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Critique of Marxian Economics

Jon Elster concluded his Making Sense of Marx with the claim that ‘It is not possible today, morally or intellectually, to be a Marxist in the traditional sense’ (1985, p.531). Acceptance of this statement depends, of course, on what is meant by traditional Marxism. Elster makes it clear that what he means by traditional Marxism is that ‘intellectually bankrupt’ and ‘non-scientific’ economic theory associated with the labor theory of value, the theory of the falling rate of profit, and ‘the most important part of historical materialism, the ‘theory of productive forces and relations of production (1986, p.188-194). In place of these redundancies, Elster proposes a new Marxism founded upon logically consistent microfoundations (1982). To achieve this reconstruction, he explicitly favors the tools of neoclassical analysis; a ‘truly scientific’ methodology that posits the existence of economic institutions (for example, prices and markets), then attempts to show that they are compatible with the actions of individual agents who engage in rational calculated satisfaction-maximizing exchanges.

Defending a position very similar to Elster’s, Roemer (1989a, p.384) provides the following summary of Marx’s economic theory and its late-twentieth-century reconstruction: Marx thought that the easiest way to explain how the surplus was produced was to assume a labor theory of value – that is, that prices of commodities were proportional to the amount of labor embodied in them. Exploitation took the form of workers producing goods embodying more of their labor than was embodied in the wage goods that they received in return, that surplus labor became monetized through the price system in a simple way because prices were assumed to be just proportional to the amounts of labor embodied in commodities. But it has long been known that equilibrium prices in a market economy are not proportional to the amount of labor embodied in goods; it was, therefore, necessary to ask whether the Marxist theory of accumulation could be made more precise even though the labor theory of value was wrong.

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This has been done during the last twenty years, by applying techniques of input-output analysis and general equilibrium theory, by Michio Morishima and others. It is, in my view, a winning point for Marxism that its theory of capitalist accumulation can be liberated from the false labor theory of value. Some Marxists, however, persist in viewing this reconstruction as heretical, dispensing as it does with the labor theory of value. In considering the implications of these refutations of Marx’s value theory, it is important to recognize their origins in the ‘value controversy’. As Itoh recently suggested, the value controversy is more than an ‘internal debate among Marxians’ in so far as it involves a ‘three-way confrontation among neoclassical, neo-Ricardian and Marxian schools’ (1992, p.53). The controversy originated in the conceptual and mathematical framework set out by von Bortkiewicz and turned on the question of whether Marx’s two aggregate equalities – total profit and surplus value and total price of production and value – could be made to determine prices simultaneously (Sweezy, 1966).

Then, in the 1970s, neoclassical theorists initiated a critique, showing that Marx’s values transform to prices only under unrealistic assumptions of zero surplus-value, or a uniform organic composition of capital in all industries. Following this line, Morishima explored the implications of the input-output analysis for mathematical understandings of the transformation problem, albeit at ‘some expense of its “historical” [labor theory] aspects’ (Morishima & Catephores, 1975, p.309). Finally, Sraffians entered the fray, with their claim that if equilibrium prices can be deduced from physical data of reproduction, Marx’s labor theory is in any case redundant as a price theory (Steedman, 1977). According to Itoh, these ‘criticisms had an unexpected effect among young Western scholars, who now realized that Marxian economic theory, no less than neoclassical or neo-Ricardian economics, might be worthy of mathematical analysis’ (1992, p.59).

In Itoh’s view, Sraffian theory acted on the value controversy like a ‘double-sided mirror’ reflecting inconsistencies in both neoclassical and Marxian economics: in this sense, ‘fundamental methodological differences among contemporary Marxian theorists arose from ‘their reactions to other perspectives within the triangle’ (1992, p.53). The views of the analytic school represent one contemporary reaction to the neoclassical/Sraffian critique, the assumptions of which are implicit in Roemer’s argument that the labor theory of value is either ‘false’ or imprecise or irrelevant, so Marxian theory would be all the better for mathematical reconstruction. An alternative reaction aims to refute the redundancy critique by stressing the principle virtue of Marxian theory: its focus on capitalist relations of production.

According to this view, the labor theory of value – unlike the Sraffian and neo-classical approaches – is not a model for the determination of equilibrium prices, but a model designed to reveal the social relations based on human labour that lies behind the phenomena of prices (Hunt, 1990; Lebowitz, 1988, 1994; Mandel & Freeman, 1984; Medio, 1972). If an explanatory principle underlies the task of economics as social science, then far from being redundant, the labor theory of value is essential (Itoh,1992, p.60).: what is at stake is really a question of what the proper tasks of the theory are: is the social content of the labor theory of value to be considered a virtue in its own right, apart from the issue of its logical correctness or consistency? This question is not amenable to a formal “scientific” solution, but it is not even admitted as a question within the narrowly limited methodological scope of neoclassical and neo-Ricardian theories.

At the heart of the contemporary defense of Marx’s value theory is a much older claim that methodology provides the ‘decisive difference’ between Marxism and ‘bourgeois social science’ (Lukacs, 1971). In a classic articulation of this position, Lukacs provided a definition of traditional Marxism entirely opposed to Elster’s version. According to Lukacs traditional Marxism ‘does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the “belief” in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a “sacred” book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method’ (ch. 27, p.1). The distinguishing feature of the Marxian method is its focus on the continuous dialectical interaction of the parts with the whole: this ‘point of view of totality, this refusal to reduce the analysis to the observation of the individual (or part) in isolation from the social context (or whole) was, for Lukacs, ‘the bearer of the principle of revolution in science’ (p.1).

The methodological stance adopted by the analytic school involves an explicit challenge to both traditional and contemporary concepts of Marxism as methodology. In his paper on the subject, Roemer wrote derisively that what constitutes a Marxian method is not even a ‘useful question to pose’ because ‘the techniques that ideological social science uses’ are not in themselves ideological; rather they may be usefully employed by ‘scientists of many different ideological persuasions’ (1989a p.377). He goes on to make the controversial argument that Marxism can develop ‘as a social science’ only when its central concepts are expressed as theorems, and elucidated in formalist models designed to prove derived postulates. In short: ‘Methodological individualism and the equilibrium method are essential to Marxian analysis’ (p.378). In the next two sections, I will try to articulate the ‘analytic’ position on methodology and its practical implications for Marxian economics.

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