[OPE-L:876] Re: A positive response to Gil

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Mon, 29 Jan 1996 19:41:48 -0800

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I gather from the tone of Alan's response that he thinks I'm
defending the notion that Marx took the case of price-value
equivalence as an assumption in Volume I. I am not. I do maintain,
based on repeated, unambiguous statements by Marx, that he takes
price-value equivalence to be the "normal" or "pure" case of
commodity exchange, and that (although I can't prove this) this
commitment derails his *value-theoretic* argument concerning the
appropriate basis for explaining surplus value.

Alan's questions:
> (i) Where does Marx say that goods exchange for their value in
> Volume I?
> (ii)Why, since the assumption that goods exchange for their
> value is not made in Volume I, do marxists almost universally
> assume that this assumption is in fact made?

To which I begin:

> In the introduction to Part 7 of Volume I (which is a bit late
> in the game), Marx writes "...we assume that the capitalist
> sells the commodities he has produced at their value." [p. 710
> Penguin ed.]

When Alan says:

"Yes, it is 'late on.' *Why* is it late on? Because it isn't made
*early* on. The conclusion leaps out of the cyberpage of Gil's

Well, yes, of course it does; that's why I put that parenthetical phrase in there.
I'm not defending the stance that Marx assumes price-value equivalence in
Volume I.

However, I *am* defending the stance that Marx says what he says, and
here there seems to be more of an issue. I say:

> The inference that Marx focuses throughout Volume I on the case
> in which commodities exchange at their value[note the wording]
might be drawn from passages such as the following:
> "The fact that the corn and the clothes are equivalents
> [in the circuit C-M-C] does not deprive the process of all
> sense and meaning, as it does in M-C-M. The equivalence of
> their values is rather *a necessary condition of its
> normal course.*" [p. 252 Penguin, emphasis added.]

To which Alan replies:

> As for the second citation, Gil has been obliged to
> omit the immediately-preceding sentences which read: 'Of course,
> it is also possible that in C-M-C the two extremes C and C, say
> corn and clothes, may represent quantitatively different
> magnitudes of value. The peasant may sell his corn above its
> value, or may buy the clothes at less than their value'.

Nonsense: I haven't been "obliged" to do anything, because I'm not
asserting that Marx assumes price-value equivalence in Volume I. I
do assert, and back up with multiple passages such as the above, that
Marx considers price-value equivalence to be somehow the "normal" or
"pure" case of commodity exchange.

Alan continues:

> So from a purely textual point of view, this citation does
> not to say the least furnish strong evidence for the
> interpretation that the basis of Volume I is exchange at values.

But it does provide compelling evidence for what I'm arguing, as
opposed to what Alan seems to think I'm arguing.

> But the real point is the context. This is in the section where
> Marx discusses surplus value, where as I indicated in my
> original post, Marx does indeed abstract from exchange at
> values other than prices. But *why*? Not because he either
> believes, claims, or derives his categories from the assumption
> of exchange at values.

Agreed, of course.

> No, in this section Marx's purpose is altogether different: it
> is to indicate that one cannot *explain* surplus value on the
> basis of exchange at prices other than values. Even though it
> is perfectly true that people can sell goods above, below or at
> values, and frequently do, *nevertheless* the capitalist class
> as a whole cannot, by so doing, make a profit: 'the capitalist
> class as a whole cannot defraud itself'. He abstracts from
> exchange at prices other than values, only after having shown
> that surplus value cannot arise therefrom.

As I've argued in a recent post, there are two problems with this
representation of Marx's Chapter 5 argument. It ignores two
fallacies. First, it is not true that Marx has shown that "surplus
value cannot arise from exchange at prices other than values."
Rather he shows that surplus value cannot arise from "exchange at
prices other than values, *taken alone.* But for that matter he's
also shown that surplus value cannot arise from exchange at values,
*taken alone.* *It does not follow* from such premises that surplus
value must, or should, be explained on the basis of price-value
equivalence; indeed no inference can be drawn from these premises
concerning the connection between prices and values given the
existence of surplus value. To insist otherwise, as Marx does, is invalid.

Second, Marx's conclusion, "The capitalist class...taken as a whole,
cannot defraud itself." is at best a _non sequitur_. The issue has
never been whether the class could defraud itself, but rather whether
it might "defraud" *another* class via price-value disparities; which
of course it can. Thus, redistribution of value as a basis of
surplus value is ruled out not by [this] argument but *by definition*.
To assert otherwise is to commit a fallacy of division: it's true
that society taken as a whole cannot achieve gains in value via
unequal exchange, but it does not follow that a subset of that
society--e.g. the capitalist class--could not do so.

Alan continues:

> Gil then proceeds in a vein which confirms for me how important
> it is to get out of this stuck-gramophone debate which
> traditional marxism has with the rest of the world. He writes
> =====================================================
> Marx nowhere establishes the sense in which price-value
> equivalence represents the "normal" or "pure" form of exchange.
> John Roemer, employing assumptions not ruled out in Marx's
> value-theoretic analysis, shows this usage to be highly
> problematic: given differential ownership of relatively scarce
> productive assets, prices will not in general be equal to
> values, even in a subsistence exchange economy (i.e., one
> without markets for labor power or interest capital). Thus,
> given consistent effective wealth disparities, price-value
> *non*equivalence is the "normal" case.
> =====================================================
> Marx 'nowhere establishes the sense in which price-value
> equivalence represents normal exchange' because he doesn't
> believe it.
> This is the entire point.
> It can hardly be considered a fault in a writer, that he does
> not establish what he insistently denies.

Are these denials? (From Volume I, emphasis added):

"The equivalence of their values is rather a necessary condition of
its *normal course*..."

"Insofar, therefore, as the circulation of commodities involves a
change only in the form of their values, *it necessarily involves the
exchange of equivalents, provided the phenomenon occurs in its

"It is true that commodities may be sold at prices which diverge from
their values, but t*his divergence appears as an infringement of the
laws governing the exchange of commodities*. * In its pure form, the
exchange of commodities is an exchange of equivalents*..."

"*In its pure form*, the circulation process necessitates the exchange
of equivalents..."

"If prices actually differ from values, we must first reduce the
former to the latter, i.e. disregard this situation as an accidental
one in order to observe the phenomenon of the formation of capital on
the basis of the exchange of commodities *in its purity*...."

> This single sentence does more to confirm our contention than
> the whole of this posting of Gil's. Can you really seriously
> maintain that if Marx *did* believe price-value equivalence
> constituted normal exchange, he would not have proved it in
> words of fire before moving a step further forward?

On the evidence, yes.

Alan continues:

> Now we come to the most important point which is to look at the
> progress which could be made from this exchange.
> If, your point is to say 'John Roemer has shown that we can get
> a great deal further by *not* assuming that goods exchange at
> their values', then my reaction is, John Roemer is absolutely
> right. If, your point is to say 'John Roemer has shown that
> prices will not in general be equal to values, even in a
> subsistence economy', then my reaction is, three cheers for
> John Roemer. If he has shown *non*-equivalence is the normal
> case, then we are (on this matter) in total, one hundred per
> cent agreement.

No, I'm saying something stronger: Roemer has shown that, contrary
to Marx's explicit conclusion, one need not--and in general, should
not--explain surplus value on the basis of price-value equivalence.
In effect he's provided a detailed counter-example which illustrates
the fallacy of Marx's argument in Chapter 5 of Volume I.

In this light I agree emphatically with Duncan Foley's judgment
(though he may not agree with my particular take on the issue) that
Marx might have done better in presenting the material of Volume I
to emphasize his historical materialist argument rather than the
value-theoretic one.

Alan continues:

> *My* point is, that Marx makes the *same* point. If this is all
> Roemer says, and to the extent that this is what he says,
> Roemer is not disproving Marx: he is proving Marx.

*My* point, made in my Science & Society paper, and in anticipation
of an upcoming OPE-L post, is that one can see Roemer as proving
Marx, and conversely Marx as extending Roemer, *only if* one discards
the value-theoretic argument developed in Ch. 5 (and anticipated in
Ch. 4) in favor of Marx's historical-strategic argument presented in
places in Volume III, the Grundrisse, Part III of Theories of Surplus
Value, the Resultate, the Economic Manuscript of 1861-63, etc.....

> What he is disproving is not Marx, but the marxists.

Subject to the above caveats, I agree.

> If moreover Roemer does this employing assumptions not ruled
> out in Marx's value theoretic analysis, I simply don't
> understand what the debate is about. Why go to such enormous
> lengths to prove that they are ruled out by Marx's value-
> theoretic analysis, if the things which you consider so
> important, can be proved with assumptions *not* ruled out by
> Marx's analysis?

See reasons above and those in a recent post.

> It may well be that, in jointly claiming the above, we will
> find ourselves in an argument with the *marxists*. That is
> another matter; my argument all along has always been, let Marx
> speak for Marx and let the marxists speak for the marxists;
> indeed let us all speak for ourselves; everyone will be the
> better for it. Moi, je ne suis pas marxiste. Je suis partisan
> de Marx.

Moi aussi!

> If what you are saying, is that Marx in your view does not
> provide adequate proof of what Marx says, and that better
> proofs are to hand, then I may or may not agree with you - I
> have to assess the proofs and I have to assess the arguments
> that Marx does not prove his own case. But the first thing is
> to establish as much agreement as possible, on what it was that
> Marx was trying to prove. I for one would be disinclined to
> reject out of hand any body of work which seeks to provide
> *additional* proofs and *additional* support, for what Marx
> was saying.
> I would ask one simple question: what other conclusions
> flow from Roemer's proof of the 'normality' of exchange at
> non-value prices? In particular, on the basis of Roemer's
> assumptions, is it possible for the capitalist class to make
> a profit from pure exchange without employing labourers?

Without subsuming *wage* labourers under the *capitalist mode* of
production, in general, yes. And Marx says as much, repeatedly, in
his historical analysis of certain circuits of capital which predated
the capitalist mode of production, i.e. usurer's capital and
merchant's capital *when extended to small producers.*
That is: production of new value is of course required by Marx's
definition of surplus value, ***but realization of surplus value by
capitalists need not require a direct production relationship between
capitalists and value producers.*** Indeed, as Marx repeatedly and
unambiguously affirms, capitalist exploitation occurred historically
circuits of capital which did not depend on such relations.

Concerning the possibility of capitalist exploitation once the
conditions of the capitalist mode of production have prevailed, Marx
is slightly more ambiguous. But there are good textual reasons to
believe that Marx does not rule out the possibility on _a priori_
historical-strategic grounds.

> If not, then I think we have a contribution which does not
> contradict, but re-enforces Marx. If so, then what we
> ought to do is study the circumstances in which profits
> can arise without workers, since they suggest some rather
> unexpected directions in which capitalism might evolve.

Based on the above, Roemer establishes a result which contradicts
Marx's value-theoretic argument in Part 2 of Volume I, but anticipates and
thus in a sense reinforces Marx's historical-strategic argument
developed elsewhere.

> There are many other points in this very interesting post, but
> I want to concentrate on this one because, it seems to me, on
> the face of it, that there is abundant space for genuine
> progress, which would be a real achievement for the OPE
> project.

Yes, that is what we're both after. I hope that my position (what
has always been my position!) as to an important basis for such
progress is now a bit clearer.