From Mainstream Economics to the Boundaries of Marxism

By Nielsen, Peter; Morgan, Jamie | Capital & Class, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

From Mainstream Economics to the Boundaries of Marxism


Nielsen, Peter, Morgan, Jamie, Capital & Class


   To understand and to evaluate realistically one's adversary's
   position and his reasons (and sometimes one's adversary is
   the whole of past thought) means precisely to be liberated
   from the prison of ideologies in the bad sense of the word--that
   of blind ideological fanaticism. It means taking a point
   of view that is 'critical' which for the purpose of scientific
   research is the only fertile one. (Gramsci, 1971, p. 344)

In the following paper, we explore Marxism and critical realism by addressing Ben Fine's Addressing the Critical and the Real in Critical Realism (2002, 2004). Fine's argument is significant because he is an influential Marxist, and because it combines a powerful and trenchant critique of critical realism with a number of misunderstandings. Taking Fine's argument as a starting point also allows us to contribute to a broader debate concerning Marxism and critical realism and the relation between them. In Part I, we outline and address Fine's main arguments in two sections, in order to deal with each of his two main points--that critical realism is insufficiently critical, and that it is insufficiently realistic. His principal focus is on the work of Tony Lawson and other Cambridge-based or Cambridge-trained critics of mainstream economics.

We argue that Fine's use of the term 'critical' untenably equates methodology-without-theory with theory-without-methodology, and also relies on particular unsupported assumptions about what an effective strategy of critique vis-a-vis the mainstream is. We then assess Fine's analysis that critical realism is unrealistic in the sense that the focus is on the social theory significance of concepts such as structure (that they are real), rather than on the historical and contemporary specification of those concepts (their reality).

We argue that this is an important point, but that it is slightly misdirected in its deployment. The critique of mainstream economics derives its use of 'real' from philosophical discourse, where its meaning is different from Fine's.

Moreover, if one differentiates the Cambridge-based project--which we hereafter refer to as 'critical realism in economics'--from a broader base of critical realists, one finds that many of them are engaged in historically and contemporarily specified work. Since Fine phrases his challenge to critical realism in terms of capitalism and the relation of critical realism to Marxism, we address his challenge in those terms.

In Part 2, we argue that critical realism partly emerged out of--and has maintained a dialogue with--Marxism. In Part 3, we argue that one cannot definitively situate critical realism in relation to Marxism in a single way because both are plural in form, and there are therefore multiple locations for each. Making sense of this matter means situating the problem of their relation in terms of a broader debate about the nature of Marxist exegesis, and in terms of debates concerning changes in contemporary capitalism, as domains of argument about the compatibility of a plurality of forms of Marxism. This is because the way one draws the boundaries of Marxism has significance for the way one understands its relation to critical realism, or at least, the work of some critical realists.

1. Fine's analysis: Two arguments on critique and reality

Fine's analysis of critical realism is strongly informed by his long years of research in political economy, and his more recent interest in the imperialism of mainstream economics (Fine, 1997, 1999; Nielsen & Morgan, 2005). His analysis is organised around two main lines of argument:

* That critical realism is insufficiently critical.

* That critical realism is insufficiently realistic.

1.1 Critical realism is insufficiently critical

Fine states that critical realism:

   is insufficiently critical through divorcing methodology
   from theory, and criticising methodology alone. … 

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