(My review on goodreads)
Maybe I need to read this another two or three times because, honestly, I do not think I can reproduce, or even faithfully summarize the arguments made by Althusser. So here is not a review, but just a few impressions and comments.
The book consists of a set of articles written by Althusser in the early 60s, mostly for the Communist press. This was in the very early post-Stalinist period, following the 20th party congress at which Khruschev denounced Stalinism and vowed to take socialism along a new path. Suddenly it became imperative that Marxists regroup, take stock, and set a new course. Such was the influence of the internal political situation in the USSR: even intellectual Marxists in western Europe felt that they had been hit by a tsunami.
Althusser’s aim was to go back to basics and define or discover the “theory” that serves as the foundation for Marxism. And though he goes to pains to define what he means by theory, I confess that I do not have a clear idea. At one point Althusser makes a distinction between Theory (capitalized), ‘theory’ (with inverted commas), and theory (unadorned). After re-reading that distiction multiple times, I have to confess that I do not understand.
Althusser takes it as given that Marxist historical materialism is a science: the science of history. In passing, at one point, he mentions that there are pseudo-sciences: psychology and sociology, that do not rise to the level of science, and their practicioners deceive themselves by adopting certain methods, certain techiques, from actual science. But nowhere (that I noticed) does he provide criteria by which one can distinguish a science from a pseudo-science. That is unfortunate.
Most of us have an idea about the general outlines of a science: besides the accumulation of facts about the natural world, a science proposes theories. A theory can have a scope that is broad or narrow, but one essential feature of a scientific theory is that it must be able to make predictions about the outcome of observations or experiments that have not yet been performed. If those predictions are generally correct, then we think that we should, at least provisionally, accept the theory as a correct statement about the world (with many qualifications, such as its domain of applicability, the possibility that the experimental outcomes were just incorrect, the possibility or even likelihood that the theory will need to be revised or discarded in favor of al alternative theory in the future). And as theories are formulated and tested, we gain knowledge about the world; knowledge that is of a different kind than simply the mere accumulation of facts.
So - is that the kind of theory that Althusser is talking about? Maybe, but he gives no examples so it was hard (for me) to tell.
At another level, in the philosophy of science there have been over recent centuries a deal of work done on the foundations of science, or of knowledge about the world more generally. This work has ranged from the naïve empiricism of Hume, through the rationalism of Kant, the radical idealism of Hegel, and so on. In the 20th century there was a shift from concerns with epistemology to actual philosophy of science, leading to the elaboration of the scientific method by Popper, based on a simplification and abstraction of actual scientific practice. That seems useful to me. So - is that the kind of theory Althusser is after? Again, I truly do not know. But maybe, since at one point he claims that hypotheses are part of bourgeois idealist ideology (!)(could I possibly have misread that, or misunderstood it? Surely so).
Regarding the issues that Althusser is addressing, he seems to apply a great deal of rigour. But he spends no time at all justifying some fundamental claims: the claim that historical materialism is a science, for example. As you can guess from my comments above, I do not believe that it is a science: what predictions has ever been made based on historical materialism that distinguishes historical materialism from any other approach to the study of history? And if such predictions have been made, were they correct (more correct than a broken clock)? I don’t think so. As a method of analysis, as a level of abstraction when attempting to understand historical epochs, historical materialism no doubt offers some advantages. But a science? I need convincing.
In two chapters Althusser talks about his theory of “over-determination”, with reference to the question of why the socialist revolution occurred first in Russia, and not in the advanced capitalist countries (as would have seemed to be a prediction of historical materialism). This discussion eventually leads him to talk about “contradictions”, where he quotes (approvingly) a claim by Mao that in a complex system there are many “contradictions”, but always there is a dominant contradiction; and there can be multiple “aspects” to a contradiction, but always there is a dominant aspect. Even if we get past the idiosyncratic use of the word “contradiction” in Marxist analysis, what reason do we have to believe the claim that there is always a “dominant” contradiction? Althusser takes this as established fact (or is it somehow an analytical statement), and goes on to base a justification for his claim of “over-determination” on this theory of dominant contradictions and aspects. It seems like an elaborate castle built on sand.
Again, though, my quick reading of these articles leaves me bewildered and in no position to judge the quality of Althusser’s arguments.