Redrawing boundaries

Phil Watson reviews 'For Marx' by Louis Althusser

In a strident contribution to the recent debate on the relative merits of Lukács and Althusser, Phil Sharpe rashly writes: “Althusser’s Marx is a proletarian revolutionary at the level of philosophic and historical materialism and not the expression of humanist popular frontism” (Letters Weekly Worker February 5 1998). By reviewing For Marx (originally published in 1965 as a collection of essays) I want to test Sharpe’s contention in more detail.

The historical conjuncture of For Marx is the developing critique of Stalin’s dogmatism that became current in the ranks of the international communist movement after Krushchev’s denunciation of the ‘cult of personality’ at the 20th Congress of the CPSU (1956). Of critical importance to Althusser is the attendant re-discovery of Marx’s early works and the concurrent thread of Marxist-humanism. For Marx is essentially Althusser’s attempt to philosophically deal with Stalin’s legacy. This is something it shares with Lukács’ much maligned study, The meaning of contemporary realism.

It is of course the status of ideology that forms such a key component of Althusser’s philosophic problematic. He begins in fairly uncontroversial style with the argument that “ideology is an objective social reality; the ideological is an organic part of the class struggle”. However, Althusser moves on to attack the impact of ideology in the theoretical arena as “a threat or a hindrance to scientific knowledge” (ibid). Ideology is polarised as “a matter of lived relations between men and their world … In ideology men do indeed express, not the relation between them and their conditions of existence, but the way they live the relation between them and their conditions of existence … In ideology the real relation is inevitably invested in the imaginary relation, a relation that expresses a will (conservative, conformist, reformist or revolutionary), a hope or a nostalgia, rather than describing a reality” (pp233-4). It is therefore only Marxist science that can adequately describe the history of a particular social formation. This oppositional couplet of science/ideology forms the basis of Althusser’s utilisation of Gaston Bachelard’s formulation of the ‘epistemological break’ to explain the contradiction between the major phases of Marx’s theoretical output (discussed in more detail below).

It is at this point that the first major critique of For Marx should be made. Althusser’s dualism can only give rise to an essentially static theory of knowledge. As he himself states, ideological struggle is organic to class struggle. The elaboration of proletarian hegemony cannot be accomplished until this particular fusion of ideology and science, the imaginary the real, is complete. That is the essence of praxis. No accident then that Althusser honestly admits that this work is deficient in exploring “the fusion of Marxist theory and the workers’ movement” (p15). It is not difficult to see that this epistemology is a product of the intense polarisation of the Cold War, “The period summed up in caricature by a single phrase, a banner flapping in the void: ‘bourgeois science, proletarian science’ ” (p22). Althusser goes on expand that “we [in the French Communist Party] had been made to treat science, a status claimed by every page of Marx, as merely the first comer among ideologies” (ibid). The author’s objections at this stage are reasonably circumspect but it is Althusser’s error to redraw his methodological boundary in favour of a neutered objectivism.

The retrospective defence of Althusser is no idle fancy on the part of Phil Sharpe, in that the false strictures of For Marx appear to have impacted directly on him. In 1992 Sharpe was keen to come to terms with ‘The autonomy and primacy of theoretical practice’:

“If the political and organisational cohesion of a revolutionary party is not to result in accommodation to bourgeois ideology, it is necessary to develop the autonomy of theoretical practice so that it is not subordinated to political practice. For on the basis of autonomy, the procedures of scientific theoretical practice can be created that establishes the possibility of a revolutionary political practice” (P Sharpe ‘The theoretical basis of democratic centralism’ Open Polemic No7).

What then of Althusser’s famous utilisation of the concept of the ‘epistemological break’? The author argues that by “founding the theory of history (historical materialism) Marx simultaneously broke with his erstwhile ideological philosophy and established a new philosophy (dialectical materialism)” (p33). Elsewhere, Althusser formulates the retreat of Marx and Engels “from ideology towards reality [which] came to coincide with the discovery of a radically new reality of which Marx and Engels could find no echo in the writing of German philosophy. In France, Marx discovered the organised working class; in England, Engels discovered developed capitalism and a class struggle obeying its own laws and ignoring philosophy and philosophers” (p81). It is on these foundations that Althusser constructs a periodisation of Marx’s work, focusing on 1845 (Theses on Feuerbach, The German ideology) as the key turning point in Marx’s development from ideology to science. Ironically, Althusser gives the reader enough ammunition to dispense with this hopelessly abstract schema.

Some of the most sublime passages of For Marx are to be found in the essay, ‘On the Young Marx’ (pp49-86). Althusser argues explicitly against the use of a teleological methodology in the interpretation of Marx’s work. For example, our author uses the example of Marx’s article from the Rheinische Zeitung to reason that though “the exposition and formulation, [is] still inspired by Feuerbach or [is] still Hegelian … It is clear that this discrimination between elements detached from the external context of the thought expressed and conceived in isolation, is only possible on condition that the reading of these texts is slanted, that is, teleological” (p57). This eloquent refutation of abstraction is ultimately rendered meaningless by Althusser’s practice of mechanically periodising Marx’s practice (‘the early works’, ‘the mature works’ etc), creating a set of preconditions whereby texts are treated as the function of such categories and not as a totalised process.

Althusser writes boldly that his definition “cannot be read directly in Marx’s writings” and that “a complete prior critique is indispensable to an identification of the location of the real concepts of Marx’s maturity” (p38). Unfortunately for this notion of a “prior critique”, he goes on to give a rather more pessimistic description of its ultimate end: “The circle implied by this operation is, like all circles of this kind, simply the dialectical circle of the question asked of an object as to its nature, on the basis of a theoretical problematic which in putting its object to the test puts itself to the test of its object” (ibid). In such a scenario, it is difficult to see how Althusser’s periodic schema could survive for long, as such an interaction surely results in a dynamic process, whereby objects and forms are continually dissolved and reformulated. The implication for Althusser’s delicately balanced narrative is again one of knowledge in a static form, where categories are frozen onto a complex and shifting world of objects. It is a testimony to his theoretical ability that such conclusions can be gleaned from Althusser’s fractured problematic.

How then does Althusser focus these methodological insights on the era of Stalin? He is keen to assess the precise meaning of the ‘personal socialist humanism’ (erected on the scaffold of Marx’s ‘early works’) through which Stalin’s epigones had rejected “the aberrant and ‘criminal forms’ the dictatorship of the proletariat had taken in the USSR ‘during the period of the cult of personality’” (p237). For Althusser, humanism (and its ‘cult of personality’/inhuman counterpoint) is essentially an ideological concept, therefore he regards viewing Stalin through such a prism as an evasion in scientific terms.

This can be made clear by a lengthy quotation:

“It is regrettable to observe that the concept by which communists designate an important historical phenomenon in the history of the USSR and of the workers’ movement: the concept of the ‘cult of personality’ would be an ‘absent’, unclassifiable concept in Marxist theory if it were taken as a theoretical concept; it may well describe and condemn a mode of behaviour, and on these grounds, possess a doubly practical value, but, to my knowledge, Marx never regarded a mode of political behaviour as directly assimilable to a historical category, that is, to a concept from the theory of historical materialism: for if it does designate a reality, it is not its concept. However, everything that has been said of the ‘cult of personality’ refers exactly to the domain of the superstructure and therefore of state organisation and ideologies; further it refers largely to this domain alone, which we know from Marxist theory possesses a ‘relative autonomy’ (which explains very simply, in theory, how the socialist infrastructure has been able to develop without essential damage during this period of errors affecting the superstructure)” (p240).

Here we have the ideology of ‘official communism’ writ large. In the midst of the revelations of 1956, Harry Pollit is reported to have said to CPGB oppositionists “if you’ve got a headache, take an aspirin”! This then is Althusser’s preparation of puerile objectivism. Even starker is his argument that the “developmental motor principle of a particular ideology cannot be found within ideology itself but outside it, in what underlies … the particular ideology: its author as a concrete individual and the actual history reflected in this individual development according to the complex ties between the individual and this history” (p63). Such formulations do more than call into question the apparent disjuncture between the ideological ‘superstructure’ and ‘socialist’ infrastructure sketched out above, they can in fact be used for a retrospective rehabilitation of Stalin. If the infrastructure of the USSR was indeed ‘socialist’ during the Stalin period, could not the ‘cult of personality’ be construed as a necessary ideological defence mechanism? We do of course have the important benefit of hindsight. The collapse of the Soviet Union as system has brought the realisation that the political practice of the bureaucracy penetrated into the very core of the Soviet society, negating completely Althusser’s antiquated base/superstructure model. In the final analysis it was simply impossible to be consoled by dear old Yuri Gagarin.

The failure of For Marx to theoretically comprehend developments in the USSR in a revolutionary manner, appears only compounded once we turn to Lukács’ The meaning of contemporary realism. As is so often the case with Lukács, it is his pungent critique of literary form that develops into a metaphor for societal development. The essay under consideration - ‘Critical realism and socialist realism’ - is no exception.

Lukács’ point of departure is an analysis of the subjectivism of the Stalin era, “the inevitable ideological consequences of the personality cult” exemplified by “Stalin’s cavalier attitude to scientific facts and objective laws” (G Lukács The meaning of contemporary realism London 1979, p117). This of course manifested itself in the literature of socialist realism, which as Lukács argues, often resembled a crude agit-prop rather than a balanced mediation of socialist perspective and the actuality of realism.

The author bluntly reasons that “if Marxist-Leninist objectivism is abandoned … the dialectical unity of theory and practice, of freedom and necessity, will be lost or dangerously weakened”; the outcome being “a polarisation into dogmatism on the one hand, and pragmatism on the other” (ibid p18). It is important to realise that Lukács was not being opportunistically seduced by objectivism, in that he was fully aware of the dangers of what he described in literary terminology as naturalism, seeing its umbilical cord to the false polarisation of the Stalin period. Lukács explained that there “are many varieties of naturalism. Common to all is the weakening of the relation between ideological principle and individual fact. That is why pragmatism and empiricism have an affinity with naturalism” (ibid p119). Thus it was that Lukács could confidently call for aesthetic alliance between the best traditions of critical and socialist realism.

Lukács does however echo Althusser in his insistence that it “would be slanderous to assert that during the Stalinist period socialist democracy, or the socialist basis of economic construction, were totally destroyed” (ibid p133). However, in Lukács case this is the price on entry into the debate. Unlike Althusser, he does not seek to wrap the Stalin years in the scientific shrouds of impenetrable ‘facts’. The statement that “the true face of socialism can only re-emerge if the forces working against it during past decades are eliminated” (ibid) is adequate homage to the muscular, revolutionary epistemology of Georg Lukács.

This brief outline of some of the salient points of For Marx will hopefully be enough to cast doubt upon Phil Sharpe’s idea that Louis Althusser’s version of Marxism approximates to that of a “proletarian revolutionary”. However, the idea that Althusser can be reduced to the status of a mere Stalinist epigone would be equally fallacious. For Marx is a brilliant, challenging read precisely because Althusser continually threatens to break the sterile confines of his chosen methodology. A critical engagement with For Marx and the work of Althusser certainly cannot be dispensed with if we really wish to exorcise the iron in our collective soul

Phil Watson