Value - Justin
cburford at gn.apc.org
Tue Jun 13 08:06:39 MDT 1995
I was pleased with Justin's reply of 11th Jun on value
because I had agonised for some time about the terms in which
to challenge him, and his clear reply makes me feel I was broadly
successful in being assertive rather than aggressive.
Neither I nor Justin are economists, and though I think
his scepticism about the relevance of the law of value is damaging,
it is important for me, as it is for Jerry, to treat my
contradiction with Justin as a contradiction among the people,
not as a contradiction with a lackey and apologist of the capitalist
I think Justin's reply narrows and clarifies the lines of
As to Sraffa and Steedman's math: look, we're not dealing with anything
arcnae and difficult here. It's simple algebra. Check it yourself: you
can. The point is not whether there;s a mathematical error--there isn't,
or Sraffa wouldn;t be regarded as highly as he is by mathematical
economists. His theorems are theorems. The question about them is the
qauestion about any theorems or math applied to social theory: what's the
significance? Do the maths capture anything important about a theory
they're supposed to illuminate, or about social reality? That's where the
debate should be. Howard and KIng, especially in the History,. vol. 2, are
good about laying out the debate on this.
Fine. My concern is not that the maths may be wrong but that there may
be hidden assumptions in the choice of variables and the formulae. Jerry's
quotes from Steedman enable us to address this.
I'm sorry if Chris casts me in the role of the "logic police" for pointing
out than an argument he makes is a non sequiter. That doesn't change the
factL the argument in question ("Capitalism is terrible and the world is
in bad shape, therefore the labor theory of value is true") does not
follow. Chris may think that the LTV offers the best explanation of the
state we're in, but that requires a lot of argument.
Now I think we really can narrow the lines of demarcation. I have a
problem that Justin has heard the essence of my argument to be
"Capitalism is terrible and the world is in bad shape, therefore the
labor theory of value is true"
If I am responsible for that interpretation let me clarify that of course
I cannot argue that way logically.
I am saying emotionally that I am very concerned that the world is in
a bad shape and until I see a better weapon for dissecting what is
going wrong in the global economy, I wish to use and update the Marxian
Law of Value together with others.
Justin on the other hand, may be as concerned as I am about the suffering
in the world but feels the need to insist that nevertheless the law of
value may be a misleading or inadequate basis for a critique. Neither
argument can prove or disprove the law of value. It is ultimately a
value judgement (no pun intended) about the goodness of fit with the data,
and the purposes for which we might wish to use the theory.
It is not clear to me however what the superior theory is that Justin
prefers even though he is sure he is suspicious of the law of value.
Justin then allows himself to be drawn a little on the overall way he
------ reads Marx's economics:
Chris is puzzled, rightly, by my cryptic interpretive comment on Marx. In
my view, which I will not defend just now, lacking as I do the energy to
hare off on this tangent, is that Marx does not hold an LTV. He uses it,
obviously. But in my view he regards it is a heuristic, a reasonable first
apporoximation, something which holds in models which, while not strictly
true (because, e.g., they use the pretense that market agents calculate
directly in value magnitudes or that commodities exchange at value) are
iullumuninating. In short, he uses it a bit like neoclassicals use the
fiction of the rational econbomic agent and the ideal market. He knows
it's false. Some evidence of this,a nd I won't say more--I say this only
to show that I'm not completely mad--is that Sweezy, Dobb, Meek, and other
"defenders" of the LTV say that Marx uses it as an idsealization, an
approximation. What they fail to note is that if he so uses it he cannot
also hold it true.
I'm speaking here of the quantiative LTV. With the qualitataive notion of
value as a critique and analysis of social relations I have never had any
Now I think we are really getting somewhere. I do not think Justin is
completely mad (and lest that sounds like a backhanded complement, I do
not think he is partially mad either). Nevertheless at its starkest
Justin has problems. He is saying that what he calls Marx's LTV was
a theory which Marx could not honestly hold to be true and further which
Marx knew to be false. He used it merely for heuristic purposes or at best
as a reasonable first approximation.
This is risky stuff in a number of ways.
What is the problem?
I think, despite Justin's very unfortunate phraseology, it is the same
problem as I identified in different terms as whether Marx is studied in
Sunday School or in evening class;
whether his critique of Citizen Weston is best published as
"Wages Price and Profit", or "Value, Price and Profit";
or whether his central economic theory is "the Labour Theory of Value"
or the "Law of Value".
It *could* be analogous to whether marxists wish to emphasise the
continuity of the Marx of the early 1840's with the later Marx, or wish
to start Marxism with a capital M in 1847 ie whether there are contrasting
themes in the array of Marxian writing and how much they are separate or
complementary to each other.
Marx and Engels were entitled to develop and change their thinking
in the course of practice. They are entitled too to be inconsistent, as
we all are entitled to be. But I would suggest to Justin that it is worth
rowing back from a proposition that in a central argument that they knew
they would have to defend against relentless attacks, they put forward a
proposition knowing it to be false.
Clearly the model of the number of hours in the day the worker spends
reproducing the value of his/her own labour power, versus the number of
hours spent filling the capitalists need for surplus value, is an abstract
model, assuming among other things that the worker in question is a perfect
representative of a unit of labour power according to the prevailing
necessary conditions for the production of labour power.
But does any worker attending marxist evening class, or even Sunday
School, really go away thinking Marx says that exploitation only begins
at 3:20pm each day? The word @false' loses its meaning if there is neither
a desire to deceive nor does deception occur.
Deception does not occur. Misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Marx,
in my opinion do. It is a serious pitfall of this route into Marxian
economics that it creates the impression that Marx's theory is best
summed up as a Labour Theory of Value - an "LTV".
On the contrary it was the classical economists who held a labour theory
of value. This circular agonising about the "quantitative" aspect of value
between would be loyal Marxists and marxist critics,
drastically misdefines the field of contest between marxist and bourgeois
If Justin's difficulties are with the "quantitative" "ltv", I
invite him to shed his burden.
Chris Burford, London.
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