Understanding Marx's theory of value: an assessment of a controversy


  • *I wish to thank David Schweitzer, Blanca Muratorio, Bob Ratner, Bob Chernomas and Derek Sayer for their helpful comments on an earlier elaboration of the ideas developed in this article (Smith, 1989). Thanks are also due to two anonymous CRSA reviewers and to Jim Curtis for a number of suggestions that have significantly strengthened the final product. The argument presented here is based on work which I carried out whilst in receipt of funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. This article was received in August, 1989 and accepted in December, 1990.


Trois écoles principals de théorie de valeur marxienne sont identifiées et situées par rapport à des sujets essentiels oú il existe une controverse en matiére de valeur, en particulier le postulat que le travail vital est l'unique source de valeur nouvelle. L'effondrement de la théorie de valeur de l'école ‘orthodoxe’ (Ricardo-marxiste) est attribuée aux raisonnement erroné d'une conceptualisation de la valeur de ‘travail exprimé, une approche rejetée de la même façon par les théoriciens de la valeur ‘néo-orthodoxe’ et ‘fondamentaliste’. Cependant la comparaison des écoles néo-orthodoxe et fondamentaliste révèle que seule cette derniére est compatible avec les objectifs et les postulats essentiels de la théorie de Marx. En même temps, on indique que l'approche fondamentaliste ne pêut etre soutenue que par un engagement explicite à l'idée que le travail abstrait (essence-même de la valeur) existe en tant qu'universel structurel spécifique au capitalisme.

Three major schools of Marxian value theory are identified and situated in respect to some pivotal issues of the value controversy, in particular the postulate that living labour is the sole source of new value. The collapse of the ‘orthodox’ (Ricardian-Marxist) school of value theory is attributed to the fallacies of an ‘embodied labour’ conceptualization of value, an approach which has been rejected by ‘neo-orthodox’ and ‘fundamentalist’ value theorists alike. However a comparison of the neo-orthodox and fundamentalist schools reveals that only the latter remains consistent with the objectives and essential postulates of Marx's theory. At the same time, it is argued that the fundamentalist approach can only be sustained through an explicit commitment to the idea that abstract labour (as the ‘substance’ of value) exists as a structural ‘universal’ specific to capitalism.