Marx's theory of money

Alberto da Veiga Guignard, Landscape in the Park, oil on wood, 53,5 cm x 65,5 cm, 1947.


Preface to the homonymous book by Isaak Illich Rubin

The more the capitalist mode of production develops and reaches all spaces, occupies all time and determines all existence (human or otherwise), the more enigmatic seems to be the understanding of its true mode of functioning. The exploitation of human labor by the bourgeoisie in the capitalist production process, which, at its inception, was evident and presented itself as a naked and raw reality, became increasingly complex and covered by a thick veil of reified everyday life, making it difficult to apprehension of the essence of this reality. Since the publication of the first book by The capital, in 1867, this reality was wide open for human understanding, but the class struggle and the struggle for life contributed to the scientific discoveries revealed by Marx being relegated to some Marxist scholars and communist militants.

Marx produced Capital as a theoretical weapon in the struggle of the proletariat to achieve human emancipation. Without understanding reality, it is impossible to change it, except that this teaching was brilliantly appropriated by the bourgeoisie, who worked tirelessly to produce all kinds of “theories” that would impede this understanding. Less than a decade after the publication of the first book by The capital – therefore, even before the publication of the other two books – the currently well-known Austrian School was consolidated. The success of this school lies in refuting, within the canons of science at the service of the dominant classes, the theory of value based on human work, since, explaining the form of human existence, under the capitalist mode of production, anchored in the exploitation of the job is to provide a powerful weapon to the working class. And this has to be blocked at any cost.

Positivism played an important role in the consolidation of the Austrian School, not only because it established the limits on which each science should deal – which eliminates totality as a scientific requirement – ​​but mainly because it refuted problematization as a scientific procedure. By arguing that humanity moved from theological to metaphysical knowledge and, from the latter, culminated in its final form, positive thinking, everything that is related to the investigation of the causes of a phenomenon is referred to metaphysics, or to normative thinking, and not scientific. Thus, it is not up to the scientist to ask why, problematize, investigate the causes of a phenomenon relegating all this investigation to metaphysics, already outdated by positive thinking. In this methodological perspective, the scientist has to discover the natural and immutable laws of the phenomena for pragmatic use, knowledge is restricted to how the phenomena work.

On the path of positivism and with the growing consideration that scientific knowledge must be quantifiable, the Austrian School establishes the guidelines of what research in the field of economics should be. Mathematization imposes itself as a scientific instrument for the expression of this science and, already in the XNUMXth century, empiricism provided the acceptable bases for this type of investigation.

In a text from 1926, Issak Rubin points out: “It was in the 1870s that the works [of the Austrian School] appeared almost simultaneously, by Carl Menger. [William Stanley] Jevons and Léon Walras, the founders of the new school, among whom Menger developed more deeply the psychological foundation of the theory and Walras the mathematics. During the 1880s, [Friedrich von] Wieser and [Eugen von] Böhm-Bawerk, students of Menger (all three of whom lived in Austria), elaborated in detail on psychological theory, which is also often referred to as Austrian theory. At the end of the 2017th century, it became widespread in bourgeois university science in almost all countries of the world” (in DAY & GAIDO, 430, p. XNUMX – my translation).

With the mathematization of economics and the restrictions on the scope of its research, the Austrian School imposes the bases on which it considers itself “scientific” in this area of ​​knowledge, ignoring the contributions of the classics (Adam Smith, David Ricardo) in the investigations about the causes of phenomena - it is worth remembering here that Adam Smith's most important work in the area is entitled An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, but it was summarized to wealth of nations. This school appropriates discoveries, such as market mechanisms (the invisible hand), the defense of liberalism, the restriction on the role of the State, present in the works of the classics, and ignores their contributions to the theory of value.

In the Austrian School, “mathematical theory […] begins with the phenomena of developed exchanges and studies the correlation between the quantity of goods and their objective market price. Ignoring the question of the final cause of changes in prices (i.e. the problem of value), this theory restricts itself to investigating the functional dependence between the level of market prices and the quantity of goods (the laws of supply and demand). . The resulting mathematical "formulas of exchange" are also applied to the phenomena of production and distribution, thus restricting the entire scope of economics to a study of quantitative changes in the market price. (Rubin, [1926], in DAY & GAIDO, 2017, p. 431).

However, in addition to mathematization and the narrow margin that economic science imposes on itself from there, another methodological imposition has a deeper meaning, that is, the psychologization of human behavior taken as ahistorical and potentialized to the condition of “natural nature”. human”. Enlightenment rationalism supports the psychologization of the economy to the extent that agents determine, based on the maximization of their desires, the quantity of goods they wish to acquire on the market. Thus, rational choices and the market mechanism are the only tools for determining the value of commodities.

Marginal utility theory presented itself as the final word in economics – a universal principle of choice, rooted in human psychology, which was based on a single fundamental premise: the “value” of any good derives exclusively from its ability to satisfy a certain need. human need. A good that is abundant will be used in less important ways and therefore will have a lower price; on the other hand, a scarce good will fetch a higher price because it will satisfy higher priority needs. The more an individual owns a good, the less he will value the next, or marginal, unit. Value, in this case, becomes nothing more than price, and price has no objective anchorage in a single determinant – the expenditure of living labor and the labor embodied in the forms of fixed and circulating capital.

The supposed immutable psychological “nature” of man starts to serve as a starting point for theoretical research and as an argument for the impossibility of a socialist economy. “Psychological theory begins with the motivation of a separate individual, living under conditions of a natural economy; sees the ultimate cause of changes in the price and value of a good in the individual's subjective evaluations, which vary in response to the quantity of goods he has at his disposal”. (Rubin, [1926], in DAY & GAIDO, 2017, p. 431).

Rubin discards, from the beginning, any attempt to analyze the economy from individual-psychological questions and shows great mastery over the dialectical method and the work of the researcher/scientist. By stating that Marx does not start from a simple economy in which exchanges take place between two products of labor only, but from a fully developed market economy, in which goods are produced for the market and not to order, to satisfy needs, needs of a consumer, Rubin excludes, from within Marxist theory, the possibility that exchanges, in the capitalist economy, are based on the utility of the commodity: “If it were a question of the occasional exchange of two products in natural form, then [… there would be] reason that this type of exchange could be regulated by the individual needs of the people involved and by their subjective assessment of the relative utility of the products” (Rubin, 2020).

But this is not the case. The capitalist economy appears in its complete form insofar as commodities are produced for the market and their values ​​are expressed in the relation of each commodity to all others, and not from the comparison of just two products of labor. For the understanding of the theory of money, this approach is very important, since money is not only a historical result of the development of exchanges, but fundamentally derived from the commodity form.

The difficult paths of Marxist economic theory

Throughout the twentieth century, the most varied types of Marxists, as well as non-Marxist economists, have focused on The capital for your further understanding or refutation, as the case may be. The first three chapters, or section I, have always been presented, and it is still the case today, as the most difficult and the source of all sorts of confusion, affirmation of principles and attempts to refute Marx's theory that unveils capitalism.

From quite simplistic confusions – such as the assertion that Marx develops the concept of abstract work intuitively, as he could not have a real idea of ​​abstract work, since this only really emerged with the passage from “industrial capitalism” to “industry capitalism”. service society” –, to Louis Althusser’s profound critique of the content, or unsurpassed influence of Hegel, both in terms of vocabulary and theory of fetishism (Althusser, 2013).

There are also those who, due to a positivist vice, read Marx's work as a factual historical overview, in which the first chapter would present the facts that occurred first (therefore, already outdated), following, chronologically, the entire work until reaching , in Book III, on capitalism with its various “spheres of capital” (commercial capital, industrial-productive capital, finance capital).

On this aspect, the warning presented by Saad Filho is important: “Although Marx often makes use of historical studies to explain complex theoretical arguments or to trace the evolution of important analytical categories, the only mode of production that he systematically analyzes in The capital it is capitalism” (2011, p. 46).

The confusions are many and derive from varied factors, from the bad faith and ideological need of the bourgeoisie to refute this work, to the theoretical shortcomings of well-intentioned readers. Galbraith (1987), one of the most influential “heterodox” economists, at the same time imputing to Marx a lot of absolutely wrong concepts, tries to protect himself from criticism by stating that Marx was right only to analyze the economy of his time, but he is outdated .

In addition, as he considers Marxism a religious dogma, he claims that this current of thought disqualifies opponents by stating that they did not understand the complexity of Marx's arguments. It is worth saying that, despite the complexity and difficulty that every Marxist recognizes, it is not difficult to point out the aberrations that Galbraith attributes to Marx and the common sense present in his argument, such as, for example, the statement that Marx's historical materialism is “ the economic motivation” behind historical events!

I will not make here an exegesis of the problems of understanding The capital, even though this is not the purpose of this text,[1] I just listed – and, therefore, I agree that there are – some levels of difficulty. In large part, the misunderstandings and criticisms are related to the theory of value, mainly due to its revolutionary content, since the discovery of the specific form of capitalist exploitation in unpaid work depends on the understanding that the production of merchandise has as its purpose the production of value , but that this same commodity is a useful object, use value. For the neoclassical economic theory and the mystification of the real functioning of capitalism, the merchandise is just a useful object and this quality transforms it into an object of desire that is valued in the market, by consumers avid for it.

However, in the first chapter of Book I, Marx goes beyond what had already been explained by the Classics with regard to the theory of value and which set out to investigate the measure and substance of value. He himself recognizes: “It is true that political economy has analyzed, even if incompletely, value and the magnitude of value and has revealed the content that is hidden in these forms. But she never even asked the following question: why does this content take that form, and why, therefore, is labor represented in the value and measure of labor, through its temporal duration, in the magnitude of the product of labor? (Marx, 2013, pp. 154-155).

With the discovery of the “secret” of the commodity in its fetishistic character, the limits of that “bourgeois consciousness” were surpassed, which did not allow the Classics to apprehend that the value-form of the commodity only appears in a specific “social formation in which the production process dominates men, and not men the production process” (Marx, 2013, p. 156).

However, chapters two and three are also confusing, or at least rushed readings. The exchange process and money can be, and often are, also read as a historical evolution of human development, or as a manual on the functions of money. At the same time that he believed he had written a work to boost the workers' struggle for their emancipation, therefore, at the level of his understanding, Marx warns in the afterword of the second edition of Book I (published in 1873) that, in the first place, it is It is important to differentiate the method of analysis from the method of exposition: “The investigation has to appropriate the matter [Cloth] in its details, analyze its different forms of development and trace its internal nexus. Only after completing such work can the movement of reality be adequately exposed. If that is how the movement of the real can be adequately exposed. If this is successfully accomplished, and if the life of matter is now ideally reflected, the observer may have the impression of finding himself in front of a construction beforehand” (Marx, 2013, p. 90).

Therefore, it is always good to remind the reader of The capital that, not only the Hegelian “slipped” of Marx in stating that every beginning of a science is difficult, as Althusser (2013) warns, but mainly that the structure of the work also comprises a methodological lesson. In his exposition, he starts from the most abstract level to the most concrete; from the most conceptual level to reach the conjunctural, historical level, since “every science rests on its own theory” and that “this theory indispensable to every science [...] is a system of basic scientific concepts” (Althusser, 2013, p. . 42), the reader has to be prepared to face a high level of abstraction in the apprehension of concepts, and not consider the exhibition as a historical-concrete example of reality.

However, if the concept is an abstraction and for science to have validity as science – and not just be a collection of ideas that aim to cover up reality, “[…] abstract concepts designate really existing realities. What makes abstraction scientific is precisely the fact that it designates a concrete reality that really exists [...] but, in reality, terribly concrete due to the object it designates” (Althusser, 2013, p. 42).

Marx's theory of money, by Isaak Rubin, is a fundamental contribution to the reading of The capital of Marx, but also for understanding the final development of capitalism and its crisis that we are experiencing today. Written between 1923 and 1928, the text was only published for the first time in 2011. To this day we have prints in Russian, German, English and now in Portuguese. Despite being an unfinished text that did not have the final finish for printing, this work deserves to be studied carefully.

Rubin is (little) known among us for his contribution to the understanding of the theory of value, with the publication, in 1980, of his book The Marxist Theory of Value, in which, still in the introduction, he warns that “the ultimate objective of science is to understand the capitalist economy as a whole, as a specific system of productive forces and relations of production among people” (Rubin, 1980, p. 14). Thus, in the same scientific path inaugurated by Marx, Rubin seeks to expose the “internal links” of the social processes that are established in capitalist society present in Marx's work.

However, these “internal links” cannot be achieved by compartmentalizing science into its technical-material aspects, on the one hand, and the social aspects, on the other: “Political Economy is not a science of relations between things, as common economists thought, nor of the relations between people and things, as stated by the theory of marginal utility, but of relations between people in the production process. (Rubin, 1980, p. 15).

Deep knowledge of the work of the classics of Political Economy, as can be seen in his book History of economic thinking (Rubin, 2014), as well as the schools of economic thought that developed until the beginning of the XNUMXth century, this Marxist transits with great competence through the economic concepts that are presented by Marx in The capital. Therefore, the relevance of Marx's theory of money.

Money in Marx: theories and controversies

Just as the Marxist theory of value raises controversy and different interpretations even within the Marxist field (Saad Filho, 2011), Marx's theory of money causes even more scathing confusion (Prado, 2016). As we pointed out above, Marx's work is not easy to understand, even more so because it is the result of a brilliant mind that masterfully dealt with the dialectical method. He thus presented The capital, the logical development of this mode of production, but at all times it brings historical references. Saad Filho (2011) draws attention to two main interpretations of the Marxist theory of value, the traditional one and the value form theory, developed mainly by Rubin (1980). Similarly, Prado (2016) observes the mistakes of Marxists who consider that, in Marx's theory of money, money is always a physical commodity.

Both in the first criticism and in the second, we can highlight that the limits of interpretations come up against methodological limits. Any attempt to transform the dialectical method into a formal model of procedures to be adopted in investigation represents, namely, the formalization of dialectics, therefore, its destruction.

As is known, the dialectical method is not a formula that is applied from outside to the object of study; it is the object, in its movement, that presents its history and its dialectical contradictions: “Because the Marxist method, as we know, is internal to the object; it does not impose a pre-established logical character on what it wants to apprehend conceptually, but respects the way it is and how it changes in the very formation of concepts” (Prado, 2016, p. 15).

Em Marx's theory of money, Rubin emphasizes, at all times, the logical need to apprehend the concepts and demonstrates it with passages extracted from Marx's main economic works, whether from The capital, For the critique of political economy, Salary, price and profit and Theories of surplus value. However, Rubin is not just a reviewer, he is also a theorist and brings to the surface of current knowledge all the richness of Marx's work on the theory of money from the derivation of the commodity form and the value form.

If “it is only to the extent [in] that the production process acquires the form of commodity production, that is, production based on exchange, that labor acquires the form of abstract labor and the products of labor acquire the form of value” ( Rubin, 1980, p. 165).

It will also be, for him, the double character of the commodity, between use value and value, from which the need for money derives: “As use value, every commodity is one of the elements of material metabolism in society, of the movement of all the material things. As an exchange value, it gives the producer I the possibility of entering into a production relationship with another producer. From this dual nature of the commodity, then, Marx also derived the need for money. But we already know that this double nature of the commodity represents nothing more than an expression of the double nature of exchange itself, in which production relations between people are created by the exchange of things” (Rubin, 2020).

Marx's theory of money it is not a finished text, therefore, it is interrupted before the development of the money form into credit, capital, etc. However, just as Marx's theory of value (1980) provided a great advance in the interpretation of Marxist theory, this book also represents the fruitful collaboration of a perceptive author and deep connoisseur of Marx's economic theory.

*Sofia Manzano is a professor of economics at the State University of Southwest Bahia (UESB) and author of the book Political economy for workers (Instituto Caio Prado Jr.).


Isaac Illich Rubin. Marx's theory of money. Translation: Tiago Camarinha Lopes. São Paulo, Instituto Caio Prado Jr., 2020, 180 pages.

Cited Works

Althusser, L. Warning to readers of Book I of Capital. Trans. Celso N. Kashiura Jr. and Márcio B. Naves. In Marx, K. Marx, K. The capital. “Critique of political economy”. Trans. Rubens Enderle. Book I. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013.

Galbraith, JK the affluent society. Trans. Carlos Afonso Malferrari. São Paulo: Pioneer, 1987.

Marx, K. The capital. “Critique of political economy”. Trans. Rubens Enderle. Book I. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013.

Meadow. EFS “From 'gold Money to fictitions money”. In Brazilian Journal of Political Economy, vol. 36, nº 1 (142), pp. 14-28, Mar./Jun., 2016.

rubin, II The Marxist Theory of Value. Trans. José Bonifácio de S. Amaral Filho. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1980.

______ [1926]. “The Austrian School”. In Day, RB & Gaido, DF Responses to Marx's Capital. From Rudolf Hilferding to Isaak Illich Rubin. Leiden: Historical Materialism, 2017.

______ History of economic thinking. Trans. Rubens Enderle. Rio de Janeiro: Editora da UFRJ, 2014.

Saad Filho, A. Marx's value. “Political economy for contemporary capitalism”. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 2011.


[1] An important contribution on the difficulties and ways of reading The capital can be found in Althusser (2013).

See this link for all articles