Graphic Witness: Hugo Gellert
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Hugo Gellert: Karl Marx' 'Capital' in Lithographs

The Form of Value, or Exchange-value

COMMODITIES: the form of value, or exchange-value

. . .Everyone knows this much, at least, that commodities have a value form common to them all, the money form. . . .We have to discover the origin of the money form. . . .The simplest value ratio is obviously the value ratio between one commodity and another commodity of a different kind -- no matter what kind. The ratio between the respective values of two commodities thus gives us the simplest expression for the value of one of them.

. . . We say that 20 yards of linen "are worth" one coat.

The whole mystery of the form of value lies hidden in this elementary form, and its analysis is our fundamental difficulty.

A and B, the two different kinds of commodity (linen and coat in our concrete instance), obviously play different parts. The linen expresses its value in the coat; the coat serves as the means for the expression of this value. The former commodity plays an active role; the latter, a passive one. The value of the former commodity is presented as relative or comparative, or appears in a relative form. The latter commodity functions as an equivalent, or appears in an equivalent form.

. . . Nothing but the expression of the equivalence between different kinds of commodities can disclose the specific character of value-creating labor. It does so by reducing the different kinds of labor embodied in the different commodities to that which is common to them all, to human labor in the abstract.

. . . Aristotle tells us in so many words that the money form of commodities is but a further development of the simple form of value -- this simple form being the expression of the value of a commodity in terms of any other commodity you please. He says that the phrase "5 beds=1 house" . . ."cannot be distinguished from". . .the phrase "5 beds=so much money."

He sees, further, that the value relation represented by the phrase "5 beds=1 house" implies a qualitative identity between house and bed; he recognizes that, different though the two things are to our bodily senses, they must have a common essence, for otherwise we could not relate them one to another as commensurable magnitudes. He says: "There cannot be exchange without equality, nor equality without commensurability."

But here he halts in his analysis of the form of value. "It is really impossible that things so different should be commensurable," i.e., qualitatively identical. Such an equalization must be foreign to the real nature of the things; it can only be "a makeshift for practical purposes."

Thus Aristotle himself tells us what is the obstacle to the progress of his analysis. He lacks the concept of value. When, in the foregoing equation, a house expresses the worth of five beds, what is the nature of the "equality", what is the essence common to house and bed? "It is really impossible," says Aristotle, that such a common essence can exist.

Why impossible? The house is something of the same kind as the bed, in so far as both of them represent what is really one and the same. This one and the same thing is -- human labor.

It was, however, impossible for Aristotle to discover, by the simple study of the form of value, that in the form of commodity values all labor (of whatever kind) finds expression as identical human labor; which counts as of equal worth in them all. Aristotle could not see this because Greek society was based on slave labor, and was therefore based upon the inequality of men and their labor powers. . . .

Aristotle's outstanding genius is shown by his discovery that a relation of inequality or essential likeness underlies the expression of the value of commodities. It was only the historical limitations of the society in which he lived, that prevented his discovering the real nature of this relation of equality.