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Marx and the Ancients: Classical Ethics, Social Justice, and Nineteenth-Century Political Economy.

By George E. McCarthy, Savage, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1990. Pp. xii, 342. $46.50. "Without an appreciation for Epicurus's theories of happiness and nature or Aristotle's theory of universal and particular justice, the purpose of Marx's later analyses of the classical political economy of Ricardo. Smith, and Malthus would be lost." Puzzled? If so, it is worth noting that the very purpose of McCarthy's book is to substantive and develop this unusual claim as put forward by the author himself at the beginning of his introduction. If the reader's specialization is, according to the new JEL classification, B3 (History of Thought: Individuals), reading this book is a must. But if only the reader's specialization were the adjacent B1 (History of Economic Thought through 1925) this reading might turn out to be a waste of time. Indeed, what McCarthy (who holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology plus an M.A. and Ph.D in philosophy) seems to have done by writing this book is the same job that he thinks everybody does and Marx did par excellence in writing his later works: i.e., a further development, explication and expansion of the initial Ph.D. dissertation. Now, while this may or may not be true with regard to the relationships between Marx's Grundrisse, Theories of Surplus Value and Capital, on the one hand, and his early dissertation on the Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature plus the related Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy on the other (most scholars with a specialization other than B1 may indeed regard the whole issue as irrelevant), one should find McCarthy's two Ph.D theses an early proof that his present book, whatever the progress that its author may have made in the meantime, belongs to the field of philosophy rather than to that of economics (not to speak of the "nineteenth-century political economy" mentioned in the book's title in lieu of "classical political economy"). It is not by chance, therefore, that the weakest chapter of the book is the one where the author deals with the relationship between Ricardo and Marx, a crucial topic for everybody interested in classical political economy. It is perhaps this weakness that accounts for the sharp contradictions that seem to lie in what McCarthy probable believes to be his strongest conclusions. For instance, when he quotes Marx's criticisms of the "natural laws" of nineteenth-century political economy" in the sense that "thus there has been history, but there is no longer any", he overlooks the sobering fact that this statement applies to some of Marx's predictions in the first place, and particularly to the latter's famous law of the falling rate of profit (not to speak of the fact that, although this phenomenon was known and discussed by the classics, the term "law" was not used in this connection before Marx). Likewise, when McCarthy says in the wake of a familiar Marxian tradition that "the social contradictions between modern science and technology and the social form of economic organization result in an inefficient and irrational society with its economic crises, poverty, human misery, unemployment, overproduction and underconsumption" (which brings him to the old-fashioned conclusion that "capitalism is therefore condemned"), he seems to ignore what has actually happened in the socialist countries of yesterday--and, in particular, in the condition (not only material) of their working classes.

This insensitivity to what has been happening in the real world may indeed be a further result of the author's main thesis, whereby the real core of Marx's system of thought is not the logic of political economy, but the logic of ethics. Now, by shifting the study of the relationship between Marx and the classics from the field of economic theory to the field of ethics, McCarthy locks himself in a position whereby he ends up not only by misreading and underating the classics but also by eventually doing a questionable service to Marx himself. This is clearly brought to light in the final chapter where all the pieces laid out throughout the book are nicely pulled together. Here the author first collapses Marx's vis polemica into seven different types of critique (called, respectively, the normative critique, the immanent critique, the critique of fetishism, the critique of political economy, the dialectical critique, the historical critique, and the critique as crisis theory), and then points out that his intention in this book was to show that the last four forms of critique (with which economists are most familiar) rest on the first three types (which are based, according to McCarthy, on the value judgements that Marx derives from Epicurus, Aristotle, etc.). That this is a disservice to Marx is proved by the consideration that, if McCarthy's argument were founded, Marx would cease to be an economist and would become one of the numberless and controversial characters who populate the broad field of philosophy and ethics since the beginning of historical time. Ferdinando Meacci University of Padua
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Author:Meacci, Ferdinando
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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