Thispaper was cited to me as a reason why one should study Hegel.

The author Starosta is honest. He only claims to be dealing with Marx’s exposition in Capital, not the sources of his ideas. It is a reasonably competent account of the form of presentation in one chapter of that book. 

As an argument against the Althusserian thesis that there was an epistemological break from Hegel at the time of the German Ideology it is useless. The author just blythely assumes a continuity for example:

“and as he clearly states in the Marginal Notes on Adolf Wagner, Marx takes as a point of departure neither the concepts of political economy nor any concept whatsoever (Marx, 1975, 198), in order thereby to discover alienated labor” p 298


Well there is no mention whatsoever of alienated labour in notes on Wagner. This was originally translated into English by an Althusserian journal precisely in order to demonstrate the completeness of the epistemological break. The author would have been wise to read the original introduction to the English translation by Athar Hussain.


He then goes on to simply assume that the notion of alienated labour is used in Capital:


“In this sense, Marx’s exposition in Capital does not advance towards the discovery of alienation but starts from what the analytic stage of the dialectical inquiry revealed as its most abstract and general form”


In English translation of  Capital I   the word alienation only occurs in the old Scottish legal sense that Smith uses – meaning sale or gift of property. You alienate your house if you sell it. This is the sense  in Capital. For example these passages from chapter 3 cap 1

It became real money, by the general alienation of commodities, by actually changing places with their natural forms as useful objects, and thus becoming in reality the embodiment of their values.

“But with the development of circulation, conditions arise under which the alienation of commodities becomes separated, by an interval of time, from the realisation of their prices.”


The german original of Capital chap 3 uses veräußerung or sale, not entfremdung the word that is translated as alienation or estrangement in English translations of the early writtings.

This is by no means the problematic of ‘alienated labour’ ‘entfremdete Arbeit’  in the EPM even if they may be given the same english translation.

The author also propagates the currently fashionable absurd interpretation that when discussing commodities Marx was only talking about capitalist society:

“As has now been widely acknowledged, this starting point is not an ideal–typical — or worse, historically existent —simple commodity–producing society, as in the orthodoxy derived from Engels (1980) and popularized by authors such as Sweezy (1968) and Meek (1973).”


That is highly disputable. The basic distinction between use value and exchange value that Marx presents is drawn from Aristotle as was shown by Miekle (Meikle, Scott. “Aristotle’s economic thought.” OUP (1997).) Marx credits many of his ideas to Aristotle in footnotes, and body text. Particularly relevant, because it relates directly to value form, Marx was quite specific that equivalent form of value that he presents in Capital was  derived from Aristotle :


The two latter peculiarities of the equivalent form will become more intelligible if we go back to the great thinker who was the first to analyse so many forms, whether of thought, society, or Nature, and amongst them also the form of value. I mean Aristotle.

In the first place, he clearly enunciates that the money form of commodities is only the further development of the simple form of value – i.e., of the expression of the value of one commodity in some other commodity taken at random; for he says:

5 beds = 1 house  

is not to be distinguished from

5 beds = so much money. 

He further sees that the value relation which gives rise to this expression makes it necessary that the house should qualitatively be made the equal of the bed, and that, without such an equalisation, these two clearly different things could not be compared with each other as commensurable quantities. “Exchange,” he says, “cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability”. . Here, however, he comes to a stop, and gives up the further analysis of the form of value. “It is, however, in reality, impossible , that such unlike things can be commensurable” – i.e., qualitatively equal. Such an equalisation can only be something foreign to their real nature, consequently only “a makeshift for practical purposes.”

Aristotle therefore, himself, tells us what barred the way to his further analysis; it was the absence of any concept of value. What is that equal something, that common substance, which admits of the value of the beds being expressed by a house? Such a thing, in truth, cannot exist, says Aristotle. And why not? Compared with the beds, the house does represent something equal to them, in so far as it represents what is really equal, both in the beds and the house. And that is – human labour.

There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice.


So Marx is saying :

  1. That his analysis of the contradiction of the value form is derived from Aristotle
  2. That commodity production and commodity value existed in ancient Athens – long before capitalism.
  3. That the secret of value, that it is human labour, was inconcievable to a member of the slaveholding class of that time – even though the source of value even then was human labour. It was the class blindness of an advocate of slavery that blocked him from realising this.


 The author’s analysis of the explanation Marx gives for why value is what we would now call a scalar field or potential is reasonable enough. But the author does not really give an adequate defence of 

  1. Why Marx and Aristotle were justified in treating exchange as an equivalence relation.
  2. Whether Arthur’s objection that Marx does not establish that the common value substance is labour is right.

The Starosta argues that Marx establishes that  there is a common substance  and then dialectically takes the step of introducing labour as the common substance, an introduction that is then justified by the properties of  labour privately carried out for social needs. 


But this presentation by Marx is something of a dialectical sleight of hand. It may be right, and it is certainly plausible, but science can not just proceed on the basis of what is plausible. All sorts of explanations have existed in the past that were plausible, but which turned out to be wrong. One only has to look at phlogiston theory – that there must be some common substance – phlogiston that was the substance whose visible form is fire. This is structurally very similar to Marx’s dialectical presentation

  • Common property ( combustibility, exchangeability )
  • Form of expression ( flame, price in gold )
  • – dialectical inference there must be a common substance ( phlogiston, value )

But we know that the phlogiston theory was wrong, that there is no common substance to things that combust, instead fire is produced by the oxidation of the fuel.


The common property turned out to be that the combustible substances were all capable of moving to a lower energy state if they were oxidised.


Now let us grant that Marx has established that there is a common substance, value, in exchangeable commodities, and he establishes that labour has the necessary property of being abstractly quantifiable and required for a commodity’s existence. That is still not enough to establish that labour is the substance.


I am not disputing that Marx was right. But in principle there could be some other common substance that he had not thought of. An obvious one is energy. It has the same properties of abstract quantifiability, the property of being manifest in different concrete forms – heat, electricity, kinetic energy, chemical energy etc.


The correctness of Marx’s derivation rests not on its intellectual plausibility, but on whether in fact commodity values are proportional to labour content. If it turns out when we measure things that prices correlate much more closely with the number of watt seconds = Joules needed to make a commodity rather than the number of person seconds of human effort, then Marx would be wrong. We now know that empirically Marx was right. Commodity prices do correlate much more closely with person seconds of labour than with Joules of energy used. 


Of course Marx was not arbitrarily selecting labour as the value substance. He was following a tradition from Ibn Kaldun to Ricardo who had observed, by rough and ready means, that the requisite empirical relation actually existed.


As a scientific procedure, what Marx wrote was indeed a shortcut. A dialectical conjuring trick which does not meet modern standards of scientific rigour. He should at best have presented empirical data of his own to justify the claim that the substance was in fact labour, or at least have cited those of his predecessors who had presented observational arguments to support the claim that labour content determines price. 


It is not as if these sources, his predecessors are hidden. We have the whole of the fourth volume of Capital, published as Theories of Surplus Value, devoted to his predecessors and their ideas. In it we can read which of their ideas he considered right, what the conceptual conflicts were between them, and where he considered them wrong.


On the other hand, dialectical tricks may have advantages if you are engaging in a project that is both scientific and polemical – as Capital is. If one of your objectives is to convince your readers, you may judge that dialectical rhetoric is an effective technique.


The problem comes when subsequent generations take such tricks to be generalisable method of investigation, something to be emulated.


Marx’s argument only works because he stood  on the giant shoulders of his predecessors. He could introduce into his dialectical argument something which had been prepared earlier, by Smith and Ricardo.


But this is also the reason why subsequent attempts to follow the dialectical method get nowhere. The Hegelian school of Marxist economists produce no innovation, produce no new knowledge using this method, because the method is incapable of producing new knowledge. It can only cast into rhetorical form things which are already known.


This is most obvious with all the balderdash  written about natural dialectics. Those who adocate them discover nothing new. They took existing scientific knowledge, that had been acquired by the established scientific research methods, and then dressed it up in the language of the unity of opposites, transition of quantity into quality etc.


Engels is only able to use the transition of water into steam as an example of a change of quantity into quality and as an example of dialectical leap because of prior work in thermodynamics. The investigations of Black and his assistant Watt had to have shown that heat itself was quantifiable and that there was such a thing as a latent heat of steam vapourisation. 

The dialectical method was in no way necessary for their discovery. Professor Black, indeed, discovered latent heat in 1761 a tad before Hegel was even a gleam in his mum’s eye.


I bring in Black for two reasons, firstly because his ideas are later exhibited by Engels as an instance of natural dialectics and secondly because it relates to a second phase in the development of Marx’s argument in Capital – the secret of surplus value.


Marx solves Aristotles polarity or contradiction between use value and exchange value by introducing labour as the common substance of value – a conclusion derived from his predecessors in political economy. The next major dialectical contradiction he solves is the secret of surplus value. If you recall he first presents the paradox that the circuit of capital m-c-m’ exists which appears to conflict with the general principle of equivalent exchange of commodities. How, he asks can you have m<m’ if all commodity exchanges along the way are exchanges of equal value?


He solves it with the conceptual distinction between labour and labour power. He defines labour power as the ability to perform work. Marx says that it is this rather than labour itself that the capitalist hires when he pays wages. The secret of surplus value is then revealed to lie in the fact that the value of labour power is determined, as with all commodities, by its own labour cost of reproduction, but that it takes less than one day of labour to reproduce the labourer for a day. The surplus time, the difference between the length of the working day and the labour content of the wage goods, is the source of surplus value.


This distinction between labour and labour power was new to political economy. His predecessors like Smith and Ricardo had taken the wage to be the value of labour itself and Ricardo had established that the wage was equivalent to the labour required to reproduce the labourer. Ricardo was also able to establish the inverse relationship between the wage and the share of value constituting the capitalists profit.


Marx’s innovations here were twofold :

  1. Generalisation from profit to surplus value – which included also rent and interest.
  2. The distinction between labour and labour power.


It can be argued that the mode of presentation of the issue in Capital uses Hegelian rhetorical tricks : deriving a contradiction between c-m-c and m-c-m’ and then resolving the contradiction in a new concept labour power. But that does not explain where the dialectical conjuration produces the idea of labour power from?


This certainly does not come from Hegel, nor is it there in Smith or Ricardo. Instead, as we explain in Classical Econophysics, it was derived from the ideas of Black and Watt. Having learned, in his research with Black, that latent heat of steam was a thing, it occured to Watt as he walked across Glasgow Green that he could greatly improve the efficiency of steam engines by introducing separate condensers to them. On that insight stood both his fortune as an engineer and the great impulse of capitalist industrialisation. As Marx remarked, the hand mill brought the feudal lord and steam mill the industrial capitalist.


Materially, Watt’s invention was the key to producing what Marx called relative surplus value. It made possible the spread of steam powered machinery to replace human effort. At the same time it produced the conceptual apparatus that Marx needed to solve the conundrum of surplus value.


Watt rented out his machines on the basis of their ability to save coal. His initial market was for the mines. His machines were sold either to pump water out of the mines or as winding engines to raise coal to the surface. 


If he was to convince pit owners of the merits of using his machines he had to prove to them that they were cost effective – that the coal burned to raise coal would not be more than the coal they raised. To establish this in turn Watt had to provide two figures – a measure of the coal raising power of his machine and a figure for the number of pounds of coal per hour that the machine burned.


The competing means of raising coal was to use horses to turn capstans.


So Watt measures the ability of a horse to raise coal and then quantifies his machines in horsepower. He reckoned a horse could raise 550 lb one foot in a second.

The mine owners knew how many horses they currently used, they knew how many horses the steam engine would replace, provided that the coal lifted was substantially greater than the coal needed to fire the engine it would be worth hiring the engine.


This became established commercial practice and in the process established the concept of power as the ability to perform work. So by the time Marx is writing, engineering practice has made the conceptual distinction between work and power, between work and the ability to perform work, part of the common basic knowledge of industrial England. Similarly, capitalist commercial practice in the renting of steam engines had established the principle of hiring out the ability of these engines to perform work for a monthly rate.


When Smith was writing, his acquaintance Watt was still tinkering with his prototypes, and even in Ricardo’s time steam engines were relatively rare compared to water mills. But by the time Marx was writing, thermodynamics and the practice of capitalist civilisation had provided the conceptual abstractions necessary for him to make the distinction between labour and labour power and thus solve the problem of surplus value.


There is also a second mapping – the notion of  the rate of surplus value is homomorphic to the rate of coal return of the steam engine: the ratio between the coal it burns and the coal it raises. This is now called the energy return on investment, and is the fundamental thermodynamic or energy constraint on industrial capitalist civilisation. Without this surplus being positive there is no positive rate of relative surplus value. The relationship between the two rates should be an active topic of research by Marxists as we approach the crisis of fossil fuel capitalism.


So once again we see that we must not mistake the rhetorical tricks of dialectical presentation for a real history or structure of ideas. The dialectician only succeeds in their presentation to the extent that there are pre-existing ideas that they can draw on. The trick is to reveal these in the right order. It only works, moreover, if the audience has at least a passing familiarity with concepts you are presenting. In the mid 19th century the notions of labour as a source of value and the distinction between work and power could be assumed to be at least sufficiently familiar for the average reader of Capital to make sense of what Marx wrote. 


I am not questioning Marx’s originality in applying these concepts to the new domain of political economy. But the key ideas did not come from Hegel. They came from prior social and engineering research. That is why, if you want to advance Marxist science today, you need to go to study actual observable regularities in economic and social statistics and learn as much as you can from the sciences and engineering to give you the conceptual tools to analyse what is happening. Studying dialectics will at most provide you with a means of writing impressive advertising copy for your conclusions. But even this is very risky, since it takes a quite exceptional rhetorical talent like that of Marx to pull it off. In the hands of those without his writing skills and polymathic learning the result will be turgid and boring.