Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. III. The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole
By Karl Marx
One of Econlib’s aims is to put online the most significant works in the history of economic thought, and there can be no doubting the significance of Marx’s influence on both economic theory in the late 19th century and on the creation of Marxist states in the 20th century. From the time of the emergence of modern socialism in the 1840s (especially in France and Germany), free market economists have criticised socialist theory and it is thus useful to place that criticism in its intellectual context, namely beside the main work of one of its leading theorists,
Karl Marx.In 1848, when Europe was wracked by a series of revolutions in which both liberals and socialists participated and which both lost out to the forces of conservative monarchism or Bonapartism,
John Stuart Mill published his
Principles of Political Economy. The chapter on Property shows how important Mill thought it was to confront the socialist challenge to classical liberal economic theory. In hindsight it might appear that Mill was too accommodating to socialist criticism, but I would argue that in fact he offered a reasonable framework for comparing the two systems of thought, which the events of the late 20th century have finally brought to a conclusion which was not possible in his lifetime. Mill states in
Book II Chapter I “Of Property” that a fair comparison of the free market and socialism would compare both the ideal of liberalism with that of socialism, as well as the practice of liberalism versus the practice of socialism. In 1848 the ideals of both were becoming better known (and there were some aspects of the ideal of socialism which Mill found intriguing) but the practice of each was still not conclusive. Mill correctly observed that in 1848 no European society had yet created a society fully based upon private property and free exchange and any future socialist experiment on a state-wide basis was many decades in the future. After the experiments in Marxist central planning with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Chinese Communists in 1949, and numerous other Marxist states in the post-1945 period, there can be no doubt that the reservations Mill had about the practicality of fully-functioning socialism were completely borne out by historical events. What Mill could never have imagined, the slaughter of tens of millions of people in an effort to make socialism work, has ended for good any argument concerning the Marxist form of socialism.Econlib now offers online two important defences of the socialist ideal, Karl Marx’s three volume work on
Capital and the
collection of essays on Fabian socialism edited by George Bernard Shaw. These can be read in the light of the criticism they provoked among defenders of individual liberty and the free market: Eugen Richter’s anti-Marxist
Pictures of the Socialistic Future, Thomas Mackay’s
2 volume collection of essays rebutting Fabian socialism,
Ludwig von Mises post-1917 critique of
Socialism. One should not forget that
Frederic Bastiat was active during the rise of socialism in France during the 1840s and that many of his essays are aimed at rebutting the socialists of his day. The same is true for Gustave de Molinari and the other authors of the
Dictionnaire d’economie politique (1852). Several key articles on communism and socialism from the
Dictionnaire are translated and reprinted in Lalor’s
Cyclopedia.For further reading on Marx’s
Capital see David L. Prychitko’s essay
“The Nature and Significance of Marx’s
Capital: A Critique of Political Economy“.For further readings on socialism see the following entries in the
Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:
Poor Law Commissioners’ Report of 1834,
edited by Nassau W. Senior, et al.
March 1, 2004
Frederick Engels, ed. Ernest Untermann, trans.
First Pub. Date
Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co.
First published in German. Das Kapital, based on the 1st edition.
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Marx courtesy of The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
- Preface, by Frederick Engels
- Part I, Chapter 1
- Part I, Chapter 2
- Part I, Chapter 3
- Part I, Chapter 4
- Part I, Chapter 5
- Part I, Chapter 6
- Part I, Chapter 7
- Part II, Chapter 8
- Part II, Chapter 9
- Part II, Chapter 10
- Part II, Chapter 11
- Part II, Chapter 12
- Part III, Chapter 13
- Part III, Chapter 14
- Part III, Chapter 15
- Part IV, Chapter 16
- Part IV, Chapter 17
- Part IV, Chapter 18
- Part IV, Chapter 19
- Part IV, Chapter 20
- Part V, Chapter 21
- Part V, Chapter 22
- Part V, Chapter 23
- Part V, Chapter 24
- Part V, Chapter 25
- Part V, Chapter 26
- Part V, Chapter 27
- Part V, Chapter 28
- Part V, Chapter 29
- Part V, Chapter 30
- Part V, Chapter 31
- Part V, Chapter 32
- Part V, Chapter 33
- Part V, Chapter 34
- Part V, Chapter 35
- Part V, Chapter 36
- Part VI, Chapter 37
- Part VI, Chapter 38
- Part VI, Chapter 39
- Part VI, Chapter 40
- Part VI, Chapter 41
- Part VI, Chapter 42
- Part VI, Chapter 43
- Part VI, Chapter 44
- Part VI, Chapter 45
- Part VI, Chapter 46
- Part VI, Chapter 47
- Part VII, Chapter 48
- Part VII, Chapter 49
- Part VII, Chapter 50
- Part VII, Chapter 51
- Part VII, Chapter 52
THE CONVERSION OF SURPLUS-VALUE INTO PROFIT AND OF THE RATE OF SURPLUS-VALUE INTO THE RATE OF PROFIT.
Book III. The Process of Capitalist Production As a Whole.
Volume III. The Process of Capitalist Production As a Whole.
IN the first volume we analyzed the phenomena presented by the
process of capitalist production, considered by itself as a mere productive process without regard to any secondary influences of conditions outside of it. But this process of production, in the strict meaning of the term, does not exhaust the life circle of capital. It is supplemented in the actual world by the
process of circulation, which was the object of our analysis in the second volume. We found in the course of this last-named analysis, especially in part III, in which we studied the intervention of the process of circulation in the process of social reproduction, that the capitalist process of production, considered as a whole, is a combination of the processes of production and circulation. It cannot be the object of this third volume to indulge in general reflections relative to this combination. We are rather interested in locating
the concrete forms growing out of the
movements of capitalist production as a whole and setting them forth. In actual reality the capitals move and meet in such concrete forms that the form of the capital in the process of production and that of the capital in the process of circulation impress one only as special aspects of those concrete forms. The conformations of the capitals evolved in this third volume approach step by step that form which they assume on the surface of society, in their mutual interactions, in competition, and in the ordinary consciousness of the human agencies in this process.
The value of every commodity produced by capitalist methods is represented by the formula: C = c + v + s. If we subtract the surplus-value s from this value of the product, there remains only an equivalent for the value of the capital c + v expended for the elements used in the production of this commodity.
Take it that the production of a certain article requires the expenditure of a capital of 500 p.st., of which 20 p.st. are consumed by the wear and tear of instruments of production, 380 p.st. spent for materials of production, and 100 p.st. for labor-power. And let the rate of surplus-value be 100%. In that case the value of this product is equal to 400 c + 100 v + 100 s, or 600 p.st.
After deducting the surplus-value of 100 p.st., we have a remaining commodity-capital of 500 p.st., which is only an equivalent for the consumed capital of 500 p.st. This portion of the value of the commodity, which makes good the price of the consumed means of production and the price of the employed labor-power, replaces only the amount paid by the capitalist himself for this commodity and represents, therefore, from his point of view the cost price of this commodity.
However, the cost of this commodity to the capitalist, and the actual cost of this commodity, are two vastly different amounts. That portion of the value of the commodity which consists of surplus-value does not cost the capitalist anything for the reason that it costs the laborer unpaid labor. But on
the basis of capitalist production, the laborer plays the role of an ingredient of productive capital as soon as he has been incorporated in the process of production. Under these circumstances the capitalist poses as the actual producer of the commodity. For this reason the cost price of the commodity to the capitalist necessarily appears to him as the actual cost of the commodity. If we designate the cost-price by k, we can transcribe the formula C = c + v + s into the formula C = k + s, that is to say, the value of a commodity is equal to the cost price plus the surplus-value.
In this way the classification of the various values making good the value of the capital consumed in the production of the commodity under the term of cost price expresses, on the one hand, the specific character of capitalist production. The capitalist cost of the commodity is measured by the
expenditure of capital, while the actual cost of the commodity is measured by the
expenditure of labor. The capitalist cost-price of the commodity, then, is a quantity different from its value, or its actual cost-price. It is smaller than the value of the commodity. For since C = k + s, it is evident that k = C – s. On the other hand, the cost-price of a commodity is by no means a mere heading in capitalist bookkeeping. The actual existence of this portion of value continually exerts its practical influence in the actual production of the commodity, because it must be ever reconverted from its commodity-form, by way of the process of circulation, into the form of productive capital, so that the cost-price of the commodity must always buy anew the elements of production consumed in its creation.
However, the cost-price as a heading in bookkeeping has nothing to do with the formation of the value of a commodity, or with the process of self-expansion of capital. When I know that five-sixths of the value of a commodity worth 600 p.st., or 500 p.st., represent but an equivalent for the capital consumed in its production and suffice only for the purchase of new material elements of the same capital, I know nothing as yet of the way in which these five-sixths representing the cost-price of the commodity are produced, nor do I know anything
about the production of the last sixth which constitutes its surplus-value. Nevertheless we shall see in the course of our analysis that the cost-price plays in capitalist economics the false role of a category in the actual production of values.
Let us return to our example. Take it that the value produced by one laborer in an average social working day is represented by 6 shillings in money. In that case the advanced capital of 500 p.st. consisting of 400 c + 100 v represents the values produced in 1666 2/3 working days of ten hours each. Of this amount 1333 1/3 working days are crystallized in the value of the means of production amounting to 400 p.st. (400 c), and 333 1/3 working days are crystallized in the value of labor-power amounting to 100 p.st. (100 v). Having assumed a rate of surplus-value of 100%, the production of the new commodity costs an expenditure of labor-power amounting to 100 v + 100 s, or 666 2/3 working days of ten hours each.
We know, then, as shown in volume I, chapter VII, that the value of the newly created product of 600 p.st. is composed, 1), of the reappearing value of the constant capital of 400 p.st. expended for means of production, and 2), of a newly produced value of 200 p.st. The cost-price of the commodity, or 500 p.st., comprises the reappearing 400 c and one-half of the newly produced value of 200 p.st., that is to say 100 v. In other words, it comprises two elements of the value of the commodity which are of widely different origin.
Owing to the appropriate character of the labor expended during 666 2/3 working days of ten hours each, the value of the means of production consumed in this process, to the amount of 400 p.st., is transferred to the product. This previously existing value thus reappears as an element of the value of the product, but is not created in the process of production of
this commodity. It exists as an element of the value of this commodity only for the reason that it previously existed as an element of the invested capital. The expended constant capital, then, is replaced by that portion of the value of the commodity which this capital transfers to the commodity of its own accord in the labor-process. This element of the cost-price, therefore, has an ambiguous meaning. On the one
hand it passes into the cost-price of the commodity, because it is an element of that portion of the value of the commodity which replaces consumed capital. And on the other hand it forms an element of the value of the commodity only for the reason that it is the value of consumed capital, or because the means of production cost a certain sum.
It is different with the other element of the cost-price. The 666 2/3 working days expended in the production of the commodity create a new value of 200 p.st. One portion of this new value replaces only the advanced variable capital of 100 p.st., which is the price of the labor-power employed. But this advanced capital-value does not participate in the creation of the new value. So far as the advance of capital is concerned, labor-power
counts as a value. But in the process of production, labor-power performs the function of
creating value. The place of the mere value of labor-power in the advance of capital is taken in the actual process of productive capital by living labor-power which creates value.
This difference of the various elements of the value of a commodity which constitute the cost-price becomes evident whenever a change takes place either in the amount of the value of the expended constant capital or in that of the expended variable capital. For instance, let the price of the same means of production, or of the constant portion of capital, rise from 400 p.st. to 600 p.st., or fall to 200 p.st. In the first case it is not only the cost-price of the commodity which rises from 500 p.st. to 600 c + 100 v, or 700 p.st., but also the value of the commodity which rises from 600 p.st. to 600 c + 100 v + 100 s, or 800 p.st. In the second case, it is not only the cost-price which falls from 500 p.st. to 200 c + 100 v, or 300 p.st., but also the value of the commodity which falls from 600 p.st. to 200 c + 100 v + 100 s, or 400 p.st. Because the expended constant capital transfers its own value to the product, therefore the value of the product rises or falls with the absolute magnitude of that capital-value, other circumstances remaining the same. But on the other hand let us assume that, other circumstances remaining the same, the price of the same amount of labor-power rises from 100 p.st.
to 150 p.st., or falls from 100 p.st. to 50 p.st. In the first case, the cost-price rises indeed from 500 p.st. to 400 c + 150 v, or 550 p.st., and in the second case it falls from 500 p.st. to 400 c + 50 v, or 450 p.st. But in either case, the value of the commodity remains unchanged at 600 p.st. In the first case it is 400 c + 150 v + 50 s, in the second 400 c + 50 v + 150 s, but in either case it is 600 p.st. The advanced variable capital does not transfer its own value to the product. The place of its value is taken in the product by a new value created by labor. Therefore a change in the value of the absolute magnitude of the variable capital, to the extent that it expresses merely a change in the price of labor-power, does not alter the absolute magnitude of the value of the commodity in the least, because it does not alter anything in the absolute magnitude of the new value created by living labor. Such a change influences only the relative proportion of the magnitudes of the two elements of the new value, one of which forms surplus-value, and the other of which makes good the variable capital and passes into the cost-price of the commodity.
The two elements of the cost-price, in the present case 400 c + 100 v, have only this in common that they are both of them elements of the value of the commodity replacing advanced capital.
But this actual condition of things must necessarily look reversed from the point of view of capitalist production.
The capitalist mode of production is distinguished from a mode of production based on slavery by this fact among others that in the former the value, or the price, as the case may be, of labor-power assumes the form of the value, or price, of labor itself, that is to say, the form of wages. (Volume I, chapter XIX.) The variable portion of the advanced capital, therefore, presents itself as a capital advanced in wages, as a capital-value paying for the value, or price, of all labor expended in production. Take it, for instance, that an average social working day of ten hours is represented by 6 shillings of money. In that case the advance of a variable capital of 100 p.st. expresses in money
the value of a product created in 333 1/3 ten-hour days. But this value, being an element of the advance of capital for the purchase of labor-power, is not an element of the productive capital in the actual performance of its function. Its place in the process of production is taken by living labor-power. If the degree of exploitation of this labor-power is 100%, as it is in our illustration, then it is expended during 666 2/3 ten-hour days, and thereby adds to the product a new value of 200 p.st. On the other hand, the variable capital of 100 p.st. figures in the advance of capital as a capital invested in wages, or as the price of labor performed in 666 2/3 ten-hour days. Dividing 100 p.st. by 666 2/3, we obtain 3 shillings as the price of a working day of ten hours, equal in value to the product of five hours’ labor.
Now, if we compare the advance of capital on one side with the value of commodities on the other, we find the following condition of things:
I. Capital advanced 500 p.st., consisting of 400 p.st. of capital expended in means of production (price of means of production) plus 100 p.st. of capital expended in wages (price of 666 2/3 working days, or wages for the same).
II. Value of commodities 600 p.st. of which 500 p.st. represent the cost-price (400 p.st. price of expended means of production plus 100 p.st. price of expended 666 2/3 working days) plus 100 p.st. surplus-value.
In this formula, the portion of capital invested in labor-power differs from that invested in means of production (such as cotton or coal) only by serving for the payment of a substantially different element of production. But it does not differ by serving in a different function in the process of creating the value of the commodities, and thereby in the process of self-expansion of capital. The price of the means of production reappears in the cost-price of the commodities, just as it figured in the advance of capital, and it does so for the reason that the means of production have been appropriately consumed. The cost-price of the commodities also contains the price, or wages, for the 666 2/3 working days consumed in the production of these commodities, which wages
figured also in the advance of capital, likewise for the reason that this amount of labor has been appropriately expended. We see only finished and existing values, representing portions of the value of advanced capital which have passed into the value of the product, but no element representing newly created values. The distinction between constant and variable capital has disappeared. The entire cost-price of 500 p.st. now has the ambiguous meaning that it is that portion of the value of commodities worth 600 p.st. which makes good the capital of 500 p.st. expended in the production of these commodities, and that it owes its existence as a portion of the value of these commodities only to the fact of having previously existed as the cost-price of the consumed elements of production, namely means of production and labor, in other words, of having existed as an advance of capital. The capital-value reappears as the cost-price of commodities, because it had been expended as a capital-value.
The fact that the various elements of the value of the advanced capital have been expended for substantially different elements of production, namely for instruments of labor, raw materials, auxiliary substances, and labor, requires only that the cost-price of the commodities should buy a new supply of these substantially different elements of production. So far as the formation of this cost-price is concerned, only one distinction is appreciable, namely that between fixed and circulating capital. In our example we had set down 20 p.st. for wear and tear of instruments of labor (400 c being composed of 20 p.st. for wear and tear of instruments of labor and 380 p.st. for materials of production). Supposing the value of those instruments of labor to have been 1200 p.st. before the productive process began, it will exist after the production of the commodities in two forms, one of them being represented by 20 p.st. of the value of the commodities, and the other by 1200—20, or 1180 p.st., the remaining value of the instruments of labor in the possession of the capitalist, in other words, an element of his productive, not of his commodity-capital. On the other hand, the materials of production and wages, differ from the instruments of labor by being entirely consumed
in the production of the commodities and transferring their entire value to that of the produced commodities. We have seen that the turn-over bestows upon these different elements of the advanced capital the forms of fixed and circulating capital.
The advance of capital, according to this, is 1680 p.st., consisting of 1200 p.st. of fixed capital plus 480 p.st. of circulating capital (380 p.st. of which are materials of production and 100 p.st. of which are wages).
But the cost-price of the commodities is only 500 p.st., namely 20 p.st. for the wear and tear of the fixed capital, and 480 p.st. for circulating capital.
This difference between the cost-price of the commodities and the advance of capital merely proves that the cost-price of the commodities is formed exclusively by the capital actually consumed in their production.
In the production of the commodities, instruments of production valued at 1200 p.st. are employed, but only 20 p.st. of this advanced capital are consumed in production. The employed fixed capital, then, passes only partially into the cost-price of commodities, because it is consumed only by degrees in their production. The employed circulating capital passes entirely into the cost-price of commodities, because it is entirely consumed in production. But what else does this prove than that the consumed portions of fixed and circulating capital, in the ratio of the magnitude of their values, pass uniformly into the cost-price of the commodities, and that this portion of the value of commodities originates solely with the capital consumed in their production? If this were not the case, it would be inexplicable why the advanced fixed capital of 1200 p.st. should not add, aside from the 20 p.st. which it loses in the productive process, also the other 1180 p.st. which it does not lose therein.
This difference between fixed and circulating capital with reference to the calculation of the cost-price affirms, we repeat, the apparent origin of the cost-price in the expended capital-value, or in the price paid by the capitalist himself for the expended elements of production, including labor.
On the other hand, the variable portion of capital invested in labor-power is explicitly identified, under the head of circulating capital, with that portion of the constant capital which consists of materials of production, so far as the formation of value is concerned. And by this means the mystification of the process of self-expansion of capital is accomplished.
Hitherto we have considered only one element of the value of commodities, namely the cost-price. We must now occupy ourselves also with the other element of the value of commodities, namely the excess over the cost-price, or the surplus-value. In the first place, then, surplus-value is an excess of the value of a commodity over its cost-price. But since the cost-price is equal to the value of the consumed capital, into whose substantial elements it is continually reconverted, the additional value is an accretion to the capital expended in the production of the commodities and returning by way of the circulation.
We have seen previously that the surplus-value s owes its origin in point of fact to a change in the value of the variable capital v and is, therefore, really but an increment of variable capital. Nevertheless it is also an increment of the expended total capital c + v after the process of production has been completed. The formula c + (v + s), which indicates that s is produced by the conversion of a definite capital-value v, a constant magnitude, into a fluctuating magnitude by means of the labor-power paid by it, may also be represented as (c + v) + s. Before production began, we had a capital of 500 p.st. After production is completed, we have the same capital of 500 p.st. plus an increment of value amounting to 100 p.st.
However, the surplus-value is an increment, not only of that portion of the advanced capital which is assimilated by the process of production, but also of that portion which is not assimilated. In other words, it is an accretion, not only to the consumed capital which is made good by the cost-price of commodities, but also to the aggregate capital invested in production. Before the beginning of the production we had a capital valued at 1680 p.st., namely 1200 p.st. of fixed capital invested in instruments of production, only 20 p.st. of which are assimilated in the process by the commodities through wear and tear, plus 480 p.st. of circulating capital invested in materials of production and wages. At the close of the process of production we have 1180 p.st. remaining of the value of the productive capital plus a commodity-capital of 600 p.st. By adding these two amounts, we find that the capitalist now has values amounting to 1780 p.st. After deducting his invested total capital of 1680 p.st., the capitalist pockets a surplus of 100 p.st. In short, the 100 p.st. of surplus-value form as much an increment of the invested 1680 p.st. as of the 500 p.st., or that part of it which was assimilated by the production.
The capitalist understands well enough that this increment of value has its genesis in the productive manipulations of capital, that it is generated out of the capital. For this increment exists at the close of the productive process, while it did not exist at its beginning. So far as the capital assimilated in production is concerned, the surplus-value seems to arise equally from all its different elements consisting of means of production and labor. For all these elements contribute equally to the formation of the cost-price. All of them add their values, which are advanced as capital, to the value of the product, and they are not distinguished as constant and variable magnitudes. This becomes obvious, when we assume for a moment that all assimilated capital consisted either of wages exclusively, or of the values of means of production alone. In the first case, we should then have in place of the commodity-values 400 c + 100 v + 100 s the commodity-values 500 v + 100 s. The capital of 500, invested
in wages, represents the value of all labor assimilated in the production of the commodity-value of 600 p.st., and therefore it constitutes the cost-price of this entire product. But the way in which this cost-price is formed, and in which the value of the expended capital is reproduced as a portion of the value of the product, is the only process in the formation of the value of this product known to us. We do not know anything of the way in which its surplus-portion of 100 p.st. is formed. It is the same in the second case, in which the value of the commodities would be equal to 500 c + 100 s. We know in either case that the surplus-value arises from a given value, because this value was advanced in the form of productive capital, no matter whether in the form of labor or of means of production. On the other hand, this advanced capital-value cannot form any surplus-value for the sole reason that it has been expended and constitutes the cost-price of the commodities. For the fact that it forms the cost-price of the commodities accounts precisely for the circumstance that it constitutes no surplus-value, but merely an equivalent replacing the expended capital. To the extent that it forms surplus-value it does so not in its specific capacity of expended, but of advanced and invested capital. In short, the surplus-value arises as much out of that portion of the advanced capital which makes good the cost-price of the commodities as out of that portion which is not made up by the cost-price. In other words, it arises equally out of the fixed and circulating components of the invested capital. The total capital serves substantially as the creator of values, the instruments of labor as well as the materials of production and labor. The total capital passes substantially into the actual labor-process, even though only a portion of it is assimilated by the process of self-expansion. This is, perhaps, the very reason why it contributes only in part to the formation of the cost-price, but totally to the formation of the surplus-value. However that may be, the outcome is that surplus-value arises simultaneously from all portions of the invested capital. This deduction may be materially abbreviated, by saying pointedly and briefly in the words of Malthus: “The
capitalist expects equal returns on all parts of the capital advanced by him.”
In its alleged capacity of an offspring of the advanced total capital, the surplus-value assumes the change of form known as
profit. Hence a certain value is capital when it is advanced with a view to generating profit,
*4 or profit results from the investment of a value as capital. If we designate profit by p, we may convert the formula C = c + v + s, or k + s, into the formula C = k + p, in other words,
the value of a commodity is equal to the cost-price plus the profit.
The profit, such as it presents itself here, is the same as the surplus-value, only it has a mystified form, which is a necessary outgrowth of capitalist modes of production. The genesis of the mutation of values must be transferred from the variable portion of capital to the total capital, because no distinction is noticeable between the constant and variable capital in the assumed formation of the cost-price. Because the price of labor-power assumes on one pole the form of wages, surplus-value appears at the other pole in the form of profit.
We have seen that the cost-price of a commodity is smaller than its value. Since C equals k + s, it follows that k equals C – s. The formula C = k + s reduces itself to C = k, or commodity-value equal to cost-price, only when s is zero, a case which never occurs on the basis of capitalist production, although peculiar market combinations may reduce the selling price of commodities to the level of their cost-price, or even below it.
Hence, if a commodity is sold at its value, a profit is realized, which is equal to the excess of its value over its cost-price, or equal to the entire surplus-value incorporated in the value of the commodity. But the capitalist may sell a commodity at a profit even when selling it below its value. For so long as its selling price exceeds its cost-price, even though
it may be below its value, a portion of the surplus-value incorporated in it is always realized and thus a profit made. The value of the commodities in our illustration is 600 p.st., their cost-price 500 p.st. If the commodities are sold at 510, 520, 530, 560 or 590, p.st., they are sold respectively at 90, 80, 70, 40, or 10 p.st. below their value, and yet a profit of respectively 10, 20, 30, 60, or 90 p.st. is realized by their sale. It is evident that selling prices may fluctuate considerably between the value of a commodity and its cost-price. The greater the surplus-element of the value of commodities, the greater is the practical playroom of these fluctuating intermediate prices.
This explains such phenomena of daily occurrence in competition as underselling, abnormally low prices in certain lines of industry, etc.
*5 The fundamental law of capitalist competition, which political economy has not understood up to the present time, the law which regulates the general rate of profit and the prices of production determined by it, rests, as we shall see later, on this difference between the value and the cost-price of commodities, and on the resulting possibility to sell a commodity at a profit even below its value.
The minimum limit of the selling price of commodities is indicated by their cost-price. If they are sold below their cost-price, then the consumed elements of productive capital cannot be fully reproduced out of the selling price. If this sort of thing continues, then the value of the advanced capital disappears. This point of view is sufficient to incline the capitalist toward the opinion that the cost-price is essentially the inmost value of commodities, because it is the price required for the bare conservation of his capital. Furthermore, the cost-price of a commodity is the purchase price paid by the capitalist himself for its production, in other words, the purchase price determined by the process of production itself. For this reason, the surplus-value realized by the sale of a certain commodity appears to the capitalist as an excess of its selling price over its value, instead of an excess of its value over its cost-price, so that accordingly the surplus-value
incorporated in a commodity is not realized by its sale, but arises out of the sale itself. We have thrown more light on this illusion in volume I, chapter V, under the head of “Contradictions in the General Formula of Capital.” We merely revert at this point to that form in which it was reaffirmed by Torrens, among others, as an advance of political economy beyond Ricardo.
“The natural price consisting of the cost of production, or in other words, of the expenditure of capital in the production or manufacture of a commodity, cannot possibly include any profit….If a farmer advances 100 quarters of corn in the cultivation of his fields, and receives in return 120 quarters, the 20 quarters, being a surplus of the product above the investment, form his profit; but it would be absurd to call this surplus, or profit, a part of his expenditure….The manufacturer advances a certain quantity of raw materials, tools, and subsistence for labor, and receives in return a quantity of finished products. This finished product must contain a greater exchange-value than the raw materials, tools, and means of subsistence, by whose advance it was acquired.” Torrens concludes, therefore, that the excess of the selling price over the cost-price, or the profit, is due to the fact that the consumers, “by a direct or circuitous exchange yield a certain larger portion of all ingredients of capital than it cost to produce them.”
In fact, the excess over a certain magnitude cannot form a part of this magnitude. Therefore the profit, the excess of the value of a commodity over the expenditure of the capitalist, cannot form a part of this expenditure. Hence, if no other element than the advance of the capitalist enters into the formation of the value of a commodity, it is inexplicable that more value should come out of production than went into it, for something cannot come out of nothing. Torrens, however, dodges this creation out of nothing only by transferring it from the sphere of commodity-production to that of commodity-circulation. Profit cannot come out of the production
of commodities, says Torrens, for otherwise it would already be contained in the cost of production, and that would not be a surplus over this cost. Profit cannot come out of the exchanges of commodities, replies Ramsay, unless it existed before this exchange. The sum of their values of the exchanged products is evidently not altered by their exchange. It remains the same as before this exchange. Incidentally we remark at this point, that Malthus invokes expressly the authority of Torrens,
*7 although he himself explains the sale of commodities above their value differently, or rather does not explain it, since all arguments of this sort ultimately amount to the same thing as the one-time famous negative weight of phlogiston.
In a society ruled by capitalist production, even the non-capitalist producer is dominated by capitalist conceptions. In his last novel,
Les Paysans, Balzac, who is generally remarkable for his profound grasp of actual conditions, aptly describes how the little peasant, in order to retain the good will of his usurer, performs many small tasks gratuitously for him and fancies that he does not give him anything for nothing, because his own labor does not cost him any cash outlay. The usurer, on the other hand, thereby kills two flies at one stroke. He saves a cash outlay for wages and gets the farmer more and more tangled in the net of the spider of usury, by gradually ruining him through the deviation of his labor from his own fields.
The thoughtless conception that the cost-price of a commodity constitutes its actual value, and that surplus-value arises by selling the product above its value, so that commodities would be sold at their value, if their selling price were equal to their cost-price, that is to say, equal to the price of the means of production plus wages incorporated in them, has been heralded to the world as a newly discovered secret of socialism by Proudhon with his customary charlatanry in the guise of science. In fact, this reduction of the value of commodities to their cost-price constitutes the basis of his People’s Bank. We have demonstrated in a preceding chapter
that the various elements of the value of the product may be materialized in proportional parts of the product itself. (Volume I, chapter IX, 2.) For instance, if the value of 20 lbs. of yarn is 30 shillings, containing 24 shillings of means of production, 3 shillings of labor-power, and 3 shillings of surplus-value, then this surplus-value may be represented by 1/10 of the product, or 2 lbs. of yarn. Now, if these 20 lbs. of yarn are sold at their cost-price, at 27 shillings, then the purchaser receives 2 lbs. of yarn for nothing, or the article is sold 1/10 below its value. But the laborer has performed the same amount of surplus-labor, only in this case it accrues to the benefit of the purchaser of the yarn, not to its capitalist producer. It would be a mistake to assume that if all commodities were sold at their cost-price the result would be the same as if they had all been sold above their cost-price, at their real value. For even if the value of labor-power, the length of the working day, and the degree of exploitation of labor were the same everywhere, the quantities of surplus-value contained in the values of the various kinds of commodities would be unequal, according to the different organic composition of the capitals advanced for their production.
i.e., as their constituents transformed into living labor-power.” (Volume I, Chapter IX.)
Part I, Chapter III.