ALTHUSSER'S 'FOR MARX': STRUCTURE IN DOMINANCE, ETC.

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Fri Apr 28 22:50:48 MDT 1995


The text for tonight's sermon: Louis Althusser, FOR MARX
(Pantheon, 1969), Chapter 6: On the Materialist Dialectic".

The first task of the weighty chapter is to characterize practice
and distinguish it from Theory.  The first nugget of wisdom that
attracted my attention came on p. 170.  But first I must set up
the context:

"Their [Marxists'] practice is largely _in front of them_, it
still has to be developed, or even founded, that is, it has to be
set on correct theoretical bases so that it corresponds to a
_real_ object, not to a presumed or ideological object, and so
that it is truly a theoretical practice, not a technical practice.
It is for this purpose that they need Theory, that is, the
materialist dialectic, as the sole method that can anticipate
their theoretical practice by drawing up its formal conditions."
(p. 169-170)

I haven't the foggiest what this means, but here comes the good
part:

"In this case, the utilization of Theory is not a matter of
_applying_ its formulae (the formulae of the dialectic, of
materialism) to a pre-existing content.  Lenin himself criticized
Engels and Plekhanov for having _applied_ the dialectic externally
to 'examples' from the natural sciences.  The external application
of a concept is never equivalent to a _theoretical practice_ ....
The application of the 'laws' of the dialectic to such and such a
result of physics, for example, makes not one iota of difference
to the structure or development of the theoretical _practice_ of
physics; worse, it may turn into an ideological fetter."  (p.
170)

Hey, a nugget is better than nothing.  But seriously folks,
Althusser is trying to get at something here, though it is hard to
understand.  He goes on to say that Theory is always under siege
by ideology.  Althusser goes on to discuss pragmatic or technical
practice, but I'm afraid I don't understand this very well.
However, his discussion of Lenin's practice is of interest, though
I don't understand it completely either.  What leaps out at me is
the analytical contrast between Lenin's real-time political
practice and the retrospective analysis of the historian.

And now comes the key explanation of how science works, namely
Generality I, Generality II, and Generality III (p. 183-192).
Unfortunately, I can't make head nor tail out of it, so, in the
immortal words of Phil Donahue, somebody help me out here.

(I need to mention that Althusser again questions the inversion
metaphor [p. 192]: one cannot invert an ideology to obtain a
science.)

Now we come to a crucial section of the whole book, not to mention
this chapter: the analysis of the 'pre-given structured whole'.
However tortuous it is to read Mao's gibberish about contradiction
analyzed in terms of the structured whole (p. 194, see also p.
183), one finds the germs of some real insight in this chapter.

The most exciting part of this analysis is Althusser's strict
differentiation of the Hegelian from the Marxist notion of the
concrete totality (p. 198).  The contrast is between the Hegelian
notion of the simple, unified organicist whole vs. the Marxian
notion of the complex structured whole.  I'm not qualified really
to judge the accuracy of this analysis, but I think there is
something to it.  Anyway, Althusser takes pains to stress that
Marx annihilates rather than sublates Hegel here.  (He even goes
so far as to congratulate Stalin for banishing the 'negation of
the negation' [p. 200f].)

Now we are at one of Althusser's decisive concepts: 'structure in
dominance'.    I don't know why one needs such a peculiar term; I
thought I was using the same concept long before I heard of
Althusser.  It is evident to me now that Althusser needs some way
of distinguishing the Marxist dialectical view of the whole from
holism/organicism, and he needs a way of showing that in the
complex structured whole the economic base needs to be recognized
as the foundation, hence .... structure in dominance.  The Marxian
totality must be intransigently distinguished from the Hegelian
totality.  (See p. 202-3 for the crucial distinction.)  I question
his neologisms, I can't be sure he's got Hegel down, but I think
Althusser is on to something important here.  I invite your
comments.

Althusser rejects the single essence (Hegel) view, monism (eg.
Haeckel) as well as pluralism.  Note throughout this chapter he is
repeatedly invokes Mao, Stalin, and Gramsci (as opposed to
Lukacs).

Althusser defines his other famous concept 'overdetermination' (p.
206).  I don't understand his definition, but overdetermination
seems to be the unity of the complex of contradictions in the
concrete whole.

There is a very good dig at Hegel's treatment of historical
conditions (p. 208).

There is an interesting critique of Hegel's notion of negation on
p. 214, but I don't understand it, I'm afraid.

To sum up, this is the most interesting and least offensive
chapter in the book.  Althusser offers some important abstract
philosophical (scientific or ideological by his lights?) concepts,
which, though not new to me, are worthy concepts to emphasize.
The problem is that one can boil most of these concepts down to a
few simple principles, already known ones in the world, if not
within the cramped context of the French Communist Party, but one
doesn't have any clear and detailed exposition of the applications
of these general notions.  What does one do with the not
immediately obvious stuff: Althusser's treatment of practices and
Theory, overdetermination, Generalities I-III?  Is the problem
with me, has something been lost in translation, or is Althusser
just not a very clear expositor of his ideas?

Help me out here.

[R. Dumain, 28 April 1995]


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