represented by the limited purchasing power of the working class.

Part of what the working class produces is therefore sold back to the working class … and historically on an ever-increasing scale. That way, workers manage to partially develop themselves as human beings. Not that their needs are ever fully met. There is a steady stream of the latest must-haves. Capital, capital accumulation and the lifestyles of the rich always run far ahead. The lot of the working class therefore remains one of relative impoverishment and “chronic dissatisfaction” (Thorstein Veblen).12

Workers and capitalists alike consume use-values that come in the form of commodities and from the sphere of capitalist relations of production and the exploitation of wage labour (there are, though we shall not explore it here, non-commodity use-values, such as domestic labour - cleaning, cooking, looking after the kids, maintaining the car, putting up shelves, decorating, etc).

Doubtless, once again workers and capitalists alike also consume some commodities that, directly or indirectly, come from peasant agriculture, the individual service-provider or the self-employed artisan. Eg, when visiting India, I love to quench my thirst by stopping to drink the water from one of the fresh coconuts sold along the roadside; likewise I buy my newspapers from the newsagent next door; I get my shoes repaired by the cobbler from up the road. Such little businesses produce use-values and therefore, by definition, wealth too. With such examples in mind - and there are millions of them in Britain alone13 - it is surely badly mistaken to baldly state that “workers create all the wealth under capitalism”.

In theoretical terms, forgetting or passing over petty bourgeois commodity production is a mote, a mere speck of dust in the eye of the IST. But there exists a beam.

In his Critique of the Gotha programme Marx is quite explicit: “Labour is not the source of all wealth.”14 There is nature too.

Marx writes here against the first paragraph of the draft programme of the newly established German Social Democratic Party. It has a strangely familiar ring. A ghostly anticipation of the IST: “Labour is the source of all wealth and culture and, since useful labour is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labour belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.”

Some necessary background.

The Gotha unity congress in 1875 represented an unprincipled unification, joining together Lassallean state socialists and the Eisenachers - the followers of Marx, led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Marx, supported unity, yes, but not unity which involved weakening the programme. Note, the Lassalleans, not least because of their dictatorial internal regime, were in decline, their trade unions broke away and various splits joined the Eisenachers. And concessions there had been: eg, “producer associations assisted by the state” ... Not in itself a disaster, but the central role accorded to the state and state aid nostrums left the door ajar for a “Bonapartist state-socialist workers’ party” (Engels 1887-88).15

It should be added that Marx was probably eager, primed, itching to write his Critique due to Mikhail Bakunin. In his Statism and anarchy (1873) Bakunin portrayed Marx as a German nationalist and an “authoritarian” worshiper of state power. Not only that: Marx was said to have been responsible for the programme and every step taken by the Eisenachers since day one. Eg, “The supreme objective of all his efforts, as is proclaimed to us by the fundamental statutes of his party in Germany, is the establishment of the great People's State (Volksstaat)”.16

As a canny political fighter Marx chose to point the finger of blame at Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64). Lassalle was the real German nationalist and worshipper of state power. He had secretly offered to do a deal with Otto von Bismarck. That way, the Bismarck state would have gotten its “own bodyguard proletariat to keep the political activity of the bourgeoisie in check”.17 Marx credited Lassalle with being the spiritual father of the Gotha programme, including the above-quoted first paragraph. Unfair, perhaps - Lassalle was dead, killed in a silly duel.

More to the point, Marx’s own pupils - ie, Bebel and Liebknecht - were quite capable of making such an elementary blunder all by themselves. No help, no prompting from Lassalle and his state socialists was needed. But, by blaming Lassalle, Marx was able to give his comrades an escape route, a route which, if taken, would simultaneously save their blushes and draw a clear line of demarcation against Lassallean state socialism.


Neither Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman, John Rees, Lindsey German, Martin Smith, Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber nor Amy Leather were cribbing from Lassalle ... or Bebel and Liebknecht for that matter. That is to state the obvious.

No, we have a clear case of historical reflux, opportunism recurring, economism spontaneously resurfacing - as it inevitably does, given the material conditions of capitalism and the oppressed position of the working class.

Incidentally, economism needs defining here - that is, if we are going to have a serious discussion. Economism is, in essence, a bourgeois-imposed outlook, which restricts, narrows down the horizons of the working class to mere trade unionism … that or, more commonly, it simply denies or belittles the role of high politics and democracy in the struggle for socialism and communism. So, regrettably, the IST and its SWP mothership are hardly alone. Economism is an all too common malady.

Not, of course, that economism denies politics. The problem is that, when the economistic left takes up politics, it is not the politics of the working class and necessarily therefore orthodox Marxism. No, it is, instead, the politics of other classes and other ideological trends: left social democracy, the trade union bureaucracy, liberalism, greenism, feminism, black separatism, petty nationalism, etc.

Economism is therefore a parody of Marxism: one-dimensional Marxism. Genuine Marxism strives on every front to organise, mobilise and politically arm the working class so that it can become the ruling class. Proletarian socialism can never come about through tailing whatever moves. Socialism is the victory of the working class in the battle for democracy and the first stage in the transition to a communist society.

Anyway, back to Marx. In 1875, he savaged the “hollow phrases” in the Gotha programme about “useful labour” and all members of society having an “equal right” to society’s wealth. There is useless labour - labour that fails to produce the intended result. Furthermore, every society needs a surplus to reinvest in production and infrastructural projects or in cases of emergencies. Hence, for Marx, not all production can be, or should be, returned “undiminished” to the producers.

As for equality, people are not equal in their abilities. Nor in their needs. The first stage of communist society will operate according to the principle of work done; but, once fully mature, it will inscribe onto its banner these splendid words: “From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs.”

What about the claim that “labour is the source of all wealth” serving as an indictment of capitalism? If anything, the opposite is the case. Displaying great profundity, Marx argues as follows:

[T]he bourgeoisie have very good grounds for ascribing supernatural creative power to labour; since precisely from the fact that labour is determined by nature, it follows that man, who possesses no other property than his labour-power, must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour. He can work only with their permission, hence live only with their permission.18

No less to the point, what did Marx have to say about nature? He emphasised: “Nature is just as much the source of wealth of use-values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour-power.”

He goes on to explain that “insofar as man from the outset behaves towards nature” - what he calls the “primary source of all instruments and objects of labour” - as an “owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labour becomes the source of use-values, therefore also of wealth”. The same gendered metaphor occurs elsewhere again and again in order to depict the twofold source of wealth. Eg, in Capital, Marx approvingly quotes William Petty: “Labour is its father and the earth its mother”19

Sunshine and water, air and soil, plants and animals are all ‘gifts from nature’. Human beings too are part of nature and, just like every other living thing, rely on nature in order to survive. Humanity applies itself to nature and in the process of production often banks on the direct actions of nature. Eg, though a natural product, wheat is selected, sown and harvested by labour; yet it germinates in the soil and needs both rain and sunshine if it is to grow and duly ripen. So the two forms of wealth conjoin. Yet, despite that, for the laws of capital, what gives the wheat value is not what is supplied by nature. That has use-value, but not value. Value derives from the application of labour-power alone.


There is a another - a spiritual, or artistic - dimension to the use-value of nature that should never be underestimated.

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love not man the less, but Nature more.

(George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s pilgrimage - 1812)

I am unable to match such poetic heights. Nevertheless, I too am constantly inspired, humbled, uplifted by the wonders of nature: the evening sunset I see through my office window, the mists of autumn mornings, exploring my local heathland, the thunderstorms, as they roll over London. All are wealth for the human being.

So wealth cannot be limited to the products of human activity alone. Wealth must include every form of consumption which produces human beings in one respect or another. Michael Lebowitz rightly considers this of particular significance: “Marx’s identification of nature as a source of wealth is critical in identifying a concept of wealth that goes beyond capital’s perspective”20

Capital, as we have shown above, has but one interest - self-expansion. Capital has no intrinsic concern either for the worker … or nature. And, especially over the last 150 years, and increasingly so, capitalist exploitation of nature has resulted in wanton destruction. Deforestation, the erosion of topsoils, the spread of deserts, CO2, methane and other greenhouse gas emissions - all grow apace. Countless species of plants and animals have been driven to extinction. Instead of cherishing nature, there is greed, plunder and recklessness. Oil is prodigiously devoured through the car economy, business executives jet off to meetings, while railway prices are hiked, and nuclear power is presented as the salvation from the danger of runaway climate change.

The working class presents the only viable alternative to the destructive reproduction of capital. First, as a countervailing force within capitalism - one which has its own logic, pulling against that of capital. The political economy of the working class brings with it not only higher wages and shorter hours. It is responsible for health services, social security systems, pensions, universal primary and secondary education … and measures that protect the environment. Wealth, for the working class, is not merely about the accumulation and consumption of an ever greater range of commodities.

Besides being of capitalism, the working class is uniquely opposed to capitalism. The political economy of the working class more than challenges capital. It points beyond capital - to the total reorganisation of society and, with that, the ending of humanity’s strained, brutalised, crisis-ridden relationship with nature.
Socialism and communism do not raise the workers to the position where they own the planet. Mimicking the delusions associated with capitalism - as witnessed under bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union - brings constant disappointment, ecological degradation and the certain revenge of nature. Humanity can only but be the custodian.

Marx was amongst the first to theorise human dependence on nature and the fact that humanity and nature co-evolve. He warned, however, that a metabolic “rift” had occurred, which threatened the nature-imposed conditions of human existence. Capitalism crowds vast numbers into polluted, soulless, crime-ridden concrete jungles. Simultaneously, the ever bigger farms of capitalist agriculture denude nature with mono-crops, the ripping up of hedgerows and, as highlighted by Rachel Carson back in the early 1960s, the chemical death meted out to “birds, mammals, fishes, and indeed practically every form of wildlife”.21

The Marx-Engels team wanted to re-establish an intimate connection between town and country, agriculture and industry, and rationally redistribute the population. Mega-cities are profoundly alienating and inhuman. The growth of ever-sprawling conurbations has to be ended and new spaces made inside them for woods, parks, public gardens, allotments and small farms. Doubtless, while this programme has great relevance today, not least given the code-red climate crisis, it is very hard to imagine the capitalist class, with its short-termism and manic fixation on generating profits, willingly going along with such far-reaching measures. But under conditions of socialism and communism such ideas will surely be put into practice.

Our aim is not only to put a stop to destruction and preserve what remains. Of course, the great rain forests of Congo, Indonesia, Peru, Columbia and Brazil must be safeguarded. So too the much depleted life in the oceans and seas. However, more can be done. The riches of nature should be restored and where possible enhanced. Grouse moors and upland sheep runs are obvious prime targets for rewilding in a Britain with its “very striking - and worrying” low levels of biodiversity (Natural History Museum report).22 The wolves should sing again.

But we can think really big. Mesopotamia - now dry and dusty - can be remade into the lush habitat it was in pre-Sumerian times. The Sahara in Africa and Rajputana in India were once home to a wonderful variety of fauna and flora. The parched interior of Australia too. With sufficient resources and careful management they can bloom once again.

The aim of such projects would not be to maximise production and churn out an endless flood of products. Hardly the Marxist version of abundance. On the contrary, the communist economy has every reason to rationally economise and minimise all necessary inputs.

The “enormous waste” under capitalist social conditions outraged Marx. The by-products of industry, agriculture and human consumption are squandered and lead to pollution of the air and contamination of streams, rivers and lakes. Capital volume three contains a section entitled ‘Utilisation of the extractions of production’. Here Marx outlines his commitment to the scientific “reduction” and “re-employment” of waste.23

In place of capitalism’s squandermania and Stalin’s cult of steel, coal and cement, there comes with communism the human being, who is rich in human needs. However, these needs are satisfied not merely by the supply of things: they are first and foremost satisfied through the concert of human interconnections and a readjusted and sustainable relationship with nature.

At the heart of the Marxist project is therefore the richest development of human beings: individuals who have developed their capabilities and capacities, so that there is a full working out of all innate and acquired potentialities.

  1. socialistworker.org/where-we-stand.↩︎

  2. marx21us.org/about.↩︎

  3. www.socialist.ca/ourstand.↩︎

  4. www.solidarity.net.au/about-us.↩︎

  5. pracowniczademokracja.org/?page_id=372.↩︎

  6. Presumably our repeated polemics had an effect. A few years ago there was a forced tweak in Socialist Worker. Its ‘What we fight for’ column now reads: “Under capitalism workers’ labour creates all profit. A socialist society can only be constructed when the working class seizes control of the means of production and democratically plans how they are used.” Hence nowadays the SWP mothership has one formulation, but meanwhile its clones maintain their old versions. Either way, both are wrong in terms of Marxism and are eloquent testimony to the complete lack of seriousness the IST has, when it comes to its stated principles.↩︎

  7. It was, therefore, disappointing to read trusted SWP loyalist Colin Barker. Tasked with defending the ‘Where we stand’ column, he wrote a 19-part series in Socialist Worker over December 6 2003-June 26 2004. Naturally he began with proposition one, but - guiltily - he steered clear of nature. He broke with the SWP in 2014 - not over the Respect popular front or even nature: no, it was the rape allegations against former national organiser Martin Smith. Not that Martin Empson’s pamphlet Marxism and ecology: capitalism, socialism and the future of the planet was any better (2009). As an SWP loyalist, he tried to do the impossible: square the old ‘Where we stand’ statement on wealth with the Marxism of Marx and Engels.↩︎

  8. F Braudel Civilization and capitalism Vol 3, Berkeley CA, 1992, p22.↩︎

  9. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p212.↩︎

  10. K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1970, p35.↩︎

  11. See G Reith Addictive consumption: capitalism, modernity and excess London 2018.↩︎

  12. See T Veblen The theory of the leisure class Mineola NY, p20.↩︎

  13. In 2021 5.5 million in fact – see: www.fsb.org.uk/uk-small-business-statistics.html.↩︎

  14. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p81.↩︎

  15. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990, p500.↩︎

  16. dwardmac.pitzer.edu/bakunin/marxnfree.html.↩︎

  17. See: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/housing-question/ch02.htm; the official K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1988, p364 leaves “bodyguard” out of its text.↩︎

  18. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p81.↩︎

  19. K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1970, p43.↩︎

  20. M Lebowitz Beyond Capital Basingstoke 2003, pp130-31.↩︎

  21. R Carson Silent spring Harmondsworth 1991, p87.↩︎

  22. The Observer October 10 2021.↩︎

  23. K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1971, p101.↩︎