Zombifying Marx

In a 2011 article in Jacobin magazine, the Australian political economist Mike Beggs accuses the defenders of ‘orthodox’ Marxist economic theory of creating a ‘zombie Marx’. What matters, Beggs seems to suggest, is not really whether this or that economic theory is correct in its foundations, about which the neoclassical economists of today’s orthodoxy are just as dogmatic as the Marxists are about theirs. Rather, the significance of economic ideas rests in the practice. This practice consists of what he, citing David Harvey, calls “casual empiricism”: “for example, in analyzing the relationship between the US federal government’s deficit and long term interest rates.” The search for foundationalism, being able to found any given economic finding along such empirical or econometric lines on a well-defined and general theory, is the province of a rigid minority of neoclassical economists, and has little to do with the everyday practice of economics. Or so Beggs would have us believe.

He then goes on to conclude from this that it is the Marxists who have a problem, not the neoclassical economists. Unlike their mainstream neoclassical counterparts, Beggs suggests, the Marxist economists have a tendency to prefer ‘going back to the text’ to advancing economic knowledge, and this process has to do with the political commitments of Marxism outside the mainstream. Essentially, Beggs argues that Marxism as a rival school of thought in economics fails, and must fail, precisely because it is not mainstream and does not reconstruct itself along the lines of the methods of the mainstream: “The pursuit of a separate system of economics as something wholly other from mainstream economics isolates us from the political and ideological space where these things take place: better, instead, to fight from the inside, to make clear the social and political content of the categories.”

Now it is an undeniable fact that Marxist economics has always been in the margins, and is so much more today (at least in Economics departments) than it was even during the Cold War. Frederic Lee’s History of Heterodox Economics makes for grim reading on this point, illustrating what an uphill battle it has been throughout the 20th century for non-marginalist, and later non-neoclassical (or New Institutionalist) economic theories to get a hearing. It must be pointed out – which Beggs does not – that this is not so much because of an inability or lack of will to engage with existing economic theory, even those of the opposing schools, as with the politics themselves. Marxist and other radical heterodox thinkers have not been outcompeted as much as systematically removed from Economics departments, both in the US and subsequently in most Western countries. The fact that even forms of heterodoxy not at all Marxist in content or relying on Capital, but still politically suspect in potential, have undergone the same fate should have given Beggs pause. At Notre Dame, for example, a thriving heterodox-inclined, but generally anti-Marxist economics department was actively purged by the university’s management to such a degree that only Philip Mirowski, due to his tenure as professor, remains as last bastion of non-neoclassical thought. (And indeed far from doing what Beggs suggests, Mirowski has very successfully spent his career criticizing the history and methodology of mainstream neoclassical economics – especially the analogy of economics to physics that Beggs appeals to.) The legacy of McCarthyism has had much the same effect on Marxist departments or individual teachers; even the heterodoxy of the right, Austrian economics, can barely get a foothold outside obscure universities in Alabama.

However, one can take Beggs’ argument more strategically. Always rowing upstream is an exhausting business and often not very effective. One can wonder to what extent it matters whether Marxist economics succeeds in academia, as it was intended for a different audience, but it is not unimportant that a (self-proclaimed) scientific socialism be able to pass the test of science. One would not want to end up as the creationism of the social sciences, with a considerable support outside academe, but absolutely no legitimacy within it. Moreover, whether or not one feels it is justified, there may be great advantage in actually getting one’s arguments heard, rather than stubbornly insisting on an approach that is simply not understood by most of one’s colleagues. I think this is perhaps what Beggs has in mind, although his article at times suggests otherwise. He is especially insistent that Marxists should not derive their ideas from Capital directly, or that they should spend so much time on scholastic and philological analysis of that book, in lieu of (he suggests) doing original economic research on one’s own. He refers here to the condescending letter Joan Robinson, the Keynesian economist, wrote to Ronald Meek, in which she excoriates him for caring about what exactly it says in Capital vol 2 and about Marx’s ‘dialectical’ method and all the rest, instead of simply doing economics. What could be held against such a practical outlook? Isn’t doing original research important?

Well, Beggs does have the grace to point out that Robinson herself ended up a lot more Marxist the more she did her original research. But that is not the point. Of course doing such research, the ‘casual empiricism’, is important. Marxists have been and continue to be excellent at that – Andrew Kliman, who functions in Beggs’ piece as the paradigm example of interpretation over novelty, has in fact done just that with his extensive empirical research into reconstructing medium term profit rates in the US.(1) So has David Harvey, as Mike Beggs recognizes, and his critical commentaries on the volumes of Capital has not kept him from doing so – rather the contrary, Harvey himself credits his success in economic geography precisely to his discovery of Marxism, via Engels’ old article on the ‘housing question’. Marxists of all sorts, both within and without official parties, have spent great amounts of time and (electronic) ink on finding new theories and new explanations for economic and social phenomena. This ranges from Baran and Sweezy’s ‘monopoly capital’ theory in the 1950s to the analysis of development economics and unequal exchange by the likes of Bettelheim and Emmanuel in the 1970s to the debates on the restructuring of the global working class, the empirical trends in profit rates, the nature and causes of financialization, and the increasing interest in monetary theory and economics since the 1980s.

It is true that most of this literature takes place outside the triple star journals of economics as a discipline, but that is simply because such journals refuse to publish anything even seemingly Marxist. Ben Fine, Professor of Economics at SOAS and to my mind one of the best Marxist economists alive today, has mentioned that he has attempted many times to publish his articles in mainstream papers, only to have every single one of them rejected. The same fate happens to all other heterodox theorists, so that the old institutionalist economists have to resort to their house journal – the Journal of Economic Issues – and the post-Keynesians have their own publications too. The main exception is the Cambridge Journal of Economics, the journal from Robinson’s own alma mater: precisely because of its tradition of heterodoxy and its history as a center of methodological critique of neoclassical economics!

I say this not to whine about it. There is little use for those of a heterodox opinion to complain that the orthodoxy will not believe them. In science, orthodoxies are as often right as heterodox opinion is, probably more so – one would have to be very cynical or extremely committed to the most strong theses of sociology of science to believe that a scientific mainstream has, on average, nothing at all to do with the evidence or the rules of its interpretation. But it is merely to point out that if it seems Marxists aren’t doing original or empirical work, it’s because that happens largely behind the backs of those looking only at the big journals of the discipline, as Beggs ought to know. That’s not even mentioning the theories devised by ‘party thinkers’ for their own political strategies – one can think here of the extensive empirical debates on the interpretation of the Soviet Union as a social system, or the Cliffite theory of the ‘permanent arms economy’. Whatever the merits of such theories, one cannot say they are much different in type from something like the rational expectations interpretations of financial economics.

I therefore do not think that Beggs actually means it when he holds against the Marxists that they do not think or work originally and spend too much time on interpreting an old book like Capital. This is in fact an ancient complaint, dating back to as early as the late 19th century (so hardly long after the publication of its volumes), and in fact I think this complaint should be read differently. His own recognition of Harvey’s work shows that he is well aware that Marxists do apply Marxist ideas to new data and to construct new theories, at least at the middle level of generality and below. They do not often change their view on the foundations, but neither does anyone else, as Beggs rightly points out. What he and the other critics of ‘orthodoxy’ therefore mean when they complain about Marxist practice is not that there are no new theories and no new research, but that to their distaste Marxists stubbornly continue to insist that Marx was right about his economic ideas – if not in full, then certainly for the most part, and more so than the mainstream is. Indeed, that is a rather tautological complaint, for isn’t that what makes someone a Marxist in economics? (There have been ‘analytical Marxists’, of course, but even they wanted to prove Marx right, and failed because of their methods.)

Indeed, I think Beggs proves this himself by the way he presents his argument. He begins and ends by complaining that Marxists only refer to Marx, when they should be engaging with the “concerns and framing” of neoclassical economics today. In other words, rather than Marxists referring to Marx, he would have them refer to Samuelson and to Marshall, or even better, to Keynes. Now when put like this, the argument suddenly doesn’t seem so obviously right any more. Why Samuelson or Keynes rather than Marx? There is no validity in appeals to tradition, but neither is there validity in appeals to novelty. Besides, if Marx’s main work seems old at 119 years (when Vol. 3 was published), then there is also a considerable venerability about Marshall’s (which predates it at 123 years), that of Keynes (77 years), and even Samuelson’s neoclassical synthesis (65 and 66 years). If Samuelson’s Economics: An Introductory Analysis were an academic, it would have retired this summer. In other words, the appeal to the one over the other must be made in terms of the theories themselves, that is inevitable, if Beggs’ argument is to work.

And indeed: Beggs smuggles in two criticisms of Marx’s economic theories to justify his claim that Marxists need to look beyond Marx and adapt to mainstream methods and categories. These are Marx’s analysis of supply and demand, and Marx’s monetary theory – not coincidentally points on which his approach diverges (somewhat) from Keynes’. I don’t think Beggs’ argument is convincing on either point, but I will not go into that here. What matters rather is that he can’t ultimately avoid saying why Marx is wrong, and wrong on points of theory, even when his argument relies on precisely not doing so and rather pointing to the necessity of modern methods and categories. The complaint about the orthodoxy of the Marxists can be translated as a rhetorical vehicle for complaining that the Marxists are wrong about this or that theoretical issue. Which is fine, and may well be true. I don’t think that in fact any serious Marxist economist thinks that Marx had the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Perhaps the former, if they’re relatively ‘orthodox’, but never the latter two.

Kliman, for one, has explicitly disavowed that his attempts at proving one of Marx’s main arguments consistent thereby also prove him correct, and rightly so. If Marxists do refer often to Marx’s works and seem to spend an inordinately greater amount of time analyzing Capital than Beggs does analyzing Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money or neoclassical economists do with (say) Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis or Lionel Robbins’ Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, it is because they find so little in the publications of mainstream economics that are useful for answering the kind of questions that Marxist economics poses. It is exactly because those are different questions and they use different methods that the divergence of ‘schools’ arises. Beggs suggests, invitingly, that Marx’s economics and those of the post-Marshallian tradition of the 20th century need not be so different. I would say that they are very different; sometimes also incompatible, sometimes not. As discussed, both are involved in ‘casual empiricism’ where needed. But more often than not, neoclassical economics in theory applies to different levels of generality and uses different methods to answer different questions than the Marxist school of economics does.

On some points then, both may be right about their own answers; on other points, one will have to make a choice as to who is right, and there can be no doubt that the methodological differences are quite decisive for which choice an economist tends to make. Marxists are more explicit than neoclassical economists about where their basic frame and categories come from, but that is not to say that neoclassical economists don’t have any, as Beggs well knows. What distinguishes Marxists from the mainstream then is not so much their orthodoxy, as the mainstream is just as orthodox in their own way. What distinguishes them is two things: that they find Marx’s questions more interesting than the questions posed by Robbins, Samuelson, Gérard Debreu, or Robert Lucas; and that they find Marx’s answers – or those of people working with his frames and categories – to overlapping questions, so to speak, better than (most) of the answers found in the neoclassical approach.

There is, however, one final problem. Beggs and other critics could still ask: why so much reference to Marx himself? Partially this is, as he suggests, a political issue – the vast majority of Marxist economists also identify with Marx’s politics and think him of great significance in that role, although I would personally insist that these are separable things. But politically or economically, again it has to do with the stubbornness of the Marxist in insisting that Marx was right. One could define Marxists in economics (and other scientific fields) as follows: Marxists are those who believe that Marx was mostly right about his approach and categories, and that this makes a difference. What Beggs, and all the critics along those lines, will allow the Marxists is the former, but not the latter. But this is precisely the only justification a Marxist ‘school’ in a discipline like economics could have, and that is what Beggs studiously ignores when he asks why one would maintain such a school against the mainstream.

One must then combine this insight with the fact that there exists – unfortunately especially in economics – a pervasive tendency to critique Marxism, often in the most condescending and passive aggressive way possible, without having the least knowledge of what exactly Marx was arguing and what the implications of his arguments are. History of economics is a subject long banished from the standard repertoire of economists trained in the US or in the style of US institutions (which is almost all of the world now), and this shows. To get Marx right against the critics, then, is ultimately not a question of wanting to defend the holy text or a refusal to progress beyond it, but precisely a response to the inadequacy of the criticisms of Marx and the enduring belief that the question of Marx’s being correct or incorrect about his main points is important for the discipline in question. I am not accusing Beggs of such ignorance. But one cannot deny that if one believes that Marx being right or wrong makes a difference, then it is completely valid to want to clarify Marx’s actual views against the distortions and strawman arguments that pass for the refutation of Marxism in almost all of economics and in most cases in other disciplines, perhaps history and sociology excepted.

Indeed most mainstream economists ignore Marx and the contributions of Marxist economists (past or present) altogether, to their detriment. Perhaps this is because they are too busy with ‘casual empiricism’ to bother worrying about the theoretical significance of their work, which is a frequent complaint even by the stars of mainstream economics themselves.(2) But whenever theory does come up, the politics of theory is not far behind – as Beggs indeed recognizes. This means also that one is confronted endlessly with digs at Marx or shoddy attempts to refute his ideas, and therefore their implications, in such works; and this cannot but lead to attempts to clarify and defend those implications, so as to at least make clear what the argument is actually about. I’ll give a more or less random but representative example: take Mark Harrison’s ‘refutation’ of Marxism on the website for ‘economics experts’, Pieria. Harrison is Professor of Economics at Warwick University, hardly a backwater, and even claims to have been a Marxist. And yet, he gets every single thing about Marx wrong, and thereby totally fails to understand the implications of his arguments.

For him, Marx is primarily about distribution, when Marx in fact criticized the classical economists for this and wanted to put production central. For him, Marxism is concerned with the surface appearance of the economy, whereas neoclassical economics is concerned with the deeper reality. Of course for Marx, it is exactly the other way round – he endlessly references the need to look beyond the superficial in his works. Without it, as Marx put it, “all science would be superfluous”. For Marx, the emphasis on exchange rather than production and taking trade as the main form of economic activity is precisely an inability to look beyond the surface appearance of capitalism. Marx’s complex and sophisticated analysis of the circulation of capital and the credit system, covering two volumes of Capital, is reduced to the meaningless cliché that “the market is a jungle”. Harrison even makes the extremely common and completely counterfactual assumption that because neoclassical equilibrium theory is a theory of price formation (or claims to be), therefore Marx’s theory must be too. And he seeks to refute Marx with the platitude that no trade would take place if there wasn’t gain to be had on both sides – something Marx explicitly takes as a starting point to understanding precisely how, given this fact, profit and exploitation could exist!

With such enemies, who needs friends like Beggs? I could easily write another 3000 words analyzing the basic errors of understanding in Harrison’s interpretation of Marx, how he utterly gets both the content and purpose of Marx’s theory wrong, and equally the facile platitudes that he proffers as counterarguments to the straw Marx he has erected. In fact, even his straw Marx is more convincing than the real Harrison. And this is not just a full professor of economics at a decent university, but someone who claims to have been a Marxist once, to have “joined a Capital reading group, and taught the economics of Marx (alongside Smith, Ricardo, List, and Schumpeter)”! If these are the teachers of Marx to the mainstream, is it any wonder Marxists spend so much time reconstructing Marx’s own arguments and making their implications clear over and over again to the critics? It is not that Marxists want to stick with Marx and never move any further. But with this complete ignorance of Marx’s theories and arguments and the impossibility of understanding their thrust and significance, Marxists simply never get a chance to move beyond it. That people like Harvey and Kliman manage to achieve both, that is to clarify Marx and do original research, is all the more testament to the potential of this school. It is not the Marxists, but their critics like Beggs who have zombified Marx. There is yet life in those old bones.

1) See: Andrew Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production (New York, NY 2011). I am not endorsing that work or its conclusions here, but merely following Beggs’ own use of Kliman as an example.
2) One can give many examples of this. One is the AEA meeting on the implications of economic history (my own field) for economic theory and the limited ability of economic work to incorporate it: see W.N. Parker (ed.), Economic History and the Modern Economist (Oxford 1986).


This is great, though I’m sad you didn’t link to my piece on the same basic topic (though I focus on the theories themselves):


I didn’t read Harrison’s post fully, for reasons you mention. He’s one of those people where my ratio of liking him to liking his economics/politics is incredibly high, so I consider it best to avoid the latter unless absolutely necessary.

Thanks for the link. While this article is a good general introduction to Marx, I think it would also be a good idea when writing about ‘capital’ to emphasise its sociological implications as well i.e., capital as a social relation as opposed to a thing (machines, raw materials, etc. as you say).

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