On Value Theory and the Current Left Debate



Considerations on the controversy between two Marxist theorists, David Harvey and Michael Roberts

To Mario Duayer (in memoriam)

At the beginning of the XNUMXst century, progressive and leftist thought, especially that of Marxist inspiration, sees the intensification of a debate that opposes, on the one hand, the traditional agenda of class struggle (workers x capitalists) and, on the other, the so-called “identity agendas”, which will focus on the oppression suffered by specific groups (women, non-whites, non-heteronormatives, etc.) and which, not infrequently, are accompanied by a discussion of growing environmental degradation.

In March 2018, the famous English Marxist David Harvey published a provocative article on his blog entitled “Marx’s Rejection of the Labor Theory of Value”,[1] provocation quickly responded to by another English Marxist, Michael Roberts, in his own blog,[2] such a response earned a rejoinder from Harvey, welcomed by Roberts in the same space. What does one thing have to do with the other?

In last year's winter issue (n.o 34), the journal of socialist studies October set up a dossier on the aforementioned dispute over value, inviting Brazilian Marxists to comment on the debate. Thus, the dossier came out with five texts: Harvey's original plus rejoinder and rejoinder, a text by professors Eleutério Prado (USP) and José Paulo G. Pinto (UFABC) and one more by professors Mario Duayer (UFF) and Paulo Henrique F. .de Araújo (UFF).

Mario Duayer, a four-backed Marxist, a refined reader of Marx, a translator of floorplans for the Brazilian edition launched by Boitempo in 2011, a great teacher and a great human figure, left us in January of this year, taken by covid. In the declined dossier, it is precisely his text that establishes the connection between the two themes mentioned above. I take advantage of the good initiative of October to, with this article, pay my tribute to Professor Duayer, who disappeared prematurely along with more than half a million Brazilians thanks to the negligence and criminal omission of a government for which we no longer have adjectives.

The two sides in the interpretation of value theory

David Harvey's provocation begins with the observation that Marx is not the heir, as many people think, of the Ricardian labor theory of value and recalls that, when he touches on the subject, Marx always speaks of "theory of value", not of "theory of value". labor value”. This is because, in his reading, value has an objective existence, but it is immaterial, not existing without money, which is its representation. The latter, in turn, only fully exists when it circulates as capital, so that it is only then “that the conditions are consolidated for the characteristic value form of capital to be constituted as a regulatory norm” (p.14).

In other words, there is no commercial society that is not capitalist, since what drives exchanges is the search for more value, a movement that, in turn, promotes and sustains the value form itself. The circulation of capital, however, presupposes the existence of the commodity labor force and it is mainly where work enters the story, since according to our author, “the formulation of value in the first chapter of The capital it is revolutionized by what comes next” (p.17-18).

Thus, for Harvey, what Marx was looking for, unlike David Ricardo, was not a theory that would provide a basis to explain prices (this basis would be in the work), but a theory capable of explaining the consequences, for all those condemned to working for capital, of the operation of value as a norm of social regulation.

Next, Harvey will state that there is a contradictory unity between value defined in the market and value reconstructed by transformations in the work process, which is central to Marx's thought. In this way, what is at stake in the theory of value is not limited to experiences within the work process, that is, within the scope of production, but also affects everything related to social reproduction that value erected as a norm of regulation produces (and social reproduction in capitalism, as we know, even if it is not restricted to that, passes inescapably through the market).

The deteriorating conditions of social reproduction, driven by capitalist competition and its effects on the living conditions of the working class, thus constantly collide with capital's perpetual need to expand the market. In this sense, Harvey will observe, for example, that “both the raising of wages as a way of guaranteeing 'rational consumption' from the point of view of capital and the colonization of everyday life as an arena for consumerism are crucial for the theory of value” (p. 21). All of this, Harvey concludes, “is far beyond what Ricardo had in mind and is just as far removed from the conception of value that is generally attributed to Marx” (p. 22).

Reacting to the provocation, Roberts will state, right from the start, that Harvey's interpretation of Marx's theory is based on the principle that value is created/realized only in exchange (which would be heresy and would associate Marxist theory with readings of the conventional economics, which do not substantively relate work and value), even suggesting that, for him, value would be a creation of money and not, as would be correct, the monetary representation of the work spent in production.

Roberts asserts, then, that there is a reason for such a misinterpretation of Marx's theory of value. In his view, based on the principles presented by Harvey, “it will be the (effective) demand that will decide whether capitalism can accumulate regularly, without incurring crises” (p. 32). In other words, the author, with his theory of value, would be defending a “gross underconsumer theory – coarser than Keynes” (p. 36) and not what Marx proposed. Roberts' discomfort here is mainly with the fact that this type of reading does not give much importance, and even less exclusivity, to the famous and controversial law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall as a crisis inducer, a law that Roberts is enthusiastic about. defender.

Harvey doesn't do badly in his defense. He begins by clarifying that value, of course, is always created in the act of production, but it is only realized in exchange, that is, it is only potential value until the moment when its realization occurs. Hence, insufficient consumer demand could indeed be one of the causes of the crisis, along with others, such as commercial or strictly financial crises and even the famous fall in the rate of profit.[3]

For Harvey, interpretations such as that of Roberts can be considered “excluding productivists”, since they leave aside, in the history of capital accumulation, a series of other elements, indicated by Marx himself, among them, those associated with the process of creation of wills , needs and desires, with the respective emphasis on mechanisms to guarantee payment capacity (p. 44). With that, he indicates that it is also necessary to pay attention to what happens in the sphere of circulation, since several of the phenomena directly associated with production itself (the fight for the duration of the working day, the permanent impulse to technological evolution, etc.) depend on of the compulsory laws of competition, mobilized and realized in the market, and appearing at key points in Marx's argument.

Such a reading, for Harvey, requires a correct understanding of the abstraction that, for Marx, characterizes value (an understanding that, presumably, Roberts would not have). It does not stem from the fact that value is a product of thought, but rather “the product of a historical material process” which, based on the generalization of exchanges, bases its rise “as a regulatory norm operating in the market”, a norm that becomes “to dominate behaviors not only in the market itself, but also in the realms of production and social reproduction” (p. 45).

the absent dialectic

Harvey might have saved words if he had simply said that the abstraction at play here is a real abstraction. The abstract work that constitutes the substance of value is the result of daily exchanges, which uninterruptedly reduce concrete work of the most varied types and complexities to time for simple, socially necessary work.

One of Roberts' strong arguments against Harvey emerges when, in order to emphasize that the value carried by commodities is acquired by them in the production process before they reach the market, he brings up the following sentence by Marx in Chapter 4 of Book I: “ The value of commodities is expressed in their prices before they enter into circulation, being, therefore, the presupposition, and not the result of the latter” (MARX, 2013, p. 233). Here, it would help Harvey in his argument against Roberts to remember that if Marx says that value is presupposed (Prerequisite), then you are saying that the value is not set... nor will it be, because what will be set, as long as the realization (sale) occurs, is the production price. In other words, value exists as a negation.

What I mean by the last two paragraphs is that a little dialectic would help Harvey in his dispute with Roberts. Real abstraction is something that only makes sense in a world where the Kantian partition between subject and object is rejected, where it is possible to admit that reality can, as such, produce abstractions (and not just thought).[4] Likewise, in order to understand the meaning of the presupposition that constitutes value, it is necessary to admit a denied existence – which does not detract from its importance as a social form (or regulation norm, as Harvey wants it), rather the opposite.[5] The world that facilitates such transgressions is Hegel's dialectic, of capital importance in Marx's formation.[6]

But, as Prado and Pinto rightly observe, in their text in the dossier, “these two unrepentant Marxists are not good friends of the dialectic” (p. 55). This is, incidentally, the main point of his critical commentary on both Harvey's and Roberts' readings of the law of value. After mentioning several points in the texts where fragility is evident, among them the question of the real abstraction present in the position of work as a value, the authors consider, not without reason, that, with regard to crises, the two Marxists stick to causality efficient, which, “for the dialectic that comes from Hegel and Marx, is that reasoning operation that establishes external connections between phenomena” (p. 58). Thus, neither one nor the other, according to them, seem to conceive the triggering factors of crises as moments of a whole in the process of development, that is, that there is a reciprocal action anchored in the contradictory nature of the object. In short, that “the crisis, for Marx, is already present as a possibility in the contradiction between use value and value and, more precisely, in the contradiction between commodity and money” (p. 59).

Value as a form of mediation and social domination (and the revolutionary subject)

There is no doubt that pointing out the absence of dialectics is a fertile way to comment on the dispute in question, since, as already indicated, a little of it would help Harvey, for example, to defend himself from the not very well-founded criticisms that Roberts makes of him. However, the reader may justifiably wonder what all this is for, why a quarrel of an almost metaphysical profile would have any relevance beyond those involved in the debate.

This is precisely the merit of the following text of the dossier. Duayer and Araújo's objective is to show that, behind the two different readings of Marx, there are different positions regarding the current crisis of capitalism and the possibilities for transformation. According to the authors, it is the concern to identify a revolutionary subject that guides both interpretations.

In fact, in his response to Roberts, Harvey points out that, while insisting on the need to also pay attention to issues related to the circulation/realization of value, he does not want to minimize, deny or refute “all the effort that is being made regarding the work process and the importance of the class struggle that has occurred and continues to occur in the sphere of production” (p. 44). But, he goes on, such struggles need to be related to those over “realisation, distribution (e.g. rent extractions, mortgage foreclosures), social reproduction, managing the metabolic relationship to nature and the gifts of nature. culture and nature”, a set of struggles “widely represented in recent anti-capitalist movements” – which, reiterates Harvey, must be taken as seriously as “the most traditional focus of the Marxist left, favoring class struggle in the sphere of production as a key moment in the struggle” (p. 44).

In his original text, there was no mention of this, except very briefly, when, when observing that in chapter 23 of the book I Marx opens the perspective of a theory of the value of social reproduction, Harvey reminds that it was no other the target of the Marxist feminists, who would have worked assiduously over the past 40 years to construct such a theory.[7] So, it seems, Roberts' reaction made his opponent explicitly address the issue.

At this point, we already have some bricks with which to build a certain scheme (which runs the risk of being a little ridiculous, but I think it's worth it). We have, on the one hand, position 1 (by Roberts): Marx builds a labor theory of value, places labor and its exploitation at the center of the arena, placing the focus on production and deriving from there his revolutionary theory, which he attributes to to the proletarian class the role of transforming history; The contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production manifests itself fundamentally through crises resulting from the tendency for the rate of profit to fall (which is a phenomenon generated in the sphere of production).

On the other hand, we have position 2 (from Harvey): Marx builds a theory of value and demonstrates that abstract labor is its substance, but his emphasis is not on the value-labor link, but on the value form, which in capitalism is imposes as a regulatory social norm and operates through the market; it is this abstract but objective form that he places at the center of the arena, placing his focus on the contradictory unity of production and realization and therefore also considering the scope of social reproduction; thus, the role of revolutionary subject is not reduced to the proletariat, but involves all oppressed groups and the preservation of nature; Crises have multiple causes, arising from various instances (production, reproduction, market), including those derived from the process of creating wills, needs and desires, so crucial to the survival of value as a regulatory norm.

However, for Duayer and Araújo, neither Harvey's nor Roberts' interpretation manages to apprehend the historically specific nature of work in capitalism. Inspired by the famous work of Canadian historian Moishe Postone, Time, work and social domination, both argue that, as a set of various and distinct types of concrete work, “work in general” exists in all social formations, and this existence is what gives them their social function; however, the opposite occurs in capitalism, because there it is the social function of work that makes it general (p. 78).

That is to say, it is work determined by commodities that operates as the objectification of social ties, necessarily placing it as abstract and as a producer of value. For them, although Harvey's approach recalls such a reading at times, neither he nor Roberts would have realized the historical specificity of the inversion. Despite the obvious parallel between some of his arguments and Postone's interpretation,[8] say the authors, Harvey does not realize that, in Marx's exposition, value appears immediately as a form of social mediation, that is, already in section I of Book I (thus, not only with the entry into the scene of the commodity force of work in section II, as you suggest). As for Roberts, as in traditional Marxism, they guarantee, abstract work consists only of the physiological wear and tear of the labor power commodity, which occurs throughout the production process. Thus, his reading is even more distant (than Harvey's) from the conception of value as a form of social mediation.

For Duayer and Araújo, the result of these mistakes is that “the controversy between the authors cannot envisage an emancipation from the capitalist social formation, since the presumably identified subjects of emancipation will never be able to imagine a world […] without the centrality of work” ( p. 65-66). In other words, in both cases it is a question of a critique of capitalism from the point of view of work, not a critique of work in capitalism. Thus, neither in position 1, nor in position 2, is there the correct recognition that social work is not only an object of exploitation and, therefore, of domination, but, as Postone wants, it is “the essential foundation of domination” (p. . 80) – domination that goes far beyond mere class domination. It is about superior domination, operated abstractly by the value form.

While understanding the authors' criticism of both sides of the debate, it is imperative to realize that Harvey's interpretation, as they themselves recognize, is the one that comes closest to an approach that centers the core of the issue on the form of value and, therefore, understands that the class struggle must have a broad scope.

Especially in a country like Brazil, it seems to make little sense to oppose the usual confrontation between capitalists and workers against identity guidelines and the fight for environmental preservation. As Silvio Almeida demonstrates with plenty of arguments, in a 2020 book, the contradiction between a universal reason that ascends since the end of the XNUMXth century and the cycle of death and destruction produced by colonialism and slavery is only apparent, since both operate simultaneously as foundations of contemporary society. Racism is therefore structural and there is no way to get rid of it without transforming society as a whole.

The project of an Enlightenment civilization based on freedom and equality for all is the dependent variable of an “abstract” reason that moves across the globe at the pace of accumulation. The circulation of value as capital in an increasingly comprehensive and universalized way reinforces its power of mediation and dominion, and reproduces devastation and oppression. A class Sebastianism does nothing to overcome this domination of a superior type, naturalized, reified and, for that very reason, extremely powerful.

*Leda Maria Paulani is a senior professor at FEA-USP. Author, among other books, of Modernity and economic discourse (Boitempo). [https://amzn.to/3x7mw3t]


ALMEIDA, SL structural racism. São Paulo: Editora Jandaíra, 2020

DUAYER, M, and ARAÚJO, PHF Misadventures of traditional Marxism. October, n.o 34, p. 63-86, 2020

FAUSTO, R. Marx — Logic & Politics, volume II. Sao Paulo: Brasiliense, 1987

FEDERECI, S. The Patriarchy of Salary. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2021

HARVEY, D. Limits to Capital. London: Verse, 2.a edition, 2006

HARVEY, D. Marx's Rejection of the Labor Theory of Value. October, n.o 34, p. 11-24, 2020.

HARVEY, D. The Misunderstandings of Michael Roberts. October, n.o 34, p. 39-48, 2020

HEINRICH, M. Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2018

MARX, K. Capital — Book I. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013

POSTONE, M. Time, work and social domination. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2014

PRADO, EF S and PINTO, JPG On value in Marx: Harvey and Roberts. October, n.o 34, p. 49-62, 2020

ROBERTS, M. David Harvey's Misunderstanding of Marx's Law of Value. October, no. 34, p. 25-38

SCHOLZ, R. The value is the man. New Studies (Cebrap), n.o 45, 1996


[1] “Marx's refusal of the labor theory of value”. Available on the author's blog www.davidharvey.org. A Portuguese version of the article was published by the journal Left margin n.o 31, 2018, and, subsequently, by the magazine October n.o 34, of 2020/XNUMX/XNUMX.

[2] “David Harvey's misunderstanding of Marx's law of value”. Available from the author's blog thenextrecession.wordpress.com

[3] In his now classic book of 1982, Limits to Capital (London: Verso, 2006), Harvey considers several possible outlines for a theory of crises in Marx and lists unresolved questions left by him. Anyway, he suggests that one could deduce, from Book I, crises arising directly from the struggle between workers and capitalists for the appropriation of the surplus, something along the lines of profit squeeze which already tormented Ricardo; from Book II, crises of disproportion associated with the issue of effective demand; and, from Book III, crises related to the drop in the rate of profit, resulting from intercapitalist competition.

[4] Hegel would say that reality has the texture of the concept.

[5] Such reflections depart from the observations of Ruy Fausto in the essay “Dialectic and obscure meanings” (Marx — Logic & Politics, volume II).

[6] We do not ignore the existence of different readings of Marxian theory, including those that do not admit any influence of Hegel on the mature Marx. In defense of the opposite position, however, there are the words of Marx himself, for example, in the preface to the second edition of Book I of The capital. The qualified biography of Marx written by the German political scientist Michael Heinrich (Boitempo, 2018) based on completely new research, based on the use of unpublished materials within the scope of the Mega edition (German acronym for the edition of the complete works of Marx and Engels) , adds new elements to the understanding of Hegel's importance. Heinrich presents, through the words of Marx himself, the enormous impact that the works of the philosopher of Phenomenology of Spirit exerted on the young revolutionary, the fight he waged with himself to try to defeat this “enemy” (the word is his). After reading these pages, it is difficult to ignore Hegel's shadow in the materialist Marx.

[7] Indeed, if we take the works of, for example, Roswhita Scholz or Silvia Federici, we will see that Harvey is right to make the association. The first, in an article from 1996, recalls that not all human activities responsible for the material production of social life are liable to be subordinated to the form of value, and that since the tasks that resist this submission (care for the home, raising children etc.) essential to social reproduction, it was necessary to guarantee its execution, so that the woman separated from the public sphere was imposed as a necessity. In other words, the division considered natural between men's work and women's tasks, supposedly linked to distinctions of a biological nature, is not at all natural, as a result of the requirements of the process of constitution of the capitalist mode of production. Silvia Federici, in a 2021 book, warning that she seeks the conditions for a dialogue between Marxism and feminism, observes that Marx, so astute in so many other premonitions, failed to perceive the transformations that were being gestated within the proletarian families throughout the 19th century, with the creation of the housewife and domestic work itself, in charge of the reproduction of labor. For her, this unsatisfactory theoretical development by Marx regarding social reproduction had important political consequences, such as the split between the feminist and socialist movements that were emerging at the end of the XNUMXth century in Europe.

[8] One example is Harvey's observation that the contradictory relationship between a value defined in the market and a value reconstructed by transformations in the labor process is at the center of Marx's thought. Postone alludes to a treadmill effect, which would be, for him, the initial determination of Marx's law of value. The mentioned effect is precisely related to the interrelationship between, on the one hand, the alterations that occurred in the concrete work process in the search for greater productivity and, on the other hand, the effects of this movement in the determination of value through the socially necessary working time. , or, in Postone’s terms, the “hour of social work”. The example is cited by Duayer and Araújo, but I thought it interesting to reproduce it here, because the importance that the two Marxists give to the sphere of circulation is different. While for Harvey, as we have seen, one cannot fail to consider this sphere and its contradictory unity with the sphere of production, for Postone “the fact that this generalization [of the new productivity] results in a return of the quantity of value to its original level it is not a function of the market; it is a function of the nature of value as a form of wealth” (p. 335).

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