[OPE-L:616] Re: Order of enquiry and critique

Paul Zarembka (ECOPAULZ@ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu)
Fri, 1 Dec 1995 11:13:52 -0800

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Andrew, I would have these reactions to your posting (otherwise I agree
and/or do not reproduce your message):

On Wed, 29 Nov 1995 akliman@acl.nyit.edu wrote:

> (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.

No, Althusser does not think that value and abstract labor are
transhistorical. Quite the opposite--those theoretical categories have
their bases in the capitalist mode of production. Indeed, it is a very
important point that theoretical categories have bases in modes of

> (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 last sentence is not Althusser's reason as I understand it. It is rather
that Part I is closer to the "surface" of capitalist, while Part II (end)
and Parts III+ go to the essential theoretical insights.

> The problem is that he [Althusser] 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.

Andrew, I don't like the formulation above. It seems to imply that you
want to throw the decision to a democratic vote of the workers. What
would be the ballot? that Marx should have started with Part III instead
of Part I? It's easy to imagine the reactions: "what the hell are you
talking about?"

> (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.

See my comments above--your last sentence is based on misreading of
Althusser. RE: the comment of "absurd" and "socially valid", I didn't
fully get that point but don't have the relevant passage in front of me.
Would you mind repeating the citation (page reference)?

> (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)."
> ... 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.

Again, Andrew, I think you have misread Althusser. His approach to
Capital is one of the most ahistorical interpretations out there. The
whole conception of structural unity in contradiction is a concept
applicable within a mode of production. One could say that the concept
of "mode of production" is transhistorical and maybe an Einsteinian
revolution in social theory (cf. Einstein's revolution of Newton physics)
will modify this in form, but I don't think we are operating at this

In sum, I think you are more Althusserian than you realize.

Paul Z.