‘Karl Marx on Fordism’ by Thurber Lewis from The Daily Worker. Vol. 3 Nos. 264-267. November 20, 21, 23, 24, 1926.

Workers know the score, and in April, 1941 and the UAW finally wins at Ford.

A fine, popularly written Marxist exposure of Henry Ford’s vaunted, and false, five dollar and eight hour day by Thurber Lewis published in four parts by the Daily Worker in November, 1926.

‘Karl Marx on Fordism’ by Thurber Lewis from The Daily Worker. Vol. 3 Nos. 264-267. November 20, 21, 23, 24, 1926.


Ford s 5-Day Week Is a Capitalist Fraud That Karl Marx Exposed Before Henry Was Born—Some Lessons in Marxism with Relation to the Ford Method of Slave Driving.

FROM the manner in which the particular star flashed across the sky and then died suddenly so it would appear that Henry Ford’s famous five-day week did not exactly have the enduring I qualities of a planet. We refer to the sensational manner in which the announcement of this great boon, like a meteor, was, catapulted across the innumerable front pages that constitute Karl Marx the firmament of American publicity only to die in the whining and whirring of the machinery in Highland Park and Fordson. But there is a reason why the vaunted five-day week was but a flash in the pan. There is a reason why it was startling for only the moment. Its novelty has been eaten up in the realization by the workers themselves that it is just another capitalist fraud. It is a capitalist fraud that Karl Marx exposed in print before 1867.

Ford, and when we say Ford we mean, not the man, but the Ford administrative machine, has learned in the process of an advanced type of capitalist production what. Karl Marx analyzed on the basis of his study of the capitalist system about the time that Henry was being born.

Ford on “Labor Cost.”

READ the books that have been written for Henry by men who know how to write and who have translated the Ford experience in production to the printed page. Upon what is laid the chief stress? What is the determining factor in the Ford system? The central feature of Ford’s industrial program is what he calls, labor cost. The phenomenal profits made in the Ford industries have been created on the basis of “labor saving” machinery. The entire Ford system works toward the one end: devising means to cut down on the labor used in production and intensifying that labor to a maximum. No one disputes this—least of all Ford.

‘HENRY’S FIRST FACTORY. Workers are told by Ford propagandists that it was due to Henry’s unusual ability and his great foresight that made this tumbled down shack grow into the great auto plants at Highland Park and Fordson. For them the important thing is that Ford is the OWNER es these great industrial institutions. They entirely overlook the fact that billions of hours of exhaustive labor has gone into the building of the huge Ford machine. But workers who think about it easily see that from these billions of hours of labor time that they put into production came not only the gigantic auto industry but the millions of dollars of profit that Henry now is sole master of. By what right?’

What does Karl Marx, the greatest of all economists, the economist of the workers, have to say about it? What Ford technicians call labor, Marx calls labor power. Why? He calls it labor power because he wants to make clear the social aspect of it and also to separate LABOR POWER, as such, from the laborer who gives it because LABOR POWER is what the worker sells to the capitalist. As soon as a Ford worker enters the Highland Park plant he is parted from something that has been bought from him. Ford has leased his brain, his muscle and his energy for eight hours. In a word, Ford has bought his labor power. “As soon as his labor really begins.” says Marx, “it no longer belongs to him.”

Ford’s Eight Hours.

THE worker slaves away for eight hours and Ford’s specialists are busy devising means to make him produce as much in eight hours as possible. Why? Because the biggest profits are derived when, by employing less labor, more products are created.

But Ford pays his men $6.00 a day. He only works them eight hours. Other capitalists pay less money and work their men more hours. At the same time Ford’s profits are bigger, as a rule, than theirs. How come?

Ford’s economists would analyze It in the following way. Very simple. The labor cost is the big cost. The payroll at Highland Park is the biggest daily item of expense. Compared to this the cost of the raw materials is small. We can sell Ford cars at a low price and thus swell our sales on the market only if we can manage to cut dawn the biggest cost of production, that is, the labor cost. So the conveyor system came into use. So the division of tasks was worked out in detail. So constantly improved machinery requiring the application of less and less labor was installed. And so more cars were produced with less expenditure of labor to produce them and profits were consequently greater.

All of this Is quite true. But it is only half the story. As is usually the case with capitalist experts, they leave the social implications of their calculations entirely out of account. They see only the matters directly pertaining to their particular business.

Marx Goes Deeper.

BUT Marx saw much more deeply. He was not satisfied with a simple accounting such as that. He not only wanted to know HOW these things could be done, but, more Important to the exploited worker, WHY they were done and what conditions made possible. In this case, for example, Marx was more interested in determining the process of making bigger profits by working your men eight hours j a day and paying them six dollars for it, than in the fact that big profits resulted—the chief interest for Henry.

Well, let us begin. When the Ford worker lets Henry use his labor, or as we prefer to call it, I labor power, he gets six dollars in return for eight hours work. It Is as plain as the nose on your face that Henry has purchased something when he spends six dollars. And it is as equally I plain that the worker has sold something,

What Are Commodities?

THINGS that satisfy a human demand or a want and are bought and sold are called commodities. Well, that makes the labor power that the worker sold to Ford a commodity, doesn’t it? Henry Ford and William Green would be the last persons to agree with this definition. It is a very vulgar way of expressing It. But is so obvious that the vulgarity has to be excused. Labor power is a commodity as surely as tin lizzies.

Why Six a Day?

NOW, why Is it that Henry pays SIX DOLLARS for the use of It? Why doesn’t he pay two dollars or fifty? There must be come basis upon which this is calculated. What could be more logical than to assume that the basis for such a calculation would be how much the worker needs to live on and to keep his family going? Let us assume that the minimum upon which a person can get along according to the standard of living in the United States Is four dollars. The facts are that Judge Gary pays his men in the steel plants as low as three dollars, other employers pay four and Ford pays six. From this it is very easy to see that the daily wage is fixed upon the basis of what the worker requires to get along on from day to day and keep on working.

We saw that labor power was plainly a commodity, it satisfies a demand and is exchanged on the market. Now, what is common to all commodities? Upon what basis are they exchanged? Well, all commodities are useful. That is common to them all. But are they exchanged on this basis? Let us say Ford decided to exchange ten Ford automobiles for a pin point of radium to be used in his hospital. Wouldn’t it require a round table of philosophers to decide upon the relative usefulness of the two? There must be something else common to commodities that determine the basis upon which they are exchanged. It is plain. They have all been made by labor. Upon all things that are bought and sold labor power is expended. So that labor power is the thing common to all commodities.


The Value of All Commodities, Including Ford Cars, Is Determined by the Labor Power the Workers Put Into Them —Ford Makes a Profit by Giving His Workers the FULL VALUE of Their Labor Power.

ASIDE from their mere use Values, commodities have another value. They have the value that they take on when it comes to the point where they are exchanged for some other commodity. If they are not exchanged and made especially for that purpose, they are not commodities. They are mere use values. It is necessary to know how this exchange value is determined.

The best way to begin to do this is to think about what is common to them. We saw that labor power is common to all commodities. We begin to suspect, therefore, that labor power has something to do with determining the value of these commodities when they go on the market for exchange.

How Marx Put It.

LET us state the case as Marx stated it. The value of a commodity is determined by the socially necessary labor power required to reproduce it. That sounds very involved. Why must Marx talk about “socially necessary” and reproduction. Ford’s experts don’t figure that way, and they make profits. The reason for this is that Marx was satisfied only by going to the root of the question. Ford interested only in profits.

When Marx speaks of “socially necessary,’* he means, simply, the AVERAGE labor power bestowed on commodities IN GENERAL. He wasn’t interested in tin lizzies or pig iron. He was interested in ALL commodities. He was after a common denominator so that he could analyze his subject in its largest, its SOCIAL aspect.

If another plant made Ford cars by hand, without the use of machinery the way they are made in Highland Park, Ford cars would not sell for more because in one plant It took more labor to make them. No. The price of Ford cars would be determined by the cheapest method of production, the one most prevalent, the SOCIALLY NECESSARY amount of labor. So, with anything that is made for sale, it is clear that the value of it Is set not on the basis of the most out of date and inadequate ways of making it—but on the most efficient and cheapest means of producing it.

‘HENRY FORD. There are hundreds of thousands of workers directly or indirectly a part of the Ford industrial machine. Over this great social institution one man has undisputed direction solely because he invokes the right of OWNERSHIP. Why should one man or a few men control the destinies of millions of workers? Why haven’t they something to say? Karl Marx answers these questions. The accompanying article explains briefly the mechanics of capitalist exploitation according to Marx with particular reference to the Ford industries.’

The Value of Labor Power.

BUT we said that LABOR POWER was also a commodity. Every bit as much as Ford cars. This has value too. How can the value of labor power be determined? By exactly the same rule.

The value of labor power is determined by the socially necessary amount of labor power required to reproduce IT. How does this work out in fact? Take a Ford worker. He has labor power that he sells to Ford for eight hours a day. What is the socially necessary labor power required to reproduce this.

Every commodity, as we say, has labor power, congealed or hidden in it. The bread and meat the Ford worker eats, represents certain amounts of labor power. The clothes he wears represent more labor power. The education he might have had. The things required to care for his wife and raise his children (labor power in the making)—in a word, the necessaries of life that he consumes are commodities that represent, altogether, socially necessary labor power, that Is, labor power necessary to produce the needed things of life not only for the particular Ford worker, but for all Ford workers and all workers in the country.

Ford Pays Full VALUE.

FORD pays, like all employers, what, are called wages. The average wage happens to be six dollars a day. We will explain later why Ford pays six dollars while all It may require the worker to actually reproduce his labor power is four dollars. For the moment, we are interested in but the one fact, that the value of the labor power of the Ford worker is determined by the socially necessary labor power required to make it possible for him to continue to work, in the way we have explained.

Let us continue to assume that four dollars represents the necessary amount of subsistence required by the worker. Ford pays all his workers at least four dollars, that we know. Socially speaking then we come to this: that four represents in money the social VALUE of the labor power given by the worker. Ford, in paying his workers more than four dollars, pays them at least the VALUE of their labor power. And yet he makes a profit, and a big one, at that. How does this happen?

Labor Power Has a Special Quality

LET us compare labor power, as a commodity, with all other commodities. What is there about it that is different? A pound of sugar, for example is a commodity. But, until it is bought and eaten, it continues to be a mere pound of sugar. After it is eaten, it ceases, of course, to be a commodity.

But what about labor power? ’Labor power is good only when it is at work. When it works, or applies his labor power in turning a screw IT CREATES SOMETHING. When a Ford work on a motor as it comes along on a conveyor, he has changed something, he has contributed his share towards the CREATION of a complete motor. The motor, complete and assembled, has more value, is worth more on the market, than It was when It was mere pig iron or a bunch of parts. It Is obvious then that labor power, as a commodity, has something that other commodities lack. It has the power to create additional value.

NOW, armed with this wonder working commodify, the Ford porker enters the factory under contract to the management. What does this contract say? It says that the worker will devote eight hours of his time applying his labor power in the production of Ford cars, adding, as we have seen, new value to the particular part of the machine that comes to his hand. With every operation he makes the part that comes along to him on the conveyor more valuable than It was before it got to him.

And for these hours of VALUE CREATING work, Ford pays him at least four dollars which we decided was the amount he required to exist on, or the VALUE of the labor power he sold to Ford. The worker has no kick coming. Ho is getting full value for his work. But how does Ford make his profit if he pays the worker the VALUE of his labor power?

Four Hours For Me—4 Hours for Henry.

WELL it so happens that the worker, going into the Ford plant with all the efficiency devices with which he has to work can, in eight hours’ work, product much more than the mere four dollars that he requires to live on. He can produce much more than the six dollars that Ford actually pays him. Let us assume that in four hours of work, the labor power of the worker adds to the Ford car in process of production, six dollars. That is the value of the labor power that Henry bought from him. But when his four hours work is over, he doesn’t wash up and go home. Oh, No! Henry has hired him for eight and eight he works. It stands to reason that in eight hours, the worker would produce at least twelve dollars in value, that the value creating labor power he gives to the commodity, Ford automobile, is represented by twelve dollars. That’s where the profit comes in. That’s why Henry can have a bank balance of tens of millions of dollars. That’s why Henry can build new plants.


Henry Piles Up His Big Profits on the Time the Worker Works for Him and for Which He Is Not Paid—An Explanation of RELATIVE and ABSOLUTE Surplus Value

MARX calls this difference between the value that the worker adds to the commodity to pay for his labor power and the value of the total eight hours of application, SURPLUS VALUE. It is the time over and above the VALUE of his labor power that the worker works and for which he is not paid, his unpaid labor time.

‘HENRY IN HIS FIRST CAR. In these days Henry didn’t amount to much. Even horseless carriages were a scarcity. Large scale production had not begun to blossom. He himself could not foresee the phenomenal development of American capitalism that was to come. Swept along with the rise of capitalism in this country Henry Ford got into the main swim of large scale production and built an industrial machine upon which millions of people are in one way or another dependent. This is not merely to be attributed to Ford. The Ford machine, like all big industrial machines, is a social instrument. But because Henry and his family are the OWNERS, these millions must allow themselves to be exploited by one little family which gets richer every year by millions of dollars. It is this social aspect of capitalism that Ford so conveniently overlooks and that Marx explains so well.’

It Is in this surplus value that Henry Is interested altho he doesn’t call it that. This is the source of his profits as it is the source of the profits of all capitalists. What they do is to own the means of work. Henry OWNS the Highland Park plant in which thousands of workers slave eight hours a day EVERY ONE OF THEM contributing his share of UNPAID LABOR TIME or SURPLUS VALUE from which Henry reaps his big bank balances and his ability to reinvest in the industry and make bigger profits. And all this time Henry pays them at their value. What protest have the workers got coming?

What About 5-Day Week.

NOW that we have cleared up these things, we come to the main question: Why, if he gets his profit from the unpaid labor time of the workers, does Henry shorten the work-time of the workers? Doesn’t he reduce his profits accordingly?

Let us go back to Marx again. There are two kinds of surplus value. One kind Marx calls ABSOLUTE surplus value and the other RELATIVE surplus value.

Absolute surplus value is derived by the employer by LENGTHENING the hours of work so that, the period required by the worker to work out the value of his labor power remaining the same, the extra hours tacked on to his day means extra profits to the boss. This is the method used in some industries. When the open shoppers make a drive for the abolition of the eight hour day and the substitution of a nine or ten hour day. it means they are increasing the ABSOLUTE surplus value by one or two hours and swelling their profits that much.

The New Method.

IN other industries, and this is the rule in the present highly competitive and efficient period of industrial development, instead of lengthening the working day, the bosses make the*worker produce more in the same or less amount of time than he did before. They intensify the amount of labor power that he expends in, say, eight hours.

One way of doing this is to speed up the workers. Another way of doing it is to introduce better and more efficient machinery and by systematizing and dividing the work, to create an ever greater amount of saleable material in the same period of time. This type of surplus value Marx designates as RELATIVE surplus value. This is the kind of surplus value that has become endeared to the hearts of Henry and some other capitalists that use his methods, and that has made them rich.

In the Ford auto plants, the extraction of relative surplus value has become a science. As we saw, the Ford economists explain their profits on an altogether different ground. They speak in a superficial way of Henry getting rich because he had the foresight and the industrial science to “save on labor” and to introduce methods” and install “time saving machinery.” But boiled down, all these things mean that Ford is getting exorbitantly rich by extracting the maximum amount of RELATIVE SURPLUS VALUE from his workers.

So how can you account for the much vaunted eight-hour day and six dollar minimum and five day week? Upon this very fact of Ford’s ability to arrange his. production in such away as to intensify and increase the expenditure of labor power to a point where the very extraction of relative surplus value in a large measure depends upon his shortening the work day and paying his men more wages.

Limit to Endurance.

THE point is that there is a limit to human endurance. An employer can make a big profit when his workers are able to give their utmost to production. The well-known intensification and systematization of production in the Ford plants have been carried to the point where, taking all this together, it would be physically impossible for them to work more than eight hours. He pays them six dollars a day because, by his getting such a large amount of relative surplus value out of his workers, he can afford to pay them a little above the value of their labor power so they will have more comforts, be stronger physically and be able to work with greater intensity as a consequence.

Ford Benefits by 5-Day Week.

THE same thing applies to the five-day week. With two days a week rest, Ford’s workers come to the shops on Monday morning fresh and able. Tho forty hours of intensive and monotonous labor that his plants require to keep them going under his system make an eight-hour day and a two-day rest an ADVANTAGE for Ford by enabling his workers to keep up the pace and Ford to extract the maximum of surplus value.


Marx Proves with Cold Logic How the Worker Is Robbed— The Mere Fact of OWNERSHIP Permits Henry Ford and Other Capitalists to Control the Destinies of Millions—There Is Only One Answer the Workers Can Give to Henry and His Pals.

BUT what about the worker? Has he nothing to say about this robbery of his vitality, his very life? In his great work. “Capital,” Karl Marx refers to this. Speaking thru the mouth a worker who he means to embody the entire working class, Marx says:

“The commodity that I have sold to you differs from the crowd of other commodities in that its use creates value and a value greater than its own. That is why you bought it. That which on your side appears spontaneous expansion of capital, is on mine, extra expenditure of labor power. You and I know on the market only one law, that of the exchange of commodities. And the consumption of the commodity belongs not to the seller who parts with it but to the buyer who acquires it. To you therefore belongs the use of my daily labor power. But by means of the price you pay for it each day, I must be able to reproduce it daily and sell it again.

“Apart from natural exhaustion thru age, etc., I must on the morrow, be able to work with the same normal amount of force, health and freshness as today. You preach to me constantly the gospel of “Saving” and “Abstinence,” Good! I will, like a sensible saving owner, husband my sole wealth, labor power, and abstain from all foolish waste of it. I will each day spend, set in motion, put into action, only as much of it as is compatible with its normal duration and healthy development…What you gain in labor, I lose in substance.

“The use of my labor power and spoliation of it are quite different things. If the average time that (doing a reasonable amount of work) an average laborer can live is thirty years, the value of my labor power which you pay me from day to day is one 365 times 30 or one 10950 thousandths of its total value. But if you consume it in ten years, you pay me daily one 10950 thousandths instead of one 3650 thousandths of its total value, that is, only one-third of its daily value and you rob me, therefore, every day of two-thirds of the value of my commodity. You pay me for one day’s labor whilst you use that of three days. That is against our contract and the law of exchanges. You may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and in the order of sanctity to boot; but the thing that you represent face to face with me has no heart in its breast. That which seems to throb there, is my own heart beating. I demand the normal working day because I, like every other seller, demand the value of my commodity.”

This Applies to Ford Only Too Well.

SO might the Ford worker speak to Henry Ford, insofar as Ford extracts as much and more in five days as other employers do in six, the above accusation applies every whit as much to him as it does to the “hard-boiled” boss who makes his surplus value, his profits, by working his slaves longer hours. When Marx made his worker speak the above lines to the capitalist he visualized this worker as, not a slave, but a man, who, banded together with other workers, puts the case up to the capitalist in cold logic and enforces his logic by the power of organization, by reason of being a member of a union which is strong enough to protect and conserve the lives and happiness of its workers.

Robbing Value of the Workers.

THAT’S the way that Karl Marx figured it out in 1878 and earlier. It is the way that not only Ford, but to an increasing extent, other big employers of labor are getting richer and more powerful every day. It is the only logical way in which the amassing of the huge Ford fortune can be explained. It is the only basis upon which the ROBBERY of the working-class can be explained. For what else is it but ROBBERY? All Ford and his family have done is to START the industry and. by virtue of the nature of our society and the laws governing it, TO OWN IT and all the huge ramifications of it that have developed as the result of the growth and development of society at large.

THE thousands of workers in the Ford plant own little more than the labor power they bring with them to work every morning and leave work without every evening. The mere fact that they get six instead of four dollars is of no very great consequences in view of the terrific strain they work under and in view at the fact that six dollars Is blamed little anyhow, compared with the cost of living. They are auotmatons. Ford does with them as he pleases.

Why should a single individual, and that one not a very great individual, rule the destinies of the thousands of workers slaving indirectly or dependent on the Ford industries? The Ford industries, like other great industries, have ceased long since to become Ford’s. They have become part of society. Their management is only in a small way directed by Henry Ford or his son, the two owners. It is far too large and complicated. The Ford plants are run by a system administered by a huge body of bosses and functionaries that are but cogs in a machine like the six dollar a day worker. Every one of the thousands of workers in the Ford plant are indispensable to the machine. Henry and his son could die or be gone for many years and the plants would go on just the same. But if a plague struck Detroit and decimated the workers, there would be a different story to tell.

The Same With All Industry.

IT is the same with all the great industries of this land and other lands in which this system works. The mere OWNERSHIP and the outlandish RIGHT to extract surplus value, both absolute and relative, gives these few industrial barons and the bankers that control their finances, the privilege to amass fortunes of untold wealth, while the thousands and millions of wealth producing workers have to be satisfied with the mere necessaries of life or a little better, with no word in the direction of their destinies.

They are pawns that are pushed here and there as the capitalist wills it. Henry can make them work a six day week and produce a certain amount of surplus value for Henry, or he can, if his interests require it, make the workers toil a five-day week and produce as much, or more, as they did in six.

Henry Ford receives Nazi Germany’s highest decoration for foreigners, The Grand Cross of the German Eagle, in Detroit on July 30, 1938, for his service to the Third Reich. Karl Kapp, German consul in Cleveland pins the medal while Fritz Heiler, left, German consul in Detroit shakes his hand.

The Essence of Marxism.

NOW that we have drawn, with special reference to the Ford industries and their operation, some of the lessons that Marx taught, we can conclude in no better way than by repeating the very essence of all Marx’s teachings:

“Workers of the world unite, you have’ nothing to lose but your chains—you have a world to gain.”

Which, in the case of the workers in the Ford industries means, unite with your fellow tollers in all the other industries in this and every other capitalist land and relieve the Fords of the burden of building up a great fortune and arbitrarily directing your destinies. The Ford plants belong, not to Ford, but to society, the workers. The workers should therefore make it their business to rule their own destinies, set the work day and work week time for themselves, turn the rewards of surplus value to the common good and direct their own destinies on the path of progress.

The Daily Worker began in 1924 and was published in New York City by the Communist Party US and its predecessor organizations. Among the most long-lasting and important left publications in US history, it had a circulation of 35,000 at its peak. The Daily Worker came from The Ohio Socialist, published by the Left Wing-dominated Socialist Party of Ohio in Cleveland from 1917 to November 1919, when it became became The Toiler, paper of the Communist Labor Party. In December 1921 the above-ground Workers Party of America merged the Toiler with the paper Workers Council to found The Worker, which became The Daily Worker beginning January 13, 1924.

Access to PDF of full issue 1: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/dailyworker/1926/v3n264-nov-20-1926-TDW.pdf

Access to PDF of full issue 2: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/dailyworker/1926/v3n265-nov-22-1926-TDW.pdf

Access to PDF of full issue 3: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/dailyworker/1926/v3n266-nov-23-1926-TDW.pdf

Access to PDF of full issue 4: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/dailyworker/1926/v3n267-nov-24-1926-TDW.pdf

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