Marxs theory of value uses the input of Labour as determinining Production Value. But what if we can do away with Labour?

For example, consider a perfectly automated factory producing mugs.

This has no labour input. (To set up the factory requires capital but not labour).

I'm using this as a gedanken-experiment to illustrate:

As large-scale industry advances, the creation of real wealth depends less on the labour time and quantity of labour expended than on the power of the instrumentalities[ie automation] set in motion during the labour time...

Human labour...stands outside of the process of production instead of being the principal agent in the process of production. In this transformation, the great pillar of production and wealth is no longer the immediate labour performed by man himself, nor his labour time, but...his knowledge and his mastery of nature through his societal existence – in one word, the development of the societal individual

...As soon as human labour, in its immediate form, has ceased to be the great source of wealth, labour time will cease, and must of necessity cease to be the measure of wealth, and the exchange value must of necessity cease to be the measure of use value. . . . The mode of production which rests on the exchange value thus collapses.

from Marxs Grundisse

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    Congratulations! You have rediscovered that working hours are but one production factor!
    – Ingo
    Dec 19, 2013 at 12:42
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    As an aside: the labour theory of value is much older than Marx.
    – Ingo
    Dec 20, 2013 at 12:17
  • @Ingo: thats surprising, who would you point to that originated the idea? Dec 20, 2013 at 14:14
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    The LTV is a common idea of classical economics. It is in fact a generalization of the idea that prices can be explained through costs of production, which was a commonly held belief bevor the marginal revolution. It goes back at least to Adam Smith. But it doesn't play any role in contemporary economics any more.
    – Ingo
    Dec 20, 2013 at 14:18
  • To be sure, in public opinion (as opposed to science), this idea is still viral. Which is why you can (in certain circumstances, at least) command higher prices if you claim that your product is "hand made".
    – Ingo
    Dec 20, 2013 at 14:21

5 Answers 5


The short answer is no, you have not really critiqued the Marxian theory of value here.

One key thing to clarify is that all capital is also a form of labor. A previous answer already raises a key point: "Ask yourself, where do the parts of the mechanized factory come from?" Here Marx makes a helpful distinction between "living" labor and "dead" labor. Machinery is dead labor. It was made by someone in the past. Still labor, although the distinction is very important.

The first paragraph of the quote you have selected states that we are constantly approaching the imaginary scenario you have described. Approaching it, getting closer and closer, but it does not say we can ever arrive. In your imagined case, the mugs are created purely by "instrumentalities[ie automation] set in motion" without any direct involvement of living human labor. While more and more things can already be made that way, nothing gets from being raw materials in the ground to a commodity in the final consumers hand without being touched, moved and changes by multiple human beings along the way.

So what are we actually approaching then? Living labor isn't going anywhere, its just that the past human labor accumulated presently in the form of machinery and other capital is increasing. The value of living labor is decreasing in proportion. Marx calls the ratio of capital to labor the organic composition of capital or OCC. It is always generally increasing. As the OCC increases, the rate of profit tends to fall. If the employment of living labor becomes zero, the OCC would be infinite, the rate of profit would be zero. No profit, no capital.

That's very abstract, what does it mean concretely? In a capitalist system, a capitalist can only make a profit by selling something. Which means workers have to buy stuff. If capitalists don't hire workers, workers can't buy anything, capitalists can't sell anything. So there would be no possibility of profit on the basis of commodity production and exchange any longer. The only logical outcome of such an advanced level of automation, Marx argued, was communism.

  • @moorej You're free to live in a world without capital: Give up all your tools and return to the state of nature in the wild.
    – user76284
    Sep 10, 2022 at 3:47

I'm just piecing together quotes: I see no reason, at all, to suppose that Marx's formulas themselves do not hold up, given that your factories exist.

Do your machines have the exchange value of the cups they make, as some kind of potential to their use value? It seems not:

Use-value is the immediate physical entity in which a definite economic relationship – exchange-value – is expressed

Emphasis mine. So the cup factories do create an exchange value without labour.

Whether or not labour is the only source of value, for Marx, actually seems, strangely, to be a contentious issue in the 2ndary literature, as well as a means to dispose of Marxism. However, the critique of the Gotha programme makes it quite clear he did not think so of use value:

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much a source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which is itself only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power

And these use values are "the material depositories of exchange value": the how and where of the created exchange values.


In order for it to be a critique, it must address a very foundational part of of the theory.

However, you have posited a hypothetical which in itself questionable. In fact, a pure concept.

Ask yourself, where do the parts of the mechanized factory come from? Who extracted the resources that built those parts? Marx will say that the question of labor is not diminished.

This is not a critique.

  • You are of course correct - it is a pure concept; however what I'm trying to establish some boundaries as to what labour means, and whether the input can be zero. This is what I mean by a critique. I'm allowing for the construction of the factory by labour and the enough working capital such that factory can order & receive resources such that its profit will enable it to continue without additional injections of working capital - this in toto is what I've called capital here. Dec 19, 2013 at 11:24
  • But as far as I understand the Marxs value theory (limited), it is the daily input of labour that is used to determine final production value; not the initial capital used to set the situation up. Dec 19, 2013 at 11:25
  • @MoziburUllah not quite true. I think capital goods are seen as "frozen" labour or some such, that transfer in a mystical process the labour frozen in them onto the end product. This is as miraculous as changing ordinary red wine into the lords blood in a catholic mess.
    – Ingo
    Dec 19, 2013 at 12:44
  • @Ingo: Sure, thats obvious right? You want your products to reflect the cost of acquiring factory right? But its a fixed capita cost, and that is presumably what the terminology 'frozen' means. Dec 19, 2013 at 15:43
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    By the way, @MoziburUllah, as so often this is an instance where Marxism gets it exactly wrong: The product is not valuable because the machine it was made with is. It is exactly the other way round: Because you can make valuable things with it, the machine is valuable.
    – Ingo
    Dec 19, 2013 at 15:53

First, if we could do away with labour, we would do away with value. Who would buy the commodities produced by the capitalist companies? They would have to be given away for free, ie, they would no longer be commodities. And thus, we would no longer be dealing with a capitalist economy. Marx's analysis, on the other hand, is specifical to capitalism; his categories do not apply to other forms of social organisation. So, labour theory of value is only valid for capitalist societies; once you posit a non-capitalist society, it is no longer valid. So, yours is is not a critique of LTV.

Second, the labour theory of value deals with social averages, not with individual amounts of labour embodied within an individual given commodity. If one chocolate factory produces chocolates by Willie Wonka's method - ie, without labour - but the other factories still need inputs of labour, then the value of chocolate is given by the sociall necessary average labour, not by the one factory with infinite productivity of labour. So Willie Wonka will get monopolistic profits, but this doesn't contradict the LTV.

  • 'And this we would not be dealing with a capitalist economy', this was one reason why I asked the question. Aug 11, 2016 at 8:27
  • The labour theory of value is not valid for any society that resides in the real world, "capitalist" or otherwise.
    – user76284
    Sep 10, 2022 at 3:53

Marx's labor theory of value really ought to be known as the "limiting-factor theory of value", because the theory is arguing that returns are proportional to the amount of a limiting-factor on returns.

Marginal theory of value, on the other hand, objects to this by keeping open the possibility that chance also plays a role in returns. In other words, marginal theory of value suggests that returns are proportional to the amount of a limiting-factor on returns unless any arbitrary external factor makes it otherwise. The marginal theory of value makes fewer ontological commitments than the labor theory of value (i.e. than the limiting-factor theory of value) by not dogmatically assuming absolute monotonicity in the relationship between returns and a limiting-factor on return.

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