Volume 10, Number 1 (2017)

Introduction to “The Concepts of Devaluation, Valorization and Depreciation in Marx: Towards a Clarification”

Don Mitchell

On the 14th of December, 1981, while still a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University, Neil Smith sent a paper to Perry Anderson at the New Left Review. “I enclose an article on Marx’s concepts of depreciation and appreciation, devaluation and revaluation, and devalorization and valorization,” Neil wrote in a concise and still useful summary.

Due both to confusion in Marx and to mistranslation, these concepts have never been understood at all in English language marxism. They are three distinct pairs of concepts, but their distinctiveness has been lost. Clarifying their meaning and the differences between them is important, not just for the technical merit of such a project, but for its practical conclusions. The clarification of these concepts is important for understanding the origin of crisis, and the structure and circulation of fixed capital, among other things.[1]

Three months later, Mike Davis wrote back on behalf of the NLR Editorial Committee, rejecting the paper for publication, despite it being a “very interesting text on certain crucial concepts of Marx’s Capital.” He told Neil that “our current accumulation of accepted and commissioned articles prevents us from being able to accept your text at this time.” Davis closed by saying, “I am sure, however, that you will have no difficulty finding a publisher for this very fine piece of work.”[2]

Davis was wrong. Over the next three years it was rejected by the Cambridge Journal of Economics, Capital and Class, The Journal of Economic Issues, the Review of Radical Political Economics (RRPE), Science and Society, and the Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics (JKPE). Neil seems not to have attempted to get it published after trying JPKE at the end of 1983 (but some copies of the paper in his file have his Columbia University affiliation crossed out and his Rutgers University affiliation written in; he moved to Rutgers in the autumn of 1986). When the article was not rejected for “fit” to the journal (as with JPKE, the Journal of Economic Issues, and in part the Cambridge Journal of Economics), reviewers criticized the paper for not clearly specifying why the clarification Neil was attempting mattered, either to debates within Marxism more broadly (there is a “lack of clearly demonstrated relevance for current debates” one editor wrote); for not fully developing the arguments about fixed capital (or, contradictorily, going on at too much length on this point); for not getting the argument right about the state; for a failure to develop “a substantial argument on the basis of the distinctions it sets out;” and for its lack of a real conclusion (“a rather lame one sentence section with which to finish,” as a reviewer commented). Overall, as a reviewer put it, “the elucidation is fine; the application is not.” One editor thus suggested that the paper did not make clear the interrelationship between the three pairs of concepts Neil analyzes and thus “establishes little that is new in our conceptualization of capital.”[3]

Neil was a stubborn writer and he loathed nothing more than rewriting. He seemed to pay no attention at all to the specific criticisms much less the argument of the “editorial coordinator” from RRPE that “the paper requires a considerable re-thinking of the issues which it seeks to address, rather than revisions as such.”[4] All copies of the paper in Neil’s file, except one unfinished draft likely from before the original submission to NLR, are identical. But if Neil stopped trying to get the paper published, he certainly did not abandon the ideas and analyses that it lays out. In his seminar on Capital at Rutgers University in the late 1980s and early 1990s he would insist on the importance of understanding the difference between devaluation and depreciation, and he would point out all the places in the text where the translator got it wrong (as he does in the paper). He insisted we could not understand either uneven development or, especially, the formation of crises within capitalism without understanding the meaning of the three pairs of concepts and their interrelations. Unlike some of the reviewers who stymied the publication of this paper, I find the exegesis of the pairs to be compelling and helpful. Like some of the reviewers, however, I wish he had better spelled out his theory of crisis, and in particular developed more fully the argument about fixed capital formation (which he does not extend to fixed capital in the built environment, as David Harvey was simultaneously beginning to theorize).[5]

If editors and reviewers failed to see the relevance of Neil’s analysis to then-contemporary debates within Marxism and the broader analysis of capitalist dynamics, thirty years later its relevance couldn’t be more obvious. Though a “clarification” of Marx’s terminology, the paper is really an argument about how to understand value in capitalism. And, as Jason Read has recently argued, “’value’ is now hot” in Marxism, displacing central concern on such earlier keywords as “alienation, fetishism, and even primitive accumulation, which have been dominant at different times.” Crucially:

this is not just a shift in terms, but in fundamental problems and orientations. The turn to value is a turn to not just a specific problem of either the base or superstructure, but a turn to capitalism considered as a totality. Value is thus, in some fundamental sense, Marx’s attempt to articulate the connections and limitations of capitalism as a system, presenting the manner in which different actions by individuals and enterprises necessarily followed certain structures or laws, even if these laws took place “behind their backs”. The return to value, a return that has only intensified after the crash of 2008, is then a return to what for many years Marxist theorists tried to avoid – the totality.[6]

Neil argues, implicitly if not explicitly, that we cannot understand value, and thus the totality of capitalism, unless we understand the relationships within and among each of his three crucial pairings: depreciation /appreciation, devaluation/revaluation, and devalorization/valorization. Neil’s discussion makes it clear that any theory of fixed capital formation, and therefore of crisis, and therefore yet again of the capitalist state is hobbled to the degree that we work with obfuscated understandings of the difference between, for example, depreciation and devaluation, as well as the relationship of the one to the other.

Capitalists do not work, in practice, with such an obfuscated understanding as, for example, political struggles over depreciation schedules in tax law make clear. They understand that a steady rate of transfer of value from means of production to resulting commodities (valorization) is undercut by all manner of social forces, which might lead to the devaluation of the means of production before the end of their useful life (their mutation into a not-value, because they no longer have a use-value under changed conditions of production). Depreciation is the price-form of this relationship: the anticipation in the realm of price (and thus of profit) of devaluation, whether or not that devaluation actually takes place or not. Neil’s task in this paper is to work out the nature of these relationships as Marx developed them – or, Neil shows, sometimes failed to develop them. His “clarification” does important work on this front. To the degree that “the application is not” as well worked out at the “elucidation,” this should only serve as a spur to us to continue his work on this front.

Such an imperative seems to have been important to Neil too. Certainly his Uneven Development, especially chapters 4 & 5, represent a further development of his ideas, and I would also suggest that his whole argument about the dynamics of gentrification as a capital circulation process is also a working out of the implications of the analyses he develops in this paper (even as the first statements of the rent-gap thesis predate the writing here). But I am not sure Neil ever felt he had completed the task of clarification and theoretical development he set himself in this paper. I found one copy of the paper, printed out on more “modern” paper than the other copies I have found, in a folder marked “Uneven Development.” Also in the folder are a set of clippings and articles from 2010 and 2011 on the global capitalist crisis. Late in his life Neil seemed to be returning to the question of value as it relates to crisis, and he still seemed to see importance in the analysis he laid out thirty years earlier. I think those who read this paper now for the first time will likewise see its importance. His “elucidations” can only help our own “applications” as we try to understand the inevitability, if changing form of, capitalist crises, and therefore how to struggle to eliminate them: by eliminating capitalism itself.


[1] Letter, Smith to Anderson, 14 December 1981 (all letters are from Neil’s personal files, which are being sorted and held at the City University of New York Graduate Center by Don Mitchell until an appropriate archive is located in which to deposit them and make them available to the public).

[2] Davis to Smith, 9 March 1982.

[3] Newton to Smith, 10 May, 1982; Spiro to Smith, 14 November 1982; Tool to Smith 6 April 1983; James to Smith 16 November 1983; Laibman to Smith, 21 May 1984; Davidson to Smith, 4 February 1985.

[4] Gleicher to Smith, 1 November 1983.

[5] David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

[6] Jason Read, Review of George Henderson, Value in Marx: The Persistence of Value in a More-than-Capitalist World (2013), http://radicalantipode.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/book-review_read-on-henderson.pdf.


Editor’s Note: We carry Neil’s article in exactly the format he left it—typescript with hand-written editorial changes. We hope it’s a fitting tribute to a brilliant, Marxist scholar. The manuscript is published here