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The Vicissitudes of Structural Marxism

It is now some twenty-five years since Louis Althusser's books For Marx and Reading Capital intervened in the febrile political culture of Paris and established Structural Marxism as an alternative to Saussurean semiology, Western Marxism, and the various post-Marxisms that proliferated during the sixties.[1] In its brief lifetime Structural Marxism has developed into certainly the broadest and arguably the most powerful theoretical project to have emerged since World War II. Althusser's own work, that of his associates and students, and the efforts of the heterogeneous group of philosophers, social scientists, literary critics, and political activists influenced by him constitute a formidable body of knowledge spread across a broad range of human cultures and theoretical problems. Over the decades Structural Marxism has more than held its own in sometimes fruitful, often virulent, polemics with most of the major schools of social theory—the phenomenological poststructuralism of Derrida, the structural-functional historicism of the Annales School, the Nietzschean postmodernism of Deleuze and Foucault, the Saussurean psychoanalysis of Lacan, the universal pragmatics of Habermas, and the humanist historicism of E. P. Thompson, to name only the most prominent.[2]

Such "staying power" is all the more remarkable because Althusser and many of his colleagues were members of the French Communist Party (PCF) and thus firmly committed to communism as a global anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement. Critics of the theoretical dogmas of "vulgar Marxism" as well as anti-Stalinist advocates of Eurocommunism and greater mass participation within the Party, many of the Althusserians nevertheless firmly rejected many of the theoretical tenets of so-called Western Marxism that held a predominate position within the academic Left in Europe and the United States during the decade of the sixties.[3] In addition to being anti-Stalinist, Western Marxism espoused a Hegelian interpretation of Marxist philosophy—one that emphasized "totality" at the expense of economic determination and "negativity" rather than class struggle as the "dialectical" motor of history. Western Marxism maintained that capitalism had solved its economic contradictions and had eliminated the working class as a politically relevant concept. Capitalism became a system of "domination," not exploitation, and Western Marxists turned to methodological individualism first to complement but increasingly to subvert their monolithic, essentialist concept of totality. "Alienated" individuals and "re-


ified" culture became explanatory principles for radical theorists faced with a capitalist society that had apparently subverted the dialectic of negativity by means of economic prosperity, representative democracy, and mass culture.

The more invulnerable capitalism appeared to be, the more voluntarist the concept of practice and the more irrationalist the foundations of radical social theory became until, finally, irrationalism and voluntarism were united in the concept of praxis . Firmly rejecting the idea of Marxism as an objective science, Western Marxism turned, via Hegel, to the early writings of Marx, in particular to The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts , to fashion "Marxist humanism"—a combination of libertarian voluntarism and ethical idealism presumably more appropriate to the unlimited, albeit alienating, bounty of "post-industrial" capitalism. This neo-anarchism became the dominant ideology of the New Left and signaled a shift from Hegelian Marxism to Nietzschean gauchisme among radical intellectuals. Courageous in its rejection of racism, sexism, imperialism, commodification, and bureaucracy, the New Left was nonetheless a middle-class reform movement crippled by its simplistic reduction of social struggle to a contest between "individuals" and "power." Evincing little concern for the economic taproot and class structure of power, the New Left presented no serious challenge to the hegemony of capitalism.

Althusser and his followers relentlessly criticized the theoretical weaknesses and the political illusions of Western Marxism and the New Left while at the same time charting a new and brilliant theoretical course between the Scylla of voluntarism and the Charybdis of economism. Far from evading the criticisms leveled against scientific Marxism by its critics, the Althusserians focused on precisely those areas—the relative autonomy of ideology and politics, epistemological relativism, social subjectivity and practice, the production and reception of art and literature, the popular-democratic state, pre-capitalist modes of production—which non-Marxists and Western Marxists alike have regarded as decisive refutations of "orthodox" Marxism. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Structural Marxism constitutes a comprehensive and largely successful response to a century of accumulated problems within the Marxist tradition.

However, in attempting to reconcile his profound theoretical achievements with his deeply felt hopes for egalitarian reform within the French Communist Party and for renewal and solidarity within the European and world communist movements, Althusser created a tragic


impasse that brought him great personal anguish, an eventual break with the Party leadership, and a growing disillusion with the political impotence of his own work.[4] Forced revolutionary optimism and strident Eurocommunist political rhetoric could not offset the sobering, even pessimistic assessment of contemporary capitalism produced by Structural Marxist analysis. Similarly, Althusser's critique of Stalinism and his call for reform could hardly compete with the bitter legacy of dictatorship in Eastern Europe and decades of Soviet domination of European communism, especially the PCF. At every turn the PCF leadership demonstrated its political incompetence and its distrust of the rank and file. In May 1968 the Party leadership subverted the largest general strike in French history in return for purely conventional concessions, while its opportunistic shift to a Popular Front electoral strategy in the seventies had no discernible effect on the authoritarian bureaucratic structure of the party. Furthermore, the decisive shift of the PCF away from Bolshevik revolutionary slogans toward a Eurocommunist vocabulary stressing national and democratic social transformation took place at precisely the time a national reformist strategy was being negated by international economic developments. Unable to halt growing middle- and working-class support for the Socialist Party (PS) or counter gauchiste enthusiasm for Mitterand's shotgun marriage of modernization and autogestion , the PCF executed another unfortunate shift in the late seventies, a return to sectarian, blue-collar workerism with disturbing racist and chauvinist overtones. Not surprisingly, the PCF's electoral fortunes continued to decline during the eighties—despite the failure of the Socialist government's reform program and the triumph of neo-liberalism over autogestionnaire socialism within the PS.

In any case, despite Althusser's opposition to the tactics of the PCF, his communism has provided a convenient pretext for either obloquy or indifference from both the Right and the Left. Not only has the stigma of communism legitimized scurrilous distortions of Althusser's work, but it has also permitted critics of Structural Marxism to ignore the devastating critiques leveled by Althusser against their own theoretical assumptions and methodologies. Even sympathetic critics are often misled by Althusser's communism; serious works that concede the significance of Structural Marxism, books such as Alex Callinicos's Althusser's Marxism (1976), Ted Benton's Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism (1984), and Gregory Elliott's Althusser: The Detour of Theory (1987), fail to grasp adequately the significance of Structural


Marxism because they refuse to separate Althusser's theoretical achievements from his failure to provide a political solution to the "crisis of Marxism" and the global reverses experienced by the Left during the last decade.

The capitalist accumulation crisis of the seventies and the savage restructuring of global capitalism during the eighties may have created propitious conditions for a return to Althusser's thought and a relaxation of the cordon sanitaire surrounding Structural Marxism. To explain the dramatic shift from prosperity to austerity in the capitalist heartlands, we have little choice but to admit the theoretical failures of post-Marxist and postmodern social theory and to revive Marxist principles of economic determination and class struggle. Furthermore, events of the past decade have effectively discredited two illusions that have hitherto served as impassable obstacles to a renewal of Marxist social theory: first, the illusion of capitalism with a human face and unlimited bounty; and second, the illusion of socialism as a command economy controlled by an oligarchic political dictatorship. Unfortunately, these twin illusions still persist as integral assumptions within contemporary social theory; until they are eliminated, they will continue to inhibit our capacity to comprehend contemporary and historical developments.

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