Necessity and contingency: the return of Althusser

Front cover of Louis Althusser's Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978 to 1987

Scott Hamilton asks if there is life after death for Althusser and his last-minute discovery of the anecdote

Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987, Louis Althusser, edited by Francois Matheron and Oliver Corpet, translated by GM Goshgarian, Verso, London, New York, 2006

Twenty five years ago, at the beginning of a particularly cold northern winter, an elderly man strangled his wife in the Paris flat they had shared for many unhappy years. November 16, 1980, marked not only the end of Helene Althusser's life but the end of her husband's career as an academic philosopher and communist political activist. Judged unfit to stand trial, the man who had been the most famous Marxist in France divided the last decade of his life between mental hospitals and a dingy flat in a decaying part of Paris. Forbidden to teach or publish, he disappeared from public view; many old friends and comrades tried to believe that he, too, had died on that cold November day. The books and essays that had galvanised a generation of left-wing students were forgotten, as the rise of neo-liberalism and postmodernism brought new enthusiasms to academia.

When Louis Althusser burst back into the public eye, it was as the wretched parody of himself that he had drawn in the 'autobiography' published posthumously in 1992. In The Future Lasts A Long Time Althusser 'confessed' to never having read most of Marx, let alone Hegel, to getting his best ideas by 'eavesdropping' on graduate students in university cafeterias, and to inventing some of the quotes and references in his most famous works. The fact that the great philosopher also 'confessed' to being propositioned by General de Gaulle on a Paris backstreet and plotting to steal a nuclear submarine did not seem to bother his critics: they seized upon the literary products of his mental illness as proof that the phenomenon known as Althusserianism had been nothing but a gigantic confidence trick played by a loopy Left Bank intellectual on pretentious academics and naive young radicals. Eager to prove its anti-communist credentials, even the 'quality' press advertised its hatchet jobs on Althusser with headlines like 'The Paris Strangler' and 'Marx and Murder'. The Future Lasts A Long Time was a heavy headstone on Althusser's grave.

In recent years, though, the reputation of Louis Althusser has undergone an unexpected revival, thanks to a new generation of left-wing intellectuals. In the first six years of this century, at least half a dozen book-length studies of aspects of Althusser's thought have appeared; they have been complemented by a steady stream of essays and papers. Sociologists, literary scholars, and philosophers have all shown a renewed interest in Althusser. The long-overdue publication of Althusser's late writing in English translation in The Philosophy of the Encounter is likely to heighten this interest.

What can be drawing a new generation of intellectuals to a man who seemed personally, politically, and intellectually discredited only a few years ago? An answer to this question has to reach back to the decades before November 1980.

From Stalin to Marx

After spending his late adolescence as a monarchist Catholic, Althusser was converted to communism in a World War Two POW camp. In the years after the war he combined an academic career with conscientious work for the Communist Party of France (PCF). Like millions of other young people sickened by the Second World War and the Cold War that followed it, Althusser looked to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union as beacons of light in a dark world. For the young Althusser, Stalin and his state personified Marxism in theory and practice.

Like millions of other communists, Althusser was awoken from his dogmatic slumbers by Krushchev's denunciation of Stalin in the fateful year of 1956. Realising that he could no longer blindly trust anyone else's version of Marxism, Althusser plunged himself into a long and rigorous study of the works of Marx, Hegel, Feuerbach, and numerous other figures important to the socialist tradition. By the early '60s he had developed the key parts of his iconoclastic interpretation of Marx and Marxism. The mid-1960s were the golden age of Althusserianism in France. With the 1964 publication of For Marx and Reading Capital, Althusser and his circle of disciple-collaborators unveiled a Marxism that seemed to offer the possibility of studying the past and present in new and exciting ways.

To understand the impact that Althusser's work had in the '60s, it is necessary to understand the competing versions of Marxism that existed in those days in France and in most other western European countries. At the beginning of the decade, the theoretical discourse of pro-Moscow communist parties such as the PCF was still dominated by what is often called 'mechanical Marxism'. Mechanical Marxists saw Marx's Capital as a set of rigid 'laws of history' that demanded that human societies pass through a series of 'stages' on the way to a communist utopia. The engine of this teleological process was the contradiction between the 'forces' and 'relations' of production. In other words, economics ensured that every society would tread relentlessly through 'stages' with the names primitive communism, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. The victory of socialism and the flourishing of human culture were assured, despite the best efforts of capitalists, imperialists and Trotskyists. The great British historian E. P. Thompson satirised the mechanical Marxist view of history and culture when he wrote: "For the Stalinists, an increase in tractor production in the Soviet Union will lead to better lyric poetry being written."

The 'mechanical Marxism' of Moscow and its satellites was opposed by socialists who, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Thompson, were inspired by some of the earlier, 'humanist' writings of Marx as well as Capital. For the 'humanist Marxists', human willpower and the imagination were more important to the progress of the socialist cause than tractor production and alienation was as bad as exploitation.

Althusser's work created a sensation because it rejected both mechanical and humanist Marxism, arguing that they were merely two sides of the same coin. Both creeds, Althusser argued, gave distorted pictures of reality, because both put the human being and a quasi-religious idea of progress at the centre of history. Influenced by Martin Heidegger's critique of Sartre as well as his own reading of Marx, Althusser announced that history was 'a process without a subject'. He insisted on the importance of the 'conjuncture' - the specific economic, political, and intellectual circumstances that determined, or at least placed limits on, thought and behaviour in a particular place and time. Althusser didn't like destiny, but he didn't like accidents either. He may have rejected teleology, but he was still a materialist.

Althusser and his disciples tried to renovate Marx's key concepts to rescue them from the influence of Stalinism and humanism and make them compatible with an anti-teleological but materialist view of the world. For instance, the Althusserians renovated and enlarged the concept of 'mode of production', which had been used in a very simplistic way by many Stalinists. Crucially, the Althusserians argued that two or more modes of production could coexist in the same society, or 'social formation' as they called it. Societies did not have to be homogenously 'feudal', or 'capitalist', or 'socialist'.

Althusser accompanied his theoretical work with aggressive criticisms of unhealthy trends in the policies of the Soviet Union and its satellites in the West. He felt that the Soviets were reneging on socialist principles when they talked about 'peaceful co-existence' with the West and he accused the PCF of prefering to talk to left-wing Christians and social democrats than wage class war in the workplaces and streets of France. (By the mid-'60s, Althusser had correctly perceived that the PCF and other Stalinist parties were assimilating many of the features of 'humanist Marxism', in an effort to give themselves a more 'respectable' face. The influence of left-wing 'Catholic humanism' on the PCF theorists was considerable, and is exampled in the works of Roger Garaudy, the party's 'official' philosopher for much of the '60s.) Because of his criticisms of the Soviet Union and its sister parties in the West, many people associated Althusser with the Chinese side in the Sino-Soviet split that rocked the communist world in the 1960s. The leadership of the PCF became deeply suspicious of Althusser, accusing him of spreading 'gobbledygook', but this only made him a hero to radical young party members, who organised themselves him into a secret Althusserian faction of the PCF called the Spinoza Group.

Althusser Down Under

Althusser's theoretical innovations inspired many Marxists outside France. In New Zealand, for instance, a generation of scholar-activists who had been radicalised by the Vietnam War and the Maori fight to reclaim stolen land devoured For Marx and Reading Capital. These young Marxists found in Althusser a sophisticated alternative to the clapped-out mechanical Marxism of New Zealand's old Stalinist parties. They used Althusser to develop a new approach to the study of New Zealand society and history that did justice to subjects like Maori nationalism and the oppression of women. In their groundbreaking studies of the development of New Zealand society, Dave Bedggood and Owen Gager used Althusser's insight that more than one mode of production could exist in a social formation to counter the racist way Stalinist thinkers had treated Maori.

Many Stalinists had assumed that the setting up of the Wakefield settlements had seen New Zealand become a homogenous capitalist country and thus ended the 'feudal' mode of production practiced by the Maori. Bedggood and Gager showed that Wakefield established only islands of capitalist social relations in a sea of pre-capitalist Maori society. Even when capitalism did spread further and interact with Maori society, it did not destroy that society. Instead, the Maori of the Waikato Kingdom, Parihaka and other de facto states established a 'Polynesian mode of production' which combined market gardening for export with collective land ownership and labour, and thus fused elements of capitalism and pre-capitalism.

Even after the defeat of Maori in the New Zealand wars, remnants of the Polynesian mode of production persisted in many places, creating a material basis for Maori nationalism and the continuing existence of a strong Maori culture.

Where Stalinists had regarded the destruction of the Waikato Kingdom and Parihaka as a necessary step forward into the capitalist 'stage' that must precede socialism, Bedggood and Gager were able to see that the Polynesian mode of production was, like the Russian peasant commune that Marx so admired, a rough working model for a socialist society. Parihaka and the Waikato Kingdom needed to be defended rather than destroyed. (Today, the insights of Bedggood and Gager are more important than ever, because multinational capital and the Australian and New Zealand governments are trying to destroy the traditional land ownership structures of 'backward' Pacific countries like the Solomon Islands in much the same way that the British and colonists sought to destroy 'Maori communism' during the New Zealand Wars.)

In France, at least, the golden age of Althusserianism was short-lived. In May 1968, the country was plunged into a revolutionary crisis: the largest general strike in history brought the economy to a standstill, students built barricades in the streets of the big cities, and de Gaulle ordered the army to encircle Paris and prepare for a replay of 1871. In this hour of opportunity, the PCF came to the aid of the French ruling class by convincing the millions of members of the trade unions it controlled to go back to work in exchange for a few concessions from the government.

Many on the radical left felt that the party's most famous philosopher had betrayed them, too - in the midst of the crisis he had admitted himself to a sanatorium in the countryside. The slogan 'Althusser - where are you?' appeared on walls around Paris, as the revolutionary students who had been inspired by For Marx looked in vain for leadership. The failures of 1968 haunted Althusser through the 1970s, and probably contributed to the tragedy of November 1980.

For Althusser, the 1970s was a decade of political and theoretical contradictions. Althusser tried to draw lessons from the disaster of 1968, and incorporate them into his theoretical work and political activism, but he could never quite break with some of the more unfortunate habits a long apprenticeship in the PCF had given him.

Inspired partly by the 'universities of the streets' that had been a feature of May 1968 and parts of China's Cultural Revolution, Althusser tried to temper the hyper-intellectualism of his mid-'60s work. He announced rather uncertainly that philosophy was 'class struggle in theory', and sparked outrage by quoting Lenin's description of academic philosophers as 'flunkeys and dunces' to an audience of academic philosophers. But Althusser could never quite shake the urge to over-systematise and over-refine that had marred For Marx and Reading Capital. He sometimes seemed to think that the refinement of concepts was an end in itself.

E P Thompson's The Poverty of Theory. The British historians vigorous attack on Althusser's structural marxism

Some of Althusser's followers took this hair-splitting tendency to an extreme. In Britain, for instance, two bullish young academics named Paul Hirst and Barry Hindess became notorious for writing a series of books of 'social theory' that forsook virtually all reference to empirical research in favour of turgid exercises in pseudo-Althusserian logic chopping. It was the likes of Hindess and Hirst who prompted E.P. Thompson to write The Poverty of Theory, an entertainingly abusive polemic that unfairly lumped Althusser together with some of his third-rate imitators and thus helped damage his reputation in the Anglo-Saxon world. More justified criticism of Althusser came from Bertell Ollman and Derek Sayer, who reminded their readers that Marx's concepts were and are deeply dialectical, and thus quite impervious to attempts at hard and fast definition.

Althusser's political activities in the '70s were also confused and contradictory. On the one hand, he remained a PCF member, and became a vigorous supporter of the party's strategy of creating a cross-class 'patriotic aliance' against the handful of 'monopoly capitalists' who supposedly exploited the rest of the capitalist class as well as the middle and working classes. Such a strategy clearly belonged to the 'Eurocommunist' 'turn' that pro-Moscow parties across Western Europe were making in the 1970s. The Eurocommunists insisted on their support for bourgeois democracy and formally renounced the classical Leninist aim of smashing the capitalist state and establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Althusser, though, did not believe that such features of Eurocommunism were a corollary of the cross-class political alliance he favoured. He became an outspoken critic of the PCF's abandonment of the goal of dictatorship of the proletariat, yet remained enthusiastic about the prospect of the party forming a capitalist government with Francois Mitterand's Socialists.

The contradictions in Althusser's theoretical and political practice helped ensure that, even before the tragedy of November 1980, Althusserianism was no longer a fashionable intellectual or political stance.

After 1980

There is a sense in which the destruction of Althusser's reputation and role in public life after 1980 actually freed him to write with an unprecedented boldness. Because he no longer had a reputation to protect, or an audience of admirers to instruct, he could strike out in any direction he pleased, indulging whims and divulging influences that he had kept hidden before November 1980.

Philosophy of the Encounter is thus a sort of 'secret book', and has an intimate quality lacking in Althusser's pre-1980 works. 'The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter', the first post-1980 text in the book, is a rambling and sometimes artless account of an 'underground tradition' running from Epicurus through thinkers as diverse as Spinoza, Marx, Wittgenstein and Heidegger to Althusser. One has the sense that Althusser is not announcing a new discovery of the importance of thinkers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, but rather taking the opportunity to acknowledge debts he has always owed, but has preivously hesitated to confess.

Although Althusser announces that there is now a 'teleological' Marx, whom he rejects, and an 'aleatory' Marx 'of the encounter', whom he embraces, he makes it clear that terms like 'aleatory materialism' and 'philosophy of the encounter' are intended not as concessions to postmodern rejections of Marxism, but as new attempts to envisage a philosophy that is both materialist and anti-teleological. The most rigorous elucidation of Althusser's 'aleatory materialism', and the best place to start reading Philosophy of the Encounter, is a series of interviews Althusser granted to the Spanish philosopher Fernanda Navarra from 1984 to 1987.

In a recently-published essay on Althusser's late work, which should be read alongside Philosophy of the Encounter, the Italian philosopher Vittorio Morfino isolates and discusses five key concepts of aleatory materialism: the void, the encounter, the fact, the conjuncture and necessity-contingency.

The void represents for Althusser the possibility of action: it is in a sense the space where the encounter may take place. The encounter is a unique event, a contingent coming together of diverse 'elements': it may or may not 'take hold', ie persist and become a fact. The conjuncture is a term which is familiar from Althusser's earlier work - now it names the conditions in which encounters take place and (sometimes) take hold. Necessity-contingency is a double-sided concept inspired by Althusser's obsession with creating a philosophy that is both materialist and anti-teleological. Althusser emphasises that necessity can be grounded in contingency - that a phenomenon which necessarily creates all sorts of effects was nevertheless itself formed contingently.

Althusser and Morfino relate this set of concepts to the concrete example of the emergence of capitalism in the West. Althusser tells us that the teleological Marx was wrong when he said that the working class was the 'product of big industry'. In fact, the working class was not the simple 'product' of any pre-existing phenomenon, but one of a complex set of 'elements' that came together to create capitalism. The coming together of these elements was not preordained: capitalism was not inherent in feudalism, any more than it was inherent in ancient Rome, which also boasted some of the elements necessary to create capitalism. There is a notable similarity between Althusser's argument here and the insistence of his old enemy E.P. Thompson that class exists as 'process and a relationship', not a 'thing'.

It seems to me that the concepts Morfino catalogues are best treated as a set of metaphors, rather than as the raw materials for yet another attempt to create an Althusserian 'system'. We should be wary of trying to refine these rough diamonds into clean symmetrical philosophical concepts.

In many ways, Althusser himself seems in the 1980s to have finally abandoned his efforts at the conceptual refinement and systematisation of the insights contained in his critique of teleology and defence of materialism. The casual and, at times, quite concrete style of the late writings is undoubtedly partly a reflection of Althusser's circumstances and state of mind, but it is also a sign that he had abandoned part of the enterprise of For Marx and Reading Capital. In these last writings he has ceased to use the curiously neutered, abstracted language that dominated those earlier works and has instead become alternately more down to earth, treating concrete historical 'encounters' in an anecdotal or even empirical manner; even more poetic.

Once again, there is an interesting parallel with E. P. Thompson, whose brilliantly empirical histories were complemented by 'theoretical' works that aimed to supply broadbrush guidelines about what historians and other researchers should and shouldn't do, rather than coin a prescriptive lexicon for them to use. (Thompson would, of course, argue that many of Marx's forays into theory have much the same quality. In The Poverty of Theory he bewailed the widespread failure to understand that Marx's discussion of base and superstructure in the 1859 preface to A contribution to the Critique of Political Economy was an exercise in metaphor, not philosophical rigour.)

Althusser may be retreating from some of his earlier positions in these late works, but he is making a fighting withdrawal: as mentioned above, he strongly rejects the temptation to follow fashion and renounce Marxism. It can be argued that his retreat leaves him better able to defend some of the important insights of the Althusserian interpretation of Marx. By abandoning quixotic attempts at a 'final' definition of concepts like mode of production, Althusser puts himself in a stronger position to take aim at the dogmatism and reductionism of mechanical Marxism.

Althusser's 'tradition' of aleatory materialism may seem a little ramshackle at times, but it does allow him to shine a light on a range of important thinkers and their affinities with aspects of Marxist thought. Althusser's unexpected praise for Wittgenstein is a striking anticipation of the greatly increased attention this figure has received from Marxist thinkers in the past few years.

And Althusser's aleatory materialism does not only look backwards: in important ways, it connects Marxism with one of the most profound new intellectual developments of the past quarter century. Althusser's relentless insistence on the coexistence of contingency and necessity link his late work to chaos theory, a body of thought which Marxist thinkers have all too often neglected to treat seriously, despite its strongly dialectical overtones. Nobody who reads Philosophy of the Encounter carefully can any longer justify this neglect. In this as in so many other respects, Althusser has throws down a challenge to today's Marxists. It is good to see that some are taking up the challenge.


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