ALTHUSSER APOLOGISTS TO THE GULAG, or, on fear and loathing patriarchy in 2017
By Taryn Fivek
Without comment, a comrade of mine passed me an interview with Louis Althusser that was recently published on the Verso blog. My eyes fell on these lines:
And then, there was the influence of my wife who had fought in the terrible resistance and who had taught me a lot, a lot. Everything has come to me through women, and this is the reason why I attribute a very important role, a predominant role, to the women’s movement. Women don’t know their capacity, the possibilities, their capability to do politics.
The interview was from 1980, the same year Louis Althusser murdered his wife Hélène Rytman, whom he had abused over the course of their 43-year relationship. Rytman was eight years his senior and a communist revolutionary. She fought the Nazis as part of the French Resistance and introduced Althusser to the world of communist politics. Yet, she has no Wikipedia page. Her husband and murderer has one, but it mentions her only in passing. In fact, Althusser strangled Rytman to death. As punishment, he spent just three years in a mental institution before being released to write his account of her murder into a bestseller. In the book, he even accuses her of committing “suicide by proxy”—suggesting she somehow murdered herself with his hands.
The interview my comrade sent me was published without editorial mention that he was a murderer of women. The reader is expected to look past it; to believe her murder had nothing to do with the political content of his interview. They erased his sexist violence and her oppression. Nearly four decades later, Verso is dutifully continuing Althusser’s legacy of oppression against women.
CAPTION: Everything the editors sought to clarify – the murder of Hélène Rytman seems not worth mentioning
To try and explain the depth of despair and hopelessness this causes in me would be to try and explain the totality of my life as a woman who has been, at times, very fond of men who are brilliant and younger than me, with men who have used me as “muse” or as their introduction into radical society. It would be connected, whether I like it or not, to my own experience of being a victim of gender-based violence, and to the erasure of these experiences in mainstream, respectable “left” circles.
As part of the “left” in some form or another for more than a decade now, it has not been easy for me as a woman. I am a member of a communist party, and leadership has asked me at times to become involved with organizing around women’s oppression. I have more often than not turned down the opportunity to do so. My past experiences in this arena have left me with a knot of anxiety in my stomach that makes it difficult for me to organize around the issue. I am no stranger to standing at a podium trying to explain myself. I have lived in war and seen terrible things without falling apart. But if you ask me to speak about my own oppression as a woman, much less a woman on the left, I am suddenly afflicted by what seems to be shell shock.
We live in a world where a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women, his confession broadcast to hundreds of millions of people, is now president of the United States. We live in a world where Bret Easton Ellis, author and public celebrity intellectual akin to Althusser’s status, – infers that porn stars can’t be raped. Things are bleak for us. Where to start?
First of all, the conversations that make it through are generally held in spaces where questions of white supremacy and class have not been resolved (I am white and I have a Master’s degree; I enjoy both). Rarely is it mentioned in the glossy, color pages of respectable socialist magazines that it is mainly Black and Brown women, as well as poor whites, who are forced to give birth shackled to beds while in prison, still victims of the “feminization of poverty,” still being sent up for seven years, four months and 28 days for shoplifting. Every trans woman murdered this year has been of color. Women are still widely depicted in both pornography and mainstream media as objects to be raped and tortured for male sexual enjoyment.
The main arguments to be had on the respectable, mainstream “left” seem to be those that are used to split the ranks of women instead of unite us against our enemy: Is prostitution like flipping burgers? Is porn ethical or not? Are trans women actually women? Is it okay to call Hillary Clinton an “old bitch?” Would we rather end up like those women in Afghanistan?
When us women (all of us! trans women, sex workers, women of different national origins, girls and elders) have space to discuss our oppression on the mainstream left – and make no mistake, this space is extremely limited and often gained through interpersonal relationships with the men who own these spaces – the only discussions allowed seem to be aimed at pitting us against each other, and it turns women off of fighting our oppressors. It helps cultivate our hopelessness and isolation. We are encouraged to forget that our enemy is Louis Althusser and those who think it’s fine to omit his crimes against women. The enemy is the rapist, the pimp, the basher. The enemy is patriarchy, which goes hand-in-hand with racism and capitalism. Do not erase it. Do not let him hide his face.
The fact remains: every single woman you know is a victim of sexist violence. Every single one. Women are raped and murdered. Terrorized. We starve and hurt ourselves. We are fed less. We are cut open, have pieces of ourselves cut off, to make ourselves sexually appealing. Our bodies are not our own. We are bashed. When they cease to serve the market – when we are old or unattractive or unable to bear children or work – we often cease to exist by consent of patriarchy at all. The only ones left are the obedient, the scabs, or the very, very strong.
After wrestling with my own emotions for a time, I left a comment on the Verso blog: What a monstrous thing for you to publish without mentioning he was a murderer of women! As of my submitting the comment on July 18th, the interview (published July 11th) has been shared on Facebook at least 1,400 times. It’s almost my wish that there is a censor-happy moderator working at Verso because otherwise, at least 1,400 people would have shared this interview without feeling as sick to my stomach as I did.
You can follow Taryn Fivek at @fivek on Twitter.