“Professor Wilbrandt, in his very sensitive appreciation of Karl Marx, offers us two points which are of some interest towards an appreciation of what Marx's admirers think that Marx really meant. The first is a rather naive admission that the first Volume (1867) was bound to be misunderstood, until such time as the third appeared.1 In the course of these twenty-seven years Marx himself died, and as there are some who would place on Engels a not inconsiderable share of the responsibility for the third Volume, it might be a matter for consideration whether Marx himself ever had an opportunity of understanding Volume I—which, of course, is more or less what Croce says. In fact, however, it was not the publication of the third Volume which made possible a comprehension of the first: it would be truer to say that the publication of the third Volume imposed, post-haste, a revision of the orthodox interpretation of the first Volume, if a show of consistency was to be maintained.Note Wilbrandt’s view: that the law of value in volume 1 of Capital – that commodities tend to exchange at true labour values – was only meant to be applied to the pre-19th century world of commodity exchange in a lower form of capitalism.
The other significant contribution made by Wilbrandt towards a comprehension of Marx is, at the first blush, rather surprising. In opposition to the view that Capital represents an analysis of the workings of an abstract capitalism, not of any particular capitalistic State, but of a State which corresponds to the concept of pure capitalism as ideally conceived, Wilbrandt would have us believe that Marx, in writing the first volume, had in mind pre-capitalistic mediaeval conditions; and in this consideration alone do we find justification for Marx. It is not the usual view; but it has at least this in common with the totally opposed conception, that it makes it clear that whatever Marx may have been talking about, it was certainly not this world that we know here and now.” (Gray 1946: 318).
Gray thought that this was “not the usual view,” and with respect to modern Marxists he is probably right.
However, a really important point is that both Marx and Engels in their later writings in the 1890s did actually hold this view! Certainly this is how Engels, in his “Supplement and Addendum” of 1895, later defended the “law of value” of volume 1 as an empirical theory from hostile charges that volume 3 refuted it (see Engels 1991 ).
Wilbrandt’s interpretation has solid justification in Marx and Engels’ own writings, as I have carefully demonstrated (see here).
Finally, the 20th-century Marxist economist Ronald Meek (1917–1978) also appears to have defended a form of this interpretation. In Studies in the Labour Theory of Value (2nd edn.; 1973), Meek endorsed the view that supply prices of pre-modern commodities were equivalent to labour values, citing Engels’ Supplement of 1895 (Meek 1973: 198–200).
Engels, F. 1991 . “Supplement and Addendum” to Volume 3 of Capital,” in Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume Three (trans. David Fernbach). Penguin Books, London.
Gray, Alexander. 1946. The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin. Longmans, Green and Co., London and New York.
Meek, Ronald L. 1973. Studies in the Labour Theory of Value (2nd edn.). Lawrence and Wishart, London.
Wilbrandt, Robert. 1920. Karl Marx: versuch einer Würdigung. B.G. Teubner, Leipzig.