To date I haven’t read much of Althusser, although I remember his work being covered briefly during my university course. The latest issue of the journal Historical Materialism however opens with an article on Althusser, structure, and conjuncture by Panagiotis Sotiris. He also gets a mention in Absolute Recoil by Slavoj Zizek which I’m current reading.
Althusser doesn’t receive much attention in Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism either, other than a brief note in the final chapter which is dismissive of structuralism and of Athusser’s use of it as an analytical tool.
The first point I want to bring out from the article by Panagiotis Sotiris is about the importance of specific historical configurations. In other words general historical tendencies exist only in concrete historical situations. The appropriate course of action can only be approached through the actual situation. It is not possible to ‘standardise’ a revolutionary party. This is an important counter to ‘scientific’ historical materialism derived from Engels and subsequent thinkers. It also makes me think of the structure of Capital volume 1, which moves smoothly from abstract theory to specific historical analysis and back again. Marx clearly understood this point, but it often feels like it is missed by both other Marxist thinkers and later critics of Marx.
The second point I wanted to record is about the nature of structure. Sotiris does not see Althusser as taking what might be called a deterministic approach to structure. Structure plays a key role in how a society operates. This process may be driven by economic fundamentals but the interaction is complicated – certainly more complicated than Marx occasionally made it out to be for didactic reasons – and I read Sotiris explanation of Althusser’s thought as demonstrating that Althusser understood this, and that structuralism provides a useful frame of reference for thinking about it. The mode of production and the structure of society interact with each other, influenced by the concrete historical situation. (Marx understood this too I believe, but often simplifies his argument to make a point stand out and is misread as a result).
Analysing how society is structured allows us to see this interaction more clearly, particularly as it helps us see not just those elements which are visible but also makes us seek the elements which are not. It is important to make clear though that this does not mean that there is a ‘latent’ hidden layer within the structure of society which determines the course of events in a static a-historical way. Rather both visible and invisible form part of the same layer interacting with the mode of production. As described by Sotiris, this feels quite compatible with a Gramsci’s depiction of hegemony.
The final point I want to draw from Sotiris article is about the driving force of history. He quotes Althusser saying:
There is no production in general, there is no history general, but only specific structures of historicity which, since they are merely the structures of determinate social formations… have no meaning except as except as a function of the essence of these totalities…
I agree with Sotiris that here lies the challenge for radical Marxist thought, particularly nearly a century after the Russian Revolution. How to create a radical analysis of society and history whilst acknowledging complexity and chance but without resorting to simple empiricism.