previous sub-section
Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
next sub-section

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


61

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


62

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-


63

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-


64

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


65

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.


previous sub-section
Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
next sub-section