Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Veblen on Marx and his Followers.

"I'll be honest: I hate discussing Marx, dialectical materialism and the Labour Theory of Value (hereafter: LTV). Why? Because … they [i.e. Marxists] don't have enough grounding to have a discussion as they've only really read their side of the debate." (Philip Pilkington, link; my emphasis)

Part iii of my ongoing series, Pilkington and the End of History (parts i, and ii)

Thorstein Veblen. [A]
Philip Pilkington recently mentioned Thorstein Veblen, the American institutional economist, in connection with Karl Marx's LTV.

In spite of sharing a number of ideas with Marx, Veblen was a critic of Marxism. Chiefly among the differences, Veblen proposed, somewhat vaguely, what one could call a "Darwinian" or "evolutionist" materialism, against the historical materialism Marx adopted.

In the article below, Veblen casts a critical eye on Marx (the second part of the article focuses on "his followers"), thus joining Pilkington's own side of the debate: the side Pilkington demands Marxists to read.

Well, your wish is my command. Let's read Veblen.

The article's first sentence (see below) is quite attention-catching and perhaps crude critics should see it as a general red flag (pun intended) left by Veblen for their benefit. A little later on, Veblen repeats that warning almost to the letter. Judging by Marx's wannabe critics, however, the warning could not have been any more futile.

But the second sentence is more telling. It suggests that there's little chance that "Marx’s perversions of dialectical philosophy" introduced any bias on what "poor Uncle Hegel is saying", as Pilkington philosophically writes, if for no other reason because "the constituent elements of the system are neither novel nor iconoclastic".

Did Pilkington's scholarship reach that far into Veblen's writings? I don't know; presumably: he's the expert, right? Anyway, his complaint was that Marxists don't read the other side of the debate. He never said anything about himself not reading his own side of the debate.


Incidentally, observe that Veblen mentions also the economist Eugen Böhm von Bawerk (another early and, unlike Veblen, extremely influential critic of Marx). To wit, to discuss the LTV in isolation (as Pilkington and other PoKe fans do"is as futile as a discussion of solids in terms of two dimensions".

But -- whoa! wait! -- let's be reasonable! That's advanced reading: the second sentence in the second paragraph 

The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers. Part 1.

"The system of doctrines worked out by Marx is characterized by a certain boldness of conception and a great logical consistency. Taken in detail, the constituent elements of the system are neither novel nor iconoclastic, nor does Marx at any point claim to have discovered previously hidden facts or to have invented recondite formulations of facts already known; but the system as a whole has an air of originality and initiative such as is rarely met with among the sciences that deal with any phase of human culture. How much of this distinctive character the Marxian system owes to the personal traits of its creator is not easy to say, but what marks it off from all other systems of economic theory is not a matter of personal idiosyncrasy. It differs characteristically from all systems of theory that had preceded it, both in its premises and in its aims. The (hostile) critics of Marx have not sufficiently appreciated the radical character of his departure in both of these respects, and have, therefore, commonly lost themselves in a tangled scrutiny of supposedly abstruse details; whereas those writers who have been in sympathy with his teachings have too commonly been disciples bent on exegesis and on confirming their fellow-disciples in the faith.
"Except as a whole and except in the light of its postulates and aims, the Marxian system is not only not tenable, but it is not even intelligible. A discussion of a given isolated feature of the system (such as the theory of value) from the point of view of classical economics (such as that offered by Bohm-Bawerk) is as futile as a discussion of solids in terms of two dimensions." (Emphasis mine)

From The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 20, 1906. Marxists Internet Archive


To finish this, I reproduce Veblen's admission nearing the end of the article:
"In all that has been said so far no recourse is had to the second and third volumes of Kapital. Nor is it necessary to resort to these two volumes for the general theory of socialism."
Someday I may go into Part 2 in more detail, but that was enough of Veblen's anti-Marxist criticism for the time being.



I was going to leave what follows for another opportunity, so readers with only a passing interest may just leave things at this.

Otherwise -- what the hell! -- read on.

The rest of the article contains some interesting points and some rather questionable assertions.

Among the interesting things, arguing against the underconsumptionist view of capitalist crises, which should lead "directly to the breakdown of the capitalistic system, and so by its own force will bring on the socialistic consummation", and much to the chagrin of underconsumptionist Marxists (often more sympathetic to Keynesianism), Veblen comes up with an unexpectedly Leninist turn:
"In Marx's theory, socialism is to come by way of a conscious class movement on the part of the propertyless laborers, who will act advisedly on their own interest and force the revolutionary movement for their own gain. But crises and depression will have a large share in bringing the laborers to a frame of mind suitable for such a move." (Emphasis added)
More orthodox Marxists would likely agree and thank Veblen and Pilkington, his talented student, for that endorsement.

At any rate, fellow workers and comrades, you've heard the man: wake up and get organized.

Image Credits:
[A] Thorstein Veblen. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. Source: Wikipedia.

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