Tuesday, 26 June 2007

The Althusser FAQ

The problem with being Althusserian in this day an age is that his entire intervention was based on a confluence of intellectual fashions, trends and otherwise "facts on the ground" that, while more or less forgivable in the 70s, have become drastically unappealing since. And the thing with passed trends is that they have a habit of attracting more criticism than is due - Depeche Mode always get thrown out with Duran Duran.

This - along with the absolute, miserable hatchet job the poor bastard received at the hands of an unimaginative MIA writer - is why I have decided to put together a little pack of myth-busting aphorisms. Thus!

  1. Who was Louis Althusser?
    Louis Althusser was born in Algeria. His family, strictly Catholic, moved to France while Louis was still very young, and he hung around in the catholic milieux in Paris. When the Second World War broke out, he joined the army - it was during detention in a prisoner of war camp that he first came across communism, and he became - by 1948 - a loyal member of the Parti Comuniste Francais. At the same time, his reputation as a prodigious student of philosophy culminated in a tutoring post at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. He was eventually to become a professor there.

    Contrary to his image as a withdrawn scholastic figure, Althusser intervened actively in the life of the communist party - however, stalinism is as a stalinism does, and often this meant he was forced to "out-philosophise" the leadership instead of taking them on politically, which would have entailed immediate expulsion. This problem led to his endorsement of by his own measure disastrous political lines, most infamously the PCF's scabbing on the workers and students during the evenements of 1968. And contrary to the rather bizarre implications of the aforelinked MIA debacle, he represented the staunchest and, but the late-70s crunch time, the most public defense within the PCF of revolutionary politics and opposition to the fetid opportunism of the Eurocommunists.

    Always struggling with mental illness, his life was shattered when, in 1980, he fell into a depressive rage and strangled his wife to death. His work rate dropped, and he too finally copped it in '90.

  2. What's his point?
    Althusser really arrived at a time when Marxism was losing ground to a new intellectual fashion, structuralism. Taking after the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralists turned up everywhere in intellectual life claiming that meaning existed in the relations between elements, and interpreting everything in terms of elaborate "sign systems". Althusser became intimately involved in bashing out an accord between structuralism and marxism (and later on in his life, "post-structuralism" and "post-marxism"). He borrowed a term from Freud, "overdetermination", to argue against naive concepts of histrical causation ("historicism"), arguing persuasively that the 1917 revolution represented a paradigmatic example of thingsnever happening as they are "supposed" to, that historical forces identified by Marx and Engels can combine in a kaleidoscopic and surprising way - this diffusion of causality is characteristically structuralist. He became most controversial, however, for his lacerating attacks on "Marxist humanism". (Unfortunately, as with any time of reaction, this latter has become near-orthodox within marxism.) Later in his life, he began to doubt the very fact of causality, elaborating a theory of "random encounters" he called "aleatory materialism". While this is certainly a very dodgy position, it is worth noting that this was used by him as supporting evidence for very stringently "marxist" politics - the dictatorship of the proletariat, anti-reformism and so on.

  3. So what's so bad about humanism anyway?
    Humanism is a difficult term to pin down. Strictly speaking, it is a term that endorses a central "essence" which makes a human a human, that there is a "human-ness". Classical humanism, for example, sought to re-admit the nobility of classical society into the conjuncture of Renaissance and Enlightenment culture on the basis of the universal humanity revealed in ancient texts. Humanism of this kind lies behinds liberal theories of human rights, among other things.

    Humanism also has a very imprecise usage, which essentially means "nice and fluffy". Thus we find those who turn towards "Marxist Humanism" characteristically emphasise the passages in Marx which seem most full of all-conquering spiritual rage at the, natch, "inhumanity" of it all. It is, obviously, philosophically underpinned by elements of humanism proper - cf. human rights again.

    Althusser excoriates both "varieties" of humanism. He first noted that the rise of "Humanist" scholarship in the USSR and Stalinist bloc is specifically linked to the revisions of Marxism propagated by the post-Stalinists (rather than those offered by Stalin himself, although he was not averse to wheeling out humanism when it suited him - the philosophical backup for Zhdanovschina, for example, was provided by that awful bloody man Lukacs; and an essay by Maxim Gorky, entitled "Proletarian Humanism", recommends the "extermination" of homosexuals). He characterises it as essentially "ethical idealism", and sure enough such movements always end up obsessed with timeless "ethical" principles - even that old Althusserian Terry Eagleton has now decided he's going to waste our time with Aristotelian virtue theory.

    The problem with Marxist-humanism lies simply thus - they focus overly on the "early Marx", the works of 1842-44 where he focuses on the problems of alienation and other fluffy hegelian matters. This basically ignored everything that is unique about Marx. If one is going to adopt a socialist humanism, why be a marxist? Why not take after one of the great utopians, William Morris and the like? Why not be a Bertrand Russelite? Marx's great discovery was that socialism must have a scientific basis, or it will never be more than coffee house daydreams.

    If one goes a step further than denouncing the resultant symptomatic 'heresies' and rejects humanism as such, one has then to account for the matter of agency some othjer way - Althusser's answer involves ideology. Traditional Marxist views held it as simply "false consciousness", people believing X to be the case when in fact it was Y. Althusser suggested that ideology is more important than that - that it is the 'zero level' of subjectivity. One cannot exist in social life unless one "knows the rules" - ideology provides these basic structural features of social existence.

  4. Doesn't that mean we're completely boned as far as changing things goes? Only if ideology is a self-consistent closed system. Which it isn't. It inherently fails - the ideology produced by capitalist society points beyond itself.

    Remember, we're not dealing with an immaculate fiction cooked up consciously by devious members of the ruling class, but the structures of subjectivity arising out of an immensely complex social system riven with contradictions. Even if ideology were, in that way, "perfect", it would be in contradiction with the evidence of our own eyes - it would be, in other words, more vulnerable to destruction than an "imperfect" ideology.