Verso have just published the English translation of the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s book On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Althusser, who was the Marxist philosopher, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is perhaps best known for his essay on Ideological and Repressive State Apparatus. However his work on ISAs and RSAs was just a fragment of a much larger book that was unseen in his lifetime. On the Reproduction of Capitalism, will change perspectives on Althusser, as profoundly as the publication long after his death of Marx’s Grundrisse or Paris Manuscripts, transformed understanding of Marx’s work.
Written in the immediate aftermath of the 1968 French student rebellion, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, is bathed in the glow of the Algerian uprising against France and the Viet Cong’s battles against first the French and then the US forces. While it is written by a philosopher, whose work rightly or wrongly is often viewed as opaque, it asks a simple question and is directed not at philosophers but at workers and peasants fighting for liberation. The question is as is evident from the title, how does capitalism reproduce the conditions necessary for its own existence. How does capitalism mould us to serve a system which rests upon our exploitation? Althusser asked this question so as to further the struggle to destroy capitalism and to produce a new social system. Althusser was widely seen to have been destroyed, both personally by severe mental illness and politically/philosophically over thirty years ago, yet the text is fresh and relevant to those of us who seek to challenge capitalism today. While On the Reproduction of Capitalism, is both flawed and unfinished, I believe that it will, eventually, be referenced as widely on the left as The Communist Manifesto, Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth or Lenin’s State and Revolution. Reading it is an unsettling experience, it is a dangerous text, but lucid and relevant.
Althusser, born in 1918, was originally a Catholic, imprisoned by the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War, he became a Marxist. He joined the French Communist Party and sought to fight a philosophical war, in his eyes, on behalf of Marxism and the working class. He collaborated with close associates on books such as Reading Capital, Lenin and Philosophy and For Marx. He was known as a structuralist, an anti-humanist and anti-Hegelian thinker. He rejected the idea that humans have an intrinsic unchanging essence, so felt that so called ‘humanist Marxist’ critiques in the 1950s and 1960s of Stalin, were inappropriate. He felt that we had no fixed identity and humanism was anti-Marxist. He was seen as a structuralist, arguing that underlying processes shaped society and human subjectivity. He sought to understand Marx’s work as a form of science, arguing that there was a break between the works of the younger Marx, such as the Paris Manuscripts, and the mature Marx who wrote Das Kapital. The younger Marx was a Hegelian thinker, while the mature Marx rejected any idea of historical ‘stages’, historical inevitability or other Hegelian inspired ideas.
Cynics argued that he was a Stalinist, in Britain his supporters like Paul Hirst were seen as preparing the way for Tony Blair’s right wing New Labour project. Described as anti-humanist, hostile to the study of history and opposing human freedom with his functionalist and structuralist approach, Althusser was widely attacked in print by both former students such as Jacques Rancière and other Marxists such as Britain’s E.P. Thompson.
Plagued by severe mental illness for much of his life, he killed his wife and was placed in an institution. His ideas, dominant at least on the French Marxist left in the 1960s and 70s, were discarded. It is however clear that the thought of prominent post Marxist, post modernist and post structuralist thinkers including his friend Derrida, his former student Foucault and Laclau and Mouffe, were shaped by much of his work. The tragedy of Althusser was reinforced, when Nicos Poultzans, who applied his work to the study of the state, committed suicide. Althusser in works of biting self-criticism, attacked his own work and on his death in 1990 appeared likely to have disappeared other than as tragic and politically bankrupt figure.
In the last decade or so, a new Althusser has emerged, huge quantities of previously unpublished material has appeared, showing that Althusser in his later work traced the origins of a new materialism from Greek philosophers and Spinoza on to Marx. Althusser’s work on Machiavelli has also attracted the attention of many on the left and recently the literary critic Warran Montag has produced an impressive reassessment of Althusser’s work.
On the Reproduction of Capitalism provides a new perspective on the old Althusser but rather than being a work of philosophical or literary interest, is one that can inform struggles for socialism in the 21st century. I
Stalin to Tony Blair
Relations of Production versus the forces of production
Economic democracy, democratic ownership
Law of value, law of law
Neither plan nor market
ISA product of ruling class warfare
Critique of Stalin