Louis Althusser (1918-90) was one of the foremost Marxist theorists in the Western world, and advocated an especially orthodox version of Marxism that was always close to the Communist Party line. He regarded Bertolt Brecht as one of the great Marxist-revolutionary playwrights of the 20th Century, who used the theater to oppose the capitalist system and bourgeois ideology. In the 2ns section, the paper will examine how Althusser insisted on a 'straight' version of Marxism, uncontaminated by middle class idealism, pragmatism or humanism and centered on class struggle. Like Brecht, he imagined that the education system, cultural life, the theater and the arts would always be one major arena of revolutionary struggle against the dominant ideology of capitalism. The 3rd section will consider Althusser's views on Brecht as a revolutionary playwright, and how classical and dramatic types of theater merely uphold the dominant ideologies of society or resolved social conflicts in a sentimentalized and idealized way through the actions of a hero, while comedy and the theater of the absurd mocked all this without offering any hope of real change. Brecht's version of the theater, however, grounded in the historical science of Marxism, did offer a subversive and oppositional reading of capitalist ideologies, and in plays like the Life of Galileo, even denied the existence of a hero or a fictionalized solution to social problems.
In the 4th section on Brecht's Galileo, Marxism and Galileo as a Bourgeois Antihero, the paper will discuss how Brecht's Galileo was in fact a prototype of an early modern bourgeois opportunist and entrepreneur, sensing a new world of limitless possibilities. He knew that his new scientific discoveries were deeply threatening to the old feudal order, including the Catholic Church and the aristocracy, particularly if the lower orders began asking questions about society and the dominant ideologies that they could not answer. Galileo's New Science had removed earth from the center of the universe and relegated to the periphery, where it has remained ever since. It opened up the possibility that other earths and other civilizations existed out in space and time, while seeming to negate the idea that God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. Galileo could not even locate God or heaven in his telescope, which was deeply distressing to the church authorities and even to his own friends and associates. In the end though, when threatened with torture and death, he recanted his views and deferred to the traditional authorities rather than risking martyrdom or attempting to lead some type of revolutionary movement. Brecht's Galileo was highly egotistical and self-absorbed, hedonistic and concerned with enhancing his own pleasure and avoiding pain. He manages to survive under house arrest, but also comes to loathe himself for betraying and undermining his own scientific principles, leaving the ruling elites in control of the New Science.
2. Althusser on the Arts, Culture and Bourgeois Ideology
In "Marxism and Humanism" (1963) and "Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus" (1969), Althusser described ideology as a system of myths, images and ideas playing a political and economic role in society. Far from being a set of abstract academic theories, ideology constituted "our 'lived relationship to historical reality, our 'world' itself" as represented in popular culture. Althusser also insisted that Marxism (historical materialism) was a science rather than an ideology, and that it provided real knowledge about society. On the other hand, ideologies had a certain function under capitalism or any other social system that was not rationally chosen by individuals or even necessarily a conscious and rational part of their thought and personalities. Images from films, advertisements and television, for example, were part of everyday life and showed models of clothing, lifestyles, bodies and homes that became part of popular culture even though they may have had very little to do with the real world as most people experienced it. Marxist science demonstrated that "in reality, our lives are determined in every respect by the capitalist system of production relations in which we live."
For Marxists, the function of the state and the state apparatus is to maintain the ruling class in power. Althusser wrote that the Repressive State Apparatus was the coercive side of the state that used the courts, military, prisons and police to protect capitalist interests, while the Ideological State Apparatus, including religion, political parties, the education system and media, existed to mold minds and personalities, manufacture consent, and manipulate and propagandize the masses. Ruling class ideologies will always dominate culture, education, politics and the media, but like Antonio Gramsci, Althusser regarded arts, culture and the education system as arenas of class struggle in which oppositional and resistance ideologies can also be expressed.
Marxist theorists like Gramsci and Althusser were naturally most concerned with culture, ideology and social relations under urban, industrial capitalism during the 20th Century, which did not yet exist during the time of Galileo. Indeed, the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation and Scientific Revolution all took place at the dawn of capitalism during the early modern period, when banking and manufacturing were still relatively small scale and nation states were only beginning to come into existence. All of these states were governed by absolute monarchs allied with state-supported churches, although early liberals and radicals who represented the emerging bourgeoisie were beginning to challenge these in England, Holland and other northern European nations. For them, the New Science of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton served as a progressive force with which they allied against the reactionary institutions of the old regime like the Catholic Church. Before capitalism and the modern nation state existed, the dominant force in culture, religion and ideology was the church. For this reason "ideological struggle in the pre-capitalist world was conducted primarily at the level of religious and theological discourse" by the educated elites. All this took place before the bourgeoisie held political power anywhere, given that the state was controlled by monarchs, aristocrats and bishops. Althusser thought that under modern capitalism the education system had become the primary focus of class struggle, but no such mass education system existed yet in the 17th Century, when Galileo was threatened with death by the Inquisition and church authorities.
Althusser also regarded Sigmund Freud as an original theorist, comparable to Galileo in the physical sciences and Marx in historical materialism. They had led the way in opening up new continents of knowledge that we developed further after their lifetimes. Like Jacques Lacan, he rejected efforts to blend Freudian theory with humanism, behaviorism, pragmatism or existentialism, all of which he regarded as bourgeois ideologies. This had also occurred with Marxism and Althusser intervened in an attempt to return it to its pure form as advocated by Marx. In his essay "The Humanist Controversy," he argued that the battle of science against ideology would be long lasting and possibly endless, and Marxism always had to be guarded against bourgeois ideologies.
History is based on class struggle, and a permanent conflict between Marxist science and myths and ideologies like humanism. He regarded himself as being actively and constantly engaged in "the class struggle in theory" and asserted that Marx could never have been a humanist without being regressive or even turning Marxism into some kind of middle class religion rather than the science of society. In rejecting all Hegelian, existentialist and idealist admixtures in Marxism, Althusser was often parodied by his critics as a vulgar Marxist who was too attached to the Soviet Communist Party line in politics. He denied that individuals were conscious "authors or subjects of social processes" or even that most of them were conscious at all.
Although his theory of aesthetics was never well-developed, Althusser did not believe that all art was ideology in a purely vulgar manner. In fact, he had difficulty explaining exactly what its relationship was with ideology, except that it was very complex. Nor did he claim that art was a form of knowledge in the scientific (Marxist) sense although it offered "something which alludes to reality." Ideology was a part of all human activities and lived experience, and art, literature and the theater could describe these experiences, as well as class and ideological conflicts. He used the term "interpolation" to refer to the act of presenting the self to the world, as on stage or a television program, and of being recognized by others -- usually to conform to the dominant ideology and societal expectations. Althusser's main goal was to overthrow capitalism and bourgeois ideology, and he believed that avant-garde theater was part of this overall class struggle. Modern bourgeois ideology centered on the supposedly free individual making rational choices and decisions, although to be sure this hardly existed at all in Galileo's era -- not even as a pretense. Under capitalism, this ideology of the omnipotent individual "being free and master of itself, the center and first mover of the world" was also an illusion. In "A Letter on Art" (1966), Althusser reaffirmed that art can break with all ideological suppositions and move…