Some two years ago a sympathetic observer of the Parisian intellectual scene, writing in the London Times Literary Supplement, drew attention to the recent rise to prominence of the group of theorists associated with Louis Althusser, a professional philosopher and the holder of a teaching post at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure in the rue d’Ulm, but also a major controversial figure within the French Communist Party. Shortly thereafter further news of him reached the general public from two different directions. First there was a well-publicized clash between Althusser and the Party’s official philosopher, Roger Garaudy, at a meeting of the Central Committee, of which both men are members (Garaudy, being also in the Politburo, carries more political weight, but is less highly regarded in the academic world). Next, the trial of Régis Debray in Bolivia brought out the improbable connection linking this rebellious offspring of the Parisian haute bourgeoisie with two figures as remote from each other as Louis Althusser (Debray’s old teacher) and the late Ernesto Guevara. Lastly, the French upheaval of May-June 1968 introduced a further complication, inasmuch as Althusser reacted to it with a deafening silence. It has since been explained that he was ill; also that he was privately critical of the illusions entertained by the students.
On Czechoslovakia he has been likewise silent, whereas Garaudy has publicly urged Brezhnev and Co. to quit the scene of their labors (“Allezvous en!“)—rather to the embarrassment of his colleagues in the Politburo who are well aware that a sizable minority of the Party’s militants was shocked by this kind of language. Since then there has been further trouble. Jeanette Vermeersch (Thorez’s widow) has resigned from the Central Committee in protest against the Party’s official stand on the invasion of Czechoslovakia, while Garaudy has escaped with a fairly mild rebuke from his Politburo colleagues for having made too many unauthorized statements calling upon French Communists to repudiate Stalinism (of which he used to be an uncritical apologist until 1956, when the scales suddenly dropped from his eyes). Meanwhile silence envelops Louis Althusser and his immediate circle at the Ecole Normale. One can hardly suppose that they are happy with the Kremlin’s behavior. On the other hand, unlike Garaudy (and Louis Aragon) they have refused to agonize about it in public.
The relevance of all this for outsiders is difficult to grasp, and the present reviewer counts himself among those who have been baffled by these cross-currents. Perhaps some light is cast by a study of Fidel Castro’s curious utterances about the invasion of Prague. On the one hand (he said) it was a flagrant interference with national sovereignty. On the other hand, it was necessary to “save socialism” from the revisionists. And anyway the principle of national sovereignty was bourgeois humbug. It had no absolute value, only a relative one, and could not be allowed to take precedence over the interests of the world revolution. This used to be Lenin’s attitude after 1918. It may also reflect Althusser’s view, since his Leninism is unqualified, and thus account for his curious silence.
Doctrinally, Althusser is a “dogmatist,” but of the learned and sophisticated variety. His refusal to compromise works both ways. If one is a rigid defender of what one conceives to be the communist interpretation of Marxism, one will tend to cast a cold eye on humanism, and this is what Althusser and his pupils have become famous for. At the same time these rigorists display an intellectual hauteur which cannot be to the taste of Pravda. Freud and Lévi-Strauss are among their oracles, along with Marx and Max Weber. The primitive Leninism of the 1930s and the petrified Stalinism of the 1950s have alike been left behind. The school specializes in theoretical analysis and expects its adherents to be well up on game theory and the latest wrinkle in Parsonian sociology. Evilly disposed people have been known to hint that Althusser is really after the replacement of Stalinism by structuralism. (I shall come to this topic later.) It also has been suggested that the remedy is worse than the disease, since after all Stalinism merely kills the body whereas structuralism destroys the mind. Without going quite so far, the present reviewer is obliged to confess that he has not found the writings of the school as rewarding as he had been led to expect. Perhaps the promised illumination is still to come. Meantime here is a corpus of work that merits attention.
To start from the wrong end, let us ignore Régis Debray’s pamphlet on guerrilla warfare, familiarity with which may now be taken for granted. It bears the traces of its intellectual origins, but for a more up-to-date production of the school one has to look at André Glucksmann’s recent analysis of the May-June upheaval in France. This followed an earlier work on military strategy published in 1968 under the challenging title Le Discours de la Guerre. There is no evidence that its youthful author has had any first-hand acquaintance with the problems involved in military planning, but then he was writing not about war but about the theory of war. To be exact, he was presenting an exegesis of political and military theorizing from Clausewitz to Mao Tse-tung.
The book has a certain perverse fascination for a layman like the present reviewer, but one would have to consult a practitioner—Debray perhaps, or Malraux—to get an expert opinion. Prospective readers of Le Discours de la Guerre are warned that a thorough knowledge of Hegel’s Science of Logic is an essential precondition for the understanding of Glucksmann. He is very good at expounding simple soldierly dicta, e.g., “The mutual definition of the terms within a contradiction excludes the possibility of any non-contradictory universality.” He also has some sound advice on how to get from one point to another, for example: “The logical manipulation of a contradiction progressively reduces the role of external factors. From differences to contradictions, from their multiplicity to the principal contradiction, from the doublet of aspects (principal/secondary) to the asymmetry of their development (unevenness), there must always be a move from the exterior, which may pose the terms of the problem, to the interior which resolves it.” Now why hadn’t one thought of that before? C’est clair comme le jour, mais il fallait y penser, as they say in Paris.
Glucksmann on the French non-revolution last May-June is original too, though a trifle perverse. Being rather more sophisticated than the armchair revolutionists of the Thirties, he relates the general crisis of modern society to the national crisis of French society. This is a trick the Althusser school, of which Glucksmann is a member, has picked up from Antonio Gramsci, though on philosophical grounds they tend to be critical of him as being too much influenced by Hegel. It is quite a sound approach, provided one sticks to the rules of the game. If one is going to be serious about the method, one must not pretend, for example, that the near-collapse of the over-centralized French bureaucracy last May was part of a global “contestation” pitting the exploiters against their victims from (literally) China to Peru. Unfortunately Glucksmann will have it that the factory occupations last May were symptomatic of a world-wide tension within modern society. What they were really symptomatic of was a perennial problem of French society. But then empirical history does not matter much to the Althusserian school. Neither does the nation and its past.
M. Garaudy, in his latest semi-autobiographical tract has a chapter on political morality which has stirred up a considerable rumpus inside the Party. Peut-on être communiste aujourd’hui? is in its way a rather moving document. Among other things it explains how the author managed since he became a Communist at the age of twenty in 1933 to retain his faith, in the teeth of everything: not only the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, which it took some courage to defend (especially since he was a soldier at the time, and got beaten up for his obstinacy), but the 1956 revelations about Stalin. This appears to have been the worst crisis of his life, and he got through only by drawing upon an unquenchable source of truly religious faith in Communism as an ideal, as distinct from the sordid reality of Stalinist Russia. (It is not irrelevant that the young Garaudy had his moral conscience awakened by Kierkegaard and Karl Barth before he turned to Marx, and that his closest friends have always shared his belief in the compatibility of Christian ethics with Communism.) In the more theoretical parts of his book he is rather good on the intellectual arrogance of the Althusserian school, its remoteness from the concerns of ordinary human beings, and its commitment to a kind of neo-positivism with deep roots in the French intellectual tradition.
This learned and eloquent pamphlet probably puts into words what is closest to the hearts of French Communists today—especially Communists of working-class origin like Garaudy himself. The Althusserians mostly come from a different stratum, and Garaudy scores a point when he observes of their master (p. 271): “Ainsi l’on en arrive aisément à considérer que l’idéologie est bien assez bonne pour le maniement des masses en réservant la Théorie pour les technocrates de la philosophie” (“Thus one arrives easily enough at the notion that ideology is good enough for maneuvering the masses about, while reserving Theory for the technocrats of philosophy.”)
Since Garaudy is himself a professor of philosophy (albeit at a provincial university, not in Paris) this kind of remark cannot be dismissed as an expression of the layman’s traditional suspicion of the clerisy. What divides the two men is Garaudy’s commitment to a socialist form of humanism, i.e., faith in the ability of all men to understand what the world is about and specifically what history is about. Althusser has become famous for asserting that Marxism is not a form of humanism, and that the writings of the young Marx—notably the celebrated Paris Manuscripts of 1844—represent a form of philosophical idealism which he subsequently repudiated. The real commitment of Marx from about 1845 onward (according to Althusser) was to the proletarian revolution, not to mankind. But who is to bring the revolution about? Why, the Communist Party of course (this is no longer Marx, but Lenin, as interpreted by Althusser). Hence appeals to “socialist humanism” must be dismissed, and so, of course, must complaints about interference with such bourgeois-democratic principles as national sovereignty or liberty…. Hence his silence on Czechoslovakia, while Garaudy has publicly (see the Nouvel Observateur of October 21, 1968) condemned the Soviet intervention as “contrary to the principles governing the basic problem of the [various] roads to socialism.”
In the end, though, Garaudy’s lively and vigorous polemic falls short of its aim. A moralist, to be genuinely effective, must sacrifice all else to the truth. Now Garaudy does his best to be honest, but his best is not quite good enough. In his latest book he says all the proper things about Stalin, but averts his eyes from the awful truth about Stalinism as a system of rule. He also subscribes to the official mythology about the French Communists’ share in the wartime Resistance movement, including what he calls “l’appel patriotique du 10 Juillet,” which the Party leadership is supposed to have issued after the 1940 armistice. There was no such “appeal” at that date (the “document” in question is a postwar forgery) and the authentic CP declaration circulated in September of that year, while it contained a few rude remarks about Vichy, was anything but a call for resistance to Hitler, who at the time was still Stalin’s ally.
It is sad to find a moralist sacrificing his conscience for the sake of his friendship with the late Maurice Thorez. But not altogether surprising: after all, both Garaudy and his party are the products of a Catholic culture. And anyway he has taken on an impossible task. If I may plagiarize from a recent Manchester Guardian editorial on the latest Papal encyclical and its repercussions in England: “Anyone who tries to speak in the same breath as prophet, philosopher, pastor and politician is liable to find at the finish that he has panted to no purpose…. Prophets absolutise, philosophers analyse, politicians generalize, pastors particularise.” Politicians also tell lies, and while one may admire Garaudy’s steadfast loyalty to Thorez, he really ought not to have covered up for the former Party leader quite to the extent he does in his book.
Where he is effective is in blasting his philosophical opponents out of their methodological funk-hole. Although not an original thinker, Garaudy is a trained philosopher and quite capable of spotting a contradiction when he sees one. When he says (p. 272) “Althusser combat l’interprétation ‘historiciste’ du marxisme, et il la combat contre Marx lui-même,” he is saying the obvious, but there are occasions when it does no harm to do that. He gets even closer to the target when he writes (pp. 273-74): “En réalité Althusser ne se contente pas d’opérer un retour au rationalisme dogmatique; son propos, qu’il a explicité dans un article sur le retour à Freud (Nouvelle Critique de janvier 1965) est d’être à Marx ce que Lacan est à Freud.” This hits the nail on the head rather neatly, although I had perhaps better explain that Lacan—“le génie du moment“—has sprung into sudden fame with an enormous tome relating Freud to Lévi-Strauss and his school. It also needs to be explained that Althusser and his pupils, in a laudable effort to get away from Hegel and Hegelianism, are much concerned with the uniqueness of the historical event: specifically events such as the October Revolution. Such breaks in historical continuity are not predictable (see Althusser’s essay “Contradiction et Surdétermination,” in his Pour Marx, pp. 87ff), and they do not obey any “law.” This is heresy from the Soviet standpoint, according to which the October Revolution was “lawful,” in the sense of being inscribed in the logic of history.
Althusser realizes quite clearly that this is (a) nonsense; (b) non-Marxist; (c) not what Lenin himself thought. But the October Revolution did take place, and of course it must not be treated as the Napoleonic gamble it really was. Althusser’s solution of the problem is to assert that the event was “overdetermined,” in the sense that a number of seemingly unrelated circumstances (the war, the collapse of Tsarism, the availability of Lenin and the Bolshevik party) all converged toward the same result.
Now the concept of “over-determination,” which plays a key role in Althusser’s thinking, has in fact been taken over from psychoanalysis, while other notions systematically employed by his school have been borrowed from Foucault and Lévi-Strauss. Well, and why not? Garaudy raises no objection in principle. What he complains of is a tendency to substitute a different approach for that of Marx without actually saying so. He is right in diagnosing such a tendency, although of course he may be wrong in substance: a different issue altogether. After all, it is arguable that present-day Marxists would be better off without the Hegelian dialectic, not to mention its castration by Engels and his descendants. Only, if this is what Althusser believes, he ought to say so more plainly and without pulling his punches about Lenin.
I shall get around to the Master in due course. First let us have a look at one of his acolytes: M. Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek-born sociologist attached to the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and the author of a learned essay entitled Pouvoir politique et classes sociales de L’état capitaliste. For a young man of thirty-two this is quite a remarkable effort: grimly professional, rigorously logical, and littered with footnotes in the best scholarly manner. Poulantzas has digested his Communist classics (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci, and Althusser; no one else counts, certainly not Lukács who is dismissed as a Hegelian in disguise), but he also cites Weber, Schumpeter, Parsons, Lasswell, Mac-Iver, Theodor Geiger, and Ralf Dahrendorf, at the drop of a hat. Indeed he seems to have read practically everything produced in this century, although not a great deal written before that date. Again, like Glucksmann, he does not bother with empirical history—the little he says about it testifies to a marked disdain for anything so tiresome as a mere fact. What he is after is an analysis of his chosen topic: the capitalist state.
Now here is an initial difficulty. One can leaf through the entire works of Marx and Engels without coming across any systematic treatment of this particular topic. Marx had a good deal to say about the capitalist mode of production. He also had much to say about bourgeois society. And he occasionally remarked upon the fact that the state (by which he meant the bureaucracy) was normally—but not invariably—in the service of the socially dominant class. But nowhere does he speak of a “capitalist state” (or for that matter of a feudal one). At most he suggests that the modern state serves the interests of capital. But what of the state as such? For Marx it is simply the embodiment of force, a centralized apparatus to be taken over (or destroyed) by the revolution. The state is what society is not: the concentrated essence of political power and for the rest a neutral administrative machinery. There is no “capitalist state”: not in Marx anyway.
Here then is a poser. Was Marx a Marxist? Did he know what he was doing? The answer one gets from Althusser and his disciples is: “Only up to a point.” Marx, one is told, originated a new manner of theorizing, but he was not altogether clear about all the implications of his own work. The reason is that he lacked some of the conceptual tools that were needed to clarify the method he was employing in his investigations. Moreover, in so far as he made use of Hegel’s terminology he went seriously astray. Fortunately it has now become possible to dispense with these blinkers and transform Marxism into a genuine science. How? By getting rid of all that German metaphysical ballast and replacing it by the kind of sophisticated system-analysis that Althusser, Lacan, Poulantzas, Foucault, and others are agreed in describing as structuralism. The real Marx—the one whose genuinely novel theoretical discoveries have to be laboriously deciphered with the aid of Althusser’s conceptual tool-kit—was a structuralist before his time. He just didn’t know it.
How could he? After all, structuralism had not yet been invented. That is to say, it had not yet been established (by Lévi-Strauss and his school) that what matters in the investigation of a social system are the inter-relationships among its parts. There is a certain totality of relationships in every society such that all the particular sectors are held in balance by the regulative principle of the system: in the case of capitalism, the accumulation of capital. As a sociologist Marx knew this, but as a philosopher he was hampered by his Hegelian inheritance. So, instead of concentrating on the internal logic of the system he was analyzing (capitalism), he tried to place it in a historical perspective, midway between European feudalism and the socialist future. Moreover, he suggested that a genuine analysis of capitalism became possible only at a certain historical moment when the “internal contradictions” of the system had begun to reflect themselves in critical theorizing (of a socialist nature).
This link between “crisis” and “criticism” was part of the Hegelian inheritance. It led to the notion that theoretical concepts are themselves historical, in that they “reflect” a particular state of affairs, instead of being timeless and applicable to all eternity. Althusser (who much prefers Spinoza to Hegel) is dissatisfied with all this and he can point to the alarming consequences of treating theoretical concepts as though they were fluid and needed revision every now and then. What he is really saying (see Lire le Capital, Vols. I and II) is that Marx would have done better to dispense with Hegelian terminology and to present his theory of capitalism as the scientific analysis of a certain structural totality: scientific because true and therefore timeless.
Very well, let us provisionally accept all this. Let us disregard the awkward circumstance that Althusser’s rationalism is in the straight line of descent from Auguste Comte, and that Marx had read Comte and did not think much of him. 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 are then still left with the problem of accounting for the man’s failure to spot the existence of a “capitalist state.” There he was, writing all those volumes of Capital, and all those political pamphlets about the seizure of power, and yet it never once dawned on him that there was a “capitalist state.” Why did it not occur to him to put two and two together? So long as he was busy analyzing the relationship of bourgeois society to the state, why did he not make the point that the state was “capitalist”?
The obvious answer is: because he did not think there was such an entity as the “capitalist state.” He thought in terms of a capitalist mode of production compatible with any kind of state: autocratic, democratic, or whatever. But the reader won’t find this stated by Poulantzas (or by Althusser either). Instead he is offered a series of hints to the effect that the notion of a “capitalist state” can be extrapolated from Marx’s writings, if only one tries hard enough. Moreover, there is the argument that Marxism has been developed further—by Lenin and Gramsci, for example. Only Gramsci says nothing about the “capitalist state” either! Instead he talks of an Italian state, which, to be sure, serves the basic aims of the ruling class, but that is another matter.
What of contemporary Marxist theory on this question? Poulantzas cites Henri Lefebvre, Maximilien Rubel, and Herbert Marcuse (p. 132), shakes his head over them, and dismisses them as “historicists”—the worst thing a structuralist can say of his opponents. They all share, it seems, a common error: that of taking seriously the Hegelian distinction between “civil society” and “the state.” Thence derives “ce corrélat de la problématique historiciste qu’est la perspective anthropologique de ‘l’individu concret’ et de ‘l’homme générique’ conçus comme sujet de l’économie.” Poulantzas (having learned from Althusser that the Marx of the 1844 Paris Manuscripts was still a speculative philosopher) will have nothing to do with this “historicist perspective.” It does not occur to him that the distinction between state and society (which was in fact introduced for the first time by a group of eighteenth-century theorists including Montesquieu and the Scottish historians) may have been the intellectual reflex of an actual event: the emergence (for the first time in recorded history) of an autonomous market-centered society not subordinate to the state.
All he can see is that Marx inherited this terminology and he wants no part of it. “Sans s’étendre sur la critique de cette conception, contentons-nous de remarquer qu’elle conduit à des conséquences très graves, qui aboutissent à l’impossibilité d’un examen scientifique de l’Etat capitaliste.” The “grave consequences” are these: if the state as such became visible for the first time at a particular historical moment, then a theory of the state is something different from an analysis of the particular political order characteristic of present-day society. Philosophy, in other words, would then conserve its autonomy—instead of collapsing into sociology—so long as people remember that there was once something called history, and that history has to do with men, not just with classes and their relations. Philosophy and history are in fact inter-related—which is just why the Althusser school wants to eliminate both.
Nous voilà enfin au coeur de la mêlée. It is not just a matter of “historicism” in the Hegelian sense. Poulantzas has something quite sensible to say (p. 222) about the needless trouble which some Hegelians get into trying to disentangle “ideology” from “science.” His brief remarks on this topic are effective against Lukács (and against Lenin, whom he does not criticize), but this is mere shadow-boxing. What we want to know is where history—actual profane empirical history—comes in. The answer is that it doesn’t come in at all. At any rate, the present reviewer can’t find it. And for this it seems to me Louis Althusser must take some of the responsibility.
Now it has to be conceded that in getting rid of the Stalinist heritage, including the dreadful clap-trap about “bourgeois science” and “proletarian science,” Althusser and his pupils have performed a valuable service. At least the air has once more become breathable. But the accumulated stench from the Stalin cloaca was not the only bother. French Communism had become addicted to a debased form of metaphysics which certified the coming victory of the revolution by appealing to dialectical “laws of motion” supposedly valid for nature and history alike. The demolition of this faith was long overdue, and once more Althusser deserves credit for it. Lastly, there was the heritage of Engels’s philosophical writings, including his interpretation (or misinterpretation) of historical materialism in his letter to J. Bloch of September 21, 1890—a text usually cited by his apologists as proof that he knew all about the limitations of economic determinism. In fact, what Engels puts forward in this regrettable document is an eclectic doctrine which takes at its face value the surface configuration of society. His uncritical acceptance of the theoretical model underlying the notion of the homo oeconomicus represents a return to the pre-Marxian standpoint.
However, this is not the end of the matter. The autonomy of science in the writings of Althusser signifies a commitment to a particular kind of theorizing: that associated with the structuralist school. A return to positivism is inevitable if one casts philosophy overboard, but structuralism has a special attraction for French Marxists because it is in tune with the Comtean tradition. It can also appeal to the prestige of contemporary anthropology, psychology, and linguistics. However, as we have seen, it can be argued with a little ingenuity that Marx was himself a structuralist before his time; he certainly looked for patterns and relations. Althusser’s pupils are fond of citing from the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach: “The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual…it is the ensemble of social relations.” This sort of thing was and is a necessary corrective to German metaphysical speculation (not to mention the flatulent idealism of Schiller and his imitators down to Hochhuth). Marx was critical of Kant for the same reason that he preferred Shakespeare to Schiller.
On the other hand, he had no use for Comte, and it is easy to guess what he would have thought of Michel Foucault’s discovery that “Man” was invented quite recently (around 1800—See Les Mots et Les Choses, p. 319) and is due to make his disappearance shortly (ibid., pp. 396-398). What will take man’s place, it seems, is a human antheap in which the individual no longer exists as such. If one believes this, one must also believe that there is nothing to be done about it, in which case one can hardly claim to be in the Marxist tradition. Foucault, in fact, cites Nietzsche in support of his reflections on the imminent Death of Man (“L’homme est une invention dont l’archéologie de notre pensée montre aisément la date récente.”)
Now there is no need to burden Althusser with Foucault’s gloomy prophesies. One may also grant that every set of problems needs to be reformulated from time to time, and that it will do the Marxists no harm if they have to bring their conceptual apparatus up to date. Lastly, it is arguable that Marx himself lacked the perspective necessary to perceive just what he was doing that had not been done before. This is a perennial problem in philosophy and science: the great innovators who advance into terra incognita have to make up their tools as they go along, and these tools necessarily partake of the nature of the “old world” that is being left behind. In Marx’s case, it is now conventional to deplore his residual Hegelianism, but the Althusserian Marx suffers from a more specific fault: he was so far in advance of his time that he found it impossible even in Capital to apply the sort of methodology that would have been appropriate to the kind of work he was doing. Instead, he fell back upon inherited thought patterns (Lire le Capital, I, pp. 33-35). Hence the prevalence of a terminology embodying a particular vision—that of the dialectical process, kept going by its “internal contradictions.”
For Marx, the latter exist in germ already from the start, and the subsequent history of an epoch (antiquity, the middle ages, or whatever) is simply the explication and externalization of a hidden logic of self-contradiction. In Pour Marx (pp. 92 ff) Althusser shows very clearly that the understanding of an event such as the Russian Revolution demands a different conceptual model. He is less convincing when he turns his attention to those passages in Capital where Marx employs Hegelian terms by way of suggesting that relatively simple forms of economic life (commodity, money, etc.) already contained in nuce the more highly developed stages of the capitalist production process. In this case the method simply cannot be divorced from the theoretical conclusions worked out with its aid. Althusser’s solution of this awkward problem is to suggest that Marx did his scientific work (whose validity he takes for granted) in spite of being saddled with concepts that were quite unsuitable for his purpose. What he discovered (with the help admittedly of an “ideological” commitment to Hegel’s logic of contradiction) was a particular structure to which this logic was not applicable (Lire le Capital, II, pp. 399-401).
It is to be observed that Althusser and his pupils have nothing to say about the subject matter of Marx’s economic investigations. They are solely concerned with his methodology. In so far as it is tainted with Hegelianism, they regard it as irrelevant and contingent. An empiricist like Raymond Aron can describe Marx as pre-modern because still indebted to Hegel. The originality of Althusser’s performance consists in demonstrating that Marx actually employed a method of his own for which he had not found a suitable mode of expression, and that he unconsciously made up for this lack by employing the antiquated Hegelian terminology. The only trouble is that we are never told what his new method was. Lire le Capital concludes with a rhetorical question: “quelle est donc la nouveauté de la méthode d’exposition suivie par Marx pour qu’il soit contraint de l’exposer en un language ancien qui la trahit?” (ibid, II, p. 401). No clear answer is to be found anywhere, but the drift of Althusser’s thought is plain enough: having got rid of the dialectic, in the “materialist” form conserved by Marx, he is free to search for the structure of social reality without bothering about the notion that the historical process exemplifies a logic of contradiction (or the passage of essence into existence, or that of unconscious reality into consciousness, or any other philosophical superstition).
Now the point here is that for Althusser theoretical thinking, if it is to take itself seriously, cannot operate with the sort of logical model Engels had in mind when in the Preface to Vol. III of Capital he wrote: “It is self-evident that where things and their interrelations are conceived not as fixed but as changing, their mental images, the ideas, are likewise subject to change and transformation…they are not encapsulated in rigid definitions….” If the changing substance of the historical process enters into the very structure of the conceptual model, then how can there be such a thing as science?
The question is legitimate. The answer is that Engels, not for the first time, had made a muddle of a logical problem for whose solution he was not equipped. Althusser is so appalled by this discovery (see Lire le Capital, II, pp. 64-67) that he hardly knows what to say, whereas Garaudy (op. cit., pp. 275-78) bends all his efforts to the task of demonstrating that Engels was merely explicating the plain meaning of what Marx had said earlier. In actual fact Marx could never have done his theoretical work if he had not believed in the possibility of defining his object scientifically. Althusser’s polemic against “empiricism” and “pragmatism” is directed against Engels, and to that extent represents a justified reaction on the part of a theorist when confronted with a conceptual model which makes theoretical thinking impossible, and moreover takes pride in demonstrating that there can be no such thing as an adequate scientific definition because “the only real definition is the development of the object itself, but this development is no longer a definition.” (Lire le Capital, II, p. 65, citing Anti-Dühring.)
This kind of stuff connects Engels with Nietzsche, and one can hardly blame Althusser for wanting no part of it. He is less persuasive when he tries to expel the dialectic from those passages in Marx’s own work where theoretical thinking is meant to give an adequate report of the actual historical process—something Engels could not do on his pragmatist assumptions, because for him the concepts merely “reflect” a changing set of circumstances, and thus lack any theoretical dignity. When Althusser affirms that authentic theorizing is incompatible with this kind of historicism, he is saying the obvious. And when he lauds Spinoza for having effected an unprecedented revolution in thought (Lire le Capital, II, p. 50), he performs an important and necessary task. But to call Spinoza “le seul ancêtre direct de Marx” (Ibid.) is to open one’s flank to criticism (see Garaudy, p. 273). The mathematical model employed by Descartes and Spinoza does serve as a reminder that there is such a thing as theoretical discovery, and of course Marx thought he had discovered something—why else go to all that trouble?
As a corrective to the kind of debased Hegelianism which no longer recognizes any difference between ideas and mere ideologies, this is all very well. But Althusser seems to underrate the difficulty of applying the rationalist model to historical reality. If there is such a thing as a logic of history—and for the past two centuries philosophy has been in search of a method suitable to this topic—it is unlikely to disclose itself to thinkers for whom Hegelianism merely represents a grandiose aberration.
The attraction structuralism has come to possess for Althusser and his school should now have become somewhat less mysterious. At bottom both he and Lévi-Strauss are in search of something that lies beyond the flux of history. The unifying link is the theory of language, inasmuch as its study holds out the hope of laying bare the most general features of man’s conceptual structure and therewith a means of deciphering our cultural heritage without falling into relativism. To the obvious question, whose conceptual structure—the Brazilian aboriginal’s or the modern scientist’s—philosophy may reply, in the words of a contemporary British logician (P. F. Strawson), “There is a massive central core of human thinking which has no history.” If this area can be cleared up, we shall have access to “the commonplaces of the least refined thinking” as well as “the indispensable core of the conceptual equipment of the most sophisticated human beings.”
Plainly it is this goal which for some of our contemporaries has taken the place of the traditional concern with the decipherment of historical processes. That France, for so long the stronghold of rationalism and positivism, should have become a center of structuralist writing—for in the last resort this is what the whole movement is about—need not surprise anyone familiar with the intellectual climate of Paris. I merely observe, in passing as it were, that the historical movement which has led us to this point is quite capable of leading away from it. For when all is said and done, the current predominance of rationalist, structuralist, and anti-historicist (not to say anti-historical) modes of thought is just as much an aspect of the contemporary world as the rise of nuclear science, the new calculating machines, the growth of authoritarian and bureaucratic tendencies in politics, and the phenomenon of a cult literature whose theme is no longer the death of God, but the coming disappearance of Man.
January 30, 1969