[OPE-L:2751] (3) "Epistemological Break" and Application to Political Economy

From: Paul Zarembka (zarembka@acsu.buffalo.edu)
Date: Thu Apr 06 2000 - 16:09:14 EDT

[ show plain text ]

    Althusser notes that Engels had a most remarkable understanding of
Marx's break. Here is Engels:

"Priestley and Scheele had produced oxygen without knowing what they had
laid their hands on.... The element which was destined to upset all
phlogistic views and to revolutionize chemistry remained barren in their
hands.... Lavosier...came to the conclusion that this new kind of air was
a new chemical element.... Thus he was the first to place all chemistry,
which in its phlogistic form had stood on its head, squarely on its

"Marx stands in the same relation to his predecessors in the theory of
surplus-value as Lavoisier stood to Priestley and Scheele. The
*existence* of that part of the value of products which we now call
surplus-value had been ascertained long before Marx....

"Now Marx appeared on the scene. And he took a view directly opposite to
that of all his predecessors. What they had regarded as a *solution*, he
considered but a *problem*...."

(Engels, "Preface" to Volume 2, 1885, p. 15-16)

    Althusser's very positive reading of this passage begins on p. 149 of
*Reading Capital*. He notes that Engels, referring to chemistry, is using
the metaphor of standing "on its head" and needing to be put "squarely on
its feet" that Marx had used with regard to Hegel. In any case, a
"break". (Note that, today, we no longer pay much attention to the
antecedent to Lavoisier -- phlogistic theory.)

I'd add the observation that all of us experience "breaks" -- it's not
necessary such a big deal and Marx even refers to Smith's break from
Ricardo. I'd also note that Althusser also refers to 'break' in a
completely literary context:

"... suddenly everything is reversed: Nina turns on her father, on the
illusions and lies he has fed her, on the myths which will kill him. But
not her; for she is going to rescue herself, all alone, for that is the
only way. She will leave this world of night and poverty and enter the
other one, where pleasure and money reign. The Togasso was right. She
will pay the price, she will sell herself, but she will be on the other
side, on the side of freedom and truth. The hooters sound. Here father
has embraced her and departed, a broken man. The hooters still sound.
Erect, Nina goes out into the daylight."

("The 'Piccolo Teatro': Bertolazzi and Brecht", *For Marx*, p. 133)

It is true that early Althusser placed the break with Hegel earlier in
Marx's life, but that is not important when later readings are included.
Also, Althusser acknowledges that residuals of Hegel remain to a limited
extent in *Capital* -- but the TENDENCY is away from Hegel.

    One final quote on the break when Althusser is responding to critics:

"The 'break' is not an illusion, nor a 'complete myth, as John Lewis
claims. I am sorry. I will not give way on this point.... And between
those who recognize the fact of the 'break' and those who want to reduce
it to nothing, there exists an opposition which, it must be acknowledged,
is ultimately *political*."

("Elements of Self-Criticism", *Essays in Self-Criticism*, p. 70)

    Applicating this to Political Economy, Althusser has noted that in
Marx's early, but unpublished *1844 Manuscripts( classical conceptions are

"capital, accumulation, competition, division of labor, wages, profit,
etc....are concepts of Classical Political Economy, which Marx borrows
just as as he finds them there, without changing them one iota, without
adding to them any new concept, and without modifying anything at all of
their theoretical organization".

("Elements of Self-Criticism", *Essays in Self-Criticism*, p. 104, fn. 4)

Marx's struggle for new definitions of conceptions only begins the next
year and I would argue was not even completed with *Capital* (cf.
"accumulation of capital"). Althusser own reading of political economy is
mainly contained in

  Chapter 3, "The Merits of Classical Economics"
  Chapter 4, "The Errors of Classical Economics: Outline of a Concept of
Historical Time"
  Chapter 7, "The Object of Political Economy"
  Chapter 8, "Marx's Critique"
                                              *Reading Capital*

Paul Z.

******************** http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/PZarembka

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Sun Apr 30 2000 - 19:59:43 EDT