1920s >> 1921 >> no-207-november-1921

A Brief Exposition of Socialist Theory. (Continued.)



The last article under the above heading appeared in the Socialist Standard of December, 1920. The long interruption in the series was due to circumstances out of the control of the writer.


In the article referred to, we commenced the discussion of the theory of value; the following is a summary of the conclusions arrived at :


  Economic wealth is the result of human energy applied to the materials provided by nature.


  The wealth of to-day appears as a multitude of useful articles for sale—commodities.


  A commodity is a useful article (not to the producer, but to the potential buyer) produced for sale.


  The uses of such an article are as many as the human wants it can satisfy ; but these uses have no connection with its value.


  The value of an article is something contained in it that is only expressed in exchange. Absolute value cannot be expressed, only relative value.


  The only common property of all commodities, apart from their physical properties, is their property of being the product of human energy.


   All commodities represent certain proportions of simple human energy.


   Human energy is measured by time.
  The value of a commodity is measured by its cost of reproduction in human labour time—the time simple human energy would occupy in reproducing it.


The conclusion that the value of an article is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour contained in it, gives us the key to the apparent mystery of commodities. At the bottom, commodities represent the relation of the labour of one man, or group of men, to that of another man, or group of men; this relation becomes mysterious, simply because it appears before our eyes as a relation between two articles. In other words, at the back of the expression of value lies the relation between different methods of expending human energy.


The next point we have to consider is the double-sided nature of the labour contained in commodities. On this point Marx wrote as follows :


“I was the first to point out and to examine critically this twofold nature of the labour contained in commodities. As this point is the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns, we must go more into detail.”


We have seen that a commodity is a useful article and a value; and that the latter is determined bv the amount of labour-power required to reproduce such an article. But just as an article must be looked at from two points of view, so also must the labour contained in it. For example, the labour incorporated in a commodity appears on the one side as the work of a baker, a shoemaker, an engineer, and so forth. That is to say, labour of a particular kind or quality, labour that produces a particular kind of article. But on the other side it appears just as the simple expenditure of human energy—getting tired. All its particular physical characteristics are abstracted and it is viewed as the normal activity of the human organism.


If, therefore, taking for illustration the simple exchange of one article for another, we say :


l pair of boots = 1 hat,


we are simply stating that the same general substance—human energy—exists in the same quantity on each side of this statement or equation.


On the one hand, therefore, we have concrete or useful labour; on the other hand, abstract or value-creating labour. We look at one from the point of view of quality— the kind of labour (baking, engineering, etc.), we look at the other from the point of view of quantity—the amount of labour; the unifying point is the fact that labour of different qualities is, at the bottom, the simple expenditure of human energy.


From the above it will be seen that labour expressed in value has different attributes from labour as a producer of use-value. This enables us to understand another point around which there is a considerable amount of confusion.


At a first glance it would appear that an increase in the quantity of articles produced would necessarily result in an increase in value—more articles, more value. If we examine the matter closely, in connection with what we have already learnt of the twofold nature of labour, we will see that the above statement is not correct.


Suppose a method of producing boots was discovered whereby two pairs of boots could now be produced with the expenditure of the same amount of energy as it formerly took to produce one pair; we would now have two pairs of boots instead of one (an increase in material wealth), but the same quantity of value is contained in the increased amount of wealth as was formerly contained in the smaller amount. This illustration shows the necessity of understanding the twofold nature of labour contained in commodities.


As different commodities are the products of different kinds of labour, commodity production—Capitalism—could not come into existence until the method of expending human labour power had reached the point where it was split up into a multitude of different kinds carried on independently of each other. To put the case another way : Before the exchange of products in the form of commodities can exist as a social basis, the labour of society must have become sectionalised in such a manner that human energy is expended in different ways, each way being carried on independently and for the account of private individuals; there must have arisen a social division of labour. This naturally follows when we remember that, in bringing two different commodities upon the market to exchange for each other, we are in reality exchanging two different kinds of labour. There would be no point in exchanging one hat for another of exactly the same description, i.e., the labour of a hatter for the labour of a hatter. From this fact it follows that while we can have the social division of labour (as in primitive societies) without commodity production, we cannot have commodity production without the social division of labour.


The value of a commodity represents the expenditure of human labour in general, but this simple labour is generally expended under the cloak of labour of different degrees of skill. Skilled labour in essence is more intensified simple labour—a given quantity of skilled labour is equal to a greater quantity of simple labour.


In the process of commodity production all kinds of labour—no matter what the degree of skill may be—are reduced to the simple expenditure of human energy. This reduction of skilled labour to simple labour is not done openly or consciously—as Marx puts it :


“The different proportions in which different sorts of labour are reduced to unskilled labour as their standard are established by a social process that goes on behind the backs of the producers, and, consequently, appear to be fixed by custom.”


A good illustration of the point with which we are dealing was provided in the Whistler versus Ruskin case some years ago.


In the course of the action, one of Whistler’s pictures (the subject of the action, the “Nocturne in Black and Gold“) came up for discussion. This picture had been exhibited at a gallery and marked two hundred guineas. After Whistler had informed the Attorney-General that, altogether, he had only been two days working upon it, the latter asked : “Oh, two days ! The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas !” To this Whistler replied: “No; I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.”


The above puts the case in a nutshell. Highly skilled labour is the result of the expenditure of energy in the past to make it skilful—it is more intensified labour—a multiple of simple energy.