Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essaysby Published 13 Nov 2001
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|Publisher||Monthly Review Press|
No figure among the western Marxist theoreticians has loomed larger in the postwar period than Louis Althusser. A rebel against the Catholic tradition in which he was raised, Althusser studied philosophy and later joined both the faculty of the Ecole normal superieure and the French Communist Party in 1948. Viewed as a "structuralist Marxist," Althusser was as much admired for his independence of intellect as he was for his rigorous defense of Marx. The latter was best illustrated in For Marx (1965), and Reading Capital (1968). These works, along with Lenin and Philosophy (1971) had an enormous influence on the New Left of the 1960s and continues to influence modern Marxist scholarship.
This classic work, which to date has sold more than 30,000 copies, covers the range of Louis Althusser's interests and contributions in philosophy, economics, psychology, aesthetics, and political science.
Marx, in Althusser's view, was subject in his earlier writings to the ruling ideology of his day. Thus for Althusser, the interpretation of Marx involves a repudiation of all efforts to draw from Marx's early writings a view of Marx as a "humanist" and "historicist."
Lenin and Philosophy also contains Althusser's essay on Lenin's study of Hegel; a major essay on the state, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," "Freud and Lacan: A letter on Art in Reply to Andr� Daspre," and "Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract." The book opens with a 1968 interview in which Althusser discusses his personal, political, and intellectual history.
"Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays" Reviews
I love this guy. Hard to think of any piece of writing thats influenced the way I think about the world more than "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses". When I read Althusser, I have a real sense of interacting with someone I really understand. Given that he was a pathologically self-doubting psycho who died in a mental ward, I'm not sure thats a good sign.
much of interest here, but most people read it for the very famous essay on ideological state apparatuses, which, of course, if one has not read it, one must be a philistine or a barbarian or a fascist or something.
One of the all-time great re-urgings of marxism, up there with Gramsci, Adorno & Horkheimer, Voloshinov.
I was in London in September 2011 when the rioting occurred. I was staying in Dalston just south of Tottenham where the riots started. Three nights of mayhem ensued, lives were tragically lost and innocent people suffered. But what shocked me most was the style and level of reporting. It was perfectly understandable for those whose livelihood or lives were put at risk to speak of “feral youth”; however the way the media gleefully latched on to this language suggested an inability, or an unwillingness, to analyse the events more radically.
The liberal response seemed to be: if these excluded youth see bankers and speculators asset-stripping society for all they can carry off, why should they not smash a plate-glass window and grab as many trainers as they can carry? More needs to be done for these young people so that they feel they have a stake in society.
It was as if a hundred years of cultural theory had never existed. And yet such events - the riots - are indicative of the fractures within society which are the stuff of conjecture which theorists and philosophers speculate over as they consider how society is held together. No-one seemed to be mentioning Althusser’s work on ideology, hegemony and ISAs; no reference was made to Foucault’s theory on the creation of the self-repressing subject. And yet these ideas seemed to me to be glaring out of the riots. (Those who have heard me ranting on about these ideas should stop reading now. Nothing new here.)
Louis Althusser (1918-1990) takes a Marxist line and argues that capitalism (or any power system for that matter) defends itself against rioting and other threats to its legitimacy by evolving a “hegemony” or “ideology”- a way of understanding the world which everyone believes in - as “common sense” and “decency”. In reality, the ideology benefits and legitimises the powerful over the powerless. And so, for example, the ideology within which we live and have our being supports and benefits capitalism and profit. It is crucial that this hegemony works unseen; it’s like when you see the microphone appearing over the actors in an old film - it spoils the “realty” effect and reminds you that what you are watching is artifice. So it’s easier to see ideology at work in a culture that is not our own: consider the feudal model where subjects are indoctrinated into believing the hegemony of “The Divine Right of Kings”; convinced of this, the peasantry will not rise against the master. It would be “unnatural” and sinful - even if unjust taxation is beggaring your family.
Ideology, says Althusser, is buttressed by ISAs - Ideological State Apparatuses - which establish the ideology and (when necessary) RSAs Repressive State Apparatuses which fight tooth and nail to protect it. ISA’s are the church, family, education systems, the legal system, media, even trade unions - which (unconsciously?) create a society of obedience to the status quo. (Basically, we are told in every day and in every way to Obey The Man.) If a rupture appears in this fabric - as happened during the riots - then RSAs will kick in - police and army. I guess Althusser would argue that the RSAs work best if “we” believe they are on “our” side.
Althusser’s critique of the riots would then go something like: if power develops a smokescreen of apparent order, justice and decency to prop up its own exploitation and enjoyment of wealth and resources, it is likely that those below that level of power will occasionally glimpse through the smokescreen of ideology, thus challenging the ideology. (This might seem a grandiose analysis of somebody grabbing a telly, but much of this works at an unanalysed / subconscious level - both in the implementation of and the challenge to ideology. I can quite easily believe that Tory Grandees and Multinational Chairpersons believe the system is “fair”, as they see it.) Anyway, the “unrest” is eventually met by the force of the police, the rupture is stitched up and capitalism gets back to business - unless you get a revolutionary situation as perhaps the Arab Spring presents and then... who knows what new historical, economic, cultural process might ensue. The media’s apparent shock and horror about how feral youth could behave in such a way, therefore came across to me as hypocritical, since the media are one of the crucial ISAs which prop up our ideological system. What happened is pretty much exactly how it is meant to work. Pressure cooker.
How about Foucault? Michel Foucault (1926-1984) saw himself as a historian of ideas rather than a philosopher. He was interested in how ideas and attitudes changed through different periods of history. His book “Discipline and Punish” traced how the State controlled crime and dissent through the ages. It begins with a gut-wrenchingly awful four-page detailed description of the torturous execution in 1757 of an attempted regicide. This saw the end of the mediaeval idea of publicly and graphically showing the population just what could happen to them if they challenged / attacked a king. We move then to the Enlightenment and Foucault describes Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” prison - so designed that one guard can see into all the cells to check up that no prisoner is misbehaving, but also designed so that the prisoner does not know when he is being observed. (Thus he is constrained ALWAYS to be on his best behaviour.)
Bentham as an Enlightenment Utilitarian saw this as a huge progression from mediaeval theatrical torture; in contrast, Foucault sees it as more inhumane because this type of regime violates the integrity of the whole person, not just the body. He calls it “disciplinary punishment” and traces how our institutions have been influenced by the idea of the Panopticon. Schools, factories, mental institutions are laid out so that the teacher, the overseer the care worker can see exactly what the pupil / worker / inmate is doing at all times. There can be no slacking and no aberrant behaviour. The “clients” are constantly open to disciplinary observation. It is easy to see how this develops into modern life: phone hacking, computer surveillance, police cameras and all the new technologies invade our private lives without our knowledge. We can be constantly scrutinised and not know it.
Foucault’s is an argument about the rights of the individual. His worst nightmare is the situation we find ourselves in today; the individual (or the “self” - or “subject” as theorists prefer) has been so institutionalised and conditioned to behave and to be “good” AT ALL TIMES, that an overseer is no longer required. We have been conditioned to harshly discipline ourselves. We are our own overseer. That is the triumph of capitalism; it’s strongest allies are those who work for the system. (Reminiscent of the Highland troops who fought for the Empire then returned to find that their straths had been cleared to make way for more profitable sheep.)
It is a libertarian argument. Foucault is not nostalgic for hanging, drawing and quartering, but I think his proposition and critique of the self-disciplining subject is worth considering. It attacks the media’s claim of the moral high ground with its innate knowledge of “right and wrong”, suggesting instead that we are merely socialised and conditioned into behaving in a certain way - in fact in a way that will accord with Althusser’s ideas of how social control is mastered. Foucault is arguing that most of us no longer require ISAs or RSAs - we have become them ourselves.
And so... the riots? If, as Foucault claims a violence is being perpetrated on the body politic, and in fact we have been indoctrinated to punish ourselves in a deeply psychotic manner, then is it not to be expected that the body politic will erupt in some apparently psychotic manifestation? And if, as Althusser theorises, the system of power is thrusting an alienating ideology over all our experience, ruling out any other way for our development as the self, might we not expect some unruly Freudian eruption from the subconscious? I don’t know if these thinkers are right, but they have spent their lives developing ideas which seem very powerful and I would expect a responsible and adult media to at least consider these ways of seeing.
A Brief Note on the "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" Essay
Recently, I had reason to return to this important essay. I found its revision of the old marxist materialism cum 'economism' surprisingly compelling. But certainly not in the way our author intended. Althusser, with Lacan and Deleuze, have all become the 'master-thinkers' of post-marxism. The impossibility of revolution in any economically advanced nation has brought us to this impasse. It is my contention that Marxism today is but another Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) that explains and (therefore) controls suffering. I know, our author, and his readers, all thought very differently...
"Ideology has a material existence", Althusser tells us. And certainly this is an advance over cold war orthodox marxism. ideology is no longer merely in minds, it is out here in bodies and institutions and their activities. With Althusser, ideology becomes a material force. Why is this important? Control the ideology of individuals and institutions and you control their behavior. Instead of thinking of individuals as causes, we now think of them as effects. They are all made (i.e., produced and reproduced) within the various ISA's. This process of control/production our author calls interpellation. ISA's, btw, are never to be confused with the Repressive State Apparatus. It consists of the Government, Police, Military, etc. ISA's consist of the Church, Family, Education, and so on.
The hope, the dream, of readers of this essay, was that by going into the universities (the Gramscian 'long march' through the institutions), leftist intellectuals could snatch interpellation from the ruling class and use it to revolutionize the ruled. It has been over 40 years since this essay first appeared. The ineffectiveness of the project is easy to see. Our scholars have become but another clerisy; explaining suffering, but powerless to change it. I give four stars because of the advance that Althussers understanding of ideology represented in its time.
After reading this essay I came away feeling that what historically is (and has been) called "Freedom" is little more than the arguments that (elements of) the ruling strata has with itself. And that in the end, all these new (post-marxist) movements that the liberals and soi-disant 'leftists' so enthuse over, such as vegetarianism and ecology and sex revolution, are so privileged because they in no way attack property. In this way they are not really any different from the role religion traditionally has had. Whether you are busy getting your life 'right' with God, with Tantra, with Mother Nature, or with Cauliflower, it threatens property relations not at all. And this is why these various positions (and there are many others) are so easily supported by factions within the ruling strata. It is exactly as Colonel Ireton indicated at the Putney Debates so long ago, everything is always said and done with an eye towards (protecting) property. Everything. The ISA's of our author are but another way to theoretically come to terms with the varied ramifications of this inescapable fact in ever-changing circumstances.
And certainly the situation has changed! Ireton was speaking at a time (1647, during the English Civil War) when most forms of property were fixed (land, housing) and one strove to pass it on intact to future generations. Yes, certainly Ireton was aware of nascent capital relations. In his replies to the Levellers he strives to win over the bustling market towns and their guilds and manufacturers to his position. But in Ireton's conception of property there is so little movement! It was the restlessness of Capital that would destroy ye olde landowners and their world far better than the levellers had ever imagined. It is this restlessness that produces not only new means of production and new relations of production, but also new forms of labor too. And the new worker, the ever-new workers need ever new forms of ideology in their ever changing circumstances. This explains the necessity of the proliferation of leftish 'new movements' while the old USSR was going through its decades long death throes. And it also suggests that in the decades (perhaps centuries) long process of globalization the theory of ISA's will find much more to explain...
Postmodern nihilism, ultimately, is the result of the failure of the socialist revolutionary project to overcome capitalism. This failure is the root cause of the proliferation of theory in the academy. Given the inescapable fact of the dissatisfaction of people with/in capitalism, new ways, and ever new ways, had to be found to deal with this dissatisfaction. The multiplication of theoretical positions in the academy was one way; the antics of mass culture beyond the ivy tower was another. All of this was necessary; people always need explanations for their sacrifices and sufferings. - And they also need to forget or ignore the fact that these explanations change nothing at all.
The inability of socialism to overcome capitalism, not only through the USSR but in the streets of the advanced capitalist states, means that the battle for socialism must be fought on a different terrain than it was fought in the twentieth century. The question that now needs to be asked, the problem that now needs to be faced by marxists everywhere, is if all that is left of marxism is that it is nothing but another ideological position within theory manufacturing academia, how is marxism itself not another 'Ideological State Apparatus' that is enthused over by trend setting liberal cum leftists within and beyond the ruling strata?
It was the ceaseless movement of capital, not theory, that destroyed Ireton's beloved landowners. And I have come to believe that it is only the same relentless movement that will one day destroy Capitalism.
The question that any reviewer of a book ought to ask is: Why should I read this book instead of all the other books? Even on obscure subjects, many books exist. So, why should I read Lenin and Philosophy instead of all the other books?
It pains me to say that you probably shouldn't. If you are interested in what I understand as Post-Marxism, you should read For Marx. It's better. There is more in the way of philosophy, and there are better essays.
Likely, I would rate this book as 3 1/2 stars. Althusser is a very, very good essayist. Despite accusations of metaphysical wandering in his writings, I find him to be clear and even exciting. When it comes to writing essays, the two people who have influenced my ability to ask and frame questions, and to really inquire into a text, are two writers who are often accused of obscurity: Althusser and Lacan. No one should be reading either of these authors and attempting to imitate their writing. However, as a writer, the question, "What is at stake?" will pop up so many times in their essays that it's almost impossible to ignore. This simple question, along with a few other rhetorical constructions, can allow someone writing an essay to ask such questions in the beginning of an essay, engage the reader, and allow the essay largely to write itself. Regardless of the mathematical mumbo-jumbo that Lacan sometimes lapses into, there are very, very good writing techniques a person can learn from reading the Ecrits. They essays in that book only need to be read critcially.
Lacan aside, we're here to view Althusser. Lenin and Philosophy is largely a piece of Lenin hagiography, and although I have tremendous sympathy for Karl Marx and would honestly probably join the Communist party if it had any real political shot in the US, (it doesn't at all despite what the bullshit mongers will have you believe about socialism and dirty left and Bernie Sanders), I have absolutely no desire to begin looking at Saint Lenin instead of Vladimir Lenin. To me, the man is not a supreme evil, but to create around him an extra-civic (extra meaning outside and world-spanning civic) religion is dumb. I do not look at Lenin as a philosopher.
Althusser is right to separate Lenin and Philosophy instead of Lenin's Philosophy, as he points out in his essay. Althusser finds valid philosophical insights to be gleaned from Lenin, but he does not take the figure critically enough for my liking. Apologists for Althusser's essay would likely point out that Althusser shows how Lenin had a piss-poor philosophical education and was not at all a philosopher in any conventional sense. Good, I say. Now, if only Althusser had been clearer about not worshiping people. Often, on the internet, I say that all my saints are dead. Lenin was dead by the time Althusser was writing, but he still ascribed sainthood.
For me, this is somewhat difficult to understand. No political movement has ever enraptured me. For many in the communist party the world over, however, Lenin was a figure closer to MLK Jr. With hindsight, I can put distance between the two somewhat easily. Still, I do think that what I know of Lenin, if viewed from outside a lens of, "eww communism = horrible 100% no matter what gross and genocide I guess because I said so [these statements ignore that communist Russia is likely the only reason the Nazis did not win world war two and that when the actions of the United States are viewed outside a lens of US hegemony, we really are not better]," then Lenin is not a terrible figure.
Beyond this, though, the essay that grabs so much attention, the ideology and state apparatus essay, can be found articulated elsewhere. I am not sure to what degree Althusser's essay influenced others. Have I learned the crux of Althusser's argument as a result of Althusser's essay spilling into other books I have read, or have I read Althusser's essay, prior to reading his essay, because it is a coagulation of work by Gramsci, Lukacs, and others? I cannot answer this question.
It is harsh to judge the essay as, "Basically just The Wall by Pink Floyd" as another user did. The political connections are completely absent from The Wall, and outside of vague and general rebellion, the song offers little. Althusser's description has little real rebellion. There is some mentioned, but the point is primarily an analysis of the way ideology spreads. This account is far and above anything by pop musicians. For this account, the essay deserves recognition even if such an account can be found in numerous Marxists. This account, as a piece of study and sociology, is valuable regardless of a person's political orientation. The Lenin hagiography has some but very little "philosophical" value to the non-Marxist. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus is good, though. That has real value as a piece of sociology even if you don't like the politics of the person who wrote it. Lumping Althusser with Heidegger, if I understand how Heidegger is viewed at large, may be too complimentary to Althusser. But my point in doing so would be to say, "Heidegger's philosophy books are generally considered valuable even if his politics were abhorrent."
Of course, few people not inclined to Marxist analysis and structural takes on Marxism are likely to read Althusser, and even fewer people will likely read a book called "Lenin and Philosophy." For a class on theory, though, an essay like Ideology and Ideological state apparatus has value.
Regardless, For Marx is just a better book.
This: 3 1/2 stars.