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Tuesday, March 4, 2014


Those of you who read the comments posted on this blog will have noticed that Chris, who is among the most of the regular commentators, can be counted on to call me to account for my lapses from radical Marxist purity.  I welcome Chris' comments, which I find intelligent and stimulating and provocative.  I figure if I am not willing to have people take swings at me, I ought not to hang myself up in cyberspace as a piñata.  Chris' latest animadversion was provoked by my recommendation that readers take a look at Paul Krugman's blog.  He and I had the following exchange:


Chris:  I don't mean this in a hostile sense, but I cannot fathom how one can appreciate a Keynesian blog, when one is a Marxist in economics. Marx shows in Vol II and III that consumer consumption is the pinnacle of economic health.

Me:  Oh come on ! I admire Smith and Ricardo, I think Keynes' insights were valuable, I read and enjoyed Michael Oakeshott, as well as Max Weber and Emile Durkheim and Karl Mannheim, none of whom was a Marxist. I do not think Marx would have considered Krugman a "vulgar economist," his term for the time-servers who made lousy arguments offering ideological rationalizations of capitalism [not ever a term he applied to Smith and Ricardo, by the way.]

Chris: I think that analogy is not quite correct. Or, at the very least, It's not addressing what I meant. I'll confess I was not clear, so I shall clarify.   I too enjoy many of the authors you've mentioned, and appreciate their insights, but so far as I can tell, those authors were developing theory, whereas - the few times I've read Krugman's blog and the MANY times I've read his NYTimes op-eds - Krugman is applying an already developed theory to particular problems. And it's in that regard that I can't quite fathom why one would enjoy his writing. In the same sense that if one applied Lamarckianism every few weeks to breakthroughs in biological science, the insights would be unfulfilling and incorrect, albeit reading about the development of Lamarckian theory is quite fascinating.  On the off chance you've never read it, Michael Roberts has a fan[ta]stic Marxist economics blog, that wrestles with current events. As does Richard Wolff.


This exchange raises some interesting and important questions, I think, for all that it may sound to many like really inside baseball.  The first question is political, the second intellectual or theoretical.  I think Chris is mostly interested in the latter, but since a number of his previous comments have raised the former, I will discuss them both.

The political question is this:  In our efforts to change our corner of the world, to push it in a more progressive direction, even in a truly transformative direction, should we or should we not make on-going alliances with all those who are, generally speaking, more to the left than to the right in American politics?  I believe we should, indeed that we must if we want to accomplish anything at all.  I sense, though he has never said so, that Chris would disagree.  [Look back at his repeated excoriation of me for supporting Obama.]  My belief has two roots or sources.  The first is my pained awareness, reinforced by a long life of disappointments, that in this country there are precious few people who share my view of the world to such a degree that I can comfortably call them comrades.  Since I do not for a moment believe that a transformation in America can be carried out by a "vanguard," a cabal, a tightly knit band of political warriors [nor does Chris, I suspect], I am left to look for alliances, however hedged round with contradictions, that number in the scores of millions, not in the scores. 

The second source of my willingness to make alliances with those who do not share many, if any, of my deeply held convictions is my awareness that I have led and still lead a privileged life far removed from the material want and social, political, and police threats that make the lives of so many in this country miserable.  I believe that it would be inappropriate, indeed intolerable, for me, from my perch of privilege, to judge that incremental improvements in the lives of others are not worth fighting for because they do not constitute genuine revolution.  So I supported Obama, because he was clearly, in my view, superior to McCain and Romney.  So, too, I supported Gore, and if it comes to that, I will support Hilary Clinton.  Is it really for me to say "a pox on both their houses" and to tell those who have just lost their unemployment insurance that they must make do to preserve my ideological purity?  I think not.

The second question raised by the exchange between Chris and me is theoretical or intellectual.  How can I find anything of interest in Paul Krugman's blog when he interprets the world from a theoretical perspective that I think is mistaken?  That is a really interesting question, and it deserves a longer answer than I can provide here, but let me sketch my response.  The analogy to Lamarck, though witty, is, I think, not apt.  By the way, with this post, you might take a look at the piece called "Envy versus Anger" that Krugman posted yesterday.

Perhaps I can make my point succinctly [and in a way that Chris might find sympatico] by a reference to the famous Allegory of the Cave in Plato's Republic.  You will recall that Socrates asks us to imagine a cave in which there sit, chained to the floor, a number of people who stare at a wall illuminated by the light from a fire.  A parapet obscures the lower part of the wall, and behind the parapet, between the fire and the wall, servants carry objects, whose shadows are thrown on the wall as they are moved from one side of the cave to the other.  These shadows are all that the chained observers see, and they devote an inordinate amount of time to trying to guess which shadows will appear next.  We may call these shadow guessers economists.  Over time, some of them become quite skilled at anticipating which sequence of shadows.  We may think of these especially expert trackers of shadows as neo-classical economists, among whom are disciples of one of the best guessers ever to come along, an old shadow guesser named John Maynard Keynes.  One of the chained shadow watchers grows suspicious of this endless show.  He manages to free himself from his chains and laboriously makes his way out of the cave into the where he discovers, brightly illuminated by the light of reason, the real objects that lie behind the shadows.  He rushes back into the cave to tell his fellows what he has seen, but despite the eloquence of his reports, they laugh at him and go back to their shadow guessing, for which they have become famous and well remunerated.  We may call this dissenter from the regime of the shadows Karl Marx.

If one has listened to Marx, why on earth spend one's time listening to Krugman?  Why read the writings of even the best of the shadow guessers?

Well, this is a bit complicated, and it is here that the analogy with Lamarck breaks down.  Marx insisted that we must understand "the laws of motion of capitalist economy" not only in order the better to predict their supercession by the laws of socialism, but also because we live, unavoidably, in the realm of appearances in which those laws rule, at least for the present.  Unlike Lamarck, who was just wrong about the inheritance of acquired characteristics, economists like Krugman really are quite good at figuring out what makes things tick in a capitalist economy.  They may not think that capitalism ought to be replaced by socialism.  They might not even think that is possible [I cannot quite tell about Krugman, by the way].  But they can provide a useful guide to such matters as the probable effect on the economy of regulation of the financial sector or a higher minimum wage. And -- this is the important point -- if you agree with my answer to the first question discussed above, if you choose to try to make incremental changes in the world as it presents itself to us, then the insights of a Krugman are extremely useful.  Plato, you will recall, with a sorrowful irony, acknowledges that the lone escapee from the regimen of the cave may, when he returns, be a less accurate guide to the succession of the shadows than those who still believe they are the only reality.

So, Chris, that is how I can appreciate a Keynesian blog when I am a Marxist in economics.


Charles-Maxime Panaccio said...

Dear Professor Wolff.

First let me thank you for the blog and everything else. You've been a light and an inspiration.

Now, perhaps the gap between you two can be narrowed, since it has been suggested (half-seriously) that Krugman may slowly be moving towards Marx. Hence the apparition of the hashtag #RedKugmanRising on Twitter. Apparently, Krugman's references to Michal Kalecki are one clue. Another would be his move from Princeton to CUNY... And Krugman has said before that he has radicalized since his younger days. So he may be getting there...

Chris said...

I e-mailed Wolff a response to this post. I leave it to his discretion to respond, or not.

Chris said...

By the way, to the best of my memory when Krugman was asked if he would be on board with socialism, he said that his socialist supporters would be upset to learn how conservative he really is.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

This was my point. If we do not want to join forces with the Paul Krugmans of this world, what earthly hope do we have of putting a coalition together that can move the country to the left? Unless you are planning violent revolution or are waiting for the heavens to fall, you are going to have to work with people whose political orientation is to the right of Krugman, let alone with Krugman.

Chris said...

It's quite simple. Yes I agree with Krugman on his conclusions (regarding progressive reform), I just disagree with the premises that lead to those conclusions, and consider them to be demonstrably false. So we will join forces until those premises are in conflict. But, I also think that so long as we operate under false premises, we will have 'unforeseen' outcomes, that are only foreseeable with the right theoretical premises (e.g., yes let's raise wages, but let's expect the rate of profit to fall, don't expect a healthy economy).

I really think I'm being either pigeonholed or made into a strawman...

Magpie said...

A question for Chris (I am not taking sides in your discussion, btw, I am just trying to understand your position.).

Chris, you state:

"... I cannot fathom how one can appreciate a Keynesian blog, when one is a Marxist in economics. Marx shows in Vol II and III that consumer consumption is the pinnacle of economic health."

I am little confused by the paragraph above. Keynes emphasized consumer demand as determinant of business cycle fluctuations (as Krugman does, btw). If "consumer consumption is the pinnacle of economic health" in Marx's Capital, as you said, then wouldn't that meant that both thoughts are close (at least on this subject)?

Then, wouldn't that mean that Keynesianism is not necessarily incompatible with Marxism?

Chris said...

Awful typo. I meant is 'NOT' the pinnacle of consumer health.

As I understand Marx, the Keynesian impetus to increase wages would actually hurt the amount of value that could be produced and would thus lead to a fall in the rate of profit (presuming many other variables are held equal).

Here's a short blog article on why these two people are not compatible.

Magpie said...

@ Chris,

Thanks for that!