Inicio > Economía marxista > “The development of Marx’s theory of the distribution of surplus-value”: Fred Mosely

“The development of Marx’s theory of the distribution of surplus-value”: Fred Mosely

Marx’s theory of the production and distribution of surplus-value is based on a fundamental methodological premise, which has not been sufficiently recognized: that the total amount of surplus-value is determined prior to and independent of the division of this total amount into individual parts. The individual parts of surplus-value are then determined at a subsequent stage of the analysis, with the predetermined total amount of surplus-value taken as a given magnitude. This premise was first discussed by Marx in the Grundrisse with respect to the equalization of rates of profit across different branches of production. In the second draft of Capital, written in 1861-63, parts of which have been only recently published in English, Marx also began with this premise as he worked out his theories of rent, interest, and merchant profit. In the remaining drafts of Capital, this fundamental premise is consistently adhered to and emphasized, especially in Volume 3, in which the distribution of surplus-value is the main subject.

Marx expressed this fundamental premise of his theory concerning the prior determination of the total amount of surplus-value in terms of the distinction between the stages of analysis of “capital in general” and “competition” (or “many capitals”). Capital in general refers to the essential properties that all capitals have in common. The most important common property of capitals is their capacity for self-expansion, i.e. their ability to produce surplus-value. Therefore, the main question addressed in the analysis of capital in general is the determination of the total amount of surplus-value produced in the capitalist economy as a whole. Competition refers to the relations among capitals, and, in particular, to the distribution of surplus-value among capitals, first among the different branches of production and then the further division of surplus-value into industrial profit, merchant profit, interest, and rent.

Unfortunately, this fundamental premise of Marx’s theory has been almost totally overlooked in the vast literature about Marx’s theory, at least in the English literature. In particular, this premise has not been recognized in the long-standing debate over the so-called “transformation problem” in Marx’s theory. The main exception to this oversight has been Rosdolsky (1977, pp. 41-50 and 367-75), who emphasized that Marx’s explanation of equal rates of profit across industries in the Grundrisse was based on this principle (another exception is Foley 1986). However, even Rosdolsky’s discussion is limited, because it applies only to the Grundrisse and to Marx’s theory of equal rates of profit, and not to later drafts of Capital nor to the other components of surplus-value.

In an earlier paper (Moseley 1993a), I have attempted to show the importance of this methodological premise for Marx’s theory of equal rates of profit and prices of production, i.e. for Marx’s solution to the “transformation problem”. In particular, I have argued that the widespread interpretation of Marx’s theory in terms of linear production theory, which I call the “neo-Ricardian” interpretation, is erroneous because it ignores this fundamental premise of Marx’s theory (and for other reasons as well) and is instead based on a very different premise. In Marx’s theory, the rate of profit is determined at the level of abstraction of capital in general as the ratio between the total amount of surplus-value and the total capital invested in the capitalist economy as a whole. This rate of profit is then taken as given in the determination of prices of production. In the neo-Ricardian interpretation of Marx’s theory, there is no distinction between the levels of abstraction of capital in general and competition. Likewise, there is no recognition of the prior determination of the rate of profit in the analysis of prices of production. Instead, the rate of profit is determined simultaneously along with prices of production. It follows from this fundamental misinterpretation that the main neo-Ricardian criticism of Marx’s theory – that Marx’s solution to the “transformation problem” is logically incomplete and contradictory – is not correct. If Marx’s theory is correctly interpreted, including this premise of the prior determination of the total amount of surplus-value and the general rate of profit, then there is no logical error in his solution to the “transformation problem”.

The main purpose of the present paper is to extend this earlier paper by providing substantial further textual evidence of this important methodological premise in Marx’s theory of the production and distribution of surplus-value. The various drafts of Capital will be examined to show their consistent adherence to this fundamental premise. Not only is Marx’s theory of equal rates of profit considered, but also his theory of the other components of surplus-value, in order to demonstrate his consistent adherence to this premise and the logical connection between these different aspects of his theory of the distribution of surplus-value. The burden of interpretation will then be on those – especially the neo-Ricardians – who have so far ignored this fundamental premise of Marx’s theory.

The development of Marx’s theory of the distribution of surplus-value

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