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Sunday, July 30, 2017


I have become, by default, the family archivist, and so it is that my big sister, sifting through a lifetime of accumulated papers, from time to time puts together a little bundle and sends it to me.  The latest packet included a tearsheet from the May 29, 1985 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education containing a portion of a long interview I gave to them on the occasion of the publication of Understanding Marx, my first book on the thought of Karl Marx.  Barbara did not have the entire interview, and I have absolutely no recollection of having given it, but when I read again what is on the sheet, I was touched and saddened by my effusions of optimism.  I had just completed a decade of intense study of the new mathematical reinterpretation of Classical and Marxian political economy published by sophisticated left economists around the world in the’60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s.  Here are some lines from the interview to give you a sense of my boundless enthusiasm for this new development. 

“Although I don’t for a moment imagine that political movements start in somebody’s head, with a theory, I think that theories are an important part of political movements.  There comes a point when a political movement – or a possible political movement – needs theoretical tools to direct itself, and that’s starting to happen…. I have a keen sense of my own limitations and I don’t for a moment imagine that I’m capable of doing serious, theoretically innovative work in economic.”  [Mr. Wolff] sees himself as “a kind of cheerleader” for all the scholars engaged in the mathematical reinterpretation of Marx.  “I’m in favor of all of them and I’m delighted when they do this stuff because it’s marvelous and exciting…. Until I got involved in this stuff, I never showed my work to other people.  Now I have a sense of myself as being part of an enterprise that’s larger than myself…’  Summing up the shift in the course of his career, [Mr. Wolff] said, “it was like being reborn.”

            OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
             For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
            Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
            Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
             But to be young was very heaven! 

            [William Wordsworth, 1805, on the French Revolution]


s. wallerstein said...

It almost always heaven to be young, maybe not in Auschwitz or during a famine.

It's not so great to be old.

But the fact that we're old now does not mean that the times were better when we were young. In fact, you yourself a few weeks ago posted about the incredible number of people all over the world who have escaped from the extreme poverty in the last few decades.

Écrasez L'infâme said...

Dear Professor Wolff. I was a maths graduate doing an additional qualification in computers in the UK in the late 1980s. I knew a bit about mathematical economics from the applied part of my degree, but I'd never really been that impressed by it: the maths always felt a little bolted on to the subject, not a natural fit, or as if the economists were using the maths to justify their already established positions rather than to derive the truth. The thing about maths is that it's easy to get it to do your thinking for you. Well, I came across Understanding Marx and gave it a spin. It was a delightful surprise to find someone using maths in economics as a physicist might use it in physics - in a principle of exploration -, and from there I read Morishima's book and Desai's (Desai is still alive, and still a Marxist, and still writing. He's now in the British House of Lords). I think it was UM that made me a Marxist, simply because I had respect for any approach to the economy that was obviously so comfortable with maths. This shows appalling lack of class awareness, I know! and I was doing the demos and stuff as well, but the Left at the time seemed lacking in theory, and you provided that. (I'm also aware that, although Marx himself knew a little self-taught maths, he came to distrust mathematical economics, possibly for the same reason I had. Now I'm older, I too think economists reach for maths too easily).

Anyhow, I still have UM knocking about somewhere, I think. I still remember one particular line, where you are discussing Marx's own formation of labour value, and then you say something like "If we recast Marx's equation into an input/output form - which it certainly is - we get..." That "which it certainly is" went to the hub of the matter - I remember thinking about it for days, and I can remember it after all these years. I now think that line is wrong, and the correct interpretation of Marx's theory is somewhere on the Shaikh/ Kliman side rather than the Morishima/ Steedman one. In any case, thank you for opening my eyes.

(I've been reading your blog for a number of months but this is my first comment).

All the best


F Lengyel said...

Philosophers--among others--have been shipwrecked by the siren call of mathematics at least since Pythagoras. Herbert Gintis had hoped that the mathematics of social science--non-cooperative game theory in particular--would elevate political discourse above ideological debate. He says as much in Game Theory Evolving. [Gintis removed an interesting discussion on socialism in the first edition from the second.] A historical figure in logic once confided to me his regret that a pure mathematician would rather dig for copper veins in a virtually inaccessible mine at the top of a mountain than pick up a few diamonds strewn about the ground at their feet. He also was referring to the mathematics of social science developed since WW II. So much of this mathematics was waiting to be applied, he said.