[OPE-L:779] Digression: two qestions and a proposal

Alan Freeman (100042.617@compuserve.com)
Thu, 11 Jan 1996 18:58:51 -0800

[ show plain text ]

Hello again,

Jerry has asked for digressions, which is a convenient point
for me to re-enter the discussion, as well as the justification
for another longish post. Two questions may help take stock.
They arise from a conversation with Chai-on who is currently in

(Question 1) What use are leftwing academics?

(Question 2) What should marxist theorists do?

The proposal is explained at the end but appears at the
beginning. It is:

(Proposal) group members so motivated each produce a
proper electronic paper devoted to the single question of
theory which they personally most want other OPE members
to consider. The responsibility of other group members is
to reply to the paper. Agreed parts of the results should
be placed in the public domain.

Turning to the questions: there are two standard answers to the
first which I don't find satisfactory.

(Question 1, answer a) Leftwing academics are useless
because of their class position.

I don't want to launch one of those 'me worker, you petty
bourgeois' discussions but to question the response made either
explicitly or implicitly by almost everyone who gets paid for
intellectual activity, namely:

(Question 1, answer b) leftwing academics are vital
because theory is vital.

This leads to a dialogue of the deaf which seems to be
currently playing on PEN-L. One side says that for automatic,
material reasons, professors must be class traitors. The other
says that for automatic intellectual reasons, professors must
be class hero/ines. The answer to 'me worker, you petty
bourgeois' becomes 'you philistine, me Gramsci'.

Answer (a) is crude but it always worries me when it is
rejected out of hand: 'methinks the lady doth protest too much'
comes to mind. Historical evidence does not put academic
economists of any kind in a good light.

My own response is that it is bad materialism: it doesn't
actually explain academic behaviour. The median salary of a
programmer (to take a random example) is about twice the median
academic. Whatever professors do it for, money isn't it.

My second objection is that no-one's class position
automatically leads either to doing good things or bad things.
The search to divide the pure from the impure by job
description has always struck me as a copout. Marx singled out
the working class as the agent of historical change not for its
existing practice but for its historical potential. Whether it
realises this potential is determined not by iron laws but
human decisions. The same applies at least to individual
members of almost all other classes.

The issue is not what we are paid to do but what we do for our

However, for what it's worth Marx had the following to say:

"The last form [of apologetic economics] is the academic
form ... which looks down benignly on the exaggerations of
economic thinkers, and merely allows them to float as
oddities in its mediocre pap. Since such works only appear
when political economy has reached the end of its scope as
a science, they are at the same time the graveyard of this
science " - Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value vol III
p502 (Economic Manuscripts p992)

This passage has always interested me, first because it is a
remarkably accurate prediction. But also because it is in
effect a judgement not so much on individual academics as the
output of academia, as an institution.

The issue is not whether socialist professors should do
'theory'. The problem is where bad theory comes from: and we
should not deny that the institutions we work in are designed
for this purpose.

This is the problem with answer (b). Academic economists occupy
a class position something like the priesthood under late
absolutism; they are hired as apologists. Academia can produce
its Luthers. But the process is not automatic: the environment
is a finely-honed instrument for filtering out Luthers and when
they arise, co-opting or corrupting them.

This casts doubt on what I call 'Naive Rationalism': the idea
that simply discussing, reading and writing is, in and of
itself, bound to produce something good. There is no more
reason why simply doing theory should produce good results than
being paid by the bourgeoisie should produce bad ones. And
there is every reason to think that if you simply 'do' theory
in an institution that pays you to produce bad theory, you will
ceteris paribus produce what you are paid for.

More precisely it casts doubt on the fallback variant of
Question 1, answer b, which is:

(Question 1, answer c) leftwing academics are the antidote
to rightwing academics.

As they say in Scotland, I hae ma doubts.

The marxist variant of naive rationalism is the idea that
simply discussing, reading and writing *Marx* is in and of
itself bound to produce something good. But if the origin of
bad theory is institutional then we have to consider another
possibility: this might just produce bad marxism.

It seems to me we have to consider not just the content but the
form of collective intellectual work: its rules of conduct. These
consist of more than just being polite and may even include
being impolite. They consist of rules of critical engagement
designed to lay bare the structure of thought and measure it
against observed reality. Else the balance of probability, on
the evidence of past marxist activities, is that the results
will be bad.

Not just the theory, but the project and conduct must counter
the institutions that pay us. It is not enough to say 'theory
is justified because it is necessary' and it is dangerous to
reproduce the forms of academia changing only the content. We
need an alternative practice that leads to good theory: to
dredge up a good old sixties word, a counter-culture.

This leads to question 2, slightly amplified:

(Question 2) what is the most effective theoretical
practice for marxist theorists?

If there is bad theory and good theory, there must be good
theoretical method and bad theoretical method. What
distinguishes the two?

I think, if the usual answers to question 2 (other than 'you
worker, me Gramsci') are studied they all boil down to variants
of the following:

(Question 2, answer a). The most effective practice for
marxist theorists is mine.

I call this the Readers of the Lost Ark syndrome. When I
started questioning, reading and talking to marxist academics,
it struck me forcibly that almost everyone has an unstated
premise: there is a single special insight of Marx's which has
to be deciphered. This 'golden key' unlocks his Ark.
Alternatively, discover the vital error and unlock the Ark he
never found. We each have a 'special angle' on Marx and each
acts on the hidden presumption that the real task of
theoretical discourse is to initiate others to it. Then
everything will be all right.

There is a positive side to this. Theory in Marx's tradition
has been held together by dedicated individuals resisting both
the internal decay of his tradition and the neoliberal
onslaught by doggedly maintaining vital insights and hanging a
theoretical system on them.

The negative side is intense individualism and a strong
tendency towards scholasticism: as Jim Devine put it before he
regrettably quit the list, "talking past each other with zero
comprehension." It also leads, I think, to self-imposed

The danger is that the laudable quest for the Lost Ark produces
less laudable dreams of reserving it for private ceremonies and
deploying it for personal conquests. This is where corruption
sets in. The spontaneous intellectual thirst for status through
recognition is a major instrument of liberal bourgeois control
over theory: it is the string the puppeteers pull. It behooves
us all to be very careful about that. This was the origin of
'KathederSozialismus', of Walras, of Bortkiewicz, of 'legal
marxism'; it is not to be underestimated. It is, I think, the
instrument against which any counter-culture must be directed.

This is not gratuitous insult but an attempt at
characterisation. Mike L has taken me to task for making
general comments without specifying individuals (a practice I
would defend) so let me make it clear that this judgment
includes everyone, myself also. I have met few exceptions -
though Japanese marxism seems to maintain a genuine critical,
collective tradition which Makoto and others have helped make
available in the West.

It is always very important to understand the material and
intellectual roots of one's own activity.

I think there are specific historical and material reasons for
the current situation. The collective practice of heterodox
intellectuals in much of this century was determined by the
giant political questions and movements of the day and
structured, except perhaps in America, by the mass political
parties of the working class. The decay and dissolution of the
mass Internationals and the dissipation of the impetus of 1968
has left an atomised and isolated dissident intelligentsia. To
overcome this isolation is one of the tasks of the period.

But it does have to be overcome. It is not a virtue. It is a
state of brutish backwardness and has to be recognised as such.

The great political movements - and with them the discipline
and responsibility they imposed on the intellectuals - cannot
be artificially recreated. Nevertheless with every political
resurgence that does not create its own organic intellectuals,
the professionals become influential - as was the case for
example in 1968. They have a duty to get their theories right.
Worse than not being listened to, is to be listened to and get
it wrong. When that happens people die for real.

I think this calls for a change in practice, a conscious
struggle against the individualism of the professional
dissident. I offer for discussion a different answer to
question 2. It deliberately avoids saying any particular theory
is wrong or right and concentrates on the method by which
theory is developed. It comes in three parts:

(Question 2, answer b, part i). The most effective
practice for marxist theorists is collective

(Question 2, answer b, part ii). The most effective
collective practice is critical practice.

(Question 2, answer b, part iii). The most decisive aspect
of critical practice is understanding and systematically
accounting for the thought of others, and situating it in
the evolution of thought in general.

Answer b in summary is that we should identify correct,
collective, intellectual practice, and do it.

*Intellectual, because there is a place for theory. Uninformed
action brings worse results than informed action.

*Collective, because this is not the hour of the heroic
intellectual. Everyone wants to be Walter Mitty in a Harrison
Ford film but the world just ain't like that right now. There
will not be another Marx. There will not be another Gramsci.
Anyone who tries to forge a new doctrine from the power of his
or her own pen and brain, may do so (there are buyers) but it
will simply not be progressive. That's how the neoricardians

*But also Correct. Effective method requires definite rules and
procedures. collective practice doesn't just mean doing things
together. This is the dominant tradition of US academia and I
am deeply suspicious of it. It strikes me as a parody of the
American Dream. Huge conferences where every individual says
their thing and each goes away having said everything and heard
nothing is not collective: it is mass individualism. Isn't
there the tiniest risk that E-Mail lists can reproduce this?

Two sceptical points

I finally want to register a sceptical view on two conventional
concepts of good methodology, probably sacrificing any residual

The first is the idea that the test of good theoretical
practice is whether the result is true. I think this is a
confusion between theory and method, which are far from
identical. The ultimate test of a theory reposes in truth, but
this is a bad test of method.

Our task is not simply to take isolated points from each
other's theories and say whether they are right or wrong; it is
to grasp the project *behind* each theory (including our own)
and draw out all its implications. This is a very different
exercise from either rubbishing, approving or simply nodding
wisely; it is very hard to do and involves a lot of study, but
it is, I think, what constitutes the actually correct core of
good method - which is why, inter alia, I keep harping on about
the Theories of Surplus Value in the genesis of Marx's thought.

There is no such thing as a completely 'true' theory. Someone
who might be technically wrong on formally central issues can
make a contribution on something else which turns out to be
decisive. The actual theoretical contribution of Malcolm X
places him head and shoulders above his learned 'marxist'
contemporaries despite their possibly higher erudition.

I don't accept the Post-Modern view that therefore all truth is
relative and we just pick and choose what we are interested in.
I do propose the method Marx himself used which is to assess
the impact of any given theory not just by whether it is
formally right or wrong but by studying its impact on the
evolution of human thought, in the context of the evolution of
human society. He singled out the Physiocrats for their
analysis of reproduction *despite* their views on value,
regarding them as a better starting point for Volume II than
the 'formally' correct classicals.

To grasp the significance of Keynesianism, Post-Keynesianism,
Analytical Marxism, neoricardianism, Regulationism or any body
of theory one has to ask not simply if it is wrong or right,
but where it stands in relation to the state of theory and the
state of society. Malcolm X's theoretical contribution was
superior because of the historical context of the black
liberation struggle at the high point of US world hegemony.
This is why I prefer 'Historical Materialism' to the dubious
'Dialectical Materialism'.

For this purpose the vital element of method available from
science is not its deductive but its critical procedures:
uncovering unstated hypotheses, deriving conclusions from them
and putting these to the test of argument and observation. If
this is reduced to the identification of truth, then little
remains but the clash of dogmas. Speculative philosophy, of
which Marx's dialectics was the highest expression, was never a
superior technique of proof but a procedure for analysing the
structure of thought: for deriving, refining and grasping the
structure of concepts and relations by systematically doubting
their foundations.

This procedure is collective even when undertaken by
individuals and even in isolation. The Theories of Surplus
Value, even though the work of a single individual working in
extreme isolation, is the finest *collective* economic work in
existence because its goal is to understand and systematically
organise the conceptual structure of the whole of economic
thought. I share the view that the great weakness of many
'marxists' is that they do not read what Marx actually wrote; I
would extend this to say most 'economists' do not seem to read
what anyone actually writes. Marx himself read what everybody
wrote, and this is a humbling thought: I suspect that it is
actually the Lost Secret of the Ark, if there is one.

My second scepticism is the very prevalent idea that the
reading of Marx's texts constitutes in and of itself a good
methodology. Risking the collective wrath of OPE, I would
question this.

There is a relative autonomy of method, but it can't be reduced
to the interpretation of texts. I think Marx's work plays two
roles. The first is simply pedagogical. If you haven't read it
you don't even get off the starting blocks. But assuming,
charitably perhaps, that we've done that, what is its further

It is a resource. First its underdeveloped concepts, such as
that of unequal exchange, are necessary for the extension of
theory. Like Marx, if we want to develop new concepts we have
to study their origins. It is also a critical resource for
checking and testing. Marx studied the questions we now
confront in greater depth, at greater length, and in a more
advanced philosophical and political tradition, than anyone
alive today and that is why, whenever we develop new and
tentative hypotheses by normal means, that is, based on the
observation of reality, it is a vital critical exercise to
return to Marx and cross-check our conclusions.

It is a repository of knowledge, a treasure which exists
nowhere else. That is why I, with Andrew, am so against its
corruption. Why destroy the finest resource we have simply
because we need new ones? It is like ripping down the Pantheon
to build an office block. Go build on your own patch: when the
work is done let's compare the results. Borrow the plan by all
means, learn from the architecture and copy the ornamentation
but don't recycle the goddam marbles. It is a typically Anglo-
Saxon vice to mistake pillage for reconstruction.

Nevertheless Marx's work is as complete as it ever will be. It
is not a source of new knowledge but the most developed summary
of existing knowledge. I remain obstinately opposed to the idea
that we can 'extend' it by ransacking it to see what isn't
there. Indeed I strongly dispute that this is the way to go
beyond *anybody*: no text can be a source of what isn't in it.
This just isn't the way to extend knowledge. Knowledge is
extended by the study of real life. You have to take everyone's
contribution as they stand, for what they are. Marx developed
Smith and Ricardo by studying *capitalism*, not their writings.
We should do him the same honour.

Therefore I think it is as important to read what each *other*
writes as what Marx writes. It is fit and proper to refer to
Marx for this purpose but it is not fit and proper to
substitute him for it.

This leads me finally to my proposal. Consider for example the
points which Gil and Steve have been making. The argument about
exchange and equivalence was first made seventeen years ago by
Cutler, Hindess, Hirst and Hussain. I come across it every five
years; it was wrong then, it is wrong now, and it is easily
disposed of as Paul C has shown. As for Steve's point about use
value, I just don't understand it yet. But that isn't the
point. Because both Steve and Gil have made it clear that the
points they want to make are really a preliminary to explaining
their *own* theory 'at the appropriate point'; and that's what
we should be hearing.

As I have tried to make clear in the past, my fear is that
because of the method of procedure we have adopted, the
appropriate point will never arrive.

I think the most positive feature of OPE-L, which I still
greatly support, is the simple fact of bringing a substantial
number of hetorodox intellectuals together to discuss political
economy in Marx's tradition. The discussion has proved that
there is a wealth of ideas and contributions to be shared and
considered. However I have made no secret of the fact that I
don't agree with the procedure adopted.

I want to propose a workable compromise. If the feeling on the
list is that we should continue working through Capital looking
for questions to answer then I accept that though I continue to
disagree with this procedure. But at the same time, let us
schedule a series of contributions from list members in which
they attempt to explain, in 2,000-5,000 words, not just one
conclusion from a project they consider important, but the
project itself. Then let us agree that list members will
undertake to consider these contributions at leisure (rather
than producing instant responses) and provide, where possible,
assessments and critical reactions: off-list or on-list as
appropriate. Let the discussion - or the parts that are
mutually agreed to be suitable for release - be archived where
it is publicly accessible and let this be the first 'product'
of OPE. I think E-Mail technology lends itself to doing this in
parallel with the main discussion.

It may be felt that this ought to wait but I hope not.
Certainly as regards Gil and Steve I think we should hear their
theory *now*. I'm not convinced we should wade through a
labyrinthine discussion of Marx to get to what is most
important, namely the potential new contributions they have to
make. I think it is very hard to place isolated comments in
perspective, without knowing what they are part of, what the
whole alternative is. And I think the debate would be better
informed if we had this alternative before us. I don't think we
should be so enslaved to Marx's texts that we lose the chance
to take up both the contributions and difficulties of
Analytical Marxism or Post-Keynesianism. And I really believe
that if Gil and Steve, as well as other list members, develop
their own ideas in the manner which they see fit, and if we
impose on ourselves the discipline of responding to them in a
critical manner - that is, attempting to understand what they
have to say and situating it in what we each consider to be the
evolution of thought - then we will not only understand more of
what they have to say, but also of our own ideas and of Marx's,
which was the original objective.

However I would not confine this suggestion to Gil and Steve. I
think we should hear Mike L explain in full what the Grundrisse
offers, how Riccardo considers credit money should be
incorporated into the study of the business cycle, what Makoto
considers the central features of the economic theory of
socialism and how John explains that the profit rate falls with
a rising capital/output ratio and why this matters. I would
very much like Anwar to explain the 'measuring the wealth of
nations' project and the thinking behind it; I would like Fred
to explain the importance of TOTALITY, Duncan to explain why
*he* thinks the real wage in capitalist economies tends to rise
roughly at the same rate as the productivity of labor, Iwao to
explain Uno's concept of the "pure economy" and his concern
with the stage problem, Mike Perelman to expound on the
interaction between finance (especially fictitious capital) and
the system in general, from Andrew what Raya Dunyevskaya has to
contribute to the study of Marx, for Rakesh to say more about
Postone, for Paul C to actually get a response to his view that
value is a metric or that prices are empirically close to

Or, whatever these writers themselves consider a necessary
project with which they are involved. And for all those not
mentioned above whose work I have not studied enough, I want to
study this work by hearing what it is you really want
to say. And so on, and so on. I don't think it is always such a
good idea to get this 'por entregas', piece by piece, I think
we would benefit more by seeing in each case the whole
argument, the whole construction, so that its logical
connections become clear and we can see why the various writers
approach both Marx and economic theory in the way that they do.

So, that's the proposal: for those that have read this far, I
thank you and think it would be useful to hear your views.

Season's Greetings