A Critique

Althusser versus Marx

Sankar Ray

If there is nothing wrong in criticising Marx and his theoretical concepts even from a Marxist or Marxian position, Louis Pierre Althusser or his 'ideology'of 'Structural Marxism'is also criticisable. So 'Structural Marxism'or Althusseism is to be critiqued through the Cartesian scanner of doubt which is an essential ingredient of Marxian temper. This is nothing new about it too in the West.

Over half a century after publication of his major works, For Marx (Pour Marx, 1962) and Reading Capital (Lire le Capital, jointly authored with Étienne Balibar, 1965) along with other works, in this article, there is very little scope of critiquing them.

Althusser and Althusserism is in short an effort to re-theorise Marxism as a victim, rather than a beneficiary, in a philosophical fashion and political circumstance. Today, those who look up to Marx in a historical-critical manner, Althusserism is increasingly a symbol for many of an era of vain, or disappointment.

Althusserian Marxists are a losing community, somewhat gradually discredited too at least for two reasons. First, Althusser discovered an 'epistemological break' (La coupure épistémologique, originally coined by Gaston Bachelard) between 'young Marx' and 'mature Marx' in order to reject Paris Manuscripts of 1844 and related works that highlight libertarian and humanist essence of Marxian thoughts. For him, there is a disconnect between the 1844 Manuscripts and Capital I. He cited in the "Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach" (1845) which identifies human nature with the ensemble of social relations and hence Althusser termed it as ahistorical, abstract, and passively contemplative concept of species being, but the Tenth thesis unequivocally states, "The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity", let alone Marx's fondness of quoting Latin scholar of pre-Christ era, Terence, "I am human, and nothing human is alien to me." Hence, Althusser's emphatic 'epistemological break'was an attack at those who adhered to humanistic and libertarian basics of Marx. Althusserian Marxism or 'Structural Marxism' was fairly well-received in Europe, subsequently in India too. But it became deeply controversial in 1978 when EP Thompson waged a theoretical offensive against Althusser. It buried "Althusser and his (franglophone) progeny in The Poverty of Theory ". Memorably accentuating the indictments of the Frenchman's it was a dressing down of his anti-humanism, anti-historicism as also anti-empiricism. 'Althusseri-anism', the British Marx scholar, branded as 'Stalinism reduced to the paradigm of Theory. It is Stalinism at last, theorised as ideology'. Stalinism was essentially 'a manifestation of a general police action within ideology', he asserted. The criticism picked up coherence and relevance, due to counter-attack of Soviet Union at the socialist-humanist rebellion in Hungary in 1956—part of an operation designed 'to reimpose the disciplinary controls of State and Party, to re-establish ideological orthodoxy—in effect, to reconstruct, within changed circumstances, Stalinism without Stalin'. (Gregory Elliot's doctoral dissertation, Althusser, The Detour of Theory).

Secondly, his importance on ideology, despite Marx's categorical rejection of ideology which Marx did not include in his Associated Mode of Production, the basis of communist or socialist society. Let's have a brief look at Ideological State Apparatuses. Jamaica-born Stuart Hall who as professor of sociology at the Open University, London, known as 'godfather of multiculturalism'many years until his demise in February 2014, in a seminal paper, "Signification, Representation, Ideology : Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates" (Critical Studies in Mass Communication, June 1986) critiqued Althusser's theory of ideology rather sympathetically. "I retain the notion that ideologies are systems of representation materialised in practices but I don't want to 'fetishise' practices" as such a theorisation (Althusser's) tends to equate social practice with social discourse". Althusser's dichotomy of dominant ideology and subordinate ideology inadequately explain 'complex interplay of different ideological discourses and formations in any modern developed society', Hall argued. His definition of ideology as "the systems of representation in which men and women 'live' (inverted comma used purposively by the French ideologue). Hall not only questioed this as for Althusser ideology ends up and simply lives the real, but accused Althusser of 'woeful misrerepresentation of Marx's 1857 introduction to Grundrisse. Marx categorically stated that 'personal relations flowed out purely out of relations of production and exchange', given his unequivocal rejection of any ideology as 'camera obscura'.

Althusser constructs his defence of ideology analogous to the Jacques Lacan who set out ideology as a leading function in society. Thus Althusser openly distances him from the Marx's understanding of ideology, categorically dumped as "false consciousness", a false understanding of the way the world functioned (like the suppression of the fact that the products we purchase on the open market are, in fact, the result of the exploitation of labourers). For Ideology is 'an imaginary construction'whose status is exactly like the theoretical status of the dream among writers before Freud. Lacan stressed "real conditions of existence" and our reliance on language; however, through a rigorous"scientific" approach to society, economics, and history, we can come close to perceiving if not those "Real conditions" at least the ways that we are inscribed in ideology by complex processes of recognition. Althusser's understanding of ideology has in turn influenced a number of important Marxist thinkers, including Chantalle Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Zizek, and Fredric Jameson.

Thompson's formidable and theoretically powerful repudiation of Althusser's Marxism was an animus against British followers of the French philosopher like Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst, sociologists whose works were mainly published in two journals, Theoretical Practice (1971-3) and Economy and Society (1972-4). The two scholars targeted British Marxism, snapping fingers at their 'theoretical poverty'. They proposed a kind of rectification by way of importation of Althusser's 'problematic'. Elliott sarcasticaly termed them as, 'More Althusserian than Althusser' and criticised them for "an anti-historical reconstruction of Marxist theory, only to discover two years later that Marxism per se was vulgar and revolutionary socialism utopian." It was in line with Thompson's who read Althusser's 'œuvre through the distorting lens of Hindess and Hirst's, overlooking the fact that their incessant admonitions against 'empiricism'and 'historicism'in 'Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production', something that even the French philosopher did not suggest. The two British adherents of Althusserianism was 'transit from hyper—to post-Althusserianism'.

Althusser's defence of Stalin period and its totalitarianism (Murzban Jal in a paper In Defence of Leninism defined Stalin era as 'counter-revolutionary', Economic and Political Weekly, 1 January, 2001) has a fast decreasing number of takers, in sync with the new era of study and research on Marx and Engels after the project Mega II—Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe at the Internationale Marx-Engels-Stiftung (IMES) was established in 1990 in Amsterdam. The IMES, insulated from 'partyocracy'and 'ideological fetishism', is under an international network of the International Institute of Social History, the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften (BBAW), the Karl-Marx-Haus (KMH) of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Trier and the Russian State Archive for Social/Political History (RGA) and the Russian Independent Institute for the Study of Social and National Problems (RNI), both in Moscow.

(Marx in German Ideology categorically rejected ideology of any kind, and sarcastically described it as 'camera obscura'. But Althusser too admits that ideology is not simply the product of class-based social relations, but is an inescapable condition present in all societies. Here he excludes communist or socialist society, based on Associated Mode of Production).

Althusser's grudge against Nikita Khruschev's 'secret speech'at the 20th congress of the Communist Party of Soviet Union in 1956 (where one finds a quote from Marx for the first time in the beginning of the speech, after Lenin at the 11th Congress of RSDLP -Bolshevik—reminding the delegates of Marx's chagrin towards 'individual cult') was because of critiquing Stalin era and 'personality cult'from a rightist position ("there inevitably followed what we must call an unleashing of bourgeois ideological and philosophical themes within the Communist Parties themselves."). He proposed a theoretical explanation of Stalin's excesses. The CP of France in a letter to a German worker rejected his stand. Althusser was then one of the leading theoreticians of PCF. He went out of logical construct in his strange statements such as "history is a process without a subject, " let alone his hostility to Hegel and Lukacs.

Unfortunately, in France, especially after his succès de scandale he is almost a 'dead dog' (coined by Alain Lipietz, while protesting against the treatment, meted out to him in Lipietz 1985). Althusserianism, albeit a fashionable variate among many scholars of political science, has both takers and rejectors as it remains very dated and, like the Beatles'music or Godard's first films, inevitably evokes a recent but vanished past (Lue Ferry and Alain Renaut, La pensee, 1985, quoted in a paper on French philosdopher Mikel Dufrenne, passionately a defender of humanism).

Thompson's polemical offensive against Althussser in his Marx's 'Capital' and Capitalism Today had been synergistic with the prevailing historical reality. He had formidably demolished the deconstructive initiative of Althusserian Marxism that -'coalesced with other efforts to plot a reformist course for Britain in a period marked by the retreat of social democracy and the rise of the New Right', asserted Elliot. The French ideologue's authority and reputation began declining for his 'anti- or 'post'-Marxist turn among left-wing intellectuals, during the ascendance of Thatcherism, and amid the perplexity of its socialist opponents such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (authors of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy,1985), Elliot is logical for pointing out a partial appropriation of the Gramscian legacy in Structural Marxism, alongside 'academi clustre' accommodating variants of post-structuralism—a non-Marxist constellation encompassing the work of Roland Barthes, Gilles Delouse, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and the like. Perhaps, a semblance lies between Althusserianism and the Anglo-American Marxian paradigm—'analytical Marxism', formulated by G A Cohen in his Karl Marx's Theory of History : A Defence. Cohen enunciated a reconstruct of historical materialism (neither historical materialism nor dialectical materialism is found in any text, especially in English). Seeking reinstatement of the explanatory primacy of the productive forces and centrality of human nature, it is opposed to Althusserianism, it is incompatible with fundaementals of Marx. Among its defenders is Pranab Bardhan. However, this discourse has no scope to discuss Analytrical Marxism.

Autumn Number
Vol. 50, No.12-15, Sep 24 - Oct 21, 2017