Friday, February 27, 2009
Louis Althusser: Politics & History (1959-68)
"In interrogating the philosophy we have inherited, we can start from one simple observation: each great doctrine itself thinks itself in a specifically philosophical object and in its theoretical effects. For example: the Platonic Idea, Aristotelean Action, the Cartesian Cogito, the Kantian Transcendental Subjects, etc. These objects have no theoretical existence outside the domain of philosophy proper. Within Rousseau's doctrine, the Social Contract is a theoretical object of the same kind: elaborated and constructed by a philosophical reflection which draws from it certain definite theoretical effects." Another Verso collection of short Althusser pieces from different periods, this volume shows Althusser working close to the academic history of philosophy. The first selection, an early book from 1959 on Montesquieu, is hardly recognizable as Althusser's initially, but as the piece progresses small glimpses of Althusser's later problematic appear and the final chapter emerges into a full-blown critique of Montesquieu as a political ideologist. Althusser begins by praising Montesquieu as the "founder of political science" who, rather than extracting an essence from society and re-framing it as an Idea that society never perfectly embodies, acts like a scientist and immerses himself in the historical facts to discover the laws of society. In doing so, Montesquieu aims to correct mankind's false, unscientific, conception of the laws governing society. Though it is without reference to Marx and swamped in an academic argument, Althusser's later ideas are clearly operative when he summarizes Montesquieu: "It is a question of a correction of errant consciousness by well-founded science, of the unconscious consciousness by the scientific consciousness. Hence it is a question of transferring the acquisitions of science into political practice itself, correcting the errors and unconsciousness of that practice." The dialectic and the conception of society as a complex-structured totality also can be "discovered" in the book when Althusser emphasizes that for Montesquieu society is a totality composed of "nature" (the formal law) and "principle" ("the concrete form of existence of a society of men"). This nature/principle totality need not be harmonious and can take a contradictory form, with the two terms acting upon each other, and the nature of "this contradiction in the relation . . . decides the fate of the republic." That is to say, like Marx, Montesquieu has accounted for the "dynamic" of history in his conception of the totality of society. Montesquieu concedes that principle is in the end the "determinant term." At this point, one of Althusser's key conceptual concerns appears fully formed. He writes, "However hazardous a comparison it may be . . . the type of this determination in the last instance by the principle, determination which nevertheless farms out a whole zone of subordinate effectivity to the nature of the government, can be compared with the type of determination which Marx attributes in the last instance to the economy, a determination which nevertheless farms out a zone of subordinate effectivity to politics. In both cases it is a matter of a unity which may be harmonious or contradictory; in both cases this determination does nonetheless cede to the determined element a whole region of effectivity, but subordinate effectivity." Montesquieu writes before the theorization of political economy, so he does not address the economy and the development of productive forces. Yet in his explanation of society's principle, he is led into morals and manners that bring him close to discovering the concrete economic behaviors of men. Althusser, however, claims Montesquieu backs off from this discovery and turns away from science towards political ideology. Montesquieu asserts there are three species of government: the republic (which is limited to the classical past), despotism (which Montesquieu uses more as a myth of the end of politics), and monarchy (which Montesquieu promotes). Althusser argues that Montesquieu's goal is to show how a certain feudal regime can be maintained by creating an equilibrium between the monarchy, nobles, and mercantile bourgeoisie. Montesquieu remains an ideologist here because he thinks the conflict of power only through these three terms, and cannot speak of, nonetheless theorize, how it was the conflict between the feudal regime and the masses (who remained excluded from political and philosophical discourse) that was producing the history around him. The short piece on Rousseau and The Social Contact is less revelatory in the wake of the deconstructive fixation on Rousseau and theories of the performative nature of constitutions. Althusser argues that Rousseau's social contract draws from juridical concepts to appear as the contract between two parties (men and community), but that the latter in reality is constituted through the contract itself, so that the contract cannot be a contract. This theoretical "discrepancy" leads to a series of further theoretical discrepancies, each creating a solution that generates its own problem. These discrepancies eventually lead Rousseau back towards the discrepancy of his theory and the real (the latter being the real social inequality that is inadmissible in his theory), which causes Rousseau to abandon theory in favor of a literary solution in his later works. The final essay, "Marx's Relation to Hegel," is a short lecture Althusser presented to Jean Hyppolite's seminar in early 1968. It is mostly a concise summary of For Marx and Reading Capital (there are some nice diagrams included and a brief reference to Badiou), a simple introduction to those books. When Althusser explains how Marx transforms Hegel's dialectic and theorizes History as a process without a subject, Althusser does briefly turn for support to Derrida on the "erasure" of the origin.