I. I. Rubin's

Essays on Marx's Theory of Value

Chapter Six

Marx's approach to economic categories as expressions of social production relations (which we treated in the previous chapter) provoked criticism from P. Struve in his book, Khozyaistvo i Tsena (Economy and Price). Struve recognizes the merit of Marx's theory of fetishism in the sense that it revealed, behind capital, a social production relation between classes of capitalists and workers. But he does not consider it correct to stretch the theory of fetishism to the concept of value and to other economic categories. Struve and other critics of Marx transform the theory of fetishism from a general, fundamental basis of Marx's system into a separate, even if brilliant, digression.

Struve's critique is closely related to his classification of all economic categories into three classes: 1) "Economic" categories which express "economic relations of each economic agent with the outside world," [1] for example, subjective value (tsennost). 2) "Intereconomic" categories which express "phenomena arising from interactions among autonomous economic units" (p. 17), for example, objective (exchange) value. 3) "Social" categories which express "phenomena which arise from interactions among economic agents who occupy different social positions" (p. 27), for example, capital.

Struve places only the third group ("social" categories) within the concept of social production relations. In other words, in the place of social production relations, he puts a narrower concept, namely production relations between social classes. From this starting point, Struve admits that production relations (i.e., social and class relations) are concealed behind the category of capital, but by no means behind the category of value (Struve uses the term "tsennost"), which expresses relations among equal, independent, autonomous commodity producers and thus is related to the second class of "intereconomic" categories. Marx correctly discovered the fetishism of capital, but he was mistaken in his theory of the fetishism of commodities and commodity value.

The inaccuracy of Struve's reasoning is a result of his unfounded classification of economic categories into three classes. First of all, to the extent that "economic" categories are expressions of "pure economic" activities (within the economic unit), cut off from all social forms of production, they are altogether outside the limits of Political Economy as a social science. "Intereconomic" categories cannot be as sharply distinguished from social categories as Struve suggests. The "interaction among autonomous economic units" is not only a formal characteristic which applies to different economic formations and to all historical epochs. It is a determined social fact, a determined "production relation" between individual economic units based on private ownership and connected by the division of labor, i.e., a relation which presupposes a society with a given social structure and which is fully developed only in the commodity capitalist economy.

Finally, when we examine the "social" categories, it must be pointed out that Struve limited them, without adequate foundation, to the "interaction among economic agents who occupy different social positions." But it has already been shown that the "equality" between commodity producers is a social fact, a determined production relation. Struve himself grasped the close connection between the "intereconomic" category (which expresses equality between commodity producers) and the "social" category (which expresses social inequality). He says that social categories "in every society are built according to the type of economic intercourse, and seem to acquire the form of intereconomic categories...The fact that social categories, in intereconomic intercourse, wear the clothes of intereconomic categories, creates an appearance of identity between them" (p. 27). Actually, this is not an instance of wearing the wrong clothes. What we are confronting is one of the basic, highly characteristic features of the commodity-capitalist society. It consists of the fact that in economic life social relations do not have the character of direct social domination of some social groups over others, but that they are realized by means of "economic constraint," i.e., by means of the interaction of individual, autonomous economic agents, on the basis of agreements between them. Capitalists use power "not as political or theocratic rulers" but as "the personification of the conditions of labor in contrast to labor" (C., III, p. 881). Relations among classes have, as their starting point, relations between capitalists and workers as autonomous economic agents. These relations cannot be analyzed or understood without the category of "value."

Struve himself could not consistently maintain his point of view. In his view, capital is a social category. However, he defines it as a "system of interclass and intraclass social relations" (pp. 31-32), i.e., relations between classes of capitalists and workers on the one hand, and relations between individual capitalists in the process of distribution of the total profit among them, on the other hand. But relations between individual capitalists are not brought about "by the interaction of economic agents who occupy different social positions." Why are they then subsumed under the "social" category, capital? This means that the "social" categories do not only include interclass relations, but also intraclass relations, i.e., relations between persons who are in the same class position. Yet what prevents us from seeing value as a "social" category, from seeing relations among autonomous commodity producers as social production relations, or in Struve's terminology, as social relations?

We thus see that Struve himself did not maintain a sharp distinction of social-production relations into two types: inter-economic and social. Thus he is wrong when he sees a "scientific inconsistency in the construction" by Marx according to which the "social category, capital, as a social 'relation' is derived from the economic category, value" (tsennost) (p. 29). First of all it must be pointed out that Struve himself, on page 30, contradicts himself when he classifies value (tsennost) as an "intereconomic" and not an economic category. Apparently Struve relates subjective value (tsennost) to "economic" categories, and objective, exchange value, to "intereconomic" categories. (This can be seen by comparing this statement with his reasoning on page 25.) But Struve is very familiar with the fact that Marx derived (the concept of) capital from objective, and not subjective, value, i.e., according to Struve's own terminology, from the intereconomic, and not the economic, category. It is because of this that Struve attacks Marx. As a matter of fact, the "social" category, capital, as well as the "intereconomic" category, value, belong to the same group of categories in Marx's system. These are social-production relations, or as Marx sometimes said, social-economic relations, i.e., each expresses an economic aspect and its social form, as opposed to their artificial separation by Struve.

By narrowing the concept of production relations to the concept of "social" or more precisely, class relations, Struve is aware that Marx uses this concept in a wider sense. Struve says: "In The Poverty of Philosophy, supply and demand, division of labor, credit, money, are relations of production. Finally, on page 130 we read: 'a modern factory, based on the application of machinery, is a social production relation, an economic category.' It is obvious that all the generally used economic concepts of our time are treated here as social production relations. This is undoubtedly correct if the content of these concepts refers in one way or another to social relations among people in the process of economic life" (p. 30). But not negating, one might say, the accuracy of Marx's conception of production relations, Struve nevertheless finds this concept "exceptionally undetermined" (p. 30), and he considers it more correct to confine the scope of this concept to "social" categories. This is highly characteristic of some critics of Marxism. After Marx's analysis, it is no longer possible to ignore the role of the social aspect of production, i.e., its social form. If one does not agree with Marx's conclusions, all that remains is to separate the social aspect from the economic, and to disregard the social aspect, to assign it to a separate field. This was done by Struve; this was done by Bohm-Bawerk, who based his theory on the motives of "pure economic activity," i.e., on the motives of the economic agent isolated from a given social and historical context - promising that later on, sometime in the future, the role and significance of the "social" categories will be examined.

Restricting the theory of fetishism to the field of "social" categories, Struve considers it wrong to stretch the theory to intereconomic categories, for example to the concept of value. This accounts for the duality of his position. On one hand, he has high regard for Marx's theory of capital as a social relation. But on the other hand, with respect to other economic categories, he himself supports a fetishistic point of view. "All intereconomic categories thus always express phenomena and objective relations, but at the same time human relations - relations among people. Thus subjective value, which is transformed into objective (exchange) value, from a state of mind, from a feeling fixed to objects (things) becomes their property" (p. 25). Here it is impossible not to see a contradiction. On one hand, we analyze "objective, and at the same time human" relations, i.e., social production relations which are realized through things and are expressed in things. On the other hand, here we are dealing with the "property" of the things themselves. Thus Struve concluded: "From here it is clear that 'reification,' 'objectification' of human relations, i.e., the phenomenon which Marx called the fetishism of the commodity world, appears in economic intercourse as a psychological necessity. If scientific analysis, consciously or unconsciously, restricts itself to economic intercourse, the fetishistic point of view manifests itself methodologically as the only accurate point of view" (p 25). If Struve had wanted to prove that economic theory cannot remove material categories, and that it has to examine the production relations of a commodity economy in their material form, then he would obviously be right. But the question is whether, following Marx, we analyze the material categories as the form in which the given production relations are manifested, or as the property of things, which is Struve's inclination.

Struve, with yet another argument, tried to advocate a fetishistic, material interpretation of "intereconomic" categories. "Considering inter-economic categories Marx forgot that in their concrete and real manifestations they are inseparably connected with the relations of man toward the external world, to nature and to things" (p. 26). In other words, Struve emphasized the role of the process of material production. Marx took sufficient account of that role in his theory of the dependence of production relations on the development of productive forces. However, when we study social forms of production, i.e., production relations, we cannot draw conclusions about the significance of material categories from the significance of things in the process of material production. Marx threw light on the question of the particular interrelationship between the material process of production and its social form in a commodity-capitalist society. It is on this, in fact, that he built his theory of commodity fetishism.

Some of Marx's critics have tried to restrict the theory of fetishism in a manner which is just the opposite from Struve's. Struve recognizes the fetishism of capital, but not the fetishism of value. To some extent we find just the opposite in Hammacher. According to Hammacher, in the first volume of Marx's great work, "capital is defined as the totality of commodities which represent accumulated labor," i.e., a material definition of capital is given, and only in Volume III does the "fetishism of capital" appear. Hammacher holds that Marx transferred to capital the characteristics of commodities purely by analogy, considering "commodities and capital as being only quantitatively different." [2]

The assertion that in the first volume of Capital, capital is defined as a thing and not as a social relation does not even have to be disproved, because it contradicts the entire content of the first volume of Capital. It is just as mistaken to think that Marx saw only a "quantitative" difference between commodities and capital. Marx pointed out that capital "announces from its first appearance a new epoch in the process of social production" (C., I, p. 170). But commodities as well as capital conceal within themselves determined social relations in a material form. The fetishism of commodities as well as the resulting fetishism of capital are equally present in the capitalist society. However, it is inaccurate to confine Marx's theory of fetishism only to the field of capital, as Struve does, or only to the field of simple commodity exchange. The materialization of social production relations lies at the very basis of the unorganized commodity economy, and it leaves its imprint on all the basic categories of everyday economic reasoning and also on Political Economy as the science of the commodity capitalist economy.


[1] Khozyaisrvo i Tsena (Economy and Price), Vol. I, p. 17.

[2] Hammacher, Emit, Das philosophisch-okonomische System des Marxismus, Leipzig: Duncker and Humbtot, 1909, p. 546.