Ronald L. Meek: Economics and Ideology and Other Essays: studies in the development of economic thought. Chapman and Hall, 40s.

Professor Meek’s new book is a collection of essays produced between 1950 and 1962, largely rewritten to make a coherent whole around the theme of the title essay and ‘to bring the views expressed in line with those the author holds today’. The central theme dominates throughout. Meek attacks those like Cannan and Jevons who saw the essential break in the history of economic thought in the 1870’s with the introduction of marginal analysis, those like Keynes who lump all economists from Smith to Pigou under the rubric ‘Classical’ as they were all more or less explicit exponents of Say’s Law, and those, like Schumpeter, who although they agree with Meek (and with Marx) in seeing the decisive turning point in 1830, regard the period from Smith to Ricardo (Marx’s Classical Period) as a historical aberration from advancing General Equilibrium Theory in search of the metaphysical chimera ‘value’. Meek insists on the existence of an essential difference between pre-1830 and post-1830 economics in that ‘the Classical economists, speaking very broadly, believed that if the phenomena of the market place were to be properly understood, the investigator must begin by penetrating below the surface of those phenomena to the relations between men in their capacity as producers, which in the last analysis could be said to determine their market relations . . . PostRicardian economists, quick to appreciate in the decade following Ricardo’s death that it was becoming dangerous to start with the socio-economic relations between men as producers, began to argue that it was permissible— and indeed necessary in the interests of scientific objectivity—to abstract from these relationships’ (pp. 181–2). For Meek, as for Marx, the General Equilibrium approach is the more ideological and the less scientific.

But then what of Marx himself? For Meek, the Classical School includes ‘Marx, whose general attitude to the socio-economic system of his time was, of course, radically different from that of the orthodox economists’ (p. 16). Can the difference between Marx and Ricardo then be reduced to a difference in attitude?

The answer presumably lies in a closer examination of the concept of ‘social relations of production’ used by Marx. If the very wide sense in which Meek employs it is accepted, Marx’s contribution is merely that he historicized the classical economists’ conception of bourgeois relations of production as natural relations of production. The famous footnote to Capital Vol. I where Marx states the distinction between both himself and the classics and between the classics and vulgar economy (p. 81) can be interpreted in this way. But this notion contradicts many of the basic concepts outlined in the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), for if the relations of production is a general principle governing society the latter becomes merely the totality of human social interaction; there is no specificity of the economic level at all and the distinction between base and superstructure breaks down. The result is that in the last essay in the book (the title essay), Meek apparently falls for the most general principle of society and the most bourgeois ideology of them all, von Mises’ ‘Praxiology’ (the principle of all rational action) in Lange’s purely ideological attempt to graft Marxist and Neo-classical economics.

To evade this humanist and historicist trap far more precise definitions of Marx’s concepts of forces and relations of production are needed. Balibar has provided us with the beginnings of such definitions in his distinction of the forces and relations of production as ‘the real appropriation by the producer of the means of production in the labour process’, and the property relations between the members of the society, respectively (Lire le Capital II 204–11). Meek’s definition confuses the two elements (as Marx’s usage frequently does too). A real examination of Marx’s position in the history of economic thought, an analysis of his differences with his predecessors, the Classical School, must start from such distinctions, absent from Smith and Ricarcdo. Perhaps this is why the section of Meek’s book devoted to Marx himself is by far the least interesting.