Althusser was an Idealist

Historicizing Althusser

In an earlier article I referred to Althusser's idealism.  I'd like to explain what I mean by that.  

In that article and others, I have tried in various ways to express that, to put it a bit simplistically, the linguistic turn in philosophy was a turn toward idealism, a turn away from materialism, a turn toward what I have called stupidity.  The far extremes of this turn are what I have called the stupidest idea.  Althusser can be thought of as the person (or at least a person) who performed the linguistic turn on Marxism, rendering materialism into an idealism - one of the linguistic turncoats, as it were. 

Of course that is not how many people see Althusser.  On the contrary, he is often portrayed, by both his enemies and even occasionally some of his defenders, as a harsh Stalinist, who, with totalitarian brutality, led his students to crush the soft "humanist" academics of Paris.  Those who interpret Althusser this way usually see "humanism" as both an artsy literary trend and a form of bourgeois liberalism, in contrast to the "immortal science" of Stalinism.  Then again, these two ways of seeing things are not entirely incompatible - witness the fact that Stalin was something of an armchair linguist, himself - and might even be considered something of a postmodernist.  There will always be those who fear Marxism because it is too materialistic, too scientific, etc..  But as I will argue again and again, the problem with existing Marxism, then as now, is precisely that it isn't scientific enough.  And Althusser was no Stalinist, nor a materialist, but an idealistic butterfly, ever flitting this way and that.  As a careerist, he was compelled to follow the popular prejudices of his consumers, his students.  Untethered to any empirical, statistical observation, to any fact, to any materialist analysis, Althusser floated from one position to another whenever he thought it would gain him some popularity with his students; thus he was continually contradicting himself.  The only thing that stayed constant in all the whimsical vicissitudes of his perpetually shifting ideology was his opposition to, and criticism of, science.

Althusser is famous, of course, for historicizing Marx, contrasting the early "humanistic" Marx with his later, more mature, "scientific" materialist work - and most famous of all for identifying a period of "epistemological break" separating the two.  But what if we try historicizing Althusser himself?  Then this popular image of Althusser as a solid materialist dissolves like mist.  For, just as Althusser spoke of a "young Marx," we can look at a "young Althusser," and the complex relation of his youth to later stages of his thought.

Louis Pierre Althusser was born a colonizer in French Algeria in 1918.  His father was a banker, and by the time Louis was 12, the family moved to Marseilles as his father became the director of a bank.  His mother, a school teacher, was a deeply devoted Catholic, who according to Althusser's later writings "adopted" Louis as a second "husband."  I'm not sure what that means, but clearly they had a complex and emotional relationship.  Little Louis became a scout and excelled in both school and scouting, and his heart became inflamed with a passionate Catholicism.  A few years later, they moved again to Paris, where Althusser was able to enroll in the prestigious Ecolé Normal Supérieure.  Here he joined the Catholic youth movement Jeunesse Étudiente Chrétienne (Young Christian Students), which was a kind of auxiliary to the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (Young Christian Workers) movement founded by Joseph Cardijn, which was capable of organizing rallies in Paris numbering the tens of thousands in the late 1930s.  As a young man, Althusser gave the same fervor to this organization that he had once applied to scouting.

During this time, Althusser was a fairly right-wing conservative and came under the influence of several Catholic teachers, some of whom became his mentors.  His greatest ambition at the time was to become a Trappist monk.  At first, he was essentially a follower of Jean Lacroix, the arch-Catholic founder of Esprit.  Lacroix was one of the fiercest and most adamant exponents of the philosophy of "Personalism," which was opposed to both Marxism and existentialism.  Lacroix was explicitly, avowedly, an idealist, and despised what he saw as the crude materialism of contemporary philosophy.  In contrast to existentialism, he venerated and saw himself as belonging to the long French, Christian, "Spiritualist" tradition of writers like Maurice Blondel, who had developed what he called a "philosophy of action": as he famously put it, human life is "metaphysics in action."  He therefore promoted what he called the "willing will".  (The "Personalist" movement would later be a major influence on Pope John Paul II.)  Blondel, in turn, was working within the tradition established by thinkers like Émile Boutroux, who became famous for his vitriolic invective against the materialism of science.

An even greater influence was Althusser's close and lifelong friend, 17 years his senior, the theologian Jean Guitton, who was largely responsible for Althusser's career.  Guitton was a part of the most robust and influential, if short-lived, movement in early 20th century French philosophy, the wave of philosophers whose ideas came from Henri Bergson - as was Jacques Chevalier, Lacroix's teacher and the Minster of Education under the Nazi-allied Vichy regime - and Chevalier's student, Emmanuel Mounier, who was in turn the most famous promoter of "Personalism" and a devotee of Charles Péguy, the French Nationalist Socialist.  For his part, Jean Guitton, besides being a theologian of great repute (he was the only layperson to take part in the official meetings of the Second Vatican Council), Guitton was a successfully ambitious schmoozer and networker - not to mention, a flashy dresser.  He was perhaps the closest personal friend of Pope Saint John XXIII, and then later was also quite close with Pope Paul VI (that's the same Pope who, it was scandalously revealed in 2011, was exchanging letters with the nazi colonel Otto Skorzeny, who thanked him profusely for his help in hiding former nazi officers who were then on the run, attempting to escape capture by the victorious Allies).  He was also a friend and spiritual advisor to Francois Mitterand, who later became France's President.  Guitton was always eager to promote the careers of his young friends, including Althusser.

These and many other ideas were swirling around in the Parisian milieu at the time.  What was especially salient was an intransigent unwillingness to allow a narrow, literal, secular, scientific materialism to have the final word; for many people in this scene, the objective must be brought into balance with its complement.  It's typical among these kinds of people to claim something like the notion that somehow human science is "arrogant" or "narcissistic".  For instance, there were the trinity of Jean Hyppolite, Alexandre Kojéve and Alexandre Koyré.  These first two will perhaps already be familiar names, so let's focus on the third.  Koyré was a fierce critic of, and historian of science, aiming straight for the top and attacking figures like Galileo and Newton and especially repudiating what he (somewhat inaccurately) referred to as "positivism".  Koyré's historical books became very useful to young people who were crusading against what they considered "scientism" at the time.  Later would appear René Girard, perhaps the most French of all French philosophers, with his theory of "mimesis" that was so deeply rooted in his Catholic faith.  In addition to figures like these, there were also, of course, the existential phenomenologists, like Heidegger and Koyré's friend, Husserl, who were finding a growing audience in Paris before, during, and immediately after the Second World War.

It was at this time that Althusser first became a critic of existentialism, but from the right, not from the left. His early essay, "The International of Decent Feelings" (1946) castigated existentialism as a form of "idolatry" that was "doubly anti-Christian," because it replaced God with the fear of death.  In this fiery paper, he took on all comers: Camus, Malraux, Koestler, etc..  Though he is explicitly anti-existentialist, in some ways his fierce Christianity is reminiscent of Heideggerian phenomenology.  Yet he is more traditionally Catholic than Heidegger - and that means, in a more serious social communion - less individualistic.  What is most significant here is the beginning of the formation of a theoretical anti-humanism that Althusser would continue to develop in various ways over the rest of his career.  In this anti-humanist position, Althusser's philosophy is not entirely dissimilar from Heidegger's notorious "Letter on Humanism" that would come out the following year.

Some aver that Althusser abandoned Catholicism after this early period of his writing.  They want to maintain the image of Althusser as the quintessential hard-nosed materialist scientific Marxist.  Some even want to present him as the representative of scientific Marxism, in opposition to saccharine moralistic ideology.  But one will be hard pressed to specify an epistemic break in which he definitively cut off his relation to Catholic doctrine - when it happened, how it happened, why it happened, or even that it happened.  Certainly it doesn't take an expert to perform a deconstructive or esoteric reading of his "Letter to Lacroix" (1949).  Though this is sometimes touted as his adieu to religion, it's pretty clear from even a cursory reading - one doesn't have to read between the lines very much at all - to see that in this writing, Althusser remained as committed to his Christian values as ever.  What shines through is that, rather than being, as some might suspect, a Marxist who wished to present Marxism in a culturally relevant context by putting a Catholic front on it - Marxism with French Characteristics, so to speak - actually the reverse was true: Althusser was using the superficial outward trappings - and social organization - of Marxism to implement his own deeply held religious convictions.  In order to reach the youth of France, he tried to dress up Catholicism, to make it hip by trying to make it seem "radical".

If Althusser was the historical materialist theorist of Marxism that his boosters claim he was, when was he such a theorist?  Obviously not during his early, deeply Catholic writings of the 1940s.  Not really in the 1950s, either, when Althusser was extolling the virtues of Montesquieu, that arch example of Enlightenment liberalism.  Already by the late 60s, he was backtracking from his positions and moving away from politics into questions of aesthetics and metaphysics - a trend that would only intensify through the 70s and 80s, by which point he was explicitly praising Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Derrida as well as, of course, his beloved Spinoza.  I think it makes far more sense to call Althusser a Spinozist than it does to call him a Marxist.  Once we shift our focus onto Spinoza and other rationalist philosophers (Francis Mercury van Helmont, Anne Conway, Margaret Cavendish, Nicolas Malebranche, etc.) as central to Althusser's world, rather than Marx, everything falls into place.  Indeed, by 1980, he was explicitly declaring his distance from Marxism: "I am an anarchist, a social anarchist.  I am not a communist, because social anarchism is beyond communism."  

So, in effect, this only leaves a tiny, perhaps five or six year window - roughly from 1961 to 1966 - during which Althusser could even be suspected of having something to do with Marxism.  And even this period is full of constant shifts.  Althusser never remained in any consistent, coherent political position for very long.  He would take a political position for a day, only to reverse himself a day later.  You can believe that Althusser was an atheistic, materialistic, scientific Marxist somewhere in that period if you wish.  I prefer to take him at his word: "I became communist because I was Catholic.  I did not change religion, but I remained profoundly Catholic.  I don't go to church but this doesn't matter [...] I remained a Catholic, that is, an internationalist universalist."

When I point out Althusser's historical and complex relation to religion, am I saying "Althusser was one of those dirty religious people; his work therefore should be consigned to the scrap-heap"?  Not at all.  As an outsider to religion, I respect religious people and I am open to them.  I merely ask that we call things what they are, directly, with forthrightness, clarity, and honesty.  Let's not pretend that Althusser's doctrine is a materialist doctrine, when it is the very opposite of that - it is an anti-materialist doctrine.  Nor am I saying that religion and idealism are necessarily identical or even related - it is Althusser himself who says that.  In discussing idealism, he tells us that "...To give it its general meaning, I am obliged to say: the vast majority of known philosophies have, throughout the history of philosophy, always exploited the sciences (and not simply their failures) to the profit of the 'values' (a provisional term) of practical ideologies: religious, moral, juridical, aesthetic, political, etc.  This is one of the essential characteristics of idealism."  He goes on to, as he puts it, "concretely illustrate" this, first by pointing to "religious philosophies."  His first example is Pascal, who, he tells us, "left us the corpus of a religious philosophy of which it must be said that its inspiration is the exploitation of the theoretical contradictions of the sciences of his time to apologetic ends external to the sciences."  This passage and others like it take on quite a different meaning when we realize that, in Althusser's mind, throughout this time, he "remained profoundly Catholic," doesn't it?  Though a naive materialist might assume that Althusser is complaining that religious philosophy exploits the sciences, a perfectly possible reading is that he is proudly advocating such exploitation.  If he is mildly critical of Pascal, this is only because Pascal was, to his mind, "slightly heretical."  Once one realizes that Althusser himself is one of the religious philosophers that he is describing, we can see that this passage is, in effect, a kind of autobiography.  And since this is "one of the essential characteristics of idealism," Althusser is, according to his own terms and definitions, unmistakably an idealist. (p. 120, 121)

Althusser's gradual, fitful, on-again, off-again, half-hearted embrace of structuralism should not surprise us - first, because structuralism, especially the French version, has been the last refuge of every kind of idealism, every attempt to live in denial of the world that science has disclosed to us.  Second, because Althusser was decidedly an example of the religious personality - and the national religion of France is the worship of language.

Thus it makes sense that Althusser would turn to Lacan.  Lacan represented, for Althusser, not a great shift in his own thinking, but a great continuity with everything that had come before.  After all, Lacan, too, grew up as a fervent Catholic, and had his own period of right wing conservatism in the 20s and 30s, even more extreme than Althusser's would later be.  Lacan attended meetings of Action Française and met personally with Charles Maurras, its fascist leader, whose writing he deeply admired.  The influence of Catholic theology is everywhere in his psychoanalytic theory.  As he liked to say, "I am a product of priests."  There were several priests in his family, including his brother.  As late as 1974, he was to declare that "The Roman religion is the true one. Just try putting all the religions into one bag and then make for example what is called a history of religions. It’s truly horrific. There is only one true religion, and that religion is Christian. The only thing is to know whether this truth will hold on, whether it will end up able to actually drown us in the meanings spews forth. I’m sure it will be able to because it does have resources. Lots of things are ready-made for these purposes. It will interpret the Book of Revelations. A lot of people have already taken a stab at it. It will unearth correlations between everything. This is its function in fact."  Lacan also called his psychoanalytic teaching "Catholicism without God."

In so far as Althusser can be considered a Marxist at all, he represented a right wing, voluntarist, idealist, obscurantist deviation within Marxism.  To put it better, his was a psychologizing kind of Marxism, a pseudo-Marxist psychologism.  His voluntarism is key, just as it was for Blondel.  One will scarcely find any facts at all in any of Althusser's writings.  He is not interested in facts - only interpretations.  And he doesn't even bother interpreting facts - he only interprets other interpretations.  He cares little about the outside world, or the determinations that scientists have made about it.  But he is relentlessly fascinated with the scientists themselves, and even moreso with the philosophers who have interpreted these scientists.  And in every case, he attempts to tease out the ideology implicit in these interpretations, like a psychoanalyst uncovering a repressed drive.  Thus his concern with "SPS" - the "spontaneous philosophy of the scientists."  Thus also his work on "ISA" - "ideological state apparatuses".  (He was fond of abbreviations, for some reason.  Sometimes, his writing style reminds me of L. Ron Hubbard.)

A word on the famous "epistemological break" that Althusser supposedly discovered in the work of Marx.  I'll have more to say about this, elsewhere, but for now I'll merely point out that at least Althusser had the decency to admit quite clearly and forthrightly where he got this notion from: his old Master's thesis supervisor, Gaston Bachelard, the wizard of Paris.  Bachelard was precisely one of these philosophers Althusser later wrote about, who "exploited" science, by interpreting the scientists, or as Bachelard himself put it, by psychoanalyzing science.  As a historian of science, he loved to point out that it was not a slow, steady, accumulation of knowledge, but rather was full of gaps, ruptures, discontinuities.  (Thomas Kuhn's later notion of a "paradigm shift" owes something to Bachelard.)  In his evocative and poetic language, Bachelard worms his way into the minds of scientists to divine their ulterior motives.  Bachelard, and his follower Canguilhem, began a tradition of the criticism of science and scientists to which Althusser acknowledged an "incalculable debt".  (It might be pointed out in passing: in his inveterate distrust of science, Althusser is a bit more like Bakunin than he is like Marx.  For Bakunin feared the power of scientists, and dreaded a world in which scientists were in charge.  But I don't want to press that point too hard - it might take us on a rather wild tangent.) 

There is indeed an epistemic shift in Althusser's thought - not a shift from Catholicism to Marxism, but a shift within Catholicism - a shift towards idealist Catholicism.  In other words, in Althusser's youth, he was committed to the material Church, that is, to the institution of the Church, to the Church as it existed as a constellation of social, political, and economic relations.  Later, he remained committed to the Church, but no longer the Church that exists in this world, but a purely ideal Church that exists only in his imagination.  He came to see that the earthly tabernacle was only a copy made "according to the pattern" of the heavenly tabernacle shown to Moses on the mount (Hebrews 8:5).  The Catholicism that Althusser followed was no longer a commitment to the real earthly institution of the Roman Catholic Church, but adherence to the pure ideal principle of international universalism.

What did Althusser add to Marxism?  Not much.  Nearly everything he added to Marxism he took away again, as his political and philosophical positions shifted this way and that in his vain attempts to hold the attention of the capricious French public.  Althusser's famous dictate, that "History is a process without a subject," is a garbled version of Amadeo Bordiga's far clearer and more coherent - though equally infantile - contention that "the human subject has become worthless," some 18 years earlier.  Eventually French fashion passed Althusser by.

Althusser was in many respects a rather poignant and tragic figure.  Not least of his tragic shortcomings was his relation to postmodernism: though Althusser was never a postmodernist, though he remained a firm, sincere, honorable, straightforward opponent of the growing postmodern tendencies all around him until his death, nonetheless in many ways it can be reasonably asserted that Althusser's own errors helped open the door to postmodernism's pernicious rise.  I think it's even fair to link Althusser's religion with these errors, for postmodernism can be seen in some loose sense as arising from the cultural particularism that is inherent to religion.  Althusser sowed the wind, and reaped the whirlwind.

Foucault continued the critique of the human sciences where Hyppolite, Koyre, Bachelard, Canguilhem, and Althusser left off.  But Foucault took this further than Althusser was perhaps willing to go, for Foucault was unafraid to use the critique of the human sciences to cut off the very wellspring of Marxism, that is, scientific materialism.  Thus Foucault moved away from Marxism and towards what he considered a more Nietzschean perspective.  (Though I disagree.)  Then again, perhaps Althusser was willing to go that far, after all - remember, of course, Althusser's declaration in 1980 that he was no longer a Marxist, but an Anarchist.

As an idealist, Althusser is quite interesting and fun to read.  But if you want to engage in the materialist analysis of history or the critique of political economy, do not bother reading Althusser.  Learn science.


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