Re: Why Marx does not Need a Commodity Theory of Money
Wed, 7 Jan 1998 16:53:53

Duncan asked:

> Duncan wrote
> <I have lost track of the reference, but somewhere in _Capital_ or in the
> _Grundrisse_ Marx has a footnote discussing a West African society that
> uses imaginary bars of iron as a unit of account, but drops the argument
> after some discussion, characterizing them as "idealists".>

To which Chris A. answered:

> The reference is the Gr. CW 29 p.318 but he is merely ironically echoing
> Stewart and says nothing substantive. Yet I am sure that somewhere he does
> discuss in detail the use of iron bars as units of account differing from
> real value.

I think the passage Chris is recalling is:

In the crudest barter, when two commodities are exchanged for one
another, each is first equated with a symbol which expresses their
exchange value, e.g. among certain Negroes [sic] on the West
African coast, = x bars. One commodity is = 1 bar; the other =
2 bars. They are exchanged in this relation. The commodities are
first transformed into bars in the head and in speech before
they are exchanged for one another. They are appraised before
being exchanged, and in order to appraise them they must be
brought into a given numerical relation to one another. In order
to bring them into such a numerical relation, in order to make
them commensurable, they must obtain the same denomination (unit).
(The bar has a mereley imaginary existence, just as, in general,
a relation can obtain a particular embodiment and become indivi-
dualized only by means of abstraction.) In order to cover the
excess of one value over another in exchange, in order to liqui-
date the balance, the crudest barter, just as with international
trade today, requires payment in money.

Grundrisse, Penguin, pp. 142-3

Another translation in Collected Works, Vol 28, p. 80. The latter
includes the reference to a Jacob and Urquhart as probable sources of
the using of "bars" as measure of value by those people on the West
African Coast. See the reference to Jacob in C.W. 28, p. 128.

Another similar reference --interesting for Latinamericans!-- is the

The *ideal bar* may be compared, e.g. with the *ideal milrea*
in Buenos Aires (likewise the pound in England during the depre-
ciation of notes etc.) What is fixed here is the name *milrea*;
what fluctuates is the quantity of gold or silver it expresses.

Then, Marx seems to quote a passage of The Economist, Sept 28, 1844:

In Buenos Aires the currency is inconvertible paper money (paper
dollars [sic]); these dollars [sic] originally = 4s.6d. each;
now approximately 33/4d. and has been low as 11/2d. An ell of
cloth formerly worth 2 dollars [sic] now *nominally* 28 dollars
[sic] in consequence of the depreciated paper.

Grundrisse, Penguin, p. 815

Same passage in C.W. 29, p. 195. The latter mentions "Brazil" instead
of "Buenos Aires". My Spanish edition says "Buenos Aires" and "pesos"
instead of "dollars", used in both English editions.

Alejandro Ramos