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Saturday, September 21, 2019


In some religions, there is a distinction between the exoteric doctrines taught by the priests to the faithful and the esoteric doctrine reserved for the initiates.  The question posed to the priests is when, and whether, to lift the veil and allow the masses to glimpse the sacred Mysteries.

As I prepare my next lecture, I confront a version of this dilemma.  I shall, on Tuesday, rehearse Marx’s mocking debunking of the feeble and absurd explanations given by Vulgar Economists for the existence of profit in a capitalist economy [no, it is not that the entrepreneurs live frugal lives and save, nor is it that they earn the wages of management, nor do they all somehow manage to buy cheap and sell dear].  Then I shall reveal the Word, which is that profit is but the money appearance of the surplus labor extracted from the workers.  From which it follows that:


It is a dramatic story, brilliantly told by Marx in the opening chapters of CAPITAL.  But there are secret truths, Mysteries known only to me and a tiny handful of others, truths unknown not because I have concealed them but because, alas, so few people have read the journal article in which I revealed them.

The secret truth is that Marx’s explanation of the source of profit is wrong, even though he is absolutely right that Capitalism rests on the exploitation of the Working Class.  My problem is this:  Shall I reveal this truth to my class?

Why ever not? You ask.  Considering the fortune they being charged for a Columbia education, do they not have a right to learn the Mysteries?  To be sure.  But just as the ancient Mysteries of Eleusis required fasting and mortification of the flesh, so the Mysteries of Marx require Mathematics, a mortification more painful than self-flagellation to most college students.

This dilemma has kept me up at night.


s. wallerstein said...

From my experience most people come to socialism not because they are convinced by Marx's theory of surplus value, but because it is evident to anyone with their eyes open that capitalists are screwing the workers, that they are making incredible sums of money while workers are making much much less.

After they have come to socialism, people then pick up Marx's theory of surplus value as a rational justification of their original moral choice. I doubt that in the real world many people have read all of Kapital and then opted for socialism, although probably some have. People generally read Kapital after having opted for socialism.

So from what I can see, most people opt for socialism for moral reasons or in the case of workers out of the real experience of having to live on low wages while capitalists get rich on their work.

LFC said...

One option is just to summarize your conclusion in that article, viz., "Marx's explanation of the source of profit is wrong because the owners are 'exploiting' all the inputs to the production process in much the same way, so it turns out that 'labor power' does not have the unique qualities that Marx thought made it the source of profit. One can substitute corn or iron or whatever for labor in the equations and they come out the same way. Hence the source of profit must lie elsewhere. For details on the mathematical analysis, see my article and my book Understanding Marx"

At least, I *think* this is a roughly accurate summary of the conclusions, and it's probably all most of these students need to know for the moment. Those who are really interested in this can follow up the math on their own.

LFC said...

p.s. You can also refer them to your online lectures, where you do the math.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

LFC, good thought.

Anonymous said...

I always get a chuckle at the "politics of exploitation". I agree there are "excess profits" and that the rich flaunt what their power in the marketplace and politics allow them to exploit. But the frenetic scribblers like Marx and Lenin and Mao Tsetung were busy writing about "exploitation" only to live lives that did the ultimate exploitation: they killed people.

At least capitalist profiteers don't directly kill. They starve, they cheat, they lie. But an honest worker can pick up and move on. In the "communist utopia" you don't get that option. You get a bullet in the back of the brain if you are lucky. If you are less lucky you are sent off to the gulags to make profit for the state (or in the US penitentiary system literally making pennies so that a for-profit corporation can exploit your labour).

I tire of the "religion" of politics. Too many prophets, and not enough "servants of God". Too many leaders, and not enough union organizers or just plain "good solid workers with some class consciousness". I'm showing my anarchist roots, but while ideas are delightful and enlightening, too often the purveyors of these "ideas" use them as a front to get power and then do the exact opposite of what they "preached". Trump is an excellent example. Yes, Trump, the "friend" of the working class. The guy who promised to "make America great again". Just the latest in the long line of ideologues (or in his case, short-on-intellect but long on demogogic slogans.) In short, "exploitation" is not always in the marketplace of economic transactions. Many times there is just as repulsive exploitation in the so-called "marketplace of ideas". Charlatans use clever ideas and skillful framing to lure people into panting for a utopia that will never come. The so-called exploited become exploiters once the golden-tongued radical achieves the political power he has longed for.

You've teased us about the "mysteries" of Marx. I do wish you would, at some point, spread your pearls among us plebeian swine. I do enjoy your thoughts. I may not always agree. But you are an honest man, and smart, so I'm always eager to hear what you say.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Beautifully written, Prof.

Good luck with this next lecture!

s. wallerstein said...

"At least capitalist profiteers don't directly kill".

Sure they do. I write from Chile where after a bloody coup which overthrew the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973 for 17 years the capitalist class killed, tortured and disappeared all union activists and lots of union members, all members of political parties which supported working class demands and in general, anyone who publicly questioned their authority and hegemony.

No, probably no capitalist profiteer directly bloodied his or her hands, but the links between individual capitalists and the Pinochet dictatorship are clear. In fact, a certain part of the repression against the working class immediately after the coup was carried out, not by the army or the police, but by gangs of thugs hired directly by certain capitalists. There are books on the subject, in Spanish at least, if anyone is interested.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Anonymous, I have written two books on Marx, along with six lengthy journal articles, and have posted seven lectures on Marx on YouTube. Taken together, they say as much as I know about Marx. I have also posted ten lectures on Ideological Critique on YouTube. Hardly a tease!

Anonymous said...

To S. Wallerstein: in Chile the killing was done at the behest of the US via Kissinger and the CIA as carried out by the right wing generals. (Not all generals were right wing but the majority were, just as in 1936 in Spain.) I'm sure that large elements of the elite rich in Chile cheered on the generals, but this "class" did not order the military action.

As for Professor Wolff: I've read some of your stuff and watched some videos. I generally enjoy them. But to me they are "the intellectual's Marx". A tamed version. A kinder & gentler Marx. Not the Marx that smashed the IWA. Here is Bakunin's account in his essay "On the International Workingmen's Association and Karl Marx:

One cannot commit a greater mistake than to demand more than a thing, an institution, or a man can give. By demanding more than that from them one demoralizes, impedes, perverts, and renders them totally useless for any constructive action. The International in a short time produced great results. It organized and will continue to organize ever greater masses of the proletariat for economic struggles. Does it follow from this that the proletariat can also be used as an instrument for the political struggle? Because he thought so, Mr. Marx nearly killed the International at the Hague Congress. It is the old story of the goose that laid golden eggs. At the summons to unite for the economic struggle. masses of workers from different countries hastened to join forces under the banner of the International, and Mr. Marx imagined that the masses would stay under it — what do I say? — that they would rush to join in even greater numbers, when he, the new Moses, had inscribed the commandments of his new decalogue on our banner, in the official and binding program of the International.

On another blog that I follow,, which has a lively discussion of all things climate, I enjoyed this comment at the bottom of a battle in the comments field about "socialism" and whether radicial environmentalists have a hidden "socialist" agenda to turn a country like Canada into the shambles of a "people's state" that Venezuela is:

commieBob September 21, 2019 at 6:06 am
The counter example is Bolivia. When the Bolivian socialists came to power, they worked hard to reduce the country’s debt. In Venezuela the opposite happened.

This reminds me of Saskatchewan under the CCF. The government was run by farmers, teachers, and preachers. It ran balanced budgets.

I would argue that not all socialist governments are Marxist. When there is a reasonable balance between capitalism and socialism, countries can be stable for very long periods. The killer doesn’t seem to be a bit of socialism. The killer seems to be corruption. That will drag a country into the weeds and leave it there. It may explain why Canada has a bigger GDP than Russia.

Marxist totalitarianism, on the other hand, has always been an unmitigated disaster wherever it has been tried.

That is my point. In the hands of ideologues and would-be dictators, Marxism or "socialism" or any other "save-the-people" populist with autocratic leanings lead to the same historical disasters. 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.

s. wallerstein said...


A little learning is a dangerous thing.

I've lived in Chile most of my life, and I know a lot more about Chilean history than you do.

Several days after Allende's election in 1970 Augustin Edwards, owner of el Banco Edwards (a big bank) and El Mercurio newspaper chain (the biggest media empire in Chile at the time) went to Washington and conferred with Kissinger to urge him to carry out a coup. The Chilean capitalist elite was in the conspiracy from day one (read Monica Gonzalez's excellent history of the plot behind the coup, La Conjura). The Pinochet regime faithfully carried out the class program of the Chilean rich: it was a class dictatorship with the muscle provided by the Army and the police and the brains provided by members of the Chilean capitalist class. In fact, today most historians no longer refer to it as a military dictatorship, but as a civilian-military dictatorship.

I could go on, but to be frank, there's not much point in it because you obviously have no interest in learning about realities that you don't know much about. You're trolling.

Anonymous said...

I would just do it slowly and tell them to drink coffee and pay attention. At least one of them will get it.

Matt said...

I was never more than a bit above average, at best, in math, and have not done that much since my undergrad days, other than the bits necessary for some relatively low level probability theory, game theory, logic, and set theory in classes. But, I find that, when someone who knows the math well walks me through a problem, I can typically at least understand the outlines, and understand the problem better than before. My recollection is that the math here isn't that complicated and isn't all that long. If you have time to walk the students through the problems, that might be good. If you think that will take too much time from the lecture (I know that problem well my self), then providing an easy reference to the on-line lectures or the article should suffice, as LFC suggests.

Anonymous said...

Other than to point to these two articles, whose titles are self-explanatory, I will skip the odd discussion between S. Wallerstein and Anonymous (September 21, 2019 at 1:05 PM) altogether:

Andrew Carnegie once hired a militia and converted factories into makeshift forts to battle striking workers
Labor won the battle, but management won the war.

By Meagan Day, Feb 9, 2018

The Pinkertons Still Never Sleep
The notorious union-busting agency has resurfaced in a telecommunications labor dispute, revealing how it has adapted to the 21st century.

By Sarah Jones, March 23, 2018

I point to those two articles (which I found thanks to a simple Google search) because (1) they are fairly recent, (2) S. Wallerstein was born in the US and I suppose that Anonymous was born there too, and (3) the articles refer to what I would have thought were well-known episodes in American history.

I was mistaken, evidently.


What really compels me to write is the subject of RPW's post.

Above, RPW writes:

The secret truth is that Marx’s explanation of the source of profit is wrong, even though he [i.e. Marx] is absolutely right that Capitalism rests on the exploitation of the Working Class.

From that, it seems to me, LFC (September 21, 2019 at 12:45 PM) draws the following conclusion:

One option is just to summarize your conclusion in that article, viz., "Marx's explanation of the source of profit is wrong because the owners are 'exploiting' all the inputs to the production process in much the same way, so it turns out that 'labor power' does not have the unique qualities that Marx thought made it the source of profit. One can substitute corn or iron or whatever for labor in the equations and they come out the same way. Hence the source of profit must lie elsewhere.

Although I believe LFC's conclusion is both hasty and unwarranted, I understand why he/she concludes that: others in his/her place have concluded the same.

This, I think, is what happens when people read that passage and others similar in RPW's writings: they see Marx’s explanation of the source of profit is wrong and jump to conclude what LCF concluded (or to write any random thoughts) but Marx is absolutely right that Capitalism rests on the exploitation of the Working Class remains invisible.

By now I am sure RPW knows that. In part XVII of his "The Thought of Karl Marx" he wrote (his uppercase):


With similar results, which he proceeded to rectify.

I'd respectfully suggest RPW approach this subject differently in his lectures.

-- The RED Baron

LFC said...

@Red Baron
I wasn't concluding anything. I was summarizing what I took to be RPW's conclusion.

Anonymous said...


With due respect, this is what you wrote:

One option is just to summarize your conclusion in that article, viz., "Marx's explanation of the source of profit is wrong because the owners are 'exploiting' all the inputs to the production process in much the same way, so it turns out that 'labor power' does not have the unique qualities that Marx thought made it the source of profit. One can substitute corn or iron or whatever for labor in the equations and they come out the same way. Hence the source of profit must lie elsewhere.

It is you LFC -- not RPW -- who wrote that "owners are 'exploiting' all the inputs to the production process in much the same way". In the text above RPW makes no reference whatsoever to any other input to the production process. Indeed, the term "production process" is nowhere to be found in the text above.

It is you -- not him -- who introduced those notions. You did that in your comment.


He's explained that in at least one previous occasion:


Last Part

Or, better still, RPW himself can explain again. Maybe I misinterpreted him.

Anonymous said...

To S. Wallerstein: I have no idea how much time you spent in Chile nor the depth of your study. I have no reason to doubt you. But I do have a problem with intellectuals who use "classes" and other generalized constructs in an argument. I'm OK with them for a general analysis. But when you reify the construct and think there was an actual thing called "the capitalist class" in Chile who organized the Pinochet coup then you lose me. I don't doubt that the banker you identified did what you said he did. I don't doubt other rich bastards did similar things. But I really seriously doubt this cabal had regular meeting as which they voted on when and how to pull off their putsch.

While abstractions are wonderful tools for analysis. They are deadly when intellectuals, especially politically active intellectuals confuse their constructs with flesh-and-blood people. I don't doubt there are evil people. I don't doubt that there were perhaps many evil rich people in Chile that wanted to toss out that "dangerous" socialist Allende. But you won't convince me that the "capitalist class" in Chile "ordered" the generals to revolt. (I also know many so-called "revolutionaries" are truly evil: Stalin, Mao, Lenin, and dare-I-say-it Marx were both clever people and evil.)

The only abstraction you can convince me of is that the Leninist "revolutionary vanguard" was a very real cabal which held power and really thought they "represented" the "working people" (translate "revolutionary vanguard" as Communist Central Committee). And I do believe that the Leninist mechanism of "democratic centralism" is a very effective tool for ensuring the "party line" and quashing any dissent or effort at exploring ideas. The good news is that, in the world in which I live, people not ideas are what ultimately "rule". Free debate is valued. Differences of viewpoint are useful. Insofar as you can explain exactly how the "capitalist class" in Chile ordered up a putsch, I will be an eager student. It should, however, be clear that I will be a recalcitrant student because my life experience says to me that there was no cabal called the "capitalist class" in Chile that actually existed. You are talking about a concept. The concept is real and even useful for analysis. But I won't go down the path to confuse the concept with actual people. Therefore I will never line up the "capitalist class" against a wall and shoot them. I'm afraid you might be tempted to do that because -- it appears to me -- you can't distinguish an intellectual tool from a very human fact.

By the way... you don't advance your argument by questioning the intelligence, honesty, or integrity of another party in a conversation. By saying that "a little learning is a dangerous thing" is a cute way of putting me down. I'm sure you got an ego boost from that insult. But it doesn't advance your argument. Stick to logic and facts. Leave out the personal insults.

LFC said...

Red Baron, I'm going to try to clarify what I think is going on here and then I'm off this blog for a while. I've watched RPW's lectures on Marx with some care and attention and it seems to me he (RPW) thinks that:

1) Marx was right that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.

2) But Marx was wrong about the particular mechanisms of that exploitation, at least when it comes to surplus labor as the (alleged) source of profit.

3) RPW proposes, in his article on Marx's labor theory of value, his (RPW's) own version of how he thinks exploitation occurs.

4) RPW's mathematical demonstration of point (2) boils down to showing that when you plug corn values or iron values (etc.) into the equations you get the same results as when you plug in labor values.

If you don't like my earlier summary above or think it's inaccurate, and specifically its ref to inputs into the production process and exploitation occurring "in pretty much the same way," then you can just disregard it.

The original question here was: Does RPW actually have to go through the math to convey the gist of his view to his students?, and my answer was: No he doesn't.

And btw to the other Anonymous here: The comparison of Marx to Stalin/Mao etc. is, at best, weird. Marx might not have been a particularly admirable human being in his personal life (there is some evidence that he wasn't), but he didn't kill millions of people. Indeed, I'm not aware that he killed anyone.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, there is something I’ve been wondering for a while. In fact, since 2011, when RPW posted his otherwise very didactic and clear tutorial “The Thought of Karl Marx”.

RPW adopts Piero Sraffa’s interpretation of Marx. I understand that Sraffa was a talented man. I have no doubt whatsoever he worked hard and did his honest best to interpret Marx.

I do not dispute RPW’s analysis. And I sincerely thank him his efforts.

My doubt is much more basic than that. When one concludes that every single input is exploitable and attribute that conclusion to Marx (as many Sraffians do), isn’t one we forgetting that such conclusion is, in fact, more attributable to Sraffa than to Marx? One attributes that peculiarity to Marx, but that’s only reasonable in the unstated assumption that Sraffa’s rendition is faithful.

One is fortunate to have RPW with us so as to ask him if one’s interpretation of his writing is faithful to his intention, as I did just above. In Marx’s case, one cannot do that. One has to assume Sraffa’s interpretation is not only faithful, but the best possible.

I haven’t seen anyone defending that assumption.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Marx and mathematics again. I am neither a mathematician or an economist, and I think little stands or falls on a proof. There are no intellectuals that I know of who got everything right.

As a student of social theory, what matters in Marx is; that exploitation exists, there is a distinction between science (or knowledge) and ideology, the importance of an epistemology that understands appearance/reality, and irony. What matters is the process of social reproduction, how that process becomes reified and seen as natural. What matters is Marx and Engels were the first practitioners "peoples' history. What matters is that Marx knew that the goal of knowledge is liberation from the constellation of forces of domination. and history is the study of changing modes of domination and subordination. This does hang on proof

Dr. Wolff's analysis of Marx's epistemological theory is his important contributions to "Understanding Marx".

s. wallerstein said...

In the world that I live in people were put up against a wall and shot (that's a metaphor, in reality they often were killed with crueler methods) for being Marxists and being opposed to capitalism. I might mention Marcelo Concha, father of my partner and member of the Central Committee of the Chilean Communist Party and Jecar Neghme, a personal friend and public spokesperson for the MIR (Left Revolutionary Movement). Neither was armed or used arms. By the way, the Chilean Communist Party has participated in 4 democratic governments as a coalition partner and has never broken the rules of democratic life nor did Allende, a Marxist-Leninist from the Socialist Party.

The Chilean coup was endorsed by the SNA (National Agricultural Association) and the Sofofa (the national organization of big businesses), so there is reason to believe that most of the owning class backed it. In the 1988 plebiscite voters in the wealthy neighborhoods voted overwhelmingly in favor of Pinochet continuing in power for 8 more years.

Anonymous said...

Mathematics, math., --You've got to have math. to enter here.... "Let no one unmathematical cross this threshold..." --Or something like that--- Where did I hear that before? I know it's not new. I know it was some philosopher or other..... Who could have possibly said it?

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I've learned a lesson, ie., not to write a comment at 4am.