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Marx, Jones, Rodbertus and the Theory of Absolute Rent

M. C. Howard and John King

Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 1992, vol. 14, issue 1, 70-83

Abstract: As is well-known, Karl Marx distinguished three types of rent. In addition to two categories of differential rent, closely related to the Ricardian extensive and intensive margins, he argued (against David Ricardo) that rent was paid on the least fertile land. For Marx this so-called “absolute rent†resulted from the barrier posed by landed property to the free movement of capital into agricultural production. Since the organic composition of capital was relatively low in agriculture, the prices of production of farm products were lower than their labor values. The existence of private property in land prevented the reduction of agricultural prices to these prices of production, and allowed the payment of rent even on what could be described, in Ricardian terms, as marginal land. There exists a sizeable literature on Marx's theory of absolute rent,1 but there is no systematic account of its gestation and development. In this paper we explain how Marx's critique of Ricardian rent theory evolved between his first doubts early in 1851 and the articulation of a distinctive alternative analysis in the manuscripts of 1862–63. We also assess the influence exerted on Marx by Richard Jones and Johann Karl Rodbertus, and briefly discuss the significance of Marx's theory of absolute rent for his political economy as a whole.

Date: 1992
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