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Preface to the new edition of Louis Althusser's book

The book positions It was originally published in France by Social Editions in 1976. The Carioca publishing house Graal, founded by Max da Costa Santos and former PSB deputy and also member of the Nationalist Parliamentary Front, impeached in 1964 and deceased in 1978, published the book in two parts. Positions 1 included two texts that were not present in the original edition: “Response to John Lewis” and “Elements of self-criticism”, and the Positions 2 reproduced the texts of the French edition except for “Sustainability in Amiens” which was moved to the Positions 1. This set of texts configures what is called Althusser's “self-criticism phase”, and follows his first phase marked by the books Pour Marx e Lire le Capital of 1965, considered more “theoretical”, and precedes the phase of the “crisis of Marxism” in which Louis Althusser waged a direct fight against the reformist positions adopted by the PCF in the midst of the wave of the so-called “Eurocommunism”.

The second phase of Louis Althussser is marked by rectifications of his initial work, but at no time did this mean the abandonment of his theses initially formulated as the epistemological cut in the work of Karl Marx, his critique of theoretical humanism, his emphasis on materialism in the work of Marx and Engels in opposition to idealist interpretations, the defense of the plurality of contradictions and divergent determinations to monist and reductionist perspectives, and their immediate political effects such as reformism or leftism, with no footing in concrete reality.

Regarding the texts that make up this collection, “Freud and Lacan” is an exception, as it was written in 1965 in the same phase of Pour Marx e Lire le Capital. In this article, Louis Althusser outlines the importance of Freud in founding, like Marx, a new scientific continent, psychoanalysis, and building a new scientific object, the unconscious. Louis Althusser, unlike Herbert Marcuse, did not intend to merge Marxism with psychoanalysis, since the objects of analysis are different, but rather to delimit Freud's originality in the field of knowledge from the reading established by Lacan.

Just as Lacan carried out a defense of Freud's scientific originality, Louis Althusser aimed the same in relation to Marx's work. And this defense of Marx's scientific (and political) radicalism gave Althusser's positions international projection, which also resulted in a flood of criticism and opposition to his innovative positions in the field of Marxism. And there was no lack of labels such as being accused of formalism, functionalism, positivism, Stalinism, structuralism and theoreticism. It is also important to emphasize his empathy for the revolutionary movements of the Third World, and in particular Mao Zedong's contributions in the theoretical field, as well as the Chinese transition during the context of the Cultural Revolution.

In the midst of this barrage of criticism, mostly of an accusatory content and devoid of a more substantial content, Louis Althusser returned to some of these controversial issues (and there were many of them) and made some corrections to his initial work. Even so, his critics were not satisfied, since for them Louis Althusser should have completely renounced his theses and incorporated what they considered to be “true Marxism” with an idealist and ontologizing bias based on the category of alienated work and the centrality of man as the starting point of analysis, in addition to the renunciation of his most radical political positions. In fact, Louis Althusser rectified what he called the theoretical deviation in his early writings, and further accentuated his Leninist position in his theoretical-political production.

The turning point begins in the text of “Philosophy as a weapon of the Revolution”, an interview given to Maria Antonieta Macchiocchi in April 1968. Here Louis Althusser establishes a difference in his initial work, since philosophy is no longer defined as the Theory that supports scientific theories, but the representation of class struggle in theory. Philosophy is a struggle, and fundamentally a political one, as it is a class struggle.[I] Marxist-Leninist philosophy represents the proletarian class struggle in theory. And it is in the union of Marxist theory and the labor movement that philosophy ceases, in the words of Marx, to “interpret the world”. It thus becomes a weapon for its “transformation”: the revolution. And this new definition of philosophy by Althusser will remain in the following texts.

This is well demarcated in the preface written by Althusser for the book by Marta Harnecker Elementary principles of historical materialism 1970, entitled “Marxism and Class Struggle”. In this text, Althusser criticizes the genetic reading – of origin and result – as if the process had a given starting point. The infrastructure does not create social classes (just as the State does not derive from the economic structure), nor is class struggle a simple effect of the existence of classes. For Louis Althussser, it is a bourgeois economicist deformation within Marxism.

For Marx, social classes are not restricted in the last (and incomplete) chapter of The capital, but run throughout this work (not to mention his earlier analysis of the 18 Brumaire), and class struggle is not an effect, a derivation of the existence of social classes, since class struggle and the existence of social classes are the same thing. Therefore, Louis Althusser reaffirms his previous thesis present in Lire le Capital about structural causality, since nothing derives from an externality, but has its own causality, its own origin. Social classes, therefore, do not pre-exist class struggles since when we speak of social classes, struggles are already present in their formation. There is no before and after because structures, practices and contradictions are formed simultaneously. Therefore, class struggles are the engine of the contradictory and antagonistic process in which social classes are intertwined.

Capitalism was forged through violence, as Marx well highlights in The capital, through the colonizing process for capital accumulation. And Althusser highlights this issue in How to read Capital? published in 1969. Violence and capitalist brutality were not restricted in their origin, and even less did they have a “human” facet, like the experiences of the welfare state and social democratic governments. This brutality extended (and still remains) in the colonies for centuries, and Louis Althusser accurately demarcated national liberation struggles and people's wars in Third World social formations.

If violence against the working class has diminished in the “metropolises”, in turn this violence has remained in the colonies by always practicing the same methods of theft, plunder and massacres in social formations that are “on the margins” of the central countries. But, as he himself observed, “the peoples no longer let themselves be massacred: they learned to organize and defend themselves, among others because Marx and Lenin and their successors, educated the revolutionary militants of the class struggle. And it is because the Vietnamese people are in the process of achieving victory on the ground against the aggression of the greatest military power in the world, thanks to the people's war that it carried out under the direction of the organizations that it produced”.[ii]

The passage of this text by Althusser is significant, because unlike other intellectuals inserted in what is called “Western Marxism” (and one of the exceptions was Jean-Paul Sartre), his insertion in Marxism was not restricted to the European world, like György Lukács, Karl Korsh, Theodor Adorno, among many others, as he has always remained linked to the struggles of the so-called Third World, as we can see from his interest in socialist experiences such as Cuba, China, Algeria, the people's war in Vietnam, and also on the Foquista guerrilla tactics (see his text on the death of Che Guevara and his letter to Règis Debray).

In 1970, his best-known text was certainly published, Ideology and State Ideological Apparatuses. I have already dealt with this text in more detail on another occasion and, therefore, I will not dwell on its details.[iii]. But it is important to point out that the article published in number 51 of the journal Thought had been extracted from the manuscript, and published posthumously, about reproduction. The first part of the article is a condensation of almost one hundred pages in which Althusser addressed the problem of the Ideological Apparatus in its various aspects (school, unions, law, political parties, revolutionary transition).

Because he restricted himself in the article to the role of school ideological apparatuses, Althusser was the target of several criticisms for the lack of imprecision in his analysis, and for being (dis)classified as a reproductiveist, a functionalist (very present in the criticisms of Alain Badiou and Nicos Poulantzas), and even omitting the role of the class struggle. Althusser responded to these criticisms in a text published in 1976 “Notes on the Ideological State Apparatuses” where he emphasized the primacy of the class struggle within the AIE. However, the issue of the primacy of the class struggle was already present in the original text, which was only published in 1995.

In any case, this text marked a position taken by Louis Althusser, by resuming Antonio Gramsci's conception of the expanded State (a term coined by Christine Buci-Glucksmann in her book Gramsci and the State) and give it a more Leninist bias by replacing categories derived from modern bourgeois thought, such as civil society and political society, by State apparatuses. Althusser emphasizes the break between Marxist theory and modern thought by fully expanding the concept of the State and defining it not only by coercive and legal aspects, but also ideological ones, and not restricting itself spatially to the legal limits of bourgeois modernity. On the other hand, Althusser brought a new definition of the concept of ideology that had already been outlined since his book Pour Marx. In addition to the imaginary aspect of ideology as opposed to “false consciousness”, and its practical materiality, Louis Althusser inserts the question of ideological interpellation in the constitution of subjects from a Subject (the macro-ideology) in a specular relationship, inspired by the theory of the mirrors of Jacques Lacan.

The criticism directed at Louis Althusser of being a “reproductivist” author is even simplistic. How to think about transformation and rupture if there is no knowledge of reproduction mechanisms? For Althusser, there is always the primacy of the class struggle over the functions and functioning of state apparatuses. A primacy that sounds completely incompatible with any form of functionalism, as well as “structuralism”. The reproduction of the dominant ideology is not simple repetition, nor a simple or expanded, automatic, mechanical reproduction of the ideological apparatuses defined by their functions, but rather the fight for the unification and renewal of previous ideological elements, disparate and contradictory, in a unity conquered in the and by class struggle, against previous forms and new contradictory and antagonistic tendencies to the dominant ideology.

The following three texts, “Response to John Lewis”, “Elements of self-criticism” and “Sustaination in Amiens” form the core of his self-criticism phase,[iv] and were published in 1973, 1974, and 1976, respectively.

In “Response to John Lewis”, Louis Althusser ratifies even more the Leninization of theoretical practice (philosophical and scientific) that he had already been demarcating in his previous texts. Despite having chosen an obscure intellectual from the Communist Party of Great Britain, with little international projection, Althusser implicitly responded to other criticisms that had already been made previously, despite having refuted some of them in his book The controversy over humanism. In this article published by Marxism Today , Althusser returns to his visceral criticism of the so-called “theoretical humanism” readily defended by John Lewis. For Lewis, Marxism has these three principles as its core: (a) man makes history; (b) man makes history by transcending history; (c) man knows only what he does.

Louis Althusser refutes point by point the principles defended by John Lewis: (a) “the masses make history” and not man, a strange category criticized by Marx in his post-1845 texts; (b) “the class struggle is the engine of history”, because this engine is driven by contradictions. As Louis Althusser says “the masses are various classes, strata and social categories grouped together in a complex and mobile whole (the positions of different classes and strata, as well as fractions of classes within classes, change in the course of the same period). historical or revolutionary process).[v] If it is the masses who make history, they have class struggle as a priority precisely because it is the engine that moves, that makes history advance and brings about revolutions, and not an idealistic category such as “man”. For Louis Althusser, this thesis is decisive, as it draws a radical demarcation line between those who defend the revolutionary path and the defenders of the reformist path; (c) "one only knows what is" as opposed to John Lewis' thesis that "man only knows what he does". It is the fundamental materialist thesis of the primacy of being over thought. This means to say that the principle of all existence is materiality and all existence is objective, that is, prior to the subjectivity that knows it and independent of it. According to Louis Althusser, the thesis of the primacy of practice over theory only makes sense subject to the thesis of the primacy of being over thought (a position already explained by Althusser in Pour Marx e Lire le Capital). And it is thanks to practice that one can know what it is: the primacy of practice over theory. But, as Louis Althusser says, one never knows anything that is not what it is: primacy of being over thought.

“Response to John Lewis” still contains two positions demarcated by Althusser: the criticism of the “cult of personality” and the “process without subject or end (s)”. The first is a critique of the imported category of liberal bourgeois thought, in which all the problems and deviations that occurred during the different transition processes, as well as in the behavior of the CPs, were responsible for one individual: Stalin. Nothing is more foreign to Marxism than this type of reduction. Even if there were problems and deviations in Stalin's context, it would be complete nonsense to reduce everything to an individual and give it an ubiquitous meaning. Furthermore, the main effect of this reductive and simplistic, not to say bourgeois, analysis is to conceal the analysis of the primacy of production relations in transition processes.

It is on this concept that Marxist theory focuses on understanding the different historical processes and different forms of transition, given that Marxism deals with all the contradictions that involve practices, not only economic ones, but also political and ideological ones. The other consequence of this reductive vision was the emergence of a hitherto inexpressive current within the bosom of the left: Trotskyism in its various variants. Indeed, it was he who most benefited from the use of this category when it was used at the XNUMXth Congress of the CPSU (and was already used by Trotskyist currents). Paradoxically, by employing the category of “personality cult”, this political current marked by petty bourgeois deviations, also employs it in its political and ideological practice since it reduces Marxism in the figure of Leon Trotsky, but not on the side of “demonization”, but for the “sanctification” of all his actions concerning the period of the Russian Revolution, and in the period that followed until his death.

The thesis of the “process without subject or end (s)” is one of the greatest contributions of Louis Althusser in this context of his self-criticism. This thesis implodes the idealist and teleological precepts that populate a certain Marxism impregnated by bourgeois idealism. For Louis Althusser there is no subject already given in history that is the bearer of an absolute truth, nor an end already given. There are indeed subjects in history, and they represent the different conjunctures and specific contradictions in the different historical formations of different temporalities.[vi] How to think about the Chinese and Cuban Revolutions without the role of the peasantry that represented the majority of the exploited mass? Or the US black movement in the 1960s?

The very change in production relations and productive forces indicates new subjects in the current scenario of capitalism in articulation with the proletariat of the XNUMXst century, which indicates the formation of new alliances and new strategies. Nor is there a subject who bears a preconceived truth with a totalizing vision. It would be to fall into the trap of the Judeo-Christian discourse, impregnated with idealism and without materialism, where there would already be a telos defined. Communism itself appears as a possibility and not as an already given historical end (as liberal thought itself has dealt with in recent decades with Francis Fukuyama's so-called “end of history”, in which there would be no alternative beyond liberalism). Hence the need to return to Engels and Marx when they tell us that the historical process is marked by accidents and chance. Nor can communism be defined as a “nirvana” devoid of sociability, as those defenders of the idea of ​​communism being the “end of politics and ideology” insist. A classless world would not necessarily have an end to multiple contradictions. Moreover, betting on this teleological conception is subjecting oneself to idealist dictates, without any political realism, and without a basis in the materialist perspective.

In “Elements of self-criticism”, Louis Althusser ratifies – and also rectifies – some of the points defended in his past works. The epistemological cut, as well as the formation of a new scientific continent by Marxism, is still maintained in Althusser. The rectification is that Marxist science does not break with ideology in general, but with the bourgeois ideology that is always present within Marxism itself, both in the theoretical aspect due to humanist idealism and economic reductionism, as well as in the political practice of some communist and socialist parties.

Despite being a science, Marxism has a revolutionary character. But even so, it is a science to the chagrin of those who deny the scientific character of Marxism, not only by class opponents steeped in neo-institutionalist or liberal conceptions, but also within Marxism who reject every idea of ​​scientific theory, and even the word science, under the umbrella of pretext that all science or even all theory would be in essence “reifying”, “alienating”, and therefore bourgeois.

Also in this text, Louis Althusser refutes the label of “structuralist” so propagated by his “critics”. The impression given by these so-called “critics” is that they know nothing about the so-called French “structuralism”, as well as the texts of Louis Althusser. There was indeed a tacit alliance between Althusser and Lévi-Strauss, Foucault and Lacan in his critique of Sartre's humanism and anthropocentrism in general. The use of Ferdinand Saussure also seemed to be a “heresy” for these critics, as if linguistics had no importance and a dialogue with the science of history was not possible.

Notable were the work, research and advances provided by Michel Pêcheux, and in Brazil by Carlos Henrique Escobar, when they dealt with linguistics from the perspective of Marxism. And nothing is more foreign to the so-called “structuralism” than the multiplicity of contradictions, and their overdetermination, emphasized by Louis Althusser throughout his works. And, as Althusser emphasizes, Marxism is not distinguished from structuralism by the priority of process over structure, but by the primacy of contradiction over process. Another issue omitted by his critics, possibly due to philosophical lack of knowledge, is Spinoza's influence on Louis Althusser in the construction of the concept of structural causality (causality in itself), and of the imaginary relationship with the real world.

Spinoza is far from being a foreign author to Marx and Marxism, see Marx's notebooks in his youth about Spinoza, and Spinoza's influence on the method of political economy of 1857 (separation between the concept and concrete reality), in addition to the references of the materialist philosopher by Plekhanov and Bukharin. For these critics, Marxism is a mere inversion of Hegel on his feet. If, indeed, Hegel is present in Marx's work, this does not mean a dilution of Marxism in Hegelian idealism, and of its originality as theory and science. How can we also deny the influence of Rousseau and Machiavelli on Marx? All we have to do is link the concepts of the dictatorship of the proletariat with the “general will” of Jean Jacques Rousseau, or with the definition of the State being founded by force, as Machiavelli understands. Marxist theoretical practice reuses previous categories and transforms them by giving them a new conceptual meaning. And because it is an open problem, and not finished or closed, Marxism always brings with it new concepts in the face of new emerging issues.

Finally, “Support in Amiens” was written in 1975, and published in Stances in 1976. In this intervention, Althusser resumes his theses defended in Pour Marx, such as ultimate determination, the knowledge process and theoretical humanism. I will not dwell on the details of this text, as some aspects have already been addressed above. However, it is worth highlighting the importance of the concept of the complex articulated whole in distinction to that of totality. It is in him that Marx radically demarcates his difference from all types of mechanism, and inaugurates the role of different instances in determination, the place of a real difference where the dialectic is inscribed.

The topical, therefore, means that the ultimate determination by the economic base can only be thought of in a differentiated, complex and articulated whole, where the economic determination fixes the real difference of the other instances, its relative autonomy and its own mode of effectiveness on the base. The instances interpenetrate through contradictions and articulated practices. Nothing could be more different from the essentialist perspective of “totality”, so reproduced by the idealist vision present in Brazilian Marxism. Althusser's preference for the whole and not for the totality is that within the totality one always runs the double risk: that of considering it as an actual essence that exhaustively embraces all its manifestations, and of discovering it as a circle, a center which is its essence. Therefore, the figure of the last resort implodes the figure of the circle by asserting differences in effectiveness. If the circle is closed, the same cannot be seen in the building of infrastructure and superstructure, since there are differences and irreducibility between them, not to mention the inequality of contradictions that permeate these structures and practices.

This edition also contains the original prefaces by Manoel Barros da Motta and Severino Bezerra Cabral Filho, and despite no longer being linked to the Althusserian perspective, they were part of the first generation that treated and disseminated the works of the Franco-Algerian philosopher. The preface published in Positions 2 is quite interesting because it contextualizes the Sino-Albanian split within the Marxist-Leninist communist parties that were in opposition to the pro-Soviet Communist Parties, in addition to highlighting the influence of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution in the political and theoretical interventions of Louis Althusser in the 1970s. Furthermore, it also seeks to bring a dialogue between the work of Althusser and that of Foucault in certain aspects related to power relations reproduced by State apparatuses, as stated by Althusser, or devices, in Foucault's words.

The publisher Ciência Revolucionarias plays an important role in re-launching this work that was published 43 years ago, and has never been re-released in our publishing market, thus filling an important gap in the Brazilian Marxist field, especially for the public that recognizes in Marxism not only an overcoming of the capitalist mode of production, but rather its rupture without conciliation, with the formation of new practices, and an ever-renewing and dynamic look at Marxist theory.

*Luiz Eduardo Motta is a professor of political science at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of In favor of Althusser: revolution and rupture in Marxist theory (Countercurrent).


Louis Althusser. Positions. São Paulo, Editora Raízes da América \ Revolutionary Sciences, 2022, 426 pages.


[I] As Nicole-Edith Thévenin observes in her book Revisionnisme et philosophie de l'alienation (1977) philosophy is not a simple “technique” since it produces practical effects, and it is never neutral, even when it wants to make believe so. Philosophy is always taking sides (cf. p. 229).

[ii] ALTHUSSER, Louis. Positions 2:p. 148.

[iii] See chapter 3 of my book In favor of Althusser, “About the concept of ideology” published in 2021 by Contracurrent. Regarding the concept of ideology in Althusser, there are other important indications on this topic, see ESCOBAR, Carlos Henrique Science of history and ideology. Rio de Janeiro: Grail, 1978; PIRES, Eginardo. “Ideology and State in Althusser: a response” in meetings with Brazilian Civilization, n° 6. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1978; LACLAU, Ernesto. Politics and ideology in Marxist theory. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1979; CLENNAN, Gregor and HALL, Stuart et al. of ideology. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 1983; ZIZEK, Slavoj (org.) A map of ideology. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 1996; EAGLETON, Terry. Ideology. São Paulo: Boitempo, 1997; SAMPEDRO, Francis. “The theory of ideology in Althusser” in NAVES, Márcio Bilharinho (ed.) Althusser's Presence. Campinas: UNICAMP, 2010; ALMEIDA, Lúcio Flávio de ALMEIDA. “A discreetly explosive text: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in Social Struggles vol. 18, n° 33, São Paulo: PUC, 2014; Lúcio Flávio de, “Ideology, ideologies, class struggle: Althusser and the (State) ideological apparatuses” in PINHEIRO, Jair (org..) Read Althusser. Marília: Academic Culture, 2016.

[iv] I did not include the text “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in this list for two reasons: the first one because it had its own edition by Graal and had several editions, in addition to having also been published in the book organized by Zizek The ideology map; second, for editing the manuscript about reproduction which is the complete version of this text, and is available in Portuguese from Vozes.

[v] ALTHUSSER, Louis. Positions 1 p. 26.

[vi] As Pierre Macherey observes, “if there is a subject in history, it is not the subject who makes history, but the subject who history makes” in WALDLOWSKI, Aliocha By Althusser, São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2022, p. 140.

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