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
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
Elliott attempts to establish ‘the continuing productivity and vitality of the Althusserian research programme’ through a lengthy citation of writings in the social sciences, philosophy, historiography, aesthetics, cultural studies, literary criticism and feminist theory. Impressive as the list is, it is impossible not to have some reservations concerning it. For one thing, the criteria for inclusion are generously vague and yield somewhat motley results. Thus, to stay with the British contingent, it will be obvious to any reader of Roy Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science and John Taylor’s From Modernization to Modes of Production that these remarkable works could be said to exemplify an ‘Althusserian research programme’ only in quite different usages of that description. Moreover, one may well suspect that in many other cases a closer look would reveal that its application in any usage is problematic. Thus, the best-known name on the list is perhaps that of Nicos Poulantzas. Yet in a recent study, described by Elliott as ‘important work’, Bob Jessop has painstakingly and persuasively argued that Althusserian influence on Poulantzas was never dominant and was steadily eliminated as he found his own voice and, hence, that the usual reading of him as an Althusserian structuralist is mistaken.footnote11 It is also worth noting that even where the main impulse is undeniably received from Althusser, it often develops against the grain of his thought and in ways not countenanced or adumbrated there.footnote12 It is, of course, possible to make too much of reservations of this sort. The need for them may, after all, be in some sense inescapable, or, at any rate, only to be expected. That historical significance has to be read out of silence, rejection and misappropriation is a fate by no means unique to Althusser. It does not impugn his claim to an enduring place in the history of Marxist thought, and that claim may fairly be said to have been convincingly re-affirmed by Elliott’s discussion.
This achievement has, however, only a minor significance for the task of resurrecting Althusser’s career as history, as Elliott conceives it.