I started thinking through the ideas of this post series when I was reading Louis Althusser, as I mentioned yesterday. The dilemma I described left-wing people as facing – opponents who believe that even their most innocent ideas like a national health insurance plan is a totalitarian communist institution – is uniquely American.
Maybe North American at best, now that the right-wing libertarian ideas of the United States have established themselves so deeply among the community of Harper supporters.
|Louis Althusser was a very dour man for most of his life.|
But Althusser was working in France, and the context of that country was very different. For one thing, communism was pretty mainstream in Europe as a political party at the time. It still is in some countries on the continent.
That didn’t mean being a communist wasn’t controversial, of course. I mean, the essays of For Marx were written in the early 1960s. The Cold War was at its height. The wider world was beginning to learn about and process psychologically the horrific crimes of Stalin. The gulags, purges, accidental and intentional mass famines.
While Althusser was producing these essays on marxist theory, the development of Karl Marx’s thought, and the philosophy of history, the war of espionage and global tensions between the Soviet Union and the West was threatening to destroy Earth. Literally. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened while Althusser was working on several of these essays.
So the question remained an imperative. But the frame was different in France, mainly because the ideas of Friedrich Hayek had not penetrated French culture by the 1960s. Nowhere near as ever-present as in contemporary America.
Hayek’s idea was that progressive, socialist, or broadly left-wing politics was all – literally and self-consciously – totalitarian communism, because state control of any aspect of human life is totalitarian communism. A bit much, if you ask me, but widely enough believed to be politically powerful.
Althusser confronted the question in the framework of history. His question was not whether progressive ideas – even ideas that fall squarely in the framework of marxist philosophical traditions – were literally totalitarian.
|The problem is, does this picture and others like it|
represent a genuine continuity of ideas, activism, and
ideology? Will marxism lead inevitably to the crimes
of the world's most famous (at the time) communist
He instead considered whether any communist activism in the present would inevitably lead to totalitarianism in the future. This is a question about history. It was about whether, once Marx himself began to develop the ideas that we now call marxism, the descent into Stalin’s terror was necessary.
Here’s what I find interesting as a writer about the essay where he considers this problem. It’s one of the longest essays in the whole collection, but he doesn't make this central point of what it’s really been about until the conclusion.
Instead, Althusser’s been talking about causation, the development of human history, the nature of ideology, and the problems of understanding the world narratively. I imagine that this was a matter of rhetoric. If he revealed what his game was from the start, he’s risk alienating even the soft opponents who are the targets of his argument.
If you feel like you’ve reached a conclusion about something, you won’t take kindly to someone confronting them with a contrary argument. You certainly won’t be all that disposed to believe what they say.
But my keeping so much of the discussion in the abstract before revealing what’s been the essay’s fundamental problematic – proving that there can be a communism that doesn’t lead to Stalin – skirts around an audience’s potential skepticism.
Accepting an idea in the abstract form, and then being told that it has a practical application that undermines something you’ve always thought was true. That’s certainly a problem. The listener might feel betrayed or angry, but even in the worst case they’ll be in a more sympathetic position than if you got their defences up in the first place.
So that’s the setting at the time, and the fundamental practical problem. We’ve also taken stock of the similarities and differences in these two problematics on the inevitability of Stalinism in the left.
In particular, we’ve established a solid sense of Althusser’s motivation for writing that essay "Contradiction and Overdetermination” as he did. Even in that more intellectually open era of the 1960s in Europe, ‘marx’ was still a dirty word.
He wanted to sneak in the essay’s most important implication – why he was writing it in the first place – to overcome popular prejudice about the nature of Karl Marx and marxism. So what did “Contradiction and Overdetermination” spend a lot of its word count doing? . . . To be continued