ANTI-ALTHUSSER REVIEW

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Sun Jul 16 11:47:22 MDT 1995


Some months ago I was asked (privately, I think) for references to
anti-Althusser literature, particularly of an anti-Stalinist
variety.   I will add to the list as time and knowledge permit,
but as it happens, I am now nearing completion of a noteworthy
book on the topic: ONE-DIMENSIONAL MARXISM: ALTHUSSER AND THE
POLITICS OF CULTURE (London, Allison & Busby, 1980).  The essays
that comprise this volume are "Althusserian Marxism" (Simon
Clarke), "Trusting ourselves: Marxism, human needs and sexual
politics" (Victor Jeleniewski Seidler), "Marxist Cultural Theory:
The Althusserian smokescreen" (Kevin McDonnell & Kevin Robins),
"The social relations of cultural production: absent centre of a
new discourse" (Terry Lovell).  The book as a whole is an
intervention not only against the pernicious influence of
Althusser himself but against British Althusserianism in
particular, starting but not stopping with Hindess and Hirst.

Clarke's essay not only dissects Althusser's confused theoretical
conceits but connects Althusser's theory to his Stalinism.  The
footnotes are as interesting as the article itself.  Footnote 56
(p. 87-89) treats Althusser's philosophy of science, its
affinities with Thomas Kuhn, and its relation to French philosophy
of science.  Regarding the influence of Gaston Bachelard,
Althusser's philosophy "extracts only one aspect of Bachelard's
work and reinterprets it in the light of the French
conventionalist tradition of Poincare and Duhem as developed by
Cavailles and Granger in the light of Vienna positivism.  For all
the thinkers the defining feature of science is its separation
from reality." (p. 87)  The rest of the footnote gives a more
detailed exposition of this assertion.

Clarke references a work I never heard of before: Ernest Mandel's
CONTRE ALTHUSSER (Paris, 1974).  Presumably this intervention by
the head theoretical honcho of Trotskyism would qualify as
anti-Stalinist literature.  Does anyone know if this work has ever
been translated into English?

Those of you interested in Spinoza will take interest in footnote
45 (p. 84-85), where Althusser's use of the Freudian unconscious
is analyzed as Spinozan rather than Marxian in inspiration.

Althusser's idealist critique of ideology, particularly as
embodied in his notion of ideological state apparatuses (ISA) is
criticized in footnote 51 (p. 85-86) and linked to his Stalinism.


Note 63 (p. 91) defends the presence of Hegelian logic even in the
late Marx, as argued by a J.-M. Brohm, who apparently contributed
to CONTRE ALTHUSSER.

Seidler's article is a most devastating critique of the world of
abstractions in which Althusser (and by implication French
intellectuals as a whole) lives.  Althusser's banishing of
anything concrete, especially of human experience, is harshly
dissected in light of the writings of Gramsci.  Gramsci's model of
a reflective critical stance towards experience (i.e. the critique
of everyday spontaneous philosophy but nonetheless attuned to
lived experience) is expounded in some detail and looks highly
admirable, especially in contrast to Althusser's detached
rationalism.  Nowhere have I seen a more incisive critique of
those who live in an alienated world of detached abstractions.
(Could this be what Juan Inigo is getting at in his more lucid
moments?)

Particularly endearing to me is Seidler's evisceration of
Althusser's botched intellectual manipulations in trying to
eliminate the young, i.e. humanist, Marx (p. 115-116).

Seidler gives many examples of the connections of analysis to
everyday experience of the world, with reference to working class
experience but especially in reference to the women's movement,
which had a great effect on Seidler's life.

McDonnell and Robins move into the explicitly cultural dimension
of the book.  Since I missed out on most of the theoretical crap
of the past twenty years, it is interesting to read something from
1980 that so effectively repudiates what today would be called
postmodernism or deconstructionism.  I never knew what connection
this trend had to do with Althusser, but here the connections
become evident (to a person like me, who has always been out of
the loop in such matters).

I will just single out some interesting features of this article.
The authors cite Alfred Sohn-Rethel on Marx's brilliant
recognition of the existence of abstraction not merely in thought
but in society itself through the logic of commodity exchange and
include an important quote from Marx himself (p. 167).  The
authors then counterpose this notion to Althusser's ISA.

The balance of the article is largely devoted to an in-depth
critique of a theoretical journal called SCREEN which manifests
all the sins of Althusserianism and related French pestilence.
Again I will single out some noteworthy aspects of the argument.
During following from Althusser's extreme theoreticism is the
privileged role staked out for professional intellectuals, the
custodians of science (p. 173).  Only those professional insiders
steeped in the likes of Althusser and Lacan are qualified to
navigate the minefields of ideology.  SCREEN also exhibits the
tendency (now nauseatingly familiar) of subsuming all social
practices into discourse (p. 176).  The Althusserian assault on
totality and the fragmentation of society into autonomous spheres
(economy, politics, culture, etc.) is criticized throughout the
book, but especially here (see e.g. p. 177).  Naturally, if a
schematized and vulgarized conception of Marxian economics is
assumed, then cultural theory (itself tending toward autonomy from
the rest of life) is legitimately imported to fill in the gaps
left by traditional Marxism.  (I wonder, is this how RETHINKING
MARXISM got started?)  Also interesting is the fetish for theory.
Empirical research is slighted, in this case the interest in
analysis of individual films, in favor of Theory.  Also
avant-gardism becomes the preferred mode of cinema over
"reactionary" realism.

Perhaps most interesting is a detailed critique of the French
influence, which has now become hegemonic.  Lacan especially is
given a going-over, but also Kristeva, and the entire semiotic
tradition.  Derrida, Lacan, and their ilk, with their fetishism of
the sign and death of the subject, form a chorus with Althusser to
howl their theoretical anti-humanism (p. 189).  And the dissection
of Lacan, Kristeva, et al gets into more depth (p. 197ff).  It is
also revealing how aesthetic considerations get banished from film
criticism (p. 210).  Finally, SCREEN is analyzed as an essentially
academic publication.

I and some of my colleagues have independently discovered certain
affinities between the postmodernists and the young Hegelians whom
Marx definitively demolished in THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY.  How
interesting, then to see Proudhon (not a young Hegelian per se,
but part of the same problem) likened to Althusser (p. 223).

I come away from this article with an even greater and more
stubborn contempt for all things French.

Lovell recapitulates the themes of the book and discusses the
unity of Lacan and Althusser on the death of the subject, the
assault on realism in the arts (and all popular culture) in favor
of the hermetic avant-garde, the relation between ideology and
lived experience, ideology and pleasure in popular culture,
Brecht's relation to both the avant-garde and the popular, and
once again Gramsci as exemplary theoretician.

(R. Dumain, 16 July 1995)


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