[OPE-L] A startling quotation from Engels

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Sat Aug 18 2007 - 21:04:53 EDT

Dr Paul Bullock imputes to me the view that "'value' in Marx is an
a-historical, natural, character[ist]ic of all production, a sort of

But I don't hold that view at all, and I am happy to side with Marx "for the
most part" (see below) on this issue, against the rhetoric of sneering
Marxist orthodoxy.

I am saying, like Marx did, that if human beings produce products with their
labour, those products have a value, and they have that value, regardless of
whether the products are being traded or not, simply because they physically
took a quantity of society's labour to produce, and take a quantity of
labour to replace. This value plays an important role in how people
economize their products in any type of society, since they know what the
consequences are for their work, if they don't have products, or if they
have more or less of them, or if they have to replace them etc. There exists
much historical and anthropological research to substantiate all that, and
if my life had gone the way I wanted, you would now be able to read my book
on the research evidence there is.

But anyway, in a dialectical-historical understanding of value, in contrast
to a formalistic, ahistorical understanding of value, one also recognises
that the form in which product-values are expressed and socially recognised
vary differ greatly, depending on the production relations and exchange
relations that dominate in a society. So the actual human representation of
value is historically changeable. What doesn't change at all, is that
products have value, because they cost a quantity of labour-time to produce.
The meaning of this is so well known to the labouring classes of all epochs
in the history of civil society, that only elitists can dismiss it as a mere
platitude. The capitalist mode of production, i.e. the capitalisation of
production, only generalises certain forms of value, which already existed
more sporadically for many thousands of years.

In his brief dialectical summation of the forms of value at the beginning of
Das Kapital Vol. 1, Marx shows the practical-logical steps in the evolution
of the trading process, from very primitive value-comparisons to more
sophisticated ones. In advance, he comments in his Preface:

"The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very
elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000
years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other
hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms,
there has been at least an approximation."

Evidently, Marx (quite correctly, I think) did not even think that the value
form was something unique to capitalism. It boggled the human mind "for more
than 2,000 years". What a dirty, rotten Neo-Kantian bastard (sic.) Marx was!
What an ahistorical scoundrel (sic.) Marx was! He dared to suggest, contrary
to Marxist orthodoxy, that the value-form and value itself were NOT
categories unique to capitalism!!!

I tell you what, I think Karl Marx should be summarily expelled from OPE-L
list, so that orthodox Marxists can get on with discussing how value is
unique to capitalism (sic.)!

But it gets even worse. Marx has the temerity to suggest that:

There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing
that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all
labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality.
Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural
basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the
expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and
equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot
be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the
fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society
in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of
commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and
man, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle's genius
is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value
of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the
society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, "in
truth," was at the bottom of this equality.

Regardless of whether you agree with Marx's historical assessment about the
precise moment of discovery of the substance of value (I doubt its
historical accuracy in the light of modern research), Marx does not say that
value and abstract labour DID NOT EXIST in ancient Greek society. They DID
exist, just like commodities did exist, but their economic significance
could not be "deciphered" by philosophers because of Greek production
relations. If abstract labour and value did not exist in ancient Greek
society, there would be nothing to decipher. But there was something
puzzling to decipher, yet the economic concepts to do it with were lacking.
Marx, "the filthy neo-Kantian", suggested the social process of equating and
comparison of human labour-time was a reality in ancient Greek society as
well, although the economic abstractions to express the process as a whole
were lacking.

Of course, you can argue that if the concept of X is unknown, X does not
exist, but that is not a materialist viewpoint. As Marx says, "In their
difficulties our commodity owners think like Faust: "Im Anfang war die Tat."
They therefore acted and transacted before they thought."

But now for the really stunning part. Marx says:

For the present, however, we have to consider the nature of value
independently of this, its form. 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.

And then:

If then we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, they
have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. But
even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we
make abstraction from its use value, we make abstraction at the same time
from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use value
(...) Let us now consider the residue of each of these products; it consists
of the same unsubstantial reality in each, a mere congelation of homogeneous
human labour, of labour power expended without regard to the mode of its
expenditure. All that these things now tell us is, that human labour power
has been expended in their production, that human labour is embodied in
them. When looked at as crystals of this social substance, common to them
all, they are - Values.

Clearly Marx is not saying here simply that "commodities" have values, he is
saying that "products of labour" qua use-values have values, to be precise,
commodities have values ONLY BECAUSE they are products of general human
labour which, therefore, have values. You can of course now turn all this
around, and argue that products of labour have values ONLY IF they are
commodities, but that is not Marx's argument. His argument here is clearly
that products (use-values) have value, because they are products of human
labour as such, human labour in general. The question then arises in what
form this value could be expressed, and then Marx outlines the increasingly
complex forms in which it is expressed in human history. It is the fact
that, through the growth of the trading process, more and more products of
labour are constantly compared and valued relative to each other, that gives
value a more and more precise and stable form. But obviously this valuation
process cannot even occur, if there are no product-values to start off with.

You can of course argue that "products of labour" did not exist before
capitalism, and that therefore value did not exist before capitalism, but
this is scientifically as absurd as the arguments of the Flat Earth Society.


This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Fri Aug 31 2007 - 00:00:10 EDT