Undergraduate Economist

Perspectives of an economics student

Is Marx (Ir)relevant?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 1st February 2012

Karl Marx (1818-1883) is an important figure in most social sciences. His works have been translated into several languages. One might not agree with his views, but he cannot be ignored. Some love him. A lot more hate him. Note that the like and dislike are not targeted at his works, which are seldom read, like most ‘classics’. Having recently read the first part of Theories of Surplus-Value, 3 volumes of Capital and a discussion with a friend who works closely with Indian realities has resulted in the following blog post.

Classical political economy, according to Marx, begins with William Petty in Britain and Boisguilbert in France and ends with Ricardo in Britain and Sismondi in France. In the Theories of Surplus-Value, Marx mainly scrutinises the works of these classical political economists. However, Marx does not provide an overall summary of their entire work but focusses on his central question: how did these authors conceptualise and comprehend value? Particularly, he discusses the why and how of classical political economists theorising of ‘appearances’ while forgetting the ‘essence’. In any case, Marx does not have the last word on the theoretical framework on the classical political economists. Hence, reading Marx motivates one to go forward and read the works of the classical political economists.

But, why read Marx or the classical political economists? They did not write in the 20th century. The world is different today. Facts have changed. Are their works relevant anymore? Firstly, ‘progress’ or growth of scientific theories does not follow a linear path; the path could be non-linear. The implication is that what was considered unscientific in the past can resurface (with adjustments) with a greater explanatory strength and challenge the contemporary ‘scientific’ theories, at least in principle. For institutional reasons, this might never happen; mainstream journals, scientific associations, university teaching and textbooks are, what I label, institutions in this context. Thus, a priori, there exists no scientific basis for not reading the works of classical political economists, Marx and other economists. Secondly, a distinction needs to be made between theory and fact. A theory is not (necessarily) a fact. A fact is never a theory. A theory is general while a fact is specific. Theory tells us a way of thinking about facts – in identifying them, classifying them and ascribing relations to them. The classical political economists as well as Marx theorised a capitalistic economy; in this regard, the rate of profit was taken to be uniform across industries through the process of competition. It is obvious and very clear that in a country like India, which cannot be classified as capitalist or non-capitalist (perhaps, 10% capitalist), using Marx’s theoretical apparatus blindly is going to result in perverse outcomes. The reason for choosing 10% and not 20% is because the share of the organised sector in the GDP is 10%. Maybe, Marx’s theory has certain insights to offer to the 10% of India. The remaining has been visualised as pre-capitalist. (Remember the mode of production debates.) But, one wonders whether this is the desirable (or even scientific) way of characterising the remaining 90%. When reading an author’s work, it is not solely for the theory. Often, it is for the method too. There has been and will be many books and articles on Marx’s method. But, whatever the agreements and disagreements are, there are always fresh possibilities. Given this, not reading Marx seems unscientific!

Often, the works of classical political economists and Marx are confined to the class rooms of history of economic thought (HET). Teaching their works in HET classes is not considered irrelevant. One reason for this thought arises from the linear view of scientific progress. The other, perhaps, has to do with the pride every generation possesses over their ancestors in terms of knowledge. Although, this ‘pride’ is not solely our own creation but it has been passed on to us. It is perhaps our responsibility to check whether we have been taught the ‘correct’ theories and facts about our world. This is all the more reason to assess the foundations of our current beliefs and theories. HET is one way to do this, in economics.

Marx has interesting insights to offer contemporary economics on property rights, labour conditions, economic crises, concentration of markets (inter-linked markets?) and so on. To conclude, reading Marx is important to an economist. Secondly, his observations regarding the ‘evil’ nature of capitalism can be addressed so as to improve the existing laws, institutions, markets, morals and values. After all, the objective and aspirations of scientific knowledge is to better the lives of all.

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Posted in Economic Philosophy, Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, History of Economic Thought, India, Karl Marx, Theory of Surplus Value | 3 Comments »