I must be clear and explicit about the political position from which I am working. I therefore wish to make absolutely clear in what sense I am working within the Marxist tradition, and what sort of “Marxism” I repudiate, indeed radically oppose myself to.
I want to talk in terms of excruciating simplicity: as I see it, Marx’s work emerged historically as a demand for justice for the oppressed, in particular for the proletariats in advanced, industrial countries. The early Marx had a vision which was in many respects idealist, utopian and humanist, of a form of society in which human potentialities could be fully realized. I am not interested in going back to that vision of the young Marx, retrieving it, and reviving its content as a diagram for the future: the now famous 1844 Manuscripts are a young man’s text, fragmented, disjointed, shot through with residues from Marx’s very early intellectual life and intimations of things he was to formulate more precisely, later on. There is much here that won’t stand up today. Nonetheless, I insist that the fact that Marx had such a felt, affective vision of what men and women could become, as against that which they were, tells us something essential about the nature of his project. Marx’s thought, at least as I understand it, developed continuously, with no “epistemological break,” out of his conviction that the world could be changed, that men and women could lead happier and more fully human lives in forms of social organization other than those under which they were living.
But Marx was no religious idealist: he knew that this better world had to be realized through the historical process, or not at all. With Engels, he thus developed a method, historical materialism, whose aim was the comprehension of that process in its totality. Marx envisaged that men and women would thus be enabled to act more effectively upon it, and through it, and might thereby succeed in changing it. But, paradoxically, the findings of historical materialism seemed to set limits upon the efficacy of even collective action: the determinative influence of the economy in every aspect of social life was exposed. In contrast to the classical economists, Marx described the historicity of the economy and demonstrated that, broadly speaking, changes in the mode of production produced profound changes in social, political and cultural life. Marx came to describe the economy as a base, or structure, upon which a superstructure was erected consisting of such elements as law, politics, philosophy, religion, art, etc., the specific ideological forms of which were determined by the base.
The base/super structure metaphor—and it was only a metaphor—was at once among the most illuminating of Marx’s insights, and among the most problematic of his formulations. The metaphor, as one might expect if Marx is even approximately right, owes much to the specific historical moment in which it was produced. It is permeated by a characteristically 19th-century mechanism and over-determinism. Yet, Marx was surely correct in emphasizing that the processes of physical production had hitherto possessed a causal primacy over other social activities and that, as it has been put, “they form a framework for all other practices which all other practices do not form for the economy in the same sense.” Now the elaboration of the exact relations between the economic, political, cultural and ideological orders was recognized as a problem even in the era of “classical” Marxism. When it came to specifics, Marx himself was often contradictory. In one moment, for example, he recognized the “universal” or trans-historical aspect of certain works of art; in another, he reduced art to an “ideological” product of the base. Engels introduced certain significant qualifications into the theory, recognizing the “relative autonomy” of components of the superstructure, and the determinacy of the economy only in the last instance.
Marx also described the division of society into classes whose differing economic interests necessarily led to conflict. But the composition of these classes was not naturally given.
The industrial proletariat, for example, made itself, but only under the conditions determined by a capitalist mode of production. In Marx’s view, the contradictions inherent within this mode of production would lead eventually to the intensification of the struggle between capital and labour, the resolution of which would bring about the establishment of socialism (i.e. the ownership of the means of production by those who produced the wealth) and eventually realize that vision with which he had set out, the idyll of communism.
Now Marx possessed one of the most astonishing intellects in history: it is possible to become almost drunk with the breadth, complexity and range of his thought. His intellectual achievement is without parallel. However, it is important to emphasize that Marx left behind, not a system, but a series of giant torsos of an argument which he never completed. Furthermore, as we might expect if he was in any way right, much of his work is permeated with 19th-century ideology. In particular, Marx possessed a teleology characteristic of so much 19th-century bourgeois thought: thus he had a vision of the better world of socialism, and he tended to argue as if what he once called the “inexorable laws” of history were necessarily and inevitably working in that direction. Hence the notorious “prophetic” element in Marxism. Furthermore, Marx often sought to legitimate the method of historical materialism by invoking and over-deploying parallels from the natural sciences—a practice which was to lead to disastrous pseudo-scientific schematizations of his thought among some of his followers. In fact, many of Marx’s predictions and analyses were quite wrong. For example, his political scenario for the immediate future had as its lynch-pin the immiseration of the proletariat in advanced industrial countries: this did not happen. Furthermore, in no such countries anywhere in the world have the working-class revolutions which Marx so confidently envisaged taken place. Monopoly capitalism developed new forms of a far greater resilience than would have seemed possible to Marx. Meanwhile, bourgeois economists developed techniques which, when applied by politicians, could at least delay and submerge the manifestation of the critical inherent contradictions within the capitalist system.
Even more problematically, in those predominantly peasant societies in which socialist revolutions did take place, they did not lead to those great advances in human happiness which classical Marxism might have led one to expect. Socialism improbably arose out of the ashes of Czarist Russia; but with it came not so much the dawn of an era of human freedom, as the implementation of a new and vigorous brand of tyrannous oppression and repression. I do not wish ritually to rehearse again here all the horrors of the Soviet State, the lies, systematic perversion of the truth, the gulags, mass murders, concentration camps, the repressive State and Party apparatuses, the secret police, the savage destruction of the peasantry, and the suppression of every impetus towards a “fully human condition.” To call all this “Stalinism” is just too easy: it implies—a view Marx would have rejected immediately, of course—that somehow all that was one man’s fault. The point I am making is that the phenomenon we call “Stalinism” is, even today, the central problem for all of us working within the Marxist tradition; even those of us who, like myself, entered that tradition after those successive waves of disillusionment, up to and including 1956, which accompanied the realization of the true character of the Soviet State. Stalinism is not something we can deftly define out of socialism by saying that it does not concern us because we want “the real thing.” Marx wanted that, too: but the point is that when the economic base was transformed in Russia, capitalism and feudalism were destroyed, and socialism implemented—there can be no fudging this through talk about “State Capitalism”—the “real thing” diverged hopelessly from the vision.
Why then, if that is what I think, do I insist upon situating myself within the Marxist tradition? The answer is that I am still committed to a this-worldly struggle for justice for the oppressed, who include, but who are by no means synonymous with, the industrial proletariat. I further consider that “Man,” by which I mean men and women as a species, possesses potentialities for social reciprocity which cannot be fully realized under existing social structures, and that it is possible to envisage the realization through the historical process of forms of society in which those potentialities would be more completely fulfilled. I thus share with Marx an insistence upon the need for a theoretical method which attempts to grasp the historical process in the totality of its complex actuality and becoming. Historical materialism seems to me the only method we have which can begin to do this. Its past failures, however, have cautioned me against those who would make of this method, or any purportedly derived from it, a way of getting at absolute, “scientific” truth—or of achieving that “total” view to which it aspires. Further, despite certain questions and reservations, I consider that Marx’s assignment of a primary determinative power to the economy, and his account of the division of society into conflicting classes whose contradictions will demand resolution in history, are basically right. For all these reasons, combined with my unwavering respect for Marx’s formidable intellectual achievement, his open-mindedness, and empirical insights, I consider myself to be practising within the Marxist tradition.
This said, I must quickly add that in my view that tradition in the West has been fractured, even fragmented, by the prism of Stalinism. There is no way in which one can, in good faith, look back upon the texts, theories, and historical and political analyses of Marx, from our present historical moment, and simply pretend that Stalinism is not an issue. There have, however, been a range of responses, some in good faith, and some not; some compatible with one other, others not. Divested of any tranquil confidence in the inevitability and blissful consequences of the achievement of socialism, Marxists in the West now occupy a wide range of world views which lead them into varieties of political alliance throughout the spectrum of the Left.
In sharp contrast to what has been, over the last ten years at least, a dominant tendency in the Marxism of many Western intellectuals, I have found myself forming the view that a central flaw within classical Marxism was its lack of any adequate conception of man’s relationship to nature, indeed of man, not as an ideological entity, but as a specific species, limited by a relatively constant, underlying biological condition, dependent upon natural processes and a natural world which he cannot command. This focus emerged during and immediately after a prolonged therapeutic experience of psychoanalysis; a process which limits one’s sense of infantile omnipotence, of the magical changeability of all phenomena through the agency of one’s own wishes, exposes the inadequacies of the intellect on its own, puts one back in touch with affects, the concreteness of one’s own body, the bodies of others, and the reality of the external world. Psychoanalysis leads one to realize that there is more to life than what goes on in the head. These general shifts in orientation were given theoretical spine and muscle through my reading of a number of contemporary Marxist writers—including Perry Anderson, Raymond Williams, Edward Thompson, and, surprisingly perhaps, most significantly, Sebastiano Timpanaro. (I say surprisingly since, unlike myself, Timpanaro is no friend of psychoanalysis.)
Timpanaro constantly emphasizes that materialism must begin by affirming the “priority of nature over mind’, or if you like, of the physical level over the biological level, and of the biological level over the socio-economic level.” Marxism, however, was born as an affirmation of the decisive primacy of the socio-economic level over juridical, political and cultural phenomena, and as an affirmation of the historicity of the economy. It emerged as a methodology of human action; its “moment of becoming” was, of course, that of the revolutions of 1848. But it thereby ran the risk of “evading or underestimating that which is passivity and external conditioning in the human condition.” That is why so many of those suffering from infantile omnipotence are attracted to Marxism. Although Marx himself did not ignore or deny physical and biological nature, for him, it constituted “more a prehistoric antecedent to human history than a reality which still limits and conditions man.” With Labriola, Timpanaro is thus led to insist that “our dependence on nature, however diminished since prehistoric times, persists amidst our social life.” Thus he writes:
It is certainly true that the development of society changes men’s ways of feeling pain, pleasure and other elementary psycho-physical reactions, and that there is hardly anything that is “purely natural” left in contemporary man, that has not been enriched and remoulded by the social and cultural environment. But the general aspects of the “human condition” still remain, and the specific characteristics introduced into it by the various forms of associated life have not been such as to overthrow them completely. To maintain that, since the “biological” is always presented to us as mediated by the “social,” the “biological” is nothing and the “social” is everything, would once again be idealist sophistry.
Timpanaro’s position is not “humanist”: he recognizes the validity of polemic against “man in general,” insofar as that concept is used to assert the naturalness of such things as private property, or class divisions. But Timpanaro stresses that man as a biological being, endowed with a certain (not unlimited) adaptability to his external environment, and with certain impulses towards activity and the pursuit of happiness, subject to old age and death, is not an abstract, or “ideological” construction, nor yet a sort of superseded, prehistoric ancestor to social man, “but still exists in each of us and in all probability will still exist in the future.” Certainly, Timpanaro would never speak of “Eternal Man,” or “Eternal Woman.” Not only does he stress that the species, like any other, is subject to biological evolution, but he draws attention to the probable eventual extinction of the species itself and of the world which it inhabits. Nonetheless, he points out that certain significant aspects of the human condition appear to be very long-lasting indeed: these, as we shall see, are of great importance in any attempt to understand our capacity to derive pleasure from the art of the past.
For Timpanaro, while retaining Marx’s division into structure and super-structure, and re-affirming “the preponderant part played by the economic structure in determining the major transformations of juridical-political institutions, cultural milieux and forms of collective psychology,” is yet able to write “One cannot help but recognize also that there are non-superstructural elements in cultural activities and institutions.” He goes on to say that this admission does not in any way undercut materialism but, as he puts it, “rather calls forth a closer consideration of that biological nature of man which Marxism, and particularly contemporary Marxism, tends to disregard.” The division structure/superstructure was, for Timpanaro, “a discovery of immense significance, both as a criterion for explaining social reality, and as a guide to transforming it.” It “becomes inadequate, however, when it is taken as an exhaustive classification of reality, as if there was nothing that existed which was not either structure or superstructure.” Or, as he puts it, “It is not only the social relations between men, but also the relations between men and nature that give rise to scientific and philosophical reflection and to artistic expression.” The point is thus not a revival of Feuerbachian “Man,” or of the ideological constructs of bourgeois humanism, it is rather the completion of the projects which they left incomplete: the elaboration, within the perspectives of historical materialism, of a materialist conception of man, and of his relations to nature; a conception which must begin by respecting the concrete achievements and real knowledge realized through the natural sciences—including physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, zoology, geology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy.
“Man” in this sense—I can only repeat—is not an abstraction, an ideological construct of the bourgeoisie that can be swept away in the attempt to supersede bourgeois modes of thought. After all, the bourgeoisie did not only begin the discovery of man, the extrication of him from false religious conceptions. As a class it was also the first to begin to acknowledge the specific developmental condition of childhood; to start to recognize the special needs of the child. There are, I know, a few poor souls who argue that therefore children, as such, are nought but the ideological constructs of the bourgeoisie and that “under socialism” childhood will cease to exist once more. (It’s funny how those who argue like this so rarely have children themselves.) But what about spermatazoa? In an even more absolute sense than “man” or “childhood,” the concept and the word “spermatazoa” only enters the language with the bourgeoisie: the sperm was only discovered after the invention of the microscope, and became enmeshed in the mystical (or ideological) construct of homunculi. But does anyone really think no such things as spermatozoa existed before the bourgeoisie successfully identified them? Or really think that, with the achievement of socialism, we could abolish not just the concept, but the actuality of sperm, together with the rest of bourgeois ideology? That is exactly what certain “Marxists” are asking us to believe in respect of “Man.”
To some of you, my emphasis on man as a biological being may seem like plugging the self-evident, a question of commonsense. But its very common-sense character is cited by one grouping within Marxism as “proof” of the fact that it is mere ideology. I am referring to the Althusserians and their tendentious legacy of derivative factions and fellow-travellers.
“Now that one cannot win anyone’s ear unless one translates the most commonplace things into structuralist language,” writes Timpanaro, “the task of Marxists appears to have become one of proving that Marxism is the best of all possible structuralisms.” Althusserianism, despite Althusser’s coquettish insistence that he merely flirted with the language of structuralism, is a structuralism. And, if there can be said to be any common perspective amongst the gamut of structuralists from Lacan to Lévi-Strauss, from Foucault to Althusser, it lies in their resistance to the placing of “man” as the origin of social practice, their onslaught against any idea of “man.” For Althusser, there is no such thing as the individual as such: “each mode of production produces its own mode of individuality in accordance with its specific character.” What he has to offer is a profoundly antimaterialist, de-humanized, anti-historicist, anti-empiricist philosophical system which retains certain trappings of Marxist terminology.
It is not the fact that Althusser has revised Marx which worries me, although I believe many of his “readings” of Marx’s texts have been carried out in bad faith; it is his end product, which Edward Thompson, in his dazzling critique of Althusser, describes as “a sealed system within which concepts endlessly circulate, recognize and interrogate each other, and the intensity of its repetitious introversial life is mistaken for ‘science.'” Meanwhile, Althusser’s theory banishes all human agency, and human subjects from the historical process, which, for Althusser, has no subject.
Far be it from me to initiate the uninitiated into this esoteric, academicist cult: it represents the inverse of everything which I find worth preserving in Marx’s work. According to Althusser, that vision of a transformed world which I characterized as essential to Marx’s project must be expunged from Marxism altogether: he speaks of the epistemological break, an alleged sudden leap from ideology to “science” within Marx, reputedly characterized by the rejection of humanism. Althusser goes on to paint a picture of the Mode of Production determining every aspect of the lives of men and women—in the last instance, of course—through the medium of ideology, which, in Althusser’s work, undergoes a mystical process of transubstantiation, thereby achieving material existence. “Human societies,” Althusser maintains, “secrete ideology as the very element and atmosphere indispensable to their historical respiration and life.” But, for him, ideology is not just “false consciousness”: it is the “lived” relation between men and their world. Now, if Althusser was merely saying that the knowledge men and women have of their world is always partial, continuously subject to development and modification, in which the material conditions of their lives play a great part, then I would heartily agree. However, he turns this partial knowledge, “ideology,” into an hypostasized—that is, a personalized—”transcendental subject, which, by interpellating individuals, constitutes them as subjects.” In other words, human subjects, men and women, appear not as “essences,” as in bourgeois humanism, the great heresy for an Althusserian, but as mere effects, or shadows of the great subject, out there, of ideology as secreted by the Mode of Production. In Althusser, it is not God who makes “man” in his own image, but Ideology-and-the-Mode-of-Production, IMP which functions in his system exactly, but exactly, as if it were God.
In Althusser, all the essential qualities of men and women—the result of their specific biological conditions—are alienated from them, and attributed to the great IMP. We are all somehow immersed, dissolved even, into this allegedly material secretion of ideology, even if we don’t realize it. Empirical knowledge is, according to Althusser, worse than useless as a means of escape. Experience, for him, is but a manifestation of the effects of Ideology upon us. Only through the quasi-magical process of Theoretical Practice—which Thompson rightly sees as the rigor mortis of Marxism setting in, and which I would characterize as a sort of mystical communion of Ideology with itself, and not, of course, with the world—can one hope to rise above the ideological mire and achieve pure, transcendent, “Scientific” truth. Thus—if Althusser was right the little boy on the edge of the crowd could never, ever, have seen that the emperor had no clothes; nor can you look out of the window and say, “It is a nice day,” until you have acted upon mere metereology with Theoretical Practice; nor, of course, can I look at those Parthenon frieze panels and say, “That one is good.”
No doubt I am lucky: I was inoculated, for life, against Althusser because I was brought up under the shadow of Karl Barth—the greatest theologian of the 20th century. (If you really must resort to this sort of system, then make for Barth, not Althusser. The breadth and scope of the twelve volumes of Barth’s Church Dogmatics is infinitely more subtle than Althusser’s tawdry texts.) So many of the arguments, however, are the same. Barth put God—Father, Son and Holy Ghost—as his hypostasized “Subject”—who of course, also “interpellates” us—where Althusser puts the great IMP. For Barth, too, God was wholly transcendent, unknowable, utterly Other, and as Althusser says of Ideology in General, without a history—i.e., the Subject, par excellence. Barth despises men and women, too: for him, they are immersed in sin, blindness, and delusion which they are unable to see, or see through, since it is their lived relation to the world, by the very fact of being men and women, born in original sin. Barth despises experience, hence his polemic with Brunner against Natural Theology—the belief that you can see the evidences of God, or “The Truth” by scrutiny of Nature. For Barth, Redemption was only to be found by scrutiny of “The Word of God,” the Biblical texts, which he fetishized throughout his life, making judicious use of the new “scientific” techniques of Form Criticism to establish the “correct” readings. The systems, the arguments, and much of the methodology are pretty much the same. Althusserianism is a theology. It has nothing to do with materialism, and less to do with the struggle for material justice and equity in this world.
Christianity began as an eschatological movement; believers expected the end of the world, the Parousia, or Second Coming, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God in history. This did not happen. Pauline Christology was the ideological attempt to reconcile early Christians to their disappointment; to deflect their focus of attention from this-wordly history to heaven, through the medium of complex, abstract texts and concepts. The process was accompanied, inevitably, by institutionalization and the growth of a priestly caste, which became ever more remote from the popular roots of Christianity.
Engels, time and time again, compared the 19th-century socialist movement, in Europe, with primitive Christianity. Marxism emerged out of the popular expectation of history-transforming revolution, which did not come. Althusserianism is the Pauline Christology of Western Marxism. It is the attempt to reconcile revolutionaries to the indefinite delay of the Parousia in such a way that they do not lose the Faith. “The Truth” this time, however, is to be found not so much in the monasteries and seminaries, as within the cloistered enclaves of academia. As Thompson puts it, “Althusserian theory . . . allows the aspirant academic to engage in a harmless revolutionary psycho-drama, while at the same time pursuing a reputable and conventional intellectual career”—or, I might add, artistic career, vide Burgin, Kelly, etc. It is, however, a total betrayal of historical materialism—to which I am committed.
Of course, like all religious groupings, Althusserianism has produced its splinter sects, many of which question Saint Louis Althusser’s total banishment of the human subject. Even the most psychotic among us sometimes get hints that we exist as a limited, physical organism, subject to birth, bodily existence, and death. This faint glimmering perception of real people has led to a sort of gnostic carnival of Late Althusserianism—a sort of re-insertion into the argument of persons who are not really persons at all. This, of course, is where Lacan comes in. Lacan, blessed and sanctified by Saint Louis himself—in one of the latter’s most ignorant and preposterous essays—is a some-time psychoanalyst who has concocted a “radically anti-humanist” subject, i.e. a sort of bodiless ghost, wholly “implicated in signifying practices.” Lacan’s subject is—in his own words: “. . . de-centred, constituted by a structure that has no ‘centre’ either, except in the imaginary misrecognition of the ‘ego’, i.e. in the ideological formations in which it ‘recognizes’ itself.” You may think you were conceived in flesh and blood, and born of your mother’s womb; but in fact, you are a mere side-effect, literally, of IMP. In the last instance, of course. Lacan and his acolytes are as indifferent to the psycho-biological continuity of the species as Althusser himself. Thus Julia Kristeva trumps up a subject which “unlike the free or self-determining unified individual of humanist thought” is nought but an over-determined, complex, ever-changing nexus of contradictions produced “by the action of social institutions and signifying practices.” Not a trace here of flesh, bones, perceptual organs, instincts, penises, wombs, vaginas, or stomachs. Just “signifying practices”!
Roger Scruton was correct in describing Lacan’s works as fictions, “rambling from theme to theme and from symbol to symbol with little connecting thread other than the all-pervasive ‘I’ of paranoia.” Timpanaro has hinted at the way in which Althusser banishes the subject from the historical process to replace it with one subject, Louis Althusser himself (whose shadow, of course IMP is). Lacan’s later work is no more demanding of serious attention than, say, Ron Hubbard’s scientological dianetics or the writings of Helena Blavatsky. Lacan constructs the “self” upon an infinitely labile model, which reproduces its elements, without constraint, like a language. He is entirely lacking in any materialist conception of men and women as physical organisms.
In Britain, however, there is an indigenous tradition of psycho-analysis—the so-called “object relations school,” extending from Suttie to Rycroft—which takes full cognizance of biological “Man,” as Timpanaro describes him. The theory of the Self in such writers as Bowlby and Winnicott—who significantly draw upon such disciplines as ethology and paediatrics, rather than structural linguistics—is infinitely superior, and infinitely less “ideological” than that to be found in Lacan. It is a sign of the rabid idealism of the Left that their work is either not read at all or despised. Charles Rycroft, the most distinguished surviving representative of this school, has written, “the statement that psychoanalysis is a theory of meaning is incomplete and misleading unless one qualifies it by saying that it is a biological theory of meaning.” Rycroft, rightly, goes on to say that psychoanalysis interprets human behaviour not in terms of entities external to it—such as IMP—but that it “regards the self as a psycho-biological entity which is always striving for self-realization and self-fulfillment.”
There are many Lacanian-Althusserians who forget that in order to become Heavy-Weight Champion of the World, it is not enough to be oppressed, or to “live” the ideology of competitive capitalism. You also need to have big biceps and to lack large mammary glands. In many, many human endeavours constitutional elements, though never everything, are indubitably of decisive, determinative significance. Let me introduce a highly personal note. I suffer from a chronic rheumatic condition, ankylosing spondylitis, among the determinants of which is a genetic factor. The illness is 300 times more common in people who inherit a certain white cell blood group, HLA B27, than among those who do not. A side-effect of this can be sudden, painful inflammation of the irises of the eye. This has happened to me twice, the last time just a few weeks ago. It caused me to reflect not just upon the particularity of visual experience—of which more in a moment—but also upon the fatuousness, stupidity and insensitivity of those who argue that those elements of existence which are determined by “biology” or nature, rather than “IMP” or whatever, are trivial.
The elimination of the psycho-biological subject from Althusserian theory inevitably has inhuman implications. In their wrong-headed book, Language and Materialism: Developments in Semiology and the Theory of the Subject, Rosalind Coward and John Ellis write:
Reference to the notion of “subject” creates the very problem of language this book is dealing with. Since the term refers both to an individual in sociality, and more generally, to the space necessitated by ideological meanings, we have chosen to designate the subject with the pronoun “it.”
There we have it! No more people, only things. Coward and Ellis are full of praise for the way in which Lacanian theory is “grounded in materialism,” because it denies “man” and recognizes that “the conscious subject is constructed in a certain position in relation to the signifying chain.” Thus we are told that the “ultimate effect” of Lacan’s work is “a complete undermining of a unified and consistent subject, the assumption on which all bourgeois ideology is founded.” And so, in this farcical world of topsy-turvy mysticism, the term materialism emerges as the exact inversion of its classical usage: it means here nothing more or less than the denial of the biological and physical levels, of the person as a physical entity, limited (and to a degree determined) by the finiteness of the body, the genetic constitution, and the inevitability of death.
One practitioner who has fallen prey to this tendency recently endeavoured to argue with me that the pronoun T referred to nothing more than an ideological construct. An art historian who rants about signifying practices told me that, in her view, breast-feeding was unnecessary because “milk-filled plastic sacks” were every bit as good. Naturally, if you deny any validity to the notion of the individual as a psycho-biological entity, you will end up saying such things. But I am not interested even in engaging with those who have such an idealist concept of the self. I turn, with relief, to the British object-relations tradition of psychoanalysis which begins with the recognition of the individual as an integral being, who, although he or she must immediately enter into social relations from the moment of birth in order to survive, possesses a physical separateness from, as well as a dependency upon, others. As Marcuse has noted, “Solidarity would be on weak grounds were it not rooted in the instinctual structure of individuals.” Or, as I would want to put it, the continuing potential of the human species for socialism may have its remote biological, i.e. material roots, in the necessity of a relatively prolonged period of social dependency for the infant, if he or she is to survive.
The denial of the subject in Althusserian thought would be alternately pathetic and hilarious, were its implications not so serious. To cite Marx tells us nothing about the truth, or otherwise, of a concept. Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out to these Marxists that Marx and Engels never ditched the concept of “man,” least of all did they eliminate the idea of human agency. “It is men who make history on the basis of previous conditions.” Or, as Sartre was to put it later, there is a space within which we can make something of that which has been made of us. The only words I would wish to add to Marx’s formulation are “and women.” But E.P. Thompson has drawn attention to the hysterical fury which Marx’s formulation evokes in Étienne Balibar, Althusser’s High Priest, and collaborator. Thus Balibar comments on the phrase, “the concept men . . . constitutes a real point where the utterance slips away towards the regions of philosophical or commonplace ideology.” (Balibar wants to say that not just “man,” but also “men,” don’t really exist.) Balibar continues, “The ‘obviousness’, the ‘transparency’ of the word ‘men’ (here charged with carnal opacity) and its anodyne appearance are the most dangerous of the traps I am trying to avoid. I shall not be satisfied until I have . . . eliminated it as a foreign body.”
Carnal opacity! Let’s savour that phrase for a moment. Thompson points to its puritanism, its religious loathing of the flesh. Marx was absolutely correct to charge men with “carnal opacity.” We do, indeed exist with fleshly bodies, driven by hunger, and the vicissitudes and urgencies of the sexual instincts. (Why do Marxists always have so little to say about those, except on the eccentric fringes of the tradition.)
We exist, in feeling, fear, hope, greed and sensuality, and it is precisely that “carnal opacity” of our material existence which the Althusserians want to wipe out. And as Thompson so rightly comments:
If we think about men as the trigger (or mere bearers) of structures—or of their actions as “unjustified disturbance symptoms”—then the thought will guide the act. As those lofty theoretical practitioners, the daleks, used to say, when confronted by “men”: “Exterminate!”
And this brings me back to the nature of Marxism and the centrality of Stalinism for all those who claim to be working within the Marxist tradition. For Thompson argues, in my view entirely convincingly, that although Althusserianism presents itself as anti-Stalinism, this is “a gigantic confidence trick.” For Althusser is only doing in theory what Stalin had already done in practice.
In the same moment that Stalinism emitted “humanist” rhetoric, it occluded the human faculties as part of its necessary mode of respiration. Its very breath stank (and still stinks) of inhumanity, because it has found a way of regarding people as the bearers of structures. . . and history as a process without a subject. . . It is only in our own time that Stalinism has been given its true, rigorous and totally coherent theoretical expression. This is the Althusserian orrery. . . So far from being a “post-Stalinist generation,” the Althusserians and those who share their premises and idealist modes, are working hard, every day, on the theoretical production-line of Stalinist ideology.
To some of you, this may all be academic. Stalin is, after all, firmly within his grave. But it is not just a question of theory, of attitudes to the past. In this decade, we have seen another successful socialist revolution—that in Cambodia—where, to use Balibar’s unhappy phrase—almost a third of a nation was “eliminated. . . as a foreign body.” What happened in Cambodia was Absolute Stalinism, in practice. Thompson does not seem to me to be over-stepping the mark when he recalls, “with anxiety, that some of the leading cadres of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia received their training in ‘Marxism’ in Paris of the 1960s.”
Let me summarize all this: I am struggling for a position within the Marxist tradition which is humanist, insofar as it recognizes men and women as psycho-biological entities; utopian, insofar as it is rooted in the conviction that the world need not be the way it is, or the way it has been, and that men and women can live more happily than they do at present by ordering their social lives differently; empiricist, in that, within certain limits, it recognizes the validity of immediate experience; moralist, in that I consider certain refusals of infringements against the person to be absolutely right, and not just class interests in disguise, e.g. the refusal of torture; economist, in that I consider that, over a wide sphere of social and cultural life, given the qualifications I have already outlined, the economy possesses a determinative primacy; historicist, in that I affirm the validity, indeed the necessity, of the historical materialist recovery of the past; and aestheticist, in that I do not consider aesthetic responses to be merely emanations of bourgeois ideology. My position is not that of a wet, liberal refusal of theory: it is rather the result of my interrogation of history. I have engaged with these theories, and I am rejecting them—as I see it, in the name of the struggle for socialism. Nonetheless, every point in the position I have just outlined breaches a cardinal sin in the Althusserian breviary. Edward Thompson has declared that “Libertarian Communism and the socialist and Labour movement in general can have no business with theoretical practice except to expose it and to drive it out.” I find myself in strong sympathy with this view, although not yet quite able to endorse it. I am still sentimental enough to cling until the eleventh hour to what is probably no more than a fantasy of unity.
Peter Fuller (1947–1990) was a British writer and art critic. He founded the art magazine Modern Painters, and was the appointed art critic of The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of many books, including Art and Psychoanalysis (Writers and Readers, 1981), Aesthetics After Modernism (Writers and Readers, 1983), and Robert Natkin (Harry N. Abrams, 1981).