Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Paul B. Smith, line by line

He's at it again...humanist hatchet-man Paul B Smith is once more putting his desire for "politeness" in the workers' movement into practice by...spreading malicious gossip about everyone's favourite French avant-Marxist (well, mine anyway), Louis Althusser. I originally wrote a letter back, but then there's only so much you can fit into a letter. So here's a good old fashioned, messageboard-style point by point demolition. Chunks are numbered for cross-referencing and stuff.
I. Liam O Ruairc follows Althusser in thinking that Marx’s ideas were incoherent and in need of “reconstruction” (Letters, December 6). As a result, concepts crucial to understanding Marx’s political economy, such as contradiction, abstraction, essence, abstract labour and surplus product, are air-brushed from his account of Althusser’s “continued relevance” to politics.

In Reading Capital, Althusser admits from the start that they have not made an "innocent" reading, that they read Capital "as philosophers". His project was not to refine the concepts of political economy (abstract labour, surplus product, although he does make claims about them here and there) but to deal with the philosophical and epistemological assumptions of Marx's project. That is what he is "reconstructing" - any reconstruction of the concepts themselves is implicit, and they are certainly not wiped from history. It is a bit like accusing a Marxist literary critic who cites the bit from Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique... about Greek art of wiping out Marx's political economy. It's just not a matter of primary interest to a literary critic, and it is myopic to expect it to be so.

As for those "philosophical" concepts cited above, Smith is simply lying. How does one talk about Althusser without mentioning his seminal essay "Contradiction [hint hint] and Overdetermination"? Large parts of Reading Capital are dedicated to the nature of abstraction, and the relation of abstract thought to its object, and discussions of essence and how that can be conceived. Smith may not like the conclusions, but it is fiction to pretend that these concepts to not occupy key positions in the Althusserian corpus.

II. Instead, Liam recommends students to start using sociological jargon like interpellation’ and ‘habitus’. As such, he is successful in proving that Althusser continues to be relevant to the social democratic politics informing the writings of sociologists such as Therborn and Bourdieu.
Mee-ow! We shall see this bizarre fixation on "sociologists" (what bastards!) crop up here and there.

Anyway, just as nobody is in favour of dismembering unborn babies and sucking them out with a big tube (as opposed to a woman's right to choose), nobody is in favour of jargon. But this really is ridiculous. Jargonistic as compared to what? As compared to Hegel? Hegel, the very master of the labyrinthine retooling of idiomatic expressions? As compared to Marx, father of surplus-value, surplus-product, departments I & II, simple and expanded reproduction, etc etc?

Jargon is one of those things that happens to other people. Or perhaps it is not the jargon Smith objects to, but the sociology? Unfortunately, "interpellation" is a product not of sociology but of psychoanalysis (an intellectual affliction which has, alas, also claimed Smith's beloved Erich Fromm), and "habitus" is not an Althusserian concept which influenced Bordieu, but a neologism coined by the latter himself.

III. Althusser is useful to those who wish to abolish Marx’s distinction between false and true consciousness and argue that ideology is an all-pervasive excrescence of social structures such as schools and the family. Althusser’s ‘reconstruction’ enables sociologists to teach Marx without reference to commodity fetishism, a category essential to understanding the ideology of bourgeois society. It justifies teaching a sociology - purporting to be Marxian - that makes little or no reference to Marx’s political economy.
Althusser is also useful to those who - like the man himself - are revolutionaries in an increasingly neutered reformist milieu which they wish to turn around somehow. Althusser has influenced social-democrats, yes - he has also influenced Trotskyists, Maoists, Eurocommunists, post-modernists, anarchists and everybody else. Althusser has been a major influence on that nasty old sociology - and political theory, and anthropology, and literary criticism, and film theory...

Again, this is startlingly hypocritical. I do not claim to know exactly what Smith's views on Hegel are, but he cites in [I] various concepts with specific Hegelian usages. He should reject this "jargon" - it is useful to theologians of the World Spirit! And that is to say nothing of the mass mangling of Marx's own texts quite apart from any misfortune they may have met at the hands of the Althusserian movement - the "special issue" of Euro bible Marxism Today that came out in 1998, its participants by then paid-up New Labourites, full of paeans to the market, nevertheless found a page for a David Edgar piece full of glowing praise for Marx's prescience of globalisation.

No extenuating circumstances for our Louis - all the sins of the world's sociologists are found to be "seminally present" in his concepts!

Onto the point about ideology - it's just about the only bit of honest theory we get in the entire letter. Still wrong, though. Althusser does not abolish the distinction between "false" and "true" consciousness - he certainly does not consider socialist humanism to be equal to his own ideas, for example. What he does do - which the cult-of-Man humanist morons can't - is provide an account of the startling effectivity of ideology, the mechanism by which it works. It answers the question: "where is ideology?" with a revolutionary answer - that it is embodied in rituals and practices. Kneel and move your lips in prayer...

IV. Liam points out that Althusser denounced structuralism as ideology. In order to gain academic credibility, Althusser distorted Marx according to linguistic criteria borrowed from structuralism. This inconsistency is an example of the man’s dishonesty. What Stalinism attempted to do in reality - the reduction of individuals’ consciousness to atoms subject to impersonal, overwhelming bureaucratic forces, Althusser - appealing to the authority of Marx - attempted to do in thought.

This is two points haphazardly lumped together...or rather, it is no point at all. Althusser borrowed no "linguistic" criteria from structuralism. Many Althusserian film critics, particularly the Screen group in the early-to-mid-70s borrowed these "linguistic" (more properly semiotic) concepts...from Christian Metz. Terry Eagleton, a literary critic, borrowed them from Roland Barthes. Althusser not only denounced structuralism as "ideology", but carefully distinguished his concepts from similar ones in the structuralist corpus (eg, the tortuous distinction between combinatory and combination in Reading Capital - essentially, "Marx's" [ie, in Althusser's reading] concept of combination does not leave the places between the structural determinations "empty", and provides for the dominance of certain elements). What more does this man have to do?

There is one serious link between Althusser and structuralism, and that is Jacques Lacan, who used a number of retooled structuralist concepts in his psychoanalysis. He also, however, used a great deal of Hegel (and even, despite being a right-wing Gaullist, adapted Marx's surplus value to "surplus enjoyment"). It would be necessary to actually dig through Althusser's writings to find references to signs, signifiers, signifieds and so on - and, being that clearly Smith is too busy to actually read anything about what he slags off, take it from me, mate - they're just not there.

Smith also develops his point about Althusser on ideology here, introduced in [III]. It needs only to be said that Althusser saw ideology not as rending people apart but sticking them together, producing out of individuals "subjects" which were participants in social life. Yes, capitalist ideology subjects the "subjects", to coin a phrase - but capitalist ideology is not a smooth whole, and breaks apart under stress. Otherwise we would not have communist ideology. The point is that man will always have an unconscious, "ideological" level, whatever class interests hegemonise it - the idea that we can escape from this, go back to pre-Freudian fantasies of rational man who merely needs to be "told the truth" (which obviously he does), is to revert to vulgar economics or secular theology.

Take your pick.

V. In effect, Althusser’s method was a form of subjectivism. It permitted readers to project whatever they imagined to be the case onto a particular text. This was popular with lazy students with well honed literary skills seeking approval and employment within bureaucratic institutions. It enabled Althusser to pretend to be an expert on Marx when, in reality, he was a fraud. In his memoir A future lasts forever (1995), he admitted he knew almost nothing about the philosophy of
history or about Marx.

Lazy? Moi? This is little more than incoherent ranting, a product of Smith's comically scatterbrained imagination. Althusser was popular with "students" - his own students, whom he demanded must read Capital not just in translation but in the original German (what slovenly layabouts!), and the PCF's student organisation, then radicalised and teeming with feverish Maoists (indolent freeloading scum!). Indeed, Reading Capital is peppered with quotes from Marx, with key words quoted in German. Whatever the 1980s Althusser thought on the matter, he had clearly read it, and closely, and in the original, and come to an understanding (correct or otherwise). All of this is irrelevant - Althusser's philosophy lives in his texts, and he constantly warned against "taking an author's word for it" on what their texts actually do.

And in that memoir, which flits between hallucination and autobiography, written when he had entirely abandoned Marxist philosophy for an "aleatory materialism" which supposedly linked Democritus to Spinoza to Marx to Heidegger, he also claims to have met and had a nice chat with Charles de Gaulle in the street. Quoting a man at his most delusional against him at his most lucid - the philosophical method of champions.

VI. Liam forgets to mention that the nature of Althusser’s project was to deny that there was any continuity between the thought of the early Marx of the Economic and philosophical manuscripts and the later Marx of Capital. In particular, he held that the concept of alienation was absent from Marx’s later work.

No, he held that the concept of alienation had a different epistemological status after the break, and believed after 1968 that there were odd humanist holdovers in all works apart from the Critique of the Gotha Programme.

VII. A superficial linguistic approach confirms such a reading. Marx does not use the
term ‘alienation’ in Capital. However, the concept is self-evident in Marx’s theories of exploitation and class. Liam must prove Marx’s incoherence in this respect if he is to give the “full defence of Althusser’s project” he promises.

That would be the theory of class that consists of three preparatory paragraphs at the end of Capital v3? The theory of exploitation which is based on the specific mode of appropriation of the surplus product by the capitalist? Both can do without alienation in the Feuerbachian sense. If you want Liam to "disprove" anything, you must establish it first. Or shall I demand you prove the non-existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

VIII. This project - separating a ‘humanist’ early Marx from an ‘anti-humanist’ later Marx - was motivated by the needs of a Stalinism under attack from the left as a result of the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968.

Students with access to the Manuscripts (and later the Grundrisse) were challenging Soviet dogmas of diamat and histmat. Moreover, following the work of Erich Fromm and others, they were using Marx’s concept of alienation to develop critiques of the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and China.

The comedy extravaganza begins in earnest. Where to start? Firstly, I suppose, by re-iterating - for the 400,000,000,000th time - that in the French communist party, Althusser was that "attack from the left". He was the PCF's most tireless campaigner against the forward march of opportunism and popular frontism.

And who were his most implacable opponents? HUMANISTS! Roger Garaudy specifically used the beloved "manuscripts" and selective readings of the Grundrisse to argue for evolutionism and alliances with Catholic soft-lefts. This man was the PCF's official philosopher, at the time Althusser was writing his pathbreaking first essays. He was immensely powerful; his bureaucratic tendencies unnerved even his fellow party bureaucrats, who moved to curb his power eventually (but not before affirming their commitment to marxist "humanism").

And that Erich Fromm - forget all this "developing of critiques" and assorted nonsense. What was his political character at the time? A fervent supporter of Democratic presidential hopeful, Eugene McCarthy, allied with bourgeois pacifist anti-war agitation. Who were his philosophical allies? In large part, writers from the Eastern Bloc, who were at least state-tolerated and often state-promoted. Marxist humanism became basically the official "philosophy" of the Khrushchevite USSR, an intellectual gloss on its phony destalinisation, and the justification for Khrushchev's declaration of a declassed "state of the whole of the people", and the justifications for ever further prostration to bourgeois politics in other countries.

But never mind! Fromm and the humanists may have been social-democrats in all but name, but Althusser sort of influenced some sociologists!

VIII. Althusser loyally upheld the doctrine of socialism in one country. The fact he was sympathetic to Mao’s China - a regime responsible for the deaths of possibly 70 million of its citizens - does not contradict this fact. Moreover, like some other Stalinists, he never broke intellectually or emotionally with a Roman catholic upbringing, seeking an audience with pope John Paul II in 1979.

Althusser was indeed loyal to "socialism in one country". But there is nothing about overdetermination, interpellation, structural causation or any other Althusserian concept which is tied to that. In the France of the late 1960s, Maoism meant the feverish excitement unleashed by the cultural revolution, a scenario where for a while it really looked to some like the masses were taking charge in China. They were wrong, and many others were not fooled. The only significance of this detour is to demonstrate that implying Althusser (who pseudonymously wrote just such a paean to the cultural revolution) is a stalinist in the sense of abject fear of the masses is a deliberate distortion of the actual record. And, as for that last point, Terry Eagleton has argued for various homologies between Althusser the Catholic and Althusser the Marxist, in that "superficial" "linguistic" manner Smith so abhors; but unlike some other Stalinists - of the Humanist variety - he did not argue for philosophical concessions to catholicism.

IX. A necessary condition for explaining Althusser’s unhappy consciousness is that he was a victim of the mental health system of oppression. He suffered depression, therapy and electro-shock treatment throughout his life. He had 15 mental breakdowns from 1945 to 1980. In 1980 he murdered his wife and was incarcerated in a mental hospital.

This is, of course, in no way sufficient.

Gossip. A bit like a prosecutor saying, "of course, it would be bang out of order for me to mention that the defendant has a long history of convictions for..."

X. A complete explanation needs to account for how it was that his ideas had such a huge appeal during the 1960s and 70s. This was a period during the cold war when Stalinism was successful in defeating revolutionary movements in France, Czechoslovakia and Portugal. At the same time, the Soviet Union and China were supporting national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and South America.

Why yes - that does account for the appeal of Althusser's anti-stalinism.

XI. It is therefore understandable that Althusser was able to masquerade as an academic authority on Marx for so long. He was able to capture the imagination of activists and intellectuals caught up on the fashionable radicalism of the period, many of whom were reluctant to study Marx in depth. Most of these people had illusions in the progressive nature of nationalism and leftwing social democracy - policies supported by communist parties throughout the world. As a result, they gained little or no knowledge of Marx.

Yes, if I was reluctant to study Marx in depth, I would certainly pick up a book which gets barely ten pages before ordering me to read all four volumes of Capital - in German.

At a time when there is the potential for a revival of revolutionary socialist ideas amongst students, I find it disturbing that, instead of calling for a revival of the study of Marx and Hegel, authors such as Liam O Ruairc and James Turley should uncritically acclaim the discredited anti-Marxist sophistry of Louis Althusser.
"Revival"? The study of Hegel has never stopped. New editions of Lukacs appear all the time. I fully endorse the study of Hegel, and have begun such studies myself. Althusser, despite his various positions on Hegel being a veritable bundle of bent sticks, and at a time when he was denying the very existence of causality, declared Hegel "the starting point for all of us", and that "one could spend a lifetime on him alone" (in a letter, anthologised in Philosophy of the Encounter).
What is abundantly clear, however, is that Smith has never bothered to study in any depth the Althusserian corpus - that or he has not the theoretical faculties to even basically comprehend it. As someone with either experience with or ambitions to read Hegel, a far denser and more complex writer, I sincerely hope, for Smith's sake, that he is merely dishonest.