[OPE-L:756] exchange of equals

Fred Moseley (fmoseley@laneta.apc.org)
Wed, 20 Dec 1995 11:08:48 -0800

[ show plain text ]

In his response to Andrew (746) and in various responses to myself, Gil has
called our attention to Marx's key paragraph on p. 127. I am glad he did,
because rereading this paragraph, including its earlier versions in the
Critique and the 1st edition of Capital, yielded new insights. My
understanding of Marx's argument is now somewhat different from what it was

Gil quoted Marx:

"A given commodity, a quarter of wheat for example, is exchanged for
x boot-polish, y silk or z gold, etc. In short it is exchanged for
other commodities in the most diverse proportions. Therefore the
wheat has many exchange values instead of one. But x boot-polish, y silk,
or z gold, etc., each represent the exchange-value of one quarter of wheat."

Then Gil commented:

Referring to 'the' exchange value of a quarter of wheat begs a
serious question. Unless the "law of one price" holds, i.e.
something like perfectly competitive markets exist, it is meaningless
to speak of "the" exchange value of a quarter of wheat, or any other
good. It may simultaneously have multiple exchange values conditional on the
idiosyncratic transaction conditions faced by the various possible
pairs of exchangers. For example, a transaction of the silk owner
with some other owner of a quarter of wheat may yield an entirely
different exchange ratio. So unless Marx is simply repeating what is
already given, the suggested inference is in general invalid.

My response:

Here is a key point, and perhaps the main point of disagreement between Marx
and Gil. Marx assumed in Chapter 1 precisely that there is such a thing as
THE exchange-value of wheat - its general exchangeable worth as a commodity,
as in inherent property of the wheat. According to Marx, this
exchange-value of wheat is EXPRESSED in many different forms in terms of its
exchange-ratios with many other commodities (in principle, with all other
commodities). However, Marx argued, in all these different expressions, the
exchange-value of the wheat REMAINS THE SAME - the general exchangeable
worth of the wheat. Marx said this even more clearly in the 1st edition of

A single commodity (e.g. a quarter of wheat) is exchanged with
other articles in the MOST VARIED PROPORTIONS. Nevertheless
its exchange-value remains UNCHANGED regardless of whether it is
expressed in x bootblacking, y soap, z gold, etc. (Dragstedt,
Value: Studies by Karl Marx, p. 7; emphasis in the original).

The key point is that the exchange-value of the wheat REMAINS UNCHANGED in
all its many forms of expression. Marx did not simply assume a relation of
"equivalence" in Gil's sense of the term, meaning simply that all
commodities are exchanged with wheat. Marx's starting-point is wheat, not
all other commodities, and Marx assumed that THE exchange-value of wheat
remains constant in spite of its many different expressions as
exchange-ratios with other commodities.

>From this premise, Marx inferred: since all the different exchange-ratios of
wheat are expressions of the same thing - the exchange-value of wheat - they
all must be "mutually replaceable" or "of indentical magnitude". This is a
perfectly valid inference. One may reject the premise (that there is such a
thing as THE exchange-value of wheat), but the inference (that all the
different exchange-ratios of wheat are of identical magnitude) follows from
the premise. Since all the different exchange-ratios with other commodities
represent the same thing
(THE exchange-value of wheat), they must themselves be equal, or of
"identical magnitude". If these exchange-ratios with other commodities were
not themselves equals, they could not all represent THE exchange-value of
the wheat.

Gil has argued that the premise of Marx's argument - THE exchange-value of
wheat - is invalid. He has pointed to market imperfections which result in
multiple exchange-values of wheat.

I have already explained in previous posts that Chapter 1 presented a very
abstract analysis of the commodity which ignores market imperfections.
Market imperfections affect the distribution of surplus-value, which Marx
abstracted from until Volume 3. One can reject this method of analysis, but
one cannot argue that there is a logical fallacy within this method of

Gil has argued that "statements such as 'market imperfections affect the
distribution of suruplus-value' beg the question in a major way, since they
presume the theory of value that is being criticized." (748) Gil's
criticism is that Marx should consider market imperfections in Chapter 1
(and thus multiple exchange-values of a given commodity) in Chapter 1. My
response is that, according to Marx's logica method, market imperfections,
as a rather minor aspect of capitalism, affecting only the distribution of
surplus-value and not the production of surplus-value, are initially
abstracted from and analyzed much later. How can this reply "beg the
question"? It explains how market imperfections are dealt with in Marx's
theory and why they are abstracted from in Chapter 1.

Gil has also challenged me to provide a reference in which Marx said that he
abstracted from market imperfections in Chapter 1. But "market
imperfections" became an issue only after Marx's death. It is not
surprising that Marx did not state this assumption explicitly. But it is
easy to see that, according to Marx's logical method, market imperfections
must be abstracted from in Chapter 1. Market imperfections affect the
distribution of surplus-value, which Marx abstracted from until Volume 3.
Marx's abstract analysis of the commodity in Chapter 1 considers only one
aspect of capitalist economies - that its products are commodities which
have general exchangeable worth. This analysis is even preliminary to an
analysis of the production of surplus-value. Even capital and wage-labor
(the source of surplus-value) are not explicitly considered in Chapter 1.
Surely market imperfections, which affect only the distribution of
surplus-value, are abstracted from in Chapter 1.