The disintegration of the Marxian school.

Author:Kliman, Andrew


I have been asked to comment on the importance and relevance of value theory today, as well as on the problems it faces. I shall focus mostly on the problems: the ageing community of Marxist economists is not replenishing its ranks; over the last three decades, a large segment of its members, perhaps a majority, has abandoned the field; the quantity (and, arguably, the quality) of Marxian economic research has dropped sharply; and it would be very difficult to say that the field as a whole has made progress. (1)

There are two reasons why I choose to focus on this disintegration of the Marxian school rather than on the importance and relevance of value theory. First, it seems obvious to me that the current economic crisis has made value theory newly important and relevant--at least, value theory rooted in Marx's Capital, where value theory and crisis theory are facets of an inseparable whole. I cannot put the matter better than did this journal's editorial board (2009): 'The central ideas of Marxism have taken on a new credibility and urgency: the inevitability of crises; capital's undermining of itself even ... the crisis is not merely a crisis of finance but of the capitalist system as a whole; and it has arisen not from the technical errors of governments, but from the contradictions of capital accumulation and associated class struggle'. What is this, if not value theory rooted in Capital?.

Second, however, the renewed relevance of Marxian value theory will simply not matter unless the crisis provokes its practitioners into addressing its severe structural problems and forging a radically different path. The potential of Marxian value theory at this moment of crisis--the explanations, critiques, and solutions it can offer humankind will be realized only slightly and noticed even less unless some fundamental rethinking occurs. Such rethinking has begun among mainstream economists and economic thinkers (see, e.g., Colander et al., 2009; Posner, 2009). Will Marxist economists follow their lead?

Ironically, when viewed in terms of fundamental theoretical foundations, Marxian value theory is in a stronger position than ever. The history of Marxian economics, at least in the West, has largely been an interminable debate about the supposed internal inconsistencies that plague Marx's value theory (and associated results, such as his law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit), and what to do about them. Yet, as I shall discuss below, the temporal single-system interpretation of Marx's value theory (TSSI)--of which I and Alan Freeman, another contributor to this issue, are proponents--has refuted the supposed proofs of inconsistency, thereby eliminating the logical imperative to reject or correct Marx's theory. And a much wider audience, including a significant audience of politically active Marxists, has become aware of this fact during the last few years.

It is nevertheless appropriate to refer to the disintegration of the Marxian school because theoretical renewal does not, by itself, reverse a process of disintegration. The scholarly community must be willing and able to take advantage of the theoretical renewal. But the Marxian economics community has not been, and is not now, either willing or able to take advantage of the refutations of supposed proofs of inconsistency in Marx's theory.

I believe, however, that the process of disintegration can still be reversed. Indeed, I believe that the current economic crisis provides us with a rare opportunity to forge a new beginning. Thus my analysis of the Marxian school's disintegration is not intended as an obituary, but as an attempt to understand the past in order not to repeat it. Accordingly, the paper's conclusion offers a few suggestions about what may yet be done to renew Marxian value theory.

Internal sources of disintegration

This paper's title recalls Marx's (1989:791, emphasis omitted) analysis of the 'disintegration of the Ricardian school'. Although he generally stressed that intellectual life is conditioned by the mode of production of material life, in explaining the disintegration of Ricardian political economy, Marx singled out a factor internal to the development of ideas: the inability of Ricardo and his successors to solve a theoretical conundrum (the apparent contradiction between the law of value and the tendency of rates of profit to equalize). My analysis of the disintegration of the Marxian school shall likewise be largely 'internalist'. Yet whereas Marx identified an insoluble theoretical problem as being the cause of the Ricardian school's disintegration, I shall emphasize the sociological as well as theoretical determinants of the disintegration of the Marxian school. Theoretically speaking, the disintegration of Marxian economics is largely rooted in problems arising out of the alleged internal inconsistency of Marx's value theory. But these problems have led to disintegration because of a sociological factor: the inability or unwillingness of Marxian economists to come together as a scholarly community and treat its theoretical problems as puzzles to be disposed of in the course of conducting what Kuhn (1970) called 'normal science'.

In emphasizing the part played by these internal factors, I do not mean to deny the importance of external ones. Following the economic crisis of the mid-1970s, there was an apparent stabilization of capitalism, the rise of Reaganism and Thatcherism, and renewed faith in the 'flee market'. These factors led to some disillusionment with Marxian economics and abandonment of the field, and it faced reduced resources and difficulties in replenishing its ranks. And since many if not most Marxian economists were pro-Stalinist to...

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