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A Journal of Crime, Conflict & World Order
Social Justice Teaching Resources (1975)

Current Controversies in Marxist Social Science

Instructor: Erik Wright

I. Background

This seminar on current controversies in Marxist social science was conceived as an alternative to both the traditional content of graduate social science courses and the traditional way in which academic courses are organized. The content centered on the current debates and unresolved theoretical issues within the Marxist perspective. Needless to say, Marxist ideas are rarely discussed systematically in social science courses in any form And, when they are presented, it is usually in the form of either an elementary survey of Marxist principles or a critique of bourgeois ideas. This acts as a serious constraint on the development of a sophisticated understanding of the Marxist perspective since much of the discussion in such courses almost inevitably remains at the level of first premises and basic assumptions. Rarely do courses even touch on the more sophisticated dimensions of the Marxist perspective, let alone the unresolved theoretical issues which lie at the forefront of serious Marxist research. This seminar was specifically designed to deal with such issues.

II. Design of the Course

The structure of the seminar represented an equally radical departure from traditional course organization. The seminar was organized by a working committee sponsored by the Berkeley chapters of the Union for Radical Political Economics, a national organization, and the Union of Marxist Social Scientists, a west coast organization. The seminar was conceived as one form of concrete cooperation between the two groups and as one expression of their efforts to develop and legitimate Marxist thought in the university.

The committee decided that the seminar should be a two term course and that to avoid the intellectual compartmentalization of the bourgeois social sciences, it should be given in the Economics Department one term and the Sociology Department the other term Luckily, both of these departments are relatively flexible in allowing student initiated courses as long as a faculty sponsor can be found. Professor Michael Reich (Economics) agreed to sponsor the seminar in the winter term and Professor David Matza (Sociology) in the spring term. In both terms the sponsors played virtually no role in the organization and coordination of the activities of the seminar.

During the fall term the URPE-UMSS course project committee spent considerable time developing portions of the syllabus and preparing presentations for the winter seminar sessions. Several meetings were held with all the members of the committee, but most of the real work occurred in four work groups responsible for specific topic areas: accumulation and crisis theory, the theory of the state, imperialism and the world economy, and problems in Marxist methodology. In the winter term the process was repeated with new work groups preparing seminar sessions for the spring term on: the class structure of advanced capitalism, racism, sexism, the transition to socialism, the Marxist theory of culture and ideology, and epistemological questions.

The general procedure most of the work groups adopted for developing their section of the syllabus was to have an initial brainstorming meeting where a broad range of possible controversies was discussed and a bibliography drawn up of possible readings. People then assumed responsibility for reading the various bibliographic suggestions and, if they had time, prepared brief annotations of the readings. A second session was then held to discuss these readings, add new bibliographic suggestions, and attempt to select the crucial controversies to include in the syllabus. At a third and fourth meeting, final decisions of the readings and topics were made, and an introductory statement for the reading list was prepared. All of the material was then gathered together to be included in a Xeroxed reader for the course.

Most of the work groups found it extremely difficult to narrow the topics down sufficiently for a manageable seminar session. There was a strong tendency to assign too much reading and to attempt to deal with too broad a range of controversies. Each group felt that it had to cover all aspects of their general topic area, rather than focusing on a specific theoretical debate. Since Marxist courses are so rare in the university, people felt that they could not afford to leave out anything important. In the end the general solution adopted was to include more controversies and readings in the syllabus than could possibly be dealt with in a given seminar session, and then (attempt) to focus the discussion through the presentations at the beginning of each session.

There was remarkably little political divisiveness within the work groups. Where there were strongly held and opposing political perspectives-as in the preparation of the sessions on "the transition to socialism" for the second term of the course-an effort was made to fairly represent each political perspective in the readings. There seemed to be a strongly shared commitment among work group members for the course not to become a sectarian battleground, but rather to attempt to seriously explore the critical theoretical problems in Marxist social science.

Overall, the collective process of creating the syllabus and seminar sessions was very successful and often very exciting for the work group members. Perhaps the most serious weakness was a tendency to rely too much on the energy of the individual who was coordinating the groups. There tended to be much more collective work within each work group than in the coordination and organization of the course as a whole. Undoubtedly this was due in part to the coordinator's own tendencies to run things individually and to the inevitable time pressures felt by those who participated in the course project. However, it was also in part due to people's tendency to opt out of purely organizational activity. In the future when such a course is constructed, it would be helpful to form a steering committee for the course as a whole which would assume more collective responsibility for the various organizational tasks.

III. Format of Sessions

While the specific format for each seminar was left up to the work groups which prepared the materials for that session, most of them began with an introductory presentation of 30 minutes to an hour in length. This was followed by a general discussion of all members of the seminar for about one hour, and then a final hour or so of discussion in small groups of around ten to fifteen people. Not all of the participants in the seminar are happy with this arrangement. There are some who feel that all of the discussion should take place in small groups and others who feel the small group sessions are less useful than the larger ones. We have not yet found the best format for this kind of seminar. The basic way in which the work groups have chosen to handle these various views on format is to experiment with a variety of approaches and to be as responsive as possible to the reactions of the participants in the seminar.

IV. Evaluation

From the beginning of the course, a number of problems were encountered. First, the number of students interested in the course was considerably larger than anticipated. For most of the sessions there have been at least 60 people present. Needless to say, this is not the ideal size for intensive discussion. The process of breaking down into smaller groups after a preliminary large group discussion only partially solves this problem, since breaking down tends to disrupt the continuity of the larger discussions. Furthermore, many people often leave when the small group discussion begins.

The basic problem of too large a class can only be solved in a long range struggle to create more Marxist courses, and perhaps even a Marxist curriculum in the university. Still, even in the short run the problem can be ameliorated by experimenting with various combinations of large and small groups. One suggestion has been that the seminar should break down into small groups immediately after the presentation, rather than after a preliminary large group discussion. This would encourage active participation, and fewer people would probably leave. The seminar would then reconvene for a large group discussion for the final hour.

The second basic problem of the seminar has centered on the uneven development of the participants. The class was intended to take place at a fairly sophisticated level but since so few Marxist courses are given in the university, many students with only the rudiments of a Marxist analysis have attended the course. Perhaps more importantly, the participants in the seminar have wanted very different things out of the sessions. Some have wanted a clear exposition of the relationship of the various debates within Marxist theory to political practice; others have been more interested in dealing with the theoretical issues at an abstract level, focusing more on their internal logic than on their practical implications. In a criticism/self-criticism evaluation discussion held midway through the course, people voiced discontent at the level of abstraction of several of the readings and discussions and the apparent lack of political relevance of many of the debates discussed.

Again, as with the problem of class size, uneven levels of sophistication and differing needs and expectations of participants will continue to be a problem as long as there are so few Marxist courses in the university. But concrete steps have been taken by the work groups in response to these issues. One way of helping people less familiar with the material is to provide clear summaries of the basic arguments of the readings as well as introductory remarks l in the syllabus which clarify the key issues in the debates. The work groups have considerably expanded both of these for the second term. There is also a concerted effort being made to connect the readings to questions of political practice in the seminar presentations, but without sacrificing analyses of the logic of the theoretical disputes themselves. The intellectual Gaining of many of the participants in the work groups makes them more adept at the purely abstract analysis than the discussion of more concrete political relevance, and this will undoubtedly be a source of continuing struggle.

A final problem centered on some of the introductory presentations. On several occasions the introductory comments presented by the work groups have not helped to clarify any of the issues or to guide the discussion in a constructive way. To a large extent this has been the result of the manner in which the opening remarks have been produced. Whereas the syllabus for the course was created through a collective process, the presentations during the seminar have been largely left up to the specific individuals who gave them. In no case did the groups collectively work ' out the details of the presentation. There is often a tendency for individual preparations to include too much summarizing material and to try to deal with every issue covered in the readings, rather than focus in on the most important. In the second term of the course the work groups will generally take a much more collective responsibility for the seminar presentations. Where possible, they will be given a trial run within the work group before the seminar session.

In spite of these various problems, the course has been well received and very productive. Hopefully, it will be possible to establish the seminar as a permanent process in which new work groups are created each term by the participants in the seminar to prepare materials and sessions for the following term. Not only does this give students valuable experience in gathering and organizing materials for a course, but it helps to undermine the distinction between "students" and "teachers" which is such a basic part of bourgeois education.

Course Readings: Winter Quarter

I. Accumulation and Crisis Theory I: The Debate over the Falling Rate of Profit

David Yaffe, "The Marxian Theory of Crisis, Capital, and the State." Economy and Society 11,2 (May, 1973).

P. Mattick, Marx and Keynes (pp. 57-95). Boston: Porter Sargent, 1969.

J. Gillman, Prosperity in Crisis (pp. 230-236). New York: Marzani and Munsell, 196S.

Paul Sweezy, "Some Problems in the Theory of Capital Accumulation." Monthly Review (May, 1974).

M. Cogoy, "The Fall in the Rate of Profit and the Theory of Accumulation." The Bulletin of the Conference of Socialist Economics (Winter, 1974).

II. Accumulation and Crisis Theory I: Class Struggle and Accumulation

Ian Gough, "Marx and Productive Labour." New Left Review 76.

Andrew Glyn and Bob Sutcliffe, "The Critical Condition of British Capital." New Left Review 66.

David Yaffe, "The Crisis of Profitability: A Critique of the Glyn-Sutcliffe Thesis." New Left Review 80.

Jim O'Conner, "Productive and Unproductive Labor" (ch. 3), in The Class Struggle. Unpublished manuscript, 1974.

III. Accumulation and Crisis Theory II: Accumulation and the State

P. Mattick, "The 'Transformation' of Capitalism" (ch. 13) and "The Mixed Economy"(ch. 14), in Marx and Keynes. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1969.

Claus Offe, "The Theory of the Capitalist State and the Problem of Policy Formation." Unpublished manuscript, 1974.

IV. Theory of the State I: The Structuralist vs. Instrumentalist Debate

Bay Area Kapitalistate Collective, "Some Recent Developments in the Marxist Theory of the State." Unpublished manuscript, 1974.

Erik Wright and Luca Perrone, "The Structuralist-Marxist Approach to the State." Unpublished manuscript, 1973.

Nicos Poulantzas, "The Problem of the Capitalist State." New Left Review 58.

Ralph Miliband, "Reply to Poulantzas." New Left Review 59.

Ralph Miliband, "Poulantzas and the Capitalist State." New Left Review 82.

V. Theories of the State I: New Directions in State Theory

Claus Offe, "The Structural Problem of the Capitalist State: Class Rule and the Political System." English translation (unpublished) of Strukturprobleme des Kapitalistichen Staates. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974. Jens Christiansen et al., "Class Domination and the Political System: A Critical Interpretation of Recent Contribution by Claus Offe." Kapitalistate 2 (1973). Alan Wolfe, "New Directions in the Marxist Theory of Politics." Politics and Society 4,2.

Isaac Balbus, "Politics as Sports: An Interpretation of the Political Ascendancy of the Sports Metaphor in America." Unpublished manuscript, 1973.

Annotations of Selected Readings on the Marxist Theory of the State

VI. Imperialism I: Why Is Imperialism Necessary for Advanced Capitalism?

Tom Kemp, Theories of Imperialism (chapters IV & V). London: Dobson, 1967.

VII. Imperialism II: The Role of Inter-Imperialist Rivalries in the World Economy

Robert Rowthome, "Imperialism in the 1970's: Unity or Rivalry?" New Left Review 69.

Monthly Review Editors, "Imperialism in the Seventies: Problems and Perspectives." Monthly Review (March, 1972).

H. Magdoff and P. Sweezy, "Notes on the Multinational Corporations," in U.S. Imperialism. Edited by Fann and Hodges. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1971.

Samir Amin, "Towards a New Structural Crisis of the Capitalist System?" Paper given at the Conference on Multinational Corporations in Africa, Dakar, September-October, 1974.

VIII. Imperialism III: The View from the Periphery -- Dependency Theory

Andre Gunder Frank, "Destroy Capitalism, Not Feudalism," in Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution? New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969. Theotonio Dos Santos, "The Structures of Dependence," in U.S. Imperialism. Edited by Fann and Hodges. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1971.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, "O Inemigo de Papel (The Paper Enemy)," in Latin American Perspectives 1,1 (Spring, 1974)

Raul A. Femandez and Jose F. Ocampo, "The Latin American Revolution: A Theory of Imperialism, Not Dependence," in Latin American Perspectives 1,1 (Spring, 1974).

Bill Warren, "Imperialism and Capitalist Industrialization." New Left Review 81.

Arghiri Emmanuel, "Myths of Development and Underdevelopment." New Left Review 85.

Philip McMichael, et al., "Imperialism and the Contradictions of Development." New Left Review

Andre Gunder Frank, "The Development of Underdevelopment," in Imperialism and Underdevelopment: A Reader. Edited by Robert I. Rhodes. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Andre Gunder Frank, "Dependence is Dead, Long Live Dependence and the Class Struggle: An Answer to Critics," in Latin American Perspectives 1,1 (Spring, 1974).

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, "Imperialism and Dependency in Latin America," in Structures of Dependency. Edited by Frank Bonilla and Robert Girling. Privately published and obtainable through Nairobi Bookstore, East Palo Alto, Ca.

IX. Marxist Methodology: The Relationship of Marxist Research to Class Struggle and Styles of Work of Marxist Intellectuals

Marlene Dixon, "Academic Roles." The Insurgent Sociologist (Spring, 1972).

Richard Flacks, "Towards a Socialist Sociology." The Insurgent Sociologist (Spring, 1972).

Topics: Spring Quarter

I. Class Structure I: Debates over the Nature of Changes in the U.S. Working Class

Class Structure II: The Nature of Internal Divisions in the U.S. Ruling Class -- Yankee Cowboys, Financial Interest Groups; National/Multinational Monopoly Capital

Class Structure III: General Conceptualizations of the Class Structure of Advanced Capitalism

Racism: Internal Colony vs. Super-Exploited Segment of Proletariat Models of Racism

Sexism I: Historical and Comparative Perspectives on Sexism

Sexism II: Toward an Integration of the Theory of Housework and the Theory of Women's Position in the Labor Market

Transition to Socialism I: General Interpretations of the Problem of Transition

Transition to Socialism II: Alternative Interpretations of the Cultural Revolution

Marxist Theory of Culture and Ideology

Marxist Methodology I: Philosophy and Science

Marxist Methodology II: Theory and Practice

Erik Wright was then a graduate student in the Department of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley, and was the coordinator of the URPE/UMSS course project on "Current Controversies in Marxist Social Science." He was also a member of the Bay Area editorial collective of Kapitalistate, an international journal of theory and research on the capitalist state.

From Crime and Social Justice 3 (Summer 1975): 60-63. Social Justice is published quarterly. Copyright © 1975 by Social Justice, ISSN 1043-1578. Social Justice, P.O. Box 40601, San Francisco, CA 94140.