by Jasper Collins
The Politics of Louis Althusser: A Symposium
Urgent Tasks No. 4
Despite the fact that Louis Althusser is a prominent representative of a distinct political trend in the French Communist Party, his writings have been debated outside France as though they were politically unimportant — the province of academic philosophers alone. We do not propose to follow this practice. If Althusser's work were purely of consequence to the editors of Telos, Radical America, Theoretical Review, and the more difficult contributors to New Left Review and Marxism Today, they would not interest us.
Eurocommunism is Althusser's habitat — that jumble of massive but unorthodox Communist Parties who defy the Soviet Union, discard proletarian dictatorship as an anachronism, drop Leninism from their vocabularies, join bourgeois governments, and, in Italy, hunt down revolutionaries and jail them. From within the French CP Althusser criticizes much of this, yet he not only has stayed in, but frequently has beaten theoretical retreats through self-criticism which, so far at least, has kept his party membership intact.
In this way Althusser provides what seems in some respects to be a defense of Marxist orthodoxy — a left critique of the Euroeommunist mainstream. Marxist militants who cannot stomach .the giant departures of Georges Marchais, or Enrico Berlinguer, or Santiago Carrillo are given a theoretical justification for joining or staying in the Communist Parties. This is not an unimportant task. Were every militant who read and agreed with Marx, and look note of the CPs' departure from his teachings, to leave the CPs as those parties depart from Marxism, their collapse would be imminent.
But some aspects of Marxist orthodoxy are stubbornly incompatible with even the most radical variant of Eurocommunism. Here is where Althusser's genius comes into its own. His Marxism permits one to discard Marx selectively, using an elaborate theoretical construct and an apparent philosophical rigor supposedly methodologically loyal to Marx. If Althusser can withstand attack here, the rest of his system, and its political consequences, may be safe. The Urgent Tasks symposium therefore examines both Althusser's politics and the theoretical underpinnings.
Followers of Althusser's writings sooner or later come to an almost inescapable conclusion: Althusser may be the first person who became a Marxist-Leninist philosopher before becoming thoroughly familiar with the teachings of Marx and Lenin.
It is difficult to imagine, otherwise, how he could have gotten himself into so much theoretical difficulty with nearly every stroke of his pen. His latest book [Essays in Self-Criticism, New Left Books, London, 1976; translation, Preface, and Introduction by Grahame Lock] is Althusser's attempt to clean up his act, but his attempt to extricate himself from one set of problems is leading him into fresh collisions with Marx and Lenin.
There are some superficial parallels between the careers of Georg Lukacs and Louis Althusser. Lukacs, the Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic, was a creative and innovative thinker who, after daring to test the outer limits of thought in the Communist movement under Stalin, was frequently forced to retreat with a pitiful "self-criticism" which barely preserved his party membership, and perhaps his life, from the wrath of the monolith. Althusser, the eccentric philosopher in the French Communist Party who has invented a whole new theoretical approach to Marxism, has now begun his retreat.
Both Lukacs and Althusser are defenders of Marxist "orthodoxy" during periods when their parties disdain it. Perhaps these similarities explain why the ideas of these two men seem destined to a common fate ~ the growth of a large, vocal, and aggressive following among young intellectuals in the academic world; some measure of recognition by the bourgeois intelligentsia; and a much smaller following among party rank-and-filers.
But there the similarities end. Lukacs was defending the orthodoxy of revolutionary creativity within the confines of a Stalinist straitjacket. Both the creativity and the orthodoxy of Althusser's thought are purely formal — hypermodern Marxism whose complexities and terminological novelty inspire otherwise intelligent people to participate in the dullest enterprise while defending the terms, but not the ideas, that once taught millions how to recognize social revolution when they saw it.
Despite the new book's title, Althusser exhibits no humility in his "self-criticism." This is a truculent book in which Althusser bullies his opponents even as he retreats from most of the theoretical ground on which he made his name.
In the past, for example, Althusser distinguished himself with his claim that theory is a form of practice. "Theoretical practice" was reified into the defiant slogan of the Althusserian camp, and his British followers took that as the title for their political journal. Now that Althusser confesses that his most original assertion was in error (it is "dangerous," he says, and "must be done away with"), his loyal adherents are left holding the bag. But if Grahame Lock's Introduction is any guide, they are shamelessly committed to their man and scarcely disturbed by such trifles.
All this confirms that something more (or maybe less) than "philosophy" is involved here. It is difficult to suppose that pillars of basic doctrine can be abandoned at will, but if the changes wrought are actually conducted at a lower theoretical altitude than the Althusserians pretend, they can readily be understood as attempts to shore up a dubious possessory title to certain political turf.
Althusser has played a cat-and-mouse game with his critics for nearly a decade. An essay would appear, and his critics would respond. He would then write, "They don't understand," and would reveal the secret of what he was supposedly driving at in the first place. (When he bothered to answer at all, that is.) The current book continues Althusser's intellectual unscrupulousness masquerading as scholarship by including a lengthy bibliography of his critics, a dozen or so of whom get passing mention in Lock's Introduction, but only one — British Communist John Lewis — is actually debated by Althusser.
Sometimes the ludicrousness of Althusser's responses to his critics is astonishing. For years his philosophy has been called "structuralism," in keeping with its similarities to that of other writers who have so named their approach. Now Althusser writes, the problems in my theory didn't come from structuralism, but from an affinity for Spinoza! — but answers to the substance of the criticisms still don't appear, despite the fact that he knows the debate isn't about political taxonomy.
Lock writes that the purpose of his lengthy Introduction is to allow readers to "get an idea of what kind of politics lie behind Althusser's 'philosophy'." In itself, that ought to be taken as a confession of bankruptcy. If Althusser's previous four books haven't managed to convey his politics somehow, then the claims he made as to the political character of his theoretical work were clearly bogus even before his "self-criticism." Even so, it is interesting that Lock, with Althusser's approval, can write that his politics lie behind his philosophy, rather than the other way around. (It seems likely that had a critic been the first to pose this relationship between Althusser's politics and theory, she or he would have been roundly denounced by the defenders of the faith.)
Althusser insists on your respect. Even if you don't agree with him, he demands that you admire his political courage. We should try to understand, he says, "whatever the risks of what we say," the errors of the world Communist movement. "I shall take the personal risk of advancing this hypothesis now." "It cannot be denied that such an initiative involved great efforts and risks." The problem can be summed up as the effects of a single problem, the "Stalinian deviation." (He rejects the term "Stalinism" because it is a bourgeois or Trotskyist label which "explains nothing.")
Of course, he adds, it is wrong not to recognize Stalin's "historical merits": "He understood that it was necessary to abandon the miraculous idea of an imminent 'world revolution' and to undertake instead the 'construction of socialism' in one country." Stalin taught millions of Communists "that there existed Principles of Leninism." But there were drawbacks to Stalin too, among them, his "humanism."
Lock makes some of this concrete: "The Polish events [the mass strikes of 1970] demonstrate something important, too. The workers' protest itself was not — contrary to a common opinion — directed against 'Stalinism': rather the opposite." (They were for Stalinism??!!) "It is therefore impossible to paint the Stalin period in wholly black or white terms, and it is equally impossible to pretend that its faults can be eliminated simply by 'democratizing' or 'liberalizing' the political structures (for the sake of 'liberty') and 'reforming' the economy (for the sake of 'productivity'). The effects of Stalin's humanism and economism cannot be rectified by a more consistent humanism and a more consistent economism."
These lines depart sufficiently from the high road of "philosophy" to the low road of politics that one naturally is led to the search for a motive other than that of academic excellence and intellectual devotion. It is not hard to find. Althusser himself admits he wasn't always so courageous:
"Before the Twentieth Congress [of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956] it was actually not possible for a Communist philosopher, certainly in France, to publish texts which would be (at least to some extent) relevant to politics, which would be something other than a pragmatist commentary on consecrated formulae." But the torrent of criticism that followed the Twentieth Congress attacked "Stalin's errors" from the right — "there inevitably followed what we must call an unleashing of bourgeois ideological and philosophical themes within the Communist Parties themselves."
The ferment that erupted in the Communist Parties did in fact become part of the general right-wing drift as those parties sought to increase their electoral strength and trade union power in Western Europe and to seek commercial independence from the Soviets in Eastern Europe. In resisting these currents, Althusser emerged as a defender of Marxist "orthodoxy" — a left pole within the French CP. In contrast to the leading political currents, Althusser's criticisms and his terminological loyalty to certain Marxist traditions (for example, his defense of the concept of proletarian dictatorship while the Western European CPs are jettisoning it) has given him a "revolutionary" aura.
Paradoxically, this appearance actually became an asset to the CP, because it provided a political lure within the party for militant workers and radical intellectuals whose leftward drift might otherwise become a threat to party hegemony. His utility is strengthened when his militancy implicitly runs counter to the party line — for instance when he refers to the French events of May 1968 as "the greatest workers' strike in world history." (But his political courage hasn't yet extended to the point of directly attacking the counter-revolutionary role of the French CP during that strike.)
The appearances are deceptive, however. On the most basic level, Althusser clings to the reformist assumptions of his party. His attack on "humanism" is actually a defense of the party and the unions, not a revolutionary departure. Thus: "The humanist line turns the workers away from the class struggle, prevents them from making use of the only power they possess: that of their organization as a class and their class organizations (the trade unions, the party), by which they wage their class struggle." [Althusser's emphasis] One would never guess from this that these workers' "class organizations" played the crucial role of restoring bourgeois authority during "the greatest workers' strike in world history."
Nearly every reformist working class party has someone playing the role we have described here. What has distinguished Althusser has been his attempt to justify his political position in theory. Whereas previous generations of CP intellectuals have rationalized their lines by re-interpreting Marx and Lenin to conform to party doctrine, Althusser has no qualms about rejecting much of Marx's and Lenin's writings on their face as "un-Marxist." He and his followers are not moved by demonstrations that their positions contradict Marxist-Leninist teachings; they simply reply that Marx and Lenin abandoned previously held positions, sometimes unconsciously.
Even so, Althusser is compelled to say that certain texts provide valid guides to political theory, and these provide at least a small plot of common ground on which to apply mutually acceptable standards to political claims. In this book Althusser opposes working class self-activity in theory by asserting, time and time again, that Marx viewed history as "a process without a subject." Yet he also says that "I based myself as closely as possible on Marx's 1857 Introduction, and if I used it to produce some necessary effects of theoretical provocation, I think that I did nevertheless remain faithful to it."
Did he remain faithful to it? Is Marx's history a process without a subject? In the 1857 Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy, Marx wrote that "all epochs of production have certain common traits, common characteristics." These traits, "the elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity — which arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and of the object, nature — their essential difference is not forgotten." [Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Pelican Marx Library edition, page 85, emphasis added]
In a similar way, Althusser's statement that "Marxism-Leninism has always subordinated the dialectical Theses to the materialist Theses" [his emphasis] is clearly in opposition to Lenin's view that "what is decisive in Marxism [is] its revolutionary dialectics." [33: 476] In another instance Althusser writes, "Of course it is not true that everything is always connected with everything else — this is not a Marxist thesis," whereas Lenin's view was the opposite: "The relations of each thing (phenomenon, etc.) are not only manifold, but general, universal. Each thing (phenomenon, process, etc.) is connected with every other." [38: 222, Lenin's emphasis]
Clearly Althusser's "theoretical" work in the 1970s isn't much different from that of the 1960s reviewed by Martin Glaberman. Althusser's theoretical system has taken on a life independent of its political utility, and this aspect has gotten nearly all the attention and commentary outside France. As we stated in the beginning, this is a subordinate concern for us.
At the same time we would caution against the urge to write an insurance policy underwriting Althusser's political life. The appearance of flexibility in the Eurocommunist parties is deceptive, and Georges Marchais, head of the French CP, is a tinhorn Stalin. He has already ordered Althusser to stop criticizing the party's electoral strategy.
It seems likely that the rallying point for leftwing Eurocommunism will increasingly focus on Fernando Claudin and his debate with Spanish CP leader Santiago Carrillo. If so, Althusser may become entirely expendable. It will be interesting to see whether his "philosophy" can survive in the absence of a viable political base.
Picking up after Martin Glaberman's review of the bulk of Althusser's theoretical works, Don Hamerquist explores the political implications of Althusser's recent articles and examines his place in the tableau of Eurocommunism. Though all conclusions are necessarily tentative, the article explores the tensions between Althusser's growing criticism of the French CP and his own theoretical roots. Hamerquist considers the direction of Althusser's political drift incompatible with his "scientific," "anti-humanist" theory. Indeed, if Hamerquist's optimism about Althusser's political future is justified, it is likely that Althusser will undergo an "epistemological break" of his own. Whether or not this will amount to a "philosophical revolution" remains to be seen.
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