[OPE-L:3034] Simple Commodity Production

From: David Laibman (SCSJJ@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU)
Date: Sun May 07 2000 - 14:48:26 EDT

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Dear OPE comrades,

I hate to throw a monkey-wrench into Fred's consensus, but . . .

Count me, along with Ajit, as a dissenter from the view that the
category "simple commodity production" plays no role, and has no valid
place, in Marxist economic theory. (I would note, first, that the
question as I have posed it must be separated from the question, "what
was Marx's purpose in *Capital*?" Many aspects of the materialist
conception of history in general were not placed in that book -- another
example being the sections of the *Grundrisse* that come down to us as
"Precapitalist Economic Formations" -- which was indeed concentrated on
the analysis of the capitalist mode of production; this, despite the
fact that Marx's historical method requires him at various points in
*Capital* to refer to pre- and post-capitalist social formations and to
suggest applications of the categories of his political economy to those

In addition to the passages cited by Ajit, I would add two. First:
"The mode of production in which the product takes the form of a
commodity, or is produced directly for exchange, is the most general
and most embryonic form of bourgeois production. It therefore makes its
appearance at an early date in history. . ." (Vol. I, p. 82
[International, 1967]). And, perhaps most decisively, a methodological
footnote to the text in which representation of skilled labor by a
quantity of unskilled labor is posited: "The reader must note that we
are not speaking here of the wages or value that the labourer gets for a
given labour-time, but of the value of the commodity in which that
labour-time is materialized. Wages is a category that, as yet, has no
existence at the present stage of our investigation" (p. 44). If this
is a *capitalist* commodity, it is one that precedes the existence of
wage labor, and therefore of even the formal (let alone the real)
subsumption of labor to capital. The reference is to commodity exchange
without the defining class division of capitalism; without capitalist
exploitation. *Of course* the categories of commodity and money *carry
over* into capitalist production relations, and *of course* they acquire
unique significance as fully developed forms of themselves in that
context. To (hyper)extend the category "capitalism" backward to all
forms of commodity and monetary circulation, however, is to render it
excessively broad, and ahistorical.

I note, in passing, that I do not claim to have provided "empirical"
proof of my interpretation with these quotes. Were they absent -- or if
others prevail in interpreting the same passages differently -- then I
would be willing to say that Marx was wrong on the point! Our job is
to develop the theoretical tradition begun by him, on the basis of our
own research, our own practice, and our own evolving critical

To separate "commodity production" from "capitalism" is NOT to make
either of these concepts ahistorical, or trans-historical. Moreover, I
would not wish to assert that there is a simple-commodity *mode of
production.* Simple commodity production is an abstraction from the
complex prehistory of capitalism that isolates one moment of that
prehistory: the stages in the gradual convergence of market relations
with production relations, when development of the productive forces
makes that possible. The moment in question posits developed commodity
exchange among direct producers, so that ownership of means of
production and performance of labor are united in a single agent. The
law of value for this formation refers to a *single scalarization*:
convergence of net income ratios -- net income per unit of labor
expended -- to a common rate. (By contrast, *capitalist* commodity
production involves two convergences: wage rates to a common wage rate,
and profit rates to a common profit rate.) Simple commodity production,
in this sense, is never found in history in pure form; it always appears
as overdetermining, or overdetermined by, vestiges of feudal or other
directly coercive precapitalist forms. It is, moreover, a form with an
immanent defect, and full development of the commodity-value dynamic
within it must lead beyond it, to the commodity form in its specifically
capitalist incarnation -- as Marx often emphasized.

Nevertheless, the category of "simple commodity production" is
essential precisely in order to establish the profoundly concrete,
historical and social nature of "*capitalist* commodity production."
This is what amazes me about the proposed consensus, apparently spanning
TSS, new Hegelians, macro-monetary theorists, etc etc.: this conflation
of capitalism with markets-in-general is *precisely* the stock in trade
of neoliberalism and neoclassicism! If it is intended ultimately to
imply that revolutionary transcendence of capitalism is inconceivable
without the immediate and total abolition of market forms, the
"abolition of the law of value" (to borrow a phrase from Hillel
Ticktin), then it partakes of the sort of utopian "hurrah socialism" (my
phrase) that would consign socialism to irrelevancy and isolation. It
also implies total rejection of all of the 20th century attempts at
socialist construction -- and every one of these experiences, from the
USSR to China to North Korea to Cuba, has eventually come around to the
view that stages of development involving forms of markets and commodity
production, with the gradual evolution of social relations within these
forms and their eventual transcendence, are inevitable, and are in fact
a continuation of the research program into materialist socialist theory
begun by Marx, in *Critique of the Gotha Programme.*


      o/^^^^^) o !
      / / /^^) / /^^! /^^)
    o(_____/_(_ /(/ / !_(_ /!_
  David Laibman
  Professor, Economics
  City University of New York
  Mail to: 50 Plaza St. E., #2C
  Brooklyn NY 11238 / USA
  (phone) 789-9565 / (fax) 789-3864

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