An Introduction to Althusser
If we can think of Lacan’s work as a “return to Freud”, then we can think of Louis Althusser’s work as a “return to Marx”. While it is simply true that Marx caused a revolution in both philosophy and social reality, Althusser maintained that many Marxists had failed to fully understand the essence of Marx’s work. One can view Althusser’s work as an attempt to correct this misunderstanding. If Marxists desire to bring about a revolution in practice, then it is essential for them to properly understand Marxist theory.
For Althusser, one of the biggest causes of the misunderstanding of Marx’s thinking is rooted in the humanism of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (one of Marx’s most important early works). This work was published in 1932 and a partial French translation of appeared in 1937 — these events would have major impacts and serve as the basis for the emergence of Marxist humanism. The partial French translation of the Manuscripts was the theoretical cause of the prominence of Marxist theory that came about in Postwar France. This text presents Marx’s famous theory of alienation, which continues to inspire and influence people to this day seeking an alternative to the capitalist world in which we live. The central argument of the Manuscripts is that capitalism corrupts the individual subject existentially, psychologically and socially. The Young Marx thought that the alienation felt by the worker was a fourfold alienation: 1. in being alienated (separated) from the product of labor, 2. in being alienated from the labor itself, 3. in being alienated from his or her human essence (what Marx, à la Feuerbach, called “species-being”), 4. in being alienated from other workers. This fourfold alienation caused by the capitalist mode of production corrodes our most fulfilling and meaningful relations to ourselves and others — in corrupting the existence of the individual, alienation simultaneously corrupts society. It’s no surprise, then, why humanists of all stripes found themselves enthusiastically enamored with the Manuscripts. This text, arguably more than any other, depicts capitalism as an inhuman and oppressive system aimed against the wellbeing of the individual.
Now, while many Western (pro-capitalist) critics of the Soviet Union were well aware of the atrocities being caused by Stalin, the loyal communist intellectuals simply wrote this off as propaganda and slander utilized by the West to smear communism. However, in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev confirmed the truth of the horrors brought about by Stalinism in his “Secret Speech” delivered at the Twentieth Congress. Once Khrushchev detailed the massive crimes committed by Stalin against the people of the USSR, Marxists all across the world had to finally face the facts — which came as real shocks to them. Khrushchev responded by leading the charge in a process known as de-Stalinization (the removal or alteration of the three main Stalinist structures: 1. the cult of personality, 2. Stalinist politics, 3. the Gulag labor-camp system). After Marxist intellectuals had come to terms with the horrors of Stalinism, they found themselves in a new and open theoretical space in which they could rethink Marxism anew — enter the humanism of the Manuscripts. By the 1960s, the concept of capitalism as a system of alienation had basically solidified into a doctrine among the the Western Marxists. And who were some of the Marxist humanists? Only some of the most influential Marxist thinkers in history — the list includes Lukács, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Fromm, Fanon, Lefebvre, Bloch and Gramsci, just to name a few. Despite the tremendously positive impact the Manuscripts had on Marxism during the Postwar years, Althusser went on to launch a powerful critique of this text and to sever ties with the tradition based on it. But what are the reasons behind his critique?
Before we can answer this question, we must have a basic idea of what structuralism is — only afterwards will we be able to understand Althusser’s “return to Marx” (for the sake of a preliminary orientation, let’s just say that Althusser’s work is the combination of Marxism with structuralism). Structuralism arose out of the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure as presented in the classic Course in General Linguistics. For Saussure, a particular linguistic sign, a unit of language, can only be what it is by being different from all of the other signs (“elements”) in its structure, i.e., the language it belongs to. Signification is, thus, always differential — there’s no such thing as a pure linguistic atom. On the contrary, it is the system (structure) itself that gives the “unit” its value — the value is conditioned by the sign’s differential relation to all the other elements in the structure. If the identity of a sign is grounded by difference, then identities also emerged out a differential relations. The influence this differential theory of language would come to have on French intellectuals in the 1950s and 60s cannot be overstated — Lévi-Strauss’ anthropology, Lacan’s psychoanalysis, Barthes’ literary criticism, Baudrillard’s studies of consumerism and simulation, Foucault’s analyses of power, Derrida’s deconstruction, Deleuze’s metaphysics of difference and Althusser’s structural Marxism all would not have been possible without Saussure’s structural linguistics. But what is it about structuralism in general that poses such a threat to humanism? Luke Ferretter explains this nicely in his introduction to Althusser:
By the mid-1960s, structuralism was the height of fashion in French intellectual life. Althusser was not a card-carrying structuralist, nor even a ‘structuralist Marxist’, as some introductory books on literary theory call him even today. Rather, he wrote his seminal papers in For Marx and Reading Capital in an intellectual milieu in which structuralism, as the dominant methodology, provided him with certain approaches to the interpretation of Marx’s work. There are two such aspects to structuralism’s influence on Althusser’s Marxism. In the first place, structuralism was anti-humanist. Structuralists denied that cultural phenomena were the product of conscious decisions of individual human beings. Rather, they were the products of abstract social codes, of which individuals made use as members of the society governed by those codes. A literary text, from the structuralist point of view, was the product of a trans-individual system of literary meaning, rather than the creation of an individual author. Althusser would argue that, in Marxism properly understood, society itself is a system of relationships — each of whose elements can be understood only in terms of its relation to all the other elements in the system. So a society’s literary products (let us say, the Victorian novel) can only be understood in terms of their relationship to all the other kinds of social activity that comprised the society that produced them — Victorian society’s economy, political life, legal system, education system, marriage and family practices, colonial practices, religious institutions, publishing industry, and so on. Secondly, following from this anti-humanism, Althusser understands a society as a system of elements in relationship. He differs from classical structuralism, which tended towards a complete taxonomy of all the elements in a given system, and towards a ‘grammar’, or system of rules of combination, of these elements. Althusser is interested only in correctly understanding Marx, and correctly acting upon this understanding. Nevertheless, his account of Marx’s revolutionary new theory of society shares with structuralist accounts of cultural phenomena the property of being a system of individual elements, each of whose significance consists in its relationship to the others in the system.
(Louis Althusser, p. 33)
We can begin to see why someone deeply influenced by structuralism would end up having problems with the humanism espoused by the Young Marx. In fact, and precisely for this reason, Althusser argued that the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 actually isn’t a Marxist work. But what could possibly have led him to hold such a counterintuitive position? I mean, Marx did write it, did he not? Althusser argues that Marx had yet to establish his own “problematic” and was still working with the humanist problematic of Ludwig Feuerbach at the time of the works composition. By “problematic” he means a system of concepts, a theoretical structure (in the structuralist sense), a conceptual framework. Basically, it is quite similar to what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm” and what Foucault called an “episteme” — and all three concepts (problematic, paradigm, episteme) were highly influenced by Bachelard’s concept of the “epistemological rupture”. A problematic, for Althusser, is “the system of questions commanding the answers” (For Marx, p. 67). This means that a problematic is the system of concepts that allows certain questions to be posed — questions that in being the questions they are determine their possible answers. The significance of this lies in the fact that while a particular system of concepts opens up a specific range or field of possible questions and answers, it also limits us in what questions can be formulated and thereby limits what answers can be given to them. For Althusser, Feuerbach’s humanist problematic prevents us from establishing the truly emancipatory questions and answers needed to liberate the working class from the capitalist mode of production. In other words, only the properly Marxist problematic opens up the path towards socialism.
Althusser considered it of the utmost importance for Marxists to clearly understand Marx’s problematic, since the failure to do so results in their inability to act in a manner that would lead to our emancipation from capitalism. The true goal and aim of Marxism and socialism in general is the creation of an egalitarian society, a society without intrinsic inequalities in wealth and power built into its very structure and organization. For Althusser, one of the main conditions of the realization of this egalitarian society is the proper understanding of the Marxist problematic — the fate of the world rests on the success or failure of the Marxists to fully comprehend Marx’s original theoretical framework. Thus, Althusser believed wholeheartedly in Lenin’s famous maxim: “Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary practice”. And, according to Althusser, one of the biggest obstacles that stands in the way of understanding the Marxist problematic is Marx’s early humanism in the Manuscripts — Marx must be made to get out of his own way. So what is the authentic Marxist problematic? It is the materialist conception of history, that is, historical materialism. While the young Marx and the mature Marx discussed many of the same social phenomena, e.g., workers, capitalists, wages, value, etc., they did so in the shadows of two entirely different conceptual networks. The problematic of historical materialism is the Marxist problematic proper.
Marx’s transition from Feuerbach’s humanist problematic to his own historical-materialist problematic got underway during 1845, according to Althusser. This is the dividing line between the young Marx and the mature Marx. Althusser referred to this rupture in Marx’s thinking as his “epistemological break”. But there’s more going on here than Marx’s transition from one problematic to another, since Althusser argues that this transition amounts to a transition from ideology to science. From Althusser’s perspective, it is the science of historical materialism that actually provides us with true and essential knowledge of the most fundamental mechanisms at work in society and history — Marx’s discovery of historical materialism is the discovery of the true science of the history of society. Marx, thus, ushered in a paradigm shift on par with those of Newton, Einstein and Darwin in the natural sciences. Althusser puts it like this:
In 1845, Marx broke radically with every theory that based history and politics on an essence of man. This unique rupture contained three indissociable elements.
(1) The formation of a theory of history and politics based on radically new concepts: the concepts of social formation, productive forces, relations of production, superstructure, ideologies, determination in the last instance by the economy, specific determination of the other levels, etc.
(2) A radical critique of the theoretical pretensions of every philosophical humanism.
(3) The definition of humanism as an ideology.
This new conception is completely rigorous as well, but it is a new rigour: the essence criticized (2) is defined as an ideology (3), a category belonging to the new theory of society and history (1).
This rupture with every philosophical anthropology or humanism is no secondary detail; it is Marx’s scientific discovery.
It means that Marx rejected the problematic of the earlier philosophy and adopted a new problematic in one and the same act. The earlier idealist (‘bourgeois’) philosophy depended in all its domains and arguments (its ‘theory of knowledge’, its conception of history, its political economy, its ethics, its aesthetics, etc.) on a problematic of human nature (or the essence of man). For centuries, this problematic had been transparency itself, and no one had thought of questioning it even in its internal modifications.”
(For Marx, ‘Marxism and Humanism’, p. 227)
In other words, prior to Marx, (and this is quite a bold position to hold) historians never really studied history; they simply could not even begin to do so because the proper horizon or conceptual groundwork had not yet been opened up. Before moving on, it’s worth noting that this “epistemological break” in Marx’s work was something that Marx never explicitly addressed, developed, conceptualized, etc.; however, Althusser argued that it is implicitly there. In fact, we shouldn’t be too surprised by this — it is extremely difficult for the fish to perceive the water in which it lives.
While we have been emphasizing Marx’s epistemological break with Feuerbach’s problematic of humanism, we must also understand that this break was also a departure from Hegelianism, i.e., Hegel’s problematic of absolute idealism. The thinking of Hegel and Marx are strongly associated and primarily so because both of them based their work on the dialectical method. The concept of the dialectic originated with Plato. For him, truth is arrived at through the conversational structure of question-and-answer. One interlocutor asserts a point or a thesis, the other counters it with criticisms and counterpoints, then the first interlocutor responds with clarifications, synthetic developments, supplementary evidence, etc. Hegel argued that history itself unfolds and develops through this type of dialectical struggle. However, his concept of history was an idealist one; it is the concept of history as the history of ideas or modes of consciousness. Now, the standard concept of Marx’s utilization of the “Hegelian” dialectic claims that he simply “inverted” it, that is, he took Hegel’s dialectical method and applied it to the material (primary) dimension of society (forces of productions, relations of production, class struggle) instead of applying it, as Hegel did, to the idealist dimension (ideas and concepts). But despite how much this view of the relation between the Hegelian and Marxist applications circulate in philosophical discourses, Althusser stresses in For Marx, especially in the fourth essay entitled ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’, that this view is flat-out wrong. How so? First and foremost, it rests on a misinterpretation of Marx’s famous statement on the matter.
The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.
(Capital: Volume One, Postface to the Second Edition, p. 103)
The traditional interpretation of this passage claims that Marx is saying that the dialectical method as formulated by Hegel was perfectly fine and good, but that Hegel made the mistake of applying this method the the ideal, to the history of ideas, instead of to the material, to the history of modes of production. This interpretation claims that the inversion Marx writes of is simply taking the one and the same dialectical method and applying it to the material history of society instead of the history of thought. However, Althusser argues that this is a misinterpretation. According to him, Marxism completely re-conceptualized the dialectical method.
Now, another misconception about Marxism (historical materialism) that Althusser sought to correct was the traditional understanding of the relation between the base and superstructure. This understanding of it maintains that the base (economic structure) of society unilaterally determines all of the myriad levels or strata of the superstructure (politics, legislature, science, religion, the media, philosophy, ideology, art, literature, etc.). This view of things is far too simplistic, nonsensical and reductionistic — Engels himself said as much:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — 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 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 instances preponderate in determining their form.
(Selected Correspondence, p. 498)
Althusser, à la Engels, insists, and rightfully so, that society is overdetermined. However, Althusser developed this concept of overdetermination — a concept he borrowed from psychoanalysis — far more than any of his Marxist predecessors. The concept of overdetermination is based on the concepts of the relative autonomy and the specific effectivity of the superstructure(s). While the base remains the primary determining factor in society (Althusser referred to this as the determination in the last instance of the economic structure, that is, the mode of production), it most certainly is not the only determining factor. All of the various discourses, domains or strata of society’s superstructure influence each other and the base. Althusser says that each domain has it own relative autonomy and specific effectivity. But what is meant by these terms? The “relative autonomy” of a particular domain means that this domain does have its own internal continuity that allows it to be engaged with on its own terms. For example, it is possible to (relatively) study the history of religion by itself. Of course, religion has always been influenced by economics, politics, art, and so on, but it still has had its own relatively independent development. By “specific effectivity” Althusser has in mind the type of effects a particular level of society has had on the history and development of all the other levels. As Luke Ferretter puts it, “So the influence of each level of a society’s production on the others is, although finally traceable to the economic level, in reality a complex and dialectical network of mutual determination” (Louis Althusser, p. 42). There is, however, another concept we must understand and that is the law of uneven development. This law is twofold. The law’s first aspect: a specific domain’s relative influence on all the rest varies (is uneven) across history. Think about how much impact the domain of technology has now in comparison to that which it has had in the past — it has much, much more influence than it ever had before. The law’s second aspect: in society there is always a dominant level, that is, a level that influences and determines all of the levels more than any other — this position of dominance itself varies (is uneven) across history, which is to say that different levels have occupied it at different times. For example, technology now effects and influences all of the various aspects of the world more than any other. Sometimes religion has been the dominant superstructure (“structure in dominance”), sometimes it was politics, but this position is currently held by technology. Throughout history, the influence belonging to a domain has varied (increased and decreased) and the position of the structure in dominance has itself varied insofar as different societal levels have had it at different points. This play of the relative and dominant influences (determinations) is the law of uneven development. It’s also important to know that Althusser argues that from within the Marxist problematic each of the strata of society can be seen as a practice. That is, he thought that all of the levels of society all have their own types of transformative labor that produce certain products. He defines “practice” like this:
By practice in general I shall mean any process of transformation of a determinate given raw material into a determinate product, a transformation effected by a determinate human labour, using determinate means (of ‘production’). In any practice thus considered, the determinant moment (or element) is neither the raw material nor the product, but the practice in the narrow sense: the moment of the labour of transformation itself, which sets to work in a specific structure, men, means and a technical method of utilizing the means.
(For Marx, p. 166)
According to Althusser, the profound importance and originality of the Marxist problematic lies in the fact that it re-conceptualized society from top to bottom; it allows us to rethink the relation between the elements of society in a way that reveals their overdetermined truth. This system of concepts enabled Marx to create brand new concepts of the state, class, labor, etc. For example, the state had long been reflected on and pondered over, but it wasn’t until Marx that we were able to understand that it’s primary function is to serve the economic interest of the ruling class, e.g., the capitalist class. The concept of overdetermination is incredibly helpful, but it can be difficult to see how this can be applied to concrete realties. What is needed is a good example and such an example is provided by Ferretter:
Let us return to my earlier literary example of Sylvia Plath. The significance of Althusser’s theory of society for criticism of her work is this. First, as a body of literary production, that work has a relative autonomy from the economic situation in which it was produced, with obvious precursors and influences at the purely literary level, such as the poetry of Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke and Anne Sexton. Second, a whole range of social factors also influences her poetry — they make it the kind of work it is — each of which both influences all the others, and can all ultimately, but not simply, be traced back to the economic practices of the society in which they occur. So Plath’s work is conditioned by 1950s gender ideology (which privileged marriage and family for women), an education system that provided her with a world-class university education, the politics of the Cold War, the American history of immigration (her parents were born in Germany and Austria), the employment patterns of immigrants, their cultural expectations (her mother’s literary ambitions and culture of self-improvement), pension and life-insurance practices (important after her father’s death), the publishing industry, cultural expectations about work and remuneration, the practices of raising children, the history of psychiatric treatment, divorce law, to name only a few of the social systems within which she lived and worked. On Althusser’s account, each of these social systems (a) is relatively autonomous, with its own specific history; (b) influences, in varying degrees, each of the other systems, including the capitalist economy in which they all exist; © is influenced, in varying degrees, by all the other systems; (d) is conditioned ultimately by the economy. So, gender ideology in America in the 1950s, for example, most obviously influences the publishing industry, divorce law, child-rearing and psychiatry. It is in turn influenced by the history of World War II (in which American women entered the work force in great numbers, and to which the 1950s ideology of home was in part a reaction, once the economy was re-filled with demobbed servicemen) the mass production of household appliances, religious ideology and so on. Each of these social systems, through their complex pattern of mutual effect on one another, can ultimately be traced to the economy. The publishing industry and the production of consumer goods are obviously governed by economic concerns; psychiatry depends on technological developments and production, a university system and a hospital system, all of which need investments of capital, and particular patterns of income in order to be accessible. This is what Althusser’s theory of society means for literary and cultural criticism. A given cultural product is considered neither as the work of an individual genius (as in traditional bourgeois criticism) nor simply as a product of the economy (as in traditional Marxist criticism). Rather, it is considered as the complex product of what Althusser calls its conjuncture, the complex network of mutually influential social systems that comprise a society at any given historical moment. Literary criticism, in the light of this theory of society, can trace the ways in which these complex networks of influence have made a given work the particular work that it is.
(Louis Althusser, p. 42)
However, Althusser is not without his critics. One can argue that Marx’s epistemological break was far more Althusser’s than it was Marx’s. This idea is very important to consider, since Marx’s theory of alienation, still to this day, resonates with the vast majority of people. It’s much easier to get people to open up toward Marx though his humanistic account of alienation than it is for them to do so through his more structural insights. Nevertheless, those of us interested in Marx must think through Althusser’s reading of him. Althusser gives us much to think about and helps us come to have a more structural outlook on society, which can help to prevent us from falling back on our naive empiricist tendencies. We might need our own return to Marx, but ours will have to go through Althusser’s.