‘Althusser and Theology: Religion, Politics, and Philosophy’ reviewed by Derek Wall

Althusser and Theology: Religion, Politics, and Philosophy

Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2016. 220pp., €110,00 / $132.00 hb
ISBN 9789004291546

Reviewed by Derek Wall

About the reviewer

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


My friend Mike is a committed Anglican, liberal in theology and firm in his commitments on climate change and social justice. After 28 years in the UK, he and his wife are moving back to the USA, to live in North Carolina. He was telling me how he wanted to challenge Donald Trump’s approach to politics when he moved back and was particularly appalled by the religious rights attempts to cut healthcare for Americans. I suggested to Mike, at the end of Mass at our Anglo-Catholic Church last Sunday, that opposition to be effective had to be strategic. Althusser and Theology provides a, albeit implicit and perhaps between the lines, starting point for a discussion of liberation theology, a Christianity that champions the oppressed and acts in the world. The interplay between political philosophy, practical action and theology is relevant to people like Mike and to many of us whether on the Christian left or beyond.

I have read Althusser and Theology mostly with delight but occasionally with frustration. The relationship between the late great and often notorious French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser and theology is a large and fascinating topic. In this edited collection, there are essays from some perhaps obvious but inspired authors. Stanislav Breton, a Catholic priest and friend of Althusser, provides, to my mind a particularly interesting piece under the straightforward title of ‘Althusser and Religion’. There are many other joys, Agon Hamza, sets the scene with a precise and persuasive introduction.

Different readers will have different readings based on different motivations. As Althusser used to say there are no innocent readings, so I will try to briefly outline my guilt! I find Althusser’s writing enjoyable and thought provoking. I am especially interested in how his work can sharpen my political practice. Equally as a non-Christian church goer and occasional Zen Buddhist practitioner, the pursuit of rationalist and materialist religion has captured me. Other readers will have other motivations. Althusser, as Hamza reminds us, rejected a philosophical programme or manifesto, instead noting changing circumstances and changing insights.

There are other contradictions. As Warren Montag, a perceptive Althusser scholar, notes it is not clear that Althusser after he ceased to be a Catholic distinguished between theology and philosophy. And yet as Warren and I am sure most readers of Althusser would note, the connections between the philosopher and religious thought are immense and diverse, so much so that it might be difficult to think of a starting point for any relevant discussion. We don’t just start with Althusser but as he would have insisted, a context and an intervention. There are many potential interventions, one thinks of Spinoza, who perhaps is Althusser’s key source, being expelled from the Amsterdam synagogue as a heretic in 1656. Or we might note the religious inspiration of the Hutterite Anabaptists, who made war on the Saxon princes and attempted in 16th Century Germany to create God’s communist order here on Earth. Religion, as Spinoza, insisted was closely bound up with politics, in this sense there is no history, the relationship is constant. Mike’s dilemma, of how he as a Christian challenges right wing readings of faith in Trump’s USA, seems like one appropriate context/intervention to discuss the relationship.

I get the impression that Althusser and Theology is not directed at Christians or, those with religious commitment. Spinoza and Althusser insisted on a symptomatic reading of a text, looking for the silences and contradictions. The topic of Althusser and liberation theology seems essential but almost forgotten in this volume.

The context for the collection is the period when the young Althusser was still a Catholic. He had been a prisoner of war, imprisoned by the Germans, in the 1940s, on his release he was both a committed Christian and a socialist. He left the Catholic Church and became a Marxist. Works like Reading Capital, co-written with Etienne Balibar and other of his students, along with For Marx, provided a new way of understanding Marx’s work. Althusser’s challenging philosophical take never stood still and since his death more and more of his work has been published, showing a different thinker. In the 1960s and 70s, he was perhaps misleadingly seen as an austere, rather elitist structuralist, seeking to displace Hegel and to create a more scientific Marxism. This is generally seen as a failed project and perhaps paved the way for post-structuralist and postmodern thought. New writings have shown that he moved in the direction of aleatory materialism, a materialism of chance and intervention, taking inspiration from a largely hidden current of philosophy that include Lucretius, Machiavelli and Spinoza, perhaps with Heidegger and Wittgenstein too.

While I find the collection extremely interesting, I am not convinced that its starting point of Althusser’s early Catholic commitment works well. Althusser, correctly in my view, rejected the idea of ‘geneticism’, that a thinker could be understood as evolving from an origin. Throughout his work, he noted, the importance of breaks and discontinuities. He was also suspicious of the concept of independent human agency, noting that we are effects. In this sense, any study of Althusser might be irrelevant, he argued that he was an effect, that an Althusser effect existed. Any starting point for his thought might be seen, as in a sense, arbitrary. I believe that before his prison experience, like many young French Catholics, his politics were on the right, Vichy, the war and his POW life, seemed to have had the common effect of moving him to the left. Likewise, while I generally find his writings interesting, his early pieces during this period of embracing and then breaking with Catholicism, seem to me to be some of the least interesting. They are incidentally already collected elsewhere, for example, there is a good edited English translation under the title The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings.

However, while the volume risks, but just about avoids, falling into the sin of geneticism, Agon Hamza’s general point that we cannot fully understand Althusser without reading his early works is defensible and appropriate.

I am more interested in the conflict within the French Communist Party during the 1960s, where Althusser directly and dramatically intervened in a political/theological debate. With the fall of Stalin, the French Communist Party (PCF) tried to advocate humanism and Roger Garaudy sought to bring Marxists and left-wing Christians together. Althusser opposed this, arguing that that humanism and alliances with Christians were no substitute for scientific political analysis. The PCF sought perhaps to displace the memory of Stalin by condemning him as an anti-humanism, an evil doer and to align with moral forces including Christians. Althusser clearly felt that this was a cop out, a rigorous analysis of Stalin was necessary and a simple moral condemnation was no substitute. To achieve a communist future as Marx noted required science not just sentiment. We can note both Spinoza’s attempt to promote a materialist approach to religion and Althusser’s occasional sympathy for liberation theology as evidence of an alternative to that of Garaudy.

This debate isn’t explicitly covered in Althusser and Theology, which I feel is a shame. However, Roland Boer, who has written a series of well-respected volumes on the relationship between Christianity and Marxism, makes the case for the importance of Althusser early Catholicism for Althusser’s subsequent political and philosophical development. This view is respectfully but robustly challenged by Knox Peden in a piece entitled ‘Althusser’s Spinozism and the Problem of Theology’. Warren Montag’s piece notes that Althusser rejects any form of eschatology, the notion of a linear narrative is challenged, whether in the form of Christian eschatology or a Hegelian reading of Marxism. This seems a very useful insight.

Ted Stolze makes the case for seeing St Paul as a thinker of the conjuncture, drawing upon Althusserian concepts such as interpellation. The insight that ideology is based upon material practice, an understanding dear to Althusser, which he drew from Pascal, is explored in ‘From the ‘Hidden God’ to the Materialism of the Encounter: Althusser and Pascal’ by Panagiotis Sotiris. The last two articles were the ones that I found least satisfactory. I think while the so-called Islamic State might be examined using Althusserian tools of reference, it seems a little disappointing that the only reference to Islam in the volume comes with discussion of this atavistic sect. ‘From the ‘International of Decent Feelings’ to the International of Decent Actions: Althusser’s Relevance for the Environmental Conjuncture of Late Capitalism’, hints that concerns around the environment lack specificity and serious analysis. While this is often true, it is disappointing that ecosocialism doesn’t receive acknowledgement, let alone critique. Personally, for me a very significant point of studying Althusser is to refine an ecosocialist politics, climate change cannot be seriously understood without understanding capitalism and capitalism might be better understood by reading Althusser. That great ecosocialist and former Green MEP Frieder Otto Wolf, has translated Althusser’s collected output into German. I guess if we Althusserian inspired ecosocialists have not caused a ripple, we should work harder and throw large stones into the pool. Any consciousness of environmental problems requires conceptual backing if it is to move beyond sentiment.

Ecosocialism, especially in Latin America, is closely linked with religion, whether indigenous or largely but not exclusively liberation theology from a Catholic orientation. As noted I found Stanislav Breton’s piece on ‘Althusser and Religion’ the most charming, insightful and inspiring piece in the whole collection. Breton doesn’t engage in geneticism, he does not simply see Althusser’s early Catholicism as essential. Breton’s sympathy for liberation, his philosophical sophistication and his close friendship with Althusser, all come together to provide a particularly penetrating and lucid essay. Most charmingly he recalls Althusser’s enthusiasm for the fact that his work had fed into Latin American liberation theology but neither Althusser not Breton knew much about how this had occurred. For a thinker marked by absences, contradiction, unpublished works and sudden changes of heart, this mutual ignorance of actual Althusserian liberation theology is rather touching.

The present Pope Francis, seems to be an Althusserian hero, like Saul he was sent to persecute those advocating the ‘true religion’ but in a dramatic break, was transformed (by grace?) from an instructed opponent into an advocate of liberation theology. While I would not defend all of his doctrines, on social justice and ecology Francis has intervened strongly, patiently and with ingenuity. Breton died before the advent of the present Francis but seems to faintly detect his presence. A solid chapter on Francis, Althusserian in deed rather than word, would have been especially interesting, however Althusser and theology is a big topic and only so much can be covered in 200 pages!

Breton also makes a strong case for a materialist Christianity, inspired by the Christ who requires no belief at all, the Christ who acted, as so well described in the Gospel of St Matthew to feed the poor. A theology with reference to Althusser and Spinoza, of immanence rather than transcendence, of effects, that rejects any notion of origin or destination, without a God or without a God in human form, can be traced here.

While we might end on a Catholic key, this would do a disservice to Althusser’s work, which along with a wider materialist tradition can be applied in a variety of context. You could easily get a Jewish, Muslim or Zen Buddhist angled volume under the title of Althusser and Theology. Most significantly Althusser, using Spinoza and others sought to read Marx in a way that moves beyond eschatology, to produce a Marxism which is material and despite the gaps tries to be rigorous.

This is a stimulating collection which can be read as a call to explore a different kind of theology and a different kind of politics. I am sure that there is an appetite for this, even if we might not clearly be able to describe our hunger.

9 July 2017

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