And Now for Something Completely Different

Robert Paul Wolff, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and African American Studies at UMass, has a great series of posts (still ongoing, first one here) on what he has being doing, which describes the evolution of his research on Marxist economics. In his last installment he says that:
"A good deal of Theology, Philosophy, History, Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, and of course Economics is devoted to answering ... three questions.

The three questions are:

1. Who Gets the Surplus?
2. How do the Surplus Getters get the Surplus? and
3. What do the Surplus Getters do With the Surplus After They Get It?"
This suggests that the surplus approach is actually the unifying theme of social sciences. Seems about right.

PS: Of course modern mainstream economics has abandoned the notion of the surplus, and has tried (still is trying with some degree of success, I might add) to colonize other social sciences.


  1. I can't say I always agree with Prof. Wolff, but he has interesting things to say and he says them with grace and humour.

    On Marx's literary style:

    "Needless to say, this [Wolff's own view] was not then, nor is it today, the common view of Marx's ideas and their literary form. The majority opinion, as I observed in Moneybags [Must be so Lucky, one of Wolff's books], has always been what might be thought of as the public health or childhood polio interpretation of Capital. According to this reading, Marx as a young man contracted a nearly fatal case of the particularly virulent strain of Hegelism that raged pandemically throughout Germany during the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century. Although he somehow managed to survive the illness, he was intellectually crippled for life. Hence it is simply bad manners to mock him as he drags himself painfully, awkwardly from concept to concept in the realm of Ideas. Rather we ought to marvel that he can traverse the distance from the premises to the conclusion of an argument, and we ought scarcely to expect him to ascend a ratiocinatio polysyllogistica like Fred Astaire tip-tapping his way up a flight of stairs. The British version of this rather curious literary theory, put forward most notably by the doyenne of English Marxists, Joan Robinson, simply has it that Marx was German, and hence was unable to achieve the clarity and simplicity of Locke, Hume, Bentham, Smith, or Ricardo".

    1. I find really interesting that coming from philosophy he gets, better than almost all economists, the relevance of Sraffa for bringing back Marx and the surplus approach.

    2. Marx only posed as a Hegelian. He didn't actually understand Hegel at all. And it led to a lot of nonsense in his work. Americans generally don't understand Hegel either and think that his work has something to do with bad writing -- they generally make the same case against the post-structuralists. But in reality most of these American "philosophers" have repressed most actual philosophical questions in favour of some crude scientism.

      Oh, and Joan Robinson was not a Marxist.

    3. That's an astute comment... :-)

  2. Robert Paul Wolff's 'Understanding Marx' is fact, as Matias has noted in the past, it could be titled 'Understanding Sraffa'.


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