Introduction: Althusser’s Theoretical Experiments

19 May 1978, Paris, France --- Portrait of Communist political philosopher Louis Althusser reading the Communist daily newspaper L'Humanite in his home. He murdered his wife in 1980 and was confined in an asylum until his death. --- Image by © Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/CORBIS

“This should surprise only those who mistake a discussion which is just beginning for a completed enquiry, who mistake a collective effort of reflection for the manifesto of a ‘school of thought,’ or even of a group pursuing a plan established in advance.” 1

Back in 2012, in an introduction to a late text by Louis Althusser, “On Marxist Thought,” Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi traced the zigzags and breaks of the French philosopher’s theoretical trajectory. What emerged was not an image of Althusser as irredeemably “theoreticist,” but as a theorist entangled with the complex legacy of Marxism: its history, its debates, and analytical and political currency within his own conjuncture. From this perspective, the red thread of Althusser’s development is his tight coupling of theoretical production with a “concrete analysis of the concrete situation”; he followed Lenin’s demand to put politics in command at the level of method, with concepts and theses becoming interventions in particular political conjunctures, laying bare fundamental lines of demarcation. 2 By reading his own work as animated by antagonisms and countervailing tendencies – where fundamental concepts are open to translation into different registers – we can detect the “nodal points” of Althusser’s oeuvre. But while these nodal points can help illuminate the diverse elements fused together in Althusser’s thinking, they cannot offer definite footholds – periodizing this conflictual reality will only render other aspects, other positions he occupied, unintelligible. 3

The aim of this dossier is to extend this reading of Althusser: to view him not as an “Althusserian” or “structural Marxist” – a purveyor of a certain reading of Marx alongside a dogmatic importation of Spinoza – but as a Marxist who understood that theoretical work is a “struggle without end.” 4 The existence of revisions and reorientations throughout his career should not be an offense or mark of an underlying incoherence; the situated, often reflexive character of Althusser’s thought serves to demonstrate that there is never a clean fit between theoretical practice and the actual balance of class forces – the conditions of possibility for thought. He no doubt would agree: is not the practice of symptomatic reading premised on the generative character of lacunae in written texts, and an understanding that a theory is never “complete, without gaps or contradictions,” and is thus always determined by a constitutive outside? 5 And following Warren Montag’s recent account, even the dreaded invocations of “structural causality” and the “structured whole” of the capitalist social formation in Reading Capital were not made with the aim of ordering history and the struggles traversing any social formation; rather, these concepts were attempts to grasp the “determinate disorder of history,” as the knowable but irreducibly active relations between contradictory forces. 6

If anything, this emphasis on the contingent and provisional character of relations of force drove Althusser to elaborate a different mode of philosophical practice, as intervention. Like Spinoza and Marx before him, for Althusser the ultimate question confronting intellectuals and theorists is the following: what material effects have your works produced? We can add: how have they become “historically active,” or from a more partisan perspective, how have they been adopted and taken up in the organizational forms of class struggle? 7 How have they “made things move,” faire bouger? The “Gramscian” inflection that Althusser’s work takes on in the mid-70s indicates this desire to grasp the terrain of theory as one of contestation and struggle: “what occurs within philosophy maintains an intimate relation with what occurs in ideologies”: and “what occurs within ideologies maintains a close relation with the class struggle.” 8 This refractory relationship means that the concepts we produce, the categories we focus on, the texts we publish, have determinate effects, and are a specific modality of practice.

Along these lines, the coming English publication of How to Be a Marxist in Philosophy and Philosophy for Non-philosophers, discussed at length in one of the pieces in this dossier, are the most substantial articulations of Althusser’s a materialist “nonphilosophy” refined during this periods and which he hoped would foster “new forms of philosophical existence.” Near the end of How to Be a Marxist in Philosophy, Althusser advances an implicit critique of his earlier attempts to formulate a “Marxist philosophy,” present in a “practical state” in Marx’s texts. In fact, Marxism offers no possibility for an alternative philosophical system. Now there is only a Marxist position in theory: “There is no Marxist philosophy, and there cannot be a Marxist philosophy.” 9 This materialist position, as Hasana Sharp has argued, is cognizant of its “precarious and tentative status as produced within, and productive of, its current conjuncture.” ((Hasana Sharp, ““Is It Simple to be a Feminist in Philosophy?”: Althusser and Feminist Theoretical Practice,” Rethinking Marxism 12, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 18-34.)) More to the point, its tasks do not include entering into the “theoretical laboratory” of idealist philosophy and its ideological hegemony for matters of repurposing – the materialist philosopher seeks to smash the tools and break the workbench.

This is an intensification of the definition of philosophy as the “class struggle in theory” first expressed in the late 1960s. The mot d’ordre of this combat is the waging and linking together of materialist campaigns against idealism – in particular, the latter’s guiding principles of unifying, guaranteeing, and reproducing class rule. The ultimate strategic aim of the these “acts of theoretical war” against idealism is the formation of “a ‘critical and revolutionary’ relation” between these intellectual activities and other “social practices, the stakes and privileged site of class struggle.” 10 In other words, the capacity to engage in philosophical partisan activity – to lob active propositions and theses that reverberate across and modify the intellectual terrain – and the capacity for proletarian political forces to “invent mass-based forms of organization” are connected as two distinct dimensions of an effective movement to destroy the capitalist state. 11

Again, the precise relationship to be established between theory and movements on the ground is left open, and this is important: Althusser only insists that a Marxist practice of philosophy is the “non-philosophy” of the “non-state.” Peter Thomas, for one, has given us a strong take on the differences between Antonio Gramsci and Althusser on the relation between philosophical practice and political practice. In Thomas’s view, Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis allows us to better grasp the political function of philosophical work; it is the theoretical form or distillation of proletarian hegemonic projects, a terrain upon which which the subaltern classes can become conscious of their historical conditions and struggle to transform them. But it’s not clear that the differences here are irreducible. It could be argued that Gramsci’s endeavor to render explicit and subsequently elaborate “the ‘theoretical form’ that is already ‘implicit’ in the ‘practical form’ of the historical action of the masses” is actually quite close to Althusser’s emphasis on analyzing different forms of communist political practice for their theoretical import. 12

More to this point, in their 1970s work Althusser and close colleague Étienne Balibar emphasize that philosophical intervention and proletarian political practice are specific attributes of the same substantial project of counterpower. Balibar draws this connection between the “new practice of politics” put on the agenda by the historical manifestations of working class struggle, and Althusser’s “new practice of philosophy”: “since philosophy is nothing other than politics in theory, they are both indeed two modalities of the same problem.” ((Étienne Balibar, Cinq études du matérialisme historique (Paris: Maspero, 1974), 99n12. Althusser alludes to this phrasing in Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes, ed. G.M. Goshgarian (Paris: PUF, 2014), 255, 275. For a recent reading of Balibar’s text, see Giorgios Kalampokas, “Towards a New Practice of Politics,” paper presented at 12th annual Historical Materialism conference, November 5-8, 2015. I also like G.M. Goshgarian’s rendering in the interview in this dossier: with the new practice of philosophy, “the late Althusser is the dictatorship of the proletariat in thought.”)) But in the same fashion that the exact trajectory of different political sequences – the Paris Commune, Russia in 1917, Italy during the biennio rosso, May ‘68 – cannot be predicted, so the determinate forms and effects of philosophical and political practice can only arise from experimentation and never arrive readymade. ((For an excellent study on the overlap between political currents and intellectual currents in the Paris Commune, see Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury (New York: Verso, 2014). Also see her May ‘68 and Its Afterlives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), Chapter 2.)) In this sense, Augusto Illuminati’s comparison of Althusser’s “materialist philosopher” to the mobile IWW activist, a catalyzer of different forms of struggle and unexpected strategic paths, remains appropriate. 13

The shortage of precedents for this endeavor, even in the Marxist tradition, should be evident; Althusser’s mainstay examples are Marx, Lenin, Mao and Gramsci’s own theoretical interventions, and the way in which their thinking was formed and developed within the working class movements of their respective times. 14 But it is in light of this ambitious project of intervention that we we should read some of Althusser’s final texts: “Marx in His Limits,” “Marxism Today,” and others. How do we rethink not only the history of Marxism, but also the forms in which it is practiced and received? How do we map the possible intersections between between intellectual intervention and militant practice? Althusser’s corpus shows that these questions are anything but easy to answer, and can never be configured before the fact. The texts in this dossier, from different perspectives and modes of presentation, rearrange a certain image of Althusser. But if read carefully, it should be clear that the rhythm and pace of Althusser’s thinking prevented any one “distillation” in the first place, any single coherent center: nor did it have one stable object or target. Althusser’s philosophical strategy – his way of inhabiting theory – might still yield considerable effects.


Pierre Macherey’s “Althusser and the Young Marx,” the first text presented here, can be read as an entry in what Althusser calls in Reading Capital the “history of theoretical practice” or the “history of the production of knowledges.” 15 Macherey meticulously interrogates Althusser’s démarche in one of his most famous – and controversial – articles, “On the Young Marx,” from 1960. He presents Althusser’s project in this text as a delicate and complex operation: one which had immediate polemical targets in Sartre and the other humanist readers of Marx dealt with at length, but was also intended as a recasting of the intellectual history of Marxism, or more specifically, how to adequately reconstruct Marx’s theoretical and political development. This initial project finds traces in the most exciting recent attempts to rigorously investigate the combined sources of Marx’s thinking as well the unstable social and intellectual reality which produced profound shifts in his trajectory. 16 At another level, we may also note the considerable similarities between Macherey’s gloss on “theoretical work” in Althusser and his reading, in Hegel or Spinoza, of Spinoza’s notion of intellectual labor (opera intellectualia): a precarious activity that has always already begun, with no methodological guarantees or preestablished end, and whose causal “history” can be traced through its own effective practice. 17

The massive interview with G.M. Goshgarian in many ways constitutes the centerpiece of this collection of texts. There are too many topics covered within it to sufficiently summarize here, but Goshgarian’s detailed history of both the posthumous publication of Althusser’s writings and his breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of the subsequent critical reception an excellent map of the current landscape of Althusserian scholarship worldwide. He also provides a useful outline of the subtle shifts in Althusser’s conception of philosophy and Marxism after “Lenin and Philosophy,” and foregrounds the link Althusser draws between philosophical practice and the dictatorship of the proletariat, or a new practice of politics which seeks to overcome the dictatorship of bourgeois democracy. He ends with a survey of one of the unpublished archival texts to be released by the Press Universitaires de France later this year, Les Vaches noires, another important reference point in Althusser’s struggle within the PCF. Much like Goshgarian’s scrupulous and indispensable translator’s introductions to recent collections of Althusser’s writings, this interview is an intellectual historical feat unto itself. 18

Eva Mancuso’s “Indication as Concept: Althusser, Spinoza, and the Logic of the “Groupes Althussériens” (1965-1968)” performs a symptomatic reading of a cluster Althusser’s texts so as to recover from them a Spinozist dimension that has gone largely unnoticed in the critical literature: the notion of “indication.” 19 Introduced by Spinoza in Book II of the Ethics as a way of registering encounters with external bodies, in Althusser’s work indication is transported in the realm of thought and research. Although the French term indicatif/ve is often translated into English by Ben Brewster as gestural, Mancuso demonstrates that the word has a precise meaning for Althusser, in situating the difference between ideology and science and thus acting as a “virtual trigger of the process of knowledge.” This “triggering” function implies that scientific knowledge does not come about through clean ruptures so much as through detours, incomplete outlines, and unexpected effects – a point clearly made in Macherey’s article discussed above. Through a close reading of both For Marx but also a few texts from the 1970s, Mancuso also notes a certain convergence between Althusser’s understanding of indicative knowledge, the effectivity of ideology, and collective research with Ranciere’s modified critique (following his searing earlier work, Althusser’s Lesson) of Althusser in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: both seek to discover a mode of transmitting of knowledge that would avoid reproducing a division between leaders and led, thus overturning the “Kautskyist-Leninist conception of ideology.” 20 At the same time, Mancuso offers a framework for bringing together the seemingly opposed readings of Spinoza by Althusser and Gilles Deleuze – two major interpretations in the broader Spinoza renaissance in France throughout the mid to late twentieth century. ((For another reading of the differences between Althusser and Deleuze’s respective readings of Spinoza, see Knox Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).))

Andrea Cavazzini and Fabrizio Carlino’s “Althusser and Workerism: Notes Toward the Study of a Missed Encounter” historically situates the correspondences and non-correspondences between Althusser and that other version of Marxism which developed on the European continent over the course of the 1960s: Italian workerism, specifically Mario Tronti’s Workers and Capital. Cavazzini and Carlino discuss the stakes these two refoundations of Marxist theory had for communist strategy, and how each respectively construes the relationship between theory and practice. Althusser and Tronti always were at one remove from each other; Althusser was directly critical of Tronti’s teacher Galvano Della Volpe, with whom he shared an interest in discerning the precise nature of theoretical abstraction, and the terms of Althusser’s influence in Italy shifted intensely in light of Antonio Negri’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the late Althusser. 21 Cavazzini and Carlino pose the missed encounter of Tronti and Althusser not only at the level of theoretical sources or backgrounds – especially Tronti’s Hegelian leanings – but primarily at the level of their own political positions in communist organizations. The vibrant theoretical and political culture that Palmiro Togliatti instituted within the PCI allowed Tronti the space to identify political possibilities outside the party, and impact the party line by theorizing on the basis of those autonomous struggles; the PCF’s strict harnessing of theory and politics meant that Althusser had to find room for theoretical regeneration in the first place. 22 From this difference, Cavazzini and Carlino carefully show its consequences in terms of the object and nature of Althusser and Tronti’s projects. We may lament the fact that other potential convergences are missing: for instance, both Althusser and Tronti in their readings of Marx place an emphasis on the “historical” and “concrete” chapters of Capital – which Althusser deems as “on the margin of the dominant mode of exposition” – in order to interrupt any easy transhistorical or teleological assumptions about the work, and to understand what Tronti calls “the story of capitalist society from the working-class viewpoint.” 23 But Cavazzini and Carlino are clear that their text only aims to “open the discussion on this subject,” and it does so in a wonderfully provocative manner.

The recent publication of the complete edition of Reading Capital for the first time in English furnishes the backdrop for four of the pieces in the dossier.

In his short piece, “Listening to Reading Capital,” William S. Lewis provides a handy mode d’emploi to the massive Althusser archive at the IMEC in Caen, France (mentioned extensively in the Goshgarian interview as well), with a particular focus on the recently discovered audiotapes of Althusser’s pivotal 1965 seminar. These recordings, warts and all, might help us better track the “rhythm” of Althusser’s (and his interlocutors’) thinking, and thus “allow for the most accurate genealogy of one of the most important texts in 20th century Marxist philosophy.”

Alex Demirovic’s “Why Should We Read Althusser (Again)?” is a review of the German complete edition of Reading Capital which first appeared at Theoriekritik last year. He offers valid reasons of the underwhelming reception to Althusser’s work in Germany (which has been mitigated by the pioneering efforts of Frieder Otto Wolf) and helpfully identifies the significance of Althusser’s approach in his most famous book. Demirovic inserts interesting asides on the differences between Althusser’s reading of Marx and that of value-form theorists like Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt or the connection between Althusser’s theory of subjection and Foucault’s hermeneutics of the subject. However, Demirovic’s lucid account, contra facile misreadings, of the core arguments of Althusser’s chapters in Reading Capital and the philosophical understanding of contingency underpinning this dense work, is admirable – there are particularly succinct presentations of what theoretical practice actually implies and the connection Althusser draws between concepts of structure, conjuncture, and articulation.

Finally, Verso Books has graciously allowed us to publish an excerpt from Jacques Rancière’s contribution to Reading Capital, “The Concept of Critique and the Critique of Political Economy: From the 1844 Manuscripts to Capital.” Translations of different sections of this lengthy text appeared in the British journals Theoretical Practice and Economy and Society over the course of the mid-1970s; a complete version was published in the now out-of-print collection Ideology, Method, and Marx: Essays from Economy and Society in 1989. As Panagiotis Sotiris has recently argued, this essay constitutes an excellent point of encounter between certain Althusserian concepts – specifically, “absent” or “metonymic” causality or structural “effectivity” – and the theory of the value-form in Capital, or the question of social forms within a capitalist economy. 24 In order to understand and explain the forms of appearance of a capitalist economy (commodity exchange or generalized market exchangeability), one must analyze the social relations that determine the capitalist mode of production and the complex dialectic between essence and appearance which results, but is irreducible to an alienated subjectivity. The social character of labor, and the social constitution of capitalist relations of production, becomes a cause rendered invisible by its effects. We present here the central section where Ranciere identifies and elaborates these conceptual difficulties in Marx’s work.

Image from Althusser’s unpublished text, “Du matérialisme aléatoire” (1986). The text appeared in Multitudes 21, no. 2 (2005): 179-94.


The “endless” paths of research Althusser has left us are only partially broached in the texts which follow. 25 To finish this introduction, I want to briefly gesture to three other potential topics of inquiry: 

A) Political Encounters: In Reading Capital, in a moment which might seem out of place, Althusser comments on how Marx’s “revolutionary experience intervened in his theoretical practice” as an “object of experience, or even experiment” which contributed to “the upheaval which led him from ideological theoretical practice to scientific theoretical practice.” The revolutions of 1848 forced Marx to set in motion a complete overhaul of his theoretical arsenal, and led to some of his most penetrating analyses of specific political sequences, in The Eighteenth Brumaire and Class Struggles in France. In these conjunctural texts, Marx had to account not only for the the multiplicity and complexity of forces at work – certain relationships, institutions, apparatuses, and subjectivities – but also the specific way they were conjoined, combined, or deviated from one another. Concrete reflection and analysis was connected to the development of political strategy; and the volatility of apposite forces called for an examination of the undeveloped and unforeseeable determinations that inevitably characterize material encounters. 26

One may note that the topic of aleatory materialism is left relatively unbroached over the course of this dossier (with a few exceptions), but it’s clear that the concept of encounter is well-suited to articulating the often contingent way different ideational and material elements of social movements and conflicts cohere. Taking specific episodes or conjunctures as “objects of experiment” for analysis, and retracing the precise way in which currents of thought and practice effectively circulated or perhaps miss each other, is a mode of theorizing that Althusser only hinted at in this passage from Reading Capital, but he had already engaged in “Contradiction and Overdetermination.” He expanded upon it in almost kaleidoscopic fashion in the first chapter of Machiavelli and Us, on “Theory and Political Practice” and his interpretation of Machiavelli as a thinker of the “singular case.” 27 This type of close reading of social forces, political strategy, and movements of resistance can be observed in some of the most promising research on the history of social movements. For instance, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin’s account of the Black Panther Party, where the authors focus on the Panthers’ development of efficacious “insurgent practices”; there is also Christina Heatherton’s concept of “convergence spaces,” which she evokes in order to show how highly disparate radical traditions were often forced together in particular sites, leading to unforeseen alliances and new modes of organizing, mobilization and collective study and theorizing. 28 Of course, there is also the question of missed political encounters. The analysis processes of decomposition, defeat, and the closures of political possibility is doubtless a pressing theoretical task. 29

B) Education: In his foreword to On the Reproduction of Capitalism, Balibar calls attention to one of the “apparatuses of collective research” to which Althusser and his colleagues devoted much time and work in the late 1960s: the “‘group working on the schools.” ((Étienne Balibar, Foreword to On the Reproduction of Capitalism, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (New York: Verso, 2014), ix-xii.)) The “Schools” group, composed of Althusser, Balibar, Pierre Macherey, Roger Establet, Christian Baudelot, and Michel Tort, investigated the theory and role of the school system in capitalist society.

One aim was to pair particular inquiries of the scholastic apparatus – how knowledge is structured and transmitted within universities, research institutes, or primary and secondary schools, the division between manual and intellectual labour, the impact of student struggles – with a more general analysis of how this apparatus contributed to the reproduction of capitalist social relations. A collective manuscript did materialize from this program of study, and was also to include selections of readings by Nadezhda Krupskaya and other socialist texts on education; however, for various reasons – simultaneously political, intellectual, and physical, the group fell apart by 1970 and the written text was never released. Bits and pieces emerged in Baudelot and Establet’s L’École capitaliste en France, Balibar’s important essay on the mental/manual labor distinction, and of course Althusser’s Sur la reproduction manuscript. 30 The understanding of education in the last – as a determinate terrain of struggle, i.e., the “dominant Ideological State Apparatus in capitalist social formations” – seems particularly worthwhile to revisit today. ((Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, 144-47.)) Althusser’s discourse on the subject might seem a tad dated, in that for him the network of educational institutions seems to to be purely inculcative, shaping and molding subjects to be bearers of labor-power. Still, struggles and debates over the direction and purpose of educational policies are indicative of broader class relations and political attitudes. 31

In addition to analyzing the cohesive ideological function of educational institutions, as contributing to the continuation of relations of exploitation, Althusser sees the question of education, especially alternative practices of education, to be of the utmost importance for the class struggle. The concept of revolutionary formation, or training, has been an overlooked facet of Althusser’s work; after Ranciere’s criticisms in Althusser’s Lesson, where the whole of his former teacher’s philosophy is figured as a “philosophy of order,” many have written over earlier texts like “Theory, Theoretical Practice, and Theoretical Formation” as just another manifestation of Althusser’s refusal to put the pedagogical relation itself into question, resulting in a static, didactic view of education. But as Mancuso’s piece in this dossier shows, and Fabio Bruschi has recently argued through a close reading of Althusser’s mid-60s texts on the topic, Althusser’s conception of education needs to be reread through how he himself understood science and collective research: as a disciplined, ongoing process of rupture, even experimentation, with political effects. 32 In other words, education was not a purely intellectual affair – “teaching” Marxist-Leninist theory – but also an uncertain project of translation between scientific analysis, organizational form, and class struggle:

[E]ducational activity, which transforms spontaneous proletarian ideology into proletarian ideology with ever more distinctly scientific Marxist-Leninist contents, has historically been carried out in complex forms. It includes education in the current sense of the word, through books, brochures, schools and, in general, propaganda, but, above all, through education at the heart of the practice of the class struggle itself: through experience/ experiment, criticism of it, rectification of it, and so on. 33

Althusser’s jettisoning of any idealist category of the subject – understood in terms of interiority or consciousness – certainly renders it difficult to figure out how education, or political education, is supposed to work. But in this passage one gets the sense that it means not only the “formative” activity and of study groups, organizing meetings, or the publication and circulation of information and currents of thought, but also the accumulation of experiences of struggle. 34 In this way, we can think of education in a second sense as an experimental process, involving interwoven moments of collective learning, translation, and enquiry between movements; moments that may correspond to more lasting combinations and forms of activity, or which may not take hold. 35 This archive of strategic traces – “lessons of practice” – is not reducible to something like consciousness; here, Badiou’s term for Althusser’s conception of political agency, “subjectivity without a subject” needs to be refined. ((Alain Badiou, Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker (London: Verso 2005), 68-77. For Althusser’s thoughts on agency and subjectivity as a void or empty place, see Machiavelli and Us, ed. François Matheron, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 1999), 20.)) A material, collective, and organized subjectivity which is composed of the comprehension and experience of past struggles, and whose capacity to act is also connected to the effects and forces of the actual conjuncture – this seems to be in close proximity to the subjective power Althusser envisioned.

C) The reception of Althusser among communist groups in the United States. This may seem like a topic that is cut-and-dry: most revolutionary formations in the U.S. during the 1960s and 70s, especially those associated with the New Left or the New Communist Movement, seemed to either ignore Althusser entirely, or held the line that he only appealed to intellectuals and not the working class masses, thus forgoing one of the fundamental principles of Marxism-Leninism. And indeed, the reception of Althusser in the United States was restricted first and foremost to the influence of academic circles – as part and parcel of the invasion of “French Theory” into humanities departments across the country.

Nevertheless, as Paul Saba has outlined in a recent interview with Viewpoint, there was a minor but compelling engagement with Althusser’s work among U.S. Marxists, particularly the cluster of NCM collectives involved with Theoretical Review. Their general project – to widen the field of reference for Marxism in the United States by looking to Althusser, Gramsci, Nicos Poulantzas, and others, and limn how theory could work as a conduit for conjunctural analysis and the development of appropriate political strategies – is still a worthy endeavor, and has significant overlaps with the work of Stuart Hall’s work at Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and Marxism Today and smaller groups like Communist Formation in the UK. 36

This was not the only direct confrontation with Althusser’s work in the U.S. at the time, either. The Sojourner Truth Organization, with political influences ranging from Italian workerism to CLR James and W.E.B. Du Bois, hosted a critical symposium, titled “The Politics of Althusser,” in the Summer 1978 issue of their important theoretical journal, Urgent Tasks. ((Michael Staudenmaier has written a fascinating history of STO, and gives extensive attention to their theoretical sources: Truth and Revolution (Oakland: AK Press, 2012).))

Featuring articles from Martin Glaberman, Don Hamerquist, and Ken Lawrence (under his pseudonym, Jasper Collins) and a translated excerpt from Althusser’s series of articles for Le Monde in 1978, published in English as “What Must Change in the Party” (the Urgent Tasks translation seems to have been done roughly simultaneously with the full-length one which appeared in New Left Review the same year), most of the arguments put forth are highly dismissive of Althusser’s reading of Marx and his “philosophical” perspective, often crudely so. ((For the NLR translation, see Louis Althusser, “What Must Change in the Party,” trans. Patrick Camiller, New Left Review I/109 (May-June 1978):19-45).))

However, Hamerquist’s article takes a different path: through a close reading of Althusser’s rebuttal to the PCF’s recent strategic maneuvers and excision of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat at the 22nd Congress in 1976, he tries to gauge the relationship between Althusser’s theoretical problematic and political outlook. In doing so, Hamerquist does an admirable job delineating the tendencies within the competing Eurocommunist strategies then-dominant among the Communist Parties in Europe. 37 He also sees Althusser critical stance in regards to the leadership of the PCF and his support for mass autonomous organizing outside the party as promising, since these positions deviate from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy (with a surprising comparison to Gramsci of the Ordine Nuovo period!). Although ultimately dismissive of Althusser’s theoretical writings – note that Hamerquist does not directly reference the texts on the “crisis of Marxism” – there is a refreshing focus on the strategic orientations of Althusser’s thinking and his place in the international communist movement. 

While there are certainly other links to map in this reception, these encounters constitute two signposts in constructing an alternative genealogy of Althusser’s influence in the United States: a genealogy attentive to how his ideas were initially introduced and transmitted among political militants and activists. The archival sources for this research would be scarce, and much information has probably been already lost to radical memory; but it could enrich the voluminous academic and political reception that Goshgarian traces so thoroughly in the interview included here, and which have been covered elsewhere. 38


The flurry of interest and activity around Althusser’s work in recent years is everywhere visible in the texts which follow. The best one can hope in an enterprise of rereading is to incite others to return to the basic problematic underpinning an author’s text, and the conflicts traversing it. The movement of reciprocal determination that is critical reading can set up productive confrontations – the polyphony of voices and forces in Althusser’s texts, both published and unpublished, has meant that his oeuvre can be returned to again and again with fresh eyes. Montag can have the last word as to the value of this undertaking: “the record of his thought is simultaneously a record of the way he inhabited or occupied a specific philosophical conjuncture.” The texts assembled in this dossier might hold some resources for our own.

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


1 Étienne Balibar, “Postscript to the English Edition,” in On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, trans. Grahame Lock (London: NLB, 1977), 218.
2 I owe this turn of phrase to Asad Haider.
3 For an artful overview of these difficulties of periodization, see Yoshihiko Ichida and François Matheron, “Un, deux, trois, quatre, dix mille Althusser? Considérations aléatoires sur le matérialisme aléatoire,” Multitudes 21, no. 2 (2005): 167-78.
4 Louis Althusser, “Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, trans. Warren Montag, in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays, ed. Gregory Elliott (New York: Verso, 1990), 143. For a still enlightening read, indicative of the extent to which Althusser and his intellectual circle were misread in an English-speaking context, see the interview with Étienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey conducted by James H. Kavanagh and Thomas E. Lewis in Diacritics 12, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 46-51.
5 See Louis Althusser, “Marxism Today,” in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, 276.
6 Warren Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 11, 95-96ff. See in particular Montag’s elegant way of conjugating the different “phases” of Althusser’s thought in this attempt, as a way of grasping “structure as singularity (Spinoza) and conjuncture (Lucretius), while simultaneously and indissociably thinking singularity and conjuncture as structure” (96).
7 See Warren Montag, Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and His Contemporaries (London: Verso, 1999), xxi; Louis Althusser, “Marxism Today,” 275.
8 Louis Althusser, “The Transformation of Philosophy,” in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, 256.
9 Louis Althusser, Être marxiste en philosophie, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2015), 314. Étienne Balibar, in his The Philosophy of Marx, offers a similar, and probably more well-known formulation, drawing on Althusser: “there is no Marxist philosophy and there never will be,” and that Marx’s theoretical practice entails a “non-philosophy, even an anti-philosophy.” See Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 1995), 1-2.
10 Althusser, “The Transformation of Philosophy,” 265.
11 For an interesting elaboration on this “way of articulating” philosophy and communist political practice, see Alberto Toscano, “The Detour of Theory,” Diacritics 43, no. 2 (2015): 85.
12 Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment:Philosophy, Hegemony, and Marxism (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 430. See Althusser, “On Theoretical Work: Difficulties and Resources,” in The Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays, 65-66: “That a principle of such theoretical fecundity and importance was contained in the practical state in Lenin’s political analyses and interventions from 1917 to 1923 is an incontestable fact. That this principle remained in a practical state, no one being sufficiently advised to ‘derive’ it from Lenin’s political works, is, unfortunately, also a fact. A theoretical treasure was there, within reach, in Lenin’s political works; no one ‘discovered’ it, and it remained sterile…Moreover, there has been no systematic theoretical work drawn from Lenin’s political practice, bearing on the theoretical concepts of historical materialism and dialectical materialism and thus on the important theoretical, even philosophical, discoveries produced by Lenin’s political practice. In the same way, a number of theoretical concepts remained in the ‘practical state’ in the works of Marx himself. To what do we owe this regrettable situation, whose effects can be painfully felt today? Without a doubt, to the urgency of the political tasks of the working-class movement, which was not allowed the leisure of calm study by its class enemy. But also to the conception of Marxism constructed by ‘intellectuals of the working class’, cut off as they were either from its real practice or from the practice that produced its theory, and thus subject, despite their political loyalty, to bourgeois ideologies – empiricism, evolutionism, humanism, pragmatism – which they projected on to the great classical texts, as they did on to the great deeds of the working-class movement. Be that as it may, this situation lays a precise task before us: to draw from Marx, from Lenin, and from the great Communist leaders, not only what they said in their theoretical works, but also whatever these works contain in the practical state, as well as whatever their political works contain by way of theoretical discoveries. An urgent task. Thus, important theoretical events do not always or exclusively occur in theory: it happens that they also occur in politics, and that as a result, in certain of its sectors, political practice finds itself in advance of theory. It happens that theory does not take notice of these theoretical events, which occur outside its official, recognized field, even though they are decisive, in many respects, for its own development.”
13 Augusto Illuminati, “Recent Italian Translations of Althusser’s Texts on Aleatory Materialism,” trans. Arianna Bove, Borderlands 4, no. 2 (2005). For the Althusser text in question, see “Portrait of a Materialist Philosopher,” in The Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987, trans. GM Goshgarian and ed. François Matheron and Olivier Corpet (New York: Verso, 2006), 290-291.
14 See Pierre Macherey “Théorie,” in Dictionnaire critique du marxisme, ed. Gérard Bensussan and Georges Labica (Paris: PUF, 1982), 1142-1148. On Althusser’s theoretical and political relationship to Mao and Maoism, see Étienne Balibar, “Althusser et Mao,” Revue Période, May 18th, 2015.
15 Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1970), 44.
16 Cf. Paulin Clochec, “Le libéralisme de Marx,” Actuel Marx 56, no. 2 (2014): 109-23.
17 Pierre Macherey, Hegel or Spinoza, trans. Susan Ruddick (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 47-56ff. The Spinozist phrase is from his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect; Samuel Shirley renders it as “intellectual works.” See Baruch Spinoza, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, in Complete Works, ed. Michael L. Morgan, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), 10.
18 G.M. Goshgarian, “Introduction” to Louis Althusser, The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, trans. GM Goshgarian and ed. François Matheron (New York: Verso, 2003); “Introduction” to The Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987. Also see Goshgarian’s recent article in Diacritics, a reworked version of his introduction to the French edition of Etre marxiste en philosophie: “A Marxist in Philosophy,” Diacritics 43, no. 2 (2015): 24-46.
19 Mancuso’s article first appeared as “L’indication comme concept. La logique des ‘groupes althussériens’ (1965-1968),” Cahiers du GRM 7 (2015).
20 See also Andrea Cavazzini, “La maîtrise impossible. Pour un bon usage du Maître ignorant,” Le Télémaque 44, no. 2 (2013): 89-98; see also Cavazzini’s conversation with Yves Duroux included as an appendix to his Le Sujet et l’Étude. Idéologie et savoir dans le discours maoïste (Rennes: Clou de Fer, 2011). Mancuso also does not spend much time on Althusser’s “Marx in his Limits,” which aside from being a representative text which proceeds via “indications,” also critically engages with Kautsky and Lenin on the problem of political consciousness only coming to workers “from without.” Of course, Lars Lih’s pathbreaking work in his What is to Be Done? in Context (Chicago: Haymarket, 2006) has forced us to rethink Lenin and Kautsky’s theory and practice on this score.
21 The positions of Althusser, Della Volpe and Tronti on determinate abstraction are dealt with at length in Andrew Anastasi’s upcoming introduction to his edited dossier on Tronti’s early essays.
22 See also Balibar’s contribution to the recent conference on Reading Capital at Princeton University in December 2015: “A Point of Heresy in Western Marxism: Althusser’s and Tronti’s Antithetic Readings of Capital in the Early 60’s.” For a provocative reading of Togliatti in relation to Western Marxism, see Peter D. Thomas’s interview with George Souvlis, “Historical Materialism at Sixteen: An Interview With Peter D. Thomas,Jacobin Magazine, May 10th, 2014.
23 Another point of entry: Althusser’s brief, but suggestive, remarks on working-class autonomy. See On the Reproduction of Capitalism, 230: “The working class’s great strategic demand for autonomy reflects this condition. Subjected [soumis] to the domination of the bourgeois state and the effect of intimidation and ‘self-evidence’ of the dominant ideology, the working class can win its autonomy only on condition that it free itself from the dominant ideology, that it demarcate itself from it, in order to endow itself with forms of organization and action that realize its own ideology, proletarian ideology. Characteristic of this break, this radical distance taken, is the fact that it can be achieved only by a protracted struggle which must take the forms of bourgeois domination into account and combat the bourgeoisie within its own forms of domination, but without ever being ‘taken in’ by the game represented by these forms, which are not simple, neutral ‘forms’, but apparatuses that realize the existence of the dominant ideology.”
24 Panagiotis Sotiris, “Althusserianism and Value-form Theory: Rancière, Althusser and the Question of Fetishism,” Crisis and Critique 2, no. 2 (2015): 167-93. For another take on the same problematic, see John Milios, “Rethinking Marx’s Value-Form Analysis from an Althusserian Perspective,” Rethinking Marxism, 21, no. 2 (April 2009).
25 The Groupes de recherches matérialistes has already left us with an exhaustive list of research questions on Althusser in their interview with Étienne Balibar and Yves Duroux: see Althusser : une nouvelle pratique de la philosophie entre politique et idéologie. Conversation avec Étienne Balibar et Yves Duroux (Partie I),” Cahiers du GRM 7 (2015). Part II of this discussion has also been released.
26 Étienne Balibar, “Structural Causality, Overdetermination, and Antagonism,” in Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory, ed. Antonio Callari and David F. Ruccio (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 109-19.
27 An exemplary reading of this text can be found in Warren Montag, “Althusser’s Lenin,” Diacritics 43, no. 2 (2015): 48-66. For a strong reading of aleatory materialism, and its applicability to a politics of resistance, see Banu Bargu, “In the Theatre of Politics,” Diacritics 40, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 86-113.
28 Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Black Against Empire: The History of the Black Panther Party; Christina Heatherton, “A University of Radicalism: Ricardo Flores Magón and Leavenworth Penitentiary, American Quarterly 66, no. 3 (Summer 2014): 557-81.
29 For potential precedents, see Marco Revelli, “Defeat at Fiat,” trans. Red Notes, Capital & Class 16 (Spring 1982), 95-109; Sergio Bologna and Patrick Cuninghame, “For an Analysis of Autonomia: An Interview with Sergio Bologna Left History 7, no. 2 (2000): 89-102. See also Raffaele Sbardella, “The NEP of Classe Operaia,” trans. and introduced by Daniel Spaulding, in Viewpoint.
30 Cf. Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, L’école capitaliste en France (Paris, Maspero, 1971); Étienne Balibar,”Sur le concept marxiste de division du travail manuel et du travail intellectuel,” in L’Intellectuel: L’Intelligentsia et les manuels, ed. Jean Belkhir (Paris: Éditions Anthropos, 1983), 97-117. Selections from the Baudelot and Establet text, and the Balibar essay in its entirety, will be translated to appear in Viewpoint in the near future. Note that Daniel Lindenberg edited and introduced an indispensable anthology of socialist and communist texts on education, circa the period of the Second and Third Internationals, shortly after Althusser’s Schools group fell apart: see Daniel Lindenberg, L’Internationale communiste et l’école de classe (Paris: Maspero, 1971).
31 For an Althusserian approach to this question, see Panagiotis Sotiris, “Higher Education and Class: Production or Reproduction?,” Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 11, no. 1 (2013): 95-143. Cf. Gigi Roggero, The Production of Living Knowledge (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011). Stuart Hall provides an exemplary approach as to how contestations over primary and secondary education acts as barometers for larger political realignments in his “The Great Moving Right Show,” in The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis (London: Verso, 1988), 39-56. Contemporary connections between campus activism and anti-racist struggles in the U.S. context have been analyzed in James Cersonsky’s and Oyinkan Muraina’s movement inquiry, Black Liberation on Campus, 2015? Note that Pierre Macherey has offered a conceptual history of the “university” and its aims and practices in his La parole universitaire (Paris, La Fabrique éditions, 2011).
32 Fabio Bruschi, “Althusser et l’intellectuel collectif: cole, formation théorique et disparition de l’intellectuel dans la conception althussérienne de l’éducation,” talk given at the “Penser la transformation” colloquium, Université de Montpellier 3, April 30th, 2015. On similar themes in Alain Badiou’s work, see A.J. Bartlett, Badiou and Plato: An Education By Truths (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2011). For Althusser’s understanding of pedagogy as rupture, see Louis Althusser “Correspondence with Jacques Lacan,” in Writings on Psychoanalysis, ed. and trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 151.
33 Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, 181n13.
34 For a novel take on the organization of this formative activity, see Cavazzini, Le Sujet et l’Étude.
35 On the political “labor of translation,” see Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 270-76. The question of subjectivation or subject-formation in Althusser is complex: workable elements can be found not only in his work on ideology, but also his work on aesthetics – see Althusser’s 1962 essay “The ‘Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht,” included in For Marx, and his unfinished “On Brecht and Marx,” the latter essay found as an appendix to Warren Montag, Louis Althusser (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 136-49. The symposium in Differences 26, no. 3 (November 2005) on “Althusser’s Dramaturgy and the Critique of Ideology,” with essays by Balibar, Banu Bargu, Judith Butler, and Warren Montag is also enlightening. See also Balibar’s essay “Subjection and Subjectivation,” in Supposing the Subject, ed. Joan Copjec (London: Verso, 1994), 1-15. Although I disagree with his assessment of Lenin, I find Howard Caygill’s discussion of Rosa Luxemburg’s “break with the model of consciousness” by her conception of resistance and revolution as a “process of metamorphosis…a dynamic conflict and expansion of forces” very suggestive: see Howard Caygill, On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 47-9.
36 See Communist Formation’s 1977 essay, “The Distinguishing Features of Leninist Political Practice.” The conceptual framework of Theoretical Review has some resonances with more recent attempts to think Althusser, Gramsci, and Poulantzas together: cf. Panagiotis Sotiris, “Neither an Instrument nor a Fortress: Poulantzas’s Theory of the State and his Dialogue with Gramsci,” Historical Materialism 22, no. 2 (2014): 135-57; Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, and his article “Conjuncture of the Integral State? Poulantzas’s Reading of Gramsci,” in Reading Poulantzas, eds. Alexander Gallas, Lars Bretthauer, John Kannankulam, and Ingo Stützle (London: Merlin Press, 2011), 277-92. A contemporaneous comparative reference for Theoretical Review would be Christine Buci-Glucksman and David Kaisergruber’s French-language journal Dialectiques, a major transmission belt of Eurocommunist theory and strategy, with a distinctive perspective on the Marxist theory of the state and social movements that combined Gramscian, Althusserian, and Poulantzian points of inflection. Translations of important articles from Dialectiques, including Étienne Balibar’s “Etat, parti, transition,” Dialectiques no. 27 (1979): 81-92, will appear in Viewpoint in the future. For Buci-Glucksmann’s extensive reexamination of Gramsci, see her Gramsci and the State, trans. David Fernbach (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1980).
37 For another perspective on Eurocommunist strategies, and the tensions and difficulties for understanding the conceptual and practical relation between revolutionary organization and state power in the West, see Asad Haider, “Bernstein in Seattle: Representative Democracy and the Revolutionary Subject (Part 2),” also in Viewpoint.
38 See Gregory Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of Theory (London: Verso Books, 1988). Also Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries, 93. The criticism Montag cites from Gilbert Mury, a PCF comrade of Althusser, is worth revisiting: “Matérialisme et hyperempiricisme,” La Pensée no. 108 (April 1963): 38–51. Cavazzini and Carlino’s brief discussion of Althusser’s influence on the milieu around the journals Futur antérieur and Multitudes is another node of reception to consider.

Author of the article

is a member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint and a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.