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Debating Marx’s ‘Labour Theory of Value’ and ‘Marx on the Environment’ on the 150th Anniversary of Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’

A look at Marx’s notion of ‘Labour Theory of Value’ on the 150th Anniversary of ‘Das Kapital’. Also a consideration of Marx on the natural environment.

At the ‘ALP Socialist Left Forum’ Facebook group we’ve been discussing Marx’s ‘Labour Theory of Value’. This is notable because this year is the 150th Anniversary of the publication of Marx’s ‘Das Capital’ (Volume One).

In the relatively near future, I intend restructuring, editing and partially-re-writing a speech I made on that subject.

But for now, I would like to discuss Marx’s famous ‘Labour Theory of Value’ specifically. (and also whether or not Marx ‘valued’ the natural environment) Another contributor basically argued that ‘labour theory of value’ (as argued in Capital Volume One) was defunct; and that it led a lot of people to reject Marx. This is a pretty common response; and certainly, ‘bourgeois’ responses to Marx have often fixated on discrediting his ‘labour theory of value’. This has arguably been partly for reasons of interest – and hence a wish to discredit the argument that labour is responsible for all ‘values’ in terms of goods and services (with the exceptions of land and the natural environment). But there have been philosophical arguments about the nature of ‘value’ as well. And there has been much confusion because for Marx ‘value’ is an analytical category with a specific (non-mundane) meaning.

Typically respondents have argued that ‘value is subjective’. And indeed in my PhD Thesis, I approved of (Marxist Revisionist) Eduard Bernstein’s merging of ‘objectivist’ and ‘subjectivist’ elements in his critique of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value. Therein I argued that Marx did not account sufficiently for the relative privilege of what may be called the ‘labour aristocracy’.

Anyway: Having studied Capital more closely now, though, I feel in a better position to respond with greater confidence. Here’s my understanding, now, of ‘Labour Theory of Value’.

My understanding is that Marx’s labour theory of value is in some ways a self-referential system and it makes sense on its own terms. To begin you have to distinguish between the price of labour power sold to employers as a commodity and ‘labour theory of value’ where ‘value’ is ‘the amount of labour congealed in commodities’. Though truly the idea of “average socially necessary labour time” does not distinguish between different kinds of labour. That said: Marx does not deny a subjective element to items’ values – or to the use values AND exchange values of different kinds of labour power; He even recognises differences in the relative value of different kinds of labour power at some points in Capital; but it’s true that he doesn’t explore that in enough detail. It’s a complication with regard his system and perhaps hence he neglects it. We are unclear how different qualities of labour should be recompensed under socialism for instance. So yes, there are deficiencies in some of Marx’s notions even though they are internally consistent.

To elaborate: There is a problem not only with the mechanism or ‘process’ of Surplus Value Extraction (in the context where all value is ultimately created by labour; so Surplus Value can be argued for as ‘unpaid labour time’) ; there is also a problem that while some workers experience extreme alienation (ruinous working conditions, lack of creative control or fulfilment) in return for bare-subsistence, other workers (while technically exploited) experience superior conditions (including pay, creative control, prestige, career paths); and historically this is played upon to disrupt solidarity within and across the working class.

But also: While Marx DOES recognise the role of Demand and Supply on the price of labour power; he does not consider as such ‘the relative worth’ of different kinds of labour once skill, difficulty etc are accounted for. So under democratic socialism what kind of differences of recompense are possible – or even desirable? How for instance do we promote solidarity and mutual respect; but also some reward for skill, difficulty, effort and so on?

Nonetheless Surplus Value makes perfect sense. That is: workers broadly are paid the means of (relative) subsistence (a privileged minority (labour aristocracy) receive considerably more than the average), but there is not “an exchange of equivalents”; the employer extracts surplus value from workers’ labour. The worker is only recompensed proportionate to a fraction of what he or she creates. That much makes sense. Also ‘Labour theory of value’ makes sense in that values (as defined by Marx) are created by labour; and Capital is ‘value in motion’; a process for the cyclical creation of values; and the production of surplus value; and hence the reproduction of the capital relationship ; and capitalism generally. Wages maintain workers at the relative level necessary for subsistence. The surplus is extracted both to pay for the maintenance and expansion of production; and also for the maintenance of bourgeois lifestyles. All that makes sense. And no wonder capitalists and their apologists have strived to discredit Marx; because the analytical category of surplus value implies a devastating moral critique of capitalism.

Theoretically, some return on (small) investments of capital may be warranted; because of the real sacrifices the small (working class) investors and some petty bourgeois make. But once you start talking about the bourgeoisie proper it’s a different story. Only the bourgeoisie proper has access to such credit or reserves so as to overcome the barriers to entry into certain markets. And whatever risks and initiatives the bourgeoisie take; the fact remains that Surplus Value is extracted. And what is more than the working class is separated from the means of production; does not control the means of production; must labour under the capitalists’ terms and labour discipline; does not usually have creative control over its labour; is often employed in monotonous, partial tasks which are profoundly alienating.

So there are big problems with capitalism that Marx is still very useful in analysing. Though he also observes capitalism’s inbuilt tendency to drive innovations; in search of what he calls Relative Surplus Value (think of it as a ‘temporary advantage’ in terms of quality or productivity – often driven by technological advances). That – in tandem with what Marx calls ‘the Coercive Laws of Competition’ – means that capitalism still drives an enormous amount of innovation and technological development. But capitalism proceeds at a terrible cost to some workers. Especially if you’re at the wrong end of the Immiseration process; ie: if you’re a textiles labourer in Bangladesh.

‘Imiseration’ refers to class bifurcation; as well as absolute impoverishment and ruination – which Marx anticipated. Relative Western prosperity – largely delivered by technological innovation, qualitative developments, as well as improvements in technology-driven productivity; has been argued as a refutation of this. But arguably absolute ‘Imiseration’ has also been ‘displaced to the Third World ’; with an ‘outer dialectic’ where Colonial/Imperialistic exploitation of ‘peripheral’ economies provides ‘relief’ in Western (core) economies (eg: cheap consumer goods for Western workers). Nonetheless, we do see ‘relative immiseration’ WITHIN Western (core) economies as well; as with the exploitation of the working poor within the United States. (hence perhaps an ‘external’ aspect to the ‘inner’ dialectic of class struggle within the US; ie: middle income (working class) living standards are supported by the exploitation of the working poor) And the global capitalist economy (having integrated economies the world over and having integrated the labour-power of women) is again pressing its limits; leaving the question “what next for growth (and hence capitalism) – if not greater intensity of labour? (And hence further attacks of the rights of labour.)

In summary, David Harvey argues that Marx’s Capital (Vol I) makes the most sense when applied to ‘economically Liberal’ or ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism especially. This makes Capital (Vol I) highly useful for understanding Anglosphere economies which have largely gone down that path. But admittedly Marx did not anticipate the rise of modern mixed economies, advanced welfare states, Keynesian demand management and so on. Arguably these could comprise ‘stepping stones’ towards a socialist economy and society – while at the same time ‘stabilizing capitalism’ (reducing cost structures and the like). Marx is still highly RELEVANT, but perhaps he is not on his own SUFFICIENT in responding to modern economic and social problems.

As for arguments that Marx did not recognise the ‘value’ of Nature (one person at our Facebook Forum argued this); that is demonstrably untrue if you understand Marx in context. Marx defines between use values and exchange values. Hence ‘a beautiful rainforest’ may have no ‘value’ in the sense of exchange value, or Marx’s schema of ‘value’ according to his specific (non-mundane) definition as ‘the labour congealed in commodities’. But remember this is just a technicality based on Marx’s definitions… It does not mean (literally) that Marx thinks ‘nature has no value’. Again; In Marx’s scheme ‘value’ refers to the labour congealed in a commodity. But ‘USE VALUES’ are something else entirely. Marx recognises that things can have USE VALUE without comprising ‘values’ according to Marx’s particular (contextual) definition. So ‘a beautiful rainforest’ can have a ‘use value’ in the sense that human beings can appreciate its beauty. And ‘nature’ may have the ‘use value’ of being necessary for the reproduction, health, and happiness of the human species. Though it’s true Marx doesn’t consider what some might call the ‘intrinsic value’ of nature. Deep Ecologists may not find as much of interest to them in Marx.

Similarly “work/life balance” has value; as do domestic and voluntary labour; as does education, philosophical and scientific inquiry, and art ‘in their own right and for their own sake’. But capitalism does not ‘see’ or ‘encourage’ the identification of these – EXCEPT insofar as they can be manipulated to somehow magnify exchange value; ‘creation of ‘values’ in the capitalist context; production of surplus value; the self-expansion and reproduction of the capital relationship on which bourgeois power, privilege (and arguably purpose) rest.

On the 150th Anniversary of Capital (Volume I) it is worth revisiting Marx, and questioning some common assumptions. In-so-doing we encounter a thinker still highly relevant for the current day. Even though some (eg: the ‘Post Marxists’ Mouffe, Laclau, and others) have suggested revisions and alterations which are also highly useful, and sometimes inspiring. The 150th Anniversary is as good a time as any to ‘return to Marx’ and to work out what he’s really saying, and not just depend on the second-hand accounts of bourgeois-Liberal economists.

Tristan Ewins – Tristan is a freelance writer, PhD graduate, qualified teacher, blogger, social commentator and ALP Socialist Left activist of over 20 years. He has written for The Canberra Times and several online publications – most prolifically at ON LINE Opinion. He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.



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  1. Joseph Carli

    Being first employed in the building trade at the tender age of fourteen years, I have seen many, many examples of worker exploitation both to myself as an employee and to a group on a building site…I can look back now over the memories of much of that period of 45plus years and say without doubt on the fundamentals of labour “value adding”..Marx was dead right..I’ll give an example later..

  2. Joseph Carli

    In the interests of debate, here is my example..:

    I have an older cousin who is a bricklayer named Ron. His name really is Cesarino…but that is how the anglicising of “foreign” names go…; Cesarino becomes Ron. Ron was sponsored to Australia by his uncle at the tender age of fourteen, in the early fifties, after the war…He went to school here for a year and then was put to work for his uncle as a brickies labourer…he was a big bloke..a very strong man.

    He worked for many years for a Greek property developer named Spero. I too worked for Spero, though not as far back as Ron. As a matter of fact, Ron worked for him for so long he had become sort of adopted into the family circle…Ron was divorced, his one child grown up so he was on his own and would be available to do little jobs at the Spero family home on the weekends and such, so he was asked to stay for dinner some Sundays and it became a habit…so that every Sunday, for many years, he’d go to Spero’s for Sunday dinner….and he appreciated it…he had worked so long for the family business that it seemed natural…..until one day he stopped going.

    I was working for Spero then and he spoke to me in a concerned way that he confessed he didn’t know why Ron stopped coming…and Ron wouldn’t say…Spero just couldn’t work it out…and I asked Ron on the job one day ; “‘Why don’t you go to Spero’s for Sunday dinner any more?”…at first he was reluctant to tell me..but I was persistent. He leaned against the wall crowbar in hand and told me.

    ‘You remember that job we did for Cathy D over at Beulah Park?…yes, well, you remember that big cedar tree out the back she was going to get a contractor to remove?..yes, well…..a couple of months ago, we’re all there at the table having dinner..a roast..and there’s me and Spero next to me and over the table is Barbara (Spero’s wife) and Cathy….and Barbara stops in the middle of her eating and asks Cathy ; “Did you get the contractor to remove that tree, Cathy?”…to which Cathy replied ; “Oh, no!…they were much too expensive…they wanted a thousand dollars!”….there was a moments silence while they returned to their eating, then Barbara stops again looks at Cathy..with her fork with a bit of potato on it pointing at me and she says ; “Why don’t you get Ron to do the job…he’s cheap!”…[ now this is the important point…listen closely…after relating this sad little episode to me and he felt it, believe me..he was saddened ..he leaned toward me wagged his finger and spoke in a lowered tone like he was telling a confidant ]..: “You are never their friend…never!…you’re always just the worker…you’re never a friend to them, just the worker.”

    He didn’t say anything to them, he didn’t let them see he was hurt…he finished his meal and then pleaded weariness and went home…But at that moment, this man with almost no schooling, no outward knowledge of the structural strata of social classes or even any nous of the perception of those with such excellent education qualifications, this man learned and interpreted in an instant the Marxian ethos ; the positioning of himself, his fellows in trade, and all those in employment who do labouring for a boss…in those words ; “…you are never THEIR friend…” their friend….them. He did not just mean Spero and his family, he was referring to that whole class of people…a class he never before gave more than a seconds’ thought to in regards HIS position in their society. He was one of the most honest workers I have met…he would scorn shirking on the job as one would spit a bad taste out of one’s mouth!

    Yet while Ron understood the situation, Spero and his wife didn’t !…They didn’t because they had been tutored ( both at expensive private schools) in a different but parallel system…THEY were not required to sympathise with Ron “the worker”…they behaved toward Ron as they would toward their other possessions. They couldn’t see any problem with their behaviour because THEY had been educated into their social position and expected someone like Ron to seek to admire and aspire UPWARD to their level of society. But Ron had NO INTEREST in becoming as one with that strata of society..he was confident and content in his own are most of us. So while Ron mixed with them out of a sense of camaraderie and friendship, they saw themselves as doing him a favour……extraordinary, as in reality, it was Ron who, by his skilled labour, helped create the income and therefore their status and lifestyle they got through their speculative building.

    The saddest part of the delusion clutched to the breast of the aspiring middle-class, is that they see themselves as part of the higher echelon of “decision makers” of if by their selfish determination, they will automatically become a “Member of the exclusive club” of the likes of the Point Piper set..even while their best address is in a street full of almost exact looking McMansions in Sylvania Waters..Tragic.

  3. Maeve Carney

    Marx never worked a day in his life. He sponged off family, till they cut him off (including his wife’s family) then he sponged off Engels. He, despite having the opportunity to do so, never actually visited any factories nor really spoke to or listened to any real people. He never worked and the only working class person he ever knew was the servant he never paid! Not sure how or why anyone thinks he theories have any value considering where they came from and the unignorable fact that they have never worked anywhere they have been tried. I have read Marx’s works and I am currently reading Adam Smith. Those who are very family with Marx’s writings should also read Smith’s.

  4. Tristan Ewins

    Joseph I think some bourgeois can be better than that as human beings ; but its ‘the coercive laws of competition’ which drive even the ‘better’ capitalists to exploit their workers. You’d be right, though, to say others don’t give a stuff about their workers. What we have to critique more than anything is ‘the capital relationship’ and ‘the capital process’. Problem is we can critique – but ‘where’s the way out?” ; and if there is a way out: “to what?”. For me it means promoting the extension of democratic forms over decades. Extend the welfare state and social wage ; promote public infrastructure, services, natural public monopolies, government enterprises ; promote co-operative, mutuals and democratic collective capital formation ; support volunteers and forms of ‘non-commodified’ production.

  5. Joseph Carli

    ” Marx never worked a day in his life.”…neither has the Queen of England…yet I would suppose YOU would tug the forelock to HER!…Marx had a driving vocation that drove him and those about him into poverty and yet, like James Joyce and HIS and HIS brother’s dedication, have given humanity treasure beyond price..more, SO MUCH MORE than I or yourself could ever hope to equal..don’t be so churlish!

  6. Tristan Ewins

    Meave Carney ; How about criticising the substance of Marx’s analysis rather than attacking the man? You say he did not ‘work’ ; by which you mean ‘he never sold his (commodified) labour’ ; Firstly I don’t know if that is true ; But secondly this does not mean ‘he did not work’. It just means in worked in a non-commodified context. And yes – he could not have done this if it wasn’t for the support of Engels. Your other claims are unsubstantiated. (nb: I seem to recall Marx worked as a freelance journalist as well; maybe someone can substantiate that?)

  7. Joseph Carli

    Tristan..I do agree with you on where to target the argument..but for the worker, while the bigger picture does involve agents and philosophies so much broader and global, the day to day principles come right down to the factory floor where they are affected. But again, I do agree with your principle and will aim any future comment in that direction.


    Of course marx worked. das capital is massive and took a significant amount of work. he worked constantly. engels paid him to do.the work. its nonsense to say marx did not work. was jk rowling working when she wrote her first harry potter novel for no payment. was shakespeare working when he wrote his plays without payment but which later create an income for him. we have a particularly regressive definition of ‘work’


    yes marx did work as a journalist and also had some poems published for which he received payment but mostly he received payment from engels. marx was primarily an advanced private researcher for engels. research is valid work.


    adam smith’s ‘invisible hand’ is the most non sensical theory of any kind ever concocted by anyone anywhere. Its basically an admission that he did not understand and could not explain the phenomenon he was analysing. it postulates as something that which smith cannot identify. it expresses the existance of that which is unknown… its pure mysticism.

  11. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    Thanks Tristan. Australia needs a mainstream left party which can take up these wonderful ideas. I have always worked for renewal within Australian Labor. I cop some flack from Labor elitists on the promotion trail whose politics are more Whig than social democrat or social market. This makes Australia one of the most conservative electorates on earth. Continue to work for progressive and logical change. Labor must be opened up to all to challenge the drift to the far-right in Australian politics.

  12. paul walter

    Very, very fine stuff.

    It must take a lot of labor to protect (destroy) some redgums near a fresh water stream from being turned into a carpark for polluting motor vehicles and fetishist consumer capitalism when a park could produce joy worth uncountable dollars for people with an appreciation of “value”, eg downstream economic costings for perspective, alone let alone value of aesthetic values.

    Capitalism indeed stilts the human imagination and after many years trying to explain what’s discussed here to unimaginative literalists, it is a pleasure to read Tristan Ewins’ economic yet comprehensive take.

  13. Dotay

    To argue ad hominem is easy, although ineffectual.
    Marx enrolled in law and graduated with a Ph.D. in philosophy (surprisingly). He worked for a short time as editor–in–chief of Rheinische Zeitung before it was closed by the Prussian government under stringent censorship laws. His political beliefs, as I understand them, were liberal with an underlying concern for the poor. He was a prolific writer and over time developed his belief that the laws passed by the government were purely the desires of the liberal bourgeoisie and the state was no more than a committee implementing bourgeoisie preferences. His writings were also taken up by the aristocrats who saw the rising bourgeoisie class a threat to their historical grip on power, wealth, and prestige.
    For those who enjoy Adam Smith, you may also be interested in, what could be described his precursor;
    The Muqaddimah
    Abd Ar Rahman bin Muhammed ibn Khaldun
    Translated by
    Franz Rosenthal

  14. Joseph Carli

    Capitalism has at it’s head and as its driving force two of the major forces of the dark side of human endeavour..: Greed and Envy…WE may soften or separate those from the objective, but it always comes back to those instincts..and tribes, nations , empires and personal lives have been butchered in their name..and in the end, our only livable planet must also succumb to that vile duopoly before we can educate it out of our hearts.

  15. diannaart

    Labor has drifted (set course?) for the right for so long now, even the slightest tilt towards the political centre (let alone actual left) is magnified by Labor’s opponents as “reds under the beds” and similar nonsense.

    I agree with Dennis Bright on the need for a mainstream workers’ party. That we, as a nation, are undergoing such conniptions over basic human rights such as marriage equality, bears out Dennis’ description of Australia as extremely conservative.

    Thank you, Tristan for your thoughtful work.

    (and thank you Joseph for your most apt tale – we need to change the status quo on classes – yes, right wing bourgeois, it IS about class war fare, attacks on the working class are relentless.)

  16. Christian Marx

    Great story about you mate Ron, Joseph. That is the problem in a nutshell. The very wealthy
    just use people up as a commodity. They are the real parasites, living off the labour of the workers.

  17. Joseph Carli

    Any philosophy that explains a working principle but does not reach down to those most affected by that principle will be overlooked by those most affected ie; in this case, the working class..Both Religion and capitalism has reached down to the most illiterate of the poor and taken them along with their so-called “inclusive” beliefs..; Religion by appealing to the human side of rewarding those most generous to the church with a promise of a better life beyond the one they actually live here on Earth (a most spurious promise) and capital by rewarding the human ambition of a desire for a life on Earth of luxury and ease as reward of their labour…an easier promise to fulfill IF the protagonist fulfills their part of the bargain to exploit and extend the capitalist philosophy to others.
    Ironically, Capitalism has used the theories of Marxism as a sober warning tool for the capitalist powerful to tell them when they have gone too far in their treatment of their workers and allows the more clever to then offer a redeeming balm to soothe worker tempers..
    Unfortunately, it is mostly the educated middle-class that read Marx…the workers are in many cases more interested in reading a racing form or the footy stat’s.

  18. Maeve Carney

    It is noticeable that. It one of you commented on the fact that Marx NEVER even paid his own servant, by whom he had an illegitimate son whom he never acknowledged. A lazy, greedy man writing theories for the lazy and greedy. BTW why bring up the Queen? What relevance does she have to a discussion on Marx?

  19. Tristan Ewins

    Maeve – You’re still attacking Marx personally and saying nothing at all about what the man actually wrote. And you’re still failing to substantiate your claims.

  20. Joseph Carli

    ” BTW why bring up the Queen?”…well , if you couldn’t work out the sarcasm, you gotta be too thick to work out ANY sort of Marxian philosophy….Thick as a brick….Thick as boot leather…Thick as two short planks…Go back to commenting on Catallaxy Files..they are more YOUR sort of people!

  21. Maeve Carney

    Who, Joseph? What sort of person am I? Tristan, I have read Marx, and the kind of person he was has an impact on what he wrote. Too many of you are highly critical of capitalism, but have you all actually read any Adam Smith, or more importantly, did you understand it?

  22. Harquebus

    I see Joseph Carli is being his usual friendly self. The comments ‘were’ going pretty good.

  23. Joseph Carli

    Aww, don’t come over the conneroo with me, Maeve…”I’ve read Marx and the kind of person he was…” and THAT proves to me that he wrote ” theories for the lazy and greedy..” ..bullshit! Listen , may THINK you read Marx, but you had NO INTENTION of really READING him…you were just looking for cracks in the you are coming here to “punch walls”…I’d bet London to a brick YOU were of working-class stock who tried their hand at speculation or small business and got burned in the process…probably took on a franchise of some kind..say ; A fast-food outlet selling ..oh..I don’t know….p’rhaps ; vegemite smoothies sucked through a marxipan..OOPS! slip ; marZipan flavoured straw and the only reason you didn’t make your fortune was because all those lazy, greedy staff wanted weekend penalty rates…
    Of course we’ve read Adam smith or at least the most relevant parts of it..time and again over the years..we’ve even lived it!..Capitalism is crap!…when a parent has to take on two or more casual jobs just so they can pay the domestic bills without having a secure plan for any sort of future and the CEO’s of even the post effing office gets a multi-million salary..and there’s NO oversight on them except social media outrage..then it’s a shit system!
    Don’t bother addressing me personally if you are seeking “understanding”, Maeve..because I won’t waste time being civil to the likes of you.

  24. Joseph Carli

    Oh ..’’s the in-terminable Harque’ busying himself at my expense..I wonder where that other spoonbill bottom feeder with the face of Tony Abbott, the name of communist Cuba and the hairstyle of a “Shergis home perm” is?..still cleaning out his on-site caravan I’d say…

  25. Tristan Ewins

    Maeve ; the question was whether you’d read Marx (you say you have) ; and then following from that: “What are your specific criticisms” ; I’ve read about Smith – but never directly ; But I understand ‘labour theory of value’ was argued by both Smith and Ricardo ; But Marx specifically understood capital as a process ; as well as the role of surplus value in industrial capital. Marx understood the capitalism of the industrial revolution ; and by implication the neo-liberal/Liberal capitalism of today.

    If you want to enlighten me as to specifics I’m glad to listen to what you have to say. My understanding is that Smith assumes ‘an exchange of equivalents” and that is highly questionable.

    Meanwhile subjectivist theorists have a point: there is a subjective element to the value of labour depending on your interpretation. But many fail to recognise the specific role of the category of ‘value’ in Marx’s system of thinking. As I argue in the article Marx doesn’t deny a subjective element. ‘Value’ has a specific interpretation native to Marx’s schema of the workings of capital. But outside that framework he doesn’t deny qualitative differences between specific kinds of labour… He doesn’t deny the impact of demand and supply on the price of labour power. (jn fact he actively acknowledges it) What remains is the MECHANISM of surplus value extraction ; and the notion of ‘unpaid labour time’. The problem is how to solve the problem of ‘relative value’ – even under democratic socialism – recognising differences in terms of skill, difficulty, unpleasant labour etc…..

    As to the ‘kind of people’ influenced by Marx ; that’s a pretty broad net ; probably involving unwarranted generalisations. But still I will somewhat hesitantly ask “what kind of person is that?”. But please – I’d rather your specific criticisms of things Marx has written – as opposed to aspersions against peoples’ character.

  26. Joseph Carli

    Tristan wrote..: ” But many fail to recognise the specific role of the category of ‘value’ in Marx’s system of thinking. As I argue in the article Marx doesn’t deny a subjective element. ‘Value’ has a specific interpretation native to Marx’s schema of the workings of capital.”

    A good example of how this “subjective” idea of value adding works, is with the owner builder in the cottage housing area…where the owner builder does the majority of the construction, labour, skills and design , ending up with a unique house in a eco-sensitive area of the State..i am thinking specifically the St. Andrews area outside Melbourne, where back in the seventies many hippies etc, built extraordinary structures out of mud and recycled timber and joinery to end up with a quite valuable house. Value added even more so because of its unique/quirky design.

    Here, obviously the conventional real-estate market governed the main-stream pricing of both blocks of land and a type of conventional housing product..but the owner-built house of unique features lifted the base market value above the standard pricing range..but this must be attributed to what would be the preferred ..or subjective…choice of a purchaser.

  27. Florence nee Fedup

    I like both Adam Smith and Marx. Might have been no hoper as describe but he got a lot right about how our society works. Describe is all he ever did.

    Most consider being an author, writing books as work, a trade.

  28. diannaart

    Maeve’s comments gave me pause for thought to a couple of questions:

    1/ How should we judge the personal lives of people who have made significant contributions (good or bad) to our world culture? Given the vagaries of human nature, there would be few, very few, people left standing if we were to apply the harsh spotlight of moral judgement. Not even Mother Theresa was a particularly empathic ‘soul’ given her belief the poor were meant to suffer. Marx is rather benign by comparison – he did not sleep in comfort while his wards slept on pallets.

    2/ The value of paid work compared to unpaid work – are they of equal value? Do they even merit comparison in a Neo-capitalist ethos?

  29. Zathras

    Marx may indeed “not have worked a day in his life” but Ayn Rand, the Goddess of the Right, spent the last years of her life on welfare, “sponging” off the State – the very thing she railed against during her career.

    Marx in some way helped two “backward” nations become global superpowers within a couple of generations while Rand created an ongoing culture of greed, avarice and human exploitation that persists today.

    Both came at a considerable cost and it was,as usual, the innocent who suffered.

  30. Tristan Ewins

    Florence nee Fedup ; Just briefly Marx was also an active revolutionary via the First International ; so he was involved in organisation as well ; and so too was Engels. (in fact Engels was probably involved more in organisation than Marx)

  31. ranterulze

    Great to see AIMN publishing an article such as this, as well as vigorous debate and opinion (Oh Maeve, any connections between Smith’s view of Value and Marx’s?)
    Tristan – one comment that is maybe critical. Marx in Capital is almost unreadable for “ordinary people” like me, and I have two degrees. A different sort of discourse is required to explain alienation, surplus value and all the rest. David Harvey does this well and I’m looking forward to Helen Razer’s new book. Even Russell Brand tackles the basic concepts in a catchy way.
    Re: the Law of Value and it’s relevance today – grab a whole lot of raw materials and plunk them in a disused factory with a range of machines. Turn on the power (coal or renewable, doesn’t matter for this thought experiment). Wait a while. Wait a LONG while.
    Of course nothing happens. No new value created, until some people show up to operate the machines and plan the output. Workers, managers, cleaners, tea ladies (sorry, let’s pretend it’s still 1950).
    Only labour can create value, even with high-productivity robots. When you think it through it’s totally apparent, so ne need to obscure this basic Marxist concept with reams of big words.
    Anyway, more please!

  32. Rossleigh

    You should all read my blog on Milton Friedman and Adam Smith…

    Ok, it is a bit like the Liberals energy policy: It’s not written yet, but it’s a great blog and like the Liberals I need to tell you how what I’m going to do is, because unless I do, nobody else will…

    Anyway, the basic point I was going to make was that I don’t see the relevance of what sort of a man was in his personal life has when people are discussing his theories. By all means, debate the ideas, but to suggest that Marx was a bit of a selfish bastard so therefore his ideas are wrong is a bit like saying that Edison was deaf so we shouldn’t praise his invention of the phonograph…

  33. Tristan Ewins

    ranterrulze ; Well you’re right! Technically Marx distinguishes between ‘living labour’ and ‘dead labour’ ; labour is ‘congealed’ in the means of production as much as other commodities – ‘dead labour’ includes factory machines and so on ; But they require living labour (workers!) to ‘animate’ them. Without workers the machinery is useless. Hence Marx points to the very real leverage of the working class. BUT – with a shift towards greater automation… These will still require ‘living labour’ to maintain, manufacture and run them… But arguably it will undermine the organisational position of workers. Where to then? I don’t know. How to organise and struggle when you’re dispersed and no longer working together en mass, at close quarters and so on? This is where a GMI (guaranteed minimum income) could come in… At least it could improve workers’ purchasing power. And prevent utter destitution en masse. But still: how we will organise for something significantly better, then – I’m not sure. It’s a debate in itself and I’ll have to think about it.

  34. Tristan Ewins

    ranterrulze ; Also you’re right about Harvey too. I was trying to make my way through Capital ; And I was making progress ; but it was really difficult; so with limited time remaining I turned to Harvey’s ‘Companion to Marx’s Capital’ ; And it included digestible explanations and interpretations ; and all the most crucial passages – in just 350 words. Though all the stuff in this article is based on what I’ve integrated from Capital Vol I ; and I don’t mind conceding there’s some stuff I haven’t integrated as well. Somewhere down the track I will finish Capital proper again too.

  35. diannaart


    Kind of like I stated above… except, maybe Mother Theresa not such a good example as many people believe she was really good all of the time.

    Maybe Oscar Schindler, on one hand he saved a lot of people, on the other he was a womanising capitalist…


    Vincent van Gogh – brilliant artist, a bit loopy if you knew him personally.


  36. Tristan Ewins

    ranterrulze (reposting this as I had to correct an error and could not edit) ; Well you’re right! Technically Marx distinguishes between ‘living labour’ and ‘dead labour’ ; labour is ‘congealed’ in the means of production as much as other commodities – ‘dead labour’ includes factory machines and so on ; But they require living labour (workers!) to ‘animate’ them. Without workers the machinery is useless. Hence Marx points to the very real leverage of the working class. BUT – with a shift towards greater automation… These will still require ‘living labour’ to maintain, manufacture and run them… But arguably it will undermine the organisational position of workers. Where to then? I don’t know. How to organise and struggle when you’re dispersed and no longer working together en mass, at close quarters and so on? This is where a GMI (guaranteed minimum income) could come in… At least it could improve workers’ negotiating power and ‘leverage’. (because providing economic security) And prevent utter destitution en masse. (It may also be necessary to maintain Demand in a capitalist economy) But still: how we will organise for something significantly better, then – I’m not sure. It’s a debate in itself and I’ll have to think about it.

  37. Tristan Ewins

    Somehow a comment of mine has gone missing ; Anyway all I was saying was that I drew significantly from David Harvey in a recent speech on Marx – and it is a great read! Includes all the important passages and quotes ; includes some great interpretation. I had made some real progress in Capital – but I would not have got through it in time without Harvey. I recommend Harvey’s ‘A Companion to Marx’s Capital’ for anyone who wants to seriously delve into Marx’s thought – in a reasonably accessible way.

  38. stephengb2014

    Wow what a great article and string of comments.

    I dont know if its being followed or continuing but heres my two penneth worth.

    The new world of extreme automation will of course mean that a lot of people will not be employed.

    Unemployed and underemployed means less money to spend and that means less demand.

    Less demand for the products being manufactured, means that there will be a surplus of goods and services.

    Deflation the other end of inflation.

    It will not be long before capitalists recognise this and demand that governments introduce UBI.

    Then the capitalist system is complete, the government creates money to give to consumers so that the consumers can keep consuming!


    S G B

  39. Joseph Carli

    ” Then the capitalist system is complete, the government creates money to give to consumers so that the consumers can keep consuming!


    S G B”
    I can envisage, with a minimum salary being distributed, “consumer clubs” being formed, much like today’s cooperatives, where people will contribute a percentage of their allowance so the group can purchase things most relevant to that group…like bulk buying of perishables, perhaps car-pooling or buses ..perhaps even in some of the more larger “clubs”, real-estate at a resort of some kind…But the upshot will be lots of similar minded people forming voting blocks that could have a political bias.

  40. Harquebus

    Marx is someone that I know very little about so, this thread has been a good interesting read. Thanks.

    Here’s a couple of articles that I think some might be interested in.

    “One thing that the historical record makes obviously clear is that Adam Smith and his laissez-faire buddies were a bunch of closet-case statists, who needed brutal government policies to whip the English peasantry into a good capitalistic workforce willing to accept wage slavery.”
    “English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in shitty, dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists.”
    “the most interesting parts of the book are where you get to read Adam Smith’s proto-capitalist colleagues complaining and whining about how peasants are too independent and comfortable to be properly exploited, and trying to figure out how to force them to accept a life of wage slavery.”
    “Temple also advocated putting four-year-old kids to work in the factories, writing ‘‘for by these means, we hope that the rising generation will be so habituated to constant employment that it would at length prove agreeable and entertaining to them.’’ Some thought that four was already too old.”
    “Poverty is therefore a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilization. It is the lot of man. It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour; there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.”

    “The reasons were simple and compelling- it did not cost anything to run. Water flow was free. Any fuel that burned, be it wood or coal, had a cost associated with it and factory owners did not want to pay when water was readily available and free for the taking.
    Water was clean, reusable, quiet, and put forth no emissions. And it was cheap. So why then would anyone want to abandon this cheap and abundant energy source and switch to the dirtier, and far more expensive coal?”
    “ownership of steam engines, and the resulting adoption of coal to feed these engines, was specific to a very small class of people, namely, wealthy white guys involved in the Capitalist mode of production.”
    “The Capitalist class acted directly to divert an organic economy that was already successful and underway with renewable hydro power to an economy that relied on fossil fuels, specifically to avoid the untenable social relations present in using a collective energy resource like water power. The Capitalist must own not just the means of production, but the fuel sources as well.”
    “blame the working class and the poor for societies woes, and for good measure be sure to inflict the greatest amount of retribution and payback amongst those least responsible.
    This is a time honored strategy unique to class structure.”
    “So it is not surprising then that we see similar characteristics in our current bourgeoisie government in the persona of Trump. We see the ascension of energy moguls to the levers of power for exactly the same reasons, with exactly the same objectives that were there in 19th century Britain.”

    Sic Transit Imperium

    “Then the capitalist system is complete, the government creates money to give to consumers so that the consumers can keep consuming!” Commonly referred to as ‘ponzinomics’.

  41. Tristan Ewins

    Harquebus ; Interesting that you should mention all that. I sent a letter in to ‘The Age’ on exactly those kind of issues.

    Specifically that “Luddites” historically should be considered with sympathy. Capitalism destroyed their lives.


    “Rosemary Tyler (Letters, 10/9) mentions the ‘Luddites’ and their response to the Industrial Revolution, comparing them to those who resist Clean Energy today. But there are important differences. The Luddites were not just ‘mindless wreckers of Progress’. They were largely skilled crafts-people who were resisting ‘proletarianisation’ and the de-skilling of their industries. They were forced from their homes ; compelled to be wage slaves in dangerous factories ; reduced to bare material subsistence; compelled to suffer 12 hour days and worse. They lost creative control over their labours and their labour’s products. The capitalism of the Industrial Revolution created a foundation for economic and scientific progress ; but it often came at a terrible cost. Today, also, modern capitalism rests upon the brutal exploitation of ‘peripheral’ economies such as in Bangladesh ; but also often the exploitation of working poor within the ‘first world’ itself. Privatisation is arguably the main driver of the current energy-affordability crisis ; But if re-socialisation is not considered an option (it should be!), other measures must be taken to ‘immunise’ low income workers and pensioners during the transition to renewables and beyond.”

  42. Jack

    Joseph, Interesting story. Spero seemed to think of Ron as more than ‘just a commodity’, otherwise he wouldn’t have asked why he didn’t come around anymore. Did he continue to work for him or did he quit and move on?

  43. Harquebus

    Tristan Ewins
    Yep. Well said.
    Did you get any responses and if so, were they generally positive or negative?

  44. Charles Lowe

    As someone who studied (at undergraduate level) Marx, I admire your scholarship and commitment, Tristan.

    And I’m so pleased it inspired Joseph Carli’s expanded response. I, too, lived that response. It’s a big contributing reason as to why I contribute to the Socialist Left Blog.

  45. Tristan Ewins

    Thanks Charles – if only I could turn it into some kind of academic job (which I could cope with ; I admit I can’t deal with too much stress) ; tutoring to start with would be fine ; Harquebus: Yes I got some response at Facebook ; mainly ‘likes’ ; but ‘The Age’ didn’t respond at all ; They haven’t responded to anything I’ve sent them since around April ; and the same for the Herald-Sun. I’ve probably sent about 20 letters or more since then. I even tried a couple of letters to The Australian too ; nothing there either.

  46. Joseph Carli

    Jack asked..: ” Did he continue to work for him or did he quit and move on?”…No, he didn’t quit..he worked for him right up to and past retirement…AND he is a LNP voter (as much as I can make out from his hard opposition to Labor)..Ron had respect from Spero and his family for the strength of work he could do…they even admired many middle-class professionals admire the working stiff at one extreme, but find them oafish at the other…much like one admires a good breed of working dog..but then knows that it must be kept under stern discipline….and petted every so often as a reward…That is what the working class is..a kind of pet of the middle-classes…but disciplined with wages control and not let too much free-time to make mischief…and every now and then, we are rewarded with a special treat..say ; a few beers at a BBQ at the boss’s place, where he shows off the brand spanking new “obviously parked for viewing ” Merc’ or Jag’..or like measly pay rise just before they again raise the cost of living…and the working class then think that the boss isn’t really so bad after all.
    It’s all a part of “The Contract”..

  47. paul walter

    Well put Tristan and Harquebus.

    Also, epic effort from Joseph Carli

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