Episode 25: Dialogue with Patrick Murray on the Value-Form Paradigm, Part 1

Brendan and Andrew welcome Patrick Murray, the noted value-form theorist, onto the podcast. (The value-form paradigm is a Marx-inspired strand of political economy that focuses on the market.) Patrick responds to the recent, two-episode RFH discussion––“The Value-Form Paradigm vs. Marx’s ‘Capital’”––and enters into extended dialogue with the co-hosts. Much of the discussion focuses on whether, in Marx’s theory, a commodity’s value is only potential before it is sold; whether “co-constitutive” value-form theory collapses into a more extreme version in which actual values are ultimately determined only in exchange; and whether Marx held that the magnitude of a commodity’s value is determined exclusively by the amount of labor that is socially necessary to produce it. (Part 2 of this discussion will be released in the near future.)

Throughout the discussion, frequent reference is made to: a published symposium on the value-form paradigm, in which Andrew and others criticized the paradigm, while Patrick responded to them; Part 1 and Part 2 of the recent RFH discussion, in which Andrew replied to Patrick; and Marx’s Capital, especially chapter 1 and chapter 3 of volume 1.

Plus: current-events segment on the Republican and Democratic national conventions—or, perhaps, infomercials.

Radio Free Humanity is a podcast covering news, politics and philosophy from a Marxist-Humanist perspective. It is co-hosted by Brendan Cooney and Andrew Kliman. We intend to release new episodes every two weeks. Radio Free Humanity is sponsored by MHI, but the views expressed by the co-hosts and guests of Radio Free Humanity are their own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and positions of MHI.

We welcome and encourage listeners’ comments, posted on this episode’s page.

Please visit MHI’s online print publication, With Sober Senses, for further news, commentary, and analysis.

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August 29, 2020


  1. Is Murray just saying that one cannot or doesn’t know if a commodity has Value UNLESS AND UNTIL it is sold in the market; therefore, prices and Values are codetermined and there is no explanatory or ontological priority to either individually? That sounds like neoclassical simultaneity with a twist, not Marxism.

  2. “Is Murray just saying that one cannot or doesn’t know if a commodity has Value UNLESS AND UNTIL it is sold in the market; therefore, prices and Values are codetermined.”

    That certainly seems to be one argument of his. The argument is illogical (the “therefore” doesn’t hold), since, as I said on the podcast, it confuses and conflates “what is” with “what is known.” Might as well say that we didn’t know, before Pasteur’s experiments, that germs cause disease, so they have caused disease only since then.

    As far as I can tell, Murray’s view is that things actually acquire value (become values) only by being sold, and only for that moment. Before and after that moment, they only potentially have value (are only potentially values). But it was hard to get clarification of this during the discussion, perhaps because this formulation makes clear that it’s the same view that Samuel Bailey had: “Value is a relation between contemporary commodities, because such only admit of being exchanged for each other.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1863/theories-surplus-value/ch20.htm

    As you suggest, Marx’s view was the very opposite. He defined capital as follows:

    value is here the active factor in a process, in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it at the same time changes in magnitude, differentiates itself by throwing off surplus-value from itself ….

    Value, … through all these changes preserving itself and expanding, … requires some independent form, by means of which its identity may at any time be established. And this form it possesses only in the shape of money. …

    Value therefore now becomes value in process, money in process, and, as such, capital. It comes out of circulation, enters into it again, preserves and multiplies itself within its circuit, comes back out of it with expanded bulk, and begins the same round ever afresh. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch04.htm

  3. I’ve read Murray’s Mismeasure of Wealth, and it’s an excellent book. Everyone that takes Marx seriously should own a copy with marginalia notes, highlights, etc.

    However, my memory – which is hardly impeccable – was not very keen on one essay, and that was his defense of value form theory, Chapter 15, titled ‘avoided bad abstractions’. I seem to remember that in his essay he gave a series of defenses as to why Kliman’s characterization of value form theory were a strawman, or at least, not wholly accurate, but I don’t remember any *positive* arguments put forward as to why we should *accept* or *prefer* value form theory (Kliman’s reading that value and surplus value arise from production strikes me as the correct reading of Marx). Hence, the essay spends a lot of time explaining what critics get wrong about the theory, but as far as I remember, spent little to no time arguing why critics should *accept* the theory.

    But again, my memory is hardly impeccable.

    • I think chap. 15 of Murray’s book is a republication of his essay, also entitled “Avoiding Bad Abstractions,” in the value-form symposium we discuss. The link to “Patrick” in this ep’s description, above, takes you to the symposium essay.

      • Yes, it’s that exact essay.

        Again, I highly recommend the book overall, it’s *excellent*, but that essay did stand out as the most vexing in the lot.

  4. At 33:22 Murray makes, to my mind, a mistake in his argument, if he’s claiming that value form theory *is* Marx’s theory, which I think he is claiming. He states that a commodity can be produced according to SNLT, but if it doesn’t have a use value it won’t sell. But that has the order in reverse. In order for there to be SNLT – the SOCIAL part – i.e., that deals with use values, is already obtaining. So the commodity must first be recognized as a use value before it can be produced in conformity with SNLT.

    Now Murray could respond with his *epistemological* charge, that what if by the new by SNLT new coke comes to market, Diabetes-CORONA hits and no one wants it? Fine, but that wouldn’t change the fact that *initially* value was engendered in production, but subsequently failed to be realized in sale, and that value in general was unrealized. Still, the value was first engendered in production.

    • In re the 1st para. (by CB, on Sept. 11) I agree. It’s a point I stressed a few times during the segment. I think the most straightforward way to put it is this: If there’s no demand for a thing, it’s not a use-value; hence it’s not a commodity and isn’t a value / doesn’t have value (as distinct from having a value of 0). And hence, Marx’s theory of what determines commodities’ values just doesn’t apply to it.

      On the second point–maybe, but very unlikely. More likely, the thing never had value / never was a value, because there wasn’t demand for it, etc. Or it did have value initially, because there was demand for it, etc. But later, there was no demand for it. Hence, it was no longer a use-value or value, and so it lost the value it had–prior to going to market. This is not a case of something having a value that isn’t realized thru sale.

  5. Andrew,

    I believe my typo and quick response failed to capture your second paragraph, which is what I was trying to say. A product could be produced, have value from production, and not be realized (for myriad reasons), or a product could be produced, at the time of production have no value, but when it comes time to sell it, it’s value could be determined by the rePRODUCTION times required to rePRODUCE it (Something G.A. Cohen missed entirely in his ‘famous’ refutation of the LTV).

    So unless I’m misunderstanding something, I don’t see how ‘new pepsi/coke’, Murray’s preferred example, de facto lend credence to his value form theory. They fit either explication. At the very least, I still can’t see how or why Murray thinks this is Marx’s theory.

    Great discussion though!

  6. Right. The key point that underlies the discussion, and which crops up over and over again, is the difference between “What is?” (= ontology) and “What do we know?” (= epistemology). Conflating the two, as Patrick does, reflects a desire to say “only that which we are certain about exists” (or is actual, i.e., matters).

    IMO, Andrew is right on this point. That’s because a producer takes into consideration the usefulness (utility) of the product to the customer BEFORE new units are produced. So the point of sale simply constitutes a test, as follows.

    1) In terms of usefulness:
    i) product does sell, so the producer’s consideration was correct. Selling, therefore, reveals but does not create — the product DID HAVE utility before the point of sale. In other words, sale simply turns “not knowing” into “knowing”, but does not create utility.
    ii) product does not sell, so the producer’s consideration was incorrect. Selling also reveals this by turning “not knowing” into “knowing”.

    2) In terms of socially necessary labor, crystallized as product: same thing. Sale simply reveals whether the amount of labor expended is part of what is socially necessary. Sale again turns “not knowing” into “knowing”, but does not create or alter the amount of labor expended in production. The dynamic interplay between supply and demand does not create new abstract labor. Hence, when demand and supply differ, then this simply reveals what amount of socially necessary labor should have been expended during production. Again, this turns “not knowing” into “knowing” without creating anything.

    Let me illustrate the difference between ontology and epistemology using Karl Popper’s black swans hypothesis. H: “all swans are white”. So we go out and test, and eventually will find black swans. Question: was the hypothesis wrong already at the point is was established, or did the hypothesis become wrong at the point when black swans were discovered? Answer: it was wrong already at the point when it was established BECAUSE black swans existed at that point — we just didn’t know about them. The act of discovering black swans does not create black swans; hence, this argument does not conflate ontology with epistemology. If, instead, one argued that the act of discovering creates black swans then one would make that conflation.

    Finally, I am glad that Schrödinger’s Cat was mentioned. It is an illustration of how the Copenhagen Interpretation explains Quantum Mechanics. The Copenhagen Interpretation holds that a particle exists in all possible states at once before we observe it (Schrödinger’s Cat is both alive and dead before we open the box and look). IMO, Copenhagen also conflates ontology with epistemology. But there is another interpretation of Quantum Mechanics that does not conflate: de Broglie – Bohm, or Bohmian Mechanics. There are differences between the two, but both agree that there is a definite state of a particle BEFORE we observe it. The difficulty is, and this is why de Broglie – Bohm has been rejected so far, that we cannot determine the state of the particle before it is observed. That’s mainly because, as I understand it, the maths have not been worked out. So we have an explanation without definitive measurement, but researchers keep working on the underlying maths.

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