“A Period of Intense Debate about Marxist Philosophy”: An Interview with Étienne Balibar

Barricade on rue d'Ulm, in front of the École normale supérieur, May 1968.
Bar­ri­cade across the rue d’Ulm, in front of the École nor­male supérieure, May 1968.


This text was first pub­lished in L’Human­ité on March 13, 2015.

Jérome Skals­ki: Fifty years ago Louis Althusser’s For Marx, and, under his direc­tion, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, were pub­lished. What was the con­text of the debate at that peri­od?

Éti­enne Bal­ibar: To put it very briefly, I would say that the ques­tion speaks to an intel­lec­tu­al and even aca­d­e­m­ic dimen­sion, and a polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal one. I belong to a gen­er­a­tion that entered the École Nor­male Supérieure in 1960. That’s not irrel­e­vant from an his­tor­i­cal point of view. In our group, which was formed lit­tle by lit­tle around Althuss­er, there were stu­dents, of course, but also dis­ci­ples. Peo­ple who were a bit old­er, like Pierre Macherey, and lat­er those a bit younger who came just after, the future Maoists, like Dominique Lecourt. That is, over the span of five or six years. On the one hand, then, the year 1960 was two years before the end of the Alger­ian War, and the year that Jean-Paul Sartre’s Cri­tique of Dialec­ti­cal Rea­son was pub­lished. We had been politi­cized by the Alger­ian War. We were all UNEF mil­i­tants, which was the first French union to meet with the Alger­ian unions linked to the FLN in order to coor­di­nate actions against the war. This con­text was one of intense politi­ciza­tion and mobi­liza­tion, but also very sharp inter­nal con­flicts. The basis of our politi­ciza­tion was most­ly that of the anti-colo­nial and, con­se­quent­ly, anti-impe­ri­al­ist mobi­liza­tion. The social dimen­sion exist­ed, but it came as a kind of an add-on.

On the oth­er hand, it was a peri­od of intense debate about Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy, with an unde­ni­able role played by some Marx­ist philoso­phers from the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, but also impor­tant Marx­ist philoso­phers who were either no longer in the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, like Hen­ri Lefeb­vre, or belonged to non-Com­mu­nist Marx­ist ten­den­cies. And then there was Jean-Paul Sartre, who described him­self as a fel­low trav­eller, who just pub­lished this great work in which he tried to refound Marx­ism and which fea­tured, in the intro­duc­tion, the famous phrase that we often erro­neous­ly repeat: “Marx­ism is the untran­scend­able philo­soph­i­cal hori­zon of our time.” I’m not say­ing that all philo­soph­i­cal work in France revolved around Marx. That would be com­plete­ly false. But we could say that the debate over Marx­ism tru­ly was at once very vis­i­ble, very intense, very pas­sion­ate, and very inter­est­ing. It was also the peri­od when the Com­mu­nist Par­ty had decid­ed to orga­nize a Marx­ist cen­ter of study and research with the reviews like La Pen­sée or La Nou­velle Cri­tique. The Par­ty had also decid­ed to orga­nize the “Semaines de la pen­sée marx­iste.”

To give an idea of the peri­od, I will men­tion 1961, the year fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of Sartre’s book. The main event of the “Semaine de la pen­sée marx­iste” that year was the debate pit­ting Sartre and our own direc­tor at the ENS, Jean Hyp­po­lite, the famous Hegel spe­cial­ist, on one side, and, on the oth­er, Roger Garaudy, rep­re­sent­ing the offi­cial line of the PCF in phi­los­o­phy, and Jean-Pierre Vigi­er, Resis­tance fight­er, physi­cist, philoso­pher, and a mem­ber of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee. This jam-packed debate unfold­ed in the audi­to­ri­um of the Mutu­al­ité. The event was enor­mous. Althuss­er was pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and agrégé-répéti­teur, charged with prepar­ing us for the agré­ga­tion exam­i­na­tion.1 Obvi­ous­ly, his cours­es were not about Marx­ism, but all kinds of oth­er sub­jects. He had nev­er­the­less begun to pub­lish in La Pen­sée, in 1961, a first arti­cle fol­lowed by sev­er­al oth­ers, which had imme­di­ate­ly pro­voked a live­ly debate with­in and out­side the Par­ty. This imme­di­ate­ly drew out inter­est. We went to see him, and pro­posed to cre­ate a study group that pro­gres­sive­ly became a small team. Admit­ted­ly, it did not last long. It did not with­stand, even before 1968, very sharp inter­nal ten­sions, but for sev­er­al years we worked togeth­er in a sys­tem­at­ic way on both Marx­ism and the French phi­los­o­phy of the time, of which, to our eyes, the grand event was the birth of struc­tural­ism. We orga­nized a pub­lic sem­i­nar that last­ed for the entire year. It was imme­di­ate­ly pub­lished. It was at that moment that Althusser’s influ­ence reached its height for a cer­tain part of the intel­li­gentsia of the Marx­ist or Marx­isant Left in France.

What were the ori­en­ta­tions of Louis Althusser’s thought?

I don’t know if I can sum­ma­rize these things. First, although Althuss­er lat­er per­formed a self-crit­i­cism to say that, in a sense, he had for­got­ten pol­i­tics, I think that Althusser’s project had, from his first arti­cles, a dou­ble dimen­sion, polit­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal. Obvi­ous­ly, one of the appeal­ing aspects, and right­ly so, of Althusser’s project for many young Marx­ists and even young philoso­phers more gen­er­al­ly, was that he nev­er want­ed to sac­ri­fice either of the two dimen­sions to the oth­er. On one side, he want­ed to make Marx­ism into a great phi­los­o­phy and, on the oth­er side, he had a very polit­i­cal con­cep­tion of phi­los­o­phy in which Marx­ism con­sti­tut­ed, in the words of Marx’s eleventh the­sis on Feuer­bach, not only a way of inter­pret­ing the world, but of trans­form­ing it. All that might seem a bit dis­tant today, but his inter­ven­tion orga­nized itself around the artic­u­la­tion of these two aspects of Marx­ism that Stal­in had defined in a famous pam­phlet, which, while cer­tain­ly dog­ma­tiz­ing things, had, I think, a strong influ­ence on Althuss­er. On the one side, dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism, the philo­soph­i­cal dimen­sion of Marx­ism, and on the oth­er, his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism, which is to say, the the­o­ry of his­to­ry, and con­se­quent­ly, the the­o­ry of pol­i­tics and of social trans­for­ma­tion.

Wasn’t Spin­oza also a thinker of rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy? Philo­soph­i­cal­ly, was Althusser­ian Marx­ism also a return to Spin­oza?

Althuss­er admired the Spin­oza of the The­o­log­i­cal-Polit­i­cal Trea­tise, but that was not the aspect that inter­est­ed him the most. You are absolute­ly right to say that Spinoza’s thought is a rad­i­cal­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic thought. This is a dimen­sion that has come to the fore­front for a while now, and which has been appro­pri­at­ed by a broad vari­ety of philoso­phers some of whom effec­tive­ly come from a Marx­ist back­ground. How­ev­er, this was not the aspect or dimen­sion that inter­est­ed Althuss­er. Not because he was hos­tile towards it, but because he fun­da­men­tal­ly thought that rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy was a tran­si­tion, an inter­me­di­ary stage towards the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at. From this point of view, he was a very ortho­dox Marx­ist. The dimen­sion that he empha­sized in Spin­oza con­cerned the the­o­ry of ide­ol­o­gy. With Spin­oza, there is the first great mate­ri­al­ist cri­tique of ide­ol­o­gy. Althuss­er defend­ed a para­dox­i­cal the­sis. I under­stand that it force­ful­ly shocked many Marx­ists at the time but, on the oth­er hand, it was very attrac­tive to cer­tain peo­ple among us. This idea was that the con­cept of ide­ol­o­gy was the fun­da­men­tal aspect of Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion: not only the cri­tique of bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy, but the cri­tique of ide­ol­o­gy in gen­er­al. To Althuss­er, this also appeared to be an impor­tant point with­in the debates inter­nal to Com­mu­nism at the time, in that it was dom­i­nat­ed by the ide­o­log­i­cal com­plex he called human­ism and economism. He thought that the Marx­ist tra­di­tion was weak on the ques­tion of ide­ol­o­gy and that Marx, even if he pos­sessed the genius to invent the con­cept, had had a very bad analy­sis of it. In Spin­oza, he found the ele­ments for a mate­ri­al­ist the­o­ry of ide­ol­o­gy that was nei­ther Feuer­bachi­an or Hegelian, and was not attached to a phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry or to the con­cept of an alien­ation of man or a human essence. All of this paired very well with what was called Althusser’s sci­en­tism, such as it was expressed in the idea of the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break and led to his prox­im­i­ty with struc­tural­ism. Althuss­er quick­ly crit­i­cized these posi­tions in his Ele­ments of Self-Crit­i­cism.

What remains of Althusser’s philo­soph­i­cal inter­ven­tion and the debates of the peri­od for today?

Obvi­ous­ly, in my view, we need a cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism that is ade­quate to the demands of the present. The demands of the present: these are glob­al­iza­tion and the inex­tri­ca­bly inte­grat­ed char­ac­ter of the eco­nom­ic prob­lem and the eco­log­i­cal prob­lem. It is the emer­gence of new forms of gov­er­nance, as we say, that are in part both infra-sta­tist and supra-sta­tist or post-sta­tist. This is a gen­er­al­ized rework­ing or reshap­ing. We need a new cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my and pol­i­tics. Marx is not super­flu­ous for under­tak­ing this task, he is absolute­ly indis­pens­able – he will him­self emerge trans­formed from it. Althuss­er, in one of the last texts he wrote, des­ig­nat­ed Marx­ism as a fin­ished the­o­ry. Obvi­ous­ly, that was a pow­er­ful play on words at the time. Every­one talked about the end of Marx­ism. Althuss­er said it was not the end of Marx­ism, but he under­scored the neces­si­ty for Marx­ism to to define or delim­it its own inter­nal lim­its, its own his­tor­i­cal lim­its. In a cer­tain way, you could say that he became more his­tori­cist than he had been at the begin­ning. We have already entered a new phase in the inter­pre­ta­tion of Marx­ism which, inevitably, is also per­haps a whol­ly rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of Marx­ism. It will undoubt­ed­ly emerge from this trans­for­ma­tion com­plete­ly unrec­og­niz­able. From this point of view, what took place in the mid-1960s is very inter­est­ing. Not only for the the­o­ret­i­cal sug­ges­tions that were made at the time and which have not been ful­ly explored; in cer­tain respects, Althusser’s self-cri­tique had neg­a­tive effects. But espe­cial­ly because of the fact that Althuss­er was not the only pro­tag­o­nist of this debate over the refoun­da­tion of Marx­ism. That was, in a cer­tain way, the over­ar­ch­ing com­mon project between Marx­ists of dif­fer­ent coun­tries dur­ing these years. For myself, Althuss­er has a kind of bio­graph­i­cal priv­i­lege, but there is not an absolute priv­i­lege. What he con­tributed can­not be mea­sured and dis­cussed if the per­spec­tive is not expand­ed or enlarged. In the 1960s, in the frame­work of Ger­man crit­i­cal Marx­ism, there was a new read­ing of Cap­i­tal (Neue Marx-Lek­türe) that owed much to the Frank­furt School and was par­tic­u­lar­ly focused on the phe­nom­e­non of social alien­ation as it was tied to the gen­er­al­iza­tion of the com­mod­i­ty-form. This was some­thing that Althuss­er did not know well or did not want to. There were the dif­fer­ent strands of Ital­ian work­erism, the major fig­ure being Mario Tron­ti, who wrote, at the exact moment as Althuss­er and his group, a reread­ing of Cap­i­tal that on cer­tain points matched up with Althuss­er, and on oth­er points diverged. But we can enlarge the per­spec­tive even fur­ther with the crit­i­cal Marx­ist cur­rents com­ing from Latin Amer­i­ca, and then the tra­di­tion of Marx­ist his­to­ry exem­pli­fied in the Anglo-Sax­on world by Eric Hob­s­bawm, Mau­rice Dobb, Christo­pher Hill, or Per­ry Ander­son. If we return to 1965, we see a Marx­ism in full bloom, ful­ly in con­tra­dic­tion with itself. On the one hand, there is the dead­weight of the cri­sis of state com­mu­nism, on the oth­er hand rev­o­lu­tion­ary hopes: in the midst of all of this, a capac­i­ty to renew the links or con­nec­tions between Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy and liv­ing phi­los­o­phy. We can­not begin again in exact­ly the same way, but this peri­od cer­tain­ly holds a pos­i­tive notion for today.

– Trans­lat­ed by Patrick King and Salar Mohan­desi

  1. Translator’s Note: Agrégé-répéti­teur is the pro­fes­sor charged with prepar­ing stu­dents for the agré­ga­tion, a high­ly com­pet­i­tive civ­il ser­vice exam­i­na­tion for cer­tain teach­ing posts in the French edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem. 

Author of the article

is a French philosopher and currently Anniversary Chair of Contemporary European Philosophy at Kingston University London and Visiting Professor at Columbia University.