Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations

The Economism/Humanism Couplet

Whatever reservations one might have regarding Althusser's uncompromising thesis that class struggle is the motor of history, it is difficult to deny his contention that the absence of such struggle is fundamental to both humanist and economist political ideologies. The absence of class struggle in both humanist and economist accounts of history leads Althusser to make the seemingly outrageous assertion that in reality the two are "spiritual" complements: an ideological couplet, economism/humanism , is "born spontaneously, that is to say necessarily, of the bourgeois practices of production and exploitation, and at the same time of the legal practices of bourgeois law and its ideology, which provide a sanction for the capitalist relations of production and exploitation and their reproduction" (Althusser 1976, 86).

Economism and humanism, Althusser insists, are always paired, if not as complements, then as oppositions. They are found in capitalist and so-called communist societies alike and, moreover, serve the same hegemonic function in both cases: to legitimize existing social relations without mentioning their class character. In fulfilling this function, it matters little whether they are taken as oppositions or as complements, as elements of the dominant ideology or in opposition to it. Within the dominant ideology, economism and humanism are always complementary, combining technological determinism with ethical voluntarism in a Faustian affirmation of the status quo. In capitalist societies an "economistic" concern for developing the techniques of extorting surplus value from producers is passed off as the extension of consumer freedom, while private ownership of the means of production by a tiny oligarchy is labeled a "humanistic" manifestation of individual liberty or even democracy. While capitalist social formations are the initial breeding ground of the economism/humanism couplet, humanism has also had a dominant influence within European socialism and the Soviet Union. Under Stalin, socialism was "economistically" equated with the development of the forces of production, while the Soviet constitution of 1936 contained the ringing "humanist" slogan "Man, the most precious capital." By this same constitution, the bureaucratically controlled expansion of the forces of production was axiomatically declared to be the end of class struggle and class exploitation, while under Khrushchev the era of "socialist humanism" was announced.

Even when economism and humanism are set in relations of opposition, Althusser insists that they remain organically connected. In this


case their apparent opposition is a false one since they continue to share the same common premise, the human subject (who no longer controls technology but is instead oppressed by it), and the same principle of exclusion, "the elimination of something which never figures in economism or humanism, the elimination of the relations of production and of the class struggle " (Althusser 1976, 88). This is hardly accidental or surprising since it follows directly from the bourgeois point of view, specifically from the concept of the atomized individual and his natural freedom, which is as much the foundation of neo-liberal dissidence as it is of liberal conservatism. What is particularly bothersome for the Marxist Althusser is not that dissident liberalism employs the rhetoric of economism and humanism but that socialist parties since the Second International, and even so-called communist regimes such as the USSR, "keep silent (or semi-silent) about the relations of production, the class struggle, and their concrete forms, while exalting both the Productive Forces and Man" (Althusser 1976, 88).

It is not necessary to overlook the weaknesses of Althusser's argument, namely, his use of sweeping generalizations that obscure obvious and significant differences between the modes of production dominant in the United States and the Soviet Union, in order to acknowledge that he is making an important point that cuts across the moralistic critiques of both regimes: the use of the category "Man" depicted either as the victim of technology or as its beneficiary remains an obfuscation. In and of itself, technology has neither victims nor beneficiaries. Western "technology" and Soviet "productive forces," liberal democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat, share a common ideological problematic that is designed to mask the existence of a minority class controlling the means of production and exploiting a working-class majority. The symbiotic relationship between economism and humanism makes possible both the complementary combination of economism/humanism (the freedom of labor/"Man, the most precious capital") and their pseudolibertarian opposition ("one-dimensional society"/"totalitarianism"). If the complementary combination of the two terms is ideologically dominant, their binary opposition is theoretically impoverished. For Althusser, only a materialist analysis, an analysis based on economic determination and class struggle, can cut through the distortions of economism/humanism and provide adequate knowledge not only of the political and economic relationships that economism/humanism purports to explain but also of the social basis and ideological function of the economism/humanism couplet itself.


Althusser explains Stalinism in terms of a "deviation" from the revolutionary ideal of the dictatorship of the proletariat—a vanguard party wielding state power with the support of the masses in order to "smash" exploitive economic and political structures and replace them with new egalitarian and participatory institutions.[8] Stalin, by committing the Soviet Union to an "economist/humanist" policy of rapid industrialization, militarization, and centralized planning, is accused by Althusser of theoretically and politically ignoring the newly emerging class struggle between administrators controlling the means of production and the working masses separated from both the means of production and state power. This critique is more fully developed in Charles Bettelheim's multivolume Class Struggle in the USSR (1976, 1978, 1982, 1984) which views the new Soviet regime not as a socialist society, but rather as a transitional articulation of antagonistic capitalist (wage labor and wage differentials) and communist (state ownership of the means of production) tendencies. Struggles between peasants, workers, and Party administrators during the period of the NEP resulted in the traumatic industrial revolution of the thirties and a new "state capitalist" mode of production. Class exploitation within state capitalism is defined by Bettelheim in terms of wage labor and wage differentials coupled with collective possession of the means of production by an administrative class or "state bourgeoisie" exercising de facto economic ownership of "state property" by excluding the masses from control of the state apparatus.

Despite its commendable interpretation of Stalinism in terms of class struggle, the Althusserian critique remains dangerously inadequate and incomplete. First, the concept of a "Stalinian deviation" accepts the premise of an authoritarian vanguard party that, even in its most populist, Maoist form, substitutes an amorphous "solidarity" of cadres and masses (enforced only by the threat of popular upheaval) for participatory democracy and the accountability of party leaders to the masses. Such a view willfully ignores the fact that it is the absence of popular control over the Party, not the Party's "economism," that permits the emergence of a post-revolutionary ruling class. Second, the applicability of the term "state capitalism" to a mode of production lacking profit motives, market prices, consumer choices, and a reserve pool of unemployed workers is, at best, dubious. The concept of "state capitalism" derives more from the teleological concept of a "transitional articulation" of capitalist and communist tendencies than from an analysis of the mature Soviet mode of production itself. Having identified Stalinism


as an exploitive class system, Bettelheim is forced to designate it as either "capitalist" or "communist," and he seems to have chosen the former term more for ideological than for theoretical reasons.

Finally, the Althusserian critique devalues the forces of production and ignores the laws of motion and contradictions that constitute the class struggle in mature Soviet-type modes of production. To explain the collapse of Stalinism (Gorbachev) and Maoism (Deng Xiaoping), it is necessary to acknowledge the resource-constrained nature of the forces of production in command economies and their systemic tendency toward underproduction (in contrast to the demand-constrained forces and overproductive tendencies of capitalism). Whereas the relations of production limit the exploitive capacity of the administrative class to perquisites and higher salaries, the forces of production limit the standard of living of the entire population. Therefore the attempt to increase productivity by decentralizing the labor process and introducing money and prices to distribute resources stems not from the survival of "capitalist tendencies" but from the inefficiencies of central planning itself. Of course, the administrative class is antagonistic to the social security of the masses and resentful of the restriction of its exploitive capacities. Although dispossessed from control over the state apparatus, and thus from control over the means and results of production, the masses have nevertheless achieved from the revolution certain guarantees and benefits which cannot be easily eliminated as long as the economy is obviously controlled by the state. They can, however, be destroyed rapidly and completely by the impersonal tyranny of the marketplace. Thus the ruling class turns naturally enough to capitalism, but they are only able to "sell" such a transformation by exploiting the deep political and economic discontents of the masses. Hence the class struggle: the masses, striving for political power and a higher standard of living, are acquiring instead a new ruling class and the relentless subsumption of their labor and lifestyle to the cash nexus and the exigencies of capitalist accumulation.

Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations

Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.