Joan Robinson’s open letter from a Keynesian to a Marxist

It is now on-line (via Kieran Healy), here is one excerpt:

When I say I understand Marx better than you, I don’t mean to say that I know the text better than you do. If you start throwing quotations at me you will have me baffled in no time. In fact, I refuse to play before you begin.

What I mean is that I have Marx in my bones and you have him in your mouth. To take an example – the idea that constant capital is an embodiment of labour power expended in the past. To you this is something that has to be proved with a lot of Hegelian stuff and nonsense. Whereas I say (though I do not use such pompous terminology): ‘Naturally – what else did you think it could be?’

…Now, suppose I say to a Marxist: ‘Look at this bit – does he mean the stock or the flow?’ The Marxist says: ‘C means constant capital,’ and he gives me a little lecture about the philosophical meaning of constant capital. I say: ‘Never mind about constant capital, hasn’t he mistaken the stock for the flow?’ The the Marxist says: ‘How could he make a mistake? Don’t you know that he was a genius?’ And he gives me a little lecture on Marx’s genius. I think to myself: This man may be a Marxist, but he doesn’t know much about geniuses. Your plodding mind goes step by step, and has time to be careful and avoids slips. Your genius wears seven-league boots, and goes striding along, leaving a paper-chase of little mistakes behind him (and who cares?). I say: ‘Never mind about Marx’s genius. Is this the stock or is it the flow?’ Then the Marxist gets rather huffy and changes the subject. And I think to myself: This man may be a Marxist, but he doesn’t know much about riding a bicycle.

And at the end:

Keynes turned the question back again. He started thinking in Ricardo’s terms: output as a whole and why worry about a cup of tea? When you are thinking about output as a whole, relative prices come out in the wash – including the relative price of money and labour. The price level comes into the argument, but it comes in as a complication, not as the main point. If you have had some practice on Ricardo’s bicycle you do not need to stop and ask yourself what to do in a case like that, you just do it. You assume away the complication till you have got the main problem worked out. So Keynes began by getting money prices out of the way. Marshall’s cup of tea dissolved into thin air. But if you cannot use money, what unit of value do you take? A man hour of labour time. It is the most handy and sensible measure of value, so naturally you take it. You do not have to prove anything, you just do it.

Well there you are – we are back on Ricardo’s large questions, and we are using Marx’s unit of value. What is it that you are complaining about?

Do not for heaven’s sake bring Hegel into it. What business has Hegel putting his nose in between me and Ricardo?


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