History as Conspiracy without Subject: Some Notes on Problems in Althusser (archive 2012)

I just re-read Althusser’s Ideology and the State, and honestly, I have to say, either Althusser is putting basic marxism in a really obscurantist phrasing; or he’s really doing something completely different from Marx. It reads like early Sartre’s writings on the ego. When Althusser says ideology is omni-historical and without history, does he mean just that there are always ideologies preceding the subject? Then where does this come from, class conflict, which is historical? Then how can ideology precede history?  He says CONTRA to Marx that men are not the subject of history, history has no subject.  Notice that Marx said men/women were the subject of history (for men/women), not the individual.

This seems to be putting ideology PRIOR to social relations which definitely are historical.  This is taking the base/superstructure bit to an non-dialectical extreme. Sartre’s wriitng on the consciousness and ego without a subject were clearer, but Sartre denied the unconscious as a category and all there was collective subjects in reflection.  Althusser still believes in an unconscious and seems to posit ideology as one the unconscious determinants.

Let me get specific:

  ‘the mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by the universally reigning ideology of the school, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which presents the school as a neutral environment purged of ideology’ (On Ideology, p30).

So what does universal mean here?  If it means the plain language sense of universal, then there is no way out of this since this is a conspiracy in which every mechanism is occulted  There is no way to articulate a different answer.  If education is always a means of brain-washing because it is the primary determinant of the “false” subject in the position, then there is no real means out of this subject position.

Or this quote:

This sense is a positive one if it is true that the peculiarity of ideology is that it is endowed with a structure a functioning such as to make it a non-historical reality, i.el. an omni-historical reality, in the sense in which the structure and functioning are immutable . . . if eternal means, not transcendent to all (temproal) history, but omnipresent, trans-historical and therefore immutable in form through the extent of history, I shall adopt Frued’s expression word for word, and write idealogy is eternal” (On Ideology, p 35)

Immutable? If ideology is immutable and subject is determined all by interpolation, then ideology must transcend historical social relationships.   IF we take Althusser at his three theses:

1.  There is no practice except by and in an ideology,

2. There is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects

3. Ideology Interpellates Individuals as Subjects (On Ideology, 44)

Then that ‘man is an ideological animal by nature” (p45) and “that you and I are always already subjects” (p46-47) paired with statements like “the category of the subject is the constitutive category of all ideology whatever its determination and whatever its historical date – since ideology has no history” (p44-45),  Althusser has painted himself into a corner in which he has either turned ideology into an ideal state that predetermines an eternal class struggle instead of arises from specific and contingent class struggles (as is clear in Engels),  Then we have to ask what Althusser means by history, we get an answer in his letter in John Lewis: “History is the immense natural-human system in movement, and the mover of history is class struggle. History is a process, and process without a subject. The question about how men make history disappear altogether” (On Ideology, 83-84). Althusser has rendered history outside of human agency.

Compare that with this: History is not like some individual person, which uses men to achieve its ends. History is nothing but the actions of men in pursuit of their ends. – Karl Marx, Die Heilige Familie, Ch. VI, (1845)

Marx history is a collective subject: subjectivity is created by object relations just like in Sartre, in Badiou, and in Hegel.  It is not created by an ideological determinant of those relations, otherwise there is no way to move beyond it.  A classless society would be impossible to get to as there would no way to conceive of such a “utopia’ (in the strict sense of not currently existing).  Furthermore, both Althusser and Althusser opponents have been accused of idealism:  Althusser accusing the Hegelian Marxists of sneaking idealism in structure, and the Hegelians accusing Althusser was rendering history as subjectless abstract which men cannot change.  In a strict sense, both would have idealist history, but let us be honest and say that the signifier of idealism is over-full with signifieds.    If you argue that Althusser is no arguing this, then you are denying his innovation in Marxist history, and making him appear to be an obscurantist in language He either means what he says, or he is an incredibly convoluted writer.


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