This post has been revised, here:

The thing about being a recovering Althusserian is that one can’t help remembering the good times. Being on Althusser really does feel great. It makes certain problems disappear.

For example, one is no longer trapped in the oppressive reality of Hegelian Marxism, and yet nor does one have to return to the even more oppressively leaden world of ‘vulgar’ or ‘economistic’ Marxism. One can fly free from all that! (Ah, but as in any addiction narrative, there’s a price to pay…)

So on the plus side, one’s mental space is no longer constrained by those readings of Marx that see him as essentially putting the Hegelian dialectic back on its feet, or retrieving its rational kernel from its mystical shell. Althusser’s essay on the young Marx already opens up this dimension.

But he is an alternative also to those who, one way or another, tempered their Hegelianism with a dose of Kierkegaard. This came in a lot of favors. Lukacs centered his Hegelian totality-in-process on the proletariat as universal subject-object, which frees itself from reification and acts on and as the totality, But there is something irrational about the proletariat an action, a kind of revolutionary leap of faith, which will recur in various ways in Sartre, Badiou and Zizek.

Adorno and Sartre, in rather different ways, cut their Hegel with some Kierkegaard to prevent Lukacs’ totality from self-closure. In Sartre individuals only ever temporariliy subsume themselves into the movement of the totality. In Adorno the dialectic itself is to attend to the unrecoverable fragment. It twists away from the extorted reconciliation of exchange value.

Althusser was most certainly an alternative to taking too much Benjamin, wherein history is only ever allegorically present, in the form of fragments that are shot through with a messianic time. All of these Marxisms had a tendency to reduce everything to commodification and its attendant effects: reification, extorted reconciliation, the practico-inert. Either history had become the bad totality of exchange, as in Adorno, or the good totality where the rational meets the real is perpetually postponed, as in Sartre.

The Althusserian decision – for that is really what it was – comes at a price, however. The gains – and more on that in a moment – came at a long-term cost.

One is a that version of theory which I think has to be called ‘Jacobin Marxism’. This is particularly clear in some of Althusser’s students, such as Nicos Poulantzas, Etienne Balibar, Jacques Ranciere, Alain Badiou, and on into other work such as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. The feature of this tendency is to isolate Politics with a capital-P as the decisive level or instance of the social formation, at the expense of any larger sense of a political economy.

A second tendency one could call Hyper-Rationalism. It’s core belief is that theory – now identified with philosophy – legislates not only for political practice but also for all other forms of knowledge. Althusser gave sustenance to the conceit that the world can be known by means of philosophy alone. This is clearest in Althusser’s student, Alain Badiou and taken to poetic extremes by Badiou’s student, Quentin Meillassoux. What one might think of as a hyper-rationalist corrective to this hyper-rationalism is in the work of Francois Laruelle.

A third tendency is for Marxism to collapse into the disciplines and fragment back into specialized forms of ‘discourse’ – something one can clearly see Althusser himself warning against. This is clearest I think in those humanities disciplines which took the ‘relative autonomy’ of the ideological superstructures of the social formation to mean that they should have their own exclusive methods of analysis. Here one could look at the way screen studies took semiotics and psychoanalysis to be the special methods of studying the superstructure in the way that political economy was the special method of studying the infrastructure, each in ignorance bliss of each other.

In short, the current map of post-Marxist scholarship might owe more than a little to a decision in favor of Althusser. But this is to read things in terms of the present, and what came to be a kind of canon of western Marxist thought after the fact. The ‘ideological field’ within which Althusser actually worked is rather different to this.

It is no accident, for example, that the first footnote in his text ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ (1963) is to Roger Garaudy. Who the hell was Roger Garaudy? Trust me: you don’t want to know. Garaudy was the kind of hack who passed for a ‘thinker’ within the French Communist Party of the time (and whose later career is to ignominious to even mention). As is often the case, particularly with Marxist thinkers, the ideological field for Althusser was shaped by institutional figures and forces whose names are not even mentioned if one studies these things in graduate school.

Althusser was actually negotiating between two overlapping ‘ideological fields’. One was the professional one, of philosophy, the other was that of the Communist Party at a certain moment. Althusser’s key works all happen after two world-historical events: Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ of 1956, in which he revealed a tiny portion of the crimes of Stalin, and set about a partial deStalinzation of the Communist movement. The other key event is the Sino-Soviet split, which starts to unfold from 1960, and led to break of the Chinese Communists from the Soviet ‘camp.

Khrushchev’s speech led to an ideological ‘thaw’, but also to a profound crisis for the western communist parties. A rather vacuous ‘socialist humanism’ became the prevailing ideology. One which saw Marxism as a continuation of the bourgeois enlightenment project. In some respects this was a return to the popular front style of thinking of the inter-war years.

The Sino-Soviet split was over many things, of which ideology was probably the least important. Still, Mao did not follow the deStalinization line. I remember, when visiting China in 1987, that one could still find portraits of the “four beards” on the walls of official party buildings: the four being Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Their profiles, one in front of the other, would usually face a portrait of Mao on the opposite wall. In short: Mao was the true successor to the Apostolic succession, Stalin included.

The rupture between the Soviet and Chinese parties had its impact within the western communist parties as well. The Chinese revolution had appeared as a vindication of at least one idea of Lenin’s: that imperialism would break at its ‘weakest links’, which were likely to be on the periphery rather than the center of the imperial system. The Chinese appeared to be trying to avoid the bureaucratization of their revolution. They seemed to want to do something different to the building of a massive heavy industry that simply reproduced under socialist conditions the same alienated mass labor as happened under capitalism.

As with enthusiasm for the Russian revolution, western enthusiasm for the Chinese revolution was based on very limited information. It was certainly a defensible position to view the old regime, in China as before in Russia, as incompetent. Mao appeared to have vanquished not only the Nationalists but kicked the Japanese out of China and unified the country. Since taking power in 1949 Mao appeared to have reformed agriculture, combatted illiteracy, embarked on a huge, labor-intensive program of national reconstruction, all with an aura of egalitarianism and purpose. The human costs of all of which were apparent to almost nobody in the west, whether on the right or the left.

When the split opened up between the Soviets and China, not a few western communists opted to support China, either within the mainstream communist party, or by leaving it. In France, the Communist Party made the mistake of expelling the ‘Maoists’ en bloc, enabling them to swiftly set up a rival party of not negligible size. While there would be splits and factions, Maoism would be a strong current on the French left – much more so than in many other western countries.

Althusser did not leave the pro-Soviet Communist Party of France. His relation to the party and to China question is a rather subtle one. But certainly, his key texts can be read as formulating, at a very high level of sophistication a Maoist ‘line’ of sorts. Certainly several key students of his were active in one or other Maoist formation.

And in politics more generally. Althusser’s student Regis Debray went to Cuba, became the self-appointed theorist of the Cuban revolutionary strategies of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and got himself imprisoned in Latin America trying to carry that program out. There he wrote a rather fine book on ideology based on the only reading materials he was allowed: Catholic religious texts!

While these posts I am critical of the legacy of Althusser today, I want to pay tribute nevertheless to those for whom his texts were one source of inspiration for a life of militancy, in France and elsewhere, often of considerable personal sacrifice. These are people whose names are only known to a few, who gave up lives that were in some cases of high privilege, to work sometimes under assumed names in factories or industrial towns. They could be rather dour and prickly – the basis in fact for Deleuze and Guattari’s portrait of the ‘sad militant’. But particularly in the ‘red decade’ in France (1966-1976) they did their best. For me that is always to be remembered with honor.

This might then be a thumbnail of the ‘ideological field’ into which Althusser made his most influential interventions, roughly from 1960-1964. It need only be added that his institutional location was not an insignificant one: the Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS). He taught at the absolute apex of a rather rigidly hierarchical educational system. The Grandes écoles in France produce the elite in each of there respective fields, in th case of the ENS – intellectuals. Sartre had been a normalien before him, as were Derrida and Foucault, in whose training Althusser had a hand.

A striking number of western Marxists were ‘outsiders’ of one kind or another, marked by difference. Even the archetypal ‘French intellectual’ Sartre was actually from Alsace. Several were German-speaking Jews. Althusser was a ‘pied noir’ – a person of white French background born in Algeria. But more significant to our story – and its tragic end – is Althusser’s cognitive difference. He suffered periodic episodes of depression (and according to Eric Hobesbawm, quite extreme mania). I note this also because of the irony that Althusser is one of the sources for a kind of universalist and rationalist stand in continental philosophy, and yet could not have been further from the personae of the ‘universal rational man.’

And yet Althusser was also a ‘insider’, a Marxist and communist at the ENS, teaching philosophy, in a country where philosophy actually matters. Unlike in the Anglophone world, philosophy is embedded within the French school curriculum. It informs a wide range of ideological processes. A literate person would be expected to know something of it. While Althusser would reject some of Gramsci’s ways of formulating the problem, he would surely have understood the minor but not-insignificant role of philosophy in sustaining what for Gramsci would be called hegemony.

In a curious way, Althusser contributed to a kind of counter-hegemonic base-building which produced in France for a time a quite interesting anti-capitalist cultural sphere. Althusser was one of the conditions of possibility for a non-communist intellectual left which could endure what Felix Guattari called the ‘winter years’ of the 1980s. This formation included the normalien (and Althusser student) Michel Foucault and many who were neither, such as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

He was also one of the conditions of possibility for the ascension in more recent years of the hyper-rationalist school in French philosophy, from his student Alain Badiou to Badiou’s student Quentin Meillassoux – but that is another story. One in which a key feature of Althusser’s project – his negotiation between political and philosophical commitments, ends up tipping in the end to the latter side.

Mainlining some Althusser definitely worked for a time, then. It has its legacies. He did it by breaking with certain assumed continuities in Marxist thought, and in a decisive way. His decisions in some cases linger on in the political unconscious. The question for us is whether those decisions still work in terms of the current world-historical situation and the tasks it sets us – which are certainly not those of the ‘secret speech’ and the Sino-Soviet split.

What remains is to look more closely at how Althusser negotiated the ideological field of his time, and why the decisions he took within it had such influence, some of it in distant ways still operative. I leave that for part 3.