Why Marx’s Labour Theory of Value is Wrong (in a Nutshell)

The labour theory of value as presented in Part 1 of volume 1 of Capital is wrong for the following reasons:
(1) the a priori argument for the labour theory of value in volume 1 of Marx’s Capital is a non sequitur and later contradicts itself, as detailed here and here.

(2) Marx faces the problem of reducing all heterogeneous human labour to a homogeneous abstract socially necessary labour time unit, but does not properly explain how this happens;

(3) even if Marx could overcome (1) and (2), he faces the problems of defining labour value in cases of joint production, where it is possible that the labour value of a commodity might be undefined, nil, or negative.

(4) there is no reason why free human wage labour should have a special power that animals, slaves or machines do not have, as I point out here.

(5) modern fiat money refutes Marx’s theory of money and also his labour theory of value, since money must be a produced commodity in Marx’s theory but has long since ceased to be, as I point out here and here.

(6) the empirical reality is that prices are not set by means of the abstract socially necessary labour time of commodities or of money as a produced commodity, and

(7) the problem that surplus labour value (if that concept could even be adequately defended) would not really explain money profits, since money profits can exist in a slave-based economy and very probably even in an economy where machines did most of the work.
These points together are devastating to the labour theory of value, but only one needs to be true to demonstrate that Marx’s theory as it stands in volume 1 of Capital is flawed.

I will review some of the more important problems below.

On point (1), it can be seen that Marx’s argument for the labour theory is a non sequitur. It is not obvious at all that commodity exchanges constitute an equality in the way Marx sees them. Marx actually admits later in Chapter 1 that in some human societies commodities may simply exchange as use value for use value (Marx 1906: 75). Now there is an equality in exchanges in the sense in which, say, 2 sheep might exchange for 1 cow, and only two sheep and nothing more are exchanged, and vice versa. But this is a trivial sense of equality. It does not help Marx. Marx’s leap to the conclusion that there must be an additional, fundamental unit of homogeneous labour time in which both commodities can be measured quantitatively and by which they can both be shown to be equivalent simply does not follow. It is a non sequitur. It could be that labour value as Marx defines it is non-existent. Marx’s argument was shoddy and commits a straightforward logical fallacy.

Moreover, later in the Chapter 1 Marx makes this admission:
“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.” (Marx 1906: 48).
So here Marx admits that labour value cannot be completely separated or “abstracted” from use value when he previously claimed the opposite of this, so that the whole argument contradicts itself (for more details, see here and here).

On point (2), Marx argues that all skilled or experienced labour is a multiple of simple abstract labour, and that all labour is reducible to a meaningful, common homogeneous unit of labour. Marx does not adequately explain how to do this. First, Marx suggests that the reduction of skilled labour to a simple unit of abstract labour can be conducted in a physical or scientific manner by examining the “expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles.” But then Marx states that:
“Experience shows that this reduction is constantly being made. A commodity may be the product of the most skilled labour, but its value, by equating it to the product of simple unskilled labour, represents a definite quantity of the latter labour alone. The different proportions in which different sorts of labour are reduced to unskilled labour as their standard, are established by a social process that goes on behind the backs of the producers, and, consequently, appear to be fixed by custom.” (Marx 1906: 51–52).
But since Marx admits in volume 3 of Capital that most commodities do not even exchange for their true labour values, this argument does not work. And what is more it contradicts his earlier approach: if the only actual way we can determine the value of skilled value is by looking at the actual market exchange of the products of skilled labour for products of unskilled labour, then why bother with explaining the difference in terms of “expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles”?

Furthermore, if exchange of the products of skilled labour for products of unskilled labour can be used to determine the value of skilled value as a multiple of simple labour, then the argument is circular. Exchange values determine labour values, but labour values are supposed to be a source of exchange values.

On point (3), the labour theory of value faces the problem of joint production: if a production process produces more than one commodity but two or several, then how does one calculate socially necessary labour time? (see Brewer 1984: 23; Nitzan and Bichler 2009: 101–102). In particular, Ian Steedman has argued that joint production leaves open the possibility that some labour values of commodities produced in joint production can be undefined, nil, or negative (Nitzan and Bichler 2009: 101).

On point (5), modern fiat money utterly refutes Marx’s labour theory of value, because money needs to be a produced commodity with a labour value for his theory to work. But money has long since ceased to be a produced commodity and is now fiat money. This is one of the devastating problems with Marx’s theory, and is sufficient in and of itself to refute the theory, as shown here and here.

For example, Marx thought that prices are determined by (at the least) (1) the long-run labour value of gold as determined by the abstract socially necessary labour time required for gold’s production and (2) as this relates in exchange to the labour value of other commodities (Marx 1906: 108). But this idea, if taken seriously, requires that the actual exchange value of gold as money against other commodities gravitates around the long-run value of the abstract socially necessary labour time needed to produce gold. This is an important point, and utterly undermines the Marxist apologists’ claims that Marx never meant labour value to be a determiner of individual commodity prices in volume 1 of Capital. But now in the modern world we have fiat money, and the theory is worthless: Marx’s theory of how labour values determine prices is utterly impossible.

All in all, one cannot take Marx’s labour theory of value seriously: it is flawed or under-determined in so many ways and stands refuted by the reality of modern fiat money.

“Fiat Money Destroys the Labour Theory of Value,” June 6, 2015.

“Marx on the Necessity of Money being a Commodity,” June 8, 2015.

“Karl Popper on the Labour Theory of Value,” May 30, 2015.

“A Devastating Contradiction in Marx’s Argument for the Labour Theory of Value,” May 19, 2015.

“Wicksteed on the Contradiction in Chapter 1 of Volume 1 of Capital on the Labour Theory of Value,” May 21, 2015.

“Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Critical Summary, Part 1 (Updated),” June 21, 2015.

“Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Critical Summary, Part 2,” June 26, 2015.

“Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 3: A Critical Summary,” June 12, 2015.

Brewer, Anthony. 1984. A Guide to Marx’s Capital. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Marx, Karl. 1906. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy (vol. 1; rev. trans. by Ernest Untermann from 4th German edn.). The Modern Library, New York.

Nitzan, Jonathan and Shimshon Bichler. 2009. Capital as Power: A Study or Order and Creorder. Routledge, Abingdon, UK and New York.


  1. I'm not going to address all of the mistakes made caused by extreme ignorance since I don't have the time, but I do have a reasoning typed up for point #4 that I already had for my friend since we talked about it -- Machines cannot create value because only human labor creates value. That's it... jk there is more. This is the same reason a tool cannot create value, machines are just like tools, they make human labor more efficient. Consider this example: Let's imagine the chair industry in which there are competitors (the entire industry of society is made of Factory A and B, comprised of capitalists A and B, and workers A and B), a simple stereotypical capitalists mode of production. Chairs are going to have a high price/cost a lot to make since it’s gonna take a long time to make one chair by hand, and you’ll have to pay workers for every hour that they make X amount of chairs (in Marxist terms, this means that the socially necessary labor time is high, hence the value is high). Machines, which are created through labor (machine = “dead labor”). Machines are not paid a wage do not cost anything except for labor inputs such as its initial creation (labor), wage for someone to run the macchine (labor), occasional maintenance(labor), and fuel (which comes from labor because someone has dig it up such as in the case of coal (could be electricity today, or oil), and fuels must be put in the machine via labor). With the exception of these labor inputs, machines operate cost free. If we take away all of these labor inputs and still had a “machine” to create chairs, this would look like the ground that would produce chairs out of nothing. This would mean that chairs are infinitely reproducible but also infinitely cheap (just as air has no cost and is always there, the only exception for air is when, not surprisingly, someone labors to put it in a pressurized tube). Now, since the Capitalist A has just got his hands on the new machine, he can sell his chair for the same price in order to make a super profit, since he makes X amount of chairs lower than the socially necessary labor time. Workers B are still making chairs with hands, and therefore are taking a long time at the socially necessary labor time. The profit of Capitalist A increases for now since there are fewer workers and/or less labor time to create X amount. Once the new secret of the machine gets out (which it always does), factory B will soon also produce chairs just as quickly. This will make the cost of X amount of chairs decrease, the socially necessary labor time will also decrease, hence its value as well. This means that overall, as machines reduce the need for labor, the value of the objects decrease.

    1. And what if no one wants the chairs either way, because they are of poor design? Do the chairs have value?

    2. This is very funny. Commodity must satisfy human wants. Otherwise no one will buy it. It's common sense. Defected commodities would be sold at lower price if there's someone to buy them. But by how much lower price. If value of good commodity is $10, then why it's 10 and not 15 ,20 or whatever.What LTV states is its not USE of the commodity which determine it's value, but it's labor inputs. If it was use then well, water and air are free, but u won't live without them! Why u would pay for chair then

  2. What - you didn't even mention that Marx simply copied the LTV from Ricardo and Smith?? o.O

    "Marx faces the problem of reducing all heterogeneous human labour to a homogeneous abstract socially necessary labour time unit, but does not properly explain how this happens;"

    Now, I can see why you don't understand it. It's because Marx does a crappy job at explaining it (the guy had just moved to London, and English is not his mother tongue - let's cut him some slack!).

    LTV is not a theory; it's an accounting identity. It's not wrong - or right either! - it simply is an convenient or inconvenient unit of account. And the sole purpose is to distinguish - and that Marx is pretty clear about - use value from exchange value. It's a benchmark from which to compute risk premia.

    Once you get that, you also understand that the marginalist theory of value doesn't refute the LTV; it FUNDAMENTS it. The prices computed using the marginalist machinery are equal to the use value BY ASSUMPTION!, because there are no liquidity concerns in their model. Once you introduce transaction costs and funding restrictions, liquidity premia crop up all over the place, like bubbles in plastic wrapping.

  3. Well. it wasn't really Marx's idea, it was Ricardo's.

    What is wrong with it is of course that "labor" can take so many forms that it is rubbish to measure it in hours. It's like measuring food in kilos.

  4. Sorry, but this is not a really good critique of Marx value theory.

    Marx did not contradict himself in Vol. 1. But i know it's not easy to read or understand the first couple chapters since he starts from analyzing a commodity (without money involved). The first 3 chapters must be read from an historical perspective.

    What really is funny is that there are like 100 years of Marxists and Neo-marxists who expanded Marx approach and defended it against criticism. Nothing here is new and most of them, since Böhm-Bawerks critique, were already debunked. You just shy away from reading modern academic literature on that subject. (I guess for idological reasons?)

    But, there are two points where i and other Marxists (partly) agree with your critique:

    Criticism 5: It's true that Marx thought money is just another commodity. He analyzed money in his time and not modern fiat money. So you cannot blame him. If this means that Marx whole concept is not valid or only partly valid was heavily discussed.

    Criticism 7: That's true. Marx analyzed the economy where M-C-M' is applied. His surplus labor concept cannot be applied to for example money profit out of speculation like M-M'. But only if you look at individual firms and individual profits.

    Ofc there are different marxian, neo-Marxist and radical scholars who solved all that "problems" and countered your critique:

    1. Just to be very clear, Marx and Ricardo are very different in their approach and their LTV. Many, including early Schumpeter, thought that Marx is coming from Ricardo, but late Schumpeter (in his History of economic analyses) acknowledged that their approach and LTV are very different.

    2. Marx main theoretical chapter is chapter 4.

    3. The modern literature you could read are Fred Moseley - Money and Totality and Anwar Shaikh - Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises.

    4. If you still think you are right, then publish this critique in a Marxist journal and then face a discussion with us. That would be the scientific accurate method. You can submit something for example here: monthlyreview.org

    1. Lord Keynes, any responses to this? Just as some Marxists become purely ideological shills, your efforts and approach to discrediting Marxist theory comes across, to me, as someone who is interested in proving post-Keynesian true regardless of the criticisms provided above.