LABOUR HISTORY - MAURICE DOBB - REVIEW
of Value and Distribution since Adam Smith
[Labour History (Canberra), 38, May 1975, pp. 57-59.]
historians munch contentedly on their safe pastures, a controversy rages
which, if they were able to cope with anything more demanding than the
intricacies of footnoting, should excite them to new tasks and entirely
different questions. The dispute concerns ‘capital theory’ and its
storm centres are Cambridge in England and Cambridge in Massachusetts.
Dobb’s new book cannot be understood outside this discussion because
it is intended to approach its central issue through a retelling of the
way in which economists have considered capital in the last 200 years.
The point in
contention is this: what is capital? Joan Robinson identified the
missing link over twenty years ago:
If capital has not
been quantified, and if it is not equated with capital equipment, then
the Marxist definition that capital is a social relationship re-takes
the stage. Yet there are ideological reasons why such a definition has
to be resisted by bourgeois economists. If capital is a social relations
then profit is a product of that relationship, of the class struggle.
The rate of profit ceases to be an algebraic puzzle and is conditioned
by the relative strength of the contending classes.
Before some rude longhair eventually asked the lecturer which
side of the class struggle he was on, and that would prick the bubble of
value-free positive economics.
The implications of
‘capital theory’ do not stop with economists and their ilk, but
break through the centre of the practice of history, making ‘labour
history’ an impossibility, intellectual barren and misguided in its
formulation of problems. The import of ‘capital theory’ for
so-called social history will be no devastating. In both cases,
“capital theory’ directs attention onto the social relations between
capital and labour, spotlighting the one-sidedness of ‘labour
history’ and the chitty-chattiness of ‘social history’. For this
perception to carry maximum effect, the concept of capital as a social
relation must be allied to the emphasis that French Marxists are giving
to the centrality of the mode of production (social relationships) for a
science of history.
For anyone totally
unacquainted with ‘capital theory’, this book is not the place to
begin. Instead, an earlier volume of Dobb’s, Political
Economy and Capitalism (1937), should be read. If that work is
difficult to obtain, its core has been reprinted in a Penguin selection
of readings, A Critique of Economic Theory, edited by E. K. Hunt and Jesse G.
Schwartz. Step two in a reading programme might as well be G.
Harcourt’s article in a 1969 issue of the Journal
of Economic Literature. From there, it is largely a matter of
following one’s nose through the footnoted references, although the
witty chapter VII of volume one of Capital
should be sampled hereabouts.
Even outside the
‘capital theory’ controversy, Dobb’s latest writing will be of use
to teachers. There is an introductory chapter on ideology which needs to
be read by everyone in every self-styled discipline. Chapters in Smith,
Ricardo, the anti-Ricardians, Mill, Marx and the Jevonians are all
masterly expositions, notable for their sparse precision and ease of
presentation. Each would make an wonderful addition to reading guides on the history of economic thought. One
important criticism of the new book is that, unlike Political Economy and Capitalism, it makes no attempt to relate
changes in economic theory to changes in the political economy of
Communist past, Dobb is no longer a Marxist, but his work, along with of
the other Cambridge neo-Ricardians, et
al., has brought Marxism back to the heart of academic debates. The
task of carrying it forward into the study of society remains for
others, especially the working class in their practices. Scholarly works
will require empirical investigations employing the actualities within
Marx’s early dictum that ‘History is the history of class