Kliman vs Heinrich: An Exercise in Marxology

The annals of Marxist political economy, c.q. the critique thereof, show a great deal of abstruse, opaque, and downright remote argumentation about minutiae. Much of this can be blamed on the persistent habit of Marxist arguments to take the form of disputes about the ‘true Marx’, about what Marx ‘really said’, rather than being arguments on the merits of theories in their own right. This substitution of philology and exegesis for direct debate cannot fail to make already quite abstract arguments even more confusing and distant from everyday political concerns, and thereby even less accessible to the average activist or intellectual interested in developments in Marxist theory. That’s deplorable, and it is incumbent on all those concerned to end this sorry tradition.

That said, the latest round of such argumentation is that between Michael Heinrich and Andrew Kliman and his collaborators on the nature and meaning of the ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’.(1) Heinrich is the main exponent of a German school of interpretation of Marx, known as the Neue Marxlektüre, that is heavily philological. Various members of this school including Heinrich himself are involved in the project of the new scientific complete editions of Marx and Engels’ works in German (and the other original languages), known as MEGA2, which perhaps furthers this exegetic mindset. Kliman and his colleagues, on the other hand, are more prominent in the Anglosphere and represent a particular school of Marxist political economy there, best known for developing a powerful critique of prevailing assumptions about the ‘transformation problem’ that has obstructed Marxist economic thinking for so long. This approach, known as TSSI, has made quite an impact and has contributed to clearing the way for actually moving ahead with more novel and empirical work in Marxist economics, in lieu of the repetition of moves that had been the norm for most of the 20th century. Continue reading “Kliman vs Heinrich: An Exercise in Marxology”

Book Review: Wolff & Resnick, “Contending Economic Theories”

One of the core principles of scientific theory is that all theory is specific and limited in its domain. A theory which attempts to explain everything, explains nothing. Equally, the mere observation that ‘everything depends on everything else’ is, while undoubtedly true, useless for scientific inquiry – the virtue rests in identifying the specific and causal connections where possible, or at the very least a model or theory that can explain some subset of the totality of connections in a way that helps us solve problems. To point this out may seem banal, but Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick would have done well to keep it in mind when writing their book, Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian. As the name implies, this is a work of comparative economic theory, presenting the elementary (say, undergraduate level) versions of each of the theories in a way that allows novices in economics to compare and contrast their methods and approaches.

Such a book is a great idea, as there is a real shortage of clear and accessible comparative material that gives an overview of the different theoretical conceptions and methodological justifications that exist in economics, both orthodox and heterodox – not least because the interaction between method and content is perhaps nowhere as important as in that discipline. Moreover, as Marxist economists of some recent popular renown – at least in the case of Richard Wolff, as Stephen Resnick sadly died earlier this year – you’d expect the authors’ heterodox view of economic theory to make such a comparison more fair and useful than it would be if undertaken by an orthodox neoclassical historian of economics. Continue reading “Book Review: Wolff & Resnick, “Contending Economic Theories””

Military Coup in Egypt

It is always difficult for socialists in one part of the world to pronounce on events thousands of miles away – at least without a certain degree of hubris and a certain risk of making oneself ridiculous. This applies perhaps in particular for those countries where the political forms and institutions, immediately apparent to outsiders, do not actually reveal much about the internal political and economic stucture: one can think here of Turkey, Pakistan, and the like. In a sense, it can perhaps be said that generally poor countries are effectively more divided than rich ones. This should come as no surprise given the desperation of poverty, the strength of religious divisions in such places, and the nature of class conflict. Sometimes these divisions are relatively clear and transparent to the outside, but often they are not, and even when properly understood reveal nothing much more than the many contradictions that keep such countries in a social and economic trap of poverty and violence. Egypt seems to fit the latter mold.

Nonetheless, I think it can be useful and justified for Western commentators to speak about events there, even if they know neither the country nor the language very well. There are several reasons for this. The first is owing to the political conclusions drawn by the various progressive forces in the West from events abroad, which makes the struggle over how to interpret these events also a struggle over the political outlook locally. Such arguments by proxy are, as I have argued before, often inherently questionable and misleading, but they are frequent. Secondly, the internationalist and cosmopolitan viewpoint that the current age demands and solidarity with people abroad requires a lively interest in their affairs, including in assessing the successes and mistakes of the progressive movements and parties of the places in question – but without thereby implying that some recipe for success exists in this or that office in London or Chicago. Such certainties are exactly the domain of the world improving free traders in the international economic organizations, and their all-knowing charity has done immeasurable harm. Rather, our perspective should be to see what the events and politics abroad look like to us, and what we can learn from them rather than to telling people far away what to do. But of course any intellectual independence also requires the courage to identify and comment on a mistake when one sees one, even if it is just to unleash a discussion on strategy. Due to its relation to ongoing events, such a strategic discussion can be infinitely more fruitful than overly abstract and general chatter about ‘workers’ parties’, ‘united fronts’ and so forth. But this, too, requires to obtain as much knowledge as possible for an outsider about the place in question, and a critical sifting of the writings and actions of the people on the ground. Continue reading “Military Coup in Egypt”