1920s >> 1923 >> no-231-november-1923

Commodities and quids

Liverpool, Sept. 12th, 1923.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain, 17 Mount Pleasant, London, W.C.1.

Dear Comrade.
I note that J.F. passes over the important points I make, and resorts to hair splitting. This only makes his case worse, and puts him deeper in the mire. For example, he charges me with falsifying Marx by making him say that the sovereign is the general equivalent in Britain. My answer is that Marx proves it, both in his “Critique” and “Capital.” He shows that the sovereign is the unit of value, the standard of price, and reflects the value of all commodities in Britain. He illustrates many of his points with the aid of the sovereign and its aliquot parts. We are forced to agree with him because it is our experience, go where we will in Britain, all commodities are quoted and exchanged in terms of the sovereign. What better proof does J.F. want?
J.F. says that I misuse the term “Law.” Let us test this. Marx begins his great work thus : “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities,’ its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.”
Here Marx is telling us that there are at least two kinds of wealth, commodity wealth being one. To find what distinguishes commodity wealth from other forms of wealth we must analyse and generalise commodi¬ties. By doing so we find the common factors which wealth in the form of commodities possesses, and which other forms of wealth do not possess. In other words, to generalise is to find the law. So you see I used the term in the right place, and in the right sense. I repeat that J.F. has never given us the laws whereby we can distinguish commodity wealth from wealth in general; if he did he would prove at the same time that a sovereign was a commodity !
If we are merely to take Marx’s word for it, then he gives me the point at issue in his opening sentence; for it is plain that if all capitalist wealth is commodity wealth, then it is quite clear that a sovereign must be a commodity. So you see that J.F. is teaching anti-Marx without being able to prove his position. Before we can prove Marx to be correct we must be clear that although all capitalist wealth is commodity wealth, all commodity wealth is not capitalist wealth, just as all sparrows are birds, but all birds are not sparrows. The teacher cannot possibly make, or explain those subtle distinctions until he understands the laws which gives him his concepts of commodity wealth, and wealth in general. J.F. falls lamentably short in this respect.
J.F. says: “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.”
J.F. is quite right, I did not understand that gold exchanged by weight outside of Britain. I really thought that it was the labour, measured by time, embodied in a specific quantity of gold that made it exchange with other commodities, in definite ratios, everywhere. That labour was the source of all value, which manifested itself in exchange. Now J.F. informs me I am wrong; that it is gravity, and not labour, which makes commodities exchange in definite ratios, “outside Britain.” I would fain ask J.F. what gives commodities their exchange value inside Britain, and if each sovereign does not contain the same weight of gold? I hope J.F. will give me the credit for knowing that if you change a thing’s form it becomes something else. But is very evident from the above statement J.F. does not realise that if you change sovereigns into bullion, the bullion will have the same nature that the sovereigns had, namely, the nature of serving as the general equivalent internationally. Indeed it might be just possible that I am not so dense as J.F. would have his readers believe.
Regarding J.F.’s remarks about me saying that the slave and serf, being unable to produce surplus value. Evidently he is unaware that it is Marx that gives us the problem to solve : “For the conversion of his money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.” Capital pp 187, 188, Kerr’s.
That undoubtedly means that the slave and serf could not produce surplus value, for they had not a commodity to sell, not even their labour power. It also means that the small tradesman to-day, who owns his means o£ production, and is his own labour power, cannot produce surplus value, simply because he does not sell his labour power, but uses it for his own benefit. A little investigation will show us that if he extend the working day beyond the necessary labour time—like the slave and serf—he will produce surplus products, but that does not mean that they contain surplus-value. As a Marxian teacher, J.F. should know all this, but evidently it is all news to him ; and without giving it a thought he flies into print, and tells his readers that I am “Absurdly Incorrect.” It would take us too far from the matter in hand to prove Marx to be correct, so J.F. had better get busy, and formulate the position for himself. In the meantime his job is to point out to his readers where Marx erred when he said capitalist wealth was commodity wealth, which, of course, includes the sovereign. I am afraid he has taken on a colossal task.
Yours fraternally,
Wm. Walker

ANSWER TO W.W.

W.W. complains that “J.F. passes over the important points I make,” but he carefully refrains from stating what those “points” were, and a reading of his letters fails to disclose them.

Twice in the discussion with W.W, we have pointed out that he failed to understand the difference between a sovereign and a mere piece of gold. He now admits that we are correct, and thus gives us our case in this dispute. It would seem, however, not only by his misuse of Marx’s writings, but by his failure to notice the contradictions in his own statements, that it is not merely confusion of thought he suffers from, but intellectual incapacity to understand simple facts.

Thus in his sixth paragraph he says :—

“I hope J. F. will give me the credit for knowing that if you change a thing’s form it becomes something else.”

and yet two lines after he says :—

“If you change sovereigns into bullion, the bullion will have the same nature as the sovereigns had, namely, the nature of serving as the general equivalent internationally.”

So the thing that changes remains the same !

In the September S.S. we pointed out that W.W.’s implication that Marx said the sovereign was the general equivalent, was false. W.W. now says that Marx proves it in his “Critique,” and “Capital,” but he does not give a single reference from either work to support his contention—simply because no such statement exists in those works. Probably Marx’s view is most clearly shown in the table given at the end of his description of the evolution of the money-form of the general equivalent.

This is the fourth form in his analysis, and he calls it :—

D. The Money Form.
20 yards of Linen)
1 Coat ………………)
10 lb of Tea……….)
40 lb of Coffee….) = 2 ounces of gold.
1 qtr of Corn……..)
½ ton of Iron……..)
X Commodity A…)

(“Capital” p. 80. Kerr.—Ed.)

W.W. now states definitely that sovereigns have “the nature of serving as the general equivalent internationally,” thus, showing .not only a misunderstanding of Marx but a complete ignorance of foreign or international economic relations. Further evidence of this ignorance is shown in the paragraph where W.W. admits we are correct in stating that he does not understand the difference between a sovereign and a mere piece of gold, when he drags. in the question of value—a point outside the whole discussion—and mixes up the basis of exchange between two or more commodities with the method adopted of deciding the unit of quantity of any one commodity. And here again he contradicts himself. He says that he thought that “it was the labour measured by time embodied in a specific quantity of gold that made it exchange with other commodities.” (our italics.) And what is the “specific quantity” of gold ? A certain weight of it. Therefore gold exchanges by weight, but sovereigns exchange by tale or number. Thus even in his attempt to drag the question of value into the discussion, W.W. has to contradict his own assertion and by using the term “specific quantity” brings forward the fact that gold exchanges by weight with other commodities.

Still more stupid is his endeavour to. explain what he obviously does not understand, the term “law.” Here he mixes up “law” with “definition.” Outside of legal circles “law” is the term given to the invariable sequence of factors in a process; a “definition” describes essential characteristics. To distinguish one form of wealth from another form of wealth requires a description of their essential characteristics. This is not “law” but “definition.” And let us repeat. Twice we have given the definition of a commodity for his benefit, and he has not questioned that de¬finition in any of his letters.

This stupidity, however, runs dangerously close to deliberate misrepresentation when he quotes the opening chapter of “Capital,” and then says :—

“If we are merely to take Marx’s word for it, then he gives me the point at issue in his opening sentence, for it is plain that if all capitalist wealth is commodity wealth then it is quite clear that a sovereign must be a commodity.”

“If”—but unfortunately that “if” knocks W.W.’s case of cards to pieces. Turn to the quotation from “Capital” given by W.W. and one will be unable to find any such statement as “all capitalist wealth is commodity wealth” there ; nor can it be found anywhere in Marx’s writings, for it is untrue.

The apex of this muddlement is reached, perhaps, when W.W. quotes, from pp. 187-188 of “Capital,” a sentence dealing solely with a factor of modern capitalism, and claims that this justifies his appalling ignorance of history. The best answer to this is to quote what Marx himself says on the matter.

“Capital has not invented surplus labour. Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the labourer free or not free, must add to the working time necessary for his own maintenance an extra working time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owners of the means of production, whether this proprietor be the Athenian Noble Man, Etruscan theocrat, civis Romanus, Norman baron, American slave-owner, Wallachian Boyard, modern landlord, or capitalist.”—(“Capital,” pp. 259-260, Kerr, ed.)

The originator of this discussion was seemingly satisfied with our answer to his question. W. W. with his inability to understand even the simplest of Marx’s writing’s, blunders from one bombastic statement to another, and winds up with a claim to “prove Marx to be correct.” Leaving aside the fact that Marx had already made this quite unnecessary by doing the job himself, one can only admire the courage, while deploring the want of wisdom, of W.W. attempting to tackle such a task.

J. F.

(Socialist Standard, November 1923)

Leave a Reply