János Kis
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This book was written in the aftermath of the turbulent year of 1968, and it bears the imprint of its time. Its concerns respond to the parallel upsurge and defeat of the New Left in the West and the Prague Spring in Eastern Europe, and the ideological tensions between those parallel movements. But the authors – György Márkus, György Bence and myself – responded to the hopes and disappointments of those years by rethinking the foundations of Marxist theory. That rethinking resulted in the manuscript of the present book. True, How Is Critical Economic Theory Possible? was written in the belief that the aspirations of the New Left and the ambitions of the Prague Spring could be reconciled. We also expected the defeat of the two movements to be temporary. That belief and that expectation have been refuted by history. But the book, with its subject matter and analytic apparatus transcended its historical context. To the extent that Marx’s ideas continue to exert a lasting if controversial impact on social and political thought, our critical re-interpretation of Marx has not lost its actuality, or so I believe.

How Is Critical Economic Theory Possible? has a peculiar story. Around the turn of 1968–69 György Márkus invited Bence and myself to be his co-authors in a project in Marxist philosophy of history. The idea of the present book grew out of the work on that unfinished project.

1 Philosophy of History

In the 1960s, critically thinking Marxists began to challenge the reading of Marx’s views on historical materialism that came to dominate the ideology of the organised socialist movement since the times of the Second International. “Orthodox Marxism” – this is how Kautsky, Plekhanov and other Social Democratic theorists began to describe themselves in opposition to the “revisionism” of Eduard Bernstein and others – was characterised by two main dogmas. First, each society must follow the same path of social evolution, from “primitive communism” through slavery, feudalism, and capitalism to “mature communism.” And second, this path is driven by impersonal forces acting with a quasi-natural necessity. Human action is a mere means in the hands of those driving forces; it may perhaps slow or accelerate the rhythm of progress but can never halt it, nor can it give a new direction. This “orthodox Marxist” conception of history served well the purposes of official Soviet Marxism, notwithstanding the radical break between the Communist and the Social Democratic movements. Its philosophical critique was therefore tied to a critique of the Communist regimes themselves. Call the combination of these two dogmas unilinear evolutionism.

The critical Marxists of the 1960s rejected unilinear evolutionism. For theoretical support they have turned to the newly (re)discovered writings of the young Marx, especially his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. The reading of the young Marx enabled critical Marxists to form an alternative conception of history in which humans are not mere means of historical necessity; rather at each moment they face a set of alternatives to choose from, and these aggregated choices and actions could and do actually change the course of social change. Furthermore, the biologically fixed nature of the human species is “incomplete”: its gaps are filled by the socially created material and symbolic culture. It is not just the direction of history that is not fixed once and for all: human nature itself is a product of history; it changes with the societal culture humans themselves create and make their own. “Man makes himself” as the Marxist archaeologist Gordon Childe had put it.

This was a descriptive conception of what kind of animal humans are. At the same time, this conception was value laden. It suggested that the openness of human nature defines an ideal of life worthy of a human being and of a social order worthy of support precisely because it secures equal access to each member to the opportunity of leading a good life. The descriptive claim of Marx was that each new generation inherits cultural goods, broadly understood, accumulated by previous generations, and make their choices from the totality of goods accessible to them. The evaluative and normative claim insisted that the good life for a human being is one where they are equally free to pursue their personal life project in accordance with their own judgement on what kind of life is good for them, while having an equal part in the collective decisions regarding the direction their society should be heading and what priorities should it set for itself, and how it should treat its members. What members of a good society do in their personal life is to freely realise their innate capabilities so as to become many-sided and harmonious personalities. What they do in their collective life is to take control of communal outcomes as the aggregate of individual choices and actions thereby enabling themselves to make and execute meaningful choices in their personal lives.

This ideal, the young Marx argues, can be formulated because world history progressively creates the conditions for its specification and realisation. But it was never truly realised in previous history. Access to the cultural means of developing oneself into a free, many sided and harmonious character was not previously given or it was given only to a small minority. Pre-capitalist societies, Marx argues, had been built on formal status inequalities and so everyone had the right only to what was due to their specific status group under the rule of social customs and formal law. Even the better positioned individuals were constrained in their choices by rigid codes of personal conduct. It couldn’t be otherwise, since – as Marx insisted – pre-capitalist societies had been co-ordinated by an undifferentiated system of institutions; economy, society, politics and civil life, the public and the private domains were not institutionally separated from each other. As a consequence, any major change in one subsystem threatened to disrupt the other subsystems and to lead to their collapse. Thus, for the overwhelming majority, pre-capitalist societies had meant status inequality, dependence, and strict constraints upon their life opportunities.

Capitalism, according to Marx, undermines the formal status hierarchies and the rigid codes of conduct characteristic of pre-capitalist societies by making commodity production and exchange a universal form of social interaction. In this sense, even the workers are liberated by it. However, this liberation comes at a heavy cost. Formal status hierarchies may be receding, but their place is taken by the informal hierarchies built into the relationship between capital and labour. The personalised nature of the social relations goes, together with the formal hierarchies. Society becomes atomised, and the typical social relations are nothing but contractual agreements between strangers who enter in these transactions with their own advantage and nothing else in mind. The decisions and actions of this disordered set of individuals are aggregated through impersonal mechanisms of the market, and nobody is able to keep the outcomes under control. Capitalist society works in accordance with quasi-natural laws that determine the process and its outcome by unbending necessity. This is the phenomenon that Marx calls “reification”, and it is reification, he argues, that is at the roots of the phenomena of what he calls “alienation.” What “orthodox Marxists” presented as the unchangeable laws of history, Marx himself considered as a property of a peculiar historical formation, i.e., capitalism. At the same time, capitalism was seen by him as preparing the conditions for the establishment of a new society where individuals are bound together by true social relations, each having access to the goods of the material and symbolic culture, each having equal opportunity to make free choices regarding the way of life they want to pursue as individuals and, as members of a community, an opportunity to bring the processes of their society under their collective control and each of them having the power to take part in their collective decisions on an equal footing. This society is communism, and the agency to bring about communist social relations is the working class.

2 Two Qualifications

Critical Marxists agreed on the rough outlines of this view. They also agreed that both neo-capitalism with its regulated market and the welfare state, on the one hand, and the “really existing socialism”, on the other, belong to the historical world of reification and alienation; communism, in Marx’s sense, is still an unrealised objective for humankind. We shared this view, and it was this view that we wanted to develop into a systematic philosophy of history. To be more exact: we shared this view with two important qualifications.

First, the critical Marxists of the 1960s were aware that in some of his writings the “mature” Marx had been getting dangerously close to what later became the unilinear evolutionism of the “orthodox Marxists.” Nevertheless, they were content to quote passages from other “mature” works of Marx that contradicted unilinear evolutionism: the section of Grundrisse on the “Asiatic mode of production”, the letter to Vera Zasulich on the possibility for Russia to accomplish a direct transition from the system of village communes to fully developed communism, and so on. We were dissatisfied with this kind of solution. Crude as Marx’s evolutionism might have been, we believed that rather than getting rid of it, one should replace it with an evolutionism relying on the neo-Darwinian synthesis in biology and on multilinear evolutionism in contemporary cultural and social anthropology. One of the focal ideas guiding our work was the claim that multilinear evolutionism could be reconciled with the young Marx’s philosophy of history, explaining social change from individual choices between alternatives and from the aggregation of acts based on those choices. It was an attempt at such a reconciliation that was at the core of our project in the first year of our co-operation.

The second issue on which our standpoint was characteristically different from mainstream critical Marxism was this: most critical Marxists have treated the “mature” economic works of Marx as if they were nothing but occasions for giving renewed expression to the same philosophical ideas that Marx had developed already in the 1840s. They had no answer to the question – in fact, they didn’t even raise it – why Marx had written such a vast corpus in economics. We believed that the transition was genuine. The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts accepted the works of “bourgeois” economists as true accounts of the workings of the capitalist system. They were not written with the aim of offering an alternative economic theory; rather, they argued that communist thought transcends the economic point of view. Capital’s position was different. It was not meant as a philosophical critique of political economy but as a philosophically guided economic theory, an alternative to “bourgeois” economics. We were seeking an explanation for the shift from a philosophical criticism of economics to a philosophically guided economic theory, and it was this ambition that in 1970 turned us from the original project to the one that was accomplished in the form of the present book.

To be sure, Marxists of all times and all stripes took the subtitle of Capital – Critique of Political Economy – seriously. Nevertheless, they have taken it seriously in a lopsided way. The “orthodox Marxists” understood it as suggesting that Capital gave non-standard answers to standard questions of economic theory. Their understanding was not totally baseless. Marx had indeed provided a theory of value, a theory of prices, a theory of economic reproduction, a theory of distribution of incomes and its trends, a theory of business cycles, a theory of the firm and its place on the market, and so on, and these theories were meant as alternatives to conventional economic science. It is at this level of traditional economic problems that Capital was criticised by “bourgeois” economists since the publication of its first volume; it is at this level that “revisionists” argued that Marx’s conception was outdated, and it is at this level that Marx was defended by “orthodox Marxists.” Although such an interpretation of Capital was not totally baseless, it was seriously lopsided. It failed to respond to the fact that Capital criticised the capitalist system’s account by the “bourgeois” economists at a deeper, philosophical level, too. Some Marxist philosophers, the not-yet-bolshevised communist Marxists of the 1920s had drawn attention to this deeper, philosophical layer of the Marxian critique. Critical Marxists of the 1960s followed in their footsteps, discovering the works of Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch, György Lukács and others simultaneously with the manuscripts of the young Marx. However, as I just said about the critical Marxists of the 1960s – and the same observation holds about their predecessors from the 1920s – their view was seriously lopsided, too, although in a different manner than that of the “orthodox Marxists.” They treated the economic content of Capital as if it were by and large irrelevant to its critical message.

Unlike the “orthodox Marxists”, we were in a position to recognise the philosophical aspects of the critique of political economy – after all, our point of departure was Marx’s philosophical anthropology and philosophy of history. However, unlike the not-yet-bolshevised communist Marxists of the 1920s and the critical Marxists of our times, we were unwilling to ignore the specifically economic content of Capital or to treat it as if it were a mere occasion for Marx to reformulate his philosophical criticism of the capitalist system. We came to the view that Capital was meant to be a critique of political economy in a complex manner. Marx aimed to provide a critical economic theory that, at one level, gave non-standard answers to standard economic questions while, at another, raising non-standard questions, ones beyond those addressed by conventional economic science but organically linked to the latter, rather than being a mere addendum to them.

3 What Is Critical Economic Theory?

In sum, we came to a view of Capital as a theory of the capitalist system at two levels: conventional and critical. At the conventional level, as I have just said, it gave non-standard answers to standard questions of economic science. At the critical level, it aimed to show that the conventional view of the capitalist economy was wrong not merely in making various specific claims that happened to be mistaken but in a fundamental manner. For it, the profit was the fruit of investment of capital, i.e., of a thing – in reality, however, it was nothing but the surplus produced by labour, i.e., by human agency. Furthermore, “bourgeois” economists took capitalism to be the natural form of economic organisation, subject to eternal, unchangeable laws. In reality, Marx argued, the appropriation of the surplus by the capitalist is made possible by the social relationship between capital and labour or, more precisely, between the owner of the means of production and the worker who owns nothing but his or her own labour power. And as a social relation capitalism is a human artefact created historically by human interaction.

The thesis is a critical one in that it suggests that capitalism can and should be overcome. It can, since being historically created, it is also historically changeable. And it should for more than one reason. First, the relation between capital and labour is systematically tied to oppression and exploitation. Second, under capitalism everyone – even the capitalist ruling over the worker–is subject to the rule of the impersonal laws of the market. Capitalism should be replaced by a social system based on the voluntary co-operation of free and equal producers, liberated both from the personal rule of the private owner of the means of production and from the impersonal rule of the market.

The thesis is a critical one in a further sense, too. Participants of the capitalist system, people looking at it from within, don’t see it as a system of historically changeable social relations. The vision of “bourgeois” political economy reflects this everyday vision of the capitalist system from within. From this internal perspective, the relation between capital and labour appears as a natural relation, subject to laws of nature, and profit appears to be the reward of the capital investment. This raises, however, a further question. If the view of the participants of the system is mistaken, how can it nonetheless dominate their thinking? If it is the Earth that is turning around the Sun, why do we see the Sun turning around the Earth? Capital aims to answer this question as well. Marx wants his work to be an explanation of what the capitalist system really is and how it really works, on the one hand, and, at the same time, an explanation of why the nature of the system and its workings appear to the participants to be completely different. He wants the same theory that provides a true account of capitalist production to also provide an explanation for the systematic reproduction of its erroneous view both in everyday thinking and in “bourgeois” economic science.

This may seem to be a full account of Marx’s idea of critical economic theory, but it is not. For Marx is explicit that the mere fact of capitalism having historical origins is not sufficient evidence for the possibility of the capitalist system being transformed into an association of free and equal producers. This possibility depends, first, on whether an institutional arrangement is conceivable which is, similarly to capitalism, modern and oriented to dynamic change but in which all individuals can control their personal lives and hold their communal life under their collective control. And such a great transformation depends, secondly, on whether there is a pathway leading from capitalism to such an institutional arrangement. The answer to these questions cannot be given by philosophy of history alone; it needs an argument based on the empirical social sciences.

Capital has no separate chapter dedicated to the way the communist economy and society would be organised and how the transition from capitalism to communism would be accomplished, but it contains plenty of digressions on these subjects, digressions systematically linked to Marx’s account of the workings of the capitalist system. These digressions enabled us to outline a specifically Marxian view of a possible communist economy. We were not the first to attribute this view to Marx. Each social democratic worker at the beginning of the 20th century was sure that the “associated producers” would not depend on the market for determining the objectives of production and the way productive resources should be distributed across the different sectors of industry. They would be able to directly determine the set of the goods they need and to directly calculate, in terms of labour, the costs of producing the desired set. They would regulate the economy consciously and ex ante by a rational plan, rather than being subjected to the spontaneous mechanisms of the market that correct ex post and “behind the back of the participants” the unavoidable errors built into the decisions of myriads of separate economic agents.

What about the pathway from capitalism to communism? Capital entails arguments to the effect that the capitalist system will automatically collapse, leaving the workers with the opportunity and the necessity of building an alternative economic organisation. However, we saw Marx as having at the bottom line a very different view. According to that view, capitalism produces the preconditions for the creation of a communist society by universalising the economic contacts among people, by destroying all conventions that stand in the way of economic growth, by uniting production and the natural sciences and by giving a ceaseless boost to economic development and technical change etc. However, the availability of these preconditions doesn’t secure more than the mere possibility of a transition to communism. For that possibility to get realised, major social groups within the capitalist system must be motivated to bring it about, even against resistance. Already in his “young Hegelian” period, Marx formulated the idea that radical change is not possible unless there are masses of people moved by radical needs, i.e., by needs that are generated by the old system but cannot be satisfied within its bonds. “It is not enough for thought to strive for realisation, reality must itself strive towards thought”, Marx wrote in the Introduction to his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in 1843. It was this recognition that made Marx resist throughout his life the attempts to present communism as an ideal. Communism, he argued, must be a movement driven by the striving of reality towards thought. Although the term “radical needs” does not reappear in his later works, the idea that the working class is a collective agency motivated by needs which the capitalist system gives rise to but is incapable of satisfying is a central idea of Capital.

This idea brings Marx to the most far-reaching implications of his work as a critical economic theory. He sees its main role as helping the workers’ coming to consciousness of their radical needs and what those needs require in terms of social change. For Marx, the transition to a communist society must be the accomplishment of a revolutionary movement of the working class; of a movement that begins spontaneously and develops step-by-step into a conscious and well-organised collective action, and he sees his critical economic theory as part of this movement. The best interpretation of his view is, perhaps, one that depicts the relationship between the critical theory and the praxis of the working class as a dialogue in which the theory provides the movement with systematic ideas about the way capitalism works and how it can be overcome while the movement provides the theory with insights derived from its everyday praxis.

The not-yet-bolshevised communist Marxists of the 1920s were the first to interpret Marx’s critical theory in this spirit. However, they came to the conclusion that the unavoidably practical – critical or apologetic – stance of the social sciences excluded scientific objectivity. This might have been the main reason why they remained indifferent towards the economic content of Marx’s theory. Marx himself thought otherwise. He made a distinction between specific class interests masquerading as universal principles – this is what he called “ideology” – and theorists taking the side of a class which had no interests other than those identical with the realisation of universal principles. He was convinced that taking the side of the class with universal interests guarantees scientific objectivity. We disagreed with this crude way of defending the truth-claim of the social sciences, but we disagreed with the view of the Marxists of the 1920s, too. Whatever the practical commitments of an economist or a sociologist, they make statements about objective social facts, and so their theories are truth-apt. The organic relationship between theory and praxis does not change the subject matter of the theory, which means that the theory is either true or false and, therefore, it has the obligation to draw testable conclusions from its premisses. Nor does the unity of theory and praxis incapacitate the theory from doing this. As a consequence, we were convinced that Marx’s theory itself can and should be subjected to serious examination for its correctness.

4 Marx’s Conception: For and Against

We found the general idea of a critical economic theory fruitful and attractive. Our judgement was that, by embedding economics in the wider framework of a critical theory, Marx was able to ask questions of high theoretical and practical importance. We also came to think that some of his answers to these questions proved to be valid in the long run. As examples, I would mention Marx’s theory of false consciousness, commodity fetishism, reification and alienation. His theory of capitalist reproduction, included in Volume ii of Capital had lasting impacts on economic science, his theory of (un)employment proved to be insightful etc. At the same time, we had our doubts about some other Marxian answers which we believed were mistaken and whose mistakes seemed to us to threaten the correctness of his critical economic theory as a whole. It was when we recognised this tension between the general idea of a critical theory and the substantive claims that filled the general idea with specific content that our attention turned from philosophy of history to the problem of Marxist economics.

Here is how it happened: in the year when we worked on the original project, each of us wrote outlines for the others on various issues on which we have been working. Someday around the turn of 1969–1970, Márkus gave us a two to three-page outline on the concept of use-value in Marx. That outline was later developed into Chapter 2 of this book, entitled “The Antinomies of Use-Value.” Márkus drew our attention to a basic ambiguity in the way Marx used the term in Capital and in his earlier works and manuscripts. On the one hand, Marx treated use-value as a socially loaded concept: for a thing to have use-value, it must be the object of technical and cultural norms that define the point of its use and the ways it should be used. In the absence of such norms, a thing is a mere thing without any use-value. Often, these norms are relativised to social statuses: people of different status may have specific status-related norms determining what they are permitted or advised to use and how. There is ample evidence in Marx’s texts that he was fully aware of all this. On the other hand, Marx insisted that the use-value represents a direct, natural relation between a human individual and a thing, the object of his or her need. This understanding contradicts in an obvious manner the social interpretation of use-value. And, yet it does not appear as an occasional lapse in Marx’s works: the idea that use-value consists in a direct, natural relationship between a thing and a human individual in need of that thing played a systematic role in his theoretical conception. Once we recognised this, we began an investigation into the systemic idea in the background of the peculiar treatment of the concept of use-value. Chapters 36 of this book develop the outcome of this investigation.

Let me briefly summarise what we found. Marx believed that the general role of the economy as a social subsystem could be described in purely natural terms. On the one hand, the economy as he saw it was expected to identify the human needs in goods that have use-value. On the other hand, he attributed to the economy a further function, to wit, that of distributing the available resources across the sectors of production so as to enable society to produce a fixed set of goods at the least cost or to produce the largest set of goods at some given cost. Marx’s view was that, in principle, both the goods that humans want the economy to provide them and the costs of production of those goods can be determined in purely natural or technical terms. He believed, accordingly, that a social system whose economic sub-system is properly separated from the other sub-systems, draws a sharp dividing line between the purely natural relations of human individuals and things characteristic of the economy and the social relations linking human individuals to each other and regulated by the non-economic subsystems.

However, Marx was clear that no social system in human history carried through this separation fully and consistently. In pre-capitalist systems, the economy remained embedded in other sub-systems serving non-economic purposes. Capitalism was the first system according to Marx that achieved some sort of a divorce between economy and society, but it did not carry out the separation in an appropriate manner.

By dividing the control over productive resources among myriads of private owners, it left the job of identifying the set of goods needed and of distributing the resources across the branches of industry to the market. The market, however, does not identify human needs directly: it relies on the proxy of effective demand. Nor does it identify productive resources directly: for its aims, resources are capital seeking profit and labour seeking wages. While the costs of production consist in expenditures of “living” and “dead” labour, market prices are not strictly proportional to labour expenditures. They depart from strict proportionality for three main reasons. First, market prices are constantly fluctuating, and there is no way to establish the point where the relation between the prices of two different goods correspond to the relation of the labour embodied in them. Second, even if that point could in principle be established, the fact is that it does not exist. One reason why it does not exist is that the profit component of the price is systematically diverted from the surplus labour component of the value of goods, for capital moves where it can realise the highest profit rate, and this movement results in an averaging of the profit rate. Finally, the owners of land and other natural resources are able to harvest rent for permitting access to the resources under their control, and nothing corresponds to the rent in the value of goods as measured in terms of labour. These are the main themes of Volume iii of Capital, left unfinished and published posthumously by Engels years after the death of his friend.

Early critics of Marx argued that there is a contradiction between the position of Volume iii that gives room to the averaging of the profit rate and to rent seeking in its explanation of market prices, and the position of Volume i that assumes market prices to be proportional to labour costs. This objection is misdirected. It ignores the fact that the labour theory of value and of surplus value developed in Volume i were based on an idealised model of the capitalist economy. That model was defined by certain counterfactual assumptions. Marx assumed, first, that the supply and the demand of commodities were in permanent equilibrium. Second, he assumed that in equilibrium, supply and demand extinguish each other’s impact, and leave the technical costs of production to determine alone the value of the commodities. Third, he assumed away the tendency of the rates of profit to gravitate towards their average and ignored rent as a cost. The implication seemed to be that the prices of commodities were strictly proportional to their value as measured in terms of labour. A further implication entailed that what Volume iii of Capital describes is nothing but a redistribution of the surplus value among the owners of non-human economic resources: capital, land, and other natural factors of production.

Marx could have justified the assumptions that define the theoretical model elaborated in Volume i by claiming that they facilitate the examination in a pure form – excluding any disturbing influences – the relationship between labour and value, expropriated surplus labour and profit. As a matter of fact, he rather insisted, borrowing the terminology of Hegel’s metaphysical conception of logic, that the model of Volume i reveals the “essence” of the capitalist system, while the account of Volume iii, closer to how capitalism empirically is, describes its “surface”, its mere “phenomena”, the way its real nature appears to its participants. This is, clearly, an indefensible account of the relationship between idealised model and reality.

We have, however, concluded that even if Marx had argued from the theoretical advantages of working with an idealised model, his conception would have remained hard to defend. The problem is not that Volume i and Volume iii formally contradict each other as Marx’s early critics argued. There is no formal contradiction between Volume i and Volume iii, for the two volumes approach the reality of the capitalist system at different levels of abstraction. Volume i aims to examine the capitalist market under assumptions under which it appears in its best light. In this sense, its picture is drawn as a critique of the more realistic picture given by Volume iii. At the same time, however, Volume i reveals the nature of the capitalist market under the worst light. It shows that capitalism, even at its best, is a necessarily exploitative system. Even when all the commodities are exchanged at their value as measured in terms of labour, i.e., even when equal values are exchanged for equal values, the workings of the capitalist system are exploitative as a matter of conceptual necessity: the revenue of the capitalist is nothing but expropriated surplus labour. This is what gets veiled in the empirically more adequate picture given by Volume iii, and what is made, Marx believes, crystal-clear under the counterfactual assumptions of Volume i.

The real difficulty we identified is that the model developed in Volume i is problematic by itself. Consider the claim that in equilibrium supply and demand mutually neutralise each other. Their mutual neutralisation means that they are not constitutive factors of the concept of value: the value of a commodity is nothing, but its cost of production technically determined. But that claim’s meaning has a further aspect. It also entails that in equilibrium supply and demand do not causally affect the costs of production in terms of which the value of a commodity is determined. Let’s accept – provisionally, for the sake of the argument – that supply and demand are not, in fact, constitutive elements of the concept of value, to focus on the causal aspect of the meaning of their mutual neutralisation. According to Marx, the value of a good as the cost of its production is determined by the amount of labour that is “socially necessary” for producing it. At each general level of technology, different productive units are characterised by different productivities, and the “socially necessary” amount of labour consists in their average. However, the equilibrium of supply and demand is not a fixed point, it is constantly shifting: at time t1 it settles at a certain level of production, between t1 and t2 the equilibrium level of production expands, while between t2 and t3 it contracts, and so on. Expansion allows units of production of low productivity to engage in productive activities, thereby increasing the average amount of “socially necessary” labour. Contraction begins by the crowding out of units of low productivity, which comes with a decrease of the average. It is, thus, a mistake to claim that, in equilibrium, supply and demand have no causal impact on the amount of “socially necessary” labour embodied in a particular type of commodity. They have, even under the assumption that they do not belong to the constitutive elements of value.

As a next step, let us drop that assumption. Suppose with Marx that all productive inputs are reducible to expenditures of labour. Even then, the costs of production of a unit of a good are not reducible to the labour objectified in that unit. For what is the cost of production of a unit of a good? Or, to put it differently, under what conditions the production of a good comes with some cost to society? The answer is that the production of a good comes with a cost under the conditions of the scarcity of resources. Suppose that all goods are made available as manna from heaven. In that case, the satisfaction of a particular desire does not involve any costs. This is because no other desire must be sacrificed for the sake of the satisfaction of this one. But goods do not fall from heaven as manna. They must be produced, and when amount x of labour L is used for producing a unit of good G, the same labour time and skills cannot be used for other aims. Those other aims are constitutive of the cost of production of a unit of G. The sacrifice coming with producing a unit of G, however, depends on the importance of the alternative aims that must be given up if a unit of G is produced rather than a unit of some other good. And the importance of the sacrificed aims is not constant. The cost of the use of a fixed amount x of labour L necessarily varies with it. The conclusion is that the structure of social demand is constitutive of the cost of the expenditure of labour.

There is a further step made possible by this argument, and our book was gesturing towards it. Measuring the social costs of production requires some institutional framework, and the institution through which the social costs of the production of privately used goods is measured is nothing else but the market. It is through the myriads of market transactions that so many individuals reveal their ranking of the value of alternative goods, and it is through the aggregation of the individual choices that the market establishes the social value of the set of goods produced and the social costs of their production. The implication we drew was that no socialist economy can do without a market. Marx’s conception of communism as a market-less social system was fundamentally flawed.

Suppose, though, that all the above-discussed objections fail. Even then, Marx’s conception is vulnerable to the following difficulty. The claim according to which the prices of goods are proportional to their value as measured in terms of labour is an empirical prediction and as such it must be empirically testable. For it to be testable, the amount of labour that is “socially necessary” for producing a unit of a good must be capable of independent measurement, and the various kinds of labour vested in different goods must be capable of quantitative comparison in terms of a common metric. In the world of the capitalist economy, however, such independent measurement and comparison are not feasible. Therefore, the conclusions drawn from model of Volume i can qualify as testable hypotheses if and only if there is a possible world where the various different kinds of “socially necessary” labour can be independently measured and compared with one another. According to Marx, there is such a possible world: it is the world of a communist economy. As we have seen, Marx believed that in a communist economy, the costs of production would be directly measured in terms of labour, and the different kinds of labour would be comparable, the progress of mechanisation bringing with it a progressive reduction of all kinds of specialised labour to combinations of simple movements. The calculation and comparison of the costs of production would be achieved in terms of homogenous units of simple labour. In other words, the labour theory of value and of surplus value, the core of Volume i depends, for its scientific validity, on the feasibility of the blueprint of communist economy that is lurking in the background of Capital.

Our book argued that that blueprint is not feasible. We attacked it from two directions. First, we tried to show that the prediction of the reduction of all specialised labour to simple labour was mistaken and that, consequently, there is no hope to measure and compare all kinds of labour in terms of a common unit of simple labour. Second, we argued that even if different kinds of labour could be measured and compared in terms of a common unit, labour would not be an appropriate metric of the costs of production. We concluded that Marx’s blueprint of a market-less, centrally planned labour time economy is neither desirable nor feasible.

We found that the conception of radical needs developed in Capital was also flawed. Capital identified pauperisation as the main driving force turning the working class towards objectives transcending the capitalist system. Pauperisation seemed to be a radicalising factor since it threatened the elementary living conditions of the workers. We identified two main problems in the pauperisation theory, though. First, it failed to correctly predict the long-term trends in the economic situation of the working class. Real wages were on the rise in Great Britain, the model capitalist country, already at the time when Marx was struggling to complete his magnum opus. Marx was not unaware of this fact; he tried to accommodate it within his theory in different ways. For example, he introduced a conceptual distinction between absolute and relative pauperisation, where relative pauperisation didn’t really mean pauperisation: it referred to the widening of the gap between the rise of the profit rate and the rise of real wage rates. But even if the prediction of pauperisation had been correct, it would be a doubtful account of the idea of radical needs, or so we argued. It is doubtful whether pauperisation is a factor enabling the workers to embrace the aim of a society where individuals as individuals are free to bring their lives under their personal control, and as members of a community they are free to bring their social co-existence under their collective control. Pauperisation may push the misérables to rebel against the capitalist order, but it does not provide them with the intellectual and motivational tools necessary for building an order based on freedom, equality, and solidarity.

5 Rethinking Marxism

We found, then, that Marx’s substantive conception of a critical economic theory was deeply problematic. At the same time, we found his general project of the critical theory attractive and fruitful. This tension brought us to the question whether the general project could be rescued, and if yes, how. It seemed clear to us that the theory based on the model of Volume i was indefensible. Hence, we believed that any promising venture in critical theory must begin by abandoning that model. Since the labour theory of value and of surplus value was, as we have discovered, inseparable from the conception of a centrally planned, market-less labour-time economy, we concluded that the two ideas had to be abandoned together. Finally, we found Capital’s account of the radical needs and their subject, the potentially revolutionary working class was not promising either. What remains if so many things are found unsustainable?

This question confronted us with a choice. We could have decided, like the founders of the Frankfurt School, to preserve the critique of capitalism as an order built on reification and alienation together with the critique of false consciousness and commodity fetishism that are systematically reproduced by that order, while abandoning the revolutionary commitments of Marx’s heritage. Choosing this option would have led us towards embracing a definite non-Marxist version of critical theory. A second option was to seek new instances of radical needs and new social agents moved by them, on the one hand, and to draw the outlines of a new social order that is different from the Marxian design of a communist society, and yet entailing the promise to be significantly more just and more solidaristic than either capitalism or the Soviet-type system, on the other. We had the courage to draw the conclusion that the categorical contrast drawn by Marx between capitalism as an economic order dominated by reification and alienation and communism as a system, where reification and alienation are completely eliminated could not be part of a defensible outline of the new order to be built. We of course agreed with Marx that reification and alienation are serious disvalues and, that, a society completely free of them is an ideal worthy to strive for. But we argued that constructing blueprints for a society that is completely free of them is a futile venture. One has to conceive the progress towards this ideal, we concluded, as a never-ending struggle. Any defensible outline of a desirable post-capitalist society must settle on showing that it enables the “associated producers” to conduct the fight against reification and alienation, exploitation and oppression, dependency, and inequality in the framework of an institutional order that is significantly more favourable to this emancipatory struggle than capitalist democracy is. But the prospects cannot consist in reaching a stationary state where reification and alienation are radically eliminated. What we can hope for is to be able to attack specific syndromes of reification and alienation, one after the other. There is no last fight, there is only an indefinite series of fights.

We argued that this was the way to uphold the continuity of Marxist thinking. It reconciles faithfulness to the general project of critical theory with rejecting those theses of Marx which proved untenable. It reconciles remaining faithful to Marx’s basic intentions with a thoroughgoing critique of the substantive content of his own theory by replacing the theses that proved to be fallacious by ones with a better chance to be true.

For us, such a renewal of Marxist theory seemed not only possible in principle but a task of great practical urgency. Our formative experience was the parallel rise and fall of two intellectual movements both claiming to be socialist: the movement in Eastern Europe aiming to a transformation of the Soviet-type regimes into democratic and market-compatible socialism, and the New Left in the West. We nourished high hopes regarding both movements and were shocked by the fact of their mutual estrangement. Leading activists and theorists of the New Left attacked the proposal of market socialism as a return to capitalism, while the East European reformers saw their New Left critics as nothing but new Stalinists. We attributed the mutual misunderstandings and suspicions to the general state of Marxist critical theory and hoped that a clarification of the conditions of its renewal could help both movements to better see their true aims and prospects.

This hope proved to be naïve. The decades after finishing our book have led to a general demise of the New Left in the West and to the quiet abandonment of the idea of democratic market socialism in the East. More importantly, certain values to which Marx was unconditionally committed have been revealed as calling for a revision. How Is Critical Economic Theory Possible? responded early to some such critiques: it includes a sympathetic discussion of the new feminism, the sexual revolution, and the early ecological movements, for example. But it shared uncritically Marx’s enthusiasm for economic growth and his idea of society’s progressive control over nature; these and some other Marxian ideas accepted by us have been revealed to be wrong or in need of refinement. In sum, the standpoint of our book proved to be theoretically unstable. A quarter of a century later none of us considered himself Marxists. Márkus gravitated towards a post-Marxist critique of cultural modernity. Bence defined himself as a conservative of an unorthodox kind, standing under the simultaneous spell of two non-conservative thinkers, non-conservative in their very different ways, Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt. For my part, I have found my intellectual home in the territory of left-wing egalitarian liberalism marked out by John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. I do not feel entitled to speak in the name of the three of us but as far as I am concerned, I have to add that How Is Critical Economic Theory Possible? – although I had to leave it behind – left a lasting imprint on my intellectual trajectory. It played a major role in determining what kind of a philosophical liberalism I came to accept.

All this is, of course, about the subjective value of the book, about its value from the point of view of the intellectual development of the authors. What about its objective value? Is it worth reading today, notwithstanding of the instability of its position, and not merely as a document of the intellectual aura of the age when it has been written? In other words, do those who take an interest in Marx’s heritage – whether as Marxists or for some other reason – have good reasons to recognise that our book’s critical interpretation of Capital has original and illuminating aspects to it? I am confident that the answer is: yes. At the same time, I am keenly aware that this is a question to which only they, our intended audience, can give a definitive answer.

How Is Critical Economic Theory Possible? was never edited for publication by the authors. It was banned by the Hungarian communist authorities immediately after its completion. When, after our fatherland’s transition to democracy, it was published in Hungarian, Márkus and Bence were out of the country, while I was busy with the editing work on a different book I have written alone. Now, the only one still around of the three of us, I had to take the responsibility for doing the job for my co-authors. I deleted redundancies, simplified unnecessarily overcomplicated sentences and, here and there, clarified conceptual ambiguities. I have done so only where these were due not to ambiguities of our position at the time of writing the book but to a lack of thoroughgoing revision of the text. Discussions on terminology with the translator, Bálint Bethlenfalvy were very helpful, and so were the comments of Attila Csordás to the draft translations of Chapters 12 and 56. John Grumley and Pauline Johnson suggested many useful corrections. I am indebted to all of them. But I am most indebted to my late friends and colleagues, György Márkus and György Bence, for the formative experience of the years when we worked together on the manuscript of this book.

János Kis

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