[OPE-L:1087] Re: Definitions and Tautologies

Allin Cottrell (cottrell@wfu.edu)
Fri, 16 Feb 1996 12:26:10 -0800

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Andrew writes:

> ... Allin says,
> first, my interpretation is at odds with the "most natural reading" of
> Marx's texts.

This notion of a "most natural reading" does not cut much ice with
Andrew. Fair enough -- it is somewhat question-begging, though I still
think that many people can recognize forced and unforced readings when
they see them :^).

On the nitty-gritty textual issue, though, I'd like to put up a passage
(from the locus that Andrew takes as primary, namely Vol. III, ch. 9)
that seems to me quite at odds with his reading. Marx says:

"We had originally assumed that the cost-price of a commodity equalled the
_value_ [original emphasis] of the commodities consumed in its production.
But for the buyer the price of production of a specific commodity is its
cost-price, and may thus pass as cost-price into the prices [nota bene] of
other commodities. Since the price of production may differ from the
value of a commodity, it follows that the cost-price of a commodity
containing this price of production of another commodity may also stand
above or below that portion of its total value derived from the value of
the means of production consumed by it." (Progress Publishers, 164-5)

A few lines later on he says, in a sentence quoted by Andrew: "...there is
always the possibility of an error if the cost-price of a commodity in any
particular sphere is identified with the value of the means of production
consumed by it."

What is going on here? Marx distinguishes between the contribution to the
_value_ of a commodity made by the _value_ of the means of production
consumed, on the one hand, and the contribution made by the _price_ of the
means of production (which he assumes, in context, to be given by the
price of production) to the formation of the _price_ of the product. The
terms so distinguished are jumbled together in Andrew's equation, where
it is the _prices_ of the means of production that contribute to the
formation of the _value_ of the product.

Further, let's think about the "error" Marx mentions. He talks of a
"possibility" of error if cost-price (what the capitalist actually pays
for the means of production) is identified with value. My reading is that
he means a quantitative error here -- the error is merely "possible",
because it could so happen that the two magnitudes are equal (taking
appropriate units). I take it as clear from context that theoretical
"error" would be certain (not just possible) if one were to identify the
value of the means of production with their cost-price (from the buyer's
point of view) in general terms. But that is exactly what Andrew's
reading involves, in effect. He sticks cost-prices on the right-hand side
of an equation that is supposed to be determining the value of the

Yes, Marx goes on to say that the "past mistake" (difference between
cost-price of X and value of means of production consumed in X's
production) is "immaterial to the capitalist". Fine, but that shows the
limitations of the viewpoint of the capitalist relative to the scientist.
The whole process in question is, after all, "obscuring the basis for
determining value itself" (a couple of pages later). The "conception of
value eludes the capitalist", who "does not see the total labour put into
the commodity."