From Socialist Worker Review 106, February 1988, pp. 26–27.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Althusser: The Detour of Theory
ALTHUSSERIANISM, the interpretation of Marxism developed by the French Communist philosopher Louis Althusser, was born in the early sixties. It was a product of the crisis in the international Communist movement occasioned by Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 and by the subsequent Sino-Soviet split.
The cracking of the Stalinist monolith opened up a space, for the first time in 30 years, for critical and independent thought by Communist intellectuals. One of their responses, widespread in both Eastern and Western Europe, was to revive the themes of alienation and humanism via a concentration on Marx’s early works, especially the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and an emphasis on the Hegelian roots of Marxism.
Althusser rejected this approach wholesale, condemning it as bourgeois and rightist. Instead he proposed a “return to Marx” which he hoped would yield the basis for a “left” critique of Stalinism, while at the same time being covertly sympathetic to Maoism.
What he produced was a version of Marxism incorporating the following key elements:
This whole package was presented to the world in language of high pomposity which constantly proclaimed its own gravity, authority and scientific “rigour”. In fact his system constituted, in E.P. Thompson’s phrase, an “orrery of errors”, underlying which was the attempt to provide a coherent philosophical justification not for Marxism but for Stalinism, albeit in modified form.
While it is true that there is enormous development in Marx’s thought between the 1844 Manuscripts and Capital, this in no way involved an abandonment of the concept of alienated labour, as can be textually proved from both the Grundrisse and Capital itself.
Althusser’s attempt to write alienation out of Marxism was essentially a defensive reaction. The concept of alienated labour was anathema to Stalinism because it posed the question of disalienation through the control of the means and process of production by the producers themselves.
Marxism indeed rejects demagogic appeals to “humanity as a whole”, insisting that humanity is divided into antagonistic classes with irreconcilable interests; nevertheless Marxism remains a humanism in two senses.
Firstly, the theoretical point of departure for historical materialism is the existence of real living human beings, “their activity and the material conditions under which they live” (Marx, The German Ideology); secondly, for Marx the proletariat is a “universal class” which through emancipating itself emancipates humanity.
It is therefore not true that history is a process without a subject. Marx is explicit on this point: “History is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims” (The Holy Family).
Human beings make their own history, though not of course in circumstances of their own choosing. Nor, as long as capitalism based on alienated labour persists, are human beings in control of their history; rather they are dominated by the products of their own labour.
The proletariat however has the capacity to abolish this alienation and transform human beings from the slaves of capital into the conscious masters of their own collective destiny, which is why for Marx they are the real subject of history.
Althusser’s attack on economism and his theory of society’s different autonomous levels also had a concealed Stalinist motivation. It was designed to provide a more credible explanation than Khrushchev’s facile “cult of the personality” theory of how Russia remained fundamentally socialist despite the Stalinist deformation of the superstructure.
However this attempt to theoretically reconstruct Stalinism was by no means the whole Althusserian story. More importantly, in the seventies Althusser became a veritable guru in the ranks of left wing academics. The reason for this lay in the elitism which necessarily derived from his Stalinism.
The left academics of the seventies were products, directly or indirectly, of the student revolt of the sixties. They had rebelled against the simplicities of conservative social science in the name of Marxism but as the movement subsided and their careers advanced they were in the process, not of reneging outright but of quietly making their peace with bourgeois society.
Their need was for a version of Marxism that would cover their retreat while making it look like an advance. Althusserianism fitted the bill perfectly.
The inflated view of theory flattered the “intellectuals” sense of their own importance. The “autonomy of theory” and “theoretical practice” justified not doing anything: “Come to the picket/demonstration/sit-in!’’ “Sorry I’m involved in theoretical practice.”
The obsessive anti-economism and thinly disguised idealism facilitated a growing accommodation to bourgeois sociology in its Weberian pluralist form. This in turn dovetailed with the feminist inspired emphasis on status as opposed to class.
What is more, the whole package could be presented as the last word in super-sophisticated Marxism straight from the Left Bank complete with added ingredients of ultra-fashionable French structuralism.
However as the seventies rolled on the downturn in class struggle set in and deepened. The Portuguese revolution ran into the sands; the Italian revolutionary left self-destructed; the Social Contract undermined the militancy of British workers; and the inspiration of Vietnam gave way to the horrors of Khmer Rouge Kampuchea. The whole intellectual climate shifted to the right and the left academics, with a few honourable exceptions, completed their transition from revolution to respectability and in some cases reaction.
Althusserianism had served its purpose and was now redundant – the pupils abandoned their master. France led the way: structuralism gave way to post-structuralism, Marx was replaced by Nietzsche and Mao by Solzhenitsyn. The “new philosophers” rediscovered the old cold war [theory] that Marxism meant Stalinism and the Gulag. Britain followed more moderately behind, but the direction was the same.
Althusser’s personal collapse followed hard on his theoretical eclipse. In 1977 he announced the eruption of “a general crisis of Marxism”, claiming that the theoretical unity of Marxism and particularly Capital was “in large part fictitious”. Then in the autumn of 1980, in an episode of the mental illness from which he had long suffered, he killed his wife, thus bringing to a close his theoretical activities. The story of Althusser’s rise and fall is told at much greater length in Gregory Elliott’s book, a scholarly and painstaking account based on the totality of Althusser’s work.
Elliott’s standpoint is critical – he notes and endorses many, though not all, of the points made in this review-yet also sympathetic. He repeatedly stresses Althusser’s merits and importance as well as his “limitations”.
There is something of a contradiction here. If it is true, as Elliot himself shows (in a very gentlemanly way), that virtually all Althusser’s key theses and distinctive positions were false and dangerous, why does he still claim that “nonetheless his achievement is very considerable ... to the undoubted benefit of Marxist and socialist culture”?
The answer is that he is writing within the accepted academic framework and this shapes his standards of assessment. He measures Althusser against the likes of Sartre, Colletti, Habermas and Laclau and not against either the classical or contemporary revolutionary Marxist tradition, or the demands of the class struggle. He is thus able to define his position as “anti-anti-Althusserian”.
In this he reflects the wider positions of those from the New Left Review stable, who have stood out against the new revisionist trend on the left despite die decline in influence this has caused. While this is very much to their credit, it is not enough.
In theory, as in revolutionary practice, being “anti-” bad things is not sufficient for the real development of Marxism. Despite the feet that it has not reneged NLR shows no signs of breaking from the fundamental vices which separate it from revolutionary Marxism – academicism and semi-Stalinism.
Elliott’s book is not too bad, but for a better Marxist analysis of Althusser the reader is referred to Chris Harman’s Philosophy and Revolution in International Socialism 2 : 21. It is shorter, sharper, more thorough-going – and considerably cheaper.
Last updated: 18.9.2013