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Rancière and Althusser

Hegelian Marxism than to the relations that exist
in Althusser’s thought. He attacks the latter as
‘philosophy’s police mentality’ but no more.

The difference is that between a clear and rigorous analytic distinction between the concepts that
combine into a theory – a distinction that Al thus.ser tries to maintain – and a relationship of
‘fluidity’ between concepts, an interpenetration
and mutual implication – such as that between
Ranciere’s critique of Althusser and T~d Benton’s
unity and contradiction. We can find this intercomments [RP7 RP9 respectively] raise fundamental
problems about the nature of theoretical debate in penetration again in Ranciere’s discussion of the
technical and social division of labour which are,
addition to fundamental problems at the level of
he says, aspects of the same division of labour,
theory itself. I take Benton to be presenting a
we cannot, therefore, divide institutions and fundefence of a more or less orthodox Althusserian
functions clearly into one or the other.

position and the following points attempt to do
It is interesting that Ted Benton accepts
three things: firstly defend some of Ranciere’s
point that they are aspects of the same
positions against Benton’s criticisms; secondly to
bring out one aspect of Ranciere’s implicit theor- division of labour, but only accepts it, without
etical position – that concerned with the relation- following it through to its conclusions; and,
when he discusses the state and ideology, he tries
ship between concepts in the theory; thirdly to
to draw precisely the clear distinction that
show that despite his criticisms of Althusser,
disputes, but the only way he can do this
Ranciere reproduces in a different form a fundais by placing his argument on a level of almost
mental consequence of the Althusserian position meaningless generality. The state, for example,
an inability to understand what theoretical
fulfils the functions of co-ordination/superdebate involves.

vision/administration (technical division of
1 Ideology in general and social cohesion
labour) and, in a class society, at the same time
Ranciere criticises Althusser for introducing into the function of class domination (social division
Marxism a notion of social cohesion and the social of labour); in a socialist society it would still
perform the former functions but – eventually at
totality in general, reproducing the problematic
any rate – not the latter [RP9 p27]. But to say
of bourgeois sociology. Benton defends the
that any society will involve a co-ordinating and
Althusserian position as follows:

administrating state is not very informative, and
You don’t need a ‘theory of the social totality
in general-‘–… in order to argue that there is
when we look at the precise organs of co-ordination, administration and supervision, we can see
an ideological level in all modes of production
the way in wpich the technical and social divisions
and that this level has certain universal
of labour interpenetrate: the institutions and
characteristics . . [RP9 27]
Yet for Benton and Althusser ideology is defined
positions involved in, say, co-ordinating producas supplying a system of representations which
tion, ‘economic planning’ under capitalism, can
enable the agents of the social totality to accbear little or no resemblance to those involved
omplish the tasks determined by the structure of
in a socialist state – the relationships of the
the totality (or rather the structure of the mode
institutions and positions to each other and to
of production). In other words we cannot have
those co-ordinated, supervised and administered
any concept of ideology without some reference to
will have changed radically, as will the power of
the social totality in which that ideology is
the institution and the way in which positions
placed. Thus to argue that there is an ideologiare filled. To imply, with Althus$er, that some
institutions belong clearly to the technical di’l1’ical level in all modes of production is to argue
that all social totalities need an ideology i.e.

sion of labour is to open the way for misrepresentthat there are functions belonging to all social
ation and technological determinism; to say, with
totalities in general, i.e. that there is impliBenton, that some functions are a product solely
citly such a thing as a ‘social totality in
of the technical division of labour is to miss the
general} .

point, since it is the way in which these functions
By contrast, a conc~ption of ‘production in genare fulfilled which is important. There is no way
eral’ suggested by Benton as a parallel to that
in which the technical and social divisions of
labour can be safely or usefully distinguished
of ‘ideology in general’ makes no assumptions
(although this is not necessarily to say that both
about the role of production in the social totalare of equal importance).

ity as a whole but rather offers a few truisms
Ranciere’s failure to theorise his position in the
about production – that, for example, it involves
way suggested above is the major lack in his criinstruments, labour and raw materials. To talk
tique, which turns eventually into an attack on
about social cohesion as such is not necessarily
theory itself – as Ted Benton recognises.

to enter the realms of bourgeois sociology. But
to posit, through a conception of ideology in
3 Scientific Knowledge
general, a necessity for social cohesion prior·.to
same interpenetration of concepts is implied
any conception of contradiction or conflict is.

in Ranciere’s discussion of the science/ideology
Of course there must be some form of unity in all
couple. Althusser, of course, recognises no int~
societies, but if there is unity there can also be
.erpenetrations: as Ranciere points out, ideology
disunity – the notions imply each other and there
is other than science, the separate opposite. Ted
are no grounds for placing one prior to the other.

Benton adopts this duality, and the result is his
The term ‘contradictory unity’ reveals this mutual
characterisation of Ranci~e’s position as a ‘conimplication very clearly, for if there were no
cession to relativism and a-rationalism’, but it
unity then there could be no contradiction – only
is in fact quite possible to claim the cognitive
difference and separation.

superiority of Marxism over bourgeois forms of
2 Social and Technical Division of Labour
knowledge without relying on some absolute criter-


Ranciere does not by and large articulate his own
theoretical position, but one important element of
it is the relationships between his concepts which are closer to the dialectical relations of


ia of scientificity (unless one is also going to
claim that Althusser is the only Marxist since
Marx, which is another argument) and without becoming relativist and a-rationalist.

Benton’s comments on Ranci~re seem to put forward
a rather different view of science than Althusser
does, so we are in fact dealing with three positions, and we can discov~r the implications of
Ranci~re’s argument by working through them.

Ted Benton provides a useful example in his argument that it is possible to separate the contents of scientific knowledge from the form of
their appropriation:


That such a separation can be achieved is a presupposition of any adequate history of the
sciences – consider, for instance, the different
ideological currents and social relationships
with which Darwin’s theory of evolution has been
articulated: the classical rlaissez-faire’ liberalism of late Victorian England, the petitbourgeois radicalism of sections of German intelligentsia (Haeckel), the reformist socialism
of Wallace in England and the Leninism of Lenin
himself: •• [Benton p28]
This formulation sets up the idea of some ‘true’

Darwin’s theory of evolution which can be separa~
ted from its interpretation in a similar way in
which positivism sets up a ‘real’ world which can
be separated from interpretations of the world
(theory) and against which those interpretations
can be tested. Yet where is this ‘true’ theory
of evo~ution? It cannot be in Darwin’s work itself in a clear and manifest way, otherwise it
could not be taken up into ideological(i.e~wrong)
currents and social relationships, since these
must inevitably change the meaning of the theory
of evolution, and that change would be apparent.

Darwin’s theory cannot exist apart from the systems (ideological or scientific) in which it is

This leads us on to Althusser’s position; which
seems to be not that there is some ‘true’ theory
of evolution separate from its interpretations,
but rather that one interpretation – one reading
amongst others is scientific; the scientific as
opposed to the ideological reading either meets
the criteria of scientificity or reveals the
existence of those criteria in Darwin’s work, and
~nce we know what those criteria are, we can write
the history of science. To discover the contents
of scientific knowledge we have to read the text
in which that knowledg~ is contained in the right
way – i.e. articulate-it into another system.

In relation to Althusser’s position, Ranci~re
argues – it seems to me – that ‘reading’ must be
extended to take account of the social and institutional relationships within which readinq takes
place – not only can we not separate Darwin’s
theory of evolution from its interpretation on
the theoretical level, we cannot separate it from
the social and institutional framework in which it
is presented since this framework too is an interpretation.

The ‘surface’ effect of Ranci~re’s position is ~o
‘neutralise’ scientific knowledge; thus, for
example, Marxism may be taught as scientific knowledge of society without threatening, perhaps even
reinforcing the bourgeois education system. But
there is a deeper effect: if our argument above
was correct – that scientific knowledge does not
exist apart from its reading, and if social relationships en~er into that reading – then the criteria for scientificity that Althusser presents,
or discovers in the proofs of the scientific discourse itself, are inadequate; in fact the distinction between ideology and science collapses
since scientific knowledge can be ideological and
ideology can be scientific. The fact that
Ranci~re continues to talk as if there were a
clear distinction between science and ideology is
an indication of his own theoretical confusion.

What we are left with is a number of different

types of knowledge, each defined by its mode of
appropriation of its object, its~own internal
featUres, its relationship to other forms or bodies of knowledge, and the social framework in
which it is articulated; in other words we move
to a way of viewing knowledge that is closer to
Lukacs than to Alth~sser.

4 Theoretical struggle

however, does not theorise his position
in this way: rather he uses it as a base to attack theory and theoretical struggle in favour of
‘practice’. Ted Benton is, I think, quite right
to defend theory against such an attack, but if
Ranci~re’s position is a degradation of theoretical struggle then the orthodox Althusserian position is a denegation. The confrontation of bourgeois ideology with criteria of scientificity is
a confrontation only, in which there is no debate,
no struggle, no argument; there is only the
presentation of an alternative and a judgement.

Both positions remove the power of theory as
weapon, as revolutionary practice in its own
right, in the latter case whilst still recognising
theory as a guide to revolutionary practice outside of theory.

The power of theory is its ability to transform consciousness, to change people
not necessarily by intellectual conviction but by
enabling them to grasp their own world and their
own experience in a radically new way and to become aware of ways of changing the world. If
Marxist theory is to do this, then it must be
able to live inside everyday representations of
the world, to take them as the starting point of
its argument, and it must be able to transform
those representations into an adequate understanding of the world.

‘Criteria of scientificity’ do
not only not enable theory to fulfil this role but
they actively proh~bit it from doing so; the epistemological break between ideology and science is
also a chasm between the Marxist and those to whom
he talks.


.Oldanew lefl

‘Tens of thousands of socialist intellectuals
radical philosophers, uneasily unattached’ – ~r
should we say, uneasily attached – this broad description is probably true, and would include me.

I was certainly as disturbed as Jonathan Ree to
read Edward Thompson’s Open Letter to Kolakowski,
and I was glad to read his opening discussion
upon it(RP9) .. The Letter was ·very pessimistic, and
so is Jonathan Ree’s commentary. In those far
off days of the fifties, he says, the socialist
intellectuals gave their allegiance to the British Labour movement, though they might criticize
it, but he suggests that this is now no longer
possible and our scope is more limited_
To my mind the central fact that alleviates
pessimism is that these discussions are opened
up, and hence I make my own contribution. The
things at issue are not those between Thompson
and Kolakowski: the argument there is not worth
breath, ,and I am surprized at Thompson engaging
himself in it. As an elderly socialist I see
Kolakowski taking the course that always is wide
open to such people once they establish some
prestige as socialists – the establishment welcome for the apostate, the pat on the back, and
the spoils that go with it. I have observed it
all my life.

The real issue is between Thompson and the New
Left Review, and here I am profoundly reluctant
to take sides, in the light of the contribution
that both are making to socialist thought and

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