No more heroes

Issue: 114

Robert Jackson

Louis Althusser, Politics and History (Verso, 2007), £6.99

The renewed and growing interest in Marxist ideas since the birth of the anti‑capitalist movement has prompted Verso to republish a number of texts under its Radical Thinkers series. The latest set includes this collection of three essays by Louis Althusser, a leading intellectual in the French Communist Party, first published in English in 1972. In the collection the author appraises two 18th century political theorists, the French nobleman Montesquieu and Swiss-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of The Social Contract. Althusser also defends his interpretation of Karl Marx’s relation to the German philosopher Georg Hegel.

Althusser wrote at a time when the stranglehold of Stalinist orthodoxy was beginning to be challenged as a result of political crises in Eastern Europe. The brutal suppression of uprisings in Berlin in 1953 and Hungary in 1956 exposed to many the nature of these state capitalist regimes. A new generation of activists began to look to the ideas of revolutionaries such as Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukács, who claimed that human liberation was only possible through a process of working class self‑emancipation. Such struggles could allow workers to reach a full understanding of capitalism.

Althusser’s works, including For Marx and Reading Capital, were an influential rearguard action aimed at undercutting what he saw as ‘humanist’ deviations. He attributed them to the influence of bourgeois philosophers, such as Hegel. In Politics and History, Althusser reiterates his view that Marx’s dialectical method, while derived from Hegel, is itself ‘non‑Hegelian’ (p173). However, ideas about alienation and liberation are clearly present in the writings of the young Marx, notably the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. So Althusser sought to separate the young Marx from his ‘mature’ works.

Althusser proposed that Marx’s writings after 1845 initiated a brand new method. Thus in Politics and History he claims that Hegel’s dialectic was not merely ‘inverted’ by Marx, but fully transformed. For Althusser, Marx’s method in Capital rejected the notion that history was driven by simple internal contradictions. Rather it demanded a more complex model of multiple causality. He thought that changes in social structure were ‘overdetermined’—related to numerous contradictions in various, partly autonomous, layers of society (the economic, the political and the ideological, with the economic having primacy in the final analysis).

Althusser’s arguments in Politics and History frame the legacies of Montesquieu and Rousseau in ways that support this structuralist account of the dialectic. His great admiration for Montesquieu’s book The Spirit of the Laws is clear. Its concept of a separation of the powers of the state into the executive, the legislative and the judicial is enshrined in the constitutions of many modern bourgeois nations. A structure in which each branch is partly autonomous, but exerts a restraint on the others, seems to parallel Althusser’s Marxism. By highlighting Montesquieu’s aim of discovering laws rather than grasping essences, Althusser attempts to downplay the weight of ‘idealist’ influences on the development of Marxism.

Lukács recognised in Rousseau’s writings a tendency to reject the mechanisation of society and to resist reification—the way that, under capitalism, relationships between people increasingly appear to take the form of relationships between things. In contrast, Althusser finds an insoluble contradiction in Rousseau’s association of the terms alienation and liberty. The Social Contract asks how a person can find a ‘form of association’ with others such that, ‘while uniting himself with all’ he can ‘remain as free as before’. The clauses of the resulting social contract can, for Rousseau, be reduced to one: ‘The total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community.’ Here ‘to alienate is to give or to sell’. For Althusser this is the first in a number of ‘discrepancies’ running through Rousseau’s work: ‘Total alienation is the solution to the state of total alienation’ (p127).

Althusser goes on to argue that each problem posed by the social contract can only be resolved by being transferred onto a further discrepancy. Althusser recognises that, for Rousseau, the solution to alienation must come from within the world of alienation. For Althusser, however, this would result in alienation becoming an unconquerable fact.

Althusser’s Marxism is a beguilingly complex mechanism, but one that removes the subjective vitality from Marx’s dialectic. Indeed Althusser presents history as a process without a subject. His analysis is based on units of structure, called ‘practices’, rather than on human actors. The structural separation dividing distinct levels of society, which Althusser introduced into his method, was a necessity in order for him to reconcile Stalinist repression with a so-called ‘socialist’ economic structure in the Soviet Union. For today’s movement, there is no future in Althusser’s notion of a ‘theoretical practice’ that is reserved for a few elite Marxist scholars. It is the tradition of socialism from below, in which the mass of working people actively take control of their own lives, which can point the path towards the liberation of humanity from the contradictions of capitalism.