Monthly Review cites Fix

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Re: Monthly Review cites Fix

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Thu Jun 13, 2019 11:43 am

Ikonoclast writes:

“Marx’s Refusal of the Labour Theory of Value” by David Harvey.

This is the best short essay on, Marx's so-called "Labor Theory of Value" or really his "Value Theory of Labor" which I have ever read.

I’m not sure I share your enthusiasm for Harvey’s paper. As I read it, the piece insists on holding both ends of the stick. It argues that Marx’s did not have – or rejected the possibility of – a labour theory of value. But it also posits that labour values, although slippery and ever-changing, not only exist, but also continue to rule capitalism in occult ways that only dialectical experts can see.


Many of the arguments made in this thread reiterate claims we have dealt with in our 2009 book Capital as Power, so I won’t elaborate on them further.

Instead, I will conclude with a few paragraphs we have written on Marxist attempts to save Marx from his science:

The notion that Marx was concerned with the qualitative rather than quantitative aspects of capitalism seems to us apologetic and unfounded. More significantly, in our view the belief that his theory of capitalism – or any theory of capitalism for that matter – could be fractured into two independent subsets leads to a dead end.

Begin with the issue of Marx’s emphasis. His work was certainly a critique of capitalist ideology. But it was much more than that. Marx tried to create an alternative science, a framework that could replace both bourgeois political economy and the positivist social management of Auguste Comte. This scheme stood on two main foundations. One was a dialectical history that provided the basis for revolutionary consciousness. The other was a value theory that broke the front window of prices and offered a starting point for future democratic planning.

Nitzan, Jonathan, and Shimshon Bichler. 2009. Capital as Power. A Study of Order and Creorder. RIPE Series in Global Political Economy. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 121-122 (

The starting point is valuation. Because capitalism is a system of commodities, and because commodities – and the social groups behind them – are related through prices, any general theory of capitalism must rest on a theory of value. Marx based his own theory of value on labour time – and more specifically, on socially necessary abstract labour time. The exchange value of commodities, he said, depends on the average productive labour needed to make them (the socially necessary aspect), and this socially necessary labour, he continued, can be measured in universal (read abstract) units. In this way, the labour of productive workers, properly socialized and abstracted, becomes the elementary particle on which the entire logic of capitalism rests.

This quantitative aspect of the theory – i.e., its reliance on the magnitude of socially necessary abstract labour time – is the heart and centre of Marx’s scientific socialism. Marx claimed his theory to be superior to the bourgeois alternatives, partly because it did something they couldn’t: it objectively derived the rate of profit – the quantitative compass of capitalism – from the material conditions of the labour process. Prices of production, he wrote, ‘are conditioned on the existence of an average rate of profit’, which itself ‘must be deduced out of the values of commodities. . . . Without such a deduction, an average rate of profit (and consequently a price of production of commodities), remains a vague and senseless conception’ (Marx 1909, Vol. 3, pp. 185-86). The very same point was reiterated by Engels. ‘These two great discoveries’, he wrote, ‘the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalist production through surplus value, we owe to Marx. With these discoveries socialism became a science. The next thing was to work out all its details and relations’ (Engels 1966, Section I).

Bichler, Shimshon, Jonathan Nitzan, and Tim Di Muzio. 2012. The 1%, Exploitation and Wealth: Tim Di Muzio interviews Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan. Review of Capital as Power 1 (1): 9-10 (

The fact that Marx erred in trying to anchor prices specifically and somewhat mechanically in labour values is secondary. It certainly requires no cover-up or apology. Many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century physicists now seem dated, if not irrelevant. Yet, without their breakthroughs physics would not be where it is today. The same is true for Marx’s labour theory of value. It was the first theory to put the study of society on a systematic footing. Had it not been for the stifling influence of the Soviet Union, the spirit of that theory would likely have kept Marxism a vibrant science.

Nitzan, Jonathan, and Shimshon Bichler. 2009. Capital as Power. A Study of Order and Creorder. RIPE Series in Global Political Economy. New York and London: Routledge, p. 123. (
Jonathan Nitzan
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Re: Monthly Review cites Fix

Postby uma » Sun Jun 16, 2019 2:06 pm

Ikonoclast wrote:That is to say, the SNALT is not put forward by Marx himself as a universal quantum. It is not asserted as true for all societies in all epochs. Rather, it is asserted as true, to at least a first-order approximation, in the historical epoch of early capitalism.

This is not true in Capital and it cannot be true for the LVT to hold.

That Marx intends LVT to hold at least for any commodity, he makes explicit in the Aristotle passage:

The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality. (My emphasis)

Aristotle was "prevented from discovering" of something that must have been there already, since Aristotle reasons about price and commodity exchange.

And Marx's theory must be timeless. Consider it was different. Then prices would have different causes depending on their mode of production. Marx would need as many theories of prices as there are such modes. And he would need theories of "price generator interactions" if the same commodity produced by different modes come together at the same market. (Quite a lot: if there are four modes of production, wage labor, slavery, feudalism, and self-employment, you would need a theory for the interaction of each pair (3 * 2 * 1 = 6), each triplet (4) and all 4 together (1): 11 interaction theories). In Marx time there was, e.g. cotton produced by wage labor (say in India), feudalist production (also India), slavery (USA), self employed families (assuming Egypt) but Marx never envisages that there may be different causes of the prices.

The validity (and beauty) of Marx' LVT concept rests on its universality across societies and time for any kind of commodity exchange, and including labor WHEN commodified as wage labor.

For a thorough critique of Marx' take on Aristotle see Castoriadis, "Value, Equality, Justice, Politics: From Marx to Aristotle, and from Aristotle to Ourselves", in: Crossroads in the Labyrinth, 1984.
Last edited by uma on Sun Jun 16, 2019 3:23 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Monthly Review cites Fix

Postby uma » Sun Jun 16, 2019 2:59 pm

Jonathan Nitzan wrote:
Marx was a considerably more intelligent and subtle thinker than his more dogmatic followers.
The pitfalls include, among others: ongoing changes in technology and workers’ subsistence; the arbitrary division between productive and unproductive labour; the prevalence of joint production; and the inability to compute the SNALT contents of constant capital without the quantification of use value (‘productivity’).
Each of these factors seriously undermines the existence of SNALT, even as a central tendency.

When rereading Capital I find that Marx commits a dozen or so argumentative blunders at the first few pages of the main body of the work, but the greatest one is perhaps this one (ch. 1 sec. 2):

A commodity may be the product of the most skilled labour, but its value, by equating it to the product of simple unskilled labour, represents a definite quantity of the latter labour alone. The different proportions in which different sorts of labour are reduced to unskilled labour as their standard, are established by a social process that goes on behind the backs of the producers, and, consequently, appear to be fixed by custom. For simplicity’s sake we shall henceforth account every kind of labour to be unskilled, simple labour; by this we do no more than save ourselves the trouble of making the reduction.

Thus it it clear to Marx that there is something he would have to show: How to "reduce" complex ("skilled" in the translation) work to simple ("unskilled") one. Yet he never dares to give even a minimal hint of how this could be done -- and there are several hundreds of pages to go. And this only to "save the trouble" "for simplicity's sake"! - You would not get your freshman term paper in logics through with such a statement...

One of the problems of Marx is that he misrepresents the math example he himself gives (sec. 1):

A simple geometrical illustration will make this clear. In order to calculate and compare the areas of rectilinear figures, we decompose them into triangles. But the area of the triangle itself is expressed by something totally different from its visible figure, namely, by half the product of the base multiplied by the altitude. In the same way the exchange values of commodities must be capable of being expressed in terms of something common to them all, of which thing they represent a greater or less quantity.

To a mathematician to call the calculation of the areas of triangles a "reduction" to something "common to them all" would already sound strange. One would rather say that the mathematician has a certain procedure to compute some mathematical object, a number, the area, from another mathematical object, a triangle.

Apparently, Marx did not understand that, in order to do the same as the mathematicians, or, indeed, any scientist, he would have to show us a reproducible procedure of how to perform the various "reductions" he proposes. You can read Capital but you will never find procedures for the various distinctions (like "productive" vs "unproductive" labor), or "reductions" (like from "complex" to "simple" labor). Marxists up until today do not understand this: in a popular introduction to Marx' work Michael Heinrich (a mathematician by education...) says that it is not a problem that labor values cannot be observed since physicists cannot observe gravitational fields either; Heinrich does not understand that they can compute them from observations whereas Marxist cannot do the same for labor values.

It would be interesting how much Marx actually troubled himself about the problem of reducing complex to simple labor. According to Capital as Power there is not much in the literature or in the works of Marx published. Maybe there is more in "MEGA" the Gesamtausgabe...
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Re: Monthly Review cites Fix

Postby blairfix » Sun Jun 16, 2019 6:47 pm

Well put, Ulf.

I've often felt that Marxists really ought to read about the philosophy of science. It's no good having Grand Theory that makes very specific pronouncements but leaves out all the intermediate steps. Marx definitely fell into this trap.
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Re: Monthly Review cites Fix

Postby uma » Mon Jun 17, 2019 2:03 am

blairfix wrote:I've often felt that Marxists really ought to read about the philosophy of science. It's no good having Grand Theory that makes very specific pronouncements but leaves out all the intermediate steps. Marx definitely fell into this trap.

Not only Marxists suffer from this. Mainstream economists do too, as your conversation with one of them shows, and it is a much broader phenomenon in conversation, not restricted to economics.

The philosophy in case is more analytical philosophy, or "philosophy done right" as Peter Bieri observes. It is really very simple: a concept denotes a distinction; distinctions are actions; a word represents or signifies a concept in a sentence; in order to explain a concept you show how the word denoting it is supposed to be used by performing the action and use the word with it (so words and actions go together like in games or stage plays, which is why Wittgenstein calls it "language game"). So, if Marx wants to explain the reduction of complex to simple work he would have to explain the word "reduction" and that is, in this case, to show how to do it (or how the commodity exchange does it for you).

Marxists seem to have particular problems with Wittgenstein. For those who cannot stand Wittgenstein (and it is indeed sometimes difficult to extract the systematic aspect of the Philosophical Investigations without something like Hacker's Analytical Commentary) I recommend Ernst Tugendhat (1982), Traditional and Analytical Philosophy: Lectures on the Philosophy of Language, CUP. Unlike other introductions of his time, Tugendhat introduces analytical philosophy by showing how fundamental questions of traditional philosophy can be dealt with it, thus positioning it in the broader context and history of philosophy. He also performs analytical philosophy as he introduces it, if sometimes rather painstakingly accurate and dry (he is a German professor...), so you get to see how to do it.

Back to economics. One of the most the most honest "marginalists" was Ludwig von Mises, one of the pioneers of this branch of economics. He is nowadays considered to belong to the "Austrian school" which in turn is considered "heterodox" even though the marginalist premises are the same as in mainstream. Why heterodox? Von Mises in his opus magnum Human Action is explicit that it is not an empirical theory of human action but an ideal theory of how people should act if they were to act "rationally" (i.e. like homini economici). Von Mises is also explicitly saying that most of actual observable human action, and hence prices, are "irrational" and not subject to economic analysis. But ordinary economists want to be empirical scientists dealing with actual reality so the information that their foundation is merely an ideal is a no-go. This is why "Austrians" are "heterodox"....
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