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The value controversy and social theory : an inquiry into Marx's 'labor theory of value' Smith, Murray E. G.


The aim of this study is to establish the key importance of preserving and developing Marx's 'labor theory of value' to the project of reconstructing social theory on an 'historical-materialist' basis. The seminal significance of the conceptualization of 'economic value' to wide bodies of social theory is indicated by the profound impact of the 'marginalist' theory of value/price on twentieth-century social science — not just economic theory, but such sociological paradigms as structural functionalism and social exchange theory as well. Curiously, however, the controversy surrounding Marx's theory of value has seldom been addressed by sociologists seeking to elaborate a Marxist alternative to these paradigms. The present study seeks to redress this situation by a) 'demystifying' the value controversy by disclosing its methodological, theoretical and programmatic roots, b) establishing in Marx's 'value' a category which is useful not only to the explication of capitalist reality but also in the understanding of the 'forces-relations' dialectic which is at the heart of Marx's theory of historical development, and c) demonstrating how Marx's value theory transcends the conventional academic bifurcation of the 'economic' and the 'sociological’. In contrast to the marginalist doctrine, which analyzes the relation between 'things' and 'persons', Marx's theory of value focuses on the relation of people to people within the total process of production/reproduction: the social relations of production. Accordingly, Marx's theory is not essentially a theory of individual price formation, but rather of the articulation, division and distribution of social labor within commodity-producing economies, and of the laws of motion of societies characterized by 'generalized' commodity production. Key to this interpretation of Marx's project is the historical materialist thesis that the most significant theoretical distinction of use in the interrogation of the human world is the distinction between the material (or 'natural') and the social, not the distinction between a material 'object world' and an ideal 'subject world' which is basic to theories influencing and influenced by neo-classical marginalism. To bring the methodological and substantive-theoretical implications of Marx's theory of value into full view, a comparative critical analysis of the principal 'schools' that have participated in the value controversy is undertaken. These implications are then explored in relation to such problems as economic crisis, imperialism/underdevelopment, class structuration, the social determination of knowledge/ideology, bureaucracy, and the current 'crisis' of social theory as expressed in the division between a poitivistic scientism and a 'life-philosophical' humanism.

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