Fredy Pearlman's Intro to Rubin Re: Another forwar

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Sun Aug 27 19:28:59 MDT 2000

Louis Proyect wrote:

> Apart from reading Marx himself - and this is a must - one of the best
> books to go to is I.I. Rubin, "Essays on Marx's Theory of Value".
> Philip Ferguson

I picked up Fredy Pearlman's Intro to Rubin in pamphlet form back in the early
'70s, then ordered Rubin's book. Pearlman's essay was one of the most helpful
things I came across in my early study of Marxism. I was rereading it just
recently, and while it seems a bit thinner than it did at the time, I think it
might still be one of the best introductions for someone starting the study of
Marx. One thing it does magnificently is establish from the very beginning
that Marx was something rather different from an "economist," something rather
more important in fact. I strongly recommend it to anyone who can find a copy.
Rubin's book is also very good, but rather sticky going unless your are
prepared to sweat some.


P.S. Here are the opening paragraphs of Pearlman's essay:

    According to economists whose theories currently prevail in America,
economics has replaced
political economy, and economics deals with scarcity, prices, and resource
allocation. In the
definition of Paul Samuelson, "economics -- or political economy as it used to
be called -- is the
study of how men and society choose, witho or without the use of money, to
employ scarce
productive resources, which could have alternative uses, to produce various
commodities over time
and distribute them for consumption, now and for the future, among various
people and groups in
society." According to Robert Campbell, "One of the central preoccupations of
economics has
always been what determines price." In the words of another expert, "Any
community, the primers
tell us, has to deal with a pervasive economic problem: how to determine the
uses of available
resources, including not only goods and services that can be employed
productively but also other
scarce supplies."

    If economics is ideed merely a new name for political economy, and if the
subject matter which
was once covered under the heading of political economy is now covered by
economics, then
economics has replaced political economy. However, if the subject matter of
political economy is
not the same as that of economics, then the "replacement" of poltical economy
is actually an
omission of a field of knowledge. If economics answers different questions
from those raised by
political economy, and if the omitted questions refer to the form and the
quality of human life within
the dominant social-economic system, then this omission can be called a "great
evasion." [4]

    [4] After the title of William Appleman Williams' The Great Evasion,
Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1964. Williams vividly describes some of the
techniques of the evasion: "The tactics of escape employed in the headlong
dash from reality would fill a manual of equivocation, a handbook of
hairsplitting, and a guidebook to changing the subject." (p. 18).

    The Soviet economic theorist and historian I. I. Rubin suggested a
definition of political economy
which has nothing in common with the definitions of political economy quoted
above. According to
Rubin, "Political economy deals with human working activity, not from the
standpoint of its technical
methods and instruments of labor, but from the standpoint of its social form.
It deals with
production relations which are established among people in the process of
production." In terms of
this definition, political economy is not the study of prices or scarce
resources; it is a study of social
relations, a study of culture. Political economy asks why the productive
forces of society develop
within the context of business enterprise, why industrialization takes the
form of capitalist
development. Political economy asks how the working activity of people is
regulated in a specific,
historical form of economy.

    The contemporary American defintions of economics quoted earlier clearly
deal with different
problems, raise different questions, and refer to a different subject matter
from that of political
economy as defined by Rubin. This means one of two things: (a) either
economics and political
economy are two different branches of knowledge, in which case the
"replacement" of political
economy by economics simply means that the American practitioners of one
branch have replaced
the other branch, or (b) economics is indeed the new name for what "used to be
called" political
economy; in this case, by defining economics as a study of scarcity, prices,
and resource allocation,
American economists are saying that the production relations among people are
not a legitimate
object of study. In this case the economists quoted above are setting
themselves up as the legislators
over what is, and what is not, a legitimate topic for intellectual concern;
they are defining the limits of
American knowledge. This type of intellectual legislation has led to
predictable consequences in
other societies at other times: it has led to total ignorance in the excluded
field of knowledge, and it
has led to large gaps and blind spots in related fields of knowledge.

    A justification for the omission of political economy from American
knowledge has been given by
Samuelson. In the balanced, objective language of an American professor,
Samuelson says: "A
billion people, one-third of the world's population, blindly regard Das
Kapital as economic gospel.
And yet, without the disciplined study of economic science, how can anyone
form a reasoned
opinion about the merits or lack of merits in the classical, traditional
economics?" If "a billion people"
regard Das Kapital "as economic gospel," it is clearly relevant to ask why
only a few million
Americans regard Samuelson's Economics "as economic gospel." Perhaps a
balanced objective
answer might be that "a billion people" find little that is relevant or
meaningful in Samuelson's
celebrations of American capitalism and his exercises in two-dimensional
geometry, whereas the few
million Americans have no choice but to learn the "merits in the classical,
traditional economics."
Samuelson's rhetorical question -- "And yet, without the disciplined study of
economic science how
can anyone form a reasoned opinion about the merits . . ." -- is clearly a
two-edged sword, since it
can be asked about any major economic theory, not merely Samuelson's; and it
clearly behooves
the student to draw his own conclusion and make his own choice after a
"disciplined study" of all the
major economic theories, not merely Samuelson's.

    Although Samuelson, in his introductory textbook, devotes a great deal of
attention to Marx, this
essay will show that Samuelson's treatment hardly amounts to a "disciplined
study" of Marx's
political economy.

    The present essay will outline some of the central themes of Marx's
political economy, particularly
the themes which are treated in Rubin's Essays on Marx's Theory of Value.
Rubin's book is a
comprehensive, tightly argued exposition of the core of Marx's work, the
theory of commodity
fetishism and the theory of value. Rubin clarifies misconceptions which have
resulted, and still result,
from superficial readings and evasive treatment of Marx's work.

    Marx's principal aim was not to study scarcity, or to explain price, or to
allocate resources, but to
analyze how the working activity of people is regulated in a capitalist
economy. The subject of the
analysis is a determined social structurae, a particular culture, namely
commodity-capitalism, a social
form of economy in which the relations among people are not regulated
directly, but through things.
Consequently, "the specific charactrer of economic theory as a science deals
with the commodity
capitalist economy precisely in the fact that it deals with production
relations which acquire material
forms." (Rubin, p. 47)

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