Louis Althusser (edited by Francois Matheron, translated by G. M. Goshgarian): The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings.

Author:Morton, Adam David
Position:Book Review

Louis Althusser (edited by Francois Matheron, translated by G. M. Goshgarian) The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings Verso, London, 2003, lxii + 318 pp. ISBN: 1-85984-408-1 (pbk) 15 [pounds sterling]

Although E. P. Thompson has not been alone in objecting to the work of Louis Althusser, it is nonetheless within his excoriating critique in The Poverty of Theory (1978) that one witnesses a prolonged attack on the perceived errors of the French intellectual's abstract structuralism. Althusser's epistemological approach was criticised, in that work, for its conflation of the 'empirical mode' of epistemological practice with the rather different ideological formation of 'empiricism' linked to positivism and its variants across the sciences. Hence Thompson's castigation of Althusser as a member of the 'bourgeois lumpen-intelligentsia', which broke intellectuality from practical experience. The results of this break are at least twofold: first, a method of theoreticism that succumbed to 'the kangaroo factor'--a procession of gigantic theoretical bounds through conceptual elements, without prolonged empirical engagement before bounding off into further theory. Second, it produced a theoreticism that indulged in 'generic ogreism': a procession of theoretical contestation without revealing direct interlocutors, which were frequently obscured in the undergrowth of the forest of 'bourgeois ideology' (Thompson, 1978: 316-17).

This book is a collection of Louis Althusser's essays written after the publication of For Marx and Reading Capital, between June 1966 and July 1967. In many ways, the essays are a direct and precise response to the charge of theoreticism, or the distantiation of theory from practice, that had been laid against Althusser. They thus display conscious attempts to recover the practical relation between theory and ideological class struggle. They are also deeply embedded in their own moment of struggle, set against the backdrop of political opposition within the Parti Communiste Francais (PCF) and its adoption of Marxist humanism; Althusser's involvement with dissidents in the Union des Etudiantes Communistes (UEC); and events in the wake of the Sino-Soviet dispute and the Cultural Revolution in China. It is these events that led Althusser to yield to the argument that politics shapes philosophy. 'The primacy of philosophy today', he argues, 'is therefore the contemporary form of the primacy of class struggle at the heart of the political nature of philosophy' (p. 217). Thus, on the basis of self-criticism, Althusser takes account of himself in these essays, through discussion of Levi-Strauss and the charge of structuralism; through analysis of Feuerbach and the humanist proclivities dominating circles within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the PCF, including its shift towards a parliamentary transition to socialism; through a critique of Lacan that draws together issues of historical materialism and psychoanalysis; and through his analysis of Marx's 'epistemological break' from the theoretical humanism of Feuerbach to develop the method of historical materialism. These themes and much more are covered across six essays: 'The philosophical conjuncture and Marxist...

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