Theory and Practice

Underground Currents: Louis Althusser’s “On Marxist Thought”

Underground Currents: Louis Althusser’s “On Marxist Thought”

When Per­ry Ander­son wrote in 1976 that “West­ern Marx­ism” could be con­sid­ered a “prod­uct of defeat,” he was refer­ring to the cat­a­stro­phes and betray­als that framed the peri­od from 1924 to 1968. In ret­ro­spect, this seems like fore­shad­ow­ing. The inter­ven­ing decades have seen not sim­ply a defeat for the work­ers’ move­ment but its total dis­so­lu­tion – the col­lapse of the insti­tu­tions that once made it an unde­ni­able social force, and the roll­back of the reforms it had won from the state. In our sit­u­a­tion it has become dif­fi­cult to say what “Marx­ism” real­ly is, what dis­tin­guish­es it as a the­o­ry, and why it mat­ters. But this is by no means a new ques­tion. And of all the def­i­n­i­tions and rede­f­i­n­i­tions of Marx­ism, Louis Althusser’s were per­haps the most con­tro­ver­sial. In 1982, just before François Mitterrand’s turn to aus­ter­i­ty, Althuss­er began to draft a “the­o­ret­i­cal bal­ance sheet.” He wrote “Defin­i­tive” on the man­u­script, and nev­er pub­lished it.

On Marxist Thought

On Marxist Thought

If this recourse to the side of the thought of Marx and Engels is still avail­able to us, unfor­tu­nate­ly the same does not go for the com­mu­nist par­ties. Built on the base of the phi­los­o­phy of the Man­i­festo and Anti-Dühring, these orga­ni­za­tions hold only on bases that are all through and through frauds, and on the pow­er appa­ra­tus that builds itself in the strug­gle and its orga­ni­za­tion. The par­ties, rest­ing on the unions of the labor aris­toc­ra­cy, are the liv­ing dead, who will sub­sist as long as their mate­r­i­al base lasts (the unions hold­ing pow­er in the works coun­cils, the par­ties hold­ing pow­er in the munic­i­pal­i­ties), and as long as they are capa­ble of exploit­ing the ded­i­ca­tion of the class of pro­le­tar­i­ans and abus­ing the con­di­tion of the sub-pro­le­tar­i­ans of sub­con­tract­ing. From now on there is an irrec­on­cil­able con­tra­dic­tion between the strokes of genius in the thought of Marx and Engels and the organ­ic con­ser­vatism due to the par­ties and the unions.

The Terrain of Reproduction: Alisa Del Re’s “The Sexualization of Social Relations”

The Terrain of Reproduction: Alisa Del Re’s “The Sexualization of Social Relations”

In an era when the exploits of Sil­vio Berlusconi’s “pri­vate” life seem to have cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly oblit­er­at­ed any progress towards sex­u­al equal­i­ty achieved dur­ing the Ital­ian fem­i­nist move­ment of the 70s, it is essen­tial to remem­ber what was once accom­plished. Although sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism was already a well-estab­lished net­work of debates in the U.S. by 1970, Ital­ian women influ­enced by work­erist writ­ings of the fem­i­nist ilk, most notably Mari­arosa Dal­la Cos­ta and Sel­ma James’s The Pow­er of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­ni­ty, set out to ini­ti­ate bat­tles over issues such as abor­tion and divorce. Fem­i­nist cur­rents both from with­in and inde­pen­dent of work­erist move­ments then spread with a fierce momen­tum that would endure through the decade.

In Defense of Vernacular Ways

In Defense of Vernacular Ways

The crises con­tin­ue to accu­mu­late: the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, the social cri­sis, crises upon crises. But as we try to cre­ate “solu­tions,” we dis­tress­ing­ly find our­selves up against a lim­it, dis­cov­er­ing that the only alter­na­tives we can imag­ine are mere­ly mod­i­fi­ca­tions of the same. We have for­got­ten how to think the new – or the old. Ivan Illich, priest, philoso­pher, and social crit­ic, is not a fig­ure that most would expect to read about in a Marx­ist mag­a­zine. But he iden­ti­fied this prob­lem long ago, and argued that the only “way out” was a com­plete change in think­ing. His sug­ges­tion, both as con­cept and his­tor­i­cal fact, was the “ver­nac­u­lar.”

The Mesh of Power

The Mesh of Power

How may we attempt to ana­lyze pow­er in its pos­i­tive mech­a­nisms? It appears to me that we may find, in a cer­tain num­ber of texts, the fun­da­men­tal ele­ments for an analy­sis of this type. We may per­haps find them in Ben­tham, an Eng­lish philoso­pher from the end of the 18th and begin­ning of the 19th cen­tu­ry, who was basi­cal­ly the great the­o­reti­cian of bour­geois pow­er, and we may of course also find these ele­ments in Marx, essen­tial­ly in the sec­ond vol­ume of Cap­i­tal. It’s here, I think, that we may find some ele­ments that I will use for the analy­sis of pow­er in its pos­i­tive mech­a­nisms.

The Sexualization of Social Relations

The Sexualization of Social Relations

Women, researchers, fem­i­nists, in an insti­tu­tion­al­ized group with a research top­ic both pre­cise and iso­lat­ed from the tra­di­tion­al sci­en­tif­ic con­text, with the pal­pa­ble need to find new method­olo­gies, new avenues, of recon­struct­ing the sub­jects in their entire form, the same sub­jects that in tra­di­tion­al sci­ence become chopped, muti­lat­ed, seen in quan­ti­ty and with­out qual­i­ty. And this in “sci­ence,” to impose a new “sci­en­tif­ic” point of view that con­cerns women and their work, the sex­u­al­i­ty of social rela­tions as an “exis­tent.” As a method, bring­ing sci­en­tists togeth­er from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines and dif­fer­ent “schools” (although here we lim­it our­selves to the social sci­ences) is noth­ing new: inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research in the human­i­ties has been fruit­ful in var­i­ous fields. But the nov­el­ty lies in the fact that it is the woman-sub­ject that is study­ing the woman-object.

History and Politics: An Interview

History and Politics: An Interview

Just as we clear­ly see that Marx’s eco­nom­ic think­ing aris­es out of a cri­tique of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­o­my, and that in turn was made pos­si­ble by a pri­or cri­tique of ide­al­ist phi­los­o­phy, we also have to see the prob­lems of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics that Marx is address­ing as a crit­i­cal engage­ment with the past his­to­ry of polit­i­cal thought. There are spe­cif­ic cat­e­go­ry prob­lems, as well as inter­twined his­tor­i­cal sub­ject mat­ter in an engage­ment with that side of Marx, and Marx’s own engage­ment with this lin­eage of thinkers – Hegel as a legal and polit­i­cal thinker, clear­ly, but Hegel’s thought as a cul­mi­na­tion of a tra­di­tion of legal and polit­i­cal think­ing going back to Aris­to­tle. That’s some­thing which has been under­scored by oth­ers in the Marx­ist tra­di­tion, you could think of Althuss­er and Col­let­ti, who also had works which were explic­it­ly about the polit­i­cal writ­ers before Marx, who in some way intro­duce or delin­eate the prob­lems of pol­i­tics and his­to­ry that Marx will sub­se­quent­ly take up in his accounts of the class strug­gles and civ­il wars of the times that he was liv­ing in.

To The Party Members

To The Party Members

The sound and image of a drum cir­cle may be one of the most eas­i­ly-mocked moments asso­ci­at­ed with the Occu­py move­ments. But the role of music in the move­ment, and its rela­tion to protests and polit­i­cal action in gen­er­al, bears clos­er inves­ti­ga­tion, beyond the drum cir­cle. The con­cept of “protest music” can obscure some of music’s most pow­er­ful aspects as a social force. For many involved in Occu­py, the spe­cif­ic rela­tion­ship between the music being played and the peo­ple who hear it has not been thought through very care­ful­ly – and this weak­ness can rein­force polit­i­cal weak­ness­es. Indeed, when even Salon.com can call 100 tracks of Occu­py-themed music “shape­less and safe,” we might ask our­selves what this protest music is miss­ing.

Be the Street: On Radical Ethnography and Cultural Studies

Be the Street: On Radical Ethnography and Cultural Studies

There wasn’t much to wax roman­tic about in the Detroit music scene at that time. The cul­ture indus­tries were under­go­ing a restruc­tur­ing for the imma­te­r­i­al age. Vinyl was no longer mov­ing. Local radio and local music venues had gone cor­po­rate, squeez­ing out local music. DJs who want­ed local gigs had to play Top 40 playlists in the sub­ur­ban mega­clubs instead of the native styles of elec­tron­ic music that had giv­en Detroit myth­ic sta­tus around the world. Many had giv­en up on record labels entire­ly. Every­one looked to the inter­net as the sav­ing grace for record sales, pro­mo­tion, net­work­ing – for every­thing, prac­ti­cal­ly. Some of the more suc­cess­ful artists were attempt­ing to license their tracks for video games. Almost every­one had oth­er jobs, often off the books. I wasn’t embed­ded with­in this com­mu­ni­ty, as an anthro­pol­o­gist would be. Instead, I made the 90 minute dri­ve to Detroit when I could, and spent the time inter­view­ing artists in their homes or over the phone.