Reviewed by Sean Ledwith
This volume should be accompanied with a health warning that it is unwise to judge a book by the title. Anyone seeking a layman’s introductory guide to philosophical debates should definitely look elsewhere. Even those who claim familiarity with the general terminological categories of the subject often find the works of Louis Althusser notoriously opaque and disorientating. A newcomer to philosophical discussions is unlikely to be enticed by passages such as: ‘It is more interesting to make the demonstration for scientific practice or theoretical practice, the meaning of the latter is broader, for it takes in ideological practice as well, to the extent that ideological practice is theoretical, and also philosophical practice, which can by all rights be called theoretical’ (91). Prolonged exposure to this style of explication is more likely to induce a life-long aversion to philosophy among ‘non-philosophers’ and confirm suspicions among many that it is a futile activity.
Having said that, the book is not devoid of interest as it provides a numbers of insights as to why Althusser enjoyed a meteoric ascent to sage-like status among academic Marxists in the closing decades of the twentieth century; only to then become the focus of an equally spectacular fall from grace, triggered by his murder of Helene Rytman, his wife, in 1980. Philosophy for Non-philosophers merits its recent publication, apart from anything else, as it is one of the few works created by Althusser that was actually conceived of as a book by the man himself. His reputation still rests predominantly on For Marx and Reading Capital in 1965. This work was originally written by Althusser in the post-1968 period when poststructuralism emerged to displace the twin camps of structuralism and Marxism that he had sought to reconcile. The intellectual isolation that affected Althusser in this era persuaded him to prevent its publication in his lifetime. As he was writing, two of his former students, Andre Glucksman and Bernard Henri-Levy, hubristically declared a crisis of Marxism (again) in 1977 to justify their defection to the right wing of French politics.
His reluctance to publically defend the work at the time was, however, provoked not only by the rise of the poststructuralists, but also by the hostility of those on the left who, understandably, felt his failure to make a significant intervention during the revolutionary crisis of 1968 invalidated his authority as a thinker of substance. Famously, during the tumult of the year, graffiti-writers scrawled on a wall at the Sorbonne: ‘A quoi sert Althusser?’ (‘What use is Althusser?’). Sceptics on the left who were unconvinced of the value of his better known works from the 1960s are unlikely to revise their judgement based on a reading of this volume. Althusser takes his inspiration for the title from Gramsci’s well-known remark that in, some sense, ‘Everyone is a philosopher’ (23).
Also like Gramsci, he adopts the viewpoint of Machiavelli, one of the leading protagonists from the revolutionary period of bourgeois philosophy, who declared ‘one must be people to know the Prince’ (63). In other words, to understand the nature of capitalism in our time, it is necessary to view it from the perspective of those furthest removed from it; that is to say, the working class, the marginalised, those labelled as mentally ill and others deemed to be unworthy. One of the anomalies of the Althusserian paradigm, however, is that such excluded groups are apparently the victims of ideological repression at the hands of the ruling class; yet the understanding of ideology that he constructs makes it difficult to envisage how they can be liberated from such control. There is another inconsistency in Althusser’s stated intention to write a book specifically for those on the margins of the status quo, but then to deliver it in a style that is virtually inaccessible for the vast majority.
In the opening section on arguments concerning existence of God, he contends that throughout human history ‘religion has historically been massively associated with resignation in the face of earthly trials, in exchange for the promise of a reward in another world’ (27). A more nuanced Marxist approach to the question of theism would recognise that although this is indubitably the case in many societies, it is equally essential to note the persistent occasions across the centuries when oppressed groups have appropriated religious belief to legitimate their own pursuit of emancipation, such as the use of the Bible by dissenting sects in the English Revolution or the allusions to spirituality in the American civil rights movement. This requires a more dynamic conception of the role of ideology than the one deployed by Althusser.
On the same issue, he argues that Marxism should continue to incorporate elements of the Enlightenment critique of religion, such as the question posed by the eighteenth century rationalist, Malebranche: ‘But why does it rain upon sands, upon highways and seas?’ (30). The point here, in Althusser’s words, is to accept ‘there are a great many things in the world that make no sense and serve no purpose … undertakings and even entire civilisations that come to naught and vanish in the nothingness of history, like those big rivers that disappear in the desert sands’ (34) Such a pessimistic outlook on humanity’s place in the universe sounds strangely like the existentialist mentality that Althusser sought to overcome when he burst onto the Paris philosophical scene in the early 1960s. The scientific status of his remarks about the natural world would be accepted by many but surely the distinctively dialectical nature of an authentic Marxist philosophy would want to add that these inanimate processes in nature, unfolding over millennia, have been the necessary corollary for the miraculous emergence of the human race? Althusser would, of course, respond that such a perspective is indicative of the humanism (defined by him as a human-centred account of history) that he sought to excise from the world-view of the left
This hostility to an emphasis on human agency in history led him to coin the phrase, ‘a process without a subject’ (102) that came to encapsulate the distinctively Althusserian project in history and social science that attained intellectual hegemony among academic Marxists in the 1970s. Althusser’s definition of humanism was adapted from thinkers on the Parisian left, such as Garaudy and Sartre, who interpreted Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech denouncing Stalinism as the opportunity to prize open the straightjacket of ideological debate within the French Communist Party. Garaudy believed that Christian ethical values could be validly utilised by the PCF, while Sartre pursued a synthesis of existentialism and Marxism. Althusser welcomed the liberalising of debate within the party, but felt these ideas would ultimately undermine the position of the PCF as the hegemonic organisation of the far left at the time. The so-called ‘return to Marx’ that he pronounced in the two magnum opuses of 1965 was predicated on detoxifying the influence of such theorists who Althusser regarded as little more than variations of liberalism.
His concern that the USSR under the post-Stalin leadership was departing from orthodox Marxism led Althusser to embrace Mao’s China in the late 1960s as a viable alternative as the new home of revolutionary thought. In this volume, Mao is classified along with Marx, Engels and Lenin as one of the great pioneers of Marxist philosophy (183). From our perspective in the 21st century, it is absurd to regard China as any form of beacon of liberation as that state is clearly embarked on constructing a version of capitalism just as coercive and exploitative as anything in the West. Althusser’s wholesale dismissal of humanist Marxist also failed to recognise that the work of figures such as Lukács, Korsch and Sartre, for all their imperfections, was a necessary corrective to the decades of stultifying dogmatism that Moscow-led orthodoxy had imposed on the philosophy of the left. It should also be added that Althusser’s so-called ‘left critique of Stalinism’ involved no meaningful engagement with the ideas of Leon Trotsky, whose followers had to sought to preserve a tradition of radical Marxism stretching right back to 1917.
Althusser presented his works of the 1960s as a restoration of the scientificity of Marxism, cleansed of the Hegelian deviations he believed to be present in the ideas of the ‘humanists’. In this volume, he repeats the attack on what he regards as the misplaced totalising tendency of this current: ‘Hegel proclaims that the true is the whole and says that philosophy’s specific task is to think the whole as the result of its logical and historical development.… It is inordinately pretentious of idealist philosophy to claim to see the whole, think the whole or aspire to totalisation’ (67-8). Althusser’s alternative model of Marxist analysis is the delineation of separate levels of social activity: the ideological, political, economic and theoretical levels of practice. In his works of the 1960s, Althusser argued that Marxism in his time should prioritise the latter in order to enhance its sciencificity, in accordance with the classic notion of contrasting itself with utopian socialism as ‘scientific socialism’. Predictably, this was the pretext for some academic leftists to detach themselves completely from the ebbing tide class struggle in the 1980s on the grounds they were engaged in ‘theoretical practice’. Some may not wish to blame Althusser directly that the logical end-point of this mentality was the intellectual cul-de-sac of Post-Marxism (which, in real terms, is no form of Marxism). However, the germ of this outcome was clearly present in Althusser’s celebrated maxim of the ‘relative autonomy of theory’.
Interestingly, in this volume, he partially accepts the separation of theory from other modes of activity was a flaw in the original Althusserian design: ‘I admit that I, for my part, was not always able to escape the influence of this conception, and that in my first philosophical essays, I modelled my description on the philosophy of science…. I think that we have to forgo expressions of this sort which can lead us astray’ (186). The one-sided pursuit of scientific status in the pre-1968 period led Althusser to reject the notion that Marxism is a world-view that is specific to the working-class, as he felt such an idea compromised its claim to objectivity. Linked to the rejection of Marxism as a partisan philosophy was the notion that ideology is the sine qua non of all societies, even a future communist one, and that its all-embracing presence is inescapable and ubiquitous. He reiterates the proposition in this volume: ‘It will be readily conceded that all human beings are ideological animals inasmuch as they can only live and act under the domination of ideas, those of their own practice or the practices dominating their own practice’ (192). This is the basis of his celebrated concept of ‘interpellation that transforms individuals into subjects’ of capitalism (112).
This highlights another crucial weakness in the Althusserian model, however, in that the only way to sustain such a conception is to integrate it with a neo-Kantian transcendental object that somehow stands outside history and neutrally observes the effect of ideology on us. The classic riposte to this ahistorical option from within Marxism is Lukács’ conception of the working class as the unified subject-object of history. Althusser in this work explicitly rules out that possibility: ‘we do not claim that the correctness of the proletariat’s philosophy is the equivalent of truth by virtue of this universality which supposedly does away with the particularism of subjectivity’ (182). Directly after this statement, however he remarks: ‘we shall say that the correctness of the philosophy of the proletariat escapes subjectivity because it is under the control of an objective science, the science of class struggle’. It is difficult to tell how this is supposed to be any different, in practical terms, from the Lukácsian revolutionary party that uniquely sees the world as it truly is due to its position embedded in the working class which, in turn, assumes a unique position in the relations of production. Althusser’s notion of a supra-historical object steering the working class towards socialism from above provides a theoretical gloss for the manipulative demagoguery of figures such as Mao.
Apart from these philosophical antinomies, the modern world provides some indications on why Althusser has deservedly dropped off the intellectual radar of the left. His view that the working class is locked into – or interpellated by – the ideology of capitalism looks increasingly untenable as we have seen the British working class vote in massive numbers for the explicitly left-wing policies of Jeremy Corbyn; likewise their American counterparts last year put Bernie Sanders within touching distance of the Presidency. Neither of these developments have been the outcome of exclusively academic ‘theoretical practice’ as envisaged by Althusser. The question sprayed on the walls of Paris in 1968 remains unanswered.
17 July 2017