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

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Introduction | TranslationOriginal

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 doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.