[OPE-L:2282] Reading, Writing, and Learning

glevy@acnet.pratt.edu (glevy@acnet.pratt.edu)
Sat, 18 May 1996 15:58:31 -0700

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"Following Ollman's idea that 'method exists on five levels, representing
successive stages in its practice: (1) ontology; (2) epistemology; (3)
inquiry; (4) intellectual reconstruction; and (5) exposition," it is clear
that the bulk of research has concentrated on some elements and
relationships far more than others. Because researchers have drawn so
heavily from 'Marx's most renowned methodological text,' the section on
'The Method of Political Economy' within the 1857 introduction, the first
two dimensions Ollman enumerates have received the most attention. The
latter two elements have fared less well, but researchers have examined
them to some degree. It is the actual, concrete procedures of inquiry and
their relationship to intellectual reconstruction, exposition, ontology,
and epistemology that analysts have studied least. The major objective of
this book is to explore systematically the much neglected set of issues
related to how Marx actually carried out his inquiry into political
economy" (Rob Beamish _Marx, Method, and the Division of Labor_, Urbana
and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1992, pp. 2-3).

In this post I will attempt to identify and discuss the variables and
constraints that affect the way we, as Marxist economists, conduct
inquiry, intellectual reconstruction, and exposition.

While it is true in general that "you can't teach old dogs new
tricks", we are not "old dogs" and can benefit from a periodic and
critical return to basics. This post is therefore offered in a
self-critical perspective in the hope and belief that we can learn new
methods of inquiry, reconstruction and exposition and overcome older and
inferior forms that we have become accustomed to.

The following is divided into three sections:
A. Becoming a Marxist economist
B. Inquiry and Reconstruction
C. Research and Writing Environment



(1) *How* we learn and write begins long before we become Marxists. I
will, therefore, also consider in part how early learning affects this

(2) In broad terms, we become Marxists either as a result of
social struggles and/or we undergo what might be termed an "intellectual
radicalization". The first way is probably the most common catalyst.
Becoming an activist is an interactive process in which there is a kind
of learning by doing. It is a process that frequently, but not
necessarily, has some pitfalls. In some movements, of course, there is a
form of anti-intellectualism in which participants are encouraged to
become more active *rather than* engaging in educational studies and
intellectual development. Even worse, those who join Marxist political
parties are "educated" in theory from the perspective of learning and
*defending* existing party policies and traditions. The challenge, I
would suggest, for this category of people is how to overcome the
*dogmatism* associated with most Marxist organizations. For many
Marxists, this is a long and difficult journey that requires them to
challenge their ideas and readings in a way which is not encouraged by
the supposed "orthodoxy" of Marxist organizations.

Another set of problems confront those who undergo an
"intellectual radicalization." The first problem is, of course, how to
resolve the contradiction on an individual level of theory and praxis.
For some, this leads to political activism (and some of the problems
outlined above). Others become "perpetual learners" and or "academic
Marxists." How this orientation to the subject matter affects inquiry and
exposition is an important question to consider.

A sub-set of the latter category includes those who become
economists first and, only later, Marxists. A couple of examples that I
am familiar with include Jim Becker at NYU and Tom Vietorisz at the New
School. For this category, leaning to become a Marxist economist
frequently involves de-learning much of mainstream economics. All in all,
I would say this would be the most difficult path to follow.

(3) What are the most essential pre-conditions for becoming a Marxist
economist? I would suggest that the most essential one is the development
of *critical* abilities. The ability to be critical, though, is not one
which is stressed in pre-college educational institutions. Instead,
conformity and acceptance of authority (and the "learning methods"
associated with it such as memorization) are encouraged and rewarded. In
this most fundamental sense I would argue that a critical and
anti-authoritarian perspective is required for more meaningful learning.
This is not an ability, though, that comes necessarily with
radicalization. One problem that many have to overcome is hero and
authority worship. This is a problem that frequently extends to graduate
schools where many students look to faculty as "gurus" who give them
information rather than critically engaging both the reading materials
*and* faculty. Of course, many faculty are guilty of not encouraging
students to challenge the perspectives of the instructor.

(4) Let me ask an unrealistic question: if you had it to do all over
again, what *skills* would you acquire *prior* to becoming a Marxist or
studying economics? Here's my list:

a) develop good study habits. This includes the *process* of
leaning how to write a research paper since the best way to learn how to
study and conduct inquiry and write is *to* study, inquire, and write. It
is my feeling that by the time students get to college they have already
learned too many poor study habits which have to be overcome as the
process of learning and inquiry continues.

b) speed reading. [How I wish I had learned that skill early on].

c) speed typing. Professionals, and those who are put on a
pre-college track in secondary school, are generally not taught this very
valuable skill. In part this reflects a prejudice against typing since it
is allegedly a skill for "typists" rather than professionals (I think
there is a gender bias here since typing has traditionally been viewed as
"women's work"). [I am a - fast - "hunt-and-peck" typist and this
significantly affects, in a negative way, the speed of my typing
and writing].

d) math, including elementary statistics. This is a skill, like
languages, that can be acquired later in life but is much easier to learn
while young. [I will consider languages in the next section].

(5) Another "ideal" question: If you had it to do all over again,
*what* would you study other than or in addition to Marx, Marxist theory and
economics as part of the process of "becoming" a Marxist economist? Here
are my suggestions for study:

a) history, including social, economic, and revolutionary.

b) philosophy. It is my belief that the lack of training in
history and philosophy has important consequences for the way in which
economists conduct inquiry and critically investigate and challenge the
materials that they read.

c) languages.

Here we encounter a problem since we can not know exactly what to study
before studying in the sense that it is precisely the process of learning
which informs us in terms of what to study next. Consequently, we don't
know *which* languages to learn until we are well into the process of
investigation. This is a problem since all would agree that, like math,
learning languages is much easier if undertaken earlier on in life. Yet,
our decisions about what languages are required for further investigation
are themselves both *results* of investigation and *pre-conditions* for new
areas of investigation. Consequently, the above "ideal" questions can not
be answered in the abstract since that would divorce the ideal form of
investigation from the actual, real process of investigation.

It should also be noted that the languages taught in pre-college often
reflect cultural and Euro-centric biases. This means, in practice, that
languages such as French and Spanish are more frequently offered than
German, Russian, and/or Japanese. As college educators or students this is
a problem we inherit and can only be really resolved through social

The flip side of this question is that there may be certain subjects
which are less necessary to study now. With the advent of more
"user-friendly" software programs, I would suggest that learning computer
*programming languages* is less necessary for students today.

(6) If a student was to ask you, "what's the best way to study Marx and
Marxism", what would your answer be? I would suggest the following:

(a) *begin* by studying Marx. This can be justified under the
simple premise that one should study "primary" sources before "secondary"
sources. It is my belief that, in practice, the learning process is all
too frequently the reverse, i.e. students begin by examing different
interpretations of Marx and then, eventually and/or minimally, study Marx.

(b) I would probably suggest that students next study other
"primary" sources not written by Marx and Engels rather than more
contemporary secondary sources. That is, I would suggest reading the
writings in political economy by the German Social Democrats and
Bolsheviks, for instance, before reading contemporary critiques. This has
merit since it allows students to trace the historical development of
ideas and encourages them to also study the historical circumstances in
which these other works were produced.

(c) study groups. As a New School graduate, I am a great believer
in the advantages of study groups. Although group and collective study is
not encouraged or rewarded in most educational institutions, there are
tremendous benefits to be gained by joint study and investigation. In
particular, I believe it is easily the best way to study _Capital_.

(d) Despite some of the problems outlined above, I would encourage
students to become actively involved in political movements on the
grounds that much learning takes place outside of the classroom
environment and in the belief and hope that such activism will encourage
students to ask more questions and undertake more substantial

(7) Next question (all of the above falls under the category of
becoming a Marxist economist): Suppose a student who claimed to be a
Marxist asked you what *economic* topics to study and where. How would
you answer?

Here are some parts of my answer:

(a) Where? I'd suggest that one picks a school where there is a
substantial representation of Marxist and/or heterodox economists. This is
justified on the grounds that the learning environment and curriculum is
more beneficial where there are a number of radical economists on the
faculty. In such a situation it is also highly likely that the student
can benefit from interaction with fellow radical students. Unfortunately,
there are not many economics departments internationally that fit this
bill. Also, while this is sound advice from the standpoint of learning,
it might not be sound career advice since graduates of such schools are
treated in a prejudicial manner by mainstream economics departments in
terms of hiring of faculty.

(b) What to study? That's a harder question. I would suggest that,
irrespective of the "areas of concentration" that the student eventually
decides upon, students should study history of economic thought,
methodology, and economic history. Mathematical methods and econometrics
need not be emphasized since every economics department will surely
*require* that students, for better or worse, learn those subjects.

(c) What fields to specialize in? I would not answer that question,
but would instead encourage the student to study those fields that he or
she is most interested in under the belief that the interest itself will
encourage more substantial learning. I would, however, point to the need
for a well-rounded education in economics rather than *just* an in-depth
specialization. On both the graduate and undergraduate levels, I would
suggest some in-depth historical and/or empirical research project,
though, in the belief that such a project will help to discipline the
student in terms of developing research skills.


(1) A pre-condition for inquiry is gaining access to relevant resource
sources. While the WWW allows researchers to access more material more
readily than hitherto possible, nothing can substitute -- unless one can
afford a private library - for a large and well-rounded library (something that
Marx was well aware of). For many, gaining access to such a library is
not an easy task. Although larger cities and universities tend to have
larger and more thorough libraries, not all researchers have, due to
geographic location, access to these collections. Even larger libraries
frequently don't have many essential primary and secondary sources
related to studying Marx, Marxism, and radical and heterodox economics.
Given the fact that most of us can't afford an extended trip to such
locations, this presents a real constraint to inquiry.

(2) Another, related, constraint is the high cost of scholarly books
and publications. Given our salaries and living expenses, this is a very
real problem that most of us encounter -- especially since the books and
publications that we really require can not normally be obtained gratis
through review or examination copies. If the cost of books, then, affects
what we read it also affects what and how we study and investigate. If we
rely on library copies, that as well affects how we study (see below).

(3) How do we read and how does that affect the way we write? Of
course, reading a work in political economy involves more engagement than
reading a popular novel. We each have our own methods which have different
advantages and disadvantages. Marginal notes, underlining, etc. are used
frequently for both future reference, emphasis, and critical reaction to
the reading material. This, of course, is not possible with Library copies
of texts (although, it is easier with photocopies of articles). Marx, of
course, used "study notebooks" which he relied heavily on for future
inquiry and writing (see Beamish book). I believe that few of us, in
retrospect, have the best system for making notes for future use on
reading materials. What is the optimal method? I'm not sure and have used
many inconsistent methods over the years. Nowadays, computer notes are a
real possibility. However, who has the discipline to enter the notes on
the computer as you are reading a book or article?

(4) The dynamic of reading is, as we all know, self-expansion, i.e.
the very process of inquiry leads to more inquiry. As we read a source, we
note new sources and are stimulated to ask other questions. In this way,
what initially appears to be a limited subject for investigation
necessarily leads us into a broader inquiry. In a sense, this is part of a
lifelong learning process. Yet, this presents a practical problem for
researchers: when to stop and start writing? This question can not be
answered in general. I believe there is a fine line that must be drawn
between confidence in the knowledge of the subject matter and arrogance
(in the sense that one might be deluded into believing that you have
already learned everything of importance). Without the confidence, we
never write. With arrogance, we close ourselves off to new perspectives
and knowledge.

(5) The process of intellectual reconstruction can be very difficult.
In many cases, we have massive amounts of notes. How can we organize and
structure our thoughts? This is not only a question of the form of
presentation since the form and process of presentation also leads to new
insights and, frequently, the understanding of the need for further
investigation. Beamish notes many instances in which the process of
writing lead Marx, for instance, to further investigation and sources.

(6) Frequently, we need time and distance from our investigation to
begin the process of reconstruction. This can be very difficult given the
other constraints we work under (to be discussed later).

(7) Teaching can be a means to give us a broader perspective and
distance from our readings and inquiry. Willi Semmler advised me to teach
as an adjunct after becoming a PhD candidate (for which I have reason to
be grateful and, yet, can also blame him for my material impoverishment).
His advice was sound, though. The process of teaching (both structuring
one's lectures and class activities and inter-acting with students) allows
and forces one to structure one's thoughts on a wide variety of subjects.

(8) As teachers we know that the process of writing is also a learning
process. In that sense, we should write to learn and not be in perpetual
fear of making mistakes. On the other hand, writers need to avoid the old
trap of falling in love with your first draft and should be willing to
re-write until we feel confident in the result. This can only be known
through practice and experience.

(9) A crucial stage in both the process of inquiry and writing is
deciding on a research topic by narrowing the focus of the subject to be
investigated and clearly identifying the issues to be examined. Of course,
this, as well, frequently, changes in the course of investigation and
exposition as we re-define what we are examining.

(10) The questions associated with inquiry and reconstruction can not be
separated, in practice, from our research and writing environment or the
demands for publication. We will consider these questions next.


(1) Let us begin with a truism: research and writing costs $ (or other
units of account). Costs can include costs for books, copies,
periodicals, computers and related equipment, and travel. This means, in
practice, that those with higher income have an advantage.

(2) There is also another constraint. Time is required for research but
there are also demands on our time for teaching and other professional
responsibilities, political activism, family and friends, leisure, etc.
Those faculty who teach "over-load" at multiple colleges have a
disadvantage in this regard. As for the other possible uses of our time:
we are, after all, something more than think machines and need time for
the development of other areas of our life. This, of course, is an
on-going tension.

(3) In general, I would say that those who are in _economics_
departments, rather than social science departments have an advantage
since they can benefit more from their inter-action with other faculty.

(4) some, who have been teaching and conducting research in relative
isolation can benefit by becoming visiting faculty at other colleges (e.g.
in other countries). This may not be a practical possibility for all given
other responsibilities and commitments (as well as limitations regarding
knowledge of other languages and living and travel expenses).

(5) Where to conduct research and write? There are certain advantages
of living in a city, e.g. involvement in political struggles. Yet, some
need more solitude, quiet, and a less stressful environment than found in
contemporary urban areas. Ed Nell, in this regard, recently told me after
a memorial meeting for David Gordon [...sigh...] that he had moved to
Upstate New York because "New York (City, JL) is no place for peace of
mind" and that he needed that peace to conduct research and write. [I
told him that while that might be true, "In New York City, people are
willing to give you a piece *of* their minds". Ed laughed.].

(6) We are also subjected to stresses associated with academia that are
not beneficial from the standpoint of conducting research and writing. Job
pressures, e.g. related to re-appointment and/or promotion, can take a
toll. "Committee work" on faculty governance committees can also be an
incredible waste of time required by administrative bureaucrats. The very
ethic of "publish or perish" is inimical to research unless one believes
that the sink or swim school of thought encourages learning and
creativity. What this might mean is that faculty are rushed into
publication and might substitute quantity for quality since it's quantity
that tends to be rewarded more than quality.

(7) Of course, there are alternatives to academia. One can get a
research job working for a trade union, the [capitalist] state, or [Marx
forbid] a corporation or bourgeois think-tank. While I wouldn't dismiss
any of these possibilities (e.g. Sohn-Rethel conducted valuable research
and political work while working for a Nazi think-tank), each of these
alternatives have their own problems. Most importantly, from the
standpoint of doing research and writing, one's time is more structured
and one's research is conditioned by both expediency and the demands of
your employer. This contrasts to an academic setting where one can, for
the most part, select what you want to do research on. Also, I think one
has more time for research of one's own choosing if not saddled with a
9-to-5 research position.

(8) Now we come to issues associated with *publication*.

a) publishers normally have requirements regarding *publication
dates* (a problem that Marx experienced on a number of occasions). The
problem here might be that the requirements for projected date in terms
of publishing might conflict with the time required for inquiry and
writing. There is a flip side to this process: namely, that publishers
insist on definite publication dates but then don't publish on the date
promised (I imagine some of you are aware of both of these problems).

b) Publishers also make requirements regarding *size* that have a
big affect on the final results. If Marx had written _Capital_ today, who
would publish it as is? How many *hundreds* of pages would they insist be
cut? It should be noted, in this regard, that Marx planned to originally
publish his critique of political economy as a series of pamphlets. The
process of research, however, led him to both miss -- repeatedly -- the
promised publication dates and expand the manuscripts well beyond the
original intended length. In today's commercial setting, not many
publishers would have the commitment or patience for such delays or
expansion of book length.

c) Publishers also have requirements regarding *style* and
*sources* that affect how we write.

d) Another variable is the inter-action that we receive from
anonymous readers or fellow political economists as they read
and make comments on our writing. This frequently can alter the final
result in ways not originally anticipated (*usually* for the better) and
can lengthen the time required before publication.

(9) How we write is also related to *who* will read what we write. For
instance, is the product to be a "popular" work or a "scholarly"
publication? Here again there is a tension since we generally want our
work to be read widely (and, perhaps, have a political affect), yet, the
subject matter itself sometimes requires a form of presentation (e.g.
mathematical models) that are not readily understood by non-specialists. I
think this was a tension that Marx felt as well. Clearly, he wanted
_Capital_ to be a popular work which would be widely read and have a
political affect. Yet, the subject matter itself and the type of
vocabulary and conceptual development required to give the manuscript
greater specificity and precision meant that it was (to put it mildly) a
difficult read for most workers.

(10) The process of research and writing greatly benefits from the
(well-intentioned) input that we receive from other political economists.
In this connection, the development of e-mail allows us to exchange ideas and
perspectives in a way that wouldn't have been possible otherwise (one of
the many advantages of this mailing list). Whether this results in
collective or individual research and writing, we all benefit from this
inter-action (although, it as well, places demands on our limited time).

(11) Finally, let me note the role of *coincidence* in research and
writing. Bakunin's chance gift of a work by Hegel (the _Science of
Logic_?) to Marx seems to have made an impact on Marx's exposition and
inquiry at a crucial stage. I'm sure we have similar experiences, e.g.
finding a book on sale at a used book shop and being influenced by that

IN CONCLUSION, I would say that the process of asking and answering
questions necessarily leads to more questions. We should *always* ask not
only what we know, but also what we *don't* know and should be prepared to
change our perspectives when presented with additional evidence and
knowledge. Our research and writing is dependent on a number of
contingent factors over which we do not necessarily have material control.
As we write, we learn. As we continue, we learn more. We never get to a
point where we have complete mastery over a subject matter. The process of
learning ends only when our heart stops beating.

In OPE-L Solidarity,