Ideas & Debates


Althusser vs. Althusser

Louis Althusser (1918-1990), the French philosopher born in Algeria, is one of the main intellectual figures of European Marxism in the post-World War II era. A member of the French Communist Party, and a supporter, in his own way, of Maoism, he is known as the main proponent of what was called the “structural Marxist” school of thought. Some of his concepts were incorporated into the social sciences. Two examples that are fairly well-known are the terms overdetermination and ideological state apparatuses.

October 28, 2016

Althusser vs. Althusser

Original article:

Over the past few years there has been renewed interest in his thought worldwide, a phenomenon which has several explanations: his historically decisive significance in intellectual debate in France and Great Britain, the recovery of the later Althusser who supported a materialism of the Encounter, and finally the development of diverse reflections on the relations between structuralism, post-structuralism and post-Marxism.

In this article, we reflect on aspects of Althusser’s thought using some of his works as a point of reference. We also utilize Warren Montag’s Althusser and his contemporaries [Philosophy’s perpetual war] [1], published in 2013, which is an important contribution to our knowledge of the development of his thought and critical analysis of Althusser.

Exploring the Theoretical Conjuncture

Montag dedicates a significant part of his argument to attempting to prove that it is wrong to present Althusser as a “structural Marxist” insofar as that implies an uncritical assimilation of structuralism into Marxism by the French philosopher.

He indicates that the idea that we currently have of structuralism - which is generally reduced to Saussure and Lévi-Strauss, without taking into account other developments such as those of Troubetzkoy and other authors - cannot withstand serious scrutiny. Furthermore, he emphasizes the influence of Jean Cavaillès on Althusser, especially his conception of science, as well as that of Georges Canguilhem.

He explains in particular detail, using a reflection on the concept of theoretical conjuncture - the specific historical and philosophical context in which each of his works was produced - that Althusser’s thought underwent constant re-elaboration. This re-elaboration was in line with his characterization of the history of philosophy as a field of perpetual war. In the author’s words:

Althusser’s trajectory can be seen as the outcome of a constant engagement with theoretical developments occurring around him; at certain times borrowing from them to think through his arguments, at others taking his distance from them, drawing that line of demarcation that separated what could be used productively from that which would block his way. [2].

Structure: between Hegel and Spinoza

Within this context, Montag emphasizes two contradictory concepts of “structure” that can be found in Reading Capital: structure understood as a real whole (or real totality) as opposed to the “spiritual whole” of Hegelian thought, and structure as an entity that exists only through its effects.

The first, somehow associated with Hegelianism’s idea of totality, had been subject to critique in a letter on the drafts of Reading Capital addressed to Althusser by Pierre Macherey, who indicated: “the idea of the whole is really the spiritualist conception of structure.” [3]

The second, of Spinozist inspiration, establishes an immanent causality between structure and its effects. [4] This second concept of structure was incorporated into the text on the basis of this critique by Macherey and after Althusser read a piece by him in Les Temps modernes on literary analysis in which this idea was developed.

Based on this fluctuation in his own definition of the concept of structure, we can agree with Montag that it is somewhat rudimentary to label Althusser as a “structural Marxist” without further nuance. However…

Levels of Argumentation and Unity of Purpose in Althusserian Discourse

Within this framework, and on the basis of a “loose interpretation” of Montag’s narrative, we can distinguish different levels of argumentation in Althusser’s work, used either simultaneously or separately: 1) an epistemological conception that assimilates science to the development of concepts independently of the empirical object; 2) an exploration of the potential of structuralism to overcome humanism and historicism; 3) a critique of structuralism, in which the concept of structure is still affected by empiricist and historicist elements; 4) an appropriation of Spinozist immanence in order to create a materialist concept of structure and, more in general, to move closer to the idea of the knowledge of “singular essences”; 5) a conception of “materialism of the encounter,” associated with Spinozism, which underwent reinterpretation in terms of a recovery of Lucretius’s philosophy (this is where Deleuze and Derrida’s influences are to be found).

It may be said that what unites all these levels of argumentation is the attempt to configure an anti-historicist and anti-humanist Marxism, an objective in relation to which the dialogue with structuralism is a subordinate, although important, operation. Humanism and historicism were the adversaries that Althusser identified as part of “revisionism” in Marxism. This revisionism, among other things, moved it closer to ideology and further away from science.

It is within this framework that Althusser’s contradictions, fluctuations and explorations, and the particular form of reflection he put into practice, become intelligible.

The Object of Theory or Re-elaboration of Dualism by other Means

In Reading Capital Althusser posits that the object of study of the classical political economy is different from that of Marxism. The discovery and conceptualization by Marx of surplus value is the reason for this change.

However until he reaches this conclusion, Althusser embarks on an epistemological investigation based on the idea that - paraphrasing Marx - since the concrete-in-thought differs from the real-concrete, the object of Capital must be conceived as a theoretically constructed object. This affirmation, which in appearance would not be questionable from the point of view of Marxism, was radicalized by Althusser in his struggle against “historicism” and “empiricism.” This resulted in the idea that the conceptual object was completely unrelated to the empirical object [5] and, therefore, the task of science was the construction of concepts of which the logical interrelations constitute the basis for their validation. To reinforce this idea, Althusser relied on Marx’s explanation of the difference between the historical order and the logical order in a particular interpretation that reintroduced the subject-object dualism of classical philosophy into Marxism through a sophisticated version inspired by the “agnosticism” of certain neopositivist epistemological schools of thought. In other words, he proposes the total independence of the object from the theory of objective reality.

Following Montag’s idea of the two versions of the concept of structure, we may conclude that the fluctuation between a transcendent concept and an immanent concept of structure is consistent with the fluctuation between an “objectivist” and a “dualist” concept of the construction of knowledge.

This fluctuation is simply inevitable, given the absence of a dialectical conception that, without confusing the “concrete-in-thought” with the “real-concrete” can claim for science the specificity of conceptual constructions.

Marxism Is Not a Historicism, But...

In his work Reading Capital, Althusser uses Antonio Gramsci’s thought as his favorite target for refuting the historicist interpretation of Marxism.

He especially criticized the Gramscian conception of science as superstructure. According to Althusser, this idea was the confirmation of a “Crocean” inspiration (in reference to neo-idealist philosopher, Benedetto Croce) that assimilated Marxism with religion and, what was most terrible:

…the collapse of science into history here is no more than the index of a theoretical collapse; a collapse that precipitates the theory of history into real history; and reduces the [theoretical] object of the science of history to real history; and therefore confuses the object of knowledge with the real object [6].

If interpreted in a unilateral sense, this Gramscian conception undoubtedly makes it possible to equate science with any manifestation of “ideology” understood as something that is not science or that is opposed to it.

However, what is important is not what this idea could result in when taken out of context, but its meaning in Gramscian thought. According to Gramsci, the ideological superstructure contains the ways through which man becomes aware of the conflicts within the structure. Therefore, Gramsci indicated that science always presents itself with an ideology. But he also emphasized the possibility of using the knowledge produced by science and dispensing with its ideology. Therefore, he sustained that one class could appropriate the science of another without accepting its ideology, even modifying the previous hypotheses or systems of hypotheses [7].

What was truly intolerable for the French philosopher was that by including science in the superstructure, Gramsci dealt a serious blow to Althusser’s “rigid” distinction between science and ideology, to the position of eminence of scientific discourse with respect to political practice and to the conception of theoretical practice as an exclusive domain of intellectuals [8].

Under the Mysterious Rain of the “Materialism of the Encounter”

In a work written in the ‘80s, Ellen Meiksins Wood indicated:

A false dualism between absolute determinism and absolute contingency, and the characterization of history as irreducibly contingent, has arguably always been implicit in Althusserian structuralism. (…) The world of structure, of determinate structured relations, belongs to the realm of autonomous theory, while the empirical world, the object of historical knowledge, is a world of contingency and arbitrariness. [9]

It is precisely in his articles “On Marxist Thought” and “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter” [10] where Althusser attempts to reconstruct a conception of Marxism and the history of philosophy that breaks away from all teleology, moving openly towards a “world of contingency and arbitrariness.”

Althusser presents a silenced underground current that passes through Epicurus, Lucretius, Machiavelli, Spinoza and Heidegger, which can be defined as antimonistic, anti-determinist and anti-teleological. He argues this is also present in Engel’s The Condition of the Working Class in England or in the chapter on primitive accumulation of Capital. Montag emphasizes a very significant change in that Althusser introduces the category of void in his interpretation of Spinoza and how this implies a series of theoretical problems [11] on which we are unable to elaborate here and, therefore, recommend that it be read.

What we would like to emphasize is that Althusser attempted to offer a political philosophy that would allow the conciliation of the recognition of some kind of historical change with the atmosphere of defeat of the late 70s and early 80s. Therefore, through the “rain of atoms” that come together in an “encounter” as a result of a clinamen (i.e. an accidental deviation in the trajectory of the atoms, free from any kind of necessity) and Prince Who Came from Nowhere [12], the French philosopher creates a theory of the “Encounter” that would make it possible to explain the emergence of revolutionary changes on the basis of an interpretation that favors “contingency” over “determinism.”

While maintaining the classic Althusserian idea of “process without a subject,” “materialism of the encounter” adds the dispersal of social forces and the impossibility of strategic thought prior to the encounter. Therefore, what at first sight may seem to be a harsh critique of determinism and teleology turns out to be fairly similar to the passive wait with the expectation of some messianic occurrence, instead of the struggle to actively create new relations of social, political and political/military forces, as in Marxist strategy.

Therefore, random materialism is opposed to proletarian hegemony, which requires that such new relations of forces be sustained, even if precariously, beyond the moment of the event in a process of revolutionary class struggle.

Within this context, the “materialism of the encounter” could result in an abstract philosophical vindication of partial and sporadic struggles that are assimilable through capitalist mechanisms of passive revolution, i.e. the deviation, cooptation and integration of the “sporadic subversivism of the subaltern classes” by the bourgeoisie and its State. [13]

Althusser and the Crisis of Marxism

We have briefly indicated some of the tensions in the Althusserian exploration. On examining the limits of his theoretical positions, he never ceased to do so within certain parameters that prevented him from offering a real alternative first to the bureaucratized Marxism of the Communist Parties and subsequently to the defeatist conceptions of post-structuralism and post-Marxism. [14] Within this framework, “Althusser vs. Althusser” is the code to understand a thought which, working on its own contradictions, combined the arrogance of science with the impotence of strategy.

The sole purpose of this brief review of certain aspects of his thought is to indicate a possible direction for further investigation of the Althusserian contribution to the crisis undergone by Marxism after the defeat/neutralization of the 1968 movement in France.

[1] Montag, Warren, Althusser and his contemporaries. Philosophy’s perpetual war, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2013.

[2] Montag, op. cit., p. 105.

[3] He was making reference to the idea of totality in which all its components express the same unitarian principle, which, according to Hegel, is a movement of the Spirit. See Montag, op. cit., p. 74.

[4] In Ethics, Spinoza poses a distinction between Natura Naturans as cause and Natura Naturata as effect, within the framework of a non-transitive but immanent causality, therefore, Naturated Nature (effect) is “as much God” (or substance) as Naturating Nature (cause). That is why there is immanence (causes and effects or the substance and its attributes and the modes on the same level of reality) and there is no “hierarchy” of beings with an essence or ultimate cause that is “beyond” its effects. See Spinoza, Ethics, Book I, Proposition XXIX, Scholium in Ethics and Theologico-Political Treatise, Mexico City, Editorial Porrúa, 1966, p. 24.

[5] Althusser, Louis and Balibar, Êtienne, Para leer El capital, Siglo XXI Editores de España, México, Argentina, 11 ͣ Edición, p. 126.

[6] Althusser, Louis and Balibar, Êtienne, op .cit., pg. 145.

[7] See Gramsci, Antonio, Quaderni del Carcere [Edizione critica dell’ Istituto Gramsci a cura di Valentino Gerratana], Torino, Ed. Einaudi, 2001, C4 §7, p. 430 and C11 § 38, pp. 1457/58. On the question of scientific rationality in Marx, see “El Comunismo no es una Idea” in IdZ 23, September, 2015.

[8] Jacques Rancière provides a critique of the relationship between theory and practice and the role of intellectuals in his 1974 book La Lección de Althusser, Santiago de Chile, LOM Ediciones, 2013.

[9] Meiksins Wood, Ellen, The Retreat from Class (A New ‘True’ Socialism), Verso 1998.

[10] Althusser, Louis, Para un materialismo aleatorio, Madrid, Arena Libros, 2002.

[11] See Montag, op. cit., chapter 9, pp. 173/189.

[12] On the Althusserian interpretation of Maquiavelo, see Barot Emmanuel, “El Fantasma de Maquiavelo (III)” in IdZ 15, November, 2014.

[13] See Rosso, Fernando and Dal Maso, Juan, “Revolución Pasiva, Revolución Permanente y hegemonía”, in IdZ 13, September, 2014.

[14] See Cinatti, Claudia, “De saberes revolucionarios y certezas posmodernas” in Revista Lucha de Clases 6, June, 2006.


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