[OPE-L:424] Re: abstract labor

Paul Cockshott (wpc@clyder.gn.apc.org)
Sun, 5 Nov 1995 00:33:52 -0800

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Paul C
I have recently become aware that there now exists a school
of thought according to which Marx's analysis of the commodity
is capitalist specific. Paul B, being more familiar with this
school can no doubt cite instances from it. However what
should be at issue in this is:

a. Do the logical properties of Marx's argument, or the
historical evidence invalidate it when applied to pre-capitalist
modes of production.

b. As a subsidiary question, is there reason to believe that
Marx himself thought his analysis was limited to capitalist modes.

In addressing b, it is worth reading Engels afterword to the
3rd volume of capital, where he argues, with citations from marx,
that the analysis of the law of value presented by Marx in vol I
was intended to apply to pre-capitalist conditions. He goes on
to argue that the transition from prices determined by values
to prices determined by prices of production corresponds to the
transition from commodity production to capitalist commodity production.
See also pages 177 and 178 of the Moscow edition of Vol III on this.
Paul B says that there is 'of course' a difference between Marx
and Engels on this. I would say that there is 'of course' a
difference between Engels and certain modern interpreters of
Marx on this. We have no record of a polemic between the two
founders of scientific communism on this topic.

Paul B

Although this is a matter of interpretation and conceptual
consistency and not just quote-baiting, I would point out that at the
very beginning of Capital I Marx says he is talking about "the wealth
of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production
prevails" (p.25, International Edition, 1977 printing).

commodity form as the universal form
of the product of labor (hence the value form of the commodity, i.e.
abstract labor as a general substance of value) is specifically

Paul C
The fact that all capitalist wealth takes the form of commodities
does not imply that all commodities are forms of capitalist wealth.
This depends only upon the most elementary postulates of set theory.
It merely indicates that all capitalist wealth must inherit its
properties from the class of commodities, capitalist wealth being
the sub-class, commodities the super-class.

In pre-capitalist societies it is certainly true that the majority
of the social product is never bought and sold as a commodity.
Hence the commodity form is not the universal form of the product
of labour. But if Burkett thinks that the commodity is the
universal form of the product of labour in capitalist society then
he has learned nothing from the feminist movement. In capitalist
societies a very significant part of the total labour of society
is unpaid domestic labour, whose product never assumes commodity
form. It is true that as capitalism develops, the portion of the
total social working day that takes this form diminishes, but
simply not to see this labour is the blindness of patriarchal

Paul B.:
Wait just a minute here! Clearly Marx is not 'attributing' any
shortcomings in Aristotle's analysis merely 'to the blinkered ideology
of the slaveowning class to which Aristotle belonged'; rather, he
relates this inability to fully specify the substance of value to the
class-material basis of Greek society which underpinned this

Aristotle must have been one smart dude to have analyzed the
value form even to the extent that he did on the basis of the merely
embryonic forms of value present in Greek society.

Paul C
I do not dispute that the nature of slave society set limits upon
the ideology of the ruling class, hence his assertion in the
Politics that some men are by nature slaves. We know now that
this is not the case, just as we know now that it is common
human labour that is the substance of value. But we must not
confuse the limited perceptions available to the educated classes
of the past with reality. Marx wrote:' Only the historical
limitation inherent in the society in which he lived prevented
him from finding out of what `in reality' this relation of
equality consisted.' Aristotle was unable to see what
in reality lay behind the equality expressed in value, but this
did not mean that in reality there was no equality expressed
in value, anymore than in meant that in reality some men were,
by nature, slaves. The limitation in his understanding of slavery
necessitates his limited understanding of value.

When Paul B says : 'Aristotle was right,
given the mode of production he was a part of'. Does this mean
that Aristotle was right about slavery too?

In what way does Paul B consider the form of value present in
the commodities bought and sold in Greek society to have been

Can he cite any specific difference in the value form between then
and now?

Which form was absent, the relative, the expanded or the money form?

I would say that the form was identical. With the Athenian
Owls one even had a precious metal currency with nominal minting
charges that corresponded to that assumed by Marx in Vol I.
What differed were the social relations under which the commodities
were produced.

I asked if Paul B was rejecting the argument put forward by Marx that
equivalence between commodities must imply the existence of a
single social substance, and positing instead the possibility of
exchange value having a multiplicity of components.

Paul B replies:

"Not at all. To begin with, the form of your statement
presupposes that you are correct about the transhistoricality of
abstract labor as the substance of value"

Note that Marx's argument from the analysis of the value form
goes in two steps:

1. Following Aristotle he argues that exchange is an equivalence
relation which thus presupposes some common subtance since
without it things would be incommensurable.

2. He asserts that labour is the common substance.

The first step is logically prior, in the specific sense that one
could accept this but hold that something else was the common
substance - energy, corn or what have you. So my question about
whether Marx was right to say that the value form implied a single
common substance does not logically depend upon accepting
Marx's answer as to what that substance is. Thus it does not
rely upon accepting my argument about abstract labour being
applicable to several modes of production.

If it is ever possible for exchange value to depend upon 'many
things', then, the argument put forward by Marx with regard to
a common substance must fall.

It may be that Paul B's view of what Marx's value analysis is all about
requires no particular, general objective basis for relative prices
in pre-capitalist societies, but the question for social science
still remains. If we throw out the labour theory of value for
pre-capitalist societies, what in those societies governed the
exchange value of commodities?

If Paul B wishes to overturn the hypothesis that the labour theory
of value is valid for these societies his objections will only
carry weight if he can either propose an alternative theory of value,
or can adduce historical evidence that the predictions of the
labour theory of value are inconsistent with the facts.
I can see no evidence from his postings, however, that he bases his
opinions on any particular investigation of how these societies
operated. His suggestion that there is are no laws of motion
for non-capitalist societies would threaten the abolition
of historical materialism.

In response to my statement that I did not regard the Grundrisse
as an authorative account of Marx's mature views Paul B asks
the very fair question:

"Do we leave out Volumes II and III of Capital as
well because Marx was unwilling to put his name to these ideas in

In general my view is that we should take later works in preference
to earlier ones. In my view Vols II and III contain many invaluable
insights, however, we must always weigh in mind the fact that
Marx apparently did not consider the ideas in them to be sufficiently
worked out to justify publishing them.

The citations from Marx on Communal Production

One of the strange things about this debate, it that Paul B
cites exactly the same passages on the role of labour time
in a coopertative society in support of his view as I have
in the past cited in support of mine - the passage in Chapter I,
and from the Critique of the Gotha Program.
I agree that both of these are important texts, and the reason
why this whole debate is important, is that it touches upon
whether and in what way capitalism can be superceeded.

My view is almost the polar opposite of Paul Bs. I think that
the commodity and abstract labour can only be understood rationally
by comparing them with a possible non-commodity producing society.
It is only by abstracting from the historically limited form of
appearance of social labour time as commodities and considering
the question from the standpoint of how things would work in
a planned economy that one can arrive at a coherent conception of
socially necessary labour time.

I agree that Marx saw a future communal society as one in which
commodities would no longer be produced, but the conclusion that
I draw from this is not that abstract labour would vanish, but that
it would no longer be manifest in the form of exchange value. Instead
the society would keep explicit records of how much labour was
required by different production processes. Thus abstract labour
would no longer appear in the alienated form of money, but openly as
an entry in a ledger saying that this machine took 5000 hours to
produce whereas that took 4000 hours.

Exchange value can be abolished, but, in any industrial society,
in which calculations of the comparative cost of producing things
must be carried out, something must replace it. What should this
be but our 'ultimate currency' in Smiths words, labour time.

Paul B says that my example of the Peoples Communes
"does not help matters very much, since it could be argued (and I in
fact would argue, along with Andrew) that if this Chinese labor was
abstract, value-creating labor then 'post-revolutionary' China was in
fact a state-capitalist economy."

The reason that I cited the Peoples Communes was that they are
the only example of a modern social form, of which I am aware,
that explicitly used labour time calculation, and where the
product did not in general assume the form of a commodity.
I advisedly did not cite the whole of the Chinese economy, since
rather different relations of production existed in other parts.
There were certainly state and private capitalist sectors. Paul
B s response seems to me something of an ideological closure, instead
of examining a concrete social form, he simply defines it out of

In doing so he seems to construct a theory which is in principle
unfalsifiable. Any instance of abstract labour existing in a
non-capitalist social form results in the social form being
defined as capitalist irrespective of its other attributes.