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.
I have reviewed Heinrich’s main work translated into English, his introduction to Capital, in some detail here, and I won’t repeat my points in that context. What is significant in this particular case is that a number of economists, namely Kliman himself, Alan Freeman, Nick Potts, Alexey Gusev, and Brendan Cooney of kapitalism101, have written a rejoinder to Heinrich’s arguments about the impossibility of a law of the falling rate of profit and Marx’s alleged decision to abandon such a theory. The rejoinder can be found here, in response to Heinrich setting out the same argument of his book in Monthly Review; a reply by Heinrich is said to be forthcoming.
This argument gives rise to some reflection by outsiders (especially in the Marxist Facebooksphere), and I think that’s justified, and I want to add to that. While the argument is about as obscure and polemical as one can imagine, this kind of odium theologicum among Marxist economists is worth going into for a number of reasons. The first is because of the way philology and exegesis get mobilized. The reading of texts, especially for Heinrich, appears to be central to the argument about the correct presentation of Marxist theory. This in turn invites the counter-philology of Kliman et al., who counter Heinrich’s reading of Marx’s texts and manuscripts with their own – much of this revolving around inconsistencies in marginal notes and unpublished documents. There are some serious issues with this. Both sides are quite inconsistent, in that they accuse each other of selective reading and use of unpublished documents to prove their point, which both of them indeed are guilty of.
Some arguments are less strong than others – it seems to me Kliman et al. overall have the stronger argument in philology itself, because of the consistency of their view with Marx’s work as a whole and the purpose of his value theory, especially of the sections on the falling rate of profit in it. But it is clear that the question is not quite resolvable on this basis. Engels’ editing work is brought in once again as the eternal point of dispute, mainly as nobody quite knows what his influence was and how much it matters – the appearance of Engels as the deus ex machina, or more often the demon ex machina, of Marxology is a sure sign that the argument has become fruitless. Some have pointed to the one clause in which Marx writes ‘rises’ and Kliman et al. suggest this may be a slip of the pen, which seems an illegitimate and opportunistic argument; but such things do indeed happen, as proven by the infamous case of the Wicked Bible. But what’s more important is the premise that such philology is the deciding factor. Whereas Heinrich as a German speaker working on the manuscripts themselves no doubt has a superior position in analyzing individual comments, this is no reason why Kliman et al. could not have the better reading on the whole. What seems ignored by both parties is that it is a truism of any philology that for a prolific and perfectionist, constantly learning author like Marx, it would be highly suspect if there were not inconsistencies in his comments and works – especially in marginal notes in unpublished manuscripts. This gets us nowhere.
A better scientific criterion would be to leave the philology for what it is and decide the question as a question of theory. There, the deciding factors are the normal scientific ones: which theory has more explanatory value, is more consistent, usable in practice, empirically ‘testable’, more clearly defined in its terms and domain, and relates better to other theories – in other words, is more operational? It seems to me the Kliman et al. version, leading to the interesting and plausible novel proposals such as Kliman’s book on the crisis, has the better of it on that basis. As Kliman et al. rightly point out, the fall in the rate of profit as an empirical phenomenon, as a secular trend, was taken as known by the classical economists from Smith onwards. The question was always how to explain it, and this makes Marx’s idea of this law much more plausible and purposeful, especially since this is not at all equal to the statement the rate of profit is always falling. Heinrich claims there is no such theory at all, which then makes the purpose of any of Marx’s comments on it impossible to understand.
Neoclassical economics, which has no real theory of profit, has buried this notion, despite its recurrence in cases of crisis, as noted in a confused way even by its most mainstream analysts possible. In their somewhat preposterously titled 2011 Big Shift Index, Deloitte’s analysis of long term trends reports: “One of the central themes of the Shift Index, and the topic which generates the most questions each year, is that asset profitability (ROA) has shown a downward trend over the past four decades; a trend illustrating a steady decline in firm performance that not many have even noticed, much less investigated. Indeed, there continues to be a profound cognitive dissonance around this point: on one hand, we all acknowledge experiencing increasing stress as performance pressures mount; on the other hand, we seem unwilling to accept that all of our efforts continue to produce deteriorating results.”(2)
But this is not the argument Kliman et al. make, except to use this as a grounds for declaring a victory of exegesis, and that is a missed opportunity. This brings me to the second point: the arguments via Marx appear as arguments by proxy, in the same way as historical arguments in bad Marxism often do, as I have argued before. One could resolve a lot of the problems by simply opposing the two as Kliman et al.’s theory of the rate of profit versus Heinrich’s – then a real decision could be made. Of course, Kliman et al. do rightly note that this is especially the strategy of their opponents, wanting to ‘have their cake and eat it too’: having their own argument and Marx’s imprimatur for it. But this is best addressed, I believe, in terms of philosophy of science, not in terms of counter-exegesis: boldly state against this one’s own theory, and let epigones be epigones.
By playing the philological game, such a decision and its criteria and implications are obscured. This has the effect of making Marxism not just an exercise in rabbinical readings of scripta minora and marginal notes, but it makes it less accessible for newcomers and outsiders and less practical. Such an inward turn achieves very little and tends to be the sign of degenerative aspects of a research programme, in Lakatos’ terminology. This is not to say questions of method are not important, or that nothing hangs on the outcome – far from it. The necessity or contingency of capitalist crisis and the role of the rate of profit in it, especially as a long term phenomenon, are more significant than ever in practical terms, as the current crisis shows.
However, making the argument about ‘the real Marx’ and limiting one’s domain thereby necessarily to the total opus of Marx’s works makes such implications and their empirical and theoretical support difficult to comprehend, liable to confusion, and frustrating for people not already among the ranks of the converted to one or another camp. In this way, it does the political significance of Marxist economics, which is real and enduring, a disservice. I propose it is time we stop making all our arguments about the real Marx, however tempting and interesting that can be from a history of ideas perspective, and let ‘the dead bury the dead’. Not to bury Marx and his critique of political economy with it – on the contrary, only by burying the dead letter can the live thought once more animate us.
NB: Andrew Kliman, the lead author of the paper discussed here, has replied to this article.
1) For the uninitiated: the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (LTRPF) – a strange mixture of law and tendency – essentially states that given an overall tendency for capital to develop productivity by means of labor-saving machinery, there will also be a secular decline in the rate of profit caused by this change. The reason for this is that the higher level of productivity lowers the value of the commodities across the branch of industry or the economy the change applies to, as competition will force all companies in that branch to adopt the new technology. The result is that as productivity increases, the margin for profit per product declines. Underlying this is an affirmation of Marx’s point that only living labor can create new value. The actual law is a bit more complex than this, but this is the basic idea.
I thank Gavin Mendel-Gleason for bringing this to my attention.