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

Introductory Conclusion

Introductory Conclusion

In designating these remarks as both an introduction and a conclusion, I am not attempting to subvert the modalities of time and space or to call into question the boundaries between and within texts. My intentions are less exalted and more substantive. Read as an introductory essay, these remarks are intended to provoke those readers, the vast majority of whom, I suspect, will find a book defending Marxist analysis quaint if not downright foolish. I wish to confront such readers with what I view as fundamental shortcomings of contemporary post-Marxist and postmodern social theories, in particular, with the mind-numbing ideological conformity on which so much of their mind-boggling methodological and theoretical innovations are based. Read as a conclusion, I summarize certain aspects of Structural Marxist analysis that distinguish it as a major, modernist rethinking of Marxism and that demonstrate, in my opinion, the ongoing value of Marxism as a scientific research program. As both introduction and conclusion, these pages call the reader's attention to the momentous global developments of the past decade in such a way as to challenge the prevailing post-Marxist and postmodern consensus regarding the "exhaustion" of Marxism and modernism. While there is no point in denying the declining influence of Marxism and modernism on contemporary debates, I view this decline as a regressive aberration whose explanation must be sought in the politics rather than the validity of social theory.


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.

Emperors Without Clothes:
Contemporary Fashions in Social Theory

The repression of Marxism has seen a corresponding revival of alternative traditions ranging from neo-liberal rationalism (Rawls, Habermas, Elster), functional pluralism (Annales , Geertz, Turner), and voluntarist irrationalism (Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard).[5] Divergent as these tendencies appear at first sight, they share a large common ground. All of them reject economic determination and class struggle as explanatory principles, of course, and all share a hostility to Marxism that is more or less fundamental to their traditions and whose significance can hardly be understated. Moreover, each of these movements subscribes, in varying degrees and sometimes with sharply divergent emphasis, to methodological principles of pluralism, relativism, and individualism—a formidable post-Marxist, postmodern triumvirate whose vulgarization in recent years has occluded the very possibility of explaining why things happen in history.

Pluralism, relativism, and individualism work together and reinforce


each other, but for heuristic purposes we may treat them separately. Pluralism signifies causal indeterminacy—an emphasis on the simultaneity of diverse social phenomena as well as their interrelationship and interaction without, however, any regard for their relative efficacy or causal significance. Ultimately such indeterminacy degenerates into vulgar pluralism: everything, somehow, causes everything else and yet no single thing has any determinative power at all. The process of everything causing everything else produces, willy-nilly, something called "culture" and, over time, a cultural condition called "modernity" (and now postmodernity). Relativism embraces a historicist-hermeneutic view of knowledge whereby what we know is relative to our own culture and what we know of history is doubly constrained by a communication gap between cultures. Ultimately this view degenerates into vulgar relativism, a collective solipsism that reduces history to a literary genre or an exercise in translation: knowledge of history exists, if at all, only in fragments and impressions (or agglomerations of the same) whose validity, uncertain in any case, declines precipitously with any attempt to move beyond the struggle for communication to statements of fact aspiring to the status of scientific explanation. Individualism is anthropocentric; it places an autonomous human being at the center of historical explanation and conceptualizes history from the perspective of the consciousness and practice of individuals. Ultimately such "humanism" degenerates into vulgar individualism: history as a struggle of "people," undifferentiated in their uniqueness, struggling for fundamental yet amorphous "freedoms" against an oppressive but confoundedly hydra-headed "power."

Although it is no refutation of these principles to point out their historical association with inegalitarian and anti-socialist intellectual movements, their revival, phoenix-like, from the ashes of Hegelian Marxism and the New Left is surely not without significance. Both neo-liberal rationalism and postmodern irrationalism are firmly rooted in distinct traditions of bourgeois meritocracy—economic individualism and romantic individuality respectively. The genealogies of these traditions—on the one hand the "democratic" subordination of political equality to economic inequality in Bentham and J. S. Mill, and on the other the "humanist" subordination of mass mediocrity to an aristocracy of spirit in Goethe and Nietzsche—are sufficient testimony to their profoundly elitist animus. The elitism of functional pluralist tendencies is only slightly more sophisticated. From Saint-Simon and Comte through Durkheim and Parsons, this technocratic tradition has ac-


cepted elitism simply by denying its existence, masking domination and exploitation with euphemistic assertions of the cooperative nature of the social division of labor, the organic interdependence of social structures, and the autonomy of culture in relation to political and economic structures. That tacit acceptance of elitism and the ubiquitous evasion of exploitation reveal an underlying complicity beneath the superficial opposition of Left and Right in contemporary social theory—and the real source of its dramatic and general decline in recent years.

Postmodernism has played a particularly prominent role in the decline of social theory.[6] Postmodern social theory combines a populist aesthetics (based on the autonomy of culture, the abolition of distinctions between art and mass culture, and a presumed affinity between the discontents of a bohemian avant-garde and those of mass consumers serviced by the culture industry) with a neo-anarchist political philosophy (premised on the vitalist "will to power" of Nietzsche and the ontological mysticism of Heideggerian phenomenology). Postmodernism oscillates between two polar extremes, cynical accommodation and libertarian dissidence. The former tendency, perhaps best expressed in the work of Jean Baudrillard, denies the possibility of objective knowledge of social formations and their history not simply by asserting the principle of epistemological relativism but even more radically by moving beyond epistemological relativism to ontological relativism. Baudrillard's "hyperreality" of self-generating signs detached from any real signified (and from the exigencies of the capitalist mode of production as well) abolishes meaningful differences between ideas and objects and dissolves the very distinction between critique and affirmation. Such radicalism in philosophy can produce only passivity in politics. While Baudrillard's concept of hyperreality may have a certain descriptive value, it offers no explanation of contemporary culture. Indeed, Baudrillard's conceptual framework preempts the possibility of such an explanation, and it is difficult to resist the suspicion that this is precisely the source of his appeal. Sooner or later, explicitly or implicitly, by design or default, postmodern cynics conclude that in society, as in theory, anything goes.

In contrast to its fraternal twin, dissident postmodernism revels in the obstreperous rhetoric of political rebellion. Revealing and resisting the spontaneous generation and diffusion of "power" throughout society, dissident postmodernists, such as Michel Foucault, claim to have discovered the only form of radicalism appropriate for defending "freedom" in "post-industrial" society. However, postmodern dissidence


purchases its radical credentials at a high cost. By abandoning allegedly "totalitarian" global analysis for fragmentary "genealogies" of particular social phenomena, postmodern rebels end up hypostatizing both the "power" they resist and the "freedom" they defend. Even less willing to admit the economic taproot of power and domination than were their forerunners in the New Left, dissident postmodernists attempt to resist power on an ad hoc basis—everywhere, in all forms, and all at once. Ultimately such resistance collapses under the magnitude of its task and the futility of its method. At the point of exhaustion, postmodern dissidents capitulate to the greater wisdom of their cynical and accommodating counterparts. In the end, "resist everything" is merely the flip side of "anything goes." If everything is bad, it is not long before bad begins to look, if not exactly good, at least irresistible.

The domestication of dissident postmodernism in the eighties (the shift of Lyotard and Foucault from gauchisme to "Americanism" are only more serious examples of a general phenomenon parodied by the career of Baudrillard) substantiates Fredric Jameson's contention that postmodernism reflects, rather than critiques, "the cultural logic" of multinational capitalism. The short-lived predominance of postmodern dissidence during the seventies deserves further study. I suggest, provisionally, that dissident postmodernism has functioned as the loyal opposition during the birth pangs of multinational capitalism and in this respect has been simply the ideological obverse of the New Right. The anti-Marxist or post-Marxist rhetoric of postmodernism is obviously crucial in this regard. The more blatant the effects of economic determination and class struggle became during the seventies and eighties, the more stubbornly they were denied by postmodern theorists. Indeed, a large part of what is left of the New Left has rationalized its crushing defeat by blaming it on traces of Marxism still at work within the radical movement and its social theory.

As resistance became pointless, postmodernism turned exclusively to its central preoccupation with aestheticizing rather than explaining reality. Assimilation and adaptation have thus become the final legacy of postmodern social theory. This outcome is not really surprising because the bohemian individuality endemic to postmodernism is at bottom a variant of the functional pluralist assertion of the autonomy of culture. The elective affinity between postmodernism and functional pluralism is manifested in the appropriation of cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, and Mary Douglas by postmodernists. While I do not deny the value of certain insights of these anthropolo-


gists, I take exception to the reification of culture on which their work is based. Such reification, it seems to me, preempts causal explanation of cultural phenomena and rests content with superficial, albeit clever, descriptions and interpretations of symbolic structures and practices. It is one of the arguments of this book that starting from the "autonomy" of culture or the "freedom" of individuals begs central questions that any respectable social science must confront: namely, why given cultures and given individuals act in the ways that they do. However suggestively, postmodern cultural anthropologists have for the most part simply reproduced and even compounded the deficiencies of their Durkheimian and Weberian predecessors.

But it is not the postmodernists alone who have contributed to the decline of social theory during the last two decades. Competing vigorously for an expanded share of the lucrative post-Marxist market, neo-liberal rationalist problematics (pragmatism, social contracts, decision theory, etc.) have experienced a great resurgence as well. Members of the neo-liberal Left such as Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls, and Jon Elster claim to provide a sober, no-nonsense alternative to the rhetorical posturing and flamboyant nihilism of postmodernism—without, however, threatening sacred post-Marxist premises of pluralism, relativism, and individualism or violating taboos on the principles of economic determination and class struggle. Whether they define "rationality" as a transcendental structure of human communication, as a socially useful fiction of political consensus, or simply as an old-fashioned rational-choice theory, the neo-liberals are every bit as uninterested in explaining why things happen—in this case the relation between the "rationality" of a culture, its mode of production, and the hegemony of its ruling class—as are their postmodern colleagues.

There is something eerie about contemporary discussions of rationality, rights, and justice. Such discussions—organized around notions of free and equal individuals possessing a commonly held rationality uncontaminated by class power and engaged in distortion-free communication and decision making—blithely ignore the elementary fact that such conditions do not and cannot obtain in capitalist societies. Surely, one would think, the sheer irrelevance of such discussion to the global economic Gleichschaltung of the eighties (and the ideological and political restructuring following in its wake) would preclude their proliferation. If not irrelevance, then surely the transparent ideological bias of their assumptions would undermine their credibility. Surely a generation of philosophers who had cut their teeth on Lukács and the


Frankfurt School would immediately recognize the "individual" as posited by the new utilitarians to be a self-serving stereotype of the professional middle class. Surely they would recognize in the new rationalism an eclectic hodgepodge of ahistorical, class-blind atavisms haphazardly culled from neoclassical economic theory, behaviorist psychology, and analytical philosophy. Surely they would see in new theoretical models of "communicative rationality," "distributive justice," and "game theory" Panglossian caricatures of frankly apologetic and openly elitist concepts of Cold War political science such as "equilibrium democracy" and "political pluralism."

Obviously this has not been the case. Purveyors of visions of democratic angels dancing on the head of capitalist pins may be justly accused of peddling wish fulfillment to the middle classes, but this is precisely the source of their strength. Taking rights seriously is an alternative to taking equality seriously. Talking about distortion-free communication and distributive justice is a way of not talking about ideological hegemony and economic exploitation. Decision theory and methodological individualism are ways of evading the facts of class power and the absence of personal autonomy. Collectively, the various neo-liberal rationalisms divert the attention of social theory from the way things really are and why in order to speculate upon how things that can never be might actually be if only they could be.

Academic portfolios that temper elitism with reason and morality provide ideological values that apparently more than offset their theoretical liabilities in the minds of cautious liberal investors. Alternatively, postmodernism provides a bolder entrepreneurial alternative for intellectual raiders seeking quick academic returns through swashbuckling radicalism unencumbered by intellectual responsibility. Such is the depressing reality of what Althusser, almost alone, dares to call the class struggle in theory. Having abandoned economic determination and class struggle as explanatory principles, contemporary social theory has cheerfully abdicated its obligation to explain why things happen. During an age of (uneven) prosperity and global Cold War such behavior was at least comprehensible; in a period of global austerity and untrammelled capitalist restructuring it is simply reprehensible. In the wake of the collapse of capitalism with a human face and the bankruptcy of all the theoretical enterprises whose revenues depended on it, perhaps we may begin to see a devaluation of junk bond concepts whose ideological yields are unsecured by explanatory value.


Marxism and the Collapse of Capitalism with a Human Face

The failure of a kinder and gentler capitalism makes possible a revival of Marxist social theory not only by discrediting capitalist humanism as a viable political ideology but also by bringing into strong relief the existence of the professional middle class as a distinct and relatively privileged class , not a "life-style" more or less synonymous with citizenship.[7] This class—existing in a contradictory position between the ruling class, which actually owns the means of production, and the white- and blue-collar fractions of the working class—is something like a new petty bourgeoisie. It possesses, in the form of symbolic capital (credentials, degrees, and bureaucratic positions), assets analogous to the personal property of the traditional petty bourgeoisie, and it fiercely defends these assets against threats of "devaluation" from below (from the working class seeking equal opportunity) and from above (from the capitalist class always anxious to de-certify and de-skill labor power). Despite its contradictory class position, however, the professional middle class overwhelmingly supports capitalism. Indeed, the hegemony of the capitalist system relies heavily on an ideology of meritocracy whose truth is manifested in the existence of this class and whose allure assures the compliance of the working class for as long as upward mobility is even a remote possibility.

The restructuring of global capitalism has made the illusions and limitations of upward mobility more transparent than they have ever been before. It is abundantly clear that neither the small liberal humanist fraction of this new petty bourgeoisie (concentrated in the public sector, the media, and the universities) nor its larger social Darwinist fraction (concentrated in the private sector as corporate managers and providers of professional services to capital) speaks for "the people," much less the working class. If the social Darwinist fraction of the professional middle class has arrogantly and ruthlessly spearheaded the attack on the white- and blue-collar workers, the liberal humanist fraction has cravenly submitted, with only occasional crocodile tears, to the "inevitability" and even the "rationality" of the onslaught.

Having abandoned economic determination and class struggle as explanatory principles, neither the postmodern nor the neo-liberal Left was able to comprehend, much less resist, the restructuring of global capitalism. Both were equally unable to respond to the politics of re-


sentment created by the New Right to manipulate shamelessly the fears and anxieties of those endangered by economic dislocation. The befuddlement of the "radical" fringe of the professional middle class paled in comparison to the ideological trauma experienced by its much larger and much more influential "liberal" fraction. Unwilling to criticize capitalism—that is, unwilling to point out that it was capitalism and not the "welfare state" that was destroying the standard of living of the working class—liberal politicians and social theorists were struck dumb by events. After decades of attacking the secondary "dysfunctions" of capitalism while constantly expanding and justifying its primary relationships of exploitation and domination (and carving out a comfortable class position for themselves in the process), liberal members of the professional middle class were powerless to explain the end of prosperity or escape its immediate political consequence—a right-wing populist pogrom directed against themselves.

The web of illusions spun by liberals during the age of prosperity—illusions about the end of class struggle and economic crises, illusions about the autonomy and neutrality of the state, illusions of capitalist democracy protecting "the people" from "special interests"—legitimized a particular regime of capitalist accumulation, one that promoted mass consumption coordinated with mass production and stabilized by an interventionist state. This regime of accumulation, referred to by Structural Marxists as Fordism, emerged in the aftermath of World War II out of fears of a return to pre-war depression and class conflict and was designed to accelerate the valorization of capital within the national market, maintain full employment and rising wages, and create a stable political consensus for capitalism. Pioneered by the United States and exported to Europe after the war, Fordism did introduce a period of unprecedented, if short-lived, prosperity throughout the capitalist metropoles—a prosperity flawed only by a dizzying increase in corporate wealth and power and by a relentless subsumption of everyday life to commodification and the cash nexus. Prosperity lent credence to the liberal web of illusions—so successfully, in fact, that the working class ceased to believe in the reality of its proletarian status. White- and blue-collar workers accepted the illusion, reinforced through a formidable network of ideological apparatuses, that they were primarily "middle-income" consumers and not "working-class" producers.

Unfortunately, Fordism was a national capitalist structure inscribed within an international capitalist mode of production. The interna-


tional integration of capitalism engineered by the United States and imposed on Europe and Japan by American economic supremacy has proven to be the most fundamental creation of the post-World War II decades. With the recovery of Europe and Japan, Fordism became increasingly dysfunctional for capitalist accumulation and increasingly "irrational" from the perspective of capital. Pressures of inflation and competition during the sixties produced a classic confrontation between the standard of living of the working class and the profitability of capital during the seventies, an "accumulation crisis" whose outcome during the eighties—economic restructuring for capital and "austerity" for everyone else—was a foregone conclusion. However, given the fabric of lies that had been woven around Fordism, the international economic crisis provoked large numbers of working-class voters to strike out not against capitalism, the real cause of the problem, but against the only "conceivable" causes—"permissive liberals" (incompetent administrators who had lost touch with the work ethic) and "the idle poor" (economic parasites who, like the liberals, lived comfortably on welfare provided by the largesse of hardworking Americans). The capitalist ruling class, architects and beneficiaries of Fordism, gratefully turned the intense but misguided resentments of middle-income workers—the real targets and ultimate victims of economic restructuring—against a series of carefully selected political and ideological scapegoats whose only common denominator was their lack of economic power.

Sadly, it is only now, after the internationalization of capital has reduced their vote to insignificance and their middle-income lifestyle to standards unthinkable two decades ago, that the majority of citizens in the capitalist heartlands of North America and Europe are beginning to realize they were duped by the Thatchers and Reagans of the world. In the face of steadily declining standards of living for the working-class majority and steadily increasing wealth concentrated in the hands of a minuscule capitalist ruling class and a shrinking minority of professionals and managers, is it possible for a social theory committed to telling the truth about capitalism to re-emerge? As illusions of upward mobility yield to the realities of class polarization, perhaps recognition of their working-class status will cease to elicit reactions of disbelief, shame, or outrage from the majority of "the people." The illusions of capitalist democracy and upward mobility may become harder to sell—perhaps economic determination and class struggle might even re-enter the lexicon of social theorists for whom the end of class struggle has been axiomatic for decades.


Marxism and the Collapse of Socialism with an Inhuman Face

The second great obstacle to a renewal of Marxist social theory has been the existence of "state socialist" dictatorships—societies characterized by a ruling class of bureaucrats controlling the means and distribution of "state-owned" production through a non-democratic monopoly of political power. The collapse of Stalinism has finally discredited the notion that socialism is simply a matter of the development of the forces of production without regard to the question of popular control over them.[8] At the same time, centrally planned and administered "command" economies have failed to provide a sufficiently prosperous alternative to market mechanisms. These deficiencies cannot be laid entirely at the door of either economic backwardness or the exigencies of Cold War military production. The lessons are clear enough; socialism without democracy is a sham, and socialism without some market mechanisms is impossible to sustain. However, these lessons do not, as we so often hear, sprinkle historical holy water on capitalism: democracy without socialism and market mechanisms without democratic control over economic power are hardly less of a sham than Stalinism. With respect to democracy, the collapse of socialism's inhuman face is simply the obverse of the collapse of capitalism with a human face: either democracy means democratic control over the means of production and the process of accumulation, or it means nothing at all. The absence of either political or economic equality is always exploitive, and arguments masking inequalities of economic or political power behind rhetoric of political rights, social cooperation, or economic efficiency are never more than rationalizations of class exploitation.

State ownership of the means of production may or may not be a necessary condition for socialism, but it is most definitely not a sufficient condition. The collapse of Stalinism signals the end of a tradition of revolutionary dictatorship that privileges anti-democratic and coercive means over purportedly egalitarian and humanistic ends. Equally significant has been the failure of centrally planned command economies of the Soviet type. Not only has the Soviet attempt to "leap over capitalism" and to move from economic backwardness to industrial prosperity by means of cadre mobilization and party coercion rivaled the worst aspects of capitalist development, but it has also failed to catch up with, let alone surpass, capitalism. The collapse of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe signifies the failure of what


Stalin called "socialism in one country" and a necessary return to Marx and Engels's conception of capitalism as a world-historical force whose ultimate development is a global mode of production.

In The German Ideology , Marx and Engels rejected the possibility of "socialism in one country." They understood that no economic system can outproduce capitalism because no conceivable system of coercion is capable of extorting as much surplus value from its workers or more effectively compelling its ruling class to expand and innovate. No social system, in short, is more "totalitarian" than capitalism. Understanding the nature of capitalism, Marx and Engels understood that communism as a "local event"—that is, socialism in one country—would be destroyed by its relative backwardness, by its "limiting effect on the universalization" of the "intolerable powers of capital." The possibility of communism presupposes the development of capitalism as a global system whose class structure is truly international and homogeneous. Capitalism is a global process whereby "separate individuals . . . with the broadening of their activity into world-historical activity, become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them . . . a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market " (Marx and Engels 1978, 163).

If capitalism is indeed a world-historical force and its development global rather than national, then its transformation must also be understood globally rather than nationally. Capitalism will disintegrate only when it has become general, when the "universal development of productive forces . . . produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the 'propertyless' mass (universal competition) [and] makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others" (Marx and Engels 1978, 161-62). The contradictions of capitalism—the elimination of real scarcity by creating artificial scarcity, the integration and interdependence of social production by reproducing class inequalities of wealth and power, the development of productive technology by producing crises, dislocation, and suffering—become progressively more irrational and intolerable as capitalism eliminates its rivals and begins to collapse in on itself in an orgy of "creative destruction" whose only real purpose will be the restoration of profitability for the ruling class. However, until it has subsumed completely every aspect of social existence in every region of global space, capitalism will always appear progressive and will always be able to resolve temporarily its contradictions by expansion as well as destruction.


The expansion of capitalism is inseparable from class struggle—a power struggle between wages and profits whose ultimate stake is democratic control over the means and distribution of production. The lesson to be learned from the collapse of both Stalinism and Fordism is that this struggle can no longer be conceived in purely national terms. As stereotypes of proletarian factory workers have given way to more complex concepts of a working class segmented into white- and blue-collar fractions, so stereotypes of "Third World" revolutions must yield to the reality of globally integrated production and the internationalization-multinationalization of the class struggle. The hardships caused by the dissolution of Fordism in the capitalist heartlands are now inseparable from the sufferings of working people in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, who daily watch their hopes for democracy and prosperity sacrificed to the ambition of their professional middle class and to the harsh reality of the transition to capitalist relations of production. As daunting as this process of globalization seems to us now, the final outcome of capitalism's multinational restructuring will be to put democratic socialism back on the table—internationally, once again, but this time at a much higher level of socio-economic development and integration. The development of capitalism is, after all, the development of the conditions of the possibility for socialism: "communism is not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself," it is rather "the real movement which abolishes the present state of things" (Marx and Engels 1978, 162). As former communist countries join the capitalist global economy, they will discover soon enough the exploitation behind the opulence displayed in our television commercials and the class domination concealed behind our fervent enthusiasm for democracy. Most, I suspect, should look to Turkey or Brazil rather than Western Europe or the United States for a more realistic glimpse of their immediate future. But this is not really the point; what is most significant is the collapse of the last formidable obstacle to the internationalization of capitalism and the internationalization of social democracy. Those depressed by the thought that we are only now at the end of the beginning of global capitalism may take heart in the fact that we have also arrived at the beginning of the end.

Stalinism, let us not forget, was a monster created by the development of global capitalism. Its dissolution in no way validates Cold War rhetoric centered around the concept of totalitarianism—a term introduced as much to distort as to comprehend the nature of the Bolshevik Revolution.[9] While pluralism, relativism, and individualism deny or


trivialize the significance of class exploitation and domination in capitalist societies, their maleficent antithesis, totalitarianism, projects onto the history of the Soviet Union a dystopian fable of an even harsher oppression stemming from the absence of capitalism. The complicity between the diatribes that passed for Soviet studies during the Cold War decades and contemporary post-Marxist social theory is worth noting because its persistence continues to be a major ideological obstacle to the revival of Marxist analysis. Vulgar pluralism, relativism, and individualism are all rooted in an elitist conception of freedom whose antithesis, egalitarian democracy and collective ownership of the means of production, must be portrayed as the absence of liberty, the end of history, and the loss of individuality. Totalitaria, if I may be forgiven the name, is a truly paradoxical space, a place where oppression is everywhere and nowhere, completely irrational in its lack of purpose but terrifyingly rational in its purposeful application. Most significant, economic exploitation and class struggle do not exist in Totalitaria, and thus a Marxist analysis of its structures of domination is ruled out of court. Explanation devolves instead on a Manichaean conflict between "liberty" and "oppression," a mythical contest whose enabling concept is the striving individual for whom liberty exists only as a predatory meritocracy—a zero-sum struggle for power—and for whom oppression is defined as any interference with the right of "talented" elites to exploit the "mediocre" masses. This view of the world, of course, is that of the professional middle class, and it is embraced enthusiastically by both its liberal and conservative fractions, each as unwilling as the other to call into question the assumptions on which rest their class freedom from proletarianization and their class power over the working class. Even as its theoretical bankruptcy was demonstrated by the "unthinkable" phenomenon of Gorbachev, the oxymoronic anti-Marxist myth of Totalitaria continues to thrive not because it explains anything—it never explained anything—but because it corresponds to the deepest class fear of the professional middle class (the dangers of participatory democracy and economic equality) while preserving its fondest class illusion (the identity of its class interest with the very principles of freedom and justice).

On the Concept of Modernism

Surely the least recognized aspect of Althusser's thought has been its modernist character. In the course of defending historical knowledge as


scientifically valid, Althusser has initiated an original and powerful modernist renewal of Marxism, one that successfully avoids the extremes of reductionism and pluralism, objectivism and subjectivism, mechanism and voluntarism. In defending Althusser's work as a modernist science of history, I am necessarily contesting the view that modernism has been exhausted or superseded and reaffirming the modernist critique of positivist, idealist, and historicist tendencies that preceded it. Defining the term modernism is, of course, controversial.[10] Most generally it refers to the cultural outlook of European intellectuals from the late nineteenth century to the present (or at least until the advent of postmodernism in the sixties). However, such a conception is so panoramic as to include almost everything of significance written or produced after 1890 and so eclectic as to render itself virtually useless for analytical purposes. To formulate a more precise and adequate concept of modernism, it is necessary to identify those intellectual characteristics that were, if not absolutely new at the end of the nineteenth century, at least newly dominant.

Modernism—to construct a historical concept appropriate to phenomena as diverse as cubism and constructivism, Saussurean linguistics, the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, Freudian psychoanalysis, Joyce's Ulysses , the cinema of Eisenstein, Brechtian theater, the sociologies of Weber, Simmel, and Durkheim, the philosophies of Frege, Rickert, and Mach—is an attitude toward knowledge, representation, and experience marked by a peculiar combination of ontological realism and epistemological formalism. Modernism evinced a greatly increased sense of the complexity of the object world, but even more important, to explain this new complexity modernists were compelled to posit the existence of abstract structures and forces underlying empirical reality. The existence of causal mechanisms about which our knowledge could never be certain or complete rendered physical, social, and human nature disturbingly less familiar than they had seemed to the nineteenth-century mind and significantly altered the terms of traditional oppositions such as those between art and science, emotion and reason, faith and knowledge, idealism and materialism, and freedom and determination. At the same time, the process of representation itself became a major preoccupation of modernism. The modernist philosopher, artist, or scientist was increasingly conscious of the formal structures that significantly determined his or her perception of the objective world and of the implications of such determination for the production and expression of meaning. From symbolic logic to non-repre-


sentational painting, abstraction not only provided a more rigorous and more fundamental access to reality but also demanded an awareness of the structured limits of that access, the irreducible gap between reality and our capacity to grasp and communicate it. Applied to the very production of meaning, abstract formalism created yet another breach within a variety of received traditions ranging from scientific positivism through idealist philosophy to romantic art and literature—and, of course, within the various political theories and conceptions of history deriving their inspiration from these sources.

The synthesis of ontological realism and epistemological formalism realized within the modernist tendency toward abstraction is not unique to the European turn of the century. However, this period is a watershed insofar as abstract formalism suddenly rose to predominance in all areas of intellectual and cultural production. In light of contemporary debates, two points regarding this historic shift of consciousness need to be made. First, it is important to remember how devastating the new modernist outlook was to empiricist and romantic views of the individual as a unified subject by whom and for whom reality is created and who is capable of grasping the truth of reality directly. In this respect it mattered little whether the individual was viewed as rational or irrational, whether reality was grasped by reason or by intuition, or whether history was viewed as progressive or cyclical: modernism was equally disconcerting to all these constructions. Equally imperiled were empiricist and romantic views that purported to grasp reality as a totality—that is, in terms of its ultimate meaning, nature, or teleology—and furthermore to comprehend it with rational, reflectionist, or intuitive certainty. In the face of modernism, empiricism retreated into a subjectivist pragmatism and the analysis of language and romanticism into aestheticist rebellion and philosophical mysticism.

Second, it is important to situate modernism within the context of monopoly capitalism and, more specifically, with respect to contradictions between the seemingly inexhaustible growth of technological knowledge, productive capacity, global and national integration on the one hand and the seemingly intractable persistence of class exploitation, political tensions between capitalist and socialist visions of democracy, imperialist domination, and international rivalries on the other hand. Neither the empiricist tradition, historically imprinted by the bourgeois struggle against aristocratic tradition and the egalitarian populism of the masses,[11] nor the romantic tradition, itself an oedipal


rebellion of cultured bourgeois "sensibility" against the competitive materialism and narrow-minded moral intolerance from which it sprang, was able to face up to these new contradictions, which, at bottom, constituted an attack on elitism by the propertyless and uncultured masses. Thus modernism, the intellectual movement that revealed, sometimes in spite of itself, the manifest contradictions and irrationality of capitalist society, became identified willy-nilly with the forces of progressive social change and the political Left. (The exception that proves the rule is Lenin's rejection of modernism and his return to the empiricist principle of reflectionism. Althusser strongly defends Lenin's commitment to objectivism and realism as well as his unsophisticated, if essentially correct, critique of the subjectivist and relativist tendencies indisputably present in neo-Kantian and empiriocritical philosophy. However, Althusser also acknowledges that Lenin was no philosopher, and he rejects Lenin's acceptance of a pre-modern, empiricist epistemology as well as Engels's notion of Marxist philosophy as a dialectics of nature.)

For these reasons it is incorrect to associate modernism with empiricist and romantic tendencies that continue to exert an influence by appropriating certain modernist insights and infusing them with pluralist, individualist, and relativist tendencies. For the modernist, however abstract and complex the structural determinations at work in the world may have become, they remain objectively real. Knowledge of them is not only possible, it is being produced at dizzying speed. Sensitive to the structured limitations inherent in the production and communication of meaning and knowledge, the modernist nevertheless subordinates epistemological relativism to a more general principle of ontological realism. The modernist, in other words, remains convinced of the validity of knowledge and thus the possibility of comprehending, criticizing, and improving the existing state of affairs and eliminating systematic inequality and exploitation. Empiricist rationalism and romantic irrationalism, on the contrary, remain committed to elitism and to the status quo precisely insofar as they reject the validity of knowledge on epistemological grounds. Vulgar pluralism, individualism, and relativism, as they have been deployed both separately and together, split the modernist synthesis of realism and formalism in order to reduce our knowledge of social reality to discontinuous fragments of subjective interpretation. In the wake of these moves, the only responses are despair, anger, and, ultimately, conformity.

My argument is that modernism is socially as well as intellectually


progressive. Being constructive rather than destructive, producing knowledge rather than denying its possibility, clarifies a basic difference between modernist and postmodernist sensibilities too often obscured by their common antipathy toward the empiricist smugness of nineteenth-century positivism. Modernism is anti-empiricist, but it retains a deep underlying continuity with the rational, realist, and materialist tradition of the scientific revolution. Despite its parasitic relationship to modernism, postmodernism's roots are elsewhere, in the anti-scientific tradition of irrationalism, vitalism, and nihilism. As for neo-liberalism, it remains, despite appearances to the contrary, pre-modern in its outlook. From the rubble of empiricism, neo-liberalism has attempted to salvage idealist and individualist assumptions about reason, rights, and justice whose anachronisms are barely concealed by their new, high-tech veneer. The games and models are now more sophisticated, perhaps, but they are still rigged in favor of the ruling class. Because there is nothing really new about the neo-liberals—not even a heightened awareness of their own class bias—there is no reason to withhold from any of them the title "genius of bourgeois stupidity" bestowed by Marx on the original neo-liberal, Jeremy Bentham.

This is not the place to survey the relationship between modernism and historical knowledge; suffice it to say that historical thinking was central to nineteenth-century culture and imbued with traditions incompatible with modernist thinking. Marx was the first to combine structural causality and the historicity of knowledge, but because Marxist modernism is necessarily identified with principles of economic determination and class struggle, it could hardly be acceptable to the ruling classes in capitalist society. Nowhere, in fact, have the consequences of modernism been more disruptive than in the human sciences, where relationships between modernism and social science have always been overdetermined by political and ideological considerations. On the Left, the modernist scientific achievements of Marxism have been sacrificed repeatedly to the exigencies of divergent political movements, while on the Right, overwhelming pressures to discredit Marxism and to develop an apologetic alternative vision of capitalist society have pushed social theory "beyond" modernism. The deprecation of the notion of a scientific history is also a function of ideology and politics: history is respectable now only if "fictionalized" by literary critics, "modeled" by philosophers, and splintered into an infinite number of genealogies by historians themselves. Such histories, even when expressly motivated by critical intentions, discredit their own


analysis by rejecting, in advance, the scientific value of their findings and by refusing to pursue the question of general structures, interrelationships, and determinations.

Fortunately, historical thinking has also been subjected to more constructive and substantive criticism of a modernist type, most recently from the major figures of French structuralism, including, of course, Althusser himself. It is important to recall that French structuralism was more than merely the application of Saussurean linguistics to a variety of social phenomena.[12] Defined broadly in terms of its focus on abstract structural determinations and their epistemological significance and in terms of its critique of empiricist rationality and autonomous human practice, structuralism must be acknowledged as one of the most important modernist movements of the twentieth century. Structuralism did more than give a distinctly French flavor to social theory; through the work of Althusser, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Derrida, Greimas, and Barthes, the human sciences were radically transformed in a surprisingly short time. Althusser's rethinking of Marxism was very much at the center of these developments. Not only did he draw from classical Marxist texts latent theoretical conceptions they themselves did not or could not specify; he and his associates also developed altogether new concepts that revived historical materialism as a modernist and scientific practice. Althusser constructed bridges between Marxism and non-Marxist modernism that simply had not existed before. This perhaps more than anything else has frustrated critics on both the Left and the Right: from communist thinkers and activists a sophisticated body of work making use of non-Marxist concepts, including many considered inimical to Marxism; from academic philosophers and social scientists an unabashedly Marxist problematic based on a modernist rejection of pluralism, relativism, and individualism.

Structural Marxism as a Modernist Science of History

Althusser was also a major architect of the Structuralist critique of traditional historicism—rejecting linear continuity, teleological views of the evolution and realization of historical processes or goals, autonomous human agency, unified social subjectivity, undifferentiated concepts of distinct social structures, direct or reductive forms of causality, and the idea that historical knowledge is self-evidently true or complete.


However, unlike the work of other prominent Structuralists such as Lévi-Strauss and Foucault, the objective of Althusser's critique was to revive historical thinking, not to destroy it. Althusser sought to establish the scientificity of history by an original reworking of the ideas of science and historical discourse and to elaborate a nonreductive view of economic determination that would do justice to the complexity of social formations and human subjectivity within a Marxist framework of class struggle. Although the many individuals discussed in this book vary in their degree of commitment to Althusser's problematic—some accept all the central concepts of Structural Marxism while others choose more selectively among them—all share a large common ground. Although I have deliberately cast my net widely, I believe I am justified in representing the following précis as a more or less unified theoretical problematic.

The object of Structural Marxist analysis is a social formation structured on the basis of a mode of production. Structural Marxists insist that the economy is determinant "in the last instance," but they conceptualize economic determination not directly, in reflectionist terms, but indirectly, in terms of a hierarchy of heterogeneous, unequal, yet interrelated structures exercising various economic, political, and ideological functions. The mode of production, comprised of relations of ownership and production obtaining between laborers and non-laborers with respect to the means of production, defines the economic function. The economic function is held to be determinant; that is, the mode of production is understood by Structural Marxists as constituting the deep structure of a social formation.

The economic functions of ownership and production united in the mode of production may be separated at the surface level of the social formation. The function of economic ownership may be exercised within institutional apparatuses distinct from economic production and thus, at least superficially, non-economic in nature. Given this state of affairs, it is necessary to distinguish the determinant role of the economic function, the deep structure of the mode of production, from the dominant role that a particular institutional apparatus, be it political, ideological, or economic, may exercise at the surface level of the social formation. It is typically the case that the institutional apparatus exercising the function of economic ownership will be dominant at the level of the social formation. However, it is always the deep structure of the mode of production that accounts for dominance at the level of the social formation.


Structural Marxism conceives of economic determination within a modernist framework of structural causality. The social formation is a parallelogram of economic, political, and ideological forces manifested in determinate social structures and relations. While the economic function is primary, political and ideological functions have their own distinct character and effectivity, and all determinate structures and relations—political, ideological, and economic—are simultaneously, if unequally, at work as a structured whole, the social formation. In addition, Structural Marxism lacks any teleology or goal toward which economic determination is propelling the social formation. Economic determination refers to the historical effectivity of the social formation as a complex whole on individual structures and relations. The social formation, in other words, constitutes the historical matrix or intransitive conditions of existence of individual structures, yet it exists only as the "complex unity" of their present or transitive effectivities. Because the economic function is always primary within the historical matrix (if not always dominant as a distinct institutional form), all social structures and practices are "always already" assigned a place and a function indirectly—that is, in the last instance—determined by the economy.

Structural Marxism also recognizes contradictory tendencies within and between social structures, contradictions stemming from the uneven development of the social whole and the relative autonomy of individual structures. The primacy of the economy sets boundaries or limits on political and ideological structures, but it does not specify each and every political institution, nor does it directly determine ideological apparatuses such as the family, the university, or the church. Political and ideological structures have a relative autonomy and an internal dynamic that is not coordinated in advance with the development of the economy. At the same time, economic determination is itself contradictory since the production of objective changes within the economic structures and relations themselves may not readily facilitate their reproduction. Thus economic determination "in the last instance" respects the variety of causal determinations at work within the social whole, neither ignoring their particularity nor presuming their reproduction over time. This is a modernist vision of complex determination that avoids mechanical statics and teleological evolution without slipping into vulgar pluralism.

Structural Marxism is a science of social formations. However, Althusser rejects the notion that historical science will ever grasp the to-


tality of history once and for all or be able to transform itself from an interpretive to a predictive form of knowledge. He recognizes that individual or "regional" theories (of politics, discourse, and so on) will never correspond perfectly with each other, nor will they ever lose the particularity that is a function of their distinct theoretical object and inquiry. Philosophically, Althusser defends the validity of historical knowledge by subordinating, in classic modernist fashion, the historicity of knowledge to the reality of its object. While he admits the conventionality and historicity of all knowledge and insists on the distinction between reality and thought about reality (the fact that thought about reality is never fully adequate, never corresponds perfectly to reality itself), Althusser subordinates such epistemological qualifications to the principle of ontological realism that asserts the primacy of reality over thought about reality. Without pretending to prove apodictically the validity of scientific knowledge (epistemological questions can never be proven or disproven by philosophy and philosophy has no claim to being the arbiter of any science, including history), Althusser takes a position in philosophy defending the category of science and the scientificity of historical materialism on the basis of their explanatory power and on the basis of a series of withering critiques of alternatives put forward by their opponents.

Structural Marxists take exception to the semiological premise that discursive practices and other social phenomena are structured as arbitrary and autonomous systems of differential signifiers only marginally related to any objective reality or signified. For Structural Marxists, discourse is not only syntactic; it is also semantic. All discursive practices are fundamentally bound up with social relations of power; they are neither free-floating systems of metalanguages (Barthes) nor ahistorical transcendental structures (Lévi-Strauss). However, Structural Marxists also reject the claims of those, like Foucault, who claim that discourse is just power (and thus largely independent of meaning, object, and validity or theoretical determinations) and that power is spontaneous, unmotivated, and unrelated to class interests. By elaborating functional concepts of scientific, philosophical, ideological, and aesthetic practices, Structural Marxism has developed a powerful general theory of discourse and a firm theoretical foundation for historical analysis of its social production and reception. Finally, Structural Marxism is able to ground discursive practice in history without slipping into historicist or hermeneutic solipsism.

Structural Marxism vitiates a long-standing debate between techno-


logical determinists and defenders of class struggle as the explanatory principle of historical development. Since technology only exists in the context of class struggle, and since class powers and interests only exist in the unity of the forces and relations of production, Structural Marxists reformulate the question of historical development in terms of distinct modes of production and their interrelationship (articulation). In the case of any mode of production, the relations of production are dominant because it is the function of ownership to appropriate the social product and to allocate a portion for reproducing the existing forces of production. In the case of any articulation of two different modes of production, it is always a matter of the dominance of the more productive over the less productive mode and the subordination of the reproduction of the latter to that of the former. Individuals exercising the ownership function within a mode of production, of course, constitute its ruling class, and the ruling class of the dominant mode within a given articulation will dominate the dominant class of the subordinate mode. In sum, within any given mode of production we may speak of the dominance of the relations over the forces, yet the question of technological determinism versus class struggle cannot be meaningfully posed. However, within any articulation of two modes of production, we may speak of technological determinism but only in the sense of the one mode (one unity of forces and relations and one class struggle) dominating a second.

The concept of a mode of production also permits Structural Marxists to demonstrate the relevance of economic determination to non-capitalist social formations. First, by conceptualizing the forces and relations of production as two social relations among three elements—laborers, technology, and non-laborers—Structural Marxists are able to isolate the economic functions of ownership and production within any given social formation. Second, by distinguishing both economic and non-economic functions from particular institutions that are the bearers of those functions (the lineage, the manor, and so on), Structural Marxist analysis is able to specify relations of determination invisible to methodologies that are content simply to describe institutions and behavior patterns. Third, by specifying relations and their structured interrelationship, Structural Marxists are able to balance general theory and concrete research in a productive and interactive fashion, developing general concepts of a variety of distinct modes of production while respecting the historical individuality of social formations in a given time and place. In short, the concept of a mode of production


posits, in classic modernist fashion, abstract structural determinations as objectively real as gravity, yet like the force of gravity, visible only in their effects. Structural Marxism is quintessentially modernist not only because it insists on the objective reality of abstract structural determinations, but also because it recognizes the impassable gulf that separates knowledge—that is, abstract concepts of reality—from its object, reality itself.

Far from denigrating human subjectivity, as is so often claimed, Structural Marxism has always recognized its significance and devoted considerable attention to developing concepts of both subjectivity and practice. The difference between Structural Marxism and its postmodern and neo-liberal rivals is that for the latter, human subjectivity is accepted as the basis of social theory, while for Althusser and the Structural Marxists, the social structures and relations that produce social subjects are primary. Structural Marxists wish to explain first the structures and processes by which social subjects are created and second the relationships between social subjectivity, power, and practice. Structural Marxism explores the contradictions among the different ways we are all constituted as social subjects as well as the tensions between forces of submission—inherent in our conformity to the roles and positions that we are assigned by society—and forces of empowerment stemming from our capacity to act as social subjects by means of these same roles and positions. Social agents are not mindless robots; they are creative, decision-making players within a rule-bound yet open-ended and interactive system of dispositions, discourses, and interests. This system, or habitus , is a historically specific and class-based structure whose enabling-restricting capacities cannot be reduced to the utilitarian free will of "man" or to a mechanistic reflection of the relations of production. Social subjectivity is a condensation of structural forces whose effectivity—the practice of individual social subjects—is precisely as open-ended as the contradictions within and among these same structural forces, including, of course, knowledge itself. The science of history has its own indeterminacy principle insofar as knowledge of its particular object alters the object of its particular knowledge. In comprehending both the intransitive and transitive dimensions of social subjectivity (without collapsing one into the other), Structural Marxism advances not only our knowledge of the past but also our capacity to act effectively in the present.

Unlike the many proponents of Western Marxism, Althusser defends the "vulgar" Marxist thesis that "class struggle is the motor of history."


While not presuming the ubiquity of class exploitation in human society, the Structural Marxist concept of a mode of production exposes exploitation where it exists, penetrates the myriad forms within which it is disguised, and discredits the variegated ideologies by which it is legitimized. Structural Marxist "orthodoxy" with respect to class struggle turns out to be quite unorthodox: it is, in fact, nothing less than a reconceptualization of the ontology of social subjects as class subjects. For Structural Marxists, not only are individuals constituted as class subjects by virtue of their objective relation to the means of production, as in the traditional concept of class, but they are also class subjects by virtue of their objective relation to non-economic structures and relations. Because the myriad positions and roles constituting the social space are always already structured by their historical conditions of existence, they are always already assigned a place and a function commensurate with the primacy of economic functions within the social formation. Social subjects who internalize this system of relations and who occupy these positions and roles are therefore necessarily constituted as members of social classes.

Defining class in terms of the internalization of a structured hierarchy of positions and roles has earned Structural Marxism enemies on the Left as well as the Right. For many on the Left, what such an approach gains in scientific explanation it loses in mythic power, ideological appeal, and political utility. By presenting the full complexity of the contemporary class struggle and revealing how deeply rooted capitalist hegemony actually is, Structural Marxist analysis rejects the mentality of "instant gratification" that has infected contemporary political thinking on the Left. Of course, any demonstration of the ongoing validity of class analysis threatens the political Right, but by producing a sophisticated, non-reductive class analysis, Structural Marxism undermines the whole anti-Marxist consensus of contemporary social theory and disrupts the otherwise smooth transition from anti-Stalinist Marxism to vulgar liberalism undertaken by so many fugitives from the Left. Finally, the Structural Marxist concept of class discredits recent attempts by many social historians to eliminate class analysis from historical research by means of a tactic I would call "anti-reductionist reductionism." What began as a legitimate critique of vulgar Marxist reflectionism has now reached a point where almost any attempt to provide a class-based analysis of historical events is condemned as "reductionist." The loss of explanatory power attending this substitution of vulgar pluralism for class analysis—for this is the essence of anti-reductionist reductionism—seems to have passed unnoticed.


This is particularly the case with those postmodern methodologies that substitute an explanation by power for an explanation of power. Structural Marxist theory possesses a concept of power every bit as relational and differential as its postmodern rivals. However, unlike postmodern theories, for which power is everywhere and nowhere, a primal energy spontaneously erupting from the senseless flux of "history" to oppress and dominate otherwise "free" individuals, Structural Marxism demonstrates how power is grounded in the hierarchy of social structures and overdetermined by class relations—how, without necessarily transforming them directly, class power limits the range of variation of all other forms of power. Structural Marxist analysis also explains how class power "condenses" in a capitalist state that is formally separated from economic relations and is even popular-democratic in nature. Structural Marxism explains why, in capitalist modes of production, the popular-democratic state is necessarily a class state whose primary function is to organize the hegemony of the ruling class and reproduce existing relations of class exploitation.

Democracy and Socialism: A Final Anticipatory Note

The fact that Structural Marxism is a modernist form of social theory does not mean that it is right, of course. It is the burden of this book to persuade, by argument, the value of what has just been asserted dogmatically. The reader must decide the extent to which the remaining chapters succeed as a useful synopsis of Structural Marxist theory and, more ambitiously, as a reassessment, synthesis, and defense of Structural Marxism. It is the reader who will decide whether or not the Structural Marxist concepts and positions discussed herein are as powerful as I find them to be and whether or not economic determination and class struggle will become once again central concerns for social theory. Despite its enormous explanatory power, however, I am under no illusions that Structural Marxism has resolved the "crisis" of Marxism. This crisis is not, after all, a crisis of scientific explanation but rather a political and ideological crisis of imagination manifested as the absence of a new vision of democracy and socialism that might serve as a feasible alternative to Fordism and Bolshevism. This book does not propose a political program, nor do I believe the presence or absence of a viable political strategy to be a valid litmus test for the claims of Structural Marxism as a science of history. However, Althusser and his followers do make a positive contribution to the resolution of the crisis


of Marxism, insofar as any revival of democratic socialist politics must spring from searching critique of existing capitalism and capitalist democracy and insofar as such a critique is contingent on our ability to see capitalism for what it is—a class-based mode of production that is inherently exploitive and fundamentally antithetical to democracy.

Ultimately, democracy and socialism are. indistinguishable. Any theory of democracy that fudges this elemental fact, in order to pretend that capitalist-representative democracy is of the same nature as socialist-participatory democracy or to argue that the former is evolving, slowly but surely, into the latter, is self-deluded and pernicious. Capitalist democracy is not simply a form of representation; it is a power structure that reflects and reproduces class inequality and exploitation by separating and delimiting those spheres that permit democratic principles from those that exclude democracy. No socialist strategy can be taken seriously that ignores or obscures the class barriers beyond which the extension of democracy becomes a challenge to capitalism.[13] No democratic strategy can be taken seriously that ignores or obscures the fact that real power in capitalist society does not rest on direct control of the state but rather on the existence of private ownership of the means of production and the exclusion of producers from control over them. Political rights may or may not be extended universally under capitalism, but if they are, the power of property depends on a rigid separation between the political and economic spheres and the relative autonomy of the state. Because liberal capitalism can never extend democracy into the economic sphere, "the people" can never have any real political power. Because the taproot of political power is economic, those with economic power decide what the issues are, what policies are acceptable, and who the candidates will be.

Participatory democracy rejects the separation of the economic and political spheres that is the mystical secret of capitalist hegemony. Participatory democracy does not mean that diversity and conflict will disappear from politics; it means only that class power will no longer be the structuring force behind political diversity and conflict. However, as C. B. Macpherson (1977) cautions, participatory democracy at the local level and delegated democracy at every level above that (with or without parties) will work only if decision makers and policy formulators elected from below are held responsible to those below by being subjected to reelection and recall. Participatory democracy must extend from the city council to the workplace, and thus socialism and democracy cannot be meaningfully dissociated. Socialism does not mean that market forces should not be permitted; it means only that the accumu-


lation process will no longer be controlled by a minority class responsible to no one in its pursuit of profits and possessing virtually unlimited powers over a working-class majority. Minority control over the means of production and the distribution of the social product, exercised by a capitalist elite (defined by private ownership) or by a bureaucratic class (defined by "public" ownership), precludes meaningful political participation by the majority of citizens by denying them responsibility and power. Distributive justice, even if such a thing were possible to decide upon and implement, is not enough: no matter how much class inequalities of income are reduced, class inequalities of power will remain to undermine, sooner or later, any merely juridical system of justice. The ruling class, Macpherson reminds us, does not vote primarily with ballots: it votes with money, influence, and power. Such a state of affairs produces and reproduces political apathy: inequalities of class power discourage mass political participation by rendering it virtually ineffective, while the absence of democratic control over the means of production completes the vicious circle by creating and perpetuating inequalities of class power.

A revival of democratic socialism can begin only with a scientific understanding of capitalism as a mode of production and representative democracy as an expression of class power. By insisting on the primacy of economic determination and class struggle, Structural Marxism not only explains more and better than its post-Marxist and postmodern rivals; it also makes possible, arguably inevitable, the emergence of a new vision of democratic socialism—a creative, utopian vision grounded in reality but aiming at its transformation and transcendence. Such a vision will not center on concepts of rights or justice, because these ideologies signify, at best, half-hearted, ineffectual efforts to protect a vast majority possessing formal rather than substantive freedoms from a small minority who actually exercise power and who actually are free. The new utopian ideology will center necessarily around the concept of equality, the only substantive concept of right and justice (a truism amply demonstrated by the virtual absence of equality from contemporary debates).

Despite the tragic absurdity of the notion that equality could be realized in the most backward regions of the world under the pressure of staggering internal and international obstacles, and despite the unfortunate (and oxymoronic) identification of equality with tyranny that has been successfully imprinted into the political unconsciousness of capitalist societies, only a fool can believe the ideal of equality can be eliminated permanently from a society where it represents the objective


interests of the majority. Capitalism itself necessarily keeps alive the ideals of equality, democracy, and socialism. Despite the misguided hopes of Althusser (and some of the others) that the PCF could be the agent of a viable renewal of the political ideology of equality, it remains the case that only the Marxist notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat—the ideal of the masses learning to govern themselves by the actual practice of governing themselves—that keeps alive the possibility that humanity might raise itself above the level of bestiality.

However discredited by the experience of Bolshevism, the ideal of equality remains the only ideological standard by which the social Darwinist kernel concealed by the humanistic husks of neo-liberal rationalism and postmodern dissidence can be exposed effectively. A commitment to equality is the only recourse for those who are truly concerned with democracy and socialism. The alternative is to accept the vision of the "end of history" being put forward by the New Right: permanent crises of overproduction and restructuring, permanent exploitation of a powerless working-class majority by a minority controlling the means of production, permanent subordination of human needs and social welfare to the exigencies of commodity production and capitalist accumulation, permanent domination of the people by an oligarchy monopolizing political power and controlling the political process; in short, the iron heel of capitalism stamping on the face of humanity—forever.

There is no point in pretending that democratic socialism is obtainable even in the intermediate term. At the same time, however, there is no reason to betray the possibility of such a future by intellectual backsliding and accommodation to the capitalist status quo. I do not believe that the humanist-moral-spiritual-ethical rebellion against capitalism expressed by figures as diverse as Bloch, Sartre, Marcuse, Thompson, Foucault, and Habermas is antithetical to the conviction of Althusser and his followers that an objective science of history, necessarily Marxist in orientation, is possible. I am, however, convinced that there is nothing useful to be gained by conflating the anticipatory principle of hope and the analytical principle of knowledge: the best hopes, it seems to me, spring from possibilities that actually exist. Said another way, it is also the responsibility of the reader to take a position for or against the renewal of social theory, for or against the contemporary evasion, if not outright repression, of the central task of any science, social or otherwise: telling the truth about its object.


Introductory Conclusion

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