Find the theory boring? Try the play...
I had an exchange with Ken after taking umbrage with part of this post of his. Ken had posed an interesting question:
Who were the really influential Marxist intellectuals? I've never read more than a few pages of Marcuse or Althusser, or any of the famous 'Western Marxists', apart from (not enough) Gramsci and Lukacs. You know why? Because they're very difficult to read. Gramsci and Lukacs had excuses for obscurity. The rest didn't.
No, the really influential Marxist intellectuals are those wrote well and clearly. They weren't philosophers or Critical Theorists but historians and economists - and Trotsky. A lot of Trotsky's influence can be attributed quite simply to the fact that he couldn't write a dull page. It was Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution that first interested Paul Sweezy in Marxism; likewise C.L.R. James, who went on to write one of the greatest Marxist histories, The Black Jacobins. (Not a dull page, and not a careless or undocumented word.) Paul A. Baran was a pupil of the Left Opposition economist Preobrazhensky, another lucid writer. (It's just struck me that Preobrazhensky might be a key to the whole Monthly Review school. Hmm.)
When you add up the influence of Paul Sweezy, Paul A. Baran, Leo Huberman, Harry Magdoff, Maurice Dobb, Ernest Mandel; Isaac Deutscher's biographies; C.L.R. James, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and, yes, E.P. Thompson; Gordon Childe; J.B.S. Haldane and J. Bernal - you've gone a long way to account for the intellectual influence of Marxism in at least the English-reading world. All of them wrote for readers who weren't Marxists. And non-Marxist, indeed anti-Marxist, readers have profited from their work ever since. Some who weren't Marxists when they opened a book by any of these guys were at least half-way to being Marxists when they closed it. Who ever became a Marxist as a result of reading Althusser?
Here was my typically intemperate reply to Ken:
Althusser's writing can be difficult, and is sometimes best approached through other people's summaries, but his ideas blew the minds of a lot of people who had thought that Marxism meant either starry-eyed but visions of socialist utopia or a plodding mechanical materialism. He showed that Marxism could be rigorous without being teleological and determinist.
And am I the only the one who finds this 'don't make things too difficult for the proles' talk a little patronising? If you applied MacLeod's difficulty test to the works of Marx himself, how much could you endorse? Certainly not large tracts of Capital. And yet the history of British working class self-education in Marx, as described in Jonathan Rees' Proletarian Philosophers, shows that generations of workers who had not had extensive formal education devoured some of Marx's most difficult works.
The 'this is too difficult' stuff seems to come from British intellectuals from a different class background, and that isn't surprising, because British academic thought is notoriously anti-philosophical and anti-theoretical.
I was probably shooting off blanks as usual, because Ken's reply shows that he doesn't pull any punches when it comes to Marxist theory:
I'm sorry that anyone should get the impression that my point is 'don't make things too difficult for the proles'. OK, I called the writing of the Western Marxists 'difficult' but in context it's clear that what I'm objecting to is their wilful obscurity, as distinct from the wily obscurity of Gramsci and Lukacs, as well as to the clarity of the most difficult passages of Capital. In Perry Anderson's Considerations on Western Marxism there's a famous page in which he makes the same contrast in his own inimitable way, to the point almost of self-parody.
I've noticed that whenever I've criticised the 'Western Marxists' for their wilful obscurity, the comeback is always this is philistine and patronising. How it can be philistine and patronising to recommend reading the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, as well as those who (in my view) continued their work of investigating social reality with a view to changing it, is never explained.
I think it's reasonable to criticise Althusser and many of his followers - this bunch are a particularly egregious example - for being unnecessarily obscure. I think it was Wittgenstein, who was often guilty of not following his own advice, who said that 'The time you save in writing your text by not making it as clear as possible, the reader has to make up on your behalf'.
All the same, I am a little baffled by the latest sneer at poor old Louis on British lefty journo Dave Osler's blog. Dave is amused by the news that those wacky Parisians are putting on a play based on Althusser's autobiography:
Anyone who has read Althusser’s books – and I tried, I really really tried, but the man's work makes Jurgen Habermas read like chick lit – will realise that this is an unlikely basis for gripping contemporary theatre.
I wonder how hard Dave tried to read The Future Lasts a Long Time, which is the English translation of the autobiography that was published soon after the great man's death in 1990. Imprisonment in a POW camp, a semi-underground life in the French Communist Party in the years after the war, endless erotic adventures, a murder in mysterious circumstances, a plot to steal a nuclear submarine, an attempt by de Gaulle to pick Louis up in a Paris backstreet: what more dramatic interest could the desperately sad yet wildly funny story of Althusser's life possibly need? Hell, The Future Lasts a Long Time is the only Marxist book that Jack Ross raves about. Get down to your local library, Dave...