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“The Labour Theory of Value: Materialist versus Idealist Interpretations”: Andrew Brown

This paper presents a novel interpretation and affirmation of Marx’s initial arguments for the labour theory of value in Capital. The materialist principles that (i) powers are materially based, and (ii) ‘labour’ articulates nature and society, are developed so as to validate and emphasise Marx’s opening arguments. The argument is presented as a novel addition to existing critiques of ‘systematic dialectics’ and of ‘value form theory’. Though having some resemblance to critical realism, the materialist and dialectical underpinnings of the argument are drawn from the philosophy of E.V. Ilyenkov.

Keywords: Capitalism; Dialectics; Labour Theory of Value; Marxism; Methodology

Introduction

Amongst the current literature on Marx’s method, a group of authors including Arthur (e.g.
2002b), Reuten (e.g. 2004a), Smith (e.g. 1990) and Williams (e.g. 2001) have, in recent years, advanced our understanding of Marx and hence of capitalism very significantly. These authors have articulated the need to develop a comprehension of capitalism systematically from abstract to concrete with great clarity, drawing explicit inspiration from Hegel (Brown, Slater and Spencer, 2002). They argue, in different ways, that Marx tries to break free from classical political economy through the employment of this essentially Hegelian method of ‘systematic dialectics’ (despite Marx’s own critique of Hegel).

Arthur (2002b) discusses the approach of this broad group, which could be described in full
under the heading ‘contemporary and Hegel-inspired systematic dialectics’, and will be termed ‘systematic dialectics’, for short, below. In sometimes very different respective ways, members of this group successfully defend systematic dialectics against the charge of ‘idealism’ on many different interpretations of that term. However, no member of the group defends systematic dialectics adequately against E.V Ilyenkov’s (1977; 1997) interpretation of ‘idealism’.

Elsewhere (Brown, 2002a), a philosophical argument for the above assertion has been made, setting out Ilyenkov’s philosophy of materialist dialectics. This paper aims to bring out corresponding theoretical deficiencies in systematic dialectics, in particular regarding Marx’s labour theory of value.

Systematic dialectics does not vindicate Marx’s initial arguments in Capital for the ‘necessity’ of the proposition that abstract labour is the substance of value. Some systematic dialecticians view the proposition as a plausible hypothesis, the necessity of which cannot be established at the outset, whereas others deny the proposition altogether (see Moseley, 1993b, pp.10–11). Many systematic dialecticians draw upon ‘value form theory’2, to support their respective positions. This paper offers a novel interpretation of Marx’s initial arguments for the labour theory of value in Capital by way of critique of systematic dialectics. The materialist principles that (i) powers are materially based, and (ii) ‘labour’ articulates nature and society, are developed so as to validate and emphasise Marx’s opening arguments. This represents a novel addition to existing critiques of systematic dialectics and of value form theory.

It is important to note that the two aforementioned materialist principles appear consonant with critical realist philosophy (Lawson, 1997; 2003). The impression of consonance is strengthened by the fact that critical realism also critiques Hegelian idealism (Bhaskar, 1993). However, elsewhere it has been argued that (i) critical realism does not stress the positive contribution of systematic dialectics, the need to develop a comprehension of capitalism systematically from abstract to concrete;4 (ii) critical realism is ambivalent towards ‘materialism’ (as opposed to ‘realism’)5. This paper argues that (i) and (ii) explain why critical realist interpretations of the labour theory of value6 do not develop the two materialist principles in the manner of set out below.

The practical significance of this paper is two-fold. Firstly, the novel interpretation of the labour theory of value is intended as a deepening, or illumination of abstract aspects, of a distinctive strand within Marxian political economy, viz. that represented by Fine, Lapavistas and Saad-Filho (2004), Fine and Saad-Filho (2004) and Saad-Filho (2002). As such, the interpretation can aid comprehension of, and potentially refine, this strand (Brown, 2002a). Secondly, the argument is, in effect, a novel rebuttal of influential and century-old criticisms, from Böhm-Bawerk (1984) onwards, of Marx’s opening arguments in Capital (see Park, 2003, for a recent discussion of Böhm-Bawerk’s criticisms).

The paper is structured as follows. Marx’s opening arguments in Capital, Vol. 1, Ch.1, will be considered in turn: the choice of starting point; the argument that a ‘third thing’ must underlie exchange value; the argument that ‘labour’ must constitute the ‘third thing’; the argument that this is ‘abstract’ and ‘congealed’ labour; and the argument for the necessary development of ‘value form’ will each be affirmed. At each stage, the idealist deficiencies of systematic dialectics will be critiqued. The conclusion brings out the broader significance of the argument as a whole.

The Labour Theory of Value: Materialist versus Idealist Interpretations

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