“One divides into two.” This enigmatic phrase once functioned as the ideological lynchpin of the Cultural Revolution. Maoism redrew the profile of Marxist theory. The dialectic, understood as an ideological and historical process of contradiction and resolution, was central to Maoism as it had been to Marxism and Leninism.
But in his writings, especially “On Contradiction,” Mao had underscored the significance of the moment of contradiction as containing the kernel of revolutionary power. In 1966, Red Guards armed with Chairman Mao’s little red book took to the street and answered his call to revolutionize the revolution.
“It is right to rebel” said the little red book. The CCP suddenly found itself confronted with a leftwing rebuke of a party the Maoists claimed was “left in form, right in essence.” The party was torn: one divided into two.
Two years later in May of 1968, Paris erupted with a series of seemingly spontaneous demonstrations that pitted militant young French Maoists, Marxists, Leninists, and others against the State and the regime of Charles de Gaulle. The French Communist Party or PCF’s refusal to acknowledge either May or the Cultural Revolution as movements worthy of Western Communist Party support only confirmed the young militants’ suspicion that the PCF was little more than a bureaucratic mouthpiece for Moscow orthodoxy.
At the center of this ideological and political fight was Louis Althusser and his students, including Jacques Rancière. This small circle at the reigning institution of higher education in France had in 1965 embarked on an ambitious project to reread Marx. The seminar led to the writing of two major works: For Marx (published in 1965), and a collaborative work, Reading Capital (published in 1968).
That year, 1968, would lead to a split in the Althusser circle. While militant students (many openly Maoist) and workers took to the streets, The French Communist Party instructed its members to stand down, and Althusser, with much equivocation countersigned his party’s orders.
Rancière’s profound political disappointment with his teacher would in time spawn a theoretical break with Althusser as well. This post is an effort to think through the Althusser/Rancière split, and to examine the role that the Cultural Revolution played in it.
- Secret Speech
Althusser remarked many times that it was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called “secret speech” at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) that ignited his “return to Marx.” Khrushchev’s speech – “On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences” – denounced the crimes of Joseph Stalin as the product of an inflated “cult of personality,” which gave he claimed had endowed Stalin with an aura of infallibility.
Khrushchev called for a new Marxist humanism: Marxism with a human face. The French Communist Party (PCF) responded, as was usual, by pledging theoretical allegiance to the new Moscow directive: Khrushchevism was in, Stalinism out. The PCF declared: “Marxism is the true humanism of our time.” Althusser was neither theoretically nor politically satisfied.
Were Khrushchev’s doctrine to be taken seriously, Althusser contended, it would require not a simple return to a pre-Stalinist Marxism-Leninism; it would require a wholesale re-theorization of Marx’s writings, beginning with Capital. To do so would require reading Marx afresh without the gloss of decades of Soviet theory.
Moreover, Stalinism, Althusser argued, should not be treated as simply a tragic deviation from the truth of Marxism, but must be understood as born of a certain way of theorizing Marxism. Althusser was to write in a 1978 essay “Marxism Today”:
Marxism will not rid itself of the tragedies of its history by condemning or deploring them; that way lie moralism and theoretical and political abdication. It is vital for Marxism to recognize these tragedies and take responsibility for them…and [to] forge the theoretical means required to understand them. (279)
In For Marx, Althusser argued that Marx’s “theoretical revolution” lay in his discovery of the historical significance of class and class struggle. This was itself not a new reading of Marx. But Althusser went much further. He argued that, properly understood, Marx’s concept of class was incompatible with humanist concepts such as “man,” “human,” “person” or “the subject,” concepts that crystalized during the Enlightenment into an historical and political force.
The Enlightenment ideal of human emancipation by reason, and the Marxist vision of freedom as the freedom of the working class through historical and material struggle correspond, Althusser argued, to fundamentally different, indeed ideologically opposed, theoretical matrices.
Althusser argued that Marx had come to see that it was theoretically necessary to reject humanism’s “theoretical pretensions while recognizing its practical function as an ideology. Strictly in respect to theory, therefore, one can and must speak openly of Marx’s theoretical anti-humanism” (229). Thus to be faithful to Marx meant being true not to his humanism but to his anti-humanism, which theoretically emphasizes the role of classes, production, and history over the world of individuals, persons, and personalities.
Khrushchev’s diagnosis was thus wrong, said Althusser. The tragedy of the Soviet Union could not be reduced to Stalin’s cult of personality; indeed to blame Stalinism on Stalin alone was to fall into precisely the kind of individualism that Marx had repudiated.
2. Beijing 1966/Paris 1968
Shortly after embarking on his prodigious “return to Marx,” as he always called it, Althusser (and his students) were confronted with two new crises in the culture of Marxism: the Cultural Revolution (and the Sino-Soviet split it engendered) followed only two years later by the Paris uprisings in May of 1968.
The two events were linked by what Althusser might have called “an underground materialism of the encounter.” French militants encountered, at a distance, scenes of Red Guards overturning university hierarchies, dismantling the division of manual and intellectual labor, and challenging Party politics.
Seen from the safe distance of the Latin Quarter, the Cultural Revolution appeared to them as a model to follow, a preface, as it were, to their own rewriting of politics and party orthodoxy. May happened fast. Within days millions of workers and students were on strike. Charles de Gaulle for a moment seriously considered abdicating and going into exile.
The French Communist Party (PCF) rebuked The Cultural Revolution and May. In lockstep with Moscow, they declared both unworthy of Communist Party support. Althusser was more equivocal (his usual tact with the PCF), but he obeyed the edicts of his party.
The youth were to wait until those who understood best told them the time was right for revolution. Until then, they were to prepare themselves theoretically for the revolution. Thus the Party of the Resistance, of Sartre, of anti-fascist, and anti-capitalist struggle found itself on the State-side of the barricades: calling for law and order.
Althusser defended his call for the students to return to school as a kind of tactical retreat. The Cultural Revolution and May were new “conjunctures,” new “problematics” for Marxist theory to consider. The students, he thought, had been misled by an enthusiasm for spontaneous, uncritical, non-theoretical political action. Their militant energy had to be harnessed and disciplined, Althusser thought, by the critical labor of theory and theoretical formation.
But he contended that this call to return to theory was in fact a call to action itself. He would later formalize this idea in his so-called Theory of Theoretical Practice whose master formula is “philosophy is class struggle in theory.”
The struggle for theory now was to find a way to understand why May 1968 happened and why it ultimately failed. He saw the dissolution of May 1968 as a political and theoretical failing. The workers and students were to blame for the former and he and his fellow communist philosophers were to blame for the latter.
In a spirit of self-criticism, Althusser later his (and his student’s) theoretical work of the ‘60s was
in principle…salutary; it made it possible to ‘read’ Capital somewhat better, and to arrive at a clearer understanding of its various ‘deviations.’ A few political groups seized on this work, but foundered on the rock of May 1968, which they understood no better, or hardly better, than the leaderships of the CPs [Communist Parties].
The failure of May was a failure to think. Althusser’s diagnosis was, yet again, a call to think and to theorize, and a relative disparagement of “spontaneous” action.
In his post-1968 writings, Althusser would continue this line of critique. In his 1974 text, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, he noted that the “grandeur of Mao” lay in the way his own writings, especially “On Contradiction,” had
practically questioned the metaphysical idea of the dialectic by audaciously submitting the dialectic to the dialectic … in the ambitious project of a cultural revolution, designed to change the relation between Party and masses. Here too, however, practice did not lead to a theory” (“Marxism Today” 279).
Althusser retreats from a full-throated endorsement. He refers to “a cultural revolution” (small “c,” small “r”) to slyly distinguish between the concept of a cultural revolution of Party orthodoxy from the historical event of “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Althusser here also points to a contradiction central to his own theoretical class struggle, namely, the contradiction (perhaps unbridgeable) between theory and practice.
3. Althusser’s Lesson
Rancière drew very different lessons from the Cultural Revolution and May. These lessons crystallized with considerable critical force in Rancière’s 1972 text, Althusser’s Lesson in which Rancière indicted his former teacher for masking political conservatism behind the façade of theoretical rebellion. In a recent introduction to a re-edition of the book, Rancière writes:
Althusser wanted […] to guarantee an autonomy for theory that would make it capable of investing Marxism with the theoretical edge to generate political renewal. The idea of a Marxism in lockstep with the structuralist revolution […] defined […] this new project, as was the development of new militant energies which assimilated this rediscovered Marxist rigor to the force of anti-imperialist struggles and the Cultural Revolution. This project exploded in the storm of May ’68 in France. (xiv)
Rancière critiques Althusser, however, for developing a theory that ultimately “underwrote the condemnation of the student uprisings” (2011: xiv) Rancière notes that his own enthusiasm for ’68 was in retrospect somewhat misguided by an inflated and idealized image of the Cultural Revolution.
He writes: “The prevailing view of the Cultural Revolution at the time […] was that of an anti-authoritarian movement which confronted the power of the state” by means of a “radical critique both of state domination and of the model of development instituted by Russian communism” (xvii).
Rancière freely admits that his youthful reading of the Cultural Revolution was shot through with his “personal desires,” if not wishful thinking. “In the intervening years, history has […] revealed the penitentiary realities that accompanied the theses about the re-education of intellectuals through manual labor which, at that time, seemed so consonant with some Western critiques of the division of labor” (xvii).
In his post-1968 work, Rancière has insistently probed the intellectual’s role in politics and he has continued to be especially critical of the traditional division of theoretical and practical political labor. This division in the early work of Althusser was seen by Rancière as a theoretical reification of the social and political order that segregates manual and intellectual labor. Rancière, with a note of bitterness writes: “The Marxism we learnt under Althusser was a philosophy of order” (xix).
4. Thinking Politics/Making Order
Rancière’s critique of the intellectual class made him increasingly critical of the entire tradition of Western political theory. Most importantly, he holds that political philosophy has not been capable of thinking democracy.
Democracy is not a form of government, for Rancière, but a process based on the paradoxical idea that those without a specific or specified place in political order – the demos – are the only ones actually fit to rule. Democracy is thus a challenge to every ordered political community and indeed to the very idea of political order itself. Democracy challenges what can be said and not said, seen and not seen. It is what Rancière (with characteristic brevity) calls the ordering or “distribution of the sensible.”
Democracy, in this sense, can only be understood obliquely as that which fundamentally ruptures the ideology of political order and of the theoretical practice of ordering politics in thought. Rancière terms this process “dissensus.”
Whereas party politics prizes real or imagined consensus, democracy functions only as (and through) the rupturing force of disagreement, dissensus, and political disorder. But this is not to say that democracy is a kind or anarchism. Democracy is not a political order or a theory, or a political tradition, all of which is the case with anarchism.
There is a significant implication here for the practice of political theory. The moment theory orders the thinking or practice of politics, it becomes an agent of what Rancière simply calls “the police.” The “essence of the police,” writes Rancière in Dissensus, “lies neither in repression nor even in the control of the living. Its essence lies in a certain way of dividing up the sensible […]” (44).
Political theory, in its desire to determine what should be politically done, is always “fated to re-identify politics and police, to cancel politics through the gesture of founding it” (2012: 49). The question for Rancière then is this: how does one read a political movement without subordinating that movement to a theory that theoretically negates its rupturing force by ordering and regulating it according to the norms of the reigning economy of the sensible?
The question is also a problem for historiography. How can, for example, the Cultural Revolution be thought without reducing it to the retrospective judgment of history. Should the philosophic jurisdiction of that judgment extend its dominion over all that may have been hoped for, or dreamed of, by those who took to the streets in 1966? It’s the same question for May ‘68.
When former French Prime Minister, the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, said that his 2007 election win was the final word on May he spoke for those on both the Right and Left who judged May to be a failure. And yet he did not, indeed could not, speak for the possibilities, many unrealized, yet signified in the simple phrase: May ’68.
If political theory must not speak for politics and political history, then what should it do? Firstly it must refuse the imperative to speak in favor of possibilities opened by listening; listening to that which the official order, whether of politics or of theory, is all too ready to call “noise,” “nonsense,” “impractical,” impossible,” “irresponsible.”
To make senseof politics, one will have to undergo a reeducation of one’s political sensorium, so that politics as such can be heard. That there are those without power who have something political to say is certain. For Rancière, what remains to be seen is whether intellectuals have the capacity to understand it.
Jonathan Fardy is on the art faculty at Idaho State University. His research examines the theoretical foundations of art, aesthetics, and especially photography. His first book Laruelle and Non-Photography is a critical reading of the “non-photographic” theory of François Laruelle. His second book, Laruelle and Art: The Aesthetics of Non-Philosophy, is under contract. This full-length monograph examines Laruelle’s theory of “non-aesthetics.” His research interests center on the relation between theory and visual culture. His new research project is tentatively titled Against Dialectics. It examines the response to dialectical aesthetic theory by Laruelle, Baudrillard, Henry, Deleuze, and others. He will be presenting some of his new research at the Second International Conference on Baudrillard at Oxford University in September 2018.