NEWS & LETTERS, April - May 2007

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya

Uprooting capitalism's law of value


As part of our ongoing discussions on what is required to uproot the capitalist law of value--and thereby create a truly new, human society--we are reprinting excerpts of Raya Dunayevskaya’s 1948 essay, “Stalinists Falsify Marxism Anew." It originally appeared in FOURTH INTERNATIONAL, September 1948. The first half of the essay appears below. The rest will appear in the June/July issue of NEWS & LETTERS. For the original, see THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 1311-1316.

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Until 1943 not even the totalitarian Stalinist bureaucracy dared lay hands openly on Marx’s CAPITAL. In that year there was published in the country’s chief theoretical journal an obscurely entitled article, “Some Questions of Teaching Political Economy" (UNDER THE BANNER OF MARXISM). This article initiated a new cycle in the Stalinist revision and falsification of Marxism.

The article caused a sensation in the European and American press because, reversing the traditional Marxist conception that the law of value is in the last analysis the dominant economic law of capitalist society, it claimed that the law of value also functioned “under socialism." To support this new anti-Marxist theory, the author was driven inescapably to undermine the old foundation, viz. the structure and content of Marx’s CAPITAL.

The article is unsigned, but it bears the stylistic imprint of A. Leontiev, one of the editors of UNDER THE BANNER OF MARXISM... Leontiev asserts that Soviet teachers have erred in constructing their courses on political economy “as a simple copy of the structure of CAPITAL." This, according to Leontiev, 1) violated "the historical principle," and 2) was "harmful pedantry." Obviously, it was not the teaching but the political economy taught, that was under attack here...


Leontiev dares to base his conception of a political economy as a "general" historical science on a statement from Engels, to the effect that "in the widest sense" political economy is "the science of the laws which govern the production and exchange of the material means of livelihood in human society." Leontiev, however, has evaded the essence of the quotation on that very page which Engels aimed precisely against the Leontievs of his own day: “Whoever wishes to bring the political economy of Patagonia under the same laws as those of modern England would, in so doing, obviously bring to light nothing but the most banal commonplaces" (HERR DÜHRING'S REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE).

In any case, Marx's CAPITAL is not a study of political economy "in the widest sense." It is an analysis of the capitalist mode of production and its mode of thought. It is an analysis of no other system. Marx, in a single phrase, separated himself from all political economy by subtitling CAPITAL, "A Critique of Political Economy." Marx demonstrated thereby his determination to destroy the very foundations of political economy--the capitalist mode of production. Leontiev's attempt to transform political economy into a "general historical science," on the other hand, compels him to place upon the proletarian revolutionist Marx the bourgeois task "to reconstruct the science of political economy."

Leontiev cannot but concede the indisputable fact that Marx begins his work with an analysis of a commodity. But, argues Leontiev, "if we teach political economy according to the historical principle, it is necessary to consider such categories as commodities and money not only in the section devoted to capitalism, but also in the preceding parts of the course." And, of course, if a commodity can be "considered" in courses dealing with pre-capitalist societies, why not for post-capitalist societies? By means of his newly conditioned "historical principle," the Stalinist falsifier seeks to divest the commodity of what Engels called its "particular distinctness," and to transform it from a class phenomenon to a phenomenon common to all societies.

Thereby Leontiev has once again enthroned the commodity and with it the fetishism whereby the relations between human beings "assume the fantastic form of relations between things." The relation between workers and capitalists can thus be made to appear as the mere exchange of one commodity--money, for another--labor power, and not as it really is--a social relation between classes.

Marx, on the other hand, by beginning his analysis of capitalist production with an analysis of what he called "the economic cell-form" of capitalist wealth, was able to bring out most clearly the fetishism inherent in the commodity...

Marx proceeds, first, to reveal that the twofold character of the commodity--its use value and exchange value--arises from the nature of the human activity involved--abstract labor and concrete labor. This, writes Marx categorically, "is the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns." Then, with broad historic strokes, Marx traces the development of the commodity from the stage when it makes its first appearance--the surplus of primitive communes--to the highest stage, its "classic form," under capitalism. Thereby he makes abundantly clear that the law of value cannot apply until abstract labor has been developed. The labor process of capital, wherein surplus value is extracted, is, of course, the essence of capitalist production, as it is of Marx's work. But capitalist production and capitalist theory is based upon the historical transformation of labor into a commodity.

Therefore, when Leontiev says that "This exposition (the exposition of a commodity) serves him (Marx) as the necessary prerequisite for the discovery of the secret of surplus value, which is involved in the transformation of labor power into a commodity," he is turning Marx on his head. It was the transformation of labor power into a commodity and into abstract labor that made possible the production of surplus value. Marx's exposition is based upon this historic development. Not vice versa.


It is generally known that the structure of Marx's greatest work was not fixed from the beginning. From the publication of the CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, the first version of CAPITAL, in 1859, to the French edition of CAPITAL in 1875, Marx had many times, as he put it, "to turn everything around"...the one thing that remained unchanged in all versions of CAPITAL is this, that they all began with the analysis of the commodity...

Here is how Engels explained the structure of CAPITAL: “If you just compare the development of the commodity into capital, in Marx, with the development from Being to Essence in Hegel, you will get quite a good parallel for the concrete development which results from the facts."

Thus, far from breaking with history, the structure of CAPITAL is deeply rooted in history. In the dialectical materialism of Marx there is no contradiction between the historical and logical method of treatment. In the structure of CAPITAL is reflected a historical development, a specific historic epoch. CAPITAL is the product of historical evolution, and, whenever Marx viewed any aspect of capitalism as a logical abstraction, he constantly checked and rechecked and illustrated the corresponding economic category by the facts of its historical development.

Leontiev, on the other hand, introduces "the historical principle" only in order to rob the commodity of its class content and clothe it in "general historic" garb. The compelling force here is the need to falsify the Marxist analysis of the law of value. Since Marx's entire analysis is rooted in capitalist relations of production, the Stalinist theoretician would be unable to maintain that the law of value functions in the Soviet Union without "revising" the Kremlin's claim, that the Soviet Union is a land where socialism is "irrevocably established." He must either do this or else he must revise the concept that the law of value is dominant in capitalist society alone. There are good and sufficient reasons why the Stalinist hack preferred the latter course. But to accomplish this feat of distortion, Marx's analysis of a commodity had to be "revised," and with it the structure of CAPITAL.


The break with the structure of Marx's CAPITAL lays the theoretical groundwork for a complete revision of Marxist economic theory, but the new edifice still remains to be constructed. It is no simple matter to extend the operation of the law of value to a "socialist" society. So solid was the structure Marx had built to prove the opposite that no one--not even the all-powerful Politburo of the Russian Communist Party--could merely circumvent what Marx called his major original contribution: the analysis of the twofold character of labor.

Nor could the Stalinist henchman, Leontiev, reconcile his admission that labor in the Soviet Union bears a dual character with the claim that all capitalist relations had been eradicated in the USSR. The central point of Marx's critique of political economy is contained precisely in Marx's exposure of its failure to see exploitation, although it had discovered that labor was the source of all value. Ricardo, Marx had written, "...sees only the quantitative determination of exchange value, that is, that it is equal to a definite quantity of labor time; but he forgets the qualitative determination that individual labor must by means of its alienation be presented in the form of abstract, universal, social labor" (THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE).

The qualitative determination of labor is the exploitative relation. By laying this bare, Marx revealed also how the law of value is, in reality, the law of surplus value...


Not even the Leontiev of 1943 can deny the exploitative nature of the dual character of labor. But he attempts to argue that whereas this is true "under capitalism," it does not hold "under socialism"...

It is easy to see why Leontiev would like to hide Part I of CAPITAL from the eyes of the Russian workers. He wishes to screen social relations behind the fetishism of commodities. It is thus that he "discovers" that, regardless of the dual character of labor, all labor "useful" to society is properly "rewarded." This quagmire of Stalinist falsifications becomes the basis for inventing a "duality" between "labor useful to society" as opposed to labor "useless to society."

It is clear that Leontiev acted as he did not because he “willed" it. As a servant of the Kremlin bureaucracy, fearful of the wrath of the Russian workers, he could not do as Marx did--leave the market and follow the worker into the factory. It was there that Marx saw that not only are the commodities the laborer produces alienated from him, but so is his very activity. This being so, it became the basis of Marx’s original contribution to political economy: the analysis of the dual character of labor, which arises in the sphere of production, not in the sphere of distribution.

Leontiev, on the other hand, who has remained in the market not by accident, is now prepared to replace the duality between concrete and abstract labor by another: the “duality" between “labor useful to society" as opposed to labor “useless to society"...

Leontiev’s tortuous attempts to resolve the irresolvable contradiction between his admission that labor in the Soviet Union bears a dual character and his claim that all capitalist relations have been eradicated, has ended, of necessity, in his abandonment of the Marxist analysis of the dual character of labor...


[With] his new “revisionism," Leontiev clothes in a formula culled from the Stalinist Constitution of 1936: “distribution according to labor." Leontiev apparently believes that by employing this phrase he has succeeded in translating the law of value into a function of socialism. At the same time this Stalinist “theoretician" rejects the formula that has always stood in the Marxist theory for socialism and the abrogation of the law of value: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Moreover, UNDER THE BANNER OF MARXISM also rejects as inapplicable to the land where socialism has been “irrevocably established" the Marxist formula applicable to countries “just emerging from the womb of capitalism:" payment according to the “natural measure of labor"--time. Finally, the author makes clear that the money which is the medium of payment for labor is not some scrip notes, but money as the measure of value: “labor continues to be the measure in economic life." Thus, by the time Leontiev has wound up the argument for the Stalinist “socialist principle" of “distribution according to labor," that formula has every outward appearance of payment of labor--as of any other commodity--at value, a basic manifestation of the dominance of the law of value under capitalism.

Leontiev’s attempt to extricate himself from what logically flows from his own argumentation further deepens the self-contradictions in which he is immersed. Just as previously he tried to smooth his path toward breaking with the structure of CAPITAL by defining political economy as a “general historic science," so now Leontiev tries to erect a bridge toward the Stalinist falsehood contained in the assertion that the law of value functions “under socialism." He begins with a broad generalization to the effect that “there can be no scientific knowledge if one recognizes no laws."

From this generalization Leontiev then leaps to the following anti-Marxist conclusion: “Thus we see that there is no basis for considering that the law of value is abrogated in the socialist system of society. On the contrary, it functions under socialism, but it functions in a transformed manner. Under capitalism the law of value leads inevitably to the rise and development-- inevitably linked with the destruction of productive forces, with crises, with anarchy of production. Under socialism it acts as a law consciously applied by the Soviet state under conditions of the planned administration of the national economy, under the conditions of the development of an economy free from crises. Under the domination of private property in the means of production, operation of the law of value leads inevitably to the rise and development of capitalist exploitation; in a socialist society the rise of exploitation is blocked by the domination of the socialist property in the means of production."

Leontiev apparently believes that the words, “under socialism," suffice to clothe in socialist raiment the dominant economic law of capitalism.

To be continued next issue

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