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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

REPLY TO COMMENTATORS -- ONE

My recent debilitating health problems have made it difficult for me to keep up with the comments on this blog. In an attempt to catch up, I am going to post two more or less extended replies as independent posts -- first some words about how to study Marx, and then some replies to comments on my CREDO. Marx first.

If you are trying to get a handle on Marx's thought, it is helpful to start by getting some sense of what he wrote, and especially about the relative volume of materials on various subjects. My English edition of the works of Marx and Engels runs to 42 volumes [my German edition is roughly the same length -- it is my Paris apartment]. Seventeen of those volumes are taken up with manuscripts [early versions of CAPITAL, etc. and Marx's enormous correspondence, most of which is with his life-long collaborator, Friedrich Engels, who was living in the north of England while Marx was living in London.] Several more volumes consist of Marx's reporting for the New York HERALD. Marx was what today we would call a foreign correspondent -- a stringer paid by the word. These newspaper articles deal with contemporary political events in Europe, and since Marx was notoriously dilatory about completing writing assignments on time, many of them, although published under his name, were written by Engels. Several volumes contain short books Marx wrote either on contemporary events [THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS NAPOLEON, THE CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE] or as attacks on figures on the left with whom he had theoretical disagreements [THE POVERTY OF PHILOSOPYY, and so forth]. There are also several volumes of what are best called juvenilia -- books and book reviews and journal articles written by Marx, or by Marx and Engels, when they were in their twenties. These focus for the most part on their internecine disagreements with other "Left Hegelians," which is to say young German intellectuals who chose to construe Hegel as a radical rather than as a reactionary philosopher. In this category are THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY and the uproarious THE HOLY FAMILY. There are also some unpublished manuscripts from those early days, about which more below.

And then there are the works of economics. CAPITAL itself is six volumes long -- Volumes One, Two, and Three, and the "fourth" volume, THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE, which is actually three volumes long. Add to that the CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY and the manuscripts now called the GRUNDRISSE and you have perhaps five thousand pages of serious economics. This was, and was conceived by Marx to be, his chef d'oeuvre, his hauptwerk, his masterwork. Only Volume One of CAPITAL was published in his lifetime, but the entire work was completed by him, and was published posthumously by Engels.

If you want to know something about Marx, you must engage with this vast body of economics, for Marx was, first and foremost, the most brilliant theorist of capitalism ever to live. Marx is unique among great economists. He was the first historian of economic theory. He read German, French, English, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin with ease, and had read everything that was available in his lifetime on economics -- the minor authors as well as the great ones. It may surprise you to learn that Marx had the very greatest respect for the work of Smith, Ricardo, and a number of lesser lights. He had contempt for the minor epigones of his own day, such as the egregious Nassau Senior, whom he called Vulgar Economists and took great delight in lampooning.

Marx was also the first great economic historian. His primary focus was on the development of capitalism in England, about which he wrote brilliantly, on the basis of his extensive archival research in the British Museum. Needless to say, we know a great deal more now than he knew then about the transition from the medieval feudal economy to the rapidly growing capitalist economy of the nineteenth century, but his work was decades, if not generations, ahead of his time.

Marx was a great political sociologist, anatomizing the connections between economic developments and political formations in a way that no one had done before.

And he was one of the truly great economic theorists. The brilliant Japanese mathematical economist, Michio Morishima, in his book MARX'S ECONOMICS, describes Marx as one of the great mathematical economists, and despite the fact that he uses little more than elementary arithmetic, Marx's structural and theoretical intuitions were astonishing. That is a large subject, and if anyone is interested in reading some modern mathematical economics devoted to articulating Marx's ideas in modern mathematical form, I will be happy to recommend half a dozen books.

Marx was not a philosopher, despite the fact that his doctoral dissertation was devoted to the ancient Greek materialists. Dialectical materialism was Engels' idea, and it is really just bad nineteenth century metaphysics. If you want to engage with Marx, you really must study the economics. By the way, contrary to popular opinion, Marx was a brilliant writer, and the early chapters of CAPITAL Volume One are among the most beautiful theoretical writings I have ever encountered.

But a funny thing happened to Marx on the way to immortality. He got hijacked by a bunch of Russian revolutionaries, and later by a bunch of Chinese peasant revolutionaries, and in his name both groups created dictatorial state capitalist regimes that murdered tens of millions of their own countrymen and suppressed genuine intellectual activity for generations. You can blame Marx for this, if you wish, just as you can blame Jesus for the Inquisition, or John Adams for George W. Bush, or Mohammed for Al Qaeda, and if you choose to do that, I am not going to waste any time arguing with you. But if you actually want to know something about Marx, then read him.

Two further words. At the end of the Second World War, Tito and his partisans had succeeded in driving the Germans out of what became Yugoslavia without the help of Russian troops. So Yugoslavia, while allied with Russia, was independent. A group of Yugoslav philosophers wanted to find some way to appropriate what they liked in Marx without buying into the oppressive state capitalist dictatorship of Stalin. They seized on some manuscripts written by Marx when he was twenty-six, and never published, in which they found a humanistic Marx, a lively Marx, a humane Marx as philosopher of the human condition, whom they could put up against the Soviet version of Marx's doctrines without rejecting Marx and thus seeming to throw their lot in with the capitalist West. These manuscripts, which came to be known as THE ECONOMIC-PHILOSOPHIC MANUSCRUIPTS IF 1844, were used by them to defend a theory of a "break" between the young Marx and the mature Marx -- the theory of the Two Marxes. For reasons that I will explain if anyone at all is interested, I do not think there is a sharp break between the work of Marx in his twenties and Marx in his fifties -- just the sort of development and evolution one would expect in the work of a deep thinker.

Now, as to books. A small group of very gifted analytic philosophers -- most notably Gerald Cohen and Jan Elster -- several decades ago undertook to make Marx's thought compatible with their version of analytic philosophy, giving rise to a school of so-called Analytical Marxists. The two most notable contributions to this literature, both mentioned by commentators on this blog, were Cohen's KARL MARX'S THEORY OF HISTORY and Elster's MAKING SENSE OF MARX. In 1990, I wrote a long article exposing what I believed to be fundamental inadequacies in Elster's book. The essay was published in the CANADIAN JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY, and can be found on-line. Cohen's book is a bravura performance, and to its credit pays more attention to what Marx actually said about economics and economic development, but I find it in the end scholastic and unhelpful.

OK. That's enough about that.

16 comments:

Chris said...

Professor,
I appreciate the response.

In regards to the dialectic, while Englels may of been of the inventor of historical materialism, it seems apparent that Marx employed the dialectic in much of his work.

For instance, Marx wrote in a letter to Engels after publishing an article that would likely turn out to be false: "it is possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way."

And, although I have no read On Capital in its entirety, it seems pretty clear that the work is filled with dialectical elements and contradictions.

Do you think the dialectic is entirely rubbish, or just Engel's? version?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think Marx's remark was simply a joke. As a way of paying attention to unintended consequences and self-defeating actions and other "contradicdtions" [for example, the capitalist brings the workers out of their cottages and into a factory for greater effiency, but this brings the workers into contact with one another and spurs them to organize, etc.] the "dialectic," so called, is perfectly fine. But its pretensions to be a different Logic and all of that is, in my opinion, just nonsense. I think Engels Dialectics of Nature is utterly without value.

Chris said...

This would lead me to conclude that you're of the school of thought that one does not need to master, or even dabble in Hegel, to be proficient in Marx?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Exactly! I have never learned anything from Hegel.

Noumena said...

Other than Morishima, what are the books in Marxian formal economics that you'd recommend?

PS I'm glad to read that you're feeling better!

Robert Vienneau said...

John Roemer's Analytical Foundations of Marxian Economic Theory is an important contribution to analytical marxism focused on economics. I like Piero Sraffa's Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, but wouldn't expect the beginning student to see its connection to Marxism.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Robert Vienneau is correct about both books. I am sorry my mind slipped and I neglected Roemer, who is the best of the lot, and a brilliant theoretician. Later today I shall post a short blog entry with a list of six or eight books one might read. They are demanding, but well worth the effort, I found.

Amato said...

I realize you said that you won't entertain those equating Jesus to the inquisition. However, one of my first introductions to Marx was a critique of him in Albert Camus' The Rebel. At one point Camus writes, "But every kind of socialism is Utopian, most of all scientific socialism. Utopia replaces God by the Future. Then it proceeds to identify the future with ethics;the only values are those which serve this particular future. For that reason Utopias have almost always been coercive and authoritarian. Marx, in so far as he is a Utopian, does not differ from his frightening predecessors, and one part of his teaching more than justifies his successors."

Now I have always loved Camus. But I have read in several of his biographies that he was not as sharp when it came to Marx as he thought(he was really more of a novelist than a philosopher). Being the Marx novice and curious individual that I am, I was wondering how you would respond to this kind of criticism?

john c. halasz said...

"Marx was not a philosopher..."

Utter nonsense. Marx' thought is thoroughly bound up with that of Hegel, whom he rather murkily critique from a 'materialist" POV, (mostly through lengthy polemics with fellow Left Hegelians, whom he often trumped with a "more Hegelian than thou" move). But his basic conceptual means were thoroughly Hegelian, else why would he have exposited his work in a dialectical idiom, at a time when the rest of the world had largely forgotten Hegel and had no understanding of his idiom? (Which makes Marx somewhat thorny and tedious reading, as he constantly repeats his points, tracking back to look at the "same" thing from a different angle and sewing up new relations and implications: "plain" exposition would have made much more sense, unless there were some "serious" conceptual/methodological reasons otherwise).

The key point is that for both Hegel and Marx, the world is viewed as a human objectification, (whether it is an objectification of conscious spirit/mind or of the laboring activity of human beings at some point makes little difference, since obviously workers don't just use their hands). That POV is not obviously nuts, since it captures a good part of the truth of the matter, even if with the inadequate conceptual means derived from the traditional philosophy of consciousness, but it does both contain an excess of "humanism" and presuppositions about "identities" between subject and object, which requires some "deconstruction" or conceptually dismantling criticism to appropriately revise the conception. In turn, that world-as-objectification is subject to alienation and its reification as a artificial, but domineering "second nature", by which human beings are subjected to an alien "necessity", by the products of what is ostensibly their own objectifying activity. Alienation and reification (or "commodity fetishism") are concepts of Hegelian derivation and yet are the normative core upon which Marx' criticism draws. (By contrast, "exploitation" is more a functional than a normative matter).

john c. halasz said...

But Marx himself does make a quite distinctive fundamental philosophical contribution in contradistinction to Hegel, (even if it owes something to Hegel and even if it rather has to be excavated from sundry polemic writings, rather than being given a "clean" philosophical exposition): namely the notion of a philosophy of praxis. Once one grasps that there is a "prior", pre-theoretical normative-practical and existential commitment at the root of the whole theoretical edifice, namely the project of the progressive emancipation of the working class from its alienation and commoditization under capitalism, then a framework can be built up allowing for the elaboration of a theory which can reasonably be said to be "scientific", that is, directed toward objective realities and capable of acquiring verifiable empirical contents. The philosophy of praxis is what priorly enables the whole theoretical elaboration of "Capital", even as "Capital" provides a mapping of the loci in which the revolutionary/emancipatory praxis of the working class can take hold. (There would be little point otherwise to the whole theory and critique of ideology, which is one of the main aims of "Capital", taking bourgeois political economy as its paradigm instance, if it were not to appeal to and transform the motives of embedded practical agents). Thus the philosophy of praxis and the economic account cross-implicate and mutually condition each other: oh dear, a dialectical relation. But "Capital" is subtitled a "critique of bourgeois political economy" because it is precisely not a work of economics, even as it limns the full extent of that domain, but rather aims at abolishing/superceding the whole systematic object domain which it exposits.

john c. halasz said...

Dialectics can't simply be ripped out of the whole Marxian enterprise, in the name of dispensing with bad metaphysics by preserving the plain sense of the law of non-contradiction according the analytic logic. To the contrary, it is thoroughly embedded in the architectonic of Marx' systematic thinking, which itself involves philosophical/normative commitments. Marx had boned up on Hegel's "Logic" just before embarking on his monumental enterprise, as he announced in that famous declaration about Hegel being a "dead dog" in a letter to Engels. And that's because dialectics amounts to a conceptual/reflective method for the generation and formation/synthesis of concepts through precise attention to and interaction with their contexts of emergence and application in the objective domain to which they refer. And the whole mode of presentation in terms of the dialectic of "appearance" and "essence" is crucial to understanding the work and its aims. (Since experts on Hegel's "Logic" have claimed that "Capital" is thoroughly patterned after it, likely the three volumes of "Capital" correspond to the three sections of the "Logic", "existence", which deals with determinations at once too primitive and too pervasive to ever amount to an actual experience, "essence", which deals with the experience of objects at the level of Kantian understanding, in which objects exist separately, but also only afford a partial or one-sided understanding, and "the concept", in which the partial understandings of objects are integrated into the whole of "reason". Hence Vol.1 deals with the basic elements of the commodity form, Vol.2 with the competition between particular capitals and Vol.3 with capital-in-general and the system as a whole, especially in the treatment of credit and finance.)

So like it or not, Marx' work, for better and for worse, in its glories and its limitations, is philosophical in at least a portion of its claims and one can't really understand him without understanding something of Hegel, (just as one can't understand Hegel without understanding something of Kant). And, in fact, Marx did lay claim to the heritage of German philosophy for his projected workers' movement, claiming only to abolish philosophy by realizing it. That does raise problems of a distinctly philosophical nature, such as the possibility that he reified dialectics as an actual historical force, as opposed to just a method for understanding historical "forces" based on an existential projection and thereby succumbed to the very sort of bad metaphysical teleology that his radical understanding of the historical nature of thought was expressly opposed to, (something that he took over from Hegel and rigorously deepened). But one can't deal with such criticisms and problems simply by reading Hegel (and Kant) out of the account, as what he reacted to and with.

john c. halasz said...

Dialectics can't simply be ripped out of the whole Marxian enterprise, in the name of dispensing with bad metaphysics by preserving the plain sense of the law of non-contradiction according the analytic logic. To the contrary, it is thoroughly embedded in the architectonic of Marx' systematic thinking, which itself involves philosophical/normative commitments. Marx had boned up on Hegel's "Logic" just before embarking on his monumental enterprise, as he announced in that famous declaration about Hegel being a "dead dog" in a letter to Engels. And that's because dialectics amounts to a conceptual/reflective method for the generation and formation/synthesis of concepts through precise attention to and interaction with their contexts of emergence and application in the objective domain to which they refer. And the whole mode of presentation in terms of the dialectic of "appearance" and "essence" is crucial to understanding the work and its aims. (Since experts on Hegel's "Logic" have claimed that "Capital" is thoroughly patterned after it, likely the three volumes of "Capital" correspond to the three sections of the "Logic", "existence", which deals with determinations at once too primitive and too pervasive to ever amount to an actual experience, "essence", which deals with the experience of objects at the level of Kantian understanding, in which objects exist separately, but also only afford a partial or one-sided understanding, and "the concept", in which the partial understandings of objects are integrated into the whole of "reason". Hence Vol.1 deals with the basic elements of the commodity form, Vol.2 with the competition between particular capitals and Vol.3 with capital-in-general and the system as a whole, especially in the treatment of credit and finance.)

john c. halasz said...

So like it or not, Marx' work, for better and for worse, in its glories and its limitations, is philosophical in at least a portion of its claims and one can't really understand him without understanding something of Hegel, (just as one can't understand Hegel without understanding something of Kant). And, in fact, Marx did lay claim to the heritage of German philosophy for his projected workers' movement, claiming only to abolish philosophy by realizing it. That does raise problems of a distinctly philosophical nature, such as the possibility that he reified dialectics as an actual historical force, as opposed to just a method for understanding historical "forces" based on an existential projection and thereby succumbed to the very sort of bad metaphysical teleology that his radical understanding of the historical nature of thought was expressly opposed to, (something that he took over from Hegel and rigorously deepened). But one can't deal with such criticisms and problems simply by reading Hegel (and Kant) out of the account, as what he reacted to and with.

Matko Sorić said...

Just a small correction: Hegelian Marxist philosophers from Yugoslavia haven't been advocating sharp distinction between young and old Marx or theory of the two Marxes. Quite the contrary. Both Milan Kangrga and Gajo Petrovic, two of the most important and relatively original thinkers in the Praxis group, strongly contested the Althusserian idea of the epistemological break. I am not sure how they are perceived in the USA, but as an autor from Croatia who read them in original and is about to publish texts on them, I have to say this is a mistaken claim.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Matko, I would have to go back and look at what I wrote, but I think I was referring to an earlier generation of Yugoslav theorists -- back in the 1960's and 70's. But if you would like to write something and have me post on this blog as a guest post, that would be great.

Matko Sorić said...

Sure, I could write a short commentary on Kangrga and Petrovic. It will take a week or two, since my work and PhD duties have priority, but I think I can handle it. Will 1500-2000 words suffice?