Chapter II: Of Value

Chapter II: Of Value


Value is the corner-stone of the economic edifice. The divine artist who has entrusted us with the continuation of his work has explained himself on this point to no one; but the few indications given may serve as a basis of conjecture. Value, in fact, presents two faces: one, which the economists call value in use, or intrinsic value; another, value in exchange, or of opinion. The effects which are produced by value under this double aspect, and which are very irregular so long as it is not established, — or, to use a more philosophical expression, so long as it is not constituted, are changed totally by this constitution.


The economists have very clearly shown the double character of value, but what they have not made equally plain is its contradictory nature. Here begins our criticism.

Utility is the necessary condition of exchange; but take away exchange, and utility vanishes: these two things are indissolubly connected. Where, then, is the contradiction?

Since all of us live only by labour and exchange, and grow richer as production and exchange increase, each of us produces as much useful value as possible, in order to increase by that amount his exchanges, and consequently his enjoyments. Well, the first effect, the inevitable effect, of the multiplication of values is to LOWER them: the more abundant is an article of merchandise, the more it loses in exchange and depreciates commercially. Is it not true that there is a contradiction between the necessity of labour and its results?

I adjure the reader, before rushing ahead for the explanation, to arrest his attention upon the fact.

A peasant who has harvested twenty sacks of wheat, which he with his family proposes to consume, deems himself twice as rich as if he had harvested only ten; likewise a housewife who has spun fifty yards of linen believes that she is twice as rich as if she had spun but twenty-five. Relatively to the household, both are right; looked at in their external relations, they may be utterly mistaken. If the crop of wheat is double throughout the whole country, twenty sacks will sell for less than ten would have sold for if it had been but half as great; so, under similar circumstances, fifty yards of linen will be worth less than twenty-five: so that value decreases as the production of utility increases, and a producer may arrive at poverty by continually enriching himself. And this seems unalterable, inasmuch as there is no way of escape except all the products of industry become infinite in quantity, like air and light, which is absurd. God of my reason! Jean-Jacques [Rousseau] would have said: it is not the economists who are irrational; it is political economy itself which is false to its definitions. Mentita est iniquitas sibi.

In the preceding examples the useful value exceeds the exchangeable value: in other cases it is less. Then the same phenomenon is produced, but in the opposite direction: the balance is in favour of the producer, while the consumer suffers. This is notably the case in seasons of scarcity, when the high price of provisions is always more or less factitious. There are also professions whose whole art consists in giving to an article of minor usefulness, which could easily be dispensed with, an exaggerated value of opinion: such, in general, are the arts of luxury. Man, through his aesthetic passion, is eager for the trifles the possession of which would highly satisfy his vanity, his innate desire for luxury, and his more noble and more respectable love of the beautiful: upon this the dealers in this class of articles speculate. To tax fancy and elegance is no less odious or absurd than to tax circulation: but such a tax is collected by a few fashionable merchants, whom general infatuation protects, and whose whole merit generally consists in warping taste and generating fickleness. Hence no one complains; and all the maledictions of opinion are reserved for the monopolists who, through genius, succeed in raising by a few cents the price of linen and bread.

It is little to have pointed out this astonishing contrast between useful value and exchangeable value, which the economists have been in the habit of regarding as very simple: it must be shown that this pretended simplicity conceals a profound mystery, which it is our duty to fathom.


Say and the economists who have succeeded him have observed that, labour being itself an object of valuation, a species of merchandise indeed like any other, to take it as the principal and efficient cause of value is to reason in a vicious circle. Therefore, they conclude, it is necessary to fall back on scarcity and opinion.

These economists, if they will allow me to say it, herein have shown themselves wonderfully careless. Labour is said to have value, not as merchandise itself, but in view of the values supposed to be contained in it potentially. The value of labour is a figurative expression, an anticipation of effect from cause.

It is a fiction by the same title as the productivity of capital. Labour produces, capital has value: and when, by a sort of ellipsis, we say the value of labour, we make an enjambment which is not at all contrary to the rules of language, but which theorists ought to guard against mistaking for a reality. Labour, like liberty, love, ambition, genius, is a thing vague and indeterminate in its nature, but qualitatively defined by its object, — that is, it becomes a reality through its product.[6] When, therefore, we say: This man's labour is worth five francs per day, it is as if we should say: The daily product of this man's labour is worth five francs.

Now, the effect of labour is continually to eliminate scarcity and opinion as constitutive elements of value, and, by necessary consequence, to transform natural or indefinite utilities (appropriated or not) into measurable or social utilities: whence it follows that labour is at once a war declared upon the parsimony of Nature and a permanent conspiracy against property.


It is an axiom generally admitted by the economists that all labour should leave a surplus.

I regard this proposition as universally and absolutely true; it is a corollary of the law of proportionality, which may be regarded as an epitome of the whole science of economy. But — I beg pardon of the economists — the principle that all labour should leave a surplus has no meaning in their theory, and is not susceptible of demonstration. If supply and demand alone determine value, how can we tell what is a surplus and what is a sufficiency? If neither cost, nor market price, nor wages can be mathematically determined, how is it possible to conceive of a surplus, a profit? Commercial routine has given us the idea of profit as well as the word; and, since we are equal politically, we infer that every citizen has an equal right to realise profits in his personal industry. But commercial operations are essentially irregular, and it has been proved beyond question that the profits of commerce are but an arbitrary discount forced from the consumer by the producer, — in short, a displacement, to say the least. This we should soon see, if it was possible to compare the total amount of annual losses with the amount of profits. In the thought of political economy, the principle that all labour should leave a surplus is simply the consecration of the constitutional right which all of us gained by the revolution, — the right of robbing one’s neighbour.

The law of proportionality of values alone can solve this problem. I will approach the question a little farther back: its gravity warrants me in treating it with the consideration that it merits.


I have demonstrated theoretically and by facts the principle that all labour should leave a surplus; but this principle, as certain as any proposition in arithmetic, is very far from universal realisation. While, by the progress of collective industry, each individual day’s labour yields a greater and greater product, and while, by necessary consequence, the worker, receiving the same wages, must grow ever richer, there exist in society classes which thrive and classes which perish; workers paid twice, thrice, a hundred times over, and workers continually out of pocket; everywhere, finally, people who enjoy and people who suffer, and, by a monstrous division of the means of industry, individuals who consume and do not produce. The distribution of well-being follows all the movements of value, and reproduces them in misery and luxury on a frightful scale and with terrible energy. But everywhere, too, the progress of wealth — that is, the proportionality of values — is the dominant law; and when the economists combat the complaints of the socialists with the progressive increase of public wealth and the alleviations of the condition of even the most unfortunate classes, they proclaim, without suspecting it, a truth which is the condemnation of their theories.

For I entreat the economists to question themselves for a moment in the silence of their hearts, far from the prejudices which disturb them, and regardless of the employments which occupy them or which they wait for, of the interests which they serve, of the votes which they covet, of the distinctions which tickle their vanity: let them tell me whether, hitherto, they have viewed the principle that all labour should leave a surplus in connection with this series of premises and conclusions which we have elaborated, and whether they ever have understood these words to mean anything more than the right to speculate in values by manipulating supply and demand; whether it is not true that they affirm at once, on the one hand the progress of wealth and well-being, and consequently the measure of values, and on the other the arbitrariness of commercial transactions and the incommensurability of values, — the flattest of contradictions? Is it not because of this contradiction that we continually hear repeated in lectures, and read in the works on political economy, this absurd hypothesis: If the price of ALL things was doubled…? As if the price of all things was not the proportion of things, and as if we could double a proportion, a relation, a law! Finally, is it not because of the proprietary and abnormal routine upheld by political economy that every one, in commerce, industry, the arts, and the State, on the pretended ground of services rendered to society, tends continually to exaggerate his importance, and solicits rewards, subsidies, large pensions, exorbitant fees: as if the reward of every service was not determined necessarily by the sum of its expenses? Why do not the economists, if they believe, as they appear to, that the labour of each should leave a surplus, use all their influence in spreading this truth, so simple and so luminous: Each man’s labour can buy only the value which it contains, and this value is proportional to the services of all other workers?[7]


End Notes

[6] Marx (61) quotes this and then adds, without indicating the different source, the following sentences from Chapter V: “But what need of insisting? From the moment that the communist changes the name of things, vera rerum vocabala, he tacitly admits his powerlessness, and puts himself out of the question.” Ironically, he also changes (again without indicating) “communist” to “economist” and mockingly inserts “(read M. Proudhon)” in the modified text. (Editor)

[7] Cf. Marx: “It is beyond doubt that M. Proudhon confounds the two measures, the measure by the labour-time necessary to the production of a commodity, and the measure by the value of labour. ‘The labour of every man,’ says he, ‘will purchase the labour which it embodies.’ Thus according to him, a certain quantity of labour embodied in a product equals in value the remuneration of the worker, that is to say, the value of labour.” (59) Proudhon, in fact, is taunting the bourgeois economists as he is well aware that a workers’ wages did not equal their product under capitalism, arguing that the capitalist appropriates both the workers’ “collective power” (Chapter VI: section II) and “surplus of labour” (Chapter XI: section IV). (Editor)


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