31 May 2019

An Experimental Discussion: the Althusserian problematic

An Interview of Frieder Otto Wolf by Darren Roso

Frieder Otto Wolf taken from

Edited for publication by Daniel Lopez

Frieder Otto Wolf taught political philosophy and the history of philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin and is a fellow at the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation. He has for many years participated in the German debates over Marx’s theory. He is the author of Radikale Philosophie [Radical Philosophy] (2002) andRueckkehr in die Zukunft – Krisen und Alternativen [Back to the Future: Crises and Alternatives] (2011). He has co-editedDas Kapital neu lesen [Reading Capital Anew] 2006).

Wolf has also pioneered, initially with Peter Schöttler[i], the reception of Althusser’s works in Germany. He has translated, and commentated on Althusser’s Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (1985), the writings on the history of political philosophyMachiavelli – Montesquieu – Rousseau (1987),For Marx (2011) andReading Capital (translated from the French first volume – 2015). Wolf also edited – with Ekrem Ekici and Jörg Nowak –Althusser: Die Reproduktion des Materialismus [Althusser: the Reproduction of Materialism] (2016).

Wolf has also co-edited the English-language edition of Rosa Luxemburg: A Permanent Challenge for Political Economy (2016) andThe Unfinished System of Karl Marx: Critically Reading Capital as a Challenge for Our Times (2018). 

Let’s begin with a simple question. Why West Berlin Marxism? Could you briefly explain the significance of this tradition?

West Berlin universities were central to the student revolt in the 1960s from the very beginning. Students read Marx, especially Capital, and encountered representatives of Western Marxism, both young and old. A non-orthodox style of Marxism developed in the departments of political science, economics and “philosophy and social sciences”. These new developments were autonomous from the Stalinised Marxism of the Eastern regime but also of the Frankfurt School (which was only one of the centres of Marxist renewal in Western Germany).[ii] The range of journals published in West Berlin illustrate this manifold engagement, being themselves the result of student-initiated Capital reading groups:Das Argument (The Argument) from the Institute of Philosophy (which under Wolfgang Fritz Haug later attempted to re-build a compromise with the official GDR and Soviet tradition) theBeiträge zum wissenschaftlichen Sozialismus (Contributions to Scientific Socialism), later titledSozialismus, from the Institute of Sociology (in which the young Joachim Bischoff was a leading member of a broader collective);Probleme des Klassenkampfs (Problems of Class Struggle) based at the Department of Political Science (in which a group of young researchers and activists managed to recruit people like Elmar Altvater to professorships); Mehrwert (Surplus Value) from the department of economics (building a special stronghold in international and dependency studies, only partly later giving in to the temptations of postmodernism). Other such developments have not produced journals, but important reference works (as e.g.Kapitalismus und Krise bei Marx [Capitalism and Crisis in Marx], 2 Vols.).[iii]

These attempts led to an autochthonous production of theory that lasted for a decade, even though there was little awareness of international Marxist debates, concentrating in these efforts especially on the fields of class analysis, “derivation of the state”, crisis theory, theory of revolution, theory of pre-capitalist modes of production, and, above all, the critical reconstruction of Marx’s theory of the domination of modern bourgeois societies by the capitalist mode of production as such. Yet rebellious students had pushed some younger academics towards critical inquiry and some of them became younger academics themselves, creating the conditions in which a layer could pursue further Marxist research inside and outside the institutions. 

After years of these efforts remaining more or less forgotten retrospective work (which correctly presents West Berlin Marxism as a part of the general renewal of Marxism in West Germany) has begun to develop anew which makes their insights available again.[iv]  

What made encounter with Althusserian Marxism possible within West Berlin Marxism?

Well, I think that the encounter between West Berlin Marxism and Althusserian Marxism centred on the problem of how to move from a general analysis of the capitalist mode of production, to the Umschlag and then, into method. These are necessary steps towards concrete analysis and practical deliberation. The turn to method was as a mere exercise in reflection, but was an imperative prerequisite for the “concrete analysis of the concrete” situation. This is an intellectual precondition for practical intervention; this was one of Althusser’s core concerns inReading Capital. It was also at the core of West Berlin Marxism, which combined a textual and philologically acute re-reading of Marx’sCapital (which followed its actual argument, cognizant of the limitations of Engels’s edition), with a keen sense of the systematicity of Marxian theory. At times this approach was not fully developed and is therefore in need of some critical reflection. For instance, in the process of readingCapital, these points help to distinguish between earlier versions where Marx was still grappling with the object of inquiry and later versions where he had made some progress in overcoming these difficulties. I think both West Berlin Marxism and Althusserianism have stressed the character of Marx’s theory of the domination of capital within bourgeois societies as a major breakthrough, creating the foundations for a science of history (Althusser) or a science of society (West Berlin Marxism).

Did Althusser’s proposal to view Capital itself as an intervention into philosophy win a hearing? What were the limitations and obstacles to a reception of Althusser’s work?

It must be said – with the exception of the Frankfurt School, which was outside of academia but, of course, in the business of philosophy – in Western Germany, philosophy was generally not open to Marxist approaches. The major developments in West Berlin Marxism occurred in sociology, political science and economics. With Wolfgang Fritz Haug there was an attempt made at philosophy. However, this was very much in the vein of trying to integrate the new analyses into traditional Marxism.

But in a context over-determined by a Lukácsian and Korschian variant of Marxism (Indeed, I’m reminded of Alfred Schmidt), one has the impression that Althusser’s arguments were doomed. What was the strategic theoretical-political axis around which the rejection of Althusser revolved?

I think the Frankfurt School tried to ridicule and exclude Althusserian problematics by, on the one hand, asserting that his work represented an old-school philosophical approach. This is a rather surprising claim and not an easy one to maintain, especially once you have acknowledged the French moment of philosophy in which Althusser was active. I tend to think that this criticism was rather more a projection of the difficulties the Frankfurt School encountered as result of their exclusion from academic philosophy.

On the other hand, they marginalized Althusser by arguing that his work remained within traditional Stalinism. Of course, there is a semblance of truth in this. Althusser was trying to intervene in the communist movement as it was. He used all kinds of subterfuges to intervene in this specific public. Althusser’s intervention was intended to topple and overturn theoretical Stalinism by attacking it on its own turf. This rendered a favourable reception more difficult in West Berlin and West Germany where the communist movement had ceased to play an important role, not least of all because the GDR had realised an unattractive model of socialism. The Prague events, during which Soviet troops put an end to the Marxist-oriented Prague Spring, confirmed this scepticism.

In that context, how did an engagement with Althusser materialise?

I can only speak for myself. I learned from George Lukács – who I read in a French edition in 1963 when a student of Lucien Goldmann – the need to organise within the communist-labour movement. However, the communist party no longer existed as a working-class current. In our context, the only remaining working class mass political current was Social Democracy.

I developed a different approach to Althusser. In fact, Althusser himself had recruited me to the discussions of the Althusserians, after discussing the politics of the Portuguese Revolution with him. My approach to Althusser is very much influenced by these political debates as well as interventions made by Althusser later in life who had – as is often overlooked – begun to distance himself from the really existing communist movement in 1975. For example, in the case of Portugal, he addressed his letters to a leading active member from the new Socialist Party, which had been founded under the tutelage of the German Social Democrats, instead of to members of the re-established and important Stalinist Communist Party. Nevertheless, in addressing himself to an intellectual of the Portuguese Social Democratic Party, Althusser raised the problem of “unity of the left”, which was needed in the moment of political transformation. This shows clearly that he was not dogmatically fixed on dialogues within the communist movement and was quite open to other political movements, the realities of revolutionary processes and the broad politics of the working class.

What impact did the Portuguese Revolution have on Althusser’s thinking? What did he think about the relation of the state and politics?

In the 1970s, Althusser made important developments. As you know, in ‘75/’76 there was an important turn in his reflections. This may have been inspired by the experience of the Portuguese Revolution. The revolution was lost on the level of the political forms of expression of the organisations and their capacities to find adequate compromise: The urgent unity of the left, to realise that which was becoming possible, wasn’t found – and maybe could not have been. In spite of the unitary impulse of the Movement of the Armed Forces, as well as of many popular initiatives from below. I am still convinced that a much more progressive “class-compromise” than the one that has then been imposed by German Social Democracy could have been found and implemented – with important consequences elsewhere! In the end this failure led to the reconstitution of Portugal as a normal Western European social democratic state, instead of initiating the beginnings of a genuine socialist transition. I think that this was not preordained; you can pinpoint certain strategic mistakes made by the communists and by the dissident communists within Maoism. I think these shortcomings should be criticised and overcome. The Trotskyists, on the other hand, didn’t play a relevant or instructive role. Still, the defeat of the Portuguese Revolution in 1975/76 should be studied thoroughly because of the strategic lessons it can provide.

Let’s move to the publication history of Althusser’s work in Germany.

There are two phases. One was when Peter Schöttler and his friends used Althusser to intervene into the Eurocommunist tendency, then developing at the margins of the German communist party as it had been reconstituted under the control of the DDR. Schöttler himself was a more or less orthodox Stalinist whose paradigm was toppled by Althusser’s writings; an instance of a successful intervention.

Interestingly enough, you find a number of things published in German which had not been published in French before or which were put into a new context by the intervention in Germany. These sometimes included forewords by Althusser, based on Peter Schöttler’s elaborations, which gave Althusser’s intervention a specific setting. This is how I define the first phase of Althusser’s publication in Germany. It was represented by the series of books published by Schöttler under the title “Positions” which was also the title of Althusser’s first book of collected works, published by the French Communist Party.

I came in during the second phase. This begun when Schöttler and I started a project of editing Althusser’s writings in German. I published two volumes; Schöttler was very busy trying to find his way into French-German academia at the time and was not able to produce the volumes he had planned. Althusser’s collected works, as they had been published by then, consisted in two volumes that I translated. These were, interestingly enough, lectures on epistemology and a collection of political writings, which were not so numerous at the time. Still, I thought they deserved an edition, from his book on Montesquieu onwards. This contained his critique of modern political philosophy, which as we know now was by then one of his central concerns and the object of a number of lectures which have since been published.

So, this was my contribution: I stressed Althusser’s more general epistemological commitment and his commitment to rediscovering modern political philosophy in a critical Marxist perspective.

What was the specificity of Althusser’s reading of modern political philosophy? Why was it important, apart from the simple appellation “Marxist”?

That’s an interesting point. I think the point was that politics has to be understood as an intervention into the concrete situation. The first conclusion to be drawn was that importing models doesn’t substitute for actually doing politics. This is a Stalinist idea of which the Trotskyists were not totally innocent. Similarly, the Eurocommunists tried to import models from Italy.

I think this also represented a possible meeting point with West Berlin Marxism, which started from the idea that you have to “dig where you are”, so to speak, for instance, by producing a class analysis of Western Germany. Of course, in a way this was undeniably theoreticist. But the general move was important. It was a breakthrough for us to say that “we have to do politics here” and, in the absence of other models, to commit to investigating how this might be possible. This was the mood underlying it. Althusser was a possible ally for this enterprise.

Though these texts were prior to the so-called crisis of Marxism and the June Theses, how did these earlier texts relate to the crisis of Marxism as it was experienced in West Germany?

They relate to it in an important way. They reaffirmed the need for scientificity. I don’t mean this in a theoreticist manner which suggests that provided you first do science, things will turn out fine. Rather, scientificity suggests that you have to respect the proper character of scientific discovery and disavow partisanship in science. Marx himself underlined this many times, as we frequently quoted him, all over the place in West Berlin. You have to be oriented towards finding out what is effectively the case. As Machiavelli said, “la verità effettuale della cosa” (the real truth of the matter at hand). I think this orientation was quite productive at the time; it was also an unblocking because it allowed us, for instance, to look towards the new social movements and not just those of the working class. Or, while looking at the working class and its own struggles, instead of trying to mobilise the organisations against the anarchist grass roots, we tried to find out ways to organise both in order to wage important struggles against capital. This was relevant even in the situation of blocked political perspectives we encountered in West Germany.

Let’s go further into the second wave of publication. The most significant event being the republication of Das Kapital Lesen and For Marx. Can you go into the importance of these editions for the debate over Marx in Germany?

You have to see that on a subterranean level a new reading of Althusser had already begun here. This is evident from the horrendous prices we paid for used copies of Althusser’s writing in German! And of course, we needed – and I’ve observed this in many discussions with students – to have German texts because French is still a foreign language here! English is more or less accepted as a world language, but French is not. So it was necessary to bring out a new translation. I think that the central prerequisite was to find a way of really translating Althusser into German and not into some intermediate language only comprehensible to people with some knowledge of French. This was the case with the earlier translations because the intermediate language – i.e. half way between contemporary German and French vocabulary – favoured by the Francophiles spontaneously came up, covering a lot of issues.

At the same time, I was earnestly trying to translate Althusser into German. I was more or less successful, although not without mistakes, which I have noted. We shall have a second edition ofDas Kapital Lesen where we can correct these. We also tried to contextualise the question of translation. So my postfaces and prefaces did not seek to build a German Althusserianism but to find a perspective on reading Althusser, which would be adequate to the different situation that the reader encounters here.

Explore that point about the situation encountered by a German reader of Althusser…

One of the major blocks to a reception of Althusser here was very simple: Althusser was ignorant of the Frankfurt School. He had some idea that it wasn’t his cup of tea, but that was about all he knew about it. There are some formulations of his in which he shows that he has not really studied Frankfurt School theorists and dismisses them in a more or less arbitrary way. This was not really justified – in fact I’ve just read a dissertation that argues Adorno, Otto Neurath[v] and Althusser are equally useful for the renewal of Marxism.

Otto Neurath? I wouldn’t agree with that…

Well, I found it curious. Maybe you would rather quote Korsch in this context. The author of the dissertation selected Neurath to show that these different, warring re-readings of Marx, are now history. We have to look back upon them and understand how they can help us read Marx on the level that is possible today. I say this not only with regard to the philological situation; we now have almost all the relevant Marx and Engels texts, which were not previously available – or were available in adulterated forms. In addition to this, there is a lot of theoretical debate. Many attempts at reformulating Marxism have taken place which have to be understood and from which we may no doubt learn important insights.

In this sense, I think it is a good symptom that we can now quote Adorno and Althusser together as classics without falling into the trap of trying to bicker about who was right in what detail.

But in the German context another limitation was the question of Marx’s French edition of Capital. Marx saw this as an independent text with scientific merit in its own right. But did the Germans really read it?

You remind me: yes, this is a scandal. Because the Germans are so Germanocentric, they overlooked that there are at least three versions of Capital: the last German edition (which Engels prepared based upon Marx’s notes without making use of all of them), the French edition, (which Marx thoroughly revised which is an important source on its own) and the notes from Marx that were overlooked or ignored by Engels.

These three texts are at the basis of a critical reading of Marx now, not to speak of the earlier editions, which also contain elements that can be helpful in understanding what Marx was trying to get at. 

 What about the New Marx Reading. Do they have impasses that Althusser’s work can address?

Yes I think so. Before going there, I have to address one simple but major problem on Althusser’s side: due to his intention of intervening into the communist movement, Althusser failed to overcome the idea of historical materialism as a science. According to his analysis, the science Marx produced consisted in the reconstruction of modern capitalist societies. It was not a general theory of history. Nor was it – as Balibar discovered very early – a general theory of socialist transition. This was a major point. If the issue of socialist transition exists on a different epistemological level than the general theory of capital, then the question of specific situations, constellations, and the critique of any unified model of socialist transition must gain in practical importance. In a way, these questions join with what we have already discussed; namely, the orientation to a specific situation was reinforced by the concrete form of Althusser’s intervention and not by adherence to the idea of historical materialism as a general theory.

I think Althusser was aware of this difficulty, which is partly why he formulated the very difficult metaphor that Marx opened the “continent of history.” This may be understood in the sense of a general theory. However, it could just as well be understood in the sense of a first point of contact that opens to further inquiries, different approaches and different modes, as the continent of history is explored. I tend to think that the latter reading is the more interesting interpretation of the metaphor.

And the latter reading of the metaphor seems to be more in line with the recent philological discoveries made possible by the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe

Yes. In the transition from the Grundrisse, Marx was really elaborating the specificity of the capitalist mode of production. He was abandoning all kinds of general theories of history in favour of looking at specific constellations, even anticipating later discussions on the articulation of modes of production. Very specifically, he also addressed the complexity and multiplicity of the presuppositions of the breakthrough of primitive accumulation and the historical establishment of the capitalist mode of production.

But what of the epistemological breakthrough that Althusser sees in Marx? How does this argument relate to the recent publication of the German ideology manuscripts for the first time in full?

These are two questions. The first regards the epistemological break – the notion of the cut, which Althusser takes over from Bachelard – which is debatable as a concept. I think that it was important to even open these ideas to debate.  I refer to the idea that there is a profound difference between the philosophical and, to put it very harshly, ideological reflections of the Young Hegelians, the young Marx and the young Engels included, and Marx’s later breakthrough towards a scientific understanding of the capitalist mode of production. I think it is still very important to distinguish this and not to mix this up into a kind of “philosophising without criteria” which takes up bits and pieces of various writings of Marx to concoct a philosophy of one’s own. This does not help anybody; it blocks necessary debate and analysis. I think the idea that Marx – and I would add, very gradually – developed a new understanding of the problems of the critique of political economy and grappled with Ricardian ideas throughout his lifetime is essential. Equally essential is the idea that, despite employing simplifications of all kinds and possessing Hegelian preconceptions, Marx worked out of them in order to more clearly formulate his scientific argument. This is essential and should not be left out of any contemporary reading of Marx.

It is true: the breakthrough to which I just referred does not yet fully exist in the manuscripts of the German Ideology. The so-calledGerman Ideology was a planned periodical for which they collected materials, but which remained unrealised owing to their publisher’s fears. In it, Marx and Engels took the first steps towards their breakthrough. But they did not really achieve it. They progressed further in theGrundrisse and beyond although there was much movement back and forth as they sought a path towards solid scientific ground.

We can only understand what this means by looking backwards, from the breakthroughs that were made in Capital (or even those which should have been made there). This includes carefully rereadingCapital from the point of view of what the Third Volume wasmeant to be – not for what it is. This also entails reading the first and second volumes as a preparation for this final argument. We can only achieve a full understanding of Marx’s scientific breakthrough by reading the first volume as a kind of partial presentation of the entire theoretical articulation. This breakthrough created a new field of scientific inquiry – thecritique of political economy – which existed and developed further after Marx’s death. This means that we are not solely talking about Marx but also about Luxemburg, in some parts about Lenin and also people like Henryk Grossmann, Eugene Varga or Ernest Mandel.

Within Althusser’s own reading of the scientific breakthrough, above all represented by Capital, did his attitude towards the book shift after the first edition of Reading Capital and through the next decade,? How did his theoretical arguments develop?       

In Reading Capital, Althusser made a first attempt to philosophically articulate what is at stake inCapital. This is not often understood or taken seriously enough. Similarly, it is not well known that Althusser made further attempts towards this end. In his – I must say slightly ill-famed – edition of the French version of the first volume ofCapital he made that scandalous statement that a worker should start readingCapital from the second chapter leaving out the first chapter. This was of course revolting to all defenders of capital-logic. A further example of Althusser’s attentiveness to the philosophical significance ofCapital is his commentary on Gérard Duménil in which he proposes a very different reading to that favoured by the latter.

I think we have to stress that Althusser’s reading, with Balibar and others in ’65, was an initial attempt to open a field of debate by intervening into the emerging field of collective readings of Capital. Althusser did not see this as a closed system but saw the possibility of opening new perspectives and different approaches.

How do you periodise Althusser’s theoretical development in light of this?

As Goshgarian has shown, Althusser’s underlying theoretical orientation and philosophical approaches were not so deeply different. What was different was the way he tried to elaborate them and make them relevant to political intervention. We know that when he was writing his parts of Reading Capital or his pieces collected inFor Marx, he had already had a very complex idea of Marx’s theory, of what materialism is and what contradiction may be. This is visible in the margins at those texts. In the second part of his development, beginning in the mid-1970s, he made explicit what had been present in his earlier interventions, which were still interventions into “orthodox Marxism.” In his later interventions he tried to address this more radically and without the specific limiting prepositions.

It is also useful – as Goshgarian does it – to read the classical and better-known texts of his first phase in the light of what he tried to make explicit in the later texts. I think that the so-called late Althusser still continued this, although he restricted himself to a merely philosophical articulation. This was because he was cut off from all possibilities of co-operation or, more specifically, political intervention by his situation.

Let’s move to what it means to be a Marxist in philosophy.

This is one of Althusser’s great virtues. He threw into doubt the elementary questions that seem, at first, to be self-evident. By asking how to be a Marxist in philosophy, he put aside the idea that there already existed a Marxist philosophy. Of course, there are philosophical excursions in Marx’s work, although they aren’t very sustained and are very difficult to assemble into one whole. There are also philosophical elaborations by Engels – although Engels himself would not have characterised them as philosophical.

So, there is a problem there. Engels simply substituted the word Weltanschauung for philosophy and, in so doing, regarded it as more elementary. Everyone possesses and participates inWeltanschauung. However, philosophy is a specific way of dealing with these issues. For instance, you could argue – this is my view, not Engels’ – that theoretical works possess a different way of articulating and dealing with the problem ofWeltanschauung. I tend to think that Althusser’s term “ideology” (in the singular) is a good translation ofWeltanschauung and what this term had meant for Engels.

This is part of the problem. If you don’t think there exists something like a scientific worldview which does away with all philosophy and which is somehow the indirect offspring of a scientific discovery in the field of history, society and economy, then you have a problem. What does it mean to be a philosopher inside Marxism? It was important and pioneering of Althusser to have raised this question.

I distinguish between the way he raised these questions and the different answers he gave to them because he worked and re-worked this problem throughout his life. It was not easy for him. Although he gave some important and convincing partial answers, he never gave a conclusive answer. Indeed, I would add that there cannot be a concluding answer because the question has to be posed anew for each generation because (and here I am simplifying) each generation has to articulate what Marx’s theory and Marx’s revolutionary practice means for them in philosophical terms. This is a task that has to be addressed in specific historical conjunctures and is always undertaken provisionally.

You simply cannot conclude it.

We can’t even do away with serious research on this question because we are in a given situation – in the “conjuncture”, so to speak. You must react to it and you do so with the “moyens de bord,” as Balibar has called them, available to you. Namely, these consist of the intellectual tools already at your disposal in this very situation.

Althusser’s reliance on the French philosophy of science, which was a very specific brand, is a characteristic example of this. It has no equivalent in the German or the Anglo-Saxon tradition. It would be a mistake to assert that because Althusser made a productive use of this tradition proves that this is the one truth. It is no such thing. The French philosophy of science is one very interesting, albeit limited approach to the theory of science, epistemology, philosophy of science, or whatever you call it. It is certainly not the definitive one. It is a situated, conjunctural articulation of the problematic and is itself a philosophical effort.

This is what philosophy does. As philosophy, it never comes to an end. Hegel employed Penelope’s web as a very good metaphor for philosophy. Penelope, the wife of the absent Ulysses, weaved during the daytime and promised her suitors that she would marry one of them once she was finished. At night, she would undo the entire fabric and start it all over again the next morning. This is how philosophy proceeds. I think it is an apt metaphor; Hegel already saw that philosophy never comes to an end.

It never finishes what it began to weave. You could, if you look at the philosophers of the twentieth century, find a lot of examples of this.

Heidegger’s second volume of Being and Time was never written; Husserl wrote manuscripts elaborating his thought through the entirety of his life and never arrived at a definitive presentation of his philosophy. A similar thing could be said about Wittgenstein. The only ones who finish without descending into simple insignificance are people like Stalin, whose “philosophy” is entirely taken from others, or – ha! – manufactured for him by employees.

The recognition and articulation of this problem is also an example of Althusser’s intuitive depth, irrespective of the specific solutions he brought to bear.

So the philosophical moment within Marxism is nebulous, so to speak. In this sense Althusser’s philosophical probing runs counter to the “classics”. Franz Mehring is an example: he saw the birth of Marxian theory and its Weltanschauung as the end of the philosophical problematic. This seems to be a direct line to Engels.

Yes, but I would clarify Weltanschauung again: this term doesn’t solve the philosophical problem. It simply and vainly tries to do away with it. Philosophy is seen here as a mereHirngespinst, as something arbitrarily articulated by our brains without any correspondence in reality or in practice. Engels and Mehring really had no idea about what was happening in the philosophy of their own times. On the one hand, they saw academic neo-Kantian philosophy, which was both interesting and committed. Albert Lange, for instance, was a hard-headed socialist and a member of the First International. He was not aKatheder Socialist in the weak and pacifying sense. Others were also quite radical. Nevertheless, this tradition lacked something in comparison with classical German idealism, specifically, Kant. Engels was dimly aware of these academic philosophers. On the other hand, mainstream philosophy in Engels’ day defended so-called psychologism [Psychologismus]. The representatives of this idea were rather shallow. What Engels didn’t notice was that a process of radical philosophical renovation was simultaneously underway. Engels had no knowledge of these new developments, later most dramatically exemplified by American pragmatism.

He simply did not notice that philosophy was taking a new shape.

There is another example of this transformation of philosophy in the late 19th century, albeit from another perspective. There were quite a number of early feminists who were fascinated by Nietzsche. This was not because they missed the explicitly male chauvinist theme in his philosophy, but because they saw that Nietzsche did not practice philosophy in the conventional sense. They saw – and I think this is similar to Engels’s and Mehring’s intuition aboutWeltanschauung – that the kind of systematic philosophy that Hegel represented was over, historically obsolete. New kinds of philosophy were emerging, but they weren’t regarded as a return to philosophy. Instead, Engels and Mehring saw the new kinds of philosophy as simply something else, as supplanting (traditional) philosophy. This was Engels’s and Mehring’s perspective. It was shared by the feminist readers of Nietzsche to whom I have referred. They were not fascinated by Nietzsche’s male chauvinism, but by the idea that it was possible to think on elementary and fundamental questions without retreating to the traditional model of modern systematic philosophy. They understood – along with an entire generation of intellectuals – that this traditional model had been defeated by the 1848 revolution. After all, all the Hegelians were part of the revolution: the moderate ones on the moderate side, the radical ones on the radical side. However, both camps took the side of the ’48 revolution.

The defeat of the ’48 revolution heralded the end of Hegelian hegemony in German universities.

Indeed, there is an interesting story about one of those Hegelians, Kuno Fischer. He was placed under a Berufsverbot in 1853: as a Privatdozent, he was forbidden to teach because of his Hegelianism. He was considered subversive – even though he later emerged as a very “tame” historian of philosophy.

This was the moment in which people like Nietzsche initiated a radically different approach to practicing philosophy. Marx and Engels, in a way, did this too. But they didn’t think of themselves as doing philosophy. In fact, neither did Nietzsche. It is an interesting point, however, that nowadays we don’t flinch when we talk about the philosophy of Nietzsche or the philosophy of Marx. I believe that we have to see this as a retrospective effect of the development of twentieth century philosophies. In the twentieth century, beginning with Husserl, new ways of practicing philosophy were developed. Well, you could say that these begun with Charles Sanders Peirce – but this was across the Atlantic.

On this side, the new practice of philosophy begun with Husserl, and later, by Heidegger, in parallel with the Vienna Circle and people like Moore and Russell in England. A number of new ways of doing philosophy sprung up which have, in fact, reinvigorated philosophy. What had seemed, in the age of positivism, to be over and done with assumed new shapes, without, however, reverting to the classical way of doing philosophy, still represented by Hegel. These philosophers created something quite different in the very fields of elementary refection and debate.

Back to Althusser, can we clarify how he thought the relation of these developments to Marxist theory?

He was quite clear on this question. A philosophy capable of articulating, understanding or interpreting Marx’s theory in contemporary terms has to rely on contemporary philosophy. So, there is no direct continuity there.

To take another example we can look at Lukács. I think in many ways he has been the starting point for modern Marxist philosophy. He clearly borrowed many ways of constructing philosophy from Simmel and others who had also began to renew philosophy. In my view, Simmel was not a very innovative philosopher. Still, although he descended from the line of psychologism, he tried to go beyond its limits. I should also mention Dilthey, who did not influence Lukács so directly, but who was also part of the renewal of academic German philosophy which took place from the ‘90s onwards, when academic philosophers began to read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. So, it was not only a matter of the process of creating new kinds of philosophy, but also of finding ways to integrate Nietzsche and Kierkegaard as alternatives to the classical approach to philosophising.

In the English-speaking world the dominant image of Althusser is of a thinker who prioritises substance over the subject, so to speak, one who disdained “praxis” as Marx had sketched out in the Theses on Feuerbach. How does Althusser understand praxis and the subject?

Well, Althusser’s materialism is certainly not about (Aristotelian) substance. His metaphor about philosophers who run to catch trains is relevant here. Materialists are those who enter the trains while they are running, then get off, when it is time for it, without respecting pre-ordained time-tables. The subject isn’t demolished in this concept of materialism. It is only put into its place/s.

In the Theses on Feuerbach (the real title is “1) ad Feuerbach”), Marx had not yet completed his breakthrough towards scientific research, as is indicated by his occasional notes. The title “Theses” was given by Engels in his additions. Apparently, although they were working together on publishing the periodical under the title of theGerman Ideology, Marx didn’t even show these notes to Engels. Engels found them in Marx’s papers after the latter’s death and then he edited them as part of his own settling accounts with Feuerbach. I think it should be clear that this is a text in which Marx was trying to find an orientation and not a text in which such an orientation has decisively been found. You can see this very simply by searching the text for the term class. It cannot be found; there is no mention of class, let alone class struggle. Another very simple point: the term Historical Materialism does not appear either.

What relationship do these so-called Theses on Feuerbach have to Marx’s reading of the Scottish thinkers and French materialists then?

Marx’s reading of the Scottish historical materialists and philosophers like Adam Ferguson who had taken a critical distance from all kinds of reductionist ‘mechanical-materialism’, may have inspired these notes. However, in them he was definitely distancing himself from Feuerbach and the French materialists. In the he criticised any kind of mechanical materialism, placing it on the same level as idealism. He even remarked that in some respects, idealism is superior because it at least has an inkling about the active side of thinking and activity. Accordingly, some people have read these so-called Theses not so much as founding a new kind of materialism, but as a dual critique of idealism and materialism, without however articulating a perspective on overcoming these poles.

 And Althusser’s response to this?

Althusser saw – I think correctly – that this was a transitional work.

Those who try to make these Theses into the first philosophical articulation of Marxism (as the late Engels had inclination to do, although I think he was of different minds about it) are simply not doing justice to the text. In the recent debates some have even argued that the text is not so much a critique of Feuerbach but an attempt, yes, to get a bit of distance from Feuerbach, while still seeing him as the highest and ultimate development of “philosophy”. I think this is linked to the question of the so-called Feuerbach chapter of the German Ideology, which Marx and Engels resolved to write only rather late. The process of preparing this chapter lingered on for about two years, in which they never actually started to write it. They produced some preparatory materials to write a chapter on Feuerbach. Most of it was taken out of what they – Marx especially – had written about Max Stirner. While they worked intensively on the critique of Stirner, the Feuerbach chapter remained at the preparatory stage. These materials are of course interesting. From them, e.g. one may learn a lot about the importance of Scottish materialism for Marx’s and Engels’s development. You can see moments where they take it up. However, it is certainly not elaborated into any kind of philosophical or theoretical coherence.

This gives credence to Althusser’s claim that there was no fully formed Marxist philosophy…

I think so, yes. There were, at various stages of Marx’s development (and less so in Engels, which is why I talk about Marx), efforts to find ways to philosophically articulate what he achieved politically and theoretically. But these were limited efforts and certainly were not an elaboration of his philosophy, which he promised to deliver, if only he could find the time… But he never sat down to deliver on this promise.

Lucky, he didn’t… Such a text would be monstrous in the hands of the dogmatists; and risk becoming the greatest dogma of the twentieth century.

Yes! It was good that his instinct forbade him from writing something that, as he saw it, would either block debate or produce a finished product quite inferior to his intentions. I think Marx was right to break his promise to formulate his dialectics.

Let’s move to another theme present in Marx’s notes “ad Feuerbach”, namely the notion of social relations. One of Althusser’s great achievements was to highlight the importance of this concept, against intersubjective thinkers and recognition theorists. What can be said of the link between these notes and Capital, from the standpoint of the critique of theoretical humanism, which the notion of social relations implies? I say theoretical humanism because you have been the president of the Humanistische Akademie Deutschland until last year!

This is complex. On the one hand I would stress that in elaborating a critique of political economy, what Marx was really doing was articulating capitalist class relations and their reproduction. Given this, even the general notion of social relations seems dubious. It is an abstraction. Do feudal relations, the relation of slave owner and slave or the relation between capitalist and wageworker have anything in common? This demands close scrutiny. An abstract idea of social relations is something I’d be very careful with.

And yet Marx’s breakthrough was that he realised that political economy was about class domination. In this sense the social relation of class domination is certainly central to his enterprise. His critique of political economy was meant to scientifically demonstrate – and this is interesting – that the science of political economy hides its foundations in class relations and class struggle. Although it is difficult to think about, this doesn’t detract from the scientific character of his inquiry. Marx was very explicit that there is no way to change the results of scientific inquiry for partisan reasons. And yet he was investigating a field which is constituted by the specific class struggles – not class struggle in general – but those between the capitalist class and the proletarian class, as they are constituted in the modern capitalist mode of production.

Okay so what about the formation of subjects – not the Subject – within Althusser’s work, in light of this?

The key issue here is the idea of the constitution of subjects within their class relations. Subjects do not exist before they are made into proletarians or capitalists. Rather, they are constituted as such, in and by the very class relations themselves. Here Althusser has found a way here of combining Marxism and psychoanalytic insights. In a way, this point can be generalised to the constitution of adult human subjects, who are constituted by interpellation. The question is: how does interpellation work? Althusser did not see this as an immediate class question. Proletarian subjects are not interpellated primarily as proletarian subjects. Of course the question then arises: where do these interpellations take place? Here, Althusser defended the idea that one’s immediate ideological interpellation takes place within ideological relations which are organised, in modern societies, by ideological state apparatuses.

Some people have objected to Althusser’s insistence that these were state apparatuses. The real question is what meaning he gave to this term. The definition of an ideological state apparatus does not demand that it is part of the bureaucratic organisation of government. The family is not part of the government, obviously. But it is still an organisation that institutionalises and reproduces domination. In this sense there are structures – apparatuses if you wish – which reproduce domination and which exist as a result of these processes, which, once established, reproduce themselves. This is a useful idea which prevents the dissolution of the concept into one of general social relations. In this sense, the notion of the state as the overall “machinery” of political domination is also applicable to the family. With regards to this, I would turn to Jacques Donzelot’s inquiry on the advent of the modern family[vi], which was organised politically to discipline male proletarians. So in this sense, the family in modern society is also part of the broader network of apparatuses which reproduce domination, and may be considered in this sense, state apparatuses.

Interesting. Okay so if we think about Lukács and Althusser – arguably the two most significant Marxist philosophers of the twentieth century – we have, on the one hand the problem of reification as the former understands it, influenced by Simmel and other neo-Kantians. Here the commodity is key. But then Althusser, in his writings on ISAs and reproduction, added another element to our view of the problem of the socialisation of individuals in bourgeois society.

There was a need to start from a different angle. Take for example the old infrastructure/superstructure debate. Yes, we have capitalist domination in the economic processes with exploitation and so forth, and we have political domination, as well as other ‘basic’ structures of domination, like some kind of ‘patriarchy’, international ‘dependency’ or ecological destructivity at the same time. And, still more blatantly, we have the lingering on of older modes of production under the domination of the capitalist mode of production in given concrete societies. This is how I’d explain Althusser’s turn. There is a problem when you just take capitalist exploitation and its forms as the “base”. You end up missing the real – or at least some of the real – determinants of the superstructure; of politics, of the ideological, and also the other elementary structures of domination like gender, international dependency and the relation of human beings to nature. These are not just epiphenomena of capitalist exploitation but are also determined by other elementary relations of domination. And in modern bourgeois civil society – or better, societies – these structures are co-present and, to employ an Althusserian term, “over-determine” each other. In this respect, you cannot say that one structure is more basic and elementary than the other; rather we ought to say, with the old Engels, that these different logics have a different weight.

Does this mean that capitalist exploitation is not always the most elementary and decisive element of domination, or do we have to inquire whether other structures of domination are the decisive element in certain situations, in certain ‘conjunctures’?

Yes, that is certainly true, but it is also very tricky because it depends on the particular problem you are treating. There are certain problems for which gender structures are immediately much more active and determinant than capitalist exploitation while there are others where capitalist exploitation is more immediately important. There are others still where international dependency or ecological aspects are of primary importance. I think this evokes the Althusserian argument that “the lonely hour of the last instance never comes”. In this sense, you can make a distinction between different primary relations which are plural and not reducible to just capitalism in a unitary sense.

This is the problem with Lukács’s approach. I think Lucien Goldmann also remained within this problem. At any rate, Lukács tried to approach philosophy, culture, politics, etc. from the angle of capitalist exploitation and its specific domination process only. This is insufficient. Althusser, in reacting to this problem, took a leap by regarding ideological subjection [assujettissement] as a reality of its own; as another field of reality and not just a superstructure of economic exploitation. I think this is the positive side of Althusser’s operation, which makes it possible to think that these processes of ideology reflect and process [verarbeiten] the different over-determining elementary forms of domination in concrete societies.

So in this sense I think Althusser’s move was productive because he overcame the element of class reductionism. You could also call it a reductionism to the process of capitalist exploitation. It is important to see the unavoidable overdetermination of real struggles which are very rarely fought over one kind of domination.

The other problem is Lukács’s assumption that the proletariat is a subject in-itself and through the process of consciousness it becomes a subject for-itself. Althusser’s class relationality – which we touched upon above – is of a very different kind that tries goes beyond the impasses of the Lukácsian subject.

The idea of class-consciousness, as it is present in Lukács, is undoubtedly fictitious. The notion of a “zugerechnet” (imputed) consciousness is central to History and Class Consciousness. There, we are talking about a fiction. The question is: is reality capable of realising this fiction? Lukács thought the answer was yes. But it was problematic, even in Lukács. The process by which the proletariat passes from a real and given consciousness to the fullness of imputed class consciousness, which has only existed as a fiction until now, is not articulated well enough in Lukács. And yet, he claimed to be able to measure the revolutionary consciousness of the proletarians with this fiction. That is what he claimed. But how to get from here to there? He had no idea. Well, admittedly, he had the idea that somehow class struggle produces this outcome.Somehow. That is, he doesn’t know how.

Let me interrupt you there. It seems we confront the ambiguities of interpretation regarding Marx’s notion of a political class subject. For instance, many Hegelian partisans of the passage from the in-itself to the for-itself – which you call a fiction – refer to the passage from the Poverty of Philosophy. Written in French, Marx’s actual phrase was une classe vis-à-vis du capital, mais pas encore pour elle-même’ yet throughout the twentieth century this phrase was read in terms of the dialectic of the class in-itself and the class for-itself, even though Marx never used these terms. They are Hegelian concepts.

I would start from a different passage, namely the chapter on the struggle over the working-day in Capital. In this chapter Marx says – this has become a very important point for me – that ‘the workers have to put their heads together’ and somehow generate ideas about the way they are connected to each other and on the need for solidarity in facing common problems and building a capacity to act. However, this is all he says. The workers have to actively construct something like a common orientation. He is not talking about consciousness, he is talking about putting their heads together, i.e. about a real, material process of deliberation. This solution was not accidental; it was a much more realistic approach to the problem. Certainly, the proletarians will discover structural problems, structural orientations and common concerns. Insofar as they are objects of capitalist crisis, they may also discover the need for solidarity and organization. None of these are figments of the imagination. They are discoveries. This does not, however, refer to something pre-given or pre-ordained. You can clarify this by referring to the structure of the First International which tried to organize all kinds of workers’ organizations without possessing a clear idea of the party, the trade union, or other institutions. They were all present, insofar as they are political class organizations. Yet this ‘putting their heads together’, which was reflected in the forms of organisation of the First International, give us a much more realistic idea of what Marx thought about the real questions, as they have been articulated in the terminologies of consciousness or of ideology.

This perspective makes it possible to overcome a certain schematism which is present in Lukács and in Goldmann. We may ask, paradoxically quoting E.P. Thompson, about the real learning processes which lead to the constitution of the working class. From an Althusserian perspective, correctly understood, you can begin to understand what Thompson had been doing.

Elaborate on that! You know how scandalous such a statement is for those Anglophones reared on Thompson’s anti-Althusserianism! Thompson was chiefly responsible for creating a bulwark against old Louis.
I think it is only slightly paradoxical. Althusser’s intervention, focusing on ideological processes, is compatible with Thompson’s Marxian perspective. The objection would be that in Thompson, learning processes are still too psychological. So you have to transpose the analysis into an ideological process that is not psychological. I think an Althusserian perspective inspired by the Marxian approach reflected in Capital is capable of profitably reading Thompson’s historical studies. This said, the context of interpretation would change. Here we can takePeter Schöttler, who wrote a dissertation on La Bourse du Travail. This is an example of such a process in which the workers organised around immediate concerns – putting their heads together – and arrived at some kind of class organisation, with limitations but also with openings for class struggle.

Thompson’s concrete research exemplifies what an Althusserian perspective properly understood would bring about.

A genuine paradox… 

Schöttler’s work also shows that this is not a figment of my imagination!

To shift now, what is your positioning within the recent discussions of Capital?    

I have just read an interesting thesis by Stefano Breda, who argues – I think very convincingly – that you have to read Capital backwards. That is, beginning with its developed forms and their logic, you have to reread the first volume, noting its more elementary forms. In the 1970s we were trying to think about the next step, how to make use of the more developed forms of theoretical understanding as they are found inCapital as an the Ariadne’s thread for doing scientific research in other areas of building a materialist understanding of real historical processes.

First, with regards to the other forms of domination in modern societies it is important to underline that these are modern and not archaic forms that continue to subsist despite modernity. Today’s dominant patriarchal and gender structures are modern. They are not things (or rather, structures/relations) that survive unchanged; the same is true of international relations, maybe more evidently because international relations as such presuppose modern states, without which they wouldn’t make sense. This is also true of ecology. Of course, Stone Age hunters already drove mammoth to extinction. So yes, ecological damage caused by humans dates far back. Even in Australia, the first human inhabitants burnt native wood to the point of creating a new Australian ‘ecology.’ Humanity has modified environments since the early stages of the species. Nevertheless, there remains something fundamentally different about modern industry with its capacity to really transform the ecology of the planet. This is a destructive capacity that mammoth hunters and Aboriginal Australians did not possess.

This example makes clear two unavoidable elements of modernity: universalization and globalization.

Coming back to what I had started to say: in the 1970s, our project was to make the transition to the investigation of specific historical processes, especially those of the present, as well as of other fields of domination. Now I would propose that this transition to specific analysis or to that of other fields demands the construction of a theory of modern gender-ecological-international domination analogous to Marx’s theory of the capitalist domination of modern societies.

But there remains another very important step yet to be taken. With these theoretical tools it is necessary to analyze given conjunctures (as Althusser would say) in order to discover what is happening in the concrete society in which one lives and struggles.

The important point is that where political struggles are concerned, to know the general structures according to their “ideal average” is both instructive and totally insufficient. One has to analyze – Lenin and Althusser were correct in stressing this – the concrete ‘conjuncture’; the concrete situation within which you ‘find yourself’, in order to orient political action. This is itself a level of analysis. Modern societies all possess a body of people who try to figure what is happening in a particular country and in their own situation. For, they are concerned with describing how the family evolves, how families of new types arise, and which other factors must be concretely studied. These cannot be concretely studied in their own terms alone, but have to be understood within the specific interactions and concrete overdeterminations present in a given country. This demands a level of empirical analysis which should be urgently undertaken with reference to historical analysis, for example, to understand the tragedies of the 20th century. At least this is easier, because we now have more material and can verify which the better perspectives were and so on.

This is much more difficult to do for the present. I certainly don’t share Lenin’s optimism that scientific analysis will ever arrive at a concrete analysis of the concrete situation – simply because we don’t have sufficiently scientific and valid information about the present situation. Consequently, by way of scientific analysis alone, we never arrive at a valid conclusion upon which to act. We may only arrive there by a combination of scientific analysis and intelligent guesses – and this is best achieved not by isolated leaders presumed to be geniuses, but by a broad and self-critical process of deliberation mobilizing all available insights at hand (including, of course, the pertinent scientific findings). While these conclusions may well be very intelligent guesses, the fate of all guesswork is still risky. One may guess incorrectly, as Lenin did on certain occasions – and the collective process of deliberation may also lead to wrong conclusions which then have to be corrected.

The fact that Lenin guessed correctly on a number of occasions was impressive. And some historical organizations impress us by their capacity of guessing correctly. However, epistemologically speaking, we have to underline that these were guesses. Guesses are error prone even if they are prone to error in a different manner to scientific hypotheses. You can’t claim the same kind of scientific validity when judging the present situation in order to identify the starting point for a political proposal. There is still ample space for specific scientific analysis at this level of concrete analysis. This involves trying to understand what is happening in a country or group of countries, what factors underpin specific class struggles and what makes it possible to think about a revolutionary or a radical turn in politics. I would add that this capacity for analysis is not exclusive to radical politics. Indeed, it can exist alongside other competing analyses, including those produced by sociology, economics, history, political science, etc., all of which are highly ideological in that they try to formulate eternal laws of society and politics and so on. There has always existed specific fields of study: in America they call these “area studies” and in Germany it is unnamed, or in some cases referred to simply as ‘regional studies.’ Yet these approaches have existed in an institutionalized form wherever people try to find out and pin down what is actually happening in a specific country or in a group of countries. For example, in the United States or in Latin America, questions may be asked about the political, economic and social situations and their interactions. These kinds of studies, I would say, have been institutionalized and carried out by paid scientific workers since the end of the nineteenth century. These professionals are not just sociologists, economists or political scientists. Indeed, this is a messy affair. Some people, like Helga Nowotny, Peter Scott and Michael Gibbons, propose to call it ‘mode 2 science’, as a field of studies which does not fulfil the rigid criteria of ‘mode 1 science’, but is still valid and needed, In any case, these area studies in the broad sense comprise an existing reality within which, I think, Marxist intervention will have to take place in order to generate context specific knowledge. Indeed, the more important question is how these areas and interventions may serve as guidelines for a truly radical and informed politics.

This is an important level that overly general theories do not really touch upon. General theories resemble constructed maps as they attempt to disentangle a fractured and chaotic reality. But they do not give us an analysis of the given situations in which we have to act. Although Lenin was wrong to say that you can actually make a complete analysis of the given situation – you can’t – the task of preparing an analysis and making an intelligent guess is a real one that has been institutionalized. The task is not an invention of epistemologists, looking for an object to analyze.

This is certainly the point where Marxist analysis becomes most political. If you manage to understand the inherent instability of the current conjuncture – or its stability, as the case may be – then you can orient radical political struggles. In this sense, Lenin was over-optimistic and effectively tried to close this type of debate with definite ‘scientific’ results. In addition to this, it is an urgent and quite real task to elaborate such intelligent guesses as I referred to before – this is something that must be worked upon today.

I’m not inventing anything new here. Most Marxist literature attempts something of the kind and tries to elucidate what is happening in specific situations. Yet many of these analyses possess the shortcoming of only or mainly focusing on economic analysis. To really grasp what is at hand you have to elucidate the economic, but also international dependency, gender and ecology. In this perspective, e.g. class reductionism is a powerful obstacle to the construction of real strategy.

So the concrete totality is more a methodological postulate rather than a finished and closed result that is achievable. This also points to a critique of the division of intellectual labour within capitalist society. There is a reality to the academic division of labour …

These ‘dirty’ types of intellectual labour that have existed in institutionalized forms all over the place, have always been more or less ‘hidden away’ in academia. I think you have to look at the different kinds of scientific systems in order to identify this. But the question of coming to grips with the task of finding realistic orientations for action in a given situation does exist. I think the critique of a false division of labour between the distinct ‘sciences’ of economics, philosophy, politics, sociology, on the one hand, and the ‘dirty’ area, of implementation or cultural studies, on the other, can and should be made among Marxist intellectuals. This is because we can confidently note that the other side, the enemy, is also undertaking specific research, which transcends disciplinary narrowness and becomes interdisciplinary. Their hands show traces of many disciplines.

It’s possible to argue two things: first, you have to undertake the specific analysis and secondly, you have to criticize false divisions of labour – between sociologists and economists, for instance. This opens a double attack upon institutionalized social, cultural or whatever other sciences.

Given that Marxist intellectuals working within the establishment constantly fight a kind of guerrilla war within its institutions, I am taken to think of the “crisis of Marxism”. What was Althusser’s response and what insights did he bring to the question? How do you see Marxist theoretical work going forward?

Althusser was pointing to a very elementary point that also implicates the Frankfurt School. Previously, Marxism had believed in the unity of critical theory and critical practice. The Frankfurt School somehow put this into brackets. After all, until Marcuse in the late 1940s, they never openly criticized Soviet Marxism and or even realized that there were other official or declared Marxisms. They didn’t even notice Trotskyism, or at least, they pretended not to notice it. Accordingly, the Frankfurt School avoided the problem and didn’t address it.

I tend to think Althusser’s declaration of this crisis was his most radical and important intervention into Marxist debates. Something was amiss with official Marxism since the middle of the 1920s and the rise of Stalinism. The Trotskyists failed to overcome this. They pinpointed a problem and started to have debates about how to overcome it, but they failed. That is my general reading, which doesn’t belittle them.

Althusser was, however, the first to say that this indicates a really basic problem. I would go as far as saying that in noticing this, he identified some shared basis between Stalinism and Engelsian Marxism: namely, a version of Marxism constructed in the late nineteenth century and which is in many ways distinct from Marx’s theory. This historical Marxism has been constituted as a political application and specific development of Marx’s theoretical achievements – and we should see that it was referring to a historical situation which has deeply changed since then: This comes out most simply by looking back at Stalin’s thesis of “the general crisis of capitalism”, which assumed that the capitalist mode of production had ceased to dominate historical development.

Althusser himself tried to overcome this problem by rethinking the role of ideology, which is the key in shaping politics. He went one step further in also defining Marx’s theory in light of the unfinished state of its elaboration.

Althusser only sometimes touched upon the problem to which I am referring. I think in a way it is possible to see that he was conscious of the fact that he only touches upon the problem, without elaborating it further, in his attempts – the varied and tentative character of which has often been neglected – to ‘philosophize’ Marx’s theory.

The most prominent such attempt was Reading Capital where Althusser tried to reconstruct Marx’s philosophy on the basis of the latter’s scientific breakthrough inCapital.

The second most important attempt to solve the problem of historical Marxism as a 19th century and later Stalinist ideology is found in Althusser’s introduction to the Roy edition ofCapital. What he tried to do there was paradoxical and hasn’t been well understood. He did not go into the epistemology ofCapital but into its politics by almost fictionalizing the idea of a proletarian reader. To the disgust of most academic readers, he proposed that said proletarian begin with the second part ofCapital, skipping its theoretical beginning.

His advice was to return to the beginning only after having read the whole. This was scandalous to all those philosophically oriented, careful readers of Capital. I think that Althusser tried to devise a way of bringingCapital into the process of deliberation whereby proletarians were ‘putting their heads together’ and developing class consciousness. This advice was clumsy and quite brutal, but I think this is the way it should be understood. It is quite different from whatReading Capital proposes: in his edition ofCapital I, it is a different problematic that opens a perspective of deliberation, not the perspective of scientific discovery.

The third major intervention is his long preface to Duménil’s reconstruction of Marx’s theory. I have translated this and found it very interesting, because he takes up and discusses a perspective of reconstructing Marx’s theory, which is not his own. Duménil was in fact trying to reconfigure a completed and corrected version of Marx’s theory in Capital. Althusser reacted to this attempt with something which I find rather intriguing, given that it takes up a kind of constructivist perspective onCapital. I make a link here with my own earlier work, which was been carried out in the context of a German rationalist constructivism associated with Paul Lorenzen and his school. What I find problematic in Althusser is not his stress upon the constructive character of the concepts inCapital. I think this is important, elementary and should never be forgotten. Rather, he tends to argue that that construction means arbitrary construction. I don’t think this is true.

This relates to the sharp distinction, which I think Althusser overemphasizes, between research and presentation. The orders of research and presentation are, indeed, important distinctions to be made in Marx. I buy that. Yet, there is a kind of building of concepts which is part of the order of research and which bridges into the very construction of the theory. The concepts chosen are not merely arbitrary, but are conditioned and, to some degree, shaped by the findings of the on-going research process. Hegel’s ‘dialectic’ is indeed living on this basis. I think this link is was lost on Althusser. It could however be reintroduced.

The important thing is that he underlines the construction of concepts in Capital. While this is very important to understand the book – and this is a point made inReading Capital – the reader should also be aware of Marx’s remarks about the limits of the dialectical presentation. A constructivist conceptual presentation is itself limited; there are important points inCapital where the conceptual unfolding does not provide sufficient ground, or where it is simply not possible to take the next step ‘within theory’ alone.

Two simple examples illustrate the point. Firstly, that gold and silver are money is not something you can derive from the analysis of the commodity, nor, again, that labour power is capable of producing surplus value. These insights cannot be built or derived conceptually. There are other problems of a comparable nature which make it necessary for Marx to introduce historical analysis into Capital. So,Capital cannot be fully elaborated in abstract terms. Historical analysis does not just provide exemplifcation, but in fact grounds the conceptual structure ofCapital. I think this point provides a viable alternative to Althusser’s flirtation with arbitrariness inherent in conceptual construction.

What explains this “flirtation”?

This is an underlying thread stressed by Goshgarian. Since the 1960s, the idea of contingency has been central to his understanding of Marx. For a materialist this is a very important basic category. However, I would argue against Althusser on this very point: it entails an error of immediate application. Not everything is contingent. Some elementary things are indeed contingent. There is also always the possibility of contingent encounters. However, between these contingencies there are structured entities with tendencies and laws, which can be analyzed scientifically. This doesn’t detract from contingency. Rather, it means you cannot say that everything that happens is contingent. Doing so would simply destroy the possibility of scientific knowledge.

And the necessity itself for the concept itself for contingency… The Other of necessity…

I think Althusser is dimly aware of this point, but he glides towards the side of contingency.

This explodes the caricature of Althusser that you had his structuralist version in the 1960s – who only cared for structure – and then you have a flip in the 1980s towards contingency, the Other of his earlier errors.

Yes, as Goshgarian has shown, the concern with contingency was present in Althusser since the 1960s. On the other hand, I read the late Althusser as concentrating on certain philosophical aspects which were within his reach. While his attention shifted away from structures and laws and their development – part of the critique of political economy – I don’t read him as negating these analyses. For me it is a question of emphasis. Within philosophy, contingency was certainly more important. This may be observed in the metaphors he used: he speaks of the materialist philosopher who enters a train, not at the beginning, but en route. He also leaves it en route. Yet this doesn’t mean that the train doesn’t have tracks or timetables; rather, that it is not the task of the materialist philosopher to study the timetables, but the real movements of the train. Clearly, timetables are important – but the contingency of effective reality is also important, perhaps even more so.

What can be said about the relation of Althusser to his contemporaries?    

Two points occur to me. The first concerns Foucault. Foucault, at a certain point in his life, downplayed his encounter with Althusser. In my view, many insights for which Foucault is justly valued may be regarded as, in fact, Althusserian. There is far more continuity between Althusser and Foucault than Foucault himself was ready to admit. The plurality of determinations, for instance, is an idea already present in Althusser. This is a very general point, I admit; but there are more parallels. For example, the kind of historicity which is central to Foucault may be found in Althusser. Foucault’s notion of discourse wasn’t only taken over from Saussure and the structuralists, but also developed and was very much present in Althusser. You could also look at Michel Pêcheux who investigates the notion discourse from an Althusserian standpoint.

Secondly, I will mention Deleuze. Not to downplay the general importance of Derrida whom the late Althusser has been eager to refer to, but to bring out a specific point of analysis. I didn’t know Deleuze, but I knew Guattari through politics. I think that a commonality of concerns was shared between Deleuze and Althusser (and Guattari). This consisted in an attempt to identify the present nature of capitalist domination. In answering this, Althusser focused upon the ideological state apparatuses while Deleuze and Guattari on the ways of the subject-machines. Yet I think there are common problematics in the background: Their shared and real problematic was to identify the reproduction of subjectivities in completely capitalist dominated societies.

I think there is a lot of common ground between Ideology and the ideological state apparatuses andAnti-Oedipus, especially if you approach them through the perspective of making possible and orienting political practices of liberation.


[i]Peter Schöttler studied philosophy under Althusser.

[ii] This meant that the blockade on reading Althusser – emanating both from GDR Marxism as well as from the Frankfurt school – was far less effective in West Berlin than in other areas of the renewal of Marxism in the Western parts of Germany: The “Projekt Klassenanalyse” even made an important effort at “reading Althusser” (cf.  PKA, Althusser, VSA: Westberlin 1975, as well as the respective debate in the French journal “dialectiques”, No. 15/16, 1976).

[iii] A very special development in the Institute of Psychology – which split in two during this process – led to an autonomous attempt at formulating a critical, Marxist psychology (more or less around Klaus Holzkamp) – avoiding any real encounters with psychoanalysis – which has given rise to a Marxist inspired theory of subjectivity (cf. Morus Markard Einführung in die Kritische Psychologie: Grundlagen, Methoden und Problemfelder marxistischer Subjektwissenschaft, Argument: Hamburg 2009).

[iv]See their contextualization in the comprehensive works by Ingo Elbe, Marx im Westen. Die neue Marxlektüre in der Bundesrepublik, [Marx in the West: The new reading of Marx in the Federal Republic] Berlin: Akademie 2008; Jan Hoff,Marx global. Zur Entwickung des internationalen Marx-Diskurses seit 1965 [Marx Global: Concerning the evolution of the international discourse on Marx since 1965], Berlin: Akademie 2009; also relevant: Michael Heinrich,Die Wissenschaft vom Wert. Die Marxsche Kritik der politischen Ökonomie zwischen wissenschaftlicher Revolution und klassischer Tradition. Überarbeitete und erweiterte Neuauflage [The Science of Value.  The Marxian critique of political economy between scientific revolution and classical tradition. Revised and enlarged edition], Münster: Dampfboot 2003; as well as Jan Hoff et al.,Das Kapitalneu lesen [ReadingCapital anew], Münster: Dampfboot 2006.

[v] Neurath was a leader of the Vienna Circle.

[vi] Donzelot, The Policing of Families (1997).


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