Ideas & Debates
Reassessing the Legacy of Louis Althusser on His 100-Year Anniversary: An Interview with Warren Montag
Louis Althusser was one of the most disputed scholars in the Marxist tradition. Condemned as a revisionist by some, celebrated as a brilliant, innovative Marxist philosopher by others, his theoretical contributions still spur interest and controversy today, almost thirty years after his death.
October 16, 2018
On Althusser’s one-hundred-year anniversary, we publish a conversation with Warren Montag, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. Montag has published several books and essays on the work of Althusser and his philosophical legacy. In the interview, conducted by Argentinian Marxist scholar Juan Dal Maso, Montag explains his views on how to properly assess Althusser’s inventions in Marxist philosophy.
Louis Althusser was one of the most disputed scholars in the Marxist tradition. Condemned as a revisionist by some, celebrated as a brilliant, innovative Marxist philosopher by others, his theoretical contributions still spur interest and controversy today, almost thirty years after his death. There has been much debate about Althusser’s personal and political life, including his compromised mental health. However, it is his theoretical impact that has been of particular interest to Marxist thinkers, and especially Althusser’s use of structuralist and psychoanalytical theory have prompted ongoing discussions about the place of revolutionary struggle in his thought.
Juan Dal Maso disagrees with Warren Montag in the interpretation of the “materialism of the encounter,” characteristic of the late Althusser. Dal Maso is of the view that while this concept works to distance Althusser from rigidly structuralist visions of Marxism, it also comes with an understanding of history and politics as completely contingent phenomena. In consequence, the lack of a strategic alternative in the early Althusser can be found in the late Althusser as well. In addition, although Althusser maintained a critical stance within the French Communist Party, he never left the party and failed to offer an alternative position to that of Stalinized FCP.
Despite this difference, we consider Montag’s work an outstanding contribution to our understanding of Althusser’s theoretical thought. Other readings of Althusser have dominated the past few decades: notably, a literal structuralist understanding of his work, predominant in Latin America, and the perspective of Antonio Negri’s idea of a “rupture” between the early and the late Althusser. In contrast, Montag attempts to reconstruct the tensions that persisted throughout Althusser’s work and continue to inspire philosophies of revolutionary practice today.
There has been an increasing interest in Althusser’s work in recent years. This has included different attempts to provide a more complex and comprehensive view of the development of his thought, as well a greater emphasis on “the late Althusser.” From your perspective, what are the reasons for the renewed interest in Althusser?
Part of the growing interest in Althusser can be explained by the history of the publication of his work, both before and after his death. The posthumous publications, which now outnumber the texts he published during his lifetime, have irreversibly changed the way we think about Althusser, as well as, perhaps, the way we think about the “structuralist moment” in France (which includes what in the English-speaking world is called “poststructuralism”) that so decisively influenced a whole series of disciplines internationally. The publication of François Matheron’s selections from a late manuscript on what Althusser called the “materialism of the encounter” or “aleatory materialism” very soon after his death in 1990, shattered the reigning consensus (above all, in the English-speaking world) that Althusser was a structuralist or even a structural functionalist. While some commentators, like Toni Negri, insisted that the late Althusser represented a fundamental break from the positions expressed in work of the sixties, many of us today recognize that the late work is not entirely discontinuous with the earlier writing and in fact allows us to read the early texts in a new way that is more attuned to their contradictions, which in different forms persist throughout his oeuvre. It was Althusser himself who declared in “Lenin and Philosophy” that to read philosophy en materialiste is to draw lines of demarcation within it to mark the conflicts that make it what it is. To take Althusser seriously is to apply this protocol of reading even (or especially) to his own work.
To do so, however, we must identify and remove some of the obstacles that prevent us from reading Althusser in a new and different way: the readings that have already been done for us and that are repeated in academic liturgies of various kinds that portray him as a partisan of structure against agency, whose theory renders social change, let alone revolt, unthinkable. The posthumous publication of Machiavelli and Us, as well as his critique of Levi-Strauss (“Sur Levi-Strauss,” 1966), however, has made it very difficult to continue to dismiss Althusser as a “structuralist.” We are now able to see a kind of materialism of the encounter at work in “Contradiction and Overdetermination” (1962), where Lenin (the Lenin who recognized the enormous accumulation of factors necessary to the February Revolution) is a kind of stand-in for Machiavelli, just as Machiavelli is in part a stand-in for Lenin in the later work. Althusser’s interest in Mao’s “On Contradiction” stemmed from the fact that it was the first genuinely Communist attempt to theorize the complexity of the historical contradiction, beyond the Hegelian formula of the identity or even unity of opposites.
The posthumous publications are admittedly of varying quality, and many are manuscripts started only to be abandoned by Althusser, but thanks to them we now have a much clearer sense of the problems he set out to solve, his conception of the nature of the conjuncture in which he wrote, and the specific tasks it imposed on theoretical work. He certainly understood the 1960s as a time of extraordinary theoretical and conceptual productivity in a number of fields as well as a time of political mobilization and struggle, the latter being in the some sense the condition for the former.
He saw the practice of philosophy as the elaboration of theses that were judged, not true or false, but correct or incorrect, on the basis of their effects: did they move things, open the way for thought and knowledge, change the relationship of forces between ideas and concepts in philosophy? Althusser’s notion that there exist in philosophy and elsewhere relations of force between ideas that have nothing to do with their truth, and that the truth of the true, if I can put it that way, is established and maintained only through struggle, seems terribly relevant today with the growing power of racist and neo-fascist movements globally. Every philosopher writes in a specific conjuncture and does so in order to “faire bouger les choses,” to shake things or open things up, as we say in English. Althusser proposed a theory of philosophical practice that required of him a precise account of the theoretical conjuncture, the objective alliances that took shape between concepts and theories (rather than between people and parties, understood on the basis of their declared allegiances or intentions), as well as their effects. From this perspective, a single text by a non-Marxist (but by no means an anti-Marxist) like Foucault (e.g., Surveillir et punir) might have more to contribute, in spite, or because, of its contradictions, to the theory and practice of class struggle, as well as the struggles against the forms of racism and sexism, than a thousand treatises on false consciousness.
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In your book Althusser and His Contemporaries, you say that one of the problems facing any attempt to analyze Althusser is that the current understanding of structuralism is simplistic. How would you complicate this understanding? What elements or themes have been overlooked in the accounts of structuralism?
The conception of philosophy I discussed above made it impossible for Althusser simply to dismiss the enormous body of work today categorized as “structuralist” as “idealist” or “functionalist.” His task, as he saw it, was to identify the conflicts and contradictions, the unevennesses and discrepancies, proper to the various forms of inquiry gathered under the name of structuralism. Althusser in this way was a kind of Hegelian: a philosophical doctrine can only be grasped on the basis of its essential contradictions. Obviously, “contradiction” here ceases to signify failure or error, and refers instead to the constitutive antagonism that makes a specific philosophy what it is. At the heart of the linguistic model, itself perhaps the central reference point for various structuralist projects in psychoanalysis, anthropology, sociology, literature, and film, Althusser understood that the structure in question was not simply a synonym for organization or order, but in fact represented an attempt (even if it did not succeed) to produce a new theory of causality. He tried to draw lines of demarcation that would separate out and identify what in the work of his contemporaries was irreducible to existing notions of determination and of cause and effect.
This was particularly important for the development of Marxist theory and practice, much of which depended on the model of base and superstructure, according to which the economy was determinate in the last instance. The entire political, legal, and cultural superstructure was explained by means of the concept of expressive or emanationist causality. The economic base produced not only the economic but also the extra-economic means of its own reproduction. While this concept excluded the idea that culture was produced freely and spontaneously, it did so at the cost of understanding its material existence and the form of determination proper to it. This is what led Althusser to declare that “ideology has a material existence,” consubstantial with the apparatuses, practices, rituals and prescribed discourses, in which it was said to be expressed. This set of problems led him to formulate the concept of structural causality, retaining the notion of structure, but only in the form of a structure that is, strictly speaking, absent because it exists nowhere but in its effects. This concept derives to a great extent from Althusser’s reading of Spinoza and the latter’s discussion of the immanent cause, even as it is expressed in the language Lacan used to theorize the unconscious as something other than a hidden repository of meaning. Is it possible to conceptualize a cause that does not precede or transcend its effects?
In your discussion of an exchange between Althusser and Pierre Macherey, you say that in Lire Le Capital there are two different concepts of “structure,” one closer to Hegel and another closer to Spinoza. Can you explain the differences between them?
In the first edition of LLC, published in 1965, Althusser used the phrase “latent structure” and “the effects of latent structure” (phrases he had used in his earlier essay on Bertolazzi and Brecht) alongside the following statement: “A structure is immanent in its effects, the immanent cause of its effects in the Spinozist sense of the term, that its entire existence is in its effects.” Macherey cautioned Althusser against the use of “latent structure,” precisely because it implied that structure was not immanent in but hidden or concealed behind or under that of which it was the structure. In psychoanalysis the opposition between the latent and manifest content of a dream often suggested a hidden truth concealed by a veil of appearance and requiring a hermeneutic method that could penetrate beyond the surface, a notion that Lacan opposed from the beginning of his teaching. Further, “latent,” derived from the Latin verb lateo, to lie hidden or out of sight, later acquired in French another meaning: latent came to mean embryonic, the condition of something at the earliest stages of its development. This later meaning inevitably recalled notions of the potential and its realization, and thus also an immanent teleology, like Aristotle’s example of the tree contained in the seed as its end. A latent structure in this sense might be seen as a version of the formal combinatory that Althusser often criticized, a system containing every combination of pre-given elements, but in a potential rather than actual state. To understand and formalize the rules that govern these combinations, however, amounts to a formalization of possibility instead of necessity. For Marxism, such a view might be expressed as a formal combinatory of modes of production, that is, a theory of possible modes of production and their combination, but also a theory that as such cannot explain the passage from the possible to the necessary and the potential to the actual. In part, the notion of structural or immanent causality was designed to expose such views to criticism and to open the way not to a concept of possibility, but to a concept of necessity.
Macherey, particularly in his contribution in the special issue of Les Temps Modernes devoted to structuralism in 1966, pushed Althusser’s formulations from LLC even further: if structure has no existence outside of its effects, it does not, strictly speaking, exist even within “its” phenomena. It exists nowhere; it is an absent cause — a cause, the absence of which allows the possibility of thinking singularity and irregularity. Perhaps the most compelling expression of this concept of structure is the notion of “the structure of the conjuncture,” the structure of the combination of diverse conflicting and dispersed elements, irreducible to a logic of history.
Does this contradictory view of structure persist throughout Althusser’s work?
I would put it this way: this contradiction or set of contradictions appears and reappears through his work, although in different contexts and formulated in different ways. In the essay on the Ideological State Apparatuses, for example, Althusser provides an entirely functionalist explanation (almost identical to what he criticizes in Levi-Strauss) of the ISAs as if they are the means capitalist society creates in order to reproduce itself. It is an explanation in which class struggle, or any kind of struggle, plays little or no role. Moreover, when he argues that “the formal structure of ideology is always the same,” endowing it with a transhistorical existence in which the interpellation of the individual occurs in the same or similar form throughout human history, Althusser comes close to reconstructing a kind of combinatory. What makes this example particularly interesting is the fact that Althusser’s revisions to the formulations contained in the original manuscript, published in 1996 under the title Sur la reproduction, consisted of removing nearly all the references to resistance and to the contradictory “sous-produits” produced by the ISAs, transforming the more complex original version into a quasi-functionalist text. Even if we assign a tactical and therefore conjunctural meaning to these changes, it remains clear that Althusser had not yet completely settled accounts with the very notion of structure that he criticized.
Although the term “structure” appears less frequently in Althusser’s very late work on aleatory materialism than in For Marx, he has recourse to the term when his meditations on the aleatory lead him to the very problem for which the notion of structural causality served as a marker. Here Althusser argues that “instead of thinking contingency as a modality of necessity, we must think necessity as the becoming-necessary of the encounter of contingencies,” and refers to “the structure of the encounter” that neither precedes nor follows from the conjunction of elements, but is the cause that coincides entirely with its effect, the “becoming-necessary” of the encounter that “takes,” the moment that a singular thing, perhaps a world or a mode of production, emerges with the laws and tendencies that allow it, for an indefinite time, to persist in its being. And although Althusser’s references are to Epicurus and Lucretius, rather than Spinoza, and to the void, rather than a plenum, we can see the recurrence of a problem that that the existing theories of causality cannot define, let alone resolve.
What is your view of Althusser’s reading of Machiavelli. What does Althusser contribute to our understanding of Machiavelli?
Machiavelli occupied a very special place in Althusser’s theoretical universe. Like Spinoza, he was the object of a kind of obsession that kept Althusser, until the end of his life, returning to Machiavelli’s texts. When he first decided to devote a seminar to Machiavelli in 1962, Althusser reported in his correspondence with Franca Madonia feeling a kind of reverence for his work, but without being able to able to explain to his students why. The problem was not understanding the texts as such, but of grasping Machiavelli’s philosophical significance, the sense in which Machiavelli was not just a political thinker but a philosopher or perhaps even an anti-philosopher, in that nearly every variant of the philosophy of his time was oriented to a knowledge of providence and of the ends for which all things were created. Machiavelli’s realism proceeded through a derealization of the existing notions of the real and reality to demonstrate the impossibility of the prince necessary to the formation of an Italian nation, in turn the necessary condition for peace and prosperity. But Machiavelli was also the thinker of the occasion (occasione), the kairos, brought unexpectedly by fortune, the moment at which the chance to overturn the existing order makes its fleeting appearance. This is the moment that Lenin in the Letters from Afar (1917) said might easily be mistaken for a miracle, given the sheer number of events that combined to produce it, the moment revolutionaries must be able to recognize because in it lies the only possibility of revolutionary change. Alongside historical regularities and patterns, a quasi-cyclical time governed by repetition, there lies another time, irreducible to the first marked by discontinuities and irreversible thresholds.
It follows then that Machiavelli was, as Althusser noted, “the first thinker of the conjuncture,” who refuses the rule of the universal over the singular. He not only thinks about the conjuncture but in it, compelled to account for the relations of force that constitute its conflictual system and writing in response. In a very important sense, Machiavelli treated his own utterances as interventions and calculated the means by which he might shift the relations of force at the level of writing. He saw the great histories of the Greek and Roman writers as documentation of historico-political experiments whose results were necessary to his own project of understanding the present. They taught that “one had to be of the people to know the prince,” meaning that the sovereign’s power, irrespective of law and custom, rested on the people, their support, their acquiescence, or their opposition. In one of Althusser’s most beautiful and unforgettable passages we can certainly hear the voice of Machiavelli: because the class “struggle develops, even for those who have seen clearly in advance, without the aid of any superior instance judging and deciding each question, we must speak here, paradoxically, of error without truth and of deviation without a norm. An unmastered fault, a hesitation, aberration, defeat or crisis, which slowly develops or suddenly gapes in the midst of reality, a reality without truth or norm: that is error, that is deviation” (“Unfinished History” Introduction to Dominique Lecourt, Proletarian Science?).
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What kind of relationship could be established between Althusser’s political and theoretical during the sixties and seventies? You use the concept of “theoretical conjuncture” to understand Althusser’s philosophical interventions and the different moments in his theoretical trajectory. How does this concept help us grasp the turning points in his thought?
Althusser argued in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, that all philosophy intervenes in the conjuncture in which it exists. Why is this necessarily the case? “From the very beginning we have been able to speak of philosophy only by occupying a definite position in philosophy. For in philosophy we cannot, like Rousseau’s Noble Savage in the Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inegalite parmi les hommes, occupy an empty corner of the forest. In philosophy every space is always already occupied. Within it, we can only hold a position against the adversary who already holds that position.” To be a Marxist in philosophy is to determine which philosophical approaches and doctrines are dominant at present and what the effects of this always temporary domination might be, both inside and outside of philosophy. It is also to understand as clearly as possible which philosophies resist this domination, even if only objectively, without the knowledge or consent of the philosophers involved. To understand a philosophy, including, above all, one’s own, on the basis of its measurable effects, results in a constant adjustment of one’s theses and categories to break the hold of the dominant philosophies and open the way to new theoretical developments.
It is fascinating to read Althusser’s assessments of the philosophical conjuncture of the mid-1960s, an extraordinary moment by any account. He understood the power of a kind of humanism, itself rooted in the liberal tradition, on the one hand, and the power of formalism and functionalism, on the other, as well as the power of the unity that had been forged between them. These positions in no way corresponded to specific political parties or movements, except perhaps in the sense that the end of the Stalin regime and the partial social-democratization of some of the European Communist Parties (e.g., the PCI) provoked a movement away from “dogmatism,” meaning any emphasis on the texts of Marx, Engels, and Lenin (except for the newly published works of the young Marx). Maoism, which emerged in France in the mid-sixties, marked a reaction against this “revisionism.” We now know that Althusser opposed both the Stalinism that was alive and well in France (and whose relations with Maoism were always very complicated) and the revisionism that could take a structuralist or phenomenological form. Until the late seventies, when Althusser openly criticized both the organizational forms and the politics of the PCF from the left, the Trotskyist currents tended to champion Lukács and the Frankfurt School to what they held was Althusser’s Stalinist theory.
On the question of politics and the theoretical conjuncture: what was the relation between Althusser’s work and May ’68? Is Rancière correct in his critique of Althusser?
Althusser spent May ’68 in a psychiatric hospital and could not personally participate in the struggle. This does not mean, however, that he did not regard the May events as a defining moment in modern French history. The belief that Althusser shared the negative evaluation of the “infantile leftism” or “anarchism” of May, typical of the PCF leadership, is both widespread and completely false. Few of his critics are aware that he responded to an attack on the student revolutionaries by Michel Verret in a text, “A Propos de l’Article de Michel Verret Sur Mai Étudiant,” published in 1969, in La Pensée. Althusser offered a defense of the mass mobilization of students, even as he recognized its contradictory character. Althusser criticized the PCF and the CGT for failing to account for the radicalization of young workers in the “Workers’ May” and rejected the populism and anti-intellectualism of the critique of the students. In fact, he points to the PCF’s isolation from students and youth as a serious error, for which the party must take responsibility and which it must attempt to rectify.
Perhaps more importantly, I would argue that Althusser was one of the few to recognize, perhaps as early as the fall of 1968, that the occasione in Machiavelli’s sense, the opening in which revolution is possible, had closed and that the most important task was to explain the failure of a revolt so apparently favored by fortune. We might recall that in the manuscript published after Althusser’s death, he identifies the PCF as an ISA and therefore part of the reproduction of class rule. I see the ISAs essay as a response to the aftermath of May that takes the form of an answer to the question Spinoza poses in the introduction to the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus: what makes men fight as bravely for their servitude as for their salvation? It was an analysis of this type, rather than a secularized messianism that promised everything to the faithful, which made revolutionary strategy possible.
Rancière’s critique of Althusser was based on his overestimation of both the power and the malevolence of the PCF (and of Althusser himself, portrayed by Rancière as an intellectual functionary, whose doctrine changed in accordance with the party’s line). To say that “Althusser’s Marxism was “a philosophy of order, whose every principle served to distance us from the uprisings that were then shaking the bourgeois order to its core” and that even his emphasis on the analysis of the conjuncture was merely a cunning way of preserving a place for a science and scientist of the conjuncture, and therefore for specialists, intellectual elites etc., is to treat his philosophical work as a series of beautiful lies that must be exposed as such. Rancière’s book tells us little about Althusser, but quite a bit about Rancière’s own positions and the contradictions that led to the collapse of French Maoism as a significant force on the left. Fortunately, the positions he appears to take in Althusser’s Lesson, particularly his opposition to Althusser’s critique of the subject, are soon forgotten, and Rancière continues to undertake important explorations in theory and politics.
You talked about Trotskyist readings of Althusser. Are there not some Trotskyists, especially in the UK, who saw Althusser as having made an important contribution to Marxism?
Certainly, the group around the New Left Review (above all, Perry Anderson) played a vital role in publishing Althusser’s texts, and, to a lesser extent, commenting on them, above all in the crucial period between 1968 and 1976. During this time, most of those around the NLR, with the exception of Anderson himself, were not only active members of the British section of the Fourth International (the International Marxist Group), but also played an important role in the FI’s international bodies. The NLR then was a place where one could find translations of recent Marxist work from France, Italy, and Germany, as well as from Latin America, representing many different schools of thought. One could find an article by Ernest Mandel next to a piece by Althusser—something that was extremely unusual at the time. That said, much of the commentary on Althusser in the NLR or published by New Left Books/Verso was not terribly useful. The great exception, of course, is Gregory Elliot, whose book on Althusser (1987) made possible a new and different reading. Anderson’s Althusser was very structuralist, a fact that made his response to Thompson’s Poverty of Theory rather ineffectual.
While the British International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party) was extremely hostile to Althusser and regularly dismissed him as a Stalinist and an idealist, it was out of this current that the best book in English in the 1970s appeared: Alex Callinicos’s Althusser’s Marxism. In a certain way, he was able to see Althusser as a thinker of the conjuncture and to relate Althusser’s notion of overdetermination to Trotsky’s analysis in the History of the Russian Revolution. Because Callinicos knew Lenin quite well, it was an easy step to take. Unfortunately, he did not pursue this work any further.
In the US, Michael Sprinker, who was a member of Solidarity, an organization whose roots lay in both the IS tradition and the Trotskyism of the FI, made important contributions both to the study of Althusser and to the effort to publish his works in English.