Marx conceives of use-values as inherent in commodities. Commodities, of course, are useful goods, the accumulation of which constitute wealth under capitalism.

Wealth, represented in the accumulation of commodities (which are useful goods), is the primary preoccupation of all capitalist societies. In other words, commodities are things that have reposed in them something that make them useful to people, and the ultimate aim of capitalist societies is to amass as much of them as possible. For Marx, wealth in capitalist societies is determined by the “immense accumulation” of commodities.

Marx argues that a commodity has an inherent utility which gives it its use-value characteristic. He also says that this use-value, although intrinsic to the commodity, only becomes a “reality” when used or consumed. Thus, if a thing, even though it has the intrinsic capacity to be useful, never becomes actually used or consumed, its use-value never becomes real; it stays dormant so to speak.

Marx also says that use-value is the actual substance of all wealth — although, in later parts of his work one realizes that this substance is sometimes expressed in its social form as money, or any other medium of exchange to which value can be said to have been [superficially] attached. The important point here is that it seems that for Marx, whatever form wealth might take, be it in the accumulation of paper currency or gold, or the accumulation of actual goods (say corn, wheat etc.), it is fundamentally use-value. Expressed in a different — and perhaps clearer — way, if there are such things which could be said to instantiate wealth, they do so only because they have — or are — use-value.


  1. Marx’s notion of use-value is too simplistic. Firstly, it entails an objectivity that commodities lack. A commodity isn’t useful unless it is considered so by those who would use it.
  2. Of course, Marx says that the use-value of a commodity only becomes a reality when it is used or consumed, but, this doesn’t go far enough. The use-values of commodities are not somehow inhered in them; they are partly the result of the subjective judgments of individuals.

To better understand my objections, let us consider what one might see as the use-value(s) of woods. Woods have a property that make them capable of providing us with heat when set on fire. They also have a property that make them capable of being turned to paper upon which we can record our thoughts, aspirations, and history. However, consider that until man gained the knowledge of this capacity of the tree (to be turned into paper), the tree was no more valuable than a thing to be burned for heat. In other words, the use-value of trees as things that could be turned to paper depended largely on man’s knowledge that it could meet his need for a more efficient means of recording his ideas.

3. Carl Menger provides a theory of use-value that I consider superior to Marx’s.

According to him, a thing has goods character ONLY IF:

A. There is a human need for it (this is the fundament of goods character/use-value).

B. It contains properties that render it capable of being brought into a causal connection with the satisfaction of this need. (Note that this property’s importance is wholly dependent on people’s needs, and their belief in its capacity to satisfy them. This is different from Marx’s view in that, instead of this property being sufficient to give a thing its use-value, it is merely part of several requirements for a thing to have use-value — and it is not even the primary component.

C. There is human knowledge of this causal connection [between human need and the thing capable of satisfying it].

D. There is adequate command of the thing sufficient to direct it (the good) to the satisfaction of the need.

4. Applying Carl Menger’s principle to the previous example of woods; woods would be said to have a “paper use-value” only because, (I) There was/is a human need for an efficient means of keeping records; (II) At some point during mankind’s civilization, the knowledge of the properties that make woods capable of being turned into paper, which can be used to efficiently keep records, became available; (III) Technology became advanced enough for man to actually turn wood to paper.

It follows then that, until man became aware of wood’s capacity to become paper, and until he developed the technology necessary to actually use wood in this way, the use-value of wood was nothing more than that of a thing to be set on fire for heat.

Marx was right to insinuate that goods have properties that make them capable of being useful, but he was wrong to consider these properties as the objective determinant of their use-value/goods-character. Note that under Carl Menger’s theory, even things that have no actual useful properties can be said to have goods-character/use-value. Goods character/use-value being the result of the subjective judgments of individuals (or group of individuals) could be erroneously attributed to things that are essentially useless.

Thus, Menger’s theory is able to account for the tendencies of men to consider as having use-values, useless things like prayer amulets, and other [essentially useless] things that, as a result of insufficient knowledge, they might consider capable of meeting their needs.

I shall evaluate Marx’s theory of exchange value in my next essay.

Thanks for reading.

Link to part two: