Labor Power

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Labor Power


capacity for labor; the totality of physical and intellectual capacities possessed and used by a person to produce the means of subsistence. Labor power, which can only function in a definite system of production relations, is the chief productive force of society and the determining element of the productive forces. As V. I. Lenin emphasized, “the primary productive force of human society as a whole is the workers, the working people” (Poln. sobr. sock, 5th ed., vol. 38, p. 359).

In the process of labor, a person acts on, modifies, and subordinates natural materials, thereby improving his labor skills, gaining production experience, and accumulating theoretical and technical knowledge. The level of development of the means of labor has a decisive effect on the character and scope of labor functions. The socioeconomic conditions for the use of labor power are directly dependent on the method by which labor power is combined with the means of production. K. Marx observed: “The special nature of this combination and the method by which it is achieved distinguish different economic epochs of the social order” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Sock, 2nd ed., vol. 24, pp. 43–44). Under the slaveholding and feudal modes of production, complete or incomplete ownership of labor power by the ruling classes was a precondition for exploitation based on extraeconomic methods of coercion to work. Under capitalism, labor power became a commodity. This is only possible under certain socioeconomic conditions. First, labor power must be possessed by a legally independent person who can dispose freely of it. Second, the owner of labor power must be deprived of the means of production—that is, he must lack the possibility of engaging in independent economic activity. The transformation of labor power into a commodity was a lawlike or inevitable result of the development of small-scale commodity production. The operation of the law of value resulted in differentiation among the commodity producers. A number of economic and noneconomic factors played an important role in preparing the conditions for capitalism and in separating the direct producers from the means of production: the expropriation of land, harsh laws against the victims of expropriation, the colonial system, state loans, taxes, and protectionism.

Under capitalist conditions, labor power, like any other commodity, has a value and a use-value. The value of an individual unit of labor power is determined by the cost of the means of subsistence necessary for the worker to engage in a normal level of labor and support his family. In addition to the satisfaction of the worker’s needs for food, clothing, and housing, the value of labor power includes a nonmaterial element (the cultural needs of workers, as well as expenditures for education and vocational training). The specific historical characteristics of the development of labor power have a great deal of influence on the magnitude and structure of the value of labor power in various countries. The value of labor power varies, depending on the level of economic development of a country, natural and climatic conditions, revolutionary traditions, and the level of organization of the working class.

Modern scientific and technological progress has a contradictory influence on the dynamics of the value of labor power. On the one hand, the tremendous development of the productive forces and the increase in the social productivity of labor lead to a decrease in the cost of the means of subsistence consumed by the workers and consequently, contribute to a decrease in the value of labor power as a specific commodity. On the other hand, there are factors that promote an increase in the value of labor power. Thus, the intensification of production processes requires additional expenditures to compensate for the intensified expenditure of physical and nervous energy. There have been shifts in the composition of the labor force by occupation and skill, owing to the transformation of science into a direct productive force and qualitative changes in the material and technical basis (the automation of production, the introduction of cybernetic devices and computers, and the use of chemicals in production, for example). The number of occupations requiring primarily mental labor has increased as has the proportion of workers with higher and secondary education. These changes in the structure of the labor force require additional expenditures to raise the educational level of the working class and provide vocational and advanced training for personnel.

In a capitalist society the value of labor power is expressed in a converted form—wages. Under the capitalist mode of production, wages typically lag behind the value of labor power. This tendency is intensified under state-monopoly capitalism, owing to the effects of price policy, taxation, and inflation.

The use-value of labor power consists in the worker’s ability, in the process of production, to create surplus value for the capitalist. The capitalist’s economic interests as the purchaser of labor power are served, because in the process of labor activity labor power creates value exceeding its own. Modern capitalism is characterized by intensified exploitation of hired labor power.

In socialist society the combination of labor power with the means of production is achieved under the conditions of social ownership of the means of production and on the basis of the organization of the production process in conformity with a plan. In its economic content and in the character of its inclusion in the system of social production, labor power is not a commodity under the conditions of socialism. However, under socialism the hiring of labor power persists in form. To facilitate the acquisition of the means of subsistence, which are necessary to meet the growing needs of the members of socialist society, and to ensure the comprehensive development of the individual, monetary payments and rewards are distributed according to the quantity and quality of labor contributed by the worker. (Payments from the social consumption funds are not made on this basis.) The hiring of labor power persists in form for a number of reasons: the relative economic independence of state and cooperative enterprises, the necessity of controlling the measure of labor and consumption by workers with different qualifications, and the preservation of commodity-money relations in the socialist economy. Under the planning system, socialist society takes into account the cost of the means of subsistence as part of the cost of the reproduction of labor power. The magnitude of the cost of the means of subsistence is a factor in shaping the minimum wage under socialism.

Under the conditions of a developed socialist society and under the influence of the scientific and technological revolution, progressive changes take place in vocational training and in the qualifications of labor power, the cultural and technical level of the working people rises, labor becomes increasingly creative, and the differences between workers engaged in mental and physical labor are erased.


Marx, K. Kapital, vol. 4, chs. 4, 5, 17–24. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Sock, 2nd ed., vol. 23.
Lenin, V. I. “Rech’ na I Vserossiiskom s”ezde po vneshkol’nomu obrazovaniiu.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 38.
Lenin, V. I. Ekonomika i politika v epokhu diktatury proletariata. Ibid., vol. 39.
Sovremennyi rabochii klass kapitalisticheskikh stran. (Izmeneniia v strukture.) Moscow, 1965.
Gauzner, N. D. Nauchno-tekhnicheskii progress i rabochii klass SShA. Moscow, 1968.
Sotsial’nye problemy sovremennoi nauchno-tekhnicheskoi revoliutsii. Moscow, 1969.
Sotsial’no-ekonomicheskie problemy ispol’zovaniia rabochei sily. Moscow, 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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