Marx, Classical Political Economy and the Problem of Dynamics - Henryk Grossman 1941


In the section of Volume I of Capital dealing with 'The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret'[1] Marx attempts to penetrate the mystifying nature of the form of exchange-value. Two different, but basically analogous methods are used to this end. The first is the method of historical comparison between the period of commodity production and earlier periods when there was no production or exchange of commodities, and consequently no exchange-values. Such periods did not therefore exhibit any of the later mystifications: personal relations of dependence appeared in undisguised form, and were not veiled by the process of exchange.[2] In order to illustrate this Marx takes three different non-commodity producing economic formations: Robinson Crusoe, the feudal lords with their serfs, and finally the patriarchal peasant family. In all these instances all that is produced are objects of use, for the satisfaction of immediate requirements. Since there are no exchange-values, 'all the relations between Robinson and these objects that form his self-created wealth are simple and transparent'.[3] What is mysterious and mystifying about the production of commodities clearly does not have its source in the use-value aspect of commodities, but solely in the process of exchange and in exchange-value.[4]

Marx obtains the same result by the method of comparing various aspects within the production of commodities itself -for instance, the aspect of value with that of use-value, the process of valorisation with the labour-process. In short, the means of getting behind the mystifying character of the categories of exchange-value are, in fact, use-values! The use-values of earlier historical periods are just as much the result of human labour as the products of the epoch of commodity production. But it is only in this latter period that products assume a mystifying character. The same source -labour-cannot possibly yield such totally different results. It is not sufficient to say that commodities are simply the products of 'labour', just as those of earlier economic systems are. Rather, it is necessary to distinguish two different aspects of labour, its 'dual character: firstly, labour which is 'concrete', 'useful', creative not of value, but rather of objects of use; the labour of the joiner, tailor, weaver, which functions in the technical labour-process and is a 'purposive, productive activity' for the appropriation of the natural world and is a nature-imposed necessity for all social formations .[5] Secondly, general human 'exchange-value positing' (tauschwertsetzende) labour, which functions in the process of valorisation, and which only appears as such in one particular social formation (societies of exchange). Not until the arrival of exchange-value does the article of use become a commodity.[6] It is evident that it is only this second aspect of labour, its 'exchange-value positing' character, which is the origin of all that is mystifying and fetishistic. The reduction of the forms of value to 'labour' pure and simple, as carried out by the Classical economists, is false because labour pure and simple is an unreal abstraction, a 'mere spectre'.[7]

In this way Marx obtained the differentiation of the 'dual character' of the labour represented in the commodity, which in his own eyes constituted what was 'fundamentally new` in his theory .[8] With the kind of self-praise which he rarely expressed, Marx stressed the importance of his discovery: the examination of the dual character of labour was 'the point crucial to an understanding of political economy'[9] Marx regarded this element as the decisive break between his conception and that of all his predecessors. And in fact he repeatedly used the new standpoint of a two-dimensional conception of economic processes to criticise the Classical economists, reproaching them for the fact that their theory was one-dimensional, and exclusively concerned with value. Time and again he criticised their failure to distinguish the dual character of labour. 'Classical economy in fact nowhere distinguishes explicitly and with a clear awareness between labour as it appears in the value of a product, and the same labour as it appears in the product's use-value .'[10]

This general objection is made more precise in specific criticisms of Petty,[11] Adam Smith,[12] Ricardo,[13] and Hodgskin .[14] This is sufficient to show that this is the real centre of Marx's innovation in comparison to the Classical economists. The great significance of the new conception is based on the fact that Marx had found in it a means of eliminating what was deceptive in the pure categories of exchange-value, thus creating a foundation for further research into capitalist production and affording him the possibility of grasping the real interconnections of this mode of production behind the veil created by value.

[1]Ibid. p. 163 .

[2]Ibid. p. 169.

[3]Ibid. p. 170.

[4]'The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes therefore as soon as we come to other forms of production.' Capital I p. 169.

[5]Ibid. p. 175.

[6]Ibid. p. 153.

[7]Theories of Surplus-Value III p. 131, 138.

[8]Letter from Marx to Engels, 8 January 1868, Selected Correspondence p. 186.

[9]Capital I p. 132. Marx stressed in a number of places that this theory comprised his original contribution to the understanding of economic processes, it was 'what was fundamentally new' in his work. See for example, the Contribution, 1859, and Capital 1867 .

[10]Capital I Note 38 p. 173.

[11]Theories of Surplus-Value I p. 354-62.

[12]Against Adam Smith: 'He does not distinguish the two-fold character of labour itself: of labour which creates value by expending labour-power, and of labour as concrete useful work, which creates articles of use (use-values). Capital II p. 381 .

[13]Against Ricardo: 'He does not clearly distinguish between the various aspects: between the exchange-value of the commodity, as it manifests itself, appears, in the process of commodity exchange, and the existence of the commodity as value as distinct from its existence as an object, product, use-value .' Theories of Surplus-Value. III p. 125.

[14]Against Hodgskin: 'In his investigations into the productivity of capital, Hodgskin does not distinguish between how far it is a question of producing use-values or exchange-values.' ibid. III p. 267.