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Are Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Althusser’s ‘Reading Capital’ Still Relevant Today?

Princeton professor Nick Nesbitt argues for the transhistorical importance of both works

The following are excerpts from an interview with Nick Nesbitt conducted by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paolo and from his introduction to the edited volume The Concept in Crisis. Reading Capital Today published by Duke University Press in 2017. Copyright 2017 Duke University Press.

Folha de São Paolo: A century and a half after first volume of Capital, the global economy is no longer the predominantly industrial one that Marx analyzed. Why to return to Capital today?

Nick Nesbitt: Of course capitalism has never stopped evolving since its inception; in Marx’s time, the revolutions of 1848 gave way to the economic crises of the 1850s, the relative stability and expansion of high industrial capitalism in the 1860s, and finally the 1870 French civil war, the Commune, and Marx’s growing awareness of the specificity of Eastern European communal forms and revolutionary movements. In response, his thought never stopped developing to encompass and take measure of these transformations. The protean malleability of Capital has, indeed, never ceased in its transformations, and today more than ever we are subject to its exponentially accelerating growth and plasticity, as the late industrial era of Fordism in the previous century gives way to the currently unfolding general automation of all capitalist production and its accompanying depreciation of living labor power. That said, even today some readers of Marx (I’m thinking here of Gareth Stedman Jones’ recent intellectual biography) would have us think that Marx’s vast writings amount to little more than a descriptive compendium of the conditions of exploitation of the 19th century working class. I think rather that Marx’s lasting genius is to be found – even more than in his prodigious, scathing political writings – in the unparalleled masterpiece of thought and critique that he named Das Kapital.

More specifically, what gives the four volumes of Capital their lasting, transhistorical interest and power, to answer your question, is precisely that Marx expended every ounce of intellectual energy he possessed over the last three decades of his life not merely to describe nineteenth century conditions of the working class; Engels himself had long before accomplished this in the work that introduced him to Marx, The Condition of the Working Class in England. No, for all its meticulous attention to the evidence of its times, Marx’s Capital transcends the historical specificity of its site and moment of composition because it is one of the world’s great works of theoretical critique; in this case, as its subtitle tells us, a systematic critique of the political economy of capitalism, in its accomplishments and influence on the order of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right or even Plato’s Republic. Marx worked prodigiously to develop this conceptual understanding of the nature, form, and structures of capitalism, and of the proper mode of its textual presentation, from at least 1857 till his death in 1883. Unlike the countless superficial descriptions of capitalism – of the prices and profits, the losses and luxuries of capitalists and nations, of the conditions of workers, of the politics surrounding the production, distribution, consumption, and redistribution of the wealth of capitalist production – that have graced into the present the annals of liberalism, neoliberalism, and the traditional Left alike, Capital is above all a work of conceptual, critical philosophy.

This explains why Althusser’s famous 1965 collaborative reading of Capital retains an analogous relevancy today. Like Capital itself, Lire le Capital is undeniably a product of its times; but what times those were! […] Reading Capital argues that Marx’s Capital is precisely not an empirical description of nineteenth century conditions of the working class. Rather, their book argues polemically that Capital establishes for the first time the conceptual architecture – what the jargon of the times called the structure – of Marx’s theoretical critique. On this reading, Marx not only builds upon the founding theorizations of capitalism of Adam Smith and David Ricardo; as a critique of political economy, Marx (who, we should recall, received his doctorate not in today’s academic field of neoliberal ‘Economics,’ but in classical philosophy, writing his dissertation on Democritus and Epicurus) constructs Das Kapital as the theoretically adequate demonstration of capitalism as a conceptual apparatus.

As such, Capital necessarily remains immediately relevant into the present for understanding capitalism beyond its various contingent, superficial transformations, as a system possessing its proper logic, structures, and dynamics. […] In short, in the face of the massively disorienting and potentially catastrophic transformations of capitalism that we witness all around us today, transformations that have only accelerated since the turn of this century, if we wish to understand the forces currently driving globalization, general automation, and the corresponding immiseration of the better part of humanity as more and more humans are put to work in ever deteriorating conditions, Althusser and through him Marx tell us that we learn nothing from even the most erudite statistical compilations and neoliberal analyses of GDP, employment, profitability, growth and all the other real, but ultimately superficial and merely descriptive categories of economic calculation. Instead, we must return to Marx’s properly conceptual analysis of capitalism as a contingent, historically instantiated, yet structurally transcendental, form or structure (neither term is fully adequate), via a work unequaled before and since in its critique of the fundamental nature of capitalist production.

Folha de São Paolo: Which debates does your book [ The Concept in Crisis. Reading Capital Today] intend to provoke or to revisit?

Nick Nesbitt: Firstly, I should say that the book itself would have been impossible without the immediate enthusiasm, generosity and sheer brilliance of all its contributors; not only direct participants in Althusser’s intellectual adventure such as Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar, and Fernanda Navarro, but also some of the most insightful readers of Marx and Althusser writing today. Their unflagging and generous support of this project from the very first makes the book a truly collaborative endeavor, one hopefully worthy of standing beside the Althusserian collaboration we seek to invoke and reanimate. That said, the volume as a whole bears the individual stamp of each of its authors, and has no overarching methodology, such as that which Althusser brought to his students in 1965. As editor, however, I had a number of clear imperatives that organized my thinking about the importance and nature of a return to Reading Capital and Marx’s Capital itself today, a half-century and century and a half, respectively, after their publications.

Above all, I consciously wanted to reject and move beyond the stupid, superficial, ultimately moralistic dismissal of one of the great thinkers of the previous century because of the contingent tragedies of his biography, an erasure that, since 1980, still reigns today, at least in the Anglophone and French academies. That Althusser spent the better part of his adult life in and out of mental clinics, thrown between periods of severe depression and manic elation, to culminate in a fit of insanity that cost his wife her life and himself his public existence, all this was no willful decision that supposedly infected his thought to some important degree, as we might claim was the case for Heidegger’s Nazism, but, like Nietzsche’s travails and ultimate collapse, is in my view a matter of mere biography that should rightly be of interest only for highbrow dinner parties and the police files of the Cinquième République, not theoretical reflection.

Secondly, I specifically wanted to draw attention to the theoretical, conceptual reading of Marx’s Capital initiated by Althusser and his students that I referred to above. Since the waning of political Marxism and so-called actually existing socialism after 1989, Capital has in many circles increasingly come to be read as a theoretical critique of an existing social formation, rather than as a description of exploitation and an invocation to proletarian revolt. Originating in the Neue Marx-Lektüre movement that arose in Germany from Adorno’s late writings and lectures on Marx in the 1960s, this conceptual reading of Marx is today typified by the writings of thinkers such as Michael Heinrich, Robert Kurz, Norbert Trenkle and Anselm Jappe in Germany, and Riccardo Bellofiore and Max Tomba in Italy. In the Anglophone world, the founding reference for such a conceptual reading of Capital as a philosophy of the valorization of value remains Moishe Postone’s influential 1993 book Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory.

For all its influence in our contemporary understanding of Marx’s critique of capital, what’s notable for me in this genealogy is that it entirely bypasses the earlier French turn to a conceptual reading of Capital I’ve just described. One of the principle aims of my own contribution to the volume, then, was to reinscribe in this contemporary field of thought not only Althusser, Balibar, Macherey, and Rancière, but other unjustly neglected works such as Michel Henry’s monumental, 1,000-page 1976 study Marx. These thinkers, I argue, should be recognized as having in fact initiated this conceptual turn to Marx, while the specificity of their contribution arising from the Historical Epistemology of Cavaillès and Canguilhem clearly differentiates it from the post-Frankfurt School approach of Heinrich and Postone. Instead, one universally encounters only awkward silence or superficial dismissal of Althusser’s critique of Marx.

Finally, I wanted, in my own contributions to the volume, to emphasize Reading Capital as Althusser’s highest theoretical achievement for understanding the crises, transformations, and potentialities of late capitalism today. While the history of Twentieth-century Marxism is voluminous and labyrinthine, I think Postone and Kurz were largely right in identifying a pervasive misreading of Capital in so-called ‘traditional Marxism,’ capitalism being understood as a mere humanist critique of exploitation and unjust distribution of the wealth of capitalist production. Instead, as Reading Capital first argued, Marx constructed in Capital a philosophy of the value-form that is astonishingly prescient in helping us understand contemporary capitalism, precisely because he operated primarily at the level of a conceptual, rather than historico-empirical, analysis of capitalism.

An excerpt from The Concept in Crisis. Reading Capital Today

I do not believe there can be “Althusserians” in the strict sense of disciples of Althusser. One can only reiterate the questions he asked, and from them, fabricate others.

— yves duroux

As he prepared his own contribution to the seminar that would become Lire le Capital, on October 2, 1963, Althusser wrote to Franca Madonia: “I’m working hard, and with good results; I’m reading Capital closely. Finally, I’m entering the citadel” (Lettres à Franca 459). After a period of intensive, even manic productivity in August–September 1962, in which he wrote many of the texts that would comprise Pour Marx in the span of a few weeks (and which Franca would translate in 1965), in the fall of 1964 Althusser set course with his “jeunes chiens,” the precocious group of students at the École normale supérieure de la rue d’Ulm gathered around him for a seminar in spring term 1965, undertaking the philosophical reading of Marx’s Capital that Althusser himself had previously called for in Pour Marx. The result, for the first time in Althusser’s experience, was a truly “collective work, a collective project in which each working on his own reaches the same results by the most unexpected paths” (Lettres à Franca 605). The seminar, collectively organized by Althusser, Étienne Balibar, Yves Duroux, Jacques Rancière, and Jean-Claude Milner, culminated in texts by Althusser, Balibar, Rancière, and Pierre Macherey (Roger Establet, absent from the École, would later submit a text on the structure of Capital). Working again at a frenetic pace by November 1963, Althusser could rightfully observe: “What I’m producing,” he wrote to Franca, “is incredible both in quantity and quality. I have so much to write, so much to say! … I’ve never been so conscious of the terrible danger contact with ideas represents — and at the same time the extraordinary power that it gives” (Lettres à Franca 482, 518). Each of the contributors produced works that, in their originality, timeliness, and vitality, would come on the publication of Lire le Capital in 1965 to comprise one of the key interventions in twentieth-century critical theory.

Reading Capital marked a watershed in Marxist philosophy and critical theory more generally, constructing a dazzling array of concepts that still today can be said to constitute the syntax of radical philosophy and that continue to inspire philosophical reflection of the highest order. The volume constructed powerful critiques of Hegel, of expressive totality, of teleologies, of humanism, of empiricism understood in its broadest sense, of causality, of phenomenologies and psychologistic philosophies of conscious intentionality, of historicisms, historiographies, and historians of every stripe and color and their reliance on mere methodology; pursuing the path of philosophical orientation first delineated in Jean Cavaillès’s On the Logic and Theory of Science (1942), it undertook a Spinozist critique of phenomenology to pursue instead the construction of concepts, including the symptomatic reading, mode of production, over determination, the conjuncture, abstraction, structural causality, that of knowledge work as a form of production, of the necessity of contingency, of the very act of reading itself, and — in distinction to decades of reflexive and clichéd condemnation of Althusser’s philosophy as somehow unable to think historical change — the construction of an array of critical concepts of a history with neither subject nor transcendental logic of transition.

In 1961, there occurred an encounter between a young, largely unknown philosophy professor, born in 1918, and a small group of apprentice philosophers, who were in search of theoretical guidance at the rue d’Ulm in order to pursue new directions in philosophy. The political conjuncture of the climax of the Algerian war pushed these students toward both a theoretical and political passion. Given their political militancy, they were particularly happy to discover in Althusser a Marxist philosopher in their midst at the rue d’Ulm. Duroux, Jacques Rancière, Balibar, and Macherey thus together first approached Althusser in 1961, intrigued by his first articles on Marx, to ask for guidance in their readings. They constructed a plan de travail for the next three years, a research project that would culminate in Lire le Capital. Among the crucial absences or gaps in the final product that is Lire le Capital, Balibar has noted that of Duroux, who never actually wrote up a contribution of his own following the end of the seminar, yet who was an essential participant at every stage of the seminar.

Following close on the seminar itself, by March 1965, Althusser had decided to publish the volume with François Maspero, and in November 1965, Maspero duly published Lire le Capital (Reading Capital) in two volumes, simultaneously with Althusser’s collection of earlier essays from 1961 to 1965 as Pour Marx. By the standards of French academic publishing at the time, it was an immense and immediate hit, vaulting Althusser and his collaborators to prominence in Parisian circles of philosophical academia and communism, both within and without the Parti Communiste Français (PCF). […] Finally, more than a half-century after the initial publication of this central text of critical theory, complete editions of Lire le Capital have as of this writing been published in English and German editions in addition to the original French.

We thus find ourselves in a moment of rediscovery of Lire le Capital, at least in the Anglophone world. For a number of reasons, the historical diffusion and reception of Reading Capital since the 1970s was decisively inflected by the altered state of the abridged second edition. By 1967, the brief formalist, theoreticist moment in Marxist philosophy in France explosively initiated byReading Capital, and that would culminate in the Cahiers pour l’analyse, had passed. Reception and discussion of Althusser since the 1970s has arguably been linked above all to the critique of ideology, with the theoreticist, epistemological focus of 1965–1967 (itself developed from the antiphenomenological tradition of Cavaillès, Bachelard, and Canguilhem) largely dismissed as wrong-headed or simply ignored. To cite only the most immanent and well- known critique of Althusser, it is astounding to witness how Rancière’s 1973 book Althusser’s Lesson reduces the array of critiques and concepts listed a moment ago to the following statement of the central proposition of Reading Capital: “The major thesis of Reading Capital [is] the manipulation of the blind subjects of social practice,” writes Rancière in his devastating polemic (53).

In fact, in the Anglophone world, Reading Capital is increasingly coming to be appreciated not so much as ideology critique but as a culminating moment in the twentieth-century French tradition of epistemology that extends from Bachelard, Cavaillès, and Albert Lautman to Canguilhem, and Foucault and Althusser. This was a tradition of thought that always and explicitly placed itself in opposition to all phenomenologies of consciousness. It seems that we are rediscovering this tradition, finally refusing all anti-intellectual disparagement of so-called theoreticism. A raft of recent publications — from Warren Montag’s Althusser and His Contemporaries, to Peter Hallward and Knox Peden’s two-volume critical edition and translation of the Cahierspour l’analyse, to Peden’s Spinoza contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze — have undertaken a critical revalorization and exploration of this epistemological tradition in which Reading Capital stands as one of the key and indeed culminating interventions.

Nick Nesbitt is Professor of French at Princeton University and the author of, most recently, Caribbean Critique: Antillean Critical Theory from Toussaint to GlissantOn November 7th, 2017, he gave a talk at the New School for Social Research’s Politics Department titled “Reading Marx in the Age of Posthuman Capitalism.” The Concept in Crisis. Reading Capital Today is available for purchase online on Duke University PressA PDF version of Nick Nesbitt’s introduction to The Concept in Crisis. Reading Capital Today is available here.

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