Crisis Theory

This essay introduces a dossier of translations on “The Crisis of Marxism.”

In a circle of losers loss
is given an odd substance
which makes it come off like
information, the triumph of
patient investment of great skill
at understanding the world, the victory
of knowledge over gross life recalled.
The losers are winners in the fool’s game
of dead societies. They are the last wisp of
animation of the dinosaur’s corpse, whose gem like
spew of ancient verse is called grandly, The Explanation,
& it comes out like musical pus, as the toppling Giant
goes down.
— Amiri Baraka, “A Conference of ‘Socialists’ at Brown University,” Hard Facts

Now, we cannot consider Marx’s, Engels’s or Lenin’s texts as completely finished elaborations that are simply to be “applied” to the current situation. In saying this, I am not advocating anything contrary to “Marxism,” I am convinced of it. These texts are not to be read according to a hermeneutical or exegetical method which would seek out a finished signified beneath a textual surface. Reading is transformational. I believe that this would be confirmed by certain of Althusser’s propositions. But this transformation cannot be executed however one wishes. It requires pro­tocols of reading. Why not say it bluntly: I have not yet found any that satisfy me.
— Jacques Derrida, Positions

In 1977 Louis Althusser gave a famous speech in Venice on “the crisis of Marxism,” a thesis almost as scandalous as that of an epistemological break in Marx’s thought. But to invert what Brecht’s Mr. Keuner said of Socrates, the immeasurable uproar that burst out after this phrase and that has lasted for thirty years has drowned out the content of the speech itself. Perry Anderson, to take a typical example, wrote with dismay in his 1983 In the Tracks of Historical Materialism that Althusser’s declaration belonged to the general trend of “the change in political temperature in Latin Europe in the late seventies.” According to Anderson:

This was not so much an outright repudiation or relinquishment of Marxism, as a dilution or diminution of it… Symptomatic of this trend was Althusser’s growing distance from the political legacy of historical materialism as such, expressed in the denial that it had ever possessed any theory of State or politics, and betokening a radical loss of morale in one whose assertions of the scientific supremacy of Marxism had been more overweening and categorical than those of any other theorist of his time. Soon it was Althusser who was propagating the notion of “a general crisis of Marxism” — a crisis he showed little haste to resolve.1

In The Retreat from Class, Ellen Meiksins Wood shares this view of Althusser as a kind of ur-villain, who disrupts every attempt at categorization. She invokes In the Tracks of Historical Materialism to criticize “the convergence of certain ‘post-Marxist’ trends with post-structuralism,” and credits Anderson with exposing the “nihilism” of this approach. Wood suggests that the nihilists attacked in her book “travelled the route from Maoism to Eurocommunism and beyond, with the help of Althusser.”2

Now perhaps all this would be amusing, if it were not so fervently repeated by Anglo-American Marxists, despite the wealth of evidence that such interpretations are based largely on misreadings and empirical errors. By “Anglo-American Marxism” I mean nothing like a cohesive being-in-the-world which expresses the totality of the historical situation. I mean instead a quite precise and delimited theoretical problematic which emerged from the British New Left in the 60s and came to be appropriated and adapted by American Marxists in the 80s, as a kind of identity-formation in reaction to European theoretical trends which, stripped from their contexts, had become superficial academic fashions. Due partly to monolingualism and partly to the absence of a viable socialist culture in the United States, it has become equated with Marxism as such.

A core text of this problematic, Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism (1976), is known for advancing the argument that “Western” Marxist theory, emerging from the defeat of the European revolutionary movements of the early 20th century, consequently ended up absorbed in the superstructure, concerning itself with method and culture rather than politics or economics. Thus Western Marxism, despite the brilliance and erudition of its constituent figures, represented the abandonment of the core of Marxist theory and practice. “Major sectors of bourgeois thought,” Anderson wrote, “regained a relative vitality and superiority over socialist thought.”3

In this sense Western Marxism was a symptom of the gap that had emerged between intellectuals and mass revolutionary movements, a gap which the Anderson of 1976 would like to see overcome. The conditions of possibility for a revolutionary theory, as Anderson describes them, are strict. Citing Lenin’s famous dictum in Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Anderson explained what it would mean for a revolutionary theory to have a “close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.” The standards for theory are not contained within thought itself, and cannot be dictated by intellectuals; the epistemology of Marxist theory is grounded in its political project, ultimately centered on the the subjectivity of the proletariat. In spite of the absence of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement, Anderson predicted in 1976 that one was beginning to emerge.4

By 1983, with the sequel In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, Anderson appears to have lost his optimism. But that is not all that has been lost. Just as the prospect of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement appears to have disappeared, so has the conception of Marxism as a revolutionary theory. Now the term “historical materialism” takes pride of place, on the basis of three “hallmarks”: first, “its sheer scope as an intellectual system”; second, its “theory of historical development”; and third, its “political call to arms, in the struggle against capitalism.”5

Let us carefully interrogate the effects of this difference in wording. The criterion for a theory’s correctness has been rerouted from its connection to the practical activity of the proletariat to the breadth of its explanatory power, a characteristic which in bourgeois societies is measured by its hegemony in institutions of higher education. In 1976 history is the battlefield upon which theory must propose a revolutionary strategy which is adequate to contemporary social relations; in 1983, it has become the object of theory’s explanatory powers. Finally, the political character of a theory is equated with a call to arms — that is, a speech act, which can be issued by any kind of speaking subject, rather than the practical activity of revolutionary organization which implied a collective subject uniting intellectuals with the mass movement.

Thus, the most peculiar feature of Anderson’s argument is that the hallmarks of historical materialism are now illustrated by Western Marxism itself, the very body of thought criticized in the former book. A chapter on Habermas, while critical, vaunts him as an alternative to the dominant French fashions; Adorno is confoundingly invoked as an alternative to Derrida.6 In other words, the somber and sober speculations of Frankfurt are presented as an alternative to to the perverse and petulant peregrinations of Paris.

It is evident that Anderson’s new conception of Marxism poses more questions than it answers. Yet as a fundamentally defensive intellectual operation — one which seeks to preserve the intellectual hegemony of Marxism over the new trends characterized as “post-structuralism” — Anderson’s schema has had enormous influence. By advancing a total and comprehensive theory of history, which according to intellectual criteria performs better than all other theories of history, it provides an epistemological guarantee for a socialist “call to arms.” The difficult and inescapable question which has been at the core of Marxist theory since its inception – the relation of thought to social being, and thus of Marxist theory itself to revolutionary political practice — is resolved in the affirmation of the comprehensive and self-sufficient explanatory power of historical materialism.7

Indeed, even more troubling than the persistent belief of Anglo-American Marxism in an imaginary history of contemporary continental thought is the consolidation of Marxism as a defensive intellectual method. Presented as the possibility of a historical materialist critique of nihilism, Marxism functions as a fortress of solitude.

Thus the Anglo-American Marxism which took on its currently recognizable form in the 1980s was staked entirely on the denial of a theoretical crisis. But what was the character of this crisis? As we know, it was partly the perception of Marxism’s declining hegemony among leftist academics, who now appeared to have converted to the doctrines of power and discourse. It was not difficult to blame Althusser for this, who despite all his vocal and explicit condemnations of structuralism as an ideology was unable to shake the label of “structuralist.”

However, the threat was not only the external enemy of structuralism and poststructuralism, but also internal enemies, namely Maoism, charmingly described by Anderson as “a truculent Oriental Khrushchevism,” and Eurocommunism, “a second­ class version of Occidental social-democracy.”8 Anderson perceives the two tendencies as a continuum of heresies, ultimately sublated in the conversion from one to another — in this regard Althusser is attacked as the word made flesh.9 Since these theoretical dramas are played out in mostly untranslated French, Italian, and Spanish texts, intra-party debates that now seem like antediluvian relics, among Anglo-American Marxists Anderson’s description now has the status of doxa, confirmed and sanctified by the merciless judgment of the dialectic.

Yet if we are aware of the specificity of English Marxism and its development from the 1960s, we will understand that this is just as much a kind of self-rebuke of New Left Review. Its early enthusiasm for the Italian Communist Party of the 1960s formed the basis for its insistence that the sterility of British Marxism could only be renewed by adopting theoretical innovations from France and Italy, and in the fervor of the late 60s, it gave way to a flirtation with Maoism which Anderson is not so fond of commemorating. Reading the Trotskyist rectification which is Considerations on Western Marxism it is hard to resist recalling a proposition of Spinoza: “If a man has begun to hate an object of his love, so that love is thoroughly destroyed, he will, causes being equal, regard it with more hatred than if he had never loved it, and his hatred will be in proportion to the strength of his former love.”10

Let’s examine then, from a more dispassionate vantage point, the meaning of a crisis in Marxism and its relation to the political tendencies, Maoism and Eurocommunism, which Anderson and Wood accuse of provoking it. According to Anderson, the crisis in Marxism was provoked by dual disappointments in promises of renewal, against the stifling and disabling climate of Stalinism. Maoism reproduced the internal repression of Soviet society while veering off into extremism and reaction in its foreign policy, and Eurocommunism simply passed into parliamentary cretinism. But Eurocommunism was a contradictory problem, because it had raised the question of multiple paths to socialism. For Anderson this was the Gramscian question of the East-West polarity, which Eurocommunism had distorted: a “strategic discussion of the ways in which a revolutionary movement could break past the barriers of the bourgeois-democratic state to a real socialist democracy beyond it.”11 Eurocommunism had posed but failed to answer this question, since it abandoned a revolutionary perspective in favor of reformism, and had allowed the pluralism of the new social movements to displace the centrality of the revolutionary socialist program. In Considerations Anderson insisted that the Trotskyist tradition would rise phoenix-like from the ashes to provide an alternative. But by In the Tracks of Historical Materialism he acknowledges that Trotskyism’s

negative demonstrations of the incoherence and implausibility of central Eurocommunist assumptions were not accompanied by any sustained positive construction of an alternative scenario for defeating capitalism in the West. The blockage stemmed from too close an imaginative adherence to the paradigm of the October Revolution, made against the husk of a feudal monarchy, and too distant a theoretical concern with the contours of a capitalist democracy the Bolsheviks never had to confront.12

The thesis of a “crisis of Marxism” and the indignant reaction against it revolve around differing interpretations of the East-West polarity. The key for rereading the crisis of Marxism will be Althusser’s famous intervention at the 1978 Il Manifesto conference in Venice, at the invitation of Rossana Rossanda. But as Althusser noted, the phrase “the crisis of Marxism” was introduced by Rossanda herself in her opening remarks, though she has never to my knowledge been accused of post-structuralist nihilism. To inquire into the crisis of Marxism let us begin with Rossanda, who addressed the problem of the East-West polarity in several articles throughout the 60s and 70s.

The Priority of Politics

Rossanda noted that the Trotskyist alternative vaunted by Anderson had too often reduced its analysis to an “excessive dramatization,” which saw the heroic and authentic instance of revolution in October 1917 transformed into a “fatal bureaucratic degeneration,” whose causes were explained by “the phenomenology of power, at the social-psychological level.” This was a theory of “history as a mistake, a non-history.” And if “the USSR is the country of Leninism betrayed, the Chinese revolution is quite simply incomprehensible.”13 But what Rossanda found significant about the example of China was that it posed the question of what precisely was lacking in the Soviet model from 1917 on, and what alternatives were available. Rossanda wrote in 1970:

In its first editorial, a year ago, Il Manifesto explicitly referred to the example provided by the “cultural revolution.” We were then still members of the Communist Party, and in this way we showed the Party that the cultural revolution appeared to us as one of the roads that must be taken in order to regenerate not only the Party itself but also the strategy of the revolutionary movement in the West.14

Rossanda pointed out that while it was certainly true that Chinese communism was distinguished by its divergence from Soviet communism, this divergence was often interpreted in theoretically unsatisfactory ways. In the conventional interpretation, the Cultural Revolution had been understood as the struggle against a capitalist superstructure through the building of a socialist consciousness. Russian state socialism, the argument went, was characterized by a contradiction between the socialist economic base, defined by the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, and a capitalist superstructure, defined in terms of the effect of a lingering bourgeois consciousness on material existence. Two responses were possible to this contradictory situation: “for those on the Right, the need to find a solution by liberalizing institutions, and, for those on the Left, the need to stimulate devotion, disinterestedness, the spirit of sacrifice and egalitarianism as a lifestyle. Revisionism and cultural revolution are both relegated to the sphere of consciousness.”15

However, for Rossanda, this primacy granted to consciousness distorted Mao’s actual theoretical insight, which she argued was classically Marxist rather than a voluntarist turn to the superstructure. The structural economic problems of socialist construction, as Lenin had clearly seen, were not simply resolved through state ownership of the means of production. The economic base remained rife with contradictions: on the one hand the verticalization and bureaucratization of management, on the other hand the use of market pricing mechanisms. Even in this early stage of socialist construction the economic base bore the marks of the survivals of former property relations, despite the abolition of private ownership.

Mao’s insight, in Rossanda’s view, was not only to reject the dichotomy between base and superstructure, but also to highlight this complexity of the economic base. She pointed out that the capitalist mode of production is not reducible to solely the relation of private ownership of the means of production, but that this relation is embedded within the web of relation that constitute capitalist accumulation: the selling of labor-power, the division of labor, etc. Thus the break with the capitalist mode of production would have to be a “total upheaval,” breaking not only with private ownership but also with all these other relations. The abolition of private ownership was a necessary but insufficient condition for socialist construction. “It follows that what is called the ‘transitional’ society,” she wrote, “is a society in which a great deal of the capitalist mode of production survives, not as a vestige of the past but as an intrinsic form of the present.”16

The significance of the Cultural Revolution was to carry the struggle in the economic base towards these other “bourgeois relations,” which Rossanda insisted “are not at all ‘ideological’ relations, empty projections of material forms that no longer exist, but projections of material relations that are still concrete and fully real.”17 Her whole argument is directed against the assumption that the Cultural Revolution can be understood as an ideological struggle, specifically insofar as an ideological struggle would be understood as a struggle over the transformation of consciousness, and therefore an equation of the political level with consciousness:

The priority of politics is not a matter of consciousness. It is the stressing of practice as the only factor of destruction (of the enemy, and also of what has entered into ourselves from the enemy) and of construction of a new order. But and here too the cultural revolution seems to me to have been misunderstood — this practice is not aimed at bringing about “ideological” changes, it is not educative or rhetorical: it is applied so as to achieve material changes, real changes in the objective relationship between labour and authority… By “priority to politics” we are not to understand “priority given to good feelings over practical reality.” In “politics” and “economics” Mao symbolically distinguishes two factors which, in practice, he constantly strives to fuse together, in a Marxist way, by denying the independent existence and alleged objectivity of a meta-historical economics, separated from the social context, and restoring to politics its nature as the agent transforming the structure.18

Maoism had presented, then, not a question of the divergence of revolutionary strategies determined by the East-West polarity, but rather a question of differing and irreconcilable conceptions of revolution:

The cultural revolution thus breaks with certain fundamental assumptions that have dominated the construction of the transitional societies in Europe. On one point essentially: the need for a radical rejection, a ceaseless re-examination of the elements of historical continuity that the capitalist epoch hands on to subsequent epochs. In short, the innovation here is that the revolution is seen not as a new way of managing a society which has been inherited, but as an act of destruction followed by a new condition of social being.19

Now, here it is useful to turn to Althusser’s own commentary on the Cultural Revolution, published anonymously in Cahiers Marxistes-Léninistes in 1966. At first glance Althusser’s argument is in contradiction with Rossanda, because it is precisely the character of the Cultural Revolution as an ideological struggle that he emphasizes: “Its ultimate aim is to transform the ideology of the masses, to replace the feudal, bourgeois and petit-bourgeois ideology that still permeates the masses of Chinese society with a new ideology of the masses, proletarian and socialist — and in this way to give the socialist economic infrastructure and political superstructure a corresponding ideological superstructure.”20

Yet as we know, Althusser’s understanding of ideology is precisely one which refuses to conceive of it in terms of consciousness. Already in “Marxism and Humanism,” published two years before the start of the Cultural Revolution, Althusser had insisted not only that ideology “is profoundly unconscious” but also that in post-revolutionary societies it continues to exist as the field in which individuals live their relation to the world and respond to the demands of their conditions of existence. So in the themes of the ideology of humanism – “free development of the individual, respect for socialist legality, dignity of the person” — the socialists of the USSR were living their relation to “problems of the forms of economic, political and cultural organization… problems that, far from calling for a ‘philosophy of man,’ involve the preparation of new forms of organization for economic, political and ideological life.”21

So it was precisely this distinction that Althusser found at work in the Cultural Revolution, since it recognized that “a transformation of the ideology of the masses can only be the work of the masses themselves, acting in and through organizations that are mass organizations.”22 In other words, the Cultural Revolution was an ideological struggle not because it sought to alter consciousness, but because it sought to change the organizational forms of social life, in a relay between the economic, political, and ideological levels that are constitutive of socialist revolution and socialist construction.

Now, just as humanist ideology had obscured the organizational problems of socialist construction, historicist ideology had distorted its temporality. For this reason the problem of survivals of capitalism was fundamental for Althusser, as it was for Rossanda. If it was possible for a socialist society to regress towards capitalism, this meant that the Marxist teleology of inevitable revolution had to be rejected. Capitalist survivals in the transition cannot possibly be understood, Althusser wrote, “if Marxism is an essentially religious philosophy of history that guarantees socialism by presenting it as the goal toward which human history has always worked.”23 The very meaning of Marxism was then at stake. The significance of Maoism, for Rossanda and Althusser, was to pose the fundamental questions of its essence which since the October Revolution had been subordinated to the philosophy of history.

In fact, Rossanda had pointed out that that the question of organizational form had always been caught up in the theory of the historical process, in an article called “Class and Party” (1969) which introduced her interview with Jean-Paul Sartre on May ’68. She wrote:

the organization is never considered by Marx as anything but an essentially practical matter, a flexible and changing instrument, an expression of the real subject of the revolution, namely the proletariat. The organization expresses the revolution, but does not precede it; even less does it anticipate its objectives and its actions… between the proletariat and the party of the proletariat, the relationship is direct, the terms are almost interchangeable. For between the class as such and its political being, there is only a practical difference, in the sense that the second is the contingent form of the first. Moreover, Marx is convinced that the proletariat does not require a specific and autonomous mode of organization and expression, for it creates and destroys as it goes along its political forms, which are simple practical expressions, more or less adequate, of a consciousness which is synonymous with the objective position of the proletariat in the relations of production and in the struggle.24

So there is once again the question of consciousness, and in Marx’s thought there is a close and necessary link between the material conditions of social being which constitute the conditions for revolution and the consciousness that is formed to carry it out. It is neither a mechanical process nor a “subjective plan.”25 The “fusion between social being and consciousness” can only be achieved by the very fact of struggle. There is no room in Marx’s thought for an independent political level which would be the level of the party:

The class struggle has thus its material roots in the mechanism of the system itself; and revolution — meaning the process which is intended to transcend the system — is a social activity which creates, over time, the political forms which the class needs and which constitute its organization — namely the party. If the party and the proletariat sometimes appear as interchangeable in Marx, this is only so in the sense that the former is the political form of the latter, and constitutes its transitory mode of being, with the historical imperfections of concrete political institutions; while the proletariat remains the permanent historical subject, rooted in the material conditions of the capitalist system. It is not by chance that the proletariat is destined to destroy and overcome the traditional modes of political expression, including its own, insofar as they are something else than direct social rule.26

Now, in the theories of Kautsky and Lenin the party is no longer a mere expression of the subjectivity of the proletariat, a temporary expedient for its political activity, but an independent level. Framed in terms of consciousness, this poses the risk, as Rossanda points out, of idealism:

if the passage from social being to consciousness in the proletariat presents a theoretical difficulty, that problem becomes quite insoluble if, at the risk of falling back into Hegelianism, one deduces consciousness from consciousness — worse, if one does not fear to make the consciousness of the proletariat the product of the consciousness of intellectuals miraculously freed from their social being and abstracted from their class.27

Yet Lenin’s thought cannot be reduced to this idealist lapse. He would later turn precisely to the problem of mass organization, and the conception of socialist consciousness being introduced to the masses from the outside, Rossanda wrote, “was contradicted by the thesis ‘all power to the Soviets’ — the Soviets being the direct expression of the class obviously possessed of consciousness to the point of being able to direct the new society.”28 We thus find in Lenin’s thought a tension between the independent political level of the party and mass organizations.

Crisis and Finitude

The Il Manifesto conference on “Power and Opposition in Post-Revolutionary Societies” centered on the political level through an interrogation of the persistence of state repression in actually existing socialist societies — a practical dilemma for the international communist movement, but also a theoretical question which Marxism did not appear equipped to explain. As Rossanda suggested, “the real relation of production, and therefore the real social classes, in the countries in which the revolution occurred ceased to be transparent or visible.”29 China’s foreign policy maneuvers had revealed that its break with Soviet state socialism fell short. As for Eurocommunism, “that poor man’s version of the Gramscian approach to revolution in the west, stands exposed on all fronts.” But this was precisely because the East-West polarity had offered an incorrect way of framing the question. “We view the question of post-revolutionary society as a current political problem of the Italian left, and not as past history,” Rossanda said. “We do not believe in two societies, socialism for backward countries and Social Democracy for developed ones; we still hold to a unified theory of world processes.”30

At stake was not only the question of strategy but “the very idea of socialism, not as a generic aspiration but as a theory of society, a different mode of organization of human existence.”31 And just as much at stake was the status of Marxist theory. Was it capable of answering these questions, or had it ossified into a doctrine that its adherents saw as complete in itself? Here Rossanda introduced the theme of the crisis of Marxism:

Neither the Socialist, nor Trotskyist, nor libertarian, nor Marxist-Leninist currents have succeeded in assuming this heritage positively. They cling to old paths, or move reluctantly into new ones, or simply give up. The crisis of ideals is reflected in the uncertainty evinced by European leftist parties when they stand on the threshold of governmental power. Unable to explain the history of revolutions elsewhere, they lose the thread of their own. One of the reasons why the Eurocommunist and democratic-socialist groups have been unable to constitute alternatives is that they themselves suffer the maladies of the “real” socialist systems as their own limits. Nor have the new left groups dared to deal with this question, for fear that demobilization would set in if they ceased to cultivate myths, and because of the temptation to believe that it was all the result of a “mistake” and that everything could be set right through a return to “correct” principles. This is not the least of the reasons for their failure. The crisis, moreover, goes beyond the purely political domain and invests the realm of theory itself. It is a crisis of Marxism, of which the nouveaux philosophes are the caricature, but which is experienced by immense masses as an unacknowledged reality.32

This was not, however, a defeatist claim. “Marxism offers a reliable instrument,” Rossanda affirmed, for rendering the social relations of post-revolutionary societies visible and transparent.33 Althusser’s extemporaneous intervention was an attempt to carry forward this theme, but with a markedly positive inflection, which was endorsed in Rossanda’s concluding remarks.34 His exuberance is more clearly indicated by the original title the speech was given upon its initial publication in Il Manifesto: “Finalmente qualcosa di vitale si libera dalla crisi e nella crisi del marxismo.”35 The French translation “Enfin le crise du marxisme!” retains something of this triumphant tone, while the English reduction to simply “The Crisis of Marxism” allows for a voice of despair.36

Althusser had spoken in Spain the previous year of the “crisis of the international communist movement,” manifested in the abandonment of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat.37 While Anderson and Wood assumed that Althusser had himself swung from Maoism to Eurocommunism, the entirely public record of his campaign in defense of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat demonstrates that their claim is not merely inaccurate but something bordering on hallucination. The discussion of “the crisis of Marxism,” which begins the year just after Althusser’s interventions against the PCF’s abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, continues this thread.

The crisis of Marxism, Althusser said in Venice, went beyond the divisions in the communist movement, provoked by the vacillations of the socialist states and the Western parties. It resulted from the suppression of certain “difficulties, contradictions, and gaps,” especially the absence of a theory of the state and of class organization. Prior to the repressive climate of the 1930s, Marxism’s difficulties, contradictions, and gaps were the source of its vitality, propelling the dynamic development of theory in relation to its historical conjuncture and its political practice:

the crisis of Marxism has not spared Marxist theory: it does not take place outside of the theoretical sphere, in a simple historical domain of chance, accidents and dramas. As Marxists we cannot satisfy ourselves with the idea that Marxist theory exists somewhere, in pure form, without being involved in and compromised by the hard task of the historical struggles and their results in which it is directly concerned, as a “guide” to action.38

Althusser identified two crucial theoretical gaps: the state and the organizations of class struggle, which were the subject of a sort of follow-up “interview” by Rossanda, published in Il Manifesto in 1978 as “La questione dello stato, oggi e nella transizione.” Rossanda’s aim was explicitly to bring Althusser’s comments into relation with the debates already happening in Italian Marxism around the theory of the state, which had a very concrete pertinence: starting in 1976 it appeared to be possible for the Italian Communist Party to actually achieve state power, while its participation in the state under the banner of compromise put the meaning of this power into question. At the same time 1977 had brought an explosion of political activity that originated outside the party. Thus questions which had been deflected to the East were now at center stage for the revolutionary strategy of the West.

In this context Althusser sparked a debate in Il Manifesto, collected in a book called Discutere lo stato which presented his intervention as “Il marxismo come teoria ‘finita,’” the title it would retain upon translation into French for David Kaisergruber’s left Eurocommunist journal Dialectiques.39 Althusser’s remarks clearly indicate that a recognition of the crisis he had spoken of the previous year was a necessary step in confronting the current conjuncture. It was not possible to address the problem of the state and the socialist transition if Marxist theory was understood as a “total” and complete theory:

I believe that Marxist theory is “finite,” limited: that it is limited to the analysis of the capitalist mode of production, and its contradictory tendency, which opens the possibility of the passage towards the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by “something else” which already appears implicitly in capitalist society. I believe that Marxist theory is entirely the opposite of a philosophy of history which “encompasses” the whole future of humanity, and would thus be capable of defining the “end”: communism, in a positive manner. Marxist theory (if we leave aside the temptation of the philosophy of history to which Marx himself sometimes ceded, and which dominated in a crushing fashion the Second International and the Stalinist period) is inscribed within and limited to the current existing phase: that of capitalist exploitation. All that it can say about the future is the fragmented and negative extension of the current tendency, the tendency to communism, observable in a whole series of phenomena of capitalist society… These are only indications deduced from the current tendency, which like every tendency in Marx, is counteracted and may not be achieved, unless the political struggle makes it real. But this reality cannot be predicted in its positive form: it is only in the course of the struggle that the possible forms come to light, are discovered, and become real.40

The question of these forms of political struggle had a concrete importance in the organizational crisis of the communist parties. While left Eurocommunists had encouraged an openness to the new social movements, they had done so on the basis of liberal democratic pluralism – the “rules of the game” that Rossanda had alluded to.41 But the importance of these movements, Althusser suggested, could not be understood on the basis of these juridical categories:

An important tendency is currently taking shape, to take politics out of its bourgeois juridical status. The old party/union distinction is put to a harsh test, totally unpredicted political initiatives emerge outside the parties, and even outside the workers’ movement (ecology, women’s struggles, youth struggles, etc.)… And naturally this has also put into question the organizational form of the communist party, constructed exactly on the model of the bourgeois political apparatus.42

This rejection of the bourgeois form of politics was an extension of Althusser’s defense of the concept of class dictatorship. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie took the form of parliamentary democracy; the proletarian dictatorship, which would take the form of an even greater mass democracy, would constitute an active process of transformation which would lead to the withering away of the state. But this classical Marxian insight had been suppressed by a profound theoretical obfuscation. The dictatorship of the proletariat had been been conflated with the idea of the party becoming the state, an error which was by no means ameliorated by rejecting the word “dictatorship” in favor of the bourgeois rules of the game. In fact, the Eurocommunist principle of entering into the state ended up reinforcing the very identification of politics with the state that the proletarian dictatorship sought to destroy:

If the party makes itself the state, we have the USSR. I have been writing for a long time, to Italian friends that never, absolutely never, on principle, must the party consider itself “a party of government” – even if it can, in certain circumstances, participate in government. On principle, according to its political and historical purpose, the party must be outside the state, both under the bourgeois state, and even more so under the proletarian state. The party must be the instrument of the destruction of the bourgeois state, before becoming, bit by bit, one of the instruments of the withering away of the state.43

Movements that emerged outside the party could not be understood in terms of the ideological category of “pluralism.” By rejecting the model of the bourgeois parliamentary apparatus, they constituted organizational practices which presented the possibility of a new practice of politics:

It is this autonomy of the party with relation to the state which allows the possibility (or even the necessity) of what is formally called “pluralism.” There is every advantage to the existence of parties in the transition: this can be one of the forms of the hegemonization of the working class and its allies – but on one condition, that the party be unlike the other, that is, solely a piece of the political ideological state apparatus (the parliamentary regime), but fundamentally outside the state by its activity in the masses, impelling in the masses the action which belongs to the destruction of the apparatuses of the bourgeois state, and the withering away of the new revolutionary state.44

We might ask, however, why the original formulations of Marx, as Rossanda had described them, were not sufficiently powerful to constitute an effective challenge to the bourgeois forms of politics. Why can we not speak of the dialectical unity of social being and consciousness, which renders the vanguard party unnecessary, if not impossible, by eliminating the independent political level?

Althusser addressed this question in a third Italian intervention, “Marxism Today,” published in Enciclopedia Europea:

“Workers of the world unite!” effectively means “Organize!” Now it seems that the exigency of organization did not pose a particular theoretical problem for Marx: the whole problem was resolved in advance through the transparency of a conscious, voluntary community constituted by free and equal members— a prefiguration of the free community of Communism, a community without social relations. The idea— which the working class would have to confront in its historical experience— that every organization must furnish itself with an apparatus so as to ensure its own unity of thought and action, that there is no organization without an apparatus, and that the division between apparatus and militants could reproduce the bourgeois division of power and cause problems so serious as to end in tragedy— this was inconceivable to Marx. But his successors did not tackle it as a theoretical problem either— not even Rosa Luxemburg, who had sensed the danger. And Marx, besides having a transparent notion of organization, never abandoned his old transparent conception of ideology as “consciousness” or “system of ideas,” and never succeeded in conceiving its materiality— that is to say, its realization in practices governed by apparatuses functioning as forms of dominant ideology, dependent upon the State.45

Once again we may note a resonance and tension between Rossanda and Althusser’s deployment of these identical terms. For Rossanda the transparency of social relations in post-revolutionary societies is precisely what must be realized by a renewal of Marxist theory – by a rigorous analysis of the relations of production and the political forms which hold together new social practices and the survivals of the old society. Without this, the social relations of the post-revolutionary society remain opaque and obscure.

But what is the form of knowledge implied by this making transparent? In Reading Capital Althusser showed that in the Feuerbachian problematic of the young Marx, “to know the essence of things… was simply to read… the presence of the ‘abstract’ essence in the transparency of its ‘concrete’ existence.” He added: “This immediate reading of essence in existence expresses the religious model of Hegel’s Absolute Knowledge, that End of History in which the concept at last becomes fully visible, present among us in person, tangible in its sensory existence— in which this bread, this body, this face and this man are the Spirit itself.”46 But the empiricist approach which claims a materialist status belongs to the same religious conception of vision, “with the mere difference that transparency is not given from the beginning, but is separated from itself precisely by the veil, the dross of impurities, of the inessential which steal the essence from us, and which abstraction, by its techniques of separation and scouring, sets aside, in order to give us the real presence of the pure naked essence, knowledge of which is then merely sight.”47

To render the relations of post-revolutionary societies visible does not involve, then, a mere empiricist operation of abstraction, an unveiling of the essence which exists in the real object. It involves rather the production of a new object and the founding of a new problematic: a theory of the state and of organization. The religious counterpart of the empiricist vision is the vision of a socialist “new man” whose relations to his conditions of existence would be immediate and total, a society beyond every kind of alienation and separation in which individual can directly see the relations which constitute them. But behind this new man is the subject whose imaginary experience can never coincide with its real conditions of existence, and whose consciousness is constituted by determinate practices and material institutions — the apparatuses of the capitalist state, or the mass organizations which seek to abolish it.

Today Althusser’s intervention has a striking actuality, as Marxists begin to contemplate the building of new socialist political parties and the possibility of entering into the state. Marxist theory remains a reliable instrument for our conjuncture. But this is only if it can constitute, as Althusser remarked in one of his speeches in Spain, a non-philosophy of the non-state, rather than a pure theory which achieves intellectual hegemony.

So let us conclude with Althusser’s claim that Marxism is a finite theory. It is by no means a finished theory— neither in the sense that it was exhausted in the factories of Manchester, and thus no longer applies to our reality, nor that it was completed in the British Museum, and thus requires no addition or modification. No, Marxism is a finite theory in the sense that it is a limited theory— a theory which limits itself to the historical specificity of capitalist society and the tendency it establishes within it which may lead to communism, and by virtue of these limits it has validity as a scientific analysis rather than an all-encompassing worldview. But it is finite also in the sense that it is perpetually incomplete: that it attempts to grasp a historical process which it itself seeks to alter, encountering the necessity of contingent objective conditions and positing a political subject which it attempts performatively to bring into being. It is in this sense that Marxism enters into crisis with every political encounter, when like Lenin writing State and Revolution in 1917, theoretical production is “interrupted.” While Lenin welcomed such interruptions, today’s Marxists are all too often tempted to resort to the fantasy of the transparency of social relations, either in the form of utopian projections, or the claim to have already seen clearly what theory has not yet had the opportunity to render visible. I suggest instead returning to Althusser’s enthusiasm, and exclaiming along with him, “At last the crisis of Marxism has exploded!”

  1. Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (New York: Verso, 1983), 29-30. 

  2. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism (London: Verso, 1998), 5, 22. 

  3. Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: New Left Books, 1976), 55. 

  4. Ibid., 105-6. 

  5. Anderson, In the Tracks, 86-7. I follow in many respects the sharp critique of Peter Linebaugh: “Anderson’s notion of the ‘working class’ is antiquated and boring; it is like his notion of the ‘economy’; in fact, his notions of these are complements of one another: equally abstract, equally remote, equally infrequent in his thinking, a vast distance separating them both.” “In the Flight Path of Perry Anderson,” History Workshop 21 (Spring 1986): 144. For a detailed response to Anderson’s claims about the substance of “French theory” see Warren Montag, “What is at Stake in the Debate About Postmodernism?” in in E. A. Kaplan, ed., Postmodernism and its Discontents (London: Verso, 1988). 

  6. Ibid., 54. The argument of Adorno, here presented as a refutation of Derrida, seems actually to make the point that Derrida argued explicitly with the concept of “erasure,” that in spite of the deconstruction of transcendental signifiers, the language of the center, the subject, etc., remained indispensable. See especially the question-and-answer transcript included in Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” in Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, eds., The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970), 271-2. 

  7. This is despite the fact that Anderson raises the question of Marxism’s self-critical character and refers to the work of Canguilhem as epistemological guidance, thereby invoking precisely the anti-structuralist lineage within which Althusser’s work is situated; see In the Tracks, 11-13. Note that this discussion involves a polarity between external and internal criteria of verification of the truth of Marxism, Anderson proposing that while the ultimate criteria are external (“history”), internal criteria must also be considered. However, the unity of revolutionary theory and practice cannot be understood in terms of epistemological verification. 

  8. Ibid., 76. 

  9. Ibid., 75. 

  10. Spinoza, Ethics, EIIIP38. 

  11. Anderson, In the Tracks, 19. 

  12. Ibid., 79. 

  13. Rossana Rossanda, “Revolutionary Intellectuals and the Soviet Union,” Socialist Register (1974): 22, 35. 

  14. Rossana Rossanda, “Mao’s Marxism,” Socialist Register (1971): 53. 

  15. Ibid., 59. 

  16. Ibid., 61. 

  17. Ibid., 63. 

  18. Ibid., 70. 

  19. Ibid., 75. 

  20. Louis Althusser, “On the Cultural Revolution,” trans. Jason Smith, Décalages 1:1 (2010): 7. 

  21. Louis Althusser, “Marxism and Humanism,” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Verso, 1977), 238. 

  22. Althusser, “Cultural Revolution,” 7. 

  23. Ibid., 10. 

  24. Rossana Rossanda, “Class and Party,” Socialist Register (1970): 218. 

  25. Ibid., 219. 

  26. Ibid., 220. 

  27. Ibid., 224. 

  28. Ibid., 225. 

  29. Il Manifesto, Power and Opposition in Post-Revolutionary Societies, trans. P. Camiller and J. Rotschild (London: Ink Links, 1979), 5. 

  30. Ibid., 8. 

  31. Ibid., 9. 

  32. Ibid, 10. 

  33. Ibid, 11. 

  34. Ibid, 243. 

  35. II Manifesto, November 16, 1977. 

  36. Il Manifesto, Pouvoir et opposition dans les sociétés postrévolutionnaires (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1978). 

  37. Louis Althusser, “Some Questions Concerning the Crisis of Marxist Theory,” Historical Materialism 23:1 (2015): 153. See also the excellent introduction to this speech by Warren Montag in the same issue. 

  38. Il Manifesto, Power and Opposition, 227. 

  39. Dialectiques, 1:23 (Spring 1978). For an interesting account of Discutere lo stato from a German vantage point, see Elmar Altvater and Otto Kallscheuer, “Socialist Politics and the Crisis of Marxism,” Socialist Register (1979). I draw on the brilliant interpretation of this text and its relation to Rossanda’s work in Étienne Balibar’s 2010 talk “The side effect of metformin,” trans. Patrick King and Asad Haider, Viewpoint Magazine (2017); see also Étienne Balibar, “Althusser and ‘Communism,’” Crisis and Critique 2:2 (November 2015). 

  40. Louis Althusser, “Marxism as a Finite Theory,” collected in this dossier. 

  41. See also Rossana Rossanda, “The Crisis and Dialectic of Parties and New Social Movements in Italy” in this dossier. 

  42. Ibid. 

  43. Althusser, “Finite Theory.” 

  44. Ibid. 

  45. Louis Althusser, “Marxism Today,” in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, ed. Gregory Elliott and trans. Ben Brewster, James H. Kavanagh, Thomas E. Lewis, Grahame Lock and Warren Montag (New York: Verso, 1990). 

  46. Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1970), 16. 

  47. Ibid., 37. 

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).