Arguments for Socialism by Paul Cockshott and David Zachariah. Amazon Kindle E-Book, 2011, $3.

Paul Cockshott’s new E-Book, Arguments for Socialism, is a collection of his articles written since the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with a number of contributions from David Zachariah. The articles fall broadly into three main categories: 1) those which argue for the development of Marxism, and more specifically Marxist economics, as an objective and empirically falsifiable scientific theory through the application of methods developed in the natural sciences; 2) articles dealing with imperialism, nationalism and democracy; and 3) the explanation and application of the approach to planned economy that Cockshott developed in his previous work Towards a New Socialism.

In the first set of articles, Cockshott is concerned to rescue Marxism from a creeping idealism and return it to the path of scientific socialism. In 21st Century Marxism, Cockshott puts forward his program. To succeed in its fight for socialism the working class must develop and extend its own Marxist political economy. This must draw upon the theoretical contributions of Soviet planners and “should not hesitate to use the advances in other sciences – statistical mechanics, information theory, computability theory” to both better model the capitalist economy and provide an enriched theoretical framework for the building of a planned economy.

He argues that it is also crucial that it break with the “speculative philosophical method of much of Western Marxism” and instead pursue an objective, empirically testable, scientific socialist approach. Cockshott’s impulse here needs to be taken seriously by anyone who doesn’t want to see Marxism relegated to English departments or for it to be understood by today’s scientists and philosophers of science as a flavor of relativist social constructivism or historicism. Marxism must regain its ground as a thoroughly scientific method and worldview, and as a tool for changing the world. This is what Cockshott is arguing for with his plea for the further development of Marxist political economy on an objective basis.

Cockshott sets forth what he views as the task of today’s Marxist economists: “to counter and critique the theories of market liberalism as effectively as Marx critiqued the capitalist economists of his day.” Cockshott argues that in order to confront the reigning neo-liberal orthodoxy and a corresponding lack of confidence among left economists we need to work to further develop Marxist economic theory with the same sort of scientific rigor, and through the application of the most up-to-date quantitative methods that are currently employed within the natural sciences.

Cockshott is at his strongest when he is describing what separates Marxist economics from the dominant marginal utility theory. He employs a useful analogy between the measurement of heat through temperature and the measurement of value through labor-time. In both cases an objective scientific approach uncovers ways of quantitatively measuring what is an essential category (heat for thermo-dynamics and value for economics) by means of the measurement of key appearances of it. Marginal utility theory abandons this connection to the objective essential structure of reality in favor of a merely relational approach to value that sets a subjective category, utility, at its center which may or may not be quantifiable depending on the particular flavor of the theory.

This connection to essential objective economic categories or lack thereof is what separates the two outlooks. Here Cockshott uncovers a key methodological difference between Marxist and bourgeois perspectives, one which holds across a variety of disciplines including philosophy, philosophy of science, history, politics and economics. Following this understanding of Marxist political economy Cockshott sees it as vitally important to place the labor-theory of value at the center of debates within economics.

Cockshott is correct in the distinction that he draws between Marxism as an objective economic theory based on the category of value and its relationship to the labor process vs. other economic theories which take a subjective merely relational measure such as utility as their basis, however, the falsification standard that he then puts forward for scientific socialism curiously appears to have been borrowed from Karl Popper. American and British philosophy of science have largely moved away such positivist standards and the focus has instead shifted to the explanatory power of theories and other types of theory confirmation.

I believe we should regard this as a healthy move. But quite aside from the current trends within analytic philosophy of science, it is important to recognize that Marxism has its own tradition in philosophy and philosophy of science that includes figures such as Marx and Engels, Lenin, Bukharin and those influenced by him within the USSR during the 1930’s, the British Marxist Scientists, as well as Georg Lukács and other Marxist philosophers in the Eastern Bloc.

I think we need to look here rather than to Karl Popper or other positivist sources in approaching the question of standards of scientific rigor, the connection between essential objective categories and empirical results, as well as other methodological and epistemological questions.

In pursuit of his project of the enrichment of Marxist economics and his search for theoretical confirmation of the theory, Cockshott looks toward a relatively new hybrid discipline of econophysics and more specifically to the work of the Israeli mathematicians Emmanuel Farjoun and Moshe Machover and those who have built on their work. Although I am not qualified to assess its specific successes, the initial project raised by Machover and Farjoun of attempting to apply the mathematical methods developed in statistical mechanics to Marxist economics is completely reasonable and seems worthy of further investigation.

However, econophysics seems to be going far beyond this. It is attempting to directly borrow these types of equations from physics and then often draws direct analogical equivalences between the physical processes described by these equations and the economic processes of a market economy. Hence Cockshott ends up speaking of the hybrid of a “Gibbs-Boltzmann distribution of money” in relation to income distribution and says things like the following: “Just as energy is conserved in collisions between molecules, so money is conserved in the acts of buying and selling. So far so obvious!”

Or perhaps not so obvious? Why should we think that there is such a strong analogy between the behavior of heat energy in a gas and the behavior of money in an economy? Simply because both are unpredictable at a micro level and the mathematical equation seems to fit, or more precisely because various elements of a market economy have been plugged into equations borrowed from thermodynamics? We are dealing here with fundamentally different processes that belong to different spheres of being, that of inorganic physical processes and that of a highly developed and complex component of social existence and although quantitative relationships exist within both types of processes, we have no reason to expect such a direct analogy.

The result of this direct borrowing from physics seems to be very crude models of economic processes where it is unclear what exactly, if anything, these tell us about the capitalist economy. There is then the further problem of the claims which Cockshott seeks to make based on these models. When Cockshott argues that we are provided with confirmation of the labor theory of value because prices cluster around labor values this seems plausible (although beyond my competency to evaluate), but when he, following the work of the econophysicist Yakovenko, finds confirmation of the existence of classes within a “Gibbs-Boltzmann distribution of money” with the addition of a power law to explain the initial lack of fit, this seems extremely confused. Marxist classes are not defined based on income distribution, but rather by the role that different groups play in the process of production, their ownership or lack of ownership of the means of production.

The confirmation of the correctness of Marx’s understanding of the class divisions within capitalist society comes from our knowledge about how production and the ownership of the means of production is in fact organized within capitalism. These class divisions are certainly reflected in a certain way within income distribution, but to look to income distribution for the confirmation of the existence of classes seems misguided. One gets the impression that what is going on here is that Marxist concepts are being made to fit a an equation borrowed from thermodynamics rather than this equation really effectively explaining or modeling the capitalist economy.

That this sort of error is taking place is indicated by the title of one of Cockshott’s articles itself: “How Physics is Validating the Labor Theory of Value”. Physics cannot validate the labor theory of value. Only economics can, with mathematics aiding economics in describing quantitative relationships. At times Cockshott seems clear that this is what is taking place and while Cockshott might argue that this formulation is in the interest of popularizing such an approach, I think the problem here is closely related to the broader mistaken conception of econophysics described above. Here is an even more egregious example: “modern physics has shown that not only was Marx right in his basic analysis, but he was right because his conclusions follow from the most basic laws of physics, the laws of thermodynamics.”

Marxists need to be extremely careful in this area. First of all this is not why Marx was right. He was right because he successfully identified the basic categories of a capitalist economy and began the process of accurately describing their qualitative and quantitative relationships. Second of all, the laws of thermodynamics or physics itself cannot directly tell us anything about economic processes which fall in an ontologically distinct sphere of social existence.

While social existence is in the last analysis based in organic and inorganic being, our quantitative models and equations that we use to describe fundamental physical processes cannot directly tell us anything about the emergent processes of higher spheres of being. The accumulation of our abstract knowledge of quantitative relationships in the discipline of mathematics can be applied to social processes such as those of economics, but this must be clearly and carefully stated and crude applications of physical theories such as those of thermodynamics or of seismology (also in vogue among econophysicists) must be avoided.

Marxism not only needs to regain its stature in the area of economics, but also in the areas of philosophy and philosophy of science and these types of errors could easily serve to discredit it as a philosophical approach equal to or superior to that of competing trends in bourgeois philosophy. The project of attempting to make use of mathematical tools or other methodological advances that have been developed through their application in the natural sciences is promising and increasing collaboration between disciplines is necessary. The goal of reestablishing Marxism as a scientific socialism is one we should all be striving for. However, we need to look to the very rich philosophical tradition of Marx and Engels, Lenin and his students for the standards with which we evaluate our progress in this direction, and for the philosophical guidelines for how this can be accomplished.

This same advice could be applied to other sections of the book as well. Cockshott and Zachariah both appear to look to ancient Athens for their concept of radical democracy which they then seek to apply to the Soviet Union and their proposals for future planned economies. This ends up being extremely problematic, because there is no serious attempt to describe why the political forms of ancient Greece can or should be applied to societies with a monopoly capitalist or socialist economic base. The most we are provided with are utopian-style responses to objections about whether such forms would be workable or relatively shallow observations about the history of the USSR. Putting forward practical proposals based on such an ahistorical conception of democracy leads to utopianism.

This is a step backward from what Marx and his followers have achieved in understanding the relationship between economic and political forms. Real solutions to the problem of democracy in socialist societies cannot be borrowed from ancient Athens, but rather one must start with the concrete economic and political situation of the societies in question and then attempt to analyze what forms of popular control are both possible and necessary for a successful socialist development and what existing processes can be leveraged to assist in the development of such forms. This is relevant both in the development practical proposals and in the formation of short and long term goals.

One sees a similar utopian detachment in relation to the question of nationalism in Europe. Cockshott, who holds an extremely negative one-sided view of nationalism, argues that the left in Europe should work to realize socialism through a strengthening of European institutions and a reduction of power of the nation states of Europe. In fact the advocacy of such a course within the current political and economic situation shows a concrete lack of internationalism in relation to the left in the poorer states of the EU whose hope lies in using their national sovereignty to combat the undemocratic dictates of European capital.

On the one hand the authors have correctly zeroed in on what are key problems for Marxism. How to oppose the idealist distortions of Marxism that have become commonplace amongst left intellectuals? How to reorient Marxism on its scientific socialist origins? In what ways can the methods and insights of the natural sciences, mathematics and computer and information science enrich Marxism? How can we rescue the notion of socialist planning in light of the collapse of the USSR? What insights can be derived from the Soviet experience for those countries that are pursuing a socialist path? On the other, the quality of the answers provided is uneven and they are sometimes idiosyncratic and utopian.

The writings are strongest when they are dealing with Marxist economics and the project which Cockshott convincingly advocates: that of enriching Marxist economics with new mathematical techniques, treating it as a rigorous objective science and thereby increasing its capacity as a guide for action in our interactions with the capitalist economy and the institution of economic planning in our move beyond it, deserves our utmost attention.

February 27, 2012