‘Marx’s Capital: An Unfinishable Project?’ by Marcel van der Linden and Gerald Hubmann (eds) reviewed by Jurriaan Bendien

and (eds)
Marx’s Capital: An Unfinishable Project?

Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2018. 306pp., €123 / $148 hb
ISBN 9789004349025

Reviewed by Jurriaan Bendien

About the reviewer

Jurriaan Bendien graduated MA from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and works as archivist…


This ‘Marxological’ volume (the 159th in Brill’s Historical Materialism series) originated from papers presented at an Amsterdam conference held on October 9-11, 2014, at the International Institute of Social History, titled `Marx’s Capital: An Unfinished and Unfinishable Project?’ (25).

It was a prestigious project organised by Marcel van der Linden, assembling a varied grouping of scholars from his international network, to grapple with the legacy of Marx’s magnum opus. There were MEGA² experts from the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (Gerald Hubmann is a leading editor of the MEGA²), local and foreign students, and a number of well-known Marx scholars from North America, Europe, Japan and Brazil – including academic superstar David Harvey. The event began with Harvey’s public lecture to a packed audience, billed as ‘The new Marx-edition, or, why a fundamental revision of the dominant Marx-interpretation is necessary.’ Harvey quickly changed the subject though; to the surprise of many, he said: ‘I don’t consider myself an authority on Marx or an expert on Marx, I am a sort of fellow traveller, in a way’. He added that his real concern was with urbanization issues. He proceeded to talk mainly about his own experience with Marx as an inspiration for political action. At the conference on the next day, he reiterated that he was neither a ‘Marxologist’ nor an ‘economist’, and that he intended just to listen (and perhaps comment) on some things, which he did, in a sympathetic spirit.

My own interest in the final text of these papers is that I was invited to the 2014 conference. At that time, in his closing speech, van der Linden emphasized that the event had been ‘underfunded’ (a typical ‘Marxian’ predicament – the MEGA² project itself had experienced funding challenges), and that there was ‘no money’ to publish a book of conference papers; somebody would have to edit the book ‘for free’. I volunteered, and ‘diligently’ edited ten out of the twelve papers (27) in consultation with the authors (neither van der Linden nor myself presented a paper though; in the end, a contribution by Harvey, and Michael Krätke’s paper on Marx’s own crisis analyses, were regrettably not included in the book).

However, when van der Linden offered me the honour of ‘collaborating editor’ status, in exchange for writing the introduction for the book, I declined – among other things, I am not an authority, this had not been ‘my’ project or club of scholars, and I had other work commitments. After that, publication was shelved for quite some time. Van der Linden sought comment about his introduction from ten scholars and friends (xi). Eventually funding was found, and three new assistants helped to finish the job (27). I never saw any proof-sheets or money myself, but the publishing venture ultimately succeeded, even if the conference experience had by now receded into the past.

In the first part of the introduction, van der Linden presents thumbnail sketches of what he calls ten ‘recurring themes’ (2) in the controversies about the interpretation of Marx’s Capital: the ‘architecture’ (plan and structure) of the work, Marx’s method, the validity of the labour theory of value, the transformation problem, the concept of the value-form, the meaning of the labour contract, the significance of the reproduction schemes, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, crisis theory, and the empirical verifiability of Marx’s theory. This carefully worded summary is suggestive but rather weak, despite copious references. A central question raised in the conference (it had been discussed explicitly by the late Zoltan Kenessey in 1991) was, whether Marx’s unfinished work on Capital was ‘unfinishable’, because 1) Marx’s bad health and political/family commitments (i.e. he could have finished it had circumstances been different), or 2) he could never resolve the fatal flaws in his own argument (91), or 3) the intellectual project forever remained a ‘work in progress’ that Marx wanted to keep extending, revising and updating (63). In this book, this dispute registers only in the papers of Heinz Kurz and Carl-Erich Vollgraf.

More interesting is the second part of the introduction, titled ‘The MEGA² project in context’ which provides some historical background for the MEGA² endeavour. Two appendices list the economic manuscripts in the MEGA² volumes and the topics covered.

Regina Roth, who edited the MEGA² editions of Capital volumes 2 and 3, provides a careful, balanced and convincing assessment of Engels as editor of Marx’s manuscripts. In his sympathetic comment on Roth’s paper, Jorge Grespan argues that Engels was mistaken in regarding the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as a ‘law’ (54), and Grespan meditates on the apparent ambiguity in the Marxian concept of a ‘law’ (52). However – as Fred Moseley has emphasized – in the original manuscripts for Volume 3, included in the MEGA², Marx himself does refer to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as a ‘law’, and as an inevitable, long-term result of capitalist development. That idea was certainly not a ‘re-interpretation’ by Engels (141-3).

In an essay structured as eleven ‘theses’, Vollgraf (a co-editor of the MEGA² edition of Capital) provides a good explanation of the significance and use of the MEGA² edition for modern scholarship , as well as probing the evidence for the real motivations and competencies that Marx had. To the very end, Marx still wanted to complete his work on Capital (60), but not infrequently he ran into problems with his own evolving narrative (69) or began to delve into topics which were not really focused on the task.

In his comment on Vollgraf, Heinz Kurz remarks that Marx himself was not responsible for the ‘actually existing socialisms’ created in his name (84). But Kurz thinks that it is “a pity that we find in Marx relatively little about what constitutes the ‘good society’, and which institutions, laws, and regulations are necessary to achieve and preserve it.’ (86) Kurz laments how the interpretation of Marx’s writings degenerated into ‘what different politburo’s decreed it should be’ (82) – and how self-righteous Marxists failed to absorb the scientific lessons of neo-Ricardian economics (83). In Kurz’s view, Marx’s economics does have strengths, but failed to advance significantly beyond Ricardo’s economics – Marx’s value theory, he claims, is fatally flawed because it failed to reconcile value and price aggregates.

Fred Moseley, an orthodox Marxist economist, provides a clear survey of the development of Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall through successive manuscripts. There exists no textual evidence that Marx significantly changed his point of view on this issue, at any stage. Moseley argues the tendency is highly relevant today, because, he claims, it has become difficult to raise the rate of surplus value any higher. In his response to Moseley, Timm Grassman (a MEGA² editor) emphasizes a neglected aspect in Marx’s writings: the tendency for the ‘surplus population’ to increase (Grassman notes that a billion people nowadays live in slums), and as its result, a tendency for the relative size of variable capital to decrease.

In a paper which was already published in Historical Materialism (Vol. 25, no. 3, 2017), the value-form theorist Geert Reuten argues that Marx’s concept of ‘production prices’ does not make sense – it is a false ‘concretization’ of value that should be abandoned (158). He argues that Marx took a wrong turn in his ‘transformation of the value of commodities into prices of production’ and that Marx’s assumption of a uniform rate of surplus value was a mistake. In Reuten’s revised model, a ‘transformation problem’ allegedly does not occur, because the rate of profit is straightforwardly determined by the organic composition of capital and the productive powers (‘potencies’) of labour (reflected in unequal rates of surplus value). This type of argument has been mooted before in Marxian econometrics, and it can be constructed in a reasonably coherent way. I do not find it very plausible myself though – I think the interpretations of Anwar Shaikh and Lefteris Tsoulfidis are much superior (and they can incorporate some of Reuten’s concerns).

I do not claim to understand much of Chris Arthur’s response to Reuten’s paper, but Arthur’s misgivings against measures of ‘labour intensity’ are I think not well-taken (if e.g. airline companies reorganize, so that the same quantity of work has to be done by fewer workers, labour intensity surely rises, and it can rise, quite independently of output levels or occupational differences).

Kenjo Mori’s fascinating paper analyses Marx’s notebooks on the 1857 crisis, which were published for the first time in the MEGA². These notebooks contain 1,500 excerpts from 12 newspapers and magazines from November 1857 to February 1858 (207). Marx made a tremendous effort to learn. He identified international linkages (this was the first global commercial crisis) and he considered both the financial sector (the collapse of confidence in the banking system) and the real economy (overproduction). He intended to explain the simultaneous economic collapse of the trade in manufactured and farm products (210f). Interestingly, Mori compares Marx’s insights to the interpretations of contemporary political economists. The ‘falling tendency of the rate of profit’ did not seem to have anything to do with it though, and Marx’s final explanation probably owed more to Ricardo’s famous chapter ‘On machinery’ (226).

Matthias Bohlender makes the case that Marx’s historical materialism, and the project for his critique of political economy, was born in 1845. It remains true that ‘we know almost nothing’ about what Marx did on his first trip to Manchester to meet up with Engels (240), but the Manchester Notebooks (a portion of which are now published in the MEGA²) do indicate a great deal about how Marx’s thought was evolving.

Lucia Pradella’s response provides a spirited critique. She argues that Bohlender’s story is not so plausible (just as there is no evidence for Althusser’s ‘epistemological break’ theory); Marx’s critique of political economy began in Kreuznach and Paris, in 1843, and the Manchester Notebooks, although they do mark a significant new stage in Marx’s evolving thoughts, should be understood within a broader sequence of events (264).

The bibliography of the book, compiled by Angela Ettema, comprises some 32 pages (about a tenth of the total text). It provides useful and pretty solid referencing to the relevant literatures. The layout and fonts used for the book are excellent. With any luck, Haymarket will publish an affordable paperback edition.

Marxology is not everyone’s cup of tea, and much of what is said in this book is not spectacularly new. Much more could be said on the topic, such as the differences in receptions of Capital in different eras. One small group of scholars obviously could not resolve all the recurrent problems of Capital at one sitting. Marxological scholarship has been a dying art since the Wende, even as a lot of new information became available. For the specialist, though, the insights of the substantive essays in this book are valuable. Overall, the book represents a modest attempt to study the thought of Marx and Engels scientifically, without treating them like deities or demons.

The main thing that stood out for me in this experience, is how guarded leading scholars (other than the likes of David Harvey, perhaps) have become these days about the meaning of Marx and Engels’s strivings, or what they could mean, in today’s world. A new, convincing ‘grand narrative’ about what can be learnt from their endeavours in the nineteenth century, and from their twentieth century followers – based on what scholars know now – has yet to be written. The challenge is there.

15 June 2018


  • David Harvey 2014 Public lecture in Amsterdam https://www.debalie.nl/agenda/programma/david-harvey-on-marx/e_9491475/p_11645633/
  • Zoltan Kenessey 1991 Why Das Kapital remained unfinished In William Barber (ed.), Themes in pre-classical, classical and Marxian economics Aldershot: Edward Elgar, pp. 119-133


  1. I congratulate Comrade Bendien for his excellent review, despite his disapproval of what he considers my politics to be.
    As a former scientist I would like to remark on two points raised in the review.
    The title of the book uses the word “unfinishable”. This is very unhelpful because by its nature this work is “unfinishable”. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the subject matter is human history, which by definition changes continuously, thus requiring the scientific study of this aspect of human society to change accordingly. Secondly, the work of Karl Marx is a scientific treatise and is no different in this respect to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Science is never complete. As some aspects of reality are better understood, other aspects requiring investigation are revealed. This has been the history of science for a very long time.
    My second remark concerns the use of the words, “laws’ and “theory”. I only use the word “law” in its restricted sense to mean the written rules for the coercive power of any state. Because the word has this meaning it creates confusion. Scientific “laws” are never prescriptive. They merely summarise consistent empirical observations. Newton’s laws of gravity merely describe how objects behave. The “laws” do not “require” objects to behave in this way. So, one should ask whether there is an intrinsic pattern or pressure or force, amongst other forces, that drives in the direction of decreasing the rate of profit in capitalist society. This is an empirical question. If there is such pressure, one can seek an explanation. It seems to me that Marx found that logically, his labour theory of value, given capitalist competition, must include a force driving in the direction of lowering the rate of profit. This is now an empirical question.
    I would like to take the opportunity to add a word about the use of the word “theory”, in scientific discourse. As everyone now knows, this usually does NOT mean an hypothesis. The word “theory” is frequently used by scientists, both physicists and biologists, to refer to well-established facts.

  2. Compliments are nice of course – but I don’t often use the term “comrade” myself, because real comrades are very rare, and because people often use this word to suggest there already is a bond or a mutual solidarity, when in reality there is none. And once they are your “comrade”, they think that they can help themselves freely to your stuff, that’s their “socialism”. The few real comrades I had were people I worked and battled together with, for a long time, and knew well; within reason, we could depend on each other. But who can you depend on these days?

    Was Marx’s Capital unfinishable “by nature”, because “human history is constantly changing”, and because “science is never complete”? Aw, come on. People finish plenty books they write, even under very difficult circumstances, and even when they know very well, that more can be said about their topic.

    Wat the dispute is about, is whether Marx did not finish his book, because of extrinsic circumstances (he was sick, broke or busy with other things he had to do), or because he could not finish it, when he had reached an irresolvable and fatal contradiction in his own argument. Some scholars think the latter, but the plausibility of that interpretation depends very much on how you interpret the manuscript for Capital Vol. III.

    In the real world, different groups of scholars uphold completely different interpretations of Marx’s theory of value, and of the status of completion of his manuscripts. So they are going to reach very different conclusions. To understand what Marx is saying, you really need to know quite a lot about the ideas of the political economists he was arguing with.

    I think the unfinished work was due to a combination of circumstances, but clearly Marx just grew weary of what he called the “economic shit”, and he probably thought quite often that it would be a great and just idea, if he could offload the task of completion to Engels, who had after all goaded (and perhaps trapped) him into this gigantic research project in the first place. The manuscript provided enough clues to solve the problems. Marx and Engels were comrades, but there was also some male rivalry between them, they challenged each other, and they knew each other’s weaknesses very well too.

    I don’t think it is plausible that Marx could not finish his book, because he “could not overcome the holes in his own theory”. After all, he had already drafted Capital Vol. 3, before he published Capital Vol. 1. He would hardly have gone ahead with publishing the first volume, if he had thought that there were irresolvable problems further down the track, with the third one. He had the solutions already in his mind, and had announced their possibility, even if he had not fleshed them out in detail in his manuscripts yet. He said himself, that his habit was to think things through to the end, before publishing. Of course, he could have been lying, but why would he do that, in the situation?

    The problem is rather with (1) the sketchy nature of the manuscripts for Capital Vol. 3, which permit multiple interpretations and logical variants, and (2) the inability of scholars to read and understand what Marx wrote, without filtering his text through all kinds of theoretical frameworks which were quite alien to his intention.

    For example, I have myself already proved, that in Capital Vol. 3, Marx uses at least six different types of production prices, but this has, as far as I know, never been acknowledged in the literature for more than 120 years (except that e.g. a scholar like David Kristjanson-Gural mentions the concept of a “market price of production” – there may be Japanese scholars who delved into this issue). If the vast majority of scholars missed this simple fact for 120 years, it was because they did not read the text carefully, and because they filtered the concept of “production price” through the prism of theories quite different from Marx’s own theory.

    There is nothing especially difficult with the concept of the “law” of the tendential rate of profit as such. It simply says that, “other things being equal”, the organic composition of the total production capital will increase faster than the rate of surplus value (the OCC can increase infinitely, but the increase in S/V is finite and limited), the proportion of living labour employed in total capital will decrease, and the unit labour cost of commodities will decrease, in the long run – causing a falling average industrial profit rate in the long run. This hypothesis may be true or false, but it is not especially difficult to formalize rigorously, it is a perfectly acceptable economic hypothesis, and you can test it out.

    But, says Marx, in reality “all things do not remain equal” because there are all kinds of things which can influence the composition of capital and the rate of surplus value, with the effect that the industrial rate of profit rises. And indeed, in response to the fall in the profit rate, all kinds of things are actually done to raise it. That has a strong influence on the trajectory of capitalist development. From an “economic logic” point of view, the “globalization” of production is precisely about reorganizing production on an international scale, so that the production costs are the lowest possible, and the profits are the highest that are feasible, within a certain legal, social and environmental setting. The more controversial aspect of the argument is, that Marx argues, that the profit rate must in the long run fall, despite all the forces that counteract its fall. This is more difficult to prove.

    A “scientific law” is a statement about a necessary connection between events, conditions or phenomena, such that if A is empirically the case, that B must necessarily follow. This necessity could be expressed in terms of causality (cause and effect) but could also be expressed as a probabilistic (stochastic) law. This is not especially controversial, but obviously scientists seek to prove not just simple connections between A and B, but also the necessary connections in complexes of conditions and events (what causes what, in a whole lot of things combined together). As soon as you attempt to do that, then simple models of cause and effect are no longer very adequate, and simple models of determinism are no longer very useful.

    The modern debate about what a “scientific law” is, arose mainly out of two discourses.

    One discourse was about the critique of the Marxist-Leninist modernist ideology, that socialism is the inevitable result of the laws of motion of history, and more generally that the historical development conforms to knowable scientific laws. This Marxist-Leninist ideology had a function: it had to persuade people that all resistance to building socialism was useless, and that progress would necessarily and inevitably occur. But many scientists and philosophers objected to this, arguing that it was a metaphysics which perverted the very meaning of what a scientific law is, and how you can test it.

    The other discourse was a critique of the positivist concept of a scientific law, such as Hempel’s “covering law” idea. The positivist idea is, roughly, that a scientific law is a generalization from the tests of experience, based on a bedrock of incontrovertible sense-data. The positivist approach says, that provided that you do the appropriate experiments, you can obtain true knowledge of the laws governing phenomena, so that with time progress occurs, and you know more and more. It is merely that you cannot very well “run experiments” on whole societies etc. You can only experiment with bits of it. Obviously positivism is going to beat postmodernist scepticism hands-down.

    The positivist suggestion is, that in some sense a scientific law is reducible to a set of sense data, because it is built out of (a generalization of) sense data. This interpretation is no longer accepted, however, given what is nowadays called the “theory-laden” nature of observation. Once a naïve empiricism is abandoned, the concept of a scientific law, and testing it is more complex, problematic and qualified.

    What we would then have to say is, that a scientific law is a generalization from experience which is not reducible to particular experiences. That is to say, theory is not simply a “reflection” of experience. Not only do perceptions of “what is there” influence how theoretical distinctions are drawn, but how distinctions are drawn, also influences perceptions of “what is there”.

    There are all kinds of definitions of what “theory” is. That is only natural, because different kinds of theory have very different types of objects that they try to interpret and explain. It is therefore difficult to have only one definition of theory that would cover all cases.

    In science, a theory is often thought of as a logical system of related propositions and concepts intended to represent, describe, explain and predict particular phenomena in useful ways. But in literature, a theory might only be an interpretive device to define the meaning of a text.

  3. Sorry, I wrote too fast, ““law” of the tendential rate of profit” should be ““law” of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”. Point is, even if it is conceded that Marx correctly diagnosed many of the main dynamics and developmental trends of the capitalist mode of production in Europe, North America and beyond, this is only “part of the picture”. This is so, not merely because his own analysis wasn’t at all “finished”. The simple reason is, that capitalist production is only a part of the total capitalist economy, and the capitalist economy is only a part of capitalist society as a whole. The capital involved in industries is only part of the total capital assets of capitalist society, and we can verify that quite easily, simply by looking at the statistics of assets, capital stocks and national wealth. It follows from this, that the trends in capital accumulation are not explained simply by what happens in the production process that is the economic base of society. There is both productive and non-productive accumulation. And therefore if the fundamentalist Marxists look only at the “point of production”, they get at best a lopsided picture of what is going on, and at worst a very distorted picture. It is completely wrong to equate terms such as capital, capitalism, capitalist production, the capitalist economy, capitalist society, and global capitalism. They aren’t the same things. I have criticisms of Thomas Piketty’s analysis in his book “Capital in the 21st century” but one thing I will say for him, is that it is to his credit that he analyses not only production capital, but the total capital assets of society. The important thing to understand is the interaction of the different forms that capital takes, if you want to understand the long term dynamics.

  4. Henryk Grossman raised the issue (in his 1929 article translated as ‘The change in the original plan for Marx’s Capital and its causes’, Historical Materialism, Vol. 21, No. 3, 2013, pp. 138-164, available online) of whether Marx’s manuscripts for Capital constitute a complete and finished system, or whether they were only (unfinished and incomplete) fragments of an even more voluminous work.

    It is however not correct, as van der Linden claims in this new book, that Grossman ‘wondered why Marx had not realized his six book plan’ (p. 3). To the contrary: in his 1929 Archiv piece, Grossman defended his own interpretation that Marx’s final analysis was fully finished and complete, in reaction to the interpretation of Professor Robert Wilbrandt’s 1918 book ‘Karl Marx – Versuch einer Würdigung’, and relatedly, in reaction to Rosa Luxemburg’s 1913 book ‘Die Akkumulation des Kapitals’.

    Wilbrandt was one of the academic German ‘pulpit socialists’. He had argued, that Capital Vol. 1 (the only volume Marx published himself) was an incomplete ‘torso’, not only because it was just one of several more volumes, but also because it was only one part in a total set of six parts.

    In ‘Die Akkumulation des Kapitals’, Luxemburg had justified her own elaboration of Marx’s theory of the reproduction of capital, with the idea, that Capital Vol. 2 was ‘not a finished whole’, but an incomplete manuscript that ‘stopped short half the way through’ (English 1968 edition, p. 165-166). Thus, she could present her own work as merely working out some further implications of the analysis that Marx had started, but left unfinished.
    Grossman then defended his position, that the manuscripts for Capital that Marx left behind, together represented a complete and fully consistent theoretical system, without any omissions or gaps. In Grossman’s interpretation, Marx made a ‘methodological turn’ in 1863 with his innovation of the reproduction schemes. Thus, for example – and this was a reply to Luxemburg – if Marx, in the end, did not analyse foreign trade and the world market at length, that was not because he lacked the time or energy for it. It was because he had changed his whole analytical approach, and had decided to examine capitalism only as a fully self-contained system.

    In this way, all the theoretical content of the six books Marx had envisaged in 1858-1859 were, from 1863 onward, supposedly concentrated and condensed in a completed theory of four books, conceptually structured by the functions and circuits of the different types of capital, and by the ‘method of successive approximations’.
    As Kenneth Lapides indicates (in: ‘Henryk Grossman and the debate on the theoretical status of Marx’s Capital’, Science & Society, Vol. 56 No. 2, Summer 1992, pp. 133-162 – this article on the topic is not cited in the van der Linden/Hubmann volume), Grossman’s position is in reality not much more convincing than the positions that he criticized, if we take a careful look at the evidence. In the case of wage-labour, Marx explicitly said in Capital Vol. 1 (1867) that he intended to write a special book on it, but he never did so (see: Capital Vol. 1, Pelican edition, p. 683).

    Yet, Lapides also argues that harping about the fragmentary or unfinished character of Marx’s work is equally absurd – didn’t Marx say that he presupposed readers able to think for themselves? And it misses the point: ‘Rather than asking why didn’t Marx succeed in wrapping everything up, it is to be wondered how he managed to achieve as much as he did.’ (p. 160).

    What Lapides did not query, was the very reason why Grossman was so keen to defend the idea that the manuscripts for Capital were ‘a complete, integral and finished work’ – even when that was manifestly not true, given the historical record (of how Marx actually thought and proceeded, and of what he left to posterity).

    No doubt Grossman’s stance owed something to the era in which he was writing – it was, after all, a time when the communists were busily systematizing Marxism into an totalizing ‘orthodox’ party and state ideology. The more obvious explanation is, that Grossman realized quite well, that as soon as one admitted ‘gaps and omissions’ in Marx’s theory, it created opportunities for ‘creative’ revisionists to tack their own exalted thoughts eclectically onto the theory, even if those exalted thoughts were actually completely contrary to the intent and methodology of Marx’s own work, and indeed changed the whole meaning of it.

    Now it is precisely this type of dispute, that speaks directly to the actual, contemporary Marxian scene, because it is in the very nature of the ‘Neue Marx-Lektüre’ and its offshoots to highlight the unfinished, incomplete, and open-ended character of Marx’s work – both as a critique of Marxist-Leninist totalitarian orthodoxy, as an affirmation of liberal intellectual tolerance, Interpretationsfreiheit and pluralism, and as a stimulus for innovative, independent thinking that takes up the story where Marx left off, advancing/extending/modernizing the theory.

    Yet the new paradigm nevertheless turns out to be just as problematic as that of the so-called ‘classical’ Marxism – not just because the new crop of scholars again cobble together Marx’s thought with theories and interpretations that are hardly consistent with it, but also because all the unsalutary parts of the 20th century history of Marxist theory & practice are conveniently spirited away, to become Althusserian ‘silences’. If bad things happened, it is implied that this had nothing to do with Marx per se, and if good things happened, it had everything to do with Marx. It would not be surprising, if, in Michael Heinrich’s new revisionist biography of Marx, the less salutary aspects of Marx himself are likewise spirited away again.

    Not only are such narratives naïve, I think they also involve a sleight-of-hand. In reality, the insights of the past are recycled anyway by the Neue Marx-Lektüre, and smuggled back into the contemporary discussions, albeit without proper acknowledgment of their true source. The older generation knows this very well, because they have seen it before. Beneath the surface of the Neue Marx-Lektüre, there lurks the contradictory legacy of New Left socialism across three decades from 1957 to 1990, as a political halfway house between a neo-Stalinist past and a neo-liberal future – and belatedly, also the contradictions of East German and West German Marxism.

    The New Left socialists sought to free Marx and socialism from the conservative, bureaucratic straightjacket imposed by Marxist-Leninist tyranny. Yet at the same time, the New Left socialists also yearned for a return to the glory days of a ‘classical’ Marxism (Engels, Bebel, Bernstein, Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci, and Liebknecht etc.), an era when Marxism apparently was a credible and esteemed theoretical system, a principled political stand, and an inspiration for genuine mass action. Even if the New Left socialists were critical of the USSR, the DDR or the PRC, a lot of their understandings, languages, texts, styles and conceptualizations were nevertheless still derived from, or influenced by, the Marxist-Leninist tradition. I know that very well, because I was a leftwing bookseller in the 1980s. All this was perfectly articulated by key Western Marxist intellectuals in the era, such as Isaac Deutscher, Elmar Altvater, Ernest Mandel, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Louis Althusser, they catered to that ‘cold war’ political milieu.

    I had thought, that the final texts of the 2014 conference would have paid more critical attention to the dilemmas of orthodoxy and innovation, of tradition and renewal , originality and consistency etc., in the light of the MEGA² and the contemporary setting, but that was asking for too much. I think a regrettable result of van der Linden’s conveniently hyperabstract ‘summarizing methodology for the history of ideas’ is, that controversies are abstracted from their real historical context, and manifestly different concerns and issues are all thrown together in one heap.

    The inconclusive result is not only that you can make of the story anything you like, but also that it is obscured why the controversies emerged as significant problems to be solved, in the first instance. Yet this is precisely the difficulty of the new generation, because it inherits a literary legacy, about which it does not truly know how it originated, and what the real background was that generated the questions and the answers. The new generation confronts a labyrinth of texts and agenda’s which often conceal as much, or more, than they reveal. Can you blame them, if they opt to disregard the past, and take their cues only from lived experience in the present?

  5. >>>Was Marx’s Capital unfinishable “by nature”, because “human history is constantly changing”, and because “science is never complete”? Aw, come on. People finish plenty books they write, even under very difficult circumstances, and even when they know very well, that more can be said about their topic. <<>>A “scientific law” is a statement about a necessary connection between events, conditions or phenomena, such that if A is empirically the case, that B must necessarily follow. This necessity could be expressed in terms of causality (cause and effect) but could also be expressed as a probabilistic (stochastic) law. <<>>This necessity could be expressed in terms of causality (cause and effect) but could also be expressed as a probabilistic (stochastic) law.<<<
    Contrary to that sentence all scientific explanations require and have a causal sequence.
    Clearly, the reference is to quantum mechanics. To understand the problem clearly, it is necessary to use two different words in this discussion. I define "random" as an unexpected event. The event is unexpected because of our human ignorance. Words like "contingent" carry the same meaning in fact in this context. By contrast, I define stochastic as probabilistic because there is no cause in the case and hence the event is inherently unpredictable.
    Many people, including professional physicists argue that quantum mechanics is stochastic. But in fact, if you ask you will be told that each and every individual step in quantum mechanics is a mechanical step as traditionally understood. It is only when the all the steps are combined, that the probabilistic approach becomes necessary. Secondly, I will draw attention to the usually unremarked fact, that quantum mechanics is an unfinished, but finishable, scientific theory. Nobody yet knows what the final form of this theory will be. Thirdly, I would draw attention to the Darwinian theory of Natural Selection. Each step in this process has a definite simple cause, but the final outcome is expressed only in populations. Hence, statistical descriptions are useful. In conclusion, I am not aware of any proven, authentic examples of causeless phenomena, despite claims that this is the case in quantum mechanics. Phenomena that are best or only described statistically are not necessarily without preceding cause.

  6. Syd, as soon as you can say, that there is normally a definite, strong and measurable likelihood of the occurrence of an event or condition (for example, “if X occurs, then Y will occur with 80-90% probability) then you can fairly reliably predict the occurence of Y, “even if” you do not know for certain yet what “causes” Y.

    A lot of algorithms (for example in psychometric research) are constructed on the basis of strong correlations which can reliably function to predict an event or condition, even in the absence of a realistic causal model which explains why the predictions are successful. In fact empirical research often tries to fathom the correlations that exist among phenomena, as a prologue to a causal explanation. It is merely that correlation does not necessarily entail causation.

    The traditional thinking was that events or conditions are either rationally explicable and law-governed, or else random. Thus, in formal-logical determinism, human action is often considered as either rational, and hence logically explicable, or else arbitrary and random (in which case human actions can be comprehended at best only as patterns of statistical distributions, i.e. as degrees of variability relative to some constants). However that idea is nowadays no longer accepted.

    Substructural logics (such as fuzzy logic) offer methods to formalize relationships between phenomena which are neither fully expressible in terms of crisp deductive logic, nor a statistically random event. That is, between what is captured by formal logic and randomness there exists a zone of “non-arbitrary” phenomena, which exhibit regular patterns even although they don’t fully conform to some kind of law-governed necessity.

    For a summery example, consider two people making love. If you wanted to explain logically and predict why they make love in the way that they do, when they do it, this would be difficult, or even impossible. Nevertheless their love-making is not purely random or arbitrary; if you claimed that it was, the lovers would almost certainly protest. It is non-arbitrary, and not purely random, even if we would be unable to explain the “logic” of it.

    For another example, if people choose between a series of options, the option they choose may not be the most logical or optimal one. Nevertheless they might choose an option that is “reasonable”, insofar as it is a better option than most of the other ones. If we were to say that that they were “rational” only if they chose the most logical and optimal one, we would be wrong. The option they chose was non-arbitrary, reasonable and non-random, even if it was strictly speaking a sub-optimal option, and did not conform to what formal logic would lead us to expect.

    So anyway phenomena can be predictable even in the absence of a known causal sequence which explains their occurrence, and that may be a prologue to a theory which explains things fully in terms of cause and effect. But some events and conditions are intrinsically not (fully) explicable in terms of cause and effect, they can be understood only in terms of probabilities and likelihoods.

    This kind of approach might lead to the conclusion that people are often much more rational or reasonable then one might think, and that behaviour is much more predictable, than one might think at first sight. The problem is more with the kind of models and theories we operate with for evaluating behaviour as logical or random. The mistaken assumptions we make, might in fact preclude a rational explanation, and we might be better off trying to discover how a behaviour “could be” quite rational or at least “reasonable”.

    The reason why so much economic explanation and forecasting fails, for example, is simply due to the assumption of a false social ontology. If it was better understood what the data about observables tells us about the realities of economic behaviour, the explanations and predictions would be a whole lot better.

    All scientific research is “unfinished and unfinishable” in a sense. By definition, any scientific statement is a fallible statement, that “could” be mistaken in the light of new findings, and future tests could in principle prove this. There is always more to know, to explain or predict. There is always much more theory than truly verified hypotheses. But that doesn’t mean necessarily that we can’t finish our own research project, which is always limited and finite.

    We can reach the position, where we can say “as far as we know, this is pretty much how it works” and that is good enough for all intents and purposes (there is sufficient explanatory and predictive power in our understanding), even if in the future others might improve on the findings.

    Marx himself said of his research – and this quote is reproduced at the beginning in the book I reviewed – that “all scientific criticism is welcome”. He added, that as regards the “prejudices of popular opinion”, they could go to the devil – “be on your way, and let people chatter as they will.” Marx was perfectly willing to admit that he had been wrong, if there was definite evidence or proof for it.

    It is more that grand theories and bold hypotheses are not so easily refuted, precisely because they are “grand” and “bold”. Yet if we did not even try to put them out there, science would not make much progress either. The fact is that theories which are rich in predictive, explanatory and heuristic power, stimulate much more inquiry and research, so that, even if the grand theory turns out to have been partly or wholly mistaken, the very fact that it was constructed already was to the benefit of scientific thinking. Without it, all kinds of insights would never have occurred to people.

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