If it is possible to have a cultural materialism, of the kind fashioned by Raymond Williams or Stuart Hall, is it also possible to have a materialist politics of identity? Is it even advisable to try? To answer the first question is to think through the meaning of Marx’s concept of the social formation as a unity in difference; to answer the second is to explicate Lenin’s thinking in saying that the person who waits for the ‘pure’ revolution will never live to see it.
In many respects, identity became an obsession in the UK over the last ten years. Were it not for the global economic crisis, we would be dealing mainly with the fall-out from New Labour’s crass attempt to pioneer various formats of ‘Britishness’ – from the sleek, neoliberal cosmopolitanism of ‘cool Britannia’ to the socially conservative, defensive nationalism of the ‘war on terror’. Within that garrisoned territory existed several sub-debates and struggles over Islam, immigration, gypsies and Travellers, ‘Englishness’ and the question of the Union, the north-south divide, and of course over whether the questions of LGBT and gender rights can ever be posed adequately within the framework of the nation (versus its ostensibly intolerant enemies).
Precisely how the left should conduct its operations within such a topography has been the subject of controversy. Much of the left is reproached with abandoning the ‘bread and butter’ of politics (jobs, welfare, housing) in favour of ‘identitarian’ concerns with Islamophobia, Gaza and so on. This criticism may well accept the importance of anti-imperialist and anti-racist politics, but argue that the priority given to these ‘identity’ issues that is the problem, representing both a shift in emphasis and in the locus of operation: from the workplace to the campus, from bread and butter to bruschetta and olive oil. Naturally, this trope is far from novel. Its pedigree has origins in the perplexed reaction to the ‘new social movements’ – those struggles oriented toward environmentalism, LGBT and women’s liberation, anti-racism and so on – by a variety of people on the social democratic and revolutionary left. Before exploring the consequences of this view, it’s worth saying that the argument is itself usually conducted within the very cultural and identitarian terrain that is seen as problematic. One of the better known advocates of the general perspective I’m describing is Owen Jones. (I better spare his blushes by explaining that I’m not attributing every particular of this view to him, merely the broad outlines.) His book, Chavs, is among other things a cultural counterblast against an emerging reactionary common sense that vilifies working class people. The ‘community politics’ that he sees the BNP exploiting, and argues that the Left should learn from, is formed by a politics of identity and a valorisation of the ‘local’. So, although this general style of argument introduces a division on the left between those who orient toward culture, and those who orient toward class, and although it is prefaced by a certain ‘economistic’ materialism, it necessarily occupies a decidedly culturalist problematic.
In response to the culturalisation of class, then, is it possible to counterpose a materialism of culture and identity? The grounds for a materialist approach to culture were outlined in Hall et al’s (Gramscian-Althusserian) Resistance Through Rituals:
“In modern societies, the most fundamental groups are the social classes, and the major cultural configurations will be, in a fundamental though often mediated way, ‘class cultures’. Relative to these cultural-class configurations, sub-cultures are sub-sets—smaller, more localised and differentiated structures, within one or other of the larger cultural networks. We must, first, see subcultures in terms of their relation to the wider class-cultural networks of which they form a distinctive part. When we examine this relationship between a sub-culture and the ‘culture’ of which it is a part, we call the latter the ‘parent’ culture. This must not be confused with the particular relationship between ‘youth’ and their ‘parents’, of which much will be said below. What we mean is that a sub-culture, though differing in important ways—in its ‘focal concerns’, its peculiar shapes and activities—from the culture from which it derives, will also share some things in common with that ‘parent’ culture. The bohemian sub-culture of the avant-garde which has arisen from time to time in the modern city, is both distinct from its ‘parent’ culture (the urban culture of the middle class intelligentsia) and yet also a part of it (sharing with it a modernising outlook, standards of education, a privileged position vis-a-vis productive labour, and so on). … Sub-cultures must exhibit a distinctive enough shape and structure to make them identifiably different from their ‘parent’ culture. They must be focussed around certain activities, values, certain uses of material artefacts, territorial spaces etc. which significantly differentiate them from the wider culture. But, since they are subsets, there must also be significant things which bind and articulate them with the ‘parent’ culture. The famous Kray twins, for example, belonged both to a highly differentiated ‘criminal sub-culture’ in East London and to the ‘normal’ life and culture of the East End working class (of which indeed, the ‘criminal sub-culture’ has always been a clearly identifiable part). The behaviour of the Krays in terms of the criminal fraternity marks the differentiating axis of that subculture: the relation of the Krays to their mother, family, home and local pub is the binding, the articulating axis.” (pp 13-14)
Firmly domiciled within class formations, culture forms and divides them along multiple planes and down as many hierarchical vertices. Of course, it would be mistaken to see cultures as merely class-bound, either in their parent- or sub-cultural form. The practices that comprise a culture or subculture are often available to and accessed by members of more than one class. These practices, and the ‘maps of meaning’ that express the lived relationship of one class to its life situation may be appropriated and reconfigured by members of another for its own purposes, in what one might call ‘trench raiding’. The military analogy is chosen to convey the fact that such raiding crosses a line of antagonism and struggle, not of mere difference. This accounts for the resentment toward those crossing such lines – ‘hipsters’, for example. A greater degree of complexity arises where lines of difference become antagonistic in oppressive situations. Suppose you’re a white person who is considered to be ‘acting black’. In most cases, this would be a deeply weird suggestion. It is unworldly to think of a given set of cultural practices as being exclusively ‘black’. But for racists, ‘blackness’ is a pathology passing through the vectors of music and popular culture to white youths, who are then said to have become ‘black’. That is the basis for a certain folk racist explanation of the summer riots, memorably articulated by David Starkey. At the same time, from a different perspective, such ‘acting’ can be seen as a form of racist parody and condescension, or a simple theft in a cultural war - albeit perhaps not without buying into a certain cultural essentialism and the attendant idea that culture is something that can be policed. Whatever judgement we reach on those criticisms, however, what is important for the purposes of this argument is that we notice the line of antagonism and the ways in which this structures the processes of transmission and appropriation.
Where does ‘identity’ fit into all this? It is common to address the subject in the terms of particularism, in contrast to the universalisms that form the basis for rival political projects such as socialism and liberalism. This would suggest that identity is bound to a specific culture or sub-culture, its political radius extending no wider than the boundaries of cultural form in which it is embedded. Even more scandalously from a certain perspective, the notion of identity seems to be bound to the bourgeois individual, the self-sufficient, self-sustaining Cartesian subject. Yet identity is a much more slippery concept than this would imply. It is not distinguished only by its affirmation of the culturally, or politically proximate, but also by the process of identification which involves the perception of, for example, shared interests. And interests are interesting things: they can be expansive, or narrow; inclusive, or aloof. Identity politics is a ‘politics of location’, certainly. But where one is situated in the social formation has consequences for how far one can see. I seem to recall from somewhere that it was Angela Davis who urged readers to imagine the capitalist system as a pyramid, with heterosexual white male capitalists at the top, and black, gay women prisoners at the bottom. Each struggle by those at the bottom would also lift those further up, such that the more subaltern one’s situation, the more potentially universal one’s interests are. The marxist understanding of the working class as the ‘universal class’ hinges partially on this strategic insight.
‘Identity politics’ is usually treated as an unwelcome narrowing of horizons, a reduction of the political field to competing particularist fiefdoms – in a word, the identitarianisation of politics. But it is also possible to arrive at the same subject from the opposite direction – the politicisation of identity. The tendency of capitalism is to multiply the number of lines of antagonism. And if certain identities are goaded into being, or take on a politicised edge, because the system is attacking people then it is clear that ‘identity politics’ is not a distraction, or an optional bonus. The fact is that ‘identities’ have a material basis in the processes of capitalism. And just because they are constructed (from that material basis) doesn’t mean that they are simply voluntary responses to the life situation they arise in, which can be modified or dropped at will. Thus, it is not realistic to tell people – “you have the wrong identity; you should think of yourself as a worker instead”. To speak of capitalism is to speak of a system of unity in difference, a complex unity structured by antagonism. In any concrete capitalist formation, the forces that emerge to support oppositional and leftist struggles will usually be coming from some identity-position; and usually more than one identity-position, as the lines of antagonism intersect and the fields of politicisation overlap. As Judith Butler argued in her essay, ‘Merely Cultural’, the Left can respond to this in two ways. Either it can try to construct a unity which is based on the exclusions of what I might call, for convenience, a pre-1968 Left: a unity which suppresses or demotes gender, race, etc as being of secondary, derivative importance. But this will not work: the genie will not go back in the bottle, and all such efforts would result in would be a divided and more defeasible Left. Or it can try to construct a unity in difference, negotiating between identities, acknowledging them as starting points which give rise to certain forms of politicisation and which can potentially be the basis for accession to a universalist political project.
Of course, the objection to this might be to remind me of what I only just said (or quoted) a few paragraphs ago: the fundamental division in any society is class (ie, not gender, not race, not religion, etc). And if that is the dominant antagonism, then it must follow that class struggles have a strategic priority over other struggles. It is morally satisfying, but stupid, to pretend that all identities – class, race, gender, religion, etc. – are equivalent. This means that some must be ‘of secondary, derivative importance’. But such an objection, were it offered, would be prestidigitation. First of all, it inserts the essentialist approach that it seems to argue for in its precepts. To say that a form of oppression is derivative of a more fundamental class antagonism is to fall back on that animating illusion, the ‘expressive totality’ in which all the phenomena of a social formation are collapsible into its essence. Secondly, more importantly, we recognise explanatory hierarchies, and thus strategic hierarchies. From the perspective of socialist organisation, some identities are pernicious; some are indifferent; and some possess valuable resources. That’s a hierarchy. But what is at issue, and what is being illegitimately conflated with the above, is the claim that the injustices of oppression are not ‘bread and butter’ as it were; ie somehow less ‘material’, or less ‘fundamental’ than class injustices. Because they are seen as not partaking of the same processes of material life, as not contributing to the reproduction of productive relations, then their resolution can be seen as extraneous to class struggle, as desirable but ultimately not part of the material base in which real politics is conducted.
This is a tendency, to put it no more strongly than that, which we can see creep back into certain left (mainly social democratic) discourses. It is one whose logic, which many of its advocates will resist due to their better nature, tends toward a racially and sexually ‘cleansed’ class struggle, in effect a narrow struggle of straight white men in the imperialist core over their living conditions – ie, not a class struggle in any recognisable sense. It would be a rather parochial form of identity politics. Not only is this rebarbative on its own terms, but it’s actually useless to the people it would seem intended to help, the ‘white [straight, male] working class’. In the concrete struggles arising against cuts in the UK today, quite often the starting point is some form of political identity that isn’t simply ‘socialist’ or ‘liberal’. Those signifiers may designate a wider political-strategic divide that forms the terrain in which political identities work. But quite often, people will join a protest “as a student”, “as a trade unionist”, “as a black woman”, “as the mother of a jailed rioter”, and so on. Their political identities will reflect sectional interests, cultural formations, particular experiences of oppression, etc. But these are, as I say, starting points. And a creative, politically intelligent response to identity politics has to begin, to some extent, where the forces on our side begin.
A materialist politics of identity is one that recognises the corporeality of identities, their involvement in the metabolic interactions between humanity and its environment. Acknowledging that they are part of a lived, material process yields the further acknowledgment of their durability but also of the versatile ways in which they can be operationalized. It means treating identities as forces to be cooperated with, negotiated with, argued with, learned from, and ultimately (one hopes) fused into a universalist project, that being a revolutionary assault on capitalism.
My ABC article explaining the background to tomorrow's strike:
The public sector strike on November 30 will be the largest strike in the UK since the general strike of 1926.
Two to three million workers could take part. Unlike our continental counterparts, coordinated strikes of this kind are extremely rare in the British trade union movement. As such, its political importance, if the action is successful, will be much greater than in the continent.
Why has it come to this? In a sense, the answer is obvious. 'Austerity' involves the most serious attempt to restructure the economy, to the detriment of working class living standards, in decades. It involves reducing wages and pensions, diminishing bargaining rights, cutting jobs and reducing the bargaining power of labour. Everywhere that these measures have been introduced, whether in Wisconsin or Greece, there has been resistance.
Yet, there was no guarantee that the British trade union movement would respond in the way that it has. Decades of declining union composition since the serious defeats inflicted on organised labour – notably, on the miners and the print workers – have left unions in a weaker position.
The orthodoxy among trade union leaders since then has been a form of tactical conservatism known as the 'new realism'. This approach involved unions avoiding confrontation in favour of bargaining with the government of the day. Every sign until last year was that the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) would adopt this approach in dealing with the government's cuts, negotiating to mitigate the effects of cutbacks rather than seriously attempting to obstruct them. Indeed, before grumblings from the shop floor scuppered the plan, union leaders had intended to invite prime minister David Cameron to address congress last year. So, what changed?
Just a quick note. The political class knows that this strike is going to be huge. For a while, I detected an attempt to play it down, to say that it wouldn't be as big as planned, or to suggest that it would be welcome because the disruption would drive people into the arms of the coalitions and its cuts agenda. But the results from all of the unions have been unambiguous. In most cases, the vote for strike action has been in excess of 80%, and in all cases over 70%. That's an overwhelming mandate for a fight, right across the organised core of the working class. Now the stories of the scale of disruption anticipated are starting to pile up. Worse, the government fears that the strike itself will harden the attitude of the workers, making it more difficult for the union bosses to sell them a duff deal. Now, mark this. Labour, whose leader has repeatedly turned his rhetoric against the strikes, is starting to sound a slightly different note. Alan Johnson, the leading Labour right-winger (and a likely successor to Ed Miliband) came out and defended the strikers, saying: "If they can’t [strike] over an issue as important as their pensions then what can they take industrial action over?" Now, the shadow chancellor Ed Balls has felt compelled to add his "huge sympathy" for the strikers, and blamed the government. The political class are beginning to take note: as Mark Serwotka points out, this is the beginning and not the end of the struggle, but Britain will be a very different place on the day after November 30th.
This is a version of the talk I gave at 'Historical Materialism' recently, with a few of the more contentious points fleshed out. A more detailed paper will probably appear online at some point.
The countersubversive network
I thought we could approach this subject through a contemporary analogy, that of the Tea Party. It is in some senses a classic 'counter-subversive movement', resembling in many ways the ‘anticommunist network’ of the Cold War. It is, after all, out to neutralise a putative threat to property and free markets from a socialist who has captured executive power. Of course, all of this is suffused with racial affect. Thus, Tom Tancredo argued recently that “People who could not even spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House ... we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote.” In my opinion, though, Dinesh D’Souza gave the argument its most interesting spin, suggesting that while there may be some merits to the charge of Obama’s socialism, matters were in fact much worse. He charges that Obama hates the West and everything it stands for. Far from being driven by MLK’s “dream”, or the “American dream”, the dreams from his father are those of anticolonial radicalism.
What to make of all this? Anti-racist liberalism charges that the allegations of ‘socialism’ are coded racial epithets – per Tim Wise, it expresses the white fear that black men are going to elope with their possessions. But this unduly flattens the discussion, reducing the Tea Party’s anti-socialism to a decoy. This is also a problem with most historical writing on southern anticommunism. As with the South's red-hunting, the Tea Party's anti-socialism is not a decoy. It is real. Hayek, who upbraided “socialists of all parties” would have understood the expansive definition of socialism that the Tea Partiers are using. Second, their property concerns may be exaggerated, but the modest reforms proposed by Obama did alarm certain interests – obviously the Koch Brothers among them. Thirdly, D’Souza is a fantasist, but he does understand that there is an historical connection between anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism. The relationship between racism and anti-socialism just has to be theorised a bit more carefully.
I mentioned that the Tea Party is similar to classical anticommunist networks, but it differs in some key respects. It lacks a coherent global narrative. The charge that Obama is an occult Muslim by no means has the same power as the claim that communists were infiltrating the government and engaged in sabotage, which had some empirical basis however exaggerated. Moreover, the classical anticommunist network could be seen as composed of three coordinates: civil society groups and coalitions, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Minute Men, etc; business alliances and departments of commerce; and the state. The latter is the vital unifying element, what really gives these networks teeth. The Tea Party, of course, has no equivalent to to J. Edgar Hoover in the Justice Department, no Dies Committee, and no HUAC. It has no executed traitors, no public testimonials and no police forces and para-state mobs concretising its countersubversive intent with illegal raids. Failing thus far to colonise the state, denied the unifying properties of state power, it has remained the name for a disarticulated and ideologically unstable rightist rump. Its anti-socialism, far from becoming hegemonic, remains sectional.
Hegemony, and the historical bloc
The classical period of anticommunism that I will discuss is that between 1945 and 1965, a twenty year period during which the US was ruled by a Fordist ‘historical bloc’ – that is, an alliance between monopoly capital, the state and the trade union bureaucracy. This hegemonic moment was achieved through the destruction of the CPUSA-dominated Popular Front left and the incorporation of many of its scattered elements. This was crystallised in the outcome of the 1948 presidential election, but punctuated along the way by a series of moments, such as the Taft-Hartley anti-union legislation. Very importantly, the fight against Popular Frontism was won inside the trade union movement, inside the bureaucracy. And if, as Volosinov argued, the word is the most sensitive index of social change, then at the discursive level, this change was registered with the popularisation of terms like ‘communofascist’ among workers, which had first appeared after the Hitler-Stalin pact. This indicates that, as much as anything else, the Cold Warriors were exploiting the limitations of Popular Frontism and specifically the practices of the CPUSA which had alienated working class supporters.
For it to be effective, Cold War anticommunism had to condense and articulate highly antagonistic subject-positions. In particular, it had to plausibly incorporate elements of popular ideologies and aspirations. The extolment of the ‘free’ American worker whose income would rise with productivity, in contrast with the Soviet worker, who was enslaved and impoverished, is an example of this. [It was pointed out in the discussion that one reason for the Tea Party's failure to gain real traction in the working class is that the system can't deliver real wage rises any more, because all productivity rises are accumulated as surplus value.] The symbolic element of this hegemonic practice can be overstated. Nonetheless, it is worth looking at how hegemonic languages are constructed, and how they successfully bind together opposing interests.
In the symbolic field of anticommunism, 'freedom' is the master-signifier, not 'capitalism'. (In the symbolic field of communism, this position was occupied by 'peace'). Yet, 'freedom' for a unionised worker in a northern Ford plant meant something different than for someone in the White House, or the White Citizens' Council, or the Civil Rights Congress, or the Southern States Industrial Council, and so on. Should we say, following Laclau, that 'freedom' is a 'tendentially empty signifer', one of several such, enabling “common nuclei of meaning” to be “connotatively linked to diverse ideological-articulatory domains”? I think there is some validity in this, provided we bear a few caveats in mind.
First, that Laclau did not pioneer this insight, merely attempted to give it some rigour and systematic clarity, with the use of Althusser's concept of 'interpellation' - the process in which subjects are constituted by an ideology. Second, that the purported 'tendentially empty' character of these signifiers has to understood in light of Laclau's political project at the time. In opposition to what he saw as 'economism', in which the apparent contingency of ideological and political struggles was firmly anchored in economic class struggles, he was attempting to construct a relationship between ideology and class struggle based on articulation (the way in which a signifier is brought into relations with other signifiers) rather than reduction (in which a signifier can be reduced to a class connotation). Thus, the ideological valence of a given signifier (democracy, freedom, etc) is not given by a direct class connotation, but rather by the overall ideological framework in which it is articulated. Such signifiers could be adopted by different classes for different purposes, depending on their political project. The sense of this tended to shift from the correct claim that there is no necessary class connotation to specific ideological signifiers, to the unwarranted claim that there is necessarily no class connotation to specific ideological signifiers. This is what the term 'tendentially empty' means, and it becomes especially problematic when applied to signifiers such as liberalism and nationalism, which are not glittering generalities in the way that democracy and freedom are. Laclau, then still a marxist, was in part trying to formulate a theory of populism which would validate a populist (effectively, Eurocommunist) political strategy by communist parties. He argued that class and populist interpellations related to two distinct kinds of antagonism: class, to the conflict between the working class and the ruling class; populism, to the conflict between the people and the 'power bloc'. Populist interpellation was of itself neutral in terms of the class struggle, a raw material with no determinate class content. Therefore, populism was a field of ideological class struggle, in which rival classes would attempt to achieve a hegemonic, or counter-hegemonic, position by articulating popular ideas. The Italian Communist Party, then leading the Eurocommunists, was - he maintained - pursuing a populist strategy. It is important to note that class struggle still plays a dominant role here. The 'people', Laclau notes, don't exist at the level of productive relations. It is a purely a political and ideological category, whereas class antagonisms dominate at all levels. Still, the shift from marxist to post-marxist, and with it the abandonment of class politics as an inadequate basis for socialist struggle, did not take long. With the theory ringing so many alarm bells, then, what do I want with it? Well, bearing in mind that a theory is not reducible to its political uses, I think that with suitable modification it can help explain the contingent element in the determination of ideological signifiers. If not 'tendentially empty', we can say that such signifiers are relatively (and differently) tendentially versatile, and thus more or less capable of being used as raw material in the contruction of a hegemonic language. Racism, then, has some limited versatility, but also can be said to be connotatively linked to certain class projects more than others; and is clearly incompatible with communism. I also think that the notion of articulation correctly specifies the mechanism by which the valence of such signifiers is fixed, or contested.
Anyway, within this hegemonic bloc, there is the Deep South. And as I mentioned, there's a tendency to reduce the belligerent anticommunism of the South to an instrumental decoy. In fact, I will maintain that white supremacy, specifically southern white supremacy, was an integral component of an anticommunist praxis cohering this hegemonic alliance of class forces. Part of the means by which this worked in the South was the practice of a kind of 'racial populism'. Now, what is that? I was just talking about Laclau's notion of populism as a form of popular-democratic interpellation, working on the antagonism between the 'people' and the 'power bloc'. This involves "the presentation of popular-democratic interpellations as a synthetic-antagonistic complex with respect to the dominant ideology". This isn't adequate, but it does capture some of the dimensions of what we're studying. First of all, the theory suggests that there is a potentially oppositional content to popular-democratic ideas which, for the purposes of hegemony, must be absorbed and neutralised. Anyone who revisits the local statecraft of people like Governor Talmadge, and particularly his extremely popular oratory, will see this in action. This is done in a racist, folkish manner counterposing the (white, Protestant) 'people' to the (Jewish, Papist) 'power bloc' - Federal bureaucrats and bankers. Secondly, where hegemony breaks down, there is a potential for these same interpellations to be articulated in an oppositional manner - though, as should be clear, 'oppositional' can mean right-wing or even downright counter-revolutionary. One can think here of how the New Right articulated certain popular ideas in an antagonistic thrust not to depose the 'power bloc', but to re-organise it. By 1965, the hegemonic bloc was breaking down, anticommunist ideology was losing its traction, the position of the Deep South was increasingly at odds with US global hegemony (which was under threat from anticolonial movements), and Washington felt compelled to finally abolish Jim Crow. And in response, in the South we have numerous attempts to mobilise racial populism in an attempt either to protect the old system of Dixiecrat-managed white supremacist capitalism, or to re-organise white supremacist capitalism under a new Republican management.
In what follows, I'll try to further specify the position of the South in the 'historical bloc'.
The toxic fusion of anticommunism and racism had seen its entrée in era of haut Wilsonianism, from 1917 to 1921. In response to the socialist and labour challenges following the Bolshevik revolution, the US government embarked on a series of legal-repressive measures to identify and contain subversives. The dominant key of countersubversion was nativist, concerned with the preservation of ‘Americanism’, and racist. Robert Lansing, George Simons, and military intelligence credited the fraudulent thesis of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to explain the success of the Bolsheviks. The race theorist Lothrop Stoddard maintained that the Bolsheviks were race traitors vaunting “the proletarianization of the world”. The Sedition Act (1918) was used pointedly against ‘aliens’, while the J Edgar Hoover used his position in the Bureau of Investigation to raise alarm over the alleged propensity of African American leaders toward communism – a claim that resonated with the previous hysteria over pro-German sympathies among African Americans. The Lusk Commission established in 1919 to look into radicalism “argued that there was ‘not a single system of Anglo-Saxon socialism, nor a single system of Latin race socialism’. The only scientific system of socialism was ‘of German-Jewish origin’.” This was a particularly portentous accusation after the feverish anti-German propaganda that shadowed US entry into the First World War.
In the ensuing period, communist agitation around the issue of race – particularly after the Moscow Congress of the Communist International supporting self-determination for the black sunbelt in 1928 – served to bolster the mutually reinforcing capacities of anticommunist and racial politics. A number of events served to underline this. In March 1931, local police arrested nine black teenage boys in Scottsboro, Alabama, charging them with the rape of two white women on a train travelling through northern Alabama. Four separate juries convicted eight of the boys that same month. The Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) organised a major campaign of support the ‘Scottsboro Boys’. The prosecution of black CPUSA organiser Angelo Herndon in Atlanta for “inciting insurrection” added to the perception that the red problem was a race problem, and vice versa. And though unions struggled to make progress against the southern business class in the 1930s, communists made gains among most disaffected workers in southern industries, like textiles, particularly among class conscious black workers. Black members of CPUSA made up 7.2% in 1931, but rose to 14% in 1946. Thus, in the prologue to the classical period of anticommunism, the latter was already imbricated with the preservation of Jim Crow and vice versa.
The classical phase of anticommunism
After 1945, the relationship between anticommunism and the racial order became more complex. The complexity arose from the ambiguities of managing different kinds of hegemony, and different kinds of racial order, in different kinds of space. To explain, the US had assumed a hegemonic position among an alliance of capitalist classes opposed to socialism in this period. The rise of anticolonial struggles, often influenced or led by communist parties, demanded that the US government engage in a complex series of operations. While its global interventions were often in defence of racial hierarchies that were perceived to be efficiently anticommunist, the logic of defending worldwide ‘freedom’ against its negative ‘totalitarian’ ideograph placed limits on this and also penetrated the domestic sphere. The issue of segregation “became international in scope”, a fact that its opponents made use of.
Mary Dudziak summarises the thrust of this logic: the world in which America wished to operate was in some senses like a panopticon. Egregious abuses would be witnessed by world opinion, which would in turn apply pressure. Dudziak maintains the US government was deeply reluctant to implement changes to the racial order and did so largely on the basis of global hegemonic considerations, fortifying the American model as an attractive one for decolonizing populations. As Richard Nixon put it, following a visit to the newly independent state of Ghana in 1957, “We cannot talk equality to the peoples of Africa and Asia and practice inequality in the United States”.
Southern statesmen and businessmen were the most belligerent anticommunist component of the Cold War ‘historical bloc’. And they had to fight for their own version of Americanism against that which might be necessary to secure US global hegemony. They didn’t lack for resources. The classical Jeffersonian discourse of ‘states rights’ for one. The lexicon of antitotalitarianism – against egregious Federal centralism, imposing equality from above, etc. – for another. Anticommunism was their most important weapon. This was not merely opportunistic. The evidence is that they did believe, as the Southern States Industrial Council put it, that civil rights legislation was a “blueprint for totalitarianism”. Moreover, the same anticommunist techniques used by Northern liberals against militant unionism and leftism could be just as plausibly used against anti-racist struggles in the South. If McCarthy said there were communists in the federal government, how hard was it to believe that the civil rights movement was the result of communist agitation? If global communism was, as all elements in the political establishment agreed, bent on a conspiracy of subversion and sabotage, determined to overthrow ‘Western civilization’, what was paranoid or disproportionate about attention to Martin Luther King’s communist associations, or Senate investigations into the activities of civil rights groups? Why shouldn’t HUAC have something to say about the Congress of Racial Equality? Was not the Civil Rights Congress, which embarrassingly charged the US with genocide against African Americans when it was representing itself as the vanguard of global democracy, actually a communist front? At any rate, much of the information used to discredit the foes of white supremacy was coming directly from Hoover and the FBI, who were engaging in extra-legal spying and repression programmes aimed against radicals
Anticommunist legislation was primarily used in the South to target organisations like the NAACP, the Southern Regional Conference, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Deep South could defend its ascriptive hierarchy using precisely the same hegemonic language and institutions that its occasional critics in the North had already deployed. Moreover, this intersected with international concerns that were shared in Washington. If Southern politicians deemed decolonization a danger due to the unfitness of former colonial subjects for self-government, so Washington feared “premature independence” on the same grounds – and its policies in Vietnam, the Congo and Latin America reflected this commitment.
Anticommunism also secured the unity of a panoply of forces in the south, from the White Citizens’ Council, hardline anti-radical statesmen like Senator James Eastland, ‘pragmatic segregationists’ like Governor J P Coleman of Mississippi, and business advocates of the ‘new south’, and white workers socialised in a peculiar combination of southern paternalism, evident in the Mill Towns, and southern racial populism. To understand the efficacy of racial populist interpellation, we can avail ourselves of Gramsci’s writing on ‘The Southern Question’, wherein he discusses the uses of regional variations and locally embedded cultural patterns, as well as northern quasi-colonial chauvinism toward southerners, in dividing subaltern classes and frustrating the formation of counter-hegemonic movement. To give this its specific relevance, though, it is necessary to appraise the manner in which ‘race’ is constitutive of class relations in the US. Historically, class consciousness among white American workers has taken the form of a ‘white labour republicanism’, in which white workers were bound to the racial system through fear of being reduced to the level of the ‘slave’. Their aspirations for self-determination and dignity in labour were thus incorporated into the ruling ideology. This accounts significantly for the failure of unionisation drives such as ‘Operation Dixie’, which was also the subject of red-baiting. It was, in particular, “the racialism of communism” that alienated Southern white workers.
So, those are the very rough outlines of the protocols of my research. At each step, the idea is to descend from these very general historical and theoretical contours to the level of specific social formations, to the sites of racial and anticommunist practises. We can start, for example, by asking: did capitalism underdevelop black America? This forces us to clarify what the capitalist mode of production consists of; what its relationship to 'development' is; how it can relate to other modes of production either as a determining or determined factor; how combined and articulated modes of production can sustain racial caste systems; whether it makes sense to speak of residual modes of production; and from there what the actual southern pattern of development discloses regarding its evolving productive relations, up to the period under discussion, and therefore the relationship between capitalism and the region's system of racial oppression. There is an argument about whether the continuing practice of sharecropping in the Fifties was in some sense feudal, or a kind of capitalist labour tenancy. The answer to this matters, because the planters were one of the main constituencies supporting Jim Crow. How did they fit into the hegemonic bloc? Were their forms of production ultimately incompatible with the successful capitalist development of the United States? Did the industrial and service industries of the 'new South' have a fundamentally different interest with respect to segregation? (I have some provisional answers to all of these questions, but I deliberately omit them here). And so on.
At last, what I intend to do is study the archives of the southern textile industry. This is because the textile industry was the single largest industry in the period under discussion; it was the core segregated industry, employing black workers only for menial occupations, and practising paternalism toward white workers; and it was politically influential. The mill owner Roger Milliken was Nixon’s finance chairman in 1968, a strong supporter of Pat Buchanan, and a funder of Strom Thurmond. Southern politicians worked hard to reach out to the ‘mill vote’. The textile industry was also culturally significant, a source of resonant mythologies. Billy Graham, for example, appealed to the old ‘mill hands’; and it was a prominent target of unionisation efforts by CIO as the Cold War began, and later the subject of federal de-segregation campaigns. The textile industries also had a peculiar emphasis on paternalism. The bosses, by providing amenities and services for their white workers in mill towns, also exerted a degree of influence and control over their lives, regulating not just the production of goods but the reproduction of labour – their family life, everything (this was also evident in early 20th Century Fordism) - and promoting a kind of folkish cross-class solidarity that undercut unionisation and contributed to the failure of the CIO's organising drive, Operation Dixie. Black workers' lives were controlled but less intimately regulated by the bosses, and thus they tended to be a lot more open to unionism.
Obviously, I can’t say exactly what the archives of the textile industry, southern business lobbies, civil rights groups, and the relevant unions will disclose. But I’ve been into some of the background of bodies like the Southern States Industrial Council, which I think is a hugely important business alliance organised around virulent anticommunism and the defence of racial hierarchies as a delicate cultural ecology, an appropriate form of diversity for a healthy America. It coordinated a number of class practises – industrial policy, political interventions both domestically and overseas (Rhodesia, for instance), ideological and propaganda campaigns. And what one tends to find is an articulation of anticommunism and white supremacy as distinct elements in these class practices. One finds the council mainly avoiding direct references to Jim Crow, beyond opposing "civil rights propaganda" and declaring that the issue was a "temporary and typical national vagary". They did organise against the inclusion of Hawaii as an American state, because they believed that the inclusion of another people who were not white would dilute the republic. But as importantly, they maintained that the place was some sort of Bolshevik outpost, where the ILWU ran the place like some sort of socialist dictatorship. Generally speaking, they tended to link a defence of free market conservatism to a discourse of Southern cultural vitality and diversity as a necessary element of a cosmopolitan culture. They were also profoundly belligerent in the Cold War, supporting the wars in Vietnam and Korea, and opposing Nixon’s detente with the PRC; like most southern politicians, they opposed those aspects of foreign policy designed to win the Cold War with ‘soft power’ such as the Marshall Plan (this was ‘socialism’ as far as they were concerned) and especially de-segregating measures. These are some of the concrete ways in which racism and anticommunism were articulated in the South during the Cold War.
Some salient developments in Egypt today: The Muslim Brothers asked their supporters not to attend the protest in Tahrir Square today. This is causing a serious rift in the organisation, especially given the scale of the protests. Hundreds of thousands have demonstrated today, including about 100,000 in Tahrir Square (remarkable given the scale of army repression designed to keep people away), a further 100,000 in Alexandria. Despite the enormous amount of powerful and toxic tear gas being used, and the dozens killed and thousands wounded, "huge crowds" are reportedly still making their way into Tahrir. Watch the live feed for yourself:
The army is starting to hesitate. Field Marshal Tantawi has accepted the resignation of the cabinet and offered to speed up the transition to civilian rule - though without naming a date and without addressing the substance of popular grievances, it was similar to many of the speeches Mubarak made before his overthrow. The protesters aren't buying it. It's an open question whether others, who are not at the centre of the revolutionary movement, will. And some notable defections have occured. Here an army officer splits from the military leadership and joins the protesters:
It is not helpful to overstate the significance of such defections. But recall that an important condition for the overthrow of Mubarak was the disintegration of his police force and the refusal of the army leadership to support him. At the time, the army accumulated moral capital for not supporting the main attacks on protesters. Since then, their conduct - worse than Mubarak, says Amnesty - has turned that black into red. The military itself is now the clear problem; and presumably what is needed is a breakdown in military command.
Last thing, the US has made it clear that it is backing the military to the finish. It has to. Because if the military regime collapses in Egypt, then the US-led attempts to take control of the situation in the Middle East will be in tatters. The initiative would be in the hands of the revolutionary masses, not just in Egypt - the centre of gravity - but also in Syria and Yemen. Israel's regional power would be further weakened. Even the straightforward, low cost victory in Libya - whose new regime excludes both the Islamists and the Berbers - could begin to unravel.
Speaking of bungled acts of repression, the Egyptian military's assault on protesters after last Friday's mass protest has revived the country's revolutionary movement and (so I hear) put a general strike on the agenda. Tahrir Square has been retaken. This image (left) shows what the square looked like on Friday. Following the protest, which was against the military council's usurpation of dictatorial power, dozens of people decided to stay on in the square overnight. They were assaulted by troops using tear gas and rubber bullets in a bid to clear the square. The resulting uproar saw tens of thousands drawn back out onto the square. Repeated assaults seem only to have broadened the array of groups willing to stand against the military. Beyond Tahrir, there have been mass protests in Alexandria and Suez, among other places. The assembly of forces looks remarkably similar to that in February - trade unionists, liberals, socialists, Nasserists and Islamists, all out against the regime. There are now calls for international solidarity as the revolutionary movement, in tens of thousands not dozens, faces down rubber bullets and tear gas. The country's trade unions are calling for their 1.4m members to join protesters in the Tahrir Square sit-in. The struggle is still 'in the balance', as it were, but what a turnaround.
For a time, it seemed as if the armed forces would control the tempo of events. Elections would proceed in the manner prescribed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and most significant forces would participate. The army would incite sectarianism against coptic Christians, and murder them with impunity. The leadership of the Muslim Brothers - expecting to do well in any prospective elections under the banner of the Freedom and Justice Party - would tend to side with the army in maintaining 'order' against those leftists, liberals and Islamists who antagonised the new ruling order. Indeed, at a crucial moment in July, a mass Islamist rally in Tahrir appeared to show that the alliance between the military and sections of the Islamists was being consolidated. Salafists, jihadis and Muslim Brothers chanted slogans in favour of national unity, while speakers defended the SCAF. The mobilisations of liberals and leftists against the regime, by contrast, looked small. Shortly after the rally, armed thugs were sent by the army to assault opposition supporters camped in Tahrir Square.
Some, in response to this situation, went so far as to declare the revolutionary process at an end. Others descended into indiscriminate rants about Islamists, and enjoined us to remember Iran, 1979. Here was a case of Islamist counter-revolution if ever there was one. Since many of the people I am referring to (I'm being deliberately vague, not to avoid giving offence, but to ensure that the offence is taken widely) are marxists, it is odd that their mistakes were so liberal. They began and ended their assessment of the forces assembled in Egypt on the basis of an ascribed ideology, with little or no reference to class or other political determinants. Whether or not ideology plays the dominant role in situating actors in a given struggle surely depends on the circumstances, but the imperative to be concrete was blithely evaded. Abstraction governed their responses. Relatedly, even while restricting the discussion to ideology, their discussion of that level of struggle was curiously flattened: Islamism was treated not as a complex, incoherent and frequently antagonistic combination of elements, but as a spiritual totality reducible to an incorrigible reactionary essence.
So, it is of more than passing interest that the current mobilisation has drawn support from salafists and detachments from the Muslim Brothers. We needn't deceive ourselves about the role that such forces play. They enjoy mass support, and the Brothers in particular have the infrastructure for a viable political organisation. But, where they have supported progressive political struggles - for democratic and human rights, for Palestine, against the dictatorship - they have tailed, rather than led, secular formations. The responsibility of marxists, however, is to look for the dominant line of political division in any given situation. In this situation, the struggle is between the armed forces, who have murdered and injured several people over the weekend, and the revolutionaries, who include thousands of Islamist activists. The political logic of demonising Islamism in these circumstances would either be a purist abstentionism, or worse, support for SCAF as a bulwark of secular power against the Islamists.
Thirty three people have been killed by armed forces in Tahrir Square since Friday. The level of brutality is shocking. I understand that the military opened fire with live rounds on protesters as they attempted to storm the Interior Ministry. Yet, as you can see, the response from the revolutionaries continues to be defiant:
The military appears to be producing a situation from which there can be no return. Either they will consolidate their power as a new despotism with a slender democratic facade - and elections are now in doubt - or they will be decisively weakened, and a new alignment of democratic forces will have the initiative. As the revolutionaries of Egypt say, Glory to the martyrs, Victory to the revolution, Power and wealth to the people.
Francis Fox Piven conceives of "disruptive power" as that form of usually implicit power that people have as a result of the interdependencies that social organization gives rise to:
"All societies organize social life through networks of specialized and interdependent activities, and the more complex the society, the more elaborate these interdependent relations. Networks of cooperation and interdependence inevitably give rise to contention, to conflict, as people bound together by social life try to use each other to further their often distinctive interests and outlooks. And the networks of interdependence that bind people together also generate widespread power capacities to act on these distinctive interests and outlooks. Agricultural workers depend on landowners, but landowners also depend on agricultural workers, just as industrial capitalists depend on workers, the prince depends in some measure on the urban crowd, merchants depend on customers, husbands depend on wives, masters depend on slaves, landlords depend on tenants, and governing elites in the modern state depend on the acquiescence if not the approval of enfranchised publics.
"Unlike wealth and force, which are concentrated at the top of social hierarchies, the leverage inherent in interdependencies is potentially widespread, especially in a densely interconnected society where the division of labor is far advanced. This leverage can in principle be activated by all parties to social relations, and it can also be activated from below, by the withdrawal of contributions to social cooperation by people at the lower end of hierarchical social relations. I call the activation of interdependent power disruption, and I think protest movements are significant because they mobilize disruptive power." (Frances Fox Piven, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006, p. 20)
This analysis is consistent with many theoretical perspectives, and the concept of disruptive power certainly has an affinity with the marxist conception of class capacities, or more broadly, structural capacities. It follows from this that disruptive power is not a particular tactic. Disruptive power may be violent, depending on the context of the struggle that activates it, but it is not necessarily so. It may be noisy, or carnivalesque - but again, not necessarily. The presumption in social movement literature is, says Piven, against violence and in favour of spectacle; but this dual presumption is based on a misunderstanding of protest movements, conceiving them as essentially a form of communication intended to win the support of wider audiences, whereas this is not always the case. In fact, the exercise of disruptive power is mainly about leverage.
We understand the sheepishness about speaking of violence in social movements. It is not a comforting or politically sympathetic thought that popular violence has been productive; that without it, unjust systems would not have been overturned. Yet, aside from the fact that the automatic assumption against violence is actually an assumption against popular violence, the intriguing thing is how easily it shades into an assumption against disruption as such. For example, following a recent direct action at UC Berkeley, the Chancellor complained: "It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience." In fact, linking arms and obstructing police is precisely an example of non-violent civil disobedience. If there was a textbook, this would be in it. The elite arbiters of protest ethics, who are always assuring us of our right to peaceful protest, conveniently forget what "civil disobedience" actually is. At the same time, what is often truly regrettable about what is called violence (usually small scale property damage) is its tactical implications. Sure, there is a moral case against anticapitalist protesters spraypainting graffiti or breaking windows. One could certainly apply similar standards retrospectively to striking miners and steelworkers who made US history in frequently violent struggles that went well beyond property damage. However, as someone once said, every morality presupposes a sociology, and in this case the moral argument implies the point of view of the ruling class. The point of the exercise of disruptive power is not to empathise with the ruling class, but to gain leverage over the ruling class. This brings us to the next point.
Disruptive power is distributed widely, but that doesn't mean it is easy to actualise. Piven cites six difficulties that obstruct this: first is the problem of getting people to recognise the relation of interdependence that endows them with disruptive power; the second difficulty is that the exercise of disruptive power requires people to break rules, defying institutional mechanisms that enshrine the cooperative (if fundamentally exploitative and oppressive) relations that sustain daily life, with the resulting risk of repression; third, this disruptive power has to be coordinated across many different groups and individuals who contribute to the reproduction of the dominant social relations, in order to be effective - "the classical problem of solidarity"; fourth, the people exercising disruptive power are enmeshed in a network of relations with multiple others who may attempt to restrain this disruption (church, family, etc); fifth, those involved have to find ways to endure the suspension of the normal cooperative relations that allow them to effectively reproduce themselves in their normal condition - strikers need to eat, occupiers need tents, etc.; and finally, those engaging in disruption have to consider the threat of exit by those from whom they have withdrawn cooperation - the rich taking off with their capital, partners leaving relationships, etc. The means to overcome these obstacles "are not solved anew with each challenge", but rather enter the "language of resistance", and "become a repertoire" (pp. 21-32)
This will do as an interpretive grid for understanding what the Occupy movements in the US are going through at this moment. Their challenges are all comprehensible as those arising from the exercise of disruptive power: how to attack the dominant ideology, coordinate heterogenous groups, sustain their own 'rule-breaking' and support others in their 'rule-breaking', and resist repression. It is through the prism of the latter question that I want to assess the current state of the Occupy movement in the US. The recent wave of renewed police assaults, some of them apparently co-ordinated across eighteen cities by both Democratic and Republican administrations, has been severe. From pepper-spraying the elderly to macing students, the intention has been to physically atomise these collective enterprises. It is tempting to say that such an over-reaction indicates the degree of apprehension on the part of the ruling class. In fact, however, apprehension has been far more apparent in their hesitations, retreats and fumbling attempts at co-optation, than in the resort to brutality. The latter is their default: far from being a panic reaction, it is how the US ruling class does business. As far as cops are concerned, it is "fairly standard police procedure". Their reliance on such methods may in fact reflect an underlying lack of concern, an insouciance, a feeling that this movement is a nuisance, but ultimately a brittle, shallow affair. To deviate from such methods would show that state planners are concerned that this is a movement which cannot be managed by escalating the costs of participation.
For the sake of argument, anyway, let me assume that the police actions in Portland, Seattle, Oakland, New York, UC Davis, and elsewhere, all reflect a consensus among ruling elites that a sufficient show of force will produce a collapse in confidence among the occupiers, deter their supporters, disorganise their alliances and leave them reduced to a hardcore of easily contained and potentially vilified activists. The timing would support this, as city managers would expect winter to start thinning the numbers anyway. A disorienting attack, a forcible shutdown, before the occupiers have had the chance to fully conceive and implement strategies for managing the cold months ahead, would be tactically intelligible in this context. Yet, although the police offensives have had some of the sought effects, forcing the occupiers onto the back foot, depriving many of them of their secured bedrock, they have nonetheless failed to thwart the momentum. The scale of the mobilisation in New York last Thursday, where an estimated 32,000 people took part in a day of action to shut down parts of the city, followed an ostensible victory on the part of city authorities three days earlier. This was when the police attacked the camp at 2am, and the mayor obtained a court ruling denying occupiers the right to camp in Liberty Square - though the city could not stop protesters from actually gathering there. The evictions demanded a bigger response from the occupiers and their periphery of active support, and Thursday provided it. Liberty Square is still occupied every day; it is still a meeting place, a pedagogical forum, and a launch pad for further action. So, the initiative remains in the hands of the protesters; not the state.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, this is a movement that is still in its upswing. A full-frontal attack on a movement which is still growing, and still popular, can be a dangerous mistake to make. The problem for the authorities is that such an assault isn't a technical operation but a political wager. As technically proficient as a repressive manouevre may be, the political effects aren't easily calculable: the same tactic that kills a movement today may consolidate it tomorrow. Second, as the statement from Occupy Wall Street following the eviction notes, the movement is serious. This seems nebulous, moralising even, but it has a precise political meaning: most of those joining the movement fully expected repression, and were mentally prepared for it. There are arguments that the police are just blue collar workers who should be on the side of the 99% - though, when former NYPD police capitain Ray Lewis asserts that his ex-colleagues are "workers for the 1%" and "mercenaries for Wall Street", one can safely say that such arguments are losing traction. But the occupation in Wall Street came to national prominence following a particularly brutal NYPD assault. It is a simple but reasonable inference that those who joined OWS and embarked on similar projects after this, knew that repression was a risk. So, the movement is far less brittle in this respect than its opponents perhaps estimated.
Third, as a former head of the CBI has pointed out, the ideology of free market capitalism has lost a significant part of its material basis: it cannot as easily claim to be more efficient than rival forms of organisation, or delivery greater prosperity for the majority over the long run. The increasing sympathy for socialism and communism among Americans has something to do with this disintegration of capitalist ideology. There is enormous sympathy for this left-populist movement, and those deemed complicit in its repression run the risk of being publicly shamed and of losing allies rapidly. Fourth, and relatedly, the repressive response from the ruling class may be coordinated and bipartisan, but it is far from unanimous. Some elements of the ruling class have preferred to try and co-opt the movement rather than simply attack it. This is most visible in the liberal segments of the capitalist media. From the very early days, it was obvious that the New York Times and perhaps also MSNBC favoured co-option rather than simple coercion. The fear of the banking industry, as their professional lobbyists have summarised it, is that this strategic fracturing of US ruling class opinion may be disadvantageous to their position. As they are not their own best advocates, they require public advocates - and the fear is that politicians under pressure to respond to such a movement will consider it imprudent to publicly defend financial capital. But the more the repressive option fails, the more the emphasis will fall on co-option. Finally, the occupiers have worked hard to build alliances with groups who already know how to wield disruptive power and have their own sets of repertoires. The response to the first attempted assault on Occupy Wall Street was based on an alliance with unions; the response to the first assault on Occupy Oakland, a city-wide 'general strike', was based on an alliance with the unions too. Of course, one must be wary of what Glenn Greenwald detects is an effort by pro-Obama union leaders to direct the movement into the Democratic fold. And solidarity work has taken other forms, such as the attempt to obstruct foreclosures. But there is a genuine convergence of interests between organised labor and the heterogenous groups assembled at OWS - whether debt-shackled students, workers, the unemployed, or dissident former soldiers. The union leadership knows it, especially after the defeat of the union-bashers in Ohio. The alliance between these groups has to be negotiated and constructed. But the material basis for it, which the slogan 'we are the 99%' communicates, is a shared class interest. This shared interest, at a time of sharpening class antagonisms, is making solidarity easier to achieve, and is laying the basis for a new Left.
There were merry guffaws when former British prime minister John Major incautiously referred to three cabinet members as 'bastards'.
This was in 1993, when European economic and monetary union was nearing the completion of its first stage. Right-wing Conservative MPs were then in rebellion over the Maastricht Treaty, which ratified the European Union. The weakness and division of the parliamentary party was obvious. With a majority of only 18 MPs, 22 backbenchers voted against the government.
Party whips were unable to contain the revolt with their usual mix of threats and rewards, because the rebels were confident that Major's leadership would not last long and that it would fall to them to save the Conservative Party. In that, they had the blessing of former leader Margaret Thatcher. Though the right reclaimed the leadership after 1997, they could not win an election. It fell to David Cameron, standing as a socially liberal 'One Nation' Conservative, to take the Tories out of the hard right ghetto.
Fast-forward to 2011, and Cameron's prospects look bleak. The backbench rebellion that took place in October was not over an outstanding Treaty issue. Its source was a parliamentary motion for a referendum over membership of the European Union, pushed by a number of right-wing MPs. These MPs must have known there was no prospect, even if a motion was carried, of Britain being withdrawn from the EU. The Tories' business allies would be the first to scream blue murder if this were on the cards. They can only have intended to hurt their leadership.
"We are closer than you think. When thousands of us jam the streets of the Financial District and surround Wall Street on Thursday we will not be ignored. No business as usual until the voice of the 99% is heard and action is taken. You thought we would just go away. You thought we would be too cold. You tried to arrest us. You tried to beat us. It's not that easy. This is for real. We are serious. We will not be ignored. It has been two months, you are still stealing our money and our labor. You are still destroying the earth. You are still evicting people. But guess what? We are stronger than ever."
I was going to proceed with the series on Poulantzas, but to do so properly, I need to address the influence of Louis Althusser. There is, as Ellen Meiksins Wood has pointed out, a trajectory that can broadly be sketched with Althusser, Poulantzas and Laclau/Mouffe as its three compass points: from Maoism to Eurocommunism to 'radical democracy' and the abandonment of class politics as a 'fundamentalist', 'essentialist' error.
Yet to simply read the failings of his followers back into Althusser's project would be a travesty as unfair as E P Thompson's execration of the 'Stalinist' Althusser. It is, in fact, a bitter irony that many of Althusser's followers ended up in the social-democratic camp, as this was precisely the fate that his audacious and original reconstitution of Marxism was intended to help avoid. The fact that it didn't is not necessarily a reflection on the failings of the project; rather, it shows that Althusser was perhaps over-confident in the ability of revolutionary theory to overcome the deficiencies of political practice - particularly on the part of the French communist party (PCF) of which he was a member for most of his political life. He was to acknowledge a "theoreticist deviation" among his failings when he came to review and rectify his work in later years.
For, the motivation for Althusser's 'return to Marx', and the attempt to found a 'left-wing' critique of 'theoretical Stalinism', was political and strategic. As he put it, "that there can be no tactics that do not depend on a strategy – and no strategy that does not depend on theory". So, I will recount, in a highly abbreviated form, the elements of this philosophical enterprise with an eye to its political context - while, in deference to the subject, respecting the autonomy of theory. Also, since I will make no attempt to be original, I'll append a very short, selective bibliography at the end of this post. For now, I'll just say that by far the best guide is Gregory Elliott's Althusser: The Detour of Theory, which is thankfully in print again.
The "dogmatist night"
Louis Althusser joined the PCF in 1948, just as the Cold War was commencing. The party had emerged from its participation in World War II, however belated, with considerable prestige. In the 1945 elections, it won the largest share of the vote, with 26% - 5m votes concentrated in the manual working class. Its membership was at half a million, and would increase to about 800,000 in the next few years. Its leaders joined the Cabinet, and did their best to direct popular radicalism into the reconstruction of French capitalism. Yet, it was at just this point that it was about to be thrust into a political ghetto. The marginalising forces were precisely those of the Cold War. The Socialists under Guy Mollet joined the 'Atlanticist' camp, forced the Communists out of government, and led some brutal class struggles against French workers, not to mention vicious colonial counterinsurgency campaigns. At the same time, Moscow-oriented parties were being instructed to take a 'left turn'. This meant breaking from the 'Popular Front' alliances, and polarising between the pro-peace socialist camp and the dupes of imperialism. At an ideological level, it meant dusting off the shibboleths of 'Marxism-Leninism' which had been stowed for the duration of the 'Popular Front' period, and denouncing a host of ideologies (such as psychoanalysis, for example) as 'bourgeois', 'cosmopolitan' and 'reactionary'. On a more positive level, it also meant that the party was more willing to side with workers in ongoing struggles. But amid a wave of anticommunist hysteria, the PCF found itself increasingly isolated and unable to build on its previous successes. The resulting loss of éclat saw the party retreat to an ideological fortress, with party theoreticians extirpating heresy and administering what Althusser would characterise as a "dogmatist night".
Yet, for him, the PCF was the party of the French working class, and the only party capable of posing a threat to French capitalism. Therefore it was a duty of Marxist intellectuals to be members. He was not unique in this judgment. Sartre, no ally of Stalinism, nonetheless insisted at the height of the Cold War in 1952 that a defeat for Stalinism in France would be a defeat for the working class. The PCF was the sole unifying instance capable of imparting "class-being" to the workers. So, Althusser bore the long night of dogma in relative silence in acceptance of party discipline. It was not until the événements of 1956 - in February, Khrushchev's 'secret speech' at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, attacking Stalin's legacy; and in November, the invasion of Hungary - that Althusser began to break the silence. The glasnost following Khrushchev's speech allowed heterodox currents to emerge, most prominent among which were various strands of Marxist Humanism.
It was the fact that the regime itself was incorporating this humanism into its official ideology, and the fact that the PCF could do the same without skipping a beat - the PCF witchfinder-general Roger Garaudy was converted overnight into a humanist and supporter of theoretical pluralism - aroused Althusser's suspicions. Moreover, this happened without affecting the underlying tenets of 'Marxism-Leninism' in the slightest. This de-Stalinization, he inferred, was a right-wing de-Stalinization that would lead to the social-democratization of communism. Already, the PCF had been attempting to navigate its way out of the ghetto via an alliance with the Socialists - "democratic adventurism" in Althusser's assessment - contributing to a political passivism, support for colonialism in Algeria, and eventually blank perplexity when General Charles de Gaulle established a dictatorship, the 'Fifth Republic', in May 1958. In resisting this tide, Althusser aimed to strengthen the political practice of French communism. As he put it:
"I would never have written anything were it not for the Twentieth Congress and Khrushchev’s critique of Stalinism and the subsequent liberalisation. But I would never have written these books if I had not seen this affair as a bungled destalinisation, a right-wing destalinisation which instead of analyses offered us only incantations; which instead of Marxist concepts had available only the poverty of bourgeois ideology. My target was therefore clear: these humanist ravings, these feeble dissertations on liberty, labour or alienation which were the effects of all this among French Party intellectuals. And my aim was equally clear: to make a start on the first left-wing critique of Stalinism, a critique that would make it possible to reflect not only on Khrushchev and Stalin but also on Prague and Lin Piao: that would above all help put some substance back into the revolutionary project here in the West."
Thus, he began work on his reconstitution of Marxism. The hallmark of the ensuing period was tactical quietism and strategic offensive. He forebore criticisms of PCF policy, while working to transform it in the longue durée by means of a theoretical assault on PCF dogma.
"The first left-wing critique of Stalinism"
Before going any further, I should say something about Althusser's attitude to Stalinism. First of all, his claim to be embarking on the "first left-wing critique of Stalinism" implies an ignorance of Leon Trotsky's work, among others. This meant he initiated his critique from within the radius of Stalinism, cutting himself off from extant critical resources. Inevitably, he had to make use of what was there 'in front of him'. Thus, despite attacking Stalinist dogma and lamenting its victims, he did not hesitate to endorse aspects of Stalin's thought if it was useful to him in the theoretical struggle. Despite Stalin's own theoretical dilettantism, he did not resile from attributing theoretical 'discernment' and 'perspicacity' to him at times. And he obliviously championed 'Marxism-Leninism' against the regime, as if it was not the official ideology, and not therefore a caricature of both Marxism and Leninism.
Second, his ideological pole star throughout this period was the People's Republic of China (PRC), whose attack on Khrushchevite 'humanism'* provided much of the stimulus for this "left-wing critique". (*Khrushchevism "substitutes humanism for the Marxist-Leninist theory of class struggle and substitutes the bourgeois slogan of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity for the ideals of communism. It is a revisionist programme for the preservation and restoration of capitalism".) This obviously left him to some extent hostage to the credibility of the PRC. One can also read into his theoretical work certain related political connotations. Ellen Wood rightly points out that Althusser's insistence on the relative autonomy of the 'instances' is congruent with the politics of the Cultural Revolution. Still, one must take care to avoid the tone of a health warning here: "the theoretical formulation of the 'relative autonomy' of 'instances', if taken in extreme quantities, can lead to Maoism". It is not reducible to any such political context. Less so is this theoretical innovation exclusively governed by the need to explain how a Stalinist bureaucracy can arise in a 'socialist' economy - various strands of dissident Marxism managed to explain this to their own satisfaction without recourse to Althusser.
For Althusser, the two dominant theoretical purviews, which he classed as 'humanism/historicism' and 'economism', were symmetrical in their teleological structure. Economism was the "poor man's Hegelianism" shared by both Kautsky and Stalin, a Marxist version of technological determinism in which the development of the productive forces was the sole determinant of historical change and guarantor of the inevitability of socialism. Humanism/historicism, in place of productive forces, posited 'Man' or the working class as the constitutive subject of history, whose progress would bring history to its communist terminus. In an extremely schematic way, these errors could be understood respectively as a rightist and a leftist deviation. As he explained to a New Left Review interviewer: "The rightist deviation suppresses philosophy: only science is left (positivism). The leftist deviation suppresses science: only philosophy is left (subjectivism)".
The chief problem with humanism/historicism was that it relativised Marxism and thus brought its epistemological status into doubt. By describing Marxism as an ideology of the proletariat whose validity could be verified by its contribution to the historical advance of the class, it effaced the gap between science and ideology. For Althusser, the scientificity of Marxism was what distinguished it from all speculative philosophies of history. To compromise its scientificity was to weaken its explanatory power. And there was no doubt for Althusser of its extraordinary power. This "scientific revolution" had opened up the 'continent' of History to scientific knowledge, in exactly the same way that Thales had opened the 'continent' of mathematics and Galileo the 'continent' of physical nature. Marxists were "only just beginning to explore" this new continent, but the explorations were already at risk from theoretical revisions. Althusser acknowledged the strengths of humanism as a rejection of an inhuman and dogmatic tyranny, and welcomed the intellectual thaw that it signposted. Nonetheless, as Gregory Elliot puts it, "it ultimately summed up to a romantic anti-capitalism and anti-scientism, as politically voluntarist as it was philosophically speculative".
Even Althusser's sympathetic reviewers are damning about Althusser's schema here. His engagement with Marxist humanism was unidimensional, dealing only with the doctrine as espoused by the theoreticians of Communist parties after 1956 - "Stalinism with a human face" - and ignoring the work of those who left the Communist parties but remained Marxists. The category of 'humanism/historicism' assimilates an incredibly diverse array of thinkers, from Lukacs to Korsch, Gramsci, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Goldmann and Della Volpe (avowedly anti-Hegelian). He does not acknowledge the Frankfurt School, and despite his hostility to revisions which dilute Marxism, his own approach would involve vitalising Marxism with the supplement of rationalist philosophy in the form of Spinoza and Bachelard. And it is a point repeatedly made, with justice, that Althusser's tendency to subsume qualitatively distinct theorists under a single category of theoretical error - the "Continent of Theoretical Error" as Norman Geras described it in his spirited joust with Laclau and Mouffe - is redolent of the tendency he discerned and derided in Hegel to characterise all the manifold phenomena of a conjuncture as mere expressions of a single moment in the development of the Idea.
Nonetheless, this version of 'humanism' formed the negative reference point for Althusser's attempt to 'return to Marx', and this much may be said for it right away: it neither concedes a single thing politically to those using the critique of Stalinism to move to the right, nor does it simply lapse into a conservative fortification of dogma. Althusser's response to what he saw as a crisis of revolutionary theory was to undertake a critical and robust re-evaluation of Marxism. And the question he posed, in For Marx, was fundamental: "What is Marxist philosophy? Has it any theoretical right to existence? And if it does exist in principle, how can its specificity be defined?"
As should be clear by now, this philosophy was to owe little to Hegel. Engels had attempted to extract the rudiments of dialectical materialism from Hegel's Logic, standing the dialectic 'on its feet' the better to "discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell", as Marx described it in an Afterword to Capital volume one. The 'three laws' of the dialectic in Engels' Anti-Duhring were lifted straight from the Logic and applied to what were then the most cutting edge ideas in science. Althusser argued that this formula of standing of the dialectic on its feet was utterly misunderstood if it taken to mean that one simply had to invert Hegel's postulates, putting matter in place of spirit: this "will merely produce a new materialist metaphysics". Marxists who took this step had misunderstood what Marx was doing Capital, volume one, part one. For here, the apparently Hegelian structure of Marx's exposition is akin to a process of peeling back the mystical layers of Hegel's approach to extract whatever is rational - though, contrary to the kernel/shell metaphor, he insisted that even the kernel had to be 'contaminated' by Hegelian idealism. The major contributions of Hegel were his attack on Kantian subjectivism which could provide the basis for a materialist defence of scientific objectivity, and the concept, implicit in the Absolute Idea, of " a process without a subject" which informed Marx's analysis of Capital. I should say that Althusser's critics justifiably point to his highly selective reading of Marx's writings, thus ignoring a great part of the 'mature' work that is still determinedly Hegelian. In fact, however, this point rebounds to Althusser's advantage: the most Hegelian passages in, for example, Capital, are also the most liable to lapse into dogmatically deterministic assertions. And Althusser, after all, never said that the 'epistemological break' separating the young from the mature Marx was a clean break - quite the contrary.
But, if Althusser otherwise rejected the Hegelian legacy, insisting that what Marx offered was more than a Hegelianised version of English political economy, from whence could this philosophy emerge? It was implicit, he said, in "the logic of Capital". It was also implicit in revolutionary practice, particularly in what he regarded as the two great successes of Marxism, the revolutions of 1917 and 1949. This is what motivated the 'return to Marx', and it is why he could brush off charges of 'scholarly fetishism' with airy contempt.
The primacy of practice
Marxist philosophy, in Althusser's schema, is one of two distinct levels of Marxist theory. These are: historical materialism, being "the Marxist science of the development of social formations"; and dialectical materialism, being the as yet unconstituted philosophy that is implicit in Marx's work. This philosophy would, if elaborated, form the epistemological bedrock of historical materialism, point out its flaws, suggest solutions, and supply concepts adequate to its problems. Above all, it would safeguard the theory as a scientific practice against debilitating ideological dilutions. If historical materialism is the science of history, then, dialectical materialism is the "theory of science and of the history of science", or more broadly "a theory of theoretical practice". One upshot of this conception of theory as a practice, is to render the problem of the unity of theory and practice unintelligible.
Among Althusser's first tasks is to discern what the "theoretical practice" is, of which dialectical materialism is the theory. The concept of practice itself, the "primacy of practice" in Marx, is central: "We can assert the primacy of practice theoretically by showing that all the levels of social existence are the sites of distinct practices: economic practice, political practice, ideological practice, technical practice and scientific (or theoretical) practice." But to speak of an undifferentiated "practice" is to succumb to ideology. Marx's breakthrough was to provide a "theory of the different specific levels of human practice". These different levels - economic, political, and ideological - are the 'relatively autonomous' 'instances' of the social totality. Practice can nonetheless be defined as "any process of transformation of a determinate given raw material into a determinate product, a transformation effected by a determinate human labour, using determinate means (of 'production')". The determinant moment in this process is the labour of transformation itself. Theoretical practice, then, is a form of production, divisible into three 'Generalities': Generalities I, a set of raw materials (concepts, abstractions) into relation with one another; Generalities II, the "means of theoretical production" which are brought to bear on the raw materials; and Generalities III, the end product, knowledge or the thought-concrete.
Althusser proceeded to refine this understanding of knowledge-as-production against the empiricist conception of knowledge as vision. For empiricism, knowledge begins with a relation between subject and object: the 'object' of knowledge is objective reality, on which the subject performs a labour of abstraction through which it separates the essence from the inessence of the object. In so doing, the subject comes to possess the essence and thus has knowledge of it. For Althusser, this was flawed on two accounts. First, it was wrong to assume that the object of knowledge was objective reality. The object of knowledge is what results from the labour of abstraction, which forms the raw material for the process of theoretical production. Second, its two-ply model of reality actually inscribed the knowledge of reality (essence) within that reality itself, thus collapsing the distinction between thought and the real. For Althusser, it was crucial for materialism that the independence of reality from thought should be maintained.
It follows that Althusser must reject the empiricist conception of knowledge as a 'model' composed of abstractions, a model which is necessarily a poor cousin of the reality which it tries to emulate. If, in the empiricist view, the abstraction is always a hugely simplified 'essence' of the real object, and therefore theory can never be adequate to the complex reality it describes. For Althusser, however, the object of knowledge is not a given (the 'real object') but rather a raw material consisting of previously worked on concepts and abstractions, and is therefore susceptible to continual refinement by the means of theoretical production. There is no inherent limit to a theory fully adequate to its subject. This is extremely important. As Norman Geras put it, "if the object of knowledge in the strict sense is not the real object, the object which is known finally, via the object of knowledge, is the real object."
Following both Bachelard and Spinoza, Althusser insisted that science and ideology were wholly distinct kinds of knowledge. Though the process of knowledge production in each case is formally equivalent, science is marked by a foundational rupture, an 'epistemological break' with common sense. The opacity of the everyday is such that only such a profound break could found a genuinely objective knowledge. But how is it possible to tell the difference, to verify that what one is doing is science and not ideology? Althusser turned down the pragmatist option of judging a project by its successes: theory is successful because it is true, he argued; it is not true because it is successful. The proper way to judge a science was by criteria immanent to it. A research programme could only devise its own criteria of verification.
If this seems circular, that is because it is: as Gregory Elliot puts it, "there is something inherently dogmatic and viciously circular in employing Marxist philosophy to guarantee the status of Marxist science". Unable to avoid this problem, Althusser attempted to pose the question in another way: by what mechanism did theoretical practice, which took place exclusively at the level of thought, effect the cognitive appropriation of reality? But that did not yield a satisfactory answer either. As such, and given the manifest deficiencies of Marxism in the face of the last century's challenges, the claim for Marxism's scientificity looks shaky. Althusser would abandon the idea that dialectical materialism was a science of sciences, arguing in Lenin and Philosophy that philosophy was not itself a science but the class struggle in theory. Where that leaves the epistemological status of Marxism is something that is still open to debate.
Befrore proceeding, it's worth drawing out a few implications from this account of theoretical practice and its autonomy. Althusser was defending "the right of Marxist theory not to be treated as a slave to tactical decisions". But a quite different political consequence of this was a certain kind of elitism, in which Marxist theory was the work of specialists who should be left alone. To be clear, Althusser understood that Marxist theory could not have emerged without the workers' movement (in conjunction with certain "theoretical elements". His critics who ascribe to him a form of idealism in which the 'epistemological break' of Marxism is a purely theoretical phenomenon, estranged from class struggle, are wrong. The autonomy of theory is only relative, after all. Yet, for Althusser, the workers' movement did not, and by implication could not, produce Marxist theory "by its own devices". He takes the Lenin of What Is To Be Done to argue that Marxist theory must be imported into the working class movement from outside it, a hypothesis with which he concurs. Workers have a 'class instinct', which enables them to arrive at objectively correct proletarian 'class positions', but they are incapable of being spontaneously revolutionary. So much the worse with theorists, who are instinctively petty bourgeois, and must constantly militate against these prejudices. As it comes down to it, only the vanguard party provides the link between the class and revolutionary theory. Without the party, revolutionary theory cannot be imported into the class; without revolutionary theory, the class cannot make a revolution. And Althusser is insistent that the empirical data confirms this - revolutions have only been made where Marxist theory has been accepted by the workers' movement (Russia and China), whereas those situations where revolution is most distant also happen to be those where Marxist theory was never widely accepted in the workers' movements (Britain), or was adulterated in a social democratic fashion (Germany).
Althusser was thus committed to a version of Leninism which has these days, and for good reason, fallen out of favour. As Valentino Gerrattana argues, despite Althusser's intention to break with Stalin, he constantly evaded the question of the latter's relationship to Lenin and Leninism, never clarifying the issue of how much "theoretical Stalinism" was a break from Bolshevism. As a result, he committed himself to certain 'Leninist' positions that more closely resemble what Hal Draper called 'Leninology' than historical Leninism. Even so, I would again caution against using this political error to dismiss the theory. There is in fact no good reason why one should infer from the autonomy of theoretical practice that the working class movement can produce no revolutionary theory by itself. The fact that theoretical and political practices are distinct, does not mean that workers are incapable of performing both.
Signposts in the "continent" of history
In addition to these epistemological concepts, and the extremely interesting account of knowledge that they sum up to, Althusser elaborated a set of historical concepts. We have already introduced the idea of the relative autonomy of 'instances', that is of different levels of practice within a social totality. But what does such a 'totality' consist of, and what constitutes its different levels? Each level, precisely, is a structure, so that the social whole is a structure of structures.
Something of the nature of the structure is imparted in Althusser's discussion of 'Generalities II', where he introduces the notion of the 'problematic'. The problematic is a theoretical structure which brings the concepts and abstractions into a certain relationship with one another. But it is rarely explicit in the theory that it regulates: it is submerged. This is as true of Marxism as other doctrines, which is why it is necessary for Althusser and his followers to embark on close, symptomatic readings of Marx's texts to bring the problematic to light. Despite being submerged, the problematic plays an active role, and this not in any metaphorical sense. It is not the subject that 'sees' the objects that become known through theoretical practice; it is the problematic. The subject does not play the determinant role in knowledge production; the structure does. And this is typical. This structure is not an audible, visible, tangible object, but rather a "process without a subject" discernible solely through its effects. The only subjects pertinent to it are those constituted and governed by the structure. This is Althusserian anti-humanism. It is a commonplace that this total demotion of the subject was deeply problematic for any revolutionary praxis that might follow from it - after all, if subjects are constituted by the structure, wherein lies the possibility of their emancipation from it? Althusser attempted to deal with this by stating that this was a necessary explanatory step; the theoretical reduction of subjects accounted for the practical reduction of subjects under capitalism. Yet, this by itself didn't solve the problem of how subjects could escape this practical reduction. Ultimately, to avoid a structural-functionalist account in which the structures merely perform in ways that are functional for their reproduction, Althusser relies on his concepts of overdetermination and contradiction, which we'll come back to.
Crucially, the social totality, the structure of structures, is quite unlike Hegel's 'expressive' or 'spiritual' totality, in that the structure has no centre, and no original essence of which its parts are mere expressions. It is the sum of irreducible, multiple instances, each with its own history, each with its own complex structure and each governed by its own temporality. Importantly, each also has its own specific efficacy, so that the political and ideological are by no means merely reducible to the economic. In this sense, Althusser's account of the social has remarkably similar starting points to those of post-structuralists, albeit he draws radically different conclusions about the intelligibility of the structure, and his emphasis on "unity in difference" or "complex unity" distinguishes his difference from the free play of signifiers that is Derrida's différance. And he rescues his analysis from simple pluralism by asserting the determining role of the economic level 'in the last instance'. That is, though the social formation has no centre or essence, within it there is a "structure in dominance" in which one or other of the instances is dominant. And, it is the economic level that determines which of these instances will be dominant in any social formation. (I find it helps to think of the example of feudalism, in which mode of production the instance of politics was dominant, due to the specific mode of surplus extraction in the economic instance.)
It's also worth examining the difference between a social formation and a mode of production in Althusser's analysis. The difference between the two is partially a difference in the level of abstraction. The mode of production is the combination of the elements of a social whole at its most abstract; the social formation is the site in which those elements are concretely present in all of their specificity. The 'elements' of the mode of production can be assigned to an elementary table, listing the labourer, the non-labourer, some means of production, etc. Seemingly, these 'elements' are constant through all modes of production, with only their specific relationship in a given combination varying. Yet, this conclusion has to be qualified by Althusser's stress on 'overdetermination'.
The concept of overdetermination is taken over from Freudian psychoanalysis, in which it refers to the condensation of potent dream-thoughts, wishes, etc., in a single image. The 'overdetermination' of a point in the structure means, analogously, the condensation of all of the relations and 'contradictions' within the totality in that single node. 'Contradictions' in Althusser's useage are purely 'historical', referring to a number of different kinds of complexity, such as paradox, antagonism, ambiguity, combined and uneven development, etc. He does not subscribe to any of the materialist metaphysics of Anti-Duhring. When he refers to an accumulation of contradictions in a given social formation, he is referring to just those tensions, antagonisms and ambiguities that undermine the unity and cohesion of the formation and make possible its disintegration and overthrow. A consequence, at any rate, of overdetermination is that the elements in a mode of production cannot be the same regardless of how they are articulated. Since each point is overdetermined by every other point in the matrix, the specific content of these elements must vary depending on their articulation.
The concepts of overdetermination, determination in the last instance, and the structure in domination, were cited by Althusser to repudiate critics who described his work as structuralist. It is another matter entirely whether he succeeded in avoiding certain structural-functionalist temptations; certainly, his followers didn't always do so. (I mentioned Poulantzas' tendency to collapse into such explanations, at least in his earlier work). However, as Stuart Hall points out, by thinking systematically about the different levels and kinds of determination in a social formation, by locating this complexity and plurality in Marx, he enabled the thinking of concrete historical situations and ideological formations within the Marxist 'problematic', as well as the analysis of political situations in their specificity and lines of antagonism. Indeed, as we learn from Machiavelli and Us, one of the most important historical concepts for Althusser is the 'conjuncture' as an "aleatory, single case", comprising not merely a sum of elements but their unity in a 'contradictory' system. In this respect, Althusser is quite close to Gramsci, whom he otherwise lumped in with the 'historicists'.
We have seen that he avouched a strict distinction between ideology and science which seems to be in some doubt. Yet, one of the bases for this distinction is a suggestive analysis of the "lived relation" between "men" and their world. To be more precise, ideology expresses, not the relationship between "men" and their conditions of existence, but the way they live, or imagine that relationship. The idea of inhabiting the world without ideology is utopian and futile: "there is no practice except by and in ideology".
By the same token, however, "there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects". The term 'imagine' alludes to Lacan's concept of the pre-symbolic 'imaginary order', and the associated doctrine of the 'mirror phase'. In the 'mirror phase', subjects come to recognise themselves in reality, and to imagine their relationship to that reality as if they were fully autonomous, constitutive subjects. This, according to Althusser, is what ideology does: it constitutes subjects so that they imagine themselves to be constitutive subjects; it "interpellates" them. And in giving them an imaginary relationship to their actual relation with the world, it distorts their real situation and binds them to the social structure. This concept of ideology as, not merely erroneous beliefs but a lived relationship to one's situation, has proven enormously fruitful. Much of Hall's splendid repertoire is unthinkable without it, as he is the first to acknowledge.
But it is not just this aspect of the interpretation of ideology that is relevant here. Again, the 'relative autonomy' of the instances has some bearing here. For, while it was a staple of certain crude, mechanistic Stalinism that certain ideologies had a necessary class belonging (this played a useful polemical role if one wanted to debate intellectual opponents), it has equally become a staple of poststructuralist ideologies that there is no correspondence whatever between ideological struggles, which are purely contingent, and the 'economic base'. Thus, Laclau and Mouffe insisted that Gramsci's theory of hegemonic struggle was burdened by an essentialist remnant, which tried to anchor these struggles in a unified economic level - but only if contingency was expelled from the economy could this anchoring be effective. So, Laclau and Mouffe denied any correspondence between classes and ideologies. I think what you find in Althusser's conception, however, is quite different from both. The 'relative autonomy' of instances allows that there is no necessary class connotation to a given idea, (Althusser was witness to all those futile attempts by the Stalinists to bissect scientific theories according to some imputed class position), but does not permit that there is necessarily no such connotation. This allows for a certain open-endedness of political struggles and class practices, for the aligning of heterogenous interests and perhaps even antagonistic subject-positions. Moreover, Althusser's stress on the practical aspect of ideology underlines that any successful articulation between different elements has to be constructed.
No strategy without theory... theory without strategy?
If there is no strategy without theory, it does not follow that a given theory is suited only to one strategic purpose. The relation between political and theoretical practice is more complex, less determinate, than such a view would allow. So, if Althusser did conceive of his theoretical innovations as political interventions, it doesn't mean that he followed what might be the expected path that his theoretical work would imply. Politically, he was neither a Stalinist nor a reformist; theoretically, he was waging an attack on the practice of the French communists. Yet, membership of the party was his sole route, as he perceived it, to an organic connection with the working class and thus to meaningful theoretical work. And because he did not break fully with Stalinism, he could not break fully with reformism, and remained bound to a party moving perpetually in a social democratic direction. Nor did he help renew PCF political practice along revolutionary lines. Toward the end of his career, the PCF was embarking on a Eurocommunist route to the margins.
Althusser's career ended in a squalid tragedy when, under the influence of a mental illness that had grown more intense over the years, he strangled his wife, Hélène. K S Karol's article, 'The Tragedy of the Althussers', listed below, is one of the few that remembers Hélène Althusser for something other than this horrible end - recounting her role in the French Resistance, as a Communist, and as a social scientist. Louis Althusser was consigned to an asylum, before living more or less hermetically until his death. Did Althusser's project fail? By the scale of its own extraordinary ambition, it did fail in many respects. It particularly failed to establish the absolute scientificity of Marxist theory, and thus its safeguard against party bosses, revisions and rivals. Yet, given the real deficiencies of Marxism exposed by the twentieth century experience, there is perhaps only a Beckettian choice between failing and failing better. Althusser failed better.
Select bibliography: Louis Althusser & Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital, NLB, 1970; Louis Althusser, For Marx, Allen Lane, 1969; Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, NLB, 1971; Louis Althusser, 'On the Twenty-Second Congress of the French Communist Party', New Left Review 104, July-August 1977; Louis Althusser, The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, Verso, 2003; Gregory Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of Theory, Brill, Leiden & Boston, 2006; Norman Geras, 'Althusser’s Marxism: An Account and Assessment', New Left Review 71, January-February 1972; K S Karol, 'The Tragedy of the Althussers', New Left Review 124, November-December 1980; Alex Callinicos, Althusser's Marxism, Pluto Press, 1976; Alex Callinicos, Is There A Future for Marxism?, Macmillan, 1982; Valentino Gerratana, 'Althusser and Stalinism', New Left Review 101-102, January-April 1977; Stuart Hall, 'Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates', Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Vol 2, No 2, June 1985