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Monday, May 24, 2021


The questions raised by a number of commentators concerning the great differences between 21st-century capitalism and mid-19th century capitalism deserve extended answers, which I am not yet ready to attempt, but there is one tiny point I should like to clarify since it is, I think, one of the wittiest comments in Capital. It concerns the subject of transubstantiation.


In the Roman Catholic ritual of the mass the wafer and the wine are miraculously converted into the body and blood of Christ by God when the priest raises them and ask for a blessing. The taste of the wafer and the wine, their look and smell, do not change. In other words the accidents remain the same, to use the classical philosophical terminology, but the substance of the wafer and the wine are changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. Hence this ritual miracle is called transubstantiation. This is the central and most important miracle of Christianity and it is a miracle repeated every time that a priest anywhere in any church in the world celebrates a mass.


In the marketplace capitalists exchange commodities – linen for wheat, beef for iron, wool for copper. When two commodities, let us say a bushel of wheat and a ton of iron, exchange with one another the accidents of the commodities change – a capitalist who had iron before now has wheat and the look, the feel, the solidity, and all the other accidents of what he possesses have changed. But according to the classical political economists, at least in the simple case for which Ricardo’s labor theory of value works, the quantity of labor embodied in the two commodities is unchanged, for equals have exchanged for equals. This embodied labor, this abstract socially necessary labor as Marx would put it, is the substance of commodities, it is what the capitalist cares about in his effort to make a fair and equal exchange in the market.


The classical political economists believed that what takes place in the church is mysterious, magical, supernatural, inexplicable by ordinary reason, and they also believe that what takes place in the marketplace is ordinary, transparent, comprehensible, and utterly un-mysterious.


But, Marx says, what happens in the marketplace is merely the inversion of what happens in the church.  In the church, the substance changes and the accidents remain the same whereas in the marketplace the substance remains the same and the accidents change. If what happens in the church is mysterious then so must be what happens in the marketplace. This is, in my personal opinion, a stunningly brilliant move by Marx to force his readers to recognize that capitalism requires a deep, penetrating, demystifying account.


LFC said...

Thank you for the clarification. (I messed this up, for lack of a better phrase, in the previous comment thread. If I were Catholic and/or knew more about Catholic or more generally Christian doctrine, I probably wouldn't have. Or if I had remembered the relevant passage in Marx. Luckily no one is grading my comments, b.c that particular one was probably a D or an F.)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I do not find Marx’s analogy of the barter of goods to being the reverse of transubstantiation. It is a circular argument, predicated on the assumption that what is being exchanged is the amount of labor which went into the production of the bartered goods. But this is not what happened in the bartering culture. When one merchant wanted to exchange his/her iron for another merchant’s wheat, they did not sit down and calculate how much labor went into production of the respective commodities and attempt to make the exchange equal in labor. One merchant says I will give you x amount of iron for y amount of your wheat. The wheat merchant may either accept the offer, or insist that s/he wants for iron for the amount of wheat offered. Different merchants may reach different bargains exchanging the same commodities.

The iron labor does not somehow magically transmogrify into the wheat labor. Nor is there any change in the substance or attributes of either the iron or the wheat. The substance and attributes of the iron and the substance and attributes of the wheat stay the same after the exchange as they did before the exchange. Unlike transubstantiation, nothing “changes”; it is merely an exchange of one product with certain substance and attributes with another product with different substance and attributes.

Marx’s assumption that the attributes in question are the amount of labor which went into the production of each is an invention of his own making – amounts of labor are not being exchanged. Therefore, Marx is assuming what he is seeking to prove – that the people involved in the exchange seek to exchange amounts of labor – they do not, therefore Marx’s argument is circular.

This is a far cry from what is claimed happens during transubstantiation, a truly miraculous occurrence. The exchange of goods is not an exchange of amounts of labor, and there is nothing miraculous about it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Anonymous, you have not understood a single word that I wrote. There are times when I despair

F Lengyel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

No evidence of a bartering culture? Really?

“The history of bartering dates all the way back to 6000 BC. Introduced by Mesopotamia tribes, bartering was adopted by Phoenicians. Phoenicians bartered goods to those located in various other cities across oceans. Babylonian’s also developed an improved bartering system. Goods were exchanged for food, tea, weapons, and spices. At times, human skulls were used as well. Salt was another popular item exchanged. Salt was so valuable that Roman soldiers’ salaries were paid with it. In the Middle Ages, Europeans traveled around the globe to barter crafts and furs in exchange for silks and perfumes. Colonial Americans exchanged musket balls, deer skins, and wheat. When money was invented, bartering did not end, it become more organized.

“Due to lack of money, bartering became popular in the 1930s during the Great Depression. It was used to obtain food and various other services. It was done through groups or between people who acted similar to banks. If any items were sold, the owner would receive credit and the buyer’s account would be debited.”,on%20this%20type%2

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Prof. Wolff, but I fail to see the point you are making which you claim I miscomprehend.

In the case of transubstantiation, the priest gives the wine and the wafer to a single individual, and somehow, miraculously, in that individual, as s/he imbibes the wine and digests the wafer, they turn into the blood and body of Christ – within that individual.

In the exchange of the iron for the wheat, the iron has its substance and its accidents; as does the wheat. The substance and accidents of the iron are not the same as the substance and accidents of the wheat. When the iron is exchanged by one merchant with the wheat of another merchant, the substance and accident of neither changes. They are just exchanged between two different individuals. Ricardo claims that the labor which was invested in creating the different commodities stays the same. But that presumes that the merchants calculated the amount of labor which was invested in each commodity before the exchange. But this is not what happens. There is no calculation of the respective amounts of labor.

Marx’s comparison of the exchange of commodities with transubstantiation is entirely exaggerated and provides no significant insight to what is occurring during the exchange of commodities.

Packing and Moving Company said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
LFC said...

Marx wasn't talking about barter.

The main point is not difficult. As the post points out, Marx is making a criticism of classical political economists. On the one hand, they propounded a labor theory of value. On the other hand, they denied that there was anything mysterious about exchange of commodities in the marketplace. But if the Ricardian labor theory of value is correct, there *is* something rather mysterious about market exchange of commodities. So the classical political economists are caught in a contradiction: either their labor theory of value is wrong, or their view of market exchange as un-mysterious is wrong. Marx says it's the latter: their view of market exchange as un-mysterious and "transparent" is wrong.

Michael said...

(A late reaction to the initial exchange between Anonymous and Prof. Wolff - several comments came in while I was typing it!) -

Prof. Wolff's post doesn't seem unclear at all; I think Anonymous read it excessively quickly and with excessive eagerness to score some points against Marx. Here's how I took it, in a sort-of dialogue form:

CPEs (classical political economists): "The exchange of commodities in the marketplace is unmysterious; it poses no problem for those who believe that capitalism makes rational sense (including us CPEs). Incidentally, transubstantiation is mysterious, which poses a problem for those who believe in transubstantiation (Catholic Christians)."

Marx: "Yes to transubstantiation being mysterious and to this being a problem for Christians. No to MA (marketplace activity) as understood by CPEs being unmysterious and rationally transparent.
"In fact, CPEs logically ought to say MA is the opposite, since (i) CPEs consider transubstantiation mysterious and (ii) transubstantiation is of essentially similar character to MA as understood by CPEs.
"If the Catholics' idea of transubstantiation is a mystification, then (as CPEs fail to realize) the CPEs' account of MA is also a mystification, for essentially similar reasons."

(Of course Marx has to have put this all more elegantly and wittily - I haven't read him, just some commentary here and there, including some of Prof. Wolff's here.)

And Marx I think would flesh out point (ii) as follows (I might screw this up!):

According to Catholics, transubstantiation is an event in which a certain substance (a wafer) transforms into another (Christ), and does so despite retaining every appearance of a wafer. CPEs rightly regard Catholics with suspicion on this point.

But according to CPEs, the exchange of commodities in the marketplace is an event in which certain observable objects (e.g. linen and wheat), ostensibly affording little or no immediately tangible basis of comparison, play the role nonetheless of equal, identical embodiments of a more basic "substance" (namely the quantity of labor that produced them). And CPEs do not regard this description with suspicion; they take it to be rationally transparent.

Marx points out that the descriptions of transubstantiation and of marketplace activity (as CPEs understand it) are equally guilty of mystification, because the basic difference between the two descriptions - a mere inversion of sorts - is negligible (self-identical accidents concealing a transforming substance, versus non-identical accidents concealing a single, self-identical substance).

So it'd be very wide of the mark to say, in effect, "Marx is wrong because marketplace activity is not as CPEs describe it."

Anonymous said...


It does not follow form the fact that the classical labor theory of value is erroneous – that the commodities exchanged in the market-place do not necessarily have the same amount of labor invested in their production – doe not entail that something “mysterious” is occurring. The basis of the exchange is not the equivalence of labor, but the mutual needs of the merchants, which has no basis in the equivalence of the value. There is nothing mysterious in the fact that merchant A is willing to exchange 2 bushels of wheat for 1 kilo of iron, whereas merchant B demands that s/he be provided 2 kilos of iron for 2 bushels of wheat. It is a matter of supply and demand, and the mutual needs of different merchants. What is “mysterious” about the fact that different merchants would have different needs and demands?

LFC said...

You are totally missing the point. Please re-read my comment, very slowly. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Michael and LFC (and I have re-read your comment very slowly),

It does not follow from the fact that the classical economists who propounded the labor theory of value and simultaneously maintained that the interactions in the marketplace are not mysterious, and certainly not as mysterious as transubstantiation, that if the classical economists are mistaken about the labor theory of value that therefore the transactions in the marketplace must be mysterious, and as mysterious as transubstantiation. This is basic logic. If philosopher P maintains that if L then not-M, it must follow then that if not-L, it must be M. This is the classic logical error of denying the antecedent.

The fact that not-L is true, does not entail that there are no other explanations for the dynamic which are not-M, in this case the different needs and demands of different merchants.

LFC said...

You've got it exactly backwards.

If the labor theory of value is CORRECT, then the marketplace exchange of commodities IS mysterious, or at least has an element of mystery.

If the labor theory of value is WRONG, then the marketplace exchange of commodities is NOT mysterious.

What you can't do, Marx argued, is maintain BOTH that the labor theory of value is correct and that the exchange of commodities is un-mysterious. That's what the classical political economists did.

Marx held to the first option: labor theory of value correct, market exchange mysterious.

This is v schematic and oversimplified, but that seems to be what's necessary here.

Anonymous said...

LFC, you wrote: “[I]f the Ricardian labor theory of value is correct, there *is* something rather mysterious about market exchange of commodities. So the classical political economists are caught in a contradiction: either their labor theory of value is wrong, or their view of market exchange as un-mysterious is wrong. Marx says it's the latter: their view of market exchange as un-mysterious and ‘transparent’ is wrong.”

But if the Ricardian labor theory of value is correct, that in the exchange of commodities between merchants, they justify the exchange because each is exchanging commodities which have an equal labor value, i.e., the same amount of physical or mental labor went into producing each, then there is in fact nothing “mysterious about market exchange of commodities.” It is Marx’s insistence that there is something mysterious in the exchange as postulated by the Ricardian labor theory of value.

Now you write: “If the labor theory of value is CORRECT, then the marketplace exchange of commodities IS mysterious, or at least has an element of mystery.” What’s mysterious about it, if it is predicated on the premise that in all such exchanges equal labor values are being exchanged for equal labor values. The fact that this premise is highly unlikely does not now make the exchange “mysterious, or at least has an element of mystery.” What is the mystery, if in fact commodities with different labor values are consensually being exchanged between different merchants with different needs and demands?

You then state: “What you can't do, Marx argued, is maintain BOTH that the labor theory of value is correct and that the exchange of commodities is un-mysterious. That's what the classical political economists did.” So Marx denies the proposition “If L, then not-M.” He prefers, “If L, then M” and “If not-L, then M,” i.e., that the exchange of commodities is per se mysterious. But from what does Marx derive these propositions? As I stated above, his argument is circular, because he is assuming what he is seeking to prove.

Jerry Brown said...

I think Marx is talking about a monetary economy- not barter exchange. Sure barter happens occasionally but it is a very rare factory owner who would be paying employees with a percentage of the finished product rather than money. Adam Smith's pin factory did not have workers who made 100 pins a day in exchange for fifty pins a day. The goal of the capitalist is to produce something in exchange for more money than they started with. Talking about actual barter misses the point of capitalism.

Anonymous said...

Jerry Brown,

I used bartering because that was the context in which the claim of transubstantiation was presented – wheat for iron.

But how does switching to a monetary economy enhance the phenomenon of transubstantiation and its mystery as applying to the dynamic? Where is the transubstantiation, where is the mystery? I acknowledge that there is unfairness in the exchange as between different employers, but there is no transubstantiation and no mystery. Employer A pays his/her workers x dollars for each piece of work produced by an employee, or for each hour of labor provided by the employee. Another employer pays more, or less, for the same piece of work or hour of labor. There may be exploitation involved in this exchange, but where is the mysterious transubstantiation? Is the labor somehow transmogrifying into currency? How is it different form one merchant bartering his/her 1 bushel of wheat for 1 kilo of iron, whereas another merchant demands 2 kilos of iron for the same bushel of wheat? If there is a difference it is in the fact that the employer owns the means of production and thereby has leverage over the worker. But this exploitation has nothing to do with some mysterious transubstantiation.

Acastos said...

RPW's original post depends on the following point:

A: In transubstantiation, the "accidents" remain the same while the "substance" changes.

B: In classical labor theory, the "substance" remains the same while the "accidents" change.

The classical political economists are supposed to believe that A is "mysterious, magical, supernatural, inexplicable by ordinary reason", while B is ""ordinary, transparent, comprehensible, and utterly un-mysterious".

Marx is supposed to have pulled off a "a stunningly brilliant move ... to force his readers to recognize that capitalism requires a deep, penetrating, demystifying account" by "noticing" that if A is mysterious, then B, its inverse, is just as mysterious.

But that's wrong. Accidents depend on substance, but substance doesn't depend accidents - as Descartes very clearly presupposed in his discussion of the piece of wax in the 2nd Meditation. Hence, transubstantiation is indeed totally mysterious, while classical labor theory, at least in this respect, is the merest common sense.

There's nothing "brilliant" in Marx's ignorance of basic metaphysics, and nothing to force me (or indeed any educated person) to "recognize that capitalism requires a deep, penetrating, demystifying account" - just some acquaintance with elementary metaphysical distinctions.

Anonymous said...



Jerry Brown said...

Well I don't know. But adding the step where you transform the finished product back into money rather than using the product to barter with for other finished goods or services at the very least adds a step to the process. There is a also some mystery about why people desire money when you can't eat it or wear it or live in it. Many economists just assume money was developed only to make barter transaction easier by avoiding the necessity of finding a coincidence of wants for the products between traders. I think that idea of money is over simplified to the point of being wrong. So I don't know why the Professor framed this discussion as capitalists exchanging one commodity for another (linen for wheat etc.). That is not what capitalists do- they desire money and not only so that they can increase their own personal consumption of goods.

Maybe Marx framed it that way also. In which case he was also wrong.

AnonymAss said...

Disagreed. The contrast between the invariant accidents and changing substance of transubstantiation with the invariant substance (labor value) and changing attributes of commodity exchange is a literary device, intended to invite the reader to entertain Marx's critique of capitalism. Taking issue with the (false) labor theory of value or whether the analogy withstands the most exacting tests of metaphorical rigor is unimaginative and desperately beside the point.

Michael said...

Replying to Acostos:

I think I could meet you halfway. Marx's analogy is clever and provocative, but not metaphysically airtight. It need not be airtight, IMO, to be insightful; and Prof. Wolff wouldn't be unreasonable to consider it a brilliant piece of rhetoric (as distinct from a strict metaphysical demonstration), though opinions may vary.

Still, to nitpick a little, I don't think Marx falls as short of philosophical brilliance (or at minimum, insight) as he seems to in your comment.

I haven't looked at Descartes in a while, but am I wrong to find it unlikely that the classical political economists (insofar as they may incline to metaphysical reflection) would take his metaphysics as especially plausible here, let alone authoritative? Without having studied these people particularly deeply or particularly recently, I would guess that the CPEs overall have more in common philosophically with British empiricism; and isn't that a tradition that would have little sympathy with Descartes's belief that our intellect apprehends the wax itself as a material substance underlying the accidents (the wax's color, odor, etc.) that present themselves to our senses?

Off the top of my head, I'd think of the CPEs as philosophical relatives of Locke, Hume, J.S. Mill, etc. (isn't Mill himself counted among the CPEs?) - who tend to think that our experience attests unproblematically to the existence of sensory "accidents," whereas our belief in independent, underlying material substance is more doubtful and confused.

If this is on the right track (and I'm not totally confident that it is), then maybe Marx wouldn't be badly mistaken to contend that the CPEs, given their presumed reservations with transubstantiation, should have similar reservations with the idea that one and the same unchanging "substance" (i.e. a certain quantity of value as determined by a certain quantity of labor) simultaneously underlies a certain quantity of wheat and a certain quantity of linen. Moreover, that the piece of wax, being a single, self-same piece of wax, is one unchanging substance grounding a variety of accidental changes - this idea looks to me less mysterious from the commonsense standpoint than the idea of one unchanging substance underlying two apparently independent and mutually distinct entities (a collection of wheat and a collection of linen). Granted, the latter would still seem less mysterious than transubstantiation.

Anywho, just an attempt to acknowledge your point and meet you halfway.

Anonymous said...


A charming literary device intended to engage the imagination of a reader is not a substitute for valid logical analysis or empirical evidence, and the two should not be conflated.

AnonymAss said...


Then stop conflating them.

Anonymous said...


I am not conflating them. You and those who contend that Marx’s reference to transubstantiation constitutes a revelatory reflection on economics, the labor theory of value and capitalism are.

“That the glass would melt in heat,
That the water would freeze in cold,
Shows that this object is merely a state,
One of many, between two poles. So,
In the metaphysical, there are these poles.

“Here in the centre stands the glass.
Light is the lion that comes down to drink. There
And in that state, the glass is a pool.
Ruddy are his eyes and ruddy are his claws.
When light comes down to wet his frothy jaws.”

Wallace Stevens

A charming literary device, to be sure, but it would hardly suffice to prove
that a lion drinking at a pool of water and the light which illuminates the pool
of water are one and the same.

AnonymAss said...

Anonymous, I wrote that it was a literary device serving as an invitation. Your attempt to mischaracterize that statement as "a substitute for valid logical analysis or empirical evidence" can fairly be called fatuous.

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