Matthews Talks Economics and Marxist Ideals

By Katie Schott

On Tuesday, April 29, Twilight Auditorium was filled to capacity by 4:30, the start time for the Inaugural Lecture “The Case for Marx,” given by Christian A. Johnson Professor of Economics and Department Chair Peter Matthews.  Jim Ralph, Dean of Faculty Development and Research, had to turn away students, professors and Middlebury residents after all of the seats were filled.

Professor Matthews’ talk centered around the question “should there be room in modern economics for a much vilified but seldom read nineteenth century thinker?”

President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz introduced Matthews, who spoke briefly of his path to becoming an Economics Professor at the College.

The lecture began with the slide “Karl Marx n’est pas mort (translation: Karl Marx isn’t dead).” Marx’s association with socialism and unjust actions committed by Stalin in his name was immediately acknowledged, and Matthews suggested that this lecture was purely to explain Marx’s economic insights and how they could be applied to the modern economy.

“[I gave the talk] to encourage people to read about Marx, and to know the difference between Marx the economist and Marxism,” said Matthews.

The lecture explained how Marx’s view of class struggles may seek to explain inequality, its causes and possible solutions. Marx’s notion that capitalism may eventually give way to some sort of socialism was explained as well.

Listeners considered the words of Marx’s good friend Engel and how Marx thought it was productive to question society and consider alternatives when problems arise.

“I gave the talk purely because I wanted to say  ‘There is a wide range of theories about the world around us, and here’s one.’” The lecture argued that the current gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent isn’t sustainable.

Matthew’s slides also featured a quote by Lawrence Klein in April 1947: “Marx did not fully anticipate the Keynsian Theory of Effective Demand… [he] laid the groundwork for a complete equation system to determine the level of income… [t]he primary advantage of the Marxian Model, however is that it provides more information.”  This citation from over 67 years ago acknowledges the flaws in Marx’s theory, along with many other past and future citations that Professor Matthews posed.

The lecture also touched on a popular modern analysis of the economy:  Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The text “gives data about the total level of private capital and the percentage of income paid out to labor in England from the 1700s onward” according to Mike Konzcal’s spring 2014 article in the Boston Review titled Studying the Rich: Thomas Piketty and his Critics. Professor Matthews and Konzcal’s article explained that economists with more right-wing ideas criticize the fact that Piketty does not have enough economic models to prove his theory, and economists to Piketty’s left say he over emphasizes mainstream economics and does not say enough about politics.

Matthews indicated the importance of young people being exposed to a diversity of opinions.  He suggested that college is the first time that  many young people have the opportunity to explore a full set of alternatives and values — often  different systems of values then those that they grew up with.

“I hope that attending a lecture like this helps students consider how philosophers have previously theorized the world. It isn’t to say Karl Marx is right and another philosopher is wrong — it’s merely to start the discussion,” concluded Matthews.