Patrick King: Althusser’s Theoretical Experiments


Viewpoint Magazine recently published a dossier on the work of France's most famous Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser. In this piece by Patrick King, graduate student at UC Santa Cruz and member of the editorial committee of Viewpoint, introduces the dossier as an attempt to remove Althusser from the ossified discussions of his work as "structuralist" or "Althusserian" and to read him as fundamentally but as a Marxist who understood that theoretical work is a “struggle without end.”

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“This should surprise only those who mistake a discussion which is just beginning for a completed enquiry, who mistake a collective effort of reflection for the manifesto of a ‘school of thought,’ or even of a group pursuing a plan established in advance.”

Back in 2012, in an introduction to a late text by Louis Althusser, “On Marxist Thought,” Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi traced the zigzags and breaks of the French philosopher’s theoretical trajectory. What emerged was not an image of Althusser as irredeemably “theoreticist,” but as a theorist entangled with the complex legacy of Marxism: its history, its debates, and analytical and political currency within his own conjuncture. From this perspective, the red thread of Althusser’s development is his tight coupling of theoretical production with a “concrete analysis of the concrete situation”; he followed Lenin’s demand to put politics in command at the level of method, with concepts and theses becoming interventions in particular political conjunctures, laying bare fundamental lines of demarcations.2 By reading his own work as animated by antagonisms and countervailing tendencies – where fundamental concepts are open to translation into different registers – we can detect the “nodal points” of Althusser’s oeuvre. But while these nodal points can help illuminate the diverse elements fused together in Althusser’s thinking, they cannot offer definite footholds – periodizing this conflictual reality will only render other aspects, other positions he occupied, unintelligible.3

The aim of this dossier is to extend this reading of Althusser: to view him not as an “Althusserian” or “structural Marxist” – a purveyor of a certain reading of Marx alongside a dogmatic importation of Spinoza – but as a Marxist who understood that theoretical work is a “struggle without end.”The existence of revisions and reorientations throughout his career should not be an offense or mark of an underlying incoherence; the situated, often reflexive character of Althusser’s thought serves to demonstrate that there is never a clean fit between theoretical practice and the actual balance of class forces – the conditions of possibility for thought. He no doubt would agree: is not the practice of symptomatic reading premised on the generative character of lacunae in written texts, and an understanding that no theory is ever “complete, without gaps or contradictions,” and thus never determined by a constitutive outside?5 And following Warren Montag’s recent account, even the dreaded invocations of “structural causality” and the “structured whole” of the capitalist social formation in Reading Capitalwere not made for want of ordering history and the struggles traversing any social formation; rather, these concepts were attempts to grasp the “determinate disorder of history,” as the knowable but irreducibly active relations between contradictory forces.6

If anything, this emphasis on the contingent and provisional character of relations of force drove Althusser to elaborates a different mode of philosophical practice, as intervention. Like Spinoza and Marx before him, for Althusser the ultimate question confronting intellectuals and theorists is the following: what material effects have your works produced? We can add: how have they become “historically active,” or from a more partisan perspective, how have they been adopted and taken up in the organizational forms of class struggle?7 How have they “made things move,” faire bouger?The “Gramscian” inflection that Althusser’s works of the mid-70s indicate this desire to grasp the terrain of theory as one of contestation and struggle: “what occurs within philosophy maintains an intimate relation with what occurs in ideologies,: and “what occurs within ideologies maintains a close relation with the class struggle.”8 This refractory relationship means that the concepts we produce, the categories we focus on, the texts we publish, have determinate effects, and are a specific modality of practice.

Along these lines, the coming English publication of How to Be a Marxist in Philosophy and Philosophy for Non-philosophers, discussed at length in one of the pieces in this dossier, are the most substantial articulations of Althusser’s a materialist “nonphilosophy” refined during this periods and which he hoped would foster “new forms of philosophical existence.” Near the end of How to Be a Marxist in Philosophy, Althusser advances an implicit critique of his earlier attempts to formulate a “Marxist philosophy,” present in a “practical state” in Marx’s texts. In fact, Marxism offers no possibility for an alternative philosophical system: Now there is only a Marxist position in theory: “There is no Marxist philosophy, and there cannot be a Marxist philosophy.”9 This materialist position, as Hasana Sharp has argued, is cognizant of its “precarious and tentative status as produced within, and productive of, its current conjuncture.”10 It is not a question of entering into the “theoretical laboratory” of idealist philosophy and its ideological hegemony for matters of repurposing – the materialist philosopher seeks to smash the tools and break the workbench.

This is an intensification of the definition of philosophy as the “class struggle in theory” first expressed in the late 1960s. The mot d’ordre of this combat is the waging and linking together of materialist campaigns against idealism – in particular, the latter’s guiding principles of unifying, guaranteeing, and reproducing class rule. The ultimate strategic aim of the these “acts of theoretical war” against idealism is the formation of “a ‘critical and revolutionary’ relation” between these intellectual activities and other “social practices, the stakes and privileged site of class struggle.”11In other words, the capacity to engage in philosophical partisan activity – to lob active propositions and theses that reverberate across and modify the intellectual terrain – and the capacity for proletarian political forces to “invent mass-based forms of organization” are connected as two distinct dimensions of an effective movement to destroy the capitalist state.12

Again, the precise relationship to be established between theory and movements on the ground is left open, and this is important – Althusser only insists that a Marxist practice of philosophy is the “non-philosophy” of the “non-state.” Peter Thomas, for one, has given us a strong take on the differences between Antonio Gramsci and Althusser on the relation between philosophical practice and political practice. In Thomas’s view, Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis allows us to better grasp the political function of philosophical work; it is the theoretical form or distillation of proletarian hegemonic projects, a terrain upon which which the subaltern classes can become conscious of their historical conditions and struggle to transform them. But it’s not clear that the differences here are irreducible. It could be argued that Gramsci’s endeavor to render explicit and subsequently elaborate “the ‘theoretical form’ that is already ‘implicit’ in the ‘practical form’ of the historical action of the masses” is actually quite close to Althusser’s emphasis on analyzing different forms of communist political practice for their theoretical import.13

More to this point, in their 1970s work Althusser and close colleague Étienne Balibar emphasize that philosophical intervention and proletarian political practice are specific attributes of the same substantial project of counterpower. Balibar draws this connection between the “new practice of politics” put on the agenda by the historical manifestations of working class struggle, and Althusser’s “new practice of philosophy”: “since philosophy is nothing other than politics in theory, they are both indeed two modalities of the same problem.”14 But in the same fashion that the exact trajectory of different political sequences – the Paris Commune, Russia in 1917, Italy during the biennio rosso, May ‘68 – cannot be predicted, so the determinate forms and effects of philosophical and political practice can only arise from experimentation and never arrive readymade.15 In this sense, Augusto Illuminati’s comparison of Althusser’s “materialist philosopher” to the mobile IWW activist, a catalyzer of different forms of struggle and unexpected strategic paths, remains appropriate.16

The shortage of precedents for this endeavor, even in the Marxist tradition, should be evident; Althusser’s mainstay examples are Marx, Lenin, Mao and Gramsci’s own theoretical interventions, and the way in which their thinking was formed and developed within the working class movements of their respective times.17 But it is in light of this ambitious project of intervention that we we should read some of Althusser’s final texts: “Marx in His Limits,” “Marxism Today,” and others. How do we rethink not only the history of Marxism, but also the forms in which it is practiced and received? How do we map the possible intersections between between intellectual intervention and militant practice? Althusser’s corpus shows that these questions are anything but easy to answer, and can never be configured before the fact. The texts in this dossier, from different perspectives and modes of presentation, rearrange a certain image of Althusser. But if read carefully, it should be clear that the rhythm and pace of Althusser’s thinking prevented any one “distillation” in the first place, any single coherent center: nor did it have one stable object or target. Althusser’s philosophical strategy – his way of inhabiting theory – might still yield considerable effects.

  1. Étienne Balibar, “Postscript to the English Edition,” in On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, trans. Grahame Lock (London: NLB, 1977), 218. 
  2. I owe this turn of phrase to Asad Haider. 
  3. For an artful overview of these difficulties of periodization, see Yoshihiko Ichida and François Matheron, “Un, deux, trois, quatre, dix mille Althusser? Considérations aléatoires sur le matérialisme aléatoire,” Multitudes 21, no. 2 (2005): 167-78. 
  4. Louis Althusser, “Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, trans. Warren Montag, in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays, ed. Gregory Elliott (New York: Verso, 1990), 143. For a still enlightening read, indicative of the extent to which Althusser and his intellectual circle were misread in an English-speaking context, see the interview with Étienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey conducted by James H. Kavanagh and Thomas E. Lewis in Diacritics 12, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 46-51. 
  5. See Louis Althusser, “Marxism Today,” in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, 276. 
  6. Warren Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 11, 95-96ff. See in particular Montag’s elegant way of conjugating the different “phases” of Althusser’s thought in this attempt, as a way of grasping “structure as singularity (Spinoza) and conjuncture (Lucretius), while simultaneously and indissociably thinking singularity and conjuncture as structure” (96). 
  7. See Warren Montag, Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and His Contemporaries (London: Verso, 1999), xxi; Louis Althusser, “Marxism Today,” 275. 
  8. Louis Althusser, “The Transformation of Philosophy,” in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, 256. 
  9. Louis Althusser, Être marxiste en philosophie, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2015), 314. Étienne Balibar, in his The Philosophy of Marx, offers a similar, and probably more well-known formulation, drawing on Althusser: “there is no Marxist philosophy and there never will be,” and that Marx’s theoretical practice entails a “non-philosophy, even an anti-philosophy.” See Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 1995), 1-2. 
  10. Hasana Sharp, ““Is It Simple to be a Feminist in Philosophy?”: Althusser and Feminist Theoretical Practice,” Rethinking Marxism 12, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 18-34. 
  11. Althusser, “The Transformation of Philosophy,” 265. 
  12. For an interesting elaboration on what this relationship or “way of articulating” philosophy and communist political practice, see Alberto Toscano, “The Detour of Theory,” Diacritics 43, no. 2 (2015): 85. 

  13. Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment:Philosophy, Hegemony, and Marxism (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 430. See Althusser, “On Theoretical Work: Difficulties and Resources,” in The Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays, 65-66: “That a principle of such theoretical fecundity and importance was contained in the practical state in Lenin’s political analyses and interventions from 1917 to 1923 is an incontestable fact. That this principle remained in a practical state, no one being sufficiently advised to ‘derive’ it from Lenin’s political works, is, unfortunately, also a fact. A theoretical treasure was there, within reach, in Lenin’s political works; no one ‘discovered’ it, and it remained sterile…Moreover, there has been no systematic theoretical work drawn from Lenin’s political practice, bearing on the theoretical concepts of historical materialism and dialectical materialism and thus on the important theoretical, even philosophical, discoveries produced by Lenin’s political practice. In the same way, a number of theoretical concepts remained in the ‘practical state’ in the works of Marx himself. To what do we owe this regrettable situation, whose effects can be painfully felt today? Without a doubt, to the urgency of the political tasks of the working-class movement, which was not allowed the leisure of calm study by its class enemy. But also to the conception of Marxism constructed by ‘intellectuals of the working class’, cut off as they were either from its real practice or from the practice that produced its theory, and thus subject, despite their political loyalty, to bourgeois ideologies – empiricism, evolutionism, humanism, pragmatism – which they projected on to the great classical texts, as they did on to the great deeds of the working-class movement. Be that as it may, this situation lays a precise task before us: to draw from Marx, from Lenin, and from the great Communist leaders, not only what they said in their theoretical works, but also whatever these works contain in the practical state, as well as whatever their political works contain by way of theoretical discoveries. An urgent task. Thus, important theoretical events do not always or exclusively occur in theory: it happens that they also occur in politics, and that as a result, in certain of its sectors, political practice finds itself in advance of theory. It happens that theory does not take notice of these theoretical events, which occur outside its official, recognized field, even though they are decisive, in many respects, for its own development.” 

  14. Étienne Balibar, Cinq études du matérialisme historique (Paris: Maspero, 1974), 99n12. Althusser alludes to this phrasing in Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes, ed. G.M. Goshgarian (Paris: PUF, 2014), 255, 275. For a recent reading of Balibar’s text, see Giorgios Kalampokas, “Towards a New Practice of Politics,” paper presented at 12th annual Historical Materialism conference, November 5-8, 2015. I also like G.M. Goshgarian’s rendering in the interview in this dossier: with the new practice of philosophy, “the late Althusser is the dictatorship of the proletariat in thought.” 

  15. For an excellent study on the overlap between political currents and intellectual currents in the Paris Commune, see Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury (New York: Verso, 2014). Also see her May ‘68 and Its Afterlives(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), Chapter 2. 

  16. Augusto Illuminati, “Recent Italian Translations of Althusser’s Texts on Aleatory Materialism,” trans. Arianna Bove, Borderlands 4, no. 2 (2005). For the Althusser text in question, see “Portrait of a Materialist Philosopher,” in The Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987, trans. GM Goshgarian and ed. François Matheron and Olivier Corpet (New York: Verso, 2006), 290-291. 

  17. See Pierre Macherey “Théorie,” in Dictionnaire critique du marxisme, ed. Gérard Bensussan and Georges Labica (Paris: PUF, 1982), 1142-1148. On Althusser’s theoretical and political relationship to Mao and Maoism, see Étienne Balibar, “Althusser et Mao,” Revue Période, May 18th, 2015. 

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