Emilio de Ipola’s book on Althusser (2007) is the explicitation of a complicated rhetorical structure. Part of the complication stems from the fact that the structure is doubled. As someone who, coming from a different (Sartrean) tradition of thought and also a different, Latin American political reality, fell to the fame and glamour of Louis Althusser in the Paris of the 1960´s and took his distances from him in the 1970´s and 1980´s, he realized at some point in the planning stages for his book that a revision of the thought of Louis Althusser was bound to become a simultaneous look at his own itinerary of thought.
Initially, all De Ipola meant to do was to write a book on the so-called late Althusser. At that point he was still more or less a believer in the critical commonplace that understood Althusser´s work as having undergone a three-stage evolution: from the early structuralist period in the 1960´s to the revisionist, self-critical period of the 1970´s to the unforeseen and wild Althusser of the “materialism of the encounter” in later times, whose work would only become public after his death. But De Ipola started detecting, from the early works, a certain “duplicity,” a number of inconsistencies, breaks, black holes in his texts that made the conventional division unsustainable and called for an explanation. What did we have, then? Is there an exoteric and an esoteric Althusser? A subterranean Althusser to be opposed to a manifest one? Is it a matter of some inaugural blockage, a self-inaugural repression that would later become undone through the gradual resolution of some monumental inner conflict? Or do we have to come to terms with the notion that there is no possible “univocity,” not even an obscure one, in the political and philosophical project of the thinker? It is, however, fair to say that all of these questions are partially undone by the fact that, in the posthumously published work, even if still in a precarious and unfinished way, the deep versus superficial topology gets dissolved, and with it the exo/esoteric one. But there is no final reconciliation, only a tendential one, hence still merely hypothetical. And yet even this hypothetical, tendential reconciliation creates new puzzles, as we come to understand that the alleged subterranean stuff is not merely contradictory with the superficial one, and the supposedly repressing and more explicit positions end up getting the same, or more, or just a little bit less leeway than the supposedly repressed and implicit ones. So what are we to make of it all? Who was Althusser, and what was the truth of his thought?
Althusser’s political position as a Marxist had to do with a double stricture: while his work in the 1960’s was universally seen as a renovation of Marxist philosophy, which had become stale and dogmatic by then, he still thought that he needed to remain ostensibly within the parameters acceptable to the French Communist Party, hence to the official line of the Soviet Union. This situation, which seemed intolerable and even unimaginable only a few years ago, is perhaps quickly becoming imaginable once again, as theoretical thought yearns for new orthodoxies. But our contemporary farce was to a certain point Althusser’s tragedy, and secondarily the tragedy of many Althusserians like De Ipola himself, who thought that they could securely devote themselves to a radical renovation of thought while protected as insiders by a leftist apparatus. In any case, the political inscription of early Althusserianism goes some way towards explaining some of the hermeneutic puzzles, to a certain extent the result of disavowed internalizations. But it doesn’t explain it all.
The problem was of course the probability that, without a massive reengagement with Marxism-Leninism at both a political and a theoretical level, the residual Stalinism of the 1960’s would evolve into mere “theoretical eclecticism” cum “practical reformism.” At the same time the atmosphere of the 1960’s provided momentum for an effort at reconceptualization that might have clear political echoes. It was a time of illusions that would only flourish if any number of enemies could be nipped in the bud–beyond the obvious anti-Marxism, also the (deemed) hopeless Marxism represented by people like Lucien Goldmann, Henri Lefebvre, or Jean-Paul Sartre; and, crucially for De Ipola, the non-Marxist structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss that seemed to exclude history and politics in favor of the unconscious as the privileged horizon for research. It is here, in this context, that the notorious “Science vs. Ideology” opposition comes into place. Althusser would militantly posit the necessary occupation of the “scientific” position against all ideological inventions. It was a double-edged militancy, however, to the extent that it could be used not just to oppose enemies outside the Communist Party, but also within the Communist Party, and at the limit the Communist Party itself in its official line. Althusserianism emerged as the cool position–the place occupied by radical militants in the “theoretical front” who could claim total novelty and a revolutionary spirit against every form of sclerosis while at the same time remaining members of an elite that was anything but displaced or condemned to the fringes of the present. As De Ipola puts it, Althusserianism was both “provocative” and “prudent,” open to new thought and yet classical in its leftist emphasis on the true or “scientific” line of Marxism-Leninism. Which did not mean both insiders and outsiders could not see the magnitude of the problems it was eliciting–and even that was attractive.
It is at this point that De Ipola presents two theses that his book will try to develop. According to the first thesis, Althusserianism orients itself “along and against” Lévi-Straussian structuralism in order to (this is the second thesis) “turn politics thinkable.” It is the latter aspect that inevitably sets Althusser on a long revisionist path that will culminate in a reversal regarding many of his early or “classical” positions. Such a reversal is necessarily “post-Marxist.” Hence, De Ipola says, towards the end of his life, “Althusser anticipates and sublates” the production of his former disciples towards a post-Marxism that he would have pursued before the term itself had been formed.
At the beginning of Chapter Two De Ipola gives us a hint of the perplexities that would develop for a hypothetical or hyperlucid reader. Althusser starts his publishing career as a modest post-Stalinist “open” Marxist whose contributions could be limited to the restatement, perhaps with some new flair, of completely orthodox (and dogmatically asserted) positions: whoever did not accept them should “renounce his right to call himself a Marxist.” But it is under the impact of structuralism that the Althusser of the mid-1960´s launches an attack against the humanism and historicism of classical Marxism that made his fame and attracted any number of talented young thinkers to his positions. Pour Marx, the two volumes of Lire le Capital, and the endeavors of the Cahiers marxistes-leninistes and Cahiers pour l´analyse in fact created “a new Marxism.” And this is the moment when De Ipola says that “here and there,” without proper development or any kind of emphasis, as the “fictive conclusion of an absent argumentation,” there started to appear thoroughly mystifying bits and pieces in Althusser´s work: “unclassifiable . . . inapprehensible” commentary springs up enigmatically and inconsistently in the text, weird quirks that few properly registered for what they meant and mean. It is only in retrospect that we can understand such emergences as “the beginnings of a new philosophical conception” that at that point in time was merely intuited, not known, by Althusser himself.
Beyond the early book on Montesquieu, Althusser´s star begins to shine through the publication of his articles “On the Young Marx” (1959) and the slightly later “Contradiction and Overdetermination.” The article on the young Marx states his denunciation of residual Hegelianism in the early Marx and posits his notion of an “epistemic cut” together with the important hermeneutic notion of “problematics.” And the article on contradiction and overdetermination already offers a structuralist take on the issue of economic determination that would result in the notion of an absent cause (“structuralist causality”) and the postulation of economicism as a theoretical mistake. De Ipola carefully reconstructs the discussions and mutual loans that, from Levi-Strauss to Althusser to Alain Badiou to Jacques Lacan to Jacques-Alain Miller, would enable the Althusserian perspective on economic determination in the last instance to emerge (“the lonely hour of the last instance never tolls”). De Ipola in particular focuses on the later repressed importance of Lévi-Strauss´s “Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss,” where a presentation of the radical openness of structure first takes place. Indeed, Lévi-Strauss´s theoretical contributions, coming from a non-Marxist endeavor, had to be carefully kept in check or even disavowed, in rather typical old-Marxist ways, notwithstanding their deep impact on the properly innovative content of Althusserian structuralist Marxism. And it is through Lacanianism that the notion of structuralist causality is brought to bear on the attendant notion of the subject, accepted of course by Lacan and Miller as the suturing point of the structure but rejected by Althusser in unequivocal terms. For Althusser, the “subject” is a merely ideological function–in other words, only the subject of ideology exists as ideology, where the subject of the unconscious is truly a non-subject.
This would the point at which to regret the absence of a few pages on the problem that emerges when the Althusserian deconstruction of the subject provisionally indicates four types of subject that correspond to the later “theory of the subject” put forth by Alain Badiou–except that Althusser rejects them and Badiou accepts them, all the while recognizing how, in Althusser and within his thought, “there can be no theory of the subject.” Ipola does not mark at this point Badiou´s fundamental disagreement, as evidenced starting with the publication of his own Theory of the Subject, and then in subsequent works–in fact, he suggests that Althusser and Badiou were in deep accord on the issue. The chapter closes with an analysis of the ostensible or declared disavowal of Lévi-Strauss, which would be false, since Lévi-Strauss was a clear influence, while fascinatingly also presenting it as symptomatically revealing a deeper conflict: Althusser´s “esoteric” or “subterranean” thought was in effect “deeply incompatible with structuralism.” This is in fact shocking, as it puts on hold both the discovery of structural causality (and the critique of economicism) and the rejection of the subject–which are deemed to be the two main accomplishments of classical, structuralist Althusserianism.
But De Ipola is not through with Althusser´s conception or rejection of the category of the subject yet. In Chapter Three he returns to it as the central motif of the so-called “transitional” period–that is, to the relationship between the subject and ideology, or to the notion of the ideological subject, which is the only subject (or, apparently, non-subject) that Althusser recognizes as actually existing, although, to be clear, it is an actual existence in illusion: the ideological subject is only the support of social relations as concealed by the ideological function. The structure, or the system, only allows individuals to recognize themselves as subjects at the cost of fixating on structural operations, not systemic (that is, on imaginary projections, not the real). And it is here that De Ipola disentangles yet another problem or black hole of Althusserian exoterics: a problem that presents itself in the very gap between the publication in 1969 of the article on “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” and the postface to it published a year later. The postface introduces the notion of class struggle, until then practically absent from the Althusserian theorization. And with it the notion that an ideological subject can be constituted by either the ideology of the dominant class or the ideology of the dominated (or by any combination of the two). In other words, the subject is not, that is, no longer merely caught in projections of domination, but could be functional to emancipation, which means also that ideology itself, although perhaps eternal as a function, changes historically and would potentially exist as an instrument of the universal class (that is, the proletariat) in alternative social formations. This, according to De Ipola, not only throws a potential monkey wrench into the notion that the Marxian concepts introduced in Capital are scientific concepts and correspond to real laws, independent of any social formation: those concepts become relativized at the same time that the strong notion of ideology also becomes relativized in favor of a softer position, according to which ideology “subjects” not only to domination, and it is possible to conceive of an emancipating ideology. In the same way, Marx´s scientific concepts are also contingent and historically variable, as they depend on particular configurations of the class struggle. It also means that the relationship of philosophy or theoretical thought to practice changes, and that philosophy can no longer be considered the handmaiden of dominant truth–the postulation of a philosophy for Marxism means to point out the possibility of a philosophical articulation of the class struggle that would militate in favor of the dominated class. Does this not imply that the “subject” is back in play for any conceivable political operation? The “strong enunciation” of the theory of the ideological subject seems to have been abandoned. But can this issue, clearly left unfinished in Althusser’s late work, not be pushed?
Chapter Four promises to solve all of the remaining issues. The notion of a certain “softening” in Althusser´s late position seems confirmed by the news that Althusser comes at that point in his life pretty close to Antonio Gramsci´s thought, abandoning its previous harsh objections. Althusser moves past Marx into an increasing interest on other authors, notably Machiavelli. The old notion of the “scientific laws” of Marxism is increasingly replaced by the notion of “tendential laws.” And in 1978 Althusser publishes a text, “Marx dans ses limites,” where a frank critique of actually existing Marxism obtains. So–is Althusser no longer a Marxist? De Ipola does not put it in those terms, except for his previous statement that Althusser invented post-Marxism avant la lettre. What is really at stake, rather than an abandoning of the Marxist tradition, however, may more properly be called a reinvention of the political, that is, a thorough politicization of issues that, to the Althusser of this time, seemed to have become stale under previous and more dogmatic treatments. One of them is the issue of antagonism, linked to the assertion of the primacy of class struggle over class as such. This is crucial as it allows Althusser to double his distance from the French-philosophy motif of the “end of history.” Conflict is irreducible and permanent, and history is “a process without a subject or an end.” An abandonment of any philosophy of history in favor of a conception of a “finite” Marxist theory is part of the same string of developments. Althusser seems to have abandoned many of his earlier theoretical tenets. But does he know where he is going? He tends to speak more in his own voice, and less as a spokesman for the real Marx. And then two series of texts confirm his turn. The first one is the series on Machiavelli, later published as Solitude de Machiavel, which could be linked with some previous writings on the same tradition dating back to 1955. And the second one is comprised of several texts written from 1982-1988 that are variations on the crucial “Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre” (1982), and some other texts such as the interview with Fernanda Navarro. The take in Machiavelli is a republican one, clearly oriented to the theorization of political mobilization–of “primitive political accumulation,” as Althusser famously put it–as such.
But we are now fully into the theorization of a radically contingent moment, the moment of political explosion–we are very far from the ineluctable necessity of historical laws, or indeed from the supposed actuality of a communism that is already gazing at us even if we ourselves cannot yet countenance it. We are at the polar opposite of the classical Althusser. A tradition of materialism going back to Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius gives Althusser the concept he needs: he calls it a “materialism of the encounter,” an “aleatory materialism” that depends on a radically liberated notion of contingent conjuncture. Nothing can any longer be explained or anticipated: it simply occurs, or it does not take place. Politics is the mere potentiality of the encounter. This is of course a hot issue, as some current trends in North American and Anglophone Marxism, many of them deeply influenced by French thinkers, are engaging in a frontal rebuttal of this conception even as they claim themselves inheritors of Althusserianism. But what may suspect that contemporary authors are in fact abandoning Althusser´s most radical position and returning to a comfortable and perhaps more prudent or allegedly productive orthodoxy. Why not push Althusser further into the direction he had already started to move forward? Whence the need for recoil?
In the last thirty pages of his book De Ipola turns more to his own voice, and attempts to respond to issues elicited by the later Althusser but never fully clarified. For instance, would it not seem that the previous critique of the notion of the subject needs to be abandoned given the Machiavellian emphasis on virtú and the appeal to the notion of radical contingency? For De Ipola, however, Althusser stuck to his guns and never fell for the subject: he held on to his theoretical antihumanism to the end. It is class struggle understood, against a long Marxist tradition that very much continues into the present day, not as the subject but as the motor of history that can respond to the issue. The masses, themselves the real agent of political change, and themselves produced by the class struggle, cannot be conceptualized as a subject without gutting the latter concept of all meaning. Thinkers of the multitude must take notice and account for this little problem. De Ipola finds in the notion proposed by Badiou, in the context of explaining Althusser, of a “subjectless subjective,” or a subjectivity without a subject, the very site of political action.
And, here, we must wonder whether that true site, precisely prior to political subjectivation, is not therefore better described as infrapolitical.