It gives me great pleasure to inform you that we have invited Don Hamerquist back into the ranks of the Communist Party USA after reading a blog posting he made.
Please read his posting carefully.
We need to rehabilitate E.P Thompson and Althusser to their rightful place in the movement.
I tend to think Gramsci was a sneaky Stalinist.
One skeptical participant commented on the recent Kasama website discussion of Althusser’s impact on Avakian’s theoretical posture as follows:
“Althusser and Avakian do not matter much.”
To the contrary, I think that both “matter” a good deal, although in different ways. However, in the case of Althusser, my appreciation has some different content than what I’ve seen expressed in these discussions.
I encountered Althusser when the English translation of his essay on Contradiction and Overdetermination was published in the mid 60s. For myself and other young and naïve dissidents in the CPUSA, Althusser seemed to provide some hope for a theoretical basis for a revolutionary reorientation and reunification of the international communist movement, rectifying the Sino/Soviet split and the emerging differences within the Soviet bloc of parties that eventually culminated in the twin stale farts of Brezhnevism and Euro-communism.
The essay broke with the mind numbing stupidities that had dominated Soviet Marxism for the previous few decades and had sufficient intellectual rigor and vigor to defend itself inside and outside of the cramped party framework from which it originated. It challenged simplistic economic reductionism and historical determinism, suggesting a framework for analysis and for the development of strategy that was more than a repetition of clichés and unsupported assumptions. In doing this it brought into question the “inevitable victory of the socialist camp” through peaceful competition, parliamentarianism, and related reformist processes – none of which entailed or involved revolution.
One of the impacts of the Soviet domination of the international movement in the prior decades was the cloistering and sanitizing of important aspects of revolutionary theory and the relevant intellectual history. The Soviet identified communist parties actively discouraged any study of primary writings in the communist tradition – specifically Capital – and opposed any attempts to place major theoretical contributions and debates into their actual historical context. Instead, a list of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ authors, a few sanctioned pieces from Engels, Marx, and Lenin, and some terrible attempts at summarizations and popularizations from house intellectuals were presented as a finished and closed scientific system with simple lessons to be internalized and obeyed – but with nothing that challenged or was meant to be challenged.
The first, very inadequate English translation of Gramsci’s Modern Prince dated from the fifties, but for all practical purposes he was unknown in this country. When Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks were highly praised in Contradiction and Overdetermination, we took note. The Soviets had prevented the publication and distribution of Marx’s Grundrisse, but the For Marx collection relied heavily on the 1857 Introduction and even more on his critical assessment of the “Early Writings” which also had not been generally available in this country. Important elements of Lenin’s writing - significantly the Philosophical Notebooks - weren’t available to us until the end of the sixties. Althusser testified to their existence before we knew of anything but “Materialism and Empiro-Criticism”.
In 1968, a group of us in the C.P.U.S.A. were disciplined by the National Board and a little later I was put on trial before the National Committee for “factionalism”. A number of issues were involved, one of which related indirectly to Althusser. We were charged with engaging in “horizontal” discussions within the party and opening up those discussions to individuals and groupings outside of the party. (The historical precedents for this form of discipline in the Communist movement stretch back to the 10th Congress of the CPSU, but it was pretty much unknown before that time. d.h.) Our particular “factional” discussions centered around a document that challenged the Party’s program which was then in a draft form. We incorporated a number of positions from Contradiction and Overdetermination - also from Gramsci – in a very tentative and inadequate alternative to the party draft’s economist and reformist, but also thoroughly sectarian and anti-intellectual, “path to socialism”.
Althusser quickly became something of a political disappointment. When revolutionary potentials around the world were becoming apparent and mass insurgencies erupted in his own country; when Soviet actions with respect to Vietnam, Cuba, and Czechoslovakia were patently counter revolutionary, Althusser confined himself to feeble protests within the decrepit, corrupt and conservative structure of official ‘communism’. Even his opposition to the Euro-communist conciliation of liberalism and social democracy was weakened by its encapsulization within a neo-Stalinist position in the French C.P. I’m sure many others have noticed the impact of these circumstances on his theoretical essays. Consider his attempts to reconcile his “theoretical anti-humanism” with the laughable Soviet claim at the 22nd Congress of the CPSU that they had moved from a class dictatorship to “socialist humanism”. (For Marx, p. 222) Consider his attempt, some years later, to find revolutionary relevance in the 22nd Congress of the French Communist Party. (I remember this as a stand alone article in New Left Review. d.h.) Althusser’s personal epistemological break (I use the term in the STO sense, not his) was so protracted and so late in the day that it was hard to take seriously, and the discussion of his theoretical contributions suffered accordingly.
All of this was happening for us in the late sixties and early seventies when many circumstances combined to make revolution look more imminent than it proved to be and theoretical inquiry less relevant than it always is. A number of radicals, who were inclined towards a workerist anti-intellectualism in any case, concluded that Althusser’s difficult theoretical arguments could be discounted and avoided because of their political origin and continuing identification with politics that had lost revolutionary relevance. That position was wrong then and it is wrong now. Althusser was a significant thinker with arguments that remain relevant to the conception of capitalism as a social formation and to the development of a revolutionary opposition to it. If the underlying issues he confronted are examined critically, his work still contains important and useful insights and advances. On the other hand, if this work and the conclusions drawn from it are either enshrined or, alternatively, regarded as historic curiosities, the left will certainly suffer for it.
I’m sure that I haven’t seen everything that’s been included in these Kasama discussions, but what I have seen is short on a critical treatment of Althusser’s basic positions and frequently appears to discount the possibility of a Marxist theoretical position that is opposed to Althusser’s, but is neither dumb nor liberal. Maybe I’m wrong about this and I would certainly be willing to be corrected. Despite full knowledge that I don’t have Althusser’s intimidating grasp of the intellectual terrain, and many qualms because his arguments are so dense and complex that I have never been completely sure that I have a good handle on them, I’d like to indicate where I think Althusser made important mistakes, mistakes that are not only important for “Theory”, but also for current issues of revolutionary strategy.
Let me be clear about some limitations from the outset. What I’m writing here is heavily based on old material taken from numerous discussions and educationals in and around STO more a quarter century ago and only slightly updated by corrections and clarifications made possible by the passage of time. I’m going to restrict what I write to Althusser’s collection, “For Marx”. I’ve lost my copies of his two following books, “Reading Capital” and “Lenin and Philosophy”, years ago and, lacking the energy to dig up replacements, I will only make general references to them. I also haven’t read Althusser’s later works, specifically the essay on Machiavelli which Negri (Empire, p. 63) describes in ways that seem to indicate it departs significantly from his focus in For Marx. Finally, I’m sure that there is a substantial body of both academic and left discussion which has not bothered me to date, and I will resist temptation to kick Zizek for his essay on Mao, which, displaying his trademark arrogance and self-important glibness, incorporates big chunks of Althusser without giving credit.
Althusser’s overriding concern is with the establishment and defense of Marxism as a science that is productive of valid knowledge of objective social reality:
“Indeed, in conformity with the tradition constantly reiterated by the classics of Marxism, we may claim that Marx established a new science: the science of the history of “social formations’”. (For Marx, p. 13)
“…we had been made to treat science, a status claimed by every page of Marx, as merely the first-comer among ideologies.” (For Marx, p. 22)
Not only does Althusser repeatedly make such arguments, he makes it clear that advancing this particular conception of Marxism is the focal point of his political and intellectual life.
There is no doubt that the conception of Marxism (or Marxism/Leninism) as a determinate science of history and social formations has dominated the communist movement, even in instances where the ‘Marxism’ that was being advanced and embraced was an immense leap of faith short of scientific. It is also true that a good case can be made that Marx viewed his own work as an expansion of science to the study of capitalist society. However, this is not the only possible approach to theoretical Marxism.
I personally don’t identify revolutionary theory with this conception of science and consequently I appreciate the very elements in Marx that Althusser discards as ‘pre-Marxist’ – ‘Hegelian…Feuerbachian…humanist’. To illustrate where and how this makes an immediate difference, I’m immediately distrustful of any Marxist or any Marxism that dismisses the 1845 Theses on Feuerbach as Althusser does:
“…deceptively transparent theses that are really riddles…” … “…brief sparks…”, when we know that, “…a spark dazzles rather than illuminates”. (For Marx, p. 36)
And Althusser goes further, questioning the, “…famous (11th) Thesis on Feuerbach which, in theoretically ambiguous words, counterposes the transformation of the world to its interpretation. It was, and always will be, only a short step from here to theoretical pragmatism.” (For Marx p. 28)
Following Gramsci’s prison-dictated language designating communist theory as the “philosophy of praxis”, I find a more useful approach to Marx emphasizes the contributions to a critique of capitalist civilization and to development of a revolutionary praxis for a social movement that can “move beyond” (I avoid the aufhebung for the moment. d.h.) the capitalist era of human pre-history. In this conception, the “riddles” of the Theses on Feuerbach, and particularly the injunction to organized action in the 11th, are the primary foundational elements of Marxism. To repeat, this is not the predominant view in the Marxist intellectual tradition and it certainly has not been the position of the international communist movement. However, given the troubles that have beset both, it’s a stance that might find a little more support at present.
Althusser goes beyond the claim that Marx “discovered” and explicated the main principles of a science of history. He asserts that by applying this Marxist science and scientific method (or ‘Theory’ as he terms it) to the entirety of Marx’s intellectual production, he can draw a sharp line between the portion of Marx’s body of work which is genuinely Marxist and that which is something else (less? d.h.). In this way he believes he can delimit a coherent system which excludes a range of pre- or anti- Marxist elements within the output of Marx himself. So Althusser states in one typical formulation:
“…the application of Marxist theory to Marx himself appears to be the absolute precondition of an understanding of Marx and at the same time as the precondition even of the constitution and development of Marxist philosophy, so much is clear.” (FM, p.38)
It’s never been that “clear” to me, and Althusser’s attempts to explain why the underlying logic in this position is not circular have never persuaded me either.
With no intention of putting forth an alternative attempt to make Marxism a coherent system, I’d like to run through some problems involved in central Althusserian propositions and arguments. To some extent this is unfair considering the nearly half century of rapid and major changes to the ‘current conjuncture’ where Althusser self consciously places himself. However, while the changes in circumstances might make some mistakes of the past more obvious, the path ahead is still not that clear and there is a definite potential to repeat old mistakes in slightly altered forms. Some unfairness to a dead communist is not that high a price to avoid such pitfalls.
Beginning this discussion poses a chicken and egg problem which will plague the rest of what I will write. Which of the central Althusserian notions; overdetermination, theoretical practice, epistemological break, the rejection of the Hegelian aufhebung, should be considered first, when they are all interconnected? I’ve decided to begin with “overdetermination”. This will create some problems when unexplained definitions of the other concepts get involved in the argument. I’ll try to note these issues as I move along.
The Althusserian concept of overdetermination was developed as a challenge to economic determinism and centers around his critical analysis of Engel’s well known letter (Engels to Bloch, 9/21/1890) that argues that historical change is ultimately determined through a process in which, “…the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary”… in the famous - ‘last instance’.
Althusser’s central text on this question is the essay, Contradiction and Overdetermination and its Appendix. (For Marx, pp. 89-127). The first step in his response to Engel’s slightly more sophisticated variant of economic determinism is contained in the horribly long sentence advancing the conception of the “overdetermination of the main contradiction”. (For Marx, p. 100-101). His second step concludes that:
“From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes”. (For Marx, p. 113).
To wrap up the logic of the argument, in the appendix to the essay (For Marx, p. 117-127), Althusser demonstrates that Engel’s description of the relationship between superstructure and infrastructure leaves the impact of the superstructural contradictions inherently indeterminate and thus cannot provide a properly concrete explanation of any historical event.
This is the very best of Althusser in my opinion. When its implications are elaborated, the argument devastates the fatalistic, essentially “imbecilic” (Gramsci’s term d.h.) belief in the historical necessity of working class triumph through a mystical, but none the less inexorable, working out of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. Althusser directs proper attention to the irreducible complexity of social formations, and the - equally irreducible - effectiveness of the multitude of contradictory elements within capitalist superstructures on the development of the class struggle towards a revolutionary rupture.
However, I think that he ultimately misunderstands the contradictory relationship between forces and relations of social production in the infrastructure of capitalist society, and that he underestimates the a-symmetrical character of the interaction between the infrastructure and the various contradictory elements or moments (a more accurate term d.h.) of the superstructure. And as a consequence, he doesn’t adequately incorporate a different point that Engels makes in the same letter:
“We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive.” (Engels to Bloch, 1890)
I will deal with this point in more detail in a later section and would only note here, that, in my opinion, the major problems with Engel’s second sentence do not diminish the importance of the his first sentence.
Beyond his practical underestimation of what is decisive, Althusser leaves the concrete articulation of an understanding of the social structure in every specific case hostage to a questionable “theoretical practice”, a process of intellectual production that is essentially confined within the political practice of a revolutionary party. This was an organizational form that was a utopian fantasy in Althusser’s day – and it remains one now. The notion of theoretical practice will also be considered later.
The combination of the lack of mooring of Althusser’s perspective in the socio-economic base of capitalist society and its peculiar academic and theoreticist slant biases it towards a party-centric view in which the mass working class struggle is seen mainly as effect and object - as pure potential, not as an emerging collective subject, as a movement that can emancipate itself and all human society.
This all is quite wordy, but still vague, and I will try to bring it down to earth in two ways. First, I’d like to examine Althusser’s application of his concepts to the historical example of the Russian Revolution. The Russian October is THE example presented by Althusser in his essay on Contradiction and Overdetermination. (See For Marx, p. 94-101, see also p. 175-180 in a later essay). Second, I’ll attempt to move to Althusser’s notion of “theoretical practice” to point out how it extends an unsupportable party-centrism to a misunderstanding of the class struggle dynamic in the infrastructure.
A number of points concerning the historical argument jump out immediately. For the most part, Althusser relies on Lenin’s analysis of the concrete circumstance of the Russian revolution, taking much of the substance from comments in Left Wing Communism that were developed well after the fact. This analysis is where Althusser discovers Lenin’s strategic notion that the revolutionary rupture will occur at the weakest link (links) of imperialism – a feature which he appears to regards as common to most, if not all, situations of real revolutionary possibility:
“That is why the theory of the ‘weakest link’ is identical with the theory of the ‘decisive link’.” (For Marx, p. 180).
(The tendency towards circularity in this argument does not appear to bother him and I won’t spend any time on it either.)
Regarding 1917 Russia, Althusser says:
“This exceptional situation was ‘insoluble’ (for the ruling classes) and Lenin was correct to see in it the objective conditions of a Russian revolution and to forge its subjective conditions, the means of a decisive assault on this weak link in the imperialist chain, in a Communist Party that was a chain without weak links.” (For Marx, p. 98)
This is a view of the course of the revolution in 1917 Russia that Althusser proposes as a guiding principle for the analysis of revolutionary possibilities everywhere. However, this picture of revolutionary Russia ignores crucial realities of the Soviet revolution that are matters of recognized historical fact even if, for reasons I will indicate shortly, Lenin glossed over them in Left Wing Communism.
The Bolsheviks were actually dragged towards the seizure of power in 1917 by the intense efforts of Lenin’s faction, which was frequently a small minority, but which prevailed through its understanding of, and close links to, the massive eruption of dual power institutions and revolutionary demands within the working class and the general population – an eruption involving plant takeovers, commandeered transportation facilities, generalized land redistributions from below, and the demobilization from within of much of the military. Much of this mass upsurge had a spontaneous character, as Lenin pointed out at the time.
Lenin, Trotsky, and a handful of other revolutionaries had recognized the dual power potentials of the Soviet form in the 1905 revolution, and fought for an appreciation of its decisive role in the revolutionary process in 1917. This was a fight in which they were opposed to one degree or another by a changing, but always significant, portion of the Bolsheviks. Leading members of Lenin’s party faction frequently argued that the parliamentary process should trump reliance on the dual power characteristics of the Soviets, and that the movement for working class power should recognize that the Russian revolution must necessarily be limited to a liberal bourgeois character. This debate persisted up to and through the October insurrection.
Those unresolved differences among Bolsheviks were a significant aspect of the political conjuncture at the actual moment of revolutionary crisis and decision. One striking example of their importance was the public condemnation of the specific plans for the insurrection by leading Bolsheviks just a few days before it was scheduled. This all makes Althusser’s description of the 1917 Bolsheviks, “…a Communist Party that was a chain without weak links…” (For Marx, p. 98), simply ludicrous. That Lenin understood these issues and continued to grapple with their implications until his death is made clear in his last writings on bureaucracy and in his assessment of major Bolshevik personalities in his Last Testament.
I haven’t read Left Wing Communism in a good while and have no intentions of doing so now. However, my memory of the piece is not that different from Althusser’s excerpts and I will stipulate to the accuracy of his reading. Lenin doesn’t mention the massive and public differences within the Bolsheviks in 1917 over whether the existing ‘concrete conditions’ made an insurrection necessary. Neither does he devote much time to the existing mass forms of struggle that were important elements in making it possible.
In retrospect, Left Wing Communism has its own set of credibility issues that extend beyond and partially explain its omissions of same historical facts that Althusser chooses to ignore. It opens with a scathing attack on the European revolutionary left communists associated with the Gorter Letter. Among other points, this letter had raised the possibility that there could be a contradiction and divergence between the dictatorship of the proletariat and a dictatorship of a party. It is their clear warning, similar to one raised slightly earlier by Luxembourg, that stands up in the light of history and not Lenin’s contemptuous dismissal of it in a massive and wrongheaded ‘bending of the stick’.
When the specific historical context for Left Wing Communism is understood, the basis for what Lenin said and did not say in it is quite clear – although it is hardly justified. Lenin is defending Soviet C.P policies a couple of years after the revolution when the grip on power is severely weakened. He is in the process of limiting internal discussion and debate in the Soviet Party and the international communist movement, a course that was presented as ‘temporary’, but which, even if it had been only temporary which it wasn’t, would have been very damaging. At the same time, Lenin was defending the expansion of party control in the society. As an extension of this conservative and defensive approach, Left Wing Communism introduces arguments intended to caution revolutionaries elsewhere in the world against insurrections that Lenin believed were destined to fail, and which might, as a byproduct, create added problems for Soviet Russia. Some of these cautions were probably merited politically, but the form they took casts a continuing pall over the development of an internationalist revolutionary perspective.
What does this mean in relation to Althusser’s argument? Symptomatically he refers to the “… ‘discovery’ of a new form of mass political organization: the soviets…” (For Marx, p. 96). I’m not sure if ‘discovery’ is Althusser’s term or one carelessly used by Lenin, but in this context the use of the term is a bad idea. The reality is that the soviet form was ‘created’ by the popular movement before it was ‘discovered’ by revolutionary theory. The revolutionary potential and role of the soviets are more accurately presented as an elaboration of a specific political praxis rather than a discovery out of a “theoretical practice”. (Here the chicken and egg issue emerges.) Althusser artificially separates the conception of an objective social form, the soviets, from the social process through which the form is and was understood and modified, abstracting from the interaction between the real object and the consciousness of the object, and from the process through which they shape and change each other. That is, he abstracts from that reciprocal movement between the ideal and the real, a notion essential to the Hegelian dialectic, but one that Althusser rejects – although one that Lenin, in his best writing on the subject and in much of his practice, does not. This too is a point to be raised again later.
The Bolshevik grouping in 1917 was not a “chain without weak links”, it was not “faultlessly united in consciousness and organization…” (For Marx, p. 95). Instead it was filled with weak links and was brought reluctantly to the ‘decisive assault’ by the organized intervention of an internal minority with a clear plan and a determined collective will that built on the overwhelming momentum of the mass movement towards power. No scientific analysis of the objective conditions for the Russian revolution would have been sufficiently persuasive to guarantee its successful implementation without this intervention of what Gramsci calls a strong “collective will”. There is no theoretical practice that will produce the knowledge of a capitalist social structure that, in itself, will be sufficient to transform a possibility for a revolution into a necessity for one.
Whether the chosen objective metric is the “weak link”, or the point of highest development, or some conception of the level and degree of the ‘fettering’ of the productive forces by the class relations of production, any objective ‘scientific’ analysis of an existent social formation will always include major elements of dispute and ambiguity. The Soviet experience and, I would argue, every other major anti-capitalist revolutionary transformation has and will require a collective exercise of what Hegel (and Marx) term purposive action to prove out the ripeness of the objective conditions for revolution that it has posited in its strategic estimates. The political practice of a revolutionary subject will have to create important conditions for its own success. When this happens it can add to knowledge, perhaps producing knowledge that merits being called scientific. However, there will always be persistent issues of interpretation and of relevance that will pose new questions which will require that the viability of the approach be demonstrated over again through expanded and extended social practice.
I want to begin this section with an element of the political context in which Althusser functioned. Hopefully, its significance, particularly his reference to the potential “theoreticist ‘readings’” of his work, will become relevant in the course of the discussion. I will refer back to it at a later point.
In his 1967 preface for the English edition of For Marx, written well after all of the essays in the collection, Althusser states:
“No doubt I did speak of the union of theory and practice within ‘theoretical practice’, but I did not enter into the question of the union of theory and practice within political practice. Let us be precise; I did not examine the general form of historical existence of this union: the ‘fusion’ of Marxist theory and the workers’ movement. I did not examine the concrete forms of existence of this ‘fusion’ (organization of the class struggle – trade unions, parties – the means and methods of direction of the class struggle by these organizations, etc.). I did not give precise indications as to the function, place and role of Marxist theory in these concrete forms of existence: where and how Marxist theory intervenes in the development of political practice, where and how political practice intervenes in the development of Marxist theory.’ I have learned from experience that my silence on these questions has not been without its consequences for certain (theoreticist) ‘readings’ of my essays.” (For Marx, p. 15)
Althusser opens his essay: “On the Materialist Dialectic” (For Marx, pp. 161-218, the basic reference work for his conception of “theoretical practice” d.h.) with Marx’s “Eighth Thesis on Feuerbach”.
“All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”
The general conception of “practice” in the Marxist tradition has followed this 1845 Eighth Thesis, defining it as the process through which the truth and validity of a proposition are discovered and confirmed as knowledge of a real object. Following Engels and Mao, “practice” is commonly separated into three components; economic, political, and ideological practices. Despite the traditional usage, and despite the Eighth Thesis - or maybe because of it since he claims it is a riddle - Althusser adds a fourth category of practice, theoretical practice, and suggests some additional “subsidiary practices…e.g.; technical practice.” (For Marx, Glossary, p. 253.)
Althusser regards theoretical practice as an essential element of the Leninist injunction: ‘Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary practice.’ (For Marx, p. 166). He defines it, as with all other practices, as a process of production or transformation in which a raw material is changed into new products, new social relationships, or new knowledge. The crucial active and productive element in theoretical practice (“Generalities II" in Althusser’s schema) is:
“…the corpus of concepts whose more or less contradictory unity constitutes the ‘theory’ of the science at the moment under consideration, the ‘theory’ that defines the field in which all the problems of the science must necessarily be posed…”(For Marx, p. 184-185).
The raw material for theoretical practice, (‘Generalities I’. d.h.) is, “…(representations, concepts, facts) which it is given by other practices, whether ‘empirical’, ‘technical’ or ‘ideological’. (For Marx, p. 167). Theoretical practice “…acts on its own object and ends in its own product, (‘Generalities III’. d.h.), a knowledge.” (For Marx, p. 173).
Of course, our concern and Althusser’s as well is not with theoretical practice in general, it is with, “…the domain of Marxist theoretical practice (the domain of history)…” (For Marx, p. 172), and particularly with its application to the ideological formations and social structures that make up concrete capitalist societies.
It is hard to read through these arguments without concluding that Althusser sees Marxist theoretical practice as the province of professionally trained academics who are also revolutionaries. These intellectuals will elaborate the indispensible ‘knowledge’ needed to see and travel the road to revolution, applying Marxist analytic concepts to produce the knowledge that illuminates the roles, functions, and obligations for the other revolutionaries who would develop and implement the appropriate strategy – presumably, in many cases, without fully grasping the knowledge on which it was based.
In the passage from the English Preface which opened this section, Althusser is starting a defense of his conception of theoretical practice from such an interpretation of it – denying that it is an elitist structuralism putting academic intellectuals, “scientists”, in charge of the revolution. At the same time, he is also concerned that his perspective be seen as more than a scientific explanation of the world – rather that it be seen as an essential part of – as providing the raw materials for:
“ - a larger practice, a political practice, “…which quite simply allows us, not to demonstrate or explain the ‘inevitable’ revolutions post festum, but to ‘make’ them in our unique present, or, as Marx profoundly formulated it, to make the dialectic into a revolutionary method, rather than the theory of the fait accompli. (For Marx, p. 180)
Althusser argues further that it is not…
“…as if the theoretical practice of a classical historian who analyses the past could be confused with the practice of a revolutionary leader who reflects on the present in the present, on the necessity to be achieved, the means to produce it, on the strategic application points for these means, in short, on his own action, for he does act on concrete history! And his mistakes and successes do not just feature between the covers of a … ‘history’”. (For Marx, page 179)
However, as Althusser struggles to bring his notion of “theoretical practice” within the framework of this larger practice, the main element of which is the Leninist party, he creates another set of theoretical difficulties that might be described as “What is To Be Done” on steroids.
Althusser argues that; “…political practice…in Marxist parties is no longer spontaneous but organized on the basis of the scientific theory of historical materialism which transforms its raw materials: social relations, into a determinate product (new social relations…)" (For Marx, p. 167). Following through this process he arrives at a revolutionary party that will be able to eliminate the merely ideological positions, i.e. “deviations”, that might constitute the ‘weak links’ in its particular chain and prevent the success of the revolution. At the same time he sends a clear message to those interpreting his essays: don’t take Marxist theoretical practice outside of the party framework.
For Althusser, the theoretical practice that he designates as Marxist is a specific division of labor within a disciplined party structure, the only model of which he provides is his idealized notion of a Marxist Leninist party. This is his line of response to the passage which opened this section; it is his attempt to dilute the potential anti-party implications of the theoreticism in his essays. However, this response only succeeds in displacing the problem of theoreticism from the cadre of intellectual revolutionaries and their “theoretical practice” to the revolutionary political party, its organizational structure and its political practice.
From the party perspective, the division of labor he suggests in the party raises two parallel problems, one internal and one external. The internal problem is the relationship between leadership and cadre. The implied model is of a political leadership, acting on knowledge flowing from its privileged access to the process and product of theoretical practice that provides the leadership to a base of cadre that implements the resulting political line on faith and a quasi-military discipline – acting essentially on the basis of ideology according to Althusser. This militaristic model of a thinking head and a trained and dutiful body also applies to the relationship between the party and the working class. In this case, the Leninist party as a whole thinks and thereby, “provides the means and methods of the direction of the class struggle.” For Marx, p. 15.
Althusser was quite aware of these implications of his position. He spells them out in his conception of the distinction between political perspectives that resulted from a merely “technical practice” and revolutionary perspectives that incorporated a “theoretical practice”. The former deal with ‘ideology’- the latter with ‘knowledge’. This interesting discussion can be found in the section between page 164 and 173 of “For Marx”. However, the core of the issue – which will quickly make the stakes involved quite evident – is indicated in a footnote on page 171:
“In every case, the relation between technique and knowledge is an external, unreflected relation, radically different from the internal reflected relation between a science and its knowledges. It is this exteriority which justifies Lenin’s thesis of the necessity to import Marxist theory into the spontaneous political practice of the working class. Left to itself, a spontaneous (technical) practice produces only the ‘theory’ it needs…" (For Marx, p. 171)
Here we have the worst side of Lenin’s critique of spontaneity, emphasizing the specific elements that he had consciously moved away from by the 1905 Revolution, but which have certainly persisted and even grown in significance in communist practice right to the current moment. These are questions that have been well argued elsewhere and I don’t want to spend a lot of time on them, however, the key issue must be addressed. This concerns the “necessity to import” theory, as Althusser states and emphasizes it.
It is one thing to acknowledge the historical fact that revolutionary working class theory was not initially, for the most part, the product of actual workers, and that the working class movement and anti-capitalist theory did not develop as one unified process. This is not hard to understand since the theory was developed in capitalism’s infancy, when it only dominated in a small segment of the world and when the modern working class was a tiny proportion of the laboring populations. One element of Marx’s genius, well described by Negri, was his ability to see the way the capitalist social system would revolutionize production and existing social relations and rapidly expand to a position of global hegemony.
Parenthetically, the ability to grasp what was new and emerging in the situation that characterized Marx, should provide a cautionary message for Marxists, like Althusser, who are too taken with the importance of the analysis of the “current conjuncture”: consider the following:
“…he (Lenin d.h.)was acting on the concrete of the Russian situation, of the Russian conjuncture, on what he gave the remarkable name, ‘the current situation’, the situation whose currency defined his political practice as such. In the world that a historian of Imperialism is forced to see in section, if he wants to see it as Lenin lived it and understood it – because it was, as the existing world is, the sole concrete world in existence, in the sole concrete possible, the concrete of its currency, in the ‘current situation’ – Lenin analysed what constituted the characteristics of its structure; the essential articulations, the interconnexions, the strategic nodes on which the possibility and the fate of any revolutionary practice depended…” (For Marx, p. 178)
What to say about this… Perhaps the phrase “the current situation” appears to be more remarkable in French or Russian than it does in English. Does Althusser think of Lenin like some now think of Avakian? Now that’s a gratuitous bit of sectarianism that I immediately disavow.
Laying such comments aside, the point I want to make is that no analysis of the current situation, including Lenin’s completely clarifies which alternative possibilities will emerge and which will win out. If the Manifesto had predicated the communist revolution based on the “current situation” in 1848, without also presupposing the emergence of capitalism as the dominant mode of production in the region – which had not yet happened – and as ultimately developing into a world system – which certainly had not yet happened – the ‘revolution’ would have been limited to England, possible France, and a few European principalities.
To return to the issue of the “necessary import” of revolutionary theory into the spontaneous struggle and its relationship to “theoretical practice”, a few years after writing What Is To Be Done, Lenin described the Russian working class in the 1905 revolution as ‘spontaneously revolutionary’, and self-critically refers to the ‘bending of the stick’ in his earlier writing. There is a unifying theme between these two positions of Lenin. His initial critique of the revolutionaries is for “tailing” the spontaneous movement when it is reformist and gradualist. His later critique is for failing to understand the emergence of a new set of circumstances where the same ‘spontaneous’ movement has become revolutionary. Again, a clear understanding of the historical situation can cast much light on the strategic implications of varying positions, although in this case as well, the result will not support Althusser, and even less, most modern-day Leninists.
Over the decades of experience with capitalist social relations, the issue of importing theory from outside has lost meaning and reached the point where it is virtually always manipulative and reactionary. By the end of WWI, Gramsci had already presented a much more accurate and useful conception of mass consciousness premised on the coexistence of two conceptions of the world inside the working class, a dual consciousness that sets both the limits and the possibilities for the intervention of a party formation as well as indicating a potential ‘organic’ relationship between party and class that is quite different from the thinking head/acting body metaphor.
Let me approach this party issue from a different direction. We are increasingly removed from a situation where this type of vanguard pretentions and protestations can or should be taken seriously by any significant constituency. The question that emerges is whether the ideal Althusserian party has or can exist and function, or whether it is a Platonic ideal form with a very tenuous relationship to the real world. I think that we must take another look at the recurring argument that the ‘revolutionary’ party with its ‘advanced’ theory actually tends to be a conservative, and not infrequently a reactionary force. There are many critiques that support this conclusion. The famous ones bracket WWI; Luxembourg in the ‘Mass Strike” and Gramsci in ‘Soviets in Italy’. We Leninists used to respond to these cases by pointing out that it was the ‘rotten’ parties of the Second International that were being attacked, and not a genuinely ‘Leninist party’. But is the difference so great? Look at the nonrevolutionary or counter revolutionary role of the self-defined Leninist variants in so many other situations over the past near century, Spain, post war Italy and France, China at many points, Cuba. I won’t list more, but could. Maybe more telling – look at Lenin’s critique of bureaucracy and his proposals for post revolutionary reform in the “Workers and Peasants Inspectorate” shortly before his death, and, although I know its ambiguities, consider the Cultural Revolution’s slogan of ‘Bombard the Party Headquarters’.
First a note on the use of the term: I mentioned earlier that I was not using it as Althusser does. So let me indicate Althusser’s use and the some of the implications of the differences.
“This is an important point; what we are dealing with in the opposition science/ideologies concerns the ‘break’ relationship between a science and the theoretical ideology in which the object it gave the knowledge of was ‘thought’ before the foundation of the science. This ‘break’ leaves intact the objective social domain occupied by ideologies (religion, ethics, legal and political ideologies, etc.). In its domain of non-theoretical ideologies, too, there are ‘ruptures’ and ‘breaks’, but they are political (effects of political practice, of great revolutionary events) and not ‘epistemological’. This opposition between science and ideology and the notion of an ‘epistemological break’…refers to a thesis that…Marx’s discovery is a scientific discovery without historical precedent…” (For Marx, p. 13)
For Althusser, an epistemological break is close to what is normally described as a paradigm shift in a scientific discipline. The For Marx glossary defines it as the “…leap from the pre-scientific world of ideas to the scientific world…(involving d.h.) a new pattern (problematic q.v.). (For Marx p. 249).
In STO we used the term in a more general sense. We had read “Contradiction and Overdetermination”, in which the notion is only implied, but not used. While it does appear in one of the earlier essays in For Marx, and is treated in detail in the Preface and Introduction as well as being a central topic in the last two essays; “On the Materialist Dialectic (op.cit.), and “Marxism and Humanism”. (For Marx, p. 219-247), we didn’t read these materials until after we were quite set in a different usage of the term. Our conception was, and for me still is based in Gramsci’s notion of dual consciousness in the “Study of Philosophy” essay in the Prison Notebooks. It can be traced back further to Hegel’s Master & Slave section in the Phenomenology where the slave realizes her/his essential value vis a vis the master through the act of production, through the act of “shaping the thing”. And of course, it is present under the surface of the treatment of the commodity form in the first section of Capital and throughout the Grundrisse.
For what it’s worth, we simply chose to consider those ‘ruptures’ and ‘breaks’ which Althusser recognizes as “political”, as also being “epistemological breaks” – not to be disagreeable, since we were not really aware of the distinction that Althusser’s draws, but because they were qualitative shifts in the ways that social groups viewed and acted on the world –changes that often completely reversed or capsized existing term of reference and frameworks for interpreting experience – and changes that are much more important for revolutionary strategy, in my opinion, than are Althusser’s ‘scientific discoveries’.
The issue here is not the merits or drawbacks of our conception, but the nature and validity of Althusser’s. Specifically I want to consider his use of it to divide Marx’s body of work into a “pre-Marxist’ ideological period and mature Marxist scientific period, with an interregnum of varying duration depending on the changing state of Althusser’s textual evaluations of the partially Marxist, “transitional works” of the ‘break (see For Marx, p. 34). My first concern will be whether Althusser properly evaluates and classifies the content of Marx’s work. Later, I will consider whether his generalized anti-Hegelianism and anti-humanism rejects valid and important insights – irrespective of whether or not they were held by the ‘mature’ Marx. This will lead to the final section of the discussion and the previously mentioned problems with Althusser’s appreciation of the contradictions within the infrastructure.
“3. This ‘epistemological break’ divides Marx’s thought into two long essential periods: the ‘ideological’ period before and the scientific period after, the break in 1845.” (For Marx, p. 34)
Of course it is true that there were significant changes and developments in Marx’s position and a number of them are located around the 1845 period that Althusser initially raises as a significant dividing line. (There are extensive references in For Marx to this dating, particularly in the Introduction. (For Marx, p. 31-38). Particularly notable among these changes are the advances in the understanding of the capitalist mode of production and the concrete realities of the class struggle that developed from Engel’s historical study of the English working class and Marx’s investigations into social conditions. There were also a range of less significant changes in the content and in the manner of presentation of certain positions.
However, Althusser must immediately face the problem that he sees these changes as a qualitative transformation in Marx’s work that neither Marx, nor other major figures in that tradition, noted as such – at least not publicly. And the fact is, despite a heroic, if dismayingly semantic and legalistic, effort, Althusser is ultimately unable to locate his ‘break’ at any particular point and certainly not in 1845. Instead, in later works he was forced to move the ‘break’ further and further ahead and to proscribe as youthful indiscretions, certain sections of even the most mature of Marx’s output, e.g., portions of Volume 1 of Capital, the only section of Capital that Marx personally finished and prepared for publication.
There is a certain arrogance to Althusser’s attempts to mobilize support for his particular division of Marxism into scientific and pre-scientific segments. He cites writers ranging from Gramsci to Stalin, but, in my opinion, crucial citations come across as attempts to mobilize support for his interpretations of Marx at the cost of distorting the views of the cited authors. I have trouble regarding some of this as legitimate differences of interpretation. For example, I defy anyone to read Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks as a dismissal of Hegel’s influence on Marx – or as testimony for the irrelevance of Hegel’s notion of the dialectic. If anything, the Philosophical Notebooks mark something of an epistemological break for Lenin, an abandonment of the mechanical materialism and positivism of his earlier period. They question the “line of demarcation” between materialism and idealism, the “(total distinction between the idealist dialectic and the materialist dialectic)…” that Althusser maintains is essential (For Marx, p. 12). And in doing such they diverge radically from the stance that Lenin regards as the last word of philosophical analysis in his earlier considerations of philosophical questions.
The arrogance comes through in Althusser’s implication that Lenin was not aware of the meanings and implications of his own words. Thus Althusser reads Lenin’s clear statement that, to understand the First section of Marx’s Capital, one must have read Hegel’s Logic, as actually meaning the very opposite of what it says –to understand Hegel, one must have first read Marx. When this type of argument is put in the context of Althusser’s later position that the first chapter of Capital should be ignored (see Reading Capital), the logical conclusion is that we can not only also ignore Hegel’s influence on these passages from Capital, but any of Lenin’s comments on the subject as well.
The exaggerated praise of Gramsci in Contradiction and Overdetermination, (For Marx, p.105-106, footnote; p.114 text and footnote;), never raises the extent to which Althusser’s notions of theoretical practice are in opposition to basic elements of Gramsci’s arguments in the Prison Notebooks, particularly those presented in the Modern Prince and Study of Philosophy. For example, the Gramscian position, one that was difficult to maintain in the Stalinist milieu, that theoretical development required the unrestricted ability of individual intellectuals (intellectuals in the particular sense used in Gramsci’s Aesopian language) to question and challenge the basic line and estimate of the party, fits neither with Althusser’s conception of Marxism as a determinate science nor with his subordination of theoretical practice to a disciplined party structure, “…faultlessly united in consciousness and organization…” (For Marx, p. 95). I would argue that Gramsci’s opposition to mechanical determinism takes far more from the Hegelian notions of purposive action and ‘the labor of the negative’ than Althusser should ever tolerate.
However, by far the main obstacle facing Althusser’s conception of an epistemological break in Marxism is raised in Marx’s own work, specifically by the Grundrisse, which Marx wrote in the winter of 1857-1858, well into the epoch of the ‘fully Marxist Marx’ in Althusser’s 1845 periodization. It is not clear if the Grundrisse was fully available to Althusser in the early 60s period of the For Marx essays. Martin Nicolaus, the Grundrisse translator, asserts that Althusser did not consider either it or Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks in “Contradiction and Overdetermination”. (Grundrisse, p. 40 footnote.).
Nevertheless, the essay, “On the Materialist Dialectic” (op.cit.), written less than a year later, does refer extensively to the “Philosophical Notebooks, although not that clearly. However, the more striking point is that Althusser presents the 1857 Grundrisse Introduction as the centerpiece of his exposition of Marxist dialectics in this essay. However, he doesn’t refer to the Grundrisse as such, and doesn’t indicate any familiarity with its general content or any awareness that the 1857 Introduction was not a standalone piece.
Althusser describes the 1857 Introduction as “…one remarkable exception…” (For Marx, p. 176 n.) to Marx’s lack of a specific treatment of his conception of the dialectic.
“I said that Marx left us no Dialectics. This is not quite accurate. He did leave us one first-rate methodological text, unfortunately without finishing it…” (For Marx, p. 182). Althusser argues that the Grundrisse Introduction places us, “…in a world foreign to Hegel…” (For Marx, p. 196)
“…the ‘womb’ of the Hegelian dialectic has been proscribed and its organic categories, in so far as they are specific and positively determined, cannot survive it with theoretical status, particularly those categories that ‘cash’ the theme of the original simple unity, that is the ‘fission’ of the single whole, alienation, the abstraction (in the Hegelian sense) that unites the opposites, the negation of the negation, the Aufhebung, etc. Given this, it is not surprising that there is no trace of these organically Hegelian categories either in Marx’s 1857 Introduction or in Mao Tse-Tung’s text of 1937.” (For Marx, p. 199).
Reading the text of Grundrisse makes these points untenable. All I can say is people should look at the material for themselves. Certainly Marx does not employ the Hegelian categories in the same fashion as Hegel, but their presence is obvious throughout the text, notably in the appearance/essence framework for the entire contradictory relationship between the “Chapter on Money” and the “Chapter on Capital”. The Hegelian influence is immediately evident at many other points in the text and is acknowledged in Marx’s correspondence of the period (Marx to Engels, 1/14/1858, and more implicitly in Marx to Engels, 4/2/1858). Althusser can certainly argue that this Hegelian influence is a negative and corrupting element in the Grundrisse, but it is absurd to ignore its presence.
One additional confusing factor is Althusser’s lack of a clear description of the 1857 Introduction in For Marx. At various points, Althusser refers to it incorrectly as the 1859 Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. Although I am far from an expert on such issues, my understanding is that this confuses two separate documents. The never-finished 1857 Introduction was intended to open a large work that Marx had tentatively titled the “Critique of Economic Categories”. The seven notebooks making up the Grundrisse chapters on money and capital are the first and only draft of this work. Neither the 1857 Introduction nor the remainder of the Grundrisse were published and distributed until relatively recently. They appeared in English toward the end of the 1960s and I assume that they were available to Althusser in French and German a little earlier.
In 1859, Marx published a different work, titled “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”. This was a version of part of the Grundrisse’s “Chapter on Money rewritten to get through German censorship. Marx considered using the 1857 Introduction for this piece, but decided to replace it with different opening statement which, unlike the 1857 Introduction, is well known and widely distributed. This is the “Preface” to the Critique of Political Economy. The Preface is best known for the famous formulation about the relations of production becoming a “fetter” on the development of the productive forces and has frequently been read in a very determinist way as an argument for historical inevitability. I have made an effort to track all of Althusser’s selections from what he calls the 1859 Introduction, which isn’t so straightforward because of different translations from different languages, but it seems certain that he is referring to the 1857 Introduction in this essay, not to the 1859 Preface.
In any case, by 1969, when Althusser’s essays had been collected and translated and the various forwards and the glossary for the English edition of For Marx were finished, he certainly would have had the opportunity to read the Grundrisse in German and probably in French. It is hard to see how he could overlook the clear relationship of the 1857 Introduction to the rest of the Grundrisse and the fact that the entire Grundrisse is deeply indebted to Hegel. This makes Althusser’s failure to either correct his earlier positions, or provide some explanation for these deviations in the mature Marx difficult to explain or justify.
These points may seem tedious and academic, but they are relevant because of the questions about Althusser’s use of sources that I have already indicated with respect to Lenin and Gramsci. There are similar issues with his use of the 1857 Introduction because he never clarifies its proper historical and textual place or considers the very plausible explanation for its unfinished form that is advanced in Nicolaus’s forward to the English translation of the Grundrisse.
I’ve mentioned a number of times the emphasis that Althusser places on the categorical difference between the materialist (Marxist) and the idealistic (Hegelian) dialectic. One aspect of this distinction concerns the separation between the object and the conception of the object. To illustrate the issue, consider the two following citations from For Marx, one from the essay, “On the Materialist Dialectic” and a similar one from the glossary at the end of the book. Each of them contain a roughly equivalent citation that incorporates the same passage from Marx’s 1857 Introduction – note the internal quotes.
“The process that produces the concrete-knowledge takes place wholly in the theoretical practice: of course, it does concern the concrete-real, but this concrete-real ‘survives in its independence after as before, outside thought’ (Marx), without it ever being possible to confuse it with that other ‘concrete’ which is the knowledge of it.” (For Marx, p. 186).
“For the mature Marx, however, the theoretical abstract and concrete both exist in thought as Generalities I and III. The concrete-in-thought is produced wholly in thought, whereas the real-concrete ‘survives independently outside thought before and after’ (Marx). (For Marx, Glossary, p. 250).
Here is the actual Marx text, as it appears in Nicolaus’s English translation of the Grundrisse.
“The totality as it appears in the head, as a totality of thoughts, is a product of a thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way it can, a way different from the artistic, religious, practical and mental appropriation of this world. The real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before; namely as long as the head’s conduct is merely speculative, merely theoretical.” (Grundrisse, Introduction, p. 101- 102.)
The issue is whether the final phrase – “…as long as the head’s conduct is merely speculative, merely theoretical.” – is of so little significance that Althusser and his translator are justified in dropping it and holding that Marx maintains an absolute separation of the “totality of thoughts”, the concept from the “concrete real”. This will depend on the meaning of Marx’s phrase, “merely speculative…merely theoretical.” It appears to me that while Marx is certainly referring to ‘speculative’ idealism, he probably also is referring to the contemplative materialism of Feuerbach who he had repeatedly criticized for not understanding the role of human practice.
I would think that Althusser would pursue the meaning for Marx of the “thinking head”, since it appears that Marx is closing in on the issue of “purposive activity”, praxis, and is advancing a position akin the change the world injunction in the 11th Thesis that Althusser describes as “theoretical pragmatism”, an estimate that he certainly does not intend to be complimentary. I would strongly urge looking at the five or six pages of the 1857 Introduction, beginning with page 100 of the Grundrisse, to get a better handle on these issues.
My argument may be something of a stretch and I don’t intend to pursue it very far. I do think, however, that it is a far greater stretch for Althusser to discover an entire theory of theoretical practice that conveniently supports the one he has already developed, in an unfinished document with an entirely different purpose that he completely ignores although it is a purpose that is very definitely relevant to the interpretation of Marx’s approach to revolutionary politics. Let me elaborate this point as a transition to the concluding section of this argument. I claim no originality here. This is based on Nicolaus’s Forward, (Grundrisse, p. 7-63).
The 1857 Introduction is concerned with how to begin a comprehensive study of the capitalist mode of production, a beginning that starts from capitalism’s distinguishing features and its revolutionizing internal dynamic. Marx recognizes that this beginning will start from an “imagined concrete”, which would then have to be broken down into “ever more simple concepts” until arriving at “at the simplest determinations”. Then the process would be retraced to produce, not a “chaotic conception of the whole, but…a rich totality of many determinations and relations.” This formulation of an analytic method is spelled out on pages 100-101 of the Grundrisse. It is often summarized as ‘rising from the abstract to the concrete’, although the process as Marx describes it is a bit more complicated.
While Marx is making an effort to establish a beginning point for his analysis of capitalism as an historical stage of human development, he is criticizing various contemporary answers to parallel questions – from Hegel’s philosophical start from ‘being’, to various economic philosophies that started from ‘economic man’, to other approaches that began from abstractions of population, of production, etc. After going through a number of possible approaches and eventually rejecting them all, albeit in a very rich and detailed discussion, Marx ends the 1857 Introduction without resolving the issue of how to begin his critical analysis of capitalism.
However, hundreds of pages later, at the very end on the Grundrisse chapter on capital, Marx has a two page fragment titled “Value”. The first line states, “This section to be brought forward.” The second line states, “The first category in which bourgeois wealth presents itself is that of the commodity.” (Grundrisse, p.881) The commodity then becomes the point of beginning for the Marxist analysis of the capitalist mode of production, and there we find it in the Critique of Political Economy and in the first chapter of Volume I of Capital.
Aufhebung and all that
“…a relation in which value and labour enter into connection, in which they connect and divide in relation to one another, and where they do not lie side by side in mutual indifference. Already the fact that it is labour which confronts capital as subject, i.e. the worker only in his character as labour and not he himself, should open the eyes. This alone, disregarding capital, already contains a relation, a relation of the worker to his own activity, which is by no means the ‘natural’ one but which itself already contains a specific economic character.” (Grundrisse, p. 310)
Much earlier in this discussion I indicated that I thought Althusser’ lacked any real conception of the operative contradictions within the productive infrastructure of capitalism. On the one hand he advances the superstructural overdetermination of the main contradiction in which, ‘the economic element is determinant in the lonely hour of the last instance – which never comes’. Althusser has been arguing against Engels and more crude proponents of economic determinism that the superstructure’s impacts, “…are not “dissipated as pure phenomena in the internal unity of a simple contradiction.” (For Marx, p. 100); and has questioned any:
“…faith in the resolving ‘power’ of the abstract contradiction as such: in particular, the ‘beautiful’ contradiction between Capital and Labour.” (For Marx, p. 104).
On the other hand, Althusser has nothing much to say about the ‘beautiful’ contradictory elements in the economic base of capital. Indeed has language suggests that they have no real relevance and that there is no need to investigate the specific effectiveness that these exert on the development of society and their a-symmetrical relationship with the overdetermining impacts from the superstructures. This is where the ‘beginning’ suggested by the Grundrisse and implemented in Capital, should enter the analysis, but doesn’t for Althusser.
It is tremendously significant that Althusser’s later book, Reading Capital, recommends disregarding Marx’s actual decision about where to begin the analysis of capitalism and where he actually does begin it in Capital Volume I. Althusser maintains that the reader shouldn’t bother with the Capital’s first chapter because it is confusing and infected with Hegelian terminology (see For Marx, p. 197 n.). I apologize for the lack of an exact reference to the main point, but I am absolutely sure that one exists in Reading Capital.
The first section of Capital begins from the commodity in order to articulate the elements of contradiction and the internal sources of motion in capitalist society. These are to be found in the division of value into use value and exchange value and their contradictory relationship as implied by the Grundrisse selection above. They are to be found in the related division of labor into concrete labor and labor power (abstract labor) and in the conception that capital is ‘dead’ labor posited against living labor. These analytic concepts clarify the ground for class struggle, indicating the internal contradiction between the struggle for ‘better terms’ in the sale of labor power and the elimination of the wage system. These, in turn, underlie the dual elements in working class consciousness and the important ideological structures in which both poles of the class struggle think out their needs and potentials and fight them out as the subjects of historical change.
Finally, for this piece, although much still remains, I think that the Grundrisse and the first section of Capital constitute the refutation in place of the entire structuralist Marxist edifice; of narrow ‘organizational ‘Leninism’ of the sort that can be found in you know who’s Foundations; and is a welcome counterweight to the neo-Marxist post structuralists and their discussions of ‘swarm intelligence’, ‘network consciousness’, and the “…constitutive process of subjectivity” via “subterranean and uncontainable rhizomes..” (Negri, Empire, p. 397).
With this I end and, hopefully, get back to more pressing things.