Is value universal and transhistorical? - 2

Chris Burford cburford at
Tue Jul 14 00:12:26 PDT 1998

At 03:50 PM 7/11/98 Andrew wrote:

I have already replied to the first part, yesterday.

To continue where that broke off, Andrew argued:

>"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").

I do not get the example: I do not see that "the social form of the product of labor" is illustrated by a sentence about "the value form of the product of labor".

I realise more though, from other material that Andrew has made available to me, that he considers the concept of alienation fairly central to commodity production, so perhaps the term "the social form of the product of labor" has a more significant meaning for him than it does for me.

>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
>"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
>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
>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.

Well I feel the pressure of the argument but would reply that where the word "value" is used in the second sentence (I concede the German also has the word "Wert") nevertheless that sentence and the next one describe this as a form, in other words the value form, not value in general (do I mean value qua 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.

I think that is OK from my point of view, that magnitude of value refers to value in general, ie homogenous human labor. I do need to signal a reservation however about Andrew's use of the term "intrinsic" value, which is clearly a whole big debate in itself.

>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.

Well I do not think the problem is that they are bourgeois. After all the bourgeoisie are acknowledged by Marx to be a very dynamic class. It comes out of a profound understanding of the limits of human epistemology in practice, and Marx expands in the second and third German editions the processes by which the fetish-like, mysterious, nature of the commodity, gives humankind only partial, limited and I shall say, emergent, understanding of what is going on? I think this is a sustained argument by Marx in the chapter, and is more than just a couple of words.

About Andrew's main contention in this paragraph obviously I still differ. By arguing that here value is a form, Andrew does not really accept the concept of the substance of value, alongside the form of value and the magnitude of value.

This concept is put more simply in the first German edition of Capital Chapter 1, just before what is in the later editions, the final fourth section on the Fetishism of Commodities:

"As one sees, the analysis of the commodity yields all the *essential* determinations of the *form of value*.... It was of decisive importance however to discover the inner necessary connection between the *form* of value, the *substance* of value, and *magnitude* of value, i.e., expressed ideally, to prove that the *form* of value springs from the *concept* of value." [emphasis as in original]

>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).

... with the *form* of 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,

I thought it was clear he does - even in this fourth section of Chapter 1.

>but according to the "form" (his
>phrase) in which surplus-labor (not surplus-value) is pumped out
>of the direct producers.

Well I am not so sure of that. In other places Marx is painstaking to make clear that the process of extracting surplus value under capitalism is fundamentally through the fair application of the principles of commodity exchange - in the market place.

>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
>I deny that Chapter 1 is an "analysis of exchange value in
>relation to commodity exchange."

I am not sure I would sum up Chapter 1 in that way, but I was indeed saying that this is emphasised by Marx in the fourth section.

>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.

Andrew may have the advantage of me here and be able to quote some formulas that I have not thought about, but I understood that production and exchange are two sides of a single contradiction, however carefully Marx would analyse each in their own right.

>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.

This may not be a fundamental point between us; I certainly accept that the private ownership of the means of production deprives menschheit of mastery over the social formation.

>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).

Nor am I. But what then is the substance of value? I am not sure that Marx called it "intrinsic value" either. Do we mean value qua value? Wert?

>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?

This is the start of footnote 34 on page 174 of the Penguin and presumably the Random House edition: The German is:

"Es is einer der Grundmaengel der klassischen politischen Oekonomie, dass es ihr nie gelang, aus der Analyse der Ware und spezieller des Warenwerts die Form des Werts, die ihn eben zum Tauschwert macht, herauszufinden."

Warenwert, Wert, Tauschwert. (BTW this by no means exhausts the large number of combinations of German words with Wert, with which Marx organises his analysis. They seem like the shifting combinations of sub-atomic particles, ever finer, more evanescent, and complicated in their interaction. Perhaps this is dialectics when applied rigorously to concrete complex reality.)

>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.

OK. Yes jests can be misunderstood and attract a momentum. I actually think postmodernists reflect an important aspect of current commodity exchange society, but I did take your remarks on 2nd June to imply that Andrew did not think they were being theoretically rigorous. As he put it:

Various postmodernists do try to say that exchange-value is one species of value. I think this runs counter to Marx's method, which is to begin from determinate forms of human activity, or the artifacts of that activity (e.g., commodities) rather than from abstractions. I also think it misunderstands his distinction between value and exchange-value. <<<

I agree with his characterisation of Marx's method but I think Marx did indeed distinguish several "determinations" (Bestimmungen) of value, of which one was the form of value, and another was the substance of value.

>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.

My approach is to see Marx's writing as consistent with a systems theory approach to capitalism and economic modes of production. Andrew seems to see a more specific significance to the distinction I understand he makes between the value-form and intrinsic value.

I suppose if I tried to redefine my position to be on strongest ground I would say the substance of value is found in all societies. For me that is effectively to say that value is found in all societies. In the first edition of Chapter 1 Marx wrote in the introductory paragraph to what in later editions is Section 2,

"We know now the *substance* of value, It is *labor*. We know the *measure of its magnitude*: it is *labor-time*. Its *form, which is what makes the *value* an *exchange*-value remains to be analyzed. But first the determinations which we have already found must be developed a little more closely." (emphasis in original)

This debate feels to me pretty challenging but instructive.

I thank Andrew for prompting and facilitating it.

Chris Burford

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