Is value transhistorical?

Andrew Kliman Andrew_Kliman at
Sat Jul 11 12:50:57 PDT 1998

Below I respond to Chris Burford's recent posts in this thread. First, however, I'd like to quote the whole of the relevant section of the message I sent him, because I think texts need to be read in the context of the whole. Examining isolated sentences or words renders things obscure and indeterminate, just like the incessant repetition of any word makes it sound like nonsense syllables devoid of meaning.

So here goes:

(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.

The whole context of the passage lends additional support to this reading. Political economy has uncovered the content (labor-time) concealed within "these forms" (value and its magnitude). But it hasn't asked "why this content has assumed that particular form." So Marx is suggesting that value is a form of appearance of labor-time.

He then suggests that political economy hasn't asked *why* the content assumes this form of appearance because it takes it for granted. This relation (the "formula" relating the two) between the content and the form appears to bourgeois consciousness as self-evident and a nature-imposed necessity. Clearly, he is suggesting that the opposite is the case. Thus, in his view, labor-time is not always expressed as value, nor is duration of labor always expressed as magnitude of value. The accompanying footnote (35) likewise suggests that the appearance of labor as value is not a "natural institution," contrary to what the economists hold.

Moreover, in the prior footnote (34), he writes, even more clearly: "The value-form of the product of labor is ... the most universal form of the bourgeois mode of production; by that fact it stamps the bourgeois mode of production as a particular kind of social production of a historical and transitory character." This does not seem ambiguous to me. The only problem, perhaps, is that "value-form" (wertform) is used elsewhere to refer to exchange-value, i.e., the value of one commodity having a second commodity as its form of appearance. But that is not how it is used here. Here it refers to the product of labor having value as its form of appearance. I should also note that the above "formulas" likewise concern value, not exchange-value.

There are other passages that say much the same thing. See p. 167: "Something which is only valid for this particular form of production, the production of commodities, namely the fact that the specific social character of private labours ... consists in their equality as human labour, and, IN THE PRODUCT, ASSUMES THE FORM OF THE EXISTENCE OF VALUE ...." (emphasis added). Also, p. 164, where he first says from where the fetishism of the commodity arises. Again, we have the two "formulas." The point is clearly that these formulas pertain to commodity production, which is a *particular* form of social production, not a universal one.

Also, pp. 138-39: "commodites possess an objective character as values only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social substance ... their objective character as values is therefore purely social." Again, this is not something transhistorical. It arises in a particular kind of society.

And, for my finale, perhaps the clearest statement of all, on pp. 153-54: "The product of labour is an object of utility [use-value] in all states of society; but it is ONLY a historically specific epoch of development which presents the labour expended in the production of a useful article as an 'objective' property of that article, i.e., as its value. It is ONLY then that the product of labor becomes transformed into a commodity" (emphases added).

OK. Now, to comment on Chris's posts.

POST OF 7/8 =========== Chris: "I submit it [the topic] is far from academic alone. If there is indeed an overarching theory of value which is not limited to commodity exchange ...."

Well, I agree that it is not academic alone, but for different reasons that will, I'm sure, emerge in discussion. Alone, I do not think value is a category of commodity *exchange*; as Marx uses it in _Capital_, at least, it is a category of commodity *production*.

This raises questions such as, what is a commodity and what is commodity production. I suspect that the differences Chris and I have are not limited to value , but encompass these and other categories. But I'm happy to let this, too, emerge in due course.

Chris: "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 ...."

Were you to call the predicate "labor" or "human activity" instead of value, I'd surely agree. I think that these were the terms Marx used, and people generally use, for what you're talking about. Of course, due to the alienation of work from the worker under capitalism, "labor" or "work" now has much more restricted connotations, but Marx indeed understood "labor" as a broader, transhistorical, category. Labor, but not value.

I do not believe there is even one place where Marx defines "value" as you have done. Your definition is also quite at variance with normal usage, both among economists and in daily life. Now, if _Capital_ is a _Critique of Political Economy_, which it is, then it is a critique of this society's relations and their reflections in thought (economic categories), so it can't (and doesn't) just go about redefining things and using terms willy-nilly.

Chris: "the word "formula" may be a typographical error."

Yes, it is. But I don't think this implies what Chris says. I don't hang my hat on this or that word in any case, but it seems clear to me that the correct word, "form," corroborates my interpretation.

It took me a good while to see why Chris thinks the opposite. It is because she (he? -- sorry, I don't know which) thinks that "Exchange value is the form taken by value under conditions of commodity exchange." Thus, it seems, Chris reads the reference to "form" as a reference to exchange-value.

This, however, begs the question. Whether there's a transhistorical "value" of which exchange-value is the form under conditions of commodity exchange is PRECISELY the question under discussion. In other words, it isn't permissible to impute a meaning to "form" that presupposes the answer is yes.

"Form" can of course refer to many things. As my message to Chris notes, even Marx's expression "value-form" refers to two different things, (a) the form of appearance of value, i.e., exchange-value, AND (b) the social form of the product of labor (as in "The value-form of the product of labor is ... the most universal form of the bourgeois mode of production").

In fact, it seems clear to me that (b) is precisely what "form" refers to here. Let's read this word in the context of the paragraph:

"Political economy has indeed analyzed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the CONTENT concealed within these FORMS. But it has never once asked the question why this 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." [Marx, Capital I, pp. 173-75, Vintage, emphases added]

Three sentences. The first makes clear that "forms" refers to value and magnitude of value magnitude. This alone doesn't mean anything, because value could presumably mean mean exchange-value instead of (intrinsic) value. To answer this, we need to see what the "content" is to which form is being contrasted. The second sentence then couples the contrast of content and form with the contrast between labor and value, and the contrast between duration of labor and magnitude of value.

I find this definitive. On Chris's reading, the contrast would have to be between value and exchange-value, not between labor and value.

Moreover, it is very important to note that, in calling the magnitude of value a form of the duration of labor, Marx means value proper, intrinsic value, not exchange-value. Exchange-value is a form of appearance of value, *not* of the duration of labor. The magnitude of a commodity's value is determined by the amount of labor needed to produce it, and, *in the exchange relation*, the magnitude of the commodity's own *value* appears in the form of a certain quantity of another commodity. The latter quantity is the exchange-value of the first commodity. E.g., the value and magnitude of value, together with the word "form," means that magnitude of value is a form of the duration of labor.

Now, then, the third sentence, since it refers to forms (not formulas) as Chris has established, is referring to value and magnitude of value, and it states that they belong "to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite." (BTW, "man" is _menschen_ = human beings, so the translation is sexist, but not the original.) So the use of "forms" instead of "formulas" is further confirmation of my initial reading, *before* the formula/form issue arose: "Marx indicates that value belongs to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite." (It was you, Chris, who said that the passage referred to "formulas," not value, but the substitution of form for formula makes clear that my equating of form and value was apposite.)

Moreover, this last sentence again contrasts these forms -- value and magnitude of value -- to labor, and the content of the contrast is very important: value and magnitude of value, the forms, are NOT self-evident and nature-imposed necessities, though productive labor, the content, IS. On Chris's reading, it seems, exchange-value would be the form, and value would be the self-evident, nature-imposed necessity, but the passage clearly doesn't say that.

POST OF 7/9 =========== Chris quotes "the sentence preceding the one in which "formulae" may be a typographical error," and writes:

"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."


Chris then comments on the three sentences I have just analyzed (plus the sentence which follows), and comments: "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."

The entire emphasis IS on form, but value and its magnitude, NOT exchange-value, are the forms. I also do not agree that the context is on the "inadequate analysis of bourgeois political economy." There are precisely two words on this ("however incompletely"), stated as a qualification in a subordinate phrase. The context is the relation between labor and value, which the economists have wrongly taken for granted as self-evident, because they, being bourgeois, do not comprehend that value is an historical specific category.

This brings to my mind the following: it is not difficult in the least to comprehend the historical specificity of *exchange-value*. That was (is) not the economists' problem; they could (can) all tell the difference between market and natural economies. What is difficult, and is the differentia specifica of Marx's theory, is that the capitalistic relations of *production*, its labor process, is historically specific (and that this is bound up with the existence of value). As we have just seen, Marx holds that this process of *production* has mastery over menschen in capitalism, but it does not have to be that way. Moreover, Marx does not distinguish among societies according to market/mon-market, but according to the "form" (his phrase) in which surplus-labor (not surplus-value) is pumped out of the direct producers.

Chris: "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."

I deny that Chapter 1 is an "analysis of exchange value in relation to commodity exchange." I also deny, as the preceding comment should make clear, that there is any such animal in Marx's work as "the commodity exchange mode of production." Production is production, and exchange is exchange. Marx carefully distinguished the two spheres.

I agree that the context is different modes of *production*. It is not the process of exchange that Marx says has mastery over menschen in our social formation, but the process of production.

Chris: 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."

I agree with the first three sentences. The last one doesn't seem to follow from them. Nor do I understand the distinction between "compatible with" and "consistent with." Marx clearly does say that labor manifests itself in different forms under different modes of production. But again, I am aware of no reference to "general value" whatever, except as a critique (e.g. of Adolph Wagner).

Chris then quotes a part of a footnote, and comments that the quoted sentence emphasizes the the specificity of the form of value, exchange-value. True. Yet this should also be read in context. What Marx is arguing is that, *because* they do not understand the historical specificity of value -- the value-form of the product of labor -- the economists therefore have strange and contradictory notions about exchange-value.

Chris also comments on the German, with respect to three uses of "wert" here. This is relevant, but I can't make any comment until I read it, and I don't have a copy of the German. Could you please cite it, Chris?

Chris: "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."

I don't think Baudrillard (e.g.) deviated from Marx; he's just different. I also don't like the connotations of deviation. I realize this was meant in jest, but given some other battles I'm in, I have to make these caveats so that things don't get used against me -- the internet is a fishbowl after all.

POST OF 7/10 ============ Chris: "The problem is that in these and other passages Andrew Kliman has spotted a more subtle contradiction between exchange value and value."

I cannot take credit for this. I'm certainly not the first to see the distinction. Yet even many of those who do recognize the distinction misunderstand it.



Andrew ("Drewk") Kliman Home: Dept. of Social Sciences 60 W. 76th St., #4E Pace University New York, NY 10023 Pleasantville, NY 10570 (914) 773-3951 Andrew_Kliman at

"... the *practice* of philosophy is itself *theoretical.* It is the *critique* that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea." -- K.M.

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