Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Marxist Vocabulary (II)

or, "Marx for Dummies", Please!

In the previous post I referred to the instructive comments thread generated as reply to Robert Viennau's "Vocabulary for Marxism" and I mentioned "an extremely remarkable blooper, noticed by 'A' ".

Well, here I address this blooper.

A little background, repeated for those who didn't read the previous message (tsst! tsst! naughty, naughty). Two users, one identified as "Philip Pilkington" and the other as "A", exchanged some long messages in the course of two days, at Viennau's blog.

Selected bits from that dialogue:
  1. "Pilkington" addressing "A": "Now, you're talking about demand (which is NOT a Marxist term, it is neoclassical and you shouldn't mix the two as it shows a bad understanding of Marx)." (July 11, 2012 11:37 AM. Uppercase in the original.)
  2. "A" addressing "Pilkington": "This is incorrect, and almost aggressively so. (...) Yes, supply and demand are not strictly Marxian terms as such; they were in fact used by the very classicals he studied". (July 11, 2012 8:31 PM)
"A" is right, of course.

I am not too familiar with the Physiocrats and Mercantilists, so I'll leave this literature out.

But, beginning with the Classicals, in "Wealth of Nations", published in 1776, Smith used the word "demand", in its usual modern macroeconomic sense of the word, a number of times:
"This permission of exporting, he [Mr. Locke] said, rendered the demand for silver bullion greater than the demand for silver coin. But the number of people who want silver coin for the common uses of buying and selling at home, is surely much greater than that of those who want silver bullion either for the use of exportation or for any other use." (Chapter V. Of the Real and Nominal Price of Commodities… Emphasis added.)
In 1859, when Marx published "Critique of Political Economy" (Part I, The Commodity), which appears to be the text "Pilkington" cited from, the word "demand" had been in use for almost a century, at least. In that very chapter, Marx himself explicitly mentions it:
"Even when no immediate need for these use-values exists, the demand for them is bound to be more general than that for other use-values, since they constitute the most substantial physical element in wealth."
It is astounding, then, that "Pilkington", expressing himself with self-assurance approaching arrogance, turns out to be mistaken about this most basic fact. It seems to me, with his/her "almost aggressively so" remark, "A" could legitimately be called a master of the understament!


But, for the sake of the argument, let's accept that "Pilkington" was right on this, why is it illegitimate for a Marxist to use terms from other schools of economic thought? To me, that's far from obvious.

Above I stopped at Marx when searching for users of the concept of "demand". Now, after considering that demand is a neoclassical concept, I can ask: should modern day non-neoclassical economists abstain from using that word?

Advancing the historical record to save us some time, post-Keynesian Prof. Bill Mitchell, in his latest fully-fledged article, included no less than 13 direct references to the word "demand", either as a noun or as a verb:
"Further, debate remains as to whether the mark-up is invariant to the state of demand."
"In the short-run, the price will be rigid with the firm supplying output according to demand."
"The latter is determined by the state of aggregate demand in the economy and as we saw in Chapters 7 and 8, is determined by the level of household consumption expenditure, private investment expenditure, net exports and government spending."
That, in an article addressing aggregate supply!

As is customary in "Pilkington's" comments in that thread, no reason is adduced for that startling opinion, other than "it shows a bad understanding of Marx". Readers of my previous post would not have missed the irony in this phrase, as it apparently happened to "A".

"Pilkington" himself, who doesn't seem to be a Marxist, is using Marxist terms. Should he be forbidden from doing so? Does it show a bad understanding of "Pilkington"? [*]

But, perhaps more to the point, given that "Pilkington" was commenting in the comments thread to Viennau's post on a Marxian vocabulary for non-Marxists: I would have thought that to use terms from other schools of thought is a good thing, provided they are used correctly.

[*] Actually, it probably does!


  1. Hi, Magpie!

    I appreciate your comments.

    I see Mr. Pilkington is at his spiel once more, at Naked Keynesianism. He's even using the "advertising" angle again, as though he's got some trump card that hadn't been rebuffed a month prior.

    It is interesting that something as simple as defending an a idea about the nature of prices in open debate can have the qualities of scandal when a) the idea in question was supported by Marx and b) Phil is in the room. Suddenly we're all metaphysicists (a term he never qualifies) who play word games (no examples given) and ignore reality and logic (ditto) in order to support our doctrinaire devotion to a Weltanschauung.

    And, irony of ironies, the above is declared with conviction and verve suggestive of a fiery pulpit, while arguments to the contrary are ignored or summarily dismissed.

    He is an odd duck, is what I am saying.

    I'd love to get in on the action, but I can't seem to find a way to post a comment without signing up for at least one web service, and that's a nonstarter. I guess I really need to stop putting off starting up my own blog. One of these days...

    Anyhoo, I'd also like to take this opportunity to say that I've been enjoying your comments on a number of other blogs I've been frequenting for some time! In fact, back while I was still just getting acquainted with Marx some time ago - probably more than a year - it was one of your comments that helped make the realization problem "click" for me.

    Keep on keeping on.

  2. Hi A,

    "He is an odd duck, is what I am saying."


    "Anyhoo, I'd also like to take this opportunity to say that I've been enjoying your comments on a number of other blogs I've been frequenting for some time!"

    Well, thanks for that. Glad to be of some help!