Review: Theories of Value and Distribution Since Adam Smith by Maurice Dobb

Paul Mattick

Published: Science & Society, vol. 38, no. 2. 1974. Pp 220-223.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2018.

Theories of Value and Distribution Since Adam Smith: Ideology and Economic Theory, by Maurice Dobb. Cambridge University Press: New York, 1973. $12.50. Pp. 295.

According to Marx, the vulgarization of classical bourgeois economy was unavoidable. In France and in England, he wrote in the preface to Capital:

The bourgeoisie had conquered political power. Thenceforth, the class-struggle, practically as well as theoretically, took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms. It sounded the knell of scientific bourgeois economy. It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. In place of disinterested enquirers, there were hired prize-fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetic.

A hundred years later, in contrast to Marx, some modern Marxists have discovered that there is more to bourgeois economy than just apologia. Besides performing this function, it also occupies itself with realistic political-economic problems, which may have some meaning for the opponent of capitalism. It is not enough to speak merely of the vulgarity of bourgeois economy; it is necessary to distinguish between its ideological and its practical functions.

Maurice Dobb concerns himself with this question of ideology and economic theory, from the time of Adam Smith to the present. His book is essentially a history of economic thought and as such--because of its continuity and knowledgeability--has special usefulness, despite the great abundance of economic histories. However, Dobb seems inclined to give the devil more than his due, thereby reflecting his versatility as well as his close connection with academic bourgeois economics. He speaks with the voice of the economist, not that of the revolutionary, even though he approaches bourgeois theory from a Marxian point of view. He sees clearly that there cannot be a "neutral" economic science and that attempts in this direction merely deprive theory of any relevance to the actual economic processes. Still, with other Marxists, he assumes that there "are general statements, even 'laws,' that apply to all modes of production," so that some analytical methods evolved by bourgeois economics may also be valid for other social systems. In this connection, he deems it necessary to differentiate between analytical economic tools and the ideological content of bourgeois economics.

Using the examples of Smith, Ricardo, and Mill, Dobb demonstrates the historical conditioning of economic theory and the impossibility of turning it into a "pure" science. Being essentially an applied science, it cannot deny its normative elements. Although it has always been difficult to separate the "positive" from the "normative," attempts in this direction have been made nonetheless by means of highly formalized techniques of analysis. Dobb shows, however, that apparently "neutral" techniques affect economic interpretations and their empirical implications in an ideological direction. The introduction of analytical methods and the mathematization of economics were, of course, instrumentalities of bourgeois ideology as economic theory, not mere methods of investigation and accountancy, such as may be found useful in any economic system.

Dobb shows that the impoverishment of bourgeois economics through its increasing formalization, via the rise of marginal utility and general equilibrium theory, led unavoidably to a crisis of economic theory, reverberating through what he calls "a decade of high criticism." The current questioning of all the assumptions of neoclassical theory is accompanied by a partial return to its starting point, that is, to objective value theory and the Ricardian theory of distribution. There is increasing recognition that the elimination of the distribution problem through the reduction of economic theory to the exchange process and a general system of price relations resulted in the loss of its plausibility and therewith its ideological function.

Dobb sees in the return from economics to political economy a kind of progress within the field of bourgeois economic theory. This return, already foreshadowed in another form in the so-called Keynesian revolution, is, however, also a return to Marx's point of departure from classical economy. Although he knows him to be a critic of Ricardo, Marx remains for Dobb a classical economist, who merely added to his analysis of capitalism a general concept of historical development. Actually, political economy was for Marx the false consciousness, or ideology, of the capitalist mode of production, hiding its underlying exploitative class relations. The economic categories of classical economy, including the labor theory of value, were for Marx fetishistic categories, bound up with the specific relations of capitalist production and valid only for these relations. He recognized that the destruction of bourgeois economic theory presupposes the destruction of capitalist society itself.

Until Marx, it was deemed sufficient to study capitalist development on the basis of its contradictory fetishistic determination, without seeking to determine the system's fundamental laws of production and distribution. Only by seeing in capitalism the "natural" and only possible mode of production--that is, on the basis of ideology--were the classicists able to attain a degree of objectivity regarding the economy. It was this which enabled Marx to destroy bourgeois economic theory by a thorough-going critique of the classical economists. To return at this late date to classical theory, that is, to accept the exploitation of labor by capital, to draw attention to the consequent forms of distribution, and therewith to the irrelevance of modern price theory and "positive" economics, may be regarded as a sign of the times, but it is not a step beyond bourgeois economic theory. Another step is necessary, namely, the step Marx made by his criticism of political economy.

This is not to say that one should not pay attention to the evolution of economic theory, reflecting as it does the changing situation of capitalism itself. But this attention must remain critical, must be based on a total rejection of all capitalist economic theory, which, despite various modifications, can only serve capitalism. The past "decade of high criticism," so eloquently described by Dobb, remained within the confines of bourgeois theory; thus it could lead only to an ideologically more adequate theory of capitalist production than that provided by the now bankrupt neoclassical theory. Attempts are continually being made, on an international scale, to find a reconciliation of "Marxism" and bourgeois economic theory. It is not totally excluded that "Marxism" will become the last refuge of bourgeois theory, and the return to the classical economists will be a station on the way to this goal.

Apart from these considerations, and notwithstanding Dobb's sympathetic attitude toward the whole body of bourgeois economic theory, his book will prove an asset for any student of political economy. It clearly brings out the essential differences between the various proponents of the objective theory of value; their united opposition to those, who, since the "Jevonsian Revolution," subscribed to a subjective value theory; the adventures of the latter within the neoclassical doctrine; and the transformation of economic theory into a mere technique of "adapting scarce means to given ends." It brings to the fore all the problems which presently agitate the academic world and shows their relation to those that preoccupied their predecessors.