[OPE-L:7492] From Jurriaan Bendien on law of value

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Sat Aug 03 2002 - 18:14:40 EDT

Hi Rakesh,

Thanks for your reply. I don't want to discuss the relative merits of 
bolshevism and council communism here, I am only exploring the 
concept of the Marxian law of value. I am very appreciative of 
Weeks's writings, but I have four objections to his interpretation of 
the law of value.

A.  Weeks is actually unable to specify unambiguously what the law of 
value means and shifts from one meaning to another. In his book 
Capital and Exploitation, he defines the law of value variously as:

1. The law of the minimization of abstract labour time (p. 33)
2. The 'law of socially necessary labour time' and the 'law of the 
tendency of the rate of profit to equalize'. (p. 40).
3. The law of the exchange of equivalent quantities of social labor, 
which "is in fact the law of surplus value - the law of the 
appropriation of unpaid labor (p. 40)
4. The law of labor time under capitalism (division of labor), the 
law of surplus value (exploitation), but also the mechanism of 
alienation (p.48-49)
5. A law of capitalist accumulation, not a natural law (p. 85)
6. The law of the exploitation of labor under capitalist social 
relations (p. 85)

Now of course one could, like Alice in Wonderland, make words mean 
what one wants them to mean at any particular time, but then our 
argumentation is a tautology. In this case, the tautology is that the 
law of value is specific to the capitalist mode of production 
alone... because it is specific to the capitalist mode of production 
alone. Weeks' proof is just a matter of juggling terms. The 
consequence is that there is no adequate explanation of the 
historical origin of the law of value, and that the conditions for 
the withering away of the law of value cannot be specified adequately 

(B) Weeks caricatures Engels's position, by extracting quotes out of 
context. I don't have the time at the moment to lay all the texts 
side by side, but consider just one quote from the central essay by 
Engels which Weeks finds so objectionable, included as a supplement 
to Capital Vol 3:

"If manufacture sprung ahead by cheapening its products, this is even 
more true of modern industry, which forces the production costs of 
commodities lower and lower through its repeated revolutions in 
production, relentlessly eliminating all former modes of production. 
Its is large-scale industry, too, that thus finally conquers the 
domestic market for capital, puts an end to smallscale production and 
natural economy of the self-sufficient peasant family, eliminates 
direct exchange between small producers, and places the entire nation 
in the service of capital. Likewise, it equalises the profit rate of 
the different commercial and industrial branches of business into one 
general rate of profit, and finally ensures industry the position of 
power due to it in this equalisation by eliminating most of the 
obstacles formerly hindering the transfer of capital from one branch 
to another. Thereby the conversion of values into production prices 
is accomplished for all exchange as a whole. THIS CONVERSION 
Capital Vol 3., Moscow ed., p. 906).

In other words, the "subjective perception theory of labour-value" 
which Weeks ascribes to Engels doesn't do justice to what Engels 
means. What Engels means is that in pre-capitalist societies a lot of 
labour-accounting took place, people were well aware of the 
labour-time involved in producing products offered for exchange. 
Therefore under conditions of "simple exchange" or less developed 
exchange, they took this in consideration in pricing goods or 
determining the exchange ratios of goods. They were indeed forced to 
do this to survive, and the more dependent they became on exchange, 
the more it regulated their behaviour, regardless of the original 
subjective intentions. That is, briefly put, the historical origin of 
the economic category of abstract labour.

Engels however does not say, as Weeks alleges, that "subjective 
perception of labour-time" is the way people go about exchanging in a 
full-fledged capitalist society (other than, perhaps, in the sense 
that capitalists carefully monitor labour-costs, and that workers 
compare labour-effort to the wages they receive and to the price of 
goods they buy). His point is rather that with the growth of the 
capital and commodity market, the law of value increasingly asserts 
itself regardless of subjective valuations, in the specific way that 
Marx describes.  In Weeks's own interpretation, you just "suddenly" 
have abstract labour when you have capitalism, he ignores the 
historical process by which the abstraction of labour occurs through 
the emergence, growth and increasing sophistication of trade in 

C. What Marx and Engels meant by the law of value is quite simply 
that, other things being equal, the value of commodities being 
exchanged is determined by the average labour-time socially necessary 
for their production (assuming equal exchange). A simple statement of 
the law of value in this sense was already provided by David Ricardo 
at the very beginning of the first chapter of The Principles of 
Political Economy and Taxation (although Ricardo doesn't use the 
expression "law of value"): "The value of a commodity, or the 
quantity of any other commodity for which it will exchange, depends 
on the relative quantity of labour which is necessary for its 
production, and not on the greater or less compensation which is paid 
for that labour".

In his famous letter to Kugelmann of 11 July 1868, Marx does not 
object to this idea as such (which, as he says, is quite a lot older 
than Ricardo), but rather that Ricardo assumes that which has to be 
explained: "Science consists precisely in demonstrating HOW THE LAW 
OF VALUE ASSERTS ITSELF (my emphasis). So that if one wanted at the 
very beginning to "explain" all the phenomena which seemingly 
contradict that law, one would have to present science before 
science. It is precisely Ricardo's mistake that in his first chapter 
on value he takes as given all possible and still to be developed 
categories in order to prove their conformity with the law of value". 
The root of Ricardo's error is his ahistorical approach.

So the determination of commodity values by labour-time is indeed 
thousands of years old, as Engels says, and in his book Capital Marx 
indeed painstakingly traces out the forms of exchange-value from the 
elementary to the general forms, insisting the substance of value is 

But that does not mean that the law of value asserts itself  IN THE 
SAME WAY under conditions of partial (simple) commodity production 
and generalised commodity production (capitalism). The law of value 
asserts itself in a different way under capitalism precisely because 
it is "production of commodities by means of commodities", which 
means inter alia the formation of production prices and market 
values.  So the story of the evolution of the law of value is a 
question of tracing out the development of trade, showing how the 
growth of trade gradually dissolves primitive communities and forms a 
national and international market, and how it gradually engulfs the 
entire production process of society.

D. Because of Weeks's definition of the law of value, he is unable to 
give an adequate critique of Stalin's views of the law of value under 
socialism. Weeks says that Stalin confuses the law of value with the 
necessity for allocating labour-time, but that is not the case. 
Stalin says explicitly that the law of value applies only to 
commodity production, which was partially superseded in the USSR. 
Stalin was not wrong in saying that the law of value "influences 
production" in the USSR, to the extent that you had a market for 
consumer goods, faced pressures of the world market to an extent, and 
remunerated labour through wages which were related to labour effort. 
Rather the problem is that Stalin believed that the USSR was 
genuinely socialist, and that the law of value does operate in a 
socialist economy. That is, Stalin's concept of socialism was at 
variance with Marx's idea of socialism as a marketless and classless 
society in which labour is no longer dominated by commercial forms, 
and Stalin had no adequate program for the supersession of market 
relations, through a different set of institutions for the production 
and distribution of goods and services.



CC. Paul Bullock
        Paul Cockshott

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