Comparative Capitalisms
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Reading Capital The Complete Edition

by Mark Kelly on June 26, 2017
Past & Present

In the first semester of this year, the Past & Present Reading Group chose to tackle the newly published Reading Capital: The Complete Edition, a collection of work by five thinkers, Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, and Jacques Rancière. Their contributions are far from equal, however, and the contribution of Althusser towers far above the rest.

This is a translation of a text originally published in French in 1965. The great majority of the text – more than two thirds of it, in the form of Althusser and Balibar’s parts – has been available in English since the 1970s. This new edition amends the older translations slightly and adds the much shorter contributions by the other three authors, which had previously been left out.

Reading Capital does not fit into any usual genre of writing or research. At first blush it might seem ordinary enough. It’s ostensibly, eponymously based around the task of reading Karl Marx’s Capital, hardly an original task, though perhaps less commonplace when this collection originally appeared in the 1960s. It’s an anthology, an edited collection in effect, again these days one of the stock-standard academic genres.

But it’s not your usual edited collection, nor is its central task the exegesis of Marx. It emanates from a seminar of a master, Louis Althusser, with four of his students. These students have each to varying extents gone on to become prominent thinkers in their own right, but there is little trace of that in this juvenilia.

Few works so clearly declare their object, viz. in this case eponymously to read Marx’s Capital. And while Althusser does read Capital here to an extent, his objective is not at all what one might naïvely take it to be: many of my co-readers in the reading group approached this text from the point of view of its fidelity to and elucidation of Marx. I came at this text from a different angle, however: I’ve only ever read Volume 1 of Capital, and that was 20 years ago, but am working on the thoughts of both Althusser and Balibar. I will maintain, albeit with inevitable confirmation bias, that this is a good angle to come at this text from, that is, that it’s more an artifact of late twentieth century French philosophy than it is a book about Marx, though it is of course both.

Here I must refer to my embarrassingly esoteric reading of Althusser, which I expound in my chapter in the collection (Mis)Readings of Marx in Continental Philosophy, an updated version of which will appear as a chapter in my forthcoming book For Foucault: Against Normative Theory. I maintain that Althusser’s philosophical project fundamentally has little to do with Marx, but that it is couched in terms of a reading of Marx because of his decision to adhere to the French Communist Party. While Althusser’s adherence to Communism does indicate a certain adherence to Marxism, his theoretical move is to disguise the profound unorthodoxy of his Marxism by insisting that in fact his position is the true Marxian orthodoxy, though this leads ultimately to the paradoxical position that it is Althusser, not Marx, who is the truer representative of Marxism. If anything, what Althusser is trying to do with Marx is to co-opt him to his own philosophical cause by reading him in a highly tendentious way.

In Reading Capital, Althusser talks about Marx’s Capital, about surplus value, wage labour, but this book is not the object of the study. Adam Morton, at one point in the reading group, bridled at Althusser’s apparently nonsensical assertion that England was not the object of Marx’s remarks pertaining to England. But Althusser’s point is straightforward enough: it is not England but what the English phenomenon points to, namely capital as such, that is the object of Capital. But in reading Capital, Althusser raises the level of abstraction again: Althusser’s object is neither Capital nor even capital, but rather Marx’s epistemology, or indeed more accurately, since Althusser is content to fit Marx to his needs, really knowledge itself as such. Althusser’s Reading Capital is a landmark work of epistemology.

Althusser’s couches his epistemology in terms of a via media charted between Hegelian rationalism and crass empiricism. On the one hand, Hegel hopes that human reason will eventually coincide with God’s, and we will hence come to understand everything in an absolute knowledge that coincides with reality. On the other hand, empiricists naïvely imagine that their representations of objects already coincide with these objects and that scientific theories tell us how the world really is. Marxists exhibit both of these epistemological tendencies, indeed often at the same time. Althusser’s radical alternative is a conception of science that allows for the fundamental dehissence of knowledge from its object, an approach that knows no meeting.

Althusser is here part of a broader tendency, certainly encompassing Foucault – to whom Althusser refers frequently in Reading Capital, and who constitutes something of a missing term here, not least because of his status as the one who sits between Althusser and Althusser’s students in age, mentored by Althusser but not quite his student, and who in many ways goes beyond Althusser. And there is also Jacques Lacan, present as often as Foucault in name, and also present in terminology. Indeed, I will suggest that it is Lacan who is the real master of the epistemological tendency being followed through by Althusser here. But of course we must also mention the progenitors of it, Georges Canguilhem and Gaston Bachelard, and they too are mentioned in the text.

Althusser tries to make this epistemological break, uniquely, in the name of orthodoxy: he calls his perspective ‘materialism’, ‘science’, ‘Marxism’, calls what is usually called by these names ‘empricism’ and even identifies this as a form of ‘idealism’. He makes a seductive case that traces of this break can be found in Marx, that Marx is no empiricist, and it seems right to claim that Marx is more sophisticated in his complex ambiguities than any formulation of ‘Marxism’ as such. Still, I think it is a mistake to try to read him here for insights into Marx per se.

For such a literal purpose, one would do better – though I’m not sure how much better – to turn to the contribution of Balibar. Certainly Balibar is much more focused on interpreting the text of Capital itself than Althusser is, albeit giving a thoroughly Althusserian reading. The conceptual leitmotif of Balibar’s reading is the concept of social complexity as the defining feature of the totality for Marx (interestingly Balibar retains this concept of the totality, unlike Althusser, who foreswears it in favour of the concept of the ‘whole’). I am not sure of the accuracy of this as exegesis of Marx, but it is a genuinely useful attempt to speak within and to Marxism. Balibar’s analysis of changes in modes of production, with its distinctively structuralist features – the structure has to change for the mode to change, it is assembled of elements, the presence of the elements in the structure being enough regardless of preceding sequences and origins – is an important contribution.

At the edges, Balibar’s contribution frays, however. It is perhaps inevitably, given his relative youth at the time of writing, clumsily verbose when compared to Althusser’s. In terms of content, Balibar stretches his reading of Marx too far via comparisons between Marx and a structuralist reading of Freud (thus implicitly aping Lacan), which see Balibar diminishing the question of ‘nature’ in Marx in favour of the suggestion that we could ‘say that nature has the role of a social element’. At this point, I think I can detect – albeit with the benefit of hindsight – the incipient lurking tendency of late twentieth century French philosophy towards a profound conceptual relativism, which I think is incompatible with Marx’s materialism: for Marx, if so much in society does indeed vary historically, nature remains a material base on which it is constructed, and is not to be reduced to an historically relative conceptual construction. Here Marx is profoundly dissimilar to Freud, because Marx’s object is quite different: in production, we can say that the raw materials pre-exist the product, whereas in psychology it is radically unclear what is raw material and what is worked over, or indeed whether any such distinction can be tenable in dealing with the psyche.

This is not to say that there is a terminal incompatibility here, so much as that Balibar handles the incompatibility badly by minimising it. Likewise, Balibar’s eventual gloss of Marx’s ‘men’ as ‘forms of individuality’, which is so esoteric it stretches credulity. Balibar is right to diminish the extent of the importance of concrete individuals for Marx, to note that Marx is concerned with abstractions and averages in relation to complex phenomena, but his reading of Marx here dissolves concrete materiality to an extent I cannot believe Marx means to. Balibar, in the end, declares not just history, but time itself to be relative.

I think we see here Balibar’s tendency towards the quasi-Derridean position that he takes in his mature work, by which I mean towards the position that we are entirely in discourse. This can be usefully distinguished from the more materialist positions of Lacan, Deleuze, and Foucault, and indeed Althusser, who each in their own way allow that there is something outside of discourse that we maintain some kind of contact with qua extra-discursive.

What of the other three authors of the complete Reading Capital? Their contributions are much shorter, and all three were removed from the French original in its 1968 second edition, before the work was ever translated. That they are being added back now I suspect is more than anything due to the fact that Jacques Rancière in particular has in recent years risen to great prominence in contemporary continental philosophy, fuelling an interest in his contribution to this collection. More generally, the new edition attests to a recent surge of interest in this moment in the mid-1960s as ancestral to the venerable Althusserian and later ‘post-Althusserian’ thinkers who today constitute some of the pre-eminent names in French thought.

But I do not think any of these contributions are very interesting. Rancière’s piece is longer than Establet’s and Macherey’s put together, and is profoundly idiosyncratic, perhaps in this regard indicating the errant tendency of Rancière’s later thought, and indeed perhaps interesting to Rancière scholars for this reason, but not I think of any more general interest.

Macherey and Establet by contrast offer echoes of Althusser – Macherey exploring some aspects of value in Capital, Establet offering a ‘reading guide’ to Capital that attempts to discern its logical structure as a work – that add much less and are rather more wayward than Balibar’s much lengthier portion.

In the end, I think all the expansions of Reading Capital offer diminishing returns, and one should appreciate it for what it is: essentially a work of Althusser’s propounding an Althusserian position in epistemology, a fact that was recognised in 1970 when the first English edition published only Althusser’s contributions to it. While we can certainly say that Verso has done a certain service to scholars by making the more marginal contributions of the original available in English, I think the publisher does a disservice when, for example, they recommend the complete edition as essential reading to a rather general audience in their Philosophy Undergraduate Reading List, given that they continue to publish the cheaper abridged edition with Althusser and Balibar’s parts alone.

Mark Kelly
Mark G. E. Kelly is Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. He is the author of three books on the thought of Michel Foucault, of Biopolitical Imperialism (Zero, 2015) and of the forthcoming For Foucault: Against Normative Political Theory (SUNY Press, 2018).
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  • Nandita Das
    July 6, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Thank you Mark for this. ‘Reading capital’ wasn’t easy reading but worth a read!

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