ALTHUSSER 'FOR MARX' AGAINST THEORETICAL HUMANISM

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Fri Apr 28 21:10:38 MDT 1995


I shall return to the intermediate chapters, but for now I will
discuss the final chapter of Louis Althusser's FOR MARX (Pantheon,
1969).  The text for this evening is humanism, particularly
socialist humanism, which is on the agenda in the 1960s (or, as we
would say in today's infantile culture of narcissism, "on our
plate").  It turns out Althusser's quarrel is not with humanism as
a real thing, but with humanism as a scientific concept.  Since
Marx's epistemological break left all such theoretical talk
behind, humanism is an ideological, not a scientific concept.  The
core of Althusser's argument can be found on p. 228-9.  Talk of
the human essence is inherently idealist (not to mention its
bourgeois pedigree), postulating the empiricism of the subject and
the absolute givenness of the concrete subject.  Marx drove the
money-changers of the human essence out of all corners of the
temple of science.  Marxism preserves humanism as an ideology but
wipes it clean out of theory:

"Strictly in respect to theory, therefore, one can and must speak
openly of _Marx's theoretical anti-humanism_, and see in this
_theoretical anti-humanism_ the absolute (negative) precondition
of the (positive) knowledge of the human world itself, and of its
practical transformation.  It is impossible to _know_ anything
about men except on the absolute precondition that the
philosophical (theoretical) myth of man is reduced to ashes."  (p.
229)

How this conclusion follows is a mystery to me, given the
vagueness of the characteristics of and the demarcation between
"Philosophy" (myth, ideology) and "science" (theory).  This sloppy
and childish thinking does not induce much respect.

But back to the main event.  What, then, is ideology?

"There can be no question of attempting a profound definition of
ideology here.  It will suffice to know very schematically that an
ideology is a system (with its own logic and rigour) of
representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on
the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a
given society.  Without embarking on the problem of the relations
between a science and its (ideological) past, we can say that
ideology, as a system of representations, is distinguished from
science in that in it the practico-social function is more
important than the theoretical function (function as knowledge)."
(p. 231)

Please savor this paragraph at length to catch the full impact,
for Althusser here confesses the bankruptcy and the uselessness of
his entire book in this one precious passage.  No, there is no
question of attempting a profound definition of ideology.  There
is no attempt at differentiating or characterizing the cognitive
structures or functions of the widely different forms "ideology"
can take (from myth to philosophical concept).  We haven't a clue
as to how science is distinguished from ideology other than with
the latter the practico-social function is paramount and the
theoretical function is nil.  What an abject confession of one's
uselessness!

The one intriguing aspect of this chapter is that Althusser
explains the necessity of ideology in all social formations, as
one's lived (not necessarily reflective) relation to the world.
This is potentially a productive notion, but leaving it at the
level of a "practico-social" function does not tell us about its
cognitive status or function, and, let me stress once more, does
not provide a differentiation for a range of cognitive
organizations and functions of concepts within this broad-brushed
category of the non-scientific.  This is Althusser's fatal
weakness, and don't you forget it.

The whole chapter dances around the contemporary USSR's task of
overcoming the legacy of Stalin.  That Althusser is trapped in the
claustrophobic world of the French Communist Party (for all his
fascination with Mao: an even more restrictive  conceptual
universe) is evidenced by how he gingerly deals with the topic,
even while questioning the theoretical status of the cult of
personality as an explanation for what went wrong (p. 240).

Well, having just read a 270-page book whose entire information
content can be boiled down to five pages tops, I must say there
are a few interesting ideas, though they are not developed
sufficiently to be very useful.  As time permits, I will return to
earlier chapters and extract the paltry grams of real gold from
the vast mine of fool's gold.

[R. Dumain, 28 April 1995]


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