Misreading Rubin misreading Marx


An  objection to the last post was  raised by Adam Zebegner who claimed that it was well known that Marx specifically stated that exchange is a necessary condition for the existence of abstract labor. To justify this ‘well known’ position he cited Rubin to the effect that:

In the second edition of ‘Capital’, we find the famous phrase:

“The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract” (cf. Kapital p.87).

In the French edition Marx replaces the full stop at the end of this sentence with a comma and adds “… and only exchange produces this reduction, by bringing the products of the most diverse kinds of labour into relation with each other on an equal footing” (Le Capital I p.70).

This insertion is highly indicative and shows clearly how far removed Marx was from the physiological conception of abstract labour. How can we reconcile these observations by Marx, of which there are dozens, with the basic thesis that value is created in production?” ( Rubin )


This passage by Adam is quoting Rubin in a text that has a lot to answer for in terms of the confusion it has given rise to.


I reread the relevant German and English passages before writing the previous article and assosciated video. I have never studied Capital in French.  So I went and looked at French translations. The first thing that became evident is that there is considerable controversy over the accuracy of the first French translation by Roy. In what follows I give the passage from Capital that I quoted, first in the English Aveling translation, then in the German original and then in two french translations.

Aveling passage 1.

If then we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract. (Capital 1 Chap 1, page 28 )

German edition

Sieht man nun vom Gebrauchswert der Warenkörper ab, so bleibt ihnen nur noch eine Eigenschaft, die von Arbeitsprodukten. jedoch ist uns auch das Arbeitsprodukt bereits in der Hand verwandelt. Abstrahieren wir von seinem Gebrauchswert, so abstrahieren wir auch von den körperlichen Bestandteilen und Formen, die es zum Gebrauchswert machen. Es ist nicht länger Tisch oder Haus oder Garn oder sonst ein nützlich Ding. Alle seine sinnlichen Beschaffenheiten sind ausgelöscht. Es ist auch nicht länger das Produkt der Tischlerarbeit oder der Bauarbeit oder der Spinnarbeit oder sonst einer bestimmten produktiven Arbeit. Mit dem nützlichen Charakter der Arbeitsprodukte verschwindet der nützliche Charakter der in ihnen dargestellten Arbeiten, es verschwinden also auch die verschiedenen konkreten Formen dieser Arbeiten, sie unterscheiden sich nicht länger, sondern sind allzusamt reduziert auf gleiche menschliche Arbeit, abstrakt menschliche Arbeit.

Equivalent passage Roy

La valeur d’usage des marchandises une fois mise de côté, il ne leur reste plus qu’une qualité, celle d’être des produits du travail. Mais déjà le produit du travail lui-même est métamorphosé à notre insu. Si nous faisons abstraction de sa valeur d’usage, tous les éléments matériels et formels qui lui donnaient cette valeur disparaissent à la fois. Ce n’est plus, par exemple, une table, ou une maison, ou du fil, ou un objet utile quelconque ; ce n’est pas non plus le produit du travail du tourneur, du maçon, de n’importe quel travail productif déterminé. Avec les caractères utiles particuliers des produits du travail disparaissent en même temps, et le caractère utile des travaux qui y sont contenus, et les formes concrètes diverses qui distinguent une espèce de travail d’une autre espèce. Il ne reste donc plus que le caractère commun de ces travaux ; ils sont tous ramenés au même travail humain, à une dépense de force humaine de travail sans égard à la forme particulière sous laquelle cette force a été dépensée.

PUF edition 

Si l’on fait maintenant abstraction de la valeur d’usage du corps des marchandises , il ne leur reste plus qu’une seule propriété : celle d’être des produits du travail. Mais, même dans ce cas, ce produit du travail s’est déjà transformé dans nos mains. En faisant abstraction de sa valeur d’usage, nous faisons du même coup abstraction des composantes corporelles et des formes qui en font une valeur d’usage. Il cesse d’être table, maison ou fil, ou quelque autre chose utile que ce soit. Tous ses caractères sensibles sont effacés. Il cesse également d’être le produit du travail du menuisier, du maçon, du fileur, bref, d’un quelconque travail productif déterminé. En même temps que les caractères utiles des produits du travail, disparaissent ceux des travaux présents dans ces produits, et par là même les différentes formes concrètes de ces travaux, qui cessent d’être distincts les uns des autres, mais se confondent tous ensemble, se réduisent à du travail humain identique, à du travail humain abstrait.  


As you can see none of these texts, where Marx first introduces abstract labour, contain a passage equivalent to that cited in the Rubin text.  

It turns out that Rubin was not citing from section 1 of Chapter 1 of Capital where Marx defines abstract labour. Instead he was citing from the Roy edition of section 4 which is on the fetishism of commodities, that is to say on a section that deals with the ideological misrepresentation of real economic relations brought about by commodity exchange. In this process, the real cause of value -abstract labour – vanishes for the participants of capitalist society. Instead, value appears to be an intrinsic property of commodities rather than an indirect representation of the social cost of their production.. The whole of the passage is:

 “L’égalité de travaux qui diffèrent toto cœlo les uns des autres ne peut consister que dans une abstraction de leur inégalité réelle, que dans la réduction à leur caractère commun de dépense de force humaine, de travail humain en général, et c’est l’échange seul qui opère cette réduction en mettant en présence les uns des autres sur un pied d’égalité les produits des travaux les plus divers.

Le double caractère social des travaux privés ne se réfléchit dans le cerveau des producteurs que sous la forme que leur imprime le commerce pratique, l’échange des produits.”

Rubin only quotes the italicised section. He leaves out the bold section which makes it clear that Marx is not talking about the condition of existence of abstract labour, but the condition by which the existence of this labour forces itself into the brains of people in a capitalist economy. Marx is talking about how men become concious of abstract labour – which is not the same as the conditions of existence of abstract labour – it is the fetishised perception of it. In the Aveling version the context is even clearer :

 ” The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. “

It is verging on the mendacious for Rubin to have said  that the addendum to the French sentence “shows clearly how far removed Marx was from the physiological conception of abstract labour”. It is quite clear, once you read the whole passage, that Marx is not discussing the existence of abstract labour, but the form of representation this labour assumes in commodity producer’s brains.

Rubin goes beyond this and says :

This is not a question of an isolated comment by Marx. We will show that in the later editions of ‘Capital’, Marx increasingly stressed the idea that in commodity production only exchange reduces concrete labour to abstract labour.”

Whilst Rubin bends what Marx said slightly, at least Rubin is not claiming here that abstract labour only exists in commodity producing society – he is saying that if the society is commodity producing, then only exchange reduces concrete labour to abstract labour. Modern readers of Rubin go beyond this and claim that abstract labour can not exist in societies other than commodity producing ones. It is reasonable to say that in a commodity producing society men only become aware of abstract socially necessary labour time indirectly via exchange value, but that is neither the condition of its existence nor the only possible way in which it would be possible to be aware of it. In the communist society proposed by Marx products were to be directly labelled in the community warehouses with the hours required to produce them. 

The communist society would simply count the labours of the different trades as equivalent. The only distinction that, according to Marx, would apply is a distinction in speed and intensity of labour. But such distinctions are nothing to do with equating different concrete labours, instead they are distinctions between fast and slow workers within a given trade, between average mine workers and Stakanhov  to take a Soviet example.

The problem of people giving priority to interpreters when studying Capital, is that  these interpreters may have a particular axe to grind and be selective or misleading in their presentation of quotes from Marx. It is made worse when modern readers only have ready access to one side of the historical debate in which the arguments were developed. In the case of Rubin, his work is widely available in English, whereas most of those he was arguing with are only available, as Allin and I found, in fading microfiches of Russian journals of the inter-war years. 

For those interested I published on my blog the one translation that I have been able to find from Rubin’s opponents at this time. It is worth reading Isaak Dashkovskij to get some idea of the theoretical context in which Rubin was debating.


One Reply to “Misreading Rubin misreading Marx”

  1. The conception of abstract labour developed fully only with commodity production, but by itself it relates to all epochs. What must be its internal content, in order to be able, though it would be only in this limited sense, to relate to all epochs? Precisely this, which Marx gives: labour, as expenditure of physiological energy in indifferent form. The definition, which Rubin gives, does not allow to transfer the category of abstract labour outside of commodity production.

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