DIALECTICS: VIOLENCE OF ABSTRACTION 1

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Fri Apr 7 11:28:27 MDT 1995


Sayer, Derek.  THE VIOLENCE OF ABSTRACTION: THE ANALYTIC
FOUNDATIONS OF HISTORICAL MATERIALISM.  Oxford; Cambridge, MA:
Basil Blackwell, 1989.  (Ideas)

Contents: (1) Prologue: Marx's 'guiding thread'; (2) Productive
forces' (3) Relations of production; (4) Ideal superstructures;
(5) Interlude: the giraffes among the acacias; (6) The historicity
of concepts.

Sayer takes G.A. Cohen (1978) as the exemplar of the standard
interpretation of Marx's historical materialism and vigorously
opposes him.  Chapter 5 is a critique of Cohen's functionalism.
Analytical philosophers and their handling of Marx do come in for
some well-deserved drubbing at times.  Sayer finds a great deal of
inspiration in Bertell Ollman.

In chapter 1, Sayer seeks to oppose two prevailing tendencies: (1)
economic reductionism, (2) attempts to escape the limitations of
(1) by resorting to vague anti-reductionist notions of relative
autonomy.  Cohen is admired for his bold rejection of such
prevarications, all the more to be criticized in his purity.
Althusser is one exemplar of the second tendency.  Engels' letter
of 21 Sept. 1890 to Joseph Bloch, in which he warns against an
overemphasis on the economic factor, comes in for some discussion
regarding its meaning and implications.  Sayer puts the issue this
way:

"For Cohen, these are in the end little more than obfuscations and
evasions.  On one level, I am inclined to agree, at least so far
as the theoretical contortions of Althusser and his followers are
concerned.  Such conceptual acrobatics recall the equants and
epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy in the face of the Copernican
challenge, attempts frantically to buttress an outmoded theory in
the face of anomalous phenomena.  But though I wish to argue
against going down this road of ever more elaborate theoretical
schemata, I think that the problems to which it is a response ....
are real enough, and much that is illuminating has been unearthed
in the attempt .... But for the moment, I want to draw a rather
different set of emphases from Engels's 'testament'.  These points
tell equally against 'traditional historical materialism' and
Althusserian-style revisionism." [p. 10]

Sayer stresses Marx's hunger for empirical material as opposed to
abstract schematism, for example in his interest in the Russian
question [p. 12-13].  Engels is cited on this emphasis also,
particularly his constant recommendation of 18TH BRUMAIRE.
Finally, Marx's 'guiding thread' should be understood as just that
[p. 14].  General principles should be used to guide specific,
detailed analyses of empirical situations, rather than themselves
be built up into some abstract schematic general model.

[End of part one.  Next installment: discussion of chapter 4]


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