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      Content-Plurality and Political-Unity in the Debate on the Transformation Problem



            The paper presents a guideline to discuss a collective strategy for dealing with the controversy on the transformation problem of values into prices. The main argument is that the individual search for solutions to the transformation problem creates a variety of models that weaken the Marxist field in economics if they are seen as competing, adversary proposals, with each one possessing the pretension of being the unique correct path. This individualist procedure generates misunderstandings among authors that are on the same side in the political struggle against capitalist ideology in Political Economy. Accordingly, every single individual solution that seeks to defend Marx's theory must be supported in an organized framework aiming at the union. Five steps for this organization are presented in the hope of contributing to a collective engagement with the transformation problem.


            Author and article information

            World Review of Political Economy
            Pluto Journals
            1 April 2021
            : 12
            : 1 ( doiID: 10.13169/worlrevipoliecon.12.issue-1 )
            : 86-105
            © 2021 World Association for Political Economy

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            Political economics
            Sraffa,value theory,class struggle,philosophy of praxis,transformation problem


            1. That is why Engels ([1894] 2004) refers to “Conrads Jahrbücher [Conrad's Yearbooks], XI, 1885, S. 452–465” when indicating Lexis's work. This nickname of the journal refers to Johannes Conrad, who was one of the editors of the journal since the 1870s and had a great influence over its editorial policy. On the history of the journal Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik, see Krawehl (1977). Engels's comment is a powerful insight into the political implications of the standard solution to the transformation problem. The following argument relies on a specific passage of Engels's preface to Volume 3 of Capital beginning with “In his critique of the second volume (Conrads Jahrbücher, XI, 1885, S. 452–465), Professor Lexis took up the question, although he did not care to offer a direct solution” (Engels [1894] 2004). So, Engels is referring to the work of Wilhelm Lexis called Die Marx'sche Kapitaltheorie [Marx Capital Theory] published in the Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik [Yearbooks for National Economy and Statistics] (Lexis 1885).

            2. Kurz (1995) explains that there were various authors who adopted such understanding in the period between 1870 and 1930, i.e. that the marginal utility theory of value and the labour theory of value (including Marx's) were not mutually exclusive theories, but two valid analytical perspectives with specific characteristics. For an extensive bibliography list of authors who thought this way, see the seminar on the relationship between marginalist economics and socialism edited by Steedman (1995).

            3. The tables bring a representative selection of contributions and are not intended to map all publications.

            4. For a detailed account of the contributions of phase 1, see Howard and King (1995) and Schefold (2004). Howard and King (1995) explain that Böhm-Bawerk's critique was not as clever as other anti-Marxist authors, indicating that some of the authors had already understood that if a solution was found, then the only way to counterpose Marx's theory was to claim that it was redundant and not contradictory. Such was the position of Sombart and Schmidt, as well as of Wilhelm Lexis.

            5. Lucas (2018) argues differently and indicates that there is analytical continuity between Dmitriev ([1898] 1974), Bortkiewicz ([1907] 1949), Shibata (1933), Seton (1957) and Sraffa (1960), even if the authors did not build their models based on a previous one.

            6. For details on the phases of the debate, see Camarinha Lopes (2019).

            7. The agglutination of these contributions does not mean that there is no relevant difference between them. It means that these differences must be worked out considering the broader context to which I am calling attention to.

            8. I refer to Moseley (2016) as a parameter to organize the argument of the paper for two main reasons. First, he makes an extensive review of the reactions to the Sraffa-shock and second, despite offering yet another interpretation with pretension to be the correct one, he is open to engaging in the discussion about strategy and not only content.

            9. By the way, that is the same strong point of the New Interpretation of the 1980s. The political influence is significant because the interpretation is only a peripheral tool. The main contribution of these currents is to mobilize, not to solve the technicalities of the transformation problem.

            10. For the substitution of the critique of contradiction by the critique of redundancy, see Camarinha Lopes (2013a).

            11. See, for example, Bellofiore (2014) and Mongiovi (2017).

            12. Neo-Ricardianism and Sraffianism should be understood as vulgar forms of Sraffa's ideas. They allow the recovery of the surplus approach of Physiocracy and Classical Political Economy but refrain from rehabilitating Marx as well.

            13. I thank Bertram Schefold for helping me to discover this.

            14. Despite being aware of this difference, as a careful reading of Moseley's answer to David Laibman indicates (Moseley 2016, 365), Moseley does not apply this awareness to address the concrete problems of the controversy of the third phase. He insists on merging both types of critique as one unique attack against Marx's theory. It is true that they represent the same political force against Marxism in economics. However, their content is qualitatively different, demanding us to repel them with different weapons. The analytical approach and the focus on content will not dismantle the accusation of redundancy.

            15. This reappraisal seems to be necessary because the relationship between Marx's Political Economy and the most radical streams of socialist economics must always be addressed within circles where Marxism is not the dominant paradigm, as it is the case with economic science in the West. As we can infer from Engels's ([1880] 1973) synthesis, English Political Economy and French Socialist Politics may lead to socialist economics, which is based on the utopian perspective of socialism. Adding to the mixture of German Philosophy as it was appropriated by Marx takes us to a new modality of economic science, rooted in scientific socialism. The solution to the transformation problem necessarily leads the economist to study the continuities and ruptures between Marx and the economists before him, especially the most radical defenders of the labour theory of value who could be labelled as socialists, but not as Marxists.

            16. For further details on this, see Camarinha Lopes (2013b), which focuses on the third step of the proposed guide to collective engagement with the transformation problem.


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