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Althusser, and revolutionary strategy

January 13, 2010

One of Chris Harman’s last articles is printed in the new International Socialism Journal – an attack on Louis Althusser, in defence of Lukacs and the classical Marxist tradition. It’s timely, as Althusser is making an intellectual resurgence at present. As Harman says,

There is barely an issue of Historical Materialism that does not carry some article on him; his influence pervades the North American journal Rethinking Marxism; and long-established academics will refer to his ideas as if they can be taken for granted.

Partly as a side-effect of that, I had been re-reading his 1962 essay, ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’; it struck me, as for some reason it hadn’t before, just how opposed Althusser’s concept of historical changes was to how Marxists had conventionally understood it:

…the whole Marxist revolutionary experience shows that. if the general contradiction (it has already been specified: the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production, essentially embodied in the contradiction between two antagonistic classes) is sufficient to define the situation when revolution is the ‘task of the day’, it cannot of its own simple, direct power induce a ‘revolutionary situation’, nor a fortiori a situation of revolutionary rupture and the triumph of the revolution.

This is appears, on first brush, to be sharply opposed to a deterministic view of social change: the economic motor (‘the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production’) is not enough to, by itself, to produce a ‘revolutionary situation’. But Althusser goes on to remove any motor force for history:

If this contradiction is to become ‘active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its ‘direct opponents’), they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime which its ruling classes are unable to defend. Such a situation presupposes not only the ‘fusion’ of the two basic conditions into a ‘single national crisis’, but each condition considered (abstractly) by itself presupposes the ‘fusion’ of an ‘accumulation’ of contradictions.

In other words, it is only in revolutionary situation itself that even the possibility of revolution can be seen; and, further, it is only when such a ‘ruptural unity’ emerges that the totality of society becomes visible. Prior to that point, the separate elements of the social whole – the economy, culture, politics, theoretical work – all proceed down their own neat tram-lines. It is unclear what mechanism, other than crisis itself, would ever pull them together: Althusser, arbitrarily, selects the economy as the determining force ‘in the last instance’, but even he recognises the theoretical weakness of this determination, within his own system. ‘[T]he lonely hour of the last instance never comes,’ he concludes.

Major social changes are left essentially to chance, and – being left to chance – render his system indistinguishable from determinism, both as a matter of empirical enquiry, and from the viewpoint of those seeking to change the world. The distance between Althusser’s view of society as distinct structures, and the classical Marxist view, derived from Hegel, that places the totality of social life at the dead centre of its understanding of the world, could not be greater.

In particular, Lukacs use of the ‘actuality of revolution’ is wholly opposed to Althusser’s equivalent concept, ‘overdetermination’. Lukacs, writing in the aftermath of the defeated European revolutions following the First World War, did not mean that revolution was always and everwhere a feasible possibility. Rather he meant that within every social situation, there could be derived a vision of society as a whole, if the viewpoint adopted was that of the working class looking back, as it were, from its successful revolution.

Of course, there are ambiguities in this; it isn’t enough to declare oneself to merely be the vanguard, and therefore correct; this has to be proven in practice, through discussion, debate, and struggle. But in practical terms, this means that there is always a revolutionary political strategy that can be adopted, by the revolutionary organisation, in any given social situation. There is always a weak link in the chain of events that will break open the situation, always a need for the identification of political priorities. Now, whether any purported vanguard of the proletariat will actually find that strategy is another question, naturally; but at least the possibility of such a strategy exists.

It is, perhaps, this underlying issue of strategy that accounts for Althusser’s slight return to favour. The decade since the upsurge of the anticapitalist movement has seen repeated arguments, from Antonio Negri onwards, on the fundamental irrelevance of questions of strategy to those seeking social change.

Alain Badiou, another thinker rising to Anglophone prominence in the last ten years or so, whose concept of the transformative Event otherwise bears – I think – a striking similarity to Althusser’s ‘ruptural unity’, is perhaps less dismissive of strategy, at least identifying the need for organisation and polemic, in the latter case often with great panache. The underplaying of strategy, however, is a common theme; we need to move beyond this, if we are going to break the Left out of its current deadlock.

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One comment

  1. The downplaying of strategy is presumably linked to abandonment of the aim of conquering state power. If you accept the impossibility of revolution, if you somehow think we can change the world without challenging the state, then an overarching strategy becomes irrelevant. There’s also – in autonomist thought – an element of accepting postmodernist distrust of ‘totality’ and ‘grand narratives’. This again encourages downplaying of strategy.



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