The last time, I wrote about Stephen Resnick’s approach to teaching. Here, I want to consider his written work.
I’m not going to attempt to cover everything listed on his long curriculum vitae. What I want to do is pick out and comment on a few pieces that, to my mind, are emblematic of his pioneering contributions to extending and reconceptualizing the Marxian critique of political economy.
Let me start with two quick observations. First, much of what Resnick wrote and published over the years, he did so with his long-time friend and comrade Richard Wolff. What I write then about Resnick’s work, especially from 1979 onward, should be understood as an appreciation of the writings of both Resnick and Wolff.
Second, there is a gap of about four years in his curriculum vitae, from 1975 to 1979, which is absolutely crucial—and admirable. That’s the period during which Resnick stopped publishing, in order to focus on two other projects: the building of the new Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and a rethinking of Marxian theory. The first project took up a great deal of time and energy, and Resnick dedicated himself to working with others (not only Wolff but also Sam Bowles, Herb Gintis, Jim Crotty, and Donald Katzner, among others) to create a department where Marxian economics would, after a long hiatus, have a home in the United States.* The second project was born out of a frustration with the received tradition of Marxian economics, and the only way to move beyond it was to sit down with the texts of that tradition, both classic and new, and to initiate a project of rethinking Marxian theory. That involved identifying the distinguishing characteristics of Marxism (what made it different not only from mainstream economics but also from other radical traditions) and then pushing it in new directions (of which more below).
But before I get to that work, I want to go back in time a bit and focus on two articles that, in my view, represent the most interesting dimensions of Resnick’s work before UMass. They are:
“A Model of an Agrarian Economy with Non-Agricultural Activities” (with Stephen Hymer), American Economic Review (September 1969): 493-506
“The State of Development Economics,” American Economic Review, Proceedings (May 1975): 317-22
In the first, Resnick and Stephen Hymer went beyond the usual neoclassical labor-leisure tradeoff model by incorporating, for an agrarian economy, a third possibility: “Z activities.” These were meant to represent a wide variety of nonagricultural nonleisure activities such as processing, manufacturing, construction, transportation, and service activities to satisfy the needs for food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, and ceremony. This allowed them to argue against the neoclassical proposition that the course of capitalist development could simply be reduced to the replacing of leisure by work. Instead, by paying attention to the “complex mosaic of agrarian life,” they could emphasize the effects of the growth of markets and increased exchange between town and country—not only with increased specialization and production (of both food and manufactured goods, at the expense of Z goods) but also the economic and social costs of the disruption of the economic and social structure of rural areas, including the immiseration of important parts of the population. My sense is, even though a certain language is largely absent, and the analytical tools they use are pretty standard neoclassical ones, Resnick and Hymer are drawing on many of the themes of a Marxian analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
Resnick put those issues up front in his 1975 critique of bourgeois development economics. He notes, at the start, the differences between the “underlying theories of value” informing neoclassical and Marxian approaches to development and identifies, in language that would be familiar to mainstream economists, the problems inherent in their method:
Simply put, the neoclassical approach is misspecified because of the omission of production relations and thus yields biased policy conclusions and unreliable predictions. Further, although this approach has recently appended to its analysis the more obvious social and political issues, they are added as unexamined external givens never seen as the direct outgrowth of the underlying structure of production, i.e., the value relation between labor and labor power. Neoclassical development cannot analyze anything outside of a framework of market or exchange relationships because that is the theory upon which it is based; it is trapped not by inadequate data or lack of “better” models, but rather by its narrow focus on supply and demand and its total neglect of those historic forces that have produced international relations of production and technology based upon an exploitive system of one class over another.
Resnick then proceeds to tell a radically different story, albeit a pretty traditional Marxian story (replete with a falling rate of profit and the exploitation of some countries by others), of the history of capitalism and imperialism in the Third World.
And that was the last time Resnick would be permitted to publish his research in a mainstream economics journal. After that—after his publicly becoming identified as a Marxist—the doors of the mainstream wing of the profession were closed to him.
Once the new department was up and running, and considerable progress had been made in the project of rethinking Marxism (with Wolff and in discussion with some of the doctoral students at UMass), Resnick published the results in three key articles:
“The Theory of Transitional Conjunctures and the Transition From Feudalism to Capitalism in Western Europe” (with Richard Wolff), Review of Radical Political Economics (Fall 1979): 3-22
“Marxist Epistemology” (with Richard Wolff), Social Text (November) 1982: 31-72**
“Classes in Marxian Theory” (with Richard Wolff), Review of Radical Political Economics (Winter 1982), 1-18**
In the theory of “Theory of Transitional Conjunctures,” Resnick and Wolff announced their new understanding of “Marxist social science” and then illustrated their approach with an intervention into the discussion of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe. They rely heavily on the work of Louis Althusser to argue that Marx inaugurated a radical break from other social sciences—based on a different epistemology (an alternative to both rationalism and empiricism), a different methodology (based on overdetermination, and thus a rejection of all forms of essentialism, including theoretical humanism and economic determinism), and a specific definition of class (focused on the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor). They then use their rethinking of Marxian theory to identify various ways Marx’s “simple sketch” of the transition from feudalism to capitalism had been interpreted by other Marxists—from Paul Sweezy-Maurice Dobb through Immanuel Wallerstein—and to produce their own interpretation of that transition. Their view is that it is necessary to focus on the contradictions between the feudal class relation (specified in terms of what they refer to as fundamental and subsumed classes) and its social conditions of existence, out of which the conditions of existence of a different class relation—that of capitalism—were produced, which in turn undermined what remained of the feudal class process.
In the Social Text article, Resnick and Wolff explain in more detail what they mean by a specifically Marxist epistemology. They explain how rethinking dialectical materialism in terms of overdetermination rules out the various essentialisms that have characterized the pendulum swings within debates in the Marxist tradition (back and forth between various forms of empiricism and rationalism, and between economic and humanist determinisms). They then trace the effects of those debates through various key theoreticians, including Marx and Engels, Lenin, Lukács, and Althusser. Their conclusion is that Marxian theory comprises a particular way of “thinking about society, history, and the process of thinking itself: dialectically materialist, anti-essentialist, and with class as its conceptual entry and goal point.”
Then, in “Classes in Marxian Theory,” Resnick and Wolff present the concepts of class they think are central to Marxian theory—concepts that are different both from the traditional Marxist “two-class model” and from more recent efforts to update that model by considering various other classes and class fractions (e.g., peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and the so-called professional-managerial class). Their solution takes the form of fundamental and subsumed classes, which is their way of bringing together the class analyses Marx carries out in volume 1 of Capital with those elaborated in volumes 2 and 3. In their view, Marxian class analysis is based on a double complexity: first, a difference between the production of surplus labor and its distribution; and second, the idea that individuals often occupy multiple, different class positions, both fundamental and subsumed. One of the results is that the “working class” is reconceptualized as a variable alliance of distinct classes, including both laborers who occupy both fundamental and subsumed class positions. Class struggles are similarly rethought: Resnick and Wolff shift the focus from the subject to the object of such conflicts. Thus, class struggles are redefined as collective efforts to change, either quantitatively or qualitatively, the extraction or distribution of surplus labor.
Five years later, Resnick and Wolff published two extraordinary books:
Economics: Marxism vs. Neoclassical (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987)
Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987)
The first was a product of and a testament to their commitment and skill as teachers. In it, Resnick and Wolff not only compared neoclassical and Marxian economic theories; they set forth a nondeterministic way of comparing the two theories, based on their entry points and logics, and their different consequences for analyzing economic events and institutions.***
The second has to be counted among the most significant books of twentieth-century Marxian theory. Resnick and Wolff accomplish nothing less than a wholesale rethinking of the basic concepts of the Marxian tradition, from the theory of knowledge through its methodological orientation to class analysis. They start with the basic proposition that “Marxian theory has a distinctive concept of what theory is” and then proceed to elaborate that distinctiveness in terms of both contemporary philosophy (through the work of such figures as Thomas Kuhn and Richard Rorty) and the Marxian tradition itself (from Marx and Engels through Althusser to Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst). Next, they discuss how Marxists can “construct a knowledge of an ever-changing overdetermined social totality.” During the remainder of the book, they present their rethinking of the concepts of Marxian class analysis, apply those concepts to some of the major arguments in Marx’s Capital, and produce specifically Marxian theories of capitalist enterprises and the state.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance for contemporary Marxism of Knowledge and Class. There is simply no major topic in our understanding and use of Marxian theory today that is not affected by the theoretical self-consciousness and thorough-going antiessentialism demonstrated in Resnick and Wolff’s reinterpretation of Marxian theory.
The tremendous impact of Resnick’s written work can be seen in his own later work as well as in the articles and books published by his former students and colleagues and in the pages of the journal Rethinking Marxism. I know that I could not have made my own modest contributions to the rethinking of Marxian theory without the theoretical inspiration and comradely encouragement provided by Resnick over the years.
*The story of those early years at UMass has been told by Donald W. Katzner in At the Edge of Camelot: Debating Economics in Turbulent Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). My review of Katzner’s book can be found here.
**These articles were reprinted in New Departures in Marxian Theory, ed. S. A. Resnick and R. D. Wolff (New York: Routledge, 2008).
***A new edition of that book, Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian, with additional chapters on Keynesian theory and recent developments in neoclassical theory (coauthored with Yahya Madra), has been published by MIT Press.