Althusser, Badiou, and the Critique of Political Economy

At the recent ‘Idea of Communism’ conference at Birkbeck in London, Badiou reiterated his position regarding political economy.  If I understood him correctly, Badiou was arguing that the answer to capitalism is political not economic.  One cannot move from economics to politics (I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote).


I find this position troubling.  After all, Marx wrote on political economy, right?  It also troubles my more economically minded friends, who see a necessary economic element in the challenge to capitalism.


Though I won’t go so far as agreeing with Badiou’s argument, I came across a passage in Althusser which rendered his position clearer (for me at least).  It comes from his essay ‘On Marx and Freud,’ which can be found in his Writings on Psychoanalysis.


Althusser is here discussing the process of abandoning bourgeois or petty-bourgeois positions in favour of proletarian ones:


‘In the “displacement” that has him occupying proletarian class theoretical positions, Marx discovers that despite all the merits of its authors, political economy as it exists is not fundamentally a science but a theoretical formation of bourgeois ideology, playing its role in the ideological class struggle.  He discovers that it is not only the detail of existing political economy that is to be criticized but that the very idea, the project, and thus the existence of political economy – which can be thought of as an independent and autonomous discipline only on the condition of disguising class relations and the class struggle that it is its ideological mission to conceal – deserve to be called into question and doubt. Marx’s theoretical revolution thus arrives at the conclusion that there is no political economy… and that it is all the more emphatically the case that there is no Marxist political economy.  That does not mean there is nothing; rather, it means that Marx rejects the object that political economy was alleged to be with an entirely different reality that becomes intelligible through entirely different principles, those of historical materialism, in which class struggle becomes determinant for understanding so-called economic phenomena’ (113).


Allegiance to Marx is much more of a concern for Althusser than for Badiou, but this passage seems to indicate a potential source for Badiou’s understanding.  The accuracy of Althusser’s reading and the efficacy of Marx’s argument, of course, are an entirely different matter.


I wonder if Althusser’s statement could be reworded like this: the ideological role of political economy is to complicate the terrain of resistance by claiming that it is a network of political and economic relations that determine class relations.  In contrast, Marx is arguing that class relations are political (this fits with Engel’s definition of political power as ‘merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another’).  So without denying the reality of economic relations, one can state that these relations are simply a weapon in the arsenal of oppression of one class by another.  I think this formulation then raises a larger question: if class oppression is not reducible to economics (both in its means and its goals) what are the motivations of these tyrannies?


One comment

  1. When Althusser claims that there is no political economy, and that there is no Marxist political economy he is refering to the epistemological break he presupposed as inaugurating every new science from the yoke of ideology (remnants of which are still present in the science itself; see Althusser’s generalities). There is no Marxist political economy in the sense that Marx’s object was not the same as the object of the classical Political Economists. This is demonstrated particularly well with Marx’s notion of surplus-value, a notion which was produced long before Marx but only discovered in Marx – see Engels’ analogy between the discovery of oxygen and the discovery of surplus-value in the Preface to Capital II.

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