Red years: Althusser’s lesson, Rancière’s error and the real movement of history

The dissolution of the organizational forms which are created by the movement, and which disappear when the movement ends, does not reflect the weakness of the movement, but rather its strength. The time of false battles is over. The only conflict that appears real is the one that leads to the destruction of capitalism.

François Martin and Jean Barrot (aka Gilles Dauvé), Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement (1973)

‘The return to Marx’: today the erstwhile slogan of Althusserian theory is once again our watchword. Why Marx Was Right (Eagleton 2011); The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (Harvey 2011); Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (Jameson 2011). A cursory scan of some recent publications will tell us that once again we are Reading Capital.

So it seems an auspicious moment for the longoverdue publication in English of Jacques Rancière’s first book, Althusser’s Lesson (1974), a searing polemic against his former mentor.1 Over a decade after the inception of Althusser’s return to Marx – and Rancière’s formative participation in its theoretical programme – Rancière asks after the political effects of the Althusserianism in the wake of May ’68 and the Red Years that followed. His answer, argued in a prose crackling with the heat of its times, is that Althusserianism had come to function as ‘a philosophy of order’: a Kautskyist apology for the division of political labour, an opportunistic affirmation of the academic hierarchy of roles and intellects, a reactionary theoretical orthodoxy. By the time the French edition of his Reply to John Lewis was published in 1973, Althusser’s philosophy had become a discourse which ‘cloaks its consecration of the existing order in the language of revolution’ (AL 124). The goal of Althusser’s Lesson was thus to put this discourse in its place:

to re-inscribe it in its history, that is, in the system of practical and discursive constraints that allowed it to be uttered at all; and to surprise its articulations by forcing it to answer other questions than those posed by the complacent partners it had picked out for itself, and by reinserting its argumentation into the concatenation of words used, now as in the past, to articulate both the inevitability of oppression and the hopes for liberation. (AL 123)

If this was Rancière’s task in 1973, then the translation of his book in 2011 provides an opportunity not only to reconsider the place of Althusser’s thought today but also to carry out a similar critical operation upon Rancière’s own discourse – and to do so as we begin to assess the political effects of another return to Marx under different circumstances.2



1. Jacques Rancière, La lecon d’Althusser, Gallimard, Collection Idées, Paris, 1974; Althusser’s Lesson, trans. Emiliano Battista, Continuum, London, 2011; cited hereafter in text as AL.

2. Emiliano Battista’s translator’s notes are a helpful guide to this context.

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