Saturday 19 October 2019

Rereading Reading Capital

Re-reading Reading Capital was an unexpected delight. When I first sat down with this book 17 or 18 years ago, each page was scoured over meticulously with a determination to unspool the meaning of Althusser's tightly-wound prose. It got to the ludicrous point of amassing a pile of notes for the first third of the book greater even than the hefty wedge I recently turned out while reading actual Capital. Coming back to Reading Capital many years later and after much practice reading difficult social theory, I found ploughing through something of a (semi-masochistic) pleasure. It also came with a surprising bonus.

There is a regrettable tendency on the left these days to dismiss Althusser's contributions to Marxism. A part-cancellation part down to the murderous circumstances of his final breakdown, but also because of the sustained and withering polemic over his oeuvre - not helped by some of his more high profile disciples, at least on these shores, going down the controversial highways and by-ways of post-structuralism and outright obscurantism. Nevertheless, Althusser's raison d'etre, his problematic, was a sound enough intellectual enterprise. That is setting out to demonstrate what is unique and specific about Marxism versus mainstream social science, philosophy and, above all, political economy. His second objective is inextricable from the first: an examination and the subsequent isolation and removal of the residues of bourgeois philosophy lingering on in Marxism. These hangovers serve to cloud rather than elucidate the concepts necessary for a scientific enquiry into the dynamics and laws governing capitalist societies - or social formations, in Althusser-speak.

This enterprise debuted in For Marx, setting out what a non-humanistic (anti-humanist) and non-essentialised Marxism should look like. Here, Althusser focused particularly on Marx's relationship with Hegel and through a close philosophical reading of key texts made the case that dialectics and materialism in Marx was a much more involved affair than simply standing Hegel the right way up. Similar to other French structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers of the time, Hegel's philosophy was attacked for, ultimately, offering a simplistic and metaphysical approach to history. Here, history in all essentials is the unfolding of the principle of reason through fits and bursts, but with a clear upward trajectory to an end point where, effectively, history as Hegel understands it has come to an end and reason triumphs. This metaphysics has found various ways into Marxism, via Promethean/humanist iterations of Marx (history as the becoming realisation of humanity's species-being), its mechanical opposite (history animated by economic or technological determinism), or history as the inevitable realisation of communism proceeding to this end point through a series of ever more progressive modes of production. For Althusser, these Marxisms operated with 'expressive totalities' - at any point a social formation was an expression of some essentialised underlying principle. For Althusser, this emphatically was not Marx's method. Turning to his 'mature works' - the volumes of Capital, Critique of the Gotha Programme, the notes assembled as Theories of Surplus Value, and various marginalia. Here we find no principles animating the movement of history. Instead we find societies structured in particular ways owing to the patterning of class struggle, the mode of exploitation, strength, extent and relationships between institutions, the mode of production and its conjunctural hybridity/residuum of preceding modes, and so on. In short, social formations are complex but knowable.

Althusser's second argument was one for the real geeks, but nevertheless bound up with the above. Marx himself wasn't always a Marxist. His earlier works were radical but were irredeemably Hegelian and abounded with humanist concepts and essentialisms. It was philosophical and obviously pre-scientific. Or ideological, in Althusser's rendering. For instance, Althusser located Marx's famous 1844 Paris Manuscripts and their treatment of and polemic against alienation as a work condemning capitalism for the way it estranged humans from their essential humanity, which was a thoroughly woolly notion. However, during 1846 Marx, with Engels, wrote The German Ideology, a polemic against their philosophical contemporaries. For the first time their materialist conception of history was outlined and there was no room for metaphysical props. Still, while a vital breakthrough Althusser argues neither Marx nor Engels fully articulated their novel approach in philosophical terms. What was distinctive was buried in the operationalisation of (not fully articulated) concepts, notes or asides in their work, remarks in the voluminous correspondence between them and other thinkers and activists they exchanged letters with. Marx never wrote a book about Marx's method.

This was the meat and gravy of Althusser's project. He was concerned with rescuing the specificity of Marx's contribution from under the weight of misinterpretation and distortion, and set it out in stark terms. Doing so would aid theoretical clarity and demonstrate its superiority versus the ideologies passing for bourgeois thought.

Reading Capital is a continuation of this project. For instance, one of the particularly valuable and oft-overlooked contributions here is Althusser's discussion of time. As the social is positioned as an expressive totality by idealist philosophy and political economy, making an analytical intervention at any point in history amounts to an 'essential section'. i.e. That point in time reduces events and occurrences to expressions of the underlying metaphysic of history. Therefore time is simple, linear, and uniform. Contrast this to the Marxist approach to time. Because capitalism is complex, and because all capitalist social formations are complex articulations of struggles and institutions, time itself is complex and multiple. To demonstrate, while all businesses depend on their circuit of capital to successfully complete (the advance of capital, its transformation into commodities by setting the means of production and labour power into motion, and then the value locked up in these commodities getting realised at the point of sale, returning the investment plus surplus value to the capitalist), the speed this takes place at varies from firm to firm, and industry to industry. Therefore it assumes at times compressed, at times elastic and elongated properties depending on conjunctural and specific circumstances. Likewise, the velocity of exploitation differs from the speed of politics and the pace of ideologies. The 'time' of the labour movement - its consolidation and progress to class consciousness differs from the 'time' it takes capital to become conscious of its own interests, for instance.

This is illustrative of Althusser's chief thesis in Reading Capital and For Marx. The difference between idealist philosophy and classical political economy versus Marx's work isn't a matter of interpretation, of viewing the same object (capitalist political economy) from differing perspectives, but of looking at separate things entirely. The thought-object of Adam Smith is not the thought-object of Karl Marx. This for Althusser is why Capital is so difficult for mainstream economists - they try reading their object into the books and are troubled when their suppositions don't find an echo there, but their obviousness is challenged.

To demonstrate, classical political economy emphasises distribution and subordinates production and consumption to it, while assuming the social field this takes place in is homogenous and measurable (hence the difficulties bourgeois economics has with surplus value, because it is "invisible" and the product of a process of exploitation that passes it by entirely). Second, economics rests on an 'anthropology of needs'. That capitalist economic activity, from the buying and selling of commodities to the buying and selling of labour, is premised on need. And if an economy meets all needs, there is a tendency to equilibrium and harmony.

Marx trashes this woolly nonsense. He divides need into two 'departments' - department I is the production of the conditions of production, of capital selling to other capitals, and department II, or individual consumption. Therefore not all needs are made equal nor are they qualitatively the same. Secondly, not only is department II historicised, i.e. individual consumption changes over time, only those needs that are economically affective tend to be met. There is an urgent need to address food shortages for human beings, but the commercial imperative ensures millions of dogs get their Pedigree Chum while people starve. None of this is a product of human nature, but a characteristic of production for accumulation - the historically contingent, transitory, but nevertheless real structural imperatives of capitalism. Therefore the destruction of 'naive' needs anthropology entails the destruction of political economy itself, and a new theoretical object that is entirely separate and anti-humanist:

The true subjects (in the sense of constitutive subjects of the process) are therefore not these occupants or functionaries [of entrepreneurs, managers, workers] but the definition, distribution of their places and functions. The true 'subjects' are these definers and distributors: the relations of production. (p.180)

For Althusser, this leads to a number of important conclusions about Marx's approach to capitalism, his theoretical object. The economic is not a given, and so its concept has to be articulated by specifying what constitutes the economic, how this in turn is incarnated in its mode of production, its relation to the social whole, the specificities and efficacy of the political, economic, and so on. In other words, how the concept has to be alive, nuanced, and consistently renovated. Second, where Marxism eschews conceptual formalisation it leads to confusion, error, and all the nasties Althusser warned against. And third, linear causality is dumped. It is always structural, complex, and requires careful elaboration.

Althusser's observations on the gulf between political economy and Marx, and Marx's relationship with his forebears may have attracted much criticism, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Neoclassical and Keynesian economics proceed as if Marx never happened, and little if anything has appeared in mainstream economics that has seriously disturbed Marxist critiques of political economy. And this is a separation in which the different theoretical objects of each are materialised in academic departments and journals.

And the surprising bonus spoken of near the top of this post? It helped clarify my own approach to politics. Establishment commentators have often had it in the neck here for their stupidity, ignorance, and all the rest of it, and this lies in the complete absence of not treating politics as social relations. In other words, they have a faulty conception of what politics is. A true enough if banal observation. However, applying the same analysis to politics that Althusser excavated from Marx's critique of political economy and it is pretty obvious there is a qualitative difference between the gossip mongery and the parliament-centric output of political journalism and its academic corollary in political science. This world of difference lies in the fact that we do not have the same object. They are constructing and analysing a mystification, whereas the materialist analysis of politics embeds it fully within its context, characterised by the effectivity of other structures on it, its constitution by and constitution of class relationships, the struggles of sections and factions, and the sometimes rude intrusion of masses of new people - to give it an uncut rendering. Marxism is sometimes criticised for not having a political theory, in the same sense conservatism and liberalism has one. Well, it's obvious that it does and it can be seen in every critique it makes of bourgeois politics. It's just that its theory cannot be abstracted as a set of free floating principles. Though just as Althusser lamented the fact Marx never wrote his philosophy book and set down in explicit detail what separated his discoveries from what went before, perhaps a 'politics' book for Marxism should be written for the same reasons.

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BCFG said...

Interesting stuff.

“His earlier works were radical but were irredeemably Hegelian and abounded with humanist concepts and essentialisms. It was philosophical and obviously pre-scientific.”

I think this is an incorrect reading. Marx, through struggle, analysis and study, determined that change can only come about through class struggle and a technological apotheosis, in other words only at the point the system is a fetter on future productive development would the system come crashing down, albeit over a protracted length of time.

Do I agree with this? Well yes up to a point.

Is this the reason I am an anti capitalist? Hell no. I am an anti capitalist for all the moral reasons Marx was an anti Capitalist. It is an exploitative, dehumanising, vile system.

Marx in his younger days simply expressed his moral reasons for being an anti capitalist. Did he loose these moral feelings? Hell no. He simply developed his scientific theory to explain how this vile system was simply a transient stage in human development.

Politics is not physics and mathematics is simply a tool. You can’t reduce human society to empiricism. In the world of human struggle and human development there is no distinction to be made between the moral and the scientific, only to point out that an analysis of how change takes place needs to abstract morality from this tale, even though, as Marx explained, those millions of individual wills affect change. Engels once expressed concern that he and Marx had gone too far in their determinism, which they believed was justified at the time. Hindsight informs me that Engels was correct on this point.

It is from this point that I would say we need to move on from Marx, In this respect we should look to people like Samir Amin as the real torch bearers of Marxism and of Marxian value theory. Much of Western Marxism needs to be ditched into the Sea or thrown into the river.

We see how hopeless Marxism has been in dealing with the struggles of today. Marxism has been virtually impotent to deal with the struggles around the climate crisis and Marxism has done next to nothing in dealing with Marx’s most important criticism of capitalism, i.e. its anarchic nature.

It is from this criticism from which the true communist consciousness springs. Which is why when presented with real life communists, Marxists run a mile the other way and descend into moronic workerism.

Well looking at that baying mob of thugs who beat up the climate protesters at the Tube station, I say fuck the workers and their capitalist death cult!

Boffy said...

This is a peti-bourgeois subjectivist interpretation of Marx. It was not new. For example, one of the leading Narodnik theoreticians, Mikhailovsky wrote,

“the question naturally arises: in which of his works did Marx expound his materialist conception of history? In Capital he gave us an example of the combination of logical force with erudition, with a scrupulous investigation of all the economic literature and of the pertinent facts. He brought to light theoretician of economic science long forgotten or unknown to anybody to day, and did not overlook the most minute details in factory inspectors reports or experts evidence before various special commissions; in a word, he examined this enormous mass of factual material, partly in order to provide arguments for his economic theories and partly to illustrate them. If he has created a completely new conception of the historical process, if he has explained the whole past of mankind from a new viewpoint and has summarised all hitherto existing theories on the philosophy of history, then he has done so, of course, with equal zeal: he has, indeed, reviewed and subjected to critical analysis all the known theories of the historical process, and worked over a mass of facts of world history. The comparison with Darwin, so customary in Marxist literature, serves still more to confirm this idea. What does Darwin’s whole work amount to? Certain closely interconnected generalising ideas crowning a veritable Mont Blanc of factual material. But where is the appropriate work by Marx? It does not exist. And not only does no such work by Marx exist, but there is none to be found in all Marxist literature, despite its voluminous and extensive character.”

It is of course, nonsense, as Lenin shows in demolishing Mikhailovsky's claims in What The Friends of the People Are.

Its dismantled by Marx himself in The Poverty of Philosophy. As Lenin says, what Capital is about is demonstrating the theory of historical materialism by explaining how one mode of production - capitalism - arises as a result of changes in the forces of production which bring about changes in the productive relations, which themselves are the basis of the formation of social classes, and the ideas and contradictory interests those classes possess. The real social process of evolution is between these different forms of property.

Marx himself responded to Mikhailovsky.

Anonymous said...

Very worthwhile analysis- cheers Phil.

BCFG said...


“In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals — each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general) — do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it.”

“I would furthermore ask you to study this theory from its original sources and not at second-hand; it is really much easier. Marx hardly wrote anything in which it did not play a part. But especially The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is a most excellent example of its application. There are also many allusions to it in Capital. Then may I also direct you to my writings: Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, in which I have given the most detailed account of historical materialism which, as far as I know, exists.”

"Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent "Marxists" from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too."

Included in the letter Boffy linked to is this:

“If Russia continues to pursue the path she has followed since 1861, she will lose the finest chance ever offered by history to a nation, in order to undergo all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.”

Surely a statement that contradicts everything Boffy has ever argued! Boffy, the poster boy of rubbish Marxism!

Boffy said...

For some reason this quote from the post was missed from the start of my previous comment.

2For Althusser, this emphatically was not Marx's method. Turning to his 'mature works' - the volumes of Capital, Critique of the Gotha Programme, the notes assembled as Theories of Surplus Value, and various marginalia. Here we find no principles animating the movement of history. Instead we find societies structured in particular ways owing to the patterning of class struggle, the mode of exploitation, strength, extent and relationships between institutions, the mode of production and its conjunctural hybridity/residuum of preceding modes, and so on. In short, social formations are complex but knowable."

The rest then follows setting out that this concept is petty-bourgeois subjectivism.

David Hillman said...

Yea Althussers antihumanism is that social structures make history, though not under conditions of their own choosing, so in our theoretical praxis we can cut out the middle man of human agency, evade chosing a side on real political issues by constructive vagueness, and throw in some then fashionable thinkers like freud and anyone else he can name drop.

Lidl_Janus said...

Not sure I have much to add, except that this is not the first time I've looked at this post, and I am therefore re-reading OP's re-reading of Reading Capital.

Of course, anyone who gives this comment a second look will be re-reading a re-reading of re-reading Reading Capital. If anyone subsequently replies to this, I'll be sure to pay due attention to said comment before responding, therefore re-reading a re-reading of the re-reading of the re-reading of Reading Capital.

I guess I'm taking a postmodern approach that treats the text as a third-order simulacrum, but in order to be certain I'll have to do some re-reading.

Dialectician1 said...

Very good, Lidl_Janus. However, does the truth lie with the author or the audience?

Lidl_Janus said...

"does the truth lie with the author or the audience?"

Neither, because there really is nothing outside the text.

Dialectician1 said...

Yes, of course, because for poststructuralists, truth is a chimera. All we have is the text - to be interpreted by the reader (interpretive community). In this postmodern world there isn't ideological disagreement just a series of language games, none of which can be true or false, only offering different perspectives. The persuasiveness of the text is all that is at stake. So for poststructuralists like Stanley Fish, rhetoric (the honeyed muse) is all there is. Some literary theorists like Benn Michaels, try to rescue truth from the quagmire of moral relativism by giving priority in the text to the intent of the author. But as a reader, I'm not convinced.

Accumulation by Possession said...

Dialectician1, lets get concrete then...

The oil voucher scheme in Russia, a classic example of the civilising mission of capitalism, gave vouchers to the very poorest citizens. Spread across millions these vouchers did not add up to a hill of beans. The vultures came along and bought these vouchers, the poor were only too ready to sell. This is a classic example of accumulation by possession, giving to the poor in order to take away from the poor.

This is a cautionary tale for those are suckered in by the likes of Boffy, who believe in capitalism without the capitalist. If we spread the wealth of the 1% among everyone we would all end up with a brick each, i.e. it would be the oil voucher scheme in reverse. The true meaning of communism is not capitalism without the capitalist but a radical transformation of human society, human morality and human morale.

The likes of Boffy deny science in many ways, not only in their crackpot theories about how to combat environmental destruction (Boffy thinks everyone will eventually become a millionaire) or their stubborn refusal to deny basic physics about the amount of energy required for the planet to be sustainable at half the current western energy usage. To sustain the idea that the planet can survive on the current energy usage of the average Westerner could only be sustained if you viewed Star Trek as a documentary or some very real premonition of the future. The materialism of the likes of Boffy is every bit as fanciful as the idealism of Islamic state, in fact Islamic state are on much more material grounds than the likes of Boffy are. Islamic state are infinitely more rational than the so called leftism of people like Boffy.

Don’t look to the Marxists either for a vision of communism, look to those instead who actually question the fundamental basis on which capitalism rests and see in it only madness and destruction. Capitalism is the real death cult (ISIS are simply a reaction to the madness). While every peer reviewed scientific paper in the last 30 years confirms the destruction of the environment taking place the death cultists just carry on anyway, nothing will get in the way of their consumerism.

In the last 30 years there is not a single peer reviewed scientific paper that contradicts the view that the environment and the living system is being degraded with potentially disastrous consequences, yet the death cultists of capitalism demand proof! They say why can’t the extinction rebellion supporters just try and convince us rationally, as if we are not past the point of needing further proof. As if there is anything else to discuss!

The extinction rebellion activists did the correct thing trying to disrupt the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, just they had not reckoned on what a bunch of savage barbarians these death cultists are.

Civilising mission, don’t make me laugh!