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Fred Moseley introduces the Internation Symposium on Marxian Theory (ISMT)

Fred Moseley introduces the Internation Symposium on Marxian Theory (ISMT)


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Presentation of the activities and history of the Internationa Symposium on Marxian Theory
Presentation of the activities and history of the Internationa Symposium on Marxian Theory

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Published by: marx_dialectical_studies on Sep 07, 2010
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In the 1980s, I became aware of an important gap in Marxian scholarship – the lack of connection and dialogue between Marxian economists and Marxian philosophers. Marxian economists generally focused on quantitative issues (prices, profit, the “transformation problem”, the falling rate of profit, etc.) and largely ignored more philosophical and methodological issues (the logical structure of economic theories, the nature of assumptions, etc.). Marxian philosophers, on the other hand, focused more on Marx’s dialectical method and the relation between Marx and Hegel, but did not attempt to apply these methodological insights to the quantitative questions that economists are interested in. I myself am an economist with very little education in philosophy. I began to wonder what Marxian philosophers might have to offer to the quantitative debates of the economists, and, conversely, what Marxian economists might have to offer to the methodological debates of the philosophers. So I decided to organize a small interdisciplinary working conference that would consist of eight participants, evenly divided between economists and philosophers, in order to explore these possible connections to our mutual benefit. I received a research grant from Mount Holyoke College where I teach, and then sought to identify the seven best possible scholars in the world for this conference, from personal contacts and reading the relevant literature. The four philosophers I selected were Chris Arthur (UK), Paul Mattick Jr.(US), Patrick Murray (US), and Tony Smith (US), and the three economists (besides myself) were Martha Campbell (US), Mino Carchedi (Netherlands),


and Geert Reuten (Netherlands). Almost all of these scholars had recently published books on related subjects. To my great delight, all seven accepted my invitation, and the conference was scheduled for June 1991 at Mount Holyoke. The structure of the conference (which has remained pretty much the same to this day) was to have two sessions a day, with each session devoted to one paper. Papers were distributed weeks in advance so that all participants came to the conference prepared for lengthy and substantial discussions of each paper. The result was very indepth and far-reaching discussions, way beyond the usual academic conference sessions. (We recommend this very productive structure to others.) The conference turned out to be very successful, even beyond my very high expectations, and the conference papers were eventually published by Humanities Press (see list of books at the end of this introduction). Indeed, the conference was so successful that we decided at the end of the week to do it again the following year, and the next year we decided to make it an annual affair, and to give our group a name: the International Symposium on Marxian Theory. The first five conferences were held at Mount Holyoke, and since then we have rotated around to the other universities where members of our group teach (University of Amsterdam (twice), University of Bergamo (three times), Creighton University, Iowa State University) or where we were invited (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City (twice), organized by Mario Robles, where we met jointly with Mexican colleagues). Thanks again to all these universities for hosting our conferences over the years, and for generously supporting critical Marxian scholarship. The membership of the group has changed very little over the years. Mino Carchedi and Paul Mattick left the group at different times, and were


very ably replaced by two Italians – Riccardo Bellofiore and Roberto Fineschi, who are of course the editors of this edition in Italian. Nicola Taylor (Australia) joined the group for several years, and Andrew Brown (UK) has recently joined the group. The general themes and questions related to Marx’s logical method in Capital have remained pretty much the same over the years. After a few years, we decided to have a conference on Volume 2 of Capital, because it is usually neglected in Marxian scholarship. Then we decided to do similar conferences on Volumes 1 and 3 in order to have a complete trilogy on the three volumes, which have subsequently been published. In 2003, we decided to have a conference on “Marx’s theory of money” specifically, and we invited specialists on this subject (Suzanne de Brunhoff, Duncan Foley, Makoto Itoh, Claus Germer, Costas Lapavitsas, and Anitra Nelson) to join us in this conference, and a conference volume was published. In 2006, our conference was on “New Perspectives after the new critical edition” and we invited specialists on the MEGA to join us, and a conference volume is forthcoming in 2008. Several years we have focused on more “applied topics”, and other years we have had no theme, and members presented whatever they were working on at the time. It is difficult to summarize our discussions over the years, and I will just mention a few highlights, from my own point of view (and not necessarily the views of other members of the group). The part of Capital that has received the most attention in our papers and discussions is the very beginning, Chapter 1 of Volume 1. This is not surprising since Chapter 1 is so crucial and so difficult and subject to various interpretations. One important point about Chapter 1 that we all agree on is that the commodity with which Marx begins in Chapter 1 is a product of capitalist production,


not a product of a pre-capitalist “simple commodity production”. Marx analyzes the commodity as the most abstract element of the totality of capitalist production, from which other elements of this totality are derived. In other words, the “logical-historical” interpretation of Marx’s logical method, as presented by Engels and Meek, is mistaken on this, its most important point. Beyond that, there are significant disagreements between us on the interpretation of Chapter 1. We all agree that Marx attempted in Section 1 to derive abstract labor as the substance of value which determines the exchange-values of commodities. However, there is significant disagreement over the validity and necessity of this derivation. Some in the group argue that Marx failed to give an adequate reason for selecting labor as the common property of commodities that determines their exchange values, or that he failed to explain how skilled labor is reduced to unskilled labor. These members also argue that the important qualitative conclusions of Marx’s theory can be derived with Marx’s concept of abstract labor as the substance of value. Others in the group accept Marx’s derivation, not as a “logical proof”, but rather as an argument for the plausibility of this hypothesis, the validity of which depends on the extent to which it can explain important phenomena of capitalism. These members also argue that the main advantage of the assumption of abstract labor is that it provides a quantitative theory of profit, which is the main question of Marx’s theory. A related disagreement has to do with the precise meaning and determination of socially necessary labor-time. The key issue is whether socially necessary labor-time is determined as a specific quantity in production, by the average conditions of production, prior to exchange, or is socially necessary labor-time finally determined in exchange, and


depends in part of demand. My own view is that this discussion has conflated two different meanings of “socially necessary labor-time” in Marx’s theory. The first meaning (SNLT1) is from the perspective of an industry as a whole, and is the socially necessary labor-time that determines the equilibrium exchange-value of commodities for the industry (at a high level of abstraction). I argue that this first meaning of SNLT1 is determined in production by the average conditions of production. Since SNLT1 determines the equilibrium exchange-value, it assumes that supply is equal to demand in the industry, and thus demand plays no role. The second meaning of socially necessary labor-time (SNLT2) is from the perspective of individual producers. Since capitalist production is unplanned and regulated only through exchange, individual producers never know what the demand for their commodity will be, nor how much their labor will count as “socially necessary”. If there is an excess supply of a commodity, then the market price of this commodity will fall below its equilibrium price, and one hour of technically average labor-time will count as less than an hour of socially necessary labor-time, in the sense of SNLT2. Therefore, SNLT2 is indeed determined in exchange, and depends in part on demand. But this conclusion is fully compatible with the other conclusion that SNLT1 – which determines the equilibrium exchange-value – is determined in production and is independent of exchange and demand. On a related point, most in our group would agree that Marx usually assumed in the three volumes of Capital that supply is equal to demand, and thus that his theory of value and prices of production is about equilibrium prices, not actual market prices. At the same time, there is also general agreement that Marx nonetheless also emphasized


capitalism’s inherent tendency toward disequilibrium and crises, due to its unplanned, anarchic nature. Another important point that all members of the group agree upon is that money plays a much more important role in Marx’s theory than is generally acknowledged. All agree that Marx derived money in Section 3 of Chapter 1 as the “necessary form of appearance” of abstract labor and socially necessary labor-time, although there are significant disagreements about the specific interpretations and evaluations of this derivation. All the authors agree that money continues to play a central role throughout Volume 1, as well as in the later two volumes. The significance of money in Volume 1 is most clearly expressed by the “general formula for capital” which is introduced in Chapter 4 of Volume 1, and is expressed symbolically as M-C-(M+ΔM) – money that becomes more money. This general formula poses the main question with which Volume 1 is concerned – what is the origin of the increment of money (ΔM) that is the characteristic feature of capital? Therefore, the common interpretation that Volume 1 is only about labor-values is mistaken. Another important point that most (although not all) of the group agree upon, from different points of view, is that the total amount of surplus-value is determined in Marx’s theory prior to its division into individual parts (profits for each industry, commercial profit, interest, and rent). Marx’s theory of surplus-value in Volume 1 is about the total class relation between the working class as a whole and the capitalist class as a whole. This total surplus-value that is produced by the working class as a whole is divided up among individual capitals (and different types of capitals) according to certain rules that are analyzed in Volume 3. The first and most important aspect of this


distribution of surplus-value is the determination of the general rate of profit and prices of production in Part 2 of Volume 3. According to Marx’s logic of determination, the general rate of profit is determined by the ratio of the total surplus-value (already determined) to the total capital advanced, and then the rate of profit is taken as given in the determination of prices of production. This method of the prior determination of the total surplus-value is fundamentally different from the simultaneous determination of prices of production and the rate of profit in Sraffian theory, and in the Sraffian interpretation of Marx’s theory. In other words, the Sraffian interpretation is a misinterpretation on this crucial point.

In the future, we plan to continue to meet annually (next year’s conference is tentatively scheduled for Bergamo, our favorite place, for the fourth time) and to continue to work on these important issues related to Marx’s logical method in Capital. We encourage others who are interested in and working on these issues to communicate with us via email or otherwise (email addresses are included in the authors’s biographies). I should add that our conferences are not “all work and no play”. The hard work during the sessions is generally so stimulating that the days fly by. And we rest and relax together in the evenings, with lots of good food and good wine and good conversation. The wonderful evening dinners have been a key to the success of the group. We became friends, and that has enabled us to work very productively together even though we sometimes have fierce disagreements. Finally, we are very grateful to the Italian Ministry of University and Research, which financed the research project on “Issues of German classical philosophy: edition of


texts and critical studies” (PRIN 2004, Prot. 2004115789, National scientific coordinator Mario Cingoli, University of Milan-Bicocca), and in particular to the Siena (local scientific responsible Maria Luisa Barbera) and the Bergamo (local scientific responsible Riccardo Bellofiore) units for providing the funds for this translation of some of our work into Italian. We hope that this translation will stimulate further interdisciplinary research between Marxian economists and Marxian philosophers in Italy in the years ahead.


Moseley, Fred (ed.) 1993. Marx’s Method in Capital: A Reexamination New Jersey: Humanities Press. Moseley, Fred and Martha Campbell (eds.) 1997. New Investigations of Marx’s Method, New Jersey: Humanities Press. Arthur, Chris and Geert Reuten (eds.) 1998. The Circulation of Capital: Essays on Volume II of Marx’s Capital. London: Palgrave. Reuten, Geert and Martha Campbell (eds.) 2002. The Culmination of Capital: Essays on Volume III of Marx’s Capital. London: Palgrave. Bellofiore, Riccardo and Nicola Taylor (eds.) 2004. The Constitution of Capital: Essay on Volume I of Marx’s Capital. London: Palgrave. Moseley, Fred (ed.) 2005. Marx’s Theory of Money: Modern Reappraisals. London: Palgrave. Bellofiore, Riccardo and Roberto Fineschi (eds.) 2008. London: Palgrave. PLEASE ADD TITLE


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