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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Althusser on the Superstructure & False Consciousness

Louis Althusser

“Louis Pierre Althusser, 1918 –1990, was a French Marxist philosopher. He was born in Algeria and studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy. Althusser was a longtime member of the French Communist Party. His arguments and thesis were set against the threats that he saw attacking the theoretical foundations of Marxism… Althusser is commonly referred to as a structural Marxist… Althusser's life was marked by periods of intense mental illness. During one of his bouts, he killed his wife by strangling her.” – From Wikipedia

Base and Superstructure

“In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base and superstructure; the base comprehends the forces and relations of production — employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations — into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. These relations determine society’s other relationships and ideas, which are described as its superstructure. The superstructure of a society includes its culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and state. The base determines (conditions) the superstructure, yet their relation is not strictly causal, because the superstructure often influences the base; the influence of the base, however, predominates.” – From Wikipedia


In 1948 (when Althusser joined the French Communist Party), or in 1956 (during the “de-Stalinisation” period), or from 1956 onwards, how could a Western Marxist react to the Soviet police state? Or to the embarrassing and humiliating submission of all European communist parties to the Soviet Imperium? Or to the closing down of all questioning and argumentation when it came to the many “fundamentals” of Marxism and Leninism?

Many Marxists and Communists reacted in different ways.

Althusser himself supported the Soviet Union and the French Communist Party (more Stalinist than any other European Communist party at the time) for as long as it was feasible to do so. In fact he joined the French Communist Party, in 1948, at precisely the time when many other philosophers and theorists, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty (the phenomenologist), were questioning the Party because of its centralism and its unquestioning devotion to the Soviet regime.

During the de-Stalinisation period of 1956, many philosophers and activists, including Jean-Paul Sartre, attempted to find the “humanism” in Marx and move away from the Stalinist - and sometimes even Leninist - “aberrations” (if that’s what they were). Althusser was against all this. He even sympathised with Mao’s, or the Chinese Communist Party’s, criticisms of these sacrileges against True Marxism. And, again during the 1968 “events”, Althusser was unhappy at what he saw to be the students’ “infantile leftism” – that is, a leftism not controlled by the Communist Party or by the strictures of thinkers like Althusser himself.

Most Marxists since saw the things that happened in the Soviet Union as being the “aberrations” of True Marxism. (Let’s forget here Cuba, China, the many socialist “experiments” in Africa, Cambodia, North Vietnam, etc.)  Indeed a Marxist, not just Althusser, could hardly think otherwise about what was inflicted on Russia, and many other countries, by the Soviet Communist regime. (However, some Marxists, such as Seamus Milne of the Guardian, still don’t see what happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin as being aberrations of Marx at all - or as being aberrations of any kind.)

Superstructure and False Consciousness

Many Marxists, not just Althusser, include an incredible amount of diversity in the capitalist “superstructure” (as defined by Marxists) – not just the State and its outlets. The Marxists’ superstructure includes the “dominant ideology” (whatever that is), religion (which religion? Islam? Methodism?), and even all organised political movements. (All of them, that is, except the Marxist ones… and not even all them are exempt from the superstructure or from “false consciousness”.) That is partly why Antonio Gramsci began to concentrate of the “institutions” (of the state) by arguing that they propagated and reinforced the “dominant ideology” and thus, in the process, had a “hegemonic” status in capitalist society.

At the end of the list of members of the platonic entity, the Superstructure, I mentioned political movements. To Althusser, this even included “workers’ parties”. They weren’t Marxist enough for him. They too suffered from False (non-Marxist) Consciousness. They suffered from an “ideology of subservience”. Because of that, they had lost their place in the “class struggle” – for not embracing the right kinds of Marxism. The pure and true Marxism. Indeed they simply helped “reproduce class domination”. Again, why was that? Because they were not revolutionary parties? Yes. But it’s not that simple. In some cases even revolutionary parties would fall foul of Althusser’s Marxist puritanism. Indeed the parties would have needed to be Althusserian Marxist revolutionaries to escape his purist wrath.

There was no other way out for Althusser. Either these parties had to embrace his kind of Marxism or the simply helped reproduce class domination.

Why We Have False Consciousness

Now how is it that all these people can be so easily hoodwinked by the “capitalist state”, the “capitalist system” or the “capitalist superstructure”? How is it that even socialists can be hoodwinked so easily?

Althusser had the idea, which is part economics and part psychology, that the “agents” and “supports” of capitalism, the workers through to the bosses, are under the “illusion” that they are in charge of things. That they are in control of the “relations of production”. But capitalism doesn’t work like that. It is impersonal and has its “own logic”. It works like Newton’s universe – like clockwork: that clockwork mechanism was set going by God; just as capitalism was set up by mere mortals. Once capitalism, or the universe, was set in motion – it ran on its own.

Althusser believed that there was a way out of this determinism of capitalism. The way out was largely affected by reading Marx’s Capital. At least that was the most important part of the recipe for one’s escape from False Consciousness and thus of not being just another part of the capitalist machine. (A machines in which bosses, just as much as workers, are the unknowing parts.)

What Marx’s Capital does is “reveal the unseen of the classical economy”. Just as with other philosophers, Marx fell for a fixation of so much Western philosophy – that neat distinction between reality and appearance/s (of that reality). Plato believed that we could only grasp that reality by accessing the universals (Ideas) and making sense of them logically. Other philosophers expressed the “veil of perception” idea in many other ways – from idealism to even empiricism. Finally, just before Marx, Hegel had split reality and appearances asunder by showing us that the “the idea is the real” and the material or concrete reality, as manifested in everything from the state to the state’s institutions, is the embodiment of the idea or the Real. Marx simply reversed this polarity by stressing material or concrete reality and by saying that it is it - specifically socioeconomic reality - that determines the Idea or, more prosaically, what it is we think.

In Marxist essence, material reality is the only reality. Thoughts, ideologies, religions, etc. are just ideas which reflect that material reality. They are all, one and all (except the Marxist ideology itself) mere epiphenomena of the capitalist socioeconomic reality. And that socioeconomic reality, the capitalist means of production and exchange, is “subject-free”. It runs on its own.

That is the “dialectical” materialism of Marxism. Of course it has been put in much more sophisticated ways but you can only stray so far from Marxist fundamentals before you stop being a Marxist. And to deny this simple philosophical – metaphysical – account of reality is to deny Marx. It was Marx himself who often stressed how simple it is to comprehend his “inversion of Hegelian idealism” and thus accept his own version of Hegel instead.

Pour Marx

Having said all that it was indeed the case that Althusser went on to develop a Marxist philosophy for Marx (Pour Marx) rather than simply producing an unadulterated Marxism. But he didn’t reject Marx or anything he actually wrote (at least not Marx’s later works). The point he made was that there isn’t a Marxist philosophy as such – and such a thing is required. There are Marx’s historical and economic analyses; but no philosophy. Because of that very fact, Althusser went on to denounce some of his contemporary Communists for claiming “the end of philosophy” And they had a right, as Marxists, to do so because Mark himself implied - or even stated - that his vision, at least if taken up by the European working class and its “vanguards”, had put an end to philosophy; which hitherto had “merely interpreted the world”, not “changed it”.

Because there was no proper Marxist philosophy, Althusser need to provide one. He enlisted the help of the dead Lenin to do so. And it is here that Althusser preached something very counterintuitive. He believed that Marx’s own thought is not to be found in Marx’s own texts but it is to be found in “praxis” - in its practical incarnation: in Leninist political action (from Lenin’s day to Althusser’s own). In other words, Marx never took part in a revolution. He was never a leader or even a part of a Communist vanguard. Thus he missed out on Communist praxis – Communist action. And that, to Lenin, Leninists and Althusser, meant that there was something missing from Marx. Thus Althusser was essentially a Marxist-Leninist who believed that Lenin concretised, or even made Real, what until then was merely Marxist theory – not practice.

It’s not surprising, then, that Althusser’s “real Marxism” often seems to contradict, or at least go against, Marx’s own ideas and theories. Because Althusser was intent on updating Marx with the fashionable ideas of his day, structuralism, psycho-analysis, etc., then this is no surprise. Indeed because Marx’s works are not sacred texts, then it shouldn’t be held against him either. However, it was held against him by other Marxists; just as Althusser himself castigated as sinful all “misinterpretations” of Marx’s holy texts.

In the end, then, Althusser attempted to create a philosophy for Marx. That is, a philosophy that was no longer entirely faithful to - or determined by - Marx’s own thought.

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