Recently I’ve been working through texts on structuralist Marxism, starting with “Reading Capital” by Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar followed by The Poverty of Theory (EP Thompson’s superb polemic against Althusser) and the sections on Althusser in Western Marxism A Critical Reader. This post will capture some of the key points from this strand of Marxism, and I’ll follow up with a separate post to cover my reading of EP Thompson’s criticisms.
The first point is that Althusser considers Marx to have created a new science, that of dialectical materialism. There is an ‘epistemological break’ in his thought between early and later writings where Marx throws off the remnants of idealism and defines this new science. This approach conditions Althusser’s thought on Marx and means that he is often searching for the ‘real’ Marx, and disregards work in which he detects Hegelian or other idealist remnants.
Within this science is the theory of history, or historical materialism. This is built around structured modes of production, each period defined by it’s mode of production which in turn is founded upon both the material forces of production and the social relations of production. Economy and society is an integrated and articulated structure. Each part both determines and is determined by the whole, something which Althusser refers to as ‘overdetermination’. This dominant structure defines the ‘problematic’ of the period.
And it is this problematic which controls the intellectual thought of the period. Practitioners remain trapped within the dominant structure which determines what it is possible to either ‘see’ or think. It is this sense of a structure which dictates what questions it is possible to ask which makes Althusser’s structuralism (remarkably) similar to Thomas S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and it’s concept of ‘paradigms’ in scientific thought.
This process is driven by Althusser’s theory of knowledge production. No fact is simply ‘given’. Everything considered fact is in truth produced through a process beginning with ‘raw material’ is assembled – not reality as such but those items conditioned by the existing structure – to which a scientific method is applied producing a concrete knowledge in thought.
As a result Althusser argues strongly against both empiricism and historicism, which he contests both proceed from given ‘facts’ rather than going through this process of knowledge production. Basing analysis on the readily available ‘facts’ of an era will simply see the world through the blinkers of the then existing mode of production. The structure itself is then invisible. It is in this way that orthodox economics views the categories of capitalism as universally applicable.
This creates a specific role for the Marxist intellectual alongside the workers’ movement itself, and means that true Marxist consciousness is brought to the workers from outside the native movement.
This ‘structuralist’ Marxism was influenced by developments in both sociology and psychology and has been very influential on intellectual Marxism since the sixties. It was strongly criticised by EP Thompson in his essay ‘The Poverty of Theory’ which I’ll cover in my next blog.