Why Should We Read Althusser (Again)?


“Think dif­fer­ently, speak dif­fer­ently” – this was Louis Althusser’s prin­ci­ple when it came to fun­da­men­tal mat­ters of phi­los­o­phy, pol­i­tics, the his­tory of cap­i­tal­ism, and con­tem­po­rary class strug­gle.1 This is also a prin­ci­ple Althusser lived up to.2 As Peter Schöt­tler and Frieder Otto Wolf wrote in 1985, he was “one of the most impor­tant the­o­rists in the renewal of Marx­ism and one of the great­est cat­a­lysts of post­war French philosophy…[l]ike few other Marx­ist the­o­rists since Anto­nio Gram­sci, Louis Althusser intro­duced new ques­tions, prob­lems, and the­ses to Marx­ist debates inter­na­tion­ally.” There have long been plans to pub­lish the works of Louis Althusser in Ger­man on a large scale. Wolf’s first attempt to bring out an eight vol­ume edi­tion through Argu­ment Ver­lag stalled after the pub­li­ca­tion of two impor­tant vol­umes: Vol­ume 4: Philoso­phie und spon­tane Philoso­phie der Wis­senschaftler [Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of Sci­en­tists] (1985) and Vol­ume 2: Machi­avelli – Mon­tesquieu – Rousseau (1987). A few years ago Wolf made a sec­ond push to pub­lish the col­lected works of Althusser in Ger­man. A newly trans­lated and expanded Suhrkamp edi­tion of Für Marx appeared in 2011 as Vol­ume 3, fea­tur­ing essays that were not included in the first edi­tion and frag­ments of which could only be found else­where in Ger­man. VSA Ver­lag fol­lowed this in 2012 with Vol­ume 5: the first half included the impor­tant text “Ide­ol­ogy and Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tuses” and the sec­ond half the exten­sive man­u­script Über die Repro­duk­tion [On the Repro­duc­tion of Cap­i­tal], which was unpub­lished in Althusser’s life­time. At the start of this year [2015] Ver­lag West­fälis­ches Dampf­boot pub­lished the first com­plete Ger­man edi­tion of Read­ing Cap­i­tal, the 1965 book Louis Althusser wrote with his stu­dents Éti­enne Bal­ibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey and Jacques Ran­cière. This has been a long time com­ing to say the least; the first Ger­man trans­la­tion by Klaus-Dieter Thieme was pub­lished in paper­back by Rowolht Ver­lag in 1972 but included only the texts by Althusser and Bal­ibar – cor­re­spond­ing to the 1968 French edi­tion – and has for a while been out of print.


 Jacques Rancière’s con­tri­bu­tion to Read­ing Cap­i­tal, “The Con­cept of ‘Cri­tique’ and the ‘Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy,” was pub­lished sep­a­rately in the same year by the small Berlin-based Merve Ver­lag and offers an inci­sive crit­i­cal under­stand­ing of Marx’s work. After 1968 Ran­cière turned to Mao­ism and dis­tanced him­self from Althusser with the sweep­ing 1974 cri­tique Althusser’s Lesson. Merve Ver­lag pub­lished an abridged ver­sion of this cri­tique in Ger­man under the title Wider den akademis­chen Marx­is­mus [Against Aca­d­e­mic Marx­ism] (1975). The full book appeared with the orig­i­nal title in 2014 from Laika Ver­lag. In it Ran­cière aims to ana­lyze revi­sion­ist praxis as he claims to observe it in Althusser’s own the­o­ret­i­cal praxis. He argues that Althusser trans­formed the ide­o­log­i­cal class strug­gle between bour­geois ide­ol­ogy and pro­le­tar­ian ide­ol­ogy – as exer­cised by ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tuses and prac­ti­cal strug­gles respec­tively – into a con­flict between ide­ol­ogy and sci­ence. In doing so Althusse­ri­an­ism assumed the role of pro­duc­ing left­ist aca­d­e­mic elites who use the lan­guage of class strug­gle to sound mil­i­tant in their the­ory while polic­ing the spon­tane­ity of the masses intel­lec­tu­ally. Moti­vated by his expe­ri­ences of the 1968 protest move­ments and cri­tiques of the divi­sion of intel­lec­tual from man­ual labor, Ran­cière set the expe­ri­ence of the masses in oppo­si­tion to the the­o­ret­i­cal praxis of the sciences.Yet what started off as a crit­i­cal bench­mark of mil­i­tant Marx­ism – por­tray­ing Althusser as a revi­sion­ist, Sartre as an ide­al­ist, and Fou­cault as anti-Marx­ist – would cul­mi­nate just a few years later in Ranciere’s con­cept of equal­ity, based no longer on either Marx or post­struc­tural­ism (to which he some­times still ascribes albeit on dubi­ous genealog­i­cal grounds) and which takes the form of con­ven­tional polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy.

The new edi­tion of Read­ing Cap­i­tal totals 764 pages. Along with addi­tional shorter texts by Althusser, it also includes a fore­word and after­word by Frieder Otto Wolf and com­men­tary from Sebas­tian Neubauer on the hand­writ­ten changes Althusser made to his own con­tri­bu­tions. This is an enor­mous under­tak­ing by both the pub­lisher as well as the edi­tor and trans­la­tor Wolf – for which they deserve thanks. What really enriches the edi­tion is the atten­tion given to the tex­tual changes between the French edi­tions of 1965 and 1968/1973.3 In addi­tion Wolf con­sults both the Ger­man and French ver­sions of Marx’s texts, which helps read­ers to more pre­cisely under­stand Althusser’s ref­er­ences. Read­ing Cap­i­tal is already a demand­ing read, and is made even more so by philo­log­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions like these. The patience it demands of read­ers, how­ever, is well worth it. The book remains a mile­stone in debates on Marx and is in no way out­dated by more recent dis­cus­sions. Even though its insights are still not well under­stood, Read­ing Cap­i­tal should be a nat­u­ral start­ing point for any con­tem­po­rary debate.4 The editor’s after­word could have bet­ter helped to ori­ent today’s read­ers by pro­vid­ing back­ground to those unfa­mil­iar with the decades-long debate around Althusser, espe­cially the recep­tion of his the­ory and strong resis­tance to it in the Ger­man-speak­ing world. This includes work by Peter Schöt­tler and Hen­ning Böke, the VSA-Ver­lag, and jour­nals like alter­na­tive, Das Argu­ment, Sozial­is­tis­che Poli­tik, and kul­tuR­Rev­o­lu­tion: Zeitschrift for ange­wandte Diskur­s­analyse.


There are var­i­ous rea­sons that explain the resis­tance to Althusser in the Ger­man-speak­ing world.

A) Even though he was a mem­ber of the PCF, Althusser’s rejec­tion of the Stal­in­ist con­cept of dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism made him too much of a Maoist and too crit­i­cal of party tra­di­tion for Moscow-ori­ented par­ties. Althusser even accused human­ist crit­ics of Stal­in­ism of shar­ing its assump­tions. For the post-68 Maoist orga­ni­za­tions, which were hardly inter­ested in Marx­ist the­ory aside from the “clas­sics” of Marx to Mao and the Volk­szeitung, Althusser was too the­o­ret­i­cal, too intel­lec­tual, too unortho­dox.5 In the eyes of the rad­i­cal left, he was just another intel­lec­tual for the West Euro­pean com­mu­nist par­ties whose his­tor­i­cal com­pro­mises were revi­sion­ist and not mil­i­tant enough.

B) This polit­i­cal rejec­tion of Althusser was also con­nected to a the­o­ret­i­cal one. Althusser attacked not only ortho­dox Marx­ism-Lenin­ism, but also Hegelian Marx­ism – the very the­o­ret­i­cal tra­di­tion that had become increas­ingly impor­tant for the non-dog­matic left and its the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ment. This tra­di­tion, which approached Marx­ist the­ory with some skep­ti­cism, was rep­re­sented by names such as Lukács, Korsch, Bloch, Adorno and Horkheimer, and younger fig­ures like Alfred Schmidt and Oskar Negt; and in France by Lucien Gold­mann, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Henri Lefeb­vre. At the heart of Hegelian Marx­ism were con­cepts like expe­ri­ence, sub­jec­tiv­ity, spon­tane­ity, the every­day, alien­ation, reifi­ca­tion, the com­mod­ity, and the fetish. The turn to Hegel made it pos­si­ble to work out dialec­ti­cal con­cepts for pen­e­trat­ing the imme­di­ate sur­face expe­ri­ence of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions and the world of con­sumerist spec­ta­cle into the essence that under­girds social rela­tions, value, and its cor­re­spond­ing social­iza­tion. For Hegelian Marx­ism, it was nec­es­sary to pierce appear­ance and develop a the­ory of rev­o­lu­tion­ary prac­tice, which was assumed not to be found in Marx. The very con­di­tions of cap­i­tal­ism left no doubt that the moment of praxis was to be found directly on the sys­tem­atic level.6 This explains why Marx did not more closely explain in Cap­i­tal his method and con­cep­tion of dialec­tics – that is, the con­nec­tion of essence and appear­ance, struc­ture and his­tory, the­ory and prac­tice. For pre­cisely these rea­sons, Hegelian­ized intel­lec­tu­als returned to the Grun­drisse of 1858, claim­ing it to be closer to Marx’s orig­i­nal inten­tions than the first vol­ume of Cap­i­tal, where Marx is said to have con­cealed his method in order to make his pre­sen­ta­tion more acces­si­ble. This is also why the first chap­ter of Cap­i­tal has enjoyed such spe­cial atten­tion within Hegelian Marx­ism, since this is where Marx lays bare the dialec­ti­cal move­ment between appear­ance (the com­mod­ity) and essence (the sub­stance of value) as medi­ated on the sur­face by fetishized forms of money, cap­i­tal, profit, inter­est, com­pe­ti­tion, that hin­der rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­scious­ness.

There was also another polit­i­cal aspect of the the­o­ret­i­cal oppo­si­tion to Althusser that went beyond mat­ters of Marx­ist the­ory. Althusser’s texts were dis­missed as struc­tural Marx­ism. Sartre him­self had branded struc­tural­ism the last ide­o­log­i­cal bas­tion of the bour­geoisie. Many authors of the time who were once described as struc­tural­ist became affil­i­ated with post­struc­tural­ism, chief among them Deleuze, Der­rida, Kris­teva and Fou­cault. Both struc­tural­ism and post­struc­tural­ism were, in gen­eral, cri­tiqued on sev­eral grounds: for inad­e­quately con­sid­er­ing cat­e­gories like sub­jec­tiv­ity, indi­vid­ual auton­omy, moral behav­ior, and his­tory; for not being grounded in rea­son; and for neu­trally and exter­nally recon­struct­ing the struc­tures it tar­geted by ren­der­ing them anal­o­gous to the lin­guis­tic sys­tem of signs. The con­tro­ver­sies that arose among many of these authors were mis­di­rected. Those who describe Read­ing Cap­i­tal as struc­tural­ist today do so to dis­tin­guish it from the more widely accepted post­struc­tural­ism and its emi­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tives like Deleuze, Der­rida, Fou­cault, Badiou, Ran­cière – thereby rid­ding post­stuc­tural­ism of Marx­ist con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. And yet Read­ing Cap­i­tal is clearly con­nected to so-called post­struc­tural­ism. Many of the book’s the­o­ret­i­cal insights are sup­ported implic­itly and some­times even explic­itly in work by Lacan, Barthes, Fou­cault, Der­rida or the Tel Quel Group around Kris­teva – at least before they dis­tanced them­selves in the 1970s from the Marx­ist milieu and after which many of their the­o­ries lost their rad­i­cal­ity.

C) Finally, Althusser’s mur­der of his wife Hélène in Novem­ber 1980 – for years he was in and out of psy­chi­atric care – con­tributed to the reser­va­tions against his the­ory. For some the mur­der seemed to con­firm a sense that the­o­ret­i­cal anti-human­ism, with its cri­tique of the con­sti­tu­tive sub­ject and rea­son, leads inevitably to destruc­tive con­se­quences in the pri­vate sphere.7


Read­ing Cap­i­tal, which was first pub­lished a few years before the protest move­ments of 1968 and went through sev­eral print­ings there­after, was enor­mously sig­nif­i­cant to Marx­ist debates inter­na­tion­ally, despite only appear­ing in the short­ened 1968 edi­tion that includes just the texts by Althusser and Bal­ibar. The book sup­ported the crit­i­cal ten­dency – closely con­nected to polit­i­cal prac­tices at times – that dealt with and read Marx’s texts in a rig­or­ous way instead of just casu­ally or dog­mat­i­cally cit­ing them. Read­ing Cap­i­tal was also taken to be a provo­ca­tion for reject­ing com­mon inter­pre­ta­tions of Marx’s works, like that of the com­mu­nist par­ties asso­ci­ated with Marx­ism-Lenin­ism, or those rooted largely in Marx’s early writ­ing that fore­grounded the influ­ence of Hegel and Feuer­bach on Marx. This lat­ter read­ing calls for a uni­fied Marx whose iden­tity as an author can be seen as hav­ing fol­lowed a con­tin­u­ous the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ment. This the­ory finds the basis of its cri­tique in ref­er­ences to human nature and the Hegelian dialec­tic. In this view, Marx’s later devel­op­ment just extended con­cepts such as work, alien­ation, or reifi­ca­tion with their thor­oughly nor­ma­tive con­tent into a mate­ri­al­ist eco­nomic cri­tique.

In one of his many deeply resent­ful com­men­taries on Marx and the Marx­ist tra­di­tion, Pierre Bour­dieu crit­i­cized Althusse­ri­an­ism dur­ing a 1991 lec­ture for attempt­ing to restore a priestly monopoly on the read­ing of Marx, and for focus­ing on texts that no one apart from Marx­ol­o­gists read any longer.8 Bour­dieu was sorely mis­taken about the impe­tus behind the Althusse­rian read­ing of Marx. His the­sis on the impact of Althusse­ri­an­ism – which just repeats Rancière’s objec­tion with­out acknowl­edg­ing it – is dif­fi­cult to prove empir­i­cally and misses the objec­tives of Louis Althusser him­self. The approach of the group around Althusser is notable pre­cisely because they wanted to break the priestly monopoly. Cap­i­tal should not be read as pro­mul­gat­ing some pure truth, that is, as being a scrip­ture that has the truth liv­ing within it, or as the spo­ken word, the Logos, that brings the real being into its own.9 This is why long pas­sages of Read­ing Cap­i­tal exam­ine how to read Cap­i­tal and what its object is. Even before Der­rida or Fou­cault, Read­ing Cap­i­tal taught that read­ing is far from a neu­tral under­tak­ing; in The­ol­ogy and Phi­los­o­phy there is a mil­len­nia-old the­o­ret­i­cal praxis that approaches texts, above all holy texts, hermeneu­ti­cally in order to reveal the ulti­mate mean­ing and hid­den truth avail­able in the text that pre­vi­ous read­ers failed to see. 

In Althusser’s view, Marx in Cap­i­tal breaks with tra­di­tion through his own recon­struc­tive man­ner of read­ing bour­geois polit­i­cal econ­omy and devel­ops a dis­tinc­tive under­stand­ing of the­ory and sci­ence. This is why the ques­tion of Marx’s phi­los­o­phy is cru­cial. But Althusser can­not trace the major inter­ven­tion Marx’s text car­ries out in the his­tory of the­ory to any other phi­los­o­phy, be it Spin­oza, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Feuer­bach, Saus­sure, Freud or Crit­i­cal Real­ism. There is an entirely new and unique form of phi­los­o­phy at work in Cap­i­tal, which Marx admit­tedly does not make explicit. But this is why know­ing it more pre­cisely is so nec­es­sary for bet­ter under­stand­ing the full extent of Marx’s sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion, which entailed the con­struc­tion of a new object and inau­gu­ra­tion a new con­ti­nent of sci­ence, the sci­ence of his­tory. Marx’s inter­ven­tion is of both every­day prac­ti­cal and polit­i­cal impor­tance. Break­ing with the dom­i­nant cat­e­gories and depart­ing from the imag­i­nary of the bour­geois view of the world affects every sin­gle indi­vid­ual – his inter­ven­tion is not to be car­ried out just once, but must be always prac­ticed and in new ways.10

In com­pre­hend­ing this new rev­o­lu­tion­ary phi­los­o­phy, Read­ing Cap­i­tal repeat­edly con­fronts Hegel, since Marx in the after­word to the sec­ond edi­tion of Cap­i­tal from 1873 admit­ted to hav­ing been a stu­dent of the great thinker and to flirt­ing with his idio­syn­cratic mode of expres­sion in the chap­ter on value the­ory. Already in For Marx, Althusser was pre­oc­cu­pied with what Marx meant when he claimed to have inverted the Hegelian dialec­tic in order to dis­cover the ratio­nal ker­nel that exists within its mys­ti­cal shell. It is not just a philo­soph­i­cal or method­olog­i­cal prob­lem whether Marx did more than apply dialec­tics to Ricardo’s eco­nom­ics. This is why dialec­tics as a method for com­pre­hend­ing shift­ing social rela­tions is of greater rel­e­vance today than Marx’s actual analy­sis, which despite its valu­able soci­o­log­i­cal char­ac­ter is of its time and thus out­dated. But Althusser does not just turn against such his­tori­cism. What mat­ters to him is the gen­uinely social the­o­ret­i­cal con­tent of Marx’s the­ory. This is why his cen­tral inter­est is the object of the sci­ence Marx inau­gu­rated. Accord­ing to Althusser, with his cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy Marx devel­oped the the­ory of the cap­i­tal­ist mode pro­duc­tion and the cor­re­spond­ing the­ory of the dif­fer­ent spheres within this mode pro­duc­tion – such as eco­nom­ics, law, and art. In addi­tion, Marx devel­oped the sci­ence of his­tory, which includes the the­o­ries of dif­fer­ent modes of pro­duc­tion, the the­ory of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion, the his­tory of the the­ory of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion, as well as a par­tic­u­lar phi­los­o­phy. Althusser and his col­leagues oppose the philo­soph­i­cal idea of method. Of cru­cial impor­tance for this argu­ment is Marx’s reflec­tion in his 1857 “Intro­duc­tion” that sep­a­rates the thought-object [Gedankenob­jekt] from the real object. Marx is under­stood here as a rad­i­cal anti-empiri­cist: his con­cepts are not abstrac­tions from real­ity, ideal types, heuris­tics, nor even just names for a bundle of facts – that is, words through which one can observe slices of real­ity. The thought-object con­sists of con­cepts that divulge the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion as an object. Marx devel­oped a speci­fic the­o­ret­i­cal praxis that gen­er­ates and con­sti­tutes its object by crit­i­cally manip­u­lat­ing famil­iar ide­o­log­i­cal forms of thought. The process of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion takes place through the pre­sen­ta­tion of con­cepts; the object of knowl­edge, the thought-object does not, there­fore, exist ahead or inde­pen­dent of its pre­sen­ta­tion.

For Althusser and his co-authors, the philo­soph­i­cal con­cept of method is opposed crit­i­cally to the sim­i­larly impor­tant Hegelian con­cept of pre­sen­ta­tion [Darstel­lung] that can be found in approaches such as the “new read­ing of Marx” [neue Marx-Lek­türe], offered by fig­ures like Hel­mut Reichelt and Hans-Georg Back­haus. Althusser is famous for hav­ing rec­om­mended that read­ers skip the entire first sec­tion of Cap­i­tal (663). Yet Pierre Macherey’s and Roger Establet’s con­tri­bu­tions fea­ture extended dis­cus­sions of Marx’s mode of pre­sen­ta­tion. Accord­ing to Macherey, the issue of pre­sen­ta­tion was so impor­tant for Marx because it implied a speci­fic man­ner of prac­tic­ing sci­ence, though Marx’s con­cept of pre­sen­ta­tion should be dis­tin­guished from Hegel’s: Cap­i­tal is not to be under­stood as depict­ing the process by which the con­cept of value devel­ops through its con­tra­dic­tions through to the level of com­pe­ti­tion. In his detailed analy­sis, Macherey shows that Marx, on the very first page of Cap­i­tal, does not set in motion any con­tra­dic­tory move­ment of con­cepts. This would have meant devel­op­ing the con­tra­dic­tions of wealth and poverty, exchange and use value, and com­mod­ity and value expres­sion – that is, the rel­a­tive and equiv­a­lent forms of value that express the rela­tions between two com­modi­ties. Marx, how­ever, pro­duced a dif­fer­ent kind of object, the con­cept of value. This can­not be found in the exchange rela­tion like the seed of a fruit, but can only be pro­duced con­cep­tu­ally through analy­sis of the value form. Establet focuses on the lay­out of Cap­i­tal. Far dif­fer­ent than is typ­i­cal in the Ger­man debates, he con­cen­trates on the inter­nal struc­ture of the three vol­umes of Cap­i­tal instead of the var­i­ous plans Marx devised for writ­ing his cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy – this also amounts to an argu­ment against Hegel. Marx does not fol­low the log­i­cal devel­op­ment of con­cepts; the three vol­umes of Cap­i­tal as a whole do not form a total­ity whose end­point both medi­ates and estab­lishes the start of the con­cep­tual cir­cle. Rather it deals with the sequen­tial artic­u­la­tions of the­o­ret­i­cal ele­ments (e.g. the first and sec­ond sec­tions of the first vol­ume with the entirety of Cap­i­tal).


Althusser is often cri­tiqued for being overly the­o­ret­i­cal and aca­d­e­mic – but this short­changes his think­ing. It is cer­tainly true that Althusser dis­tin­guished sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy from ide­ol­ogy. Such an approach casts what is sci­en­tif­i­cally incor­rect as ide­ol­ogy, with­out ques­tion­ing the power that demands sci­en­tific char­ac­ter in the first place. Con­versely, Althusser does not see a new ratio­nal­ity or world con­cep­tion in every­day sub­al­tern moments. He rejected Gramsci’s insight that the phi­los­o­phy of praxis is com­prised of ways of think­ing that develop through prac­tice. Despite objec­tions like these, the con­cept of the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice is impor­tant for Althusser for giv­ing a new twist to the end­less debates over the­ory and praxis and for help­ing to glimpse how con­crete activ­i­ties are con­nected to the­ory and sci­ence. The­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice is not lim­ited to the uni­ver­sity; and it is regret­table that Althusser did not take up Gramsci’s insights on the sig­nif­i­cance of hege­monic appa­ra­tuses in shap­ing the rela­tions within which the­o­ret­i­cal praxis hap­pens. His inter­est is with deter­min­ing the the­o­ret­i­cal and sci­en­tific valid­ity of Marx’s the­ory and the nov­elty of its sci­en­tific char­ac­ter. He saw a dan­ger for Marx’s the­ory that, if thought using Gram­s­cian con­cepts, it would become just another phi­los­o­phy that peo­ple live out ide­o­log­i­cally in their every­day lives. Val­i­da­tion of a sci­en­tific the­ory, by con­trast, should result from pre­cise con­cep­tual work. Such think­ing chal­lenges both left­ist and dis­ci­pli­nary assump­tions that see a theory’s sci­en­tific char­ac­ter and truth ensured by method and proven by prac­ti­cal results. Under­stood in this prag­matic way as well as in the tra­di­tion of what is called mate­ri­al­ist the­ory, Marx’s the­ory becomes just a bet­ter instru­ment than oth­ers in the tool­box of social sci­ence the­ory for explain­ing impor­tant aspects of bour­geois soci­ety. This includes how to under­stand mate­rial processes and iden­tify their polit­i­cal eco­nomic oper­a­tions.

But is polit­i­cal econ­omy the object of Marx’s the­ory? Althusser dis­agrees that Marx fails to move beyond the clas­si­cal tra­di­tion of polit­i­cal econ­omy.11 On what grounds could one ever draw com­par­isons among dif­fer­ent the­o­ret­i­cal instru­ments? Is there a neu­tral stand­point that allows one the dis­tance from which to impar­tially com­pare dif­fer­ent the­o­ret­i­cal options, that is, to try apply­ing two or three the­o­ries to an object until one of them fits? Althusser is out­spo­ken in his crit­i­cism of the epis­te­mol­ogy of Bachelard and Can­guil­hem. No such dis­tanced stand­point is avail­able since the process of pro­duc­ing sci­en­tific knowl­edge unfolds as a specif­i­cally the­o­ret­i­cal praxis. The­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice always entails work­ing with con­cepts as ide­o­log­i­cal and con­cep­tual raw mate­rial under speci­fic rela­tions; it never leaves the con­cep­tual realm, but instead manip­u­lates ide­o­log­i­cal con­cepts to cre­ate knowl­edge.12 Under­stood in this way, Althusser’s con­cept of the­o­ret­i­cal praxis makes clear that Marx’s the­ory does not bow before the dis­ci­pli­nary sci­ences and their many ide­o­log­i­cal objects, meth­ods, and empir­i­cal devel­op­ments.

Taken together, the refusal of Hegel and the insight that the object of Cap­i­tal is the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion leads Althusser to prob­lema­tize the dif­fer­ence between essence and appear­ance.13 This is of pro­found con­se­quence to Marx­ist the­ory and its under­stand­ing of dialec­tics. It is com­monly assumed that there is an invari­ant and under­ly­ing struc­ture to the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion: cap­i­tal and its logic of self-val­oriz­ing value. This essence, which is typ­i­cally under­stood as eco­nom­i­cally deter­min­is­tic, unfolds via a series of medi­a­tions into a total­ity whose sur­face con­sists of inverted, rei­fied, fetishised appear­ances that are non-eco­nomic: reli­gion, law, state, phi­los­o­phy, as well as the norms and val­ues or con­scious­ness of indi­vid­u­als who act accord­ingly. Each of these super­struc­tural phe­nom­e­non expresses the essence, which is why Althusser speaks of an expres­sive total­ity. This Hegelian Marx­ist notion remains reduc­tion­is­tic and econ­o­mistic, even though it is more com­plex than the Marxisms of the social demo­c­ra­tic and Stal­in­ist tra­di­tions that start from sim­ple lin­ear cause-effect rela­tions. Since the social total­ity is always deter­mined by homo­ge­neous time, sin­gu­lar phe­nom­ena osten­si­bly can be grasped as an “essen­tial sec­tion [coupe d’essence]” of the whole. All parts of the whole must cor­re­spond always to the eco­nomic essence and in this way “allow the con­cept” to be seized in the present.14 Since there could be no under­stand­ing of the future for Hegel, that is an under­stand­ing of the future effects of present appear­ances, there could be no Hegelian pol­i­tics.15 At best, this posi­tion holds, change can only be thought of in terms of a com­plete sys­temic col­lapse of the total­ity or as the tran­si­tion from one moment to the next.

In oppo­si­tion to this, Althusser and his col­leagues empha­size that Marx did not sim­ply stand the Hegelian dialec­tic on its feet, but devel­oped an alter­na­tive con­cept of dialec­tics, that of overde­ter­mi­na­tion. They pro­duced a the­o­ret­i­cal con­cept of the struc­tured whole [gegliederte Ganze] that has speci­fic rela­tions to eco­nom­ics, pol­i­tics, and ide­ol­ogy. Each of these rela­tions is marked by a speci­fic effi­cacy, under­ly­ing logic, and tem­po­ral­ity that are by no means inde­pen­dent of pro­duc­tion rela­tions but have a rel­a­tive auton­omy nonethe­less. To offer two exam­ples: 1.) the rela­tion­ships of het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples are closely con­nected to the con­trac­tual think­ing of the profit-seek­ing and wealth-secur­ing for­ma­tion of the fam­ily, even as they are con­sti­tuted by a speci­fic bal­ance of gen­er­a­tive actions, gen­der rela­tions, and emo­tional con­nec­tions between part­ners or par­ents and chil­dren, all of which have their own dynam­ics that can thor­oughly con­tra­dict the imper­a­tives of val­oriza­tion; 2.) polit­i­cal action can­not clearly be attrib­uted to the inter­ests of cap­i­tal because the bour­geois class that per­son­i­fies the cap­i­tal rela­tion pur­sues diver­gent inter­ests and strate­gies for pro­duc­ing sur­plus value, and it per­son­i­fies its rela­tion­ship to work­ers in var­i­ous ways. Com­pro­mises must be formed among all these forces in order to ensure the com­pul­sion of cap­i­tal own­er­ship.

None of these spheres share a homoge­nous time, their rela­tion­ship to one another is always out of joint because they each fol­low their own autonomous rhythm. Together these par­tic­u­lar spheres form the struc­tured whole of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. Althusser com­pre­hends the man­ner by which these spheres overde­ter­mine each other as the con­junc­ture. This con­crete con­stel­la­tion is the object of a con­crete analy­sis. In ret­ro­spect and espe­cially since the pub­li­ca­tion of Althusser’s later texts in The Phi­los­o­phy of the Encoun­ter, it has become clearer than it was in For Marx that Althusser must be under­stood as a the­o­rist of con­tin­gency. For him the con­cept of a speci­fic con­junc­ture can­not be derived the­o­ret­i­cally, but rather must be deter­mined as the con­tin­gent result of the dis­place­ment [Ver­schiebung] and con­den­sa­tion [Verdich­tung] of non-syn­chro­nous forces and dynam­ics under­go­ing a process of overde­ter­mi­na­tion. By fur­ther devel­op­ing Marx’s con­cepts in Cap­i­tal and the polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal spheres he relied on in his prepara­tory work, a con­cept of the com­plex social whole and of the par­tic­u­lar con­junc­ture can be pro­duced that allows one to explore a par­tic­u­lar con­den­sa­tion and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a con­stantly chang­ing praxis.


Althusser did not offer a the­ory of soci­ety. Nonethe­less, his think­ing has con­se­quences for the mate­ri­al­ist view of the bour­geois social for­ma­tion that can be illus­trated by dis­tin­guish­ing two ways of read­ing Marx’s the­ory. The first read­ing takes the object of Marx’s the­ory to be a cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy. Under­stood in this way, Marx’s the­ory deals with the laws for val­oriz­ing cap­i­tal and the cor­re­spond­ing forms that cap­i­tal passes through. Here it would seem then that Cap­i­tal does not have any­thing to say about other spheres of bour­geois soci­ety. This tra­di­tion stretches Marx’s the­ory into an “ism,” a dogma or world view. The sec­ond way of read­ing Cap­i­tal, which Frieder Otto Wolf pro­poses in his after­word to Read­ing Cap­i­tal, is less eco­nomic than it is polit­i­cal. This read­ing takes the object of Cap­i­tal to be the dom­i­nance of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion over the bour­geois social for­ma­tion. Even though Marx’s the­ory has noth­ing to say about the dom­i­nance of sex­ism or racism specif­i­cally, the con­cept of overde­ter­mi­na­tion places eco­nomic dom­i­na­tion and exploita­tion in a rela­tion of mutual causal­ity to other forms of dom­i­na­tion and exploita­tion, mak­ing Althusser’s the­ory polit­i­cally fruit­ful and ver­sa­tile. It is easy to see a kind of Kan­tian ges­ture in both of these read­ings, namely a kind of cri­tique of Marx’s the­ory – in the first case, by ratio­nally lim­it­ing the scope of its con­cepts from within, and, in the sec­ond, by staving off exter­nal demands placed on Marx’s the­ory. Accu­sa­tions from polit­i­cal ecol­ogy, fem­i­nism or post­colo­nial­ism that Marx ignored their respec­tive objects come up short if it can be shown that they them­selves do not attend to the field of objects cov­ered by the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy.

In con­trast to the above read­ings, I would like to sup­port the view that the sig­nif­i­cance of Althusser’s approach lay in that he accepts the chal­lenge of Hegelian Marx­ism but uses bet­ter con­cep­tual means to advance the crit­i­cal the­ory of cap­i­tal­ist total­ity. Already in both For Marx and, with his co-authors, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, Althusser devel­oped the foun­da­tion of a con­cept of the com­plexly struc­tured whole. Cru­cial to under­stand­ing the com­plex whole is the con­cept of struc­ture, of artic­u­la­tion. Althusser devotes sig­nif­i­cant atten­tion to this con­cept, directly oppos­ing it to con­cepts that reduce focus to one sphere of the whole. The struc­tura­tion (artic­u­la­tion) is cru­cial for deter­min­ing the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. Accord­ing to Althusser, the sci­ence of soci­ety that Marx ini­ti­ated sets the the­o­ret­i­cal tasks of count­less fields like law, pol­i­tics and the state, lit­er­a­ture and art, school and edu­ca­tion, gen­der rela­tions, and society’s rela­tion to nature, and shapes con­junc­tural analy­sis of their overde­ter­mined dynam­ics.

From today’s per­spec­tive one must ask whether such think­ing was not too sci­en­tific, whether it was not too influ­enced by Hegelian-Marx­ism and the desire to seek knowl­edge of the total­ity. At the same time, how­ever, the reach of the Althusse­rian research pro­gram is clear. To name just a few those who took up Althusser’s the­ory: Nicos Poulantzas and his the­ory of the cap­i­tal­ist state, Bernard Edel­mann and his the­ory of law, and Michel Pêcheux and his dis­course analy­sis of the the­ory of ide­ol­ogy. Per­haps the most impor­tant devel­op­ment on Althusser’s the­ory can be found in the work of Michel Fou­cault, which, in my opin­ion, is com­pletely enig­matic if it is not read in the con­text of and as a crit­i­cal con­tin­u­a­tion of the Marx­ist social the­ory. The after­word by Bernard E. Har­court to Foucault’s lec­tures on “The Puni­tive Soci­ety” offers an exam­ple of how enig­matic it can be.16 Har­court points out the obvi­ous, that Foucault’s lec­tures have a strong Marx­ist tone. They are tinged more by Marx­ism than the oth­ers to empha­size their depar­ture from Marx­ism and Althusser. Har­court sug­gests that Althusser stands for a Marx­ism that sees the prison sen­tence as deriv­ing largely from a legal the­ory of pun­ish­ment. How­ever, in his essay on ide­ol­ogy, Althusser devel­oped the rad­i­cal and Gram­sci-esque thought that ide­ol­ogy devel­ops within a strate­gic field in the form of prac­tices and rit­u­als as well as dis­cur­sive prac­tices. Fou­cault fol­lows this exact line of thought when he con­cludes that the prison sen­tence can be explained by the tac­tics and efforts of the bour­geoisie to trans­form the unlaw­ful­ness of work­ers into unlaw­ful activ­i­ties with the aim of bind­ing their bod­ies to the pro­duc­tion appa­ra­tus and of estab­lish­ing a cat­e­gory of delin­quents that could be used against the work­ers’ move­ment. Har­court rightly empha­sizes – but with­out ref­er­enc­ing Althusser on this – that the sub­ject needs to be thought anew, going against an anthro­po­log­i­cal Marx­ism that sees work as human nature. It is pre­cisely Althusser’s the­ory of the sub­jec­tion of indi­vid­u­als through hail­ing that Fou­cault would fur­ther develop so exten­sively into a hermeneu­tic of the sub­ject and the tech­nolo­gies of self-reg­u­la­tion. And finally, Har­court cri­tiques Althusser for offer­ing a the­sis of polit­i­cal class strug­gle that seeks to seize and deploy state power. After going to such lengths to demar­cate Marx­ism and Althusser, Har­court then quotes with­out hes­i­ta­tion the fol­low­ing sen­tence from Fou­cault: “To secure the appa­ra­tus of pro­duc­tion, the bour­geois class cre­ated a pow­er­ful state for itself.” It would have been more the­o­ret­i­cally con­sis­tent for Har­court to sim­ply grasp Foucault’s analy­sis as a crit­i­cal con­tin­u­a­tion of Marx­ist the­ory.


Frieder O. Wolf rightly notes that the read­ing of Marx offered by the Althusser group today must be viewed in light of the Marx-Engels-Gesam­taus­gabe, espe­cially “Abteilung II” which includes the dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Cap­i­tal alongside Marx’s prepara­tory work for it. This demon­strates that Marx’s project was not a closed sys­tem, but rather had a search­ing qual­ity; fol­low­ing Der­rida, we could say that the final for­mu­la­tion of Cap­i­tal as a sig­ni­fier was always post­poned. Strictly speak­ing, this philo­log­i­cal per­spec­tive cor­re­sponds to the Althusser group’s own read­ing of Marx and Althusser’s own search­ing engage­ment with the Marx­ist the­ory of the social whole. To read Read­ing Cap­i­tal anew so many years after its first pub­li­ca­tion is to do so in a con­junc­ture that has been made new not just because of the atten­tion to Marx’s con­tin­ued work on Cap­i­tal. For one, the exis­tence of a crit­i­cal edi­tion of Gramsci’s Prison Note­books, avail­able since 1975, has made Althusser’s cri­tique of Gramsci’s his­tori­cism less con­vinc­ing.17 In addi­tion, the philo­log­i­cal foun­da­tion of the older crit­i­cal the­ory of soci­ety – espe­cially the the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ment of Theodor W. Adorno – is much bet­ter under­stood today than it was at the start of the 1970s. This all makes it pos­si­ble to see sur­pris­ing con­flu­ences among these dif­fer­ent explo­rations: a recast­ing of dialec­tics and the cri­tique of Hegelian Marx­ism, a cri­tique of the sys­tem­atic con­cept of total­ity, the cri­tique of the con­sti­tu­tive sub­ject and of philo­soph­i­cal con­cepts like alien­ation, the the­o­ret­i­cal con­cept of capital’s dom­i­nance, a new under­stand­ing of the ide­o­log­i­cal. Such con­flu­ences have been obscured by these fig­ures’ dis­ci­ples. This repos­i­tory of the­o­ret­i­cal approaches has untapped poten­tial for a future non-eclec­tic crit­i­cal Marx­ist the­ory of the cap­i­tal­ist social for­ma­tion.

The present con­junc­ture is also deter­mined by a his­tor­i­cally-speci­fic defeat and cri­sis of Marx­ist the­ory. Despite being rejected and pro­nounced dead, this the­ory, para­dox­i­cally enough, keeps return­ing in a “spec­tral” form and sales of Marx’s books peri­od­i­cally sky­rocket (as hap­pened with the 150th anniver­sary of The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo or with Cap­i­tal in the wake of the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis). This speaks in favor of the the­ory as being his­tor­i­cally ratio­nal and capa­ble of re-form­ing itself on a new level even under duress. The con­stant asser­tion that Marx’s the­ory is use­less for ana­lyz­ing gen­der rela­tions, racism, and eco­log­i­cal cri­sis is not just untrue, it also pre­vents us from con­sid­er­ing what can be “use­ful” in ana­lyz­ing the entirety of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions. Even the mate­rial epis­temic ter­rain of the uni­ver­sity, which for decades was the nat­u­ral place of activ­ity like this, has become deprived of such activ­ity. It seems no longer an option to address far-reach­ing and sys­tem­atic issues in a clar­i­fy­ing and path­break­ing way, with­out hav­ing to deal with a wide vari­ety of crit­i­cal approaches. Read­ing Cap­i­tal reminds us of Marx’ unmet stan­dard, updat­ing it with a mul­ti­tude of still inno­v­a­tive and effec­tive con­cepts. Just as Cap­i­tal can be read in dif­fer­ent ways and its the­o­ries brought to bear on dif­fer­ent things, so too does Read­ing Cap­i­tal offer var­i­ous lessons.

– Trans­lated by Michael Shane Boyle

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

  1. Louis Althusser, Éti­enne Bal­ibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, Jacques Ran­cière, Das Kap­i­tal lesen. Voll­ständige und ergänzte Aus­gabe mit Retrak­ta­tio­nen zum Kap­i­tal, ed. Frieder Otto Wolf (West­fälis­ches Dampf­boot, Mün­ster 2015). Translator’s note: the fol­low­ing essay is an extended ver­sion of a review of Read­ing Cap­i­tal pub­lished July 25th, 2015, here. An extended ver­sion of the review also has been pub­lished, but it dif­fers from the text pro­vided for trans­la­tion here. The extended ver­sion pub­lished Sep­tem­ber 28th, 2015 is avail­able here

  2. Louis Althusser, Mate­ri­al­is­mus der Begeg­nung (Zurich: Diaphenes, 2010). The Eng­lish trans­la­tion is Phi­los­o­phy of the Encoun­ter: Later Writ­ings, 1978-87, eds. Oliver Cor­pet and François Math­eron, trans. G. M. Gosh­gar­ian (New York and Lon­don: Verso Books, 2006). 

  3. Editor’s note: The 1968 French edi­tion removed – at the cost of some per­sonal ani­mos­ity – the con­tri­bu­tions from Ran­cière, Macherey and Establet. Althusser and Balibar’s  essays were spread over two vol­umes. In his pre­sen­ta­tion of the new com­plete edi­tion of Read­ing Cap­i­tal, Bal­ibar com­ments on the changes made for the 1973 edi­tion: “In 1973, Althusser and François Maspero wanted to expand these two vol­umes so as to restore the full text of the first edi­tion. Jacques Ran­cière then asked for the repub­li­ca­tion of his own con­tri­bu­tion to be pre­ceded by a self-crit­i­cal Pref­ace enti­tled “Mode d’emploi.” As not all the par­tic­i­pants could agree, this was rejected by the pub­lisher, and the text appeared in no. 328 of Les Temps Mod­er­nes, Novem­ber 1973. As a con­se­quence, Rancière’s con­tri­bu­tion, unmod­i­fied, made up vol­ume III of Lire le Cap­i­tal in the “Petite Col­lec­tion Maspero.” Vol­ume IV con­tained the con­tri­bu­tions of Pierre Macherey (revised and cor­rected) and Roger Establet (unchanged). This ‘sec­ond edi­tion’ of Lire le Cap­i­tal was thus com­pleted in four vol­umes (1968 and 1973), and was again reprinted sev­eral times.” See Éti­enne Bal­ibar, “Pre­sen­ta­tion,” in Read­ing Cap­i­tal: The Com­plete Edi­tion, trans. Ben Brew­ster and David Fern­bach (Lon­don: Verso, 2016), 8. 

  4. Unfor­tu­nately sev­eral typos ham­per the read­abil­ity of this new edi­tion, and another round of proof­read­ing would have been desir­able. Translator’s note: we wanted to include this remark, which fol­lows this sen­tence in the text, but have rel­e­gated it to a foot­note since it is of lesser impor­tance for Anglo­phone read­ers. 

  5. Translator’s note: The Kom­mu­nis­tis­che Volk­szeitung was a cen­tral paper for the so-called K-Grup­pen (com­mu­nist groups) of 1970s West Ger­many. 

  6. See Hans Jür­gen Krahl, Kon­sti­tu­tion und Klassenkampf. Zur his­torischen Dialek­tik von bürg­er­licher Emanzi­pa­tion und pro­le­tarischer Rev­o­lu­tion, Frank­furt 1971, 235ff. 

  7. See Louis Althusser, Die Zukunft hat Zeit. Die Tat­sachen. Zwei auto­bi­ographis­che Texte (Frank­furt am Main: S. Fis­cher, 1993). In Eng­lish, this book has been pub­lished as The Future Lasts Forever: A Mem­oir, ed. Olivier Cor­pet and Yann Moulier Boutang, trans. Richard Veasey (New York: The New Press, 1993)

  8. See Pierre Bour­dieu, Über den Staat (Berlin: Surhkamp, 2014), 404. This book has been pub­lished in Eng­lish as On the State: Lec­tures at the Col­lège de France, 1989-1992, eds. Patrick Cham­pagne, Remi Lenoir, Franck Pou­peau, and Marie-Christine Riv­ière, trans. David Fern­bach (Cam­bridge: Polity Press, 2014), 229. 

  9. Louis Althusser and Éti­enne Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: New Left Books (1970), 17. 

  10. In his essay, “Ist es ein­fach, I’m Marxism’s Phi­los­o­phy zu sein?” [Is it easy to a be philoso­pher of Marx­ism?”] (Das Argu­ment 304, 2013), Wolf­gang Fritz Haug brushes con­crete moti­va­tions like these aside when he crit­i­cizes Althusser of over­bear­ing rhetoric, insuf­fi­cient exper­tise, and an unscrupu­lous and dic­ta­to­rial style of think­ing. More­over he charges with Althusser attempt­ing to ele­vate him­self above Marx by claim­ing to delve deeper into Marx’s posi­tion and to be able to think what goes unthought in Marx. For this rea­son, Haug argues that Althusser does not break with the hermeneu­tic cir­cle. See also the crit­i­cal reply from Christoph Lieber, “Ist es ein­fach, als Kom­mu­nist auch Marx­ist zu sein?” [Is it easy to be a com­mu­nist as well as Marx­ist?] Sozial­is­mus 7-8/2014. 

  11. This is the the­ory Michel Fou­cault offers in The Order of Things, where he presents an anthro­po­log­i­cal Marx (work as human nature) that can only be dis­tin­guished from Ricardo as being a more rev­o­lu­tion­ary option. 

  12. Althusser and Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, 61-62. 

  13. Ibid., 187-91. 

  14. Ibid., 94-95, cf. 122. 

  15. Ibid., 95. 

  16. Bernard Har­court, “Course Con­text,” in Michel Fou­cault, On the Puni­tive Soci­ety: Lec­tures at the Col­lège de France, 1972-1973, ed. Arnold I. David­son, trans. Gra­ham Burchell (New York: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2015), 265-310.  

  17. See Peter D. Thomas, The Gram­s­cian Moment: Phi­los­o­phy, Hege­mony and Marx­ism (Boston and Lei­den: Brill, 2009), 26-27. 

Author of the article

is a senior fellow at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. His most recent publication in English is "Reform, Revolution, Transformation" in Journal für Entwicklungspolitik: Socioecological Transformations, Vol. XXVIII 3-2012.