Tag Archives: Althusser

Criticise with weapons even as you wield the weapon of criticism, but don’t mix the two up


That our wielding of the weapon of criticism does not exhaust and preclude the task of criticising with weapons is something Marx says in his A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Needless to say, old chap Karl is right on the mark. But through this formulation of his, Marx is also clearly drawing our attention to the fact that the weapon of criticism and criticism with weapons are two different levels of abstraction of the indivisible real movement of the universalisability of the singular. And in revealing that real movement in and through its two different levels of abstraction, Marx is asking us, his readers, to be attentive to the fact that the indivisibility of the movement – precisely that which renders such movement real — from one level of abstraction to the other does not mean those levels stand conflated. Clearly, one cannot have criticism with weapons at the level that is constitutive of the wielding of the weapon of criticism, even as the movement from the one to the other has to be uninterrupted for it to be real. The respective discursive specificities that operationalise through inscription the different activitities of criticism (which are singularities in and as those different activities) of respectively different discursivised rationalities must be attended to, and maintained in and as their difference, for them to retain their respective singularity. This, needless to say, is not a blow for local ideology formation and discursive rationalities. It’s precisely meant to be a critique of such local ideology formation, albeit obviously in the specificity of the local. The universality of such singularities is, therefore, clearly not about rendering them mutually conflatable, and thus replaceable, which would amount to their de-singularisation.

Such universal-singular is, instead, a movement constituted in and by the unlapsed indivisibility of different moments of criticism (as activity) of respectively different discursive rationalities. These different moments of activities of determinate criticism of different discursive rationalities (read ideologies) are nothing but different moments of performativity of differing away from different identities. This is precisely what many of our comrades — who have fallen into the easy but extremely damaging habit of getting drunk on Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feurbach without any sense of how one is supposed to drink this potion — miss when they seek to drag criticism with weapons on to the level of the weapon of criticism. The result: ad-hominem attack on producers of ‘rightwing’ philosophical, scientific and aesthetic works passing itself off as polemical criticism of their works. As a consequence, what the weapon of criticism amounts to, in such circumstances when it stands conflated with criticising with weapons, is throwing out the baby of such theoretical, scientific and aesthetic thinking and production with the bathwater of what the practitioners of such thinking and/or producers of such theoretical, scientific and aesthetic works would have their engagement in such practice yield. So, ad-hominem attacks on producers of such works on account of their politics as thinkers, scientists, artists is extended seamlessly to the politics of the process of theoretical and/or aesthetic production they are engaged in. Hence, the labeling, and rejectionist abuse of such theoretical and artistic work — without any attempt to dialectically separate such work as the instantiation of the process of its production that renders the work text from the work per se in its asserted completeness — has become de rigueur at the level of abstraction constitutive of the weapon of criticism.

Of course, there cannot be any dispute that the task constitutive of the level of abstraction of weapon of criticism is to inquire into how a particular theoretical, scientific, or aesthetic practice (and thus process of production) produces the ontic effects it does to dialectically brush the former against the latter in order to reclaim it in, as and for itself. That is what Althusser’s class struggle in philosophy – or Marx’s wielding of the weapon of criticism at the theoretical level of abstraction it is constitutive of – arguably amounts to. However, that, contrary to the widespread assumption among comrades, is not at all the same as judging such theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production) by the effects or the ontic violence they produce. In other words, while class struggle in philosophy – or Adorno’s theoretical moment of class struggle – is all about figuring out the particular articulation of theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practice (or process of production) that produces a certain kind of effect or ontic violence, it’s certainly not about rejecting theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic works that when grasped as such effects are rendered thinkable as instantiators of those theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production) in the specificity of their concrete articulations.

In short, while a theorist/philosopher, scientist and/or artist must be criticised with weapons – i.e. shot – for politically practising and purveying the violent and oppressive ontic effects they produce a la their rightwing discourses; those discourses as instantiations of theoretical/philosophical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production) cannot be labelled rightwing, counter-revolutionary, status-quoist philosophy, science and/or art, and thus junked into the waste-bin of history. Rather, they should, as mentioned above, be engaged in the internality or immanence of their practices, or processes of production. This, in order to grasp their incompleteness, and lapse of rigour, that leads them to produce the violent, reactionary, status-quoist ontic effects they do. For, without such engagement — and their rejection would amount precisely to a refusal to engage with them in their processual internality – theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practice will always remain open to such lapse of rigour, and thus also to the politically pernicious consequences concomitant with such lapse. And being a card-carrying radical is absolutely no guarantee that one will not be the locus of such lapse of rigour in theoretical, scientific and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production). History has, time and time again, demonstrated that.

Therefore, in order to be a committed militant of revolutionary transformation one must be committed to the actuality of the real movement in its indivisible unfolding from the level of abstraction of the weapon of criticism to the level of abstraction of criticism with weapons, precisely by maintaining their separation from one another as two distinct levels of abstraction. A committed militant would, therefore, be one who makes himself/herself constantly aware that while there are thinkers/philosophers, scientists, and/or artists, who are rightwing, reactionary and/or status-quoist, there is or can be no rightwing theory/philosophy (better philosophising), science, and/or art. For instance, Heidegger and Schmitt, and Pirandello and the Italian Futurists were, as philosopher-individuals and artist-individuals, part of rightwing political projects in their respective countries (Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy). But that does not, therefore, make their philosophising/thinking and writing rightwing as such. Rather, what we need to figure is how and why do they have their philosophising and aesthetic production construe themselves as things that seamlessly blends with the reactionary political projects they participate in as philosopher-individuals and artist-individuals. That, presumably, is how one ought to also approach the ‘relationship’ between anti-communist and/or anti-working-class politics of such Indian writers and poets as Nirmal Verma, Ajneya, Ashok Vajpeyi, Kunwar Narayan, Satinath Bhaduri and O.V. Vijayan and their literary production.

Not surprisingly, the absence of such awareness among most militant comrades has ended up making their practice an integral part of the pernicious political logic that they seek to destroy and which is supposedly affirmed only by their opponents, who claim that the theoretical and artistic works they produce exhaust the task of criticism in its entirety by having the level of abstraction of criticism with weapons – or the singularising moment respective to that level of abstraction — disappear into the level of abstraction of the weapon of criticism. [Of course, the militant task even here is to make sense of this lack of awareness in supposedly militant political practices in terms of its material basis.] This, then, amounts to a reinforcement of the constitutive duality of “party of philosophy” and “party of practice” that Marx had criticised in the Introduction to his ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ in order to break with it.

Pragmatism and theoreticism – notwithstanding the appearance of their unmitigated enmity with one another and, in fact, precisely on account of such ‘enmity’ – are essentially the same. They are a constitutive diremption; a disjunctive synthesis. Revolution, or communism, can, in such circumstances, be nothing else but a movement that is real. And a movement will be real only when it’s a movement of breaking with this constitutive duality – this disjunctive synthesis – of pragmatism and theoreticism. Hence, a movement is a real movement only when it constitutes itself through abolishing, resisting and precluding the suture of the level of abstraction of criticism with weapons (the level of practice, wherein practice is the instantiation of its own immanent thought) with the level of abstraction of weapon of criticism (the level of philosophy, wherein thought is its own practice of thinking). As the Swiss-German writer Robert Walser put so acutely: “Everything at its proper time. So, fighting and throwing stones at its, and good intentions at its. It’s important to know every side.”

From Theoretical Antihumanism and Practical Humanism to Practical Antihumanism and Theoretical Humanism: Badiou After Althusser


That Badiou continues with Althusser’s terms of “practical humanism” and “theoretical antihumanism” — terms whose explication we can read in ‘Marxism and Humanism’, the last essay of Althusser’s For Marx — is there for all to see. But if we attend a little closely to how Badiou adopts those terms by having them pass through Lacan’s affirmation of the “in-human” as the basis of his “ethics of psychoanalysis (ethics being nothing but the question of practice and practical reason) we will see the radical shift that is effected in the conceptual valences of those terms in Badiou’s deployment of them. As a result, Badiou’s redeployment of the Althusserian term of practical humanism conceptually renders it a practice that articulates the non-human in its human embodiment and thereby is an affirmation of a radically new concept of generic humanity as a subtractive construction with regard to what Nietzsche critically designated “Human, All too Human”.

In Althusser, practical humanism is seen as the effect of theoretical antihumanism that is its thwarted immanence. In Badiou’s redeployment, practical humanism is meant to be the reflexive subjectivisation of its own immanent antihumanist thinking in order to be the actuality of that immanent thought in its (unthwarted, uninterrupted) action. A move that, therefore, makes it practical antihumanism precisely when it’s practical humanism. And what this would amount to in terms of theoretical fidelity to itself is a to-be-actualised generic humanity that is radically new in being a constructionist adventure.

Hence, theoretical humanism is, in this sense, conceptual fidelity to the truth of practical antihumanism that the Althusserian practical humanism has become in Badiou’s inimitable redeployment of it. Badiou’s universal-singularity as nonrelational relationality — or the human under the condition of the non-human — is what this practical antihumanism (the immanent thought of antihumanism in action in its human embodiment) as the condition of the (radically new) theoretical humanism amounts to This is clearly a philosophical manoeuvre — a thought-procedure if you will — of epistemology-ontology short-circuit that underlies Badiou’s engagement and explication of politics as prescriptive thought. A thought that, in Lacan’s words, is the thought that finds and not one that seeks itself in its own cogitative capture. This, if you will, is precisely what is at stake in Badiou’s thinking of “subjectivity without subject” from within Althusser’s “process without subject” but against and beyond it.

That Badiou is a thinker of practical antihumanism and theoretical humanism in the sense I’ve tried to argue above is most clearly evident in his Ethics and the last chapter of The Century — “The joint disappearances of Man and God’ — where he engages with Sartre’s “radical humanism” and Foucault’s “radical antihumanism” by attempting to read them in their dialectical encounter with one another. I will make two brief citations from that chapter here in the hope that they will somewhat demonstrate Badiou to be a thinker of practical antihumanism and theoretical humanism in the sense that I have tried to bring out above:

“As is the wont of the dialectical thinking of contradictions, there is a unity of the two conflicting orientations. That is because both of them treat this question: What becomes of man without God? And they are both programmatic. Sartre wishes to ground a new anthropology in the immediacy of praxis. Foucault declares that the disappearance of the figure of man is ‘the unfolding of a space in which it is once more possible to think’. Radical humanism and radical anti-humanism agree on the theme of Godless man as opening, possibility, programme of thought. That is why the two orientations will intersect in a number of situations, in particular in all the revolutionary episodes.

“In a certain sense the politics of the century or revolutionary politics more generally, creates situations that are subjectively undecidable between radical humanism and radical anti-humanism. As Merleau-Ponty saw perfectly – but only to draw from the undecidable indecisive conclusions —the general heading could very well take a conjunctive allure: ‘humanism and terror’. While the twenty-first century opens with a disjunctive morality: ‘humanism or terror. [Humanist] war against terrorism.

“This conjunctive dimension, this ‘and’, which can already be registered in the thinking of Robespierre or Saint-Just (Terror and Virtue) – a conjunction that authorizes us, forty years later, to write, without a hint of paradox, ‘Sartre and Foucault’ – does not hinder, but rather demands, in order that we may be worthy of what happens to formalize the conflict of radical orientations….”

And then again the following from the end of the same chapter:

“Through the great voices of Sartre and Foucault, the century asked: The coming man, the man who must come, in the guise of an existence or of a thought, is he a superhuman or an inhuman figure? Is the figure of man to be dialecticized, surmounted? Where else will we install ourselves? In an ‘elsewhere’ that Deleuze declared to be ‘interstellar’.

“At the century’s end, animal humanism wants to abolish the discussion itself. Its main argument, whose obstinacy we have already encountered several times, is that the political will of the overhuman (or of the new type of man, or of radical emancipation) has engendered nothing but inhumanity.

“But that’s because it was necessary to start from the inhuman: from the truths to which it may happen that we partake. And only from there can we envisage the overhuman.

“About these inhuman truths, Foucault was right to say (as was Althusser with his ‘theoretical antihumanism’ or Lacan and his radical dehumanization of the True) that they oblige us to ‘formalize without anthropologizing’.

Let call our philosophical task, on the shores of the new century, and against the animal humanism that besieges us, that of a formalized in-humanism.”

Zeleny and Althusser: A New Humanism through the Antihumanist Route


“In France and Italy Althusser’s interpretation of Marx has recently attracted attention. As opposed to a mass of superficial literature –unscientifically grounded and lacking textual analysis — which is trying to surmount a dogmatic Marxism by reinterpreting Marx in the spirit of a Feurbachian, existentialist anthropology, Althusser emphasizes the text and the intellectual development of the young Marx. When he insists that we have before us in the Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology a new stage of Marx’s theoretical and philosophical development which transforms his preceding views, in particular the standpoint of the Paris manuscripts of 1844, we find that our results agree. But they are distinguished from Althusser on such questions as the content of those stages. Althusser characterizes the transition from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to The German Ideology as a break or clevage (‘rupture; coupure epistemologique’) which corresponds to a transition from humanism to anti-humanism; in that sense Marx utterly rejects his old problems and concepts, and appropriates radically new ones and a radically new method.
“Our analysis is the foundation for the view that the theoretical, philosophical standpoint of the Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology represents a new form of humanism. In the Paris manuscripts and in The German Ideology Marx deals above all with ‘real’ men. In both cases he takes on the task of explaining social and historical reality solely from the life process of ‘real’ men. If from the standpoint of The German Ideology, from that conception of ‘real’ men and history as introduced in the Paris manuscripts, Marx appears ‘ideological’, then we are dealing in The German Ideology — following our preceding analysis — with the radicalization of humanism, the creation of a new form of humanism.
“Althusser’s error in connection with humanism can be illustrated in his citation of one of Marx’s comments on his method in Capital:

“[Wagner] who has not once noticed that my analytic method, which does not start out from man, but from the economically-given social period, has nothing in common with the academic German method of connecting concepts…’

“The concept ‘economically-given social period’ was not understood by Marx as objective, divorced from the activity of human individuals. This Marxian observation does not prove his anti-humanism, but rather refutes the ideological concept ‘men in general’ (‘Man’) and advances a theory based on ‘real’ men in the sense of practical materialism. He wants to say only what he had already said about the starting point for economic theory in the Introduction of 1857: ‘Individuals producing in society — hence the starting point is naturally the socially determined production [carried on] by individuals.’ ”
–Jindrich Zeleny, ‘The Logic of Marx’

I entirely agree — from the vantage-point of Badiou’s “practical antihumanism” and “theoretical humanism” — with Zeleny’s insistence that Marx in breaking with Feurbach’s expressivist ontology of the human pointed in the direction of developing a radically new conception of generic humanity. But what I wish to doggedly insist is that this theorisation cannot be grasped with adequate rigour unless one necessarily passes through Althusser’s antihumanist reading of Marx. The determinate dialectic of concrete and abstract labours (or productive forces and social relations of production) must be grasped by disentangling it from its historically concrete, phenomenalised agentic-subjecthood, albeit of course by passing through the latter. Such a move is basically what Althusser’s theoretical antihumanism amounts to. Only through such a theoretical move can real historical men be grasped as historical indices and anthropological-passional registers (not particular agentic-subjecthoods) of determinate antagonism between politics and history, and thus the asymmetrical dialectic of concrete and abstract labours. And only then can real historical men and women truly become the constituents of the radically new generic humanity that Marx sought to theorise. A humanity that would be a constructionist adventure rather than an historical unfolding. So, to affirm real historical men without effecting this shift in the conceptual valency of the term real historical men will keep returning to us through the rear window what we are throwing out of the front door: the expressivist dialectical anthropology of the Left-Hegelians.

I’m not, therefore, claiming that this is Zeleny’s problem too. From the way he affirms the conception of real men — i.e. through a close reading of The German Ideology and Capital — that seems far from being the case. And yet his criticism and rejection of Althusser’s “theoretical antihumanism” misses the importance of Althusser’s conceptual privileging of the determinate dialectic of concrete and abstract labours, which is registered by real historical men, over this register itself. Even the 1857 Introduction of Marx that ends the Zeleny quote above points precisely in the direction of conceptually privileging that which is registered (productive forces, social relations of production) over that which registers it (real historical men).

In this context, it must be said that what such a surreptitious return of the abstract Feurbachian man, with the conception of real historical men acting as its Trojan Horse, amounts to in political terms is an ethical socialism of commonisation, if not an out-and-out rights-based politics. Ranciere, for instance, walks exactly into such a trap when he breaks with Althusser’s antihumanist Marxism in that thoroughly Oedipalised and cantankerous work of his: ‘Althusser’s Lesson’.

Hence, it is absolutely imperative that one grasps the two distinct conceptual valences that the term real historical men has. For, neither can withdrawal and difference, exhausted solely by a politics of resistance, be equated with subtraction as an articulation of revolutionary (or law-unravelling) violence. Nor, for that matter, is our politics, which accords theoretical and political centrality to the self-activity of workers and self-organisation of the working class, the same as anarchism. To insist on this distinction (both in conceptual and political terms) then, is to guard against being perceived by certain ‘autonomist’ tendencies’ — with whom we vigorously interact and engage as we should — as being part of their thoroughly anarchist formation. What could be far worse, however, is that we ourselves lose sight of that political and theoretical difference between their ethical commitment to an anarchist socialism and our revolutionary commitment to communism.

The distinction of conceptual valences for the same terminology of real historical men must be tightly held on to for another equally important reason. Many of our radical friends, who don’t tire of swearing their loyalty to sundry Marxist-Leninist groups, and thereby also to Marxist theory, seek radical legitimacy for the reformist and rights-based politics of their respective organisations, if not also for their own individual lifestyle politics, through a theoretical manoeuvre that conflates the two distinct conceptual valences for the term real historical men.

A Note on indeterminacy


Moishe Postone in a 2006 paper states that post-modernism ontologises indeterminacy, so does the notion of overdetermination employed by Althusserians.

To the degree we choose to use “indeterminacy” as a critical social category, then, it should be as a goal of social and political action rather than as an ontological characteristic of social life. (The latter is how it tends to be presented in poststructuralist thought, which can be regarded as a reified response to a reified understanding of historical necessity.) Positions that ontologize historical indeterminacy emphasize that freedom and contingency are related. However, they overlook the constraints on contingency exerted by capital as a structuring form of social life and are, for this reason, ultimately inadequate as critical theories of the present. Within the framework I am presenting, the notion of historical indeterminacy can be reappropriated as that which becomes possible when the constraints exerted by capital are overcome. Social democracy would then refer to attempts to ameliorate inequality within the framework of the necessity imposed structurally by capital. Although indeterminate, a postcapitalist social form of life could arise only as a historically determinate possibility generated by the internal tensions of capital, not as a “tiger’s leap” out of history.

“History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism”

Althusser and abstraction


Sohn-Rethel: “Althusser defeats the purpose of his search for this question [implied but not formulated by Marx of which Capital is the answer] by insisting ‘que la production de la connaissance… constitue un processus qui se passe tout entier dans la pensee’. [Althusser] understands Marx on the commodity abstraction metaphorically, whereas it should be taken literally and its epistemological implications pursued so as to grasp how Marx’s method turns Hegel’s dialectic ‘right side up’.”

Zizek on Sohn-Rethel’s criticism of Althusser: “Sohn-Rethel is…quite justified in his criticism of Althusser, who conceives abstraction as a process taking place entirely in the domain of knowledge and refuses for that reason the category of ‘real abstraction’ as the expression of an ‘epistemological confusion’. The ‘real abstraction’ is unthinkable in the frame of the fundamental Althusserian epistemological distinction between the ‘real object’ and the ‘object of knowledge’ in so far as it introduces a third element which subverts the very field of this distinction: the form of the thought previous and external to the thought – in short: the symbolic order.”