• John Torrance


In this chapter the concepts developed earlier will be used to elucidate the phenomenon of exploitation of labour. Though Marx often compared and contrasted capitalist exploitation with other forms, he was, as ever, reluctant to theorise about the general features that they shared. He analysed capitalist exploitation in detail, and asserted that some of its basic mechanisms were the same as those underlying the Asiatic state, slavery ancient and modern, and various forms of feudalism.1 But when he did so he was apt to slip into figurative language, speaking for example of ‘the specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers.’2 Despite its importance in his thought, the concept of exploitation was not given a clear sociological definition. Partly for this reason, it has been vulnerable to attacks on Marx’s theory of surplus-value by economists, as well as to more philosophical allegations of bias. So sociology has largely absorbed Marx’s theory of classes, but not, on the whole, the theory of exploitation of labour on which it was based, which has contributed not a little to the confusion besetting class theory in sociology. 3


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  1. 3.
    A. Giddens, in The Class Structures of the Advanced Societies (London, 1973), has clearly seen the need for a theory of exploitation if Marx’s theory of class structure is to be ‘rethought’. But the ‘Weberian’ definition of exploitation that he uses — ‘any socially conditioned form of asymmetrical production of life-chances—amounts to little more than a general formula of social inequality.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    K. Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (Moscow and London, 1972) Pt III, p. 506. The words in square brackets are taken from the German text in Werke.Google Scholar
  3. 25.
    P. Vinogradoff, Villeinage in England (Oxford, 1892, repr. 1968) p. 43.Google Scholar
  4. 32.
    L. Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy trans. B. Brewster (London, 1971) pp. 121 ff.Google Scholar
  5. 33.
    See, e.g. J. Westergaard and H. Resler, Class in a Capitalist Society (London, 1975)Google Scholar
  6. 35.
    E. Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (London 1964).Google Scholar
  7. 36.
    See, e.g., Oberg on slavery in Ankole, in M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, African Political Systems (London, 1940) p. 133. Even in the centralised West African states that grew up in connexion with the European slave trade in the eighteenth century, such as Ashanti, the children of slaves were recognised as free subjects.Google Scholar
  8. 37.
    H. Maine, Ancient Law (London, 1901) p. 163. Possibly these ideas influenced Hegel’s ‘dialectic of master and slave’. See, in general, the interesting construction of a ‘slave mode of production’ in Hindess and Hirst, op. cit., ch. 3, and P. Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (London, 1974) ch. 1.Google Scholar
  9. 42.
    J. Maquet, The Premise of Inequality in Ruanda (London, 1961) p. 108.Google Scholar
  10. 55.
    M. Bloch, Feudal Society (London, 1965) vol. 1, p. 148.Google Scholar
  11. 69.
    See M. M. Postan, The Mediaeval Economy and Society (London, 1975) chs. 5 and 6Google Scholar
  12. L. White, Jr., Mediaeval Technology and Social Change (Oxford, 1962).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John Torrance 1977

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Torrance
    • 1
  1. 1.Hertford CollegeOxfordUK

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