In Marxist theory, is use-value dependent on the amount of labour that goes into the creation of a commodity?

If so, is the relevant labour the amount of abstract social labour or useful-labour?

I am asking this, because there are two seemingly contradictory passages on use-value in The Capital:

"The utility of a thing makes it a use-value. [4] But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use-value, something useful. This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities."

"A use-value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because human labour in the abstract has been embodied or materialised in it. How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? Plainly, by the quantity of the value-creating substance, the labour, contained in the article. The quantity of labour, however, is measured by its duration, and labour-time in its turn finds its standard in weeks, days, and hours."

Both quotes taken from [Capital Volume I, Chapter 1, Section 1, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm ]. Emphasis added by me.


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    I'm hardly an expert on Marxist theory, but perhaps the book is saying that if something appeared out of nowhere without human labour, it wouldn't have value? E.g. in a place where it rains often, water is still needed, but it's not very valuable because it just falls from the sky and you can easily collect it yourself. It has use-value (it is useful) but it does not have "the other kind of value" (the market price is close to zero). That is my guess. – user253751 Jan 29 '20 at 13:24
  • Also this sounds like more of an economics question than politics. There is an economics.stackexchange.com – user253751 Jan 29 '20 at 13:26
  • Actually, there's a related question there (to my surprise) economics.stackexchange.com/questions/88/… – Fizz Jan 29 '20 at 16:36
  • There are a few relevant questions on Philosophy SE, especially What is use-value according to Marx and why is it what is valuable in a commodity? – Brian Z Jun 27 '20 at 20:59

To respond directly to the headline question: no.

As Marx states directly in the first quote, a use-value is completely independent of the amount of labor that goes into creating it.

The second quote is very confusing unless you understand that value and use-value are two totally distinct concepts for Marx. All useful objects are use-values, but only commodities have value. The use-values referred to in the second quote are also commodities, so they happen to have value. A commodity's value depends on an abstract quantity of labor, but its use-value does not.

It is also very relevant to understand Marx's distinction between the abstract and concrete aspects of labor, that is "the difference between human labour in general as economically valuable worktime, and human labour as a particular activity that has a specific useful effect." The abstract aspect of labor produces particular quantities of value. The concrete aspect of labor produces qualitative use-values.

The answer from @user253751 is correct to point out that there are use-values which come directly from nature and for Marx, these use-values don't have value until they are transformed into commodities specifically. If I drink water directly from a wild stream, that water is a use-value determined entirely by nature. Only if I bottle and sell that water does it become a commodity with value, and that value is determined entirely by the abstract quantity of labor I put in to collecting it.


I am not familiar with Marxist theory, but here is how I read these passages:

  • A "use-value" is something that is useful. Things that are useful don't have use-value, they are use-values. It's stated explicitly a few sentences later:

    A commodity, such as iron, [...] is therefore [...] a use-value.

    Perhaps it's a poor translation.

  • Useful things would have near-zero value if they were free to make. In order to have value (market value - the usual kind of value - I assume) they must be useful and must require labour to produce.

    In a place where it rains a lot, water has a low value because - even though it's useful - if you want to get some, you can just put a barrel outside and wait. In a desert, water might command a higher price.

  • Useless things do not have value even if they take human labour to produce. They are not "use-value" so they are not covered by the second passage.

  • But it says "has value only because human labour in the abstract has been embodied or materialised in it". What the heck does that even mean? Marx was trying to square a circle to make his theory fit the world it seems. – user30014 Jan 29 '20 at 18:20
  • @JohnK I already said it. If it did not require human labour to make something, even if it was useful, it would not have economic value. The economic value of water falling from the sky is: the effort it takes to create a bucket, take it to where the rain is, and empty it every now and again. That's because those things require labour. That value has nothing to do with how useful water is. – user253751 Jan 29 '20 at 21:01
  • This is a pretty good insight for someone unfamiliar with Marx! I address your answer in mine. – Brian Z Jun 27 '20 at 20:35

Marx is trying to create a bridge between two different senses of value here: economic value (the price of a good) and functional value (the use of a good). The functional value of something is what it is: a lump of iron is useful for making a hammer, a hammer is useful for driving a nail, driving nails is useful to construct things... Marx's first point is that an object's functional value doesn't depend on the process needed for creating the item. A hammer made by a simple process of casting iron is used in exactly the same way as a hammer made of a complex space-age alloy. Their function is identical (though they may have differences in durability or other qualities), even though far more labor might go into creating the second.

The economic value of something, by contrast, is more fluid. It can rise or fall depending on a lot of different factors. But the baseline of economic value is set by human labor. Before we have a lump of iron we must expend human labor (time and effort) to extract and refine iron from the ground. Before we have a hammer, we must expend more human labor (time and energy) to shape and condition that iron into the form we want. Whatever the economic value of the item, it must at least cover the expenditures of human labor that went into producing the good.

Incidentally, this idea isn't strictly Marx's. It was first raised in John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government", with human labor as the basic rationalization for the establishment of private property. I'm reasonably certain Marx had read Locke — it's hard to see how someone as well-read as Marx could have missed it — but, alas, the 19th century hadn't yet developed the modern penchant for citations...

Marx is going to go on from here to talk about exploitation: how class-based capitalist societies systematically devalue human labor in order to lower the marginal cost of producing goods, either increasing their profits or increasing their competitiveness in the market. That devaluation eventually (in his thinking) reduces the laboring class to mere subsistence living — hand-to-mouth survival, like animals — which in turn leads to civil unrest or outright revolution.

  • "alas, the 19th century hadn't yet developed the modern penchant for citations..." - There is seldom one page in The Capital that does not have at least one footnote, and many (most ?) of those are citations. – Luís Henrique Jul 15 '20 at 14:10
  • But, on the merit, Marx follows Ricardo, not Locke, when he says that labor creates value. Locke says something very different, namely that labour creates property. – Luís Henrique Jul 15 '20 at 14:17
  • @LuísHenrique: Re: footnotes ... Sure, but still, Marx does not read like a modern academic research paper. Re: Locke v. Ricardo... We could have a nice looong argument about this without really disagreeing. I don't think we can read Ricardo outside of the Liberal 'property' mindset that is attributed to Locke, and I'm sure that Marx read Ricardo as well. But Ricardo is too specifically an economist, where Locke was a political philosopher; he fits better with Marx. – Ted Wrigley Jul 15 '20 at 18:17
  • Well, of course Marx was a man of the 19th century; he quotes like a man of the 19th century (probably better than most, but still). Here - marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1863/theories-surplus-value/… - the Addenda for his Theories of Surplus Value, which show how scrupulous he used to be in relation to the ideas of other men - including quite in-depth discussion of Locke. – Luís Henrique Jul 15 '20 at 18:50
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    @LuísHenrique: I'll take a look at that, thanks. 😀 – Ted Wrigley Jul 16 '20 at 1:16

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