Reading Althusser

The Philosophical Conjuncture and Marxist theoretical research*, in The humanist controversy and Other Writings, Ed. F. Matheron (Verso, London 2003, p. 1-18)

Notes taken by Erik Empson for - 23 November 2003

*This lecture was delivered in the summer of 1966 after the publication of the two texts For Marx and Reading Capital. Although it adds little new, this small piece shows something of Althusser's understanding of the nature of French philosophy and of Marxism, and what he understood as the objectives of his theoretical research.

By philosophical conjuncture Althusser means two things. The historical developments within French philosophy and the dominant and minor currents within the contemporary situation. However he also appears to consider the conjuncture as something of a situation that has itself arisen through the imperatives of the moment that are not the object of a historical analysis but rather of the material effects of the practice of philosophy itself. Hence Althusser tries to argue that the meeting where the speech is being held has not been initiated by Althusser himself, but rather by a necessity engendered by the currents of research he is describing and out of the imperatives of the research itself to bring together this collaboration. (cf p. 2 The Humanist Controversy, Verso 2003 and p. 17 (fn) Althusser's point is that the meeting is a 'play without an author' and that each of the participants are there as particular structural effects of the conjuncture'.

The dominant element conditioning the contemporary juncture Alhusser calls religious spiritualism which he traces back as far as the middle ages. Alongside it lies a rationalist idealist trend which develops out of Cartesianim, in its critical idealist form (Kant and Husserl) it was, according to Althusser, at the time of writing, alive and dominant in theoretical French philosophy. Alongside the religious-spiritualist and the rationalist- idealist current lies a third: rationalist-empiricism which is in turn divided into two types; idealist and materialist. Both types persist in the philosophy of sciences and can be traced to the C17th (Diderot and Comte are mentioned here). Althusser regards the C19th as a low point for French philosophy (only the positivist Comte 'saved its honour') and it and the early C20th are characterised as a period of profound philsophical reaction; that is 'reactionary philosophy (p. 5) In critiquing this reactionary philosophy (mentioned are Maine de Biran, Bergson, Victor Cousin, Ravaisson, Boutroux, Lachelier) which failed to read, recognise and understand neither Kant, nor Hegel, Althusser gives some of the clearest pointers to those thinkers within the rational and critical idealist camp that he admires for having attempted to combat it and forced the religious spiritualism on the retreat. Here he mentions positivists and Utopians like Durkheim and Comte, and Fourier, Saint-simon, Cournot, Freud, (Nietsche) and 'of course' Marx. For Althusser the moment of the spiritualist current has passed under the pressure of scientific thought and its adherents persist only by the modern 'religion' of art. He argues that in the current time French Philosophy is undergoing a second moment defined by the exhaustion and crisis of the critical, rationalist idealism. It is at this juncture that Althuser's true intellectual oject is revealed, with the mushrooming of different philosophies, his target is the intellectual terrain of the human sciences - to critique the ideology contained within the ideational problematic of the sciences themselves. Althusser seeks a two pronged attack on spirtualism and on critical idealism and it is almost too obvious that for him Marxism is the theoretical field in which this is to be accomplished.

Having yet failed to provide many reasons at all for his antipathy to these currents, Althusser continues to delineate two component parts of Marxist theoretical inquiry and prospective areas of necessary inquiry within them. Distinguishing between Marxism as historical materialism (science of history) and Marxism as dialectical materialism (philosophy) for Althusser serves to correct what he admits as an error in Reading Capital in over-emphasising theoretical production above empirical research and failing to provide a proper theoretical account of the workings of the latter. And yet if the readers of Reading Capital were dismayed by the abstract nature of the explanation of theoretical practice they will be further exasperated by the general and restricted vision enunciated by Althusser here. The basic nature of the questions that are being posed seem to show a theoretical orientation that in the context of the rise of social movements at the time is quite naieve and specifically western in its orientation. And yet despite the terribly underdeveloped nature of what are outlined as seven strategic questions for Marxism as a theoretical practice, they can be understood largely as arising out of a committed anti-humanist standpoint albeit with a confessed committment towards Marx and Marxism as a scientific philosophy. These strategic questions range from critique of the individual, of ideology, of the theory of theoretical practice, general theory of discourse, theory of the subject. These are all elements grounded in the following orientation: the basic task of Marxist theory, its strategic task, has Marxist theory itself for its object'.

Ultimately what Althusser means by Marxist theory is the struggle within Marxism for the appropriate understanding of its own practice. This itself is a common enough gesture. What follows is: 'There can be no defining Marxist theory in the absence of a struggle against ideoloigcal interpretations of Marxist theory' against the 'misinterpretations, distortions, prejudices and ignorance of Marxism' that reign outside and within the Marxist context (p. 10). There is something of a stalinist flavour to the manner in which Althusser calls for the purging of ideological, spiritualist and humanist elements from within Marxism. Moreover there it is discomforting to read how confident Althusser is that his system is the authentic interpretation of the current and why it is not seen that the plurality of what goes under the name of Marxism as a practice disqualifies it from having a theoretical congruity of the type Althusser utlimately seeks to achieve (like his projected but abandoned manuscript on the unity of theory and practice). The difficulty with Althusser's positing of the theoretical task of Marxism to know and define its own theory is that it is becomes dependent upon the existence of internal conflict over the nature of the system itself. It can not reach a correct position because this would ultimately involved an identical structural effect amongsts its practioners and Marxism as a general theoretical practice could not develop into anything except satisfaction with itself. What this statement can only mean is the becoming superior of one element within the general field of (theoretical practice).

Following the strategic theoretical issues, Althusser draws a list of prospective and necessary avenues for empirical and historical research. These include very familar themes: general theory of historical materialism, the nature of imperialism, theory of the state and law, theory of political practice, of historical forms of individuality. Althusser elaborates nothing as to what the theoretical accomplishments can add to these studies nor does he provide any insight into how they might be resolved. For all the talk of the importance of the conjuncture and the allusion to the Leninist 'concrete analysis of a concrete situation' Althusser's attempt to steer the practical development of marxist theory is only incidentally interesting and should be left to those still under its yoke to catalogue it in its proper place.

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