[OPE-L:3503] RE: HOPE for and against Marx and Marxist economics?

andrew kliman (Andrew_Kliman@msn.com)
Tue, 22 Oct 1996 09:10:28 -0700 (PDT)

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A reply to Jerry's ope-l 3502.

I found the HOPE minisymposium, the Brewer lead piece in particular, chilling.
We find the real purpose of his essay disclosed at the end: attempts to
update and/or resuscitate Marx should be kept out of the history of economic
thought journals.

Taken in the *abstract*, I have some sympathy with his point, since he's right
that a good deal of what currently passes for research on Marx's work is
actually not that at all. It is not research in the *history* of economic
thought. Rather, as he says, it is original work that expresses the authors'
own insights and perspectives, with some quotes and arguments brought forth
that attempt to situate it as a "development" of something Marx wrote.

However --- and it is a huge however --- Marxist work is systematically
excluded from most other refereed journals, so that, in this environment,
Brewer's call serves to abet the neo-McCarthyite campaign to suppress Marxist
ideas and root Marxism out of academia. What is Brewer doing to ensure that
other refereed journals begin to accept the work he is trying to keep out of
the history of thought journals? He mentions nothing in this regard. Indeed,
he totally ignores the consequences his proposal would have for freedom of
inquiry and expression. In the immortal words of Tom Lehrer: "Once the
rockets go up/Who cares where they come down/That's not my department/Says
Werner von Braun."

Moreover --- and it is a huge moreover --- Brewer seems to have no difficulty
accepting a lot of other research, purportedly on Marx, which the history of
economic thought journals also regularly publish, which also bears only a
tangential relation to what Marx wrote. First, there is a lot of simply bad
work published. Second, it has become an accepted practice to rely on
secondary literature (replete with inaccuracies and myths) instead of Marx's
own work when writing a paper on Marx. Even a virulent anti-Marxist like
Thomas Sowell has complained about this. For instance, the myth that Marx
assumed --- where?, in what context? to what effect? --- and needed to assume
equal rates of surplus-value runs rampant. Most importantly, however, the
"methodology" of "rational reconstruction" is widely accepted as legitimate,
especially among neoclassical historians of economic thought. According to
this "methodology," what an author (e.g., Marx) actually wrote and "meant" is
irrelevant, and the need accurately to represent the author's own views is
generally dismissed sneeringly. Instead, the author's work is "reconstructed"
in light of the concepts and concerns of "modern" theory, judged by the degree
to which it aids in the alleged "progress" of economic theory, and looted for
the "insights" (if any) it has for "modern" theory. This "methodology" is
intellectual imperialism (a topic on which Brewer is expert): the top dogs of
the moment proclaim themselves to be the most advanced, and all others are
ranked invidiously by how closely they conformed to or anticipated the
now-reigning ideologies.

Now notice how much this "rational reconstruction" stuff has in common with
the work Brewer wishes to exclude. In both cases, the authors' concerns, not
Marx's concerns, are central to the work. Parts of Marx's work are held to be
useful tools or made into useful tools for developing the authors' own theory.
Other parts are ignored or rejected, in both cases, if they fail to be
"useful." Marx's work is not discussed in and for itself. Little attempt is
made accurately to represent and understand what he wrote and meant; all the
emphasis is on theoretical "progress."

Therefore, were Brewer consistently to apply his criterion of what should be
excluded from history of thought journals, he'd have to try to exclude much,
much more than he wishes to exclude --- most of it coming from non- and
anti-Marx authors. Again, I fully agree with him that a lot of what passes
for research on Marx's work, for work in the *history* of economic thought, is
something else entirely, and shows little concern to understand the original.
But the problem extends far beyond the attempts of some post-Marx Marxists to
invoke Marx's name in order to put a "stamp of authenticity" on their own

What I found even more chilling was Brewer's implicit argument (he did
everything but draw the conclusion) that work which *is* actually about Marx
should not be published in the history of economic thought journals, except if
it confines itself to reporting new historiographic findings. Basically,
Brewer argues that Marx had to be taken seriously as long as the "USSR" was
around, but its collapse removes that justification, and there is no other
justification for taking his work seriously. He claims, rightly, I think,
that the original aspects of _Capital_ were not within the main stream of
development of economic thought and have therefore had little impact. He also
argues that, even in its own terms, Marx's critique of political economy was a
major failure. To make his point, he largely falls back on the century of
charges that Marx's value theory and law of the falling rate of profit are
internally incoherent. These two topics constitute the majority of the part
of Brewer's essay devoted to assessing Marx's views and arguments. He
argues, again very rightly I think, that if these two pillars fall, not much
is left.

But do they fall? It is noteworthy that he makes *no* mention of the temporal
single-system (TSS) interpretation, research in which has invalidated all of
the charges he repeats concerning the internal inconsistency of the
"quantitative" aspect of Marx's value theory and law of the falling rate of

Nor do any of the other contributors mention the findings of TSS research.
Most of them challenge to some degree one or more of Brewer's major theses,
but I think they (individually and collectively) could have put forth a
somewhat stronger case had they referred to TSS research. At minimum, they
could have noted that Marx's work is not *necessarily* incoherent --- it all
depends on how one interprets it. Because no one did so, and because of the
strength of Brewer's point that little of _Capital_ remains unscathed if
Marx's value and profit rate theories fail --- which no one really challenged
--- it seems to me that Brewer won the debate on the merits of Marx's work

Of course, a few of those who defended Marx against Brewer's arguments were
people who have been among the most vociferous critics of Marx's work, so
their "defenses" were necessarily partial and somewhat reluctant. The best
counter-arguments were made, I think, by those who challenged the methodology
of Brewer's case, particularly his positivist and progressivist notions of
economic thought and its process of development. But again, no one really
countered his claims that Marx's work was a failure in its own terms. It is a
shame that no proponent of the TSS interpretation was invited to participate
in the minisymposium.

Andrew Kliman

P.S. Jerry, if you'd like to forward this post to Hans Despain and/or the
list to which he posted his message, I have no objection.