Félix Boggio Éwanjé-Épée: Can you revisit the different “periods” of the publication of Althusser’s works and the posthumous reception of them? At first glance, it would seem that the “late Althusser” dominated the initial posthumous reception and publication of Althusser’s work. How can we explain this? Didn’t this first phase “distort” the image one might have of a late Althusser completely distinct from the “theoreticist” Althusser of the years 1960-66?
G.M. Goshgarian: Let’s not forget that the “late Althusser” was also the author of The Future Lasts a Long Time, his 1985 autobiography, which, at the request of Althusser’s sole heir, his nephew François Boddaert, led off the posthumous publication program in 1992, together with an autobiographical fragment drafted in 1976, The Facts. It’s quite likely that, even today, The Future Lasts a Long Time continues to dominate the reception of Althusser: witness the many editions the book has gone through in France and abroad. At all events, The Future and the “Althusser case” certainly dominated the first posthumous receptions in France. And the philosophical commentary has hardly been left unscathed by the morbid and generally stupid reactions to the “case” – quite the contrary. For example, someone it would be uncharitable to name could publish a book on Althusser in 1999 in which he proved, across twenty pages, plying interpretive methods the analytic and even predictive value of which is irrefutably demonstrated by their results, that one text by Althusser, “On the Social Contract,” was a “retraction” of the “murderous folly” of another, “On the Cultural Revolution.”1 The one problem with this very original reading is that the anonymous text on the Cultural Revolution dates from November 1966, whereas its “retraction” predates it by several months. Our learned expert on the life and work of Althusser, you will say, simply mistook the second edition of “On the Social Contract” for the first. That’s true, of course, but also utterly beside the point here, because, in an exercise of this sort, the facts – chronological facts not excepted – are deduced from the conclusions that one has set out to establish. Conclusion: Althusser’s “thought” was a transparent rationalization of his madness. Ergo, to turn now to the facts, the “madman Althusser” hallucinated, in the form of an essay on the Cultural Revolution, a “Marxist revelation” in Beijing, and later retracted that criminal nonsense by way of an analysis of Rousseau’s “flight forward” – for “the moment for retraction always comes” (there are, to be sure, exceptions to this rule). Which flight forward was that, you ask? But doesn’t Althusser tell us at the end of his reading of the Social Contract that Rousseau resolves the insoluble contradictions of his thought by means of a transference onto literature? Flight forward (or back), murderous folly, “transference” onto literature, you get the picture: with this “retraction” – the “fatal inevitability of which” is clear as day to someone who happens not to have noticed that the essay on Rousseau predates the one on the “perfect crime” of the Cultural Revolution – Althusser “anticipates his future,” and thus his Future: to wit, the murder of his wife, followed by the imaginary resolution, via the autobiography, of the contradictions that motivated the crime. QED.
Despite the indecency of this sort of thing, to say nothing of the glaring incompetence that is its condition of possibility, the book crowned by this mad flight into archi-achronology (which also mounts, contra Althusser, a spirited defense of the “archi-homogeneity” of time and the “real order of real genesis”: how’s that for dialectics?) could in 1999 take its place in a highly respected series: the same series whose general editor, driven by a fatally inevitable desire to make amends for this 1999 slip, published a collection of Althusser’s writings in 1994: Philippe Sollers’ series “L’infini.” Did this defamatory libel precipitate a wave of indignant protest? It did not. What’s the explanation for this phenomenon, of which we’ve cited one example out of a thousand and more? I’m afraid I don’t have one. It was a bad period, as the saying goes.
Let me reformulate your question, so as to bracket out the countless receptions of this kind, although it would be a mistake, in my opinion, to pass them over in silence. Did the “late Althusser,” the aleatory materialist philosopher of the 1980s, dominate 1. the first posthumous publications and 2. the at least minimally informed responses to them?
Let’s take a look at the different “periods” of the posthumous work. To begin: nearly all of Althusser’s writings were, if not published, then at least made public over 20 years ago. With the exception of his correspondence, which isn’t accessible without the authorization of the addressees or their heirs, some 50,000 pages of posthumous philosophical papers, entrusted to the Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC) by Althusser’s nephew in 1991, can be freely consulted. Thanks to François Matheron, who, assisted by Sandrine Samson, put together an inventory of the Althusser archives in the first half of the 1990s with a meticulousness that all those who have consulted them can attest, these documents have in a very real sense been public for twenty years now, and a good number of researchers from all over the world have made use of them. So there exists a reception of Althusser’s posthumous oeuvre that’s independent of the publication project.
The publication project proper can be divided into three periods. During the first, which ran from 1992 to 1998, seven collections appeared under the IMEC’s direction and responsibility. The texts were quite competently edited, introduced, and annotated by Olivier Corpet, the director of IMEC until 2013; Yann Moulier Boutang, Althusser’s biographer; and, especially, Matheron, who edited most of them. There thus was created the nucleus of a future critical edition of Althusser’s complete works, to take on optimistic view of things, the nucleus of this nucleus being the 1200 pages of the Écrits philosophiques et politiques, which appeared in two volumes quite early, in 1994-95, and were republished in a paperback edition 6 or 7 years later. With rare exceptions, none of the texts in these 7 volumes had been published in Althusser’s lifetime.
Two other collections published in this period brought together posthumous texts and others, published in Althusser’s day, that fall into a peculiar category, but one rather frequent in Althusser. On the Reproduction of Capitalism, edited by Jacques Bidet and published in 1995 by the Presses universitaires de France (PUF), contains 1. the 1969 manuscript from which Althusser extracted the fragments combined in his famous 1970 paper on Ideological State Apparatuses; 2. this paper itself; and 3. a “Note on the ISAs” that comes under the category of texts I have in mind – texts that were published abroad in Althusser’s lifetime (the “Note” came out in a German translation in 1977), but went unpublished in France. Sur la philosophie, the volume that appeared in 1994 in the series “L’ infini,” includes two texts published before Althusser’s death that also belong in this category. One is “The Transformation of Philosophy,” a 1976 lecture that Althusser gave in French in Spain and published there in the form of a booklet the same year, and again, near the end of his life, in a collection in English. The other is “Philosophy and Marxism,” an interview with Fernanda Navarra that first saw the light in Mexico in 1988, unabridged, and was then included in an abridged version in Sur la philosophie, which also contains unpublished letters of Althusser’s connected with the interview.
The most recent of the 9 volumes released in this first period, Lettres à Franca, collects hundreds of letters, totalling around 600,000 words, that Althusser wrote to his lover Franca Madonia between 1961 and 1973. This is the only one of the nine volumes that isn’t theoretical in nature, although it’s a source of invaluable information about Althusser’s life and the development of his philosophical and political thought. The other eight volumes come to nearly 2,000 pages.
Two thousand pages – whereas what is taken to be the founding document of the “late Althusser’s” philosophy, a text that Matheron extracted from a 1982-83 manuscript and published in the first volume of the Écrits philosophiques et politiques under the title “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” is around forty pages long. Even if we chalk up to the “late Althusser’s” account 1. the other extracts from this manuscript published in journals during this period; 2. the chapters on Machiavelli, Spinoza, and the political conjuncture of the 1980s excised from The Future by their author, but included as appendices in the expanded French edition of that book; 3. all the more or less philosophical passages in The Future; 4. all the texts included in Sur la philosophie that can unreservedly be considered texts of the 1980s, which is to say, for reasons we‘ll come to, only the correspondence and the Preface; and, finally, 5. the “Portrait of the Materialist Philosopher,” a single page composed in 1986 – the “late Althusser’s” total output is a drop in the bucket of the posthumous publications released in the first period. In the publications of the following period, the relative weight of the “late work“ diminishes: here, the only texts that can be called late work are the 12-page “On Aleatory Materialism,” published in the journal Multitudes in 2005; ten unpublished pages from the 1982-83 manuscript that surfaced in a collection published Zürich in 2010, Materialismus der Begegnung; and a 13-page text, the “June Theses” (1986), most of which was effectively published by Althusser’s main German translator, Frieder Otto Wolf, in a “report” on this document produced in 2008 for the online journal Epistème. Frieder’s “report” was recently republished in a German collection of writings by and about Althusser.2
We should add that several of Althusser’s writings from the 1980s have yet to be released. They include part of the manuscript from which “The Underground Current” was extracted, and a handful of short texts – around 150 pages in all. Hopefully, these writings will appear in the near future. Their publication will, I think, transform our understanding of the late Althusser. André Tosel has already taken a big step in this direction in an essay on the late Althusser’s politics.3
There you have a quantitative response to your question about the “late Althusser’s domination” of the program of posthumous publication. In a word, it’s a myth.
We can finish our overview of the three periods of the posthumous publication, if you’d like, before coming to the posthumous reception.
For ten years and more following the appearance of Lettres à Franca in 1998, only a few posthumous writings were released, scattered across various journals, together with a single volume edited, annotated, and introduced by Matheron: Politique et histoire de Machiavel à Marx, Cours à l’École normale supérieure, 1955-1972 (2006). Alongside publications in French journals – such as the 40-page “Note” that Althusser sent in 1965 to Henri Krasucki, then at the head of the PCF’s Section for Intellectuals and Culture,4 or the humorous account of Althusser’s 1966 conversation with the Party’s General Secretary, Waldeck Rochet5 – we find one of those texts-published-in-Althusser’s-day-but-not-in-French that has one more editorial particularity: it was released in partial form in Hungarian in Althusser’s lifetime and published in its entirety in a 2003 collection, The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, issued by Althusser’s main publisher in English, Verso Books. This text is “The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy,” a long article commissioned in 1967 by the Soviet journal Voprossi filosofii (Problems of Philosophy), which omitted to publish it. Again, in 2007 the British journal Historical Materialism published an excellent critical edition, with an editorial introduction by William Lewis, of a long 1966 letter that Althusser wrote to the PCF’s Central Committee to protest the results of its historic conclave in Argenteuil – a letter that he ultimately didn’t send. Like “The Historical Task,” that letter has gone unpublished in French to the present day.
The third period of posthumous publication is still underway. Beginning in 2011 with the appearance of Lettres à Hélène, a collection of correspondence of mainly biographical interest that was annotated and introduced by Oliver Corpet, it has seen the publication of four other books between 2012 and 2015: 1. a set of three 1972 lectures on Rousseau, Cours sur Rousseau (very different from the 1966-67 course on the Social Contract),6 edited by Yves Vargas, which I’m translating for Verso; 2. my edition of a 1977-78 book, Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes, published by PUF in 2014 in a series under Laurent de Sutter’s general editorship, “Perspectives critiques,” and scheduled for release by Bloomsbury in my English translation in 2017; 3. my edition of a 1976 book, Être marxiste en philosophie, published by PUF in Laurent’s series in 2015; and 4) a 2015 collection of Althusser’s transcriptions of his dreams, Des rêves d’angoisse sans fin, edited by Oliver Corpet. (Excerpts from the English translations of Initiation and Être marxiste were published in diacritics at the turn of the year.) A good-sized collection of the 1949-87 correspondence between between Lucien Sève and Althusser, some 100 letters in all, edited by Sève and introduced by Roger Martelli, should appear soon; so should my edition, again for PUF and “Perspectives critiques,” of Althusser’s 1976 Les Vaches noires, a polemic targeting the PCF and the USSR.7 De Sutter plans to publish other posthumous works in the coming years, at a pace of about one per year, as well as a collection of short, hitherto unreleased texts in several volumes. If we add that Période recently published, for the first time in French, Althusser’s July 1976 Barcelona lecture on the dictatorship of the proletariat,8 a very good omen, and that this third “period” of posthumous publication also saw the creation, in 2013, of an online, multilingual Althusser studies journal, Décalages, edited from Los Angeles by Warren Montag, with a section, “Archives,” reserved for the publication of unpublished or hard-to-find texts by Althusser – the first one published in Décalages was the essay on the Cultural Revolution – there’s good reason to hope that the 6500 pages of posthumous writings which appeared between 1992 and 2015 will be joined by several thousand more in the next 8 to 10 years. That depends in part on the goodwill of those who possess texts, letters, and notes on, or audio recordings of, courses that haven’t yet been deposited with the IMEC.
On the question of the correspondence, let me say that Althusser kept the majority of the letters he received, very often with copies of those that he sent to his correspondents. He was, as Yann Moulier-Boutang and François Matheron have noted, “an outstanding letter writer who tirelessly devoted much of his life – several hours of the day and especially his nights – to his correspondence.” The publication of the rich correspondence between Althusser and Sève will show just how important it is that all Althusser’s correspondence of theoretical and political interest eventually appear. As for the courses, Emile Jalley’s Louis Althusser et quelques autres (2014), which includes 60 pages of notes that Jalley took in seminars given by Althusser at the ENS in the late 1950s, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. But it’s preferable that such collections be based on a comparison of notes taken by more than one auditor (when possible, and when no tape recordings are to be had), and that the results appear in volumes containing only Althusser’s courses, not, as in Jalley’s edition, a miscellany of courses given by several different people.
So much for the three “periods” of posthumous publication.
There remains the question of its reception. Has the posthumous work been misunderstood because too much attention has been lavished on the “late Althusser,” or because readers have exaggerated the discontinuity between this “late Althusser” and the others?
I can’t, for the life of me, give you a good answer, not even with respect to the most recent of the two Althusser books published by PUF, Être marxiste en philosophie, the reception of which began even before the book came out. While Jean-Claude Bourdin and Andre Tosel, who have done very interesting work on the materialism of the encounter, only mention Être marxiste in passing, in essays published in 2008 and 2012, respectively, the book is subjected to close scrutiny in a chapter of a 2010 monograph on Althusser: Yoshihiko Ichida’s Aru renketzu-no tetsugaku (A Philosophy of Conjunction). Initiation à la philosophie, which appeared in January 2014, has already received considerable attention: another chapter of Ichida’s study, an important Spanish commentary, subsequently translated into Greek, and another commentary in English, an extract from a study currently in progress. Initiation is already available in Spanish, Romanian, Turkish, and Italian; other publishers around the world have contracted to release it in Arabic, English, German, Greek, Korean, Portuguese, and Chinese; and it will doubtless be translated into still other languages.9 Projects for the translation or retranslation of all the primary Althusserian writings are underway in Berlin, Athens, and Northwest University in China. In short, the reception of the late Althusser or Althusser tout court isn’t limited to France. Far from it. Although there has been a resurgence of interest in the most important French Marxist philosopher there, as indicated by the publication, in 2008 and 2012, under the titles Althusser: Une lecture de Marx10 and Autour d’Althusser, of the proceedings of two French conferences, followed, in 2015, by special Althusser issues of La Pensée and Cahiers du Groupe de recherches matérialistes, reception of Althusser is now dominated by work in languages other than French, and that will no doubt continue to be the case. Yet translations of commentaries on Althusser’s work of the 1980s are rare. Those found in the recent Encountering Althusser collection, the English translation of Mikko Lahtinen’s Finnish study of Machiavelli’s and Althusser’s aleatory materialism, the French translation of Emilio Ípola’s Althusser: El infinito adios, the French, Spanish, and English translations of Vittorio Morfino’s book on Althusser’s and Spinoza’s aleatory materialism, and the just released, refreshingly international Althusser: Die Reproduktion des Materialismus, are among the few exceptions that prove the rule. One or two other translations are very hard to read because they’re in Globish. Apart from international conferences, which are, in my view, a poor substitute for translations, and the poorer because they, too, are increasingly held in that non-language of a language, I mean Globish, that is contributing mightily to the withering away of human language as such, there’s no easy way to familiarize oneself with more than a small portion of the reception, unless one is a polyglot of the first order. As I’m not, I had, for example, to edit and annotate the text of Initiation and Être marxiste without benefit of the studies of them by Ichida, an author whose importance is attested by the handful of his texts on Althusser now available in French and German. And Ichida’s no doubt just one example among many others: Greek, Chinese, Korean, Croatian, Arabic, Polish, Turkish, etc.
That means that, when it comes to the reception of the posthumous work, I can give you only provisional conclusions based on a very small sampling of the global reception of the “late Althusser.”
This reception (read: to the extent that I know it) seems to me to be missing something essential because it has yet to take into account the fact that Althusser’s aleatory materialism is based on a concept that grounds his thought as a whole: the dictatorship of the proletariat and, more generally, class dictatorship. In part for this reason, the critical reception tends to exaggerate the importance of a few ambiguous formulations of Althusser’s (even if it does so the better to reject them) which certainly invite relativistic, postmodern or mystical readings of the “underground current,” but only on condition that this short, unfinished text – whose key ideas are barely outlined – is isolated from the rest of Althusser’s work and even the rest of the manuscript from which it was taken. The cause and effect of this kind of one-sided reading, neglect of the pivotal role of the idea of class dictatorship, is bound up with neglect of another crucial aspect of the connection between the materialism of the encounter and Althusser’s previous thought. If it’s now generally accepted not only that the concept of the encounter is everywhere in Althusser, but also that he explicitly theorizes it from 1966 on, as is shown by “On Genesis” a previously unreleased text published in Décalages in 2013 (in fact, he explicitly theorizes it from 1963 on, as will appear when Sève publishes the magnificent letter of November 24th,1963 that Althusser ultimately didn’t post), what is glaringly absent from the reception of the “late Althusser“ is the correspondence between the aleatory as conceived in the 1980s and a conception present in the “practical state” beginning with the 1959 Montesquieu. In that book, the emergence of a world from the void, brought on by what is another name for the clinamen – the Journées révolutionnaires of 1789 – is conceived negatively, through an insistence on the persistence of the dictatorship of the feudal class despite the 17th-century rise of the bourgeoisie, an idea Althusser takes up again in “The Underground Current.” The very idea of a world emerging from nothing – but a determinate nothing, the nothing or the void of a distance taken, ein Nichts von einem Inhalt – is positively conceived in For Marx through a theorization of the “ruptural unity” that gave rise to the Russian Revolution; or, in one version of Althusser’s 1966 course on Rousseau, through the idea that, for the author of the Social Contract, the “extremely rare conjunction” of the conditions for instituting a people is on the order of the miraculous. It would be easy to multiply examples.
Is it important to relate this idea to that of the dictatorship of the proletariat? After all, everyone knows that for the late Althusser the clinamen which gives rise to the emergence of a world is analogous to the revolutionary rupture in the other “Althussers,” and that the persistence of this world is analogous to the viability – that is, the capacity for self-reproduction – of a post-revolutionary society. I think it is important to make the connection, for two reasons. First, it’s one indicator, among others, that the idea that the “dictatorship of the proletariat is the critical point of the whole theoretical and political history of Marxism” (to cite the Althusser of 1966) is also the critical point in the theoretical and political history of Althusserian thought, including the 1980s. The miracle of the Russian Revolution or the Althusserian-Rousseauean miracle of the institution of a people are perhaps no less miraculous than the miracle of the emergence of a world in the Epicurean Althusser of the 1980s; yet the latter is the only one to be accused of fideism, postmodern relativism, the refusal of reason, and so on and so forth. Secondly, the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat serves as a bridge between thinking the emergence of a world from the void in the “late Althusser” and the thought of this thought: the non-philosophical philosophy that he openly championed from the mid-1970s on.
This philosophy sui generis – neither philosophical nor completely anti-philosophical – sets out from a simple yet powerful idea: that philosophy is the counterpart or correlative of the lynchpin of the class dictatorship that guarantees the viability of post-revolutionary society, the state. This holds for the philosophy of the dictatorship of the proletariat as well. But the state of the dictatorship of the proletariat is a Nichtstaat, a “non-state” (Engels as “translated“ by Lenin) erected with a view to its disappearance, and the philosophy corresponding to it is thus, for Althusser, a non-philosophy. This is clearly stated in “The Transformation of Philosophy,” the lecture he delivered in Granada in spring 1976, and released in Spain that same year and in English a few months before his death. And yet, strangely, the foundational relationship between the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the non-philosophical philosophy of aleatory materialism seems to have escaped commentators’ attention to the present day.
In a word: readers have failed to notice that the late Althusser is the dictatorship of the proletariat in thought. They have, consequently, missed part of the stakes of the omnipresence of a theory of the encounter in Althusser’s work, even when they have noticed that it is in fact omnipresent. With rare exceptions, they have therefore tended to downplay the continuities in his conceptualization of the aleatory, from Montesquieu to the “June Theses”; and, even when they emphasize what they generally call the “antiphilosophical” character of his thought from the mid-70s onwards, they do not notice that this discontinuity itself bears witness to the continuity of a Marxist political-philosophical project.
There are exceptions, to be sure. In a review of Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes, a 1977-78 monograph that I would, for my part, attribute to the late Althusser, Michel Eltchaninoff hands down an unambiguous verdict: “hardcore Marxist-Leninism” (marxisme-léninsme hardcore). Writing in a philosophy magazine intended for the broad public, the professed goal of which is to “make the thought of the great philosophers accessible,” he unabashedly advocated a hardcore penalty for hardcore philosophy of this sort: it should be made inaccessible, that is, not published. If it were up to me, you would find this gem on the back cover of each and every translation of Initiation, eleven of which are already out or on the way, as I’ve said – and also on the back of every future French edition, such as the second edition of Initiation that, pace Eltchaninoff, was published a few months ago. Unlike the Eltchaninoffs, we have a vital interest in making our adversaries’ views accessible to as broad a public as possible.
How are we to explain the neglect of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the initial reception of the late Althusser? Let me attempt a partial explanation. The first point bears on the important reception of Althusser in the Anglophone world, where Gregory Elliott’s study, Althusser: The Detour of Theory, has done much to save Althusser from the oblivion which, by the end of 1980s, seemed to be his fate. We read in the first, 1987 edition of Elliott’s book that Althusser was not unduly troubled by his party’s abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and may even have been in favor of it. The influence of The Detour of Theory was such that at the beginning of the first “period” of posthumous publication, many of Althusser’s Anglophone readers thought he was a Eurocommunist. They were thus obviously not inclined to look for a connection between the materialism of the encounter and the non-statal state. Be it noted that the English version of the lecture that explains this connection, “The Transformation of Philosophy,” was edited by Elliott. This is as good a proof as any – for Elliott is, generally speaking, a good reader of Althusser – that one can long remain blind to what is blindingly obvious.
In France, an essay that Antonio Negri published in the journal Futur antérieur probably played a similar role. Negri was aware, of course, that Althusser had waged his “last struggle” against the party‘s abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet his main thesis – that the writings of the 1980s testify to an “Althusserian Kehre” – tends to suggest that this struggle was the business of a bygone day. Negri had a pronounced influence on authors who are among the leading specialists on Althusser‘s life and work, including Yann Moulier Boutang and François Matheron. And his thesis about a 1982-83 Kehre was all the more convincing in that the texts of the mid-70s that in my opinion contradict it were published neither in the first “period” of posthumous publication nor the second. Negri, although he had access to the archives, makes no mention of them in his 1993 piece.
If it’s true that the absence of the dictatorship of the proletariat deformed the reception of the posthumous work – for it may of course be that I am completely mistaken and that this concept doesn’t have the importance I attribute to it – then it must be added that Althusser, the auto-iconoclast, did more than anyone else to falsify his own image by not publishing, or publishing only abroad, the 1972-78 texts that seem to me to mandate a serious rectification of the received understanding of the “late Althusser.”
Fortunately, these explanations, whatever they are worth, bear on a bygone day. In the 2006 second edition of The Detour of Theory, Elliott acknowledged, with exemplary candor, the mistake he’d made in the first edition. Texts highlighting the continuities in Althusser’s work appeared simultaneously in English, Italian, and French, often in advance of the publication or translation of the posthumous or still unpublished works upon which they largely relied. In France, the appearance of Andrea Cavazzini’s short book on “Althusser’s last struggle” (Le dernier combat d’Althusser), together with the publication, in Période, of the 1976 Barcelona lecture on the dictatorship of the proletariat, the theoretical core of Les Vaches noires, have reminded us of the importance the concept had for Althusser. Above all, new posthumous publications of the utmost importance for the topic to hand appeared between 2012 and 2015: the 1972 Cours sur Rousseau, with an excellent introduction by Yves Vargas that points out the aleatory-materialist aspect of these lectures, as well as Initiation à la philosophie and, especially, Être marxiste en philosophie. Read together, these texts will, I think, show that Althusser’s last struggle was also the struggle of the late Althusser.
FB: In the 1970s, between his lecture on the “Transformation of Philosophy” and Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes, Althusser seemed to be engaged in a full-fledged investigation of philosophy. Does this phase mark a deepening of the decisive formulae from “Lenin and Philosophy,” where philosophy is seen as a tracing of a line of demarcation, or a rupture with them?
GMG: Let me try to put this mid-1970s phase in perspective.
Sometime around 1960-61, Althusser abandoned the antiphilosophical positions he’d taken in the latter half of the 1950s. That didn’t stop him from continuing to elaborate the concept of the encounter which, inspired by Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, is already at work in the Montesquieu book and will dominate the work of the first half of the 1960s under other names, such as “fusion” and “conjuncture.” The result is a misalliance whose index is the quotation marks that surround the word becoming, peacefully coexisting with the high theoreticism of a notorious passage in For Marx to the effect that “General Theory,” that is, philosophy, expresses the essence of theoretical practice in general, hence the essence of practice in general, hence the essence of the “becoming” of things in general. Towards the middle of 1966, Althusser understands that if, in the domain that interests him the most, things do not “become,” but irrupt (or, more often, fail to irrupt) in line with the contingencies of the class struggle, then the impossible marriage of a theoreticist theory of Theory with a materialist theory of their irruption has to be annulled without delay, since it is an unnatural union that can only engender monsters. In time, Althusser notices that he had been even more mistaken than he originally thought: as one self-critique is succeeded by another, and then by a third, he comes to understand that the General Theory held up in For Marx was a classical idealist theory of the omnipotence of philosophy and, as such, the principal adversary of the science of the singular that he had been trying to theorize under the name “historical materialism.” The investigation of philosophy that runs through the whole of his work and is especially prominent, as you point out, in the work of the 1970s and beyond is thus not a secondary occupation. What is at stake is something very much like an epistemological obstacle.
By 1966, therefore, encounter née “conjuncture” and theoreticism né “Absolute Knowledge” are on their way to a divorce. It takes time. The end of the first stage of the process is marked by “Lenin and Philosophy,” a lecture Althusser gave in February 1968, and published in the form of a short book the following year.11 The second stage begins with the still unpublished “Postface to Lenin and Philosophy,” dated May 1969. The 1972 Cours sur Rousseau and unpublished texts written in 1972-73 are other important phases of this stage. The divorce is consummated in March 1976 with “The Transformation of Philosophy,” which denounces the age-old complicity between the dominant philosophical tradition and the dominant class’s state in order to counterpose to them, as we’ve said, a non-philosophical philosophy whose correlative is the Nichtstaat of the dominated, the cornerstone of a transitional structure of domination that bears the unfortunate name, in the Marxist tradition, of dictatorship of the proletariat.
“The Transformation” calls this non-philosophical philosophy a “new practice of philosophy,” a practice concretized in Initiation and Être marxiste and situated – in a chapter of the latter on the Epicureans and the Stoics, the clinamen, the void, the encounter and the “take” – in a long tradition of a “theory of the encounter” which “flies in the face of the idealist tradition” and has “hardly been consciously perceived until now, except by Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Marx.”12 Thus, just like Initiation, which sketches certain principles of the materialism of the encounter before illustrating them in an outline history of the emergence of the capitalist mode of production, Être Marxiste brings together what seems to me to be the core of the late Althusser’s thought and “the new practice of philosophy,” which the last three chapters of the book, a revised version of one whole section of “The Transformation,” are explicitly about.
It’s perhaps worth noting that Althusser was often seriously ill between 1968 and 1973, and incredibly productive thereafter, in the mid-1970s. Had he already started drafting Être marxiste before 1976? Definitely, in a sense, inasmuch as the first chapter of this book overlaps with the 1969 manuscript published in 1995 in On Reproduction, the second volume of which was to have been about philosophy in its relation with class struggle and the state. There seems to be no other trace of this projected second volume, other than the 1976-78 texts themselves, which have thus come to stand in for it.
But let’s back up. After having defined “the new practice of philosophy“ by way of a reading of Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Althusser declares at the end of “Lenin and Philosophy” that it “can transform philosophy.”13 There could be no clearer way of indicating that, after the 1976 turn, the 1968 turn was “fatally inevitable,” as the unnamed expert I cited at the beginning of our interview might put it. The same continuity – or tendentious, teleological rewrite, that’s the whole question – is subtly brought out in a different way by “Philosophy and Marxism,” the mid-1980s interview with Althusser that is, to a great extent, a collage of extracts and summaries of texts he wrote after 1967, some published in his lifetime, others published posthumously, and still others unpublished to the present day.14 At Althusser’s request, moreover, this very useful late-Althusserian reader’s guide to the earlier Althusser(s) was put together in the light of Être Marxiste and, probably, Initiation as well.
Is the continuity that Althusser perceived in his work of 1967-76 real? That’s the sense of your question, I believe: Is the tracing of a line of demarcation conceived in the same way in “Lenin and Philosophy” as in 1976-78?
Yes and no. So that I don’t go on too long, let me give you an outrageously schematic answer.
I. The central problem of the first Althusser, the antiphilosopher of the 1950s, is that of the philosophical circle: How does one reject philosophy without founding a philosophy? His answer, Derridean avant la lettre, is that there isn’t really any escaping philosophy philosophically. The task of the Marxist in philosophy (not of the Marxist philosopher, a contradiction in terms) is therefore to practice the science of philosophy, and to write the scientific history of philosophy.
II. Althusser takes up this problem again in November-December 1967, in a course of initiation into philosophy for non-philosophers aimed at scientists, in which he affirms that it’s impossible to radically escape from the philosophical circle by practicing the science of philosophy, because to produce knowledge about philosophy is necessarily to take up a position in philosophy. But he reaffirms, in “Lenin and Philosophy,” that the task of the Marxist in philosophy is to practice the science of philosophy. How does one conjugate the about with the in? Response: By setting out from a Marxist science of philosophy in order to intervene politically in philosophy – a response borrowed from Lenin’s philosophical practice, which also, according to Althusser, holds the key to the science he is trying to found.
Lenin’s practice of philosophy as interpreted by Althusser sets out from the premise of a dual relationship: between philosophy and politics on the one hand, and philosophy and science on the other. Philosophies are divided into two basic tendencies on the basis of their relation to the sciences. Most invoke the authority of the sciences in order to turn their results to ideological, non-scientific ends, which comes down to exploiting them in the service of a politics without acknowledging it. The others defend the sciences, basically by denouncing this ideological exploitation and the accompanying denial or denegation – a denunciation which is also a political act and the assumption of a partisan position, but which acknowledges itself to be such.
To say that the drawing of a line of demarcation is first of all this denunciation is to say that it is the act which, every time it occurs, gives rise to both philosophical tendencies, materialist and idealist, or, at least, brings them out into the open, in defiance of the denial characteristic of idealist philosophy. In this sense, the line of demarcation is a battle line, and drawing it is what makes the encounter of the combattants possible. The new practice of philosophy, as Althusser sketches it in 1968, is this political intervention in the philosophical field, but with a view to the outside of philosophy represented by the sciences, which are the stakes, in the last instance, of drawing a line of demarcation in philosophy.
III. The new practice of philosophy put to work in the 1976-78 texts consists in drawing lines of demarcation with the basic aim of deconstructing the dominant philosophical tradition by exposing the disavowals that sustain it. The disavowal denounced in many a Great Philosopher turns out to be the index of a deep complicity with the established order of his day. Waged in the name of a Marxist science of philosophy that makes it possible to escape, to the extent that one can, the philosophical “infernal circle,” this operation brings to light a fundamental philosophical tendency, the materialism of the encounter, “which clashes with” the opposing fundamental tendency, secular idealism. The philosophical battles that drawing a line of demarcation between Plato and Epicurus can touch off are doubtless not of the same order as those that Lenin waged against Bogdanov, but the encounter – in the antagonistic sense of the word – remains the aim of the game: as Althusser remarks in Être marxiste, Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Epicurus, etc. are as present in our time as ever, and there are philosophers “ready to fight against them today, to the death.” In sum, Être marxiste and Initiation obviously do not “break” with the formulae of “Lenin and Philosophy.”
That said, there are major discontinuities between 1968 and 1976-78: the line of demarcation remains, but what is on one side and the other of it shifts.
Contrary to what “Lenin and Philosophy” might suggest, Althusser’s principal objective is not to assign philosophers to one camp or the other. As he points out in the self-criticisms he wrote in 1972 and published in 1973-74, and as he had already shown in his analyses of the idealist strand in Marx or the materialism of Montesquieu and Hegel, there is no pure philosophy: the line of demarcation between idealism and materialism crisscrosses every major philosophical oeuvre, an idea that finds its translation in fine-grained historical analyses developed above all in Être marxiste, which disentangles the materialist elements present in idealist thought, from Aristotle through Kant and Descartes to Heidegger, in order to show how these elements finally adapt to the demands of a philosophical program that is in the last instance political.
In the 1968 lecture (“Lenin and Philosophy”), the thesis that great “philosophical reorganizations” always follow the scientific revolutions that induce them is presented at length; this would explain the absence of “the great work of philosophy that Marxism-Leninism lacks” a century after the appearance of the first volume of Capital. This a slightly reworked version of a thesis that dates back to the previous phase of Althusser’s thought, where the line of demarcation took the form of an abrupt and definitive “epistemological break” that separated off two Marxist sciences from theır ideological past, the other being dialectical materialism – a scientific philosophy founded de jure, if not de facto, wıth the Marxist scientific revolution. Even in revised form, which made the break a “sustained break,” this idea was slated to disappear. In the unpublished May 1969 Postface to “Lenin and Philosophy,” Althusser asserts that it is impossible to produce a scientific analysis of a class society without adopting the point of view of the dominated, and thus an ideological and political position in the class struggle: the philosophy that translates this political stance finds “its place” in the rational scientific elaboration that follows it. In Chapter 1 of On the Reproduction of Capitalism, which also dates from the first half of 1969, he notes that changes in class relations and the state can by themselves induce “great transformations” in philosophy. In “On the Evolution of the Young Marx,” written in 1970 but published 3-4 years later, he states that Marx’s philosophical stance in the 1840s was the indispensable condition for his founding the science of history, and that this taking up a position in philosophy was determined, in its turn, by his proletarian political stance. As for the absence of a great work of Marxist philosophy one hundred years after Capital, “The Transformation of Philosophy” identifies it as a positive expression of the Marxist-Leninist position in philosophy: because the systematicity of idealist philosophy is a reflection and instrument of the oppressive unity of the ruling order, the great Marxists’ refusal to produce philosophical systems in the classical sense becomes, for the Althusser of the mid-70s, a translation of their distrust of the state, of traditional philosophy, and of the relations that connect them.
In philosophy’s double relationship to the sciences and politics, then, the weight given to the latter steadily increases between 1968 and 1976. In his unfinished 1976 autobiography, The Facts, Althusser sums up the evolution of his conception of philosophy as the effect of his new appreciation of the state’s role in philosophy’s recurrent history; if, as he conceived it in the 1960s, transformations in philosophy essentially accommodated scientific revolutions, the irruption of which called existing philosophy’s unity into question, he had since realized that this vision of things had to be complicated in order to account for the relation between philosophy and the state, and thus for philosophy’s role in systematizing and unifying the dominant ideology. From 1973 on, philosophy’s relation to the sciences really only constitutes its “specificity”: it borrows the forms of its rationality from them to serve the needs of the philosophical cause. What now determines philosophy in the last instance is its political or “statist” role – its function of mastery or unification of the ideologies in the service of the dominant class.
Concretely, this means that a line of demarcation has to be drawn between the line of demarcation that Althusser envisaged drawing in 1968, and the one he effectively draws in Initiation and Être marxiste. It means, as well, that it is high time to rehabilitate John Lewis.
Admittedly, the function served by the tracing this line is the same in 1968 as it is in 1976-78: setting out from non-philosophical positions originating in a Marxist science of philosophy, it serves to expose the disavowal of a philosophical relation of exploitation. And, as dictated by the logic of the double relation, the stakes are the same as well: in the last instance, the class dictatorship that philosophical philosophy exercises philosophically, distorting and subduing practices potentially threatening to this dictatorship – of course, in the domain of philosophy, by mobilizing abstractions and a rationality borrowed from the sciences, and thus distant from the class struggle in the usual sense of the term, and even distant from the practices in question. But the practices involved are not the same as in 1968. This is where we are summoned to acknowledge John Lewis’s contribution on this essential point, as Althusser does in a footnote in his famous Response, a note that has gone unnoticed because Être Marxiste and Initiation remained unpublished for forty years. The note reads: “John Lewis is right to criticize me on this point: philosophy is not only ‘concerned’ with politics and the sciences, but with all social practices.”15
I believe we have to attach all the importance it deserves to this small note, which sums up a dimension of the 1972 self-criticism that would only really be elaborated by the late Althusser, primarily in the practical state, in texts written in 1976-78 and thereafter. Why, in 1968, was the Althusserian conception of philosophy’s exploitation of practice limited to its exploitation of scientific practice? We might answer: because what Althusser basically had in mind was the ideological exploitation of Marxist science, against which he had been struggling for a decade, and because he envisaged human emancipation through the figure of the political encounter of this science with the workers’ movement. But this answer only restates the question. Without calling the decisive importance of this union of theory and practice into question, and without ceding to any kind of irrationalism – despite what certain ambiguous formulae characteristic of the very last Althusser might suggest – the texts that Althusser produced from the mid-70s on tell a different story, beginning with the idea that the object of the new practice of philosophy must be the relation of philosophy to its outside, the whole of its outside, and thus its relation to all other human practices, so as to ensure their primacy over theory itself, so as to liberate these practices – and theory to boot.
That is why, in my opinion, the formulations of “Lenin and Philosophy” weren’t final – and why the reply of John Lewis deserves to be reevaluated.
FB: The Presses universitaires de France (PUF) recently published Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes. What is this text‘s specific contribution from the standpoint of the existing literature on Althusser? How might we describe the period or periods in which it was written in terms of the philosophico-political strategies that Althusser sought to deploy?
GMG: In principle, it’s not the task of an “Introduction to“ or “Initiation into philosophy“ to carry out innovations at the theoretical level. But Initiation does offer one sizable innovation; more exactly, it develops the innovation suggested in the footnote I just discussed. It’s only with Initiation that Althusser’s deconstructive project takes on the dimensions that Reply to John Lewis calls for, through a properly Marxist conception of the relation between theory and practice, and thus between philosophy and its outside: the world of the practices, all the practices. We still have to do with a double relation of the type defined in “Lenin and Philosophy,” between philosophy and politics on the one hand and philosophy and the practices that it exploits on the other. But because it exploits all of them, so that it can incorporate them all into its scheme of philosophical domination, and because the ultimate goal of the struggle that non-philosophical philosophy wages against it is to free those practices from the grip of the state philosophy that it represents at its level, Initiation passes them in review – not all of them, of course, but a goodly number of them nonetheless. To what end? So as to define and illustrate a new practice of philosophy that would take its own subordination to the practices into account in its own (non)-philosophical practice. That’s the sense in which it represents science – the Marxist science of philosophy – with/before politics: by representing the practices with/before philosophy.
This is a deconstructive project that plainly has a lot in common with Derrida’s. And, at the moment when he was writing first Être marxiste, and then Initiation (the product of a radical rewriting of Être marxiste), one of Althusser’s politico-philosophical strategies seems to have consisted in trying to build a philosophical alliance with Jacques Derrida. When Althusser writes in a draft of Être marxiste that Derridean deconstruction leads straight to the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the middle of Althusser’s philosophical struggle to represent this “scientific” concept with/before politics, I think we ought to take him seriously, the playful tone of the passage notwithstanding: Être marxiste, like Initiation before it, tries to resolve the problem of the philosophical circle by inscribing the margins of philosophy in its center, in line with a non-philosophical strategy that seeks to be explicitly Althusserian-Derridean.
We can take a remark made by Alain Badiou at a conference held in Althusser’s honor a few months after his death as a measure of the distance covered between these texts and those of the latter half of the 1960s. Unlike Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, who were all antiphilosophers, Althusser, according to Badiou, ultimately defended philosophia perennis. That was more or less true in the days of “Lenin and Philosophy,” the text Badiou had in mind at this 1991 conference. And one can in fact make the claim that the late Althusser is not exactly an anti-philosopher; he is, as we have been repeating for a while now, a non-philosophical philosopher who believes that philosophy will always exist, like ideology. But to take that as grounds for casting Althusser in the role of champion of philosophia perennis, in contrast with Derrida… The reason is doubtless that Badiou, who knew the Althusser of the period 1960-72 very well, apparently didn’t at all know the author of “The Transformation of Philosophy,” although the lecture had been delivered fifteen years before Althusser’s death. He didn’t, obviously, know Initiation, either.
Indications are that Derrida wasn’t inclined to conclude a philosophical pact of the kind Althusser was proposing: during two seminars held, I believe, in 1974-76, Derrida subjected his longtime friend’s work to a severe critique, focusing, rather curiously, not to say unfairly, on the texts of his theoreticist period. The fact remains that Derrida exercised an increasingly powerful influence on Althusser from 1976 on. Philosophia perennis had had its day.
Let me make one last remark on the contribution and importance of Initiation, in a sense somewhat different from yours. By showing us how deeply embedded Althusser’s later thought was in his thought of the mid-1970s (if the two periods are to be distinguished at all), Initiation can, I think, help us to understand “The Underground Current” better. The second of these two texts, short and incomplete, contains a good number of the ambiguous formulas I’ve mentioned, those that can be taken as proof of a “late” turn toward fideism, irrationalism, ontologization of the void, mysticism, and so on. All this has been pointed out, and is indisputable. Yet, except for the brief history of the underground current from Epicurus to Derrida, the central theses of this “late Althusserian” text are an integral part of Initiation and Être marxiste, which both take as their point of departure the idea of a science of Marxist philosophy that is itself based on a science of history whose fundamental concept is the dictatorship of the proletariat. What’s more, these works of the 1970s explicitly and unambiguously denounce ontologization of the void, or the “purely idealist” notion that a “world” can emerge from nothing – ideas that are ascribable to the author of the “Underground Current” on the sole condition that this latter text is isolated from the rest of his work, notably that of the mid-70s. I see no good reason to do so.
FB: It’s well-known that Althusser, in line with his critique of the methods employed by the PCF in the Union of the Left, was very skeptical about the theory of state monopoly capitalism put forward by Paul Boccara. How did Althusser propose to counter the theoretical challenge posed by such a conception of capitalism in the 1970s?
GMG: Althusser wasn’t opposed to the Union of the Left, which the PCF had been calling for since the mid-1960s. His critique targeted the “theoretical compromises” – and thus the political compromises – that it could bring in its wake, especially those that struck at what he believed to be the heart of Marx’s doctrine: the “science of the class struggle,” the “crucial theoretical and political point” of which was the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The spearhead of the “left-wing anti-Stalinism” that summed up, as he saw it, his own politico-philosophical intervention in the first half of the 1960s was his critique of economistic and humanist interpretations of Marxism. It seems that he thought, down to 1966, that the “revolutionary weapon” of theory would suffice to halt the rightist course of the PCF and PCUS that these interpretations of Marx inspired, or rather, retroactively justified. After the 1966 Central Committee meeting at Argenteuil, where a good many of the PCF’s intellectuals debated For Marx and Reading Capital for three days before producing a resolution favorable to Marxist humanism, Althusser lost all hope for a renewal from within of the communist movement of Soviet obedience: socialism was in danger of dying where it existed and the PCI and PCF, having “ceased to be revolutionary parties,” were “practically lost.”
An increasingly Maoist Althusser turned his back on the party in the mid-60s, without turning in his membership card, and sought refuge in the transparent “clandestinity” of a group of intellectuals. Some were members of the PCF, others were Maoists or members of the PSU or both. This “Groupe Spinoza” analyzed world events at “secret” meetings held at the ENS. The first Althusserian text on state monopoly capitalism (SMC) that I know of dates from January 1969, and thus from the end of this period, which saw Althusser, who’d been seriously ill since April 1968, going back to work at a moment when the little group of his collaborators was falling apart. Paul Boccara’s elaboration of his version of the theory of “SMC” was in its early stages at the time. Althusser’s 1969 critique had it that it was a “bourgeois-ideological notion, whose function [was] to justify the peaceful transition to socialism.”
Althusser was soon enough convinced that he had to change course so as not to squander the theoretical credit he’d accumulated in the party. The result was a period of reconciliation with the PCF that began in the first half of 1969, during which he proposed to meet the “theoretical challenge” posed by various Communist theorists such as Boccara or Lucien Sève by continuing to elaborate a left Marxism aimed, first and foremost, at party militants, but also the far-left and the “movements.” This by no means led to intellectual compromise: thus the 1969-70 On Reproduction declares that it isn’t the business of a communist party to manage state affairs by taking part in a government. For Althusser, this holds even for the state of the dictatorship of the proletariat, to say nothing of the state of the capitalist class. But this was a period of compromise all the same: On Reproduction and other texts that attack the PCF’s and PCI’s politics weren’t published during Althusser’s lifetime. The two chapters of Livre sur impérialisme that critique the theory of SMC date from the summer of 1973, that is, from the same period of theoretical audacity coupled with political prudence. It was also at this time that Althusser laid plans to launch a new series for Hachette to facilitate and promote the publication of theoretical and political works addressed to “the People of the Left,“ as the French expression goes. Would Livre sur impérialisme have found its place here? Nothing proves otherwise, but the series had foundered by early 1975; what we have of this work is fragmentary, and the two chapters on SMC are among the sections that were left unfinished.
The critique of the concept of SMC undertaken there spells out the implications of Boccara’s economism for the theory of the state with a view to combatting them. Althusser constructs his critique around the idea that “the class struggle is absent from this analysis: that’s the worst thing about it.” Since the class struggle/ the encounter of the classes is, for Althusser, the prime instance of the encounter, which he already thinks in aleatory-materialist terms, the critique of Boccara culminates in a different account of the emergence of SMC (or what this notion alludes to). Although this critique is poorly elaborated, it targets miscognition of the aleatory in Marx himself.
Why? Basically because Boccara’s theory presents the transition to socialism as the natural consequence of the evolution of capitalism, which, after having passed through the phases of competition between small enterprises, and then of domination by large monopolies, is supposed to have attained the distinct phase of state monopoly capitalism, in which the state becomes a vast economic enterprise. Hence the French people could initiate the transition to socialism without class struggle. It need only resolve to vote for an “advanced democracy” – another PCF slogan of the day – to limit the monopolies’ power; this would be all the easier because the contradiction between the old relations of production and the unrestrained development of the productive forces brought on by technological progress had plunged SMC into crisis. The logic of “class collaboration” implied by this economism, adds the 1969 text, is comparable to the logic Kautsky mobilized during the First World War, which had it that capitalism had already become a “single state trust” that could be transformed into the first stage of socialism by means of a simple transfer of title.
But what of the denunciations, standard PCF fare, of the way the monopolies were manipulating the state “in order to impose their will on the French people?” They were sham, according to Althusser. On the one hand, the party’s words weren’t accompanied by actions directed against the alleged adversary; on the other, they flew in the face of this theorization of SMC as a stage on the way to socialism. What was the point of fighting an objective ally?
Boccara’s economic reasoning is criticized in its turn. Althusser’s critique is aimed above all at his understanding of the role of the overaccumulation of capital in the formation and reinforcement of SMC, “cobbled together on the basis of three paragraphs in Capital” and a “little phrase” of Lenin’s that makes SMC the “antechamber to socialism.”
According to Boccara’s argument as it’s presented in Livre sur l’imperialisme, overaccumulation occurs when the tendency for the rate of profit to fall that results from the rising organic composition of capital reaches a limit beyond which the valorization of a portion of total capital is blocked. From then on, there is an excess of capital. A stylist even in his rough drafts, Althusser sums up the consequences by way of a metaphor: overaccumulated capital, unable to find labor power to exploit, “cruises the sidewalks until it’s picked up” the state (se fait draguer par l‘État), which employs it in unprofitable sectors, particularly “public services.” But this “unemployed capital” can also take to the high road of international speculation, in search of extra profits.
Boccara’s reasoning is weak, according to Althusser, because:
- He confuses capital and money. The money invested in “public services“ are not capital. To be capital, money must function as capital.
- It is contradictory to affirm that “excess“ capital makes its way into unprofitable sectors or ventures abroad in search of profits: if this capital can head off in search of high profits, then it’s not excess capital and there is no overaccumulation.
- The notion of “public services,“ an Althusserian bête noire, is ideological through and through. The social measures that the working class has managed to secure have undoubtedly put the burden of ensuring certain conditions of the reproduction of labor on the state. But it is the working class that finances these services by paying proportionally higher taxes – direct or indirect – than others. Furthermore, the “services” thus financed basically serve the interests of capital; they serve the working class’s interests either not at all, or only indirectly.
But the fundamental error committed by the “SMC boys” doesn’t reside in a misperception of the limit beyond which overaccumulation triggers an irresolvable systemic crisis by forcing capitalists to turn to the state and, consequently, agree to see their capital confined to unprofitable sectors, or even consent to a situation in which the savings of the exploited are no longer drained off by the banks and converted into capital. Their fundamental mistake is to believe that such a limit can exist. In reality, “there is no absolute barrier to capital.” In order to fabricate a “bourgeois Marxist ideology” which, like every other kind of economism, tends to condemn the working class to passivity, one has to take tendencies subject to the historical law of the class struggle for mechanical laws. According to Althusser, other Marxists, and by no means the least of them, have fallen into the same trap – notably, Marx, or a certain Marx, who also failed to see that overaccumulation is counteracted by the devaluation of constant capital as a result of technical progress, for example, but also of the destruction of overaccumulated capital and surplus population in wars.
This affirmation is followed by a sketch of the history of class struggles in France and the United States, supposed to have led, in both countries (with the help of the Second World War) to the emergence of an “economic state apparatus” that underpins what Boccara calls SMC. Too short to be conclusive, this sketch attempts to show that the class struggle of French and American capital culminated in the same end result – a provisional solution to capitalist crisis – by way of the divergent experiences of the New Deal and the hijacking of the gains of the Popular Front, but also by way of experiences as unpredictable as were the contingencies of WWII followed by those of imperialist globalization.
Is this to say that the Althusserian response to the challenge of the SMC theorists is ultimately to be sought in the late Althusserian materialism of the encounter? Insofar as Althusser’s contribution to this underground tradition is the materialism of the aleatory encounter known as class struggle, of which Althusserian Marxism claims to be the science, nothing prevents us from answering in the affirmative. We can go still further: it is the defense of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat at the heart of the materialism of the encounter that constitutes the response, in the last instance, to any economistic theorization of the state and the “becoming-necessary” of the state. This is another indication that Althusser’s last struggle against the abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat was the struggle of the late Althusser, which he had set out to wage, as we have just seen, in his 1973 Livre sur impérialisme.
FB: The polemic of the 1970s that Althusser directed against the PCF was closely bound up with the party’s abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Among the still unpublished texts that deal with this question is, I believe, a “self-interview“ titled Les Vaches noires. Could you say something about the genesis of this text, and, especially, about its content? What new insights does it hold about the controversies that Althusser engaged in in this period?
GMG: You will have understood that I think that the concept of class dictatorship, far from being “beyond” Althusser’s philosophical preoccupations, was at the heart of them. This holds at least since his 1959 book on Montesquieu, in which he defends the idea that the feudal class dictatorship persevered in its being right up to the Journées révolutionnaires of 1789. Was this a way of protesting the Western Communist parties’ predictable abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, foreseeable since the CPSU’s 20th Congress? I suspect it was. What’s certain is that this idea is at odds with the economistic conception of the decline of feudalism under Absolutism favored by a certain Karl Marx. The critique presented in Montesquieu is taken up again, as is, in an unfinished passage of “The Underground Current” that takes issue with the “totalitarian, teleological, and philosophical” aspect of Marxian thought. That’s says something about its importance. Similarly, one can summarize Althusser’s struggle against the PCF’s reformism in the first half of the 1960s, or his critique of the idea that a communist party can be a “party of government”, developed in On Reproduction – a study of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie – as a prophetic protest of the PCF’s now imminent abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. “There are also linear geneses,“ as Althusser put it in 1966.
On January 7, 1976, the general secretary of the PCF, Georges Marchais, announced in a television interview that, “in his personal opinion,” the dictatorship of the proletariat had seen its day, at least in countries with strong democratic traditions such as France. Although the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat hadn’t figured in the draft resolution for the 22nd Party Congress, this Congress, which was held in early February, unhesitatingly approved a resolution that rejected the concept after a “debate.” The communists had until the next Congress to decide whether to remove all mention of it from the party statutes (where it was explicitly mentioned in the preamble). As expected, the May 1979 23rd Congress did just that. Did the mass of the party‘s militants really think that the time had come to jettison the dictatorship of the proletariat? It’s quite possible. At the time, the base wasn’t really able to think anything much different from what the leadership thought.
However, it was possible, after the January 1976 television interview in which Marchais effectively served notice of the PCF leadership’s decision to abandon the dictatorship of the proletariat, to oppose a decision that hadn’t yet officially been taken by the party, and, arguably, to do so without violating the rules of democratic centralism. Certain communist intellectuals and militants, especially a small group around Althusser, jumped at the chance. That put an end to the reconciliation with the party that Althusser had embarked on in 1969.
It wasn’t long after this new tactical turn that Althusser delivered, at the end of March and beginning of April, in Spain, the lecture on “The Transformation of Philosophy” in which he develops the concept of a non-philosophical philosophy corresponding to the concept of the “non-state“ of the dictatorship of the proletariat. After returning to Paris, he was invited to present his book Positions at the “Marxist book fair” [Vente du livre marxiste] organized by the party in the old Gare de la Bastille in the last week of April; he capitalized on the opportunity to defend the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat before what I remember as being a very big and rather tense crowd, while also broaching the subject of the bureaucratic and anti-democratic methods that Marchais and Co. had used to head off a broad, open discussion on the question of its suppression in the two or three months before the 22nd Congress and, especially, at the Congress itself.16 That paved the way for a very lively debate with Lucien Sève, who was firmly on the party leadership’s side on the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and, as the head of the Party publishing house that had just published Althusser’s book, shared the stage with him. After Althusser left the vieille gare, Marchais criticized him in front of journalists for defending “dead” and, hang on to your hat, antidemocratic ideas. L’Humanité, for its part, published an attack or two on his “unjustified attachment” to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the like. In July, he made another trip to Spain, delivering the Barcelona lecture on the dictatorship of the proletariat that you recently published; a journalist and rather well-known writer then in the Catalan party close to, or attached to, the PCE wondered, in a critical but also rather funny account, why the lecturer hadn’t long since been expelled from his party. By the beginning of the summer, Étienne Balibar, a close collaborator of Althusser’s, had finished writing a book on the dictatorship of the proletariat that was published in French in July.17 At the beginning of September, Althusser informed Pierre Macherey, another of his close collaborators, that he’d “disburdened himself of” a certain number of pages, “hastily drafted and then revised and stitched back together a good ten times,“ of a polemic “on the miracle of the 22nd Congress and its hallucinations.” His text would “reinforce” he added, the “artillery blast of Étienne’s beautiful book.“
Althusser’s text was the “analytical pamphlet” eventually entitled Les Vaches noires: Interview imaginaire. All 80,000 words of it, except for the Barcelona lecture, which was incorporated into the Vaches noires, seem to have been dashed off in the two months between the lecture and the letter. The book was never released, perhaps because Althusser deferred to Étienne Balibar’s judgment: to publish it as it stood, Balibar warned him in September, would amount to “presenting himself as the inspiration and potential leader of an ‘alternative’ to the current politics of the party without the required means.” Althusser nevertheless pursued his struggle to defend the dictatorship of the proletariat in a number of public appearances and statements published in 1976 and 1977, incurring the wrath of the PCF leadership for a “disguised fractional attack.” In France, the only important publication of his to emerge from this political campaign was a pamphlet much shorter and more conciliatory in tone than Les Vaches noires. Entitled “The Twenty-Second Congress,” it was published as a booklet in May 1977. It’s the revised text of a lecture that he was finally able to give at a meeting of the Sorbonne branch of the PCF student organization in December 1976, despite the efforts of the organization’s national leadership to prevent the lecture from happening by intimidating the speaker.
A whole section of Les Vaches noires is devoted to the criticism of such “bureaucratic and Stalinist practices,” still rampant in the PCF in the mid-70s. The book opens with a long discussion of the repressive measures the party had resorted to in order to prevent him from publishing in communist journals, censure what he was able to publish thanks to communist allies, or refute him by means of “remote controlled” criticisms when the silence of the party’s intellectuals no longer sufficed to keep works that were already famous in the non-communist world in the shadows. An account of Althusser’s “trial” by a party committee features prominently in this first part, as does a justification of his decision to make François Maspero his publisher.
The chapter on his conflictual relations with the PCF is followed by a long analysis of the bureaucratic manipulation of the party decision-making processes. The preparation for the 22nd Congress serves as the main example, from the leadership’s interpretation of the main preparatory document, the draft resolution – an interpretation that “verged on falsification,” according to Althusser, to the extent that it retrospectively and arbitrarily read the question of the abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat into a document premised on the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat – through the “rubber-stamp session” that this Congress had itself been, to the intimidation of communists who dared to defend the concept after the question had been put up for “debate” and “settled.” Althusser’s general conclusion is that there should be a return to democratic centralism as Lenin had understood it, involving, notably, the acceptance of tendencies (but not fractions) in the party – the fundamental problem of the current state of things being the “inadmissible predominance of centralism over democracy.” This general recommendation is followed by a whole series of concrete proposals for democratizing the party’s internal regime.
A third part of the book begins with the observation that there was “a glaring absence” in Marchais’s television interview: in justifying his “personal” rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the General Secretary had pointed out that the word “dictatorship” called up somber memories of fascist regimes. What he failed to mention, Althusser notes, was the “terror regime and the massive exterminations of the Stalinist period” that had made “millions of victims: not only were men killed, but ideas died as well.” That provides the starting point for a thorough-going denunciation of the “Stalinist practices… that persist in the URSS as an organic – not at all accidental – element of Soviet society.” This critique goes hand-in-hand with an analysis of the historical reasons for which the dictatorship of the proletariat, the “key concept of Marxism,” has become difficult to distinguish from its “degenerated forms.” Moreover, in the minds of communists who are the heirs, despite themselves, of the Stalinist tradition, this concept is identified with the “violent seizure of state power.” However, for Althusser in 1976, “this definition does not correspond to any necessity.” The sole necessity it designates is that the proletariat must replace the existing state with a state of its own, a “state that is not a state,” a “commune” or “semi-state.”
This brings us to the theoretical core of the self-interview, a lightly revised version of the Barcelona lecture, in which Althusser develops his conception of the non-state, but also his conception of the state in a class society: by definition, an “oppressive machine.” It lays the groundwork for a critique of the “reformist or utopian” conceptions of the state to which Althusser traces the party leadership’s decision to abandon the dictatorship of the proletariat, and, with it, for a critique of the concept of SMC that we have already said a word about (“the PCF’s whole analysis of the class struggle rests on the concept of SMC”). The Gramscian conception of hegemony is criticized in its turn, if at a different level, essentially on the grounds that it suggests, or can be taken to suggest, that the working class can come to dominate bourgeois civil society before seizing state power and destroying the bourgeois state apparatus.
The last section of Vaches noires proposes an analysis of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie that is, like all class dictatorships – this is Althusser’s central thesis – “above the laws and thus above and beyond politics.” The analysis here focuses especially on the difference between the relation of production considered as a juridical relation and as the relation of force that appears behind this formal relation, including the form “of the peculiar kind of violence that accompanies the consensual reign of norms, that is, the ‘values’ hidden or disguised in ideas: ideology.” Among the most interesting pages of this section of the text are those that propose to deconstruct the ideology of the rights of man, freedom, and formal equality, setting out from their origin in the relation of equivalence that is the commodity-exchange relation. To my knowledge, there is no discussion of the same breadth elsewhere in Althusser.
FB: To conclude, if one begins from a clearer vision of Althusser’s oeuvre, as your work invites us to do, what is the specifically “Althusserian” contribution to Marxism as such? Is it a general theory of scientific practices? A philosophy of contingency or of the conjuncture? An introduction to the “basic concepts of historical materialism?”
GMG: Althusser’s contribution, or at least one of his basic contributions, is to have shown that historical materialism, if it means to justify its claim to be a science of history, can only be the science of the always aleatory encounter known as the class struggle. And it is to have bequeathed us the means to think what’s at stake in the class struggle, that is, in the last instance, the destruction of a world, whether it takes the form of genocide or revolution, one being something on the order of the negative of the other. The history of the 20th century has rather clearly shown that genocide is by far the likelier eventuality. The evolution of capitalism in the present century doesn’t seem to suggest anything different. That’s perhaps reason enough to opt for revolution – and to read Althusser.
– Translated by Patrick King
This interview originally appeared in Période. It has been lightly revised for publication in Viewpoint.
This article is part of a dossier entitled “A Struggle Without End”: Althusser’s Interventions.
Louis Althusser, “On the Social Contract,” in Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1972, 111-160; Anonymous [attributed to Louis Althusser, “On the Cultural Revolution,” trans. Jason E. Smith, Décalages 1.1 (2014), 1-6. ↩
Frieder Otto Wolf, “‘Zuletzt endlich Brot und Rosen’: Ein Bericht Über Althussers Juni-Thesen,” in Althusser: Über die Reproduktion des Materialismus, eds. Wolf, Ekrem Ecici and Jörg Nowak (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2016), 381-398. ↩
André Tosel, “De la théorie structurale à la conjoncture aléatoire,” La Pensée, no. 382, special issue: Althusser 25 ans après (April-May-June 2015), 31-46. See also his “The Hazards of Aleatory Materialism,” trans. Daniel Hartley, in Encountering Althusser: Politics and Materialism in Contemporary Radical Thought, eds. Katja Diefenbach, Sara R. Farris, Gal Kirn, and Peter D. Thomas (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 3-26. ↩
Bernard Pudal, ed., “Un inédit de Louis Althusser. La note à H. Krasucki,” Fondations, nos. 3-4 (2006), 55-75. ↩
Louis Althusser, “Entretien avec Waldeck Rochet,” Les Annales de la Société des amis de Louis Aragon et Elsa Triolet, 2: 181-187. ↩
An excerpt from the second of these three lectures on Rousseau’s The Discourse on Inequality was published as “Rousseau’s State of Pure Nature,” trans. G.M. Goshgarian, in the recent Los Angeles Review of Books forum on Althusser’s work. ↩
Louis Althusser, Les Vaches noires: interview imaginaire (le malaise du XXIIe Congrès), ed. G. M. Goshgarian (Paris: PUF, forthcoming in 2016). ↩
The Barcelona lecture on the dictatorship of the proletariat has now been translated into English, with an excellent introduction by Warren Montag: Louis Althusser, “Some Questions Concerning the Crisis of Marxist Theory and of the International Communist Movement,” trans. David Broder, Historical Materialism 23.1 (2015), 152-178. ↩
There is also a separate Argentinian edition of Initiation, available here. There is also a forthcoming Japanese translation of Être marxiste en philosophie, by Yoshihiko Ichida, available here. ↩
Jean-Claude Bourdin, ed., Althusser: une lecture de Marx, (Paris: PUF, 2008). ↩
See Louis Althusser, “The Stoics and Epicurus,” trans. G.M. Goshgarian, diacritics 43.2 (2015), 10-14. ↩
Louis Althusser, “Lenin and Philosophy,” 68. ↩
Cf. Louis Althusser, “Philosophy and Marxism,” in Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987, ed. Francois Matheron and Oliver Corpet, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (New York: Verso, 2006), 251-289. ↩
For the book, see Louis Althusser, Positions, 1964-1975 (Paris: Éditions sociales, 1976). ↩