Exchange-Value Essay

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Exchange-value – the most misunderstood concept in Marx’s analysis of the commodity – must be distinguished from the closely related but significantly different concept, value.

A commodity to be exchanged has a value – its sum of congealed, socially necessary, simple, abstract labor time. One cannot immediately see, touch, taste, smell, or hear value; its immediate reality is invisible. That substance must achieve a recognized, manifest form of expression to be exchanged. Value is the abstract substance of a commodity; exchange-value its social form and expression of the value substance.

Historically and conceptually, exchange-value has taken four forms. Value first becomes manifest in simple exchange. The value of 20 yards of linen is represented in a concrete ”equivalent form of value” such as one coat. The coat is the linen’s visibly manifest, equivalent form of value – the linen’s exchange-value.

In a context of expanded exchange, the social form of value changes. The ”expanded, relative form of value” exists when several commodities manifest each other’s value (e.g., 1 coat = 10 pounds of coffee = 1 pound of iron = 200 yards of linen).

The ”general form of value” arises as one commodity habitually represents the abstract value of others (e.g., a specific measure of iron represents a specific measure of yards of linen, a number of coats, or pounds of coffee). Finally, as one commodity – usually a precious metal – becomes the general form the ”money form of value” arises. Money is the mature, social expression of exchange-value.


  • Marx, K. (1976) Capital, vol. 1, trans. B. Fowkes. Penguin, London.

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