ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 10, Number 2 (July 2013)

Ten Years of IJBS

Book Review

Review of Jacques Ranciere (2011). Althusser’s Lesson. London: Continuum. (Translated by Emiliano Battista).

Reviewed by Dr. Chidella Upendra
(Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Indian Institute of Technology, Indore, India).

Within the Marxist tradition, one finds it difficult to pin point at a particular perspective and claim it to be ‘the’ best theory in offering us a formula (without any betrayal) for socialist/communist revolution. Yet we witness multiple claims to ‘right strategy’ by several of its followers. It is characterized by the complexity of a wide variety of issues involved in understanding the manner in which transformation takes place from bourgeoisie capitalism to socialist communism. Jacques Ranciere asks two pertinent questions: What modes of reasoning would characterize a recognized Marxist discourse today? What does it mean to speak as a Marxist today? (p. xxi) Althusser’s Lesson looks in a splendid way into the pronouncement of strategies Louis Althusser offers emphatically asserting 'return to Marx’ against modernizing Marxism. For Althusser, this return is compelled by deviations (referring to Stalin’s Economism and Humanism), while remaining sympathetic to certain aspects of Marxism-Leninism and Maoist Cultural Revolution. Ranciere gives an interesting account of Althusser’s project [in his Reply to John Lewis and critically reflecting on the events of May 1968], where the latter’s foci was to give philosophy a political meaning, understanding history without a subject, faithfulness to the party, a ruthless attack on economism/humanism and a critical reflection on class struggle in theory and science [role of intellectuals in class struggle].

Althusser’s reply to John Lewis confronts with the latter on the idea that ‘man makes history’ - pressing us to focus on ‘masses make history’ (mainly a Maoist political slogan) - an approach offered in response to Marx’s concern over who will bring the desired revolutionary change in the world. Like other Marxist perspectives, Althusser too seems to be rigid with bourgeoisie attributions such as any thing humanistic is bourgeoisie in nature. Any slight departure/modification is met with utter coldness, and duped as ‘revisionist-humanism’. Materialism in Althusser’s philosophy combines abstract materialism of science with material production. When Althusser feels that it is masses that push history forward, we can interpret that he must be talking about educating the proletariat (p. 11) - thus giving a role to philosophers. By referring this to as philosophical workings of scientific propositions, he might have wished to combine natural history with human history. However, Ranciere seems no much promise in this project; in the new philosophy of ‘process/history without subject’ and bringing ‘theory to class struggle’.

Having said ‘politics is difficult than production’, Althusser seems to assume a neutral space (Althusser’s dispositif) for production occupied by the proletariat. The implication of this would be that the realm of productive activity is less troublesome than the realm of politics. By demanding philosophy to be ‘partisan’, it is not convincing whether Althusser achieves really substantial progress in revolutionary struggles. What difference do intellectuals make to the proletariat in their class struggle? Asking this question retains the complexity of the relationship between theory and practice. Interestingly Althusser’s idea resonates Mao’s notion that the determination of history belongs to the revolt and intelligence of the oppressed (p. 27). All that is required is arm the proletariat with intellectual strength who could grasp the significance of political conditions in making the revolution successful. What would be his intention in asserting that Marxism should regain the status of a science? Where does the authority of theory lie?  It, for Althusser, lies in the autonomy of the theory, yet seems to be contradictory in his assumption about allegiance to the Party goals. Further, it is difficult to admit that science is devoid of ideology (like Lacan and Kautsky opining that science belongs to intellectuals (p. 47).), and people involved in production are introduced to (political) ideology through philosophy. This way he conceived of a class struggle in science located in two important assertions: Sciences were being exploited and the scientific realm is constitutive of the materialist element only. Nonetheless, these are no ‘true-in-themselves’ assumptions.  

All in all his idea of ‘restoration of theory’ seeks some kind of objectivity, fearing political subjectivism of the humanist Marxist. Ranciere is right in being suspicious of the Althusser’s project of restoration of theory through ‘authority of the theory’ and political authority of state apparatuses. An after-thought to the reading of Ranciere’s analysis is: do not the authority of theory and of ideology transform the party line of approaching the revolutionary class struggle? It has to, lest, the difference between intellectual idealists that Althusser attacks and the Party would persist. Besides, the urge to bridge philosophical theory with political practice calls for such a move. However, one needs to be skeptical about his proposal of regeneration of theory when the party ideals are not to be questioned for the mere reason that they are party ideals. Despite certain ambiguities, Althusser’s emphasis on class struggle in science (science taking the aid of philosophical theory and political practice) and class struggle in theory (ability of the people to distinguish between false and true ideas) has a point – the conflict between the frontiers of science and ideology. The idea that knowledge per se impacts the realm of the world extrinsic to it is central to any historical context. What we must be concerned with is whether his worry that ‘sciences being exploited by the idealists’ has any element of genuineness. Furthermore, all idealism and humanism are bourgeoisie in nature makes the argument too far fetched. Althusser claims to carry forward the Marxian assumption that ‘it is anti-humanism, but it does not condemn socialism with a human face or the abolition of man’s exploitation of fellow men’ (p. 94). 

Ranciere raises a genuine concern here: while thinking aloud about Althusser’s project, what is the place of intellectuals’ revolt in the space of proletarian revolution at large? (p. 121). What role do intellectuals play or are they included in the class struggle? To answer this we need to have a renewed understanding of Marxism as providing a scientific formula (anachronism attached to it) for revolutionary transformation. There is an honest concern in “equipping the masses” (not questioning in what sense) for a revolution, but how power gets tackled when there is shift in control from the dominant to the dominated is crucial to observe. Ranciere aptly says that the fact of class struggle remains despite our apprehensions about how and in what way we treat Marxism. It may mean that Marxism is relevant in whatever form(s) it turns to. It may also mean that humanist concerns also remain relevant. For Ranciere, Althusser has misled us in linking the power of thought and the dynamics of domination. On the whole, Ranciere’s book can be treated as a landmark work exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the Althusserian project of ‘return to Marx’. It is of immense help to contemporary researchers on Marxism, especially, to those outside the western world.