One of the fruits of the revival of socialist economic theory over the past decade has been a wide-ranging debate about the validity of Marx’s labour theory of value. At the heart of the discussion stands the theoretical work of Piero Sraffa and the conclusions drawn from it by such economists as Ian Steedman. Initially confined to a relatively narrow circle of specialists, the controversy about value theory has since spread to wider circles of the left. But although general awareness that the stakes of the dispute are of concern to all socialists is now extensive, understanding of the issues involved has remained more restricted than need be. This volume presents, for the first time, a comprehensive yet accessible overview of the discussion. The essays discuss not only the value debate itself, but also its relevance to such issues as capitalist crisis, the theory of exploitation, and historical materialism. Comprehensible to the non-specialist, but without sacrificing rigour or oversimplifying the issues, the articles assembled here offer a definitive summary of the current state of one of the crucial aspects of Marxist thought.
The Value Controversy, published by Verso in 1981, followed a series of debates over Marx's labor theory of value that began with the publication of neo-Ricardian economist Piero Sraffa's The Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (1960), and which took particular salience in socialist economic theory with the 1977 publication of Ian Steedman's Marx After Sraffa. Including contributions by Pradeep Bandyopadhyay, G.A. Cohen, Michel De Vroey, Sue Himmelweit, Geoff Hodgson, Makoto Itoh, Anwar Shaikh, Ian Steedman, Paul Sweezy, and Erik Olin Wright, the collection was designed — according to its editors — "to present a comprehensive yet accessible overview of the discussion to date."
G.A. Cohen's essay, reproduced below, was initially published in the Summer 1979 issue of Philosophy and Public Affairs; one year after the appearance of his Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence, a foundational document of Analytical Marxism.
It is we who ploughed the prairies, built the
cities where they trade,
Dug the mines and built the workshops,
endless miles of railroad laid,
Now we stand outcast and starving, 'mid
the wonders we have made . . .
Solidarity, by Ralph Chaplin (to the tune of Battle Hymn of the Republic)
This essay shows that the relationship between the labour theory of value and the concept of exploitation is one of mutual irrelevance. The labour theory of value is not a suitable basis for the charge of exploitation laid against capitalism by Marxists, and the real foundation of that charge is something much simpler which, for reasons to be stated, is widely confused with the labour theory of value.