İçeriğe geçmek için "Enter"a basın

Marxist Debates On Value: On The Debate Between David Harvey And Michael Roberts

In 2018, David Harvey wrote an article on Marxist theory of value, entitled “Marx’s Refusal of the
Labour Theory of Value” 1 which was followed by a critical essay, “David Harvey’s Misunderstanding of
Marx’s Law of Value” written by Michael Roberts. Then Harvey responded to criticisms in a second
short piece, “The Misunderstandings of Michael Roberts.” 2 In this study, I also try to criticize Harvey’s
understanding of the theory of value as presented in this debate.
In his short but comprehensive article, Harvey poses the question “what … was Marx’s distinctive
value theory and how does it differ from the labour theory of value?” And he comments on almost all
concepts and discussions within Marxism, allocating at least one sentence for each. It is my opinion
that there are several theoretical criticisms to be raised against Harvey’s account of the theory of
value presented in his intense essay. But first, let’s give a brief presentation of Harvey’s account of
Marxist theory of value.
In Marx’s Capital, Harvey argues, the value is “initially taken to be a reflection of the social (abstract)
labour congealed in commodities.” He continues to refer the subsequent chapters in Capital,
following the steps of capitalist development until he comes up with “the value form.” The
emergence of the value form, he says, is conditioned by the course of “value in motion” here, and at
this point, “value thereby becomes an embedded regulatory norm in the sphere of exchange only
under conditions of capital accumulation.” (Emphases are mine) One can understand that the first
stage referred to as “initially” in Harvey’s account corresponds to Ricardo’s labour theory of value,
and then in a second stage to which Harvey points by saying “thereby”, Marx integrates such value
into circulation. This is clarified by his expression that “Marx appears to have done little more than
synthesize and formalize Ricardo’s labour theory of value by embedding it in the totality of
circulation and accumulation.” However, Harvey suggests that the value having moved from the
sphere of production into the sphere of exchange should not be considered as “the end of story. If
this was so then much of the criticism launched against Marx’s theory of value would be justified.”

1 http://davidharvey.org/2018/03/marxs-refusal-of-the-labour-theory-of-value-by-david-harvey/ (access 11
April 2020)
2 Both available: https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/marxs-law-of-value-a-debate-between-
david-harvey-and-michael-roberts/ (Access: 11 April 2020)


His suggestion has a point because, within this framework, there emerges two definitions of value
which cannot be linked to each other in a non-contradictory way. It is from this perspective which I
would like to explore below that Harvey attempts to analyze such dual definition of value and then
tries to form a combination and establish its relations.
To Harvey, the first chapters of Capital provide a definition of value on the basis of social abstract
labour in the sphere of production whereas it becomes the value form of the sphere of circulation in
the following chapters. Such duality is solved by Harvey as follows: “Value becomes an unstable and
perpetually evolving inner connectivity (an internal or dialectical relation) between value as defined
in the realm of circulation in the market and value as constantly being redefined through revolutions
in the realm of production.” In his opinion, this dual definition of value is present in Marx too: “The
contradictory relation between value as defined in the market and value as reconstructed by
transformations in the labour process is central to Marx’s thinking.” He argues that “Marx’s value
theory … centers on the constantly shifting and contradictory unity between what is traditionally
referred to as the labour theory of value in the sphere of the market … and the value theory of
labour in the sphere of production.” (All emphases are mine) Then he attempts to explain this
contradictory unity.
Harvey’s effort is to extract one single definition of value from the value in the sphere of production
and the value in the sphere of circulation. In his opinion, this is exactly how “the formulation of value
in the first chapter of Capital is revolutionized by what comes later.” In fact, the title of his first
article, “Marx’s Refusal of the Labour Theory of Value”, points to a refusal of the Ricardian labour
theory of value (as value in the sphere of production) as well as a redefinition of the value, which
finds its expression in the sphere of circulation, as the contradictory unity of value.
Harvey resorts to combining two values defined as such within the value in the sphere of circulation.
This is exactly what drives Roberts to think that Harvey creates value in the sphere of circulation. Yet
he does not. What Harvey tries to do is to integrate the value in the production and the value in the
circulation into the latter: “The fraught and contradictory relation between production and
realization rests on the fact that value depends on the existence of wants, needs and desires backed
by ability to pay in a population of consumers. Such wants, needs and desires are deeply embedded
in the world of social reproduction. Without them, as Marx notes in the first chapter of Capital, there
is no value.” As he rephrases elsewhere, “if there is no market there is no value.”
Harvey’s first article ends with a definition of one single value as value form. He provides an
explanation of the movements of the value form as caused “by the anarchy of market exchange, by


revolutionary transformations in technologies and organizational forms, by unfolding practices of
social reproduction, and massive transformations in the wants, needs and desires of whole
populations expressed through the cultures of everyday life.” All determinations of the value as
finally defined are those either belonging directly to the sphere of circulation or defined by their
mediation through that sphere. It is easy but wrong to conclude that Harvey understands value only
within the circulation. The problem is deeper. Harvey is a great scholar of Capital, great enough to
know that value is not created in the sphere of circulation. His weakness lies in his grasp of Marx’s
method and his lack of understanding Capital with it.
Value in the production, Value in the circulation
Marx presents his criticisms to Ricardo’s labour theory of value in Theories of Surplus Value: “Ricardo
starts out from the determination of the relative values … of commodities by ‘the quantity of
labour.’… if two commodities are equivalents … then it is obvious that regarded as exchange-values,
their substance must be the same. Their substance is labour. That is why they are ‘values.’ Their
magnitude varies, according to whether they contain more or less of this substance. But Ricardo does
not examine the form—the peculiar characteristic of labour that creates exchange-value or manifests
itself in exchange-values—the nature of this labour.” 3 Elsewhere in the same work, he also argues
that Ricardo “does not even examine the form of value—the particular form which labour assumes
as the substance of value. He only examines the magnitudes of value, the quantities of this abstract,
general and, in this form social, labour which engender differences in the magnitudes of value of
commodities.” 4 According to Marx, Ricardo understands the substance of value and its magnitude.
What he fails to see is the value form itself. In other words, Ricardo treats labour as the substance of
value and the labour-time as the measure of the magnitude of labour while he fails to understand
‘the form’ of this ‘substance’.
To evaluate the abovementioned quotes from the standpoint of today’s formal logic, one can easily
conclude that Ricardo grasps the formation of value in the sphere of production but fails to catch its
new expression as value form. Such a formal analysis brings us to a duality of the value in the
production and the value in the circulation. The problem of the formal logic is now tied to link these
two values together. Any relation developed on such formal ground is considered to be internally
connected but inevitably remains as an eclectic and external relation.

3 Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (Book 2), p. 164
4 Ibid, p. 172


Ricardo examines value to the extent that it is a means to the realization of exchange between the
equivalents. For him, value is not something objective; it is rather a general abstract which is a
measure for the equivalency of exchange. Ricardo fails to conceive the form of value because he
does not even think that value can be an objectivity with a form. Value as a social abstract general
which is a measure for the equivalency of exchange surely cannot assume a form as material beings
do. Ricardo’s failure in grasping the form of value is not caused by his imperception of the sphere of
circulation and its dynamics. It is rather because of his lack of understanding that value can be an
objectivity. For him, value is an abstract general which is formed as a result of the occurrence of
exchange. He inevitably finds himself in search of a solution for a bunch of contradictions and
inconsistencies emerging in the expression of labour –which he sees as a substance– in terms of
value. His position is similar to that of today’s formal approach that forms a duality of the value in
production and the value in circulation or value form, and then, on this very basis, seeks for non-
contradictory totality of value, which becomes an impossible solution.
Marx’s account of value, on the other hand, does not offer a solution for the problem that Ricardo
creates within the boundaries of formal logic. The reason is simple; such problem does not appear in
the first place in his account. Marx does not abstract the value created in production in Ricardo into
the sphere of circulation. On the contrary, he shows us that value is not an abstract general,
revealing that the value form in commodities cannot be found in one single atom of the commodity
since it is the form of an objectivity as distinct from the body of that commodity.
In Ricardo, value is considered as an equivalence that enables the exchange, as an abstract universal,
whereas Marx treats it as a real, objective category of the social mode of production. In Marx’s
account, value as an ‘immaterial objectivity’ is an organic whole; its essence is labour and its form
appears as exchange value. Therefore value is a sensible, special kind of concreteness while its form,
i.e. exchange value, is the highest abstract and general form of the bourgeois mode of production. It
is because of the fact that value is objective and concrete that the value form as its property can be
an abstract general. Value itself is not. Ricardo has spent a lifetime to solve the inconsistencies
arising from the expressions of labour in production in terms of value while such discrepancies
cannot even appear in Marx’s account. Finding such discrepancies in Marx’s theory of value is
resulted from an inability to go beyond Ricardo’s theory of value while attributing it to Marx. What
makes Marx’s theory of value difficult lies in the hardship of grasping the objectivity of value.
As any concreteness outside the individual’s consciousness, once the objectivity and concreteness of
value is grasped, then the substance and form of this concrete value becomes apparent. Only a true
method can help us avoid an error of grasping the substance and the form in separation and putting


them into an eclectic relation. This is where, I think, Rubin’s contribution is helpful: “One cannot
forget that, on the question of the relation between content and form, Marx took the standpoint of
Hegel, and not of Kant. Kant treated form as something external in relation to the content, and as
something which adheres to the content from the outside. From the standpoint of Hegel’s
philosophy, the content is not in itself something to which form adheres from the outside. Rather,
through its development, the content itself gives birth to the form which was already latent in the
content. Form necessarily grows out of the content itself. This is a basic premise of Hegel’s and
Marx’s methodology, a premise which is opposed to Kant’s methodology. From this point of view, the
form of value necessarily grows out of the substance of value.” 5 Such description of substance and
form clearly suggests that they cannot be defined in separation. At first glance, similar to Kant,
Harvey seems to establish an eclectic link between them. However, he does not link the substance
and the form, or the content and the form in the abovementioned terms, to each other at all. Upon
the formation of the substance of the value, he transforms such substance into the form of value by
abstraction. And he does so by defining them both as values. From this point of view, Harvey’s
approach falls behind not only Hegel’s and Marx’s methodology, but even that of Kant. To Harvey,
the substance of value is the value defined in the sphere of production. The form of the value, on the
other hand, finds its definition in the sphere of circulation or in the market. In Harvey, ‘substance’
and ‘form’ are both values. In his opinion, it is possible to reach a consistent definition of value once
the labour-value in production, one of these two values, is bashfully left out. He seems unaware that
it is Lockean formal methodology that brings him to such a dual understanding of value. Trapped in
such formal logic, Harvey seeks to build a coherent theory of value in order to avoid the attacks on
the weaknesses of his theory of value developed in duality. But he also seems unaware that the
duality in which he finds himself is very much of his creation.
Objectivity and reality of value
In Harvey’s description, despite its immateriality, value is objective. But it is not real: “… this tracks
back to how Marx sets up how the abstraction of value –which, by the way, is in Marx’s view, a social
relation hence ‘immaterial but objective’ and not ‘immanent’ and ‘real’ as the quote from Murray
Smith proposes (“not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities” says Marx in
Capital)” In his response to Roberts, Harvey explains this complex conceptualization as follows: “The
essence of value is abstract labour or, as I prefer to refer to it, ‘socially necessary labour time’. … No
matter whether we say ‘abstract labour’ or ‘socially necessary’, however, the onus then falls on how
the abstraction is made and how socially necessary is to be understood. The answer to such
questions has to be grounded in material processes and not constructed through idealist exercises.
5 I. I. Rubin, p. 117


So by what materialist process is value constructed if it is not ‘immanent’ in commodities but
historically created.” In all these quotes, Harvey talks about the value described as an abstraction,
rather than the formation of abstract labour. However, value is expressed as an objectivity outside
consciousness despite being described as an abstraction. In Harvey’s view, the value that cannot be
found, therefore not “immanent”, in the atoms of the commodity, is not accepted to be “real”
because of such immateriality. But still, it does not lose its objectivity since it is subjected to a social
and historical abstraction. Harvey finally declares in advance that any attempts to defy his
idiosyncratic conceptualization would be “idealist exercises.”
Harvey’s abovementioned description of the value form as an objectivity outside individual’s
consciousness despite being a social and historical abstraction of consciousness requires a
materialistic explanation. Otherwise, the assertion that such ideal determinations of thought are
objective bears a risk of coinciding with idealistic propositions, unless they are based on the material
grounds. It is idealist scholars who start out from the observation that the ideal forms are objective
and cannot be products of individual’s consciousness, but fail to explain such objectivity and try to
solve the problem by attributing the ideal determinations to a sort of a priori or upper consciousness.
The explanation of these ideal determinations standing in opposition to individual’s consciousness,
and yet immaterial but objective, is the fundamental point of divergence between idealism and
materialism. In Ilienkov’s terms, “pointing out the fact that the thing and the form of the thing exist
outside the individual consciousness and do not depend on individual will still does not solve the
problem of their objectivity in its fully materialistic sense.” 6 Not being on the theoretical ground of
the thing and the form of the thing, Harvey’s premise that a social and historical abstraction is
objective, as it stands, might well appear to be an idealistic conclusion. It is therefore necessary to
extend the debate on objectivity.
In his so-called Lesser Logic, Hegel provides a definition of the objective in everyday life: “In ordinary
language, to be ‘objective’ is to be present outside us and to come to us from outside through
perception.” 7 According to Hegel, Kant begins with arguing that thoughts are not provided by senses
but belong to consciousness itself, therefore they must be subjective. However, in face of the fact
that the determinations of thought should overcome the individual’s consciousness and subjectivity,
he makes an inversion in this definition. In Hegel’s words, “Kant calls the thought-product –and, to be
precise, the universal and the necessary– ‘objective,’ and what is only sensed, he calls ‘subjective.’” 8
Hegel finds Kant’s latter description more convenient than his first approach, despite all the
6 E.V. Ilienkov, “The Concept of the Ideal”, p. 83
7 Hegel, p. 82
8 Hegel, p. 82.


criticisms laid on it. “What ordinary consciousness is confronted with, what can be perceived by the
senses (e. g., this animal, this star, etc.), appears to it as what subsists on its own account, or as what
is independent,” Hegel first points out, then he claims that the opposite is true: “what can be
perceived by the senses is really secondary and not self-standing, while thoughts, on the contrary,
are what is genuinely independent and primitive.” 9 Thus he concludes that thoughts are objective
while the objects of sensation remains in the subjective side. Despite its idealism, Hegel’s objective
idealist view represents a progressive move within the debate on the objectivity of thoughts.
What drives Kant to become aware of the objectivity of thoughts, albeit his inconsistencies, and what
makes Hegel conclude that thoughts are indeed objective is these immaterial but objective forms.
They appear as belonging to consciousness while, as universal and necessary forms, i.e. objective
forms, they exist outside and force themselves on the individual’s consciousness. Hegel mentions
three positions to be taken regarding the definition of objectivity. First approach is to consider it as
“externally present, as distinct from what is only subjective.” Secondly, one can think within Kant’s
understanding of objectivity of “what is universal and necessary” as distinct from sensation and
subjectivity. Third position is that of Hegel which suggest to think of objectivity in terms of what is
there, of “the in-itself as thought-product… as distinct from what is only thought by us, and hence
still distinct from the matter itself, or from the matter in-itself ” 10 Therefore Hegel brings us to the
point where the objectivity coincides with its concept, i.e. the reality, the idea. In Hegel’s approach,
however, the idea finds its place primarily again in consciousness. But such consciousness appears
outside human consciousness, existing not in material universe, but only in another consciousness,
an upper, an absolute consciousness. This is exactly where Marx takes over. To move forward from
this point, Ilienkov argues that “here ideal form actually does stand in opposition to individual
consciousness and individual will … and is necessarily perceived precisely as the form of the external
thing, not its palpable form, but as the form of another equally palpable thing that it represents,
expresses, embodies, differing, however, from the palpable corporeality of both things and having
nothing in common with their sensuously perceptible physical nature. What is embodied and
‘represented’ here is a definite form of labour, a definite form of human objective activity, that is to
say, the transformation of nature by social man.” 11 The idea as the identification of objectivity and
concept is transmitted from Hegel’s description as existing outside consciousness but within another
absolute consciousness into its reality as “the form of social human activity represented in the thing.”
According to Ilienkov, what gives the form its objectivity is not the act of abstraction. Rather, such
objectivity is provided by the material and real form of the activity of social human existence.
9 Hegel 82-83.
10 Hegel p. 83
11 Ilienkov, p. 86


One can build an explanation of the objectivity of a social and historical determination or form on
this very basis. It is our right to expect Harvey’s question, “what materialist process is value
constructed if it is not ‘immanent’ in commodities but historically created” to be discussed on this
ground, the dialectical ground on which the relation between the objective and the subjective,
between what is material and what is thought-product, should be built. However, Harvey does not
necessarily need to make such conceptual and theoretical explanations throughout his article. This
does not mean that there is no theoretical ground at all. He wrote on a theoretically positivist
ground, using a formal method which is widely accepted and taken for granted to be scientific.
Unfortunately, many finds it unnecessary to open this ground for discussion.
Marx talks about the value form within the abovementioned framework, as the “ideal” form of value.
Let’s see how Ilienkov reads the respective section regarding the value form which Harvey is unable
to find in atoms: “In Capital Marx defines the form of value in general as ‘purely ideal’ not on the
grounds that it exists only ‘in the consciousness’, only in the head of the commodity-owner, but on
quite opposite grounds. The price or the money form of value, like any form of value in general, is
IDEAL because it is totally distinct from the palpable, corporeal form of commodity in which it
is presented, we read in the chapter of ‘Money’ … In other words, the form of value is IDEAL,
although it exists outside human consciousness and independently of it.” 12 (Emphases are mine)
Ilienkov also provides an explanation for why the ideal is objective despite being immaterial: “It is
‘ideal’ because it does not include a single atom of the substance of the body in which it is
represented, because it is the form of quite another body. And this other body is present here not
bodily, materially (‘bodily’ it is at quite a different point in space), but only once again ‘ideally’, and
here there is not a single atom of its substance.” 13 When he is unable to see the value form in a single
atom, Harvey tends to think that the value form should be an abstraction, then he concludes that this
abstraction should be expressed as an objectivity. Ilienkov’s view is not only different from Harvey’s
analysis but also much more progressive.
Harvey’s methodology propels him to a definition of a value form which is objective but not real.
Ilienkov, on the other hand, attempts to explain the reality as the source of objectivity: “Ideality,
according to Marx, is nothing else but the form of social human activity represented in the thing. Or,
conversely, the form of human activity represented as a thing, as an object.” 14 In Marx, the value
form exists as the form of material human activity. It is not the case that value is formed because
exchange begins to happen, but value happens to exist as an objective category because humans
12 Ilienkov, p. 72
13 Ilienkov p. 89
14 Ilienkov, p. 86


sustain their social existence in a capitalistic way. For Ricardo, value exists in regard to the
equivalency of exchange. As far as he sees, the production is made, the products are carried into the
sphere of circulation, and then the value comes to being for equivalent exchanges of these products.
Ricardo moves from exchange towards value. Marx, on the very contrary, starts out from questioning
why the products present themselves in the value form. Hence he becomes able to explain the
modes of social production of humans as well as the objectivity of value created by its capitalist form.
Like Ricardo, Harvey takes exchange as departure. His debate centers on the relations of equivalence
into which products enters in the sphere of exchange, and the exchange dynamics of these
equivalencies. Therefore, value, in Harvey’s account, becomes an abstract general which allows the
exchange whereas, in Marx, it appears to be an objective category of the way in which social human
materially produces himself.
The methodology of Harvey’s theory of value is that of Locke. I have already mentioned above the
descriptions of value theory outlined by Harvey at the end of his first article. To remind briefly, he
presents the determinations of his theory of value as “the existence of wants, needs and desires
backed by ability to pay in a population of consumers”, “the anarchy of market exchange, …
revolutionary transformations in technologies and organizational forms, … unfolding practices of
social reproduction, and massive transformations in the wants, needs and desires of whole
populations expressed through the cultures of everyday life.” By putting the determinations of value
in this way, Harvey in fact dissolves value into its particular appearances, into its abstract qualities.
Harvey’s method “consists therefore in dissolving the concrete that is given, isolating its distinctions
and bestowing the form of abstract universality upon them.” 15 According to Hegel, “here, thinking
has the significance only of abstraction or of formal identity. This is the standpoint of Locke and of all
empiricists.” 16 Harvey believes that he can provide an explanation of value through the same method.
All determinations having been dissolved are abstract qualities and particular appearances of the
value, so they cannot be separated from it. It is only by discussing the method applied here that we
can be aware of the fallacy. Harvey makes the same mistake as a great mind like Locke does. Hegel
gives an illuminating example as such: “a chemist puts a piece of meat into his retort, tortures it in
many ways, and then says that he has found that it consists of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, etc. But
these abstract materials are no longer meat.” 17 Just like Locke, Harvey also thinks that knowledge
cannot be formed by any other methods. So Harvey’s account can explain value only to the extent
that human beings can be explained by carbon making up their bodies.

15 Hegel, p.296
16 Hegel, p.297
17 Hegel p. 297


According to Harvey’s belief, value can be derived from its abstract qualities and particular
appearances which he attains through a formal analysis. He tries to respond the criticisms by saying
that it is impossible for these determinations and particularities not to be found in the value itself.
Claiming that these determinations are also present in Marx, he invites us to read and understand
Capital by reducing it to Locke’s method. What promotes Harvey’s self-confidence in this regard is
the common belief that Locke’s empiricism and formal logic is the only scientific method today.
Being encouraged by Harvey who makes only brief comments on Capital’s chapters, I did not go in
theoretical details. But I believe that the debate deserves to be extended. E.V. Ilienkov’s article, “The
Concept of the Ideal” from which I presented some quotes is promising for its readers to have more
productive insights. The way in which the theoretical debate on the expression of immaterial
objectivity or the ideality of value form in Marx’s Capital is presented by Ilienkov is very different
from Harvey’s reading of Capital. Additionally, Isaak Illich Rubin’s Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value
widens one’s horizon for the debate on the substance and the form of value. It is possible to find the
reasons why Marx’s refusal of the labour theory of value, the very title of Harvey’s piece, is not the
case for Rubin in this book. I believe that these two works, the depths of which are impossible to
present here in this short piece, provides significant opportunities to discuss Marx’s debate on value.
To recapitulate my criticisms in 6 points:
1- Harvey takes the substance of value as the value in the sphere of production, and the form of
value as the value in the sphere of circulation. For him, the substance of value and the form
of value are both values.
2- Harvey tries to unite these two values created by himself with the purpose of overcoming
the contradictions created by this duality. But he combines them within the sphere of
circulation in an eclectical way.
3- Therefore, the abstract universality of the value form that he treats as the value in the
sphere of production is considered by him as the abstract universality of value itself. In
Harvey, it is not the form of value, but the value itself that becomes an abstract general.
4- The value considered as an abstract general in Harvey’s account loses its reality. The value, as
an abstract general, finds its objectivity in another abstraction. Then he argues that the
objectivity is provided here since such abstraction is made through historical and social
5- By an analytic methodology, Harvey dissolves value into its particular appearances. Then he
moves to form value from these abstract determinations.


6- Although he uses Locke’s formal method, one can see neither one single trace of this method
nor that of its critiques such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Today, it is a matter of question in
itself how to elude the self-evident truth and acceptance of positivism and its formal

Yorumlar kapatıldı.