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Dogma gives Marx a bad name

The merit of veteran Financial Times writer and noted economist Samuel Brittan is that he is not a dogmatist. He may not have all the answers when it comes to today’s crisis. But Brittan believes that summoning the writings or reputations of dead economists to back a policy is hopelessly wrong.

Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat business secretary in the Coalition government, claimed in the January 17 issue of the New Statesman that “Keynes would be on our side”. Two economists promptly called this “foolhardy”. Others, says Brittan, too often cite Karl Marx to justify a view.

“What a reflection all this is on the would-be scientific standing of political economy,” says Brittan who served in Labour as well as Tory governments. He himself was taught by Milton Friedman, the father figure of the monetarist theories of the 1980s implemented by Thatcher and Reagan.

There is indeed no merit in citing what Keynes or Marx (or even Friedman) said at a certain point in history if the aim is to prop up a preconception about today’s world. As Brittan says: “Can one imagine physicists trying to advance their views by showing that they were implicit in some obscure passage in Einstein or Isaac Newton?”

This is true. But any half-decent physicist will know that a modern understanding of the material world would not be possible without the advances made by earlier scientists. Their theories are incorporated into modern physics – not simply rejected as old hat.

So it should be with Marx, a revolutionary communist as well as a political economist. Turning his ideas into a tenet, a dogma to be repeated on suitable occasions, was not the responsibility of bourgeois economists like Brittan. Principal blame for this rests with the Stalinist movement, particularly the bureaucracy of the former Soviet Union. They did this to Lenin too, taking a phrase here and a quotation there to provide a rationale for every twist and turn.

Brittan himself is not averse to throwing out the baby with the bathwater, declaring that if Marx were alive today he would be 193 years old and, therefore, no one could know what he would say. This is indisputable; and the likelihood of Marx returning is not even up for discussion.

What Marx left, however, was a legacy of a philosophical method, an approach to understanding constantly changing reality. Marx himself, in the afterword to the second German edition, could do no better than cite with approval a critical review of Capital in 1872:

The one thing which is of moment to Marx, is to find the law of the phenomena with whose investigation he is concerned; and not only is that law of moment to him, which governs these phenomena, in so far as they have a definite form and mutual connexion within a given historical period. Of still greater moment to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e., of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connexions into a different one. This law once discovered, he investigates in detail the effects in which it manifests itself in social life.

This dialectical method enabled Marx to reveal the contradictions inherent within the system of capitalist production. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the continuous drive to global expansion, the inevitable formation of monopolies – these and other scientific laws were expounded by Marx. They naturally need verification through a study of today’s conditions. Rescuing Marx from the dogmatists is essential in our preparation to transcend a capitalism that is in its deepest-ever and most threatening crisis.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
4 February 2011

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Jonathan says:

What I always note and find absolutely fascinating in Marx is the shear volume of the works of existing and past Political Economist that he studied, and excerpted from, the notes themselves show, above all, the application of method to these writers. However it does not stop there for exactly the same applies to method. To conquer it, to turn 'Hegel on his head' he reworked philosophy from his earliest studies. The study of these existing philosophers and those that preceded them, and, importantly, whose schools they professed to adhere to, is amazing to us schoolchildren. Yes, rescue Marx, but in doing so note that he was an historical figure and from a layer and a time of particular ferment, rescue the rest with him. As a thinker and an activist it is not too (which Brittan misleads, diverting from the issue of method, which he is no doubt consciously doing)much to say the whole of humanity passed through his brain and in doing so it shaped him i.e. he was the apex of Political Economy at that time.

Its degeneration occurred for historical reason; Keynes et al are, as their precursors or the 'parts' the chose to borrow from, and follows, are stripped of almost all objective reality: and these Political Economists Marx studied, whether partisan or of limited import had a real feeling of grappling with the unfolding nature of Capitalism as a subject. And, now this constantly crisis ridden system leaves enough to go around, i.e. necessitates in the revolutionary movement a division of labour while they rush around like headless chickens proposing or apologists for the latest imposition of National Regimes in hock to world banks; and the central themes remain the same, more profits by one method or another. But it is not just Marxist that note all this: While talking of The Austrian school of economics on The Keiser Report and Karl Menger. Keiser's guest Sandeep Jaitly of states of Menger basic premise: 'Value does not exist outside of mankind's consciousnes s.' Keiser Report 118 To Keiser's 'a high degree of subjectivity' - 'It's almost Freudian'

'I'm a mathematician and it has taken me quite a while to realize that most of the equations, no all are -rubbish they vacuous' but returns to take a personal, social, position' 'it (economics) is about the human beings', 'if you have no philosophy it is useless and they have no philosophy'.

From 24 minutes in one would think Douglas Adams had a new script. The second part where the subjective idealism is talked about with open clarity, though the expert says it took him some time is eye opening as to the above; not only Marx method, but his style and research are needed by these people. As a bullion expert the two major roles of gold are not seen at all clearly. This academic hash is the world of Brittan, maybe not a dogmatist, I wouldn't know, but slimy I can tell, in terms of the history of economic theory he knows where the bodies are buried. Let them talk their way out of Egypt. The reason for the decay in Political Economy itself has an important historical source. The above quote which contains: 'of their variation, of their development, i.e., of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connexions into a different one.' points to what are the most amazing variations and development since. And that this has to be further impose on t he revolutionary movement through that division of labour the necessity to study the living reality, and to transmit the results of this to the movement that springs somewhat spontaneously in opposition to the blind laws of capitalism (from its political masters and their pundits) and the political/state machinations in opposition to this consciousness, this application to the study using that method; and to state 'tricks' to undermine spontaneity that will always arise in opposition to the political imposition on masses of people world wide.

What happened after Marx let lose the results of that immersion, and its essential connection to what Lenin points to as the third source of Marxism; socialism, is where I place my reading of the above.

Stalinism stole the mantel of Marx, Engles and Lenin for a reason that is not at doubt, the legitimacy of their rule needed a theoretical base, and it was a period of defeats and retreats, but they took the method of Empiricism plain, and simple. This is why formula and empiricism abandons method, to isolate relationships. However, the method of Marxism, dialectical materialism also needs its research, it is not fixed, once and for all.

In fact, as Trotsky pointed out, they presented formula rather dryly, fitting to a Bureaucracy; applying Kafka to Stalinism and its ilk I would consider an essential adjunct to a political critique or personal opposition. It is the only way to avoid the vomitorium. Newton spoke in opposition to 'metaphysics' for a reason, turning the universe and 'the works of man' into a laboratory was a necessity, and one the Bureaucracy took to with gusto. Stripping it therefore of its humanity, of all the social being that thrust change upon a stagnating world.

If one other thing stands out, as the above points too, in each historical figure Brittan notes it is precisely the method he ignores.

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