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, mao11-13. 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 Genre of the Par­ty,” 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).