1920s >> 1923 >> no-229-september-1923

Letters: Commodities and Quids

May 18th, 1923. 


The Socialist Party of Great Britain,


17, Mount Pleasant, London, W.C.l.

Dear Comrade,


J. F., in his further reply to me, says that I appear to have muddled myself by dragging in the question of circulation. But appearances are deceptive, and if we are to understand whether a sovereign is a commodity or not, we must analyse it in its relation with other things. It is quite obvious to anyone who has read Marx that every special commodity when once exchanged, and put into use, is no longer a commodity, but a simple use-value, which loses all its necromancy at that stage. But the general commodity is different from the special, inasmuch as it stays within the sphere of circulation to perform one of its principal functions, namely, alienating other commodities. So we can truly say that when the machine begins to function it is no longer a commodity; but that the sovereign is a commodity as long as it functions : a very important difference.
The next point is, we agree with J. F. that in our analysis of the sovereign we must not attempt to alter it one iota, but must try and find out if it is a commodity after it comes from the mint, and is functioning as the general equivalent (commodity) in Great Britain. J. F. says :—


  “But the sovereign is not produced for sale or profit, but as an article of utility in certain social transactions. It is being consumed in use while acting thus, and is not a commodity.”


It is clear that gold as the “specific commodity” takes up the form of sovereigns in the United Kingdom, and it is in that form that gold reflects value, and is a standard of price. One of its functions is to purchase other commodities, but alas in doing so it sells itself, and keeps on doing so as long as it functions, and at the same time wears away on the counters of a hard world. So soon as it loses one-third of a grain of its weight it is no longer legal tender; which is equal to saying that it is no longer a sovereign, but only a symbol of itself. But we are not here dealing with symbols, but with real sovereigns. We will keep tenaciously to the position laid down by J. F., but we will see to it that he also observes it. So long, then, as a sovereign functions it not only circulates other commodities, but exchanges itself for them, and is itself a commodity as long as it does so, and that is as far as we are interested in it in this discussion. So J. F. is wrong in his first proposition, and we have reconciled, his last one by explaining it.


Regarding profit. It is quite true to say that commodities to-day contain surplus-value, but the fact must be clearly understood that we can have commodity production without producing surplus-value, but that we cannot have surplus-value without commodity production. For example, the slave and the serf could produce commodities and values, but they could not produce surplus-value. The automatic machine can produce commodities, but it cannot, beget value, nor surplus-value. The small tradesman who owns his own means of production and is his own labour-power, can produce commodities and values, but he cannot produce surplus-value. Indeed, surplus-value is not necessarily a corollary of commodity production at all; although it is in capitalistic production, for it is the nature of capital to beget surplus-value; and this only occurs with the advent of the free labourer. Money and commodities are no new things, and surplus-value is modern and new compared with them. In other words, the nature of commodities never changes, although their forms are continually changing. I contend that I have shown that J. F.’s propositions are unsound.


Finally, I ask again J. F. to give us the law whereby we can distinguish commodity wealth from wealth in general; for it is true to say that no one can tell who is right in this discussion unless he understands the law. Further, it is the teacher’s duty to explain the law. But if J. F. does so, he will at the same moment show how untenable his position is; and he would be forced, as an honest man, to come to the same conclusion as Marx, viz., that gold is the commodity par excellence, and the form that it takes up in Britain is the sovereign.


Yours fraternally,


Wm. Walker.


Answer to W. W.


W. W.’s letter adds further evidence that he is confused on the question under discussion. This is most clearly shown in his concluding paragraph, where he quotes Marx as saying “that gold is the commodity par excellence”; and then W. W. continues, “And the form it takes up in Britain is the sovereign.” The implication, whether wilful or accidental, is that the latter statement belongs also to Marx. This, of course, is false. Nowhere does Marx state that the sovereign (or the ducat, or napoleon, or any other national coin) is the general equivalent or universal commodity. Marx always shows that it is gold as a metal, as a particular substance, that performs that function.


As we have explained before, the sovereign is a piece of gold—but a piece of gold, shaped, weighed and stamped for specific social uses and restricted in ways quite unknown to commodities. One may purchase gold and melt it down for any purpose, but one must not—legally—melt down sovereigns. One may shape gold into ornaments, but one must not interfere with the sovereign for any such purpose. In other words, the law does, not—in general—interfere with anyone buying and using gold for any purpose, but it sternly forbids any such action with sovereigns. Moreover, the sovereign performs functions—such as legal tender in payment of debt—that no commodity can fulfil.


Outside of Britain the sovereign loses these various characteristics and becomes a mere piece of gold, which exchanges by weight, and is therefore no longer a sovereign. It is this simple fact that W. W. has failed to understand. His confusion is further shown by his misuse of words in fairly common use, as when he asks for the “law” whereby we distinguish commodity wealth from wealth in general.’ The use of the word “law” in this connection is nonsense. Twice previously we have defined a “commodity” for him, and as he neither questions nor shows our definition as being in error, one can only wonder why the question is repeated, even though it is done in a nonsensical form.


W. W.’s remarks on surplus value are absurdly incorrect. If the slave and serf could not produce surplus value how were their masters able to revel in huge luxury? Not only did this occur under chattel slavery and feudalism, but in certain transition periods later both slave and serf were used to produce surplus values for capitalists, as in cotton growing in South America and gold production on the Rand.

Jack Fitzgerald