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History of Political Economy 32.4 (2000) 1039-1041

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Book Review

Marx's Wage Theory in Historical Perspective:
Its Origins, Development, and Interpretation

Marx's Wage Theory in Historical Perspective: Its Origins, Development, and Interpretation. By Kenneth Lapides. Westport, Conn., and London: Praeger, 1998. x; 275 pp. $59.95

Marx's mature theory of wages can be summarized relatively easily if we assume that the Ricardian theory of value holds, where equilibrium prices are proportional to labor values. Labor is distinguished from labor-power (the capacity to labor), and the wage constitutes the price of a unit of the latter, not the former. It corresponds to that commodity bundle with the minimum labor value that is just sufficient to ensure the reproduction of the working class, although this commodity bundle is conceived as a social-historical magnitude rather than a biological minimum. The law of value then explains wages consistently with the existence of profits, the size of which is determined by the surplus-value resulting from the difference between the value of aggregate labor-power and the value it produces. In normal circumstances technical change results in a “reserve army of unemployed” operating to maintain wages at the currently prevailing social-historical standard, so it is the laws of motionofcapitalism that enforce the law of value in the labor market as in commodity pricing generally.

Kenneth Lapides traces the development of this theory and, since Marx formulated his economics as a critique of his precursors, much non-Marxian analysis is discussed in the process. There is, in particular, a very clear account of the wage-fund doctrine and the arguments of its supporters and critics. Thus the book is useful beyond any interest that a reader might have in Marx's economic theory. Indeed, about half the chapters are taken up with elucidating the ideas of his predecessors. Nonetheless, Lapides sees his book as original in being the only detailed account of the emergence of Marx's mature wage theory, which, he maintains, was not stated comprehensively in any single text, but has to be pieced together from a variety of works.

Marx's Wage Theory explains how Marx understood himself as revolutionizing the economics of wages, and it pays attention also to the political and ideological issues involved. These are not limited to the apologetics of orthodox economists, who embraced Malthusianism and the notion of a predetermined wage-fund to explain why “so many people were poor” by the argument “that there were so many [End Page 1039] poor people.” Marx had to counter similar arguments within the ranks of the Left itself. Since his objective was to unify socialist theory and working class politics, he had necessarily to undermine both Malthusianism and the wage-fund doctrine because they found exponents among radical intellectuals and activists within the labor movement. Lapides stresses here that Marx proposed no doctrine of increasing misery in the sense of predicting, or being required by the logic of his analysis to predict, falling real wages as a secular tendency of capitalist development. So far as the overall coherence of Marxism is concerned this point is well taken. If Marx had enunciated an increasing misery doctrine, not only would support for unions have lacked much rationale, but it would have been in tension with any cultural elevation of proletarian consumption, which, he believed, was necessary to realize socialism. Lapides clearly recognizes this and, more significantly, provides support for the fact that Marx himself did so too.

One theme that is especially important is that Marx, as well as some of his classical predecessors, formulated his theories of economic equilibria at a level of abstraction suggesting that unions were incapable of affecting the general wage level. But they themselves were conscious of this and recognized that the imperfections of actually existing capitalism were not captured by their ideal-type representations, so that, by increasing information and strengthening the autonomy of workers, trade unions could make actual markets conform more closely to their depiction in economic theory. In addition, for...


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