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Tuesday, March 30, 2021


                         My Interpretation of the Thought of Karl Marx


Part Three: Classical Political Economy


Marx and Engels had a little private joke that they would use in their lengthy correspondence to one another. They would say: we got our philosophy from the Germans, our politics from the French, and our economics from the English. Marx began his revolutionary investigation of the nature of capitalism by studying everything he could lay his hands on in the new field of Political Economy. Before we can open to page one of Capital, therefore, we must remind ourselves of the elements of Marx’s predecessors, so that we understand how he understood the discipline as he began his great book.


There are three seminal works of Political Economy that contributed the key concepts on which Marx drew in his own work: the Tableau Économique of François Quesnay, published in 1758, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, published in 1776, and The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation by David Ricardo, published in 1817. In these three works, and especially works of Smith and Ricardo, can be found seven key concepts or theses that together form the backbone of classical Political Economy and provided the framework for Marx’s own thought.


The first concept, central to the work of Quesnay, is that an economy – in this case the primarily agricultural economy of France in the 18th century – can be understood as a cyclical process in which the output of one year, such as seed and fertilizer and tools, becomes the input into the next year’s productive activity. It is with this fundamental idea that the modern study of the economy begins. It is memorialized in the title of an extremely important monograph published by Piero Sraffa 202 years later: Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities.


The second thesis was articulated by Adam Smith eighteen years later. English society, Smith said, must be understood as composed of three great classes whose interests are mutually antagonistic – the landed aristocracy, the entrepreneurs (or, as they will later called, capitalists) and the workers. It is important to keep in mind that the assertion of an ineluctable conflict between the interests of capitalists and workers was not original with Marx. It was central to classical political economy.


The third concept, also introduced by Smith, was what he called the natural price of goods in the marketplace. Smith observed that although prices for goods brought to market might fluctuate from day to day as a result of variations in supply and demand, there was a standard predictable price that experienced producers and consumers came to understand and expect, which he called their “natural price.” Drawing on the physical theories of Isaac Newton who was at that time the gold standard for intellectual excellence in England, Smith compared these natural prices to centers of gravity that drew market prices to them.


Fourth, what was it that determined the natural prices of goods in the marketplace? At this point Smith made his most important contribution to the discipline of Political Economy by arguing that goods exchanged in proportion to the amount of labor required to produce them. Following a tradition going all the way back to the book of Genesis, Smith viewed labor as a burden, as something to be shunned when possible or at least minimized. Having spent their labor in producing goods for the market, farmers or craftsmen would demand in exchange goods requiring at least as much labor for their production. This fact did not determine fluctuating market prices that one saw day by day, but rather what Smith had called their natural prices. Smith had thus articulated what came to be called a Labor Theory of Natural Price, and since in the 18th century a synonym for “natural price” was “value,” what Adam Smith had offered in The Wealth of Nations was a Labor Theory of Value.


But fifth, Smith recognized that there was a problem with his theory. It failed to take account of two factors which clearly influenced the prices of goods in the market: first, the fact that all of the arable land in England had long since been appropriated by aristocrats who, without making any productive contribution to the growing of food nevertheless required that entrepreneurs pay them rent for the use of the land they controlled, and second, the fact that in the production of food and other goods something other than just labor was required, namely tools and equipment and other produced goods, what Smith referred to as stock. The appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock, Smith recognized, would inevitably alter the ratios in which goods would exchange in the market and hence seemed to undermine his newly announced Labor Theory of Value. Smith had no solution to these problems, but Ricardo did.


Forty-one years after the appearance of The Wealth of Nations, Ricardo published his Principles in which he solved the problem of the accumulation of stock and in a great theoretical tour de force dissolved the problem of the appropriation of land. These were the sixth and seventh key ideas that Marx inherited. Ricardo’s major contribution was the idea of “embodied labor.” The tools and raw materials used in any cycle of production, Ricardo argued, were the product of labor expended in previous cycles of production and so we could think of that prior labor as having become embodied in those products and carried along with them into the present cycle. When a farmer used a shovel that had been produced in some previous year, a portion of the labor expended in making the shovel and “embodied” in the shovel was yielded up and transferred to the crops being grown with its use. When those crops were brought to market, the farmer would require in exchange for them other commodities embodying an amount of labor equal to the direct labor expended in that cycle of production plus the labor expended in prior cycles of production, embodied in the tools, and yielded up in the production of the goods being brought to market. Thus, Ricardo for the first time stated a fully developed Labor Theory of Value: goods exchange in the market in proportion to the labor embodied in them, whether that labor has been directly or indirectly applied in their production.


The seventh key idea, which need not detain us, was Ricardo’s demonstration that the rent paid by the entrepreneur to the landowner was not a cost of production, for all that the entrepreneur imagined it to be so, but was in fact a diversion of a portion of the entrepreneur’s profits into the pockets of the landowner and hence played no role in the determination of price.


This was the theoretical state of play in 1817 and it remained pretty much at that stage of development until Marx took this theory up in 1867, half a century later. But there was a fundamental problem with Ricardo’s theory and Ricardo himself knew it. The problem was, to put it as simply and quickly as I can, that the theory was not correct when goods requiring relatively more direct labor and relatively less indirect labor – what later economists would call labor intensive goods – traded with goods that required relatively less direct labor and relatively more indirect labor – what later economists would call capital-intensive goods. Ricardo knew this was a problem and spent the last six years of his life trying to figure out how to deal with it but he went to his grave without having succeeded.


And there in a nutshell is the theoretical situation in Political Economy as Marx found it when he went to the British Museum and spent those endless hours and years reading everything he could lay his hands on in every European language on the subject of economics. If I may put the matter somewhat dramatically, this is what a reader in 1867 would have known as he or she opened the book and began to read page one of Capital (or more properly, of Das Kapital, since the work was not translated into English until after Marx’s death.)


Tomorrow we shall open that book.


Jerry Brown said...

I am really liking this. When would it be appropriate to start arguing? I am having some doubts about some of Ricardo's ideas but maybe I should wait to see if Marx corrects them or not.

Jason said...

Loving all of this, please keep these essays coming Prof. Wolff.

I just picked up my first copy of Capital Vol 1 last week. I've been toting it around the house, like the college football player who keeps fumbling and the coach makes him carry a football to every class, party, and lunch date. It's there at my desk as I work from home, at the dinner table, alongside me on the couch in the evenings, sometimes even in the bathroom...

It's intimidating for sure, I've heard the first few chapters are especially arduous, especially for a layman such as myself with a single class in logic as my only study in philosophy. But I'm trudging through it, with the help of youtube lectures by Prof. Wolff, Prof. David Harvey and his companion books, and other online sources (I really appreciate the comment on the previous Marx essay with the link to the Yale lectures).

LFC said...

Re Jason's comment: I.m.o., you don't need to have formally studied any philosophy to read Capital vol. 1.

If I were as committed to self-education as Jason, I would read The Wealth of Nations, which for some reason wasn't on the syllabus the year I took Soc. Stud. 10. (Btw, Smith's three-class picture of the society of his day -- as described in the post -- seems quite simplistic, but I won't comment further on that now.)

David Palmeter said...

What I see missing in this analysis so far is the role of demand in determining value. I don’t care how much labor you and your competitor put into the gadget. I care only how much I will have to pay to get it compared to what it will cost me to go without or get something else.

LFC said...

D. Palmeter

As the post suggests, value in the classical political economy of Smith/Ricardo is not the same as the market price. Value is (reflected in) the "natural price," which is a different animal. Demand is obviously relevant to the market price, which may fluctuate from day to day, but is considerably less relevant to the "natural price."

David Palmeter said...


That sounds rather metaphysical.

LFC said...

D. Palmeter

I agree, it does. But I assume it did not sound particularly "metaphysical" to Smith or Ricardo, or if it did, that didn't bother them.

I'd be interested to get Prof Wolff's view on this particular question, with specific reference to some of the background intellectual or "philosophical" assumptions of classical political economy. Unless I'm mistaken, which I may well be, Prof Wolff has previously stated on this blog that he isn't, in general, very interested in intellectual history (though this post would seem to be an exercise in intellectual history, among other things). I'm not sure one can make sense of a notion like "natural price" without doing some intellectual history. I don't know much of anything about the origins of the idea of "natural price," where Smith and Ricardo got it from, if indeed they got it from anywhere. I suppose I could do some research on it, but I'm probably too lazy.

LFC said...

Ok, re-reading I see RPW says Smith drew on the theories of Isaac Newton, sort of by analogy (natural prices as "centers of gravity").

David Palmeter said...


The idea seems to include the notion that a given amount of labor—no matter whose labor—has a specific value. But that’s not true. If Prof. Wolff “labored” for an hour giving a lecture to a general audience on Kant’s moral theory, and I did the same, believe me the values would not be the same any measure.

It seems to me that “value” is a function of a market. If not, how is it determined?

Ásgeir said...

I'm not sure that the Labour Theory of Value can be so easily debunked. I'm sure - and I hope - that Prof. Wolff will address such concerns in this series.

T.J. said...

"The appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock, Smith recognized, would inevitably alter the ratios in which goods would exchange in the market and hence seemed to undermine his newly announced Labor Theory of Value."

What does this mean? How would the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock change the ratios in which goods would exchange?

Ridiculousicculus said...

Asgeir- the Labor Theory of Value stuff is all over this blog - search for the back and forth between Labor-Theory-of-Value Chris / Andrew Kliman and Professor Wolff.

Magpie said...


It is not obvious to me in what sense you (and presumably David Palmeter) are using the word "metaphysics".

This is a dictionary entry for "metaphysics".



(1) the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space.
"they would regard the question of the initial conditions for the universe as belonging to the realm of metaphysics or religion"
(2) abstract theory with no basis in reality.
"the very subject of milk pricing involves one in a wonderland of accounting practice and a metaphysics all its own"

Are you using metaphysics as in (1) or as in (2)? Why?

LFC said...

Loosely, I suppose, in the sense of (2), but I'm not sure I used it altogether correctly. There is perhaps a more colloquial sense of the word not reflected in the dictionary entry you cite.

Magpie said...

Why then you find that "natural price" is an abstract theory with no basis in reality?

LFC said...

Do any economists, regardless of political or ideological orientation, use the concept today? (Does anyone else?)

Magpie said...

On one hand, it is clear that neoclassical economists do not use the concept. But I would have thought that fact--based on what one reads in this blog--does not speak against the concept, but against neoclassical economists.

On the other hand, the fact that Adam Smith's "natural price" was one of the key seven concepts forming the framework for Marx's own work, as Prof. Wolff says, suggests it or something close to it is part of Marx's economics and, therefore, of at least those economists who follow him more closely, no?

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