Peter Binns Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Peter Binns

What are the tasks of Marxism in philosophy?

(Autumn 1982)

First published in International Socialism 2:17, Autumn 1982.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Any book written seriously and at length and entitled Is there a future for Marxism? would merit attention in these pages. If it also contains a detailed analysis of contemporary French philosophy and the mutual effect that it and Marxism have had on each other, and, in addition, is written by a Central Committee member of the Socialist Workers Party – then nothing less than a major review of it is in order.

However, writing such a review presents one with a number of crucial initial problems. The most important of these is the sheer difficulty and obscurity of the material that Alex Callinicos is dealing with in this book. To give the reader some idea of its extent I should mention the fact that a good number of leading intellectuals in the SWP have read the book but few claim to have actually understood it. There is little doubt that without a specialist knowledge of current debates in the philosophy of science on the one hand, and structuralist philosophy of language on the other, the central core of the book is well-nigh impossible to assess. And while Alex is to be congratulated on the wide-ranging and erudite manner in which he provides the background for such a discussion, it has to be admitted that the readership of the book is bound to be confined to the narrowest of academic circles in spite of this.

This immediately raises three further problems.

The first is, is it necessary to understand such esoteric philosophy? Does it positively contribute to our understanding of Marxism, of the strategy for socialist revolution and so on? Alex’s answer, as we shall see, is that it does; that at its best – for instance in Althusser s philosophy (and also Lakatos’s) – in spite of being flawed in crucial ways, it poses a number of questions that are both novel and positive, and also sketches a methodology that if followed correctly will vindicate the central principles of revolutionary socialism.

As will become clear, I think Alex is completely mistaken in this belief. However, if he were not, irrespective of how difficult or obscure the material, he would be right to conclude that it should not be ignored. Marxists cannot simply ignore even the more obscure aspects of anything relevant to Marxism on such grounds. Philistinism has no part to play in Marxism.

But it is also true that scholasticism has no part to play in Marxism either. Theories and philosophies that falsely point away from the class struggle, that, as we shall see, on the basis of incoherent and erroneous arguments, exclude proletarian self-emancipation as even a possibility worth considering, are there to be smashed, not to be learnt from. Our contact with them must only be sufficient to ensure our vaccination against them but insufficient to catch the disease itself – let alone to welcome the disease as if it were a contribution to our own health.

The second problem about reviewing the book concerns its form. While the core of the work is about contemporary philosophy this does not by any means exhaust its content. The philosophy is sandwiched between a political introduction and a political conclusion, both of which argue for the politics of the SWP in the kind of way that will be familiar to readers of this journal. To review the book as an entity in its own right would therefore require one to look above all at the connections between the philosophy and the politics, at how successfully they are drawn and so on.

Yet to concentrate attention on these links would draw attention to what I believe to be the weakest part of the book. I do not think it is in the least accidental that those who have read this book and share the politics are at best mystified (and at worst horrified) by the philosophy. Conversely I suspect that there are very few amongst those who feel at home with the philosophy who will feel impelled to the political conclusions that Alex wants to draw in connection with them. In short the book is a sandwich with the political bread quite distinct from the philosophical filling. This is not to suggest that it should be dismissed out of hand for this reason. Rather, it suggests that the successes of the book are more likely to be found in its individual insights than in its overall global purpose.

Finally, there is a real problem involved in Alex’s conception of philosophy in general and Marxist philosophy in particular. He never tells us what it ought to consist of. On the basis of what criterion, therefore, is Althusser to be classified as a ‘Marxist philosopher’? Is it because his politics are Marxist (even if in a distorted Eurocommunist form)? Is it because he is a philosopher as well as having these (distorted) Marxist politics? Or, on the other hand, is he actually a Marxist in his philosophy? i.e. is he centrally concerned to articulate and defend a conception of the proletariat and the world in which the self-emancipation of the working class is both possible and necessary?

If his Marxism derives from the politics then it is to be understood and criticised at the political level too. This will involve the familiar – and non philosophical – arguments against Eurocommunism that we in the SWP have developed elsewhere. To understand it and criticise it we would not then have to venture on to the terrain of philosophy at all.

But if he is actually a Marxist in his philosophy then it is incumbent on Alex to show us how, if at all, his philosophy helps us to articulate a world view in which the proletariat can – and must – collectively emancipate itself.

Yet nowhere at all in the book does Alex comes to terms with this. In so far as he advances a political critique of Althusser here, it is quite peripheral. And in so far as he deals with philosophy, it has to be admitted that it is a philosophy in which the central questions of Marxism in philosophy – the self emancipation of the working class – is striking by its absence, or worse still, its deliberate exclusion.

Marxism and the ‘problem’ of language

Alex’s main aim in this book is to explain the rapid decline in the influence of Marxism in the 1970s, above all in France. The background to this so-called ‘crisis in Marxism’ is, according to him, to be found in the philosophy of language. There are material roots too of course; the collapse of the Communist Parties into reformism, the failure of any significant revolutionary milieu to emerge in the working class, and so on. But in spite of these facts some kind of Marxism – in however distorted a form – became an important element, especially in French culture, for roughly the forty years from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s. This Marxism was both initially strongly influenced, and then later supplanted, by conceptions of language developed out of the theories that were first advanced by Saussure, a French linguist, at the beginning of the century. While also acknowledging the material roots of the ‘crisis in Marxism’ (though, as we shall see later, paying insufficient attention to them), Alex is centrally concerned with examining its ideological roots: why was structuralist linguistics (and structuralism in general) seen as positively contributing to Marxism in the first place, and how did its later development eventually subvert it?

Alex here refers to ‘the intrinsic importance [for Marxism] of contemporary French philosophy and its subversion of traditional notions of consciousness, language, knowledge ...’ (p. 3). This leads to a situation where ‘Language, in much of western philosophy and literature’, he tells us, ‘has broken loose from reality and become an autonomous, self-referential process extending in infinity in all directions’ (p. 25). The consequences of this for Marxism can be set out by looking at the way this conception of language was initiated by Saussure and the ways it was developed by later thinkers.

The traditional view of language was set out in a definite form in the seventeenth century by philosophers like Locke and Descartes. Words were, for them, the ultimate units of meaning, and each significant word was, basically, the label or sign for each of various ideas in our minds. In Locke the crucial ideas were those that were themselves signs of – and copies of – the outside world itself. That is why Locke’s theory of knowledge is ‘realist’: language and perception are seen in such a way that they successfully reveal the reality of the external world.

Saussure’s theory of language presented a different point of view. Linguistic signs are split in two, the ‘signified’ and the ‘signifiers’, which correspond, roughly, to the concepts and sounds that express them. Language itself consists of the two parallel series of the sounds and the concepts; and while the two are interdependent with new meanings created by a variety of difference relationships with existing meanings, what the word refers to outside language no longer affects its meaning. This led to subsequent thinkers claiming that language has become ‘autonomous’. [1]

Meaning, on this latter view, then becomes relational – that is, it does not depend on what the word refers to, but rather on the network of differences between it and all other words. Hence structuralism, for no word can gain meaning in isolation but only through the totality of the relationship of all other words to it.

This itself has far reaching consequences. According to the traditional view words are just the arbitrary signs of our conscious experiences. Language therefore is a product of (and is limited by) these experiences. The self and the self’s experiences therefore come first and language only comes afterwards; ultimately then, the self is the guarantor of meaning. Not so for structuralism. The self becomes displaced. It is no longer needed to guarantee the link between a word and what that word refers to. The individual human subject has, in the jargon of the structuralists, become ‘decentred’.

In the hands of the contemporary structuralists and post-structuralists this position is taken a great deal further. Most of them, for a variety of reasons, reject Saussure’s two series for just one – the series of the signifiers, [2] which is accorded with an ultimate priority over the series of the signified. In Levi-Strauss this is accompanied by the thesis that societies are structured like language too: ‘Like language, the social is an autonomous reality (moreover it is the same reality); the symbols are more real than that which they symbolise, the signifier precedes and determines the signified’. [3] And Lacan, for his part, argues the same thesis for the unconscious. It too is seen as structured in the same way as language. What is more Lacan does much more than just decentre the subject. The intersubjective relations upon which self-consciousness depends are themselves seen as a product of (and therefore dependent on) the symbolic order of language itself. The individual human subject is therefore not just displaced and ‘decentred’, but reduced and dissolved into being a product of a never-ending series of relationships. The effect of all this, claims Alex, ‘is to transform language into an endless play of substitutions and combinations of signifiers in which safe anchorage in a signifier outside this play is never reached’ (p. 40).

On the basis of these developments out of Saussure (and from the even more obscure philosophies of Foucault and Derrida [4]), Alex detects a ‘radical challenge to Marxism’. Its implications for the theory of knowledge ‘seem to compromise materialism, at least in the sense given it by Marx and Lenin’. It also ‘seems to undermine the marxist conception of the social whole’. What he means here is that there is no obvious way that logical distinctions can be drawn between, say, base and superstructure in the context of the never-ending play of signifiers. Nor for that matter, Alex concludes, could Lukacs’s view of revolution make sense either: for Lukacs the proletariat is a mere object within capitalist society; when, by contrast, it succeeds in seeing itself as the productive basis of society, only then can it shake off its fetters and become the subject of history. This too becomes impossible if the ‘subject’ (whether the individual or Lukacs’s proletariat) is ‘decentred’ and reduced to being a mere product of a variety of relationships.

Now all this careful and useful summary by Alex is essentially just setting the stage for the entry of Louis Althusser. He is seen as the Marxist who, while not necessarily giving the right answers, at least asks the right questions and provides the right framework for finding the right answers. His ‘significance lies ... in seeking to construct a version of marxism which avoided [these problems]’ . In doing so, ‘he both drew on, and contributed to, “the revolution of language”. The result is not less distinctive, or exciting, for being ultimately a failure’ (p. 52). Whether what he constructed was indeed a version of Marxism, whether it really did avoid these problems, whether it was ‘distinctive’ or even ‘exciting’ are questions to which we shall shortly turn.

But before we do so one point has to be cleared up. Although he does not actually say so, the implication of Alex’s discussion on the ‘revolution of language’ is that Saussure really was the first to challenge the traditional view of Locke and Descartes. There is also the implication that Marxism makes sense on the basis of the traditional view (because of its ‘realist’ implications) but requires substantive work to be done on it to make it consistent with the neo-Saussurean view. From this one might even conclude that Marx’s own view of language was close to that of Locke. [5] Why else would Marxism stand in need of the ‘distinctive’ theories of Althusser on this question? Presumably because poor old Marx got it wrong himself and stands in need of Louis Althusser’s helping hand.

Nothing could be further than the truth. On many occasions Marx repudiated the empiricist theories of Locke et al, including both their theories of language [6] and their naive realism. [7] In one of his clearest passages he explains language as he explains property. The latter cannot be seen as a natural or a biological or an individual relationship between a person and a thing but something which is essentially historical and social in form. For any individual, Marx argues, ‘His property, i.e. his relationship to the natural prerequisites of his production as his own, is mediated by his natural membership of a community’. In parenthesis Marx immediately adds: ‘... The abstraction of a community whose members have nothing in common but language, etc., and barely even that, is plainly the product of much later historical circumstances’. He concludes:

It is, for instance, evident that the individual is related to his language as his own only as the natural member of a human community. Language as the product of an individual is an absurdity. But so also is property.

And a hundred years before Levi-Strauss he went on to say: ‘Language itself is just as much the product of a community, as in another respect it is the existence of the community: it is, as it were, the communal being speaking for itself. [8]

Now this is not to suggest for one moment that Marx and contemporary French structuralists have the same theories of language – they do not. [9] But what it does show is that the move from the traditional to the structuralist theory is not a move from a friendly to a hostile environment for Marxism – the traditional theory could not have been more hostile than it was. It also shows that to characterise this move as a crisis in Marxism is a serious mistake. Marxism – or, at least, the Marxism of Marx – has nothing in common with Locke or the traditional theory of language at all. [10]

This means that right at the start we have to seriously question Alex’s main premise. The ‘revolution in language’ was no more a challenge to Marxism than the traditional view it replaced. As a consequence it stood in no special need of external help – let alone help from the likes of Louis Althusser.

The spectre of Althusser

Alex’s involvement with Althusserianism runs very deep and is rather complex. He himself at the outset of the book makes it clear that his ‘reasons for concentrating on Althusser and his followers are in part personal and parochial. Their writings were of great importance in my own intellectual and political formation’(p. 2); and no one who has read Alex’s 1976 book on the subject, Althusser’s Marxism, will be in any doubt about the truth of this statement. But the book is not intended as a personal and subjective account, and Alex does not present Althusserianism as such. Irrespective of its significance for Alex’s own development, it is its significance for Marxism today that is at issue. What then did Althusser and Althusserianism stand for, and what, in Alex’s view, does it have to contribute to Marxism? Some of these questions I have looked at elsewhere [11] but a brief account of Althusserianism is now needed before we can progress further.

Althusser’s philosophy can be summarised under three headings: (i) his view about society and how it works; (ii) his view about knowledge, science and ideology, and (iii) his view about the human subjects (individuals and classes) who form the parts of society and who contribute to the production of science, knowledge and ideology. In the late 1960s his views underwent important changes, but all of them took place on the basis of the same fundamental framework. We shall look at these headings each in turn.

(i) Society. Society is seen as consisting of distinct levels, among which the ‘economic’, the ‘political’ and the ‘ideological’ are particularly singled out. These different levels are at least partially autonomous. That is to say, none of them is just a simple reflection of any other level or levels. But each contributes to the overall structure, and the overall structure in its turn provides the conditions for the development of the individual levels themselves. How powerful these influences are we shall leave aside for the moment.

Althusser does not tell us whether his list of the various levels is supposed to be exhaustive, or whether all modes of production (or social formations) contain (or possess) the same levels; but one thing does emerge from the above formulation, and that is that as it stands there appear to be no intrinsic differences or built-in hierarchies between these levels. Yet Althusser does want to introduce such a hierarchy. In particular, he wants a structure in which one level is dominant at one time and another at another time. His view of revolutions for instance requires that the ‘political’ level dominates in such periods and also that in non-revolutionary periods one or another of the other levels must be dominant. So to back up the view of different levels which change in dominance, Althusser introduces the notion of ‘determination in the last instant’. According to him, while any of the levels can be the dominant one at any particular time, only the ‘economic’ can be ‘determinant in the last instant’. What might he mean by this?

Well, he might mean that it is the ‘economic’ alone that sets the different levels to work in the way they do; thus the ‘economic’ makes the ‘political’ dominant at one time and, say, the ‘ideological’ dominant at another, but that it is never the case that it is the other way about.

But the trouble with this interpretation – for Althusser at least – is that it takes us straight back to what he calls ‘economic reductionism’ – the view that the various levels have no real autonomy, and that in spite of appearances to the contrary, everything is in reality reducible to the workings of the economy, the other levels being just passive agents that are switched on and off at will by the supervening power of the economy. On this view, whatever might seem to be the case on the surface, the ‘economic’ is always the dominant level.

The other alternative interpretation for Althusser is to see ‘determinant in the last instant’ as referring to the limiting rather than the determining role that the economy is supposed to play. Roughly, the various levels develop and combine in a manner which reveals no special properties for the ‘economic’ as such, it is just one of a number of equivalent levels one of which is dominant at one time and another at another time. But should the various levels by chance happen to combine in a special permutation a ‘ruptural conjuncture’ results; the social integument is broken, a revolution occurs, and the whole social structure is recast anew. According to this view then, the ‘economic’ is ‘determinant in the last instant’ because it alone is to be identified with the overall integument of capitalist society. The ‘economic’ would then, of course, appear in two quite separate ways; firstly as an active agent in the social process (where it would be equivalent to the other levels and where it might occur either at the dominant or at the subordinate level), and secondly as a passive limiting condition which does not intervene in the social process but which instead fixes the limits beyond which the process as a whole suffers a cataclysmic breakdown.

The trouble with this alternative explanation is threefold.

Firstly, it does not solve the problem. We are still left with an unstructured list of the different levels with no means of telling which one will emerge as dominant at one time and which at another. Will the ‘political’ level dominate the ‘ideological’ level or will it be the other way about? If the ‘economic’ as ‘determinant in the last instant’ merely plays the role of a passive limiting condition there is no way it can actively intervene so as to make one level dominant at one particular time and a different level dominant at another. So, far from the ‘economic’ then being ‘determinant in the last instant’, it would not be determinant at any instant at all. In short, if the ‘economic’ is just a passive condition, it cannot determine anything – let alone social formations and their historical development.

Secondly, and as a consequence of this, we are left without any real distinction between base and superstructure. The level which is dominant varies from time to time. There can be no ulterior level which structures these ‘partially autonomous’ levels from without, without the reappearance of the heresy of ‘reductionism’. As a result there is is nothing intrinsically more ‘base’ about the ‘economic’ for instance than there is about the ‘ideological’. Now however seriously or otherwise one takes such views, it is quite clear that they have nothing whatsoever to do with Marxism.

Finally in so far as the ‘economic’ is identified with that which is ‘determinant in the last instant’, we have to ask whether it really is the case that the conditions that limit bourgeois society as a whole are in fact to be characterised as ‘economic’ as Althusser claims. And we have to answer that in the sense given to it by Althusser these limits are by no means purely economic; because for him the ‘economic’ is seen not in terms of the relationship of people to the means of production, but – and here again he follows Stalin – in terms of the quantitative level of production and the level of technology. Both Althusser and Bettelheim (who takes his cue here from Althusser) thus explain the phenomenon of Stalin’s Russia in terms of the ‘autonomy’ of the various levels – for them the ‘economic’ thus advanced in accordance with socialism in the 1930s but, for instance, the ‘ideological’ and the ‘political’ lagged behind it. That this view is completely false is not our present concern [12]; given that this is what Althusser means by ‘economic’, is it, indeed, ‘determinant in the last instant’? The only Marxist answer that can be given is that it is not. The essential framework, the integument of bourgeois society is given by the relations of production. The level of material production is relevant of course, but only in so far as it is a means for perpetuating (or failing to perpetuate) these relations. [13]

We should therefore note several things about Althusser’s whole analysis of society. Firstly it is in no way at all a ‘rediscovery’ of Marx’s own position. Secondly it remains completely entrapped within the very categories of Stalinism – the ‘economic’, the ‘political’ etc. – that it purported to criticise. [14] And thirdly it is, quite simply, incoherent. No sense has been given – or, it seems, could be given-to what ‘determinant in the last instant’ might mean without the analysis collapsing into contradictions. Either, on the one hand, we are left with it playing no role at all (a position that Althusser himself dismisses as a retreat to a ‘theory of factors’ or ‘empiricism’); or, on the other, it plays the very ‘reductionist’ role that Althusser devised his theory to escape from. To say that we have nothing to learn from Althusser’s theory of society would, therefore, be a considerable understatement [15]; yet, as we shall see, this is precisely what Alex denies.

Before passing on it is useful to mention briefly what this is a theory of, and for whom and for what purpose it has been formulated. In so far as it is directed against ‘economic reductionism’ it is expressing a truism, a commonplace known to every intelligent Marxist (and certainly known to Marx, Engels, Lenin, Plekhanov, Trotsky and Gramsci – to name but a few) – but expressing it in a much more self-contradictory and pedantic way. But if he is saying more than this (and there can be few serious doubts that he is) then his position is quite fundamentally anti-Marxist. It is in fact a capitulation to all those bourgeois academic political scientists who insist on abstracting ‘political’ happenings from the underlying class struggles of which they are an expression.

The purpose of this operation is two-fold. Firstly it means that one can quite happily admit to the unsocialist nature of Russia’s ‘political’ regime without it affecting the supposedly socialist nature of its ‘economic’ base – i.e. it leads directly to the Eurocommunist view of the matter. Secondly, in separating the ‘ideological’ from the ‘political’ and the ‘economic’, it is but a short step to identifying and separating a distinct layer in society – the ‘intellectuals’ – as the autonomous purveyors of society’s knowledge; a position which, in Althusser’s hey-day, gave sustenance to scholastics and Cultural-Revolutionary Maoists, but certainly not to Marxists.

We shall now look at the latter consequence in some more detail.

(ii) Knowledge, science and ideology. For Althusser knowledge – that is, genuine scientific knowledge – is ‘autonomous’. By this he means two things principally.

Firstly he denies that it consists simply of a summation of ‘facts’ that are given to us from the external world in a series of, as it were, pre-packaged observations. On the contrary, theory is needed first of all. His model here is physical science which is only able to penetrate surface appearances (the ‘facts’ of everyday life and so on) to the extent that it develops abstract theoretical notions. In his view the particular sciences give rise to knowledge by ‘working on’ the ideology-saturated ‘facts’ of pre-scientific experience. However this only produces the particular sciences; it does not tell us how these particular sciences are to be brought together into a single overall scientific world view – and it is the latter that is needed if we are to get knowledge proper. This is identified with historical materialism; it comes about through a similar process in which the particular sciences themselves are now the raw material out of which the supreme knowledge of historical materialism is constructed. Historical materialism becomes, quite simply, the science of all the sciences. [16]

Secondly, the autonomy of knowledge from the facts of everyday experience is paralleled by its more important autonomy from the class struggle. One gets to historical materialism not through the needs and tasks of workers in struggle, but rather through a purely intellectual transformation of the existing sciences. In a manner that reflects – and perpetuates – the separation of theory and practice that characterised the distortions of the various wings of Second International ‘Marxism’ [17], one gets in Althusser the acceptance of the truths of Marxism as something entirely separated from one’s participation in the class struggle. [18] According to this view then, there should be no inconsistency in a Marxist theoretician supporting the existing status quo in practice. [19]

So knowledge, then, is both theoretical in content and autonomous in form. But this now immediately raises the question of the relationship between this ‘autonomous theory’ and political practice. Althusser has two alternatives here.

Firstly he could say (and indeed the early Althusser did say) that the revolutionary political practice of the working class, if it is to be successful, can only be brought about by the power of a knowledge which has been brought to it from elsewhere, from the institutions that specialise in producing it (universities, research institutes and so on). That is why he was so embarrassed by the 1968 student revolt in France – the students, with their demands for an end to the hierarchies and power structures within the colleges, were threatening the fabric of the very structures that were there to help them, whether they realised it or not and whether they liked it or not! There is a simple and accurate characterisation of this viewpoint -elitism. It has everything in common with Quaker dogoodism, Fabian social reformism and Stalinism; but nothing whatever to do with Marxism, for which the self-emancipation of the working class is paramount. There can be no self-emancipation if the working class acts merely as docile bearer of plans and ideas concocted from without. [20]

Secondly he could argue – and after 1968 did argue [21] – that theory could play no such role. Elitism could be avoided by arguing that although knowledge and theory are autonomous and independent of political practice, so too is political practice itself just as independent of knowledge and theory. [22] Now this view, it is true, certainly avoids elitism, but at a huge cost. For where would that leave knowledge, theory, ‘theoretical practice’, or historical materialism – as it is variously called in Althusser’s works? Where, indeed, would it leave the whole corpus of Althusser’s philosophical works themselves? If such theory is unable to influence the class struggle, if the class struggle is autonomous of it and can manage perfectly adequately without it, could someone please explain to me just what the purpose of ‘theoretical practice’ might then be? What justification might there be for pursuing it if it is politically irrelevant? Worse still, by dressing it up in a ‘political’ terminology (like the occasions when Althusser identifies historical materialism with knowledge), by making intellectuals in the groves of academe believe that simply by doing the job they are paid to do, they are doing something politically relevant, it clearly acts as a distraction from the class struggle. Historical materialism, on this distorted logic, turns out to be not a help to the working class but an actual hindrance. Political elitism is pushed out of the front door – but only to let in apolitical scholasticism through the back door instead.

The autonomy of knowledge from the class struggle is a cornerstone of Althusser’s philosophy. But as we have seen it inevitably leads either to elitism or to scholasticism. What is important here is not the precise way Althusser veers between these polarities but the fact that the whole framework itself is at fault. Within it these problems will always recur in one form or another; it follows that to overcome them it is necessary to break with the Althusserian framework altogether. If Marxism is to mean anything at all then, on the one hand, knowledge has to be able to influence the class struggle, and, on the other hand, it must in its turn be influenced and directed by that very same class struggle itself. None of this is possible without a decisive rejection of Althusser. [23]

The necessity of a total rejection of Althusser becomes clearer when we see the way he relates this theory of knowledge to the question of ideology.

(iii) Ideology and the ‘impossibility’ of self-emancipation. In Althusser we have knowledge or science on the one hand and ideology on the other, the two being mutually exclusive. Since ideology implies a distorted and false view of the world, it follows that any person – or any social class – that is infected by it is incapable of conscious self-emancipation. Yet according to Althusser, all but the elite will permanently be under its influence in any possible society:

Ideology (as a system of mass representations) is indispensable in any society if men are to be formed, transformed and equipped to respond to the demands of their conditions of existence. [24]

Socialism can, therefore, never be the product of workers’ self-emancipation; the most that can be hoped is that the masses will blunder their way blindly into a world controlled by a more humane set of rulers. Workers’ aspirations must inevitably be based on a false view of the world:

In ideology men do indeed express, not the relation between them and their conditions of existence, but the way they live the relation between them and their real conditions of existence. In ideology the real relation is inevitably invested in the imaginary relation, a relation that expresses a will (conservative, reformist or revolutionary), a hope or a nostalgia, rather than describing a reality. [25]

The expression of a will or hope is therefore one thing, while the description of reality is quite a different thing altogether. [26]

Now this specific view about the relationship of individuals or social classes to science and ideology is in fact a logical consequence of a more general view about human history, which Althusser sees as a ‘process without a knowing subject’. To see what he means by this we must refer back to the post-Saussurean linguists, among whom, as we mentioned above, the self gets ‘decentred’ – meaning arises only through the relationship of a word with the totality of the other words in a language, and we the individuals who speak the language are not its source but merely its bearers. Althusser accepts this point and extends it further; it is only the totality of social relationships which is the ultimate source of social change or history, and this structure is something more than the individuals- and even the social classes – that compose it. The working class cannot therefore be the subject of historical change – which it would have to be if self-emancipation is to occur – instead it can at best be the passive bearer of the conditions for a ‘ruptural conjuncture’ in the social integument. In other words it is his general view of history as a process which excludes the ‘knowing subject’ that leads to the anti-Marxist conclusions rather than the specific way this is worked out in detail. [27] Thus there can be no doubting the incompatibility between on the one hand Marxism, which is founded on the possibility – indeed the necessity – of the working class becoming the subject of historical change as workers emancipate themselves, and on the other hand a structuralism which decentres the self and abolishes all subjects – whether individuals or social classes – from the historical process altogether. On this question Althusser is entirely consistent (and anti-Marxist); whether Alex is quite so consistent himself is a matter to which we will return in the next section.

The role of Marxism in philosophy

As a result of all this, it is difficult to see what anyone – let alone a Marxist – could gain from the Althusserian system. Althusser’s theory of society is an incomplete and facile collection of remarks about the nature of social formations which singularly fail to protect this understanding from his own twin accusations of ‘reductionism’ and ‘empiricism’. His view of the relation between knowledge and workers’ struggle necessarily leads either on the one hand to elitism, or on the other to a directly anti-political (and therefore conservative) scholasticism. And his structuralist view of history equally necessarily leads to the self-emancipation of the working class being ruled out altogether even as a remote possibility. Far from being something that we can learn from, Althusser’s system is a direct impediment. It fails to provide a framework for solving the problems and pseudo-problems that it sets itself, and, more importantly, it completely fails even to discuss the central question of Marxism in philosophy – how the self-emancipation of the working class can be shown to be both possible and necessary.

Yet for all his objections to Althusser’s specific political – and sometimes philosophical – conclusions, Alex never seriously questions the above framework that leads to these conclusions. So in spite of the generally critical remarks that he makes about Althusser, one is left with the overall conclusion that they are made to preserve Althusserianism – by ditching Althusser’s own conclusions at various points if need be to do so. [28]

At no point does he question the above three foundations of Althusser’s system even though the grounds for doing so are very strong indeed. On the contrary, if anything he endorses them. Thus, Alex tells us that Althusser’s system ‘is a theoretical system of undoubted power and originality, one that responds to the challenge represented by the “revolution in language” by integrating many of its themes into marxism – above all the decentring of the subject which we have already seen at work in the writings of Lacan.’ (p. 71). Alex is also quite explicit on the conclusion to be drawn from this: ‘Althusser is completely justified in arguing that marxism must criticise and reject the teleological structure of the hegelian dialectic and replace it with that of a “process without a subject’” (p. 141). Since what Alex is here applauding is Althusser’s attack on Lukacs it is worth while mentioning what is at issue in this discussion.

Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness is, (along with Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks) one of the most significant works of Marxist philosophy since Marx’s Capital appeared in 1867. There are, it must be admitted, large problems connected with it. It is at times dense and obscure and it clearly bears the marks of an author steeped more in the idealist traditions of German classical philosophy than the class struggle. Indeed, one sometimes wonders whether Lukacs isn’t perhaps more interested in proletarian revolution as a means to solving the problems of philosophy rather than as an end in itself. [29] It is also weak on the process through which class-consciousness can be developed, leaving it open on the one hand to ultra-left spontaneity, and on the other to ultra-right Stalinism where consciousness derives not from workers’ activity but the dictates of the top bureaucracy instead. [30] But such weaknesses [31], crucial though they are, do not prevent his central philosophical insights from being important achievements in their own right. They do not count as objections to his brilliant critique of the ‘Marxism’ of the Second International, the essence of which was to show that the working class appears, on that view, merely as a passive object which was affected by – but does not in its turn affect – the supposedly supervening laws of history.

By contrast, Lukacs’s own philosophy – in his History and Class Consciousness, at least – is based on the centrality of freedom, of workers’ self-emancipation, for socialism. On that basis it formulates a solution to the problem of how such freedom could be possible given the determinate and structured nature of the social reality that Marx depicts in Capital. The laws according to which capitalism develops are, ultimately, laws founded upon alienated labour – upon, in other words, the working class as a mere object in the production process. But the existence of the working class as a mere object is not just something given; rather it is the result of a definite process in which the energy and creativity of working people is appropriated from them by a social power – that of capital – which, in the process of appropriating this activity makes it appear as a power of itself at the same time. The working class is therefore only a mere object and not a subject (i.e. a conscious agent) in the social process, as a result of the fact that its subjectivity has been appropriated and converted to a power of capital. Conversely the power of capital is on the one hand total (in terms that is of the immediately present laws of society), and yet on the other is itself entirely dependent on the willingness of the working class to go on acquiescing to its own exploitation. Capital is therefore nothing more than the accumulation of past surplus value that is currently appropriating present surplus value; it is not something that can exist independently of the working class – its existence and the continued exploitation of the proletariat are one and the same thing. From this it follows that in order to free itself from capital it is sufficient that the working class should be unwilling to go on as before. The workers will, of course, have to succeed in seizing the factories, in defeating capital’s military might and so on, but ultimately the social power of capital is nonetheless still based on working people. The working class can thus gain its own freedom without requiring anything external to itself to do so.

Lukacs referred to the above process as one in which the proletariat would become ‘the identical subject/object of history’ [32], and while the terminology is steeped in the traditions of German classical philosophy, it is entirely Marxist in content. In a quite remarkable way Lukacs recreated in 1919–21 something very close to Marx’s own view as developed in his Grundrisse in 1857 [33], but which was unknown to Lukacs at the time. For Lukacs the working class is reduced to being a mere ‘object’ in bourgeois society; it becomes a ‘subject’ when, in the course of the socialist revolution, it takes power. But what is there to take power over? Essentially the activity of the working class itself and the fruits of this activity – the products the workers make and the social relations that surround this production. So the passage from bondage to freedom is not just the passage from the workers as ‘objects’ to the workers as ‘subjects’, but rather the creation of the proletariat as the ‘identical subject/object of history’. Lukacs solves the problem of whether, in the creation of a truly communist society, there would be anything beyond the limits of the power of the proletariat, by demonstrating that everything that needs to be changed depends ultimately on the activity – and therefore also the consciousness – of the working class itself, and thus no such impediments exist. ‘The proletariat as the identical subject/object of history’ is the formulation he uses to encapsulate this insight.

Several things should be noted about this analysis.

Firstly, whether it is right or wrong it is definitely a piece of Marxist philosophy – or, to put it more accurately, an intervention of Marxism into philosophy. It is, quite simply, a defence of the possibility of proletarian self-emancipation against claims to the contrary. If that isn’t the main task of Marxism in philosophy, then we can only reply that the objection must be based on a distorted view of ‘Marxism’, one which does not see as its main task the socialist revolution.

Secondly, leaving to one side Gramsci’s various insights [34], it remains – sixty years and more later – one of the most developed and sustained interventions of Marxism into philosophy to date. There is, quite simply, little that remotely compares with it. Whatever criticisms can be made of what else it fails to do – many of them justified – they cannot detract from this central achievement.

Finally, any Marxist who wants to reject Lukacs while still remaining a Marxist should note very carefully what they will have to do. First of all they will have to replace Lukacs’s theory of how the self-emancipation of the working class is possible with another theory which has the same effect. Only at that point will they be able to explore the ramifications of their own theory in order to show how it succeeds in areas which are undeveloped (or weak) in Lukacs. To reject Lukacs while failing to produce such an alternative, or – even worse – to do what Althusser does: reject Lukacs and actually deny the very possibility of finding such an alternative at all (as for instance in his rejection of the proletariat as a possible subject of the historical process) is to reject the terrain of Marxism altogether.

Yet this is exactly what Alex praises Althusser for doing. [35] Certainly the objection that Althusser himself has to Lukacs on this matter is, given his politics, easy enough to comprehend. For him socialism comes about only when the social process stumbles into a ‘ruptural’ ‘structural’ ‘conjuncture’, one concerning which the working class – blinded by the permanent and all pervasive influence of ideology – is necessarily ignorant and therefore incapable of internalising as its immediate aim and goal. The consistency between Althusser’s anti-Marxist politics and his objections to Lukacs’s philosophy are therefore clear and obvious for all to see. But why, we may ask, does Alex follow him here? The logical end point of Althusser’s philosophy is his anti-Marxist politics; Alex has no inclination at all to follow him there, so why does he start on the same road? Alex’s reply in his book is that it is Althusser himself who is being inconsistent, that if only he had followed through the political implications of his philosophy he would have had to reject his flaccid Eurocommunist politics altogether. From what has been said already I have made it clear that I regard the evidence to the contrary to be overwhelming, so why does Alex take this position?

The first thing to be said is that for such an important argument it gets remarkably little attention from Alex. There is – amazingly – no argument from him to directly defend the position that revolutionary politics actually stands in need of an Althusserian-based philosophy. Much of what there is, is instead centred around the question of Stalinism and the connection between the Stalin phenomenon in Russia in the 1930s and the politics of the French CP today on the one hand, and Althusser’s philosophy on the other. Although these arguments are in the defence of a rather weaker thesis, they are all Alex gives us and therefore all we have to go on.

In denying the claim that Althusserianism was a mere form of scholasticism, Alex insists that its consequences were as much political as they were theoretical (p. 53) (whether that means that it could not have been a species of scholasticism is, however, another matter). [36] Fine. But then another question immediately arises: what were the political consequences? Crucially, were they liberal or revolutionary? For Alex, ‘“... the autonomy of the Communist Party intellectuals against the dominance of the politicians” ... is at the heart of Althusser’s enterprise’ (p. 53). Or again ‘... the politics at stake involved in the first instance a declaration of intellectual independence from the Communist Party’ (p. 59). But before we can go further we need to know what this independence was to be used for. In itself as a general principle the slogan ‘independence from the party for the intellectuals’, involves, of course, petty bourgeois, not Bolshevik politics. That is not to say that it is not to be supported in specific instances, but we can be reasonably explicit about the nature of these instances. It would be justified to advance this slogan for instance, in the case of small cadre of intellectuals who, finding themselves moving rapidly leftwards within a reformist party, and realising that they will have to split it to form a revolutionary party, but who also need sufficient time to be able to split with the largest number of the old party with them. [37]

We need hardly add that such were not the conditions surrounding Althusser’s theoretical and intellectual intervention in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed at no point did he move outside the terrain of the politics of Stalin. Stalinist politics in the west since the war has had two main components; firstly the establishment of CP-run bureaucratised trade unions, secondly the construction of Popular Front type class-collaborationist electoral alliances. Each component has been needed, but the advance of the one has always undercut the other and therefore there has been some hostility and tension between them. These traditions were already firmly established in the 1930s with the various twists and turns of the Comintern; in the 1970s they took the form of the permanent coexistence of what were called the ‘Stalinist’ and the ‘Eurocommunist’ wings within the CPs (though each could claim with equal force a pedigree going back to Stalin). Althusser was in no way outside this tradition. His critique of Stalinism was essentially liberal in form and his politics were fairly and squarely the politics of Eurocommunism. In fact he is clearly – and rightly – regarded by that movement’s leaders as one of their main theoretical gurus. [38]

There has never been any question of an alternative and revolutionary view of politics coming out of Althusser, a fact which Alex cannot – and does not – deny. In which case we can only conclude that the declaration of intellectual independence which Alex characterised above as Althusser’s first step, is at the same time also his last step. The philosophy embodied in the notion of ‘the autonomy of theory’ or in that of the ‘specificity’ of ‘theoretical practice’, therefore leads in a straight and unbroken line to the liberal platitudes of the Euro-communists. Alex’s view that ‘Althusser has never permitted the logical consequences of his theoretical positions to take him beyond the ranks of French communism’ (sic) (p. 57), is therefore purely and simply false; Althusser is – on this question – entirely consistent, entirely liberal/reformist, and entirely wrong. [39] He removes one error in Marxism: economic reductionism; but only to replace it with another: that of the ‘autonomy of levels’ and ‘practices’, which, via the notion of ‘theoretical practice’ leads directly to liberalism. Althusser gets out of the frying pan of third period Stalinism, but only to end up in the fire of Popular Frontist liberal reformism. Neither at a philosophical level nor at a political level could this be registered as any kind of an advance – notwithstanding Alex to the contrary. In the end then, his attempt to marry Althusser’s philosophy with Leninist politics is reduced to an empty wish.

But how could it have been it have been otherwise? Althusser did not appear out of thin air and his philosophy did not follow from any logic of pure thought – politically he was a product of the French Communist Party. Now the PCF, if it ever was a revolutionary party, had certainly long ceased to be one by the time Althusser joined it in 1948. It became a mass party in the Popular Front period in the 1930s (its membership growing, for instance, from 131,000 in May 1936 to 285,000 in December of the same year), on the basis of arguing for class collaboration with the ‘progressive’ (i.e. anti-fascist) sections of the bourgeoisie. It grew very rapidly again during the period of the resistance. The courage and self-sacrifice of tens of thousands of its comrades (one estimate has it that 60,000 died) earned it great respect, but the new members were won not on the basis of class politics but on crude anti-German chauvinism – the principal slogan of the CP resistance was ‘Chacun son boche!’ (‘Let everyone kill their own Hun!’). After the war the growth in membership continued, but again on the basis of very right wing politics. The PCF emerged as the largest party in the post-war election, but instead of using its popularity to strengthen working class gains, it installed de Gaulle as prime minister, urged workers to increase production, opposed strikes, and generally restored a bourgeois stability that would have been difficult if not impossible to achieve without it. In foreign policy the PCF’s chauvinism took on a particularly vicious form: Algerian supporters of national liberation were denounced as ‘Hitlerite killers’ and in Vietnam the PCF was content to remain part of a government that was slaughtering tens of thousands in order to preserve French colonial rule. [40]

It has to be said that any set of political ideas that could develop or flourish in such an environment without coming into immediate (or very rapid) conflict with the PCF as a whole – and breaking with it – could only be ‘Marxist’ in a most shrivelled and distorted form. Yet this was just the environment in which the Althusserian – version of ‘Marxism’ did flourish. As Marxism, therefore, it was compromised from the beginning and built on the shakiest of class foundations; with the most yawning gap between the practical politics supported and the residual ‘Marxism’ of the rhetoric that accompanied them. [41]

At the same time the question still needs to be answered – why did class collaboration need the rhetoric of (an albeit emasculated form of) Marxism? Why Marxism and not liberalism for instance? To answer this fully would take a volume in itself: all we can do here is to enumerate a few points. Firstly the traditional French bourgeoisie was compromised by its supine (and even collaborationist) stance to the Nazi occupation; it therefore became more difficult for it to present its own class interest as the interest of all classes in the nation. As a consequence, amongst the stratum of intellectuals easy-going liberalism gave way to other alternatives: existentialism, Marxism, etc. [42] Secondly, after the war, French capitalism was re-established in a much more state capitalist form – leading industrial corporations like Renault were set up or nationalised by the state, and private industry increasingly participated in and followed the overall plans for economic development put forward by the state and its micro-economic planners (the process known as ‘dirigisme’). The latter process spawned a whole stratum of state employees from the most senior planner and administrator to the lowest clerk and kindergarten teacher, and – crucially – a network of universities and technical colleges to train them. As in many of the emergent third world countries, a ‘Marxism’ that combined populism, nationalism and above all the state direction of industry, was certain of a degree of popularity amongst these strata. This was especially so in a period of rising working class struggles where some kind of reform perspective seemed necessary if a viable and harmonious society was to be created. At the same time the anno mirabilis of 1968 suddenly offered a a totally different vision to a whole generation, one based on self-emancipation, with workers’ power in the factories and student power in the colleges. But the vision had no enduring organisational form to attach itself to in the absence of a viable revolutionary party. The students of the ’60s became the relatively privileged lecturers of the ’70s. Under the guise of contributing to an ‘autonomous’ ideological struggle – and citing Althusser and Mao in support of this – they were able to dress up their abandonment of the principle of workers self-emancipation in suitably ‘Marxist’ terms. [43]

Such was the soil in which Althusserian ‘Marxism’ grew and flourished, and it has important conclusions for how we explain the ‘crisis in Marxism’ in the 1970s. Socially, politically and theoretically its links with the traditions of genuine Bolshevism were – to say the least – very tenuous indeed. Explaining this crisis must therefore, as a result, take the form less of trying to understand the supposed cogency of the arguments that were developed against it, and much more of stressing how weak and accident-prone were its foundations. By presenting his arguments the way he does, Alex puts it the other way about, making it seem that what needs explaining is not the rise but the crisis of this ‘Marxism’. In doing so he gives a quite undue emphasis to the significance of the structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers, when in reality they were not so much the cause as the occasion for the ‘crisis in Marxism’. Alex here falls into the trap of dwelling excessively on the internal and purely intellectual history of ideas, insufficiently emphasising the material and social forces that, in Gramsci’s words, make various currents of thought ‘sedimented in life’ in various ways.

All the same it is true, that while continuing to accept Althusser’s basic framework, Alex does have substantial criticisms of particular parts of the completed system. The problem here however is not only that the criticisms are generally of the various gaps and silences in Althusser rather than the shaky foundations themselves, but also the very suspect credentials of the things that he sometimes selects to supplement Althusser with. The most important of these concern science and scientific methodology, and it is to this that we now turn.

Marxism and scientific method

In Althusser there is problem about science and how it is to be characterised. On the one hand he insists on the autonomy of each of the sciences in the sense that no criteria external to them are said to be needed for them to be validated. But on the other he wants a firm distinction between science and ideology. Alex is quite right to say that there is a conflict between these two principles, that without such criteria any corpus of ideology can put itself forward as a science and get away with it. The problem then arises of where these criteria are to be found.

Althusser is pushed in this direction because one consequence of the ‘revolution of language’, as we saw earlier, is the denial of the ‘complicity of the subject with the object’. The ‘immediate knowledge’ of the traditional or empiricist theories is banished, and therefore the possibility of using immediate experience as an external court of appeal vindicating one or another science is banished along with it. This forces him to agree that there can be no going outside the internal structural unity of each of the given sciences – they need no such external guarantees. And in that case the science/ideology distinction breaks down; since there are no procedures for separating the two, any attempt to do so will be illogical – a conclusion readily embraced by the more consistent of post-Althusserians such as Hindess and Hirst. It will be possible for any system of thought – so long as it is internally coherent – to present itself as ‘science’, even when its content is ideological, mystical, or even simply false. Astrology, phrenology and the like – plus the whole panoply of the world’s mutually contradictory religions – would have an equal status to that of, for instance, modern physics.

If that were the case, Alex concludes, the possibility of objective knowledge would have disappeared, along with the process of ‘evaluating discourses from the standpoint of their relation to the truth rather than merely concentrating on the historical question of the conditions under which they are produced’ (p. 171). This is a conclusion that he wants to resist; science must provide ‘access to reality in a manner which an ideology cannot’ (p. 175). But in that case there is a need for genuinely usable criteria for distinguishing the two apart in practice. Where are they to be found? How is the ‘defence of objective knowledge’ to be accomplished?

It is to be accomplished, he tells us, ‘from the standpoint of materialism’, which he understands as asserting that ‘reality exists independently of discourse’ (p. 175). [44] In particular it is to be cashed in terms of the correspondence that objective knowledge is said to require between discourse and reality. ‘There is, however’, Alex correctly diagnoses, ‘a deeper difficulty with this concept, which springs from the denial of immediate knowledge: what sense is there in calling truth the correspondence of discourse and reality if we have no access to reality except through discourse?’ (p. 176). Is Derrida not right when he claims that this must involve an endless and fruitless ‘search for a “transcendental signified” which will halt the endless “play” of language’ (p. 177)?

Alex’s answer to this problem is as follows. It does not matter that we have no immediate access to objective truth, he tells us. It is sufficient that the notion of it can ‘function as a “regulative principle”, so that discourses [are?] evaluated in terms of the degree to which they approximate to the truth’ (p. 178). And in the absence of immediate access to objective knowledge, ‘their degree of approximation can only be established relative to one another, in contexts, that is, where two or more discourses compete with each other’ (p. 179). Alex does not ‘believe that reality “in itself” is unknowable, merely that our knowledge of it is fallible’ (p. 179).

However this does not solve the problem at issue at all – it merely shifts it elsewhere. For how is this comparison between discourses to be achieved? How are we to find out which discourse is closer to the truth?

It is at this point that Alex invokes the support of the philosophy of science of the school associated with von Hayek and Popper, and in particular its more modern and sophisticated follower, the late Imre Lakatos. [45]

To understand the Popper/Lakatos/Callinicos position, one must first see what it is a reaction against. For Popper the reaction is against inductivism – the view that science develops by first of all seeking out whatever correlations are to be found by observing nature (in and out of the laboratory) and then generalising this by making the assertion that (until proved otherwise) all similar cases will also be assumed to be so correlated. [46] However, philosophers of science from the 18th century to the present day have uncovered a series of related contradictions in this methodology [47], and these profoundly influenced Popper. For him scientific observations cannot therefore prove, confirm or otherwise positively vindicate a scientific hypothesis; but instead they must only be allowed to eliminate or falsify one – or some – of a range of possible candidates for scientific consideration. Science then proceeds not so much by accumulating positive truths as by progressively eliminating those hypotheses that definitely are not true.

Unfortunately for Popper, the observations upon which such falsifications depend are not – and here the structuralists are entirely right – simply given to us. We obtain them, and we do so not in a vacuum but by taking for granted certain things without which they would not count as observations for us at all. Observations require instruments (even if only the rudimentary instruments of the human eye, ear etc.), and for them to count as instruments for us we have to presuppose the truth of certain hypotheses before we can use them. The sensory stimulation that, for instance, we get through the human eye, only counts as providing us with access to the outside world because we accept certain general hypotheses in optics; if these were false then we might have to withdraw the claim that they were observations of the outside world at all. If we have to begin without presupposing the truth of any hypothesis whatever then we shall have to abandon both science and observation altogether.

The consequence of this and other problems [48], is to leave scientific method indeterminate: observations are needed to falsify hypotheses, but so also are hypotheses needed before something can actually be accepted as an observation in the first place. Where can the vicious circle be broken?

Lakatos’s refinement of Popper at first sight might appear to have overcome these problems. For him: (i) it is developing sets of theories or ‘research programmes’ not individual theories that are the things to be appraised and compared; (ii) these research programmes contain a protective belt of ‘auxiliary hypotheses’ which surround a ‘hard core’ and which are themselves periodically replaced when the programme comes up against a ‘refutation’ so as to preserve the core itself; (iii) research programmes are not rejected simply when they find it hard going to replace the protective belt fast enough but only when an alternative research programme performs this task in a superior manner; (iv) research programmes are assessed not simply by how easily they eliminate empirical anomalies but also by how fruitful they are in predicting novel facts; (v) those that perform these twin tasks easily and in abundance are deemed ‘progressive’, those which find the going harder and harder are likewise deemed ‘degenerating’; and finally (vi) since this judgement is essentially a historical one, it is generally only possible to pass it on the basis of previous rather than current debates in the sciences. [49]

While this account is undoubtedly much closer to real science and its history (of which Lakatos was a much more perceptive observer than Popper), it still retains some of the essential confusions of the Popperian methodology. Two of these are worth looking at in particular.

Firstly it is by no means clear how this methodology avoids the logical problems of falsificationism. The latter is only necessary if common-sense inductivism is impossible – Popper, therefore, was quite right to see the so-called paradoxes of induction as the starting point for his own methodology. [50] Yet it has also been quite clearly shown in recent discussions that the conditions which make inductivism impossible are exactly the same conditions that make falsificationism impossible too. [51] From this one can only conclude that either falsificationism is unnecessary (because induction will suffice), or that it is impossible – neither of which is much help to Popper or Lakatos.

Secondly, even if it were conceded that Lakatos had correctly outlined the process of development and change in the sciences, the question still remains of whether this process can only be explained in terms of ‘objective truth’. Following Lakatos, Alex concludes that the criteria of ‘progressiveness’ and ‘degeneration’ for scientific research programmes ‘must be taken as the means through which their degree of approximation to the truth is established’. This is because ‘Without the concept of truth methodology lacks a rationale’ (p. 184).

But does it? There seem to be good reasons for thinking not. Indeed the history of the sciences reveals a very different picture.

Take the science of optics for instance. At the beginning of the 18th century Newton’s theory that light consisted of a stream of particles was challenged by an alternative theory that it consisted instead of waves, which was developed by the Dutch physicist Huygens. The superiority of Huygens’ theory (or research programme if you like) soon became generally recognised due to the much better way it handled the question of the refraction of light. It eliminated empirical anomalies and predicted novel facts in an overwhelmingly better manner. But did this mean that it ‘approximated to the truth’ better than Newton’s theory? At one level it obviously did – if all that is meant by that phrase is that it predicted novel facts and eliminated empirical anomalies better. But in that case claiming that approximated to the truth better seems to be saying or adding nothing more at all about it. If ‘approximating to the truth’ is to be significant, therefore, it must refer to something more substantial than that – saying rather that reality in itself is more appropriately describable in the terms of Huygens’ rather than Newton’s theory, i.e. reality “really is” more wave-like than it is corpuscular. But that is even more unsatisfactory. Physics, after all, simply refused to stop developing even after Huygens, and in the first part of this century it turned full circle and reinstated (via the quantum theory) the corpuscular view of light – and indeed has since then moved further on still. [52]

Such examples (and they are the norm rather than the exception in the history of the sciences) show how wrong it is to identify decisive advances in scientific knowledge with an increasingly closer resemblance to how nature “really is” in itself. For on that account if the move from the corpuscular to the wave notion of light is an advance, then the move back again to the corpuscular notion cannot also be considered an advance too. Yet this is precisely what was the case. To insist otherwise leads to some quite absurd conclusions; for instance, a 20th-century scientist believing in photons and the quantum theory of light would have to conclude that the move away from Newton’s view of discrete packages of light to Huygens’ view of its wave-like form was actually a scientific regression. Yet this scientist will know very well that it was not, and to see how he or she knows this will point us in a more positive direction.

The fact is that on the basis of the wave theory it was possible to construct or perform a whole range of tasks that were not possible without it: microscopes and telescopes could be constructed, for instance, with powers and limitations that could be calculated in advance. In other words what made it an advance was that it acted as a tool through which the human power over nature was – at least potentially – increased. [53] And this increased power was an absolute advance; irrespective of the ultimate fate of the theory that generated it; it bequeathed to us a permanent gain. It did not matter in the least that this theory too, in its turn, was to be replaced with another (and completely opposed) theory that would give us still further gains. In short, if scientific advance is seen in terms of its consequences for increased potential human power, one can gain an immediate insight as to why the sciences are always advancing (so long as previous knowledge is never actually lost). It is nothing whatever to do with the supposed fact that nature “really is” more like the categories of the theory that is doing the advancing rather than those of the theory that it is replacing, for we may well, as we have seen, be forced later to advance science still further by employing yet other theories whose categories will more closely resemble those of the original theory itself. Only by accepting the view that scientific progress is to do with increases in human potential power can one avoid the absurdities of the position that Alex advances, a position which would condemn whole chapters of the history of scientific advance as “regressions”.

This error goes under many names – idealism, theoreticism etc. – but ultimately it derives from an attempt to completely separate theory from practice. In the sciences it consists of a single-minded identification of science with the body of theories that it currently contains, and a consequent down-playing of scientific practice, both in its general form – experimental and laboratory practice – and in the more particular and spectacular technological form it has taken in the epoch of industrial capitalism.

In fact the whole discussion of a theory’s ‘correspondence with nature’ is a complete confusion anyway. What we possess is not nature in a reflected or partially reflected form, but science, an irretrievably human product which cannot be completely separated into its theoretical and practical components. We cannot deal with the adequacy or inadequacy of theory except in a context that is provided by practice – in the widest sense of that word. [54]

Another example from the natural sciences can best illustrate this point. Consider the motion of a body on a plane. According to Aristotle’s physics its motion will only persist in the presence of a continuing force, otherwise it will slow down and stop. For Newton however it is the other way about; the persistence of motion goes along only with an absence of forces acting on it. Now looked at purely from the point of view of which theory appears to reflect reality more accurately, it is obvious that Aristotle wins hands down. In the real world friction-less motion does not exist; or to put it another way, the real world is populated by Aristotelian bodies, not Newtonian bodies. For a body to retain its motion in the real world we must continually supply a force to it. Why then was Aristotle rejected in favour of Newton when this theory so obviously, so immediately and so accurately seemed to reflect physical reality?

The answer is that simply because Aristotle’s theory was nothing more than a reflection of reality, it only categorised it in various ways; it provided us with no means for penetrating and transforming it – either in the laboratory or embodied as technology in society. By contrast Newton’s theory did just that – and spectacularly successfully too. You cannot use Aristotle to solve for example a practical problem in ballistics, but you can use Newton. As a result scientists, for the purposes of science, became prepared to put with the more complicated view of material objects that followed from this choice; seeing them first of all as ideal frictionless entities, but ones whose behaviour is then modified under all circumstances by the effects of friction in the real, concrete world around us.

The primary task of science is to penetrate and transform reality, whether in the cosmos, society or the test-tube. This is the essential rationale behind seeing it as a tool. Of course scientific theories will have to reflect reality too, if they are able to. But to imagine that this is the only, or the primary role of scientific theory, is to confuse description with the search for causal mechanisms. The latter is the essence of science to which the former can sometimes be subordinated.

In short then, to locate the main aim of science in the ‘reflection of reality’ is a major error. Firstly, it leads to the conclusion that some advances in science – like the wave theory of light in the 18th century -were actually regressions. Secondly, if in the past scientists had not been prepared to subordinate considerations of how accurately theories reflected reality to how effective they were in penetrating and transforming that reality instead, then we might today still be stuck with Aristotle’s ponderously accurate – but totally useless – reflections. Science is not nature herself speaking to us in tones that can only be relatively more or relatively less polluted by human thought and language, but a thoroughly human product in which our understanding of the world cannot be completely separated from our penetration and transformation of it.

But even if this were not so, the theory-as-a-tool view would still obtain. For unless a theory or a set of theories reflect(s) the whole of reality – an impossible task – one is still forced to choose which parts, aspects, mechanisms of reality one chooses to reflect in one’s theory. And here what it is one wants to get out of reality is crucial. For if the aims of one class are diametrically opposed to those of another, then it will only rarely and exceptionally be the case that the aspects of reality that dominate the concerns of the one will be the same for the other.

And this immediately brings the discussion back to Marxism again. Opposed classes with opposed interests will not necessarily share an equal interest in all theories and practices. The ruling class magazine The Economist and our own Socialist Review, for instance, while both being in some sense ‘scientific’ and sharing certain common ground, equally obviously differ too. The real world is such an immense complexity of different interrelated strands of things that the question must always arise to to which of these strands – even where they are correctly identified – we should pick out, and this choice, in its turn, will be determined by the opposed practices that are being aimed at.

This does not mean that Marxism and the social sciences of the bourgeoisie are so sealed off from each other that we cannot use the former to refute the claims of the latter. We can for instance show that the interests of the working class can only be solved by socialist revolution, and that it is in the interests of all other strata – with the exception of a section of the bourgeoisie – that this should indeed occur. To see Marxism as a class science is therefore not in any way to diminish its persuasive power, to reduce its claim to universal historical significance, or to remove its power to deflate the similar – and false – claims of bourgeois science in this respect. It is merely to take seriously the irreconcilability of the classes.

Stressing the necessity for the unity of theory and practice is not just an empty slogan, but something essential if Marxism is to avoid the scholasticism and theoreticism of the bourgeois methodologists of science such as Popper and Lakatos. This scholasticism, which forces science to appear in a completely false and contemplative form, not only is incapable of rendering an account of how progress is possible in the sciences, but it also closely reflects the similarly scholastic (and also incoherent) philosophy of Althusser. Alex’s acceptance of the central tenets of both these schools of thought therefore make huge and unnecessary concessions and should be vigorously opposed.

For the self-emancipation of the working class

We can conclude this discussion where we began it.

We revolutionaries must learn from whatever sources we can, irrespective of the political credentials of our mentors. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that; Marx used official British government sources in the 1860s, Tony Cliff the Coventry Engineering Employers’ Federation Blue Book in the 1960s. But two cautions are necessary. Firstly one has to take care to remove the ideological chaff from the wheat; secondly one has to take care to ensure that there is some wheat there in the first place. And the problem with philosophy is precisely that it is not concrete, there is little to be gleaned that is not already conditioned in some ideological form or other; we cannot very easily plunder it for ‘facts’ that we can then put to our own advantage. With this in mind we are forced to conclude that we do not have a great deal to gain from contemporary French philosophy of language or Lakatos’s philosophy of science, and nothing at all to gain from Althusser.

Worse than that; in giving a qualified endorsement to the philosophies of Lakatos and Althusser, Alex is giving the green light for the attack on Marxism and the philosophy of the self-emancipation of the working class. Yet this is advanced not on the basis of coherent argument but on the basis of Althusser’s philosophy, which is incoherent and contradictory, and Lakatos’s, which is incapable of solving the very problems of explaining scientific advance that it sets itself to solve.

If this seems dismissive of great thinkers, then I must admit it is intended to be – reading Althusser is of use only in so far as it inoculates the reader and helps she or he refute him. This in no way is to advocate philistinism; the main thrust of my argument here is that there is indeed a role for Marxist philosophy understood as explaining the conditions and circumstances under which the self-emancipation of the working class is both possible and necessary. Yet carrying on a discussion within, for instance, an Althusserian framework, actually precludes this from taking place. This is the real case against Alex; he accepts this framework and as a result not only fails to mention the self-emancipation of the working class but also accepts a philosophy that makes it impossible in the first place.

There is at least one alternative starting point for Marxism in philosophy: for all its faults it is to be found in Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness. Lukacs at least understood that the role of Marxism in philosophy was to conceptualise and defend the notion of the collective self-emancipation of the working class, even if the way he did it is open to criticism. It would be far far better to revive this than to disinter the rotting corpse of Althusser.


I would like to thank Ian Birchall, Richard Bradbury, Pete Goodwin, John Molyneux and John Rees who all looked at, and made useful comments on an earlier version of this article; though the responsibility for the draft itself is mine alone. Page references in the text are to Alex Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism (Macmillan 1982) price £15 (h/b).

1. Saussure himself, however, must be absolved from any responsibility for these later thinkers’ views. He himself does not argue that language is ‘autonomous’, and in fact explicitly argues for a dimension of language (the ‘diachronic’) which stresses its historical character – the way it changes through time – which is largely ignored by Levi-Strauss and the contemporary school, shunted to one side, or dismissed as something that will eventually be explained by an extra specially deep (and of course unchanging) structure. (See, for instance. C. Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Harmondsworth 1972, p. 21, for an example of this at work). For a discussion of the differences between Saussure and the post-structuralists cf. S. Timpanaro, Structuralism and its Successors.

2. Levi-Strauss, quoted in Alex Callinicos, op. cit., pp. 34-35.

3. Quoted in ibid., p. 35.

4. Cf. ibid., pp. 46-49.

5. Such a conclusion is implicit in J. Hoffman’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Praxis (London 1975) and D.-H. Ruben’s Marxism and Materialism (London 1978), to name but two recent examples.

6. Marx notes two sorts of error in this respect. Firstly the tendency (most notable, he thought, in Hobbes) to reduce language and thought to being ‘nothing but phantoms of the material world more or less divested of its sensual form’ (The Holy Family, Moscow 1956, p. 173); and secondly the tendency to ignore the irreducibly social component of language: ‘sensuous nature for man is, immediately, human sensuousness ... presented immediately in the form of the other man sensuously present for him ... The element of thought itself- the element of thought’s living expression – language – is of a sensuous nature. The social reality of nature, and human natural science, or the natural science of man, are identical twins’ (Collected Works, vol. 3, London 1975).

7. Most notably in the first of his Theses on Feuerbach.

8. K. Marx, Precapitalist Economic Formations (ed. E.J. Hobsbawm), London 1964, pp. 87–88.

9. Lack of space prevents further discussion of this point here. However two elements of what a Marxist critique of structuralist theories of language would include, and which are referred to below, can be briefly mentioned. Firstly there would be the need to challenge the assumption (most obviously, perhaps, in Foucault), that irreconcilable classes can somehow exist alongside a relatively harmonious language that is shared by all classes. This point will be discussed with respect to Stalinism in note (10) below. Secondly, as will be become clearer toward the end of this article, an adequate conception of science – and of the language in which its theories are expressed – will necessarily have to include reference to elements outside of any given linguistic structure of difference relationships. Above all it will later be argued that any attempt to understand science solely within the linguistic (or for that matter mathematical) form in which its theories are expressed, and in which no reference to the practical results of these theories are made – any such attempts are bound to fail.

10. According to the Stalinist view, however, in which knowledge and ideas are just passive imprintations of the external world on us, it does indeed follow. For Stalin: ‘language registers and fixes in words, and in words combined into sentences, the results of thoughts ... and thus makes possible the exchange of ideas in human society’ (J.V. Stalin, Concerning Marxism in Linguistics, London 1950, p. 16) – a view which closely parallels that of Locke for whom: ‘The comfort and advantage of society not being to be had without communication of thoughts, it was necessary that man should find out some external sensible signs, whereof those invisible ideas, which his thought are made of, might be known to others’ (J. Locke. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 3, chapter 2, section 1). According to such a view thought and language are prior to the social relations between people, and naturally enough it falls foul of any theory that denies this to be the case. Both structuralism and Marxism do deny this to be the case and they are both right to do so.

It is worth mentioning here, however, that unlike Locke, Stalin on occasions also argued that language was in fact a product of society. But the latter view got submerged due to his political preoccupations – in his concern to stress the supposed abolition of classes in Russia in the 1930s, it was important to refute those who saw the class struggle in language as real and possible, just in case it had unfortunate consequences so far as contemporary Russia was concerned. The most important of these thinkers was probably V.N. Voloshinov, whose major work, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Seminar Press, 1973) argued cogently for the Marxist rather than the Locke/Stalin position – a fact that no doubt helped to seal his – and other co-thinkers’ – fates before Stalin’s death squads in the purges.

The early Lenin, however, also shared Locke’s basic approach. In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism language and thought are seen as passively reflecting a pre-existent reality outside language (though unlike Locke, Lenin did not see this reality as consisting of sensations). But Lenin, however, later decisively rejected the Kautskyite world view of which this book forms a part. It led to ‘tailism’, Menshevism etc., which precluded a section of the working class from consciously separating themselves off into a revolutionary party so as to act as a distinguishable vanguard within the class. This move is reflected in Lenin’s increasing identification of socialism with workers’ power from below as expressed in workers’ councils, Soviets etc., and is registered at a consciously philosophical level in his Philosophical Notebooks of 1914 (Collected Works, vol. 38). (For a fuller discussion of these issues see P. Binns, The Marxist Theory of Truth, Radical Philosophy 4, 1973; A. Carlo, Lenin and the Party, Telos 1974; and J. Molyneux, Marxism and the Party, London 1978, chapter 3).

11. Cf. my The Triviality of Althusser, Radical Philosophy 7, 1974 and Ideology, The Intellectuals and the Working Class: Althusser and Gramsci on Science and the Class Struggle, in D. Bell, Understanding Ideology, London 1982.

12. It has however been adequately refuted by Alex Callinicos himself in his Maoism, Stalinism and the Soviet Union, International Socialism 2:5, 1979.

13. The fact that the integument of society must be seen in terms of ‘the human being itself in its social relations’ rather than the level of material production was expressed by Marx in the Grundrisse (London 1973), p. 712: ‘When we consider bourgeois society in the long view and as a whole, then the final result of the process of social production always appears as the society itself, i.e. the human being itself in its social relations. Everything that has a fixed form, such as the product etc., appears as a moment, a vanishing moment, in this movement. The direct production process itself here appears only as a moment. The conditions and objectifications of the process are themselves equally moments of it, and its only subjects are individuals, but individuals in mutual relationships, which they equally reproduce and produce anew.’

14. The categories – the ‘economic’, the ‘political’, the ‘ideological’ etc. – are less important in themselves than in the separation that is enforced between them. For the fact of the matter is, that the Stalinism of the purges and the first five-year plans on the one hand, and the Stalinism of the Popular Front and Eurocommunist liberalism on the other, both need this separation. For the former it allows them to claim that the ‘economic gains’ of the 1930s outweighed any political or ideological losses. For the latter it permits them today to claim that the balance must now be redressed the other way. Both groups thus work with a crude ‘balance-pan’ model in which terror and economic development are traded-off one against the other. Both groups are thus equally undermined by the Marxist insight that the only base for socialism is the direct appropriation of the means of production by the workers themselves in the context of a genuine workers’ state based on genuine workers’ councils.

15. Not only is the theory confused and empty, but the fact that it is so obscured from immediate view by the barrage of Althusserian jargon, makes it difficult sometimes to see quite how empty it all is. A veritable Althusser-speak has arisen in which a word or phrase often denotes the very opposite of what common sense would usually take it to refer to. We have already seen examples of this at work – ‘determinant in the last instant’ thus seems to mean either ‘determinant at every instant’, or, more probably, straightforwardly ‘indeterminate’. Another example is that of the ‘structure in dominance’ which Althusser claims characterises his system. Yet this system is one in which, as we have seen above, the ‘economic’ is – to all intents and purposes – just as completely autonomous as it is in the empiricist theories that Althusser claims to attack-and in which, as we shall see (notes 18 and 43 below), so too is the ‘ideological’ just as completely autonomous. Here then ‘structure in dominance’ seems to mean ‘non-structure’ and therefore ‘without dominance’.

Finally Althusser has the notion of ‘overdetermination’. He ‘explains’ this notion as follows: ‘Even within the reality of the conditions of existence of each contradiction, it is the manifestation of the structure in dominance that unifies the whole. This reflection of the conditions of existence of the contradiction within itself, this reflection of the structure articulated in dominance that constitutes the unity of the complex whole within each contradiction, this is the most profound characteristic of the Marxist dialectic, the one I have most recently tried to encapsulate in the concept of “overdetermination”’ (For Marx, London 1969, p. 206).

Does this really say anything more than that the ‘levels’ interact, that they only exist as far as they interact, and that the most important ‘level’ changes from time to time? Is this really as ‘profound’ as Althusser gravely announced it to be? More importantly, if the different ‘levels’ have their own (albeit partial) ‘autonomy’, then this can only mean that they are underdetermined by the ‘structure’ of which they are a supposed part. In the end then, if ‘overdetermination’ means anything at all it signifies ‘underdetermination’ instead.

16. Two things should be noted here. Firstly Althusser is, as we shall see below, quite right to believe that ‘facts’ do not constitute a realm which is independent from the theories that sustain them (though here he merely repeats what Bachelard had in his turn learnt from the French tradition in the philosophy of science that springs from Pierre Duhem at the beginning of the century). Secondly, after 1968, Althusser withdraws these claims for historical materialism as the science of all the sciences – but fails to put any clearly worked out alternative conception in its place.

17. Cf. L. Colletti, Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International in his From Rousseau to Lenin (London 1972).

18. It is important to note that here, as elsewhere, when it comes to ‘autonomy’, it is not partial but total autonomy that Althusser argues for.

19. As Rudolf Hilferding, a leading theoretician of the Second International, put it in the preface to his Finance Capital: ‘It is one thing to recognise a necessity, but quite another to place oneself at the service of that necessity’.

20. Cf. note (29) below for further discussion of this point.

21. Althusser’s change of line is well documented in the latter part of Alex Callinicos, Althusser’s Marxism (London 1976).

22. If one were to take this seriously it would lead to a very crude vision of political practice. While purging the latter of knowledge or theory might still seem to leave for instance, the insurrection of October 1917 intact, one should not forget that there could have been no October without the July days when the Bolsheviks ‘consciously’ argued that insurrection would be premature, or without the events in August when the Bolsheviks ‘consciously’ supported Kerensky – but ‘like a rope supports a hanged man’.

23. The point is argued at greater length in my Althusser and Gramsci ..., op. cit.

24. L. Althusser, For Marx, op. cit., p. 235.

25. Ibid., pp. 233–34.

26. The counterposing of these two leads Althusser – and, as we shall see, Alex too – to accept that science must always exclude the ‘expression of a will’ from the ‘description of reality’. Science is thus conceived of in an exclusively contemplative form. We shall see below in our discussion on Lakatos the contradictions that follow from their attempt to do so.

27. Cf. A. Callinicos, Is There a Future ..., op. cit., pp. 65–67.

28. Ibid., pp. 71–80.

29. In particular in section II of his major essay in History and Class Consciousness, Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat. Marx too, in the period 1842–43 had an ambiguous but basically similar view. He tell us: ‘Clearly the weapon of criticism [by which he means left-Hegelian philosophy] cannot replace the criticism of weapons, and material force must be overthrown by material force. But theory also becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses’. Note that it is left-Hegelian philosophy here that grips the masses- not vice versa. And concerning human emancipation he claimed: ‘The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat. Philosophy cannot realise itself without the transcendence of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realisation of philosophy’ (Collected Works, vol. 3, pp. 182 & 187). Again we have the proletariat as the means to the end of the realisation of philosophy – and a means that gets transcended in the process.

Thereafter however – and here Marx is much less ambiguous than Lukacs – the self-emancipation of the proletariat becomes an end in itself, a position which is conclusively established along with the first full formulations of historical materialism in 1845.

30. Alex Callinicos, Is There a Future ..., op. cit., pp. 51-52, makes a great deal of this point. It is only fair to point out, however, that the openness of Lukacs to such an interpretation was due to his failure to absorb Bolshevik politics into his theory adequately. It was not due to his ‘historicist’ philosophy as such (a point that we discuss in note 35 below).

31. The most important weakness from our present point of view, concerns Lukacs’ conception of Marxism itself. He identifies it with the pursuit of the Marxist method, which is quite excessively detached from the theoretical and factual content in which it should be grounded. This in turn leads to a Marxist ‘philosophy’ which appears in a free-floating form, able to co-exist with a whole variety of political forms. This, in turn, permits him to develop his various philosophical insights (some, like his ‘methodologism’ above, mistaken; others, as we shall see, important and valuable), while completely ignoring the theory of politics with which this philosophy must be connected. This is the reason at the theoretical level why he was able to zig-zag so rapidly between ultra-left and ultra-bureaucratic politics in the 1923–25 period.

32. Cf. G. Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness (London 1971), pp. 2–3, 40–41, and the essay Reification, op. cit.

33. Marx put it as follows: ‘Through the exchange with the worker, capital has appropriated labour itself; labour has become one of its moments, which now acts as a fructifying vitality upon its merely existent and hence dead objectivity ... It is the process of this differentiation and of its suspension, in which capital itself becomes a process. Labour is the yeast thrown into it, which starts it fermenting ... the mere subjectivity of labour as a mere form has to be suspended, and labour has to be objectified in the material of capital. The relation of capital, in its content, to labour, of objectified to living labour ... – this relation, where capital appears as passive toward labour ... – can, in general, be nothing more than the relation of labour to its objectivity, its material ...’ (Grundrisse, op. cit., p. 298).

34. Cf. A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London 1971), pp. 321–472.

35. Alex, following Althusser, also dismisses Lukacs on account of his supposed ‘teleology’. The claim is nonsense; teleology – explaining the world by reference not to causes but to intentions and purposes instead – was characteristic of medieval theology in which the happenings on this world were seen as the inevitable result of God’s grand design. No such comparable picture merges in Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness. The socialist revolution is there seen as a task for the proletariat, not as a preordained inevitability. Certainly Lukacs believed that the revolution was a necessity for the working class, that the workers must make it, and so on. But the necessity derives from the objective inadequacies of bourgeois society and the ‘must’ from the immediate and the ultimate interests of the proletariat, but whether the workers will do what they ought to do is another question altogether. There is no suggestion that this involves an inevitability following from some preconceived schema of world history (Cf. G. Lukacs, op. cit., pp. 38–39). It is easy, however, to see why Lukacs is mistakenly accused of ‘teleologism’ – his failure to go beyond what the proletariat has to do, his total failure to develop a theory of politics which both flows out of the philosophy and connects it with the current day-to-day struggles of workers, is ultimately the culprit here. But this has nothing whatever to do with ‘teleology’.

As a matter of fact a rather stronger case could be made against Marx himself on this score, from one or two of his isolated – and best discounted – remarks, in comparison with whom Lukacs emerges rather well. For instance in the Communist Manifesto there is the notorious passage which claims: ‘The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.’

36. In general, scholasticism is highly political – and political in a distinctly conservative way, of course. To place theories within a scholastic mould is to render them incapable of being used to change things; which is why Scholasticism proper was the preferred ideology of the feudal landowners in the High Middle Ages.

37. Within our own political tradition the most recent example of such a situation was the one surrounding the formation of the Canadian International Socialists out of a left social-democratic current in the mid-1970s.

38. Santiago Carrillo, General Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party and the leading apostle of Eurocommunism, thus, in his major work, Eurocommunism and the State, singles out Althusser for special praise. He justifies the whole strategy of withholding support for workers’ struggles on the basis of the need for a prior ‘ideological struggle’ – i.e. the attempt to convince sections of the clergy, the professoriat and the civil service of the good faith of the CP. And he specifically quotes and uses Althusser’s notion of ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ to legitimate this process (Cf. S. Carrillo, Eurocommunism and the State, London 1977, p. 45).

39. Alex has a secondary line of argument in favour of Althusser here, and it goes as follows: (i) the French CP ignored what Marx and Engels actually said; (ii) this permitted them to adopt a reformist perspective, whereupon (iii), along came Althusser and insisted on a ‘return to Marx’, and, (iv), since Marx was a revolutionary this can only have been a good thing even if Althusser didn’t do it too well. He quotes Jacques Ranciere, former collaborator of Althusser on Reading Capital in support: ‘Reading Capital presented theses which demanded a political critique of the Party: the rupture with the evolutionist conception of history, the affirmation of the discontinuity of modes of production, the affirmation that the laws of the the dissolution of a structure were not those of its functioning, the radical orginality of the problem of the transition, all that led logically towards a denunciation of the CP’s economism, of the conception of a peaceful road to socialism and of “true democracy”’ (quoted p. 57).

Two very obvious points must must be raised in reply.

Firstly, Althusserianism by no means meant a return to Marx. The system itself – because of its contradictory and empty form – served rather as a barrier of confusion between the leftward moving elements in the CP on the one hand and Marx on the other. Nor is this all. Because Althusser’s system is not Marx’s, he was compelled to reject more and more of Marx’s writings. Beginning with Marx’s early works (with their unfortunate references to alienation and self-emancipation), he ended up by rejecting pretty well everything that Marx ever wrote. In fact in the end the only “work” of Marx he was prepared to endorse were the Marginal Notes to Adolf Wagner’s Textbook on Political Economy. Marx’s Capital was rejected as an excessively “humanist” work, to be replaced by ... a few scribblings in the margins of a rather minor textbook! Is this really being seriously advanced as the much-heralded ‘return to Marx’?

Secondly, we have to ask: why was it that the Carrillo right-wing Euro-communist interpretation of Althusser was so much more influential than the left-wing Ranciere interpretation? The answer isn’t hard to find. The fact that modes of production might be ‘discontinuous’ did not impinge on the daily class struggle in France in the non-revolutionary 1970s – there were no immediate opportunities to smash the state – but the opposition to ‘economism’ most certainly did: it gave the green light time and again for Carrillo’s followers in France to refuse support for workers in struggle. i.e. Althussser’s position did not, concretely, lead the CP to the left “logically”, as Ranciere would have it, but to the right. (Unfortunately we can see at work here the endemic disease of philosophers – rationalism. It consists of forgetting that in real history all ‘logics’ are concrete rather than abstract.)

40. Cf. I. Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith (London 1974), pp. 12, 20–22, 28–29.

41. There was also a more genuine and revolutionary left Marxism that underwent a related crisis at the same time. For a Marxist explanation of this crisis, cf. C. Harman, Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left, International Socialism 2:4, Spring 1979.

42. Perhaps the clearest and most striking picture of this crisis in France is is to be found in Sartre’s trilogy, The Roads to Freedom.

43. Space prevents us looking at the Althusser phenomenon outside France; but in the English-speaking world the puny forces of the various CPs involved have generally ensured that it has been, in the main, an academic phenomenon rather. In and out of France they have been helped by Althussser’s notion of ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’. By making ideology seem as though it must always be to do with the state (even when it is institutionalised through quite other agencies – private, church, municipal etc.), and crucially, by separating it from the class struggle, and finally by asserting the need for a ‘prior ideological struggle’ in these institutions before that class struggle can be effective, it has allowed non-political, or even quite right wing, intellectuals to dress up their writings as ‘political’, ‘progressive’ and so on.

44. Before proceeding further one should note how wide is the definition of ‘materialism’ given here. In fact it is so wide that even that paradigm of classical idealism, Bishop Berkeley, turns out to be a materialist! For he too believed that what makes some ideas objective and others not is that the former are copies of ideas in God’s mind (and are caused in us by God’s will), while the latter are not. In that case it will be true, even for Berkeley, that there is a realm of being which ‘exists independently of discourse’ – or of human thought in general for that matter. Yet if we are to call Berkeley of all people a ‘materialist’, who, one might ask, is not a materialist? One would be hard pressed to find examples of anyone denying ‘materialism’ in this sense. But this only goes to show how trivial the whole enterprise has become. It is a great pity that Alex here follows – and enthusiastically endorses – the empty slogans of the post-Althusserian Anglo-Marxist realist school in general and D.-H. Ruben in particular (For a critique of the latter see P. Binns, Marxism and Materialism, Capital and Class, no. 9, 1979). If ‘materialism’ is now to include such classic idealists as Berkeley, Hegel etc., one can only conclude that proclaiming oneself to be a materialist is an empty incantation, a mantra uttered in ritualistic obeisance to St Marx – but quite empty of real scientific content.

45. Alex’s debt to the latter is considerable and acknowledged as such – Alex’s Althusser’s Marxism was even actually dedicated to him, much to the astonishment of a generation of students at LSE who were perplexed (to put it at its mildest) by such an honour being bestowed on a principal instigator of repression against them in the late 1960s. Popper and von Hayek too have been the philosophical storm troops of the extreme right, being associated with the school in economics most identified with out-and-out laisser-faire capitalism – from von Mises at the beginning of the century to Milton Friedman today. Popper himself only got in to the philosophy of science in the first place because of his hatred for the Marxists and Freudians in Vienna and because he wanted a general methodology for the sciences that would rule Marxism and Freudianism out of court altogether, so that one would never need to pay attention to the content of what Marx and Freud actually said – a conclusion that he clearly followed himself in his illiterate, stupid, and now quite generally discredited works on Marx and Hegel (e.g. The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies in particular).

46. Popper’s position was first fully developed in his The Logic of Scientific Discovery, first published in 1934.

47. The process began with Hume’s sceptical analysis of induction, and was taken much further by Hempel, Goodman and others in this century. However, none of these thinkers went so far as Popper in concluding that this required the abandonment of all inductivist methods.

48. The definitive and conclusive refutation of Popper has been given by P.K. Feyerabend, a Californian anarchist philosopher of science, in his Problems of Empiricism (in Colodny (ed.), Beyond the Edge of Certainty), and Problems of Empiricism II (in the Pittsburgh Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 4). However Feyerabend still – to a large extent – shares the same contemplative model of science of Popper (and so too do Lakatos, Althusser and Alex himself for that matter – as we shall see below), and his more positive proposals – for instance in his Against Method (London 1975) – suffer accordingly.

49. Lakatos’s position is set out in his The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (Cambridge 1978).

50. This is implicit in his The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and is made more explicit in his The Demarcation between Science and Metaphysics, in Conjectures and Refutations (London 1963).

51. See in particular my The Supposed Asymmetry between Falsification and Verification, in Dialectica, vol. 32, No. 1 (1978).

52. In microphysics in more recent years there has been to a certain extent, a re-integration of particular and wave-type theories in the form of quantum-field theory; a move that has accompanied the search for a general field theory in physics in accordance with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

53. To avoid misunderstandings it is worth while pointing out that we are using ‘human power’ in a wide sense here. It covers at one end the more spectacular technological achievements of modern industry, and at the other the results of any novel experiment even when confined to the laboratory – the human powers that we augment in the laboratory are no less powers over nature for being confined to that small part of it we entrap in our test tubes there.

54. This view was expressed (and to a certain extent shared) by Francis Bacon for whom: ‘Human knowledge and human power meet in one ... that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule’. Which explains why Marx regarded him so much more favourably than later, more mechanical materialists: ‘The real founder of English materialism and all modern experimental science was Bacon [for whom] ... the first and most important of the inherent qualities of matter is motion, not only mechanical and mathematical movement, but still more impulse, vital life spirit, tension ... The primary forms of matter are the living, individualising forces of being inherent in it ... In Bacon, its first creator, materialism contained latent and still in a naive way the germs of all-round development. Matter smiled at man with poetic sensuous brightness ... In its further development materialism became one-sided. Hobbes was the one who systematized Bacon’s materialism. Sensuousness lost its bloom and became the abstract sensuousnss of the geometrician ... Materialism became hostile to humanity.’ (Holy Family, op. cit., pp. 172–73) The same sentiments were of course expressed in a more condensed form in Marx’s First Thesis on Feuerbach: ‘The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the things, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of object or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively’.

Peter Binns Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 12.4.2013