Althusser

I was interested in Althusser’s Epilogue in which he criticizes Engels’s explanation of the movement of history.  Engels sets up a geometrical (‘natural’) metaphor—that the movement of history is a transcendent resultant, decided by the individual direction and magnitude of millions of individual wills. Althusser points out that beginning a view of history by looking at such a small scale is impossible, that the answer will be a tautology or a representation of the problem that does nothing to answer it. Althusser goes on to critique a number of famous enlightenment philosophers for the same thing: “What is the starting-point for this classical ideology, whether it is Hobbes on the composition of the conatus, Locke and Rousseau on the generation of the general will, Helvetius and Holbach on the production of the general interest, Smith and Ricardo (the texts abound) on atomistic behaviour, what is the starting-point if not precisely the confrontation of these famous individual wills which are by no means the starting-point for reality, but for a representation of reality for a myth intended to provide a basis (for all eternity) in nature (that is, for all eternity) for the objectives of the bourgeoisie (125)”? What interests me about this passage is that Althusser is performing a Marxist critique on Engels (which he subsequently extends broadly to other philosophers), accusing him of the same thing Marx and Engels accused the German idealists of, namely thinking of history as a history of ideas instead of “historical” facts. What makes an event “historical”, he reminds us, “is not the fact that it is an event, but precisely its insertion into forms which are themselves historical, into forms which have nothing to do with the bad infinity which Engels retains even when he has left the vicinity of his original model, forms which, on the contrary, are perfectly definable and knowable (knowable, Marx insisted, and Lenin after him, through empirical, that is, non-philosophical, scientific disciplines)” (126). From this, as well as other passages, it became evident to me that Althusser is so strict a Marxist that he even accuses Marx himself of misrepresenting himself, when he says he will perform an inversion of Hegel’s terms (by this, he means he will begin with the economic system as the base and then explain how that informs the ideas of the period). Really, Althusser tells us, Marx changed both Hegel’s terms and relations.

It seems to me like Althusser has more faith in Marxism in the first article (1962) than the second (1969). This is evident in his critique of Engels, in which he supports scientific views of history over any other. In the second article, he doesn’t hold up the science of history as a model of perfection for philosophers and historians. Also, the system he sets up in the second article, in which the subject is already a subject to his family (one of the ISAs he lists) before he is even born, offers a pessimistic view on the prospect of a global revolution.

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