From International Socialism (2nd series), No.125, Winter 2010.
Copyright © International Socialism.
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Althusser: The Detour of Theory
Haymarket Books 2009 £19.99
The economic crisis of the last two years has provided an extra impetus to the revival of interest in Marxism. A new generation is beginning to reach out to ideas that we were told were finished once and for all in the aftermath of 1989.
But no generation develops its conceptions without borrowing from what went before. So some of the best names associated with Marxism are still ones that made their first impact more than three decades ago, and young would-be Marxists can find themselves confronting debates from a previous era. One of the names re-emerging is that of the French Communist philosopher Louis Althusser, who died in 1990. There is barely an issue of Historical Materialism that does not carry some article on him; his influence pervades the North American journal Rethinking Marxism; and long-established academics will refer to his ideas as if they can be taken for granted.
Yet from the moment Althusser began to put his ideas forward in the mid-1960s they were met with a very strong challenge from many of us who regarded ourselves as revolutionary Marxists. We saw his approach as not merely problematic but pernicious. The republication after more than 20 years of Gregory Elliott’s critical, even if half-admiring, account of his ideas provides an opportunity to explain why.
Althusser’s most influential books, For Marx and Reading Capital , first appeared when Western capitalism was still going through its longest ever boom, while the state capitalist countries of the supposedly “Communist” bloc seemed to have recovered their stability after the 1956 traumas of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and the Hungarian Revolution.
The rival belief systems on both sides in the Cold War had one great thing in common: they denied the possibility of the mass of people changing society. This was true of the “consensus” ideologies in the West preached by theorists like Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton and Daniel Bell. It was also true of the caricature of Marxism which prevailed in the East, where Marx’s vision of the working class emancipating itself had been replaced by identification with accumulation of the means of production in one country. The Marxist tradition in the West suffered not merely from its marginalisation by anti-Communism but even more by its creative impulses continually being undermined by edicts from Moscow on everything from philosophy to genetics.
The first big break in this wall of intellectual conservatism had come with the events of 1956. A significant number of Communist workers and intellectuals broke with Stalinism without swinging into the Western camp and what was known as the “New Left” was born. 
The New Left did not manage to sustain itself as a living movement for long – this was, after all, a time in which capitalism was expanding and providing real reforms. Nor did the current have a homogenous conception of social change: its leading figures fudged the issue of reform and revolution. But it did begin to create a new tradition of Marxism that challenged the orthodoxies of East and West by stressing the role of the mass of people in making history. Hence the impact of Jean-Paul Sartre, courageously opposing France’s Algerian War as well as trying to find room within Marxism for his existentialist emphasis on individual human choice. Against the dehumanised Stalinist caricature of Marxism, the New Left raised the banner of “Marxist humanism”.
Much of the inspiration came from the works of the young Marx – they had been published in German just 25 years before and were only then becoming available in other languages.  They also reached back to the writings from the great movement of revolutionary action that followed the Russian Revolution. For some that meant the discovery of Trotsky’s writings – pure manna to those brought up on the dry crusts of Stalinism. For others the image of Rosa Luxemburg was very important.  And for those delving into the Marxist method there were the philosophical writings of Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci and, above all, George Lukács.
Lukács had begun his major work, History and Class Consciousness, as a member of the Hungarian workers’ council government of 1919. It not only gave full expression to the revolutionary hopes of those years, but also provided an account of society very similar to that later to be found in Marx’s as yet unpublished early writings. The central concept was “reification” – literally “turning into a thing”. For Lukács capitalism was a system under which human activity took on the character of a system of things that oppressed human beings. He provided an account of the history of philosophy, which reached its pinnacle in Hegel’s writings in the aftermath of the French Revolution, as a history of philosophers’ attempts to decipher this reality. Lukács argued success in this task was only possible by identification with the struggles of the class whose crystallised labour constituted the edifice of capitalist society, the working class. The revolutionary action of that class could overcome reification both in practice and in theory.
Lukács’ account was highly abstract, with little about how class struggle actually develops and how workers concretely move to class consciousness – on these questions it was less interesting than, for instance, what Gramsci had to say in those passages of his prison notebooks concerned with contradictory consciousness, let alone Trotsky’s writings on strategy and tactics. Nevertheless, it was immensely important in reasserting the central thesis of Marxism – that the working class produced by capitalism could be its gravedigger.
Marxist humanism, like the New Left of which it was part, could move in two directions. It could lead back towards a version of reformism that used talk of humanism to blunt any stress on class struggle – a tempting approach for Stalinist parties making their own reformism more explicit. But it could also lead towards a thoroughgoing revolutionary socialism from below, which is why International Socialism was born from it just as much as New Left Review, printing articles on Korsch and translating articles by Lukács and his disciple Lucien Goldman. It meant that when new movements of opposition to capitalism and imperialism began to arise from 1967 onwards there were at least the embryos of organisations trying to draw them in the direction of “socialism from below”.
It was then that someone who seems not be have been stirred at all by the great ferment of 1956 arrived on the scene – Louis Althusser. For Marx and Reading Capital set out to demolish the central tenets of the sort of Marxism we had been reconstructing. These works insisted: 
Althusser’s approach was not merely slightly different to that developed by those of us inspired by the revolutionary insurgency of 1956. It was in many respects the complete opposite, since Marxism was no longer seen as a theory connected to the struggle for human emancipation from the alienated structures of capitalism, in which self-conscious self-activity of workers plays the pivotal role.
Althusser did at points suggest that the Stalinist version of Marxism got some things wrong. But he shared with the Stalinist caricature the rejection of the notion that workers, from being the objects of history, could become its subjects – that they could supersede their own alienation (or, in Hegelian terminology, “negate the negation”). His hardest polemics were precisely on this point. Stalin’s “expulsion of the ‘negation of the negation’ from the domain of the Marxist dialectic”, he wrote, “might be evidence of theoretical perspicacity”.  As Elliott puts it, “while noting that ‘Stalinist dogmatism’” had “as yet not been buried by history”, the “butt of his criticism” was “focused on the return to Hegel associated with Lukács, Korsch and to a lesser extent Gramsci”. 
Althusser’s “symptomatic reading” of Marx ignored the actual content of Marx’s own writings. The key Althusserian text on Marx’s method was the unpublished Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (not to be confused with the famous Preface). This was written at the same time as the manuscript that constitutes the Grundrisse. The Grundrisse is marked by many of the “Hegelian” formulations that Althusser claimed Marx had broken with, and, as Elliott recognises, “is a protracted challenge to Althusser’s periodisation of historical materialism”.  Yet the text is ignored in Althusser’s account of Marx – “an astonishing lacuna”. 
The fact that Althusser diverged from Marx’s own position did not, of course, prove that his theory was mistaken. It failed because it contained theoretical problems he could not resolve.
First, there was the question of how we validate claims to truth – that is, how we test what we believe against the reality of the world around us. Althusser argues that we can only know the external world through our conceptions of it. However hard we try, we cannot escape from this conceptual prison house. Despite his attacks on Hegel, Althusser was in this repeating arguments made very well by Hegel in his Phenomenology of Mind  to the effect that we cannot give any fixity to the fleeting impressions of the world that pass before our eyes without the use of concepts. This then raises the problem of how we know these concepts are correct. Hegel gave two answers. The first was that reason can eventually arrive at a total view of the world which provides proof of the truthfulness of the concepts that determine how we perceive things. This answer was inadequate because it assumed that thought alone could prove its own objectivity and provide a justification for the particular concepts we use.  Hegel’s second answer, never fully developed, was to argue at various points in his writings that we can test the objectivity of our concepts not simply by “contemplative reason” but by “practical reason” – that is by action which, by attempting to mould the world around us, shows the reality or otherwise of the ideas we hold. We can grasp reality truthfully because we make and remake it.  It is this notion of the role of human practical activity that Marx uses to go beyond the Hegelian approach, “putting it on its feet”, as he put it:
The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, ie, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question ... All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice. 
Althusser, by turning his back on practice as a test of theory, ends up with a schema very much like that put across by the conservative interpretation of Hegel, in which truth is arrived at simply by the application of reason to concepts – baptised “theoretical practice” by Althusser. 
Associated with this static philosophic approach was a static analysis of society. The account of modes of production in For Marx and Reading Capital provided no room for one mode of production to give way to another, since any particular society is dominated by a single, unchanging, structure of structures. As Elliott puts it, his method “endows social formations with such consistency (modes of production generate their own ‘conditions of existence’) that their reproduction as unities is ensured, their transformations theoretically unthinkable”.  Althusser’s collaborator, Jacques Rancière, later admitted that “it superimposed ‘a Comtean or Durkheimian type of sociology’ concerned with maintaining the social order upon historical materialism”.  Its attempt to overcome the crudities of Stalinist Marxism in fact involved incorporating into it notions from the “structuralism” of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss , whose notion that human behaviour in all societies as determined by unchanging structures was the fashionable equivalent in mainstream French intellectual life of the structural functionalism reigning in American sociology. 
Missing is precisely what is central in Marx and Engels – the changing processes by which human beings carve out a living from nature. These are seen in The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy, the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man as continually disturbing old “fixed fast” social relations – and the ideologies that sustain them. For Althusser, as Elliott puts it, “the productive forces were deprived of their status as an independent variable and conceived of as a variety – or a subset – of the relations of production”. 
The Althusserians denounced Marx’s own proclaimed position as “technological determinism”. Such a critique was doubly wrong. It assumed that technological development is an impersonal process, not an aspect of conscious human labour in action. It also assumed that to see new ways of getting a livelihood as giving rise to new social relations that challenge old ones is somehow to fall into a mechanical view of history whereby the new social relations automatically overthrew the old ones. This was the view implied by some of the writings of the generation of Marxists after Marx and Engels – what is often called “Second International” Marxism  – and was the view articulated explicitly by the Stalinist caricature of Marxism. But for Marx and Engels it led to a very different conclusion. The clash between new forces of production and established relations of production heralded the beginning of an “epoch of social revolution”, the outcome of which depended on the organisation of the different classes – and the subjective factors of the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary leadership played an important role. As they put in the Communist Manifesto, one outcome could be a revolutionary reorganisation of society, but the other could be “the mutual destruction of the contending classes”.
Althusserianism, by erasing this element from Marxism, could not avoid going around in circles when it came to trying to explain how one mode of production could give way to another.
This was a problem never resolved by Althusser. But it did lead him into an often-ignored turn away from much of the argument of For Marx and Reading Capital. As Elliott says, from “1967 to 1974” Althusser “retracted” his “theory of theoretical practice”, “acknowledging an erstwhile ‘theoreticism’ and a failure to appreciate the ‘organic relationship’ between philosophy and politics ... The novelty of ‘dialectical materialism’ was no longer thought to reside in its scientificity as a theory of science, but in its ‘partisan’, ‘materialist’ practice of philosophy”.  It was now “the continuation of revolutionary politics by theoretical means”,  the view “from the proletarian standpoint”. 
Effectively, Althusser was turning his back on the very interpretation of Marxism that he had insisted on a decade earlier – and just as it was being accepted by many academics as the correct Marxist approach.
This “turn towards politics” did leave unchanged two important features of his old approach. Marxism might be philosophy “from the proletarian viewpoint”, but Althusser still saw ideology as always completely clouding the minds of the workers themselves. It was still wrong to inform “workers that men make history” , since “history” was still “a process without a subject”.  The validity of the “proletarian viewpoint” came not from the practice of workers in struggle, but from the efforts of those who carry out “the class struggle in theory”. What is more, classes were defined not just by relations in production but also by “their members’ positions in political and ideological relations”. 
As Elliott rightly puts it, “In the name of anti-economism and anti-evolutionism, Althusser abandoned the classic tenet of historical materialism, substituting such theses as the dominance of the ideological level”.  History was a process without a subject, but somehow those who waged the ideological struggle could move it forward as they arrogated to themselves the decisions as to who the workers actually were and what the class struggle was. Voluntarism was a necessary correlative of an idealist theory of knowledge.
Althusser’s U-turn had political as well as intellectual roots. His original formulations were in part inspired by increasingly open criticisms directed at Khrushchev’s post-Stalin regime in the USSR by Mao’s regime in China asserting its different strategic goals. The Chinese regime was just as Stalinist as the Russian, and so its criticisms were within the matrix of orthodox Stalinism, with its view of history as only decipherable by the party elite. The structure of Althusser’s thought in these years reflected this.
This posture appealed to a layer of young French Communists worried by the habit of the French Communist Party of pursuing a social democratic strategy in practice. They saw Althusser’s writings as providing a “left critique” of the party’s “revisionism” and proclaimed it as the genuine Marxism – even though Althusser himself was careful not to break with the party.
After the publication of For Marx and Reading Capital in 1965, Althusser enjoyed an enormous influence over young left wing intellectuals in France. This spilt over internationally, with the editors of New Left Review in Britain moving overnight from a version of Marxism inspired by Sartre to an intense, although short lived, love affair with Althusserianism. As a result many of those radicalised elsewhere in Europe and North America by the movements from 1967 onwards saw Althusser as representing the epitome of Marxist thought and accepting uncritically the diatribes directed against thinkers like Lukács.  Those of us trying to build some sort of revolutionary organisation with roots in the working class in 1968-9 were subject to the most vehement attacks by the proponents of Theoretical Practice. 
But even as the influence of Althusserianism continued to spread, two things happened to upset Althusser’s own theoretical balance. The first was the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-9). This started as one section of the Chinese leadership, headed by Mao and the army chief Lin Biao decided that the only way to dislodge a rival section was a carefully orchestrated mobilisation of teenage “Red Guards”. To many in the West, this seemed to cast Maoism in a new light. Struggle from below appeared to matter, not the “scientific” elaboration of a party line from above.
The second was the French May of 1968. Althusser, sick at the time of the events, failed to rise to the occasion and remained within the Communist Party, providing a partial justification of its stance of trying to restore France to normality.  It was the criticism he faced from the left, as well as the conservative leadership of the Communist Party, that led Althusser to make his U-turn, with its attempt to incorporate agency and change into his theory.
Elliott traces a second great shift in his position a decade later. Those who had identified with Althusserianism from a Maoist standpoint ten years before now began to move away from it in all sorts of directions, under the combined impact of the ebbing of the global radicalisation produced by the events of 1968  and the revelations that China was a very unrevolutionary state, with Mao welcoming Nixon to Beijing and the army crushing “red guard” and “red rebel” groups who took Cultural Revolution slogans about the masses seriously. Some, like Poulantzas, moved towards forms of left Eurocommunism of their own.  Some, like Britain’s Paul Hirst, abandoned Marxism for empiricism and social democracy; some, like André Glucksmann, became fervent supporters of US imperialism. The Althusserian theory that society was built of combinations of different structures articulated somehow by the economic structure was transmuted by “post-structuralists”  into theories which saw each structure as operating independently of the others, so that racism, sexism, homophobia and ecological destructiveness all had distinct causes and had to be dealt with separately. Postmodernists added that any attempt to deal with them as part of a totality would, in fact, lead to totalitarianism.
Confronted by the collapse not only of his school but of the political hopes of 30 years, Althusser felt compelled to make one last theoretical stand, identifying a “crisis of Marxism” and trying to come to terms with it. He could not do so without for the first time coming out with a trenchant critique of the theory and practice of Stalinism. He denounced the “massacre and deportation of peasants denounced as Kulaks, the Gulag archipelago, the repression that still goes on 25 years after Stalin’s death” and the way “the bourgeois ideology of the omnipotence of ideas triumphed in the monstrous unity of state-party-state ideology”, where “the masses had only to submit themselves in the very name of their liberation”.  The one time theorist of Marxism-Leninism now separated Marxism off from it and contradicted the basic premise of the original Althusserianism by asserting that Marxist theory grows out of the terrain of workers’ struggles.  Yet the old notion that Stalinism was an heir to Marxism persisted, only now in a negative sense: the faults in Stalinism, he asserted, had their roots in “lacunae” in Marx’s own writings
The most influential critique of Althusserianism was from the best known representative of the original New Left, Edward Thompson, who felt compelled once more to defend “the agenda of 1956” in his 1978 collection The Poverty of Theory.  It was a masterpiece of polemic, devastating in unpicking the holes, the contradictions and the weak points in the original Althusserian façade – and in taking apart the pretentions of some of his British disciples. Its central strength was that it highlighted what the Althusserian system and Stalinism had in common – the disdain for conscious working class actions that characterises all versions of what Hal Draper many years ago baptised “socialism from above”. Reading it, I felt many of my own criticisms were brilliantly expressed. 
Yet one of the ironies of history was that Thompson’s critique appeared in the very year that Althusserianism in France collapsed into fragments. By that time the actual political positions of Thompson and Althusser were not so far apart. Both stood for radical reformism rather than revolutionary change. Both also rejected Marx’s insight that changes in the way humans made a livelihood (“the forces of production”) create a dynamic tension with old social relations. Thompson argued that Marx had, in writing Capital, fallen into “a trap” of “over-developing” the “formal side” of capitalism as an economic system and that it was necessary to see that there were “other ‘circuits’” – “circuits of power, or reproduction of ideology, etc.” This was remarkably close to the later Althusserian notion of different structures coexisting without the economic playing a determining role.  Both left unresolved the question of agency – of what prompts people in their millions to challenge structures they have accepted in the past. The optimistic voluntarism of 1956 in Thompson’s case, and of 1967-74 in Althusser’s, could easily give way among their disciples to deep pessimism and a “post-Marxist” retreat from politics.
In my view, the new generation coming to Marxism have a lot more to learn from Thompson than from Althusser and even more from the revolutionary tradition that goes back to the post-1917 thinkers so attacked by the Althusserians. Elliott’s book vindicates my view. It constitutes a painstaking attempt to trace the development of Althusser’s system by someone who believes it to be of some value, but who in fact shows how flawed it was – proving that the emperor has no clothes, but not daring to admit it. Anyone who feels under pressure to find out what Althusserianism was about should read it.
1. They both appeared in French in 1965 as Pour Marx and Lire le Capital, which included essays by his disciples as well as by Althusser himself; the English translation of Pour Marx as For Marx appeared in 1969; an English translation of Lire le Capital as Reading Capital was published in 1970, excluding essays in the original by Roger Establet, Jacques Rancière, and Pierre Macherey. I quote from both the English and French editions of Pour Marx, and from the French edition of Lire le capital.
2. Blackledge, 2006.
3. The first English edition of Marx’s 1844 manuscripts, translated by the blind Scottish Communist philosopher Martin Milligan, did not appear until 1959.
4. This was when Tony Cliff’s political biography Rosa Luxemburg first appeared – Cliff, 1959.
5. The list of major points is based on one I drew up when writing a critique of Althusserian ideas many years ago, elements of which appeared in my article of 1983, Philosophy and Revolution – Harman, 1983. All the points are born out in Elliott’s text.
6. Quoted in Elliott, 1987, p.86. All my quotes are from the 1987 edition; the main text of the new edition is identical, but the pagination is slightly different.
7. Elliott, 1987, p.89.
8. Elliott, 1987, p.132.
9. Elliott 1987, p.132.
10. See Hegel, 1964, pp.131-227.
11. For Hegel it was not the thought of the individual, but of what he called the “Absolute Spirit” – variously interpreted as meaning the mind of god which humanity came to understand though history, or the collective knowledge humanity arrived at in the course of its history. Hegel’s view is usually described as an “objective idealism” – ideas determine the world, but not the random ideas of individuals.
12. There is an important ambiguity in Hegel’s writings on this. The social world, that is human history, has been made by human action; it is the crystallisation of human action going back to the moment our ancestors descended from the trees. Because of this we can endeavour to “get inside” historical events by grasping the interaction between people’s motives and the world around them. But this is not true of the natural world; we did not make it. This is something which Hegel seems to recognise at certain points. But his system seems to imply that “spirit” or “objective mind” makes the natural world and that human thought, as part of “spirit”, can understand the natural world also from the inside. For an important discussion on such ambiguities in Hegel, see Lukács, 1978.
13. Marx, 1845.
14. In Althusser’s rather obtuse formulation, Generality II, Theory, operates on Generality I, Concepts, to produce Generality III, Truth. The similarities are marked with the crude “trinity” version of Hegelianism in which the purely conceptual interaction of thesis and antithesis produces synthesis. For such a static, purely conceptualist reading of Hegel, see Stace, 1955. In fact, Althusser’s position involves a backsliding from Hegel – something he himself admitted when he confessed to his preference for Spinoza over Hegel.
15. Elliott, 1987, p.179.
16. Elliott, 1987, p.177.
17. Althusser argued in 1964 “that Lévi-Strauss was more an immediate ally of historical materialism than Sartre” – Elliott, 1987, p.62.
18. For an account of the influence of structuralism, see Bradbury, 1988.
19. Elliott, 1987, p.163.
20. It followed from the period in which Marxists found themselves between the crushing of the Paris Commune and the outbreak of World War One. Capitalist states generally were too strong to be overthrown by the insurrectionary methods of the past, but the growth and spread of capitalist industry was producing an enlarged and potentially more powerful working class. But until this growth had gone a good deal further, it was not possible to overthrow the system and it was necessary to have patience, knowing things would change. This understanding could be expressed through mechanical formulae, but it contained an important element of truth until 1905, when near-revolution in Russia presaged a new stage with insurrectionary potential, although incorporating a method, the mass strike, hardly known in the past.
21. Elliott, 1987, p.198, see also pp.204-205.
22. Elliott, 1987, p.205.
23. Althusser, quoted in Elliott, 1987, p.214.
24. Elliott, paraphrasing Althusser’s argument, 1987, p.221.
25. Althusser, quoted in Elliott 1987, p.220.
26. Elliott, 1987, p.195.
27. Elliott, 1987, p.223.
28. Most were ignorant of what Lukács actually argued, since History and Class Consciousness did not appear in English until 1971.
29. A short-lived British Althusserian journal as well as a particularly arid caricature of Marxism.
30. See Elliott, 1987, pp.197, 235, 238, 266.
31. Harman, 1979.
32. On Poulantzas’s ideas and political itinerary, see Barker, 1979.
33. See Bradbury, 1988.
34. Quoted in Elliott, 1987, pp.307, 319.
35. See Elliott’s summary of Althusser’s Il Marxismo Oggi of 1978, Elliott, 1987, p.315.
36. Thompson, 1978, pp.333, 382.
37. I had started to write a long critique of Althusser’s first system in the early 1970s based on notes I had made when working on an unfinished (and lost) PhD thesis several years before, but decided that trying to build a party with roots in working class struggle was more important. Some of my conclusions appeared subsequently in my article Philosophy and Revolution – Harman 1983.
38. Thompson, 1978, pp.250-260. His critique of the early Althusser moved from the correct understanding that humans have the capacity to react against the structures that imprison them to failing to recognise the sheer power of the structures created by alienated labour under capitalism. This even leads him to “go a good part of the way” with the “critique” of Marxist tradition by those like Castoriadis who embraced postmodernism – Thompson, 1978, p.360.
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Last updated on 15 January 2010