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“Some reflections on Marx’s theory of value”: Gilbert Faccarello

Two controversies concerning Marx’s theory of value were of particular importance during the 1960s and 1970s. The first is well known and has attracted most of the attention of Marxian scholars during these decades: I allude to the celebrated ‘transformation problem’ and to the spirited debates that followed the publication of Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities. The second one, however, is much less well known among economists but is also of fundamental importance: it was more methodological in character and centred mainly on Marx’s ‘logic’ and the relationship between Marx and Hegel.

At first sight these two considerations are disconnected and involve very different problems in Marx’s writings. The first controversy seems in fact to be mainly technical and mathematical in character, and the second chiefly philosophical. However it has become more and more evident that the fundamental problems they raise are linked and this is precisely what I have tried to do (Faccarello, 1983a, 1983b). My line of argument is simple. As a result of the Sraffian controversies it is obvious that the ‘transformation problem’ is destined never to find a solution, since the theory of production prices is ‘self-sufficient’. But it is also evident that what is traditionally ‘transformed’, that is, the system of ‘labour values’, can no longer be considered as an unproblematic starting point for the entire theoretical construction; old questions have again been raised in this new context and such central concepts as ‘abstract labour’ or ‘socially necessary labour’ have proved to be unclear and in need of unambiguous definition. The problem thus faced is that of reinterpreting Marx’s statements on value and of trying again to grasp, possibly in a new way, the definition(s) and significance(s) of the related concepts.

Striking facts appear to support this perspective. First, there is Marx’s own dissatisfaction with his texts on value (but also on money and capital) and the continuous process of modification from the Grundrisse onwards to the last edition of Capital. Second, there are the difficulties and embarrassments that commentators generally encounter when trying to state clearly the extent to which Marx’s theory of value is fundamentally different from the version that can be found in the works of the Classical economists in general, and in Ricardo in particular.

Because of lack of space I can neither develop these points in full nor explain thoroughly why Marx thought it necessary and possible to resort simultaneously to these approaches (see Faccarello, 1983a). What I would like to do instead is, first, simply to illustrate my propositions, emphasising the concept of ‘abstract labour’; and, second, on this basis, to show briefly how a careful study of the Marx-Hegel relationship is important in understanding Marx’s arguments and in evaluating their character.

Following this hypothesis and examining again the different versions of these texts, I think it is possible to state that, especially in the opening chapters of Capital, Marx’s discourse is by no means univocal or unitary. Far from displaying a single, well-defined and ‘new’ logic, these texts prove much more complex than is usually assumed. On such important topics as value, money and capital, three types of discourse — three different lines of argument — are in my opinion, tightly interwoven; moreover these kinds of discourse and the different logic and conceptual definitions they entail are conflictual and cannot coexist peacefully, for each of them excludes the other two.

Some reflections on Marx’s theory of value

Published in Riccardo Bellofiore (ed), Marxian Economics Revisited, vol. I, London: Macmillan, 1997, pp. 29-47.

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