The singular hackneyed biographical detail about Louis Althusser (1918–1990) is his notoriety as the French Marxist philosopher who, in 1980, killed his wife, the sociologist Hélène Rytmann, and got off with being committed to a psychiatric hospital. The horror of his crime cannot be overstated, and there were those at the time who insisted Althusser stand trial for murder, but the French Penal Code allowed for a judgment of “juridical-legal non-responsibility,” attested to in Althusser’s case by three psychiatrists. Althusser was confined to a psychiatric institution for three years, one of several such hospitalizations, including treatment that had led to his absence during the events of May 1968. The tragic event of Rytmann’s death serves to obscure his real significance from the early 1960s until the present, as his version of Structuralism-tinged Marxism became part of a dominant school in the academy: French Theory.
Despite the gaps he admitted to in his reading of philosophy, Althusser, who was a member of the French Communist Party (PCF) from 1948, effected a revolution in Marxism, positing that there had been an “epistemological break” in Marx’s thought in 1845–1846 that placed his Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts of 1844—stained with “idealist aspirations,” in Althusser’s words—outside what should properly be considered Marxism. That philosophy, Althusser believed, was most clearly articulated in Capital, “the founding moment of a new discipline, the founding moment of a science.” Marxism, he wrote, “is, in a single movement and by virtue of the unique epistemological rupture which established it, an anti-humanism and an anti-historicism.”
Althusser’s anti-humanism was a reaction to different camps within Marxism he believed had deviated into socialist humanism, which he described “not only as a critique of the contradictions of bourgeois humanism, but also and above all as the consummation of its ‘noblest’ aspirations.” This drive to combine socialism and humanism was of dubious theoretical value, he reasoned, for “the concept ‘socialism’ is… a scientific concept, but the concept ‘humanism’ is no more than an ideological one.” The “unevenness” between the two made them incompatible.
Rosa Luxemburg, George Lukacs, and Antonio Gramsci, as well as dissident Marxists like Karl Korsch, were prominent figures of one camp of what he considered Marxist humanists. In his own time, such left-humanists could be found in the Frankfurt School and the Yugoslavian Praxis Group, but also in certain tendencies within the USSR. In the mid-1970s, more threatening still for Althusser was the social-democratizing trend in the Western European Communist movement known as Eurocommunism, which opposed “smashing” the state and favored the electoral road, while stripping communism of the embarrassing notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
As French Theory incorporated Althusser’s ideas, one important aspect was left behind : his involvement in the issues confronting the French left and specifically the PCF in the late 1970s. The positions he took in the life of the PCF were a continuation of the theoretical work that can be found in his essential early works, Reading Capital and For Marx. For Althusser, the jettisoning by the Communist Parties of Spain, Italy, and France, the core of Eurocommunism, of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, was unacceptable, for, he wrote, this dictatorship was central to Marxism in the realm of theory, and in practice was at least partially “necessary if the revolution is not to get bogged down and come to grief.”
Althusser was not just a Marxist philosopher, he was a Communist philosopher, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. As he wrote in 1976, “[W]hat defines the Party is not so much simply the class character of its membership or its scientific theory alone, but the fusion of these two things in the class struggle.” In the English-speaking world, Althusser’s specifically Communist commitments took a back seat during his heyday. The absence of a serious working-class movement in the US and the UK led to Althusser’s ideas becoming chiefly a subject for academic study and abstruse intra-left debate, rather than a motor for action.
In France, though, he was very much present on the left, where his refusal to accept any softening of Marxism bridged the Sino-Soviet split in the Communist movement. He even wrote (anonymously) for the journal of the Maoist Union de la Jeunesse Communiste Marxiste Léniniste, a group that included the cream of the intellectual far left in France, most of them students of Althusser’s at the most elite of France’s universities, the École Normale Supérieure. (Later, when illusions about the Cultural Revolution, Mao, and revolution in general crumbled, many of these Althusserian Maoists would form the basis for the anti-Marxist school of “New Philosophers.”)
For Althusser, philosophy was not a matter of abstract intellectual inquiry but a guide to action—and an action in itself: the demystifying of capitalism (as the excerpt below shows). His idiosyncratic canon included Lenin and Mao every bit as much as those classical thinkers usually taught in university classrooms. For Althusser, these two revolutionary leaders, normally viewed solely as political actors, were, thanks to their intellectual rigor, true philosophers. Even more, they fulfilled a central tenet of Marxism: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Thus it is that the capitalist is born. He is, at the outset, an independent petty producer who, thanks to his labour and his merits and his moral virtues, has succeeded in producing enough to sell enough to buy a few more tools, just what it takes to employ a few unfortunates who don’t have anything to eat, because there’s no room left on earth (which is “round,” that is, finite, limited, as Kant magnificently puts it) and because they weren’t able to become independent petty producers; he renders them the magnanimous service of giving them wages in exchange for their work. What generosity! But generosity too is in human nature. The fact that all this goes sour later, that the wage-workers have the bad grace to find that the work-day is too long and that their wages are too short, is also in human nature, which has its bad sides, just as it is in human nature that certain capitalistic independent petty producers take unfair advantage (evil sorts that they are!) of their wage-workers or, still worse, play tricks in their fashion, dirty tricks, on the other independent petty producers whom they regard (just imagine!) as their “competitors” and treat mercilessly on the market. These things ought not to exist, but there are not only good people in this world: one has to bear the cross of human wickedness or thoughtlessness. For if they only knew!
If they knew, they would know what we have just said: that there exists one natural mode of production and just one, the mercantile mode of production, constituted by independent petty producers with families, who produce in order to sell either their surplus or everything they produce, working alone with their little family or employing wretches without house or home whom they provide, out of love for their fellow man, with the bread of a wage, thus becoming, quite naturally, capitalists, who can get bigger, if the God of Calvin, who rewards good works, bestows that grace on them.
Thus it is that the mercantile mode of production or the mode of mercantile production—based on the existence of independent petty producers who started out as subsistence farmers but were naturally destined to become merchants, part-time and then full-time merchants, and then merchants relying on wage-based (capitalist) production—is, for bourgeois ideology, the only mode of production there is.
There is no other. The others are just deviations or aberrations, conceived on the basis of this one and only mode: aberrations due to the fact that the Enlightenment had not penetrated people’s minds with its self-evident truths in these times of darkness and obscurantism. This explains the scandalous horror of slavery: people did not know at the time that all men are free (= have a right to human nature = can be independent petty producers). This explains the horror of feudalism: people did not know at the time that the feudal independent petty producer, the serf, was capable of leaving his land, taking up residence elsewhere and trading his products for other products, like every man on earth—instead of remaining confined to the horrid closed circle of bare subsistence, merely attenuated by that other horror, the corvée for the lord and tithe for the Church.
Since the mercantile mode of production is perfectly mythical, an invention of the ideological imaginary, and since the act of foundation depends on the same imaginary, we have, on the one hand, the fact of the existence of the capitalist mode of production, which is terribly real, and, on the other, its theory, its essence, furnished us by the mythical, founding construction of the mercantile mode of production. The result of this act of imaginary foundation is as follows:
1). The capitalist mode of production, which exists, is the only one that can exist, the only one that exists, the only one that has a right to existence. The fact that it has not always existed (and even that must be qualified, for when we look into the matter in detail, we always find this reality, which is natural, everywhere: independent petty producers), or that it has not always visibly existed, obscured as it was by horrid realities—this is merely an accident of history. It should have existed from all eternity and, thank God, it exists today, having carried the day against obscurantism, and we may be sure that nature having finally vanquished non-nature, light having finally triumphed over darkness, nature and light, that is, the capitalist mode of production, can be sure of existing for all eternity. It has finally been recognized!
2). This guarantee having been obtained at last, the essence having at last attained to existence, we can, at last, understand everything. If we want to understand what the capitalist mode of production is, it is enough to go have a look at its origin, that is, its essence, the mercantile mode of production: we will find men, the independent petty producers, their families and all the tra-la-la.
3). We have at last arrived at existence and since what has arrived at existence is the essence, we have everything we need: existence, murmuring with satisfaction, and the essence that allows us to understand it. That way everyone is happy.
That way, in other words, bourgeois ideology has reached its goal: representing the capitalist mode of production as the development of an imaginary mercantile mode of production, and the “genesis” of the capitalist mode of production as the result of the work of deserving independent petty producers who became capitalists only because they really deserved to. It remains only to strike up the universal anthem of humanity’s gratitude to free enterprise.
Give yourself, for starters, a capitalist honest enough to answer your questions and admit that he is driven to increase his fortune indefinitely, without pause and without respite. Ask him why he yields to this irresistible tendency. You will receive, in this order (disorder would be another order, the same order) the following answers:
1). The psychological capitalist will tell you: I’m greedy and bent on acquiring wealth. My nature is such that I thirst for gold and my thirst is such that it makes me thirsty even when it’s slaked. Everyone knows the story about the sea: Why doesn’t it overflow? Answer: because there is a goodly number of fish in the sea, and they drink a tremendous amount of water; since the water’s salty, they’re always thirsty. We can only conclude that gold too is salty, since it makes a man thirsty all the time (thirsty for gold). Enough joking. Psychology, which always keeps philosophy and religion in the corner of its eye, answers: it’s in the nature of things and in human nature too; man is a creature of desire and is therefore insatiable, for desire is infinite. Whatever the world contains in the way of philosophers knows this, from Aristotle talking about Chrematistics down to Pascal and countless others: it is because man is finite that he is condemned to desire’s “bad infinity” (Hegel). There you have the reason that the capitalist enriches himself without end, to the point of losing sleep and desire—human nature’s to blame.
2). The philosophical capitalist (a notch more sophisticated), versed in Hobbes and Hegel, will tell you: but my dear fellow, nature only reveals itself in its “sublation”! This desire that you think you bring to bear on mere things, such as goods, wealth or power (power is merely a means of procuring goods, or the men who procure goods) reaches infinitely higher! For example, if so-and-so chases after gold, it is less to satisfy a need (or desire) for wealth or power (for in these matters everything has its limits, and if man’s desire is infinite, man isn’t) than because he is seeking an altogether different good: the esteem of his peers, that which Hobbes calls “glory” and Hegel calls “recognition.” Thus the race for wealth and the race for power (the means of attaining wealth) are merely the obligatory detour that a law takes in order to impose itself on human individuals. In fact, look! The rich man always enriches himself at another man’s expense; the powerful man always becomes powerful at a third party’s expense. Universal competition rules the world and men are merely its puppets. Not competition for property and power: no, whoa! Competition is a more mysterious, more sophisticated desire: the desire for glory and recognition. Man wants only to be esteemed and recognized for what he is: more deserving than the others (Hobbes) or simply free (Hegel), by way of the figures of the master and slave. Thus, competition for goods and power is simply the means of, and a pretext for, competition of another kind, in which every man expects recognition of his “glory” or “freedom” from those he dominates. The insatiable thirst for riches thereby becomes an altogether spiritual affair, in which man can stand tall and proud for being endowed with a nature so dignified that it puts him a hundred feet above the base passions that were attributed to him. One may well be a bourgeois, one still has one’s sense of honor.
3). The realistic capitalist (a notch more sophisticated theoretically), better versed in Hobbes, will tell you: the quest for “glory” is one thing! What matters is something else: the law that forces all men to seek glory, without sparing a one. For how is it that men are brought to engage in this frantic quest, by what power? To be sure, they all start out by desiring goods and, later, glory; but the fact that they all desire them with so equal a desire that this desire surpasses and governs them, and the fact that they are all, without exception, enrolled in the race—that is what calls for explanation. The reason is that, when the time comes, they unleash, unawares, the power of a law that annuls its origin: universal war, the war of all against all. The whole mystery of the matter resides in this conversion: individuals desiring goods, each for [his own] petty ends, and suddenly all of them together are thrown into a war so universal that it becomes a State of War. That is, a State of relations such that the war can flare up at any moment and anywhere (it’s like bad weather, Hobbes writes: it doesn’t rain every day or everywhere, but it could rain anytime, anywhere at all) should someone attack someone else. With the establishment of this State of Universal Competition, aptly called the State of War and a War of All Against All, that is to say, a war of the first person who happens along against the second, things are converted a second time. Fear of being attacked makes men make the first move and war reveals itself for what it is: the essence of war is to be preventive.
With that, the portrait of competition is complete.
However, when we take a closer look at this preventive war that the capitalists wage on each other, it turns out to be a singular war! It pits the combatants against each other, of course, like every war, even the war of all against all. But the combatants, that is, the capitalists, do not really confront each other, since they spend their time protecting themselves against attack by taking preventive measures. In Hobbes’s war, we might suppose that it is a question of real attacks and that the parties preventively carry out real attacks so as not to be attacked. The same holds here: but rather than preventively launching real attacks, one simply beefs up one’s forces, preventively, so as not to fall. To be sure, there are victims, bankruptcies, people left by the wayside. Yet, overall, the capitalists as a group come off rather well, so much so that Marx says of competition that it is ordinarily their “friendly society”: it is less the rule of the war they wage on each other than that of the war that they don’t. Can we therefore say that this State of War is a State of Peace? My word, as far as the capitalist class as a whole is concerned, yes.
But then where is the war? Elsewhere: between the capitalists and their workers. By means of competition, the capitalist class adjusts its accounts rather than settling them—but behind competition, which Marx calls an “illusion,” the capitalist class wages a veritable war on the working class. For, ultimately, taken at its word, this theory of preventive war shows that prevention, well conducted, spares the capitalists war against other capitalists; it shows that the working class bears the full brunt of prevention, that prevention of the pseudo-war between capitalists is a permanent war against the working class. In that, the war is not at all universal, a war of all against all, as Hobbes claims; it is a war of the capitalist class against the working class. Thus the war that the capitalist class wages on the working class simply allows the capitalists to live in peace. We had been mixing up our wars. We had mistaken competition for a war. We had forgotten the class struggle.
This essay is adapted from Louis Althusser’s “Book on Imperialism,” which appears in History and Imperialism: Writings, 1963–1986, previously unpublished work translated and edited by G.M. Goshgarian, and published by Polity Press.