Marxism and Bourgeois Economics. Paul Mattick


Insofar as the criticism of political economy represents a class, it can, according to Marx, “only represent that class whose vocation in history is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes — the proletariat."[1] In Marx’s view, political economy was the theoretical expression of the rising capitalist society, which found nothing contradictory in the specific class relations that made its own development possible. The critique of political economy focused exactly on the contradictions inherent in capital production in both theoretical and practical terms. The practical critique remained, at first, the actual struggle between labor and capital over wages and profits within the framework of capitalist production relations. But this struggle implied and expressed a definite developmental trend of capitalism, pointing in the direction of its eventual dissolution. To lay bare this trend was the function of the theoretical critique of political economy.

Just as the proletariat opposed the bourgeoisie, so Marx confronted bourgeois economic theory: not in order to develop it, or to improve it, but to destroy its apparent validity and, finally, with the abolition of capitalism, to overcome it altogether. Whereas the actual class struggle within capitalism was still “political economy,” albeit from the standpoint of the working class, the critique of bourgeois theory anticipated the end of political economy and therewith the end of the society in which its criticism constitutes a necessary part of the proletarian fight for emancipation.

Marx’s critique of political economy is both an immanent criticism of bourgeois economic theory, made by showing that there is no connection between that theory’s assumptions and the conclusions drawn from them, and a fundamental criticism, which maintains that by assuming its own economic relations to be natural and unchangeable the whole of bourgeois economic theory fails, and must fail, to comprehend its own society, thereby condemning itself to misapprehend its own development as well as to misconceive its state of being at any particular time. For Marx, bourgeois political economy was incapable of being the theory of its own practice and could serve only as an ideology to safeguard the social conditions of its existence.

With regard to the past, it was true of course that bourgeois economic theory was the expression of the bourgeoisie’s own class struggle within and against feudal society, and to that extent was able to see in the development of production and the productivity of labor the vehicle for social change and the basis of capital accumulation. The classic labor theory of value emerged together with the rise of the bourgeoisie, which considered itself a progressive class because it fostered the increase of the wealth of nations. But with its consolidation as a new ruling class, the bourgeoisie found its early insight into the social labor process quite embarrassing, for it was now confronted by a working class that challenged capitalism on the strength of its own labor-based theory of production by demanding more, or all, of the social product. From then on it was for the bourgeoisie “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."[2]

Marx spoke thus of two different schools of political economy — the “classical,” extending from Adam Smith to David Ricardo, and “vulgar economy,” which saw its sole purpose in the justification of the capitalist status quo. Whereas there was a necessary connection between classical theory and Marx’s critique of political economy, this congruity dissipated with the further development of bourgeois theory, to be totally lost with the rise of the subjective theory of value and the restriction of economics to the study of price and market relations. The connection between Marx and the classics does not, however, imply an identity between the bourgeois and the Marxian value concepts, but merely refers to the common recognition that it is labor that bestows value upon commodities. The classical theory was not just a weaker version of Marx’s value theory, but a different theory altogether, because the classical value theory had failed “to solve the riddle of surplus value."[3]

Marx’s theory of value and surplus value, implying the exploitation of labor by capital, could only find an antagonistic reception in bourgeois economics and was either totally ignored or “refuted” by a simultaneous disowning of classical economy in the shift from “political economy” to “economics” — a positive science that concerns itself exclusively with exchange relations, apart from any consideration of the social production relations on which they are based. This, of course, was as it should be, even though Marx himself voiced some disappointment over the meager response his work elicited among bourgeois economists. His economic writings, particularly Capital, became, in Friedrich Engels’ rather inappropriate phrase, “the Bible of the working class,” and as such found only derision in bourgeois economic doctrine. “Marxism” — another unfortunate expression — was recognized as the revolutionary ideology of the working class, which stood in unbridgeable opposition to the capitalist class and to the set of ideas justifying its existence.

How things have changed since then. Not only has capitalism undergone extensive modifications through its own development, which have found their reflections in bourgeois economic theory; Marxism, too, has altered its character in the course of the shifting fortunes of capitalist society. The successful expansion of capital and the amelioration of the conditions of the laboring class led to spreading doubt regarding the validity of Marx’s critical theory. This doubt drew its strength not so much from an immanent criticism of this theory, as from its confrontation with an empirical reality that seemed to contradict Marx’s expectations with respect to capitalism’s future. Marxism became an increasingly more ambiguous doctrine, serving purposes different from those initially contemplated. This change was still in line with the Marxian conception that changes in material conditions will alter the consciousness of men, but this must now be applied to the reception of Marxism itself. It lost its revolutionary implications and became the false ideology of a nonrevolutionary practice.

The accommodation of socialist theory to the realities of the unfolding capitalist system was brought about through the incorporation of bourgeois economic ideas into the framework of Marxism. Until recently, however, there was no reciprocal response on the part of the bourgeoisie, for

Marx was not merely the author of a scientific treatise, but also the great leader of the socialist movement. He was, therefore, a person whose conclusions were so unacceptable to economists that few of them had any will or patience to endeavor to profit by the aspects of his work which might have been serviceable to them. So that, as far as theoretical political economy is concerned, the influence of Marx was, for a time at least, almost altogether indefinite.[4]

This attitude was of an exemplary consistency — which cannot be said for the position taken by the proponents of “Marxist economics.” As classical economy degenerated into vulgar economy, a type of — vulgar Marxism — arose which tried to avail itself of the “progress” being made in the “science of economics.” The marginal utility theory seemed to be a closer approximation to actual price formation than was Marx’s derivation of prices from labor-time values. The exchange of one theory for the other was deemed the more desirable because the marginal principle was not restricted to capitalistic exchange relations, but could be regarded as a universal and therefore neutral principle valid for all times and all societies. So there were, after all, “economic laws” that could be appreciated by friend and foe alike, thus breaking down the harsh dividing line between opposing social systems.

In contrast to Marx, modern “Marxists” tend to see in bourgeois economic theory more than just apologetics inasmuch as it also serves the practical needs of economic policy:

If bourgeois economists objectively investigate some aspects of the economy and thereby determine the results of one or another policy, they perform a useful function for capital, quite aside from their simultaneous ideological defense of the system. Instead of merely pointing to the apologetic nature of bourgeois theory, Marxists should consider and evaluate its practical consequences and recognize the double function of the economists.[5]

This concession on the part of “Marxism” has found some reciprocation in the bourgeois camp. Attempts have been made to overcome the strict opposition of bourgeois economy to Marxism, in order to utilize some of the findings of the latter for the “enrichment” of bourgeois theory.

This two-pronged endeavor to reconcile, at least to some extent, the historical antagonism between Marxism and bourgeois economic theory reflected a crisis in Marxism as well as in bourgeois theory. While the crisis of Marxism is a long spun out affair, dating back to the turn of the century, the crisis in bourgeois theory came together with the Great Depression in the wake of the first world war, which demonstrated the falsity of neoclassical price and market theory. The latter, however, found some sort of resurrection through its Keynesian modifications. Although it had to be admitted that the assumed equilibrium mechanism of the market was not operative, it was now asserted that it could be made so with a little governmental help. The disequilibrium of insufficient demand could be straightened out by government-induced production for “public consumption,” not only under static assumptions but also under conditions of economic growth, with appropriate monetary and fiscal policies.

According to the “neo-Keynesian synthesis,” a market economy enriched by government planning would overcome capitalism’s susceptibility to crisis and depression and allow, in principle, for a steady growth of capitalist production. The long economic upswing after World War II seemed to substantiate these expectations. But despite the continuing availability of governmental interventions, a new crisis followed this period of capital expansion, as it always had in the past. The clever “fine-tuning” of the economy and the “trade-off” between inflation and unemployment did not prevent a new economic decline, manifesting itself in growing unemployment, with, and despite, an increasing rate of inflation. The crisis and the means designed to cope with it proved to be equally detrimental to capital.

Apart from the fact that actual crisis conditions brought the crisis of bourgeois economic theory to a head, its long-standing impoverishment through its increasing formalization, via marginalism and general equilibrium theory, raised many doubts in the heads even of academic economists. The current questioning of all the assumptions of neoclassical theory and its Keynesian offspring has led to a half-hearted return to classical political economy, most forcefully represented by the so-called neo-Ricardians. Marx himself is frequently looked upon as a Ricardian economist and as such finds increasing favor among bourgeois theoreticians, who now attempt to integrate his “pioneer work” into their own specialty, the science of economics. Meanwhile, just as the return from economics to political economy is in some quarters adjudged a progressive step within the field of economic theory, so the adoption of some of the analytical methods evolved by bourgeois economics is hailed in the “Marxist” camp as pointing to important similarities with respect to the problems to be solved and the tools available for their solution in both capitalism and socialism, thus indicating that there are general economic laws valid for all societies.

Strange as it may seem, the new interest in Marxism in general and in “Marxist economics” in particular does not stem from a revived Marxist labor movement but pertains almost exclusively to the academic world, which is essentially the world of the middle class. An enormous outpouring of Marxist literature is occurring at a time when the labor movement — not to speak of the workers as a class — finds itself at the historically lowest ebb of its emancipatory aspirations. “Marxology” has become a new profession, and there are Marxist branches in “radical” economics and other social science disciplines. This academization of Marxism goes hand in hand with the adoption of the term “Marxism” by national and social movements that have not the remotest connection with the problems that were Marx’s concern. All this may imply no more than a passing intellectual fad, but even as such it bears evidence of the twilight state of modern society, which is no longer the capitalism of old and, short of a proletarian revolution, cannot be transformed into socialism. Moreover, “Marxism” in its apparently “realized form” in the self-styled “socialist countries seems to offer a way out of the present impasse, or at least, suggests the direction in which capitalism must move to solve its crisis problem without sacrificing its social-class or production relations.

The current preoccupation with Marxism on the part of social scientists and the “modernization” of Marxist theory has led to an amalgam of erroneous and contradictory interpretations that becloud more than clarify Marx’s intentions and the implications of his theory for capitalist society. Before discussing the various endeavors to integrate Marxism into the body of bourgeois economic theory, or to accommodate the latter to the teachings of Marx, it is thus unavoidable — once again — to start with an exposition of Marx’s critique of political economy and to elucidate its true content. Only then will it be possible to demonstrate the wide disparities between Marx’s own position and the various misinterpretations it has found in the numerous attempts to bridge the contradiction between Marxism and bourgeois economic theory. Accordingly, what follows proceeds from a presentation of Marx’s critique of political economy, in as short a form as possible, to a discussion of the different receptions it has found in socialist and bourgeois circles. It will then be possible to evaluate the present state of both bourgeois economics and Marxism, and their relation to one another, and to understand the reasons for their apparent predisposition to converge as a mere reflection of the general crisis of capitalist production.


1. Capital, Vol. I (Chicago: Kerr, 1906), p. 20.

2. Ibid., p. 19.

3. F. Engels in Capital, Vol. II (Chicago: Kerr, 1909), p. 27.

4. W.C. Mitchell, Types of Economic Theory, Vol. II (New York: Kelley, 1969), p. 117.

5. H. Meissner, Burgerliche Ökonomie im Modernen Kapitalismus (Berlin: Dietz, 1967), pp. 684-85.