Vince Copeland Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

How Value Is Created

(18 May 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 20, 18 May 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“The total labor-power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labor-power, composed though it be of innumerable units.”
Marx’s Capital

* * *

Even though the worker in the shop is far removed from the bowels of the earth where the iron he works upon comes from – the final product that he makes represents nothing but a piece of the earth transformed by the labor of thousands of people.

If we look up and down the whole world-wide list of commodities, we see that every single one of them answers this description. They are all products of labor as far as man is concerned – and nothing but parts of the earth as far as nature is concerned.

Take a piece of metal, shaped into an auto fender, for instance. Trace its history back, and you will see that everything in its making is labor and nothing but labor.

The fenders are stamped out from sheet steel by operators of huge presses. The man and the press made them from the sheet steel. The press itself was made by many machinists, founders, tool-and-die makers, etc. The sheet metal that was stamped out came in turn from the rolling mill or strip mill, where men pressed it out with massive machinery that was also the product of labor – the ingot steel came from the bloomingmill, and the open hearth furnaces – and before that from the cast iron made by the blast furnace workers. (Needless to say, these furnaces are all the products of labor, too). And before the blast furnace, the iron ore, the limestone and the coal that go into it are all dug out of the ground by man. Man – human labor – works upon the earth.

A commodity has a tangible, touchable material – the elements it is made of. And it also has another substance: all the labor that has gone into making it.

The labor that goes into making the commodity has two sides to it, just as the commodity has. There is the particular kind of labor, like shovelling, picking, press-operating. And there is just plain human labor – the energy of human muscles, nerves and mind.

Some kinds of labor may be far more useful than others – just like the products of that labor. One man makes dog biscuits, another makes bread for human beings.

One works at a forge, another extracts iron ore. But two men can’t dig and forge at the same time. Both things have to be done to make a hammer. And although a hammer and iron ore are two very different KINDS of things, they are just two different ways of using human brain and muscle.

When you consider all the thousands of different kinds of useful labor and all the people working together to make the complete product, it’s as though one universal giant with millions of pairs of hands made the hammer and the fender.

It doesn’t make any difference so far as the quantity of labor in a given product in concerned, whether one pair of hands painted, polished or hammered. It makes no difference whether they moved up and down, back and forth, or around in circles. Just so long as the labor was necessary labor. It’s the total AMOUNT of labor – human labor, that creates the product.

The Sum Total

Take the finished auto fender. There it is, gleaming in all its painted glory. The sweat and dirt of the workers has been washed off. The blood from industrial accidents has been mopped from the floor. The umbilical cord is cut between it and the producer. It stands there as though it had dropped from heaven – the sacred property of the capitalist.

But the labor of the workers – the motion, the activity, of which the sweat and dirt are the by-products – has not really disappeared. Just as the mighty motion of Niagara is transformed into charged power lines, so the laboring motion of the working people is transformed into the apparent stillness of their product.

The painter’s activity has been concretized in color, the polisher’s in brightness and smoothness, the steelmaker’s in flexibility and durability, etc. – that is, the useful side of their activity. But they all work in common to produce a single commodity, and the sum total of their different labors equals one massive general labor – value-creating labor.

All the different useful labors flow into the final product just as many rivers flow into the sea. The great Mississippi loses its identity in the ocean just like the little Rappahannock. So the big and little labors lose their individuality in the product. And this product becomes a part of the sum total of generalized human labor; labor-power concealed in material mold.

Next Week – The Profitless Poker Game

Vince Copeland Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 23 December 2018