Is value transhistorical?

Chris Burford cburford at
Thu Jul 9 15:53:08 PDT 1998

Further to my post of 08:15 AM 7/8/98 +0100,


>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

In private communication, Hans Ehrbar has confirmed that the first German edition of Capital has the word "Formen", and the French editions refer to forms not formulae.

However Hans appears to side with Andrew on the general argument that value is specific to commodity exchange. However we cannot be right about everything. I still wish to press the point.

Andrew has replied

>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.

This is the sentence preceding the one in which "formulae" may be a typographical error. But assuming it should speak of "these forms", then "these forms" are presumably, "the value of the product, in which labour is represented, and "the magnitude of that value" in which labour time is represented.

The Penguin and Random House version of Capital Vol 1, gives the relevant passage as

"Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why the content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product. These [forms], which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists' bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself. Hence the pre-bourgois forms of the social organization of production are treated by political economy in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions.

I would say that this presentation does not say exactly what Andrew summarised it as saying above. I would argue that the entire emphasis is on the forms of value in which the manifestations occur, and not on value itself. The reference to "value" here in the context of the inadequate analysis of bourgeois political economy, cannot therefore be taken as a definitive statement about value, but is really referring to exchange value.

Further that here in this passage as through this whole section, Marx is emphasising that his analysis of exchange value in relation to commodity exchange must be seen in the context of a whole range of different modes of production. That the manifestation takes this form in the commodity exchange mode of production.

So the implication is that it takes a different form in another mode of production. What then is "it"? It seems to me to be implicit that Marx is talking about a wider concept of socially relevant labour, which can be manifested in different forms in different economic formations. I suggest it is compatible with Marx and even consistent with Marx to argue that each notional unit of general value is an aliquot part of the total socially relevant labour of any society, which may manifest itself in different forms under different modes of production.

There are two important footnotes attached to this short quote above. The second starts in the Penguin/Random House edition:

"It is one of the chief failings of classical political economy that it has never succeeded, by means of its analysis of commodities, and in particular of their value, in dicovering the form of value which in fact turns value into exchange value."

Again the footnote goes on the emphasise the specificity of the *form* to commodity exchange, it does not emphasise the specificity of value to commodity exchange, although this quote draws a distinction. Indeed in the original German sentence the distinction between three types of value is made: "Tauschwert" (exchange value), "Warenwert" (commodity value) and "Wert" (value).

Why does Wert appear separately in this argument, and why is the thrust of the specificity on the exchange value form?

I need to understand better what for Andrew is the significance of Value as distinct from Exchange Value, if it is not the distinction that I have assumed, and which he suggests, I am sure incorrectly, is a postmodernist deviation.

Chris Burford


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