Why I am not a Marxist-Antihumanist as well, and why I respect Althusser despite his failure, part 1
So structural Marxism, or Marxist-anti-humanism, has been far more influencial than Marixst humanism outside of the sectarian Marixst mileau being an influence on Badiou, Foucault, and most of the current Western Maoist groups which are not explicitly Maoist third-worldists. I deeply respect Althusser, but I have a fundamental problem with him that is different from the unified field theory reading of Marx I see in a lot of Marxist-Humanists. For Althusser posits a nearly more radical rupture in Marx than I think is there pulling Marx away from both Hegelian dialectics and from materialism. Indeed, his use of Freud and Lacan while illuminating move one away from a Dialectical process and unto something completely different. I would venture to say the circularity and lack of transition between epochs on finds in some of the vulgarized work of early Foucault are consistent with Althusser beginning in Ideological State Apparatus. When in Reading Capital Althusser asserts that the dialectical materialism is a vision between the theory of knowledge as vision with a theory of knowledge as production, Althusser was profoundly insightful, but his step to see this as a opposition in which one side is favored as real–as in the Ideological State Apparatus–was because Althusser forgot the the dialectical result is a synthesis of the dialectic, not merely an opposition.
Althusser’s critique of the base economic determinism of many classical Marxists which people at the Marxist Humanist Initiative are perhaps the most obvious example of stands, but he assertion that there is no economicism in later Marx because of a radical epistemological break. Now unsubtle readings of Althusser argue that Althusser inverted the base/superstructure argument, favoring the superstructure as the base, deviating from Engel’s assertion of reciprocation until the last instance, but I think that is not Althusser’s mistake. Indeed, I think I agree with Leszek Kolakowski, when he was still more or less a Marxist, critique of Althusser in Althusser’s Marx,
his theory, expressed in Althusser’s works in extremely pretentious language, is nothing else but the repetition of Engels’ principle of the “relative autonomy” of the superstructure in respect to economic conditions and is just as unclear as that principle. “The great law of uneven development “, if it means anything, means that comparable units (e.g. individuals or industrial societies or tribal societies or trees or galaxies) do not change exactly in the same way since their environment is never exactly the same. It is of course a common sense platitude that may perhaps have a certain philosophical meaning, e.g. in Herbert Spencer. To present it as a dazzling achievement of Marxist thought and to call it”the great law” proves nothing. The same is true of”overdetermination”. That important historical events,such as revolutions, result from the coincidence of many circumstances is a commonplace and one could hardly find anybody foolish enough to maintain that any detail of the historical process may be deduced from the general principle of “contradiction” between productive forces and relations of production. Neither is this commonplace specifically Marxist in any sense. What is specifically Marxist is Engels’ famous phrase about the determinant forces of economic conditions “in the last instance”. This is vague and is not made less vague by Althusser’s repetition of it without any further explanation. It is certainly true that Marx never tried to replace historical inquiry by general statements about “contradictions” nor did he hope that the course of history might be described by deductions from this statement. But this is precisely what makes the whole meaning of historical materialism unclear unless it is reduced again to the commonplace idea that many factors are at work in any historical event and that economic conditions are one of them. This is why some Marxists of the Second International were reluctant to admit Engels’ well known explanations in his letters to Schmidt, Bloch or Mehring. They believed, perhaps not without reason, that the idea of “many factors” enjoying “relative autonomy”deprives Marxism of its specificity, and makes of historical materialism a banal common place, since the additional vague statement about the “determination in the last resort” has no meaning whatsoever in historical explanation as long as we are not able to define what are the limits of this “ultimate determination” and, similarly, the limits of the “relative autonomy” granted to other domains of social life, especially to various spheres of the so-called superstructure. Again, the whole theory of “over-determination” is nothing but a repetition of traditional banalities which remain exactly on the same level of vagueness as before. If we say, e.g. that the state of science, or of philosophy, or of legal institutions, does not depend only, in a given moment, on the actual economic conditions, but also on the past history of science, of philosophy or of legal institutions, we will certainly have difficulty in finding anybody to contradict us and Althusser’s expenditure of indignation in attacking his nonexistent enemies on this point seems rather exaggerated. Moreover, he contradicts himself directly, as far as ideology is concerned. After quoting with approval Marx’s statement from The German Ideology, that philosophy and religion, in a number of ideological forms, have no history of their own but that their apparent history is only the “real” history of the relations of production (FM, p. 83) he goes on to explain in the second book (RC, pp. ggff) that, on the contrary, every domain of the “superstructure”, including philosophy and art, har its own specific history, which does not mean, as Althusser explains, that they are independent of the social “totality”, but that their degree of independence is determined by their degree of dependence. This last remark is either a tautology or a vague statement that the state of philosophy, or of art, is partially dependent on the actual economic “totality”-a statement which belongs to common sense but is uselessso long as we are unable to define the limits of this partial dependence.
In other words, in failing to deal with the dialectic, well, dialectically, Althusser moves us into a situation where ideologies compete to form the subject/object relations, and these ideologies look to cause the problem. This is the ultimate, but opposite, form of hypostatization I see Marxist-Humanism. The inversion of an error does not undo the error.
Althusser’s attempt to rid Marx of the “idealist” dialectics from Hegel actually ends up removing the dialectical process from Marx itself creating a reification in which the descriptor of the relation of the means of production actually end up determining the means of production. Or, to be put it simply, in taking the idealism out of the dialectics, Althusser also took the dialectic itself out. Furthermore, his typologies are themselves idealistic because it places ideas and not relationships as the primary determinate of human relationship as I stated above.
Althusser’s ideological critiques for all their flaws did leave to critically engaging with the idea of historical problems of class. Indeed, class remnants and systems set up by a prior existing class can transfer and survive the relations. Therefore, for example, since most of the population in neo-liberal capitalism are wage-earners, one does not need capitalists classes as existing people to function. Furthermore, there is a point to one of Althusser’s critiques of many Marxist prior substutation of materialism for idealism:
To simplify matters, let us say, for now, a materialism of the encounter, and therefore of the aleatory and of contingency. This materialism is opposed, as a wholly different mode of thought, to the various materialisms on record, including that widely ascribed to Marx, Engels and Lenin, which, like every other materialism in the rationalist tradition, is a materialism of necessity and teleology, that is to say, a transformed, disguised form of idealism.