The Law of Value Again (fwd)

glevy at glevy at
Mon Jun 5 21:07:56 MDT 1995

I'm not sure the following message made it through, so I'm re-sending it.
If you have already read the following, please excuse.


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 5 Jun 1995 20:45:42 -0400 (EDT)
From: glevy at acnet
To: Chris Burford <cburford at>
Cc: marxism at, cburford at
Subject: The Law of Value Again

On Mon, 5 Jun 1995, Chris Burford wrote:
> 4) " Exploitation is (wrongful) appropriation of a surplus
> produced by labor." While you and I may feel that
> exploitation is wrong, Marx was extremely clear in his analysis that
> capitalist exploitation is not wrong. That is the difference between
> studying him in Sunday School and studying him in evening class.
> Possibly 3/4 of the subscribers to this list may assume that Marx
> thought exploitation wrong. I hope some will challenge this point so
> we can clarify it. I suspect that if this point is not understood it
> is not possible to understand Marx's law of value in commodity society.

OK, I'll bite at the bait that Chris offers above (after all, we are
supposed to be the Chris and Jerry  -- or was it Jerry and Chris -- show,

Marx did not hold that capitalists "wrongfully" appropriated surplus
value.  Throughout THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE (and other places besides),
Marx criticized various schools of political economy because those
previous schools had either considered the appropriation of the surplus
product as easy morally defensible or morally wrong.  Marx clearly wanted
to develop his theory of political economy independently of any normative
judgments concerning what was fair or wrongful.  Even in his earliest
writings, Marx criticized the utopian socialists for concentrating on
"unscientific" ways of explaining the need for socialism.  He, from the
very outset, wanted to develop a "scientific" (materialist) theory which
would "lay bare" the workings of the capitalist mode of production.
Moreover, the conclusion that one reaches after reading CAPITAL is not
that capitalists wrong workers but that the logic of capital, that stems
from his law of value, pushes capitalists in that mode of production
necessarily towards certain ends (the so-called "laws of motion").
When capitalists conform to the logic of capital accumulation, they are
behaving rationally and are driven by a process that they do not entirely
control as individual capitalists.

The issue here I believe is significant: if one starts the analysis with
the presumption that the appropriation of the surplus product is
wrongful, then one can be accused of tailoring your theory to meet
political conclusions that you have already come to (a bias).  Marx, I
believe, specifically went out of his way to show that the production of
surplus value was inherent in the very logic of capital and it was that
logic which gave his theory the claim to being scientific. (By the way, I
cringe whenever I see the word scientific to describe political economy
-- although the word might have had a somewhat different meaning in
Marx's time).

Marx, Chris correctly points out, refers to his own theory concerning the
two-fold character of commodity production as the Law (not the labor
theory) of value.  In Marx's theory,it is that Law which shapes the
character and dynamics of the capitalist mode of production and leads
necessarily towards certain ends.

So many of the debates around this issue, I believe, are tied to the
method that one uses to develop one's theory.  Clearly, Marx chose to
develop his theory of political economy in the way that he did because he
believed that it was the most consistent with his philosophical
perspective (historical materialism).  Of course, we don't have to accept
the method or logic of all (or part) of Marx's analysis but that is
another question.


> 5) I understand the wider meaning however of Justin's remarks. It is
> about whether "Wages Price and Profit" is a valuable text for a class
> of workers debunking Citizen Weston's argument that it is useless ever to
> go on strike, or whether it should be called as you American's do,
> "Value Price and Profit" as a good general introduction to the workings
> of the law of value. (Justin has clarified the German original.)
> This is why I am increasingly wary of shorthand abbreviations talking
> about the Labour Theory of Value, or LTV, rather than the Law of Value or
> LOV.
> There is undoubtedly a serious tension here in how Marx is read, and it
> has led some to think that there is even some trickery in the presentation
> and Justin to argue that value is a mere heuristic concept to explain
> how the enjoyment of surplus product by the capitalists so
> obvious on the macro social level, comes about at the workplace.
> My reply is that the demonstrations in Wages Price and Profit and in
> Capital, about hours in the day, are indeed heuristic models, but it is
> quite mistaken to imagine that Marx's theory is limited to a heuristic
> model. There is a trap in reading of these sections of failing to
> realise that the particularly concrete discussion of hours and minutes is
> a discussion of abstract, not of actual labour. It is theoretically
> dangerous to jump from one to the other. Actual labour varies considerably
> in the extent to which it can yield the same utility per hour, both as
> a result of variation in the constitution of the worker and a great
> multiplier effect very relevant nowadays, from the relative degree of
> productivity of the way the work is organised, including the technology.
> To read Marx's account of hours and minutes and fail to be aware of the
> difference between abstract and concrete labour is to fall into an
> assumption that value is a quantitive property of capitalist society
> whereas it is qualititative. It leads to frustrating misunderstandings
> that Marx does not take into account the extra profits that come from
> entrepreneurial initiative in using new technology, which reduces the
> labour content of the commodity (he does under the concept of relative
> surplus value).
> 6) In a debate that challenges us all, I therefore still welcome
> the clarification Justin gave on Thursday 25th May when he wrote
> >>>>
> Chris B. wants me to comment on his idea that the "substrate" of the law
> of value is "mental but not conscious", by which he means, if I have this
> right, that the operation of this law--the tendency of production in
> commodity societies to be regulated in the long run by labor costs--is an
> unintended effect of the intentional actions of individuals. Is that what
> you mean, Chris? I guess I can subscribe to that, as far as it goes, at
> least as an interpretation of Marx.
> <<<<
> I append extracts from my exchanges with Justin over the last fortnight
> for reference rather than blow by blow analysis.
> Chris Burford, London.
> ______________________________________________________________________
> Mon 22nd May Chris:
> Anyway Justin, how far would you accept this compromise, that I can
> call the substrate of the law of value mental but not conscious;
> you can call it social, but you understand social to be an emergent
> property of numerous individual minds. Say yes, and we can have another
> Mutual Admiration Festival, officiated at by Lisa.
> Thur 25th May Justin:
> Chris B. wants me to comment on his idea that the "substrate" of the law
> of value is "mental but not conscious", by which he means, if I have this
> right, that the operation of this law--the tendency of production in
> commodity societies to be regulated in the long run by labor costs--is an
> unintended effect of the intentional actions of individuals. Is that what
> you mean, Chris? I guess I can subscribe to that, as far as it goes, at
> least as an interpretation of Marx. (As people on this list know I am no
> fan of the LTV and think it is not very useful as a piece of political
> economy.) But I would have to add, again as an interpretation, that Marx
> characterizes the individuals in question in social terms, as commodity
> producers, exchangers on a market, in capitalism as workers and bosses. So
> the mental states of individuals come in, but the individuals are
> considered "only insofar as they are bearers of determinate social
> relations," as the old Man puts it.
> Fri 26th May
> Chris B
> -------
> Yes that is what I mean, and I am glad we are in dialogue about this.
> Thanks for coming back on this.
> Fri 2nd June Chris:
> Justin, playing the role in my eyes of penetratingly sceptical agnostic,
> conceded without necessarily abandoning his scepticism, that value might
> equilibrate in an advanced capitalist society through the unconscious
> social effects of the conscious decisions capitalists (and others) make
> about prices.
> From: Justin Schwartz <jschwart at>
> Date: Sat, 3 Jun 1995 13:27:58 -0400 (EDT)
> Subject: Re: Value: state of play
> Chris B misrepresents my position on value. I do not concede that value
> might tend to equilibrate [prices?--something is missing from his post]
> in an advanced capitalist society as an unintended effect of the actions
> of capitalists. I said, with regard to invisible hand effects, that that's
> the way Marx presents the operations of the law of value in his models.
> My point was scholarly, not substantive.
> My view is that as far as I can make out, values qua labor costs are not
> the regulators of prices, in aggregate or otherwise, long or short term.
> And if they can be tied to prices in some way, which they can in some
> models, it's far from clear that they explain prices rather than being a
> fifth wheel. This is a Sraffa point which one can invoke without buying
> into Sraffa's story about value as presented by Steve.
> I also think,
> however, that the notion of value, understood more abstractly than Marx
> understands it, is a useful one in the context of understanding
> exploitation--in particular in the notion of surplus value as a
> qualitative notion. In capitalist societies what matters is less the
> physical surplus than what can best be called its value, what that surplus
> is worth on the market. The source of that surplus value is largely,
> though, I think, not entirely labor--not entirely because I think nonlabor
> sources of value, such as temporary monopolies on the use of natural
> forces, can contribute to the capitalists' aggregate share of the social
> product. The measure of the relative shares can be what you like--labor
> values, corn values, or just money. But the measure is an accounting
> notion, not an explanatory one.
> I think that this is in fact Marx's view, or close to it--Marx did define
> value in terms of labor costs, so he has to say not that there are
> nonlabor sources of profit but that there are nonvalue (because nonlabor)
> sources of profit: some things, he says, have price but no value. If,
> however, he had disambiguited the notions of the source and measure of
> value, and taken value to be what he implicitly suggested it is, not labor
> definitionally but whatever explains prices and is the source of profit,
> he could have said what I say. I do not think that he thinks the labor
> theory of value, as defended by Kliman or Cockshott, is literally true,
> but rather that he uses it as a heuristic; moreover I think most of his
> uses of it are eliminable in more sophisticated models, such as those he
> starts to sketch in Capital, vol. 3.
> - --Justin Schwartz
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