[OPE-L:390] Re: abstract labor

akliman@acl.nyit.edu (akliman@acl.nyit.edu)
Wed, 1 Nov 1995 12:44:00 -0800

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A few comments and questions on the inter-Paul abstract labor exchange.

1. What is meant by commodity production? Before one can say whether a
certain society is a commodity producing society, this must be defined. In
my view, an initial working definition is that commodity production occurs
when things are produced for the purpose of being exchanged. So we can have
a system of exchange without commodity production, even a system in which a
lot of produced stuff is exchanged without it being a commodity-producing
society. ... On the other hand, Engels unconscionably inserted a remark
at the end of section 1 of Ch. 1 of CAPITAL I, in which he said that to
be a commodity, the thing had to be transferred to another by means of
exchange. Marx to my knowledge, said no such thing, and indeed affirmed
in several places that, e.g., a capitalist farmer who uses some of his
corn output as seed corn is employing it as a commodity--it has value
without going to market. Marx of course also affirmed that value is produced
before the thing is sold--thus the object is a commodity prior to exchange.
So these are some qualifications to what I regard as a working definition.

2. Can anyone recommend readings dealing with noncapitalist societies that
take up the question of whether production was for the purpose of exchange?
Rome was mentioned? I've also heard people say that a commodity-producing
society used to exist in the Andes. (I agree with Paul B. that you can't
separate the antebellum US South into a separate noncapitalist society--
BTW, this was Marx's view, too. He says in CAPITAL somewhere that when the
South started producing for the world market, the slaveowners were no longer
concerned to extort concrete surplus products, but strove to extract abstract
labor itself. And the so-called "socialist" countries are/were state-
capitalist ones, in my view. So I'm asking about societies unconnected to
the contemporary world capitalist system.)

3. Paul B. is completely right that Marx--and Engels too--affirmed the
historical specificity of value, abstract labor, commodity. R. Meek, in
his _Studies in the Labour Theory of Value_ has a whole chapter on this
and cites many of the most conclusive passages--even though he disagrees
with Marx and Engels.

4. This is a crucial political issue. In 1943 the Stalinists (Leontiev et
al., perhaps under orders from Stalin) in Russia published a revision of
the law of value, which then became Stalisnist orthodoxy and which has
since affected subsequent thinking even of nonStalisnists, even of people
unaware of the ideological roots of this revision--or even unaware that it
IS a revision. What the Stalisnists were doing was to admit that Russia
was a commodity-producing society, complete with commodity relations like
abstract labor--but trying to simultaneously say that their society wasn't
capitalist. At the time, this was big news, and a clear revision--it even
made the front page of the _New York Times_.

The Leontiev article was published in the AER in 1944, followed by a response
by Raya Dunayevskaya, who had translated it. She brought out its revisionist
nature, and that its intent was to make doctrine conform to reality. A
big controversy followed, with folks like Baran, Lange, Rogin, and others
getting involved--also in the AER, between 1944 and 1945.

That this episode is not better known seems to be due mostly to the success
of Stalinism in infecting Marxism.

5. On the passage--with which Paul C. began this thread--in which Marx
writes that abstract labor is the expenditure of labor-power in the
physiological sense--I think my response is somewhat different from Paul
B's. More precisely, I don't understand what Rosdolsky was trying to say.
In any case, I agree that to say something is physiological isn't equivalent
to saying it is transhistorical. What makes abstract labor abstract is in
fact that it is pure exertion--work as such--in which the worker has no
interest, in which the specificity of the workers' skills, the kind of thing
produced, etc. do not matter to the capitalist. Thus, to say that it is
physiological is to say that there is a separation within labor--its
concreteness is divorced from the purpose of the activity. Otherwise, work
is not reducible to physiological exertion. All of this implies that
abstract labor is alienated labor.

6. In section 4 of Ch. 1 of CAPITAL I, Marx argues that this duality in labor
arises at a particular historical moment--when things become produced for
the purpose of being exchanged. He notes that this implies that their
character as values now has to be taken into consideration already during
*production*--and this is what gives rise to the split in labor. In other
words, the nature of the labor process is changed, to conform with the abstract value-expansion which has become the overriding goal of production.

Andrew Kliman