[OPE-L:384] Re: abstract labor

Paul Cockshott (wpc@clyder.gn.apc.org)
Tue, 31 Oct 1995 13:42:34 -0800

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On the concept of abstract labour

In posting the quotation:
"On the one hand all labour is, speaking physiologically
an expenditure of human labour-power, and in its character
of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the
value of commodities. " (p46 Moscow edition)

I was of course intending to provoke the kind of response that
I got from Paul B.

The question of whether the category of abstract labour is specific
to capitalism or a general analytical concept of historical materialism
is, I think, one of the main points of disagreement that are
likely to arise in the interpretation of volume I of Capital.

I think that to reduce value to being a category of
capitalist economy would not only handicap historical materialist
analysis of pre-capitalist modes of production, but, more significantly
would render historical materialism impotent in the analysis of
socialist economic formations.

If this proposition is true it implies that the analysis of the commodity
in Capital is not an analysis of commodities at all, but an analysis
of capitalistically produced commodities. It implies that the labour
theory of value has no validity to other commodity producing modes of

It is well established that commodity production was highly developed
in Rome, with, if Tacitus is to be believed, even such phenomena as
credit crises. Likewise the ante-bellum South, but these were slave
societies, not capitalist ones, (unless of course we chose to
side with Mommsen and Rostostozeff, against the entire body of
Marxian historiography). In that case what was the substance of
value in these societies?

There was money, did the money prices express the abstract labour
required to produce corn, oil, wine etc?

Or did exchange value in those days depend only upon supply and
demand, marginal utility etc?

Similarly commodities have existed in all hithertoo existing
socialist societies, are we to imply that there was
no abstract labour in these either?

Without the concept of abstract labour, there is no general
concept of surplus labour - since this can not be defined in
concrete terms - and thus no concept of exploitation applicable
to non-capitalist societies. How then are we to analyse feudal

If abstract labour only exists under capitalism then we must
reject everything that Marx Engels and Stalin wrote on the
economics of communism - that it would use direct calculations
in terms of abstract labour in its planning process.

Why if value and abstract labour are specific to capitalism does

a) Marx never say that this is the case?

b) Does he expend so much effort on distinguishing between
value, and its form of representation as exchange value in
commodity producing societies? This distinction only makes
sense if value exists independently of its form of representation,
and could potentially have other forms of representation.

c) If abstract labour is peculiar to capitalism what are we to
make of his outline of a communist economy (pages 171-2 Fernbach
translation) in chapter 1, where he says that 'Labour time
woul in that case play a double part. Its apportionment in
accordance with a definite social plan maintains the correct
proportions between the different functions of labour and the
various needs of the associations. On the other hand, labour time
also serves as a measure of the part played by each individual
in the common labour'?