To the dawn of humanity

Arthur Bough defends his naturalistic reading of Marx’s labour theory of value

In his initial response to my comment in relation to value, John Bridge began with some warm words. But his second response (‘Marx’s theory of value’, January 31) is markedly different in tone - a reflection of the fact, I fear, that he has found himself substantially on the back foot in trying to sustain his argument.

His response is more like that we have come to expect from the prime minister at PMQs. It comprises a very long, largely irrelevant preamble, a clumsy attempt at an amalgam, by which my argument is intended to be equated with that of Joan Robinson, and cheap jibes, such as his comment that I was only given a page to respond to him by the Weekly Worker editor, “understandably, given the quality of his argument”. In fact,the word length was given to me prior to submitting the article, and if the quality of the argument is so poor then it is surprising that Bridge has had to spend so many column-inches trying to refute it.

Bridge simply repeats the same quotes he provided previously, making the same errors he made previously, giving a long, largely irrelevant excursus and still showing that he neither understands the basis of Marx’s theory of value, as set out most extensively in Theories of surplus value, or the difference between value and exchange-value. Indeed, Bridge varies in his definitions throughout his own argument - at times appearing to repeat the errors of Paul B Smith (Letters, January 31), who ridiculously claims that value is the product only of “the commodification of labour-power” (ie, that value presupposes wage-labour, and thereby capitalist production!).

If that were true, then there could have been no value during all of that 10,000 years of commodity production and exchange that preceded capitalism, discussed by Engels in his supplement to Capital volume 3. He states: “In a word: the Marxian law of value holds generally, as far as economic laws are valid at all, for the whole period of simple commodity production - that is, up to the time when the latter suffers a modification through the appearance of the capitalist form of production.”

If, as Bridge suggests, we are simply to take the words in front of our noses at their face value, rather than putting those words in their overall context, then we would have to conclude that, far from the concept of value presupposing wage-labour and capitalism, as Engels states, the opposite is true! It is, according to Engels, the appearance of wage-labour and the introduction of capitalism that marks the end of the period during which the Marxian law of value holds, and thereby marks the end of the concept of value! But, of course, that is not what Engels means here, if we dig deeper. It is that the introduction of capitalism marks the end of the period when commodities exchange in accordance with their values, because capitalistically produced commodities instead sell at prices of production; and even non-capitalistically produced commodities sell at prices that are exchange-values, modified by the fact that some of their inputs are capitalistically produced and bought at their price of production.

Bridge commences his historical excursus into the nature of value, in fact, at this very point of the commencement of capitalist production, and tells us: “Medieval society was, though, quite incapable of intellectually comprehending what common substance united cloth, wine, glassware, salted fish, furs and spices.” Yet even a cursory reading of Capital, or of Engels’ supplement, shows how ridiculous such a claim is! As Engels points out, commodity production and exchange dates back between 7,000 and 10,000 years, and during all that time “the Marxian law of value holds generally”. It is during that period that commodities exchange at their values, not at prices of production - and how could that be, unless those producing and exchanging those commodities understood the concept of value, as determined by the expenditure of labour-time?

The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all. As Mandel points out in Marxist economic theory, the formulation of a labour theory of value dates back to Plato and Aristotle, and at the same time Chinese philosophers were also arriving at similar conclusions, along with the recognition that the commodity comprises two contradictory elements - its use-value and exchange-value. Marx in his explanation of the development of prices of production - also cited by Engels in the supplement - begins by going back to these conditions of petty commodity production to explain that exchange thereby takes place on the basis of values determined by labour-time. And Marx makes a similar point to the one I make in relation to the fact that value and exchange-value are two logically different and historically divergent concepts.

Marx notes: “The exchange of commodities at their values, or approximately at their values, thus requires a much lower stagethan their exchange at their prices of production, which requires a definite level of capitalist development ... Apart from the domination of prices and price movement by the law of value, it is quite appropriate to regard the values of commodities as not only theoretically,but also historically,antecedent (prius) to the prices of production ...

“This agrees also with the view we expressed previously, that the evolution of products into commodities arises through exchange between different communities, not between the members of the same community. It holds not only for this primitive condition, but also for subsequent conditions, based on slavery and serfdom, and for the guild organisation of handicrafts, so long as the means of production involved in each branch of production can be transferred from one sphere to another only with difficulty and therefore the various spheres of production are related to one another, within certain limits, as foreign countries or communist communities.”

The notion that direct production by peasants only involved the production of use-values for direct consumption is itself historically inaccurate, as Marx sets out. A portion of the peasant production was indeed produced for the purpose of exchange, and the purpose of that exchange, whether initially under barter or later under money economy, was to obtain other commodities/products/use-values for direct consumption: C-M-C.

Bridge objects to my similar positing of the logical and historical differentiation between value and exchange-value. Yet his own statements defeat his argument. Having objected to the idea that value and exchange-value are two logically and historically separated concepts, Bridge says: “Value and exchange-value are closely related concepts.” But if they are “closely related concepts” they cannot be the same concept! And if they are not the same concept, but closely related, we then must ask how are they related: which is contingent on the other? Or, as Marx puts it, in relation to the exchange-value and prices of production, which is historically and logically prius?

Well, to ask the question is to answer it, because it is quite clear that exchange-value is a relative measure of value, as Marx sets out in Capital volume 1, chapter 3, and this relative measure of value is only possible because different products represent different values, different amounts of labour-time, so that the value of one can be expressed as a physical quantity of another. This is the process whereby these products - as representatives of value, of labour-time - begin to be exchanged by nomadic tribes, and hence begins the process, via the extension of such trade, of the development of these products into commodities, and of their values into exchange-values.

And Marx himself sets this out: “In order that this can happen, the values of the commodities must already be presupposed. The commodity which measures as well as that to be measured must have a third element in common. In the second case, this identity itself is first established; later it is expressed in the price - either money price or any other price.”

But I have already spent too much time dealing with these basic errors of understanding of Marx’s theory, and could never have enough time or space here to deal with the vast number of other errors, inaccuracies and misconceptions contained in John’s response. I will leave that fuller response to my own blog.