Marx and other Zombies

Via Crooked Timber, I came across a newish journal, Jacobin, which contains an interesting piece on Zombie Marx – picking up on a ‘debate’ a couple of years ago involving David Harvey and Brad DeLong onthe merits or otherwise of Marxist and neoclassical economics. In the piece, Mike Beggs raises some interesting questions about the argument often made that back in the 1860s Marx effectively debunked neoclassical economics, and by extension ‘neoliberal’ ideology, before it even appeared on the scene. The broader point, beyond questions of the status of the labour theory of value, of concepts of supply and demand, and the like, is the issue of whether/when certain strains of radical thought will be able to treat Marx’s writing historically, rather than canonically. Beggs has a follow-up post on Joan Robinson’s remarks about having Marx in the bones rather than in one’s mouth, and the discussion of these issues continues on the Jacobin blogsite.

All of this reminded me of something I read a month or so ago when I was reading Erik Olin Wright’s book on real utopias. Wright’s book is presented as a reconstruction of a Marxist critical social theory, but it contains barely any referencing or quotation of Marx himself. In an interview from 2001 Wright elaborates on this feature of his own scholarship:

“I generally do not believe that the best way to develop arguments and push theory forward is to engage in fine-grained debates about the interpretation of texts, however brilliant they may be, particularly texts written a century or more ago. Thus, almost none of my writing centers on Marx’s own writings. If the Marxist tradition is genuinely committed to a scientific understanding of the social conditions for radical, egalitarian social change, then it would indeed be extraordinary if the most useful things on most contemporary topics in the 21st century were written in the middle decades of the 19th century. Just as evolutionary biologists don’t bother reading Darwin’s work, except out of historical interest, eventually there will — hopefully — come a time when Marx’s writings will mainly be of interest for the history of ideas, but not for the exposition of scientific arguments.”

I can well imagine how this position would rankle many avowed Marxists, but it seems to me to contain the same sort of ‘methodological’ challenge that Beggs’ post lays out. It also raises some interesting questions about the degree to which social science and humanities approaches to critical theory might well be divided by different degrees of dependence on and reverence for textual canons – a matter that stretches beyond debates in and around Marxism.

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