Marx - Labor Theory of Value
September 11, 2010 7:53 AM   Subscribe

I'm reading Marx's "Capital" Vol. I and I'm looking for a "Dummy's Guide" to his economic theories.

I'm at a disadvantage because I've never studied economics. I understand that the "labor theory of value" that Marx depended on is now considered discredited and that something called the "marginal theory of value" has taken its place. Can someone recommend a book or books that would enable me to understand why the technical fundamentals of "Capital" might be considered wrong (or right) in today's world? I'm not interested in social or philosophical criticism, and I'm not interested in why "Marxism" turned out so incredibly badly, but in something like an "updating" that would place "Capital" in a contemporary economic context? Pretty tall order, might be impossible.
posted by facetious to Law & Government (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
There's the course "Reading Marx's Capital".
posted by rdr at 8:02 AM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Marx For Beginners
posted by 3.2.3 at 8:15 AM on September 11, 2010

Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography (Books That Changed the World) by Francis Wheen
posted by mfoight at 8:44 AM on September 11, 2010

something like an "updating" that would place "Capital" in a contemporary economic context?

The chapter on Marx in Worldly Philosophers does this.
posted by nangar at 8:49 AM on September 11, 2010

Seconding Marx for Beginners... It's comic book-y, so you don't think you're reading something too heavy.

Also, I'd start with The German Ideology, which will give you a philosophical background into Capital.
posted by chicago2penn at 9:10 AM on September 11, 2010

I don't think today's traditional economic theory would help you in understanding Marx's theories. They belong to different universes that don't overlap much. If you can get a hold of Mark Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect, take a look at that, you might find it useful.
posted by caelumluna at 9:22 AM on September 11, 2010

Take a look at Ernest Mandel's An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory. On a less introductory level, Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital aimed to do something like the "updating" you're discussing.
posted by RogerB at 9:31 AM on September 11, 2010

Marx, A Beginner's Guide

I've read Energy from this publisher's "Beginner's Series" and enjoyed it. There's a sample chapter pdf on their site.
posted by JulianDay at 10:42 AM on September 11, 2010

Thirding Marx for Beginners. This was the original "For Beginners" book, which was not produced as part of a commercial publisher's scheme. It was originally created for the political education of poor Mexican workers. So, although it is a 'cartoon book', it is a much more committed and in-depth effort than any of the others in the "For Beginners" series (and their close equivalent rival series) which were created as a for-profit gimmicky scheme aimed as a Cliff's Notes series for undergraduates. (some publisher bought the rights to the original Marx for Beginners and then hired writers and artists to create new "For Beginners" for a series. None of these match the depth of the Marx and their quality tends to be very uneven).
Marx of Beginners is of course just one cartoonist's reading of Marx and it is necessarily a simplification, and I'm sure many Marxian/Marxist scholars would quibble with many of his book's details...
posted by Bwithh at 11:38 AM on September 11, 2010

The highly respected Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry on Marx. Since SEP is a philosophy encyclopedia, not an economics encyclopedia, the entry isn't mostly about economics. But SEP's section on Marx's economics explains in a few fairly readable paragraphs how his "labor theory of value" has been debunked by subsequent events and economic theory.

SEP notes that Marx's prediction that capitalist profits would decline, and capitalism itself would decline along with them, has obviously failed the test of time. Lenin tried to explain away this failure by arguing, in his book Imperialism, that industrialized countries forestall their demise by usurping profits from poor countries. I'm getting this from Economic Facts and Fallacies by Thomas Sowell, pp. 208-9. Sowell shows that Lenin's explanation, though it was "politically satisfying," was also grossly misleading and contradicted by the facts.
posted by John Cohen at 12:45 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I haven't read it, but David Harvey's Limits of Capital is considered the fairly authoritative work on contemporary (or recent) Marxist political economy. The author is fairly explicitly a Marxist himself, but it might be helpful in connecting the ideas in Capital to contemporary economic theory.
posted by goodglovin77 at 5:11 PM on September 11, 2010

One of the few recent attempts (after the official textbooks of countries such as the USSR and China) to create a Marxist economics textbook (as in, the newest editions are from 2005) are by Belgian academic Jacques Gouverneur. They are Understanding the Economy: The Hidden Face of Economic Phenomena and The Foundations of Capitalist Economy: An Introduction to the Marxist Analysis of Contemporary Capitalism. The PDFs are totally free without registration or anything like that. They're available in French, Spanish and English.

They're pretty much the same book, but Understanding the Economy is in A4 paper size (so if you live in the US and want to print it out on US Letter size paper, this is the file to choose) and Foundations of Capitalist Economy is in A5 paper size, which might make for better reading on the screen. Here's a blog post quoting the e-mail Gouverneur sent out announcing his work.

Finally, the Labor Theory of Value is not totally dead. Here's a 1998 paper by Anwar Shaikh that attempts to show its "empirical strength" (although without having studied economics it's probably not useful at all, unlike the above textbooks which I think are geared at a beginning undergraduate level).
posted by Gnatcho at 8:51 PM on September 11, 2010

The problem is that marxist economics, like capitalist economics, haven't been introduced in the real world (a lot of people love to point out that if "free marketeers" actually read Adam Smith, they'd realize he doesn't say everything they want him to say). So the whole histories of colonialism, imperialism, and neo-imperialism have done a lot to destroy (and build up) various economies, regardless of how well-intentioned the economies were/are. If I try to set up a communist economy, and the United States invades and bombs me for a decade with chemical weapons and, even after they leave, I have to deal with the legacies of devastation and generations of maimed and disfigured people, don't be quick to criticize my economist if the books are a little off.

That said...
I don't want to take away from a lot of the other great suggestions on here, but I'd love to strongly recommend the underrated "Introduction To Marx And Engels: A Critical Reconstruction, Second Edition" by Richard Schmitt. I have several intros to Marx in my library and of all of them, this one was so well read and shared by roommates, visitors, and friends that the cover is just falling off and it is all bent out of shape. It's a really great book.
posted by history is a weapon at 8:06 AM on September 12, 2010

David Harvey's more recent books are probably a better entry point than "Limits to Capital", which doesn't do a lot of hand-holding. Harvey's "A Companion to MArx's Capital" is the book version of his popular Capital Vol. 1 class, and "The Enigma of Capital" presents an open framework for thinking about the history of and blockage points to capitalist growth. Duncan Foley's "Adam's Fallacy" is a Marxist answer to Heilbroner's classic "Worldly Philosophers" which I've heard good things about and will probably situate Marx more sympathetically vis a vis bourgeois economists.
posted by nobeernotv at 8:36 PM on September 26, 2010

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