Labor theory of value debate

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Thu Sep 15 08:12:37 MDT 1994


One of the problems with the debate over LTV is that it is confined to
an exegesis of Marx's writings with barely any reference to history,
politics, society or any other external reality. Therefore, it has more of
the character of a philosophical discussion rather than something that
would serve to help those of us who are interested in transforming
society.

This debate over LTV can be compared to another debate of recent
memory when "new left" Marxists such as Marcuse challenged the
idea that the working-class had a revolutionary potential. Classical
Marxists such as Ernest Mandel counter-attacked and quite a lively
discussion ensued throught the 1960's. Imagine if this debate had been
confined to an exegetical analysis of Marx's writings. How sterile this
would have been. Instead the discussion took up such matters as the
evolution of a so-called new working-class which included computer
programmers, etc.; the role of the peasantry in the third world; and the
introduction of Keynesian techniques into the capitalist economy.
What brought this debate to a resolution--temporarily--was the May-
June events in France 1968. From that point on, the debate seemed
settled and a whole generation of leftists embraced 'orthodoxy' albeit in
an undialectical fashion. They jumped pell-mell into the factories and
the rest is history.

Steve Keene needs to speak more about the socio-economic reality that
his anti-LTV theory would serve better to explain. He has done this in
only the most cursory fashion.

In one instance he asserted that the Soviet state tried to use LTV
theory as a means of determining prices in the early 1920's. This
seems preposterous to me. Lenin was in the position of someone trying
to juggle porcupines while riding a unicycle on a tight-rope. The zig-
zags of the Soviet state in the early 1920's (war communism, NEP)
had more to do with pragmatic choices rather than Marxist doctrine.
He faced dilemmas not that different from the ones that Daniel Ortega
faced and could not solve. Castro will probably not be able to solve
them either, nor Nelson Mandela.

Keene has also claimed that belief in the LTV leads to a chicken little
understanding of the 'inevitability' of socialism. I challenged him to
cite instances of serious Marxist thought that reflects this and he failed
to do so. Perhaps he is bored by discussion of politics and history.

I believe that the Marxist movement has suffered from its inability to
understand how capitalism operates to the fullest degree. But I don't
think it's been in the direction of 'chicken little' ultraleftism. What
typifies most Marxist thought today is overconfidence in capitalism's
ability to withstand crisis and deliver the goods. After the Berlin wall
fell, every leftist in good standing stood in awe of the power of the free
market. But capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe has turned out to
be a disaster for the average worker. What was needed at that time was
a more dialectical understanding of capitalism's strengths and
weaknesses.

At any rate, endless discussion of theories in the abstract will not
prove useful in the long run.


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