Why Should We Read Althusser (Again)?

AlthusserCapital

“Think differently, speak differently” – this was Louis Althusser’s principle when it came to fundamental matters of philosophy, politics, the history of capitalism, and contemporary class struggle.1 This is also a principle Althusser lived up to.2 As Peter Schöttler and Frieder Otto Wolf wrote in 1985, he was “one of the most important theorists in the renewal of Marxism and one of the greatest catalysts of postwar French philosophy…[l]ike few other Marxist theorists since Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser introduced new questions, problems, and theses to Marxist debates internationally.” There have long been plans to publish the works of Louis Althusser in German on a large scale. Wolf’s first attempt to bring out an eight volume edition through Argument Verlag stalled after the publication of two important volumes: Volume 4: Philosophie und spontane Philosophie der Wissenschaftler [Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of Scientists] (1985) and Volume 2: Machiavelli – Montesquieu – Rousseau (1987). A few years ago Wolf made a second push to publish the collected works of Althusser in German. A newly translated and expanded Suhrkamp edition of Für Marx appeared in 2011 as Volume 3, featuring essays that were not included in the first edition and fragments of which could only be found elsewhere in German. VSA Verlag followed this in 2012 with Volume 5: the first half included the important text “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” and the second half the extensive manuscript Über die Reproduktion [On the Reproduction of Capital], which was unpublished in Althusser’s lifetime. At the start of this year [2015] Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot published the first complete German edition of Reading Capital, the 1965 book Louis Althusser wrote with his students Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey and Jacques Rancière. This has been a long time coming to say the least; the first German translation by Klaus-Dieter Thieme was published in paperback by Rowolht Verlag in 1972 but included only the texts by Althusser and Balibar – corresponding to the 1968 French edition – and has for a while been out of print.

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 Jacques Rancière’s contribution to Reading Capital, “The Concept of ‘Critique’ and the ‘Critique of Political Economy,” was published separately in the same year by the small Berlin-based Merve Verlag and offers an incisive critical understanding of Marx’s work. After 1968 Rancière turned to Maoism and distanced himself from Althusser with the sweeping 1974 critique Althusser’s Lesson. Merve Verlag published an abridged version of this critique in German under the title Wider den akademischen Marxismus [Against Academic Marxism] (1975). The full book appeared with the original title in 2014 from Laika Verlag. In it Rancière aims to analyze revisionist praxis as he claims to observe it in Althusser’s own theoretical praxis. He argues that Althusser transformed the ideological class struggle between bourgeois ideology and proletarian ideology – as exercised by ideological apparatuses and practical struggles respectively – into a conflict between ideology and science. In doing so Althusserianism assumed the role of producing leftist academic elites who use the language of class struggle to sound militant in their theory while policing the spontaneity of the masses intellectually. Motivated by his experiences of the 1968 protest movements and critiques of the division of intellectual from manual labor, Rancière set the experience of the masses in opposition to the theoretical praxis of the sciences.Yet what started off as a critical benchmark of militant Marxism – portraying Althusser as a revisionist, Sartre as an idealist, and Foucault as anti-Marxist – would culminate just a few years later in Ranciere’s concept of equality, based no longer on either Marx or poststructuralism (to which he sometimes still ascribes albeit on dubious genealogical grounds) and which takes the form of conventional political philosophy.

The new edition of Reading Capital totals 764 pages. Along with additional shorter texts by Althusser, it also includes a foreword and afterword by Frieder Otto Wolf and commentary from Sebastian Neubauer on the handwritten changes Althusser made to his own contributions. This is an enormous undertaking by both the publisher as well as the editor and translator Wolf – for which they deserve thanks. What really enriches the edition is the attention given to the textual changes between the French editions of 1965 and 1968/1973.3 In addition Wolf consults both the German and French versions of Marx’s texts, which helps readers to more precisely understand Althusser’s references. Reading Capital is already a demanding read, and is made even more so by philological considerations like these. The patience it demands of readers, however, is well worth it. The book remains a milestone in debates on Marx and is in no way outdated by more recent discussions. Even though its insights are still not well understood, Reading Capital should be a natural starting point for any contemporary debate.4 The editor’s afterword could have better helped to orient today’s readers by providing background to those unfamiliar with the decades-long debate around Althusser, especially the reception of his theory and strong resistance to it in the German-speaking world. This includes work by Peter Schöttler and Henning Böke, the VSA-Verlag, and journals like alternative, Das Argument, Sozialistische Politik, and kultuRRevolution: Zeitschrift for angewandte Diskursanalyse.

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There are various reasons that explain the resistance to Althusser in the German-speaking world.

A) Even though he was a member of the PCF, Althusser’s rejection of the Stalinist concept of dialectical materialism made him too much of a Maoist and too critical of party tradition for Moscow-oriented parties. Althusser even accused humanist critics of Stalinism of sharing its assumptions. For the post-68 Maoist organizations, which were hardly interested in Marxist theory aside from the “classics” of Marx to Mao and the Volkszeitung, Althusser was too theoretical, too intellectual, too unorthodox.5 In the eyes of the radical left, he was just another intellectual for the West European communist parties whose historical compromises were revisionist and not militant enough.

B) This political rejection of Althusser was also connected to a theoretical one. Althusser attacked not only orthodox Marxism-Leninism, but also Hegelian Marxism – the very theoretical tradition that had become increasingly important for the non-dogmatic left and its theoretical development. This tradition, which approached Marxist theory with some skepticism, was represented by names such as Lukács, Korsch, Bloch, Adorno and Horkheimer, and younger figures like Alfred Schmidt and Oskar Negt; and in France by Lucien Goldmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Henri Lefebvre. At the heart of Hegelian Marxism were concepts like experience, subjectivity, spontaneity, the everyday, alienation, reification, the commodity, and the fetish. The turn to Hegel made it possible to work out dialectical concepts for penetrating the immediate surface experience of capitalist relations and the world of consumerist spectacle into the essence that undergirds social relations, value, and its corresponding socialization. For Hegelian Marxism, it was necessary to pierce appearance and develop a theory of revolutionary practice, which was assumed not to be found in Marx. The very conditions of capitalism left no doubt that the moment of praxis was to be found directly on the systematic level.6 This explains why Marx did not more closely explain in Capital his method and conception of dialectics – that is, the connection of essence and appearance, structure and history, theory and practice. For precisely these reasons, Hegelianized intellectuals returned to the Grundrisse of 1858, claiming it to be closer to Marx’s original intentions than the first volume of Capital, where Marx is said to have concealed his method in order to make his presentation more accessible. This is also why the first chapter of Capital has enjoyed such special attention within Hegelian Marxism, since this is where Marx lays bare the dialectical movement between appearance (the commodity) and essence (the substance of value) as mediated on the surface by fetishized forms of money, capital, profit, interest, competition, that hinder revolutionary consciousness.

There was also another political aspect of the theoretical opposition to Althusser that went beyond matters of Marxist theory. Althusser’s texts were dismissed as structural Marxism. Sartre himself had branded structuralism the last ideological bastion of the bourgeoisie. Many authors of the time who were once described as structuralist became affiliated with poststructuralism, chief among them Deleuze, Derrida, Kristeva and Foucault. Both structuralism and poststructuralism were, in general, critiqued on several grounds: for inadequately considering categories like subjectivity, individual autonomy, moral behavior, and history; for not being grounded in reason; and for neutrally and externally reconstructing the structures it targeted by rendering them analogous to the linguistic system of signs. The controversies that arose among many of these authors were misdirected. Those who describe Reading Capital as structuralist today do so to distinguish it from the more widely accepted poststructuralism and its eminent representatives like Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Badiou, Rancière – thereby ridding poststucturalism of Marxist contamination. And yet Reading Capital is clearly connected to so-called poststructuralism. Many of the book’s theoretical insights are supported implicitly and sometimes even explicitly in work by Lacan, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida or the Tel Quel Group around Kristeva – at least before they distanced themselves in the 1970s from the Marxist milieu and after which many of their theories lost their radicality.

C) Finally, Althusser’s murder of his wife Hélène in November 1980 – for years he was in and out of psychiatric care – contributed to the reservations against his theory. For some the murder seemed to confirm a sense that theoretical anti-humanism, with its critique of the constitutive subject and reason, leads inevitably to destructive consequences in the private sphere.7

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Reading Capital, which was first published a few years before the protest movements of 1968 and went through several printings thereafter, was enormously significant to Marxist debates internationally, despite only appearing in the shortened 1968 edition that includes just the texts by Althusser and Balibar. The book supported the critical tendency – closely connected to political practices at times – that dealt with and read Marx’s texts in a rigorous way instead of just casually or dogmatically citing them. Reading Capital was also taken to be a provocation for rejecting common interpretations of Marx’s works, like that of the communist parties associated with Marxism-Leninism, or those rooted largely in Marx’s early writing that foregrounded the influence of Hegel and Feuerbach on Marx. This latter reading calls for a unified Marx whose identity as an author can be seen as having followed a continuous theoretical development. This theory finds the basis of its critique in references to human nature and the Hegelian dialectic. In this view, Marx’s later development just extended concepts such as work, alienation, or reification with their thoroughly normative content into a materialist economic critique.

In one of his many deeply resentful commentaries on Marx and the Marxist tradition, Pierre Bourdieu criticized Althusserianism during a 1991 lecture for attempting to restore a priestly monopoly on the reading of Marx, and for focusing on texts that no one apart from Marxologists read any longer.8 Bourdieu was sorely mistaken about the impetus behind the Althusserian reading of Marx. His thesis on the impact of Althusserianism – which just repeats Rancière’s objection without acknowledging it – is difficult to prove empirically and misses the objectives of Louis Althusser himself. The approach of the group around Althusser is notable precisely because they wanted to break the priestly monopoly. Capital should not be read as promulgating some pure truth, that is, as being a scripture that has the truth living within it, or as the spoken word, the Logos, that brings the real being into its own.9 This is why long passages of Reading Capital examine how to read Capital and what its object is. Even before Derrida or Foucault, Reading Capital taught that reading is far from a neutral undertaking; in Theology and Philosophy there is a millennia-old theoretical praxis that approaches texts, above all holy texts, hermeneutically in order to reveal the ultimate meaning and hidden truth available in the text that previous readers failed to see.

In Althusser’s view, Marx in Capital breaks with tradition through his own reconstructive manner of reading bourgeois political economy and develops a distinctive understanding of theory and science. This is why the question of Marx’s philosophy is crucial. But Althusser cannot trace the major intervention Marx’s text carries out in the history of theory to any other philosophy, be it Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Saussure, Freud or Critical Realism. There is an entirely new and unique form of philosophy at work in Capital, which Marx admittedly does not make explicit. But this is why knowing it more precisely is so necessary for better understanding the full extent of Marx’s scientific revolution, which entailed the construction of a new object and inauguration a new continent of science, the science of history. Marx’s intervention is of both everyday practical and political importance. Breaking with the dominant categories and departing from the imaginary of the bourgeois view of the world affects every single individual – his intervention is not to be carried out just once, but must be always practiced and in new ways.10

In comprehending this new revolutionary philosophy, Reading Capital repeatedly confronts Hegel, since Marx in the afterword to the second edition of Capital from 1873 admitted to having been a student of the great thinker and to flirting with his idiosyncratic mode of expression in the chapter on value theory. Already in For Marx, Althusser was preoccupied with what Marx meant when he claimed to have inverted the Hegelian dialectic in order to discover the rational kernel that exists within its mystical shell. It is not just a philosophical or methodological problem whether Marx did more than apply dialectics to Ricardo’s economics. This is why dialectics as a method for comprehending shifting social relations is of greater relevance today than Marx’s actual analysis, which despite its valuable sociological character is of its time and thus outdated. But Althusser does not just turn against such historicism. What matters to him is the genuinely social theoretical content of Marx’s theory. This is why his central interest is the object of the science Marx inaugurated. According to Althusser, with his critique of political economy Marx developed the theory of the capitalist mode production and the corresponding theory of the different spheres within this mode production – such as economics, law, and art. In addition, Marx developed the science of history, which includes the theories of different modes of production, the theory of knowledge production, the history of the theory of knowledge production, as well as a particular philosophy. Althusser and his colleagues oppose the philosophical idea of method. Of crucial importance for this argument is Marx’s reflection in his 1857 “Introduction” that separates the thought-object [Gedankenobjekt] from the real object. Marx is understood here as a radical anti-empiricist: his concepts are not abstractions from reality, ideal types, heuristics, nor even just names for a bundle of facts – that is, words through which one can observe slices of reality. The thought-object consists of concepts that divulge the capitalist mode of production as an object. Marx developed a specific theoretical praxis that generates and constitutes its object by critically manipulating familiar ideological forms of thought. The process of knowledge production takes place through the presentation of concepts; the object of knowledge, the thought-object does not, therefore, exist ahead or independent of its presentation.

For Althusser and his co-authors, the philosophical concept of method is opposed critically to the similarly important Hegelian concept of presentation [Darstellung] that can be found in approaches such as the “new reading of Marx” [neue Marx-Lektüre], offered by figures like Helmut Reichelt and Hans-Georg Backhaus. Althusser is famous for having recommended that readers skip the entire first section of Capital (663). Yet Pierre Macherey’s and Roger Establet’s contributions feature extended discussions of Marx’s mode of presentation. According to Macherey, the issue of presentation was so important for Marx because it implied a specific manner of practicing science, though Marx’s concept of presentation should be distinguished from Hegel’s: Capital is not to be understood as depicting the process by which the concept of value develops through its contradictions through to the level of competition. In his detailed analysis, Macherey shows that Marx, on the very first page of Capital, does not set in motion any contradictory movement of concepts. This would have meant developing the contradictions of wealth and poverty, exchange and use value, and commodity and value expression – that is, the relative and equivalent forms of value that express the relations between two commodities. Marx, however, produced a different kind of object, the concept of value. This cannot be found in the exchange relation like the seed of a fruit, but can only be produced conceptually through analysis of the value form. Establet focuses on the layout of Capital. Far different than is typical in the German debates, he concentrates on the internal structure of the three volumes of Capital instead of the various plans Marx devised for writing his critique of political economy – this also amounts to an argument against Hegel. Marx does not follow the logical development of concepts; the three volumes of Capital as a whole do not form a totality whose endpoint both mediates and establishes the start of the conceptual circle. Rather it deals with the sequential articulations of theoretical elements (e.g. the first and second sections of the first volume with the entirety of Capital).

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Althusser is often critiqued for being overly theoretical and academic – but this shortchanges his thinking. It is certainly true that Althusser distinguished science and philosophy from ideology. Such an approach casts what is scientifically incorrect as ideology, without questioning the power that demands scientific character in the first place. Conversely, Althusser does not see a new rationality or world conception in everyday subaltern moments. He rejected Gramsci’s insight that the philosophy of praxis is comprised of ways of thinking that develop through practice. Despite objections like these, the concept of theoretical practice is important for Althusser for giving a new twist to the endless debates over theory and praxis and for helping to glimpse how concrete activities are connected to theory and science. Theoretical practice is not limited to the university; and it is regrettable that Althusser did not take up Gramsci’s insights on the significance of hegemonic apparatuses in shaping the relations within which theoretical praxis happens. His interest is with determining the theoretical and scientific validity of Marx’s theory and the novelty of its scientific character. He saw a danger for Marx’s theory that, if thought using Gramscian concepts, it would become just another philosophy that people live out ideologically in their everyday lives. Validation of a scientific theory, by contrast, should result from precise conceptual work. Such thinking challenges both leftist and disciplinary assumptions that see a theory’s scientific character and truth ensured by method and proven by practical results. Understood in this pragmatic way as well as in the tradition of what is called materialist theory, Marx’s theory becomes just a better instrument than others in the toolbox of social science theory for explaining important aspects of bourgeois society. This includes how to understand material processes and identify their political economic operations.

But is political economy the object of Marx’s theory? Althusser disagrees that Marx fails to move beyond the classical tradition of political economy.11 On what grounds could one ever draw comparisons among different theoretical instruments? Is there a neutral standpoint that allows one the distance from which to impartially compare different theoretical options, that is, to try applying two or three theories to an object until one of them fits? Althusser is outspoken in his criticism of the epistemology of Bachelard and Canguilhem. No such distanced standpoint is available since the process of producing scientific knowledge unfolds as a specifically theoretical praxis. Theoretical practice always entails working with concepts as ideological and conceptual raw material under specific relations; it never leaves the conceptual realm, but instead manipulates ideological concepts to create knowledge.12 Understood in this way, Althusser’s concept of theoretical praxis makes clear that Marx’s theory does not bow before the disciplinary sciences and their many ideological objects, methods, and empirical developments.

Taken together, the refusal of Hegel and the insight that the object of Capital is the capitalist mode of production leads Althusser to problematize the difference between essence and appearance.13 This is of profound consequence to Marxist theory and its understanding of dialectics. It is commonly assumed that there is an invariant and underlying structure to the capitalist mode of production: capital and its logic of self-valorizing value. This essence, which is typically understood as economically deterministic, unfolds via a series of mediations into a totality whose surface consists of inverted, reified, fetishised appearances that are non-economic: religion, law, state, philosophy, as well as the norms and values or consciousness of individuals who act accordingly. Each of these superstructural phenomenon expresses the essence, which is why Althusser speaks of an expressive totality. This Hegelian Marxist notion remains reductionistic and economistic, even though it is more complex than the Marxisms of the social democratic and Stalinist traditions that start from simple linear cause-effect relations. Since the social totality is always determined by homogeneous time, singular phenomena ostensibly can be grasped as an “essential section [coupe d’essence]” of the whole. All parts of the whole must correspond always to the economic essence and in this way “allow the concept” to be seized in the present.14 Since there could be no understanding of the future for Hegel, that is an understanding of the future effects of present appearances, there could be no Hegelian politics.15 At best, this position holds, change can only be thought of in terms of a complete systemic collapse of the totality or as the transition from one moment to the next.

In opposition to this, Althusser and his colleagues emphasize that Marx did not simply stand the Hegelian dialectic on its feet, but developed an alternative concept of dialectics, that of overdetermination. They produced a theoretical concept of the structured whole [gegliederte Ganze] that has specific relations to economics, politics, and ideology. Each of these relations is marked by a specific efficacy, underlying logic, and temporality that are by no means independent of production relations but have a relative autonomy nonetheless. To offer two examples: 1.) the relationships of heterosexual couples are closely connected to the contractual thinking of the profit-seeking and wealth-securing formation of the family, even as they are constituted by a specific balance of generative actions, gender relations, and emotional connections between partners or parents and children, all of which have their own dynamics that can thoroughly contradict the imperatives of valorization; 2.) political action cannot clearly be attributed to the interests of capital because the bourgeois class that personifies the capital relation pursues divergent interests and strategies for producing surplus value, and it personifies its relationship to workers in various ways. Compromises must be formed among all these forces in order to ensure the compulsion of capital ownership.

None of these spheres share a homogenous time, their relationship to one another is always out of joint because they each follow their own autonomous rhythm. Together these particular spheres form the structured whole of the capitalist mode of production. Althusser comprehends the manner by which these spheres overdetermine each other as the conjuncture. This concrete constellation is the object of a concrete analysis. In retrospect and especially since the publication of Althusser’s later texts in The Philosophy of the Encounter, it has become clearer than it was in For Marx that Althusser must be understood as a theorist of contingency. For him the concept of a specific conjuncture cannot be derived theoretically, but rather must be determined as the contingent result of the displacement [Verschiebung] and condensation [Verdichtung] of non-synchronous forces and dynamics undergoing a process of overdetermination. By further developing Marx’s concepts in Capital and the political and ideological spheres he relied on in his preparatory work, a concept of the complex social whole and of the particular conjuncture can be produced that allows one to explore a particular condensation and the possibilities of a constantly changing praxis.

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Althusser did not offer a theory of society. Nonetheless, his thinking has consequences for the materialist view of the bourgeois social formation that can be illustrated by distinguishing two ways of reading Marx’s theory. The first reading takes the object of Marx’s theory to be a critique of political economy. Understood in this way, Marx’s theory deals with the laws for valorizing capital and the corresponding forms that capital passes through. Here it would seem then that Capital does not have anything to say about other spheres of bourgeois society. This tradition stretches Marx’s theory into an “ism,” a dogma or world view. The second way of reading Capital, which Frieder Otto Wolf proposes in his afterword to Reading Capital, is less economic than it is political. This reading takes the object of Capital to be the dominance of the capitalist mode of production over the bourgeois social formation. Even though Marx’s theory has nothing to say about the dominance of sexism or racism specifically, the concept of overdetermination places economic domination and exploitation in a relation of mutual causality to other forms of domination and exploitation, making Althusser’s theory politically fruitful and versatile. It is easy to see a kind of Kantian gesture in both of these readings, namely a kind of critique of Marx’s theory – in the first case, by rationally limiting the scope of its concepts from within, and, in the second, by staving off external demands placed on Marx’s theory. Accusations from political ecology, feminism or postcolonialism that Marx ignored their respective objects come up short if it can be shown that they themselves do not attend to the field of objects covered by the critique of political economy.

In contrast to the above readings, I would like to support the view that the significance of Althusser’s approach lay in that he accepts the challenge of Hegelian Marxism but uses better conceptual means to advance the critical theory of capitalist totality. Already in both For Marx and, with his co-authors, Reading Capital, Althusser developed the foundation of a concept of the complexly structured whole. Crucial to understanding the complex whole is the concept of structure, of articulation. Althusser devotes significant attention to this concept, directly opposing it to concepts that reduce focus to one sphere of the whole. The structuration (articulation) is crucial for determining the capitalist mode of production. According to Althusser, the science of society that Marx initiated sets the theoretical tasks of countless fields like law, politics and the state, literature and art, school and education, gender relations, and society’s relation to nature, and shapes conjunctural analysis of their overdetermined dynamics.

From today’s perspective one must ask whether such thinking was not too scientific, whether it was not too influenced by Hegelian-Marxism and the desire to seek knowledge of the totality. At the same time, however, the reach of the Althusserian research program is clear. To name just a few those who took up Althusser’s theory: Nicos Poulantzas and his theory of the capitalist state, Bernard Edelmann and his theory of law, and Michel Pêcheux and his discourse analysis of the theory of ideology. Perhaps the most important development on Althusser’s theory can be found in the work of Michel Foucault, which, in my opinion, is completely enigmatic if it is not read in the context of and as a critical continuation of the Marxist social theory. The afterword by Bernard E. Harcourt to Foucault’s lectures on “The Punitive Society” offers an example of how enigmatic it can be.16 Harcourt points out the obvious, that Foucault’s lectures have a strong Marxist tone. They are tinged more by Marxism than the others to emphasize their departure from Marxism and Althusser. Harcourt suggests that Althusser stands for a Marxism that sees the prison sentence as deriving largely from a legal theory of punishment. However, in his essay on ideology, Althusser developed the radical and Gramsci-esque thought that ideology develops within a strategic field in the form of practices and rituals as well as discursive practices. Foucault follows this exact line of thought when he concludes that the prison sentence can be explained by the tactics and efforts of the bourgeoisie to transform the unlawfulness of workers into unlawful activities with the aim of binding their bodies to the production apparatus and of establishing a category of delinquents that could be used against the workers’ movement. Harcourt rightly emphasizes – but without referencing Althusser on this – that the subject needs to be thought anew, going against an anthropological Marxism that sees work as human nature. It is precisely Althusser’s theory of the subjection of individuals through hailing that Foucault would further develop so extensively into a hermeneutic of the subject and the technologies of self-regulation. And finally, Harcourt critiques Althusser for offering a thesis of political class struggle that seeks to seize and deploy state power. After going to such lengths to demarcate Marxism and Althusser, Harcourt then quotes without hesitation the following sentence from Foucault: “To secure the apparatus of production, the bourgeois class created a powerful state for itself.” It would have been more theoretically consistent for Harcourt to simply grasp Foucault’s analysis as a critical continuation of Marxist theory.

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Frieder O. Wolf rightly notes that the reading of Marx offered by the Althusser group today must be viewed in light of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, especially “Abteilung II” which includes the different versions of Capital alongside Marx’s preparatory work for it. This demonstrates that Marx’s project was not a closed system, but rather had a searching quality; following Derrida, we could say that the final formulation of Capital as a signifier was always postponed. Strictly speaking, this philological perspective corresponds to the Althusser group’s own reading of Marx and Althusser’s own searching engagement with the Marxist theory of the social whole. To read Reading Capital anew so many years after its first publication is to do so in a conjuncture that has been made new not just because of the attention to Marx’s continued work on Capital. For one, the existence of a critical edition of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, available since 1975, has made Althusser’s critique of Gramsci’s historicism less convincing.17 In addition, the philological foundation of the older critical theory of society – especially the theoretical development of Theodor W. Adorno – is much better understood today than it was at the start of the 1970s. This all makes it possible to see surprising confluences among these different explorations: a recasting of dialectics and the critique of Hegelian Marxism, a critique of the systematic concept of totality, the critique of the constitutive subject and of philosophical concepts like alienation, the theoretical concept of capital’s dominance, a new understanding of the ideological. Such confluences have been obscured by these figures’ disciples. This repository of theoretical approaches has untapped potential for a future non-eclectic critical Marxist theory of the capitalist social formation.

The present conjuncture is also determined by a historically-specific defeat and crisis of Marxist theory. Despite being rejected and pronounced dead, this theory, paradoxically enough, keeps returning in a “spectral” form and sales of Marx’s books periodically skyrocket (as happened with the 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto or with Capital in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis). This speaks in favor of the theory as being historically rational and capable of re-forming itself on a new level even under duress. The constant assertion that Marx’s theory is useless for analyzing gender relations, racism, and ecological crisis is not just untrue, it also prevents us from considering what can be “useful” in analyzing the entirety of capitalist relations. Even the material epistemic terrain of the university, which for decades was the natural place of activity like this, has become deprived of such activity. It seems no longer an option to address far-reaching and systematic issues in a clarifying and pathbreaking way, without having to deal with a wide variety of critical approaches. Reading Capital reminds us of Marx’ unmet standard, updating it with a multitude of still innovative and effective concepts. Just as Capital can be read in different ways and its theories brought to bear on different things, so too does Reading Capital offer various lessons.

– Translated by Michael Shane Boyle


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


  1. Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, Jacques Rancière, Das Kapital lesen. Vollständige und ergänzte Ausgabe mit Retraktationen zum Kapital, ed. Frieder Otto Wolf (Westfälisches Dampfboot, Münster 2015). Translator’s note: the following essay is an extended version of a review of Reading Capital published July 25th, 2015, here. An extended version of the review also has been published, but it differs from the text provided for translation here. The extended version published September 28th, 2015 is available here

  2. Louis Althusser, Materialismus der Begegnung (Zurich: Diaphenes, 2010). The English translation is Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-87, eds. Oliver Corpet and François Matheron, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (New York and London: Verso Books, 2006). 

  3. Editor’s note: The 1968 French edition removed – at the cost of some personal animosity – the contributions from Rancière, Macherey and Establet. Althusser and Balibar’s  essays were spread over two volumes. In his presentation of the new complete edition of Reading Capital, Balibar comments on the changes made for the 1973 edition: “In 1973, Althusser and François Maspero wanted to expand these two volumes so as to restore the full text of the first edition. Jacques Rancière then asked for the republication of his own contribution to be preceded by a self-critical Preface entitled “Mode d’emploi.” As not all the participants could agree, this was rejected by the publisher, and the text appeared in no. 328 of Les Temps Modernes, November 1973. As a consequence, Rancière’s contribution, unmodified, made up volume III of Lire le Capital in the “Petite Collection Maspero.” Volume IV contained the contributions of Pierre Macherey (revised and corrected) and Roger Establet (unchanged). This ‘second edition’ of Lire le Capital was thus completed in four volumes (1968 and 1973), and was again reprinted several times.” See Étienne Balibar, “Presentation,” in Reading Capital: The Complete Edition, trans. Ben Brewster and David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2016), 8. 

  4. Unfortunately several typos hamper the readability of this new edition, and another round of proofreading would have been desirable. Translator’s note: we wanted to include this remark, which follows this sentence in the text, but have relegated it to a footnote since it is of lesser importance for Anglophone readers. 

  5. Translator’s note: The Kommunistische Volkszeitung was a central paper for the so-called K-Gruppen (communist groups) of 1970s West Germany. 

  6. See Hans Jürgen Krahl, Konstitution und Klassenkampf. Zur historischen Dialektik von bürgerlicher Emanzipation und proletarischer Revolution, Frankfurt 1971, 235ff. 

  7. See Louis Althusser, Die Zukunft hat Zeit. Die Tatsachen. Zwei autobiographische Texte (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1993). In English, this book has been published as The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir, ed. Olivier Corpet and Yann Moulier Boutang, trans. Richard Veasey (New York: The New Press, 1993)

  8. See Pierre Bourdieu, Über den Staat (Berlin: Surhkamp, 2014), 404. This book has been published in English as On the State: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1989-1992, eds. Patrick Champagne, Remi Lenoir, Franck Poupeau, and Marie-Christine Rivière, trans. David Fernbach (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014), 229. 

  9. Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books (1970), 17. 

  10. In his essay, “Ist es einfach, I’m Marxism’s Philosophy zu sein?” [Is it easy to a be philosopher of Marxism?”] (Das Argument 304, 2013), Wolfgang Fritz Haug brushes concrete motivations like these aside when he criticizes Althusser of overbearing rhetoric, insufficient expertise, and an unscrupulous and dictatorial style of thinking. Moreover he charges with Althusser attempting to elevate himself above Marx by claiming to delve deeper into Marx’s position and to be able to think what goes unthought in Marx. For this reason, Haug argues that Althusser does not break with the hermeneutic circle. See also the critical reply from Christoph Lieber, “Ist es einfach, als Kommunist auch Marxist zu sein?” [Is it easy to be a communist as well as Marxist?] Sozialismus 7-8/2014. 

  11. This is the theory Michel Foucault offers in The Order of Things, where he presents an anthropological Marx (work as human nature) that can only be distinguished from Ricardo as being a more revolutionary option. 

  12. Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital, 61-62. 

  13. Ibid., 187-91. 

  14. Ibid., 94-95, cf. 122. 

  15. Ibid., 95. 

  16. Bernard Harcourt, “Course Context,” in Michel Foucault, On the Punitive Society: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1972-1973, ed. Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 265-310.  

  17. See Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2009), 26-27. 

Author of the article

is a senior fellow at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. His most recent publication in English is "Reform, Revolution, Transformation" in Journal für Entwicklungspolitik: Socioecological Transformations, Vol. XXVIII 3-2012.