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Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations

1. The reception of Althusser's ideas within the historical profession has frequently been negative and ill informed. See E. P. Thompson's self-indulgent polemic (Thompson 1978) for an unfortunately representative example. Thompson's diatribe should be read along with Perry Anderson's patient rejoinder (Anderson 1980). It is ironic, to say the least, that Thompson's own formidable historical research can be effectively marshaled against his theoretical humanist philosophy of history—and in support of the very Althusserian con-

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cepts that Thompson so rabidly condemns (see Anderson's examples, 31-49, 69-71). For a comparison of the Thompsonian and Althusserian schools, see Nield and Seed 1979. Hirst 1979a is a thorough critique of Thompson from within the post-Althusserian camp; a defense of Thompson's conception of class consciousness is offered in Wood 1982. For a critique of the rejection of class struggle by post-Marxist historians, see Resch 1989a.

Also of interest is the important article by Pierre Vilar (1973), one of the few Marxist historians currently working within the Annales school. Vilar's article is disappointing, however, because it engages in the dubious tactic of arguing against Althusser from a position that is nebulous and largely unspecified, a "black box" that Vilar passes off as somehow self-evidently real history. One gets the feeling that included among Vilar's unspoken premises are many that he would rather not put forward openly, perhaps because Althusser so devastatingly criticized them. In addition, Vilar's interpretations of Althusser's ideas are often dubious. I will confine myself to the central section of Vilar's essay, where he defends Ernest Labrousse and Fernand Braudel and their usage of historical time from Althusser's criticism. Althusser's "criticism" is largely a positive acknowledgment of the fact that these historians were beginning to observe differential temporalities in history. He is critical, however, of the fact "that they do not pose them explicitly as a function of the structure of the whole" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 96). This is in fact the case. The three economic cycles put forward by Labrousse in his famous study of the French Revolution are undoubtedly important structural factors. There is nothing in them that Althusser would have any quarrel with, although this is implied by Vilar's misreading of Althusser's concept of differential time. The problem, for Althusser, is not so much what Labrousse has demonstrated but simply that he doesn't go far enough, that he fails to situate his three differential times in relation to the overall structure in dominance within which they occur. It is not that such an extension is impossible or even that Labrousse's work is not an important initial step in achieving such a task. It is the fact that he doesn't do it that constitutes the problem, which is all Althusser ever said. Braudel's monumental work on the Mediterranean region has often been faulted even by traditional historians on similar grounds: its three strata never achieve any significant synthesis into a structure. For further discussion of these matters, see Stoianovich 1976; and for a comparison of the Althusserians and the Annalistes , see D'Amico 1973. [BACK]

2. Perry Anderson points out that the term social formation marks a space between the term society , the standard concept of classical sociology, and the Marxist concept of mode of production . The former term is unsatisfactory because it suggests a coherence and unity that reduces social contradictions to "dysfunctions" from functional norms, while the latter term has been too often used to justify the reduction of social contradictions to reflections of economic phenomena, a tendency that ignores the relative autonomy not only of other social practices but also of the economy as well; see P. Anderson 1980, 67. For a masterful comparative account of the development of classical sociology and historical materialism from a Structural Marxist perspective, see Therborn 1976. [BACK]

3. See P. Anderson 1976a, 64-66; Patton 1978; and Elliott 1987. These

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misunderstandings persist despite Althusser's own comments on his relation to Spinoza (Althusser 1976, 132-41, 187-93) and, in the case of Elliott's more recent book, Macherey 1979. My own understanding of Spinoza is indebted to Hampshire 1987 and Curley 1988, as well as Macherey's interesting, if controversial, interpretation. [BACK]

4. This view originates with A. Glucksmann 1978; see esp. 286-90. [BACK]

5. Lenin (1975, 648-51) introduces the phrase "unity of opposites" but fails to distinguish sufficiently between the Hegelian term identity and the Marxist concept of unity . Althusser defines the "identity of differences" in terms of uneven development, an anti-Hegelian conception shared by Godelier (1972, 86-92) who also rejects the internality of contradictions in favor of their externality—contradictions between rather than within structures. [BACK]

6. The term overdetermination is, of course, borrowed from psychoanalysis. Freud uses it to express the fact that unconscious formations can be attributed to a plurality of determining factors. For Freud, the term has two senses: first, it indicates that the formation in question is a result of several causes, since one alone is not sufficient to account for it; second, it expresses the fact that the multiplicity of unconscious elements that make up a formation may be organized in different meaningful sequences, each having its own specific coherence at a particular level of interpretation. Althusser was "not particularly taken by this term overdetermination" but used it "in the absence of anything better" (Althusser 1969, 101). Presumably, Althusser was attracted by Freud's effort to avoid extremes of reductionism and pluralism in his analysis of the unconscious and the drives. For a brief comparison of Althusserian concepts and those of Freud, see Miriam Glucksmann 1974, 99-103. Unfortunately, Glucksmann fails to consider the work of Jacques Lacan and its important influence on certain of Althusser's ideas, most notably the latter's theory of ideological interpellation but also the concepts of displacement and condensation. My account of Freud's use of the term relies on that given in Laplanche and Pontalis 1980, 292-93. [BACK]

7 For these debates and their context, see L. Rosen 1971; Kurzweil 1980; Descombes 1980; Hirsch 1981; and above all, Poster 1975, which, despite its idiosyncratic attempt to marry Althusser and Sartre and its dubious assessment of the impact of the events of May 1968, remains the best survey of French intellectual developments between 1945 and 1968. For Althusser and the debates over humanism within the communist party, see Kelly 1982. Althusser's position is thoughtfully defended in Mepham 1985. [BACK]

8. For critical discussion of Althusser's framework, see Buci-Glucksmann 1976; Renaut 1983; and Gerratana 1977. Grahame Lock's introduction to Althusser's Essays in Self-Criticism elaborates and extends Althusser's conception. Bettelheim (1975; 1976; 1978; 1982; 1983) provides a historical and theoretical analysis of Soviet society influenced by Althusser. See also the interesting discussion of the "technological voluntarism" of "proletarian biology" in Le-court 1976. It should be mentioned that the Althusserian School did not originate the "state capitalist" critique of the USSR. Credit for this critique, I believe, goes to British ex-Trotskyist Tony Cliff (1974; first published in 1948) and to the various American writings of C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, also former Trotskyists, dating from the late forties and early fifties. [BACK]

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