(OPE-L) [Jurriaan re] Marx's method

From: Gerald A. Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Sat Apr 17 2004 - 22:11:08 EDT

----- Original Message -----
From: "Jur Bendien" <bendien88@lycos.com>
Sent: Sunday, April 18, 2004 1:56 AM
Subject: Marx's method

 Hi Jerry,

 Just one more thing. <snip, JL>  the typical quibble I have had in the past
with many Marxist academics concerns the application of Marx's theory to the
facts. I agree it is necessary and important to clarify conceptual
distinctions, and explore the logical and quantitative implications (or
logical coherence) of the different components of his theories. However, if
this is done in abstraction from the empirical data, the facts of
experience, rather than through abstracting from the facts of experience
themselves, then:

 (1) the relative real importance of the conceptual issues involved may not
be understood, so that we exaggerate or trivialise issues in a false way,

 (2) the development of theory itself is not disciplined, informed, guided,
regulated or underpinned (I don't know the best word to use, in German you
might say "bestimmt") by experience.

 Whereas the whole point of scientific inquiry is to bring theory and what
we know about the facts closer together, such that theory can indeed guide
us in questions of "what to do". In order to do so, then we ought I think
try to make sense of the empirical data, and by trying to apply the concepts
in this way, show what their validity really is. Otherwise Marx's writings
are really just equivalent to a holy icon, lovely to look at maybe, of
sentimental value maybe, but in other respects irrelevant to the real life
of the social classes in our own epoch.

 A great deal of social science these days is, in my opinion, just
subjectivist or elegant metaphor. But really social science is about the
objective causes and effects of the interactions of large numbers of people
living in a society. "Society" for Marx meant the total of relations among
people living in a community, not simply a total of individuals;
consequently a "social relation" was for him a relation between people,
insofar as they belonged to a group of people (including relations between
groups and between an individual and a group of people). That is something
you can study empirically. It's often hard work, and maybe doesn't have
spectacular results straightaway. No wonder then that people then often
prefer to talk about books they've read instead.

 As an illustration, consider Marx's discussion of "The revenues and their
sources" in Part 7 of Das Kapital, Vol. 3, in which he discusses the
neoclassical concept of "factors of production", gross and net output in
national income, and the economic ideologies about competition. We could,
with great linguistic, mathematical and philosophical ostentation, divide
Marx's theorems into four square parts, and then put them back together
again, for the purpose of writing a learned academic article about "Marx's
method of abstraction" that few people will read, but we could also ask
ourselves, how does all this work out in empirical reality ? In that case,
we would be using our own brains, and doing some abstraction for ourselves,
in other words, we would be operating Marx's idea, rather than talking about
what his idea was - an instance of a "living Marxism" (although, as I have
mentioned, I don't really like using terms such as "Marxism").

 And how does it all work out in reality ? I think that is a fair question
to ask. Using NIPA data and IRS data, I did a quick snapshot analysis in
January this year of US resident pre-tax personal income flows for 2002, as
a pilot for a study of the incomes of the various social classes, which I
intend to complete sometime. I just took the US economy in this case, for
the sake of simplicity (European national data do not yet conform to one
standard in many respects). I am not claiming the quantities are completely
accurate, because I haven't checked the nature of the base data and
definitions thoroughly yet, and in addition this statistical coverage of
personal income is not complete, but anyway, here's a list of items ranked
in order of size (2002 US$):

 Private sector employee wage & salary income $4,115 billion
Interest income of persons on assets $982 billion
Government employee wage & salary income $860 billion
Non-farm taxable proprietors' income $783 billion
Old-age/survivors/disability/health insurance benefits paid out $710 billion
Employee pension and insurance levies paid in $680 billion
Dividend income of persons on assets $396 billion
Government social insurance levies paid in $364 billion
Taxable realised capital-gains income on assets $348.1 billion (2001 est.)
Undistributed profit of corporate equity holders $152 billion
Government unemployment insurance benefits paid out $53 billion
Tenant residential housing rent payments to non-farm landlords  $42 billion
Profit income n.e.c. $39 billion (own estimate)
Veterans benefits paid out $30 billion
Family assistance benefits paid out $20 billion
Royalty receipts $15 billion
Farm proprietors' income $14 billion
Farm property rents to non-operator farm owners $5 billion
Tenant rents to owners of non-profit institutions $2 billion
Rents on non-farm, non-residential properties $0.9 billion
Farm tenant rents to farm-operator landlords $0.6 billion

 Now, just by looking at this data, it should clear that just talking about
"the capitalist economy" in terms of profit, rent, interest and wages
derived from the production of goods and services, as Marx does in
considering, as he says, "the internal organisation of the capitalist mode
of production in its ideal average" really doesn't do much justice to any
real economy.

 Why ? It's not just because, as Althusser and Balibar philosophised, there
is a difference between the concept of a "mode of production" and the
concept of a "social formation"; quite simply, something like half of the
personal income of US residents is not obtained from participating in

 So whereas we could have this very intricate scholastic dispute about the
specificity of capitalist production, this would not do any justice to the
total reality of the US economy at all, and many people might wonder about
the relevance of it. If however we took the trouble to verify a few
essential facts, and understand things in their quantitative proportions,
then we would be far better placed to understand what that specificity was,
what the real questions and issues of political economy are, as regards the
political economy of the USA.

 Prof. Kozo Uno came to the conclusion that Marx's theory should be
understood as referring to a "purely capitalist society" and corrected
Marx's own presentation of the theory in various respects. The trouble
though is that it is not very clear how we could ascend from this "pure
theory" to the observable empiria, i.e. how specifically Uno's "stages
theory" should be operated. In that case, we are left with some kind of
Weberian idealism which mystifies the origin of Marx's abstractions in an
analysis of the facts. A similar criticism applies to the value-form type of

 Antonio Gramsci remarked in his prison writings once that the method of
inquiry appropriate to the object of study had to be developed from the
object itself. To think that you could learn about the correct method of
inquiry in separation from its application, and in separation from the
object of that inquiry, was just wrong. It's like saying that there is such
a thing as "the scientific method" and there isn't, there are all sorts of
scientific methods, and moreover their scientificity depends mainly on how
they are applied. Just because we have stated a scientific procedure,
doesn't of itself mean that the application of that procedure will guarantee
a scientifically acceptable standard or result, and a method successful in
one context may not yield any results, or may not be appropriate, elsewhere.

 In the philosophy of science, it is customary to distinguish between
"explanans" (that which explains) and "explanandum" (that which must be
explained). By contrast, it is characteristic of ideological discourse, that
explanans and explanandum are conflated and confused. In that event, it does
not help a great deal to talk about "dialectics". If, however, we elaborate
social theories without referring to any empirical experience in a serious
and comprehensive way, then social theory degenerates into ideology and
mysticism. The sad result of that in social science is then (1) that people
don't really know anymore what the questions are, and where the answers
should be sought, and (2) people no longer take theory seriously, and do not
know how to theorise, or why you should theorise about something.

 That is why I don't concern myself a lot with "Marxism" these days, because
I think most of it, except a few important works, is just ideology. When I
was a student, Althusserian "theoretical practice" was in vogue. After that,
"poststructuralism" emerged. And then hermeneutics, deconstructivism,
phenomenology, "globalisation discourses", the "theory of the body" and so
forth and so on. To me, this is mostly ideology, or a sort of art, not
social science, it just tells me that people participating in this do not
really know what social science is, and what the real questions are, and
that they do not know how to apply Marx's method of scientific inquiry. It
has nothing in common anymore with Marx's own research effort, which
occurred on the basis of plowing through a large quantity of empirical
material - this is not a joke, because e.g. when he died in 1883, at a time
when a revolution in Russia was still unthinkable, his estate included
several cubic metres of Russian statistical material.

 I think Marx's criticism of the Left Hegelians was that they sucked
concepts out of their thumb, and talked in a rootless language full of
sophistry which nobody had ever heard of in real life, and if he rejected
the label "Marxist", that was also because entire "philosophies of history"
were being fabricated in France and Germany on the basis of very little
serious research at all, and Marx didn't want to be associated with that
sort of exercise. By contrast, people like for example Rosa Luxemburg or
Lenin made very detailed investigations of industrialisation in Eastern
Europe and Russia, being concerned with the emancipation of working class at
that time. I would think that if Marx was alive today that he would regard a
lot of the "postmodernist discourses" and "Marxisms" as a real howler.



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