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Wednesday, February 14, 2018


With the third lecture up on YouTube and gathering views, my mind naturally has turned to Lecture Four.  There will however be a one week hiatus, because early tomorrow I fly to the west coast for a gathering of my entire extended family:  my big sister Barbara, my two sons Patrick and Tobias, my daughter-in-law Diana, and my two grandchildren Samuel and Athena.  I return late Monday, so the next lecture on Marx will be on February 26th.  This gives me time to mull over a fundamental problem I face for which there is no natural solution.

As I indicated at the end of Lecture Three, I will now turn to Capital itself, and my first task is to answer the complex and deeply important question: Why did Marx write that way?  I have, I believe, an entirely new and important answer, in the explication of which I must engage in a literary critical analysis of the opening chapters of the book.  Not a problem, you may say.  But I have no reason to believe that either the twenty or so people in the room or the many more viewers in the Cloud have ever read Volume I of Capital.  Imagine carrying out a deep literary analysis of The Brothers Karamazov or Moby Dick for an audience that has never read the book! 

I can read passages aloud, of course, but there is a limit to how much of that people will put up with.  What to do?  I am struggling with the answer, and in a week and a half you will be able to see whether I have handled this problem.

Now I must stop blogging, because it is time for me to sign in exactly twenty-four hours before my flight with Southwest to get my number in the boarding queue.


Anonymous said...

This seems like something probably best left out of the main YouTube lectures and perhaps addressed separately, for those interested, in an essay or supplementary video

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But I cannot do that because my literary interpretation is an integral part of my interpretation of Marx's theory. I cannot treat it as ancillary. That is the entire point of these lectures!

Michael said...

I don’t think that a close reading of one or two passages would be a problem. Picking exemplary passages and taking them apart is what literature scholars have been doing for ages. Some have possibly even done it with Capital (I know Frederic Jameson has a book on vol.1, for example).

Michael said...

Also, you can have the passages on screen via power point, to help the audience

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Michael, how do I put the passages on screen via PowerPoint? How do I [or Alex Campbell, who is handling this] integrate them into the video? This sounds interesting.

LFC said...

I'm not a user of Power Point, but there may be a few different options.

I believe if you put the passages in a Word document (or some other kind of text file) there is a way to enlarge those and put them on a screen. It may involve something as old-fashioned as transparencies.

Anyway, to anyone with some technical expertise in these matters, of whom there must be many in Chapel Hill, it won't be a hard problem. Lecturers do this sort of thing all the time.

And having the words on a screen probably will be useful even to those of us who have read Capital vol. 1.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I will look into it. Thanks.

s. wallerstein said...

In any case, please publish the passages in your blog too, for those of us who can't always be paying attention to the computer screen while we listen to the lectures. That way we can read the text in the blog later if necessary. Thanks.

LFC said...

Just finished watching lecture 3.

You said at the end that Marx realized that Ricardo's labor theory of value didn't work, but Marx assumed in Capital vol. 1 that it did work, because he wanted to get at a deeper problem. My comment on that is that it would have been helpful to readers if Marx had said that *explicitly* in vol. 1. But no doubt there is some reason, or at least some arguable reason, he didn't.

To be candid, I didn't find the presentation of the equations in the lecture all that helpful (high school math was a long time ago), so I guess if I'm curious enough about this I should look at your 'Understanding Marx'.

But in general I don't really understand how making up numbers for these quantities and plugging them into a system of equations, and then solving them, can prove or disprove Ricardo's view that "the natural price" of a good is determined by the amount of direct and indirect labor required for its production. First, a good's "natural price" -- which, according to your explanation, is the average price at which a good tends to sell once day-to-day market fluctuations are ironed out -- can only be determined empirically, it seems to me. And assigning the price of corn the number 1 and getting the relative "corn prices" for goods isn't very satisfying, because what one is interested in is the actual "natural price" that people are paying in the marketplace over time (assuming, for the sake of argument, that a commodity indeed has a "natural price" in Ricardo's sense).

As for the amount of labor, direct and indirect, required for a good, that seems to me also an empirical question. Marx's notion of "socially necessary labor time" implicitly recognizes as much, b/c it assumes that, if you want to know the amount of labor time required for good X, you have to go out in the world and find the average time under average conditions of production required for good X. And btw, it's not just that different industries are more labor-intensive or more capital-intensive; in the contemporary economy particular sites of production in the same industry can be more or less labor-intensive. At least I would assume, for instance, that a steel factory in China does not necessarily have the same mix of labor-intensive and capital-intensive production as a steel factory in the U.S. Basically the same commodity -- 'finished' (or whatever the right word is) steel -- but somewhat different production processes.

Well, I'm fairly sure this comment hasn't shed much light on anything except possibly the degree of its author's confusion and/or ignorance, but so be it.

s. wallerstein said...


As you know, when Marx wrote Capital, there only were steel factories (or any kind of factories) in the U.K., the U.S., France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and maybe Austria-Hungary.

We know that one thing that Marx admired in the U.K. were the statistics on production, etc., which means (I guess) that he found it hard to find statistics for other countries.

So the problem that you pose about the difference between U.S. and Chinese steel production did not really arise for Marx. I think that Marx basically studied capitalism in Great Britain.

LFC said...

s. wallerstein,

Point taken.

However, I was making a comment less on Marx than on how one might go about attempting to validate or invalidate the theory that the prices of goods are proportional to the amount of direct or indirect labor embodied in them -- the Ricardian theory of the determination of 'natural price' by labor (or labor time). And I was suggesting, perhaps naively, that one way to do this might be to take a bunch of commodities, try to determine their 'natural prices' over a year, say, then try to determine the amount of average labor, direct and indirect, embodied in them, and then see whether, in fact, the prices over a year are indeed proportional to the embodied labor (direct and indirect) in the goods. Whether the complexity of most markets, and their lack of purely competitive character, in most contemp. economies would even allow this kind of rough test, I have no idea.

The LTOV is not a logic problem; it's a theory about how things are in the world. In principle, things in the world either are that way, or they aren't. So why not try to see if they are that way?

Ok, I think I've displayed my primitiveness and lack of grasp enough for one evening.

s. wallerstein said...


I guess there should be a form of empirical testing of the labor theory of value, unless
you claim (I don't think that Marx claims this, but surely, others have) that there is a "real" and "rational" economic value which is not equivalent to the price within a capitalist system, because capitalism is a form of mass alienation which makes it impossible for alienated people to perceive and calculate the real and rational economic value of things (which is determined by labor time).

LFC said...

Completely unrelated to the preceding discussion:

I've commented a couple of times on this blog about the Statistical Abstract of the U.S. and today in a library I discovered something I hadn't known: after the Census Bureau stopped publishing it in 2011, a private company, ProQuest, took it over. So if you're in a library that subscribes to it, you can still a find on the reference shelf a thick hardcover volume called Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 2018 (the latest vol., actually published in Dec. 2017), albeit now put out not by the US Govt but by a private company. (On the basis of a 2-minute perusal, it seems they've tried to maintain the same kind of format, but that's only an impression.)

Robert Vienneau said...

Marx did say explicitly in Capital, volume 1, that average prices are not labor values:

"From the foregoing investigation, the reader will see that this statement only means that the formation of capital must be possible even though the price and value of a commodity be the same; for its formation cannot be attributed to any deviation of the one from the other. If prices actually differ from values, we must, first of all, reduce the former to the latter, in other words, treat the difference as accidental in order that the phenomena may be observed in their purity, and our observations not interfered with by disturbing circumstances that have nothing to do with the process in question. We know, moreover, that this reduction is no mere scientific process. The continual oscillations in prices, their rising and falling, compensate each other, and reduce themselves to an average price, which is their hidden regulator. It forms the guiding star of the merchant or the manufacturer in every undertaking that requires time. He knows that when a long period of time is taken, commodities are sold neither over nor under, but at their average price. If therefore he thought about the matter at all, he would formulate the problem of the formation of capital as follows: How can we account for the origin of capital on the supposition that prices are regulated by the average price, i. e., ultimately by the value of the commodities? I say 'ultimately,' because average prices do not directly coincide with the values of commodities, as Adam Smith, Ricardo, and others believe."

This is a footnote in chapter 5.

Robert Vienneau said...

But empirically, prices tend to be proportional to labor values. The National Income and Product Accounts give one Leontief input-output matrices, from which one can calculate labor values, to compare with prices. Surprisingly, the theory has been shown to work well in a body of literature explaining this.

I was surprised by my results confirming this.

LFC said...

@ R. Vienneau

Thanks -- that's helpful/interesting.

LFC said...

p.s. I'm vaguely aware of something in Marxist economics called 'the transformation problem', which maybe the lectures will address at some point... though I'm guessing not.

Matt said...

LFC - interesting about Proquest - I think they are the company that "publishes" all PhD dissertations in the US. I once got a royalties check for something like $15 when someone bought a copy of my dissertation. Alas, my dreams of retiring on the money didn't pan out, as that seems to have been the only copy sold.

On the transformation problem, and other topics, a handy resource for those following the lectures might be the volume on Marxian Economics in the now not super new series, The New Palgrave Encyclopedia of Economic Thought. That's here:,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch Sometimes you can find cheap copies, though not right now. There's a 5 page or so article on the transformation problem, and many other relevant topics, mostly written in a fairly straight-forward way. I've found nearly all of the volumes useful from time to time.

s. wallerstein said...

For those who like myself had no idea what the transformation problem is and are satisfied with a short explanation:

LFC said...

thanks for the ref. (and yes it's the same ProQuest).