Another post consisting of notes written in bits and pieces over much time which means I’ll need to review it when I’m done and try to write a a summing up. This is all I’m capable of much of the time anymore. Still need to write one of these on ch25 of Capital! Anyways, this is on Don Hamerquist’s essay on Althusser. I’m about 2/3 of the way through it, will just keep updating this post as I read further. Folk should read the essay, folk interested in Althusser and also folk following the recent Lenin discussions.

“The Soviet identified communist parties actively discouraged any study of primary writings in the communist tradition – specifically Capital – and opposed any attempts to place major theoretical contributions and debates into their actual historical context.”

Marxism was “presented as a finished and closed scientific system with simple lessons to be internalized and obeyed – but with nothing that challenged or was meant to be challenged.”

Althusser’s reference to Gramsci helped US communists begin to pay attention to Gramsci.

Hamerquist and others in the CP-USA ” were charged with engaging in “horizontal” discussions within the party and opening up those discussions to individuals and groupings outside of the party” due at least in part to a document that made us of Althusser to criticize the party. The surprising power of inadequate ideas, I suppose.

Great placing of Althusser’s work in the context of the history of the PCF and USSR.

“epistemological break (…) in the STO sense” rather than the Althusserian sense. Interesting!

“Althusser was a significant thinker with arguments that remain relevant to the conception of capitalism as a social formation and to the development of a revolutionary opposition to it. If the underlying issues he confronted are examined critically, his work still contains important and useful insights and advances.”

Hamerquist aims “to indicate where I think Althusser made important mistakes, mistakes that are not only important for “Theory”, but also for current issues of revolutionary strategy.” This deals with A’s “For Marx” with the caveat of not having followed Althusser’s late work or recent work on Althusser. I’d be keen to know what Hamerquist would make of that stuff, particularly the Philosophy of the Encounter.

I totally agree with the rejection of understanding Marxism as a science and like that the piece criticizes Althusser while expressing “no intention of putting forth an alternative attempt to make Marxism a coherent system.”

rougher notes made onehanded holding baby
“overdetermination was developed as a challenge to economic determinism”
see my post on resnick/wolff

I should reread Contradiction and Overdetermination and its Appendix.

“Engel’s description of the relationship between superstructure and infrastructure leaves the impact of the superstructural contradictions inherently indeterminate and thus cannot provide a properly concrete explanation of any historical event.”

Interesting. A’s argument vs Engels “devastates the fatalistic, essentially “imbecilic” (Gramsci’s term d.h.) belief in the historical necessity of working class triumph through a mystical, but none the less inexorable, working out of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production”

A “underestimates the a-symmetrical character of the interaction between the infrastructure and the various contradictory elements or moments (a more accurate term d.h.) of the superstructure.” This leads A to neglect the concrete determinations in any situation.

“Althusser leaves the concrete articulation of an understanding of the social structure in every specific case hostage to a questionable “theoretical practice”, a process of intellectual production that is essentially confined within the political practice of a revolutionary party. This was an organizational form that was a utopian fantasy in Althusser’s day – and it remains one now.”

“The combination of the lack of mooring of Althusser’s perspective in the socio-economic base of capitalist society and its peculiar academic and theoreticist slant biases it towards a party-centric view in which the mass working class struggle is seen mainly as effect and object – as pure potential, not as an emerging collective subject, as a movement that can emancipate itself and all human society.”

“Althusser’s notion of “theoretical practice” (…) extends an unsupportable party-centrism to a misunderstanding of the class struggle dynamic in the infrastructure.”

A is pretty crap on the Russian rev. DH’s piece is useful among other things for what it says re: Lenin+russian rev.

A “refers to the “… ‘discovery’ of a new form of mass political organization: the soviets…” (For Marx, p. 96). I’m not sure if ‘discovery’ is Althusser’s term or one carelessly used by Lenin, but in this context the use of the term is a bad idea. The reality is that the soviet form was ‘created’ by the popular movement before it was ‘discovered’ by revolutionary theory. The revolutionary potential and role of the soviets are more accurately presented as an elaboration of a specific political praxis rather than a discovery out of a “theoretical practice”.”

theoretical description of some of A’s mistakes:
separating (in thought) “social form, the soviets, from the social process through which the form is and was understood and modified”

This separates the “interaction between the real object and the consciousness of the object” which thus neglects “the process through which they shape and change each other.”

That’s a great point.

A is crap on the particulars of organizational isssues w/ in the bolsheviks too.

This is great too:

“No scientific analysis of the objective conditions for the Russian revolution would have been sufficiently persuasive to guarantee its successful implementation without this intervention of what Gramsci calls a strong “collective will”. There is no theoretical practice that will produce the knowledge of a capitalist social structure that, in itself, will be sufficient to transform a possibility for a revolution into a necessity for one.”

Knowledge/analysis/theory is not a sufficient condition. It is at best a necessary condition. I think that knowing what knowledge is necessary for some situation is only at best retroactively possible.

“any objective ‘scientific’ analysis of an existent social formation will always include major elements of dispute and ambiguity”

” anti-capitalist revolutionary transformation has and will require a collective exercise of (…) purposive action to prove out the ripeness of the objective conditions for revolution that it has posited in its strategic estimates. (…) there will always be persistent issues of interpretation and of relevance that will pose new questions which will require that the viability of the approach be demonstrated over again through expanded and extended social practice.”

I’d forgotten this! Marx’s Eighth Thesis on Feuerbach: “All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” Excellent.

“It is hard to read through these arguments without concluding that Althusser sees Marxist theoretical practice as the province of professionally trained academics who are also revolutionaries. These intellectuals will elaborate the indispensible ‘knowledge’ needed to see and travel the road to revolution, applying Marxist analytic concepts to produce the knowledge that illuminates the roles, functions, and obligations for the other revolutionaries who would develop and implement the appropriate strategy”

A tries to get out of that conclusion. In the process he “sends a clear message to those interpreting his essays: don’t take Marxist theoretical practice outside of the party framework. (…) the theoretical practice that he designates as Marxist is a specific division of labor within a disciplined party structure, the only model of which he provides is his idealized notion of a Marxist Leninist party (…) this response only succeeds in displacing the problem of theoreticism from the cadre of intellectual revolutionaries and their “theoretical practice” to the revolutionary political party, its organizational structure and its political practice.”

DH spells out the details of A’s bad ideas about or implications for organizational matters here. A takes up “the worst side of Lenin’s critique of spontaneity, emphasizing the specific elements that he had consciously moved away from by the 1905 Revolution, but which have certainly persisted and even grown in significance in communist practice right to the current moment.”

“no analysis of the current situation, including Lenin’s, completely clarifies which alternative possibilities will emerge and which will win out”

This strikes me as crucial:
“a few years after writing What Is To Be Done, Lenin described the Russian working class in the 1905 revolution as ‘spontaneously revolutionary’, and self-critically refers to the ‘bending of the stick’ in his earlier writing. There is a unifying theme between these two positions of Lenin. His initial critique of the revolutionaries is for “tailing” the spontaneous movement when it is reformist and gradualist. His later critique is for failing to understand the emergence of a new set of circumstances where the same ‘spontaneous’ movement has become revolutionary.”

More on Lenin(ism) and organizational form worth taking seriously, also re: Gramsci.

The section on epistemological breaks is really interesting. I’m more interested in Hamerquist and the STO than in the Althusser, but the passage is a strong reading of Althusser’s terms, including the philological/marxological point that Althusser mixes up some of the documents he quotes, like the 1857 unpublished draft introduction and the 1859 preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy.

I find the STO version of ‘epistemological break’ more compelling than Althusser’s use, and Hamerquist has continued to use the category. The STO used the term to talk about “qualitative shifts in the ways that social groups viewed and acted on the world –changes that often completely reversed or capsized existing term of reference and frameworks for interpreting experience – and changes that are much more important for revolutionary strategy, in my opinion, than are Althusser’s ‘scientific discoveries’.”

Interesting. I think this is close but not identical to Badiou’s idea of truth as something that bores holes in/out of knowledge – a break in an established way of understanding.

“Althusser lacked any real conception of the operative contradictions within the productive infrastructure of capitalism.” Interesting. Agreed.

Hamerquist has a lot to say on why Capital starts where/how it does, this is one of the places where I’m sympathetic to Althusser, I think those first 3 chapters are the worst in v1.

This is an interesting argument for the early chapters, they “clarify the ground for class struggle, indicating the internal contradiction between the struggle for ‘better terms’ in the sale of labor power and the elimination of the wage system. These, in turn, underlie the dual elements in working class consciousness and the important ideological structures in which both poles of the class struggle think out their needs and potentials and fight them out as the subjects of historical change.”