Philosophy and Revolution: An Interview with G.M. Goshgarian


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 “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.

Marchais et al

Some of the archi­tects of the Union of the Left. From left to right: François Mit­terand, Louis Aragon, Georges Mar­chais, Robert Fabre.

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.

  1. 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. 

  2. 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. 

  3. 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. 

  4. Bernard Pudal, ed., “Un inédit de Louis Althusser. La note à H. Kra­sucki,” Fon­da­tions, nos. 3-4 (2006), 55-75. 

  5. Louis Althusser, “Entre­tien avec Waldeck Rochet,” Les Annales de la Société des amis de Louis Aragon et Elsa Tri­o­let, 2: 181-187. 

  6. 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. 

  7. Louis Althusser, Les Vaches noires: inter­view imag­i­naire (le malaise du XXIIe Con­grès), ed. G. M. Gosh­gar­ian (Paris: PUF, forth­com­ing in 2016). 

  8. 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. 

  9. 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

  10. Jean-Claude Bour­din, ed., Althusser: une lec­ture de Marx, (Paris: PUF, 2008). 

  11. Pub­lished in Eng­lish as “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy,” in Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 23-70. 

  12. See Louis Althusser, “The Sto­ics and Epi­cu­rus,” trans. G.M. Gosh­gar­ian, dia­crit­ics 43.2 (2015), 10-14. 

  13. Louis Althusser, “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy,” 68. 

  14. 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. 

  15. Louis Althusser, “Response to John Lewis,” in Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism, trans. Gra­hame Lock (Lon­don: NLB, 1976), 58. 

  16. For the book, see Louis Althusser, Posi­tions, 1964-1975 (Paris: Éditions sociales, 1976). 

  17. Éti­enne Bal­ibar, On the Dic­ta­tor­ship of the Pro­le­tariat, trans. Gra­hame Lock (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1977). 

Authors of the article

translates fiction and philosophy from French, German, and Armenian into English. He is the translator of two collections of the work of Louis Althusser, The Humanist Controversy and Philosophy of the Encounter, as well as two books by him, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers (Bloomsbury 2016) and How to Be Marxist in Philosophy (Bloomsbury, forthcoming).

is a doctoral student in Economics at the University of Paris –13 and editor-in-chief of the journal Période.