[OPE-L:1040] Re: Discussions on the labor Theory of Value

Allin Cottrell (cottrell@wfu.edu)
Sun, 11 Feb 1996 12:43:08 -0800

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Duncan writes:

"...I think it makes most sense to view Volume I of Capital as an attempt to
work out the consequences of the labor theory of value at the level of the
aggregate commodity... The results are supposed to hold good whether or not
prices are proportional to embodied labor coefficients (if they exist). For
essentially pedagogical reasons Marx often works through examples on the
assumption that prices are proportional to embodied labor times, but I don't
read the text as limiting the conclusions to that assumption."

I don't "read the text as limiting the conclusions to that assumption"
either, but I think it is a mistake to suppose that Marx had no investment in
the assumption (understood stochastically), and also to suppose that the
assumption can be junked without significant cost.

The aggregative version of the labour theory of value (LTV) is weaker than
the disaggregative version, in the logical sense: the latter implies the
former but not vice versa. From this point of view, restricting one's
commitment to the aggregative version may be seen as hedging: it remains
defensible even if the stronger version were to prove empirically false. But
if -- as the work of Anwar Shaikh and his co-workers, and more recently a
long list of researchers using data from several countries, has suggested --
the stronger version is valid, then where is the need to hedge?

I expect that many supporters of the aggregative version would object to this
way of posing the question. It may be said that the extra empirical
content of the disaggregative version is of no benefit to Marxian theory.
The disaggregative LTV -- true or false -- is just irrelevant to the core
commitments of Marxist theory. Even if, as an empirical matter, Marx
believed in the disaggregative LTV, that psychological fact would not touch
the logical issue. It is as if one suggested conjoining to the core "axioms"
of Marxism the proposition that the Earth is an oblate spheroid. Marx
believed it, and it happens to be true, but so what? (I'm not claiming that
Duncan says that; but I hear it coming across in this debate from time to

I'd like to suggest two counter-arguments.

1. The first is a polemical-strategic consideration. Like it or not, Marx is
strongly associated in the popular mind with the disaggregative LTV. We are
in a much stronger polemical position if we are able to say: "Marx (as
popularly understood) was right!", rather than having to say: "Marx (as
popularly understood) may or may not be right, but _really_ that's not what
Marx was saying (or it's not what he ought to have said), and if you
interpret him correctly... etc."

2. It may be that Marx's critique of capitalist exploitation is more or less
independent of the validity of the disaggregative LTV. But Marx was not just
a critic of capitalism. He was an advocate of a communist planned economy,
and his vision of that economy (sketchy as it was) relied in turn on a
particular vision of the economic mechanism in general -- one in which the
quanta of human labour-time required to produce society's various outputs
constitute by far the most significant single "signal" to emerge from the
sphere of production. The credibility of this general conception is surely
enhanced by the finding that -- even through the "anarchy" of capitalist
production, and even given the systematic "distortion" induced by (some
degree of pressure towards) profit-rate equalization -- prices seem to
conform rather closely to labour-time values in today's capitalist

[I have not discussed the relatively technical point raised in Duncan's
posting, namely the issue of joint production. We could debate that anon: I
don't believe it constitutes a fatal obstacle to the LTV.]

Allin Cottrell