It was at this point that I had a flash of insight, an éclaircissement, as the French put it. Even though I knew very little about Marx's thought and even less about economic theory in general, I concluded that Marx had chosen his literary style because only by its means could he capture his complex understanding of the nature of capitalist economy and society. There was, I thought, a union in Marx's writings of economic, mathematical, historical, sociological, political, and psychological ideas for the adequate expression of which only the language of Capital would do.
Needless to say, this was not then, nor is it today, the common view of Marx's ideas and their literary form. The majority opinion, as I observed in Moneybags, has always been what might be thought of as the public health or childhood polio interpretation of Capital. According to this reading, Marx as a young man contracted a nearly fatal case of the particularly virulent strain of Hegelism that raged pandemically throughout Germany during the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century. Although he somehow managed to survive the illness, he was intellectually crippled for life. Hence it is simply bad manners to mock him as he drags himself painfully, awkwardly from concept to concept in the realm of Ideas. Rather we ought to marvel that he can traverse the distance from the premises to the conclusion of an argument, and we ought scarcely to expect him to ascend a ratiocinatio polysyllogistica like Fred Astaire tip-tapping his way up a flight of stairs. The British version of this rather curious literary theory, put forward most notably by the doyenne of English Marxists, Joan Robinson, simply has it that Marx was German, and hence was unable to achieve the clarity and simplicity of Locke, Hume, Bentham, Smith, or Ricardo.
I was having none of it, and decided to set out on a quest, however long it might take me, to discover an integrated reading of Marx that made room for his economic theories, his theory of alienated labor and commodity fetishism, his historical account of the rise of capitalism, and his anticipation of the eventual transition to socialism, and which explained as well exactly why he found it necessary to couch all of this in language so utterly unlike that of his predecessors or his successors. I anticipated that this would be a lengthy undertaking, but I had reached a point in my life at which I was weary of writing and editing books of Philosophy, and as I was only in my middle forties, I figured I had plenty of time for the task.
That Fall, I happened to overhear a conversation between two graduate students standing in front of Thompson Towers, the home at UMass Amherst of the Economics Department. They were talking about a book by someone named Sraffa, and although I had never before so much as heard the name, I immediately concluded that I very badly needed to read it. It turned out to be a ninety-eight page monograph called Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, published by Piero Sraffa in 1960. I bought the book and started reading it.
It was an extraordinarily difficult read. Sraffa, who had begun life as an Italian economist and friend of Antonio Gramsci and had fled Mussolini to spend the rest of his days at Cambridge University, wrote with a spare prose completely devoid of the usual academic graces, footnotes, allusions, and hesitations. It was as though a monk had been contemplating the infinite for an entire life and then had quietly, unhurriedly, drifted into speech, carefully uttering one perfect proposition after another. Although the mathematics was quite simple, never rising above ordinary algebra, Sraffa tended not to bother to flesh out the intermediate steps between premise and conclusion, forcing me on occasion to spend a day or more on a single page reconstructing the argument.
With the unselfconscious hubris that has characterized my entire professional life, that same semester I organized a reading group on Sraffa for a small circle of economics students, some of whom were in my Critical Theory seminar. At one of the sessions, a student came in and blurted out, "Herb says you can do the whole thing in three lines with linear algebra." "Herb" was Herb Gintis, a senior member of the Economics Department and partner and co-author of Sam Bowles. Bowles and Gintis were two of the five tenured radical economists whose simultaneous recruitment had transformed the UMass Econ Department into the center of Marxist economics in America.
By a happy accident, I was scheduled for a sabbatical leave in the Spring, only my second semester off from teaching since starting my academic career in 1958. As soon as classes were done and grades submitted, I bought a Linear Algebra textbook and began working through it, a task that took me most of the month of January. I now launched on an intense study both of the writings of Marx and of the modern reinterpretation of Marx's economic theories then finding expression in an ever growing series of books by a number of brilliant mathematical economists around the globe.
I bought a complete set of the works of Marx and Engels in English [my German was simply not up to plowing through thousands of pages of books, monographs, letters, and unpublished manuscripts] and began reading a healthy subset of the seemingly endless hundreds of thousands of words that Marx and Engels produced in their lifetimes. I also bought a brilliant new biography, Marx's Fate, by a young historian then at Princeton, Jerrold Seigel. I had had thoughts of casting my final product in the form of an intellectual biography, but reading Seigel caused me to change my plans. The problem, to put it baldly, was that by the time I had finished Marx's Fate, I really did not like Marx very much as a human being. Seigel made it clear that Marx, in addition to being the great theorist of exploitation, was a man who exploited those around him, emotionally as well as economically. I lost not one whit of my respect for Marx's intellectual qualities, but I recoiled from spending as much time with him as would be required by anything resembling a biography.
As time went on, I found myself forced to branch out well beyond formal economic theory, philosophy, history, and literary criticism. I even spent time studying the history of the development of index numbers and made a fruitful foray into the theory of Financial Accounting.
The result of all this work was a grand vision of Marx's theory of capitalist economy and society, which I tentatively projected as a trilogy of books. The first to be published, Understanding Marx, presented a simplified version of the reconstruction of Marx's economic theories carried through by Morishima, Pasinetti, Garagnani, Brody, Abraham-Frois and Berrebi, and others, together with my critique of Marx's Labor Theory of Value and some suggestions for its revision. The second book, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, presented my answer to the question with which I had started: Why did Marx write that way? The third volume of the trilogy was supposed to achieve the grand synthesis that would unite the economic theory with the literary theory, but the complete lack of attention paid to Moneybags so discouraged me that I turned to other things, and never wrote the final volume. In a small way, this series of blog posts is my attempt to indicate how the argument of that third volume might have developed.