ECON 164 (FALL 2015) Capital: The Economic System of Karl Marx

This fall the Economics Department at Berkeley is offering a unique course: “Capital: The Economic System of Karl Marx.” The course is unique not only because, generally speaking, such courses have not been offered within university economics departments since 1989 when the disintegration of “really existing communism” appeared to render the need for such courses obsolete. The migration of Marxian economics courses from departments of economics to departments of sociology and geography was of course already well advanced in the late 1960s. But then something remarkable happened. Nineteen-Eighty-Nine, it so happens, did not lead to the Shangri-La promised in the neoliberal promotional literature. Instead, as Thomas Piketty has recently pointed out, it led to the largest transfer of efficiencies from the producers of those efficiencies upward to their beneficiaries ever in history, restoring the global economy to roughly the same income distribution that prevailed prior to World War I. All of the mechanisms we thought should have kicked in — mechanisms that should have “naturally” distributed income, information, opportunity, wealth, health, and education more equitably — failed to do their job. As a result, mainstream economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Thomas Piketty and myself have been sent scrambling back to our Marx to see whether, perhaps, he might have had some insights that we somehow missed.

wpid-PastedGraphic-2015-06-6-11-11.pngBut Econ 164 will also be unique because instead of reading Marx in the shadow of 1918 (Russia) or 1949 (China), economists are now free to read Marx (as he perhaps always should have been read) in the shadow of 1848-1849. An older generation of Marxists will recall the flurry of excitement surrounding the publication, in English, of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The manuscripts were discovered and first published in the Soviet Union in 1927. They offered a snapshot of a young social theorist still wrestling with a hodgepodge of French socialism, British political economy, and German idealism, a theorist over whose thought the concept of “alienation” hovered imperiously. Not surprisingly, it was with this younger, tormented and troubled, philosophical Marx tucked under their arms that the generation of 1968 engaged authorities not only in Boulder, Austin, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Madison, and Kent State, but in Prague, Budapest, Mexico, Paris, and Berlin. And it was with this Marx tucked under their arms that our professors, as graduate students, marched into battle to take on “the establishment” only to become disillusioned in the 1970s and then tenured in the 1980s.

Econ 164 gives us a rare opportunity therefore to ask what in 1848-49 brought Marx to turn his back on his earlier, more philosophical and more “alienated” self. What brought Marx to take a second, more intensive look at the British political economists? What brought him to take a second, more critical look at GWF Hegel’s transcendental philosophy? How are we to explain his increasing fascination with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics? And, perhaps most importantly of all, what brought Marx to increasingly question the emancipatory potential of the industrial working class?

Clearly this was no longer the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. But nor was it the Marx of V.I. Lenin or Mao Zedong. In terms of his economic theory, the Marx of Das Kapital ends up much closer to the British and continental neoclassicals — Alfred Marshall, Carl Menger, William Stanley Jevons, and Leon Walras — than he does either to preclassicals such as David Ricardo or Adam Smith or to later Soviet economists. And, yet, clearly he was doing something different with his modeling than what they were doing. Were they missing something? Was he?

Our plan in Econ 164 is to begin with a 60,000 foot overview of the traditional academic Marx — the Marx who for decades was taught at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, and Berkeley. We will then take a moment to look very intently at the historical and social context in which Marx composed, first his Grundrisse and then his Kapital. Next we will take a very close look at what Marx actually says in his Kapital, trying to reconstruct piece by piece why he took up the themes that he did, why he used the tools that he did, and why he reached the conclusions that he did. Finally, we will ask whether the Marx we have discovered has anything to say to us today. Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. But at the very least we will be in a position to differentiate our Marx from the various versions in circulation during the twentieth century.

Joseph W.H. Lough teaches Economic History and Theory in the Department of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. A draft of the Econ 164 syllabus can be downloaded here.