(1) as I have carefully documented here, the final view of Engels, on the basis of his edited version of volume 3 of Capital and the remarks of Marx there, was that the law of value in volume 1 of Capital could only be applied as an empirical theory to the pre-modern world of commodity exchange before about the 15th century (Marx 1991: 1038).The way in which Capital was written was very peculiar.
(2) this means that the law of value in volume 1 – that commodities tend to exchange at their pure labour values which are anchors for the price system – was a historically contingent phenomenon existing in the “lower stage … of capitalist production” (Marx 1909: 208) and before the emergence of a higher stage of capitalism where Ricardo’s prices of production are the anchors for the price system.
(3) however, in volume 1 of Capital Marx appears to hold that his law of value there does apply to the advanced capitalism of the 19th century. When he published volume 1 of Capital in 1867 he therefore committed himself to this view.
(4) so either (1) his theory as it had been laid out in the three volumes of Capital (the last two being unpublished when he died in 1883) was inconsistent and incoherent or (2) he changed his mind later about the empirical relevance of the law of value in volume 1 for modern capitalism, but preferred not to publish or publicly make known this change in opinion, because he refused to publish any further volumes of Capital in his lifetime.
In 1863, Marx abandoned the so-called Manuscript of 1861–1863 (from which was later taken the Theories of Surplus Value) and started the new Manuscript of 1863–1865 which was a first draft of volumes 1, 2 and 3 of Capital.
However, Marx then abandoned the first draft of volume 1 and started again in 1865, so that the published volume 1 was written after drafts of volumes 2 and 3, as Marx himself says in a letter to Sigmund Schott of 3 November, 1877:
Dear Sir,In 1865 Marx completed a first draft of volume 3 (McLellan 1995: 304) and then turned to a fresh draft of volume 1, which was in fact a second draft of that first volume (as pointed by Michael Heinrich here).
My best thanks for the packages. Your offer to arrange for other material to be sent to me from France, Italy, Switzerland, etc. is exceedingly welcome, although I feel reluctant to make undue claims on you. I don't at all mind waiting, by the by, nor will this in any way hold up my work, for I am applying myself to various parts of the book in turn. In fact, privatim, I began by writing Capital in a sequence (starting with the 3rd, historical section) quite the reverse of that in which it was presented to the public, saving only that the first volume—the last I tackled—was got ready for the press straight away, whereas the two others remained in the rough form which all research originally assumes. ….
Your most obedient Servant,
(letter from Marx to Sigmund Schott of 3 November, 1877; Marx and Engels 1992: 287).
In February 1866 after being pressed by Engels, Marx agreed to finish and publish volume 1 first (McLellan 1995: 306). He promised to send the first parts of the manuscript to the publisher in November 1866 (McLellan 1995: 306) but took the full manuscript to Hamburg himself in April 1867 (McLellan 1995: 306).
It is likely that, under pressure from Engels to produce a work in defence of communism, Marx’s ideological commitments skewed volume 1 so that it presented capitalism in the worst light possible and an extreme and dogmatic defence of the labour theory of value, which, in view of his work on the draft of volume 3 of Capital, he knew to have severe problems, such as the transformation problem. Nevertheless, he published this dogmatic version of his theory.
As has been pointed out time and again, Marx never bothered to publish volume 2 and 3 of Capital in his lifetime, and the suspicion is that he never did so because he was unsatisfied with his attempts to defend the dogmatic labour theory of value in volume 1 from the problems he knew plagued it.
In the edited version of volume 3 of Capital as published by Engels, Marx, in Chapter 10 of this work, admitted that the law of value in volume 1 could not be applied to modern 19th century capitalism. It could only be applied to a “lower stage … of capitalist production” (Marx 1909: 208) before about the 15th century (Marx 1991: 1038). But he had never said this in volume 1. (A related research question is to what extent Chapter 10 of volume 3 already existed in draft form in 1867.)
Critics at the time noticed the severe and devastating contradiction. And the cult of Marxism ever since has been trying to reconcile and harmonise Marx’s work, with all sorts of desperate tricks and sleights of hand.
McLellan, David. 1995. Karl Marx: A Biography (3rd edn.). Macmillan, London.
Marx, Karl. 1909. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy (vol. 3; trans. Ernst Untermann from 1st German edn.). Charles H. Kerr & Co., Chicago.
Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume Three (trans. David Fernbach). Penguin Books, London.