Louis Althusser

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Oct 22 07:05:30 MDT 1999

At 12:05 PM 10/22/99 +0100, you wrote:
>Does anyone know of any decent writings or books by Louis Althusser? I have
>a book titled Ieology by Terry Eaglton but I would like to find another

(From my webpage)


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.

Louis Proyect

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