Friday, April 29, 2011

Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning

I'm about to leave to find out about the results of the union election in about an hour.  This particular recording seemed to be particularly relevant, both capturing a sense of anticipation, and as a description of the process of coming together as a slate.  Whatever happens, I feel that we managed to embody many of the positive qualities that Rosa Luxemburg saw as central to the development of a conscious and militant proletariat.  Omni sunt communia....

Monday, April 25, 2011

An unpublished editorial written in support of the AWDU slate.

This was initially written as a collective editorial to go in our not so good local school paper.  Since it was ignored, I will publish it here, which may get more attention from grad students anyways....

           On April 26th-28th, the United Auto Workers 2865, the union for graders, tutors and teaching assistants, will be having its triennial election.  This means that all positions within the union, from top to bottom, are up for election, and for the first time in the history of the union, nearly all of those offices are contested.  Aside from a few exceptions, the election is between two slates, the incumbent United for Social and Economic Justice Slate and the challenging Academic Workers for a Democratic Union Slate.  As the candidates of the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union slate, we’re excited that the rank and file membership has the opportunity to choose between two very different visions of the union in this upcoming election.
            Most of us had gotten involved in the union during the debate over the recently ratified contract.  We were concerned that the process of negotiating the contract was being undertaken in a manner that left out the concerns and participation of the rank and file membership.  Additionally, the information that was provided by the leadership on the negotiation process was often lacking in clarity and detail.  The leadership seemed to have forgotten that good contracts are not won by a small group of clever individuals at the bargaining table, but by the collective effort of the entire union.  For us, a strong contract could only be negotiated with the collaboration and active participation of the rank and file of the union. We had spent the previous year fighting the university’s administration in the fight against the tuition increases and the budget cuts, and we were distressed to see some of the same forms of obfuscation and deception on the part of our leadership used by the administration.
            Additionally, there was very little active union participation on the part of the Irvine branch in the past two years.  As the Irvine campuses saw an unprecedented level of activity on its campus, and some of the largest protests in its recent history around the budget cuts, the union played little to no role in the organization of these events.  It largely stayed out of the large coalition of students, workers, and professors that formed over that year.  At the more immediate level of the economic life of graduate students, the majority of the bargaining team chose to ignore the issue of graduate housing, which is a major concern on this campus.  Despite the fact that only 10% of graduate students have affordable housing, the issue was not considered worthwhile in the bargaining process.  That issue, along with the lack of substantial economic gains caused us to oppose the contract, and the majority of our campus voted against the contract.
            A group of us then decided to run for the elected positions of the union to finally have a meaningful union presence on campus, and have held elected office for the past two months.  Within that time, we have worked to organize department meetings, helped organize a public social event for the union, and played a major role in coordinating the March rally against the budget cuts.  We are working to make our local union play a larger role in the defense of public education in the state, coordinating with student groups and other unions on our campus.  We are currently in the process of organizing campaigns to deal with the issue of the workload of our members on campus, and see this as a campaign to both defend our position as workers and students, and to defend the quality of education on the campus.  We are also beginning a campaign to demand more affordable housing for students on this campus.
            As we had mentioned before, the current election gives the graduate students the choice between two very different visions of the union.  The current leadership has moved increasingly in the direction of running the union in a top down fashion.  It’s notable that three out of four of their top candidates are no longer graduate students themselves.  Ten out of twelve of the paid staff members are running on the United for Social and Economic Justice slate, including the candidate for the Irvine Unit Chair, Coral Wheeler.  This vision of the union emphasizes a decision making process taken on by a small number of paid ‘experts’ with a largely passive membership.  Our slate wants to reverse that trend within the union to move to a far more member run organization, allowing more decision-making power on the individual campuses and a process of decision making that is membership led.  We feel that participatory democracy is not only a more ethical approach to running the union, but that this process will also produce a stronger union.  It is only when the rank and file feels that they can participate in the decisions of the union that they will become active members.  We encourage you to vote for the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, April 26th-28th.  For more information, see

Monday, April 18, 2011

A short comment on Ernesto Laclau

Ernesto Laclau turns to the work of Rosa Luxemburg in his theorization of the relationship of the empty signifier to politics.  He notes,
      "Let me go back to an example that we discussed in detail in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: the constitution, according to Rosa Luxemburg, of the unity of the working class through an overdetermination of partial struggles over a long period of time.  Her basic argument is that the unity of the class is not determined by an a priori consideration about the priority of either the political struggle or the economic struggle, but by the accumulated effects of the internal split of all partial mobilizations.  In relation to our subject, her argument amounts to approximately the following: in a climate of extreme repression any mobilization for a partial objective will be perceived not only related to the concrete demands or objectives of that struggle, but also as an act of opposition against the system.  This last fact is what establishes the link between a variety of concrete or partial struggles and mobilizations--all of them are seen as  related to each other, not because their concrete objectives are intrinsically related but because they are all seen as equivalent in confrontation with the repressive regime.  It is not consequently, something positive, but something negative: their opposition to a common enemy.  Luxemburg's argument is that a revolutionary mass identity is established through the overdetermination, over a whole historical period, of a plurality of separate struggles.  These traditions fused, at the revolutionary moment, in a ruptural point." (Laclau 40-41)
     If one has spent any time reading Luxemburg, this is certainly a curious way of expressing her approach to thinking through revolutionary transformation.  Certainly, Laclau gets some of it right.  He captures Luxemburg's emphasis on the need to understand revolutionary potential as a product of the coagulation of small skirmishes and battles, often seemingly disconnected.  He also understands Luxemburg's critique of the forms of blanquism that have deeply influenced a variety of struggles.  Luxemburg rejects the notion that a small group of people can plan forms of unity or struggle in advance.  Instead, those processes are developed within the struggle itself.  However, it is when Laclau emphasizes the negativity of Luxemburg's thought, the point where he insists that the common thread of these struggles is only in the fact that they contain a seed that opposes the system as a whole, is where his analysis veers widely off the mark.  It's not that Laclau is incorrect in bringing up this aspect, but his claim that this is the only aspect of these that is only thing held in common by the struggles.  For Luxemburg, partial struggles have two positive qualities: 1. pedagogical: they are a training ground for organizers, militants, and participants.  They allow for tactics and strategies to be tested, and that learning process informs further actions, even when they are seemingly disconnected. 2. is vaguer and potentially more problematic for some: for Luxemburg, collective struggle has a sort of vitalistic quality to it.  Small struggles allow for the working class to strengthen itself, to increase its capacity, to transform itself into a stronger and more focused assemblage.  Rather than simply opposing a structure of domination, Luxemburg sees an assemblage breaking away from a servile dependence on the social rules of those who exploit and dominate it to produce its own forms of rules and organization, built on a radically different social logic.
      This substantial misreading of Luxemburg allows for Laclau to link her thought into his theory of the empty signifier as the dominant logic of the political.  He does so in the following fashion.  By stripping out the positive content of Luxemburg's analysis, Laclau can fit her work into his overall schema of the functioning of the political.  For Laclau, the political operates through the empty signifier, which gestures towards the logic of equivalence in any linguistic system.  Language is structured on the basis of difference, but those differences are arbitrary.  Therefore each sign is equivalent to one another within this system.  Laclau notes that this system is analogous to the role of gold, the previous universal equivalent within the system of exchange.  And the relationship between Laclau's theory and the logic of exchange value is quite strong, both operate as a system of equivalence, allowing for all the physical qualities of an object to be stripped away to operate in this phantom-like existence.  But that entire logic rests upon labor, as Marx would note, the erased dimension of the commodity form that must be critically explored.  There seems to be a similar operation within the work of Laclau, erasing the dimension of living labor from his political system.  In the end, Laclau's attempt to critique Marx's system repeats the forms of erasure contained in earlier conventional political thought, renaturalizing the structures of exploitation built into the logic of the commodity form.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

On the last Joint Council Meeting for the union

     I have been putting off this post for a while.  I wanted to wait for my irritation about the machinations of the admin caucus at the last Joint Council meeting to cool a bit before I wrote about that situation and the upcoming elections.  There are folks who are at their most entertaining and informative when they rant, but I don't think that I am one of them.  Additionally, I am currently running for the Campus Unit Chair for the Irvine branch of the local, and that has kept me a bit occupied as well.  I thought I would give a brief description of the events of the Joint Council meeting, and then use that material to diagnose some of the basic problems with the local.  As shocking as this may sound, I will then move from there into an argument for supporting the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, the caucus that I am a part of, who is currently running a sixty person slate in the current elections.
      The Joint Council meeting started around 2pm on Saturday, April 9th.  As part of the Irvine delegation, we had already been in Berkeley since noon the previous day for the meeting of the reform caucus.  That meeting turned out to be quite productive, resolving a number of outstanding issues, and producing a strong slate of candidates to run in the upcoming election.  That morning a number of us had met to discuss a number of proposals that we wanted to introduce to the Joint Council.  Most of these proposals concerned the formal structures of the elections.  After the suspicious nature of the previous vote on the contract, we wanted to introduce a number of measures to make sure that the same problems didn't occur in the next elections.  We wanted election observers, daily counts of the vote, and a uniform set of ballot boxes that were not easily opened or seen into.  The collective set of proposals was designed to lower the chances of ballot stuffing to occur, which would be quite easy to do with the current haphazard and unorganized nature of our elections procedures.  However, these were not the only focus of our proposals.  We also wanted to discuss access to resources for organizing.  The current leadership has done its best to block any connection between the Irvine elected leadership and the rank and file.  It took weeks for us to get a key to the office, and we still have no access to the membership database, nor have we been trained in its use.  Additionally, we wanted to make the workload survey written by rank and file members and appropriated by the leadership into a far more interactive structure, allowing participants to not only input date, but to get a sense of the workload situation in their department, rather than simply receiving data months later.
     The first vote of the meeting set the tone of what was to come.  One of our members put up a proposal to add an additional agenda point to the fairly sparse official meeting to cover proposals on the upcoming elections.  After a short discussion, it was voted down by a small majority.  At that point, two things were fairly clear, there were very few to no neutral voices in the room, and that we were in the minority.  From there, the meeting moved into a number of empty rituals, briefly presenting the union's budget, and the previous minutes.  However, it was important that we brought our issues to the table, and we began with the workload survey issue.  We managed to begin that process with a fairly substantial mistake on our part by leaving a reference to our caucus, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union in the written version of the proposal.  That language was never officially entered into the proposal, but its existence on paper was repeatedly used to challenge the validity of the proposal.  That situation eventually led to the proposal being declared out of order by the president of the union.  After a lengthy and complex debate, a compromise proposal was introduced that would allow the leadership to have greater control over the apparatus of the survey, and after the challenge to the president's declaration was voted down by the administration caucus, the compromise was voted in with a fairly large majority.
     To tell the truth, if the results of the compromise are put into effect, the compromise will succeed in making the survey better, although the leadership has often sat on these sorts of decisions, letting them die.  Time, and our demand for a better and more interactive survey apparatus will only tell on this question.  But I wanted to take a little time to talk about the nature of the debate itself before moving on.  The primary concern of the administration caucus folks was security; who would have access to this information, who could enter information, etc.  It's notable that most of the security issues that were brought up could also apply to the old survey, which was already posted.  This critique was largely formed by the fear that the administration would intercept information, and the fear that angry members would skew the information of the survey.  Implicitly, these issues could be combated through control over the information.  Additionally, a number of interesting issues came up with the relationship between the survey and organizing.  These positions were in opposition to one another, but united against the survey.  The first position placed the survey in opposition to person to person organizing, arguing for the latter, and the second wanted a survey that would create a specific action for the members to take.  Our position was sort of the unthought of the other positions, seeing the survey as a tool that could be used for face to face organizing, as well as a form of cognitive mapping for both rank and file members and organizers to see where workplace violations were occurring, making workload issues a collective issue, one that could be linked to the issues of the budget cuts, and fought as a political issue.  At the same time, despite the occasional awkwardness and miscommunication, this was a genuinely democratic debate, one that lead to a potentially useful solution if followed through on.
     From there, the situation got more problematic.  After a contentious debate over whether we should have a five or fifteen minute break, the meeting got under way.  An Irvine member immediately made a proposal to fight for access to our database, along with training to use it.  The proposal was seconded, and we were set to debate the issue.  But that discussion was immediately foreclosed by a call by a member of the administration caucus to adjourn the meeting.  Without discussion or debate, the majority of the meeting voted to adjourn, leaving a proposal on the table, along with several other substantial proposals that we wanted to make, undiscussed.  In effect, the majority of the Joint Council voted to forestall any substantial democratic discussion of the decision making process of the union, deferring to the leadership.  Many of them seemed genuinely angry that we wanted to spend any time on these debates at all.  For me, this anger and confusion is symptomatic of genuine structural problems with our union.  Over the past few years, joint council meetings have gone from two days to one day, the most recent, lasting only two and a half hours.  That shift has occurred through the active connivance of the current leadership, but it has also produced a strong faction of the elected leadership of the union who think that the union should be run on the basis of a passive assent to the decisions made by a small group of professionals at the top.  (It's notable that 3 out of 4 of the top part of the administration caucus (or as they call themselves: the Social and Economic Justice Caucus) are no longer graduate students.)  That issue is a far more substantial problem than the occasionally controlling and paternalistic approach to managing the meeting shown by the president, Daraka Larimore-Hall.
       I recognize that there is some danger in offering such a detailed description of the messy process of decision making, but I wanted to offer an attempt at an honest description of what is going on.  (I also want to make it clear that this 'honesty' comes through the lens of a committed reform activist)  However, the problem that we as the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union are trying to respond isn't the issue of 'messiness', but instead the issue of the lack of participatory democracy in the union.  The hostility to the continued discussion in the Joint Council meeting is a learned response, I want to argue.  It arises out of a society in which very few decisions are made collectively and democratically.  Our goal within the AWDU is to start challenging that set of social assumptions within the union to make it stronger through the active assent and decision making processes of the rank and file, rather than through passive acceptance.  We want to have a union in which 'Everybody does a little bit', rather than 'a few people do a lot of things' (to quote my friend and former colleague, Kevin Wortman, former activist and recording secretary of the union... incidentally, not a member of our caucus)  One practical way of doing that is to make the Joint Council a meaningful decision making body, but it also means empowering the local branches of the union to make decisions about how to respond to their own working conditions.  For more details on our platform, please check our website.

Again, I am open to debate from all parties on these issues, but any anonymous responses will be deleted.  Democratic debate is a right that entails responsibility.  If you want to make claims about the direction of our union, you should be willing to put your name to those claims.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rethinking Althusser through Spinoza

  Yet another of my earlier papers.  This was my attempt to work through the relationship between Spinoza and Althusser.  I was tempted to hold this back for academic publishing after revision, but frankly the level of rewriting needed would transform it into a completely different essay.  (The paragraphing is particularly problematic.  So here is another moment of intellectual bildung for you to take a look at.  I will be dealing with the question of the union elections in the next couple days.

                Louis Althusser makes an odd remark at the beginning of his book, Machiavelli and Us.  After introuducing a brief ancedote from one of Machiavelli’s works, he makes the following comment about him, “I would not want to make too much of this quip.  But it might serve—after its fashion, and in allegorical mode—to sum up the impression of a philosophical reader confronted with Machiavelli: more specifically, a philosophical reader who wishes to enroll Machiavelli in his own ranks.  He will rapidly have to realize that Machiavelli ‘marches in the opposite direction to that in which he fires’, or fires in the opposite direction from that which one wishes to make him march; or, even worse, that if he certainly does not fire in the line of the march, we do not even know he is firing: he always fires elsewhere.”[1] The line of thought can certainly be seen to circle back to implicate Althusser himself.
            After all, it would seem that many of the brilliant minds of the time had no idea what was to be made of Althusser.  We presented with the image of Althusser as structuralist, apolitical, crypto-Stalinist, etc.  Thinkers ranging from E. P. Thompson, James Scott, to Edward Said seem to be unable to confront his legacy without axe in hand.
            These polemics, whether accurate or not, seem to freeze a critical understanding of Althusser’s ideas rather than facilitate it.  We need to think differently then them.  We need to see the Althusser that “always fires elsewhere.”  We need to see the Althusser that is always, to some extent, speaking in code.  And most significantly, we need to realize that Althusser’s work was not written in an ahistorical void to a universal audience, rather it was directed towards a very specific audience.  Althusser states this rather explicitly within the introduction to English Readers within For Marx,  “As the Introduction shows, this conjuncture is, first, the theoretical and ideological conjuncture in France, more particularly the present conjuncture in the French Communist Party and in French philosophy.  But as well as this particularly French conjuncture, it is also the present ideological and theoretical conjuncture of the international Communist movement.”[2]
            I think that it is clear that in terms of political thinking, For Marx is the more significant of the two canonical works of Althusser.  Certainly one cannot deny the brilliant insights of Reading Capital; however; it is apparent that in many ways it’s position within the political discussions of the day was much less explicit.  For Marx, on the other hand, certainly entered that arena much more directly.  This is fairly obvious from the reaction of the officials of the French Communist Party to essays such as “Contradiction and Overdetermination”.  In this sense, Reading Capital will be touched upon, but the primary sources that will be examined will be For Marx, the Essay in Lenin and Philosophy, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, and Essays in Self-Criticism.  The last work in particular is significant as that it goes back and looks critically at the earlier works and reevaluates them, adding some significant clarifications.
            Before we move into an explicit critical reading of Althusser’s works themselves, perhaps a detour would aid us, using Entienne Balibar’s examination of the historical conjecture of the writing of the Theological-Political Treatise and its reception in his recent book Spinoza and Politics.  Its explicit enemies, the pastors, the reactionary scholars did not only condemn the book, but its translation into Dutch was not completed precisely on the request of Spinoza’s political allies.  Why was this book, “which was written without any “revolutionary intention”, deemed, “not only subversive to Spinoza’s opponents, but more embarrassing than useful to his friends?”[3]
            It is fairly clear that even within the TTP, Spinoza was not only criticizing the old theocratic order but also the new human centered construction of the universe of thinkers such as Descartes. “Spinoza was thus at risk of taking on two adversaries at once, the theologians and the majority of philosophers: the former, because they made their living by speculating rationally on religious objects, thus transforming them into theological objects; and the latter, because they tended to distort philosophy into an anti-religious discourse.”[4]
The freedom that Spinoza embraces is not the one of the ’Freedom Party.’ He certainly has a foot in that world of science and commerce.  He has ties to the society of science, was most likely an unofficial advisor to Johann de Witt, and at one point was involved in trade.  But at the same time, it is clear that Spinoza’s loyalties lied elsewhere.  He does not center his universe around man like his contemporaries.  He isn’t interested in displacing religion within the same maneuver as Descartes.  In effect, he is not interested in engaging within their instrumental reason.
“What is clear, with the benefit of hindsight, is that the philosophical demands made upon Spinoza by those around him brought together three very different kinds of expectation.  Even if these different demands were sometimes made by the same men, they remained fundamentally heterogeneous, corresponding to the imperatives of science, of non-denominational religion and of republican politics.  Not only was Spinoza aware of these various demands, but he displaced each of them in turn, never responding to any of them according to the expectations that lay behind them.”[5]
The bourgeois order is built of the construction of particular interests of particular group presented as the interests and desires of all.  Spinoza tries to achieve what the bourgeoisie attempted and failed.  “These “preachers” denounced not only the theological laxity of the Regents but also their opulent way of life and their stranglehold on public affairs.  In this way, their preaching even came to contain a “democratic” element.”[6]
            There is a clear parallel between this and Althusser’s position within the French Communist Party.  After all, it is clear that it is the Spinoza of the Theological-Political Treatise that is most inspiring to him.  “And no doubt this strategy comforted me in my personal philosophical strategy: to take over the Party from inside it’s own positions… but what pretensions!”[7]  This strange position that Althusser took up for himself, placed him in an odd position in regards to critics within the party.  After all, didn’t Althusser himself sing the praises for Marx, Lenin, and the popular front, but in all cases these were not the same objects that the Party constructed itself under.
            This was no coincidence, and it advantages are spelt out quite elegantly by Althusser himself.
            “In addition, by basing my arguments on Marx, who was after all the founding father of the Communist Party and their official source of inspiration, I acquired a peculiar position of strength.  This made me difficult to attack within the Party when I challenged the official interpretation of Marx which they used to justify their decisions, in other words what was effectively the Party line.  What I did in fact was simply to appeal to Marx’s thought against the various aberrant interpretations, and especially the Soviet ones which served as a source of inspiration to the Party.”[8]
            It was the use of those terms that made it extremely difficult for the critics within the party of Althusser to attack him too intensely.  After all, in order to do so, they would need to read both Althusser and their own work closely, and frankly they were too lazy to do so.  It is not an unreasonable thing to say that Althusser was involved in a party that until Eurocommunism, made the claims of desiring a revolutionary transformation when they clearly did not.  Castroriadis states this well in his writings for Socialism or Barbarism, when he notes that the Communist Parties were not betraying the working class, rather they had done that years ago and were merely serving other class interests.  This is something that Althusser recognizes in his memoirs, but it is not sure if he recognized while in the party.
            There are two moments that really exemplify the differences between Althusser and the party leadership.  The first are the events of May 1968.  Although he was out of town at the time and made initially disparaging remarks towards the revolt, later he understood all to clearly what the party didn’t want or could not understand, that it was at that moment that revolution was possible, and that the party abandoned it completely.  The nature of that recognition came early on, in a letter to a Italian comrade, “May 1968, which saw a general strike of unprecedented proportions, represents the most significant event in Western history since the Resistance and the victory of Nazism.”[9]
            The second moment was the debate over the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in 1976.  Both Althusser and Balibar took strong positions in favor of protecting the phrasing within the party’s constitution.  What they foresaw has come all too much to fruition.  The abandonment of the phrase indicated the last, breaths of any possibility of the party representing anything revolutionary at all.
            The abandonment of the phrase was explicitly tied to refusal to see something inherent within revolutionary struggle.  That is, “for Marx, the State apparatuses are not neutral instruments but, in a strong sense, the organic repressive and ideological apparatuses of a class: the ruling class.  In order to guarantee the domination of the working class and its allies, and to prepare for the ‘withering away’ of the State, you cannot avoid attacking the class character of the existing State apparatuses.  That means ‘smashing’ the State.”[10]  The party is abandoning that goal by accepting the notion that the State is already democratic, that it’s to say, they abandoned a Marxist conception of the State for a reformist one.
              There are always theoretical matters imminent within Althusser’s political thought.  Perhaps most explicitly we need to come to grips with the implicit Spinozism contained within Althusser’s writings.  Spinoza is a topic that only gets dealt with explicitly in a few moments within Althusser’s writings, and those moments are some of the least canonized of his works.  For the most part, they bubble up in cryptic asides or can be seen to reside implicitly within the concepts themselves.  Two examples in his non-canonical Essays in Self-Criticism can give us some thought.  “We were guilty of an equally powerful and compromising passion: we were Spinozists.”[11] and commenting on the ‘structuralism’ of Reading Capital, he comments that it is “much more Spinozist than structuralist!”[12]  Perhaps the closest he comes within the canon is remark in Reading Capital that Spinoza is the only philosophical precedent to Marx.  However these moments are rather exceptional.  We need to recognize that Althusser’s works are similar to the Theological-Political Treatise, and not the Ethics.  To extract those thoughts, we need to engage in something similar to what Althusser himself did to the writings of Marx, in effect, to do an Althusserian reading of Althusser.
            This first entails examining Althusser’s critique of the Hegelian ontology that drove so many thinkers forwards.  In a sense this means dispelling Lukacs, but not because somehow he represents all that is wrong within Marxist thought.  After all the two are interested in some of the same questions tied to ontology.  Lukacs represents an explicit Hegelian ontological position.  One that is taken up by others with whom have significantly less understanding of this project.  It seems that in truth are the targets of Althusser’s salvos, not Lukacs who is mentioned once in a footnote.  After all, it is rather John Lewis and his conceptions of Marx’s ‘man’ that preoccupy Althusser for 60 pages.[13]
            More specifically, Althusser’s adversary can be seen as the broad movement of socialist humanism.  The Marx that is the literal inversion of Hegel, the Marx working through Feuerbach’s problematic.  He sees this within the texts that are worshipped by this group.  “But in On the Jewish Question, Hegel’s Philosophy of the State, etc. and even usually in the Holy Family, he is nothing more than an avant-garde Feuerbachian applying an ethical problematic to the understanding of human history.”[14]
            He has a similar impatience with attempts on the part of the dogmatic scholars who want to save Marx from the humanists.  They make a similarly Hegelian gesture in this attempt, “a pseudo-theory of the history of philosophy in the ‘future anterior’ is erected.”[15]  He completely rejects the teleological project that is implicit within that conceptualization.  “It is clear that this discrimination between elements detached from the internal context of the thought expressed and conceived in isolation, is only possible on condition that the reading of these texts is slanted, that is, teleological.  One of the most most clear-headed of this authors in this collection, N. Lapine, expressly recognizes this: ‘This kind of characterization…is, in fact, very eclectic, as it does not answer the question as to how these different elements are combined together in Marx’s world outlook.’  He sees this clearly that this decomposition of a text into what is already materialist and what is still idealist does not preserve its unity, and that this decomposition is induced precisely by reading the early texts through the content of the mature texts.”[16]
            It is clear from this description, what Althusser wants out of an analysis of a system of thought.  He recognizes that the various elements interact with one another to form a whole and that those elements cannot be understood outside of this system properly.  In this case, the humanists, at least, are being honest, by using Marx’s early thought driven by Feuerbach’s problematic systematically, all flaws in tact.  But perhaps this is the mark that we should enter into Althusser’s positive and productive thought rather than his critiques of others.
            Althusser wants to put his conceptualization of Marx’s conceptualization of the world on considerably different grounds.  These grounds were to be quite controversial and radical.  “If the whole is posed as structured, i.e., possessing a type of unity quite different from the type of unity of the spiritual whole, this is no longer the case: not only does it become impossible to think the determination of the elements of a whole by the structure in the categories of analytical and transitive causality, it also becomes impossible to think it in the category of the global expressive causality of a universal inner essence immanent in its phenomenon.  The proposal to think the determination of the elements of a whole by the structure of the whole posed an absolutely new problem in the most theoretically embarrassing circumstances, for there were no philosophical concepts for its resolution.  The only theoretician…[posed] this problem and outline a solution to it was Spinoza.”[17]
            This complex structure of the whole simply puts the Hegelian structure away.[18]   As Althusser points out “a Hegelian contradiction is never really overdetermined, even though it frequently has all the appearances of being so.”[19]  It is the recognition of a whole that is purely built upon its ‘elements’ as Althusser puts it, or the modes of its attributes as Spinoza would put it.  Althusser follows up that rather oblique commentary with something a bit more specific, “There is no longer any original essence, only a ever pre-givenness, however far knowledge delves into its past.  There is no longer any simple unity, only a structured, complex unity.  There is no longer any original simple unity (in any form whatsoever), but instead, the ever-pre-givenness of a structured complex unity.”[20]
            There is an analogous trope within Spinoza in his Proposition 28 of the first book of the Ethics.
            “Every particular thing, or, any thing which is finite and has a determining existence, cannot exist or be determined to operate unless it is determined to existence and operation by another cause, which is also finite and has a determinate existence; and again, the latter cause also cannot exist or be determined to operation unless it is determined to existence and operation by another cause, which is also finite and has a determinate existence, and so on to infinity.”[21]
            It is these finite elements that make up the structured, complex unity of Spinoza’s conceptualization of substance.  One is place in a position where one can only understand the infinite chain of causes in its entirety, but that entirety is made up of nothing but its particulars.
            This line of thought is extremely important in Althusser’s conceptualizations of overdetermination contained within “Contradiction and Overdetermination”.  This concept directly impacts how one conceptualizes the class struggle.  It moves one from the position that posits that the economic is reality to one where this is not the case, where modes interact in different manner.
“We must carry this through to its conclusion and say that this overdetermination does not just refer to apparently unique and aberrant historical situations (Germany, for example), but is universal; the economic dialectic is never active in the pure state in History, these instances, the superstructures, etc. – are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the Time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic.  From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes.”[22] 
Those who criticize Althusser for his ‘last instance’ thesis frequently overlook this comment.  It seems that it exists to placate the dogmatic French Communist Party, by replacing a dogma with the dogma is still there despite the fact it has clearly been replaced.  The moment that this element is introduced, any functional sense of ‘economism’’ is gone.  We are left with the sense that the ‘economic’ is an important element in a complex overdetermined structure.
Althusser does not even leave the Russian Revolution out of this process.  The moment that for so many communists was the model to be followed as a recipe for a successful revolution becomes yet another exception in a world that is nothing but exceptions.
“Russia was precisely a result of the intense overdetermination of the basic class contradiction, we should perhaps ask what is exceptional about this ‘exceptional situation’, and whether, like all exceptions, this one does not clarify its rules-is not, unbeknown to the rule, the rule itself.  For after all, are we not always in exceptional situations?  The failure of the 1849 Revolution in Germany German Social-Democratic failure at the beginning of the twentieth century pending the chauvinist betrayal of 1914 was an exception, the failure in 1871 was an exception… exceptions, but with respect to what?  To nothing but the abstract, but comfortable and reassuring idea of a pure, simple ‘dialectical’ schema, which in its very simplicity seems to have retained a memory (or rediscovered the style) of the Hegelian contradiction as such.”[23]
This universe was clearly a disturbing one for those who were weaned upon the notion of the inevitably of the proletarian revolution, and the proletariat as the essential for driving history.  We are instead introduced to a concept of history without a subject or a goal.[24]
This does not mean that there is never a revolutionary situation.  This situation occurs precisely at moments of ‘fusion’.  In this sense, I think that a Definition within the second book of the Ethics can aid us.
“When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitudes are constrained by others in such a way that they are in reciprocal contact with each other, or if they are moved with the same or different degrees of speed in such a way that they communicate their motions to each other in some fixed ratio, we shall say that those bodies are reciprocally united to each other.  We shall also say that all such bodies simultaneously compose one body, i.e. an individual, which is distinguished from others by this union of bodies.”[25]
This ‘union of bodies’ is able to “’fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on the regime which its ruling classes are unable to defend.”  This concept is built on an “’accumulation’ of contradictions.”  These contradictions come together in way that allows for class strata that would normally have contradictory interests to come together.
Althusser points to Russia as a perfect example of this sort of fusion.  It was influenced by many elements that came together at the time.  The first and most obvious influence was the First World War.  But other influences came into play; there was the impact of the accumulation of contradictions from the revolution of 1905. Also, “A gigantic contradiction between the stage of development of capitalist methods of production (particularly in respect to proletarian concentration: the largest factory in the world at the time was the Putilov works at Petrograd, with 40,000 workers and auxiliaries) and the medieval state of the countryside.  The exacerbation of class struggles throughout the country, not only between exploiter and exploited, but even within the ruling classes themselves (the great feudal proprietors supporting autocratic, militaristic police Tsarism; the lesser nobility involved in constant conspiracy; the big bourgeoisie and the liberal bourgeoisie opposed to the Tsar; the petty bourgeoisie oscillating between conformism and anarchistic ‘leftism’) The detailed course of events added other ‘exceptional’ circumstances, incomprehensible outside the ‘tangle of Russia’s internal and external contradictions.”[26]
This also gives interesting insight into the process of post-revolutionary Russia.  As Althusser points out, if the economy was the reality that produced everything else, simply taking it would solve all the problems.  However, this clearly didn’t occur in the Soviet Union.  Althusser points out Lenin’s concept of ‘survivals.’  These ‘survivals’ show fairly clearly that not everything falls into place when the economy is taken.  Althusser states this in a group of rhetorical questions.  “Can it be reduced to the survival of certain economic structures which the Revolution was unable to destroy with its first degrees: for example, the small-scale production (primarily peasant production in Russia) which so preoccupied Lenin?  Or does it refer as much to other structures, political, ideological structures, etc.: customs, habits, even ‘traditions’ such as the ‘national tradition’ with its specific traits?”[27]
It seems that there is something missing here.  What is never touched on is the issue of Leninist practice in intervening in these situations.  To what extent are the ideas within Lenin’s party the means to the ends of Stalin’s “dictatorship over the proletariat”?  It seems that if one were to register a complaint with Althusser it would precisely be at this point.  However, it seems that there needs to be a little more discussion before we get to that point.  It must be dealt with in the realm of thought and the way that Althusser approaches that subject.
Spinoza operates on a separation of thought and extension.  The section above dealt with the issues of bodies (overdetermined by thought of course) perhaps it is time to move into the arena of thought and theory.  It seems that there are two primary aspects to look at in the context of Althusser’s thought.  The first concerns the notions around Ideology and Ideological practices.  This clearly has an element that is associated with the body, an idea that Foucault will draw out more explicitly with Discipline and Punish.  This undoubtedly makes it a good transition point.  The second deals with a more ‘abstract matter’, the idea of theoretical practices and its relationship to practices more explicitly tied to the body.
            It is this concept of ideology that has an explicit tie to the Theological Political Treatise.  An interesting not in the introduction to that book relates to this discussion.  Spinoza ties ‘despotic statecraft to the need to “hoodwink the subjects… so that men may fight as bravely for slavery as for safety, and count it not shame but the highest honor to risk their lives for the vainglory of a tyrant.”[28]  To phrase it slightly different, what are the conditions that need to exist, that individuals prefer the slavery to their freedom.
It seems that this precise concept is the one that Althusser is really grappling with in the essay.  There is a long tradition of dealing with this in certain Marxist circles with the concept of 'false consciousness’.  A tradition that largely stems back to Feuerbach and to some extent, Rousseau’s writings.  It’s this tradition that Althusser is fighting within his essay.  If ideology was merely a trick, if one could lose the image of the sun as being two hundred feet away, because one realized it really wasn’t that distance, than ideology would be a fairly simple issue.  The truth is ideology is something quite substantial, “where men ‘become conscious of their class conflict and ‘fight it out in its religious, ethical, legal, and political forms, etc.”[29] 
            There is a slight difference in the texts, but it is primarily one of the elements that they focus on rather than the substance of those elements.  Spinoza is interested in prophecy.  The prophet is one who rises out of a crisis in ideology to produce a new ideology.  One can almost say that the prophet acts as the epicenter to the crisis.  He creates a whole new set of rules (effects); he does this by tapping into something imminent to the situation, power (potenzas) and the relations of power. But in most cases the prophet suppresses the cause of his creation.  That is to say that their very historical nature is suppressed and they are presented as ahistorical rules to an unchanging universe.
            Althusser, however, focuses on the system as it works, not its moments of crisis and transformation.  Why is this?  One could say that the difference between the two is this. Spinoza writes on the Ideological State Apparatuses centered around the church at its collapse and one is getting only brief inclinations of what the new system will be.  Althusser writes on the school centered Ideological State apparatuses that were at the moment in crisis, but hardly fatally so.
            Althusser captures this sense of what it means to be within the world of ideologies well within his essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”.
            “I might add: what thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology.  What takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside of it.  That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’.  It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology.  As is well known, the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself (unless one is really a Spinozist or Marxist, which, in this matter, is to be exactly the same thing).  Which amounts to saying that ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time that it is nothing but outside (for science and reality).” [30]
            To deal in ideology is to deal in effects.  More precisely, it is to deal with a world of particulars that are not placed in their proper perspective within the whole.  It is to deal with the ideas that arise from bodies at a highly inadequate level.  But there is an outside of ideology, that outside occurs when one grasps the whole, the interdependence of the various parts to produce that whole, and the very dependence.  The very notion of ‘science and reality’ is certainly not positivistic and may tie directly into Spinoza’s notion of the third knowledge… the intellectual love of god.
            However this is taking us too far afield.  Althusser is engaged in the second form of knowledge within the essays, the critique of ideology.  He takes the conceptualization of ideology out of the ethereal reaches of an imagined pure thought, and places it imminently within the discursive practices of everyday life.  Schools, the family, etc. act within the whole to produce subjects that work willingly within the system.  One’s whole identity is constructed through these ideologies, which not only effect the ideas in our heads, but give us a whole series of practices to engage in it.
            To circle back to earlier discussions, it is this that the socialist humanists miss out on, that is that the originary ‘man’ that they refer to is already a product of a certain type of production, a reproduction to be more precise.  When they miss this point, it is because they are reproducing the bourgeois conceptualization of the subject.  In fact, his critique of John Lewis is not that different than Spinoza’s of Descartes.  In effect, John Lewis with his concept of man who can ‘transcend’ his circumstances, his history, we are introduced to a sort of man-god.[31] 
            It’s at this point that we need to get back to the troubles mentioned earlier in the text.  There is a second concept involved in the realm of thought.  One that also touches on the questions concerning the body and practice.  This concept has some troubles.
A very interesting concept in Althusser’s toolbox of ideas is the notion of theoretical practice.  This involves a number of important gestures.  The first is pointing out that theory is in itself a practice.  Althusser puts this nicely himself, “So a practice of theory does exist; theory is a specific practice which acts on its own object and ends in its own product: a knowledge.”[32]
So far, so good.  This concept is not so different than Deleuze and Guatteri’s concept of philosophy in What is Philosophy?, i.e. that the purpose of philosophy is the production of concepts.  This is a fairly well known Spinozist trope.  As Spinoza states this, “For example, a circle existing in Nature and the idea of the existing circle, which is also in God, is one and the same thing, which is explained through different attributes.”  This trope is also recognized within Reading Capital.
However, Althusser gets into trouble within two areas.  The first involves the privileging those theoretical practices over other practices.  Althusser is fond of quoting Lenin’s comment, “Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary practice.’ at no point is there the necessary reversal of this thesis.  Althusser in the Essays of Self-Criticism lays out this problem very schematically without even his awareness of its existence.  This scheme begins with the concept of politics being the concentrated for of the economic forum in the last instance, and theory acting as the concentration of the political field in the last instance.[33]
These particular problems are not ones new within Althusser’s thinking; rather they go back to the avant-gardist logic implicit within the Lenin of What is to be Done.  That schematic that is laid out within the Essays of Self Criticism is not that different than the schematic laid out for Lenin’s party hierarchy.  Theoretical practice acts as a clear parallel to the party central committee of Lenin’s scheme.
             This temptation for privileging the mind is one that can also be found at time within Spinoza’s writing, but when push comes to shove, his conception is far more parallelist.  This point is well made in the Corollary to Proposition seven in the second book.
            “It follows from this that God’s power of thinking is the equal of his actual power of doing.  That is, whatever follows formally from the infinite nature of God follows objectively in God from the idea of God, in the same order with the same connection.”[34]
            Spinoza also emphasizes the potential power of the body.  Althusser himself makes reference to this concept within his memoirs.  However, the references that he makes to this trope is in reference to sexuality.  “Later on, I came across a startling prefiguration of Freud’s concept of the libido in this same theory, as well as of the theory of ambivalence… and the opposite of the vitally expansive and joyful conatus of the body and the soul, which were as inseparable as the lips and the teeth.”[35]  This is not an unreasonable and uninteresting reading of the concept, but it doesn’t deal with the way that this concepts of the body can relate to ideas of political praxis, and more specifically an anti-vanguardist concept of political practice.
            It should be noted that this is not a trope that doesn’t trouble Althusser to some extent.  While being fond of the concept of the Leninist party, it is clear that he doesn’t think much of it in practice.[36]  There are even moments when he recognizes the organization efforts of the workers themselves.  “One of our problems is that even when we decide not to underestimate, we end up pretty wide of the mark.  The masses are potentially (potentially: in fact—but no one gives them the means) far ahead of ‘us’.  The whole issue is to know in what sense.  We need to know this is a precise way: exactly what sectors of the ‘masses’ are on the move, where, in what forms (which can be unknown, unexpected, without precedent).”  This is pretty radical stuff, and it is always a part of the way that Althusser thinks.  The trouble is that the statement is domesticated by the next sentence.  “Once this is ‘under control’, the rest is child’s play.”[37]  It isn’t until the memoirs that this avant-gardist tendency is broken, and frankly at that point it is fairly irrelevant.
            This is a fairly serious difficulty within the texts, one that cannot be ignored if one is going to read Althusser politically.  In a sense, this difficulty is the difficulty and crisis of the Leninist Party itself.  It is perhaps because Althusser pushes the Marxist-Leninist form so far that this problematic point becomes so clear.  There is a temptation to create an Althusserianism without Leninism, but this seems to be engaging in the precise operation that Althusser criticizes in others.  Ultimately, this must push us towards a distinct break, but one that his work itself can be seen to point towards.  Perhaps, some of these possibilities lie within Nicos Poulantanza’s final work State, Power, Socialism.
            The last paragraph could be read as a foreclosing of the discussion on Althusser.  It is not meant in that spirit.  Too many people before, and undoubtedly, after this essay, have and will make that gesture.  To do so is a mistake and a serious one if one wants to engage in Marxism in and form or manner.  Those who ignore or dismiss Althusser, do so to their own detriment.
This essay opens up more questions than it closes.  Clearly there is a connection with many of Althusser’s ideas with a certain type of Spinozism.  This can be seen very intimately within the very fundamental concepts themselves.  However, this only sets up a deeper problem, one that requires a reading of Althusser more on the lines of Reading Capital than the essay here which is so strongly tied to the methodology of For Marx.  We see many elements of Spinoza’s epistemological project here.  It’s not a coincidence that the majority of the quotations come from the second book of the Ethics, the only book that is focused on those questions.  This is also true for the Theological-Political Treatise.  But both of those books (the books of epistemology) are built upon the ontological conceptualizations that are in the other books of the Ethics.  Those are the concepts that are truly suppressed in any explicit form whatsoever.  They are there.  They lurk in odd corners of the books such as the relationship of ideology and science, and in Althusser’s conceptualization of science itself.  Drawing out that relationship would allow for a far more radical rereading of Althusser than the one set out here

[1] Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and Us, ed. Francois Matheron, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 1999), 5.
[2] Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso 1969), 9-10.
[3] Entienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, trans. Peter Snowden (London: Verso, 1998), 4.
[4] Ibid., 8.
[5] Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, 23.
[6] Ibid., 20.
[7] Louis Althusser, “The Only Materialist Tradition, Part I: Spinoza”, in Warren Montag and Ted Stolze, eds., The New Spinoza (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 11.
Strangely enough, Althusser receives this insight through Spinoza’s use of God in the Ethics, Althusser sees this as a strategic move on the part of Spinoza to infiltrate his enemy’s positions and dynamite them from within.  This is a little suspicious, in that for the most part, the Ethics is not a terribly strategic book in that sense.  However the tactics that Althusser is referring to seem to be much more resonant with the wary and reserved nature of the Theological-Political Treatise.
[8] Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever, ed. Oliver Corpet and Yann Moulier Boutang, trans. Richard Veasey (New York: The New Press, 1993), 222.
[9] Maria Antonietta Macciocchi and Louis Althusser, Letters from inside the Italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser, trans. Stephen M. Hellman (London: NLB, 1973), 320.
[10]Louis Althusser, “The Historical Significance of the 22nd Congress”.   Afterward to On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, by Etienne Balibar, trans. Grahame Locke (London: NLB, 1977), 207.
[11] Louis Althusser Essays In Self Criticism, trans. Grahame Lock (London: NLB, 1976), 132
[12] Louis Althusser, Essays In Self Criticism, 126.
[13] Louis Althusser, “Response To John Lewis”, Essays in Self Criticism.
[14] Louis Althusser, For Marx, 46.
[15] Ibid., 54.
[16] Louis Althusser, For Marx, 57-58.
[17] Louis Althusser, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1997), 187.
[18] For now it is enough to include Althusser’s footnote of Marx
                “The latter (the method of those economic systems which move from general notions to concrete ones) is decidedly the correct scientific method.  The concrete is concrete because it is the synthesis of many determinations, and therefore a unity of diversity.  That is why it appears in thought as a process of synthesis, as a result, not as a point of departure…(in scientific method) abstract determinations lead to the reproduction of the concrete via the path of thought…the method which consists of rising from the abstract to the concrete is merely the way thought approximates the concrete and reproduces it as a concrete in thought’ (Marx-Engels, Werke, Berlin, Vol. XIII, pp. 631-2).
[19]  Louis Althusser, For Marx, 101.
[20] Louis Althusser, For Marx, 199
[21] Spinoza, Ethics, ed. and trans. G.H.R. Parkinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 96.
[22] Louis Althusser, For Marx, 113.
[23] Louis Althusser, For Marx, 104.
[24] Both the power and the potentially disturbing nature of this comment are capture well by a comment within the memoirs.       
“I later took from it my ­description of history and of truth as a process without a subject (providing the origin and basis of all meaning) and without end (without any pre-established eschatological destination); for by refusing to believe in the end as an original cause (by a mirroring of the origin and the end), I truly came to think as a materialist.  I employed the following metaphor: an idealist is a man who know which station the train leaves from and also its destination.  He knows it in advance and when he gets on a train, he knows where he is going because the train is taking him there.  The materialist, on the other hand, is a man who gets on to a moving train without knowing either where it is coming or where it is going.”  Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever, 217.
[25] Spinoza, Ethics, 128.
[26] Louis Athusser, For Marx, 96
[27] Louis Althusser, For Marx, 114.
[28] Benedictus De Spinoza, A Theological-Political Treatise and A Political Treatise, trans. R. H. M. Elwes (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1951), 5.
[29] Louis Althusser, For Marx, 11.
[30] Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971)
[31] Louis Althusser, Essays in Self-Criticism, 42-43.
[32] Louis Althusser, For Marx, 173.
[33] Louis Althusser, Essays in Self-Criticism, 46-47
[34] Spinoza, Ethics, 118.
[35] Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever, 218.
[36] It should be noted that one of Althusser’s most significant criticisms of the party within the essay on the 22nd congress was its absence of meaningful democratic practices.  “We must point out that this same Party, which talks at such length and with such generosities about liberties for others, nevertheless remains silent on the question of the present forms and practices of democratic centralism, i.e. on the forms of liberty of Communists in their own Party.” Louis Althusser, “The Historical Significance of the 22nd Congress”, 198.  
[37]Macciocchi and Althusser, Letters from inside the PCI, 4.