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August 17, 2005

Unstructured Procrastination

I usually am quite good at structured procrastination--working not on the thing that is most immediate and imminent on my calendar, but on the priority #3 or #4 that is actually more important in the long run and that excites me at the moment. But today this system has broken down. I have done something nobody should ever do: I have spent an hour thinking about Louis Althusser.

It's all Michael Berube's fault, but its worth it, for (highlighted below) he has the best paragraph on Louis Althusser ever written. The rest is (or ought to be) silence:

Michael Berube: ...the otherwise incomprehensible question of why anyone would think it necessary to devise a “structuralist Marxism.” Structuralism is so antipathetic to all questions of hermeneutics and historicity that one might imagine the desire for a structuralist Marxism to be something like a hankering for really spicy ice cream. And yet, in the work of Louis Althusser, spicy ice cream is exactly what we have. I don’t like it myself. But because it’s an important byway in the history of ice cream—-er, I mean the history of Marxist theory—-I still find it necessary to tell students about it, partly in order to warn them that it will very likely leave a bad taste in their mouths.... [L]et’s not jump ahead just yet; let’s work to get that bad taste in our mouths first....

[A]s Tony Judt pointed out in a devastating review of Althusser’s career (in the March 7, 1994 issue of The New Republic), Althusserian Marxism was, for a brief period, a lingua franca spoken widely on the Continent:

When I arrived in Paris as a graduate student in the late ‘60s, I was skeptically curious to see and to hear Louis Althusser. In charge of the teaching of philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, the French elite academy for future teachers and leaders, Althusser was touted by everyone I met as a man of extraordinary gifts, who was transforming our understanding of Marx and reshaping revolutionary theory. His name, his ideas, his books were everywhere....

In the past, I’ve directed my students to Judt’s review as well as to various accounts (including Althusser’s) of Althusser’s late “confessions”—-that he was poorly read in Marx, that he suffered from lifelong mental illness, that his so-called “symptomatic” readings in Marxism were little more than an elaborate way of making shit up. I’ve done this... [in part] to complicate the view of Althusser one gets in the Norton, where the headnote tells us that “Althusser’s major concepts—-‘ideological state apparatuses,’ ‘interpellation,’ ‘imaginary relations,’ and ‘overdetermination’—-permeate the discourse of contemporary literary and cultural theory, and his theory of ideology has influenced virtually all subsequent serious work on the topic”.... [Presume] Althusser was speaking the truth about his lack of familiarity with the Marxist canon, and that his mental illness played a large role in his life and work. (Hardcore Althusserians have tried to set aside his “confessions” precisely by appealing to his history of mental illness, but this merely produces a Marxist-theory version of the Cretan liar’s paradox: of course you can’t believe a madman who tells you he’s mad.)...

Let nobody mistake me: I do not have a single good word to say for Louis Althusser. But at least one of Karl Marx's own Marxisms was a "structuralist Marxism" from the very beginning. Let's let German Charlie from Trier speak for himself:

To prevent possible misunderstanding, a word: I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense with rosy colors. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.

What Marx is saying here is that capitalists and landlords act as they do in large part because the process by which they have been raised, educated, and socialized makes it almost impossible for them to think that they should act otherwise. And, to the extent that they do wonder whether they should act otherwise, they cannot do so--not without losing their fortunes, their businesses, and their jobs, and being replaced by those who do act in a manner consistent with maintaining their economic roles. The immorality of capitalism, for Marx, lies not in the evil acts of individuals (who for the most part think that they are dealing "fairly"--buying and selling at market prices) but in the workings of the system in which they are embedded. In short:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living.

That's "structuralism." (Now that's not all of Marx, and things like the Eighteenth Brumaire (1) are most interesting where they deviate from and build on the technology-economics-class interests-class politics structuralism that is at the bottom of the mature Marx's analysis. But that structuralism of the "base" does exist, and the more subtle analysis of the "superstructure" is built on top of and conditioned by it in a perturbation-theory way.)

I think that the attraction of Althusser lay in a very different core: Althusser's Marxism was attractive not because it was "structuralist" but because it was, as E.P. Thompson put it, "idealist."

Let me explain.

In the 1930s the Great Depression made it very easy to be a Communist: no matter what the criticism, you could answer it with, "Oh yeah? And you'd rather have the system that gave us the Great Depression." In the 1940s the extraordinary suffering of Russia during World War II and the great victories won by the Red Army made it easy to be a Communist: no matter what the criticism, you could answer it with, "Oh yeah? Without the factories of Magnitogorsk that Stalin built, Hitler would still be in Paris." (And it is certainly true that the world owes an enormous debt to the soldiers of the Red Army and the workers of Magnitogorsk that it has never honored.)

By the 1960s, it was much harder to be a Communist. The workers' uprisings were all east of the Iron Curtain--Hungary 1956, East Germany 1953. The living standard gap between the democratic industrial west and the dictatorial centrally-planned east was growing. Khrushchev was saying that Stalin was not as bad as right-wing propaganda had imagined: he was worse. Mao had starved tens of millions of people to death, did not fear nuclear war, and was launching the Cultural Revolution. And relations between the Soviet Union and China were very bad: Khrushchev and Brezhnev had more fear of (and had more reason to have fear of) Mao's atomic bombs than Johnson or Nixon did. The Marxist-Leninist theory of historical development had gone off the rails. Where was the increasing immiserization of the working class? Where was the increasingly violent struggle between imperialists for colonies whose markets they could dominate? Where was the increasing domestic political repression as working-class parties gained grass-roots strength? Where were the increasingly-violent political crises?

The easiest way, in the 1960s, to deal with all these criticisms that the Marxian framework did not explain what was going on in world politics and economics was to throw out the belief that Marxism was a set of ideas to help one understand the world, and to replace it with the belief that Marxism was the study of certain texts--that it was a logical and philosophical mistake to even ask the question of whether Marx's ideal types were a close match to actual historical developments. That's the key thing that Althusser did: he gave his students and acolytes an excuse to ignore the real economics and politics of the world, and to burrow into their own self-contained warrens of discourse.


(1) It is really unfair not to talk about the Eighteenth Brumaire here, and how Marx's attempt to understand the rise of Napoleon III is an analysis of ideological "hegemony" and "false consciousness" that provides at least as useful a pattern as one can get out of Gramsci and far more useful than one can get out of Althusser, but I've wasted too much time on this already.

Posted by DeLong at August 17, 2005 08:47 PM