In his presentation, Heinrich agreed with Postone that value is a category specific to capitalism, but he reckons that Marx changed his conception of both class and value over his lifetime. So it is not possible to pull quotes from Marx like random rocks in a stone quarry. Each quote must be placed in its context and time. For example, Marx’s definition of class struggle as found in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 differs with his later definitions of class at the end of Capital Volume 3.
Similarly, Marx’s concept of value changed over time. Early on, value is seen to come from the production process and the exploitation of labour power by capital. Later on, Marx revised this view to argue that value was only created at the point of exchange into money. Similarly, Marx thought that a rising organic composition of capital would lead to a fall in the rate of profit, but later he recognised that more machines could raise the rate of surplus value and so the rate of profit may not fall.
Heinrich has the advantage over us in reading Marx’s original words in German, but they remain his interpretations of Marx’s meaning. Heinrich, in effect, argues that value is not a material substance, namely the expenditure of human energy in labour that can be measured in labour time, but only exists in the form of money. In my view and in the view of many other Marxists, this denies the role of exploitation of labour in production, which comes first. Yes, you can only see value in the form of money, but then you cannot see electricity until the light comes on, but that does not mean it does not exist before the light glows. For an excellent critique of Heinrich’s interpretation of Marx’s value theory, see G Carchedi’s book, Behind the Crisis, chapter 2).
Does any of this matter, you might say? Are we not just discussing how many angels are there on the head of a needle, as medieval Catholic theologians did? Well, yes. But I think there are some consequences from deciding that value is only created in exchange and also that class struggle is not really centred (any longer) on workers and capitalists in the production process. For me, such theories lead to the idea that crises under capitalism are caused by faults in the ‘circulation of money and credit’ and not in the contradictions of capitalism between productivity and profitability in the production of surplus value, as I think Marx argued. And the revisions of the nature of class struggle could lead to the removal of the working class as the agent for socialist change.
This year’s Historical Materialism conference in London focused on the Russian revolution as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of Marx’s Volume One of Capital. Naturally, I concentrated on presentations that flowed from the latter rather than the former.
Indeed, the main plenary at HM was on Marx’s theory of value and class – and the annual winner of the Isaac Deutscher book prize announced at the HM was William Clare Roberts’ Marx’s Inferno, which seemed to be a ‘political theory’ of capital seen through the prism of Dante’s famous poem. Maybe, more on that later.
The plenary speakers were Moishe Postone, Michael Heinrich and David Harvey – an impressive line-up of heavyweight Marxist academics. Postone is co-director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory and faculty member of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies. His 30-min speech was difficult to understand, being couched in polysyllabic academic…
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