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Why Everybody Should Be Short Louis Althusser and His Intellectual Children

This is one of four additional posts that I had wanted to write for the TPM Cafe symposium on Chris Hayes's "Heterodox Economics," but did not succeed in putting to paper in a timely fashion:

Hoisted from Comments: Andres on Althusser: Brad: "Althusser is a dominated asset: nobody should have Althusser in their intellectual portfolio, as Althusser himself admitted, eventually."

Oh dear. I have to emphatically disagree. Not about the merits of Althusser, who made some good and important points but on the whole failed to revitalize Marxism in a lasting manner. However, Althusser should be approved or rejected on his own merits, not on the fact that he disowned his work in one of his more depressed moments (and not, for that matter, because he eventually went crazy and killed his wife).... Want to jettison Althusser? Read For Marx and Reading Capital, and then decide. And then let others do it too...

As for Althusser, you would be on better ground if you said "Althusser is not worth reading to me". And I wouldn't be surprised or critical, since the work of someone who wanted to clarify the philosophical foundations of Marxian political economy would not be appealing or interesting to a commited neoclassical economist, even one of an anti-laissez faire bent. But many others have found Althusser worth reading. What privileges your opinion above theirs?

My opinion is privileged because I have thought long and hard and intelligently about these issues, and Althusser and his children have thought long but not hard and definitely not intelligently.

My opinion is privileged because it is also Michael Berube's and Bill Lazonick's, who are both serious and smart and make powerful and rational arguments:

Michael Berube:

Michael Bérubé: I offer this preface as a way of broaching the otherwise incomprehensible question of why anyone would think it necessary to devise a “structuralist Marxism.” Structuralism is so antipathetic to all [standard Marxist and neo-Marxist] questions of hermeneutics and historicity that one might imagine the desire for a structuralist Marxism to be something like a hankering for really spicy ice cream.  And yet, in the work of Louis Althusser, spicy ice cream is exactly what we have.  I don’t like it myself.  But because it’s an important byway in the history of ice cream—er, I mean the history of Marxist theory—I still find it necessary to tell students about it, partly in order to warn them that it will very likely leave a bad taste in their mouths....

In the past, I’ve directed my students to Judt’s review as well as to various accounts (including Althusser’s) of Althusser’s late “confessions”—-that he was poorly read in Marx, that he suffered from lifelong mental illness, that his so-called “symptomatic” readings in Marxism were little more than an elaborate way of making shit up. I’ve done this not merely to complicate the view of Althusser one gets in the Norton, where the headnote tells us that “Althusser’s major concepts—-‘ideological state apparatuses,’ ‘interpellation,’ ‘imaginary relations,’ and ‘overdetermination’—-permeate the discourse of contemporary literary and cultural theory, and his theory of ideology has influenced virtually all subsequent serious work on the topic”—-but to pose a pedagogical conundrum for students. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Althusser was speaking the truth about his lack of familiarity with the Marxist canon, and that his mental illness played a large role in his life and work. (Hardcore Althusserians have tried to set aside his “confessions” precisely by appealing to his history of mental illness, but this merely produces a Marxist-theory version of the Cretan liar’s paradox: of course you can’t believe a madman who tells you he’s mad.) Now, having assumed all this, is it possible nonetheless that Althusser might have left us with Marxist concepts worth using, regardless of whether they are well-grounded in actually existing Marxist theory, or should we (as Judt does) just jettison the whole Ideological Althusserian Apparatus, and shake our heads at the fact that such a theory could ever have appealed to so many intelligent people?...

I think it’s vitally important for students to know where the Althusser phenomenon came from, and why anyone would attempt to craft a fully structuralist, antihumanist Marxism in the first place.... As for whether his concepts are worth retaining, I say, eh. I think we have better versions of them readily available to us.... [Althusser is] far less subtle and useful than the Gramscian corpus from which Althusser derived it.... Gramsci’s looser and more supple conception of “civil society” (to which Stuart Hall turned in the 1970s and 1980s) is valuable precisely because it is not systematized: it recognizes that the institutions of civil society are many and various, and often work at cross purposes. Compared to Gramsci’s account of political actors exclusive of the State, Althusser’s looks impoverished and reductive.

As for Althusser’s concept of ideology: as I remarked above, it seems to me a complex way of suggesting that people simply don’t know what the hell they’re about.... [S]uch a theory of ideology and interpellation seems to leave no way of accounting for people who might come up with such a theory.... [H]ow is it that the code that allegedly speaks us includes the sentence “the code speaks us” and all the sentences with which to contest that one?...

[Althusser's] consequences for Marxism--or for any theory of social agency and historical change-—seem to me to be quite awful.... [We need a different] vision of social and historical conflict, one in which individuals are never fully interpellated, and perhaps may be hailed by competing, intersecting, and contradictory discourses; in which, furthermore, individuals are more or less conscious of the degree to which they participate in those discourses; and in which, finally, ideological formations, or hegemonies, are striated and cross-cut, fissured and unstable... in which we can recognize that “no mode of production, and therefore no dominant society or order of society, and therefore no dominant culture, in reality exhausts the full range of human practice, human energy, human intention (this range is not the inventory of some original ‘human nature’ but, on the contrary, is that extraordinary range of variations, both practised and imagined, of which human beings are and have shown themselves to be capable).” That sentence comes from Raymond Williams’s 1973 essay “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory”...

Bill Lazonick on the intellectual children of Louis Althusser:

William Lazonick (1982), "Discussion of Resnick and Wolff, Feiner, Jensen, and Weiss," The Journal of Economic History, 42:1 (March), pp. 83-85 http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0022-0507%28198203%2942%3A1%3C83%3ADORAWF%3E2.0.CO%3B2-G: I find the title of this session--"Marxist Approaches to Economic History"--to be inappropriate....

First, what we have heard here are not "approaches" but one approach repeated four times....

Second... the approach presented here... relates not to economic history... not even an approach to the actual study of social history.... It is philosophical thinking about how one might develop an analytical framework for studying feudalism, capitalism, and so on....

Third... the extent to which the approach is "Marxist."... [Is] historical interpretation [to be]... a mere reflection of one's theoretical constructs... [or] must theoretical conceptions, if they are to have any practical relevance... emerge from historical analysis[?]... The crucial isdue in the utilization of a Marxist persepctive... is not who has the "right" to appropriate the "Marxist" label.... It is the substance of the approach to history... that is important....

What transformed Marx from a philosopher into a social scientist... was his study of history to develop a theory of history... he studied the history of capitalist development in Britain in order to construct a theory of capitalist development.... on the basis of a detailed historical analysis of a particular historical epoch.... Even Marx's basic philosophical and ideological orientations were influenced by his confrontation with historical facts... his observation that peasants did not have the right to gather wood... was instrumental in his transformation from Hegelian idealism to historical materialism....

Marx's theory... was made up of a series of testable (and hence refutable) hypotheses that he himself sought to support with empirical evidence.... One can apply the historical materialist methodology to Marx's own ideas... thereby discover not only what parts of Marx's theoretical framework are right... [and] are wrong.... I view the Marxian framework as merely a starting point.... One must go beyond Marx historically... [and] theoretically....

[We] so-called empiricists--and I include Marx--lay the basis for intellectual discourse.... By way of contrast... Resnick, Wolff, Feiner, Jensen, and Weiss... isolate themselves.... They try to interpret the world without studying it. To elaborate upon Marx, philosophers have thus far interpreted the world; the point is to understnad its historical development, and to change it.

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