Étienne Balibar | Preface to the Selected Works of Louis Althusser

Preface to the Chinese Edition of the Selected Works of Louis Althusser

By Étienne Balibar, translated by Xavier Wyche Flory

It is a great honor to write the preface to the Chinese edition of this rich collection of the works of Louis Althusser (1918-1990), particularly since I studied under Althusser at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) from 1960 to 1965 and then collaborated with him, most notably on the book Reading Capital, which was the product of a seminar he led in 1964-65.[1] I owe this honor to the friendly insistence of the directors of this Chinese edition, and in particular to Mr. Wu Zhifeng, who sought me out when he was in Paris consulting the Althusser Archives at IMEC.[2] We had numerous stimulating conversations, and I thank him and the rest of the team for their confidence. To them and all readers of this edition I extend this preface as a gesture of friendship.

To the Chinese reader, the works in this edition are the products of a far-off continent with a radically different history, and although both China and Europe have gone through globalization, communication between the two has often been strained. Althusser’s work is also removed by time: it is the product of what now (except for the oldest readers) belongs to the historical past, which is to say, the forgotten past, and therefore the reader might not always grasp the intentions and subtext of what they will read. Since I am sure that the introductions and annotations of the editors will greatly facilitate this understanding, I will limit myself to a few general observations about Althusser’s life and work, and then briefly outline why the translation of his work into Mandarin is not only intellectually significant, but politically important.

Louis Althusser (1918-1990) is one of the great figures of 20th century critical Marxism, whose work enjoyed a few years of global attention before fading into relative obscurity. However, a variety of factors have led to renewed interest: first, the posthumous publication of writings that significantly enlarge and alter our understanding of his work; and second, a more propitious historical moment than the end of the Cold War which accompanied his death. Today, we find many of his preoccupations and notions useful to tackling the present, even if these notions and ideas necessarily take on a different hue.

Born in 1918 in Algiers to a petty bourgeois family (not, strictly speaking, a family of colonists, but rather a family of bureaucrats and employees working in Algeria), Althusser received a traditional academic education alongside a strict religious upbringing. It seems that as an adolescent, he was a fervent Catholic with mystical tendencies and a conservative political bent. In 1939, he was accepted into the École Normale Supérieure de Paris (ENS), France’s premier university college for the formation of scholars in the sciences and humanities, and he was embarking on his studies in philosophy when the Second World War broke out and overturned his life. Drafted by the French army, he ended up a prisoner of the Germans alongside millions of his compatriots and spent five years in a prisoner camp (stalag). However his position as one of the camp nurses gave him time to read, work, and make numerous relations, including with young militant communists.

When France was liberated, he resumed his studies at the ENS, quickly passed the terminal state examinations, and then was put in charge of preparing students for the exam—a position he would retain to the end of his life and that led to him to become the mentor of several generation of French philosophers, many of whom (Foucault, Derrida, Serres, Bourdieu, Badiou, Bouveresse, Rancière) went on to become famous in their own right. For a brief period, Althusser retained membership in militant Catholic groups and even wrote a few essays for them, although they were now leftist groups—including groups built around the experience of “worker priests,” which were soon condemned and excommunicated by the Catholic Church.[3]

In 1948, Althusser joined the French Communist Party, led by Maurice Thorez, which was at the zenith of its power in France—the equal of De Gaulle’s party—having played an important role in the resistance against the German occupation and supported by the prestige and direction of the Soviet Union, which chose the party’s policies and leadership through the intermediary of the Kominform. Revolutionary hopes were high, even though the party had renounced such a project as part of the Yalta Conference. It is also during this period that Althusser met Hélène Rytman-Legotien, who became his partner and later his wife. Ten years older than him, Hélène had been a member of the Communist Party prior to the war, and had been part of a resistance group, but she was excommunicated from the party for “Trotskyist deviations,” under nebulous circumstances that still have not been cleared up. She heavily influenced Althusser’s political development and in particular his understanding and representation of the history of the communist movement.

Throughout the Cold War, communist intellectuals were the object of constant suspicion (and occasional repression), and they contributed to their own marginalization with an extremely sectarian intellectual attitude that had its roots in Jdanov’s doctrine of the “two sciences,” which extended to the domains of philosophy, literature and art.  It is no surprise, then, that during this period Althusser only published a few articles, in what were essentially pedagogical journals. He presented the theses of historical and dialectical materialisms and a discussion of the dominant strands of the philosophy of history, while steering clear of militant Marxism.[4]

His personal work, outside teaching the traditional philosophical corpus, focused on the political philosophers and materialists of the Enlightenment—and on Pascal and Spinoza, two antithetical figures of “anti-humanism” in the classical age who remained sources of inspiration to Althusser throughout his life. Following his Diplôme d’Etudes Supérieures (a rough equivalent of today’s masters degree), which focused on “The Idea of Content in the Philosophy of Hegel,”[5] he continued to develop his knowledge of Hegel and of Marx’s “philosophical works,” and in particular the works of Marx’s youth, which had only recently been published in France.

During this time, there’s no reason to think that Althusser’s political conceptions fell outside the dominant line of the communist parties, in particular during the various crises that befell the communist world, such as the Hungarian revolution in 1956, the colonial wars, and including the Algerian War, in which the French communist party lent limited support to the insurrection.[6]

However, with the revelations of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956, followed by the de-Stalinization of the 22nd Congress in 1960, the entire communist world on both sides of the Iron Curtain entered a period of turbulence from which it would never escape. Paradoxically, Marx himself was simultaneously gaining a new prestige, particularly among students, who were increasingly sensitive to the crisis of the authoritarian social structures, and who were galvanized by the anti-imperialist struggles (particularly in Vietnam and Algeria) and the success of the Cuban Revolution. As Jean-Paul Sartre, the most famous French philosopher of the period, put it in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Marxism was “the inescapable philosophical horizon of our time,” and the debate about the nature of Marxism became sensitive not just for communist organizations and their militants, but for intellectuals of all types: philosophers, scholars, artists, and writers.  It is within this climate that Althusser’s interpretations of Marx and his arguments on the problem of “socialist humanism” had an unexpected success, first in France, and soon abroad.

Althusser became famous with the 1965 publication of For Marx (a collection of his articles from 1961 to 1965) and Reading Capital (which was written in collaboration with his students Etienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey and Jacques Rancière), and his work provoked numerous debates both within and outside communist and Marxist circles in France and abroad. He also was one of the protagonists of what he himself would later call “the humanism quarrel,” which agitated all of French philosophy.[7] The “theoretical anti-humanism” defended by Althusser against the Christian humanists, existentialists, and Marxists, was also an indirect way of criticizing Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, not only philosophically but politically. He focused his attack on the combination of economicism and humanism, which in his eyes characterized the dominant bourgeois ideology, and from which some predicted the eventual convergence of capitalism and socialism. But Althusser made his critique in the name of a philosophical conception and with theoretical instruments that had nothing to do with those of the dialectical materialism theorized by Stalin after the death of Lenin, which had become dogma throughout the communist world.

Repudiating the Hegelian heritage in Marxism (despite textual evidence to the contrary), Althusser instead traced his own conception of philosophy back to Spinoza, whom he saw as the true pioneer in understanding ideology as a structure of the social imaginary that then constructs the individual subjectivity—a theory that was both announced and missed by Marx. Althusser’s vision contributed greatly to the renaissance of interest in and influence of Spinoza that marked this whole period. It also relied on the “historical epistemology” of Cavaillès (1903-1944), Bachelard (1884-1962), and Canguilhem (1904-1995), leaving them with the idea of discontinuity, or a rupture between “common knowledge” and “scientific knowledge,” which allowed them to think of the dialectic as progress without end, taking place in the concept and not simply under the auspices of conscience (which was the dominant criterion in the theories of truth laid down by Descartes, Kant, and phenomenology).

Moreover, this philosophy sought an “alliance” between the thought of Marx and Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis still ignored and even rejected by official Marxism, through the intermediary of Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), who conducted a parallel “return to Freud”. The goal for Althusser was both to show the reciprocal relationship between ideology and the unconscious, and to construct a new conception of temporality and causality—and thereby, a new vision of practice.

With these theoretical innovations, Althusser’s work spilled over the confines of Marxist debates, or rather placed those same debates within a more general philosophical enterprise, which would soon come to be known as structuralism, despite some ambiguity in the term. Althusser was thus the point of encounter and mutual enrichment between structuralism and Marxism. In the eyes of his disciples, he hoped to bring about their fusion. Like all structuralists, he developed a theory of the subject not as the ideal origin of knowledge and the will, but rather as an effect of multiple social practices, institutions, language, and imaginary formations—as an “action of the structure”.[8]

However, in contrast to other structuralists, he tried to develop a notion of structure that was not dependent on the identification of formal invariants—as is the norm in mathematics, linguistics, or even anthropology—but rather on an “overdetermined” combination of multiple social relations, in which the concrete figure modifies itself at each historical junction. He was trying thereby to make the notion of structure not only useful for the analysis of social reproduction, but also and above all for phases of revolution, with the contemporary socialist revolutions serving as his models. History could thereby be thought of simultaneously as a process (without a subject) and as an event (without a destination).

I continue to believe that this philosophical construct, or rather the research program it opened up, was a great enterprise whose possibilities still have not been exhausted. It also leaves behind interesting and unresolved problems, such as the “symptomatic reading” (lecture symptomale) of theoretical and artistic works (which may have influenced Derrida’s deconstruction), and the “differential temporality of history” (which is often quite close to the thinking of Walter Benjamin, of whom Althusser remained ignorant)[9]—both of which are present in Althusser’s contribution to Reading Capital.

Nonetheless, already before ’68 —which had a traumatic impact on Althusser, who did not participate—he significantly reorganized his own philosophy, entering into a period first of autocriticism and then of reconstruction, building his thought upon new foundations that would never be fully stabilized. Without forgetting Spinoza, but repudiating structuralism and the “epistemological rupture,” he tried to give a more overtly political character to philosophy and thereby to the theorization of history. Accused by spokespersons of the French Communist Party and by certain of his young disciples, who had become leaders of Maoist organizations, of underestimating the importance of class struggle and class structures, he tried to reintegrate both elements into his work, albeit on his own terms.

One shouldn’t forget that this took place in a period of important struggles and social movements in Europe, as well as an increasing rupture between leftist revolutionary fervor and the reformist tendencies that would result in what became known as “Eurocommunism” in the 70s, a gambit that failed to transform the political realities in France, Italy, and Spain, and that in any case was soon swept away by the wave of ascendant neoliberalism.

Within the new philosophical structure he was trying to put in place, Althusser seemed to return to more classic Marxist questions, whereas the “poststructuralist” philosophers moved ever further away from Marxism; however, this narrative requires some nuance, as some of Althusser’s questions from the time continue to resonate, particularly today. This is notably the case with his theory of “ideological interpellation” and the “ideological state apparatuses,” which was extracted in 1971 from an unpublished manuscript on the reproduction of social relations.[10] This theory is a major contribution to the analysis of the processes of subjection and subjectivation, which we now know (thanks to their own surfaced work) represented a major incitement and challenge to Althusser’s contemporaries, Bourdieu and Foucault, who were working through their own questions of symbolic capital and power relations. Today, it is of particular use to theorists of law and feminists, such as Judith Butler, who insist upon the performativity of discourses.[11]

The posthumous publication of Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us, which was written between 1972 and 1976, allows us to better understand how his thoughts on the various reproductions of ideological subjection become articulated in his understanding of collective political action, which for him always presupposes the momentary triumph over ideology. This also resonated with his new “pragmatic” definition of philosophy, not as a methodology of knowledge or a dialectical exploration of the concept of history, but rather as a “class struggle in theory,” or more generally as a strategic exercise of thought, which seeks to identify the “balance of forces” between even the most abstract discourses that indirectly prop up (Gramsci’s hegemonic effect) or resist and rebel against the current state of things.

Althusser’s work of this period, constantly interrupted and deviated by political controversies and his periodic episodes of manic depression, constitutes not so much a system as a vast building site of open questions, in which the traditional problem of the relationship between social structure and historical situation had been supplanted by the relationship between subjectivity and political action. In a sense, he both complicates and deconstructs this relationship. Compared to the previous period, there is even less systematic construction, no definitive theses that one could identify as the principles of Althusser’s philosophy. What one finds, rather is a theoretical practice, an effort at thought, in equal measures daring and defensive, that points to the capacity for metamorphosis in Marxist-inspired thought, and that proves the fecundity of crossing politics and philosophy to interrogate the present, or as Foucault would say, “the ontology of what we are” in the present and in its transformation.

As we know, this effort was interrupted by a series of tragic events, which might not be wholly unrelated to one another: on the collective level, the crisis of “real socialism” and Marxist thought, which Althusser himself diagnosed in a celebrated contribution at a 1977 seminar in Venice organized by the dissident Italian group Il Manifesto, on “Power and Opposition in Post-revolutionary Societies”;[12] and on a personal level, Althusser’s murder of his wife Hélène, committed in a bout of delirious depression in 1980, which led to his internment at a psychological establishment, from which he would be released only for a few years in the middle of the 80s.

We have several important, fragmentary—although long—documents from this period, including the autobiographical The Future Lasts A Long Time (written in 1984), which opens this Chinese collection of Althusser’s works, and which contains precious revelations about his life and the transformations of his thought. Of course, as is the case with all autobiographies with an apologetic dimension, and even more so given Althusser’s auto-critical and even self-destructive tendencies, not all of these confessions and revelations should be taken at face value. But we are still missing a complete biography of Althusser; the one started by Yann Moulier-Boutang remains incomplete.[13]

Besides his autobiography, this period is most notable for its fragmentary writings on the idea of aleatory as opposed to dialectical materialism, an expression Althusser came up with to link thinkers as diverse as the atomists of Greco-Latin antiquity (Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius), to classical thinkers as heterogeneous as Machiavelli (due to his belief that virtue and fortune govern political events), Spinoza (thanks to his absolute rejection of the ideas of a telos in nature or in history), Rousseau (because of his presentation of the beginning of civilization as a series of accidents in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality), Althusser’s version of Marx (severed from its Hegelianism), and even certain aspects of contemporary philosophy (including Derrida, with his critique of the idea of origin and his theory of the dissemination of traces).

The themes of aleatory materialism are not completely new in Althusser’s thought; instead, as certain commentators have noted, they radicalize and reformulate older ideas—like the primacy of “encounters” and “conjunctures” in history—into a new code.[14] They coexist with a representation of communism not as a stage to come in human evolution, but rather as a way of life, or an ensemble of practices that already exist in the slits of bourgeois society, eluding the domination of market forms—a metaphor that comes from Epicurus via certain formulations of Marx about the development of market exchanges in the “pores” or “margins” of traditional communities.

The very incompleteness and fragmentary nature of these ideas make them perfectly suited to our time, which is characterized simultaneously by great uncertainty regarding the perennity of the relations of power and domination, and by the multiplication of cultural and social changes whose combination into one single cultural (and a fortiori political) form seems rather unpredictable, if not implausible. In this context, the fragmentary essays of the late Althusser have the immense merit of unsettling established values, without ever losing sight of the domination of some humans by others and the possible hopes for emancipation. Nonetheless, it would of course be a mistake to look there for complete and current explanations of the world we currently inhabit.

The publication of Althusser’s work in Mandarin is thus both a happy and important event, especially considering how little has been translated up till now.[15] Of course, it is part of a larger process of making the intellectual products of the capitalist West available to the intellectuals, scholars, students, and larger public of this country. Given how long these works have been unavailable, their translation constitutes an important part of the intellectual exchanges of our globalized world. One can only hope that the inverse will also happen—that the French public will become better informed about the contemporary philosophical debates in China. For now, however, this is true of only a few specialists, and the absence of sufficient translations continues to be an almost insurmountable obstacle.

In the long term these problems should lead to a common reflection on questions of translation and how they affect the universality of intellectual categories and of history.[16] But I also think there are reasons that Chinese readers might be interested in the intellectual and political trajectory of Althusser in particular, because these trajectories crossed China—and in particular the Chinese communism constructed around the thought of Mao Zedong—at several junctions, and was profoundly influenced by them. Naturally, we also need to take a critical look at these encounters, since they were probably dependent on certain myths common in the West, whose deformations and excesses must be corrected. The reaction of Chinese readers to the image herein presented of their history will of course be of great aid in this endeavor.

Althusser’s first encounter with Mao’s thought was with the text “On Contradiction,” today usually presented as part of “Four Philosophical Essays” that are thought to have been composed by Mao Zedong out of his 1937 course on dialectical materialism given in Yenan. The texts had been translated in the official review of the French Communist Party (FCP), Cahiers du Communisme, in 1952.  We know today that Althusser was profoundly struck by the text, which had the effect of a revelation upon him.[17] On the one hand, Mao, leader of the victorious Chinese revolution less than three years prior, appeared as a “new Lenin”: for the first time since 1917, the leader of a communist party was both a Marxist philosopher of the highest order, and a political strategist of obvious genius who led the revolutionary forces to victory while reflecting conceptually on its foundations. He thus embodied the unity of theory and practice.

On the other hand, and contrary to Stalin’s Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism from 1938, which was itself inspired by Engels’ notes on “the dialectic of nature,” Mao treated the “law of the unity of opposites,” as the “fundamental law of dialectical materialism” and made no allusion to any other laws. In particular, he omitted the law of the “negation of the negation,” which was the most obvious link between Hegelianism and official Marxism.

Finally, in his presentation of the notions of “principal contradiction and secondary contradiction,” “principal aspect and secondary aspect of the contradiction,” “antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions,” and in the possible permutations between these terms, which determines their political usage, he never remained within the bounds of formal analysis, but made abundant references to the particularities of the Chinese revolution—and in particular to its fluctuating relationship with nationalism. According to Lucien Sève, Althusser thought he had hit upon a decisive innovation in the history of Marxist philosophy, one that would completely renew our comprehension and the manner in which it was taught (particularly in the “party schools”), and which would put an end to the dogmatism and formalism that he thought characterized them both. However, he made no immediate public usage of these innovations.[18]

He finally used these ideas ten years later, when called upon to respond to critiques of his 1962 article on “Contradiction and Overdetermination” (which was eventually included in For Marx): in the appropriately titled “On dialectical materialism (on the inequality of origins),” which came out in August 1963 and also ended up in For Marx, he proposed a complete reworking of the problem of dialectical materialism. I won’t try to summarize that essay here, which can be read in this edition, and which is one of Althusser’s most famous, and the cornerstone of what I described above as his early, or first philosophy. I just want to draw attention to the fact that in this article he treats Mao as the transmitter, and perhaps even inventor, of two crucial ideas that for him mark the rupture with the Hegelian heritage of Marxism: on the one hand, the idea of the complexity of the components of a totality (essentially a social and historical totality, like the Russia of 1917, China in the 30s, or France in the 60s), which is irreducible to a simple or unique principle, or to a single essence; on the other hand, the idea that inequality is constitutive of all development or process, which means that accentuating contradictions does not lead to an overcoming or surpassing (as in the Hegelian framework of the negation of the negation), but rather to displacements, condensations, and ruptures.

 This is the purely philosophical dimension of Althusser’s development, but it is also worth examining the circumstantial political dimension. In 1963, Mao was still little known in the French Communist Party (FCP), and in any case was considered insufficiently orthodox (in a similar way to Gramsci, though for opposite reasons). This poor reception was of course already determined by the poor relations between the communist parties in China and in the Soviet Union, which marked the beginning of what would eventually become the great schism in 20th century State communism. The French Communist Party (FCP) had eventually sided with Khrushchev  against Mao, but this was by no means an automatic or quick process.  In 1956, during the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, Thorez and Mao had been the only communist leaders to cite Stalin (who had died in 1953) in their speeches, and they had both opposed the publication of Krushchev’s “secret report” on the crimes of Stalin, which launched the wave of de-Stalinization.

Thus one must wonder how members of the FCP reacted to Althusser’s critique of humanism, his repudiation of the notion of the “cult of personality” (which he describes as “nowhere to be found in Marxism”), his refusal to use the word “Stalinism” (to which he always preferred “Stalinist deviation”), and finally his laudatory references to the philosophical genius of Mao. Most likely, it was perceived as an attempt to perpetuate the old resistance against de-Stalinization rather than as the foundation of a new “leftist criticism” of Stalinism, which was probably closer to his goal. The picture is complicated further when we remember that the process of de-Stalinization within the FCP (and many other communist parties) was more verbal than real, and hardly touched the actual functioning of the party, which continued to be qualified as “democratic centralism.”

The point is not to suggest that Althusser’s motives in invoking Mao’s text on contradiction were primarily tactical, aimed at playing on the internal tensions of the party. I think his point was rather to show that against all control and imposed discipline, the role of a communist intellectual was to gather his theoretical goods in liberty, wherever he found them. (Unsurprisingly then, Althusser also cited Gramsci, even though more critically, trying to disassociate the thinker from the way in which he was used to justify the Italian Communist Party’s line under Togliatti, which can be characterized as “ultra-Krouschevian” and in favor of complete de-Stalinization.) But I also think that Althusser couldn’t be naïve enough to not know that in the Communist world, references to theoretical authorities always functioned as an instrument to classify and identify intellectuals whom one couldn’t trust to avoid “deviations” on their own. And in any case, these references would end up greatly facilitating the rapprochement between Althusser and pro-Chinese positions, even as they created further misunderstandings.[19]

Rapprochement and misunderstandings were once again present a few years later in what we can consider Althusser’s second encounter with Maoism, which was undertaken in quite altered conditions and with quite different objectives. When in December of 1966, the Maoist UJMCL (Union of Marxist-Leninist Communist Youth) was created, the product of a schism within the Union of Student Communists encouraged by the Chinese authorities, many of the leaders of the group were students and disciples of Althusser, including Robert Linhart, with whom Althusser would maintain his friendship and later reflect on many subjects together, from the origins of the reversal of the Soviet Union into a totalitarian regime up to the militant practice of the “workers’ investigation” (enquêtes ouvrières).

The reasons for this alliance were not just personal. As the democratic parliamentary strategies of the western communist parties continued to falter, many of the more radical communist intellectuals became interested in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which had been officially launched in 1966, and which they interpreted (or rather imagined) as a movement of radical democratization, directed against the bureaucratic nature of the party and Chinese state, led by young workers and students, and supported by Mao against the “bourgeois-fied” leaders of his own party and the “capitalist tendencies” in socialism. Hence Althusser’s sympathy with the beginning of the Maoist movement (although he certainly opposed the schism), and the double game he engaged in for some time—shuttling between the discipline of the FCP, which he still hoped to influence, and collaboration with the young Maoists.

Precisely in 1967, in the 14th edition of the Cahiers Marxistes-Léninistes, from November/December 1966 – the “theoretical and political organ of the Union of Young Marxist-Leninist Communists” – an anonymous article appeared “On the Cultural Revolution,” which was penned by Althusser, as immediately became apparent.[20] In the article, Althusser references the declarations of the Chinese Communist Party that explain and justify the Cultural Revolution, but he analyzes it through his own reconstruction of historical materialism in terms of instances or levels of social formation, as he had gestured towards in For Marx and Reading Capital. As a “mass ideological revolution,” the Cultural Revolution would overturn the ideological superstructure, in the same way that the seizure of power attacked the political superstructure, and the transformation of the relations of production overturned the economic infrastructure. In the long run, revolutionizing the ideological superstructure would be the necessary condition of success for the two other revolutions, and thus a decisive moment in the class war, which takes place precisely through ideology (made of attitudes and mores even more than out of ideas—a notion that we’ll find later on in his definition of the “ideological state apparatuses”).[21]

Althusser’s double game would end up costing him a high price on a political and personal level, as it was immediately and violently denounced by the spokespeople of both camps. One has to wonder, therefore, what led Althusser to take this risk. Besides the personal reasons already evoked, and taking into account that his understanding of the events unfolding in China were based on propaganda rather than on reality, which led him to see elements of a “leftist critique of Stalinism” where there were none, or at least not in the prominent position he imagined, I think there was a more general reason for this double game, anchored in Althusser’s most profound communist convictions. To him, the schism of international communism was a dramatic phenomenon that weakened not only the “socialist camp,” but the ensemble of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist forces in the world. He thought, or hoped, that the schism would be temporary, thanks to the common confrontation against imperialism. He didn’t imagine the contrary: that it would be imperialism and capitalism that would play off the ideological and geopolitical antagonisms between the socialist countries to slowly subjugate them and prepare them to change sides.

And I suppose he also thought that when the reunification finally happened, there would need to be Marxist intellectuals to accompany the revolutionary revival with a new foundation of Marxist theory, philosophers who would act as vanishing mediators, “disappearing in their own intervention,” as he would write in Lenin and Philosophy in 1968. It is also why (and again, this is just a hypothesis on my part), he wanted to keep up friendships on both sides of the schism; he didn’t want to be cut off from anyone—an unrealistic objective that would of course end up turning against him.

I’m not suggesting that the vicissitudes of Althusser’s relationships with the thought of Mao and with the Western Maoist movements hold the secret to the transformations of his philosophical and political thought—even though they do help explain certain internal tensions. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that they are the main reason why contemporary Chinese readers might be interested in Althusser’s thoughts and history. I nonetheless chose to summarize them (at my own risk) for a reason that goes beyond the anecdotal: today, China continues to claim Mao not only as the founder of its state (while Russia no longer claims Lenin in this way), but as the inspiration of its politics, which puts him in a paradoxical position. Officially designated as “socialist” and governed by a “communist party,” China has become the hegemonic power-in-waiting of the capitalist world, even if it is in the form of very particular institutions that are very different from liberalism or even neoliberalism.

In order to imagine our collective future, we need to understand both China’s real history and its image as it was received internationally (in particular by philosophers and theorists of revolution and class struggle), in order to differentiate between the two and institute not only new concepts, but also new images. The transmission of Althusser’s works to the Chines public, accompanied by a precise knowledge of their context, is a part, if modest, of this comprehension.

In closing, let me once again thank those who asked me to write this preface, and to wish a good read—as critical and imaginative as possible—to all who come across this collection.


Translated from the French by Xavier Wyche Flory

[1] Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, Jacques Rancière, Lire le Capital (1965), New revised edition, Presses Universitaires de France, collection « Quadrige », 1996. This preface for a collection of works of Althusser in Mandarin was written in 2015. A French version with a few additional footnotes was published on the website: https://revueperiode.net/althusser-et-mao/. I have made minor corrections and added a few notes and reference for use in the Columbia Seminar of Critique 13/13.

[2] Institut Mémoire de l’Edition Contemporaine, located at Abbaye d’Ardennes, near Caen (France), where many archives of French writers and intellectuals are kept and open to study (https://www.imec-archives.com/en/).

[3] The group in question was called  “Youth of the Church,” whose leaders were Father Maurice Montuclard and his companion Marie Aubertin. Thierry Keck’s book, Jeunesse de l’Eglise 1936-1955. Aux sources de la crise progressiste en France (Editions Karthala Paris, 2004), with a preface by Etienne Fouilloux, gives ample details of the importance of Althusser’s role in the group (already mentioned in Yann Moulier Boutang’s biography) and the lasting friendships he made there. [Note added for the French release of this preface.]

[4] Jdanov is cited in the epigraph of an early text by Althusser, with very Stalinist flavors: “The return to Hegel. Last word of academic revisionism,” directed against Jean Hyppolite (whose friend and collaborator at the Ecole Normale Supérieure he would later become, and whose interpretation of Hegel he would defend against Kojève’s.) (The text was published in 1950 in La Nouvelle Critique, reedited in Ecrits philosophiques et politiques, Tome I, Stock-IMEC, 1994, p. 243-260). [Note added for the French edition.]

[5] Translated into English as The Specter of Hegel by Michel Goshgarian (Verso, 1997).

[6] His analysis of Gaullism in his unreleased book from 1978, Marx in his limits, is very revealing on this score (in Ecrits politiques et philosophiques, Tome I, cit., p. 428 sq.) [Note added for the French release.] – The question of Althusser’s attitude with respect to the insurrection in Budapest in 1956 and its suppression by the armies of the Warsaw Pact in 1956 – the great moments of break among Communist militants and intellectuals in the West – is in fact more complicated than this: see my preface to the Hungarian edition of Reading Capital at: https://revueperiode.net/lire-lire-le-capital/ [Note for the Columbia Seminar Critique 13/13.]

[7] See Louis Althusser, The Humanist Controversy and other texts, edited by M. Goshgarian,Verso 2003.

[8] This expression was developed by a group of disciples of both Althusser and Lacan (Yves Duroux, Jacques-Alain Miller, Jean-Claude Milner). See the new reedited edition of Cahiers pour l’Analyse (revue du Cercle d’Epistémologie of the Ecole Normale Supérieure) procured by the University of Kingston, volume 9 (article signed by J.-A. Miller alone) (https://cahiers.kingston.ac.uk/pdf/cpa9.6.miller.pdf).

[9] But he may have been cognizant of the work of Ernst Bloch, whose formulations on the “non-contemporaneity of the present” are even closer to his. A common source is of course the 1844 “Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” part of Marx’s early works [note for the Columbia seminar Critique 13/13].

[10] Louis Althusser, Sur la reproduction, Presses Universitaires de France, Collection « Actuel Marx Confrontations », 2nd edition, 2011. English : On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, transl. Ben Brewster and G.M. Goshgarian, Verso 2014.

[11] See Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power. Theories in Subjection (1997), and Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative (1997).

[12] Il Manifesto : Pouvoir et opposition dans les sociétés postrévolutionnaires, Editions du Seuil, Paris 1978. Althusser’s contribution is also reproduced in the volume: Louis Althusser, Solitude de Machiavel, an edition prepared and with commentary by Yves Sintomer, PUF, Actuel Marx Confrontations, 1998 (pages 267-280).

[13] Yann Moulier-Boutang, Louis Althusser: une biographie (1repartie), Grasset, 1992 (new edition in 2002, Le Livre de poche).

[14] In particular Emilio de Ipola in his book Althusser, El infinito adios, Siglo XXI Editores, 2007 (French translation: Althusser. L’adieu infini, preface by Etienne Balibar, PUF 2012), and Warren Montag, in his book Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War, Duke University Press, 2013.

[15] I have the pleasure of reminding the reader—thanks to M. Wu Zhifeng, who informed me—that there was an edition of For Marx (including in the appendice On Exploitation: Elements of an Autocritique from 1972), translated by Mr. Gu Liang (The Commercial Press, Beijing, October 1984), although it was not made commercially available. It remained a private edition, reserved for certain readers. Mr. Gu Liang had previously published the essay “Marxism and Humanism” in the journal International Philosophy Today (December 1979), and it was the first time an article of Althusser appeared in China. I met Gu Liang in 1983 at a conference organized around the 100th anniversary of Marx’s death, organized by Georges Labica at the University of Paris-10 Nanterre, and we remained friends. A professional editor of foreign languages from Beijing, he had also participated in the French translation of the works of Mao Zedong, but during the extra time he won from sleep, he also translated the works of French philosophers and historians that seemed important to him into Mandarin. I would like to acknowledge his role as a pioneer in the introduction of the work of Althusser in China.

[16] There is some extremely interesting English language scholarship on this problem, including the work of Lydia Liu (Professor in Beijing and New York), who directed the volume Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations, Duke University Press, 2000.

[17] I got this information from the philosopher Lucien Sève, who took them up again in his contribution to the seminar on the work of Althusser organized by the journal La Pensée in March, 2015. Himself a former student of Althusser at the ENS, and later a friend, Sève was one of the protagonists of the 60s debate in the FCP about Marxist dialectic and humanism. After the leaders of the FCP resolved the debate between the humanist Marxism of Roger Garaudy and the “antihumanist” Marxism of Althusser by getting rid of them both, Lucien Sève became the unofficial philosopher of the party, in disagreement with Althusser about the “overthrow of the dialectic and the possibility of a philosophical anthropology, but still on very good personal terms with him. The forthcoming publication of their correspondence, which lasted over thirty years, will be of great help in understanding that period of French communism, and the role that Althusser played in it.

[18] The question of attribution of these philosophical texts to Mao Zedong, and above all their degree of originality compared to Soviet models that he studied and could have been inspired by, has been the starting point of many debates and polemics, including Nick Knight’s Marxist Philosophy in China: From Qu Qiubai to Mao Zedong, 1923-1945 (Dordrecht: Springer, 2005), where we learn that the study On Contradiction was only one such study Mao dedicated to the laws of dialectic, which means that he had not, in reality “eliminated the negation of the negation.” It is nonetheless significant that Mao only wanted to publish and diffuse the study on contradictions as the “identity of opposites.” The collection of his Philosophical Essays, which came out in 1966, also included other texts (notably “On Practice,” also a product of his lectures in Yenan), but Althusser never engaged with them.

[19] In a correspondence which started when I told her of my writing this preface, Lydia Liu [the current Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University] signaled an interesting coincidence to me, which no doubt would merit further research. Her question was the following:

“As I go back to Althusser’s critique of humanism in 1964, it occurred to me that a similar critique was undertaken in China, especially by literary critic Chou Yang. Both Althusser and Chou were targeting the USSR. I wanted to consult with you about Althusser’s knowledge of Chou Yang’s work in 1963-64. Was he aware of this work? Or did Althusser follow the articles published in Peking Review? Did the French left-wing intellectuals and communists read this journal Peking Review regularly? If not, did you have other access to the theoretical work done by Chinese Marxist intellectuals in the 1960s?”

And to my response that, as far as I knew, Althusser was not aware of this critique (or at least made no mention of it), Lydia wrote the following: “Indeed, both Althusser and Chou Yang (literary critic and one time Minister of Culture) were reacting to Khrouchtchev’s revisionism and it’s not surprising that they made the same argument about ‘humanism,’ calling it petty-bourgeois ideology. I am fascinated by this because Chou Yang had participated in the first Afro-Asian Writers Conference in Tashkent in 1958 (inspired by Bandung) where Third-World writers relied on ‘humanism’ to condemn the inhumanity of colonialism and imperialism (in the same vein as would Frantz Fanon in Les Damnés de la Terre). I’m still trying to sort out the complex entanglement between ‘socialist humanism’ which you discuss in the context of ‘désaccords politiques entre le PC Chinois et le PC soviétique” and the Bandung inspired humanism. I wonder if there’s more to the geopolitics of humanism than ‘petty-bourgeois ideology.’  I emphasize geopolitics because the State Department of the U.S. tried to infiltrate the Bandung conference by mobilizing a number of Asian countries (Pakistan, the Philippines, Japan, etc.) to speak on its behalf, forcing Chou Enlai to make a concession to human rights as embodied by “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. Some of the declassified documents seem to direct our attention to other interpretations of ‘humanism’ in the Cold War outside Marxist discussions.”  [Note added for the French edition.]

[20] One can find this article, which was posted in 2013, on the website of the electronic journal Décalages. An Althusser Studies Journal, at https://scholar.oxy.edu/decalages/vol1/iss1/8/.

[21] By insisting on Althusser’s “second” encounter with Maoism, I am focusing attention on his relations with the founding students of the UJCML, some of whom were his students and friends, and which seems important to me. I’m leaving to the side the question of when he entered into extended contact with Charles Bettelheim, himself a regular visitor to Beijing who had personal relations with Zhou Enlai and who was a partisan of the Chinese in the disputes of international communism. At the very latest they came into contact after the publication of Reading Capital, which started a long collaboration between the two teams of researchers, and whose trace is palpable in some of their publications. [Note added for the French edition.]