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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Regards marxistes sur l’héritage althussérien

by Stéphane Haber

Marxists Take New Look at Althusser Legacy

Translated Saturday 27 September 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

Far from forming a finished doctrine, Althusser’s voyage through Marx is rich in creative, nuanced and often hitherto unpublished elements.

Althusser : une lecture de Marx, (Althusser: a reading of Marx) coordinated by Jean-Claude Bourdin, published by Presses universitaires de France, 2008, 228 pages, 13 euros.

Our view of Althusser has changed. Today, the author of Pour Marx is no longer just the austere interpreter of “scientific” Marxism, the punctilious defender of a sober reading of historical materialism, a reading which placed historical materialism on the same plane of contemporary certainties as “structuralism,” rather than abandon it to the day-dreams of a somewhat pasty-faced anthropology or a pretentious philosophy of history.

The publication, over the past fifteen years, of previously unpublished texts by Althusser has led us to realize the importance of the hesitations, the heart-rending revisions and the theoretical advances which had always remained hidden behind a sometimes off-putting dogmatic façade, which is somewhat dated today.

This book, coordinated by Jean-Claude Bourdin, reminds us first of the crucial historical significance of Althusserism and its place in the history of Marxism. Bourdin does a good job explaining that Althusser, in point of fact, directly or indirectly made possible the emergence of the Marxist theory and thought that continue to influence our times. Together with other currents of thought, Althusser contributed to placing the powerful construction that is Das Kapital back at the center of intellectual reflection.

But this book is above all of interest due to the way that the various authors have succeeded in bringing out the fertility of Althusser’s thought, progressively making its nuances and surprising contributions clear. Thus the analyses of Althusser’s problematic definition of ideology, of the ambiguous place that the self-proclaimed “anti-humanist” assigned to anthropology and subjectivity, of his position with regard to such classic Marxist concepts as “alienation” or “dialectics”; or again, of the his belated attempts to redefine a non-determinist materialism capable of grasping the singularity of historic situations and circumstances – all this makes for riveting reading.

This “other Althusser,” the theoretician of a “random materialism,” the philosopher seeking the necessarily uncertain conditions for struggle and liberation, the man who expressed himself only in a very discrete way in the great texts of the 1960s (Pour Marx and Lire le Capital), is finally revealed to be our contemporary. He tells us essential things about Marxism – on condition that Marxism be understood not as a take-it-or-leave-it global doctrine, but as a source of inspiration rich in ambiguous and sometimes contradictory elements, but upon which an understanding of the present historical moment can nevertheless still draw.

Stéphane Haber, teaches philosophy at the University of Paris-Ouest-Nanterre-la Défense.

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