[OPE-L:245] How to proceed -- Response to Alan

glevy@acnet.pratt.edu (glevy@acnet.pratt.edu)
Wed, 11 Oct 1995 19:39:43 -0700

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Firstly, let me say that I wholeheartedly welcome Alan's and Andrew's
posts concerning the concept of this project and ideas concerning
procedure and method of investigation. From the very outset, I have
repeatedly stressed that I do not have all the answers and this project
will need the participation of all for it to work (*however* we define
our tasks). I believe that the single greatest failing of the list to
date has been its reliance on me for guidance rather than the more
conscious and active participation of all in the conceptualization of
this project and in establishing a workable procedure for this list.

I will try to give some preliminary answers to the basic questions that
Alan raised and I hope that others will respond with their ideas.

1) What is its relation to the political context we find
ourselves in today? I do not mean that it should have the
mechanistic aim of deducing political conclusions from
economic analysis. I mean it should have a conception of
*what* it is analysing, and *why* it is being compelled to
analyse it now, at this particular time.
It thus needs a conception of its own material basis.
Otherwise it will exist only in the academic stratosphere.

A) What do we want to analyse?
The realities of capitalism (yes, I know, this is a very simple
answer). My idea was *never* that the study of Marx's plans was the
essential task for our project. Rather, the idea was that, through the
process of analysing Marx's plans, we would be able to come to terms with
some of the methodological and practical issues associated with an
attempt to *begin* to understand capitalist totality. My view has always
been that the listing is the most important task before us. Why?

Several reasons:

i) the process of listing *forces* us to consider the various aspects
of capitalism as a totality that need to be examined further;

ii) the logic of listing requires us to systematically consider
different theoretical and practical questions and place them in a logical
or systematic order (an *essential* requirement for advancing theory, in my

iii) listing by levels of abstraction helps us to avoid the continual
problem of confusing levels of abstraction that has been a failing, in my
view, of so many authors in the Marxist tradition.

iv) listing is required because it is a device that will allow us to
consider *all* of the outstanding theoretical issues, rather than takeing
each question in isolation. Alan and Andrew argue that listing is too
"overwhelmingly big" (Andrew). It is a large task, to be sure, but it has
been a task that has been *avoided* by virtually all Marxists since Marx. We
have a responsibility to begin to tackle the "big" questions.

v) *If* we can produced a "list of unanswered questions", it will
unleash a powerful creative dynamic in two separate directions:

a) if we can identify the questions, what will be the next thing that
we will consider either individually and/or collectively? ANSWERING the
questions. We saw an example of this just a few days ago. Duncan Foley
suggested a topic for us to consider. While it was a digression for us,
how long did it take before Jim, and then several others, attempted to
answer that question? The very *asking* of the questions leads us
eventually to consider how we would attempt to answer those questions
(particularly, when those questions are asked by people whom we respect

b) So, bear with me now, suppose we generated a list of questions and
then shared those questions with others outside of ope-l. How long do you
think it will take before people attempt to come to terms with the
questions? One must remember that we have some of the most respected
Marxist economists internationally on this list. If *we* say that some
questions are unanswered, *others* WILL take notice. What is most
important is that our understanding of capitalism is furthered. If others
come up with advances based on our promptings, then we WILL be partially
responsible for setting in motion the creative dynamic that lead to those
advances. Either way, the potential for moving Marxist theory forward is

B. Why do we need to analyse capitalism "now, at this particular time"?
[ WARNING! : Skip this section if you don't want a lecture].
As we approach the 21st Century, the working class is divided
internationally and is on the defensive (particularly, in the last two
decades). Marxists are also divided, although as Alan points out, there
is a growing recognition by Marxists scholars internationally of the
*NEED* for advancing our understanding of capitalism, both in terms of
basic theory, and in terms of conjunctural analysis.
In the above context, it is our *OBLIGATION* as Marxists to attempt to
move our understanding of capitalism forward. WE DO NOT HAVE THE TIME TO
theory that will allow them to understand the world better so that they
can change it! We can not simply say -- read Marx! That would be both
PLANET -- how can we avoid our revolutionary requirement to advance
theory (and become politically active) any longer?
Consequently, I do not view this project as an entirely academic and
intellectual enterprise -- it is a project born of the material necessity
to arm ourselves and workers with a theory that will allow us to assert
our role in history.
(I'm sorry if I got carried away above. I am just *so tired* of excuses
and rationalizations for not advancing theory -- I am NOT accusing Alan
or Andrew of either. We NEED to advance theory. We can spend years more
talking about that need or we can attempt to begin the process of meeting
that need. Of course I am aware of important attempts by Anu and others
to do just that. Yet, we can not wait for OTHERS to do something. We must
act NOW!).

2) What relation does it have to other projects?
Is it complimentary to them, contradictory to them, a subset of
them, a superset of them? I have no fear of disagreement but
there are two obvious and polar errors to be made. The first
is to pretend agreement when it does not exist, and the
second is to find disagreement where none exists. Thus, what
we need above all is *clarity*.

I think it would be a negative development if any project set
itself the task of doing *everything*. There has to be a self-
imposed limitation. I think this is the source of my greatest
unease concerning OPE. I have an idea what it intends to do.
I want to know what is it *not* going to do.

A. Relation to other projects:
I view the other projects that Alan describes in his post as
complementary, but separate. We are different in a number of respects:
1) we are a relatively small working group;
2) we, I hope, have a common purpose;
3) we use a different medium for collaboration and communication that
has distinct advantages and disadvantages.
I think we should try to work with other projects wherever possible.
At a minimum, we should establish communication with those other groups
to identify common areas of work and exchange information.

B. We have not pretended that agreement exists where there is none. We
have not attempted to find disagreement where none exists. Everyone on
this list knows that there are significant differences in theory and
method. We have, however, made a commitment to deal with each other in
good faith. What we need to do as we continue is to clarify our positions
so that all understand them and, if there is not unanimity, note our
differences and then move forward as a group.

C. We have not set ourselves "the task of doing 'everything'" (Alan) or
"the infinity of a circle" (Andrew). We have, initially, a *limited* aim
which has been presented in a manner procedurally where most feel we can
accomplish that aim. I think that the previous procedural proposal was
*very* realistic in terms of the steps before us. We have already made
significant headway and will make even more progress if we stick with
that schedule.
I will address this question again when responding to Alan's last
major point.

3) What is its relation to Political Economy since Marx?

I think it is not an incidental but an integral part of any
enquiry into the modern world, that we should address and
Critique its forms of consciousness, that is its political
economy. Whilst not a necessary part of the method of
presentation, it is an essential part of the method of
enquiry. This is my biggest single worry about the approach
so far outlined, because the requirement to Critique existing
political economy, even though part of the title of the work
we are addressing, seems to have been tooo hastily set aside.
I think this is a basic methodological problem, not an
optional extra.

Here Alan contradicts himself, in my opinion. While our perspectives are
certainly informed by a critique of existing thought, the requirement
that we "explicitly critique" other schools of thought would transform
this project into precisely what Alan and Andrew fear the most ( ("the
task of doing everything"/ "bad infinity"). No doubt, we will have to
confront ideas from other schools of thought explicitly, both within and
outside of the Marxist tradition. The task, though, of critiqueing all
existing though is overwhelming and would mean, in practice, that we
would not be able to accomplish anything within a reasonable time period
(more later).

4) What is its relation to the interpretation given to Marx
by Political Economy since Marx?

I think we are compelled to address and clairfy the way in
which Marx is represented by modern political economy; not
necessarily to agree but to be clear where the disagreements
lie. In the century that lies between us and Marx's death,
the main cause of the gap between Marxism and the real world
is not the changes in the real world but the changes in
Marxism. This century is filled with 'interpretations' of
Marx which explain neither Marx nor reality. Every one of us
has received his initiation into Marx's economics not through
Marx himself but through the filter or at least the prism of
an intermediary. The 'received' interpretation of Marx is IMO
irretrievably and unreconstructably wrong; therefore if we
want to discuss almost any given concept however innocuous,
we have to separate out Marx's own concept from the way it is
commonly perceived in the literature, and not only in the
literature but in our own thinking.

As we discuss specific issues, our differences in interpretation will
come to the fore and will have to be clarified. We should read Marx where
relevant, but we need to think for ourselves. Nothing would be more
counter-productive than constantly exchanging quotes from Marx.

If you want to critique all existing interpretations of Marx (and other
intellectual traditions), be prepared to spend at least 5 years
discussing these issues on the list. I can't believe anybody really wants
that. Even if we did that, we would almost certainly remain divideed
concerning value, method, and interpretation.

For reasons given below I would greatly prefer us
to single out one , two or at *most* three fundamental concepts - my
first candidate would be the concept of value itself, as I
shall explain - and clarify our positions on this limited
set. These should be chosen on the following basis: what will
best equip future enquirers to apply Marx's analysis to the
modern world? What are the greatest obstacles to doing this?

I think if we do not rapidly achieve a substantial limitation
of this type on the field of our enquiry, the discussion will

This is inconsistent. On the one hand, we must critique existing thought.
On the other hand, we should concentrate on 1-3 "fundamental concepts."
Assuming that we do this, how will we be better off? How will this "best
equip future enquirers"? I don't want to evade fundamental issues. I
want us to clarify our perspectives and *move forward*.

5) Suggested topics for discussion and order of discussion.
Ideally we should begin with a subset of these.

a) The conceptual foundation of Value, price and the
commodity. A Critique of these concepts in modern
political economy and in Marx (Critique in the *strict*
sense of analysing bringing out the necessary
presuppositions of the concepts; not an exhaustive
survey of the concept as it appears in the literature)

b) Money. Likewise a critique

c) Surplus Value, likewise a critique

d) Relative Surplus Value and technical change; a detailed
discussion of the 1861-63 manuscripts and of the
concepts of Organic Composition, FROP, and the
formation of social from individual values

e) Accumulation, above all expanded reproduction. A
discussion of the lacunae of Volume II

f) Trade, the world economy, world capital movements,

g) The modern state

h) Poverty

I) Crisis

The above procedure has its advantages, it's true. I believe, though,
that it is far too ambitious for us to consider now. In effect, the
structure above would mean that we would attempt to first understand and
critique Marx (and others) and then attempt to advance the theory in
areas that Marx did not write (at least, systematically) about. How long
do you anticipate such a discussion would take? My guess is that it would
take at least 3-5 years to get to "I". I can not say that I am
enthusiastic about such a prospect.

What are the alternatives?

1. The procedure described above by Alan.
2. The procedure that I have described.
3. Possibly presenting seminar papers and/or group collaboration on
issues related to extending Marx.

1 is impractical for the reasons that I outlined above. 3 is a
possibility. 2 is, by far, my preferred choice. Perhaps there are other
possibilities as well. What are they?

I want to end this post with the point I made at the outset. I welcome
Alan's and Andrew's participation and freely acknowledge that I do not
have all the answers. I believe we have a real opportunity here to create
a dynamic that will, ultimately, advance our understanding of capitalism.
I would truly hate to see that opportunity wasted. I will, however, agree
to whatever the majority decide -- but I will not give up the idea of the
listing until far sounder objections have been voiced and articulated.

I want others to talk about these issues on the list. I also want us to
go forward with the "brainstorming." If in 2 weeks the majority have not
submitted "brainstorming" posts, we will know that the idea of listing is
dead and has to be discarded in favor of another procedure. I would
encourage you to first submit the brainstorming posts and then, as I
*thought* we agreed, discuss what we want to do next. It is my belief
that as we continue we will have to define and re-define our tasks
and procedures. For this project to work, in any form, we must listen to
each other in good faith and be committed to meeting whatever goals we

In OPE-L Solidarity,