Re: [OPE-L] exploitation and abstraction

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Sat Jun 30 2007 - 12:10:29 EDT

>Marx says: "In the analysis of economic forms... neither microscopes nor
>chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both."
>But he goes on to explain directly thereafter that he doesn't just abstract
>willy-nilly for the sake of a story, or start from a principle, rather he
>studied England as the locus classicus of the capitalist mode of production,
>and abstracted from this historical example (and the theories made about it)
>what he thought to be the general laws of this mode of production.

That is CLEARLY not what Marx writes. He says that he uses evidence
from England to illustrate his theory ("That is the reason why
England is used as the chief illustration in the development of my
theoretical ideas"); he does not say that he abstracts his theory
from the experience of English capitalist development. Perhaps he
should have written what you say, perhaps he proceeded as if he had
written what you say, perhaps he should have proceeded in accordance
with what you say.

But Marx seems close at points--perhaps too close at points for your
liking--to a rationalist view of science. Althusser spoke of his debt
to Bachelard but perhaps his idea of science was also close to Koyre.
So there is the question of the relationship between what Marx meant
by dialectics and what in the twentieth century would become a
rationalist theory of science in terms of which Ted Benton and
Russell Keat long ago argued Althusser had interpreted Marx's theory
(Althusser wasn't trying to do science but understand the nature of
Marx's scientific revolution).
One may well want to argue against this from the point of view of
empiricism or critical realism. But these are difficult questions.
And the question is not really about Althusser but how we understand
Marx's theory in terms of  philosophies of science--empiricism,
critical realism, rationalism, idealization, successive

You seem convinced that Marx was an empiricist of a rather simple
sort. Perhaps. But I think more careful argumentation is needed which
is not provided by attacks on Althusser, obviously one of your bete

Indeed your defense of empiricism of the simple sort reads to me as
dogmatic and metaphysical.


>So the
>abstraction is a generalisation from experience. He tries to write it up, in
>a way which shows how each of the contradictions implied by commercial trade
>are practically resolved and mediated, but also how these solutions
>themselves give rise to fresh contradictions.

>But with Althusser you get a very different interpretation. Althusser claims
>boldly that "the concept of history can no longer be empirical, i.e.
>historical" (Reading Capital, p. 105). In fact, history becomes
>unhistorical, and quite consistent with this idea, Althusser indeed
>explicitly calls the totality of structured structures he identifies an
>"eternity" in a Spinozist metaphysical sense of self-causing, infinite in
>its kind, and necessarily existing. But this is merely a sophistical,
>grandiose way of saying that if I want to cognise changes in the passing of
>time, I can do so only with the aid of a referent which remains constant. I
>cannot have a variable without a constant, I cannot fully define finitude
>without infinity, and so on.
>Real history must then be made to conform to Althusser's eternal,
>superhistorical concepts. But Spinoza is not Marx, and Althusser in fact
>adopts an approach which is diametrically opposed to Marx & Engels.
>Althussser doesn't abstract from a real empirical object, instead he has
>this hierarchy of abstractions already, which he wants to superimpose on
>empirical reality. And he wants to endow these abstractions with a special,
>privileged status a priori, in advance of experience, rather than validate
>them in the course of empirical research. From there, we get arguments that
>a claim is true, because it is stated at a certain level of abstraction, and
>if it turns out not to be true, it must be because it is stated at another
>level of abstraction or the wrong level of abstraction.
>But this is childish and vulgar, because we can go round and round
>redefining things ad nauseam, and something will always be true at a certain
>level of abstraction and false at another, you can go any which way with it.
>Althusser has these generalisations to which real history must be made to
>conform, and therefore the critical question of how we arrive at our
>generalisations doesn't even arise. In the end, all it boils down to, is the
>claim "Marx said so, therefore it is true" which is a dogma or argument from
>authority. Glucksmann has this funny critique of Althusser's Stalinism which
>he calls "a ventriloquist's structuralism" (who whispers the lines? how do
>we know?) but in the end it's a quasi-religion, a faith in a theory
>independent of its actual application. Whether or not a level of abstraction
>is appropriate cannot be simply dictated by a logical method, rather its
>appropriateness is determined by the actual requirements of an analysis of
>empirical reality.
>In the first edition of his excellent little book "What is this thing called
>science?", Alan F. Chalmers was still an Althusserian, but in the subsequent
>editions he removed the Althusserian part. That's quite correct, because
>Althusserianism isn't science, at best only theory. What Althusser wanted to
>do is attack empiricism, and he ends up with theoreticism. But why does he
>attack empiricism? Quite simply because the facts of experience contradict
>the theory, and he wants to keep the theory. But that is just to say "I
>don't know how to develop my theory so that it explains, that those things
>which appear to contradict it in reality, are really quite consistent with
>the theory". Compare this to Marx's discussion of the law of value: "if one
>wanted to 'explain' from the outset all phenomena that apparently contradict
>the law, one would have to provide the science before the science." And that
>is exactly what Althusser does: he wants to provide the science before he
>has actually done any.

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