Rancière On Althusser and Marx

Dave Harris

We need to examine first Rancière’s highly critical, debunking, and sometimes wickedly funny dismissal of Louis Althusser.  It is a long time since Althusser’s essay on ‘ideological state apparatuses’ (Althusser 1977) has been essential reading, but the work became well known in Britain in the1970s among educationalists in particular, since it nominated the education system as one of the major apparatuses.  These apparatuses showed that ideology could be embedded in practices as well as ideas (incidentally, Rancière claims that he gave Althusser this argument, and reference to 'a power organized in a number of institutions' appears in Rancière 1974 Appendix: 6).  Rancière also discusses ‘the practical ideology of the bourgeoisie...[as]... an ideology of surveillance and assistance’ (Rancière 2011: 4) and openly acknowledges the influence of Foucault in a footnote. Incidentally, it is also worth remembering that Foucault was influenced by Althusser in his turn – the replies at the end of Foucault (1974) were a response to a questionnaire from  the Althusserian Cercle d’Ulm  according to Bosteels (2011).

Although the specific ideologies varied, Althusser developed a notion of ‘ideology in general’ which turned on the practices by which people came to think of themselves as free individuals.  The education system showed the mechanism at its most effective, although Althusser borrowed ideas to describe the process from the operation of the Church (‘hailing’) , and the legal system, (‘interpellation’).  In brief, the operations of these systems conferred on the people they processed the flattering conviction that they were autonomous subjects, but only at the price of initial submission.  To develop the educational example, more explicitly than Althusser did, students have to subject themselves first to the teaching and assessment system that reserves the right to grade them, and expresses ideological values as it does so: for those who succeed, there is the gratifying sense that they have become mature, autonomous and free individuals. This essay was greeted in British radical circles with almost unanimous critique, often of an unusually personal and bitter nature.  The essay left no room for any sort of resistance to the operation of the apparatuses, and seem to decry the activities of radical teachers and students in particular, although, Althusser had at least acknowledged the heroic efforts of radical teachers. Nevertheless, to quote one influential critique (Erben and Gleason 1977: 73):

[Althusser’s approach] fails to adequately address the processes through which those who work in schools may act to influence both the conditions of their work, and the wider social context of which schooling is a part...it is necessary that...teachers and students be regarded as important 

There is no need to go over old ground, but it is equally important to ask in what circumstances those who work in schools ‘may’ act, and what effects their actions may have, and why exactly teachers and students be regarded as ‘important’. Althusser would doubtless have replied by seeing heroic teachers as humanistically important in a comradely and sympathetic way, but actually not very important theoretically or politically.

British radicals also tended to be dismayed by Althusser’s attempt to rehabilitate Marxism as a distinct science, in the face of what had been the dominant trend, which was to read Marx instead as one of a number of philosophers advocating the cause of ‘Man’ as a free agent.  Science was often seen simply as positivism.  Marx’s early works were becoming better known in English, and they seemed to offer support for a focus on the dehumanising operations  of the social system, especially the economic system, which alienated people from each other, from the products of their labour, and from their very nature, or ‘species being’.  This alienation operated through a process of reification, where human constructs, like economic and social relations, took on a thing-like fixed quality, seemingly immovable and unchangeable.  In a series of publications, Althusser said that these ‘humanist’ readings of Marx were mistaken, that the early work was a juvenile and excessively philosophical beginning, to be replaced by a more mature science, which developed special and unique concepts, especially ‘mode of production’, which enabled the scientific investigation of concrete social and political structures.  The argument is best summarized, perhaps, in a piece Althusser wrote in his 'self-criticism, (Althusser 1976) replying to a British humanist and Christian Marxist, John Lewis.  Perhaps the most entertaining critique of Althusserian science is still that written by the communist British historian EP Thompson (1978), however, which attracted no reply, sadly.

British radicals  developing Cultural Studies, with some notable exceptions like the Screen theorists, especially Coward (1977), were particularly critical of Althusser, and preferred the much more congenial martyred hero Gramsci.  Gramsci’s writings were more humanist, but some were also more vague, partly because they had been produced in prison under the eye of a censor.  These qualities produced a valuable flexibility, that happened to be easily mapped on to the conventions of radical British academic work. In particular, ‘hegemony’ became a very free-floating  concept, able to offer explanations for both domination and resistance. A highly productive research and publication programme ensued,  ‘applied’ to a wide range of cultural and political phenomena, from youth cultures through to Thatcherism.  As humanist pieces, they had an appeal to people outside the British Communist Party, which was just as well because it was tiny and in no position to pose as the guardian of the correct Marxist line as it did in France. Althusser’s legacy was mostly critically addressed in a number of these subsequent publications, alongside the specific analyses of phenomena such as ‘mugging’ (Hall et al. 1978). A wider discussion can be found in Harris (1992).

Althusser:  the Party hack

Rancière’s (2011a) critique of Althusser seems more technical, even if familiar at first.  He follows Marx’s critique of Proudhon (Marx 1847), no doubt ironically, in saying that the first step in domesticating Marxism is always to turn it into an abstract philosophy. In Althusser, we read the works of Marx and Lenin as if they had only an abstract connection with concrete political struggles or revolutionary movements, but offer a series of pure ideas. Rancière constantly demonstrates how Marxist theorists themselves, even Marx and Lenin as well as Althusser, actually responded to specific conjunctures of political and social events, then worked up more abstract principles and categories, yet this is neglected in Althusser’s idealist history of the development of Marxist thought. Once such idealist abstraction has taken place, the great game of scholarly philosophy beckons, and Althusser’s principles and categories can be aligned with or against existing (bourgeois) philosophical systems. After a good deal of labour, even ‘struggle’, those principles and categories can even be ‘applied’ to new conjunctures opportunistically. Precisely the same point might be made against British gramscianism, of course ( and I do-- Harris 1992).

This process of abstraction is seen best in Althusser’s famous split between science and ideology, developed after inputs from a number of sources, including a cautious account of science in the Soviet Union, yet looking as if it is a purely scholarly discovery.  Althusser was a lifelong member of the French Communist Party (PCF), and wanted to survive as one, even in the turmoil caused by de-Stalinization (Althusser developed an interesting, and, for Rancière, apologetic analysis of Stalinism too, in Althusser 1976).  The science/ideology distinction took on metaphysical credentials, as Althusser strengthened his dichotomy with reference to other bourgeois philosophers of science, before playing his master card by referring to Lenin himself.  Once established, the science/ideology split can then be applied to contemporary discussions, such as defending the PCF line on the authority of science, in both its bourgeois academic and official Party variants, against the petty bourgeois ideologies and spontaneism of revolting students in May 1968. This deepened the split with Althusser, because Rancière was on the side of those students in 1968, and also supported the worker occupation of the Lip wristwatch factory in 1973, which he saw as a continuation of the student struggle.

There is no merging of voices and blurring of hierarchies here (a rebuke to Biesta's view of Rancière's style -- see comments here) but rather implacable hostility to Althusser verging on the paranoid. It is impossible to illustrate this in a brief summary, but to take one small example, Althusser argues that ‘even in a classless society...ideology is indispensable’ (Althusser 1969: 235). Rancière makes an excellent critical point in seeing this as a curious accommodation with bourgeois sociology, a continuing presence of discourses which were allegedly discarded after Marx’s ‘epistemological break’. However, Rancière (1974: 8) goes on to accuse Althusser further as assuming that the Soviet Union ‘is a classless society’. It is perfectly possible to suggest instead that Althusser is addressing those Party members who believed that the Soviet Union was a classless society. Later Althusser (1976) clarifies this point, denies that there ever was classlessness in the Soviet Union, and offers his own criticisms of Stalinism as a ‘deviation’, but Rancière (2011a) also attacks that as evasive.

Marx  the elitist intellectual

Rancière then developed a critique of Marx himself (Rancière 2004 [1983]), turning on the issue of the state of revolutionary organization and consciousness in the 1830s and 1840s in France. This discussion clearly maintains a dialogue with the ghost of Louis Althusser as well, although Althusser was not actually dead by then, but possibly still in the secure psychiatric hospital [he might have strangled his wife in a bout of mental illness].  Rancière focuses on the main thesis in Marx and Engels that only the proletariat, the industrial working class organised as a mass, are capable of successful revolution against capitalism.  As we know from the Manifesto (Marx and Engels 1848) the growth of the proletariat is the result of a polarisation of social life, a concrete and visible contradiction, rooted in the development of modern industry with its stark divisions between workers and owners , which will sweep away all compromises between workers and bourgeois.  Until this contradiction deepens, all sorts of fanciful halfway houses can emerge, where workers compromise with the bourgeois order, and these include the ones established by French socialists in the 1830s

Rancière values these hybrids, however, especially if they feature workers who can also be poets and philosophers, or craftsmen who inhabit the worlds of both major classes.  Such anomalous persons challenge and disrupt the ‘partition of the sensible’, dating from Plato, that allocates manual work to one class, and aesthetic leisure activity to another. Rancière illustrates Marx's disdain for such hybrids by citing his rather spiteful comments, in the correspondence and elsewhere, about the sentimental mixture in German cities of industry and craft, the modern and the rural. Rancière points out the vision of communism in The German Ideology (Marx 1932 [1845—6]) offers the only acceptable kind of modernized rural idyll where we can be herders of cattle, philosophers, and a number of other things in the same day, but in that paradise there is no mention of industrial manufacture, so Marx is still rejecting any hybridity.

In order to achieve communism, the proletariat must first be prepared to lose everything, for Marx. Material circumstances determine ideas in capitalism and liberating philosophical thought can never escape capitalist limits. Capitalism itself must be smashed before we can all philosophize. This critique is paradoxical, though, Rancière insists. Marx’s materialist approach argues that all ideas are produced in particular circumstances, but this also makes it impossible to denounce particular ideas specifically as ideology, as we shall see below.  More obviously, the revolution did not take place in 1848, as we know. Worst still, in France in 1851, the farcical figure of Napoleon III came to power and was supported by bourgeois and worker groups, as well as financiers and peasants.  The last two groups really should have had no role at all in contemporary French politics: Rancière says Marx (1852) saw Bonapartism as a failure for the bourgeoisie, who seemed to lack the inclination to assume their historic role as dominant class in France, even though the conditions were theoretically optimal. Marx identified two sectors of the main classes as playing a particularly conservative role – lumpenproletarians and parasitical financiers, in unholy alliance with the traditionally backward and disappearing peasantry.

One explanation for Marx’s shift between revolutionary polarization in the 1848 work and the  apparent discovery of (three) additional classes, together with a certain autonomy for political and cultural levels three or four years later, sees the former as a pure theoretical model being applied more concretely in the latter. Marx came to see Napoleon’s regime as enabling French capitalism to modernize, to put it back on track for the eventual crisis after all, which rescued the theory. However, Rancière notes that Marx and Engels were still hoping that polarization and collapse would occur, well into the late 19th Century, after events such as the expansion of trade in the Americas, or the Austro-Prussian War (which they wrongly thought would end in a defeat for Prussia with catastrophic politic al consequences). They were of course, continually disappointed, not least by the eagerness of British workers to seek their fortunes in the gold rushes in California and Australia and to recreate the bourgeois order there.

Marx never really abandoned his enthusiasm for polarization, and retained not just an analytic scepticism but a personal and elitist contempt for those who would not accept their destiny, Rancière (2004) argues. He took consolation in throwing himself into scholarly work – writing Capital, the book that would preserve the wisdom and the analysis that actual political movements or thinkers seemed not to be able to grasp. We can see that Marx treated the unfortunate Proudhon particularly harshly, for example.

The discussions of Proudhon, in Marx (1847) and in some of the correspondence can be accessed particularly conveniently by searching electronically the online Marx and Engels Internet Archive (nd). These (translated) texts are also useful as an illustration of the problems of writing definitive interpretations of Marx’s work. Marx certainly attacks Proudhon scornfully for reducing the full impact of the radical notion of contradiction, to the banalities of bourgeois even-handedness:  ‘For him the dialectic movement is... [merely]...the dogmatic distinction between good and bad’ (1847, chapter 2, 4th observation). In a subsequent letter (Marx 1865) remarks that : ‘I infected him [Proudhon] very much to his detriment with Hegelianism, which, owing to his lack of German, he could not study properly’. Interestingly, he goes on to add, sarcastically,  that: ‘After my expulsion from Paris Herr Karl Grün continued what I had begun. As a teacher of German philosophy he also had the advantage over me that he himself understood nothing about it’, so there would be no support for Jacotot there! The same texts also contain material that equally scornfully dismisses philosophical humanism, in a way that would seem to fully support Althusser.

Wearied by such vulgarity, Marx’s self-imposed task increasingly became one of providing a ‘scientific’ account for posterity. Even here, Rancière insists, Capital offers a rather odd science. Apparently, Marx never really valued the empirical data he garnered from the British Parliamentary Reports on pay or conditions, for example.. He saw Capital instead as something that had to transcend mere facts and figures, and laws and predictions for that matter. Again, these could be misunderstood or, worse, interpreted conventionally.  As an example, Rancière sees the famous discussion of the secret dual nature of commodities as designed as much to finally reject Proudhon’s notion of worker cooperatives exchanging goods as it was to reveal a scientific concept beneath the grasp of bourgeois political economy.  Rancière is rather brief here, but presumably the point is that Proudhon, and others advocating some form of free exchange between worker cooperatives, had simply misunderstood the ways in which exchange makes useful objects into commodities, and thus fundamentally alters the production process.  Capital was to be a work of art rather than science, something safely eternal that could not be corrupted by present pragmatism. As the increasingly frail Marx developed a consoling ‘sacrifice ethic’, to use a modern term, his changing priorities became  clear – he would spend his time exhaustively reading the work on agrarian ground rents, say, at the expense of any direct involvement in politics, and even at the expense of his own health.

Several implications arise from this critique, first for Althusser.  Althusser had a romantic view of Marx leading the workers’ struggle, but Rancière’s account is clearly much more sceptical. More generally, Althusser saw a major flaw in idealist conceptions, but materialist ones have their own difficulties too. For Althusser, idealists have to announce some characteristic of ‘Man’ as essential – his freedom of thought for example – and their analyses consist of endlessly ‘recognizing’ this essential quality in concrete cases. One common rhetoric to justify this sort of essential freedom involves  opposing it favourably to a crudely reductionist ‘economism’, in an ‘ideological couplet’ (Althusser and Balibar 1975). Essentialism is equally crude and reductive, though, and tautological, since what is defined as essential is itself a generalization based on concrete examples. Usually, the supposed essence refers only to the optimistically perceived characteristics of the social class or fraction to which the philosopher belongs. Concrete analysis can only reflect theory in a mirror structure, as Althusser’s (1972) critique of Rousseau shows. An alternative for bourgeois philosophy is some kind of weak materialism after all, like the view that modern societies are more free than traditional ones because of the development of institutions like the market or an autonomous cultural sphere in modernity (Giddens 1991 gets close to this). Althusser (1976) inverts the usual rebuke to Marxism and says that this modern approach is also ‘economistic’!

However , Rancière  sees that materialist analysis, at least of the Marxist variety has its own limits  and paradoxes, not discussed by Althusser. Marxist materialism is excellent as a critical tool to expose as ideological the universalistic claims of rival philosophies, but it is open to the familiar critique that it must be an ideology itself, equally explicable as a normal worldview produced by certain social conditions.  Althusser sees no such prospect of a major revolution to validate the independent truth of Marxism, after an initial optimism for Maoism, and must resort to more familiar ways to defend his work as science. He finds grounds in classical philosophy after all, notably in the work of Spinoza:  in his essay in Althusser (1976), Spinoza is seen as developing a materialist theory of history without a subject, an anticipatory rebuke to Hegelian idealism, a notion of ‘structural causality’ and other helpful concepts . Althusser also supports existing norms of scientific activity as taught in universities which operate with a simple view that there is an accessible material reality and that scientific methods can provide access to it (Rancière 2011).

However, there are more general implications, some of which affect Rancière too. How was it that Althusser and even Marx could not see where their commitments were leading, while Rancière can? Something like a split between Rancièrian science and Marxist ideology is implied here. Marx and Althusser were either deliberately dissimulating, or, alternatively, unconsciously providing material for developments they had not intended.  Rancière suggests that Althusser specifically turned a blind eye, or even manipulated the possibilities himself.  With Marx there are different explanations:  Marx incorporated personal tastes, political disappointment, and a resigned exclusion from activist politics in a way which he did not fully recognise or acknowledge. 

This sort of question can embarrass all analysts who want to criticize the work but not the author, or, as is common in academic life, to criticize the work as a cover for criticizing the author (Bourdieu 1988). The most courteous option is to argue that Marx and Althusser both understandably misrecognized their own position, but this would be particularly ironic for Rancière, since he has little time for the concept of misrecognition when it comes to workers' own views of their position.  It would be odd to argue that workers do not misrecognize but intellectuals do -- equality of intelligence would not extend to include Marx and Marxist intellectuals! Where does misrecognition by intellectuals come from? We know that
explication seems to be the only mechanism that produces cognitive incapacity, so perhaps Marx and Althusser were ‘stultified’ by their education?

Perhaps the problem arises because intellectuals isolate themselves in university libraries or Party committees, and are seduced by abstract scholarly concerns, while workers have the raw experience of oppressive manual work as a constant irritant to be overcome with intelligence?  Again this is understandable, but what implications arise for the ‘axiom’ of fundamental equality? Do social conditions have to be right before it applies, as we suggested above?

An obvious final implication is that these dilemmas must also infect Rancière’s own work. The options outlined above seem to cover the only available possibilities for separating analysis from ideology this side of the Revolution, but all are unsatisfactory. Is Rancière’s the ‘humanist’ transcendental option where some eternal principle of essence is announced or detected? Biesta (2010) , along with others, says Rancière clearly operates with a ‘fundamental axiom’. Perhaps Rancière is suggesting that this axiom is then constantly recognized , at work in pedagogy and utopian socialism in 1830s France, French university politics in the 1970s,  and contemporary critiques of aesthetics, in some way that escapes tautology . If so, we risk the whole argument descending into an abstract philosophical competition between equally plausible axioms. It could also become a matter of ‘live and let live’, of course: Rancière (2003: 209) discusses Badiou’s axiomatic system and notes similarities and differences, but offers no criticism and gives no guidance about how  to prefer one or the other

The most likely possibility is that a kind of discursive relativism is at work in this stage of Rancière’s career, where it is impossible to arbitrate between discourses on some external grounds, impossible to divide them into sciences and ideologies, axioms and empirical findings, and all that is left is to encourage an endless discussion of dissenting positions. [see Rancière and Foucault]

Rancière is clearly no positivist and has good Foucaldian grounds for rejecting its philosophical naivety as we shall see, but his complete aversion to the empirical, displayed well in his critique of Bourdieu, below, leaves him rather short of actual concrete cases to analyze.  There is some concrete analysis, though, and it immediately provides problems of validity -- what are the claims made for Rancière’s historical materials, for example? His particular ‘literary’ style is persuasive, but is that enough to secure him against suspicion that these are the elaborated views of a romantic reader of working class movements , finding consolation in history after his own political defeats in the 1960s and 1970s?

Rancière seems particularly incurious about modern examples of anarcho-syndicalism, says Brown (2011) ,and the same might be said about modern analyses of voices in popular culture or education. There are many examples of the options available in Cultural Studies, for example, ranging from Willis’s  seminal discussions of the combination of ‘penetrations’ and ‘limitations’ of working class ‘lads’ (Willis 1977)  and the ‘grounded aesthetic’ of young working class adults (1978). There is much discussion of ‘accommodations’ with and ‘resistances’ to commercial popular culture including visual media (see Harris 1992), discussions of the clever agendas of modern advertising offering forms of ‘empowerment’, and of politicized consumer resistance and boycotts (see Harris 2004). There are many studies of educational voices too, of course, in the work of classroom ethnographers (see for example Hammersley 1988) . There are massive amounts of modern material online, in blogs like The Secret Teacher (nd), for example.

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