My brief and quite obviously humorous post yesterday elicited no fewer than twenty comments, not counting my own response to one of them. Perhaps I should say a few words by way of explanation.
In her scattershot and rather ebullient posts, Anonymous says at one point “Theory is good, beautiful, and easy. The hard part is to implement in the world a vision that both lifts the people economically and gives rise to beauty, thought, progress, knowledge, lively political conversations, freedom, and a truly better future.” [I say “her” because I cannot tell from the post Anonymous’ gender, and the constraints of proper English require me to make some assumption. If I am wrong he can correct me.]
I could not agree more with her sentiment, and indeed I believe I have said as much several times in this space, though perhaps not so eloquently. Why then do I write about theory? I might reply, as Kierkegaard did in the Preface to Philosophical Fragments: “When Philip threatened to lay siege to the city of Corinth, and all its inhabitants hastily bestirred themselves in defense, some polishing weapons, some gathering stones, some repairing the walls, Diogenes seeing all of this hurriedly folded his mantle about him and began to roll his tub zealously back and forth through the streets. When he was asked why he did this he replied that he wished to be busy like the rest, and rolled his tub lest he be the only idler among so many industrious citizens.” Kierkegaard adds, “Such conduct is at any rate not sophistical, if Aristotle be right in describing sophistry as the art or making money.”
At Hampshire College in Massachusetts forty years ago or so, I gave a talk the thrust of which was that Philosophers had hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, whereas the point was to change it [a sentiment I lifted from Marx, needless to say.] A student raised his hand and asked, “So why then do you write books?” My response was no more than a prosaic version of Kierkegaard’s poetic vision. “Social change requires many people doing many different things,” I replied. “Some people organize protests, some people raise money, some people hand out fliers, some people lock arms and sit down to block traffic. I write books. It is not by any stretch of the imagination the most important task, but it has some utility, and I am good at it, so that is what I do.”
Now a word about CAPITAL. Marx, like Jesus [and equally unfairly, I might add], has been burdened with responsibility for the inhumanities perpetrated in his name. But Marx had nothing to say about the Bolshevik Revolution, which occurred fifty years after the publication of CAPITAL, nor did he offer comments on the Chinese Peasant Revolt thirty-two years further on, or the Cuban Revolution, yet thirteen years further still. He did, on the other hand, have an enormous amount to say about the economic theories of his European predecessors. Indeed, if we consider Volumes One, Two, and Three, and throw in the three volumes of the THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE, one might reasonably conclude that he had more to say about the economic theories of his predecessors than about anything else. Anonymous may find theory easy as well as good and beautiful, but Marx did not think so, and he devoted much of his time in CAPITAL to struggling with it.
As I see it, Marx dealt with, among others, three big theoretical issues in CAPITAL. The first was a problem recognized by Ricardo, namely that prices are proportional to labor values only when all sectors employ equal proportions of direct and embodied labor. Marx believed he had a solution to that problem, but surprisingly he put off stating his solution until Volume III.
The second issue, dealt with immediately in Chapter One of Volume One, was Marx’s very important recognition that it is abstract socially necessary labor and not ordinary concrete labor that is at stake when one makes claims about the relation of prices to labor values or the distinction between necessary labor and surplus labor. Marx’s intuitions here are spot on and mathematically very sophisticated, for all that he lacked the formalism to express them precisely.
The third issue, which goes to the heart of his central theory of exploitation, was that his predecessors were unable to explain why there is any profit at all in a fully realized competitive capitalist economy. The first six chapters of CAPITAL are devoted to generating this problem, refuting the feeble explanations of his predecessors, and then presenting his solution, which turns essentially on the distinction, introduced by Marx, between labor power and labor.
My view is that Marx’s solution to Ricardo’s problem is brilliant and almost right. His treatment of the second issue is dead right. And his solution to the third problem is wrong, even though Marx’s most important inference from that solution is in fact correct, namely that Capitalism rests essentially on capitalists’ exploitation of workers, regardless of how enlightened, well-meaning, and woke they are.
I shall endeavor to communicate all of that to my students.