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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Socialist Education Series - P. H. Wicksteed's Criticism of Marx's Theory of Value.

In October 1884 the magazine TODAY published a criticism of Marx's labour theory of value by the Reverend P. H. Wicksteed. In January 1885 they published a comment by G. B. Shaw under the title "A Jevonian Criticism of Marx", and in April 1885 Wicksteed wrote a "rejoinder". Edward R Pease's THE HISTORY OF THE FABIAN SOCIETY(1916) contains an appendix by George Bernard Shaw in which he referred to the articles in TODAY. Shaw said that he was so impressed:

"with the literary power and overwhelming documentation of Marx's indictment of nineteenth century Commercialism and the Capitalist system, that I defended him against all comers in and out of season until Philip Wicksteed, the well known Dante commentator, then a popular Utilitarian Minister, brought me to a standstill by a criticism of Marx I did not understand, This was the first appearance in Socialist controversy of the value theory of Jevons published in 1871"

Shaw went on to say this of his reply to Wicksteed:

"My reply, which was not bad for a joke, and contained the germ of the economic argument for equality of income which I put forward twenty-five years later, elicited only a brief rejoinder; but the upshot was that I put myself into Mr Wicksteed's hands and became a convinced Jevonian".

In the volume FABIAN ESSAYS IN SOCIALISM, published by the Fabian Society in 1889, Shaw dismissed Ricardo's wage theory and Marx's theory, which Shaw said was Ricardo's value theory, and put forward Jevon's Utility theory, saying that Jevons "demonstrated that the value of a commodity is a function of the quantity available, and may fall to zero when the supply outruns the demand so far as to make the final increment of the supply useless".

Wicksteed's Argument in Today

In 1884 when the Wicksteed criticism was published in TODAY there was no published English translation on Marx's CAPITAL. The International Library edition of Volume 1 was published in London in 1886 and the Kerr edition in Chicago in 1906. These editions were a translation from the third German edition. Wicksteed quoted from the second German edition, giving his own translation of the German text.

Wicksteed presented the following three propositions as a "fair summary of Marx's argument".

First, the (exchange value of a ware is determined by the amount of labour needed on the average to produce it

Second, there is such a degree of correspondence between the value of a ware and its average selling price, that for theoretical purposes we must assume that nominally wares are bought and sold at their values.

Third, labour-force (in our industrialised societies) is a ware subject to the same laws and conditions of value and exchange as other wares

Wicksteed said that his criticism of Marx related only to the First and Third arguments. He had nothing to urge against the second argument. He was however mistaken in thinking that Marx held that commodities sold at their values. Marx held that in developed capitalism commodities sold at what he called their "prices of production", some permanently above value and the rest permanently below value. It is true that this was dealt with in Volume 3 of CAPITAL which was not published until 1894, but already in volume 1, Marx had repeatedly warned readers that the divergence of price from value would be dealt in Volume 3, and that it was only by way of illustration that in Volume 1 he had treated preproduction price as equal to value. For example:

"The price form, however, is not only compatible with the possibility of a quantitative incongruity between magnitude of value and price,..., but it may also conceal a qualitative inconsistency, so much so, that although money is nothing but the value form of commodities, price ceases altogether to express value" ( CAPITAL. Vol. 1 page 115 Kerr edition, See also pages 244 and 335).

Wicksteed's case against the First of the above mentioned propositions, related to Marx's argument that the one factor common to all commodities after we have ruled out specific use values which make them qualitatively different, is that of being products of labour.

Wicksteed did not disagree with Marx about the differences between the different commodities, he wrote:

"as I should express it, commodities differ from one another in their specific utilities".

Where Wicksteed criticised Marx was in Marx's statement that "the labour does not count unless it is useful". In the Kerr English translation (page 88) it reads as follows:

"Lastly, nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value".

Wicksteed claimed that this last statement by Marx:

"surrenders the whole of the previous analysis, for it is only useful labour that counts, then in stripping the wares of all the specific properties conferred upon them by specific kinds of useful work, we must not be supposed to have stripped them of abstract utility, conferred upon them by abstractly useful work".

It is difficult to follow Wicksteed's reasoning. Marx was dealing with commodities, that is to say use-values produced for sale, social use-values. A thing is useless if it is not saleable and is not a commodity. So when Marx said that the labour contained in a useless thing does not count and creates no value, he was not contradicting what he had said about the use values and exchange values of commodities.

Wicksteed on "Abstract Utility"

Wicksteed disputes MarX's conclusion that socially necessary labour needed in production is the only common measure making exchange possible. Wicksteed wrote:

"It cannot be argued that there is no common measure to which we can reduce the satisfaction derived from such different articles as Bibles and brandy, for instance, (to take an illustration suggested by Marx0, for as a matter of fact we are all of us making such reductions every day. If I am willing to give the same amount of money for a family bible as for a dozen of brandy, it is because I have reduced the respective satisfactions their possession will afford me to a common measure".


"What we really have to do it put out of consideration the concrete and specific qualitative utilities in which they differ, leaving only the abstract and general quantitative utility in which they are identical".

Wicksteed (page 714)specifically included in the articles whose abstract utility we can judge, "all exchangeable commodities whether reproducible in indefinite quantities, like the family bibles and brandy; or strictly limited in quantity, like the "Raphael's" one of which was purchased for the nation".

This process of "abstract utility" judgements as being the determinant of value is quite unrealistic. Is it really possible by such judgements to explain why an ounce of gold sells at thousands of times as much as an ounce of coal? Also the overwhelming majority of the population do not have views on the "abstract utility" of most commodities. The only people in the "Raphael's" are millionaires, art galleries and the art dealers. How many of those who treasure family bibles drink brandy?

These objections do not apply to Marx's view that the common measure embodies in all commodities which allows for their exchange, is abstract labour. That is the amount of socially necessary labour required in producing the commodities, for this process goes on all the time in production. Every employer and every worker is involved in the process.

Wicksteed's Criticism of Marx's on Wages

In his third proposition, Wicksteed holds Marx responsible for saying that labour power is subject to the same laws and conditions of value and exchange as other commodities.

This is not correct. Marx held that labour power is unlike other commodities. He wrote:

"On the other hand the number and extent of his (worker's) so called necessary wants, as also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development, and depend therefore to a great extent on the degree of civilisation of a country, more particularly on the conditions under which, and consequently on the habits and degree of comfort in which the class of free labourers has been formed. In contradistinction therefore to the case of other commodities, there enters into the determination of the value of labour power a historical and moral element" (our emphasis). (CAPITAL Vol. 1, page 190 Kerr edition).

The other aspect of labour power which distinguishes it from the other commodities is that it is the source of all new value, all new wealth. Without labour power, there can be no productive process within capitalism. The more socially necessary labour that is applied to a commodity, the more value is added to that commodity.

Published from SOCIALIST STUDIES 19 by the reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991). Date of publication 1996.

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