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V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

What Is a Commodity?

(27 April 1946)


From The Militant, Vol. X No. 17, 27 April 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


A commodity is something produced to be exchanged. Nearly everything made nowadays comes under that heading. Things are very different today from the pioneer era when people made their own shoes, clothing, and molded the bullets for their long rifles.

There couldn’t be much exchange then, because people had to work from sunrise to sunset just to make the things they needed for themselves. Their log cabin was their factory. But it was the most inefficient factory you can imagine. In spite of Herculean labor, they often couldn’t produce enough goods for one family (that is, for themselves) to exist.

Today great factories employing thousands of people are busy making just one of the items the pioneers made – socks, for instance, or stockings. Hundreds of thousands of pairs of stockings are made – far more than the owners, or even the workers in that particular factory, can use. The stockings have to be exchanged for other things.

The capitalist who owns the factories and employs the workers who produce the socks, is interested in only one thing about socks. How much he can get for them. How useful they are to people is entirely secondary with him. If it so happens that he profits five cents a pair on cotton socks and only four cents a pair on wool, he will turn his whole factory over to the production of cotton socks. Children’s underwear, for several reasons, has yielded a lower profit than coats and dresses in recent years – so children have had to go without underwear. This is because we are living in a commodity system. Goods are produced to be sold – and at a profit. It is the number of purses that counts and not the number of users. If the working people as a whole ran the factories, they would, of course, make underwear for their children and themselves. But then they would no longer be producing commodities, production would then no longer be hamstrung by capitalism.

The capitalist, as we have said, doesn’t care whether the commodity is good or bad, so long as he can sell it. But all the same, the commodity has to be of some use, otherwise the people are not going to buy it. Dishes have to be smooth and cleanable, coal has to be hard and burnable, auto tires have to be soft and rideable, bread has to be fresh and eatable.
 

Two-fold Nature of Value

A commodity is a useful thing and it is at the same time a saleable thing. It has value in use (use-value) and value in exchange (exchange-value). The loaf of bread we described last week is a commodity precisely for these two reasons. It is useful to man. And it is produced to sell or exchange.

Naturally not every useful thing is necessarily a commodity. The air we breathe is quite useful, we would die without it. But it is not produced or monopolized by man. So it is free. On the other hand, oxygen, the purest air for breathing, is distilled out of the air by the labor of man, and therefore it becomes a commodity. It is sold to hospitals for oxygen tents, etc. It is sold to factories for welding and burning purposes. The acetylene flame breathes the oxygen – but not for free.

If we look up and down the world-wide list of commodities – from toothbrushes to tractors – we find every single thing that is sold on the market (except unimproved land – see Marx’ Capital, Vol. III) is a product of human labor. Now this seems such a commonplace, such a humdrum sort of discovery, you might say “so what?”

You might say everything contains labor and materials – just like a repair job on your car. That’s right. And the “materials” are commodities, too. The wrist pins, the rings, the pistons, etc., are also the product of labor – labor and materials again. But the raw steel they came from originally wasn’t worth a dime a pound. And that steel, too, was the product of the labor of thousands of workers, the sum total of tiny bits of their labor concentrated in that little bit of steel.

If a commodity so far as its exchange value is concerned is nothing but an amount of labor, you might say that the labor that produced it should own it. That would be fair and just. But a commodity is produced to be sold. The capitalist hires you to make caviar or Packards – not so you can use them, but so he can sell them.

We shall see why that alters everything when we continue our analysis of the commodity, and its two fold nature of being of value in usefulness and in exchange.

Next Week: Can Use Value Be Measured?


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