Inicio > Economía marxista, Teoría crítica acumulada > “The Myth of ‘Simple Commodity Production’ “: Christopher J. Arthur

“The Myth of ‘Simple Commodity Production’ “: Christopher J. Arthur

The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics of 1987 represented the distilled wisdom of the economics profession. The article on ‘Karl Marx’ was written by the leading Marxist theorist of the day, Ernest Mandel. This multi-volume work included enough articles on Marxism to enable a separate volume on it to be extracted and published, The New Palgrave: Marxian Economics, 1990, in which Mandel’s overview had pride of place. He referred to ‘what Marx calls “simple commodity production” – “einfache Waren-produktion”.’[1] In this, quasi-official expression was given to the most enduring myth of Marxology.

For Mandel was following a very long tradition. Paul Sweezy in his much-used classic textbook The Theory of Capitalist Development stated ‘Marx begins by analysing “simple commodity production”…’[2] (Notice the quotation marks, but, as with Mandel, unsupported by any actual reference.) Earlier, in the thirties, Oskar Lange, in explaining Marx’s theory of value, said Marx starts with such a notion: ‘Marx calls it “einfache Warenproduktion”.’[3] A later authority, R. L. Meek, in his 1967 essay on ‘Karl Marx’s Economic Method’ alleged Marx had a model ‘he called “simple” commodity production’[4].

But the simple truth is that Marx never called anything  ‘einfache Warenproduktion’; the term cannot be found in his writings.[5]

Who, then, introduced it? The term occurs in Engels’s Preface and Supplement to his edition of Capital Volume III, and it was interpolated by him into the text itself (as keen-eyed readers can deduce from the editorial brackets surrounding the passage containing it).

In his Preface Engels claimed that at the beginning of Volume I of Capital ‘Marx takes simple commodity production as his historical presupposition, only later, proceeding on this basis, to come on to capital’: the advantage of this was that he could proceed ‘from the simple commodity and not from a conceptually and historically secondary form, the commodity as already modified by capitalism’.[6] This is in fact a misreading: Marx never used the expression ‘simple commodity production’ in Capital. Likewise, it is certain he never referred to the capitalistically produced commodity as a secondary derivative form.[7] Marx certainly does not develop the idea of ‘simple commodity production’ at the point where it was supposed to be under discussion, namely the first few chapters.  Rather, as the first sentence of Volume I makes clear, the simple circulation discussed in the first few chapters is that of the capitalist economy.

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