ALTHUSSER 'FOR MARX'? -- 1

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Tue Apr 25 20:03:16 MDT 1995


Needing further light toilet reading as well as being instigated
by current online discussion, I have turned to Althusser's FOR
MARX.  Of course, I am reading not only with the hindsight of
having sampled LENIN AND PHILOSOPHY (not to mention secondary
literature on Althusser), but more crucially with the hindsight of
thirty-something years.  I cannot imaginatively put myself in the
place Marxism was then anywhere, least of all in France, hence I
lack the proper empathy for the situation and the problems
Althusser was grappling with.  One does get the feeling, from both
these books, that Althusser was responding the best way he knew to
a problem in French philosophy and intellectual culture as well as
within the French Communist Party which implies the Marxism
bequeathed by Stalinism.  In trying to avoid the pitfalls of
dogmatic Stalinist ideology as well as the humanist mysticism of
Sartre and others, also striving to maintain one's loyalty to the
"International Communist Movement", one can appreciate a little
the constraints under which Althusser must have operated, which
means also appreciating the "innocence" with which his
philosophical enterprise began.

As for the general intellectual heritage, Althusser is very
militant in addressing a non-Marxist philosophical audience, in
one of his essays printed in LENIN AND PHILOSOPHY.  In the face of
the entire academic haute-culture tradition Althusser throws up
the philosophical practice of Lenin as a valid if unrespectable
intervention within "Philosophy".  Althusser also mentions
elsewhere the underdeveloped state of Marxist study in France,
where nothing of note had transpired outside of Cornu, and where
one needed to look to the German work with envy.  Althusser feels
himself on unfamiliar, virgin intellectual territory in France.

It seems to me the key is scientificity.  I can understand,
without yielding one inch to Althusser's disparagement of humanism
and the young Marx, a certain prejudice against the philosophical
tradition emanating from Heidegger.  As a person who started out
from an interest in philosophy in science, I couldn't have gotten
into the frame of mind where I could even be interested in this
any of it at all until sometime last year.  On the other hand, I
feel that Althusser's goal of trying to further scientize Marxism
also aims to relieve the tradition of a certain ritual
mystification of Marxism as a philosophical ideology at the hands
of the beloved International Communist Movement.  Granting the
sincerity as well as the limited initial perspective of Althusser,
both in terms of philosophical and political experience, let us
proceed to inspect the tools he uses to accomplish his tasks.

First, the appropriation of Bachelard.  I have no evidence at
hand, but I have a hunch that Bachelard is not to be blamed for
Althusser's use of him.  I don't know whether and to what extent
Bachelard approved of Althusser's use of his ideas.  (Help me out
here, if you know.)  Bachelard died in 1962, I think, and
Althusser began to publish his Marxist studies in the early 1960s,
it seems, though perhaps as a student he began to work them out.
I don't know.  From my limited acquaintance with Bachelard, I
conjecture that the epistemological break occurs in the
development of formalized scientific theories, where pre-formal
intuitive notions are replaced by formalized scientific ones
located in an axiomatized logical structure, as would happen say
in physics.  For Althusser, this means a radical rupture wherein
'philosophy' is replaced with 'science' in Marx's thinking in
1845.  Why am I unhappy with this, with what I take to be a
questionable analogy rather than an exact application of
Bachelard's notion?  In the natural sciences, can we say in all
relevant instances that the epistemological break involves an
abrupt transition between 'natural philosophy' and real science,
or between different stages of science?  What is the role of
philosophy after science enters into existence?  Shall we assume
that, in the social sciences, when metaphysical or imprecise
philosophical speculations about the nature of society get
replaced by truly scientific notions, that the philosophical
dimension of the subject matter must dissolve?

Yet this is what is involved in Althusser's analysis of the young
Marx: Marx replaces 'philosophy' with 'science'.  Marx has to undo
his training in German philosophy, 'retreating' in fact from the
realm of 'philosophy' to a direct examination of (social) reality
itself which 'philosophy' obscures ideologically.  The break with
Young-Hegelianism and the beginning of political
economy/historical materialism is what happens in THE GERMAN
IDEOLOGY.

Now, Althusser does describe something that happens in the course
of Marx's development.  Marx does discover that the "dreamy and
muddled German nation" is sadly unacquainted -- this being a
determined result of its own life-process (the camera obscura) --
with real things, which were also strangers to Marx until he began
to examine the thefts of wood and found himself embarrassed at his
own unpreparedness for reality.  Marx has to overthrow the 'rule
of concepts' to get to the things themselves and their conceptual
reconstruction in the manner of science.  And since, in effect,
philosophy in Marx's world is equivalent to German philosophy, to
the milieu of the Young Hegelians in particular, 'philosophy' does
indeed come to an end.

So it is easy and superficially plausible for Althusser to claim
that where there is science, philosophy can no longer be, and that
there is a definitive rupture between the young, philosophical
humanistic Marx and the mature, scientific Marx.  That is, if one
sweeps the whole complex of philosophical issues under the rug and
reads Marx backwards "symptomatically", as one grand abstraction
in the light of Althusser's shallow schematism, suppressing the
concreteness of his development and his subtle complex of notions,
which range from general ideas about human self-realization and
alienation to notions concerning the historical development of
social classes and social formations to the specific scientific
development of political economy.  But if political economy is to
become a science, what is the status of the remaining undeveloped
terrain of historical materialism, not to mention the other
philosophical questions about human beings, not the least of which
is that aching problem of alienation which Althusser has so
conveniently banished from 'science'?  Althusser will later fill
in the gaps with overdetermination and structure-in-dominance and
so on, but we shall see that he can't 'improve' on Marx without
first violating him.

But let me not get ahead of myself, for I am only at the end of
chapter 2, ie. the young Marx, and I have not yet tackled
'overdetermination'.

One final aside.  Althusser recognizes (p. 79) something central
to my project vis-a-vis Marx's development (leading up to THE
GERMAN IDEOLOGY), that Marx had to leave Germany and go to Paris
to have his fundamental sense of reality shaken up, to be able to
learn from his own life experience the extent to which the
greatest thinkers as well as ordinary people are slaves of
environment, and why it is that even the educator must himself
become educated.


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