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Rereading Althusser

Recently, due to some philosophical issues in the realm of marxism I'm interested in interrogating in my academic work (yes, I know I need to be "sent down to the countryside"), I have been rereading Louis Althusser.  For the past several years I have had a sustained, though not entirely serious, debate with a close comrade/friend who is something of an Althusserian about the necessity for communists to endorse a theory of the human subject: he has argued (following Althusser) that there is no such thing, and that such an argument is nothing more than bourgeois humanism, whereas I have argued that (while rejecting bourgeois humanism), such a theory is philosophically important.  And since I am interested in further arguing for this necessity, but without lapsing into humanistic stupidity, I figured it was probably appropriate to reengage with Althusser's philosophical rejection of the concept of a universal conceptualization of human being.

I have not read Althusser since the final year of my MA and, I must admit, I have changed a lot both politically and ideologically since that time.  Although his rejection of the human subject, conflated as it is with a rejection of "humanism", still remains, in my opinion, a rather philosophically confused argument––and though there are still other points he makes that I still find uncompelling––I have to say that reengaging with Althusser now, after so many years of distance, is somewhat refreshing.  There was so much I had either forgotten or failed to understand; my previous reading took place in the context of autonomist marxism, right before reading Harry Cleaver's Reading Capital Politically, and so was highly influenced by that way of seeing the world.  Furthermore, I was also reading Althusser between reading the Frankfurt School thinkers which only muddled my ability to appreciate him fully.

So although I still disagree with his assessment of the concept of the human subject––and feel that he fails to appreciate the philosophical consequences that result from his rejection––I also have to say that Althusser is one of the only proper marxist philosophers of the twentieth century.  Unlike the Adornos and Marcuses of the world, he understood the role of marxist philosophy: it was not a stand-in for science, but a result of the new science first established by Marx and Engels, and marxist philosophers should never confuse the two.  In some ways (to re-invert the claim he made about the students of May 1968) I feel he was giving the wrong answers to the right questions… and yet, since philosophy is all about asking the right questions, this still made him superior to those other marxist philosophers who imagined that were producing new concepts, re-investigating the world in order to produce the concepts necessary for revolutionary change, many of whom disappeared in the labyrinth of psychoanalysis and subject/object quandaries––red herrings for any radical philosophical engagement with concrete reality.

Now that I am rereading Althusser, and appreciating him as a proper philosopher of marxism (a role that other marxist philosophers have always had trouble understanding), I cannot help but wonder about the terrible misapprehension that, in my academic context, has been fostered about his work.  The majority of people who reject Althusser as a "proper marxist" generally make arguments that, now that I am rereading him, amount to nothing more than straw-person assessments.  Political economists who imagine that they are philosophers mistake his project, misunderstand the object of his study, and cannot explain his arguments aside from vague pronouncements how they dislike his notion of "the epistemic break", or how they think "structuralism is wrong."  But Althusser was a philosopher of marxism who never imagined that he was a political economist, though he took political economy as his object (as philosophers of science take the sciences as their object), and so the judgments of political economists, which he already assessed ahead of time, often misapprehend their target.

There is a failure amongst marxists to apprehend the meaning and significance of "marxist philosophy" (or what I prefer to call, for semantic clarity so as to not make philosophy more important than it actually is, "the philosophy of marxism"), and this failure isn't helped by those academics who study political economy and fancy that they are doing "philosophy"––or by those philosophers who imagine that contemplation is synonymous with performing politics.  Althusser, however, did not mistake philosophy as theory or the science of history; he understood that the role of philosophy was not only to work out concepts through investigation and interpretation of the set marxist universe, but that to do philosophy as a marxist was also a class struggle in the realm of thought.  For if marxism as a science (historical and dialectical materialism) was the science of history, and history was conceived as class struggle, and if it developed through revolutionary praxis, then new and universal developments of the theory could only come through practice and not through thought.

Philosophy is about thinking, about interpreting the world and not changing the world (as Marx's eleventh thesis on Feuerbach made clear) and thus, if it possesses any worth for marxists, it cannot be treated as more important than it actually is.  To do philosophy as a marxist, to be a philosopher of marxism, is not to establish new fundamental categories of thought; the philosopher of science, after all, does not pretend to establish new categories and concepts of physics.  And so the theory that unifies revolutionary movements does not come, and can never come, from philosophy––this is what Althusser understood when he interrogated (with philosophical rigour) Marx's "epistemic break" from the Young Hegelian way of seeing the world.


  1. Interesting, makes me want to reread Althusser when I get a chance. I had a similar response to Althusser when I last read him (also during my MA), heavily influenced by the denunciations of him by my "heroes" in the Marxist firmament. But these heroes - historians or historical sociologists, like the political economists you mention, I think failed to grasp what Althusser was trying to do - which I think you explain quite well.

    What turned me around on Althusser was actually finding out how people I admire on a theoretical level made use of concepts developed by Althusser without his (one has to admit) turgid prose -Poulantzas in particular here, but many others as well. This allowed me to see, as I said to someone last year, that Althusser was a brilliant generator of concepts, and he is to be admired for his philosophy of Marxism, as you put it - even if - and I agree again, the dispensation with the human subject I find very disagreeable, the context in the PCF is important for this particular formulation.

    I read that he made the claim that concretely, the subject does not exist, but in his philosophical project, the subject had to be reduced just as the subject was reduced in capitalism. From that angle, alienation, as opposed to be being dispensed with, was presupposed. In turn, I don't think that formulation has much bearing on his really important work (For Marx, Reading Capital) except in that humans, as reduced to "trager" or bearers of structures, while not the entirety of human existence when it comes to history or "real life" (this is what trips up E.P. Thompson, Norman Geras etc.), are categorized in such a way for the same purpose that Marx reduces all products of human experience to the generalization of the commodity. That it is open to misinterpretation - especially by Althusserians (the real targets of Thompson)as opposed to Althusser himself, is clear. But very few people, if anyone, since then, have attempted what he attempted. And the obscurities I think, again, are more poart of a line struggle in the PCF than anything else.

  2. Finally - to add - I forgot this point - I don't disagree with "epistemic break" - I just think it came in the 1843 "Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy of Right" where Marx "discovers" the proletariat - not in "German Ideology". I'd also argue Marx underwent a series of these breaks - in 1848 after revolutionary failure, and in the 1860s while writing Capital.

  3. Good points... I don't disagree with his notion of the epistemic break either if it's read as he meant it to read; I think it's straw-personed a lot. And what do you mean "turgid prose"? I love his prose: I think it's clear, compared to most french philosophers, and structured. Of course, since I am trained as a philosopher I'm trained to read certain methods of writing so I always find it easier to read philosophers than, say, political economists––it's the latter I generally have to work harder to pay attention and make sense of, while the former is something I've been conditioned to understand. And Althusser definitely writes like a philosopher.

  4. Turgid prose - I think you hit the nail on the head. I don't so much dislike "philosophical" prose as such - his writing in "Machiavelli and Us" and "Montesquieu and History" is not nearly as turgid as in "For Marx" etc. I guess what I mean is that when I read, say, Bertell Ollman or Istvan Meszaros - both of whom are philosophers or are styled as such, the prose is dense - sometimes even denser than Althusser - but not boring. I honestly think that Althusser can be boring...

  5. To each their own: I've always found Althusser's prose more enjoyable and far less boring than Ollman.


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