Academic journal article American Economist

Not Only an Economist - Autobiographical Reflections of a Historian of Economic Thought

Academic journal article American Economist

Not Only an Economist - Autobiographical Reflections of a Historian of Economic Thought

Article excerpt

I owe the decision to study economics to the influence of the writings of Henry George and Karl Marx. In 1944 I was 17 years old and attending Peter Stuyvesant High School in New York City. I enrolled for a course in Commerce, and in the last week of the term the teacher took some of the better students, which included me, to a special lecture at a nearby Henry George School. The lecture was an explanation of why the unrestrained growth of land rentals had produced poverty, wars, and all the other ills of modern civilization. Henry George had long ago provided both the diagnosis of the evil and the treatment that would cure it: a single confiscatory tax on ground rent! At the end of the lecture, we were all presented with free copies of Henry George's Progress and Poverty, which I duly read without understanding much of it. But years later when I finally studied the Ricardian theory of differential rent, I did have a moment of excitement at discovering the true source of George's theory.

The Influence of Marxism

I was intrigued by Progress and Poverty but I was not entirely convinced. But shortly afterwards, during my first year at New York University, I became friendly with some left-wing students who introduced me first to the pamphlets of Lenin and Stalin and later to the weightier tomes of Marx and Engels. I was completely bowled over by these writings and within a matter of months became a Marxist, that is, an avowed follower of Marx.

When I now try to recall just what it was about Marxist writings that converted me so quickly, I think it was a combination of qualities that says as much about me as about Marxism. Firstly, it was the aura of the absolute conviction of possession of the truth that radiated from every page of the writings the leading Marxists, accentuated in the case of Lenin and Stalin by their dogmatic and abusive tone towards their intellectual opponents. Secondly, it was the encyclopaedic range of Marxist theory, the sense that here was a universal science of society and indeed a philosophy of history as well as a philosophy of nature; whether it was the latest political election result, or the causes of the French revolution, or the overthrow of the matriarchy in ancient Greece, or why Rembrandt was so partial to chiaroscuro, or why Beethoven's last piano sonata Op. 102 consisted of only two movements, or what Goethe meant by the ending of Faust, it could all be explained by Marxism. I was always a bit of a smart alec when I was young and Marxism was made to order for me: it allowed me to pontificate on every subject with a cock-sureness that suited me perfectly.

Marxism taught me economic determinism, that is, the idea that economic interests and economic forces are the foundations of all social and political conflicts. It .followed that economics is the queen of all social sciences because everything is ultimately reducible to economics. Within six months of becoming a Marxist, I had therefore decided that I had to master economics. I took my first course in economics in my second year of university and I keenly remember finding it a rather taxing subject. I am glad that I can still remember my own difficulties in learning economics because it has made me a better teacher as a result.

Even all this does not fully account for my attraction to Marxism. The real appeal of Marxism for me was its conceptual apparatus, its intricate jargon of special terms and categories, its endless Talmudic distinctions between "base" and "superstructure", between "modes of production" and "relations of production", between "strategies" and "tactics" of social action, between the "contradictions" and the "unity of opposites" of social and economic systems, etcetera, etcetera. Once one had commanded the technical language, adherence to Marxism created an entire subculture of discourse in which, literally, one could only be understood by other Marxists. In short, Marxism gave me my first glimpse of the culture of scholarship, an intellectual community that feeds upon itself. …

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