Underground Currents: Louis Althusser’s “On Marxist Thought”

Introduction | TranslationOriginal

When Per­ry Ander­son wrote in 1976 that “West­ern Marx­ism” could be con­sid­ered a “prod­uct of defeat,” he was refer­ring to the cat­a­stro­phes and betray­als that framed the peri­od from 1924 to 1968.1 In ret­ro­spect, this seems like fore­shad­ow­ing. The inter­ven­ing decades have seen not sim­ply a defeat for the work­ers’ move­ment but its total dis­so­lu­tion – the col­lapse of the insti­tu­tions that once made it an unde­ni­able social force, and the roll­back of the reforms it had won from the state. While West­ern Marx­ism could define itself with­in a rela­tion of dis­sent from the “offi­cial” Marx­ism of the Sovi­et Union and the Com­mu­nist Par­ties, aca­d­e­m­ic Marx­ism from the 1980s on began to find itself in rela­tion to noth­ing.

The past few years rep­re­sent a defin­i­tive shift. The eco­nom­ic cri­sis, and even more recent­ly the glimpses of a new class strug­gle, have forced even the finan­cial press to asks what we might learn from Marx. How­ev­er, the sta­tus of Marx­ism, as a body of thought, remains obscure. Under­ly­ing every Marx­ist expla­na­tion of the eco­nom­ic cri­sis are ten­den­tious debates about the ten­den­cy of the rate of prof­it to fall, the trans­for­ma­tion prob­lem, and the rel­e­vance of the labor the­o­ry of val­ue. And even our recent moments of polit­i­cal prac­tice have nei­ther orig­i­nat­ed with­in the para­me­ters of Marx­ism, nor have they gen­er­at­ed a specif­i­cal­ly Marx­ist dis­course. In our sit­u­a­tion it has become dif­fi­cult to say what “Marx­ism” real­ly is, what dis­tin­guish­es it as a the­o­ry, and why it mat­ters.

But this is by no means a new ques­tion. And of all the def­i­n­i­tions and rede­f­i­n­i­tions of Marx­ism, Louis Althusser’s were per­haps the most con­tro­ver­sial. In 1982, just before François Mitterrand’s turn to aus­ter­i­ty, Althuss­er began to draft a “the­o­ret­i­cal bal­ance sheet.” He wrote “Defin­i­tive” on the man­u­script, and nev­er pub­lished it. The sec­tion we present here in a pro­vi­sion­al trans­la­tion, an essay called “On Marx­ist Thought,” was not pub­lished until Futur antérieur’s 1993 spe­cial issue Sur Althuss­er, pas­sages, and has nev­er appeared in Eng­lish – save for a few para­graphs quot­ed in Vit­to­rio Morfino’s “An Althusser­ian Lex­i­con” and trans­lat­ed by Jason Smith in the bor­der­lands issue Althuss­er and Us. The oth­er sec­tion of Althusser’s man­u­script, the remark­able “The Under­ground Cur­rent of the Mate­ri­al­ism of the Encounter,” was pub­lished in the 2006 col­lec­tion Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, along with an invalu­able translator’s intro­duc­tion by GM Gosh­gar­i­an.

What fol­lows will not only intro­duce “On Marx­ist Thought,” con­tex­tu­al­ize it, and pro­vide the begin­nings of a close read­ing, but will also attempt to recon­struct Althusser’s own the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ment from the ground up. We are tak­ing this oppor­tu­ni­ty to rean­i­mate a sore­ly mis­un­der­stood thinker, trace his tra­jec­to­ry, and draw out the con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of his the­o­ry. “On Marx­ist Thought” becomes a win­dow of sorts, and Althusser’s life becomes a pos­si­ble lab­o­ra­to­ry.

So like Althuss­er, let’s tell the sto­ry from the begin­ning.

Once Upon a Time…

In 1965 Louis Althuss­er pub­lished two books: a col­lec­tion of arti­cles writ­ten since 1960, under the title For Marx, and a col­lab­o­ra­tive col­lec­tion of sem­i­nar papers called Read­ing Cap­i­tal. The most icon­o­clas­tic claim of these books, and the one under­gird­ing his entire per­spec­tive, was his insis­tence on the “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break” alleged­ly divid­ing the youth­ful Marx from the more prop­er­ly mature Marx. While the youth­ful philoso­pher imag­ined a project in which alien­at­ed human essence could final­ly return to itself, the bat­tle-hard­ened com­mu­nist thought in terms of a mode of pro­duc­tion ground­ed on the antag­o­nis­tic strug­gle between class­es. Two Marx­es, and one choice: are we for the enthu­si­as­tic prodi­gy who lost him­self in the clouds of clas­si­cal phi­los­o­phy or are we for the hard­ened sci­en­tist of class strug­gle?

On the sur­face of it this was by no means a nov­el claim. But Althuss­er did much more than repeat the old cliché that men change over time. Not only was the lat­er Marx dis­tinct from the ear­li­er one, but he oper­at­ed in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent prob­lem­at­ic that had noth­ing to do with the one which had ensnared him in his youth. In short, at some point in 1845, Marx broke with his ide­o­log­i­cal past by found­ing an entire­ly new sci­ence, com­plete with its own prin­ci­ples, log­ic, and lan­guage, just as the ide­o­log­i­cal morass of alche­my became the sci­ence of chem­istry, or astrol­o­gy became astron­o­my.

These ear­ly works of Althuss­er can­not be under­stood out­side the polit­i­cal his­to­ry of Marx­ist the­o­ry. A new polit­i­cal con­junc­ture had emerged after Niki­ta Khrushchev’s 1956 speech con­demn­ing the “per­son­al­i­ty cult,” ini­ti­at­ing a process of “de-Stal­in­iza­tion” which would not only fail to destroy the bureau­cra­cy, but would also turn the mil­i­tant cur­rents lin­ger­ing from the Resis­tance towards social-demo­c­ra­t­ic com­pro­mise. For Althuss­er, that this nec­es­sary crit­i­cism should come from the “Right” was a dis­as­ter, with human­ism and Hegel in the­o­ry and Sovi­et tanks rolling through Budapest in prac­tice.

Althuss­er recalled a sim­i­lar dynam­ic ear­li­er in the cen­tu­ry, when a num­ber of the­o­rists dis­sent­ed against the ortho­doxy of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al. The Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al, ori­ent­ed by Kaut­sky and Plekhanov and ground­ed in Engels’s Anti-Dühring, devel­oped a form of dialec­ti­cal and his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism that viewed his­to­ry as an evo­lu­tion­ary process dri­ven by tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, which would ulti­mate­ly result in social­ism. Despite its attempt to pass itself off as a sci­en­tif­ic phi­los­o­phy of nature against Hegelian ide­al­ism, the tele­ol­o­gy of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al, which would even­tu­al­ly be repro­duced by the Third, actu­al­ly rep­re­sent­ed an impov­er­ished Hegel. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, how­ev­er, the crit­i­cism of this phi­los­o­phy by Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, and oth­er left-wing the­o­rists actu­al­ly ground­ed itself in a return to Hegel, repro­duc­ing the very tele­ol­o­gy they sought to destroy. The ide­ol­o­gy of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al was right­ly attacked, but only by restor­ing yet anoth­er ide­ol­o­gy. In terms of Marx’s texts, this meant mov­ing back from the economism/technologism of the 1859 “Pref­ace” to A Con­tri­bu­tion to the Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my to the pro­gres­sion of class­es in the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo: dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism was the world­view of the pro­le­tari­at, the uni­ver­sal class, and it there­fore rep­re­sent­ed the sub­ject and goal of his­to­ry.

Fit­ting­ly, the post­war phi­los­o­phy of the bureau­cra­cy was a sub­la­tion of this ear­li­er dis­sent. Though Marx’s 1844 Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­i­cal Man­u­scripts had been pub­lished in 1932, they had gone large­ly unno­ticed until now, when they were avid­ly tak­en up by the Com­mu­nist Par­ties. In the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty (PCF), this was rep­re­sent­ed in a dra­mat­ic extreme by the “offi­cial philoso­pher” Roger Garaudy. For the PCF the human­ism of the young Marx was not only the truth of Marx­ist the­o­ry; it had prac­ti­cal util­i­ty as a basis for unit­ing with Catholics and social democ­rats, on dis­play in the Party’s sup­port for Mitterrand’s cam­paign in 1965.

The prob­lem was that this new human­ism was every­where. Even voic­es of dis­sent with­in and out­side the Par­ty, from Hen­ri Lefeb­vre to Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, would attempt to work out their oppo­si­tion with­in the the­o­ret­i­cal cat­e­gories also embraced by the reformist lead­er­ship. For Althuss­er, this was the the­o­ret­i­cal dan­ger of the dis­sent that had start­ed as “a vital reac­tion against the mechani­cism and economism of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al,” a reac­tion with “real his­tor­i­cal mer­its”: like de-Stal­in­iza­tion in pol­i­tics, it would chan­nel rev­o­lu­tion­ary cur­rents towards the Right by way of phi­los­o­phy, as evi­denced by the PCF’s “‘right­ist’ mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of a his­tor­i­cal reac­tion which then had the force of a protest that was rev­o­lu­tion­ary in spir­it.”2 So he set about a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the entire pre-exist­ing tra­di­tion, attempt­ing a cri­tique that broke with the whole ide­ol­o­gy, both the pos­i­tivist phi­los­o­phy of nature and Hegelian sub­jec­tivism. The Hegelian and human­ist turn was not left enough, “proved” by its adop­tion in Moscow and the West­ern par­ty head­quar­ters, since it repeat­ed the Kaut­skyan and revi­sion­ist the­o­ries of his­to­ry with the sub­sti­tute sub­ject of “Man.” For Marx and Read­ing Cap­i­tal are set against this tele­ol­o­gy shared both by economism and its Hegelian cri­tique.

In his search for a the­o­ret­i­cal alter­na­tive, Althuss­er tried to rethe­o­rize Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy itself, ulti­mate­ly argu­ing that Marx­ism had the sta­tus of a sci­en­tif­ic phi­los­o­phy which pro­duced objec­tive knowl­edge, rather than the world­view of the par­ty that rep­re­sent­ed the pro­le­tari­at. The def­i­n­i­tion of this sci­ence was high­ly orig­i­nal, a dis­place­ment of the tra­di­tion­al oppo­si­tion between the­o­ry and prac­tice. The­o­ry itself was a prac­tice, the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice, which like oth­er forms of prac­tice worked on raw mate­ri­als, includ­ing ideas, to trans­form them into deter­mi­nate objects, in this case knowl­edge. But knowl­edge could be ide­o­log­i­cal or sci­en­tif­ic; Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy was the “the­o­ry of the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice,” final­ly capa­ble of sift­ing through the his­to­ry of sci­ence and its rup­tures, dis­tin­guish­ing between ide­o­log­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge.

At the same time, Althuss­er inter­vened against the dom­i­nant read­ing of Marx’s cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my through the the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice of Read­ing Cap­i­tal, the cul­mi­na­tion of a famous sem­i­nar with his stu­dents. Against the ten­den­cy to inter­pret Cap­i­tal as a polit­i­cal econ­o­my in its own right, a cor­rec­tion and com­ple­tion of the work of Adam Smith and David Ricar­do, Althuss­er and his col­leagues empha­sized Marx’s sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion. It was pos­si­ble to take Smith and Ricardo’s the­o­ry of val­ue and devel­op it into a the­o­ry of exploita­tion in terms of a quan­ti­ty of labor-time appro­pri­at­ed by the cap­i­tal­ist. But while Marx rec­og­nized the achieve­ments of the polit­i­cal econ­o­mists, he also argued that the effect of their the­o­ry was to miss the “his­tor­i­cal and tran­si­to­ry char­ac­ter” of soci­eties in which the prod­ucts of labor took the form of val­ues; in fact, they had start­ed by “treat­ing it as the eter­nal nat­ur­al form of social pro­duc­tion.”3 So the found­ing ges­ture of Marx’s sci­ence was a break with the the­o­ret­i­cal object of Smith and Ricar­do – but his con­cep­tion of his­toric­i­ty did not entail that every­thing in a his­tor­i­cal peri­od could be reduced to the expres­sion of some sin­gle essen­tial con­tra­dic­tion. The con­cept of the mode of pro­duc­tion, which tried to explain his­tor­i­cal dis­con­ti­nu­ity, could not be reduced to a homo­ge­neous and con­tin­u­ous tem­po­ral­i­ty dri­ven either by a tran­shis­tor­i­cal “essence of man” or the devel­op­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces; instead, it moved accord­ing to the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and their non-lin­ear tem­po­ral­i­ty, artic­u­lat­ed with the tem­po­ral­i­ties of dif­fer­ent lev­els of the social struc­ture – legal and polit­i­cal rela­tions, cul­ture, and so on.

John Mil­ios has argued that Althusser’s read­ing of Marx has a sur­pris­ing affin­i­ty with the lin­eage of the Neue Marx-Lek­türe, the “new read­ing of Marx” that emerged in Ger­many at approx­i­mate­ly the same time as Read­ing Cap­i­tal.4 Found­ed by Theodor Adorno’s stu­dents, the new read­ing of Marx elab­o­rat­ed their teacher’s cri­tique of Hegel, which already con­tained what Per­ry Ander­son has described as “invol­un­tary cor­re­spon­dences” with Althuss­er, and has yield­ed a “val­ue-form the­o­ry” pur­sued by a diverse range of the­o­rists.5 As Mil­ios has sug­gest­ed, this work elab­o­rates some of the impli­ca­tions of Read­ing Cap­i­tal that Althuss­er stopped short of explain­ing.6 Against a reduc­tion of val­ue to quan­ti­ties, val­ue-form the­o­ry empha­sizes that val­ue is a social rela­tion fun­da­men­tal­ly ground­ed in the exchange­abil­i­ty of com­modi­ties, and is there­fore spe­cif­ic to com­mod­i­ty-pro­duc­ing soci­eties. While abstract labor is the sub­stance of val­ue, its mag­ni­tude deter­mined by social­ly nec­es­sary labor time, the form of val­ue appears in exchange, where the exchange val­ue of a com­mod­i­ty is not mea­sured by the mag­ni­tude of labor-time, but by some quan­ti­ty of anoth­er com­mod­i­ty, a col­lec­tion of use-val­ues. In the rela­tion of exchange, 20 yards of linen are worth one coat. From this sim­ple form Marx extrap­o­lates the neces­si­ty of mon­ey, the uni­ver­sal equiv­a­lent that medi­ates the exchange­abil­i­ty of all com­modi­ties. Since the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal requires the gen­er­a­tion of more mon­ey, it assumes the exploita­tion of labor-pow­er in the process of pro­duc­tion. As Mil­ios writes, “Cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion is not per­ceived as a sim­ple ‘sub­trac­tion’ or ‘deduc­tion’ from the prod­uct of the worker’s labor but is seen as a social rela­tion, nec­es­sar­i­ly express­ing itself in the cir­cuit of social cap­i­tal and in the pro­duc­tion of sur­plus-val­ue, which takes the form of mak­ing (more) mon­ey.”7

The sub­stance of val­ue, then, only exists in the attrib­ut­es in which it is expressed, which is to say mon­ey – and only prices and prof­it, the nec­es­sary forms of appear­ance of val­ue and sur­plus-val­ue, can be mea­sured. This was pre­cise­ly the argu­ment of Read­ing Cap­i­tal: “The fact that sur­plus-val­ue is not a mea­sur­able real­i­ty aris­es from the fact that it is not a thing, but the con­cept of a rela­tion­ship, the con­cept of an exist­ing social struc­ture of pro­duc­tion, of an exis­tence vis­i­ble and mea­sur­able only in itseffects.’”8

Althusser­ian Mules

All this under­lay Althusser’s insis­tence on the trans­for­ma­tive vio­lence of the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break. But it was the uncom­pro­mis­ing lin­ear­i­ty of it all, the clean divi­sion between a human­ist young Marx and a sci­en­tif­ic mature Marx, that began to con­found an oth­er­wise con­vinc­ing expo­si­tion. It became clear to com­menters, and even­tu­al­ly to Althuss­er him­self, that the trou­ble­some ghost of the ear­ly Marx had not been exor­cised so eas­i­ly. He kept return­ing, over and over again, to haunt our mature hero. It was a past that would not pass, appear­ing now as a word, as in “alien­ation,” assumed to have been effaced for­ev­er, then as a turn of phrase, like “the nega­tion of the nega­tion,” which made the stom­ach churn, and some­times even as an entire pas­sage, or clus­ter of chap­ters, or even a book. Althuss­er assured his read­ers that these were just traces, emp­tied of their old philo­soph­i­cal mean­ing, return­ing only as play­ful expres­sions in a new prob­lem­at­ic.

But the crit­i­cisms also came from a polit­i­cal direc­tion, the PCF Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary Waldeck Rochet com­plain­ing of Althusser’s “omis­sion” of the “union of the­o­ry and prac­tice.” In 1966, to set­tle the mat­ter, the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee met in the Parisian sub­urb of Argen­teuil, osten­si­bly a dis­cus­sion of the “prob­lem of ide­ol­o­gy and cul­ture,” but in fact a the­o­ret­i­cal tri­al of the devi­a­tions of Althuss­er. The con­clu­sion of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee, under the direc­tion of the sur­re­al­ist Louis Aragon: “there is a Marx­ist human­ism,” announced to the pub­lic as a slo­gan and ethos, rein­forc­ing the Party’s con­trol over the­o­ry.9

What result­ed was a long peri­od of self-crit­i­cism. But while he claimed to have inte­grat­ed the insights of his crit­ics, Althuss­er made no pre­tense of turn­ing towards human­ism.10 Reflect­ing in an unpub­lished 1967 text, “The Human­ist Con­tro­ver­sy,” he dug in his heels on this ques­tion:

It is no longer a ques­tion of start­ing out from the ‘con­crete’ in the­o­ry, from the well-known ‘con­crete’ con­cepts of Man, men, indi­vid­u­als with ‘their feet firm­ly plant­ed on sol­id ground’, nations, and so on. Quite the con­trary: Marx starts out from the abstract, and says so. This does not mean that, for Marx, men, indi­vid­u­als, and their sub­jec­tiv­i­ty have been expunged from real his­to­ry. It means that the notions of Man, etc., have been expunged from the­o­ry, for, in the­o­ry, no-one has yet, to my knowl­edge, met a flesh-and-blood man, only the notion of man.11

He also made a sur­pris­ing argu­ment about Hegel, now writ­ing that Hegel had in fact giv­en Marx the con­cept of a “process with­out a sub­ject,” since in the Hegelian sys­tem the only sub­ject of the process of his­to­ry is the tele­ol­o­gy itself, the pro­gres­sion towards its end. The illu­so­ry mate­ri­al­ism of Lud­wig Feuer­bach had been based on insert­ing a new sub­ject into this process – human species-being, which would alien­ate itself through­out his­to­ry in reli­gion until its final real­iza­tion and self-knowl­edge – and the young Marx, sub­sti­tut­ing alien­at­ed labor for reli­gion, had par­tic­i­pat­ed in this regres­sion behind Hegel. Insert­ing “alien­at­ed labor” failed to change the nature of this the­o­ry as ide­o­log­i­cal: “A the­o­ry no more changes its nature by treat­ing an addi­tion­al object than a cap­i­tal­ist who makes aero­planes becomes a social­ist by adding refrig­er­a­tors to his prod­uct line.”12

Althuss­er now argued that the late Marx did not stand Hegel on his feet, but chopped off his head – with­out the tele­ol­o­gy it became pos­si­ble to under­stand the com­plex rela­tion­ship between con­tin­gency and neces­si­ty in the his­tor­i­cal process. But not all Marx­ists had man­aged to pay atten­tion; many of them vac­il­lat­ed between Hegel and Feuer­bach. It is often pos­si­ble, with this pro­to­col of read­ing, to dis­tin­guish the Hegelian from the Feuer­bachi­an (or human­ist) moments – and fre­quent­ly the prop­er­ly Hegelian moments have a pro­found inter­sec­tion with Althuss­er, as Mil­ios argues of val­ue-form the­o­ry, which often claims an explic­it­ly Hegelian point of depar­ture.

This is the con­text for the new def­i­n­i­tion of phi­los­o­phy Althuss­er began to cir­cu­late, in his intro­duc­tion to a 1967 course on the “spon­ta­neous phi­los­o­phy of the sci­en­tists” and the famous lec­ture “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy” in ear­ly 1968. He turned against a “the­o­reti­cism” in Read­ing Cap­i­tal, which had con­vert­ed phi­los­o­phy into a kind of absolute knowl­edge that would guide prac­tice. The polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of this notion had been clear for the whole his­to­ry of the work­ers’ move­ment, align­ing with a text­book “Lenin­ism” and implic­it­ly endors­ing “Kautsky’s and Lenin’s the­sis that Marx­ist the­o­ry is pro­duced by a spe­cif­ic the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice, out­side the pro­le­tari­at, and that Marx­ist the­o­ry must be ‘import­ed’ into the pro­le­tari­at.”13 But total­ly absent from this Lenin­ism was any the­o­ret­i­cal engage­ment with the ques­tion of class strug­gle.

The rede­f­i­n­i­tions result­ing from this self-crit­i­cism were sig­nif­i­cant, and led to anoth­er unusu­al Hegelian inter­sec­tion. Now in unac­knowl­edged align­ment with Lukács, Althuss­er began to argue that Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy orig­i­nates in the pro­le­tar­i­an stand­point, but dif­fered by sit­u­at­ing this stand­point in a non-tele­o­log­i­cal frame­work – the pro­le­tari­at, far from the iden­ti­cal sub­ject-object of his­to­ry, is con­sti­tut­ed by the class strug­gle spe­cif­ic to the nov­el cap­i­tal­ist form of exploita­tion, and the assump­tion of its stand­point is a prac­tice of par­ti­san­ship in phi­los­o­phy.14 In this new def­i­n­i­tion, phi­los­o­phy had no object and did not dis­tin­guish between truth and error. Phi­los­o­phy was a bat­tle­ground, whose entire his­to­ry was con­sti­tut­ed by the strug­gle between ide­al­ism and mate­ri­al­ism, each rep­re­sent­ing the stand­point of a class. Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy inter­vened to defend sci­ence against ide­ol­o­gy, but this process was a com­plex relay – phi­los­o­phy, at cer­tain moments, emerg­ing after a sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery to explain its con­se­quences for knowl­edge, and at oth­ers, ini­ti­at­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sci­ence by break­ing with ide­ol­o­gy and assum­ing the pro­le­tar­i­an stand­point, as Marx had done when he affil­i­at­ed him­self with com­mu­nists in Paris.15 The new def­i­n­i­tion, in the last instance, was that phi­los­o­phy is class strug­gle in the field of the­o­ry, and Althuss­er would retain this def­i­n­i­tion until the end. While his ear­li­er “the­o­reti­cism” defend­ed the auton­o­my of intel­lec­tu­als, he now took a dras­tic left turn against them: “A pro­fes­sion­al philoso­pher who joins the Par­ty remains, ide­o­log­i­cal­ly, a pet­ty bour­geois. He must rev­o­lu­tion­ize his thought in order to occu­py a pro­le­tar­i­an class posi­tion in phi­los­o­phy.”16

The his­tor­i­cal con­text of this cri­tique, and the lim­its of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­nist move­ment to which Althuss­er remained devot­ed, meant an affil­i­a­tion with Mao­ism. Pre­ced­ing his self-crit­i­cism was a 1966 text called “On the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion,” pub­lished anony­mous­ly to avoid inevitable expul­sion from the Par­ty, in which Althuss­er cel­e­brat­ed events in Chi­na as the prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion of his the­sis in “Con­tra­dic­tion and Overde­ter­mi­na­tion” four years ear­li­er: com­mu­nism could not be achieved with­out a con­tin­u­ing rev­o­lu­tion against the state appa­ra­tus­es. Indeed, even these ear­li­er texts, in the peri­od of the Sino-Sovi­et split, wad­ed into dan­ger­ous waters by align­ing with the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of China’s cri­tique of de-Stal­in­iza­tion, which in less philo­soph­i­cal lan­guage had attacked human­ism as the ide­ol­o­gy of “peace­ful coex­is­tence,” a con­ces­sion to impe­ri­al­ism. Favor­able cita­tions of Mao gave the PCF fur­ther evi­dence for its sus­pi­cion.17

Of course, a polit­i­cal cri­tique of the PCF’s economism did not need to draw its inspi­ra­tion from a mythol­o­gy of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion. A num­ber of inde­pen­dent French groups – such Social­isme ou Bar­barie, Argu­ments, and the Sit­u­a­tion­ist Inter­na­tion­al – were already on this track, some for over a decade. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, for exam­ple, the pri­ma­ry the­o­rist of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, argued that the empha­sis on the pro­duc­tive forces led to a dis­tort­ed con­cep­tion of the con­tent of social­ism, which had affect­ed even the Bol­she­viks. Nation­al­iza­tion of pri­vate prop­er­ty and the dis­place­ment of the mar­ket by plan­ning had cov­ered up the real­i­ty that the con­tent of social­ism was the proletariat’s autonomous man­age­ment of pro­duc­tion, and this van­tage point required a new analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism, one which empha­sized the divi­sion of labor inter­nal to the pro­duc­tion process. Bureau­crat­ic polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions, like the Com­mu­nist Par­ties, only served to repro­duce this struc­ture. As ear­ly as 1955, Cas­to­ri­adis hint­ed that this divi­sion of labor also affect­ed the pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge: “The antag­o­nis­tic struc­ture of cul­tur­al rela­tions in present-day soci­ety is expressed also (but in no way exclu­sive­ly) by the rad­i­cal divi­sion between man­u­al and intel­lec­tu­al labor.”18

This poten­tial con­nec­tion between Althuss­er and Cas­to­ri­adis – a com­mon cri­tique of economism com­ing from two dif­fer­ent, yet equal­ly invalu­able sides – was an encounter that did not take place. Althuss­er, for his part, described a dou­ble-bind, the fact that even though the Party’s pro­gram was intrin­si­cal­ly lim­it­ed, it was lodged with­in mass move­ments that were not acces­si­ble to left­ist groups out­side the Par­ty: “if the Par­ty want­ed to analyse and take con­trol of social rela­tions, it could have noth­ing more to do with any move­ment, espe­cial­ly if it was linked to the salaried class, which was con­cerned sole­ly with wage ris­es, etc., in order to tack­le the whole process of pro­duc­tion; but that has only ever been done out­side the Par­ty and the via the inept con­cept of self-man­age­ment.” The fate of these “iso­lat­ed indi­vid­u­als,” Althuss­er said, “such as Sou­varine and Cas­to­ri­adis who pro­vid­ed inter­est­ing infor­ma­tion and good ideas on a good num­ber of points,” was to be “left alone, deprived of all organ­ic con­tact… with the active and organ­ised sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion and out­side any organ­i­sa­tion involved in strug­gle… what impact could these iso­lat­ed indi­vid­u­als have on the work­ers and the mass­es?”19

And if this pas­sage nev­er­the­less prais­es Cas­to­ri­adis, the the­o­rist of self-man­age­ment would not return the favor. In a 1988 reflec­tion on his post­war writ­ings, Cas­to­ri­adis, agree­ing with the the­sis of the “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break,” sided with the young Marx against “vul­gar ratio­nal­ists such as Althuss­er and asso­ciates.” The min­gling of mate­ri­al­ist meta­physics and the dialec­tic of nature in the sci­en­tism of the late Marx, he con­tin­ued, had pro­duced “only ster­ile off­spring, of which Althusser­ian mules are only the most recent spec­i­mens.”20 And in fact, Castoriadis’s ear­li­er work had already vig­or­ous­ly defend­ed the young Marx as the only philo­soph­i­cal basis for self-man­age­ment, which in a kind of expres­sive causal­i­ty described the total­i­ty of social life: “alien­ation in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety is not sim­ply eco­nom­ic. It not only man­i­fests itself in con­nec­tion with mate­r­i­al life. It also affects in a fun­da­men­tal way both man’s sex­u­al and his cul­tur­al func­tions.”21

Con­crete Sit­u­a­tions

All these the­o­ret­i­cal shifts were to be over­shad­owed the fol­low­ing year in Paris by the events of May 1968, when a van­guard of left­ist stu­dents sparked a gen­er­al strike of ten mil­lion work­ers. Here the con­duct of the PCF con­firmed every polit­i­cal crit­i­cism made of it, and Althuss­er him­self described what hap­pened with per­fect clar­i­ty in his mem­oirs: “Out of fear of the mass­es and fear of los­ing con­trol (reflect­ing its per­ma­nent obses­sion with the pri­ma­cy of organ­i­sa­tion over mass pop­u­lar move­ments), the Par­ty did all it could to break the pop­u­lar move­ment and chan­nel it into straight­for­ward eco­nom­ic nego­ti­a­tions.”22

At the time, how­ev­er, he assent­ed to the PCF line, and Althusser’s rep­u­ta­tion has nev­er real­ly recov­ered from this deci­sion. But we gain noth­ing from dis­miss­ing him as a PCF hack. On the one hand, we have already not­ed his long-stand­ing dis­si­dence with­in Par­ty, stretch­ing back to his atten­dance of demon­stra­tions in sup­port of the Alger­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, all while believ­ing that con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship was required in order to main­tain organ­ic con­tacts with the pro­le­tari­at.23 We can note in pass­ing that this brings him once again close to his old foil Lukács, whose con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship in the par­ty dur­ing the tem­pes­tu­ous 1930s was guid­ed by a sim­i­lar log­ic.

On the oth­er hand, we can now hon­est­ly acknowl­edge the ambi­gu­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion itself: the insti­tu­tion­al pow­er of the PCF was a fatal lim­it on the insur­rec­tions of May and June, but it was also one of the enabling con­di­tions for the exten­sion of this insur­rec­tion to a mass scale. Even Althusser’s the­o­ret­i­cal adver­sary Jean-Paul Sartre, who con­sid­ered the May revolt to be “free­dom in action,” said in an inter­view with Il Man­i­festo that “the par­ty, in rela­tion to the mass, is a nec­es­sary real­i­ty because the mass, by itself, does not pos­sess spon­tane­ity” – but due to its insti­tu­tion­al struc­ture, the par­ty has at the same time “a ten­den­cy to scle­ro­sis.” While he argued that the 1968 revolt failed because it “lacked a par­ty capa­ble of tak­ing up com­plete­ly the move­ment and its poten­tial­i­ties,” Sartre pes­simisti­cal­ly con­fessed that he could not see “how the prob­lems which con­front any sta­bi­lized struc­ture could be resolved.”24

What­ev­er the ambi­gu­i­ties, Althusser’s fail­ure to break with the bureau­crat­ic ortho­doxy was a dis­as­ter for those of his stu­dents who had imag­ined that the new read­ing of Cap­i­tal had pro­vid­ed the real the­o­ret­i­cal basis for a turn to the Left. But it must be not­ed that this was a major fac­tor in a con­tin­u­ing self-crit­i­cism. The famous 1970 essay on “Ide­ol­o­gy and Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tus­es” – exces­sive­ly famous, since it is read at the expense of near­ly all oth­er texts by Althuss­er, its pro­vi­sion­al themes treat­ed as a for­mu­la – is sig­nif­i­cant for pro­vid­ing a the­o­ret­i­cal basis for endors­ing stu­dent strug­gles. Equal­ly impor­tant is that by sit­u­at­ing ide­ol­o­gy with­in the com­plex inter­ac­tion of the require­ments of repro­duc­ing the mode of pro­duc­tion, and the rel­a­tive auton­o­my of the super­struc­tur­al lev­els in which this social repro­duc­tion takes place, Althuss­er estab­lish­es what War­ren Mon­tag calls a “strange ‘dia­logue’” with his for­mer stu­dent Michel Fou­cault, car­ried on by the lat­ter in Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish.25 When Fou­cault con­trasts a con­cep­tion of pow­er which is “local­ized in a par­tic­u­lar type of insti­tu­tion or state appa­ra­tus” to the “micro-physics of pow­er” which the appa­ra­tus­es “oper­ate,” it is pre­cise­ly Althusser’s ini­tial dis­tinc­tion between “state pow­er” and “state appa­ra­tus” that he clar­i­fies.26 State pow­er is not the expres­sion of a sub­ject that is already formed, the mod­el of the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion – it is the field in which this sub­ject is formed. Foucault’s devel­op­ment of this Marx­i­an theme is to dis­place the dis­tinc­tion between the repres­sive and ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus, enclosed spaces in which force is exer­cised or sub­jects are inter­pel­lat­ed. Instead, he points to dis­ci­pli­nary tech­nolo­gies that act on bod­ies, by which force and knowl­edge form part of a process of pow­er.27

Dis­putes over the nature of the state led Althuss­er to clash even more open­ly with the par­ty bureau­cra­cy through­out the 1970s. In 1972 the PCF entered into a “Union of the Left” with the Social­ist Par­ty, an exten­sion of ear­li­er elec­toral sup­port for Mit­ter­rand and a pre­lude to Euro­com­mu­nism. For the PCF, the “com­mon pro­gram” of this union had its basis in a the­o­ry of “state monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism” (“sta­mo­cap”), the dom­i­na­tion of the state by a cabal of cap­i­tal­ists from the largest firms.28 The polit­i­cal pro­gram against the monop­oly frac­tion even­tu­al­ly grew to encom­pass an entire “union of the French peo­ple,” which could win back the state from with­in, bring­ing it under pop­u­lar con­trol and estab­lish­ing a con­tin­u­ous demo­c­ra­t­ic tran­si­tion to the social­ist tran­si­tion. By 1976, this meant the aban­don­ment of the con­cept of the “dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at.”

Althusser’s cam­paign against this move made the front page of Le Monde (an arti­cle enti­tled “The aban­don­ment of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at is crit­i­cized even with­in the PCF”), and his stu­dent Eti­enne Bal­ibar would defend the con­cept in front of the Par­ty. The union of the French peo­ple, Althuss­er said in a talk to com­mu­nist stu­dents, could only have mean­ing if it clear­ly demon­strat­ed that the Par­ty would sub­ject itself to the ini­tia­tive of the mass­es, who would “orga­nize them­selves autonomous­ly, in orig­i­nal forms, in firms, urban dis­tricts and vil­lages, around the ques­tions of labour and liv­ing con­di­tions, the ques­tions of hous­ing, edu­ca­tion, health, trans­port, the envi­ron­ment.” But not only was such a devel­op­ment polit­i­cal­ly blocked by the per­sis­tence of an ossi­fied “demo­c­ra­t­ic cen­tral­ism” and the divi­sion of labor between the par­ty bureau­cra­cy and the rank and file, it was also the­o­ret­i­cal­ly blocked by an ide­o­log­i­cal con­cep­tion of the social­ist tran­si­tion. Adding “the adjec­tive ‘demo­c­ra­t­ic’ to each exist­ing state appa­ra­tus” failed to appre­ci­ate the basic Marx­ist the­sis that “it is not just the bour­geois state that is oppres­sive, but any state.”29 At a lec­ture in Barcelona, “The Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy,” Althuss­er described what was at stake: a the­o­ry of the cap­i­tal­ist state as an open space of con­tes­ta­tion dis­placed an under­stand­ing of the state as a bour­geois dic­ta­tor­ship, which formed the vary­ing lev­els of the social for­ma­tion into a uni­ty that could repro­duce the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. He brought this polit­i­cal cri­tique deci­sive­ly into the field of knowl­edge: phi­los­o­phy was the uni­fi­ca­tion of dif­fer­ent spon­ta­neous ide­olo­gies of prac­tice in the con­sti­tu­tion of the dom­i­nant ide­ol­o­gy, which made it a phi­los­o­phy of the state. Just as the com­mune and sovi­et pow­er rep­re­sent­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the destruc­tion of the state, Marx­ism was a non-phi­los­o­phy of the non-state.30

The “par­lia­men­tary cre­tinism” of the PCF entered a path to self-destruc­tion in 1977, by which point the Social­ist Party’s pop­u­lar­i­ty had dwarfed the PCF.31 Rapid­ly shift­ing to sec­tar­i­an rhetoric, the PCF turned against the Com­mon Pro­gram and broke with the Social­ist Par­ty, divid­ing the Left and ced­ing vic­to­ry to the Right in the 1978 leg­isla­tive elec­tions. At this point Althuss­er took the gloves off. His four-part arti­cle in Le Monde, “What Must Change in the Par­ty,” dis­cerned between the ini­tial reformism and the sec­tar­i­an break a basic ver­ti­cal struc­ture of com­mand, which made the Par­ty resem­ble the bour­geois state appa­ra­tus­es. The exem­plary fig­ure of the Par­ty was the “full-timer” who grew ever more dis­tant from the shop floor: “most of the time, he does not even come into any real con­tact with the mass­es, since he is too busy con­trol­ling them.” The claim of turn­ing towards democ­ra­cy had actu­al­ly hid­den the retrench­ment of this high­ly author­i­tar­i­an divi­sion of labor, while “sta­mo­cap” the­o­ry had dis­placed all “con­crete analy­sis of con­crete sit­u­a­tions.”32 As he wrote in an Ital­ian ency­clo­pe­dia entry called “Marx­ism Today,” with­in the par­ties the prob­lem of orga­ni­za­tion had been “resolved in advance through the trans­paren­cy of a con­scious, vol­un­tary com­mu­ni­ty con­sti­tut­ed by free and equal mem­bers… a pre­fig­u­ra­tion of the free com­mu­ni­ty of Com­mu­nism, a com­mu­ni­ty with­out social rela­tions.” With­out a the­o­ry of the orga­ni­za­tion­al appa­ra­tus that the work­ing class would require, in order to destroy the state with mass orga­ni­za­tions, Marx­ism had failed to avert the risk that “the divi­sion between appa­ra­tus and mil­i­tants could repro­duce the bour­geois divi­sion of pow­er and cause prob­lems so seri­ous as to end in tragedy.” The only pos­si­ble way for­ward, he con­clud­ed in Le Monde, was for the Par­ty to “leave the fortress,” to dis­solve its struc­ture of com­mand into the mass­es and renew Marx­ist the­o­ry.33

And it was Marx­ist the­o­ry itself that had been chal­lenged by the con­vo­lu­tions of the Par­ty. He had already, in 1977, trav­eled to Venice at the invi­ta­tion of Il Man­i­festo, the orga­ni­za­tion and news­pa­per found­ed by dis­si­dent com­mu­nists like Lucio Magri and Rossana Rossan­da who had been expelled from the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Par­ty. There he spoke at a con­fer­ence on “post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary soci­eties,” fol­low­ing on a theme estab­lished by Rossan­da: “the cri­sis of Marx­ism.”

His tone was not melan­cholic; the cri­sis was an oppor­tu­ni­ty for renew­al. The con­duct of the com­mu­nist par­ties had demon­strat­ed that Marx­ism lacked a the­o­ry of the state, just as it lacked a the­o­ry of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions. But these gaps had been cov­ered up by a fic­ti­tious uni­ty imput­ed to Marx’s work. And the ori­gin of this fic­ti­tious uni­ty was Cap­i­tal.

This was not a new argu­ment. Althusser’s self-crit­i­cism had already demand­ed changes to his peri­odiza­tion, most notably in his 1969 pref­ace to the French edi­tion of Cap­i­tal. He had brazen­ly claimed that work­ers, with their dai­ly expe­ri­ence of exploita­tion, had under­stood Cap­i­tal bet­ter than intel­lec­tu­als, who were cloud­ed by pet­ty-bour­geois class instincts. But the real scan­dal was his sug­ges­tion that read­ers sim­ply skip the cel­e­brat­ed first part of Cap­i­tal and return to it after fin­ish­ing the remain­der of the three vol­umes. The rest of Cap­i­tal was still “99 per­cent” free of the noto­ri­ous “Hegelian-evo­lu­tion­ist con­cep­tion,” but the process by which Marx set­tled accounts with his erst­while philo­soph­i­cal con­science had been a long and dif­fi­cult one. Only Marx’s Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme and the “Notes on Wag­n­er” could be con­sid­ered pure, “no longer the shad­ow of a trace of Feuer­bachi­an human­ist or Hegelian influ­ence.”34 This was a sig­nif­i­cant revi­sion to his orig­i­nal nar­ra­tive of the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break. Indeed, in this sec­ond iter­a­tion of the sto­ry, the peri­odiza­tion of Marx’s thought, the break was no longer even a break.

But while speak­ing extem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly in Venice, Althuss­er argued that Cap­i­tal itself estab­lished a fic­ti­tious the­o­ret­i­cal uni­ty with its struc­ture of expo­si­tion, mov­ing from the analy­sis of com­modi­ties to a the­o­ry of val­ue. This the­o­ry was an “arith­meti­cal pre­sen­ta­tion,” defin­ing an abstract log­ic of exploita­tion in which “labour pow­er fig­ures pure­ly and sim­ply as a com­mod­i­ty.” Accord­ing to Althuss­er, Marx’s start­ing point had pro­duced a the­o­ret­i­cal blind­ness:

Even if we were to accept this start­ing point, this begin­ning, and these dis­tinc­tions, we should still be forced to note that the pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus val­ue as a mere cal­cu­la­ble quan­ti­ty – which thus com­plete­ly ignores the con­di­tions of extrac­tion of sur­plus val­ue (con­di­tions of labour) and the con­di­tions of the repro­duc­tion of labour pow­er – may lead to a very strong temp­ta­tion: for this (arith­meti­cal) pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus val­ue may be tak­en for a com­plete the­o­ry of exploita­tion, caus­ing us to neglect the con­di­tions of labour and of repro­duc­tion. Marx does how­ev­er talk about these con­di­tions – but in oth­er chap­ters of this work, the so-called “con­crete” or “his­tor­i­cal” chap­ters, which in fact stand out­side of the order of expo­si­tion (the chap­ters on the work­ing day, on man­u­fac­ture and mod­ern indus­try, on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, etc.).35

It is hard to avoid the impres­sion that Althuss­er is bend­ing the stick too far. As his own work demon­strat­ed, Marx’s pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus val­ue can­not be reduced to a “mere cal­cu­la­ble quan­ti­ty,” even in its the­o­ret­i­cal uni­ty. But what is no doubt true is that Marx’s com­pli­cat­ed eco­nom­ic writ­ings, incom­plete and most­ly unpub­lished dur­ing his life­time, have been inter­pret­ed accord­ing to a fic­ti­tious uni­ty which impedes an under­stand­ing of Marx’s own argu­ment, includ­ing his descrip­tion of the val­ue-form. Mil­ios argues that when we approach the sec­tions on the trans­for­ma­tion of val­ues into prices in vol­ume 3 of Cap­i­tal, there is a risk of turn­ing what Marx has ini­tial­ly described as a cat­e­gor­i­cal dis­tinc­tion – between the social rela­tion of val­ue and its form of appear­ance in prices, val­ue explain­ing what price is – into a quan­ti­ta­tive rela­tion­ship, in which units of labor-time (val­ue) can be math­e­mat­i­cal­ly con­vert­ed into units of mon­ey (price). The whole “trans­for­ma­tion prob­lem,” still under debate, per­pet­u­ates a focus on the arith­meti­cal pre­sen­ta­tion.36 The oth­er risk is that the struc­ture of Marx’s expo­si­tion will be forced into a his­tori­cist inter­pre­ta­tion: the “sim­ple com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­tion” with which Marx begins ends up inter­pret­ed as a his­tor­i­cal phase pre­ced­ing cap­i­tal­ism in which the whole cat­e­go­ry of val­ue already exist­ed, when in fact it is a moment of analy­sis of cat­e­gories inter­nal to cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety itself. As Mas­si­m­il­iano Tom­ba has point­ed out, this kind of his­tori­cist peri­odiza­tion – sim­ple com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­tion to cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, for­mal sub­sump­tion to real sub­sump­tion – ends up repro­duc­ing a West­ern Europe-cen­tered nar­ra­tive of uni­ver­sal progress, the “uni­ver­sal pass­port of a gen­er­al his­tori­co-philo­soph­i­cal the­o­ry” that Marx was quick to reject.37

This much is already explained by val­ue-form the­o­ry.38 But Althusser’s orig­i­nal point is to draw atten­tion to the fact that Marx only turns at the end of vol­ume 1 of Cap­i­tal to the his­to­ry of capitalism’s emer­gence, which risks giv­ing the impres­sion that this his­to­ry is an after­thought to a seem­ing­ly self-per­pet­u­at­ing log­ic which is pri­ma­ry. Such an argu­ment shat­ters the per­cep­tion of Althuss­er as hope­less­ly abstract. Inso­far as the log­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion describes the his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ty of sur­plus-extrac­tion under cap­i­tal­ism – that is, the specif­i­cal­ly cap­i­tal­ist form of exploita­tion and its rules of repro­duc­tion – it is vital to explain the basis of these social rela­tions in the sep­a­ra­tion from the means of sub­sis­tence that leads to depen­dence on the mar­ket, the con­text in which labor-pow­er emerges as a com­mod­i­ty.

Althuss­er began to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly work through the ques­tions raised by these polit­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal events in an extra­or­di­nary man­u­script called “Marx in His Lim­its,” which he showed only to a few close friends in 1978.39 But its elab­o­ra­tion was to be inter­rupt­ed.

The Neces­si­ty of Pos­i­tive Facts

In 1980, Althuss­er stran­gled his wife, Hélène Ryt­man. It was a hor­ri­fy­ing cli­max to a life­time of severe men­tal ill­ness, punc­tu­at­ed through­out by long-term insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion, med­ica­tion with MAOIs, and elec­tro­con­vul­sive ther­a­py. From 1982 to 1986, between stays in the men­tal insti­tu­tion, his polit­i­cal and aca­d­e­m­ic careers fin­ished, Althusser’s wrote of phi­los­o­phy in a dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter. These late texts worked with a new lan­guage: “aleato­ry mate­ri­al­ism” in the place of dialec­ti­cal and his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism.

Althuss­er fig­ures this lan­guage with the image of Epicurus’s cli­na­men: the void in which, before the world exist­ed, atoms rained down in par­al­lel paths. When one atom devi­at­ed from its path, and swerved to meet anoth­er, the encounter between the two brought the world into being. In the “Under­ground Cur­rent,” Althuss­er traces the his­to­ry of a sub­ter­ranean tra­di­tion that runs through the his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy, locked in strug­gle with the “ide­al­ism of free­dom” that attempt­ed to repress it. This strug­gle ani­mates the writ­ing of Machi­avel­li, Hobbes, Spin­oza, and Rousseau (Deleuze and Der­ri­da are also named, among oth­ers), whose work Althuss­er uses to elab­o­rate the mate­ri­al­ism of the encounter. An encounter may or may not take place, but even tak­ing place is not enough to estab­lish a world; there is no short­age of “brief encoun­ters” that failed to “take hold.” Some kind of agent might inter­vene to estab­lish the con­di­tions for an encounter; then still, if it does take place, it will have to con­geal into laws that con­vert it into an accom­plished fact.40

By the end of this sweep­ing overview of the his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy, it becomes clear that we have wit­nessed a philo­soph­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion of the themes dis­cov­ered by Marx in the “his­tor­i­cal chap­ters,” refer­ring back to Balibar’s analy­sis of the “pre­his­to­ry” of cap­i­tal­ism in Read­ing Cap­i­tal. Prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion estab­lish­es the the­o­ry of aleato­ry mate­ri­al­ism: Marx showed that cap­i­tal­ism “arose from the ‘encounter’ between ‘the own­ers of mon­ey’ and the pro­le­tar­i­an stripped of every­thing but his labor-pow­er.” This encounter “took hold” by virtue of ten­den­tial laws, from the law of val­ue to the law of cycli­cal cri­sis. These laws are not capitalism’s essence but the “becom­ing-nec­es­sary of the encounter of con­tin­gen­cies,” a mode of pro­duc­tion that has become an accom­plished fact whose laws of motion can be described.41

The ide­al­ist account of polit­i­cal econ­o­my, skew­ered by Marx, sets out from the neces­si­ty of the cur­rent moment and projects it to the ori­gins. Its the­o­log­i­cal ori­gin sto­ry – which claimed that a “fru­gal elite” accu­mu­lat­ed wealth while “lazy ras­cals, spend­ing their sub­stance, and more, in riotous liv­ing,” end­ed up with “noth­ing to sell except their own skins” – con­fused the repro­duc­tion of this new rela­tion­ship for the ori­gin of the rela­tion­ship itself. But this ten­den­cy also plagued Marx­ism, which some­times caved into an ide­ol­o­gy of cap­i­tal­ism as a nec­es­sary dialec­ti­cal nega­tion of feu­dal­ism, a new soci­ety ful­ly formed with­in the old world. The con­se­quence of such a the­o­ry is that the struc­ture pre­cedes its ele­ments, like the notion that the pro­le­tari­at is “the prod­uct of big indus­try”: this, for Althuss­er, is the result of “con­fus­ing the pro­duc­tion of the pro­le­tari­at with its cap­i­tal­ist repro­duc­tion on an extend­ed scale.42

While the abstract log­ic of ten­den­tial laws repro­duced the encounter, this had to take place on an extend­ing scale, whose con­di­tions were by no means auto­mat­ic. They had to be con­tin­u­al­ly estab­lished:

It would, more­over, be a mis­take to think that this process of the aleato­ry encounter was con­fined to the Eng­lish four­teenth cen­tu­ry. It has always gone on, and is going on even today – not only in the coun­tries of the Third World, which pro­vide the most strik­ing exam­ple of it, but also in France, by way of the dis­pos­ses­sion of agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­ers and their trans­for­ma­tion into semi-skilled work­ers (con­sid­er San­dou­ville: Bre­tons run­ning machines) – as a per­ma­nent process that puts the aleato­ry at the heart of the sur­vival and rein­force­ment of the cap­i­tal­ist ‘mode of pro­duc­tion’, and also, let us add, at the heart of the so-called social­ist ‘mode of pro­duc­tion’ itself.43

Here Althuss­er once again cross­es paths with Fou­cault, whose recount­ing in Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish of the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism empha­sizes its con­tin­gency and its recon­fig­u­ra­tion of the con­junc­ture from which it emerged. Jason Read frames his out­stand­ing analy­sis of the Marx-Althuss­er-Fou­cault con­stel­la­tion in The Micro-Pol­i­tics of Cap­i­tal by point­ing to this prob­lem of his­tor­i­cal tran­si­tion, “the pre­sup­po­si­tions and pre-con­di­tions of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, the con­di­tions that con­sti­tute its for­ma­tion and yet can­not be derived from it.“44 In his study of these con­di­tions, Fou­cault focus­es on the legal lev­el of the social for­ma­tion: for exam­ple, the way peas­ant strug­gles against rent and tax­es were ini­tial­ly tol­er­at­ed in order to work against feu­dal sur­vivals, then were repressed to in order to pro­tect the rela­tions of pri­vate prop­er­ty required for inten­sive agri­cul­ture, indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion, and com­merce.45 The very process of enclo­sure was sit­u­at­ed in the need to recon­fig­ure exist­ing legal rela­tions, and also invent new ones, in order to repro­duce these new prop­er­ty rela­tions – not a uni­tary pro­gres­sion in which one deter­mines the oth­er, but what in Read­ing Cap­i­tal is described as “dif­fer­en­tial tem­po­ral­i­ty.”46

The pres­ence of these themes in Read­ing Cap­i­tal is sig­nif­i­cant. Recent writ­ing on the late texts, includ­ing “On Marx­ist Thought,” argues for con­ti­nu­ity over “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal breaks” in Althusser’s own tra­jec­to­ry. Vit­to­rio Morfino’s argu­ment is that there is an implic­it ter­mi­no­log­i­cal sys­tem under­ly­ing the poet­ic style that draws out a per­sis­tent theme of “the neces­si­ty of con­tin­gency,” forced into the mar­gins by the debates over epis­te­mol­o­gy and peri­odiza­tion. Morfi­no points to the rela­tion between phi­los­o­phy as “the neces­si­ty of pos­i­tive facts” in “On Marx­ist Thought,” and “the fact of the sub­or­di­na­tion of neces­si­ty to con­tin­gency” in the “Under­ground Cur­rent.”47 The effect of this para­dox is to dis­place lin­ear attempts at peri­odiza­tion: just as the oppo­si­tion between Cap­i­tal and Marx’s ear­li­er texts gives way to breaks and con­ti­nu­ities through­out his process of devel­op­ment, the same can be seen in the tra­jec­to­ry of Althuss­er.

As Bal­ibar has writ­ten, the ear­ly work of Althuss­er is an “exper­i­ment, done on texts and on itself, uncer­tain of its result like all gen­uine exper­i­ments.”48 And indeed, in light of the per­sis­tence of this lex­i­con, the ratio­nal­ism of Read­ing Cap­i­tal stands out as a per­for­ma­tive inter­ven­tion, a prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy that inter­vened against ide­ol­o­gy. In fact, the “aleato­ry” Althuss­er is able to over­turn a cer­tain risk of his writ­ing dur­ing the peri­od of self-crit­i­cism: an expres­sive total­i­ty of class strug­gle, in which “class instincts” deter­mine all ideas, while class strug­gle itself was nev­er explained. But Althusser’s the­o­ry of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion is able to start from the fact of exploita­tion, and explain its emer­gence not as a gen­e­sis in which the object exist­ed before its birth – an argu­ment hint­ed as ear­ly as 1966 – but an encounter which took hold and in which the con­tin­gent struc­ture sub­se­quent­ly took pri­ma­cy over its ele­ments.49 Because exploita­tion “is the case,” a fact, there is class strug­gle, which entails class­es; but the accom­plished fact and its ten­den­tial laws are under­stood as the repro­duc­tion of the encounter. What this explains is that the pro­le­tari­at is not the sub­ject of his­to­ry, and does not even occu­py this role hege­mon­i­cal­ly. It is instead con­sti­tut­ed by class strug­gle as a fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tic of this con­tin­gent mode of pro­duc­tion, and this is the basis for its sub­jec­tiv­i­ty in his­to­ry.

A Dis­cov­ery with­out a Lan­guage

So Althuss­er returned once again to peri­odiza­tion, telling the sto­ry for the third and last time in “On Marx­ist Thought,” tak­ing up the polit­i­cal analy­sis of “Marx in His Lim­its” with­in the new aleato­ry frame­work. At first, he seems to work as before, admit­ting that with the sole excep­tion of the chap­ter on “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion,” all of Cap­i­tal was taint­ed by Hegelian­ism, the only tru­ly mate­ri­al­ist works are a cou­ple scat­tered pieces: the unpub­lished notes on the Gotha Pro­gram, writ­ten in 1875, and the “final burst” in 1881 of the “Notes on Wag­n­er.” The pure Marx, the man freed from ide­ol­o­gy, the hero of Althusser’s grand epic, is now reduced to a can­tan­ker­ous invalid hur­ried­ly scrib­bling in the mar­gins before being over­tak­en by death. The shift has been pushed as far back as it can go; any fur­ther, and there’ll be noth­ing left.

If the “Notes on Wag­n­er” real­ly rep­re­sent an ulti­mate state­ment on the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my, we are left to imag­ine Marx, like Fer­mat, lament­ing the nar­row­ness of the pages. But this unusu­al text offers a pro­to­col of read­ing, a reminder of Marx’s “ana­lyt­ic method, which does not start out from man, but from the eco­nom­i­cal­ly giv­en social peri­od.” What sure­ly caught Althusser’s eye was the way Marx pre-emp­tive­ly dis­armed human­ist the­o­ries of cul­ture by remind­ing his inter­locu­tor that “if the cat­e­go­ry ‘man’ is meant here, then he has, in gen­er­al, ‘no’ needs”; the “start­ing point” of the­o­ret­i­cal analy­sis will be “the spe­cif­ic char­ac­ter of the exist­ing com­mu­ni­ty in which he lives.”50

But what is tru­ly notable about the “Notes on Wag­n­er” and the Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme is that both con­tain ardent defens­es of the the­o­ry of val­ue. Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme, unique­ly, affirms the the­o­ry of val­ue along­side a vig­or­ous defense of class strug­gle as the reg­u­lat­ing prin­ci­ple of pol­i­tics. Marx crit­i­cizes the Gotha Pro­gram for falling short of “the sci­en­tif­ic view” that “wage-labour is not what it appears to be, name­ly price of labour in rela­tion to its val­ue, but only a dis­guised form for the price of labour pow­er in rela­tion to its val­ue,” because the “the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion… is found­ed on the fact that the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions for pro­duc­tion are assigned to non-work­ers in the form of prop­er­ty in cap­i­tal and land, whilst most peo­ple own only the con­di­tion of pro­duc­tion that is per­son­al, labour pow­er.”51

But Althuss­er imme­di­ate­ly com­pli­cates the peri­odiza­tion, in part by includ­ing Engels, there­by retelling the nar­ra­tive not as the his­to­ry of one man, but as the encounter of two. In so doing, Althuss­er is able to announce the dis­cov­ery of yet anoth­er work, real­ly the only one, which was tru­ly mate­ri­al­ist from the start, this time from the pen of the young man who was sent to Man­ches­ter by his indus­tri­al­ist father to learn the fam­i­ly busi­ness: The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land in 1844. And so the end­less mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the obvi­ous­ly dys­func­tion­al mod­el of lin­ear peri­odiza­tion has con­clud­ed in a resound­ing para­dox: the only works free of this ide­o­log­i­cal past are those at the very begin­ning and the very end of the sto­ry.

The whole mod­el of lin­ear­i­ty has itself yield­ed an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break, open­ing the space for a dif­fer­ent prob­lem­at­ic alto­geth­er. We can now see that the orig­i­nal peri­odiza­tion actu­al­ly repro­duced a his­tori­cist par­a­digm in which a giv­en peri­od – say, the “young Marx” – was arti­fi­cial­ly grant­ed a kind of expres­sive uni­ty.52 Para­dox­i­cal­ly, by switch­ing to an extreme and clear­ly unten­able peri­odiza­tion – with the Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land at the begin­ning and the “Notes on Wag­n­er” at the very end – Althuss­er allows us to think epis­te­mo­log­i­cal breaks in Marx’s thought inde­pen­dent­ly from the lin­ear time of peri­odiza­tion. There is now no longer a tem­po­ral rift defin­i­tive­ly sep­a­rat­ing an ear­ly Marx from a lat­er one, but a per­pet­u­al ten­sion. Ide­ol­o­gy is not over­thrown by sci­ence once and for all; the two are always strug­gling, in every text, side by side from begin­ning to end.

This new mod­el is of course not with­out its own dif­fi­cul­ties, the most impor­tant of which is the con­spic­u­ous absence of a cor­re­spond­ing con­cep­tu­al ter­mi­nol­o­gy. The vocab­u­lary we have come to asso­ciate with Althuss­er is nowhere to be found: sci­ence, ide­ol­o­gy, prob­lem­at­ic, epis­te­mo­log­i­cal rup­ture, mate­ri­al­ism, and so forth are all terms which are either entire­ly absent or thor­ough­ly emp­tied of their for­mer the­o­ret­i­cal con­no­ta­tions. But while the lan­guage in which it is told has cer­tain­ly changed, the objec­tive of the sto­ry seems to be the same: to dis­cov­er what must be brought to life from the tor­tu­ous his­to­ry of the thought of Marx and Engels. As before, Althuss­er gives us a nor­ma­tive his­to­ry, over­lay­ing his peri­odiza­tions with val­ue judge­ments, argu­ing that the future of Marx­ism, and the way out of the con­tem­po­rary impasse, lies, in fact, in coura­geous­ly reac­ti­vat­ing the lost “themes” of one of these strains:

It is up to us, instead of giv­ing mas­sive con­dem­na­tions or blind apolo­gies, to play this in-between, to sort between the the strokes of genius, the first of which come to us from Engels, and the mon­u­men­tal stu­pid­i­ty, and to make the strokes of genius work on the philo­soph­i­cal stu­pid­i­ty of Marx.

Unlike before, how­ev­er, he does not clar­i­fy his terms, he does not parse out the nar­ra­tive, he does not even name that which he wish­es to rean­i­mate. In the past, it was sci­ence over ide­ol­o­gy, anti­hu­man­ism over human­ism, mate­ri­al­ism over spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy, the mature Marx over the young Marx; now, it is “the stroke of genius” embod­ied in a few pieces almost arbi­trar­i­ly scat­tered across time over the ran­dom “philo­soph­i­cal stu­pidi­ties” that have no begin­ning or end.

Per­haps the new “prob­lem­at­ic” devel­oped here requires its own new set of cor­re­spond­ing con­cepts, which Althuss­er had not yet invent­ed – pre­fer­ring not to recy­cle old­er terms out of a fear of being hor­ri­bly mis­un­der­stood, just as Marx had been. Indeed, one motif of this piece is that the entire inven­to­ry of con­cepts bequeathed to us remains hope­less­ly inad­e­quate: “the pro­posed con­cepts are not ade­quate for any­thing but their own affir­ma­tion.” It’s time to “think oth­er­wise,” though Althuss­er him­self isn’t at the point where he can invent new con­cepts. “Genius is genius,” Althuss­er writes. “It is not explained, it is at best declared.” And so he him­self has found some­thing that he can­not yet explain.

The Great Tem­po­rary Moment of Uni­ty

The new mod­el, though osten­si­bly drawn from an intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry of Marx and Engels, was intend­ed to speak above all to the present. The fact that “the repressed” kept return­ing to plague even as pow­er­ful a thinker as Marx, Althuss­er writes, is a les­son “we can learn from again and again.” All of our own writ­ings, he implies, will always con­tain traces of these “philo­soph­i­cal stu­pidi­ties,” or what we, per­haps at the risk of being mis­un­der­stood, might once again call “ide­ol­o­gy.” But he goes fur­ther than sim­ply remind­ing us that ide­ol­o­gy tends to affect even the most unas­sail­able of texts; he sug­gests an alter­nate form of the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice. In this piece, Althuss­er nev­er real­ly explains the rela­tion­ship between “the­o­ry” and “prac­tice”; he only illus­trates it by way of a sto­ry about the “founders” in which Marx and Engels become per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of these two indis­pens­able roles.

One way to read this sto­ry is to see Marx, the “genius,” radi­at­ing philo­soph­i­cal intel­li­gence, and liv­ing prin­ci­pal­ly through books, as the exem­pli­fi­ca­tion of the­o­ry, with Engels, the prac­ti­tion­er, guid­ed by his close con­tacts with the work­ing class, and liv­ing prin­ci­pal­ly through his expe­ri­ences, stand­ing in for prac­tice. From this tale, we learn that where­as the­o­ry locks itself in the British Muse­um scour­ing over doc­u­ments, prac­tice grounds itself in the “fac­tu­al sit­u­a­tion” of a real fac­to­ry in Man­ches­ter. While Althusser’s tra­jec­to­ry con­stant­ly encoun­tered the prob­lem of the rela­tion between the­o­ry and prac­tice, first orig­i­nal­ly dis­placed with the con­cept of “the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice,” he now maps it onto a divi­sion of labor.

Here we arrive at the break. Pre­sum­ably Engels could have learned all the “prac­ti­cal” knowl­edge he need­ed just by fol­low­ing the man­ag­er around. But this, Althuss­er sug­gests, was insuf­fi­cient. The capitalist’s prac­ti­cal knowl­edge was actu­al­ly inca­pable of under­stand­ing the “fac­tu­al sit­u­a­tion” at hand. For this, Engels had to descend into the under­world, fall in love with a semi-skilled Irish work­er, and see the work­place from an entire­ly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. Now, with Mary Burns as his guide, Engels walks around the very same fac­to­ry, but sees an alto­geth­er dis­tinct world: “What she said had lit­tle in com­mon with the master’s com­men­taries.” In oth­er words, Engels points to a unique­ly work­ing-class knowl­edge – a knowl­edge all of its own, inac­ces­si­ble at the lev­el of cap­i­tal, of a dif­fer­ent order. The pro­le­tar­i­an stand­point is not only a rev­o­lu­tion­iza­tion of the intellectual’s polit­i­cal posi­tions and class instinct, but a prac­tice of inquiry, coop­er­a­tive and polit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions into the expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class.

Rather than a par­al­lel divi­sion of labor between Marx and Engels, we could read this as a tri­par­tite divi­sion of labor, with Marx, Engels, and Mary Burns – or, at oth­er points, the famous Ger­man emi­gré arti­sans work­ing away in Paris. Engels draws on the real life of Mary Burns to write a sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion; Marx anchors him­self to this sci­en­tif­ic prac­tice and watch­es over it, pro­tect­ing its dis­cov­er­ies from the intru­sion of ide­ol­o­gy by draw­ing clear “lines of demar­ca­tion.” One of the great tragedies of this tale, Althuss­er implies, was the break­down of this divi­sion of labor. Towards the end of his life, Engels found it nec­es­sary to make anoth­er sci­en­tif­ic inter­ven­tion, this time against Dühring; but Marx, whose philo­soph­i­cal task was to fight away ide­al­ism, fate­ful­ly neglect­ed his job, and Anti-Dühring ini­ti­at­ed the cod­i­fi­ca­tion of that great defor­mi­ty called dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism.

The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land

The inclu­sion of Engels’s text, as a chal­lenge at the lev­el of phi­los­o­phy, is a dis­tinc­tive ele­ment of Althusser’s argu­ment, coun­ter­bal­anc­ing the now com­mon hos­til­i­ty to the author of Anti-Dühring. And indeed, this book deserves a care­ful read­ing. Engels’s start­ing premise is that the work­ing class effec­tive­ly con­sti­tutes anoth­er race, with its own his­to­ry, and which can­not be under­stood sim­ply by deduc­ing it from cap­i­tal­ism, but only by tak­ing the point of view of the work­ers’ them­selves: “The work­ers speak oth­er dialects, have oth­er thoughts and ideals, oth­er cus­toms and moral prin­ci­ples, a dif­fer­ent reli­gion and oth­er pol­i­tics than those of the bour­geoisie. Thus they are two rad­i­cal­ly dis­sim­i­lar nations, as unlike as dif­fer­ence of race could make them, of whom we on the Con­ti­nent have known but one, the bour­geoisie.”53

Engels’s book is the result of his attempt to acquire that per­spec­tive – it care­ful­ly exam­ines the his­to­ry, com­po­si­tion, and behav­iors of Eng­lish work­ing class. It is coop­er­a­tive, since it is effec­tive­ly the result of a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mary, and all the oth­er work­ers employed in his fac­to­ry, though only for­mal­ly put to paper by Engels. And it is polit­i­cal, since Engels makes clear that the eman­ci­pa­tion of the work­ing class will only be the task of the work­ing class itself.

But on the oth­er hand, the book simul­ta­ne­ous­ly reads like a sen­ti­men­tal­ist attempt to exhort edu­cat­ed lib­er­als to take up the cause of the work­ers, guilt cap­i­tal­ists for their wrong­do­ings, and con­vince read­ers that the bour­geoisie should hand over the baton of progress to the work­ing class because it has lost its legit­i­ma­cy as the leader of soci­ety. Con­crete con­clu­sions, like, “…the inven­tion of the machine, with which four and five colours are print­ed at once, was a result of the dis­tur­bances among the cal­i­co print­ers,” are thus inter­spersed with such emp­ty phras­es as, “The Eng­lish bour­geoisie has but one choice, either to con­tin­ue its rule under the unan­swer­able charge of mur­der and in spite of this charge, or to abdi­cate in favor of the labor­ing class­es,” or “Let the rul­ing class­es see to it that these right­ful con­di­tions are ame­lio­rat­ed, or let it sur­ren­der the admin­is­tra­tion of the com­mon inter­ests to the labor­ing class­es.”54

So The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land is by no means the sin­gle stroke of genius Althuss­er makes it out to be. It is still a volatile amal­gam, com­bin­ing the prac­tice of inquiry with what GM Tamas has deri­sive­ly described as a pre-Marx­ist Rousseauian “pity.”55 But that dis­mis­sive label does not ade­quate­ly cap­ture the rup­ture in knowl­edge that Engels’s text intro­duces, one which Marx hints at polem­i­cal­ly in the “Mar­gin­al Notes on Adolph Wag­n­er”: “Every­thing that the pro­fes­sor can­not do for him­self, he lets ‘man’ do, but he is in fact noth­ing but pro­fes­so­r­i­al man, who thinks to have con­ceived the world, when he arranged it under abstract rubrics.”56Althuss­er, work­ing with­in the con­stel­la­tion of these ear­ly and late texts, seems to sug­gest that the effect of the­o­ret­i­cal human­ism is the nat­u­ral­iza­tion of the divi­sion of labor – if Marx­ism makes a “break,” it is with the class posi­tion of the intel­lec­tu­al.

In oth­er words, what Engels reveals is that the method by which this break is effect­ed is the dis­cov­ery of facts in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the work­ing class. The rever­sal of Althusser’s ear­li­er the­o­reti­cist text­book Lenin­ism is com­plete: here, it is the­o­ry which, if left alone, tends towards ide­ol­o­gy, since it is sit­u­at­ed with­in the state appa­ra­tus­es and the divi­sion between man­u­al and intel­lec­tu­al labor. Only the dai­ly life of the work­ing class can free it; the­o­rists need the work­ers because it is real­ly they, as the­o­rists, who are the most immersed in ide­ol­o­gy. In this mod­el, the work­ing class func­tions as a sort of ide­ol­o­gy detec­tor, or a machine for the abo­li­tion of intel­lec­tu­als. But there is more here than that; we might say, along the lines of Althusser’s ini­tial schema, that Engels’s sci­en­tif­ic prac­tice had gen­er­at­ed a new object of knowl­edge, the philo­soph­i­cal con­se­quences of which he lacked the lan­guage to describe.

A Work­ers’ Inquiry

But what polit­i­cal prac­tice did respond to the prob­lems posed by Althusser’s the­o­ret­i­cal inno­va­tions, along­side the polit­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions of his con­junc­ture, and the dis­abling deficits of his own prac­tice? It is no sur­prise that the exe­ge­sis of Marx, and a gap in Althusser’s exe­ge­sis, pro­vides a vital answer.

Althuss­er does not also make note of anoth­er of Marx’s minor late texts: 1880’s “A Work­ers’ Inquiry.” Here Marx, recall­ing the ini­ti­a­tion of mate­ri­al­ism in Engels’s Con­di­tion, intro­duces a ques­tion­naire to be dis­trib­uted to French work­ers. The ques­tions range from the sim­ple and ordi­nary – “1. What is your trade?” – to the didac­tic and antag­o­nis­tic:

59. Have you noticed that delay in the pay­ment of your wages forces you often to resort to the pawn­shops, pay­ing rates of high inter­est there, and depriv­ing your­self of things you need: or incur­ring debts with the shop­keep­ers, and becom­ing their vic­tim because you are their debtor?

81. Do any resis­tance asso­ci­a­tions exist in your trade and how are they led? Send us their rules and reg­u­la­tions.

The foun­da­tion­al premise of this ques­tion­naire, for Marx, was that while “a num­ber of inves­ti­ga­tions have been under­tak­en into crises – agri­cul­tur­al, finan­cial, indus­tri­al, com­mer­cial, polit­i­cal,” no inves­ti­ga­tion had yet gen­er­at­ed “an exact and pos­i­tive knowl­edge of the con­di­tions in which the work­ing class – the class to whom the future belongs – works and moves.” Since it was only the work­ers them­selves, and “not sav­iors sent by prov­i­dence,” who would be the agents of “social regen­er­a­tion,” the knowl­edge pur­sued by the work­ers’ inquiry would be the basis for social­ist polit­i­cal prac­tice.

In the next cen­tu­ry work­ers’ inquiry, a con­cept which Althuss­er reached for but nev­er found, would be tak­en up by het­ero­dox Marx­ist cur­rents, includ­ing the John­son-For­est Ten­den­cy and Social­isme ou Bar­barie.57 Cas­to­ri­adis argued that with­out inquiry, the­o­ry would sim­ply retreat into its own world, devolv­ing into spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy, and end­ing by becom­ing ide­ol­o­gy. The the­o­rist must draw on inquiries into the autonomous activ­i­ty of the work­ing class in order to ground the the­o­ry; after its com­po­si­tion the the­o­ry must then be sub­mit­ted to the class in order to sound out the ide­o­log­i­cal traces that invari­ably pol­lute all the­o­ries. If some part of the the­o­ry is ignored, met with utter incom­pre­hen­sion, fails to res­onate, or flat­ly con­tra­dicts what the work­ers them­selves have to say – just as, in Althusser’s sto­ry of Engels, the manager’s words had lit­tle in com­mon with Mary’s – then chances are it’s ide­ol­o­gy. The­o­rists take stock of these pro­le­tar­i­an reac­tions, revise their the­o­ries, and then the process begins anew; a mutu­al­ly involved cir­cuit emerges.58 Castoriadis’s solu­tion to the prob­lem of ide­ol­o­gy par­al­lels what Althuss­er called a more “authen­tic” divi­sion of labor between the­o­ry and inquiry.

But for Social­isme ou Bar­barie, as well as the John­son-For­est Ten­den­cy, inquiry was a study of alien­ation; it tried to uncov­er, under­neath the expe­ri­ence of alien­at­ed work, the human foun­da­tion of social­ism. Dis­sem­i­na­tion of inquiries describ­ing this human foun­da­tion would lead to a rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­scious­ness among the work­ers. In this regard these groups had stum­bled into the same prob­lem as the ear­li­er human­ist dis­si­dents from the ortho­doxy of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al; a polit­i­cal turn to the Left, and in this case one which yield­ed a tru­ly inno­v­a­tive prac­tice, was chan­neled into a the­o­ry which belonged prop­er­ly to the Right.

The speci­fici­ty of Marx’s argu­ment about the work­ers’ inquiry – this pos­i­tive knowl­edge of the move­ment of the work­ing class – would only be tak­en up in Italy, in the work of Quaderni Rossi. There, Raniero Panzieri built on the inquiries of John­son-For­est and Social­isme ou Bar­barie, and traced the con­se­quences for knowl­edge of their dis­cov­er­ies. Start­ing with the assump­tion that “ an antag­o­nis­tic soci­ety can nev­er reduce one of its basic con­stituent ele­ments – the work­ing class – to homo­gene­ity,” he force­ful­ly argued that the neces­si­ty of work­ers’ inquiry fol­lowed from the antag­o­nis­tic char­ac­ter of knowl­edge of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety: “This method demands the refusal to draw an analy­sis of the lev­el of the work­ing class from an inquiry into the lev­el of cap­i­tal.” First and fore­most, Panzieri argued, inquiry as a new par­a­digm of work­ing-class sci­ence was locat­ed at the inter­sec­tion between knowl­edge and mil­i­tan­cy: it estab­lished asso­ci­a­tions which would forge an orga­nized lay­er of polit­i­cal agi­ta­tors with­in the fac­to­ry. “Not only is there no dis­crep­an­cy, gap or con­tra­dic­tion between inquiry and the labour of build­ing polit­i­cal rela­tions,” Panzieri wrote, “inquiry is also fun­da­men­tal to such [a] process.”59 This premise would be rad­i­cal­ized by Romano Alquati and the con­cept of “co-research.” The polit­i­cal con­clu­sion that emerged from inquiry and guid­ed the prac­tice of work­erism was the break with cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, which the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Par­ty – in a post­war iter­a­tion of Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al tele­ol­o­gy, but­tressed by Tay­lor, Keynes, and the “eco­nom­ic mir­a­cle” dri­ven by the flood of South­ern migrants into the North­ern indus­tri­al pro­le­tari­at – had posit­ed as the basis for devel­op­ment towards com­mu­nism.

This cur­rent would only inter­sect with Althusser’s in 1978, when Althuss­er invit­ed Anto­nio Negri, who once par­tic­i­pat­ed Quaderni Rossi, to deliv­er a series of lec­tures on the Grun­drisse at his sem­i­nar in Paris, just before Negri’s arrest. It was only through this medi­a­tion that Social­isme ou Bar­barie – Negri’s “dai­ly bread” in the 1960s – would meet with its the­o­ret­i­cal com­pa­tri­ot. In a reflec­tion pub­lished in the same issue of Futur antérieur as “On Marx­ist Thought,” Negri described the core polit­i­cal prob­lem of Althusser’s untime­ly the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice, the one that had drawn him back to Machiavelli’s fox: “the thought of the new… in the absence of all con­di­tions.”60

The thought of the new demands dis­cov­ery; and here we can under­stand why Althuss­er, who once had Marx’s 11th the­sis on Feuer­bach pinned to the wall of his office, rejects in “On Marx­ist Thought” the notion that while philoso­phers have inter­pret­ed the world, the point is to change it. Such repu­di­a­tions of Marx’s cel­e­brat­ed state­ment are rare in the his­to­ry of Marx­ism.61 One oth­er can be found in a reflec­tion on work­ers’ inquiry and co-research by Mar­ta Malo de Moli­na, a mem­ber of the Span­ish fem­i­nist research col­lec­tive Pre­carias a la deri­va: “It is no longer that we have been inter­pret­ing the world for a long time and now is the time to change it (Marx dix­it), but rather that the very inter­pre­ta­tion of the world is always linked to some kind of action or prac­tice. The ques­tion will be then, what kind of action: one that con­serves the sta­tus quo or pro­duces a new real­i­ty.“62 We hope that Althusser’s text can be read in this man­ner – not as his final peri­odiza­tion, not as a hasty rejec­tion of the Marx­i­an cor­pus, but as an invi­ta­tion to engage in inquiry, to ini­ti­ate mate­ri­al­ism, again and again.


1. Per­ry Ander­son, Con­sid­er­a­tions on West­ern Marx­ism (New York: Ver­so, 1987), 42.

2. Louis Althuss­er and Éti­enne Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1970), 119.

3. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin, 1976), 174n32.

4. John Mil­ios, “Rethink­ing Marx’s Val­ue-Form Analy­sis from an Althusser­ian Per­spec­tive,” Rethink­ing Marx­ism, 21: 2 (April 2009). A com­ple­men­tary take can be found in Kol­ja Lind­ner, “The Ger­man Debate on the Mon­e­tary The­o­ry of Val­ue: Con­sid­er­a­tions on Jan Hoff’s Kri­tik der klas­sis­chen poli­tis­chen Ökonomie,” trans. GM Gosh­gar­i­an, Sci­ence & Soci­ety, 72: 4 (2008). For a rel­a­tive­ly neu­tral overview that brings us up to the present, see Jan Hoff, “Marx in Ger­many,” Social­ism and Democ­ra­cy, 24:3 (2010).

5. Ander­son writes: “Adorno’s Neg­a­tive Dialec­tic, first devel­oped in lec­tures in Paris in 1961 and com­plet­ed in 1966, repro­duces a whole series of motifs to be found in Althusser’s For Marx and Read­ing Cap­i­tal… among oth­er themes, Adorno explic­it­ly affirmed the absolute epis­te­mo­log­i­cal pri­ma­cy of the object; the absence of any gen­er­al sub­ject in his­to­ry; the vacu­ity of the con­cept of the ‘nega­tion of the nega­tion’. He attacked philo­soph­i­cal con­cen­tra­tion on alien­ation and reifi­ca­tion as a fash­ion­able ide­ol­o­gy, sus­cep­ti­ble to reli­gious usage; the cult of the works of the Young Marx at the expense of Cap­i­tal; anthro­pocen­tric con­cep­tions of his­to­ry, and the emol­lient rhetoric of human­ism accom­pa­ny­ing them; myths of labour as the sole source of social wealth, in abstrac­tion from the mate­r­i­al nature that is an irre­ducible com­po­nent of it. Adorno was even to echo exact­ly Althusser’s pre­cepts that the­o­ry is a spe­cif­ic type of prac­tice (‘the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice’), and that the notion of prac­tice must itself be defined by the­o­ry. ‘The­o­ry is a form of prac­tice’ wrote Adorno, and ‘prac­tice itself is an emi­nent­ly the­o­ret­i­cal con­cept’”; Con­sid­er­a­tions, 72-3. See also Fredric Jame­son, Late Marx­ism (New York: Ver­so, 1990), 60, 244. For a brief account of the emer­gence of val­ue-form the­o­ry in rela­tion to the Frank­furt School, see Hel­mut Reichelt, “From the Frank­furt School to Val­ue-Form Analy­sis,” The­sis Eleven, 4 (1982).

6. In his recent Intro­duc­tion to the Three Vol­umes of Karl Marx’s Cap­i­tal, trans. Alex Locas­cio (New York: Month­ly Review, 2012), Michael Hein­rich acknowl­edges the influ­ence of Read­ing Cap­i­tal on the devel­op­ment of the new read­ing of Marx (27). A recent overview of this tra­di­tion and its ambiva­lent rela­tion­ship to class strug­gle-ori­ent­ed the­o­ries can be found in his “Invaders from Marx,” avail­able online at libcom.org. In this essay Hein­rich warns against ignor­ing the “lim­its of cat­e­gor­i­cal devel­op­ment” and attempt­ing “to derive all deci­sive ele­ments of the state, soci­ety, and con­scious­ness from the fun­da­men­tal cat­e­gories of the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my.” Note the unmis­tak­ably Althusser­ian themes: the incom­plete­ness of Marx’s research pro­gram, the breaks in his the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ment, and the rejec­tion of “his­toric-philo­soph­i­cal (geschicht­sphilosophis­chen) con­struc­tions” which “pre­sume that his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ments have brought forth a priv­i­leged posi­tion from which not only the past, but also the future pro­gres­sion of his­to­ry is trans­par­ent.” See also his rejec­tion of the­o­ry of alien­ation in Intro­duc­tion, 231n18.

7. Mil­ios, “Rethink­ing,” 267. See Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 188.

8. Althuss­er and Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, 180.

9. GM Gosh­gar­i­an, “Intro­duc­tion” to Louis Althuss­er, The Human­ist Con­tro­ver­sy and Oth­er Writ­ings, trans. GM Gosh­gar­i­an and ed. François Math­eron (New York: Ver­so, 2003), xii, xxx. Althuss­er had in fact already been cen­sured in 1963 for “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic,” and respond­ed with the Aesopi­an “Marx­ism and Human­ism”; both are col­lect­ed in For Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: Ver­so, 1977). The 1966 meet­ing was a polit­i­cal maneu­ver to mobi­lize Garaudy’s human­ism against emerg­ing sym­pa­thy among com­mu­nists for Althusser’s argu­ments, all the while quelling its “spir­i­tu­al­ist” excess­es. For Althusser’s response, in an unmailed let­ter, see “Let­ter to the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the PCF, 18 March 1966,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism, 15 (2007), along with William S. Lewis’s infor­ma­tive “Edi­to­r­i­al Intro­duc­tion.” As Lewis notes, Aragon some­what uncan­ni­ly charged Althuss­er with cor­rupt­ing the youth – his Maoist stu­dents at the École Nor­male Supérieure. François Matheron’s excel­lent overview of the doc­u­ments sur­round­ing this meet­ing, “Louis Althuss­er et Argen­teuil: de la croisée des chemins au chemin de croix,” Les Annales de la Société des amis de Louis Aragon et Elsa Tri­o­let, 2, cites a 1966 let­ter from Althusser’s stu­dent Pierre Macherey, who rep­re­sent­ed the anti-human­ist posi­tion at Argen­teuil, to Eti­enne Bal­ibar: “Garaudy attacked us with a vio­lence and bad faith dif­fi­cult to equal; the clos­ing argu­ments last­ed three hours; we’ve been there before: ide­al­ists, for­mal­ists, liq­uida­tors… on the basis of trun­cat­ed cita­tions, mali­cious inter­pre­ta­tions. A real fes­ti­val… The oth­er had with him (with the inef­fa­ble Mury) only the most beau­ti­ful parade of idiots that I have seen for a long time.” Gilbert Mury, at first a par­ty crit­ic of Althuss­er (men­tioned in For Marx, for exam­ple 163n2), even­tu­al­ly defect­ed from the PCF to join a Maoist group.

10. Gre­go­ry Elliott, Althuss­er: The Detour of The­o­ry (Boston: Brill, 2006), 173.

11. Althuss­er, “The Human­ist Con­tro­ver­sy” in Human­ist Con­tro­ver­sy, 264.

12. Althuss­er, “Human­ist Con­tro­ver­sy,” 245.

13. For the new def­i­n­i­tion, see “Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists” in Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists, trans. Ben Brew­ster, James H. Kavanagh, Thomas E. Lewis, Gra­hame Lock, and War­ren Mon­tag, ed. Gre­go­ry Elliott (New York: Ver­so, 1990). Althuss­er and Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, 141.

14. See Georg Lukács, His­to­ry and Class Con­scious­ness, trans. Rod­ney Liv­ing­stone (Cam­bridge: MIT Press, 1990), 149-209. For an insight­ful jux­ta­po­si­tion of Lukács and Althuss­er, see Car­o­line Williams, Con­tem­po­rary French Phi­los­o­phy (New York: The Athlone Press, 2002), chap­ter 2. Williams does not, how­ev­er, address the issue of the “pro­le­tar­i­an stand­point.”

15. See the dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions in “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy” in Louis Althuss­er, Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 2001) and “On the Evo­lu­tion of the Young Marx” in Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism, trans. Gra­hame Lock (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1976).

16. Althuss­er, “Phi­los­o­phy as a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Weapon” in Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy, 13

17. Anony­mous (attrib­uted to Louis Althuss­er), “On the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion,” trans. Jason Smith, Décalages, 1:1 (2010); see for exam­ple Com­mu­nist Par­ty of Chi­na, “The Ori­gin and Devel­op­ment of the Dif­fer­ences the of CPSU and Our­selves” in Polemic on the Gen­er­al Line of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist Move­ment, which argues that the new pro­gram of the CPSU “sub­sti­tutes human­ism for the Marx­ist-Lenin­ist the­o­ry of class strug­gle and sub­sti­tutes the bour­geois slo­gan of Lib­er­ty, Equal­i­ty, Fra­ter­ni­ty for the ideals of com­mu­nism,” 92.

18. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “On the Con­tent of Social­ism, I” in Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings, Vol­ume 1, 1946-1955: From the Cri­tique of Bureau­cra­cy to the Pos­i­tive Con­tent of Social­ism, trans. and ed. David Ames Cur­tis (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 1988), 308.

19. Louis Althuss­er, The Future Lasts a Long Time, trans. Richard Veasey and ed. Olivi­er Cor­pet and Yann Moulier-Boutang(London: Chat­to and Win­dus, 1993), 238-9. Boris Sou­varine was a left com­mu­nist and found­ing mem­ber of the PCF; he wrote Stal­in: A Crit­i­cal Sur­vey of Bol­she­vism, trans­lat­ed by CLR James. The Future Lasts a Long Time, Althusser’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, was draft­ed in 1985.

20. Cas­to­ri­adis, “Intro­duc­tion” to PASW 1. Fur­ther evi­dence of this missed encounter can be found in EP Thompson’s unfor­tu­nate The Pover­ty of The­o­ry (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 1978), 168-9, 207.

21. Cas­to­ri­adis, “Con­tent of Social­ism,” 306.

22. Althuss­er, Future, 230.

23. Elliott, Detour, 12n24.

24. Jean-Paul Sartre, Life/Situations: Essays Writ­ten and Spo­ken, (New York: Pan­theon, 1977), 52; “Mass­es, Spon­tane­ity, Par­ty,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter, 7 (1970), 235, 240, 245. See also his very gen­er­ous com­ments about Althuss­er in “Mass­es,” 247. For a cri­tique of Sartre’s analy­sis of changes in cap­i­tal­ism, and his under­ly­ing the­o­ry of alien­ation, see Ist­van Meszaros, “Struc­tur­al Cri­sis Needs Struc­tur­al Change,” Month­ly Review, 63:10 (March 2012).

25. War­ren Mon­tag, “The Soul is the Prison of the Body: Althuss­er and Fou­cault 1970-1975,” Yale French Stud­ies, 88 (Fall 1995), 71. Some con­fu­sion may be caused by Foucault’s rejec­tion of the con­cept of “ide­ol­o­gy,” which he takes to refer to an idea which is in error. As Mon­tag argues, he is cor­rect to reject such a notion, but mis­tak­en in attribut­ing it to Althuss­er, who clear­ly empha­sizes the “mate­ri­al­i­ty of ide­ol­o­gy,” which is irre­ducible to illu­sion or inver­sion.

26. Michel Fou­cault, Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish, trans. Alan Sheri­dan (New York: Vin­tage, 1977), 26; Althuss­er, “Ide­ol­o­gy and Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tus­es” in Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy, 140-2. See also Williams in Con­tem­po­rary French Phi­los­o­phy: “Althusser’s con­cept of ide­ol­o­gy… offered no devel­oped account of the link between the mate­ri­al­i­ty of ide­ol­o­gy and the con­sti­tu­tion of the sub­ject, that is, the prob­lem of how ide­ol­o­gy is inter­nal­ized and how it pro­duces the effects of sub­jec­ti­va­tion. This is pre­cise­ly where Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish may exceed Althusser’s own for­mu­la­tions” (180).

27. On the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion, see GM Goshgarian’s read­ing of Althuss­er on Mon­tesquieu in his “Intro­duc­tion” to Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, trans. GM Gos­ghar­i­an and ed. François Math­eron and Olivi­er Cor­pet, xxx-xxxv, and Althusser’s com­ments in the same book, 201.

28. In “Some­thing New,” orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the Com­mu­nist dai­ly L’Humanite in 1974, Althuss­er assent­ed to the Union of the Left while look­ing for­ward to the aban­don­ment of “utopi­an ide­al­ist for­mu­lae,” like sta­mo­cap the­o­ry, that served as the ide­o­log­i­cal basis for the Com­mon Pro­gram. He called for democ­ra­ti­za­tion to push towards the “mass line,” with the “branch­es” of the rank and file dri­ving par­ty action. Althuss­er, Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism, 214-5.

29. Gosh­gar­i­an, “Intro­duc­tion” to Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, xxiv-xxv; Althuss­er, “On the Twen­ty-Sec­ond Con­gress of the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty,” New Left Review, 1:104 (1977), 17, 11. Althusser’s lan­guage, typ­i­cal of near­ly all his inter­ven­tions in par­ty pol­i­tics, sug­gests that the Par­ty is already embrac­ing his rec­om­men­da­tions (in this case, autonomous mass activ­i­ty); its actu­al prac­tice is described as a risk. This Machi­avel­lian rhetor­i­cal strat­e­gy, com­pre­hen­si­ble only in the con­text of the Party’s sti­fling of dis­sent described above, has led to many mis­un­der­stand­ings. For Balibar’s inter­ven­tion, see his On the Dic­ta­tor­ship of the Pro­le­tari­at, trans. Gra­hame Lock (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1977).

30. Althuss­er, “The Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy” in Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists, 264.

31. The term “par­lia­men­tary cre­tinism” is Marx’s, from the Eigh­teenth Bru­maire of Louis Bona­parte; see Marx: Lat­er Polit­i­cal Writ­ings, trans. and ed. Ter­rell Carv­er (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1996), 90.

32. Louis Althuss­er, “What Must Change in the Par­ty,” New Left Review 1:109 (1978), 30-3.

33. Althuss­er, “Marx­ism Today” in Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists, 276. “What Must Change in the Par­ty,” 36-7, 44-5.

34. Althuss­er, “Pref­ace to Cap­i­tal” in Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy. Althusser’s advice should be com­pared to the com­mon habit in today’s uni­ver­si­ty cours­es to assign only sec­tion 4 of chap­ter 1, on the “fetishism of com­modi­ties,” and then skip every­thing else. Or, indeed, Lukács in His­to­ry in Class Con­scious­ness: “It might be claimed… that the chap­ter deal­ing with the fetish char­ac­ter of the com­mod­i­ty con­tains with­in itself the whole of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism and the whole self-knowl­edge of the pro­le­tari­at seen as the knowl­edge of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety (and of the soci­eties that pre­ced­ed it),” 170.

35. Louis Althuss­er, “The Cri­sis of Marx­ism,” Marx­ism Today (July 1978), 218-9. In his “Let­ter to Merab” he admits his speech was impro­vised, in Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 3.

36. Mil­ios, “Rethink­ing,” 267. Althuss­er sug­gests this in “Marx­ism Today,” 273 and “Marx in his Lim­its” in Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 40, 44. See Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 3, trans. David Fern­bach (New York: Pen­guin, 1991), ch. 9.

37. See Mas­si­m­il­iano Tom­ba, “Dif­fer­en­tials of Sur­plus Val­ue in the Con­tem­po­rary Forms of Exploita­tion,” The Com­mon­er, 12 (Spring-Sum­mer 2007); Marx, “Let­ter from Marx to Edi­tor of the Ote­ces­tven­niye Zapisky.” To refute these “super-his­tor­i­cal” accounts of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, Marx pro­vides the exam­ple of Rome, where the dis­pos­ses­sion of the peas­antry and the accu­mu­la­tion of mon­ey result­ed not in cap­i­tal­ism but in slav­ery – in Althusser’s terms, an encounter which did not take hold. This theme is bril­liant­ly devel­oped, at the inter­sec­tion of Neue Marx-Lek­türe and Althuss­er, in Kol­ja Lind­ner, “Marx’s Euro­cen­trism,” trans. GM Gosh­gar­i­an, Rad­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy 161 (2010). Final­ly, see Marx on the “order of suc­ces­sion” of eco­nom­ic cat­e­gories in the 1857 “‘Intro­duc­tion’ to the Grun­drisse” in Marx: Lat­er Polit­i­cal Writ­ings, 151-3; or, in Mar­tin Nicolaus’s trans­la­tion (New York: Pen­guin, 1993), 105-8.

38. An analy­sis of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion as the recur­ring “social con­sti­tu­tion of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions,” from a unique per­spec­tive with­in “val­ue-form the­o­ry,” can be found in Wern­er Bone­feld, “The Per­ma­nence of Prim­i­tive Accu­mu­la­tion,” The Com­mon­er, 2 (Sep­tem­ber 2001); in his Intro­duc­tion, 92-3, Hein­rich assents to this view. The diver­gences between val­ue-form the­o­ry and the post-1967 Althuss­er tend to cen­ter on ques­tions of class strug­gle. Hein­rich, more sym­pa­thet­ic to Althuss­er than Bone­feld is, argues in “Invaders” that “there is no priv­i­leged loca­tion which offers one a pen­e­trat­ing view into the func­tion­ing of cap­i­tal­ism” and there­fore “noth­ing is gained by tak­ing the ‘stand­point of the work­ers.’” But this crit­i­cism con­flates the notion of class stand­point as the con­scious world­view and behav­ior of empir­i­cal class­es, and the struc­tur­al posi­tion of the pro­le­tari­at in the con­sti­tu­tion of cap­i­tal. It is cer­tain­ly true that Althuss­er and the oth­er the­o­rists Hein­rich tar­gets here do not always clear­ly dis­tin­guish between the two, but at times Althuss­er does sug­gest such dis­tinc­tions; see his com­ments on the dif­fer­ence between “class instinct” and “class posi­tion,” the lat­ter cor­re­spond­ing to “the objec­tive real­i­ty of the pro­le­tar­i­an class strug­gle”; Althuss­er, “Phi­los­o­phy as a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Weapon,” 13.

39. Pub­lished in Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter.

40. Althuss­er, Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 168. See Marx in Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 894: “the con­fronta­tion of, and the con­tact between, two very dif­fer­ent kinds of com­mod­i­ty own­ers: on the one hand, the own­ers of mon­ey, means of pro­duc­tion, means of sub­sis­tence, who are eager to val­orize the sum of val­ues they have appro­pri­at­ed by buy­ing the labour-pow­er of oth­ers; on the oth­er hand, free work­ers, the sell­ers of their own labour-pow­er, and there­fore the sell­ers of labour.”

41. Althuss­er, Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 194, 197.

42. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 873; Althuss­er, Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 200.

43. Althuss­er, Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 199. The com­ment on the “social­ist mode of pro­duc­tion” recalls his point in “On the 22nd Con­gress” and else­where that “there is no social­ist mode of pro­duc­tion,” and instead “actu­al­ly exist­ing social­ism” must be under­stood as a con­tra­dic­tion between a resid­ual cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion and the unre­al­ized poten­tial for com­mu­nism.

44. Jason Read, The Micro-Pol­i­tics of Cap­i­tal (Albany: Suny Press, 2003), 38.The inter­sec­tions and diver­gences of Fou­cault and Marx are addressed in the sec­ond chap­ter, 83-98. Read’s descrip­tion of the prob­lem of tran­si­tion, embed­ded in Marx’s cri­tique of the bour­geois mythol­o­gy of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, is worth quot­ing at length: “So-called prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, which is some­times called ‘pre­vi­ous or orig­i­nal accu­mu­la­tion,’ is the answer posed by polit­i­cal econ­o­my to a seem­ing­ly irre­solv­able prob­lem: The fact that cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion would con­tin­u­al­ly pre­sup­pose itself, it pre­sup­pos­es wealth in the hands of cap­i­tal­ists as well as a pop­u­la­tion of those who have noth­ing but their labor pow­er to sell. These ele­ments, cap­i­tal and work­ers, are the pre­con­di­tions of any cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, yet they can­not be explained from it. Cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion would seem to be some­thing of an infi­nite regress, always pre­sup­pos­ing its own con­di­tions. To accu­mu­late cap­i­tal it is nec­es­sary to pos­sess cap­i­tal. There must then be an orig­i­nal or pre­vi­ous accu­mu­la­tion, one that is not the result of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion but rather its point of depar­ture and that con­sti­tutes the orig­i­nary dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between cap­i­tal and work­ers” (20-1).

45. Fou­cault, Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish, 83-9.

46. Althuss­er and Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, 105.

47. Vit­to­rio Morfi­no, “An Althusser­ian Lex­i­con,” trans. Jason Smith, bor­der­lands 4:2 (2005); Althuss­er, Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 170. Indeed, as Althuss­er said dur­ing his 1976 doc­tor­al defense, not­ing the dif­fer­ence between his empha­sis on phi­los­o­phy as class strug­gle and the lan­guage in the ear­ly writ­ings: “Here I am using for­mu­lae which I was not ear­li­er in a posi­tion to put for­ward. But if I may say so, I was lit­tle by lit­tle dis­cov­er­ing, as I chal­lenged some accept­ed ideas, some­thing resem­bling what I lat­er called a “new prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy”, and hav­ing dis­cov­ered the need for this new prac­tice, I straight­away start­ed, for bet­ter or worse, to put it into prac­tice -- with the result, in any case, that it did lat­er pro­vide me with a spe­cial way of approach­ing Marx”; “Is it Sim­ple to Be a Marx­ist in Phi­los­o­phy?” in Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism, 167.

48. Eti­enne Bal­ibar, “Pref­ace” in Louis Althuss­er, Pour Marx (Paris: La Décou­verte, 1996)

49. He refers already to the “process of an encounter” in Human­ist Con­tro­ver­sy, 296, fol­low­ing themes from the note “On Gen­e­sis,” trans. Jason Smith, Décalages, 1:2 (2012). Goshgarian’s “Intro­duc­to­ry Note” to “On Gen­e­sis” sug­gests that these themes can be traced back to Althusser’s 1959 book on Mon­tesquieu, ideas he lat­er devel­oped with ref­er­ence to Foucault’s Mad­ness and Civ­i­liza­tion. It should fur­ther be not­ed that these themes are on dis­play in Althusser’s work on Machi­avel­li through­out the 1970s (even before his 1980s revi­sions), rep­re­sent­ed in Machi­avel­li and Us, trans. Gre­go­ry Elliott (New York: Ver­so, 1999).

50. Karl Marx, “‘Notes’ on Adolph Wag­n­er” in Marx: Lat­er Polit­i­cal Writ­ings, 244, 235. For a strict­ly Althusser­ian elab­o­ra­tion of the themes of the notes on Wag­n­er, which nev­er­the­less pre­cise­ly par­al­lels the “val­ue-form analy­sis” pre­sent­ed above, see Athar Hus­sain, “Mis­read­ing Marx’s The­o­ry of Val­ue: Marx’s Mar­gin­al Notes on Wag­n­er” in Val­ue: The Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Labor in Cap­i­tal­ism, ed. Diane Elson (Lon­don: CSE Books, 1979).

51. Karl Marx, “Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme” in Marx: Lat­er Polit­i­cal Writ­ings, 215; see Althusser’s analy­sis of these ques­tions in Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism, 63-4.

52. Sim­i­lar points are made in Jason Read, “The Althuss­er Effect: Phi­los­o­phy, His­to­ry, and Tem­po­ral­i­ty,” bor­der­lands, 4:2 (2005).

53. Friedrich Engels, The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 2005), 150.

54. Engels, Con­di­tion, 232, 138.

55. GM Tamas, “Telling the Truth About Class,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 2006, 5-8. It is inter­est­ing to note that Tamas’s descrip­tion of the speci­fici­ty of Marx’s analy­sis (page 17) could be explained in struc­tural­ist terms as empha­siz­ing the “syn­chron­ic” over the “diachron­ic,” reach­ing towards Althusser’s inter­pre­ta­tion. But soon after (26), he arrives back at human­ism.

56. Marx, “‘Notes’ on Adolph Wag­n­er,” 238.

57. See Salar Mohan­desi, “Worker’s Inquiry: A Geneal­o­gy,” forth­com­ing.

58. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “Pro­le­tari­at and Orga­ni­za­tion, 1” in Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings Vol­ume 2, 1955-1960: From the Work­ers’ Strug­gle Against Bureau­cra­cy to Rev­o­lu­tion in the Age of Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 1988), 193-222.

59. Raniero Panzieri, “Social­ist Uses of Work­ers’ Inquiry.”

60. Cesare Casari­no and Anto­nio Negri, In Praise of the Com­mon (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, 2008), 54; Anto­nio Negri, “Pour Althuss­er: notes sur l’évolution de la pen­sée du dernier Althuss­er,” Futur antérieur (Decem­ber 1993); Anto­nio Negri, “Notes on the Evo­lu­tion of the Thought of the Lat­er Althuss­er” trans. Olga Vasile, in Post­mod­ern Mate­ri­al­ism and the Future of Marx­ist The­o­ry, eds. Anto­nio Callari and David F. Ruc­cio (Hanover: Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1996), 54. The sem­i­nar on the Grun­drisse was pub­lished as Marx Beyond Marx, trans. Har­ry Cleaver, Michael Ryan, and Mau­r­izio Viano, ed. Jim Flem­ing (New York: Autono­me­dia, 1991). More on the inter­sec­tion of Althuss­er and operais­mo can be found in Yann Moulier-Boutang’s intro­duc­tion to Negri’s Pol­i­tics of Sub­ver­sion, trans. James Newell (Cam­bridge: Poli­ty Press, 1989), and Read, Micro-Pol­i­tics. For a crit­i­cal inter­ro­ga­tion of the recur­rence of his­tori­cism in Negri’s work, see Tom­ba, “Dif­fer­en­tials of Sur­plus Val­ue in the Con­tem­po­rary Forms of Exploita­tion.” This lim­it is acknowl­edged and care­ful­ly dealt with in San­dro Mez­zadra, “The Top­i­cal­i­ty of Pre­his­to­ry,” Rethink­ing Marx­ism, 23:3 (2011), by jux­ta­pos­ing it with Althusser’s work on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion.

61. Elliott, Detour, 52n156. Though see Hein­rich in “Invaders”: “…nowhere else with Marx can one find a ten­sion, not to speak of a mutu­al exclu­sion, between ‘inter­pre­ta­tion’ and ‘change.’”

62. Mar­to Malo de Moli­na, “Com­mon Notions, part 2.”


Illus­tra­tion by Millen Belay.

Authors of the article

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is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.