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Althusser: How to be a Marxist in Philosophy

  • Timothy O'Hagan (a1)


Althusser called a recent essay: ‘Is it simple to be a Marxist in philosophy?’ My title, intentionally provocative, echoes that question. Following Althusser, I shall answer it in the negative and, in so doing, shall raise a series of further questions concerning the nature of and connections between politics, science and philosophy. My lecture will keep turning on these three points, just as Althusser's own work has turned on them, ever since his first book, a monograph on Montesquieu, up to his most recent critical interventions on the role and organization of the French Communist Party in the 1970s. In an interview given in 1968, characteristically entitled ‘Philosophy as a revolutionary weapon’, Althusser linked the three points in an autobiographical comment:

In 1948, when I was thirty, I became a teacher of philosophy and joined the French Communist Party. Philosophy was an interest; I was trying to make it my profession. Politics was a passion; I was trying to become a communist militant.

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1 Works of Althusser referred to in the text, with abbreviations: Althusser, Louis, For Marx, trans. Brewster, Ben (London: New Left Books, 1977) (trans. originally published by Allen Lane, 1969) (Fr. Pour Marx, Paris: Maspéro, 1965) (FM). Althusser, Louis, Balibar, Etienne, Reading ‘Capital’, trans. Brewster, Ben (London: NLB, 1968) (first Fr. edn Paris: Maspéro, 1965) (RC). Althusser, Louis, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Brewster, Ben (London: NLB, 1971) (LP) (containing the ‘Interview’ with Macciocchi, 1968). Althusser, Louis, Essays in Self-Criticism, trans. Lock, Grahame (London: NLB, 1976) (ESC) (translations of Réponse à John Lewis (Paris: Maspéro, 1973) (RJL), Eléments d'Autocritique (Paris: Hachette, 1974), ‘Est-il simple d'être marxiste en philosophic?’ La Pensée, 1975 (IISTBAMIP).Althusser, Louis, Philosophie et Philosophie Spontanée des Savants (1967) (Paris: Maspéro, 1974) (‘Cours de Philosophie pour Scientifiques’) (PPSS). Althusser, Louis, Politics and History, trans. Brewster, Ben (London: NLB, 1972) (Montesquieu: Politique et Histoire, Paris: PUF, 1959) (PH).

2 Full title: Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of Scientists. This gap in the corpus of Althusser translations means that the full novelty, subtlety and fragility of the new position has not been widely appreciated. In his most recent Philosophical text (‘Is it Simple to be a Marxist in Philosophy?’, 1975), Althusser has made one further important shift in his position on the relation of ‘command’ between philosophy and science. In what follows I expound both the ‘New Definition’ of 1967 and the ‘Command Problem’ of 1975 suggesting some of the implications of the new positions but leaving many questions open.

3 The original version of this paper contained an account of those moves and expounded in more detail the emergence of the ‘New Definition’ in response to defects in the ‘Old’. I hope to publish that section, which had to be excluded from the present text for reasons of space, elsewhere.

4 Cf. the following characteristic question from Being and Time: ‘… what higher court is to decide whether and in what sense there is to be any problem of knowledge other than that of the phenomenon of knowing as such and the kind of being which belongs to the knower?’ (Heidegger, , Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie, J. and Robinson, E. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), 88).

5 Bhaskar, Roy, A Realist Theory of Science (Leeds: Leeds Books, 1975), 208. Andié Glucksmann, one of Althusser's earliest critics, argued that Althusser's early epistemology presupposed a tacit transcendental argument with respect to correspondence (‘The Althusserian Theatre’ in New Left Review No. 72 (1972), 7374).

6 I have taken this conclusive argument from Ruben, D. H., Marxism and Materialism (Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1977), 101102.

7 Marx, K. and Engels, F., German Ideology in Marx, K. and Engels, F., Collected Works, 5 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), 37. Interpretation of this somewhat ambiguous passage plays an important part in Ruben's attribution of continuism to Marx.

8 Ruben, D. H., op. cit., 108, 191.

9 Intuitionist mathematics does explicitly identify truth-value with demonstrability (or, perhaps more accurately, replaces the conception of truth by one of demonstrability): see W. and Kneale, M., Development of Logic (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962), 680. But Althusser does not seem to have any mathematical model in mind here.

10 ‘Philosophy represents the class struggle in theory. That is why philosophy is struggle … and basically a political struggle: a class struggle … The philosophical struggle is a sector of the class struggle between world-views …’ (Interview. Q.5 LP 21).

11 ‘The forms and arguments of the fight may vary, but if the whole history of philosophy is merely the history of these forms, they only have to be reduced to the immediate tendencies that they represent for the transformation of these forms to become a kind of game for nothing’ (LP 56).

12 In linguistic terminology, as Tony Trew suggests, philosophical theses are irreducibly ‘deictic’ or ‘indexical’, the objects to which they point, of which they are the index, being already elaborated in scientific and political practice.

13 It is interesting that, when Althusser discusses the epistemologists' search for absolute ‘guarantees’ of knowledge, he criticizes it for following an erroneous juridical model, that of the search for natural laws, for a set of absolute norms which can ultimately validate a legal system. At the same time, his own new, interventionist model of philosophical practice has much in common with the view of legal practice and reasoning put forward by some contemporary legal theorists, notably by MacCormick, Neil, Legal Reasoning and Legal Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), Ch. 10.

14 See e.g. the Foreword to Montesquieu: Politics and History, PH, 1315.

15 Marx, K., Capital, I (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1970), 910.

16 In the pejorative sense in which a ruling class exploits a subordinate class, not in the neutral sense in which producers exploit a raw material like a coal mine.

17 I have retranslated these passages. The English translation renders A a commandé B first as A preceded B and later as B was based on A. Both versions are misleading.

18 See note 16.

19 This formulation and most of what follows are due to Tony Trew.

20 Marx, K., Theories of Surplus Value, Part II (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1969), 119.

21 See Skinner, Quentin, ‘The Context of Hobbes’ Theory of Political Obligation’ in Cranston, M. and Peters, R. S. (eds), Hobbes and Rousseau: A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1972), and Spragens, T., The Politics of Motion: the World of Thomas Hobbes (London: Croom Helm, 1973),.

22 Notorious here is Osiander's re-writing of Copernicus' discoveries as ‘hypotheses’. For the text of his ‘Preface’ see Koestler, A., The Sleepwalkers (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 573.

23 This line of thought is developed by Pierre Raymond, philosophically perhaps the most original of those inspired by Althusser's ‘New Definition’ in his book Le Passage au Matérialisme (Paris: Maspéro, 1973).

24 As envisaged programmatically on p. 259 above.

25 Interventions by G. A. Cohen and D. H. Ruben after the presentation of this lecture allowed me to correct some obvious errors. Many of the remaining correct formulations are due directly to my friend and colleague Tony Trew. The text was completed while the author was Fellow to the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung in the Federal Republic of Germany.


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