‘Just being a Marxist in academic philosophy is incredibly difficult, even in France. Althusser, though, was fortunate enough to be his most philosophically active during the two decades where being a Marxist philosopher was not only an institutional possibility but during revolutionary years where such work was of global interest. Althusser’s tide rose with the post-Stalinist communist left and it fell as this movement became fragmented and declined. By 1980, Althusser’s arguments for a scientific Marxism, for the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat, and for democratic centralism were seen as hopelessly old-fashioned.‘
‘That humanist Marxism might now become the party’s official philosophy jolted him into action. As much as anybody, Althusser wanted to repudiate Stalinism. However, he thought that humanism smuggled bourgeois ideology back into Marxist philosophy. Starting in the early 60s, then, his goal was to provide a philosophically sophisticated and defensible alternative to both humanist Marxism and to the discredited official Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union.’
‘But Marx’s voice is not univocal; Althusser reads a tension in his works. The tension is that between a Marx that is the heir to modern political philosophy and to Hegel and to all the other ideologies of his day and a Marx that is struggling to break free of this tradition and to found a materialist science of history.
3:AM: Up to about 1950 was Althusser trying to reconcile Christian and Marxist thinking in some respects? He also seemed to want to turn Marx back towards Hegel in some ways too during this early period, or at least you contend that Marx is guilty of the same mistake as Hegel in, as you put it, ‘… mistaking historical content for the fulfillment of the dialectic.’ Can you say something about this early period?

WL: After WWI, Hegel’s influence in French philosophy was unavoidable. Kantianism and Bergsonism mostly did not survive the Great War and it was Hegel (and somewhat Nietzsche and, of course, the perennial Descartes) who filled the vacuum. The effects of Hegel’s philosophy were felt in logic, theology, historiography, ethics, epistemology and phenomenology. Marx was different. Unlike Hegel, he was not philosophically respectable. Bourgeois presses typically did not publish Marxist philosophy and French universities did not employ Marxists. After World War II, the reputation of communists as resistance fighters and as martyrs lent communism and thereby Marxism a certain moral and political authority. This authority transferred to the philosophical sphere and almost every post-war French philosopher you can name who worked in value theory reflected on the truth of Marxism. Books on Marxist philosophy like Henri Lefebvre’s Dialectical Materialism even became best sellers. That said, Marx’s thought was regarded neither as philosophically sophisticated nor as complete and not that much of Marx’s early work was readily available until the early 1960s. Therefore, it way by emphasizing his connections to Hegel that post-war French philosophers filled-in the gaps Marx supposedly left in the theorization of individual agency, consciousness, science, history, ethics, and anthropology.

Now Althusser was raised in an observant family and became a Catholic militant before the war. He remained a believer and activist of a sort until about 1949. Some of the most progressive Catholic theologians were Hegelians and they definitely influenced him. Further, Althusser’s teachers and colleagues Georges Canguilhem and Jean Hyppolite at the École normale supérieure were Hegelians. Althusser entered the ENS in 1945 with clear Marxist sympathies, if not exactly knowledge of Marxist philosophy. Given his biography and given the zeitgeist, reconciling Catholicism, Marxism, and Hegel made a lot of sense as the subject of his 1947 thesis. As the quote you mention above and the larger passage from which it is taken suggests, although Althusser embraced Hegel’s logic and Marx’s materialism, sophisticated Catholic theology won the day. In the thesis, Althusser appealed to a broader space, something beyond Hegel’s or Marx’s dialectic, to the infinite postponement of all historical realization such that no concrete historical situation could be taken with certainty as the dialectic’s fulfillment. This denial of conceptual or historic closure made Marxism into the philosophy that supports an ongoing communist political project rather than a telic philosophical anthropology, such a move was to be a feature of his later thinking.

3:AM: Was his interest in Montesquieu about resisting idealism and looking at history as science – was this where he turns his back on Hegel and becomes a fully-fledged Marxist?

WL: If by “fully-fledged Marxist” one means a rejection of theism and a full embrace of dialectical and historical materialism, then this happened between 1948 and 1949. We are lucky to have a long letter to one of his high school mentors, Jean Lacroix, where Althusser announces this rejection and gives his reasons for it. That said, it was not a sophisticated Marxism that Althusser embraced and his former strong belief in salvation only by god’s grace was immediately transferred to a robust faith in humanity’s salvation by the proletariat. The Montesquieu book appeared ten years after this renunciation and he had a decade of party membership and activism behind him at this point. In fact, despite announcing some concepts that would be associated with his mature thought, the book on Montesquieu is not really a Marxist text and it was not conceived as such. Rather, it was intended as the first part of a planned doctoral dissertation on “18th Century French Politics and Philosophy,” which was never completed. That said, the essays that began appearing in 1960 and that revolutionized Marxian thought like “On the Young Marx,” “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” and “On the Materialist Dialectic” would have been inconceivable without conceptual advances attributable to the Montesquieu book.

3:AM: You argue that his mature works were produced in the early years of the 1960s. He was trying to rethink how to read and understand Marx at that time wasn’t he? Was it because discrediting Stalinism was seen at the time as an urgent matter for Marxists?

WL: Prior to 1960, what little Althusser wrote on Marx was mostly derivative. As we just discussed, the stuff from the late 1940s was barely distinguishable from that of other post-war radical Christian-Marxist thinkers. The few things that he wrote on Marxism from the 1950s were from the standpoint of a PCF militant and echoed the Stalinist party line. By the late 1950s, Stalinism was discredited everywhere, except maybe in the French communist party. However, following Koestler’s roman à clef and Khrushchev’s secret speech, some within the party’s rank-and-file and parts of the directorate actively sought alternatives. The theoretical alternative, which made the most headway, was that of “humanist Marxism,” a direct successor to post-war Hegelian Marxism. Unlike Marxism-Leninism, this was a “big tent” political philosophy: atheists and Christians, proletarians and petit bourgeois, scientists and artists, second and third internationalists could all find a place within it. Humanist Marxism emphasized individual agency, freedom of choice, cultural and artistic progress and, at its center, it emphasized a set of core human values as principles that occasion and underwrite communist revolution. As I remarked, Althusser once flirted with this species of Marxism but then abandoned it for Marxism-Leninism. That humanist Marxism might now become the party’s official philosophy jolted him into action. As much as anybody, Althusser wanted to repudiate Stalinism. However, he thought that humanism smuggled bourgeois ideology back into Marxist philosophy. Starting in the early 60s, then, his goal was to provide a philosophically sophisticated and defensible alternative to both humanist Marxism and to the discredited official Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union.
He turned to the early works of Marx to combat the humanist Marxists. Truth be told, he never read them very well or certainly not comprehensively. Instead, he read them with a methodological sieve, sorting materialist from idealist elements. It was explicitly a counter-reading. Instead of seeing Marx as indebted to Hegel for his method and as always concerned with ending alienation, as the humanists tended to, Althusser read Marx as someone striving to develop an original materialist political philosophy in a philosophical climate whose concepts and methods were set by left Hegelians, by utopian socialists, and by liberal political economists. Certainly, the claim that Marxist Philosophy included a science was part and parcel of this counter-reading and Althusser wanted to justify the Marxist science of historical materialism. Althusser was not a guy who would ever use the word “scientific spirit” though. Rather, he argued that there are ways of demarcating scientific thought and methods from non-scientific modes of thinking and practice. Like Galileo with astronomy and Darwin with biology, Althusser argued that Marx opened up a new “scientific continent.” According to him, what makes Marx’s or Darwin’s or Galileo’s thought scientific is not necessarily their empirical investigations but the fact that each developed new understandings of certain types of objects. These objects and concepts could then be investigated and our understanding of them developed using scientific methods of research. For Darwin, obviously, the chief concept was that of natural selection. However, there are other concepts such as mutation, heredity, and adaptation which comprise evolutionary theory as a whole and that Darwin needed but did not name in his work (it took others like Mendel to do so). Similarly, For Marx, the chief concept in the Marxist science of historical materialism is that of class struggle. However, there are other concepts such as structural causality, uneven development, and conjuncture, which are immanent and necessary to Marx’s thought and that, though employed by Marx, were not named or defined. Althusser believed that a big part of his philosophical task in rereading Marx symptomatically (that is for what he wanted to say but was unable to given the available philosophical resources) was to make these concepts explicit.
As you mentioned, in the early 1960s, Althusser made extravagant claims about there being two Marxes: one, an idealist, humanist young Marx; and, two, a materialist, anti-humanist mature Marx. The latter, he maintained, only came into being in 1845 with Marx’s rejection of Feuerbach’s philosophical anthropology. By the mid 1970s, Althusser had recanted this strong claim about a break in Marx’s work, stating that he only emphasized it for strategic, political reasons and in order to counter the humanist readings of Marx. By the late 1970s, he admitted that Marx’s philosophy never stopped being a mixture of idealist and materialist tendencies and he doubted that Marxism, or indeed any philosophy, could free itself from idealism entirely. His development of the philosophy of the encounter or aleatory materialism was another attempt to construct a Marxism purged of idealism and appropriate for the political conjuncture of the 1980s.
3:AM: How did he introduce hermeneutics to the scientific spirit of Historical Materialism at this time? Was it to refute the empiricist understandings of Marx?

WL: “Empiricism” is given a heterodox definition by Althusser so maybe it is best to start with an explanation of this term before trying to answer the rest of your question. Most philosophers think of empiricism as a position in epistemology which holds that experience is the best or the only way of coming to knowledge about the world. Althusser regarded empiricism as the tendency of modern philosophy par excellence. Whether German rationalist or British empiricist, according to Althusser, all believed that the essence of an object can come to be known as it is by a subject. Obviously, this process is not the same for Descartes or Locke as it is for Hegel, but the epistemology of each roughly fits this description. For Descartes and Locke, the knower is an individual subject. For Hegel, the knower is a universal subject. Under this definition, both Humanist Marxism and Marxism-Leninism are empiricist: the former posits that humans will end their alienation and come to know (and to be) essentially who they are under communism. The latter recognizes that the successive modes of production in history will produce a historical subject, the proletariat, who know how the socio-economic world really works and who can therefore make it work for them. According to Althusser, one problem with Marx is that he makes both claims. Insofar as he does so, Marx is himself doubly guilty of empiricism. But Marx’s voice is not univocal; Althusser reads a tension in his works. The tension is that between a Marx that is the heir to modern political philosophy and to Hegel and to all the other ideologies of his day and a Marx that is struggling to break free of this tradition and to found a materialist science of history. An attentive reader of Marx’s texts looks for the contradictions and tensions between these two tendencies. For instance, what does it mean for Marx to claim in The German Ideology that the materialist method starts with observation of the actual history of human beings in their productive relations and then to claim a few pages later that “individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces.” Where does the “must” come from? From the Hegelian dialectic. Simply put, Althusser’s hermeneutic method asks that the reader look for these symptoms, for these holes and contradictions, that the reader try to critique and complete them and, thereby, develop the materialist philosophy that Marx was trying to articulate but was unable to give the ideological conjuncture in which he developed his thought.

3:AM: What’s distinctive about his approach to Marxist Philosophy, in particular his ‘anti-humanism?

WL: I just mentioned his anti-humanism and it is indeed an important feature of his Marxism. Though this is controversial, I think that its most important feature is a rejection of dialectical materialism. In Marxist thought, dialectical materialism has long underwritten metaphysics, epistemology, historiography, phenomenology, and social and political philosophy. In fact, most disputes among Marxists are about the extent of the applicability of dialectical laws and processes to the different philosophical objects I just mentioned. Some Marxists contend that the dialectic merely pertains to the ways in which humans come to know and change the world through their material interaction with it. Others claim that all nature, all scientific thought, all societies, and all history follow dialectical laws. Although Althusser long paid lip service to the tradition of identifying Marx’s philosophy with dialectical materialism, in truth, his major innovation was to reject this identification and its application in diverse domains and to develop a new philosophy for Marxism. Because of its rejection of idealist elements associated with the dialectic, he even took to calling this new philosophy an “anti-philosophy”. In terms of philosophy of science, his conventionalism and, later, his instrumentalism supported argument against Marxists who believed that all of nature developed according to dialectical laws. This conviction was strengthened by the historical experience of the Soviet Union under Stalin and Lysenko.

Further, and this is the connection with his anti-humanism, Althusser had absolutely no faith that economics or the expansion of historical consciousness would create a universal agent destined to overthrow bourgeois rule and to realize conditions of full human freedom. With Marx, he claimed that social and economic forces structure us and our relations and that, through the application of scientific methods, we can study these forces and understand how they work. The claim about us being structured by material relations is the core of Althusser’s anti-humanism: our natures are formed, not fixed, and there is no overall plan to this formation. We neither control our own becoming, nor are we fated to become what our nature requires. To the extent that we understand the material relations which form us and to the extent that we can exert the necessary political forces to change them, we may structure these forces and thereby recreate ourselves. That we are eventually going to do so, there is no guarantee. This conclusion and his rejection of Hegel’s dialectic of becoming is why he loved and often cited de Gaulle’s phrase: “The Future Lasts a Long Time.” For Althusser, communism is not dialectically fated. It may or may not be achieved.
Link: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/althussers-return/