Editors' Introduction

Volume 29  Issue 2  April 2017

At the time of the writing of this editors' introduction, there are no visible signs of relief from the convulsions of the economic and political crises in Europe and other parts of the world. Within Europe we have witnessed the growth of right-wing populisms built on nationalist, xenophobic, racist, and masculinist rhetoric. The same period has seen the growth of left-wing populist movements, especially in Spain (Podemos) and in Greece (Syriza) on an antiausterity—and in the case of the former, a postcapitalist—platform, which has acquired a sizeable presence within the state mechanism due to electoral success. While such broad-based social movements seem to hold promise, especially with the full turn of the Syriza government to austerity policies, the question of Left organization, the relation thereof to the capitalist state, the question of the rhetoric of self-presentation being employed, and that of the basis of the appeal to the populace, remain issues as contested as ever. These issues become all the more burning when the rise and spread of right-wing movements remain unabated, which reality is not confined to Europe but can be observed in other parts of the world, such as the United States, India, and Turkey.

Questions of the (Communist) Party, of its relation to the capitalist state, and of ideological mechanisms of subject formation were at the core of Louis Althusser's work. It is, among others, for these reasons the symposium entitled “Louis Althusser: Between Past and Future” is relevant today. The essays in the symposium, edited by editorial board members Stephen Healey and Claude Misukiewicz, address a number of these themes in Althusser's thinking from the end of his life.

The symposium opens with an essay by Jörg Nowak entitled “Louis Althusser’s Critique of the Communist Party and the Question of the Postrevolutionary State,” which explores the debate between Althusser and Étienne Balibar on the strategy of the French Communist Party (PCF) in the late 1970s. In its Eurocommunist turn to provide a democratic approach to politics, the PCF removed the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” from its program in 1976, which Althusser and Balibar criticized for its failure to address the organizational questions of mass participation in the party. It is in this period, according to Nowak, that Althusser radicalized his position toward the party, arguing that a revolutionary party should remain outside the state so as to act to abolish it. For Althusser and Balibar, Marx's notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” raises fundamental questions regarding the party form, from the masses' relationship to the state and the ways in which they can effectively address the question of power to the transition after socialism, and the formation of the postrevolutionary state. These organizational and strategic questions remain at the forefront of contemporary radical politics, according to Nowak, as seen in the 15-M Movement and Podemos in Spain, in Syriza in Greece, and in the recent socialist projects in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

The same concerns regarding the organization of the Left drive the next contribution to the symposium. In his essay “Revisiting Conjunctural Marxism: Althusser and Poulantzas on the State,” Alexander Gallas traces the evolution of the two thinkers' ideas on the capitalist state. Gallas argues that the intellectual dialogue they had over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, which has largely been ignored in the Anglophone world, actually was decisive where they analyzed the reproduction of capitalist class domination, and in the process laid out the foundations of a new variant of Marxism, which Gallas calls “conjunctural Marxism,” and which, as the adjective suggests, lays emphasis on the particular coming together in specific political circumstances of relations of forces, institutional and ideological formations, and structural tendencies of capitalism. Gallas studies the development of this new variant of Marxism through the works of Althusser and Poulantzas in different phases beginning in the 1960s through a final phase, the mid-1970s, which is the focus of his essay. He observes that, throughout this history, the differences between the two thinkers became more obvious. However, he maintains that while both thinkers continued to share the idea of rupture with the capitalist state—which could be achieved neither by taking over the state from the outside nor through reformist policies from the inside—Althusser moved toward an autonomist position favoring the smashing of the state by forces operating outside of it, whereas Poulantzas argued for an alignment of social movements operating outside the state and of political parties within the state. On a final note, Gallas argues that conjunctural Marxism still has a lot to offer for the analysis of crisis-ridden contemporary capitalism, especially in light of the new political developments characterized by countries such as Greece, lending credence to the idea that the state still plays a major role in shaping societies.

Long before Althusser, it was Gramsci who drew attention to the significance of education in the state in capitalist society and in revolutionary politics. Althusser engaged with this key thinker of Marxist thought in a number of areas. Whereas Gallas examines Althusser's engagement with Poulantzas, Peter D. Thomas examines Althusser's interpretation of Gramsci. Thomas's essay “The Plural Temporalities of Hegemony” provides an exposition of Althusser's notion of plural historical temporalities. According to Thomas, Althusser's writings on historical time, which are included in his contributions to Reading Capital, registered the theme of plural temporalities for contemporary Marxism. However, along with this contribution, Althusser also criticized Gramsci's notion of “absolute historicism,” which he considered a synchronizing notion of the present. In response to Althusser's criticisms of Gramsci, Thomas returns to the Prison Notebooks to show that Gramsci's concept of “prevision” presents a nonformalist notion of constitutive temporal plurality. Through Gramsci's notion of “prevision,” Thomas argues that the present is a politically constructed relation that is composed of multiple “times,” and this presents the conditions for revolutionary politics.

Both Gramsci and Althusser considered education as a necessary element of revolutionary transformation. In “A Marxist Education of the Encounter: Althusser, Interpellation, and the Seminar,” Tyson E. Lewis brings into relief how “interpellation” presents a fundamental educational problematic in Althusser's thought. Lewis draws upon three moments in Althusser’s oeuvre in which he discusses education: the essay on schools as Ideological State Apparatuses, his essay on the university and pedagogical function, and in his comment on the educational practice of trade unions from On the Reproduction of Capitalism. In all three works, according to Lewis, Althusser addresses the problem of capitalist interpellation and presents a Marxist form of counterinterpellation. Yet, as Lewis argues, none of these comments addresses Althusser's own practice of the seminar as an educational logic of student-teacher collaboration that resulted in the composition of Reading Capital. For Lewis, we can think of the seminar as an educational space of disinterpellation.

Subjects are interpellated in myriad forms and at different sites in capitalist societies. The media, in all its manifestations, is one of the central axes of these processes, which is the focus of the next contribution. In “Traitor Figures in Nazi Fiction: Ideology as Inversion of Defense and Attack,” Timm Ebner takes Althusser's conceptualization of ideology as a reproduction in advance, thus inherently involving anticipation, and he deploys it in a specific notion of the “traitor” in Nazi ideology, wherein the effect of ideology is the staking out of the claim of “reestablishing” a preexisting order, which then creates the accompanying effect of “uncanniness.” He argues that this reproduction is personified in the figure of the “hero” and uncanniness in the “traitor.” Using Althusser's argument in his essay on Bertolazzi, of the opponent of the hero being the hero’s double, he then applies the figure of the doppelgänger in his analysis of one of the pulp magazines of the Nazi era, Stamgericht am Njassa. Drawing from Lacan's analysis of the unconscious as metonymic order, Ebner reveals that in Nazi fiction, when it is subconsciously known that the deeds attributed to the traitor figure are one's own deeds, this knowledge, in a “paranoiac maneuver,” gets projected onto the “enemy.” Ebner argues that such an “intrinsic fictionality” of ideology was at work throughout the years of “permanent coup” during which the rhetoric of treachery spilled over from pulp magazines to the constitutional restructuring of society. Thus, he argues, the analysis of language and fiction is much more than a supplement to materialist thinking.

The final contribution to the symposium delves into one of the parameters of Althusser's groundbreaking oeuvre, analyzing it within the context of the broader debates of the time. Erik K. Olsen revisits Althusser's contributions to social ontology in an essay entitled “The Althusserian Controversy in Retrospect and Prospect.” In addition to the epistemological break that Althusser attributed to Marx, the author argues that Althusser also highlighted an ontological break, in that Marx's conceptions of totality and unity are fundamentally different from Hegel's. Althusser's insights, Olsen argues, prompted clarification first from Balibar and then from Hindess and Hirst, which culminated in the replacement of the Marxist theory of modes of production and social formations with a richer approach addressing the specificity of economic class relations within definite social formations. This break, Olsen argues, prompted a response from G. A. Cohen, whose book Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence criticized the Althusserian critique and defended the central tenets of the theory of modes of production and social formations. Returning to these debates and Althusser's original critique, Olsen argues, provides an impetus to appreciate the ontological shift from a theory of modes of production and social formations to the class-analytic Marxism theorized by Wolff and Resnick.

The symposium demonstrates the continuing legacy of Althusser's thought in Left organizing, in the relation of political parties and social movements to the state, and in the interpellation of subject positions in particular economic, political, and historical circumstances. As Althusser carried out his analyses in dialogue with a number of interlocutors, both dead and alive, in his own particular conjuncture, so should his questions be asked anew in the context of this new historical conjuncture.

The editors would like to thank Claude Misukiewicz for all his work during these last three years. He will be sorely missed. We would also like to welcome two new members to the board: Nicole Foster and Ellen Russell. Thank you for joining this collective endeavor.

—The Editors

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Page last revised: September 26, 2017