Marxism as a Finite Theory (1978)

Struc­ture That Eats (Gio­van­ni Ansel­mo, 1968)

Introduction by Rossana Rossanda (1978)

In Novem­ber 1977, at the Venice con­fer­ence on Pow­er and Oppo­si­tion in Post-Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Soci­eties, Louis Althuss­er assert­ed that there is no the­o­ry of the state in Marx. The fol­low­ing March, Il Man­i­festo pro­posed to Althuss­er to devel­op this asser­tion, which had remained sus­pend­ed after Venice, tak­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly into account the dis­cus­sion under­way on the left in Italy, and in par­tic­u­lar the debate that took place in Mon­d­op­era­ia, up to the inter­view with Giu­liano Ama­to and Pietro Ingrao, and the recent writ­ings of Bia­gio De Gio­van­ni in Rinasci­ta.

For this pur­pose two blocks of ques­tions were direct­ed to Althuss­er. The first still con­cerned the ques­tion of the state in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary expe­ri­ences tak­ing place; the sec­ond more close­ly grasped the Ital­ian dis­cus­sion, and pre­cise­ly the the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sion of the polit­i­cal sphere. We asked the French philoso­pher what he thought of the the­sis where­by nec­es­sar­i­ly “the par­ty becomes the state,” and on the rela­tions that in this case are cre­at­ed between the state and par­ty and which are sub­ject­ed to social con­flicts and their forms of strug­gle. We are con­cerned now and above all in the tran­si­tion, to rethink both the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at – and the “cri­tique of pol­i­tics” that it entails – and the ques­tion, his­tor­i­cal­ly unre­solved, of the extinc­tion of the state. Can a soci­ety that is com­mit­ted, even after the change of the dom­i­nant class, to the prin­ci­ple of “imbal­ance” and unin­ter­rupt­ed rev­o­lu­tion, as Mao assert­ed, live with­out “rules of the game,” norms, a law that is formed and frac­tured in the moment of con­flict – at the cost of suc­ceed­ing in express­ing nei­ther the “cen­ter,” the “right” nor the “left,” that is to say, obscur­ing the real social dialec­tic? Don’t the law, the state, appear there­fore as the form of social com­pro­mise that inter­vene at every phase, includ­ing in that of the tran­si­tion? But if this is so, how and when is the state abol­ished? What rea­son is there to think that in com­mu­nism the “pro­duc­ers” do not need a gen­er­al polit­i­cal medi­a­tion?

Althuss­er began to respond to this block of ques­tions, and a debate devel­oped on his respons­es, which are includ­ed in this vol­ume in their entire­ty. (Dis­cutere lo sta­to)


Rossana Rossan­da: Dur­ing your inter­ven­tion in Venice, you declared that there was no the­o­ry of the state in Marx. I think so too, although there are frag­ments of an analy­sis of the mod­ern state more devel­oped than in Lenin, and a sort of counter-the­o­ry: what the social­ist state must not be. This debate con­cerns the social­ist states and polit­i­cal life in the phase of the tran­si­tion to com­mu­nism. Does this life pass through the par­ty, which becomes the state, even by means of an inter­nal dialec­tic? Or if con­tra­dic­tions con­tin­ue to exist, do they need to be expressed polit­i­cal­ly? In oth­er words, can a soci­ety that is con­tra­dic­to­ry (Mao) live with­out rules of the game?

Louis Althuss­er: The ques­tions you’ve sub­mit­ted me are stat­ed in a form that con­tains a whole series of pre­sup­po­si­tions about Marx­ist the­o­ry, about the state and civ­il soci­ety, and about the dis­ap­pear­ance of the state, as well as about pol­i­tics.

1. It’s no acci­dent that I had dif­fi­cul­ty with the word “com­p­lessi­vo,” with the notion of “the whole,” which is not unre­lat­ed to the theme of “gen­er­al­i­ty.” Behind cer­tain indi­ca­tions it seems to me you can dis­cern the idea that Marx­ist the­o­ry is capa­ble of encom­pass­ing the total­i­ty of a process which it in fact only calls the ten­den­cy: since com­mu­nism is a ten­den­cy of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety.

I believe that Marx­ist the­o­ry is “finite,” lim­it­ed: that it is lim­it­ed to the analy­sis of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, and of its con­tra­dic­to­ry ten­den­cy, which opens up the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the tran­si­tion to 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 which 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 suc­cumbed, 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. It is entire­ly nec­es­sary to see that it is on the basis of the cur­rent soci­ety that the tran­si­tion (dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at) and the ulti­mate extinc­tion of the state are thought. 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.

I believe it is absolute­ly nec­es­sary to get rid of the idea that we find already in cer­tain expres­sions of Lenin, and also in Gram­sci, that Marx­ist the­o­ry is a “total” the­o­ry capa­ble of con­crete­ly sub­sti­tut­ing for a phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry, and thus capa­ble of think­ing of prob­lems which are not “on the agen­da,” in a form which antic­i­pates their con­di­tions and their solu­tion. Marx­ist the­o­ry is a finite the­o­ry, and it is on the basis of its con­scious fini­tude that it is pos­si­ble to pose all of our major prob­lems.

To which we have to add the fact that, even with regard to cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety and the work­ers’ move­ment, Marx­ist the­o­ry says almost noth­ing about the state, ide­ol­o­gy, pol­i­tics, or the orga­ni­za­tions of class strug­gle. It is a “blind spot” which doubt­less tes­ti­fies to the the­o­ret­i­cal lim­its Marx ran up against, as if he was par­a­lyzed by the bour­geois rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the state, pol­i­tics, etc., to the point of repeat­ing it in a sole­ly neg­a­tive form. Blind spot or for­bid­den zone, the result is the same. And it is impor­tant, since the ten­den­cy to com­mu­nism finds itself blocked (or uncon­scious of itself) in every­thing which con­cerns these “regions” or these prob­lems.

2. The sec­ond pre­sup­po­si­tion con­cerns “pol­i­tics.” It seems to me that Gram­sci obscured rather than clar­i­fied this blind spot in Marx, by tak­ing up the old bour­geois dis­tinc­tion of polit­i­cal soci­ety and civ­il soci­ety, even if he gave anoth­er sense to the notion of civ­il soci­ety (pri­vate hege­mon­ic orga­ni­za­tions, there­fore out­side the “sphere of the state” iden­ti­fied with “polit­i­cal soci­ety”). I believe that there is a link between the notions of polit­i­cal soci­ety, the state, and the func­tion of “gen­er­al­i­ty” (opposed to “pri­vate”) in the prob­lem­at­ic of the Ital­ian dis­cus­sions, and that this kind of notion leads back either to the ide­ol­o­gy (and the prac­tice) of the bour­geois con­cep­tions of pol­i­tics, or to the ide­al­ism of a “uni­ver­sal­i­ty” of the state real­iz­ing “the uni­ver­sal” or the “gen­er­al­i­ty” of a human­i­ty final­ly lib­er­at­ed from exploita­tion, the divi­sion of labor, and oppres­sion (leaders/led), which Marx dragged along behind him for a long time, at least in the works of his youth, and which he inher­it­ed from Feuer­bach.

The fact that the class strug­gle (bour­geois and pro­le­tar­i­an) has the state as its stake from now on, does not at all mean that pol­i­tics must be defined with rela­tion to the state. In the same way that Marx con­scious­ly pre­sent­ed Cap­i­tal as a “cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my,” we have to man­age to think what he did not do: a “cri­tique of pol­i­tics” as it is imposed by the ide­o­log­i­cal con­cep­tion and the prac­tice of the bour­geoisie. It is from the point of view of the bour­geoisie that there is a dis­tinc­tion between “polit­i­cal soci­ety” and “civ­il soci­ety,” I mean that this dis­tinc­tion is con­sti­tu­tive of ide­ol­o­gy and the bour­geois class strug­gle. As far as that goes, one could say, it is from the point of view of the bour­geoisie that the state is rep­re­sent­ed as a “sphere” dis­tinct from the rest, dis­tinct from civ­il soci­ety (whether it is in the sense of Hegel or in the sense of Gram­sci), out­side civ­il soci­ety, while the state has always pro­found­ly pen­e­trat­ed civ­il soci­ety, not only with mon­ey and the law, not only with its repres­sive appa­ra­tus­es, but also with its ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es (after a long reflec­tion, I believe I can, despite the sub­tle­ty of Gramsci’s analy­sis, main­tain the con­cept of ide­o­log­i­cal state appa­ra­tus­es, to make it clear­ly felt that hege­mo­ny is exer­cised through forms which, even if their “ori­gin” is spon­ta­neous, are inte­grat­ed and trans­formed in ide­o­log­i­cal forms which have an organ­ic rela­tion to the state; the state can “find” these forms, and this is always what hap­pens in his­to­ry: it nev­er ceas­es to inte­grate-uni­fy them in forms which assure hege­mo­ny).

Every­thing hap­pens as if, by the fact that the state (and this is cor­rect) is the ulti­mate stake of the class strug­gle, pol­i­tics has been reduced to the sphere of its stake… Against this illu­sion, direct­ly induced by bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy and a con­cep­tion reduc­ing pol­i­tics to its stake, Gram­sci very clear­ly under­stood that “every­thing is polit­i­cal,” there­fore there is no “sphere of pol­i­tics,” there­fore if the dis­tinc­tion between polit­i­cal soci­ety (or state) and civ­il soci­ety defines the forms imposed by ide­ol­o­gy and the bour­geois prac­tice of pol­i­tics, the work­ers’ move­ment must be done with this illu­sion, and make for itself anoth­er idea of pol­i­tics and the state.

Con­cern­ing the state, it is a mat­ter before all else of not reduc­ing the func­tions of the state to the vis­i­ble sphere of its appa­ra­tus­es alone: the state has always been “expand­ed” and it is very nec­es­sary to under­stand this point against those who make of this “expan­sion” a recent and fun­da­men­tal event. It is the forms of this expan­sion that have changed, but not the prin­ci­ple of expan­sion. Sim­ply we have been blind up to a recent peri­od about the fact of the expan­sion of the state, which is con­sti­tu­tive of the state of absolute monar­chy (if not even fur­ther back) and of the cap­i­tal­ist state.

Con­cern­ing pol­i­tics, it is a mat­ter above all else of not reduc­ing it to the forms offi­cial­ly sanc­tioned as polit­i­cal by bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy: the state, pop­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the polit­i­cal strug­gle over the pos­ses­sion of state pow­er, polit­i­cal par­ties, etc. If we enter into this log­ic and remain in it, we risk falling not only into “par­lia­men­tary cre­tinism” but above all the juridi­cal illu­sion of pol­i­tics: since pol­i­tics is defined by polit­i­cal right, and this right con­se­crates (and con­se­crates only) the forms of pol­i­tics defined by bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy, includ­ing in the activ­i­ty of par­ties.

It is not a mat­ter here either of “expand­ing” the exist­ing pol­i­tics, but of know­ing how to lis­ten to pol­i­tics where it hap­pens. 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 unfore­seen polit­i­cal ini­tia­tives emerge out­side the par­ties, and even out­side the work­ers’ move­ment (ecol­o­gy, women’s strug­gles, youth strug­gles, etc.), in a great con­fu­sion cer­tain­ly, but which can be pro­duc­tive. The “gen­er­al­ized politi­ciza­tion” of which Ingrao speaks is a symp­tom which appears to me to be nec­es­sary to inter­pret as a sav­age and pro­found putting into ques­tion of the clas­si­cal bour­geois forms of pol­i­tics. From this point of view Italy is at the fore­front of the ini­tia­tives. I read­i­ly inter­pret on this point the great dif­fi­cul­ties of the PCI at inte­grat­ing or even hav­ing con­tact with cer­tain new move­ments as the sign that the clas­si­cal con­cep­tion of pol­i­tics and the role of the par­ties has been chal­lenged. 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 (with its par­lia­ment which dis­cuss­es, “the base,” and its lead­er­ship which, what­ev­er hap­pens, has the means to stay in place, and to assure, in the name of the par­ty ide­ol­o­gy, the dom­i­na­tion of its “line”). It is evi­dent that this pro­found con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of the con­cep­tion of pol­i­tics by bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy is the point on which the future of the work­ers’ move­ment will be played out.

3. This is why I feel ill at ease before for­mu­las of this kind: “the the­o­ret­i­cal form of the ‘polit­i­cal sphere’ in the tran­si­tion peri­od. Let’s admit that it must go through the par­ty which makes itself the state…” Actu­al­ly, it seems to me impos­si­ble to accept this idea (defend­ed, if I’m not mis­tak­en, by Gram­sci in his the­o­ry of the Mod­ern Prince, which takes up in fact a major theme, explained well by Machi­avel­li, of the bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy of pol­i­tics). 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. The polit­i­cal exte­ri­or­i­ty of the par­ty with regard to the state is a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple that we can draw from the scarce texts of Marx and Lenin on this ques­tion. With­out this auton­o­my of the par­ty (and not of pol­i­tics) in rela­tion to the state, we will nev­er get out of the bour­geois state, how­ev­er “reformed” we want it to be.

It is this auton­o­my of the par­ty in 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 among 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.

The num­ber one trap is the state: be it under the polit­i­cal forms of class col­lab­o­ra­tion in exist­ing “legal­i­ty,” or under the myth­i­cal form of the “becom­ing-state of the par­ty.” I say myth­i­cal from a the­o­ret­i­cal point of view, since it is unfor­tu­nate­ly too real in the “social­ist” coun­tries.

I know that it is not easy to take such a polit­i­cal posi­tion: but with­out it the auton­o­my of the par­ty is irre­me­di­a­bly com­pro­mised, and there is no longer any chance of escap­ing from the risk either of class col­lab­o­ra­tion, or of the par­ty-state and its con­se­quences.

But if we man­age to take such a posi­tion, ques­tions like those that have been raised by Ital­ian social­ists seem to me to be put back in their prop­er place. Of course, it is nec­es­sary that the tran­si­tion­al state observe and enforce the juridi­cal “rules of the game” which pro­tect peo­ple and “dis­si­dents” or oppo­si­tions. But if the par­ty is autonomous, etc., it will respect the “rules of the game” in what its inter­locu­tors con­sid­er, accord­ing to clas­si­cal bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy, the “sphere of pol­i­tics” – while doing pol­i­tics in the realm that decides every­thing: in the move­ment of the mass­es. The destruc­tion of the bour­geois state is not the sup­pres­sion of all rules of the game, but the pro­found trans­for­ma­tion of its appa­ra­tus­es, some of them sup­pressed, oth­ers cre­at­ed, all rev­o­lu­tion­ized. It is not in lim­it­ing the “rules of the game” or in sup­press­ing them (as in the USSR) that one can wish for the action of the pop­u­lar mass­es to be expressed: the rules of the game such as they are are con­ceived by clas­si­cal ide­olo­gies that are part of an entire­ly dif­fer­ent game, much more impor­tant than that of right, as Bob­bio him­self knows very well. If the par­ty main­tains its class auton­o­my and ini­tia­tive of action, it has every­thing to gain and noth­ing to lose in observ­ing and propos­ing rules of the game. But if it los­es its class auton­o­my and ini­tia­tive of action, then the “rules of the game” will serve com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent inter­ests than those of the pop­u­lar mass­es.

4. It is hard for me to enter into the very inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion that is tak­ing place in Italy (Ama­ta-Ingrao-de Gio­van­ni) even if only for rea­sons of polit­i­cal seman­tics. I would say that I find myself very close to Ingrao, when he under­lines the neces­si­ty of seri­ous­ly tak­ing into account all the new move­ments that have devel­oped out­side the par­ties, when he notes the change in atti­tude of the par­ties (refus­ing total­iz­ing visions), when he declares that the ques­tion of the polit­i­cal par­ty is posed in new terms. I fol­low him less (but doubt­less I have not under­stood him) when he seems to speak of the state and the polit­i­cal sphere (cur­rent and in gen­er­al) as con­sti­tut­ing in some way the mea­sure of all pol­i­tics, when he speaks of the “social­iza­tion of pol­i­tics” as if it has not rather been a mat­ter (he says it else­where) of a “politi­ciza­tion of the social” since speak­ing of a “social­iza­tion of pol­i­tics” sup­pos­es the pre­ex­is­tence of a pol­i­tics which would social­ize itself, and this pol­i­tics which “social­izes” itself can only be pol­i­tics in its dom­i­nant form. What is inter­est­ing to me, in the very exam­ples that Ingrao cites, is that things hap­pen in reverse: not pol­i­tics towards the mass­es, but the mass­es towards pol­i­tics, and, what is cru­cial, towards a new prac­tice of pol­i­tics. This may be why I am ret­i­cent when I see Ingrao declare that the con­flict­ual­i­ty and the diver­si­ty of move­ments “gives a greater impor­tance to the moment of gen­er­al medi­a­tion.” I regret that he speaks in such abstract terms, and can thus give the impres­sion of focus­ing on the state as such, with­out bring­ing to the fore­ground its trans­for­ma­tion. This may be (?) a quirk that comes from Gram­sci, who had the ten­den­cy to con­flate the state appa­ra­tus with its func­tions.

With the same reser­va­tions regard­ing the sim­i­lar for­mu­la­tions of de Gio­van­ni (social­iz­ing pol­i­tics; dif­fu­siv­i­ty of pol­i­tics into the “par­tic­u­lar”; mol­e­c­u­lar dif­fu­sion of pol­i­tics, etc.) and also his the­sis of the “dif­fu­sion of the state” which can be ambigu­ous, recall­ing the “expan­sion of the state,” and which can con­flate the state and pol­i­tics (see above), I am very close to him when he evokes “the cri­sis of the auton­o­my of pol­i­tics” and above all when he defines this pol­i­tics: “What is the the­o­ret­i­cal form and orga­ni­za­tion­al prac­tice of the old state”: since he calls pol­i­tics by its name, the forms of hege­mo­ny which are in place. And I agree with him when he notes very cor­rect­ly that “the exal­ta­tion of polit­i­cal medi­a­tion springs from the risks of ‘weak­ness’ con­tained in the sim­ple ‘dif­fu­sion.’” This is the deci­sive point: pol­i­tics does not “dif­fuse” itself (implied: from above, start­ing with the forms of the state and even of the par­ties), with­out run­ning the risk of tech­ni­cism or of a “par­tic­i­pa­tion” which runs up against the wall of state pow­er (since it can even orga­nize it!). “It does not seem suf­fi­cient to respond in ‘gen­er­al’ to his­tor­i­cal­ly exist­ing pow­er (here again the gen­er­al is called by its name) by the self-man­age­ment of autonomies. The deci­sive point is still hege­mo­ny, which is giv­en by the whole form in which the con­struc­tion of the state must be expressed.” Hege­mo­ny, con­struc­tion of the state: here are the words which say to us, in their own way, that it is nec­es­sary to “decode” like any oth­er the “encrypt­ed” arti­cle of de Gio­van­ni, of things known for a long time.

– Trans­lat­ed by Asad Haider

This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled “The Cri­sis of Marx­ism.”

Author of the article

was the author of Reading Capital and For Marx.