Andy Blunden. February 2007
For Marx, Althusser, Louis Althusser, Penguin 1969.
Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Louis Althusser, Monthly Review Press 1971.
Louis Althusser is one of the most influential philosophical opponents of humanism and any notion of a free human subject. In this short essay I want to summarise Althusser’s conception of the subject and show that it is internally inconsistent and theoretically indefensible. I will show why, far from providing a critique of capitalist society, it is itself a reactionary product of modernity.
The context of Althusser’s most significant writings of the 1960s is the rise of ‘socialist humanism’, especially among dissidents in East Europe. Althusser positioned himself in the wake of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, by casting the sentiments of the socialist humanists as ‘ideology’, as opposed to Marxist ‘science’, and supported the political line of the Chinese Communist Party, minimising the significance of Stalin’s crimes. According to Althusser, the USSR was at the stage of ending ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and opening up a new historical stage of the ‘withering away of the state’. Changing historical tasks were accompanied by changing ideology among the masses, but the arguments being brought forward by the socialist humanists were not to be credited with any claim to validity. On the contrary. As it happens, Althusser also positioned himself in the capitalist world with a kind of radicalism which could denounce everything whilst offering no alternative, just at a time when vast movements were getting under way in the West.
Althusser’s concept of subject flows from his concept of ideology:
“ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects, ideology being nothing but its functioning in the material forms of existence of that functioning.”
And ideology and subjectivity are in turn inseparable from practice:
“1. there is no practice except by and in an ideology;
2. there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects.”
And practice and ideology are to be understood in turn via his conception of the institutions in which practice takes place, the “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs), institutions constituted by ideology, in which people’s activity is constituted as social practice.
The state, in the orthodox, Marxist sense of the term, he calls the “Repressive State Apparatus” (RSA), the organisation of violence used by a (capitalist) ruling class in order to maintain conditions for the production and reproduction of the (capitalist) relations of production. The RSA and the ISAs are both instruments wielded by the state power, i.e., the dominant social class (the bourgeoisie); both function by means of both ideology and violence, violence acting as a last resort, but the Repressive SA is predominantly violent, while the Ideological SAs are predominantly ideological in their functioning.
What are the ISAs? The Church, the Family, the Law, the political system including the various political parties, the Trade Unions, the Media, the “Cultural ISA” (including the artists and the various institutions which publish, teach, fund, display literature and art, etc.), and, according to Althusser, the dominant ISA – the Education system.
As an aside, note that in this conception, it is classes whose interest, consciousness and power is at work in society and history, so it would appear that Althusser sees classes as “subjects” in history. But at the same time he asserts that there are no subjects acting in history at all, that history is a process without a subject. In “Marxism and Humanism” he claims that in “the Marxist theory of history. The ‘subjects’ of history are given human societies,” (recall that Marx himself rejected the idea of ‘society’ as a coherent entity of any kind, let alone a subject). But Althusser signals that he does not share this conception by the placing of quotation marks around the word ‘subject’. Althusser also refutes, without very much difficulty, the idea that History is the work of an Hegelian Spirit or of a Subject (capital-S), Man, an idea which he ascribes to the ‘Young Marx’. If History is not to be the work of a (singular) Subject, then ipso facto, we are led to presume, there can be no subjects (plural) acting in history at all.
Institutions, such as the state apparatus, are instruments which are used by the class which is the state power; classes wield power, struggle against one another and make alliances. Class struggle is a central concept for Althusser: “Ideologies always express class positions.” But Althusser does not hold that a class acting as “a centre of initiatives, author of and responsible for its actions” (to use Althusser’s own definition) warrants it being called a subject. He talks of classes as if they were subjects (they have interests, they struggle, they have consciousness), but as for Descartes, limits the notion of subject to concrete individuals. But in the case of the individual subject, as we shall see, being a subject does not mean what it might be supposed to mean.
By his rejection of the concept of a singular Subject at work in history (God, for all intents and purposes), Althusser sees himself as having done with all notions of a collective subject, whether it be a ‘scientific’ conception of collective subjects (such as nations, social movements, institutions or social classes) or ‘spiritual’ conceptions such as that of Hegel. Just as for Kant and Descartes, for Althusser, subjects are individuals; the question is only what being such a subject can amount to.
What Althusser has left out is any consideration of whether, by combining together in some rational form of voluntary collectivity, some self-conscious system of activity or social movement, people can rise to a level where they are capable of becoming collectively, “a centre of initiatives, author of and responsible for its actions” and become to some extent subjects in their own lives, collectively. Grand ensembles, like ‘Man’ or ‘Society’, can only be understood as subjects if one adopts a spiritualistic conception. Lukacs’ conception of the working class as a subject in history depended on the reality of the Communist International being the actual leadership of an international workers’ movement, a movement in which millions of individuals saw themselves as communists, actively looked to the Comintern for leadership and transmitted that commitment to those around them. That reality proved to be transitory if not entirely illusory.
But all sorts of corporate entities, from nations to companies, do act as subjects, as well as more diffuse social movements. But isn’t there room for a concept of subjects which lies between the mysticism of “Geist” and idealism of the Kantian transcendental subject, between the romanticism of “Man” and the positivism of the Individual? This is territory into which Althusser does not venture.
Although all the social institutions are called Ideological State Apparatuses, they may be public or private, formal or informal, because they function to reproduce the capitalist relations of production, and therefore serve the interests of the capitalist class; so they are deemed state apparatuses. Althusser was writing in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the (Keynesian Welfare) capitalist state rested to a large degree on the trade unions, and when there was a high degree of social integration. The intense class conflict following the end of World War II had ended, as the Marshall Plan was used to suppress popular discontent in Europe. This brought a kind of peace and prosperity to the masses which made capitalism look homogeneous, the same situation which had prompted Herbert Marcuse to write “One Dimensional Man.” In this conjuncture, it was probably not controversial on the Left for Althusser to include the Trade Unions as an Ideological State Apparatus, as part of the system of ideological domination by the bourgeoisie. Under Khrushchev’s policy of ‘peaceful co-existence’, the French Communist Party and the PCF-controlled CGT could be included in that characterisation. The idea that the Family is the bedrock of capitalist society is still widespread; but the inclusion of the arts as a “cultural ideological state apparatus” makes it clear enough that any institution to be found in capitalist society is ipso facto an apparatus by means of which the bourgeoisie maintain bourgeois relations of production. ‘The system’ is all-pervasive.
And this is the point really. Is it reasonable to paint a picture of modern society which is so utterly closed to criticism, so homogeneous, so impenetrable? Is absolutely every route to change closed in advance?
In a way somewhat similar to how a ‘discourse’ constitutes an institution, for Althusser, each of the institutions he refers to as ISAs correspond to an ideology, a religious, ethical, legal, political or whatever ideology, whose material existence is the rituals and practices of the corresponding ISA, organised around a concept of God, Law, Art or whatever. An ideology expresses a class position through a specific regular form of material practice (ISA), which functions ideologically to ensure the reproduction of capitalism, and is backed up by violence, either internally, or through the RSA.
But (and this is a virtue of Althusser’s approach) all the ISAs are relatively autonomous with respect to one another. Although each serves to facilitate the reproduction of elements of the capitalist relations of production, they are not purely and simply generated by the capitalist mode of production, understood as an ‘expressive totality’. Each apparatus has its own logic and operates to some degree independently of the others.
Each ISA, with its various ‘rituals’ and characteristic forms of practice, constitutes the material existence of the relevant ideology: Art (the ideology of art) is materially constituted by the practices of the art world – its methods of evaluation, control, distribution and production, and so forth. The objective material actions of individuals performing these (or other) practises constitute what could be called the ideas which make up this ideology.
“[An individual’s] ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject.”
Discourse is the medium of ideology, and consciousness is internal verbal discourse. Thus consciousness is an internalisation of the material practices of the ISAs in which a person participates, language being the principal transmission mechanism for this process of internalisation.
But this leads to a difficulty surely? How is it possible to distinguish Science from Ideology? By definition:
“Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”
All ideologies are “myths” which “do not correspond to reality” and are “illusions.” But Althusser counterposes Ideology to Science, which, he says, is not ideology. “Religious ideology, ethical ideology, legal ideology, political ideology” are “timeless” “world outlooks,” and:
“assuming that we do not live one of these ideologies as the truth (e.g. ‘believe’ in God, Duty, Justice, etc....), we admit that the ideology we are discussing from a critical point of view, examining it as the ethnologist examines the myths of a ‘primitive society’, that these ‘world outlooks’ are largely imaginary, i.e. do not ‘correspond to reality’.”
Science provides us with a means of knowing things because it presents a true representation of our relationship to our conditions of existence, whereas ideology can describe things, but only by means of a false relationship to our conditions:
“an ideology is a system (with its own logic and rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society. ... ideology, as a system of representations, is distinguished from science in that in it the practico-social function is more important than the theoretical function (function as knowledge).”
Surely the only possible way of making sense of this is to allow that with science, just as with education, politics, literature, and so on, there are forms of practice, constituted in some kind of apparatus, acts within which constitute the ideas of science? How can science be any different in this respect? How can science not be constituted in regular, institutionalised forms of practice with its own scientific discourse? But thisis not how Althusser sees it.
According to Althusser, Ideology is the ‘lived’ relation between men and their world, an unconscious relation which may or may not be reflected in the form of a systematic ‘philosophy’. Ideology is distinguished from a science not by its falsity or incoherence, but by the fact that the work of reproduction of the relations of production, predominates in it over theoretical practice, over knowledge production. Each science arises out of the pre-scientific world of ideas, out of ideology, by means of what Althusser calls the epistemological break, a ‘leap’ which entails a radical break from the whole previous frame of reference, and the construction of a new problematic. Ideology survives alongside science as an element of the social formation.
Althusser sees (scientific) theoretical practice as a fourth practice, over and above the economic, political and ideological practices which together constitute a social formation. The work of theoretical practice is to transform ideology into knowledge, criticising the timeless conceptions of ideology which indicate objects but fail to open them to understanding.
However, just as wage workers are not ‘subjects’ of their own labor, being nothing more than factors of production organised by capital, which is responsible for the process of production, science is a subjectless process which brings together and activates all the components and conditions of scientific practice. The individuals who actually perform the work cannot claim to be ‘subjects’ of their scientific production, any more than wage workers are subjects of economic production. In both cases the individuals are mere bearers of a practico-social process.
But surely this only makes sense if we consider that systematic thought in general (and not just myths), thought which brings to light the real relationship of individuals to their conditions of existence (as opposed to imaginary relationships), thought which is not timeless and impervious to history, but on the contrary is historical, scientific thought, is also to be understood as constituted in certain, relatively autonomous, regular forms of practice, with its own ‘scientific world outlook’?
Althusser designates science as a practice (like economics, politics and ideology) but it is entirely unclear how scientific discourse and scientific practice, carried out by individuals who are not subjects, authors of or responsible for their actions, constitutes the ideas of science, but can be in some way qualitatively different from ideology. It seems that science, which discloses the real relation of people to their conditions of existence, is just as much tied up with class relations as ideology which “always expresses class positions.” But Althusser makes no suggestion that a proletarian class interest detracts from the scientific character of a theoretical work. In order to be objective, science must be beliefs and actions without subjects, a subject-less discourse and a subjectless practice. So the author of scientific work, who is an individual person, and therefore a “subject,” and therefore ideological, “is completely absent as a ‘subject’ from ‘his’ scientific discourse.” The individual scientist is just a cog in the machinery of science. A lot of scientific work nowadays, of course, looks just like a manufacturing industry production line, with PhDs handed out much like trades apprenticeships, but can the entire process be represented in that way, at every level?
In the Preface to Capital Volume One, Althusser goes on to claim that “The struggle for Marxist science and Marxist philosophy is today, as it was yesterday, a form of political and ideological class struggle.” But Science remains subjectless even while it serves the class struggle, and is permeated with a class position, that of the proletariat. The identification of science with socialism was still uncontroversial in Althusser’s day, but that has long since ceased to be the case, thanks in some measure to the ‘socialist humanists’ who Althusser was opposing.
Althusser sees Capital as a work of science (as did Marx), and in his terms, to describe Capital as a work of ethics, would be tantamount to condemning it as ideological; all ethics is ideological for Althusser. But by making an absolute out of science, Althusser himself has fallen prey to Ideology. All knowledge is for something; knowledge arises only in connection with certain forms of activity. So a conception of science which isolates science from ethics is abstract and self-delusion.
For Althusser, being a subject, ‘believing in’ an ideology, and participating in the ritual and practices of an Ideological Apparatus are all one and the same:
“the decisive central term on which everything else depends is the notion of the subject. ... the category of subject ... is the constitutive category of all ideology, ... only ... insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects, ideology being nothing but its functioning in the material forms of existence of that functioning.”
Already in this formulation, we can see how ‘subjects’ in Althusser’s understanding, far from really being free, responsible agents, are subjected beings. And subjects are individual human beings, not classes or nations:
“The individual ... behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and, what is more, participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which ‘depend’ the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject. ... and freely accepts, must ‘act according to his ideas’, must therefore inscribe his own ideas as a free subject in the actions of his material practice. ... these practices are governed by the rituals in which these practices are inscribed, within the material existence of an ideological apparatus.”
Only a concrete individual person can be a subject, but to be a subject the individual must be taken up by forms of practice constituted by timeless ideologies, ideologies for which there is ‘no outside’, constituting an imaginary relationship of the individual to their real conditions of existence and functionally determined as ideological apparatuses for the maintenance of the dominant, capitalist mode of production.
Despite the relative independence of the various ideological and repressive apparatuses, they form a closed universe in which no consciousness is possible other than an illusory, functionally prescribed, bourgeois consciousness. The individual subject’s belief that they act of their own free will is an illusion. Even before they are born, they are destined to bear their father’s name, their role is determined before they know it themselves – their gender, their abilities, their family, etc. – the subject is always-already the subject they come to know themselves as, when they are called, and ‘find their place’ in society by being inserted into a position an Ideological State Apparatus. This is the process which Althusser calls ‘interpellation’ – the individual’s recognition of themselves as answering to an identity ascribed to them by the Ideological State Apparatus, materially, the insertion or subsumption of their activity into practices constituting the ISA.
Althusser takes Christianity an as an “example” of an ideology, claiming that “the same demonstration can be produced for ethical, political, aesthetic ideology, etc.,” and then goes on to make points about religion which are claimed without demonstration to be also applicable to (EG) ethics. So “there can only be such a multitude of possible religious subjects on the absolute condition that there is a Unique, Absolute, Other Subject, i.e. God.” So we have each ISA as constituted by a Principle – God in the Christian Church – to which subjects are subjected when they are socialised into practice and rituals within the given ISA. Through the subjects’ recognition of the “Subject” (capital-S, i.e., God or Law or Art, etc.) and each other, individuals come to recognise themselves as subjects. On this basis, with the absolute certainty of a closed world, the subjects are free to “work by themselves.”
The question has to asked though, is the fact (if we take it to be a fact) that a person operates within what could be called a shared system of illusions, that they are ipso facto incapable of being genuinely the morally responsible initiator of their actions, and that they are completely incapable in exercising rational control over their destiny?
As a good structuralist, Althusser can cap off his “proof” of the subjected character of the self-deluded subject with an archetypical sleight of hand of the kind so popular among French structuralists:
“... The whole mystery of this effect lies ... in the ambiguity of the term subject. In the ordinary use of the term, subject in fact means: (1) a free subjectivity, a centre of initiatives, author of and responsible for its actions; (2) a subjected being, who submits to a higher authority, and is therefore stripped of all freedom except that of freely accepting his submission. ... the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, ...
But of course the two opposite meanings of the word “subject” have quite different genealogies. Descartes, criticising Aristotle, used the Latin translation of Aristotle’s upokeimenon (hypokeimenon), subjectum, to mean the substance (substantia) to which all attributes adhered, i.e., (for Descartes) the individual self-consciousness and cogito; Kant went on to define this subject as the sovereign individual, the “free subjectivity, a centre of initiatives, author of and responsible for its actions.” This meaning of the word “subject” has continued in use, but exclusively within philosophical discourse and only in fairly recent times has it penetrated a broader audience.
On the other hand, “subject” entered the English language in the 14th century in the sense of someone under the dominion of or owing allegiance to a sovereign power, being subject to its laws, enjoying its protection. At this time, “subjectum” was understood in the Aristotlean sense, prior to Descartes’ transformation of the subject into an active agent within a philosophical discourse. In ordinary usage, “subject” retained this passive meaning, and took on further usages, such as being the subject of a poem or an accusation or being subjected to taxes, and so on.
Rather than an ambiguity, what we have is effectively two different words, two different concepts. The connection between the two meanings of “subject” is historical, not logical. It is nothing more than a structuralist trick to suggest a necessary connection to being a subject (i.e., a self-conscious, knowing author of one’s own actions) and being subjected to a higher authority. The two meaning, while not absolutely incompatible, are opposite in their meaning and have different contexts.
Althusser’s solution to this riddle entails the conception that while he, Althusser, is but a humble subject, nevertheless, as a scientist, he is able to participate in and be mouthpiece or vehicle for science. Science in his conception is not an Ideology, but truth, and as such is a process without a subject; it is subjectless, an objective process. But its truths find their way into print via the pens of humble subjects who should not delude themselves about having made a discovery or having been responsible for creating anything. This despite the claim that science is only possible “from a proletarian class viewpoint, and with the new practice of philosophy that follows from it.” [Althusser 1971]
This leads to the absurd and reactionary position that Althusser must teach his students a scientific point of view, namely that history is a process without a subject, but at the same tell them that the working class can rise only to the level of socialist humanism, an ideology, and encourage his readers to keep science to themselves, and propagate ideology to the workers instead.
In Marxism and Humanism, Althusser explains that “even a communist society could never do without ideology, be it ethics, art or ‘world outlook’”:
“... it is not conceivable that communism, a new mode of production implying determinate forces of production and relations of production, could do without a social organization of production, and corresponding ideological forms. / So ideology is ... a structure essential to the historical life of societies.”
So for Althusser, ideology is somewhat like Plato’s ‘beautiful lies’, the Christianity of Hobbes and Kant, Robespierre’s ‘Festival of the Supreme Being’ or August Comte’s ‘Religion of Humanity’ – popular illusions necessary to maintain the institutions of society; the philosopher doesn’t believe in it, but for practical purposes people have to be persuaded to believe in it, just like people have to believe in the necessity of driving on the left hand side of the road, even though science tells us that the right hand side would be just as good. This overstates the case a little, because Althusser accepts that not only is socialist humanism necessary for the proper functioning of the institutions of socialist society, but:
“When I say that the concept of humanism is an ideological concept (not a scientific one), I mean that while it really does designate a set of existing relations, unlike a scientific concept, it does not provide us with a means of knowing them.”
Nevertheless, it would seem hard to see why a ‘scientific concept’ which does ‘provide us with a means of knowing’ existing relations, cannot also function as the ‘relay whereby ... the relation between men and their conditions of existence is lived to the profit of all’. Are we really “bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society” (to quote Marx’s description of materialism in “Theses on Feuerbach” No. 3)?
The problem here is that communism is not for Althusser a struggle for self-emancipation, but rather just a process without a subject, a process leading from one set of institutions to another, and under such conditions, the very notion of ‘emancipation’ is meaningless.
Althusser was writing not long after Jean-Paul Sartre published his Critique of Dialectical Reason, and it can be seen how Althusser and Sartre confront similar problems and share many of the same assumptions, but they come to different conclusions. Sartre is trying to grapple with how mass social movements – ‘fused groups’ – which are real, living expressions of subjectivity, become eventually transformed into a reactionary and ossified bureaucracy like the USSR. Althusser sees the USSR as en route to socialist society via the withering away of the state, and characterises opponents of the bureaucracy as unscientific ideologues. One gets a real feeling of discomfort as Sartre wrestles with these problems. Not so Louis Althusser, who even puts the word ‘abuses’ in inverted commas in referring to the crimes of the Stalin period – after all, these were just problems in the superstructure, not the real foundations of socialism. Ha! Althusser greeted the student uprisings of May/June 1968 firstly with silence, later describing them as infantile Leftism. Sartre, on the other hand, perhaps just went a little overboard in his uncritical support of the students.
The idea that every aspect culture in capitalist societies is completely determined by bourgeois ideology, leaving no room at all for social movements which genuinely challenge capitalism, was a powerful idea in its day; an idea which both expressed and supported the strength of bourgeois society. The idea that the only threat to capitalism came from an entrenched bureaucracy in the USSR and China, was also plausible in its day, being expressive of mainstream bourgeois ideology and an important prop for capitalism. The idea that humanist criticisms of Stalinism and capitalism were just unscientific delusions, whilst truth was available only thanks to the work of a privileged stratum of ‘scientists’ expressed the spirit of certain social layers for a time. Nothing could better express the ethos of contemporary capitalism (from the point of view of those suffering its injustices) than a theory that explains that individuals are nothing but deluded pawns of the system and that if there is anything to be done about the situation at all, then it has to be left to the experts.
The question has to be asked though, at what point, coming down from epochal shifts in history, to changes in government, to events in union branches or workplaces to deciding when to have lunch, is there room for free will? Self-evidently, there is some dividing line, but nothing in Althusser makes it possible to work out where such a dividing line could lie. Equally, given their social position, at what point is an agent simply choosing to do what, in any case, they had to do, or what their previous actions had inevitably led them to do, and at what point is the agent’s well-chosen or mistaken action an original factor in the situation not to be understood in any other way than as the result of their intervention?
There may be only one road across the Alps but Hannibal still had to find it.
Nevertheless, Althusser raises some real problems. Looked at from a distance, from outside, the impact of individuals on the course of history does appear as nothing more than a bit of a wiggle on the historical trajectory, so to speak. History does appear to unfold according to laws which can be the object if science, law which cannot be altered by the intervention of individual subjects.
Consequently, the only sense in which consciousness determines the course of history seems to be as ideology, as the ‘lived’ relation of people to their world, which functions to coordinate practice within the various social formations, whether “Ideological State Apparatuses” or revolutionary social movements. “Theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses,” (Marx) but not when necessarily only it is true. History is made by the movement of masses of people, and such movements are constituted by shared systems of belief which can rightly be called ‘ideology’ in as much as their principal function is not theoretical but ‘practico-social’. Masses of people, moved by ideology which from an outsider’s point of view represents only an imaginary relation of people to their conditions of existence, can indeed make history, and in doing so such movements more closely resemble tidal movements than they resemble self-conscious, knowing, sovereign actors. But isn’t science also capable of moving masses? And doesn’t the project of emancipation require that science and not self-deception be the weapon of choice?
Althusser’s theory leads to some horrific and counter-intuitive conclusions: that scientific ideas are not suitable for general distribution, that ideology should instead be promoted for general distribution, that the scientist is as much a creature of ideology as anyone else and that he or she is not the creator, but mere bearer of the science she or he produces, that history unfolds as an entirely objective process, with no subjective component at all, or even openings for subjective intervention. That is, history and society is a natural process which science can understand and control, but even science itself develops as a natural process just like its objects.
But it is not sufficient to respond to Althusser with a conception of individuals as sovereign subjects, answerable only to laws of their own making (Kant). And nor can we rely on a conception of a collective subject, such as a Communist Party, which is not subject internally to social processes and is able to stand outside and above society. Nevertheless, it is in this ‘third position’, between the World Spirit or Man – mystical extramundane forces working behind the backs of human actors – and the Individual Subject known to common sense, that we must find a way out. Collective subjects do not stand outside society but rather their very substance is practical human life; all social life is, on the other hand, animated by the interpenetration and mutual transformation of a multiplicity of social subjects. Collective subjects have no consciousness, no feeling, no will or intentions, other than those of the individual participants who are instances of them as social subjects. Collective subjects have no ideas or culture, no means other than what is objectified in the mass of cultural objects created and used in the course of social practice.