Robert Resch's (1992) Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory is written in the uninspired, plodding prose of a doctoral dissertation. That's as is should be, I suppose, because that's how the book began, as a doctoral dissertation in history at Michigan State University.
Furthermore, for anyone who has tried to read Althusser, whether Reading Capital, For Marx, Lenin and Philosophy, or anything else he wrote, a plodding, uninspired style is welcome, so long as it's also lucid. Very much to his credit, Resch translates Althusser, along with his post-structuralist and post-modernist critics, as well as his student Nicos Poulantzas, into accessible English prose. To my admittedly limited knowledge, no one else has done this, though it's something that certainly needed doing.
Some readers may object, holding that scholarly work should be more interpretative and less descriptive than Resch's account of structural Maarxism and the intellectual ferment it occasioned. This holds for most of Resch's book, but is especially evident in the long section covering Nicos Poulantanz's work on a Marxist theory of the state, located in the latter half of the volume. However, the work of rendering Althusser, the early Poulantzas (see especially Political Parties and Social Classes), and their willfully obscure critics into accessible English prose is a monumental task that requires mastery of a broad range of contemporary social theory and an engaged scholar's commitment to making it available to a much larger audience. For this, Resch is to be commended.
Nevertheless, when all is said and done, it remains true that there is a good deal less to Althusser than meets the eye. Having read Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory, it is still unclear what Althusser has contributed. Once one gets past the enormously frustrating scholasticism of Althusser's best known work, his celebrated contribution to the revival of interest in Marxism is very difficult to discern. Instead, Althusser seems simply obscure and vastly over-rated.
Poulantzas, I suspect, would be better remembered and more influential if he had not done much of his work while still under the influence of Althusser and others who, in fits and starts of self-indulgence, wrote only for each other, discouraging broader interest in Marxism rather than promoting a revival of interest in Marx. In his third theoretical book, State, Power, Socialism, it seemed clear that Poulantzas had begun to find his own voice. Sadly, his suicide at age forty-three deprived that voice of further development.
Structural Marxism may or may not be passe'. Benton's (1984) work in The Rise and Fall of Structural Maxism, may have been premature. Certainly Althusser, Balibar, Poulantzas and others who wrote in the structural Marxist tradition have had vastly diminished influence over the last thirty years. Resch judges this to be unfortunate, a set of circumstances that he is trying to rectify. However, the sterility, scholasticism, and the absence of a program for political action make it seem unlikely that Resch will succeed.
Nevertheless, if you want to understand structural Marxism and have wrestled with the seminal works and lost, much as I did, Resch's book is invaluable. He should be commended for making structural Marxism much more accessible for most of the rest of us.
One final thought: there may be a good deal more interpretative originality in Resch's work than I was able to discern. If that's the case, it's just another inidcator of my inablity to understand the texts about which Resch wrote. Either way, he comes off a winner.