Episode 20: Cockshott versus Marx––Interview with “RV”

Scottish computer scientist Paul Cockshott and his devotees have frequently portrayed Marx as a proponent of their own “labor theory of value.” But a recent essay by “RV,” a young Belgian activist and theorist, has exposed sharp differences between Cockshott’s theory and Marx’s actual theory. In this interview, RV explains to the co-hosts what the differences are, why they are important, and what impelled him to push back against the efforts to “force Marx, at all costs, to hold” Cockshott’s theory. They also discuss RV’s suggestion that we should let these two different theories contend, to “see which one better stands the test of reality,” how Cockshott is likely to respond to this suggestion, and why RV rejects the “empirical evidence” that supposedly supports Cockshott’s theory.

In the current-events segment, the co-hosts discuss the calls to “defund the police” and proposals to reform policing in the US. Can policing indeed be reformed? If so, what reforms are possible?

Radio Free Humanity is a podcast covering news, politics and philosophy from a Marxist-Humanist perspective. It is co-hosted by Brendan Cooney and Andrew Kliman. We intend to release new episodes every two weeks. Radio Free Humanity is sponsored by MHI, but the views expressed by the co-hosts and guests of Radio Free Humanity are their own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and positions of MHI.

We welcome and encourage listeners’ comments, posted on this episode’s page.

Please visit MHI’s online print publication, With Sober Senses, for further news, commentary, and analysis.

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June 19, 2020


  1. Great discussion, thank you. And very helpful to a non-specialist like me trying to pick his way through these issues. I have a theoretical question, rather tangential to the main focus of the discussion, but one that’s perplexing me. I appreciate that a scientific theory is justified by testing its predictions rather than its assumptions. However, my understanding is that the role of a scientific theory is not just to predict but also to explain. If a theory’s assumptions are known to be wrong, then surely even if it is capable of making confirmable predictions, that fact must throw some doubt on its capacity to accurately explain them. (Incidentally, the assumptions of quantum mechanics are surely not wrong as RV suggested, but untestable within their own domain?) Am I missing something here?

    I discovered the podcasts by chance a couple of weeks ago, and have been working my way through them since. Really informative and good listening. Thanks again to you both.

    • Foo- thanks for the heads-up. I have fixed the RSS feed. We always appreciate folks giving us a heads-up about these things.

  2. Thanks, Richard.

    I think a lot depends on what one means by “predict” and “explain.”

    There are 2 basic views here, both based on acceptance of the proposition that “a scientific theory is justified by testing its predictions rather than its assumptions.” One is that this proposition implies that “assumptions don’t matter.” The other (which I hold to) is that assumptions do matter, even though “unrealistic” assumptions don’t disqualify theories that predict well, because a priori–prior to doing the testing–we should expect that theories based on wacko assumptions won’t predict well.

    Now, it’s important to emphasize that “prediction” here is being used in a specialized, technical way. It refers not only to future events but also to past ones (the term “retrodiction” is sometimes used for that). E.g., given background assumptions and ceteris paribus (“all else equal”) conditions, plus the fact that a thing’s price has risen, the “law of demand” PREdicts that less of the thing will be demanded. OR, given the same background assumptions and ceteris paribus conditions, plus the fact that less was demanded, the law of demand RETROdicts a rise in the thing’s price as the cause of the decline in demand.

    Another way of putting this is that the law of demand explains why demand declined. Given this particular sense of “explain”–together with a particular concept of “prediction” that’s backward- as well as forward-looking–there’s really no distinction between prediction and explanation.

    There are other senses of “explain,” too, of course, but it’s not clear to me whether scientific theories “explain” phenomena in such senses or whether they should be judged by their ability to do so.

    The ambiguity of the term “explain” seems to be at the root of controversies about whether scientific theories “explain” phenomena or “just describe” them, as well as of anti-science religious fundamentalism that exploits the ambiguity in order to smuggle in “explanations” of “why” things happen rather than “how” they happen (which begs the question by assuming that there’s a “why” of the matter here).

    • Thanks for that, Andrew. I appreciate your time. So, if I’m not mistaken you would take something like a black box view of scientific theory: if we make these inputs it would lead us to expect these outputs; if we had these outputs we would presume these inputs. That would fit with an understanding of scientific theories as currently best models rather than as truth claims.


  3. Hi Richard,

    The term “theory” is used for several different things. There are theories–including Marx’s–that do indeed make truth claims. And when that’s possible, it’s clearly preferred, because it’s more informative to know, not just that “this model works,” but that “this model works because the evidence indicates that the hypotheses it’s based on are true.”

    In my comments above, I was just discussing prediction (and retrodiction). My point was that predictions need to be evaluated on the basis of their accuracy, etc., rather than on the basis of the assumptions that were used to generate the predictions. I did not mean to imply that theories are merely tools to generate predictions, nor that other aspects of theories, such as the truth claims they make, can be evaluated on the basis of how well they predict. I reject that stuff, for obvious reasons.

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