A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, first published in 1859, only consists of two chapters (apart from its famous Preface). Marx had intended it to be the first installment in a massively ambitious project that was to include six separate “books” addressing, respectively, the topics of capital, landed property, wage labor, the state, international trade, and the world market. The first book on the topic of capital was to have included four “sections” dealing with: capital in general, competition, credit, and share capital.
In other words, the two chapters of Contribution (“The Commodity” and “Money, or Simple Circulation”) are just the first “installment” of the first section of the first book – to have been followed promptly by a second installment that would move on to introduce capital, its circuit, etc.
Things did not exactly proceed according to the original plan, needless to say. Not only did Marx fail to complete the six books, he did not even publish the additional chapters on capital for the first section of Book one. This has led to scholarly debates over the degree to which the content of the three volumes of Capital – of which Marx only oversaw publication of the first volume – correspond to the six books he had first envisaged.
Even taken on its own, however, Marx’s two-chapter book presents us with much of the knowledge we require in our effort to dispel the reformist illusions still so widespread today. The problem with reformism, as we can learn from Contribution, is not that it is overly pragmatic and insufficiently idealistic, but that it is thoroughly impractical and utopian, based as it is upon a surprising ignorance of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism as a society of commodity production.
Marx viewed Contribution as a work with an important “polemical” aspect. Yet any reader expecting the stirring rhetoric or vivid imagery of the sort found in The Communist Manifesto is sure to be disappointed. Instead of “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism,” the first line of Contribution is: “At first sight the wealth of bourgeois society appears as an immense heap of commodities; and the individual commodity as its essential determinate being.” It is a wonderfully succinct sentence that explains why Marx must begin with the analysis of the commodity, but not likely to appear on many t-shirts or bumper stickers.
The “exceedingly serious and scientific air” of Contribution, as he described the book to his friend Engels around the time of its publication, was not the result of some erudite pose Marx struck, but because his analysis of the commodity and money deals with some of the most abstract elements of capitalist society. Marx told his friend that he hoped the scholarly style would oblige reviewers of the book to refrain from the usual “tendentious vituperation” and “take [his] views on capitalism rather seriously.”
Unfortunately, as he would later complain to Ferdinand Lasalle, his views were neither attacked nor criticized in Germany, but “utterly ignored,” which he thought was “bound to have a serious effect on sales.”
Yet Marx’s primary interest was not the reaction from the scholarly world, or even the badly needed book royalties, but the influence that Contribution would have on the socialist movement in Europe. He hoped the ideas in the book would help to wipe out the reformist fantasies that still clung to the movement; for the mid-nineteenth century, much like today, was an age when all sorts of self-styled “revolutionaries” were peddling commodity-production sludge in shiny new buckets labeled “Socialism.”
Marx was particularly eager to expose the pseudo-socialist ideas of Jean Pierre Proudhon, then fashionable in France. Marx described “Proudhonist socialism,” in a February 1859 letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, as the wish to “retain private production while organizing the exchange of private products, to have commodities but not money,” insisting that “communism must above all rid itself of this ‘false brother.’” Marx even told Engels, in July of that year, that if he were to review Contribution the first point to emphasize would be that the book “extirpates Proudhonism root and branch.”
The way Marx uproots Proudhonism in Contribution, however, is not through a narrow polemic aimed at that ideological tendency alone, but rather by means of a scientific analysis of the commodity and money, which reveals their inseparability and how both forms characterize capitalism as one particular historical mode of production. So his analysis serves us equally well today in our own efforts to expose the fallacy of reformism in whatever shapes it may take.
The uncommon commodity
The term “commodity” is nearly synonymous with “product” these days, perhaps because we are so accustomed to the capitalist market economy. Yet Marx uses the term commodity in Contribution to refer specifically to products of labor that are produced for exchange, rather than to directly satisfy the material needs of the producers. As such, the commodity has both a use-value, as a thing that satisfies some human want, as well as an exchange-value, as something that brings to its owner money or another commodity of equal worth.
Use-value pertains to the properties of any product of labor as a physical thing. So use-value is not the aspect which specifically characterizes the commodity. From the taste of wheat,” Marx writes, “it is not possible to tell who produced it, a Russian serf, a French peasant or an English capitalist.” In any society, there is a need to produce useful things in order to satisfy human needs and sustain the society as a whole, but only under capitalism does the vast bulk of this material wealth take the form of commodities, as Marx points out in the first line of Contribution quoted earlier.
In short, use-value presents no great mystery, and is not even an actual economic form, so Marx sets it aside to concentrate on the aspect of the commodity that does characterize the commodity as such: exchange-value. The key question initially is: What determines the exchange-value of a commodity?
This is a question that had been posed already by Adam Smith – and later by David Ricardo – and Marx agrees with their fundamental answer, known as the “labor theory of value,” which states that the level at which a commodity will be exchanged depends upon the amount of labor expended for its production.
This theory is vital to an understanding of how capitalism functions as a commodity-production society. It shows that something – although not the conscious decisions of human beings – guides commodity exchange. Adam Smith famously used the expression “invisible hand” to depict this hidden force, but it seems more appropriate to speak of the invisible hands of the workers who labor to produce each commodity.
In Contribution, Marx develops the labor theory of value, arriving at a far clearer understanding of the labor “objectified” within the commodity to constitute its value, which he defines using such expressions as “uniform homogenous simple labor” or “abstract general labor”; and he also emphasizes that this labor is expended “under the generally prevailing conditions of production” in a given society. In short, we can say that the abstract labor-time socially necessary to produce a given commodity constitutes its value and fundamentally determines the level at which the commodity is exchanged.
The issue for Marx, however, is not merely how commodity exchange is carried out. He also ponders why labor under capitalism must take this materialized or objectified form (as the “substance” of value). And Marx begins to answers this question by introducing examples of production relations where labor does not take that form and products of labor do not assume the commodity form.
Marx notes, for instance, the example of medieval society, where “services and dues in kind” were performed directly to satisfy particular needs (albeit those of the feudal landlords), so that we are dealing with the “distinct labor of the individual in its original [concrete] form.” Another example he gives, which corresponds in some important respects to socialism, is the “communal labor in its spontaneously evolved form as we find it among all civilized nations at the dawn of their history.” In this case, the labor of each individual in the society is expended directly as one part of the overall labor, rather than the individuals each producing their own private products that are then exchanged as commodities.
Under commodity production, in contrast, the starting point is the labor “privately” expended by the various individuals who produce commodities for the market. Instead of the social relations between these individuals being clear from the outset, as in those two examples Marx raises, the producers are carrying out production in accordance with their own private aims and will. It is only when their commodities are exchanged that the producers first enter a social relation with one another.
This is why, under such social production, relations between human beings within production necessarily present themselves as relations between things (money and commodities). “Only the conventions of everyday life,” Marx writes in Contribution, “make it appear commonplace and ordinary that social relations of production should assume the shape of things, so that the relations into which people enter in the course of their work appear as relations of things to one and another and of things to people.”
People are so used to the relations of commodity production that they find it difficult to imagine social relations of production that are not mediated by the exchange of commodities and money, which is one reason that reformist ideas manage to seem so pragmatic.
Marx’s analysis in chapter one of Contribution shows us that it is only under specific social relations of production, where the starting point of production is privately expended labor, that products of labor will take the commodity form and that the labor expended will take the form of value. In other words, these are socially specific economic forms – not the reflection of some eternal state of human affairs.
And the same is true of the money form. Marx points out that money in fact “represents a social relation of production” and that the “all of the illusions of the Monetary System arise from the failure” to perceive this fact. Money only possesses its strange, magical power within certain social production relations.
Marx reveals the source of that power in Contribution by reducing the money form to the simplest form of value, where one commodity expresses its own value using the use-value of a different commodity. In that simplest form, “the use-value of one commodity is brought into relation with the use-values of other commodities” so that the exchange-value of the commodity “manifests itself in the use-values of other commodities.” This is no different than the value of a commodity being expressed in the use-value of the commodity gold. Instead of gold intrinsically having a power as money, Marx shows that the power stems from a specific relation in which gold (or some other commodity) becomes the physical embodiment of value, so as to give tangible form to the intangible element of value.
Marx further demystifies money by explaining how it is that a particular commodity is excluded from other commodities to become money. He explains this emergence of a single commodity – as the “universal equivalent” (money) – as resulting from a contradiction confronting commodities in the exchange process, where “only by being realized as exchange-values can they be realized as use-values” and vice-versa. The way out of this “vicious circle” is the exclusion of one particular commodity as the universal equivalent, so that a commodity owner can first exchange a commodity for that special commodity, which can be used to purchase whatever commodity is desired.
But it is not as if the commodity producers gather and debate which commodity should be chosen as that universal equivalent. “Money is not the result of deliberation or of agreement,” Marx argues, “but has come into being spontaneously in the course of exchange.” In any area of commodity exchange, historically speaking, there were always some commodities more frequently exchanged than others, such as fur hides, rice, or cattle, to mention a few examples. By being exchanged for so many other different commodities, such “special” commodities would already bring those other commodities into a relation with each other, where their values could be expressed in the special commodity and they could also compare their values relative to each other via that commodity.
All sorts of commodities have played that role as “universal equivalent,” but ideally, Marx says, the function would require a commodity with the physical qualities of “unlimited divisibility, homogeneity of its parts and uniform quality of all [its] units.” These happen to be qualities that characterize precious metals, which accounts for why gold and silver eventually come to exclusively play the role of the money-commodity. “Although gold and silver are not by nature money, money is by nature gold and silver,” is the witty way Marx explained this point in Capital:
It would require many more paragraphs to adequately explain these aspects of Marx’s essential theory of money presented in Contribution – not to mention his explanation of the functions of money in chapter two – but the main point here is just to convey some idea of how well he grasps the profoundly social and historical nature of money and its inseparable connection to commodity production.
Reformists have trouble understanding that commodities and money only exist under specific relations of production, and this also accounts for their inability to imagine fundamentally different social relations where there is no need or room for those economic forms to exist.