Behind the Crisis: Marx’s Dialectic of Value and Knowledge, Guglielmo Carchedi

Haymarket Books 2012, 303 pages, £21.99 paperback


Gugliemo Carchedi (GC) defends Marx’s value theory and his theory of crisis which sees the falling rate of profit as the key force driving capitalism into crisis.[1] He exposes the inadequacy of alternative explanations which dominate in academic Marxist circles. In particular he points to the class bias of these alternatives and shows they implicitly or explicitly view capitalism as rational and thus relegate class struggle against the system to voluntarism. The book contains a good detailed explanation of the crisis of 2007 but has a much broader scope than simply political economy.

Since capitalist political economy grows out of the social relations and processes within this society, GC starts by considering, in a general way, how relationships and processes lead to social phenomena and the contradictory nature of these phenomena. For him social phenomena are subject to continual change, and can only be understood dialectically. Capitalism is a system which is continually in a process of reproducing itself but also in the process of being superseded. The central contradiction, which colours all phenomena in the system, is the ownership relation, the fact that all property is in the hands of the bourgeoisie and the working class owns only its labour power. Class struggle is the force driving the tendency towards its supersession. It follows that capitalism is a system in disequilibrium with conflicting tendencies and counter tendencies. To understand this, an analysis using dialectical logic is necessary since the premises contain contradictions. Formal logic, which necessarily excludes contradictory premises and the dimension of time is inadequate. This is the general background to his treatment of political economy and crisis. It gives him the tools to refute those who claim key elements of Marx’s analysis, namely his labour theory of value and crisis theory, need to be rejected, or at least revised.

GC goes on to consider the production of knowledge and the production of consciousness. He points out that knowledge is material and the production of knowledge under capitalist relations is the production of value and surplus value just as in the case of production of goods which he calls objective production. This is dealt with in great detail and provides a comprehensive refutation of the popular myth that abstract knowledge, in the form of the “general intellect”[2] has today become a productive force marginalising the importance of material labour and undermining the labour theory of value. GC points out that knowledge produced under capitalist social relations, even science, is capitalist class knowledge. Its main purpose is to increase the exploitation of the working class in order to increase profit. Under capitalist social relations science is not class neutral. In this he opposes the views of Engels, Lenin and Gramsci. However, GC’s aim is to relate knowledge to class consciousness and consider how knowledge and consciousness produced under capitalist social relations could be used to create a new society in the period of transition. Certain types of knowledge, since they are produced under capitalist social relations, necessarily contain a contradictory element since they are socially produced by wage labour. These may be adapted and used by transitional society.

GC insists that Marx’s labour theory of value and his dialectical method provide the intellectual compass for the working class to create a new society. Fashionable contemporary theories, such as “neo-Ricardianism”,[3] “value form theory”[4] and especially “workerism”[5] only serve to disorient and disarm labour in its struggle for a higher form of society.

The book is logically structured in four chapters. The first deals with dialectical method and the ‘Marxist’ academics who argue Marx’s work is logically contradictory and requires revision. This is dealt with in the second chapter which leads on to a chapter on capitalist tendency to crisis and the 2007 crisis. The final chapter deals with knowledge and consciousness and touches on how knowledge produced under capitalism could be adapted for use in the period of transition to socialist society.

The book thus deals with key issues relevant to revolutionaries today. Although the issues are complex the book is clearly written and deserves to be widely read. We will look at some of these issues in greater detail below since many of them form the bulk of the current critique of Marxism.


The sub-title of the book indicates that GC sees his treatment of dialectics as derived from what is implicit in Marx’s work. He sees his work as completing analyses which Marx was unable to pursue. He argues that dialectics apply only to social relationships, processes and phenomena. This puts him in conflict with Engels, who attempted to base dialectics in nature and thereby prove that socialism was the inevitable outcome of a natural dialectical process. Though GC admits a similarity between Engels’ laws of dialectics and those he proposes he disagrees with Engels’ view that science is class neutral. Since scientific knowledge is produced by labour power under capitalist social relations it retains a capitalist content. He points to Taylorism and scientific management as examples of this. Engels’ view, he argues, leads to seeing the productive forces and developments like Taylorism as class neutral, and the idea that socialism could be built using capitalist productive forces.[6]

Phenomena in class society, GC argues, result from the interaction of social processes and social relations. They result from people pursuing their aims. Social phenomena, however, have a double dimension, their realised dimension and their potential dimension. A commodity, for example, has a use value which is realised by its production and a potential exchange value which can only be realised if it is sold. To move from potential to realised requires time, but what can be realised at a later time must however have been potentially present.

The social system of capitalism similarly has a realised dimension, its reproduction, and a potential dimension, its supersession. Its realised dimension expresses itself in the reproduction of the system and the accumulation of capital, and its potential supersession in its cyclical crises. The contradictory social content of capitalism can be seen in that its reproduction implies exploitation, inequality, egoism while its supersession implies cooperation, solidarity and equality. This is the contradictory social content of the capitalist ownership relation which ultimately determines other relationships in capitalism.

Because of their contradictory nature, social phenomena can only be understood by dialectical logic. GC proposes three rules of dialectical logic. Social phenomena are always both realised and potential, both determinant and determined and subject to constant change. Formal logic is only able to analyse realised phenomena that are not subject to change. It is unable to treat issues where the subject has a realised reality and a potential reality which is in contradiction to it, since in formal logic all contradictions are a mistake.

Once the basis of a dialectical approach to social phenomena is set out GC proceeds to review critics of Marx’s labour of value.

Defence of the Labour Theory of Value

Marx’s labour theory of value has been subject to sustained attacks since the publication of the third volume of Capital. It has been termed incoherent and logically inconsistent by both bourgeois economists and Marxist academics. The four main areas where it is alleged the theory fails are:

  1. Abstract labour is not the only source of value
  2. The abstract labour is not material
  3. The falling rate of profit is incorrect
  4. The transformation of values into prices is impossible.

If these critiques were proven correct, capitalism would not have a tendency towards crises, and its own supersession. GC argues that the primary reason these critiques are incorrect is that they are mainly based on formal logic and quantitative analyses of these issues.

The first critique asserts that machines create value. For Marx machines do not create value; the value contained in machines is transferred to the product by the work of living labour. This was an early criticism of Marx but has gained ground in recent years through the advent of programmed machines and the use of artificial intelligence. At the extreme, in a fully integrated economy, machines could, so the argument goes, create other machines without human labour. The implication is, of course, that labour’s struggle against capital is irrational while the system itself is rational and will overcome all its problems. GC points out that if machines could produce machines, what they would create would be use values, which could not be aggregated or exchanged as they lacked a common element. Distribution under capitalist social relations could not take place. It needs to be pointed out, however, that distribution could take place under communism since use values would simply be distributed free. The tendency to produce ever more sophisticated machines and replace living labour with them is actually a tendency towards the supersession of capitalism, since it leads to falling profitability of capital and crisis. It is also a tendency which lays the ground for communism.

The second critique claims abstract labour does not exist. Marx argues that human labour is concrete meaning it is specific, e.g. making steel or growing wheat, but is at the same time abstract, namely human labour in general. It is this second aspect which makes commodities exchangeable. Rates of exchange are determined by the quantity of abstract labour contained in the commodities. The second school of criticism[7] argues that concrete labour cannot be reduced to abstract labour and that there is no empirical evidence for the existence of abstract labour. Material existence does not, however, GC points out, require observability, e.g. electricity or gravity, whereas the effects can be observed. The effect of abstract labour can be observed in exchange and must, therefore, have been potentially present in production. Human labour is material and can be measured. It depends on the expenditure of energy which we get from food and drink and this can be measured in calories and the work performed measured in Joules. Abstract labour is the expenditure of undifferentiated human energy.

The general flaw of this criticism is that it does not approach the issue dialectically. Production and realisation of value and surplus value are collapsed into each other and time is eliminated. Dialectical understanding of the commodity sees it as crystalising both concrete labour determined in its use value, which is realised in production, and abstract labour which is potential and is only realised subsequently in exchange.

The third critique, that of the falling rate of profit, is an issue the ICT has written extensively on and we will only briefly review the issue here.[8] Marx argues that increases in productivity resulting from new means of production generally replace workers with machines. The organic composition of capital, the ratio of constant to variable capital, rises and less value and surplus value is produced. This tends to cause the average rate of profit (ARP) for the capitalist system as a whole to fall. It has been argued that this is logically inconsistent and more productive means of production necessarily increase the rate of profit. This was formulated in a theorem by Okishio[9] and is still widely accepted as valid. GC is a supporter of the Temporal Single System Interpretation (TSSI) of Marx’s theory which holds that if inputs and outputs to production are valued over time and value and price form a single system, Marx’s analysis is not inconsistent. He shows through an example of a single commodity economy, the corn economy, how increases in productivity actually cause profit rates to fall when inputs and outputs are valued temporarily. The general refutation of Okishio is that is that his theorem excludes time by assuming simultaneous valuation of inputs and outputs and so relies on formal logic.

A further critique of the falling rate of profit analysis is that it is indeterminate. This is argued by the Monthly Review School and amounts simply to the argument that, while there is a tendency for average profits to fall, there is also a tendency for them to rise as a result of cheaper means of production and increased exploitation of workers etc. GC shows that the tendency for ARP to fall is a tendency precisely because it is held back by counter tendencies. It is therefore the dominant tendency. Reducing the cost of means of production occurs at the same time as reduction in labour and hence reduction in surplus value produced.[10] While lengthening the working day has finite limits and the reduction in the value of the means of production, if it even occurs, is marginal. The more the ARP falls the weaker the counter tendencies become. This critique fails because it is a critique relying on formal logic. It argues from a premise which contains contradictions, namely a tendency and a counter tendency, and concludes that the outcome is therefore indeterminate.

The fourth critique is that values cannot be transformed into prices which makes the whole labour theory of value inconsistent. This is a critique of Marx’s theory of distribution and supposedly showed that under his value system even simple reproduction could not occur. However, as GC shows, if inputs and outputs are valued temporarily in a single system, the inconsistency vanishes.[11]

Again this is a criticism using formal logic and assuming the system is in equilibrium. The critics fail to understand the dual nature of commodities and, by simultaneously valuing inputs and outputs, fail to allow for time.

Theories of Crises

If crises are a constant feature of capitalism a theory is needed to explain their inevitability. Crises spring from the production sphere of the economy where productive labour power is employed. Productive labour is labour which changes existing use values into new use values. In the central capitalist countries today an enormous amount of labour is unproductive and largely engaged in distributing surplus value produced in the productive sphere. Labour expended in commerce, banking finance, speculation, state repression are all examples of this, while sectors such as the military actually destroy value. Crises are caused by the falling rate of profit in the productive sector which, in turn, is caused by insufficient production of surplus value. This results from the process of capital accumulation itself. Increases in accumulation of capital lead to increased productivity. This means expulsion of workers from production and a consequent decrease in production of surplus value. Crises are, therefore, inherent in capitalist production relations and are unavoidable. The attempts of capital to increase surplus value produced by the working class lead to increased exploitation and a host of other attacks on the class. The class which is at the centre of capitalist production is also the class which faces deprivation and poverty as the inevitable outcome of the system's workings. The working class is therefore objectively revolutionary and has an objective interest in creating a higher system of production, namely communism.

This is also the position argued by GC. He examines alternative views of the causes of crises and shows how these explanations imply the system is rational and thus by implication the struggle against it is irrational. This amounts to the theoretical disarming of the working class. We will briefly review GC’s refutations of the main alternative explanations.

Although production and distribution are dependent on each other, production comes before distribution and determines distribution and so realisation of surplus value. Production is the determinant relationship and distribution is the determined relationship. This needs to be understood since the principal arguments against the falling rate of profit as the cause of the crisis are arguments based in the sphere of distribution.

The first argument which GC reviews is that the crisis has originated in the financial sphere due to high levels of debt, speculation, permissive monetary policy, deregulation and so on and so forth. In other words the crisis is caused by mistakes by the bourgeoisie in managing the system. The system is therefore seen as rational and the problems located in the stupidity of capitalists. Yet crises are a recurrent phenomenon. Why would the managers of the system repeatedly make these mistakes? Clearly there must be some structural reasons within the system which cause these mistakes but this explanation offers none, and is not worth considering further.

A more widely held explanation is that the crisis is caused by under-consumption. This view was first put forward by Rosa Luxemburg as an explanation of imperialism before the First World War. She argued that capitalism was unable to realise all the surplus value produced within the system itself and therefore needed extra capitalist markets for this. Imperialism was explained by the struggle for extra-capitalist markets. The exhaustion of the extra-capitalist markets would, she thought, lead to a terminal crisis of the system. Because of the enormous expansion of the capitalist system after World War Two without significant non-capitalist markets, this view has been abandoned by almost all its supporters.[12] However, the theory has metamorphosed from a shortage of non-capitalist markets to a shortage of capitalist markets. This amounts to the view that the working class wages are too low to allow them to buy all the commodities they produce. Lower wages, it is argued, cause the rate of profit to fall. Lower wages are a neo-liberal policy therefore neo-liberalism is to blame for the crisis.

GC shows clearly that lower wages cannot decrease the rate of profit even if all the commodities represented by the wage decrease remain unsold. If this is the case the rate of profit will remain unchanged. Under all other conditions a decrease in wages would raise the rate of profit. This indicates that the falling rate of profit is the determinant tendency and lower wages which tend to raise the rate of profit are a counter-tendency limiting its effect. Empirical evidence also goes against this argument. As Marx notes there is generally a rise in wages before a crisis.[13] GC produces figures which show that this was also true of the crisis which started in the mid-70s. In the seven year period leading up to 1973 there was an annual rise in wages of 2.5% in the US. Wages only began to stagnate after the start of the crisis in 1973.[14]

Generally, if the crisis could be avoided by higher wages, namely a lower rate of exploitation, higher wages could solve the crisis. If this were true the crisis would be due to poor distribution policies and could be avoided by more enlightened distribution! If the capitalist class was less stupid the system would, therefore, tend to move to prosperity and growth. The system would therefore be rational and the struggle to replace it irrational. A higher system of production would not be required. Class struggle would therefore be an act of will rather than a necessity based on the objective need for survival. This is the class content of this explanation.

An inverse of this explanation is the profit squeeze theory which holds that high wages are the explanation of the crisis. This is the view of the Monthly Review school. They argue that during recoveries wages increase until they become too high and profitability falls. The system is then pushed from growth to depression. If wages are then lowered sufficiently profits start increasing again. Falling profit rates are, in this view, caused by the high costs of labour power. As GC points out this theory assumes a constant quantity of new value, (wages and profits), and the problem is, once again, in distributing this quantity. However, the upward phase of the cycle when both wages and profits are increasing, can only be explained if the value produced is increasing. The theory cannot explain the tipping point where growth turns to depression. Marx, himself notes:

Nothing could be more absurd ... than to explain the fall in the rate of profit by a rise in the rate of wages.[15]

GC also points out that this theory has been empirically contradicted by studies of the relative weight of organic composition and wage share for the US capital from 1929 to 1998. These studies show that organic composition accounts for the entire variation in the profit rate with the exception of only a few years.[16]

This, like under-consumption, is a distribution explanation of crisis located in the sphere of consumption and is basically arguing that if distribution could be corrected the system would tend to growth. The system is therefore rational with all the same consequences for the class struggle which we saw above in the under-consumption theory.

An explanation of the crisis located in the sphere of production is that the crisis is caused by decreasing productivity levels. This is actually the view of many bourgeois commentators. It is, however, completely contradictory to Marxís view that the crisis is the outcome of decreased production of surplus value caused by increasing productivity which we have explained above. GC provided an empirical refutation of this by listing the massive increases in productivity of US labour since the end of the 1950s. If the output per worker per hour is set at 100 for 1992 output has increased from 51.3 in 1959, to 76.2 in 1975, to 80.6 in 1980, to 115.7 in 2000 to 135.9 in 2007.[17] In other words productivity has massively increased as the crisis has developed rather than decreased as the proponents of this theory would have us believe.

The Crisis of 2007

For GC the crisis of 2007 is to be found firmly in the productive sphere with its cause as the falling rate of profit. Financial crises are caused by the shortage of surplus value. The general development of crises is as follows:

As production of surplus value decreases due to decreasing employment in the productive sectors firms start closing down and working class purchasing power decreases. Some wage goods remain unsold. Equally capitalists’ purchasing power of the means of production decreases. Some investment goods remain unsold. To stimulate the sale of unsold commodities ... monetary authorities stimulate credit by increasing the quantity of money. Capital flows from the productive to the unproductive sectors. This makes possible artificial inflation of profits in these unproductive sectors. Debt and speculation start growing disproportionally compared to the production of value and surplus value incorporated in commodities ... The process snowballs ... as unemployment surges an increasing number of debtors default on their debts. This applies to both productive and financial sectors. But it is in the financial and speculative sectors that the crisis erupts at first because it is in these sectors that the bubble has increased most ... the collapse of the financial and speculative sectors reveals in a sudden and abrupt way, the continuously shrinking productive basis of the economy that had been concealed through increasing levels of debt.[18]

The shrinking of the productive sector in the US is illustrated by figures GC quotes. The goods producing sector shrank from 27.8% of US employment in 1979 to 16.6% in 2005 while employment in the services sector rose from 72.2% to 83.4%.[19]

Recovery and War

Can the system recover? It is generally true that the crisis itself creates the basis for a recovery. It does this by devaluing constant capital while also reducing wages, prices of commodities and wiping out debt. These things have not happened since 2007. The state has bailed out the unproductive sector, notably the banks, and parts of the productive sector, for example the car producers; it has reduced taxation and interest rates. Debts have not been reduced, in fact, total global debt has increased by over 40% since the 2007 crisis.[20] All this is quite insufficient to stimulate a new round of accumulation. On the contrary, it is more likely that we appear to heading for another global crash. Crises such as that of 2007 are unable to devalue sufficient capital to start a fresh round of accumulation. The other instrument of capital devaluation is generalised war. The clearest historical example is the ending of the crisis of the 1930s by the massive devaluation of capital achieved in WW2.

GC recognises the role of war in devaluing capital and increasing the rate of exploitation, though he does not characterise it as the only economic exit route from the crisis in the present cycle of accumulation. Socialist revolution is, of course, the other exit route from the crisis. GC is, however, completely correct when he writes:

The use of weapons in ... wars is a powerful method of destruction of capital in its commodity form and ... of the means of production and thus of capital as a social relation. .. (this) creates the basic condition for an economic upturn. At the same time wars make possible the cancellation of debt contracted with labour (for example inflation destroys the value of money and of state-bonds) and (makes possible) the extraction of extra surplus value (labourers either forced or instigated by patriotism accept higher intensity of exploitation, longer working hours etc.) ... The capitalist economy is determinant of wars in the sense that the capitalist economy is the condition for the existence of wars and wars are the condition of reproduction (or supersession) of the capitalist economy. ... The notion that wars are caused by extra-economic factors is simply wrong. ... After the war is over, a period of reconstruction follows. ... The two basic conditions for economic recovery, the destruction of capital and an increase in the rate of exploitation have been created.[21]

Knowledge and Consciousness

The crisis-ridden nature of the capitalist economy must manifest itself at the level of individual and social consciousness. This consciousness in turn must necessarily be a key force in the tendency to overturn capitalism and supersede it as a social system. The final section of the book considers the production of knowledge and consciousness and how knowledge developed under capitalist relations of production could be used in the transition from capitalism to socialist society.

Knowledge is produced by mental labour. Mental labour, as GC stresses, is not ultimately different from manual labour. Both entail expenditure of human energy. The human brain, we are told, consumes 20% of all the energy we derive from nourishment,[22] and the development of knowledge in the brain produces material changes in the nervous system and synaptic changes which can be measured.[23] Once the material nature of knowledge is established the material nature of mental work follows.

Productive labour, as mentioned above, transforms existing use-values into new use-values. Mental labour is labour transforming mental use values into new mental use values. Simple examples would be the development of computer analysis programmes from laws of structural or fluid mechanics to solve specific problems of engineering involving these disciplines. However, labour is always a combination of both intellectual and manual transformations the distinction between the two depends on which type of labour which is dominant. Manual labour consists of objective transformations of the world outside us; mental labour of transformations of our perception and knowledge of that world. Both are material.

As Marx notes in The German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.[24]

Mental production, under capitalist social relations, produces capitalist class knowledge. The capitalist class today own the means of production of knowledge such as libraries, schools, universities, research institutes, computers and so on, just as they did in the 1840s when Marx wrote the section quoted above. Discoveries, generally now made by teams of mental workers, are appropriated by capital and controlled by patents, by intellectual property or similar means. Production of knowledge is directed towards profit. Medical research, for example, is directed towards developing medicines to treat disease, not preventing disease, agricultural research is directed to developing plant types which capital can own and control, rather than relieving starvation.

GC identifies 3 types of knowledge produced within capitalism.

  1. Knowledge used to control labour and increase exploitation. e.g. Management techniques, efficiency techniques such as Taylorism.
  2. Knowledge used only by labour such as mutual help, solidarity, cooperation. Such knowledge is used in resistance to capitalism and prefigures a socialist form of knowledge to be used in a higher type of society.
  3. Knowledge produced to be used by capital but which could also be used by labour. This is possible since knowledge is generally produced by collective mental workers selling their mental labour power. It is therefore produced under a web of contradictory social relationships. Although the knowledge is specifically designed for the capitalist class, it retains the imprint of its collective production. This makes it possible for labour to use this knowledge for resistance to capital. For example, the internet and mobile technology have been designed to exploit and dominate labour as never before, yet they can be used for resistance as in organisation of protest such as the Arab spring, the occupy movement or the recent Deliveroo strike.[25]

Consciousness is a type of social knowledge. GC describes how individuals, throughout their lives, undergo a process of internalisation of social phenomena. These are structured into a conceptual framework which is necessarily social and historical since it depends on previous observation and experience, experience which has an historical dimension. Knowledge becomes social when it is commonly shared by a class. Social knowledge is, therefore, a specific instance of the wider process of the struggle between the two fundamental classes. As the capitalist system oscillates between the movement to reproduce itself and movement to its supersession, which is expressed in crises, so does social consciousness.

It will be possible to use the types of knowledge developed by labour, identified as type 2 above, and that produced for capital, identified as type 3, in the transition to socialism. The third type of knowledge will, however, be radically changed. In this transition GC sees different type of science and labour arising, one whose objective is benefitting labour and mankind in general. Labour will be built on equality, cooperation, self-management and self-development, and both specialisation and division between mental and manual labour will be eroded. Production will be oriented to needs and environmental sustainability.

The book outlines the theoretical basis for a rupture of social consciousness from capitalist domination and the creation of a higher form of social production. Marx notes, in the quotation above, that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are only generally those of the ruling class. For a minority this is not the case. The process of development of the ideas, knowledge and consciousness of this minority is omitted by GC. He appears to give this task to intellectual representatives of the class such as himself rather than to an organised political force, namely a political party. This is an important omission in an otherwise important book.



  1. This is the position defended by the ICT and which has been defended by PCInt (Battaglia Comunista) since its foundation in the 1940s
  2. This is supported by Paul Mason in his book Postcapitalism reviewed in Revolutionary Perspectives 07. See also P Virno General Intellect. Quoted by G Carchedi.
  3. GC quotes I Steedman Marx after Sraffa

4 . See C Arthur Value Labour and Negativity

  1. ‘Operaismo’ in the original Italian. See Empire by Hardt and Negri

6 . This is clearly a criticism aimed at the Bolsheviks and Lenin who introduced one man management and Taylorism in 1918.

  1. This is the criticism of the value form critics. See C Arthur Value Labour and Negativity.
  2. We have dealt with the falling rate of profit in other publications. See Piketty Marx and Capitalism’s Dynamics in Revolutionary Perspectives 06. and ‘The tendency for the rate of profit to fall and its detractors’ in Revolutionary Perspectives 62 (Series Three)
  3. See N Okishio Technical changes in the Rate of Profit.
  4. Empirical evidence shows that when new means of production are installed, while parts of the new productive machinery may be reduced in value, the system as a whole contains more value and organic composition tends to increase. See fixed capital per worker and fixed capital per hour worked, G Carchedi Behind the Crisis p.153.
  5. See G Carchedi op.cit. Chapter 2 5.3. This refutation is also developed by A Kliman in Reclaiming Marx’s Capital, p .150.
  6. The Internationalist Communist Current, to take one example, still supports this view.
  7. See K Marx Capital Volume 2.
  8. See G Carchedi op.cit. p.133.
  9. See K Marx Capital Volume 3 (See G Carchedi op.cit. p.141).
  10. Carchedi op. cit. p.150.
  11. loc.cit. p.143.
  12. loc. cit. p.149.
  13. loc. cit. p.155.
  14. See Financial Times 5 February15. It was $142tn in 2007 by 2014 it was $199tn and has undoubtedly risen since 2014
  15. See op.cit. p.178.
  16. See A Roberts The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being p. 219.
  17. See G Carchedi op.cit. p.194.
  18. K Marx The German Ideology p.64.
  19. For more see our agitational broadsheet, Aurora No 39.
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Friday, February 24, 2017


A tiny detail and I am probably wrong, but is there a source of value which is not abstract labour. Here I was thinking of what some regard as exceptional artisitc talent and the like, work which is individual. The price/value of such works is not really determined by abstract labour?

if machines could produce machines, what they would create would be use values, which could not be aggregated or exchanged as they lacked a common element

Surely there would have to be some human input around the process which could generate surplus value. Security guards, cleaners, transport, repairs to is not impossibe to see a process where living labour is displaced over time, but I doubt the process has to play out to its extreme degree before other mechanisms come into play - class struggle and imperialist war.

What we have to do which these academics, intellectuals and vendors of intellectual commodities do not have to contend with, is generalising class consciouness. We cannot win the struggle simply by being right. We have to be able to reach those who are denied high levels of education and time to study. they are trapped in ideological traps and illusions, but between the crisis and the effort to present the revolutionary perspective in ways which are accessible, there is hope the outcome will be positive.

I posted the link on a Corbyn facebook page. Interesting response.Stephen Sutton SuttonThere are a plethora of new books saying capitalism will end, crisis is terminal etc but rejecting the revolutionary perspective. Many regard the fall of Stalinism as the fall of communism, regard the unions as genuine working class organisations and think of capitalism as being free market.

There is no post capitalism without revolution. Mason and others are selling an illusion. We are in the era of capitalist crisis and it has no solution within capitalism outside of a devaluation of capital on the scale of world war.

Let me draw your attention to this; Joe PagliaThanks, bookmarked, to be fair, I need to finish Paul Mason's book first. This link takes one directly to the book I assume you are referring to {C} the Crisis: Marx’s Dialectic of Value and Knowledge, Guglielmo…Gugliemo Carchedi (GC) defends Marx’s value theory and his theory of crisis which sees the falling rate of profit as the key force driving capitalism into crisis.[1] He exposes the inadequacy of alternative explanations which dominate in academic Marxist circles. In particular he points to the Jane Dipple Very interesting read, it's true Capitalist solutions are not the solutions to the Capitalist crisis. The trouble is people in Western society are just a bit too comfortable to want to smash it down. I work in an academic institution and I think that isa big part of the problem, the intellectualisation of power structures which still contribute to the heirarchies of culturl capital and ignores the working class except as a theoretical group. Most academics are Liberals and they really don't want to dirty their hands in genuine revolution! Stephen Sutton Sutton The actual book is

Stevein, to try to answer your first post I just want to recap the some points of value theory. Under capitalist social relations human labour takes the form of value. Labour is the only source of new value under capitalism. Labour has a dual nature. While it is obvious that labour has a concrete form in so far as it produces concrete use values like food, clothing, power etc. what is not so obvious is how these use values exchange with each other. Marx argued that they exchange with each other by reducing the concrete labour to abstract labour. This enables us to exchange (say) a pair of shoes for a few fish or 5 litres of petrol. For the exchange to occur these commodities must have a common element which allows them to be equated, which Marx called abstract labour.

Since only living labour produces value machines do not produce value. The value of machines is transferred to the product by the action of living labour, by workers. You are correct to say that even if machines were producing machines and had artificial intelligence some labour would always be required to supervise, maintain or programme the machines. This labour would be passing on the value of the machine to the product. The idea that machines could produce other machines was put forward as a critique of Marx’s value theory. It has, of course, got a boost from developments in computer control of machines and more recently artificial intelligence. Although the idea that labour could be eliminated under capitalism is nonsense it describes a trend in the global economy which sees ever more sophisticated machines replacing workers. Taken to the extreme such a trend would make all workers redundant and total economic breakdown would occur. What is interesting, however, is that this prefigures what communist society could be like with less and less work required and commodities distributed free.

Certain workers may be more productive than others but this does not invalidate the labour theory of value. Workers in certain factories, for example, are more productive than others, because of more developed machinery, better organisation of work etc., while producing the same product as less productive factories. However the value of the product is determined by the average socially necessary labour required to produce it, and this average is now a global average. The more productive factories will generally be able to produce commodities below the average socially necessary labour required and will drain value from their less productive competitors. The way the available surplus value is divided up amongst the capitalists does not affect the theory.

The question of artistic talents, e.g. Picasso, is more difficult because their productions are generally luxury commodities consumed by the bourgeoisie and don’t enter into future production in any way. For the bourgeoisie they represent a store of value. When the rate of profit is low surplus value flows into things like works of art and the prices rocket bearing no relation to the labour time which has gone into their creation. Holding works of Picasso or Van Gogh is often more profitable than sitting on a pile of gold, and the bourgeoisie often don’t even look at them but store them in bank vaults. However, some artistic creations do go into reproducing workers’ labour power. Books, plays, films etc. can expand workers’ understanding or knowledge about the world, or provide recreation relieving the stress of life under capitalism. I think these things should be seen as similar to education.

Obviously I agree with your final point about consciousness. The more adequately we can show that the contradictions of the system are leading to disaster and workers experience worse conditions the more likely we are to achieve this.

Pg 39 of the version I am reading seems to suggest socialism in one county could have been viable.

Pg 42 he gives a definition of ideology that I think excludes socialism from being an ideology. This is something I have struggled with at times. Can we accept his definition; "An ideology is a form of knowledge that defends, implicitly or explicitly, the interests of a class as if they were the interests of all classes, some- times by denying the existence of classes."

Pg 97 "The effect of the cheaper means of production on the aver- age rate of profit is a counter-tendency that can only delay but not avoid the tendential fall." ...there is no way out for capital.

In the text above, it says labour is crystallised in commodities. I think this may be a poor way to look at it. There is no material in the commodity that one can identify as labour. Labour is something like petrol in a journey. It is used to arrive at the destination. Labour is used in the process but it does not appear in the end result. It is the means to the end result.

Only living workers allow capitalists to exploit the difference between ability to work (labour power) which can be replaced at a cost lower than its result, labour. However, neither exist materially in the commodity form.

Please critique.


This is a response to your latest post on this.It is important to realise that labour is crystalised in commodities as value only when they are produced under capitalist social relations.

It is only under capitalist social relationships that labour takes the form of value and that value appears to be an objective quality of a commodity. There is, as you say, no material element in the commodity which can be identified as labour. Yet under capitalism commodities exchange and they exchange by equating homogeneous human labour contained in them. It is fruitless to look for a material element in the commodity which represents this homogeneous human labour. It is a social element attached to the commodities. In considering this we are talking about commodities as values. The following 3 quotations from Capital 1 Chapter 1 make the argument clear:

“As values all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labour time.”

“Every product of labour is, in all states of society, a use-value; but it is only at a definite historical epoch in society’s development that such a product becomes a commodity, viz., at the epoch when the labour spent on the production of a useful article becomes expressed as one of the objective qualities of that article, i.e., as its value.”

“… The existence of commodities as values is purely social, this social existence can be expressed by the totality of their social relations alone, and consequently that the form of their value must be a socially recognised form.”

You seem to be taking the view that abstract human labour does not exist under capitalist social relations which is precisely what Carchedi argues against in the section of the book you quote from. Is that what you are arguing?

The art of precis, applied to such learned texts of acres of printed paperwork, might begin to render them reduced to key points applicable by workers for workers.

No, I understand the concept of abstract labour. It is the imprecise attempt to reduce concrete labour to a common measure which allows for different specific forms of labour to be compared, given a monetary value and the products of labour exchanged.

My thought was much less profound and not really a critique, more an alternative perspective which could clarify the matter, or otherwise.

I am aware that Marx used a similar phrase to yours; "congealed" where you used crystallised. Really there is nothing wrong with such descriptions but I think they give the impression that there is something material in the commodity itself.

I see that labour is used in the process. It is similar to petrol. A delivery is made. The article contains no petrol, yet the price of the expended petrol for the journey is factored in.

The human being produces energy which can be applied to the other material factors of production. That energy comes from two sources; the means of subsistence and the life of the worker, his/her body. The wage the worker receives covers the first, but the latter is not paid for. The body of the worker which transforms the means of subsistence into labour is not compensated. The worker cannot labour without his/her bodily presence, but it is used up without reward. The worker loses life itself. One could also make the argument that this not only occurs in the sphere of production, but also the sphere of consumption. Alienated production of unnecessary commodities requires alienated consumption. Life as could be played out in a post capitalist society is absent.

None of this is a contradiction of your perspective, simply a different description of the same process which I think we both recognise.

Does value exist outside of capitalism? Well, if one defines the word as something strictly within the confines of the capitalist productive process, then no. But no one absolutely controls the meaning of words. Perhaps in future society, it will be useful to measure the labour involved in producing X quantity of Y rather than X quantity of Z. Is this a measure of value? It strikes me that this depends on definition of the term. Please point me in the right direction if very mistaken.

Your efforts are appreciated.

I am aware that my understanding of the issues is limited. I am gradually improving that understanding. I think that as long as the activity of the worker is against his/her will, that it is measured, that it is part of an economy rather than a freely chosen enjoyable activity, then the law of value remains. No matter that my working day is three hours or thirteen hours. If I do not engage in that activity as I wish, then I am exchanging my labour power. I remain alienated from the productive process. I grudgingly give my time for roubles, a voucher, a quantity of goods, it makes no difference. Value remains. Value can only go when time is not a factor in production. It cannot be abolished under conditions of scarcity. It requires advanced capitalism. What the issue really is is a reinvention of life. We have to live in a different way, not where work is a separate category to be endured, measured, inspected, policed. As comrade K put it; human liberation. I would say that to the extent that this is not immediately realisable, to the extent that there is transition from the present endurance of productive activity to the future positive seeking of productive activity, then the law of value remains.

Possibly at a later date I will dispute this. As a dialectician I know nothing is permanent.

Attempting to answer a few of your issues:

Workers' labour power is compensated by the wage that capital pays. This wage is, however, the compensation for the complete regeneration of labour power and this includes the worker's family. This entails the creation of the next generation of workers. Workers pay for the food, clothing, schooling, training etc. which turns their children into their replacement workers. They take their places when they are no longer able to work. What you call the worker's "life" is therefore paid for and produced under capitalist relations. The fact that today some of this is done by the state makes no difference since the working class produces the value which the state takes by taxes. If this were not the case the system could not reproduce itself!

Only if workers are recruited from outside capitalist relations of production is the workers "life" not paid for by capital. When workers are recruited from peasant agriculture, or tribal society the costs of producing a healthy adult worker is not born by capitalism. It has been argued that this is one of the reasons why Chinese (or Asian) capitalism has been so successful in the last few decades.The workers integrated into wage labour have been produced by the peasantry and capital has not had to bear the costs of bringing them to adulthood.

A future communist society will need some means of measuring labour since planning would be impossible without this. The most logical means of measuring labour would be time. Labour time would thus become the unit of account for global planning.

Value will exist as long as labour produced sommodities. When labour produces use-values which are not exchange values but distributed according to need labour will no longer be producing value.

Marx said the working class is revolutionary or nothing. the survival which capitalism offers is not life in the sense of freedom. The capitalist class may allow the working class to survive but the working class loses its potential to live in a free way. The worker has to give lungs, heart, brain, nerves...body, in order to survive. How is that paid for? No doubt that could be better expressed. "When labour produces use-values which are not exchange values but distributed according to need labour will no longer be producing value." So the lower stage of communism as portrayed by Marx is still marked by value production? Is this still a model we can use? Is there still a need for labour vouchers and the like given the level of production we have attained? Can we move directly to voluntary labour and distribution according to need? Why not? Even distribution according to need sounds somewhat desperate, conditioned by scarcity. I can see a situation where we can produce too much, where we have to discourage production. We don't want growth. That stage has gone. More growth would be a negative.Now I do not see this post - insurrection retention of value as being necessarily an impediment to its eventual abolition. But I also ask if it is necessary.If the working class is not transformed by the process leading to insurrection, if it does not attain sufficient class consciousness to understand the previous attitude was a capitalist determined one, then I ask myself how can it overcome capitalism, take and retain the power by its united efforts in the first place?

"A future commuist society will need some means of measuring labour since planning would be impossible without this. The most logical means of measuring labour would be time. Labour time would thus become the unit of account for global planning." All of this seems based on scarcity. We are many decades away from Marx' day. We could pump out untold amounts of what we need. Communist volunteers produce, other volunteers distribute. We know we have to do this for our own benefit because we are communists. Yes, direct production to what is lacking, away from what is abundant. But compulsion? Measure individual contribution? And presumably compulsion would require overseers and controllers. If the worker didn't want to be there, then s/he doesn't want to work.

If the working class is not willing, in the main, to take its destiny in its hands, if it thinks it can carry on in the old way, elect some special people to tell everyone what to do, set up a police force and punishment for those who do not comply, it is not going to supersede capitalist relations. Because this is what it is all about, behind what appears to be a relationship between things is a relationship between people. The working class under the yoke of capital is generally accepting of capitalist ideology. It thinks as the capitalist thinks. But the crisis creates moments when there is no choice but to struggle. The struggle allows other thinking to dominate. We can become a community rather than atomised individuals. Either we learn to give, to care for each other, to behave as a social unit or we go down. The rupture with capitalist egotistical relations has to go beyond a fair days work for a fair days voucher. We have to become class conscious theoreticians capable of understanding our wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of all. If this remains no more than a lofty ideal, an alien Christ declaring it is better to give than receive but not carried out in reality, then we go down.

As the CWO constantly says, the task of socialism is not one for the enlightened few, the party/state, it is the task of millions of workers. If the crisis and class struggle does not open their eyes to the validity of the revolutionary perspective, we go down.

"When labour produces use-values which are not exchange values but distributed according to need labour will no longer be producing value." So the lower stage of communism as portrayed by Marx is still marked by value production? Is this still a model we can use?

The initial stage of communist society, in which Marx advocated the use of labour time vouchers as a transitional means of circulation, will not be one in which labour takes the form of value. This is crucial. If value production remains this will be a route back to capitalism. Marx’s critiques argue this and the CWO has dealt with these criticisms at length in “Communist Society, Value, Labour and Time” in RP 05. See:

The arguments against this view are:

Labour time vouchers are a system of distribution in transitional society. As long as the system of production is socialised value production will not occur. The production system is primary the distribution system is derived from it.

Labour in transitional society is not alienated labour.

Average socially necessary labour is abolished.

Labour becomes directly social.

Hence dual character of labour as concrete labour and abstract labour is abolished.

The text goes into these arguments more fully.

Obviously the whole question of distribution will become much less of a problem once, as Marx says in Critique of the Gotha programme "the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly." As scarcity recedes the transitional measure of labour-time vouchers can be phased out.

Thanks for your response. I in fact did want to respond to the article“Communist Society, Value, Labour and Time”and have been reading Dauve to find out the arguments first hand.However that article does not allow comments. What Dauve is saying is something like there is not a stage between capitalism and communism. I may agree depending on what exactly is meant. I think the popular conception he is attacking is that of ''socialism'' seen as voting in a left wing government, or a violent rupture leading to such a government, call it a socialist or a communist government where a party is in control, which then goes on to introduce all manner of changes, reforms, and then we can eventually build communism after that. I agree that the sequence of events is capitalism in crisis, revolutionary rupture, expropriation, build communism under the authority of workers councils. There is no scenario whereby we can have a phase of gradual improvements gradually undoing capitalism under some benign government and then eventually dispense with that and initiate communism. If Dauve is trying to say we do not need workers councils, we simply act locally and do not need to set up anythjing beyond a local assembly, then I think he is simply preaching anarchism and calling it something else. Much of his emphasis on riots and individual autonomy seems to me to be a defense of individualist anarchism. But even if the critique of the transitional period is communisation's (a la Dauve) main feature, still the question of value remains. The book puts it like this;"Thrown out by the door, power comes back in through the window. This should not surprise us, as nothing of the old world has disappeared. Value has become self-conscious in work-time accounting, and the market is still there in the form of a constant dialogue among cooperatives." What it comes down is this; the abolition of the market and commodity exchange is not the last word on the abolition of value. Just as the abolition of private ownership is not the end of capitalism. Value is labour time. Under capitalism it is veiled by price. Making it obvious and clear does not do away with it. Communism is the liberation of the working class. By itself. Timing labour is retaining the law of value. Unlike Dauve I accept that planning on a extended scale throughout the revolutionary territory is compatible with the abolition of value. If the working class has a say in the plan, is able to express its disapproval or approval of any planning mechanism, then it seems to be a legitimate tool. Obviously a plan alone, outside of the context of proletarian power, is simply an aspect of state capitalism. The market is not the only way to run capitalism (and value production). Abolition of exchange is not enough. Abolition of tiomed labourt is also essential. This may seem to be chaotic, inefficiant, non productive, and it is. the concern is withthe wellbeing of the worker (or whatever word we may use to denote such productive activity if worker is objectionable). Now, the planning mechanism can distribute the product and direct producers from one area of production to another. But timing individual labour contributions seems to me to be accepting value. Value is labour time. Saying that we have to accept such a regime 150 years ago makes some sense. The productive forces were rudimentary and dwarfish in comparison to those of today. But just like state capitalism was not socialism, measuring individual labour time is not abolition of value. Again, I claim no expertise in the matter, it is a work of understanding in progress.

Correct me if I am wrong, and it is appreciated, but did not Marx talk about capitalism bringing about socialised labour?

As I understand it, the concept of real domination is that of the workers as simple appendages to the machines that dictate production. The worker has no say or influence in the rhythm of production etc (maybe s/he can sabotage). The worker is just an element of the collective worker, unable to measure individual input, it is simply an aspect of the total.

I see Marx as being possibly right for his time. We will never, know, the revoltion did not happen then. I do not see the partial suspension of the law of value (distribution according to individual input remaining to a certain extent) as necessarily preventing a total suspension as the process unfolded. But the question is today, and in the future, can we take that model?

I think it is a mistake to think there are eternal truths in a Marxist toolbox.

“For the historical dialectic has shown that there are no “eternal” truths and that there are no “rights.” ... In the words of Engels, “What is good in the here and now, is an evil somewhere else, and vice versa” – or, what is right and reasonable under some circumstances becomes nonsense and absurdity under others. Historical materialism has taught us that the real content of these “eternal” truths, rights, and formulae is determined only by the material social conditions of the environment in a given historical epoch.”

Rosa Luxemburg The National Question The Right of Nations to Self-Determination

Far as I know, Marx only referred to transition as the period in time between taking power and expropriating capitalists. Then he talked about lower then higher stages of communism. So transition in that sense could be very quick. The subsequent nurturing of the productive forces in the lower stage of communism meant that a lower communist stage marked by distribution according to individual input was required. But that mean that bourgeois right was not fully done away with.

In 1840s Marx/Engels thought expropriation would be a drawn out process, by degrees. But later they concluded that the time then was not ripe for a move beyond capitalism.

They did not live to see the electric motor nor the combustion engine, inventions which allowed for massive increases in power of production.

Today we have developed the productive forces beyond the capacity of the planet to supply the raw materials they require. They need pruning. On this basis we can go straight to distribution according to need. Otherwise we are timing labour and exchanging quantities of value,

Its not the speed but the process (and you are right the period of the transition in Marx is not about a seperate stage but the period of one mode of production replacing another) that counts. You are right that the overthrow of the bourgeoisie (in whatever form they take) on a global basis has to fit hand in glove with the transformation of social relation. The problem is not a technological one but a social, economic and political one. Essentially we have to get the political programme right in order to contribute to the rest of the transformation.

I think we share the same perspective and grapple to find the words that describe it.

When you say political programme I think that means the dismantling of the capitalist state. This is not simply a local/national event, this is global. The capitalist state has to be eliminated (hopefully mostly by the armed elements abandoning the fight, but if not, as is necessary) and the arms kept until the process has become global.

This is not about going off to some front; an army against an army. It is about the exploited everywhere taking up arms. Only by a massive participation in a struggle to end this wretched proletarian condition can capitalism be overcome.

All concepts of ''communisation'' which are based on a gradual takeover of capitalist property are to be rejected as a viable strategy. That the destitute squat, that the hungry steal is not to be condemned, but it is not a strategy for revolution. It is crisis activity that will occur anyway. Dropping out is no answer. Capitalism will eject us by the million anyway. How individuals mitigate the unbearable conditions generated is not for us to determine. Our task is the end of the capitalist mode of production. This means above all the end of the working class, understood as the vast majority who cannot live by exploitation.

The exact "How it is to be done" will only come in the doing. Likely we are going to see decades of bitter struggle ahead. Struggles precipitated by a capitalism incapable of integrating the global working population, incapable of support beyond a miserable pittance and an early grave. Likely we can throw in all manner of scourges, war after war, the effects of climate change, desperate migration and the like. The mitigating buffers of welfare dismantled as the falling rate of profit has to be countered by the assault on proletarian conditions.

Then the prospect of a half dead humanity engaging in a life and death struggle for a total rupture with the capitalist mode of production will make sense to more than the minority who today can see the writing on the wall (or screen).

The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

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