What Was Karl Marx’s Principal Contribution? – Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality with All Ten Tentacles

What Was Karl Marx’s Principal Contribution? – Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality with All Ten Tentacles

Before responding to B DeLong’s very abbreviated thoughts about K Marx and his contribution, I have to plead ignorance to the events or postings that might have provoked it. Did I know these events or postings, I might have a better understanding of why Mr DeLong foregrounds the points he does while backgrounding others.

And, yet, there is considerable value in taking Mr DeLong at his word; this, in his view, was Karl Marx’s principal contribution.

First, I appreciate all attempts, and not simply B DeLong’s, to seat theory in history, where it belongs. This habit of mind, in fact, may be among K Marx’s leading contributions. To be sure, GFW Hegel paved the way for this habit, exploring how it was possible for Mind (which is subject to change) to grasp the historical conditions of its own possibility. But, where Hegel ends up in much the same place as I Kant, with universally valid objectivity, K Marx proposes a much more modest (and, transcendentally, much less satisfying) intermediate place: the adequacy of thought to its own socio-historically specific conditions of possibility.

Marx was therefore not nearly as troubled as later Marxists would be in admitting both that he made use of the interpretive categories of the “bourgeois economists,” and that these (and all) interpretive categories lacked universal validity.

What is troubling about Mr DeLong’s seating of K Marx historically, is that this particular positioning tells us very little either about Marx or about his interpretive categories. For example, it tells us next to nothing of the path that led from him a fairly pedestrian philosophy of subjectivity a la’ GFW Hegel, to a more nuanced and precarious neo-Aristotelian philosophy of freedom and necessity. Mr Marx was not nearly the dilettante suggested by Mr DeLong, flying from one theoretical vantage point to the next, without serious critical reflection along the way.

Indeed, it could be suggested (I would suggest) that he proved a poor British political economist because his (increasingly) historically grounded theory of subjectivity did not allow him to universalize and transhistoricize “human nature” in the sloppy, unnuanced manner then common among British political economists.

Second, I believe that Marx’s post-1848/49 adjustment, to which Brad refers, might be welcomed among economists today, many of whom (present company excluded) appear perfectly happy to stick by their theory irrespective of political, economic, or social changes.

Finally, however, it strikes me that Mr DeLong may be gauging K Marx’s contribution on how much (or little) of his theory has been incorporated into contemporary economic or political economic reflection. That is certainly a valid standpoint.

There are, however, risks that follow from taking this standpoint too far. Departments and disciplines tend to be very incestuous, and risk growing even more incestuous the greater the similarities are among the ever smaller range of interpretive frameworks entertained within a field.

A great many Marxian and post-Marxian economists have made significant contributions over the past twenty-five years—and not simply to the theory of value—that will never be considered by members of Economics Departments; and this for the (I believe) insufficient reason that the interpretive categories deployed in these departments are too narrow, self-referential, and historically ungrounded to accommodate them.

Be that as it may, I appreciate that B DeLong took the time to collect some thoughts about Marx’s contribution and so provoke others to do the same.