How (Not) to Kill a Philosopher

How (Not) to Kill a Philosopher

Louis Althusser (Arturo Espinosa/Flickr)

In a recent review of Louis Althusser’s On the Reproduction of Capitalism, Anne Boyer misrepresents key aspects of his thought. At the center of her argument is the claim that “Althusserianism has been a Marxism for those who prefer their class struggle as Philosophy.” In this she is admittedly repeating the earlier critiques of figures like E.P. Thompson and Jacques Rancière. But whereas those writers at least made a concerted effort to critique Althusser from within (Rancière is one of his best known former students), Boyer’s excessively unsympathetic takedown relies mostly on rehashed ad hominem attacks that only tangentially touch the book.

Reading the review, one is led to believe that Althusser embodied the very same ideology that he critiqued—“a pure dream fabricated by nothing,” a Master who only appeared to be one to interpellated subjects. How and why this fraud influenced an entire generation of French intellectuals is inconceivable for Boyer, unless we accept that he appealed to their basically anti-political stance, which—in her account—was swept away by the revolutionary tide of 1968.

In fact, rather than providing a “new whetstone on which a generation of critics can sharpen its knives,” new works by and about Althusser have prompted something of a revival of his thought. Warren Montag’s excellent new book Althusser and his Contemporaries (2013), as well as the edited volume Encountering Althusser (2012), are just two examples of this renewed intellectual engagement, and more are certainly underway as other previously untranslated works see the light of day.

By itself, this revival doesn’t speak to the content of Althusser’s thought and what it can tell us about today’s world. Of course, our time is markedly different from Althusser’s: the Cold War is over, what Communist parties did survive are shells of their former selves, and Marxism is viewed as a suspiciously optimistic ideology when it comes to humanity’s potential to transform itself. Yet Althusser also struggled with political questions that continue to be relevant for us—questions about the nature and role of the state under contemporary capitalism, about the varied patterns of social and economic development, about the relationship between science and ideology, about the formation of subjectivity in capitalist society—including gender identities—and, yes, about the relationship between theory and practice.  All this is barely touched upon in Boyer’s review, as though the messianic exaltation of 1968 has rendered all of these questions irrelevant for generations to come. Structures didn’t take to the streets that year, true, but just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t really there.

Furthermore, if Althusser was skeptical about the student protests of ’68, it was not because of his Stalinism—a common accusation hinted at by Boyer. Althusser was a longtime member of the PCF, one of the most Stalinist parties in Western Europe, and some of his texts from the 1960s are clearly evasive when it comes to evaluating Stalin’s relationship to Marxism-Leninism. However, he was never the official philosopher of the party, and his early works reveal the degree to which he undermined the party’s stance on basic theoretical questions. Much of his early writing on the young Marx is easy to misunderstand as ivory tower obscurantism, unless it is treated as a political intervention into the controversies surrounding the future of Communism after Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s secret speech of 1956. Althusser rejected both the “humanist” turn that the PCF wanted to make after Stalin and the Stalinist “pragmatism” that molded and shaped Marxist theory to fit the whims of the Leader. All this is described in detail in Gregory Elliott’s book Althusser: The Detour of Theory, recently republished by Haymarket Books.

Boyer also neglects two of Althusser’s most important works, which made him one of the most innovative Marxist philosophers of the past century: For Marx and Reading Capital. The essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” a finished extract from the book under review that she relies on for her criticism, is important in its own right. But in many ways it is a less interesting and original work than some of his earlier essays gathered in For Marx, such as “Contradiction and Overdetermination” and “On the Materialist Dialectic.” Althusser’s intellectual career was marked by a series of shifts and reconsiderations in light of contemporary political developments—something that Boyer avoids mentioning because it would cast a questionable light on her argument about his philosophical dogmatism. The essay on ideology was the product of one of these moments—an incomplete attempt at grappling with political reality, not a final, authoritarian stance on the question of revolutionary agency—and one of the virtues of the newly translated On the Reproduction of Capitalism is to present it as such.

Finally, Boyer makes an explicit link between Althusser’s philosophy, his mental illness, and his murder of his wife, Helene. “Philosophy is harmless, except when it harms,” she writes, and “with Althusser, of course, killing can never just be a metaphor.” Presented as a profound insight into the relationship between philosophy and domestic violence, Boyer’s turn of phrase suggests that there is an essential connection between Althusser’s philosophical abstraction and the act of murder. “As the wife-killer treats human as object, a passive material to be formed or unformed by more powerful hands, so too, the kind of philosophy Althusser describes makes objects of the masses, much to their own risk.” Anti-humanism in theory is equated to misogyny and murder in practice.

This conclusion is drawn from Althusser’s own description of the incident in The Future Lasts Forever, a rambling and revealing window onto his damaged psyche. The book is deeply troubling. It catalogs the sources and effects of the serious mental illness that plagued Althusser for his entire life, during which he oscillated between periods of hyper-productivity and extended hospitalizations, electroshock treatments, and suicide attempts. The book contains much solipsistic self-exposition; at one point Althusser scandalously rationalizes killing Helene as an unconscious wish for self-destruction through the destruction of the person closest to him.

Althusser’s philosophical preoccupation with the unconscious and the formation of subjectivity was clearly affected by his personal struggles. Yet is Boyer justified in pushing further this analogy between murder and philosophy? Doing so leaves us with a reductive determinism where one’s philosophical worldview can be neatly superimposed onto one’s actions, with each side neatly explained in light of the other. In Althusser’s case, it means treating his intellectual products in the years preceding the murder as mere tangents, just small steps along the way to the act that exposed him for what he really was. From there, it is another small step to conclude that breaking out of the glass prison of interpellation (the term Althusser uses to describe how ideology shapes identity) requires a violent act of destruction, whether of the self or of another.

Ideology, however, is not only a matter of interpellation but also of overdetermination: there is never a clear one-to-one relationship between cause and effect when it comes to the social world. No matter how many intellectual contortions we undertake, a philosopher’s biography cannot by itself account for the content of his or her thought, and vice versa. The task of reviewing another individual’s thought put into writing involves finding a proper balance, pulling apart these different threads, seeing where each leads, and recombining them in such a manner that it casts a new light. But instead of a picture of a flawed individual caught in the controversies of his times, Boyer leaves us with an Althusserian straw man—a charlatan, an ivory tower elitist, and, therefore inevitably, a murderer. That is unfortunate for any reader interested in understanding the relationship between philosophy and radical politics.

Rafael Khachaturian is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University.

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