Tuesday, 18 December 2007

the Althusser FAQ episode two

Given that I'm getting accused all the time of being an "apologist" for cantankerous French "Marxist-Spinozist" Louis Althusser, I thought I'd try on some tricks from more experienced apologists. So, with no apologies *rimshot* at all to Stop The War conference's "best in show", Somaye Zadeh of Campaign Iran, here are three and a half lies about Louis Althusser.

Lie number one: Althusser was a hardline Stalinist, widely disseminated among the new (and the decrepit) Hegel-o-trots. Althusser was, in the broadest sense of the term, a Stalinist. He was a member of the Parti Communiste Fran├žais until his death, and referred to the Soviet bloc as the "socialist countries" without qualification. Fine. The problem comes when people attempt to impute to him various other Stalinist positions that were not really his at all. He was not a popular frontist, and indeed the political stake of his theoretical anti-humanism was maintained at keeping any PCF alliances within the working class (just as his humanist rival Roger Garaudy was aiming at precisely the opposite, using theoretical humanism as a bridgehead to get "Christian Lefts" and the like on board).

Lie number two: Althusser was a Eurocommunist, as sneakily imputed by his hatchet job biography on the Marxists Internet Archive (this is, of course, a website who for a long time refused to even acknowledge anybody associated with the Stalinist bloc as "Marxist" at all, placing them instead in the "reference" section alongside Montesqieu, Fourier and Foucault. I suppose a little theory-police shite here and there is a small price for such an incredibly useful resource). As noted in lie 1, the substance of Althusser's political intervention in the PCF was keeping it about the proletariat and scuppering the cross-class nonsense that was then hegemonised by the Euros. Try again, boys.

Lie number three: Althusser considers dialectics "mumbo jumbo" or some such. Althusser in fact simply claims that there is a very important development that separates Marx's dialectic from its Hegelian predecessor, concerning the epistemological relationship between a real object and its corresponding thought object. On the one hand, empiricists consider the thought object to be an internal characteristic of the real object; on the other, Hegelians believe the object is internal to thought. Dialectical materialism breaks out of both, and conceives knowledge as a production.

Lie number three and a half: Althusser considers Hegel "mumbo jumbo". At the end of his life, by which point he had rejected causality itself in favour of a theory of "random encounters", Althusser was still able to say of Hegel that "he remains the fundamental reference point for everyone, since he is himself such a 'continent' that it takes practically a whole lifetime to know him well" (Philosophy of the Encounter, 2006. Tr. GM Goshgarian, Eds. Francois Matheron and Oliver Corpet. London: Verso, 2006. p229). Entire monographs
could be, should be and have been penned on Althusser's "eloquent silences" over Hegelian philosophy, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that there is "another Hegel", a "Hegel-for-Althusser" that he missed. To claim, however, that he dismissed Hegel in some crude fashion is idiotic, and treats his philosophy with a far larger dose of smug contempt than even the most boorish Althusserians (cough cough Hindess & Hirst) showed Hegel.