Gregory Elliott’s book appears at a time when the reputation of its subject seems near to total eclipse.footnote1 In Althusser’s own country he is, as Elliott reports, practically a ‘dead dog’, buried beneath ‘the settled anti-Marxist consensus among the majority of the French intelligentsia’.footnote2 In Britain he is ‘largely absent from current Marxist debate, the high ground of which is occupied by an Analytical current that has declined a critical engagement with him’.footnote3 For Elliott this consignment to oblivion affords an opportunity, ‘the resurrection of Althusser’s intellectual and political career as history’. It makes possible a ‘reassessment’ of his work, a ‘more equitable presentation and appraisal’ of it than has hitherto been available. Elliott believes that such a ‘return to and reconsideration of’ Althusser would have a large significance. In particular, it ‘may aid a fuller appreciation’ of ‘some of the background to the present acute crisis of Marxism’.footnote4 It seems obvious that Elliott has set himself an ambitious and important undertaking. It promises a balanced view of a thinker who has been subjected to irrational extremes of abuse and adulation. Moreover, it offers the prospect of shedding a general light on pressing issues of contemporary intellectual life on the Left.

The book carries the dedication ‘To Louis Althusser’, and this somewhat curious circumstance prefigures the sympathy and inwardness Elliott brings to his task. He has a deep understanding of the intellectual and political background from which Althusser sprang and of the nature of the theoretical project that was conceived against it. Elliott accepts the validity and significance of this project, and deals in detail with the vicissitudes of its implementation and the changes that thereby came about in the conception itself. His work is a sustained and comprehensive example of immanent critique, a critique focused on the internal coherence of its object and on the gap in it between aspiration and performance. The critique is carried out with great thoroughness, analytical acuity and scrupulous attention to the evidence of the texts. The results have a weight, at times a definitiveness, unrivalled in the literature on Althusser. It is no more than the plain truth to say that Elliott has placed all future students in his debt and that his work will be indispensable to them. Yet it may be doubted whether it is altogether successful by its own exacting, immanent standards. That is to say, it is doubtful whether it fully realizes the goal of resurrecting Althusser’s career ‘as history’, and thus of drawing its chief lessons for the ‘crisis of Marxism’. Misgivings on this score have two immediate sources. The first is the reverse side, as it were, of the advantages prefigured in the dedication. Stated crudely, it is that Elliott may be too close to his subject to permit the degree of detachment appropriate to situating his career in historical perspective. The second is that, somewhat paradoxically, he may turn out to be too close also to current forms of conventional wisdom about that career. The first of these factors leads him to be over-indulgent of demonstrated inadequacies, and the second causes him to fall somewhat short of the measure of Althusser’s achievement as a whole. Thus, the two tend to work against each other, and they mark the site of a structural tension in Elliott’s discussion. Both are, as we shall see, made possible only by his recurring reluctance to trust to, and follow through, the logic of his own detailed arguments.

The reluctance is most evident on occasions when Elliott rounds off the treatment of some aspect of Althusser’s work with a seemingly judicious balancing of praise and censure. This symmetry regularly turns out to be misleading in that the censure is precisely aimed and solidly grounded in the discussion, while the praise is unfocused and at odds with what has gone before. A couple of illustrations will have to suffice here. An incisive critique of Althusser’s ‘epistemological project’ is supplemented by the observation that ‘At the same time, all credit is owed to him for a pioneering initiative in epistemology from within Marxism’.footnote5 Yet the entire tendency of the critique itself had been to show that what is pioneering in Althusser’s epistemology cannot properly be described as arising ‘within Marxism’. It represents precisely a turning to sources outside, above all to Spinoza and Bachelard. Thus, the critique serves to give substance to Elliott’s earlier acceptance of Martin Jay’s view that Althusser was ‘the most promiscuous [of Western Marxists] in allowing non-Marxist influences to affect his ideas’.footnote6 In the case under discussion his promiscuity generates what Elliott acknowledges to be a ‘contradiction’, an ‘unresolved tension’ between Marxist and non-Marxist elements in his thought. The result is that while claiming to have solved ‘intractable problems in the philosophy of science’, he had in truth ‘either offered unsatisfactory answers or dissolved the very questions’.footnote7 This verdict seems entirely justified in itself, but it sits oddly with the attempt to assign credit which Elliott immediately appends to it. The attempt is in the circumstances unconvincing.

A second example arises from a similar tension, that between Althusser’s Marxism and his structuralism. Elliott is inclined to agree with Andrew Levine’s conclusion that, in its structuralist aspect, Althusserianism was part of ‘a revolt against historical materialism’.footnote8 For Althusser and Balibar were, in Elliott’s view, ‘fundamentally revising Marx where they professed to be returning to him’. This seems uncompromising enough. Yet, when it comes to a summing up, an impression of punches being pulled is once more given: ‘whatever the flaws in Althusser’s reconstruction of historical materialism, and however tenuous its title to orthodoxy, it represented, and was widely experienced as, a liberation.’footnote9 On Elliott’s own showing, however, this work is to be regarded as a revolt against, or fundamental revision of, historical materialism, and, if this is so, the term ‘reconstruction’ is simply inappropriate here. Moreover, Elliott has provided excellent grounds for supposing that its title to orthodoxy is not merely tenuous but is actually without merit. Nothing has survived of it under the rigours of his scrutiny.

It has to be asked why Elliott should seek to dull the edge of his own demonstrations. A clue to at least part of the answer is perhaps to be found in the reference to the experience of Althusser’s work as a ‘liberation’. Elliott expands the point by asserting that Althusser’s criticisms ‘released Marxists from more than one conceptual prison, re-establishing historical materialism as a research programme’, and ‘reminded Marxists that there was a continent waiting to be explored’.footnote10 What seems excessive tenderness is due in some measure, one might suppose, to respect and gratitude for an influence exerted in a particular historical conjuncture. It would be difficult for anyone on the Left in Britain who began to think for themselves in the decade or so from the mid-sixties onwards not to sympathize with such a motive. In that time and place Althusser’s work was indeed a liberation. Apart from all substantive doctrines, this was so in virtue of its simple insistence on taking Marx seriously, on establishing his right to the same quality of attention as any other figure in the philosophical tradition. The message owed much of its impact to Althusser’s personal attributes, to his own deep seriousness and magisterial self-assurance, his peculiar density of texture and authority of tone and his remarkable skills as a rhetorician and phrase-maker. It is true that there was a negative side to his influence. As many observers have noted, British Althusserianism soon assumed a scholastic, even sectarian character. It is also the case that for some of its leading representatives the conceptual prison from which they were eventually to be released was Marxism itself. Nevertheless, the somewhat histrionic course of their emancipation had its own particular interest and exemplary value. Moreover, Althusser was himself largely unscathed by this development, partly at least because of his apparent reluctance to acknowledge his British disciples, still more to confer on them any right of apostolic succession. No sect will thrive in these circumstances, and, as the wind changed in academia and outside during the eighties, the British branch of ‘high Althusserianism’ folded almost as quickly as it had arisen. Some of the gains from the reception of Althusser’s work in Britain were, however, permanent. It is difficult to see how there could even now be a return to the complacent ignorance and incomprehension which, in the pre-Althusser period, characterized the work of analytical commentators on Marx. Some at least of the credit is due to the Althusserian role in shifting him nearer the centre of the intellectual stage. There were in addition some significant British contributions to the process of continental exploration to which Elliott refers.