Mary E. Marcy

Beginners Course in Socialism
and the Economics of Karl Marx

No. II. The Value of a Commodity

(December 1910)

From International Socialist Review, Vol. 11 No. 6, December 1910.
Transcribed by Matthew Siegfried.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IN the last number of the Review we learned that the wage-worker’s relation to the boss is that of a seller of a commodity. Whether you work in a mine, a mill or a factory, whenever you get a job you are selling your strength to work – or your labor power to the boss.

We know that labor-power is a commodity like shoes or hats or stoves.

Now all commodities are the product of labor, that is, there was never a commodity that was not the result of the strength and brains of workingmen or women. Workers make shoes; bakers of bread are workingmen or women; houses, street cars, trains, palaces, bridges, stoves – all are the product of the laboring man. all commodities are the product of labor.

There is one common thing which all commodities contain. This is labor. A commodity only has value (exchange value) because it contains human labor.

Horses are commodities; cows are commodities; gold is a commodity. human labor has been spent in producing all these. Labor-power is also a commodity, the result of human labor in the past.

Workingmen and women spent labor producing you and me. Somebody made bread, sewed shoes, built houses and made clothes for us. All the things we ate and drank and wore and used were made by the labor of workingmen and women. Their labor was necessary labor. Without it we should never have grown old enough or strong enough to have labor-power to sell. Labor was spent in raising us to the point where we would be able to work.

The value of a commodity is determined by the social labor-time necessary to produce it. On page 61 of the Kerr edition of Value, Price & Profit, Marx says:

“It might seem that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labor bestowed upon its production, the lazier a man, or clumsier a man, the more valuable his commodity, because the greater the time of labor required for finishing the commodity. This, however, would be a sad mistake. You will recollect that I used the word social labor, and many points are involved in this qualification.

“In saying that the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labor worked up or crystalized in it, we mean the quantity of labor necessary for its production in a given state of society, under certain social average conditions of production, with a given social average intensity, and average skill of the labor employed.”

If you spend three months cutting up a log with a pen-knife into a kitchen chair, it will be no more valuable in the end than the kitchen chair made in the big factories where many men working at large machines produce hundreds of chairs in a single day.

Of course, we know that every new improvement in machinery lessens the labor-time needed in making certain commodities. Oil is less valuable than it was ten years ago because it takes less labor-power to produce it. Steel has fallen in value, because owing to the new and improved machinery used in making steel it requires LESS human labor-power for its production.

Suppose every shoe factory in the country were working full time in order to supply the demand for shoes. The factories using the very old fashioned machinery would require more labor to the shoe than the factories using newer machines, while the great, up-to-date factories using the most modern machines would need comparatively little human labor-power in producing shoes.

The value of shoes would be determined by the average (or social) labor-time necessary to make them, or the socially necessary labor contained in all the shoes. The value of gold or silver is determined in the same way. The necessary social labor needed to produce gold gives it its value.

The value of gold rises or falls just as the value of other commodities rise or fall. Today gold is much lower in value than it was twenty years ago, because new methods of production have reduced the social labor needed in gold mining about one-half. If you have twenty dollars in gold it is only of half the value of twenty dollars twenty years ago. It contains only half the labor.

In the same way we may determine the value of laboring-power.

“Like every other commodity its value is determined by the quantity (or time) of labor necessary to produce it.

“The laboring-power of a man exists only in his living individuality. A certain mas of necessaries must be consumed by a man to grow up and maintain his life. But the man, like the machine will wear out, and must be replaced by another man. Besides the mass of necessaries required for his own maintenance, he wants another amount of necessaries to bring up a certain quota of children that are to replace him on the labor market and to perpetuate the race of laborers.

“It will be seen that the value of laboring-.power is determined by the value of the necessaries required to produce, develop, maintain and perpetuate the laboring. power.” (Value, Price & Profit, pp. 75–76.)

The value of a man’s labor-power is determined by the social labor necessary to produce it, Marx says. This means food, clothing, shelter (the necessities of life) and it means a little more than this. It means something additional to rear a boy or girl to take your place in the shop or factory when you grow too old to keep up the fierce pace set by the boss.

Enough to live on and to raise workers to take our places this is the value of our labor-power, if we are wage-workers.

* * *


What is a commodity? What does the wage-worker sell to his employer?

What determines the value of a commodity?

What do we mean by social labor-power?

Are matches less valuable now than they were ten years ago? Why?

Have commodities in general decreased in value in the last ten years of improved machine production? Why?

Name commodities that have decreased in value. Has rubber increased in value? Why?

Does it take less labor-power to weave cloth, to make cement, to slaughter hogs than it did twenty years ago? Why?

Remember that scarcity may cause a commodity to exchange (sell) above or below its value, but it does not make value. Marx says that Value is human labor (in the abstract).’

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Last updated on 20 January 2023