Althusser and Workerism: Notes Toward the Study of a Missed Encounter

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Cov­er image for the 1977 French trans­la­tion of Mar­io Tronti’s Operai e Cap­i­tale

In the 1960s, in the wake of the sta­bi­liza­tion of the post-WWII and Cold War peri­od, the rapid expan­sion of a new inter­na­tion­al cycle of polit­i­cal and social strug­gles was the dri­ving force for a renewal of Marx­ist the­o­ry. Amongst the numer­ous attempts to recon­fig­ure both the the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal ref­er­ence points of the Com­mu­nist move­ment, the two expe­ri­ences ini­ti­at­ed by Louis Althusser in France and work­erism in Italy con­tin­ue to inspire lines of research and exer­cise a direct or indi­rect influ­ence even today. How­ev­er, the his­tor­i­cal and con­cep­tu­al rela­tions between the­se two projects remain rel­a­tive­ly opaque and dif­fi­cult to recon­struct with any pre­ci­sion. This con­tri­bu­tion aims only to open the dis­cus­sion on this sub­ject, so the present argu­ments and con­clu­sions are com­plete­ly pro­vi­sion­al. We will only explore cer­tain rela­tions between Althusser and the philo­soph­i­cal for­mu­la­tions of work­erism — elab­o­rat­ed by Mar­io Tron­ti and Anto­nio Negri — respec­tive­ly and from the decid­ed­ly lim­it­ed but nonethe­less reveal­ing point of view of the rela­tions between polit­i­cal prac­tice and the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice. Our the­sis is that the affini­ties and diver­gences between Althusse­ri­an­ism and work­erism on this speci­fic point are of cru­cial impor­tance for the his­to­ry of Marx­ism, which we can only ges­ture to here.1

His­tor­i­cal­ly, the first real doc­u­ment­ed encoun­ter between Althusser and work­erism took place belat­ed­ly, through a par­tial appro­pri­a­tion, and on the grounds of an idio­syn­crat­ic read­ing; we must accu­rate­ly mea­sure its stakes. This encoun­ter occurs through the work of Anto­nio Negri, start­ing from the sec­ond half of the 1970s, and is con­sol­i­dat­ed over the course of the 1990s. Some of its effects are still notice­able today in the Anglo-Sax­on world and post-work­erist cur­rents, where cer­tain ele­ments from the Althusse­ri­an and work­erist her­itage are sin­gu­lar­ly inter­twined. Despite cer­tain desires expressed in the wake of the col­lapse of real­ly exist­ing social­ism,2 the reread­ings of the works of Marx prompt­ed by the 2008 eco­nom­ic cri­sis are not pos­si­ble with­out a return to 20th-cen­tu­ry Marxisms: and this return seems to main­tain a con­stant dia­logue with the “lesson” of Althusser.3

But it’s not mere­ly about dia­logue: in the nar­ra­tive Negri puts forth regard­ing the geneal­o­gy of biopo­lit­i­cal cat­e­gories recu­per­at­ed by post-work­erism, Althusser is assigned a deci­sive role. This retroac­tive appro­pri­a­tion implies a selec­tiv­i­ty vis-a-vis Althusser’s posi­tions – a selec­tiv­i­ty aim­ing to legit­i­mate the inter­nal evo­lu­tion of Negri­an work­erism – and a twist­ing of the­se posi­tions.

In his pref­ace to the Ital­ian edi­tion of Machi­avel­li and Us, Negri recalls his first encoun­ter with Althusser, who had invit­ed him to a sem­i­nar at the École Nor­male Supérieure between 1977-1978.4 This encoun­ter did not pro­duce any imme­di­ate effects; Negri him­self remem­bers the Althusse­ri­ans who attend­ed his lessons appear­ing impa­tient, and they react­ed con­fus­ed­ly to the provoca­tive argu­ments he put for­ward.5 How­ev­er, Althusser had appar­ent­ly expressed inter­est in this approach of going with Marx beyond Marx. In Negri’s rec­ol­lec­tion, Althusser admit­ted to hav­ing “redis­cov­ered Machi­avel­li,” which meant find­ing that, “beyond the­o­ry,” there is some­thing joy­ful and liv­ing with­in com­mu­nism: the renewal of its cat­e­gories, the dis­cov­ery of a new hori­zon for the strug­gle and orga­ni­za­tion of the pro­le­tari­at. Negri recalls that “beyond the­o­ry, com­mu­nist biopol­i­tics begins” (name­ly, for Althusser), and that Althusser would have affirmed that “com­mu­nism has nev­er been more immi­nent than today.” Althusser is thus sum­moned as a post­mortem guar­an­tee for Negri’s own devel­op­ment. The read­ing and dif­fu­sion of Althusse­ri­an writ­ings on Machi­avel­li through­out the 1990s in the jour­nal Futur antérieur will be the prin­ci­pal ter­rain of this posthu­mous encoun­ter.6

What Negri looks for in Althusser – as much in the writ­ings on Machi­avel­li as in the essay on Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tus­es – is a posi­tion that makes it pos­si­ble to trans­late cer­tain aspects of his own polit­i­cal path through con­cepts from the his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy. To be more pre­cise, Negri is con­cerned with first locat­ing a cor­re­spon­dence between the evo­lu­tion of Althusser’s thought and the pas­sage to post­moder­ni­ty, which he artic­u­lates by elab­o­rat­ing his own mate­ri­al­ist ontol­ogy. Althusser would have grasped the­se simul­ta­ne­ous­ly his­tor­i­cal and con­cep­tu­al tran­si­tions – includ­ing the “break­down of the con­cep­tu­al bound­ary between struc­ture and super­struc­ture,” the dis­place­ment of pro­duc­tion in the sphere of repro­duc­tion and last­ly, the adop­tion of the “stand­point of bod­ies” – though in pure­ly the­o­ret­i­cal terms; tran­si­tions which can­not, how­ev­er, be ful­ly com­pre­hend­ed via the Frank­furt School and post-struc­tural­ism, but only by a “the­o­ry devel­oped with­in mil­i­tan­cy,” that is, Negri’s own thought.7 Negri seeks out the pre­fig­u­ra­tions of the­se “biopo­lit­i­cal tran­si­tions” in Althusser’s thought.8 This oper­a­tion was under­tak­en before his read­ing of Althusser’s writ­ings on Machi­avel­li. In 1987, Negri wrote that the base and super­struc­ture prob­lem dis­solved itself in their “mate­ri­al indif­fer­ence,” in which both instances are found to be “com­plete­ly uni­fied, indis­tinct, insep­a­ra­ble,” although it is still pos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish the speci­fic gen­e­sis of each. Althusser rep­re­sents a real­iza­tion of this indis­tinc­tion: “from Marx to Althusser, Marx­ist the­o­ry describes the cri­sis of the base-super­struc­ture rela­tion.”9

For Negri, Althusser had extend­ed his cri­tique of the Marx­i­an topog­ra­phy to the nega­tion of any form of dis­tinc­tion between its instances. He was suc­cess­ful in philo­soph­i­cal­ly grasp­ing “a pas­sage from the analy­sis of prop­er­ty as exploita­tion in terms of a tran­scen­den­tal form to the analy­sis of it in terms of the mate­ri­al orga­ni­za­tion of bod­ies in the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety.”10 This cor­re­spond­ed polit­i­cal­ly to the expe­ri­ence of Quaderni Rossi and the for­mu­la­tion of “the the­o­ret­i­cal-prac­ti­cal impor­tance of the stand­point of bod­ies in Marx­ist analy­sis.”11 In sum, it is in terms of being a pre­cur­sor of biopol­i­tics that this post­mod­ern Althusser cross­es over into the 1990s, to reap­pear as a major ref­er­ence point for col­lec­tives close to post-work­erism, such as Uni­no­made.12

This oper­a­tion involves the rejec­tion of any­thing with­in Althusser’s work that would be attrib­ut­able to “the­o­reti­cism.” Begin­ning with the incor­po­ra­tion of Althusser to the gen­e­sis of the biopo­lit­i­cal cat­e­gories used by post-work­erism, the fun­da­men­tal the­ses of For Marx and Read­ing Cap­i­tal are sub­mit­ted to the demands of the post-work­erist “line,” or sim­ply left out. Themes such as the sep­a­ra­tion between thought and real­i­ty, the rel­a­tive auton­o­my of the­o­ry, and the com­plex rela­tion between base [infra­struc­ture] and super­struc­ture are re-inscribed in the “ontol­ogy of the com­mon” speci­fic to “post­mod­ern mate­ri­al­ism.” With­out want­i­ng to make judg­ments on the rel­e­vance of Negri’s read­ing of the evo­lu­tion of Althusser’s thought, it is impor­tant to note that it tends to elide the speci­fici­ty of the pro­pos­al by which Althusser had inter­vened with­in the scene of the Marx­ist debates of the mid-1960s.13 It should be rec­og­nized that the appro­pri­a­tion of Althusser based on the exclu­sion of the the­ses deemed the­o­reti­cist does not only con­cern Negri and cur­rents close to him. This par­tial appro­pri­a­tion was in fact quite preva­lent in the Anglo-Sax­on world: from the begin­ning of the 1970s, Althusser’s argu­ment in the essay on Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tus­es was rec­og­nized there as a fun­da­men­tal tool for rethink­ing what was tra­di­tion­al­ly assigned to the super­struc­ture; and, cor­rel­a­tive­ly, the appa­ra­tus of inter­pel­la­tion was read, espe­cial­ly by cul­tur­al stud­ies and post-struc­tural­ist the­o­ries, as a more or less effec­tive descrip­tion of the process of subjection—subjectivation.

Of course, cer­tain Althusse­ri­an texts — above all those that take their dis­tance from the “the­o­reti­cist” peri­od — do jus­ti­fy this read­ing that makes Althusser the pre­cur­sor of a new rela­tion between econ­o­my and soci­ety, infra­struc­ture and super­struc­ture. And yet, the self-crit­i­cisms form­ing Althusser’s com­plex path must be inter­pret­ed in light of dynam­ics that are equal­ly com­plex, reveal­ing a con­cern for the effec­tive­ness of the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tions with­in a deter­mi­nate the­o­ret­i­cal field.14 The Ital­ian debate sur­round­ing Althusser’s first two works, For Marx and Read­ing Cap­i­tal, had engen­dered a cer­tain con­fu­sion between dif­fer­ent lev­els of dis­course, par­tic­u­lar­ly with regard to the rela­tion between the­o­ry and prac­tice; the major con­se­quence being a neglect of pre­cise­ly the orig­i­nal­i­ty of the Althusse­ri­an pro­pos­al. Far from under­stand­ing “the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice” as a poten­tial way of avoid­ing from the tra­di­tion­al prob­lem­at­ic of the unity/opposition between the­o­ry and prax­is, the Ital­ian debate leaned heav­i­ly on the dis­tinc­tion between thought and real­i­ty, and thus on the con­flict between rev­o­lu­tion­ary action and sci­en­tific analy­sis.15 It is pos­si­ble to rec­og­nize the deci­sive influ­ence of Ital­ian neo-ide­al­ism as the basis for this vision of the­o­ry as being opposed to prac­tice, and the accu­sa­tion that fol­lows from hav­ing accord­ed to the­o­ry a greater sig­nif­i­cance, con­ceived as being the oth­er of prac­tice. On the one hand, there is the influ­ence of Benedet­to Cro­ce, who the­o­rized the sep­a­ra­tion between dif­fer­ent spheres (aes­thet­ic, log­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, eth­i­cal) with­in the syn­the­sis of Spir­it; on the oth­er hand, the influ­ence of Gio­van­ni Gen­tile and his the­o­ry of the con­crete act. The­se two thinkers thus con­tin­ued to exert as much of an influ­ence on the offi­cial the­o­ry of the PCI as on the crit­i­cal Marx­ism of which work­erism was a part.16

Given Althusser’s sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the recep­tion of his posi­tions in Italy, the suc­ces­sive shifts his argu­ments take can be read in light of the Ital­ian debates over his “the­o­reti­cism.”17 One can pos­tu­late that Althusser was led onto a very dif­fer­ent ter­rain from the one his 1965 texts occu­pied. This new ter­rain emerged from a specif­i­cal­ly Ital­ian neo-Ide­al­ist tra­di­tion, with which work­erism itself had not set­tled accounts; this would explain why Althusser’s self-crit­i­cisms seem to some­times regress to very tra­di­tion­al posi­tions con­cern­ing the sta­tus of the­o­ry and prac­tice. The­se direct or indi­rect influ­ences can help explain the play of analo­gies, dif­fer­ences, con­ver­gences, and dis­tances tak­en between cer­tain sub­se­quent devel­op­ments in Althusser’s work and work­erism, as well as the val­ue in study­ing the way in which this game appears towards the sec­ond-half of the 1960s, before the dual her­itage of work­erism and Althusse­ri­an­ism was appro­pri­at­ed by Negri. We will con­clude the­se remarks on Althusser and work­erism by com­par­ing the sym­me­tries and asym­me­tries between the­se two the­o­ret­i­cal fields, as they appear through­out the 1960s.

The Althusse­ri­an re-read­ing of Marx is con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with the activ­i­ties of Quaderni Rossi, and the major works of the French philoso­pher pre­cede Work­ers and Cap­i­tal, Mar­io Tronti’s book that could be con­sid­ered the found­ing text of work­erism, by a year. How­ev­er, their paths nev­er crossed, even when Althusser and Tron­ti were both mem­bers of the largest Com­mu­nist par­ties in the West, and there were pre-exist­ing rela­tion­ships between Althusser and the Marx­ist philoso­phers Gal­vano Del­la Volpe and Lucio Col­let­ti, with whom Tron­ti was very close. This rec­i­p­ro­cal indif­fer­ence is all the more strik­ing since Tron­ti and Althusser had sim­i­lar shared objec­tives: it was a mat­ter, for one as for the oth­er, of over­com­ing the the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal impass­es of the Com­mu­nist move­ment by decou­pling Marx­ism from any evo­lu­tion­ary phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry, and recast­ing the­o­ry as an analy­sis of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, an inter­ven­tion in the present con­junc­ture. More­over, their sta­tus as mem­bers of the Ital­ian and French Com­mu­nist Par­ties had a deter­mi­nate mean­ing. As Per­ry Ander­son empha­sizes in his Con­sid­er­a­tions on West­ern Marx­ism, France and Italy occu­pied a sin­gu­lar place in the polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy of the post­war peri­od: at the same moment when the com­mu­nist per­spec­tive ceased to exist as a polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion in West Ger­many and Marx­ism became a state ide­ol­o­gy in East­ern and Cen­tral Europe, the mass Com­mu­nist par­ties in France and Italy became hege­mon­ic among the work­ing class­es.18

The non-encoun­ter between the Althusse­ri­an reread­ing of Marx and Quaderni Rossi’s ver­sion of work­erism can­not be explained sole­ly through the link­ages between work­erism and the West­ern Marx­ists of the 1920s (Lukács, Korsch), whom Althusser had dis­missed com­plete­ly. The real obsta­cle was the con­trast between two very dif­fer­ent ways of artic­u­lat­ing the rela­tion between polit­i­cal prac­tice and the posi­tion of intel­lec­tu­als. The Althusse­ri­an approach aimed to indi­rect­ly pres­sure the PCF, ren­dered pos­si­ble through a trans­for­ma­tion of the intel­lec­tu­al coor­di­nates upon which the uni­ty of the offi­cial vision of Marx and the par­ty line was found­ed. From this came the choice to claim the auton­o­my of the­o­ry again­st the direct­ing instances of the Par­ty, and allowed for ter­ri­to­ri­al ground­ing of the Althusse­ri­an group with­in the École nor­male supérieure. For Tron­ti, on the oth­er hand, it was a mat­ter of forc­ing the PCI’s line to start with the work­ers’ strug­gles that the par­ty had neglect­ed or repressed, as the­o­ry could only improve itself through direct par­tic­i­pa­tion in the action of the “class.” The gap between the­se two approach­es is a result of sev­er­al cir­cum­stances: first, the weak degree of insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion among Ital­ian intel­lec­tu­als, which pre­vent­ed the effects Althusser could rely upon — to influ­ence the Par­ty from the space of free­dom (and author­i­ty) that the ENS pro­vid­ed. How­ev­er, the deci­sive fac­tor was the dif­fer­ence between the PCI and the PCF con­cern­ing the posi­tion of intel­lec­tu­als. The PCF want­ed to be a “col­lec­tive intel­lec­tu­al,” the bear­er of an offi­cial phi­los­o­phy and inter­pre­ta­tion of Marx insep­a­ra­ble from its polit­i­cal line: from whence came the ter­ror­ism towards intel­lec­tu­als but also the pos­si­bil­i­ty (to believe to be able) to trans­form the par­ty by act­ing upon its the­o­ret­i­cal legit­i­ma­tion. Again­st this, the PCI gave its adher­ents great intel­lec­tu­al free­dom on the con­di­tion that they did not ques­tion the direc­tion and author­i­ty of its polit­i­cal lead­er­ship. It fol­lowed that the only pos­si­bil­i­ty of influ­enc­ing the PCI was to oppose it through a direct­ly polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion capa­ble of mod­i­fy­ing its line. This is why Tron­ti will choose — in con­trast to Althusser — to be close to groups out­side of the PCI, but who rec­og­nized the polit­i­cal poten­tial of the new cycle of work­er antag­o­nism: it is by locat­ing a con­crete polit­i­cal alter­na­tive that the­o­ry could be regen­er­at­ed, while for Althusser the con­cern was to safe­guard the autonomous space for the­o­ry to indi­rect­ly act upon pol­i­tics. One can see that this gap between two polit­i­cal strate­gies also entails major dif­fer­ences in the final struc­ture of the the­o­ret­i­cal dis­pos­i­tives [dis­posi­tifs] of Althusser and Tron­ti.

Let’s exam­ine their posi­tions at the time of their ini­tial and deci­sive the­o­ret­i­cal break­throughs, par­tic­u­lar­ly in regards to the link between the­o­ry and prac­tice. The points that sep­a­rate work­erism and Althusse­ri­an­ism in the end rest on the sta­tus of the­o­ry and its rela­tion to pol­i­tics: Althusser approach­es the prob­lem of the rela­tion between the­o­ry and prax­is on the philo­soph­i­cal — that is to say, epis­te­mo­log­i­cal — ter­rain, where­as Tronti’s reflec­tions are locat­ed from the begin­ning on the ter­rain of class strug­gle. While for Tron­ti the dis­tance between the­o­ry and prac­tice tend­ed to annul itself in the “view­point” of the class that com­bined act­ing and know­ing, for Althusser the auton­o­my of the­o­ry is found­ed on the irre­ducible gap between knowl­edge and real­i­ty. Tron­ti push­es the prin­ci­ple of the iden­ti­ty between thought and the action of a class to the point of affirm­ing that the recourse to “words” is only legit­i­mate when the work­ing class los­es the free­dom of “choos­ing the means” of its strug­gle again­st the “ene­my soci­ety.”19 Accord­ing to this ago­nis­tic con­cep­tion of the­o­ry under­ly­ing the asser­tion that “weapons, which have been used in pro­le­tar­i­an revolts, are always tak­en for the boss­es’ arse­nal,” the pri­ma­cy of “work­ers’ sci­ence” over “bour­geois sci­ence” does not dis­close an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal hori­zon. This pri­ma­cy dis­clos­es the cre­ativ­i­ty of work­ers’ thought, sym­met­ri­cal to the deca­dence of bour­geois cul­ture, and has a com­plete­ly polit­i­cal rel­e­vance: “The one who wins takes the ini­tia­tive.”20 The­o­ry is embed­ded with­in strug­gles, and the dis­tinc­tion between the­o­ry and prax­is is whol­ly inter­nal to prax­is. The lev­el of strug­gles deter­mi­nes the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the­o­ry and its rela­tion to prac­tice, mean­ing that the “the­o­ret­i­cal renewal from the work­ers’ view­point” is imposed by the “neces­si­ties of strug­gle.”21 But this is, how­ev­er, a dis­tinc­tion between the­o­ry and prax­is that allows for the­o­ry to be dis­solved with­in the con­crete act — a dis­tinc­tion that in real­i­ty ends up affirm­ing the indis­tinc­tion of the two moments. The dis­tinc­tion between the­o­ry and prax­is is con­ceived as a suc­ces­sion cor­re­spond­ing to the dif­fer­ent phas­es of strug­gle, and it is the tem­po­ral rhythm of this strug­gle that ren­ders this dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion oper­a­tive. The­o­ry is assigned a role of strate­gic antic­i­pa­tion:

To antic­i­pate means to think, to see many things in one, to see them in devel­op­ment, view­ing every­thing, with the­o­ret­i­cal eyes, from the view­point of one’s own class… Thus broad strate­gic antic­i­pa­tions of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment are cer­tain­ly nec­es­sary, but nec­es­sary as con­cepts-lim­its with­in which the ten­den­cies of the objec­tive moment are estab­lished. The mean­ing of strug­gle and orga­ni­za­tion, in cer­tain moments, is exact­ly to pre­dict the objec­tive path of cap­i­tal, and its neces­si­ties with­in that path; it is to refuse to it the ful­fill­ment of the­se neces­si­ties, which blocks its devel­op­ment and pre­cise­ly in this puts it into cri­sis before, some­times much before, it has reached the ide­al con­di­tions that we our­selves had thought of.22

And, inverse­ly, action is assigned a role sub­or­di­nate to the imme­di­ate present:

To fol­low means to act, to move to the real lev­el of social rela­tions, to gauge the mate­ri­al state of the present forces, seiz­ing the moment, here and now, to grasp the ini­tia­tive of the strug­gle.

This pure­ly instru­men­tal con­cep­tion of the the­o­ry-prax­is dis­tinc­tion is quite clear in the final con­dem­na­tion of the very act of writ­ing:

A book today can con­tain some­thing true on only one con­di­tion: if it is writ­ten entire­ly with the aware­ness of per­form­ing a wicked act [una cat­ti­va azione]. If to act one must write, then at the lev­el of strug­gle we are far behind.23

By then, all the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion is seen as des­tined to dis­ap­pear because of the pro­gres­sion of work­ing-class strug­gles, the­o­ry only aims to “read direct­ly into things with­out the wretched medi­a­tion of books, not until we become capa­ble of mov­ing mat­ters (spostare i fat­ti) with vio­lence, with­out the spine­less­ness of the con­tem­pla­tive intel­lec­tu­al.24 The ten­sion between the­o­ry as antic­i­pa­tion and strat­e­gy on the one hand, and prax­is as tac­tics ori­ent­ed towards the present on the oth­er, is viewed as liable of being sur­passed in a future moment in which intel­lec­tu­al work itself will cease to exist, its only source being a very deter­mi­nant phase of the strug­gle.

The dif­fer­ences between the first Althusser and the first ver­sion of work­erism indeed con­cern the role as much as the form of the­o­ry. Thus, Tron­ti can write:

Up to this point we have had in our hands the fab­ric of the clas­sics, and on it we have made some embroi­deries. From now on a new fab­ric must be woven, cut, and insert­ed into the new hori­zons of the work­ers’ strug­gle of today.25

This indi­ca­tion can be com­pared to how Althusser envi­sions the­o­ret­i­cal work as a mat­ter of “read­ing Cap­i­tal.” We have, on the one hand, Tronti’s book, Work­ers and Cap­i­tal, a col­lec­tion of arti­cles — each tak­ing a con­crete polit­i­cal prob­lem as a point of depar­ture — which aims to accel­er­ate the process lead­ing to the read­ing of the things them­selves: while, on the oth­er hand, in Read­ing Cap­i­tal Althusser assem­bles the results of a sem­i­nar con­duct­ed at the ENS, with the aim of mak­ing promi­nent­ly, chiefly through the philo­soph­i­cal read­ing of a text, an implic­it phi­los­o­phy con­ceived as an epis­te­mol­o­gy, in the broad sense of a the­o­ry of knowl­edge. Tronti’s goal con­sists in pro­duc­ing a direct read­ing of things them­selves, while the Althusse­ri­an enter­prise remains the philo­soph­i­cal read­ing of a text. And, if it is for Tron­ti a mat­ter of weav­ing a new fab­ric [trame], Althusser lim­its him­self to mak­ing an embroi­dery upon the same fab­ric, like an embroi­der­er who works with bor­rowed fab­rics, and aims to let a fab­ric emerge that is indeed already traced but not yet ful­ly vis­i­ble.

How­ev­er, there is a point where the respec­tive posi­tions of Tron­ti and Althusser seem to con­verge we have allud­ed to the pri­ma­cy of class strug­gle over the exis­tence of class­es. But here as well, one can dis­cern a cru­cial point of diver­gence, begin­ning with a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the place that Althusser assigns to the class strug­gle. It is again­st economism – in order to show the polit­i­cal aspect of the eco­nom­ic – that the two com­mu­nist philoso­phers assert that the strug­gle between class­es pre­cedes their exis­tence. Tron­ti, as much as Althusser, thus tries to put into ques­tion the sec­ondary char­ac­ter of the class strug­gle, again­st a whole tra­di­tion that tried to make it the sim­ple expres­sion of a deep­er con­tra­dic­tion between the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and the pro­duc­tive forces. Yet, the anti-econ­o­mistic affir­ma­tion of the pri­ma­cy of strug­gle can mor­ph into a meta­phys­i­cal affir­ma­tion of an orig­i­nary antag­o­nism as an inter­nal prin­ci­ple of the socio-his­tor­i­cal total­i­ty. The deci­sive diver­gence between Althusser and Tron­ti lies in the sta­tus accord­ed to antag­o­nism: far from being a philo­soph­i­cal cat­e­go­ry, in Althusser class strug­gle dis­clos­es rather a domain of sci­ence, for which there is no essen­tial prin­ci­ple of the social for­ma­tion as “the whole struc­tured in dom­i­nance.”26 For Tron­ti, antag­o­nism seems to be ele­vat­ed to the posi­tion of a fun­da­men­tal axiom, while also func­tion­ing as an essence or prin­ci­ple of his­to­ry.

Of course, the­se are still open ques­tions. They indi­cate that the cor­re­spon­dence between the auton­o­my of pol­i­tics in Tronti’s work and the auton­o­my of the­o­ry in Althusser’s work are worth inves­ti­ga­tion, as has recent­ly been shown. It is a ques­tion of two posi­tions that are in real­i­ty asym­met­ri­cal.27 If the two autonomies can be thought of as sym­met­ri­cal, this is due to a mis­un­der­stand­ing that leads to a read­ing of the theory/praxis dis­tinc­tion as a sep­a­ra­tion between the order of knowl­edge and the order of the real. For Althusser, the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice indeed car­ries an irre­ducible speci­fici­ty that con­fers upon itself a cer­tain degree of auton­o­my, but even so it can­not be opposed to prax­is, since it is exact­ly that, a prac­tice. On the oth­er side, in Work­ers and Cap­i­tal the auton­o­my of pol­i­tics is tied to a dis­tinc­tion between the­o­ry and prax­is that makes the­o­ry the instru­ment or sim­ple expres­sion of prax­is; the final uni­ty between thought and action per­tains specif­i­cal­ly to this dis­tinc­tion, which makes prax­is posit the­o­ry as a par­tic­u­lar moment of its autonomous devel­op­ment. As a result, while the auton­o­my of the­o­ry in Read­ing Cap­i­tal sup­pos­es the imma­nence of the cri­te­ria for valid­i­ty, in Work­ers and Cap­i­tal the auton­o­my of pol­i­tics implies that pol­i­tics makes use of the­o­ry, and that action exer­cis­es an imme­di­ate effect on the total­i­ty of socio-his­tor­i­cal deter­mi­na­tions.

It is pos­si­ble, then, to dis­cern cer­tain philo­soph­i­cal points that jus­ti­fy dis­cussing a “missed encoun­ter” between the first Althusser and the orig­i­nal work­erism. How­ev­er, because of the dif­fer­ent com­po­si­tion of the ide­o­log­i­cal con­texts from which Tron­ti and Althusser elab­o­rat­ed their cat­e­gories, speci­fic crit­i­cal tar­gets that they seem to share – includ­ing economism, human­ism, and his­tori­cism – do not refer to the same object nor the same prob­lem­at­ic. One one side, the Ital­ian debate leads Althusser onto a ter­rain that is not the one from which his the­ses emerged – and con­tribut­ed to the refor­mu­la­tion, even rejec­tion, of posi­tions qual­i­fied by the­o­rists, and pre­pared, on the basis of cer­tain mis­un­der­stand­ings and mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions, the favor­able ter­rain for the encoun­ter with work­erism through Negri.28 And as we just saw apro­pos the class strug­gle, although they seem to be points in com­mon, in real­i­ty anti-economism, anti­hu­man­ism, and anti-his­tori­cism remain pro­found­ly ambigu­ous ref­er­ences. The human­ism that Althusser oppos­es had noth­ing to do with the Renais­sance phi­los­o­phy with which the Ital­ian philoso­phers asso­ci­at­ed the term “human­ism,” but was inti­mate­ly linked to a cer­tain form of Marx­ism “à la française,” one described as “mod­ern ratio­nal­ism.” This was the fruit of a sin­gu­lar oper­a­tion, a graft­ing of the ratio­nal­ist tra­di­tion of the Enlight­en­ment onto an anthro­po­log­i­cal prob­lem­at­ic drawn from a read­ing of the work of the Young Marx.29 In this sense, this human­ism has very lit­tle in com­mon with the human­ism evoked in Italy. In France, Marx­ism as “mod­ern ratio­nal­ism” had a ten­den­cy to reduce nature to his­to­ry by insist­ing on the eter­ni­ty and uni­ver­sal­i­ty of laws with­in a fun­da­men­tal­ly sta­t­ic con­cep­tion of dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism. In Italy, con­verse­ly, Marx­ism as a “phi­los­o­phy of prax­is” also tend­ed to reduce nature to his­to­ry, toward an absolute his­tori­cism of prax­is.30 What Tron­ti there­fore sought to reject in Marx­ism was not its iden­ti­ty with mod­ern ratio­nal­ism as pro­claimed by the PCF; his start­ing-point was rather the cri­tique of a cer­tain demo­c­ra­t­ic and “nation­al-pop­u­lar” read­ing of Gram­sci, from whom he had recov­ered the idea of an onto­log­i­cal iden­ti­ty between con­crete human activ­i­ty (his­to­ry-spir­it) and his­tori­cized nature, trans­formed by man in the “con­crete his­tor­i­cal act.”31

In con­clu­sion: a con­fronta­tion between the dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions to which Tron­ti and Althusser to some extent remain con­fined – although both also try to pro­duce defin­i­tive cri­tiques of the­se tra­di­tions – would help in return­ing to Althusser’s so-called “the­o­reti­cism,” by tak­ing into account the effects of his “under­de­ter­mined recep­tion” on sub­se­quent cri­tiques and self-crit­i­cisms.32 So many years after the pub­li­ca­tion of Read­ing Cap­i­tal and Work­ers and Cap­i­tal, both Althusser and work­erism will take paths dif­fer­ent from those declared in the 1960s: the for­mer through his aban­don­ment of his ini­tial epis­te­mo­log­i­cal approach, the lat­ter through the devel­op­ments led by Negri. And it is indeed on this ter­rain – a ter­rain whose com­plex­i­ty is to be recon­struct­ed, as deter­mined by a play of appro­pri­a­tions and mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tions [dont il s’agit de recon­stru­ire la com­plex­ité déter­minée par un jeu d’appropriations et de mécon­nais­sances] – that the posthu­mous encoun­ter between Negri and Althusser became pos­si­ble. In this way, the gen­e­sis of the real encoun­ter can provide the key to the under­stand­ing of the missed encoun­ter, and vice ver­sa.

– Trans­lat­ed by Patrick King

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Péri­ode.


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


  1. This text devel­ops the inter­ven­tions from the one-day con­fer­ence, “Althusser e l’operaismo : un incon­tro man­ca­to?,” orga­nized by the Asso­ci­a­tion “Louis Althusser,”and the Groupe de Recherch­es Matéri­al­is­tes and held on April 9th, 2014 in Venice. It retains for the most part the pro­gram­mat­ic struc­ture of an oral pre­sen­ta­tion. 

  2. See, for exam­ple, what Éti­en­ne Bal­ibar rec­om­mends in his The Phi­los­o­phy of Marx, trans. Chris Turn­er (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1993). 

  3. This is what Maria Turchet­to called for almost ten years ago: “that a Marx-Renais­sance be com­bined with an Althusser-Renais­sance: all returns to Marx pre­sup­pose pass­ing through Althusse­ri­an read­ing. “I ‘due Marx’ e l’althusserismo,” in Da Marx a Marx? Un bilan­cio dei marx­is­mi ital­iani del Nove­cen­to, ed. Ric­car­do Belle­fiore (Rome, Man­i­festolib­ri, 2007), 108. 

  4. After a first invi­ta­tion in 1973 that remained pure­ly “for­mal,” accord­ing to Negri’s account. One of Negri’s most famous texts, Marx Beyond Marx, indeed stems from this sem­i­nar that came out of the invi­ta­tion in 1977. It is inter­est­ing to note 1977 was the same year that the French trans­la­tion of Tronti’s book appeared (Ouvri­ers et Cap­i­tal), trans­lat­ed by Yann Moulier Boutang. Boutang’s posi­tion rep­re­sents anoth­er late Althusser-work­erism con­nec­tion; through­out the 1990s he was one of the edi­tors of the jour­nal Futur antérieur, as well as a biog­ra­pher of Althusser and the edi­tor of sev­er­al of his posthu­mous works. 

  5. See Negri’s review essay of Althusser on Machi­avelii, “Machi­avel selon Althusser,” Futur Antérieur (April 1997). 

  6. Tron­ti him­self only cites Althusser once, and it is only in ref­er­ence to Machi­avel­li. Mar­io Tron­ti, Noi operaisi­ti (Rome: DeriveAp­prodi, 2009); see the edit­ed extract, “Our Operais­mo,” trans. Eleanor Chiari, New Left Review, II/73 (Jan­u­ary-Feb­ru­ary 2012), 119-139. 

  7. Anto­nio Negri and Michael Hardt, Com­mon­wealth (Cam­bridge: Har­vard UP, 2010), 23-24; also Anto­nio Negri, Alle orig­ini del biopoliti­co, in Il comune in riv­olta. Sul potere cos­tituente delle lot­te, Vérone, OmbreCorte, 2012, 81ff. 

  8. Cf. Anto­nio Negri, “Some Notes on the Evo­lu­tion of the Late Althusser,” trans. Olga Vasile, in Post­mod­ern Mate­ri­al­ism and the Future of Marx­ist The­o­ry: Essays in the Marx­ist Tra­di­tion, ed. Anto­nio Callari and David F. Ruc­cio (Mid­dle­town, CT: Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty Press), 51-68. 

  9. Anto­nio Negri, Fab­briche del sogget­to, Car­rara, 1987, 75. 

  10. Hardt and Negri, Com­mon­wealth, 23. 

  11. Ibid., 24. 

  12. This is also the the­o­ret­i­cal project of the Eurono­made research col­lec­tive, heir to Uni­no­made. See, for exam­ple, the impor­tance placed on the Althusse­ri­an lega­cy in Comune, comu­nis­mo, comu­nità: Teorie e pratiche den­tro e oltre la crisi, ed. Anna Cur­cio (Vérone: OmbreCorte), 2011. 

  13. Cf. Negri, “Notes on the Evo­lu­tion of the Late Althusser.” 

  14. Cris­tian Lo Iacono’s recent study shows the influ­ence that the Ital­ian recep­tion had on the devel­op­ment of Althusser’s thought, and shows in detail how his self-crit­i­cisms were reac­tions to received cri­tiques. 

  15. See Maria Turchet­to, Per la crit­i­ca di un’autocritica, in La cog­nizione del­la crisi. Sag­gi sul marx­is­mo di Louis Althusser, ed. Maria Gia­comet­ti (Milan, Fran­co Angeli), 1986. 

  16. On Ital­ian neo-ide­al­ism, see André Tosel, Marx en Italiques: Aux orig­i­nes de la philoso­phie ital­i­en­ne con­tem­po­raine (Toulouse: TER, 1991). Some crit­ics have attrib­ut­ed a neo-ide­al­ist ori­en­ta­tion to Tron­ti, con­cern­ing the pri­ma­cy of sub­jec­tive pri­ma­cy of the con­crete action of a mythol­o­gized class. On this top­ic, see Raf­faele Sbardel­la, “Le maschere del­la polit­i­ca: gen­til­is­mo e tradizione ide­al­is­ti­ca negli scrit­ti di Mar­io Tron­ti,” Unità pro­le­taria, nos. 1-2, 1982. Bal­ibar sees in Negri’s work the pres­ence of “very pro­found traces of philo­soph­i­cal actu­al­ism (Gen­tile)”, con­sti­tut­ing one of his “impor­tant cul­tur­al ref­er­ences.” Éti­en­ne Bal­ibar, “Les Ques­tions du Com­mu­nis­me”, 2012, an edit­ed and expand­ed French ver­sion of his pre­sen­ta­tion, “Com­mu­nism as Com­mit­ment, Imag­i­na­tion, and Pol­i­tics”, at the “Com­mu­nism: A New Begin­ning?” con­fer­ence held in New York in Octo­ber 2011 and found in The Idea of Com­mu­nism Vol­ume Two, ed. Slavoj Žižek (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2013), 13-37. 

  17. This is well-doc­u­ment­ed by Lo Iacono, op. cit. 

  18. Per­ry Ander­son, Con­sid­er­a­tions on West­ern Marx­ism (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1976), 20, 28, 35, 41. 

  19. Mar­io Tron­ti, Operai e cap­i­tale (Rome: DepriveAp­prodi, 2006), 14. Translator’s note: the authors cite the French trans­la­tion of Tronti’s text, Ouvri­ers et Cap­i­tal (Paris: Bour­go­is, 1977), trans­lat­ed by Yann Moulier Boutang. Because the sec­tion they are ref­er­enc­ing is one of the por­tions of Tronti’s book that has unfor­tu­nate­ly not yet been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, we have close­ly fol­lowed the Ital­ian orig­i­nal, and cite it in sub­se­quent notes. Many thanks to Asad Haider and Andrew Anas­tasi for their invalu­able input. 

  20. Ibid., 8. 

  21. Ibid. 

  22. Ibid., 13. 

  23. Ibid., 14. 

  24. Ibid., 19. 

  25. Ibid., 14. 

  26. From an Althusse­ri­an per­spec­tive, Maria Turchet­to has insist­ed on the per­ti­nence of the cat­e­go­ry of “class strug­gle” to the “sci­ence of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety.” Per la crit­i­ca di un’autocritica, 204. 

  27. See Sara Far­ris “Althusser and Tron­ti: the Pri­ma­cy of Pol­i­tics Ver­sus the Auton­o­my of the Polit­i­cal”, in Encoun­ter­ing Althusser: Pol­i­tics and Mate­ri­al­ism in Con­tem­po­rary Rad­i­cal Thought, ed. Kat­ja Diefen­bach, Sara Far­ris, Gal Kirn, and Peter D. Thomas (New York, Blooms­bury, 2013), 185-204. 

  28. As seen, for instance, in Lo Iaocano’s study. 

  29. I have tried to recon­struct this process of inte­grat­ing Marx­ism with the mate­ri­al­ist ratio­nal­ism of the Enlight­en­ment in my doc­tor­al the­sis: Fab­rizio Car­li­no, Sci­ence et idéolo­gie « A la lumière du marx­is­me ». La con­tri­bu­tion du Cer­cle de la Russie neu­ve dans le procès d’élaboration et acti­va­tion du matéri­al­is­me dialec­tique en France, 2014. 

  30. On this sub­ject see the two arti­cles by the young Tron­ti: Alcune ques­tioni intorno al marx­is­mo di Gram­sci, in Studi gram­s­ciani, Rome, Edi­tori riu­ni­ti, 1958, 304; “Tra mate­ri­al­is­mo dialet­ti­co e filosofia del­la pras­si. Gram­sci e Labri­o­la”, in La Cit­tà futu­ra: Sag­gi sul­la fig­u­ra e il pen­siero di A. Gram­sci, ed. Alber­to Carac­ci­olo and Gian­ni Scalia (Milan, Fel­trinel­li, 1959), 156-157. Also, Tosel, Marx en Italiques, 119. 

  31. And this new monism would indi­cate the impor­tance of the Gram­s­cian con­cept of a “his­tor­i­cal bloc.” Tron­ti, Alcune ques­tioni intorno al marx­is­mo di Gram­sci, 315. 

  32. I bor­row this expres­sion from Lo Iao­cono. 

Authors of the article

is a professor of Philosophy and researcher at the University of Liège. He is a member of the Groupe de Recherches Matérialistes (GRM) and the Association « Louis Althusser ». He is the author of Le sujet et l'étude. Idéologie et savoir dans le discours maoiste (2010) and Enquête ouvrière et théorie critique. Enjeux et figure de la centralité ouvrière dans l'Italie des années 1960 (2013).

holds a doctorate in Philosophy (University of Paris IV – Sorbonne/ Università del Salento). He is a member of the Groupe de recherches matérialistes and is on the editorial board of the Cahiers du GRM. His research interests include the thought of Louis Althusser, French Marxism of the 1930s, and the wider constellation of Italian workerism and post-workerism.