“A Period of Intense Debate about Marxist Philosophy”: An Interview with Étienne Balibar

Barricade on rue d'Ulm, in front of the École normale supérieur, May 1968.
Bar­ri­cade across the rue d’Ulm, in front of the École nor­male supérieure, May 1968.


This text was first pub­lished in L’Human­ité on March 13, 2015.

Jérome Skalski: Fifty years ago Louis Althusser’s For Marx, and, under his direc­tion, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, were pub­lished. What was the con­text of the debate at that period?

Éti­enne Bal­ibar: To put it very briefly, I would say that the ques­tion speaks to an intel­lec­tual and even aca­d­e­mic dimen­sion, and a polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal one. I belong to a gen­er­a­tion that entered the École Nor­male Supérieure in 1960. That’s not irrel­e­vant from an his­tor­i­cal point of view. In our group, which was formed lit­tle by lit­tle around Althusser, there were stu­dents, of course, but also dis­ci­ples. Peo­ple who were a bit older, like Pierre Macherey, and later those a bit younger who came just after, the future Maoists, like Dominique Lecourt. That is, over the span of five or six years. On the one hand, then, the year 1960 was two years before the end of the Alge­rian War, and the year that Jean-Paul Sartre’s Cri­tique of Dialec­ti­cal Rea­son was pub­lished. We had been politi­cized by the Alge­rian War. We were all UNEF mil­i­tants, which was the first French union to meet with the Alge­rian unions linked to the FLN in order to coor­di­nate actions against the war. This con­text was one of intense politi­ciza­tion and mobi­liza­tion, but also very sharp inter­nal con­flicts. The basis of our politi­ciza­tion was mostly that of the anti-colo­nial and, con­se­quently, anti-impe­ri­al­ist mobi­liza­tion. The social dimen­sion existed, but it came as a kind of an add-on.

On the other hand, it was a period of intense debate about Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy, with an unde­ni­able role played by some Marx­ist philoso­phers from the Com­mu­nist Party, but also impor­tant Marx­ist philoso­phers who were either no longer in the Com­mu­nist Party, like Henri Lefeb­vre, or belonged to non-Com­mu­nist Marx­ist ten­den­cies. And then there was Jean-Paul Sartre, who described him­self as a fel­low trav­eller, who just pub­lished this great work in which he tried to refound Marx­ism and which fea­tured, in the intro­duc­tion, the famous phrase that we often erro­neously repeat: “Marx­ism is the untran­scend­able philo­soph­i­cal hori­zon of our time.” I’m not say­ing that all philo­soph­i­cal work in France revolved around Marx. That would be com­pletely false. But we could say that the debate over Marx­ism truly was at once very vis­i­ble, very intense, very pas­sion­ate, and very inter­est­ing. It was also the period when the Com­mu­nist Party had decided to orga­nize a Marx­ist cen­ter of study and research with the reviews like La Pen­sée or La Nou­velle Cri­tique. The Party had also decided to orga­nize the “Semaines de la pen­sée marx­iste.”

To give an idea of the period, I will men­tion 1961, the year fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of Sartre’s book. The main event of the “Semaine de la pen­sée marx­iste” that year was the debate pit­ting Sartre and our own direc­tor at the ENS, Jean Hyp­po­lite, the famous Hegel spe­cial­ist, on one side, and, on the other, Roger Garaudy, rep­re­sent­ing the offi­cial line of the PCF in phi­los­o­phy, and Jean-Pierre Vigier, Resis­tance fighter, physi­cist, philoso­pher, and a mem­ber of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee. This jam-packed debate unfolded in the audi­to­rium of the Mutu­al­ité. The event was enor­mous. Althusser was pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and agrégé-répéti­teur, charged with prepar­ing us for the agré­ga­tion exam­i­na­tion.1 Obvi­ously, his courses were not about Marx­ism, but all kinds of other sub­jects. He had nev­er­the­less begun to pub­lish in La Pen­sée, in 1961, a first arti­cle fol­lowed by sev­eral oth­ers, which had imme­di­ately pro­voked a lively debate within and out­side the Party. This imme­di­ately drew out inter­est. We went to see him, and pro­posed to cre­ate a study group that pro­gres­sively became a small team. Admit­tedly, it did not last long. It did not with­stand, even before 1968, very sharp inter­nal ten­sions, but for sev­eral years we worked together in a sys­tem­atic way on both Marx­ism and the French phi­los­o­phy of the time, of which, to our eyes, the grand event was the birth of struc­tural­ism. We orga­nized a pub­lic sem­i­nar that lasted for the entire year. It was imme­di­ately pub­lished. It was at that moment that Althusser’s influ­ence reached its height for a cer­tain part of the intel­li­gentsia of the Marx­ist or Marx­isant Left in France.

What were the ori­en­ta­tions of Louis Althusser’s thought?

I don’t know if I can sum­ma­rize these things. First, although Althusser later per­formed a self-crit­i­cism to say that, in a sense, he had for­got­ten pol­i­tics, I think that Althusser’s project had, from his first arti­cles, a dou­ble dimen­sion, polit­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal. Obvi­ously, one of the appeal­ing aspects, and rightly so, of Althusser’s project for many young Marx­ists and even young philoso­phers more gen­er­ally, was that he never wanted to sac­ri­fice either of the two dimen­sions to the other. On one side, he wanted to make Marx­ism into a great phi­los­o­phy and, on the other side, he had a very polit­i­cal con­cep­tion of phi­los­o­phy in which Marx­ism con­sti­tuted, in the words of Marx’s eleventh the­sis on Feuer­bach, not only a way of inter­pret­ing the world, but of trans­form­ing it. All that might seem a bit dis­tant today, but his inter­ven­tion orga­nized itself around the artic­u­la­tion of these two aspects of Marx­ism that Stalin had defined in a famous pam­phlet, which, while cer­tainly dog­ma­tiz­ing things, had, I think, a strong influ­ence on Althusser. On the one side, dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism, the philo­soph­i­cal dimen­sion of Marx­ism, and on the other, his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism, which is to say, the the­ory of his­tory, and con­se­quently, the the­ory of pol­i­tics and of social trans­for­ma­tion.

Wasn’t Spin­oza also a thinker of rad­i­cal democ­racy? Philo­soph­i­cally, was Althusse­rian Marx­ism also a return to Spin­oza?

Althusser admired the Spin­oza of the The­o­log­i­cal-Polit­i­cal Trea­tise, but that was not the aspect that inter­ested him the most. You are absolutely right to say that Spinoza’s thought is a rad­i­cally demo­c­ra­tic thought. This is a dimen­sion that has come to the fore­front for a while now, and which has been appro­pri­ated by a broad vari­ety of philoso­phers some of whom effec­tively come from a Marx­ist back­ground. How­ever, this was not the aspect or dimen­sion that inter­ested Althusser. Not because he was hos­tile towards it, but because he fun­da­men­tally thought that rad­i­cal democ­racy was a tran­si­tion, an inter­me­di­ary stage towards the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat. From this point of view, he was a very ortho­dox Marx­ist. The dimen­sion that he empha­sized in Spin­oza con­cerned the the­ory of ide­ol­ogy. With Spin­oza, there is the first great mate­ri­al­ist cri­tique of ide­ol­ogy. Althusser defended a para­dox­i­cal the­sis. I under­stand that it force­fully shocked many Marx­ists at the time but, on the other hand, it was very attrac­tive to cer­tain peo­ple among us. This idea was that the con­cept of ide­ol­ogy was the fun­da­men­tal aspect of Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion: not only the cri­tique of bour­geois ide­ol­ogy, but the cri­tique of ide­ol­ogy in gen­eral. To Althusser, this also appeared to be an impor­tant point within the debates inter­nal to Com­mu­nism at the time, in that it was dom­i­nated by the ide­o­log­i­cal com­plex he called human­ism and economism. He thought that the Marx­ist tra­di­tion was weak on the ques­tion of ide­ol­ogy and that Marx, even if he pos­sessed the genius to invent the con­cept, had had a very bad analy­sis of it. In Spin­oza, he found the ele­ments for a mate­ri­al­ist the­ory of ide­ol­ogy that was nei­ther Feuer­bachian or Hegelian, and was not attached to a phi­los­o­phy of his­tory or to the con­cept of an alien­ation of man or a human essence. All of this paired very well with what was called Althusser’s sci­en­tism, such as it was expressed in the idea of the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break and led to his prox­im­ity with struc­tural­ism. Althusser quickly crit­i­cized these posi­tions in his Ele­ments of Self-Crit­i­cism.

What remains of Althusser’s philo­soph­i­cal inter­ven­tion and the debates of the period for today?

Obvi­ously, in my view, we need a cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism that is ade­quate to the demands of the present. The demands of the present: these are glob­al­iza­tion and the inex­tri­ca­bly inte­grated char­ac­ter of the eco­nomic prob­lem and the eco­log­i­cal prob­lem. It is the emer­gence of new forms of gov­er­nance, as we say, that are in part both infra-sta­tist and supra-sta­tist or post-sta­tist. This is a gen­er­al­ized rework­ing or reshap­ing. We need a new cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy and pol­i­tics. Marx is not super­flu­ous for under­tak­ing this task, he is absolutely indis­pens­able – he will him­self emerge trans­formed from it. Althusser, in one of the last texts he wrote, des­ig­nated Marx­ism as a fin­ished the­ory. Obvi­ously, that was a pow­er­ful play on words at the time. Every­one talked about the end of Marx­ism. Althusser said it was not the end of Marx­ism, but he under­scored the neces­sity for Marx­ism to to define or delimit its own inter­nal lim­its, its own his­tor­i­cal lim­its. In a cer­tain way, you could say that he became more his­tori­cist than he had been at the begin­ning. We have already entered a new phase in the inter­pre­ta­tion of Marx­ism which, inevitably, is also per­haps a wholly rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of Marx­ism. It will undoubt­edly emerge from this trans­for­ma­tion com­pletely unrec­og­niz­able. From this point of view, what took place in the mid-1960s is very inter­est­ing. Not only for the the­o­ret­i­cal sug­ges­tions that were made at the time and which have not been fully explored; in cer­tain respects, Althusser’s self-cri­tique had neg­a­tive effects. But espe­cially because of the fact that Althusser was not the only pro­tag­o­nist of this debate over the refoun­da­tion of Marx­ism. That was, in a cer­tain way, the over­ar­ch­ing com­mon project between Marx­ists of dif­fer­ent coun­tries dur­ing these years. For myself, Althusser has a kind of bio­graph­i­cal priv­i­lege, but there is not an absolute priv­i­lege. What he con­tributed can­not be mea­sured and dis­cussed if the per­spec­tive is not expanded or enlarged. In the 1960s, in the frame­work of Ger­man crit­i­cal Marx­ism, there was a new read­ing of Cap­i­tal (Neue Marx-Lek­türe) that owed much to the Frank­furt School and was par­tic­u­larly focused on the phe­nom­e­non of social alien­ation as it was tied to the gen­er­al­iza­tion of the com­mod­ity-form. This was some­thing that Althusser did not know well or did not want to. There were the dif­fer­ent strands of Ital­ian work­erism, the major fig­ure being Mario Tronti, who wrote, at the exact moment as Althusser and his group, a reread­ing of Cap­i­tal that on cer­tain points matched up with Althusser, and on other points diverged. But we can enlarge the per­spec­tive even fur­ther with the crit­i­cal Marx­ist cur­rents com­ing from Latin Amer­ica, and then the tra­di­tion of Marx­ist his­tory exem­pli­fied in the Anglo-Saxon world by Eric Hob­s­bawm, Mau­rice Dobb, Christo­pher Hill, or Perry Ander­son. If we return to 1965, we see a Marx­ism in full bloom, fully in con­tra­dic­tion with itself. On the one hand, there is the dead­weight of the cri­sis of state com­mu­nism, on the other hand rev­o­lu­tion­ary hopes: in the midst of all of this, a capac­ity to renew the links or con­nec­tions between Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy and liv­ing phi­los­o­phy. We can­not begin again in exactly the same way, but this period cer­tainly holds a pos­i­tive notion for today.

– Trans­lated by Patrick King and Salar Mohan­desi

  1. Translator’s Note: Agrégé-répéti­teur is the pro­fes­sor charged with prepar­ing stu­dents for the agré­ga­tion, a highly com­pet­i­tive civil ser­vice exam­i­na­tion for cer­tain teach­ing posts in the French edu­ca­tional sys­tem. 

Author of the article

is a French philosopher and currently Anniversary Chair of Contemporary European Philosophy at Kingston University London and Visiting Professor at Columbia University.