A Review of: On the Reproduction of Capitalism (1) by Louis Althusser, translated by G. M. Goshgarian



"...history (political, social, intellectual) has completely shattered the unity, even the problematic unity, of the two discourses that Althusser's 'structural Marxism' sought to combine in such a way that each would help sustain the other; it has relegated them to contexts that hardly communicate now."

Etienne Balibar, from the Foreword.

Balibar supplies a clearly written and succinct foreword that properly locates the problems and contexts of the book's origins in its milieu, but it is a rather negative one in essence, as the above quotation shows. Personally I find it hard to see where this unity ever was a unity, really (did it claim such?), or where it has been shattered, unless he means the death of Helene. The statement is not really defended with any examples of the history that has apparently performed this task. Perhaps this is because -

"This also grounds his disagreement with Gramsci: it is crystallized in Althusser’s rejection of the Gramscian notion of 'hegemony' and in his insistence on the exteriority of the revolutionary party (or movement) to the whole system of bourgeois ‘superstructures’, the correlative of its interiority or critical immanence to the practices of the popular masses and the working class. But this merely displaces the problem. And the idea of an organization external to ideological forms of organization, which are obviously apparatus-forms in their turn, is, it will be agreed, quite enigmatic."

Gramsci has already taken over the reigns as the modern radical lodestone and has to carry the weight of the promise that Althusser once did for the Left (at least in this place). Perhaps, they have already sided to Gramsci's concept of hegemony, and in follow-on fashion, to Hardt and Negri, and the concepts of subaltern and multitude, so writing this introduction is made difficult in this respect, the return of a ghost.

The negativity continues, with similar reservations (after all, they are presenting a book to us), in Jacques Bidet's Introduction:

"This text may seem to be coming back to haunt us from another day and age. It does indeed bear witness, in part, to opinions that have become impossible to maintain today."

Such comments appear to be references to some form of philosophical fashion that has made its decisions already, and which do not think of themselves as needing any qualification (it is curious to me that this form is aesthetic rather than ideological in nature, nevertheless...). The trouble with fashion is that it is only fashion, it is short term. We might say in response, yes, currently, in this time period, this might appear to be the case, if you follow the popular way, but when was that ever correct? This may be why he immediately contradicts himself:

"It confronts us with a question that is today less than ever possible to dismiss as obsolete: under what conditions, in a society that proclaims its devotion to the ideals of freedom and equality, is the domination of some people over others endlessly reproduced?"

He is right of course. But there is obviously some embarrassment in the fact that inside this book Althusser is basically a Bolshevik in theory, and overtly aligns himself with the classics of Marxism (albeit criticizing Stalinism), which is not obvious in previous publications of these texts in other versions. But this is all apparently in 'defiance of realism ' according to Bidet, which is (again) taken to be self evident. Though Bidet also says it is "equally clear" that it (Althusser's theory) deserves to be revalued as an autonomous source of "intellectual stimulation", which does not help balance things much because it makes it sound like some kind of mere self improvement plan for the idle intelligentsia.

Yet Bidet is also spot-on to highlight that Althusser's innovation is to refer to the only descriptive nature of (some) earlier Marxist theories.

A theory of structural reproduction (which Althusser promised at least a bit of) has, as its corollary, a theory of the transformation of the structure, says Bidet, it refers to change in time, a theory of social change. But perhaps it is too much to expect Althusser, when he confronts this problem, to ever answer the question of how reproduction can become revolution, and maybe this is because it is the wrong kind of question: i.e. one that expects an answer that is prefigured in the question: a theoretical answer. This is not possible, we can only understand the structure and its reproduction. In doing this maybe we can see where contradictions arise and we can presume these will lead to crises that may or may not lead to revolution when enough of them clash on enough levels, but to expect some kind of answer like a magic 'key', in theory, is peculiar, and to not receive such an answer, since one like this never arrives except as a false path, leads inevitably to disappointment and rejection, i.e. disappointment that in theory we have not achieved transcendence in theory. (It can lead to worse, to fascism).

That such 'introducers' feel necessary these days to qualify themselves with regard to the dominant neoliberal ideology, that they seem to have to give ground up to this, at least from a Marxist point of view, makes Althusser's achievement all the more remarkable in writing these words in the vein of classical Marxist-Leninist theory, even then, around 1968, it makes them stand out like an unsore thumb. This book shows how his texts were indeed shaped and, in may ways, cut up, in and by the conditions of their production and their social context, and yes even by himself, or perhaps in the end especially by himself.

Bidet locates a crucial site of conflict in the relation of Gramsci's concept of the state and civil society, which Althusser used and developed, to Althusser's concepts of (Ideological) State Apparatuses, which presumably reflects back to the Gramscian concept of hegemony, which Althusser rejected.

For me this issue encapsulates the prefaces and introductions part of this book, and shows us that Althusser's work is intervening, today, still, in the contemporary debate, as it will continue to.

For the rest of this book, we a drawn once again into the lucid and, I have to say, comradely writing of Louis Althusser. The introductions have already mentioned Althusser's bouts of depression and mania, that he had electroconvulsive 'therapy', this acts as a kind of explanation for the death/murder of Helene, for which Althusser has been tried in the 'court of opinion' but not legally, and neither has Helene had restitution in this respect. On this I can say no more, we suppose that this Althusser, who is so refined and exacting and patient and clear, modest, and so Marxist-Leninist, occurs during his periods of well-being.

The Marxist-Leninist part is the surprise. Readers familiar with Althusser the communist philosopher will not be so surprised, they will have seen this there before, through the mist and gaps, and the pressure on him to make those, but we can see how it would be a surprise to others, perhaps those who misperceived or misappropriated. Althusser's shock clear Marxist-Leninism in this text (or these texts), where he puts forward that the crisis of capitalism and the need for Marxism-Leninism as the only revolutionary philosophy to work on this crisis, is so forthright, and immediately got my mind racing, as reading his work usually does.

But then there is the nagging doubts expressed in the introductions, that Althusser's apparent optimism of the struggle in the coming fifty or 100 years seems too much, seems out of kilter somehow with 'how things really are' today. - Is it? I found myself asking this question and looking at the recent enormous capitalist crisis, rivaling and perhaps bettering the 1930s Depression in scale, and thinking, obviously not. - Then my mind chucked into the ring the following questions:

Did the intervention of the Soviet Union in the civil war in Spain reflect a correct form of support for comrades, or an imperialist fault, or a mixture of these? Does this reflect the internal contradictions in the then Soviet socialism and the theory understanding it at the time? Does this in turn reflect a relative bypassing of the (crucial) Leninist thesis of self determination? To what extent should the rule of self determination for nations lead to inaction (especially in cases of modern genocide, this question is acute and urgent)? How should communists think the problem of Syria, Ukraine, Russia, and the legacy of the Soviet Union and the present Russian Federation? When one sees imperialism from a socialist country, what does this mean for its internal politics? Most early forms of socialist states have needed to be or are militaristic, what does this tell us about the class conflict on the global scale? Lastly, how does all this react back on dialectical materialist philosophy?

Althusser was asking very similar questions 'back then'. He wanted to go to the roots of these kind of questions, which meant for him to philsophy, or at least, to the philosophical argument.

"To grasp the sense in which Marxist-Leninist philosophy is revolutionary" he says, "we have to know what distinguishes it from earlier philosophies", and, "In order to be able to make this distinction, we have first to know what philosophy in general is. Hence the order of our questions. First question: What is philosophy? Second question: What is Marxist-Leninist philosophy?"

For Althusser here the question "what is philosophy?" therefore does not fall under the jurisdiction of philosophy, even Marxist-Leninist philosophy. If it did, this would mean that it is philosophy's task to define philosophy, he locates the tautology.

None of this seems to be irrelevant to our times, in fact I would say it is astonishing how relevant such discussions are. We have been living through a capitalist crisis more profound than in 1968, the familiarity of this discourse and its urgency therefore positively resonates with relevance. And once more the philosophers and ideologists and aestheticians are aligned on their sides in the struggle.

In this sense, it is apparent that there is a certain tension (and is bound to be) between the allotted gatekeepers to this book, those who introduce it, and the political positions they are currently adopting (or are made to adopt), which represents the clash, or should I say still represents the clash, between Marxist-Leninism and (in general terms) the philosophers (and ideologists etc) of social democracy, liberalism, and anarchism.

One of the key points , I suggest, comes here: To define itself by itself, Althusser says, this is what philosophy has thought and done throughout its past history, constantly, with a few rare exceptions. For him, this is what makes it fundamentally idealist, for to maintain that it is, in the last instance, "the duty and right of philosophy and philosophy alone" to define itself is "to assume that it can know itself, that it is Self-Knowledge, that is, Absolute Knowledge ..." (Althusser). He refers to Hegel on the last concern.

We can see how this sets up the traditional clash with those who want a philosophical-ideological answer to the question of "what is to be done", but on the other hand also a site of another problem, with the concept of the possibility (or not) of 'absolute knowledge', i.e. science. Should we go the Kantian way or the Hegelian route? What is the Marxian route out? Kantian or Hegelian? Is this the only choice, which boils down to: must we be either absolute relativists with Kant, or absolute absolutists with Hegel?

Readers familiar with Althusser will know this debate and should be fascinated to see another round in the battle, transposed in time perhaps. For Althusser (here) the Marxist route out is the science of Historical Materialism. And this emphasis is new to our understanding of Althusser. Such references were not present (or so obvious) in the previously published texts.

The surprise continues in the body of the work: Here Althusser is nothing if not Marxist, which means he begins from an analytic discussion of Marx's economic categories, forces and relations of production, and nothing else. In the past this was evidently subdued, relatively left out of the account. Althusser builds his case strictly from Marx, here.

I will focus on a detail: In this exposition, Althusser makes a distinction, nay a difference, between agents of production and those who are (according to him) not agents of production, that is, the exploiters who 'do not work'. This is for him a characteristic of class divided societies: the exploiters own the means of production and appropriate surplus labor (surplus value?) from the process of production. Some of this appropriation must be reinvested in the production process, since the instruments of production must be renewed.

Perhaps there is some complication here, which occurred to me, as it were, in passing, about the situation of the exploiting capitalist also coinciding with a kind of labor, such as that of the manager/administrator/overseer of the processes of production, which is also a definite (I think) form of labor, so also a force of production, so perhaps this aspect of the capitalist being somehow 'outside' the process as the owner/exploiter is not so sharp or easy as he sets up; I will leave this possible objection aside though, except to say that Althusser resolves this for us by referencing the legal relations of the owner's status, or in other words the legal status that makes him an owner. The legal owner of the means of production is also (made) the legal owner of its products, excepting where it is deposited in exchange for labor, where some of this goes back to the productive agent, the worker (this distinguishes this ownership from slavery I think).

All of this explains the particular kind of unity of the dominant means of production, or it is to help explain how the domination of the capitalist mode over the other modes of production, in a unity, is achieved. The capitalist mode of production dominates (e.g. in France) archaic forms of production, not just, Althusser says, by virtue of the transformation of 'natural' ground rent into capitalist ground rent, but also by virtue of the capitalist market's nearly total domination of the surviving 'small independent producers'. And it is in this location that we find Althusser's very direct riposte to certain kinds of Gramscian (interpretation) thinkers (e.g. such as those who propose 'multitudes' – although this was written as Althusser himself notes, in 1969):

"As for buyers’, sellers’ or producers’ cooperatives (the last-named are extremely rare), they are incontestably part of the capitalist mode of production, constituting a direct 'anticipation' of the socialist mode of production only in the fancy of a handful of opportunists or superannuated utopian thinkers. "

Clearly, not only is there some, let us say at least, 'awkwardness' in introducing Althusser, here, as I have said already, for reasons to do with his personal life, but also due to this political stance, that we see now, throughout this work, a work that seems (to me, at least) to have been held back in the intervening period. It is curious that we can only appropriate this work, the product of Althusser, now, via this double gauntlet, a kind of prepackaging of its materials. I am sorry, I am repeating myself.

I shall not go any further for now. What Althusser is, in this text, leading us to is of course the role of the Ideological State Apparatuses and the processes of the reproduction of the relations of production. For me it remains exciting and at the cutting edge, and in this text, also sober and rational, more so than I imagined.


1. Verso, 2014. Translation © G. M. Goshgarian 2014. First published as Sur la reproduction

© Presses Universitaires de France 1995 . Preface © Etienne Balibar 2014 . Introduction © Jacques Bidet 2014 .



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