“Is Marx’s Theory of Value Still Relevant?”: Alfredo Saad-Filho
This paper assesses the internal consistence of four views of Marx’s theory of value, the ‘traditional Marxism’ associated with Dobb, Meek and Sweezy, Sraffian interpretations of Marx, value-form theory (especially the Rubin tradition) and the ‘new interpretation’ of value theory. On the basis of a critique of these approaches, a class interpretation of this theory is outlined, in which value theory is structured in and through the primacy of class relations in capitalism. Finally, the potential relevance of the class interpretation of Marx’s value theory is briefly assessed in the light of contemporary political, economic and social problems.
The title of this paper is deliberately provocative, on at least three grounds. First, it implies that the ‘relevance’ of social theories needs to be assessed historically, and it may change as the subject of analysis is transformed over time. Second, it suggests that Marx’s theory of value may have been relevant in the past – perhaps when it was first developed, or maybe under what became known as competitive capitalism – but it may no longer be tenable in the phase of ‘global capitalism’. Third, if this is the case, what are critics of capitalism supposed to do? – is there another theory that may offer a similarly powerful denunciation of capitalism as Marx’s, with the same scientific rigour, and the same degree of commitment to the search for postcapitalist alternatives? It is impossible to address these issues in the confines of a single paper. This essay answers these questions unevenly and only partially, in three sections. The first reviews the strengths and shortcomings of different interpretations of Marx’s theory of value, the ‘traditional Marxism’ associated with Dobb, Meek and Sweezy, Sraffian interpretations of Marx, value-form theory (especially the Rubin tradition) and the ‘new interpretation’ of value theory. The second offers an interpretation of value theory based on the primacy of class relations. This interpretation is not entirely original, as it draws on an extensive literature developed over several decades.
However, this section aims to present the principles of this interpretation of Marx’s theory of value briefly and consistently, in order to highlight its most important claims and implications. The conclusion indicates how this interpretation can offer useful insights for the analysis of several important problems of our age. It should be pointed out that this paper does not survey the entire field of value theory, or deal with all important or polemical aspects of this theory, or offer an orderly exposition of the theory for beginners.
1 Interpretations of Marx’s Theory of Value
The concept of value has been interpreted in widely different ways.2 Two interpretations of Marx’s theory of value have become especially prominent, the ‘embodied labour’ views, including ‘traditional Marxism’ and Sraffian approaches, and value form theories, including those associated with Rubin and the ‘new interpretation’. Although these interpretations of value theory have contributed significantly to our understanding of capitalism, they are not entirely satisfactory for several reasons, discussed below.
1.1 Traditional Marxism
According to the ‘traditional’ interpretation, Marx’s theory of value is not essentially different from Ricardo’s. It may be summarized as follows:
The main subject of the theory of value is the analysis of capitalist exploitation. The categories developed in the first three chapters of Capital 1 (commodity, value and money) are only indirectly related to this issue, because they belong to a broader set of modes of production, where capitalist exploitation does not necessarily exist.
The concept of value is necessary for the determination of the rate of exploitation. This reading focuses upon the magnitude of value, defined as the quantity of abstract labour embodied in each commodity. The substance and form of value and the links between value and money are largely neglected.
The analysis of profit requires the determination of commodity prices, including the wage rate. This is done through a set of assumptions that usually includes general equilibrium (simple reproduction). Consequently, prices are only relative to a numéraire. It follows that a theory of money is unnecessary, and money is effectively a veil.
The determination of relative prices has two stages; first, it is assumed that all capitals have equal value compositions, in which case the exchange ratios are determined by embodied labour alone. Second, the value compositions are allowed to vary; in this case, relative prices differ from the embodied labour ratios, but it is presumed that the latter determine the former algebraically.
The conceptual apparatus is elementary. Commodities are use values put out for sale; value is often conflated with exchange value, and the articulation between value and price is left unclear (even though they are presumed to be quantitatively comparable).