Understanding Marx: A Reconstruction and Critique of Capital

Robert Paul Wolff

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Area: Political Philosophy


One: The Concept of Reproduction
Two: Adam Smith and the Concept of Natural Price
Three: David Ricardo and the Labour Theory of Natural Price
Four: Marx’s Theory of Exploitation and Surplus Value
Five: Marx’s Theory of Natural Price
Six: Balanced Growth and the Conservation of Surplus Value
Technical Afterword to Chapter Six: A Numerical Example
Envoi: Some Doubts about Marx’s Theory of Value and Exploitation
Appendix A: A Formal Analysis of Ricardian and Marxian Political Economy
Appendix B: An Analytical Reconstruction of Marx’s Value Categories

Although this book presents material that is well known among economists who have followed the recent value theory debates, the explanations are in a simplified form accessible to a much wider audience. Returning to the central issue of classical political economy, the search for a valid theory of natural price, Wolff reconstructs the theoretical models of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. He then shows how Marx’s reformulation “exploded” classical political economy. The power and limitations of the ideas of Smith and Ricardo are demonstrated using mathematical linear reproduction models. The theoretical contributions of Marx’s writings are critically assessed.

According to Wolff, the emergence of a physical surplus raised three fundamental questions. First, “Who gets the surplus”? Second, “How do the surplus-getters get the surplus”? Finally, “What do the surplus-getters do with the surplus”? Wolff points out that attempts to answer the first two questions led to the notion of a competitive market and to theories of price. Attempts to answer the third led to the classical theories of growth and stagnation, and to the Marxian theory of economic crisis.