The New Reading of Karl Marx's Capital in the United States

By Wolff, Richard D. | History of Economics Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The New Reading of Karl Marx's Capital in the United States


Wolff, Richard D., History of Economics Review


Abstract: Allen Oakley scrutinised the evolution and development of Karl Marx's critique of political economy from its earliest roots to the mature theory of surplus value. This theory was both a development of classical themes and also a transformation into a unique approach to economic systems. This paper explores the uniqueness of Marx's theory of the relationship between social classes and the production, appropriation and distribution of surplus value. It recognises that Marx's theory is not reductionism but rather 'overdeterminist', a multi-causal and multi-layered analysis of classes under capitalism. This new reading of Marx's Capital has been gathering momentum for a few decades now. In this approach, people occupy multi-class positions; crises both reflect and transform the production and distribution of surplus value; and past and present capitalist class systems oscillate between both private and state forms. The new approach also enables one to include, as objects of class analysis, firms, states, financial institutions, households and global relations.

1 Introduction

Allen Oakley's first major contribution to the history of political economy was in comprehending the evolution and development of Karl Marx's (1818-1883) theory of surplus value. He traced Marx's process of intellectual genesis from the early influences of the classical economists, utopian socialists and Hegelian philosophers into the full-blown theory of surplus value. Oakley's work is crucial since he places emphasis on the surplus, rather than power and property as the core processes. He sees the linkages between production, distribution and exchange in the process of surplus generation and reproduction, rather than simply accumulation and production. He also recognises the importance of the inner contradictions of capital, and especially how they operate in complex and multifarious ways.

This paper explains an approach to Marx's Capital that is similar to Oakley's in that it focuses on the surplus, the linkages between the different aspects of reproduction, and the complex contradictions within the institutions. But it explains what is in many other respects a major new way of reading, understanding, and developing Marxian theory, which arose in the United States during the 1980s and has been growing ever since. This new way emerged out of the classical Marxian tradition where the economic base determines the political and cultural superstructure; classes are defined in terms of ownership of means of production; value is theorised as determined by abstract labour; and capitalism is driven by the contradictions of accumulation and their attending crises. However, the new Marxian theory also criticised and changed that classical tradition, as is shown clearly in its new way of reading Marx's Capital.

Among the causes of this Marxian self-criticism and change were the political weaknesses of the Marxian left: the ossification of Marxism in the USSR, Euro-communism, the collapse of Maoism, the social democracies' deepening accommodation to capitalist hegemony, and the inability of the left everywhere to prevent a US-led neoliberalism globally (facilitating US imperialism in particular). Another cause was the influence of new theoretical tendencies emerging within European Marxism--above all, the work of Louis Althusser and the Reading Capital project in France. (1) Still another was the rapid turn toward Marxism among many young people in the US who were opposed to the War in Vietnam; they brought new questions and concerns. Also influencing a newly emerging Marxism with its new way of reading Capital was the rise of powerful new tendencies within bourgeois thought such as structuralism, post-structuralism and post-modernism. In a lively debate, still under way, Marxists in the US argue about integrating parts of these tendencies into Marxism. In particular, they argue about which results of such integration are positive or negative for Marxism's future.

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