[OPE] Reply to critics

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Sat Oct 02 2010 - 08:23:03 EDT


Let me just note here that the passage you cite from the section on the
value-form is, as much of Marx's text happens to be, badly translated from
the German.


(1) First of all, consider the German original:

Im graden Gegenteil zur sinnlich groben Gegenständlichkeit der Warenkörper
geht kein Atom Naturstoff in ihre Wertgegenständlichkeit ein. Man mag daher
eine einzelne Ware drehen und wenden, wie man will, sie bleibt unfaßbar als
Wertding. Erinnern wir uns jedoch, daß die Waren nur Wertgegenständlichkeit
besitzen, sofern sie Ausdrücke derselben gesellschaftlichen Einheit,
menschlicher Arbeit, sind, daß ihre Wertgegenständlichkeit also rein
gesellschaftlich ist, so versteht sich auch von selbst, daß sie nur im
gesellschaftlichen Verhältnis von Ware zu Ware erscheinen kann.

(2) This is officially translated (Moore/Aveling) as follows:

the value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of
their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition. Turn
and examine a single commodity, by itself, as we will, yet in so far as it
remains an object of value, it seems impossible to grasp it. If, however,
we bear in mind that the value of commodities has a purely social reality,
and that they acquire this reality only in so far as they are expressions or
embodiments of one identical social substance, viz., human labor, it follows
as a matter of course, that value can only manifest itself in the social
relation of commodity to commodity'

(3) Now let's try for an accurate scientific translation:

In direct opposition to the coarse, sensuous representation of the
embodiments of commodities, not one atom of natural matter is involved in
their objective representation as value. One may twist and turn a commodity
as one likes in this regard, but on its own it remains incomprehensible as a
thing of value. If however we remind ourselves, that commodities possess the
objective representation of value, insofar as they express the same societal
measure, human labour, that their representation as value is thus purely
societal, then it also becomes self-evident, that this can only manifest
itself in the societal relationship of commodities to commodities.

(4) In the Penguin edition, we read:

Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values;
in this it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of
commodities as physical objects. We may twist and turn a single commodity as
we wish; it remains impossible to grasp it as a thing possessing value.
However, let us remember that commodities possess an objective character as
values only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social
substance, human labour, that their objective character as values is
therefore purely social. From this it follows self-evidently that it can
only appear in the social relation between commodity and commodity. (p.

The Penguin version is an improvement on the original, but as we can see,
both English translators introduce additional expressions into the
translation, which are simply not there in the original. There is no
reference in the original to "physical objects", "materiality",
"composition", "purely social reality", "identical social substance", and

To introduce additional terms is of course permissible for a translator if
it conveys the meaning more exactly and accurately, but in this case the
additional terms are not really helpful, because they raise additional
questions about what these additional terms could be understood to mean, and
in fact they distract from the main point. Moreover, the syntax is changed,
plural is changed to singular and so forth. All of that would not be so bad,
if it aided the reader in an overall sense to get the meaning of what is
being said, but in fact, a more simple, literal rendering, without the extra
frills introduced by the translators, conveys the point better!

There is I suppose a problem, leaving aside simple blunders in translating
Das Kapital, with the concept of "Gegenständlichkeit", which literally means
"standing against" or "stand in opposition to", and which is therefore
normally translated as objectivity or representation (the property of being
objectified): a thing or relationship is represented by another thing or
relationship, which exists as an independent entity. But to translate this
appropriately, we only need to follow the logic of the argument itself
("Gegenstand" connotes both "the resistance of opposition" and

In German, "gesellschaftlich" (societal) has a different connotation than
"sozial" (social), because the former refers to a phenomenon or relationship
pertaining to society in aggregate, as a whole, while the latter refers to
the interactive, other-directed aspect of a phenomenon or relationship. This
contrast does not exist in ordinary English (other than if we refer to "a
relationship in society") and thus "social" in English can convey more
meanings. An additional complication was that Marx was projecting English
and Scottish concepts into German language.

The general conclusion though is that Marx makes no grandiose metaphysical
claims about a "social substance" or "materiality" and so forth here. He is
merely saying that if human labourtime is the measure of the value of
commodities, then this can become manifest only through the relationship
between commodities, namely through the proportions in which they are
exchanged, and the meaning of this value (in contrast to use-value) cannot
be deduced from the observation of any particular commodity. This just
means, that economic value itself is not directly observable in the way that
the use of a commodity is observable, but is an inferred property. When
academics try to define this inferred property in terms of the language of
modern physics, they miss the point again, because they conflate the
self-reflexive nature of human society with a physical system. We do not add
one iota of scientificity by means of an analogy between society and a
physical system, and in fact it signals a regression to mechanical

For the benefit of Jerry: we can validly say that a product has a value in
society, quite independently of whether it is exchanged or not, but in order
to know the magnitude of this value, we necessarily have to refer to the
proportions in which it is normally exchanged. The only other yardstick we
could refer to, is the amount of labour which the products actually took to
make, but the point is that even if we could know this reasonably
accurately, ceteris paribus we do not know exactly how this quantity happens
to be related to the social average (the relationship of particular labour
to general labour) and therefore we still do not know, other than
intuitively or by rule of thumb, what the particular labours (and
consequently their products) are really "worth". Even if we set up a
macro-economic accounting system for labour hours worked, we still need a
criterion for the equation of those hours, and in the last instance that
criterion must be assumed, rather than deduced from a mathematical equation,
it depends on categorical distinctions which are themselves not provable by
a mathematical procedure.

The effect of this comparability problem is, that a social relationship
between people as producers and consumers takes the form of, or is
symbolized as, a (monetary) relationship between things. The social
relationship is then indirectly, or in a roundabout way, affirmed via the
intermediary of trading ratios between things. Things strictly speaking
cannot have a "social relationship" (that would be a reification) unless we
stretch the meaning of social to "interactive association" or group
membership. But we could say that there is a "societal relationship" between
things if we reasonably assume the things exist in society, rather than
(say) in outer space, i.e. we consider things in their social context, and
in this sense, the things are "socially related". And if this is habitually
assumed in practical life, then it follows that social characteristics will
be imputed to things, even although those characteristics are not intrinsic
to those things, but conditional on the social relationships between people.

In itself, this insight is exceedingly (devastatingly) simple, and if the
Marxist knowledge bureaucrats wax profoundly with an enormous academic
terminology and conceptual apparatus to explain it, and to prove their own
erudition and super-radicality, it really adds nothing at all to the
argument, it's humbug.

Is Marx himself to blame for the fracas of Marxist and other scholarly
falsifications in this regard? Yes and no. When he originally wrote A
Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), he expressed
himself in the simplest terms, stating the argument very plainly. He was
himself convinced at the time that, in one slim volume, he had briefly
stated a giant step forward in scientific understanding, but few other
people thought he had really delivered - it was "too simple" for them to be
credible - and Marx's book - qua format a sort of sardonic parody of the
format of his own Phd thesis - just failed to sell. When he subsequently
restated more or less exactly the same argument in Capital in 1867, using
the exactly the same opening quotation he had used in the 1859 book
(originally drafted in the Grundrisse), he was much more concerned with the
total persuasiveness of the argument - in several ways, such as:

1. He wanted to make the discussion about "the commodity", such as engaged
in habitually by political economists, much more entertaining and
2. He wanted to convey much better the social and theoretical importance of
the rather simple insights, particularly with regard to the idea of
reification of consciousness.
3. He wanted to get back at the doctrinaire German and other professors with
their endless, pseudo-profound twaddle about "the concept of value".
4. He wanted to use the device of ambiguity, surreality and theatricality in
a pedagogic sense for his narrative, to "set traps" for the reader, in order
to intrigue the reader, and get the reader to think critically for
himself/herself about the meaning of the text.
5. He wanted to make more explicit the way in which he had transcended
Hegel, by referring back to Hegel's language.

On balance, he succeeded to some extent with the skilled workers, who simply
applied the theory to their own experience, but really failed with the
academics, even if the academics wrote hundreds of thousands of articles
about what Marx really intended (Marx did succeed in intriguing them, but
the simple content failed to communicate well).

Rosa Luxemburg shows a sense of this when she complained about Marx's
"Hegelian rococo" (""I now have a horror of the much praised first volume of
Marx's Capital because of its elaborate rococo ornaments a la Hegel."). The
whole exposition ended up more turgid and cumbersome, than it really needed
to be. The first generation of Marxists was hardly schooled in Das Kapital
at all, their education came principally from pamphlets by Engels and

Francis Wheen delights in telling us about the atrocious, miserable
conditions in which Marx was often writing his text, and it may be, that if
Marx had been able to work comfortably as a salaried academic assisted by
interns to do the manual work for him, he would have delivered much better
prose than he did.

But in fact an academic environment proved not even conducive to gaining the
new scientific insights - the new insights arrived exactly because they were
gained external to the regimented academic environment, in a battle with
adversity where every new idea had real consequence rather than being just a
matter of taste and fancy.

Let us note for example that when the Scottish bookseller and printer Robert
Chambers wrote his brilliant "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation"
in 1844, which proposed a materialist interpretation of history quite
independently from Marx, it was too controversial even to be published under
his real name, and even when Chambers publicly discussed rather
uncontroversial topics, such as the geology of beaches, he was lambasted by
religious and academic authorities.


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Received on Sat Oct 2 08:25:20 2010

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