Structuralist Marxism

Karl Marx’s mature writing from A Contribution to the Criticism of Political Economy (1859) through the first edition of Capital (1867) offers to analyze social and economic relations as systems and structures that follow scientific laws. In Marx’s vocabulary, a distinction is drawn between the “forces” and “relations” of economic production on the one hand, and class contradiction and human oppression on the other. The first terms are structural, the second historical and humanistic. These distinct lines of inquiry between economic theory and the history of the human subject have never been completely resolved in Marxism. Different Marxist schools have placed the emphasis on scientific structures or on concrete political struggle and strategy.

In the period after World War II, primarily in France, the theoretical divisions within the Marxist tradition were reawakened with the emergence of structuralism and poststructuralism. Structuralism challenged the humanism and historicism of the social sciences of anthropology, psychology, and linguistics. With a curious twist, however, it sometimes did so in the name of Marxism. Claude Lévi-Strauss , calling himself a Marxist, challenged the remnants of Hegelian dialectics in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential-humanist project. Jacques Lacan rewrote Freudian psychoanalysis in terms of the structural principles of Saussurean linguistics. Michel Foucault radically questioned the assumption that history is progressive and whether, indeed, the so-called human sciences had a real object of knowledge in the first place. Structuralism, in favoring structure over subject, synchronic over diachronic analysis, opened old divisions in Marxism itself.

The specific structuralist challenge within Marxism made its debut in the work of Louis Althusser in his two most important books: Pour Marx, a collection of his essays written between 1960 and 1965, and Lire leCapital,” co-authored with Etienne Balibar and based on a series of seminars on Marx’s writings; both books were published in 1965. Althusser was professor of philosophy at the École Normale in Paris, where he taught alongside the most influential French structuralists of the 1960s. Critics of Althusser have incorrectly seen his work as a simple combination of structuralism and Marxism. But certainly his most radical insights into the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels overlap with the anthropological work of Lévi-Strauss, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Foucault’s historical analysis of the social control exercised within different humanistic disciplines. Althusser in fact cites them approvingly in his own writings. The deeper question that Althusser poses for contemporary Marxist thought is whether the concerns of the structuralists, who challenge the veracity of lived experience and the general empiricism of the human sciences, is compatible with Marxism’s commitment to political criticism and practical social activity. For Althusser, structuralism does not alter Marxism but, rather, provides the opportunity to reawaken the original spirit of Marx’s later writings, especially Capital, which already contains and surpasses the structuralist attack on humanism and empiricism. According to Althusser, Marx himself had to overcome the humanistic concerns of his earlier writings, as in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 or The German Ideology, in order to develop what was truly original and revolutionary about the scientific laws of production and their relation to cultural history.

Louis Althusser/Alain Mingam

The fate of Althusserian Marxism in the last 25 years has been closely bound up with acceptance or rejection of Althusser’s revisionary reading of Capital as setting the stage for a truly scientific understanding of the entire concept of “production” as the transformative law of all social activity, from the most material economic activity to the cultural practices of literature, law, and family life, which Althusser has dubbed the “functions” of the “Ideological State Apparatuses.” In some of Althusser’s most sophisticated followers, such as Pierre Macherey in France and, first among Anglophone Marxists, Fredric Jameson, the Althusserian in-depth analysis of the concept of production has made it possible to see literary works in a radically different way: as the products of symbolic production and ideological conflict rather than the creative expressions of humanistically defined authors or a direct reflection of the writer’s historical context with special reference to class. Others, such as Terry Eagleton, have gone through an intense engagement with Althusserian thinking only to return to a less theoretical agenda that would place the emphasis, once again, on the immediate political issues of writers’ and readers’ lived experience of class contradiction.

On what basis does Althusser separate scientific Marxism from humanistic Marxism? How does his reading of Capital contribute to literary theory, specifically literature’s ideological function? How have Althusserian concepts shaped the kinds of questions posed by such Marxist critics as Macherey, Jameson, and Eagleton? In spite of their differences with regard to Althusser and structuralism in general, they all share in the effort to de-idealize the value and meaning of literary works without falling into reductive biographical or historical interpretations of specific literary works. These questions take us back to Althusser’s vexing analysis of the concept of production and his revisionary reading of Marx.

For Althusser, the Marxist concept of production contains the most revolutionary aspects of the entire theory. It defies analysis and understanding within the narrowly “classical” theories of economics, psychology, and epistemology which immediately preceded it and which it attempts to surpass completely. Classical writers would include empiricists such as John Locke and economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Classical concepts would include a definition of human needs in order to analyze the value of economic commodities, feelings of alienation as the base for political awareness, and theory as an intellectual reflection upon practice. To the extent that we are still held by these classical notions, we fail to grasp the revolutionary philosophical significance of Marxism, or we treat it very narrowly as one economic doctrine centered upon the relations between capital, labor, and exchange value. In Lire le “Capital” Althusser does not attempt to compare directly Smith’s definition of “labor” with Marx’s. Instead, he asks what sorts of assumptions are hidden in the very “appearance” of the terms of inquiry. To stand back from a given set of economic practices in order to analyze them objectively already begs the question what shapes the nature of the given in the first place. Productive activity is present at all levels of philosophical inquiry, in the construction of objects of analysis, in the perspective of the human inquirer, and in the concept of theorization as itself an activity that is collectively produced. To paraphrase Althusser, the first object of knowledge is already an ideological product, a transformation of the real, or a Verarbeitung (“labour of transformation” [Reading 42]).

But “production” should not be read loosely as a synonym for “bias” or as a shallow definition of “ideology.” Althusser is attempting to get at the radical proposition that production, in a very specific Marxist sense, permeates and mediates the texture of reality, that there is no such thing as a nonproblematic, nonideological mode of scientific inquiry into the functions and structure of social divisions and cultural institutions. Pushed to their rigorous end, transformative actions that alter and shape the texture of social existence encompass what we ordinarily think of as being a human subject.

At a very sophisticated level of theoretical debate, Althusser distinguishes Marx’s contribution to the concept of production from the tradition of Hegelianism on one side and from pure structuralism on the other. Hegelianism had already put forward the total mediation of the given world to the critical, ever-developing human subject. If production were synonymous with mediation, there would be nothing philosophically new in Marxism. Althusser’s writings would fit into Marx’s own characterization of his relationship to Hegel as the inversion of dialectical idealism into dialectical materialism. But for Althusser, the difference between Hegel and Marx lies precisely in Marx’s realization that the process of mediation could never be completed in the name of the human subject, that reality and subjectivity never reach a state of identity, as they are meant to in Hegelian logic. The forces of production perform the transformations of the world and its multiple articulations. Production is the underlying real base of culture, but it can only be apprehended through the filter of ideology. (The subject’s inability to reach a perfect grasp of the real conditions of its identity is one of the points at which Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis converge.) The burden of Marxist analysis, therefore, becomes the effort to determine or specify with ever greater precision the nature of productive activity without ever being able to put it into the terminology of appearances or conscious reflections. That terminology would harken back to the earlier Hegelian phenomenological project. The forces of production generate effects within the organization, or a Gliederung (“articulated combination” [Reading 48]) of society as a whole, in its institutions, such as the church and the legal system, and in its aesthetic products. But these effects are not direct results or expressions or appearances of the same forces of production. In fact, in a manner that is nonreductive when compared with other interpretations of Marx, Althusser asserts that art, theology, literature, and family life need to be determined according to their own laws of production, which are not governed by or identical to the laws of production, in the ordinary sense, of goods and commodities (see the important essay entitled “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses“). The inevitable gap between the real base of production and its ideologically inflected apprehension brings Althusser into proximity with the discourse of the structuralists.

Structuralism provides Althusser with a terminology for analyzing ideological and symbolic modes of apprehending production without having to resort to the classical lexicon. Without directly supporting the Marxist concept of labor as radical transformative actions upon nature and our own human identity, structuralism, from a strictly linguistic angle, puts into question the link between appearance and meaning, subject/object epistemology with its accompanying metaphors of mimetic or reflective representations of the world, and indeed the entire aesthetic terminology of formalism, organic unity, and the objectlike stability of given works of literature.

For some Marxists, such as Perry Anderson, structuralism should be kept at arm’s length because it poses the greatest danger Marxism has had to meet in our time, greater even than the disgrace of Stalinism, the weakening of Eurocommunism, and the collapse of solidarity among the international labor organizations in Latin American and developing nations. The concern over structuralism may seem out of place in the context of such world-historical events, but that is exactly how Anderson, examining the fortunes of Marxism today, sees it. Anderson’s assault on structuralist forms of Marxism as developed by Althusser and Jameson is important to consider at this juncture, for it recognizes that the future of Marxism is linked to genuinely philosophical problems. It would be easy, in the vituperative manner of E. P. Thompson, to dismiss almost any philosophical reading of Marx as a merely intellectual preoccupation, but Anderson’s rejection of structuralism looks deeper into the radical rethinking of aesthetic, expressive, linguistic activity, which challenges the priority of the concept of labor in Marxist social analysis. For Althusser, structuralism and Marxism converge because there is no going back to a direct critique of the state or the family or the distribution of wealth. Each object of critique must be determined in a postclassical mode before it can be invoked. Anderson brings forward the crucial issue for Marxism today: in the long run, will an extremely sophisticated theory of production kill Marxism by turning it into something like hermeneutics or semiotics? Or is a postclassical, posthumanist analysis of what determines things such as literature and ideology a means of giving Marxism a new lease on life, especially by taking it past vulgar materialism and empiricism?

The answer to these questions takes on very specific rather than global formulations in Macherey, Jameson, and Eagleton. Each writer has understood very well the consequence of Althusser’s critique of appearance and reflective models of understanding. If production does not take on a straightforward ideological expression, then it must be determined through its theoretical problematic and its symptomatic mode (Reading 25). The problematic poses for critical analysis the inevitable gaps and absent explanations of ideology and thus seeks out the structure and conditions of production. The quality of the determination, which I repeat is never finalized, is what gives the method point and substance. And that is where its philosophical significance must remain. This lack of analytical closure and immediate result must remain unsatisfying for orthodox Marxism; indeed, even within revisionary Marxism it seems to defy the ongoing debate about the need for “totalizable” explanations of historical events (see Jay). In the first instance, however, Althusserian Marxism has led to a set of remarkable insights into literary production, and it has succeeded in determining ideological structures within literary texts. As an indisputably powerful determination of the literary, Althusserian Marxism goes beyond the mere application of Marxist tenets to literary texts. The concept of production reshapes the terms of inquiry into literature. The questions that remain are whether this new determination of literary/ideological production will alter our concept of verbal activity in a lasting way, and if so, whether it will be powerful enough to change the way we view the family, the state, and the educational system. The specific interpretations of Althusser in Macherey, Jameson, and Eagleton belong in the context of these questions.

Marxist Literary Criticism: An Overview

Pierre Macherey’s Theory of literary production, published in 1966, was written during the most intense phase of Althusser’s own theoretical development. The book is written in a spirit of active collaboration with Althusser. In the theoretical portion of the book, primarily its first part, Macherey follows many of the same lines of inquiry that Althusser does, rejecting all classical approaches to the study of literature that are based in empiricism, formalism, and humanism. Like Althusser on economic appearances, Macherey begins by examining the notion of the literary text as a fixed, stable object for analysis. What gives rise to this appearance of literature in the first place? And if uncritically accepted, does it not commit literary criticism to a host of fallacious procedures? Criticism becomes the “consumption” of a “mysteriously” (because already given) literary object. In one of his densest but most important statements, Macherey advocates an analysis of literature based on structure but one that cannot be mistaken for mere form or derived from a special category of authorship:

The problem … is that of the structure.. . from which the work derives, its determinateness. But the notion of structure is misleading in so far as it pretends to show us … its intelligible image…. If we are to make sense of the concept of structure it must be with the recognition that structure is neither a property of the object nor a feature of its representation: the work does not derive from the unity of an [authorial] intention which permeates it, nor from its conformity to an autonomous model. (Theory 40)

The link between structure and determinateness is all-important. Macherey bypasses all surface qualities of a literary work that could be confused with mere formalism. Structure, the final shape of a narrative or poem or tale, determines the ideological matrix of the author’s culture. Labor, for Macherey (and unacceptably for Anderson), is the actual effort to reach a structure by wrestling with ideological material. Structure is not in any way external to the meaning of a literary work; it is immanent in the work itself. It cuts deeper into the culture than traditional (Aristotelian) literary terms such as plot or genre, and it cannot be related to the culture at large by the trope of structure as a mirror of reality. Honoré de Balzac, for example, does not mirror Paris; he fictionalizes Paris as a complex system of relations (57). The meaning of Parisian images is in the Balzacian labor of drawing connections, in the gaze and pursuit of objects out of which Balzac determines the conditions of city life. By contrast, when Lenin himself attempts to give a strict Marxist reading of Leo Tolstoy’s nostalgia for the peasant, he fails (115-29). Lenin’s historically sophisticated analysis of false class complicity between the aristocracy and the peasantry is not matched by an equal sophistication in untangling Tolstoy’s writings, because Lenin continues to talk about Tolstoy’s writings in terms of reflecting and expressing contradictory social conditions against a fixed yardstick of true or false class consciousness. From that theoretical perspective, Tolstoy’s ideology consists in falsely admiring the peasant from the perspective of the aristocrat. But Macherey looks for contradiction at the ground level of what determines the production of Tolstoy’s narrative in the first place. The historical deficiencies of Tolstoy’s novels arise from deficiencies within the ideological material that Tolstoy is working upon and shaping in determinate form for analysis. Macherey’s approach takes us back to the detailed investigation of the silences, gaps, and absences within the structure of Tolstoy’s writings. Macherey avoids a reductive frontal assault on the validity of the single author’s point of view, a validity predicated on a simplistic notion of texts as expressions of ideological bias.

Fredric Jameson is probably the most important Anglophone Marxist literary critic since World War II. His work has engaged and attempted to absorb into Marxism every major intellectual movement since the war: existentialism, structuralism, psychoanalysis, the new waves of literature and film from developing nations, and most recently feminism and postmodernism. His contribution to the school of Althusserian analysis, however, is located in his important theoretical work, The Political Unconscious, published in 1981. Like Macherey’s book, Jameson’s comprises a lengthy theoretical first chapter followed by specific interpretations of different writers and their ideological value (Balzac, George Gissing, and Joseph Conrad). Jameson’s theoretical chapter takes for granted the contribution of Althusser and Macherey to literary theory. It assumes a critique of Althusser’s “expressive causality” (or Hegelianism [see 28]) and a method based on the specification of the literary text’s ideological “symptoms” (33). But at the same time Jameson adds a new dimension to the structuralist Marxist project. His main contribution lies with the dialectical features of textual structure, or what he calls his effort to reformulate the “coordination between a semiotic and a dialectical method” (83).

The Althusserian reading of Marx on production shifts critical theory away from empirical causes and subjectbased definitions of ideology; Macherey develops the theory further in the direction of the structural definition of ideology. Jameson takes this structure and gives it a thoroughly dialectical treatment. He follows Macherey’s approach to Balzac in looking for an ideological structure in literature rather than a direct relation of contradiction between author and social context. But the symptoms and structure undergo dynamic modification.Jameson maps contradictions and oppositions through different levels of textual organization, often in the form of Greimassian narratological rectangles and allegorical levels of meaning. Almost any unit of textual meaning, from style to point of view to characterization, can be put into a dialectical process of constant transformation; and these transformations, in turn, become maps of contradictory but connected levels of ideology. The revolutionary import of Jameson’s method is best seen in its handling of specific examples, such as the image of the sea in Conrad’s novels or the creation of objects of desire in Balzac’s supposedly realistic descriptions (see 154-69 and 230-35). Jameson’s dialectical semiotics does not challenge any fundamental Marxist principles. For all its sophistication, his method remains rooted in the belief that we are in a historical period of oppression and that literature is one form of aspiration to a better life ahead. Jameson’s work will remain of central importance as long as modern and postmodern forms of expression and aesthetics support these beliefs and aspirations.

Terry Eagleton’s copious and diverse output of criticism has established him as one of the most recognized Anglophone Marxist critics of the last twenty years, but his engagement with the work of Althusser and Macherey is found primarily in one book, Criticism and Ideology, published in 1976. In contrast to Jameson, Eagleton has not remained committed to the development of structuralist Marxism in subsequent writings. In fact, his work in the early 1990s on the ideology of the aesthetic indicates a return to such topics as affect, sense-experience, and the control of the human body and would seem to indicate a rejection of the whole direction of Althusserian thought. Eagleton is as well versed as Jameson in a wide range of literary theories, and he has written numerous books of literary and cultural criticism. But his writing is consistently marked by dissatisfaction with the role of the academic Marxist and with the entire institutionalization of literary study. In the mid-1970s the work of Althusser and Macherey seemed to fit well with Eagleton’s general assault on the empirical tradition of English “lit. crit.” In his later work, however, the scholastic style of the Althusserian school has proven to be incompatible with his demand for concrete judgments upon the ideological value of specific writers and critics. Eagleton’s turn toward and then away from Althusser and Macherey does have theoretical significance, but unlike Jameson’s, it is not found in an effort to rework Althusser from within. Criticism and Ideology emphasizes the importance of Althusser’s work as a break with a simple cause-and-effect model of economics and literature. Eagleton, perhaps out of his own frustration with applied Marxism, draws a distinction between the “history of criticism” and the “science of the history of criticism” (20-21) and finds in Althusser and Macherey support for literature as product obeying its own signifying practices. But by the same token, he already expresses a discomfort, which will grow stronger, with the lack of immediate application of this insight. He attacks Althusser and Macherey for their “mysterious” linkage of history, ideology, and literature (84). Althusser and Macherey help us to understand what is wrong with vulgar Marxism, but their lack of explicit guidelines remains, for Eagleton, a fatal weakness.

Theoretically, Eagleton is unable to break out of the circle of immediacy versus structure, authenticity versus disengagement. The force of his criticism against the Althusserian school must be distinguished from the reasons he gives to back it. It becomes clear that Eagleton, in comparison with Althusser on passages from Marx, or Macherey on passages from Tolstoy, or Jameson on passages from Balzac, is skeptical from the outset about the possibility of achieving radical insights into ideology through the close reading of a text. He is outside structuralist Marxism from the beginning because the transformations of the theory occur, for him, against larger, underdetermined values and principles. His commentary on specific writers immediately reaches for a high level of generalization above the plane of textual analysis. For that reason, his protests against the scholasticism of Althusser indicate a bias against the whole idea of an immanent form of criticism. Critics who are against the entire idea of close reading can hardly find consolation in Althusser’s suggestion that we read Marx as if he were writing like Spinoza. But for readers today Eagleton does have a point. His dissatisfaction with Althusser raises as many theoretical problems as it hopes to settle, but he is certainly right in his claim that the writings of structuralist Marxists lack a certain expressive range, that the depth of the analysis always seems cramped in its articulation. The strongest challenge to structuralist Marxism may come not from the high ground of theory but from other movements that, since the 1960s, have put the question of ideology into multiple forms, movements such as feminism and ethnic studies. The determination of ideology is all-important for the study of race and gender, but the multiplicity of the determination cannot be captured in the generic vocabulary that is a noticeable feature of structuralist Marxism.

Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster, 1971), Pour Marx (1965, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, 1969); Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Lire le “Capital” (1965, Reading “Capital,” trans. Ben Brewster, 1970); Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (1976), The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990); Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981), The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (1972); Pierre Macherey, Pour une théorie de la production littéraire (1966, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall, 1978). Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (1983); Ted Benton, The Rise and Fall ofStructural Marxism (1984); Alex Callinicos, Althusser’s Marxism (1976); William Dowling, Jameson, Althusser, Marx: An Introduction to “The Political Unconscious” (1984); Gregory Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of Theory (1987); Susan James, “Louis Althusser,” The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences (ed. Quentin Skinner, 1985); Martin Jay, “Louis Althusser and the Structuralist Reading of Marx,” Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas (1984); James H. Kavanaugh, “Marxism’s Althusser: Towards a Politics of Literary Theory,” diacritics 12 (1982); Dominick LaCapra, “Marxism in the Textual Maelstrom: Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious,” Rethinking Intellectual History (1983); E. P. Thompson, “The Poverty of Theory or An Orrery of Errors,” The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (1978).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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