Reading Capital Today

As we approach the exact date of the publication of Marx’s Capital Volume One 150 years ago (14 September), a host of conferences and books are coming out in the small world of Marxist study on the relevance of Capital today.  The symposium that I am organising with King’s College London will be on 19-20 September, just around the corner from the British Library where Marx did the research for his opus magnum.  But already there have been conferences in Greece on Capital; a conference in New York at Hofstra University, and next week, York University, Toronto.  All have a large participation by leading Marxist scholars.

And the books are also coming out. The first is aptly entitled Reading Capital Today edited by Ingo Schmidt and Carl Fanelli from two Canadian universities and includes contributions from various activists and academics covering the issues of class struggle, internationalism and the Bolshevik revolution, imperialism, social reproduction and the environment. But I’ll only comment on the specifically economic subject: the labour theory of value.

Prabhat Patnaik is emeritus professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Kerala, India.  In his chapter, Patnaik argues that Marx’s value theory is not meant to explain relative prices between commodities.  The real purpose is to show that commodities priced in money reflect the socially necessary labour time involved in the whole economy.  However, that is as far as I can agree with Patnaik’s interpretation of Marx’s theory.

Patnaik seems to accept that there are two systems, one of value and one of price and that Marx’s transformation of value into prices leads to the total surplus value in an economy being different than the total profit.  This is clearly wrong as the work of scholars like Carchedi, Freeman, Kliman and Moseley have shown.  He also seems to think that Marx’s theory depends solely on commodity money (gold) and does not work or apply to fiat money (notes and reserves not backed by gold) – again a wrong interpretation.

It is true, as Patnaik says, that Marx argued that a rise in wages does not lead to inflation of prices as such, but instead to a fall in the share going to profit (see Marx’s famous debate with Weston, a British trade unionist, in Value, Price and Profit).  But from this, Patnaik seems to conclude that the fundamental contradiction in capitalism revealed by Marx’s law of value is that rising wages will squeeze profits (a profit squeeze theory).  There is no mention of how Marx’s value theory leads onto his law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.  For Patnaik, Marx’s value theory appears to differ little from that of Ricardo (two systems of value and prices and the distribution of wages and profits as key to crises).  With this interpretation, Marx’s famous formula for the rate of profit (s/c+v) becomes irrelevant.

A more useful exercise for those interested in studying Capital today is to read the book itself.  And some great Marxist scholars have developed reading courses that can be followed to do so.  The most comprehensive is that by David Harvey, probably the most well-known scholar on Marxist economics in the world today – and one of our speakers at Capital.150 this September in London.   Indeed, David Harvey debated only this month with Patnaik on the latter’s current take on imperialism.

Harvey covers Volume One of Capital in detail here, as well as Volume Two and a recent set of lectures on his take on Capital today.  These lectures are compiled in written form in: A Companion to Marx’s Capital (Verso, 2010) and A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 2 (Verso, 2013).

Over the next few months, I shall try to critique Harvey’s and other scholars’ analysis as we head towards the Capital.150 symposium.  But you can see some of the differences that I and other scholars have already raised with Harvey’s views, particularly on the causes of crises here.

David Harvey’s contribution to understanding Marx’s great work has been invaluable.  But there are other readings that have also made an important contribution, if less well known.  For example, out in Los Angeles, Frieda Afary, a philosophy MA and librarian, has been conducting community-based readings of Capital throughout this year.

But perhaps, the most useful guide in reading Capital today is a new book by Joseph Choonara, A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital (not published until July).  Choonara takes the reader through each chapter of Volume One with some clarifying analysis and relevant comment to help.  Choonara says that “It is designed to be read in parallel with Capital itself, with each chapter of this book consulted either before or after digesting the relevant sections of Marx’s work.”  The aim, unlike that of Harvey’s more comprehensive approach in his video lectures, is “instead to dwell on those areas that are the most vital to an overall understanding of the work and those that most often confuse, drawing on my own experience teaching Capital to left-wing audiences of students and workers over the past decade”.  For, in Choonara’s view, Marx attempted in Capital to see capitalism from the point of view of labour and aimed for a working-class audience.  Capital clearly does the former, but whether it achieved its aim of reaching working class readers is more doubtful.  Choonara’s guide can help here.

Choonara says that “Marx focuses on production in the first volume. The second deals with the circulation process, which is the way that capital passes through its various phases (production, but also purchase and sale). The third volume integrates both aspects of capitalism and so deals with the process as a whole, allowing Marx to explore some of the most complex aspects of the system.”  This is important, because the full story of capitalism as Marx sees it requires the reading of all three volumes (and what is often called the fourth – Theories of Surplus Value) as well as Marx’s earlier research notes compiled in what is called the Grundrisse.

This is important, Choonara comments, because “the interlinked nature of the project causes problems for those who just read volume one. This can potentially lead to a crude focus on production, in which issues related to the circulation of capital or questions such as finance and credit that are discussed mainly in volume three are overlooked. That said, it is helpful to see production as forming the foundation for circulation, and so Marx’s ordering of volumes makes sense.”  This contrasts with Harvey’s interpretation: “In this I take issue with David Harvey’s very influential reading of Capital, which tends to flatten down these different levels of analysis, treating them all as equally fundamental.”   Choonara goes on: Harvey’s “idea is that production and circulation should be considered as having the same explanatory priority in the analysis of capitalism, whereas Marx clearly feels that production is in some sense more basic than circulation.”

Choonara is not afraid to take a view on what Marx means, particularly in the more difficult early chapters on value.  In particular, he varies from Patnaik’s view on Marx’s view of money: “there is nothing in this analysis that precludes the replacement of the money commodity with symbolic representations or electronically created credit (the form taken by most money today). To understand this requires going much further into Capital, and in particular the sections on finance and credit in the third volume.”  This follows from Marx’s endogenous theory of money, namely that “more or less money would circulate according to the needs of circulation …. Marx’s argument is that the amount of money simply reflects the total price that has to be circulated and the speed with which it circulates.”

Choonara’s reading also shows that Marx did not have some ‘iron law of wages’, as argued by the classical economists Ricardo and Malthus, leading to the view that it was impossible to raise the real wages of workers by their own efforts as wages were determined by the value of the means of subsistence and the effect of productivity and capital accumulation on that.

Choonara comments: “One peculiarity of the subsequent attacks on Marxist theory is that this iron law is often attributed to Marx himself. The vehemence of Marx’s attack (on the iron law) reflects the fact that if the “iron law” were correct, then struggles over wages, and indeed the formation of trade unions, would be pointless, leading the socialist movement into a dogmatic cul-de-sac by isolating it from the real movement of workers.”

Recently, the eminent Marxist professor Michael Lebowitz seems to claim Marx did fall into this fallacy.  Lebowitz implies that Marx’s accumulation theory that workers cannot raise their living standards through struggle as the gains from productivity growth will all go to capital.  In Lebowitz’s words, Marx accepts the ‘Ricardian default’.

Yes, for Marx, “the rate of accumulation is the independent, not the dependent variable; the rate of wages is the dependent, not the independent variable”. In other words, the pattern of accumulation tends to drive the shifts in wages, not the other way round.  But changes to wages, emerging out of accumulation, can still react back onto the patterns of accumulation (Choonara).

And that perceptive mainstream economist, William Baumol, long ago showed that for Marx “wages need not be equal to the value of labour power… and the omission of any fixed equilibrium was deliberate because Marx wanted to show that workers have the power to raise wages substantially even under capitalism”.  Indeed, they could do so and actually alter “the historical and social element that enters into the value of labour power”, which is not determined by the iron law of nature or ‘subsistence’.

Indeed, that is the lesson of the struggle to lower the working day so comprehensively described in Capital.  As Marx put it: “The Ten Hours’ Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class [ie the capitalists] succumbed to the political economy of the working class.”  This was a gain for the value of labour power that was permanent, as is the 8 hour day in the 20th century – although only continual class struggle can preserve such gains.

There are many other useful commentaries by Choonara on aspects of Capital: on the nature of alienation, productive and unproductive labour, mental and material labour, complex and simple labour, on accumulation etc. But enough for now, for there will be more to follow over the coming months, as we consider the relevance of Capital, now 150 years old.


31 Responses to “Reading Capital Today”

  1. Venkatesh Athreya Says:

    Dear Michael Roberts , I have been following your posts and sharing them frequently on FB and via email. However, I do not have your email ID.

    I have written a book on Marxian Political Economy, intended as a rigorous but relatively simple introduction to Capital, Vol I. This has been published by Tulika Publications in 2013. It is also available from LeftWord.
    I am interested in the Seminar you are ogranising at King’ College, September 19-20. But I cannot attend unless I have travel support.
    I have an article entitled ‘Reading Capital’ published in a book brought out in 2011 by LeftWord, Marx’s Capital: An Introductory Reader. If you can email me at, I can email my articles as well as the pdf copy of my book.
    I did my doctoral work in Economics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA in the early 1970s and had met Anwar Shaikh once or twice then at the New School. On my return to India, I got actively involved in political and academic work in India, and have not kept in touch with/or published in the West.

    Do let me know if travel bursaries are available for the Seminar at King’s College in September.
    Warm greetings,
    Venkatesh Athreya

  2. Michael A. Lebowitz Says:

    I’m very happy to see your reference to my essay, ‘Hats and Minds’; it validates my decision to get it out online rather than to wait for it to come out later in print (to ensure its timeliness— particularly since I’m not able to participate in upcoming conferences. I look forward to your follow-ups, and you have already encouraged me to read Choonera’s volume.
    However, you’ve got it all wrong in your description of my argument:

    Recently, the eminent Marxist professor Michael Lebowitz seems to claims Marx did fall into this fallacy. Lebowitz implies that Marx’s accumulation theory that workers cannot raise their living standards through struggle as the gains from productivity growth will all go to capital. In Lebowitz’s words, Marx accepts the ‘Ricardian default’.

    On the contrary, I insist that Marx was well aware that workers can succeed in raising their living standards through struggle and, further, can only build their capacity as a class through those struggles. Nevertheless, despite this absolutely central understanding, you will find no trace of this point in his theoretical introduction of the concept of relative surplus value— with the result that the only condition for the development of relative surplus value appears to be the growth of productivity. Why? Because he made a methodological decision to exclude workers struggles (by accepting the classical assumption) after having made them essential in the determination of the workday— i.e., he opened the door to let the elephant in and then said implicitly, pay no attention to the elephant (until the special theory of elephants). One result is that the essential requirement of capital that it must divide and separate workers as the necessary condition for the existence of relative surplus value has been lost to Marx’s disciples with disastrous results. I hope you will go back to look at my argument in that paper more closely.

    • michael roberts Says:

      Michael, thanks for this. I think it clarifies your position and shows that we are one on what Marx thought.

    • Boffy Says:

      “On the contrary, I insist that Marx was well aware that workers can succeed in raising their living standards through struggle and, further, can only build their capacity as a class through those struggles.”

      That seems completely at odds with what both marx and Engels actually say. Engels, for example writes,

      “The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working-men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation. In a commercial crisis the Union itself must reduce wages or dissolve wholly; and in a time of considerable increase in the demand for labour, it cannot fix the rate of wages higher than would be reached spontaneously by the competition of the capitalists among themselves.”

      (Condition of the Working Class in England, Chapter 10)

      Whilst Marx writes,

      “I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. … the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market.”

      (Value, Price and Profit)

      Living standards rise because social productivity rises, and as marx sets out discussing the Civilising Mission of Capital, in The Grundrisse, Capital not only needs to sell this increasing mass of use values, but it also requires a different kind of labour-power as it itself develops.

      “On the other side, the production of relative surplus value, i.e. production of surplus value based on the increase and development of the productive forces, requires the production of new consumption; requires that the consuming circle within circulation expands as did the productive circle previously. Firstly quantitative expansion of existing consumption; secondly: creation of new needs by propagating existing ones in a wide circle; thirdly: production of new needs and discovery and creation of new use values. In other words, so that the surplus labour gained does not remain a merely quantitative surplus, but rather constantly increases the circle of qualitative differences within labour (hence of surplus labour), makes it more diverse, more internally differentiated. For example, if, through a doubling of productive force, a capital of 50 can now do what a capital of 100 did before, so that a capital of 50 and the necessary labour corresponding to it become free, then, for the capital and labour which have been set free, a new, qualitatively different branch of production must be created, which satisfies and brings forth a new need. The value of the old industry is preserved by the creation of the fund for a new one in which the relation of capital and labour posits itself in a new form. Hence exploration of all of nature in order to discover new, useful qualities in things; universal exchange of the products of all alien climates and lands; new (artificial) preparation of natural objects, by which they are given new use values. The exploration of the earth in all directions, to discover new things of use as well as new useful qualities of the old; such as new qualities of them as raw materials etc.; the development, hence, of the natural sciences to their highest point; likewise the discovery, creation and satisfaction of new needs arising from society itself; the cultivation of all the qualities of the social human being, production of the same in a form as rich as possible in needs, because rich in qualities and relations — production of this being as the most total and universal possible social product, for, in order to take gratification in a many-sided way, he must be capable of many pleasures [genussfähig], hence cultured to a high degree — is likewise a condition of production founded on capital. This creation of new branches of production, i.e. of qualitatively new surplus time, is not merely the division of labour, but is rather the creation, separate from a given production, of labour with a new use value; the development of a constantly expanding and more comprehensive system of different kinds of labour, different kinds of production, to which a constantly expanding and constantly enriched system of needs corresponds.”

      (Chapter 8)

      The rise in wages and living standards may have the appearance of being the result of these trades union struggles, but it is ultimately only the phenomenal form of the underlying value relations, worked out according to the objective laws that Marx describes that determine the value of labour-power, and the new value created by labour, and hence the surplus value produced, which then determines the relations of demand and supply for labour-power, which sets the constraints within which that wage struggle is conducted.

      • Michael A. Lebowitz Says:

        Boffy’s argument that ‘Living standards rise because social productivity rises’ is a classic example of determinism and the devaluation of class struggle. For the argument that this tendency flows from a methodological assumption Marx made in CAPITAL and for a refutation of this argument see my article, ‘Hats and Men: Marx’s Faulty Symmetry’

      • Boffy Says:


        There is nothing deterministic about it, other than the way objective social laws always determine reality. Moreover, trades union struggle is not “class struggle” it is merely economistic sectional struggle that often sets one group of workers against another.

        The rise in social productivity necessarily reduces the value of commodities, which is the basis of the rise in relative surplus value. Whether that is translated into an actual rise in workers living standards is not at all simply a question of determinism. Nominal wages could fall whilst real wages remained constant, so that nominal surplus value rises.

        But, the consequence of the rise in surplus value, and rate of profit is that capital accumulates more quickly. As marx sets out in TOSV II, and in Capital III, Chapter 6 and 15, the consequence of this rise in accumulation is that the demand for labour-power rises. Its these short term rises in the demand for labour-power that Marx describes in TOSV II, as being the instance in which Adam Smith was right. Smith argued that capital would accumulate faster than the growth in population and of the supply of labour causing wages to rise, and it was this that Smith thought was the cause of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.

        Its in this connection that Marx makes the comment,

        “A distinction must be made here. When Adam Smith explains the fall in the rate of profit from an over-abundance of capital, an accumulation of capital, he is speaking of a permanent effect and this is wrong. As against this, the transitory over-abundance of capital, over-production and crises are something different. Permanent crises do not exist.”

        Ricardo disagreed with Smith. Marx comments that Ricardo did not believe in such fairytales. Ricardo recognised that the supply of labour is increased along with capital, but argues that this very rise causes the demand for agricultural products to rise so that less fertile land is brought into production, pushing up agricultural prices and rent. The rise in food prices causes wages to rise, he says, but not by sufficient to ensure that real wages rise. But enough to reduce profits, along with the reduction in profits caused by the rise in rent. This is Ricardo’s argument for the tendency for the rate of profit to fall that leads him to believe that ultimately profit itself falls and the system collapses.

        Marx shows both Smith and Ricardo are wrong. Agricultural productivity rises so that real wages rise, whilst the rate of surplus value and of profit also thereby rise. But, Smith is right that periodically capital can accumulate rapidly so that the demand for labour is such that money wages as well as real wages rise, causing a squeeze on profits.

        Such periods were described by Marx in Value, price and Profit for the period 1849-59. Similar periods have been seen after the new boom in the period after around and after 1914, and in the 1960’s/70’s. It prompts capital as Marx says to search out new labour saving technologies that raise productivity, and create a relative surplus population so that wages fall. It leads to a period of stagnation, as investment occurs on the basis of this intensive labour saving investment, which also creates the conditions for the actual tendency for the rate of profit to fall described by Marx as this labour saving technology causes the organic composition of capital to rise, as the proportion of material processed rises.

        But this never results in living standards falling back to the previous levels.

      • Michael A. Lebowitz Says:

        Boffy writes: ‘The rise in social productivity necessarily reduces the value of commodities, which is the basis of the rise in relative surplus value.’ How EXACTLY do you get from the fall in the value of commodities to the ‘rise in relative surplus value’? Through an assumption dropped from the sky [or, rather, from classical political economy]? Again, see ‘Hats and Men’.
        Sorry, Michael, for this digression from the topic of your post.

      • Boffy Says:


        You say,

        “How EXACTLY do you get from the fall in the value of commodities to the ‘rise in relative surplus value’?”

        In exactly the same way that Marx does! That is a rise in social productivity causes the values of commodities to fall. The value of labour-power is determined by the value of the commodities required for its reproduction. The value of the commodities required for the reproduction of labour-power (wage goods) are a subset of the category all commodities. All commodities have fallen in value as a result of the rise in productivity ergo, the value of wage goods has fallen, ergo the value of labour-power has fallen.

        Relative value arises when necessary labour falls and so surplus labour rises. The extent of necessary labour is determined by the value of labour-power. Necessary labour has fallen, because the value of labour-power has fallen, because social productivity has risen.

        Viewed in value terms the rate of surplus value has risen. Marx defines wages in Capital Volume I as the phenomenal form of the value of labour-power. This is the whole basis of his law of objective value from which he determines that the value of commodities is objectively determined, and not simply a matter of subjective valuation, discussion and negotiation between the buyers and sellers of commodities as the subjectivists like Samuel Bailey, or the later neo-classical economists argue. It is also the basis of Marx’s opposition to the wage theories of the Lassalleans.

        So, it sets the constraints and barriers. If the value of labour-power for workers in company A is collectively £100, and they produce £200 of new value, so that (setting aside as Marx does in such examples the value of constant capital) they produce £100 of surplus value so that the rate of surplus value, and here also the rate of profit is 100%, the capitalist A will be happy to continue if this is at least the average rate of profit.

        Suppose the value of labour-power rises to £120. If employers do not raise wages, labour-power cannot be reproduced. Either the number of workers itself declines, or the productivity of workers declines, the quality of their production declines, they become sick more frequently die younger, so that the supply of labour declines, labour shortages then arise, so that wages rise, and even in the short term, the amount of surplus value falls due to the reduction in the quality and supply of labour.

        Suppose all employers increase wages accordingly, but employer A does not. Firstly, of course, workers in A would seek where possible to move to other firms where wages were higher. But, if A succeeds in holding wages down, the rate of profit in A would be higher than elsewhere. Capital would then seek to produce A, and make this higher rate of profit, but that would increase the demand for labour in A, and would thereby raise wages in A.

        Put another way, if workers in A are somehow mysteriously more militant than other workers, and manage to obtain a higher wage than other workers, which means that the profits in A declines below the average, capital will at the very least accumulate faster in other spheres where the rate of profit is thereby higher. A will decline, and eventually go out of business. If workers in A simply on the basis of this purely subjectivist concept of the ability to determine wages on the basis of their will and militancy, push their wages high enough so that capitalist A cannot produce profit at all. A may just shut up shop right away so that if you win you lose.

        Or as, Marx explained it in Value, price and profit, what more often happens is that in response to the higher wages, for example, between 1849-59, or as a result of the profits squeeze of the 1960’s and 70’s, capital simply engages in a search for labour-saving technology. Th labour saving technology removes the dependence on labour, creating a relative surplus population. The demand for labour-power falls relative to the supply, workers lose bargaining power, and wages fall.

        The new technology also deskills various types of labour. For example, the introduction of computer typesetting, word processing, and all of the technologies such as photocopying in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, undermined the power of the skilled workers in the print industry, and led to a fall in wages in that industry.

        This is the process by which capital resolves the crises of overproduction that arise from the squeeze on profits caused by a Smithian overproduction of capital that pushes up wages,a nd thereby reduces surplus value. It is also the process which then results in the conditions that lead to the tendency for the rate of profit/profit margin to fall, because this new technology, by replacing labour, and raising productivity increases the amount of material processed by a given amount of labour, i.e. it increases the organic composition of capital. As Marx puts it,

        “Growth of capital, hence accumulation of capital, does not imply a fall in the rate of profit, unless it is accompanied by the aforementioned changes in the proportion of the organic constituents of capital. Now it so happens that in spite of the constant daily revolutions in the mode of production, now this and now that larger or smaller portion of the total capital continues to accumulate for certain periods on the basis of a given average proportion of those constituents, so that there is no organic change with its growth, and consequently no cause for a fall in the rate of profit. This constant expansion of capital, hence also an expansion of production, on the basis of the old method of production which goes quietly on while new methods are already being introduced at its side, is another reason, why the rate of profit does not decline as much as the total capital of society grows.”

        (Capital III, Chapter 15)

        That is also why Marx says,

        “Improvements, inventions, greater economy in the means of production, etc. are introduced not at times when prices rise above their average level, but when they fall below it, i.e., when profit falls below its normal rate.”

        (Theories of Surplus Value,II, Chapter 8, p 26 – 7)

        In other words, the squeeze on profits causes capital to search out and introduce these new technologies that replace labour. The effect of these is to remove the squeeze on profits caused by high wages. It causes a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, but increases the rate of surplus value, and mass of profit. It also tends to increase the average annual rate of profit as opposed to the rate of profit/profit margin, because the effect of the rise in productivity is to reduce the advanced capital relative to the laid out capital, as the rate of turnover of capital rises.

        Now, of course, you are free if you like to ignore all of Marx’s scientific analysis, and value theory, and to adopt the subjectivist, reformist notions that prices including wages are merely a matter of negotiation between buyers and sellers, but I will prefer to stick with Marx.

        After all if there is no objective basis to wages rooted in the value of labour-power, there is no objective for any other set of commodity prices, in which case the law of Value does not exist, and the whole of Marx’s theory of value, and with it the historical laws of society collapses. We end up with simply a neo-classical world where prices are simply a matter of subjective preferences which determine how much or how little the buyers and sellers will press for a higher or lower price.

        If workers win higher wages, they feel satisfied with themselves, and the bourgeoisie can feel satisfied that the workers have once more at least been imbued with the bourgeois notion of buying and selling their labour-power, of bargaining within the system, rather than the need to abolish the system of wages altogether.

      • Boffy Says:


        Incidentally, if you read what Marx says on precisely these questions in TOSV, you will see that he says that even absolute surplus value is dependent upon relative surplus value, and thereby on the level of social productivity, because if social productivity does not reach a minimum level, it is impossible to produce any surplus product!

        That is why Marx and Engels (and Engels sets this out against Duhring in Anti-Duhring in relation to The Force Theory) say that whether slavery exists is not simply a subjective matter, but that slavery itself can only exist when the level of social productivity rises to this minimum level whereby the individual can produce more in a day than they require for their own reproduction. If social productivity does not reach this minimum level, than slavery is impossible, because it costs more for the slave holder to keep the slave alive than the slave is able to produce for the slave holder.

        And that is precisely the point at issue but in a different form in relation to wage slavery here.

        Actually, you could do worse than to read Engels chapter on the Force Theory to see exactly what is wrong with the subjectivist argument you are presenting.

      • Boffy Says:


        Incidentally, I think that what you say about the role of workers struggle in the determination of the working day is also wrong. As marx sets out in Value, Price and profit and in Wage Labour and Capital, there is a degree of flexibility between the working day being limited to only necessary labour, and at the other extreme to the maximum physically possible. But, that does not remove the objective constraints that operate within these limits.

        That is why it was not only workers demanding a limitation on working hours, but capitalists themselves like Wedgwood, as Marx sets out in Capital I, because they recognised that competition between them was destroying the working-class and thereby the source of their surplus value. Its why also every developed country has created a welfare state of some sorts, and why the Chinese are looking at such a development.

        As Marx puts it these kinds of legislation and features are as much a consequence of capitalist production as the spinning machine.

      • Michael A. Lebowitz Says:

        Boffy, from your comment dismissing the role of workers’ struggles in the determination of the workday, it’s clear that you haven’t looked at Marx’s chapter on the workday in CAPITAL closely. Here’s a passage from my ‘Hats and Men’ drawing upon this:

        This is the second product of workers’ struggles, and it is a working class obviously different from capital’s second product, that unresisting mass presumed in the discussion of relative surplus value.[47] But this working class is not entirely absent from Capital: we do see it briefly in Capital’s chapter on the workday, where Marx allowed us to hear ‘the voice of the worker which had previously been stifled.’[48] There we see workers as subjects, struggling against capital for their own goals; and, it is that struggle that determines ‘the normal working day.’ Unfortunately, those workers disappear when it comes to the subsequent chapter on relative surplus value.

        Indeed, the ‘protracted and more or less concealed civil war between the capitalist class and the working class’ over the workday disappears when it comes to the determination of wages.[49] When it comes to introducing the concept of relative surplus value, the worker’s voice is stifled, not by the power of capital but by assumption. In place of the worker-as-subject, in place of class struggle over wages, Capital employs the assumption inherited from classical political economy that treats the worker as an instrument of production without a voice, indeed, as a more or less well-fed instrument of production.

        After having introduced workers as subjects in his discussion of the struggle over the workday, though, why did Marx’s succeeding chapter on the concept of relative surplus value silence the voice of the worker? What was the effect of not framing this chapter by the same ‘antinomy, of right against right,’ that struggle between collective capital and collective labour that produced the norm for the workday?[50]

      • Boffy Says:


        I can assure you I have read all Chapters of Capital and Theories of Surplus Value many times very carefully over a period of more than 40 years. Indeed, I am publishing my own 21st Century translation of those works.

        But, more than that, I certainly do not “dismiss the role of workers’ struggles” in any way. I became a union shop steward when I was 19, and represented the union at its annual Conference the following year. I was President of my local TUC (Trades Council) in 1985 and 1986, as well as Secretary of the Miners Support Committee during the 84-85 strike. I sat on the West Midlands Regional Council for two years, and before I finished work, I was the Branch Secretary of my union. I followed in the footsteps of my father who as a 20 year old engineer at the start of WWII, was moved from one car factory to another for undertaking TU activity, before finally having all of his cards filled with black ink to prevent him working.

        My point is not at all to “dismiss” workers struggles, but as a Marxist to recognise the limited nature of them within the context of Capitalism, and within the context of attempting to replace it with Socialism. No one is suggesting that workers struggles do not play a part in the real world in setting the actual wages that are paid, the actual conditions that are won in a given factory or industry, any more than you would question the actual role, as Marx sets out of a particularly smart capitalist/manager in determining how much a particular firm pays for its inputs, or is able to charge for its outputs.

        Market prices never coincide with prices of production or exchange values, except by accident. But does this mean that we then throw over the whole of the objective determination of value, of exchange value and of prices of production? Of course not, because all of these variations and nuances are merely the phenomenal form of the underlying objective determination of values, which sets the constraints within which those real world prices can be set.

        You seem to be allowing these superficial, phenomenal forms to be the centre of your analysis, rather than as Marx does stripping away that superficial shell, in order to analyse what lies beneath, what determines that the length of day should be 8 hours, or 10 hours rather than 18 hours, for example, or what determines that the rate of profit should be 30% rather than 300%, or 3%.

        Why do you think it is that in some industries workers are more militant than in others? Why are workers in the same industry more militant at some times than at others? Why is the proportion of workers generally around 25% of the workforce, and yet at others rises to around 50%? Why is it that many workers who are not in trades unions, or who work in industries that are not unionised still get higher wages than some other groups of workers, for example, why do workers who work in small back street firms generally get worse pay and conditions than non-unionised workers in larger firms.

        Why is it that in some periods, very militant workers in powerful unions, such as the Miners in 1972-74, are able to get pay rises, and to win their struggles, and yet even after a mammoth struggle in 1926, and in 1984, they go down to crushing defeat?

        Could it be that in different industries, and in different phases of the economic cycle, in particular the long wave cycle, the economic conditions facilitate wages and conditions improving, and that in others they favour improvements being taken back, at least in part? Could it be, that as Marx sets out in Capital I, capital is able to use up a huge labour reserve wastefully by destroying large numbers of workers through long hours, and poor conditions, and at others, as he describes that huge reserve has been used up, that many of the workers left ar unusable, and that in order to increase surplus value it is necessary to reduce hours, improve workers health, and instead to raise relative surplus value through the introduction of new technologies?

        Your approach seems similar to the essentially idealist method of Proudhon, that Marx dismantles in The Poverty of Philosophy, where marx asks Proudhon a series of similar questions about why it was that Proudhon thought that the nature of human beings in different ages was different to what it was in others. It results in a rather voluntarist approach, which in itself can never begin to understand the true basis of the class struggle, or understand why it is that workers can be successful in their distributional struggles in some periods, and yet fail miserably in others.

        It leads to the kind of crass, vulgar reformist/syndicatlist politics of “more militancy” pursued by the SWP in Britain over the years, which has failed miserably to build anything of use, and failed even more miserably to provide workers with any answers to their problems, particularly, and notably after 1974, when the economic cycle turned, and the possibility of workers being able to continue to advance their economic position by such militancy was undermined. It was seen in the attitude of some communists in Germany in the 1920’s, who kept calling for such “more militancy” and calling the workers out on to the streets, criticised by Trotsky, when the conditions were not right, and as described in “Flood-Ride”, and his writings on the the “Curve of economic Development”. A similar thing to the latter is seen in the reformist/economist politics of groups like The Militant Tendency/Socialist Party in Britain, who peddle this same kind of nonsense, and continually raise demands for General Strikes that are never going to happen, in the conditions in which they call them, so that it becomes mere rrrevolutionary phrasemongering.

      • Boffy Says:

        Incidentally, you again referred to class struggle, saying ,”In place of the worker-as-subject, in place of class struggle over wages…” But, as Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and others set out, a struggle over wages is NOT a class struggle. That was the view of the Economists, who confuse such partial, distributional struggle for class struggle, and thereby never get beyond a bourgeois reformist consciousness, which means they can never lift the consciousness of the working-class above such bourgeois reformist consciousness.

        Its exactly the kind of bourgeois reformist/syndicalist consciousness that we see from the SWP/Militant Tendency/Socialist Party in Britain, and have seen from them and their ancestors over the last 50 years.

        These struggles over wages and conditions are not class struggles, but purely economic distributional struggles, that rarely get beyond being partial, sectional struggles. They are a step above the kind of atomised competition of one worker against another, but frequently they act to divide workers as much as uniting them. The kind of strikes over pay differentials that were common in the 1960’s in Britain are a classic example of that.

        In car factories in the 1960’s, there was also trades union action by sections of workers to keep some of the better jobs for “white workers”, as well as to keep jobs for men. The classic examples of such action are also the strikes and marches that took place by the most militant workers at the time, the London Dockers, in support of Enoch Powell and his racist demands for immigration controls, as well of course as the strikes by the Ulster Workers Council to oppose proposals for power sharing etc. A more recent example was the strike by oil refinery workers in Britain, where the demand of “British Jobs for British Workers” was raised.

        The whole basis of such distributional struggles is an acceptance of the wages system itself, of purely bourgeois/reformist bargaining within that system, which in itself means bargaining a better deal for your group of workers than some other. Very rarely have we seen workers acting as a class to pursue their collective interests, as opposed to the promotion of these purely sectional interests.

        It is also what feeds into wider sectional struggles, and the promotion of nationalistic ideas. It leads to demands for import controls or immigration controls nominally to protect the interests of workers in the home country against the impingeing of foreign capital, but always in fact to separate the workers in one country from the workers in another. At its most acute it leads those workers to line up behind their own bourgeoisie in shooting wars against those other countries. An example of such division is the EU referendum in Britain which separates British workers from workers in the rest of the EU, or the adoption of nationalistic ideas to separate Scottish workers from workers in the rest of Britain.

        It is in fact, the very opposite of class struggle, even within a national context, let alone an international context. It is purely a bourgeois, reformist distributional struggle, and given the upper hand in the long run of capital, it ends up as a distributional struggle in which more powerful groups of workers get a bigger share of the pie than less powerful groups of workers, which thereby acts to divide them further.

        Its why Marx wrote,

        “I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. … the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market.”

        (Value, Price and Profit)

        and went on to say,

        “Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”

        Trades can act as holding pens, of aggregating workers so that socialists can intervene in them, and show precisely why such distributional struggles can only ever be successful within very constrained limits, and limits which are more constrained in some industries than others, some workplaces than others, and at some times as opposed to others. They are a means whereby those socialists can encourage those workers to form their own political party so as to engage in real class struggle, as opposed to this limited distributional struggle, and to encourage them to establish, and fight for their own form of property in opposition to that of capital, to establish their own worker owned and controlled co-operatives as Marx and the First International suggested, so as “to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society.” (ibid)

      • Boffy Says:

        This is what Lenin says as against the reformists and Economists on the matter.

        “Their spread over the whole of Russia clearly showed the depth of the newly awakening popular movement, and if we are to speak of the “spontaneous element” then, of course, it is this strike movement which, first and foremost, must be regarded as spontaneous. But there is spontaneity and spontaneity. Strikes occurred in Russia in the seventies and sixties (and even in the first half of the nineteenth century), and they were accompanied by the “spontaneous” destruction of machinery, etc. Compared with these “revolts”, the strikes of the nineties might even be described as “conscious”, to such an extent do they mark the progress which the working-class movement made in that period. This shows that the “spontaneous element”, in essence, represents nothing more nor less than. consciousness in an embryonic form. Even the primitive revolts expressed the awakening of consciousness to a certain extent. The workers were losing their age-long faith in the permanence of the system which oppressed them and began… I shall not say to understand, but to sense the necessity for collective resistance, definitely abandoning their slavish submission to the authorities. But this was, nevertheless, more in the nature of outbursts of desperation and vengeance than of struggle. The strikes of the nineties revealed far greater flashes of consciousness; definite demands were advanced, the strike was carefully timed, known cases and instances in other places were discussed, etc. The revolts were simply the resistance of the oppressed, whereas the systematic strikes represented the class struggle in embryo, but only in embryo. Taken by themselves, these strikes were simply trade union struggles, not yet Social Democratic struggles. They marked the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers; but the workers, were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system, i.e., theirs was not yet Social-Democratic consciousness. In this sense, the strikes of the nineties, despite the enormous progress they represented as compared with the “revolts”, remained a purely spontaneous movement.”

        And, of course today, the level of class consciousness is lower rather than higher than it was for the Russian workers in the 1890’s, as they undertook these struggles guided by the role of social-democrats/communists. Today, we are lucky if the majority of workers rise to the level of class consciousness of an Ed Miliband, or a Macron, or a Bernie Sanders, and only a minority rise even to the level of a Corbyn, whilst only a fraction of 1% have reached the level of actual revolutionary class consciousness, so that the nature of these strikes is even more that of simply a rebellious outburst, and simply a question of sectional bargaining within the system over the price of their labour than any kind of conscious class struggle act.

      • jlowrie Says:

        Michael L says,” Boffy’s argument that ‘Living standards rise because social productivity rises’ is a classic example of determinism and the devaluation of class struggle”

        Boffy says, ”There is nothing deterministic about it, other than the way objective social laws always determine reality. ”

        I wonder if these comrades are not talking at cross purposes. Remember how Marx remarks that men make their own history but not as they will, as ”they inevitably enter into into definite relations that are independent of their will.”

        I understand Marx to use ‘determine’ in two senses : to set boundaries to and ‘determinatio est negatio.’ Thus while the economic laws of capitalism posit boundaries to what can be achieved by the working class, their struggles can certainly ameliorate their material situation within the limits of the capitalist mode of production. Rising productivity allows the working class to raise their standard of living by struggle. Marx himself points out somewhere that a cut in the working week is
        an example of successful class struggle, while 6 pence a week increase in a worker’s wage is not. I think his point in “Value, Price and Profit” is not to deny the the utility of economist struggles, but rather to underline their limitations in overthrowing the wages system per se.

      • Boffy Says:


        I would tend to agree with what you are saying, and I think its what I said previously. The reason that the struggle for a 10 hour day was part of a class struggle whilst a strike for sixpence on the wage was not, is the fact that the campaign for the Ten Hours Act was a class wide struggle, for something that was being fought for on behalf of the whole class.

        Lenin makes the distinction that strikes against individual employers are merely trades union, sectional, distributional struggles, and so not class struggles, whereas strikes and other actions undertaken by the whole class against the capitalist state are an example of class struggle.

        However, the main point here that was under discussion was whether workers can simply improve their condition via some kind of voluntaristic act of will, as the SWP put it, its only a question of “more militancy”. I think that such a perspective is not only not a Marxist perspective it is not even a materialist perspective. It implies that workers are being subjected to low wages, or poor conditions purely out of some kind of subjective character trait of capitalists that leads them to be greedy and vindictive. All that is then required is for workers to counter this subjective action of the capitalists by their own subjective willpower to raise their condition.

        On that basis, capitalism could continue forever, because the condition of the workers would have nothing to do with capitalism itself, but only with the morals and character flaws of evil capitalists. It would only be necessary for workers by their own voluntaristic acts to be able to counter the capitalists, and they would get all of the pay rises and better conditions they could ever need without any need to replace the capitalist system itself.

        But, in Capital I, Marx explains why this is not the case. As he sets out, human beings are merely the actors on the stage of history, they represent the real bases of class and of class struggle, that is contending forms of property. It is the forms of property landed property, private capital, socialised capital, fictitious capital that are the real classes, i.e. classes of property, with the owners of these different forms of property merely acting as the personification of that property, and its conflict with the other forms.

        As Marx puts it in The Poverty of Philosophy, “Time is everything, Man is nothing, he is at most time’s carcase.”

        During the 1960’s, the SWP, then International Socialists had great success pushing this idea of “more militancy”, as workers still benefitting from the growth of capital during the post-war boom were able to win pay rises with short sharp often unofficial strikes. Even into the 1970’s such actions were still being successful. As a young shop steward at the time, I even managed on one occasion to get not just my workplace union members to walk out, but got non-union members to walk out too. (I wasn’t under any illusion even then that this represented class struggle, mind, because even quite a few of the union members were Tories, let alone the non-union members). They were looking to their own individual interests, and the union was just a means of achieving it.

        But, even by the mid 70’s, it was beginning to break down. Mass actions by groups of workers that were closer to class struggles, such as at Grunwicks, failed to win. By the early 80’s it was nearly always losing as happened with the steel workers, and other groups of workers leading up to the defeat of the miners. In fact, it was at the point of peak militancy, peak organisation of workers, and peak membership of groups like the SWP, Militant, and even the Communist Party that still had support in industrial workplaces like at Longrbridge, that this perspective failed, and rather than this more militancy leading to workers winning strikes they began increasingly to lose them.

        It was obvious that “more militancy” was not enough. It was not simply a matter that evil capitalists were paying workers low wages, imposing poor conditions and so on, just because they were evil. The fact, is as Marx describes in the abstract and in practice in relation to the period of 1849-59, in the 1960’s, and into the 1970’s it was the very fact of the economic conditions of economic growth and rising productivity that enabled workers to get higher pay. I went from one job to another one, and doubled my pay in the process, just by changing jobs! But, it was this very process that caused wages to rise, and squeeze profits.

        Employers eventually responded. The squeeze on profits caused by this higher pay, and rising material input costs, such as the oil price shock, caused crises of overproduction. Workers started to get laid off, and strikes were not a means of preventing that, because workers stopping work, was precisely what employers wanted, when they already had too much production. They began to look for labour saving technologies in place of paying higher wages to workers. They began to look for ways of reducing the amount of oil they used, and other materials, so as to reduce the cost of constant capital, and so on.

        By the early 1980’s, it was obvious that the “more militancy” offered workers no solution, because as unemployment rose, employers were far more happy to see strikes drag on than they had been previously, whilst the workers facing this unemployment pressing down on them, became far more interested in looking to their individual position than engaging in strikes that even the hugely powerful miners could not win.

        The economism and more militancy ideas of the 1960’s,70’s and 80’s, were hugely debilitating for the working class, because they led the working class into a reformist/syndicalist blind alley, and away from the political solutions they required to resolve their problems. It led them away from developing the real class struggle of developing worker owned and controlled property in opposition to capitalist property, of developing as Marx puts it workers self government, and self determination, rather than a reformist reliance on the capitalist state to come to their rescue, which of course, as a capitalist state it is never going to do.

      • jlowrie Says:


        The point I was hoping to make is that Marx is an economic determinist, not an economic reductionist.

        Unfortunately, as your analysis, which seems to be based on experiences that parallel my own, suggests, economism has been dominant on the left. You sum it up exactly in the phrase ‘more militancy’. If the socialist paper is not selling that is because the comrades are not trying hard enough, not because it is boring and offers nothing but empty rhetoric.

        I recall an SWP member claiming that a big wage increase for oil tank drivers was a huge victory for the working class. When I denied this quoting Marx’s own illustration attested above, he immediately attacked me as a pseudo-Marxist. Now this guy was a lecturer in economics, and how profound his understanding was can be seen from the following example: when a local company was going bankrupt and no bank was willing to extend further loans, he advocated that we hold a public demonstration,demanding that the workers seize the factory. Very militant sounding of course, but the workers were canny enough to comprehend that the banks would not advance capital to an illegal seizure of an already failing factory. As one wit put it, the biggest Marxist party in Britain consists of ex-members of the SWP; true but tragic. Marxists should leave reforms within the capitalist system to the trade unions, and raise issues that rather undermine the system.

        A case in point is anti-war demonstrations. I do not care to count how many I have been on since 1968, and the resulting analysis was always the same: we need to have another and bigger one! But”Stop the War” is a slogan addressed to the capitalist state, which can and usually does just ignore it. Rather, socialists should demonstrate for a law to be enacted that a referendum must be held before any military action is carried out. Had such a law been in force I believe that the people of Britain would overwhelmingly have voted against the invasion of Iraq. A referendum allows the people to decide rather than the Government. In the ancient Athenian democracy referenda were held 40 times a year. In our electronic age can we not do better?

      • Boffy Says:


        I remember when I was about 14, and the Vietnam War was at its height lying in bed at night and thinking about how a better world might be created, and the idea about direct democracy via electronic plebiscite was an idea I thought would be something to champion, which was rather prescient given this was still the 1960’s!

        However, I’ll come back to that shortly. I’ve written about the demands for “Stop The War” and so on, in the past Proletarian Military Policy. You are quite right that Trotsky wrote that the decision to conduct a war or not conduct a war is one taken by states. You can only dictate whether a War should be conducted or stopped if you control the state.

        “Where and when has an oppressed proletariat “controlled” the foreign policy of the bourgeoisie and the activities of its army? How can it achieve this when the entire power is in the hands of the bourgeoisie? In order to lead the army, it is necessary to overthrow the bourgeoisie and seize power. There is no other road. But the new policy of the Communist International implies the renunciation of this only road.

        When a working class party proclaims that in the event of war it is prepared to “control” (i.e., to support) its national militarism and not to overthrow it, it transforms itself by this very thing into the domestic beast of capital. There is not the slightest ground for fearing such a party: it is not a revolutionary tiger but a trained donkey. It may be kept in starvation, flogged, spat upon it – it will nevertheless carry the cargo of patriotism. Perhaps only from time to time it will piteously bray: “For God’s sake, disarm the Fascist leagues.” In reply to its braying it will receive an additional blow of the whip. And deservingly so!”

        But, I am not so enamoured today of the idea of direct democracy by plebiscite as I was when I was 14. I have learned some things since then. Democracy, even a direct democracy conducted by plebiscite is not an empty vessel. It is filled with class content, and that content is determined by the rest of the polity around it in society. In society that is dominated by bourgeois productive relations, and bourgeois ideas, it is still inevitable that the democracy itself will be filled with bourgeois content. Even in workers organisations like trades unions that influence will still impose itself.

        Switzerland for example, has a people’s militia and direct democracy, but it does not prevent it being bourgeois. I do not obviously disagree with the idea of direct democracy itself, but it must be combined with a much wider array of worker owned property, and embryonic forms of alternative state formations developed by workers in opposition to capital and its state, before it has any chance of freeing itself of the fetters of bourgeois ideology on a societal level.

  3. testettetxtrststttsgsg Says:

    Thank you for your regular and informative blog posts. After reading descent amount writing on Marx’s theory of value, I am still in the dark as to how it relates to prices (supply and demand?) as well as the FIRE economy. For example is there a relationship between LTV and property prices, or previous stones/metals-which would seem to be a classic examples of prices determined by supply and demand.

  4. John Parker Says:

    Thank you very much Michael. I’ve been looking for a helper guide to Capital and I think I’ll get Joseph Choonara’s book when it comes out. Things are really heating up here in the U.S. and us activists need to brush up on our theory to make our actions as potent as possible in the struggle for a better society.

    thanks again,

    John Parker

    On Thu, May 18, 2017 at 4:12 AM, Michael Roberts Blog wrote:

    > michael roberts posted: “As we approach the exact date of the publication > of Marx’s Capital Volume One 150 years ago (14 September), a host of > conferences and books are coming out in the small world of Marxist study on > the relevance of Capital today. The symposium that I am orga” >

  5. John A Imani Says:

    December 21, 2015 11:16 pm Marx’s meditation on Citizen Weston revisited axzz3uyuqgPeJ


    Jennifer Hughes’s comments on the increase in purchasing power of China’s poorest 40 per cent (Short View , December 17) illustrates why it is that a rise in the minimum wage does not result in an increase in unemployment. Nor does such an increase engender anything more than but a brief but passing inflationary episode. [image: firstFT]

    After describing a fall in the Chinese luxury goods market, Ms Hughes writes that “there is growing interest in the power of another type of Chinese consumer — the more regular, less flashy sort. Incomes for China’s poorest 40 per cent are rising at about 9 per cent a year — more rapidly than for the better off . . . investors should think about sectors that could get a boost from the bottom 40 per cent.”

    Suppose that against a given level of production such an increase occurs. The additional purchasing power then causes a rise in the price level of what AC Pigou called “wage-goods” as the pay rise does not allow ventures into “non-wage goods” (luxury items), only an increase in purchasing of the former.

    This rise in the price level — and through that, the profitability — in the “wage-good” sector entices some entrepreneurs to exit the “non-wage good” sector and enter into “wage-good” production. The consequent rise in the level of this production soon strips the inflation away, sending pricing, profitability and the general level of inflation back towards their pre-wage increase mean levels. Only now there is relatively more production of “wage-goods”. In addition there will be an increase in the tempo of the economy as income will have been transferred towards sectors inhabited by those with greater marginal propensity to consume.

    Of course some pre-existing concerns operating marginally at profitability will be unable to afford the wage rise and will exit the field. These losses will be more than compensated by the job growth in the “wage-good” industries as a portion of the market’s productive forces come to be shifted away from the fashioning of luxury items as “investors . . . think about sectors that could get a boost from the bottom”.

    There is nothing new in this thinking. Marx described the same almost exactly 150 years ago in his meditation on Citizen Weston in *Value, Price and Profit*.

    *John A Imani*

    *Los Angeles, CA, US*


    On Thu, May 18, 2017 at 4:12 AM, Michael Roberts Blog wrote:

    > michael roberts posted: “As we approach the exact date of the publication > of Marx’s Capital Volume One 150 years ago (14 September), a host of > conferences and books are coming out in the small world of Marxist study on > the relevance of Capital today. The symposium that I am orga” >

  6. billjefferies Says:

    The New Solution to the transformation question and the variants thereof (Kliman, Moseley etc.) did not “solve” the TP at all, but simply assumed that the inputs into Marx’s transformation model were in fact prices and not values.
    This is quite wrong and Marx is not ambiguous on this in the least.
    The problem is that all these theorists accept that it is possible to derive prices from the physical structure of production plus wages, in other words, they accept that Dmitriev, Von B, and Sraffa were right, in essence, if not the details.
    All of Kliman’s models for example assume that inputs are identical to outputs, either individually or in aggregate. As I have shown there is no need to make such a concession and this assumption violates the very purpose of production itself. The physicalist model is not a model of production at all, as it assumes that inputs are “unchanged”, when the purpose of production is to change inputs. In other words outputs are incommensurate with inputs and so cannot be measured the one against the other, and so it is indeed, impossible to derive physical “prices”.
    Once this is re-established a real solution to the transformation problem, that it true to both the letter and spirit of Marx can be developed.

    • jlowrie Says:

      billjefferies Says: “The problem is that all these theorists accept that it is possible to derive prices from the physical structure of production plus wages, in other words, they accept that Dmitriev, Von B, and Sraffa were right, in essence, if not the details.
      All of Kliman’s models for example assume that inputs are identical to outputs, either individually or in aggregate. As I have shown there is no need to make such a concession and this assumption violates the very purpose of production itself. The physicalist model is not a model of production at all, as it assumes that inputs are “unchanged”, when the purpose of production is to change inputs.”

      Now, I may be particularly obtuse, but my reading of Andrew and co. is that their arguments are the direct opposite of what Bill attributes to them. I should appreciate further enlightenment.

      • billjefferies Says:

        Andrew’s starting point is that physical and value measures of price are interchangeable, essentially identical, and so are quantitatively identical. Indeed he uses an identity matrix to map one set of prices onto the other set.
        He then introduces his “temporal” assumption onto the value side only, to allow output prices to vary from input prices, to show that they are quantitatively distinct.
        If the physicalists also allowed output prices to vary from input prices, then the novelty of temporalism would evaporate.
        It is only possible to use physical “prices” if you assume that outputs are identical to inputs, otherwise it is not possible to measure one against the other, as they are incommensurate. So we have a paradox, Andrew assumes that inputs are identical with outputs, an assumption that precludes the need for a labour theory of value, in order to save the labour theory of value from the “physicalists”.
        The identity of inputs and outputs is the key assumption of Sraffa and co as it means that there is no need for a separate standard of value, outside of physical production, in other words, there is no need for the labour theory of value. Andrew too needs this assumption, as without it, there is no need for temporalism.
        What I show on the other hand, is that as outputs are physically different from inputs, the “physicalist” model only works on the assumption there is no production – that inputs are unchanged. So Sraffa’s model is a model of reproduction, without production, or a contradiction in terms.

      • Boffy Says:

        I think you are right. Marx bases his theory of social reproduction on that of the Physiocrats as set out in the Tableau Economique. For Marx the process of social reproduction is a process of the reproduction and replacement of material balances.

        Marx argues that the physical elements of means of production must be physically reproduced and replaced out of current production. That is why Marx says that the value of these means of production has to be done on the basis of their current reproduction cost.

        He sets this out also in TOSV Chapter 16 and 17, in discussing the potential of crises. If social productivity remains constant Marx says, then the value of the means of production/constant capital also remains constant. If social productivity rises then the value of the consumed means of production falls (as opposed to their historic price which would not have changed).

        Indeed, this is why constant capital is constant, i.e. why the value it contributes to current production (irrespective of its historic price) is exactly the same as the value of the means of production/constant capital withdrawn from current production to replace it. The only expansion of value, in society is then a consequence of the new value created by labour, in excess of the value consumed by labour, in the form of wage goods, but in the case of simple production, this again resolves into a question of material balances. In other words, the value of labour-power is determined by the quantity of use values required by workers to reproduce their labour-power. Again if productivity is constant the value of these commodities will remain constant, but will change if social productivity changes. What does not change is the quantity of use values, i.e. the material balances that have to be reproduced and replaced.

        In the closing chapters of capital III, Marx discusses this process, and sets out that these material balances, in particular he refers to the means of production, have to be replaced on a “like for like basis, at least in terms of effectiveness”. The addition of “at least in terms of effectiveness” has only the same consequence as a change in social productivity. In other words, if a new machine is introduced that is twice as effective as the previous machine, it is the same as if productivity had doubled, so that the value of the machines was halved – its the basis of moral depreciation.

        The consequence of these changes in productivity for Marx is to “revalue retrospectively” as he puts it, the use values that have been consumed in the current production. Moreover, the constant capital previously produced, and currently being consumed is also simultaneously being reproduced. As maxr puts it.

        “A large part of what appears as constant capital—instruments and materials of labour—in one sphere of production, is simultaneously the product of another, parallel sphere of production. For example, yarn which forms part of the constant capital of the weaver, is the product of the spinner, and may still have been in the process of becoming yarn on the previous day. When we use the term simultaneous here, we mean produced during the same year. The same commodities in different phases pass through various spheres of production in the course of the same year. They emerge as products from one sphere and enter another as commodities constituting constant capital. And as constant capital they are all consumed during the year; whether only their value enters into the commodity, as in the case of fixed capital, or their use-value too, as with circulating capital. While the commodity produced in one sphere of production enters into another, to be consumed there as constant capital—in addition to the same commodity entering a succession of spheres of production—the various elements or the various phases of this commodity are being produced simultaneously, side by side. In the course of the same year, it is continuously consumed as constant capital in one sphere and in another parallel sphere it is produced as a commodity. The same commodities which are thus consumed as constant capital in the course of the year are also, in the same way continuously being produced during the same year. A machine is wearing out in sphere A. It is simultaneously being produced in sphere B. The constant capital that is consumed during a year in those spheres of production which produce the means of subsistence, is simultaneously being produced in other spheres of production, so that during the course of the year or by the end of the year it is renewed in kind. Both of them, the means of subsistence as well as this part of the constant capital, are the products of new labour employed during the year.”

        (TOSV Chapter 17)

        And Marx continues,

        “The portion of the value of the annual product which equals the value of this section of the consumed constant capital, buys back in kind or withdraws from the annual product that part of it, which must replace in kind the constant capital that is consumed. For example, the value of the seed sown determines the portion of the value of the harvest (and thus the quantity of corn) which must be returned to the land, to production, as constant capital. This portion would not be reproduced without the labour newly added during the course of the year; but it is in fact produced by the labour of the year before, or past labour and—in so far as the productivity of labour remains unchanged—the value which it adds to the annual product is not the result of this year’s labour, but of that of the previous year.”

        The important point here being “in so far as the productivity of labour remains unchanged”. If the productivity of labour rises, then less current social labour time is required to “buy back” that portion of constant capital consumed, or put another way, the labour-time required to produce those use values withdrawn directly from current production (for example the farmer’s seed) “which must replace in kind the constant capital that is consumed” is reduced so that the proportion of surplus production to necessary production rises, and with it the rate of profit.

        Again as Marx puts it,

        “At a given level of production, the constant capital which has to be replaced is a definite quantity in kind. If productivity remains the same, then the value of this quantity also remains constant. If there are changes in the productivity of labour which make it possible to reproduce the same quantity, at greater or less cost, with more or less labour, then similarly changes will occur in the value of the constant capital, which will affect the surplus-product after deduction of the constant capital.

        For example, supposing 20 quarters [of wheat] at £ 3, totalling £ 60, were required for sowing. If a third less labour is used to reproduce a quarter it would now cost only £2. 20 quarters have to be deducted from the product, for the sowing, as before; but their share in the value of the whole product only amounts to £40. The replacement of the same constant capital thus requires a smaller portion of value, a smaller share in kind out of the total product, although, as previously, 20 quarters have to be returned to the land as seed.”


        The basis of crisis for Marx resides in the fact that the value of the commodity cannot be reproduced. In other words, it is necessary for social reproduction that this like for like physical reproduction and replacement occurs, but for that to occur under capitalism it is not just a matter that these physical material balances are reproduced but that the capitalists are able to sell their output, and thereby realise the value of the inputs consumed in its production, (along with the average profit) so as to be able to once more metamorphose the money-capital into productive-capital, i.e. to be able to buy in the market the consumed materials, and labour-power.

        Once the commodity has been turned into money Marx says, the possibility of crisis ends because it is impossible to overproduce money or money-capital. As Marx says,

        “The possibility of a crisis, in so far as it shows itself in the simple form of metamorphosis, thus only arises from the fact that the differences in form—the phases—which it passes through in the course of its progress, are in the first place necessarily complimentary and secondly, despite this intrinsic and necessary correlation, they are distinct parts and forms of the process, independent of each other diverging in time and space, separable and separated from each other. The possibility of crisis therefore lies solely in the separation of sale from purchase. It is thus only in the form of commodity that the commodity has to pass through this difficulty here. As soon as it assumes the form of money it has got over this difficulty. Subsequently however this too resolves into the separation of sale and purchase. If the commodity could not be withdrawn from circulation in the form of money or its retransformation into commodity could not be postponed—as with direct barter—if purchase and sale coincided, then the possibility of crisis would, under the assumptions made, disappear.”


        The problem being as marx shows that the potential for crisis that commodity production and exchange generates as a result of the separation of production and consumption, of purchase and sale, becomes an inevitability under industrial capitalism (which is why as he sets out crises of overproduction do not arise under early forms of capitalist production such as handicraft and manufacture, where production only expands in line with the growth of the population and market) after 1825, when machine industry begins to produce output on a mammoth scale, speculatively in advance of any certainty that it can be sold.

        As Marx puts it, what is produced cannot be sold on the same day, and so any number of circumstances can intervene between production and sale in the market that ensure that what is produced cannot all be sold, or cannot all be sold at market prices equal to the price of production, or even potentially at the cost of production, so that although the material balances may be physically reproduced, i.e. the suppliers of the consumed materials etc. have already produced them, the capitalists for whom these constitute means of production cannot buy them, because they have not been able to realise the value of their own product in the market.

      • Boffy Says:

        NB. I should have said I thought JLowrie was right. I wrote my response before Bill posted his comment.

  7. Wal Buchenberg Says:

    In my opinion, the relevance of Marx’s Capital (with all 3-4 volumes!) can not be high enough appreciated.
    But how big is the relevance of the discussion of professors and other university members about the Capital of Marx?
    Seen from outside the university the relevance of the university debates on Marx’s theories seems doubtful. The more important it seems to me is that the various standpoints work together and rub against each other, so hopefully the meaningful and useful core of these discussions with time emerges.
    The blog of Michael Roberts is a pioneer in this respect – my heartfelt thanks.
    (Maybe Michael, you could send me an email address, so I can provide you from time to time with data, material and questions.)

    Wal Buchenberg

    • michael roberts Says:

      Wal Thanks for your comments and I agree with your view on academia and activism. Happy to discuss. Your email address does not seem to work. So if you can put it here, I shall reply.

  8. Boffy Says:

    You say that the claim that the total surplus value is different to the total profit is wrong.

    “This is clearly wrong as the work of scholars like Carchedi, Freeman, Kliman and Moseley have shown.”

    No it is clearly right, because Marx himself that it is right!

    He says, describing the fact that the capital of “average composition” may not actually be of average composition because the value of its inputs will be different to the price of production of those inputs,

    “It is therefore possible that even the cost-price of commodities produced by capitals of average composition may differ from the sum of the values of the elements which make up this component of their price of production. Suppose, the average composition is 80c + 20v. Now, it is possible that in the actual capitals of this composition 80c may be greater or smaller than the value of c, i.e., the constant capital, because this c may be made up of commodities whose price of production differs from their value. In the same way, 20v might diverge from its value if the consumption of the wage includes commodities whose price of production diverges from their value; in which case the labourer would work a longer, or shorter, time to buy them back (to replace them) and would thus perform more, or less, necessary labour than would be required if the price of production of such necessities of life coincided with their value.”

    (Capital III, Chapter 12)

    Now if ” the labourer would work a longer, or shorter, time to buy them back (to replace them) and would thus perform more, or less, necessary labour than would be required if the price of production of such necessities of life coincided with their value.”, because in fact, the price of production of wage goods does differ from the value of wage goods, the inevitable result is that the amount of surplus labour, and so of surplus value must also be different!

    There is absolutely no alternative to this conclusion as set out by Marx. The only condition of equality that marx sets out is that the totality of exchange values is equal to the totality of prices of production. Nowhere does he say that the totality of surplus value must equal the totality of profits as a result of the transformation of exchange values to prices of production.

    What we do get on the basis of this equality of exchange value with prices of production is this. If wage goods are more expensive on the basis of prices of production than on the basis of exchange value, then as marx states above, workers will have to work longer, perform more necessary labour, to reproduce their labour-power, and so surplus labour, and so profits will be lower.

    The total amount of new value created by labour is fixed by the amount of abstract labour performed. If V rises, and S thereby falls but the amount of new value created remains constant, then the rate of surplus value also falls V rises by the same amount that S falls.

    The opposite occurs where wage goods are cheaper on the basis of prices of production than on the basis of exchange values, because then workers have to perform less necessary labour to buy the wage goods they need to reproduce their labour-power, so surplus labour and profits rise.

    Now, if the total of exchange value equals the total of prices of production, and the total new value produced remains constant, whilst what changes is the proportion of V and S, i.e. the rate of surplus value, it must also be the case that C remains constant, because (V + S) is constant and C + V + S is constant.

    This is also exactly what Marx says in the later chapters of Capital III, in Capital II, discussing Smith’s absurd dogma that the value of national output resolves into only revenues, and in Theories of Surplus Value, where he describes the way that social reproduction involves the physical replacement “on a like for like basis” of the use values that comprise the constant capital.

    If as marx describes the process of social reproduction (simple reproduction) is one where the use values that comprise the constant capital are physically replaced “in kind”, then the value of these use values, as he also thereby sets out is determined by their current reproduction cost, i.e. by the proportion of current social labour-time, of the current output that must be set aside for that replacement.

    Constant capital is constant capital precisely because the value it transfers to current output is the same as the value of the use values taken from current production to make that replacement possible.

    Marx makes clear that the amount of profit thereby differs from the amount of surplus value where prices of production rather than exchange values rule. Or more correctly stated the amount of surplus value calculated on the basis of exchange values differs from the amount of surplus value calculated on the basis of prices of production, because if wage goods are more expensive in a regime of prices of production, more labour-time is required by workers to buy them, so necessary labour rises, and surplus labour declines.

    Under such conditions, because the totality of C + V + S remains constant, if V rises and S falls, whilst C remains constant, the rate of profit must also fall, when measured on the basis of prices of production rather than exchange values.

    What does differ with C, is the prices of its individual components with some commodities that comprise means of production having higher prices, whilst being compensated by others that have lower prices.

  9. Henry Says:

    It is absurd for Boffy to say trade unions struggles are not class struggles. It is even more absurd to claim the reason they are not class struggles is because union struggles can pit one set of workers against another, as if class struggles must always be cross class only!

    It is absurd from a Marxist viewpoint because Marx sets up the opposition between capitalist and worker in the relation of profit to wages, so wages are a relative quantity of profit.

    But the most striking difference between Boffy and Marx is the tone of the language; Boffy strips Marx of the venom, the bitter irony, the outrage and leaves us with a cold-hearted, almost inhuman determinist.

    But let us quote Marx and note the language, above all else note the language!

    “To say that “the worker has an interest in the rapid growth of capital”, means only this: that the more speedily the worker augments the wealth of the capitalist, the larger will be the crumbs which fall to him, the greater will be the number of workers than can be called into existence, the more can the mass of slaves dependent upon capital be increased.

    We have thus seen that even the most favorable situation for the working class, namely, the most rapid growth of capital, however much it may improve the material life of the worker, does not abolish the antagonism between his interests and the interests of the capitalist. Profit and wages remain as before, in inverse proportion.

    If capital grows rapidly, wages may rise, but the profit of capital rises disproportionately faster. The material position of the worker has improved, but at the cost of his social position. The social chasm that separates him from the capitalist has widened.

    Finally, to say that “the most favorable condition for wage-labour is the fastest possible growth of productive capital”, is the same as to say: the quicker the working class multiplies and augments the power inimical to it – the wealth of another which lords over that class – the more favorable will be the conditions under which it will be permitted to toil anew at the multiplication of bourgeois wealth, at the enlargement of the power of capital, content thus to forge for itself the golden chains by which the bourgeoisie drags it in its train.

    Growth of productive capital and rise of wages, are they really so indissolubly united as the bourgeois economists maintain? We must not believe their mere words.”

  10. Nadim Mahjoub Says:

    You might find this interesting

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