1920s >> 1923 >> no-226-june-1923

You’d be surprised

Sir Oswald Stoll, writing in the Referee, April 15th, 1923, disputed the definition of value given by Karl Marx in Capital. He says that Adam Smith’s work, “The Wealth of Nations,” although it yields no support to Marx, nevertheless contains the fatal error on which the Socialism of Marx is founded, i.e., that “labour is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities.” Sir Oswald then says:—

“It requires little wisdom to realise that the labour which is alleged to be the real measure of the exchangeable value of coal, for instance, must include the labour of nature. Human labour cannot begin where nature finishes, because nature never finishes. Nature made the coal by heating and compressing vegetable matter; nature made also the materials used by labour in mining the coal. The term ‘ labour ‘ is therefore too abstract and general for such specific application. Hence labour cannot be ‘ the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities’.”

Sir Oswald is described by the Referee as a keen student of economics and socialism. His description of the part played by Nature in the production of wealth was clearly outlined in the early chapters of Capital, where it formed part of the careful analysis of a commodity. On page 10, “Swan and Sonnenschein” edition, Marx says :—

“The bodies of commodities are combinations of two elements—matter and labour. If we take away, the useful labour expended upon them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by nature without the help of man. The latter can work only as nature does, that is, by changing the form of matter. Nay more, in the work of changing the form he is constantly helped by natural forces. We see, then, that labour is not the only source of material wealth, of use-values produced by labour. As William Petty puts it, labour is its father and the earth its mother.”

The work performed by Nature, however, goes on independent of the form of society under which men live, but Nature is neither capital nor the capitalist class; so the task still lies before Sir Oswald to prove where that class renders any assistance. Till now he has only accounted for the same factors as the Socialist : Man and Nature.

Of course no criticism of Marx would be complete that did not prove, or attempt to prove, a contradiction against him. Most of the critics claim that Marx contradicted himself in the later portion of his works, but Sir Oswald is so keen that he discovers a contradiction that everybody has apparently overlooked in the very first chapter.

He accuses Marx of “converting the abstraction of labour into a material body ; a congelation of labour, and calling it value.” Of course what Marx really did was to show that the labourer worked upon the Nature-given material and changed its form or place. His labour thus became congealed in the finished product, and is the only thing—material or social—possible of measurement for the purposes of exchange. Marx analysed the labour contained in commodities and found that it must be looked at from two points of view in order to obtain a clear idea of value. It must be looked at from the concrete side, i.e., as labour of a definite kind that produces a particular article; for example, tailoring that results in the production of a coat—a use-value. It must also be looked at from the abstract side, i.e., as labour in general without regard to the particular way in which it is expended. In viewing labour this way it is necessary to forget that it is employed to produce coats, boots or tables, and simply look at it as the using up of a portion of society’s human energy. It is this general energy, or simple human labour, that is at one time spent in producing coats at another in producing tables, that forms the basis of value. In other words, human energy, at the same time, as concrete labour, produces use-values, and as abstract labour produces values. It is the fact that all articles produced represent proportions of simple human energy that enables them to be exchanged for one another through the medium of money.

Sir Oswald, the amateur economist, like all the professionals that have tried to demolish the Marxian theory of value, is left stuttering when asked to show what else but labour-power can be the real measure of exchange value. His alleged contradiction is that Marx before stating that “a congelation of labour is value,” had already said “that utility is value.” What Marx really says is that use-value is the utility of a thing. He devoted several paragraphs to the task of showing that use-value, or usefulness, cannot possibly be the basis of exchange-value; though he states quite definitely that all commodities must possess use-value, otherwise they are unsaleable.

In his analysis of a commodity Marx discovered it to consist of: a material substratum supplied by Nature, use-value or usefulness and exchange value. In addition it was the product of labour. How is the exchange value of a given commodity measured? Not by its material body, nor yet by its usefulness. Sir Oswald’s contradiction is therefore piffle, and the result of his inability to understand ordinary economic terms.

The gem of Sir Oswald’s economic absurdities is contained in the following :—

“The theory that human labour is either value or the measure of value was killed in a sentence by the late Archbishop Whateley when he reinforced the truism that ‘Pearls are not valuable because men dive for them; men dive for them because they are valuable.'”

Both the parson and the stage manager were answered by Marx before they raised this objection. “Diamonds,” said the latter, “are of rare occurrence on the earth’s surface, and hence their discovery costs, on the average, a great deal of labour-time. … If we could succeed at a small expenditure of labour in converting carbon into diamonds, their value might fall below that of bricks.” Similarly, if real pearls could be made as easily as beads, they could be bought for the same price as beads; but they cannot be so made; much diving has to be done for every one that is placed on the market and much labour of other kinds as well.

Sir Oswald winds up by saying : “It will be well to seek a real definition of value.” Those that seek shall find; let him search with all diligence, and then submit his results to those who do understand Marx.

F. F.

(Socialist Standard, June 1923)

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