[OPE-L:599] Re: Order of enquiry and critique

akliman@acl.nyit.edu (akliman@acl.nyit.edu)
Wed, 29 Nov 1995 12:04:24 -0800

[ show plain text ]

Andrew here (yes, I'm back), replying to Paul Zarembka on Althusser and
Ch. 1 of _Capital_.

Paul says he doesn't get my point. I'm not sure I get what he doesn't get.
But I'll take a stab at the issues and try to clarify.

(1) No, I was not trying to identify the set of reasons Althusser wanted
the reading of _Capital_ to skip Part 1 with the reasons that motivated
Stalin's order to do so. Specifically, I wasn't claiming that Althusser's
reasons had to do with the state-capitalist character of the USSR in the
*direct* manner in which this was paramount to Stalin. The reasons "behind"
Althusser's recommendation were those he stated and which I recalled from
memory, and Paul says I'm basically correct (I'm glad--my memory is far from

(2) I do think, however, that there is *some* relationship between
Stalin's and Althusser's views on this issue. Briefly, both viewed the
categories commodity, abstract labor, value as transhistorical categories
(although this formulation oversimplifies things). Neither wanted the reading
of _Capital_ to begin with Ch. 1, because doing so could tend to give one
the impression that Marx thought these categories referred to capitalism.
Certainly that is the "impression" I get from his discussion.

(3) So of course Paul Z. is right, that Althusser thought that starting with
Part 2 of _Capital_ was better for getting to what was essential--i.e.,
the differentia specifica of capitalism. the capital/wage-labor relationship.
Why he thought so should be clear from the above--he didn't really think
Part I was about capitalism specifically. The problem is that he suggests
altering the structure of _Capital_ so that the text will then more closely
conform to his view, instead of letting it speak for itself, i.e. letting
"the workers" judge for themselves.

(4) Now on the face of it, this all seems rather different from the aspect
that I singled out earlier--Althusser's misgivings about the theory of
commodity fetishism. But there's actually a close relationship. In
Althusser's view, fetishism is a "mask"--something that masks the real
relations. That doesn't make it a *subjective* illusion--he maintains the
opposite--but it does make it an illusion, thrown up by the social relations.
Now, I think that is a weak reading of the text. It runs up against the
thing I referred to earlier, where Marx says that the categories of the
political economists were BOTH "absurd" and "socially valid." And it runs
up against the passage in that section in which Marx writes that the
social relations appear to the producers "as they are--material relations
between persons in their work and social relations between things" (quote as
remembered). It seems very hard to argue in the face of this stuff that
the categories developed in Ch. 1--before Marx explicitly treats the
purchase and sale of labor-power, the labor-process, accumulation, etc.--
are natural, neutral, and transhistorical.

(5) What I'm most perplexed about is Paul Z's statement that he's not sure
"WHY [I] don't like it [skipping Part I of _Capital_] (theoretically)."
The "theoretically" is the most perplexing part, because the term and its
implied opposite aren't clear to me. I had thought I had given a number of
reasons in my earlier post, which Paul quoted. And I think I've done so
here. To be as brief as possible, let me reiterate: skipping Part I,
especially Ch. 1, gives us a different text from Marx's and encourages a
different reading than if one begins from the beginning. Specifically, in
this case, it encourages a reading of key categories of _Capital_ as
transhistorical ones, and it thereby tends to encourage a narrower view of
what is specifically (or characteristically) capitalist and thus a narrower
view of what is to be smashed in theory and in practice. (It doesn't
necessarily affect the analytical results of what comes later, if that is
what Paul is driving at, but it doesn't affect what one makes of those
results--sorry, I meant that it DOES affect that.

Better than this, I don't think I can do.