Underground Currents: Louis Althusser’s “On Marxist Thought”

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When Perry Ander­son wrote in 1976 that “West­ern Marx­ism” could be con­sid­ered a “prod­uct of defeat,” he was refer­ring to the cat­a­stro­phes and betray­als that framed the period from 1924 to 1968.1 In ret­ro­spect, this seems like fore­shad­ow­ing. The inter­ven­ing decades have seen not sim­ply a defeat for the work­ers’ move­ment but its total dis­so­lu­tion – the col­lapse of the insti­tu­tions that once made it an unde­ni­able social force, and the roll­back of the reforms it had won from the state. While West­ern Marx­ism could define itself within a rela­tion of dis­sent from the “offi­cial” Marx­ism of the Soviet Union and the Com­mu­nist Par­ties, aca­d­e­mic Marx­ism from the 1980s on began to find itself in rela­tion to nothing.

The past few years rep­re­sent a defin­i­tive shift. The eco­nomic cri­sis, and even more recently the glimpses of a new class strug­gle, have forced even the finan­cial press to asks what we might learn from Marx. How­ever, the sta­tus of Marx­ism, as a body of thought, remains obscure. Under­ly­ing every Marx­ist expla­na­tion of the eco­nomic cri­sis are ten­den­tious debates about the ten­dency of the rate of profit to fall, the trans­for­ma­tion prob­lem, and the rel­e­vance of the labor the­ory of value. And even our recent moments of polit­i­cal prac­tice have nei­ther orig­i­nated within the para­me­ters of Marx­ism, nor have they gen­er­ated a specif­i­cally Marx­ist dis­course. In our sit­u­a­tion it has become dif­fi­cult to say what “Marx­ism” really is, what dis­tin­guishes it as a the­ory, and why it matters.

But this is by no means a new ques­tion. And of all the def­i­n­i­tions and rede­f­i­n­i­tions of Marx­ism, Louis Althusser’s were per­haps the most con­tro­ver­sial. In 1982, just before François Mitterrand’s turn to aus­ter­ity, Althusser began to draft a “the­o­ret­i­cal bal­ance sheet.” He wrote “Defin­i­tive” on the man­u­script, and never pub­lished it. The sec­tion we present here in a pro­vi­sional trans­la­tion, an essay called “On Marx­ist Thought,” was not pub­lished until Futur antérieur’s 1993 spe­cial issue Sur Althusser, pas­sages, and has never appeared in Eng­lish – save for a few para­graphs quoted in Vit­to­rio Morfino’s “An Althusser­ian Lex­i­con” and trans­lated by Jason Smith in the bor­der­lands issue Althusser and Us. The other sec­tion of Althusser’s man­u­script, the remark­able “The Under­ground Cur­rent of the Mate­ri­al­ism of the Encounter,” was pub­lished in the 2006 col­lec­tion Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, along with an invalu­able translator’s intro­duc­tion by GM Goshgarian.

What fol­lows will not only intro­duce “On Marx­ist Thought,” con­tex­tu­al­ize it, and pro­vide the begin­nings of a close read­ing, but will also attempt to recon­struct Althusser’s own the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ment from the ground up. We are tak­ing this oppor­tu­nity to rean­i­mate a sorely mis­un­der­stood thinker, trace his tra­jec­tory, and draw out the con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of his the­ory. “On Marx­ist Thought” becomes a win­dow of sorts, and Althusser’s life becomes a pos­si­ble laboratory.

So like Althusser, let’s tell the story from the beginning.

Once Upon a Time…

In 1965 Louis Althusser pub­lished two books: a col­lec­tion of arti­cles writ­ten since 1960, under the title For Marx, and a col­lab­o­ra­tive col­lec­tion of sem­i­nar papers called Read­ing Cap­i­tal. The most icon­o­clas­tic claim of these books, and the one under­gird­ing his entire per­spec­tive, was his insis­tence on the “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break” allegedly divid­ing the youth­ful Marx from the more prop­erly mature Marx. While the youth­ful philoso­pher imag­ined a project in which alien­ated human essence could finally return to itself, the battle-hardened com­mu­nist thought in terms of a mode of pro­duc­tion grounded on the antag­o­nis­tic strug­gle between classes. Two Marxes, and one choice: are we for the enthu­si­as­tic prodigy who lost him­self in the clouds of clas­si­cal phi­los­o­phy or are we for the hard­ened sci­en­tist of class struggle?

On the sur­face of it this was by no means a novel claim. But Althusser did much more than repeat the old cliché that men change over time. Not only was the later Marx dis­tinct from the ear­lier one, but he oper­ated in an entirely dif­fer­ent prob­lem­atic that had noth­ing to do with the one which had ensnared him in his youth. In short, at some point in 1845, Marx broke with his ide­o­log­i­cal past by found­ing an entirely new sci­ence, com­plete with its own prin­ci­ples, logic, and lan­guage, just as the ide­o­log­i­cal morass of alchemy became the sci­ence of chem­istry, or astrol­ogy became astronomy.

These early works of Althusser can­not be under­stood out­side the polit­i­cal his­tory of Marx­ist the­ory. A new polit­i­cal con­junc­ture had emerged after Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech con­demn­ing the “per­son­al­ity cult,” ini­ti­at­ing a process of “de-Stalinization” which would not only fail to destroy the bureau­cracy, but would also turn the mil­i­tant cur­rents lin­ger­ing from the Resis­tance towards social-democratic com­pro­mise. For Althusser, that this nec­es­sary crit­i­cism should come from the “Right” was a dis­as­ter, with human­ism and Hegel in the­ory and Soviet tanks rolling through Budapest in practice.

Althusser recalled a sim­i­lar dynamic ear­lier in the cen­tury, when a num­ber of the­o­rists dis­sented against the ortho­doxy of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional. The Sec­ond Inter­na­tional, ori­ented by Kaut­sky and Plekhanov and grounded in Engels’s Anti-Dühring, devel­oped a form of dialec­ti­cal and his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism that viewed his­tory as an evo­lu­tion­ary process dri­ven by tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, which would ulti­mately result in social­ism. Despite its attempt to pass itself off as a sci­en­tific phi­los­o­phy of nature against Hegelian ide­al­ism, the tele­ol­ogy of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional, which would even­tu­ally be repro­duced by the Third, actu­ally rep­re­sented an impov­er­ished Hegel. Para­dox­i­cally, how­ever, the crit­i­cism of this phi­los­o­phy by Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, and other left-wing the­o­rists actu­ally grounded itself in a return to Hegel, repro­duc­ing the very tele­ol­ogy they sought to destroy. The ide­ol­ogy of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional was rightly attacked, but only by restor­ing yet another ide­ol­ogy. In terms of Marx’s texts, this meant mov­ing back from the economism/technologism of the 1859 “Pref­ace” to A Con­tri­bu­tion to the Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy to the pro­gres­sion of classes in the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo: dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism was the world­view of the pro­le­tariat, the uni­ver­sal class, and it there­fore rep­re­sented the sub­ject and goal of history.

Fit­tingly, the post­war phi­los­o­phy of the bureau­cracy was a sub­la­tion of this ear­lier dis­sent. Though Marx’s 1844 Eco­nomic and Philo­soph­i­cal Man­u­scripts had been pub­lished in 1932, they had gone largely unno­ticed until now, when they were avidly taken up by the Com­mu­nist Par­ties. In the French Com­mu­nist Party (PCF), this was rep­re­sented in a dra­matic extreme by the “offi­cial philoso­pher” Roger Garaudy. For the PCF the human­ism of the young Marx was not only the truth of Marx­ist the­ory; it had prac­ti­cal util­ity as a basis for unit­ing with Catholics and social democ­rats, on dis­play in the Party’s sup­port for Mitterrand’s cam­paign in 1965.

The prob­lem was that this new human­ism was every­where. Even voices of dis­sent within and out­side the Party, from Henri Lefeb­vre to Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, would attempt to work out their oppo­si­tion within the the­o­ret­i­cal cat­e­gories also embraced by the reformist lead­er­ship. For Althusser, this was the the­o­ret­i­cal dan­ger of the dis­sent that had started as “a vital reac­tion against the mechani­cism and economism of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional,” a reac­tion with “real his­tor­i­cal mer­its”: like de-Stalinization in pol­i­tics, it would chan­nel rev­o­lu­tion­ary cur­rents towards the Right by way of phi­los­o­phy, as evi­denced by the PCF’s “‘right­ist’ mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of a his­tor­i­cal reac­tion which then had the force of a protest that was rev­o­lu­tion­ary in spirit.”2 So he set about a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the entire pre-existing tra­di­tion, attempt­ing a cri­tique that broke with the whole ide­ol­ogy, both the pos­i­tivist phi­los­o­phy of nature and Hegelian sub­jec­tivism. The Hegelian and human­ist turn was not left enough, “proved” by its adop­tion in Moscow and the West­ern party head­quar­ters, since it repeated the Kaut­skyan and revi­sion­ist the­o­ries of his­tory with the sub­sti­tute sub­ject of “Man.” For Marx and Read­ing Cap­i­tal are set against this tele­ol­ogy shared both by economism and its Hegelian critique.

In his search for a the­o­ret­i­cal alter­na­tive, Althusser tried to rethe­o­rize Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy itself, ulti­mately argu­ing that Marx­ism had the sta­tus of a sci­en­tific phi­los­o­phy which pro­duced objec­tive knowl­edge, rather than the world­view of the party that rep­re­sented the pro­le­tariat. The def­i­n­i­tion of this sci­ence was highly orig­i­nal, a dis­place­ment of the tra­di­tional oppo­si­tion between the­ory and prac­tice. The­ory itself was a prac­tice, the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice, which like other forms of prac­tice worked on raw mate­ri­als, includ­ing ideas, to trans­form them into deter­mi­nate objects, in this case knowl­edge. But knowl­edge could be ide­o­log­i­cal or sci­en­tific; Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy was the “the­ory of the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice,” finally capa­ble of sift­ing through the his­tory of sci­ence and its rup­tures, dis­tin­guish­ing between ide­o­log­i­cal and sci­en­tific knowledge.

At the same time, Althusser inter­vened against the dom­i­nant read­ing of Marx’s cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy through the the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice of Read­ing Cap­i­tal, the cul­mi­na­tion of a famous sem­i­nar with his stu­dents. Against the ten­dency to inter­pret Cap­i­tal as a polit­i­cal econ­omy in its own right, a cor­rec­tion and com­ple­tion of the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Althusser and his col­leagues empha­sized Marx’s sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion. It was pos­si­ble to take Smith and Ricardo’s the­ory of value and develop it into a the­ory of exploita­tion in terms of a quan­tity of labor-time appro­pri­ated by the cap­i­tal­ist. But while Marx rec­og­nized the achieve­ments of the polit­i­cal econ­o­mists, he also argued that the effect of their the­ory was to miss the “his­tor­i­cal and tran­si­tory char­ac­ter” of soci­eties in which the prod­ucts of labor took the form of val­ues; in fact, they had started by “treat­ing it as the eter­nal nat­ural form of social pro­duc­tion.”3 So the found­ing ges­ture of Marx’s sci­ence was a break with the the­o­ret­i­cal object of Smith and Ricardo – but his con­cep­tion of his­toric­ity did not entail that every­thing in a his­tor­i­cal period could be reduced to the expres­sion of some sin­gle essen­tial con­tra­dic­tion. The con­cept of the mode of pro­duc­tion, which tried to explain his­tor­i­cal dis­con­ti­nu­ity, could not be reduced to a homo­ge­neous and con­tin­u­ous tem­po­ral­ity dri­ven either by a tran­shis­tor­i­cal “essence of man” or the devel­op­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces; instead, it moved accord­ing to the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and their non-linear tem­po­ral­ity, artic­u­lated with the tem­po­ral­i­ties of dif­fer­ent lev­els of the social struc­ture – legal and polit­i­cal rela­tions, cul­ture, and so on.

John Mil­ios has argued that Althusser’s read­ing of Marx has a sur­pris­ing affin­ity with the lin­eage of the Neue Marx-Lektüre, the “new read­ing of Marx” that emerged in Ger­many at approx­i­mately the same time as Read­ing Cap­i­tal.4 Founded by Theodor Adorno’s stu­dents, the new read­ing of Marx elab­o­rated their teacher’s cri­tique of Hegel, which already con­tained what Perry Ander­son has described as “invol­un­tary cor­re­spon­dences” with Althusser, and has yielded a “value-form the­ory” pur­sued by a diverse range of the­o­rists.5 As Mil­ios has sug­gested, this work elab­o­rates some of the impli­ca­tions of Read­ing Cap­i­tal that Althusser stopped short of explain­ing.6 Against a reduc­tion of value to quan­ti­ties, value-form the­ory empha­sizes that value is a social rela­tion fun­da­men­tally grounded in the exchange­abil­ity of com­modi­ties, and is there­fore spe­cific to commodity-producing soci­eties. While abstract labor is the sub­stance of value, its mag­ni­tude deter­mined by socially nec­es­sary labor time, the form of value appears in exchange, where the exchange value of a com­mod­ity is not mea­sured by the mag­ni­tude of labor-time, but by some quan­tity of another com­mod­ity, a col­lec­tion of use-values. In the rela­tion of exchange, 20 yards of linen are worth one coat. From this sim­ple form Marx extrap­o­lates the neces­sity of money, the uni­ver­sal equiv­a­lent that medi­ates the exchange­abil­ity of all com­modi­ties. Since the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal requires the gen­er­a­tion of more money, it assumes the exploita­tion of labor-power in the process of pro­duc­tion. As Mil­ios writes, “Cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion is not per­ceived as a sim­ple ‘sub­trac­tion’ or ‘deduc­tion’ from the prod­uct of the worker’s labor but is seen as a social rela­tion, nec­es­sar­ily express­ing itself in the cir­cuit of social cap­i­tal and in the pro­duc­tion of surplus-value, which takes the form of mak­ing (more) money.”7

The sub­stance of value, then, only exists in the attrib­utes in which it is expressed, which is to say money – and only prices and profit, the nec­es­sary forms of appear­ance of value and surplus-value, can be mea­sured. This was pre­cisely the argu­ment of Read­ing Cap­i­tal: “The fact that surplus-value is not a mea­sur­able real­ity arises from the fact that it is not a thing, but the con­cept of a rela­tion­ship, the con­cept of an exist­ing social struc­ture of pro­duc­tion, of an exis­tence vis­i­ble and mea­sur­able only in itseffects.’”8

Althusser­ian Mules

All this under­lay Althusser’s insis­tence on the trans­for­ma­tive vio­lence of the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break. But it was the uncom­pro­mis­ing lin­ear­ity of it all, the clean divi­sion between a human­ist young Marx and a sci­en­tific mature Marx, that began to con­found an oth­er­wise con­vinc­ing expo­si­tion. It became clear to com­menters, and even­tu­ally to Althusser him­self, that the trou­ble­some ghost of the early Marx had not been exor­cised so eas­ily. He kept return­ing, over and over again, to haunt our mature hero. It was a past that would not pass, appear­ing now as a word, as in “alien­ation,” assumed to have been effaced for­ever, then as a turn of phrase, like “the nega­tion of the nega­tion,” which made the stom­ach churn, and some­times even as an entire pas­sage, or clus­ter of chap­ters, or even a book. Althusser assured his read­ers that these were just traces, emp­tied of their old philo­soph­i­cal mean­ing, return­ing only as play­ful expres­sions in a new problematic.

But the crit­i­cisms also came from a polit­i­cal direc­tion, the PCF Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Waldeck Rochet com­plain­ing of Althusser’s “omis­sion” of the “union of the­ory and prac­tice.” In 1966, to set­tle the mat­ter, the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee met in the Parisian sub­urb of Argen­teuil, osten­si­bly a dis­cus­sion of the “prob­lem of ide­ol­ogy and cul­ture,” but in fact a the­o­ret­i­cal trial of the devi­a­tions of Althusser. The con­clu­sion of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee, under the direc­tion of the sur­re­al­ist Louis Aragon: “there is a Marx­ist human­ism,” announced to the pub­lic as a slo­gan and ethos, rein­forc­ing the Party’s con­trol over the­ory.9

What resulted was a long period of self-criticism. But while he claimed to have inte­grated the insights of his crit­ics, Althusser made no pre­tense of turn­ing towards human­ism.10 Reflect­ing in an unpub­lished 1967 text, “The Human­ist Con­tro­versy,” he dug in his heels on this question:

It is no longer a ques­tion of start­ing out from the ‘con­crete’ in the­ory, from the well-known ‘con­crete’ con­cepts of Man, men, indi­vid­u­als with ‘their feet firmly planted on solid ground’, nations, and so on. Quite the con­trary: Marx starts out from the abstract, and says so. This does not mean that, for Marx, men, indi­vid­u­als, and their sub­jec­tiv­ity have been expunged from real his­tory. It means that the notions of Man, etc., have been expunged from the­ory, for, in the­ory, no-one has yet, to my knowl­edge, met a flesh-and-blood man, only the notion of man.11

He also made a sur­pris­ing argu­ment about Hegel, now writ­ing that Hegel had in fact given Marx the con­cept of a “process with­out a sub­ject,” since in the Hegelian sys­tem the only sub­ject of the process of his­tory is the tele­ol­ogy itself, the pro­gres­sion towards its end. The illu­sory mate­ri­al­ism of Lud­wig Feuer­bach had been based on insert­ing a new sub­ject into this process – human species-being, which would alien­ate itself through­out his­tory in reli­gion until its final real­iza­tion and self-knowledge – and the young Marx, sub­sti­tut­ing alien­ated labor for reli­gion, had par­tic­i­pated in this regres­sion behind Hegel. Insert­ing “alien­ated labor” failed to change the nature of this the­ory as ide­o­log­i­cal: “A the­ory no more changes its nature by treat­ing an addi­tional object than a cap­i­tal­ist who makes aero­planes becomes a social­ist by adding refrig­er­a­tors to his prod­uct line.”12

Althusser now argued that the late Marx did not stand Hegel on his feet, but chopped off his head – with­out the tele­ol­ogy it became pos­si­ble to under­stand the com­plex rela­tion­ship between con­tin­gency and neces­sity in the his­tor­i­cal process. But not all Marx­ists had man­aged to pay atten­tion; many of them vac­il­lated between Hegel and Feuer­bach. It is often pos­si­ble, with this pro­to­col of read­ing, to dis­tin­guish the Hegelian from the Feuer­bachian (or human­ist) moments – and fre­quently the prop­erly Hegelian moments have a pro­found inter­sec­tion with Althusser, as Mil­ios argues of value-form the­ory, which often claims an explic­itly Hegelian point of departure.

This is the con­text for the new def­i­n­i­tion of phi­los­o­phy Althusser began to cir­cu­late, in his intro­duc­tion to a 1967 course on the “spon­ta­neous phi­los­o­phy of the sci­en­tists” and the famous lec­ture “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy” in early 1968. He turned against a “the­o­reti­cism” in Read­ing Cap­i­tal, which had con­verted phi­los­o­phy into a kind of absolute knowl­edge that would guide prac­tice. The polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of this notion had been clear for the whole his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment, align­ing with a text­book “Lenin­ism” and implic­itly endors­ing “Kautsky’s and Lenin’s the­sis that Marx­ist the­ory is pro­duced by a spe­cific the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice, out­side the pro­le­tariat, and that Marx­ist the­ory must be ‘imported’ into the pro­le­tariat.”13 But totally absent from this Lenin­ism was any the­o­ret­i­cal engage­ment with the ques­tion of class struggle.

The rede­f­i­n­i­tions result­ing from this self-criticism were sig­nif­i­cant, and led to another unusual Hegelian inter­sec­tion. Now in unac­knowl­edged align­ment with Lukács, Althusser began to argue that Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy orig­i­nates in the pro­le­tar­ian stand­point, but dif­fered by sit­u­at­ing this stand­point in a non-teleological frame­work – the pro­le­tariat, far from the iden­ti­cal subject-object of his­tory, is con­sti­tuted by the class strug­gle spe­cific to the novel cap­i­tal­ist form of exploita­tion, and the assump­tion of its stand­point is a prac­tice of par­ti­san­ship in phi­los­o­phy.14 In this new def­i­n­i­tion, phi­los­o­phy had no object and did not dis­tin­guish between truth and error. Phi­los­o­phy was a bat­tle­ground, whose entire his­tory was con­sti­tuted by the strug­gle between ide­al­ism and mate­ri­al­ism, each rep­re­sent­ing the stand­point of a class. Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy inter­vened to defend sci­ence against ide­ol­ogy, but this process was a com­plex relay – phi­los­o­phy, at cer­tain moments, emerg­ing after a sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery to explain its con­se­quences for knowl­edge, and at oth­ers, ini­ti­at­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sci­ence by break­ing with ide­ol­ogy and assum­ing the pro­le­tar­ian stand­point, as Marx had done when he affil­i­ated him­self with com­mu­nists in Paris.15 The new def­i­n­i­tion, in the last instance, was that phi­los­o­phy is class strug­gle in the field of the­ory, and Althusser would retain this def­i­n­i­tion until the end. While his ear­lier “the­o­reti­cism” defended the auton­omy of intel­lec­tu­als, he now took a dras­tic left turn against them: “A pro­fes­sional philoso­pher who joins the Party remains, ide­o­log­i­cally, a petty bour­geois. He must rev­o­lu­tion­ize his thought in order to occupy a pro­le­tar­ian class posi­tion in phi­los­o­phy.”16

The his­tor­i­cal con­text of this cri­tique, and the lim­its of the inter­na­tional com­mu­nist move­ment to which Althusser remained devoted, meant an affil­i­a­tion with Mao­ism. Pre­ced­ing his self-criticism was a 1966 text called “On the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion,” pub­lished anony­mously to avoid inevitable expul­sion from the Party, in which Althusser cel­e­brated events in China as the prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion of his the­sis in “Con­tra­dic­tion and Overde­ter­mi­na­tion” four years ear­lier: com­mu­nism could not be achieved with­out a con­tin­u­ing rev­o­lu­tion against the state appa­ra­tuses. Indeed, even these ear­lier texts, in the period of the Sino-Soviet split, waded into dan­ger­ous waters by align­ing with the Com­mu­nist Party of China’s cri­tique of de-Stalinization, which in less philo­soph­i­cal lan­guage had attacked human­ism as the ide­ol­ogy of “peace­ful coex­is­tence,” a con­ces­sion to impe­ri­al­ism. Favor­able cita­tions of Mao gave the PCF fur­ther evi­dence for its sus­pi­cion.17

Of course, a polit­i­cal cri­tique of the PCF’s economism did not need to draw its inspi­ra­tion from a mythol­ogy of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion. A num­ber of inde­pen­dent French groups – such Social­isme ou Bar­barie, Argu­ments, and the Sit­u­a­tion­ist Inter­na­tional – were already on this track, some for over a decade. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, for exam­ple, the pri­mary the­o­rist of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, argued that the empha­sis on the pro­duc­tive forces led to a dis­torted con­cep­tion of the con­tent of social­ism, which had affected even the Bol­she­viks. Nation­al­iza­tion of pri­vate prop­erty and the dis­place­ment of the mar­ket by plan­ning had cov­ered up the real­ity that the con­tent of social­ism was the proletariat’s autonomous man­age­ment of pro­duc­tion, and this van­tage point required a new analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism, one which empha­sized the divi­sion of labor inter­nal to the pro­duc­tion process. Bureau­cratic polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions, like the Com­mu­nist Par­ties, only served to repro­duce this struc­ture. As early as 1955, Cas­to­ri­adis hinted that this divi­sion of labor also affected the pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge: “The antag­o­nis­tic struc­ture of cul­tural rela­tions in present-day soci­ety is expressed also (but in no way exclu­sively) by the rad­i­cal divi­sion between man­ual and intel­lec­tual labor.”18

This poten­tial con­nec­tion between Althusser and Cas­to­ri­adis – a com­mon cri­tique of economism com­ing from two dif­fer­ent, yet equally invalu­able sides – was an encounter that did not take place. Althusser, for his part, described a double-bind, the fact that even though the Party’s pro­gram was intrin­si­cally lim­ited, it was lodged within mass move­ments that were not acces­si­ble to left­ist groups out­side the Party: “if the Party wanted to analyse and take con­trol of social rela­tions, it could have noth­ing more to do with any move­ment, espe­cially if it was linked to the salaried class, which was con­cerned solely with wage rises, etc., in order to tackle the whole process of pro­duc­tion; but that has only ever been done out­side the Party and the via the inept con­cept of self-management.” The fate of these “iso­lated indi­vid­u­als,” Althusser said, “such as Sou­varine and Cas­to­ri­adis who pro­vided inter­est­ing infor­ma­tion and good ideas on a good num­ber of points,” was to be “left alone, deprived of all organic con­tact… with the active and organ­ised sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion and out­side any organ­i­sa­tion involved in strug­gle… what impact could these iso­lated indi­vid­u­als have on the work­ers and the masses?”19

And if this pas­sage nev­er­the­less praises Cas­to­ri­adis, the the­o­rist of self-management would not return the favor. In a 1988 reflec­tion on his post­war writ­ings, Cas­to­ri­adis, agree­ing with the the­sis of the “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break,” sided with the young Marx against “vul­gar ratio­nal­ists such as Althusser and asso­ciates.” The min­gling of mate­ri­al­ist meta­physics and the dialec­tic of nature in the sci­en­tism of the late Marx, he con­tin­ued, had pro­duced “only ster­ile off­spring, of which Althusser­ian mules are only the most recent spec­i­mens.”20 And in fact, Castoriadis’s ear­lier work had already vig­or­ously defended the young Marx as the only philo­soph­i­cal basis for self-management, which in a kind of expres­sive causal­ity described the total­ity of social life: “alien­ation in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety is not sim­ply eco­nomic. It not only man­i­fests itself in con­nec­tion with mate­r­ial life. It also affects in a fun­da­men­tal way both man’s sex­ual and his cul­tural func­tions.”21

Con­crete Situations

All these the­o­ret­i­cal shifts were to be over­shad­owed the fol­low­ing year in Paris by the events of May 1968, when a van­guard of left­ist stu­dents sparked a gen­eral strike of ten mil­lion work­ers. Here the con­duct of the PCF con­firmed every polit­i­cal crit­i­cism made of it, and Althusser him­self described what hap­pened with per­fect clar­ity in his mem­oirs: “Out of fear of the masses and fear of los­ing con­trol (reflect­ing its per­ma­nent obses­sion with the pri­macy of organ­i­sa­tion over mass pop­u­lar move­ments), the Party did all it could to break the pop­u­lar move­ment and chan­nel it into straight­for­ward eco­nomic nego­ti­a­tions.”22

At the time, how­ever, he assented to the PCF line, and Althusser’s rep­u­ta­tion has never really recov­ered from this deci­sion. But we gain noth­ing from dis­miss­ing him as a PCF hack. On the one hand, we have already noted his long-standing dis­si­dence within Party, stretch­ing back to his atten­dance of demon­stra­tions in sup­port of the Alger­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, all while believ­ing that con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship was required in order to main­tain organic con­tacts with the pro­le­tariat.23 We can note in pass­ing that this brings him once again close to his old foil Lukács, whose con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship in the party dur­ing the tem­pes­tu­ous 1930s was guided by a sim­i­lar logic.

On the other hand, we can now hon­estly acknowl­edge the ambi­gu­ity of the sit­u­a­tion itself: the insti­tu­tional power of the PCF was a fatal limit on the insur­rec­tions of May and June, but it was also one of the enabling con­di­tions for the exten­sion of this insur­rec­tion to a mass scale. Even Althusser’s the­o­ret­i­cal adver­sary Jean-Paul Sartre, who con­sid­ered the May revolt to be “free­dom in action,” said in an inter­view with Il Man­i­festo that “the party, in rela­tion to the mass, is a nec­es­sary real­ity because the mass, by itself, does not pos­sess spon­tane­ity” – but due to its insti­tu­tional struc­ture, the party has at the same time “a ten­dency to scle­ro­sis.” While he argued that the 1968 revolt failed because it “lacked a party capa­ble of tak­ing up com­pletely the move­ment and its poten­tial­i­ties,” Sartre pes­simisti­cally con­fessed that he could not see “how the prob­lems which con­front any sta­bi­lized struc­ture could be resolved.”24

What­ever the ambi­gu­i­ties, Althusser’s fail­ure to break with the bureau­cratic ortho­doxy was a dis­as­ter for those of his stu­dents who had imag­ined that the new read­ing of Cap­i­tal had pro­vided the real the­o­ret­i­cal basis for a turn to the Left. But it must be noted that this was a major fac­tor in a con­tin­u­ing self-criticism. The famous 1970 essay on “Ide­ol­ogy and Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tuses” – exces­sively famous, since it is read at the expense of nearly all other texts by Althusser, its pro­vi­sional themes treated as a for­mula – is sig­nif­i­cant for pro­vid­ing a the­o­ret­i­cal basis for endors­ing stu­dent strug­gles. Equally impor­tant is that by sit­u­at­ing ide­ol­ogy within the com­plex inter­ac­tion of the require­ments of repro­duc­ing the mode of pro­duc­tion, and the rel­a­tive auton­omy of the super­struc­tural lev­els in which this social repro­duc­tion takes place, Althusser estab­lishes what War­ren Mon­tag calls a “strange ‘dia­logue’” with his for­mer stu­dent Michel Fou­cault, car­ried on by the lat­ter in Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish.25 When Fou­cault con­trasts a con­cep­tion of power which is “local­ized in a par­tic­u­lar type of insti­tu­tion or state appa­ra­tus” to the “micro-physics of power” which the appa­ra­tuses “oper­ate,” it is pre­cisely Althusser’s ini­tial dis­tinc­tion between “state power” and “state appa­ra­tus” that he clar­i­fies.26 State power is not the expres­sion of a sub­ject that is already formed, the model of the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion – it is the field in which this sub­ject is formed. Foucault’s devel­op­ment of this Marx­ian theme is to dis­place the dis­tinc­tion between the repres­sive and ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus, enclosed spaces in which force is exer­cised or sub­jects are inter­pel­lated. Instead, he points to dis­ci­pli­nary tech­nolo­gies that act on bod­ies, by which force and knowl­edge form part of a process of power.27

Dis­putes over the nature of the state led Althusser to clash even more openly with the party bureau­cracy through­out the 1970s. In 1972 the PCF entered into a “Union of the Left” with the Social­ist Party, an exten­sion of ear­lier elec­toral sup­port for Mit­ter­rand and a pre­lude to Euro­com­mu­nism. For the PCF, the “com­mon pro­gram” of this union had its basis in a the­ory of “state monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism” (“sta­mo­cap”), the dom­i­na­tion of the state by a cabal of cap­i­tal­ists from the largest firms.28 The polit­i­cal pro­gram against the monop­oly frac­tion even­tu­ally grew to encom­pass an entire “union of the French peo­ple,” which could win back the state from within, bring­ing it under pop­u­lar con­trol and estab­lish­ing a con­tin­u­ous demo­c­ra­tic tran­si­tion to the social­ist tran­si­tion. By 1976, this meant the aban­don­ment of the con­cept of the “dic­ta­tor­ship of the proletariat.”

Althusser’s cam­paign against this move made the front page of Le Monde (an arti­cle enti­tled “The aban­don­ment of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat is crit­i­cized even within the PCF”), and his stu­dent Eti­enne Bal­ibar would defend the con­cept in front of the Party. The union of the French peo­ple, Althusser said in a talk to com­mu­nist stu­dents, could only have mean­ing if it clearly demon­strated that the Party would sub­ject itself to the ini­tia­tive of the masses, who would “orga­nize them­selves autonomously, in orig­i­nal forms, in firms, urban dis­tricts and vil­lages, around the ques­tions of labour and liv­ing con­di­tions, the ques­tions of hous­ing, edu­ca­tion, health, trans­port, the envi­ron­ment.” But not only was such a devel­op­ment polit­i­cally blocked by the per­sis­tence of an ossi­fied “demo­c­ra­tic cen­tral­ism” and the divi­sion of labor between the party bureau­cracy and the rank and file, it was also the­o­ret­i­cally blocked by an ide­o­log­i­cal con­cep­tion of the social­ist tran­si­tion. Adding “the adjec­tive ‘demo­c­ra­tic’ to each exist­ing state appa­ra­tus” failed to appre­ci­ate the basic Marx­ist the­sis that “it is not just the bour­geois state that is oppres­sive, but any state.”29 At a lec­ture in Barcelona, “The Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy,” Althusser described what was at stake: a the­ory of the cap­i­tal­ist state as an open space of con­tes­ta­tion dis­placed an under­stand­ing of the state as a bour­geois dic­ta­tor­ship, which formed the vary­ing lev­els of the social for­ma­tion into a unity that could repro­duce the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. He brought this polit­i­cal cri­tique deci­sively into the field of knowl­edge: phi­los­o­phy was the uni­fi­ca­tion of dif­fer­ent spon­ta­neous ide­olo­gies of prac­tice in the con­sti­tu­tion of the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy, which made it a phi­los­o­phy of the state. Just as the com­mune and soviet power rep­re­sented the pos­si­bil­ity of the destruc­tion of the state, Marx­ism was a non-philosophy of the non-state.30

The “par­lia­men­tary cre­tinism” of the PCF entered a path to self-destruction in 1977, by which point the Social­ist Party’s pop­u­lar­ity had dwarfed the PCF.31 Rapidly shift­ing to sec­tar­ian rhetoric, the PCF turned against the Com­mon Pro­gram and broke with the Social­ist Party, divid­ing the Left and ced­ing vic­tory to the Right in the 1978 leg­isla­tive elec­tions. At this point Althusser took the gloves off. His four-part arti­cle in Le Monde, “What Must Change in the Party,” dis­cerned between the ini­tial reformism and the sec­tar­ian break a basic ver­ti­cal struc­ture of com­mand, which made the Party resem­ble the bour­geois state appa­ra­tuses. The exem­plary fig­ure of the Party was the “full-timer” who grew ever more dis­tant from the shop floor: “most of the time, he does not even come into any real con­tact with the masses, since he is too busy con­trol­ling them.” The claim of turn­ing towards democ­racy had actu­ally hid­den the retrench­ment of this highly author­i­tar­ian divi­sion of labor, while “sta­mo­cap” the­ory had dis­placed all “con­crete analy­sis of con­crete sit­u­a­tions.”32 As he wrote in an Ital­ian ency­clo­pe­dia entry called “Marx­ism Today,” within the par­ties the prob­lem of orga­ni­za­tion had been “resolved in advance through the trans­parency of a con­scious, vol­un­tary com­mu­nity con­sti­tuted by free and equal mem­bers… a pre­fig­u­ra­tion of the free com­mu­nity of Com­mu­nism, a com­mu­nity with­out social rela­tions.” With­out a the­ory of the orga­ni­za­tional appa­ra­tus that the work­ing class would require, in order to destroy the state with mass orga­ni­za­tions, Marx­ism had failed to avert the risk that “the divi­sion between appa­ra­tus and mil­i­tants could repro­duce the bour­geois divi­sion of power and cause prob­lems so seri­ous as to end in tragedy.” The only pos­si­ble way for­ward, he con­cluded in Le Monde, was for the Party to “leave the fortress,” to dis­solve its struc­ture of com­mand into the masses and renew Marx­ist the­ory.33

And it was Marx­ist the­ory itself that had been chal­lenged by the con­vo­lu­tions of the Party. He had already, in 1977, trav­eled to Venice at the invi­ta­tion of Il Man­i­festo, the orga­ni­za­tion and news­pa­per founded by dis­si­dent com­mu­nists like Lucio Magri and Rossana Rossanda who had been expelled from the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party. There he spoke at a con­fer­ence on “post-revolutionary soci­eties,” fol­low­ing on a theme estab­lished by Rossanda: “the cri­sis of Marxism.”

His tone was not melan­cholic; the cri­sis was an oppor­tu­nity for renewal. The con­duct of the com­mu­nist par­ties had demon­strated that Marx­ism lacked a the­ory of the state, just as it lacked a the­ory of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions. But these gaps had been cov­ered up by a fic­ti­tious unity imputed to Marx’s work. And the ori­gin of this fic­ti­tious unity was Cap­i­tal.

This was not a new argu­ment. Althusser’s self-criticism had already demanded changes to his peri­odiza­tion, most notably in his 1969 pref­ace to the French edi­tion of Cap­i­tal. He had brazenly claimed that work­ers, with their daily expe­ri­ence of exploita­tion, had under­stood Cap­i­tal bet­ter than intel­lec­tu­als, who were clouded by petty-bourgeois class instincts. But the real scan­dal was his sug­ges­tion that read­ers sim­ply skip the cel­e­brated first part of Cap­i­tal and return to it after fin­ish­ing the remain­der of the three vol­umes. The rest of Cap­i­tal was still “99 per­cent” free of the noto­ri­ous “Hegelian-evolutionist con­cep­tion,” but the process by which Marx set­tled accounts with his erst­while philo­soph­i­cal con­science had been a long and dif­fi­cult one. Only Marx’s Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme and the “Notes on Wag­ner” could be con­sid­ered pure, “no longer the shadow of a trace of Feuer­bachian human­ist or Hegelian influ­ence.”34 This was a sig­nif­i­cant revi­sion to his orig­i­nal nar­ra­tive of the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break. Indeed, in this sec­ond iter­a­tion of the story, the peri­odiza­tion of Marx’s thought, the break was no longer even a break.

But while speak­ing extem­po­ra­ne­ously in Venice, Althusser argued that Cap­i­tal itself estab­lished a fic­ti­tious the­o­ret­i­cal unity with its struc­ture of expo­si­tion, mov­ing from the analy­sis of com­modi­ties to a the­ory of value. This the­ory was an “arith­meti­cal pre­sen­ta­tion,” defin­ing an abstract logic of exploita­tion in which “labour power fig­ures purely and sim­ply as a com­mod­ity.” Accord­ing to Althusser, Marx’s start­ing point had pro­duced a the­o­ret­i­cal blindness:

Even if we were to accept this start­ing point, this begin­ning, and these dis­tinc­tions, we should still be forced to note that the pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus value as a mere cal­cu­la­ble quan­tity – which thus com­pletely ignores the con­di­tions of extrac­tion of sur­plus value (con­di­tions of labour) and the con­di­tions of the repro­duc­tion of labour power – may lead to a very strong temp­ta­tion: for this (arith­meti­cal) pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus value may be taken for a com­plete the­ory of exploita­tion, caus­ing us to neglect the con­di­tions of labour and of repro­duc­tion. Marx does how­ever talk about these con­di­tions – but in other chap­ters of this work, the so-called “con­crete” or “his­tor­i­cal” chap­ters, which in fact stand out­side of the order of expo­si­tion (the chap­ters on the work­ing day, on man­u­fac­ture and mod­ern indus­try, on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, etc.).35

It is hard to avoid the impres­sion that Althusser is bend­ing the stick too far. As his own work demon­strated, Marx’s pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus value can­not be reduced to a “mere cal­cu­la­ble quan­tity,” even in its the­o­ret­i­cal unity. But what is no doubt true is that Marx’s com­pli­cated eco­nomic writ­ings, incom­plete and mostly unpub­lished dur­ing his life­time, have been inter­preted accord­ing to a fic­ti­tious unity which impedes an under­stand­ing of Marx’s own argu­ment, includ­ing his descrip­tion of the value-form. Mil­ios argues that when we approach the sec­tions on the trans­for­ma­tion of val­ues into prices in vol­ume 3 of Cap­i­tal, there is a risk of turn­ing what Marx has ini­tially described as a cat­e­gor­i­cal dis­tinc­tion – between the social rela­tion of value and its form of appear­ance in prices, value explain­ing what price is – into a quan­ti­ta­tive rela­tion­ship, in which units of labor-time (value) can be math­e­mat­i­cally con­verted into units of money (price). The whole “trans­for­ma­tion prob­lem,” still under debate, per­pet­u­ates a focus on the arith­meti­cal pre­sen­ta­tion.36 The other risk is that the struc­ture of Marx’s expo­si­tion will be forced into a his­tori­cist inter­pre­ta­tion: the “sim­ple com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion” with which Marx begins ends up inter­preted as a his­tor­i­cal phase pre­ced­ing cap­i­tal­ism in which the whole cat­e­gory of value already existed, when in fact it is a moment of analy­sis of cat­e­gories inter­nal to cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety itself. As Mas­si­m­il­iano Tomba has pointed out, this kind of his­tori­cist peri­odiza­tion – sim­ple com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion to cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, for­mal sub­sump­tion to real sub­sump­tion – ends up repro­duc­ing a West­ern Europe-centered nar­ra­tive of uni­ver­sal progress, the “uni­ver­sal pass­port of a gen­eral historico-philosophical the­ory” that Marx was quick to reject.37

This much is already explained by value-form the­ory.38 But Althusser’s orig­i­nal point is to draw atten­tion to the fact that Marx only turns at the end of vol­ume 1 of Cap­i­tal to the his­tory of capitalism’s emer­gence, which risks giv­ing the impres­sion that this his­tory is an after­thought to a seem­ingly self-perpetuating logic which is pri­mary. Such an argu­ment shat­ters the per­cep­tion of Althusser as hope­lessly abstract. Inso­far as the log­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion describes the his­tor­i­cal speci­ficity of surplus-extraction under cap­i­tal­ism – that is, the specif­i­cally cap­i­tal­ist form of exploita­tion and its rules of repro­duc­tion – it is vital to explain the basis of these social rela­tions in the sep­a­ra­tion from the means of sub­sis­tence that leads to depen­dence on the mar­ket, the con­text in which labor-power emerges as a commodity.

Althusser began to sys­tem­at­i­cally work through the ques­tions raised by these polit­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal events in an extra­or­di­nary man­u­script called “Marx in His Lim­its,” which he showed only to a few close friends in 1978.39 But its elab­o­ra­tion was to be interrupted.

The Neces­sity of Pos­i­tive Facts

In 1980, Althusser stran­gled his wife, Hélène Ryt­man. It was a hor­ri­fy­ing cli­max to a life­time of severe men­tal ill­ness, punc­tu­ated through­out by long-term insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion, med­ica­tion with MAOIs, and elec­tro­con­vul­sive ther­apy. From 1982 to 1986, between stays in the men­tal insti­tu­tion, his polit­i­cal and aca­d­e­mic careers fin­ished, Althusser’s wrote of phi­los­o­phy in a dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter. These late texts worked with a new lan­guage: “aleatory mate­ri­al­ism” in the place of dialec­ti­cal and his­tor­i­cal materialism.

Althusser fig­ures this lan­guage with the image of Epicurus’s cli­na­men: the void in which, before the world existed, atoms rained down in par­al­lel paths. When one atom devi­ated from its path, and swerved to meet another, the encounter between the two brought the world into being. In the “Under­ground Cur­rent,” Althusser traces the his­tory of a sub­ter­ranean tra­di­tion that runs through the his­tory of phi­los­o­phy, locked in strug­gle with the “ide­al­ism of free­dom” that attempted to repress it. This strug­gle ani­mates the writ­ing of Machi­avelli, Hobbes, Spin­oza, and Rousseau (Deleuze and Der­rida are also named, among oth­ers), whose work Althusser uses to elab­o­rate the mate­ri­al­ism of the encounter. An encounter may or may not take place, but even tak­ing place is not enough to estab­lish a world; there is no short­age of “brief encoun­ters” that failed to “take hold.” Some kind of agent might inter­vene to estab­lish the con­di­tions for an encounter; then still, if it does take place, it will have to con­geal into laws that con­vert it into an accom­plished fact.40

By the end of this sweep­ing overview of the his­tory of phi­los­o­phy, it becomes clear that we have wit­nessed a philo­soph­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion of the themes dis­cov­ered by Marx in the “his­tor­i­cal chap­ters,” refer­ring back to Balibar’s analy­sis of the “pre­his­tory” of cap­i­tal­ism in Read­ing Cap­i­tal. Prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion estab­lishes the the­ory of aleatory mate­ri­al­ism: Marx showed that cap­i­tal­ism “arose from the ‘encounter’ between ‘the own­ers of money’ and the pro­le­tar­ian stripped of every­thing but his labor-power.” This encounter “took hold” by virtue of ten­den­tial laws, from the law of value to the law of cycli­cal cri­sis. These laws are not capitalism’s essence but the “becoming-necessary of the encounter of con­tin­gen­cies,” a mode of pro­duc­tion that has become an accom­plished fact whose laws of motion can be described.41

The ide­al­ist account of polit­i­cal econ­omy, skew­ered by Marx, sets out from the neces­sity of the cur­rent moment and projects it to the ori­gins. Its the­o­log­i­cal ori­gin story – which claimed that a “fru­gal elite” accu­mu­lated wealth while “lazy ras­cals, spend­ing their sub­stance, and more, in riotous liv­ing,” ended up with “noth­ing to sell except their own skins” – con­fused the repro­duc­tion of this new rela­tion­ship for the ori­gin of the rela­tion­ship itself. But this ten­dency also plagued Marx­ism, which some­times caved into an ide­ol­ogy of cap­i­tal­ism as a nec­es­sary dialec­ti­cal nega­tion of feu­dal­ism, a new soci­ety fully formed within the old world. The con­se­quence of such a the­ory is that the struc­ture pre­cedes its ele­ments, like the notion that the pro­le­tariat is “the prod­uct of big indus­try”: this, for Althusser, is the result of “con­fus­ing the pro­duc­tion of the pro­le­tariat with its cap­i­tal­ist repro­duc­tion on an extended scale.42

While the abstract logic of ten­den­tial laws repro­duced the encounter, this had to take place on an extend­ing scale, whose con­di­tions were by no means auto­matic. They had to be con­tin­u­ally established:

It would, more­over, be a mis­take to think that this process of the aleatory encounter was con­fined to the Eng­lish four­teenth cen­tury. It has always gone on, and is going on even today – not only in the coun­tries of the Third World, which pro­vide the most strik­ing exam­ple of it, but also in France, by way of the dis­pos­ses­sion of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers and their trans­for­ma­tion into semi-skilled work­ers (con­sider San­dou­ville: Bre­tons run­ning machines) – as a per­ma­nent process that puts the aleatory at the heart of the sur­vival and rein­force­ment of the cap­i­tal­ist ‘mode of pro­duc­tion’, and also, let us add, at the heart of the so-called social­ist ‘mode of pro­duc­tion’ itself.43

Here Althusser once again crosses paths with Fou­cault, whose recount­ing in Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish of the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism empha­sizes its con­tin­gency and its recon­fig­u­ra­tion of the con­junc­ture from which it emerged. Jason Read frames his out­stand­ing analy­sis of the Marx-Althusser-Foucault con­stel­la­tion in The Micro-Politics of Cap­i­tal by point­ing to this prob­lem of his­tor­i­cal tran­si­tion, “the pre­sup­po­si­tions and pre-conditions of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, the con­di­tions that con­sti­tute its for­ma­tion and yet can­not be derived from it.“44 In his study of these con­di­tions, Fou­cault focuses on the legal level of the social for­ma­tion: for exam­ple, the way peas­ant strug­gles against rent and taxes were ini­tially tol­er­ated in order to work against feu­dal sur­vivals, then were repressed to in order to pro­tect the rela­tions of pri­vate prop­erty required for inten­sive agri­cul­ture, indus­trial pro­duc­tion, and com­merce.45 The very process of enclo­sure was sit­u­ated in the need to recon­fig­ure exist­ing legal rela­tions, and also invent new ones, in order to repro­duce these new prop­erty rela­tions – not a uni­tary pro­gres­sion in which one deter­mines the other, but what in Read­ing Cap­i­tal is described as “dif­fer­en­tial tem­po­ral­ity.”46

The pres­ence of these themes in Read­ing Cap­i­tal is sig­nif­i­cant. Recent writ­ing on the late texts, includ­ing “On Marx­ist Thought,” argues for con­ti­nu­ity over “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal breaks” in Althusser’s own tra­jec­tory. Vit­to­rio Morfino’s argu­ment is that there is an implicit ter­mi­no­log­i­cal sys­tem under­ly­ing the poetic style that draws out a per­sis­tent theme of “the neces­sity of con­tin­gency,” forced into the mar­gins by the debates over epis­te­mol­ogy and peri­odiza­tion. Morfino points to the rela­tion between phi­los­o­phy as “the neces­sity of pos­i­tive facts” in “On Marx­ist Thought,” and “the fact of the sub­or­di­na­tion of neces­sity to con­tin­gency” in the “Under­ground Cur­rent.”47 The effect of this para­dox is to dis­place lin­ear attempts at peri­odiza­tion: just as the oppo­si­tion between Cap­i­tal and Marx’s ear­lier texts gives way to breaks and con­ti­nu­ities through­out his process of devel­op­ment, the same can be seen in the tra­jec­tory of Althusser.

As Bal­ibar has writ­ten, the early work of Althusser is an “exper­i­ment, done on texts and on itself, uncer­tain of its result like all gen­uine exper­i­ments.”48 And indeed, in light of the per­sis­tence of this lex­i­con, the ratio­nal­ism of Read­ing Cap­i­tal stands out as a per­for­ma­tive inter­ven­tion, a prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy that inter­vened against ide­ol­ogy. In fact, the “aleatory” Althusser is able to over­turn a cer­tain risk of his writ­ing dur­ing the period of self-criticism: an expres­sive total­ity of class strug­gle, in which “class instincts” deter­mine all ideas, while class strug­gle itself was never explained. But Althusser’s the­ory of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion is able to start from the fact of exploita­tion, and explain its emer­gence not as a gen­e­sis in which the object existed before its birth – an argu­ment hinted as early as 1966 – but an encounter which took hold and in which the con­tin­gent struc­ture sub­se­quently took pri­macy over its ele­ments.49 Because exploita­tion “is the case,” a fact, there is class strug­gle, which entails classes; but the accom­plished fact and its ten­den­tial laws are under­stood as the repro­duc­tion of the encounter. What this explains is that the pro­le­tariat is not the sub­ject of his­tory, and does not even occupy this role hege­mon­i­cally. It is instead con­sti­tuted by class strug­gle as a fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tic of this con­tin­gent mode of pro­duc­tion, and this is the basis for its sub­jec­tiv­ity in history.

A Dis­cov­ery with­out a Language

So Althusser returned once again to peri­odiza­tion, telling the story for the third and last time in “On Marx­ist Thought,” tak­ing up the polit­i­cal analy­sis of “Marx in His Lim­its” within the new aleatory frame­work. At first, he seems to work as before, admit­ting that with the sole excep­tion of the chap­ter on “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion,” all of Cap­i­tal was tainted by Hegelian­ism, the only truly mate­ri­al­ist works are a cou­ple scat­tered pieces: the unpub­lished notes on the Gotha Pro­gram, writ­ten in 1875, and the “final burst” in 1881 of the “Notes on Wag­ner.” The pure Marx, the man freed from ide­ol­ogy, the hero of Althusser’s grand epic, is now reduced to a can­tan­ker­ous invalid hur­riedly scrib­bling in the mar­gins before being over­taken by death. The shift has been pushed as far back as it can go; any fur­ther, and there’ll be noth­ing left.

If the “Notes on Wag­ner” really rep­re­sent an ulti­mate state­ment on the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy, we are left to imag­ine Marx, like Fer­mat, lament­ing the nar­row­ness of the pages. But this unusual text offers a pro­to­col of read­ing, a reminder of Marx’s “ana­lytic method, which does not start out from man, but from the eco­nom­i­cally given social period.” What surely caught Althusser’s eye was the way Marx pre-emptively dis­armed human­ist the­o­ries of cul­ture by remind­ing his inter­locu­tor that “if the cat­e­gory ‘man’ is meant here, then he has, in gen­eral, ‘no’ needs”; the “start­ing point” of the­o­ret­i­cal analy­sis will be “the spe­cific char­ac­ter of the exist­ing com­mu­nity in which he lives.”50

But what is truly notable about the “Notes on Wag­ner” and the Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme is that both con­tain ardent defenses of the the­ory of value. Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme, uniquely, affirms the the­ory of value along­side a vig­or­ous defense of class strug­gle as the reg­u­lat­ing prin­ci­ple of pol­i­tics. Marx crit­i­cizes the Gotha Pro­gram for falling short of “the sci­en­tific view” that “wage-labour is not what it appears to be, namely price of labour in rela­tion to its value, but only a dis­guised form for the price of labour power in rela­tion to its value,” because the “the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion… is founded on the fact that the mate­r­ial con­di­tions for pro­duc­tion are assigned to non-workers in the form of prop­erty in cap­i­tal and land, whilst most peo­ple own only the con­di­tion of pro­duc­tion that is per­sonal, labour power.”51

But Althusser imme­di­ately com­pli­cates the peri­odiza­tion, in part by includ­ing Engels, thereby retelling the nar­ra­tive not as the his­tory of one man, but as the encounter of two. In so doing, Althusser is able to announce the dis­cov­ery of yet another work, really the only one, which was truly mate­ri­al­ist from the start, this time from the pen of the young man who was sent to Man­ches­ter by his indus­tri­al­ist father to learn the fam­ily busi­ness: The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land in 1844. And so the end­less mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the obvi­ously dys­func­tional model of lin­ear peri­odiza­tion has con­cluded in a resound­ing para­dox: the only works free of this ide­o­log­i­cal past are those at the very begin­ning and the very end of the story.

The whole model of lin­ear­ity has itself yielded an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break, open­ing the space for a dif­fer­ent prob­lem­atic alto­gether. We can now see that the orig­i­nal peri­odiza­tion actu­ally repro­duced a his­tori­cist par­a­digm in which a given period – say, the “young Marx” – was arti­fi­cially granted a kind of expres­sive unity.52 Para­dox­i­cally, by switch­ing to an extreme and clearly unten­able peri­odiza­tion – with the Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land at the begin­ning and the “Notes on Wag­ner” at the very end – Althusser allows us to think epis­te­mo­log­i­cal breaks in Marx’s thought inde­pen­dently from the lin­ear time of peri­odiza­tion. There is now no longer a tem­po­ral rift defin­i­tively sep­a­rat­ing an early Marx from a later one, but a per­pet­ual ten­sion. Ide­ol­ogy is not over­thrown by sci­ence once and for all; the two are always strug­gling, in every text, side by side from begin­ning to end.

This new model is of course not with­out its own dif­fi­cul­ties, the most impor­tant of which is the con­spic­u­ous absence of a cor­re­spond­ing con­cep­tual ter­mi­nol­ogy. The vocab­u­lary we have come to asso­ciate with Althusser is nowhere to be found: sci­ence, ide­ol­ogy, prob­lem­atic, epis­te­mo­log­i­cal rup­ture, mate­ri­al­ism, and so forth are all terms which are either entirely absent or thor­oughly emp­tied of their for­mer the­o­ret­i­cal con­no­ta­tions. But while the lan­guage in which it is told has cer­tainly changed, the objec­tive of the story seems to be the same: to dis­cover what must be brought to life from the tor­tu­ous his­tory of the thought of Marx and Engels. As before, Althusser gives us a nor­ma­tive his­tory, over­lay­ing his peri­odiza­tions with value judge­ments, argu­ing that the future of Marx­ism, and the way out of the con­tem­po­rary impasse, lies, in fact, in coura­geously reac­ti­vat­ing the lost “themes” of one of these strains:

It is up to us, instead of giv­ing mas­sive con­dem­na­tions or blind apolo­gies, to play this in-between, to sort between the the strokes of genius, the first of which come to us from Engels, and the mon­u­men­tal stu­pid­ity, and to make the strokes of genius work on the philo­soph­i­cal stu­pid­ity of Marx.

Unlike before, how­ever, he does not clar­ify his terms, he does not parse out the nar­ra­tive, he does not even name that which he wishes to rean­i­mate. In the past, it was sci­ence over ide­ol­ogy, anti­hu­man­ism over human­ism, mate­ri­al­ism over spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy, the mature Marx over the young Marx; now, it is “the stroke of genius” embod­ied in a few pieces almost arbi­trar­ily scat­tered across time over the ran­dom “philo­soph­i­cal stu­pidi­ties” that have no begin­ning or end.

Per­haps the new “prob­lem­atic” devel­oped here requires its own new set of cor­re­spond­ing con­cepts, which Althusser had not yet invented – pre­fer­ring not to recy­cle older terms out of a fear of being hor­ri­bly mis­un­der­stood, just as Marx had been. Indeed, one motif of this piece is that the entire inven­tory of con­cepts bequeathed to us remains hope­lessly inad­e­quate: “the pro­posed con­cepts are not ade­quate for any­thing but their own affir­ma­tion.” It’s time to “think oth­er­wise,” though Althusser him­self isn’t at the point where he can invent new con­cepts. “Genius is genius,” Althusser writes. “It is not explained, it is at best declared.” And so he him­self has found some­thing that he can­not yet explain.

The Great Tem­po­rary Moment of Unity

The new model, though osten­si­bly drawn from an intel­lec­tual his­tory of Marx and Engels, was intended to speak above all to the present. The fact that “the repressed” kept return­ing to plague even as pow­er­ful a thinker as Marx, Althusser writes, is a les­son “we can learn from again and again.” All of our own writ­ings, he implies, will always con­tain traces of these “philo­soph­i­cal stu­pidi­ties,” or what we, per­haps at the risk of being mis­un­der­stood, might once again call “ide­ol­ogy.” But he goes fur­ther than sim­ply remind­ing us that ide­ol­ogy tends to affect even the most unas­sail­able of texts; he sug­gests an alter­nate form of the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice. In this piece, Althusser never really explains the rela­tion­ship between “the­ory” and “prac­tice”; he only illus­trates it by way of a story about the “founders” in which Marx and Engels become per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of these two indis­pens­able roles.

One way to read this story is to see Marx, the “genius,” radi­at­ing philo­soph­i­cal intel­li­gence, and liv­ing prin­ci­pally through books, as the exem­pli­fi­ca­tion of the­ory, with Engels, the prac­ti­tioner, guided by his close con­tacts with the work­ing class, and liv­ing prin­ci­pally through his expe­ri­ences, stand­ing in for prac­tice. From this tale, we learn that whereas the­ory locks itself in the British Museum scour­ing over doc­u­ments, prac­tice grounds itself in the “fac­tual sit­u­a­tion” of a real fac­tory in Man­ches­ter. While Althusser’s tra­jec­tory con­stantly encoun­tered the prob­lem of the rela­tion between the­ory and prac­tice, first orig­i­nally dis­placed with the con­cept of “the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice,” he now maps it onto a divi­sion of labor.

Here we arrive at the break. Pre­sum­ably Engels could have learned all the “prac­ti­cal” knowl­edge he needed just by fol­low­ing the man­ager around. But this, Althusser sug­gests, was insuf­fi­cient. The capitalist’s prac­ti­cal knowl­edge was actu­ally inca­pable of under­stand­ing the “fac­tual sit­u­a­tion” at hand. For this, Engels had to descend into the under­world, fall in love with a semi-skilled Irish worker, and see the work­place from an entirely dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. Now, with Mary Burns as his guide, Engels walks around the very same fac­tory, but sees an alto­gether dis­tinct world: “What she said had lit­tle in com­mon with the master’s com­men­taries.” In other words, Engels points to a uniquely working-class knowl­edge – a knowl­edge all of its own, inac­ces­si­ble at the level of cap­i­tal, of a dif­fer­ent order. The pro­le­tar­ian stand­point is not only a rev­o­lu­tion­iza­tion of the intellectual’s polit­i­cal posi­tions and class instinct, but a prac­tice of inquiry, coop­er­a­tive and polit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions into the expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class.

Rather than a par­al­lel divi­sion of labor between Marx and Engels, we could read this as a tri­par­tite divi­sion of labor, with Marx, Engels, and Mary Burns – or, at other points, the famous Ger­man emi­gré arti­sans work­ing away in Paris. Engels draws on the real life of Mary Burns to write a sci­en­tific inves­ti­ga­tion; Marx anchors him­self to this sci­en­tific prac­tice and watches over it, pro­tect­ing its dis­cov­er­ies from the intru­sion of ide­ol­ogy by draw­ing clear “lines of demar­ca­tion.” One of the great tragedies of this tale, Althusser implies, was the break­down of this divi­sion of labor. Towards the end of his life, Engels found it nec­es­sary to make another sci­en­tific inter­ven­tion, this time against Dühring; but Marx, whose philo­soph­i­cal task was to fight away ide­al­ism, fate­fully neglected his job, and Anti-Dühring ini­ti­ated the cod­i­fi­ca­tion of that great defor­mity called dialec­ti­cal materialism.

The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in England

The inclu­sion of Engels’s text, as a chal­lenge at the level of phi­los­o­phy, is a dis­tinc­tive ele­ment of Althusser’s argu­ment, coun­ter­bal­anc­ing the now com­mon hos­til­ity to the author of Anti-Dühring. And indeed, this book deserves a care­ful read­ing. Engels’s start­ing premise is that the work­ing class effec­tively con­sti­tutes another race, with its own his­tory, and which can­not be under­stood sim­ply by deduc­ing it from cap­i­tal­ism, but only by tak­ing the point of view of the work­ers’ them­selves: “The work­ers speak other dialects, have other thoughts and ideals, other cus­toms and moral prin­ci­ples, a dif­fer­ent reli­gion and other pol­i­tics than those of the bour­geoisie. Thus they are two rad­i­cally dis­sim­i­lar nations, as unlike as dif­fer­ence of race could make them, of whom we on the Con­ti­nent have known but one, the bour­geoisie.”53

Engels’s book is the result of his attempt to acquire that per­spec­tive – it care­fully exam­ines the his­tory, com­po­si­tion, and behav­iors of Eng­lish work­ing class. It is coop­er­a­tive, since it is effec­tively the result of a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mary, and all the other work­ers employed in his fac­tory, though only for­mally put to paper by Engels. And it is polit­i­cal, since Engels makes clear that the eman­ci­pa­tion of the work­ing class will only be the task of the work­ing class itself.

But on the other hand, the book simul­ta­ne­ously reads like a sen­ti­men­tal­ist attempt to exhort edu­cated lib­er­als to take up the cause of the work­ers, guilt cap­i­tal­ists for their wrong­do­ings, and con­vince read­ers that the bour­geoisie should hand over the baton of progress to the work­ing class because it has lost its legit­i­macy as the leader of soci­ety. Con­crete con­clu­sions, like, “…the inven­tion of the machine, with which four and five colours are printed at once, was a result of the dis­tur­bances among the cal­ico print­ers,” are thus inter­spersed with such empty phrases as, “The Eng­lish bour­geoisie has but one choice, either to con­tinue its rule under the unan­swer­able charge of mur­der and in spite of this charge, or to abdi­cate in favor of the labor­ing classes,” or “Let the rul­ing classes see to it that these right­ful con­di­tions are ame­lio­rated, or let it sur­ren­der the admin­is­tra­tion of the com­mon inter­ests to the labor­ing classes.”54

So The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land is by no means the sin­gle stroke of genius Althusser makes it out to be. It is still a volatile amal­gam, com­bin­ing the prac­tice of inquiry with what GM Tamas has deri­sively described as a pre-Marxist Rousseauian “pity.”55 But that dis­mis­sive label does not ade­quately cap­ture the rup­ture in knowl­edge that Engels’s text intro­duces, one which Marx hints at polem­i­cally in the “Mar­ginal Notes on Adolph Wag­ner”: “Every­thing that the pro­fes­sor can­not do for him­self, he lets ‘man’ do, but he is in fact noth­ing but pro­fes­so­r­ial man, who thinks to have con­ceived the world, when he arranged it under abstract rubrics.”56Althusser, work­ing within the con­stel­la­tion of these early and late texts, seems to sug­gest that the effect of the­o­ret­i­cal human­ism is the nat­u­ral­iza­tion of the divi­sion of labor – if Marx­ism makes a “break,” it is with the class posi­tion of the intellectual.

In other words, what Engels reveals is that the method by which this break is effected is the dis­cov­ery of facts in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the work­ing class. The rever­sal of Althusser’s ear­lier the­o­reti­cist text­book Lenin­ism is com­plete: here, it is the­ory which, if left alone, tends towards ide­ol­ogy, since it is sit­u­ated within the state appa­ra­tuses and the divi­sion between man­ual and intel­lec­tual labor. Only the daily life of the work­ing class can free it; the­o­rists need the work­ers because it is really they, as the­o­rists, who are the most immersed in ide­ol­ogy. In this model, the work­ing class func­tions as a sort of ide­ol­ogy detec­tor, or a machine for the abo­li­tion of intel­lec­tu­als. But there is more here than that; we might say, along the lines of Althusser’s ini­tial schema, that Engels’s sci­en­tific prac­tice had gen­er­ated a new object of knowl­edge, the philo­soph­i­cal con­se­quences of which he lacked the lan­guage to describe.

A Work­ers’ Inquiry

But what polit­i­cal prac­tice did respond to the prob­lems posed by Althusser’s the­o­ret­i­cal inno­va­tions, along­side the polit­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions of his con­junc­ture, and the dis­abling deficits of his own prac­tice? It is no sur­prise that the exe­ge­sis of Marx, and a gap in Althusser’s exe­ge­sis, pro­vides a vital answer.

Althusser does not also make note of another of Marx’s minor late texts: 1880’s “A Work­ers’ Inquiry.” Here Marx, recall­ing the ini­ti­a­tion of mate­ri­al­ism in Engels’s Con­di­tion, intro­duces a ques­tion­naire to be dis­trib­uted to French work­ers. The ques­tions range from the sim­ple and ordi­nary – “1. What is your trade?” – to the didac­tic and antagonistic:

59. Have you noticed that delay in the pay­ment of your wages forces you often to resort to the pawn­shops, pay­ing rates of high inter­est there, and depriv­ing your­self of things you need: or incur­ring debts with the shop­keep­ers, and becom­ing their vic­tim because you are their debtor?

81. Do any resis­tance asso­ci­a­tions exist in your trade and how are they led? Send us their rules and regulations.

The foun­da­tional premise of this ques­tion­naire, for Marx, was that while “a num­ber of inves­ti­ga­tions have been under­taken into crises – agri­cul­tural, finan­cial, indus­trial, com­mer­cial, polit­i­cal,” no inves­ti­ga­tion had yet gen­er­ated “an exact and pos­i­tive knowl­edge of the con­di­tions in which the work­ing class – the class to whom the future belongs – works and moves.” Since it was only the work­ers them­selves, and “not sav­iors sent by prov­i­dence,” who would be the agents of “social regen­er­a­tion,” the knowl­edge pur­sued by the work­ers’ inquiry would be the basis for social­ist polit­i­cal practice.

In the next cen­tury work­ers’ inquiry, a con­cept which Althusser reached for but never found, would be taken up by het­ero­dox Marx­ist cur­rents, includ­ing the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency and Social­isme ou Bar­barie.57 Cas­to­ri­adis argued that with­out inquiry, the­ory would sim­ply retreat into its own world, devolv­ing into spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy, and end­ing by becom­ing ide­ol­ogy. The the­o­rist must draw on inquiries into the autonomous activ­ity of the work­ing class in order to ground the the­ory; after its com­po­si­tion the the­ory must then be sub­mit­ted to the class in order to sound out the ide­o­log­i­cal traces that invari­ably pol­lute all the­o­ries. If some part of the the­ory is ignored, met with utter incom­pre­hen­sion, fails to res­onate, or flatly con­tra­dicts what the work­ers them­selves have to say – just as, in Althusser’s story of Engels, the manager’s words had lit­tle in com­mon with Mary’s – then chances are it’s ide­ol­ogy. The­o­rists take stock of these pro­le­tar­ian reac­tions, revise their the­o­ries, and then the process begins anew; a mutu­ally involved cir­cuit emerges.58 Castoriadis’s solu­tion to the prob­lem of ide­ol­ogy par­al­lels what Althusser called a more “authen­tic” divi­sion of labor between the­ory and inquiry.

But for Social­isme ou Bar­barie, as well as the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency, inquiry was a study of alien­ation; it tried to uncover, under­neath the expe­ri­ence of alien­ated work, the human foun­da­tion of social­ism. Dis­sem­i­na­tion of inquiries describ­ing this human foun­da­tion would lead to a rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­scious­ness among the work­ers. In this regard these groups had stum­bled into the same prob­lem as the ear­lier human­ist dis­si­dents from the ortho­doxy of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional; a polit­i­cal turn to the Left, and in this case one which yielded a truly inno­v­a­tive prac­tice, was chan­neled into a the­ory which belonged prop­erly to the Right.

The speci­ficity of Marx’s argu­ment about the work­ers’ inquiry – this pos­i­tive knowl­edge of the move­ment of the work­ing class – would only be taken up in Italy, in the work of Quaderni Rossi. There, Raniero Panzieri built on the inquiries of Johnson-Forest and Social­isme ou Bar­barie, and traced the con­se­quences for knowl­edge of their dis­cov­er­ies. Start­ing with the assump­tion that “ an antag­o­nis­tic soci­ety can never reduce one of its basic con­stituent ele­ments – the work­ing class – to homo­gene­ity,” he force­fully argued that the neces­sity of work­ers’ inquiry fol­lowed from the antag­o­nis­tic char­ac­ter of knowl­edge of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety: “This method demands the refusal to draw an analy­sis of the level of the work­ing class from an inquiry into the level of cap­i­tal.” First and fore­most, Panzieri argued, inquiry as a new par­a­digm of working-class sci­ence was located at the inter­sec­tion between knowl­edge and mil­i­tancy: it estab­lished asso­ci­a­tions which would forge an orga­nized layer of polit­i­cal agi­ta­tors within the fac­tory. “Not only is there no dis­crep­ancy, gap or con­tra­dic­tion between inquiry and the labour of build­ing polit­i­cal rela­tions,” Panzieri wrote, “inquiry is also fun­da­men­tal to such [a] process.”59 This premise would be rad­i­cal­ized by Romano Alquati and the con­cept of “co-research.” The polit­i­cal con­clu­sion that emerged from inquiry and guided the prac­tice of work­erism was the break with cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, which the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party – in a post­war iter­a­tion of Sec­ond Inter­na­tional tele­ol­ogy, but­tressed by Tay­lor, Keynes, and the “eco­nomic mir­a­cle” dri­ven by the flood of South­ern migrants into the North­ern indus­trial pro­le­tariat – had posited as the basis for devel­op­ment towards communism.

This cur­rent would only inter­sect with Althusser’s in 1978, when Althusser invited Anto­nio Negri, who once par­tic­i­pated Quaderni Rossi, to deliver a series of lec­tures on the Grun­drisse at his sem­i­nar in Paris, just before Negri’s arrest. It was only through this medi­a­tion that Social­isme ou Bar­barie – Negri’s “daily bread” in the 1960s – would meet with its the­o­ret­i­cal com­pa­triot. In a reflec­tion pub­lished in the same issue of Futur antérieur as “On Marx­ist Thought,” Negri described the core polit­i­cal prob­lem of Althusser’s untimely the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice, the one that had drawn him back to Machiavelli’s fox: “the thought of the new… in the absence of all con­di­tions.”60

The thought of the new demands dis­cov­ery; and here we can under­stand why Althusser, who once had Marx’s 11th the­sis on Feuer­bach pinned to the wall of his office, rejects in “On Marx­ist Thought” the notion that while philoso­phers have inter­preted the world, the point is to change it. Such repu­di­a­tions of Marx’s cel­e­brated state­ment are rare in the his­tory of Marx­ism.61 One other can be found in a reflec­tion on work­ers’ inquiry and co-research by Marta Malo de Molina, a mem­ber of the Span­ish fem­i­nist research col­lec­tive Pre­carias a la deriva: “It is no longer that we have been inter­pret­ing the world for a long time and now is the time to change it (Marx dixit), but rather that the very inter­pre­ta­tion of the world is always linked to some kind of action or prac­tice. The ques­tion will be then, what kind of action: one that con­serves the sta­tus quo or pro­duces a new real­ity.“62 We hope that Althusser’s text can be read in this man­ner – not as his final peri­odiza­tion, not as a hasty rejec­tion of the Marx­ian cor­pus, but as an invi­ta­tion to engage in inquiry, to ini­ti­ate mate­ri­al­ism, again and again.


1. Perry Ander­son, Con­sid­er­a­tions on West­ern Marx­ism (New York: Verso, 1987), 42.

2. Louis Althusser and Éti­enne Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1970), 119.

3. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin, 1976), 174n32.

4. John Mil­ios, “Rethink­ing Marx’s Value-Form Analy­sis from an Althusser­ian Per­spec­tive,” Rethink­ing Marx­ism, 21: 2 (April 2009). A com­ple­men­tary take can be found in Kolja Lind­ner, “The Ger­man Debate on the Mon­e­tary The­ory of Value: Con­sid­er­a­tions on Jan Hoff’s Kri­tik der klas­sis­chen poli­tis­chen Ökonomie,” trans. GM Gosh­gar­ian, Sci­ence & Soci­ety, 72: 4 (2008). For a rel­a­tively neu­tral overview that brings us up to the present, see Jan Hoff, “Marx in Ger­many,” Social­ism and Democ­racy, 24:3 (2010).

5. Ander­son writes: “Adorno’s Neg­a­tive Dialec­tic, first devel­oped in lec­tures in Paris in 1961 and com­pleted in 1966, repro­duces a whole series of motifs to be found in Althusser’s For Marx and Read­ing Cap­i­tal… among other themes, Adorno explic­itly affirmed the absolute epis­te­mo­log­i­cal pri­macy of the object; the absence of any gen­eral sub­ject in his­tory; the vacu­ity of the con­cept of the ‘nega­tion of the nega­tion’. He attacked philo­soph­i­cal con­cen­tra­tion on alien­ation and reifi­ca­tion as a fash­ion­able ide­ol­ogy, sus­cep­ti­ble to reli­gious usage; the cult of the works of the Young Marx at the expense of Cap­i­tal; anthro­pocen­tric con­cep­tions of his­tory, and the emol­lient rhetoric of human­ism accom­pa­ny­ing them; myths of labour as the sole source of social wealth, in abstrac­tion from the mate­r­ial nature that is an irre­ducible com­po­nent of it. Adorno was even to echo exactly Althusser’s pre­cepts that the­ory is a spe­cific type of prac­tice (‘the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice’), and that the notion of prac­tice must itself be defined by the­ory. ‘The­ory is a form of prac­tice’ wrote Adorno, and ‘prac­tice itself is an emi­nently the­o­ret­i­cal con­cept’”; Con­sid­er­a­tions, 72-3. See also Fredric Jame­son, Late Marx­ism (New York: Verso, 1990), 60, 244. For a brief account of the emer­gence of value-form the­ory in rela­tion to the Frank­furt School, see Hel­mut Reichelt, “From the Frank­furt School to Value-Form Analy­sis,” The­sis Eleven, 4 (1982).

6. In his recent Intro­duc­tion to the Three Vol­umes of Karl Marx’s Cap­i­tal, trans. Alex Locas­cio (New York: Monthly Review, 2012), Michael Hein­rich acknowl­edges the influ­ence of Read­ing Cap­i­tal on the devel­op­ment of the new read­ing of Marx (27). A recent overview of this tra­di­tion and its ambiva­lent rela­tion­ship to class struggle-oriented the­o­ries can be found in his “Invaders from Marx,” avail­able online at libcom.org. In this essay Hein­rich warns against ignor­ing the “lim­its of cat­e­gor­i­cal devel­op­ment” and attempt­ing “to derive all deci­sive ele­ments of the state, soci­ety, and con­scious­ness from the fun­da­men­tal cat­e­gories of the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy.” Note the unmis­tak­ably Althusser­ian themes: the incom­plete­ness of Marx’s research pro­gram, the breaks in his the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ment, and the rejec­tion of “historic-philosophical (geschicht­sphilosophis­chen) con­struc­tions” which “pre­sume that his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ments have brought forth a priv­i­leged posi­tion from which not only the past, but also the future pro­gres­sion of his­tory is trans­par­ent.” See also his rejec­tion of the­ory of alien­ation in Intro­duc­tion, 231n18.

7. Mil­ios, “Rethink­ing,” 267. See Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 188.

8. Althusser and Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, 180.

9. GM Gosh­gar­ian, “Intro­duc­tion” to Louis Althusser, The Human­ist Con­tro­versy and Other Writ­ings, trans. GM Gosh­gar­ian and ed. François Math­eron (New York: Verso, 2003), xii, xxx. Althusser had in fact already been cen­sured in 1963 for “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic,” and responded with the Aesopian “Marx­ism and Human­ism”; both are col­lected in For Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: Verso, 1977). The 1966 meet­ing was a polit­i­cal maneu­ver to mobi­lize Garaudy’s human­ism against emerg­ing sym­pa­thy among com­mu­nists for Althusser’s argu­ments, all the while quelling its “spir­i­tu­al­ist” excesses. For Althusser’s response, in an unmailed let­ter, see “Let­ter to the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the PCF, 18 March 1966,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism, 15 (2007), along with William S. Lewis’s infor­ma­tive “Edi­to­r­ial Intro­duc­tion.” As Lewis notes, Aragon some­what uncan­nily charged Althusser with cor­rupt­ing the youth – his Maoist stu­dents at the École Nor­male Supérieure. François Matheron’s excel­lent overview of the doc­u­ments sur­round­ing this meet­ing, “Louis Althusser et Argen­teuil: de la croisée des chemins au chemin de croix,” Les Annales de la Société des amis de Louis Aragon et Elsa Tri­o­let, 2, cites a 1966 let­ter from Althusser’s stu­dent Pierre Macherey, who rep­re­sented the anti-humanist posi­tion at Argen­teuil, to Eti­enne Bal­ibar: “Garaudy attacked us with a vio­lence and bad faith dif­fi­cult to equal; the clos­ing argu­ments lasted three hours; we’ve been there before: ide­al­ists, for­mal­ists, liq­uida­tors… on the basis of trun­cated cita­tions, mali­cious inter­pre­ta­tions. A real fes­ti­val… The other had with him (with the inef­fa­ble Mury) only the most beau­ti­ful parade of idiots that I have seen for a long time.” Gilbert Mury, at first a party critic of Althusser (men­tioned in For Marx, for exam­ple 163n2), even­tu­ally defected from the PCF to join a Maoist group.

10. Gre­gory Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of The­ory (Boston: Brill, 2006), 173.

11. Althusser, “The Human­ist Con­tro­versy” in Human­ist Con­tro­versy, 264.

12. Althusser, “Human­ist Con­tro­versy,” 245.

13. For the new def­i­n­i­tion, see “Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists” in Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists, trans. Ben Brew­ster, James H. Kavanagh, Thomas E. Lewis, Gra­hame Lock, and War­ren Mon­tag, ed. Gre­gory Elliott (New York: Verso, 1990). Althusser and Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, 141.

14. See Georg Lukács, His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, trans. Rod­ney Liv­ing­stone (Cam­bridge: MIT Press, 1990), 149-209. For an insight­ful jux­ta­po­si­tion of Lukács and Althusser, see Car­o­line Williams, Con­tem­po­rary French Phi­los­o­phy (New York: The Athlone Press, 2002), chap­ter 2. Williams does not, how­ever, address the issue of the “pro­le­tar­ian standpoint.”

15. See the dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions in “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy” in Louis Althusser, Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001) and “On the Evo­lu­tion of the Young Marx” in Essays in Self-Criticism, trans. Gra­hame Lock (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1976).

16. Althusser, “Phi­los­o­phy as a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Weapon” in Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy, 13

17. Anony­mous (attrib­uted to Louis Althusser), “On the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion,” trans. Jason Smith, Décalages, 1:1 (2010); see for exam­ple Com­mu­nist Party of China, “The Ori­gin and Devel­op­ment of the Dif­fer­ences the of CPSU and Our­selves” in Polemic on the Gen­eral Line of the Inter­na­tional Com­mu­nist Move­ment, which argues that the new pro­gram of the CPSU “sub­sti­tutes human­ism for the Marxist-Leninist the­ory of class strug­gle and sub­sti­tutes the bour­geois slo­gan of Lib­erty, Equal­ity, Fra­ter­nity for the ideals of com­mu­nism,” 92.

18. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “On the Con­tent of Social­ism, I” in Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings, Vol­ume 1, 1946-1955: From the Cri­tique of Bureau­cracy to the Pos­i­tive Con­tent of Social­ism, trans. and ed. David Ames Cur­tis (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1988), 308.

19. Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts a Long Time, trans. Richard Veasey and ed. Olivier Cor­pet and Yann Moulier-Boutang(London: Chatto and Win­dus, 1993), 238-9. Boris Sou­varine was a left com­mu­nist and found­ing mem­ber of the PCF; he wrote Stalin: A Crit­i­cal Sur­vey of Bol­she­vism, trans­lated by CLR James. The Future Lasts a Long Time, Althusser’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, was drafted in 1985.

20. Cas­to­ri­adis, “Intro­duc­tion” to PASW 1. Fur­ther evi­dence of this missed encounter can be found in EP Thompson’s unfor­tu­nate The Poverty of The­ory (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 168-9, 207.

21. Cas­to­ri­adis, “Con­tent of Social­ism,” 306.

22. Althusser, Future, 230.

23. Elliott, Detour, 12n24.

24. Jean-Paul Sartre, Life/Situations: Essays Writ­ten and Spo­ken, (New York: Pan­theon, 1977), 52; “Masses, Spon­tane­ity, Party,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter, 7 (1970), 235, 240, 245. See also his very gen­er­ous com­ments about Althusser in “Masses,” 247. For a cri­tique of Sartre’s analy­sis of changes in cap­i­tal­ism, and his under­ly­ing the­ory of alien­ation, see Ist­van Meszaros, “Struc­tural Cri­sis Needs Struc­tural Change,” Monthly Review, 63:10 (March 2012).

25. War­ren Mon­tag, “The Soul is the Prison of the Body: Althusser and Fou­cault 1970-1975,” Yale French Stud­ies, 88 (Fall 1995), 71. Some con­fu­sion may be caused by Foucault’s rejec­tion of the con­cept of “ide­ol­ogy,” which he takes to refer to an idea which is in error. As Mon­tag argues, he is cor­rect to reject such a notion, but mis­taken in attribut­ing it to Althusser, who clearly empha­sizes the “mate­ri­al­ity of ide­ol­ogy,” which is irre­ducible to illu­sion or inversion.

26. Michel Fou­cault, Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish, trans. Alan Sheri­dan (New York: Vin­tage, 1977), 26; Althusser, “Ide­ol­ogy and Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tuses” in Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy, 140-2. See also Williams in Con­tem­po­rary French Phi­los­o­phy: “Althusser’s con­cept of ide­ol­ogy… offered no devel­oped account of the link between the mate­ri­al­ity of ide­ol­ogy and the con­sti­tu­tion of the sub­ject, that is, the prob­lem of how ide­ol­ogy is inter­nal­ized and how it pro­duces the effects of sub­jec­ti­va­tion. This is pre­cisely where Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish may exceed Althusser’s own for­mu­la­tions” (180).

27. On the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion, see GM Goshgarian’s read­ing of Althusser on Mon­tesquieu in his “Intro­duc­tion” to Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, trans. GM Gos­ghar­ian and ed. François Math­eron and Olivier Cor­pet, xxx-xxxv, and Althusser’s com­ments in the same book, 201.

28. In “Some­thing New,” orig­i­nally pub­lished in the Com­mu­nist daily L’Humanite in 1974, Althusser assented to the Union of the Left while look­ing for­ward to the aban­don­ment of “utopian ide­al­ist for­mu­lae,” like sta­mo­cap the­ory, that served as the ide­o­log­i­cal basis for the Com­mon Pro­gram. He called for democ­ra­ti­za­tion to push towards the “mass line,” with the “branches” of the rank and file dri­ving party action. Althusser, Essays in Self-Criticism, 214-5.

29. Gosh­gar­ian, “Intro­duc­tion” to Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, xxiv-xxv; Althusser, “On the Twenty-Second Con­gress of the French Com­mu­nist Party,” New Left Review, 1:104 (1977), 17, 11. Althusser’s lan­guage, typ­i­cal of nearly all his inter­ven­tions in party pol­i­tics, sug­gests that the Party is already embrac­ing his rec­om­men­da­tions (in this case, autonomous mass activ­ity); its actual prac­tice is described as a risk. This Machi­avel­lian rhetor­i­cal strat­egy, com­pre­hen­si­ble only in the con­text of the Party’s sti­fling of dis­sent described above, has led to many mis­un­der­stand­ings. For Balibar’s inter­ven­tion, see his On the Dic­ta­tor­ship of the Pro­le­tariat, trans. Gra­hame Lock (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1977).

30. Althusser, “The Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy” in Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists, 264.

31. The term “par­lia­men­tary cre­tinism” is Marx’s, from the Eigh­teenth Bru­maire of Louis Bona­parte; see Marx: Later Polit­i­cal Writ­ings, trans. and ed. Ter­rell Carver (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 1996), 90.

32. Louis Althusser, “What Must Change in the Party,” New Left Review 1:109 (1978), 30-3.

33. Althusser, “Marx­ism Today” in Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists, 276. “What Must Change in the Party,” 36-7, 44-5.

34. Althusser, “Pref­ace to Cap­i­tal” in Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy. Althusser’s advice should be com­pared to the com­mon habit in today’s uni­ver­sity courses to assign only sec­tion 4 of chap­ter 1, on the “fetishism of com­modi­ties,” and then skip every­thing else. Or, indeed, Lukács in His­tory in Class Con­scious­ness: “It might be claimed… that the chap­ter deal­ing with the fetish char­ac­ter of the com­mod­ity con­tains within itself the whole of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism and the whole self-knowledge of the pro­le­tariat seen as the knowl­edge of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety (and of the soci­eties that pre­ceded it),” 170.

35. Louis Althusser, “The Cri­sis of Marx­ism,” Marx­ism Today (July 1978), 218-9. In his “Let­ter to Merab” he admits his speech was impro­vised, in Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 3.

36. Mil­ios, “Rethink­ing,” 267. Althusser sug­gests this in “Marx­ism Today,” 273 and “Marx in his Lim­its” in Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 40, 44. See Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 3, trans. David Fern­bach (New York: Pen­guin, 1991), ch. 9.

37. See Mas­si­m­il­iano Tomba, “Dif­fer­en­tials of Sur­plus Value in the Con­tem­po­rary Forms of Exploita­tion,” The Com­moner, 12 (Spring-Summer 2007); Marx, “Let­ter from Marx to Edi­tor of the Ote­ces­tven­niye Zapisky.” To refute these “super-historical” accounts of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, Marx pro­vides the exam­ple of Rome, where the dis­pos­ses­sion of the peas­antry and the accu­mu­la­tion of money resulted not in cap­i­tal­ism but in slav­ery – in Althusser’s terms, an encounter which did not take hold. This theme is bril­liantly devel­oped, at the inter­sec­tion of Neue Marx-Lektüre and Althusser, in Kolja Lind­ner, “Marx’s Euro­cen­trism,” trans. GM Gosh­gar­ian, Rad­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy 161 (2010). Finally, see Marx on the “order of suc­ces­sion” of eco­nomic cat­e­gories in the 1857 “‘Intro­duc­tion’ to the Grun­drisse” in Marx: Later Polit­i­cal Writ­ings, 151-3; or, in Mar­tin Nicolaus’s trans­la­tion (New York: Pen­guin, 1993), 105-8.

38. An analy­sis of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion as the recur­ring “social con­sti­tu­tion of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions,” from a unique per­spec­tive within “value-form the­ory,” can be found in Werner Bone­feld, “The Per­ma­nence of Prim­i­tive Accu­mu­la­tion,” The Com­moner, 2 (Sep­tem­ber 2001); in his Intro­duc­tion, 92-3, Hein­rich assents to this view. The diver­gences between value-form the­ory and the post-1967 Althusser tend to cen­ter on ques­tions of class strug­gle. Hein­rich, more sym­pa­thetic to Althusser than Bone­feld is, argues in “Invaders” that “there is no priv­i­leged loca­tion which offers one a pen­e­trat­ing view into the func­tion­ing of cap­i­tal­ism” and there­fore “noth­ing is gained by tak­ing the ‘stand­point of the work­ers.’” But this crit­i­cism con­flates the notion of class stand­point as the con­scious world­view and behav­ior of empir­i­cal classes, and the struc­tural posi­tion of the pro­le­tariat in the con­sti­tu­tion of cap­i­tal. It is cer­tainly true that Althusser and the other the­o­rists Hein­rich tar­gets here do not always clearly dis­tin­guish between the two, but at times Althusser does sug­gest such dis­tinc­tions; see his com­ments on the dif­fer­ence between “class instinct” and “class posi­tion,” the lat­ter cor­re­spond­ing to “the objec­tive real­ity of the pro­le­tar­ian class strug­gle”; Althusser, “Phi­los­o­phy as a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Weapon,” 13.

39. Pub­lished in Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter.

40. Althusser, Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 168. See Marx in Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 894: “the con­fronta­tion of, and the con­tact between, two very dif­fer­ent kinds of com­mod­ity own­ers: on the one hand, the own­ers of money, means of pro­duc­tion, means of sub­sis­tence, who are eager to val­orize the sum of val­ues they have appro­pri­ated by buy­ing the labour-power of oth­ers; on the other hand, free work­ers, the sell­ers of their own labour-power, and there­fore the sell­ers of labour.”

41. Althusser, Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 194, 197.

42. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 873; Althusser, Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 200.

43. Althusser, Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 199. The com­ment on the “social­ist mode of pro­duc­tion” recalls his point in “On the 22nd Con­gress” and else­where that “there is no social­ist mode of pro­duc­tion,” and instead “actu­ally exist­ing social­ism” must be under­stood as a con­tra­dic­tion between a resid­ual cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion and the unre­al­ized poten­tial for communism.

44. Jason Read, The Micro-Politics of Cap­i­tal (Albany: Suny Press, 2003), 38.The inter­sec­tions and diver­gences of Fou­cault and Marx are addressed in the sec­ond chap­ter, 83-98. Read’s descrip­tion of the prob­lem of tran­si­tion, embed­ded in Marx’s cri­tique of the bour­geois mythol­ogy of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, is worth quot­ing at length: “So-called prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, which is some­times called ‘pre­vi­ous or orig­i­nal accu­mu­la­tion,’ is the answer posed by polit­i­cal econ­omy to a seem­ingly irre­solv­able prob­lem: The fact that cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion would con­tin­u­ally pre­sup­pose itself, it pre­sup­poses wealth in the hands of cap­i­tal­ists as well as a pop­u­la­tion of those who have noth­ing but their labor power to sell. These ele­ments, cap­i­tal and work­ers, are the pre­con­di­tions of any cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, yet they can­not be explained from it. Cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion would seem to be some­thing of an infi­nite regress, always pre­sup­pos­ing its own con­di­tions. To accu­mu­late cap­i­tal it is nec­es­sary to pos­sess cap­i­tal. There must then be an orig­i­nal or pre­vi­ous accu­mu­la­tion, one that is not the result of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion but rather its point of depar­ture and that con­sti­tutes the orig­i­nary dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between cap­i­tal and work­ers” (20-1).

45. Fou­cault, Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish, 83-9.

46. Althusser and Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, 105.

47. Vit­to­rio Morfino, “An Althusser­ian Lex­i­con,” trans. Jason Smith, bor­der­lands 4:2 (2005); Althusser, Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 170. Indeed, as Althusser said dur­ing his 1976 doc­toral defense, not­ing the dif­fer­ence between his empha­sis on phi­los­o­phy as class strug­gle and the lan­guage in the early writ­ings: “Here I am using for­mu­lae which I was not ear­lier in a posi­tion to put for­ward. But if I may say so, I was lit­tle by lit­tle dis­cov­er­ing, as I chal­lenged some accepted ideas, some­thing resem­bling what I later called a “new prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy”, and hav­ing dis­cov­ered the need for this new prac­tice, I straight­away started, for bet­ter or worse, to put it into prac­tice -- with the result, in any case, that it did later pro­vide me with a spe­cial way of approach­ing Marx”; “Is it Sim­ple to Be a Marx­ist in Phi­los­o­phy?” in Essays in Self-Criticism, 167.

48. Eti­enne Bal­ibar, “Pref­ace” in Louis Althusser, Pour Marx (Paris: La Décou­verte, 1996)

49. He refers already to the “process of an encounter” in Human­ist Con­tro­versy, 296, fol­low­ing themes from the note “On Gen­e­sis,” trans. Jason Smith, Décalages, 1:2 (2012). Goshgarian’s “Intro­duc­tory Note” to “On Gen­e­sis” sug­gests that these themes can be traced back to Althusser’s 1959 book on Mon­tesquieu, ideas he later devel­oped with ref­er­ence to Foucault’s Mad­ness and Civ­i­liza­tion. It should fur­ther be noted that these themes are on dis­play in Althusser’s work on Machi­avelli through­out the 1970s (even before his 1980s revi­sions), rep­re­sented in Machi­avelli and Us, trans. Gre­gory Elliott (New York: Verso, 1999).

50. Karl Marx, “‘Notes’ on Adolph Wag­ner” in Marx: Later Polit­i­cal Writ­ings, 244, 235. For a strictly Althusser­ian elab­o­ra­tion of the themes of the notes on Wag­ner, which nev­er­the­less pre­cisely par­al­lels the “value-form analy­sis” pre­sented above, see Athar Hus­sain, “Mis­read­ing Marx’s The­ory of Value: Marx’s Mar­ginal Notes on Wag­ner” in Value: The Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Labor in Cap­i­tal­ism, ed. Diane Elson (Lon­don: CSE Books, 1979).

51. Karl Marx, “Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme” in Marx: Later Polit­i­cal Writ­ings, 215; see Althusser’s analy­sis of these ques­tions in Essays in Self-Criticism, 63-4.

52. Sim­i­lar points are made in Jason Read, “The Althusser Effect: Phi­los­o­phy, His­tory, and Tem­po­ral­ity,” bor­der­lands, 4:2 (2005).

53. Friedrich Engels, The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 2005), 150.

54. Engels, Con­di­tion, 232, 138.

55. GM Tamas, “Telling the Truth About Class,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 2006, 5-8. It is inter­est­ing to note that Tamas’s descrip­tion of the speci­ficity of Marx’s analy­sis (page 17) could be explained in struc­tural­ist terms as empha­siz­ing the “syn­chronic” over the “diachronic,” reach­ing towards Althusser’s inter­pre­ta­tion. But soon after (26), he arrives back at humanism.

56. Marx, “‘Notes’ on Adolph Wag­ner,” 238.

57. See Salar Mohan­desi, “Worker’s Inquiry: A Geneal­ogy,” forthcoming.

58. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “Pro­le­tariat and Orga­ni­za­tion, 1” in Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings Vol­ume 2, 1955-1960: From the Work­ers’ Strug­gle Against Bureau­cracy to Rev­o­lu­tion in the Age of Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1988), 193-222.

59. Raniero Panzieri, “Social­ist Uses of Work­ers’ Inquiry.”

60. Cesare Casarino and Anto­nio Negri, In Praise of the Com­mon (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota, 2008), 54; Anto­nio Negri, “Pour Althusser: notes sur l’évolution de la pen­sée du dernier Althusser,” Futur antérieur (Decem­ber 1993); Anto­nio Negri, “Notes on the Evo­lu­tion of the Thought of the Later Althusser” trans. Olga Vasile, in Post­mod­ern Mate­ri­al­ism and the Future of Marx­ist The­ory, eds. Anto­nio Callari and David F. Ruc­cio (Hanover: Wes­leyan Uni­ver­sity Press, 1996), 54. The sem­i­nar on the Grun­drisse was pub­lished as Marx Beyond Marx, trans. Harry Cleaver, Michael Ryan, and Mau­r­izio Viano, ed. Jim Flem­ing (New York: Autono­me­dia, 1991). More on the inter­sec­tion of Althusser and operaismo can be found in Yann Moulier-Boutang’s intro­duc­tion to Negri’s Pol­i­tics of Sub­ver­sion, trans. James Newell (Cam­bridge: Polity Press, 1989), and Read, Micro-Politics. For a crit­i­cal inter­ro­ga­tion of the recur­rence of his­tori­cism in Negri’s work, see Tomba, “Dif­fer­en­tials of Sur­plus Value in the Con­tem­po­rary Forms of Exploita­tion.” This limit is acknowl­edged and care­fully dealt with in San­dro Mez­zadra, “The Top­i­cal­ity of Pre­his­tory,” Rethink­ing Marx­ism, 23:3 (2011), by jux­ta­pos­ing it with Althusser’s work on prim­i­tive accumulation.

61. Elliott, Detour, 52n156. Though see Hein­rich in “Invaders”: “…nowhere else with Marx can one find a ten­sion, not to speak of a mutual exclu­sion, between ‘inter­pre­ta­tion’ and ‘change.’”

62. Marto Malo de Molina, “Com­mon Notions, part 2.”


Illus­tra­tion by Millen Belay.

Authors of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, and an activist in UAW 2865.

is an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.