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and the politicism of the theory of action


Robert Kurz 

   The turn of Western Marxism towards the theory of action and the tautological reinterpretation of the left wing politicism associated with that theory did not enjoy an uninterrupted development, once that, in the ideological thought of Modernity, the metaphysics of intentionality did not generally succeed in freeing itself from the metaphysics of law-governed structures, or vice-versa. This is why Western Marxism also produced a “structuralist” version after the Second World War, represented principally by Louis Althusser. However, the so-called structuralism of the post-war period, which gave rise to Althusser’s “structuralist reading of Marx”, did not follow the classical bourgeois metaphysics of law-governed structure, but developed from linguistic (Saussure) and ethnological (Lévi-Strauss) paradigms. Here, too, however, they revealed pseudo-scientific reductions; in Lévi-Strauss, for example, these “explanatory models” were simultaneously directed against the Enlightenment and the Hegelian metaphysics of history. “Conformity with the laws” was no longer considered to be historically dominant; it was reduced to the “respective structures” and to their “necessary autonomization”, without teleological components.

   This is reminiscent of the formulations of Engels cited above, whose meaning, however, was now stripped of the metaphysics of history and of the content of the critique of political economy. In this way, the “structuralist reading of Marx” carried out by Althusser was predominantly epistemological and not about content. In this respect, it can very well be shown to converge with the philosophers of praxis, although Marxist structuralism was treated as a polar opposite, for example, in relation to Gramsci. The difference actually resides in the opposed evaluation of the “subject”. Whereas the philosophers of praxis stressed a “humanistic” emphasis on the subject and on a metaphysics of the will, in opposition to the metaphysics of law-governed structures, Althusser, for his part, adopted an “anti-humanistic concept”, with the fundamental thesis “… it is absolutely essential … to suppress every origin and every subject, and to say: what is absolute is the process without a subject, both in reality and in scientific knowledge” (Althusser 1974, 1st French Ed. 1972, first delivered as a lecture in 1968, p. 83 et seq.). This concept was extraordinarily claimed to have been derived from Hegel, and that it “is the basis of all the analyses in Capital” (ibid., p. 82), and that this concept was again and again supported: “There is no subject of the process: it is the process itself which is a subject, insofar as it does not have a subject…. take away the teleology, there remains the philosophical category that Marx inherited: the category of a process without a subject” (ibid., p. 65).

   It is clear that this determination recalls the “automatic subject” of Marx. In Althusser’s reading, however, this category is not understood critically, but only positively, as the occurrence of a certain “eternal” form (as, once again, Engels affirmed in his formulation). The “class struggle”, the supersession of capitalism, communism and in general the entire future then becomes a “subjectless process”. This critique of the subject does not lead to a categorical critique of the fetishist constitution, but leads instead to the strict affirmation of the “objectivity” of autonomized structural processes, which are only “executed” by individuals, groups and classes in action; in short, “freed” from the metaphysics of history. It is, then, a reduced and diluted metaphysics of law-governed structure that only criticizes from the outside the whole “humanistic” emphasis on the subject, without shedding any light on the internal connection and the polar identity between the subject form and fetishistic objectivization.

   Thus, an “ontological break” is unthinkable for structuralism; the ontology of praxis is transformed into an ontology of historically indeterminate and autonomized structures and processes, in which humanity is held captive forever. No wonder Althusser unceremoniously classified the chapter on fetishism in Capital as Hegelian deadweight and advised readers to skip it. For him, both the concept of fetishism as well as that of alienation form part of the period of “the young Marx” (Althusser 1974b, 1st French Ed. 1965, p. 191), whose texts should be ignored (a counterfactual claim, for, as we have already pointed out, Marx only developed the concept of fetishism in the “mature” period of his analysis of capital). Therefore, the main difference with respect to the philosophers of praxis consists in the fact that “structuralist Marxism”, which only at first glance appears to address the fundamental problem, renders explicit the implicit and vacillating surrender of the philosophy of praxis to the a priori fetishistic constitution, furnishing this surrender with theoretical legitimacy.

   In this context, the Althusserian concept of ideology is also quite revealing. It is true that Althusser introduced the concept of “ideological praxis” and also posited a difference between “science” and “ideology”. First of all, however, he was still the prisoner of a positivist concept of natural science of a kind similar to that advocated by Engels, and thus did not recognize the ideological basis of all bourgeois science in the “theory form”. Secondly, he positivizes “ideological praxis” as the “necessary” expression of a kind of first level of “consciousness of interest”, and thus comes very close to the traditional party-Marxism, which also often unceremoniously spoke of a positive “proletarian ideology”. Thus, Althusser claims: “In no sense was I condemning ideology as a social reality as Marx says, it is in ideology that men ‘become conscious’ of their class conflict and ‘fight it out’….” (Althusser 1967, p. 10). He therefore completely ignores the terrible negative power of ideology, in which the interest of the capitalist being-there, starting from the immanent treatment of the contradiction, connects with the overarching socially ontologized fetishist categories, submitting them to an interpretation, a real interpretation, which extends as far as the murderous contents of machismo, racism and anti-semitism.

   The ontology of autonomized structures and processes entails the consequence of the ontology of the ideological: “Human societies secrete ideology as the very element and atmosphere indispensable to their historical respiration and life.” (Althusser 1974, 1st French Ed. 1965, p. 182). Thus a consistent critique of ideology, which can only result from a categorical critique of the modern fetishistic constitution, is rendered unviable. Althusser himself admits as much: “And I am not going to steer clear of the crucial question: historical materialism cannot conceive that even a communist society could ever do without ideology….” (ibid., Althusser’s italics). The structuralist ontologization of ideology reduces the problem to one of a positive “theory of ideology”, that is, superficial sociological classifications (as in Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge). Within capitalism, it is precisely the “classes” that separate their contrary ideologies, and they are only interested in promoting and founding, or scientifically complementing, the “correct” ideological tendency. This also goes hand in hand with the fact that the philosophy of praxis sniffs around in search of “utopian” moments in the eternal treatment of the contradiction, which also wagers on the possibility of a positive concept of ideology.

   The structuralist reading of Marxism is fully consistent with the turn towards the theory of action, in a critique of classical economism that is just as reduced as it is superficial. To the extent that Althusser, deleting the teleology from the philosophy of history, clings to a metaphysics of law-governed structures reformulated in structuralism, this no longer refers to an “economic origin” and instead alludes to a tangle of structures and processes of diverse origins and from the most diverse social spheres. This is why he also postulates, “… we can leave to Hegel the category of totality, and claim for Marx the category of the whole.” (Althusser 1977, 1st French Ed. 1975, p. 65, Althusser’s italics). Hegel’s positive concept of the totality is not superseded as such, by way of the categorical critique of the incoherent negative totality (as it has been developed by the critique of value-dissociation), but was simply disregarded in favor of the phenomenologically reduced category of a conceptually vacuous “whole”, which can be nothing but a sign of a mere “sum” of partial social spheres and moments.

   In this process, Althusser also retreats in the direction of the formulation of Engels concerning the economy being the “last instance”, which is only indirectly “determinant”. In capitalism, therefore, what we have is a “structure in dominance” (Althusser, 1974 1st French Ed. 1965, p. 146). Here he resorts to the term “overdetermination”, borrowed from Freudian psychoanalysis: the famous “last instance” is “overdetermined” (transformed and penetrated) by other “instances” (political, ideological, cultural). The indisputable, but superficial truth, that the form of the real course of the process of the social contradiction is co-determined by politics and ideology, does not represent, however, any kind of theoretical knowledge, if it does not at the same time make it evident that both the “economy” and “politics” and ideology, etc., refer to the basic fetishist constitution of the relation of value-dissociation, on the basis of which, and only then, can the “determinant” moment of a law-governed structure of the form (and of the dynamic of crisis) be explained. By reducing, along with Engels and the philosophers of praxis, the problem to the “economy” as the “last instance”, Althusser only attains the tautological understanding that the “base” and “superstructure”, “economy” and politics/ideology, are themselves reciprocally “determined” (overdetermination), so that he could claim: “It is ‘economism’ (mechanism), and not the true Marxist tradition, that sets up the hierarchy of instances once and for all” (Althusser 1974, 1st French Ed. 1965, p. 160). The “hierarchy of instances”, however, is only a reduced and distorted perception, resulting from a lack of a critical concept of the totality that Althusser himself expressly rejects.

   The result is unmistakable: “… the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never arrives….” (Althusser, ibid., p. 81). It is not in the reduced sense of classical “economism”, however; to the contrary, in Althusserian argumentation, along with the “last instance’”, the negative totality as such, the immanent logic of the mode of socialization, the determinant moment in general in the sense of an objective dynamic, the internal frontier of the valorization of capital, of “abstract labor” and of the relation of dissociation, as well as the problem of transformation as an assault on the constitution of the form, all disappear as well. What remains is, exactly as in the case of the philosophers of praxis, the “relative autonomy” of the spheres and subsystems. The question regarding what the term, “dominant structure”, is really supposed to mean is not answered with regard to its conceptual and analytical concept; instead, this question is evaded and dissolved into “praxis”. Althusser, after having obscured the fetishistic constitution, like the philosophers of praxis, simply claims that “the Commune, in answering Marx's expectations, rendered the theme of alienation superfluous, as did the whole of Lenin's political practice” (Althusser 1977, 1st French Ed. 1975, p. 87). We therefore find nothing but the surrender of theory to the historical praxis of the treatment of the contradiction in the sense of “catch-up modernization”. “The solution to our theoretical problem”, Althusser said, “already exists in Marxist practice” (ibid., Althusser’s italics, p. 102). According to him, he is only interested in “expressing” this “solution” “theoretically” as well (ibid.).

   Just like the philosophers of praxis, this theoretical “expression”, for its part, also aims, on the one hand, at allowing the allegedly “determinant” economic moment to continue to be determinant in some fashion, and, on the other hand, it has the goal of permanently maintaining the so-called “superstructure”, that is: it preserves the formula, “everything is political” or “politics is everything”, as Althusser explicitly claimed in the following pertinent reference: “… for at last I began to understand the great thesis of Marx, Lenin and Gramsci: that philosophy is fundamentally political” (ibid., Althusser’s italics, p. 204). In this sense, Althusser also tried to understand Stalinism not only as merely “mistaken”, but also as a pure phenomenon of the superstructure, which for him “… explains very simply, in theory, how the socialist infrastructure has been able to develop without essential damage (!) during this period of errors affecting the superstructure….” (ibid., Althusser’s italics, p. 193). Here Althusser also displays, in a crystal-clear way, the collective ignorance of Western Marxism with regard to the content of the critique of political economy, in which the problem of the fetishistic constitution of the form was concealed. As a result, the “structuralist” and ignorant reading of the contents that Althusser conducted with respect to Marx also leads to a politicism that is compatible with the theory of action, tautological and self-referential: the social process as ontologized “praxis” dissolves into “… innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces….” (Althusser 1974, 1st French Ed. 1965, p. 89).

   Thus, Althusser also offers his truly revelatory concept of “theoretical praxis”, since he cannot continue to develop it up to its internal connection with the constitution of the social form. This concept, as Althusser claims, really “justif[ies] the thesis of the relative autonomy of theory and thus the right of Marxist theory not to be treated as a slave to tactical political decisions….” (Althusser 1977, 1st French Ed. 1975, p. 55), but he also places special emphasis on the fact that it is “… in alliance with political and other practices” (ibid.). In his various self-criticisms, Althusser had already pertinently “revised” his concepts: “No doubt I did speak of the union of theory and practice within ‘theoretical practice’, but I did not enter into the question of the union of theory and practice within political practice” (Althusser 1967, Althusser’s italics, p. 14).

   Althusser repeatedly accuses himself of “theoreticism”, which only indicates that he avoided talking about the real problem. It is by no means a matter of endless reflections on the words, “relative autonomy” of theory (for this the concept of “theoretical praxis” is not necessary). Theory is not a “sphere” alongside other spheres in the framework of “relative autonomy”; to the contrary, it is itself the theory of praxis, namely of the dominant, fetishistic praxis, its “theoretical expression”. And as such it must be used in a negative way, even against itself as a “theory form”, which, however, has nothing to do with an a priori unity of “theory and praxis”, and even less with any kind of merger with “politics”. To the contrary, what matters is to criticize praxis, precisely the praxis of the eternal treatment of the contradiction in the political form. The diffuse ontology of praxis obscures precisely this task, and thus binds theory to this immanent treatment of the contradiction, which has no concept. It makes no difference whether the point of view is the bare metaphysics of intentionality of the philosophers of praxis or the “spineless” metaphysics of law-governed structure of Althusserian structuralism. By way of their truncated critique of classical economism, both these approaches of Western Marxism lead to a tautological politicism, without an objective in contents, of eternal “struggles” and eternal “relations of forces”, in the cage of the a priori matrix.

Robert Kurz in Grey Is the Golden Tree of Life and Green is Theory. The Problem of Praxis as a Recurring Theme of a Truncated Critique of Capitalism and the History of the Left

Originally published under the title : “Grau ist des Lebens goldner Baum und grün die Theorie. Das Praxis-Problem als Evergreen verkürzter Gesellschaftskritik und die Geschichte der Linken”, in EXIT! Krise und Kritik der Warengesellschaft, No. 4, 2007 (ISBN: 978-3-89502-230-2, Horlemann Verlag, Postfach 1307, 53583 Bad Honnef, http://www.horlemann-verlag.de/).

- Althusser, Louis (1967): “An die deutschen Leser” [To the German Reader], in Fur Marx [For Marx], Frankfurt am Main.

- Althusser, Louis (1974a, 1st French Edition 1972, lecture delivered in 1968): Lenin und die Philosophie, Reinbeck bei Hamburg. [Lenin and Philosophy]

- Althusser, Louis (1977, 1st French Edition 1965): Fur Marx, Frankfurt am Main. [For Marx]

- Althusser, Louis (1977, 1st French Ed. 1975): Ideologie und ideologische Staatsapparate, Hamburg/West Berlin. [The Ideological Apparatus of the State]

Other texts : 

- We are everything. The misery of (post-)operaism (Robert Kurz)

- Foucault's pendulum. From party-Marxism to movement ideology (Robert Kurz).

- "Structuralist Marxism" and the politicism of the theory of action (Robert Kurz)

A new direction for the direction of action.Western Marxism and the « philosophy of praxis » (Perry Anderson, Ernst Bloch, Antonio Gramsci, & cie), by Robrt Kurz.


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