1920s >> 1924 >> no-243-november-1924

Labour and Value. Harold Cox on Karl Marx

A correspondent (Francis H. Napier) takes exception to Mr. Harold Cox’s criticisms of the Labour Theory of Value expounded by Marx. He quotes from a series of “Daily Mail” articles by Mr. Cox as follows :—

“… many socialists . . . even when admitting that the greater part of modern wealth is created by the machine and not by the men will try to wriggle out of the consequences of that fact by arguing that the machine itself is the product of labour, and therefore anything that it produces ought to belong to labour. This very common Socialist contention ignores the fact that the workpeople who produced the machine were all paid for the work they did. Some of them may have been underpaid; some may have been overpaid; but they all received payment. They are not entitled subsequently to claim that the machine is theirs.”

Mr. Napier correctly points out that in admitting that the machine was produced by labour, Harold Cox is also admitting the accuracy of the statement that wealth is produced by labour; but both Mr. Napier and Harold Cox misrepresent Marx in suggesting that he made this the basis of a moral claim for the labourer of the full value produced. Mr. Cox, of course, is very well aware that Marx made no such claim. We cannot deal with that point here, but with regard to the question of payment for work done it must be quite apparent that if the workers did receive the full value of the machines produced by them, then the machines, or their equivalent, would belong to the workers after the work was finished, and there would be no surplus to go as profits to the employer. That profit represents the difference between the value of the product and the value of the workers’ labour-power. The workers do receive the value of their labour-power, their wages, but they do not receive the full value of their product.

Mr. Napier goes on to ask if it is correct, as Harold Cox says, that Socialists argue that “value . . . merely depends upon the amount of labour.” He states that he was not aware that Socialists held this view, “but rather that the value of the commodity was determined by its cost of production.”

Mr. Napier has fallen into an error here through a confusion as to the meaning of terms. When Marx speaks of “cost of production” he means its cost in labour, not the cost to the manufacturer of materials, wages, etc.

Marx deals plainly and simply with this subject in “Value, Price, and Profit” (chapter 6). He writes as follows: “The relative values of commodities are, therefore, determined by the respective quantities or amounts of labour, worked up, realised, fixed in them” ; and again, “The greatness of its value . . . depends . . . on the relative mass of labour necessary for its production.”

Mr. Napier quotes further from Harold Cox a question as to whether labour spent in pulling down a house is creating value, and answers it himself by showing that if a certain plot of land is required for the building of a new house or factory, then the work of demolition is a necessary part of the new building scheme, and the labour is therefore, in the words of Marx, “socially necessary” and value creating.

He quotes also illustrations of what Harold Cox calls “wasted or non-productive labour.” Two fishing boats set out to sea, and only one of them succeeds in getting a catch. Two watchmakers make a watch, but only one of them will go. Have the unlucky boatman and the bad watchmaker created value? asks Mr. Cox.

The answer is that a certain proportion of unlucky voyages is inevitable, and this wasted labour is therefore a necessary feature of the security of the amount of fish required by society. The socially necessary labour cost of obtaining fish includes this proportion of wasted labour. Marx, as Harold Cox knows, never claimed that value “merely depends upon the amount of labour,” but on the amount which at a given time it is necessary for society to expend. If labour is wasted unnecessarily, then it is not value creating. This is the position of the watchmaker who knows so little of his trade as to make a watch which will not go.

While we are on the subject of Harold Cox, it is interesting to learn that he has only just found out that MacDonald is an anti-Marxist. After quoting from MacDonald’s writings to show that the latter has long ago repudiated Marxism, he continues :—

“To repudiate Marx is to repudiate Socialism as well as Communism. Ramsay MacDonald may claim to have a peculiar brand of Socialism of his own manufacture, but he is not entitled to act as interpreter for other socialists when he repudiates the prophet who founded their creed.” (Saturday Review, 25th Oct.)

It is noticeable, however, that the Harold Cox of the “Saturday Review” does not agree with the Harold Cox of the “Daily Mail,” to whom MacDonald is not merely the proprietor of a “peculiar brand of Socialism of his own manufacture,” but a representative Socialist.


(Socialist Standard, November 1924)

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