[OPE-L:4450] "A Contribution ...," Part IV

andrew klima (Andrew_Kliman@msn.com)
Wed, 19 Mar 1997 18:12:20 -0800 (PST)

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The Significance of the New Value Controversy

As we saw, Professor Foley dismisses my claim to have refuted the Okishio
theorem because, when my living labor figures are "corrected" so that they
equal the VNP, "the resulting price and profit rate paths do not contradict
the Okishio theorem" (p. 28). This use of the word "corrected" saddens me
deeply. After 90 years, during which the "Marxian economists" and
non-Marxists alike took as Gospel truth that Bortkiewicz (1952 [1907]) had
"proven" Marx's value theory to be self-contradictory and had "corrected" his
"errors," Professor Foley's new paper (p. 26) strongly suggests that he has
now come to the recognition that it isn't so. [7] Good. Yet in order not to
repeat the mistakes of the past, it is important to learn from them. One of
the foremost lessons to be learned is that it is inaccurate to characterize
one's *disagreements* with one's theoretical adversaries as the correction of
their errors, and that it leads to the suppression of their views. Whom,
other than a true believer or misinformed simpleton, would seek to ground
his/her thinking in a body of work that is not only held in disdain, but is
*incoherent in its own terms*?

Indeed, the characterization of theoretical differences as internal
inconsistency has constituted a denial that Marx's value theory and thus
Marx's Marxism even exist as a totality that can stand on its own. And since
it does not exist, this portrayal of affairs implies (without actually having
to state) that it has no right to exist. Internal inconsistency entails a
theoretical *imperative* to correct, complete, and/or truncate Marx's work, or
to subsume it under or blend it into other doctrines. When theoretical
differences are characterized as technical corrections, moreover, it then
becomes possible to maintain that the results are a continuation and
development of Marx's legacy. Professor Foley is thus quite correct when he
writes that Marxist scholars have often had a "desire to appropriate his
prestige for their particular contemporary political purposes" (p. 2),
especially when we recognize that "political" encompasses the politics of
theoretical discourse and academic research agendas. The presentation of the
whole operation in neutral, technical language (e.g., "solutions" to the
transformation "problem"), mathematical symbolism, technical jargon, and the
ideologies of science and scientific progress (see Kliman 1997) also conveys
the message that to follow the road of Marx's own Marxism is to be a dogmatic

Yet how different history might have been had Bortkiewicz and his many
followers and imitators merely said, not that they had "proven" that Marx was
internally inconsistent, but that they thought he was *wrong*, that they
*disagreed* with his ideas, that they could not *understand* what he was
trying to say, and so forth. It would then have been clear that the debate
was a clash between incompatible theories and incommensurable problematics.
Recognition that the ground of these differences might perhaps be the
conflicting aims of the disputants may then also have emerged. Marx's own
critique of political economy might then have had a fighting chance to exist
as an alternative to what we now know as "Marxian economics."

Another of the foremost lessons to be learned is that to "translate" terms and
concepts in accordance within one's own theory and then show that the
translation fails to cohere should be a warning signal that this procedure,
not the original theory itself, may very well be the source of the problem,
and that the "translation" may not be faithful to the original concepts. That
Bortkiewicz did not prove that Marx made an error is demonstrated by the very
fact that an alternative interpretation of Marx's value theory exists, in
which the alleged self-contradiction simply disappears (see, for example,
Kliman and McGlone 1988). Similarly, that Professor Foley has not proven that
I made an error in computing prices is demonstrated by the very fact that I
have a different "interpretation" of my work – the discrepancy between the VNP
and the value added by living labor was intentional; it is a necessary
consequence of the TSS interpretation of Marx's value theory. (That he has
not proven that my interpretation is in error is demonstrated by the facts
that it replicates Marx's results and that the claim that value added and VNP
are identical is left as an assertion.)

In the interests of teaching "the alternative interpretations of Marx's labor
theory of value honestly and clearly" (p. 29), I would thus suggest that
characterizations such as "correction" should be avoided. Likewise, in order
not to re-establish an orthodox "Marxian economics" that claims a "direct line
to Marx," it may be advisable to refrain from suggestions that one or another
interpretation seems counter to "the Marxist interpretation." Phrases such as
these could be read as implying that one's own interpretation alone is "the
Marxist" one and that others are not legitimate alternatives, but bungled
attempts to apply the True one.

I believe that alternative theories and philosophies should all have a right
to develop themselves, to be heard, and to contend in the public space. Among
them are the various alternative theories and philosophies that call
themselves "Marxist." And among these are the theories and philosophy of one
Marxist who has been denied this right, Karl Marx. As indicated above, the
foremost source of their suppression within economics, including "Marxian
economics," has been the myth that the internal inconsistency of his own value
theory has been "proven." Yet now that the alleged proofs of inconsistency
have been shattered, the internal inconsistency argument is reappearing in a
new form that threatens to have the effect of again delegitimating Marx's own
Marxism as an alternative to the "Marxian economics" tradition. It seeks to
shift the burden of proof. Rather than internal inconsistency needing to be
proven, Marx is now declared guilty of internal inconsistency until proven

"Marx's writings on economics are voluminous, span almost his whole active
intellectual career during which he surely changed his mind on many issues,
and exist in a widely disparate variety of states of revision. As a result,
it is very hard to rule out the possibility of inconsistencies in his
treatment of these fundamental doctrinal issues, or, to put the matter more
positively, that he propounded more than one theory of value. The main
weakness of the doctrinal papers in the volume [_Marx and Non-equilibrium
Economics_] is their uniform adherence to the idea of a single, all-embracing
and completely consistent reading of Marx" [Foley 1996b].

That it is *possible* that Marx's value theory is internally inconsistent is
so obviously true that it is not worth discussing, and indeed it has never
been in dispute. What has been and continues to be in dispute is whether it
*is* in fact inconsistent. We will never be able to rule out this possibility
with absolute certainty, to be sure, but that is true of all empirical
matters. It was very hard to rule out Ptolemy's theory of the solar system,
it took many centuries of often bitter struggles, but the matter was indeed
eventually decided, and decided to the satisfaction of all but true believers
on the basis of the evidence. The impossibility of absolute certainty in
empirical matters and the difficulty in achieving probabilistic certainty
hardly justifies agnosticism or disregard for the evidence to date.

Given that internal consistency can never be proven definitively, there is
only one way of testing claims of internal inconsistency: the claims must be
proven, and proven on the basis of textual and other evidence. Indeed,
another of the foremost lessons to be learned from the tragedy to which the
Bortkiewiczian style of discourse had led is that claims of internal
inconsistency should be subjected to much more scrutiny, not less, and that
they should certainly not be accepted on faith.

This is not "adherence to the idea of a single, all-embracing and completely
consistent reading of Marx"; it is simply a refusal to rule out the internal
coherence of a theory on a priori grounds and a refusal to find him guilty
until proven innocent. Indeed, the one group of people that has taken the
allegations of Marx's internal inconsistencies most seriously, that has
investigated them most rigorously and painstakingly, and by far at greatest
length, is the group of people who now adhere to the TSS interpretation. (I
myself have been investigating these issues for 11 years.) That we may now
appear to some as a band of unshakably certain true believers which has
emerged full-blown from out of nowhere is due to the fact that our research
has been suppressed for so long that all one sees are the firm conclusions and
not the long process from which they emerged – tentative questioning,
formulation of hypotheses, the testing thereof, the writing up of partial
results, much discussion and debate, refinement, and synthesis.

Another of the foremost lessons to be learned is that, to make sense of Marx's
work, one must really try. That is, one must try to understand it in its own
terms rather than in terms of one's own theory, research agenda, methodology,
and supposedly neutral analytical "tools." Round pegs do not fit in square
holes. Bortkiewicz (1952, pp. 23-24), for one key example, tried to
"modernize" Marx's value theory by eschewing successivist (temporal,
sequential) determination and replacing it with the concept of mutual
(simultaneous) determination he had learned from Walras, and thereby created
all the hitherto "internal" inconsistencies and problems that we continue to
suffer today. Conversely, although it is a Marxist cliché, I must say that
"it is no accident" that perhaps as many as 10 individuals from different
parts of the globe, individuals not in contact with one another, all hit upon
the TSS interpretation or close approximations to it. We took an approach
different from the Bortkiewiczian one. Rather than subjecting Marx's work to
a reading determined by external considerations, we tried to understand it in
its own terms. We tried to minimize the intrusion of our subjective purposes
on our reading and instead asked "how must this and that concept, this and
that passage, be interpreted in order for the theory to make sense as a
whole?" It worked; we came up with the same or very similar answers, answers
that vindicated the internal coherence of Marx's own value theory.

What I am discussing here is *method* – how to go about understanding Marx's
work. This should not be confused with *purposes*. I doubt that any adherent
of the TSS interpretation ever desired to "get Marx right" for its own sake.
The point is indeed that, whatever one's purposes may be, one makes a mess of
Marx's value theory when one lets one's purposes dictate that it will be read
on one's own terms and not in its own terms.

It seems to me that Professor Foley confuses purposes and method in referring
to those whose "*interest* is … in …what close reading and ingenious
speculation can tell us about the consistency of Marx's unwritten thoughts"
(p. 29, emphasis added). I know of no one to whom this applies. A straw man
is being set up as well, since no one has suggested that we engage in
"speculation" about "unwritten thoughts." I have suggested that Marx's value
theory can be better understood by a close reading of his **published and
unpublished texts and manuscripts*, especially when the reading attempts to
make sense of it as a whole, than by a reading that permits one's theoretical
preconceptions and ulterior motives to predetermine the outcome. I am also
suggesting that **textual and other evidence**, not speculation, should
decide both whether Marx's own value theory is internally coherent and which
interpretation of it, if any, can be said to be authentic. I therefore think
that Professor Foley's speculation about whether Marx felt he had resolved the
relation of values and production prices (p. 12) is beside the point. What
matters is whether the theory itself, as presented in the published and
unpublished texts, is coherent.

Of course, one's purposes may be such that reading Marx's work in its own
terms may not be important or may even be detrimental. It is, I think,
perfectly legitimate to draw on some insights of others, and modify them as
needed, in order to further the development of one's own theory or research
agenda. But this process is not interpretation and should not be called
interpretation. The resulting theory is not the author's own and should not
be attributed to him or her. (Even the use of the term "Marxian" is liable to
sow confusion.) Likewise, categories that are specific to a particular author
(such as constant capital, variable capital, surplus-value, etc.) should only
be employed if one is willing to claim that one's usage of them conforms to
the author's and if one is willing to defend this claim on the basis of the
textual evidence as a whole. Those who employ such categories and refuse to
discuss the authenticity of their interpretation on the ground that they are
engaged in "empirical" work are knowingly or unknowingly perpetuating dogmas.

It thus seems to me that part of the task of teaching "alternative
interpretations of Marx's labor theory of value honestly and clearly" is to
differentiate between what are actually interpretations of Marx's own theory,
what are rival theories, and what are atheoretical research projects.
Theories should be judged according to their internal coherence and how well
they explain things. Interpretations should be judged by how well they make
sense of the texts as a whole. When the two things are confused and
conflated, some people end up thinking that challenges to their
*interpretations* on textual grounds are dogmatic claims that there is one
true *theory*, or that there is only one legitimate way of relating to Marx's
work, or that knowledge of the real world is unimportant.

It simply isn't so. If one wants to pursue one's research project, that is
fine by me. If one wants to interpret Marx, that is also fine, as long as one
is willing to subject the interpretation to evidentiary disconfirmation. What
is illegitimate is to make interpretive claims and then answer challenges to
one's interpretation with protestations that one has a right to pursue one's
own research project or develop one's own theory. **You can't have your cake
and eat it too**. As Brewer (1995, p. 141) –certainly no adherent of the TSS
interpretation or fan of Marx – has noted recently, "Marxist economists
habitually deny any originality and claim that their newest idea is really to
be found in Marx. The result is a form of continuous strip-mining of the most
trivial of Marx's jottings in search of quotations to support one point of
view or another." This shoddy and dishonest practice is directly to blame for
the ubiquity of the confusion and conflation of theory and interpretation, as
well as the unfounded charges of dogmatism.

Thus, although I agree with Professor Foley that we should teach the
"alternative interpretations of Marx's labor theory of value honestly and
clearly as alternative theoretical foundations for a unified empirical
practice that can yield important insights into capitalist reality" (p. 29), I
would again insist that what is interpretation and what is theoretical
foundation be distinguished clearly. Moreover, to teach TSS research strictly
as a "theoretical foundation" is not quite accurate. It is also a
*refutation* of claims to have proven Marx's value theory inconsistent, a
*vindication* of the internal consistency of his theory, an alternative way of
*understanding* that theory, and very often a *critique* of contrary political
economy and a *battle* against a century of ideological attacks on his Marx's
body of ideas. To teach it honestly and clearly, then, these dimensions of
TSS research must not be disengaged from the whole. Nor should the historical
context within which TSS research emerged and within which it exists be
disengaged from the whole. History should not be rewritten in such a way that
the internal inconsistency issue, which has been **the single central issue**
that has driven the debate over Marx's value theory for more than a century,
disappears from view, simply because the emperor has been shown to have no
clothes. We need to teach that among the various different Marxisms, there is
the Marxism of Marx himself, and that one can, if one chooses, learn from it
directly without the aid of anyone else's "corrections" or "completions."

_Dixi et salvavi animam meam_.

Note to Part IV:

7. Foley (1996, p. 98) states that Marx's account of the value/production
price transformation is inconsistent because purchase prices at the time of
input differ from sale prices at the time of output. Given that his concept
that value added equals VNP is tantamount to asserting the need to equate the
input and output prices of means of production, one may wonder why he no
longer alleges that Marx's account was inconsistent.

(a list of references to follow as Part V)