A Future for Marxism?: Althusser, the Analytical Turn and the Revival of Socialist Theory

A Future for Marxism?: Althusser, the Analytical Turn and the Revival of Socialist Theory

by Andrew Levine



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745319872
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 01/20/2003
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.46(h) x (d)

About the Author

Andrew Levine is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His recent books include 'The End of the State' (Verso), 'The General Will' (Cambridge), 'Rethinking Liberal Equality' (Cornell) and 'Engaging Political Philosophy: Hobbes to Rawls' (Blackwell).

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After the Revolution

For nearly two hundred years, the French Revolution was held by everyone, Left and Right, to have been an event of epochal political significance. In some quarters, this consensus has lately given way to a different view, according to which the social and political transformations that began in 1789 and continued through different phases until the end of the Napoleonic period were part of a larger process of state building that would have proceeded on roughly the same course, at far less human cost, and with a generally better outcome, had the Revolution not taken place at all. It is likely, as a new generation of historians breaks away from the orthodoxy of the present generation, that the pendulum will eventually swing back to the earlier assessment of the Revolution's importance. No doubt a political climate friendlier to radicalism would also hasten a revival of the traditional view. But, even as political contestation becomes livelier, it is still commonplace, in this period of diminished political imagination, for historians and others to deflate the importance of 1789 and its aftermath.

However, even the most ardent deflator of the traditional view would have to concede that the French Revolution was an event of epochal significance for political theory. If we use the term ideology in its most general and uncontroversial sense, to designate a more or less coherent system of social, political and perhaps also economic ideas, it is plain that the three principal ideologies of the past two centuries – conservatism, liberalism and socialism – would not have developed as they did and, in the case of socialism, might not even have developed at all, but for that revolutionary event. Conservatism, or rather the strain of it that arose early in the nineteenth century, was a reaction against ways of thinking and acting that, in the early stages of the revolutionary process, propelled the Revolution along an increasingly radical course. Liberalism, as it evolved almost contemporaneously, was a self-conscious effort to incorporate the Revolution's ostensible achievements, while providing institutional guarantees against its excesses. Socialism sought to complete the revolutionary project by transforming a mainly political revolution into a social revolution, a thoroughgoing transformation not only of the political sphere, but of social and economic life as well.

Conservatism has roots extending back at least to the beginnings of the Christian era. In its pre-nineteenth-century form and in some contemporary versions too, it rests on the idea that human beings are incapable of doing well for themselves through the free expression of their own natures; incapable even of maintaining order in the absence of powerful political (that is, coercive) authority relations, and the complementary constraints of family life and the Church or of other, functionally equivalent, institutions. These constraints save human beings from themselves or, as Christians might say, from their own sinful natures. Thus one might say that this form of conservative ideology takes Sin seriously. Even when it is expressly secular – as it was, for example, in Thomas Hobbes's account of sovereignty – some analogue of the doctrine of Original Sin plays a crucial role in its account of human nature and the human condition.

In its original form, the idea was that Fallen Man is so utterly insufficient that the free expression of human nature must be suppressed lest it wreak devastating effects. For St. Augustine, the first great exponent of this view, society would degenerate into disorder without a powerful coercive authority in place. The resulting chaos would then disrupt the execution of Providential design, which requires peace so that, in preparation for the Final Judgment, the (visible) Church can expand throughout the entire world, as it must if it is to fulfill its mission by administering the sacraments to the elect of all nations. For Hobbes, more than a thousand years later, Original Sin gave way to an account of human psychology impelled by the materialist metaphysics he endorsed. It was Hobbes's view that, were individuals to act on their natural dispositions, the result would be a war of all against all, a condition radically opposed to these individuals' (not God's) interests. Therefore, insofar as individuals are (means-ends) rational, they are obliged, to the degree necessary to insure order, to make themselves unfree to act in accord with their natures. This they do by concocting a sovereign, an overwhelming power, who establishes order by issuing enforceable commands. Thus, from Augustine to Hobbes, the idea was the same: order is the paramount political objective, but human beings cannot attain it without the imposition of unnatural constraints. Left on its own, human nature, tainted by Sin or its secular equivalent, leads to disorder of the worst kind.

Order must therefore be imposed. This is a role Augustine ascribed to God. God establishes political institutions, means of coercion, as one of several punishments for Original Sin. Thus He imposes earthly sanctions on those who would act in accord with their (sinful) natures or, more precisely, on those who would do so in defiance of the commands of the authorities who rule them. Ironically, in so doing, God also supplies a (partial) remedy for the consequences of Sin. For out of repression comes order – not, to be sure, the peace of the Heavenly City, but 'the peace of Babylon', a perpetual truce in the war of all against all, sufficient for the visible Church to complete its mission. This is why total and unquestioning submission to existing authorities is required. Those authorities, whomever they might be and whatever their faith (or lack of it), are the executors of Providential design.

A similar thought led Hobbes to maintain that individuals are rationally compelled to agree among themselves to enforce the commands of one of their number against each other. In so doing, they invest that fortunate individual, thereafter the sovereign, with absolute authority over themselves. Then, to the extent that they fear the sovereign they have contrived, they will not, except on pain of irrationality, act on desires that conflict with his commands. In these conditions, the war of all against all gives way to the order the sovereign's might establishes – again, an armed truce, but the only kind of order within human reach. No matter how oppressive the sovereign's rule may be, no matter how susceptible the existing order may be to improvement, it is still better by far, given individuals' interests, than its sole feasible alternative, a devastating war of all against all.

The Hobbesian account makes particularly apparent how it is human nature that puts order in jeopardy, and therefore why human nature must be repressed for order to exist. But institutional arrangements that go against the free expression of human nature are, for that reason, fragile. A wise politics will take this fact into account. This is why one must take care to insure that 'that which is Caesar's' is indeed 'rendered unto Caesar', as Jesus taught and as Augustine insisted. This is why one must combat rebellion against existing authorities by any means necessary, as Hobbes maintained. This thought led Hobbes to oppose radicalism of any kind. Because the institutions human beings concoct to hold back the war of all against all are prone to becoming engulfed by forces that, at best, are only barely held in check, it is inordinately risky to disrupt the structures and practices in place. Of course, it is neither necessary nor possible to remain forever frozen in time; changing circumstances will not permit it. But Augustinian–Hobbesian conservatism suggests proceeding gradually and with the utmost caution. This counsel becomes increasingly urgent the more far-reaching and therefore potentially unsettling proposed changes might be.

It is this defining conservative commitment to gradualism that Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville and others seized upon after the Revolution in France. Their conservatism was indifferent to Original Sin or its secular analogue. It was based instead on a view of the nature of governance. Their idea, in short, was that governing more nearly resembles cooking or carpentry than it does geometry; that it is an activity in which a reservoir of accumulated wisdom and good sense, built up over generations and materialized in techniques, implements and traditions, matters more than rational insight or deductive acuity. These post-Revolutionary conservatives faulted the more radical French revolutionaries for being moved by a rationalist spirit. The revolutionary's aim, the conservatives discerned, was to replace the old regime with a more rational alternative, concocted from the ground up on new, ostensibly more solid, bases. These revolutionaries were therefore political analogues of philosophical rationalists like René Descartes who sought to overthrow existing knowledge claims in order to start over from the beginning on sound, rationally compelling foundations. But whatever the merits of rationalism in philosophy, it is, in the view of these conservatives, out of place in politics. To their way of thinking, political actors ought to be moved by respect for extant traditions and governing styles, and the cumulative wisdom they embody; not by putative 'first principles'. Post-Revolutionary conservatism was therefore less worried about the eruption of a war of all against all than about the imposition of unwise and therefore harmful forms of governance. This is why its proponents were, on the whole, less ill-disposed towards change than were conservatives who take Sin seriously. Burke, for example, pleaded in favor of the American Revolution, which he saw as a justifiable war of independence; and Tocqueville, some half century after independence was achieved, was an ardent exponent and defender of American democracy. Perhaps they would both have defended the French Revolution too, had the revolutionaries moderated their radical impulses and contented themselves with installing a constitutional monarchy in place of the old and obsolete absolutist autocracy. But the French revolutionaries were extreme in their repudiation not only of outmoded political institutions, but of the fundamental structure of the Old Regime itself. They wanted 'to build a new world on the ashes of the old'. This these conservatives could not abide.

Liberalism too has roots that antedate the French Revolution. As a coherent political ideology, it appeared in the aftermath of the wars of religion that convulsed early modern Europe. As the various sides fought to exhaustion, liberalism emerged as a doctrine of tolerance – at first of rival religious persuasions, ultimately of any and all competing conceptions of the good life. Thus liberalism was, from the start, a theory of limited sovereignty, a political philosophy organized around the claim that there are principled limitations to the rightful use of public coercive force. The imposition of religious orthodoxies transgresses these limitations. So too do other efforts to enforce or proscribe particular, contentious conceptions of the good. For the first liberals, (most) state interferences with market exchanges were similarly proscribed. These liberals stood for virtually unlimited rights to accumulate property privately, and for individuals' rights to do as they please with the property they hold. They were divided, however, on what may be privately owned. Nearly all external things were, of course, candidates for private acquisition and market exchange. For many years, there was an ongoing, though often muted, debate about slavery, about whether and under what conditions other persons could be owned. The first liberals were ardent defenders of self-ownership, however, at least for free persons: they maintained that free men – and, sometimes in theory but never in practice, women – are the absolute owners of their own bodies and powers. They were therefore proponents of labor markets and, by extension, of market arrangements generally – not just in the economic sphere, but in the larger society as well. From its inception, then, liberalism has been doctrinally committed to the idea that individuals ought to be free to do as they please, provided only that they not inflict harms on others. Then and only then may states rightfully interfere with individuals' lives and behaviors. In articulating and joining together these components of early liberal theory, John Locke is an exemplary figure. Locke was a defender of religious toleration, a proponent of market arrangements and of the right to accumulate property privately and without limitation, a believer in self-ownership, a defender of patriarchy (at least in practice) and, on slavery, like many other 'enlightened' thinkers of the time, an apologist of sorts.

The liberalism of the past two centuries has remained faithful to its original commitment to tolerance and, more generally, to state neutrality with respect to competing conceptions of the good, even as its enthusiasm for private property and market exchange has waned outside so-called libertarian circles. Liberals of all stripes have, of course, also repudiated slavery and, more recently, patriarchy. But it was only after the Revolution in France that liberal political philosophy developed into a full-fledged ideology, friendly to many of the causes the French revolutionaries advanced, but hostile to the theory and practice of revolution itself. Liberalism became a doctrine of permanent reform, of change – sometimes substantial, more usually incremental – imposed from above. Post-Revolutionary liberalism was, nevertheless, a progressive ideology, organized around the notion of progress implicit in contemporaneous understandings of the very Revolution that liberals (ambivalently) disavowed. But, unlike the revolutionaries in France, post-Revolutionary liberals were dedicated to changing the world from the top down, within the framework of existing legal and institutional norms. For them, the agent of change ought always to be elites in place; never insurrectionary masses. Their aim was to engineer improvements – in accord with a design that was more or less worked out, but in a piecemeal way; not by taking on the existing system in its totality.

In principle, though, this liberalism is antirevolutionary only where liberalism is already established. Where it is not, a post-Revolutionary liberal might well be moved to take up revolutionary positions or, at least, to sympathize with those who do. Before the French Revolution, liberalism was largely a Dutch, English and French phenomenon. In the immediate aftermath of that Revolution, it was mainly a creature of the English-speaking world. After the Revolution had run its course, liberalism became influential in France again and throughout other parts of the world too, especially where English or French (or, later, American) influence reigned. In these places, liberalism was antirevolutionary. But where existing political arrangements were illiberal, and where there were no available institutional means for advancing liberal prospects, then, as even a pre-Revolutionary liberal like Locke maintained, and as the founders of the American republic agreed, a right – and, in some cases, even a duty – of revolution is triggered. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, therefore, liberalism was a revolutionary ideology in much of the world, even as it was an antirevolutionary ideology in those fortunate countries where it was most entrenched.

It is therefore fair to say that liberalism is more continuous with socialism than was assumed when these ideologies arose, and than is still commonly supposed. Its affinities extend beyond ultimate objectives, even into the realm of means for achieving them. It is also fair to say that, after the Revolution, liberalism became an ideology of the Left, albeit of the Left's right wing. Ever since it came into being, liberalism has been for liberty. Since the Revolution, it has been for equality and fraternity too, though its purchase on these values may not always be recognizably continuous with revolutionary and later socialist understandings. Liberalism's connection to equality and fraternity will be revisited in Chapter 5, in connection with the trajectory of analytical Marxism. It will emerge that, with respect to valuational commitments, liberalism and socialism are more alike than most people have recognized over the many years that these ostensibly rival doctrines have coexisted. But, again, this claim holds only for post-Revolutionary liberalism. The pre-Revolutionary liberalism that libertarians have revived – a liberalism that worships private property and markets and that upholds liberty in the economic sphere to the detriment of equality and fraternity – is a different matter. In nearly all imaginable circumstances, it is an ideology of the Right.


Excerpted from "A Future for Marxism?"
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Copyright © 2003 Andrew Levine.
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Table of Contents

Introduction to Part One
1. After the Revolution
2. The Last Left
Conclusion to Part One
Introduction to Part Two: Historicist Marxism
3. Althusser and Philosophy
4. The Break
5. The Analytical Turn
6. The Legacy
Conclusion: A Future for Marxism?

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