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In response to:

A New Twist in the Dialectic from the January 30, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. George Lichtheim’s review of works by Louis Althusser and his followers (NYR, January 30) is open to question on several counts:

  1. Ad hominem remarks about what Althusser and his followers did or did not do during the “French upheaval of May-June, 1968” might tell us something about their moral stature, but shed no light on the value and originality of their theories. The same goes for all the gossip about “the Party’s official philosopher, Roger Garaudy” and the not surprising fact that he does not care for Althusser.

  2. Any attempt to elucidate the significance of Althusser’s anti-Hegelian and structuralist interpretation of Marx must consider facts such as these:

a) Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of anthropological structuralism, has claimed and continues to claim that his own enterprise is a continuation of that of Marx. And some of his analyses, such as his analysis of the Bororo (Tristes Tropiques, pp. 214-231) would seem to constitute evidence in support of this claim.

b) Maurice Godelier has argued (“System, Structure and Contradiction in Capital,” The Socialist Register 1967, pp. 91-120) that for both Marx and Lévi-Strauss, “social structure” is a latent construct and not a manifest observable. And that for both theorists “observable social behavior” provides indicators for the non-observable “structure.” If Godelier’s analysis is correct, then it would constitute further justification for calling Marx a structuralist.

  1. Althusser has never labeled Marx a “structural-functionalist” and Marx most emphatically was not one. But unfortunately Mr. Lichtheim does not seem to know the difference between “structuralism” and “structural-functionalism.” He writes:

For the sake of argument let us also concede that Marx was trying to perform the kind of structural-functional analysis of bourgeois society which Weber and Parsons subsequently applied to industrial society (not quite the same thing).

We cannot concede this because it is nonsense. “Structural-functionalists” or “functionalists” for short—including luminaries such as Talcott Parsons, but not Max Weber—analyze Euro-American (or Western “industrial” or “bourgeois”) societies as if they were consensual, homeostatic, self-sustaining systems. In practice, functionalists also assume that everything in society contributes to the preservation of society. And they are fond of a kind of pseudo-explanation that calls attention to alleged consequences or effects rather than causes. Now, Mr. Lichtheim knows that far from emphasizing an alleged consensus, Marx interprets Euro-American societies in terms of an analytical conflict model.

  1. Mr. Lichtheim’s identification of André Glucksmann as a member of “the Althusserian school” is questionable in view of the fact that Glucksmann is the author of one of the sophisticated critiques of Althusser. See “Un structuralisme ventriloque,” Les Temps Modernes, Mars, 1967, pp. 1557-1598. The main thrust of Glucksmann’s Le discours de la guerre is not to give an obscure exegesis of Hegel but rather to point out the similarity between Marx’s analytic model of class conflict and Clausewitz’s model of military conflict. Glucksmann argues that each is an example of a two-player, zero-sum, strategic “game.”

  2. In the essay Stratégie et Révolution en France en 1968 which is presumably reviewed by Mr. Lichtheim, Glucksmann wrote: “The students were of petty bourgeois birth, and ‘cut off from the working class’ on May 13th as well as on May 29th; they were the originators of a general strike nonetheless.” To examine this thesis Mr. Lichtheim cannot “ignore Régis Debray’s pamphlet on guerrilla warfare,” because it is precisely Debray’s thesis which Glucksmann is applying to France: can the “small motor” (guerrillas in Latin America, petty bourgeois students in France) trigger the “large motor” (peasants in Latin America, industrial workers in France) and start the Revolution?

George A. Huaco

Assistant Professor of Sociology

Yale University

New Haven

George Lichtheim replies:

I would not dispute that my critical essay on Althusser and his school (including such minor camp-followers or stragglers as Glucksmann) is “open to question on several counts.” Some of the imperfections were obvious to me at the time of writing. For example, I omitted any mention of Althusser’s neo-Stalinist indictment of “socialist humanism” as an “ideology” dangerous to the Communist movement: a doctrine lately enforced with considerable energy in Czechoslovakia. Likewise I said nothing about his solemn exegesis of Mao’s infantile utterances on philosophical topics. Pour Marx (Contre Marx might be a more suitable title, since the whole book is a sustained polemic against Marx) covers a lot of ground, and I did not want to weary the reader with topics of marginal interest to non-specialists.

What is beyond question is that Mr. Huaco is substantially in sympathy with Althusser, and consequently not disposed to take account of the critical observations put forward by Garaudy and other French Communists, not to mention my own modest effort. The central point is this: Marxism is, or used to be, the union of a particular critical theory with a particular kind of revolutionary practice. If this union is torn apart—for example by silently condoning the rape of Czechoslovakia, and the Stalinist indictment of strikes and workers’ councils as “anti-socialist” (Brezhnev dixit)—then there is nothing left of Marxism but a positivist sociology of the Comtean type, and this is in fact what Althusser and his followers have made of it. That these learned scholastics have also introduced some intellectual refinements is quite true, and I acknowledged it. But these refinements, which are of course beyond the competence of the illiterates in Peking, or the romantic amateurs in Havana, are quite unrelated to the practice of guerrilla warfare—the only topic that really seems to interest Mr. Huaco. Hence there was no need for me to bring Debray in: save for hinting that he would have been unlikely to have profited from reading Glucksmann’s pretentious nonsense.

As for Lévi-Strauss, he is politically a moderate socialist, which of course does not necessarily make him less of a Marxist, if that is how he wants to describe himself. Most socialists have been influenced by Marx in one way or another. Mr. Huaco’s characteristic pedantry about the difference between “structuralism” and “structural-functionalism” (I was not writing a learned paper for a specialized journal) is out of place: I was dealing with Poulantzas, not with Parsons. Nor did I say that Althusser “labeled Marx a structural-functionalist.”

If Mr. Huaco is capable of believing that there is a similarity between “Marx’s model of class conflict and Clausewitz’s model of military conflict,” he may believe anything. His authority for this nonsense is Glucksmann, whose intellectual ancestry is to be found among the Young Hegelians of Bruno Bauer’s school—the Kritische Kritik of which Marx made fun in the Holy Family. Marx went to Paris so as to escape from these fellows. Glucksmann has moved to Berlin—in spirit anyway.

What these German Klugscheisser (let Mr. Huaco ask someone to translate this rude remark for him) are capable of, down to this day, may be inferred from their recent arrogant dismissal of the Czechoslovak resistance movement as “idealist,” “reformist,” and “bourgeois-liberal.” Germany never having had a genuine democratic revolution, it is of course quite in order for these neo-Hegelians to look down disdainfully from the eminence of their Berlin anthill upon the revolutionary struggle of the Czechoslovak workers and students against the Stalino-fascist occupants of their country. The most they are willing to concede is that bureaucracy does represent a problem. To quote from a recent essay by one of these sages in a British periodical: “The functionalization and assimilation of superstructure and base in the framework of a hypostatized, bureaucratically planned economy—the Eastern variant of the one-dimensional society—thus removes the utopian transcendent content from false social consciousness.” I am sure this stuff appeals to Mr. Huaco. I have only one comment to make on it: People whose headpieces are filled with his kind of sawdust will never make a revolution. Nor will they ever understand what Marxism is about.

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