previous chapter
Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
next chapter

Chapter 1
Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations

In For Marx and Reading Capital , Althusser interrogates Marx's theoretical framework in order to clarify the object and method of historical materialism and to develop general, cross-cultural concepts to facilitate the scientific production of comparative historical knowledge. Thus Althusser's concern for the conceptual foundations of historical research also involves an explicit and vigorous defense of the scientific nature of historical inquiry as initiated by Marx. While Althusser is highly critical of certain forms of traditional Marxist and non-Marxist historical thinking—reductionist concepts of causality (as well as the refusal to recognize society as both structured and determined), the use of anthropocentric or teleological categories as explanatory principles of historical process, the reflectionist tendency to posit a perfect correspondence or relation of identity between concepts and their real-world referents (as well as the historicist tendency to deny the validity of general concepts altogether)—the objective of his critique is constructive, not destructive.[1]

The Structural Marxist problematic is predicated on a realist view of science expressed succinctly by Althusser in the form of a "materialist thesis" asserting "the primacy of the real over thought about the real" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 87). For Althusser, objective reality precedes and circumscribes the historically relative production of knowledge, and therefore it is possible to reject both extreme relativism and extreme objectivism for a philosophical position that recognizes


both the social determination of knowledge as well as the validity of that knowledge. Althusser's defense of realist position in philosophy will be taken up later, but it is necessary to introduce it now to explain why my discussion of Structural Marxism originates with its concept of history and not, as is frequently the case, with its epistemology. The reason, baldly stated, is that Althusser rejects the philosophical guarantee of truth as irrelevant to the production of scientific knowledge. To be sure, in For Marx and Reading Capital , Althusser attempted to establish something resembling a philosophical-epistemological guarantee for historical knowledge, but this effort was less central to his overall project than is generally recognized and was, in any case, repudiated by Althusser soon after the publication of these texts. The ensuing shift from what is often, if misleadingly, referred to as an "epistemological Marxism" to a Marxist (or a historical-realist) concept of epistemology will be discussed at some length in chapter 3. Here I will simply preface the following discussion of Althusser's historical concepts with his, for the moment, unsubstantiated claim that "sciences produce knowledge from their object by constituting it" while producing knowledges "of their object in the specific mode that defines it" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 46).

It is the absence of such a combination of a rigorous definition of its theoretical object and the specification of concepts and discursive protocols capable of producing knowledges of that object that Althusser finds most disturbing in the existing practice of history:

History lives within the illusion that it can do without theory in the strong sense, without a theory of its object and therefore without a definition of its theoretical object. What acts as its theory, what it sees as taking the place of this theory is its methodology. . . . What history lacks is a conscious and courageous confrontation with one of the essential problems of any science whatsoever: the problem of the nature and constitution of its theory, by which I mean the theory within the science itself, the system of theoretical concepts on which is based every method and every practice, even the experimental method and practice, and which simultaneously defines its theoretical objects. (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 109)

Obviously this shortcoming does not in any way restrict the sheer volume of historical research. On the contrary, even as the problem of a theoretical object is theoretically evaded or ignored, it is practically resolved in an explosive proliferation of different categories or genres of history (diplomatic, economic, intellectual, social, and so on). Nevertheless, as Althusser's collaborator Etienne Balibar observes, there is


something curious about such histories: they tend to receive their objects of inquiry (women's experience, popular culture, technology, or whatever) passively rather than actively and rigorously creating them. The actual constitution of the object of their research usually lies outside the theoretical practice of these histories in the realm of other practices, theoretical or otherwise. The unfortunate result of this state of affairs is the absence of any concept of the relationship between these various histories. Thus for Balibar, each particular history is something of a paradox: "a discourse (supposedly critical par excellence ) which depends, for the constitution of its object on an uncritical operation—these histories encounter in their conceptualization and in the nature of their explanations, the insoluble problem of the mutual frontiers between this component history and other histories, and the history of the totality" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 248-49). This problem, Balibar contends, cannot and will not be resolved until history actually takes up the task of constituting its object instead of passively accepting it from elsewhere.

Althusser and Balibar are not expressing a desire for a "philosophy of history" that will specify the "essence" of history, its evolution and realization. Nor are they defending the idea that total, complete, or even direct knowledge will result from a decision to take up a more scientistic methodology with respect to historical research. Rather, they are claiming that in spite of genuine limitations, scientific knowledge of history is possible. Structural Marxism insists on the possibility of general scientific concepts that define the field of historical investigation, concepts adequate to the complexity and particularity of social phenomena across the broad spectrum of time and space. This body of concepts (what Althusser calls a "problematic") has as its theoretical object "social formations." Social formations are "structures of structures" integrated or articulated into a meaningful whole, yet each individual structure has a distinct existence in its own right. Social structures within a social formation are inscribed within a hierarchy of determinations that assigns them a place and a function, yet each possesses its own relative autonomy and mode of determination nonetheless. Althusser defends economic determination and class struggle as principles of explanation, yet he also insists that economic relations are not sufficient, in and of themselves, to explain historical phenomena. The strength of Structural Marxism is its ability to hold these seemingly contradictory positions in productive tension: to establish firm relationships between concepts of the social whole and concepts of its compo-


nent structures while maintaining throughout an awareness of the discrete levels of analysis appropriate to both.

Althusser: The Social Formation as a Totality of Instances

In Reading Capital , Althusser and Balibar define a social formation as a "totality of instances articulated on the basis of a determinate mode of production" (Althusser and Balibar, 1970, 207). Let us take this definition as our point of departure and, for the moment, concentrate on the social formation as a "totality of instances." The "instances" to which Althusser and Balibar refer are themselves distinct structural levels of social relations and "practices," each possessing a functional unity and composed of more specific structures. Practice is central to the concept of every instance—"all levels of social existence are the site of distinct practices" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 58)—but Althusser makes no hard and fast distinction among social structures, relations, and practices. Social relations are concrete actualizations or empirical manifestations of social structures, while social structures are realized, reproduced, and transformed through rule-bound yet open-ended practice , a term Althusser defines simply as "transformations effected by a determinate human labor using a determinate means (of 'production')" (Althusser 1969, 166). It is therefore pointless to speak of an opposition between "impersonal" structures and "human" practices within Structural Marxism. The thrust of Althusser's thinking is not to oppose the human and the inhuman; rather, it is to comprehend the contradictions between and within the structured relations and practices that constitute human beings as social subjects and constitute places, positions, and roles as the social space within which all human practice necessarily occurs. The predominance attributed to practice does not imply that human beings are the autonomous subjects of such practices—a position Althusser rejects—but it does firmly situate all social practices within the field of human activity.

Social formations are a complex hierarchy of functionally organized institutions or instances whose unity can be neither ignored altogether nor reduced to a single closed system.[2] In principle, the number of instances is open rather than closed, and the specification of distinct practices is a heuristic rather than an axiomatic process. Initially, Althusser specifies three instances, economic, political, and ideological, as designating practices necessary to the concept of a social formation insofar


as they refer to functions without which human social existence cannot be conceived. Economic practice refers to the transformation of nature into socially useful products, political practice to the reproduction and administration of collective social relations and their institutional forms, and ideological practice to the constitution of social subjects and their consciousness. Of course, Althusser and others have offered extended treatments of other types of practice—theoretical, aesthetic, and so on—that may have greater or lesser predominance depending on the particular type of society we are talking about.

All practices are viewed by Structural Marxists as unevenly developed or "contradictory." Although there are variations among different writers, we may fairly summarize the contradictions within each of the instances in the following fashion:

1. In economic practice, contradictions exist between relations of cooperation and exploitation within the labor process (the forces of production) and economic ownership (the relations of production). These contradictions are expressed as the antagonistic class interests and capacities of laborers and non-laborers with respect to control over the means and results of production.

2. In political practice, contradictions exist within and between relations of representation and relations of hegemony expressed in the antagonistic interests of the "power bloc," those classes or fractions of classes that effectively control the institutions of collective social organization, and the "masses," other classes or social groups within the social formation lacking such control.

3. In ideological practice, contradictions exist within and between relations of qualification (relations that empower and enable individuals as social subjects) and relations of subjection (relations that restrict individuals to specific roles and capacities).

To avoid another common misunderstanding of the Structural Marxist problematic, it is essential to keep in mind the distinction between the universality of economic, political, and ideological functions and the variety of determinate institutional forms within which these functions may be located historically. In particular, we must avoid the mistaken notion that there exists a single institutional form within every social formation that will correspond to the European concept of the market, the state, or the church. On the contrary, one or more of these functions may be exercised by different social institutions and manifested in relations particular to a specific social formation or mode of production. The historical specificity of functions (or combinations


of functions) does not, however, negate the applicability of general concepts for each function (any more than the general concept of a social subject is negated by the fact that a particular human being may combine distinct attributes or functions—mother, worker, citizen, and so on). While each function is material in that it exists in and through concrete material apparatuses, any concrete apparatus may combine a variety of functions and thus have an effectivity in more than one instance. Finally, it is important to recognize that there are different degrees of abstraction and specificity within the Structural Marxist problematic. For example, the general concept of a social formation as "a totality of instances articulated on the basis of a determinate mode of production" in no way implies that a particular social formation, say an African tribe or a European nation-state, can be deduced from general concepts (any more than it can be objectively built up from data "uncontaminated" by conceptual presuppositions). While there are real, qualitative differences between, for example, economic relations in lineage-based agricultural societies and industrialized capitalist states, there is also a level of generality and abstraction at which we can refer to both of these social formations as having economic relations.

The multiplicity of distinct practices exists always and only in the "complex unity" of a determinate social formation (another heuristic term applicable to forms of integration as diverse as a tribal territory and the global economy). At the level of analysis of the social formation, the economic, political, and ideological instances exist as a system of interrelated, interdependent practices and institutions to which Althusser refers as an "articulation," a unity of relations of domination and subordination. Althusser calls this simultaneous unity of distinct and unequal modes of determination "structural causality." At the same time, however, Althusser also insists on other, "regional" levels of analysis at which the "relative autonomy" of the instances must be acknowledged. Each instance, he maintains, has its own distinct rhythms of development internal to itself such that the social formation is always "unevenly developed," always a constellation of multiple contradictions whose ultimate outcome cannot be predicted. Althusser refuses any move that would "resolve" the tension between structural causality and relative autonomy in the direction of mechanistic determinism or pluralistic indeterminacy. Although each instance has its own relative autonomy, this autonomy exists only as a "specific effectivity" within the structured whole of the social formation, that is, as


the historical product of the unequal, distinct, and simultaneous effectivities of the complex unity of instances. Each instance, in other words, has a relative autonomy that is particular to itself but that has nevertheless been assigned a place and function within the complex unity of the social formation by the social formation itself (the historical matrix or condition of existence of each and every instance). By insisting on a structured hierarchy of determinations embodied in distinct and relatively autonomous institutions and practices, Althusser declares that the social formation cannot be understood either as a functional-pluralist organism in which everything causes everything else or in terms of a reflectionist-essentialist totality in which every practice may be understood as a microcosm of the whole.

The Social Formation Articulated on the Basis of a Mode of Production

Remember that Althusser and Balibar define a social formation not simply as a totality of instances but as a totality of instances "articulated on the basis of a determinate mode of production." The instances are articulated in relations of domination and subordination—a "structure in dominance"—and it is the primacy of the forces and relations of production which determine "in the last instance" the hierarchy of determinations within a given social formation. This formulation, which smacks of reflectionism, in reality demonstrates the care and sophistication with which Structural Marxists assert the traditional Marxist principle of economic determination. By the term mode of production Althusser and Balibar mean not only the forces and relations of production but also their social conditions of existence and the reproduction of those social conditions. Thus the concept of a mode of production refers not simply to the economic instance, the forces and relations of production proper, but also to the level of the social formation itself, insofar as other, non-economic instances are essential to the reproduction of the forces and relations of production. While the term mode of production is less comprehensive than the term social formation , it is more comprehensive than the economic instance alone. As a structured relation, a mode of production is subject to the same law of uneven development that applies to all social structures and therefore to the same tensions between tendencies toward reproduction and transformation. Nevertheless, whether by explicitly economic means or by institutional forms that may be predominantly political or


ideological, it is the structural requirements of the economic instance that constitute the organizing principle, the structure of dominance within a given social formation.

Economic determination in the last instance—for all practical purposes synonymous with the primacy of a mode of production—cannot be justifiably criticized for reducing the social formation to a mere reflection of the economy or for eliminating the dynamic effect of contradictory development in favor of some form of static functionalist equilibrium. A contradiction inheres in the uneven development of the economy, a contradiction manifested in various forms of social and economic crisis and in the constant struggle between antagonistic class interests within the forces and relations of production. Another type of uneven development can result from the existence of more than a single mode of production within a social formation. In Reading Capital , Balibar introduces the idea that social formations might be articulated on the basis of multiple modes of production, and as we shall see, this notion has been developed at greater length by Pierre-Philippe Rey and others. Not only does the articulation of multiple modes of production introduce additional complexity into the principle of economic determination, but it also provides an essential concept for thinking about historical transformation within the parameters of structural causality.

The economic function is determinant in the sense that the forces and relations of production establish "limits of variation" within the social formation as a structured whole. However, the "general contradiction"—namely the class antagonism within the forces and relations of production—cannot be understood in isolation from the contradictions between and within other social practices whose specific effectivities react back on the economy: "[the general contradiction] is radically affected by them, determining, but also determined in one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation it animates" (Althusser 1969, 101). Althusser likens this process to a "parallelogram of forces" wherein forces of different magnitude confront each other such that the resulting magnitude constitutes a new and different force reflecting the primacy of economic contradictions, but never purely or simply. The primacy of the economy, transmitted to the present from the past by the matrix effect of the mode of production, projects itself into the future as an ensemble of unresolved contradictions and as yet unrealized possibilities.

The concepts of a mode of production and uneven development, when coupled with the realization that social structures are always


manifested in social relations and actualized by social subjects, explain how it is that Althusser can make the claim (in his 1972 article "Reply to John Lewis," in Althusser 1976) that "class struggle is the motor of history" without thereby abandoning the concepts of structural causality he defends in his earlier books, For Marx and Reading Capital . The key to resolving this exegetic question is the fact that for Althusser the determinative effectivity of "class struggle" is not opposed or antithetical to economic determination in the last instance. They are actually the same phenomenon, structural causality, seen from the different perspectives of human relations and functional forces—both subject to determination in the last instance by the economy. As "non-economic" social structures are conceptualized by Althusser as a mode of production—that is, from the point of view of their determined but contradictory relationship to the transformation and reproduction of the forces and relations of production—so non-economic social relations (which are the concrete manifestation of structural forces) are viewed in terms of their specific effectivities with respect to the transformation and reproduction of the social relations of the economy, namely, antagonistic class relations. The statement "class struggle is the motor of history" restates rather than contradicts Althusser's definition of a social formation as a "totality of instances articulated on the basis of a determinate mode of production." Corresponding to the structural concept of mode of production, moreover, is a particular concept of social relations referred to by Althusser as "social class," by which he means the class bias or class valence of non-economic social relations. How it is that individual human beings are constituted as members of social classes is a question to which we will return.

With this schematic overview of Althusser's concept of a social formation, we have laid the groundwork for the remainder of the present chapter and its successor and introduced certain important themes of the book as a whole. One of the difficulties in reading Althusser is that his essays form a network of mutually supporting arguments (often cast in the form of polemics directed against positions that Althusser rejects) in such a fashion that it is difficult to assess his work except in its entirety and after taking at least one turn around it. We have completed this first turn and are now in a position to grasp the general outline of the Structural Marxist problematic and perhaps to appreciate the interesting solutions it offers to certain well-established criticisms of Marxist theory, particularly to the charge of economic reductionism. By means of the concepts of a mode of production and social class relations, it is


possible to understand why an Inca high priest, a French feudal lord, a Soviet apparatchik , and an American industrialist may each be said to embody the interest of an exploiting class and be an active participant in an ongoing class struggle. Furthermore, by employing the concepts of a social formation and structural causality, it is not necessary to reach such an understanding by ignoring the importance of religion, vassalage, party membership, or private property in a particular society or by simplifying the historical complexity of particular social formations in order to render concepts of class struggle and economic determination applicable to them.

The Materialist Rationalism of Spinoza

Althusser's concept of structural causality has its roots in the philosophy of Spinoza, who in Althusser's opinion should be credited with an "unprecedented theoretical revolution in philosophy," a revolution that makes him, rather than Hegel, "Marx's only direct ancestor" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 102). Althusser's enthusiasm for Spinoza, perhaps the most determined defender of metaphysical rationalism in the history of philosophy, has occasioned a great deal of confusion in Althusserian criticism. Althusser is often condemned out of hand by those who do not understand or do not bother to understand either Spinoza's philosophical position or what Althusser accepts and rejects in it.[3] We must keep in mind that Spinoza wrote at a time when the distinction between philosophy and science was not yet clear, when science was still known as "natural philosophy," and when the struggle between science and religion was still political and violent. What strikes Althusser so forcefully about Spinoza's philosophy is the rigorous and original materialist and realist positions that it defends and the superiority of Spinoza's concepts of causality and knowledge over those of Descartes and Leibniz, against whom Spinoza's achievement must be measured. Althusser is not a Spinozist who reads Marx, however; he is a Marxist who reads Spinoza. This means, above all, that Althusser is not (as Spinoza most certainly is) a philosophical rationalist: that is, he does not operate on the basis of indubitable, because logically necessary, propositions from which further knowledge, equally certain, can be deduced by the proper exercise of reason.

What is so revolutionary about Spinoza's philosophy, for Althusser, is the fact that it provides a concept of causality that explains the infinite phenomenal universe in terms of a single substance, God or Na-


ture, without recourse to a transcendent being, origin, or goal required to render the order of things intelligible. For Spinoza, God is infinite, but immanent in the infinity of Nature (substance under the attribute of extension) and its eternal laws, outside or beyond which there can be nothing. God or Nature is causa sui or self-determined, Spinoza contends, but only in the sense of being subject to the immutable laws of its own essence. There is nothing arbitrary in Nature, no moment of creation and no external intervention, for there is nothing conceivable outside Nature. Nature, then, is nothing but its effects (the attributes and modes or states of substance). The finite mode of phenomenal elements and the infinite flux of their causal interaction are not reflections or expressions of Nature; rather, they are Nature—elements structured by the natural law of the whole but at the same time constituting the whole by their reciprocal activity. Nature actively creating itself in its attributes and their various modes (Natura Naturans ) is only the obverse of Nature as the existing, established structure or system of the universe (Natura Naturata ). Both the elements and the whole are necessary and complementary aspects of causality.

Spinoza also defends a materialist position with regard to human nature, rejecting the Cartesian dualism of mind and body in favor of monism, a single substance with attributes of thought and extension. The human mind, in other words, is inseparable from the human body; human intelligence is nothing more than the mental correlate of the physical complexity of the body. This means that human beings are to be understood as natural bodies and therefore by means of the same natural laws that apply to all other phenomena. Spinoza's displacement of the human subject from the center of the universe, and his recognition of the distorting effect of taking human nature as an explanatory principle, is viewed very sympathetically by Althusser. Finally, although it does not concern us directly at this point, it is significant for Althusser that Spinoza defends a realist as well as a rationalist position with regard to knowledge. Spinoza, like Althusser, holds that ideas and their objects correspond—that is, that valid knowledge is possible. The difference between them, the irreducible and irrevocable effect of Althusser's Marxism, is that while Spinoza offers a rationalist proof of this correspondence—since ideas and objects are attributes of a single substance, they not only correspond but are identical—Althusser rejects the rationalist enterprise as "speculative" and denies the claim that human reason is able to achieve certainty with regard to metaphysical puzzles such as the nature of being. Denying the possibility of a ration-


alist proof of a realist epistemology does not, as we shall see, entail abandoning a rational defense of scientific realism. It does, however, mark an absolute distinction between Spinoza's rationalist certainty and Althusser's materialist thesis regarding the primacy of the real over thought about the real.

But even this assessment does Spinoza a great injustice from the Althusserian point of view. Descartes and Leibniz were also rationalists, yet Althusser finds their positions worse than useless to a science of history, leading as they do to epistemological subjectivism and empiricism (in the case of Descartes) and essentialist idealism (in the case of Leibniz). By contrast, Spinoza's rationalist materialism leads to Marx's historical materialism—albeit indirectly, through Hegel's idealist and teleological reworking of Spinoza's system and Marx's subsequent critique of the Hegelian dialectic, which resulted in the independent recovery of certain of Spinoza's insights. For Althusser, Spinoza's rationalist view of knowledge, unlike that of Descartes or Leibniz, cannot be simply dismissed; instead, its realist kernel must be extracted from its rationalist shell. Spinoza distinguishes between different levels of mental activity, imagination (ideas tied closely to the body and the individual experience) and reason (ideas of ideas, ideas based on objective general concepts and logical principles of coherence). Spinoza bases this distinction not on the epistemological distinction between truth and error but on differences in degrees of "adequacy," that is, objectivity, logical coherence, and breadth of explanatory power. Thus, for Spinoza there is no such thing as absolute error; because every idea has a material cause, it expresses, however inadequately, a certain degree of understanding of the real world. Nor can there be total or absolute adequacy for any human intelligence, but only for God, who is infinite and therefore circumscribes all thought and extension as perfectly adequate knowledge.

As we shall see, Althusser accepts the realist implication of Spinoza's conception of differing degrees of adequate knowledge and incorporates them into his own distinction between science and ideology, but he nonetheless rejects the corresponding rationalist proof by which Spinoza renders adequate ideas necessarily and absolutely true. Spinoza is not simply arguing that both imagination and reason correspond, with different degrees of adequacy, to reality. He is also asserting, by virtue of the logical consequences of his proposition that Nature is a single substance with attributes of thought and extension, that objects and ideas must have perfectly corresponding structures. Furthermore, Spi-


noza insists that we, as rational beings, have some intuitions (he calls them "common notions") about which we are absolutely certain and from which additional truths can be established without the possibility of error. It is this rationalist certainty that Althusser rejects. Even in his early works Althusser denies the possibility of any philosophical (or scientific) guarantee of truth or certainty. The materialist thesis, that thought about the real presupposes the primacy of the real over thought, is accompanied by an insistence that "the elements of thought . . . not be confused with the order of the real," a completely different thing from Spinoza's rationalist proof of the identity of idea and ideatum: "No doubt there is a relation between thought about the real and this real , but it is a relation of knowledge , a relation of adequacy or inadequacy of knowledge, not a real relation, meaning by this a relation inscribed in that real of which thought is the (adequate or inadequate) knowledge" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 87).

Althusser defends the position that there is a correlation, not an identity, between thought and reality, but he cannot prove it, and he rejects Spinoza's rationalist claim that it can ever be proven. Therefore, the frequently encountered idea that Althusser's general concept of "practice" was meant to serve as a transcendental, pseudo-Spinozist copula linking ideas and reality is simply untenable.[4] However, Althusser's early formulation of philosophy as the "Theory of theoretical practice" faintly echoes Spinoza's notion of a second order of thought, cognitio reflexiva or "ideas of ideas," at which level it is possible to distinguish, with complete certainty, "vague experience" from rational understanding. By positing Marxist philosophy, or dialectical materialism, as a "Theory of theoretical practice" in For Marx and Reading Capital , Althusser does not fully distinguish himself from the rationalist tradition that claims that philosophy, not science, decides what is scientific knowledge and what isn't. Given Althusser's general opposition to rationalism, however, his eventual rejection of the idea of a philosophical "Theory of theoretical practice" was a foregone conclusion. Spinoza's formulation does, in fact, correspond to Althusser's description of an "epistemological break" between a science and what that science retrospectively labels "ideology," but it is also radically distinct from Althusser's concept by virtue of the latter's historical , not rationalist, materialism. Althusser never abandons the concept of an epistemological break, but he progressively empties it of its rationalist significations of absolute truth and error. Scientific realism thus becomes a position to be defended in philosophy, not an apodictic proposition demon-


strable by philosophy (philosophy being neither a science nor the arbiter of science).

Spinoza's idea of causality, to return again to our central theme, accounts for the relationship of phenomena, including human beings, in terms of the structure of nature without recourse to any external agency such as an interventionist God. This is an astounding achievement for the seventeenth century, an age in which religion was still the dominant ideological force and in which the awakening opposition to superstition came as much from Renaissance humanism as it did from natural science. Spinoza's "rejection of all philosophies of the Subject—either God or Man" accounts, in Althusser's opinion, both for the magnitude of his achievement and "massive repression" of his thought "at the end of the age of God . . . and the beginning of the age of Man" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 102). For the last four hundred years, the discourse of reason has been dominated not by the impersonal materialism of Spinoza but by the philosophies of his rivals Descartes (through Locke, Hume, and Mill) and Leibniz (through Wolff, Kant, and Hegel). For Althusser, as for anyone who will concede even the slightest influence of social and political struggles on the "life of the mind," such an outcome is hardly surprising. Yet Althusser presses further, much further, the negative consequences of these developments both for philosophy and for the science of history.

The Critique of Transitive and Expressive Causalities

Althusser contrasts Spinoza's philosophy with the traditions of Descartes and Leibniz in two respects: first with regard to their respective capacities to deal with the problem of causality and second with regard to their respective capacities to explain social as opposed to natural phenomena. Althusser characterizes the Cartesian view of causality by the term transitive causality , by which he means an "analytic effectivity which reduces the whole to the result or sum of its parts," and the tradition of Leibniz by the term expressive causality , denoting an emphasis on the "primacy of the whole as an essence of which the parts are no more than the phenomenal expressions" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 186-87). Defining these terms in this way, Althusser feels justified in expanding their reference, applying the term transitive causality broadly to include the tradition of British empiricism and, in an even more sweeping generalization, employing the term expressive causality


to characterize Hegelian dialectics, economism of the "vulgar" Marxist variety, and the "absolute historicism" of Gramsci, Lukács, and Korsch (which posits the incommensurability of historical epochs).

Along a distinct but not unrelated axis, Althusser finds the traditions of Descartes and Leibniz equally predicated on the category of a subject—the subject of knowledge, history, and so on. It matters little, for Althusser's purposes, whether the subject is Leibniz's omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent Creator of this the best of all possible worlds or Descartes's free and rational human being inaugurating (albeit still with God's blessing) the heroic struggle of Man to realize reason in history. In either case, Althusser argues, the reliance on the category of the subject, whether God (idealism) or Man (humanism), necessarily introduces a teleological distortion into the scientific understanding of history. In emphasizing the connections between empiricism, historicism, idealism, economism, and humanism, Althusser necessarily ignores the many things that distinguish them. Critics have feasted on this fact, without, it must be added, being able to deny (when they bother to acknowledge it at all) the general thrust of his argument—that such connections exist and that they are significant.

Transitive or linear causality is criticized by Althusser for being simply a "history of elements" lacking any concept of either the structured interrelationship between elements or the radical differences between elements in different structural contexts. This type of causality, usually associated with the empiricist tradition of Locke and Hume, treats causality like a game of billiards in which homogeneous but atomized elements bounce off each other in a linear and unique sequence lacking any general structure beyond the cumulative effects of the series of individual collisions. Not only does linear causality ignore such crucial factors as the historical specificity and transformation of elements, but it also cannot grasp the unity of different social formations that accounts for the historical individuality of the elements. Linear causality, in fact, dissolves a particular structure into its elements in order to construct from them a "history" that can be no more than an ahistorical genealogy of contemporary categories transposed onto past events. Taking the "history of ideas" as his example, Althusser argues that transitive causality is based on three theoretical presuppositions that are always active within it:

The first presupposition is analytic; it holds that any theoretical system and any constituted thought is reducible to its elements: a precondition that enables one to think any element of the system on its own, and to compare it


with another similar element from another system. The second presupposition is teleological: it institutes a secret tribunal of history which judges the ideas submitted to it, or rather, which permits the dissolution of (different) systems into their elements, institutes these elements as elements in order to proceed to their measurement according to its own norms as if to their truth. Finally, these two presuppositions depend on a third, which regards the history of ideas as its own element, and maintains that nothing happens there which is not a product of the history of ideas itself. (Althusser 1969, 56-57)

Expressive causality is the converse of transitive causality. Within the problematic of expressive causality, all the phenomena of any one period—its economy, polity, law, philosophy, and so on—are viewed as externalizations of one internal principle that is the essence of those phenomena, manifesting itself in each and expressed by every one of them. Such thinking may take either a materialist form, for example, "economism" (Althusser's pejorative term for economic reflectionism) and "mechanism" (various forms of positivist materialism—for example, social Darwinism—which reduce social processes to natural ones), or an idealist form, such as the spiritual unity of Leibniz's "pre-established harmony" expressed in each material monad and in each mind that "concentrates the whole into itself" as if into a "total part," or finally, the "identity of opposites" of the Hegelian dialectic (including by extension all forms of Hegelian Marxism). In all its forms, expressive causality presupposes an immanent cause, an inner essence, applicable everywhere and at every moment to each of the phenomena within the totality in question.

Expressive causality is usually determinist, but one variant, "historicism," assumes a radically aleatory posture. Taking Antonio Gramsci's conception of Marxism as an "organic ideology" as his point of departure, Althusser defines historicism as a peculiar blend of transitive and expressive causalities (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 126-36). For historicism, all social phenomena, including knowledge itself, are reduced to organic expressions of a totality (for Gramsci, a "historical bloc"), while totalities succeed each other in a contingent, transitive fashion explained in terms of human freedom (for Gramsci, the activity and experience of the masses). Historicism, Althusser contends, privileges social action over the structural conditions of its existence and epistemological relativism over scientific realism. The historicist assimilates all social practices into a single practice, an undifferentiated historical praxis , which is then hypostatized as the autonomous driving force of history. By grounding knowledge in the expressive unity of a "concrete"


totality, the historicist further privileges subjectivism and voluntarism by relativizing the production of knowledge itself. In Gramsci's case this voluntarism took the form of a Marxist "inversion" of the liberal historicism of Benedetto Croce, the Italian neo-Hegelian philosopher of "liberty," but the result is the same for all historicisms, Marxist or otherwise—an awkward combination of expressive causality with respect to the present (a problematic of totality), transitive causality with respect to the past (a problematic of elements and origins), and "experimental" freedom with respect to the future (a problematic of pragmatism: whatever works is true). While Althusser evinces great respect for the "enormous historical and political genius" of Gramsci, especially for his concept of hegemony, he rejects Gramsci's "absolute" historicism in favor of a position that defends the primacy of realism over relativism in philosophy and the explanatory priority of social structures over human practice in history.

Expressive causality presents itself as a complex totality—the infinite interrelationships between Leibniz's monads, the infinite mediations of the Hegelian totality—but in Althusser's view, the apparent complexity of the product of expressive causality conceals an even more basic simplicity. Expressive causality reduces a complex of diverse phenomena to a single, undifferentiated essence such as Geist , pre-established harmony, genetic endowment, and so on. From the perspective of expressive causality, as with transitive causality, the historical process is viewed as a linear continuum within which a single internal principle unfolds its successive moments and the several totalities that follow one another become merely the successive expressions of these successive moments. A cross-section at any point through the historical continuum, as it is conceived under the aegis of expressive causality, will always reveal such a simple essence, what Althusser calls an "essential section": "A vertical break made at any moment in historical time will reveal a totality all of whose parts are so many 'total parts' each expressing the others, and each expressing the social totality that contains them, because each in itself contains the immediate form of its expressions the essence of the totality itself" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 94).

Structural Causality and Darstellung

In contrast to transitive causality, expressive causality does have a category for the effectivity of the social whole on its elements, but Althus-


ser maintains that this category is "premised on the absolute condition that the whole is not conceived as a structure." In fact, neither transitive nor expressive causality is capable of thinking the structural unity of distinct elements. "If the whole is posited as structured, i.e., as possessing a type of unity quite different from the type of unity of the spiritual whole . . . not only does it become impossible to think the determination of the elements by the structure in the categories of . . . transitive causality, it also becomes impossible to think it in the category of the global expressive causality of a universal inner essence immanent in its phenomenon" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 187). The proposal to think the determination of the elements of a whole by the structure of the whole poses a different problem altogether, one first recognized, Althusser contends, by Spinoza, then buried in darkness until finally rediscovered by Marx.

According to this third notion of causality, which Althusser calls structural causality , relations between elements of the whole are not exterior to the whole, as is the case with transitive causality, nor are they expressions of its immanent principle, as with expressive causality. Instead, the whole is nothing less than the reciprocal effectivities of its elements, at the same time as these elements are determined by the whole, that is, by their interrelationship with all the other elements within the whole. The cause of the effects is the "complex organization of the whole" while the latter is precisely "the sum of the effects and their interrelationships." The structure of the whole is "immanent in its effects in the Spinozist sense of the term, that is the whole existence of the structure consists of its effects , in short [it] is merely a specific combination of its peculiar elements [and] is nothing outside its effects" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 188-89). The whole becomes what Althusser calls an "absent cause" because it is present only in and through the reciprocal effectivity of its elements, and Althusser uses Marx's term Darstellung (representation, mise-en-scène) to express this idea. Althusser describes the gradual development of a concept of causality by which Marx was able to break definitively with metaphors of interiority and exteriority, a concept of causality that designated the existence of a structure in its effects:

In every case, the ordinary distinctions between outside and inside disappear, along with the "intimate" links within the phenomena as opposed to their visible disorder: we find a different image, a new quasi-concept, definitely freed from the empiricist antinomies of phenomenal subjectivity and essential interiority; we find an objective system governed in its most con-


crete determinations by laws of its erection (montage) and machinery , by the specifications of its concept. Now we can recall that highly symptomatic term "Darstellung ," compare it with this "machinery" and take it literally, as the very existence of this machinery in its effects: the mode of existence of the stage direction (mise en scène ) on the theater which is simultaneously its own stage, its own script, its own actors, the theater whose spectators can, on occasion, be spectators only because they are first of all forced to be its actors, caught by constraints of a script and parts whose authors they cannot be, since it is in essence an authorless theater . (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 193)

Ben Brewster, Althusser's translator and compiler of the glossaries to For Marx and Reading Capital , provides a helpful explanation of Althusser's analogy: "Empiricist ideologies, seeing the action on the stage, the effects, believe that they are seeing a faithful copy of reality, recognizing themselves and their preconceptions in the mirror held up to them by the play. . . . The Hegelian detects the hand of God or the Spirit writing the script and directing the play. For the Marxist, on the contrary, this is a theater, but one which reflects neither simple reality nor any transcendental truth, a theater without an author; the object of his science is the mechanism which produces the stage effects (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 310).

Structural causality conceptualizes the social whole as a parallelogram of forces each bearing within itself the imprint of its conditions of existence, the social whole. Althusser's insistence that the whole and the parts are inseparable and that the whole is present in the relation of its effects forces us to think causal relationships as complex rather than simple phenomena. In the first place, structural causality makes us think of causality as a relation. "What Althusser is trying to hammer home to us," Alex Callinicos points out, "is the shift from treating a cause as a thing, a substance, a distinct, separately identifiable entity to treating it as a relation, from something that can be immediately or ultimately pointed to, grasped hold of, to treating it as the displacements effected by the structure of a whole upon its elements. . . . [R]eality is not something underlying these appearances, it is the structured relation of these appearances" (Callinicos 1976, 52). More profoundly, the concept of structural causality forces us to recognize that social structures must be conceptualized along two dimensions, one that stresses the structured whole as the reciprocal effectivity of its elements, but also a second that investigates the structure of the elements themselves with the intention of discovering their particular effectivity. These dimensions do not, of course, exist in isolation. Rather, they


form a kind of dialectic that forces us to move ceaselessly from one level of analysis to another: from a given level of generality to a more specific one and from a given level of specificity to a more general one. Furthermore, as if things were not complicated enough, we must realize that we are as yet dealing with only a single theoretical moment, what Althusser calls a "conjuncture," and that we have yet to pose the problem of prior conjunctures and the problems of transition and periodization.

Before moving on, we might pause to consider once again the distance that separates Althusser's concept of structural causality from Spinoza's rationalist metaphysics. Spinoza envisages a kind of unified and complete science that would enable every natural change to be shown as a completely determined effect within a single system of causes; that is, everything would be adequately explicable within a single theory. Althusser would not disagree that such a conclusion follows logically from Spinoza's concept of God or Nature, which does not permit inadequacy or uneven development. Althusser might even accept this proposition as an ultimate conclusion of a realist and materialist position within philosophy. However, Althusser would insist that such a "speculative-rationalist" philosophical conclusion is of little use to scientific practice. Spinoza maintains that insofar as we reflect on our ideas—that is, insofar as we remain within the realm of pure logic—we participate in the same relationship of adequacy/certainty as God, although at an infinitely lower level. For Althusser, by contrast, we cannot be apodictically certain of even this degree of adequacy. For Althusser, as much as for Wittgenstein or Derrida, theoretical practice is internally marked by differential dislocations or gaps that cannot be eliminated precisely because human reason cannot meaningfully approximate the godlike relationship of adequacy/certainty that Spinoza believes to be attainable by means of deduction from self-evident or logically indubitable propositions.

Structure in Dominance and Determination in the Last Instance

Althusser's insistence on the relational nature of structural causality does not imply a structural twilight in which all determinations are equally grey. Althusser emphatically rejects the pluralist truism that "everything causes everything else" and insists on the importance of patterns of dominance and subordination within the unity of the social


formation. If it is the case that all social phenomena exist relationally, it does not follow that all have identical or equal effectivities. The concept of the social formation implies an internal hierarchy, a precise and specifiable pattern of interrelationship between the elements within the whole. Social formations are always "structures in dominance" because there is always a hierarchy of effectivity and always one element which plays a dominant role. "While one element can displace another to assume the dominant role, such variations occur within a structure which is invariant to the extent that it always has a dominant element" (Althusser 1969, 179). Conversely, the fact that one element dominates the others presupposes that the complexity in which it is inscribed is that of a structured unity.

Domination is not just an indifferent fact, it is a fact essential to the complexity itself. That is why complexity implies domination as one of its essentials: it is inscribed in its structure. So to claim that this unity is not and cannot be the unity of a simple, original and universal essence is not . . . to sacrifice unity on the altar of "pluralism," it is to claim something quite different: that the unity discussed by Marxism is the unity of the complexity itself, that the mode of organization and articulation of the complexity is precisely what constitutes its unity. It is to claim that the complex whole has the unity of a structure in dominance. (Althusser 1969, 201-2)

Structure in dominance should not be confused with the distinct but closely related term determination in the last instance , by which Althusser means the primacy of the economic instance or mode of production within any social formation. Althusser does employ the metaphorical notions of base and superstructure but not in a reflectionist sense: "the economy determines for the non-economic elements their respective degrees of autonomy/dependence in relation to itself and to one another, thus their differential degrees of specific effectivity. It can determine itself as dominant or not-dominant at any particular time, and in the latter case it determines which of the elements is to be dominant" (Althusser 1969, 255). Clearly, determination in the last instance is not intended as a unilateral relationship of causality. The mode of production is the "deep structure" or base of the social formation in the sense that it defines fully the economic instance even in social formations where the forces and relations of production are institutionally separated. Determination in the last instance by the economy means that its primacy establishes certain boundaries or limits to the autonomy of the political and ideological functions. The economy does not select particular political or ideological institutions; it excludes those


institutions incompatible with the existing forces and relations of production. The primacy of the economy does not, in other words, explain the political and ideological instances in such a way that they can be simply read off or deduced from the structure of the mode of production. Economic determination in the last instance does not indicate that there ever was or ever will be some point (origin, goal) when the economy was or will be solely determinant with respect to the other instances. "The economic dialectic is never active in the pure state; in History, these instances, the superstructures, etc.—are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done, or when the Time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the 'last instance' never comes" (Althusser 1969, 113).

Althusser is not simply playing fast and loose with words in asserting determination in the last instance while insisting that "the last instance never comes." He is attempting to define an alternative position between two equally unacceptable versions of causality: transitive causality, which can think only in terms of an endless chain of cause and effect (X happened because of Y, Y because of Z , and so on to infinity), and expressive causality, which reduces the effectivity of the elements to reflections of an essence (X, Y , and Z are all really manifestations of A , the single, independent, and omnipresent variable). Althusser's position is a realist one: structural forces or laws are at work in social formations, but unlike the natural sciences, historical science can never experimentally isolate them from each other. The phrase "the last instance never comes" recognizes what Althusser calls the "ever pregivenness" (toujours déjà donné ) of social structures. This means a social formation is "always already there" as the copresence of all its elements, their specific effectivities, and the relations of dominance and subordination that obtain between them. The primacy of the economy is always already there in the historical conditions of existence of the present conjuncture, yet the primacy of the economic function is exerted only in the context of a parallelogram of forces within which the economic itself is articulated.

Althusser's distinction between determinant and dominant structures allows us to amplify Marx's famous remark that "the middle ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics." On the contrary, Marx insisted, "it was the mode in which they gained a livelihood that explains why here politics, and there Catholicism, played


the chief part" (Marx 1967, 82). Anthropologist Maurice Godelier (1977) provides a particularly helpful explication of the concept of economic determination in the last instance in the context of so-called primitive societies dominated by kinship structures. In "primitive" society, kinship, a non-economic relation, appears both determining and dominant, Godelier acknowledges, and this anomaly has often been used to discredit the Marxist idea of economic determination. However, Godelier argues that it is not the concept of economic determination that is at fault but rather the tendency of anthropologists and historians to confuse abstract functional distinctions (economic, political, kinship relations) with concrete physical institutions that are the bearers of these functions.

Social formations smaller and less complex than our own, Godelier explains, will obviously have fewer and less specialized institutions; these institutions will typically support a number of functions that will become institutionally separated in the course of historical development. For example, looking for a separate base and superstructure in "primitive" societies yields productive "forces" (hunting, fishing, breeding, and so on) but no "relations of production" other than kinship. Kinship determines the rights of an individual to land and its products, his or her obligations in relation to the productive activities of the community, and even authority in political and religious matters. Godelier contends that kinship relations are both infrastructure and superstructure in such societies, functioning not only as family relations but as relations of production, political relations, and ideological "socialization" as well. In other words, kinship is the dominant social structure, but is it determinant as well? Godelier say no. For Godelier, the dominant, multifunctional nature of kinship is in actuality "determined by the low level of productive forces, a low level of development which imposes the sexual division of labor and the cooperation of both sexes in order to subsist and reproduce their way of life" (Godelier 1977, 123). Godelier cautions against mistaking a "unity" of functions for a "confusion" of functions. Accepting the fact that a given structure may act as the support for a unity of several functions does not justify confusing the different structural effectivities of each function. Structural causality, therefore, should conceptualize a hierarchy of functional distinctions and structural causalities "without in any way prejudicing the nature of the structures, which in every case performs these functions (kinship, politics, religion . . .), nor the number of functions which a structure may support" (Godelier 1977, 2).


If we wish to explain the evolution of primitive societies, Godelier goes on to say, we have to explain the appearance of new incompatible functions alongside the maintenance or reproduction of existing social structures. Suppose new techniques of production modify the place of residence or the nature of the cooperative labor process or introduce some other change that demands new relations of production. Beyond a certain limit, kinship relations no longer correspond to new social conditions. Perhaps new political relations, based on centralized tribal power, appear in certain social formations. These political relations seemingly extend kinship—the authority of the chief is legitimized by the contention that he is the "father" of his people—but in fact kinship has been replaced. Kinship has not been mysteriously transmuted into an explicitly political structure, Godelier points out; rather, the political function formerly exercised by kinship relations is now being developed on the basis of a new structure with new relations of dominance and determination. The new structure in dominance, hereditary chiefdom, is dominant because the chief exercises economic ownership over the means of production, but the economic function remains determinant because the new labor processes and new relations of ownership are a unity on the basis of which all the political functions of the new chiefdom and all the ideological functions within the social formation (including family relations) are now reorganized. The economic function has been determinant throughout because it was the contradictory development of the previous mode of production which made possible the shift in dominance from family relations of kinship to centralized political authority. Dominance is determined by economic development, and the economy is primary even when control over the means of production resides in structures that are primarily non-economic in nature.

The epistemological significance of Althusser's efforts should also be noted. Althusser is defining and defending a theoretical space between the naive objectivism of reflection theory and the sophisticated relativism of positivist concepts such as Weber's notion of "elective affinity" and postmodern formulations such as Derrida's notion of différance . In this context as well, Althusser's concept of determination in the last instance appears as something of a realist manifesto: a declaration of faith that, on the other side of the aporias inherent in human language and even human reason, the real world exists and that we have valid knowledge of it. For Althusser, determination in the last instance provides, for historical science, that minimal level of theoretical coherence without which the very production of knowledge is inconceivable.


Without a concept such as economic determination, history can be envisioned only as radical exteriority, a chaotic "war of every element against every other," or as radical interiority, every element being an epiphenomenon of a transcendent essence animating the whole through its elements.

The structure of the whole is articulated as the structure of an organic, hierarchized whole. The coexistence of limbs and their relations in the whole is governed by the order of a dominant structure which introduces a specific order into the articulation . . . of the limbs and their relations. . . . [T]his dominance of a structure . . . cannot be reduced to the primacy of a center, any more than the relation between the elements and the structure can be reduced to the expressive unity of the essence within its phenomena. This hierarchy only represents the hierarchy of effectivity that exists between different "levels" or instances of the social whole. Because each of the levels is itself structured, the hierarchy represents the degree and the index of effectivity existing between the different structured levels present in the whole: it is the hierarchy of effectivity of a structure dominant over subordinate structures and their elements. . . . [I]n order to conceive the "dominance" of a structure over other structures in the unity of a conjuncture it is necessary to refer to the principle of the "determination in the last instance" of the non-economic structures by the economic structure; . . . this "determination in the last instance" is an absolute precondition for the necessity and intelligibility of the displacements of the structures in the hierarchy of effectivity, or of the displacement of 'dominance' between the structured levels of the whole; only this "determination in the last instance" makes it possible to escape the arbitrary relativism of observable displacements by giving these displacements the necessity of a function. (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 98-99)

Hegel or Spinoza?

Althusser develops a concept of contradiction radically different from that of Hegel and those variants of Marxism that identify Marx's dialectic with Hegel's. Unfortunately, Althusser's rejection of the Hegelian dialectic is often interpreted as a rejection of the very idea of historical process or, even worse, as evidence of the inability of Structural Marxism to develop a satisfactory alternative to the Hegelian concept of contradiction. Althusser's Spinozism has served critics admirably in this regard, for as Althusser himself acknowledges, "whatever you do, you cannot find in Spinoza what Hegel gave to Marx: contradiction" (Althusser 1976, 139). Spinoza lacks a concept of contradiction because he is unconcerned with historical development and social determination as opposed to logical propositions pertaining to the necessary existence


and qualities of things. Spinoza's concept of structural causality is, in effect, identified with the laws of logic and thereby denied full theoretical development. From Spinoza's rationalist perspective, restricted as it is to the "eternity of the concept" (to use Althusser's apt characterization), physical and social change is dismissed as secondary and uninteresting, part of an infinite chain of cause and effect associated with an inadequate knowledge of the world. Time is an inadequate concept for Spinoza because it is associated with the subjectivity of the imagination, not the objectivity of reason. Spinoza does not simply subordinate temporal development and social determinations to the laws of nature, a materialist and realist move with which there can be little quarrel; he goes on to empty these concepts of all significance by subordinating the laws of nature to the laws of logic within the framework of a rationalist ontology.

Hegel, of course, takes the immobility of Spinoza's system as his starting point. Althusser acknowledges that Hegel introduces a developmental process within the absolute based on the dialectical logic of the negation of the negation, but no more than Spinoza can Hegel be said to have provided a concept of the differential effectivity of social structures of the type that Althusser finds in Marx. Furthermore, Althusser maintains that Hegel is able to "set Spinoza in motion" only by means of a philosophical regression, namely, by reintroducing expressive causality and the category of the subject into the concept of the absolute, a move that Spinoza's materialist concept of structural causality, its rationalism notwithstanding, had already discredited. Pierre Macherey (1979) goes so far as to argue that Hegel could transcend Spinoza only by failing to understand him in this regard. For Althusser and other Structural Marxist critics of Hegel such as Macherey and Godelier, Hegel's expressive or immanent causality cannot think social determination or contradiction except on the condition that they are ultimately emptied of all meaningful difference, that is, on the condition that they be conceptualized, in Godelier's words, expressively as an identity of opposites and not structurally as a unity of differences (Godelier 1972).[5] It is Althusser's position that Marx could not have developed his concept of economic determination by simply reversing Hegel's idealist dialectic and creating a materialist version with the same form. On the contrary, for Marx to have worked out a differential concept of structural causality, that is, Spinoza with a concept of contradiction, it was necessary to break completely with Hegel's expressive concept of dialectic.


Historical development and social determination were introduced into social theory, according to Althusser, not by Hegel but by Montesquieu, who must also be credited with originating the materialist conception of history as "the concrete behavior of men in their relations with nature and with their past" (Althusser 1972, 59). In addition, Montesquieu was "the first to propose a positive principle of universal explanation for history ; a principle which is not just static : the totality explaining the diversity of the laws and institutions of a given government; but also dynamic : the law of the unity of nature and principle, a law making it possible to think the development of institutions and their transformations in real history, too. In the depths of the countless laws which come and go, he thus discovered a constant connection uniting the nature of a government to its principle; and at the core of this constant connection, he stated the inner variation of the relation, which by the transitions of the unity from adequacy to inadequacy, from identity to contradiction, makes intelligible the changes and revolutions in the concrete totalities of history" (Althusser 1972, 50). Althusser also finds in Montesquieu a form of determination in the last instance that anticipates Marx; in Montesquieu, though, the concept is defined in terms of "manners and morals," a shortcoming stemming from the historically conditioned fact that Montesquieu is, in Althusser's view, "unable to seek in the conditions he is describing a deeper unity, which would presuppose a complete political economy " (Althusser 1972, 59).

According to Althusser, Spinoza reconciled existence and reason by means of a rationalist, but also a materialist, concept of the absolute. Hegel "rediscovers" the perspective of the absolute already developed by Spinoza (and with it the resolution of the pseudo-problem of subject/object dualism) and imbues it with a concept of historical process and social totality derived from Montesquieu. However, Althusser notes, the Hegelian synthesis comes at a high price—ruthlessly subordinating the materialism of both Spinoza and Montesquieu to an idealist teleology originating in the "pre-established harmony" of Leibniz and transmitted to Hegel by way of the ethical evolutionism of Kant's "hidden plan of nature." The Hegelian Idea is not simply Spinoza's God set in motion, according to Althusser; it is Spinoza's God embodied in the categories of a subject and a goal or, more precisely, in the concept of an immanent and expressive process of becoming-subject, or self-realization, which constitutes at once the subject and the goal of history. But, of course, this is not Spinoza at all. Althusser defends Spinoza's


concept of the absolute, despite the imperturbability of its rationalist foundation, because it forces us to think determination in a materialist and "non-immanent" way, a way that reveals, in advance, "the secret alliance between Subject and Goal which 'mystifies' the Hegelian dialectic" (Althusser 1976, 136-37). For Althusser, the development of a scientific concept of contradiction requires not only that we abandon the metaphysical category of the absolute, the mark of Althusser's break with Spinozist rationalism as well as Hegelian idealism, but also that we discard the expressive concept of causality by which Hegel subjugates process to the absolute and by which Hegelian Marxism thinks the social formation as an expressive totality, not as a structured whole.

Contradiction, Uneven Development, and Overdetermination

The idea that the social formation is a complex whole structured in dominance clearly distinguishes what Althusser calls the Marxist concept of the "whole" from the expressive Hegelian concept of "totality." While he borrowed the word and idea of dialectic from Hegel, Althusser insists that Marx subjected Hegel's term to a materialist critique that eliminated all traces of expressive or immanent causality from it. The result was a new content, uneven development, by which Marx (and Althusser) affirm the reality as well as the materiality of difference within society. "Borrowing from Montesquieu the idea that in a historical totality all concrete determinations, whether economic, political, moral, even military, express one single principle, Hegel conceives history in terms of the category of the expressive totality. For Marx, differences are real, and they are not simply differences in spheres of activity, practices, and objects: they are differences in efficacy " (Althusser 1976, 182).

For Hegel, history is made up of "circles within circles, spheres within spheres," wherein each sphere is a "total part, each expressing the internal unity of the totality which is only ever, in all its complexity, the objectification-alienation of a simple principle" (Althusser 1976, 182). According to Althusser, Marx's metaphor of a base and a superstructure differs from the "mediations" of Hegelian circles within circles in that Marx's framework requires that one make distinctions between structures, that these distinctions be real, irreducible, and that the order of determinations among the structures be unequal. In Hegel, "differences are always affirmed only to be denied and transcended in


other differences, and this is possible because in each difference there is already present the in-itself of a future for-itself" (Althusser 1976, 182). There is no expressive unity, no single principle in Marx, Althusser insists: "this is why I did not talk [in For Marx ] about a totality , because the Marxist whole is complex and uneven, and stamped with this unevenness by the determination in the last instance. It is this interplay, this unevenness, which allows us to understand that something real can happen in a social formation and that through the political class struggle it is possible to get a hold on real history" (Althusser 1976, 183).

By contradiction , Althusser understands the multiple levels of uneven development that define the social formation as a "structure of structures" and a "unity of differences." Contradiction implies not only the particularity and relative autonomy of social structures but also the fact that every social structure is itself a unity constituted by the effectivities of the unevenly developed structures that are its elements. Uneven development is thus the basic law of social formations for Althusser having "priority over [social formations] and able to account for them precisely insofar as it does not derive from their existence" (Althusser 1969, 213). In contrast to the Hegelian form of contradiction, uneven development is not the function of a totality, nor does it bear any trace of expressive immanence; it implies instead that each practice—emerging from its own history and possessing its own distinct mode of development with its own specific effects—has a relative autonomy with respect to other practices. Although the social formation is riven with multiple contradictions, the contradictions do not exist as a random flux but as a unity of differences. Because the uneven development of the social formation is internal to it, each manifestation of this unevenness—that is, each contradiction—bears within itself its historical conditions of existence, namely, the specific structure of unevenness of a complex whole articulated on the basis of a mode of production.

On the one hand, the ensemble of instances cannot be adequately understood without reference to individual contradictions and their uneven development: "If every contradiction is a contradiction in a complex whole . . . this complex whole cannot be envisaged without its contradictions, without their basically uneven relations. In other words, each contradiction, each essential articulation of the structure, and the general relation of the articulations in the structure . . . constitute so many conditions of the existence of the complex whole itself" (Althusser 1969, 205). On the other hand, individual contradictions and their


uneven development cannot be adequately understood independently of the parallelogram of forces by which they are "overdetermined": "the contradiction is inseparable from the total structure of the social body in which it is found, inseparable from its formal conditions of existence, and even from the instances it governs; it is radically affected by them , determining but also determined in one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation it animates; it might be called overdetermined in its principle" (Althusser 1969, 101).

The concept of overdetermination is Althusser's way of expressing the historical effect of the ensemble of contradictions on each individual contradiction: "the reflection in contradiction itself of its conditions of existence, that is, of its situation in the structure in dominance of the complex whole" (Althusser 1969, 209). Overdetermination, in other words, is a variation on the Althusserian concept of structural causality and the dialectic of the social formation and its instances.[6] The ensemble of contradictions assigns a place and a function to individual practices, but the contradictions within each individual practice will exercise in turn an effect on the ensemble and hence back eventually on each individual practice and contradiction, including its own.

Overdetermination also expresses economic determination in the familiar Althusserian fashion. In precisely the same manner as he develops the concept of determination in the last instance by the economy in such a way as to avoid reflectionism without thereby falling into a "pluralism of instances," Althusser introduces the concept of a "general contradiction"—a "contradiction between the forces and relations of production, essentially embodied in the contradiction between two antagonistic classes" (Althusser 1969, 99)—to assert the primacy of class struggle within the field of contradictions. Because the effectivities of structures are actualized as social relations, Althusser is able to establish a parallel between the primacy of the economic determination in the field of structures and the primacy of class struggle in the field of social relations. Given his assertion that contradiction is the "motive force" in both fields, Althusser is fully justified in concluding that class struggle is the motor of history—a scandalous thesis that is not only consistent with his less controversial concept of economic determination in the last instance, but also identical to it.

Since contradiction is the fundamental law of social formations, the ensemble of contradictions articulated on the basis of the general contradiction defines the pattern of dominance and subordination, antag-


onism and non-antagonism that exists at any given historical moment or "conjuncture." However, because of the very nature of overdetermination, Althusser insists that we can never speak of the undifferentiated nature of the general contradiction, even at the moment of a revolutionary transformation of the social formation. The moment of revolutionary upheaval results in what Althusser calls a "ruptural unity." At such a moment, a "vast accumulation of contradictions comes into play in the same court, some of which are radically heterogeneous—of different origins, different senses, different levels and points of application—but which nevertheless 'merge' into a ruptural unity; we can no longer speak of the sole, unique power of the general contradiction. Of course, the basic contradiction dominating the period . . . is active in all these contradictions even in their fusion. But, strictly speaking, it cannot be claimed that these contradictions and their fusion are merely the pure phenomena of the general contradiction" (Althusser 1969, 100).

Furthermore, parallel to his distinction between dominant and determinant structures, Althusser maintains that the general contradiction is not necessarily the "principal contradiction" dominant at a particular conjuncture. To insist on the identity of the principal and general contradiction is, in Althusser's view, to slip into a crude form of expressive thinking, which in its mechanistic Marxist form is called "economism."

It is economism . . . that sets up the hierarchy of instances once and for all, assigns each its essence and role and defines the universal meaning of these relations. . . . It is economism that identifies eternally in advance the determinant contradiction in the last instance with the role of the dominant contradiction, which forever assimilates such and such an "aspect" (forces of production, economy, practice) to the principal role, and such and such another "aspect" (relations of production, politics, ideology, theory) to the secondary role—whereas in real history determination in the last instance by the economy is exercised precisely in the permutations of the principal role between the economy, politics, theory, etc. (Althusser 1969, 213)

The principal and secondary relationships between contradictions alluded to by Althusser are not given in advance. Social contradictions are instead thrown into relations of domination and subordination by modes of overdetermination that Althusser labels "displacement" and "condensation." Displacement is defined by Althusser as a relation of change governed by the structured whole; relations of domination and subordination develop and change but in a seemingly unrelated, independent fashion that is relatively "non-antagonistic." When the domi-


nant mode of overdetermination is displacement, the possibility of revolutionary political activity is minimal: "there is always one principal contradiction and secondary ones, but they exchange their roles in the structure in dominance while the latter remains stable" (Althusser 1969, 211). The principal contradiction is produced by processes of displacement, but it becomes "antagonistic" or politically "decisive" only by a process of condensation that signifies the "fusion" of social contradictions into a "real unity" whose effectivity then becomes "the nodal strategic point for political practice" within which "is reflected the complex whole (economic, political, and ideological)" (Althusser 1969, 214). When condensation is the dominant mode of overdetermination, the social formation is characterized by instability rather than stability. The politically interesting outcome of the dialectic of displacement and condensation is a revolutionary explosion, a ruptural unity that induces the "dissolution of existing social relations and their global restructuring on a qualitatively new basis" (Althusser 1969, 216).

Displacement and condensation, non-antagonism and antagonism, are ceaselessly at work at all times regardless of which mode is predominant. Their organic interrelationship, Althusser maintains, constitutes the field of political practice as well as the complexity and specificity of the class struggle:

to say that contradiction is a motive force is to say that it implies a real struggle, real confrontations, precisely located within the structure of the complex whole; it is to say that the locus of confrontation may vary according to the relation of the contradictions in the structure in dominance in any given situation; it is to say that the condensation of the struggle in a strategic locus is inseparable from the displacement of the dominant among these contradictions, that the organic phenomena of condensation and displacement are the very existence of the "identity of opposites" until they produce the globally visible form of the mutation or qualitative leap that sanctions the revolutionary situation when the whole is recrystallized. (Althusser 1969, 215-16)

Overdetermination, displacement, and condensation explain the uneven development of contradictions without reducing it to the simplicity of an essentialist reflection or to the unstructured coexistence of a plurality of elements. These concepts also illuminate contradiction from a political as well as a scientific perspective and reflect Althusser's search for a relationship between Marxist theory and practice that avoids revolutionary voluntarism, pragmatic opportunism, and evolutionist passivity. For Althusser, the concept of overdetermination is


both revolutionary and realistic: it focuses attention on the revolutionary possibilities materially present in a given conjuncture without, however, losing touch with the material conditions and objective limits by which these possibilities are constituted. The pursuit of materially comprehended revolutionary possibilities avoids voluntarist, conspiratorial putschism as well as the frenzied but empty and directionless "resistance" of postmodern gauchisme —without thereby slipping into either passivity, faith in the collapse of capitalism according to its own laws of motion, or pragmatism, which begins as a "realistic" compromise with capitalism and ends as a betrayal of a socialist alternative to capitalist exploitation. Finally, Althusser's concepts of displacement, condensation, and revolutionary rupture reject an evolutionary reformist view of the transformation from one mode of production to another—what Fabians called "the inevitability of gradualness"—insisting instead that the accumulation of antagonistic contradictions will eventually exceed the capacity of a given mode of production to reform. For Althusser, in other words, there are structural limits to reform within a given mode of production beyond which its transformation must be revolutionary and not evolutionary.

Differential and Plenary Time

The genius of Althusser's concept of contradiction is that it respects both the complex diversity and the structured unity of social formations. At every conjuncture, a social formation is a whole whose unity permits a comparative analysis of the same social formation at different times (and thereby concepts of periodization and transformation) as well as cross-cultural comparisons between different social formations separated by time or space. However, each relatively autonomous structure within a social formation must be accorded its own relatively autonomous history, what Althusser calls its "differential history," marked by its own rhythms of development, its own continuities, and its own unevenly developed contradictions. The existence of differential histories implies that each structure has its own specific temporality, or "differential time," which in turn implies a break with the idea of a simple or homogeneous time common to all these histories and against which they can be measured. The concept of common time, what Althusser calls the "historical present," posits historical existence as a linear continuum "assumed to be such that all the elements of the whole always co-exist in one and the same time, one and the same present"


(Althusser and Balibar 1970, 94). Althusser objects to the homogeneous continuity of the historical present because it is essentialist and because it obscures the real complexity of the social formation: the historical present is nothing more than "a reflection in existence of the continuity of the essentialist principle. . . . [T]he relation between the social totality and its historical existence is held to be a relation with an immediate existence . . . which, in turn, implies that this relation is itself immediate " (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 94).

The category of the historical present is basic to empiricist as well as essentialist forms of historicism. The difference between the empiricist and essentialist forms of the historical present is that where the empiricist sees a series of events deployed on the linear continuum of time, the essentialist sees so many moments or expressions of the evolution of the totality. Both of these approaches are unacceptable from the standpoint of structural causality and uneven development: "The ideology of a simple time falls with the ideology of a simple history, to be replaced by the notion of a complex historical time constituted by the 'differential times' of the different levels" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 104-5).

We can argue from the specific structure of the Marxist whole that it is no longer possible to think the process of development of the different levels of the whole in the same historical time . Each of these different "levels" does not have the same type of historical existence. On the contrary, we have to assign to each level a peculiar time , relatively autonomous and hence relatively independent, even in its dependence on the "times" of the other levels. . . . Each of these peculiar histories is punctuated with peculiar rhythms and can only be known on condition that we have defined the concept of the specificity of its historical temporality and its punctuations. . . . The fact that each of these times and each of these histories is relatively autonomous does not make them so many domains which are independent of the whole: the specificity of each of these times and each of these histories—in other words, their relative autonomy and independence—is based on a certain type of articulation in the whole, and therefore on a certain type of dependence with respect to the whole. (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 99-100)

Clearly, Althusser does not intend for us to infer from the idea of differential history—that is, from the irreducibility of the instances and their histories—any absolute independence of these practices and histories from each other. Their independence is relative, not absolute, and inseparable from the overdetermining structure of the social formation. "We cannot be satisfied, as the best historians so often are today, by observing the existence of different times and rhythms, without relating


them to the concept of their differences; i.e., to the typical dependence which establishes them in the articulation of the levels of the whole" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 100). It is not enough, in other words, merely to note the existence of differential times; one must also be able to reconvene them within the "plenary time" of a given conjuncture, that is, the "complex combination" of these times "which constitutes the peculiar time of the [social formation's] development" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 104).

The plenary time of the conjuncture must not be confused with any form of absolute or common time: it is, like the structured whole itself, a concept rigorously opposed to any form of essentialist homogeneity. "There can be no question," Althusser insists, "of measuring the dislocation of different temporalities against the line of continuous reference time" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 105). Rather, the relationship between differential times and plenary time expresses yet again Althusser's dialectic between the historical effectivity of the social whole on each of its elements and the distinct, relatively autonomous, and simultaneous effectivities of each of the elements at a given conjuncture. As the structured whole exists only as the effect of its elements, plenary time exists only as a function of the differential times. However, as each element is marked by its absent cause—the complex whole that constitutes its historical matrix and that has assigned it a place and a function in relation to every other element—so each differential time is always already marked by the plenary time of the structured whole: "we must regard these differences in temporal structure as and only as so many objective indices of the mode of articulation of the different elements or structures of the whole. . . . [I]t is only in the specific unity of the complex structure of the whole that we can think the concept of these so-called backwardnesses, forwardnesses, survivals and unevennesses of development, which co-exist in the structure of the real historical present: the present of conjuncture " (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 106).

History as a Process Without a Subject

Althusser steadfastly maintains that there can be no "Subject" of history or goal which history may be said to be moving toward or realizing. Nowhere within the concept of structural causality can uneven development be pinned down to a single, solitary cause or expressed in terms of origins and ends. Neither determination in the last instance by the economy nor the concept of a mode of production is intended as a


solution to metaphysical puzzles such as why humans exist or ethical dilemmas such as what we should do. This does not mean that history is accidental but simply that the human sciences cannot aspire to complete knowledge of it. The process by which European feudalism was succeeded by capitalism, for example, was determined, not contingent, but nothing in the concept of feudalism necessitates a logically inevitable transition to capitalism. The difference between determination and teleology is a subtle but important one. It turns on the difference between history conceived as a rationalist "science" of the type envisioned by Spinoza (but also by Hegel) and history conceived as a scientific, necessarily incomplete, research program. For Althusser, historical knowledge cannot be absolute, nor can history be written in the future anterior.

The absence of any trace of a subject or a teleology from the concept of structural causality brings us to an important corollary of Althusser's science of history and an important motif in both For Marx and Reading Capital —namely, a rejection of methodological individualism and voluntaristic categories, what Althusser calls "humanism," within the human sciences. Reacting strongly against the anthropocentric idealism of so-called Marxist humanism and Hegelian Marxism in Western Europe, as well as the political mystification of the self-proclaimed "socialist humanism" promulgated within the Soviet Union during the sixties, Althusser joined forces with French structuralists in fierce polemics against the explanatory value of the category of the human subject and in defense of an opposing position that Althusser provocatively labeled "theoretical anti-humanism."[7] In For Marx , he went so far as to declare theoretical anti-humanism to be "an absolute (negative) precondition of the (positive) knowledge of the human world itself, and of its practical transformation," insisting that "it is impossible to know anything about men except on the absolute precondition that the philosophical (theoretical) myth of man is reduced to ashes" (Althusser 1969, 229).

Moreover, Althusser has consistently maintained this position throughout his later writings. Even as he began to emphasize class struggle over structural causality, using language that became increasingly populist as well as stridently political, Althusser adamantly refused to admit the primacy of the human agent in the process of history. Against British Communist Party member John Lewis's contention that "Man makes history," Althusser defended the thesis that "class struggle is the motor of history," a position that rejects not only the essentialist and voluntarist concept of "Man" but also the implication that classes


themselves are the "makers" or subjects of history. For Althusser, it is no longer a question of who makes history because history, properly understood, has no subject. "History is a process without a Subject or a Goal where the given circumstances in which 'men' act as subjects under the determination of social relations are the product of class struggles. History therefore does not have a Subject, in the philosophical sense of the term, but a motor : that very class struggle" (Althusser 1976, 99).

From Althusser's point of view, humanism—that is, the approach that takes the human being as the subject of history—is based on two erroneous postulates: "(1) that there is a universal essence of man; (2) that this essence is the attribute of 'each single individual' who is its real subject" (Althusser 1969, 228). The existence and unity of these two postulates presupposes a world view that is, in Althusser's opinion, both empiricist and idealist: "If the essence of man is to be a universal attribute, it is essential that concrete subjects exist as absolute givens; this implies an empiricism of the subject. If these individuals are to be men, it is essential that each carries in himself the whole human essence, if not in fact, at least in principle; this implies an idealism of the essence" (Althusser 1969, 228).

As a social, ideological product, the phenomenon of "Man" undoubtedly and even necessarily exists. All social formations function by means of the constitution of human subjects who, within the realm of ideology—that is, within the apparently spontaneous but actually conditioned relation between their actual existence and their experienced or "lived" relation to the world—develop a "consciousness" of themselves as subjects. However, human individuals are not "free" and "constitutive" subjects in the philosophical sense of these terms. Individuals are social "agents" working in and through the "determinations of the forms of historical existence. . . . But that is not all, these agents can only be agents if they are subjects " (Althusser 1976, 95). No human individual "can be the agent of a practice if he does not have the form of a subject," Althusser acknowledges, yet it is the social formation and its "ideological social relations, which, in order to function, impose the subject-form on each agent-individual" (Althusser 1976, 95). Thus, for Althusser, "Men (plural), in the concrete sense, are necessarily subjects (plural) in history, because they act in history as subjects (plural). But there is no Subject (singular) of history" (Althusser 1976, 94).

Althusser maintains that the notion of "Man" is a myth of bourgeois ideology that has insinuated itself into theory. "Far be it from me to


denigrate this great humanist tradition whose historical merit was to have struggled against feudalism, against the Church, and against their ideologists, and to have given man a status and dignity. But far be it from us, I think, to deny the fact that this humanist ideology which produced great works and great thinkers, is inseparably linked to the rising bourgeoisie, whose aspirations it expressed" (Althusser 1976, 198). History cannot start from "Man" because such a move inevitably produces an ethical distortion; subjects as they are and history as it is are ineluctably transformed into subjects as they could or should be and history as it is supposed to be.

For when you begin with man, you cannot avoid the idealist temptation of believing in the omnipotence of liberty or of creative labor: that is you simply submit in all "freedom" to the omnipotence of the ruling bourgeois ideology, whose function is to mask and to impose, in the illusory shape of man's power of freedom, another power, much more real and much more powerful, that of capitalism. If Marx does not start with man, if he refuses to derive society and history theoretically from the concept of man, it is in order to break with this mystification which man expresses, an ideological relation of force, based on the capitalist production relation. Marx therefore starts out from the structural cause producing the effect of bourgeois ideology which maintains the illusion that you should start with man. (Althusser 1976, 205)

Rather than starting from "Man," Althusser insists that historical practice begin with the "economically given social period": "At the end of analysis, when it 'arrives,' it may find real men . These men are thus the point of arrival of an analysis which starts from the social relations of the existing mode of production, from class relations, and from the class struggle. These men are quite different men from the 'man' of bourgeois ideology" (Althusser 1976, 52-53). To start from the proposition that "man makes history" no longer serves, as it once did, to oppose a conception of history as Providence or as submission to God's will, nor does it serve everyone without distinction insofar as they are all men. Rather, it "serves those whose interest it is to talk about 'man' and not about the masses, about 'man' and not about classes and the class struggle. It serves the bourgeoisie, above all; and it also serves the petty bourgeoisie" (Althusser 1976, 63). As Saül Karsz explains, history from the point of view of "Man" implies that "the subject . . . is only concrete and real in as much as it manifests a general human essence in a particular form. . . . [T]heoretically, this means that men are


always something other than they are, and that to understand them, it is necessary to envisage not what they do and what they are at a concrete conjuncture, but the human essence they are supposed to manifest. Politically, it signifies that the material economic, political and ideological struggles are secondary to a primary, eternal struggle: man in general against material conditions in general" (Karsz 1974, 261). The political effect, Althusser insists, is to reinforce the status quo: "If the workers are told that 'it is men who make history,' you do not have to be a great thinker to see that, sooner or later, that helps to disorient or disarm them. It tends to make them think that they are all powerful as men, whereas in fact they are disarmed as workers in face of the power which is really in command: that of the bourgeoisie, which controls the material conditions (the means of production) and the political conditions (the state) determining history" (Althusser 1976, 63-64).

Within the problematic of Structural Marxism, the real protagonists of history are the social relations of economic, political, and ideological practice that constitute the contradictory places assigned to human protagonists within the complex and unevenly developed structure of the social formation. The concept of social relations and that of a philosophical subject are mutually exclusive, for human individuals are "subjects" only to the extent that they are the bearers or supports of socially defined places and functions. Speaking specifically of economic practice, Althusser argues in Reading Capital that

the structure of the relations determines the places and functions occupied and adopted by the agents of production, who are never anything more than the occupants of these places, insofar as they are "supports" (Träger ) of these functions. The true "subjects" (in the sense of constitutive subjects of the process) are therefore not these occupants or functionaries, are not, despite all anthropology, "concrete individuals," "real men"—but the definition and distribution of these places and functions. The true "subjects" are these definers and distributors: the relations of production (and political and ideological social relations). But since these are "relations" they cannot be thought within the category subject . (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 198)

Two important points must be made here. First, Althusser's attack on the philosophical category of the subject and his argument that social relations rather than real men are the "subjects" of historical processes does not empty human practice of either its complexity or its capacity to transform society. As we shall see, Althusser's concept of interpellation , that is, the process by which individuals become social


subjects, is both complex and contradictory. Interpellation does not imply a functionalist equilibrium; rather, as Göran Therborn's work amply demonstrates, it allows us to conceptualize the contradictions between the different ways we all are interpellated as members of society as well as the tensions between the forces of submission, inherent in our conformity to the roles which we are assigned by society, and the enabling power that comes from our qualification as social subjects through these same roles. In the hands of Pierre Bourdieu, the concept of a social agent does not define human beings as mindless robots but rather as decision-making players within a rule-bound yet open-ended, interactive system of dispositions, discourses, and interests that Bourdieu calls the "habitus." The habitus, in other words, is a historically specific and class-biased "generating-enabling" structure whose complexity cannot be reduced either to the free will of "Man" or to a mechanistic reflection of the relations of production.

The second point pertains to the relationship between Althusser's attack on the category of the subject and his thesis that class struggle is the motor of history. We have already seen how the idea that "man makes history" serves to render classes and class antagonism invisible. Althusser opposes to this view the thesis that "it is the masses which make history." Arguing that it is impossible to give any substance to the term "make" in the case of "Man" without an impossibly simplistic reduction of social diversity to the unity of a "species being," Althusser insists on the term masses in order to move as far as possible from the category of a single subject. The idea of the masses is complex: "The masses are actually several social classes, social strata and social categories, grouped together in a way which is both complex and changing . . . . And we are dealing with huge numbers: in France or Britain . . . with tens of millions of people, in China with hundreds of millions: can we still talk about a 'subject' identifiable by the unity of its 'personality'?" (Althusser 1976, 48). The only coherent way to think of the masses as a "subject" is to transpose the latter category onto the field of social classes and their structured relations: the class struggle as the motor of history. Conceiving things in terms of a "motor" rather than a "subject" eliminates the question of who makes history and foregrounds the idea of class struggle, a concept whose adequacy has yet to be demonstrated, but one that at least forces us to speak in terms of process (classes do not precede class struggle but are the outcome of class struggle) and the material basis of that process (class struggle exists only within determinant structures, values, and institutions).


The Economism/Humanism Couplet

Whatever reservations one might have regarding Althusser's uncompromising thesis that class struggle is the motor of history, it is difficult to deny his contention that the absence of such struggle is fundamental to both humanist and economist political ideologies. The absence of class struggle in both humanist and economist accounts of history leads Althusser to make the seemingly outrageous assertion that in reality the two are "spiritual" complements: an ideological couplet, economism/humanism , is "born spontaneously, that is to say necessarily, of the bourgeois practices of production and exploitation, and at the same time of the legal practices of bourgeois law and its ideology, which provide a sanction for the capitalist relations of production and exploitation and their reproduction" (Althusser 1976, 86).

Economism and humanism, Althusser insists, are always paired, if not as complements, then as oppositions. They are found in capitalist and so-called communist societies alike and, moreover, serve the same hegemonic function in both cases: to legitimize existing social relations without mentioning their class character. In fulfilling this function, it matters little whether they are taken as oppositions or as complements, as elements of the dominant ideology or in opposition to it. Within the dominant ideology, economism and humanism are always complementary, combining technological determinism with ethical voluntarism in a Faustian affirmation of the status quo. In capitalist societies an "economistic" concern for developing the techniques of extorting surplus value from producers is passed off as the extension of consumer freedom, while private ownership of the means of production by a tiny oligarchy is labeled a "humanistic" manifestation of individual liberty or even democracy. While capitalist social formations are the initial breeding ground of the economism/humanism couplet, humanism has also had a dominant influence within European socialism and the Soviet Union. Under Stalin, socialism was "economistically" equated with the development of the forces of production, while the Soviet constitution of 1936 contained the ringing "humanist" slogan "Man, the most precious capital." By this same constitution, the bureaucratically controlled expansion of the forces of production was axiomatically declared to be the end of class struggle and class exploitation, while under Khrushchev the era of "socialist humanism" was announced.

Even when economism and humanism are set in relations of opposition, Althusser insists that they remain organically connected. In this


case their apparent opposition is a false one since they continue to share the same common premise, the human subject (who no longer controls technology but is instead oppressed by it), and the same principle of exclusion, "the elimination of something which never figures in economism or humanism, the elimination of the relations of production and of the class struggle " (Althusser 1976, 88). This is hardly accidental or surprising since it follows directly from the bourgeois point of view, specifically from the concept of the atomized individual and his natural freedom, which is as much the foundation of neo-liberal dissidence as it is of liberal conservatism. What is particularly bothersome for the Marxist Althusser is not that dissident liberalism employs the rhetoric of economism and humanism but that socialist parties since the Second International, and even so-called communist regimes such as the USSR, "keep silent (or semi-silent) about the relations of production, the class struggle, and their concrete forms, while exalting both the Productive Forces and Man" (Althusser 1976, 88).

It is not necessary to overlook the weaknesses of Althusser's argument, namely, his use of sweeping generalizations that obscure obvious and significant differences between the modes of production dominant in the United States and the Soviet Union, in order to acknowledge that he is making an important point that cuts across the moralistic critiques of both regimes: the use of the category "Man" depicted either as the victim of technology or as its beneficiary remains an obfuscation. In and of itself, technology has neither victims nor beneficiaries. Western "technology" and Soviet "productive forces," liberal democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat, share a common ideological problematic that is designed to mask the existence of a minority class controlling the means of production and exploiting a working-class majority. The symbiotic relationship between economism and humanism makes possible both the complementary combination of economism/humanism (the freedom of labor/"Man, the most precious capital") and their pseudolibertarian opposition ("one-dimensional society"/"totalitarianism"). If the complementary combination of the two terms is ideologically dominant, their binary opposition is theoretically impoverished. For Althusser, only a materialist analysis, an analysis based on economic determination and class struggle, can cut through the distortions of economism/humanism and provide adequate knowledge not only of the political and economic relationships that economism/humanism purports to explain but also of the social basis and ideological function of the economism/humanism couplet itself.


Althusser explains Stalinism in terms of a "deviation" from the revolutionary ideal of the dictatorship of the proletariat—a vanguard party wielding state power with the support of the masses in order to "smash" exploitive economic and political structures and replace them with new egalitarian and participatory institutions.[8] Stalin, by committing the Soviet Union to an "economist/humanist" policy of rapid industrialization, militarization, and centralized planning, is accused by Althusser of theoretically and politically ignoring the newly emerging class struggle between administrators controlling the means of production and the working masses separated from both the means of production and state power. This critique is more fully developed in Charles Bettelheim's multivolume Class Struggle in the USSR (1976, 1978, 1982, 1984) which views the new Soviet regime not as a socialist society, but rather as a transitional articulation of antagonistic capitalist (wage labor and wage differentials) and communist (state ownership of the means of production) tendencies. Struggles between peasants, workers, and Party administrators during the period of the NEP resulted in the traumatic industrial revolution of the thirties and a new "state capitalist" mode of production. Class exploitation within state capitalism is defined by Bettelheim in terms of wage labor and wage differentials coupled with collective possession of the means of production by an administrative class or "state bourgeoisie" exercising de facto economic ownership of "state property" by excluding the masses from control of the state apparatus.

Despite its commendable interpretation of Stalinism in terms of class struggle, the Althusserian critique remains dangerously inadequate and incomplete. First, the concept of a "Stalinian deviation" accepts the premise of an authoritarian vanguard party that, even in its most populist, Maoist form, substitutes an amorphous "solidarity" of cadres and masses (enforced only by the threat of popular upheaval) for participatory democracy and the accountability of party leaders to the masses. Such a view willfully ignores the fact that it is the absence of popular control over the Party, not the Party's "economism," that permits the emergence of a post-revolutionary ruling class. Second, the applicability of the term "state capitalism" to a mode of production lacking profit motives, market prices, consumer choices, and a reserve pool of unemployed workers is, at best, dubious. The concept of "state capitalism" derives more from the teleological concept of a "transitional articulation" of capitalist and communist tendencies than from an analysis of the mature Soviet mode of production itself. Having identified Stalinism


as an exploitive class system, Bettelheim is forced to designate it as either "capitalist" or "communist," and he seems to have chosen the former term more for ideological than for theoretical reasons.

Finally, the Althusserian critique devalues the forces of production and ignores the laws of motion and contradictions that constitute the class struggle in mature Soviet-type modes of production. To explain the collapse of Stalinism (Gorbachev) and Maoism (Deng Xiaoping), it is necessary to acknowledge the resource-constrained nature of the forces of production in command economies and their systemic tendency toward underproduction (in contrast to the demand-constrained forces and overproductive tendencies of capitalism). Whereas the relations of production limit the exploitive capacity of the administrative class to perquisites and higher salaries, the forces of production limit the standard of living of the entire population. Therefore the attempt to increase productivity by decentralizing the labor process and introducing money and prices to distribute resources stems not from the survival of "capitalist tendencies" but from the inefficiencies of central planning itself. Of course, the administrative class is antagonistic to the social security of the masses and resentful of the restriction of its exploitive capacities. Although dispossessed from control over the state apparatus, and thus from control over the means and results of production, the masses have nevertheless achieved from the revolution certain guarantees and benefits which cannot be easily eliminated as long as the economy is obviously controlled by the state. They can, however, be destroyed rapidly and completely by the impersonal tyranny of the marketplace. Thus the ruling class turns naturally enough to capitalism, but they are only able to "sell" such a transformation by exploiting the deep political and economic discontents of the masses. Hence the class struggle: the masses, striving for political power and a higher standard of living, are acquiring instead a new ruling class and the relentless subsumption of their labor and lifestyle to the cash nexus and the exigencies of capitalist accumulation.

History as a Process Without a Goal

Implicit in Althusser's rejection of all philosophies of the subject, whether the deus ex machina of economism or the humanist-voluntarist "drama of Man," is a rejection of all teleological philosophies of history. For Althusser not only is history a process without a subject, but


it is also a process without a goal. Althusser finds the anticipation of such an idea in Montesquieu's work, but the full-blown concept he attributes to the outcome of Marx's critique of Hegel. We have already discussed Althusser's criticism of the expressive or essentialist character of the Hegelian dialectic, which makes it impossible to think the concept of uneven development within the framework of Hegelian totality. For Althusser, not only is it impossible to escape the baleful effects of essentialist causality by "inverting" Hegel—that is, by replacing the Hegelian Idea with "materialist" categories such as the economy or Man—but it is equally impossible to retain any trace of the Hegelian dialectic—that is, the negation of the negation—without retaining elements of an essentialist teleology along with it:

To criticize the Hegelian philosophy of history because it is teleological, because from its origins it is in pursuit of a goal (the realization of Absolute Knowledge), hence to reject the teleology in the philosophy of history, but to return to the Hegelian dialectic as such at the same time, is to fall into a strange contradiction: for the Hegelian dialectic, too, is teleological in its structures , since the key structure of the Hegelian dialectic is the negation of the negation, the "Aufhebung ," which is teleology itself, within the dialectic. (Althusser 1972, 181)

Attempts by Hegelian Marxists to replace the Hegelian Idea with a problematic of Man and human alienation invariably encounter two problems, according to Althusser. In the first place, within Hegel's system the dialectic is always outside and prior to the limits of human history. Thus any problematic of alienation must account for the fact that "from the point of view of human history the process of alienation is thought [by Hegel] as a process of alienation without a subject or a dialectical process without a subject" (Althusser 1972, 182). In order to conceptualize the dialectic in terms of human history (and human alienation), it is necessary to subordinate the dialectic to human history; there must be some human essence posited outside human history that is to be realized inside human history. The first problem of any Hegelian humanism, then, is establishing Man as an immanent subject of all process, natural and human (as is the Hegelian Idea), while at the same time dealing with the inescapable fact that (unlike the Idea) such an essence is necessarily restricted to the purely human.

These difficulties reveal a second, even more profound problem, namely, that the Hegelian Idea and the Hegelian dialectic are inseparable; as a result, it is impossible to eliminate the expressive teleology


of the Idea without eliminating the negation of the negation at the same time. In other words, there is a subject in Hegel's philosophy, but it is, in Althusser's view, a "strange" subject; the only subject of the process of alienation is the process itself in its teleology. "I well know, there is in Hegel a subject for the process of alienation without a subject. But it is a very strange subject . . . the subject is the very teleology of the process, it is the Idea , in the process of self-alienation which constitutes it as the Idea" (Althusser 1972, 183).

The Idea is an essence never embodied in any particular entity; it exists only in the process of its self-realization, in the dialectic itself. At the same time, the culmination of the dialectic lies in the recognition of reality as the creation by the sole subject of the process, this very same Idea. The Absolute's being does not consist in any identifiable individuality; it consists in the very structure of the process, the succession of circles whose point of arrival and departure is the same—the identity of thought and being in the Absolute. This is the paradox of Hegel, according to Althusser: history is a process without a subject at the same time that its process, the negation of the negation, is teleological in its structure. The end is already in the beginning, but it is immediately denied from the moment it is affirmed, and this denial permits the process of alienation to be a process without a subject: "The beginning of the Logic is the theory of the non-primordial nature of the origin. Hegel's Logic is the Origin affirmed and denied; the first form of a concept Derrida has introduced into philosophical reflection, erasure" (Althusser 1972, 184).

According to Althusser, the notions of process without a subject and negation of the negation exist in an uneasy tension in Hegel's thought. Any attempt to invert Hegel while at the same time retaining his dialectic will merely add to the problem of origin the unbearable strain of an immanent historical subject. However, all that is required to open up history to scientific knowledge is to "break with the irreconcilable" and transform the very structure of the dialectic by removing its "strange" subject—that is, the self-realization of the process—by abolishing the negation of the negation, the category whose function it was to realize that subject in that process.

It is in teleology that there lies the true Hegelian Subject. Take away the teleology, there remains the philosophical category of a process without a subject. But to speak of a process without a subject implies that the notion of a subject is an ideological notion. Whereas if: the concept of process is scientific and the category of the subject is ideological; then: (1) a revolution


in the sciences, the science of history becomes possible and (2) a revolution in philosophy becomes possible, for all classical philosophy depends on the categories of subject and object. (Althusser 1972, 184-85)

In defending Althusser's position, Karsz argues that in Hegelian philosophy process without a subject is less the explanation of a process than the transitory expression of a process. Hegel dissolves everything into process rather than explaining the position of everything at the heart of process, Karsz maintains, whereas Marx sees things in a fundamentally different way: "[In Capital ] the process (of the capitalist mode of production) implies the analysis of the economic, political, and ideological relations through which and within which the process takes place, and therefore, the irreducibility of these relations into one another. They are not so much the expression of the capitalist mode of production as its material foundation, the condition of its existence" (Karsz 1974, 116). Once freed from the teleology of the negation of the negation, which suppresses the specificity of each level of structural effectivity, the notion of process without a subject may serve to open up the analysis of the specific articulation of contradictions, that is, the uneven development, which constitutes a given structure.

Marxism as a General Not a Total History

It is appropriate to conclude the present chapter by returning once again to the creative tension in Althusser's thought between the structured whole and the uneven development of its component structures. In For Marx , Althusser clearly states the problem that, more than any other, dominates all his work: "Marx has at least given us the 'two ends of the chain,' and has told us to find out what goes on between them: on the one hand, determination in the last instance by the (economic) mode of production ; on the other, the relative autonomy of the superstructures and their specific effectivity " (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 111). In attempting to connect the two ends of the chain, Althusser proceeds by means of a penetrating critique of transitive and expressive causality and by means of concepts developed in the course of a searching dialogue with materialist thought from Spinoza through Montesquieu to Marx. The result of the process is a conceptual synthesis of startling originality, a powerful attempt to rethink the idea of historical causality in terms of the matrix effect of a structured whole on its elements and the irreducible particularity of the elements whose distinct and unequal effectivities are simultaneously at work in a given conjunc-


ture. Althusser, we have seen, asserts the principle of economic determination in an indirect rather than a direct manner. Economic determination, the primacy of the economic function within the social whole, is always already there within each and every element and its relative autonomy because the social whole is the historical matrix of each and every element and has thus assigned to each and every element its place and function.

We will return to the problem of economic determination in relation to the relative autonomies of the economic, ideological, and political instances in the course of later chapters. Here I want to call attention to another aspect of Althusser's problematic, the introduction of epistemological limits and discontinuities within the production of historical knowledge itself, that is, within the science of history and the concepts of social structure and historical process. In challenging the explanatory power of historical discourses based on either expressive or transitive causalities—and by replacing them with differential history, a more complex and more powerful historical discourse based on structural causality—Althusser has abandoned all claims for a science of history that is or can ever be finished or complete. Michel Foucault, a former student of Althusser, aptly captures the significance of Althusser's move in terms of a contrast between "total" and "general" history in The Archaeology of Knowledge (Foucault 1972).

Total history, according to Foucault, "seeks to reconstitute the overall form of a civilization, the material or spiritual principle, the significance common to all the phenomena of a period, the law that accounts for their cohesion" (Foucault 1972, 9). In a straightforward essentialist manner, total history implies that the same form of historicity operates on economic, social, political, and religious beliefs and practices, subjecting them to essentially the same type of transformations. In contrast, general history (Foucault's appropriation of Althusser's concept of differential history) speaks of series, segmentations, limits, differences of level, time lags, anachronistic survivals, and different possible types of relations. Whereas a total history tends to draw all phenomena around a single center, a general history attempts to determine what forms of relation may be made between them.

The problem that now presents itself—and which defines the task of general history—is to determine what form of relation may be legitimately described between these different series; what vertical systems are they capable of forming; what interplay of correlation and dominance exist between them; what may be the effects of shifts, different temporalities, and various rehan-


dlings; in what distinct totalities certain elements may figure simultaneously; in short, not only what series, but also what "series of series" . . . it is possible to draw up. (Foucault 1972, 10)

It is, of course, misleading to extend further the parallels between the ideas of Foucault and those of Althusser. In defending the principles of economic determination, class struggle, and scientific realism, Althusser is defending a totalizing movement within historical knowledge unacceptable to Foucault. Foucault, as we shall see, will move from his concept of general history toward a postmodernist position characterized by a playful, relativistic "fictionalizing" of history and by ever more fragmentary and rigidly circumscribed "micro-analyses" of social structures. Ultimately, Foucault will deny the very possibility of a concept of a structured whole capable of situating the concepts of particular structures in a meaningful relation to each other—a position that amounts to an arbitrary denial of our ability to know the interconnections of things and an equally arbitrary restriction of scientific knowledge to the classification, arrangement, and summarizing of the coexistence and sequence of phenomena. This positivist conception soon links up with a kind of instrumentalist pragmatism: science conceived as arbitrarily chosen formulas that, by some mysterious means, allow people to handle phenomena effectively in practice.

Althusser, by contrast, remains committed to a modernist concept of general history: he insists on our capacity to produce knowledge of the complex unity of social formations as well as the diversity and autonomy of particular social structures and our ability to do so within a framework that remains realist despite its complexity. According to Althusser, we can think backwardness, forwardness, survivals, and uneven development only in the specific unity of the complex structure of the whole—as co-existence in the real historical present of the conjuncture. Obviously the concept of a general history—a history adequate in relation to the conjuncture—cannot be realized simply as a juxtaposition of independent histories—economic, political, and so on—or simply as a search for suggestive analogies or correspondences between them. A Marxist and modernist concept of general history, in other words, must be capable of totalization as well as de-totalization.

As a modernist general history, Structural Marxism is conscious of the real complexity of history: "the truth of history," Althusser points out, "cannot be read in its manifest discourse, because the text of history is not a text in which a voice (the Logos) speaks, but the inaudible and illegible notation of the effects of a structure of structures" (Al-


thusser and Balibar 1970, 17). Moreover, it is conscious also of the internal limits to our conceptual knowledge of that complexity. The point I wish to make with respect to these latter, internal limits is that in elaborating concepts of the two ends of the chain—a concept of the social whole and concepts of the economic, political, and ideological instances—Althusser has discovered that within the theoretical field of the concepts themselves, the metaphor of a chain is inadequate and must be discarded. As we attempt to move conceptually from either end of this chain toward the other, we find that links are missing, that in fact there are distinct chains that cannot be forged into a single, continuous concatenation. Instead, we are forced to confront the irreducible presence of multiple levels of analysis, structures of structures, whose vertical and horizontal displacements cannot be eliminated or reconciled at any one level. For any given structural whole, the question of its specific effectivity—that is, its place within a larger structure—always poses a "higher" or englobing level of conceptualization, while the question of the specific effectivities of its unevenly developed elements necessarily poses a "lower" or regional level of analysis.

Bounded by the reality of the world about which knowledge is being produced and limited by concepts never perfectly adequate to the reality about which they provide knowledge, historical science is also overdetermined by a restless dialectical movement from one level of analysis to another—from one structure (and its relative autonomy) to the interrelationships between this and other structures (and the effectivities generated at these levels and by these interrelationships). Structural causality and relative autonomy are not concepts of continuity across a homogeneous theoretical space because, while the theoretical spaces coexist, they do not ever meet. The true complexity of the Structural Marxist dialectic does not exist simply as a category of concrete history; it also exists as a category of our knowledge of that history. Within the domain of its own theoretical practice, Structural Marxism functions as the effect or outcome of an open-ended interrelationship between coherent, meaningful, yet distinct levels of explanation whose necessary reciprocity is, paradoxically, guaranteed by the ultimate impossibility of their convergence.


previous chapter
Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
next chapter