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Althusser’s Marxism

Jan Schroeder

Platypus Review 118 | July-August 2019

This article originally appeared in Die Platypus Review #10 in German.[1] It has been translated into English by Clint Montgomery.

WHEN IT COMES TO LYOTARD’S POSTMODERN THESIS about the end of grand narratives, from enlightenment to historicism, everybody knows he’s talking about Marx. Politically speaking, no other grand narrative survived the 19th century. For the fate of the enlightenment stood revealed in its stance toward socialism: since the emergence of the workers’ movement, liberalism was left with two options, either curtail its own ideals in cultural pessimism or just straight up make camp with the enemy.

For its own part, the workers’ movement was to be, in Friedrich Engels words, “the inheritor of classical German philosophy.” The bourgeois revolution expressed in this philosophy had entered into unprecedented new conditions and possibilities called capital, and inheriting this philosophy would have meant driving this revolution resolutely through these conditions to socialism. The Marxist philosophy of history was intended to be a critique of history, but all that’s left of it from the mid-twentieth century is a puny stage-model of progress following natural laws.

At the time, Louis Althusser discerned this reversal of Marxism from a “critical and revolutionary theory” to a positive ideology, handy only for legitimating the political purposes of the leading bodies of the great communist parties (For Marx, 310).[2] For Althusser, it is only a small step from the idea of ​​socialism as teleology to a policy of small steps. His leitmotif can only be understood in this context: his philosophical rejection of any and all teleology is a criticism of the reformism of the official Moscow-loyal communist parties and an attempt to re-actualize a revolutionary perspective in the West.

Louis Althusser
Louis Althusser

In the 1980s, an entire generation of intellectuals took up the banner of the post-modern and bid farewell to any and all utopias. But just before them, the New Left of the 60s and 70s had already failed in their return to Marx. From Althusser’s perspective, students worldwide staged an "ideological revolt" in 1968. They revolutionized the cultural superstructure but not the social and political relations. With that, he marked the end of the New Left, which decided to trade politics for protest. The political failure of the New Left in 1968 paved the way for both post-modernism and post-Marxism. Their historical and intellectual origins intersect.

Understanding the Situation

It is difficult to make out what exactly was implied by Althusser’s politics. Because he was a member of the Communist Party of France (PCF), the students of the New Left regarded him as too conservative. However, his sympathy for Mao Tse-tung seemed suspicious to his Moscow-aligned party.

Althusser was active as a left critic in and around the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) and the French PCF. In terms of the political map, he occupied a niche somewhere between, on the one hand, massive parties oriented around social reforms and parliamentary collaboration, and on the other, Maoist circles and New Left groups mounting a new kind of Narodnikism with its well-known call to go to the people. During his lifetime he fought against the rise of Eurocommunism, which had been slowly emerging since the crisis of Soviet leadership in the 50s. This revival movement of the large but unorthodox communist parties was largely aimed against the Russian claim to leadership, and it avoided positive references to Lenin, countenanced government coalitions with social-democratic and bourgeois parties, and to top it off, had by the middle of the 70s branded the concept of a dictatorship of the proletariat an anarchist gaffe.

Whoever wants to understand Althusser’s critique should take into consideration the situation in which the communist world-movement found itself at the time. Althusser himself emphasizes this several times in his own writings, e.g. in For Marx (1962-5). The “at once theoretical and political impasse” seemed to hint first at Nikita Khrushchev, the new party leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) installed after Stalin’s death who delivered the first criticism of Stalin from party leadership in a notorious secret speech against the personality cult. For many Communists, the criticism, limited as it was to the person of Stalin, actually revealed deeper problems than it could explain (18). The rebellions a few months later in the Eastern Bloc, in Poland and Hungary, themselves bloodily suppressed by the Red Army (or by the Polish People's Army), were roused by the call for council democracy and a return to Lenin and Marx against the new Soviet leaders. Soon followed the break between the Chinese and Russian leadership, each justifying the conflict between their bureaucratic apparatuses with Marxist rhetoric and accusing each other of revisionism.

In Western countries, these conflicts provided political and ideological inspiration to the New Left. The emergence of the New Left and the crisis of the communist movement can therefore both be dated to 1956. The Left in Western Europe still loyal to Moscow was now beset by two new currents. The Eurocommunist movement was more interested in deepening the criticisms of Stalin and Stalinism. For Althusser, Eurocommunism represented the old revisionism of Eduard Bernstein and Léon Blum. All the enthusiasm for the young Marx, decreed in the 1940s and 50s for the communist party youth especially, meant for Althusser turning Marxism into a humanistic moral philosophy. The class struggle was to be replaced by the humanist reconciliation of all well-wishers. Althusser's philosophical expositions of capital, his account of the development of Marx’s thought, and the texts on the relationship between Marx and Hegel are directed above all against the humanist Marx of the Paris manuscripts. Leszek Kołakowski refers to Althusser's cutting off of an early humanist Marx from "the" Marx as basically a religious move.[3] He rightly points out that Althusser moves within the iconography of the late communist parties. The political purpose pursued by Althusser is thus that of "correcting" two essential distortions of Marxism in the "communist world movement" (17). On the one hand, he criticized economism (or determinism), according to which the growth of the productive forces alone sufficed for the victory of socialism. This idea assumed that the Soviet Union would slowly overtake the West as long as a military conflict was prevented. The western communist parties should behave calmly and push for reform at best, so as not to provoke intervention. On the other hand, Althusser criticized humanism, which assumed that the bourgeois camp could be persuaded to adopt a peaceful attitude towards the Soviet Union and that a policy on behalf of all humanity was possible.

The open ease with which the Moscow-loyal and Eurocommunist Marxists oriented themselves towards an evolutionary transition to post-1956 socialism helped another, new, Maoist movement to rise up and present itself as a genuinely revolutionary alternative. However, Maoist criticism of Khrushchev's "Restoration of Capitalism in the Soviet Union" and his doctrine of "peaceful coexistence of systems" not only spared Stalin in comparison, but also explicitly glorified him as a defender of the achievements of the revolution. Until about the mid-1970s, Althusser represented such a left-Stalinist or Maoist perspective within the Eurocommunist-dominated PCF. For example, in a response to John Lewis' criticism, Althusser writes that the only "leftist" critique of Stalinism, as opposed to "liberal, humanist, bourgeois criticism, is in line with the Chinese revolution."[4] He defended Stalin, praised Mao, and when, in the eyes of the leadership, he had gotten too carried away criticizing PCF reformism (both in the Moscow-loyal and Eurocommunist phases of this party), he criticized himself to save his party membership.

Althusser deals very schematically with his images of the enemy: Humanists are not only those who explain how man might be, given his nature, but all who even assume that the subject might influence world history. Thus, Georg Lukács, Jean-Paul Sartre and Eugen Dühring (against whom Engels had directed his scathing criticism) all get ground under the wheels together. Althusser has no patience for the not-so-small differences between anthropologies that maintain an unchanged nature from caveman to homo economicus and the anthropologies of Rousseau and Marx. But this is precisely where Marx’s dialectic comes into play: it is man's ability to change himself in and through society and thus through the contradictory nature that he assumes in capitalism. While Marx had pointed out that the relations between people in capitalism appear "material" and the result of seemingly "natural law",[5]  Althusser on the contrary, sees the danger to be, in the style of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the "illusion of the subject" (316). For Althusser, the social structures constitute the subject in a totally objective way: the subject is thoroughly determined by omnipresent ideology and does not even notice it. Althusser calls it therefore "overdetermined". The subject’s "illusion" consists in his delusion of being able to act rationally and autonomously. Complementary to the objective powerlessness of the subject stands the omnipotence of the structure, whose spontaneity Althusser fetishizes. All change in the world is effected by the immanent contradiction of an "already given, complex, structured whole" (243). Contradiction and structure form a complex unity for Althusser. However, this unity is not stable in the long run: it breaks out randomly at unpredictable points - "aleatorically." It is not the structuring activity of the subject that "modifies" the structure and vice versa, but only the structure modifies the activity.[6] "The absolute is the process without subject, both in reality and in science," he writes in a brief essay Lenin and Hegel from 1969.[7]

Alfred Schmidt considers Althusser's "absolutization of structure" against the background of the real historical regression of subjectivity.[8] Talcott Parson's sociological system theory, the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Althusser's Marxism all express for Schmidt a "fatigue with history" that has affected society since at least the end of the Soviet Union, if not well before. Since the ability to recognize itself in history and society depends on the real influence of the subject, the discovery of a "fatigue with history" correlates with the diagnosis of a general "weakening of the ego."[9] With the decline of the Left in the 20th century, the hope of changing the world has disappeared. At the same time, the impotence of the subject increases under the continued rule of capital. "The shrinking of the consciousness of historical continuity [...] is not a mere product of decay [...] but necessarily linked [...] with the progressiveness of the bourgeois principle," writes Adorno in “What does it mean to account for the past.”[10] If the timelessness of exchange (the "bourgeois principle") is rational, then historical consciousness becomes irrational. For Schmidt, Althusser makes the disintegration of the subject a virtue. Althusser's theory promises a new edition of Marxism that can do without historical consciousness and without a subject.

At the same time, Althusser opens a door for the New Left that promises to shine a way out from the theoretically and politically icy cell of a dogmatic and theory-hostile Marxism-Leninism. Unlike Trotskyist groups, who find that history confirms their critique of the Third International (Comintern) after Lenin but who cannot explain their political irrelevance and the sterility of their political strategy, Althusser faces up to the problems of the communist world movement without having to break from the tradition Stalin inaugurated. For that part of the Left that basically considered the strategy of the Soviet regime in the Stalin era to be right, but still disapproved of the Moscow trials and the gulags, some "burning questions" arose after 1956 at the latest: How could the working class of Russia and the Communist Party have accepted the murder of the entire guard of old Bolsheviks, the mass terror and persecution, in the name of socialism? How could the class and party tolerate the despotism of a single person, Stalin, which had been denounced since the twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU (this was according to Althusser the "most burning question") (144)? Why had the communist world movement not even raised a finger in protest when Stalin dissolved the Comintern in 1943, and why was there even after the official end of Stalin no strategy for the "Revolution in the West”? Althusser’s extensive, philosophical response reveals the deep ambivalence of the New Left to Marxism as a whole: despite the simultaneous adoration of images, not only Stalin or Lenin, but Marx and Engels themselves were problematic. When Althusser proclaims the crisis of Marxism at the end of the 1970s, all four heads are jointly responsible. Both Althusser and large sections of the New Left believe there to be a tiny bit of Marx in the Moscow trials. But before Althusser undertakes a complete re-founding of Marxism with his radical critique of teleology, he tries — in a sense, for the sake of Marx — to save Marx from himself and in the end to preserve for the New Left some concept of materialist dialectics.

Prosecutor General Andrey Vyshinsky (centre), reading the 1937 indictment against Karl Radek during the 2nd Moscow Trial  

For Marx

Althusser presents his concept of overdetermination in For Marx as a meta-theory of historical-political works from Marx to Lenin. In "extremely pretentious language" texts like “On the Materialist Dialectic” act as a sort of foundation for the dialectic that Marx wanted to write, but plagued by illness could no longer write.[11] However, as Althusser clarifies in his late work, the text on Aleatory Materialism (1982-3), his concept should not be understood as a new philosophy but as a methodological corrective against hermetic "sealing" and for interpretive "opening".[12]

Because we use language, what we say has more content latent than what we manifestly mean; for Lacan, this ‘overdetermination’ is expressed through the unconscious. Althusser uses this concept of overdetermination to interpret the concept of contradiction in Hegel and Marx. An "accumulation of circumstances” and “currents [...] of whatever origin they may be and in whichever direction they may go," leads to structurally random changes (119). His theory of contingency was meant to undermine the certainty with which some Marxists had expected socialism. It is impossible to know in advance which causes and conditions precipitate a break or where the complexity of the contradiction shifts from a "non-antagonistic" to an "antagonistic phase." With Althusser, not only Lacan’s own psychoanalytic theory but also Epicurus’ ancient philosophy, in which the random encounters of atoms produce and alter worlds, are both taken out of their respective realms and applied to modern societies. Inspired by Epicurus and Lacan, Althusser replaces a dialectic of subject and object with an ontology.

First, the theory of overdetermination should correct the assumption that all social and political phenomena are to be conceived only as mere manifestations of the "simple general contradiction" between “two antagonistic classes" (120). Even Antonio Gramsci’s view, which complements the contradiction between the classes with specifically historical interactions between base and superstructure, Althusser finds implausible. For Althusser, a differentiated determinism fails to recognize the specificity of various contradictions in their "own effectiveness." Only at the decisive moment would the various contradictions "'merge' into a unity of fracture" (120). The "remnants" of past modes of production, political "stagnation," the "non-uniformity" of global development and the transition to socialism are all things that can be understood for Althusser, only if the specific momentum of each of the various contradictions is considered. The contradictions, however, do not constitute plurality, they are interlinked and conditioned “in the last analysis by the economy,” as Althusser never tires of emphasizing. In his criticism of Althusser, Leszek Kołakowski rightly points out that it was especially under the motto of the fight against capitalist "remnants" that every measure of repression, persecution of political opponents and lack of freedom in the Soviet Union had been justified since Stalin. With one hand, Althusser substantiates Stalin's justification, and with the other, he applies it to Stalin himself, whose terror can now also be interpreted as a "remnant" of the past.

Politically, however, the important thing for Althusser was that the communist parties open themselves to the masses and not orient themselves to the proletariat in a one-sided fashion — to not be blindly biased to the workers, as Lenin would say. In general, Althusser's rediscovery of Marxism is obscure in light of the classics: if you look at these works attentively and with the intention of understanding what the authors are actually saying (that is, without practicing anachronistic criticism), you will find such notions as the “relative autonomy of the sub-structure,” which Engels had already pointed out, as well as criticisms of abstract anthropology and of economism. So, with his other hand, Althusser overstretches materialism and thus removes the dialectical, self-overcoming nature of capitalism.

Instead of demanding like C. W. Mills in his letter to the New Left that the struggle be oriented from its final goal, from a utopia that would constitute the revolutionary class in the course of its struggle in the first place, as Marx had thought, the New Left lifted the banner of realism and looked instead for some already given revolutionary subject.[13] The Stalinism of both the Old and the New Left thus renounced the task of pushing working class beyond its already existing empirical-sociological reality and overcoming it in the classless society. Anyone looking for such subjects in the Althusserian sense can easily discover a myriad of movements: anti-colonial movements in the Third World, feminism, and the ecology movement (just to name a few). Althusser himself saw little potential in these movements.  In For Marx he points out that breaks can be "on the basis of their origin and their direction, necessarily and paradoxically utterly alien to the revolution” or even “absolutely opposed” to it (119). But since at least the decline of the socialist Second International, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between revolution and counterrevolution. With his humanism, Althusser has blocked the very possibility of grounding a free future worthy of humans. So, what should serve as the compass for a Left taking its inspiration from Althusser, facing a world full of breaks and turmoil, but without the struggle for socialism as a north star?

Against Marx

Louis Althusser's late work could be interpreted in two directly opposed ways. Either: It contains the confession of an aged, psychotic intellectual who no longer believes that his rigorous materialistic interpretation of Karl Marx's work can be sustained and so revises his early works For Marx and Reading Capital (1965). Or: what these later texts represent — The Crisis of Marxism (1978), Marx and His Limits (1978-9), written before the outbreak of his psychosis and the murder of his wife Hélène Rytman and those after, The Undercurrent of the Materialism of Encounter (1982-3), as well as Aleatorian Materialism — is an attempt to "rewrite" the early work and to reveal the "hitherto invisible patterns."[14]

Althusser's late work (partially published posthumously) contains — when we free it from censorship, which he had to submit to as a member of the Communist Party of France until the early 1970s[15] — a motive that, philosophically ciphered, pervades his whole work: a materialistic re-foundation of Marxism. Instead of classical modern philosophy, Althusser's Aleatorian Materialism works on the pre-Socratics, Epicurus, Spinoza, Machiavelli, Heidegger and Lacan. The newest and oldest materialism meet here.

Guided by his insight that "it is impossible to be Marxist and coherent at the same time,"[16] his late work, viewed in this way, contains the quintessence of the early work without the argumentatively tactical effort to be true to the letter of Marx. So it can be understood, for example, why Althusser rejects the term dialectics in his late work, which in his early work is often used interchangeably with his own concept of "overdetermination": "The dialectic is more than questionable, indeed it is even harmful, i.e. it is always more or less teleological."[17]

Contrary to his early writings, where Althusser still believed he could neatly cut out Hegel from Marx, the starting-point of his late work is the incompatibility of certain "idealistic remnants of Marx" with the "materialistic logic" contained in the historical chapters of Capital.[18] The complexity and contingency of history’s course cannot be understood through the value form, says Althusser. Indeed, in his early work For Marx, he had already hinted at a thought of ​​Antonio Gramsci’s, who had called the October Revolution of 1917 the revolution against "Capital": Gramsci does not mean capitalism, but Marx's magnum opus.

“For, do we not always find ourselves under the rule of the exception? One exception was the [failure of 1848 in France and the] German failure of 1849, another exception the Paris failure of 1871, the failure of the German Social Democrats at the beginning of the 20th century (in anticipation of her chauvinistic betrayal of 1914) was an exception, so was the success of 1917 [...] These have all been exceptions, but in reference to what? Quite simply, in reference to a rather abstract, yet comfortable and reassuring notion of a “dialectical,” revised and simple schema, which in its simplicity preserved the memory of the Hegelian model or simply resumed its gait — namely a belief in the resolving “power” of abstract contradictions as such. In the present case, this belief concerns the “beautiful” contradiction of capital and labor” — writes Althusser in For Marx.

For Althusser, the Hegelian term marauds hidden in the commodity form. Both Marx and Hegel, with their combined forces, transferred an immanent logic to history. Althusser's campaign against Capital began indeed in his early work: “In fact, one cannot understand Volume One Part I at all without completely removing its Hegelian ‘lid’, without […] if you will forgive the presumption, re-writing it,” he writes in “Lenin before Hegel.”[19]

Althusser’s basic starting point is that Marx had only initiated a science that still had to be created, and it could be created by purposefully cleaning out of Marxism all its alleged teleology. On this point, post-Marxist theorizing, such as that of Alain Badiou, also emphasizes communism without Marxism.

By transforming the conflict between capital and labor into an ontology of capitalist structure, Althusser reduces it in an economistic way. In anticipation of intersectionalism, he vaguely recognizes that such a conception of the contradiction between capital and labor is lacking, but the only thing he knows to do is supplement it with other contradictions. But it is not the accumulation of contradictions that makes up the struggle for socialism, but the direction in which every single social struggle is consciously conducted.  For Marx, the class struggle was a political struggle for power, with the interest of all humanity crystallizing in a fundamental revolution of all social structures. The class antagonism is only one of many opposites with which society could be described, but unlike other divisions — "skin color" or "sexuality," for example — it does not describe a seemingly fated being, but calls for becoming. "Nevertheless," writes Max Horkheimer in an aphorism on the relativity of class theory, "the distinction of social classes proves to be superior to the other points of view, for it can be shown that while the abolition of classes brings with it a change of other opposites, resolution of these opposites does not mean the abolition of classes."[20]

Without Hegel

Althusser identifies every aspect of Marxism that Stalinism had elevated to “orthodox” Marxism with Hegel. For him, the problems of Stalinism lie in Hegel. Marx and Engels, however, had pointed out along with many other young Hegelians that Hegel's dialectic not only contradicts but also points beyond the closed system of Hegelian philosophy. Hegel's system and its theodicy become obsolete for Marx at the latest with the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations in capitalism. In capitalism, labor no longer leads to property and freedom, as Hegel had supposed, but to the perpetuation of the worker as a wage laborer.[21] Despite all the sleight-of-hand tricks with which Hegel forces the "unconditionedness" of the mind into the limitedness of the Prussian state, he remained committed to the purpose of his philosophy of freedom in one important respect. Freedom can only exist in Hegel if the political institutions enable the individual to develop freely. He does not exempt himself when he writes: Every philosophy is "its time comprehended in thought".[22]

Marx dedicated himself to the study of bourgeois social relations precisely because Hegel had followed Adam Smith in expecting from them the social and political realization of freedom. For Marx, however, these social relations had fallen into a contradiction with the Industrial Revolution. On the one hand, capital seeks to "reduce working time to a minimum [...] while on the other hand working time remains the only measure and source of wealth." Capital has become "itself the processual contradiction." A higher social organization of production, in which "disposable time becomes the measure of wealth," is possible for Marx precisely because capital makes this freedom both possible and suppressed.[23]

Marx's intention to realize the promised but unresolved potentials of this society through revolution is transfigured by Althusser's anti-Hegelianism into anti-capitalism. Instead of wanting to realize communism in and through social relations, Althusser defines communism as an apparent absence of society, in places where, as in formerly pre-modern times, the individual was to be taken up into and merged with the collective: "There are communities of communism everywhere across the world, for example: the church, certain trade unions, in certain cells of the Communist Party,” he says in an interview in 1980.[24]

Thus, Althusser turns Marx upside down, since for Marx the "free development of each should become the condition for the free development of all."[25] Bourgeois right, as Marx wrote in his “Critique of the Gotha Program” in 1875, could be realized for the first time only in socialism and thereby abolished. Socialism should not fall behind bourgeois right. Accordingly, socialism was not possible for Marx because capitalism produces dissatisfaction and disruptions that undermine bourgeois social and legal relations, but because bourgeois social relations point beyond themselves. Althusser, on the other hand, simply views bourgeois social relations as a new structure of domination that is to be shattered. But dissatisfaction and the fight against oppression already existed in the pre-modern era without the modern potential for freedom. The project of Marx's "second enlightenment" becomes a counter-enlightenment for Althusser, who dismisses the potential of freedom as an illusion.[26]

For Marx, following Hegel and Kant, consciousness is not a passive category separate from the will, but is at once theoretical and practical. Marx calls commodity-fetishism a necessarily false consciousness because in the practice of exchange society human relations really are represented as things. The subject is practically effective just "so far as it falls into the object" — so far as it is social.[27] Althusser misunderstands the dialectic because he starts from false premises. Consciousness has no practical meaning for him, but is only that which haunts our heads and is determined by the ideological structure. With this he unconsciously refers to regression in the twentieth century: his party understood the class-conscious worker to be only someone who votes communist. He contrasts this with the demand for practice. But this demand can be diverse and pursue diametrically opposed political purposes. The object, for Althusser structure alone, is contradictory precisely because the subject also "collapses" into it. So the contradiction, from a Marxist perspective, is also shaped by consciousness of the contradiction, i.e. through the objectification of consciousness in political organizations, which reproduce the object through their structuring activity. Either people act on a class interest or they willingly compete against each other as members of a workforce. Both interests are objectively possible, and so both directions could become effective and thus qualitatively shape the contradiction. But for Althusser, the qualitative determination of the contradiction is a purely sociological one. He avoids the problem of politics within the working class.

Paradoxically, there is a sentence in Hegel with which the strict anti-Hegelian Althusser fully agrees: "The owl of Minerva takes flight only at dusk."[28] Althusser's aleatoric materialism sees itself as a new practice of philosophy or as a non-philosophy. "Marxism is not a (new) philosophy of practice, but a (new) practice of philosophy," he writes in “Lenin and Philosophy.”[29] Because consciousness always lags behind the process, it always distorts the process in a latently idealistic way. The aim of Althusser's Marxism is to combat the "idealistic deviations" arising from the "gap" between the objective process and consciousness.[30] More precisely, Althusser assigns Marxism the very limited task of protecting science and politics against ideological derailments. In this way, the spontaneity of the structure, which conditions the "spontaneous" emergence of proletarian politics and science, should be granted as free a movement as possible. But "there is spontaneity and there is spontaneity", writes Lenin in What Is To Be Done?, referring to the role of previous struggles and the forms of mass consciousness they have given rise to. Spontaneity for Althusser, on the other hand, remains abstract and unhistorical.

For Althusser there are four different structures or spheres of practice: social, political, ideological and scientific. They all follow their own methodology. "Theory is essential for that praxis whose theory it is, just as it is essential for that praxis which it can still help to emerge or grow," he writes (205). Althusser's own "Marxist dialectic," for example, is therefore only the methodology of scientific practice, not of social or political practice. What looks superficially thought-friendly and allows any "Marxist" theorist to pursue the class struggle in academia with a clear conscience in "scientific or ideological" practice isolates theory in reality. Marxist theory is therefore structurally inferior and subordinate to practice. With this theory, Althusser only repeats the real separation of the intellectuals from the workers, which Stalinism first enforced by force.

Political practice in the Marxist sense does not exist without its relation to the ultimate goal. If the subjective factor was mentioned in the Marxist tradition, then it is precisely because the masses under capitalist conditions are not alone capable of becoming socialists. In other words, without mediation through the historical goal of the class, no common interest can give rise to organization as a class. For Marxists, the working class party, in direct contrast to unions, is characterized by its ambition to overcome the various professional, national and regional interests in the empirical working class. Class consciousness meant socialist consciousness.

Althusser replaces the concept of class consciousness with the concept of "revolutionary will," which one must believe and have faith in. Here is the theory of the party, which calls itself the vanguard of the working class in the struggle for socialism, there the stoic "revolutionary will" which endures whatever crime is committed in the name of theory. In his criticism of the party leadership, “On the 22nd Congress of the French Communist Party,” in July 1977, Althusser writes, "The working class only has its revolutionary will, its theory and its free organization of the struggle, sealed in the unity of thought and action“.[31]

Althusser reverts to Lacan and uses him for his political theory. Where Freud saw the task of psychoanalysis as strengthening the ego and promoting consciousness with respect to the unconscious — "Where id was, ego shall become" — Lacan emphasizes the opposite part. He emphasizes the fragility of the ego and self already recognized by Freud and emphasizes the importance of the unconscious.[32] In his social-theoretical lectures this emphasis culminates in his well-known assertion that the autonomy of the subject is an illusion. For Lacan, the "full text" of the subject is to be found in the "id," which is suppressed by the ego in the Lacanian interpretation of Freud. Consequently, for Lacan, the task of psychoanalysis is instead to make the ego more receptive to the id, to break its supposed resistance. Althusser argues in the vein of this extremely questionable Freud interpretation[33] for his anti-humanism: "If the workers are told that ‘it is men who make history’ [...] sooner or later, that helps to disorient or disarm them. It tends to make them think that they are all-powerful as men [...] prevents them from making use of the only power they possess: that of their organizations as a class and their class organizations [...] by which they wage their class struggle," he writes in a letter to John Lewis.[34]

The contrast between Freud and Lacan reflects the contrast between Marx and Althusser. While in Althusser the weakness of the workers and their powerlessness should lead to organization, the strength of the working class, according to Marx, lies in the possibility of recognizing that it is already producing social wealth — but as capital and thus as a foreign and dominant power. The working class makes history (it is its "subject-object", as Lukács says), but until now unconsciously and thus for alienated purposes. Only if the working class develops an awareness of its potential strength could it also accomplish the revolution and build a future society. From an (un)consciousness of the weakness and powerlessness of the individual worker follows at best the defensive association in a union, at worst the call for an authoritarian leader.

The mystifications of post-Marxist and post-modern theories are anticipated in Althusser's liquidation of the dialectic of subject and object. It presupposes the real disintegration of the dialectic of theory and practice in the history of 20th century Marxism. Althusser, in his critique of teleology, vaguely suspects that the living struggle for the ultimate goal has long since been abandoned to other, subordinate purposes.

The mass-line: Maoism and Anarchism

What Bertold Brecht said about the basic pattern of bourgeois thought is also true of Althusser’s: it is extreme. It can recognize either only society or only the individual, but how these two condition and inform each other remains a mystery. Althusser takes it even a step further: his subject is fully constituted by the object. Against this background, it is also understandable why Althusser suddenly turned to anarchism, surprising supporters and critics alike in an interview in 1980: “I am an anarchist, a social anarchist. I am not a communist, because social anarchism is beyond communism. "[35]

After the French Communist Party (PCF) excised the Dictatorship of the Proletariat from its program in 1976, he notes — in a phrase that was strange even for him — the “absence of Marxism from its own structure.”[36]  His years of fighting the change of program had failed. The innovation in official party theory changes everything for Althusser. This time, it is not just an ideological mistake, rather the "existential forms of Marxism" itself have been broken.[37] Before the 22nd Party Congress, he had apparently expected to wage a sort of second edition of the revisionist dispute of the Second International, where reformism had also cropped up in the cloak of a humanistic, neo-Kantian moral philosophy. But had his party ever really intended to lead the class struggle? The essential thing for Althusser, even in his early writings, was to restore a revolutionary perspective.

However, he cannot see how wide the rift between theory and practice had become because he deals with them as principally separate issues. So it is here that his structuralist conception of theory as just one among several structuring practices falls flat. He becomes helpless at the point where he realizes that his party is not merely a theoretical problem. Althusser sees all the problems plaguing his party in the structure, which he makes solely responsible for the missing content. In the spirit of Mikhail Bakunin, he attacks his party as a "miniature state apparatus."[38] In the best case, ideological error in theoretical praxis clogs up a political praxis that, driven by the revolutionary will, continues on its stoic way. Nevertheless, Lenin had already pointed out in What Is To Be Done? that “the spontaneous development of the workers’ movement leads right to its subordination to bourgeois ideology” and therefore that "any worship of the spontaneity of the working-class movement, any diminution of the role of the 'conscious element', of social-democracy [...] whether the one who belittles this role desires this or does not — means strengthening the influence of bourgeois ideology on the workers." Lenin’s basic question of politics — “who whom?” — never even crosses his mind: he fails to recognize that he is only tolerated by the PCF because they can use him as a left-intellectual figure head. His Marxist rhetoric provides the rear-guard cover for anti-Marxist politics.

Althusser's aversion to spontanist theories should not impress too much. His rejection of the subject necessarily leads to idolizing the spontaneity of the structure. So the party, as well as theory and philosophy, takes on the mystical role of an "indispensable" assistant.[39] In his 1968 essay “Lenin and Philosophy,” Althusser brings his thoughts concerning the role of philosophy in the class struggle to a close with the following remark: "[Philosophy] can only assist, since there are neither theorists, nor scientists, nor philosophers, nor 'individuals' who make history but the 'masses', i.e. the classes in a united, common class struggle."

Contrary to his claim, the party (as well as philosophy) can very well be dispensed with as assistants. Althusser's anarchist friends know how to use this statement; his adherence to it is dogmatic in the context of his theory. Althusser obscures the role of the party by assigning theory and practice to separate, essentially indifferent spheres.[40] And with that, the party loses its enlightenment function with respect to the masses. The structuralist stringency with which Althusser constructs the various spheres of practice is occasionally softened by his dogmatic judgments: the party helps political practice; philosophy and theory offer support by correcting mistakes. However, political practice, what “changes society” according to Althusser, follows a structure and a pragmatic methodology, not a theory. Politics is decoupled from theory, from its orientation to the final goal, and is therefore arbitrary. So any political current can claim Althusser’s definition, so long as the struggle continues. The avowed anti-Marxist Foucault once noted during his stay in Tunisia: “today everybody appeals to Marxism.” He spoke knowing all too well that nobody is a Marxist anymore, that Marxism is a history that everybody has ceased writing, an empty subject.

But just there where Althusser posits the direct unity of theory and practice — he declared the party "indispensable" — a possible other practice is also cut off. His dogmatism concerning the indispensability of the party obliges him, despite better insight, to make do with an existing party (in Althusser’s case, the PCF), however distant its politics are from the north star of socialism. All the Marxist categories receive strict treatment by Althusser. Everything is there, everything is considered: the party, the class struggle, theory, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the rest. Althusser recognizes that the only thing left of Marxism was the names, the content having been lost. His solution is to give the name a new content, one appropriately measured to the new reality. But this reality had buried the content of Marxism. By reintroducing Marxist categories and bringing them together with a practice that had become directly anti-Marxist, Marxism is once again destroyed.

The Inheritance

We can only have a dim guess of how bleak the time was when the deterministic theories of the great communist parties influenced the intellectual life of entire generations, given how strikingly Althusser's post-structuralist revision of Stalinism (falsely perceived as orthodox) inspired a generation of intellectuals. From Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida to Jacques Rancière, Etienne Balibar and Antonio Negri, his thinking was carried on beyond political camps. Contrary to Althusser's intentions, however, his disciples and the world as a whole did not move closer, but further away from Marx. Far from addressing Althusser's questions and problems of his early writings, they changed the subject of critical reflection. His students were no longer concerned with the revolutionary dialectic of the transition from capitalism to socialism. Instead, it was their concern to eradicate dialectical thinking, to turn the self-contradictory nature of modern capitalism, which for Marx pointed beyond itself, into the flat absurdity of modernity.

Althusser has replaced the Hegelian concept of contradiction with his concept of overdetermination. This triumphant remark in For Marx has historical weight. In the name of his critique of Hegel, the self-contradiction of the commodity of labor becomes in Marx the ontological opposition of two entities: capital and labor. The political conflict within the working class is externalized, and external contradictions are made central. Althusser discovers in his theory only the condition in which history and society are without class struggle. In his time most people were already taking social conflicts to consist mainly between ethnic groups, races, religions and genders. Other divisions replaced the class struggle. Whether a working class recognizes its class interest in proletarianized society or follows a policy that perpetuates its competition as a commodity is left for Althusser to the random accumulation of objective contradictions. Thus, Althusser raises the absence of Marxism to the principle of Marxism itself. Instead of claiming the legacy of German classical philosophy, as Engels had demanded, he denounces the modern utopia of the Enlightenment tout court as ideology. The Left that follows him should stand indifferent to the content of change and draw its hope from a one-dimensional form, the chaos of breaks and fractures. Stoicism is declared a political task.

Althusser is not the last turn away before postmodernism, but rather a scattered, "disgusted" soldier in enemy territory.[41] Despite desperate efforts, he does not find his troop — it has long capitulated or defected to the enemy — and so he loses his way forever. Althusser missed not only a shot, but the whole shootout. By the time he became a Communist, Marxism was long gone. With the failure of the world revolution in Germany in the year he was born, 1918, he began his decline. Yet Althusser's attempt to make Marxism coherent at a time when theory and practice had become objectively indifferent to each other. He adapts Marxism to its political death.

Althusser and the dead Left close the void between theory and practice on the one hand, by positing their unity, on the other hand, by completely separating them. Both, however, destroy the dialectical tension of the poles, which is meant to lay a bridge leading from the present through history to the final goal. Thus, the unity is dissolved into a given, arbitrary practice. But "wrong praxis is no praxis."[42] Because they need to mediate theory and practice, Althusser and the dead Left also raise the need for a socialist party. For Marx, the party does not itself solve the problem, but it allows it to be posed at all. Althusser and today's dead Left avoid the problem. Either they leave the masses entirely to other parties through the mock-radical rejection of parties, or they believe they have already found the solution to the problem of mediation in a given petty-bourgeois democratic party (in Althusser's case, the PCF). Only through theoretical reflection could a different practice come to be which does not simply ignore the present absence of the party. Regardless of whether Althusser is read or understood: all 52 varieties of the dead Left today are, objectively speaking, Althusserian. | P


[1] Read at: <https://platypus1917.org/2019/01/11/althussers-marxismus/\>

[2] Althusser, Für Marx. Frankfurt 2017. All subsequent in-line citations are to this edition of For Marx, first published in 1965.

[3] Kołakowski, Leszek. Althusser’s Marx. London 1971, p. 112.

[4] Althusser: Reply to John Lewis. Paris 1973, <http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/ESC76i.html#s1a\>

[5] Marx, Das Kapital (1867). In: MEW, Band 23, Berlin 1972, p. 66.

[6] “History is nothing but the succession of the separate generations, each of which exploits the materials, the capital funds, the productive forces handed down to it by all preceding generations, and thus, on the one hand, continues the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances and, on the other, modifies the old circumstances with a completely changed activity.“ – Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845-46). <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01b.htm\>

[7] Althusser: Lenin before Hegel. Paris 1969. <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1969/lenin-before-hegel.htm\>

[8] Schmidt, Alfred. Geschichte und Struktur. Fragen einer marxistischen Historik. München 1971, p. 20.

[9] Ibid., p. 9

[10] Adorno, Theodor W. Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit (tr: The Meaning of Work through the Past) (1959). Frankfurt 1970, p. 13.

[11] Kołakowski, Althusser’s Marx. p. 120.

[12] “Specifically, aleatory materialism is a philosophical ‘thesis’ directed at combating ‘closures’, at enjoining optimal ‘openness’. With respect to the cognitive-theoretical domain, this intervention is directed against both dogmatic and sceptical assumptions about what is or must be the case about the world. In particular, it should be understood as affirming anti-necessitarianism, not ontologically but in purely methodological terms. With respect to the practical-political domain, its intervention is directed at untested – even untestable – assumptions about the possibilities for emancipation, assumptions either about what forwards or what constrains it. As such, aleatory materialism may be compared with ‘the principle of causality/determinism’, interpreted not as an all-embracing assertion about how the world is (for example, ‘Every event has a cause’) but as a rule of procedure enjoining the search for certain sorts of conditions for what happens rather than others (such as teleological ones).“ – Wal Suchting, Althusser´s Late Thinking About Materialism. London 2004, p. 66.

[13] C. W. Mills: Letter to the New Left. New York 1960, <https://www.marxists.org/subject/humanism/mills-c-wright/letter-new-left.htm\>

[14] Goshgarian, G. M., Louis Althusser: Philosophy of the Encounter – Introduction. London 1994.

[15] “I had no choice at the time: if I had intervened publicly in the politics of the Party, which refused to publish even my philosophical writings (on Marx), judged heretical and dangerous, I would have been, at least down to 1970, immediately expelled, marginalized and left powerless to influence the Party at all. So there remained only one way for me to intervene politically in the Party: by way of pure theory – that is, philosophy.” – Louis Althusser (1984); quoted by Wal Suchting, p. 3.

[16] Althusser, “Conversation with Richard Hyland”, Paris 1982, S.

[17] Althusser, Marx and his Limits (1982– 3). London 1994, p. 128f.

[18] Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter - Introduction.

[19]  Althusser, “Lenin before Hegel”. Paris 1969. <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1969/lenin-before-hegel.htm\>

[20] Horkheimer, Max. Dämmerung. Notizen in Deutschland (1931–4). Frankfurt 2012, p. 436.

[21] Marx called this the domination of dead labor (in the form of capital) over living labor. This formulation shows the adoption of the Hegelian concept of alienation, which Marx, in Capital, translates into economic terms with the dialectic of use value and exchange value.

[22] Hegel, G. W. F., Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (tr: Principles of the Philosophy of Right). Berlin 1921, p. 26.

[23] Marx, Grundrisse (1857-58).

[24] Althusser, Interview. Rome 1980. <https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3312-the-crisis-of-marxism-an-interview-with-louis-althusser\>

[25] Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1847).

[26] See Louis Menand’s 2003 introduction in Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station: <https://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/menandlouis_edmundwilsonfinlandstationintro2003.pdf\>

[27] Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis”

[28] Hegel: Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts. p. 28.

[29] Althusser, “Lenin and Philosophy”. <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1968/lenin-philosophy.htm\>

[30] “The ultimate reason is that the times were not ripe, that dusk had not yet fallen, and that neither Marx himself, nor Engels, nor Lenin could yet write the great work of philosophy which Marxism-Leninism lacks. If they did come well after the science on which it depends, in one way or another they all still came too soon for a philosophy, which is indispensable, but cannot be born without a necessary lag.“ – Ibid.

[31] Althusser, “On the 22nd Congress of the French Communist Party”. <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1977/22nd-congress.htm\>

[32] “His [Lacan’s] attacks on philosophers’ prejudice of the unity and autonomy of the ego or of consciousness are a much-hailed feature of his theory – and there is certainly a sense in which he is right about this. If the unconscious plays as large a role in human life as Freud says it does, such unity and autonomy as human personalities have must be a relative unity and autonomy, an achievement of the ego, not the absolute unity and autonomy claimed by philosophers from Descartes to Sartre. But Lacan is saying more than this.”  – Andrew Collier, “Lacan, Psychoanalysis and the Left”. London 1980, <https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1980/no2-007/collier.html\>

[33] “It seems to me that one source of the distortion is that Lacan confuses the ego with the super-ego. He objects to strengthening the ego as a goal of treatment because ‘repression proceeds from the ego’. Freud says this in his paper on Narcissism (Collected Papers, vol. IV, p. 50), but immediately corrects himself: ‘from the self-respect of the ego’ – and from this notion, he develops the idea of what he came to call the super-ego.” – Ibid.

[34] Althusser (1973); quoted by Wal Suchting p. 62.

[35] Althusser, Interview. Rome 1980,

[36] Althusser, Die Krise des Marxismus (tr: The Crisis of Marxism). Amsterdam 1978, p. 3.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Althusser, What must change in the Party? Paris 1978, p. 32.

[39] “A party and a line are indispensable in helping the working class to organize as a class — or, which comes to the same thing, to organize its class struggle. Now, just as the party should not be cultivated for its own sake, so the working class should not be organized for its own sake or it will fall into isolation.” – Ibid., p. 38.

[40] “A consciousness of theory and praxis must be produced that neither divides the two such that theory becomes powerless and praxis arbitrary, nor refracts theory through the archbourgeois primacy of practical reason proclaimed by Kant and Fichte.” – Theodore Adorno: “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis”

[41] The intersectionalist theory and its category of resistance most clearly sanctioned this state following Althusser. With the category of resistance, it perpetuates what should be resisted. Therefore, there is no distinction between victory and defeat for the intersectionalists. Like Althusser, intersectionalist theory has always insisted on the unity of various contradictions and can therefore be considered his authentic, direct lineage.

[42] Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis”

One comment

  • Posted 3 months ago

    I liked this a lot! very extensive as well as informative! I loved reading it the first time and I wanna read it again

    by SocialistPeach on July 5, 2019 4:45 am

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