Forwarded from Jurriaan (Althusser)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Mar 6 13:56:03 MST 2002


I think it would be useful to discuss WHY Althusser actually chops up Marx
into the "young (humanistic, Hegelian) Marx" and the "mature Marx". Why
this particular division, rather than another division or periodisation
(many could be conceived) ? What is his motivation, what is the ideological
purpose ? As far as I'm concerned, it has a lot to do with Althusser's
apology for Stalinism and Maoism.

Stalin for example wasn't much interested in freewheeling humanist,
Hegelian or for that matter existentialist intellectuals examining the
totality of society and its moral life (or subjectivity) in a critical way.
He wanted a "materialist" intelligentsia in a narrow sense of being
committed to building trucks, roads, powerstations, schools, guns, tanks,
planes, metro stations, etc. under the close supervision of the CPSU and he
saw any critical investigation of social life outside of the aegis of the
communist bureaucracy either as a political threat or as useless nonsense.
As I've mentioned before, Stalin had his own teacher of Hegelian dialectics
killed (see Antonov-Ovseyenko's book The Time of Stalin).

But what happens when you strip away the humanist and Hegelian elements of
Marx's thought ? You undermine the concept of people themselves taking
charge and making their own history, the power of individual human
subjectivity, and you end up with "history as a process without a subject",
which is exactly what Althusser argues.

What lies behind this is a concept of historical development as shaped by
abstract objective laws impervious to human wills and actions, and a
communist bureaucracy which has a total monopoly on the correct
interpretation of what these laws are through its privileged understanding
of "Marxism-Leninism". But this is just an ideological cover for the
political expropriation of the workers and peasants and the atomisation of
the masses. If history is indeed a product of objective laws inexorably
leading to socialism, there is nothing for the masses to do except allow
history to take its course and follow the lead of the omniscient Central

Unsurprisingly, in May 1968 Althusser's PCF came down on the wrong side of
the barricades. The desire of workers and students for revolution did not
fit with the PCF's agenda for world history, it violated the party's
interpretation of the Stalinist historical laws, of the "stage" history was
at according to them.

When I originally read Althusser in 1979-80, I wasn't all that aware of the
historical and political context in which he wrote, I just noted the
difference between his interpretations and Marx's own text. It's only
later, through studying more of Marx, that I became aware of the importance
of considering the historical context in which Althusser wrote his stuff.
And I recommend that to new initiates in the Althusserian school of thought
as well.

Certainly, Marx's thought evolved over time, but if it hadn't then there
would have been something wrong with him, I would say. The real point is
that Marx himself never explicitly rejected or disparaged his earlier
views. The most you will find in Marx is the occasional comment to the
effect that "history moved on, and so did I". So there is both continuity
and change in his intellectual trajectory. Marx never upheld any idea of a
"universal human essence", beyond elementary observations such as that
human beings are creatures of need who suffer in the process of getting
their needs met. At the same time, as Mandel points out in his thesis "The
Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx", Marx continued to
subscribe to concepts such as alienation in his later years. The
"epistemological break" is just a break of wind, really.

As regards Geras, his complaint in a lecture of his on Mandel's
interpretation of fascism which I attended in Amsterdam was essentially
that Mandel's treatment of fascism was too facile, too superficial, too
doctrinal, failing to appreciate its uniqueness, the evil that men can do,
possibly resulting in an over-optimistic view of human nature.

There is something in that, since Mandel never wrote a big treatise on the
subject. But it isn't true that Mandel didn't appreciate the full horror of
fascism and war - after all he lived through it as a Jew and spent time in
German labour camps. Mandel's main point however is that, rather than
agonising about the victims of the past, we should be aware that fascism
can happen again and in various ways has happened again, that it is a
product of imperialism and not an evil quirk of human nature.

At a deeper level, Geras's critique of "modernist over-optimism" fails
because, as Mandel implies, historical materialism is by its very nature an
optimistic, hopeful doctrine; this precisely because it bases itself on the
idea that, provided that they operate with a realistic view of historical
change, people CAN make their own and their collective history, and make it
better than in the past. Without this idea, there is no point in pursuing a
"science of history"... beyond scholastic satisfaction.



Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list