[OPE-L:2535] Re: Chapter 5 and Marx's method

Gil Skillman (gskillman@wesleyan.edu)
Tue, 18 Jun 1996 13:01:17 -0700 (PDT)

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Like Fred I'm quite willing to call an at least temporary halt to our
exchange on Ch. 5-related issues, although unlike him I don't think the
discussion has stalled; e.g. in the last round he raised an important new
question about an aspect of necessity claims in Marx' Volume I account of
capitalist exploitation, to which I responded in detail. Rather than just
repeating the main lines of my position, though, let me try to assess points
of agreement and necessary disagreement, to establish possible future points
of departure.

1. We agree that surplus value need not be explained "in such a way that the
starting point is the exchange of equivalents", Fred because he thinks this
is not what Marx meant, taking his argument as a whole, and me because I
think this argument is simply invalid.

2. We agree that Marx employs an "aggregative" approach to the theory of
value (though I think Marx also maintains a "disaggregative" approach, and
thus feel e.g. that the "transformation problem" was Marx's attempt to
demonstrate the mutual consistency of the two approaches).

3) We disagree on what can be proved on the basis of this aggregative
approach. For example, in the last round Fred suggested that Marx proved
the necessity of wage labor to capitalist exploitation, and I argued that if
this claim was not simply tautological it could not possibly be established
on the basis of the aggregative interpetation of value theory.

4) I have argued in addition that the aggregative approach cannot possibly
establish the necessity for capitalist exploitation of capitalist
production (i.e., the subsumption of labor under capital), but Fred responds
that this is beside the point, since Marx's argument in Capital takes
capitalist production as given. Without going into all the textual details
behind our disagreement (a bit more on this below), I'll just state my
belief that *even if this is so*, it is unsatisfactory, since it implies
that Marx establishes an absolutely central feature of his argument (the
reliance of capitalist exploitation on capitalist production relations)
solely by fiat. This is, of course, a judgment call; those who are
satisfied with the validity of this connection certainly won't mind such a

A few comments now on Fred's summing up. The most significant issue crops
up at the end.

>For the record, I will summarize my main conclusions once again:

OK, I'll let my responses below serve as a summary of my position for the

>1. Marx's theory in 'Capital' is about capitalist production from the very
>beginning. Marx's logical method is: (1) to take the totality of capitalist
>production as the subject of his theory throughout the three volumes of
>'Capital', (2) to systematically explain the necessary interconnections of
>the important features of this totality, and (3) to demonstrate that this
>totality reproduces his own premises. (please see my response to Alan in
>(2339) for an elaboration of thse points). I have presented much textual
>evidence to support this fundamental point that the subject of Chapter 1 is
>the commodity produced by capitalist production.

To which I've responded specifically and in detail, without counter-response.

>Contrary to Gil, Marx did not first take as his subject in the beginning of
>'Capital' the "capitalist mode of production" which, according to Gil,
>includes various forms of non-capitalist production, such as "leasee workers
>coops," "proto-industrial merchant capital," etc.

Well, **may** include; i.e., invoking the capitalist mode of production does
not rule out such forms.

> Gil argument hinges
>crucially on one phrase from a sentence in Volume 3:

Not really. This was only one part of the textual evidence I offered.

> "that the capitalist
>mode of production could proceed on its own basis without capitalist
>production." I have argued that this phrase is in the context of a
>discussion of interest as a part of surplus-value and simply means that
>interest in capitalism could not exist without capitalist production. The
>first part of the same sentence from which this phrase comes reads: "the
>nonsense that capital could yield interest without functioning as productive
>capital. I urge anyone interested in this issue to read this passage, my
>comments on it in (2068) and Gil's response in (2229).

I join Fred in urging those interested to read the passage. Note in
particular Marx's use of the semi-colon. And whatever the "context" of the
passage, note that Fred's *definitional* equation of capitalist production
and the capitalist mode of production necessarily renders the passage he
cites above as gibberish.

>If Marx's subject is capitalist production from the beginning, then it
>cannot be true that Marx tried to prove the "necessity" of capitalist
>production, in Gil's sense of the only possible source of surplus-value,

[No, that's not my sense. The whole point is that in Volume I **Marx**
provides the sense: he insists that surplus value must be explained on the
basis of price-value equivalence, and explicitly justifies his subsequent
exclusive focus on capitalist production and wage labor on this basis.
Absent this, *no* necessary connection between surplus value and capitalist
production is attempted in V. I, let alone the notion that the latter is the
"only possible source" of surplus value]

>distinct from other non-capitalist forms of production (see point #2)

This could be true; no way to determine for sure, since Marx is alas dead. I
just note, as above, that if in fact Marx does not attempt to establish any
necessary connection between capitalist production and capitalist
exploitation, then he left an essential aspect of his story without
justification. I doubt that Marx would have done this, especially since
based on what Marx *actually says* in Ch. 5 and 6, he does address this
issue. To put it another way: shouldn't it be troubling to suppose that
Marx failed to establish that capitalist production is less "incidental" to
the appropriation of surplus value than are disparities between price and value?

>2. Marx successfully derived the "necessity" of labor-power within
>capitalist production, in the Hegelian sense that labor-power is a necessary
>condition for the existence of surplus-value in capitalism (labor-power here
>means the same thing as wage-labor; please see my p.s. below).

Unless "the Hegelian sense" means "either tautological or wrong", Marx
enjoyed no such success. If labor-power is understood as Marx explicitly
defines it, i.e. the capacity to labor, then labor power is necessary for
capitalist exploitation on definitional, not Hegelian grounds: surplus
value is measured in terms of socially necessary labor time, which only
labor power understood in this sense can produce.
On the other hand, if, following Fred, labor-power is *defined* as a
commodity, then Marx establishes no such claim, for reasons explained in
detail (and without response) in the last post.

> This is not
>a "tautology", but follows from the labor theory of value (and only from the
>labor theory of value).

Yes, definitionally (and therefore tautologically). See above. And it
certainly doesn't follow "only" from the labor theory of value (a claim
which Fred has not explained or justified), unless tautologically.

>Gil's critique that Marx failed to prove the "necessity" of labor-power
>depends not only on his definition of the "capitalist mode of production"
>(point #1),

No it doesn't. That's a separate argument. Even granting Fred's definition
of the capitalist mode of production as "capitalist production", Marx still
fails in Volume I to establish the necessity for capitalist exploitation of
purchasing labor power as a commodity.

>but also on his different definition of "necessity," as the only
>possible source of surplus-value distinct from non-capitalist forms of

Not really. See response in square brackets above.

>3. Since Marx was not trying to prove the necessity of labor-power as the
>only possible source of surplus-value, this nonexistent attempted proof does
>not depend on the assumption that individual prices are equal to their values.

But he **was** trying to prove, and claimed he proved, that surplus value
must be explained on the basis of price-value equivalence, and *on the basis
of this (invalid) premise* Marx argues the necessity for capitalist
exploitation of purchasing labor power as a commodity. This is what Marx
says he is doing in Ch. 6, and doesn't say anything about values taken in
the aggregate.

>Marx's theory of the aggregate amount of surplus-value in Volume 1 also does
>not depend in any way on Marx's provisional assumption (as stated at the end
>of Chapter 5) that individual prices are equal to their values.

No, but that's beside the point. Marx didn't claim that it did so depend.
[In fact, as argued previously, without response, no major point in Ch. 5 is
expressed in terms of aggregates.] What Marx did say is that surplus value
must be explained on the basis of price-value equivalence. Apparently Fred
and I agree that this stipulation is inappropriate.

> In Volume
>1, Marx assumed that individual prices are equal to their values because
>there is no basis for any other assumption consistent with the labor theory
>of value at this abstract stage of analysis.

I believe this statement is either tautological or wrong, depending on
Fred's definition of "the labor theory of value." What Marx *says*, in any
case, is that surplus value is to be explained on the basis of price-value
equivalence because surplus value can't arise from exchange relations, taken
alone, whether or not commodities exchange at their respective values. The
former claim, as I've argued, does not follow from the latter.

>The main point of Chapter 5 is that surplus-value cannot be explained on the
>basis of exchange alone. Marx argued that this conclusion is true whether
>there is the exchange of equivalents or the exchange of equivalents.

I entirely agree. If Marx had stopped here his argument would not have been
invalid. But it also could not have justified his subsequent exclusive
focus on capitalist production based on the purchase of labor power as a
commodity. No doubt realizing this, Marx derives from the (valid) premises
stated above the invalid conclusion that surplus value must be explained on
the basis of price-value equivalence. He then explicitly invokes this
conclusion to justify his subsequent discussion of labor power purchased as
a commodity.

> The aggregate amount of surplus-value is not affected by whether or not
>individual commodities are exchanged at their values.

As I've argued previously without response, this is not true *unless* one
presupposes capitalist production. For example, surplus value on the basis
of proto-industrial merchant's capital depends on price-value disparities
for its existence.

> Another indication of
>that the main question in Chapter 5 (as in all of Volume 1) is to explain
>the aggregate amount of surplus-value is his discussion of merchant profit
>and interest: Marx argued that before these individual parts of
>surplus-value can be analyzed, the total amount of surplus-value must be

Where? Certainly not in Ch. 5. In the relevant passage discussing
merchant's capital and interest-bearing capital as derivative forms [I, 267,
Penguin ed.], Marx does not use the word "aggregate", nor any synonym for it.

>P.S. One brief comment on Duncan's and Mike W's comments on Gil's argument
>that Marx's concept of labor-power is not necessarily a commodity. I agree
>completely that the concept of labor-power for Marx is a commodity, in the
>sense that it is bought and sold.

This interpretation renders the following passage in Ch. 6 as gibberish:
"But in order that the owner of money may find labour- power on the market
as a commodity...",[I, 270] since according to Fred it is by definition a
commodity. And again, what Marx *actually* says is simply that labor-power
denotes the "capacity" for labor, not this capacity understood as a commodity.

> This definition of labor-power follows
>from my general interpretation that ALL the key concepts in Marx's theory
>refer specifically and solely to capitalist production.

I'm astonished by this claim. This interpretation requires that huge
portions of Marx's work be understood as self- contradictory. To take just
one example: "capitalist exploitation" and "surplus value" are certainly
"key concepts" in Marx's theory, and thus according to Fred they *must*
"refer *specifically and solely* to capitalist production." But then Fred's
interpretation of Marx's "logical method" requires that the following be
treated as illogical, indeed as self-contradictory gibberish:

"In India, for example, the capital of the usurer advances raw materials or
tools or even both to the immediate producer in the form of money. The
exorbitant interest which it attracts, the interest which...it extorts from
the primary producer, is just another name for surplus value." [I, 1023]

"The merchant [financing feudal handicraft production] is the real
capitalist and pockets the greater part of surplus-value." [III, 453]

"In the form of interest, the usurer can in this case swallow up everything
in excess of the producers' most essential means of subsistence...*all*
surplus-value save that which accrues to the state is appropriated..." [III,

"Usurer's capital has capital's mode of exploitation without its mode of
[III, 732]

"[Usurer's capital] is rather a form which makes labour sterile, places it
under the most unfavourable economic conditions, and combines together
capitalist exploitation without a capitalist mode of production." [Collected
Works, v34, 119]

"The [Indian ryot] is his own employer, and his mode of production is the
traditional one of the independent, small, self-sustaining peasant. He does
not work under alien direction, for another and under another, and thus he
is not subsumed as a wage labourer to the owner of the conditions of
production...Thus even the formal capital-relation does not take place,
still less the specifically capitalist mode of production. And yet the
usurer appropriates not only the whole of the surplus value created by the
ryot..." [Collected Works, v34, 118]


An aside: it is interesting that the foregoing is not an isolated case.
Since I initiated the "Ch. 5 critique" more or less by accident 5 years ago,
I've repeatedly been told that I've misunderstood or misinterpreted Marx by
colleagues whose own interpretation *requires* that major portions of what
Marx actually wrote be regarded as nonsensical, self-contradictory, or just
plain wrong. In contrast, I propose that only one step in Marx's account of
profit and exploitation (actually two, [thanks, Mike L], but the second
derives from the first) be rejected, so as to render the remaining decade's
worth of argument cogent, complete [no central claims established solely by
fiat] and internally consistent.

Go figure.