On Althusser

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Mon Nov 27 18:52:28 MST 1995


I don't have the patience or erudition to try to explain all of Althusser's  
connections to Lacanian structuralism or Hegelian dialectics. Neither  
do I have patience for much of his rather abstruse language, or for the  
neologisms like "overdetermination" that appear there. (That coke-  
head Freud invented the term "overdetermination", as far as I can tell, to 
describe objects in dreams that combined contradictory elements such as 
vampires in diapers riding motorcycles with training-wheels.)  
I do have a favorable reaction, however, to things Althusser was  
saying in the 1962 article "Contradiction and Overdetermination".  
Basically this article is a call to arms against economic determinism,  
a bane of Marxism throughout the 20th century.  
I hate economic determinism masquerading as Marxism. It makes me  
want to scream. I am usually confronted by the Trotskyist variant, while  
Althusser fought against the Stalinist version.  
Economic determinism basically is a belief that social movements and  
beliefs are reflections of underlying economic structures. In its most 
sophisticated version, you get Charles Beard's "Economic Interpretation of 
the US Constitution" which attempted to explain the various clauses and 
subclauses in terms of the different economic interests of various 
constituencies of the American bourgeoisie. Now Beard was a Progressivist 
historian and didn't know any better. Stalin, a "Marxist", had no excuse 
when he elaborated his "3rd Period" theory, which stated that the 
Great Depression and the rise of fascism would create the contradictions 
necessary to turn the masses decisively toward revolutionary 
socialism. This undialectical approach had much in fact to do with the 
victory of Hitler and the destruction of the German Communist Party.  
Althusser believed that it is a mistake to regard Marxism as a simple  
inversion of Hegel. If Hegel maintained that the dialectical unfolding of  
Ideas in history determine social relations and the state, then a simple 
view of Marx would tend to conclude that social relations determine ideas.  
Althusser is correct to point out that the relationship between social  
and economic relations is not "unmediated". Ideas, beliefs, customs,  
etc. become part of social relationships and can have as much material  
reality as a job or an apartment lease.  
Althusser, interestingly enough, doesn't quote Marx as a counter-  
example to economic determinism. He cites Engels, that "distorter"  
of Marx who, along with Lenin, has been the favorite whipping-boy of  
academic Marxists for most of the century, including some folks on  
this list. Engels said, "The economic situation is the basis, but the  
various elements of the superstructure -- the political forms of the class  
struggle and its results: to wit constitutions established by the  
victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and then  
even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the  
participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views  
and their further development into systems of dogmas -- also exercise  
their influence upon the course of the historical struggles, and in many  
cases preponderate in determing their form..."  
Althusser, as I read him, is somebody who is urging the dogmatically  
minded--in his case, the French CP--to "go back" to Marx and  
Engels and forget about the one-dimensional malarkey coming from the 
pages of L'Humanitie. Good for Althusser.  
Trotskyism and Maoism have also been a fertile ground for economic  
determinism. In their case, it has taken the most virulent form of  
"workerism". This is a belief that any social movement that does not  
rise directly out of the workplace at the point of production is to be  
suspected, if not viewed as reactionary. For a brief time, the SWP rejected  
"workerism" in the 1960's and 70's, but succumbed to it in the 1980's.  
It is the kiss of death for a socialist organization.  
Althusser's project seems to be of altogether different nature than that  
of the anti-Marxists grouped around the Frankfurt school, but I plan to  
say a word or two about them in the months to come. I also want to  
speak about Korsch, Gramsci, Lukacs, Laclau/Mouffe, Deleuze/Guattari and  
others. I am determined to speak about them in plain and perhaps 
unflattering language. Most of what they are saying can be translated 
into understandable terms. Once that is done, you have the option of 
accepted or rejecting it. 
In the meantime, I give everybody permission to read Althusser.

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