This post has been revised here:

Let’s look at two famous Althusser essays from the period 1962-1963.

Contradiction and Overdetermination’ builds on Althusser’s ‘On the Young Marx’ essay, in deciding against the various Hegelian readings of Marx. Althusser rejects the metaphors of ‘turning Hegel right side-up’, or ‘restoring the rational kernel of dialectic without the mystical shell.’ Rather, he thinks of Marxism as replacing Hegel’s dialectic with a different one.

How is one to take an argument of this kind? One way would be to subject it to philological proof. It has to be said that in many ways the Althusserian thesis does not stand up. Even if one concedes Althusser’s main point, which is that a new problematic was coming to replace the Hegelian one in Marx, even if it did so incompletely, it is still hard to square with a close reading of Marx’s texts.

But perhaps one can take the argument in a different vein: that one could replace the Hegelian dialectic with a different one, even that one ought to replace it. Althusser is very nervous about opportunistic or merely ideological dilutions of Marxism, and so he insists this is a rectification, or a drawing out of a dialectic that Engels rather misconstrued, and that neither Marx nor Lenin had the time to write.

Another way to read this is to see Althusser as grafting a cutting of Marx, taken from its German-idealist root-stock, and joining it to a quite different philosophical-ideological field. One could mention here at least four coordinates of such a field. One would be the French social thought from Durkheim via Mauss to Levi-Straus. A second might be Spinoza, a third would be the distinctive philosophy of science in France centered on Gaston Bachelard. A fourth would be a version of Marxist ‘orthodoxy’ uninterested in the post-56 ‘thaw’, and loyal to Lenin, Stalin – and Mao.

Of these, Spinoza is probably decisive, although neatly dove-tailing with French social thought, in the way Althusser thinks a totality that produces, among other things, subjects, rather than thinking a totality that subjects produce through their encounter with, and recognition of themselves in, an objective world.

In short. There are other ways of reading Althusser here other than a scholastic one. One further preliminary: the Hegelian dialectic against which he argues is hardly ‘library Hegel.’ It is, as Hegel-addicts will insist, a mere cartoon. The real Hegel, they say, is much more complicated. But how is complexity a virtue? Is this not an argument that refutes itself? “It is more complicated” is the equivalent of saying “God moves in mysterious ways.” Unless the complexity can be shown to have some necessity, then what of it? Althusser’s aim is a political thought, a ‘theoretical practice’ – not more long dissertations.

Althusser begins the new dialectic with the category of over-determination (borrowed in this case from psychoanalysis). Rather than one dialectical totality, unfolding in all its complexity around a central contradiction, Althusser posits a totality with at least three kinds of contradiction that can over-determine the central one – the class struggle between labor and capital.

Of most use to me is his passing recognition of other classes. As is clear from Marx’s political writings, from Gramsci, from the debates on the peasant question in Germany and Russia, the simplication of class dynamics down to two classes can’t be assumed. The economic dynamics of capitalism might hinge on the class relation, but politics is more complicated. That contradiction may be over-determined by others. (I pushed this thesis to extreme in my A Hacker Manifesto).

A second is the relative autonomy of the superstructures. It may well be that forces at work in the political or ideological levels may either retard or accelerate the development of the principal contradiction. In the case of the Russian revolution, Althusser thinks there is an element of ideological over-determination. The working class was intensely class conscious, thanks to a militant and organized intellectual movement.

A third over-determination take us outside the national-cultural frame so dear to Gramsci, into the space of the relations between imperial states. Taking up Lenin’s thesis that the imperial system broke at its weakest link – the Russian empire, Althusser reads this as a third kind of over-determination. History advances ‘bad side first’, as Marx and Engels put it in the Holy Family. It was not where the capitalist infrastructure was most developed that the revolution broke out – as ‘vulgar’ determinist Marxists might have expected.

Thus the world-historical situation is not the product of the ‘beautiful’ contradiction between labor and capital alone. Strikingly, this implies a root-and-branch rethinking of Marxism itself, both of its theory, but also of its history. “One day it will be necessary to do what Marx and Engels did for utopian socialism, but this time for those still schematic-utopian forms of mass consciousness unfluenced by Marxism… a true historical study of the conditions and forms of that consciousness.” And, one might add, this root-and-branch critical history is now required for the Althusserian turn as well.

The cartoon-Hegel against which this is launched saw world-historical movement as a dialectic between the sphere of needs, of civil society, versus political society, or the state and its governing Idea. In this Hegel, material life, civil society, the economy – is merely the means through which reason, embodied in the state, works itself out in history.

No matter whether this was the Hegel of the Hegelians, it was the Hegel of the Marxists for whom Marx was Hegel put right-side-up. In that version, it is the other way around. The sphere of the social production of men’s needs – economy – is the hidden truth of its political and economic forms. Economy is essence and the superstructures mere appearance. Althusser: “The logical destination of this temptation is the exact mirror image of the Hegelian dialectic. The only difference being that it is no longer a question of deriving the successive moments from the Idea, but from the Economy.”

Even as a recovering Althusserian, I am thankful for this break Althusser makes from the metaphysics of essence and appearance. It remains the unconscious core of theories of eternal capitalism, in which the essence of its economy never changes, and any new feature is ‘just circulation’ or some other such non-thought. Althusser is the beginning of a way to think historically again, outside of the mythic grand narrative of the ‘beautiful contradiction’, as he calls it.

For Althusser, Marx’s whole project is a break with exactly this dialectic. Althusser: “his concern was rather the ‘anatomy’ of this world and the dialectic of the mutations of this ‘anatomy.’ Therefore the concept of ‘civil society’ – the world of individual economic behavior and its ideological origin – disappears from Marx’s work.” In its place, a retreat from Hegel to his sources in classical political economy, such as Smith, and forward to Ricardo and others who follow Smith, and the development of a critique of the very categories through which the sphere of needs is imagined in bourgeois thought.

(One might pause here to note that this set Althusserians on a course of seeing the relations of production as the crucial and determinate component of the economic ‘instance’, not the forces of production. Note Althusser own metaphor is the ‘anatomy’ of the economic, not its metabolism. There’s a sense in which whatever the merits of Althusser’s influence in rescuing Marxism from economic-determinist vulgar thought, it prevented it on the other hand from not being vulgar enough, and really trying to grasp the historical development of the forces of production. One sees this in, for example Jan Moulier Boutang, whose cognitive capitalism thesis to my mind does not go far enough in a vulgar-Marxist direction.)

The state, in this new dialectic, is not the embodiment of an Idea, but the instrument of the ruling classes. In place of the essence-phenomena metaphysic, a relation between instances: economic, political, ideological, which relate through their structural differences rather than as expressive components of a whole.

What was civil society, of the sphere of needs, becomes the mode of production, an historically specific form in which needs are socially met. It remains, in Marxist fashion, the determinate factor, but “in the last instance.” Its effectivity may be over-determined by, among other things, the political or ideological superstructures. Indeed, Althusser asserts, “the last, lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes.”

It is possible to read this as a Marxian version of French social theory, from Durkheim on, and in particular of its ‘structuralist’ variant, in Levi-Strauss. (Structural anthropology, incidentally, could with some justice be claimed as something invented at The New School, when Levi-Strauss and the linguist Roman Jakobson collaborated there). Relations are separate and external to the terms they permutate. In this case the instances (economy, polity, ideology) are each separate levels with their own internal ‘contradictions’ between terms, each of which is then at a meta-level (over-determination) in a relation of externality and effectivity to each other.

Goodbye Hegelian dialectic – negative or not.

It is also possible to read this strangely enough through what is usually thought of as the ‘voluntarism’ inherent in Lenin, Stalin and Mao’s thought, best expressed in the latter’s slogan “put politics in command.” This would be the idea, even the practice, of considering either ideological propagandizing or political mobilization as the lever via which the whole social formation would be transformed, as in Stalin’s ‘cultural revolution’ or later as Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’. The economic, as the realm of needs, needs a force from without to transform it. (A mechanism whose chilling necessities are thought by Sartre under the categories of the fused-group, the oath – and the traitor).

Hence: “a revolution in the structure does not ipso facto modify the existing superstructures and particularly the ideologies at one blow.” Here Althusser appears to complement the Maoist critique of what had gone wrong in the Soviet Union: That the revolution had not been ideologically and politically vigilant enough. Moreover “the new society produced by the revolution may itself ensure the survival, that is the reactivation, of older elements through… the forms of its new superstructures….”

Is it too much to see here an echo of Stalin’s darkest thesis, that of the ‘sharpening of contradictions’ after the revolution? Not to mention Mao’s extension of it to constant mobilizations which, depending on your point of view, were aimed either at preventing the formation of a counter-revolutionary superstructure – or were meant merely to keep Mao the old tyrant in power.

Ideas travel in strange ways. However much Althusser may have meant his position to be a Maoist one (a ‘superstructuralism’ but hardly voluntarism) it ended up being something quite different: a legitimation for the ‘long march’ through the superstructures of a generation of intellectuals, fighting the good fight in the academy, or the media, or the arts, in parallel but rarely any actual contact with, organized labor.

This might be a grand and rather ironic example of what Guy Debord and the Situationists called détournement: the copying and correcting of past ideas, texts, materials, from past to present, with no regard for property or propriety. People made of Althusser what they wanted. But détournement is a topic for another time.

Where Debord advocated a means of cultural and ideological production that abolished all claims to property and propriety, Althusser did the opposite. He insisted on an epistemology. Like Lukacs, and Sartre, but to very different effect, he thought he could specific a method. For the correct production of Marxist though, and assign it to an agent for its judging – and policing. I take that up in part 4…