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Sunday, September 22, 2019


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.


Boris Dagaev said...

If by "the article" in your last post you meant your 1981 article "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value", then its arguments are extremely weak - so weak as not to constitute any argument at all.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You might try actually spelling out an example of that judgment, rather than simply offering it ex cathedra as it were.

Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff: I wasn't attacking your theorizing. As I've said repeatedly I truly enjoy reading what you have to say. I find it fresh, interesting, and honest. Indeed, you do succeed very well in "weed whacking". I hope your students at Columbia appreciate your contributions this Fall.

I was mostly responding to a problem that both you and Marx suffer from: "followers". True devotees who take what you say, interpret it, idolize it, and then run off in all kinds of directions. You can't control your children (not just your engendered children, but your ideas), so society does not blame the parent. But Marxism has given us some terrible regimes. And Marx was an awful human being mistreating the women around him and sponging off Engels (OK, Engels willingly handed the money over, but for someone who wanted to build a "better future" I would have expected a more exemplary lifestyle). But that doesn't mean that Marx did not have some splendid insight well worth studying.

I'm happy that you've opened my eyes to aspects of his thought I never knew or considered. He was clearly a very intelligent man with a curious "style" in his writings which make them difficult for most, but which you have opened up for me.

I truly appreciate your honesty and humanness. Marx promised a utopia but never mapped out the path. He was more of a tactician than a strategist. He was a thinker and less of a "doer". I enjoy your sometime attempts at writing about "come the revolution". You are more of a root-and-branch revolutionary than me. My years (and personality) have made me wary of radical change. Over the long arc of history I like to think I see MLK's "tending toward justice" is true. And I like to think we are tending toward a socialist utopia, but the only viable path I see is the very slow one of education, and cultural change, argumentation, education, and new theories. You are doing yeoman;s service on the theory end. I see my job as reminding the fanatics of the illusion of their ideas, their neat little ideological boxes, and their pristine abstractions divorced of the muddy reality of real lived human experience. (I've always liked the contrast between Marx the theoretician and Bakunin the activist. Both had their faults. Both made mistakes. But the "human story" needs elements of both.)

You may get pessimistic about "come the revolution", but we are only 10,000 years into the agricultural revolution, 200 years into the industrial revolution, and 50 years into the information revolution. There are many "revolutions" ahead. The joy of living is to anticipate the unanticipated and enjoy the panoply of the past. Our lives are brief and the Grim Reaper soon moves us off life's stage, but we as part of Nature will endure (despite the radical "greens" who see humans are a vermin infesting Mother Nature and a pestilence to be eradicated). Life will go on. Hopefully it will be a descendant of our own perculiar human species. But if not, it will be some other branch of life. Life is a splendid bush with many branches and only a few flourish and give way to descendants. Marx has "seeded" you with ideas. You have tried to pass that gift of life/insight on to the next generation. That is the highest calling any human can have.

Matt said...

its arguments are extremely weak - so weak as not to constitute any argument at all.

Also sprach Dagaev!

Really, though, please do tell the rest of us, at least in outline, what the issues are.

LFC said...

You might want to consider that there is a difference between respecting someone and idolizing someone. Speaking only for myself of course and not for anyone else here, I respect RPW's views. Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don't. I certainly don't idolize him (as RPW himself I'm sure will attest, having read my comments here over however long it's been that I've been commenting here). On the spur of the moment I'm hard pressed to think of anyone whom I idolize, which may or may not be a mark against me, but so be it. I might come up with a name or two if I thought about it, but idolization to me implies hero worship, which personally I'm not really into.

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

Dr. Wolff,
In regards to your response to Mr. Dagaev, I have one question: to which throne are you referring, the ornate seat of ecclesiastical power, or the less prosaic model?

Regarding your reference to Mars and Jesus, I recall that Marx is reputed to have said in response to Gusede and the French Workers Party, “ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste” (“what I am certain of is that I myself am not a Marxist”). I have always marveled at how ideologues manage to construct fantastical stories, like "Jesus wants us to invade the Holy Land," or, to take a swipe at Habermas, how Marx's "instrumental thought" lead to the totalitarian state and the crimes committed in its name. The Republican party, in its infinite wisdom, is preparing to lead the fight against the democratic nominee by yelling "socialists, they're socialists trying to destroy our way of life!" I take comfort in the fact that those claims didn't work in the 1930's when leveled against FDR.

Anonymous said...

Those testimonials and others one frequently reads in the comments section of this blog inspired me to make the following suggestion to Prof. Wolff's admirers: A good -- if not the best -- way to honor him and demonstrate one's appreciation for his efforts is to engage with his ideas, which -- I believe -- is why he blogs.

One does not risk becoming a follower, if one does that with intelligence, honesty, diligence and critical thought.

His critics, by the way, would do well to follow the same advice. After all, talk is cheap and cheap talk is even cheaper. Is in attempting to understand what one comments on where one needs to put effort.

Makes sense?