by Andrew Kliman
I am writing about your response of April 12, on behalf of Brill, to my request that Brill and Historical Materialism, one of the journals it publishes, retract a paper that recently appeared in the journal. The grounds for retraction are that the paper seriously misrepresents what others, including Karl Marx and I, have stated, and that it is chock-full of other inaccuracies as well.
In your e-mail message to me, copied below, you stated that “this situation isn’t grounds for retraction.” This response, while disappointing, was expected. As I noted in my article of January 17, which documented many of the misrepresentations and inaccuracies,
I fully expect that my request for retraction will be ignored or rejected by the editors and publisher of Historical Materialism. … The underlying problem (and I speak from experience) is that searching for and getting the truth is not a central commitment of the journal in question or the milieu of which it is part. …
There are far too many [people] who understand the situation well enough but find it in their interests to help publish this and similar journals, or to collaborate in other ways with them and the projects of which they are part. … What is needed is thus a pro-truth movement of opposition from the left to break their haughty power.
My judgement that “searching for and getting the truth is not a central commitment of the journal in question or the milieu of which it is part” was confirmed when Sebastian Budgen, editor of Historical Materialism, rejected my request for retraction just 125 minutes after I sent my email (and less than 24 hours after my article was published). This was far too little time to evaluate the evidence I had provided. Indeed, Budgen did not offer any defense of the paper in question or challenge my evidence. His response simply ignored the evidence. Thus, my request that Historical Materialism retract the paper was not considered on its merits.
Similarly, your own response to me does not say whether my claims about the paper’s misrepresentations and inaccuracies are true or false. You conclude that this situation isn’t grounds for retraction without any reference to the evidence.
However, as you know, evidence is of utmost relevance when retraction is at issue. Brill says that it “promote[s] adherence to the core principles of publication ethics as articulated by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).” COPE’s guidelines state that the purpose of retraction is to correct the literature and alert readers to “articles that contain such seriously flawed or erroneous content or data that their findings and conclusions cannot be relied upon,” irrespective of whether the unreliable content or data “result from honest error, naïve mistakes, or research misconduct” (p. 3, emphasis added). They also state that retraction should be considered when there is “clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of major error …, or as a result of fabrication … or falsification” (p. 2, emphasis added). Thus, the central question here is: Does the evidence indicate that—owing to honest error, naïve mistakes, or other causes—the main findings and conclusions of the Historical Materialism paper are unreliable?
The paper in question states that “[a]ll Marx claims in that section is that ‘money as a measure of value is the necessary form of appearance of the measure of value which is immanent in commodities, namely labour time’. Yet, he never states that labour-time is also a measure” (emphases in original). Thus, the authors find that a sentence in which Marx states that labor-time is a measure (the measure of value which is immanent in commodities) does not state that labor-time is a measure. Does the authors’ version of Marx’s claim contain erroneous information or doesn’t it? Do you consider this finding to be reliable or not?
The Historical Materialism paper also states that “[c]apitalists, we are told [by Marx], conflate cost-price with the true price of a commodity because they are not consciously aware of the unpaid labour (the surplus-value) that enters into the actual price of their product.” As I showed in the article in which I first requested retraction, both references to “price” here are wrong. What Marx wrote in the passage under consideration is that capitalists conflate a commodity’s cost-price with its value, not with its price. And in his theory, surplus-value enters into the value of the product, not into its price. These errors are far from incidental, since the paper in question is specifically and exclusively about the differences between price and value, and the effect of these (and related) errors is to make the authors’ central arguments and conclusions seem more plausible than they actually are. Does the authors’ version of the passage contain erroneous information or doesn’t it? Do you consider this finding of theirs to be reliable or not?
In several places, the Historical Materialism paper draws false conclusions about whether certain interpretations of Marx’s theory are single-system or dual-system interpretations, because it implicitly employs erroneous definitions of these terms—idiosyncratic definitions that are not identified as such. I know they are idiosyncratic, not the standard definitions, because I am the originator of the terms.
Of course, retraction of a paper isn’t warranted if it contains only a couple of inaccuracies that do not call into question the paper’s main conclusions. In this case, however, there are a large number of misrepresentations and inaccuracies, and they are central to the paper’s arguments and conclusions. I have noted a few of them above; this is not the place to discuss the others. My article identifies many more of them, some of which are also discussed in open letters from others who are following this case—Vann Seawell, Seth Morris, Gabriel Donnelly, and Ralph Keller. Keller’s open letter also includes a helpful factsheet that summarizes many of the misrepresentations and inaccuracies in tabular form.
In your response to me, you state that this case “would be better resolved by a comment-reply approach, which I understand has already been offered by the HIMA editors.” As I stated when Sebastian Budgen wrote what you characterize as an offer, this is unacceptable, above all because it will
prevent truth from triumphing over falsehood. Byron and Lopes [the authors of the article that should be retracted] would get to continue to say what they want, while the Historical Materialism crew would “consider” letting me say what I want. (And what about Marx? How can he defend himself against the misrepresentation of his statements and views?)
The end result would be, at best, a he-said / she-said stalemate in which “alternative facts” are deemed just as good as actual facts. Historical Materialism would face no consequences—it would not have to confess to its own wrongdoing, provide restitution, or even retract the Lopes-Byron paper. It would sweep an embarrassing situation under the rug and forestall the real solution. As I noted in my article, the real solution here is the building of a “pro-truth movement of opposition from the left to break their haughty power.”
Although my reference to Marx in the just-quoted passage is parenthetical, it is far from incidental. The effect and, arguably, the aim of the milieu of which Historical Materialism is part is to make Marx disappear, and thereby clear the field for the variety of contenders who present themselves as his true inheritors. Capitalizing on the fact that he can no longer speak for himself in real time, so that truths about what he said and meant can be separated from falsehoods only by rigorous testing of hypotheses that seeks to resolve controversies—and continues until they are resolved—they instead perpetuate controversies and thwart efforts to resolve them. A “comment-reply approach” that does not proceed further, to the point after the comment and reply, when truth and falsehood are actually decided, plays into this strategy. The outcome is, inevitably, a situation in which the (exegetical) meaning of Marx’s writings could be anything. But if they could mean anything, then they mean nothing; nothing determinate. “Both-sides-ism” has caused Marx to disappear. Only the various “true inheritors” survive.
“Both-sides-ist” journalism has contributed significantly to the crisis we face in the US, by normalizing Trumpism and the rise of neo-fascism, and, more generally, by fostering a post-truth environment that makes both truths and falsehoods seem to be matters of mere opinion. Serious, civic-minded journalists have in recent years begun to break with both-sides-ist practices. I think it is high time that academic publishers did the same. If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
(In any case, a “comment-reply approach” is inappropriate here, since my “comment” on the Historical Materialism paper—the article in which I requested that it be retracted—has already been published in With Sober Senses. If the authors of the Historical Materialism paper wish to reply to it, they can do so there. If the editors of Historical Materialism wish to publicize my response to the paper, they can ask permission from With Sober Senses to republish it, or they can inform their readers of its existence in the pages of their journal and online media.)
Finally, I want to point out a clear conflict of interest in this matter. Brill, the corporation that employs you, benefits financially from the publication and sale of Historical Materialism and related literature. In contrast, I provide no benefits to you at all. On the contrary, my request for retraction is taking up time that could more profitably be used to acquire new books and journals to publish and sell. You, individually and collectively, therefore have an inherent bias in this case, and cannot function as a disinterested arbiter. Brill is representing itself as the guardian of publication ethics here, but where is the guardian that’s needed to guard the guardian?
Professor emeritus of economics, Pace University
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Sent: Wednesday, April 12, 2023 11:11 AM
Subject: RE: [Fwd: ##RE-199909## : ContactForm] HIMA retraction
Dear Andrew (if I may),
I am the [__________] at Brill. My colleagues forwarded your message to me. I’m writing to acknowledge receipt of your message and to inform you that I am in touch with the editors of Historical Materialism about this matter. However, allow me to point out that this situation isn’t grounds for retraction; rather, it would be better resolved by a comment-reply approach, which I understand has already been offered by the HIMA editors.
Feel free to copy me on your correspondence with the HIMA editors, but please note that no unilateral action, retraction or otherwise, will be undertaken by Brill and that the HIMA editors will be central to any discussions/solutions.
Editorial note, June 27, 2023: The name and title of the Brill employee who wrote the email message, and whom the open letter addresses, have been redacted.