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Althusser’s FateDouglas Johnson
Vol. 3 No. 7 · 16 April 1981

Althusser’s Fate

Douglas Johnson

5480 words
The Long March of the French Left 
by R.W. Johnson.
Macmillan, 345 pp., £20, March 1981, 0 333 27417 2
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One-Dimensional Marxism 
by Simon Clarke and Terry Lovell.
Allison and Busby, 256 pp., £9.95, June 1980, 0 85031 367 8
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Communism and Philosophy 
by Maurice Cornforth.
Lawrence and Wishart, 282 pp., £8.95, July 1980, 0 85315 430 9
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The Crisis of Marxism 
by Jack Lindsay.
Moonraker, 183 pp., £7.95, March 1981, 0 239 00200 8
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Class in English History 1680-850 
by R.S. Neale.
Blackwell, 250 pp., £12, January 1981, 0 631 12851 4
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‘Is it easy to be a Marxist?’ Louis Althusser put this question to a crowded audience at the University of Picardy in 1975. Is it possible to be an Althusserian? The question has to be asked now. Althusserian Marxism has always been under threat, but since the tragic events of last November we are obliged to wonder whether the ruin of Althusser’s own life and career, as he faces a future necessarily bounded by the mental hospital, will also encompass the definitive destruction of his philosophical work. If so, Althusser’s story has a very real relevance to the history of the French Left.

The fact that Althusser is not likely to face any charge for the murder of his wife, since he is, in English parlance, ‘unfit to plead’, only underlines the deep tragedy of this affair. The suggestion that he is now also suffering from a physical ailment which affects his respiration, so that having, according to his own statement, strangled his wife, he can now be said to be strangling himself, adds a further, intense sadness to the story, which will be deeply felt by all those who knew this gentle, reflective and withdrawn man. It was, of course, inevitable that popular newspapers should have sought to add scandal to sensation as soon as the news was known. It was claimed that when he summoned the doctor of the Ecole Normale Supérieure (where he lived) on the morning of Sunday, 16 November and, in a state of great distress, announced that his wife was dead and that he had killed her, he was immediately rushed to the mental hospital of Saint-Anne in order that he should escape being arrested and interrogated by the police. Such allegations are only to be expected when an eminent Communist is involved: newspapers are always eager to show that there is no sense of equality or justice among Communists, that they have no difficulty in accepting the idea of élitism (the word springs to mind as soon as the Ecole Normale is mentioned). But it was not inevitable that this terrible and astonishing event should have been used as a means of attacking both Althusser’s role as a philosopher and his brand of Marxism. Weekly papers such as L’Express asked whether, if he was so ill and had such a long history of mental depression, he should have been allowed to function for more than thirty years as the chief philosophy teacher at the Ecole Normale, where he also held the official title of Secretary. An eminent Academician was outraged that a mentally-disturbed person should have been allowed to corrupt French youth by teaching them Marxism. Le Nouvel Observateur, after a sympathetic account of ‘la tragédie de Louis Althusser’ (reprinted in New Left Review), went on to point out that he had never written the thesis which is the traditional means by which a French universitaire achieves his position; and the more conservative Le Point wrote of Althusser pursuing his researches ‘dans un. isolement qu’il ne désirait pas’. His disciples had left him and, supreme irony, this Marxist was now left alone with his own conscience. Rumours grew of disagreements within the Althusser ménage and this intellectual who had consistently played down the value of individual human endeavour had, it seemed, committed a crime of passion. Somehow, what happened to the Althussers, whether described as a tragedy or, more tellingly, as a fait divers, has been turned into an instance of the inadequacy of Marxism in general and of Althusserian Marxism in particular. And this is not only a French phenomenon, something to be explained by the hot-house atmosphere of Parisian intellectual life: some of those British and American academics who discussed and criticised Althusser in the past now shrug their shoulders as if to say (when they don’t actually say it) that they always knew he was mad.

It is true that Althusser had always suffered from some form of depressive illness. I first met him in 1947 when I became a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. By chance, on my first day there, we happened to eat at the same table in the refectory and we continued to eat together for the rest of the academic year. He described himself as being ‘très fatiguë’ the result, he said, of a long period as a prisoner of war in Germany. He had passed the competitive examination for entrance to the Ecole in 1939, having prepared the concours in the khâgne at Lyons, where he had been the student of Jean Lacroix (who has recently retired as the philosophy correspondent of Le Monde and who described Althusser to subsequent generations as ‘la plus grande intelligence métaphysique’ that he had ever taught). He returned to the Rue d’Ulm at the Liberation and was given a permanent room in the Infirmerie. This was not a sign of deep or disturbing illness, since it was the ambition of every normalien to have ‘une turne à l’infirmerie’, and thus to enjoy some privacy and a little comfort in an institution which was much more spartan (and less bourgeois) than it is now. After the New Year, in 1948, I was suffering from a minor ailment and was moved into the Infirmerie, where I stayed for longer than illness required. For a time Althusser and I were the only students there, and it was then that I met Hélène Legotien (this was the name she had used in the Resistance movement), later to become his wife. He explained that she had greatly helped him to recover from the experience of being a prisoner of war.

It was then, too, that I realised to what extent Althusser had set himself apart from others. He was very much a detached observer, looking on his fellow students, who were usually much younger than he was, in a kindly manner, indulging in gentle irony at their expense, amusing himself by noting their weaknesses. (It is cruel to recall that when Foucault, then a second-year student, first went to the Saint-Anne hospital to begin his research into madness, he inquired whether there was not a danger of his being kept there.) It was difficult to know what would interest Althusser. When the historian Jacques Le Goff, then a fellow normalien, came back from Prague and spoke about the Communist takeover, Althusser did not stop to listen, yet he wished endlessly to discuss British policy in Palestine with me. There was always something unpredictable about his reactions.

He seemed able to do his work without much trouble and it was no surprise when he was received first at the notoriously difficult agrégation de philosophie in the summer of 1948. He remained at the Rue d’Ulm and became tutor in philosophy to those students who were preparing the same examination. He soon had a reputation for looking after them, like une mère poule, as one professor put it, and was very constant in his personal loyalty to them (he always spoke well of former students, even when he disapproved of their activities: I have heard him praise Jean-Marie Benoist, although he had become a Giscardien, and Paul Victor, although ‘he was helping Sartre to write bad books’).

But he remained apart. He rarely spoke about himself, and few people knew anything about him. Some said that he was Belgian by origin. In fact, he was born in Algeria and educated at the Lycée Saint-Charles at Marseilles (where he was greatly admired by another future Communist, Raymond Jean) before going on to Lyons. It was rumoured both that he was from a very rich and from a very poor family. In fact, his father was in banking in a modest way. It was rumoured that he was well advanced in writing some enormous work on Hume. But if he was, no one has ever seen it. He indulged in the ritual wit and the canulars of the Rue d’Ulm, but avoided serious discussions, and this, combined with the way Hélène Legotien kept him under her special care, maintained the air of aloofness and mystery. There were lapses of memory, periods of Fatigué and depression when complete rest was required These lapses of memory were accompanied by bizarreries. When he claimed that he could not remember having known someone, or having taught on some topic, or – most bizarre of all – when he stopped someone in the corridor in order to confide in them that he had lost all sense of his own identity, it was as if the vagueness and forgetfulness were accompanied by a certain alertness, watchfulness, even calculation, as if Althusser were more interested in observing people’s reactions than in explaining his own personal predicament.

This way of life was to become part of a method. Within the Ecole Normale, there were important and tempestuous meetings which he never attended (such as the one at which the Director suspended all student study groups because he feared there would be a clash between the Gaullists and the Communists, who had invited André Marty to speak to them on the same evening as the Gaullists had invited Jacques Soustelle), but he would turn up unexpectedly at others and dominate the discussion. The porter would be instructed to tell all callers that ‘Monsieur Althusser n’est pas là,’ and then, without countermanding these instructions, Althusser would emerge from his room or suddenly expect people to call on him. Similarly, in more public matters, long periods of silence and apparent withdrawal would be followed by sudden and, at times, spectacular interventions and by periods of intense activity.

It was in the autumn of 1948 that he joined the Communist Party, but it is not clear exactly what his activities were, except that they were spasmodic and, generally speaking, rather prudent. In 1978, he apparently discovered for the first time some of the elementary principles of political campaigning. Many of his friends were surprised by his naivety. He explained, for example, that because of the shift system, if one went to distribute leaflets at the factory gates only in the early morning, one would miss a whole section of the workforce. It seems unlikely that he did much work at grass-roots level. He was to criticise this period in his political life as he was to criticise the way intellectuals then gave their time to political and ideological conflict, blaming the tendency among French Communists for intellectuals of petty bourgeois origin to feel obliged to repay by activity the imaginary debt they had contracted by not being proletarians.

In 1959 Althusser took more decisive action. He brought together a group of philosophers, in the Salle des Actes of the Ecole Normale, and proposed a collective work on Marx. His project was for a long and exhaustive analysis of the principal Marxist texts, an analysis which would be both philosophical and linguistic. To his annoyance, the majority of the philosophers with whom he had been associated up to then (such as Desanti and Maurice Caveing) refused to join him in this work, and he found himself surrounded by a group of young people. It was the seminars arising from this project which made him famous, and after a number of articles had been published in reviews without attracting much attention, the near-simultaneous publication in 1965 of Pour Marx and Lire le Capital aroused intense interest. They placed Althusser in what Perry Anderson has described as a unique position in the history of the Parti Communiste Français. The Party had, in Althusser’s own words, suffered from a negative tradition, ‘the French misery’, a stubborn and profound absence of theoretical culture. He had searched in vain for a French equivalent of Labriola, or Gramsci, or Rosa Luxemburg, and explained their absence both by the distrust which the French worker movement naturally felt for an intellectual class which had so easily been assimilated to a supposedly revolutionary bourgeoisie and by the general and long-standing poverty of all ‘official’ philosophy.

It is certainly true that the French Communist Party had always been backward in purely doctrinal terms. It had emerged from the Socialist Congress of Tours in 1920, not as the result of a difference in belief (such as had caused the many splits in 19th-century French socialism), but as the result of differing assessments of the international scene. The ‘class against class’ policies of the 1920s, the adherence to the Popular Front in the 1930s, the policies at the time of the Liberation in the 1940s, were all results of strategic rather than theoretical analysis. There was a tendency to regard each situation as special and particular, and it was because of this, according to Althusser, that the Party had made endless mistakes. Above all, it had failed to respond to recent events: the Liberation, the Cold War, Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 and the advent of de Gaulle’s Republic in 1958 (which Maurice Thorez had in fact denounced as the precursor of a fascist state). It was as if the Party had ceased to exist. 1959 was, therefore, both symbolically and in historical terms, the appropriate moment for Althusser to act and to bring the Party to a true Marxist doctrine. His publications were part of a series, entitled Théorie, which sought to bring together the concepts of Marxism and developments in other fields of knowledge: the political and doctrinal opportunism of French Communism was to be replaced by anorthodoxy of doctrine and belief.

It is not surprising that the enterprise was not consistently appreciated by the leadership of the French Communist Party. There was, to begin with, a lack of interest, as there was a lack of discussion. In the early Sixties Althusser remarked ironically that from time to time he slipped an article (‘je fais glisser un article’) into one of the Party periodicals but it aroused no comment because it was not understood. Jean Kanapa, the closest adviser to Georges Marchais, then the rising star of the Party administration, had denounced the intellectuals who had left the Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, with the words, ‘just as there are abstract painters, so there are abstract thinkers,’ and there was a whole tradition of Party hostility to the type of analysis and exposition with which Althusser was concerned. When, in 1966 for the first time in thirty years, a meeting of the Central Committee was devoted entirely to intellectual questions and to the role of philosophy, a number of speeches, and the final resolution itself, served to remind philosophers such as Althusser that it was the Party as a whole, and its leaders in particular, who had the responsibility of deciding the Party’s philosophy. Lucien Sève, a former pupil of Althusser’s and soon to become the Party’s official philosopher, warned Althusser of the dangers of gauchisme and of behaving towards the Party in the manner of Sartre.

The fact was, as the Secretary-General of the Party, Waldeck-Rochet, pointed out in his report to this special meeting (which was held at Argenteuil), that philosophy was a science closely associated with day-to-day politics. In 1966 the day-to-day politics of the Party were complex. In 1958 opposition to the Fifth Republic was total: but the desire for peace in Algeria came to modify that total opposition, and the institution of a Presidential election by universal suffrage, which took place for the first time in 1965, raised the problem of the working class as voters, and seemed to require the Communist Party to insert itself into a system to which it was intransigently opposed. Doctrinally, the cult of the young Marx, and the belief that his early writings showed a kind of liberal-humanism, seemed to offer a certain latitude in Party tactics and made it possible to think in terms of a practical collaboration with social democrats. In effect, the Party was in the process of becoming more opportunistic, not less, and this was the case both before and after the death of Thorez in 1964 and under his successors, Waldeck-Rochet (until, in practice, 1970) and Georges Marchais. The meeting at Argenteuil may well have been held, not to settle questions of Party philosophy, but to bring the intellectuals into line, in what R.W. Johnson, in his new book, has picturesquely called ‘the long march of the French Left’, culminating in the Communist-Socialist alliance which hoped to win the legislative elections of 1978 but failed to do so.

R.W. Johnson is the sort of writer who does not hesitate to put history in the wrong. For example, in 1961 two would-be reformers of the Party, Marcel Servin and Laurent Casanova, were expelled: this, he says, was the turning-point where the Party failed to turn. De-Stalinisation, democratic liberalisation, Eurocommunism: all these options should have been chosen. The only difficulty for Johnson is the question of how Thorez’s lieutenants would have managed to direct such a transformed party and to co-operate with Servin and Casanova. His account of this episode, like most of his book, is caustic about the French Communist Party: what was good enough for the Kremlin, he writes, was good enough to put the PCF in two minds. It was said that Thorez, in opposing Casanova, was at the same time opposing Khrushchev, whom he suspected of wishing to see Casanova at the head of the French Party, but Johnson doesn’t go into this; nor does he mention the further allegation that Khrushchev eventually sacrificed Casanova in return for Thorez promising to support him against Peking. One would have thought these interpretations would have pleased him.

It has been claimed that Althusser, though placing himself on a totally different level, shared the uncertainty and hesitations of the rest of the Party. Simon Clarke, in a bitterly hostile account of Althusserian Marxism, recounts what he chooses to call its ‘sordid history’. He suggests that when Althusser undertook the important and radical task of counterposing Marx’s authority to that of the Party organisation, he came under pressure from the Party. In fact, the first time he came under pressure from the Party was on the matter of student agitation when the Party was worried that Communist students were claiming a similar theoretical autonomy. In 1963 he delivered a lecture in which he spoke very much as a professor, warning the students not to go too far in their revolutionary aspirations, defending certain university institutions (such as the agrégation) and criticising the students for their failure to recognise the integrity of the science to which they claimed to appeal. Then, at the time of the Congrès d’Argenteuil, Althusser began to modify the texts of his 1965 publications and, using prefaces for foreign translations and for new editions, embarked on the process of self-criticism which Clarke and others have seen as a retraction, the equivalent to a confession of the failure of his grand enterprise.

It is only fair to Althusser to point out that the suggestion that the Party hierarchy brought pressure to bear on him is not necessarily true, It is derived from a dissident ‘Althusserian’ and may well be mistaken in emphasis. Hesitations and uncertainties came naturally to Althusser and were undoubtedly part of his personality. He was prudent, he shrank from demagoguery, and he was deeply attached to his students and anxious not to lead them up a blind alley. He genuinely feared that they would succumb to technocratic temptations if they acted independently, and it was more honest for him to stand with the more authoritarian Left than to preach, as Casanova had done in 1960, the cause of ‘un humanisme nouveau’ or proclaim that ‘le romantisme révolutionnaire se pare de couleurs nouvelles.’ It is, of course, true that it is difficult for a successful normalien to reject the system, agrégation included. It is also true, as he told me, that he was very touched by the personal kindness shown to him at Argenteuil by Roland Leroy (who was then the chief Party spokesman on cultural and intellectual matters); and he was evidently impressed by Waldeck-Rochet’s conversation with him in which the Party leader expressed his fear that the intellectuals might desert the Communist Party altogether. But there can be no question of Althusser having become an official spokesman. When the Editions Sociales, the Party publishers, began to examine the project of producing a paperback edition of Marx’s Capital, the idea of approaching Althusser was rejected.

The dramatic events of 1968 saw Althusser conforming to the pattern of his life at the Ecole Normale. When it seemed natural that he should speak out, he did not do so. Hence the slogan on the walls of the Latin Quarter, ‘A quoi sert Althusser?’ As Le Nouvel Observateur put it, he was one of the most mysterious and least public figures in the world. When a famous caricaturist made a drawing of the leading structuralists, showing Barthes, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss and Foucault, someone asked why Althusser had not been included, since it was thought that he shared their scienticity, their anti-humanism and anti-historicism. The answer was that no one knew what he looked like. Paris bookshops sought to get a photograph of him to put beside the other maîtres à penser, but in vain.

His next intervention was typically unexpected. In 1972, the English Marxist John Lewis published an article in Marxism Today (which was a response to a lecture by Graham Locke, an English friend of Althusser’s). Althusser’s reply was surprisingly full and detailed, and it is ironical that the Réponse à John Lewis should have occasioned widespread discussion among so many people who did not know anything about John Lewis. Ironical, but typical of Althusser.

In the Réponse à John Lewis, he analysed Stalinism, not from the point of view of fashionable liberalism, but from that of Marxist doctrine. In this sense, Stalinism was a bourgeois deviation, a concession to bourgeois ideology, in that it led to a concentration on the forces of production, rather than to an understanding of the class struggle and of the social relations created by productive forces. The point here, perhaps better understood in England than in France, was whether the errors of Stalin and of Stalinism were to be corrected by still greater concentration on ‘humanism’ and ‘economism’. It is noticeable that in 1974, the year after the publication of the Réponse à John Lewis, Althusser took the (for him) rare step of writing to L’Humanité in preparation for the 21st Party Congress. What he wrote was an appeal for the union of the Left (the Common Programme between Communists and Socialists had been agreed upon in 1972) to avoid the pitfalls of such concocted alliances – ‘electoral cretinism’, ‘utopian idealism’, ‘the spontaneity of history’ and the danger of reforms which hindered revolution (this was the definition of ‘reformism’). Once again, opportunism was seen as the danger, and ‘the base of the Party’ as the necessary centre of initiative.

R.W. Johnson rightly points out that the October 1974 Congress was an answer to the Socialist ‘Assises’ which were held at Nantes and which celebrated both the revival of the Socialists as the largest party of the Left and the fact that the Socialist Mitterrand had so narrowly failed to beat Giscard d’Estaing that he could fairly claim to stand for one hall of the French population. But Johnson fails to see that the Communists were not simply faced with the problem of an accommodation between those who were supposedly liberal (led by Marchais) and those who were supposedly hard-liners, (led by Roland Leroy). He writes of the autumn of 1975 as seeing an abatement of the anti-liberal current: it would be more accurate to say that the Party was forced to face up to the twin exigencies of its situation, an obligation which was inescapable whether one was a supposed liberal or a supposed hard-liner. Roland Leroy put it simply: ‘Ménager à la fois l’action indépendante de notre parti et développer l’action commune pour la victoire du Programme commun.’

It was with the 22nd Congress of 1976 and the electoral defeat of 1978 that Althusser’s activities became known to a wide public. Marchais announced well in advance that this Congress would delete from the Party constitution its historic commitment to the dictatorship of the proletariat. This was to be the sign of a break with the past, it would herald a new, national Communism, ‘un socialisme aux couleurs de la France’, and usher in the possibility of a sharing of power between Communists and Socialists (Johnson does not hesitate to talk about ‘the reality of the appetite for power of the post-Thorez generation’). For some, it was the manner in which Marchais had proceeded that caused offence. Jean Elleinstein, the historian, was quite ready to wash his hands of such doctrinal burdens as the dictatorship of the proletariat, but he objected to learning about Party decisions from Marchais’s television appearances. (Elleinstein has since become a full supporter of François Mitterrand.)

Althusser, speaking at the ‘Fête de l’Humanité’ in September 1974, had insisted upon the need to bring about changes in the Party from within, in opposition to a number of individuals who had left the Party. In December 1976, he responded unexpectedly to an invitation from the Cercle de Philosophie de l’Union des Etudiants Communistes. He sent the typescript of his lecture to Party headquarters, and suggested that it be published in one of the Party’s periodicals. For a time there was no response. Then, suddenly, he was summoned before Marchais and Chambaz, then in charge of intellectual affairs. A long discussion ensued. It was not, as was popularly rumoured, an occasion when the Party leadership endeavoured to call Althusser to order. On the contrary, Marchais saw no reason why Althusser’s criticisms should not be published by the Party press (although, in the end, Althusser himself preferred to publish it in his own series, Théorie). Nor was the discussion about whether the doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat should or should not have been abandoned. The question was the same as before. ‘Un concept ne s’ abandonne pas comme un chien,’ Althusser had said at the Semaine de la Pensée Marxiste in April 1976. While various positions could or could not be adopted in the light of political happenings, questions of theory or of principle, in so far as they were linked to matters of Marxist knowledge and science, could not simply be abandoned. They would be discovered once again, whenever the problems of socialism, or a socialist state, or a socialist ideology, were brought up. Either the Communist Party was condemned to stay with such concepts, or it would cease to be a Communist Party. There was no struggle for influence in the Party: there were those who feared for the continued existence of the Party within its established identity, and Althusser’s belief that the apparatus of the bourgeois state controlled the expressions and assumptions of ideology, in a way that was far from innocent, spelt danger to the idea that the Party should happily contemplate participation in power.

Johnson believes that Althusser’s position was somehow false, because he held these ideas before the elections of 1978, but he seems totally to have misunderstood the situation, since he refers to an Italian Communist ‘leaking’ these ideas in Il Manifesto when Althusser had already published them in his 22ème Congrès; and he misunderstands Althusser completely when he writes as if there was, in these ideas, a nostalgia for the old ghetto in which the Party had languished for so many years. It is true that the articles which Althusser published in Le Monde towards the end of April 1978, attacking Marchais and the leadership of the Party, were particularly devastating, and that they included a denunciation of Stalinism in post-Stalinist Russia which was more daring than anything Althusser had said before. But what is called ‘his outburst’ was in line with everything Althusser had undertaken since 1959. The Party had never been more opportunistic than it was in its bid for middle-class votes and its assumption that it would be right for it to share power with the bourgeoisie. Althusser denounced this opportunism, and demanded the elucidation of a Marxist theory of the state.

It is curious that Johnson should feel that Elleinstein’s opposition was more significant than Althusser’s, since Elleinstein thought only in terms of tactics. A pity, too, that he suggests that Althusser had ‘shot his bolt’ by April 1978, as if everything Althusser wanted might have been accomplished by a change in the composition of the Political Bureau or some resolution of the Central Committee. And the phrase ‘the great man himself dropped from sight’ is undeservedly sarcastic. The interview which Althusser gave to Fanti, of Paese Sera, in May 1978 is notable, not for its attempt to persuade the ‘dissidents’ to remain within the Party, but for pointing out that the situation which the Communists were discovering after the elections of 1978 was endemic in the signing of the Programme Commun in 1972.

In June 1978 I published an article in the New Statesman on the French Communists after the elections. Much to my surprise, Althusser got in touch with me and suggested that he should come to London and speak to my seminar. This he did. In the course of the seminar, he was asked why it was that he had not attacked the leadership of the Party in such an open and direct way before. Why had he not spoken out earlier (a reproach which Elleinstein was also to make)? Althusser’s reply was quite typical. The question, he claimed, was not whether he had spoken too late, but whether he had not spoken too soon. His criticisms and arguments had been lost in the welter of reckoning and bewilderment which had followed defeat in the elections. For him, this was a secondary matter: by attempting to ally democracy to Marxism he sought to shape the destiny of the Party in a longer perspective. Marchais could only too easily dispose of Althusser by referring to ‘the intellectual seated at his desk’ and Roland Leroy could avoid the issue by confessing that he too might have been wrong in not publishing Althusser in L’Humanité.

Althusser had great hopes of future activity. He thought that he would operate from two centres, from Leyden and from London. He had many plans. It was illness rather than events which obscured them. But by December 1978 La Pensée devoted a special number to the existence or non-existence of Marxist philosophy, as if Althusser had never written, and in the course of 1979 L’Humanité took the title of Althusser’s articles in Le Monde, which had been called ‘Ce qui ne peut plus durer dans le parti communiste français’, and adapted it to an article of their own: ‘Ce qui ne peut plus durer dans le parti socialiste français’.

His English commentators are not enthusiastic. Simon Clarke and his associates argue that Althusser’s Marxism was subversive. They object to his attacks on humanism, on empiricism and on historicism. They object to his silences on sexual politics and on cultural production. Maurice Cornforth, while admiring his modesty and sharing his aim of wanting to find a way whereby social life can be lived to the profit of all men, cannot follow him in schematic ventures into would-be Marxist theory. Jack Lindsay believes that Althusser’s use of structuralism caused him to read into Marx what Marx did not write, and caused him to reject the unity of theory and practice. R.S. Neale, in a wide-ranging and stimulating examination of the ways in which historians have used the concepts of class and class-consciousness, considers E.P. Thompson’s attack on Althusser in The Poverty of Theory and concludes that the Althusserian revolution, far from being in the mainstream of Marxism, had placed itself outside it.

It can, of course, be argued that Althusser himself did away with Althusserianism when he claimed it was the ignorant rather than scholars who understood Marxism, since they knew exploitation: it was the very substance of their lives. It can be argued that with such a remark Althusser recognised the poverty of theory. This is not the place to discuss the logical flaws in Althusser’s work, nor its incompleteness, which is now likely to remain. There is a greater drama in failure than there can ever be in success. But the inadequacies of the intuitive Marxism which seems to be successful, and the weaknesses of Marxism as a critical method rather than a philosophical system, only highlight ‘the French misery’ to which Althusser alluded in Pour Marx. Better the poverty of theory than the misery of opportunism.

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Vol. 3 No. 9 · 21 May 1981

SIR: May I ask for a little space in your columns in order to correct and enlarge on some remarks made by Douglas Johnson (LRB, 16 April)? First, the legal question concerning Althusser’s case is now settled, in the form of a non-lieu. A team of psychiatrists formally advised that he was not responsible for the death of his wife, being in a state of dementia at the time of his act. This state of dementia was interpreted in the context of a long history of manic-depressive psychosis. Althusser therefore continues to be treated in a psychiatric hospital, as he has been for many and long periods in the past. The difference lies, of course, in his status. The relevant French law of 1838 allows only two categories of admission to a psychiatric institution: voluntary (placement volontaire) and obligatory (placement d’office). His admission is now regulated as a placement d’office. This situation may change, on the advice and at the request of the medical staff concerned, and on the approval of the general administration of psychiatric hospitals. Althusser’s manic-depressive psychosis, it should be added, has nothing to do with ‘madness’ in a more popular sense. He has, for example, never been schizophrenic or paranoiac, nor has he become so. His condition is not directly related to his intellectual or moral faculties.

Nor, a fortiori, has it much to do with a conjectured ‘definitive destruction of his philosophical work’. I am indeed at a loss to know what this phrase might mean. Douglas Johnson cites some examples of the treatment of the Althusser case in certain popular French newspapers, without always refuting their often absurd claims. Thus he refers to a report according to which Althusser’s ‘disciples had left him’. This report is manifest nonsense – which may have been reinforced in Britain by a few remarks made by K.S. Karol in a piece recently translated in New Left Review. However one interprets the term ‘disciples’ – which I rather dislike – there is no doubt, first, that his closest friends and colleagues were in regular and intimate contact with him (and still are), and, second, that his influence on numbers of French philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, political economists etc is by now so substantial that any question of the ‘destruction’ of his work becomes nonsensical. Anyone familiar with French intellectual life will, for instance, surely recognise the names of Etienne Balibar, Dominique Lecourt, Emmanuel Terray, Suzanne De Brunhoff, Michel Pêcheux, Pierre Macherey, Yves Duroux, Robert Linhart etc, all of whom have been deeply marked in different ways by Althusser’s work, and ate still researching and writing. On the other hand, there never has been an ‘Althusserian school’: in consequence it has not disintegrated with his disappearance from the Ecole Normale.

Douglas Johnson mentions Althusser’s recent hope of operating ‘from two centres, from Leyden and London’. As far as Leyden is concerned, where I was responsible for co-ordinating research plans with the Ecole Normale, I can say that these plans did not form any part of a grand, integrated international scheme on Althusser’s part, but were drawn up within the normal framework of interuniversity co-operation, and continue to be developed.

Finally, I do not much care for speculative and unfounded interpretations (little ‘psycho-histories of the living’) of the kind indulged in by your author, in the second paragraph of his piece. The suggestion is that Althusser ‘is now also suffering from a physical ailment which affects his respiration, so that having, according to his own statement, strangled his wife, he can now be said to be strangling himself’. The fact is simply that, in December last, he was treated for mild pneumonia, which is now completely cured. There is no ground for any insinuation that this illness was psychosomatic in origin, or that it is chronic or degenerative. In short, Douglas Johnson’s imaginative metaphor is pure invention. Other stories contained in his piece suffer, I am afraid, from similar shortcomings.

In brief: if there are indeed British and American academics who, having criticised Althusser in the past, ‘now shrug their shoulders as if to say (when they don’t actually say it) that they always knew he was mad’, that reflects only on them.

Grahame Lock
Leyden University

SIR: May I take mild issue with Douglas Johnson’s review of my The Long March of the French Left? I take his strictures seriously, the more so since I have long been one of his great admirers, but he seems to have missed the central point I was making about Althusser. He is quite right to say that my tone towards Althusser was ironic, even sarcastic, for that is precisely what I feel his political pronouncements deserved. Given what Douglas Johnson says of Althusser’s practical political naiveté (e.g. the fact that he only learnt a little of grassroots politics after thirty years’ membership in the PCF), I am only surprised he doesn’t agree.

What, after all, is one supposed to make of Althusser’s great public sallies in the wake of the Left’s defeat in the 1978 elections? Having for years past criticised the PCF for being insufficiently Leninist – for making a reformist alliance with the Socialists, for abandoning the dictatorship of the proletariat – Althusser suddenly discovered all the demerits of Leninist party organisation. Why on earth had this taken him thirty years to realise? Had he never read Michels? Did he not know what sort of party he was in? Apparently not. What, moreover, was he really in favour of? He pronounced himself in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat but for inner-party democracy. Did he not know enough history to know these things have never co-existed? Similarly, he opposed the PCF’s alliance with the Socialists but offered no viable practical alternative to it.

Actually, Douglas Johnson makes the point at least as well as I can with his anecdote of Althusser regarding the Left’s defeat in the 1978 elections as ‘a secondary matter’ compared to the larger theoretical points which he, Althusser, was concerned with. Yet the opportunity to gain power which confronted the French Left in 1977-78 clearly represented a great historical turning-point. No better chance than that had presented itself in a whole generation, and on that opportunity rested the hopes and aspirations of millions of Frenchmen, including the overwhelming majority of the working class. To argue that that loss, that historic defeat, was of less importance than the theoretical constructions inside one’s head required a degree of intellectual arrogance which was, let us be blunt, already fairly close to madness. I am at one with Douglas Johnson in regretting the later political misuse and abuse of Althusser’s lethal insanity. But if I am to be taken to task for finding Althusser’s theoretical posturing laughable, it can surely only be on the grounds that one was acting with cruelty in taking him seriously long before his final and tragic dénouement.

R.W. Johnson
Magdalen College, Oxford

Douglas Johnson writes: I am pleased to read Mr Lock’s letter, which fills out many of the points which I made originally. I can’t of course accept his suggestion that my article contains inventions. R.W. Johnson’s letter continues to make a political and moral judgment about Althusser, just as his lively book tends to make similar judgments about the French Left in general. The disadvantage of such an approach to French politics is that it seems to judge everything according to the perspective of British politics. But Althusser is not Anthony Crosland.

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