[OPE-L:566] Re: Order of enquiry and critique

Paul Zarembka (ECOPAULZ@ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu)
Sun, 26 Nov 1995 09:24:49 -0800

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Andrew (I guess you're back now),

I read over what you have written below, but I don't get it. You seem
correct in your interpretation of what Althusser was attempting, but I
draw exactly the opposite conclusion (I didn't know Stalin also
recommended not starting with Chapter 1, but I don't change my mind just
because Stalin recommended one thing or another). I in fact also share
the state capitalist interpretation of the Soviet system (see my article
in Research in Political Economy, Vol 13, 1992, and yet I think that
Althusser's suggestion to begin after Part I sends a clear message--that
the essence of a theoretical understanding of Capital hinges on
understanding on the capital--wage-labor relation.

So, rather than a departure from Marx, Althusser is saying that reading
of Capital after Part I gets to the essential character of the mode of

Actually, my own agreement with this position is the primary reason I
haven't participated much on the discussion on "the commodity". I sort
of let others argue it out. Should I see something which could make a
decisive difference of interpretation of accumulation of capital,
production of absolute or relative surplus value, exploitation, well,
then I'd say so.

Similarly, I don't pay too much attention to the value/price of
production debate (I did intervene with Gil Skillman on this at some
point, then let it alone).

Anyway, I don't understand the negative implication you see from failing
to read Capital from Part I. What I see below is that you don't like it,
but not WHY you don't like it (theoretically). You certainly cannot
accuse Althusser of promoting the historistic interpretation of Stalinism.

Paul Zarembka

> Decades later, Althusser was especially concerned to circumvent the theory of
> commodity-as-fetish, since he recognized its Hegelian, "non-scientific" and
> "non-materialist" character. I'm sure Paul has a better understanding of
> Althusser's complaints than I, so I hope he corrects me if I get it wrong, but
> it seems to me that Althusser's problem with the doctrine of fetishism was
> similar to Colletti's--the critique of capitalist social relations by an
> appeal to something beyond those relations (a notion of human freedom, mastery
> of "man" over the process of production). This is what allowed Marx to say
> that the categories of bourgeois economics were BOTH "socially valid" AND
> "absurd"--again this is from the fetishism section of Ch. 1. So he
> "recommended" that the teaching of _Capital_ begin (if I remember) with Part 2.
> This was a recommendation "to the workers" that they skip the first part, and
> a recommendation that Althusser said he regarded as "imperative." He attached
> so much importance to it that the piece talking about this was published in
> the daily press, L'humanite', if I remember.
> So, I find it very hard to talk about this issue in the abstract--the desire
> to change the order of teaching/reading _Capital_ is a political-theoretical-
> ideological act, which expresses grave misgivings, if not outright disagreement
> or even trepidation, about what Marx actually wrote and thought. What is
> involved is a desire to claim the mantle of Marx's Marxism while at the
> same time departing from it. It facilitates confusion and disorientation
> as to what Marx actually wrote and thought. This is the *minimal*
> condemnation I can make--you can guess at the maximum.
> And then there's the obvious stuff--Marx labored through the Grundrisse until
> he realized he should have begun with the category "Commodity," he wrote and
> rewrote the first chapter, especially, for the 2d German and French eds., he
> considered the work an "artistic whole," he claimed that the understanding of
> the dual character of labor was one of the 2 best points of the book, and the
> one needed for a clear comprehesion of political economy--given all of that,
> who are we to mess with the structure of the book? Now, it's not the
> Bible, and I'm not "religious" about it (actually the religious like to
> lift quotes as convenient), so I grant that in principle we could know the
> work so well to say that its "real" structure is different from what Marx
> thought, but the history of interpretation of _Capital_ makes me extremely
> skeptical about this, to say the very least.
> As Marx put it to Engels, the dialectical method has the advantage of setting
> traps for jackasses.