The publication of the major philosophical works by Louis Althusser in the mid sixties provoked a wide variation of responses in Europe. In the last issue of nlr, Norman Geras provided a careful account of the general design of Althusser’s system, from For Marx to Reading Capital. Geras subjected this system to a Marxist criticism that focused essentially on the idealism of its conception of science, and hence the inevitable inadequacy of its grasp of the relationship between political theory and class struggle—the complex and vital nexus between the conceptions of historical materialism and the practice of the industrial proletariat which Lenin always insisted was constitutive of the nature of Marxism. Such a critique is based squarely within the classical traditions of revolutionary socialism, from which Althusser’s ‘theoreticism’ is—on his own sub-sequent admission—a visible and definite departure, with specific effects on its links to working-class struggle. In this issue of the review, we publish another critique of Althusser’s work that discusses the same system from a very different perspective. André Glucksmann’s essay, printed below, appeared in Les Temps Modernes in May 1967,
a year after the original French edition of Lire Le Capital had been released, and a year before the events of May 1968. Its remarkable power of penetration derives, paradoxically, to a large extent from the fact that it is not written from the classical standpoint of revolutionary Marxism, but primarily from within the intellectual tradition of European philosophy that pre-dates Marx. For it is precisely this ‘exogenous’ perspective on Althusser’s writings that illuminates, much more clearly than any other critique of them, certain features of his system which have most puzzled Marxists in their encounter with it. For what appears disconcertingly unfamiliar or even indefinably alien to the corpus of previous Marxist thought, conversely becomes readily intelligible and identifiable when viewed against the background of European metaphysical philosophy, from Aristotle to Kant, and Nietzsche to Heidegger. One
Glucksmann opens his case against Althusser’s theory by levelling the basic preliminary charge that its classification of all social reality into four different types of ‘production’—economic, political, ideological and theoretical—is arbitrary and empiricist. It is unsupported by any sustained argument or demonstration, and indeed lacks any precise demarcation of the frontiers between the different types of production. footnote2 Moreover, Glucksmann argues, this ‘empiricist’ classificatory schedule is coupled with a ‘transcendentalist’ epistemology. It is well-known that Althusser goes to great lengths to separate the ‘real object’ from the ‘object of knowledge’ in his epistemological theory: the latter is the specific object of theoretical production, and is to be radically distinguished from the different ‘real objects’ of economic, political and ideological production that together otherwise compose a social formation. The connection between the real object and the object of knowledge, which ensures the correspondence of the one to the other—that any given ‘knowledge’ is, in fact, a verity—is called by Althusser the ‘mechanism’ of the ‘knowledge effect’. But it is never explored or explained as such: it remains a purely verbal solution to the central problem of his whole epistemology. Glucksmann, however, in a hawk-eyed examination of the letter of the texts in Lire Le Capital, isolates what he claims to be the secret, implicit answer to it presupposed by Althusser’s theory: nothing less than an underlying categorial correspondence between the order of the world and the nature of thought, that is founded on their common essence as productions. The truth of the practice of theoretical production is thus guaranteed by the ontological ‘conditions’ which it shares with the various historical productions that provide the ‘absolute reference-point’ for its object of knowledge. Glucksmann comments that such a philosophical solution is, in fact, a modern translation of Kant’s transcendental epistemology: ‘production’ need only be rendered (back) into ‘being’, for Althusser’s work to fall into place in the long line of traditional metaphysical systems within Western philosophy, and their specific concerns. Althusser’s theory is thus ‘ventriloquist’ because in it the ostensible duality between knowledge and the real is a disguise: in the puppet of theory, only one voice speaks, the general conjuror of the world, the ‘common essence of production’.
Glucksmann’s second focus of criticism is the ‘structuralism’ of Althusser’s and Balibar’s substantive theory of modes of production
Glucksmann next proceeds to the obvious possible line of defence against these criticisms—the insistence of Althusser and Balibar that the three elements and two relations that combine to form any mode of production are themselves not constant items, but alter their very nature according to the total configuration which they compose in any given case. In this sense, ‘unity’ and ‘separation’ in the relations of real appropriation would always have to be specified differentially, according to the modes of production in question, and their glancing use by Balibar could be excused as a mere short-hand. But it is just at this point that Glucksmann deals a rapier stroke to the whole theoretical construction of the Althusserian combination. For he points out that, precisely, if it is the case that the very identity of the terms in any given mode of production can only be established once their concrete combination in it is known—if the very notion of what is the ‘economy’ in primitive or tribal societies, for example, cannot be ascertained until the total structure of the latter is first elucidated—then the whole possibility of a fiveterm comparative analysis of different modes of production collapses. For the end-result of such a comparison—the delimitation of distinct combinations by analysis of their constituent terms—becomes the circular presupposition of delimiting these terms themselves in the first place. The most patent example of this procedure cited by Glucksmann concerns the second of the two ‘relations’ in Balibar’s theory of the combination—the ‘property relation’. Balibar takes great pains to insist that this relation is in no way identical with that of legal property. Thus, in the case of the capitalist mode of production, the fundamental property relation is not the juridical ownership of single units of capital by individual entrepreneurs, but the total system of surplus extraction. This, in turn, can by definition only be grasped once the overall, articulated structure of the capitalist order itself is determined.
For Althusser and Balibar, the articulation of this structure depends on the efficacy of what they call the Darstellung. The notoriously elusive character of this concept conceals, Glucksmann points out, two contradictory attributes. For it is the ‘invisible machinery’ that ensures both the real constant reproduction of the total system of capital and the travestied forms of its phenomenal appearance, in the fetishism of commodities. It is thus responsible both for the intricate, shadowy truth and the hypnotic surface mirage of the capitalist mode of production for the social classes distributed within it. Entrusted with both tasks, it becomes incapable of performing either—in other words, of establishing any principle of distinction between the true and the false, the real and the illusory, at all. Consequently, the ‘property relation’ whose elucidation within capitalism was confided to an ulterior analysis of its system of reproduction, can never be scientifically identified by it. For in the ‘theatre’ of the Darstellung, the criterion of truth necessarily has no place: on the stage, all scripts are fiction. Thus, if Balibar’s discussion of the ‘relation of real appropriation’ in the Althusserian theory of the combination inevitably blurs the differences between pre-capitalist modes of production, his account of the ‘property relation’ tends symmetrically to submerge the differences between capitalist and non-capitalist (post-revolutionary) modes of production. For once legal property is simply divorced from ‘real property’, ‘private ownership’ of the means of production from ‘capital’, and the Darstellung is empowered
Glucksmann ends his essay with some brief reflections of his own on the problems for Marxist theory left unresolved by the answers Althusser has tried to give to them. His cryptic notations on a ‘linguistic’ reading of Capital and the role of ‘scepticism’ in Marx’s thought, with their Heideggerian undertones, need not be taken too seriously. They reflect the necessary limits of any critique of Althusser’s work primarily from within the framework of traditional European philosophy, rather than that of revolutionary socialism, and provide no substantial alternative line of exploration. However, it should be noted that Glucksmann does, in passing, make two straightforward and valid comments in the last section of his text, with which any militant can agree. He insists that social classes by no means merely function as the ‘supports’ (Träger) of economic relations of production, since they also obviously operate ‘demolitions’ of them, in the concrete clash of class struggle for the possession of political power in any social formation. He further reminds those who would study Capital of the dangers of poring over just Capital, and ignoring the whole, complex international history of the capitalist mode of production since Marx wrote his first theorization of it—a history which includes the systemic reactions of capitalism both to the periodic crises that have gripped it since the mid 19th century and to the successive blows delivered against it by the exploited classes across the world in the 20th century. For it is self-evident that the central, undischarged task of Marxist theory today is not simply to read and reread the three volumes of Capital, but to write the redoubtable, necessary sequels to them.
Glucksmann’s critique of Althusser’s theory has never been answered in France. But its efficacy can be judged, not only from this circumstance, but from certain curious features attending the new editions of Lire Le Capital brought out after the publication of his essay. Thus it is striking that a large number of key passages in Lire Le Capital cited by Glucksmann to drive home his attack, were removed from the 1969 French edition (of which the English Reading Capital is a translation). Thus all the formulations cited by Glucksmann in notes 41, 45, 47, 52–53, 56–61, and 63–65 below, no longer appear in current versions of the book. In part, this is because of omission of Rancière’s long contribution to the original edition from post-1968 editions of Lire Le Capital, from which Glucksmann quotes abundantly; but the very elimination of this essay, whose formulations on the Darstellung are most flagrantly vulnerable, may have been inspired by the difficulty of modifying it to evade the criticisms made of it by Glucksmann. footnote5 However, both Althusser and Balibar have also deleted pivotal cognate formulations, which were particularly exposed to Glucksmann’s attack, from their own texts. It is thus reasonable to surmise that the silent response to ‘A Ventriloquist Structuralism’ was a premeditated partial withdrawal, in order to narrow tactical flanks, because of the difficulty of any frontal reply or counter-attack. Such a silence, of course, tells its own story.