I live in country with a communist ideology, and Marxism-Leninism courses are mandatory in college. As much as I appreciate some basics on dialectical materialism, I can't help but disdain the way Marxism are taught, that basically tells you to just accept stuff without questions and at the same time acts very smug about their "superior" ideology. It's especially hard to buy into Marxism because lots of terms and examples they cite to prove a point that are supposedly originated by Marx himself are incredibly difficult to verify.

Did Karl Marx ever use any example that involved cotton and dollars to illustrate the way capital and surplus value were generated? According to this "Doctor" guy in whatever he has a doctorate in, Marx proved capitalists' exploitation in capital generation illustrated how surplus value is generated and appropriated by the capitalists, not the workers, for free, with this example:

To create fabric, the capitalist needs $20's worth of cotton, $4 for machine deterioriation in the production process, $6's worth of labor effort. The true value of a man day (12 hours)'s worth of labor effort is $6, but the capitalist pays his workers only 3 and keeps the other 3 for himself as surplus value. Therefore the cost of production ends up only as $27 instead of $30, and the capitalist profits $3 dollars off his workers.

That's the rough translation, but it kinda sounds suspicious that Marx just used "dollars" in his example for some reason. I mean Germany had its own currency back then right? Did he have beef with Americans or something, or were there no capitalists in Germany for him to "reveal their true exploitative nature"? I asked that lecturer and he just said "I learned this a long time ago but never really bothered to question if 'dollars' really made sense in the context of 19th-century Germany."

Edit: To those who think I'm citing a translation of a translation of a direct quote from Das Kapital, it's not. It's just a translation the example written by the author of my textbook, so the exact wording definitely doesn't match the original. However, keywords like "dollars", "cotton" and "surplus value" should be immediately searchable together in at least a paragraph if such an example is that famous (even if I use translations, it shouldn't be too hard to search for the German word for "cotton"), and in this case they're not, which lessens the credibility of the claim that this was an example Marx actually made.

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    Which country was this in? Vietnam? – Obie 2.0 Jun 20 at 11:10
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    Yes, I suppose my Facebook name gave it away. Vietnam, China, Cuba, Laos, what difference do they make? – Vun-Hugh Vaw Jun 20 at 11:17
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    I suppose it could make a difference. China's system of "state capitalism" or whatever they're calling it these days is very distinct from Cuba's system, for instance. I'm sure they're teaching somewhat different versions of Communism as a result. – Obie 2.0 Jun 20 at 11:29
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    Preventive note: The question asks about whether or not Karl Marx said something like this or not. The question is not about whether or not that argument is valid. Please remember that this is not a discussion forum, so please don't use this as a platform to debate the validity of this argument. – Philipp Jun 20 at 12:05
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    This sounds like it's from Capital, Vol I, but I don't have the text at hand to quote it further or verify. – Geobits Jun 20 at 12:13

A searchable PDF suggests it's been freely translated:

Segment of Das Kapital

Apologies for using an image, but the side-by-side didn't paste sensibly. You can see that the currency is different but has been converted; the English uses dollars, the German original uses "sh", presumably for "schilling". Elsewhere in the text he uses pounds Sterling (abbreviated as "Pfd.St.").

It's especially hard to buy into Marxism because lots of terms and examples they cite to prove a point that are supposedly originated by Marx himself are incredibly difficult to verify.

Personally I agree with this - Marx is quite wordy, and has been translated with varying degrees of competence. He was also writing economics at a pretty early stage in the development of the science. Referencing only Marx is like trying to do psychology by only talking about Freud.

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    The Freud analogy is remarkably fitting. – Joe Jun 20 at 15:44
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    Interesting how "from 5 shilling to 3 shilling" looks to be translated to "from $1.20 to 72 cents". I'd consider that a bit of a translation fail, over-complicating for no purpose. – kbelder Jun 20 at 23:14
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    @kbelder I've seen that kind of thing in all sorts of publications, even the Economist. Also done with imperial-to-metric conversions – pjc50 Jun 21 at 8:53
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    I'd agree that philosophers in general are wordy and more often than not, vague. That's just a nature of philosophy, to describe the most universal and fundamental concepts in the broadest of terms, rather than to delve into particular cases of particular objects or phenomena. In this case the interpretive example isn't so far off, they just messed up the currency (perhaps deliberately) and used "cotton" to make it more illustrative, but I've heard "exact quotes" so unapologetically cheesy and unverifiable you'd love to punch whoever wrote your textbook in the face. – Vun-Hugh Vaw Jun 21 at 11:18
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    In this case the translation is doing the reader a huge disservice by going into fractional values - presumably to preserve the currency conversion, but since the actual values weren't the point of the example it's not helpful at all. – Cubic Jun 21 at 13:53

The translation in pjc50's answer is useful, but I don't think they identified the right spot. Something that vaguely matches the quote in the original question starts at page 595 in the PDF. I think it's really instructive to see, since the very short quote in the question refers to a much longer and more detailed analysis by Marx.

Throughout Capital, Marx (who was writing in London) takes the British economy and the history of British capitalism as his jumping-off point. This also goes for his references to currency: it's always pounds streling, schillings, etc. Consider that much of the research for Capital was done in the reading room of the British Museum in London, where Marx was basically poring over economic data (from England). This would have been denominated in British currency, and I imagine there was little reason to waste time making some kind of conversion to anything else.

Marx rarely mentions the U.S. in his economic analysis and, although I can't say he NEVER uses the word 'dollars', it's certainly not part of his common descriptive language. When you ask if Germany had its own currency back then: when Volume 1 of Capital was published, there wasn't even a unified Germany! It should be noted that at this time most currency was backed by some kind of precious metal.

As a side note, I understand it's a rough quotation, as you said, but I don't think it even fundamentally grasps Marx's argument. That's a story for another day.

  • there wasn't even a unified Germany No but there was the Zollverein (economical union) and German Confederation (political union), which are surprisingly analogue of today's Shengen Zone and European Union respectively. – Bregalad Jun 24 at 9:19

$6's worth of labor effort. The true value of a man day (12 hours)'s worth of labor effort is $6, but the capitalist pays his workers only 3 and keeps the other 3 for himself as surplus value.

This is not Marx.

Marx doesn’t refer to “true value” of labour power (here translated as the atypical for English labour effort). Marx refers to the difference between the cost of purchasing potential labour power as a wage, and the hours of labour power extractable. There is no “true value” here. Only the value of the wage and the (potential if realised) value of the labour power exerted.

As the quote gets Marx’s own description of the relationship between wage, effort and surplus confused this is not a Marx quote.

The bit of Marx you want is Capital I: III ch7 s2

Our capitalist foresaw this state of things, and that was the cause of his laughter. The labourer therefore finds, in the workshop, the means of production necessary for working, not only during six, but during twelve hours. Just as during the six hours’ process our 10 lbs. of cotton absorbed six hours’ labour, and became 10 lbs. of yarn, so now, 20 lbs. of cotton will absorb 12 hours’ labour and be changed into 20 lbs. of yarn. Let us now examine the product of this prolonged process. There is now materialised in this 20 lbs. of yarn the labour of five days, of which four days are due to the cotton and the lost steel of the spindle, the remaining day having been absorbed by the cotton during the spinning process. Expressed in gold, the labour of five days is thirty shillings. This is therefore the price of the 20 lbs. of yarn, giving, as before, eighteenpence as the price of a pound. But the sum of the values of the commodities that entered into the process amounts to 27 shillings. The value of the yarn is 30 shillings. Therefore the value of the product is 1/9 greater than the value advanced for its production; 27 shillings have been transformed into 30 shillings; a surplus-value of 3 shillings has been created. The trick has at last succeeded; money has been converted into capital.

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