This is an essay my comrade Simon Aplin wrote. Simon and I have been working together on a common project to revolutionise Marxist political philosophy and try and kick-start a new era of Marxism for the 21st century. This represents an excellent contribution to the field on what we can learn from Althusser, about whom Simon is very interested.
Louis Althusser is arguably the most influential Marxist thinker of the latter half of the 20th century, and yet finds almost no uncritical followers among Marxists today. This essay explores this apparent paradox, summarising why Althusser is considered such a significant figure in the history of Marxist thought, influencing almost every prominent Marxist thinker today, whilst simultaneously being considered a highly flawed thinker. Writing his most important texts in the 1960s & 1970s, an era notable for the political crises that swept many countries including France (which saw the Algerian War, May 1968, and subsequent high strike levels), Althusser’s thought is notable for its critique of then-dominant form of Marxism embodied in the large Western European Communist Parties, of which he was a member in France. Under the influence of theoretical trends such as structuralism, psychoanalysis, and the philosophy of science, Althusser undertook an original reading of Marx that attempted to challenge the conception of Marxism of the Stalinist French Communist Party (PCF), proposing new concepts for understanding society with a new set of philosophical references. The success of this attempt is however strongly contested, as Althusser’s concept of history “without a subject” seems to be an inadequate answer to the questions that theories of the subject account for. Here I argue that while many of the concepts that Althusser proposes as a ‘scientific’ Marxism to replace Stalinist and Humanist varieties are highly flawed and inadequate, the questions he posed, and the paths he begun to attempt to answer them remained a significant and positive influence on Marxist thought. His rejection of Humanism and preliminary attempts to replace it remain valuable, even if he leaves many issues open for further development.
Althusser’s work intervened into the tumultuous political and philosophical worlds of a post-war France. The PCF, an important political force in French society which Althusser joined in 1948, had its hierarchical model and political approach challenged in 1956 by the impact of the Hungarian revolution and the famous speech by Khrushchev denouncing the personality cult of Stalin. These events shook the authority of the Communist Party leaders across the West, and prompted wider criticism of the rigidly Stalinist theories and politics of these Parties. In addition the Maoist People’s Republic of China would respond by claiming that Khrushchev’s line was a right wing ‘revision’ of Marxism, and rhetorically placed itself as an alternative pole of radicalism, influencing Althusser deeply as an alternative to the PCF’s commitment to the USSR (Elliot, 2009: 2-7). Within the PCF this process of criticism was incorporated by its leadership as an embrace of ‘Humanist Marxism’, a loose strand of Marxist thought that emphasised Marx’s early writings on ‘species-being’ and alienation. While Marxist-Humanism was developed by many thinkers critical of both Stalinist societies and the Stalinised Communist Parties (an aspect disregarded by Althusser), it was instrumentalised in this period by the PCF as an attempt to rebrand itself, and deflect criticism after the Stalin era (Elliot, 2009: 20-43). Parallel to this, the existential philosophy of thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre (a PCF supporter until 1956, and an influence on Humanist-Marxism), was waning in the face of a new theoretical trend, structuralism. The semiotics-inspired works of anthropologist Levi Strauss and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan challenged the focus on free & intentional subjectivity found in existentialism, laying the foundations for the generation of anti-Humanist theorists such as Althusser who attempted to conceptualise society without the subject as its fundamental foundation or ‘essence’ (Elliot, 2009: 43-51; Glucksmann, 2014: 97-102).
Both published in 1965, Althusser’s books For Marx and Reading Capital took aim at the attempt to read the later Marx through his more overtly philosophical earlier works argued for by Marxist-Humanism. The Humanist reading placed Marx’s 1867 crowning work Capital in theoretical continuity with his earlier arguments in his 1844 manuscripts, where Marx argued that humanity shares a common ‘species-being’, a form of human nature which is repressed (‘alienated’) under the dehumanising organisation of work under capitalism (Althusser, 2005: 51-71). This stood in contrast to the previous Stalinist orthodoxy, described as ‘economism’ by Althusser, which emphasised the role of economic ‘laws of history’ as the key, or only, determinant over every other aspect of society (Althusser, 2005: 108-109; Althusser et. al, 2006: 111; Elliot, 2009: 127-129). Althusser argued in Reading Capital and For Marx that the PCF’s renovation via Marxist-Humanism thus in fact hid a continuity with the Stalin era more than it broke with it. According to Reading Capital, the ‘Humanism’ of alienation, human essence, and early Marx contained the same conceptual structure as the ‘economism’ that came before it (Althusser et. al, 2016: 139-140; Elliot, 2009: 126, 139-142). In both cases society was reduced to a singular cause — human essence for Humanism, and the mode of production for economism. Every element of a society is reduced to an expression, or ‘appearance’ of this fundamental cause or essence, while critiquing this allows a more open-ended account of dissimilar elements and their combinations in society as argued by Hall, in opposition to the classical conceptions of the PCF (Hall, 1985: 51). The reduction of the complexity of society and its antagonisms to a uniform & linear historical development is referred to as a homogenous “expressive totality”, which Althusser associates philosophically with the influence of the 18th century philosopher Hegel. According to Althusser, this fatal Hegelian flaw underlying economism and Humanism is the presumption of a historical Subject — an a-priori nature of humans as free beings with already-existent interests that grows gradually more powerful (due to economic laws) or more self-conscious (as it overcomes alienation) (Althusser, 2005: 223-231).
With history neither the march forward of class interests determined mechanically by the economy, nor the dis-alienation of a collective subject of humanity that contained a pre-existing ‘species-essence’, Althusser proposed a new set of Marxist concepts that no longer relied upon a pre-existing subject. He controversially made the argument that within Marx there existed an ‘epistemological break’ between his early and later works, a shift in theoretical perspective where the very problems that Marx was attempting to tackle with the concepts of ‘alienation’ and ‘species-being’ shifted to a new perspective that underlined the arguments of Capital (Althusser, 2005: 32-38). This break according to Althusser shifted the views of Marx from ‘ideology’ to ‘science’, as Marx broke with the assumption of the prior subject and founded a self-legitimising science with its own internal legitimation (a process of “theoretical practice”) (Althusser et. al, 2016: 60).
With a new non-Humanist philosophy, Althusser outlined a conception of society without any external cause or ‘essence’ that would reduce society to its expression. In Reading Capital Althusser describes a multiplicity of different levels, or practices within society, such as economic, political, and ideological practice, and rather than see these as expressions of a single level, he sees them instead as relatively autonomous from each other. He however maintained that this was a conception faithful to Marx by arguing that the level of economic practice in fact determined the very hierarchy of the various practices, deciding which exerted more control over the others, up to the ‘dominant practice’ in every society (Elliot, 2009: 133-137). In this model, subjects are merely the ‘bearers’ of the positions assigned within society instead of being a pre-existing essence of society’s structures, an argument inspired heavily by the structuralists Levi-Strauss and Lacan (Elliot, 2009: 141) — yet significantly leaving no explanation of the agency of the subjects involved (Elliot, 2009: 153-158).
The argument for society’s complexity is also found in For Marx, where Althusser under influence from Mao and borrowing terms from psychoanalysis described what role this complexity plays in political change, with every situation a product of multiple intersecting contradictions in society. The cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall outlined in 1985 For Marx’s grasp of both the complexity and unity of society as a significant advance within Marxism, where differences and multiplicity are maintained in a limited unity, and political change results from the ‘condensation’ of a range of contradictions rather than being a mechanical product of a single issue by itself, as implied by the PCF conception of class overriding any other political issue (Hall, 1985: 94).
The reception of these arguments by Althusser and his students followed a dramatic path over the next two decades. Initially treated with hostility by the French Communist Party leadership, it played a pivotal role forming the theoretical approach of the emerging strands of Maoist politics in France. Indeed, it was several of Althusser’s Maoist students who would break with the PCF’s youth organisation, provoking a path at unease with Althusser’s refusal to break with the PCF himself (Bourg, 2005: 486). The pivotal events of May 1968 in France greatly accelerated this trend, as student protest sparked the largest general strike in French history. In the context of the PCF’s conservatism in the face of this significant rebellion in French society, Althusser’s ‘scientific’ Marxism was challenged by many of his former students as a prop for the PCF’s Stalinism (Ranciere, 2011: xiv). Jacques Ranciere, who contributed to Reading Capital, published in 1974 Althusser’s Lesson, a withering critique of the scientific pretensions of Althusser’s Marxism, a ‘philosophy of order’ aligned with the PCF’s conservatism. While Althusser had debunked the Humanist explanations of radical change and agency as the realisation of a historical subject, his inability to provide an alternative explanation for these issues posed overtly by the events of May 1968 led Ranciere to claim that “Althusserianism had died on the barricades of May 68”, as his conceptions seemed to do nothing to challenge the dominance of the PCF (Ranciere, 2011: xx; Elliot, 2009: 178).
Additionally, despite Althusser’s psychoanalytic refinement of his concept of ideology and subjectivity in his 1970 essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, he maintained the flaws of Reading Capital’s notions of ‘bearers’, which as EP Thompson pointed out considered subjectivity purely from the functional perspective of capitalism, statically reproducing its structures without an explanation of why this was necessitated or how it could change (Thompson, 1995: 6, 82-83, 113-114, 234-237).
Yet while conceding these weaknesses (Hall, 1985: 100), Elliot and Hall both argue that genuine advances within Marxism were made by Althusser. His critique of Humanism as an inadequate replacement for economism within Marxism allowed questions such as the multiplicity of structures and contradictions, and their relative unity at historical moments to be posed. Hall especially defends the insights of this attempt to think difference with unity against the rising tide of post-structuralist thinkers such as Foucault, who according to Hall step too far in the anti-Humanist direction and dissolve the unity into difference altogether (Hall, 1985: 93-94). Elliot similarly defends Althusser from being considered a stop-gap for post-structuralism, highlighting the numerous theorists who took inspiration from Althusser’s project and developed it in new directions such as state theory, ideology analysis, and even feminism (Elliot, 2009: 307-311), whilst King argues as recent as 2016 that Althusser’s works provide fruitful ground for further development by Marxists (King, 2016).
With the rapid dissolution of the hold Althusser’s concepts had over the generation that rejected the PCF amidst the political tide of anti-Marxism that prevailed in France by the the end of the 1970s, Althusser was swiftly considered a relic of the past. Yet despite the valid criticisms made by Ranciere and Thompson of Althusser’s incomplete answer to the Humanist concepts he problematised, leaving the question of agency and change within society open ended if not occluded, other figures within Marxism have defended many of Althusser’s original insights. Without a prior subject that society can be traced to, issues of complexity and unity ‘condensed’ at particular points in time can be appreciated. It is in this sense that Althusser’s influence within Marxism can be seen as a positive one.
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