‘Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War’ reviewed by Derek Wall

Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War

Duke University Press, Durham NC and London, 2013. 256pp., $23.95 pb
ISBN 9780822354000

Reviewed by Derek Wall

About the reviewer

Derek Wall teaches political economy at Goldsmiths College, London. A former International …


Beg, steal, borrow, or even buy Warren Montag’s book on Althusser, it is very good. While he suggests that there can be no last word on Althusser, Montag’s work provides an impressive overview which is a delight to read. Montag argues that Althusser’s work draws on a range of thinkers and cannot be understood in isolation from Spinoza, Lacan and, above all, his contemporaries such as Derrida and Foucault. Montag has read, carefully, a huge amount of material written by Althusser such as notes from lectures, letters and unfinished essays, which have only become available in recent years. As well as gathering new material and reading it with care, Montag is able to discuss the most difficult and challenging of philosophical questions with great clarity. Yes, at times the book made my head hurt but it made it hurt in a good way. Althusser and His Contemporaries outlines a number of important but difficult debates that are at the centre of any exploration of Althusser’s work and have resonance for philosophers and political activists in general.

Louis Althusser either revolutionised Marxist philosophy or, according to his many critics, contributed nothing but obscure, opaque and entirely abstract anti-political musing. He was born in Algeria in 1918 and spent much of World War Two in a German prison camp. Originally a devout Catholic, who attempted at one point to unite theology and communism, he joined the French Communist Party and worked on the study of Marxist philosophy. In densely argued books, such as Reading Capital and For Marx, he developed new interpretations of Marx’s work. Plagued by severe mental health problems, he killed his wife and was hospitalised. In the early 1970s he was one of the best known Marxist thinkers in the world but rejection of his work, including devastating self-criticism, saw him disappear from view.

Althusser is a hate figure. Montag asks ‘why read Althusser today?’ and lists many of the books with ‘Against Althusser’ in the title. The British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson issued a polemic entitled ‘The Poverty of Theory’ in the 1970s, directed against Althusser and his British followers such as Paul Hirst, who were accused of denying history, defending Stalin and via a suffocating structuralism attacking the notion of human agency. E.P. Thompson produced a laudatory biography of the artist, writer, designer and revolutionary William Morris. Morris, in turn, is said to have argued that we should have nothing in our homes which is neither beautiful nor useful. Althusser’s work has been condemned often, and from many perspective, as ugly and useless, so should we still read his books? Should we let his words into our homes? Montag argues convincingly that Althusser’s often paradoxical and shifting work remains essential to read. He notes that Althusser wrestled with issues important not just to Marxists but to a much wider circle of thinkers.

While devoted to Marx, Althusser was an admiring student of Machiavelli. There is a contradiction between Machiavelli’s radical republican commitment to democracy and the multitude expressed in his Discourses on Livy and the grim political calculation of The Prince. Much ink has been shed debating who the ‘real’ Machiavelli was, a revolutionary or a servant of autocrats. Machiavelli has, of course, been vilified. Like Stalin, his name has become descriptive of political evil. Althusser’s lectures on Machiavelli have been published, and provide an interesting contribution to the debate as to the ‘real’ Machiavelli. Althusser argued that Machiavelli was vilified because he showed that violence was necessary in the production of state power. Althusser noted how Marx had outlined the process of primitive accumulation, showing that the commons were enclosed and peasants pushed off of the land, to create capital. Althusser suggests that Machiavelli identified a process of primitive political accumulation; to create a state, violence is required. I think it is implicit in Montag’s book that Althusser was attacked, partly at least, because like Machiavelli he identified questions that are necessary to ask, but are at the same time disturbing or offensive.

Althusser, according to Montag, waged war as a philosopher. His target was any form of essentialism, any pre-given ultimate cause or pre-written narrative. This can be unsettling; the idea that there is a purpose is under withering attack. The idea that Marx believed in any a form of historical inevitability was perhaps Althusser’s main target. While the understanding that there is no ‘big story’ may be disturbing, Althusser’s criticism of individual agency is even more offensive. The ‘I’ is abolished and even the ‘we’ of a class is under some discussion. We clearly don’t function as methodologically independent individuals, ever since Freud, the notion that we have total free will to make history is a myth. Althusser, by asking difficult questions about subjectivity, structures and the nature of events or the possibility of change, became a hate figure. These questions must be asked, even if we dislike the answers.

Montag emphasizes this notion of philosophical warfare in Althusser’s work, stressing that Althusser sought allies outside of Marxism to attack essentialist, historicist or humanist understanding of Marx’s work. Althusser challenged any notion of a human essence, human nature was not fixed and we are not unitary, thus Lacan and Freud were used to develop his examination of human subjectivity. In his ‘war’ Althusser worked with others, typically Reading Capital was a multi-author work including sections from Jacques Rancière, who later became a bitter critic, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey and Étienne Balibar.

There are many useful insights into Althusser’s work within Montag’s book. For example, Althusser suggested that our subject status was established by an act of ‘hailing’. Montag notes that this refers not to a jaunty greeting but the action of a police man or women calling over a suspect. We are not so much addressed as threatened so as to establish our subject status, picked up and scared with a truncheon or a gun, dissuaded from joining the demonstration, because we fear a beating. Althusser drew upon the thought of a number of philosophers of science as he laboured, perhaps unsuccessfully, to make a distinction between science and ideology. These debts are detailed by Montag. Althusser’s notion of an epistemological break between the Hegalian or humanist young Marx and the mature Marx the scientist, is widely discredited if nothing else by the elder Marx’s exploration of anthropology and the micro structure of property. Althusser’s use of sophisticated accounts of science that move us beyond positivism, are of interest to all who struggle to understand what is distinct about science.

Althusser’s links to continental philosophy, especially French philosophy, are noted. Foucault was one of his students, and Althusser was enthusiastic about Foucault’s account of madness in Madness and Civilization. Montag observes that, despite being seen as opposed thinkers, their accounts of ideology and subjectivity are related. Foucault believed that ideology proceeds by acting on our physical bodies. While Althusser noted the material effect of ideology, Montag suggests that even an ideological state apparatus acts repressively, disciplining us physically. Religion, for example, as we see in scandals involving religious institutions, used physical violence on occasions to discipline its subjects. Foucault and Althusser’s lives and thoughts touched at various points.

Again, the closeness of Derrida and Althusser is often forgotten. It is well established that Derrida talked of the politics of friendship in regard to Althusser. The notion of symptomatic reading of texts, which Althusser derived from Marx and Freud, where the silences and unexamined aspects of a piece of writing are explored, is clearly linked to Derrida’s development of deconstruction. From Marx’s reading of Adam Smith to Freud’s analysis of patients’ dreams, we have a political reading that explores texts and gains as much as from the words left out as from the words written on the page.

Montag does not claim that Althusser was the ‘same’ as Foucault or Derrida, or suggest an origin in each of the three thinkers thought within another, but clearly shows dialogue, suggesting that they were allies, or even more radically friends, rather than opponents.

Althusser’s work was marked by conflict, mutation, confusion and self-criticism, yet some continuities can be detected. It is clear from Montag’s analysis that Althusser was never a structuralist. While Althusser felt that human subjectivity was an effect not a cause, an enduring stable cause of our subjectivity was also illusory. Structuralism, while pointing beyond the illusion, for Althusser, of personal autonomy, was similar to historicism. Hegelian readings of Marx suggested that we perform in a story with a predetermined end. For Althusser, structuralism tended to be a slice of such historicism, a hidden code which ordains what we do.

Althusser’s later work advanced a form of aleatory materialism, based upon the encounter or a specific conjuncture, as opposed to a pre-ordained outcome. “Aleatory” means based on chance such as the outcome of a throw of a dice. Aleatory materialism was introduced by the Greek philosopher of the atom, Epicurus, who discussed the swerve of particles and was later promoted by Spinoza. Observation of this aleatory materialism, a submerged current in both Althusser’s early work and via his PhD thesis on Epicurus, Marx’s own thought, is another important contribution of Montag’s book.

Montag does not provide a unique interpretation, but a well founded reminder that those who simply frame Althusser as a discredited structuralist oversimplify their case. Althusser has also been conceptualised as working within a particular political conjuncture. The posthumous denunciation of Stalin by Khrushchev led Althusser to attempt to develop what he saw as a left critique of Stalinism. Opposition to the notion of ‘the bad man who distorted communism through the cult of personality’, which might be opposed by a humanist Marxism, was Althusser’s starting point. Montag does not dispute this interpretation or challenge the importance of Marx, Mao, Lenin or Brecht to Althusser, yet he notes his debt to Lacan and Spinoza, and his contemporaries such as Foucault and Derrida. There is no essence to Althusser. While this is a book with ‘war’ in the title, it is very gentle. Althusser’s many detractors and those with alternative interpretations of his thought escape without the threat of violence.

So where does this leave political practice? Marx was seen as suggesting that communism was inevitable. Marx, in the hands of Althusser, becomes in contrast the dice man. Everything is possible because politics and social change occur in particular circumstances, this notion links the concept of ‘over determination’, that events are outcomes of multiple factors, to Althusser’s aleatory materialism. Mao and Lenin played the game perhaps and we are invited to play too. Of course, the understanding that we are not independent agents striding on to the stage to make history, conflicts with Althusser’s admiration for those like Marx or Machiavelli who tried to do just this. This paradox appears insoluble and taunts Althusser. A self-critic, as Montag notes, while Althusser read Althusser’s own work symptomatically and attacked his own failures and silences with disturbing honesty, this problem is never squarely addressed. Tragic, flawed, Althusser’s life fell apart and his theoretical investigations appear, like a snow man dissolving in the rain. Nonetheless his work is necessary to read, re-read and address. Love or hate them, numerous thinkers such as Laclau, Negri and Hardt or Zizek, owe a debt to Althusser and can more easily be appreciated by understanding his orientating questions and concerns. Althusser reminds us that Marx’s own philosophical adventure was already post-modern, in the sense of challenging fixed identities and suggesting that relationships are rarely fixed. Althusser was not an ecological thinker, in the direct mundane sense that Marx and Engels examined environmental problems like pollution and soil erosion, but for those of us who are political ecologists, his thought helps us better understand the flux of human society and our relations with the rest of ‘nature’.

Reading Montag’s book is a safe encounter but a stimulating one. Montag suggests that there is no obvious beginning or end to Althusser’s work, it is a process, an adventure. While human agency is challenged, history is based on chance encounters and class struggle is conceived as a motor, we are invited to make busy, play the game and trick fortune if we can.

2 January 2014

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