Reply to Julio Huato: Getting to the Finland Station
bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Fri Jul 11 14:36:21 MDT 2003
Hell I thought I was overdoing it on my posts, but what a whopper from you !
I may run the risk of doing what I often criticize -- distorting someone's
arguments to better refute them. Yet, it seems to me that your argument
(first paragraph above) is very similar to Ernst Mandel's in the
introductory chapter of Late Capitalism. Marx's research project was
'radically unfinished' and it cannot be regarded in any meaningful sense as
a 'finished theoretical system.' In a sense, this is obvious. How can any
mental construct ever match the complexity and ceaseless movement of life?
But it would be unfair to believe that Trotsky, Kautsky, or Bohm-Bawerk
weren't aware of this. So let me spell out my qualms.
Of course there is "theoretical system" in Marx in some sense, Marx tries to
give a systematic exposition of how the generalisation of commodity
production (the expansion of markets) leads to the accumulation of capital
for its own sake, and acquires an objective, system-immanent logic, and what
consequences that has for society. Bohm-Bawerk is only really still talking
about the systematic theory of value, where Marx tries to ascend from the
production of values to the determination of market prices, and he claims
that Marx's procedure doesn't really work in the end, misunderstand Marx's
object of inquiry and his method of exposition. But, as time went by, the
attempt to "systematise" Marx's thought, starting with Engels and Kautsky,
reaches its culmination in the theoretical system of "dialectical and
historical materialism", which explains "life the universe and everything".
This, despite the fact that as Rosa Luxemburg, Isaac Deutscher and Ernest
Mandel have noted, most self-proclaimed Marxists even in the 1920s had not
yet even read Capital Volumes 2 and 3... volumes which Marx himself did even
not prepare for publication, just as Theories of Surplus Value and several
other manuscripts contained in the new MECW. The development of real
capitalism cannot be understood without the theory of the capitalist state
and the theory of the world market, without understanding the modalities of
wage-determination, monetary conditions, credit and so on. Marx did not get
around to doing that systematically. He solves far more problems in his
critique of political economy than he has time for to present in a
systematic way for publication. Yet despite these circumstances, Marxists
acted as though Marx had provided a finished system, and that little further
research was really necessary. In retrospect, Marx was really very much
ahead of his time, like about a hundred years or so. The richness and
expanse of his theoretical vision was actually much more than you needed for
socialist politics at the time. I have no particular objection to
theoretical systematisation, except that political applications lead to
dogmatisation. Dogmatisation means evading the real problems, namely how to
conduct socialist politics in an effective way and how to generate an
effective transition to socialism. If you think Marx provided all the
answers already, you are not motivated to inquire further into the real
problems, the problem of the conduct of socialist politics and the problem
of the transition to socialism. That is not conducive to innovation, to
creative, independent thought.
The notion that those who believe in 'theoretical systems' deny the richness
and endless dynamism of social life is a non sequitur. .
I do not dispute this, I do not deny "the notion that those who believe in
'theoretical systems' deny the richness
and endless dynamism of social life is a non sequitur". I think the problem
is more that Marx does not specify clearly the limits of the application of
his theory, and that people often do not know how to develop it or
Mathematicians are aware of the incompleteness of any and every theoretical
system (Godel, etc.).
If Marx's dialectical theory is working well, then you are simultaneously
importing new empirical content all the time and developing theory all the
time. Dialectical theory is not the same as mathemathical formalisation,
rather, it is a prologue to mathematical systems. Dialectical theory
provides a method for developing theory in a non-arbitrary way, for
developing the premises on which mathematical formalisation is based in a
non-arbitrary way. If people dismiss dialectics, they still have to explain
why Marx is able to foresee the general trend of capitalist developmental
dynamics so well, as acknowledged by Wassily Leontief, Joan Robinson and
Yet these 'theoretical systems' are used routinely by mathematicians and
non-mathematicians. How come? Let me not answer yet.
I believe Marx's arguments in Capital are of the "IF X, THEN Y" nature.
Well, I think there is more to that (for example, did you ever read Leszek
Nowak's book The Structure of Idealisation ? Reidel Press I think). Numerous
different interpretations of Marx's method have been given. The biggest flaw
in most of them is that they confuse Marx's method of inquiry with his
method of presentation, and they do not look biographically at what he did.
Marx himself had enormous difficulty with finding an adequate method of
presentation, and this is clear from textual evidence. He suggests different
sorts of approaches and orders of discussion, he tries different approaches.
He had all these manuscripts, and he could tell the same story in numerous
different ways. The circuits of economic life can, after all, be approached
from all sorts of different angles, it is just that they way you decide to
abstract, the direction in which you abstract, has consequences for your
ability to integrate more and more phenomena consistently within the same
theoretical framework or foundation. At the most basic level, Marx decides
that if you want to understand the economy and society, you must start off
with production relations, because production relations are the basis of the
whole social edifice and "overdetermine" all the rest. Of course, you can
start somewhere else as well, but then at some point you encounter problems
which cannot be solved within the theoretical framework which you have
Typical of a dialectical method of research (which I do not propose to
discuss exhaustively) is to say that a condition, if it exists, has not ONE,
but SEVERAL mutually contradictory implications. At the simplest level,
putting it very simple, if X, then Y and Z, where, if Y, then -Z, and if Z,
then -Y, but this is a crazy way of putting it, you cannot formalise it in
that way. But the idea is that the implication of a condition has not one,
but several contradictory implications, which although they are
contradictory, mutually coexist, they are compatible in the sense that they
are both implied by the same initial condition, yet they conflict with each
other. They may in fact be polar opposites. Then the question is, how can
these incompatible implications coexist, in what way can they coexist ? The
dialectician then tries to find the mediating links, which "hold" the two
contradictory implications in place or which lead the one implication to be
transformed into the other. Through examining successive contradictory
implications, and discovering how they are mediated, a theoretical structure
is built up. Point is, the process of abstraction could go all sorts of
different ways, there is no predetermined path of abstraction which is the
only correct one, no recipe for success. Therefore, for the purpose of
presentation, you need to know the conclusion you want to reach already
before you plot the path of abstraction (the development of contradictory
implications and their mediation) to get to it. The dialectical method of
discovery is essentially a method of problematising, a questioning of
theoretical assumptions and the contradictions to which they lead, if
pursued consistently. Marx is fond of saying that the political economists
assume the very things they need to explain, and because they assume those
things, they cannot explain them, or they cannot explain other phenomena
which are implied by the assumption. He is already saying that in his Paris
manuscripts of 1844 and earlier.
But if you look at Marx's method of dialectical discovery, you realise that
there is not so much "system" to it, it is a messy process, he jumps from
one topic to a completely different topic, and goes all over the show in his
speculations and reasoning. It is only in his method of presentation, that
he tries to establish a logical order of discussion, so that he starts off
with simple conditions and simple (contradictory) implications, and then
gradually imports more and more assumptions and empirical content, so that
the economic categories are rearranged in a coherent and consistent way.
If Marx's 'inversion' of Hegel's Logic is not such that
Hegel's Logic is entirely trashed -- i.e., completely rejected (something
that strictly speaking is impossible) -- then something stands. Right?
Well, the fascinating thing about Hegel is that he recognises a
contradiction between logical thought and empirical reality, as Kant does,
and then he tries to solve that, in a manner which is both speculative and
in some respects critical and probing. Hegel is puzzled, he is confronted
with seemingly "illogical" phenomena in empirical reality and history, and
then he says "well there must be a logic to it, and I must find it, uncover
it" which is pretty courageous really. He goes even further, and says, it is
impossible for there NOT to be a logic to it, he has great faith in human
rationality and in the rational basis of the historical process, he is
inspired by the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. The next thing he
says is, what is real is rational and what is rational is real. If something
comes into existence, it comes into existence, because there is a reason for
it, because the rationality of that thing is expanding. And if it starts to
disappear out of existence, the cause is, that it has lost its rationality,
there is no more reason for that thing to be there. Then he proceeds to ask,
"what is the reason ?" or "what is the underlying rationality, the logic
behind it ?" and he probes that ever more deeply. And as he does that, he
sinks deeper and deeper into what Lukacs calls the "mire of contradictions".
The only way out of that is, to devise a whole set of pure logical forms,
which can be universally applied to understand the coming into being and
passing out of existence of phenomena, if you like, life itself. This gets
quite complex, because numerous phenomena are emerging and disappearing at
the same time. Marx agrees with Hegel that you do indeed have to find the
"logic" in phenomena, he believes that there is a rational explanation to be
found, in other words, that natural and social reality is in some way
ordered and law-governed. But he disagrees with Hegel because (1) Hegel's
method is speculative, he "invents" reasons (sucks them out of his thumb in
an arbitrary, ideological manner) without thorough empirical research, (2)
Hegel is conservative, he is in fact rationalising and justifying the status
quo by inventing a reason for why it is rational that it should exist, and
(3) Hegel imputes logical properties to phenomena which do not have logical
properties, at least not in the way Hegel says they do. Hegels claims to be
able to explain social change rationally, but he doesn't really do it, he
just imputes rationality and irrationality to whatever is going on,
depending on whether it is coming into existence or passing ourt of
existence, "after the fact". In fact, Hegel says things like "grey is
theory, green is the everlasting tree of life" and "Minerva's owl flies at
dusk", we are wise only after the event, we understand the real reason only
retrospectively. The rational kernel in Hegel's system is to be found rather
in his idea that the coexistence of conflictual (contradictory) social
forces explain social change and social dynamics. But whereas Hegel
concentrates on how these contradictions are continually being resolved by
history in a systematic pattern, such that history is a logical outcome,
Marx focuses more on how these contradictions generate social change and
project a determinate social future. The conservative part of Hegel's
dialectics is that it rationalises what exists, the revolutionary part is
that it views phenomena in motion and development, as developing through
their internal contradictions. Hegel ends up with objective idealism, such
that historical reality is the objectification of logical forms of thought,
but Marx considers this a massive confusion. Hegel mystifies the source of
his own thought. Nevertheless, Hegel's abstract discussion of dialectical
patterns provides a way for ordering and arranging his economic manuscripts,
for developing the storyline after all the creative thinking and hard work
has been done.
I believe such part of Hegel's 'system' stands in Marx. I have read some of
Marx's works and I'm not aware of any writing where Marx explicitly rejects
this in Hegel's Logic. On the contrary, there are places where Marx seems
to imply it. In this sense, when Marx discusses 'his' method in Grundrisse
and Capital, he is not proposing an alternative, 'correct' way to do social
science that stupid or corrupted Smith, Ricardo, Mill, and others didn't
get. No. He's simply saying, look, we produce knowledge and science
because we need it, for survival at first and later for whatever we humans
decide that matters.
I disagree. Marx says you need science because (social) reality is not
transparent, if it is transparent and obvious, you don't need social
science. People are forced to do social science because the inability to
satisfy their human needs forces them problematise social reality, to
inquire into it. But this raises at least four questions (1) why is social
reality not transparent, what conditions make it opaque (2) why is it not
possible to satisfy social needs, when all the conditions are there, (3)
why does social thought fail to remove the opacity of social reality, or why
does it add to the mystification of social reality, although clarification
is its aim (4) why do people inquiry into social reality in particular times
and places in the way that they do, even when they do not need to do it. And
when Marx goes about answering those questions, he ends up in a completely
different terrain than Smith, Ricardo and Mill. His argument is that, on
this new terrain I have discovered, I can EXPLAIN Smith, Ricardo and Mill.
In other words, Marx's theoretical achievement is mainly a massive effort of
"reframing", and it is in this refaming that his originality lies. He says
explicitly that he makes no claim to have said much that is original, beyond
a few abstractions, and indeed he peppers Das Kapital with footnotes to
""who said it first". Rather, he claims to have reframed what the problem is
and what the solution is, and that is the thing that a revolutionary thinker
Now, it is clear to me that Ricardo impressed Marx so much in part at least
because Ricardo's reasoning is unmistakably of the "IF X, THEN Y" type.
Well actually, Ricardo does reason his way through. But he calls his main
book the Principles of Political Economy. Marx's criticism is that Ricardo's
principles do not constitute a genuine theoretical system, because his
principles do not cohere, they lack a profound inner coherence. Ricardo just
ends up discussing various "principles" and explores their logical
These principles are derived from his reading and practical experience as a
banker. But Marx's criticism is that Ricardo is unwilling to face the
ultimate implications of his own thought, Ricardo's theorems, if rigorously
pursued, lead to contradictory implications, which he does not solve. Marx
says, if you do solve them, you end up on a completely different terrain,
you end up with radically different conclusions. Ricardo is unwilling to
admit that the capitalist system is based on unequal exchange and the
exploitation of labour, he is unwilling to confront the "social question" in
a profound and searching way. And Marx says that just shows ultimately his
bourgeois class bias.
It seems to me that Marx, who had to shape his pitch to different media and
different audiences, assumed a lot of Hegel (unlike Hegel to wrote as if he
were the only reader of his stuff). That is obvious in Marx's deeper works.
But Hegel transpires in Marx's whole work. And Hegel viewed human
cognition, yes, as a long arch whereby humans try to actively, subjectively
match or map the infinite scope of a moving universal object because the
Idea is the ultimate driver and substance of such unfolding universal object
whose ultimate expression is human history.
Yeah. That is one way of putting it.
Cognition is an effort that -- as Engels would put it -- only in a long-run
and asymptotical sense tends to
converge towards a perfect mapping of the objective world. '
Marx asks the question, well what is the purpose of cognition, what should
it be ? And because he is a revolutionary, he says that the purpose is to
"overturn all conditions which oppress human beings and make them less than
they can be."
Hegel was better than Feuerbach at seeing in 'der Gegestand' more than just
'Anschauung,' but something closer to the Marxist notion of 'Praxis.'
Agreed, sort of. Feuerbach and Hegel both discount the possibilities of
changing the world through human action, Feuerbach because of his
mechanistic, passive anti-theism and Hegels because of his social
When I read Hegel's Logic for the first time, it anachronistically reminded
me of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen.
Just as in industry we need tools (mediations, *means* of
Well, every now and then you have to decide, what are my priorities, what do
I need to do now to improve things ? That is what I am doing. But writing
you a mail is not really part of that, that is a digression. I have my
tools, I need to do something good with them, but what ?
Surgeons tried to separate the conjoined Iranian twins.
Yeah, I have these stories told about me and my flatmate as well.
In a Georgescu-Roegen sense, there's an economy of science.
Yes. But if everything is reduced to the economy of time, the quality of
life goes phut.
'Marx's method' cannot be the Mandelian
never ending, boundless project of mapping the whole course of capitalist
Disagree. Of course the process is never-ending. But Mandel was disciplined
by definite priorities. Of course you can finish Marx's theory of political
economy in some sense. But what you have to ask is, what is the purpose of
my theorising ?
We need theoretical systems. They are preliminary, but in practice, we need
to take them as 'finished' objects.
Well like I say, what is the relationship betwen means and ends in our
theorising ? Is that rational and practical ?
We need science because (unlike my posting!) we need a way to simplify, to
cut things short.
No, we need science to change the world in a practical and progressive way.
You think science is about modelling. But a model is only an analogy, not a
theory. Modern scientists mostly do not work like Marx does. Marx's emphasis
is on the assumptions of the model. Modern science, at least economics,
concentrates more on building the model on the basis of plausible analogies.
We need a way to deal with the sensorial informational overload that feeds
our brains nonstop 24/7.
You seem to be saying that you need science and theory for the sake of
coherence, coherent understanding. But then you are back to Hegel. If I am a
muddlehead, then I discover the need to clarify things. If I lack purpose, I
discover the need to find purpose. And so on.
Those are my qualms. I hope I made my points with the required subtlety.
If not, I'll stand corrected. It won't be the first time I learn something
I haven't learnt much in the last ten years or so that is new, it's mainly
been a waste of time, a period of emotional and sexual misery with lots of
people trying to disrespect my personal life and rip me off. I am just
focusing on the wrong things, and I get depressed. So I have t "leap" into
Why would a society have laws to regulate private ownership and market
exchange if market exchange were not to solve some of their contradictions
(even if temporarily)?
Now you are back to a functionalist theory of society. Hegel says things
exist because they have a reason. Talcott Parsons says things exist because
they have a function.
I know this sounds Hegelian. But it is not entirely Hegelian. I'm not
talking about a meta-historical necessity here. I am talking about a
necessity by concrete human beings in the specific contexts they inherit and
reproduce to find by trial and error, by computational iteration -- if you
will -- the 'optimal' social way to distribute their social labor time.
Well, what human beings do is consider their needs, their values and their
priorities. But the tragedy of alienation and oppression is that it
interferes psychologically with achieving this in a rational and pracical
way. It may become an interminable problem.
It is no accident that the use of optimization mathematical techniques
developed by, say, Newton, Leibniz, et al., are applied in economic analysis
and -- if carefully applied -- they work (imply effects that match our
observations). They work, not because economists impose on economic reality
a structure that has nothing to do with economic reality. No. Social life
is -- in a highly mediated way -- a peculiar extension of the evolution of
nature. If optimization models work in mechanics and thermodynamics, they
will work in economics too (to some extent, to the extent social processes
are, until now, processes of 'natural history').
If this is true, why then do human beings destroy nature ?
I have to do some things now about my personal life and my love life,
because I cannot carry on like this. If life is not enjoyable, it is not
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