Monday, August 4, 2008

Reclaiming Marx's Capital

Book review from the August 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Reclaiming Marx's “Capital.” By Andrew Kliman. Lexington Books, 2007

After Karl Marx's Capital was published it has come in for criticism from a particular direction. In Volume One of Capital (1867), Marx argued that the value of commodities (goods and services produced for sale and profit) are determined by socially necessary labour-time. Profit comes from unpaid surplus labour appropriated as surplus value. In Volume Three of Capital (1894), Marx explained that commodities tend to sell at prices of production, which is the price sufficient to yield the average rate of profit on capital advanced, and commodities actually sell at market prices which fluctuate around prices of production (assuming no monopolies). Marx indicated in Volume One that in a later book he would show the difference between value and price, as his analysis moved from the abstract to the determinate. And we now know, though Kliman does not mention this, that the notes which comprise Volume Three and edited for publication by Engels after Marx's death were written before the manuscript of Volume One.

However, many economists (including some who claim to be Marxist) maintain that prices cannot be derived from values in the way Marx described. In economics this is known as “the transformation problem”, but it has implications for other aspects of Marx's theory of value. What are the objections? The critics start by making a couple of assumptions about Marx's theory. Firstly, it is assumed that value and price must be two separate systems. Secondly, it is assumed that inputs into production and the outputs that subsequently emerge must be valued simultaneously, and the input and output prices must be equal. When these assumptions are made, so the critics claim, Marx's theory of value becomes “internally inconsistent” and breaks down.

However, these assumptions are mistaken. In Marx's theory, value and price are interdependent; profit exists when, but only when, surplus labour has been performed. The assumption that value and price must be two separate systems implies that there can be profit without surplus labour, which is a major misinterpretation of Marx's theory. And the assumption concerning simultaneous valuation and the equal prices of inputs and outputs flatly contradicts the main principle upon which Marx's value theory is founded, that value is determined by labour-time. It is because valuation necessarily involves labour-time that input and output prices can differ. Kliman shows that the “internal inconsistencies” appear when the theory is viewed as a simultaneous valuation and disappear when not viewed as a simultaneous valuation. In short, the critics have badly misunderstood Marx's theory of value.