Value of ‘value’
Recent issues of the Weekly Worker have carried an exchange of polemical articles and letters on the use of the terms, ‘value’ and ‘exchange value’. Since this exchange was triggered off by a talk I gave last summer at the Communist University, I feel I ought to state my view on this topic. As I made my position pretty clear in that talk, I will be brief here.
First, there is the Marxological question: how did Marx and Engels use these terms? It is quite clear that they applied the term, ‘exchange value’, exclusively to products that are also commodities - objects of sale and purchase. As for the bare term, ‘value’, I believe that the situation is not quite so clear. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that there may be some ambiguity or lack of consistency in the way Marx and Engels used it on various occasions. I do not regard their writings as holy writ, and so do not expect them to be free of such ‘blemishes’.
Second, there is the far more important question, as to the reasonable usage of these terms in present-day Marxist political economy. Here again there is no doubt that ‘exchange value’ is applicable only to a product that is also a commodity, object of sale and purchase. As for ‘value’, I think it is perfectly reasonable to apply it to any product. A product - whether it is a material object, an abstract thing (such as an algorithm), or a service - can be regarded as congealed human labour; and its value is the total amount of direct and indirect labour that is normally required to produce it. It is measured in units of time - more precisely labour-time, say worker-hours. This definition makes sense, whether or not the product in question is a commodity; it is applicable under any mode of production, including communism.
Comrade Bridge, in his contributions to the debate, including his latest article (‘Marx’s theory of value’, January 31), quotes Engels, who addressed this question in his Anti-Dühring. Here is the key passage:
“Hence, on the assumptions we made above, [communist] society will not assign values to products. It will not express the simple fact that the hundred square yards of cloth have required for their production, say, a thousand hours of labour in the oblique and meaningless way, stating that they have the value of a thousand hours of labour. It is true that even then it will still be necessary for society to know how much labour each article of consumption requires for its production. It will have to arrange its plan of production in accordance with its means of production, which include, in particular, its labour-powers. The useful effects of the various articles of consumption, compared with one another and with the quantities of labour required for their production, will in the end determine the plan. People will be able to manage everything very simply, without the intervention of much-vaunted ‘value’.”
This is plain enough: here Engels is arguing against use of ‘value’ in relation to products of a communist society. But unless we are resigned to reading Engels uncritically, we should ask whether what he says here is convincing, especially from the perspective of the 21st century. I don’t think it is. Engels does admit that “even [under communism] it will still be necessary for society to know how much labour each article of consumption requires for its production. It will have to arrange its plan of production in accordance with its means of production, which include, in particular, its labour-powers.” But in order to use “[the quantity of] labour each article of consumption requires for its production” for the purpose of planning, this quantity will have to be given a name. People cannot go on referring to it in this cumbersome long-hand way. I can see no valid reason why it should not be referred to as the value of the article concerned. There is nothing “oblique and meaningless” about this.
The reason Engels gives, or implies, (in a passage preceding the one just quoted) is that under communism the amount of labour required to produce a given product will be measurable directly by observation, whereas under capitalism the value of a product can only be established “in a roundabout way”. By this he evidently means that values can only be estimated by comparing prices of various products. This “roundabout” way is indeed very dodgy, as prices are not in general proportional to values. But this argument conflates the definition of a quantity with the method of measuring it. Moreover, given present-day vast economic and technical data on production, and modern computing power - undreamt of in the 19th century - it is possible to estimate values directly, in a way that is not very different from what would be possible under communism.
By the way, Engels grossly underestimates the complexity of the calculation that would be required for planning under communism. In that previous passage he claims that communist society “can simply calculate how many hours of labour are contained in a steam engine, a bushel of wheat of the last harvest, or a hundred square yards of cloth of a certain quality”. There is nothing “simple” about this calculation, as it needs to account not only for direct inputs of labour, but also for all indirect ones. This requires the collection of a huge amount of reliable technical data and the solution of a massive system of input/output equations.
I therefore continue to hold, pace Engels, that ‘value’ - or more explicitly ‘labour value’ - is a term reasonably applicable to any product, under any mode of production.
Michael Roberts brings out well the point that, while governments can create (whether indirectly via the central bank or directly via the printing press) as much money as they want, they cannot control the purchasing power of that money (‘Chartalism and Marxism’, February 8). If they issue more than the capitalist economy needs for its activities, then it will depreciate and, as he says, “the result will be rising prices and/or falling profitability that will eventually choke off production in the private sector”.
Good stuff. But then he goes and spoils it by talking about a “Marxist policy” for banks and money, which would seem to be a state investment bank which will be able to do what the ‘modern monetary theory’ people want - supply the money needed to expand production and ensure full employment. Maybe it can (for a while and in a developing capitalist country), but there’s nothing ‘Marxist’ about the finances of a state-capitalist economy.
How could there be? Marx was analysing capitalism, not advising what policies should be pursued under capitalism. In any event, his conception of socialism/communism (the same thing) involves the disappearance of commodity production and so of value, money and banks: ie, a ‘Marxist monetary policy’ is a contradiction in terms. From this perspective, Mike Macnair’s article in the same issue on a “working class trade policy” is also dodgy.
Socialist Party of Great Britain
In his short work, ‘The three sources and three component parts of Marxism’, VI Lenin argued of Marxist doctrine: “It is the legitimate successor to the best that man produced in the 19th century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.”
Regarding Marxist philosophy, Lenin comments: “The main achievement was dialectics: ie, the doctrine of development in its fullest, deepest and most comprehensive form, the doctrine of the relativity of the human knowledge that provides us with a reflection of eternally developing matter. The latest discoveries of natural science - radium, electrons, the transmutation of elements - have been a remarkable confirmation of Marx’s dialectical materialism despite the teachings of the bourgeois philosophers with their ‘new’ reversions to old and decadent idealism.”
Lenin says a lot more, but I think that even these two short quotations are enough to indicate that he saw Marxism as an integrated whole and that no one part of the trilogy is more important than the others - indeed its potential power lies in it being “comprehensive and harmonious”, as he later puts it. I am quoting Lenin here not as an authority, but rather because I believe him to be entirely correct.
In ‘The Tory interpretation of history’ (January 31), it appears that Mike Macnair does not agree with this view when in an aside preliminary to his article he says: “Notoriously, one interpretation of Marxism is that it is ‘historical materialism’ or ‘dialectical and historical materialism’ - whatever these things mean.” Macnair lacks the honesty to clearly define what he means by “notoriously” or by his placing of scare quotes, but I surmise that it is obvious from the tone that he imagines dialectical materialism to be a lot of cobblers inapplicable to a sophisticated person such as himself. This method of ‘argument’ - snide comment, condemning something that you do not understand - is sadly prevalent today.
Personally I agree with such as Guido de Ruggeiro that dialectics is not some ‘invention’ of Marx, but an explanation of the phenomena of everyday life. Again I can do no better than refer to Lenin: “Marx and Engels defended philosophical materialism in the most determined manner and repeatedly explained how profoundly erroneous is every deviation from this basis. Their views are most clearly and fully expounded in the works of Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and Anti-Dühring, which, like the Communist manifesto, are handbooks for every class-conscious worker.”
If dialectical materialism is gibberish, as the mass of bourgeois philosophers and their epigones tend to argue (generally without explaining why), then Marx and Engels and later on Joseph Dietzgen spent an awful lot of time and effort on this aspect of Marxism for nothing. On historical materialism, I can do no better than recommend Franz Mehring’s work of this title written in 1893.
Compare the sheer quality of this text to Macnair’s piece, which seems geared towards people who attended public school.
Was there any point at all to Rex Dunn’s ‘literature’ article, ‘Stalinophiles and ignoramuses’, which took two whole pages of the January 24 edition of the Weekly Worker? Rex Dunn appears to be one of the most extreme and vitriolic Trotskyists and was for some unfathomable reason given considerable space to spout a stream of semi-conscious drivel and bile on what he thinks is ‘Stalinism’.
The article consisted of nothing but a stream of assertions and slogans. There was no attempt to critically engage with the subject. No attempt at argument, no use of evidence, no analysis, no attempt to weigh up competing facts and arguments or to arrive at a considered view. The ‘reading appreciation’ effort itself was very poor - well below GCSE standard. Dunn just manages to reference his books, quote chunks from them, uses them as an excuse to spout his ill-informed and poisonous nonsense and jazzes up his writing with pseudo-academic, pretentious phraseology.
He spouts the Trotskyist nonsense “that the struggle for Barcelona against Franco’s rebel fascist forces [in the Spanish civil war] was betrayed by the bitter fruits of Stalin’s popular front strategy”. No, the alliance between the bourgeois-democratic government and the communist and working class forces against the military fascist insurrection, led by Franco and backed by Hitler and Mussolini, was catastrophically undermined by brainless, ultra-left adventurists and anarchists, who thought this was the precise time to attempt a social revolution against the democratic government, while that very government was under mortal threat from the fascists!
The popular and united front strategy would have been valid anyway, but there was also the fact that the Spanish republic was already a ‘state of a new type’, which had already given land to the peasants, while the main newspapers and radio were in the hand of the government and large-scale industry had been nationalised for the prosecution of the war.
No-one ever argued that the aim of socialism should be ‘parked’ or even abandoned, but the struggle at the time was between a fascist, Nazi-backed military insurrection and a progressive, democratic republic, which had already made significant social gains and provided great democratic space and opportunity for progressive, left, socialist and communist forces to develop and grow. In the middle of a life-and-death struggle, to suddenly find yourself literally machine-gunned from behind by people who were supposed to be on your own side and through their actions were directly assisting the fascist enemy, can anyone really be surprised that those elements were then subjected to harsh measures?
Dunn with supreme arrogance and other worldliness asserts that the “millions of Vietnamese who were sacrificed to the cause [ie, were killed in the war by US imperialism] died in vain”. This is a disgusting and anti-human remark. The millions who died did so at the hands of American bombs, bullets, shells and chemicals, fighting for the national liberation of their country from imperialist occupation, brutalisation and exploitation, and for the right to determine their own form of society and future. Vietnam was before my time, but it was one of the most remarkable and genuinely heroic struggles of the modern time, where a small, impoverished county and people were able to stand up to and ultimately defeat the most ferocious and powerful war machine in modern history.
Dunn dares not take on Sebag Montefiore directly, but clearly has a problem with his depiction of Stalin in his book Sashenko: “But in order to humanise him Montefiore shows that he can sometimes behave like an avuncular uncle or father figure, who likes nothing better than to relax from the burden of being the great leader of the revolution. Stalin attends a party, where, thanks to some good wine and music, he is able to impress everyone around him with his warmth and good humour; he can even sing!”
Dunn has a problem with Stalin as an ordinary human being, capable of being convivial and charming. Much better to portray him as a mad psychopath. But, of course, such a character could never have assumed and retained the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and led the USSR in establishing socialism, withstanding and defeating Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War, and overseen its rapid reconstruction and emergence as a world superpower afterwards. Sebag Montefiore’s depiction accords with descriptions, in for example, Vyacheslav Molotov’s and Svetlana Alliluyeva’s respective memoirs from that time.
Dunn ‘reviews’ the rather good book The innocent by David Szalay. He unfortunately but amusingly hoists himself on a number of petards with direct quotes:
“1930, a sense of excitement about everything … it seemed that the revolution was fully underway, with the end of private manufacturing and trade, industrialisation and the first five-year plan, the establishment of the kolkhoz system [of collective farms] and the formation of a new Soviet working class and intelligentsia.”
“There was a conspiracy of white remnants and their supporters - the ‘rightists’ - to undermine the party and the state, in order to destroy the achievement of communism. They have now turned to wrecking violence, murder, terrorism … They listened in sober silence, while [the chief] listed the plots that had been foiled that year, all of them involving party members - even some members of the central committee … [These included] Trotsky’s conspiracies with his supporters still in the USSR … and his letter to the CC, written from his hiding place in Mexico, in which he explicitly threatened the Soviet state with terrorist violence.”
Dunn slanderously asserts Szalay “contributes to the Stalinist school for the falsification of history” by encouraging people “to believe Trotsky was a counterrevolutionary”. But a vast range of contemporary records including those more recently discovered and from the western media, as well as Soviet sources, demonstrate that the 1930s in the Soviet Union were indeed a time of optimism and positivity, a real sense of a new society, a new civilisation being created. Trotsky’s own writing quoted above demonstrates his resort to terrorist violence to overthrow the Soviet state and, yes indeed, the conspiracies and networks spread high and across the party, state and the security apparatus.
Dunn finishes on an appropriately ridiculous note, asking why, after (despite?) the great purge of 1937 and the assassination of Trotsky in 1940, did the Soviet Union collapse in 1990. What on earth have the events and processes of the 1930s and 40s got to do with what happened in 1990?
With three million refugees and over two million dead in Venezuela, it must be apparent to even the most immoral and obtuse socialist or communist that the ‘socialist project’ inevitably means mass murder. Socialism and death go together like beans and toast: 100 million people killed in the Soviet Union, 50 million in China, 40 million in North Korea and untold millions more in Cuba, Vietnam and Laos.
Nobody likes to think that they might have been wrong, but it is important to face up to reality and admit that not only has the ‘socialist project’ failed in the most spectacular manner possible, but that the very idea of socialism is a killer. All assumptions that socialists make about race, gender, intelligence, equality and, most importantly, human nature are wrong and have conclusively been proved to be wrong.
Socialism now is simply a religion for people who are not quite stupid enough to believe in Islam - a very similar death cult to socialism and often associated with it. When one looks at people like Corbyn, Abbott and McDonnell, it is remarkable just how stupid they are. People who cannot put a coherent sentence together want to lead us into a socialist paradise!
I fully realise that the people who produce the Weekly Worker and the plethora of other publications may have good intentions, but, as they say, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. For people embedded in the concept of socialism it will be hard to come to grips with reality, but hopefully the more intelligent and ethical members will so do. If not, many more people are going to die in a totally immoral and useless cause.
I stand rebuked by Stephanie Just’s letter (February 7) if my article, ‘Stalinophiles and ignoramuses’ (January 24), gives the impression that there is a simple equivalence between commercial writing and the production of literary rubbish. That would amount to crude reductionism. This is obviously not what I meant, because under capitalism there is no other way that a writer can get published to a wider audience other than through a commercial publisher. All of ‘my heroes’, as she describes the writers I presented in a positive light, were published in this way.
Authors have to write to live, but making money should be seen as a means to an end, not an end in itself. She ignores my point about the increasing role of ‘creative writing’ courses in the publishing industry. (I also should have added the literary prize business as well.) This means that people are being encouraged to write in accordance with market tastes; the ordinary reader is also being manipulated likewise. (Of course, there is always the exception to the rule: eg. Julian Barnes’s The noise of time.)
She also ignores another important point I made, which is that, if you’re going to write a research-based novel, then you have to tell the whole truth, especially when Stalinism is the subject matter.
Finally, Marx covers both these points in the section on productive labour in his Theories of surplus value: Milton wrote Paradise lost, because it was an ‘activity of his nature’. This makes him an unproductive labourer. The fact that he later sold it for £5 is beside the point. On the other hand, the “literary proletarian of Leipzig, who fabricates books … under the direction of his publisher”, is a productive labourer, for his product is from the outset subsumed under capital, and comes into being only for the purposes of increasing that capital.
Maybe now writers are free to write what they want, but they also know what the market wants, and many have a huge salary advance to remind them of that. Today, unfortunately, it is much harder to be a truly innovative writer, à la Joyce’s Ulysses. I doubt if Knausgaard’s ‘confessional’ novels fits that category, despite their length.
Readers who saw my last letter to the Weekly Worker (December 13) may like to consider my further thoughts as to why our politicians (both local and national) have rushed to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
In that letter I mentioned the leverage held by Jews because of the holocaust, but stated that only the Zionists exploited that leverage. I wanted to say that, in my view, our ongoing sensitivity on the matter stems from the fact that the British did not do nearly enough to stop the holocaust. Churchill’s government knew what was going on in 1941; Churchill seemed too busy to hear Jan Karski’s testimony in 1943 of the impending extermination of Polish Jews. Even worse, as an article in Ha’aretz makes clear, “Back in August 1941, Churchill reported in a BBC public broadcast about the massacres being perpetrated by the Germans against tens of thousands of people in Europe and Russia. Churchill did not specify at the time what he already knew - that most of the victims were Jews. Throughout the war, he never referred publicly to the murder of Jews.”
Also note that from 1933-38 there were numerous calls to parliament to relax immigration restrictions that prevented German Jews coming to the UK to escape the Nazis; these calls were rejected. I believe the British government failed the Jews both before and during the war. Most particularly, in 1944: we could have been dropping millions of leaflets on Germany, telling their people what their Government was doing. We did not. Churchill could have broadcast to the world what was happening to the Jews. He did not. Our planes actually flew over Auschwitz in 1944; we could have dropped food, leaflets - anything - to show these Jews that the British cared and wanted to save them. We did not.
My mother was in Germany before the war, teaching. I grew up knowing a German ‘aunt’ - her best friend, whom I fully respected and trusted (we were always visiting Germany). When I quizzed this doctor about what she knew of the Jews’ fate, she said she knew nothing; many German citizens were quite ignorant of the death camps; she accepted Hitler’s claim that the Jews were happy in ‘model villages’ that had been constructed for them. Obviously the Nazis made propaganda films, which Germans watched; the fact that the British could have dropped leaflets, photos, testimonies to help them see through these lies - rather than bombs - suggests that our leaders were not that interested in telling the Germans (and the rest of the world, by radio) of what was going on. I think this is shameful.
I believe that this failure has given politicians reason to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, in an effort to assuage our collective guilt and admission of failure in 1940-45. What else could be the reason?
If readers can spare 20 minutes, I urge them to view my video at www.tinyurl.com/gmbihra.
The ratification crisis continues to drag on, as Theresa May runs down the clock until there is no time for Labour MPs to do anything other than vote for her backstop Brexit. They will have the added pleasure of stabbing Corbyn in the back, yet again. If her deal passes through the Commons, it will be a triumph. But she will lose the support of the Democratic Unionist Party and call another ‘Falkland’s general election’. The plan is already in place.
May has already got 44% support in the opinion polls. It is shocking to see the most incompetent, anti-working class government in living memory doing so well. But the people feel sorry for May. There is national sympathy for a women PM struggling against impossible odds with the world against her.
National sympathy can surely be turned into real votes if she gets her deal through the Commons. Yet behind the manufactured sympathy is a cunning and devious politician and a ruthless party. Pretending to negotiate to remove the backstop is a smart move to keep the support of the Tory right. But when the time is right she will pull the plug on them.
Corbyn is likely to get his general election, but not as he imagined it. Fighting a triumphant May will surely have him recasting himself as Michael Foot taking on Thatcher in the 1983 khaki election. Fortunately there is another way to a different kind of general election, which takes place after the May is defeated and resigns. This starts with the fight for the democratic demand for the people to decide.
So far Corbyn’s tactics have been unconvincing. He does not seem to have grasped the fundamental democratic argument. In 2016 the people voted to leave. Whichever government comes up with a deal, the people must have the democratic right to ratify it. This is a yes/no referendum, not an in/out one.
Corbyn must demand a ratification referendum on May’s deal. Labour’s election manifesto should promise a yes/no referendum if a Labour government negotiates an alternative deal with the EU. However Corbyn must kill off the ‘remoaner’ idea of a second ‘repeat-remain’ in/out referendum. He must totally oppose it.
So what is Corbyn’s route to a general election victory? Labour must support the people’s right to ratify any deal. Then Labour puts down a resolution in the Commons for a yes/no referendum and for the suspension of article 50 until the people have the opportunity to vote. If the people reject May’s deal, she will have no option but to resign. A general election will surely follow.
In response to Steve Freeman (Letters, February 7), let me say ‘the crisis’ came about when seven out of 10 constituencies voted to leave the European Union in the referendum, while seven out of 10 MPs wanted to remain. Handing the mandate to leave over to MPs who have no intention of acting on it is the real cause of the crisis.
If you’ve ever been in an industry where a machine was being introduced which workers didn’t like despite its proven performance, you will know there are a million and one ways to act the goat, and demonstrate that it just won’t work. But it’s not actually the machine, or in this case ‘leave’, that won’t work: it’s people who’ve been charged with the task of making it work who simply will not.
Steve has a cunning plan: he doesn’t want a rerun of the referendum (maybe he realises that the ‘leave’ vote would greatly increase); he wants a “ratification referendum”. This, I presume, means we vote either to ratify the May plan - that is, the plan to basically stay in the EU - or we stay in the EU! So ‘Heads you win, tails I lose’. Contrary to remainers, Steve, ‘leave’ voters are not stupid and can see that this plan simply means stay in. We actually want out.