Cold and Lifeless

Issue section: 

Review of 'For Marx', Louis Althusser, Verso £6

The essays in For Marx were published as an intervention in a crucial political debate. The collection was first published in French in 1965, a time when cracks had begun to emerge in the distorted version of Marxism taught by the Stalinist Communist parties.

Rebellions in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, both crushed by Soviet troops, as well as the denunciation of the 'cult of personality' surrounding Stalin by his successor Nikita Khrushchev, led a small number of those on the left to look for an authentic anti-Stalinist Marxism. There was a growing interest in Karl Marx's early writings, and in the work of authors such as Georg Lukács.

These works focused on the relationships humans form with nature and with other humans through the process of labour. In class societies these relationships take on a distorted form, leading to dehumanising effects that Marx called alienation. Lukács's classic work History and Class Consciousness explained that revolution is not simply a way of driving forward the productive forces of society. It allows for the liberation of human beings through the revolutionary actions of a working class that, through its struggles, came to a conscious understanding of the capitalist system.

Althusser, a member of the French Communist Party, dubbed such views 'humanist' Marxism. The essays in For Marx were an attempt to rein in this heresy and restore the sterile Stalinist orthodoxy. His sympathies throughout the book are with Mao Zedong and the other rulers of China, where the most ruthless forms of Stalinism were required to drive forward rapid industrialisation.

Althusser did not simply reject Marx's early 'humanist' works - he argued that Marx himself rejected them. This break in Marx's thinking is supposed to have taken place around 1845. Before that date Marx was, according to Althusser, still under the influence of the German philosopher Georg Hegel and other 'idealist' philosophers.

This suggestion has been the subject of considerable controversy since the publication of For Marx. It is certainly true that Marx's ideas developed over time, but his early ideas were integrated into, and formed the basis of, his more mature works. Removing the concept of alienation and the possibility of human liberation from these mature works leads to a deeply distorted version of Marxism.

This can be seen by looking at Althusser's own version of Marxism. His focus is almost entirely on social structures rather than human beings. Society is constructed from a series of distinct layers - the economic, the political and the ideological - and change comes about through an accumulation of contradictions. These contradictions start in different layers of society, merging together into a 'ruptural unity'. The key 'dominating contradiction' can occur in any layer of society, with the layer being selected, in the final instance, by economic processes.

This separation of society into distinct layers, with a high degree of autonomy from each other, had implications for Althusser's politics. In particular it allowed him to criticise certain political policies practised by Stalin in the Soviet Union without seeing them as rooted in the rapid accumulation of capital, driven by a ruling bureaucracy determined to compete militarily with the West.

In Althusser's 'structural' Marxism, human beings are no longer active subjects who make history, but merely the raw material worked on by ideologies that are, in turn, the product of social structures. Nor is there any notion of the working class becoming conscious of the workings of capitalism through their struggles. A full theoretical understanding of capitalism is only accessible to Marxist theoreticians (Althusser, for example) engaging in something called 'theoretical practice'.

Althusser's theory succeeded in eradicating from Marxism the very idea that should form its core - that the 'emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class'. It paralleled in theory the practice of a world Communist movement that had long since turned its back on any genuine revolutionary tradition.

The republication of this work, as part of Verso's new Radical Thinkers series, reflects a growing interest in Marxist ideas in the anti-capitalist movement. It is a shame that Althusser's cold and lifeless account of Marxism has been chosen to represent these ideas.