Althusser and Workerism: Notes Toward the Study of a Missed Encounter

Cover image for the 1977 French trans­la­tion of Mario Tronti’s Operai e Cap­i­tale

In the 1960s, in the wake of the sta­bi­liza­tion of the post-WWII and Cold War period, the rapid expan­sion of a new inter­na­tional cycle of polit­i­cal and social strug­gles was the dri­ving force for a renewal of Marx­ist the­ory. Amongst the numer­ous attempts to recon­fig­ure both the the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal ref­er­ence points of the Com­mu­nist move­ment, the two expe­ri­ences ini­ti­ated by Louis Althusser in France and work­erism in Italy con­tinue to inspire lines of research and exer­cise a direct or indi­rect influ­ence even today. How­ever, the his­tor­i­cal and con­cep­tual rela­tions between these two projects remain rel­a­tively opaque and dif­fi­cult to recon­struct with any pre­ci­sion. This con­tri­bu­tion aims only to open the dis­cus­sion on this sub­ject, so the present argu­ments and con­clu­sions are com­pletely pro­vi­sional. We will only explore cer­tain rela­tions between Althusser and the philo­soph­i­cal for­mu­la­tions of work­erism — elab­o­rated by Mario Tronti and Anto­nio Negri — respec­tively and from the decid­edly lim­ited but nonethe­less reveal­ing point of view of the rela­tions between polit­i­cal prac­tice and the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice. Our the­sis is that the affini­ties and diver­gences between Althusse­ri­an­ism and work­erism on this speci­fic point are of cru­cial impor­tance for the his­tory of Marx­ism, which we can only ges­ture to here.1

His­tor­i­cally, the first real doc­u­mented encoun­ter between Althusser and work­erism took place belat­edly, through a par­tial appro­pri­a­tion, and on the grounds of an idio­syn­cratic read­ing; we must accu­rately mea­sure its stakes. This encoun­ter occurs through the work of Anto­nio Negri, start­ing from the sec­ond half of the 1970s, and is con­sol­i­dated over the course of the 1990s. Some of its effects are still notice­able today in the Anglo-Saxon world and post-work­erist cur­rents, where cer­tain ele­ments from the Althusse­rian and work­erist her­itage are sin­gu­larly inter­twined. Despite cer­tain desires expressed in the wake of the col­lapse of really exist­ing social­ism,2 the reread­ings of the works of Marx prompted by the 2008 eco­nomic cri­sis are not pos­si­ble with­out a return to 20th-cen­tury Marxisms: and this return seems to main­tain a con­stant dia­logue with the “lesson” of Althusser.3

But it’s not merely about dia­logue: in the nar­ra­tive Negri puts forth regard­ing the geneal­ogy of biopo­lit­i­cal cat­e­gories recu­per­ated by post-work­erism, Althusser is assigned a deci­sive role. This retroac­tive appro­pri­a­tion implies a selec­tiv­ity vis-a-vis Althusser’s posi­tions – a selec­tiv­ity aim­ing to legit­i­mate the inter­nal evo­lu­tion of Negrian work­erism – and a twist­ing of these posi­tions.

In his pref­ace to the Ital­ian edi­tion of Machi­avelli and Us, Negri recalls his first encoun­ter with Althusser, who had invited him to a sem­i­nar at the École Nor­male Supérieure between 1977-1978.4 This encoun­ter did not pro­duce any imme­di­ate effects; Negri him­self remem­bers the Althusse­ri­ans who attended his lessons appear­ing impa­tient, and they reacted con­fus­edly to the provoca­tive argu­ments he put for­ward.5 How­ever, Althusser had appar­ently expressed inter­est in this approach of going with Marx beyond Marx. In Negri’s rec­ol­lec­tion, Althusser admit­ted to hav­ing “redis­cov­ered Machi­avelli,” which meant find­ing that, “beyond the­ory,” there is some­thing joy­ful and liv­ing within com­mu­nism: the renewal of its cat­e­gories, the dis­cov­ery of a new hori­zon for the strug­gle and orga­ni­za­tion of the pro­le­tariat. Negri recalls that “beyond the­ory, com­mu­nist biopol­i­tics begins” (namely, for Althusser), and that Althusser would have affirmed that “com­mu­nism has never been more immi­nent than today.” Althusser is thus sum­moned as a post­mortem guar­an­tee for Negri’s own devel­op­ment. The read­ing and dif­fu­sion of Althusse­rian writ­ings on Machi­avelli through­out the 1990s in the jour­nal Futur antérieur will be the prin­ci­pal ter­rain of this posthu­mous encoun­ter.6

What Negri looks for in Althusser – as much in the writ­ings on Machi­avelli as in the essay on Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tuses – is a posi­tion that makes it pos­si­ble to trans­late cer­tain aspects of his own polit­i­cal path through con­cepts from the his­tory of phi­los­o­phy. To be more pre­cise, Negri is con­cerned with first locat­ing a cor­re­spon­dence between the evo­lu­tion of Althusser’s thought and the pas­sage to post­moder­nity, which he artic­u­lates by elab­o­rat­ing his own mate­ri­al­ist ontol­ogy. Althusser would have grasped these simul­ta­ne­ously his­tor­i­cal and con­cep­tual tran­si­tions – includ­ing the “break­down of the con­cep­tual bound­ary between struc­ture and super­struc­ture,” the dis­place­ment of pro­duc­tion in the sphere of repro­duc­tion and lastly, the adop­tion of the “stand­point of bod­ies” – though in purely the­o­ret­i­cal terms; tran­si­tions which can­not, how­ever, be fully com­pre­hended via the Frank­furt School and post-struc­tural­ism, but only by a “the­ory devel­oped within mil­i­tancy,” that is, Negri’s own thought.7 Negri seeks out the pre­fig­u­ra­tions of these “biopo­lit­i­cal tran­si­tions” in Althusser’s thought.8 This oper­a­tion was under­taken before his read­ing of Althusser’s writ­ings on Machi­avelli. In 1987, Negri wrote that the base and super­struc­ture prob­lem dis­solved itself in their “mate­rial indif­fer­ence,” in which both instances are found to be “com­pletely uni­fied, indis­tinct, insep­a­ra­ble,” although it is still pos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish the speci­fic gen­e­sis of each. Althusser rep­re­sents a real­iza­tion of this indis­tinc­tion: “from Marx to Althusser, Marx­ist the­ory describes the cri­sis of the base-super­struc­ture rela­tion.”9

For Negri, Althusser had extended his cri­tique of the Marx­ian topog­ra­phy to the nega­tion of any form of dis­tinc­tion between its instances. He was suc­cess­ful in philo­soph­i­cally grasp­ing “a pas­sage from the analy­sis of prop­erty as exploita­tion in terms of a tran­scen­den­tal form to the analy­sis of it in terms of the mate­rial orga­ni­za­tion of bod­ies in the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety.”10 This cor­re­sponded polit­i­cally to the expe­ri­ence of Quaderni Rossi and the for­mu­la­tion of “the the­o­ret­i­cal-prac­ti­cal impor­tance of the stand­point of bod­ies in Marx­ist analy­sis.”11 In sum, it is in terms of being a pre­cur­sor of biopol­i­tics that this post­mod­ern Althusser crosses over into the 1990s, to reap­pear as a major ref­er­ence point for col­lec­tives close to post-work­erism, such as Uni­no­made.12

This oper­a­tion involves the rejec­tion of any­thing within Althusser’s work that would be attrib­ut­able to “the­o­reti­cism.” Begin­ning with the incor­po­ra­tion of Althusser to the gen­e­sis of the biopo­lit­i­cal cat­e­gories used by post-work­erism, the fun­da­men­tal the­ses of For Marx and Read­ing Cap­i­tal are sub­mit­ted to the demands of the post-work­erist “line,” or sim­ply left out. Themes such as the sep­a­ra­tion between thought and real­ity, the rel­a­tive auton­omy of the­ory, and the com­plex rela­tion between base [infra­struc­ture] and super­struc­ture are re-inscribed in the “ontol­ogy of the com­mon” speci­fic to “post­mod­ern mate­ri­al­ism.” With­out want­ing to make judg­ments on the rel­e­vance of Negri’s read­ing of the evo­lu­tion of Althusser’s thought, it is impor­tant to note that it tends to elide the speci­ficity of the pro­posal by which Althusser had inter­vened within the scene of the Marx­ist debates of the mid-1960s.13 It should be rec­og­nized that the appro­pri­a­tion of Althusser based on the exclu­sion of the the­ses deemed the­o­reti­cist does not only con­cern Negri and cur­rents close to him. This par­tial appro­pri­a­tion was in fact quite preva­lent in the Anglo-Saxon world: from the begin­ning of the 1970s, Althusser’s argu­ment in the essay on Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tuses was rec­og­nized there as a fun­da­men­tal tool for rethink­ing what was tra­di­tion­ally assigned to the super­struc­ture; and, cor­rel­a­tively, the appa­ra­tus of inter­pel­la­tion was read, espe­cially by cul­tural stud­ies and post-struc­tural­ist the­o­ries, as a more or less effec­tive descrip­tion of the process of subjection—subjectivation.

Of course, cer­tain Althusse­rian texts — above all those that take their dis­tance from the “the­o­reti­cist” period — do jus­tify this read­ing that makes Althusser the pre­cur­sor of a new rela­tion between econ­omy and soci­ety, infra­struc­ture and super­struc­ture. And yet, the self-crit­i­cisms form­ing Althusser’s com­plex path must be inter­preted in light of dynam­ics that are equally com­plex, reveal­ing a con­cern for the effec­tive­ness of the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tions within a deter­mi­nate the­o­ret­i­cal field.14 The Ital­ian debate sur­round­ing Althusser’s first two works, For Marx and Read­ing Cap­i­tal, had engen­dered a cer­tain con­fu­sion between dif­fer­ent lev­els of dis­course, par­tic­u­larly with regard to the rela­tion between the­ory and prac­tice; the major con­se­quence being a neglect of pre­cisely the orig­i­nal­ity of the Althusse­rian pro­posal. Far from under­stand­ing “the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice” as a poten­tial way of avoid­ing from the tra­di­tional prob­lem­atic of the unity/opposition between the­ory and praxis, the Ital­ian debate leaned heav­ily on the dis­tinc­tion between thought and real­ity, and thus on the con­flict between rev­o­lu­tion­ary action and sci­en­tific analy­sis.15 It is pos­si­ble to rec­og­nize the deci­sive influ­ence of Ital­ian neo-ide­al­ism as the basis for this vision of the­ory as being opposed to prac­tice, and the accu­sa­tion that fol­lows from hav­ing accorded to the­ory a greater sig­nif­i­cance, con­ceived as being the other of prac­tice. On the one hand, there is the influ­ence of Benedetto Croce, who the­o­rized the sep­a­ra­tion between dif­fer­ent spheres (aes­thetic, log­i­cal, eco­nomic, eth­i­cal) within the syn­the­sis of Spirit; on the other hand, the influ­ence of Gio­vanni Gen­tile and his the­ory of the con­crete act. These two thinkers thus con­tin­ued to exert as much of an influ­ence on the offi­cial the­ory of the PCI as on the crit­i­cal Marx­ism of which work­erism was a part.16

Given Althusser’s sen­si­tiv­ity to the recep­tion of his posi­tions in Italy, the suc­ces­sive shifts his argu­ments take can be read in light of the Ital­ian debates over his “the­o­reti­cism.”17 One can pos­tu­late that Althusser was led onto a very dif­fer­ent ter­rain from the one his 1965 texts occu­pied. This new ter­rain emerged from a specif­i­cally Ital­ian neo-Ide­al­ist tra­di­tion, with which work­erism itself had not set­tled accounts; this would explain why Althusser’s self-crit­i­cisms seem to some­times regress to very tra­di­tional posi­tions con­cern­ing the sta­tus of the­ory and prac­tice. These direct or indi­rect influ­ences can help explain the play of analo­gies, dif­fer­ences, con­ver­gences, and dis­tances taken between cer­tain sub­se­quent devel­op­ments in Althusser’s work and work­erism, as well as the value in study­ing the way in which this game appears towards the sec­ond-half of the 1960s, before the dual her­itage of work­erism and Althusse­ri­an­ism was appro­pri­ated by Negri. We will con­clude these remarks on Althusser and work­erism by com­par­ing the sym­me­tries and asym­me­tries between these two the­o­ret­i­cal fields, as they appear through­out the 1960s.

The Althusse­rian re-read­ing of Marx is con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with the activ­i­ties of Quaderni Rossi, and the major works of the French philoso­pher pre­cede Work­ers and Cap­i­tal, Mario Tronti’s book that could be con­sid­ered the found­ing text of work­erism, by a year. How­ever, their paths never crossed, even when Althusser and Tronti were both mem­bers of the largest Com­mu­nist par­ties in the West, and there were pre-exist­ing rela­tion­ships between Althusser and the Marx­ist philoso­phers Gal­vano Della Volpe and Lucio Col­letti, with whom Tronti was very close. This rec­i­p­ro­cal indif­fer­ence is all the more strik­ing since Tronti and Althusser had sim­i­lar shared objec­tives: it was a mat­ter, for one as for the other, of over­com­ing the the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal impasses of the Com­mu­nist move­ment by decou­pling Marx­ism from any evo­lu­tion­ary phi­los­o­phy of his­tory, and recast­ing the­ory as an analy­sis of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, an inter­ven­tion in the present con­junc­ture. More­over, their sta­tus as mem­bers of the Ital­ian and French Com­mu­nist Par­ties had a deter­mi­nate mean­ing. As Perry Ander­son empha­sizes in his Con­sid­er­a­tions on West­ern Marx­ism, France and Italy occu­pied a sin­gu­lar place in the polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy of the post­war period: at the same moment when the com­mu­nist per­spec­tive ceased to exist as a polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion in West Ger­many and Marx­ism became a state ide­ol­ogy in East­ern and Cen­tral Europe, the mass Com­mu­nist par­ties in France and Italy became hege­monic among the work­ing classes.18

The non-encoun­ter between the Althusse­rian reread­ing of Marx and Quaderni Rossi’s ver­sion of work­erism can­not be explained solely through the link­ages between work­erism and the West­ern Marx­ists of the 1920s (Lukács, Korsch), whom Althusser had dis­missed com­pletely. The real obsta­cle was the con­trast between two very dif­fer­ent ways of artic­u­lat­ing the rela­tion between polit­i­cal prac­tice and the posi­tion of intel­lec­tu­als. The Althusse­rian approach aimed to indi­rectly pres­sure the PCF, ren­dered pos­si­ble through a trans­for­ma­tion of the intel­lec­tual coor­di­nates upon which the unity of the offi­cial vision of Marx and the party line was founded. From this came the choice to claim the auton­omy of the­ory against the direct­ing instances of the Party, and allowed for ter­ri­to­rial ground­ing of the Althusse­rian group within the École nor­male supérieure. For Tronti, on the other hand, it was a mat­ter of forc­ing the PCI’s line to start with the work­ers’ strug­gles that the party had neglected or repressed, as the­ory could only improve itself through direct par­tic­i­pa­tion in the action of the “class.” The gap between these two approaches is a result of sev­eral cir­cum­stances: first, the weak degree of insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion among Ital­ian intel­lec­tu­als, which pre­vented the effects Althusser could rely upon — to influ­ence the Party from the space of free­dom (and author­ity) that the ENS pro­vided. How­ever, the deci­sive fac­tor was the dif­fer­ence between the PCI and the PCF con­cern­ing the posi­tion of intel­lec­tu­als. The PCF wanted to be a “col­lec­tive intel­lec­tual,” the bearer of an offi­cial phi­los­o­phy and inter­pre­ta­tion of Marx insep­a­ra­ble from its polit­i­cal line: from whence came the ter­ror­ism towards intel­lec­tu­als but also the pos­si­bil­ity (to believe to be able) to trans­form the party by act­ing upon its the­o­ret­i­cal legit­i­ma­tion. Against this, the PCI gave its adher­ents great intel­lec­tual free­dom on the con­di­tion that they did not ques­tion the direc­tion and author­ity of its polit­i­cal lead­er­ship. It fol­lowed that the only pos­si­bil­ity of influ­enc­ing the PCI was to oppose it through a directly polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion capa­ble of mod­i­fy­ing its line. This is why Tronti will choose — in con­trast to Althusser — to be close to groups out­side of the PCI, but who rec­og­nized the polit­i­cal poten­tial of the new cycle of worker antag­o­nism: it is by locat­ing a con­crete polit­i­cal alter­na­tive that the­ory could be regen­er­ated, while for Althusser the con­cern was to safe­guard the autonomous space for the­ory to indi­rectly act upon pol­i­tics. One can see that this gap between two polit­i­cal strate­gies also entails major dif­fer­ences in the final struc­ture of the the­o­ret­i­cal dis­pos­i­tives [dis­posi­tifs] of Althusser and Tronti.

Let’s exam­ine their posi­tions at the time of their ini­tial and deci­sive the­o­ret­i­cal break­throughs, par­tic­u­larly in regards to the link between the­ory and prac­tice. The points that sep­a­rate work­erism and Althusse­ri­an­ism in the end rest on the sta­tus of the­ory and its rela­tion to pol­i­tics: Althusser approaches the prob­lem of the rela­tion between the­ory and praxis on the philo­soph­i­cal — that is to say, epis­te­mo­log­i­cal — ter­rain, whereas Tronti’s reflec­tions are located from the begin­ning on the ter­rain of class strug­gle. While for Tronti the dis­tance between the­ory and prac­tice tended to annul itself in the “view­point” of the class that com­bined act­ing and know­ing, for Althusser the auton­omy of the­ory is founded on the irre­ducible gap between knowl­edge and real­ity. Tronti pushes the prin­ci­ple of the iden­tity between thought and the action of a class to the point of affirm­ing that the recourse to “words” is only legit­i­mate when the work­ing class loses the free­dom of “choos­ing the means” of its strug­gle against the “enemy soci­ety.”19 Accord­ing to this ago­nis­tic con­cep­tion of the­ory under­ly­ing the asser­tion that “weapons, which have been used in pro­le­tar­ian revolts, are always taken for the bosses’ arse­nal,” the pri­macy of “work­ers’ sci­ence” over “bour­geois sci­ence” does not dis­close an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal hori­zon. This pri­macy dis­closes the cre­ativ­ity of work­ers’ thought, sym­met­ri­cal to the deca­dence of bour­geois cul­ture, and has a com­pletely polit­i­cal rel­e­vance: “The one who wins takes the ini­tia­tive.”20 The­ory is embed­ded within strug­gles, and the dis­tinc­tion between the­ory and praxis is wholly inter­nal to praxis. The level of strug­gles deter­mi­nes the pos­si­bil­ity of the­ory and its rela­tion to prac­tice, mean­ing that the “the­o­ret­i­cal renewal from the work­ers’ view­point” is imposed by the “neces­si­ties of strug­gle.”21 But this is, how­ever, a dis­tinc­tion between the­ory and praxis that allows for the­ory to be dis­solved within the con­crete act — a dis­tinc­tion that in real­ity ends up affirm­ing the indis­tinc­tion of the two moments. The dis­tinc­tion between the­ory and praxis is con­ceived as a suc­ces­sion cor­re­spond­ing to the dif­fer­ent phases of strug­gle, and it is the tem­po­ral rhythm of this strug­gle that ren­ders this dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion oper­a­tive. The­ory is assigned a role of strate­gic antic­i­pa­tion:

To antic­i­pate means to think, to see many things in one, to see them in devel­op­ment, view­ing every­thing, with the­o­ret­i­cal eyes, from the view­point of one’s own class… Thus broad strate­gic antic­i­pa­tions of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment are cer­tainly nec­es­sary, but nec­es­sary as con­cepts-lim­its within which the ten­den­cies of the objec­tive moment are estab­lished. The mean­ing of strug­gle and orga­ni­za­tion, in cer­tain moments, is exactly to pre­dict the objec­tive path of cap­i­tal, and its neces­si­ties within that path; it is to refuse to it the ful­fill­ment of these neces­si­ties, which blocks its devel­op­ment and pre­cisely in this puts it into cri­sis before, some­times much before, it has reached the ideal con­di­tions that we our­selves had thought of.22

And, inversely, action is assigned a role sub­or­di­nate to the imme­di­ate present:

To fol­low means to act, to move to the real level of social rela­tions, to gauge the mate­rial state of the present forces, seiz­ing the moment, here and now, to grasp the ini­tia­tive of the strug­gle.

This purely instru­men­tal con­cep­tion of the the­ory-praxis dis­tinc­tion is quite clear in the final con­dem­na­tion of the very act of writ­ing:

A book today can con­tain some­thing true on only one con­di­tion: if it is writ­ten entirely with the aware­ness of per­form­ing a wicked act [una cat­tiva azione]. If to act one must write, then at the level of strug­gle we are far behind.23

By then, all the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion is seen as des­tined to dis­ap­pear because of the pro­gres­sion of work­ing-class strug­gles, the­ory only aims to “read directly into things with­out the wretched medi­a­tion of books, not until we become capa­ble of mov­ing mat­ters (spostare i fatti) with vio­lence, with­out the spine­less­ness of the con­tem­pla­tive intel­lec­tual.24 The ten­sion between the­ory as antic­i­pa­tion and strat­egy on the one hand, and praxis as tac­tics ori­ented towards the present on the other, is viewed as liable of being sur­passed in a future moment in which intel­lec­tual work itself will cease to exist, its only source being a very deter­mi­nant phase of the strug­gle.

The dif­fer­ences between the first Althusser and the first ver­sion of work­erism indeed con­cern the role as much as the form of the­ory. Thus, Tronti can write:

Up to this point we have had in our hands the fab­ric of the clas­sics, and on it we have made some embroi­deries. From now on a new fab­ric must be woven, cut, and inserted into the new hori­zons of the work­ers’ strug­gle of today.25

This indi­ca­tion can be com­pared to how Althusser envi­sions the­o­ret­i­cal work as a mat­ter of “read­ing Cap­i­tal.” We have, on the one hand, Tronti’s book, Work­ers and Cap­i­tal, a col­lec­tion of arti­cles — each tak­ing a con­crete polit­i­cal prob­lem as a point of depar­ture — which aims to accel­er­ate the process lead­ing to the read­ing of the things them­selves: while, on the other hand, in Read­ing Cap­i­tal Althusser assem­bles the results of a sem­i­nar con­ducted at the ENS, with the aim of mak­ing promi­nently, chiefly through the philo­soph­i­cal read­ing of a text, an implicit phi­los­o­phy con­ceived as an epis­te­mol­ogy, in the broad sense of a the­ory of knowl­edge. Tronti’s goal con­sists in pro­duc­ing a direct read­ing of things them­selves, while the Althusse­rian enter­prise remains the philo­soph­i­cal read­ing of a text. And, if it is for Tronti a mat­ter of weav­ing a new fab­ric [trame], Althusser lim­its him­self to mak­ing an embroi­dery upon the same fab­ric, like an embroi­derer who works with bor­rowed fab­rics, and aims to let a fab­ric emerge that is indeed already traced but not yet fully vis­i­ble.

How­ever, there is a point where the respec­tive posi­tions of Tronti and Althusser seem to con­verge we have alluded to the pri­macy of class strug­gle over the exis­tence of classes. But here as well, one can dis­cern a cru­cial point of diver­gence, begin­ning with a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the place that Althusser assigns to the class strug­gle. It is against economism – in order to show the polit­i­cal aspect of the eco­nomic – that the two com­mu­nist philoso­phers assert that the strug­gle between classes pre­cedes their exis­tence. Tronti, as much as Althusser, thus tries to put into ques­tion the sec­ondary char­ac­ter of the class strug­gle, against a whole tra­di­tion that tried to make it the sim­ple expres­sion of a deeper con­tra­dic­tion between the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and the pro­duc­tive forces. Yet, the anti-econ­o­mistic affir­ma­tion of the pri­macy of strug­gle can morph into a meta­phys­i­cal affir­ma­tion of an orig­i­nary antag­o­nism as an inter­nal prin­ci­ple of the socio-his­tor­i­cal total­ity. The deci­sive diver­gence between Althusser and Tronti lies in the sta­tus accorded to antag­o­nism: far from being a philo­soph­i­cal cat­e­gory, in Althusser class strug­gle dis­closes rather a domain of sci­ence, for which there is no essen­tial prin­ci­ple of the social for­ma­tion as “the whole struc­tured in dom­i­nance.”26 For Tronti, antag­o­nism seems to be ele­vated to the posi­tion of a fun­da­men­tal axiom, while also func­tion­ing as an essence or prin­ci­ple of his­tory.

Of course, these are still open ques­tions. They indi­cate that the cor­re­spon­dence between the auton­omy of pol­i­tics in Tronti’s work and the auton­omy of the­ory in Althusser’s work are worth inves­ti­ga­tion, as has recently been shown. It is a ques­tion of two posi­tions that are in real­ity asym­met­ri­cal.27 If the two autonomies can be thought of as sym­met­ri­cal, this is due to a mis­un­der­stand­ing that leads to a read­ing of the theory/praxis dis­tinc­tion as a sep­a­ra­tion between the order of knowl­edge and the order of the real. For Althusser, the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice indeed car­ries an irre­ducible speci­ficity that con­fers upon itself a cer­tain degree of auton­omy, but even so it can­not be opposed to praxis, since it is exactly that, a prac­tice. On the other side, in Work­ers and Cap­i­tal the auton­omy of pol­i­tics is tied to a dis­tinc­tion between the­ory and praxis that makes the­ory the instru­ment or sim­ple expres­sion of praxis; the final unity between thought and action per­tains specif­i­cally to this dis­tinc­tion, which makes praxis posit the­ory as a par­tic­u­lar moment of its autonomous devel­op­ment. As a result, while the auton­omy of the­ory in Read­ing Cap­i­tal sup­poses the imma­nence of the cri­te­ria for valid­ity, in Work­ers and Cap­i­tal the auton­omy of pol­i­tics implies that pol­i­tics makes use of the­ory, and that action exer­cises an imme­di­ate effect on the total­ity of socio-his­tor­i­cal deter­mi­na­tions.

It is pos­si­ble, then, to dis­cern cer­tain philo­soph­i­cal points that jus­tify dis­cussing a “missed encoun­ter” between the first Althusser and the orig­i­nal work­erism. How­ever, because of the dif­fer­ent com­po­si­tion of the ide­o­log­i­cal con­texts from which Tronti and Althusser elab­o­rated their cat­e­gories, speci­fic crit­i­cal tar­gets that they seem to share – includ­ing economism, human­ism, and his­tori­cism – do not refer to the same object nor the same prob­lem­atic. One one side, the Ital­ian debate leads Althusser onto a ter­rain that is not the one from which his the­ses emerged – and con­tributed to the refor­mu­la­tion, even rejec­tion, of posi­tions qual­i­fied by the­o­rists, and pre­pared, on the basis of cer­tain mis­un­der­stand­ings and mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions, the favor­able ter­rain for the encoun­ter with work­erism through Negri.28 And as we just saw apro­pos the class strug­gle, although they seem to be points in com­mon, in real­ity anti-economism, anti­hu­man­ism, and anti-his­tori­cism remain pro­foundly ambigu­ous ref­er­ences. The human­ism that Althusser opposes had noth­ing to do with the Renais­sance phi­los­o­phy with which the Ital­ian philoso­phers asso­ci­ated the term “human­ism,” but was inti­mately linked to a cer­tain form of Marx­ism “à la française,” one described as “mod­ern ratio­nal­ism.” This was the fruit of a sin­gu­lar oper­a­tion, a graft­ing of the ratio­nal­ist tra­di­tion of the Enlight­en­ment onto an anthro­po­log­i­cal prob­lem­atic drawn from a read­ing of the work of the Young Marx.29 In this sense, this human­ism has very lit­tle in com­mon with the human­ism evoked in Italy. In France, Marx­ism as “mod­ern ratio­nal­ism” had a ten­dency to reduce nature to his­tory by insist­ing on the eter­nity and uni­ver­sal­ity of laws within a fun­da­men­tally sta­tic con­cep­tion of dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism. In Italy, con­versely, Marx­ism as a “phi­los­o­phy of praxis” also tended to reduce nature to his­tory, toward an absolute his­tori­cism of praxis.30 What Tronti there­fore sought to reject in Marx­ism was not its iden­tity with mod­ern ratio­nal­ism as pro­claimed by the PCF; his start­ing-point was rather the cri­tique of a cer­tain demo­c­ra­tic and “national-pop­u­lar” read­ing of Gram­sci, from whom he had recov­ered the idea of an onto­log­i­cal iden­tity between con­crete human activ­ity (his­tory-spirit) and his­tori­cized nature, trans­formed by man in the “con­crete his­tor­i­cal act.”31

In con­clu­sion: a con­fronta­tion between the dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions to which Tronti and Althusser to some extent remain con­fined – although both also try to pro­duce defin­i­tive cri­tiques of these tra­di­tions – would help in return­ing to Althusser’s so-called “the­o­reti­cism,” by tak­ing into account the effects of his “under­de­ter­mined recep­tion” on sub­se­quent cri­tiques and self-crit­i­cisms.32 So many years after the pub­li­ca­tion of Read­ing Cap­i­tal and Work­ers and Cap­i­tal, both Althusser and work­erism will take paths dif­fer­ent from those declared in the 1960s: the for­mer through his aban­don­ment of his ini­tial epis­te­mo­log­i­cal approach, the lat­ter through the devel­op­ments led by Negri. And it is indeed on this ter­rain – a ter­rain whose com­plex­ity is to be recon­structed, as deter­mined by a play of appro­pri­a­tions and mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tions [dont il s’agit de recon­stru­ire la com­plex­ité déter­minée par un jeu d’appropriations et de mécon­nais­sances] – that the posthu­mous encoun­ter between Negri and Althusser became pos­si­ble. In this way, the gen­e­sis of the real encoun­ter can provide the key to the under­stand­ing of the missed encoun­ter, and vice versa.

– Trans­lated by Patrick King

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Péri­ode.

This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled “A Strug­gle With­out End”: Althusser’s Inter­ven­tions.

  1. This text devel­ops the inter­ven­tions from the one-day con­fer­ence, “Althusser e l’operaismo : un incon­tro man­cato?,” orga­nized by the Asso­ci­a­tion “Louis Althusser,”and the Groupe de Recherches Matéri­al­is­tes and held on April 9th, 2014 in Venice. It retains for the most part the pro­gram­matic struc­ture of an oral pre­sen­ta­tion. 

  2. See, for exam­ple, what Éti­enne Bal­ibar rec­om­mends in his The Phi­los­o­phy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (Lon­don: Verso, 1993). 

  3. This is what Maria Turchetto called for almost ten years ago: “that a Marx-Renais­sance be com­bined with an Althusser-Renais­sance: all returns to Marx pre­sup­pose pass­ing through Althusse­rian read­ing. “I ‘due Marx’ e l’althusserismo,” in Da Marx a Marx? Un bilan­cio dei marx­ismi ital­iani del Nove­cento, ed. Ric­cardo Belle­fiore (Rome, Man­i­festolibri, 2007), 108. 

  4. After a first invi­ta­tion in 1973 that remained purely “for­mal,” accord­ing to Negri’s account. One of Negri’s most famous texts, Marx Beyond Marx, indeed stems from this sem­i­nar that came out of the invi­ta­tion in 1977. It is inter­est­ing to note 1977 was the same year that the French trans­la­tion of Tronti’s book appeared (Ouvri­ers et Cap­i­tal), trans­lated by Yann Moulier Boutang. Boutang’s posi­tion rep­re­sents another late Althusser-work­erism con­nec­tion; through­out the 1990s he was one of the edi­tors of the jour­nal Futur antérieur, as well as a biog­ra­pher of Althusser and the edi­tor of sev­eral of his posthu­mous works. 

  5. See Negri’s review essay of Althusser on Machi­avelii, “Machi­avel selon Althusser,” Futur Antérieur (April 1997). 

  6. Tronti him­self only cites Althusser once, and it is only in ref­er­ence to Machi­avelli. Mario Tronti, Noi operaisiti (Rome: DeriveAp­prodi, 2009); see the edited extract, “Our Operaismo,” trans. Eleanor Chiari, New Left Review, II/73 (Jan­u­ary-Feb­ru­ary 2012), 119-139. 

  7. Anto­nio Negri and Michael Hardt, Com­mon­wealth (Cam­bridge: Har­vard UP, 2010), 23-24; also Anto­nio Negri, Alle orig­ini del biopolitico, in Il comune in riv­olta. Sul potere cos­tituente delle lotte, Vérone, OmbreCorte, 2012, 81ff. 

  8. Cf. Anto­nio Negri, “Some Notes on the Evo­lu­tion of the Late Althusser,” trans. Olga Vasile, in Post­mod­ern Mate­ri­al­ism and the Future of Marx­ist The­ory: Essays in the Marx­ist Tra­di­tion, ed. Anto­nio Callari and David F. Ruc­cio (Mid­dle­town, CT: Wes­leyan Uni­ver­sity Press), 51-68. 

  9. Anto­nio Negri, Fab­briche del soggetto, Car­rara, 1987, 75. 

  10. Hardt and Negri, Com­mon­wealth, 23. 

  11. Ibid., 24. 

  12. This is also the the­o­ret­i­cal project of the Eurono­made research col­lec­tive, heir to Uni­no­made. See, for exam­ple, the impor­tance placed on the Althusse­rian legacy in Comune, comu­nismo, comu­nità: Teorie e pratiche den­tro e oltre la crisi, ed. Anna Cur­cio (Vérone: OmbreCorte), 2011. 

  13. Cf. Negri, “Notes on the Evo­lu­tion of the Late Althusser.” 

  14. Cris­tian Lo Iacono’s recent study shows the influ­ence that the Ital­ian recep­tion had on the devel­op­ment of Althusser’s thought, and shows in detail how his self-crit­i­cisms were reac­tions to received cri­tiques. 

  15. See Maria Turchetto, Per la crit­ica di un’autocritica, in La cog­nizione della crisi. Saggi sul marx­ismo di Louis Althusser, ed. Maria Gia­cometti (Milan, Franco Angeli), 1986. 

  16. On Ital­ian neo-ide­al­ism, see André Tosel, Marx en Italiques: Aux orig­i­nes de la philoso­phie ital­i­enne con­tem­po­raine (Toulouse: TER, 1991). Some crit­ics have attrib­uted a neo-ide­al­ist ori­en­ta­tion to Tronti, con­cern­ing the pri­macy of sub­jec­tive pri­macy of the con­crete action of a mythol­o­gized class. On this topic, see Raf­faele Sbardella, “Le maschere della polit­ica: gen­til­ismo e tradizione ide­al­is­tica negli scritti di Mario Tronti,” Unità pro­le­taria, nos. 1-2, 1982. Bal­ibar sees in Negri’s work the pres­ence of “very pro­found traces of philo­soph­i­cal actu­al­ism (Gen­tile)”, con­sti­tut­ing one of his “impor­tant cul­tural ref­er­ences.” Éti­enne Bal­ibar, “Les Ques­tions du Com­mu­nisme”, 2012, an edited and expanded French ver­sion of his pre­sen­ta­tion, “Com­mu­nism as Com­mit­ment, Imag­i­na­tion, and Pol­i­tics”, at the “Com­mu­nism: A New Begin­ning?” con­fer­ence held in New York in Octo­ber 2011 and found in The Idea of Com­mu­nism Vol­ume Two, ed. Slavoj Žižek (Lon­don: Verso, 2013), 13-37. 

  17. This is well-doc­u­mented by Lo Iacono, op. cit. 

  18. Perry Ander­son, Con­sid­er­a­tions on West­ern Marx­ism (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1976), 20, 28, 35, 41. 

  19. Mario Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale (Rome: DepriveAp­prodi, 2006), 14. Translator’s note: the authors cite the French trans­la­tion of Tronti’s text, Ouvri­ers et Cap­i­tal (Paris: Bour­gois, 1977), trans­lated by Yann Moulier Boutang. Because the sec­tion they are ref­er­enc­ing is one of the por­tions of Tronti’s book that has unfor­tu­nately not yet been trans­lated into Eng­lish, we have closely fol­lowed the Ital­ian orig­i­nal, and cite it in sub­se­quent notes. Many thanks to Asad Haider and Andrew Anas­tasi for their invalu­able input. 

  20. Ibid., 8. 

  21. Ibid. 

  22. Ibid., 13. 

  23. Ibid., 14. 

  24. Ibid., 19. 

  25. Ibid., 14. 

  26. From an Althusse­rian per­spec­tive, Maria Turchetto has insisted on the per­ti­nence of the cat­e­gory of “class strug­gle” to the “sci­ence of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety.” Per la crit­ica di un’autocritica, 204. 

  27. See Sara Far­ris “Althusser and Tronti: the Pri­macy of Pol­i­tics Ver­sus the Auton­omy of the Polit­i­cal”, in Encoun­ter­ing Althusser: Pol­i­tics and Mate­ri­al­ism in Con­tem­po­rary Rad­i­cal Thought, ed. Katja Diefen­bach, Sara Far­ris, Gal Kirn, and Peter D. Thomas (New York, Blooms­bury, 2013), 185-204. 

  28. As seen, for instance, in Lo Iaocano’s study. 

  29. I have tried to recon­struct this process of inte­grat­ing Marx­ism with the mate­ri­al­ist ratio­nal­ism of the Enlight­en­ment in my doc­toral the­sis: Fab­rizio Car­lino, Sci­ence et idéolo­gie « A la lumière du marx­isme ». La con­tri­bu­tion du Cer­cle de la Russie neuve dans le procès d’élaboration et acti­va­tion du matéri­al­isme dialec­tique en France, 2014. 

  30. On this sub­ject see the two arti­cles by the young Tronti: Alcune ques­tioni intorno al marx­ismo di Gram­sci, in Studi gram­s­ciani, Rome, Edi­tori riu­niti, 1958, 304; “Tra mate­ri­al­ismo dialet­tico e filosofia della prassi. Gram­sci e Labri­ola”, in La Città futura: Saggi sulla fig­ura e il pen­siero di A. Gram­sci, ed. Alberto Carac­ci­olo and Gianni Scalia (Milan, Fel­trinelli, 1959), 156-157. Also, Tosel, Marx en Italiques, 119. 

  31. And this new monism would indi­cate the impor­tance of the Gram­s­cian con­cept of a “his­tor­i­cal bloc.” Tronti, Alcune ques­tioni intorno al marx­ismo di Gram­sci, 315. 

  32. I bor­row this expres­sion from Lo Iao­cono. 

Authors of the article

holds a doctorate in Philosophy (University of Paris IV – Sorbonne/ Università del Salento). He is a member of the Groupe de recherches matérialistes and is on the editorial board of the Cahiers du GRM. His research interests include the thought of Louis Althusser, French Marxism of the 1930s, and the wider constellation of Italian workerism and post-workerism.

is a professor of Philosophy and researcher at the University of Liège. He is a member of the Groupe de Recherches Matérialistes (GRM) and the Association « Louis Althusser ». He is the author of Le sujet et l'étude. Idéologie et savoir dans le discours maoiste (2010) and Enquête ouvrière et théorie critique. Enjeux et figure de la centralité ouvrière dans l'Italie des années 1960 (2013).