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Tuesday, June 2, 2015


I have on many occasions written disdainfully of Paul Krugman and his fellow macroeconomists, comparing them to the shadow guessers chained to the floor of the cave in Plato’s famous allegory from The Republic.  My principal complaint against them is that they never confront the central question of capitalism, which is, Why do we need capitalists?  Today, I should like to give the devil his due.  It seems to me, upon reflection, that a socialist government would have need of the accumulated knowledge, insight, and skill of the best of the macroeconomists, and my guess is that they, or their students, would be more than happy to oblige.  Let me explain.

I begin, as I have on several occasions before, with a pregnant passage from Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, published in 1859, eight years before Volume One of Capital appeared:

No social order disappears before all of the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material components of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.

Marx was, of course, thinking of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, a subject that he studied extensively and to which he made enormously important contributions.  But I think it is fair to say that he thought the proposition applied to the transition from capitalism to socialism as well.  In my essay “The Future of Socialism,” written while sitting in a café in Place de la Bastille eight years ago, I undertook to examine the changes wrought within private capitalist enterprises as they grow larger and internalize, through horizontal or vertical integration, some of the interactions previously regulated by the market.  I concluded that for reasons internal to the nature of the choices confronting managers, quasi-political decision-making replaces decision making regulated solely by market signals.  I argued that the elements of socialist planning are indeed growing in the womb of capitalism.  [Once again, I will point out that the essay is archived at, accessible via the link at the top of this blog.]  This argument was, in effect, microeconomic, if I may use the standard categories of modern professional economics.  Today I extend my analysis to macroeconomic questions.

What would a genuine socialist economy and society emerging from the last stages of capitalism look like?  The simple answer is, it would look very much like the capitalism that preceded it, with certain essential and fundamental differences.  To be sure, the means of production would be collectively owned and managed by representatives of the people as a whole, for social purposes democratically chosen.  But the organization of productive activities and their coordination would look very much like modern advanced capitalism.

Let us be quite clear.  The society would not be a network of little collective farms and artisanal craft shops in which individuals swap their products without the intermediation of money.  That is, no doubt, a happy fantasy for upper middle class professionals or aging kibbutzniks, but it has nothing to do with the way most persons would carry on their economic activities.  Lest anyone still be in the grip of this sort of fantasy, let me suggest a thought experiment.  Ask yourself how people would go about constructing an MRI machine capable of scanning for possible cancerous tumors in the lungs [I assume that in socialism, people would still get cancer.]  Think of the various materials from which an MRI machine is constructed, and the materials from which those materials are produced, and so on and on.  Think of the transistors, the printed circuits, the imaging hardware and software, the metal frame in which the MRI machine rests, and think as well of the accumulated knowledge and skill all built into the machine, as it were.  Now ask yourself how a society of seven or eight billion people worldwide would manage efficiently and effectively to create and produce all of that and get it where it is needed, when it is needed, efficiently and with as little cost in labor time and materials as possible.  Multiply that one selected thought experiment by all the other thought experiments required to explain how the hundreds of thousands of other goods and services would be produced efficiently in appropriate quantities and delivered efficiently where needed.  Local farmers’ markets are not going to cut it!

The central planning board [call it a government if you wish, or not, if you prefer, but under some name or other it will have to exist] would be faced with a wide array of important questions.  What will be the effect elsewhere in the economy of decision to divert resources to well-designed, well-constructed low cost housing?  What rate of growth of the economy as a whole should be set as a target by the planning agencies?  What adjustments in planning are called for by shifts in the demographic composition of the population?  What would be the direct and indirect consequences of reducing the work week to thirty-five hours?  How will a decision to establish generous family leave for both new fathers and new mothers alter projected growth rates?

These, and countless other questions to which the planning board would require answers are essentially macroeconomic questions, and the simple fact is that there are many very smart economists who are good at figuring out how to answer them.  It is my impression that the Paul Krugmans of this world are as enchanted by the sheer intellectual challenge of these questions as they are driven by ideological biases regarding the answers.  I would bet that a socialist planning board that offered employment, tenure, and prizes to those interested in economics would have no problem staffing its Theoretical Planning College with bright young things as happy to serve their socialist masters as they are now to serve their capitalist masters. 

In this, as in all else, the material components of the new higher relations of production are maturing in the womb of the old society.



Jim Westrich said...

I have been reading Piketty and I was struck about how little I think of Marx while reading. I had glanced at a view reviews (including yours which I did not read too intently as I wanted to read it eventually). I was struck how much the work is fairly clear-headed (although some will argue wrong as well as clear) rework of macroeconomics. While going through parts 1 and 2 of the book that this would be a nice empirically driven macro that does not force one to learn traditional macro assumptions that are just placeholders for old unproven ideological placeholders (btw, mainstream economics has perfectly smart people that can fit nearly any set of facts to fairly consistent ideological goals).

It seemed to me that Piketty's claim of long-run substitution of capital for labor was noteworthy while reading it. Then I did a quick search of blogs and such and see that this is the avenue that many/most critics used. I think outside of the context of adherence to various ideologies most people would argue for long-run elasticity of capital and labor being greater than one but yet this undermines key things a variety of different people want to say (and it undermines some great empirical work, Arrow/Solow, as well) so it becomes a point of contention.

Anyway, while I realize that Piketty's Capital is about wealth distribution, it seems to me that a lot of the macro economic underpinnings and implications are the lasting issues with the work. While I want to stress I am no position to judge all the empirical and theoretical validity of the macro relations discussed in the book, it is very clear to me how contentious macro theory is and how deep the implications for very small differences in theory/reading data.

I have no doubt of the importance of this post but the technical agreement necessary to get progressive and socialist results out of economy are just as daunting in Macroeconomics as they are in any other discipline. I say this as sometimes people (definitely me as well) think that there is enough technical agreement to make progress easy(a simple technical argument about the substitution of capital and labor in the long-run may seem arcane but there are people who would use Piketty's conclusion to say labor deserves LESS of a share as it would distort the inevitable capital substitution).

Chris said...

Alex Callinicos and Paul Krugman just had a debate on alternatives to capitalism. Callinicos is chairman of the UK's Socialist Workers Party, and a professor at King College London (he's written at least a dozen very good Marxian books - and he's an unabashed orthodox Marxist). Anyway, when the debate is finally online for viewing I'll send it to you, and/or post it in a comments section.

Apparently Callinicos got Krugman to admit that he doesn't have an actual theory of capitalism as a unique mode of production.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I can't wait to see it. Thank you.

Anonymous Coward said...

Dear Professor Wolff:

Since large corporate bureaucracies have emerged in the womb of the global neoliberal order to manage economic production, would not a future in which they completely controlled all economic production be rigidly hierarchical - they are bureaucracies, after all. I say this as a former member of a collectively owned small business which, despite its egalitarian rhetoric, retained bureaucratic relations of subordination.

classtruggle said...

Any thoughts on the letter Marx wrote in 1881 to Vera Zasulich, an important follower and revolutionary emigre, that addresses similar questions and issues outlined by Professor Wolff here? The letter, I think, contrary to what so many critics and introductory texts on Marx claim, shows that Marx denied that his theories have determinate predictive implications for the development of capitalism and by extension, socialism in Russia. In this letter, Marx went on to suggest agrarian Russia's communal villages could be a starting point for a socialist transformation; one that could potentially avoid the harsh process of primitive accumulation, however Russia would still need connections to Western technology and above all, connections with the labour movements there. He also added that in Western Europe, the transition from feudal to capitalist property was the transformation of one form of private property into another form of private property whereas capitalist development in Russia would require peasants to transform their communal property into private property.

The letter can be found here:

Before Marx died in 1883 at the age of 64, he never published any of the findings of his new research into non-Western and precapitalist societies (not counting a short preface to an 1882 Russian edition of the CM co authored with Engels). But he was clearly interested in alternate pathways of socialist development. After all, the (unsuccessful) 1848 revolutions were long in the past and the Paris Commune was violently repressed in 1871. And no militant working class struggles existed in the more developed capitalist countries at the time, namely Britain, Germany and France.

Magpie said...


Count me among those interested in that Callinicos vs Krugman debate.

As it happens, upon reading Keynes and the endless debates Keynesians have among themselves, I'm convinced Keynes never really had a theory of crisis. For him, slumps start with a shock in aggregate demand, that's it. What causes that shock? Beyond waving hands and mumbling "paradox of thrift", "fable of the bees" and "Animal Spirits" most Keynesians have nothing to add.

With those who do have something, things are worse: Animal Spirits become the Confidence Fairy.

Yes. Ironically enough, Animal Spirits and the Confidence Fairy are the two sides of the same coin. So, Animal Spirits both act as a fig-leaf to cover the lack of a theory of crisis, and it also provides an argument against stabilization policies.

How do you like it?


Check Krugman's "The Case of the Missing Minsky", where he writes about closely related matters.

classtruggle said...

Chris, it is funny you mention Callinicos. We recently discussed in one of our reading group meetings a claim Callinicos makes in one of his books, namely that Georg Lukacs, Theodor Adorno and Louis Althusser were "the most outstanding Marxist philosophers of the [20th] century." I first thought to myself 'imagine that, a man who had electric shock treatment in his youth, suffered persistent mental illness, was hostile to the student and workers' revolt in 1968 and ended up strangling his own wife to death, claiming he did not know what he was doing, as one of the most outstanding Marxists.' I am, of course, referring to Althusser who was marketed by rich boy Perry Anderson and New Left Books in Britain and the United States, as the latest thing in Marxism. Eventually, in the 1970s Althusser became very influential in the social sciences and humanities worldwide but was he a fraud? That became the focus of our discussion. In his own memoirs, Althusser somewhat boasts openly that his academic success was based on gossiping and plagiarism, and that in reality he knew very little about Marx:

"In fact my philosophical knowledge of texts was rather limited. I was very familiar with Descartes and Malebranche, knew a little Spinoza, nothing about Aristotle, the Sophists and the Stoics, quite a lot about Plato and Pascal, nothing about Kant, a bit about Hegel, and finally a few passages of Marx which I had studied closely. My way of picking up and then really getting to know philosophy was legendary: I used to enjoy saying it was all done by 'hearsay' (the first confused form of knowledge according to Spinoza). I learnt from Jacques Martin who was cleverer than me by gleaning certain phrases in passing from my friends, and lastly from the seminar papers and essays of my own students. In the end, I naturally made it a point of honour and boasted that 'I learnt by hearsay'. This distinguished me quite markedly from all my university friends who were much better informed than me, and I used to repeat it by way of paradox and provocation, to arouse astonishment, incredulity, and admiration (!) in other people, to my great embarrassment and pride." - Louis Althusser, The future lasts forever: a memoir. New York: The New Press, 1992, pp. 165-166."

But in the final analysis, it is ad hominem to take his mental state, murder of his wife, and ruminations about his way of working/thinking as the basis for dismissal. It is the work that one does that has to be the basis of the judgement. Admissions that his reading of Marx was rather lacking can be used, but in the end, it is still the work that has to assessed.

My bias may be obvious; I never thought that Althusser was worth studying, and I have not spent much time reading him (Adorno and Lukacs are overrated as well I think). But Althusser deserves some credit, for shifting Marxism out of the Stalinist mold. One has to remember that in the 1950s and early 60s, Marxism was as vulgar and as Stalinist as you can imagine, and completely stuck within the confines of the Stalinist CPs.

His notions of relative autonomy and overdetermination, however were key to the de-Stalinisation that takes place in Marxist studies in the 60s. More than this, I would not venture an opinion because it was long ago that I read these post-war Marxist works. Neo-Marxism after WWI has a lot going for it but the CP clamped down on this as Stalin put his imprint on the theory. His notion of the 'early' humanist Marx and the later 'scientific' Marx was a load of rubbish. But good to have it articulated so as to address it.

classtruggle said...

In John Molyneux's recent book 'The Point Is To Change It' (intended to be an introduction to Marxist philosophy, one that is written in a manner that would allow most members of the working class to grasp its meaning -- something Marx thought about when he was writing CAPITAL ["accessible to the working class, a consideration which to me outweighs everything else"]), there's chapter on Lukács, Gramsci and Althusser, three thinkers who tried to develop Marx further but whose ideas many working class people never encounter because they are rarely discussed outside of university. Molyneux's cautionary note in this chapter is a good one, I think, and worth paying attention to, especially for those who are thinking about pursuing a life in academia:

"it is a vindication of one of the central themes of this book, namely the relationship between Marxist theory, revolutionary practice and working class struggle, that of our three major figures - Lukács, Gramsci and Althusser - the most useful philosophical contribution came from Gramsci, the revolutionary who had the closest involvement with actual workers in struggle, and the weakest from Althusser, who was most isolated and confined to the ivory tower."

Chris said...

I think if you replace 'most outstanding' with 'most influential', then that claim is most assuredly correct. And the reason I suggest the changing of phrase is because of your point about Althusser's status as a (possible) fraud. I wrote my undergrad honors thesis attempting to disprove his claim about there being a young and old philosophical Marx, and more importantly, that the latter disregarded a theory of alienation. I mostly think, unsurprisingly, my thesis was a success. Part of my thesis will be published in a new edition of Science and Society sometime within a year. Nevertheless your claim is important. I've spent a lot of time reading Althusser. I do think his essay on Ideology is fantastic and of the utmost importance. I hold ALL of his other writings in low esteem. There are days when I wholeheartedly consider the quotes you've provided from his autobiography to be completely true, i.e., he was passing along hearsay and never actually read much Marx, thus he was overall a charlatan. [Callinicos quotes the autobiography in his recent book ‘Deciphering Capital’, to show that when Althusser wrote ‘Reading Capital’, he hadn’t even read Capital Vol II-III!] But there are also days when - pardons to Professor Wolff, I mean no offense - I think Althusser suffered from the same affliction Wolff claims he and other academics sufferer from, i.e., although he is a real professional philosopher, he neurotically believes himself to be a fraud. I must say the same thought passes my mind before every new semester begins in which I'm obligated to teach. I think to myself, "do I really understand ANY of these thinkers? Aren't I just a halfwit who accidentally fell into this job? Won't the students catch on that I shouldn't be here?" If this is a common problem then it's difficult to know whether or not Althusser was a huckster. He did, after all, write the book during a low point in his life.

I'd love to discuss this more with you, or anyone who knows Althusser well. In my more pessimistic days I believe his theories to be wholly correct. History has no subject. Structures of capitalism will operate in dominance outside of our wills. And my subjectivity is merely an ideological construct intended to reproduce capitalist relations of production. As the machine crunches on, I’m interprelated at its behest. In my more optimistic moments, I renounce him for the Marx I know and love. But he's certainly influential, now we need to determine if it he's 'outstanding'.

[I pass in silence over Adorno, who I can't understand. And I hold in high esteem Marcuse, who combines my love of Freud with Marx. MY favorite non-Marx Marxist is Andrew Collier. Recently deceased, he deserves far more esteem and popularity than he received.]

classtruggle said...

Yes, well, the notion of a break or discontinuity was widely accepted (at least for a short period of time?) not only by Althusser but others as well. For example, in Theory and Practice (Notre Dame 1967), p. 374 Lobkowicz wrote: 'the Critique of Political Economy found in the Manuscripts is in no way a "logical consequence" of the ideas which Marx had developed in the Deutsch-Franziisische Ja hrbiicher.'

Similarly, Meszaros, in Alienation, p. 75 writes: 'In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, however, Marx makes a crucial step forward, radically superseding the
"political partiality" of his own orientation and the limitations of a conceptual framework that characterized his development in its phase of "revolutionary democratism.'" Meszaros also writes: 'Once in possession of this key [the concept of "labour's self-alienation"] that opens the doors of the Hegelian system as a whole, exposing to a comprehensive social criticism all its "secrets" and "mystifications," the laboriously [sic] detailed analysis of particular fields of this philosophy - e.g., the earlier attempted "Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right" - becomes superfluous' (19). These statements testify to Meszaros' mistaken comprehension of the continuity in Marx's work. He prefers to find an unconscious continuity rather than a conscious one.

Mandel, in The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx (London
1977), p. 158 also wrote: 'What we have here [in the manuscripts] is the transition of the
young Marx from Hegelian and Feuerbachian philosophy to the working out of historical materialism.'

And then there is Althusser's For Marx (London 1977), p. 156: 'the Manuscripts were the result of Marx's discovery of political economy.'

Lengthy discussions of this question of discontinuity are found in: Mandel's Formation, chap. 10; Meszaros, Alienation, chap. VIII; Fetscher, 'The Young Marx and the Old Marx,' in N. Lobkowicz, ed., Marx and the Western World (Notre Dame 1967).

So Althusser was not alone. But he does make other questionable claims too, for example, that even a communist society will have its ideology, imaginary representation of the real (when in fact, regardless of whether Marx is right or wrong, Marx recognised in communist society a society that is transparent to its members). Of course, Althusser does not have to agree with Marx but that is beside the point, Althussler clearly does pretend to have read in Marx the opposite of what the man actually said, and that is a form of obscurantism. But like I said, good to have it articulated so as to address it.

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