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Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value

(June 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, pp.25-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value
I.I. Rubin
Black and Red. £1.60

Rubin wrote these essays for a very different audience when they first appeared in 1928. The people he was speaking to either regarded Marxism as the positive science of the capitalist economy – stressing the purely quantitative side of Marx’s Capital and treating the social critique as incidental and detachable. Or they saw Marxism as based upon non-scientific and moral premises. Rubin sees his task as reintroducing what he calls the qualitative side of Marx’s Capital. According to him, the quantitative approach is purely one sided: Without examining the aspect which shows how the quantities depend upon a continuously recreated social relationship between capital and labour, one can only end up with a purely mechanical view. By stressing the qualitative side of Capital, Rubin saw himself as restoring the politics to political economy.

Rubin does this very well. The central point of his argument is that the labour theory of value is not an absolute starting point for the examination of any economy. On the contrary it is itself derived from highly historically specific social relations of production.

‘Labour does not, in itself, give value to the product, but only that labour which is organised in a determined social form.’ (p.68)

‘“Value” does not characterise things, but human relations in which things are produced.’ (p.69)

Now while it is true that Marx also has a more absolute labour theory for examining all economies (not just commodity or capitalist economies), Rubin is correct to stress the more socially relative form. For the former only leads to an understanding of economies in a material or technical sense – i.e. as aggregates of concrete labours; whereas the only economic category out of which the quantitative laws can be generated is that of abstract labour. And this category only appears after the different concrete labours have been mutually equallised through exchange. For Rubin this ‘can only be realised through the process of market exchange, through the value of commodities’. (p.85)

But in his attempt to stress this, Rubin has left us an account that is both hopelessly one-sided as an overall view of the capitalist economy, and one which today (unlike 1928) does not serve to counteract prevailing misconceptions about capitalism – but on the contrary to accentuate them. His central error is to see capitalism as a form of the commodity economy and not vice versa. For him

‘the production relations of capitalist society, expressed in the concepts capital, wages, profit, interest, rent etc, appear in the form of relations among independent commodity producers, relations which are expressed through the concept of value. Capital is a variety of value because the production relation between the capitalist and the workers take the form of a relation between equal commodity producers.’ (pp.91-2)

His sole reason for believing this is that:

‘The theory of value, which takes as its starting point the equalisation of exchanged commodities, because production relations between capitalists and workers take the form of relations between formally equal, independent commodity producers.’ (p.94)

Of course to understand capitalism it is good to begin with the commodity, but is this the same as saying that capitalism is merely a species of the commodity economy? Certainly not. For Marx this would be ‘merely the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind’ (Grundrisse). For Marx there are Capitalist, Feudal, Oriental, Ancient modes of production but no commodity mode of production. Why not? The commodity appears in each of them, but in each case it is dominated by, and made subservient to something else. In modern capitalism the commodity is an inert tool for the self-expansion of capital. The forces of production in capitalist society do indeed have to take on a social form in addition to their technical or material form. But they do so not as commodities but as capital – as variable capital (labour) and as constant capital (machines etc.). They may (or may not) also be commodities, but that is a separate question.

Today with the vastly increased role of the capitalist state in the economy, the growth of monopoly, administered or controlled pricing etc, Rubin’s picture is positively antideluvian. Actually it is his approach rather than his conclusions themselves which is wrong. For he does admit:

‘labour-value (or commodity) is a historical prius in relation to production price (or capital). It existed in rudimentary form before capitalism, and only the development of the commodity economy prepared the basis for the emergence of the capitalist economy. But labour-value in its developed form exists only in capitalism.’ (p.256)

If he had taken this seriously he would have written a different book. It is our loss that he has not done so. Stressing the qualitative against the quantitative sides of Marx’s Capital had its uses 50 years ago. Today it is a serious impediment. It prevents us seeing how capitalism is developing and according to what principles it does so.

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