Reimagining the Subject: Althusser and Spinoza

“Reimagining the Subject: Althusser and Spinoza” 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. 

LOUIS ALTHUSSER fought many battles on many fronts. His life and his writings can be presented as he so vividly conceived philosophy: as a kind of battlefield. Here, the taking up of a position or thesis, the forcing of a concept to occupy new ground or the capturing of an enemy’s argument in each case indicates that philosophy is resolutely political and practical. It is in this context that we can reflect upon the strategic effects of Althusser’s own philosophical practice: in the politics of the French Communist Party (PCF) where, unlike many of his contemporaries, he remained a member, fighting a battle on the terrain of theory to change radically its pragmatic political stance; in philosophy, where he often adopted adversarial positions, capturing and transforming the objects and concepts embedded in ideological struggle and creating new lines of partition within thought; and, in the movement of the writing process itself, where he also fought battles, personal (documented by him in his letters and autobiography) and public (in relation to the university), as if the two could ever be separated.

The oeuvre that remains with us today is at once fragmentary and voluminous, punctured by alternating periods of intense activity and absence on the part of its author. Taken together this oeuvre illuminates much more than the older, well-worn, faded shadow of a structuralist thinker. We must start by observing a strange paradox: it is almost impossible to separate Althusser’s writings from their inscription within the discourse of structuralism — and yet it is both delimiting and distortive to use without due care and qualification a concept of “structure” in connection with those writings. Always radical, sometimes conservative, structuralism sought to formalize relations of all kinds (be they linguistic, social, symbolic, or unconscious) in order to lay bare their position and function as elemental parts of a pre-given and ultimately knowable structured whole. If structuralism rapidly embedded itself within French intellectual life, becoming a shorthand for ahistoricism and antihumanism in method and quickly migrating to an Anglophone scene, it just as swiftly unraveled, mutated, and changed its shape and form. Prior to the publication of Reading Capital in 1965 (at long last published in English this year in its first unabridged edition)[i] it became apparent that the concept of structure, or “structured totality,” adopted by Althusser, threatened to contain and totalize the otherwise open, dynamic, and overdetermined understanding of the persistence of the capitalist mode of production.[ii] The effects of a static rendering of the relation of parts (elements of the superstructure) to the whole (the economy) can be seen in the 1970s and 1980s commentaries on Althusser that regularly accused him of dogmatism or functionalism, closing down Marxist analyses of history and change while emptying political struggle of a historical actor: the subject of history itself.


Whither Subject?

I have drawn attention to this peculiar paradox of structure because Althusser’s writings contest on multiple levels the basis of such a dogmatic or functionalist reading. I thus wonder whether we are better served by questioning — and rejecting — this image of him as a structuralist: an image that poses, unhelpfully, an antinomy between structure and subject and fails to capture the analytical power and originality of Althusser’s position in relation to both of these concepts. Instead we might usefully observe the many occasions throughout his work where emphasis is placed upon the contingency of relations and of history (see for example Althusser’s “Rousseau’s State of Pure Nature”); of formulations of the encounter or conjuncture in For Marx; and, perhaps most distinctly, in the later writings where an aleatory materialism captures a subterranean strain of materialism from Lucretius and Epicurus to Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Marx. Each of these occasions (there are, of course, many others) point to Althusser thinking through the messy field of history where any teleological view that connects origin to end and presents the subject or consciousness as the genesis of this process is shattered. For Althusser, history is a process without a subject or goal.[iii]

Althusser confronted several dominant intellectual positions in 1960s France, including that of Jean-Paul Sartre. Whereas Sartre advocated the subject’s political will or freedom as a principle of necessity, Althusser contended that humanism was an ideological form — and hence an illusion — that addressed individuals as imaginary subjects according to their social practices and normalized patterns of behavior. Baruch Spinoza, the great early modern philosopher of the 17th century, provides Althusser with a surprising ally in his intellectual battles of the 1960s, and there is evidence throughout his corpus pointing to the necessity of his engagement with Spinoza as a means of formulating his position in relation to Marx. Spinoza’s transformed status from marginalized, repressed figure in the history of philosophy to one whose political prescience is felt strongly today is due partly to the way his philosophy was adopted by Althusser and those associated with him.[iv] But why Spinoza?

Althusser was fascinated by Spinoza’s philosophical strategies, in particular the transformation of a medieval conception of a transcendental God as the cause and origin of all things into an infinite Substance that was able to think God and Nature simultaneously. For Althusser, it was this novel principle of Nature’s infinite diversity and non-totalizable form, expressing or producing itself in every finite existence, which helped him think the question of structure anew. No longer could structure be thought as simply containing, in a latent form, its various elements (however distinctive these might appear in themselves). Now it had a form of complexity and causality that was only understandable through its effects, thereby engendering these elements with a degree of autonomy, singularity, and specificity of their own.

In Spinoza’s Ethics, Althusser also claimed to discover the matrix of every possible theory of ideology: Spinoza offered an answer to the question of why men fight as bravely for servitude as for freedom. By refusing to treat ideology as simply ignorance or superstition, he chose to examine this world of the imaginary in relation to the materiality of bodies, which he viewed as aspects of thought and extension respectively. In so doing, Spinoza avoided every illusion of an originary, constitutive subject and so helped furnish Althusser’s own quest to develop a science freed from subjectivism in all its forms. What some critics identified as Althusser’s erasure of the subject, or its sheer absorption by a powerful structure, has been viewed as a kind of Marxist heresy in some circles because in Althusser’s account the agent of political change appeared all but lost. They have often recalled the May ’68 political slogan etched on the wall of the Sorbonne: “Structures do not march on the streets!” This is unfortunate to say the least. Althusser exposed the idealism of positions that both prioritize the subject (phenomenology) and those that claim to banish it (structuralism), and this makes the political stakes and philosophical value of his own position particularly high.[v]

In proposing the ideas of structural causality and history as a process without the subject, something excessive is opened up by Althusser’s thought. What had previously been the elusive ground of agency now mutates and morphs into something altogether different. When in his later writings Althusser suggests that the materialism of the encounter is “a process that has no subject,” does he not implore us to combine this image of the conjunction of elements, “raining down” like an infinity of atoms, whose singular relations and individualities constitute the subject merely as their ideological (or imaginary) effects? It is these concrete yet seemingly transitory combinations that the materialist philosopher studies. Historical materialism does not commence with an original abstract picture of man, or with a conception of human essence, as do theories of the social contract. Marx, like Spinoza, precludes essentialism by understanding the essence of any “thing” as that which corresponds to its actuality and concrete relations, and thus to a form of materialism. Social relations, economic relations of exchange (of wealth, of capital) cannot be reduced to relations merely between subjects, since they involve relationships with many different kinds of thing (in nature, technology, society, etc.), each of which reproduce and shape social relations of production, as well as the forms of struggle emerging through them and unfolding within the materiality of ideology.[vi] In this image of materialism, anything we might call “the subject” is found only within this social morphology of relation and combination where forms of struggle commence and where politics constantly reshapes itself in the process.

Althusser all but abandoned strict usage of the term “structure” in his later writings, and it is hard to reconcile his attention to singularity, social complexity, and contingency with the dominant image of structuralism. This profound difference is expressed in Althusser’s somewhat persistent image of the materialist philosopher:

The idealist philosopher […] knows in advance both where the train he is climbing onto is coming from and where it is going: what is its station of departure and its station of destination. The materialist […] takes the train in motion […] He climbs onto a train of chance, of encounter, and discovers in it the factual installations of the coach and of whatever companions he is factually surrounded with.[vii]

Like the experimental traveler described here, the contemporary materialist philosopher must endeavor to think practically and in the absence of conditions, begin with nothing and trust in no transcendent truth. She must be ceaselessly inventive to give shape and form to the contingent, the unexpected, and the historically new.[viii] 


Caroline Williams is Lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary University of London where she teaches political theory. Her research and publications have focused on the question of subjectivity, as well as the politics and philosophy of Althusser and Spinoza. She established the TheoryLAB in The School of Politics and International Relations in 2013.


[i] Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, Jacques Rancière, Reading Capital: The Complete Edition, London: Verso 2016.

[ii] For a fascinating discussion of the 1965 communication between Althusser and his friend and co-author of Reading Capital, Pierre Macherey, see Warren Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War, Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2013.

[iii] Althusser initially developed this concept in his “Reply to John Lewis” in: Essays on Ideology, Ben Brewster, London and New York: Verso Books 1984.

[iv] An excellent resource here is Warren Montag and Ted Stolze eds. The New Spinoza, Minneapolis: University of Minnnesota Press 1997.

[v] For a good example of Althusser’s critique of structuralism see “On Levi-Strauss,” in: The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, transl. G. M. Goshgarian, London and New York: Verso Books 2003.

[vi] For Althusser’s development of this topic, see On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, G. M. Goshgarian, London and New York: Verso Books 2014.

[vii] Althusser, “The Only Materialist Tradition,” in: The New Spinoza, p.13.

[viii] For further explorations of the themes developed here see Caroline Williams, “Structure and Subject,” in: Iain MacKenzie and Robert Porter eds. The Edinburgh Companion to Poststructuralism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2014; Caroline Williams, “Althusser and Spinoza: the enigma of the subject,” in Katja Diefenbach et al. eds. Encountering Althusser: Politics and Materialism in Contemporary Radical Thought, London and New York: Bloomsbury 2013.