Is value transhistorical?

Chris Burford cburford at
Wed Jul 8 00:15:48 PDT 1998

Earlier on this list Andrew Kliman and I had an exchange about his thesis that Marx has an overarching theory of value, of which exchange value is a manifestation. (This is quite separate from use-value). Andrew confirmed this, but argued contrary to my assumptions, that this overarching concept of value was specific only to capitalism (or to commodity exchange - we can sharpen up on that). He gave references, which I checked out and I would still hold to my view.

Rakesh has also expressed an interest. We want to try debating this further on LBO-talk, and while Andrew is getting his large article to me, he has summarised his position in a few paragraphs. Even so the debate is a major and complex one, and I will at this stage only take some of the paragraphs.

I submit it is far from academic alone. If there is indeed an overarching theory of value which is not limited to commodity exchange then we have a framework for discussing how capitalism eats into the fabric of the economic life of many societies, and how mixed economies can and do exist, with many problematic features at the margin. (to take three example that come to mind, the intrusion of capitalist property relations into the Amazon rain forest, wages for housework, privatisation in social democratic capitalist societies, and in the former Soviet Union, and in China.)

But back to the theoretical task...

Andrew quotes me and asks a central question:


"I am convinced that while Marx was arguing that exchange-value was specific to commodity production he was explicitly arguing that *value* could take different forms in different societies. Indeed on the question of whether *value* is transhistorical, I would say that in the passages in Capital you referred to, and in Notes on Wagner, Marx was directly arguing that it was."

This would be important to pursue. I would like to see how you read these passages, Chris. Until I do so, I can make only one comment. Actually, it is a question. You suggest that Marx thought that value could take different forms in different societies. What, then, *is* the universal, value, that unites these forms? In other words, if value itself is not that which commodities have in common, that which commensurates them, then what is it?


I would say that value (overarching value) is the sum total of all human activity in a given society that contributes to the economy of that society - the physical reproduction of that society (including all its social and psychological mechanisms of organising itself - eg so it includes complicated rituals of transporting presents and giving presents to one another at festivals to promote cooperation and social cohesion, as well as hunting and gathering, and learning skills on the internet in one's spare time, and producing an art form (play or film) to help spectators think and come to terms with, for example, competitive or incestuous relationships). I do not suggest we discuss the more challenging of these, but I want to make it clear that the overarching concept of value, that I maintain is consistent with Marx's approach, is one not limited to mechanical physical interactions. "Imagination" is indispensible to Marx's economic theory, and Marx's approach to economics is a psycho-social one. For *all* human societies.

OK. Colours nailed to the mast.

But to go to the text rather carefully, I am going to take the first substantive paragraph of a letter from Andrew to me summarising his position.

(1) I had commented that, near the end of the section on the fetishism of the commodity, in _Capital I_, Ch. 1, Marx indicates that value belongs to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite. Chris objects that the text speaks of "These formulas" belonging to this social formation, not value.

He is right, of course. However, the "formulas" concern value. Specifically, Marx is arguing that labor-time and the duration of labor-time -- which are themselves transhistorical -- become "represented" as value and magnitude of value only in a *particular* social formation. <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Now I think these passages in the last section of Chapter 1 of Capital frankly present challenges for both my reading and Andrew's reading. And we are getting down pretty close to the irreducible fine grain of the text.

Hans Ehrbar in his internet study group on Capital argued that the word "formula" may be a typographical error. It would be even more interesting if it was an error in the manuscript. I think it is an error, and it has pointed Andrew in somewhat the wrong direction.

Without searching exhaustively, I suggest the word "formula" is not used by Marx elsewhere in these passages, and I do not record him using it at all as a key concept. The key concept he handles is form. (Exchange value is the form taken by value under conditions of commodity exchange - that is fundamentally my reading of the text).

The German for form is "Form". The German for formula is "Formel". The plurals look more similar. The plural of "Form" is "Formen". The plural of "Formel" is "Formeln". "Formen" and "Formeln". They are also virtual homonyms.

Only one stroke has to slip in, and except to an obsessional proof reader who understands Marx's argument intimately, it is not obviously wrong. Even now it is not obviously wrong. But it does tend to give a more embracing feel to the suggestion in this key sentence that the whole idea of value, and not just the form of exchange value, is specific to a historical period.

Indeed in Andrew's post of 2nd June on this list, he put it in these terms:


near the end of Ch. 1 of _Capital_ I (pp. 174-75 of the Penguin/Vintage ed.) in which he says that value belongs to a society in which "the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite."


Andrew's considered proposition above, puts it in more nuanced terms, and frankly presents me with challenges. I do not want to claim I have won an argument on the triumphant basis of a typographical error, but I must now go to work. That is I must stop working on this, and sell my labour power, for the moment, although both types of work, I submit, are valuable - that is they not only have a use value, but they are to be valued, IMHO, by the emerging global human society, in however small a degree.

I look forward to returning to Andrew's passage.

Chris Burford

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