Query on Althusser

Jim heartfield Jim at heartfield.demon.co.uk
Tue Jun 2 09:53:55 PDT 1998

I thought that the various appraisals of Althusser were all rather too generous, failing to see that his philosophy reflected his politics and in particular the ideological crisis of the PCF.

Althusser was on the 'left' of the party around the time of For Marx, when he had half an insight into the Comintern's cultural policy of 'humanism'. Althusser rightly saw that this was the intellectual equivalent of a policy of making peace with the 'progressive' bourgeoisie - a 'popular front' of the mind.

In an overreaction to that Stalinist trend, Althusser affected a neorotically 'scientific' approach that excised all human agency from Marxism. His 'rigourously scientific approach led him to make war on what appeared to him to be the philosophical ambiguity of the early Marx. A. proposed an 'epistemological break' that would erect a Chinese wall between Marx's so-called 'humanistic' writings and his later more 'scientific' work. (For Marx)

Of course this was an absurdity, since Marx's humanism is a feature throughout his work and life. In particular A. was forced to ignore the early chapters of capital which abounded with philosophical and humanistic ideas. Avoiding Marx's method, the transformative approach to the categories of political economy, A. simply followed Marx's systematic reconstruction of the Capitalist process of reproduction. (Reading Capital)

The myth of A.'s subtle and 'non-deterministic' reading of Marx has endured depite being the opposite of the truth. A. attacked the economic determinism that he felt he saw in contemporary Marxism. But what did this attack consist of? A. was alreay insensitive to the real meaning of Marx's economic system, having evacuated the transformative character of it. Marx illuminates the domination of capital in his theory, not because he thinks that men ahve no free will, but rather because by recognising the hidden coercion of the market system, people will be in a position to do something about it. A. never understood that as his criticism of economic determinsim demontrates.

All that A. does is to relativise _economic_ determination by introducing other determinations, ideological, political, bureaucratic and so on. This fraudulent subtlety is so far from being an alternative to economic determnism, it is its multiplication ten-fold.

In the essay Ideological State Appratuses (reprouced in Slavov Zizek's 1994 collection Mapping Ideology, for Verso), A. vulgarises Marx's critique of capitalist subjectivity, making it a critique of all human agency as nothing more than an effect of market ideology. In this way, A. turns Marx's rejection of the illusory freedom of the market into an ultra-Stalinist rejection of freedom as such. With all the pretend- hardness of the armchair bolshevik, Althusser pours scorn on the beleif that men make their own history - it is Marx's defence of the working class as subject that he is really attacking.

The idea of the Death of the Subject was current in the philosophical ideas of the time, especially amongst A.'s colleagues at University, Foucault, Lacan and others. It is a dreary philosophy that tries to make sense of the defeat of the French left from the standpoint of the disappointed middle classes. Instead of trying to learn from their mistakes, the Death of the Subject philosophy just makes a virtue out of defeat saying that all struggle is irrelevant.

A. began by rejecting one adaptation to capitalist ideology within the Communist paties, the adaptation to 'bourgeois humanism'. But all that he succeeded indoing was reproducing the more up-to-date capitalist ideology - the 'Death of the Subject' - within the left.

His followers in particular were a sanctimonious gang, who were always insisting that they and only they had a truly rigourous understanding of Marx, though their misunderstandings were basic. It is pointed that all of them now denounce Marx for all of the things that they were defending him from: economic determinism, being too scientific, etc etc. -- Jim heartfield

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