Before we begin our adventure through Karl Marx and his complex idea of commodity, the purpose and intent of this web page should be noted. This particular page is aimed at providing a framework through which one may begin to critically engage in Marx’s notion of the commodity. Furthermore, this page should not be mistaken for a complete summation of Marx’s writings on the commodity, but rather a basic definition and introduction to the concept of commodity. With that said, let us begin with a brief introduction to the man Karl Marx.

Karl Marx, 1875/public domain
Karl Marx, 1875/public domain

The son of a lawyer, Marx was born on the 5th of May 1818 in Trevirorum, West Germany (known as Trier today). Educated at Bonn University and the University of Berlin, Marx found himself submerged in the timeless question of the meaning and purpose of life. Turning to Frederick Hegel (1770-1831), Marx studied his philosophy and came upon the idea that “[r]eason is constantly evolving in history towards an absolute goal” (Rius 20). This notion, along with Hegel’s The Philosophy of History, which posits that the progress of history is the direct result of the “struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors,” became the source of great inspiration for young Marx (Rius 21). A few years later Marx became friends with Frederick Engles (1820-1895), and together they wrote famous documents such as the Communist Manifesto.

Still plagued with the questions of class struggle and notions of capitalism, Marx spent the last 25 years of his life writing his major work Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, or Capital for those of us who do not speak German. Sadly enough, Marx died on March 14th, 1883, at his desk, and managed to finish only the first of his three intended volumes. Fortunately, he completed enough of his great work to provide us with the concept of commodity.

In Part 1. Commodities and Money, Chapter 1. Commodities, Marx begins his investigation of societies and their wealth with an analysis of commodities. As analysis will demonstrate, the idea of commodity itself becomes the framework through which the larger concept of capitalism may be accessed and understood. Marx therefore initiates his critique of capitalism by defining commodity as the following:

“A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside of us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production” (Marx 45).

More simply put, a worker produces an object (i.e. fabric, shoes, plastic, houses, etc.) that, despite the investment of their personal labor, remains as the boss’s property. This simple, yet crucial fact turns the object into merchandise, or a commodity. The boss who possesses wealth and commodities, is, for Marx, the embodiment of the bourgeois; and the worker thus becomes the embodiment of the proletariat. More important, however, is that the bourgeois, in possessing the capital, maintains control over the use and exchange of those commodities. With this in mind, Marx continues his discussion of commodity by defining use-value and exchange-value. (See also Globalism and Transnationalism, The Spice Trade in India, Communism in India)

Commodity and Use-Value

According to Marx, “[e]very useful thing, as iron, paper, &c., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity” (Marx 45). The diversity of production necessarily yields diverse modes of use, and it is therefore the “work of history” to identify the various modes of use as well as the social standards by which those uses are assessed. Consequently, use-value is defined in the following terms:

The utility of a thing makes it a use-value. 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. […] Use-values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. (Marx 46).

What is especially important to extract from this preliminary definition of use-value is the claim that “[u]se-values become a reality only by use or consumption.” More simply put, the utility, or use-value, of a commodity cannot be fully realized or assessed until the object itself has entered into a system of exchange. Use-value is thus intrinsically related and dependent upon exchange-value. Furthermore, use-value, and subsequently exchange-value, cannot be neatly defined into either quality or quantity, but instead resides within the realms of both quality and quantity.

Commodity and Exchange-Value

Identifying the immediate desire to define exchange-value within quantitative terms, Marx notes that “exchange-value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrinsic value, i.e., an exchange-value that is inseparably connected with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms” (Marx 46). The “contradiction in terms” that Marx aptly identifies is simply the argument that the exchange-value cannot be exclusively evaluated in terms of the commodity itself. Rather, the exchange-value, which, as earlier stated, makes the use-value a reality, must be productive of something that is both separate from and common to the commodities in question:

Therefore, first: the valid exchange-values of a given commodity express something equal: secondly, exchange-value, generally, is only the mode of expression, the phenomenal form, or something contained in it, yet distinguishable from it. […] the exchange-values of commodities must be capable of being expressed in terms of something common to them all, of which thing they represent a greater or less quantity. This common ‘something’ cannot be either a geometrical, a chemical, or any other natural property of commodities. Such properties claim our attention only in so far as they affect the utility of those commodities, make them use-values. But the exchange of commodities is evidently an act characterized by a total abstraction from use-value is just as good as another, provided only it be present in sufficient quantity. (Marx 47)

In arguing that exchange-value is a “phenomenal form” capable of expressing that which is outside of as well as contained within the commodity, Marx necessarily implicates commodity as that which must contain some quality whose utility, in “sufficient quantity,” is identifiable by social standards. That utility, however, is brought to light only when the exchange-value becomes an abstract act that is manifested as independent from the use-value.

Commodity and Human Labor

Recalling that a commodity is first a product of the worker, the commodity has inherent in it the character of human labor: “All that these things now tell us is, that human labour-power has been expended in their production, that human labour is embodied in them” (Marx 48). Human labour-power, in this regard, is the “total labour-power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities, produced by that society” (Marx 49). Marx’s inclusion of society is crucial as it necessarily values “labour-power” in terms what it is socially necessary. As such, the actual value of commodity is itself assessed in terms of what is regarded as “socially necessary for its production:

The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labour-time necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other. […] In general the greater the productiveness of labour, the less is the labour-time required for the production of an article, the less is the amount of labour crystallized in that article, and the less is its value; and vice versa, the less the productiveness of labour, the greater is the labour-time required for the production of an article, and the greater is its value. The value of commodity, therefore, varies directly as the quantity, and inversely as the productiveness, of the labour incorporated in it. (Marx 49-50)

The magnitude of the value of a commodity is therefore directly related and dependent upon the conception of human labor as that which is both composed of countless individual labors as well as expressive of the utility of the commodity. Human labor is therefore manifested in the commodity as both an expression of the individual investment of labor; and additionally as what is considered to be “socially necessary for its production.” In fixing the commodity within a social context, the notion of human labor becomes an abstraction as it functions to represent what the current society recognizes as beneficial. Important to note, however, is the distinction that the labor “finds expression in value,” but is not in possession of those qualities that create use-value (Marx 51). Implicated in this twofold nature of labor is the notion that useful labor becomes a reality when the object is seen as an object of utility.

In a fashion similar to use-value, the value of the actual labor is materialized when the product of labor becomes an object of utility. In its manifestation of value and utility, labor is then subject to similar modes of assessment:

To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of exchange. Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value […] The labour, whose utility is thus represented by the value in use of its product, or which manifests itself by making its product a use value, we call useful labor. In this connection we consider only its useful effect. (Marx 51)

What utility in an object and by extension, value in a commodity, come to represent is “human labour in the abstract, the expenditure of human labour in general” (Marx 54). The literal expenditure of human labor, specifically, the physical work invested into the object, is representative of both the directed aim of the product as well as human labor in the abstract. As such, the expenditure of labor, in terms of the abstract qualities assigned to human labor, functions to create and shape the value contained within commodities. With regard to the specific aim of labor, expenditure also represents that which is characteristic of useful labor; thereby producing “use values” (Marx 56). Ultimately, the value of the commodity and by extension the collective human labor, is relative to what is regarded as necessary by current society, by current human wants and needs; lending itself to a much more complex reading and understanding of the idea of commodity.

Commodity and Fetishism

Products of utility become commodities simply because they are first the products of individual and personal labor that is separate from the collective society. In adding together individual labor efforts, the sum total of human labor is created, thereby constituting the collective labor of society. In the context of use-value, the concept of commodity is relatively simple and direct:

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. (Marx 81)

What fundamentally complicates and makes mysterious the concept of a commodity is the very notion that individual labor takes a social form. In its social form, what becomes most difficult is the quantification and assessment of that individual labor. How we assess, how we determine the quantitative value of the “expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, &c.” is naturally called into question. Despite the inherent subjective nature of individual labor, the quality of human labor is valued objectively, thereby creating an “enigmatic character [to] the product of labour” (Marx 82). The value of labor, both individual and sum total, is therefore affirmed through its social relationships. It is precisely this social form that creates the fetishism of commodities: “This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them” (Marx 83).

Just as the use-value of commodities become a reality when actual exchange occurs, so the social value of individual labor asserts itself when the product of labor engages in the act of exchange. Indeed the impact of the social form is such that it makes difficult the separation between individual and collective. Furthermore, the social form makes inseparable the production of commodities from individual products of labor and the collective production of labor. This joining of the individual and the social, and hence the stages of the production of commodities, is the very mysterious and enigmatic character of commodities. More important, this intersection between the individual and the social becomes the location of the fetishism of commodities:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing […] [t]here is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. […] This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities” (Marx 83).

Marked by their inherent social quality, commodities are necessarily in dialogue with current social trends. For example, what may have been considered useful, that is, in possession of a certain utility in the eighteenth century has either a different utility in the twentieth century, or has become entirely obsolete. Human labor, in following the same trend, also becomes a marker of current social trends; constantly changing as society itself changes. Indeed the advent and overwhelming flux of machinery has made much human labor obsolete. Historical examples such as the cotton gin, the sewing machine, and even the computer have called into question the value of certain individual labors that were, previous to the existence of these machines, considered to be socially valued and thus a commodity. While the basic framework of a commodity remains constant with the progression of time, what is in flux is the identification and labeling of products as commodities. Commodities, in this respect, become a critique of capitalism. They are themselves a collection of social markers, always calling attention to what the current society designates as valuable. As it is the “work of history” to identify utility, both past and present commodities equally trace the movement and progression of the larger social body known as history.

See Gayatri Spivak, Cecil Rhodes, Theodor Adorno

Selected Bibliography

  • Bottomore, Tom (ed.). Interpretations of Marx. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
  • —. Theories of Modern Capitalism. London: Allen and Unwin, 1985.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx. trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Fromm, Erich (ed.). Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1961.
  • Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1972.
  • La Capra, Dominick. Rethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Contexts, Language. Ithaca NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1983.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966.
  • Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. ed. Frederick L. Bender. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988.
  • Prawer, S.S. Karl Marx and World Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Simmel, Georg (1900). Philosophy of Money. London: Routledge and Kehan Paul, 1978.
  • Tucker, Steve (ed.). The Marx-Engels Reader. Second edition. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.
  • —. Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Works Cited

  • Carver, Terrell. The Postmodern Marx. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.
  • Fischer, Ernst (ed.). The Essential Marx. trans. Anna Bostock, New York: Herder and Herder, 1968.
  • Marx, Karl and Engles, Frederick. Collected Works: Capital, vol.1. New York: International Publishers, 1996.
  • Renton, David (ed.). Marx on Globalisaton. London: Lawrence and Wishart Limited, 2001.
  • Rius. Marx for Beginners. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Author: Jenny Yusin, Fall 2002
Last edited: October 2017

1 Comment

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