This post has been revised here:

The real significance of Althusser is in the transition from a Marxism of the party to a Marxism of the academy. The means via which he got us from one to the other are now moot. It is rather like the fable of Captain Cook’s axe: first the handle was lost and replaced, then the head was lost and replaced, and yet it remains Captain Cook’s axe. The means via which Althusser got us from party to academy has been pretty much lost. And yet here we are.

Some elements of the text ‘On the Materialist Dialectic: On the Uneveness of Origins‘ might help explain this move. It is among other things an ur-text for the notion of a capitalized ‘Theory’. In Althusser this Theory was supposed to be the guarantee of the scientific character of Marxism, of tis break with ideology, and a defense against ideological back-sliding. It was not to be. As Stuart Hall famously said; there are no guarantees.

Althusser stresses the break between Hegel and Marx. He also – rather fatefully – offers a pluralist rather than a mono-causal philosophy of history. Having defending this against the Hegelians, in this text he will have to shore up the other flank, and defend this limited pluralism against what he will call a ‘hyper-empiricism.’ Once one has more than one historical dialectic – why not lots and lots and lots?

The answer is to advance a theoretical practice. Here Althusser claims to follow Lenin, in the claim that without correct revolutionary theory, there can be no correct revolutionary practice. What he adds is that the production of that theory is itself its own kind of practice. If the Leninists had professionalized political practice, making it a specialized form of labor, Althusser makes theoretical practice a specialized practice.

Interestingly, this in a very different fashion was the goal of the Lukacs of History and Class Consciousness and the Sartre of Critique of Dialectical Reason. In the first case, the party was strong enough to shut this rival down, in the latter case to ignore it. But Althusser managed to establish a parallel kind of authority over Marxism, independent of the party, and which would perhaps even outlive it.

Althusser: “ideology is not always taken seriously as an existing practice. But to recognize this is the indispensible prior condition for any theory of ideology.” Oddly enough, one of Althusser’s precursors here is Bogdanov, for whom ideologies were products of real, material practices whose function was to motivate and coordinate labor. Althusser (and his student Dominique Lecourt) are orthodox, even vigilant Leninists in their hostitlity to Bogdanov, but it is curious that a selection of Bogdanov did appear in the series Althusser edited. Certainly Bogdanov, not Lenin, was his precursor in breaking with Hegelian interpretations of Marx!

“The theoretical practice of a science is always completely distinct from the ideological theoretical practice of its prehistory: this distinction takes the form of a ‘qualitative’ theoretical and historical discontinuity which I shall follow Bachelard in calling an ‘epistemological break.” There is both the beginnings of something here but a lack of follow through.

A more empirical study of how sciences constitute themselves in and against an ideological field would seem here to be an excellent suggestion. But Althusser will not be a return towards a genuine study of science, in the manner of Bernal or Needham, or a precursor to science studies as it will later flower. Rather, he gets stuck at the level of asserting a merely formal break between a science and the ideology which precedes and surrounds it.

What decides for the science of Marxism is Theory, “none other than dialectical materialism.” Although a rather different one to the diamat constructed out of random bits of Marx and Engels by Althusser’s Soviet counterparts. It is to decide in advance what the dialectic is, before the encounter in a given investigation of a new situation or problem. This is quite the opposite conception of ‘science’ to that found, just to give an example from these posts, by Joseph Needham.

Before beginning any investigation, or any practice, that researchers “need Theory, that is, the materialist dialectic, as the sole method that can anticipate their theoretical practice by drawing up its formal conditions.” One could juxtapose this not just to Needham, but also to Bogdanov, at least as I read them. In their hands, theory is a matter of extracting concepts (the ‘dialectic’) from particular practices of the production of empirical and scientific knowledge, and then the speculative adaptation of them to other fields.

In other words, theirs is a genuine pluralism, with a general speculative method, but also with specific empirical tests of the validity of that method in each domain of knowledge production. In short, Althusser wants democratic centralism – the party of Theory’s decision is final – whereas Bogdanov and Needham are more ‘syndicalist’ in their approach to verification of knowledge.

It is not quite as centralized a view as that which Plekhanov took over from Engels, in which a dialectic can be applied even to the natural sciences. Althusser’s ambitions do not extend that far. But he does appear to want a Theory that can legislate outside the bounds of the natural sciences. He is particularly on his guard (as Leninist always are) against spontaneity, particularly among new-fangled practices of the production of knowledge. The new social sciences and humanities fields in particular are not to think they are self-legislating – autonomous.

The most ambitious claim of this text is to ground the general method of a theoretical practice. This comes, curiously, out of a gentle but thorough critique of Mao’s text ‘On Contradiction’.

What follows strikingly is not so much a theory as a metaphor. Theoretical practice is to be understood on the metaphor of production in general, but in a rather peculiar way. The production of knowledge starts with Generality I: with general concepts, the existing ones of ideology, as raw material. They are transformed by the labor of Generality II. These are the means of production, more or less contradictory, of the production of knowledge of a given moment. The work of Generality II on Generality I produces knowledge as specified concepts, a concrete generality. In short: “theoretical practice produces Generalities III by the work of Generality II on Generality I.

It should be apparent at once that this is metaphorical. Nothing concrete about the labor of the production of knowledge appears here at all. Althusser even says “if we abstract from men in these means of production for the time being….” But the abstraction never ends.

What follows is then the rather dogmatic assertion that there is an epistemological break between Generality I and Generalities III, guaranteed by the vigilance of Theory over the transformative work of Generalitiy II. And what results is not the concrete-as-such, but the concrete in thought. The criteria of valid knowledge are all internal to the theoretical procedure, understood metaphorically to be a labor procedure. True knowledge is that which Theory guarantees, and no other. It is the theoretical concrete which is knowledge.

One could mount an ‘internalist’ critique of this version of what Marxist Theory ought to be doing. But I think it more useful to put it into the ideological field, and ask: what ‘work’ was it supposed to be doing? To my mind, Althusser is trying to set up a procedure for the coordination and validation of correct Marxist ‘practice’ within the division of labor of the university, or even the ideological apparatuses writ large. One that appears to parallel and supplement that of the party, but which actually replaces it.

This has two aspects. One is the replacement of the authority of the Party with that of Theory. To some extent the controversy that this aroused is moot, given the decline of that very Party, and the marginal status of those that would try to reproduce it. (Interestingly, by the time we get to late Badiou, there are four kinds of event which produce the subject and its truth, of which politics is only one, not dominant one.)

The other is the question of the coordination of different kinds of knowedge that might claim to be part of a larger Marxist project within the university. This is rather more interesting. It is if anything an even more significant problem today.

Althusser’s solution is a ‘democratic centralist’ one, a para-Party called Theory, which has both legislative, judicial (and policing) power as to what constitutes knowledge, at least outside the domain of the natural sciences. It is as opposed to ‘spontaneous’ theories and their lateral, transversal flow between sites of work as the Leninist party was to all forms of spontaneity, whether it be in the style of Rosa Luxemburg, or Antoine Pannekoek, or Alexander Bogdanov.

Not surprisingly, given the institutional context of the ENS and French hegemonic culture more generally, this para-Party is essentially that of philosophy. Marxist philosophy will legislate, judge and police all the other forms of knowledge (outside the natural sciences) in a remarkably similar way to how non-Marxist philosophy has always considered itself to have such powers in the French context. The counter-hegemonic (in Gransci’s terms) is a mirror of the hegemonic. It does not have its own form.

In this regard, and to make an extreme provocation, we have to conclude that Althusserianism was a kind of reformism in the domain of knowledge and culture. Unlike, for example, Bogdanov and the Situationists, in their rather different ways, there is no imagining here of a different form for a counter-production of knowledge.

Althusser’s metaphoric approach to the question of knowledge production led in at least two different directions. One was to make the metaphor more ‘real’, in the sense of examining actual, material processes of the production of knowledge, and in particular of those kinds of knowledge which seem to have direct power-effects. This is the path of Michel Foucault.

Granted, this in many ways became a new kind of doxa in the humanities, where ‘power’ could be found everywhere and nowhere. Granted, this approach leant as much on Nietzsche’s diagnoses of the will to power in forms of knowledge or ideology. Still: there seems to me something positive in this general procedure, and one with more affinity for Marx than might be at first apparent. A Marxist approach to knowledge, and in fact even of natural scientific knowledge, should enquire into the material practices of its production, and moreover, should see itself within the limits of those means of production and not at some Archimedian point outside of them.

Here we have to mention Althusser’s very curt dismissal of any approach (such as that of Bogdanov) which starts from the reality of that which the apparatus and labor of knowledge produces. Althusser simply asserts that if one starts from sensation, even in this historically grounded way, one has no way of filtering in advance what is ideological from it, and thus of producing a science.

The reply to this is obvious: Althusser’s rationalism has no such procedure either. It is simply asserted that the vigilance of Theory will perform this miracle, and do so in a universal way, valid at lwast for the human sciences.

But why not a method for all the sciences? Particularly those that impinge most heavily on us. Here what might be worth developing, out of Bogdanov and Needham, or out of Donna Haraway and Karen Barad, might be a concrete, historical, specific approach to the actual production of knowledge in both natural and human sciences.

What we need is not something like Mao’s ‘On Contradition’, to legislate as Theory for all of knowledge. What we need is many versions of Capital, actual critical accounts of other kinds of knowledge, particularly of the forces of production, besides political economy. Althusser would of course consider this a “hyper-empiricism.”

Because the other thing that certainly came out of Althusser’s Theory (if in the manner of Captain Cook’s axe), was a kind of hyper-rationalism, which would seek a universal philosophy that could make deep truth-claims, independent of empirical knowledge. Rather than look at the more applied sciences as Foucault did, this other trend heads in the other direction. Its favorite subject is mathematics, taken to be a Platonist core or essence of knowledge, indeed even of the sciences. One finds this tendency in Badiou and Meillassoux.

Again: one could argue internally within these discourses, but if Althusser has merit still today, it is in his sly way of always asking: what is at stake in the politics of knowledge at any given world-historical moment? Let’s quote here how he defined his own moment: “what will later be called by a name which does not exist as yet… when in the struggle for peaceful co-existence the first revolutionary forms are appearing in certain so-called under-developed countries out of their struggles for national independence.” These are not those times.

Indeed: Sartre’s practico-inert, Bataille’s general economy, Bogdanov’s tektology, or what the Marx of Capital vol. 3 called ‘metabolic rift’ seem like better starting points for a critical theory of the Anthropocene. But to be fair: by their results shall we judge them. If the hyper-rationalist theory, late descended from Althusser, proves itself useful in the current conjuncture, far be it for us to judge.

But what strikes me as particularly useful about those examples from Sartre, Bataille, and Bogdanov, or more recent work by Haraway and Barad, is that I find in them that a critical understanding of the Anthropocene is already internally present in their own categories. It does not come as a mystery from without. Hence if one were to perform the Althusserian gesture of a re-orientation of the production of critical knowledge towards the current world-historical situation, I would not start with Althusser. He would rather be one of those well-thumbed tomes to put back in the archive.

2 thoughts on “Althusserians Anonymous (4)

  1. thanks ken for this tour the force! i thought i never was and never will be an althusserian, but now i feel i may have been contaminated in ways i did not even expect: for sure it is “pharmakon”, in the ancient greek sense of the term, but i am not sure yet whether that is more on the poison or the cure side of it…

    1. In short, I think on the positive side, Althusser helps one break from certain Hegelian Marxisms, were the commodity form is an eternal essence and everything else is appearances. He also allows one to give a certain autonomy and weight to the superstructures. But the epistemology i think cannot be redeemed, and in the Anthropocene i think we need a more, not less vulgar Marxism of the labor nature metabolism.

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