A Brief Critique of Marxist Labour Theory

by  Nicholas Sachon


One of the most important aspects of Marxist economic theory is based around labor and its inherent value.  The so-called Marxist Labor Theory of Value attempts to explain the relationship between the two.  According to this theory, value of an object is solely the result of the labor used to produce it; the more labor that goes into an object, the more its worth (Ernsberger).  All profits are the rightful earnings of the workers, and all goods “...cost nothing except for labor.”


Being that this theory is formed around the idea of homogeneous labor, it works out on paper.  The problem arises because labor is not homogeneous; all workers are not identical in skill and ability.  This fact points out some major shortcomings in Marxist Theory. 

Ernsberger points out that the assertion that only labor gives value is false based on the fact that it doesn’t take into account certain natural objects.  While his argument is a bit immature, he does have the right idea.  He is saying that certain nature-made objects can hold value to a person.  


Another point that Ernsberger makes is that the theory fails to take into account the changing consumer desires and the contextual nature of value.  A horse-and-buggy analogy was given that says that horseshoes would hold a much higher value in regions were horse-and-buggy transportation was still used, as opposed to more modern areas.  Although, Marxist believed that the labor to produce other products in the more modern area would equalize with the horseshoes, the point is a valid one.  

 These do tend to be valid points given that under Lenin, the New Economic Policy was instated because theoretic Marxism was still subject to market forces.  This brings up the final point that Ernsberger makes; the time preference.  On the surface, the theory ignores the fact that there is a strong preference for the here and now.  This in turn makes present consumption more valuable (Ernsberger).


Under the surface, concerning the basic theory, the most important criticism involves heterogeneous labor.  In Marxist theory, once workers do different jobs, it becomes necessary to ‘reduce’ each type of labor to a common standard (Howard, 123).  This ‘simplification’ was much harder to implement, than the theory had predicted.

But Marx claimed that different concrete labors could be treated as identical abstract labor.  Howard and King give the example:  An hour of tailoring creates as much value as an hour of shoemaking, period.  Sure, this sounds great, in theory, but reality is different.  Here is were the basis of the labor problem surfaces.  Various forms of labor involve different amounts of skill, and an hour of ‘skilled’ labor should be worth more than an hour of ‘unskilled.’


Two major problems arise as a result.  The first, what weight do you apply to the higher skill in order to reduce them to a common unit; and second, in certain instances, competition may be insufficient to bring wages into equality with the value of labor power.  Another thing to examine would be the question of whether someone would accept a lower wage to work in a clean, as opposed to dirty environment.  Since, there is no profit in Marxist economics, this proves to be another short-coming of the labor theory. 

All-in-all, so long as system weights are used, Marx’s theory of homogeneous labor holds true.  The fact remains that these weights did not cover all wage differentials and that is where the theory fails.  


Ernsberger, Don.  The Labor Theory of Value - An Analysis


  Howard, M C and J E King.  The Political Economy of Marx.

            Longman Publishing, London.  1975.








OK Economics was designed and it is maintained by Oldrich Kyn.
To send me a message, please use one of the following addresses:

okyn@bu.edu --- okyn@verizon.net

This website contains the following sections:

General  Economics:


Economic Systems:  


Money and Banking:


Past students:


Czech Republic


Kyn’s Publications


 American education


free hit counters
Nutrisystem Diet Coupons