Karl Marx reading Louis Althusser reading Capital copy

Althusser’s reading of Marx in the eyes of three of his contemporaries: George Lichtheim, Alain Badiou, and Henri Lefebvre

It has been fifty years since the publication of Louis Althusser’s influential collaboration with his students, Reading Capital. Verso has already announced that it will be publishing, for the first time, a complete English translation of the French original. For forty years, the abridged rendering by Ben Brewster has been available. But this version contains only the portions written by Althusser and Étienne Balibar, and omits the contributions of Pierre Macherey, Roger Establet, and Jacques Rancière (though Brewster did translate Rancière’s essay on value in another publication). The new edition of Reading Capital will compile all of these sections.

Commemorating this anniversary, the new Marxist theory journal Crisis & Critique has moreover dedicated an entire issue to providing a retrospective evaluation of the book. Many celebrated theorists of the past few decades are featured here: Adrian Johnston, Jacques Bidet, and Vittorio Morfino. Establet wrote a rare reflection on his former master, and the literary critic Macherey granted an interview to the editors, Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza. Panagiotis Sotiris has an article on Althusserianism and value-form theory, a subject that interests me greatly despite my obvious preference for the New Marx Reading of Helmut Reichelt, Hans-Georg Backhaus, Werner Bonefeld, Michael Heinrich, and Ingo Elbe. You can download Crisis & Critique, 2.2: Reading Capital, 50 Years Later by clicking on the link.

When Reading Capital came out in 1965, it had an immediate incendiary effect. Numerous polemics were written against it, from practically every corner of the Marxist theoretical universe. Lucien Sève and Roger Garaudy, both prominent members of the PCF, attacked it from a more or less “orthodox” angle. Henri Lefebvre, Lucien Goldmann, and Jean-Paul Sartre approached it from a perspective more independent of the official party. Soon even Rancière would turn on his former master, in his vitriolic work Althusser’s Lesson (1974), which reflected his conversion to a more militant strain of Maoism. In Britain, where the abridged translation mentioned above appeared in the early 1970s, the book elicited some initial excitement, especially in the New Left Review crowd. E.P. Thompson eventually came out against it, however, throwing down the gauntlet in his The Poverty of Theory: An Orrery of Errors.

Below you will find three more immediate reactions to the Althusserian reading of Marx. George Lichtheim’s generally unfavorable overview appeared in January 1969. Alain Badiou published his much longer, generally favorable review of Reading Capital in May 1967. Finally, an extract from Lefebvre’s 1971 book on structuralism, later condensed into a critique of The Ideology of Structuralism in 1975, is included as well. Of the three, I am most disposed to Lichtheim’s appraisal. It can be a bit dismissive and its tone is rancorous, but still it gives a good summary of the major weaknesses of Althusserianism. An incisive public intellectual and gifted scholar of the Frankfurt School, as well as of Marxism and socialism as a whole, Lichtheim in another essay on “Dialectical Methodology” heaped scorn upon “the quasi-Marxism of Louis Althusser, for whom a genuinely scientific theory of society remains to be worked out after the unfortunate Hegelian heritage has been shed.” He continued:

Anyone who imagines that [Althusser’s] standpoint is compatible with Marx’s own interpretation of historical materialism is advised to read Alfred Schmidt’s essay “Der strukturalistische Angriff auf die Geschichte” in Beiträge zur marxistischen Erkenntnistheorie (which ought to be translated for the benefit of British and American students of the subject who in their enthusiasm for Lévi-Strauss may have missed Sartre’s and Lefebvre’s devastating attacks on Althusser and his school). What we have here is a discussion whose significance far transcends the silly dispute between Western empiricists and Soviet Marxists: a quarrel which has now gone on long enough and should be quietly terminated before the audience dies of fatigue.

Lefebvre, whose early rejoinders against Althusser are cited approvingly by Lichtheim, evidently agreed a few years later when he wrote that “the elimination of Marxism goes hand in hand with the elimination of the dialectic.” This is unsurprising considering Lefebvre had been, along with the translator Norbert Gutermann and the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among the first French Marxists to read the Hegelian Marxist texts of Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács. Nowadays Lefebvre is mostly known for his writings on space and everyday life, while his earlier work on mystification, false consciousness, Romanticism, and dialectic are not as familiar.

I’ve included Badiou’s review here in order to offer a more balanced range of interpretations. Badiou was broadly sympathetic to Althusser’s project, despite having been a student of Sartre in the early 1960s. He rejected the Hegelian Marxist notion of “totality” as metaphysical and confounding, and went even further than Althusser in rejecting terminology like “contradiction” as an unscientific, vestigial holdover of idealism. Evidently, Badiou welcomed Reading Capital as an opportunity for the renewal of Marxist theory, now disburdened of its embarrassing nineteenth-century inheritance.

Anyway, I hope this selection of pieces reacting to Althusser’s For Marx and Reading Capital will grant some sense of the early reception of this work. Lichtheim is especially worth checking out, in my view, as his fate is almost directly the reverse of someone like Badiou’s. Whereas Badiou made some slight waves in the 1960s and 1970s, fading into obscurity in the 1980s and 1990s before enjoying a massive renaissance during the 2000s, Lichtheim’s erudite historical and critical studies of the development of Marxism, socialism, European history, geopolitical conflicts, and philosophy were well known during his lifetime but have since faded into obscurity. Following his suicide in 1973, a series of conferences honored the memory of Lichtheim, the German-born son of Zionists who came to distance himself from liberalism, official Marxism, and Israeli nationalism. Yet today, very little remains of this legacy. Some of his books can be downloaded here:

  1. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study
  2. From Marx to Hegel
  3. Imperialism
  4. Europe in the Twentieth Century
  5. “The Concept of Ideology”

My own estimation of Althusser is not very high. Though it is a seductive method, reading for “symptomatic silences” and filling in the blanks, even applying Marx’s own approach in reading Smith to subsequent readings of Marx, Althusser resorted to this mostly for want of textual support for his claims. His attempt to read structuralist motifs back into Marx’s work was fundamentally misguided. Plus, he made far too much use of metaphors of production: “production of knowledge,” “production of discourse,” etc. Nevertheless, Althusser represents one of the most serious challenges to the Hegelian reading of Marx to date. I will readily defend this seriousness against what I think are unfair or reductive critiques, as in my response to Anne Boyer’s review of the most recent translation of unpublished notebooks by Althusser, “Biography is Destiny.”


A new twist in the dialectic

George Lichtheim
NY Review of Books
January 30, 1969

In December 1966 a sympathetic observer of the Parisian intellectual scene, writing in the London Times Literary Supplement, drew attention to the recent rise to prominence of a group of theorists associated with Louis Althusser, a professional philosopher and the holder of a teaching post at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure in the rue d’Ulm, but also a major controversial figure within the French Communist Party. Shortly thereafter further news of him reached the general public from two different directions. First there was a well-publicized clash between Althusser and the Party’s official philosopher, Roger Garaudy, at a meeting of the Central Committee, of which both men were members (Garaudy, being then also in the Politburo, carried more political weight, but has since been expelled from the Party altogether). Next, the trial of Régis Debray in Bolivia brought out the improbable connection linking this rebellious offspring of the Parisian haute bourgeoisie with two figures as remote from each other as Louis Althusser (Debray’s old teacher) and the late Ernesto Guevara. Lastly, the French upheaval of May-June 1968 introduced a further complication, inasmuch as Althusser reacted to it with a deafening silence. It has since been explained that he was ill; also that he was privately critical of the illusions entertained by the students.

On Czechoslovakia he has been likewise silent, whereas Garaudy publicly urged Brezhnev and Co. to quit the scene of their labors (“Allez-vous en.”) — rather to the embarrassment of his colleagues in the Politburo who were well aware that a sizable minority of the Party’s militants was shocked by this kind of language. Since then there has been further trouble. Jeanette Vermeersch (Thorez’s widow) resigned from the Central Committee in protest against the Party’s official stand on the invasion of Czechoslovakia, while Garaudy (later expelled) escaped with a fairly mild rebuke from his Politburo colleagues for having made too many unauthorized statements calling upon French Communists to repudiate Stalinism (of which he used to be an uncritical apologist until 1956, when the scales suddenly dropped from his eyes). Meanwhile silence enveloped Louis Althusser and his immediate circle at the Ecole Normale. One can hardly suppose that they were happy with the Kremlin’s behavior. On the other hand, unlike Garaudy (and Louis Aragon) they refused to agonize about it in public.

The relevance of all this for outsiders is difficult to grasp, and the present writer counts himself among those who have been baffled by these cross-currents. Perhaps some light is cast by a with Marx and Max Weber.

The primitive Leninism of the 1930s and the petrified Stalinism of the 1950s have alike been left behind. The school specializes in theoretical analysis and expects its adherents to be well up on game theory and the latest wrinkle in Parsonian sociology. Evilly disposed people have been known to hint that Althusser is really after the replacement of Stalinism by structuralism. (I shall come to this topic later.) It has also been suggested that the remedy is worse than the disease, since after all Stalinism merely kills the body whereas structuralism destroys the mind. Without going quite so far, the present author is obliged to confess that he has not found the writings of the school as rewarding as he had been led to expect. Perhaps the promised illumination is still to come. Meantime here is a corpus of work that merits attention.

To start from the wrong end, let us ignore Régis Debray’s pamphlet on guerrilla warfare, familiarity with which may now be taken for granted. It bears the traces of its intellectual origins, but for a more up-to-date production of the school one has to look at André Glucksmann’s analysis of the May-June upheaval in France. This followed an earlier work on military strategy published in 1967 under the challenging title Le Discours de la Guerre. There is no evidence that its youthful author had any first-hand acquaintance with the problems involved in military planning, but then he was writing not about war but about the theory of war. To be exact, he was presenting an exegesis of political and military theorizing from Clausewitz to Mao Tse-tung.

The book has a certain morbid fascination for a layman like the present reviewer, but one would have to consult a practitioner — Debray perhaps, or Malraux — to get an expert opinion. Prospective readers of Le Discours de la Guerre are warned that a thorough knowledge of Hegel’s Science of Logic is an essential precondition for the understanding of Glucksmann. He is very good at expounding simple soldierly dicta, e.g., “The mutual definition of the terms within a contradiction excludes the possibility of any non-contradictory universality.” He also has some sound advice on how to get from one point to another, for example: “The logical manipulation of a contradiction study of Fidel Castro’s curious utterances about the invasion of Prague. On the one hand (he said) it was a flagrant interference with national sovereignty. On the other hand, it was necessary to “save socialism” from the revisionists. And anyway the principle of national sovereignty was bourgeois humbug. It had no absolute value, only a relative one, and could not be allowed to take precedence over the interests of the world revolution. This used to be Lenin’s attitude after 1918. It may also reflect Althusser’s view, since his Leninism is unqualified, and thus account for his curious silence.

Doctrinally, Althusser is a “dogmatist,” but of the learned and sophisticated variety. His refusal to compromise works both ways. If one is a rigid defender of what one conceives to be the Communist interpretation of Marxism, one will tend to cast a cold eye on humanism, and this it what Althusser and his pupils have become famous for. At the same time these rigorists display an intellectual hauteur which cannot be to the taste of Pravda. Freud and Lévi-Strauss are among their oracles, along progressively reduces the role of external factors. From differences to contradictions, from their multiplicity to the principal contradiction, from the doublet of aspects (principal/secondary) to the asymmetry of their development (unevenness), there must always be a move from the exterior, which may pose the terms of the problem, to the interior which resolves it.” Now why hadn’t one thought of that before? C’est clair comme le jour, mais il fallait y penser, as they say in Paris.

Glucksmann on the French non-revolution in May-June 1968 is original too, though a trifle perverse. Being rather more sophisticated than the armchair revolutionists of the thirties, he relates the general crisis of modern society to the national crisis of French society. This is a trick the Althusser school, of which Glucksmann is a member, has picked up from Antonio Gramsci, though on philosophical grounds they tend to be critical of him as being too much influenced by Hegel. It is quite a sound approach, provided one sticks to the rules of the game. If one is going to be serious about the method, one must not pretend, for example, that the near-collapse of the over-centralized French bureaucracy in 1968 was part of a global “contestation” pitting the exploiters against their victims from (literally) China to Peru. Unfortunately Glucksmann will have it that the factory occupations in May were symptomatic of a worldwide tension within modern society. What they were really symptomatic of was a perennial problem of French society. But then empirical history does not matter much to the Althusserian school. Neither does the nation and its past.

M. Garaudy, in his latest semi-autobiographical tract has a chapter on political morality which has stirred up a considerable rumpus inside the Party. Peut-on être communiste aujourd’hui? is in its way a rather moving document. Among other things it explains how the author managed since he became a Communist at the age of twenty in 1933 to retain his faith, in the teeth of everything: not only the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, which it took some courage to defend (especially since he was a soldier at the time, and got beaten up for his obstinacy), but the 1956 revelations about Stalin. This appears to have been the worst crisis of his life, and he got through only by drawing upon an unquenchable source of truly religious faith in Communism as an ideal, as distinct from the sordid reality of Stalinist Russia. (It is not irrelevant that the young Garaudy had his moral conscience awakened by Kierkegaard and Karl Barth before he turned to Marx, and that his closest friends have always shared his belief in the compatibility of Christian ethics with Communism.) In the more theoretical parts of his book he is rather good on the intellectual arrogance of the Althusserian school, its remoteness from the concerns of ordinary human beings, and its commitment to a kind of neo-positivism with deep roots in the French intellectual tradition.

This learned and eloquent pamphlet probably puts into words what is closest to the. hearts of French Communists today — especially Communists of working-class origin like Garaudy himself. The Althusserians mostly come from a different stratum, and Garaudy scores a point when he observes of their master (p. 271): “Ainsi l’on en arrive aisément a considérer que l’idéologie est bien assez bonne pour le maniement des masses en réservant la Théorie pour les technocrates de la philosophie” (“Thus one arrives easily enough at the notion that ideology is good enough for maneuvering the masses about, while reserving Theory for the technocrats of philosophy.”)

Since Garaudy is himself a professor of philosophy (albeit at a provincial university, not in Paris) this kind of remark cannot be dismissed as an expression of the layman’s traditional suspicion of the clerisy. What divides the two men is Garaudy’s commitment to a socialist form of humanism, i.e., faith in the ability of all men to understand what the world is about and specifically what history is about. Althusser has become famous for asserting that Marxism is not a form of humanism, and that the writings of the young Marx — notably the celebrated Paris Manuscripts of 1844 — represent a form of philosophical idealism which he subsequently repudiated. The real commitment of Marx from about 1845 onward (according to Althusser) was to the proletarian revolution, not to mankind. But who is to bring the revolution about? Why, the Communist Party of course (this is no longer Marx, but Lenin, as interpreted by Althusser). Hence appeals to “socialist humanism” must be dismissed, and so, of course, must complaints about interference with such bourgeois-democratic principles as national sovereignty or liberty… Hence his silence on Czechoslovakia, while Garaudy publicly (see the Nouvel Observateur of October 21, 1968) condemned the Soviet intervention as “contrary to the principles governing the basic problem of the [various] roads to socialism.”

In the end, though, Garaudy’s lively and vigorous polemic falls short of its aim. A moralist, to be genuinely effective, must sacrifice all else to the truth. Now Garaudy does his best to be honest, but his best is not quite good enough. In his book he says all the proper things about Stalin, but averts his eyes from the awful truth about Stalinism as a system of rule. He also subscribes to the official mythology about the French Communists’ share in the wartime Resistance movement, including what he calls “l’appel patriotique du 10 Juillet,” which the Party leadership is supposed to have issued after the 1940 armistice. There was no such “appeal” at that date (the “document” in question is a post-war forgery) and the authentic CP declaration circulated in September of that year, while it contained a few rude remarks about Vichy, was anything but a call for resistance to Hitler, who at the time was still Stalin’s ally.

It is sad to find a moralist sacrificing his conscience for the sake of his friendship with the late Maurice Thorez, but not altogether surprising. And anyway he had taken on an impossible task. If I may plagiarize from a rather cutting Manchester Guardian editorial on the latest Papal encyclical and its repercussions in England: “Anyone who tries to speak in the same breath as prophet, philosopher, pastor and politician is liable to find at the finish that he has panted to no purpose… Prophets absolutize, philosophers analyze, politicians generalize, pastors particularize.” Politicians also tell lies, and while one may admire Garaudy’s steadfast loyalty to Thorez, he really ought not to have covered up for the former Party leader quite to the extent he did in his book.

Where he is effective is in blasting his philosophical opponents out of their methodological funk-hole. Although not an original thinker, Garaudy is a trained philosopher and quite capable of spotting a contradiction when he sees one. When he says (p. 272) “Althusser combat l’interprétation ‘historiciste’ du marxisme, et il la combat contre Marx lui-même,” he is saying the obvious, but there are occasions when it does no harm to do that. He gets even closer to the target when he writes (pp. 273-74): “En réalité Althusser ne se contente pas d’opérer un retour au rationalisme dogmatique; son propos, qu’il a explicite dans un article sur le retour a Freud (Nouvelle Critique de Janvier 1965) est d’être a Marx ce que Lacan est a Freud.” This hits the nail on the head rather neatly, although I had perhaps better explain that Lacan — “le genie du moment” — has sprung into sudden fame with an enormous tome relating Freud to Lévi-Strauss and his school. It also needs to be explained that Althusser and his pupils, in a laudable effort to get away from Hegel and Hegelianism, are much concerned with the uniqueness of the historical event: specifically events such as the October Revolution. Such breaks in historical continuity are not predictable (see Althusser’s essay “Contradiction et Surdétermination,” in his Pour Marx, pp. 87ff), and they do not obey any “law.” This is heresy from the Soviet standpoint, according to which the October Revolution was “lawful,” in the sense of being inscribed in the logic of history.

Althusser realizes quite clearly that this is (a) nonsense; (b) non-Marxist; (c) not what Lenin himself thought. But the October Revolution did take place, and of course it must not be treated as the Napoleonic gamble it really was. Althusser’s solution of the problem is to assert that the event was “overdetermined,” in the sense that a number of seemingly unrelated circumstances (the war, the collapse of Tsarism, the availability of Lenin and the Bolshevik party) all converged toward the same result.

Now the concept of “overdetermination,” which plays a key role in Althusser’s thinking, has in fact been taken over from psychoanalysis, while other notions systematically employed by his school have been borrowed from Foucault and Lévi-Strauss. Well, and why not? Garaudy raises no objection in principle. What he complains of is a tendency to. substitute a different approach for that of Marx without actually saying so. He is right in diagnosing such a tendency, although of course he may be wrong in substance: a different issue altogether. After all, it is arguable that present-day Marxists would be better off without the Hegelian dialectic, not to mention its castration by Engels and his descendants. Only, if this is what Althusser believes, he ought to say so more plainly and without pulling his punches about Lenin.

I shall get around to the Master in due course. First let us have a look at one of his acolytes: M. Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek-born sociologist attached to the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and the author of a learned essay entitled Pouvoir politique et classes sociales de l’état capitaliste. For a young man of thirty-two this is quite a remarkable effort: grimly professional, rigorously logical, and littered with footnotes in the best scholarly manner. Poulantzas has digested his Communist classics (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci, and Althusser; no one else counts, certainly not Lukács who is dismissed as a Hegelian in disguise), but he also cites Weber, Schumpeter, Parsons, Lasswell, Maclver, Theodor Geiger, and Ralf Dahrendorf, at the drop of a hat. Indeed he seems to have read practically everything produced in this century, although not a great deal written before that date. Again, like Glucksmann, he does not bother with empirical history — the little he says about it testifies to a marked disdain for anything so tiresome as a mere fact. What he is after is an analysis of his chosen topic: the capitalist state.

Now here is an initial difficulty. One can leaf through the entire works of Marx and Engels without coming across any systematic treatment of this particular topic. Marx had a good deal to say about the capitalist mode of production. He also had much to say about bourgeois society. And he occasionally remarked upon the fact that the state (by which he meant the bureaucracy) was normally — but not invariably — in the service of the socially dominant class. But nowhere does he speak of a “capitalist state” (or for that matter of a feudal one). At most he suggests that the modern state serves the interests of capital. But what of the state as such? For Marx it is simply the embodiment of force, a centralized apparatus to be taken over (or destroyed) by the revolution. The state is what society is not: the concentrated essence of political power and for the rest a neutral administrative machinery. There is no “capitalist state”: not in Marx anyway.

Here then is a poser. Was Marx a Marxist? Did he know what he was doing? The answer one gets from Althusser and his disciples is: “Only up to a point.” Marx, one is told, originated a new manner of theorizing, but he was not altogether clear about all the implications of his own work. The reason is that he lacked some of the conceptual tools that were needed to clarify the method he was employing in his investigations. Moreover, insofar as he made use of Hegel’s terminology he went seriously astray. Fortunately it has now become possible to dispense with these blinkers and transform Marxism into a genuine science. How? By getting rid of all that German metaphysical ballast and replacing it by the kind of sophisticated system-analysis that Althusser, Lacan, Poulantzas, Foucault, and others are agreed in describing as structuralism. The real Marx — the one whose genuinely novel theoretical discoveries have to be laboriously deciphered with the aid of Althusser’s conceptual toolkit — was a structuralist before his time. He just didn’t know it.

How could he? After all, structuralism had not yet been invented. That is to say, it had not yet been established (by Lévi-Strauss and his school) that what matters in the investigation of a social system is the inter-relationship among its parts. There is a certain totality of relationships in every society such that all the particular sectors are held in balance by the regulative principle of the system: in the case of capitalism, the accumulation of capital. As a sociologist Marx knew this, but as a philosopher he was hampered by his Hegelian inheritance. So, instead of concentrating on the internal logic of the system he was analyzing (capitalism), he tried to place it in a historical perspective, midway between European feudalism and the socialist future. Moreover, he suggested that a genuine analysis of capitalism became possible only at a certain historical moment when the “internal contradictions” of the system had begun to reflect themselves in critical theorizing (of a socialist nature).

This link between “crisis” and “criticism” was part of the Hegelian inheritance. It led to the notion that theoretical concepts are themselves historical, in that they “reflect” a particular state of affairs, instead of being timeless and applicable to all eternity. Althusser (who much prefers Spinoza to Hegel) is dissatisfied with all this and he can point to the alarming consequences of treating theoretical concepts as though they were fluid and needed revision every now and then. What he is really saying (see Lire le Capital, Vols. I and II) is that Marx would have done better to dispense with Hegelian terminology and to present his theory of capitalism as the scientific analysis of a certain structural totality: scientific because true and therefore timeless.

Very well, let us provisionally accept all this. Let us disregard the awkward circumstance that Althusser’s rationalism is in the straight line of descent from Auguste Comte, and that Marx had read Comte and did not think much of him. For the sake of argument let us also concede that Marx was trying to perform the kind of structural-functional analysis of bourgeois society which Weber and Parsons subsequently applied to industrial society (not quite the same thing). We are then still left with the problem of accounting for the man’s failure to spot the existence of a “capitalist state.” There he was, writing all those volumes of Capital, and all those political pamphlets about the seizure of power, and yet it never once dawned on him that there was a “capitalist state.” Why did it not occur to him to put two and two together? So long as he was busy analyzing the relationship of bourgeois society to the state, why did he not make the point that the state was “capitalist”?

The obvious answer is: because he did not think there was such an entity as the “capitalist state.” He thought in terms of a capitalist mode of production compatible with any kind of state: autocratic, democratic, or whatever. But the reader won’t find this stated by Poulantzas (or by Althusser either). Instead he is offered a series of hints to the effect that the notion of a “capitalist state” can be extrapolated from Marx’s writings, if only one tries hard enough. Moreover, there is the argument that Marxism has been developed further — by Lenin and Gramsci, for example. Only Gramsci says nothing about the “capitalist state” either! Instead he talks of an Italian state, which, to be sure, serves the basic aims of the ruling class, but that is another matter.

What of contemporary Marxist theory on this question? Poulantzas cites Henri Lefebvre, Maximilien Rubel, and Herbert Marcuse (p. 132), shakes his head over them, and dismisses them as “historicists” — the worst thing a structuralist can say of his opponents. They all share, it seems, a common error: that of taking seriously the Hegelian distinction between “civil society” and “the state.” Thence derives “ce corrélat de la problématique historiciste qu’est la perspective anthropologique de ‘l’individu concret’ et de ‘l’homme générique’ conçus comme sujets de l’économie.” Poulantzas (having learned from Althusser that the Marx of the 1844 Paris Manuscripts was still a speculative philosopher) will have nothing to do with this “historicist perspective.” It does not occur to him that the distinction between state and society (which was in fact introduced for the first time by a group of eighteenth-century theorists including Montesquieu and the Scottish historians) may have been the intellectual reflex of an actual event: the emergence (for the first time in recorded history) of an autonomous market-centered society not subordinate to the state.

All he can see is that Marx inherited this terminology and he wants no part of it. “Sans s’étendre sur la critique de cette conception, contentons-nous de remarquer qu’elle conduit a des conséquences très graves, qui aboutissent a l’impossibilité d’un examen scientifique de l’état capitaliste.” The “grave consequences” are these: if the state as such became visible for the first time at a particular historical moment, then a theory of the state is something different from an analysis of the particular political order characteristic of present-day society. Philosophy, in other words, would then conserve its autonomy — instead of collapsing into sociology — so long as people remember that there was once something called history, and that history has to do with men, not just with classes and their relations. Philosophy and history are in fact inter-related — which is just why the Althusser school wants to eliminate both.

Nous voilà enfin au cœur de la mêlée. It is not just a matter of “historicism” in the Hegelian sense. Poulantzas has something quite sensible to say (p. 222) about the needless trouble which some Hegelians get into trying to disentangle “ideology” from “science.” His brief remarks on this topic are effective against Lukács (and against Lenin, whom he does not criticize), but this is mere shadowboxing. What we want to know is where history — actual profane empirical history — comes in. The answer is that it doesn’t come in at all. At any rate, the present reviewer can’t find it. And for this it seems to me Louis Althusser must take some of the responsibility.

Now it has to be conceded that in getting rid of the Stalinist heritage, including the dreadful claptrap about “bourgeois science” and “proletarian science,” Althusser and his pupils have performed a valuable service. At least the air has once more become breathable. But the accumulated stench from the Stalin cloaca was not the only bother. French Communism had become addicted to a debased form of metaphysics which certified the coming victory of the revolution by appealing to dialectical “laws of motion” supposedly valid for nature and history alike. The demolition of this faith was long overdue, and once more Althusser deserves credit for it. Lastly, there was the heritage of Engels’ philosophical writings including his interpretation (or misinterpretation) of historical materialism in his letter to J. Bloch of September 21, 1890 — a text usually cited by his apologists as proof that he knew all about the limitations of economic determinism. In fact, what Engels puts forward in this regrettable document is an eclectic doctrine which takes at its face value the surface configuration of society. His uncritical acceptance of the theoretical model underlying the notion of the homo oeconomicus represents a return to the pre-Marxian standpoint.

However, this is not the end of the matter. The autonomy of science in the writings of Althusser signifies a commitment to a particular kind of theorizing: that associated with the structuralist school. A return to positivism is inevitable if one casts philosophy overboard, but structuralism has a special attraction for French Marxists because it is in tune with the Comtean tradition. It can also appeal to the prestige of contemporary anthropology, psychology, and linguistics. However, as we have seen, it can be argued with a little ingenuity that Marx was him self a structuralist before his time; he certainly looked for patterns and relations Althusser’s pupils are fond of citing from the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach: “The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual… it is the ensemble of social relations.” This sort of thing was and is a necessary corrective to German metaphysical speculation (not to mention the flatulent idealism of Schiller and his imitators down to Hochhuth). Marx was critical of Kant for the same reason that he preferred Shakespeare to Schiller.

On the other hand, he had no use for Comte, and it is easy to guess what he would have thought of Michel Foucault’s discovery that “Man” was invented quite recently (around 1800 — See Les Mots et Les Choses, p. 319) and is due to make his disappearance shortly (ibid., pp. 396-398). What will take man’s place, it seems, as a human ant-heap in which the individual no longer exists as such. If one believes this, one must also believe that there is nothing to be done about it, in which case one can hardly claim to be in the Marxist tradition. Foucault, in fact, cites Nietzsche in support of his reflections on the imminent Death of Man (L’homme est une invention dont l’archéologie de notre pensée montre aisément la date récente”).

Now there is no need to burden Althusser with Foucault’s gloomy prophesies. One may also grant that every set of problems needs to be reformulated from time to time, and that it will do the Marxists no harm if they have to bring their conceptual apparatus up to date. Lastly, it is arguable that Marx himself lacked the perspective necessary to perceive just what he was doing that had not been done before. This is a perennial problem in philosophy and science: the great innovators who advance into terra incognita have to make up their tools as they go along, and these tools necessarily partake of the nature of the “old world” that is being left behind. In Marx’s case, it is now conventional to deplore his residual Hegelianism, but the Althusserian Marx suffers from a more specific fault: he was so far in advance of his time that he found it impossible even in Capital to apply the sort of methodology that would have been appropriate to the kind of work he was doing. Instead, he fell back upon inherited thought patterns (Lire le Capital, I, pp. 33 — 35. Hence the prevalence of a terminology embodying a particular vision — that of the dialectical process, kept going by its “internal contradictions.”

For Marx, the latter exist in germ already from the start, and the subsequent history of an epoch (antiquity, the middle ages, or whatever) is simply the explication and externalization of a hidden logic of self-contradiction. In Pour Marx (pp. 92 ff.) Althusser shows very clearly that the understanding of an event such as the Russian Revolution demands a different conceptual model. He is less convincing when he turns his attention to those passages in Capital where Marx employs Hegelian terms by way of suggesting that relatively simple forms of economic life (commodity, money, etc.) already contained in nuce the more highly developed stages of the capitalist production process. In this case the method simply cannot be divorced from the theoretical conclusions worked out with its aid. Althusser’s solution of this awkward problem is to suggest that Marx did his scientific work (whose validity he takes for granted) in spite of being saddled with concepts that were quite unsuitable for his purpose What he discovered (with the help admittedly of an “ideological” commitment to Hegel’s logic of contradiction) was a particular structure to which this logic was not applicable (Lire le Capital, II, pp. 399-401).

It is to be observed that Althusser and his pupils have nothing to say about the subject matter of Marx’s economic investigations. They are solely concerned with his methodology. In so far as it is tainted with Hegelianism, they regard it as irrelevant and contingent. An empiricist like Raymond Aron can describe Marx as premodern because still indebted to Hegel. The originality of Althusser’s performance consists in demonstrating that Marx actually employed a method of his own for which he had not found a suitable mode of expression, and that he unconsciously made up for this lack by employing the antiquated Hegelian terminology. The only trouble is that we are never told what his new method was. Lire le Capital concludes with a rhetorical question: “quelle est donc la nouveauté de la méthode d’exposition suivie par Marx pour qu’il soit contraint de l’exposer en un langage ancien qui la trahit?” (ibid, II, p. 401). No clear answer is to be found anywhere, but the drift of Althusser’s thought is plain enough: having got rid of the dialectic, in the “materialist” form conserved by Marx, he is free to search for the structure of social reality without bothering about the notion that this historical process exemplifies a logic of contradiction (or the passage of essence into existence, or that of unconscious reality into consciousness, or any other philosophical superstition). Now the point here is that for Althusser theoretical thinking, if it is to take itself seriously, cannot operate with the sort of logical model Engels had in mind when in the Preface to Vol. III of Capital he wrote: “It is self-evident that where things and their interrelations are conceived not as fixed but as changing, their mental images, the ideas, are likewise subject to change and transformation… they are not encapsulated in rigid definitions…” If the changing substance of the historical process enters into the very structure of the conceptual model, then how can there be such a thing as science?

The question is legitimate. The answer is that Engels, not for the first time, had made a muddle of a logical problem for whose solution he was not equipped. Althusser is so appalled by this discovery (see Lire le Capital, II, pp. 64-67) that he hardly knows what to say, whereas Garaudy (op. cit., pp. 275-278) bends all his efforts to the task of demonstrating that Engels was merely explicating the plain meaning of what Marx had said earlier. In actual fact Marx could never have done his theoretical work if he had not believed in the possibility of defining his object scientifically. Althusser’s polemic against “empiricism” and “pragmatism” is directed against Engels, and to that extent represents a justified reaction on the part of a theorist when confronted with a conceptual model which makes theoretical thinking impossible, and moreover takes pride in demonstrating that there can be no such thing as an adequate scientific definition because “the only real definition is the development of the object itself, but this development is no longer a definition.” (Lire le Capital, II, p. 65, citing Anti-Dühring.)

This kind of stuff connects Engels with Nietzsche, and one can hardly blame Althusser for wanting no part of it. He is less persuasive when he tries to expel the dialectic from those passages in Marx’s own work where theoretical thinking is meant to give an adequate report of the actual historical process — something Engels could not do on his pragmatist assumptions, because for him the concepts merely “reflect” a changing set of circumstances, and thus lack any theoretical dignity. When Althusser affirms that authentic theorizing is incompatible with this kind of historicism, he is saying the obvious. And when he lauds Spinoza for having effected an unprecedented revolution in thought (Lire le Capital, II, p 50), he performs an important and necessary task. But to call Spinoza “le seul ancêtre direct de Marx” (ibid.) is to open one’s flank to criticism (see Garaudy, p. 273). The mathematical model employed by Descartes and Spinoza does serve as a reminder that there is such a thing as theoretical discovery, and of course Marx thought he had discovered something — why else go to all that trouble?

As a corrective to the kind of debased Hegelianism which no longer recognizes any difference between ideas and mere ideologies, this is all very well. But Althusser seems to underrate the difficulty of applying the rationalist model to historical reality. If there is such a thing as a logic of history — and for the past two centuries philosophy has been in search of a method suitable to this topic — it is unlikely to disclose itself to thinkers for whom Hegelianism merely represents a grandiose aberration.

The attraction structuralism has come to possess for Althusser and his school should now have become somewhat less mysterious. At bottom both he and Lévi-Strauss are in search of something that lies beyond the flux of history. The unifying link is the theory of language, inasmuch as its study holds out the hope of laying bare the most general features of man’s conceptual structure and therewith a means of deciphering our cultural heritage without falling into relativism. To the obvious question, whose conceptual structure — the Brazilian aboriginal’s or the modern scientist’s — philosophy may reply, in the words of a contemporary British logician (P.F. Strawson), “There is a massive central core of human thinking which has no history.” If this area can be cleared up, we shall have access to “the commonplaces of the least refined thinking” as well as “the indispensable core of the conceptual equipment of the most sophisticated human beings.”

Plainly it is this goal which for some of our contemporaries has taken the place of the traditional concern with the decipherment of historical processes. That France, for so long the stronghold of rationalism and positivism, should have become a center of structuralist writing — for in the last resort this is what the whole movement is about — need not surprise anyone familiar with the intellectual climate of Paris. I merely observe, in passing as it were, that the historical movement which has led us to this point is quite capable of leading away from it. For when all is said and done, the current predominance of rationalist, structuralist, and anti-historicist (not to say anti-historical) modes of thought is just as much an aspect of the contemporary world as the rise of nuclear science, the new calculating machines, the growth of authoritarian and bureaucratic tendencies in politics, and the phenomenon of a cult literature whose theme is no longer the death of God, but the coming disappearance of Man.

Alain Badiou, from an interview he conducted with Jean Hyppolite in 1967

The (re)commencement of dialectical materialism1

Alain Badiou
Critique 240
May 1, 1967

Althusser’s work is attuned to our political conjuncture, for which it provides a grid of intelligibility by indicating its own urgency therein. What is frightening and essentially deviant in the propositions of Communist parties in the “West” and, above all, in the Communist Party of the USSR, can be defined on the basis of the permanent efficacy of a certain theoretical silence: whereof one does not speak, except to give form to the non-saying in the chatter of condemnations — schematically: Stalinism and China — completely structures that of which one speaks. Indeed, the lacunae must be covered over and the whole chain of arguments must be deformed so that the signifiers of the cover-up may come to find their place. All this does not happen without some damage, the rigor of the Marxist discourse being in a situation of close proximity to the collapsed parties and leading its own clandestine life underneath the nominal parades of revisionism. So as better to keep quiet, the official ideological offices are thus progressively constrained to abandon all theory in order merely to collect in the portable chats of the moment, or even in the dirty little streams of post-conciliatory ecumenism, whatever is posted under the name of Marxism.

These damaged goods are all the result of a general effect that Marx began to analyze with reference to the passage from classical economy (Smith-Ricardo) to vulgar economy (Bastiat-Say, etc.): the effect of the re-inscription, into the ideological space, of the concepts of science, previously transformed into homonymous notions. We know that this operation takes advantage of the philosophical heritage in order to proceed with its specific deformation in three different ways:

  1. By staying near the source of science, it pretends to ground its concepts in an inaugural gesture and to resolve the articulated complexity of theoretical discourse into a foundational transparency.
  2. At the far end, it uses the pseudo-concept of the result in order to absorb the concepts into the systematic extrapolation of a Whole in which the alleged “results”2 come to figure as the mediocre doubles, of that ancient shadow theater in which a god, recognized-misrecognized under the rags of the humanist or naturalist philosopheme, victoriously pulls the strings.
  3. Sideways, or above, it invents a code with which to translate, export, double the scientific coherence in an empirical region that is thus simply formalized yet arbitrarily declared known.

Whence the three species of “Marxism”: fundamental, totalitarian, and analogical.

Fundamental Marxism, which is almost exclusively consecrated to the interminable exegesis of the Manuscripts of 1844,3 turns out to be indifferent to the scientific construction of Marx, to the singular determination of its objects of knowledge, and proposes a general anthropology centered on the multivocal notion of work. History, as the place of exile and scission, is captured as the deferred parousia of transparency, as the essential delay in the invention of the total Man. The covariant notions on the basis of which an exhaustive reading of experience is declared possible are those of praxis and alienation,4 whose “dialectical” combination unconsciously reiterates the old muddled lullaby of good and evil.

Totalitarian Marxism certainly exalts scientificity. But the concept of science to which it refers is the schematic application of the so-called “dialectical laws,” not the least burdensome of which is the famous transformation of quantity into quality. For totalitarian Marxism, Marx fits entirely within Engels” fragile system of extrapolations. To the young Marx of fundamental Marxism, it opposes the posthumous and vicarious Marx of “natural” dialectics.5

Analogical Marxism at first sight seems to offer a more centered reading: it is concerned with the configurations and levels of social practice. It is glad to stick to Capital as the essential work and to the economic categories as founding paradigms. It is not difficult, however, to observe that it uses Marxist concepts in such a way as to undo their organization. It conceives indeed of the relation between the structures of the base and the “superstructures,” though not following the model of linear causality (totalitarian Marxism) nor that of expressive mediation (fundamental Marxism),6 but as pure isomorphism: knowledge here is defined by the system of functions that allow one to recognize on one level the same formal organization as on another level, and thus to approve of the in variance of certain figures that are not structures so much as “planar” combinations among distinct elements. Analogical Marxism is a Marxism of identity. In its most vulgar form, moreover, it rejoins both totalitarian Marxism, with which it shares the mechanical rigidity, and fundamental Marxism, from which it restores the spiritual transparency, under the sign of the principled unity of its figures.7 In its most refined form, it does no more than replace the problematic constitution of an object of knowledge with the undefined transference of pre-given questions, subject to the recurrence of more or less isomorphic levels of the social totality.8 There where, in the order of discourse, the key question of structural causality — that is, of the specific efficacy of a structure on its elements — should have appeared, we are supposed to be content with a hierarchical system of resemblances and dissimilarities. The result is a retroactive adulteration of the real theoretical elements incorporated into the construction. For, in the process of occupying the place that the description of correspondences assigned to them, these elements are transformed into disjointed results and henceforth function, in turn, as simple descriptive indices.

The importance of Althusser’s work consists first of all in reconstructing before our very eyes the commonplace of what henceforth, following Marx’s example, we will call the variants of vulgar Marxism. Here again, it is the mapping of what these variants do not say, that is, the system of their erasures, that constitutes the secret of their unity well beyond their apparent antagonism.

The effect proper to vulgar Marxism is the effacing of a difference, which operates throughout the complete spectrum of its instances.

The form of appearance of this suppressed difference, its form of presentation in empirical history, is the old question of the “relations” between Marx and Hegel. The variants of vulgar Marxism have this in common, that they produce the question of this relation on the basis of variations on a single answer, whereby its essential importance, in any event, is affirmed. The concepts of “reversal,” opposition, realization, and so forth, successively come to fill the possible places originally designated by the essential nature of this relation. And, as is necessarily the case according to the ready-made dialectic of vulgar Marxisms, every apparent negation of the continuity Hegel-Marx produces the reflexive form of its affirmation.

Althusser’s first texts are above all devoted to disinterring this buried difference. To restore the difference means to demonstrate that the problem of the “relations” between Marx’s theoretical enterprise and Hegelian or post-Hegelian ideology is properly speaking irresolvable, that is, un-formulatable.9 Un-formulatable precisely because its formulation is the gesture that covers up the difference, which is neither a reversal, nor a conflict, nor a borrowing of method, and so on, but an epistemological break — that is, the rule-bound construction of a new scientific object whose problematic connotations have nothing to do with Hegelian ideology. Most literally, beginning in the 1850s, Marx stands elsewhere, there where the quasi-objects of Hegelian philosophy and their forms of linkage — the “dialectic” — cannot be reversed or subjected to critique, for the simple reason that one no longer encounters them: they have become impossible to find, to the point that one would not even be able to proceed to their expulsion, since the space of science constitutes itself on the basis of their radical lack.10 And no doubt the epistemological break produces, in retrospect, the specific other of science — that from which epistemology can teach us how science separates itself. In the discovery of science, we may try to map the “edge” of the break, that is, the ideological place that indicates, in the form of an answer without a question, the necessary change of terrain.11 Except that, in a number of remarkable pages,12 Althusser has clearly determined the ideological other of Marx, and it is not Hegelian speculation: it is the classical economy of Smith and Ricardo.

This is not by chance: a youthful work constantly mentioned by fundamental Marxism is titled Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; the scientific work, Capital, bears the subtitle Critique of Political Economy. By producing the concepts of an entirely new discipline (the science of history), Marx has not only abandoned the space of Hegelian ideology but he has also, so to speak, changed his other: the elsewhere where he stands is not the elsewhere of some Hegelian fatherland. Thus he appears, with respect to post-Hegelian ideologies, in the radical fact of his being-other.

The simple theoretical consideration of this fact — Marx has founded a new science — indicates for us that conceptual difference of which the dissimulation of the historical break produces, in a secondary effect, the suppression. This essential difference, which this time is interior to Marx’s theoretical project, and of which the difference of Hegel/Marx is the historico-empirical evidence, is the difference of the Marxist science (historical materialism) and the discipline within which it is possible in principle to pronounce the scientificity of this science. Following an otherwise perhaps questionable tradition, Althusser calls this second discipline dialectical materialism, and the “second generation” of his texts is centered on the distinction historical materialism/dialectical materialism. This distinction is of capital importance, even if only within the theoretical strategy that Althusser never loses sight of. The variants of vulgar Marxism can indeed be specified according to the different procedures for effacing this difference:

  • Fundamental Marxism forces dialectical materialism into historical materialism. Indeed, it takes Marx’s work to be a dialectical anthropology in which historicity becomes a founding category, rather than a constructed concept. By thus undoing the concept of history, it enlarges it to include the notional dimensions of a totalizing milieu in which the reflection of the structures, their “interiorization,” is a mediating function of the structures themselves.13
  • Inversely, totalitarian Marxism forces historical materialism into dialectical materialism. Indeed, it treats contradiction as an abstract law applicable to any object whatsoever, and considers the structural contradictions of a determinate mode of production as particular cases subsumed under the universality of the law. Under these conditions, the procedures for the constitution of the specific object of historical materialism end up being suppressed, and Marx’s “results” incorporated into a global synthesis that could never transgress the rule that attributes to the imaginary any assumption of the Totality. Strange metempsychosis, from which Marx emerges saddled with the “cosmic” robe of Father Teilhard de Chardin…
  • Analogical Marxism, finally, establishes between historical materialism and dialectical materialism a relation of correspondence juxtaposing two terms, with the Marxist philosophy at every moment being the structural double of a given state of the social formation, and particularly of the objective form of class relations.

Determination of one of the two terms by the other — or else pure redundancy: such are indeed the three general procedures for the purification of difference. But, as Jacques Derrida forcefully observes, a purified difference is only the defeat of an identity. Every authentic difference is impure.14 The preservation of the concepts of historical materialism and of dialectical materialism — the theory of the primitive impurity of their difference, its complexity, and the distortion induced by the spacing of the terms — all this enables at the same time the systematic classification of the variants of vulgar Marxism. Which is already not nothing.

But what is more, the difference of historical materialism and dialectical materialism — we will henceforth note them HM and DM — signals the breadth of the Marxist theoretical revolution. To the foundation of the science of history, this revolution adds this unique fact in the becoming of knowledge, which is the foundation of an absolutely new philosophy, a philosophy “which has enabled the passage of philosophy from the ideological state to the state of a scientific discipline,”15 such that Marx’s work presents itself as a double foundation in a single break — or rather: a double break in a single foundation.

Clearly to distinguish HM from DM, the science (of history) from the science of the scientificity of the sciences, thus means to take the measure of Marx and, consequently, to assign him his fair place, his double function — scientific and scientifico-philosophical — in the complex intellectual conjuncture in which, before us, the dominant post-war ideologies are coming apart: phenomenological idealism.

Thus restored to its strategic context, Althusser’s work can be traversed in the order of its own reasons. It is not a matter here of retelling its story, nor of confronting it either with existing theories or with an undifferentiated concept of the real, but rather of folding it back upon itself, introducing some play into it, qua theory, according to the meta-theoretical concepts that it produces — to investigate if this work obeys the rules whose operation it isolates as the law of construction of its objects. And if there appear any lacunae, any gaps between that which the text produces as the norm for itself and the textual production of these norms, our goal is less to contest the project than to “suture”16 its lacunae, to introduce into the text the problems whose absence it indicates. Thus what we engage with in the discourse of Marxist theory, without ever separating ourselves from it, is a self-recovery of its blank spaces.

Rationalism is a philosophy that has no commencement; rationalism is of the order of the recommencement. When one defines it in one of its operations, it has already re-begun for a very long time.17

We might be tempted to proceed according to the inaugural difference that splits the Marxist revolution, so as to distribute the problems into two registers: Althusser’s contribution18 to historical materialism, on one hand; and, on the other, to dialectical materialism. Let us say immediately that this would be a way of dissimulating what is essential, namely, the impurity-complexity of the difference in question. Indeed:

  1. The distinction of DM and HM is internal to DM, which renders vain all symmetry, all analytical distribution of our problems.
  2. Can we truly pronounce here the theoretical discourse of HM?

Either we elliptically tell the story of this science, whereby we lapse into the trap of saying precisely that which Althusser’s work has the function of forbidding us to say. In determining Marxism as the foundation of a science, Althusser indeed reminds us that it is impossible to jump over the detail of the proofs towards the illusory results, since the objects of a science are one with the structure of apodicticity in which they appear.

Or we try to separate out the specific form of rationality of HM, and we operate “the ‘reprise’ of a basic scientific discovery in philosophical reflection, and the production by philosophy of a new form of rationality.”19 And undoubtedly we then talk about HM, we undoubtedly produce the discourse of that which is the silent condition of its discourse. But the place where we operate precisely is not HM: the place where we operate is the place from where we can think, not the scientific object of HM (the “modes of production” and the “forms of transition”), but its scientificity; the place, therefore, and by definition, of DM.

Of HM we can exhibit here only what takes place in DM. Our expose will thus be entirely interior to DM, including the difficult problems, which we will tackle in the end, concerning the theoretical status of DM itself.

  1. And yet, in conformity with what we would have to call the paradox of the double break, DM depends on HM, in a theoretical dependency that is still obscure: not only because DM naturally cannot produce the concept of “new forms of rationality” except by considering some existing sciences in which, in an enigmatic expression from Althusser, these forms exist “in a practical state’; but more importantly because, as opposed to idealist epistemologies, DM is a historical theory of science. DM is “the theory of science and of the history of science.”20 For in truth, there is no other theory of science than the theoretical history of the sciences. Epistemology is the theory of the history of the theoretical; philosophy is “the theory of the history of the production of knowledge.”21 And this is why the revolutionary foundation of the science of history, insofar as it renders possible a scientific history of the production of scientific knowledge, also produces a philosophical revolution, designated by DM.22

We thus see up to what point the difference of DM and HM is not distributive. We have here a non-differentiating difference, which in principle is mixed: impure. The intricacy of DM and of all the sciences, but especially of HM, does not put an end to the autonomy of the process of scientific knowledge. And yet, it constitutes this autonomy, this retreat, so to speak, “flush” with science in such a way that the lack of science (the silence in which its discourse is kept at a distance) is the determining lack of epistemology, in which this science is constantly mentioned by its lack. This is because the knowledge of scientificity is at the same time knowledge of the specific impossibility of a narrative of science, knowledge of the non-presence of science elsewhere than in itself, in the real production of its objects. Internal to DM, our testing of Althusserian concepts nonetheless will be structured by the withdrawn immanence of HM, the figure of the lack that remains its own.

For reasons that will appear gradually further along, I will organize the analysis around two differences: that of science and ideology; and that of determining practice and dominant practice. Thus, I will speak successively of the theory of discourse and of the theory of structural causality.

I. Science and ideology

From the definition of DM (discipline in which the scientificity of HM is pronounced) we immediately derive that the determining concept of its field is that of science. DM would not be able to exhibit the identity of science in an un-decomposable “seeing”: thus, what comes first is the differential couple science-ideology. The object proper to dialectical materialism is the system of pertinent differences that both and at the same time disjoins and joins science and ideology.

In order to characterize this pair at first in grossly simplified terms, let us say that science is the practice that produces forms of knowledge, whose means of production are concepts; whereas ideology is a system of representations, whose function is practico-social and which designates itself in a set of notions. The effect proper to science — the “knowledge effect” — is obtained by the regulated production of an object that is essentially different from the given object, and different even from the real object. Ideology, by contrast, articulates the lived — that is, not the real relationship of human beings to their conditions of existence but “the way in which they [human beings] live the relation between them and their conditions of existence.”23

Ideology produces then an effect of recognition [reconnaissance], and not of knowledge [connaissance]. It is, to speak in Kierkegaard’s terms, the relation insofar as it relates to me. In ideology, the presented conditions are represented, and not known. Ideology is a process of redoubling, intrinsically — even though mysteriously, at least in the current state of our forms of knowledge — tied to the specular structure of fantasy.24 As for the function of this redoubling, it consists in implicating the imaginary and the real in a specific form of necessity that assures the actual fulfillment, by determinate human beings, of tasks prescribed “in the void” by the different instances of the social whole.

If science is a process of transformation, ideology — insofar as the unconscious comes to constitute itself therein — is a process of repetition.

The fact that the pair comes first, and not each one of its terms, means — and this is crucial — that the opposition science/ideology is not distributive. It does not allow us immediately to classify the different practices and discourses, even less to “valorize” them abstractly as science “against” ideology. Truth be told, the temptation is all too evident. In the midst of the political confusion and faced with the theoretical laxity of the Communist Party, there is a great risk of making the pair of the opposition work as a norm, and of identifying it with the (ideological) couple truth/error. In this way a theoretical difference would be reduced to the game in which Good and Evil perpetuate the closed infinity of their reciprocal images. It is clear, though, that a practico-social function that orders a subject to “keep to its place” cannot be the negative of the production of an object of knowledge. And this is precisely why ideology is an irreducible instance of social formations, which science will not be able to dissolve: “it is not conceivable that communism, a new mode of production implying determinate forces of production and relations of production, could do without a social organization of production, and corresponding ideological forms.”25 In reality, the opposition science/ideology, as the opening of the domain of a new discipline (DM), is itself developed therein not as a simple contradiction but as a process. In effect:

  1. Science is the science of ideology. Except to repeat that science is the science of its object, which is a pure tautology, the question “Of what is science the science?” admits no other answer than that science produces the knowledge of an object of which a determinate region of ideology indicates the existence. The notions of ideology can indeed be described as “indicators”26 on which certain functions of linkage come to operate. The linked system of indicators re-produces the unity of existence in a normative complex that legitimates the givenness of the phenomena (what Marx calls appearance). As Althusser says, ideology produces the feeling of the theoretical. The imaginary thus announces itself in the relation to the “world” by way of a unifying pressure,27 and the function of the whole system is to furnish a legitimating thought of all that is given as real. In these conditions, it is clear that it is from within the same ideological space that the designation of “real objects” is produced, of which science produces the object of knowledge, just as it produces, furthermore, the indication of the existence of the object of knowledge itself (but not the knowledge effect that it induces). In this sense, science appears always as “transformation of an ideological generality into a scientific generality.”28
  2. Reciprocally, ideology is always the ideology for a science. The ideological mechanism of totalizing and normative designation of existents is discovered (known) only for the region in which the existents of a science are designated, that is to say, the real objects of which a science accomplishes the cognitive appropriation. We can no doubt formally designate as ideological a great number of discourses. There is no shortage of them in political practice.

But precisely insofar as it is a designation, this evaluation is itself ideological. The only discourses that are known as ideological are such in the retrospection of a science. Marx only gave us the developed theory of a single ideology (and even he was supposed to dedicate to it all of volume four of Capital!): the economic ideology, itself divisible between classical economy (ideology “on the verge of the break”) and vulgar economy (ideology proper).29 This is due to the fact that in Capital he produced only regional scientific concepts — those of the economic instance — in whose retrospection he could think only this ideology.

We can thus measure the complexity of the relations between science and ideology, that is, their organic mobility. It is not exaggerated to say that DM is at its highest point in this problem: How to think the articulation of science onto that which it is not, all the while preserving the impure radicality of the difference? How to think the non-relation of that which is doubly related? From this point of view, we can define DM as the formal theory of breaks.

Our problem thus takes place in a much vaster conceptual context, which concerns all forms of articulation and rupture between and among instances of a social formation.

II. Structural causality

Here I will try to be as rigorous as possible, albeit at the risk of taking into account only one part of Althusser’s effort.

Like any construction of a concept, the knowledge of the “mechanism of the production of this society effect” (the object proper to HM)30 presupposes (invisibly) a general theory.

Science is indeed a demonstrative discourse that is related, as far as the order of succession of the concepts is concerned, to a systematic combination that hierarchizes them “vertically.” The linguistic analogy would have us say that the process of the exposition in which the object of science apodictically manifests itself is the syntagm of a theoretical paradigm: the “organizational structure of the concepts in the thought-totality or system.31 For example, Marx’s demonstration regarding the law of the tendential fall of the profit rate appears logically as subordinated to a number of “previous” conceptual constructions (theory of value, construction of the concept of surplus-value, theory of simple reproduction, etc.). But this diachronic subordination refers to a complex synchronic ensemble in which we find: (1) an interconnected system of concepts that obey certain laws of combination, (2) forms in the order of discourse that organize the evidentiary unfolding of the system.

The aim of the theory of the knowledge-effect is to thematize the difference/unity, the “dislocation” [décalage],32 between the order of combination of the concepts in the system and their order of presentation-linkage in the scientific discursivity. The whole problem lies in the fact that the second order by no means represents the trajectory of the first, nor its redoubling, but its existence, determined by the very absence of the system, and the immanence of this absence: its non-presence within its own existence.

We might as well say that the system does not become explicit as an effect of the (scientific) discourse, whose functioning requires precisely the non-explicitation of the “vertical” combination that it makes exist. Consequently, the theoretical presentation of the system of a science does not belong to this science.33 In fact, the presentation of the system of HM, the theory of the special type of causality that it exhibits as the law of its object, does not and cannot belong to HM. Althusser’s fundamental texts on the structure in dominance,34 and on the object of Capital,35 do not belong to HM either — but to DM. It is in DM that these concepts are unfolded according to certain diachronic forms of succession that are themselves linked to the most general (absent) system that can be indicated the system of DM, or Theory.

Let us therefore consider the systematic organization of the concepts of HM such as DM produces it.

This organization begins by providing itself with some primitive words, that is to say, undefined notions that will be transformed into concepts by their “axiomatic” linkage into the system. These elementary notions are gathered in the definition of the most general concept of DM: the concept of practice.

By practice in general I shall mean any process of transformation of a determinate given raw material into a determinate product, a transformation effected by a determinate human labor, using determinate means (of “production”). In any practice thus conceived, the determinant moment (or element) is neither the raw material nor the product, but the practice in the narrow sense: the moment of the labor of transformation itself, which sets to work, in a specific structure, men, means and a technical method of utilizing the means.36

The primitive notions are in fact: (1) the labor force, (2) the means of labor, (3) the forms of application of force to the means. The two extremes — raw materials at the point of entry, product at the end — are only the limits of the process.

A specific combination of these three terms, considered in the structure that is proper to them — “which, in all cases, is the structure of a production”37 — defines a practice.

The first ensemble or set that is thus constructed, then, is the list of practices. Althusser provides several lists, most of them open-ended. The invariant segment of these lists contains: economic practice (whose limits are nature and the products of use); ideological practice; political practice; and theoretical practice.

To say that the concept of practice is the most general concept of DM (its first regulated combination of notions) amounts to saying that in the “social whole” there exist only practices. Any other so-called simple object is not an object of knowledge but an ideological indicator. This also means that the generality of this concept does not belong to HM, but only to DM. The practice does not exist: “there is no practice in general, but only distinct practices.”38 Let us understand: history, such as HM thinks it, knows only determinate practices.

In these conditions, the only conceivable “totality” in all evidence is “the complex unity of practices existing in a determinate society.”39 But what type of unity articulates the different practices among one another?

Let us first agree to call instance of a social formation a practice such as it is articulated onto all the others.40 The determination of the differential autonomy of the instances with regard to one another, that is to say, the very construction of their concept (which explains why we can speak of a history of science, a history of religion, of “the political,” etc.), is at the same time the determination of their articulation and their hierarchy within a given society. Indeed, to think the relations of foundation and articulation among the different instances means to think “their degree of independence and their type of ‘relative’ autonomy.”41 An instance is entirely defined by the specific relation it maintains with all others: what “exists” is the articulated structure of instances. What remains to be developed is its knowledge.

In the assignations of places that are thus determined, for the state of a given society, there may exist a privileged instance: the instance whose concept is required to think the actual efficacy of the others. Or, to be more exact, the instance on the basis of which, for a given “stasis” of a social totality, we can rationally traverse the complete system of instances in the actual order of their degrees of efficacy. Let us agree to call conjuncture the system of instances such as it is thinkable according to the trajectory prescribed by the mobile hierarchy of efficacies. The conjuncture is first of all the determination of the dominant instance, whose mapping fixes the point of departure of the rational analysis of the whole.

The first great thesis of DM — here considered to be the epistemology of HM — posits that the set of instances always defines a conjunctural kind of existence, in other words, that “the complex whole has the unity of a structure articulated in dominance.”42

Now, it is clear that the conjuncture changes. By this we mean to say that the conjuncture is the concept of the forms of existence of the structured-whole, and not of the variation of its forms. To place ourselves from the start in the midst of the maximal hypothesis, we could admit that, if a conjunctural type is defined by the instance that occupies “the principal role”43 — which is dominant — all types are thinkable: the conjuncture with a dominant that is political (crisis of the State), ideological (anti-religious combat, as in the eighteenth century), economic (general strike), scientific (decisive break, as in the creation of Galilean physics), and so on. Thus, it matters to determine the invariant of these variations, that is, the mechanism for the production of the conjuncture effect, which moreover coincides with the effect of existence of the whole.

Let us agree to call determination the production of this effect. It will be remarked that determination is exhaustively defined by its effect: the change in the conjuncture, which itself can be identified with the displacement of the dominant. This being said, what is the efficacy from which this displacement is the result?

A preliminary warning: the secret of determination in any case cannot be found in the instances, or practices, thought according to their complete relations to all other instances. At the level of the instances, there exists only the articulated structure in dominance. To believe that one instance of the whole determines the conjuncture inevitably means to confuse determination (law of displacement of the dominant) with domination (hierarchizing function of the efficacies in a given conjunctural type). Besides, such is the root of all ideological deviations of Marxism — especially the most notorious among them, economism. Economism indeed postulates that the economy is always dominant; that each conjuncture is “economic.” Now, it is true that an economic instance always figures in the articulated whole. But it can have a dominant function therein, or not: it all depends on the conjuncture. As such, the economic instance has no privilege of principle. If no instance can determine the whole, it is by contrast possible that a practice, thought in the structure that is proper to it, which is thus a structure that is so to speak dislocated [décalée] with regard to the one that articulates this practice as an instance of the whole, plays the determining role with regard to a whole in which it figures in a decentered manner. We can imagine that the displacement of the dominant and the correlated distortion of the conjuncture are the effect of the presence, subjacent to one of the instances, of a structure-of-practice in non-coincidence with the instance that represents it in the totality. We can imagine that one of the terms of the social combination (this time an invariant term) operates in its own complex form the articulated fulfillment of two functions: the function of instance, which relates it to the hierarchically structured whole; and the function of determining practice, which in real history is “exercised precisely in the permutations of the principal role between the economy, politics, theory, etc.”44 — in short, in the displacement of the dominant and the fixation of the conjuncture.

Such a practice, like Spinoza’s Nature, would be at the same time structuring and structured. It would be placed in the system of places that it determines. Qua determining, however, it would remain “invisible,” not being presented in the constellation of instances, but only represented.45

Such, brutally schematized, is the second great thesis of DM: There exists a determining practice, and this practice is the “economic” practice (to be more precise: the practice whose limits are nature and the products of use).

We should take note of the fact that the type of causality of the determining practice is entirely original. Indeed, thought of as principle of determination, the economic practice does not exist: that which figures in the articulated whole in dominance (which is the only effective existent) is the economic instance which is nothing but the representative of the homonymous practice. Now, this representative is itself caught in the determination (according to whether the economic instance is dominant or subordinate, according to the extent, prescribed by the correlation of instances, of its conjunctural efficacy, etc.). The causality of the economic practice is thus the causality of an absence on an already-structured whole in which it is represented by an instance.46 The problem of structural causality, which is the problem of “the determination of the phenomena of a given region by the structure of that region,”47 and, more specifically, each instance being itself a combined form, the problem of the “determination of a subordinate structure by a dominant structure,”48 thus finds itself posited in the form that MH assigns to it: decentered unity between the combination of instances — “structure of unevenness (in dominance) of the ever pre-given complex whole”49 — and the determination-displacement of this whole — “the complex process” — by a represented practice, but without existence other than that of its effect.

This problem, which according to Althusser “sums up Marx’s extraordinary scientific discovery… as an extraordinary theoretical question contained ‘in the practical state’ in Marx’s scientific discovery,”50 is far from having been solved. It is not even sure that we are capable of posing it (theoretically). It is possible that for the time being we can only indicate it. And this indication should no doubt take the unexpected form of a reading of Spinoza.51 In any case — it is on the solution, or at least, on the posing of the problem of structural causality, that the ulterior progress of DM depends.

We must finally come to the principal “blanks” of the project, those whose deforming effects on the text itself are tangible at the levels that I have distinguished (inaugural difference between science and ideology; theory of structural causality). These blanks can be listed, not without a certain rigidity, in the form of two questions:

  1. What is the theoretical status of DM itself?
  2. Are the structures on which determination exerts itself defined on the basis of sets?52 And, if not, can we really conceive of a combination without giving ourselves the concept of a “space” of places, and without specifying, by their typical capacity to occupy-distribute certain places, the elements that are combined?

The question of the status of DM does not fail to evoke the second question, because it puts into play certain enigmas of representation. Indeed, the point is to know whether DM is represented in the operative distinctions that make it possible and that organize its proper discursivity. Is DM caught in the formal configuration of “cognitive” practices that it has the function of sketching out?53 Is DM a science? And if not, is it an ideology?

Althusser shows some hesitation with regard to this topic, even though he most often designates DM as philosophy. This designation barely allows us to make any progress. Indeed, the oppositional pair ideology/non-ideology also applies to philosophy; and the stroke here ( / ), which marks the break, bears witness precisely to DM at the source of which appears, now finally announced and denounced, the mirror-relation in which the old (ideological) problem of knowledge comes to a close:

In other words, the whole of Western philosophy is dominated not by the “problem of knowledge,” but by the ideological solution, i.e., the solution imposed in advance by practical, religious, ethical, and political “interests” foreign to the reality of the knowledge, which this “problem” had to receive.54

Would the best definition of DM that one could give perhaps be “non-ideological philosophy’? But this nominal addition is meaningful only if one thinks the intrinsic relation of philosophy to the non-ideological (to science) as such.

Althusser does in fact think this relationship, in terms of the “production by philosophy of new theoretical concepts which resolve the theoretical problems contained ‘in the practical state,’ if not explicitly posed, in the great scientific discoveries in question.”55 To each scientific break there comes to correspond a philosophical “reprise” that produces in reflective and thematic form the theoretical concepts that are involved at the practical — that is, operational level — within the different sciences. So it is with Plato for geometry, Descartes for the new physics, Leibniz for differential calculus, Kant for Newton, DM for HM, Marx (the philosopher) for Marx (the scientist).

But what Althusser does not tell us is the following:

  1. What distinguishes this “reprise” from the ideological re-inscription, pure and simple, of the new fact that is a science; what distinguishes this reprise from a reflective disarticulation of the concepts of science leading to the reflection-misrecognition of the absolute difference of the scientific discourse within the fantasmatic unity of the ideological discourse, via the ideological operators of “truth” and “foundation’; what distinguishes the philosophy of a particularly delicate region of ideology, the region in which operates the ideologization of that which is in principle radically non-ideological, namely, science; if the empirically evident correlation between science and philosophy is not tied to the fact that philosophy is indeed specialized “in” science, I mean: specialized in the unifying-grounding dissimulation of the only discourse whose specific process is irreducible to ideology, the scientific discourse.
  2. What distinguishes DM, represented as philosophy, from the previous (philosophical) epistemologies, devoted explicitly to producing, differentiating, and then reducing, the concept of science. Althusser does not tell us how to avoid, or circumvent, the isomorphisms that can be mapped between DM and the general form of philosophical ideology such that DM itself conceives of it. Althusser knows all too well that the clearest formal characteristics of ideological philosophy are those attributed to eclecticism: theoretical teleology and auto-intelligibility56 Now, DM, as the “supreme” theoretical discipline for “drawing up the formal conditions” of each and every theoretical practice,57 necessarily possesses these two properties: DM is inevitably auto-intelligible and circular, if it is true that it produces the theory of all theoretical practice and, consequently (as opposed to all other sciences), the theory of its own practice.58 General theory of epistemological breaks, DM (as opposed to all other sciences) must be capable of thinking its own break, to reflect its difference, when a science is nothing but the developed act of this very difference.

DM thus restores for its own benefit the ideology of the self-presence of difference, the ideology of the identity of transparency; “capable of accounting for itself by taking itself as its own object,”59 it differs less from absolute knowledge than Althusser concedes, since it contains in itself the wherewithal to think, in addition to its own essence, the scientificity of all science — its essence that is not visible but actualized — and it thus articulates the theoretical modes of production as formal figures of its own process. DM is strongly at risk of being, this time with reference to HM, one “philosophical” reprise among others, the perpetuation of the task to which the history of philosophy is devoted: the impossible enclosure of the scientific opening in the illusion of closure typical of ideology. Simply put, DM risks being the ideology of which HM is in “need.”

But — second blank — even in this limited perspective, the difficulties are considerable, since the dominant concept of DM as epistemology of HM (the concept of structural causality) poses more problems than it solves. I already showed that between the determining practice (the economic practice) and its “presence” in the guise of an instance in the whole, there was a highly enigmatic distortion-unification, of which the Cartesian-Spinozan relation between God and the adequate idea of God furnishes no doubt the first “model.” But here, as in the case of Spinoza, the problem remains as to the “deduction” of the modes — that is, of the determination of “that which” is structured by the structure, from that on the basis of which the structure is defined. In all likelihood one will say that it is defined by the system of instances. But, first of all, this poses the problem of the list, or the enumeration, of practices: neither determination (which manifests itself within the linked multiplicity of instances by the effects of displacement, and thus of limitation of efficacy), nor the dominant (from which we can think the conjuncture, or the existing type of unity of the instances) allow us to produce the collectivizing concept of the instances. The distinction of levels of a social formation (politics, aesthetics, economics, etc.) is presupposed in the very construction of the concept of determination, since determination is nothing else than the structure-in-dominance defined on the set of instances.

There must exist a previous formal discipline, which I would be tempted to call the theory of historical sets, which contains at least the protocols of “donation” of the pure multiples onto which the structures are progressively constructed.

This discipline, which is closely tied in its complete development to the mathematics of set theory, no doubt exceeds the simple donation of a procedure of belonging, or of an inaugural system of empty differences. Indeed, we have seen that the conjuncture had to be thought as a definite system of “places” in which the instances come to articulate themselves onto one another. From this point of view the dominant (as any structure, according to Althusser) is essentially a distributor of places and a definer of functions.60 The same goes for determination, which is the assignation of the dominant place to a determinate instance. Thus, the complete construction of the concept of determination presupposes the following formal operators.61

  1. Set P, set of places, or (empty) space of combined efficacies.
  2. Set F of functions, or practices, which distribute certain places to the functions themselves. These functions are thus defined on a part of F and they take their values from P: they distribute-occupy certain places. We define “practices” as assignations of places to other practices.

The image in P of a function f by another function is called instance off according to f° or the “distance of efficacy” f. We can in particular consider, if it is defined (if the part of F on which f is defined contains ), the instance of f according to f itself (that is, f { f } ) This is the representative instance of f: the place that f assigns to itself.

Subset H of F (thus a set of practices) will be said to be historically representable if the following two conditions are met:

  1. A condition of determination. For example: There is in H a function det( ) which is a bi-univocal application of H on P: det( ) distributes therefore the practices of H on all the places of P, and in particular it distributes itself — it is represented in P by the instance det(det).
  2. A condition of domination. The theory of the conditions of domination is already extremely regional, in the sense that the concept of structural causality that we obtained depends essentially on the type of dominance adopted. The one that I wish to propose here by way of example purposefully stresses the conceptual difference between determination and domination: a trivial demonstration, which I will leave to the reader, shows indeed that the representative existence of the determining instance cannot occupy therein the dominant.

Let us remark first of all that the bi-univocity of det( ) allows us to consider that in each place of P stands a practice (completeness of a social formation).

Given a function h of H, everywhere defined in H, and a place p of P, we will define h (p) as being h (), with det() = p. In other words, h (p) = h (det-1(p)): the function takes as its argument the function that occupies the place p.

We can thus consider that a function h operates on the places insofar as it operates on the functions that have been assigned to these places by the determinant: in a given situation a function h (defined on H) is taken to be an endomorphism of places.

Now take dom ( ) as a function of H defined on H. We will define the place n-dom by recurrence:

1-dom = det (dom) (instance of dom by the determinant)

n-dom = dom ((n-1)-dom) (defined as h (p) above)

We see that dom operates first on itself (since 2-dom = dom (dom)), then on the function that is sent by det to the place, here dom sends itself, finally on the function that occupies (by det always) the place that is thus obtained.

We will say that dom is in a position of dominant instance if, for any place p there exist a number n such that:

n-dom = p

In that case, a kind of recursion on the dominant instance, a recursion that would be constructed on the “distance” of a practice h to the determinant (that is det (h)), permits one to traverse in a certain order — hierarchy of instances — the linked system of places.

A subset H of F as historically representable that possesses a single determining instance and a single dominant instance will be said to be historically represented.

Starting from these forms, by progressively “incorporating” the fundamental concepts of HM, one could probably construct the concept of a conjuncture. Without laying claims on a mathematization for which the above scheme all too obviously falls short, I think it is necessary to situate the abstract interval that separates, within DM, the concept of practice from the concept of articulation-unity, and to indicate the allure of its problematic filling.

Let me add that this construction is incomplete and obscure. But above all, based on the available evidence, Althusser thinks he can do without it. His entire effort is geared towards actualizing right from the start, for a discipline without tradition, what mathematics is at pains to obtain through the emerging theory of categories: a direct determination of the concept of structure that bypasses the underlying presence of a set.62 I believe for my part that epistemological prudence for the time being imposes a “classical” formalization. Any premature hyper-structuralism inevitably leaves the construction of the fundamental concepts of HM (structure in dominance, structure of structure, determination) incomplete and, to some extent, notional (pre-theoretical). Within DM, the moment of the “pure” theory of historically representable sets seems to me to have to take precedence over the theory of historical structures.

To conclude, I would like to underscore both the absolute necessity and the risk of this (re)commencement of DM.

It is first of all clear to me that there currently exists no other resource, at least if one wants to be able to speak about that of which the silent reality (silent in theory) interpellates us and makes us into the “bearers” of determinate historical functions. There exists no other resource if one wants to think what constitutes our political conjuncture: de-Stalinization and “pacific coexistence,” tied to that form of regressive transition defined by the Soviet regime; American imperialism; the Chinese revolution, which is another species of transition.

We owe it to the epistemological lucidity of Marxists working around Althusser if we are capable of reflecting upon this political conjuncture in our theoretical conjuncture, and inversely: absent which we would be reduced to regurgitating the descriptions of vulgar Marxism and abandoning the vitality of science, in all its aspects, to the formalist right and to the theologians of Literature.

It is to these Marxists around Althusser that we owe the actuality of the concepts of HM, which we might say they have literally discovered, since we possessed them since Marx: not forgotten but disguised, re-inscribed, repressed. And insofar as I have not said a word about the science of history properly speaking, having devoted myself out of necessity to DM (but let us read Marx: from now on, we can), I here want to mention the services rendered, in political practice, by the surprising results that Étienne Balibar obtains regarding precisely the forms of transition.63

No doubt the theory of the political instance still remains to be done. But we know that there are Marxists busying themselves with this; and it is already an accomplishment that the place for such a theory is clearly designated. In a time when the conjuncture forces us, beyond the common critique of phenomenological idealism, to preserve — through and in novel scientific configurations — the rationalist and revolutionary rigor of class organizations, to think that the political practice will be assigned its status gives shape to our exigency.

And yet, Althusser’s interpellating work finds itself in a situation of rupture. In more ways than one, it is still governed by theoretical resentment, which sometimes renders it blind to whatever therein stems from the philosophical, or even ideological, tradition.

No doubt we all must, each on our own terms, separate ourselves by way of murder from the greatest theoretical tyranny under which we have learned to speak — the tyranny of Hegel. But it is not enough to declare oneself outside of Hegel in order effectively to exit an accursed reign in which, as we know, nothing is easier than endlessly to sing the song of departure while staying in the same spot.

If we provisionally sum up the Hegelian project in two correlated concepts, totality and negativity, we will say that there exist two ways of ridding oneself of the master, following the topics that these two concepts bar.

The fact that we are refused access to the totality is what the first Kantian critique establishes with rigor, placing itself from the start — and without pretending either to reduce or to deduce it — in the pure fact of science.64 In several regards, the transcendental dialectic is the secret government behind the Althusserian polemic. It is not surprising if so many descriptions, in Reading Capital, relate the object of knowledge to its conditions of production (for example, to its problematic) in a manner that strongly recalls the progressive and constitutive approach of Kant. When even to escape the empiricist “circle” that endlessly confronts the subject to the object, Althusser talks about the “mechanism of the cognitive appropriation of the real object by means of the object of knowledge,”65 he is not so far from schematism, which also sidesteps the problems of the guaranteeing, of the “policing” of the true, in the direction of the positive question of the structures of the concept’s functioning. The theory of the production of forms of knowledge is a kind of practical schematism. The philosophy of the concept, sketched out by Althusser as it was by Cavaillès before him, strongly resembles the exhibition of the structured field of knowledge as multi-transcendental field without a subject.

If now we turn to the concept of negativity, with everything it connotes (expressive causality, spiritual interiority of the idea, freedom of the for-itself, parousic teleology of the Concept, etc.), we clearly see that its radical critique has been conducted the farthest by Spinoza (critique of finality, theory of the object-idea, irreducibility of illusion, etc.). This time the debt is publicly recognized, and there is no need to insist on it.

The true question finally consists in knowing if there is compatibility between the Kantianism of the multiple that we perceive in Althusser’s “regional” epistemology, and the Spinozism of causality that rules over the presuppositions of his “general” epistemology. In other words, the question is that of the unity of DM, and even of its existence pure and simple as a distinct theoretical discipline.

Indeed, let us make no mistake about this: Kant and Spinoza can here be mentioned in the exact extent to which one suppresses that which could superficially bring them into proximity: suppressed, book V of the Ethics in which a form of co-belonging of the human being to its ultimate ground is restored in the intellectual love of God; suppressed, the second Critique in which freedom opens up a path towards the trans-phenomenal. What remains to be thought is the difficult juncture of a regional, historical and regressive epistemology with a global theory of the effect of the structure. Althusser — or, in order to think Marx: Kant within Spinoza. Such is the difficult allegorical figure on the basis of which we might decide whether, in effect, dialectical materialism (re)commences.


1 Review of Louis Althusser, Pour Marx (Paris: Maspero, 1965); Louis Althusser, Jacques Rancière, Pierre Macherey, Étienne Balibar, and Roger Establet, Lire le Capital, 2 vols. (Paris: Maspero, 1966); Louis Althusser, “Matérialisme historique et matérialisme dialectique,” Cahiers marxistes-léninistess II (April 1966). These appear in the notes, respectively, as PM, LC, and MH-MD. English translations are Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1990); and Louis Althusser et al., Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1979). These appear in the notes as FM and RC, while contributions to Lire le Capital that are not translated in Reading Capital will be cited as LC, followed by volume and page number.
2 The pseudo-concept of the result pretends to describe science as the assemblages of “truths” that are in principle disjointed from the process of their production. It is precisely in the name of this disjunction that Hegel pronounces his condemnation of mathematical knowledge: “The movement of mathematical proof does not belong to the object, but rather is an activity external to the matter in hand.” See G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pg. 24. The result is that, for Hegel, science “reduces what is self-moving to mere material, so as to possess in it an indifferent, external, lifeless content” (pg. 27). The whole contemporary polemic against the coldness, exteriority, closure of scientific knowledge; the whole effort that is put into opposing the totalized inertia of scientific objects to the totalizing movement of scientific thought, refers in the final instance to this figure of death to which Hegel confines the result of science without memory. In a falsely Hegelian article, Robert Paris does not fail to give us the classical color version of this argument: “…Mr. Althusser’s attempt to free Marx from the Hegelian dialectic and to redefine the “level” of Marxism does little more than reduce us, and even make us regress, not only beneath Marxism but even to the grey and sad universe of a pre-dialectical, pre-Hegelian rationalism,” in “En deca du marxisme,” Les Temps modernes 240 (May 1966): 2001 [Badiou’s italics]. This means not having read Bachelard and perpetuating the insidiously religious ideology that discredits science, which is considered to be an unbearable petrification of souls. But science is something else altogether: organized production of its objects, as a specific transformation, in which “nothing is given. Everything is constructed” (Gaston Bachelard, La formation de l’esprit scientifique [Paris: Vrin, 1938], pg. 14), science announces that its domain is nothing but the process of production of which apparently it is the result, and thus that it coincides with the protocol of its appearance. The Hegelian critique of the result therefore has no relation to its target (science). By contrast, it prepares the correlated valorization of suffering experience, of sublimated Christianity, which is the outcome of this “critique.”
3 It is therefore not surprising that Althusser would devote long developments to the genealogical situation of the works of the young Marx. See for example PM, pgs. 49-86; see also the text by Jacques Rancière, LC I, pp. 95-210.
4 See the critique of this false concept in the article by Etienne Balibar, “Les idéologies pseudo-marxistes de l’aliénation,” Clarté (January 1965): 59.
5 It is a miracle to see the speed with which Roger Garaudy has moved on from totalitarian to fundamental Marxism — from freedom according to Stalin to freedom according to Pope John XXIII.
6 Althusser distinguishes three concepts of causality: Cartesian, Leibnizian, and Spinozist (RC, pp. 186-90).
7 Thus it is with the most recent works of Lucien Goldmann, which go so far as to identify purely and simply the homological structures “discovered” by its author: “Thus, the two structures, that of an important novelistic genre and that of exchange, turn out to be rigorously homologous, to the point where one might say that one and the same structure manifests itself on two different planes” (Pour une sociologie du roman Paris: Gallimard, 1964], pg. 26). Admirable simplicity!
8 The most accomplished example is no doubt Jean-Pierre Vernant’s “historical psychology.” It fortunately transgresses its theoretical presuppositions. One will grasp its ambiguity by reading, among others, the final chapter in Mythe et pensée chevées Grecs (Paris: Maspero, 1965).
9 “Mankind sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve”: this famous formulation has served as guarantee for the most variegated corruptions of Marxism, above all the empirical historicism put on trial by Althusser (RC, pp. 119-144) and the obscure speculations relative to “the unity of theory and practice” (which is a problem devoid of meaning in post-Bachelardian epistemology, in which theory itself is originarily thought as process of production, that is, as theoretical practice). The “famous formula” simply means that a (scientific) problem cannot be produced as problem unless the space of its position — the problematic of its object — has itself been produced.
10 Thus, for example, the Aristotelian concept of “Nature,” whose lack — the impossibility of constructing it therein — determines post-Galilean physics. Properly speaking, there is no relation — not even a negative one, not even an inverted or a criticized one — between the new “physics” and what bears this name in Aristotle’s philosophy. For positive physics would not even be able to affirm the existence of the Aristotelian object. Of this object, it has nothing to say. This “nothing” is what Bachelard names the epistemological break.
11 This mapping constitutes the genealogy of a science. The works of Alexandre Koyré or Georges Canguilhem are genealogical in this sense. What sets Althusser apart from the astonishing enterprise in which Michel Foucault is involved — an enterprise of which a true masterpiece, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage, 1994), manifests the exceptional importance — is the theoretical conviction that, if a genealogy of science and an archaeology of non-science are possible, by contrast there could not exist an archaeology of science. Science is precisely the practice without systematic substructure other than itself, without fundamental “bedrock,” and this precisely to the extent that any constituent bedrock is the theoretical unconscious of ideology.
On the basis of this discordance, we would try to explain:

  1. Foucault’s inability to produce against the structural backdrop that he draws, in spite of its universality, the distinctive operators of science and nonscience; and thus his necessary limitation to the archaeology of the pseudo-sciences.
  2. The pre-theoretical superficiality of his judgments about Marx (cf. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, A.M. Sheridan Smith [New York: Vintage, 1973], pp. 260-2).

12 LCI, pp. 17-31; RC, pgs. 18-28.
13 Here Sartre is a striking example, and from this point of view the Critique of Dialectical Reason is a monument of “metaphysical Marxism.” However, the theoretical case of Sartre is more complex than it seems and Althusser is rather quick to rank him among the “rationalist idealists.” Between the originary transparency of individual praxis and the formal inertia of structures, there is in Sartre a specific decentering at work, provoked by the radical and anti-dialectical exteriority of the in-itself: the Sartrean dialectic is a broken dialectic within which it is possible to reflect in part certain structural distortions, and even, at the cost of a slightly allegorical use of its concepts, to posit or at least to translate the fundamental problems of dialectical materialism. See Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1, Theory of Practical Ensembles, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith (London: Verso, 2004), pg. 251.
14 Jacques Derrida, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pg. 333 n. 20. Can we think “at the same time” the reading of Marx by Althusser, that of Freud by Lacan, and that of Nietzsche and Heidegger by Derrida? Headline, in our conjuncture, of the most profound question. If we take these three discourses in their integral actuality, I think the answer can only be negative. Better yet: to approach indefinitely that which keeps all three at the greatest distance from one another is the very condition of progress for each one of them. Unfortunately, in our instantaneous world in which concepts immediately become commercialized, eclecticism is the rule.
15 MH-MD, pg. 113.
16 It is well known that the concept of “suture” was introduced by Jacques Lacan and Jacques-Alain Miller in order to think the displaced-place of the subject in the psychoanalytical field. Cf. Cahiers pour l’analyse 1 (January 1966). The use I make of this concept in passing is only indicative.
17 Bachelard, Le Rationalisme applique (Paris: PUF, 1949), pg. 123.
18 Let me stress once and for all that by limiting our study to the essential concepts introduced by Althusser, I by no means pretend to hide that already this (re)commencement of Marxism is a collective work. More collective than any other, which is due to its exclusive political destination.
19 LCII, pg. 166; RC, pg. 185.
20 LCII, pg. 110; RC, pg. 145.
21 LCI, pg. 70; RC, pg. 56.
22 For all this see MH-MD, pg. 115.
23 PM, pg. 240; FM, pg. 233.
24 It is precisely on this point that we would have to situate the articulation of Marxism and the status that psychoanalysis accords to the imaginary. But also the risk that this articulation may be provisorily impossible to find. Lacan’s most recent speculations on the subject of science should not disguise for us that, for Marxism, the subject is a properly ideological notion.
25 PM, pg. 239; FM, pg. 232.
26 The best term perhaps would be “denotator,” or some equivalent of the English “designator” (see Rudolf Carnap, Meaning and Necessity [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956], pg. 6). The formal theory of denotation and more generally the formal semantics developed in Anglo-Saxon logical empiricism provide us, in my eyes, with the framework for a structural analysis of ideology. Naturally, for Carnap, semantics is a theory of science: this is because logical empiricism is itself an ideology. The fact remains that it takes up the systematic classification of the general forms of linked description, of the discourse of reproduction — that is, of the most abstract forms of any ideological discourse.
27 The concept of totality, taken in its absolute sense, is the archetypical example of a theoretical fantasy. Sartre’s totalization is the fantasmatic critique of fantasy: an intra-ideological displacement-progress.
28 PM, pg. 189; FM, pg. 185.
29 Vulgar economics is characterized in a number of places. For example: “vulgar economists… of those relations, ceaselessly ruminate on the materials long since provided by scientific political economy, and seek there plausible explanations of the crudest phenomena for the domestic purposes of the bourgeoisie. Apart from this, the vulgar economists confine themselves to systematizing in a pedantic way, and proclaiming for everlasting truths, the banal and complacent notions held by the bourgeois agents of production about their own world, which is to them the best possible one” (Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes [London: Penguin, 1992], pg. 174-5 n.34). Thus, ideology:

  1. repeats the immediate (appearance), that is, objective illusion;
  2. re-inscribes in this re-presented immediacy the scientific concepts themselves (elaborated materials);
  3. totalizes the re-presented (system) and thinks it as Truth: Ideology self-designates as science;
  4. has the function of serving the needs of a class.

30 LCI, pg. 84; RC, pg. 66.
31 LCI, p.87; RC, pg. 68.
The essential distinction between object-of-knowledge and real-object, the theory of knowledge as production, the difference between system and process of exposition: all this is the fruit of a tight reflection upon a “canonical” text from Marx: the 1857 Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy.
32 LC I, pg. 87; RC pg. 68.
33 Michel Serres sustains with brio the opposite thesis as far as mathematics is concerned. See M. Serres, “La querelle des anciens et des modernes en épistémologie et en mathématiques,” Critique 198 (November 1963): 997-1007. According to Serres, modern mathematics has taken itself as object and has progressively imported its own epistemology. More generally, a science arrived at the stage of maturity is “a science that comprises the self-regulation of its own region, and thus, its autochthonous epistemology, its theory of itself, expressed in its language, according to the description, the foundation and the norm” (p. 1001). The precise discussion of this thesis has no place here. Let us simply indicate that the foundation to which Serres alludes is placed in a transcendental perspective. If on the other hand one takes care to define science as the production of a specific effect, and epistemology as the theoretical history of the modes of production of this effect, then it appears that such epistemological importation is impossible. In reality, what mathematics effectively has “treated” is not the real law of its process, but an ideological re-presentation of mathematics, an epistemological illusion. And this treatment was indeed necessary for it, since like any science, mathematics is science of ideology. The singularity of mathematics lies in that its determinate “exterior” is none other than the region of ideology in which mathematics itself is indicated. Such is the real content of the “a prioric” character of this science: it never cuts itself off from its own fact such as it is indicated in re-presentation.
34 PM, pp. 163-224; FM, pp. 161-218.
35 LC II, pp. 127.-85; RC, pp. 158-98.
36 PM, pg. 167; FM, pp. 166-167.
37 LC I, pg. 74; RC, pg. 58.
38 LC I, pg. 73; RC, pg. 58.
39 PM, pg. 167; FM, pg. 167.
40 In the texts from For Marx, out of a lingering respect for tradition and so as better to find support in a famous text by Mao, Althusser still calls the articulated practice a contradiction. We resolutely abandon this confused designation.
41 LC I, pg. 74; RC, pg. 58.
42 PM, pg. 208; FM, pg. 204.
43 PM, pg. 219; FM, pg. 213.
44 PM, pg. 219; FM, pg. 213.
45 The fundamental problem of all structuralism is that of the term with the double function, inasmuch as it determines the belonging of all other terms to the structure, while itself being excluded from it by the specific operation through which it figures in the structure only in the guise of its representative (its lieutenant, or place-holder, to use a concept from Lacan). It is the immense merit of Levi-Strauss, in the still mixed form of the zero-signifier, to have recognized the true importance of this question. See Claude Levi-Strauss, “Introduction a l’œuvre de Mauss,” in Marcel Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie (Paris: PUF, 1950), pp. xlvii-lii. Pinpoint the place occupied by the term indicating the specific exclusion, the pertinent lack — that is to say, the determination or “structurally” of the structure. Jacques-Alain Miller has given an expose of this problem to which we must refer. See “La Suture,” Cahiers pour l’analyse 1 (January 1966): 37-49. We will nevertheless try to show elsewhere:

  1. that the — extraordinarily clever — use of Frege’s construction of number for the purpose of illustrating the problem of structural causality is epistemologically inadequate;
  2. that we cannot think the logic of the signifier as such (of the signifier “in general”), without reduplicating the structure of metaphysics.

46 LC II, pg. 156; RC, pg. 179.
47 LC II, pg. 166; RC, pg. 186.
48 LC II, pg. 167; RC, pg. 186.
49 PM, pg. 223; FM, pg. 217.
50 LC II, pg. 167; RC, pg. 186.
51 See for example LC I, pg. 49; RC, pg. 40. The immanent causality of substance is indeed nothing else than its effect: the intra-modal mobility of Natura naturata, of which Natura naturans is the absent determination. However, God is effectively represented as mode (by its adequate idea). In the structural configuration called the human, this representative of determination can be dominant (freedom) or not (servitude): wisdom is a conjuncture.
52 Translator’s Note: Badiou here as elsewhere in this chapter uses ensembles, which can be translated both as “ensemble” (as in Marx’s “ensemble of human relations,” mentioned in his “Theses on Feuerbach”) and as “set” (in the mathematical sense associated with Cantorian set theory).
53 The complete field of these practices, such as Althusser here and there indicates it, would comprise, aside from theoretical practice and ideological practice, “technical” knowledge and “empirical” knowledge, probably reducible to certain transitional configurations between the known, the re-presented, and other effects, interior to other instances of social formations.
54 LC I, pg. 66; RC, pg. 53.
55 LC II, pg. 166; RC, pg. 185.
56 PM, pg. 53; FM, pp. 56-57.
57 PM, pg. 170; FM, pg. 170.
58 As Althusser observes with respect to Husserl: to proclaim the circle as circle is not the same as finding a way out. I would add: to name “dialectical” the circularity of the circle should not cloud the case in which this circle is clearly the circle of ideology. “The circle implied by this operation is, like all circles of this kind, simply the dialectical circle of the question asked of an object as to its nature, on the basis of a theoretical problematic which in putting its object to the test puts itself to the test of its object” (PM, pg. 31; FM, pg. 38). Agreed. But when the object, as is the case in dialectical materialism, is knowledge itself that is, precisely the relation of any possible scientific object to its problematic? Then the question asked of the object institutes a problem of which the structure is absolutely original: the problem of the problematic. Do we not risk observing that this particular object is, like certain “objects” in naive set theory, diparadoxical object? Do we not expose ourselves to not being able to designate this except by way of undecidable statements?
59 PM, pg. 31; FM, pg. 39.
60 LCII, pg. 157; RC, pg. 180.
61 The indications that follow are rather arid and extremely summary. Giving myself authorization based on the fact that Althusser generally determines the “global” efficacy of an instance by the effects of displacement, I have built a more complete theoretical example, which uses as basic functions certain permutations of permutations. This example is too technical to be reported here; I merely signal its existence.
62 The theory of categories is perhaps the most significant epistemological event of these last years, due to the radical effort of abstraction to which it bears witness. Mathematical structures are not properly speaking constructed in it according to operational links between elements of a pure multiplicity (set); but they rather appear as “summits” of a network of trajectories in which the structural correspondences (the morphisms) are primary. In the Universe (such is the concept used) that is thus drawn, Structure of structures, multiplicity is not one structure among others: one will speak of the Category of sets as well as of the Category of groups, etc.
Since I am talking mathematics, I must underscore the latent danger of a certain “Aristotelianism” in Althusser, a movement that is more “organic” than mathematical. In Althusser’s texts one indeed finds:

  1. the subordination of mathematics to a nonmathematical conceptualization: “Mathematical formalization must be subordinate to conceptual formalization” (LC II, pg. 163; RC, pg. 183);
  2. the identification of concept and definition: “…the question of the status of the definition, i.e. of the concept” (LC II, pg. 67; RC, pg. 115). This brings us back a bit abruptly to the old ideology of mathematics as language. Let us recall that the concepts of a science are necessarily words that are not defined; that a definition is never anything but the introduction of an abbreviating symbol; that, consequently, the regularity of the efficacy of a concept depends on the transparency of the code in which it figures — that is, its virtual mathematization; and finally that mathematics is not, in physics, in fundamental biology, etc., subordinate and expressive, but primary and productive.

63 LC II, pp. 277-332; RC, pp. 273-308.
64 Reread the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason: here Kant multiplies the indices of a singularity without concept, of a quasi-miracle that presides over the “groping” rise of science, “revolution brought about by the happy thought of a single man,” “light flashed upon the mind,” etc. Science is the pure fact “beneath” which there is nothing. See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1965), pg. 19.
65 LC I, pg. 71; RC, pg. 56.

Henri Lefebvre being interviewed in 1972

Beyond structuralism

Henri Lefebvre
Au-delà du structuralisme
Paris, February 1971

The cutting edge of knowledge operates far beyond structuralism. And has done for a long time. “All contemporary thinking is polarized by a debate whose end-terms, opposing each other under the colors of Plato and Nietzsche respectively, arc: seriousness and play, the foundation and concealment, the center and its absence, the origin and the ever-present, the here-and-now and the after-the-event, the complete and the supplementary, the one and the missing or the excessive, the soul beyond the body and inscription, the referent and the literal effect, sense and significance, the figure and the trace, connectedness and collapse of support, the confrontation of subject-object and their mutual inclusion in a process of concatenation both formal and material, being and its difference, the near [le présent] and the far away. This debate is not about structuralism as a linguistic method or a theory of the phenomena of language, but transcends them in all directions.”1 This is not, however, to retreat into formless dialectical thinking, simple liberalism, or naïve and perverse historicism.

Thinking took up a position beyond structuralism as a doctrine (ideology and/or knowledge) as soon as it was formulated, as soon as we got a sense of its specific traits, in relation to a certain period of time. Today we are formulating what has been preserved from that period, but also what has been lost or mislaid.

Let’s make a list of what has been gained. The “Subject” of the philosophers has been interrogated and tortured, but has not confessed. Substance, “thinking thought”? Intentionality? No. A mirror effect? Then where does its destructive and creative force come from? Without doubt “presence/absence,” that old philosophical notion, made more concrete, sometimes dramatized, sometimes de-dramatized on the basis of linguistics. Let’s also put on the credit side of the structuralist period a more refined use of concepts and thus a subtler critique of their abuse. Then an awareness of new contradictions: between reduction and systematization on the one hand and differences on the other, the plural or multiple nature of any field explored. By denying contradictions in the name of coherence, the structuralist movement has given rise to those contradictions.

More fundamentally, it is not enough to think of structuralism as an abuse of language, and a leaning towards it as a kind of mania or an intellectual tic. There is no way of moving beyond structuralism except by understanding it as such. Hence the ultra-structuralist project for a general Systematics. From that perspective, we’re no longer looking for a System or The System. We no longer wish to adopt a System. We study systems, actual or possible, real or virtual. We are creating the science of systems as such: systems for action and decision-making, systems of thought and values. These systems and sub-systems are multiple and various but scarcely different in the precise extent to which they are governed by parallel principles: coherent totalization, centralization, institutionalization. There are mental systems and social systems, agrarian systems and industrial or urban systems, legal, contractual, fiscal, philosophical and governmental systems, etc. etc. A comparative and comprehensive science of systems requires a critical mistrust of any attempt at, or temptation by, systematization. The science of systems, the pinnacle of dialectical thinking, can only be achieved in the name of the anti-system. It is the coherent form of the anti-system, the only systematization it permits itself. In its own way, it belongs to the “credit” side of the balance-sheet, and to the fruits of that experience.

There are a number of texts that attack Louis Althusser and neo-Marxism.2 They are particularly virulent. Why? Because the polemic over Marxism recast in the structuralist mode has worsened, to the same extent that neo-Marxism expresses and signifies, theoretically and practically, the failures of Marxism by concealing them. It substitutes epistemological retreat and withdrawal in to scientism for an analysis of actual failures and contradictions.

The first of these articles on Althusser shows how structuralist thought offers a critique from the right (in the Leninist sense) of a currently vulgar, would-be Marxist conception of historicity. Whereas this conception basically Hegelian — calls for a critique from the left. We should not, of course, take these words, “left critique,” to mean a critique made by the “left,” in the name of the existing political “left,” but understand them in their Marxist and Leninist usage, as a “radical critique.” The worldwide process of social and mental transformation requires a thoroughgoing critique of the concepts and conceptions of the preceding period, and in particular, its conception of history. In this vital domain, it’s time to break with fetishism, that’s to say the Western (or better, Eurocentric) conceptions of a narrow rationalism and naturalism, elevated into a supreme historical truth, a philosophico-political absolute. A generally accepted radical critique of historicity must include an analysis of history considered as a cultural or political (ideological) institution. In that light, structuralism is symptomatic: of a crisis in historical thought that needs to be elucidated in order to signal a possible solution or to find one.

Another article underlines the role of three concepts — form, function, and structure — in Capital. Its underlying thesis: these concepts are of equal methodological and theoretical importance. To privilege any one of them is to constitute and to create an ideology: formalism, functionalism, structuralism. These three concepts, taken together, form the theoretical field in which the analysis of Capital takes place. They simultaneously define the system of references and the system of concepts (exchange value, commodities, division of labor, contract, surplus value) articulated around, and addressing, the history of capitalism. Each of these ideologies (the abuse of each concept) has had its hour, its success, and then has run out. Ideology has thus tried every blind alley. And we were obliged to denounce them, while risking being taken for “nostalgics.”

One of the paradoxes of neo-Marxism, and not the least of them, is that these works have been well received in countries whose central problems are still those of growth. In Latin America, for example. In fact, the position taken by Althusser only makes sense, in so far as it has any, in countries that are economically and technologically advanced. In such countries, Marxist thought has to compete with a host of sciences and technological practices that have developed outside it, without it, sometimes against it: linguistics, psychoanalysis, economic modeling, etc. This confrontation cannot be avoided, but has to be handled in various ways. One way is to undertake a radical (dialectical) critique of these theoretical and practical domains while at the same time making a radical auto-critique of Marxist thought, which has not been able to respond to social needs or the demands of practice in those countries. Another approach would be to accept without further ado steps already taken to define for each domain an established knowledge, i.e. an epistemology, and to demand that Marxist thought submit to the same procedure and provide its own epistemology. That’s Althusser’s approach. Based as it is on the demands of non-Marxist theory and linked neither with revolutionary practice nor with social practice in general, this approach leads to [he disintegration and elimination of Marxist thought. Some demand that it justify itself as a tactical withdrawal, others welcome it as a sign of ongoing disintegration.

The basic question is not to free science from ideology but to free political strategy from the obstacles in its way: pressure from obsolete institutions and those with aims other than revolution. As strategy is worked our, some ideological elements may have a favorable effect, and others prove to be “catalysts.” Scientism lumps them together, which is a serious strategic (political) error. Theory can only be developed as theory of praxis. Taken on its own, it attaches itself to nuclei or kernels that become irrevocably dried out.

Nothing today can replace the study of actual developments, that is to say, the analysis of praxis. There have been some new developments since Marx. For instance:

  1. economic growth in capitalist countries, without the disruption of capitalist relations of production, managed and directed by the bourgeoisie as a class;
  2. hence quantitative growth without qualitative development, a formula that to some extent suits the majority of so-called socialist countries;
  3. the growing importance of urban phenomena, still poorly understood and even worse handled in the present context of thought, ideology and relations of production;
  4. the prodigious expansion of the “world of commodities,” etc., etc.

These developments can only be analyzed and understood according to Marx’s concepts and theories, including the beginning of Capital (marking, according to Althusser, the influence of Hegel). How are we to understand anything at all in today’s world without reference to the theory of exchange value and commodities, or to the contradiction between use value and exchange value? This does not mean that we are free to neglect the circulation of capital, its organic composition, or the theory of surplus value, nor, either, to forget the theory of imperialism, including the changes that have taken place in the modern world over half a century.

The reduction of Marxism to an epistemology is to sideline practice and its problems. It subjects Marxist thought to an absolute scientific criterion, a fetishistic philosophy of “pure” knowledge. But no branch of knowledge, even mathematical set theory, can meet that sort of criterion; systematized philosophy brings back a scientific ideology of the absolute, which it presents as a purification of all ideology. What follows is the disintegration of Marxism, the self-destruction of knowledge (which is always relative).

Marxist thought can only move forward by combating this “philosophism” and by showing the reasons for its appeal. It is seductive because it is another form of dogmatism, while sparing its adherents the ordeal of contact with actual facts — with praxis. The technique of cutting-and-editing is just the thing to justify the dismemberment of Marxist thought, under the pretext of “rigor.”

The elimination of Marxism goes hand in hand with the elimination of the dialectic. This has been attempted from several points of view:

  1. Elimination of history for no other reason than the unscientific character of the “object” (in fact, if one suggests that the “object” has to be cut and put back together anatomically, following a “model,” it follows that history does not exist and it is pointless to proceed any further).
  2. Elimination of the tragic nature of life and action, by taking the tragic out of thought, literature and art, at the very moment when genocide is becoming widespread, the threat of a third world war is hanging over us and violence is rife. This reduction can be understood only as a defensive reaction, a clumsy withdrawal into abstract intellectualism.
  3. Replacement of the dialectical methodology, accused of being “unscientific,” by techniques elevated into method and epistemology; cutting-and-editing, logistical calculation, cybernetic programming. It is, of course, only an arbitrary decision that elevates these techniques (valuable in themselves) into methods.

This narrowness cannot be maintained for long. Have the contradictions of the modern world been resolved? No. And therefore we will not be able to go for much longer without a method capable o f grasping them. And that’s not all. The old contradictions, those analyzed by Marx, have sometimes become blurred but they have not disappeared (in particular those between the forces of production and capitalist relations of production and property). New contradictions are intensifying them. Between the period when the former seemed to have been resolved and today, when the latter are making the world situation worse, there was a period of stagnation, a pause. In that interim period, there was a belief that “structural” techniques could replace the dialectical analysis of contradictions. The failure of that attempt is beginning to make itself clearly apparent.


1 François Wahl, Qu’est-ce que le structuralisme? Seuil, 1968, pgs. 390-391.
2 [“Sur une interprétation du marxisme,” “Forme, fonction, structure dans Le capital,” and “Les paradoxes d’Althusser” in Au-delà du structuralisme (Paris: Anthropos, 1971). These three pieces, but not the whole of this book, are reprinted in L’Idéologie structuralisme (Paris: Anthropos, 1975).]

3 thoughts on “Althusser’s reading of Marx in the eyes of three of his contemporaries: George Lichtheim, Alain Badiou, and Henri Lefebvre

  1. Thanks for this important recueil of responses to Lire le Capital.

    One point, “Verso has already announced that it will be publishing, for the first time, a complete English translation of the French original.”

    There was certainly a translation of Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey et Jacques Rancière,’s contributions circulating in the late 70s/early 1980s, as I saw it at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

    The version I saw was a photocopy.

    So whether it was published or not Verso – your old mate? or somebody more serious like Elliot – is referring to the first *publication*.

    Having read the Maspero edition (which I have), I am not sure that they are of enormous interest.

  2. Raya Dunayevskaya in her Philosophy and Revolution 1973 gives Althusser short shrift in passing, in her ‘Why Hegel? Why Now?’

  3. It is worth noting that the only essays from the full version that have not already been published in English are those of Macherey and Establet. The contribution by Ranciere was translated by Ben Brewster in the early ’70s and the first three parts were published in Theoretical Practice while the final part (roughly half) appeared in Economy & Society. It was later republished in full in a volume edited by Ali Rattansi (1989). The new version includes translations of Macherey and Establet, as well as the notes and editorial preface by Balibar from the 1990s critical edition of Lire Le Capital, which included critical notes with the passages modified between the 1965 and 1968 editions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s