The ‘Historical’ Transformation Problem

  • Ronald L. Meek


Why did Marx start in Capital with ‘values’, and then proceed at a later stage in his analysis to ‘transform’ these into the ‘prices of production’ at which commodities under competitive capitalism actually tended to sell? I have been suggesting for many years now that part of the answer to this crucial question lies in the fact that Marx’s argument, although it took a logical form, was also intended to possess a significant ‘historical’ dimension. In putting forward this suggestion, I had never felt that I was saying anything particularly novel or original: I was as it were brought up on this line of thought, which I fondly imagined had been shared by several not unimportant commentators on Marx’s work, including Engels, Böhm-Bawerk, Hilferding, and Lenin. In an article in the June 1975 issue of the Economic Journal,2 however, I was taken to task for adopting this line by two economists, M. Morishima and G. Catephores, who claimed that the transformation problem in fact had no ‘historical’ dimension at all, and that ‘for Marx... value was reduced to a logical category deprived of empirical historical reality’.3 While I was not persuaded by them that my interpretation of Marx’s theory had been essentially wrong or misleading, I felt that they had quite convincingly shown that I had not always expressed myself on this issue with a sufficient degree of clarity and consistency. The reformulation of my views in the present essay will, I hope, do something to remedy this.


Price Determination Transformation Problem Economic Work Present Essay Bourgeois Society 
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  1. 2.
    M. Morishima and G. Catephores, “Is There an ‘Historical Transformation Problem?”, Economic Journal, 85, 1975, pp. 309–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 3.
    Ibid., p. 317.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    The translations from and references to this review below are to the version which appears as an appendix to the edition of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy published by Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1971.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Ibid., pp. 224–6.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    See, e.g., his letter of 1 November 1891 to Conrad Schmidt.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    See, e.g., the reply by Morishima and Catephores which immediately follows my note in the June 1976 issue of the Economic Journal.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Marx, Grundrisse (translated by M. Nicolaus, Penguin Books, London, 1973), pp. 107–8. Cf. Capital, Vol. III ( Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1959 ), p. 282.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Grundrisse, pp. 100–1.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Ibid., p. 102.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 103.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 105.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    Ibid., pp. 106–7.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    There is no evidence to suggest that Engels, at the time he wrote the review, had seen the Introduction to the Grundrisse which Marx had written two years before but which he was never to publish. All that Engels probably had to go on, apart from the Critique itself, was Marx’s letter to him of 2 April 1858 describing the plan (as he then envisaged it) of his economic work. On the basis of this letter Engels could easily be forgiven for believing that in Marx’s economic work as a whole logic and history were going to be made to march hand in hand in a fairly uncomplicated way. The letter is studded with references to the relation between the two: at least three ‘transitions’ are described as being ‘historical’ as well as ‘dialectical’; it is pointed out that ‘the most abstract determinations, when more carefully examined, always point to a further definite concrete historical basis’; and, perhaps even more significantly, the prerequisites given for the determination of value by labour time are the same as those which Marx gives elsewhere (e.g. Grundrisse, p. 159) for the emergence of simple commodity production.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    For example, by Morishima and Catephores in their article in the June 1975 issue of the Economic Journal.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    Commodities’ in Marx’s terminology are goods produced for sale or exchange on some kind of market by ‘private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other’ (Capital, Vol. I (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1954), pp. 72–3). The ‘simple’ circulation of commodities, according to Marx’s account, is characterized by the formula C—M—C (Commodities—Money—Commodities), its ‘end and aim’ being ‘consumption, the satisfaction of wants, in one word, use-value’ (ibid., p. 149).Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    Capital, Vol. III, pp. 171–2.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    Ibid., pp. 172–4.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 172.Google Scholar
  19. 20.
    Ibid., p. 174.Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    Ibid., pp. 174–5.Google Scholar
  21. 22.
    Ibid., pp. 192–3.Google Scholar
  22. 23.
    Capital, Vol. I, p. 169. Cf. Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value, Part III (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1972), pp. 112–13.Google Scholar
  23. 24.
    Grundrisse, p. 105.Google Scholar
  24. 25.
    Ibid., pp. 251–2.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 252. The passage in which this phrase occurs begins with the following rather significant sentence: ‘As in the theory the concept of value precedes that of capital, but requires for its pure development a mode of production founded on capital, so the same thing takes place in practice’ (p. 251).Google Scholar
  26. 27.
    Capital, Vol. III, p. 174.Google Scholar
  27. 28.
    Cf. Capital, Vol. III, p. 189: ‘The value of the commodity remains important as a basis because the concept of money cannot be developed on any other foundation…’Google Scholar
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    Capital, Vol. I, p. 93.Google Scholar
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    Critique, pp. 50–1.Google Scholar
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    Capital, Vol. I, p. 89. Cf. ibid., p. 170.Google Scholar
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    See, e.g., Capital, Vol. III, pp. 857–8, and Theories of Surplus Value, Part III, pp. 112–13. Cf. also above, pp. 128–9.Google Scholar
  32. 33.
    Capital, Vol. III, p. 857.Google Scholar
  33. 34.
    Ibid., p. 14. In Capital, Vol. I, pp. 169–70, Marx goes so far as to say that an inquiry into the circumstances under which ‘all, or even the majority of products take the form of commodities’ would be ‘foreign to the analysis of commodities’.Google Scholar
  34. 35.
    The most extensive account of this process given by Marx himself is that in the Grundrisse, pp. 459–515.Google Scholar
  35. 36.
    Critique, p. 225.Google Scholar
  36. 37.
    Capital, Vol. I, p. 761.Google Scholar
  37. 38.
    But not in Russia (see Marx’s letter of 8 March 1881 to Vera Zasulich); and not only in western Europe (see Capital, Vol. I, pp. 765–6 ).Google Scholar
  38. 39.
    Cf. Capital, Vol. I, pp. 334, 583–4, 624, 714–15, 761–2, and 765–6; Vol. II (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1957), pp. 34–5; Vol. III, pp. 172–4 and 581–3; and Theories of Surplus Value, Part III, pp. 377–8.Google Scholar
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    Capital, Vol. I, pp. 150–1.Google Scholar
  40. 41.
    Capital, Vol. II, p. 111.Google Scholar
  41. 42.
    Capital, Vol. I, pp. 184, 248, and 310.Google Scholar
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    Capital, Vol. III, p. 177. Cf. Theories of Surplus Value, Part II (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1969), p. 208.Google Scholar
  43. 44.
    Grundrisse, p. 761. Cf. Capital, Vol. III, p. 156, where Marx says that the rates of profit prevailing in the various branches of production are ‘originally’ very different.Google Scholar
  44. 45.
    Capital, Vol. III, p. 192. The whole of the passage in which this phrase occurs is of interest in the present connection.Google Scholar
  45. 46.
    On the role of credit in the process of the equalization of the rate of profit see Capital, Vol. III, pp. 192 and 426; Theories of Surplus Value, Part II, p. 211; and Theories of Surplus Value, Part III, p. 519.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Ronald L. Meek 1977

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ronald L. Meek
    • 1
  1. 1.University of LeicesterUK

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