by Don Hamerquist
The Politics of Louis Althusser: A Symposium
Urgent Tasks No. 4
Summer 1978

Louis Althusser, the French Communist Party philosopher, has been an important influence on Marxist theory for the past fifteen years. Though his reputation rests on a series of theoretical essays, Althusser is also a political figure of importance. He represents a left tendency within the phenomenon called Eurocommunism.

Althusser's politics, and certainly his theory, are complex and difficult. This article, an attempt to explore the relationship between the two, is made additionally difficult because at some points Althusser's political stance and his theoretical position are in tension, perhaps even in contradiction. Thus my intentions are limited to opening up some areas of investigation and posing some questions.

My point of departure is Althusser's running commentary on French Eurocommunism. This commentary is contained in a speech on the significance of the 22nd Congress of the French Communist Party (PCF) (New Left Review, No. 104); and in a series of critical articles which appeared in Le Monde this spring. The Le Monde articles were part of the debate over the poor showing of the so-called "Union of the Left" in the recent French general elections. (The.selection from Althusser in this issue of Urgent Tasks is an excerpt from the Le Monde series.) Though these articles deal with issues of general relevance, some knowledge of the crisis of the international Communist movement, an important part of the political environment of the French intellectual left, is helpful in understanding them.


The crisis came into the open with Khrushchev's famous critique of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956. Within a matter of months this was followed by the Polish and Hungarian uprisings and then the first rumblings of the differences which eventually led to the Sino-Soviet split.

From the beginning the crisis has had two aspects. Both involve critiques of the Soviet Union: as a model of socialist construction; as the leader of an international revolutionary movement; and as the interpreter of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. One center of the crisis has developed around the pole provided by the "Chinese road" and "Mao Tse Tung Thought." Another center, emerging somewhat later, can be roughly characterized as Eurocommunism.

Though there are some parallels between these two centers of opposition to Soviet hegemony in the world communist movement — more in the later period — they are commonly defined by their differences. In fact, until relatively recently they have been more opposed to each other than to the USSR. The initial Chinese polemics were formally directed against "Comrade Togliatti." the Italian communist leader, who was the first prominent advocate of "poly-centrism," the initial manifestation of Eurocommunism.

The Eurocommunists have always been concerned with extending and deepening the critique of Stalin and the Stalin period of Soviet and communist history, while Stalin has come off fairly well in the Chinese attack on the "Khrushchev restoration of capitalism." His dubious policies towards the Chinese Revolution are scarcely mentioned in order to emphasize the errors of the Soviet leadership in the post-Stalin period. Finally, Eurocommunism questions two principles of Marxism-Leninism: the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the related conception of socialism as a transitional period of sharp class struggle. It is well known that the Chinese view any move away from these positions as the essence of modern revisionism.

Most non-communist revolutionaries, particularly outside of Europe, identified with the Chinese position throughout the sixties and early seventies. Chinese opposition to Soviet policy and theory was seen as left and revolutionary; that of the large European parties (notably the Italian) was seen as liberal and reformist. Even within the large communist parties of western Europe there were elements which identified with China. Althusser had such a position. He makes laudatory references to Mao as a philosopher in some of his best-known essays (For Marx, pp. 94, 101, 182, 194-195). In his reply to criticisms from John Lewis, the British communist, he asserts that the only genuine "left" critique of Stalinism — as opposed to liberal, "humanist," bourgeois critiques — is that "implied by the course of the Chinese Revolution."

On a more substantial level, Althusser is an important figure in a theoretical tendency on the French left which includes non-PCF and anti- PCF intellectuals such as Charles Bettelheim and Nicos Poulantzas. This tendency is known for its opposition to "economism" and to the so-called "theory of the productive forces."[*] This, of course, is the line of the Chinese criticism of Soviet society and Soviet Marxism.

Needless to say, the situation has changed with regard to China. It is becoming increasingly difficult to see it as a revolutionary alternative to the Soviet Union and Soviet Marxism. The serious French intellectuals who were attracted by aspects of Maoism, by the Cultural Revolution, and by the critique of modern revisionism, are moving towards different political ground. Bettelheim has resigned from thu Franco-Chinese Friendship chair. Debray and Poulantzas are joining with elements of the PCF (Jean Elleinstein) and the left section of the Socialist Party to revitalize the political weekly, Politique Hebdo. For his part, Althusser is taking up a clear position as a left-wing opposition (possibly not a fully "loyal" opposition) within the Eurocommunism of the PCF. It must be stressed that while Althusser has taken a left stance within Eurocommunism, this is not akin to the pro-Soviet stance of the Portuguese or the U.S. Communist Parties. It took Althusser a long time and much agonizing to break with the old C.P. verities concerning Stalin and the U.S.S.R., but he appears to have made the break. In my view his leftism is more clearly opposed to the Soviet model than is the Eurocommunism of the French and Italian Parties. (See NLR, No. 104, pp. 9-10.)


In this country it is easy to interpret Eurocommunism as the final descent into social democratic parliamentarism for the major Western European C.Ps. Documents like the Joint Statement of the French and Italian Communist Parties, and, certainly, the commentaries on these documents by such U.S. supporters as Max Gordon, support such a view. (This statement and Gordon's introduction are available as a reprint from Socialist Revolution). Eurocommunism is presented as the fetishism of bourgeois parliamentarism; the strategic rejection of armed struggle as a means to power; and, underlying these points, the rejection of the content of the Marxist theory of the state.

How is it, then, that a position such as Althusser's (or Fernando Claudin's for that matter), which is arguably left and revolutionary, can function within such a right-wing framework? The answer is that this official stance is only part of the picture of Eurocommunism. There are distinctions and differences between the French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese variations which allow some latitude for struggle within and between Eurocommunist organizations. Althusser, for example, continually uses the fact of public airing of differences in the Italian party as leverage for his struggle within the French Party. (See NLR, No. 104, p. 20.) In addition, certain valuable concepts and approaches have been incorporated into Eurocommunism. For example, the Spanish and the Italian Parties have obviously learned from Gramsci's conception of the struggle for hegemony through a "war of position" (see Prison Notebooks, particularly "State and Civil Society"), however onesided they might be in their understanding of Gramsci.

However, the basic reason why Eurocommunism might well have a positive historical impact is that it completely undercuts Soviet domination of the interpretation of revolutionary theory and working class anti-imperialist history. The liberation of Marx and Lenin (Trotsky, Gramsci, Lukacs, and Luxemburg as well) from Soviet Marxism, along with the liberation of the real history of the working class and antiimperialist movement from Soviet historiography, is a fact of tremendous importance. It holds the opportunity for the working class to begin to regain its own history and intellectual heritage. Maoism and the Chinese Revolution never really had this potential because along with its challenge to Soviet hegemony was a claim for hegemony for its own position and views. These, in turn, were determined by the requirements of the exercise of power in China, which, unfortunately, do not align exactly with the interests of the world revolution.

Official Eurocommunism, like reformism and revisionism of any type, faces definite problems and limitations. Banishing the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat does not end the reality of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Even if Eurocommunist parties get their coveted place in capitalist governments, and even if some of their policies are enacted, it will not fundamentally alter the condition of the masses of working people spelled out in the famous passage in Capital:

... all methods for raisins: the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange him from the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion 'as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. (Capital, Vol. I, p. 604 [Moscow ed.]) Taking into account the objective limits on reformism of any type, it is my opinion that the positive value of Eurocommunism's loosening of the dead hand of Soviet domination of revolutionary politics will be more important than the reformist and revisionist form and content which currently dominate it.


Althusser seems to have a similar conception of the potentials of Eurocommunism, but his conception of its limits is studiously vague. One of the most diplomatic passages from the very diplomatic presentation in the New Left Review article illustrates this point:

That is why there is little doubt that in the "abandonment," or rather symbolic sacrifice of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the 22nd Congress was killing two birds with one stone. While adopting a new strategy of democratic socialism (a different socialism), it in fact adopted a new position with respect to a decisive aspect of the crisis of the international Communist movement (relations with the USSR). The advantage of this new position is that the 22nd Congress gave reasons for thinking that it is now at least in part possible to get out of this crisis and its dead ends. Despite its immediate limitations, this initiative may bear fruit. In this perspective, the "abandonment" of the dictatorship of the proletariat has played its part as a symbolic act, making it possible to present in spectacular fashion the break with a certain past, left vague verbally, while opening the road to a different socialism from that reigning in the USSR.

All this obviously took place "over the head" of the concept; i.e., of the theoretical meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat. For the "abandonment" of a theoretical concept (which, need it be said, cannot be thought by itself, all alone, but is bound up with a set of other concepts) cannot be the object of a political decision. Since Galileo every materialist has known that the fate of a scientific concept, which is the objective reflection of a real problem with many implications, cannot be the object of a political decision. The dictatorship of the proletariat can be "abandoned": it will be rediscovered as soon as we come to speak of the state and socialism. (NLR, No. 104, p. 10) Of course Althusser realizes that the abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat is not so innocently symbolic — that it holds consequences for Eurocommunist politics which go beyond the PCF's attitude towards the USSR. Indeed, he quickly "discovers" these consequences when he moves to a consideration of the PCF's conception of socialism as "... a society governed by generalized democracy and the generalized satisfaction of needs." (Ibid., p. 15) Althusser criticizes this conception as a mixture of economism and utopianism. As an alternative he argues that socialism is "... a contradictory period of transition between capitalism and communism." (Ibid.) His point is that without a conception of the transitional nature of socialism (and thus the continuation of class struggle within it), the hostility of Marxism to all states — the state as such is repressive and oppressive — is lost. From here it is not so far to the Soviet position. "With us, the withering away of the state is achieved via its reinforcement." (Ibid., p. 18) Thus the PCF abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, offered as a break with Soviet Marxism on the level of theory, conceals premises about the nature of socialism and the role of the state that are not so far removed from Soviet practice.

The treatment of the PCF's position on this question follows the general pattern of Althusser's article. Beginning from an asserted agreement with the official PCF stand, he moves more or less quickly to questions and arguments which cast doubt on the significance of the "agreement." After welcoming six "historical initiatives," he manages to point out some element of basic error with each of them. In no instance does he say that the error compromises the "initiative," although in most of the cases, e.g., the one treated above, this would seem to be the case.

The political (in the bad sense) approach of the article is demonstrated most clearly in the section dealing with the PCF itself, the 6th, and final, "initiative." Presumably this "initiative" is advanced ironically, since Althusser's argument is that it is notable mainly through its absence. "The 22nd Congress spoke the language of freedom for the outside, but remained silent about the inside." (Ibid.) ". . . [T]he same Communist party that speaks so generously and amply of liberty for the people, remains silent about the current practices of democratic centralism, i.e., the concrete forms of the liberty of Communists in their own Party." (Ibid., p. 9) As mentioned earlier, Althusser makes the same point by noting with obvious approval that, ". . . in certain neighboring Communist Parties, the leaders themselves at Central Committee meetings publicly confront their different and sometimes divergent opinions on the policy to be pursued." (Ibid., p. 20)

These observations sound like a promising beginning for an analysis of the structure and function of a revolutionary party. Unfortunately, with the exception of one isolated passage which we will consider later, Althusser does not even move in that direction. Instead, as soon as the questions of open debate and "liberty" raise the issue of factionalism, Althusser collapses.

A frequent criticism of Althusser's theoretical work is that there is all sorts of tedious substantiation of relatively minor points, while some major points rest on nothing but bald assertion. Here we have an example. With no substantiation or elaboration whatsoever he asserts that "Lenin was against factions." (Ibid.) This is the key to his entire argument. There is nothing else advanced to support the conclusion; i.e., factions are out, as are "organized tendencies," because, "Today, the party expects something else, and it is right." (Ibid., p. 21) What is Althusser's remedy for the lack of discussion and debate? It is nothing but "real discussions." However, we are moving ahead of ourselves. How valid is Althusser's attempt to call on the prestige of Bolshevik tradition to support his view? In fact, it is not valid at all. Of course, Lenin opposed factions whose political positions were, in his opinion, wrong. But the thrust of the opposition was directed at the position. He also was in opposition to narrow factional methods of work, because these methods inhibited the broadest possible participation of the party in debate. Finally Lenin did support the ban on factions that the Soviet Communist party enacted in 1921, almost four years after the revolution, but Althusser does not view this ban correctly.[***]

Of course, Lenin's positions are not decisive. Althusser has lots of company in his opposition to factions, and his argument must be dealt with on its merits. Althusser asks, "Shall we say: factions, no; tendencies, yes?" After a bit of soulsearching he answers, "Not organized tendencies, but real discussions which are not confined to Congress periods[****] but go on, as a function of Congresses and the problems they pose." (Ibid.)

Althusser's position is Utopia. The PCF is a substantial organization. There is something real and important at stake in its contests over policy and personnel questions. It is absurd to expect that the entrenched leadership of the Pep would allow it to become an organizational embodiment of pure reasoned debate when a possible outcome is the undermining or even the overthrowing of their political views and organizational positions. Without becoming an organized tendency with some base of power, minority and dissident views in the PCF will scarcely be heard, and will never be seriously discussed. Althusser certainly knows that the prospects of forming such an organized opposition within the PCF are not good, because at the first manifestations of it the leadership will attempt to squash it as a "faction," no matter how plaintively it asserts that it is only a "tendency."

It is unlikely that Althusser is a naive professor, out of his element in the internal politics of the PCF. We would be misled if we took his plea for "real discussions" at face value - not to mention his picture of the PCF leadership as a force for internal democratization stymied by a passive membership and a secondary leadership dominated by "habits of another period" (Stalinism - d.h.).

So long as Althusser believes that any revolutionary leadership must be developed in and through the PCF, he must simultaneously face in two directions and speak to two audiences. On the one side he advances a set of arguments and criticisms which amount to a statement of the terms of the political struggle open within the party, while demonstrating that the struggle is being pursued. This is a message to the unaffiliated left whose intellectual and political influence is significant. This sector Althusser is urging towards the PCF. Presumably, he would not be unhappy at the likelihood that his positions would gain more from this infusion of new blood than would those of his opponents.

On the other side Althusser is speaking to the PCF leadership. This leadership probably is confident of its ability to deal with any pro-Soviet remnants that might attempt a left critique of Eurocommunism. However, a left opposition without such an albatross would be another matter. Thus Althusser attempts to present a picture of an opposition that will remain "unorganized" by its own choice, and consequently an opposition that will remain loyal. The incentive held out to the PCF leadership is the potential to extend the PCF's hegemony over elements on its political left without seriously compromising any potential for alliances on its right.


If it is unlikely that Althusser is naive, it is absolutely certain that the leadership of the PCF is not. It was not likely that this strategem would work for any appreciable time. In fact it does not appear to have survived the first political test of the two years since the 22nd Congress, the French general elections in the Spring of this year.

It was expected that the "Union of the Left," the electoral coalition based on the PCF and the Socialist Party, would do well. In fact, it was expected to win. It did far more poorly than had been projected. The working agreement between the PCF and the PS virtually collapsed during the last weeks of the campaign.

Althusser and other leading PCF oppositionists took their criticisms of the party's election policy to the non-party press. In a series of four articles in Le Monde in April, Althusser extended some of the arguments developed in his treatment of the 22nd Congress. However, the tone has changed dramatically. There is no more praise of Georges Marchais (PCF General Secretary); no talk about the "historic initiatives" of the leadership. Criticisms which were vague and diplomatic have become explicit and even strident. Althusser makes a comparison of the PCF with bourgeois parliamentary democracy and with a capitalist army, that contains a definite note of bitterness. PCF theory is ridiculed.

The response of the PCF was predictable. There was baiting of "intellectuals"; there was a studied avoidance of the issues raised; there was indignation about the use of the "capitalist press" to criticize the party of the proletariat. The upshot was to categorize the criticisms as "marginal discussions of no interest to the Party" (Georges Marchais, quoted from a press conference by In These Times, May 17-23, p. 10) and to end the discussion.

While Althusser's attempts to influence the party from within and without do not appear to have a promising future, it is probable that similar centrifugal dynamics will continue within the Euro-communist framework. The overriding rationale for unquestioning unity, the defense of the Soviet Union, is gone. Nothing can take its place.


I have mentioned that one section of the article on the 22nd Congress stands out from the article as a whole. It is what Althusser terms the 4th Initiative - his interpretation of the PCF slogan of the "Union of the People of France." This slogan is different from the better-known "Union of the Left" which embodied the PCF's approach towards an electoral agreement with the PS.

Althusser asks,

How are we to understand the slogan of the union of the people of France?

In the best of cases, it is conceivable that the union of the people of France may become something quite different from a means to a new electoral balance, but is rather aimed, over and above the organizations of the Left, at the popular masses themselves. Why address the popular masses in this way? To tell them, even if still only as a hint, that they will have to organize themselves autonomously, in original forms, in firms, urban districts and villages, around the questions of labour and living conditions, the questions of housing, education, health, transport, the environment, etc.; in order to define and defend their demands, first to prepare for the establishment of a revolutionary state, then to maintain it, stimulate it and at the same time force it to "wither away." Such mass organizations, which no one can define in advance and on behalf of the masses, already exist or are being sought in Italy, Spain and Portugal, where they play an important part despite all difficulties. If the masses seize on the slogan of the union of the people of France and interpret it in this mass sense, they will be re-establishing connections with a living tradition of popular struggle in our country (the Commune? - d.h.), and will be able to help give a new content to the political forms by which the power of the working people will be exercized under socialism. (NLR, P. 11)

I apologize for the lengthy excerpt, but it is important. This discussion is removed from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy concerning the relationship between party and masses. When Althusser asks whether the PCF will interpret the slogan of "Union of the French People" along such lines, he cannot be serious. Of course it won't. The Union of the Left and the Union of the French People correspond to the united front and the popular front. There is no reason to believe that the PCF views the latter as anything but a means ". . .to extend the influence of the party beyond the Union of the Left." (Ibid., p. 12)

The proper question isn't how the PCF will interpret its slogan, it is whether the conception of "autonomous" mass organization which "no one can define in advance and on behalf of the masses" is compatible with the PCF. I think not. The position expressed in this quote does have some antecedents - though not to my knowledge in Althusser's writings. The points about the role of mass organization and initiative, which are repeated in a different form in the Le Monde series, bear a clearly Gramscian stamp. (See particularly the writings from the Ordine Nuova period.) The added note about "forcing" the state to wither away, and "... giving a new content to the political forms by which the power of the working people will be exercised under socialism" recall some of Lenin's observations on the development of the Soviets. However, it also must be based on lessons from the Chinese Cultural Revolution and, more importantly, on a line of criticism of the Stalin phenomenon (for want of a better term) in the Soviet Union and the international communist movement.

This political approach does not flow easily out of Althusser's theoretical writings. In my view it indicates a tension, possibly even a contradiction, between the theory and the politics. While Althusser has made a great number of modifications and corrections of his original theoretical views, he has retained and elaborated the same general theme of anti-Hegelianism and anti-"humanism." This theme certainly doesn't emphasize mass creativity and initiative, particularly not when it looks like a revival of the old slogan of the Cultural Revolution - "bombard the Party headquarters."

While Marx had no question but that the "emancipation of the working class" would be the action of the workers themselves, contemporary capitalist parties view workers as the object, not the subject, of the revolution. Althusser's commentary on the 22nd Congress only hints at differences with this dominant "Marxist-Leninist" view of the relationship of the party to the masses. However, it is virtually inevitable that such differences will become an important dynamic of Eurocommunism. What is surprising is that Althusser, among the various critics of the official Eurocommu-nist parties, would raise such an issue. The stimulation of mass creativity and initiative is not the emphasis of the PCF, but neither is it a part of Althusser's theoretical structure.


Althusser sympathized with Maoism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. But it is doubtful that this sympathy extended to agreement with the slogan to "Bombard the Party Headquarters." Rather than urging mass organization over, above, and, at least potentially, against the party, Althusser has seen the party as the repository of revolutionary will and wisdom Outside of the party it is not possible to think and act as conscious revolutionaries. Speaking of intellectuals, Althusser argues that:

In order to really understand what one "reads" and studies in these theoretical political and historical works, one must directly experience oneself the two realities which determine them through and through: the reality of theoretical practice (science, philosophy) in its concrete life; the reality of the practice of revolutionary class struggle in its concrete life, in close contact with the masses. For if theory enables us to understand the laws of history, it is not intellectuals, nor even theoreticians, it is the masses who make history. (Lenin and Philosophy, p. 20)

How could an intellectual obtain both of these essential "direct experiences" except through membership in the party? It does not follow, however, that Althusser is anti-intellectual. On the contrary, he argues, with Lenin, that, "Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement." (Ibid., p. 52) Trained intellectuals are the only active source of the scientific knowledges on which revolutionary theory and party policy rest. (Cf., For Marx, pp. 252, 253, 256.)

The issue goes beyond the potential of individual intellectuals to participate in the revolutionary process. The real question is the manner in which the "masses" (both party and non-party) participate. Althusser's position on this point is clear from the preceding argument. Only the party makes it possible for the masses to have an organic connection with the revolutionary intellectuals who are the source of the theory without which "there can be no revolutionary movement." Accordingly, the "masses" only really participate in revolutionary politics through a structure which unites those who "make history" (Lenin and Philosophy, p. 20) with the revolutionary theoreticians who scientifically understand history. In France that structure must be the PCF.

If there is any doubt that this is a fair rendering of Althusser's general theoretical stance, consider the definition of spontaneity† offered by the English translator of Althusser's best-known book, For Marx:

[The theory of spontaneity incorrectly holds that] the revolutionary movement should base itself on the "spontaneous" action of the working class rather than trying to lead it by imposing on this action, by means of a party, policies produced by the party's theoretical work. (For Marx, p. 254)

Similar implications flow from Althusser's conception of the relationship of theory to political practice. The most obvious point is that he avoids a direct treatment of the issue. In fact he chides himself for this omission:

I did not give precise indications as to the function, place and role of Marxist theory in these concrete forms of existence: where and how Marxist theory intervenes in the development of political practice, where and how political practice intervenes in the development of Marxist theory. I have learned from experience that my silence on these questions has not been without its consequences for certain ("theoreticist") "readings" of my essays. (Ibid., p. 15)

It would be more helpful if Althusser did not just note the problem, but proposed a solution to it. To my knowledge he has not attempted to do this. We are left with whatever implications flow from his general theoretical structure.

Clearly there are such implications, and just as clearly they support a "theoreticist" reading. Althusser's conception of theoretical work centers around the term "theoretical practice" (Ibid., pp. 163-203). The significance of this term politically cannot be overestimated. To refer again to the glossary of For Marx:

KNOWLEDGE. Knowledge is the product of theoretical practice. As such it is clearly distinct from the practical recognition of a theoretical problem. (Ibid., p. 253)

Knowledge is the product of theoretical practice, and theoretical practice†† is the exclusive domain of trained intellectuals. This does not put much premium on the critical capacity of the masses of people. The relationship of theory to political practice, then, is identical to the relationship of revolutionary intellectuals to the working masses. As I said above, in Althusser's view, this relationship occurs within the structure of a party.

Althusser's writings, or aspects of them, may appear to be apologies for the PCF - or for Stalin and the USSR - but they cannot be dismissed on this basis. He has made a serious investigation of real theoretical problems. To regard his attempts to defend and develop Marxist theory as the work of a political hack obscures its positive value - in posing questions, if not in answering them. More important, it directs attention away from the essential content of his writing - a content which contains basic political and theoretical errors, in my opinion.

Althusser gives himself the task of discovering what is "Marxist" in Marx. (After being confronted with the Philosophical Notebooks, in Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38, he also becomes concerned with a similar interpretation of Lenin.) This raises a serious problem of methodology.

Marxist theoretical concepts . . . must be applied to Marx himself. (For Marx, P- 32)

... all this critical effort . . . presupposes activating a minimum of provisional Marxist theoretical concepts . . . (Ibid., p. 38)

There is nothing wrong with expressing an opinion on what is valid in Marx's work, and what is mistaken or misapplied. However, the issue of circularity of argument must inevitably arise for any project that attempts to determine what is genuinely Marxist, through the application of part of Marx to the entire body of his work. When the point of the entire investigation is to bring into question the "Marxist" character of every element of Marx's work, the "Marxist" character of the "provisional Marxist theoretical concepts" cannot be regarded as a given.

Althusser, a trained academic philosopher, is aware of this objection to his method. He disposes of it in a few sentences in the introduction to For Marx (pp. 38-39). After reading this explanation thirty or forty times, I confess that I still cannot understand it.

It is well known that Althusser has been forced constantly to narrow down the body of Marx's writings which, in his view, are actually fully Marxist. It has been demonstrated that much of what Althusser regards as the Hegelian and Feuerbachian errors of the "young Marx" are contained in one form or another throughout his entire work. While this is undoubtedly embarassing to Althusser, it is not of particular relevance to this paper. I am assuming that, despite his claims for some kind of privileged status for his interpretation of Marx†††, we are dealing with Althusser's positions, and not necessarily with Marx's.


Althusser follows Engels and, more importantly, Mao, in the division of human practice into specific levels of practice. There are some distinctions in the way the division is accomplished. Engels speaks of economic, political, and ideological practice. Mao makes the division between production, class struggle, and scientific experiment. Althusser makes four divisions: economic, political, ideological and theoretical practice. He then attributes his position to Marx.

He (Marx - d.h.) replaced the old postulates ... by a theory of different specific levels of human practice (economic practice, political practice, ideological practice, scientific practice) in their characteristic articulations, based on the specific articulations of the unity of human society. In a word, Marx substituted for the "ideological" and universal concept of Feuerbachian "practice" a concrete conception of the specific differences that enables us to situate each particular practice in the specific differences of the social structure. (Ibid., p. 229)

Althusser rather remarkably extrapolates all of this from Marx's Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach, which criticizes Feuerbach's a-historical conception of the "essence of man." Again, this is Althusser's position, not Marx's.

This is not an unimportant issue. Those who are familiar with Mao's work, On Practice (Selected Works, Vol. I, pp. 295-305), remember the sharp separation made between "production" and "class struggle" as distinct parts of "social practice." Althusser also identifies the distinction between economic and political with the distinction between production and class struggle.

How is it possible, theoretically, to sustain the validity of this basic Marxist proposition: "the class struggle is the motor of history," . . . when we know very well that it is the economy that is determinant in the last instance? (For Marx, p. 215)

Actually there is no difficulty whatsoever in reconciling these propositions without the elaborate arguments of Althusser. All that is required is that the rigid, unreal, and absolutely un-Marxist distinction between class struggle and production be dropped. I don't think the point that this distinction is antithetical to Marx needs any proof.

For Marx, the antagonistic relationship of labour and capital in capitalist production is the root of the class struggle. This is argued over and over in the Grundrisse and Capital.

Forces of production and social relations - two different sides of the development of the social individual - appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high. (Marx, Grundrisse, p. 706)

There is no mystery as to why Althusser avoids this elementary tenet of Marxism. It raises problems for two main pillars of his theoretical structure: "theoretical anti-humanism" (For Marx, pp. 221-242) and the conception of the "process without a subject" (Lenin and Philosophy, pp. 107-125).


The exposure of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the CPSU initiated a widespread re-examination of doctrinal orthodoxy. In this context the "discovery" of Marx's early writings, particularly the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, was a political event. The "humanism" of these writings attracted a wide intellectual following, inside the Soviet bloc and in the rest of Europe and North America.

This led certain elements of the West European communist parties to think that they had Marx packaged in a form which would make it palatable to devout Christians, even to the Catholic Church. Thus Althusser's critique of humanism, which asserts that this treatment of Marx fundamentally liberalizes and falsifies Marxism, had some political merit.

Althusser's "anti-humanism" has a certain "terrible" appearance. It dismisses individuals in the name of the class struggle. It attacks Marx himself, and on those points where Marx's writings seem closest to mass sentiments. This stance has an appeal on the left, and not only among unregenerate pro-Soviet elements. A section is attracted by revolutionary blood and iron and suspicious of arguments for attention to "participation," "individual development," etc. The widespread (at least in the U.S. left) admiration for Stalin's brutal exercise of power is one of the more clearly wrong-headed manifestations of this revolutionary realpolitik.

However, the political function of Althusser's critique of humanism is not our concern. Its theoretical content is. Althusser rejects an important strand of Marx's thought, the conception of capitalism as a social formation characterized by "the appropriation of alien labour." (Grundrisse, p. 509)

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former class feels happy and confirmed in this self-alienation, it recognises alienation as its own power, and has in it the semblance of human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. To use an expression of Hegel's, the class of the proletariat is in abasement indignation at this abasement,* an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its conditions of life, which are the outright, decisive and comprehensive negation of that nature. (Marx, Holy Family, cited in Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38, p. 27)

I have chosen this example of a conception which occurs frequently in Marx's writing because Lenin specifically comments on it:

This passage is highly characteristic, for it shows how Marx approached the basic idea of his entire "system" (if the word may be allowed), namely the concept of the social relations of production. (Ibid., p. 30)

Of course the Holy Family is part of the "young Marx" which Althusser rejects, and Lenin's favorable comment was written when he too was young. Nevertheless, without getting lost in the Althusserian dispute over what is, and what is not, "Marxist" in Marx, it is a simple matter to find this theme in the mature works, including Capital itself.

We presuppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. (Capital, Vol. I, p. 174 [Moscow ed.])

This should be combined and contrasted with the famous passage from Chapter 25, "The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation":

. . . within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour-process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power. . . . (Ibid., P. 604)

This clarifies the conception of the "appropriation of alien labour." Workers alienate their creative capacity, their ability to project a "purpose of (their) own," when they exchange their labour power for wages. In the same process they come under the domination of the product of the labor of past generations of workers - capital, i.e., "dead labor" - a "despotism the more hateful for its meanness," transforming "life-time into working-time." (Ibid.)

As, in religion, man is governed by the products of his own brain, so in capitalistic production, he is governed by the products of his own hand. (Ibid., p. 582)

Marx sees the alienation of labor's creative capacity as more than ". . . merely means for it (capitalism - d.h.) to produce on its limited foundation. ... (It is) the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high." (Grundrisse, p. 706)

The recognition of its (labour's - d.h.) products as its own, and the judgement that its separation from the condition for its realization is improper - forcibly imposed - is an enormous advance in awareness . . . the knell to its (capital's - d.h.) doom. .. . (Ibid., p. 463)

For Marx, labor (the working class) has a dual character; it is both an appendage of capital and the creator of capital. As the former it is an aggregate of isolated individuals, used up and impoverished in the process of production. As the latter it is capable of "The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity's own nature." (Grundrisse, p. 488)

Althusser refuses to regard the contradiction between the developing creative potential of the working class and its capitalist conditions of existence as the underlying dynamic of capitalism. While he does not reject everything that I have cited from Marx, he accepts it only as description, not analysis (see For Marx, pp. 155-160). His emphasis is heavily on one side of the contradiction, the capitalist conditions of existence. He pictures the working class as the object, or the effect of historical development - determined by the structures and practices whose contradictory interrelationships define capitalism.

To be accurate, I should make some qualifications. The early Marx and the Marx of the Grundrisse often do not make it clear that translation of the fact of the "appropriation of alien labor" into a mass political conviction that such a situation exists, but should not exist and does not have to exist, is a lengthy and complex process. Thus Marx sometimes treats the combination of objective and subjective within the working class as a simple unity of opposites.

. . . it (private property or capital - d.h.) produces the proletariat as proletariat, misery conscious of its spiritual and physical misery, de-humanization and therefore self-abolishing. (Marx, Holy Family, cited in Lenin, op. cit., Vol. 38, p. 27)

Taken literally, this position could lead to a theory of spontaneity. There is little reason to believe that Marx ever would have made such an interpretation. Certainly his elaboration of "fetishism" in Capital, a concept which is premised on the necessary mystification of social reality, is incompatible with any spontaneist theory.

This doesn't mean that we must resort to the view that real knowledge of the capitalist mechanism is beyond the capacity of the working class. Althusser comes very near this position, with the conception of history as a "process without a subject." The class only "knows" through its organizations, specifically through "its" party. Lenin and, particularly, Gramsci are examples of Marxist treatments of this issue which neither underestimate the strength of bourgeois ideological domination of the proletariat, nor deceive themselves about the transparency of the capitalist mode of production.

Gramsci deals at length with the formation of revolutionary class consciousness (see Prison Notebooks, pp. 322-379, and also the earlier treatment contained in the STO pamphlet, Soviets in Italy). His argument is premised on a spontaneous duality between the patterns of thought and action flowing from the worker's revolutionary potential, and those flowing from its subordinate and oppressed status within the capitalist social structure. Concrete conditions determine how these contradictory elements are manifested in real action; but to one degree or another, and in various admixtures, both are always present. The task of conscious revolutionaries is to develop a "social bloc" around the revolutionary aspects of working class behavior.

The similarities between Gramsci and Marx's conception of the proletariat as both subject and object are clear. In fact, Gramsci's earlier writings distinguish between the worker as "producer" and as "wage worker" (see Soviets in Italy). In the former instance the worker is revolutionary and autonomous, in the latter, reformist and subordinate. This makes the parallel with Marx's division between the worker as subject and as object even more compelling.

It would be unfair to Althusser to ignore his approach to the question of "class consciousness." The essential characteristic of this approach is a strict separation between "knowledge" - the product of theoretical practice - and "ideology" - the "'lived' relation between men and their world. . . ." (For Marx, p. 252) Class consciousness is an ideology, not a knowledge. It is a ". . . new form of specific unconsciousness called 'consciousness'." (Ibid., p. 233)

Given this conception of ideology as different from knowledge, it is significant that Althusser believes that some ideology will be necessary even in a communist society.

It is clear that ideology (as a system of mass representations) is indispensable in any society if men are to be formed, transformed and equipped to respond to the demands of their conditions of existence. (Ibid., p. 235)

The classical conception of communism is somewhat different. Men are not "formed" but consciously form themselves. If Althusser is so reluctant to accord the working class the capacity to act in the light of knowledge in a communist society, he can hardly think much of its potential to act in that way prior to the revolution.

To put the same point another way. When Marx develops his comparison between the "worst of architects and the best of bees," it is to advance the conception of the distinctive human capacity of "purposive activity." It should be noted that when Lenin was reading Hegel's Logic, he was favorably impressed with the development of the conception of purposive activity. (Lenin, op. cit., Vol. 38, pp. 185-189) For Althusser, purposive activity is an essentially Utopian concept.

It would be naive to think that Althusser is unaware of the objections to his position that I have indicated. He has heard them all and has rejected them. On the surface it might appear that we are left with nothing but an irresolvable difference in the interpretation of Marx. Even on this basis I think Althusser is vulnerable. His interpretation cuts so much out of Marx that it is arbitrary to call what is left "Marxism." Althusserianism is the appropriate designation.

In any case, demonstrating that Althusser is not Marx is not equivalent to demonstrating that Althusser is mistaken. Often this is hard to see because he makes every effort to link up his ideas with those of Marx to give them the aura of being the genuine article. However, this is merely polemical technique.

Still, what about his theoretical conclusions - his "theoretical anti-humanism" and his conception of the "process without a subject," for example? I doubt that a theoretical refutation in the Althusser-ian sense is possible. However, we should recall Marx's Eighth Thesis on Feuerbach:

Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

Althusser, who seldom misses an opportunity, has covered himself here by asserting that "... these eleven deceptively transparent theses are really riddles." (For Marx, p. 36) However, "riddles" or not, this thesis illuminates Althusser's political changes over the past few years. Perhaps his newly developed ideas about mass initiative and creativity, and the necessity that the working class make its own revolution, are a sufficient refutation of his theoretical premises.


*Bettelheim's work on the history of the Soviet Union is cast into this framework. The same is true of Poulantzas' book on fascism. While Althusser is not quite so explicit because the object of his writing is philosophy, the parallel is evident in his critical remarks about the Soviet use of the "very ambiguous and (alas) famous Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). . . . I also note that, unfortunately for the same International Communist Movement, Stalin made the 1859 Preface his reference text . . ." (Lenin and Philosophy, p. 96).

Althusser's criticism of these few paragraphs is that they are very susceptible to an evolutionist interpretation, not to mention their flavor of technological determinism. Stalin, of course, brought all this out in the crudest way and declared it the official historical materialism. (See Dialectical and Historical Materialism, pamphlet version, pp. 16- 40.)[return to text]

**Even though it is not relevant to this article, one feature of Eurocommunism which is apparently shared by all of the trends in it must be mentioned. By its very title, Eurocommunism raises the spector of Eurocentrism. One of its themes is the potential for socialism in "advanced" metropolitan societies where there is allegedly no need for Preobrazhensky's famous (or notorious) phase of "primitive socialist accumulation." The assumption is that the huge economic advantage of the imperialist metropolis over the rest of the world will continue well into the period of socialist construction.

In the first place, there are real questions about whether any political tendency which lays claim to being revolutionary and internationalist should have such a perspective. In the second place, it is questionable whether it rests on an accurate assessment of economic trends. In any case, the notion that the wealth of the imperialist centers "belongs" to the workers who accidentally happen to live within the favored nation's borders has been properly handled by Arghiri Emmanuel (Unequal Exchange, pp. 424- 426).

In order to maximize the appeal of the "socialist goal," the Eurocommunist parties deny the importance of the struggle for economic equality on a world scale. Any talk of the internationalist responsibilities of the metropolitan working classes, in this view, limits the appeal of the affluent socialism which is the main propellant of mass revolutionary consciousness. Clearly the left Eurocommunists would be less likely to descend to complete opportunism on this question as on all. others. However, they show little concern about the danger.[return to text]

***For substantial periods of time in pre-revolutionary Russia, the Bolsheviks were the Bolshevik faction in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Perhaps this might be viewed as an accidental and transitional situation, but there were also factions within the Bolsheviks. Lenin participated in a faction during the split with the "Ostvosists," who were also Bolsheviks. Lenin's position was a small minority within the Bolsheviks at the time of the famous April Theses in early 1917. Both then and a few months later when he was also in a minority on the question of seizing power, Lenin operated in a manner that can only be regarded as factional — developing a group around his position, taking his minority positions directly to the party rank and file, and even outside of the party to the working class, threatening resignation, etc.

The framework for such activity was laid out ten years earlier in Lenin's brief article, "Unity of Action and Freedom to Criticize" (Collected Works, Vol. 10, pp. 442- 443):

The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organizations implies universal and full freedom to criticize (including outside of the party — d.h.), so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action, (p. 443) This guideline is ambiguous. It can be debated whether or not — or to what degree — open criticism will undermine the implementation of decisions. Lenin's tendency, however, was to lean towards the "freedom to criticize" side.

It can be argued that Lenin's views changed when the Bolsheviks had to deal with the problems of civil war, socialist construction, and imperialist encirclement. After all, Lenin did support the ban on factions imposed by the 10th Party Congress in 1921. It is a mistake, however, to draw general conclusions from this without examining the actual debate. After all, during the same period we can find Lenin saying, "Industry is indispensable, democracy is not." (Ibid., Vol. 32, p. 27) History demonstrated that this was Stalin's position, but it was not Lenin's.

A reading of the resolutions and the debate at the 10th Congress indicates the outline of Lenin's position. First, his conception of what constitutes a faction is much narrower than the conception of current Marxist-Leninist parties. Second, he explicitly argues that the measures for dealing with factions (point 7 of the draft resolution on party unity) were extraordinary and temporary. (See Ibid., p. 258.) They have since become routine even for parties that are insignificant pressure groups operating in complete legality. Third, his opposition to factionalism always stressed that the danger posed was the elimination of open discussion and debate, not just the undermining of "iron unity."

Analyses of the Party's general line, estimates of its practical experience, checkups on the fulfillment of its decisions, studies of methods of rectifying errors, etc., must under no circumstances be submitted for preliminary discussion to groups formed on the basis of "platforms," etc. (factions — d.h.) but must in all cases be submitted for discussion directly to all the members of the party. (Ibid., p. 243) (d.h. emphasis)

Fourth, Lenin's overriding concern with bureaucracy in the Soviet state apparatus and in the party made him aware of the danger of factionalism, not just from minorities and oppositions, but on the part of the official leadership. A leadership faction is the routine mode of functioning for presentday Marxist-Leninist organizations. Althusser makes this very criticism of the PCF leadership in the recent articles in Le Monde.

However, the clearest demonstration that Lenin did not view the ban on factions as an absolute principle is to be found in his response to Ryazanov's attempt to amend the resolution on party unity to prohibit members of the Central Committee from appealing a Central Committee decision to the party membership; and to prohibit elections to future Central Committees based on factional platforms. Lenin specifically opposed both aspects of Ryazanov's amendment and it was defeated. Of course, the substance of the Ryazanov amendment was actually instituted despite its formal defeat.[return to text]

****Most, if not all, Communist Parties only allow debate and discussion on policies for a specified period (perhaps a couple of months) immediately prior to a Congress. Congresses usually are supposed to occur every two years, but are often held less frequently. During this period special procedures for internal discussion are established, directed through the central apparatus. [return to text]

†The English edition of For Marx includes a glossary prepared by the translator, Ben Brewster (pp. 249-257). Althusser authenticates the definitions in the glossary as follows: "Thank you for your glossary; what you have done in it is extremely important from a political, educational, and theoretical point of view. ... I have myself gone over the text of the glossary line by line." (Ibid., pp. 257-258) The definition of "spontaneity" was given particular attention. Althusser thought that it was incomplete and wrote a long "interpolation" which is included within the definition. It is most significant that his interpolation offers no challenge to the notion that party policies must be "imposed" on the spontaneous struggle, or to the assertion that party politics are "produced by the party's theoretical work." In Althusser's framework, only trained intellectuals are capable of "theoretical work." The masses "think" through the party.

††Althusser has explicitly disavowed the term "theoretical practice" in recent years. However, as he argues about a different concept, the dictatorship of the proletariat, a concept which is an integral part of a definite theoretical structure, cannot just be disavowed. The elitist and intellectualist implications of his general position remain despite the "abandonment" of the term.

On this question the relationship between Althusser and the Lenin of What Is To Be Done? merits comment. Lenin does use Kautsky's argument that revolutionary theory is quite separate and distinct from the development of the working class. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 5, pp. 383-384) However, his comment that the "... 'spontaneous element,' in essence, represents nothing more nor less than consciousness in embryonic form" (Ibid., p. 374) demonstrates that his concern is the development of the general consciousness of the working class to the point where it can play a purposive role in making history. This does not entail the distinction between "knowledge" and "ideology" developed by Althusser. In addition, the point Lenin makes in this article, and in other writings, that workers must become "socialist theoreticians" (Ibid., p. 384; cf. Gramsci, Prison Notebooks), finds no parallel in Althusser (cf. Lenin and Philosophy, pp. 11-22 and 71-75).

†††While combativity in polemic is generally admirable, Althusser is prone to excesses. Frequently excesses take the form of an assumption that he has successfully proven the validity of his interpretation of Marx, and that he can, therefore, respond to the critics of Althusser with the voice of Marx. Consider two examples:

The bourgeois ideological notions of "industrial society," "neo-capitalism," "new working class," "affluent society," "alienation" and tutti quanti are anti-scientific and anti-Marxist: built to fight revolutionaries. (Lenin and Philosophy, p. 20)

In many places in the Grundrisse a strong Hegelian influence can be detected, combined with whiffs of Feuerbachian humanism. It can be predicted with certainty that, along with The German Ideology, the Grundrisse will provide all the dubious quotations needed by idealist interpretations of Marxist theory. (Lenin and Philosophy, p. 103)

In the first selection Althusser lumps together notions which are clearly anti-Marxist - "affluent society," etc. - with others which define contending approaches among Marxists. The most obvious of the latter is "alienation." While many conceptions of alienation are anti-Marxist, the meaning and role of the concept for Marx is a matter of serious debate among Marxists. Althusser is only one pole of the debate. He is in no position to define his Marxist opposition out of the revolutionary camp.

The arbitrary dismissal of the Grundrisse's 800 pages as a source of "dubious quotations" is a bit unusual, considering that Althusser relies heavily on the Introduction, one of the Grundrisse notebooks. (Cf. the essay "On the Materialist Dialectic" in For Marx, pp. 163-218) He is quite explicit in his praise of this part of the Grundrisse:

I said that Marx left us no Dialectics. This is not quite accurate. He did leave us one first-rate methodological text, unfortunately without finishing it: the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859. (Ibid., p. 182)

(Althusser's date of 1859 is deceptive. The Introduction was written in 1857 in the same period as the rest of the Grundrisse. Some of the material in the Grundrisse went into the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, but the Introduction did not.)

*Many of these selections are closely based on Hegel's chapter, "Lordship and Bondage," in The Phenomenology of Mind. However, Marxists who are as anti-Hegelian as Althusser, e.g., Lucio Colletti, take a very different attitude toward them than Althusser's (see From Rousseau to Lenin, pp. 62-72).

[STO Digital Archive]