At a recent talk I gave on imperialism, there was an interesting question raised on what I thought about Marx’s theory of value. This seemed to be prompted by my reference to Marx’s theory, while I spent little or no time using the terminology in Capital. So the logic of the question was: what is the point of Marx’s theory if one can do without it when explaining what is going on in the world?
Partly, the question is answered by saying that one does not always have to use specialist terminology to express ideas. For example, I have found it to be simpler in presentations to avoid Marx’s term ‘fictitious capital’, because that concept would take some time to explain properly and most people are not familiar with it. Even those who are commonly misunderstand it. Instead, I usually develop the same ideas more directly through discussing the role played by equities and bonds and their relationship to what the economy produces. However, the question needs to be put in a broader context.
Marx’s value theory analyses social labour under capitalism and the increasingly odd forms that it takes as capitalism develops: from being represented in the prices of commodities, to being the source of interest, profits, dividends, rents and tax revenues, to underlying, in an even more distorted fashion, the prices of financial securities. Marx’s theory shows how the capitalist market gives the system a particular dynamic, one that leads to the monopolisation of production and the creation of a world market as capital accumulates. The labour embodied in commodities may not tally directly with the prices they command in the market, but those (relative) prices remain strongly influenced by changes in social productivity. Furthermore, we get a longer-term process by which barriers to capitalist production are set by the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. Since the logic of capitalist production is to make a profit, this is the key underlying problem for capitalism as a social system. It is one that the (sometimes) well-meaning reformers of the system do not want to contemplate, so they exclude this from their analysis or go out of their way to deny this does, or even could, happen.
These fundamental features of capitalism analysed by Marx remain in place, although the system has of course developed a great deal in the 150 years since Capital was written. The changing forms of capitalism have led many to argue that Marx’s theory is outdated or invalid today. But a proper Marxist analysis examines the dynamic of the system and the new forms that evolve out of the old, rather than simply to judge whether contemporary capitalism fits completely with an earlier conception of it.
In Capital Volumes 1, 2 and 3, Marx did not investigate relationships between countries in the world market. Some of this was done outside the three volumes, and plans for later volumes included a more systematic coverage of the state, foreign trade and the world market. So, for example, in Capital there was no real discussion of colonies, just brief mentions, nor much on monopoly or national differences in wages.
Lenin updated aspects of Marx’s work in his 1916 pamphlet Imperialism, drawing on other analyses. He correctly put greater emphasis on the division of the world economy between oppressed/oppressor nations, the territorial division of the world between the major powers, the propensity to war, on monopolies, bank/industrial capital and a ‘financial oligarchy’. This was a key advance in the analysis, and consistent with the idea of Marx’s value theory as being a theory of the evolution of and barriers to the capitalist system – hence Lenin’s term ‘moribund capitalism’. Many aspects pointed out by Lenin remain relevant today, even though these century-old forms have, of course, also developed. There is now a largely post-colonial world, although most countries are still clearly underdogs in the imperial hierarchy. There remains a propensity to war, but now with many wars by proxy, sponsored by the major powers.
I have some differences with Lenin’s analysis, as explained in my book, The City: London and the Global Power of Finance, especially on his understanding of finance, which was taken largely from Hilferding. However, perhaps Lenin’s greatest weakness was his analysis of the ‘labour aristocracy’, the unconvincing notion of how a labour elite getting the benefits of imperial privilege influences the broader working class with their pro-imperialist views. Even in Lenin’s time it would have been more convincing to have taken into account how the mass of people in rich countries were patriotic for their own reasons, ones that had a strong basis in reality rather than a supposedly infectious ideology. They saw, and still see, their economic interests tied up with that of their own states, and they benefit in their wages and welfare conditions from this imperial privilege. That is another sign of how it is important to conduct a thorough analysis.
I rely on Marxist concepts as starting points for understanding the world today because they provide the best way to explain what is going on. However, this is not to say that one can find the detailed answers in a particular volume of Capital. To think so would be almost as bad as believing in the prophecies of Nostradamus. Instead, the significance of Marx’s theory is that it so clearly spelled out the dynamic of capital accumulation that, much more than one might think plausible, his analysis provides key building blocks from which to understand major features of the world economy today.
Whether I use terms from Marx’s value theory in my analysis, and which terms, depends on the context in which I make my argument and how much time there is to do so. In any case, Marx’s work is used as just described. His concepts, like Lenin’s, might need to be amended – perhaps even rejected – according to an assessment of how the world has developed since they wrote.
The observation that capitalism in various forms has been around for several hundred years is commonly seen as an argument that it will go on forever; that it is an eternal, natural system for organising the economy. While economic crises are an undeniable reality and sometimes bring protests, there remains little understanding or acceptance of the Marxist conclusion that capitalist social relations are an increasingly dysfunctional, reactionary way in which to organise the affairs of humanity.
Tony Norfield, 1 March 2017
 I have little confidence in being able to track movements of the rate of profit through official statistics, although one does get indications of the underlying movements from the behaviour of major capitalist companies and reports of investment that suggest a rising organic composition of capital. Official data are focused on an individual country, and do not fully allow for international influences, something especially important for the US. Statistical conventions for counting the ‘value added’ by the financial sector make things worse, as exemplified by UK GDP income data in 2008 showing a higher operating profit for UK banks when the company reports, and Bank of England data, showed a very sharp drop, often into losses! This is apart from the multitude of accounting tricks that large corporations use to relocate the origin of their profits, including through tax havens.