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Discussion: Leninism versus proletarian self-emancipation; Laing’s social philosophy; The Trivialily of Althusser

Discussion
Leninism versus
proletarian self-emancipation
Norman Geras argues (RP6, pp20-22) convincingly that
Marx’s theory of socialist revolution is grounded on
the fundamental principle that ‘the emancipation of
the working class must be the work of the working
class itself’.

Marx held to this view throughout his
entire forty years of socialist political activity,
and it distinguished his theory of socialist change
from that both of those who appealed to princes,
governments and industrialists to change the world
for the benefit of the working class (such as Owen
and Saint Simon) and of those who relied on the
determined action of some enlightened minority of
professional revolutionaries to liberate the workers
(such as Buonarotti, Blanqui and Weitling).

Marx saw that the very social position of the
working class within capitalist society as a nonowning exploited wealth-producing class forced it to
struggle against its capitalist conditions of existence.

This ‘movement’ of the working class was
implicitly socialist since the struggle was ultimately
over who should control the means of oroduction: the
minority capitalist class or the working class ( =
society as a whole)? At first, Marx believed, the
movement of the working class would be unconscious
and unorganized but in time, as the workers gained
more experience of the class struggle and the workings
of capitalism, it would become more and more consciously socialist and democratically organized by the
workers themselves.

The emergence of socialist
consciousness out of the daily class struggle of the
workers could thus be said to be ‘spontaneous’ in the
sense that it would require no intervention by people
from outside the working class to bring i t about
(not that such people could not take part in this
process, but their partiCipation was not essential
or crucial); socialist propaganda and agitation would
indeed be necessary but this would come to be carried
out by workers themselves whose socialist ideas would
have been derived from an interpretation of the class’

experience of capitalism.

In short, it was Marx’s view that the working class
would gain ‘spontaneously’ in the course of their
struggle with the capitalist class, the confidence in
their own ability’and the degree of understanding and
democratic self-organisation needed to carry out the
socialist revolution. The end result would be an
autonomous, independent movement of the socialistminded and democratically-organised working class
aimed at winning control of political power in order
to abolish capitalism. As Marx put it, ‘the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent
movement of the immense majority, in the interest of
the immense majority,.l
(This in fact was Marx’s conception of ‘the
workers’ party’.

He did not see the party of the
working class as a self-appointed elite of professional
revolutionaries, as did the Blanquists, but as the
mass democratic movement of the working class to
capture political power with a view to establishing
Socialism, the common ownership and democratic
control of the means of production.) 2
Geras speaks of this process as the ‘education’

of the working class, not in the sense of being taught
by people from outside their class but in the sense
of them ‘learning’ in the course of their own
struggles, to organise themselves democratically and
to do without capitalist ideas and leaders. Geras
adds ‘this education of the proletariat is part and
parcel of the socialist revolution which would be
unthinkable without it’ (my emphasis). Undoubtedly
this was Marx’s view.

But was it Lenin’s? Here

28

Geras becomes less convincing as he tries to argue
that it was.

Lenin,.as is well known, in his pamphlet What Is
To Be Done 3 , written in 1901-2, declared:

The history of all countries shows that the
working class, exclusively by its own efforts,
is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e. the conviction that it is necessary
to combine in unions, fight the employers and
strive to compel the government to pass necessary
labour legislation etc. The theot~ of
Socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic,
historical and economic theories that were
elaborated by the educated representatives of
the propertied classes, the intellectuals.

(pp50-5l)
Class political consciousness can be brought
to the workers only from without, that is, only
from outside of the economic struggle, from
outside of the sphere of relations between
workers and employers.

(p133, Lenin’s emphasis)
The spontaneous working-class movement by
itself is able to create (and inevitably
creates) only trade unionism, and workingclass trade-unionist politics are precisely
working-class bourgeois politics.

(pp159-60)
Lenin went on to argue that the people who would
have to bring ‘socialist consciousness’ to the working
class ‘from without’ would be ‘professional revolutionaries’, drawn at first mainly from the ranks of
the bourgeois intelligentsia.

In fact he argued that
the Russian Social Democratic party should be such an
‘organisation of professional revolutionaries’, acting
as the vanguard of the working class.

According to Geras, Lenin’s view that the workers
on their own are capable only of producing a ‘trade
union consciousness’ is ‘a’thesis he soon abandoned’.

Evidence to refute this claim will be offered later,
but one thing can now be stated with certainty:

Lenin never abandoned its corollary, the theory of
the vanguard party.

The task of his vanguard party, to be composed of
professional revolutionaries under a strict central
control, was to ‘lead’ the working class, offering
them slogans to follow and struggle for.

It is the
very antithesis of Marx’s theory of proletarian selfemancipation.

The theory of the vanguard party has a curious
history.

Lenin did not invent it; i t was already
current amongst the pre-Marxist Russian revolutionaries
and was held by Lenin himself even before he embraced
Marxism – or, rather, some of Marx’s views. The
group Lenin had previously belonged to had been
influenced by the ideas of the Russian Blanquist,
Tkachev.

Lenin’s choice of the title What Is To Be
‘Done? was also significant since this was the title
of a novel by Chernyshevsky who Lenin admired and who
also favoured a vanguard party of professional
revolutionaries.

This idea seems first to have been
introduced into the Russian anti-Tsarist movement in
the l850s by the poet Ogarev, a collaborator of
Alexander Herzen. Ogarev had been greatly impressed
by Buonarotti’s Conspiracy of the Equals (which
advances the view, quoted by Geras in his article,
about the workers being so demoralized by capitalism
that they would be unable to liberate themselves and
so would have to be liberated by some enlightened
minority).

In fact, what is the vanguard party of
professional revolutionaries but the modern form of
the ‘secret society’ favoured by Buonarotti, Blanqui,
weitling and the others (revolutionary nationalists
as well as utopian communists), and rejected so
decisively by Marx even in the l840s?

Even if Lenin did abandon his view that, left to
themselves, the workers are only capable of acquiring
a’reformist, trade unionist consciousness, his theory
of the vanguard party is enough to demonstrate that
he did not hold Marx’s theory of proletarian selfemancipation.

But we promised to try to show that
Lenin never did in fact abandon the views expressed
in What Is To Be Done-.

One implication of the Marxist theory of proletarian self-emancipation is that the immense majority of
the working class must be consciously involved the
socialist revolution against papitalism.

‘The
proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independen
movement of the immense majority, in the interest of
the immense majority’, as Marx put it. l
Now the Bolshevik coup in November 1917, carried
out under the guise of protecting the rights of the
Congress of Soviets, did not enjoy conscious majority
support, at least not for Socialism, though their
slogan ‘Peace, Bread and Land’ was widely popular.

For instance, elections to the Constituent Assembly,
held after the Bolshevik coup and so under the
Bolshevik government, gave them only about 25 per cent
of the votes.

John Reed, a sympathetic American journalist,
whose famous account of the Bolshevik coup Ten Days
That Shook The Wor1d 4 was commended by Lenin in a
foreword/quotes Lenin as replying to this kind of
c;iticism in a speech he made to the Congress of
Peasants Soviets on 21 November 1917:

If Socialism can only be realized when the
intellectual development of all the people
permits it, then we shall not see Socialism
for at least five hundred years … The
Socialist political party – this is the vanguard
of the working class; it must not allow itself
to be halted by the lack of education of the
mass average, but it must lead the masses,
using the Soviets as organs of revolutionary
initiative •• . ‘

(p4l5.

You say that civilization is necessary for
the building of socialism. Very good. But
why could we not first create such prerequisites
of civilization in our country as the expulsion
of the landowners and the Russian capitalists,
and then start moving towards Socialism?

Where, in what books, have you read that such
variations of the customary historical order
of events are impermissible or impossible?

(p39)
Now this is very revealing. The ‘theory’ and the
‘books’ Lenin mentions can only be those of Marx.

And the answer to his questions is ably provided in
the first part of Geras’ article in Radical Philosophy
6! For by ‘cultural revolution’ Lenin clearly means
the process of working class preparation for
Socialism which Marx held had to be carried out, by
the efforts of the workers themselves of” course,
before ‘the political and social revolution’ to
overthrow capitalism. To quote Geras again, ‘this
education of the proletariat is part and parcel of
the socialist revolution which would be unthinkable
without it’. Unthinkable for Marx, but evidently not
for Lenin.

The theory advanced in these last articles of
Lenin’s is that the ‘vanguard’ party is entitled to
seize power when it can, establish its dictatorship
in the name (and name only, in practice) of the
working class and then, having driven out the
capitalists, landowners and their ideologists,
proceed to educate the working class (and peasantry)
to Socialism.

Is not this the notion of an
‘educational dictatorship’ Geras criticizes Marcuse
for toying with? Just how far had Lenin gone from
Marxism – or had he even been near it, in the light
of his views of both 1901-2 and 1922-3?

AdamBuick
NOTES

Reed “s emphasis and omissions)
1

Compare this with the passage, quoted by Geras,
from the utopian communist weitling (‘to want to
wait ‘” until all are suitably enlightened, would
mean to abandon the thing altogether’)! Not of
course that i t is a question of ‘all’ the workers
needing to be socialists before there can be
Socialism. Harx, in rejecting the view that
Socialism could be established by some enlightened
minority, was merely saying that a sufficient
majority of them would have to be.

Having seized power before the working class
(and, even less, the 80 per cent peasant majority of
the population) had prepared themselves for Socialism,
all the Bolshevik government could do, as Lenin
himself openly admitted 5 , was to establish state
capitalism in Russia.

There is evidence in his last
articles written in 1923 6 that Lenin was beginning to
realise the impossible position the Bolsheviks had got
themselves into. By seizing power in the political
chaos following the breakdown of the Tsarist regime
under the impact of a modern war which backward Russia
was economically unable to sustain, they had become
the government of a huge country, hardly culturally
prepared for capitalism, let alone Socialism.

Lenin responqed to c~ticism on this as follows:

Our opponents told us repeatedly that we
were rash in undertaking to implant Socialism

in an insufficiently cultured country. But
they were misled by our having started from
the end opposite to that prescribed by
theory (the theory of pedants of all kinds),
because in our country the political and
social revolution preceded the cultural
revolution, that very cultural revolution
which nevertheless now confronts us.

(p34)
And, in a comment on an account of the Russian
revolution written by Sukhanov, an unaligned leftwing Russian Social Democrat 7 ,

The Communist Manifesto, Foreign Languages
Publishing House, MoscoW, 1954, p64

2

Compare, for instance, J B Sanderson, An

Interpretation of the Political Ideas of Marx
and Enge1s, Longmans, 1969:

Full revolutionary consciousness was thus
the destination of the proletariat, and
indeed their numbers could only be decisive
when they were (as Marx put it in 1864)
‘united by combination and led by knowledge’ ,
when they were, in effect, transformed into
a gigantic political party.

(p85)
3

What Is To Be Done, FLPH, MoscoW, no date.

4

Ten Days That Shook The World, Modern Library,
– 1960 edition

5

See, for instance, ‘Left-Wing’ Childness and
Petty Bourgeois Mentality, which appeared as
a series of articles in Pravda, on May 9, la
and 11, 1917, Progress Publishers, MoscoW, 1968

6

Lenin’s Last Letters and Articles, Progress
Publishers, MoscoW, no date.

7

The Russian Revolution of 1917: ‘A Personal
Record’ by N. N. Sukhanov, translated and
edited by Joel Carmichael, Q.U.P.

Laing’s social philosophy
Unfortunately, like most Marxists (in my experience), Joe Warrington (‘Laing’s Social Philosophy’

RP4, pplO-16) seems to feel threatened by anything
in the nature of mysticism, and in order to protect
himself, creates a caricature of the thing in
question, which he then proceeds all to easily to

29

demolish. Thus the Laing thesis that some schizophrenics are pioneering for us the exploration of
inner space becomes, with Warrington, the assertion
that all schizophrenics are alleged by Laing to
possess .this gift. He then goes on to assume the
very mantle of moderation and good sense, for himself as against Laing, which Laing himself had taken
very great pains to assume: Thus, Warrington says
‘Let’s simply say, so as not to insult anyone,
that some schizophrenics are swines, and some are
good people ••• ‘ etc. But listen to Laing himself:

‘Some people labelled schizophrenic (not all, and
not necessarily) manifest behaviour in words, gestures, actions •• , that is unusual.

Sometimes
(not always not not necessarily) this unusual
behaviour ..• expresses, wittingly or unwittingly,
unusual experiences that the person is undergoing.

Sometimes (not always and not necessarily) these
unusual experiences that are expressed by unusual
behaviour appear to be part of a potentially orderly,
natural sequence of experiences.’

(The Politics
of Experience, Penguin edition pl02i see also
plOS, pl08)
Perhaps there is something a little flamboyant
and histrionic in the way Laing present his thesis.

But i t is more helpful to remember that Laing was
pleading with us, and his tone in Politics of
Experience was appropriately passionate.

To come to another point. Joe Warrington writes
‘Overindulgence in the subjective leads to excessive importance being placed upon what are regarded
as revelatory experiences, mystical or ones produced
by drugs. This is very noticeable in The Politics
of Experience. The world of action is left intact
and Laing ends up abreast of all forms of permanentmoment addiction.

Illumination is to come from the
subjective switch, not from objective reality.’

Now, firstly, to pronounce the words ‘objective
reality’ in this bald way is to beg the whole
question. One of the most important of Laing’s
points is that some schizophrenics can help us to
re-discover .’objective reality’, in the sense of
‘the ,totality of what is the case’ (pl17) which
must include our subjective feelings among other
things. This is a very difficult area of discussion, admittedly, and I am not competent to develop
the argument, but there seems to me to be no excuse
at all in an article in a journal calling itself
Radical Philosophy for stating the subjectiveobjective dichotomy in so crude a manner and just
leaving i t there.

Secondly, though I wholeheartedly agree with
Joe Warrington about the political quietism of
many, perhaps most, ‘Nirvana-seekers’ I can only
protest that there is no intrinsic connection
between contemplative mysticism and political
‘reaction’ (to use terms very loosely).

I know
that historically speaking my case is poor. But
prophetically speaking, i t is not going to be like
that any more! The later work of the mystic and
hermit Thomas Merton seems to me to represent the
strongest current now, and there you have a very
forthright repudiation of capitalism and its values.

The last point I would like to make concerns
narcissism, which Joe Warrington cites as very
characteristic of many schizoid people. The point
really at issue here is whether those types of
schizoid people whom Laing regards as ‘pioneers’

also fall into the hopelessly narcissistic category – taking narcissism in Joe Warrington’s sense
‘of an obviously developed failure to interpret
personal relations in a manner i~dependent of one’s
own subjective feelings.’ Joe Warrington gives no
evidence, no indication at all, that these two
categories coincide. The charge against Laing on
this particular point is therefore without meaning.

Moreover, an examination of the text of The
Politics of Experience strongly suggests that
‘pioneering’schizoids could hardly be narcissists
in the above sense.

Narcissism, in the sense we
have agreed upon, would seem to imply something
stagnant and immovable. But the most powerful
impression that comes through in Laing’s account

30

(indeed it is more than an impression, i t is plain
statement often enough) is that the ‘pioneer’

schizoid works through his sickness, and comes out
on the other side, sometimes in quite a short time.

Says Joe Warrington ‘The gut-thing about schizophrenia is dreadful, dreadful unhappiness.’

In the
great majority of cases, yes. But the gut-thing
about some schizophrenic experiences (if that is
what we must continue to call them) is this victory,
this perception and grasp of new meaning.

What degree of dynamism and creativeness is subsequently achieved by these fortunate few is an
interesting question, and one which I wish Laing
would follow up and tell us about.

But even if
i t does not match up to the dynamic style and
achievement of a St Paul, even if those who have
‘come through’ do not. acq1ire the kind of centrality in our culture that the shaman, after he has
conquered his sickness, aEquires in his, even if
their sense of new meaning remains private and
their lives obscure, their experience will have
been worthwhile, both to them and to us, and
Laing’s work justified – not only because it has
preserved them, but because it will have prepared
us and our descendants for an experience that is
likely to become more common and which we must
learn to take and treat in the right way. That is,
laing’s way – or we are left with the Brave New
World way, no longer a matter of signs and
portents but a sinister and growing reality.

David Britton

The Irivialily of Allhusser
What is the relationship of theory to practice?

Or to use the language favoured by Althusser, what
is the relationship of ‘theoretical practice’ to
‘political practice’? To those who realise that
the two must be made to be relatively close, as
with Gramsci for instance (‘The unity of theory and
practice is not just a matter of mechanical fact,
but a part of the historical process … ‘), n;
general answers need be given. The need for such
an answer only occurs when the two are assumed to
have a relative autonomy. That Althusser makes
such an assumption is to be found clearly stated in
For Marx pp184-S, where he posits three levels of
theory (‘Generalities 1, 2 and 3’), and asserts
that ‘The work whereby Generality 1 becomes
Generality 3 ••. only involves the process of
theoretical practice, that is, it all takes place
“within knowledge”‘.

The formulation of the ‘new problematic’ and
such like, are seen as the tasks (among others) of
‘theoretical practice’. John Mepham’s piece ‘Who
makes history?’ (RP6, pp23-30) takes Norman Geras
(RP6, pp20-22l to task for attributing to
~lthusser the view ‘that the masses can only destroy
and transform these relations (of.the workers to
capital) “by the power of a knowledge (Theoretical
Practice) brought to them from elsewhere”‘. Thus
Mepham stresses the autonomy of ‘theoretical
practice’ from ‘political practice’.

‘Political
practice’ indeed, appears to be quite self-sufficient.

It doesn’t need ‘theoretical practice’ to guide it
on its way: ‘ … it is in any case political
practice and not theoretical practice which transforms social relations’ (p29). Elsewhere, Mepham
is less clear – in fact he directly contradicts
himself: ‘In concrete, revolutionary political
practice it is important to ..• discover which
classes and fractions of classes are or could be
in alliance with the proletariat .•. So even
abstract formulae can be more or less rigorous and
can point the way more or less clearly to correct
political practice’ (p26).

What is this if it is
not just that ‘misinterpretation’ of Althusser which
Mepham accuses Geras of making? Perhaps Mepham
would reply that these abstract formulae are the

abstractions of ‘political’ not ‘theoretical’ practice.

But this is entirely beside the point – what
is at issue is Althusser’s elitism.

So long as the
only account he gives us of how these abstract
formulae are cre~ted is the on; above j.e. outside
the class struggle – what conclusion~’t:an we draw
other than Geras’ s? You can call the’se abstract
formulae ‘political’ and ‘theoretical’, but that
won’t alter the substance of the charge. The charge
remains valid until Althusser adopts something like
Gramsci’s view of the creation of revolutionary
theory organically, within the class.

Does Althusser believe that the masses need a
knowledge brought in from elsewhere in order to
smash capitalism, or not? If Mepham’s interpretation is right, then he is hopelessly contradictory
and totally confused. Mepham seems to intimate such
a confusion in himself and Althusser: ‘It is
certainly true that Althusser has not produced a
satisfactory account of the ‘mechanisms’ which
produce knowledge, nor of the relationship between
theory and politics. Althusser has himself pointed
this out.’ (p29).

It hardly needs to be added that
if this latest Mepham thesis is correct, both the
Mepham and the Geras interpretation of Altnusser’s
elitism will be equally derivable from Althusser’s
various tomes. Yet-the conclusion that Mepham
draws from this diagnosed vacillation on such a
crucial question, is not to consign all this
Althusser-talk to the dustbin (where it belongs if
he is right), but to stress that ‘ … it is
important to emphasize what we can learn from his
work about the rleation between theory and
politics’! (p29).

From the point of view of Althusser’s (and
Mepham’s) self-images as lefties, let us hope that
Geras is right, and Mepham wrong on Althusser’s
elitism.

For just suppose that Mepham were right where would that leave all the stuff that Althusser
(and he himself) have written these past few years
on Marxism? If it is the masses and not the
intellectuals who make history, and if Geras is
wrong to accuse Althusser of proclaiming the need
to bring theory to the masses from the outside, what
is the point of such theory? It would be selfconfessedly quite redundant to the process of the
revolutionary transformation of capitalist society,
would i t not? Remember that the whole notion of a
specifically theoretical ‘practice’ is based
upon the assumption that ‘the process of theoretical
practice ..• all takes place “within knowledge'” .

No room here for revolutionary theory to play the
kind of organic and internal role within working
class struggles that was stressed so strongly by
Gramsci and Lenin; so either the Althusser line is
the pedagogic-elitist one of Joseph Stalin and
Sidney Webb (‘Socialism’ from abovel – or i t is a
way of dissipating energies to an intellectual
activity which cannot even pretend to change social
reality. At least according to Geras, Althusser
(and Mepham) appear as trying to change society.

But if Mepham is right, Althusser is actually trying
to divert people from this task, and what’s more
Mepham is too.

So long as Althusserians retain a notion of
‘theoretical practice’ – that is of an intellectual
activity which has its own autonomy, which is to be
separated from the workers’ struggles, which fails
to address itself primarily to the task of the
development of those struggles along the road to
proletarian self-emancipation, it will and must
zigzag erratically from elitism to reactionary
philistinism. Geras was therefore (correctly) adopting the most charitable interpretation in opting for
the former.

Mepham’s ‘theoretical practice’ on the
other hand, is ‘theoretical practice’ with its balls
cut off – useless, diversionary and an impediment to
the development of the sort of theory for the
proletariat which would be politically productive.

Geras is absolutely correct to claim that in the
present epoch, proletarian self-emanCipation is
absolutely central, and not at all incidental to
historical materialism (pp20-22). And it is quite

extraordinary that Mepham should bend this into what
he claims to be the ‘Humanist Formula’. Under the
rules of ‘filling out’ Geras, Mepham dilutes the
central claim to ‘It is men who make history albeit
on the basis of objective conditions which they have
to take as given’. Mepham ‘contrasts’ this
‘humanism’ with two ‘anti-humanist’ theses which he
claims to find in Althusser: (11 It is the masses
which make history. The class-struggle is the motor
of history. (2) The true subjects of the practices
of social production are the relations of production.

Men are never anything more than the bearers/supports/
effects of these relations.

Consider (1) first.

I take it that Mepham’s
addition of ‘the class struggle is the motor of
history” is gratuitous to its sense.

For Marx
clearly accepted this as axiomatic right “in the
middle of what Althusser believed to be his ‘humanistic’ period (e.g. in the ‘German Ideology’ 1846-7).

Equally Geras’s articles make him quite unequivocal
on the question too.

(We shall have reasons for
doubting whether Mepham himself is so clear, as will
become obvious later).

So that are we left with?

Or rather, who is the humanist? Is it our supposed
‘anti-humanist’ who utters the banal genera~ity ‘It
is the masses who-make history’, or is it rather
Geras (and Marx), who, after an analysis of the
specific dynamic of capitalist society, believe that
the liberation of ‘the masses’ can occur only through
the self-emancipation of the proletariat? – who
believe that to adopt any other primary goal would
be completely self-defeating? Presumably (and hopefully) Mepham agrees with Geras here.

Yet it is the
Geras formulation which follows from the scientific
understanding of bourgeois society to be found in
Marx’s ‘Capital’ – the Mepham formulation could have
been put forward by any old populist, anarchist or
democrat who believed in change from below.

It is
the Mepham formulation, through failing to distinguish the proletariat from other human masses which
,therefore comes nearer to ‘humanism’ _in its pejorative sense.

The trouble with Mepham is that he just won’t
recognise Althusser for the reactionary old windbag
that he undeniably is. He just doesn’t want to
think about the fundamental contradictions that are
there and cannot be removed. We have seen one instance
of this already: ‘theoretical practice’ is either a
reactionary diversion from the class struggle, or it
relates to it one-sidedly, condescendingly Fabianlike in its elitism.

We have seen how Mepham makes
his choice, and how he covers up following this
through to its logical conclusion by pretending that
the contradiction is merely a lacuna (‘Althusser has
not produced a satisfactory account … of the
relation between theory and politics’). But Mepham
gets into even deeper water with the second ‘antihumanist’ thesis. To recapitulate; the second thesis
stresses the reality of the relations of production
as opposed to men, as the ‘true subjects’. Unlike
the first thesis, Mepham is unhappy about it for a
number of reasons, but wants to preserve its
‘positive features’.

Mepham believes that the second thesis is significant for two reasons. Firstly because ‘It
indicates that we need to understand the efficacy
of structures of social relations and of classes,
and it indicates that our understanding of what it
is to be a human individual, a subject, will be
dependent on and not prior to this understanding
of classes’ (p26).

Secondly because i t is an
‘attempt to theorise a relationship in which “men”
and “structures of social relations” are internally
related and mutually determining rather than
externally related and causally co-mingling’ (p26).

But Mepham roundly condemns anything else he finds
in the thesis.

‘Althusser’, we learn, ‘ •.. has
made no attempt to give (it) the extended exposition that it requires’ (p27) , and ‘he can be
accused of having allowed some attachment (to a
structuralist ideology) to give his work a false
sense of rigour’ (p27).

His lack of discussion on
the possibility and limits of abstraction ‘leads

31

Althusser .•• to adopt positions which are idealist’

all his talk about hitting ‘national interest’ talk
(p27). Mepham even admits ‘ ••• any view would be
over the head with the ‘decisive and all-important
incorrect (and would have undesirable effects in
counter-concept: the class-struggle’, considers
politics) if that view had the implication that
‘class-struggle’ to be so unimportant that he doesn’t
human subjectivity and human agency are only epieven use it in his exposition of the crucial
phenomenal to the process of historical change •••
Althusserian categories. True, he includes it
The question of whether Althusser has views which
(but as a disconnected addendum) when he mentions
do have this implication is a difficult one.’!!

the first ‘anti-humanist’ formula, but he makes it
(.p27)
quite clear that so far from being decisive and
Just what game does Mepham think Althusser is
all-important, the notion of class-struggle is just
playing here? He clarifies this point earlier on
a species of political practice (like class-collaboin his paper. Apparently the concepts which Geras
. ration) : and that ‘political practice’ is itself
is using and the ones which Althusser is using are
just one among many practices (‘theoretical’,
‘conceptually incompatible – the concepts cannot
‘scientific’ etc).

coherently exist within a discourse’ (p25). And
Now there is a good reason for this failure to
it is important to reject Geras’s in favour of
make the concept of class-struggle dedisive and allAlthusser’s – why? Because Geras-concepts are
important, and it is connected with Meph~’s miscompatible with (though do not follow from) ‘beliefs
understandings over the subj ect and dynam’f.c of histthat men make history and that if only Englishmen,
ory. What distinguishes revolutionaries from
and especially English workers, had a different
gradualists on the question of historical change?

attitude the crisis would disappear ••• What I’m
Largely it is because the former see history divided
saying is that (this) i ••• invites such talk.’ (p25)
into reasonably clearly definable epochs, each with
In case you missed the punch-line, it’s that
its own contradictions and dynamic, and each, by
Althusser-concepts, being incompatible with Gerasworking through these contradictions, creating the
concepts, can’t contain such consequences – they
real potential for the next epoch. Mepham seems to
remain pure, unadulterated, conceptually crystallook at things differently. Instead of epochs we
line. That’s why Geras-concepts (but presumably
get structures of relations. Instead of revolutions
only Geras-concepts and not Althusser-concepts) do
we get, for instance a transformation from ‘economic
not ‘immediately hit such talk over the head with
class-struggle’ to ‘political class-struggle’.

the decisive and all-important counter-concepts:

Instead of the relations of production being burst
asunder we get the ‘transition period ••• in which
the class-struggle’ (p25).

But where, we might ask, does Mepham, or Mephamthe intervention of political practice, instead of
Althusser stand on this question? And how does this
conserving the limits and producing its effects
compare with the Geras position? For a start it is
within their determination, displaces them and
clearly a travesty of Geras, and of the concepts he
transforms them’ (p28). This terminology by itself
uses, to pretend that his view is even remotely
of course does not make Mepham a gradua1ist, but like
compatible with the ‘national interest’ bullshit
gradualists, he tends to blur a fundamental distincwhich Mepham flings at him. On the contrary, for
tion between say, the pro1eta!ian revolution and the
Geras: ‘The problem of the transformation and
dynamics of capitalist society, and it is from this
emancipation of man is, in the first instance, the
that his confusion stems. ‘Political class struggle’

present in all periods, becomes dominant in the
problem of the transformation and emancipation of
the p~oletariat ••• the education of the proletariat
‘period of transition between modes of production’

according to this view. Again what is wrong is not
is simply the process by which it acquires an
so much what is said, it is rather what is left out.

autonomous class consciousness and through which
it forms autonomous class organizations up to and
In a nutshell, Mepham tailors Althusser as follows:

The second ‘anti-humanist’ formula is OK, but within
including the institutions of dual power and of
the future proletarian state’ (p2l). Geras’s central
limits. The subject of history can indeed be the
contention, the title of his paper, and its entire
relations of production, but in periods of crisis
‘political practice’ becomes predominant, negating
conten.t, the concept ‘proletarian self-emancipation’,
indeed everything about it so explicitly refutes
the original correspondence between the different
Mepham’s absurd charge, that there is no need to
levels. What then becomes the subject of history?

dwell on it further. But where does Mepham’s
Mepham doesn’t say! Instead he makes the comment
Althusser stand here? Much more equivocally, to
‘ ••• the whole point of revolutionary political pracput it mildly. For ‘the masses’ replaces ‘the
tice is to know how to act so as to shift the basic
balance of forces in a concrete situation, and
proletariat’ in his formulation. Unimport”ant in
itself, perhaps, but that’s just a prelude to pushultimately to produce a “ruptural unity” in which
the decisive transformation can come about’. Quite
ing aside the proletariat and its struggles against
so, but if this is the whole point of the exercise,
capital from the centre of the state, to be replaced
by mushy maoist waffle about ‘the people’, ‘class
he might at least tell us who or what is to be the
subject of change in this most crucual of all
alliances’ etc (p26). When Lenin fought for the
historical moments! He knows it can’t be the relaallegiance of the peasantry in 1917, he made the
important qualification that any class alliance must
tions of production that remain the subjects of
historical change because the ‘ruptural unity’

be under the leadership of the proletariat. No
such qualifications can be found in Mepham’s piece.

destroys them. Why then is he so coy about admittFor this reason class collaboration occupies a
ing that such an event as the socialist revolution
position not at all subordinate to class struggle in
can be the act of none other than the proletariat?

his essay. While Geras, ther~fore has an unequivocal
Actually he is entirely wrong about the agency or
proletarian class line, the same cannot be said for
subject for the dynamic of capitalist society. It
Mepham. If anyone is, conc~ptually speaking, opening
certainly isn’t the relations of production, even
the door for ‘national interest’ mongers, it is thus
though this plays a part in the source of the dynamic
Mepham himself who is doing so. For failing to sub- it is the contradiction between forces and relaordinate class collaboration to proletarian class
tions of production which is the real source. But
struggle is preCisely what makes possible the
even this isn’t the agency at work in capitalism.

posing of ‘national questions’ before class questions. The real agency is capital itself. Now of course
But wait a minute, what has class struggle got
capital is a relationship to production (though not
of production), but it becomes an agent in the process
to do with Althusser in the first place? Read Lenin
and Trotsky and you’ll find it in every sentence,
as a thing rather than as a relationship. Although
every thought. Pick up one of Louis A’S weighty
capital is a parasite on labour, it still remains,
as a thing,the agent in the capitalist reproduction
“tomes, and you’ll have to scratch pretty deep to
come across the slightest whiff of it, smothered as
and expansion process. As Marx put it ‘Through the
it would be by ‘overdeterminations’ of ‘structuresexchange with the worker, capital has appropriated
in-dominance’, ‘problematics’, ‘epistemological
labour itself; labour has become one of its moments,
breaks’, ‘conjunctures’ etc. In fact, Mepham, for
which now acts as a fructifying vitality upon its

32

merely existent and hence dead objectivity •••
capital itself becomes a process. Labour is the
yeast thrown into it, which starts it fermenting ••• •
CGrundrisse pp297-8)
In short, Mepham’s Althusser is a mass of confusions. On the one hand he believes in the’ autonomy
of ‘political prac.tice· (and therefore to the’

trivialitr [at best] of ‘theoretical practice’),
of there being no need to bring theory to the class
from outside. And on the other hand he wants theory
to be able to point the way to correct political
practice. He accuses Geras of ‘humanism’ while
adopting much more ‘humanistic’ (in a bad sense)
positions than Geras. He accuses Geras of using
concepts which encourage class collaboration, when
it is preCisely his own and not Geras’s concepts
which do this. Finally, he both misunderstands
the difference between the historic dynamiC of
capitalism’s development and the moment in history
at which the proletariat seizes power, and is
totally confused over the nature of the agency or
subject of change in each case.

Peter Binns
December 1973
Continued from page 27
the Meditations. From’I think’ he passes
easily via ‘I am a thinking thing’ to ‘I am a
substance whose essence ~s to think’. Similarly,
from ‘Genet steals’ the good peasants derived
‘Genet is a thief’: and the precise meaning of
this for them was, ‘Genet is a substance whose
essence is to steal’. In this way the act is
generalized into the propensity to steal, and
substantiated in Genet: and the essence (or
character) so constituted can then be used to
explain the act.

6

Sartre makes no distinction between self-forAnother (i.e. some particular other person) and
self-for-any-other. See below, page

7

Unlike Laing and Cooper, Sartre is not interested
in this type of analysis – and in any case he
knows virtually nothing about this particular
family.

8

Again, Sartre conflates self-for-Another with
self-for-any-other. The foster parents are
therefore treated as no more than the representatives of French peasantry (of even French
SOCiety) to Genet. Sartre assumes that an
alienated relationship existed between Genet
and his foster parents prior to the act of
stealing.

9

la

In fact, because it is founded upon inaccurate
analysis of the nature of historical change,
the ideology prevents the most effective
preventative action from being taken.

• .H<ljor <lrticles concernil1X Vietll<lll/, tbe cOlltell/porol')'

family, inflation ,1Ild tbe fisc,,1 crisis, tbe :meric<lll left
• Re-examin<ltions of tbe work of Lenill, Grolmsci,
<lnd others

,1.10

• Continuing and wide-ranging diSCIIssiOll of tbe stroltegy
and direction for building <l soci"list movement in tbe
United States tod<lY
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JACQUES RANCItRE teaches at the University of
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