That dream collapsed before the century had ended. The people of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, and the USSR rejected Marxist ideology and entered a remarkable transition toward private and the market-exchange system, one that is still occurring. Which aspects of Marxism created such a powerful revolutionary force? And what explains its eventual demise? The answers lie in some general characteristics of Marxism—its economics, social theory, and overall vision.
Labor Theory of Value
The labor theory of value is a major pillar of traditional Marxian economics, which is evident in Marx’s masterpiece, (1867). The theory’s basic claim is simple: the value of a commodity can be objectively measured by the average number of labor hours required to produce that commodity.
If a pair of shoes usually takes twice as long to produce as a pair of pants, for example, then shoes are twice as valuable as pants. In the long run, the competitive price of shoes will be twice the price of pants, regardless of the value of the physical inputs.
Although the labor theory of value is demonstrably false, it prevailed among classical economists through the midnineteenth century., for instance, flirted with a labor theory of value in his classic defense of capitalism, (1776), and later systematized it in his (1817), a text studied by generations of free-market economists.
So the labor theory of value was not unique to Marxism. Marx did attempt, however, to turn the theory against the champions of capitalism, pushing the theory in a direction that most classical economists hesitated to follow. Marx argued that the theory could explain the value of all commodities, including the commodity that workers sell to capitalists for a wage. Marx called this commodity “labor power.”
Labor power is the worker’s capacity to produce goods and services. Marx, using principles of classical economics, explained that the value of labor power must depend on the number of labor hours it takes society, on average, to feed, clothe, and shelter a worker so that he or she has the capacity to work. In other words, the long-run wage workers receive will depend on the number of labor hours it takes to produce a person who is fit for work. Suppose five hours of labor are needed to feed, clothe, and protect a worker each day so that the worker is fit for work the following morning. If one labor hour equaled one dollar, the correct wage would be five dollars per day.
Marx then asked an apparently devastating question: if all goods and services in a capitalist society tend to be sold at prices (and wages) that reflect their true value (measured by labor hours), how can it be that capitalists enjoy —even if only in the short run? How do capitalists manage to squeeze out a residual between total revenue and total costs?
Capitalists, Marx answered, must enjoy a privileged and powerful position as owners of the means of production and are therefore able to ruthlessly exploit workers. Although the capitalist pays workers the correct wage, somehow—Marx was terribly vague here—the capitalist makes workers work more hours than are needed to create the worker’s labor power. If the capitalist pays each worker five dollars per day, he can require workers to work, say, twelve hours per day—a not uncommon workday during Marx’s time. Hence, if one labor hour equals one dollar, workers produce twelve dollars’ worth of products for the capitalist but are paid only five. The bottom line: capitalists extract “surplus value” from the workers and enjoy monetary profits.
Although Marx tried to use the labor theory of value against capitalism by stretching it to its limits, he unintentionally demonstrated the weakness of the theory’s logic and underlying assumptions. Marx was correct when he claimed that classical economists failed to adequately explain capitalist profits. But Marx failed as well. By the late nineteenth century, the economics profession rejected the labor theory of value. Mainstream economists now believe that capitalists do not earn profits by exploiting workers (see ). Instead, they believe, entrepreneurial capitalists earn profits by forgoing current consumption, by taking risks, and by organizing production.