Marxism: For and Against

Marxist Economic Theory

by Ernest Mandel
Monthly Review Press, 797, (2 vols) pp., $15.00

Karl Marx
Karl Marx; drawing by David Levine

I suppose it should not be surprising that Marxian economic theory is little studied in the United States; I understand that the works of Paul Samuelson are largely ignored in the Soviet Union. Yet there is a reason for the lack of attention paid to Marxian economics in our universities, beyond their heretical nature. It is because so much of the work of Marx is either impossibly difficult to understand or—to mention the unmentionable—terribly boring to study.

Of course there are parts of the Marxian canon to which these words could never apply: the Manifesto, the brilliant historical essays, the best parts of Capital—above all, the unforgettable picture of the Working Day, the passionate chapter on Primitive Accumulation, and the apocalyptic climax to Volume 1 where the integument bursts asunder and the expropriators are expropriated. But for the student who wants to master the system of Marxian economics, the task of reading the 2,000 pages of Capital is enough to daunt all but a very few. Much of the argument is tediously drawn out and, in critical places, obscure or incorrect, such as the famous transition from value to prices. There is no discernible orderly progression within the work which seems continuously to double back on itself. And the empirical material, however interesting as historical illustration, is hopelessly out of touch with the realities of modern-day capitalism.

As a result, those few intrepid students who set out to discover what Marxian economics is all about are usually forced to revert to a secondary source, of which the best for many years has been Paul Sweezy’s The Theory of Capitalist Development. The trouble with such books, however, is that essentially they are efforts to unscramble and clarify the Master, rather than efforts to restate, de novo, and on the basis of fresh evidence, the theoretical explanation of capitalism inherent in Marx’s approach. Hence the belated appearance of Ernest Mandel’s book (first published in France seven years ago) is an event of great importance. For the purpose of this carefully organized, lucidly written, and strongly argued book is, in Mandel’s italicized words, “to start from the empirical data of the science of today to examine whether or not the essence of Marx’s economic propositions remains valid.”

Mandel is a well-known Marxist writer and critic, the editor of the Belgian paper La Gauche, and clearly a person of great erudition. Thirty-six pages of bibliographic references testify to the breadth of research that has gone into this work. What is more noticeable about the list of citations, however, is the relatively small percentage of standard Marxist works it contains. An inexpressibly refreshing sense of release from the intellectual straitjacket of past Marxology is announced in the Introduction, where Mandel writes:

The reader who expects to find numerous quotations from Marx and Engels or their chief disciples will close this book disappointed. Unlike all the…

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