Marxist Underground

“Marxist Underground” is part of “Marginal Thinking: A Forum on Louis Althusser,” featuring articles from Louis Althusser, Jason Barker, Dariush M. Doust, Nina Power, Richard Seymour, Greg Sharzer, and Caroline Williams. Click here for the entire forum. 

THE “LATE ALTHUSSER” often stands as a corrective to the errant “structural Marxist” of the ’60s — above all, to the Althusser of For Marx and Reading Capital. That Althusser, the Anglophone world was testily informed by E. P. Thompson in The Poverty of Theory, was a Stalinist purveyor of nonsense and mechanistic dogma. By contrast, the “late Althusser,” discovered in unpublished writings following his death, had yielded to a far more subtle philosophy of the chance encounter, which he dubbed “aleatory materialism.”

But this is to read the Althusserian corpus as a succession of more or less common problems, instead of the “lacunæ,” “décalages,” “silences,” and “symptoms” that exist throughout the whole body of Althusser’s work.[i] The “underground current” of aleatory materialism was neither freshly minted in the “late Althusser,” nor was it a latent theme of the “early Althusser.” And if it has a relation to an evolving politics of “De-Stalinisation,” it is necessarily mediated by Althusser’s attempt to conduct theory from within the radius of a Stalinist party, i.e. the French Communist Party (PCF), and its traditions.


Among the Atoms

In 1986, Althusser gave his fullest account of “the existence of an almost completely unknown materialist tradition in the history of philosophy: […] a materialism of the encounter, and therefore of the aleatory and of contingency.”[ii] In excavating this tradition, Althusser imparted a radical rereading to Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Marx himself. Aleatory materialism had as its object something external to philosophy itself: the void. In Epicurus, the void is filled with atoms descending parallel to one another, never meeting until the chance, “infinitesimal swerve” of an atom enables an encounter which precipitates Being, progenerates worlds.

In a curious way, apart from the usual epistemological breaks and displacements which typically characterize Althusser’s readings, he finds the same idea unfolding in Hobbes, whose “state of nature” is nothing but the void of individuals without encounters, and Machiavelli, whose turbulent Italy was a void in which the atomic encounter had failed to take place. Each of its atoms descended “in free fall without encountering its neighbour.”[iii] As Warren Montag rephrases Althusser: “Italy was a non-world of the non-accomplishment of the fact, the empty table awaiting the throw of the dice.”[iv] Here, an adequate agency, a Modern Prince, was required “to create the conditions for a swerve.” Machiavelli thus produced a “philosophical theory of the encounter between fortune and virtù.”[v]

This underground current, where it appears in Marx, resists the historicism according to which modes of production progressively unfold under the sway of a dialectical principle connecting origin to end. Instead, each mode of production is a result of a chance encounter between elements which “might not have taken place.” Whereas bourgeois political economy traces the origin of capitalism to what Jason Read calls “the idealized memory of an individual capitalist’s accumulation”[vi] — i.e. savings — historical materialism must stress its novelty, its emergence from the chance encounter of atoms, failing which the emergence of capitalism in the English countryside[vii] might not have taken place.

This radically anti-necessitarian approach[viii] is Althusser’s final answer to teleologies, materialist or spiritual, and it retroactively refigures the essays of For Marx.


The “Dogmatist Night” and the Void 

How does this Althusser relate to the Althusser of “structural Marxism”? One might say that postwar France is the void, where the atoms continually fail to meet. The PCF, defensive and brittle, took refuge in the “dogmatist night” of Stalinist determinism, only yielding to something calling itself “humanism” in the aftermath of the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, held in 1956, and Khrushchev’s disclosure of Stalin’s crimes. Famously, Althusser saw in this humanism “a bungled De-Stalinisation, a right-wing De-Stalinisation,” which only leavened the dogmas of Stalinism with “incantations” from bourgeois ideology. Economic determinism and humanism were not rivals; instead, they were structurally equivalent ways of reducing history to a generative essence, thus of restoring the dominance of ideology over Marxist science. As such, his refiguring of Marxism was an attempt to “make a start on the first left-wing critique of Stalinism.”[ix]

This entailed a “return to Marx,” an attempt to demarcate the “scientific” late Marx from his early work, still saturated in bourgeois ideology; and, as a corollary, an attempt to restate the “materialist dialectic” purged of Hegelian and pre-Marxist remnants — the “Marx furthest from Marx.”[x] In Althusser’s theory the social formation emerges not as an “expressive totality,” with its manifold phenomena reducible to expressions of a single idea, but as a complex and “overdetermined” structure-in-difference, with its many levels assigned a “relative autonomy” and “specific effectivity.” The complexity of Althusser’s theory, and the highly indirect way in which he theorized economic determination “in the last instance,” was an attempt to replace the rigidly deterministic and “humanistic” Marxism-Leninism of official Communist parties with a superior model. However, what was missing, symptomatically, was the question of political agency.

Althusser would never stop arguing that membership of the PCF was “the only existing means at the time of acting politically.”[xi] As such, his theoretical interventions were directed at disturbing the emerging “humanist” orthodoxy in the Party. The typology of humanism/historicism, however, consigned a wide range of theorists from the Marxist tradition — from Lukács to Gramsci to Della Volpe — to what Norman Geras sarcastically called “The Continent of Theoretical Error.”[xii] These authors fell victim to Althusser’s theoretical commitment to suppress all forms of historicism predicated on the drama of the subject. But for someone with Althusser’s political and theoretical commitments — a Communist who stressed the ontological “primacy of class struggle over classes[xiii] — the non-attempt to ground political agency is striking. Even in the post-1968 writings on ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses, agency is almost an afterthought — acknowledged, but not theoretically integrated.[xiv] It is only in 1972, with the lectures on Machiavelli which would precipitate Machiavelli and Us[xv], wherein structure is displaced by the singularity of the conjuncture and its elements, that political agency is, to some degree, theoretically assimilated.


The Missed Encounter 

Is it an accident that the “aleatory” content of Althusser’s materialism came increasingly to the fore after 1968? Although he had remained publicly loyal to the PCF, its conservative role in the events had, he later acknowledged, “betrayed the working class.” It had not displayed the virtù necessary to take hold of fortuna and bring something into being out of the atoms. Bureaucratically deformed, politically compromised, and lacking a serious Marxist science, it had been unwilling to behave as a Modern Prince might. As such, the story of 1968 was in part the story of a non-event, a failure to happen. The bustle of insurgent France was, to this extent, a void. The later strategic failures in its handling of the electoral alliance with the socialists finally provoked Althusser’s excoriating public criticism of the PCF leadership a decade later.

The propelling force of that critique was the attack on the PCF leadership, its dogma, its “deep-rooted, tenacious and inveterate distrust of the masses,” and the organizational means by which it secured the obedience of Party militants.[xvi] Written shortly after this critique, Althusser wrote “Marx in his Limits,” identifying the culmination of a long-brewing crisis of Marxism. This crisis he traced back to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and its Stalinist aftermath which no “Communist party […] has had the elementary political courage to attempt to analyze.”[xvii] But he also drew up a critical balance sheet of Marx’s own legacy.

The analysis of this crisis reflected Althusser’s long-standing preoccupations — with the relation of base to superstructure, and forces to relations of production, for example. It contained many breaks with his previous stances: for example, on the thesis that theory is “external” to the workers’ movement. And it concluded by critically engaging Gramscian theory, driven by its growing popularity among Eurocommunists, which seemed to be damning in its critique until arriving at “the ‘absolute limit’ of Marxist thought: namely, its inability to think ‘politics.’” If Gramsci’s theory of hegemony was unsatisfactory, Althusser thought, no Marxist had yet “given, except in the form of lists or descriptions, even the rudiments of an analysis responding to the question: just what might politics be?

Aleatory materialism, attempting to provide the parameters for answering this question, revises the concerns of the early work. In a sense, it was a culmination, for Althusser had always sought a theory of history that did not reduce its instances or render them unintelligible, but was capable of appreciating its variety without prejudice. It was also a break. In “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” Althusser asked: “Are we not always in exceptional situations?”[xviii] An emphasis on the singularity of situations and the necessary impurity of “contradictions” is not necessarily incompatible with a sophisticated and rigorous determinism.

The chance swerve of the atom, however, is a matter of contingency. The Party may, if it is skilled, create the conditions for a swerve; but it can only profit from it if it is alert to the fortuitous, the unexpected chance, the accidental conjunction.


Richard Seymour is an author and broadcaster based in London, and online editor of Salvage. His latest book is Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (Verso, 2016). He has just completed a PhD at the London School of Economics.


[i] Warren Montag, “Spectres of Althusser,” in: Historical Materialism 19.3, 2011, p. 150.

[ii] Louis Althusser, “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” in: François Matheron and Olivier Corpet, eds., Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-87, transl. G. M. Goshgarian, London and New York: Verso Books 2006, p. 167.

[iii] Althusser, “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter’, pp. 169, 171.

[iv] Warren Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013, p. 178.

[v] Althusser, “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” pp. 169, 171—2.

[vi] Jason Read, The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003, pp. 21—2.

[vii] Robert Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” in: New Left Review I/104, July-August 1977.

[viii] Wal Suchting, “Althusser’s Late Thinking About Materialism” in: Historical Materialism, Vol 12, No 1, 2004.

[ix] Althusser qtd. in Gregory Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of Theory, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2006, p. 1.

[x] Althusser, For Marx, transl. Ben Brewster, London and New York: Verso, 2005, p. 159.

[xi] Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir, New York: The New Press, 1993, p. 240.

[xii] Norman Geras, “Post-Marxism?” in: New Left Review I/163, May-June 1987.

[xiii] Althusser, “Marx in his Limits,” in: Philosophy of the Encounter, p. 20.

[xiv] Althusser, On The Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, transl. Ben Brewster and G. M. Goshgarian, London and New York: Verso 2014.

[xv] Althusser, Machiavelli and Us, transl. Gregory Elliott, London and New York: Verso 2000.

[xvi] Althusser, “What Must Change in the Party,” in: New Left Review I/109, May-June 1978.

[xvii] Althusser, “Marx in his Limits,” p. 9.

[xviii] Althusser, For Marx, p. 104.