Is Trade Productive?

David Welch david.welch at
Mon Oct 30 09:33:03 MST 2000

On Mon, 30 Oct 2000, Lou Paulsen wrote:
> 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."
The point I was trying to make was that it would be a mistake to confuse a
category at a relatively high level of abstraction (the difference between
unproductive and productive labour) with one at a very specific level, the
attitude to take towards a particular class struggle.

If we wish to have a theory with practical applications then it is
necessary to develop more concrete categories which bring it closer to
reconstructing a particular object (US capitalism in the year 2000) in

The fact that later categories may refine earlier ones doesn't invalidate
the earlier stages of the theory. For example the assumption in volumes I
and II of Capital is that commodities trade at their values, of course
this isn't true in any existing or historical capitalist society, as is
discussed in volume III. Does this mean that the first two volumes need to
be rewritten or discarded? No, it's only because the more concrete
categories of volume III were dialectically developed from the more
abstract ones that we can be sure of their truth.

> 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'.
It would be helpful if you could point to a passage where Marx actually
writes that the transporting goods isn't productive. My reading is that
the labour required to change commodities into money is unproductive. For
example if TVs were dumped on street corners would their use-values be
reduced? Does the act of selling a TV in a store produce a use-value that
wasn't present before?

> 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.
I think you're confusing two things, the transport of goods (which is
indeed productive) and mercantile capital.

> 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.
Well a capitalist reading this discussion might reasonably complain that
what (s)he does is only the same as a shop worker, except on a larger
scale and through intermediaries, why isn't this productive labour? And if
the act of matching consumers and commodities is productive, why not
matching constant and variable capital with the sellers of labour power?
Doesn't our capitalist deserve to be compensated fairly for this service
to society?

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