Background quotes on Labour and Technology (In preparation for Chapter 15)

Dear Reading group. As you may or may not know, my PhD thesis is called ‘Technology and Translation,’ and hence i am reading Capital with a keen eye for what Marx has to say about technological innovation. Thus, as a background to reading Chapter 15: Machinery and Large-Scale Industry, i have compiled just some of the quotes from earlier chapters that shed light on where technology figures in the constellation of concepts that Marx outlines in Capital. These quotes are not from Chapter 15, so you may want to skip this section if you are short on time:

A sketch of the timeline of technological developement

‘The use and construction of instruments of labour, although present in germ among certain species of animals, is characteristic of the specifically human labour process and Franklin threfore defines man as ‘a tool-making animal.’ Relics of bygone instriments of labour posses the same importance for the investigation of extinct economic formations of society as do fossil bones for the determination of extinct species of animals. It is not what is made but how, and by what instruments of labour, that distinguises different economic epochs. Instruments of labour not only supply a standard of the degree of development which human lanour has attained, but they also indicate the social relations within which men work.’[1]

‘The Roman Empire handed down the elementary form of all machinery in the shape of a water-wheel. The handicraft period bequeathed to us the great inventions of the compass, gunpowder, type printing and the automatic clock.’[2]

‘[Jumping ahead of himself in the manufacturing chapter] A locomotive, for instance, consists of more then 5,000 independent parts. It cannot however serve as an example of the first kind of genuine manufacture, for it is a creation of large-scale industry.’[3]

‘Large scale industry therefore had to take over the machine itself, its own characteristic instrument of production, and to produce machines by means of machines. It was not till it did this that it could create for itself an adeqaute technical foundation and stand on its own feet.’[4]

‘The revolution in modes of production of industry and agriculture made [page turn] necessary a revolution in the general condition of the social process of production, i.e. in the means of communication and transport… Hence, quite apart from the immense transformation which took place in shipbuilding, the means of communication and transport gradually adapted themselves to the mode of production of a large-scale industry by means of a system of river steamers, railways, ocean steamers and telegraphs.’[5]

Marx on the process of labour:

‘Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs.’[6]

‘What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he contsructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which had already been concieved in by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally.’[7] (I think therefore I am)

‘An instrument of labour is a thing, or a complex of things, which the worker interposes between himself and the object of his labour and which serves as a conductor, directing his activity onto that object. He makes use of the mechanical, physical and chemical properties of some substances in order to set them to work on other substances as instruments of his power, and in accordance with his purposes… the object the worker dierctly takes possession of is not the object of labour but its instrument.’[8]


[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, Penguin Classics (London, New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 286.

[2] Ibid., 468.

[3] Ibid., 461.

[4] In David Harvey Lecture ‘Class 8’ he identifies this as the crucial defining essence of the industrial revolution: the building of machines by machines. Ibid., 506.

[5] Ibid., 505 – 06.

[6] Ibid., 283.

[7] This is so very Descartes: I think therefore I am. Ibid., 284.

[8] Ibid., 285.

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2 Responses to “Background quotes on Labour and Technology (In preparation for Chapter 15)”


  1. 1 Peter Roseboom 10 May 2011 at 10:39 pm

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  2. 2 Kevin Eisenhower 10 May 2011 at 11:04 pm

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