[OPE-L:3670] RE: Operationalization of Marxian theory

andrew kliman (Andrew_Kliman@msn.com)
Thu, 14 Nov 1996 11:32:57 -0800 (PST)

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A reply to Duncan's ope-l 3661.

I thank Duncan for clarifying what he meant by "sharp doctrinal differences
that at the moment threaten to stall fruitful research." I understand the
point better now. I'm still skeptical of this view, however. It seems to me
that the differences (which I think are not really doctrinal) are more of a
*symptom* of the general crisis of Marxism and of the lack of development of
"Marxian political economy" than a cause of that lack of development.

Duncan writes: "In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Marxist economics
was at the center of the most important political economic thinking going:
imperialism, underconsumption, finance capital, the transformation of
capitalism to socialism, the evolution and development of capitalism on a
world scale ...."

I agree with this. It is in marked contrast with the situation today. But
notice that the regression is not confined to the last few years or even the
last 15, but began in the period after the one Duncan cites. Several things
happened to cause this, including:

(a) the Marxist movement underwent deep splits;
(b) Stalinism arose and much "Marxian economics" became an apologia for
Russia and later for nationalist elites in the 3rd World, typically by
privileging technological development (standard 2-system value theory serves
this function well);
(c) due to (a) and (b), many currents of Marxism lost their revolutionary
elan, the integrality of theory and practice, that had given the earlier work
its force and urgency; and
(d) those doing research were now rarely full-time revolutionists and/or
employed by the movement, as those in the earlier period had been, but mostly
employed in academia with its specializations and boundaries, so it became
much harder to maintain the unity of theory and practice or to work on
specifically Marxian problematics to the extent that they couldn't be confined
within the boundaries of a particular academic discipline.

There are other, more positive reasons for the change, including:

(e) many folks began to recognize the difference between Marxism and economic
determinism, along with which usually went less of an emphasis on "economic"
issues and more on other aspects of social life;
(f) relatedly, there was a turn by some away from positivism towards a more
critical-dialectical approach; and
(g) the tasks of revolutionary Marxism changed with the times. For instance,
Raya Dunayevskaya, who did a lot of work on economic matters in the 1940s and
early 1950s, began to focus her work much more on philosophical questions in
the attempt to respond to the *internal* obstacles to revolution put up by the
Left and the movements for social change.

To come to the period since the 1960s specifically, I also think that the
current interpretative and theoretical controversies in value-theoretic
matters are closely tied to two things. First, but chronologically later, the
collapse of "Communism," which has shaken up things so that more people are
willing to entertain controversy. Second, in true Hegelian fashion, when
standard "Marxian" value theory reached its pinnacle, it negated itself and
perished. It became obvious that the technological determinist understanding
of value eliminated the need for value or made it self-contradictory. Almost
all of the work in "Marxian" value theory of the past twenty years has this
problem as its starting point, including the "abstract labor" and "value-form"
stuff, the attempts to rescue technological determinist value theory on
empirical grounds, the New Interpretation, SSS (in which I include Wolff,
Callari, Roberts, Lee, Moseley, and Rodriguez) and TSS. (Have I left anyone
out?) So I really think the controversy is a symptom and a result of a lack
of progress --- nay, a regression --- rather than a cause.

It should also be noted that in the period to which Duncan refers, there were
many very sharp controversies, many of them indeed concerning "doctrinal"
matters. For instance, the debate over Luxemburg's _Accumulation_ or over
imperialism. This didn't stall fruitful research, I think, but served to
stimulate it. Also, much work of that period was very "doctrinal" in
orientation. The key example is Lenin's _State and Revolution_, most of which
was a detailed textual analysis of Marx's and Engels's writings on the State
and a critique of opponents. Were anyone to attempt to do something like that
nowadays, all kinds of epithets about "ideology" and "religion" would be used
to bury it immediately, yet Lenin's approach didn't detract from the
originality or importance of what he was arguing, IMO, but made his work

Duncan also writes: "there is very little cumulation of effort: it seems to
be hard for us to build on the work of others. Another is that the field seems
incoherent to students."

I think the students are right. Marxian work lacks the homogeneity of
neoclassical work and presentations of it are far removed from the dogmatic,
pedantic textbook treatments of neoclassical work. This is not altogether
bad. If Marxism is to be critical in nature, it should not be aping
neoclassicism's hegemonism, its teaching through indoctrination, or its
pretensions to be "common sense." But the field is incoherent for other
reasons. Standard "Marxian" value theory collapsed, and there are many pieces
floating around, many of them incompatible (the same is true BTW, with
macroeconomics after the collapse of ISLM Keynesianism.)

I think Duncan is quite right that we find it hard to build on the work of
others. That's because we disagree with them. Since Kuhn, however, I think
the cumulationist view of scientific "progress" has rightly gone out of
fashion (except among neoclassical economists, since it sanctifies their
hegemony as "progress"; might makes right). To pursue the Kuhn analogy
further, I think we're living in a period in which a paradigm has collapsed
and a paradigm shift may be underway, and "normal science" doesn't take place
in such a situation; rather, there is a reconstruction of fundamentals and
propagation of the new paradigm.

On the other hand, I do think each of us is building on the work of others.
My own work is rooted in that of Marx and Dunayevskaya and, in a different
way, in the development of standard "Marxian" and "Sraffian" value theory, and
in neoclassical theory. In addition, I've studied New Interpretation, SSS,
and TSS works of others pretty carefully, and I've tried to build upon them in
various ways. There is a good deal of "internal" discussion among people
doing TSS work, a good deal of cross-fertilization, only part of which is
reflected on ope-l. Without Sraffian theory, the iterative "solutions" to the
"transformation problem," and the New Interpretation of the value of money
and/or Shaikh's related concept, and without the internal cross-fertilization,
I think it is pretty clear that the TSS interpretation would not exist today.

Finally, Duncan writes: "I was trying to encourage a focus on problems that
lead to cumulation of effort, and emphasize the area of agreement among
Marxist economists, with the hope of moving toward an intellectually more
productive dialogue."

This is a laudable aim. I have doubts as to its practicability, due to the
deep differences among us, and to the fact that problems considered crucial
from one vantage-point are not so crucial from another, and vice-versa. I
think we need to work out modes of dialogue that have more modest aims, and I
think they can be productive. I'm not in favor of trying to subsume the
differences in a search for unity, because I think development tends to arise
through contradiction. Indeed, IMO the kinds of dialogue we've been having
have generally been productive even though they don't tend to lead to
agreement; we tend to understand others better and therefore understand
ourselves better.

In the end, I think what will decide things is either that we will all perish,
because Marxism will die, or there will be a public of some sort interested in
one or another paradigm because it addresses its concerns. Theories differ
not only in their answers to given questions, but especially in the questions
they ask and the kind of answers they deem appropriate. It seems to me that a
lot of the current controversy stems from our inability to accept others'
theories' questions and answer-forms. I find it hard to imagine that this
will get resolved internally.

For instance, the operationalization of Marx's (Marxian?) theory is of
*primary* importance to Duncan, whereas it is of little importance from my
perspective. Or, similarly, whether or not total value and total price are
equal is a matter I spend a lot of time thinking about, whereas it is
literally meaningless from the perspective of Paul, Allin, and others, and it
is simply a tautology to still others. Conversely, correlations between
prices and vertically integrated labor coefficients is a crucial to everything
or almost everything Paul and Allin care about, whereas this issue of of no
importance to me. Nor are these mere subjective differences in preferences;
they are tied integrally to theoretical differences.

I don't think it will work, therefore, to say "here is something we can all
get behind, let's all focus on this." This idea has arisen a few times during
the history of this list, and it always seems that discussion quickly moves to
elemental differences. Nor does this phenomenon arise only over
value-theoretic issues. I don't think the reason is that Marxists are
sectarian or any other psychological explanation. Rather, we find that the
reason we're unable to proceed together on complex matters is that we don't
agree on elemental ones. Thus, in the absence of some degree of agreement on
the latter, there really is little possibility of agreement on the former.
But again, I don't think this is necessarily bad, because I see development
coming through contradiction.

Andrew Kliman