Other Althussers

Twenty-five years after his death and just two years shy of the centenary of his birth, research into the work of Louis Althusser flourishes, unveiling a more complicated and contentious author than his reputation as a French Communist Party philosopher ever allowed. The journal diacritics recently published a special issue focused on Althusser. Guest editors Jason Barker and G. M. Goshgarian joined us for a Q&A on the issue and Althusser’s work.

How did this special issue come about?

JB: I had submitted an article on Althusser for inclusion in a general issue. In the meantime G. M. Goshgarian (Michael) happened to mention that he would probably be trans­lating Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes (Puf, 2014; translated as Philoso­phy for Non-Philosophers, due out in 2016) for Bloomsbury, and wondered whether diacritics would be interested in running an excerpt. Initially the plan was to run one chapter from Initiation. However, it took so long to obtain pre-publication rights from Bloomsbury that, in the interim, Bloomsbury had obtained translation rights to Être marxiste en philosophie (Puf 2015; How to Be a Marxist in Philosophy, due out in 2017) as well. At that point we agreed it would be preferable to include extracts from both books, along with Michael’s editor’s preface to the French edition of Être marxiste. diacritics were very supportive of the idea.

How do you think Philosophy for Non-Philosophers and Être marxiste en philosophie might change common perceptions of Althusser? 

JB: The reception of any author’s posthumous work is always going to be subject to contingent factors beyond his control. There are things that are especially stimulating in these two works from the mid-1970s, due to the forty-year time lag involved. Had they by some minor miracle appeared during Althusser’s lifetime then one imagines that their impact would have been less dramatic. This is all especially interesting because contingency emerges as a central concern of Althusser’s in his posthumously published works of the 1980s, as well as in these books of the 1970s. In them he is trying to think contingency as a category of materialist philosophy. Obviously this rather contradicts the impression we have of Althusser as a deterministic Marxist philosopher who was also a lifelong member of the French Communist Party.

Do you think Althusser would have shared the assessment of his philosophy and its overall evolution that you make in the special issue? Can you say a little about your assessment?

GMG: Probably, if my assessment is right. For the last decade, I’ve been rather monotonously suggesting that the “late-Althusserian” materialism of the encounter is a reprise and refinement of the “theory of the encounter” that Althusser sketched in 1966-67 on the basis of an idea worked up in his first book, the 1959 Montesquieu: the idea that nothing short of the necessarily contingent encounter of revolution can abolish the transitory eternity of one class dictatorship and ring in the transitory eternity of another. Althusser insisted on that idea from 1959 on, harping on his currently unfashionable, if not currently incomprehensible claim that Marx’s main contribution to thought is the concept of the necessity of proletarian dictatorship. He developed it in what may be his own main contribution to thought, a theory of the way the subject of class dictatorship, specifically bourgeois class dictatorship, emerges as the effect of an encounter between the individual and contingent combinations of various ideological state apparatuses, an encounter its victim experiences as “interpellation.” Besides a theory of revolution and a theory of the subject, the idea of the encounter also commanded a theory, patterned after Engels’ and Lenin’s idea of a proletarian “non-state,” of philosophy as self-deconstructive non-philosophy. Althusser began to work it out in the late 1950s, dropped it in his theoreticist period, took it up again in mid-1966, and elaborated it, to mention only what’s been published so far, in his 1971-72 course on Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Rousseau and in Philosophy for Non-Philosophers and Être marxiste. It might be called an application of the theory of the encounter to the philosophy of the encounter. It has obvious affinities to Derridean deconstruction that Derrida, in his 1974-76 s seminars on Althusser, chose to ignore.

Would you say something about the translation of Philosophy for Non-Philosophers and Être marxiste en philosophie?

GMG: Do you mean the English translations? I recently finished an English version of Philosophy for Non-Philosophers and hope to be correcting the proofs soon. I’m working on the English translation of Être marxiste now. There are nine more translations of the first book on the way or already out, in all the major Romance languages (the Italian and Spanish translations were both released in the past few months) and also in Arabic, Greek, German, Korean, and Turkish. As for Être marxiste, I know that the Japanese translation is pretty much under wraps and I’m told that there are eight more translations coming, one of them from the People’s Republic of China. Althusser is back on the map.

How did you decide who to invite to contribute to the special issue?

JB: Michael and I commissioned essays from Warren Montag and Alberto Toscano. The aim was that each of the contributions should support the Althusser excerpts thematically by revealing an “unusual” or unexpected side of his work. Hence “Other Althussers.” I hope we succeeded in this.

There is a defining emphasis on “non-Marxist” themes in the Althusser excerpts. Was that also intentional?

JB: That emphasis exists in both Philosophy for Non-Philosophers and Être marxiste en philosophie, which are books exploring the difficulty of being a Marxist and a philosopher at the same time. Althusser attempts to resolve or unravel the difficulty by taking one of his so-called detours through the history of philosophy, and ultimately asking where the detour leads a Marxist. For Althusser, the answer is not Marxist philosophy, but “non-philosophy.” This is particularly pertinent in light of the contemporary trend, which is something of a reprise from the France of the 1950s and 1960s, away from the institutional discipline and domination of philosophy, toward non-philosophical discourses, whether they be scientific, political, ethical, artistic, and so on. The question that remains, which Alberto Toscano touches on in his essay, is the extent to which these non-philosophical discourses can any more hope to be “condi­tions” of Marxism than philosophy can. Is it still possible to be a Marxist with or without philosophy? I think this is the question that runs through these two new Althusser books.