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Monday, February 4, 2013


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.


JCE said...

thank you for this post! what i like most about it is how it stresses the importance of self education and hard work. i have discovered that the best way to learn something (at least for me it was)is to study by myself, and that this process can sometimes take long.
sometimes i think that i 'learned how to learn' when it was too late, though. i hope not, but in any case it's nice to see how self education was crucial for others too

Chris said...

Dr. Wolff,
I hope you don't mind two interjections.
First, I know you and other thinkers want to divorce Marx from his hegaltius, but I do in fact think he caught the germ and is probably the better for it. I am curious though how you can say he didn't suffer from hegalitus in Capital, when he opens the book admitting that he "flirted" with Hegel's method in the chapters on value, and has taken to standing Hegel on his head. Not to mention, if one reads the Phenemenology of Spirit, or Hegel's Logic, it's quite clear that the same abstruse form of 'reasoning' is carried out in Marx's works (i.e., the dozen or so pages between a premise and a conclusion); both early works and old.

Second, I've read a few biographies myself and although a few paint Marx as a general prick, others don't. My general impression is that he was much like Chomsky in his time. If you've ever seen Chomsky debate, or deal with fellow 'intellectuals,' he's completely ruthless, and if he thinks they are telling miss-truths he will eviscerate them. But if he's talking to an 'average joe,' he's beyond considerate, patient, and tolerant. The biographies of Marx that I've read suggest the same. To Proudhoun, Bakunin, and others, he was vile and had no patience for their intellectual meanderings, but if it was to fellow workers, or his family, he was always gracious with his time.

Two biographies somewhat make this clear, one is by Francis Wheen, and the other is the most recent one titled Love and Capital by Mary Gabriel.

Having read The Poverty of Philosophy, I know Marx can be a prick, but having read other books as well, it's clear he can be warm-heated too.

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

Along the lines of Hegel's appearance in the late works, this essay by Enrique Dussel, one of the world's foremost marxologists:,%20Schelling%20and%20Surplus-Value.pdf

Will said...

One quibble: if you found clarity and simplicity in David Ricardo, you must have read a different Ricardo than I did.

LFC said...

I'm rather tired at the moment, but this series of posts is interesting and I hope to return to them when fresher.

I also hope, perhaps somewhat selfishly (for lack of a better word), that in the course of these posts you will re-state your answer to the question "why did Marx write that way?", so that those of us who haven't read 'Moneybags' will nonetheless have your answer.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

LFC, that is coming up, but first I must talk economics.

Magpie said...

Prof. Wolff

"I even spent time studying the history of the development of index numbers and made a fruitful foray into the theory of Financial Accounting."

I found this reference to financial accounting quite intriguing, and, for my own reasons, I also found financial accounting very relevant.

Do you use accounting notions in Understanding Marx? (I am afraid I haven't read the book, yet, as it's currently out of print).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Magpie, I use it in my paper "The Future of Socialism," which is archived on

I am going to see whether I can make that Marx book available.

Magpie said...

A lot to think about, particularly in the second part of the article (Why aren't we having fun yet?).

As by character I am a pessimist, perhaps I am unduly inclined to accept your views.

It may well happen that the baby was aborted while still in the mother's womb; it remains to be seen whether the mother will survive the miscarriage.