Open letter to the Editors of Historical Materialism
by Seth Morris
The paper “Phenomenology, Scientific Method and the Transformation Problem” (Historical Materialism, May 2022) is a tough read for many reasons. It not only makes blatantly incorrect claims about Marx’s value theory (the topic it purports to discuss), but it demonstrates a holistic contempt for rational discourse—by misrepresenting Marx, and especially by misrepresenting both its own arguments and contemporary Marx scholarship. (For example, the Abstract states, “Critics of Marx [read: critics of the co-authors] either fail to understand his scientific method, or are themselves trapped within a non-scientific capitalist phenomenology.”)
The paper makes the Temporal Single-System Interpretation (TSSI) the main target of its strawman misrepresentations. One of the co-authors uses the paper to “publicly recant” their past support for the TSSI. Having some familiarity with the TSSI and some of the dead philosophers quoted in this paper, I found the obfuscation or baseless appropriation of these sources ethically indefensible. I strongly agree that the paper should not have been approved by any journal, especially a journal purporting to publish Marxist scholarship.
Historical Materialism posts transparent instructions for authors on their webpage, providing guidance for style and formatting, but not for scholarship ethics. It may be reasonable to presume that credentialed academics shouldn’t need a primer in scholarship ethics, but it’s also reasonable to acknowledge that not all credentialed professionals strictly follow the ethical norms of their profession. In publishing, that’s exactly what editors are for: intervening on behalf of the publication to uphold standards of scholarship and professional integrity. If the editor lets just any submission pass through (as long as it is formatted properly), HM isn’t acting as an academic journal; it is acting as a self-publishing magazine like medium.com, but one open to an exclusive, Marxism-themed cultural milieu.
Editing isn’t censorship. The role of an editor isn’t to reject arguments with which they personally disagree. But publishing a paper riddled with misrepresentations, lies, and bullshit shows how HM’s editing practices ignore and undermine HM’s institutional responsibility as a publication. Fostering and printing responsible scholarship may not be as expedient or immediately popular as HM and similar outlets within the contemporary Left would like. However, publishing irresponsible opinion pieces as scholarship makes constructive criticism impossible. The Marxism currently promoted by Historical Materialism provides a big tent of opinion, where truth and post-truth become indistinguishable from one another. If a publication does not pursue truth, it opposes truth by promoting its opposite: post-truth.
It may have been easier for me than most to see through the paper’s BS about the TSSI, considering that I have read and kept my copy of Reclaiming Marx’s Capital by Andrew Kliman and could conveniently fact-check where the paper cites and misrepresents that book. But editors could surely have fact-checked the Marx citations with a quick Google search. To summarize a recurring problem, the co-authors, Jesse Lopes and Chris Byron (L&B), themselves unknowingly point out where to find evidence refuting their arguments, evidence which they claim doesn’t exist. Here are a few obvious examples I dug up.
L&B say (p. 231): the Monetary Expression of Labor Time “has no basis in Marx’s work.”
Marx, cited by L&B and Kliman, in an example of how labor creates value in spinning cotton into yarn: “Expressed in gold, the labour of five days is thirty shillings” (Capital vol. I, chap. 7, sect. 2).
What is Marx expressing in gold if not the monetary equivalent of labor-time? This is not the only example of Marx using this conversion factor (called the MELT by others, for convenience), but L&B say, “No such conversion factor exists in that chapter” (the chapter where I found that quote).
L&B say (p. 229–230): “We agree with Kliman and Moseley that Capital is about a single system, and that Marx is theorizing about total social capital in a single system of (global) capitalism. … But in identifying values with quantitative labour-times, Kliman and Moseley are referring us to a second system under the guise of a reduction. That is, although both reject the simultaneous position which states that ‘there are two separate systems of value and prices,’ they nevertheless quantify values, which gives us a ‘system’ of ‘values’.”
In Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital,” p. 32, Kliman wrote: “The relevant distinction between values and prices here [re: dual- vs. single-system interpretations] is the quantitative one. No one denies that there are two distinct systems of money magnitudes and labor-time magnitudes … What is controversial about the dual-system interpretation is rather its contention that values and prices constitute separate systems when they are measured in the same units.”
L&B are saying that they have a single-system interpretation of Capital (their nonsensical “abstract theory of capital”), while rejecting the quantification of value and the applicability to value of any monetary expression of labor time. Their view has nothing to do with the “single-system” concept under scrutiny. What L&B propose instead (“unobservable” value vs. “phenomenal-level” price) is not a “single system”; it has to do with some mystical, dualistic relation that they do not explain, but call phenomenology. L&B’s arguments contradict Marx and ultimately contradict their own thesis—page 229 discusses changes in the monetary expression of value as if the entire point of this paper were not to assert that any such discussion is only “misconstruing Marx’s scientific method” (p. 217).
L&B say (p. 230): “Kliman cites page 188 of Capital Volume I. Yet the heading of that section of Capital is ‘the Measure of Values’[,] not measures. All 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 [sic].”
Marx wrote: “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.” That means that labor time is literally “the measure of value which is immanent in commodities.”