Notes on: Brown, N (2011) 'Red years. Althusser's lesson, Ranciere's error and the real movement of history'.  Radical Philosophy 170: 16 – 24
by Dave Harris

[There are some very interesting links to various modern communist and Marxist theoretical analyses of modern events like the Greek economic crisis. I have inserted them from Brown's footnotes]

There is a new return to Marx, so it is timely to look at Rancière (R) vs. Althusser (LA).  In Althusser's Lesson, R had accused LA of defending order, especially the political and academic hierarchy.  We can equally apply to his own work, R's insistence that LA be read in terms of discursive constraints in historical contexts.

R develops his critique from the specific conjuncture, the workers' occupation of the Lip watch factory, which R saw as a development from May '68.  L A's reply was published in the same year, and was seen as an attempt to reassert a failed Marxist discourse which insisted that nothing had changed.

Debates about different trends inside communism, including ultra left and self organised ones, are in the forefront again.  In France, there has been a discussion of 'communization', associated with Dauvé and the Theorie Communiste group, with Aufheben in the UK, Riff-Raff in Sweden, TPTG and Blaumachen in Greece, and Endnotes in the UK and U.S..  These groups have attempted to understand recent social movements.  They also help us reevaluate the debate between R and LA.

The intention here is to situate the debates inside a particular movement unfolding at the time, the 'red years', and the present.  LA and R can be seen as representing 'discrepant trajectories' (17).

R's book on LA sets out to examine how Althusserian theory had initially being critical but had become apologetic.  R advocated a term to maoism instead.  The book also shows R's own transformation.  Both combine self criticism with 'implied self congratulation'.  While LA became separated from political practice, R was transformed by it.  LA kept his place within the party and the university, while R revolted against hierarchies of knowledge.  They disagreed over the political maturity of students as well, with LA becoming 'increasingly infantile' and reactionary.  R's revolt against the university leads him 'to align himself with Foucault'.

R had to explain why the initially critical currents in LA led necessarily to conservatism and counter revolution.  He actually says that LA had misled readers even while opening up new possibilities which only lead back into theory.  However there is also a notion that history itself transforms Althusserianism.

A central role is played by L A's essay on student problems.  Initially, R went along with the argument to restore Marxist rigour, even within the UEC [union des etudiants communiste], and to defend science against ideology.  The university system itself had trained academics to compete, which made the criticism of individualism and calls for collective work groups seem '"the reveries of illiterate minds"' In this way, LA's essay came to have an immediate political force inside the university and the UEC, opposing student radicals attacking institutions.

If this is R's self criticism, he also gets 'paranoid' in other accounts, such as when LA was censured by the Party for maoist sympathies.  This resulted in a tactical move to reconcile the interests of theory with the interests of the Party, to stave off opposing trends and criticisms.  This is what leads to the critique of humanism for R.  It helped LA restore the authority of theory over politics, and it also served to restore the Party's authority by intervening to rebuke some communist intellectuals on the right.

It is hard to see this as a tactical compromise, however, since the work on Marxism and humanism did not stave off warnings from the Party.  It can be seen rather as the refusal of compromise, and the continuation of the earlier critique of Marx's early writings, which had already attacked Party orthodoxy.  It can even be seen as a reassertion of maoism with the Chinese Communist Party's own polemic against humanism in the Soviet Party.

Why does R pick out in particular the text on anti humanism?  R had himself embraced 'a workerist humanism' in his investigations of working class history [if this is the real split between them, LA's comments in the Reply seem apt—when humanists are criticized they get really furious!]

R's chronology is also faulty.  He claims that only when militants inside UEC began influential, did the PCF rediscover the appeal of going back to Marx and the role of theory, and this inspired LA's tactical maneuvering.  However, the PCF's discovery is dated as 1965, while LA's critique of humanism appeared in 1963.  R uses this to deny that L A's critique was a principled move, but rather 'the maneuver of an opportunist (and a prescient one at that)'(19).  It is this opportunism that condenses the case, as a'totalizing convergence' of all the tendencies, an opportunist attempt to remain within the party and to retain the status of professor.  As a result, none of LA's accomplishments can be recognized, and indeed R sees Reading Capital as just glossing Kautsky.  What of concepts like structural causality, of symptomatic reading, the work on the relation between real objects and objects of knowledge, over determination, the critique of Hegel, R's own essay on fetishism?

R insists that the major thesis was simply to show the manipulations of '"subjects of social practice"'(20), and that this was the basis of the stance against revolting students—that they were being manipulated.  Every argument becomes part of the grand strategic designed to defend L A's own position, for Brown,  'a cynical, unitary political logic…  a practice of paranoid reading'.

Nonetheless, R is right to critique LA.  The reply does involve a prophetic appeal to 'the letter of Marxism Leninism' under the guise of a debate between communists. L A's own critique of Stalinism was highly limited by his institutional commitments and his hesitation about radical politics.  There were elitist Kautskyist elements in the student problems essay, although Brown denies a connection with anti humanism.  These criticisms were already apparent, but R finished LA off.

What followed for R?  He sided with the syndicalist left despite his early reservations.  The Lip workers' takeover of their watch-making factory was crucial in this support.  R saw this as continuing a longer history of takeovers, including those of the tailors in 1833.  [which opens him to LA's critique of humanist ideology that it can never find out anything new, but has to continually 'recognize' itself in events]. R liked the slogan of the Lip workers: '"it is possible: we produce, we sell, we pay ourselves"'.  R saw this as a classic struggle between bourgeois and proletariat.  However, it is easy to see how limited the slogan is—not a demand for the abolition of wages or capital, but rather 'preservation of wage labour and the management of capital'.

This was the point made by a contemporary account in a radical journal Négation [available here,and summarized below] .  The limits of possibility are seen as affected by the history of the change between formal and real subsumption: this also breaks the link between 1833 and 1973.  Self management was not developed from the subjective realization of the workers, but more as the result of isolation from other workers.  The objective conditions of isolation led to a local struggle to see themselves as producers, and thus they '"became a collective capitalist"' (21).  In their explanation of the sale price of their watches, they even included an element of owners' profit.  They did not want to accumulate capital, so this represented simply a desire to continue as before.

This reading contrasts with R's 'workerist cheerleading'.  The occupation failed because it was not compatible with modern modes of production, and this even left a legacy of counter revolution [and recuperation].  R did not discuss the outcome, but used the episode to reassert humanism.

There were a lot of debates about workerism and the ultra left following May '68.  There were lots of debates about organization, which made discussions of the role of the PCF and its interest in a general line 'laughable'(21).  But R did not highlight them either.

These debates included work by Dauvé on the potential of workers' councils, seen as important enough to take the role of the party for the ultra left.  This view appears in Society of the Spectacle as well [and Autonomism may well be the political imaginary of Deleuze, says Lotringer] .  Dauvé wanted to reconcile this with Marx's critique of political economy by denying that capitalism is a mode of management [Marxism ignored management modes by reducing management to a function of capital], and concluded that emphasising management will not reduce the limits of worker control in the cycle of reproduction, and that it is still necessary to see revolutionary struggle as a contradiction between labour and capital, and not workers and management.

The Theorie Communiste Group [TC] has also focused on communization, and they have identified particular cycles of struggle, connected to the difference between formal and real consumption.  This leads to a break between earlier workers' movements and later class conflict.  They identify one period in terms of 'programmatism', where proletarian struggle identifies a programme to be realized, a future social organization, which unifies all aspects of the proletariat, including workers' councils and self management as well as the party.  However, this period of struggle 'was ending as [R] wrote'(22), and was certainly not the future.

This phase ended with counter revolutionary developments in the seventies and eighties, which restored real subsumption and defeated workers' identity and organizations, including Autonomism.  This ended the notion of a programme of social reorganisation as affirming proletarian identity.  The proletariat itself is no longer united, as a consequence of new class conflicts. Class-belonging becomes merely 'an external constraint' to be overcome, and struggles take the form of opposing being in a class.

The Greek riots of 2008 [find the article here] showed these limits and movements.  However, TC want to deny that there is any kind of emergent humanity detectable in the struggles.  Insisting on the humanity of the proletariat would be counterproductive, since it would raise the old unpopular claims that the proletariat wants to replace society with a new programme [maybe]

This analysis is based on the rereading of Marx, but not an orthodox PCF one.  TC have been successful in identifying the specifics of the present.  They are not simply embraced in eternal struggle for humanist goals.  They have criticized the ultra left legacy of self management and self organization and attempted to go beyond it.  There is no return to LA, but a greater appreciation of his work beyond its apparent demise.  Structuralist anti humanism still has a cutting edge, and it can inspire communist students.  There is an objection to  'theoreticist obfuscation, and structuralist determinism' (23), but at least 'real history returns', and a new debate opens between theory and politics.  There is an insistence on conjunctural analysis again.

TC might have found a way through LA's impasse.  TC and the others insist on a role for theory in offering analyses and structural accounts of concrete situations, in order to understand particular struggles and real movements.  There is no general line, nor a commitment to R's assertion of an underlying freedom that emerges in various ways only to be repoliced, 'a theory of the relation between politics and "the police", as a game of whack-a-mole"'.

DH Appendix

[The article in Négation is a very interesting analysis of the struggle at Lip, preceded by an analysis of the development of capitalism.  It is complex, but in essence, as capitalism increases its productivity by investing in machinery, so it lowers the rate of return to capital.  To cut a long story short, the consequences of this include a necessary socialization of capital and the extension of credit.  Additional resources are needed from stockholders and from banks to invest in machinery, constant capital, and other developments include conglomeration, and cooperation in large scale international collaborations .  As a result, productive capital at the level of the individual firm itself ceases to be that important [there is even a suggestion that it becomes 'fictional'].  This doesn't do away with crises, of course, which increasingly take a financial form, but it does change radically the options open for a proletarian challenge to capital, especially a localized one.

In the old classic days of personally owned firms, capital could only assume a formal domination over labour, requiring the support of explicit laws of private property and the like.  Labour was clearly a massively productive force, possibly the only one actually creating surplus value.  The ownership of the firm came to look rather arbitrary by comparison, and any personal exercises of the owner's rights, such as selling up, seemed irresponsible and anti social.  It is not surprising that in those circumstances, workers came to see themselves as producers, possessing a productive ethos, wanting to produce goods, and seeing themselves as playing a key part in the production of goods.  It seemed rational and obvious equally to replace the absurd form of ownership represented by an individual capitalist.  Nothing would change if that individual owner was replaced, and if the real producers of wealth took over and ran the enterprise for themselves.

The new conditions have made that an unrealistic possibility, though.  Productivity now depends on the frequent investment in constant capital, and because individual companies themselves are unable to generate enough profit, they must involve shareholders and banks and other companies, as we saw.  Being able to access credit to renew constant capital is the secret of maintaining production, together with maximizing the returns as much as possible to constant capital, which involves turning workers into machines more or less.  Worker resentment and resistance now takes the form of sabotage and absenteeism, not a wish to take over production.

In these conditions, the worker takeover at Lip represented conditions in an isolated and lagging region of capitalism.  Watchmaking was still recognizably run by the Lip family.  The form of production was still heavily based upon skilled labour—it was under capitalized, and this is one reason why it was facing bankruptcy in the first place The workers who took over wanted to preserve these conditions, but this would also preserve bankruptcy.  What they could not do was raise money to invest in new constant capital: they could not access credit, and they could not discuss the new possibilities of using new constant capital, which would have involved a considerable international division of labour and deskilling anyway.  They lasted quite a while as a collective capitalist of the old kind, but much depended on them being able to sell watches, including selling watches at various leftwing rallies.  They did accumulate a small amount of revenue, but could not use it to reinvest for the reasons given above.]

back to more social theory