Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Tuesday, March 6, 2018


Here it is, number five.  You can all watch this while I fly off to Paris.  I will return in a little less than two weeks.  I leave it to you to make sure the world does not fall apart while I am gone.


Anonymous said...

Thanks much for this eagerly awaited video. Enjoy Paris.

s. wallerstein said...

Your enthusiasm for and enjoyment of Marx is contagious.

I always begin to watch these videos with a sense of dread and obligation, since I don't really like Marx and I certainly don't enjoy him. I recognize that he is right about a lot of stuff and that he is on the right side and I identify with Marxism, much as I identify with, say, Darwinism, but neither Darwin or Marx are people whom I enjoy being around.

However, after a few minutes of listening to you communicate about Marx with so much enthusiasm and enjoyment, I feel more friendly towards Marx.

Have a great trip to Paris.

LFC said...

Watched to about the 48 minute mark, where RPW asks "what determines the wage?" and answers that it's the historical fact of there being a reserve army of the unemployed. "When there's a shortage of workers the wage goes up, but there isn't a shortage of workers." (That's pretty close to a direct quote from the lecture at that 48-minute, roughly, point.)

But, to me, this seems to clash with the explanation of surplus labor as the source of profit. Assuming a 12-hour workday, the capitalist only gets the 6 hours of surplus labor if he pays a wage equal to the 6 hours of necessary labor, i.e., a daily wage equal to the value of the amount of embodied labor in the food and other necessaries required to keep the worker (and his children) alive for another day. That amount of embodied labor -- say, 6 hours -- is a quantity that varies only with technology and average productivity: it takes 6 hours, on average in a particular economic system, to produce such-and-such an amount of food and clothing and shelter -- and that 6 hours does not depend on whether the economy is in boom or bust or whether the supply of workers is high or low. It only depends on how long, on average, it takes an average worker to produce the materials etc. that go into the food, clothing, and shelter that are the minimum needed to sustain life.

In short, if Marx is accepting, in Capital Vol. 1, Ricardo's theory that the price of a commodity is equal to its value in terms of embodied labor, then the price of the commodity labor-power must equal its value, which is the value of its subsistence requirements in terms of embodied labor. Once one admits that the price of the commodity labor-power -- i.e., the daily wage -- can be influenced by labor-market conditions and market forces (by how many workers are looking for work), this would seem to violate the Ricardian assumptions that Marx is accepting in Vol. 1. But since Ricardo and Marx both knew that wages tend to go up when there is a labor shortage, something seems off. (That something might simply be my own confusion.)

LFC said...

p.s. I suppose one could treat supply-and-demand fluctuations in the labor market the way Ricardo apparently treated supply-and-demand fluctuations generally: view them as temporary deviations from the 'average' or 'natural' price. So wages might go up and down but over time, on this view, they would settle around the subsistence wage as the 'natural' price of the commodity labor-power. That might be how things worked, at least to some extent, in the 'dark satanic mills' of industrializing Britain. And it does kind of get around the theoretical difficulty that I was trying to state, above.

mesnenor said...

This film: is playing at a movie theater around the corner from where I live. I just might go and watch it.

Anonymous said...

I want to second what s. wallerstein said.

These lectures have clearly made the task of reading Marx in his original words more appealing. For those of us who had trouble reading him always relied on second hand summaries. But now there seems no reason to. Thanks to RPW.

LFC said...

So before I wrote the above comments, particularly the second one above, I should have finished watching the lecture, which I've now done. There is the quote from Ricardo on the 'natural' price of labor, and then the point about the struggle betw. capitalists and workers in different periods over the meaning of 'subsistence'.

I would add that since surplus labor is defined as that which is not necessary labor, and since necessary labor is defined in terms of 'subsistence', the definition of 'surplus labor' will itself change as the definition of 'subsistence' changes. (That's implicit, it seems to me, in what RPW said at the end.)

One could, of course, simply say that the level of profit depends at least partly on the outcome of struggle between capitalists and workers over what constitutes subsistence and over the level of wages. But to say that, you arguably don't really need the labor theory of value, you don't need the notions of surplus labor and necessary labor, and embodied labor and all that. In other words, one can prob. reach Marx-like conclusions about class struggle and Ricardo-like conclusions about the changing definition of 'subsistence' without the labor theory of value and the convoluted apparatus that goes along with it.

s. wallerstein said...

I've never quite understood the point of the theory of surplus value.

A society where Jeff Bezos has over a hundred billion dollars and lots of hard-working people don't have money to send their kids to the dentist or to buy their hypertension medication, not to mention the people starving to death in the 3rd world is just plain obscene. If you don't see that as obscene, it is doubtful that the scholastic calculations of the theory of surplus value are going to convince you that there is something wrong with capitalism.

I know that Marx tries to avoid moralism (such as saying that capitalism is obscene, as I do) and so wants to prove scientifically that capitalism is "wrong", but when you think about it, the theory of surplus value (whether true or not) is based on the "moralistic" judgment that exploitation (not paying workers for all the time worked) is "wrong". If you don't see exploitation (as defined by Marx) as "wrong" or "bad", there is no reason to condemn it and one can imagine a capitalist pig, say, Donald J. Trump admitting to his friends that he exploits workers and laughing about it.

Anonymous said...

In the imaginary world of freely acting , rational, self-interested autonomous beings, it is entirely justified for the capitalist to get his due and the exploited worker; after all, they have no one and nothing but themselves to look at with regard to their economic success or failure.

LFC said...


Getting away from the topic of Marx here, but I doubt very many serious writers/thinkers/theorists, regardless of their ideological or political orientation, have thought humans were autonomous in the sense of completely uninfluenced by any forces outside of their own will and character. The exceptions might be some Social Darwinists and some libertarians. But traditionalist conservatives, a Burke for instance, did not think that.

As s. wallerstein points out, Marx claimed to be doing science, not 'moralizing' in any way, and claimed to have no interest in justice. There is a large, contentious lit. on the extent to which this is actually the case. See, for instance, the essays in part 1 of Marx, Justice, and History, ed. M. Cohen, T. Nagel, and T. Scanlon (Princeton U.P., 1980).

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Wolff

Thank you for the clarity of expression you have shown in all your publications. I have been trying to get my hands on a copy of Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity, though the versions on Amazon are not new and are rather expensive. Do you know how I might be able to get my hands on a copy?

Many thanks,

F Lengyel said...

Does Marx say why the industrial revolution took off in the UK and then the rest of Europe and then the US? The question is interesting whatever Marx might have said; e.g., some historians believe that the example of the Puritans, who weren't opposed to capital accumulation but who thought that excess wealth ought to be given away in the service of God shows that non-economic factors such as culture were significant in the development of capitalism in the US. [I'm inclined to Alex Rosenberg's scientism, which would reject that kind of self reporting as utterly unreliable.]

LFC said...

@ F. Lengyel

Basically Marx does not deal in these kinds of cultural explanations, b/c for him the causal arrow runs from the mode of production (the 'base') to culture/consciousness/ideology (the 'superstructure'), though I think there are times when he is considerably more nuanced than this somewhat mechanical model would suggest. But for the classic statement of the cultural thesis, you have to go to Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and the ensuing decades of controversy about it. (Philip Gorski's work, among others, is relevant here, but I haven't read it.)

F Lengyel said...

LFC right -- Weber et al were exactly the references I sought. Thanks.

LFC said...


s. wallerstein said...

Here's David Harvey's take on Marx and the labor theory of value:

LFC said...

From Harvey:

"Chapters 7 through 25 of Volume 1 describe in intricate detail the consequences for the labourer of living and working in a world where the law of value, as constituted through the generalization and normalization of exchange in the market place, rules. This is the famous transition, at the end of chapter 6, where Marx invites us to leave the sphere of circulation, 'a very Eden of the rights of man' where 'alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.’ And so we dive into 'the hidden abode of production' where we shall see 'not only how capital produces but, how capital is produced.' It is only here, also, that we will see how value forms."

Now here is actually what Marx wrote at the end of chap. 6 (Fowkes translation): "Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare." (emphasis added)

Acc. to Marx, the secret to be uncovered is, specifically, how the capitalist makes a profit. But Harvey doesn't say that. Why not? Probably because the answer, as Marx proceeds to give it, is indeed dependent on the labor theory of value, a theory that Harvey claims Marx "refuses."

The Harvey essay has a lot of nice-sounding phrases ("the value form," value as a "regulatory norm") that, afaict on an admittedly quick perusal, are rather amorphous. Possibly there is some there there, and Harvey certainly has a reputation as an expositor of Capital, but if this is a fair instance of his approach I can't say I'm too impressed. Perhaps a closer reading would change my mind, but I tend to doubt it.

s. wallerstein said...


You're very good at this.

I'd be interested in hearing Professor Wolff's critique of Harvey's thesis.

LFC said...

s. wallerstein,

no, not particularly (but thks anyway for the compliment).

It's just that I had to read closely (much of) Capital vol. 1 in college many years ago and I still have it on the shelf. (The paperback copy has split into two sections but it's usable.)

As for Harvey, I'm reluctant to pass judgment on his take on Marx w/o examining it more deeply, so I'll leave it at that.

LFC said...

Just glancing at R. Heilbroner's generally sympathetic take on surplus value in Marxism: For and Against (1980, pb, 1981).

It's very lucid and I think roughly consistent w/ Wolff's view, although Heilbroner expresses it prob. a bit differently than Wolff would (p.114):

"The existence of surplus value...remains an unprovable proposition exactly as it was in Marx's time. It is a heuristic rather than an operational concept. Its importance lies in its identification of the class struggle and the fetishism of commodities as the two essential elements in producing and rationalizing the surplus that is produced by one class and appropriated by another."

"As such, the theory of surplus value provides an explanation for a problem that has always been the Achilles' heel of economics, namely, the source of profits. Unwilling to attribute profits to the transfer of wealth from one class to another, bourgeois economists have struggled in vain to explain profits, not as a transient monopoly return or an evanescent technological advantage, but as a persistent, central feature of the system of capitalism." (italics in orig.)

Even better, I think, is Heilbroner's discussion (remember, he's writing in c. 1979) of how capitalism still manages to hold down the bargaining power of labor and thus protect profit margins, under conditions different than those of Marx's day. After noting that the strength of corporations and unions "is more evenly matched than in the past" (again, he's writing this before the decline in union strength of the last few decades), Heilbroner says (p.112-13):

"Against this institutional redress of bargaining power...must be placed the deliberate efforts of all capitalist governments to prevent labor's strength from 'getting out of hand' -- that is, from raising wages until profits are squeezed out. In many modern capitalisms, for example, we find the importation of cheap labor from low-wage nations.... This is a policy that is explained by the importing governments as being necessary in order to get personnel to perform work that domestic workers will no longer do. What is meant, in fact, is that domestic workers will not do the work except at wages that cannot be tolerated, because they would make profits impossible." (italics in orig.)

There is something to this: clearly, many or most Americans don't want to pick grapes or lettuce or work in meatpacking plants because the work is physically v. hard and otherwise unpleasant, but there is some level of wages at which domestic workers could be found for these jobs. If a company paid a worker in a meatpacking plant $100,000 or $125,000 a year, there'd likely be no problem filling those jobs w domestic workers or "documented" immigrants. But that level of wages would put too much pressure on profits. Hence when the Trump admin deports, say, two-thirds of the workers in a meatpacking plant b/c they are undocumented immigrants, it's actually acting not only in a xenophobic fashion but in an anticapitalist fashion, since the profits of that company have depended on a ready supply of "illegal" immigrant labor willing to take those jobs at wages that protect the company's profits.

s. wallerstein said...


Thank you.

That's the same Heilbroner who wrote the Worldly Philosophers, which I read about 55 years ago, while in high school. He's good at explaining things.

s. wallerstein said...


Sure, I was just listening to political analysts talking about the new Piñera administration (just took office on Sunday) discussing the approach they would take towards immigration and how that divides Piñera's rightwing political base.

There's a strong xenophobic element among working class Chileans who see immigration (from poorer Latin American societies) as a threat to their wage level and to social services. On the other hand, Piñera's corporate supporters want as much immigration as possible to keep wages down and although this has not been well investigated, it is said that there are mafias which "sell" illegal immigrants to businesses (in the construction business, for example), which pay them less than the minimum wage, with zero benefits, work them harder than a Chilean would let themself be worked, etc.

LFC said...

s. wallerstein,

yup, same Heilbroner. The Worldly Philosophers deserves its status as a classic, tho I read it almost as many yrs ago as you did.

Mike said...

This isn't related to the Marx lectures directly, but the NY Times published a Q&A with Paul Krugman in which he responded to several questions from readers. Most are about the recent tariff issue, but he gets a little bit into more general questions, including some that have come up on this blog about his work.

Daniel said...

Dear Professor,
I want to start with saying that this is not meant as personal critique concerning your trip to Paris. However, here in Sweden there is right now a growing public debate about the morality of transportation by aviation due to the large CO2 emissions associated with it. As a socialist that rather sees public answers to public issues (taxation of aviation rather than 'individual responsibility or 'consumer power') there is still a nagging feeling that is associated with this practice in the current ideological climate. What are your thoughts on this issue? Shall one do nothing to aid the environment (except agitation, voting etc.) or shall one risk falling into the 'consumer power' trap in order to 'do something'.

Long time reader,

Ps. The Marx lectures are phenomenal