Louis Pierre Althusser — was one of the most influential Marxist philosophers of the 20 th Century. As they seemed to offer a renewal of Marxist thought as well as to render Marxism philosophically respectable, the claims he advanced in the s about Marxist philosophy were discussed and debated worldwide. In addition, his autobiography has been subject to much critical attention over the last decade. His concepts are also being increasingly employed by philosophers, political theorists, and activists who have returned to Marx and to Marxian analyses in order to explain and to envision alternatives to our present socio-economic conjuncture. Louis Althusser was born on October 16 th , in Birmandreis, a suburb of Algiers.
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How should we really understand its use in this quotation? From The German Ideology onwards we know that such an undertaking would be meaningless. We are now concerned with the dialectic , and the dialectic alone.
The shell, the mystical wrapping speculative philosophy , should be tossed aside and the precious kernel, the dialectic, retained. But in the same sentence Marx claims that this shelling of the kernel and the inversion of the dialectic are one and the same thing, How can an extraction be an inversion? Let us look a little closer. We could therefore take over the dialectic from him and apply it to life rather than to the Idea.
But such an inversion in sense would in fact leave the dialectic untouched. Even in the rapidly written lines of the afterword to the second edition of Das Kapital Marx saw this difficulty clearly. By the accumulation of metaphors, and, in particular, in the remarkable encounter of the extraction and the inversion, he not only hints at something more than he says , but in other passages he puts it clearly enough, though Roy has half spirited them away. It would be difficult to indicate more clearly that the mystical shell is nothing but the mystified form of the dialectic itself: that is, not a relatively external element of the dialectic e.
It is not enough, therefore, to disengage it from its first wrapping the system to free it. It must also be freed from a second , almost inseparable skin, which is itself Hegelian in principle Grundlage.
We must admit that this extraction cannot be painless; in appearance an unpeeling, it is really a demystification , an operation which transforms what it extracts. It is hardly worth pointing out that, in the first case, the application of a method, the exteriority of the dialectic to its possible objects poses a pre-dialectical question , a question without any strict meaning for Marx.
The second problem on the other hand, raises a real question to which it is hardly likely that Marx and his disciples should not have given a concrete answer in theory and practice, in theory or in practice. It also means that these structural differences can be demonstrated, described, determined and thought. And if this is possible, it is therefore necessary , I would go so far as to say vital , for Marxism.
I say vital , for I am convinced that the philosophical development of Marxism currently depends on this task. Lenin gave this metaphor above all a practical meaning. A chain is as strong as its weakest link. In general, anyone who wants to control a given situation will look out for a weak point, in case it should render the whole system vulnerable. On the other hand, anyone who wants to attack it, even if the odds are apparently against him, need only discover this one weakness to make all its power precarious.
So far there is no revelation here for readers of Machiavelli and Vauban, who were as expert in the arts of the defence as of the destruction of a position, and judged all armour by its faults. But here we should pay careful attention: if it is obvious that the theory of the weakest link guided Lenin in his theory of the revolutionary party it was to be faultlessly united in consciousness and organisation to avoid adverse exposure and to destroy the enemy , it was also the inspiration for his reflections on the revolution itself.
How was this revolution possible in Russia, why was it victorious there? It was possible in Russia for a reason that went beyond Russia: because with the unleashing of imperialist war humanity entered into an objectively revolutionary situation.
The concentration of industrial monopolies, their subordination to financial monopolies, had increased the exploitation of the workers and of the colonies.
Competition between the monopolies made war inevitable. But this same war, which dragged vast masses, even colonial peoples from whom troops were drawn, into limitless suffering, drove its cannon-fodder not only into massacres, but also into history. Why this paradoxical exception? The Great War had, of course, precipitated and aggravated this weakness, but it had not by itself created it. Already, even in defeat, the Revolution had demonstrated and measured the weakness of Tsarist Russia.
This weakness was the product of this special feature: the accumulation and exacerbation of all the historical contradictions then possible in a single State. Contradictions of large-scale capitalist and imperialist exploitation in the major cities and their suburbs, in the mining regions, oil-fields, etc. Contradictions of colonial exploitation and wars imposed on whole peoples. A gigantic contradiction between the stage of development of capitalist methods of production particularly in respect to proletarian concentration: the largest factory in the world at the time was the Putilov works at Petrograd, with 40, workers and auxiliaries and the medieval state of the countryside.
In short, as precisely these details show, the privileged situation of Russia with respect to the possible revolution was a matter of an accumulation and exacerbation of historical contradictions that would have been incomprehensible in any country which was not, as Russia was, simultaneously at least a century behind the imperialist world, and at the peak of its development.
Lenin said this time and time again, and Stalin summarised it in particularly clear terms in his April speeches. The unevenness of capitalist development led, via the War, to the Russian Revolution because in the revolutionary situation facing the whole of humanity Russia was the weakest link in the chain of imperialist states.
It had accumulated the largest sum of historical contradictions then possible; for it was at the same time the most backward and the most advanced nation , a gigantic contradiction which its divided ruling classes could neither avoid nor solve. In other words Russia was overdue with its bourgeois revolution on the eve of its proletarian revolution; pregnant with two revolutions, it could not withhold the second even by delaying the first.
What else did Marx and Engels mean when they declared that history always progresses by its bad side? This obviously means the worse side for the rulers, but without stretching the sense unduly we can interpret the bad side as the bad side for those who expect history from another side! For example, the German Social-Democrats at the end of the nineteenth century imagined that they would shortly be promoted to socialist triumph by virtue of belonging to the most powerful capitalist State, then undergoing rapid economic growth, just as they were experiencing rapid electoral growth such coincidences do occur.
What is the essence of this practical experience and the reflections it inspired in Lenin? Before there was , before the great historical deceptions of England and Germany, before that the Commune, even earlier the German failure of How else should we summarise these practical experiences and their theoretical commentaries other than by saying that the whole Marxist revolutionary experience shows that.
How else could the class-divided popular masses proletarians, peasants, petty bourgeois throw themselves together , consciously or unconsciously, into a general assault on the existing regime? And how else could the ruling classes aristocrats, big bourgeois, industrial bourgeois, finance bourgeois, etc. But, strictly speaking, it cannot be claimed that these contradictions and their fusion are merely the pure phenomena of the general contradiction.
They derive from the relations of production, which are, of course, one of the terms of the contradiction, but at the same time its conditions of existence ; from the superstructures, instances which derive from it, but have their own consistency and effectivity from the international conjuncture itself, which intervenes as a determination with a specific role to play. I am not particularly taken by this term overdetermination borrowed from other disciplines , but I shall use it in the absence of anything better, both as an index and as a problem , and also because it enables us to see clearly why we are dealing with something quite different from the Hegelian contradiction.
Indeed, a Hegelian contradiction is never really overdetermined , even though it frequently has all the appearances of being so. Strictly speaking, only the first contradiction — between sensuous consciousness and its knowledge can be called simple.
The further we progress in the dialectic of its production, the richer consciousness becomes, the more complex is its contradiction. However, it can be shown that this complexity is not the complexity of an effective overdetermination , but the complexity of a cumulative internalisation which is only apparently an overdetermination.
In fact at each moment of its development consciousness lives and experiences its own essence the essence corresponding to the stage it has attained through all the echoes of the essence it has previously been, and through the allusive presence of the corresponding historical forms. Hegel, therefore, argues that every. But these past images of consciousness and these latent worlds corresponding to the images never affect present consciousness as effective determinations different from itself : these images and worlds concern it only as echoes memories, phantoms of its historicity of what it has become.
Because the past is never more than the internal essence in-itself of the future it encloses this presence of the past is the presence to consciousness of consciousness itself, and no true external determination. A circle of circles, consciousness has only one centre , which solely determines it; it would need circles with another centre than itself — decentred circles — for it to be affected at its centre by their effectivity, in short for its essence to be over-determined by them.
But this is not the case. This truth emerges even more clearly from the Philosophy of History. Here again we encounter an apparent overdetermination: are not all historical societies constituted of an infinity of concrete determinations, from political laws to religion via customs, habits, financial, commercial and economic regimes, the educational system, the arts, philosophy, and so on?
However, none of these determinations is essentially outside the others, not only because together they constitute an original, organic totality, but also and above all because this totality is reflected in a unique internal principle , which is the truth of all those concrete determinations.
Thus Rome: its mighty history, its institutions, its crises and ventures, are nothing but the temporal manifestation of the internal principle of the abstract legal personality , and then its destruction. Of course, this internal principle contains as echoes the principle of each of the historical formations it has superseded, but as echoes of itself — that is why, too, it only has one centre, the centre of all the past worlds conserved in its memory; that is why it is simple.
And its own contradiction appears in this very simplicity: in Rome, the Stoic consciousness , as consciousness of the contradiction inherent in the concept of the abstract legal personality, which aims for the concrete world of subjectivity , but misses it. This is the contradiction which will bring down Rome and produce its future: the image of subjectivity in medieval Christianity. We have only to ask why Hegel thought the phenomena of historical mutation in terms of this simple concept of contradiction, to pose what is precisely the essential question.
The simplicity of the Hegelian contradiction is made possible only by the simplicity of the internal principle that constitutes the essence of any historical period. If it is possible, in principle, to reduce the totality , the infinite diversity, of a historically given society Greece, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, England, and so on to a simple internal principle, this very simplicity can be reflected in the contradiction to which it thereby acquires a right.
Must we be even plainer? It is why there is never for him any basic rupture, no actual end to any real history — nor any radical beginning. From that vantage point what does it matter if a people die once it has embodied the determinate principle of a moment of the Idea which has plenty more to come , once, having embodied it, it has cast it off to add it to that Self-Memory which is History, thereby delivering it to such and such another people even if their historical relation is very tenuous!
Let us return to Lenin and thence to Marx. For, after all, are we not always in exceptional situations? The failure of the Revolution in Germany was an exception, the failure in Paris in was an exception, the German Social-Democratic failure at the beginning of the twentieth century pending the chauvinist betrayal of was an exception. 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 influenced by Marxism even the consciousness of certain of its theoreticians in the first stage of its history: a true historical study of the conditions and forms of that consciousness.
They draw from them the basic notion that the Capital-Labour contradiction is never simple, but always specified by the historically concrete forms and circumstances in which it is exercised. What can this mean but that the apparently simple contradiction is always overdetermined?
For however accurate and verified it may be in political practice, we have only so far used it descriptively , that is, contingently , and like all descriptions it is still at the mercy of any philosophical theory that happens to come along. But this raises the ghost of the Hegelian model again — not of its abstract model of contradiction, but of the concrete model of the conception of history reflected in it.
This can be quickly illustrated. For Marx, on the other hand, the material life of men explains their history; their consciousness, their ideologies are then merely the phenomena of their material life. To push this to extremes, almost to caricature: what do we find in Hegel? In other words, schematically, by material life on the one hand and spiritual life on the other.
For Hegel, material life civil society, that is, the economy is merely a Ruse of Reason. Apparently autonomous, it is subject to a law outside itself: its own Goal, which is simultaneously its condition of possibility, the State, that is, spiritual life.
So here again we have a way of inverting Hegel which would apparently give us Marx. It is simply to invert the relation of the terms and thus to retain them : civil society and State, economy and politics-ideology — but to transform the essence into the phenomena and the phenomena into an essence, or if you prefer, to make the Ruse of Reason work backwards.
While for Hegel, the politico-ideological was the essence of the economic, for Marx, the economic will be the essence of the politico-ideological. Is this a caricature? 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, by virtue of the same internal contradiction.
This temptation results in the radical reduction of the dialectic of history to the dialectic generating the successive modes of production. There are names for these temptations in the history of Marxism: economism and even technologism. And how many peremptory attacks on economism there are to counterbalance that well-thumbed piece on the steam engine!
He substituted other, only distantly related terms for them.
Overdetermination occurs when a single-observed effect is determined by multiple causes, any one of which alone would be sufficient to account for "determine" the effect. That is, there are more causes present than are necessary to cause the effect. In the philosophy of science , this means that more evidence is available than is necessary to justify a conclusion. Overdetermination is in contrast to underdetermination , when the number or strength of causes is insufficient. Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams that many features of dreams were usually "overdetermined," in that they were caused by multiple factors in the life of the dreamer, from the "residue of the day" superficial memories of recent life to deeply repressed traumas and unconscious wishes, these being "potent thoughts". Freud favored interpretations which accounted for such features not only once, but many times, in the context of various levels and complexes of the dreamer's psyche. In contemporary analytic philosophy an event or state of affairs is said to be overdetermined if it has two or more distinct, sufficient causes.
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