Friday, January 21, 2011

A Catholic-Tinged Revolution - Louis Althusser

Fear is not a fatherland, nor is courage . . ., more the human condition is not a human fatherland. It is, perhaps, the fatherland of men as they appear to God; because we are Christians, we call this condition original sin. For the man who is not a Christian, and for the Christian who does not usurp God's place, the human fatherland is not the proletariat of the human condition, it is the proletariat tout court, leading the whole of humanity towards its emancipation. This proletariat has a real content.

For, as Christians, we believe that there is a human condition; in other words, we believe in the equality of all men before God, and his Judgement, but we do not want the Judgement of God to spirited away before our very eyes; nor do we want to see non-Christians and, occasionally, Christians as well, commit the sacrilege of taking the atomic bomb for the will of God, equality before death for equality before God . . ., and the tortures of the concentration camps for the Last Judgement.(italics in original) - Louis Althusser
Roland Boer moves from two semi-assimilated German Jews, comfortable with a certain German Protestant approach to Christianity to the first of two French Roman Catholic thinkers. In the case of Louis Althusser, the specificity of this description - French Roman Catholic - is necessary to understand the way Althusser takes a large part of what he, Althusser, found so attractive about Roman Catholicism. In the words Boer borrowed from Althusser for the chapter title, it lends to Althusser's work a certain "ecclesiastical eloquence." More, for Boer, it provides a clue to understanding some confusing aspects of Althusser's thought.

In particular is the way Althusser, in a way that is far too common, tended to use the word, "Church", written that way, that elided the many differences not just among various Christian churches, but even with the Catholic communion itself. As an active member of the post-war Catholic Left in France, the move from Roman-Catholicism to Marxism was aided, for Althusser, by a general desire for an alliance among various Left groups. This move was helped along by certain teachers, including Catholic ones.
In fact the Church, via its chaplains and encyclicals, made their own militants aware of the 'social question', of which most of us were totally ignorant. Foo course, once we recognize that there was a 'social question' and the the remedies proposed were ridiculous, it did not take much, in my case the profound political vision of "Pere Hours', for us to explore what lay behind the wooly-minded slogans of the Catholic Church and rapidly convert to Marxism before joining the Communist Party!
Boer examines not only four early theological essays. He also examines in some detail "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses", which forms a nascent sociology of both religion and morality. Within this essay, however, Althusser seems to replace "ideology" for the God of Thomistic doctrine. Unlike its actualization in specific ideological structures - including what Althusser calls "practical ideologies" like religion - "ideology" itself, or perhaps better Ideology, is transhistorical, eternal, and inescapable. Rather than arguing about Ideology, Althusser seems to suggest that most people are arguing about various instances of ideology incarnate in history; Ideology, unlike its early Marxist formula, is not rooted in the historical form of the class struggle.

In this way, the various Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) are, in a way, mere appearances to the Platonic Ideology that Exists. Boer sees the shadow of Augustine here as well as St. Thomas, which in some ways is ironic. Augustine, like Althusser, was a restless intellect, moving from Manichaean religious beliefs through neo-Platonism to Catholicism relatively rapidly, dragging various bits and pieces with him along the way. Althusser, so Boer wishes to argue, was a self-declared scientific Marxist whose writings are suffused with various elements from the French Roman Catholicism of his youth and young adulthood. Confusing the specific with the universal, seeing in Ideology an easy substitute for the God he rejected, Althusser's work was more a continuation of the leftward journey he began as he moved from the Catholic left to Marxism. I do believe that the marriage might be far easier for a Catholic than some other Christian groups, due in small way to the universalizing tendency within Roman Catholic thought. In that way, Althusser's ritualized, sacralized Marxism does seem to bear a remarkable resemblance to his discarded Church/church.

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