Dictionary of Marxist Political Economy

Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), Swamp Series IV - Sunburst, oil on canvas 48 x 60 in. (121,9 x 152,4 cm), Painted in 1957.
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By BEN FINE & ALFREDO SAAD FILHO*

Organizer introductions to the newly released book.

Preface to the Brazilian edition

Marxism has had a significant role and influence in Brazil since at least the 1920s. Marxist theory entered the country through the labor movement, especially among immigrants in the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, who then industrialized rapidly. Gradually, albeit unevenly, Marxism gained strength and, through working-class actions, came to influence political movements and successive generations of extraordinarily gifted and original thinkers.

The authoritarian regime led by Getúlio Vargas (who, with some twists and turns, stayed in power between 1930 and 1945) and the civil-military dictatorship (1964-1985) strongly repressed the working class, the left and its intellectuals; the Marxists, for their part, did not hesitate to mercilessly and with great insight expose the contradictions and limitations of these regimes. Due to these specific circumstances and strong repression, Marxist theory in Brazil developed, to a large extent, autonomously in relation to the rest of the world, which, however, did not prevent it from producing knowledge of global relevance.

The present book seeks to contribute to the expansion of channels of communication between Marxist studies in Brazil and in other parts of the world. It brings Brazilian readers a series of syntheses and panoramic views of the best research carried out within and at the margins of the field of Marxist economics. From fundamental themes in value theory to complex controversies around imperialism, feminism, migration, income, among others, this book aims to condense the state of the art in contemporary Marxist theory, presenting it in the simplest possible format. Its objective is to make research that is at the frontier of Marxist economics easily accessible to scholars, students, activists and those interested in recent advances in this field of knowledge. In this way, it is also intended to contribute to facing the main problems in Brazil and elsewhere. We hope that the reading is pleasant and useful.

Global capitalism is now entering its third major crisis in just a generation or two. These crises have become increasingly severe and pervasive; that of the early 1970s and subsequent stagflation destroyed Keynesianism's reputation, opening space for the rise of neoliberalism and a profound restructuring of production and the state. The Great Financial Crisis, which started in 2007, demoralized neoliberalism itself and demonstrated that financialized capitalism is, at the same time, unstable and totally perverse in human terms; it also triggered a political crisis of capitalist democracy that is still unfolding.

The economic crisis that began in 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic has paralyzed economic reproduction in large areas of the world, especially in the most advanced and radically neoliberal western economies. This crisis and its impact – which differs according to location, economic sector, social class and other characteristics – demonstrate the importance of public policies, democracy and social integration for human existence itself.

As a dependent economy, Brazil has always been very susceptible to the impact of economic fluctuations originating abroad. The shocks and adversities imposed during the past generation on developing countries in general, and on Brazil in particular, condemned tens of millions of people to misshapen and atrophied lives due to poverty, unemployment and humiliation.

Marxism does not claim to be the only theory able to explain the world, much less the economic and political developments, among others, that have taken place in Brazil. He intends, however, to offer the most consistent, comprehensive, historically specific, radical, and self-aware critique of capitalism, both generally and specifically in its current phase or configuration: (financialized) neoliberalism. Marxism also seeks to support political activity with the aim of overthrowing capitalism and building a radically democratic society, which Marx called communist.

At the moment, we are a long way from that. But a major systemic crisis is already making itself felt through global warming. Climate change will be far-reaching, have huge impacts, and will inevitably be transformative, for better or worse. The crisis triggered by the coronavirus is the deepest that capitalism has ever faced. Normal capitalist relations have to some extent been suspended (but not ruled out), while the response, especially in the form of extensive state intervention, has demonstrated to some extent what can be positively achieved as a response to imperatives that pose human life at risk.

On the other hand, humanity has never faced a greater challenge than the calamities associated with climate change – a by-product of capitalist accumulation. In contrast to the urgency generated by the coronavirus, however, the tragedy of global warming unfolds slowly, as if cooking over low heat, and the responses offered by humanity so far have proved to be insufficient and late. By shedding light on their causes and implications, Marxism helps us better understand these challenges. More than that, it can help us envision possible solutions to such problems and outline ways to achieve them. This book will have served its purpose if it can contribute to much-needed debates on these and other issues.

Introduction

Marxist Political Economy is marked by a rhythm and an evolution in terms of its relevance and (perceptions about) its substantive content. There is no doubt, for example, that the global crisis unleashed at the end of 2007 drew attention to Marxism and its clear relevance, but this is necessarily different from the Marxisms in vogue before 1917, in the interwar period, after 1956 or post-1968 . Influential social theories are shaped by their own historical and social context as much as they shape it. But, unlike orthodox approaches, Marxism offers a theoretical and conceptual apparatus that can be used to review its own evolution and its hysterical experiences and that can support the emergence of new generations of progressive movements and thoughts.

Yet there are also some aspects that make the dynamics and content of Marxist Political Economy unique, uniquely influenced, and uniquely influential. First, given its principled connection to the social and political perspectives of the working class, the revolutionary abolition of capitalism and the transition to communism (aspects that have been conceptualized in different ways within the Marxist tradition, and over time), the fate of Marxism is inevitably and closely linked to the strength, balance and composition of progressive forces around the world.

Over the last 40 years, these conditions have been unfavorable for several well-known reasons: the emergence, under US hegemony, of neoliberalism and financialization (whatever the interpretation of these concepts may be), global productive restructuring, regressive transformations in political economy, the collapse of East European socialism and rapid transformations in China, the historical hiatus and limitations in the development of national liberation movements, the fragmentation and decline of left-wing political parties, and the dwindling membership and influence of trade unions (industrial). Consequently, there has been a notable lack of significant momentum for Marxism during the “era of neoliberalism,” despite the renewal of radicalism in Latin America and elsewhere.

Second, and closely related to the factors mentioned above, Marxist political economy has become increasingly confined to academic and research life, where it has been rejected by orthodox economists for its alleged weakness in terms of economic theory, and by non-economists for their supposed economism and reductionism. At the same time, the relentless consolidation of boundaries between disciplines has fragmented and reduced Marxist Political Economy, as well as made it more vulnerable to the growing intolerance of “mainstream” academic disciplines – especially on the part of economics – to any heterodoxy, Marxist or otherwise.

Even within heterodoxy, critics of Marxian Political Economy generally operate on the basis of superficial, biased, or even ignorant understandings of the substantive content of Marxism. In short, Marxism and its Political Economy often prove subject to careless reconstruction at the hands of those who criticize them while making use of them, consequently placing them far removed from their original intent and content.

Yet those elements of Marxism most faithfully interpreted and preserved, which generally brought it to a more marginalized position, have also withstood the test of both hard times and intellectual prejudices. For example, because of its emphasis on modes of production, class, and history, as well as its attention – without exclusive emphasis – to considerations of power, conflict, and systemic issues, Marxism is truly interdisciplinary, with Marx himself providing the richest contributions in an impressive range of fields within (and beyond) the social sciences.

These contributions, in addition to providing a fruitful body of work to which new research can always draw, also provide an opportunity for the rediscovery and renewal of interpretations of classics by Marx and Marxism, as well as their application or rejection to changing circumstances. This allows Marxist Political Economy to sustain an enlightening, critical, and constructive presence within and across various disciplines and topics, and to maintain its appeal on a wider front. This is true of subjects ranging from economics to ideology, and from the smallest detail of local issues to the fate of the contemporary world.

Third, and with unequal relevance in different places, disciplines and themes, more recently Marxism has a generational rhythm based, in the West, on the impact of the radicalized generation of the 1960s. occupy their intellectual and professional posts, although the possibilities for this have been significantly reduced due to the economic, social, political and intellectual developments analyzed above.

This discussion helps to understand the scope and content of the contributions represented in this work. When composing this volume from the various entries, and we could have asked for many more, the most striking aspect of this collection is the breadth and depth of the treatment both in relation to the theme and to the substantive contributions. They express a balance between the editors' points of view, the intellectual context in which they are inserted, the authors' intellectual priorities and the willingness, or not, to contribute (and to fulfill their commitment) of those invited to participate.

Both in suggesting entries and in reviewing those we had received, the guiding principle was that of a remarkably deep, and committed, understanding of Marxism: this is a book written by Marxists. He makes a detailed analysis of the trajectory, conquests, mistakes and projections of Marxist Political Economy; it expresses a collective commitment to draw on Marx's own methods, theories and concepts to address a wide variety of issues and perspectives; it also demonstrates the purpose and vitality of Marxist Political Economy.

Within these limits, there is no single Marxist “line” between entries, and inevitably they fall into three categories. The first concerns old questions of method and basic concepts, which refer to Marx's own contributions and the debates and controversies arising from them. The second is those relatively concrete themes that could not be systematically dealt with by Marx or by his immediate followers because the passage of time had introduced new developments and material, historical and intellectual challenges. The third deals with themes that lie between these two extremes, including questions on which Marx left many impressions, but which were not developed in his work, despite the scope of his themes and ideas never cease to amaze.

This structure undoubtedly stems from the central aspect of Marxist economics: the theory of value. Predictably, it is treated here in numerous entries. Some of them dwell on exposing basic categories of analysis by Marx and Marxists, inevitably accompanied by further discussion of the controversies both about these categories themselves and, what is considerably different, their continued relevance to – or validity in – contemporary capitalism. Other entries emphasize the opposite: they refer to the conditions of contemporary capitalism as a way of questioning the persistence of the importance of value theory.

The centrality of the theory of value is indicative of the richness of content with which it is endowed, although this requires that it not be understood as a simple theory of price based on a technical definition of the amount of labor embodied in a commodity. Rather, by taking value as a social relationship between producers expressed as a physical relationship between things through the market, value theory delineates the structures, actions, and processes by which market forms arise, develop, and evolve. reproduce, and seeks to situate them in their specific historical and social contexts. Of course, to a large extent, the focus on market forms within capitalism offers the possibility of general analyzes of the mode of production in terms of its economic categories. Such abstract analysis is also expanded in entries to a wide variety of aspects of economics and social reproduction.

A central aspect of Marxist Political Economy that always raises questions about method and methodology directly addressed in various entries is the connection of value theory with the economy and the social, as well as the dynamics of transformations. Such questions are imposed within Marxism, in its dispute with other schools of thought, as well as in its differentiation from them. Marxism adopts a holistic or systemic approach, certainly placing itself outside the orbit of neoclassical economics. This happens not only because of the methodological individualism characteristic of the latter, but because it constitutes the Economy as a fetishized category in itself, independent of its historical and social context. This last aspect is also what distinguishes Marxist Political Economy from many other heterodox economic theories.

In other words, Marxist Political Economy derives from its analysis of the category of capital (and capitalism) as central. It does not start from economics or economics in the abstract as ideal and universal categories (linked, for example, as in neoclassical economics, to scarcity or to “fundamentals” such as technology, endowments and preferences). But contextualizing the historical and social specificity of the capitalist mode of production – if that is how value relations prevail – throws Marxist Political Economy onto broader terrain with regard to periodization in interior of capitalism and between capitalism and other modes of production.

With regard to the periodization of capitalism, we necessarily incorporate contributions about the nature of the world economy and what its defining (changing) characteristics are. And with regard to transitions to and from capitalism, questions arise such as: what does a mode of production consist of, how many modes of production there are, what are the causes and nature of the transitions between them, and how they mutually co-exist.

Throughout these entries, we find considerable variations of position, already expected due to the large amount of material they deal with, with differences in the method, its application and the historical processes themselves, with correspondingly different (re)interpretations and refinements of the work of Marx and historical records.

In this respect as well as others, Marxist political economy has much to offer in two directions. One is in the critique of economic science in all its versions, recalling that economics itself opus magnus of Marx, The capital, is subtitled critique of political economy, which he himself dealt with in the Theories of surplus value and elsewhere, of the degradation of classical Economics (more directly related to Ricardo) into the vulgar Economics which is prevalent today. Furthermore, Marxist Political Economy establishes a presence within each of the disciplines of the Social Sciences, in addition to influencing and criticizing them, as well as specific themes that go beyond disciplinary barriers (how we understand the state or globalization, for example, as well as the political, sociological, historical and anthropological).

This anthology features a rich mix of authors, but the most important criterion, as indicated earlier, is the level of expertise in and commitment to Marxism. From the beginning, publishers imposed standard conditions on authors. For reasons of space, the entries have a limit regarding their length, do not have footnotes and include a limited number of bibliographical references.

Highlights (in italics) are in the original citations unless otherwise indicated. Each entry brings, first, an exposition of basic concepts and contributions, accessible to the non-specialized reader, presenting Marx's own contribution, its meaning and subsequent positions within Marxist Political Economy. Then the author's assessment of past and current materials and relevant developments within capitalism.

These demands made the group of authors inevitably tend towards more recognized scholars. This allowed for certain advantages, such as a deep and generally far-reaching knowledge of Marxism and its critical application both historically and in contemporary capitalism, as well as with respect to research and the intelligentsia as they developed.

For example, the current crisis that emerged while this volume was being prepared appears to be quite different from those that survived the radicalism of the 1960s and the collapse of the post-war boom and then of "really existing socialism". This offers the possibility of self-reflection on the stabilities and instabilities of capitalism, and the alternatives to it, as lived experiences. A large number of young researchers were also invited to submit entries for this anthology, demonstrating the relevance of their research in the field of Marxist Political Economy, as well as the enduring vitality of the themes and approaches examined in this book.

These young writers face events that belong in the past, as opposed to developments that strongly influenced older authors as they developed their commitment to and understanding of Marxism. This does not mean that the old is privileged over the nine, as if they were wiser for having drunk from the fountain of age. According to Marx himself, “The tradition of the generations of the dead presses like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).

In applying this impression to Marxism itself, it is necessary to recognize that Marxism in general, and its Political Economy in particular, is not a fixed attachment to a more or less conventional wisdom, nor is it exempt from incorporating the material and intellectual dynamism that is characteristic of the present age. In this sense, this volume will have achieved its purpose of inspiring new generations of researchers to use it both as a source and as a critical starting point.

*Ben Fine is professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)-University of London. Author, among other books, of Microeconomics: A Critical Companion (PlutoPress).

*Alfredo Saad Filho is a professor in the Department of International Development at King's College London. Author, among other books, of Marx's value (Unicamp).

Reference


Ben Fine & Alfredo Saad Filho (eds.). Dictionary of Marxist Political Economy. Collaboration: Marco Boffo. São Paulo, Popular Expression, 2020, 560 pages.

 

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