In 1923 the Soviet Marxist economist Isaak Illich Rubin published his groundbreaking Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, which sought to redefine Marx’s concept of political economy. Suppressed under Stalinism, the book remained unknown in the West until it was published in the USA in 1972. In the book’s centenary year, rs21 member Xi Mingyue explains why Rubin’s analysis is important for understanding the totality of Marx’s views. 

Even among socialists, the political and the economic are often treated as separate, though related, dimensions of analysis. Rubin’s Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value illustrates the political and social relations that constitute economic categories, and highlights the strongest points of Marx’s extensive and incisive critique of political economy.

In the introduction, he opens with a vital and central clarification:

Political economy is not a science of the relations of things to things, as was thought by vulgar economists, nor of the relations of people to things, as was asserted by the theory of marginal utility, but of the relations of people to people in the process of production.

Marx’s Capital especially has a reputation of being a dry economic work about things (not people). But throughout these essays, Rubin demonstrates that the real subject of Marx’s analysis, in Capital and elsewhere, was relations between people—specifically, social relations between people which become reified (‘thing-ified’; the abstract made concrete) through the commodity-form and value-form, and also the inverse, the personification of things. This ‘commodity fetish’ is discussed by Marx at the end of chapter 1 of volume 1 of Capital. However, it is often read as a separate interesting tidbit, an addition onto an independent and already internally-cohesive system of critique elabourated in Capital, due to the fact that commodity fetishism is given its own separate heading. As Rubin demonstrates in his seven entire chapters under the heading of ‘Marx’s Theory of Commodity Fetishism’, though, Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism is central to his entire system of critique.

Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism is additionally often misread as something that happens in the mind, as a problem of perception. But commodity fetishism does not occur due to people perceiving social relations as material objects, or perceiving material things as constituting social relations. In capitalist society, abstract social relations truly do become ‘thing-ified’. As Rubin puts it

…the central insight of the theory of fetishism is not that political economy discloses production relations among people behind material categories, but that in a commodity-capitalist economy, these production relations among people necessarily acquire a material form and can be realised only in this form.

Abstract and concrete labour

A similar misconception occurs with Marx’s theory of abstract labour, and the distinction between concrete and abstract labour. ‘Concrete labour’ is defined physiologically; the physical act of weaving, or of cooking, for instance. Such concrete labour is not socially specific, and can exist in any mode of production. In Marx’s critique of political economy, he demonstrates that in a commodity economy, concrete labour becomes abstract labour, as the products of concrete labour must be exchanged with each other, implying equality.

For instance, let’s say a tailor exchanges a T-shirt they made for a meal cooked by a chef. Physically, sewing and cooking are two different types of labour. However, when the product of sewing and the product of cooking are exchanged, we say that they must be equal. All the labour embodied in the T-shirt becomes abstracted away from its concrete forms (growing, harvesting, spinning and weaving the cotton, as well as the labour embodied in machines that are partially used up to create the T-shirt, and the sewing of the T-shirt itself) into human labour in general, abstract labour. Similarly, all the labour embodied in the meal becomes abstracted away from its concrete form (the production of the raw ingredients, the labour embodied in creating cooking utensils partially used up during the cooking process, and the cooking labour itself) into human labour in general, abstract labour. The two forms of concrete labour can’t be quantifiably compared to each other, but the two amounts of abstract labour can be.

Marx’s theory of abstract labour is similarly misconstrued as something that happens in the mind. Readers of Marx, both opponents and proponents alike, believe that Marx was saying that when commodity producers exchange the products of their different concrete labours, they believe, in their minds, their concrete labour to be abstract labour. This is not the case. Abstract labour is a ‘real abstraction’, i.e. an abstraction that truly, materially occurs. When commodities are exchanged, we materially equate them in our economy, not in our minds. As Marx himself writes in Capital:

…when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.

Rubin summarises the significance of commodity fetishism in a sentence: ‘The impact of society on the individual is carried out through the social form of things.’ This creates a separation between the political and the economic, and obscures the political and social content of workers’ oppression. Workers may increasingly understand themselves as members of a group of workers at a workplace, and may combine their bargaining power against a single employer, but this separation between the political and the economic poses a barrier to workers understanding themselves as members of the entire working class, in struggle against not one employer, but the entire capitalist class.

Value as a social relation

Rubin also correctly identifies Marx’s view of value as a social relation — and therefore money and capital as social relations — rather than what he describes as ‘a view of value as a material object which has the characteristics of a liquid,’ a common understanding even among Marxists. This view that value is something that individually exists in one commodity is something which the 21st century Marx scholar Michael Heinrich terms ‘substantialism’, i.e. the view of value as a ‘substance’ within a commodity: value as ‘a relationship between the individual labour of the producer and the product’ rather than ‘a relationship between the individual labour of producers and the total labour of society’.[1] (emphasis in original)

The value of products of labour is what allows private labour to become social labour in the commodity economy: ‘Value is the transmission belt which transfers the movement of working processes from one part of society to another, making that society a functioning whole.’ (Rubin, my emphasis)

This additionally helps with the debate over whether value is constituted in exchange. Some people, Marxists included, misinterpret the labour theory of value as meaning that value is created solely in production. However, this is to reify abstract labour. If value is solely created in production, then labour is value-producing regardless of the mode of production it functions in. However, labour is not inherently value-producing on its own; labour is only the content of value when it is performed in a society based on commodity exchange and producing commodities destined for exchange on the market. Even within a capitalist society, labour whose products are not for exchange is not value-producing labour, for instance if someone hires a tailor to make clothes for their own personal use and not for sale.

Value is constituted in both production and exchange because, in a commodity economy, both production and exchange are a part of the same process and one depends on the other. As Rubin clarifies, ‘exchange is not only a separate phase of the process of reproduction; it puts its specific imprint on the entire process of reproduction.’ Production and exchange are not separate unrelated phases of the reproduction process, like separate items on a task list. In this society, production is capitalist production, production for exchange.

Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, and of the reification of social relations and social forms, is thus vital for a communist politics. Rubin’s analysis centres on social forms precisely because Marx’s analysis centres on social forms; the critique of political economy shows us the political content, the social relations, within what appear to be natural and transhistorical parts of the capitalist world.

Abstraction as method

Rubin also shows that many parts of Marx’s analysis which are often viewed as historical analysis are in fact abstract, conceptual analysis. For instance, in the first chapter of Capital, Marx draws out the development of the value-form, from ‘Elementary or Accidental Form of Value’, to ‘The Money-Form’. This is often interpreted as a historical progression. However, Marx is not referring to ‘Elementary or Accidental Form of Value’ as a form of value that really existed at some point in history in some society. Instead, Marx is conceptually developing the value-form up until he discovers the necessity of the money-form.

The same applies to the development from what Rubin calls a ‘simple commodity economy’ to a capitalist economy. Marx’s picture of an economy where commodity-producers exchange the products of their labour directly with each other, is not describing a historical description, but a theoretical concept that Marx will develop into a full-blown capitalist economy. Rubin further makes the point that capitalist production itself is an abstract concept, rather than an all-encompassing description of the existing social-economic system; in Rubin’s time, many parts of the world had not yet or not fully made the transition to capitalist production.

Rubin further makes the same argument for labour-value and production price. Labour-value is defined as value based on the amount of labour represented by a commodity, i.e. the socially necessary labour-time required to produce it. Production price is defined as the cost of production plus average profit. Theoretically, the latter should revolve around the former. But as he explains:

The labour theory of value and the theory of production price differ from each other, not as different theories which function in different historical periods, but as an abstract theory and a concrete fact, as two degrees of abstraction of the same theory of the capitalist economy. The labour theory of value only presupposes production relations among commodity producers. The theory of production price presupposes, in addition, production relations between capitalists and workers, on one hand, and among various groups of industrial capitalists on the other.

Productive and unproductive labour

The last chapter of Essays discusses the concept of ‘productive labour’, a term often misused or misunderstood outside of Marxist circles. Marx defines all labour bought with variable capital for the purpose of extracting surplus value as productive labour, regardless of the concrete nature of the labour, irrespective of whether the labour is objectively useful for society.

Rubin cites Marx’s example of a clown hired by a circus. The clown’s labour is productive because she is compensated for her labour-power, and in exchange allows her employer to use up her labour-power in order to extract surplus-value from her. Whether or not labour is productive is also independent of whether or not the labour is objectified in material objects. A teacher employed by a capitalist school produces immaterial products of their labour, the product being an education for the students. Despite this, the capitalist of the school uses their variable capital to purchase the teacher’s labour-power, and to extract surplus-value from selling the product of the teacher’s labour.

In a sentence, Rubin puts this as, ‘For Marx productive labour means: labour which is engaged in the given social system of production.’ (emphasis in original)

However, this last chapter adds relatively little for people who have read Marx, who makes his points about productive labour quite clearly and explicitly in Capital. The book’s real value lies in the clarifications Rubin makes to draw out and explain things which were not necessarily as clear or explicit in Marx’s original writing: for instance, Rubin’s points about the centrality of commodity fetishism in Marx’s system, which he explains is obscured by the designation of fetishism to a separate subheading in Capital.

An understanding of Marx’s critique of political economy (which is the critical analysis of capitalist society) is a necessity for our politics, which contain both a negative analysis of capitalism, and a positive vision of the communist liberation that will succeed capitalism. The clarifications of Marx that Rubin makes in his book are quite different from academic debates between Marxologists, isolated from our organising practices. They form one half of the inseparable whole of our politics; they are the meat of our opposition to capitalism, and contain the kernel of our positive vision that arises out of that critique. As Lenin argued: ‘Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.’

[1] Michael Heinrich, An introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’ Capital, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012), p55.

All references to Marx’s Capital are to Volume One. For consistency, we have altered some spellings in quotes from American to British English.


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