[Marxism] meaning of labor time in Capital

tom arnall kloro2006 at gmail.com
Fri Apr 17 17:26:20 MDT 2009

I am having trouble with Marx's discussion of labor and the exchange 
value of commodities, in the section of Capital Vol. 1 titled "The 
Two Factors of a Commodity: Use-Value and Value. Specifically, I do 
not understand what he means by 'homogeneous human labour.' Surely he 
does not hold that the duration of the labor of a skilled worker is 
the same as for an unskilled worker. Instead, he seems to propose a 
kind of universal labor ('homogeneous human labour'), but to me he is 
not at all clear on what this universal labor amounts to. For 
example, how would he measure the amount of this kind of labor in a 
particular product?

Following is the passage I've been looking at.

tom arnall

A use-value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because 
human labour in the abstract has been embodied or materialised in it. 
How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? Plainly, by 
the quantity of the value-creating substance, the labour, contained 
in the article. The quantity of labour, however, is measured by its 
duration, and labour-time in its turn finds its standard in weeks, 
days, and hours. Some people might think that if the value of a 
commodity is determined by the quantity of labour spent on it, the 
more idle and unskilful the labourer, the more valuable would his 
commodity be, because more time would be required in its production. 
The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is 
homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour-power.  
The total labour-power of society, which is embodied in the sum total 
of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts 
here as one homogeneous mass of human labour-power, composed though 
it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the 
same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average 
labour-power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as 
it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on 
an average, no more than is socially necessary. The labour-time 
socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the 
normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill 
and intensity prevalent at the time. The introduction of power-looms 
into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to 
weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as 
a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but 
for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented 
after the change only half an hour's social labour, and consequently 
fell to one-half its former value. We see then that that which 
determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of 
labour socially necessary, or the labour-time socially necessary for 
its production. [9] Each individual commodity, in this connexion, is 
to be considered as an average sample of its class. [10] Commodities, 
therefore, in which equal quantities of labour are embodied, or which 
can be produced in the same time, have the same value. The value of 
one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labour-time 
necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the 
production of the other. "As values, all commodities are only 
definite masses of congealed labour-time." [11]


[9] "The value of them (the necessaries of life), when they are 
exchanged the one for another, is regulated by the quantity of labour 
necessarily required, and commonly taken in producing them." ("Some 
Thoughts on the Interest of Money in General, and Particularly in the 
Publick Funds, &." Lond., p. 36) This remarkable anonymous work 
written in the last century, bears no date. It is clear, however, 
from internal evidence that it appeared in the reign of George II, 
about 1739 or 1740. 
[10] "Toutes les productions d'un meme genre ne forment proprement 
qu'une masse, dont le prix se determine en general et sans egard aux 
circonstances particulieres." (Le Trosne, l.c., p. 893.) 
[11] K. Marx. l.c., p.6.

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