I need to address the influence of Louis Althusser. There is, as Ellen Meiksins Wood has pointed out, a trajectory that can broadly be sketched with Althusser, Poulantzas and Laclau/Mouffe as its three compass points: from Maoism to Eurocommunism to ‘radical democracy’ and the abandonment of class politics as a ‘fundamentalist’, ‘essentialist’ error.
Yet to simply read the failings of his followers back into Althusser’s project would be a travesty as unfair as E P Thompson’s execration of the ‘Stalinist’ Althusser. It is, in fact, a bitter irony that many of Althusser’s followers ended up in the social-democratic camp, as this was precisely the fate that his audacious and original reconstitution of Marxism was intended to help avoid. The fact that it didn’t is not necessarily a reflection on the failings of the project; rather, it shows that Althusser was perhaps over-confident in the ability of revolutionary theory to overcome the deficiencies of political practice – particularly on the part of the French communist party (PCF) of which he was a member for most of his political life. He was to acknowledge a “theoreticist deviation” among his failings when he came to review and rectify his work in later years.