Explaining Marx to newbies

by Chris Bertram on April 20, 2009

I’m lecturing on Hobbes this week. Since it is a first year lecture, I’m not going to get too deep into any of the controversies, but I will try to give the students a sense of who Hobbes was, why he remains important and how his ideas connect to other topics they may come across. I’ll probably say something about Hobbes’s time resembling ours as a period of acute religious conflict.

Suppose I were lecturing about Karl Marx: I’d do the same thing. I’d probably start by discussing some of the ideas in the Manifesto about the revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, about their transformation of technology, social relations, and their creation of a global economy. Then I’d say something about Marx’s belief that, despite the appearance of freedom and equality, we live in a society where some people end up living off the toil of other people. How some people have little choice but to spend their whole lives working for the benefit of others, and how this compulsion stops them from living truly truly human lives. And then I’d talk about Marx’s belief that a capitalist society would eventually be replaced by a classless society run by all for the benefit of all. Naturally, I’d say something about the difficulties of that idea. I don’t think I’d go on about Pol Pot or Stalin, I don’t think I’d recycle the odd bon mot by Paul Samuelson, I don’t think I’d dismiss Hegel out of hand, and I don’t think I’d contrast modes of production with Weberian modes of domination (unless I was confident, as I wouldn’t be, that my audience already had some sense of those concepts). It seems that Brad De Long has different views to mine on how to explain Karl Marx to newbies. Each to their own, I suppose.

{ 145 comments }

1

josh 04.20.09 at 4:31 pm

Thanks for this, Chris. It’s particularly interesting to me, since I’ve just been teaching Marx to “newbies” (I’ve been doing so in discussion sections of 12-13 students, rather than lectures; obviously, the format has affected the way that I’ve approached the topic). Our approaches are largely similar, I think, but there are a few areas where we differ:
1) Since we’d been looking at Hegel, I started out by contrasting Marx’s account of history and his method of social explanation to Hegels — which centred on discussion of the distinction between base and superstructure, and claim that the base determines the superstructure.
2) I didn’t make heavy weather of the economic theory, but I did emphasize Marx’s own emphasis on labour — and that his economic theory rests on the labour theory of value (I didn’t mention that this is now pretty universally rejected by economists)
3) I talked a bit more about reification than it seems like you would in your Marx spiel (not using that term, but trying to give the basic idea)
4) I raised (or, rather, allowed my students to raise — which, bless them, they did) the ticklish subject of Marx’s critique of capitalism and morality — which seems to be absent from your summary.
5) Next week we’ll be going on to Mill, so I plan to start out with a discussion of what Marx means by freedom — and also his critique of the bourgeois state and of rights.
I think points 4) and 5) are important, though also tricky, to emphasize. On the one hand, one doesn’t want to reinforce preconceived notions of Marx as totalitarian bogey-man (particularly since I’ve already had to defend Hobbes and Hegel from charges of totalitarianism.) On the other, it does seem to me important to stress that Marx’s critique of capitalism is not a matter of liberal humanitarianism; and that he believed that, if his analysis was correct — and if one takes his claims seriously — simply remaining wedded to a (more egalitarian version or interpretation of) liberal theories of human rights just won’t cut it. I guess this is sort of implied when you make mention of the appearance of freedom and equality in contrast to the reality of exploitation and oppression. But, from this bare summary, I could see your account making Marx seem more reconcilable to a sort of left-liberal humanitarianism than I think he is, or should be presented as being.
(I, also, didn’t discuss Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. Though come to think of it, I should make more of the difference between Marx and Marxism next week.)

2

alkali 04.20.09 at 5:01 pm

CB: I don’t think I’d go on about Pol Pot or Stalin …

The totality of DeLong’s discussion of same in the linked document (prepare yourself, get a pot of coffee and a comfortable chair ready, this may take quite some time):

And when Marx and Engels’s writings became sacred texts for the world religion called Communism, things passed beyond the absurd into tragedy and beyond tragedy into horror: the belief that the logic of development of the economy was the most important thing about society became entangled in the belief that Joe Stalin or Mao Zedong or Pol Pot or Kim Il Sung or Fidel Castro was our benevolent master and ever-wise guide.

(How long have I been reading? What day is it?)

3

David Weman 04.20.09 at 5:16 pm

“Then I’d say something about Marx’s belief that, despite the appearance of freedom and equality, we live in a society where some people end up living off the toil of other people. How some people have little choice but to spend their whole lives working for the benefit of others, and how this compulsion stops them from living truly truly human lives.”

Marx had no such beliefs, since we wasn’t born then. We can only speculate on what he’d make of the 21st century.

4

Trevor 04.20.09 at 5:58 pm

Pol Pot didn’t want to develop the economy. The killing fields were a Rousseausque insistence on ‘returning’ to an agrarian society.

Wouldn’t a good way to introduce Marx to ‘newbies’ would be to bring up some intellectuals/factions that still insist or rely on Marxism? I always remember my 8th social studies teacher’s unit on Marx and he began it with, “Marx was wrong.” Right away I knew the slant on the class would be to assure everyone that Marx was wrong, not why he was an important or influential thinker. So to explore this a bit more highlighting the financial crisis, orthodox Communist parties, Slavoj Zizek, Zapatistas and anarchism and so on, would make the students realize its not just some dead white guy you’re talking about.

5

Kieran Healy 04.20.09 at 6:06 pm

make the students realize its not just some dead white guy you’re talking about.

When I teach Marx (alongside Smith), I sometimes say in passing that not only is he a Dead White Guy, he’s the sort of guy critics repeatedly exhume and beat the shite out of over and over, just to make absolutely sure he really is dead.

6

Colin Danby 04.20.09 at 6:16 pm

The alongside point is good. If you do Smith first, then it’s a lot clearer what Marx is up to and where he comes in.

Also there’s something to be said for naming the defensive political cringe from which discussions of Marx start. I usually chat a little bit about the cold war and growing up under the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the sense I had as a child that Marx was my mortal enemy. Brad’s piece I think does a plausible job at defusing.

I also find that students sometimes expect, given the voltages they sense, that Marx will be all transgressive and mind-blowing and, I dunno, the William Burroughs of political economy. Then they’re disappointed. It might be nice to list some successful class readings.

7

political strudel 04.20.09 at 6:50 pm

A friend who once had the displeasure of attempting to obtain a degree in economics from Texas A&M – that marvelous place that brought you Phil Gramm – related to me how one of the faculty (not Gramm) gave a “lecture” on Marx each semester consisting of an hour’s worth of Marx-related jokes. Unfortunately, Groucho and his brethren were not involved, although Harpo would have made at least as substantial a contribution to academia.

8

Trevor 04.20.09 at 6:56 pm

Yes he is a dead white guy, but I would counter he’s slightly more relevant to larger discussions of the world today than say, Jefferson or John Locke. In this sense he doesn’t seem as dead as his critics would wish him to be. I mean, you can’t go see Soderbergh’s “Che”, discuss Nepal’s elections or mention subprime mortgage collateralized debt obligations with perhaps bringing up Marx in some kind of way. The Marxist revolutions failed, but the bourgeois revolutions just keep failing and failing and failing and ‘reforming’ and ‘reforming’ and ‘reforming’: a emphasis on Hegel and Marx as very much a part of the Enlightenment tradition would explain some discrepancies to some people (why is it libertarians and Ron Paul evoke thinkers and a ‘free market’ from almost four hundred years ago?). Marshall Berman was always adamant about Marx’s role in explaining modernity, there’s another in.

“I also find that students sometimes expect, given the voltages they sense, that Marx will be all transgressive and mind-blowing and, I dunno, the William Burroughs of political economy. Then they’re disappointed. It might be nice to list some successful class readings.”

I always found the opposite. One can talk about democracy, for or against, as much as you want, and people don’t seem to mind very much. Talk about notions of private property and Marxism however, you get some extreme responses. People come prepared with the most virulent anti-Communist stock answers when Marx is brought up (“But Communism killed lots of people!”), and students today seem no exception. They assume the Cold War is still being fought and don’t take a place in the larger historical debate. Perhaps soon.

9

Adam Kotsko 04.20.09 at 7:19 pm

Did you see the post where DeLong insulted and dismissed David Harvey? Then the one where he doubled down after commenters pointed out that he was misreading Harvey? There’s really something about Marxism that makes DeLong go crazy.

10

roger 04.20.09 at 8:30 pm

Funny that Delong doesn’t mention the killing fields of the Raj, where rigorous laissez faire was applied to famine situations five times in the forty years between 1875-1910. Hmm, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica of 1911, not a Marxist source, this caused eleven million deaths. Although the EB gave credit where credit was due, and proudly records: “Finally, it is estimated by the census commissioners that in the famine of 1901 three million people died in the native states and only one million in British territory .” Only one million! another stirring victory for keeping the government’s nose out of the economy.

Funny, those bad conditions that Delong alludes to in 1848, wasn’t some island, Ireland or something, where government interference was successfully prevented in order to allow the invisible hand to create a more profitable population mix all the way around. Some rumor I’ve heard about that. Shows just what capitalism can do if you just let it.

11

Mark 04.20.09 at 8:35 pm

I didn’t see DeLong’s introduction as particularly egregious. But then maybe that’s because the only other introductory lecture on Marx that I’ve seen, given to first-year anthropology students at Cambridge by a particularly old-fashioned member of the department, had the following two notable features:

1) it opened with a note that Marx was responsible for more deaths than possibly anyone ever; and
2) it failed to mention that “class” was an idea that Marx sometimes liked to make use of.

So judging by those standards DeLong’s effort seemed pretty reasonable to me.

12

Trevor 04.20.09 at 8:50 pm

Oh I always liked what Terry Eagleton said of Marx and Marxism (paraphrased): I consider Marx no more responsible for the crimes of the Soviet Union than I blame Jesus Christ for the crimes of the Catholic Church.

Comparing Marx to Jesus always a bit dangerous, but I think the logic holds up.

13

notsneaky 04.20.09 at 9:11 pm

“I don’t think I’d go on about Pol Pot or Stalin”

Which means you’d get Marxism without actually existing Marxism. How can you introduce students to an important thinker while purposefully ignoring the most important real world impact that this thinker had? I mean, surely if this was about introducing students to John Locke you’d want to mention the American Declaration of Independence.
I think on Wikipedia they call this “weaseling”
(and Brad was almost completely right on Harvey, I don’t know what threads Adam was reading – but I’ve gotten used to these alternate views of Brad (which usually involve mistaking cringe-worthy statements in the comments section for serious argument))

14

novakant 04.20.09 at 9:12 pm

Call me a spoilsport, but it seems to me one needs a pretty solid grasp on Hegel to understand Marx, no?

15

voyou 04.20.09 at 9:12 pm

The idiot empricism of DeLong criticism of the theory of commodity fetishism is pretty funny: “Well, I’ve never met anyone who fetishized commodities!”

16

sleepy 04.20.09 at 9:22 pm

“Which means you’d get Marxism without actually existing Marxism”
Or Christianity without actually existing Christianity

17

Chris Bertram 04.20.09 at 9:29 pm

_I mean, surely if this was about introducing students to John Locke you’d want to mention the American Declaration of Independence._

No, actually.

18

Bloix 04.20.09 at 9:34 pm

I don’t think you can teach Marx like you teach Hobbes. Your students have never heard of Hobbes so they have no pre-conceived ideas. There’s no brush you need to clear away and they are not trying to determine whether you are a closet Hobbesist or not. To teach Marx, I think, you need to find out what views your students already hold. Otherwise those views will interfere with their ability to understand what you are trying to teach them.

19

Steve LaBonne 04.20.09 at 9:43 pm

There’s really something about Marxism that makes DeLong go crazy.

ANYTHING to the left of DeLong makes DeLong go crazy. There have been multiple examples of such meltdowns on his blog over the years.

20

fred lapides 04.20.09 at 9:43 pm

All this is totally beyond me, but I would point out that the comment spends more time saying what he will not do than what he will or ought to do…a strategy in writing that is questionable.

Before the prodigious outpouring of work by Marx, what was the accepted view of what made and changed history, society? What did Marx suggest that altered this view?

21

notsneaky 04.20.09 at 9:44 pm

Re:15 see the end of my 13
Re: 17. Really? Ok, I’m surprised – especially since we’re talking about newbies here. Why not?
(And putting aside the fact that whereas Locke had a big impact on theory and the real world, at the end of the day Marx had just a big impact on the real world, not theory (this is the Samuelson bon mot))

22

peter 04.20.09 at 9:49 pm

I am reminded of Bruce Petty’s great film on the life of Marx, which mixed animations with documentary-style interviews of people who had known Karl (an idea copied without acknowledgment by Warren Beatty in “Reds”). Among the interviews was one with Marx’s mother: “As a boy, he never ate his liverwurst. I told him, “Karl, if you don’t eat your liverwurst, you won’t grow up to construe like Hegel.” And look at him now! He doesn’t construe like Hegel!”

23

Jim Harrison 04.20.09 at 10:19 pm

The notion that Marx somehow caused great swaths of 20th Century history testifies to the enduring appeal of naive idealism. It’s as if when a famous thinker dies he becomes a God who can thereafter affect events by magical means. Anyhow, if you really buy this version of historical influence, you’d have to say that Marx lay behind not only the Soviet Union and Red China but also the British labor party and the German S.P.D. Why focus on the Leninists or Pol Pot? As the Chinese are demonstrating every day, Marxism on the hoof can be pretty much anything.

I don’t expect and certainly don’t hope that the labor theory of value and all the rest of the Marxist apparatus makes a comeback, but thinking about Marx at least has the benefit of focusing attention on the centrality of domination in human history. At a first approximation, after all, the basic plot of our story is how a series of elite minorities have fought each other over the centuries to see who would get to dominate the majority.

24

Iain Coleman 04.20.09 at 10:57 pm

Were I teaching Marx, I would want to spend a bit of time on his critique of liberalism. I don’t think it’s a fatal critique, otherwise I wouldn’t be a liberal, but it is the only critique of liberalism that I have felt has some serious traction.

25

Z 04.20.09 at 11:25 pm

I didn’t see DeLong’s introduction as particularly egregious.

Taking any historical thinker and declaring (on the basis of flimsy evidence) that he is wrong, wrong, wrong is an easy game to play. It can makes you feel all superior and clever for having shown that Plato was an old fool and Marx a semi-talented political activist but it makes for poor history of ideas. Especially if, as in at least some part of DeLong’s account, very little effort is made to understand the historical and intellectual context of Marx’s work. I mean, you have to love the sentence starting with “We neoliberal economists shrug our shoulders and say that we are in favor of a market economy but not of market society”.

Besides, the discussion about Marx’s theory of value seems to me to be based on a complete misunderstanding of what Marx is saying.

26

Z 04.20.09 at 11:30 pm

So much so, in fact, that there is a highly amusing, but apparently unintended, irony in some comments, e.g “Everybody I talk to believes that things are both (a) useful to me and (b) useful to other people, and moreover c) we live in a society where we exchange stuff.”

27

Kieran Healy 04.20.09 at 11:37 pm

Your students have never heard of Hobbes so they have no pre-conceived ideas. There’s no brush you need to clear away

In point of fact, they almost all know he was just an ordinary stuffed toy, really.

28

Z 04.20.09 at 11:47 pm

OK, my last comment. Though I admit that Marx has held many changing opinions during his long career, writing “[According to Marx] capitalism would replace masked exploitation by naked exploitation” without at least mentioning that in the Capital, Marx argues more or less exactly the contrary (at least with respect to alienation) e.g “all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production”. As this quotation follows closely the one reproduced in DeLong’s essay, one has to wonder if he really read the Capital, let alone multiple times.

29

Martin Bento 04.21.09 at 12:27 am

Although I agree with some aspects of Delong’s critique, his insistence on presenting Marx only through the lens of his own responses to him prevents his students from getting an accurate view. For example, why did Marx accept the labor theory of value? What was his argument for it? This is actually rather important, as critiquing the argument gets you more than attacking the conclusion, but Delong’s students won’t get that because Delong found that part boring. And did Marx really say the fetishistic character of commodities was specific to Capitalism? It’s been ages since I read this stuff, but, as I recall the logic of the argument in Capital, that doesn’t seem to fit at all. Yet somehow, Delong treats it as a major gotcha.

30

rea 04.21.09 at 12:40 am

they almost all know he was just an ordinary stuffed toy, really

Does one of the prerequisite courses for your class cover Calvinism?

31

Gene O'Grady 04.21.09 at 12:47 am

In my alternative incarnation as the world’s oldest community college student I have to say that I was surprised when my economics instructor (quite left wing apparently based on e-mail but not on his lectures) brought up Marx, mostly as representative of a critique of Adam Smith who was kind of the center of the course, none of my fellow students, mostly a third my age, had any particular reaction at all, except some intellectual curiosity. Hardly what would have happened when I was their age forty years ago. A fair number of these people are also Iraq war veterans.

32

strasmangelo jones 04.21.09 at 1:47 am

Brad DeLong is not a terribly bright person.

33

strasmangelo jones 04.21.09 at 1:50 am

In point of fact, they almost all know he was just an ordinary stuffed toy, really.

Hobbes, “ordinary”?! You blaspheme.

34

john c. halasz 04.21.09 at 2:55 am

It’s long been apparent that DeLong is a philosophical ignoramus/incompetent. Anything that departs from crude Anglo-Saxon empiricism/utilitarianism just confuses him. I find Rawls boring and politically irrelevant, but I’m not stumped by the idea that normative accounts might be politically relevant, in the way that DeLong gets non-plussed by it. Hence his sneers at Hegel, which just indicate he doesn’t have the slightest idea of any derivation from Kant, nor of the way that “dialectics” amounts to an account of concept-formation, which is attentive to the difference and “identity” between concepts and “things” themselves. So all those recursive redundancies in Marx’ initial exposition must be just superfluously boring and easily overlooked, which makes the notion of “the fetishism of commodities” just plainly wrong. And, of course, he neglects to mention that LTV is the brain-child of Smith and Ricardo, whom Marx is extensively commenting on, while, of course, Marx deploys LTV to explain the source of profits and not “natural” prices, which considerably ironizes the whole notion that embodied labor is the sacrosanct standard of “value”. (Though the idea of subjective, psychological utility as a standard of “value” is still worse). It’s as if the distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value hadn’t been made, and as if Marx were only concerned about some obscure matter of injustice attaching to the former, rather than sarcastically championing the “virtues” of the latter, until Robert Solow truly discovered the role of technical productivity in economic growth. But it never occurs to the likes of DeLong that the analysis of economic phenomena in terms of the production and distribution of surpluses and the constraints of production prices/systems might be an alternative to the “sovereignty” of consumption demand, and that human fulfillment might lie more on the side of the enjoyment of “labor” rather than the excesses of consumption. I’m always amused when sycophantic blog commenters instantly pronounce the obsolescence and unintelligibility of LTV in favor of the perfect obviousness of neo-classical marginalist analysis, when they’ve obviously never bothered to consider whose “margins” are involved. But then the likes of Delong are always trying to recirculate the erroneous “dual system” interpretation of Marx’ deployment of LTV, invented out of the whole cloth by neo-classical commentators, though re-enforced by Sraffa and Okishio’s theorem, when, obviously, “single system” interpretations are, er, far more “economical”.

35

Rich Puchalsky 04.21.09 at 3:17 am

Might have figured that lots of people would show up to obfuscate and insist that you can’t understand Marx (at the freshman level) without reading X, Y, and Z. DeLong’s summary has the great virtue of being clear. So clear that you can see his biases, more or less.

36

harry b 04.21.09 at 3:18 am

I think DeLong is assuming, plausibly, that most of his students are members or ex-members or soon-to-be-members of Marxist groups, and is having a bit of fun (This is the Economics department at Berkeley, remember, not the Philosophy daepartment at Bristol).

37

notsneaky 04.21.09 at 3:21 am

Enter key.

38

notsneaky 04.21.09 at 3:36 am

And while we’re on the subject, I just don’t see how one can teach Marx to newbies without busting out the Okishio theorem.

39

musa 04.21.09 at 3:53 am

DeLong’s supposed smackdown of David Harvey was embarrassing.

40

LFC 04.21.09 at 4:22 am

“…Hobbes’s time resembling ours as a period of acute religious conflict.”

I just reminded myself of Hobbes’s dates (b. 1588 – d. 1679). There was, of course, religious conflict in this period, but one could argue that the most acute religious conflicts in Europe were at their height before Hobbes was born and were tailing off by the time he was 25 or so. I know there were religious aspects to the conflicts of the 17th century, including the English civil war, and perhaps one could draw tenuous parallels of a sort between the Ottomans vs Christian Europe and our own time, but still I think of the sixteenth century (i.e., mostly before Hobbes’s birth) as the period of fiercest religious conflict. (Perhaps I should now get into a fortified bunker to protect myself from onslaughts by historians.)

41

mijnheer 04.21.09 at 4:31 am

I distinguish Marx the economist (Capital) from Marx the philosopher of history (The German Ideology, Preface of 1859). I describe to students Popper’s critique of Marx’s alleged “historicism”. I suggest that in excoriating Marx for seeking a predictive science of human history, Popper confuses Marx’s general theory of history (which is not deterministic in this strong sense) with Marx’s analysis of the purely (ideal) capitalist economy, which (uniquely among economic types) is strongly deterministic.

I then turn to the claim by Popper and others that, however salutary Marx’s emphasis on economy and technology, his general theory of history involves a crude and untenable economic (and/or technological) reductionism. I describe how G. A. Cohen uses functional explanation to reconcile the idea of determination of the political/legal/ideological superstructure by the economic structure with the obvious fact that the superstructure has a vital causal effect on the economy (and in turn the economic structure on the forces of production).

I may also mention to students that the Preface of 1859 appeared the same year as The Origin of Species, and that Marx’s appreciation of Darwin was in part the result of Darwin’s use of a non-teleological causal mechanism to retrospectively explain historical evolution.

42

Kieran Healy 04.21.09 at 4:33 am

I require them to read Marx’s novel.

43

john c. halasz 04.21.09 at 4:51 am

Shorter Rich Pulchalsky:
It’s better to be clearly wrong,- (who cares about the consequences?),- than complicatedly, more-or-less, right, with an uncertain distribution of consequences, since those poor children need to be taught authoritative clarity, rather than confused criticisms.

44

Bruce Wilder 04.21.09 at 5:19 am

LFC: “the most acute religious conflicts in Europe were at their height before Hobbes was born and were tailing off by the time he was 25 or so.”

That religious motives and modes of analysis were taken less and less seriously is a critical aspect of Hobbes’ life context and philosophical importance.

Hobbes began his intellectual career with the first translation into English of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. He ended his career with Behemoth published posthumously, which attempted a secular political analysis of that most complex of conflicts, the English Civil War. Hobbes is all about the emergence of that outlook of secular realism and rationality, which seemed to his contemporaries to “tend to atheism, blasphemy and profaneness”, but which would become the standard of the later Enlightenment.

45

Bruce Wilder 04.21.09 at 5:23 am

“non-teleological causal mechanism”

A concept one imagines ought to be explained to those, who would make Marx responsible for Lenin, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot.

46

arc 04.21.09 at 5:58 am

I was just reading Leviathan recently (unfortunately it seems to now be on my ever-growing stack of half-read books), and I was impressed with the argument that the editor’s introduction summarized (which I haven’t got to yet) which he thinks is a much stronger argument for the necessity of the Leviathan than the ‘state of nature’ argument (and it is a much stronger argument the way he presents it) .

The argument as I recall it that even if you’re genuinely nice, affable and unambitious by nature, you will still have a vested interest in grabbing as much power (money and influence) as you can, as there will be other people out there who for sure will be doing this, and you’ll need to protect yourself from them.

This seems like a much stronger argument than the ‘state of nature’ thing, as it doesn’t require belief in the inherent selfishness of everyone, nor does it require an atomistic consideration of society (considering how people would behave without society ( which is always a dubious way of reasoning as we’re social animals, even if you don’t take it to be a statement about an actual historical state) and then building your way up from there). All that you seem to require to get a dangerous state of affairs with powerful individuals and alliances at each other’s throats is (a) a few genuinely power-hungry people, (b) a few more people who aren’t power-hungry per se but are trying to maximise their protection from those who are and (c) no effective form of mediation or control.

Haven’t got up to where Hobbes argues for this himself, though :-[

47

ejh 04.21.09 at 6:30 am

There’s a good gag here: Marx….went on to say that we should kill each other and then just get along

48

alex 04.21.09 at 6:37 am

That lecture outlined by Chris Bertram sounds disappointing. How about an evaluation of Marx’s ideas? Instead of just describing certain features of Marx’s arguments, how about grappling with them – I thought this is what philosophers were supposed to do? As in, are his arguments convincing? What are their flaws, what are their strong points? To what extent did they pan out, and to what extent didn’t they? Marx I believe made a number of concrete predictions.

I understand theres only so much detail one can go over in an introductory class, but nevertheless….

49

magistra 04.21.09 at 6:43 am

I just reminded myself of Hobbes’s dates (b. 1588 – d. 1679). There was, of course, religious conflict in this period, but one could argue that the most acute religious conflicts in Europe were at their height before Hobbes was born and were tailing off by the time he was 25 or so.

Well, if you want to ignore the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). And the fact that the seventeenth century in England had one king executed for his religio-political views (Charles I) and another deposed for them (James II in 1688).

50

Canadian 04.21.09 at 7:13 am

Marx is hard to read and I for one thought I was missing something because other people say there is something deep there. Delong makes actual points with references to the text and historical context, and without jargon. I am ready debate Marx with his notes in my back pocket.

51

Geoff Robinson 04.21.09 at 7:13 am

When I talk about Marx I emphasize that he created a vast and remarkably coherent intellectual system that we can only touch on, that his view of human nature emphaised fulfillment through creative labour. I pose as a question for consideration how this emancipatory ideology could end up justifying repressive regimes but in one first-year lecture all you can do is pose the question. Rather than discussing Stalin or Pol Pot perhaps consider how Marx’s faith in the dynamic power of capitalism is echoed oddly in current governing Communist practice.

52

René 04.21.09 at 7:56 am

Give your students (and Mr. DeLong) this to read:

Marx For Beginners by Rius ISBN 1 8741667 14 5

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Nick Valvo 04.21.09 at 8:04 am

Everybody’s already piled on Not Sneaky, but his remark is a really good example of a pervasive kind of thinking. It’s as though our job as lecturers is to demonstrate the continued relevance of what we’re talking about. Presentism is one thing, effacing historical difference is another altogether.

Just off the top of my head, I’d judge that raising the whole Peter Laslett exclusion crisis vs. glorious revolution question when teaching Locke’s Two Treatises is far more interesting for undergraduates than talking about how Jefferson, et al, appropriated it. The latter path seems to me to be a cloying bid for attention — “You guys care about the Declaration of Independence, right?” — rather than presenting any intellectually-interesting material that might warrant that attention. Are we really teaching our students to think historically if the context we’re providing for Locke is the seventeen seventies? We might as well all become Straussians.

In the same line, then, why would it be more interesting pedagogically to talk about the Soviet Union with Marx than, say, Chartism, enclosure, German Idealism, or any number of things that actually happened during or before Marx’ life? If you want to talk about the twentieth-century reception of Marx, well, that’s a totally different topic.

Justification is a suckers game. Less talk, more rock.

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Nick Valvo 04.21.09 at 8:23 am

More directly on topic: I would situate Marx in a history of labor and the workplace, talking about the historical trajectory towards dedicated workplaces and the cash wage. I think it would help students to understand that the phenomena Marx was describing were emergent when he described them, rather than natural and timeless, and that understanding that emergence was his goal.

Also: Have any of you ever read Peter Stallybrass’s article, “Marx’ Coat”? That might teach well, even just borrowing the anecdotes. It’s about the material conditions underlying the production of Capital: all of the silverware that had to be pawned to buy paper to write articles for money to get the overcoat out of hock so Marx could go back to the BL and take more notes on Ricardo. I find it poignant.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 04.21.09 at 8:29 am

As Rich (35) said, the piece is polemical (which is made crystal clear by “We neoliberal economists…“). There’s nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, but it doesn’t work as a lecture. For this to be educational (or even just interesting) he needs an opponent, someone who could respond with “we marxists…

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belle le triste 04.21.09 at 9:00 am

“Popper confuses Marx’s general theory of history (which is not deterministic in this strong sense) with Marx’s analysis of the purely (ideal) capitalist economy…”: not only do a lot of marx’s critics on the right make this mistake, a lot of marxists do also, and others like it — a lot of pseudo-left cult-crit in particular is really a species of left comm-fetishism, a belief that things have powers and we are merely gulled by them

it doesn’t help that the first chapter of capital is abominably badly written by his own standards, given the argument the shape of the rest of the book will be making: he is inside someone else’s head, a kind of strawman even — because even capitalists don’t think purely in capital-think all the time — laying out the wrong way to think of value and worth and etc, the way we’re meant to be escaping… and all the readers who don’t finish capital and grasp its overall structure are pretty likely to end up gummed up in this way of thinking, poorly armed for battling it

(shorter my marx: the labour theory of value is merely a starting point; the revolutionary end point is that the masses are freed to establish and determine their own — viz human — theories and systems and institutions of value…) (the shape of which we glimpse in social exchanges every day, but are constantly dragged away from by the call of the cash nexus and etc…)

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andthenyoufall 04.21.09 at 11:45 am

@38 The Okishio theorem is silliness. It assumes constant wages and quite elastic demand, neither of which are obviously assumptions you want to make. Nothing against the theorem itself, but it’s not the sort of simple, obvious theorem that deserves to get into a one-hour introductory lecture.

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Jacob T. Levy 04.21.09 at 12:19 pm

I certainly think Chris would be right about how to give that first Marx lecture to a first-year class of newbies. And I don’t see any indication that that’s anything like Brad’s student audience for this lecture. This reads to me like something pitched to much more advanced students who’ve already read a fair bit.

If this is an evaluative, what-shall-we-take-away, why-did-I-just have-you-do-that-reading, why-have-we-just-spent-two-weeks-on-this-stuff lecture– a different genre from the exegetical introductory lecture– how many objections here would fall away?

For my part, I’d never dismiss Hegel in that way– but if I were teaching Marx to undergrad economists in a history of economic thought class, I might well rush past Hegel pretty quickly. Moreover, for that audience I would certainly talk about 20th-century Marxism– not to specially demonize Marx, but because those students aren’t there just for the love of getting the great philosophers right. Talking about the impacts ideas have on the world, even if the ideas are badly distorted en route, is part of teaching that class to those students. In some classes with some writs and purposes, but not others, talking about Locke should include talking about the Declaration of Independence as well as about the expropriation of Indian lands in the Americas– not in either case to understand Locke, or to understand the events as transparent and undistorted carryings-out of the ideas, but in to show that ideas have (complicated) ongoing lives in the world, and to show that when they go to their next class and study Facts, they shouldn’t forget about their study of ideas.

I would think it a little odd if a student who’d taken an intro theory class from me and studied Locke, Rousseau, or Marx then had to be surprised in some history class to see Locke’s name come up in association with the American Revolution, Rousseau’s with the French, Marx’s with Communism, etc. We assume that that kind of thing is in the air and we don’t have to trouble ourselves with it– but even the Marx association shouldn’t be taken for granted anymore. Is it really bad for students to hear in their intro class that Communism was a real thing in the world (back before they were born) and that it had, or claimed to have, something to do with Marx?

And when theorists/ philosophers draw some of those connections in class ourselves, we can also reclaim some control over them– “what ideas of Rousseau’s did the Jacobins have to willfully ignore?”, etc.

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engels 04.21.09 at 1:13 pm

A spectre is haunting Brad Delong.

I am struck by the increase in the volume and intensity of Brad’s anti-communist interventions in the last couple of years. It would be an interesting exercise to plot a graph of the frequency of his posts asserting that Karl Marx ‘got too much into the magic mushrooms’ or accusing David Harvey of ‘intellectual masturbation’, etc, against the number of new mortgage starts, or the LIBOR.

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Bloix 04.21.09 at 1:30 pm

Delong thinks that Marx was “wrong, wrong, wrong” and Carl Menger was right in precisely the same way that Johann Joachim Becher was wrong and Lavoisier was right. No matter how important Marx is historically and philosophically, the labor theory of value is a dead end. For an economist, that’s what matters.

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engels 04.21.09 at 1:39 pm

No matter how important Marx is historically and philosophically, the labor theory of value is a dead end. For an economist, that’s what matters.

Looks like Smith and Ricardo are both heading for the scrap heap then.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.21.09 at 1:41 pm

Halasz: “those poor children need to be taught authoritative clarity, rather than confused criticisms”

They need to be taught something, which I’d guess is more than some of Delong’s detractors have ever succeeded in doing.

In this case the students would be taught, among other things, the invaluable information that there are such things as “neoliberal economists” who have this view of Marx.

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Hidari 04.21.09 at 1:50 pm

‘No matter how important Marx is historically and philosophically, the labor theory of value is a dead end’.

That may well be the case, but surely the reason that it is a dead end, assuming it is, is that it doesn’t actually predict, with the requisite (scientific) degree of accuracy, real prices in the real world.

My reply to neo-classicists would be: and what, precisely, does the marginal utility approach predict? With examples?

[Popper is not good to the neo-classicists here: insofar as Popper admired anyone in economics it was Hayek (and, presumably, the Austrian school in general?). Whatever mistakes Hayek made, that one wasn’t one of them. ]

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dr 04.21.09 at 2:00 pm

Nick 53 — Not only have I read that paper, but I saw a version of it presented at a cultural studies conference in Manhattan, Kansas way back in the nineties. I don’t know how many academic papers I’ve seen presented (a lot, but probably a lot less than many readers here), but that one was among the most memorable.

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JoB 04.21.09 at 2:01 pm

Z-25, (& belle 55),

It should be mandatory for anything on a historic figure for any audience to stress the facts of a. the person being death here/now & b. the person not having had benefit of hindsight (Heidegger was a different animal: he at least had the ‘benefit’ of hindisght).

I read Das Kapital in German and (no I’m not going to be masochistic and check) a major part of it is about concentration of capital (hence power) in few hands and that not being good for those not having those hands attached to the ends of their arms. That part of his theory is still upright, and very actual, very real and very worrying. A lot of other parts are not (luckily: we progress!).

Marx did not have the benefit of Darwinian theory & God was not even dying when he lived. We need to keep that in perspective, especially when we go to newbies or right long articles – what’s interesting now in Marx is not the things he was wrong about but the things (good & bad) we can still take from it. The bad – not seeing that accumulation of wealth in private hands is still better than accumulation of power in public hands. The good – don’t trust what those in power want us to believe because they’re biased in favour of retaining the power they have.

As belle says: if we ignore the crisis-speak and focus on real human interaction and how free and uncontrollable it is proving to be … power isn’t what it used to be ;-)

PS: I’m not sure but I think Popper was careful enough to have gripes with Marxism, & not with a person like Marx specifically. Marx is only in part responsible for Marxism (well maybe Hegel was in fact mostly responsible for his part) but even if he would be wholly responsible for it then there is more in what he said than what was expressed in Marxist ‘experiments’.

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engels 04.21.09 at 2:43 pm

In this case the students would be taught, among other things, the invaluable information that there are such things as “neoliberal economists” who have this view of Marx.

So would you consider a lecture of yours to be successful if students come away from it having learnt that (a) people like you exist and (b) such people have the view of the ostensible subject of the lecture that you do? Nice work if you can get it, I suppose…

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belle le triste 04.21.09 at 3:03 pm

i think if people left my lecture not knowing what i thought of the topic and unsure if i even existed, i would feel a bit deflated as to my lecture-giving abilities

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Rich Puchalsky 04.21.09 at 3:04 pm

Far better, engels, than a confused mish-mash trying to say everything about Marx and succeeding mainly in a defensive attempt to establish the lecturer’s credentials as an expert, and the lecturer’s view of Marx as the only true (because complete) one. Those people are a good deal more authoritarian than DeLong is, and a good deal more likely to leave their students wishing that they never had to read a word of Marx again. While with DeLong, you want to, because you want to see what he’s leaving out.

Also far better, from a societal point of view, that this set of beliefs is labelled right up front as neoliberal and identified not just as an ideology per se but as the preserve of actual academics. Usually the same things are taught, but they are called “economics”.

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virgil xenophon 04.21.09 at 3:15 pm

As having once, as a TA grad student some 35+ yrs ago taught a survey course on “Democracy and Communism” to under grads, I have read this exchange with fascination and find it most informative. Marx is someone more often referred to than understood, and exactly how to tailor any presentation that does justice to both theory and history is a difficult attempt. I’ve found much to both agree with here and to be enlightened by. I would probably associate my self with Jacob T Levey’s remarks@58 if pushed, but there are several other’s as well.

I can’t resist noting that while I take the thrust of belle’s general point@56, it seems that–unless I read her wrong–for belle the siren call of that old bete noir, that pesky “cash nexus” keeps raising it’s ugly head to prevent achievement of a workers paradise for types such as belle. If only we could achieve a cashless society…..with the “right people” deciding who gets what….humans being so much more “humane” and all….

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LFC 04.21.09 at 3:23 pm

magistra @49: yes, after I wrote my comment I thought someone might bring up the Thirty Years War. You do have a point. However, I would observe that the Thirty Years War involved more than just religion (and don’t forget that France, officially Catholic and having been through its own religious civil wars, fought on the Protestant side).

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belle le triste 04.21.09 at 3:26 pm

no you pretty much read me right: i don’t think that monetary price is the last word on value and nor do you, probably — i don’t think it should be me and my pals imposing value on everyone else (i don’t have any pals)

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virgil xenophon 04.21.09 at 3:31 pm

Geof Robinson@51 also makes a nice point about the way in which “Marx’s faith in the dynamic power of capitalism is echoed oddly in current governing Communist practice.”

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virgil xenophon 04.21.09 at 3:34 pm

belle;

“nor do you, probably” LOL. You’re right about that–got me there.

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engels 04.21.09 at 4:14 pm

Rich, I agree that the ‘confused mish-mash’ approach to introducing Marx you describe in your first paragraph would not be good one, and would probably be worse than Delong’s, but its not clear to me who you are accusing of having done this or why you think that if they had this would amount to a defence of Delong’s. I’m pretty confident these aren’t the only two possibilites…

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roger 04.21.09 at 4:31 pm

Belle, if you give a lecture and, at the end of it, your listeners are unsure you exist, then you have transcended pedagogy and entered the realm of the Master and the Margarita! That would truly be a lecture to die for. In a way, Woland’s seance in that novel is the greatest economics lecture ever given, a definitive scenario in greed and naivete.

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belle le triste 04.21.09 at 4:54 pm

ok that is what i shall aim for next time i give a lecture

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chacona 04.21.09 at 5:38 pm

Chris,

Although it is so often a sign of pretentiousness to cite one´s own posts, I´ll take the risk and cite a couple passages from my post to Brad´s blog as the post somehow failed to appear, no doubt because of some technical reasons. Anyway, I shall cite only parts that are directly relevant vis-a-vis your comments. So, here they are:

Brad says: “But the only person to try it seriously soon throws the Marxist apparatus over the side, where it splashes and sinks to the bottom of the sea. Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State are great and fascinating books, but they are not Marxist. They are Weberian. The key processes in Anderson’s books concern not “modes of production” but rather “modes of domination.”

Chacona says: I share your admiration for these two works of Perry Anderson. I also agree with you that Anderson´s works highlight the grave difficulty of trying to extend distinctions that Marx and his followers made vis-a-vis capitalism to “pre-capitalist social formations”. Hence the difficulty of separating “economy” and “polity”, indeed “base” and “superstructure” in “pre-capitalist societies” in the same way as in capitalism. But it does not follow that Anderson is simply “Weberian”, unless you think of a Weberian who is always very interested in the disposal of surpluses in various social formations. After all, what is common to all these social formations is the existence of a surplus beyond the need of simple reproduction. All things become so much clearer when one approaches these questions from the point of reproduction:
All the same, raising to discussion Anderson´s difficulties with matching the Marxian framework of interpretation and analysis with the realities his sources imply, is certainly rare in discussions “mainstream economists” tend to have. Thanks for showing uncommon intellectual curiosity!

Brad says: “Karl Marx never completed the intellectual trajectory he set himself on. He tried as hard as he could to become a British-style classical economist- -a “minor post-Ricardian theorist” as Paul Samuelson once joked–but he did not make it: the late, mature Marx is mostly an economist and economic historian, but he is also part political activist–and also part prophet.”

Chacona says: The traditional (Leninist) intellectual biography of how “socialism became a science” tells a story of how German philosophy, French socialism and British political economy joined forces to give us “scientific” socialism. And that is pretty accurate: no need to claim that Lenin was always wrong. But you seem to hint ever so subtly that this blend of philosophy, revolutionary activism and economics must be bad and that all would have been so much better if Marx had been a little bit more mature and scientific: he could have taken then his just place among the many minor Ricardians. (By the way, who are the non-Ricardians among the mainstream economists?)

Well, I agree with you that Marx inherited from Hegel, from French revolutionary tradition and also from British “classical economists” ideas and ways of thinking that were deeply problematical and that eventually became – at least in the hands of some of his followers – extremely dangerous. Far from becoming intellectual weapons of emancipation for the “downtrodden proletarian masses”, they became an ideology for restless “intelligentsia” that was looking for a way to assert its dominance in societies where aristocratic dominance seemed to be giving way to bourgeois institutions and values. That is where we can find the origins of “teleocratic power”, the claim of Communist Parties that they know – not the ignorant masses! – the correct ends of human activity. (Compare with Weberian technocrats who “merely” claim to know better than others the correct means necessary for reaching the ends that are themselves beyond the competence of the technocrats.) No doubt about it, while Marx himself viewed the Paris Commune as the representative of “proletarian dictatorship”, his followers did not find it too difficult to turn their illusions of grandeur into delusions of omnipotence and eventually shift from the dictatorship of the Party to the dictatorship of the Leading Comrade – as indeed some perceptive Marxists (such as Rosa Luxemburg) had correctly predicted..

But enough of this sordid history here. I shall nevertheless claim that what Marx has but many professional mainstream economists do not have is a sense of history and a sense of philosophical understanding. Sure, Marx got so many things wrong, but it is better to be red than dead!….

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jane dark 04.21.09 at 5:53 pm

Is no one going to point out that Marx did not hold, in Capital, the Labor Theory of Value (as advanced by Ricardo and criticized by Samuel Bailey)? In Ben Fine’s nice inversion, Marx held a “value theory of labor.”

Almost all of the casual (incl neo-classical) critique’s of Marx’s relation between value and price require him to have thought, as Ricardo did, that the value of the specific worker’s labor passed into the commodity labored over. But Marx didn’t think this at all. The relevant concept is “socially necessary labor time” and takes its value within the differential system of the labor marketplace, against the ground of the local cost of providing for a laborer’s reproduction.

Would one mention this in an intro for newbies? Maybe not…unless one was, like Brad, including within one’s lecture the criticisms of Marx that are exactly based on that misreading. In that case, a competent teacher would probably want to point out that it was, y’know, a misreading, and note hoe this might affect the status of the criticism.

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Glen Tomkins 04.21.09 at 5:55 pm

Social Democracy as the Marxism prophylaxis

“that even though the ruling class could appease the working class by using the state to redistribute and share the fruits of economic growth it would never do so. They would be trapped by their own ideological legitimations–they really do believe that it is in some sense “unjust” for a factor of production to earn more than its marginal product. Hence social democracy would inevitably collapse before an ideologically-based right-wing assault, income inequality would rise, and the system would collapse or be overthrown. The Wall Street Journal editorial page works day and night 365 days a year to make Marx’s prediction come true. But I think this, too, is wrong.”

“I think that Western Europe over the past fifty years serves as a significant counterexample. It may be difficult to maintain a democratic capitalist market system with an acceptable distribution of income. But “incapable” is surely too strong. Beveridgism or Myrdalism–social democracy, progressive income taxes, a very large and well-established safety net, public education to a high standard, channels for upward mobility, and all the panoply of the twentieth-century social- democratic mixed-economy democratic state can banish all Marx’s fears that capitalist prosperity must be accompanied by great inequality and great misery.”

How anyone writing from the US of A, where whatever Social Democratic prophylaxis we’ve had agaist the revolution predicted by Marx has been clearly on the run for 30 years, could be so confident that Myrdalism is robust enough to keep the Marxist apocalypse at bay, is beyond me. DeLong succeeds only, especially in this economic crisis we are in right now, in making it seem like this Marx fellow maybe deserves a second look as some sort of prophetic genius. Perhaps that’s his Socratic intention.

If the idea that capital has some sort of moral right to impoverish and devastate everything in its path as it follows the course of self-aggrandizement, were limited to the WSJ editorial page, we would not be in this current crisis. It took a consensus that government regulation is anathema, a faith held in the face of all evidence to the contrary, to give us the shadow banking system that ate Detroit, and looks to soon finish eating the rest of our economy.

That faith survives even in the face of the present crisis. I don’t think that Social Democratic principles are much in evidence in the measures we have adopted so far to meet the crisis. But if we won’t turn to these principles now, if the crisis hasn’t thoroughly debunked free market fundamentalism, and our grand plan of salvation is to reinflate all market bubbles — I really don’t see any room for confidence at all that Social Democracy can save us from that final confrontation between reactionary defenders of the privileges of great wealth, and the rest of us.

I’m not sure that publishing a Five Minute Hate on any particular economic thinker or school of thought, would be very helpful in any circumstance. But a polemic targeted anywhere but in at least the general direction of Milton Friedman and the cult he founded, at this point in time, pretty much puts you right up there with the editorial page of the WSJ on the side of mindless reaction.

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lisa 04.21.09 at 7:03 pm

I’m surprised people don’t make more of the theory of alienation in teaching Marx because that’s something students can really relate to.

Of course, when I read Althusser in college I felt like I’d found an explanation for virtually everything that had happened to me up to that point. I think I try to elicit that ‘WOW!’ reaction in my choice of what they read. I care more that students see Marx might help them understand the world (then and now) than I care about getting Marx exactly right for them. If they become Marxists, then they can start their little reading groups and debate the labor theory of value and how alienation doesn’t work in later Marx and all that. Once in a while such an improbable thing actually happens and they do spend the summer reading Capital. (Then, since I don’t really understand Capital, they come back in the Fall and realize I’m a total fraud. But hey, at least they’re learning stuff.)

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koan0215 04.21.09 at 7:16 pm

@ 77
In fairness I think DeLong does think more social democracy would be a good thing, and if he had his druthers then the USA would be a good little social democracy and the horrors of the capitalist mode of production would be ameliorated. Now, I don’t think that actual existing social democracy in Europe is exactly a stake through Marx’s heart, but then I learned everything I know about Marx by reading Capital and watching David Harvey’s lectures on-line, so probably DeLong would say that I am blinded by too much mental masturbation.

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Down and Out of Sài Gòn 04.21.09 at 10:28 pm

Marx is hard to read and I for one thought I was missing something because other people say there is something deep there.

Is he always hard to read? I found the Communist Manifesto and the 18th Brumaire a breeze to walk through. On the other hand, Das Kapital is meant to be pure trudgery.

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belle le triste 04.21.09 at 10:45 pm

he’s pretty often pretty easy to read — he was a good polemical journalist, and he’s funny (even if some of his more famous jokes are a bit wellworn 150 years on); even kap has plenty easy-to-read stretches once you get going, it comes in lots of modes… didn’t someone call it the first great modernist novel?

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koan0215 04.21.09 at 11:16 pm

Capital was easier to read than I thought it would be. I thought it was much more fun than Hobbes or Locke or Smith, but that could be because I was older when I read Marx and thus more accustomed to boredom.

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novakant 04.21.09 at 11:26 pm

It’s been ages, but I recall the Paris Manuscripts being a pretty good read.

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Nick Valvo 04.21.09 at 11:48 pm

@dr (64): Awesome.

@jane dark (78): Your point is well taken: value is pretty complicated in Marx. Do you have at hand a citation you could share on that Ben Fine piece?

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belle le triste 04.22.09 at 12:09 am

jane dark: “is nobody going to…” — oh well, i thought i had pointed that out, never mind, i achieved non-existence after all

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jane dark 04.22.09 at 12:37 am

Sorry belle, I had thought you had said “the labour theory of value is merely a starting point” — my note is that it is a starting point for Ricardo, is usefully critiqued by Bailey, and Kap I starts from after that critique and without the LTV. But perhaps I misunderstood you.

@Nick Valvo: it’s in Fred Lyn’s Guide to the Cash Nexus, aka Marx’s Capital by Fine and Saad-Filho; in my memory it’s around Ch. 2. I wouldn’t actually assert that Fine and S-F first turned the phrase; that’s where I encountered it.

Note: I understand that plenny folks use the phrase “LTV” to designate “Marx’s theory of value” and that LTV sort of means that now for such peoples. But as I said, if we’re going to be criticizing Marx for an incommensuration between the LTV and accounts of price, and in that criticism it is Ricardo’s LTV that is being employed — this is what DeLong has done — we should note that Marx explicitly rejected Ricardo’s LTV. That’s why it’s a critique of political economy, dude.

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john c. halasz 04.22.09 at 2:44 am

Actually, belle, several people here made versions of that point. I myself said that Marx had “ironized” LTV: labor is only the source of “value” because it has already been alienated. And the whole point of Marx’ deployment of LTV is to explicate the key notion of “surplus-value”.

I was ridiculed by Radek earlier on this thread for mentioning Okishio’s theorem, as if I thought it should be the stuff of an introductory lecture for “newbies”. But my point was the DeLong, if he wants to be taken seriously, with his scholarly pretensions, as an explicator of Marx, should himself have taken account of the formal-rational and mathematical reconstructions of Marx’ economics,- (which itself needs to be “surgically” removed from a more complex project and set of purposes, which itself requires understanding Marx’ conceptual method, in order to know how to go about the “surgery”),- for which the neo-Ricardan criticisms of the Sraffans and Okishio’s theorem especially provided the impetus. (Okishio’s theorem, if anyone doesn’t know, purports to prove mathematically that productivity-enhancing capital investment increases the rate of profit, thus refuting Marx’ claim for “the tendential law of the falling rate of profit”. The first response is, of course, it does, else such investments aren’t made,- that little bit about relations of production constraining forces of production,- but then Okishio’s theorem, in layman’s terms, makes a price-taking assumption, which is scarcely realistic for the competitive conditions under which such investments are made, and so defeats its own point). But rather than adequately informing himself on the scholarship, DeLong insists on reading Marx in hermeneutically inappropriate neo-classical terms and repeating shop-worn neo-classical criticisms that themselves are demonstrably false,- (note, for example, how he assimilates “use-value” to “utility”, the former not being a separate item, but a “contradictory” aspect of the value-form of the commodity, which itself is not a real thing, but a ghostly form “stamped” on concrete things),- which amounts to sheer academic non-feasance and incompetence, i.e. bad faith. It’s usual in one of his hissy-fit performances with respect to Marx for DeLong to go prattling on about the “transformation problem” and its unsolvability, as a decisive refutation of Marx, without the slightest awareness that it was the neo-classicals who invented the “problem” by re-normalizing each production period as at equilibrium, and thereby themselves double-counted, which Marx did not do, since his whole aim was to demonstrate the long-run, cumulative disequilibrium tendencies of industrial capitalist systems. Note how DeLong sneers at Marx’ invocation of “essence”, without evincing any awareness that Marx’ whole mode of presentation, (Darstellung), is organized in terms of an Hegelian dialectic of essence and appearance, in which essence is by no means to be opposed to appearance, let alone referent to some separate, noumenal reality, but is entirely manifested, through the successive stages of conceptual unfolding/development, through the sequences of inevitably partial appearances, though the “essence” is frequently manifested in inverted form by its appearance, (as when, e.g., falling real profits from production might be manifested in inflated financial asset prices). Hence DeLong has no recognition that his “criticisms” are based on his holding a completely inverted understanding of the actual content and thrust of Marx’ claims. No only is there no “transformation problem” of the sort DeLong and his ilk imagine, that labor-values need to be transformed into prices-of-production in order to take account of actual distributions across differing “organic compositions of capital” across sectors, but Marx’ actual point is that prices-of-production, (which after all are crucial to the “law of supply and demand”), can not be determined without first determining distributions (of surplus-value). (That’s oddly similar to Sraffa’s claim that technical co-efficients of production can not be determined separately from the rate of profit, or the distribution of the surplus product between wages and profits). Indeed, the whole claim that Marx’ deployment of LTV can not provide an empirical account of nominal price formation, as if that is what he should be aiming at and then all else would be settled, is not just wide of the mark, but entirely misses the point, since not only are nominal prices constantly changing, but Marx is intent on demonstrating how nominal prices can significantly deviate from underlying value formation. Which is especially the case in the Vol. 3 account of credit, financialization ,and the generation of fictional capital. No, Marx’ account is not only completely erroneous, but entirely outmoded, and has nothing left to teach us, not even heuristically.

I could go on about DeLong’s attempt to style Marx as a chiliastic-utopian religious fanatic. But I’ll just remark that Marx did not actually have a critique of religion. Instead, he had a critique of the critique of religion.

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Walt 04.22.09 at 2:57 am

john, your posts exactly illustrate Rich’s point. I read Brad’s original PDF, and it made me want to read some more Marx. Reading your comments here has cured me of the urge. I know that even if I memorized Capital word for word, someone would complain that I missed this or that piece of the secondary literature.

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Mitch 04.22.09 at 4:03 am

In case you weren’t paying attention, Marx could have been on season 1 of Mythbusters. Marx held the “sentimental” Fabian socialists in contempt. He claimed to distinguish himself from them by having discovered deep and irresistible forces of history that would make socialism not just right, but inevitable. The mechanism for this transformation hinges on the immiseration of the proletariat. This in turn was driven by the inevitable deterioration of profit margins, leaving the bourgeoisie no choice but to cut wages, leading to the impoverishment of the workers, who in turn had no choice but to overthrow the capitalist order as a matter of stark survival. No immiseration, no revolution. And yet the immiseration of the proletariat, which should have occurred first in the most advanced capitalist societies (which even Marx considered to be the US and Britain), never happened. By his own standards, which depended upon the predictive power of his theory, Marx was just plain wrong. Make sure you point this out to your class.

Marx was dealing with early and middle 19th century capitalism, and looking at industries that had never failed. It’s too bad he didn’t extend his observations a little further. His economic model only worked where the industrial outputs were fungible commodities, and every product was known. Now look at what Schumpeter, an admirer of Marx, found out: in the real world, capitalists try their damnedest to avoid falling into that trap. Some industries inevitably produce commodities (oil, coal, metals, etc.), but others, contrary to Marx, do not try to compete by reducing costs but rather by increasing value to the purchaser, reflected in increased price. They do this by product differentiation. Ever wonder why people pay extra for a Mac over an equivalent generic PC? Do you really think it’s an accident?

We now use 19th century engineering and physics only as a substrate for what we have discovered in the interim. A lot has happened in economics in the interim as well. Somehow this seems to have escaped you. You might as well incorporate phlogiston theory into a physics class as Marxist theory into an economics class. Of course, if this is a class in race-class-gender-giant-puppet-head-grievance-theater-transgressive-whatever, feel free to give them straight Marxism. Ptolemaic epicycles are kind of cool, too: see if the astronomers are still teaching that.

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notsneaky 04.22.09 at 6:14 am

Wait up there, Nick, in 53. Who’s piled up on me? Where? I was still waiting for Chris’ clarification, which in all possibility might have been a good one. Ok. Now actually read the accumulated comments.

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notsneaky 04.22.09 at 6:25 am

Re:57 (responding to them as I’m reading them) – I was joking about teaching the theorem. Usually the words “theorem” “teaching” and “newbies” don’t go together. But while we’re at it, it’s a perfectly fine theorem. The constant wage assumption comes straight from how Marxist analysis is done – exogenous “subsistence” wages, which then determine a bunch of other stuff. The perfectly elastic demand – not sure that’s quite the way to put it – is more or less the assumption of “equal rates of profit” across sectors (assuming this is the demand you’re talking about). Part of the reason why the theorem smarts the Marxist skin so much is because it’s very much in the Marxist tradition (rather than an outside, say, Neoclassical, or even “purely” Keynesian, one). It basically gashes another big theoretical hole (right next to the ones created by failings of LTV and the transformation problem) in the Marxist edifice – there’s no “natural” tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Which, of course, after 150+ years, should be empirically obvious too. Not sure what’s left over after that. Rejection of the paragraph as a tool of bourgeois oppression?

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notsneaky 04.22.09 at 7:01 am

Re: 60, Bloix (and some of the others above)
It’s worth pausing here and realizing a VERY IMPORTANT FACT. Brad DeLong is not an Austrian Economist, a follower of Carl Menger or an advocate of unrestrained laissez faire (never mind that British policy in India can hardly be described by that term). What we’re comparing here is Marxism vs. Social Democracy/Mixed Economy, not Marxism vs. a Ayn Rand doll stuffed with straw.

Re: 61, engels (I probably shouldn’t)
The difference is that most of the ideas of Smith and Ricardo do not HINGE on LTV being true (they go through under marginalism or whatever). A lot of Marxist ideas do. Not all, not all, as Oskar Lange and Abba Lerner showed. But enough of them to chunk it and look for better alternatives who can deliver the same without the erroneous baggage.

Re:78 and some others
“socially necessary labor time” is the point where, even if it was capable of explaining relative prices (and all else is metaphysics), the LVT stuffs the rabbit into the hat. What the hey is it? Who determines whether labor time is socially necessary or not? Yes, I know there are explanations of what it’s supposed to be out there, but come on, they all end up doing the opposite of what explanations are supposed to do – unclarifying. “Socially necessary labor time” is just the fudge factor that got inserted there which allows folks to dismiss “vulgar” (i.e. ones which actually try to make heads or tails of it) criticisms of LVT with “that’s not what Marx REALLY meant”.

Re:89 john halasz in regards to the fact that Okishio’s theorem implies that there’s no tendency of profit to fall;
“The first response is, of course, it does, else such investments aren’t made” – completely misses the point. I think you’re actually misunderstanding Marx here or misunderstanding how Marxists have understood Marx (whoa! Yes. It really seems you do). There is a difference, even for Marx, between capitalist’s own profit and the general rate of profits. And price-taking – by another name – is made throughout Marxist analysis as is the idea of competition.
After that first successful use of the Enter Key there was no meaningful follow up of it with another so I stopped reading half way through, terrified by unwashed masses of words and letters huddling so close together. It worked for Beckett, but then Beckett was Beckett.

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Nick Valvo 04.22.09 at 7:32 am

(Thanks, JD).

Notsneaky: I won’t insist that it was ‘piling on’ now that I’ve reviewed the tape, but I meant to refer to comments 16, 17, 23, and 45.

Still, although I won’t pretend to speak for Chris, I stand by my comment above. What do we learn about Locke by discussing the American Revolution? Basically, we find that a caricature of Locke’s work had come, by the 1770s, to offer a particular flavor of legitimacy attractive to the American revolutionaries. If we actually want to learn something about Locke, I would prefer to situate our reading in the 1670s or 80s, depending on when you think the book was written. If we reconsider the circumstances of authorship, he might not have been writing the book the 1770s thought he was writing. If that were to be true, placing the American revolution on his shoulders gets a little bit Jenga-ish. Now doesn’t that sound like the seed of an interesting lecture or two? Maybe a paper topic?

And lastly, I owe you an apology: I don’t really think you’re a Straussian.

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ejh 04.22.09 at 7:40 am

Explanations very often fail to clarify: you can demonstrate that by examining the comments box on any economics blog.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 04.22.09 at 8:45 am

Mitch 91: “And yet the immiseration of the proletariat, which should have occurred first in the most advanced capitalist societies … never happened. By his own standards, which depended upon the predictive power of his theory, Marx was just plain wrong.” Along with DeLong’s: “Western Europe over the past fifty years serves as a significant counterexample

This could be explained by the dialectics of the Cold War. Western Europe had to compete, economically and (most importantly) ideologically, against the USSR – a powerful proto-marxist quasi-egalitarian entity – and, it could be argued, some sort of ‘finlandization’-like phenomenon significantly affected the development of Western Europe, and the US too (the New Deal, etc.).

You really have to start counting from the late 1980s, and, perhaps, it’s not an accident that around that time most (if not all) Western European social-democratic parties dropped any pretense of being opposed to neoliberalism. It’s a whole new game now.

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Doug 04.22.09 at 8:50 am

Reacting to a few comments that if the labor theory of value is dead then so are Smith and Riccardo. Speaking here as totally a non-expert, and emphasizing the sense people have about these things, I think the percieved “activist” side of Marx hurts him in the eyes of economists. It is okay for Smith and Ricardo to be wrong about this, because it was long ago and it takes timefor people to figure things out. Science progresses. However, where Marx is sort of seen as not as trustworthy is because he is thought of as being an activist for policies based on these flawed theories. His work is not thought of, then, as simply part of the developing understanding of the economy, but as something a bit more malicious and dangerous.

Now, economists hold lots of bad theories and advocate for policies based on those theories, so in many ways they are no better. Of course, we are usually blind to the wrongness of our own theories. Anyhow, it is not fair to say “then Smith and Ricardo” are dead ends. They are seen as first attempts which weere improved upon. Marx is seen as taking the dead end all the way to that dead end and advocating for running up against it.

In anycase, to say that a theory is a dead end is somehow equivalent to a whole thinker representing a dead end is a bit ludicrous. Smith and Ricardo were often wrong. So what? That does not make them dead ends (even if some of their ideas were dead ends). It jsut makes them human. It is Marx’s huge shadow and percieved influence that makes it hard to accept his errors with the same tolerance, at least for eocnomists. In a generation when we have better economists, I imagine things will be a bit better.

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belle le triste 04.22.09 at 9:07 am

several people on this thread need the word “newbies” explained to them, before we even get to marx: were i to lecture on him i think i would start with the apparent fact of the protean idea of him — “as many different marxes as there are people seeking to discuss him, is this as TRUE AS IT SEEMS, and if so, where does it come from? his strengths, his failings, his foes, the shape of the world at large?” — but i am not an economist, sadly

(yes, i would start the lecture by summarising the shape of the world at large, where have i ever seen that fail as a structuring tactic?)

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Chris Bertram 04.22.09 at 11:18 am

_The difference is that most of the ideas of Smith and Ricardo do not HINGE on LTV being true (they go through under marginalism or whatever). A lot of Marxist ideas do._

Well which ones, precisely, notsneaky?

I guess the idea that the rate of profit will inevitably fall because of the rising organic composition of capital does. But what else? Marx’s views about exploitation can be stated without reference to the LTV.

On Locke and the American revolution … I’m basically with Nick above. I might mention the Declaration and I might not but I hardly think it pedagogically essential (which was your thought) especially when addressing British students (which is what I generally do).

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JoB 04.22.09 at 11:20 am

but i am not an economist, sadly

Sadly?!

I didn’t know the world was at large but if newbies are those that don’t know the world’s shape – I fear it will be a loooong lecture. Everybody knows the world is circular & flat; at least all those familiar with google earth.

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LFC 04.22.09 at 1:14 pm

to Mitch @91:
“Product differentiation” does not necessarily increase “value to the purchaser.” Walk into any supermarket and examine the umpteen zillion brands of toothpaste or whatever. Most consumers don’t have the time or info to pick the “best” one that would “increase value” to them most — assuming there even is a “best” one. Most consumers, I would surmise, start using brand X and if they like it, tend to stay w/ it, or choose another because they might have seen an ad, not because it is “better.”
Product differentiation develops its own momentum — there must always be a product on the shelves screaming “NEW!” — and is a means by which companies avoid competing on price and thereby maintain what some (used to) call oligopoly profits. The benefits of product differentiation to the consumer are overrated, not least by mainstream economists.
(I have written this comment from the perspective of an occasional consumer of products, not that of an economist, which I’m not.)

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Chris Bertram 04.22.09 at 1:34 pm

_We now use 19th century engineering and physics only as a substrate for what we have discovered in the interim. A lot has happened in economics in the interim as well. Somehow this seems to have escaped you. You might as well incorporate phlogiston theory into a physics class as Marxist theory into an economics class. Of course, if this is a class in race-class-gender-giant-puppet-head-grievance-theater-transgressive-whatever, feel free to give them straight Marxism._

I’m not sure who Mitch’s little rant was aimed at. The point, however, is not that Marx should be incorporated into a mainstream economics class, but rather, that if you teach Marx in any class for whatever reason (history of ideas, great social thinkers, history of philosophy, history of economics) you should be as accurate in your presentation and as charitable in your interpretation as you would be for any other figure (Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Hegel, Ricardo, Weber …. whoever.)

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Kevin Donoghue 04.22.09 at 2:40 pm

Brad DeLong: “Chris Bertram has not yet learned that a lecture about Marx that does not mention Pol Pot or Joe Stalin shouts their names out more loudly than would otherwise be possible.”

I’m not sure what to make of that. Maybe he’s saying that he has to placate the likes of Mitch in order to maintain order in class.

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Dan 04.22.09 at 3:58 pm

Chris @ 100

But what else? Marx’s views about exploitation can be stated without reference to the LTV.

Really? I’m not an expert on the exploitation literature, but from what I’ve read it seems like (without the LTV) there are serious difficulties formulating anything resembling a Marxian theory of exploitation that doesn’t count, say, state enforced transfer payments from the able bodied to the disabled as exploitation. I might be wrong, and if so I’d be very interested to read any articles on the topic.

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Chris Bertram 04.22.09 at 4:19 pm

#100 G.A. Cohen, “The Labour Theory of Value and the Concept of Exploitation”, included in his History, Labour and Freedom and also multiply anthologised.

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Matt L 04.22.09 at 4:30 pm

Doubtless this comment will get lost in the chaff, but when I teach Marx in Western Civ, he gets set along side De Tocqueville. I have a primary source documents reader that compare K.M & D.T.’s views on History, the 1848 Revolution and the ideal form of government. It makes the Old Rhinelander more concrete and helps explain why some people would want to become Marxists, given the other options.

I used to give students a wind up lecture on Hegel too, but I think it confused them more than it helped explain Marx, so I stopped.

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voyou 04.22.09 at 4:56 pm

I’m not sure that Cohen’s article shows that “Marx’s views about exploitation can be stated without reference to the LTV”; at best it shows that something that looks a bit Marxist if you squint, can be said about exploitation without reference to the LTV. Marx’s own views about exploitation are pretty tightly linked to the metaphysical account he develops through a critique of the labor theory of value.

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Chris Bertram 04.22.09 at 5:07 pm

#108 Since you’re being picky. Cohen shows that the LTV does not (contra the belief of Marx and many Marxists) support the charge of exploitation that Marx and Marxists want to make. He also shows that what is true and valuable in Marx’s views about exploitation [ymmv from mine at this point] can be stated independently of the LTV. That’s just as well, since the LTV is false.

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Hidari 04.22.09 at 5:15 pm

‘That’s just as well, since the LTV is false.’

That’s a bit strong isn’t it? I mean I know that the LTV doesn’t predict anything in real world situations but then marginal utility theory doesn’t either so there you go. Comparing LTV to ‘phlogisten’ as one commentator above does, is predicated on the idea that economics is a ‘real’ and ‘hard’ science which makes real and objective progress like theoretical physics. I know this view is widely held within economics.

Outside economics, not so much.

111

lemuel pitkin 04.22.09 at 5:36 pm

I guess the idea that the rate of profit will inevitably fall because of the rising organic composition of capital does [hinge on the labor theory of value being true.]

Not so, actually. It’s perfectly possible to talk about a rising OCC in terms of the ratio of fixed capital to either output, potential output, or the wage bill. In which case it’s an empirically testable proposition that turns out to be true in many, but not all, cases.

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sleepy 04.22.09 at 5:58 pm

“Chris Bertram has not yet learned that a lecture about Marx that does not mention Pol Pot or Joe Stalin shouts their names out more loudly than would otherwise be possible.”

“Chris Bertram has not yet learned that a lecture about Jesus that does not mention Torquemada shouts his name out more loudly than would otherwise be possible.”

“Chris Bertram has not yet learned that a lecture about The Founding Fathers that does not mention the Monroe Doctrine, Hiroshima, Rioss Montt, Reza Pahlavi et al. shouts their names out more loudly than would otherwise be possible.”

DeLong is like some mirrorworld looney leftist. He reminds me sometimes of Horowitz, or Frederick Crews on Freud. Did he run away from home as a child and join the CP? Is he atoning for some secret thought crime in his past?
And he’s the one who eulogized and defended an old family friend the positively vile Jeane Kirkpatrick, , as someone who after all “meant well.” He behaves like a Stalinist.
“Why are my arguments reality based? Because I say so.”

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belle le triste 04.22.09 at 6:10 pm

(wasn’t monroe one of the founding fathers?)

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notsneaky 04.22.09 at 7:04 pm

Nick (95) and Chris (100) – thanks that’s the kind of explanation I was looking for. I still disagree; even if ADoI was a “caricature” of Locke’s ideas (even if “bastard Keynesianism” is a caricature of Keynes, they were, one way or another strongly influenced by Keynes and that needs to be taught), and even if your students are British (should the practical consequences of Marx only be taught to Russian and Chinese students?). But I think there’s a decent argument you got there. I wonder if some of this just comes from viewing Marx (and thinkers in general) from a Social Scientist perspective rather than a Philosopher perspective. Depending on what course you’re teaching different aspects may be more suitable for emphasis.

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notsneaky 04.22.09 at 7:12 pm

As to the link between LVT and exploitation, my understanding of it (and honestly it’s been awhile since I read Cohen and Roemer) is that yes, you can have a theory of exploitation without the LVT but it’s not really Marxism anymore. It’s a different theory of exploitation. And there’s some decidedly non-Marxist themes in this different theory of exploitation – exploitation is consistent with increasing wages (rather than the immiserization of the proleteriat) and you can get the weird result that it is capital that is being exploited. I believe that Joan Robinson also said roughly the same thing long time ago (something like “Marx is nonsense but his heart was in the right place”).
And then you can have a simple theory of exploitation where it happens if somebody somewhere doesn’t get their marginal product.

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engels 04.22.09 at 8:44 pm

Would this be an accurate summary of the evolution of the position of the anti-Marx side in this conversation?

1) Marx’s ideas were based on the LTV, therefore they are of no value to economists.
2) Marx’s ideas were based on the LTV, like Smith and Ricardo’s, but unlike Smith and Ricardo’s his ideas can not be re-formulated without appeal to the LTV, therefore he is of no value to economists.
3) Marx’s ideas were based on the LTV, like Smith and Ricardo’s. Like theirs, his ideas can often be re-formulated without reference to the LTV but in this case — according the definition of marxism which was handed down from God to anti-marxists like Delong and Radek — they no longer qualify as marxist.

Also it’s possible that there might be something problematic in the attitude that Marx can’t be given any credit for any successful uses of his ideas made by Cohen, Anderson, etc and they get purged from the marxist canon by Delong and Radek, on account of their failure to adhere to theoretical tenets X, Y or Z, while he has to take the blame for Stalin because let’s not start splitting theoretical hairs here Stalin claimed to be a marxist and that’s that.

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Western Dave 04.22.09 at 8:49 pm

115 comments in and nobody has directly mentioned (rephrased for modern sensiblities) “People make their own histories in circumstances not of their own choosing.” Sigh. Never leave to economists or philosophers what should be handled by historians. As a high school history teacher, I’m usually newbies first encounter with Marx and that’s where we start. Next he’s positioned as an Enlightenment thinker who had a faith in science being able to explain the human condition, next as both an admirer and critic of capitalism who believed that class conflict could explain history and finally as a futurist who ran about par for the course in that profession – in other words- o-fer.

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Martin Bento 04.22.09 at 9:14 pm

engels, another double standard of delong’s is that he literally does not think it possible to discuss Marx without reference to Stalin and Pol Pot (leaving them out, just shouts their names the louder), but he has been quite comfortable respectfully discussing Milton Friedman without “dragging in” Pinochet, this despite the fact that Marx was long-dead by the time of Stalin et. al., but Friedman and ilk were directly advising the Pinochet regime.

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sleepy 04.22.09 at 9:51 pm

“(wasn’t monroe one of the founding fathers?)”
Not being a Signer or a leader at the time I thought he’d missed out on that title, but according to Wikipedia I’m wrong.
oh well.

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notsneaky 04.22.09 at 11:21 pm

engels, the short answer is that if there were movements today called Ricardianists or Smithists who insisted that everything that Ricardo and Smith wrote was the gospel truth which didn’t need amending, expending, or correcting, then yes, it would be proper to dismiss them in the same way that one can dismiss, for a lack of better word at the moment, “orthodox” Marxists.
The kind of Marxism that is done by folks like Cohen and Roemer looks a lot different from the Marxism of Marx, from the Marxism of his immediate successors, or the Marxism as understood by most self identified Marxists today (in English, Anthropology etc. departments). And IMNSHO the Marxism that is done by folks like Cohen and Roemer is a very respectable endeavor and worthy of pursuit. Whether, at the end of the day, you want to call it Marxism or just Marx-inspired is just semantics.

So to answer your rhetorical question:
“Would this be an accurate summary of the evolution of the position of the anti-Marx side in this conversation?”

No, it is not an accurate summary of the evolution of the position of the anti-Marx side in this conversation. What it is, is a rhetorical maneuver to hijack and take control of the conversation. Specifically
1), 2) It’s not just that they’re based on LTV but that they depend crucially on LTV (unlike many ideas of Smith and Ricardo). So 2) actually gets the position – the initial and present position of the “anti-Marx” side – correct. 1)’s just placed in there for rhetorical effect, ain’t?
3) “Exploitation” can have meaning outside of Marxism you know, and the fact that it does in no way says that Marxism does not depend on LVT. Furthermore, there are wrong ideas which one can build on and then there are wrong ideas which lead to dead ends. The wrong ideas of Smith and Ricardo were of the first kind, the wrong ideas of Marx of the second. The fact that they both shared the LTV to some extent makes them both wrong but other aspects make them wrong in different, crucial, ways.

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tib 04.23.09 at 4:00 am

I’m still trying to understand how one could introduce Marx without reference to the LTV (does surplus labor theory of profit work better?) DeLong doesn’t get Hegel, but he at least grapples with the core of Marx’s theory.

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Chris Bertram 04.23.09 at 5:27 am

#120 notsneaky, I did ask you to back up your assertion that lots of important bits of Marxism depend on the truth of the LTV, and I don’t think I’ve read an answer yet.

In any case, the fact that many of Marx’s key claims have turned out to be wrong doesn’t justify the kind of treatment that he gets from DeLong or “Mitch” etc. And that’s because a thinker can be wrong in interesting ways, can ask or formulate interesting questions but come up with mistaken answers etc.

The answer to tib at #120, btw, is that one can explain the claim that capitalist society is a society where the unequal distribution of the ownership of productive resources compels the many to work for the benefit of the few without getting into technical issues about how labour inputs relate to prices. That thought, and the corollary that such a society is a _class_ society (class being about who works for the benefit of whom), seems to me to be the central Marxian claim to set against liberal/libertarian fantasies of freedom and equality (see the passage in _Capital_ about “freedom, equality, property and Bentham”.)

John Roemer wrote a nice little book a few years ago in response to Milton and Rose Friedman’s _Free to Choose_. His title was _Free to Lose_. A rather neat encapsulation of an idea that makes Marx rather less of a “dead dog” than the “peevish, arrogant, mediocre Epigonoi” would like to pretend. No wonder the temptation on the other side is openly to avow oneself the pupil of such a mighty thinker.

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john c. halasz 04.23.09 at 6:05 am

Re: Radek @94

There’s nothing you’re saying there that I don’t already know. Capitalists invest in productivity-enhancement under competitive conditions to reduce costs and thereby gain competitive advantage by lowering output prices and gaining market-share. And not the least of those costs are wage-costs. So in the short-to-medium-run, labor becomes dis-employed, even if wages of remaining workers rise”, only to be re-employed “at lower wages in more labor intensive sectors, output prices competitively decline, and less-productive capital stocks are competitively devalued and forced out, even as the costs of maintaining long-run, uncertain productivity-enhanced capital stocks rise. Hence the profits to innovative capital investment rise, even as the value of and return to aggregate capital stocks decline. Add to that, that the value of capital stocks is not to be booked at their initial historical cost, but rather at their reproduction/replacement cost, and you get a fairly paradoxical situation, in which increasing concentrations of capital/capital intensities, which increase the real distributable surplus-product, lower unit profits, lower the wage-share in aggregate demand, raise investment costs sine qua non, and require a further expansion of markets to dispose of excess output. Hence a “tendential law of the falling rate of profits”, which is a fairly plausible root account of the production/business/trade cycle and its recurrent crises, as over-investment meets up with under-consumption, deficient wage-based demand. Apparently, Marx thought that the accumulation of such crises would render them increasingly severe, as the accumulation of the “forces of production”, which include available technical means, as well as the work “force”,- and why should human knowledge, skill, and experience be arbitrarily re-designated “human capital”?- ran against the limits imposed by the “relations of production”, economically speaking, the capacity of the system to write down capital losses to re-balance them with the available “mass” of labor-value. But that “law” is a tendency, not a deterministic covering law, which ought to invite the question of possible countervailing tendencies or policy responses. Can excess public expenditures or transfers provide for the short-falls in consumption demand or provide extra, alternative avenues for capital investment,- (weapons, weapons, weapons!)-? Maybe, but to a fully sufficient extent? (At any rate, it was a Marxist economist, Michael Kalecki who first discovered the principle of real aggregate effective demand, but, since he wrote in Polish and a bit in French, no one noticed, though, in fairness, it would be another case of simultaneous independent discovery, like Newton/Leibniz or Darwin/Wallace). Schumpeter was to re-style this dynamic “creative destruction”, to the delight of gleeful yuppies everywhere, but then he too was worried about the prospect of “secular stagnation”. Again, Marx’ account was one of long-run dynamic dis-equilibrium. Why would you be so sure that general equilibrium accounts could so readily trump that prospect, (even if we now possess much better math to model Marx’ intuitions)?

““socially necessary labor time” is the point where, even if it was capable of explaining relative prices (and all else is metaphysics)”- Er, that’s a piece of positivist idiocy and philosophical illiteracy. You can’t distinguish a critique of metaphysics from metaphysics itself? And sheerly economically speaking, it expresses the sort of view that claims that aggregate cumulative debt doesn’t matter, only debt servicing costs, ’cause, ya know, interest rates won’t ever deviate from what’s required. “What the hey is it? Who determines whether labor time is socially necessary or not?”- Still, more basically, are you so hung up on methodological individualism that you don’t recognize that conditional constraints and cross-secting consequences of the activities of individual agents generate structures that were not intended by anyone? It’s certainly not Marx who invented hourly wages, and clearly his account is that it’s the “system” itself that “competitively” abstracts/extracts “socially necessary labor time”. Have you ever actually worked a factory job? Or managed a factory?

As to Marx’ deployment of LTV being simply and obviously false, well, since labor-value is always already alienated and abstracted/extracted, it’s not as if labor is “embodied” in its output, but rather labor-values are already “ghostly”. Labor-value is precisely not some sort of mysterious metaphysical substance with occult causal powers. (Hegel had already eviscerated such traditional notions of metaphysical substance). Rather labor-value amounts to an accounting convention rather than a unique explanatory force. To be sure, one can adopt a different system of accounting, just as one can adopt a different explanatory framework. But a convention is not simply and obviously false, but rather more-or-less useful within an explanatory framework. And in general, it’s not a good idea to attribute to Marx gross economic stupidities, since he was a mean economist and thoroughly well-read and critically responsive to virtually all the economic literature available in his day and age. So Marx is precisely not claiming. e.g., that labor intensive sectors are producing/extracting more labor-value than capital-intensive sectors, since labor is the source of all value, which would be utterly stupid. Marx is a good deal closer to common sense and more empirical than he’s often given credit for, and I think those readings whereby he takes commodity-money wages and prices as prima facie, rough-and-ready equivalents or indicators of labor-values are on the mark. (There’s no need to translate a wage into a basket of wage-goods and calculate the labor input to those goods, etc.) Rather he’s tracing out the pathways by which labor-values deviate from nominal prices, from the assumption of their ready equivalence. So concentrated, capital-intensive sectors are producing more value than diffuse labor-intensive sectors, because, due to oligopolistic market-power and the rents accruing to it, they are drawing labor-value off of those other sectors. There might be other accounting conventions and alternative explanations, but it’s hard to claim that such a phenomenon is unrealistic or not empirically evident. Similarly, Marx accounts capital goods, like labor-power, as always exchanged at value. But that does not mean that he’s claiming that capital goods, as “factors of production”, do not yield increased surpluses. Rather, since a capital good has no use-value other than the production of exchange-values, and since capital goods are valued at replacement costs, they can’t somehow produce their own value, independent from their realization in output. That’s a logically coherent accounting, even if others might be essayed. In fact, Marx’ LTV has been shown formally to be consistent, such that, given that labor is chosen as the numaire, labor-value input results “magically” in a surplus of labor-value output. The problem, of course, is that, by the same formalism, if corn were chosen as the numaire, then a corn-theory-of-value would result, with corn inputs producing corn-surpluses. So there must be some peculiar non-formal attribute of labor that would qualify it as a privileged numaire. The other generalized result of the formal-rational reconstruction of Marx’ economics is that, indeed, his LTV accounting holds up well, such that the “mass” of labor-values,- (and here the alleged transformation problem simply drops out “macro-economically”),- correlates with the flow of input-output prices, provided the economy is growing in an inter-sectorally balanced way, but, if not, his LTV falls apart. Somehow I think Marx would not have been surprised by such a formal result.

More generally, any economic framework of explanation must rely on some sort of standard of “value”, let’s call it, at minimum, a principle of least effort, just as purely physical explanations rely on a conception of energy as doing “work”, as with Carnot heat engine cycles. The core idea of “economy” is systematically producing more output/welfare/satisfaction from less “resources”. It is not obvious that the capacities, needs, and well-being of laborers should be held of no account in providing such a standard of “efficiency”. It’s also not obvious that the maximalization of individual utitility preference functions can actually do such “work”.

As for “exploitation”, it’s far more a functional than a normative concept in Marx. Capitalists “necessarily” exploit workers, since labor is already alienated and otherwise the extraction of surplus-value wouldn’t result. But then, Marx was not exactly averse to the extraction of social surpluses. He just wanted to re-organize the processes by which it was effected and distributed. Marx is constantly playing with the old freedom vs. necessity problem, such that human agents “freely” produce the conditions of their own unfreedom and subjection, so that workers, in objectifying and expressing themselves in their own products are already alienated from them and subjected to “the law of value” and capitalists, in seeking to maximalize profits, compulsively drive each other into bankruptcy and drive down the rate-of-profit, etc. But Marx remained wedded to the basic Hegelian framework, whereby norms only had meaning, let alone validity, if they were anchored and embodied in the recognitions of actual social relations and practices. Hence no matter how conflicted and self-divided the consciousness and recognition of social norms, they could only be resolved through the course of actual social conflict, rather than through any liberalistic appeal to moral “values”. Hence, I’m not sympathetic, on grounds of hermeneutic accuracy, to attempts to reconstruct Marx’ thought/work in terms of Analytic philosophy, normative political philosophy, methodological individualism, rational choice theory, technological functionalism, etc., while declaring Hegel “bullshit”. Like it or not, Marx is thoroughly rooted in Hegelian dialectics, even if he himself might have mis-understood Hegel somewhat and erroneously reified the latter’s conceptual-reflective method as a “materialist” reality. I think Marx is very much a “dead dog”, in roughly the same sense that he declared Hegel to be, in a letter written when he was re-reading Hegel’s “Logic” to bone up for writing “Capital”. The mystery is why Marx chose to present his epic account in a thoroughly Hegelian idiom, when, by the 1850’s, Hegel had been largely forgotten, was scarcely read, and even less understood. There’s a peculiar sense of rigor in that.

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Chris Bertram 04.23.09 at 6:38 am

_I’m not sympathetic, on grounds of hermeneutic accuracy, to attempts to reconstruct Marx’ thought/work in terms of Analytic philosophy, normative political philosophy, methodological individualism, rational choice theory, technological functionalism, etc., while declaring Hegel “bullshit”._

Just to note, John, that the first work in the “analytical Marxist” canon, G.A. Cohen’s _Karl Marx’s Theory of History_ has an opening chapter on images of history in Hegel and Marx and that Cohen, for one, nowhere treats Hegel as a bullshitter. (I’m just making this point for the sake of accuracy, btw.)

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John Meredith 04.23.09 at 10:00 am

“In any case, the fact that many of Marx’s key claims have turned out to be wrong doesn’t justify the kind of treatment that he gets from DeLong”

I agree with the spirit of this, but I think it assumes that DeLong is being much harder on Marx than he actually is. In fact, in that lecture, he credits Marx with plenty of important insights. I agree that he misses one or two (or one, now I think about it), but it doesn’t strike me as spectacularly unbalanced, especially if you allow that the tone is quite lighthearted. I think it likely that a student hearing this lecture would feel inspired to read more by and about Marx.

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Matt 04.23.09 at 11:05 am

I haven’t had occasion to cover Marx in the classes I’ve taught, but when students have been interested in him I’ve tried to direct them to Jo Wolff’s excellent little book, _Why Read Marx Today?_. It’s short, highly readable, affordable on Amazon, and, I think, touches on all the most important elements.

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Klaus 04.23.09 at 2:09 pm

“The wrong ideas of Smith and Ricardo were of the first kind, the wrong ideas of Marx of the second. “

Isn’t that like, your opinion, man?

Anyway, let me see if I’ve got it straight:

1) We should teach Ricardo and Smith because their theories can be reinterpreted in useful ways.
2) Cohen and Roemer reinterpret Marx in useful ways.
3) We shouldn’t teach Marx.

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lemuel pitkin 04.23.09 at 2:56 pm

if there were movements today called Ricardianists or Smithists who insisted that everything that Ricardo and Smith wrote was the gospel truth which didn’t need amending, expending, or correcting

…or if there were movements today that insisted the above about Marx. However, there aren’t.

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aaron 04.23.09 at 3:19 pm

I think Marx has about 4 main ideas that can be fit into a 1.5 hour lecture, provided the lecturer does not ramble and digress in excess.

Labor theory of value/surplus labor: An important contribution/perspective–capitalist systems are based on extracting surplus value (at least in Marx’s perspective)
Alienation: Of course you can’t talk about Marx with at least briefly discussing alienation. If explained well, this is an interesting points for newbies to Marx to think about. Included here is Marx’s argument that capitalism breaks down social relations and transforms them into money relations. This might also be a good place to introduce Marx’s economic relations=power relations argument.
Base-superstructure: the idea that economic structures can change social structures. This includes Marx’s historical argument about relations of production.
Commodity fetishism: This links to the labor theory of value, but I think it makes more sense to discuss that topic with surplus labor

I would move away from connecting Marx to Stalin, Pol Pot, etc, since students in your class will do this on their own, without your “help”. A brief discussion of Marx’s views on communism might be in order, but these are the least useful part of his work. It might be worth mentioning that Marx did think capitalism led to tremendous economic growth, but saw it as perpetuating inimical class relations. Some mention of the historical context might be useful as well–given the conditions of the time, Marx’s argument made a lot of sense, and the height of its influence probably came in the early 20th century, when nearly every Western country has a precarious balance between capitalist and non-capitalist forces.

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notsneaky 04.23.09 at 4:21 pm

“I did ask you to back up your assertion that lots of important bits of Marxism depend on the truth of the LTV, and I don’t think I’ve read an answer yet.”

Hmm, I thought that I already answered that (and that that is a good part of Brad’s essay). But to recapitulate: Marx’s definition of exploitation, Marx’s analysis of capitalism and relative prices (when the metaphysics are ignored), Marx’s idea of falling rate of profit.

Also, to some extent the idea of class struggle and the historical dialectic. Or more precisely, not the overall idea of class struggle but the particular depiction of it under capitalism, as she actually is.
(The application of Marxism to history actually hasn’t been unfruitful, since in fact, history often IS about class struggle and the whole thesis antithesis thing. But it’s also been over done as often cube shaped blocks have been awkwardly hammered into tetrahedron shaped holes)

“In any case, the fact that many of Marx’s key claims have turned out to be wrong doesn’t justify the kind of treatment that he gets from DeLong or “Mitch” etc.”

I don’t know about Mitch but I think Brad’s being more than fair. In fact I think he’s being a bit over generous by evaluating Marx relative to a counterfactual of complete absence of alternative development of ideas. But if Marx hadn’t been around then all those really smart people who ran around dead end allies would have perhaps thought up something more useful. (I’m particularly thinking of Brad’s note that Marx noted the existence of recurring financial crisis under capitalism – Marx was neither the first one nor his explanation of their sources the best one (for that Keynes did much better and maybe w/o Marx someone would’ve thought of it sooner))

“And that’s because a thinker can be wrong in interesting ways, can ask or formulate interesting questions but come up with mistaken answers etc.”

Oh sure, not disputing that. But then that’s what you teach to the newbies. This thinker was wrong, but in interesting ways.

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notsneaky 04.23.09 at 4:23 pm

Oh I’m also down with some of that Base/Superstructure thing. If taken with some salty caveats.

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notsneaky 04.23.09 at 4:27 pm

“Anyway, let me see if I’ve got it straight:”

Nope, you got it crooked. In particular this:

“3) We shouldn’t teach Marx.”

has never been said, asserted, implied or hinted at. The discussion is about how to teach Marx not whether to teach him or not. I’m getting a bit tired of responding to all the strawmen arguments so I’ll let some of them pass.

john halasz,
“There’s nothing you’re saying there that I don’t already know. “

Hey, right back at you.

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notsneaky 04.23.09 at 4:31 pm

“Have you ever actually worked a factory job? Or managed a factory?”

Yes. No.

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notsneaky 04.23.09 at 4:36 pm

BTW, john, while I do poke fun at your literary style, please realize that I do read your comments carefully, dearth of paragraphs and all, and appreciate your thoughts even as I disagree with them.

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ejh 04.23.09 at 4:40 pm

<i<This thinker was wrong, but in interesting ways.

I think in order to teach that somebody’s wrong you have to prove they’re wrong, which is probably beyond the scope of economics to actually do. (As per hidari at #110. When you can get economists to agree on something in the way that scientists agree on something, hidari will be wrong.)

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ejh 04.23.09 at 4:43 pm

(Sorry about that. That was supposed to be in response to “that’s what you teach to the newbies. This thinker was wrong, but in interesting ways” at #130. )

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MNPundit 04.23.09 at 5:51 pm

Did you say anything about how he was reincarnated as a stuffed Tiger?

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Will Roberts 04.23.09 at 9:26 pm

Just to add a slightly different angle on something that everyone’s probably sick of talking about anyway:

I would say that Marx’s “LTV”–that is, the claim that value of x is determined by the socially necessary labour requisite to produce x–is a) absolutely essential to his understanding of capital, and b) right, right, right, but also c) just not the sort of thing economists are looking for.

As several people have noted, the LTV doesn’t predict prices. But Marx is not trying to predict prices. Thus, Cohen et al. are wrong to try to reconstruct Marx on a different basis, Delong is wrong to be so dismissive, and Marxists like me have to do a better job of explaining what Marx is actually up to in his critique of economics.

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Ted 04.24.09 at 5:41 am

I find that doing Mill’s “Subjection of Women” before Marx helps. Students will eagerly agree that women resisted their own emancipation, that what it means to be a man or a woman is socially constructed, that it’s better for the oppressor if the oppressed don’t recognize their oppression, etc which makes it easier to make the point that Marx believes these things to be true of the proletariat. “But workers don’t act like they’re being exploited – they support capitalism!” “Yes, just like women opposed (and oppose) feminism and support patriarchy.”

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notsneaky 04.25.09 at 9:22 am

No sleight on Mill (though your interpretation of him is another matter), but that’s a horrible argument. It may be right in some particular circumstances, but as an argument, it’s, h, o, r, r, i, b, l, e.. The reason why it’s a horrible argument is that the (unstated) implications of the two quoted statements are the same, but they are actually two entirely different things. So the (unstated) implications are not really the same. The problem is that that kind of argument can be applied to pretty much anything:
p1 “But Ted doesn’t like the Ohio Buckeyes, he supports the Michigan Wolverines!”
a “Yes, just like women opposed (and oppose) feminism and support patriarchy”

p2″But Ted doesn’t like Crooked Timber, he actually reads Brad DeLong”
a “Yes, just like women opposed (and oppose) feminism and support patriarchy”

p3″But Ted isn’t a fan of the Blues, he supports the Greens”
a “Yes, just like women opposed (and oppose) feminism and support patriarchy”

p4″But Ted is a cat person, not a dog person”
a “Yes, just like women opposed (and oppose) feminism and support patriarchy”

It’s basically a trick to try to win an argument by associating something with something completely irrelevant, and it’s cheap and low down too because it refuses to actually state its premises directly – the supposed conclusion, the a) part, the “Yes, just like women…” being said in a sarcastic tone (obviously) and the more nasal your intonation the less sense you actually have to make here.

This is aside from the fact that, whatever Mill says about the prevelance of the female fifth column within the feminist movement, it probably really ain’t there that much. One way or another, most women don’t like to be oppressed just like, crazily enough, no other persons like to be oppressed. I’ve known a plenty of women in my life time (no, really!). Only like 2 of them supported the patriarchy. Maybe 4 had mixed feelings. The vast washed, manicured, and groomed masses of the double X chromosome carriers were very much against it. The unwashed ones too, but on this hippy blog that’s taken as already understood and a given.

Anyway, it’s actually possible that 1) workers are exploited and 2) workers support capitalism because they gain from it, relative to any other system devised by man.
This is the key (and the serious part here) – which makes it different from the supposed feminism example.

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engels 04.25.09 at 11:31 am

The kind of Marxism liberalism that is done by folks like Cohen and Roemer Rawls and Nozick looks a lot different from the Marxism of Marx, from the Marxism of his immediate successors, or the Marxism as understood by most self identified Marxists today (in English, Anthropology etc. departments liberalism of Locke or Montesquieu, from the liberalism of the Founding Fathers, or liberalism as understood by most self-identified liberals today (in English departments, law schools, the NYRB, Amnesty International, etc). And IMNSHO the Marxism liberalism that is done by folks like Cohen and Roemer Rawls and Nozick is a very respectable endeavor and worthy of pursuit. Whether, at the end of the day, you want to call it Marxism or just Marx-inspired liberalism or just liberal inspired is just semantics.

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Matt 04.25.09 at 11:53 am

Radek, have you read Mill’s _The Subjection of Women_? Because from the way you describe it here it looks an awful lot like you haven’t. Mill is a liberal, not a radical feminist, of course (though not all agree- some seeing elements quite like radical feminism in his account), and his account isn’t just like Marx’s, but for your reply to work there would have to be no account in TSW about why women often accept(ed) their subordinate status for reasons other than fear of force. But if you’d read it, you’d know that’s something Mill is pretty interested in.

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engels 04.25.09 at 11:58 am

Oh, and much as I would love to respond to your penetrating criticism that simply because I call myself a Marxist I must ‘insist… that everything (Marx) wrote (is) the gospel truth which (doesn’t) need amending, expending, or correcting’ I am going to have to pass. Maybe a patient Darwinist or Keynsean economist can explain that one to you.

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Martin Bento 04.26.09 at 12:44 am

notsneaky, the crux of the matter is that women can be made, according to feminist theory, to sympathize with a system that oppresses them. I haven’t read “The Subjection of Women”, so I don’t know if it really applies, but that appears to be the argument Ted is putting forth, and, if Mill did say that, it is a good point. That is hardly like preferring one sports team to another, which is not sympathy against your own interest, and it is much like Marx, who certainly did not suppose, as Matt seems to think (unless I’m misreading him), that the only thing keep the proletariat from siding with their own best interest (as Marx saw it) was brute force. In fact, Marx seemed to think the proletariat would win once it came to brute force, hence the confidence in the eventual prospects of revelution. As for the notion that workers support Capitalism because they do better under it than any other system, that contradicts neither Marx nor Ted. Marx thought another system was possible under which workers would do better. You may disagree with this, but that should not color your presentation of *what Marx thought*. Whether what Marx thought is true is also a valid subject for such a class, but it should follow a presentation of the ideas that aims to simply get them across as clearly as possible. This is the problem with Delong.

As for the lack of sympathy for patriarchy among women, times have much changed since Mill’s day, mostly because of feminism. Now, even the conservatives can have a women as a standard bearer (Palin), and the fact is subject to no visible criticism even within that caucus, even though it would be extremely hard to defend from the perspective either of the Bible or of longstanding Western traditions.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 04.26.09 at 7:51 am

J Edgar Hoover-approved Marx to newbies. Funny stuff.

(linked by infinite thØught)

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