Is Trade Productive?

Lou Paulsen wwchi at
Mon Oct 30 07:17:29 MST 2000

In response to my argument that it is a mistake to characterize workers
involved in the process of the capitalist's conversion of the commodity back
to money again, and in 'trade' generally, as 'unproductive', I got the
following responses:

>> From David Welch to Lou Paulsen:
>>It seems there are two different arguments here. The first is that
>>characterizing certain types of labour as unproductive would lead
>>communists to ignore the struggles of those engaged in those types of
>>labour. Of course if Marxist economics is used to construct a taxonomy of
>>victimhood under capitalism then it would seem reasonable to rejuggle the
>>various categories to include obviously exploited groups, housewives being
>>another contemporary example. I would argue that a better alternative is
>>to abandon the attempt to derive tactics directly from theory altogether.

>Yoshie adds:
>Moreover, in practice, it seems clear that those who agree on theory
>do not necessarily agree on tactics, and vice versa, for better or

These are VERY strange responses in my view.  This is how I interpret them:
"You want to revise Marxist theory, and claim that in its present state, as
it relates to the distinction between "productive" and "non-productive"
labor, it isn't useful for practice.  Well, we don't want to revise Marxist
theory.  Of course Marxist theory in its present form is NOT in fact useful
in practice, but we shouldn't expect that it would be.  Theory is one thing,
and practice (tactics) is a separate, disconnected thing.  You should stop
trying to bring them into a relationship with each other."

I find these to be very peculiar responses.  In this case the only part of
Marx's theory that I question is a single point, his treatment of
"circulation" as unproductive, but David and Yoshie's remarks could be
applied to negate the importance of Marxist theory as a whole.  (Certainly
it is true that Marxists often disagree on tactics, strategy, and analysis,
relating to all sorts of things, so we should obviously try to stop actually
USING Marxist theory at all!)  If this is true, then Marxism is really a
religion, or pseudo-science, and not a scientific approach at all.

To me it seems to be basic, indeed the MOST basic point, of
Marxist -philosophy- that theory must have -practical application-.  By
'practical' I mean not only useful in immediately conducting  mass
agitation, but also useful in other ways: in historical analysis, say.  If
there is a point of Marxist theory which has no such use, but which, on the
contrary, continually gets us wrapped up in snarls and tangles, then we
should discard it.  Indeed, Welch is willing to propose revising Marx to
allow the worker who brings the television from Mexico to Chicago to be
'productive' (Marx clearly took the opposite position), but insists that the
worker who brings the television from the back of the store to the front of
the store is 'unproductive'.

As I said before, I am keeping an open mind on this.  But here is my
situation:  I have NEVER seen any case in which the traditional distinction
between production workers, seen as 'productive', and circulation workers,
seen as 'unproductive', has had any real use for anyone, whether for
agitators, Marxist historians, Marxist economists, or for that matter for
capitalists in managing their own affairs.

I have never seen any evidence that class struggle among 'circulation'
workers is any different, from the point of view of the workers or of
management, from class struggle among 'production' workers.

I have never seen any evidence that capitalist management of the process of
'circulation' is any different from their management of 'production.'

I have never seen any evidence that the value embodied in the commodity when
it is exchanged back into money is REALLY only the sum of the labor of
'production', rather than the sum of all the labor of 'production' and of
'circulation'.  Indeed, it is obvious that if, for some reason, all
television sets on sale in the U.S. had to be imported from Tierra del
Fuego, their market price would increase, even if the process of production
in Tierra del Fuego were exactly the same as the process of production in

I have never seen any evidence that treating surplus value as if it came
only from production workers, and none of it from circulation workers, has
helped Marxist economics to be more useful and more predictive.  In fact, I
believe we would have a much better chance of developing a useful Marxist
microeconomics (economic analysis of the individual firm), and also an
analysis of the economics of the capitalist government, without this

I have not seen any evidence that this production/circulation distinction
has helped Marxist economic history, and the course of the Brenner debate
suggests to me that it has obscured the reality.   It obscures, for example,
the historical importance of the shipping industry, and I am using the word
'industry' in its technical sense.  (Not shipBUILDING, but shipping, i.e.,
moving the furs and sugar and spices and gold from one place to another.)
If all this is labelled as 'unproductive trade', and the shipowners are not
considered to be really industrial capitalists at all, then it seems to me
you are ignoring important features of early capitalism.

Now, if someone wants to save me from my heresy by coming up with SOME case
in which the production/circulation distinction has actually been USEFUL to
any Marxist agitator, revolutionary strategist, economist, historian, etc.,
ANYWHERE, at any time, PLEASE let me know of its existence.

Lou Paulsen

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