From the October 1933 issue of the Socialist Standard
When is a commodity not a commodity
The following questions have been put to us by a Canadian correspondent: —
(1) Are the goods with a price tag on them in the stores commodities? K. and N. say no. They say the retailers bought them as use values and they are not commodities until they are sold, at which moment, of course, they cease to be commodities and become use-values to the purchaser.
(2) Is a Ford car that is ready to leave the factory for a salesroom in some distant town a commodity ?
(3) Is the wheat that is stored in the elevators all over Canada, some of which has been there for years and is deteriorating, is this wheat a commodity ?
(4) Can we say that the stock of surplus goods on hand in every capitalist country that at present cannot find a buyer are surplus commodities ?
(5) Has the unemployed person on relief, with no chance of finding a master, still got commodity labour-power to sell?
(6) Are they unemployed members of the working, or are they a parisitic class in society?
A commodity is a useful article produced for sale. Two characteristics are, therefore, essential; it must be useful and it must contain value. This definition covers the mass of modern products.
A thing can be useful without being a commodity—air. A thing can be useful and produced without being a commodity—carrots grown in the garden for the use of the grower. A thing can be saleable without being a commodity—“personal honour” for example.
An article may not be produced as a commodity, yet may later take on a commodity character, by being put up for sale—a house or a piece of furniture made by a man for himself.
An article may be produced as a commodity and yet fail to fulfil its function—opium for customers who are not allowed to buy, or a tool that has become obsolete.
No definition, however, is absolute, covering every possible shade of a case—there are always instances on the border-line. For instance, a cartridge is sold to a purchaser, but bursts in the gun. It lost its useful character after the sale. It is a commodity yet not a commodity. The object of a definition should not be lost sight of, and that object is to help understanding.
In the light of the above remarks, let us now answer the questions.
(1) The articles exhibited in a store with a price attached are correctly described as commodities and: were bought as such, hence Karl Marx opened his book, “Capital," with the words: "The 'wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities." Stores do not buy things as use-values, but as exchange values. It is true the proof that articles are commodities only comes when they are sold, but, in like manner, the proof that a loaf is food and not poison only comes after it has been eaten. Are we, therefore, to say that no articles of food are produced because they are only proved to be such after they have ceased to be? However, the illustration of “K and N" is self-destructive. If an article is not a commodity until it is sold neither is it a use-value—unless the owner, with uncharacteristic generosity, gives it away! Their only usefulness from the retailer’s point of view is their saleability.
(2) In harmony with the foregoing, a Ford car ready to leave the factory for a saleroom is correctly referred to as a commodity—otherwise the expression “Commodity production" would be an illusion!
(3) Wheat stored in the elevators is also a commodity. If any of it eventually disintegrates or is destroyed, and hence does not find a buyer, then that part has failed to fulfill its function and thus was not a commodity; but who can differentiate which is which? A passenger steamer is built, launched, and delivered to the purchaser, but before it can carry a single passenger it catches fire and is reduced to ashes. Here is an instance of an article that was sold and yet, in fact, had no use-value whatever. In each case the labour spent in production was wasted and valueless.
(4) This is already answered above. The so- called surplus goods are correctly referred to as commodities. With few exceptions they will ultimately find buyers. It should, perhaps, be pointed out that it is only reasonable to deal with normal features of a case. One can hardly anticipate the destruction of huge stocks of coffee becoming a normal feature of coffee production.
(5) When the unemployed person, still obtaining unemployed relief, who has no chance of ever finding a master, turns up, it will be time to answer that question. When a person becomes unemployable he ceases to be unemployed.
(6) There is only one parasitic class—the capitalist class, but there are plenty of people who "live on their wits.”