Marx’s Labor Theory of Value: Bad Science and Bad for Ecological Socialism

Value and Socialist Distribution

Marxists need a scientific theory of value. I do not make that statement because I think it is controversial. I make it because I am not convinced that Marx provided one. By “scientific” I mean a theory that identifies an empirically detectable and measurable property that gives value to commodities, and a theory that is consistent with fundamental propositions of other relevant sciences, such as physics and chemistry. I do not reject the labor theory of value out of hand, and I do not believe that my criteria necessarily lead to rejection of everything Marx had to say about value theory. I am willing to consider the possibility that labor produces a value-endowing property, but to understand labor’s role, if any, in producing value, we must do more than repeat the familiar bromide that “labor creates value.” And we should keep in mind (while being careful not to conflate use value and exchange value) that Marx himself said: “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values as labour . . .”1

A scientific theory of value must answer these questions: In what way does labor serve as a source, or the source, of value, if it indeed does so? Is understanding value strictly a matter of quantifying physical properties produced by labor, or are other factors involved? How are quantities of labor and other relevant properties, measured? Do these quantities correlate with measurable quantities of value, and if so, how? Besides helping us understand how commodities acquire value and how value is measured, a scientific understanding of value is critical for implementing what I call the socialist principle of distribution.2  If we cannot understand and measure value, then we cannot implement the principle, and if we cannot do that, then we cannot have socialism; furthermore, we cannot have communism either, not if we think of communism as a mode of distribution that develops out of socialism.

What is the principle of socialist distribution? It has been expressed in many ways, but the gist of it is that under socialism the worker is supposed to receive a “fair” distribution, that is, he receives from society a quantity of goods and services equal in value to the labor he has performed, minus deductions for public purposes such as social insurance, public schools, reinvestment in public enterprises, or construction of public infrastructure, just to name a few. This contrasts with capitalist distribution in which the worker receives less value than he has contributed due to capitalist expropriation of surplus value at the point of production, which is supplemented by other expropriatory methods such as fraud, debt, rent, wage discrimination, taxation by the capitalist state, neoliberal austerity, full or partial privatization of public enterprises, and so-called corporate welfare.

In “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx expressed the socialist principle of distributive justice when he said that in the primary stage of socialism, the worker receives:

a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same amount of labour.3

This distributive principle presupposes the ability to measure quantities of labor, which are equated with quantities of value.

Other versions of the socialist principle have been influenced by Marx’s formulation, but they are not identical to it. Article 12 of the 1936 Constitution of the USSR states: “The principle applied in the U.S.S.R. is that of socialism: From each according to his ability to each according to his work.”4 Many socialist constitutions contain similar expressions. 5

The Soviet formula is worded differently than the statement in the Gotha Program. It speaks of distribution according to work, and thereby alludes to different kinds of work with presumably differing values, but it does not explicitly mention quantities of labor. What does this imply? Does the principle assume that different forms of work produce the same or different quantities of value, and what about differences in the quality of labor? Socialist countries that adopted the principle “to each according to his work,” did not practice equal compensation for all forms of work. This suggests they did not think all types of work had the same value. Recognition of quantitative and qualitative differences in various forms of work is likely the basis of that distinction.

Quantitative and qualitative differences were recognized as a matter of principle in socialist countries, and this was used to justify higher compensation for work considered above average in those terms. In Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism, a 1960s training manual for Soviet cadres, differences of quantity and quality are said to determine both the size and quality of the rewards that workers receive.

In socialist society, the bulk of material and cultural values are distributed in accordance with the quantity and quality of labour expended by each worker in social production. Those who work more and better receive a larger and better reward for their work from socialist society.6

Obviously, this presupposes criteria for determining both quantitative and qualitative values of various forms of work, so that higher forms can be identified and given greater compensation. This raises many questions. What are the criteria for measuring the quantity and quality of labor? Can these things be measured directly or are they reducible to a more fundamental quantity?

For Marx, the difference between high and low-quality labor is apparently reduced to the production of lower and higher quantities of value. Marx developed the distinction in Capital. In explaining this distinction, I will take the basic proposition of Marx’s labor theory of value for granted: quantities of labor produce corresponding quantities of value; thus, it is clear that Marx reduced quantities of value to quantities of labor, which is in keeping with a labor theory of value.

In Capital, v. I, Marx distinguished simple and complex labor. Simple labor “is the expenditure of simple labour-power, i.e. of the labour-power possessed in his bodily organism by every ordinary man, on the average, without being developed in any special way.” Complex labor, by contrast, has an above average value-creating power that “counts only as intensified, or rather multiplied simple labour, so that a smaller quantity of complex labour is considered equal to a larger quantity of simple labour.”7  Complex labor is higher in quality in the sense that it expends more labor power in a given time than simple labor and therefore creates more value. For example, if a simple laborer and a complex laborer both work for an hour, the latter produces a higher quantity of value than the former.

In Capital, v. III, Marx offered concrete examples of simple and complex labor. He used day labor as an example of simplicity and goldsmithing as an example of complexity.8  Commercial workers were classified as complex laborers due to their knowledge of “commerce and languages, etc.” Marx wrote: “The commercial worker proper belongs to the better-paid class of wage laborer; he is one of those whose labour is skilled labour, above-average labour.”9  Skilled mechanics were included among complex laborers in a footnote to Capital, v. III, written by Engels.10  These examples reveal that complex labor is trained and educated labor; apparently Marx viewed this as the basis of its higher value productivity.

Evidently, Marx assumed that “simple” jobs, say, ditch digging or repetitive work in manufacturing, are less “complex” than the work of goldsmiths, mechanics, and commercial operatives. What characteristics do these forms of work possess which make them “above average” in complexity? They are more valuable, it will be said, but this is a mere tautology since value and complexity have already been equated. We need to know what Marx meant by complexity and why complexity is more valuable, in the sense of knowing what quantities complexity is reducible to (if any), and how these quantities are measured? How did he know that complexity of labor produces more value than simplicity? Did he just intuit this as self-evident? Granted, intuition (if that is what Marx used) can be correct, but he did not show why his intuition is correct. In the examples, complexity seems to mean a greater number of required skills; the complex job has more dimensions, more steps that must be mastered; it requires more training, education, and knowledge to perform than “simple” labor.

Does work that requires more training and education in and of itself produce more value than work requiring less? Has Marx drawn a distinction without an explanation? To merely repeat that complex work is more valuable because it represents more labor in a given time, and it represents more labor just because it is more complex, is a blatantly circular explanation. Once again, we are back to the fundamental problem of measuring quantities of labor and explaining how those quantities produce corresponding amounts of value—in short, the problem of value creation and measurement.

Creating and Measuring Value in Capital

Marx is usually called a materialist who was trying to put socialism on a scientific basis. Therefore, we shall expect the labor theory of value developed by Marx in Capital, v. I to identify the value-creating property of labor, whatever it happens to be, as a physical characteristic that serves as the quantifiable basis of exchange value. This is a reasonable expectation of any scientific theory, but will it be borne out?

In Capital, v.1, Marx begins his discussion of the labor theory of value by stating that two commodities of equal exchange value must share a common element that is present in both in equal magnitudes. If our assumption about Marx’s intention to develop a scientific theory is correct, he must be preparing to describe a physical and therefore quantifiable element.

Let us now take two commodities, for example, corn and iron. Whatever their exchange relation may be, it can always be represented by an equation in which a given quantity of corn is equated to some quantity of iron, for instance, 1 quarter of corn = x cwt of iron. What does this equation signify? It signifies that a common element of identical magnitude exists in two different things, in one quarter of corn and similarly in x cwt of iron. Both are therefore equal to a third thing, which is neither the one nor the other. Each of them, so far as it is exchange-value, must therefore be reducible to this third thing.11

We should expect Marx to explain what this presumably physical element is, how it is measured, and on what basis he claims to know of its existence. But he offers this astonishing proclamation instead:

This common element cannot be a geometrical, physical, chemical, or other natural property of the commodities.12

Marx just said that the value-endowing element is not and cannot be a physical property. He did not bother to explain why he thinks this is the case, but it follows that he must believe commodities can have non-physical properties, does it not? This appeal to an immaterial element should cause profound consternation among those who think Marx had a scientific theory of value, scientific in the sense of making empirically testable claims about the nature of value, claims that can be nothing other than materialistic. Despite all the talk about Marx’s materialism, his theory is obviously based on an immaterialist metaphysics, which holds that all commodities share a common non-material property that gives them exchange value. Marx is not a materialist after all, at least not when it comes to exchange value. I will leave it to others to explain how an historical materialist can be an immaterialist regarding value creation, since analysis of changes in various modes of value creation; i.e., modes of production, are the basis of historical materialism.

If the value-creating property is not physical, then what are its properties, how are these properties known, and how is it possible to measure them if they are indeed non-physical?

A use-value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because abstract human labour is objectified or materialized in it. How then is the magnitude of this value to be measured? By means of the quantity of the ‘value forming substance’, the labour contained in the article. This quantity is measured by its duration, and the labour-time is itself measured on the particular scale of hours, days, etc.13 “Abstract human labor,” according to Marx, is the “value forming substance” that is “materialized” in commodities. How does Marx know this? It is evidently a conclusion of pure reason that is not further analyzable. But how can an immaterial element (an abstraction) become materialized and take up residence in a physical commodity (like the word becoming flesh)? What a confusion of categories! The problem is only compounded by this additional description of the common element:

As exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time.  14

Here the value forming substance is described as “congealed time,” specifically labor time; apparently “congealed labor time” is used synonymously with “abstract human labor.” It seems strange to speak of time in this way. Can other kinds of time also “congeal” such as sleep time or mealtime? Or does the fact that labor time is spent working endow it with a unique (and fantastic) physical property that allows it to congeal? What can even be capable of congealing except material substances with specific physical properties? Marx does not say. What could he say? We are faced with an apparent contradiction: exchange value is an immaterial property and yet it congeals; the thing that congeals is time. But time is not form of matter that can alternate among various states, such as the classical states of solid, liquid, gas, and plasma, or the many high and low energy states discovered by modern physics. To say that time, which is a dimension of reality and not a state of matter, can “congeal” is to say that something immaterial can do that which only matter can do; it is an assertion that surpasses all understanding.

Marx’s treatment of the subject in Capital, v. II, exhibits this contradiction:

The substance of value is and remains nothing more than expended labour-power – labour independent of its particular useful character – and value production is nothing but the process of this expenditure.  . . . The process of production disappears in the finished commodity. The fact that labour-power was expended to create it now appears in the form that the commodity has the following concrete property: it possesses value. The magnitude of this value is measured by the amount of labor expended; the commodity value cannot be resolved into anything further, and consists of nothing more.15

There is no talk of congealed time in this passage, but the contradiction is apparent in that value is spoken of as a “concrete property” when we were assured in Capital, v. I, that value is a non-physical property (what can a concrete property be if not physical?). The term “congealed labour” appears soon after the above passage, when Marx makes the following comment on surplus value:

Over and above them both there is still the surplus value. This has in common with the value component that replaces the variable capital advanced in wages that it is a value newly created by the workers – congealed labour.16

Here Marx speaks of congealed labor rather than congealed time. To this writer, it is a significant difference: a theory in which “labor” congeals rather than “labor time” is a different theory. Did Marx have two theories or is it just one muddled theory? “Congealed labor” denotes a process that becomes congealed, whereas “congealed labor time” denotes a dimension, but Marx does not seem to be aware of this distinction. Alternate phrasings also appear in Capital, v. III; sometimes Marx writes “[t]he value contained in a commodity is equal to the labour-time taken in making it”17; at other times he refers to “the amount of labour contained in it” [the commodity].18  He might have thought the two phrases – congealed labor and congealed labor time – are synonymous, but they are not. It is a characteristic of well-formed scientific theories that terms are precisely defined and used consistently. Marx’s theory fails to meet this standard.

Try as I might, I cannot find any reason to accept either his “congealed labor time” or “congealed labor” terminology because both phrases seem equally nonsensical. Congealability is a property of physical substances, is it not? Melted fat, for example, “congeals” at the top of chicken soup as it cools, and blood with sufficient clotting factors “congeals” (coagulates) into a scab; both are examples of matter changing from liquid to solid. But again, time is not a state of matter; it is a dimension that does not change states. As a succession of moments, this dimension is a pre-condition that is necessary for matter to undergo qualitative changes from one state to another, such as water freezing solid then melting back into liquid or evaporating into gas. The fact that time provides the context in which matter changes states does not entail that time is a physical substance that congeals or undergoes other physical changes, likewise with so called “labor time.” To reiterate, Marx had no justification for saying that labor time can congeal into commodities, thereby giving them exchange value. Time cannot congeal into anything, let alone a commodity. Likewise, with “labor,” which denotes a process that consists of a series of activities. The activities are engaged in by physical beings and, of course, take place in time, but this does not mean that specific actions or entire sets of actions are physical substances that congeal like chicken fat.

The theory doesn’t make any more sense when applied to concrete situations. How would Marx use it to explain why one commodity has a higher exchange value than another? According to him, if it takes 10 times more labor time to produce a pair of pants than it takes to produce a box of paper clips, then the pants are 10 times more valuable than the clips. And if, in a given time, your labor produces 10 times the amount of value that mine does, then your labor is 10 times more valuable than mine. Why? Congealed labor time is the active ingredient, so to speak. Marx has to say that the pants have 10 times more abstract human labor time congealed in them, because your labor congealed more time than mine did. It also follows that your labor is more productive than mine, and this can be explained in two ways: it is either faster or it is more complex. How else could it create more value in the same amount of time?

Why is this a terrible explanation? Marx’s talk about congealed time (and congealed labor) has already been exposed as nonsensical, and a nonsensical explanation is not an explanation at all. Still, we might wonder if Marx’s theory really is so terrible. If we assume labor time is the measure of value, does it not follow that something that takes more time to produce is more valuable than something that takes less? It certainly does, but the conclusion follows only if we assume from the outset that labor time is the substance and measure of value. This is an obvious circular argument because the premise that needs to be proven is assumed to be true at the outset. When nonsense is acceptable, then all other forms of nonsense are acceptable as well; we might as well say that the patron saint of commodities conferred a larger blessing on the pants than on the paper clips, and that this blessing was manifested at a ratio of 10:1.

Keep in mind: Marx did not say that value comes from time spent laboring in some ordinary language understanding of “labor time.” He said more valuable commodities contain a larger amount of congealed abstract human labor time. That is why the pants have a higher exchange value than the box of paper clips. Please show me where I can find this congealed time, this “value-forming substance” among the fibers, dyes, tools, equipment, and energy used in making the pair of pants. It can’t be done, not because science has not yet found a way to detect the presence of this substance, but because the existence of such a substance is impossible in principle.

The obvious conclusion is that when Marx speaks of congealed labor time, he is talking nonsense. Before you condemn me for being uncharitable to Marx, consider this: what can talk of congealed time suggest except a quantity of time spent laboring in which the time itself hardens into the object that is being created? If anyone can explain to me what this means, how it occurs, and show it to me happening, I will abandon this criticism, but I do not think this is likely to happen.

Matter, Energy, and the Labor Theory of Value

Let us spend no more time – congealed or otherwise – on this embarrassing muddle. Labor is not a substance; it is a process performed and undergone by substances, by human workers and the products they work upon. This might seem like a mere truism, no more “substantive” than Marx’s talk of congealed time, but at least I can take you to a workshop, farm, or factory and show you an actual labor process happening. If Marx were there, he would have to say, “labor time is congealing here,” and if we responded – “What!?” – he would have no answer. To say that labor time is a substance makes about as much sense as saying that running time is a substance, and that a fast runner produces more of a substance called “running time” than a slow one. Of course, work and running obviously take place in time, which is a necessary condition for the unfolding of all processes, but that doesn’t help Marx’s argument. You may insist on talking about “labor time” as if you have made a great discovery, but it is unnecessary because everyone knows that labor requires time. I will insist on this, however; although value is created during time spent laboring, labor time is not the thing that creates or endows value; rather it is the dimension in which value is endowed.

We said that labor is performed by a human worker, a physical being, upon another physical being, an object that we call a commodity. Time is a precondition of these events. It must be something that happens during this time that gives the commodity its exchange value. What happens? Workers consume and apply energy in orderly, planned, and desired ways to enhance and transform the useful properties of matter. The result is a commodity with exchange value. Rationally directed energy consumption is the common element that Marx was seeking.

Labor is the alteration of matter through the rationally governed consumption of energy. Thus, the labor process requires ability and skill, in addition to energy and matter. Since matter and energy are equivalent (E = mc2 after all) we can reduce this to the statement that commodity production requires the skillful use or consumption of energy. Since the law of the conservation of energy also applies here, we will understand “consumption” to mean the transformation of energy from one state into another, with no net gain or loss of energy and, correspondingly, the consumption or transformation of matter, again with no net gain or loss. Movement, changes of state, and consumption occur, but not creation in the sense of bringing substances into being out of nothingness nor annihilation in the sense of transforming substances from being into nothingness. Acquisition of skill also requires energy consumption, and again this consumption must be rationally directed to the desired end; therefore, in the case of labor the rational consumption of energy, a special case of energy consumption, is not further reducible.

We have reduced the statement that commodity production requires matter, energy, and skill to the statement that it requires energy and skill. We can shorten this to the statement that commodity production requires energy consumption, because the mental effort of acquiring and applying skill is a form of energy consumption. Skillful energy consumption contrasts with the non-rational consumption that occurs in nature, in the Sun, for example (as far as we know).

The amount of energy consumed is the irreducible component of value. The exchange value of any commodity is therefore reducible to the amount of energy expended to produce it, not the amount of time taken to expend that energy. Quantities of value do not correlate to quantities of time; they correlate to quantities of energy expended in a given time; the quantity of energy is the “common element” shared by the quarter of corn and the hundred weight of iron that Marx spoke of in Capital, vol. I. This includes the energy embodied in the substance and the energy required to transform the substance in the desired way. Obviously, greater or lesser amounts of energy can be expended in the same amount of time; the quantity depends on the form of energy and the skill of the worker. Skill, regardless of its degree of complexity, moves, allocates, or transforms energy and matter, but it does not create these things anew. Energy is the value-endowing ingredient of the labor process. It has a dual role in the process as both transformer and thing transformed.

Rationally expended energy is the “common element” of all commodities. The amount of expenditure represented by the finished commodity is its objective exchange value. From the worker’s standpoint, the sum of energy that he consumes while working, plus the amount of energy required to maintain himself as a worker, constitutes the value of his labor. This is also the quantity of value (matter/energy) owed him in exchange for his labor. This quantity can be expressed in any units you like – gram calories, kilogram calories, joules, British thermal units, etc. – provided we have a technique for measuring in terms of the unit in question and a method for converting into other commonly used units. In-depth treatment of the practical problems entailed by this theory are beyond the scope of this paper; however, it should be noted that measurement of human energy expenditure is a developed science with a history reaching back to 1919 with the formulation of the Harris-Benedict equation for estimating an individual’s basal metabolic rate.  19  The results of that science show without doubt that manual or simple labor requiring lower levels of training and education requires higher energy expenditures than intellectual or complex labor requiring higher education and training. Thus, there is no justification for wage discrimination against simple labor in our theory of value as energy expenditure.20

This is a rethinking, not a rejection, of the labor theory of value. It has the advantage of identifying the empirically observable and measurable feature of labor – energy expenditure – that endows a commodity with value. As a move toward a scientific theory of value, it is superior to Marx’s unscientific attempt to explain value by appealing to the existence of an unobservable value-endowing substance called “congealed labor time,” or sometimes just “labor time.” It is also consistent with the basic principles other scientific disciplines, such as physics and chemistry, which recognize the existence of matter and energy as physical substances and study the physico-chemical processes that fuel the transformations of the various states of matter. The theory is also compatible with the methodological principles of empiricism, which frown on explanations that postulate the existence of unobservable entities. This is real materialism, not a faux materialism disfigured by Hegelian metaphysical (and ultimately bourgeois) philosophical remnants. Removal of congealed time as a feature of Marxism can only improve its standing among the sciences.

Marxism and the Crisis of the Anthropocene

There is a connection between Marx’s theory of value, especially his overvaluation of complex or intellectual labor in contrast to simple or manual labor, and the procreationism, productionism, and consumerism that are core ideals of the original bourgeois Christian civilization. Marx (unwittingly?) adopted these ideals whole cloth.21  His vision of socialism strives to be truer to them than capitalism could ever be by striping them of their class character and democratizing them. These ideas have helped blind Marxists to the tight logical relationship between class struggle and ecology. Marx’s labor theory of value is implicated in this problem because productionism and consumerism are enabled and justified by the high consumerist privileges allegedly due to highly skilled workers who perform complex labor. Procreationism is a result of viewing people in advanced countries, with their large numbers of highly-skilled workers, as the crowning glory of humanity: the more there are, the better; the more they produce and consume, the better.

If Marxism is going to stay relevant in the twenty-first century and beyond, it must provide a theoretical basis for building forms of socialism and communism that can survive in the Anthropocene epoch. The term refers to our contemporary period in which modern economic systems are exerting increasingly harmful effects on Earth’s natural systems. Classical Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, and their numerous variants, share with capitalism this productionism, consumerism, and procreationism: a desire for unlimited expansion of production, consumption, and population that thrusts society toward environmental crisis.22 This outlook views nature mainly as a source of use values to be assimilated into the production process. It fails to appreciate nature as a delicately balanced complex system that harbors all life by providing its material basis. Unchecked, these tendencies lead to severe environmental degradation as the productive forces are developed and production and consumption increased. This condition afflicts any modern system, whether socialist or capitalist, that combines vast power to utilize and transform nature with the failure to perceive the consequences as threats to the viability of natural systems, species, and individual life forms. Socialism and communism must distinguish themselves from capitalism on this point by ridding themselves of productionism, consumerism, and procreationism. Societies that aim to liberate human beings from capitalism must have a clear understanding of the dangers posed by these interrelated phenomena and a definite plan for harmonizing the twin goals of meeting society’s material needs while preserving its organic and inorganic foundations. Marxism must place primary importance on the fact that the world’s irreplaceable ecosystems count as fundamental material needs of all life and the basis of material and cultural wealth. To accomplish this, Marxism needs new concepts and principles that elucidate the direct but overlooked relationship between class struggle and ecology.

Textual Evidence of the Problem: The Economic Purpose of Communism

Present at the dawn of Marxism was the tendency to view development as an unqualified good and to ignore its negative effects on nature. Consider The Communist Manifesto’s paean to the awesome productive forces unleashed by capitalism:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all proceeding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?23

The Manifesto says that an immediate goal of the communist revolution is to make the proletariat “the masters of the productive forces of society.”24 It assigns to the new ruling class the task of using state power “to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.”25  These are the same productive forces that the bourgeoisie used to subject nature to the needs and designs of their class. This talk of subjugating nature is dangerous because nothing about socialism, in and of itself, guarantees that the proletariat will act with more wisdom toward nature than the bourgeoisie.

When the socialist revolution converts capital into the common property of society, only the class character of the property is changed. The potential of the mode of production to destroy the environment remains unchanged, despite it being socialized. Abolishing the class character of capital does not alter its disposition toward nature.26

Socialism does not guarantee environmental sustainability. Misuse of the productive forces to destroy nature remains just as much of a danger as it was under capitalism. In the primary stage of socialism, the struggle to free the new society from the remnants of capitalism must prioritize plans to build an ecological socialism. Ecology is therefore one of the primary missions of the class struggle, but the Communist Manifesto is blind to this, perhaps excusably blind given the period in which it was written, but blind nonetheless.

The danger of unbridled productionism and consumerism was apparently unrecognized by the later Marx as well. In the Critique of the Gotha Program, he envisioned the “higher phase of communist society”—sometimes referred to as “full communism,” as a time when the productive forces have expanded far beyond the already colossal extents of the capitalist and early socialist eras, when cooperatively produced wealth flows so abundantly that it can be distributed “to each according to his needs.”27  This implies the continuation of productionism and consumerism (and why suppose any limits on procreation?) under communism, while the environmental implications remain unacknowledged.

The productionism and consumerism at the heart of Marx’s conception of post-capitalist society is exacerbated by Lenin’s gloss on the Gotha Program which views communism as the period when “an enormous development of the productive forces” makes wealth so plentiful that:

[t]here will then be no need for society, in distributing the products, to regulate the quantity to be received by each; each will take freely ‘according to his needs’.  . . .  Everyone will have “the right to receive from society . . . any quantity of truffles, cars, pianos, etc.28

Lenin surpassed Marx by predicting that under communism consumer goods would be produced in limitless quantities completely free for the taking. We leave it to the reader to contemplate the environmental devastation that would result from unrestrained production and consumption of automobiles, not to mention truffles, pianos, etc. Some might try to dismiss these passages as instances of a revolutionary exuberance that had no effect on the actual practices of socialist countries. The extensive and easily accessible history of ecocidal development in these countries belies this view and exposes environmental practices under socialism as no better than under capitalism overall; the reader is urged to investigate this independently, since a full review of the history is beyond the scope of this paper.

Besides practice, we should consider theoretical discussions during actually existing socialism. Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism describes socialism as “an era of tempestuous development of productive forces” when “the socialist state considers that its main purpose is the expansion of production in order to provide a continuously rising living standard for the population.”29  This breakneck development will enable “the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries to undertake with full confidence the task of reaching . . . a level of consumption surpassing in every respect that of the most highly developed capitalist countries.”30  Socialist consumerism is but a prelude to the glittering consumerist paradise that will arrive with full communism. Following Lenin, the supply of goods will be so plentiful that controlling the amount of consumption will be unnecessary.31 People will assess their own needs and simply take as much as they want; there will be “no need to determine which needs are reasonable and which are not.”32  Nor should there be any worry about natural limits on growth. Shortages of raw materials, for example, will never occur because ever advancing agriculture, more intensive exploitation of lands and oceans, and creation of synthetic materials will be enough to satisfy every imaginable need.33 With no barriers to expansion, communist consumerism will be limitless.

Critics might accuse the author of ignoring passages from the Marxist canon that express serious regard for ecological issues. These might include: the recognition that humankind is fundamentally part of nature, as well as discussions on overcoming man’s alienation from nature found in numerous passages in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; complaints about a lack of urban planning, air pollution and other unhealthy living conditions in the proletarian districts of English cities described in Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England  34, and in his Dialectics of Nature the recognition that “humans and nature exist in a coevolutionary relationship” and man should not become too smug about his victories over nature because “For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us.”35; the oft-cited discussion in Capital, volume 1, chapter 15 of soil depletion under capitalist farming caused by disruption of the “metabolic interaction between man and the earth” as well as the view that capitalist agriculture undermines “the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker”36; and the declaration in Critique of the Gotha Program that: “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values . . . as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.”37 Lenin’s enthusiasm for establishing nature reserves should also be mentioned here.38

Nevertheless, a set of disconnected ad hoc comments and policies does not amount to a mature theoretical treatment of and comprehensive policy toward ecological issues, nor does it temper, override, or repudiate the productionism, consumerism, and procreationism at the heart of the Marxist-Leninist conception of socialist and communist society.

Toward a Genuinely Ecological Marxism

 A convincing and effective ecological Marxism must amount to more than a tacked-on addendum without clear logical connections to the fundamental principles and revolutionary orientation of Marxism. These connections do exist. The Class Struggles in France contains Marx’s famous discussion of “The Four Alls” in which he explains that the task of the proletariat during the transition from capitalism to socialism is to abolish all class distinctions, all relations of production, all social relations, and all ideas that spring from capitalist society.39 Classical Marxism indeed viewed itself as much more than a mere logical extension of the bourgeois Enlightenment, sans economic classes, but it did not always realize this vision. Poductionism, consumerism, and procreationism are anachronistic leftovers from the philistinish, unscientific, and mindless optimism of the bourgeois Enlightenment, meshed with the capitalistic logic of profit maximization. Together they entail complete expropriation and commodification of nature for use in the valorization process. Ecocide is inherent in the logic of both profit maximization and the maximization of consumption. As required by the four alls, classical Marxism should have rejected bourgeois ideals such as unlimited production and consumption. They must be rejected now.40

There is nothing in the logic of Marxist socialism that necessitates such an error, especially provided the errors in Marx’s labor theory of value are overcome. The fundamental purpose of socialism, as understood by the founders of Marxism, is to organize society to cooperate in and coordinate its efforts to satisfy the material and cultural needs of its members and to return to workers the same amount of value that they invest in society, minus absolutely necessary deductions or unavoidable losses. This immediately raises questions about the extent of material and cultural production entailed by the word “satisfy.” Does ecology dictate limits on what is permissible here? Evidently it does. Historically, Marxists and Marxist-Leninists have had a weak grasp on this question and its answer. They apparently thought there was no need for any strictures on production and consumption, including the production of human beings (Chinese Marxism notwithstanding), but there really are objective limits dictated by the requirements of Earth’s ecology. Therefore, the dangerous and simplistic goal of perpetual quantitative increases in material living standards should be removed from Marxism and replaced by the explicit recognition that the achievement of socialism’s purpose is impossible without healthy ecosystems. Taking this necessary condition into account, it follows that the purpose of socialism is cooperation in the satisfaction of society’s material and cultural needs to the degree compatible with the preservation of nature. The idea that socialism and communism should place caps on production, consumption, and population growth, must become core guiding principles of Marxism in all its forms if they are to remain relevant in the Anthropocene.

Implications

(1) Marx’s labor theory of value overvalues labor power in the sense that it erroneously believes that human labor is the creator of a potentially infinite expansion of value. The realization that labor manipulates quantities of matter/energy, which may then be identified with quantities of value, rather than creating value, per se, disconnects compensation from the notion that its purpose is to remunerate acts of pure and potentially infinite creativity. When we cease to view human beings as “creators” of value rather than users and appreciators who need value, we reduce them from the bogus, quasi-divine status conferred on them by the more Promethean strains of the Enlightenment, to the lesser, but more honest status of normal living beings. Workers are then viewed as beings with needs that are worthy of respect, consideration, and satisfaction, but with no right to place their needs and wants above the health of the whole living system of Earth and its biosphere.

(2) To reiterate: Labor does not “create” value. It reconfigures pre-existing quantities of matter and energy to serve useful purposes. These purposes are not strictly class neutral. In capitalism they serve the capitalist class’ interest in profit maximization; under socialism they must satisfy the material and cultural needs of the working class within ecological limits. The importance of labor’s power to manipulate matter should not be underestimated, but it is not value creation, per se. Economic value is not a substance in and of itself. Therefore any such value judgments and value hierarchies based on them that are not grounded in quantifiable energy expenditures should be viewed with a high degree of skepticism. “Value” is not a uniquely independent substance, but this does not mean it is purely fictitious. It is an epiphenomenon of the labor process, of the rationally directed use of energy, and is real as such. But value in its original and grounding manifestation, the dual form of matter and energy, pre-exists human and all other life forms. The worker is an arranger and discoverer of values, but not a creator. Nature is the source of all values, not only use values, as Marx erroneously believed.

(3) In this concept of ecological socialism, the fundamental principle of socialist distribution that the individual receives from society a quantity of value equal to what he has contributed to it, remains in force; the difference is that value is reinterpreted in materialist terms as energy expenditure and return that on expenditure. Marx’s understanding of value as congealed labor time is rejected as an idealistic Hegelian reification of the concepts of labor and time that is incompatible with materialism.

(4) The distribution scenario for the primary stage of communism sketched by Marx in “Critique of the Gotha Program” is therefore rewritten:

He receives a certificate from society that he has consumed such and such an amount of energy (after deducting part of this amount for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same expenditure of energy. The same amount of energy which he has given to society in one form he receives back in another. But all expenditures must take place within quantifiable ecological limits.

The principle for the higher phase of communism is reworded:

From each according to his ability to each according to his need, within the limits of nature’s capacities!

(5) This reformulated theory of value requires reinterpretation of the concepts of exchange value, surplus value, price, and fair compensation. Exchange value is reinterpreted as the amount of energy required to produce the commodity; surplus value as the amount of energy contributed by the worker to the production process that exceeds the quantity of energy that he receives in return for his labor. Fair compensation now means an equal energy exchange between the worker and the owner of the productive enterprise, minus deductions necessary to maintain the enterprise and other socially necessary subtractions; under socialism the owner will be the whole society. Since ecology is logically prior to all society, this principle applies whether the owner is a capitalist, a class, an alliance of classes, a state, or a free association of workers.

(6) The only justification for differences in compensation is measurable differences in energy expended by workers during the labor process. This replaces Marx’s standard of labor time and the distinction between simple and complex labor. Compensation differences based on differences in the quality or complexity of different forms of work are unjustified in these terms. Justification requires demonstration of a quantifiable difference among forms of work. For example, if a construction worker expends more energy than an accountant, the former is owed higher compensation than the latter, if not, then not. Society may choose to use compensation differences to encourage quality improvements or the acquisition of complex skills, but such considerations are matters of social utility that violate the reformulated principle of socialist distribution if they are not justifiable in material terms. In this interpretation, the priority of socialist distribution is to return to individuals the amount of energy they have invested in society, minus necessary deductions. Adherence to this principle is incompatible with distribution regimes that promote either poverty or wealth by returning to workers either less or more than the amount of energy they have contributed. Furthermore, it has been argued that there is no scientific basis for such distinctions, contrary to Marx’s erroneous belief that complex labor necessarily has greater objective value because of its higher “value creating” capacity. In a socialist society, compensation differences permitted for reasons of social utility must be minimized and regulated to prevent capitalist restoration.

(7). Marx’s view that smaller quantities of complex labor are equal to larger amounts of simple labor is justified only if there is evidence that complex labor consumes more energy than simple labor. But there is no such evidence. The evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary: simple manual labor requires higher energy consumption than complex intellectual labor.41  The reformulated theory of value provides no justification for a compensation hierarchy favoring complex intellectual labor over simple manual labor.

(8) The fact that some forms of work involve manipulation of higher quantities of energy than others does not entail that workers in those fields expend more of their own metabolic energy during their work or as part of their labor in acquiring and maintaining their ability to perform high-energy work; nor are they entitled to higher compensation because they “create” higher energy fields. Energy and matter, in conformity to their respective conservation laws, are neither created nor destroyed. These fundamental constituents of our material reality may be transferred or transformed from one state into another by the worker, but unlike Shiva, the human worker, whether of hand or brain can neither create nor destroy matter and energy. Since value is reducible to quantities of energy, the conservation laws also apply to value. Strictly speaking, the view that labor creates value is erroneous. Labor manipulates quantities of matter and energy and thereby manipulates quantities of value. New methods of manipulating value are discovered during the labor process, but human beings do not possess the power of creating matter, energy, or value out of nothing. 

(9) Since the universe is composed of a pre-established quantity of matter and energy, the labor process in the broadest sense is the act of directing finite quantities of energy. The process can be exploitive (capitalism) or cooperative (socialism).

(10) A reasonable socialism aims to meet each person’s material needs (emphasis on needs, not wants) in quantities that correlate with the society’s productive capacity, preservation of its ecological foundations, and the functioning of society within known ecological limits. The reinterpreted theory of value promotes this, while Marx’s theory discourages it. Any deviation from these limits that favors intellectual workers (or any other social stratum) on the erroneous assumption that they contribute more labor or “create” more value than other workers is unjustified. Socialist society must respect objective energy values and the dialectic of needs and limits. It cannot shirk its responsibility to meet fundamental material needs, but it must prohibit breaking ecological limits to provide so called elite strata (intellectual workers or even elite populations such as North America or Western Europe) with extravagant compensation levels that they are erroneously judged to deserve under the old labor theory of value.

(11) In this concept of value, over consumption of energy by favored social strata that exceeds their actual contribution to society, is dealt with by limiting compensation to the quantity of energy contributed by the worker. This does not preclude the possibility that specific forms of energy, such as fossil fuels, may come under additional regulations required for maintaining a healthy ecology. Yes, a socialist society must return to workers what they invest in society, but it would be madness to give so much that its ecological foundations are destroyed in the process. The point is for socialism to fill basic needs, not unlimited wants.

(12) The primary concern of socialism must not be to provide human beings with limitless material abundance. It must strike a balance between material needs and known ecological limits, and the conception of need must evolve with changes in our knowledge of ecological limits. Socialism must fairly compensate workers for the energy they contribute to the common good, but whether this results in material abundance is a secondary concern. It must be decided how much growth is compatible with a thriving environment. Because the material world is ultimately entropic (as expressed by the Boltzmann entropy equation (S = k log W), life’s flourishing requires temporarily decreasing entropy through matter/energy inputs, both natural and rationally directed; consequently, there must be a sense of limits to disruptive growth, a preference for permitting nature to exist undisturbed, and recognition of the importance of letting things be.

(13) Consumption must be understood as compensation for one’s material contribution, not a reward for virtue of any kind (which must be its own reward if it is to remain virtuous); otherwise, talented workers, and this includes those who are talented at self-promotion, fraud, deception, theft, violence, and gluttony, will take the vast bulk of social goods for themselves and condemn other to second class status as the deserved outcome of their inferiority; in the process they will destroy the biosphere with their voracious consumption, which they view as “just” reward for their limitless superiority. Capitalism and the old productivist/consumerist socialism, with the groundless distinctions between work deserving of high and low rewards, must be rejected. A scientific socialism, scientific in the sense that it takes other sciences seriously (including climatology and ecology) must be about limiting human consumption, not unleashing it. Consumption must be within the limits defined by climatology and ecology, rather than the Promethean consumerist aspirations of classical liberalism, nineteenth-century Marxism, twentieth-century Marxism-Leninism, and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. This might seem unfair to Chinese socialism, which promises to build an “ecological civilization” amid rapid and massive development; but it is too soon to tell whether this promise will prove empty; what is certain is that it has already made a substantial contribution to the global climate crisis by releasing what are now world-leading quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.

(14) The idea that scientific socialism must be compatible with other sciences requires clarification. It does not mean that socialists must acknowledge the established assumptions and findings of all sciences and explicitly agree with them. (Does it matter whether socialists know and accept the latest findings of actinology, otology, tribology, etc.? Probably not.)  It is enough for socialists to take account of established theoretical principles and empirical findings in all sciences that bear directly upon their project and take care not to violate their principles, unless they can show that the established principle is incorrect and must be abandoned. I mean by “established” principles and findings those that have withstood scrutiny so far and which have not been convincingly refuted by any other science, including Marxism. Marx should be criticized, for example, when he talks about labor time as a congealable ingredient that the labor process adds to the material substance of the commodity. This conflicts with a fundamental proposition of modern physics which views time as an immaterial dimension of reality, not an ingredient that can be added to things by some process or other, such as labor. If Marxists cannot provide convincing reasons to prefer their assumptions about time to those of modern physics, then the traditional Marxist theory of value should be reformulated in terms compatible with physics. On the other hand, if Marxists can refute standard physics by rigorously demonstrating that time should be regarded as a substance (the substance of value as Marx called it) then physics should adapt to Marxism, but this does not seem likely.

(15) Besides the need for an empirically defensible theory of value, Marxism must be kept relevant in the newly named Anthropocene epoch. This name denotes the present age of planetary environmental crisis. It is now clear that the intractable environmental problems facing humankind are the result of human activities, especially the complementary economic and scientific developments that have taken place since the Industrial Revolution (at the very latest). A terrifying increase in human power to devour the environment has occurred, causing a constellation of problems that includes: air, water, and soil pollution; global warming and climate change; human overpopulation; resource depletion; the global destruction of habitats; and mass extinctions. The stress on the material bases of life has killed vast numbers of organisms in what is called the Sixth Great Extinction.42 There is even some concern that Homo sapiens may not survive the Anthropocene. No one is sure whether life can survive if industrial civilization continues its trajectory toward unlimited economic growth, or whether humans, if they do survive, will be forced to revert to the lower consumption levels that characterized early- or pre-industrial eras. If Marxists can develop a theoretical and practical program for dealing with the problems of the Anthropocene, the world will flock to it; otherwise the world will look to capitalist solutions such as liberalism, neoliberalism, social democracy, and fascism for solutions. This will happen regardless of how dangerous and absurd it seems to Marxists.

(16) A scientific theory of value is necessary not only to bring Marxism in communion with the other empirical sciences, it is also a prerequisite of an ecological Marxism, which is in turn crucial to Marxism’s relevance in the Anthropocene. It must replace Marx’s “labor mixing” theory, which is a holdover from natural rights-based, labor-mixing theories of bourgeois political economists.43  It is scientifically correct that Marxists aim to replace these ideological mystifications with empirically verifiable propositions; it is also a wise political strategy, because science-based political strategies, like all human endeavors informed by the relevant scientific disciplines, actually stand a reasonable chance of achieving the intended results.

  1. Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Program.” In Robert Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels  Reader, 2nd ed. p. 525–541. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978 (1875),  525. []
  2. Lenin used the term “socialism” to describe what Marx called the “first phase of communist society” and “communism” to denote Marx’s “higher phase of communist society.” I have followed this practice when I have considered it convenient to do so. Thus,  I refer to the distributive principles of the lower and higher phases as the “socialist principle of distribution” and the “communist principle of distribution,” respectively. For Lenin’s usage see The State and Revolution, Chapter V, §3-4; for Marx’s, see “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Part I, §1. For an objection to this practice see: Layton, Richard. “No Marx!Dissident Voice. April 9, 2015. []
  3. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” p. 530. []
  4. Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Moscow, 1936. []
  5. Cf. Simons, William B., ed. The Constitutions of the Communist World. The Hague:  Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1984. []
  6. Kuusinen, O.V., et al., ed. Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1963, p. 584. []
  7. Marx, Karl. Capital, vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1977 (1867), p. 135. []
  8. Marx, Karl. Capital, vol. III. London: Penguin Books, 1991 (1898). p. 241. []
  9. Ibid. p. 414. []
  10. Ibid. p. 414 – 415, n. 39[a]. []
  11. Marx, Karl. Capital, vol. 1, p. 127. []
  12. Ibid. p. 127. []
  13. Ibid., p. 129. []
  14. Ibid. p. 130. []
  15. Marx, Capital, v. II, p. 462. []
  16. Ibid. p. 464. []
  17. Marx, Capital, v. III, p. 133. []
  18. Ibid. p. 1006. []
  19. Harris, J. Arthur and Francis G. Benedict. A Biometric Study of Basal Metabolism in Man. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1919. There is an extensive literature on human energy consumption in daily life, work, and recreational activities.  A small sample includes:  R. Passmore & J. Durnin. “Human Energy Expenditure.” Physiol Rev. 1955 Oct; 35(4) 801–840; T. Church et al. “Trends over 5 Decades in U.S. Occupation-Related Physical Activity and Their Associations with Obesity.” PLoS ONE.  2011 May; 6(5) 1–7; M. Mansoubi et al. “Energy Expenditure during Common Sitting and Standing Tasks: Examining the 1.5 MET Definition of Sedentary Behavior.” BMC Public Health. 2015: Article number 516; S. Bilici et al.  “Energy Expenditure and Nutritional Status of Coal Miners: A Cross-Sectional Study.” Archives of  Environmental & Occupational Health. 2016; 71(5) 293–299; R. Griffin, et al. “Gluttony and Sloth? Calories, Labor Market Activity, and the Rise of Obesity.” Journal of  the European Economic Association. 2016; 14(6) 1253–1286; J. Deyaert et al. “Attaching Metabolic Expenditures to Standard Occupational Classification Systems:  Perspectives from Time-Use Research.” BMC Public Health. 2017; Article number 620. []
  20. Calories burned by a 185 lb person in 30 minutes in the following occupational activities: computer work – 61; light office work – 67; sitting in meetings – 72; desk work – 78; bartending/serving – 173; general construction – 244; coal mining – 266; masonry- 311; general steel mill – 355. From: Harvard Health Publishing. “Calories Burned in  30 Minutes by People of Three Different Weights.” []
  21. For procreationism see Marx’s discussion of Malthus in Capital, v.1, p. 766–767, and his remarks on surplus population in Capital, v. 3, p. 324–325). Procreationism is a remnant of Judeo-Christian traditions, retained and gradually transformed into a human rights issue by some religious and secular liberals in bourgeois societies. This aspect of the tradition was abandoned by bourgeois clerics such as Malthus, who prescribed anti-procreationism as a solution to the poverty and misery of the surplus working-class population. Marx’s view is that there is no natural limit on human population. The immiseration of so-called “surplus populations” in capitalism is due solely to the exploitive relations of production in that system. Marx’s procreationsim grows out of the connections between Marx’s views on population, the higher value ascribed to intellectual workers by his labor theory of value, and his productionist/consumerist sympathies. Like capitalism, Marx’s socialism requires perpetual reproduction of producers (with an emphasis on highly skilled intellectual workers) and consumers in unlimited numbers to facilitate perpetual economic growth. []
  22. For an early example of his productionism/consumerism see the section on “The Meaning of Human Requirements” in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. []
  23. Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. In vol. 6 of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, 477–519. New York: International Publishers, 1976 (1848), p. 489. []
  24. Ibid. p. 495. []
  25. Ibid. 504. []
  26. Ibid. p. 505. Except for a line on “improvement of the soil generally” as part of a program to expand agriculture, the manifesto’s 10-point program gives no indication that ecological concerns will play a role in the transition from capitalism to communism. []
  27. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” p. 531. []
  28. Lenin, Vladimir I.  The State and Revolution. In vol. 25 of V. I. Lenin: Collected Works, 385–497. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964 (1917), p. 473. []
  29. Kuusinen, et al., Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism, p. 544, 569. []
  30. Ibid. p. 570. []
  31. Ibid. p. 705. []
  32. Ibid. p. 706-707. []
  33. Ibid. p. 700. []
  34. Engels, Frederick. The Condition of the Working Class in England. In vol. 4 of Karlarx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, 294–596. New York: International Publishers, 1975 (1845), passim. []
  35. The “coevolutionary” remark is from Clark, Brett and Richard York. “Reflections in Honor of the Twentieth Anniversary of Levin’s and Lewontin’s The Dialectical Biologist,” Monthly Review 57 (1) (May 2005): p. 13–22. The quote on victories over nature is from Engels’ Dialectics of Nature. London: Wellred Publications, 2012 (1883), p. 182. []
  36. Marx, Capital, v. I., p. 637–638. []
  37. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” p. 525. []
  38. Foster, John Bellamy. “Late Soviet Ecology and the Planetary Crisis,” Monthly Review 67 (2) (June 2015): p. 1–20. []
  39. Marx, Karl. The Class Struggles in France: 1848-1850. In vol. 10 of Karl Marx,  Frederick Engels: Collected Works, 45–145. New York: International Publishers, 1978 (1850), p. 127. []
  40. Chinese socialism is an exception to the charge of procreationism; both the one-child policy and the recently adopted two-child policy firmly reject it. []
  41. See note 20. []
  42. Cf. Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Great Extinction. New York: Henry Holt and Comany 2014. []
  43. For an early labor mixing theory see John Locke’s discussion of property in chapter 5 of The Second Treatise of Civil Government. []
David S. Pena is an independent scholar, librarian, and sometime adjunct professor whose research interests include Marxist philosophy Read other articles by David S..