Philosophy and Revolution: An Interview with G.M. Goshgarian


Félix Bog­gio Éwan­jé-Épée: Can you revis­it the dif­fer­ent “peri­ods” of the pub­li­ca­tion of Althusser’s works and the posthu­mous recep­tion of them? At first glance, it would seem that the “late Althusser” dom­i­nat­ed the ini­tial posthu­mous recep­tion and pub­li­ca­tion of Althusser’s work. How can we explain this? Didn’t this first phase “dis­tort” the image one might have of a late Althusser com­plete­ly dis­tinct from the “the­o­reti­cist” Althusser of the years 1960-66?

G.M. Gosh­gar­i­an: Let’s not for­get that the “late Althusser” was also the author of The Future Lasts a Long Time, his 1985 auto­bi­og­ra­phy, which, at the request of Althusser’s sole heir, his nephew François Bod­daert, led off the posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tion pro­gram in 1992, togeth­er with an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal frag­ment draft­ed in 1976, The Facts. It’s quite like­ly that, even today, The Future Lasts a Long Time con­tin­ues to dom­i­nate the recep­tion of Althusser: wit­ness the many edi­tions the book has gone through in France and abroad. At all events, The Future and the “Althusser case” cer­tain­ly dom­i­nat­ed the first posthu­mous recep­tions in France. And the philo­soph­i­cal com­men­tary has hard­ly been left unscathed by the mor­bid and gen­er­al­ly stu­pid reac­tions to the “case” – quite the con­trary. For exam­ple, some­one it would be unchar­i­ta­ble to name could pub­lish a book on Althusser in 1999 in which he proved, across twen­ty pages, ply­ing inter­pre­tive meth­ods the ana­lyt­ic and even pre­dic­tive val­ue of which is irrefutably demon­strat­ed by their results, that one text by Althusser, “On the Social Con­tract,” was a “retrac­tion” of the “mur­der­ous fol­ly” of anoth­er, “On the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion.”1 The one prob­lem with this very orig­i­nal read­ing is that the anony­mous text on the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion dates from Novem­ber 1966, where­as its “retrac­tion” pre­dates it by sev­er­al months. Our learned expert on the life and work of Althusser, you will say, sim­ply mis­took the sec­ond edi­tion of “On the Social Con­tract” for the first. That’s true, of course, but also utter­ly beside the point here, because, in an exer­cise of this sort, the facts – chrono­log­i­cal facts not except­ed – are deduced from the con­clu­sions that one has set out to estab­lish. Con­clu­sion: Althusser’s “thought” was a trans­par­ent ratio­nal­iza­tion of his mad­ness. Ergo, to turn now to the facts, the “mad­man Althusser” hal­lu­ci­nat­ed, in the form of an essay on the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion, a “Marx­ist rev­e­la­tion” in Bei­jing, and lat­er retract­ed that crim­i­nal non­sense by way of an analy­sis of Rousseau’s “flight for­ward” – for “the moment for retrac­tion always comes” (there are, to be sure, excep­tions to this rule). Which flight for­ward was that, you ask? But doesn’t Althusser tell us at the end of his read­ing of the Social Con­tract that Rousseau resolves the insol­uble con­tra­dic­tions of his thought by means of a trans­fer­ence onto lit­er­a­ture? Flight for­ward (or back), mur­der­ous fol­ly, “trans­fer­ence” onto lit­er­a­ture, you get the pic­ture: with this “retrac­tion” – the “fatal inevitabil­i­ty of which” is clear as day to some­one who hap­pens not to have noticed that the essay on Rousseau pre­dates the one on the “per­fect crime” of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion – Althusser “antic­i­pates his future,” and thus his Future: to wit, the mur­der of his wife, fol­lowed by the imag­i­nary res­o­lu­tion, via the auto­bi­og­ra­phy, of the con­tra­dic­tions that moti­vat­ed the crime. QED.

Despite the inde­cen­cy of this sort of thing, to say noth­ing of the glar­ing incom­pe­tence that is its con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ty, the book crowned by this mad flight into archi-achronol­o­gy (which also mounts, con­tra Althusser, a spirit­ed defense of the “archi-homo­gene­ity” of time and the “real order of real gen­e­sis”: how’s that for dialec­tics?) could in 1999 take its place in a high­ly respect­ed series: the same series whose gen­er­al edi­tor, dri­ven by a fatal­ly inevitable desire to make amends for this 1999 slip, pub­lished a col­lec­tion of Althusser’s writ­ings in 1994: Philippe Sollers’ series “L’infini.” Did this defam­a­to­ry libel pre­cip­i­tate a wave of indig­nant protest? It did not. What’s the expla­na­tion for this phe­nom­e­non, of which we’ve cit­ed one exam­ple out of a thou­sand and more? I’m afraid I don’t have one. It was a bad peri­od, as the say­ing goes.

Let me refor­mu­late your ques­tion, so as to brack­et out the count­less recep­tions of this kind, although it would be a mis­take, in my opin­ion, to pass them over in silence. Did the “late Althusser,” the aleato­ry mate­ri­al­ist philoso­pher of the 1980s, dom­i­nate 1. the first posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tions and 2. the at least min­i­mal­ly informed respons­es to them?

Let’s take a look at the dif­fer­ent “peri­ods” of the posthu­mous work. To begin: near­ly all of Althusser’s writ­ings were, if not pub­lished, then at least made pub­lic over 20 years ago. With the excep­tion of his cor­re­spon­dence, which isn’t acces­si­ble with­out the autho­riza­tion of the addressees or their heirs, some 50,000 pages of posthu­mous philo­soph­i­cal papers, entrust­ed to the Insti­tut Mémoires de l’édition con­tem­po­raine (IMEC) by Althusser’s nephew in 1991, can be freely con­sult­ed. Thanks to François Math­eron, who, assist­ed by San­drine Sam­son, put togeth­er an inven­to­ry of the Althusser archives in the first half of the 1990s with a metic­u­lous­ness that all those who have con­sult­ed them can attest, the­se doc­u­ments have in a very real sense been pub­lic for twen­ty years now, and a good num­ber of researchers from all over the world have made use of them. So there exists a recep­tion of Althusser’s posthu­mous oeu­vre that’s inde­pen­dent of the pub­li­ca­tion project.

The pub­li­ca­tion project prop­er can be divid­ed into three peri­ods. Dur­ing the first, which ran from 1992 to 1998, sev­en col­lec­tions appeared under the IMEC’s direc­tion and respon­si­bil­i­ty. The texts were quite com­pe­tent­ly edit­ed, intro­duced, and anno­tat­ed by Olivier Cor­pet, the direc­tor of IMEC until 2013; Yann Moulier Boutang, Althusser’s biog­ra­pher; and, espe­cial­ly, Math­eron, who edit­ed most of them. There thus was cre­at­ed the nucle­us of a future crit­i­cal edi­tion of Althusser’s com­plete works, to take on opti­mistic view of things, the nucle­us of this nucle­us being the 1200 pages of the Écrits philosophiques et poli­tiques, which appeared in two vol­umes quite ear­ly, in 1994-95, and were repub­lished in a paper­back edi­tion 6 or 7 years lat­er. With rare excep­tions, none of the texts in the­se 7 vol­umes had been pub­lished in Althusser’s life­time.

Two oth­er col­lec­tions pub­lished in this peri­od brought togeth­er posthu­mous texts and oth­ers, pub­lished in Althusser’s day, that fall into a pecu­liar cat­e­go­ry, but one rather fre­quent in Althusser. On the Repro­duc­tion of Cap­i­tal­ism, edit­ed by Jacques Bidet and pub­lished in 1995 by the Press­es uni­ver­si­taires de France (PUF), con­tains 1. the 1969 man­u­script from which Althusser extract­ed the frag­ments com­bined in his famous 1970 paper on Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tus­es; 2. this paper itself; and 3. a “Note on the ISAs” that comes under the cat­e­go­ry of texts I have in mind – texts that were pub­lished abroad in Althusser’s life­time (the “Note” came out in a Ger­man trans­la­tion in 1977), but went unpub­lished in France. Sur la philoso­phie, the vol­ume that appeared in 1994 in the series “L’ infini,” includes two texts pub­lished before Althusser’s death that also belong in this cat­e­go­ry. One is “The Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy,” a 1976 lec­ture that Althusser gave in French in Spain and pub­lished there in the form of a book­let the same year, and again, near the end of his life, in a col­lec­tion in Eng­lish. The oth­er is “Phi­los­o­phy and Marx­ism,” an inter­view with Fer­nan­da Navar­ra that first saw the light in Mex­i­co in 1988, unabridged, and was then includ­ed in an abridged ver­sion in Sur la philoso­phie, which also con­tains unpub­lished let­ters of Althusser’s con­nect­ed with the inter­view.

The most recent of the 9 vol­umes released in this first peri­od, Let­tres à Fran­ca, col­lects hun­dreds of let­ters, totalling around 600,000 words, that Althusser wrote to his lover Fran­ca Mado­nia between 1961 and 1973. This is the only one of the nine vol­umes that isn’t the­o­ret­i­cal in nature, although it’s a source of invalu­able infor­ma­tion about Althusser’s life and the devel­op­ment of his philo­soph­i­cal and polit­i­cal thought. The oth­er eight vol­umes come to near­ly 2,000 pages.

Two thou­sand pages – where­as what is tak­en to be the found­ing doc­u­ment of the “late Althusser’s” phi­los­o­phy, a text that Math­eron extract­ed from a 1982-83 man­u­script and pub­lished in the first vol­ume of the Écrits philosophiques et poli­tiques under the title “The Under­ground Cur­rent of the Mate­ri­al­ism of the Encoun­ter,” is around forty pages long. Even if we chalk up to the “late Althusser’s” account 1. the oth­er extracts from this man­u­script pub­lished in jour­nals dur­ing this peri­od; 2. the chap­ters on Machi­avel­li, Spin­oza, and the polit­i­cal con­junc­ture of the 1980s excised from The Future by their author, but includ­ed as appen­dices in the expand­ed French edi­tion of that book; 3. all the more or less philo­soph­i­cal pas­sages in The Future; 4. all the texts includ­ed in Sur la philoso­phie that can unre­served­ly be con­sid­ered texts of the 1980s, which is to say, for rea­sons we‘ll come to, only the cor­re­spon­dence and the Pref­ace; and, final­ly, 5. the “Por­trait of the Mate­ri­al­ist Philoso­pher,” a sin­gle page com­posed in 1986 – the “late Althusser’s” total out­put is a drop in the buck­et of the posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tions released in the first peri­od. In the pub­li­ca­tions of the fol­low­ing peri­od, the rel­a­tive weight of the “late work“ dimin­ish­es: here, the only texts that can be called late work are the 12-page “On Aleato­ry Mate­ri­al­ism,” pub­lished in the jour­nal Mul­ti­tudes in 2005; ten unpub­lished pages from the 1982-83 man­u­script that sur­faced in a col­lec­tion pub­lished Zürich in 2010, Mate­ri­al­is­mus der Begeg­nung; and a 13-page text, the “June The­ses” (1986), most of which was effec­tive­ly pub­lished by Althusser’s main Ger­man trans­la­tor, Frieder Otto Wolf, in a “report” on this doc­u­ment pro­duced in 2008 for the online jour­nal Epistème. Frieder’s “report” was recent­ly repub­lished in a Ger­man col­lec­tion of writ­ings by and about Althusser.2

We should add that sev­er­al of Althusser’s writ­ings from the 1980s have yet to be released. They include part of the man­u­script from which “The Under­ground Cur­rent” was extract­ed, and a hand­ful of short texts – around 150 pages in all. Hope­ful­ly, the­se writ­ings will appear in the near future. Their pub­li­ca­tion will, I think, trans­form our under­stand­ing of the late Althusser. André Tosel has already tak­en a big step in this direc­tion in an essay on the late Althusser’s pol­i­tics.3

There you have a quan­ti­ta­tive respon­se to your ques­tion about the “late Althusser’s dom­i­na­tion” of the pro­gram of posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tion. In a word, it’s a myth.

We can fin­ish our overview of the three peri­ods of the posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tion, if you’d like, before com­ing to the posthu­mous recep­tion.

For ten years and more fol­low­ing the appear­ance of Let­tres à Fran­ca in 1998, only a few posthu­mous writ­ings were released, scat­tered across var­i­ous jour­nals, togeth­er with a sin­gle vol­ume edit­ed, anno­tat­ed, and intro­duced by Math­eron: Poli­tique et his­toire de Machi­avel à Marx, Cours à l’École nor­male supérieure, 1955-1972 (2006). Alongside pub­li­ca­tions in French jour­nals – such as the 40-page “Note” that Althusser sent in 1965 to Hen­ri Kra­sucki, then at the head of the PCF’s Sec­tion for Intel­lec­tu­als and Cul­ture,4 or the humor­ous account of Althusser’s 1966 con­ver­sa­tion with the Party’s Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary, Waldeck Rochet5 – we find one of those texts-published-in-Althusser’s-day-but-not-in-French that has one more edi­to­ri­al par­tic­u­lar­i­ty: it was released in par­tial form in Hun­gar­i­an in Althusser’s life­time and pub­lished in its entire­ty in a 2003 col­lec­tion, The Human­ist Con­tro­ver­sy and Oth­er Writ­ings, issued by Althusser’s main pub­lish­er in Eng­lish, Ver­so Books. This text is “The His­tor­i­cal Task of Marx­ist Phi­los­o­phy,” a long arti­cle com­mis­sioned in 1967 by the Sovi­et jour­nal Voprossi filosofii (Prob­lems of Phi­los­o­phy), which omit­ted to pub­lish it. Again, in 2007 the British jour­nal His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism pub­lished an excel­lent crit­i­cal edi­tion, with an edi­to­ri­al intro­duc­tion by William Lewis, of a long 1966 let­ter that Althusser wrote to the PCF’s Cen­tral Com­mit­tee to protest the results of its his­toric con­clave in Argen­teuil – a let­ter that he ulti­mate­ly didn’t send. Like “The His­tor­i­cal Task,” that let­ter has gone unpub­lished in French to the present day.

The third peri­od of posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tion is still under­way. Begin­ning in 2011 with the appear­ance of Let­tres à Hélène, a col­lec­tion of cor­re­spon­dence of main­ly bio­graph­i­cal inter­est that was anno­tat­ed and intro­duced by Oliv­er Cor­pet, it has seen the pub­li­ca­tion of four oth­er books between 2012 and 2015: 1. a set of three 1972 lec­tures on Rousseau, Cours sur Rousseau (very dif­fer­ent from the 1966-67 course on the Social Con­tract),6 edit­ed by Yves Var­gas, which I’m trans­lat­ing for Ver­so; 2. my edi­tion of a 1977-78 book, Ini­ti­a­tion à la philoso­phie pour les non-philosoph­es, pub­lished by PUF in 2014 in a series under Lau­rent de Sutter’s gen­er­al edi­tor­ship, “Per­spec­tives cri­tiques,” and sched­uled for release by Blooms­bury in my Eng­lish trans­la­tion in 2017; 3. my edi­tion of a 1976 book, Être marx­is­te en philoso­phie, pub­lished by PUF in Laurent’s series in 2015; and 4) a 2015 col­lec­tion of Althusser’s tran­scrip­tions of his dreams, Des rêves d’angoisse sans fin, edit­ed by Oliv­er Cor­pet. (Excerpts from the Eng­lish trans­la­tions of Ini­ti­a­tion and Être marx­is­te were pub­lished in dia­crit­ics at the turn of the year.) A good-sized col­lec­tion of the 1949-87 cor­re­spon­dence between between Lucien Sève and Althusser, some 100 let­ters in all, edit­ed by Sève and intro­duced by Roger Martel­li, should appear soon; so should my edi­tion, again for PUF and “Per­spec­tives cri­tiques,” of Althusser’s 1976 Les Vach­es noires, a polemic tar­get­ing the PCF and the USSR.7 De Sut­ter plans to pub­lish oth­er posthu­mous works in the com­ing years, at a pace of about one per year, as well as a col­lec­tion of short, hith­er­to unre­leased texts in sev­er­al vol­umes. If we add that Péri­ode recent­ly pub­lished, for the first time in French, Althusser’s July 1976 Barcelona lec­ture on the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at,8 a very good omen, and that this third “peri­od” of posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tion also saw the cre­ation, in 2013, of an online, mul­ti­lin­gual Althusser stud­ies jour­nal, Décalages, edit­ed from Los Ange­les by War­ren Mon­tag, with a sec­tion, “Archives,” reserved for the pub­li­ca­tion of unpub­lished or hard-to-find texts by Althusser – the first one pub­lished in Décalages was the essay on the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion – there’s good rea­son to hope that the 6500 pages of posthu­mous writ­ings which appeared between 1992 and 2015 will be joined by sev­er­al thou­sand more in the next 8 to 10 years. That depends in part on the good­will of those who pos­sess texts, let­ters, and notes on, or audio record­ings of, cours­es that haven’t yet been deposit­ed with the IMEC.

On the ques­tion of the cor­re­spon­dence, let me say that Althusser kept the major­i­ty of the let­ters he received, very often with copies of those that he sent to his cor­re­spon­dents. He was, as Yann Moulier-Boutang and François Math­eron have not­ed, “an out­stand­ing let­ter writer who tire­less­ly devot­ed much of his life – sev­er­al hours of the day and espe­cial­ly his nights – to his cor­re­spon­dence.” The pub­li­ca­tion of the rich cor­re­spon­dence between Althusser and Sève will show just how impor­tant it is that all Althusser’s cor­re­spon­dence of the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal inter­est even­tu­al­ly appear. As for the cours­es, Emile Jalley’s Louis Althusser et quelques autres (2014), which includes 60 pages of notes that Jal­ley took in sem­i­nars given by Althusser at the ENS in the late 1950s, is undoubt­ed­ly a step in the right direc­tion. But it’s prefer­able that such col­lec­tions be based on a com­par­ison of notes tak­en by more than one audi­tor (when pos­si­ble, and when no tape record­ings are to be had), and that the results appear in vol­umes con­tain­ing only Althusser’s cours­es, not, as in Jalley’s edi­tion, a mis­cel­lany of cours­es given by sev­er­al dif­fer­ent peo­ple.

So much for the three “peri­ods” of posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tion.

There remains the ques­tion of its recep­tion. Has the posthu­mous work been mis­un­der­stood because too much atten­tion has been lav­ished on the “late Althusser,” or because read­ers have exag­ger­at­ed the dis­con­ti­nu­ity between this “late Althusser” and the oth­ers?

I can’t, for the life of me, give you a good answer, not even with respect to the most recent of the two Althusser books pub­lished by PUF, Être marx­is­te en philoso­phie, the recep­tion of which began even before the book came out. While Jean-Claude Bour­din and Andre Tosel, who have done very inter­est­ing work on the mate­ri­al­ism of the encoun­ter, only men­tion Être marx­is­te in pass­ing, in essays pub­lished in 2008 and 2012, respec­tive­ly, the book is sub­ject­ed to close scruti­ny in a chap­ter of a 2010 mono­graph on Althusser: Yoshi­hiko Ichida’s Aru ren­ket­zu-no tet­sug­aku (A Phi­los­o­phy of Con­junc­tion). Ini­ti­a­tion à la philoso­phie, which appeared in Jan­u­ary 2014, has already received con­sid­er­able atten­tion: anoth­er chap­ter of Ichida’s study, an impor­tant Span­ish com­men­tary, sub­se­quent­ly trans­lat­ed into Greek, and anoth­er com­men­tary in Eng­lish, an extract from a study cur­rent­ly in pro­gress. Ini­ti­a­tion is already avail­able in Span­ish, Roma­ni­an, Turk­ish, and Ital­ian; oth­er pub­lish­ers around the world have con­tract­ed to release it in Ara­bic, Eng­lish, Ger­man, Greek, Kore­an, Por­tugue­se, and Chi­ne­se; and it will doubtless be trans­lat­ed into still oth­er lan­guages.9 Projects for the trans­la­tion or retrans­la­tion of all the pri­ma­ry Althusse­ri­an writ­ings are under­way in Berlin, Athens, and North­west Uni­ver­si­ty in Chi­na. In short, the recep­tion of the late Althusser or Althusser tout court isn’t lim­it­ed to France. Far from it. Although there has been a resur­gence of inter­est in the most impor­tant French Marx­ist philoso­pher there, as indi­cat­ed by the pub­li­ca­tion, in 2008 and 2012, under the titles Althusser: Une lec­ture de Marx10 and Autour d’Althusser, of the pro­ceed­ings of two French con­fer­ences, fol­lowed, in 2015, by spe­cial Althusser issues of La Pen­sée and Cahiers du Groupe de recherch­es matéri­al­is­tes, recep­tion of Althusser is now dom­i­nat­ed by work in lan­guages oth­er than French, and that will no doubt con­tin­ue to be the case. Yet trans­la­tions of com­men­taries on Althusser’s work of the 1980s are rare. Those found in the recent Encoun­ter­ing Althusser col­lec­tion, the Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Mikko Lahtinen’s Finnish study of Machiavelli’s and Althusser’s aleato­ry mate­ri­al­ism, the French trans­la­tion of Emil­io Ípola’s Althusser: El infini­to adios, the French, Span­ish, and Eng­lish trans­la­tions of Vit­to­rio Morfino’s book on Althusser’s and Spinoza’s aleato­ry mate­ri­al­ism, and the just released, refresh­ing­ly inter­na­tion­al Althusser: Die Repro­duk­tion des Mate­ri­al­is­mus, are among the few excep­tions that prove the rule. One or two oth­er trans­la­tions are very hard to read because they’re in Glo­bish. Apart from inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences, which are, in my view, a poor sub­sti­tute for trans­la­tions, and the poor­er because they, too, are increas­ing­ly held in that non-lan­guage of a lan­guage, I mean Glo­bish, that is con­tribut­ing might­i­ly to the with­er­ing away of human lan­guage as such, there’s no easy way to famil­iar­ize one­self with more than a small por­tion of the recep­tion, unless one is a poly­glot of the first order. As I’m not, I had, for exam­ple, to edit and anno­tate the text of Ini­ti­a­tion and Être marx­is­te with­out ben­e­fit of the stud­ies of them by Ichi­da, an author whose impor­tance is attest­ed by the hand­ful of his texts on Althusser now avail­able in French and Ger­man. And Ichida’s no doubt just one exam­ple among many oth­ers: Greek, Chi­ne­se, Kore­an, Croa­t­ian, Ara­bic, Pol­ish, Turk­ish, etc.

That means that, when it comes to the recep­tion of the posthu­mous work, I can give you only pro­vi­sion­al con­clu­sions based on a very small sam­pling of the glob­al recep­tion of the “late Althusser.”

This recep­tion (read: to the extent that I know it) seems to me to be miss­ing some­thing essen­tial because it has yet to take into account the fact that Althusser’s aleato­ry mate­ri­al­ism is based on a con­cept that grounds his thought as a whole: the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at and, more gen­er­al­ly, class dic­ta­tor­ship. In part for this rea­son, the crit­i­cal recep­tion tends to exag­ger­ate the impor­tance of a few ambigu­ous for­mu­la­tions of Althusser’s (even if it does so the bet­ter to reject them) which cer­tain­ly invite rel­a­tivis­tic, post­mod­ern or mys­ti­cal read­ings of the “under­ground cur­rent,” but only on con­di­tion that this short, unfin­ished text – whose key ideas are bare­ly out­lined – is iso­lat­ed from the rest of Althusser’s work and even the rest of the man­u­script from which it was tak­en. The cause and effect of this kind of one-sid­ed read­ing, neglect of the piv­otal role of the idea of class dic­ta­tor­ship, is bound up with neglect of anoth­er cru­cial aspect of the con­nec­tion between the mate­ri­al­ism of the encoun­ter and Althusser’s pre­vi­ous thought. If it’s now gen­er­al­ly accept­ed not only that the con­cept of the encoun­ter is every­where in Althusser, but also that he explic­it­ly the­o­rizes it from 1966 on, as is shown by “On Gen­e­sis” a pre­vi­ous­ly unre­leased text pub­lished in Décalages in 2013 (in fact, he explic­it­ly the­o­rizes it from 1963 on, as will appear when Sève pub­lish­es the mag­nif­i­cent let­ter of Novem­ber 24th,1963 that Althusser ulti­mate­ly didn’t post), what is glar­ing­ly absent from the recep­tion of the “late Althusser“ is the cor­re­spon­dence between the aleato­ry as con­ceived in the 1980s and a con­cep­tion present in the “prac­ti­cal state” begin­ning with the 1959 Mon­tesquieu. In that book, the emer­gence of a world from the void, brought on by what is anoth­er name for the cli­na­men – the Journées révo­lu­tion­naires of 1789 – is con­ceived neg­a­tive­ly, through an insis­tence on the per­sis­tence of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the feu­dal class despite the 17th-cen­tu­ry rise of the bour­geoisie, an idea Althusser takes up again in “The Under­ground Cur­rent.” The very idea of a world emerg­ing from noth­ing – but a deter­mi­nate noth­ing, the noth­ing or the void of a dis­tance tak­en, ein Nichts von einem Inhalt – is pos­i­tive­ly con­ceived in For Marx through a the­o­riza­tion of the “rup­tural uni­ty” that gave rise to the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion; or, in one ver­sion of Althusser’s 1966 course on Rousseau, through the idea that, for the author of the Social Con­tract, the “extreme­ly rare con­junc­tion” of the con­di­tions for insti­tut­ing a peo­ple is on the order of the mirac­u­lous. It would be easy to mul­ti­ply exam­ples.

Is it impor­tant to relate this idea to that of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at? After all, every­one knows that for the late Althusser the cli­na­men which gives rise to the emer­gence of a world is anal­o­gous to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary rup­ture in the oth­er “Althussers,” and that the per­sis­tence of this world is anal­o­gous to the via­bil­i­ty – that is, the capac­i­ty for self-repro­duc­tion – of a post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary soci­ety. I think it is impor­tant to make the con­nec­tion, for two rea­sons. First, it’s one indi­ca­tor, among oth­ers, that the idea that the “dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at is the crit­i­cal point of the whole the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal his­to­ry of Marx­ism” (to cite the Althusser of 1966) is also the crit­i­cal point in the the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal his­to­ry of Althusse­ri­an thought, includ­ing the 1980s. The mir­a­cle of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion or the Althusse­ri­an-Rousseauean mir­a­cle of the insti­tu­tion of a peo­ple are per­haps no less mirac­u­lous than the mir­a­cle of the emer­gence of a world in the Epi­cure­an Althusser of the 1980s; yet the lat­ter is the only one to be accused of fideism, post­mod­ern rel­a­tivism, the refusal of rea­son, and so on and so forth. Sec­ond­ly, the con­cept of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at serves as a bridge between think­ing the emer­gence of a world from the void in the “late Althusser” and the thought of this thought: the non-philo­soph­i­cal phi­los­o­phy that he open­ly cham­pi­oned from the mid-1970s on.

This phi­los­o­phy sui gener­is – nei­ther philo­soph­i­cal nor com­plete­ly anti-philo­soph­i­cal – sets out from a sim­ple yet pow­er­ful idea: that phi­los­o­phy is the coun­ter­part or cor­rel­a­tive of the lynch­pin of the class dic­ta­tor­ship that guar­an­tees the via­bil­i­ty of post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary soci­ety, the state. This holds for the phi­los­o­phy of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at as well. But the state of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at is a Nicht­staat, a “non-state” (Engels as “trans­lat­ed“ by Lenin) erect­ed with a view to its dis­ap­pear­ance, and the phi­los­o­phy cor­re­spond­ing to it is thus, for Althusser, a non-phi­los­o­phy. This is clear­ly stat­ed in “The Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy,” the lec­ture he deliv­ered in Granada in spring 1976, and released in Spain that same year and in Eng­lish a few months before his death. And yet, strange­ly, the foun­da­tion­al rela­tion­ship between the con­cept of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at and the non-philo­soph­i­cal phi­los­o­phy of aleato­ry mate­ri­al­ism seems to have escaped com­men­ta­tors’ atten­tion to the present day.

In a word: read­ers have failed to notice that the late Althusser is the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at in thought. They have, con­se­quent­ly, missed part of the stakes of the omnipres­ence of a the­o­ry of the encoun­ter in Althusser’s work, even when they have noticed that it is in fact omnipresent. With rare excep­tions, they have there­fore tend­ed to down­play the con­ti­nu­ities in his con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the aleato­ry, from Mon­tesquieu to the “June The­ses”; and, even when they empha­size what they gen­er­al­ly call the “antiphilo­soph­i­cal” char­ac­ter of his thought from the mid-70s onwards, they do not notice that this dis­con­ti­nu­ity itself bears wit­ness to the con­ti­nu­ity of a Marx­ist polit­i­cal-philo­soph­i­cal project.

There are excep­tions, to be sure. In a review of Ini­ti­a­tion à la philoso­phie pour les non-philosoph­es, a 1977-78 mono­graph that I would, for my part, attrib­ute to the late Althusser, Michel Eltchani­noff hands down an unam­bigu­ous ver­dict: “hard­core Marx­ist-Lenin­ism” (marx­is­me-lénins­me hard­core). Writ­ing in a phi­los­o­phy mag­a­zine intend­ed for the broad pub­lic, the pro­fessed goal of which is to “make the thought of the great philoso­phers acces­si­ble,” he unabashed­ly advo­cat­ed a hard­core penal­ty for hard­core phi­los­o­phy of this sort: it should be made inac­ces­si­ble, that is, not pub­lished. If it were up to me, you would find this gem on the back cov­er of each and every trans­la­tion of Ini­ti­a­tion, eleven of which are already out or on the way, as I’ve said – and also on the back of every future French edi­tion, such as the sec­ond edi­tion of Ini­ti­a­tion that, pace Eltchani­noff, was pub­lished a few months ago. Unlike the Eltchani­noffs, we have a vital inter­est in mak­ing our adver­saries’ views acces­si­ble to as broad a pub­lic as pos­si­ble.

How are we to explain the neglect of the con­cept of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at in the ini­tial recep­tion of the late Althusser? Let me attempt a par­tial expla­na­tion. The first point bears on the impor­tant recep­tion of Althusser in the Anglo­phone world, where Gre­go­ry Elliott’s study, Althusser: The Detour of The­o­ry, has done much to save Althusser from the obliv­ion which, by the end of 1980s, seemed to be his fate. We read in the first, 1987 edi­tion of Elliott’s book that Althusser was not undu­ly trou­bled by his party’s aban­don­ment of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at, and may even have been in favor of it. The influ­ence of The Detour of The­o­ry was such that at the begin­ning of the first “peri­od” of posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tion, many of Althusser’s Anglo­phone read­ers thought he was a Euro­com­mu­nist. They were thus obvi­ous­ly not inclined to look for a con­nec­tion between the mate­ri­al­ism of the encoun­ter and the non-statal state. Be it not­ed that the Eng­lish ver­sion of the lec­ture that explains this con­nec­tion, “The Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy,” was edit­ed by Elliott. This is as good a proof as any – for Elliott is, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, a good read­er of Althusser – that one can long remain blind to what is blind­ing­ly obvi­ous.

In France, an essay that Anto­nio Negri pub­lished in the jour­nal Futur antérieur prob­a­bly played a sim­i­lar role. Negri was aware, of course, that Althusser had waged his “last strug­gle” again­st the party‘s aban­don­ment of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at. Yet his main the­sis – that the writ­ings of the 1980s tes­ti­fy to an “Althusse­ri­an Kehre” – tends to sug­gest that this strug­gle was the busi­ness of a bygone day. Negri had a pro­nounced influ­ence on authors who are among the lead­ing spe­cial­ists on Althusser‘s life and work, includ­ing Yann Moulier Boutang and François Math­eron. And his the­sis about a 1982-83 Kehre was all the more con­vinc­ing in that the texts of the mid-70s that in my opin­ion con­tra­dict it were pub­lished nei­ther in the first “peri­od” of posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tion nor the sec­ond. Negri, although he had access to the archives, makes no men­tion of them in his 1993 piece.

If it’s true that the absence of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at deformed the recep­tion of the posthu­mous work – for it may of course be that I am com­plete­ly mis­tak­en and that this con­cept doesn’t have the impor­tance I attrib­ute to it – then it must be added that Althusser, the auto-icon­o­clast, did more than any­one else to fal­si­fy his own image by not pub­lish­ing, or pub­lish­ing only abroad, the 1972-78 texts that seem to me to man­date a seri­ous rec­ti­fi­ca­tion of the received under­stand­ing of the “late Althusser.”

For­tu­nate­ly, the­se expla­na­tions, what­ev­er they are worth, bear on a bygone day. In the 2006 sec­ond edi­tion of The Detour of The­o­ry, Elliott acknowl­edged, with exem­plary can­dor, the mis­take he’d made in the first edi­tion. Texts high­light­ing the con­ti­nu­ities in Althusser’s work appeared simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in Eng­lish, Ital­ian, and French, often in advance of the pub­li­ca­tion or trans­la­tion of the posthu­mous or still unpub­lished works upon which they large­ly relied. In France, the appear­ance of Andrea Cavazzini’s short book on “Althusser’s last strug­gle” (Le dernier com­bat d’Althusser), togeth­er with the pub­li­ca­tion, in Péri­ode, of the 1976 Barcelona lec­ture on the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at, the the­o­ret­i­cal core of Les Vach­es noires, have remind­ed us of the impor­tance the con­cept had for Althusser. Above all, new posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tions of the utmost impor­tance for the top­ic to hand appeared between 2012 and 2015: the 1972 Cours sur Rousseau, with an excel­lent intro­duc­tion by Yves Var­gas that points out the aleato­ry-mate­ri­al­ist aspect of the­se lec­tures, as well as Ini­ti­a­tion à la philoso­phie and, espe­cial­ly, Être marx­is­te en philoso­phie. Read togeth­er, the­se texts will, I think, show that Althusser’s last strug­gle was also the strug­gle of the late Althusser.

FB: In the 1970s, between his lec­ture on the “Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy” and Ini­ti­a­tion à la philoso­phie pour les non-philosoph­es, Althusser seemed to be engaged in a full-fledged inves­ti­ga­tion of phi­los­o­phy. Does this phase mark a deep­en­ing of the deci­sive for­mu­lae from “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy,” where phi­los­o­phy is seen as a trac­ing of a line of demar­ca­tion, or a rup­ture with them?

GMG: Let me try to put this mid-1970s phase in per­spec­tive.

Some­time around 1960-61, Althusser aban­doned the antiphilo­soph­i­cal posi­tions he’d tak­en in the lat­ter half of the 1950s. That didn’t stop him from con­tin­u­ing to elab­o­rate the con­cept of the encoun­ter which, inspired by Spinoza’s Trac­ta­tus The­o­logi­co-Politi­cus, is already at work in the Mon­tesquieu book and will dom­i­nate the work of the first half of the 1960s under oth­er names, such as “fusion” and “con­junc­ture.” The result is a mis­al­liance whose index is the quo­ta­tion marks that sur­round the word becom­ing, peace­ful­ly coex­ist­ing with the high the­o­reti­cism of a noto­ri­ous pas­sage in For Marx to the effect that “Gen­er­al The­o­ry,” that is, phi­los­o­phy, express­es the essence of the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice in gen­er­al, hence the essence of prac­tice in gen­er­al, hence the essence of the “becom­ing” of things in gen­er­al. Towards the mid­dle of 1966, Althusser under­stands that if, in the domain that inter­ests him the most, things do not “become,” but irrupt (or, more often, fail to irrupt) in line with the con­tin­gen­cies of the class strug­gle, then the impos­si­ble mar­riage of a the­o­reti­cist the­o­ry of The­o­ry with a mate­ri­al­ist the­o­ry of their irrup­tion has to be annulled with­out delay, since it is an unnat­u­ral union that can only engen­der mon­sters. In time, Althusser notices that he had been even more mis­tak­en than he orig­i­nal­ly thought: as one self-cri­tique is suc­ceed­ed by anoth­er, and then by a third, he comes to under­stand that the Gen­er­al The­o­ry held up in For Marx was a clas­si­cal ide­al­ist the­o­ry of the omnipo­tence of phi­los­o­phy and, as such, the prin­ci­pal adver­sary of the sci­ence of the sin­gu­lar that he had been try­ing to the­o­rize under the name “his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism.” The inves­ti­ga­tion of phi­los­o­phy that runs through the whole of his work and is espe­cial­ly promi­nent, as you point out, in the work of the 1970s and beyond is thus not a sec­ondary occu­pa­tion. What is at stake is some­thing very much like an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal obsta­cle.

By 1966, there­fore, encoun­ter née “con­junc­ture” and the­o­reti­cism “Absolute Knowl­edge” are on their way to a divorce. It takes time. The end of the first stage of the process is marked by “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy,” a lec­ture Althusser gave in Feb­ru­ary 1968, and pub­lished in the form of a short book the fol­low­ing year.11 The sec­ond stage begins with the still unpub­lished “Post­face to Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy,” dat­ed May 1969. The 1972 Cours sur Rousseau and unpub­lished texts writ­ten in 1972-73 are oth­er impor­tant phas­es of this stage. The divorce is con­sum­mat­ed in March 1976 with “The Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy,” which denounces the age-old com­plic­i­ty between the dom­i­nant philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion and the dom­i­nant class’s state in order to coun­ter­pose to them, as we’ve said, a non-philo­soph­i­cal phi­los­o­phy whose cor­rel­a­tive is the Nicht­staat of the dom­i­nat­ed, the cor­ner­stone of a tran­si­tion­al struc­ture of dom­i­na­tion that bears the unfor­tu­nate name, in the Marx­ist tra­di­tion, of dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at.

“The Trans­for­ma­tion” calls this non-philo­soph­i­cal phi­los­o­phy a “new prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy,” a prac­tice con­cretized in Ini­ti­a­tion and Être marx­is­te and sit­u­at­ed – in a chap­ter of the lat­ter on the Epi­cure­ans and the Sto­ics, the cli­na­men, the void, the encoun­ter and the “take” – in a long tra­di­tion of a “the­o­ry of the encoun­ter” which “flies in the face of the ide­al­ist tra­di­tion” and has “hard­ly been con­scious­ly per­ceived until now, except by Machi­avel­li, Spin­oza, and Marx.”12 Thus, just like Ini­ti­a­tion, which sketch­es cer­tain prin­ci­ples of the mate­ri­al­ism of the encoun­ter before illus­trat­ing them in an out­line his­to­ry of the emer­gence of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, Être Marx­is­te brings togeth­er what seems to me to be the core of the late Althusser’s thought and “the new prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy,” which the last three chap­ters of the book, a revised ver­sion of one whole sec­tion of “The Trans­for­ma­tion,” are explic­it­ly about.

It’s per­haps worth not­ing that Althusser was often seri­ous­ly ill between 1968 and 1973, and incred­i­bly pro­duc­tive there­after, in the mid-1970s. Had he already start­ed draft­ing Être marx­is­te before 1976? Def­i­nite­ly, in a sense, inas­much as the first chap­ter of this book over­laps with the 1969 man­u­script pub­lished in 1995 in On Repro­duc­tion, the sec­ond vol­ume of which was to have been about phi­los­o­phy in its rela­tion with class strug­gle and the state. There seems to be no oth­er trace of this pro­ject­ed sec­ond vol­ume, oth­er than the 1976-78 texts them­selves, which have thus come to stand in for it.

But let’s back up. After hav­ing defined “the new prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy“ by way of a read­ing of Mate­ri­al­ism and Empirio-crit­i­cism, Althusser declar­es at the end of “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy” that it “can trans­form phi­los­o­phy.”13 There could be no clear­er way of indi­cat­ing that, after the 1976 turn, the 1968 turn was “fatal­ly inevitable,” as the unnamed expert I cit­ed at the begin­ning of our inter­view might put it. The same con­ti­nu­ity – or ten­den­tious, tele­o­log­i­cal rewrite, that’s the whole ques­tion – is sub­tly brought out in a dif­fer­ent way by “Phi­los­o­phy and Marx­ism,” the mid-1980s inter­view with Althusser that is, to a great extent, a col­lage of extracts and sum­maries of texts he wrote after 1967, some pub­lished in his life­time, oth­ers pub­lished posthu­mous­ly, and still oth­ers unpub­lished to the present day.14 At Althusser’s request, more­over, this very use­ful late-Althusse­ri­an reader’s guide to the ear­lier Althusser(s) was put togeth­er in the light of Être Marx­is­te and, prob­a­bly, Ini­ti­a­tion as well.

Is the con­ti­nu­ity that Althusser per­ceived in his work of 1967-76 real? That’s the sense of your ques­tion, I believe: Is the trac­ing of a line of demar­ca­tion con­ceived in the same way in “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy” as in 1976-78?

Yes and no. So that I don’t go on too long, let me give you an out­ra­geous­ly schemat­ic answer.

I. The cen­tral prob­lem of the first Althusser, the antiphiloso­pher of the 1950s, is that of the philo­soph­i­cal cir­cle: How does one reject phi­los­o­phy with­out found­ing a phi­los­o­phy? His answer, Der­ridean avant la let­tre, is that there isn’t real­ly any escap­ing phi­los­o­phy philo­soph­i­cal­ly. The task of the Marx­ist in phi­los­o­phy (not of the Marx­ist philoso­pher, a con­tra­dic­tion in terms) is there­fore to prac­tice the sci­ence of phi­los­o­phy, and to write the sci­en­tific his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy.

II. Althusser takes up this prob­lem again in Novem­ber-Decem­ber 1967, in a course of ini­ti­a­tion into phi­los­o­phy for non-philoso­phers aimed at sci­en­tists, in which he affirms that it’s impos­si­ble to rad­i­cal­ly escape from the philo­soph­i­cal cir­cle by prac­tic­ing the sci­ence of phi­los­o­phy, because to pro­duce knowl­edge about phi­los­o­phy is nec­es­sar­i­ly to take up a posi­tion in phi­los­o­phy. But he reaf­firms, in “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy,” that the task of the Marx­ist in phi­los­o­phy is to prac­tice the sci­ence of phi­los­o­phy. How does one con­ju­gate the about with the in? Respon­se: By set­ting out from a Marx­ist sci­ence of phi­los­o­phy in order to inter­vene polit­i­cal­ly in phi­los­o­phy – a respon­se bor­rowed from Lenin’s philo­soph­i­cal prac­tice, which also, accord­ing to Althusser, holds the key to the sci­ence he is try­ing to found.

Lenin’s prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy as inter­pret­ed by Althusser sets out from the premise of a dual rela­tion­ship: between phi­los­o­phy and pol­i­tics on the one hand, and phi­los­o­phy and sci­ence on the oth­er. Philoso­phies are divid­ed into two basic ten­den­cies on the basis of their rela­tion to the sci­ences. Most invoke the author­i­ty of the sci­ences in order to turn their results to ide­o­log­i­cal, non-sci­en­tific ends, which comes down to exploit­ing them in the ser­vice of a pol­i­tics with­out acknowl­edg­ing it. The oth­ers defend the sci­ences, basi­cal­ly by denounc­ing this ide­o­log­i­cal exploita­tion and the accom­pa­ny­ing denial or denega­tion – a denun­ci­a­tion which is also a polit­i­cal act and the assump­tion of a par­ti­san posi­tion, but which acknowl­edges itself to be such.

To say that the draw­ing of a line of demar­ca­tion is first of all this denun­ci­a­tion is to say that it is the act which, every time it occurs, gives rise to both philo­soph­i­cal ten­den­cies, mate­ri­al­ist and ide­al­ist, or, at least, brings them out into the open, in defi­ance of the denial char­ac­ter­is­tic of ide­al­ist phi­los­o­phy. In this sense, the line of demar­ca­tion is a bat­tle line, and draw­ing it is what makes the encoun­ter of the com­bat­tants pos­si­ble. The new prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy, as Althusser sketch­es it in 1968, is this polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion in the philo­soph­i­cal field, but with a view to the out­side of phi­los­o­phy rep­re­sent­ed by the sci­ences, which are the stakes, in the last instance, of draw­ing a line of demar­ca­tion in phi­los­o­phy.

III. The new prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy put to work in the 1976-78 texts con­sists in draw­ing lines of demar­ca­tion with the basic aim of decon­struct­ing the dom­i­nant philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion by expos­ing the dis­avowals that sus­tain it. The dis­avowal denounced in many a Great Philoso­pher turns out to be the index of a deep com­plic­i­ty with the estab­lished order of his day. Waged in the name of a Marx­ist sci­ence of phi­los­o­phy that makes it pos­si­ble to escape, to the extent that one can, the philo­soph­i­cal “infer­nal cir­cle,” this oper­a­tion brings to light a fun­da­men­tal philo­soph­i­cal ten­den­cy, the mate­ri­al­ism of the encoun­ter, “which clash­es with” the oppos­ing fun­da­men­tal ten­den­cy, sec­u­lar ide­al­ism. The philo­soph­i­cal bat­tles that draw­ing a line of demar­ca­tion between Pla­to and Epi­cu­rus can touch off are doubtless not of the same order as those that Lenin waged again­st Bog­danov, but the encoun­ter – in the antag­o­nis­tic sense of the word – remains the aim of the game: as Althusser remarks in Être marx­is­te, Pla­to, Aris­totle, Dem­ocri­tus, Epi­cu­rus, etc. are as present in our time as ever, and there are philoso­phers “ready to fight again­st them today, to the death.” In sum, Être marx­is­te and Ini­ti­a­tion obvi­ous­ly do not “break” with the for­mu­lae of “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy.”

That said, there are major dis­con­ti­nu­ities between 1968 and 1976-78: the line of demar­ca­tion remains, but what is on one side and the oth­er of it shifts.

Con­trary to what “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy” might sug­gest, Althusser’s prin­ci­pal objec­tive is not to assign philoso­phers to one camp or the oth­er. As he points out in the self-crit­i­cisms he wrote in 1972 and pub­lished in 1973-74, and as he had already shown in his analy­ses of the ide­al­ist strand in Marx or the mate­ri­al­ism of Mon­tesquieu and Hegel, there is no pure phi­los­o­phy: the line of demar­ca­tion between ide­al­ism and mate­ri­al­ism criss­cross­es every major philo­soph­i­cal oeu­vre, an idea that finds its trans­la­tion in fine-grained his­tor­i­cal analy­ses devel­oped above all in Être marx­is­te, which dis­en­tan­gles the mate­ri­al­ist ele­ments present in ide­al­ist thought, from Aris­totle through Kant and Descartes to Hei­deg­ger, in order to show how the­se ele­ments final­ly adapt to the demands of a philo­soph­i­cal pro­gram that is in the last instance polit­i­cal.

In the 1968 lec­ture (“Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy”), the the­sis that great “philo­soph­i­cal reor­ga­ni­za­tions” always fol­low the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tions that induce them is pre­sent­ed at length; this would explain the absence of “the great work of phi­los­o­phy that Marx­ism-Lenin­ism lacks” a cen­tu­ry after the appear­ance of the first vol­ume of Cap­i­tal. This a slight­ly reworked ver­sion of a the­sis that dates back to the pre­vi­ous phase of Althusser’s thought, where the line of demar­ca­tion took the form of an abrupt and defin­i­tive “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break” that sep­a­rat­ed off two Marx­ist sci­ences from theır ide­o­log­i­cal past, the oth­er being dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism – a sci­en­tific phi­los­o­phy found­ed de jure, if not de fac­to, wıth the Marx­ist sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion. Even in revised form, which made the break a “sus­tained break,” this idea was slat­ed to dis­ap­pear. In the unpub­lished May 1969 Post­face to “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy,” Althusser asserts that it is impos­si­ble to pro­duce a sci­en­tific analy­sis of a class soci­ety with­out adopt­ing the point of view of the dom­i­nat­ed, and thus an ide­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal posi­tion in the class strug­gle: the phi­los­o­phy that trans­lates this polit­i­cal stance finds “its place” in the ratio­nal sci­en­tific elab­o­ra­tion that fol­lows it. In Chap­ter 1 of On the Repro­duc­tion of Cap­i­tal­ism, which also dates from the first half of 1969, he notes that changes in class rela­tions and the state can by them­selves induce “great trans­for­ma­tions” in phi­los­o­phy. In “On the Evo­lu­tion of the Young Marx,” writ­ten in 1970 but pub­lished 3-4 years lat­er, he states that Marx’s philo­soph­i­cal stance in the 1840s was the indis­pens­able con­di­tion for his found­ing the sci­ence of his­to­ry, and that this tak­ing up a posi­tion in phi­los­o­phy was deter­mined, in its turn, by his pro­le­tar­i­an polit­i­cal stance. As for the absence of a great work of Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy one hun­dred years after Cap­i­tal, “The Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy” iden­ti­fies it as a pos­i­tive expres­sion of the Marx­ist-Lenin­ist posi­tion in phi­los­o­phy: because the sys­tem­atic­i­ty of ide­al­ist phi­los­o­phy is a reflec­tion and instru­ment of the oppres­sive uni­ty of the rul­ing order, the great Marx­ists’ refusal to pro­duce philo­soph­i­cal sys­tems in the clas­si­cal sense becomes, for the Althusser of the mid-70s, a trans­la­tion of their dis­trust of the state, of tra­di­tion­al phi­los­o­phy, and of the rela­tions that con­nect them.

In philosophy’s dou­ble rela­tion­ship to the sci­ences and pol­i­tics, then, the weight given to the lat­ter steadi­ly increas­es between 1968 and 1976. In his unfin­ished 1976 auto­bi­og­ra­phy, The Facts, Althusser sums up the evo­lu­tion of his con­cep­tion of phi­los­o­phy as the effect of his new appre­ci­a­tion of the state’s role in philosophy’s recur­rent his­to­ry; if, as he con­ceived it in the 1960s, trans­for­ma­tions in phi­los­o­phy essen­tial­ly accom­mo­dat­ed sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tions, the irrup­tion of which called exist­ing philosophy’s uni­ty into ques­tion, he had since real­ized that this vision of things had to be com­pli­cat­ed in order to account for the rela­tion between phi­los­o­phy and the state, and thus for philosophy’s role in sys­tem­atiz­ing and uni­fy­ing the dom­i­nant ide­ol­o­gy. From 1973 on, philosophy’s rela­tion to the sci­ences real­ly only con­sti­tutes its “speci­fici­ty”: it bor­rows the forms of its ratio­nal­i­ty from them to serve the needs of the philo­soph­i­cal cause. What now deter­mi­nes phi­los­o­phy in the last instance is its polit­i­cal or “sta­tist” role – its func­tion of mas­tery or uni­fi­ca­tion of the ide­olo­gies in the ser­vice of the dom­i­nant class.

Con­crete­ly, this means that a line of demar­ca­tion has to be drawn between the line of demar­ca­tion that Althusser envis­aged draw­ing in 1968, and the one he effec­tive­ly draws in Ini­ti­a­tion and Être marx­is­te. It means, as well, that it is high time to reha­bil­i­tate John Lewis.

Admit­ted­ly, the func­tion served by the trac­ing this line is the same in 1968 as it is in 1976-78: set­ting out from non-philo­soph­i­cal posi­tions orig­i­nat­ing in a Marx­ist sci­ence of phi­los­o­phy, it serves to expose the dis­avowal of a philo­soph­i­cal rela­tion of exploita­tion. And, as dic­tat­ed by the log­ic of the dou­ble rela­tion, the stakes are the same as well: in the last instance, the class dic­ta­tor­ship that philo­soph­i­cal phi­los­o­phy exer­cis­es philo­soph­i­cal­ly, dis­tort­ing and sub­du­ing prac­tices poten­tial­ly threat­en­ing to this dic­ta­tor­ship – of course, in the domain of phi­los­o­phy, by mobi­liz­ing abstrac­tions and a ratio­nal­i­ty bor­rowed from the sci­ences, and thus dis­tant from the class strug­gle in the usu­al sense of the term, and even dis­tant from the prac­tices in ques­tion. But the prac­tices involved are not the same as in 1968. This is where we are sum­moned to acknowl­edge John Lewis’s con­tri­bu­tion on this essen­tial point, as Althusser does in a foot­note in his famous Respon­se, a note that has gone unno­ticed because Être Marx­is­te and Ini­ti­a­tion remained unpub­lished for forty years. The note reads: “John Lewis is right to crit­i­cize me on this point: phi­los­o­phy is not only ‘con­cerned’ with pol­i­tics and the sci­ences, but with all social prac­tices.”15

I believe we have to attach all the impor­tance it deserves to this small note, which sums up a dimen­sion of the 1972 self-crit­i­cism that would only real­ly be elab­o­rat­ed by the late Althusser, pri­mar­i­ly in the prac­ti­cal state, in texts writ­ten in 1976-78 and there­after. Why, in 1968, was the Althusse­ri­an con­cep­tion of philosophy’s exploita­tion of prac­tice lim­it­ed to its exploita­tion of sci­en­tific prac­tice? We might answer: because what Althusser basi­cal­ly had in mind was the ide­o­log­i­cal exploita­tion of Marx­ist sci­ence, again­st which he had been strug­gling for a decade, and because he envis­aged human eman­ci­pa­tion through the fig­ure of the polit­i­cal encoun­ter of this sci­ence with the work­ers’ move­ment. But this answer only restates the ques­tion. With­out call­ing the deci­sive impor­tance of this union of the­o­ry and prac­tice into ques­tion, and with­out ced­ing to any kind of irra­tional­ism – despite what cer­tain ambigu­ous for­mu­lae char­ac­ter­is­tic of the very last Althusser might sug­gest – the texts that Althusser pro­duced from the mid-70s on tell a dif­fer­ent sto­ry, begin­ning with the idea that the object of the new prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy must be the rela­tion of phi­los­o­phy to its out­side, the whole of its out­side, and thus its rela­tion to all oth­er human prac­tices, so as to ensure their pri­ma­cy over the­o­ry itself, so as to lib­er­ate the­se prac­tices – and the­o­ry to boot.

That is why, in my opin­ion, the for­mu­la­tions of “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy” weren’t final – and why the reply of John Lewis deserves to be reeval­u­at­ed.

FB: The Press­es uni­ver­si­taires de France (PUF) recent­ly pub­lished Ini­ti­a­tion à la philoso­phie pour les non-philosoph­es. What is this text‘s speci­fic con­tri­bu­tion from the stand­point of the exist­ing lit­er­a­ture on Althusser? How might we describe the peri­od or peri­ods in which it was writ­ten in terms of the philo­soph­ico-polit­i­cal strate­gies that Althusser sought to deploy?

GMG: In prin­ci­ple, it’s not the task of an “Intro­duc­tion to“ or “Ini­ti­a­tion into phi­los­o­phy“ to car­ry out inno­va­tions at the the­o­ret­i­cal lev­el. But Ini­ti­a­tion does offer one siz­able inno­va­tion; more exact­ly, it devel­ops the inno­va­tion sug­gest­ed in the foot­note I just dis­cussed. It’s only with Ini­ti­a­tion that Althusser’s decon­struc­tive project takes on the dimen­sions that Reply to John Lewis calls for, through a prop­er­ly Marx­ist con­cep­tion of the rela­tion between the­o­ry and prac­tice, and thus between phi­los­o­phy and its out­side: the world of the prac­tices, all the prac­tices. We still have to do with a dou­ble rela­tion of the type defined in “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy,” between phi­los­o­phy and pol­i­tics on the one hand and phi­los­o­phy and the prac­tices that it exploits on the oth­er. But because it exploits all of them, so that it can incor­po­rate them all into its scheme of philo­soph­i­cal dom­i­na­tion, and because the ulti­mate goal of the strug­gle that non-philo­soph­i­cal phi­los­o­phy wages again­st it is to free those prac­tices from the grip of the state phi­los­o­phy that it rep­re­sents at its lev­el, Ini­ti­a­tion pass­es them in review – not all of them, of course, but a good­ly num­ber of them nonethe­less. To what end? So as to define and illus­trate a new prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy that would take its own sub­or­di­na­tion to the prac­tices into account in its own (non)-philosophical prac­tice. That’s the sense in which it rep­re­sents sci­ence – the Marx­ist sci­ence of phi­los­o­phy – with/before pol­i­tics: by rep­re­sent­ing the prac­tices with/before phi­los­o­phy.

This is a decon­struc­tive project that plain­ly has a lot in com­mon with Derrida’s. And, at the moment when he was writ­ing first Être marx­is­te, and then Ini­ti­a­tion (the pro­duct of a rad­i­cal rewrit­ing of Être marx­is­te), one of Althusser’s politi­co-philo­soph­i­cal strate­gies seems to have con­sist­ed in try­ing to build a philo­soph­i­cal alliance with Jacques Der­ri­da. When Althusser writes in a draft of Être marx­is­te that Der­ridean decon­struc­tion leads straight to the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at, in the mid­dle of Althusser’s philo­soph­i­cal strug­gle to rep­re­sent this “sci­en­tific” con­cept with/before pol­i­tics, I think we ought to take him seri­ous­ly, the play­ful tone of the pas­sage notwith­stand­ing: Être marx­is­te, like Ini­ti­a­tion before it, tries to resolve the prob­lem of the philo­soph­i­cal cir­cle by inscrib­ing the mar­gins of phi­los­o­phy in its cen­ter, in line with a non-philo­soph­i­cal strat­e­gy that seeks to be explic­it­ly Althusse­ri­an-Der­ridean.

We can take a remark made by Alain Badiou at a con­fer­ence held in Althusser’s hon­or a few months after his death as a mea­sure of the dis­tance cov­ered between the­se texts and those of the lat­ter half of the 1960s. Unlike Lacan, Der­ri­da, and Fou­cault, who were all antiphiloso­phers, Althusser, accord­ing to Badiou, ulti­mate­ly defend­ed philosophia peren­nis. That was more or less true in the days of “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy,” the text Badiou had in mind at this 1991 con­fer­ence. And one can in fact make the claim that the late Althusser is not exact­ly an anti-philoso­pher; he is, as we have been repeat­ing for a while now, a non-philo­soph­i­cal philoso­pher who believes that phi­los­o­phy will always exist, like ide­ol­o­gy. But to take that as grounds for cast­ing Althusser in the role of cham­pi­on of philosophia peren­nis, in con­trast with Der­ri­da… The rea­son is doubtless that Badiou, who knew the Althusser of the peri­od 1960-72 very well, appar­ent­ly didn’t at all know the author of “The Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy,” although the lec­ture had been deliv­ered fif­teen years before Althusser’s death. He didn’t, obvi­ous­ly, know Ini­ti­a­tion, either.

Indi­ca­tions are that Der­ri­da wasn’t inclined to con­clude a philo­soph­i­cal pact of the kind Althusser was propos­ing: dur­ing two sem­i­nars held, I believe, in 1974-76, Der­ri­da sub­ject­ed his long­time friend’s work to a sev­ere cri­tique, focus­ing, rather curi­ous­ly, not to say unfair­ly, on the texts of his the­o­reti­cist peri­od. The fact remains that Der­ri­da exer­cised an increas­ing­ly pow­er­ful influ­ence on Althusser from 1976 on. Philosophia peren­nis had had its day.

Let me make one last remark on the con­tri­bu­tion and impor­tance of Ini­ti­a­tion, in a sense some­what dif­fer­ent from yours. By show­ing us how deeply embed­ded Althusser’s lat­er thought was in his thought of the mid-1970s (if the two peri­ods are to be dis­tin­guished at all), Ini­ti­a­tion can, I think, help us to under­stand “The Under­ground Cur­rent” bet­ter. The sec­ond of the­se two texts, short and incom­plete, con­tains a good num­ber of the ambigu­ous for­mu­las I’ve men­tioned, those that can be tak­en as proof of a “late” turn toward fideism, irra­tional­ism, ontol­o­giza­tion of the void, mys­ti­cism, and so on. All this has been point­ed out, and is indis­putable. Yet, except for the brief his­to­ry of the under­ground cur­rent from Epi­cu­rus to Der­ri­da, the cen­tral the­ses of this “late Althusse­ri­an” text are an inte­gral part of Ini­ti­a­tion and Être marx­is­te, which both take as their point of depar­ture the idea of a sci­ence of Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy that is itself based on a sci­ence of his­to­ry whose fun­da­men­tal con­cept is the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at. What’s more, the­se works of the 1970s explic­it­ly and unam­bigu­ous­ly denounce ontol­o­giza­tion of the void, or the “pure­ly ide­al­ist” notion that a “world” can emerge from noth­ing – ideas that are ascrib­able to the author of the “Under­ground Cur­rent” on the sole con­di­tion that this lat­ter text is iso­lat­ed from the rest of his work, notably that of the mid-70s. I see no good rea­son to do so.

FB: It’s well-known that Althusser, in line with his cri­tique of the meth­ods employed by the PCF in the Union of the Left, was very skep­ti­cal about the the­o­ry of state monopoly cap­i­tal­ism put for­ward by Paul Boc­cara. How did Althusser pro­pose to coun­ter the the­o­ret­i­cal chal­lenge posed by such a con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism in the 1970s?

GMG: Althusser wasn’t opposed to the Union of the Left, which the PCF had been call­ing for since the mid-1960s. His cri­tique tar­get­ed the “the­o­ret­i­cal com­pro­mis­es” – and thus the polit­i­cal com­pro­mis­es – that it could bring in its wake, espe­cial­ly those that struck at what he believed to be the heart of Marx’s doc­trine: the “sci­ence of the class strug­gle,” the “cru­cial the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal point” of which was the con­cept of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at. The spear­head of the “left-wing anti-Stal­in­ism” that summed up, as he saw it, his own politi­co-philo­soph­i­cal inter­ven­tion in the first half of the 1960s was his cri­tique of econ­o­mistic and human­ist inter­pre­ta­tions of Marx­ism. It seems that he thought, down to 1966, that the “rev­o­lu­tion­ary weapon” of the­o­ry would suf­fice to halt the right­ist course of the PCF and PCUS that the­se inter­pre­ta­tions of Marx inspired, or rather, retroac­tive­ly jus­ti­fied. After the 1966 Cen­tral Com­mit­tee meet­ing at Argen­teuil, where a good many of the PCF’s intel­lec­tu­als debat­ed For Marx and Read­ing Cap­i­tal for three days before pro­duc­ing a res­o­lu­tion favor­able to Marx­ist human­ism, Althusser lost all hope for a renewal from with­in of the com­mu­nist move­ment of Sovi­et obe­di­ence: social­ism was in dan­ger of dying where it exist­ed and the PCI and PCF, hav­ing “ceased to be rev­o­lu­tion­ary par­ties,” were “prac­ti­cal­ly lost.”

An increas­ing­ly Maoist Althusser turned his back on the par­ty in the mid-60s, with­out turn­ing in his mem­ber­ship card, and sought refuge in the trans­par­ent “clan­des­tin­i­ty” of a group of intel­lec­tu­als. Some were mem­bers of the PCF, oth­ers were Maoists or mem­bers of the PSU or both. This “Groupe Spin­oza” ana­lyzed world events at “secret” meet­ings held at the ENS. The first Althusse­ri­an text on state monopoly cap­i­tal­ism (SMC) that I know of dates from Jan­u­ary 1969, and thus from the end of this peri­od, which saw Althusser, who’d been seri­ous­ly ill since April 1968, going back to work at a moment when the lit­tle group of his col­lab­o­ra­tors was falling apart. Paul Boccara’s elab­o­ra­tion of his ver­sion of the the­o­ry of “SMC” was in its ear­ly stages at the time. Althusser’s 1969 cri­tique had it that it was a “bour­geois-ide­o­log­i­cal notion, whose func­tion [was] to jus­ti­fy the peace­ful tran­si­tion to social­ism.”

Althusser was soon enough con­vinced that he had to change course so as not to squan­der the the­o­ret­i­cal cred­it he’d accu­mu­lat­ed in the par­ty. The result was a peri­od of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the PCF that began in the first half of 1969, dur­ing which he pro­posed to meet the “the­o­ret­i­cal chal­lenge” posed by var­i­ous Com­mu­nist the­o­rists such as Boc­cara or Lucien Sève by con­tin­u­ing to elab­o­rate a left Marx­ism aimed, first and fore­most, at par­ty mil­i­tants, but also the far-left and the “move­ments.” This by no means led to intel­lec­tu­al com­pro­mise: thus the 1969-70 On Repro­duc­tion declar­es that it isn’t the busi­ness of a com­mu­nist par­ty to man­age state affairs by tak­ing part in a gov­ern­ment. For Althusser, this holds even for the state of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at, to say noth­ing of the state of the cap­i­tal­ist class. But this was a peri­od of com­pro­mise all the same: On Repro­duc­tion and oth­er texts that attack the PCF’s and PCI’s pol­i­tics weren’t pub­lished dur­ing Althusser’s life­time. The two chap­ters of Livre sur impérial­is­me that cri­tique the the­o­ry of SMC date from the sum­mer of 1973, that is, from the same peri­od of the­o­ret­i­cal audac­i­ty cou­pled with polit­i­cal pru­dence. It was also at this time that Althusser laid plans to launch a new series for Hachet­te to facil­i­tate and pro­mote the pub­li­ca­tion of the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal works addressed to “the Peo­ple of the Left,“ as the French expres­sion goes. Would Livre sur impérial­is­me have found its place here? Noth­ing proves oth­er­wise, but the series had foundered by ear­ly 1975; what we have of this work is frag­men­tary, and the two chap­ters on SMC are among the sec­tions that were left unfin­ished.

The cri­tique of the con­cept of SMC under­tak­en there spells out the impli­ca­tions of Boccara’s economism for the the­o­ry of the state with a view to com­bat­ting them. Althusser con­structs his cri­tique around the idea that “the class strug­gle is absent from this analy­sis: that’s the worst thing about it.” Since the class struggle/ the encoun­ter of the class­es is, for Althusser, the prime instance of the encoun­ter, which he already thinks in aleato­ry-mate­ri­al­ist terms, the cri­tique of Boc­cara cul­mi­nates in a dif­fer­ent account of the emer­gence of SMC (or what this notion alludes to). Although this cri­tique is poor­ly elab­o­rat­ed, it tar­gets miscog­ni­tion of the aleato­ry in Marx him­self.

Why? Basi­cal­ly because Boccara’s the­o­ry presents the tran­si­tion to social­ism as the nat­u­ral con­se­quence of the evo­lu­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, which, after hav­ing passed through the phas­es of com­pe­ti­tion between small enter­pris­es, and then of dom­i­na­tion by large monop­o­lies, is sup­posed to have attained the dis­tinct phase of state monopoly cap­i­tal­ism, in which the state becomes a vast eco­nom­ic enter­prise. Hence the French peo­ple could ini­ti­ate the tran­si­tion to social­ism with­out class strug­gle. It need only resolve to vote for an “advanced democ­ra­cy” – anoth­er PCF slo­gan of the day – to lim­it the monop­o­lies’ pow­er; this would be all the eas­ier because the con­tra­dic­tion between the old rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and the unre­strained devel­op­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces brought on by tech­no­log­i­cal pro­gress had plunged SMC into cri­sis. The log­ic of “class col­lab­o­ra­tion” implied by this economism, adds the 1969 text, is com­pa­ra­ble to the log­ic Kaut­sky mobi­lized dur­ing the First World War, which had it that cap­i­tal­ism had already become a “sin­gle state trust” that could be trans­formed into the first stage of social­ism by means of a sim­ple trans­fer of title.

But what of the denun­ci­a­tions, stan­dard PCF fare, of the way the monop­o­lies were manip­u­lat­ing the state “in order to impose their will on the French peo­ple?” They were sham, accord­ing to Althusser. On the one hand, the party’s words weren’t accom­pa­nied by actions direct­ed again­st the alleged adver­sary; on the oth­er, they flew in the face of this the­o­riza­tion of SMC as a stage on the way to social­ism. What was the point of fight­ing an objec­tive ally?

Boccara’s eco­nom­ic rea­son­ing is crit­i­cized in its turn. Althusser’s cri­tique is aimed above all at his under­stand­ing of the role of the over­ac­cu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal in the for­ma­tion and rein­force­ment of SMC, “cob­bled togeth­er on the basis of three para­graphs in Cap­i­tal” and a “lit­tle phrase” of Lenin’s that makes SMC the “antecham­ber to social­ism.”

Accord­ing to Boccara’s argu­ment as it’s pre­sent­ed in Livre sur l’imperialisme, over­ac­cu­mu­la­tion occurs when the ten­den­cy for the rate of prof­it to fall that results from the ris­ing organ­ic com­po­si­tion of cap­i­tal reach­es a lim­it beyond which the val­oriza­tion of a por­tion of total cap­i­tal is blocked. From then on, there is an excess of cap­i­tal. A styl­ist even in his rough drafts, Althusser sums up the con­se­quences by way of a metaphor: over­ac­cu­mu­lat­ed cap­i­tal, unable to find labor pow­er to exploit, “cruis­es the side­walks until it’s picked up” the state (se fait dra­guer par l‘État), which employs it in unprof­itable sec­tors, par­tic­u­lar­ly “pub­lic ser­vices.” But this “unem­ployed cap­i­tal” can also take to the high road of inter­na­tion­al spec­u­la­tion, in search of extra prof­its.

Boccara’s rea­son­ing is weak, accord­ing to Althusser, because: 

  • He con­fus­es cap­i­tal and mon­ey. The mon­ey invest­ed in “pub­lic ser­vices“ are not cap­i­tal. To be cap­i­tal, mon­ey must func­tion as cap­i­tal.
  • It is con­tra­dic­to­ry to affirm that “excess“ cap­i­tal makes its way into unprof­itable sec­tors or ven­tures abroad in search of prof­its: if this cap­i­tal can head off in search of high prof­its, then it’s not excess cap­i­tal and there is no over­ac­cu­mu­la­tion.
  • The notion of “pub­lic ser­vices,“ an Althusse­ri­an bête noire, is ide­o­log­i­cal through and through. The social mea­sures that the work­ing class has man­aged to secure have undoubt­ed­ly put the bur­den of ensur­ing cer­tain con­di­tions of the repro­duc­tion of labor on the state. But it is the work­ing class that finances the­se ser­vices by pay­ing pro­por­tion­al­ly high­er tax­es – direct or indi­rect – than oth­ers. Fur­ther­more, the “ser­vices” thus financed basi­cal­ly serve the inter­ests of cap­i­tal; they serve the work­ing class’s inter­ests either not at all, or only indi­rect­ly.

But the fun­da­men­tal error com­mit­ted by the “SMC boys” doesn’t reside in a mis­per­cep­tion of the lim­it beyond which over­ac­cu­mu­la­tion trig­gers an irre­solv­able sys­temic cri­sis by forc­ing cap­i­tal­ists to turn to the state and, con­se­quent­ly, agree to see their cap­i­tal con­fined to unprof­itable sec­tors, or even con­sent to a sit­u­a­tion in which the sav­ings of the exploit­ed are no longer drained off by the banks and con­vert­ed into cap­i­tal. Their fun­da­men­tal mis­take is to believe that such a lim­it can exist. In real­i­ty, “there is no absolute bar­ri­er to cap­i­tal.” In order to fab­ri­cate a “bour­geois Marx­ist ide­ol­o­gy” which, like every oth­er kind of economism, tends to con­demn the work­ing class to pas­siv­i­ty, one has to take ten­den­cies sub­ject to the his­tor­i­cal law of the class strug­gle for mechan­i­cal laws. Accord­ing to Althusser, oth­er Marx­ists, and by no means the least of them, have fal­l­en into the same trap – notably, Marx, or a cer­tain Marx, who also failed to see that over­ac­cu­mu­la­tion is coun­ter­act­ed by the deval­u­a­tion of con­stant cap­i­tal as a result of tech­ni­cal pro­gress, for exam­ple, but also of the destruc­tion of over­ac­cu­mu­lat­ed cap­i­tal and sur­plus pop­u­la­tion in wars.

This affir­ma­tion is fol­lowed by a sketch of the his­to­ry of class strug­gles in France and the Unit­ed States, sup­posed to have led, in both coun­tries (with the help of the Sec­ond World War) to the emer­gence of an “eco­nom­ic state appa­ra­tus” that under­pins what Boc­cara calls SMC. Too short to be con­clu­sive, this sketch attempts to show that the class strug­gle of French and Amer­i­can cap­i­tal cul­mi­nat­ed in the same end result – a pro­vi­sion­al solu­tion to cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis – by way of the diver­gent expe­ri­ences of the New Deal and the hijack­ing of the gains of the Pop­u­lar Front, but also by way of expe­ri­ences as unpre­dictable as were the con­tin­gen­cies of WWII fol­lowed by those of impe­ri­al­ist glob­al­iza­tion.

Is this to say that the Althusse­ri­an respon­se to the chal­lenge of the SMC the­o­rists is ulti­mate­ly to be sought in the late Althusse­ri­an mate­ri­al­ism of the encoun­ter? Inso­far as Althusser’s con­tri­bu­tion to this under­ground tra­di­tion is the mate­ri­al­ism of the aleato­ry encoun­ter known as class strug­gle, of which Althusse­ri­an Marx­ism claims to be the sci­ence, noth­ing pre­vents us from answer­ing in the affir­ma­tive. We can go still fur­ther: it is the defense of the con­cept of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at at the heart of the mate­ri­al­ism of the encoun­ter that con­sti­tutes the respon­se, in the last instance, to any econ­o­mistic the­o­riza­tion of the state and the “becom­ing-nec­es­sary” of the state. This is anoth­er indi­ca­tion that Althusser’s last strug­gle again­st the aban­don­ment of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at was the strug­gle of the late Althusser, which he had set out to wage, as we have just seen, in his 1973 Livre sur impérial­is­me.

Marchais et al

Some of the archi­tects of the Union of the Left. From left to right: François Mit­terand, Louis Aragon, Georges Mar­chais, Robert Fab­re.

FB: The polemic of the 1970s that Althusser direct­ed again­st the PCF was close­ly bound up with the party’s aban­don­ment of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at. Among the still unpub­lished texts that deal with this ques­tion is, I believe, a “self-inter­view“ titled Les Vach­es noires. Could you say some­thing about the gen­e­sis of this text, and, espe­cial­ly, about its con­tent? What new insights does it hold about the con­tro­ver­sies that Althusser engaged in in this peri­od?

GMG: You will have under­stood that I think that the con­cept of class dic­ta­tor­ship, far from being “beyond” Althusser’s philo­soph­i­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, was at the heart of them. This holds at least since his 1959 book on Mon­tesquieu, in which he defends the idea that the feu­dal class dic­ta­tor­ship per­se­vered in its being right up to the Journées révo­lu­tion­naires of 1789. Was this a way of protest­ing the West­ern Com­mu­nist par­ties’ pre­dictable aban­don­ment of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at, fore­see­able since the CPSU’s 20th Con­gress? I sus­pect it was. What’s cer­tain is that this idea is at odds with the econ­o­mistic con­cep­tion of the decline of feu­dal­ism under Abso­lutism favored by a cer­tain Karl Marx. The cri­tique pre­sent­ed in Mon­tesquieu is tak­en up again, as is, in an unfin­ished pas­sage of “The Under­ground Cur­rent” that takes issue with the “total­i­tar­i­an, tele­o­log­i­cal, and philo­soph­i­cal” aspect of Marx­i­an thought. That’s says some­thing about its impor­tance. Sim­i­lar­ly, one can sum­ma­rize Althusser’s strug­gle again­st the PCF’s reformism in the first half of the 1960s, or his cri­tique of the idea that a com­mu­nist par­ty can be a “par­ty of gov­ern­ment”, devel­oped in On Repro­duc­tion – a study of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the bour­geoisie – as a prophet­ic protest of the PCF’s now immi­nent aban­don­ment of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at. “There are also lin­ear gene­ses,“ as Althusser put it in 1966.

On Jan­u­ary 7, 1976, the gen­er­al sec­re­tary of the PCF, Georges Mar­chais, announced in a tele­vi­sion inter­view that, “in his per­son­al opin­ion,” the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at had seen its day, at least in coun­tries with strong demo­c­ra­t­ic tra­di­tions such as France. Although the ques­tion of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at hadn’t fig­ured in the draft res­o­lu­tion for the 22nd Par­ty Con­gress, this Con­gress, which was held in ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, unhesi­tat­ing­ly approved a res­o­lu­tion that reject­ed the con­cept after a “debate.” The com­mu­nists had until the next Con­gress to decide whether to remove all men­tion of it from the par­ty statutes (where it was explic­it­ly men­tioned in the pre­am­ble). As expect­ed, the May 1979 23rd Con­gress did just that. Did the mass of the party‘s mil­i­tants real­ly think that the time had come to jet­ti­son the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at? It’s quite pos­si­ble. At the time, the base wasn’t real­ly able to think any­thing much dif­fer­ent from what the lead­er­ship thought.

How­ev­er, it was pos­si­ble, after the Jan­u­ary 1976 tele­vi­sion inter­view in which Mar­chais effec­tive­ly served notice of the PCF leadership’s deci­sion to aban­don the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at, to oppose a deci­sion that hadn’t yet offi­cial­ly been tak­en by the par­ty, and, arguably, to do so with­out vio­lat­ing the rules of demo­c­ra­t­ic cen­tral­ism. Cer­tain com­mu­nist intel­lec­tu­als and mil­i­tants, espe­cial­ly a small group around Althusser, jumped at the chance. That put an end to the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the par­ty that Althusser had embarked on in 1969.

It wasn’t long after this new tac­ti­cal turn that Althusser deliv­ered, at the end of March and begin­ning of April, in Spain, the lec­ture on “The Trans­for­ma­tion of Phi­los­o­phy” in which he devel­ops the con­cept of a non-philo­soph­i­cal phi­los­o­phy cor­re­spond­ing to the con­cept of the “non-state“ of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at. After return­ing to Paris, he was invit­ed to present his book Posi­tions at the “Marx­ist book fair” [Ven­te du livre marx­is­te] orga­nized by the par­ty in the old Gare de la Bastille in the last week of April; he cap­i­tal­ized on the oppor­tu­ni­ty to defend the con­cept of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at before what I remem­ber as being a very big and rather tense crowd, while also broach­ing the sub­ject of the bureau­crat­ic and anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic meth­ods that Mar­chais and Co. had used to head off a broad, open dis­cus­sion on the ques­tion of its sup­pres­sion in the two or three months before the 22nd Con­gress and, espe­cial­ly, at the Con­gress itself.16 That paved the way for a very live­ly debate with Lucien Sève, who was firm­ly on the par­ty leadership’s side on the ques­tion of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at, and, as the head of the Par­ty pub­lish­ing house that had just pub­lished Althusser’s book, shared the stage with him. After Althusser left the vieille gare, Mar­chais crit­i­cized him in front of jour­nal­ists for defend­ing “dead” and, hang on to your hat, anti­de­mo­c­ra­t­ic ideas. L’Humanité, for its part, pub­lished an attack or two on his “unjus­ti­fied attach­ment” to the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at, and the like. In July, he made anoth­er trip to Spain, deliv­er­ing the Barcelona lec­ture on the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at that you recent­ly pub­lished; a jour­nal­ist and rather well-known writer then in the Cata­lan par­ty close to, or attached to, the PCE won­dered, in a crit­i­cal but also rather fun­ny account, why the lec­tur­er hadn’t long since been expelled from his par­ty. By the begin­ning of the sum­mer, Éti­en­ne Bal­ibar, a close col­lab­o­ra­tor of Althusser’s, had fin­ished writ­ing a book on the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at that was pub­lished in French in July.17 At the begin­ning of Sep­tem­ber, Althusser informed Pier­re Macherey, anoth­er of his close col­lab­o­ra­tors, that he’d “dis­bur­dened him­self of” a cer­tain num­ber of pages, “hasti­ly draft­ed and then revised and stitched back togeth­er a good ten times,“ of a polemic “on the mir­a­cle of the 22nd Con­gress and its hal­lu­ci­na­tions.” His text would “rein­force” he added, the “artillery blast of Étienne’s beau­ti­ful book.“

Althusser’s text was the “ana­lyt­i­cal pam­phlet” even­tu­al­ly enti­tled Les Vach­es noires: Inter­view imag­i­naire. All 80,000 words of it, except for the Barcelona lec­ture, which was incor­po­rat­ed into the Vach­es noires, seem to have been dashed off in the two months between the lec­ture and the let­ter. The book was nev­er released, per­haps because Althusser deferred to Éti­en­ne Balibar’s judg­ment: to pub­lish it as it stood, Bal­ibar warned him in Sep­tem­ber, would amount to “pre­sent­ing him­self as the inspi­ra­tion and poten­tial lead­er of an ‘alter­na­tive’ to the cur­rent pol­i­tics of the par­ty with­out the required means.” Althusser nev­er­the­less pur­sued his strug­gle to defend the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at in a num­ber of pub­lic appear­ances and state­ments pub­lished in 1976 and 1977, incur­ring the wrath of the PCF lead­er­ship for a “dis­guised frac­tion­al attack.” In France, the only impor­tant pub­li­ca­tion of his to emerge from this polit­i­cal cam­paign was a pam­phlet much short­er and more con­cil­ia­to­ry in tone than Les Vach­es noires. Enti­tled “The Twen­ty-Sec­ond Con­gress,” it was pub­lished as a book­let in May 1977. It’s the revised text of a lec­ture that he was final­ly able to give at a meet­ing of the Sor­bon­ne branch of the PCF stu­dent orga­ni­za­tion in Decem­ber 1976, despite the efforts of the organization’s nation­al lead­er­ship to pre­vent the lec­ture from hap­pen­ing by intim­i­dat­ing the speak­er.

A whole sec­tion of Les Vach­es noires is devot­ed to the crit­i­cism of such “bureau­crat­ic and Stal­in­ist prac­tices,” still ram­pant in the PCF in the mid-70s. The book opens with a long dis­cus­sion of the repres­sive mea­sures the par­ty had resort­ed to in order to pre­vent him from pub­lish­ing in com­mu­nist jour­nals, cen­sure what he was able to pub­lish thanks to com­mu­nist allies, or refute him by means of “remote con­trolled” crit­i­cisms when the silence of the party’s intel­lec­tu­als no longer suf­ficed to keep works that were already famous in the non-com­mu­nist world in the shad­ows. An account of Althusser’s “tri­al” by a par­ty com­mit­tee fea­tures promi­nent­ly in this first part, as does a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of his deci­sion to make François Maspero his pub­lish­er.

The chap­ter on his con­flict­ual rela­tions with the PCF is fol­lowed by a long analy­sis of the bureau­crat­ic manip­u­la­tion of the par­ty deci­sion-mak­ing process­es. The prepa­ra­tion for the 22nd Con­gress serves as the main exam­ple, from the leadership’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the main prepara­to­ry doc­u­ment, the draft res­o­lu­tion – an inter­pre­ta­tion that “verged on fal­si­fi­ca­tion,” accord­ing to Althusser, to the extent that it ret­ro­spec­tive­ly and arbi­trar­i­ly read the ques­tion of the aban­don­ment of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at into a doc­u­ment premised on the neces­si­ty of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at – through the “rub­ber-stamp ses­sion” that this Con­gress had itself been, to the intim­i­da­tion of com­mu­nists who dared to defend the con­cept after the ques­tion had been put up for “debate” and “set­tled.” Althusser’s gen­er­al con­clu­sion is that there should be a return to demo­c­ra­t­ic cen­tral­ism as Lenin had under­stood it, involv­ing, notably, the accep­tance of ten­den­cies (but not frac­tions) in the par­ty – the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem of the cur­rent state of things being the “inad­mis­si­ble pre­dom­i­nance of cen­tral­ism over democ­ra­cy.” This gen­er­al rec­om­men­da­tion is fol­lowed by a whole series of con­crete pro­pos­als for democ­ra­tiz­ing the party’s inter­nal regime.

A third part of the book begins with the obser­va­tion that there was “a glar­ing absence” in Marchais’s tele­vi­sion inter­view: in jus­ti­fy­ing his “per­son­al” rejec­tion of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at, the Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary had point­ed out that the word “dic­ta­tor­ship” called up somber mem­o­ries of fas­cist regimes. What he failed to men­tion, Althusser notes, was the “ter­ror regime and the mas­sive exter­mi­na­tions of the Stal­in­ist peri­od” that had made “mil­lions of vic­tims: not only were men killed, but ideas died as well.” That pro­vides the start­ing point for a thor­ough-going denun­ci­a­tion of the “Stal­in­ist prac­tices… that per­sist in the URSS as an organ­ic – not at all acci­den­tal – ele­ment of Sovi­et soci­ety.” This cri­tique goes hand-in-hand with an analy­sis of the his­tor­i­cal rea­sons for which the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at, the “key con­cept of Marx­ism,” has become dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish from its “degen­er­at­ed forms.” More­over, in the minds of com­mu­nists who are the heirs, despite them­selves, of the Stal­in­ist tra­di­tion, this con­cept is iden­ti­fied with the “vio­lent seizure of state pow­er.” How­ev­er, for Althusser in 1976, “this def­i­n­i­tion does not cor­re­spond to any neces­si­ty.” The sole neces­si­ty it des­ig­nates is that the pro­le­tari­at must replace the exist­ing state with a state of its own, a “state that is not a state,” a “com­mune” or “semi-state.”

This brings us to the the­o­ret­i­cal core of the self-inter­view, a light­ly revised ver­sion of the Barcelona lec­ture, in which Althusser devel­ops his con­cep­tion of the non-state, but also his con­cep­tion of the state in a class soci­ety: by def­i­n­i­tion, an “oppres­sive machine.” It lays the ground­work for a cri­tique of the “reformist or utopi­an” con­cep­tions of the state to which Althusser traces the par­ty leadership’s deci­sion to aban­don the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at, and, with it, for a cri­tique of the con­cept of SMC that we have already said a word about (“the PCF’s whole analy­sis of the class strug­gle rests on the con­cept of SMC”). The Gram­s­cian con­cep­tion of hege­mony is crit­i­cized in its turn, if at a dif­fer­ent lev­el, essen­tial­ly on the grounds that it sug­gests, or can be tak­en to sug­gest, that the work­ing class can come to dom­i­nate bour­geois civil soci­ety before seiz­ing state pow­er and destroy­ing the bour­geois state appa­ra­tus.

The last sec­tion of Vach­es noires pro­pos­es an analy­sis of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the bour­geoisie that is, like all class dic­ta­tor­ships – this is Althusser’s cen­tral the­sis – “above the laws and thus above and beyond pol­i­tics.” The analy­sis here focus­es espe­cial­ly on the dif­fer­ence between the rela­tion of pro­duc­tion con­sid­ered as a juridi­cal rela­tion and as the rela­tion of force that appears behind this for­mal rela­tion, includ­ing the form “of the pecu­liar kind of vio­lence that accom­pa­nies the con­sen­su­al reign of norms, that is, the ‘val­ues’ hid­den or dis­guised in ideas: ide­ol­o­gy.” Among the most inter­est­ing pages of this sec­tion of the text are those that pro­pose to decon­struct the ide­ol­o­gy of the rights of man, free­dom, and for­mal equal­i­ty, set­ting out from their orig­in in the rela­tion of equiv­a­lence that is the com­mod­i­ty-exchange rela­tion. To my knowl­edge, there is no dis­cus­sion of the same breadth else­where in Althusser.

FB: To con­clude, if one begins from a clear­er vision of Althusser’s oeu­vre, as your work invites us to do, what is the specif­i­cal­ly “Althusse­ri­an” con­tri­bu­tion to Marx­ism as such? Is it a gen­er­al the­o­ry of sci­en­tific prac­tices? A phi­los­o­phy of con­tin­gen­cy or of the con­junc­ture? An intro­duc­tion to the “basic con­cepts of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism?”

GMG: Althusser’s con­tri­bu­tion, or at least one of his basic con­tri­bu­tions, is to have shown that his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism, if it means to jus­ti­fy its claim to be a sci­ence of his­to­ry, can only be the sci­ence of the always aleato­ry encoun­ter known as the class strug­gle. And it is to have bequeathed us the means to think what’s at stake in the class strug­gle, that is, in the last instance, the destruc­tion of a world, whether it takes the form of geno­cide or rev­o­lu­tion, one being some­thing on the order of the neg­a­tive of the oth­er. The his­to­ry of the 20th cen­tu­ry has rather clear­ly shown that geno­cide is by far the like­lier even­tu­al­i­ty. The evo­lu­tion of cap­i­tal­ism in the present cen­tu­ry doesn’t seem to sug­gest any­thing dif­fer­ent. That’s per­haps rea­son enough to opt for rev­o­lu­tion – and to read Althusser.

– Trans­lat­ed by Patrick King

This inter­view orig­i­nal­ly appeared in Péri­ode. It has been light­ly revised for pub­li­ca­tion in View­point.

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

  1. Louis Althusser, “On the Social Con­tract,” in Pol­i­tics and His­to­ry: Mon­tesquieu, Rousseau, Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1972, 111-160; Anony­mous [attrib­ut­ed to Louis Althusser, “On the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion,” trans. Jason E. Smith, Décalages 1.1 (2014), 1-6. 

  2. Frieder Otto Wolf, “‘Zulet­zt endlich Brot und Rosen’: Ein Bericht Über Althussers Juni-The­sen,” in Althusser: Über die Repro­duk­tion des Mate­ri­al­is­mus, eds. Wolf, Ekrem Eci­ci and Jörg Nowak (Mün­ster: West­fälis­ches Dampf­boot, 2016), 381-398. 

  3. André Tosel, “De la théorie struc­turale à la con­jonc­ture aléa­toire,” La Pen­sée, no. 382, spe­cial issue: Althusser 25 ans après (April-May-June 2015), 31-46. See also his “The Haz­ards of Aleato­ry Mate­ri­al­ism,” trans. Daniel Hart­ley, in Encoun­ter­ing Althusser: Pol­i­tics and Mate­ri­al­ism in Con­tem­po­rary Rad­i­cal Thought, eds. Kat­ja Diefen­bach, Sara R. Far­ris, Gal Kirn, and Peter D. Thomas (Lon­don: Blooms­bury, 2013), 3-26. 

  4. Bernard Pudal, ed., “Un inédit de Louis Althusser. La note à H. Kra­sucki,” Fon­da­tions, nos. 3-4 (2006), 55-75. 

  5. Louis Althusser, “Entre­tien avec Waldeck Rochet,” Les Annales de la Société des amis de Louis Aragon et Elsa Tri­o­let, 2: 181-187. 

  6. An excerpt from the sec­ond of the­se three lec­tures on Rousseau’s The Dis­course on Inequal­i­ty was pub­lished as “Rousseau’s State of Pure Nature,” trans. G.M. Gosh­gar­i­an, in the recent Los Ange­les Review of Books forum on Althusser’s work. 

  7. Louis Althusser, Les Vach­es noires: inter­view imag­i­naire (le malaise du XXI­Ie Con­grès), ed. G. M. Gosh­gar­i­an (Paris: PUF, forth­com­ing in 2016). 

  8. The Barcelona lec­ture on the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at has now been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, with an excel­lent intro­duc­tion by War­ren Mon­tag: Louis Althusser, “Some Ques­tions Con­cern­ing the Cri­sis of Marx­ist The­o­ry and of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist Move­ment,” trans. David Broder, His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 23.1 (2015), 152-178. 

  9. There is also a sep­a­rate Argen­tini­an edi­tion of Ini­ti­a­tion, avail­able here. There is also a forth­com­ing Japan­ese trans­la­tion of Être marx­is­te en philoso­phie, by Yoshi­hiko Ichi­da, avail­able here

  10. Jean-Claude Bour­din, ed., Althusser: une lec­ture de Marx, (Paris: PUF, 2008). 

  11. Pub­lished in Eng­lish as “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy,” in Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy and Oth­er Essays (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 1971), 23-70. 

  12. See Louis Althusser, “The Sto­ics and Epi­cu­rus,” trans. G.M. Gosh­gar­i­an, dia­crit­ics 43.2 (2015), 10-14. 

  13. Louis Althusser, “Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy,” 68. 

  14. Cf. Louis Althusser, “Phi­los­o­phy and Marx­ism,” in Phi­los­o­phy of the Encoun­ter: Lat­er Writ­ings, 1978-1987, ed. Fran­cois Math­eron and Oliv­er Cor­pet, trans. G.M. Gosh­gar­i­an (New York: Ver­so, 2006), 251-289. 

  15. Louis Althusser, “Respon­se to John Lewis,” in Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism, trans. Gra­hame Lock (Lon­don: NLB, 1976), 58. 

  16. For the book, see Louis Althusser, Posi­tions, 1964-1975 (Paris: Éditions sociales, 1976). 

  17. Éti­en­ne Bal­ibar, On the Dic­ta­tor­ship of the Pro­le­tari­at, trans. Gra­hame Lock (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1977). 

Authors of the article

is a doctoral student in Economics at the University of Paris –13 and editor-in-chief of the journal Période.

translates fiction and philosophy from French, German, and Armenian into English. He is the translator of two collections of the work of Louis Althusser, The Humanist Controversy and Philosophy of the Encounter, as well as two books by him, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers (Bloomsbury 2016) and How to Be Marxist in Philosophy (Bloomsbury, forthcoming).