Fateful rendezvous

36* Louis Althusser, The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings, edited by François Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshgarian, Verso, London and New York, 1996.

Fateful rendezvous The young Althusser

Gregory elliott

I enclose…a picture of the Dijon railwaymen which appeared in LʼHumanité… I hope that people, observing the calm strength and dignity of these men, will not one day say of us that ʻthe philosopher missed his rendezvous with the railwaymenʼ.Louis Althusser, letter to Jean Lacroix, 1949–50Reviewing the English translation of Althusserʼs ʻconfessionsʼ in these pages three years ago, David Macey noted that ʻ[t]he death of the philosopher has led to a resurrection of his writings.ʼ [1] In addition to LʼAvenir dure longtemps (1992), the ʻposthumous editionʼ at that stage contained a prison journal and a collection on psychoanalysis. Together with the first instalment of Yann Moulier Boutangʼs comprehensive biography, these disclosed the existence of a hitherto unknown Althusser. Since then, a further six volumes have appeared; more are in preparation. If only because they exceed in quantity the material released during their authorʼs lifetime – a rough estimate indicates some three thousand pages as against approximately two thousand – it will take considerable critical effort to acquire an adequate perspective on them, and begin the reassessment of Althusser to which Macey alludes.

Meanwhile, an Anglophone readership must await the halting, uneven process of partial translation. To date, a mere fraction of the new material has been made available in English: a careless version of the autobiography, The Future Lasts a Long Time, from Chatto & Windus in 1993; and an attractive selection from the Écrits sur la psychanalyse by Columbia University Press this year. [2] To these can now be added Versoʼs excellent collection of the ʻearly writingsʼ,* extracted from the first volume of the Écrits philosophiques et politiques published in France in 1994, and rounded off by a transitional text ʻOn Marxismʼ dating from 1953. Many of its virtues derive from the meticulous scholarship of the original editor, François Matheron, whose introductory materials offer invaluable guidance to the uninitiated. Others are attributable to Geoffrey Goshgarian, who has not only produced an admirable rendition of some intractable French, but appended bibliographical information well beyond the call of translational duty. Cavils aside, The Spectre of Hegel is the finest edition of Althusser in English.

What does it reveal? Conventionally, Althusserʼs career has been periodized into three main phases, spanning the years 1960–78, from the elaboration, via the revision, to the destruction of ʻstructuralʼ Marxism. At the very least, this requires supplementation by another two periods of reflection and production – one antecedent, the other subsequent, to the standard chronology. The former is a pre-Althusserian moment, circa 1945–51, comprising texts which remained unpublished or inaccessible until the 1990s. If the fragmentary character of the last writings makes it hard to identify the philosopherʼs ultimate destination, these allow us to fix his postwar point of departure with greater confidence. The intellectual ʻbiographyʼ of Marx outlined in For Marx and Reading Capital was, it transpires, something in the nature of an ʻautobiographyʼ. The work of the mature Althusser conducted a tacit settlement of accounts with his own erstwhile philosophical consciousness; the critique of Hegelian Marxism mounted therein was a conjoint autocritique of the young Althusser. One result, as we read The Spectre of Hegel, is an intermittent sense of déjà lu. Not for nothing did Althusser remark in a review of the newly translated Economic and 37Philosophical Manuscripts in 1962: ʻeven our own experience should remind us that it is possible to be “Communist” without being “Marxist”.ʼ [3]

The philosophico-political adventure recorded in the early writings involves an intricately overlapping and cross-cutting transition, from Catholicism to Communism, and from a variant of Hegelianism to a variety of Marxism. In the 1947 Masterʼs thesis ʻOn Content in the Thought of G.W.F. Hegelʼ which forms the centrepiece of the volume, Althusser wrote that ʻGermanyʼs political disarray made, perhaps, as deep an impression on the young Hegel as did the formalism of its religious life; interestingly, it is only with difficulty that we can distinguish his political from his religious thought amongst the concerns of his early years.ʼ With due alteration of detail, the observation applies to its author. Indeed, formal adhesion to the French Communist Party in 1948, at the age of thirty, [4] coincided with maximum engagement in the activities of the Catholic group, Jeunesse de lʼÉglise. When, a year later, now no longer a lapsing but a lapsed Catholic, Althusser remonstrated with his ex-teacher Jean Lacroixʼs ʻpersonalistʼ philosophy, he was keen to confide ʻsomething I have experienced along with a number of your former studentsʼ:

namely, that in actively rallying to the working class, we have not only not repudiated what had been our reasons for living, but have liberated them by fully realizing them.… The Christian I once was has in no way abjured his Christian ʻvaluesʼ, but now I live them …, whereas earlier I aspired to live them. (p. 221)ʻActively rallying to the working classʼ: it is, as they used to say, no accident if the diction of Althusserʼs apologia was straight out of the lexicon of Gallic Stalinism. [5]

Like the young Marx under the German Confederation a century earlier, the young Althusser of the French Fourth Republic was immersed in the ideas of the age. Some of these were spawned by the ʻreturn to Hegelʼ most prominently associated with that self-professed ʻStalinist of strict observanceʼ, Alexandre Kojève, prompting Jacques Derrida to react to Francis Fukuyamaʼs re-edition of him by recalling that ʻeschatalogical themes … were, in the 50s, … our daily bread.ʼ [6] Althusserʼs postwar native philosophical language was that of French Hegelianism; his ideological orientation akin to what the ex-Communist Edgar Morin once dubbed ʻHegelo-Stalinismʼ. [7] It is also apparent, however, that at the height of the Cold War, Althusser shared in the crude anti-Hegelian turn of Stalinist Marxism. Whilst it would seem to be the case that he never fully endorsed the impostures of Lysenkoism (the ʻtwo sciencesʼ, bourgeois and proletarian); and did not succumb to the ferruginous romance of ʻsocialist realismʼ (boy and girl meet Machine Tractor Station), he certainly did subscribe to the Zhdanovism – party partisanship in philosophy – against which later claims for the autonomy of theory were staked. To borrow the terms of his letter to Lacroix, the philosopherʼs ʻrendezvous with the railwaymenʼ proceeded under the sign of the Cold War in culture, at a time when, for example, the PCF was denouncing American films as ʻpoison darts that corrupt the minds of French youthʼ, and Camel cigarettes for ʻwaging war on French tobaccoʼ. Whatever their intrinsic worth, Althusserʼs early writings are redolent of a conjuncture of combatant philosophy, evoked in the Introduction to For Marx in 1965, where the shade of Hegel is barely distinguishable from the spectre of Stalin.

The new slave of modern times

Repatriated after five years in a German prisoner-ofwar camp, his religious faith intact but his political orientation up-ended by the infernal surprise of 1940, Althusser resumed his education at a moment memorably described by Ernest Gellner: ʻEnd-of-war and post-war France was like the human condition, but a damn sight more so. If ever there was a situation when men could not find reassurance for their identity, dignity or conviction, this was it.ʼ [8] As the first piece in The Spectre of Hegel – ʻThe International of Decent Feelingsʼ (1946) – indicates, Althusser found reassurance in not heeding the ideology of the ʻhuman conditionʼ propagated by ʻnovelists turned prophetsʼ – Malraux, Camus, Koestler and co. ʻ[A]nguishʼ, he wrote, ʻis not the proletariatʼs lot: there is no emancipating oneself from the human condition, but it is possible to emancipate oneself from the workers.ʼ Contrary to ʻthe false prophets of historyʼ, ʻthe Marxists and their Christian or non-Christian alliesʼ possessed the sense of a redemptive ending:

the road to manʼs reconciliation with his destiny is essentially that of the appropriation of the products of his labour, of what he creates in general, and of history as his creation. This reconciliation presupposes a transition from capitalism to socialism by way of the emancipation of the labouring proletariat, which can, through this act, rid not only itself, but also all humanity of contradiction… (p. 31)The echo of Marxʼs early works is resonant; and the Paris Manuscripts are positively invoked. However, 38in repudiating ʻa “Western” socialism without class struggleʼ as a ʻsystem of protection against Communismʼ, Althusser was swayed by a certain Hegelianism, foregrounding a modern master–slave dialectic. That he not only undertook an intensive study of Hegel, in conjunction with Marx, in these years, but was a Hegelian, is evident from his Masterʼs thesis, written in August–October 1947. Although ʻThe International of Decent Feelingsʼ was rejected by the journal for which it was intended on account of its virulent polemic, Althusser seemingly never sought to publish this remarkable document. In a letter of 1963, he maintained that he and his friend, Jacques Martin, had responded to Merleau-Pontyʼs blandishments by insisting that their theses ʻhad merely provided an opportunity to rid ourselves of our youthful errorsʼ. In any event, suggesting that post-Hegelian philosophy had not superseded Hegel, Althusserʼs text extravagantly displayed the historicist vices which he would subsequently reprove in those who conflated the Marxist and Hegelian dialectics:

by way of history, Hegelʼs thought escapes the prison of a dawning age and the confines of a civil servantʼs mentality, offering itself to our gaze in the freedom of its realization and its objective development. In a sense that is not un-Marxist, our world has become philosophy, or, more precisely, Hegel come to maturity now stands before us – is, indeed, our world: the world has become Hegelian to the extent that Hegel was a truth capable of becoming a world. We need only read: fortunately, the letters are there before our eyes, writ large in the text of history – letters become men. (p. 36) Contemporary readers would have had no trouble spelling out those letters: not the Emperor at Jena, but the Generalissimo of Stalingrad. Hegel was indeed ʻthe last of the philosophersʼ. Yet it was ʻin the new slave of modern timesʼ – the proletariat – that the freedom prematurely announced by the Phenomenology was in the process of being realized. Marxʼs immanent critique of the Philosophy of Right had demonstrated the contradictory nature of Hegelʼs perversely consistent benediction of the Prussian state in 1821, when actuality did not incarnate rationality. For all that, however, Marx had not surpassed Hegel, who represented his ʻsilent rigourʼ:

having denounced the alienation of the bourgeois world he lived in, and having merely predicted the end of alienation in the coming revolution, he was no more able than Hegel to leap over his time, and his own truths were recaptured by what they denounced. As philosopher, Marx was thus a prisoner of his times and hence of Hegel, who had foreseen this captivity. (p. 133)The Marxist conception of history – a materialist humanism irreducible to any natural or economic determinism – was ʻthoroughly informed by Hegelian truthʼ:

capitalist alienation is the birth of humanity. We need not force the terms unduly in order to identify the fecundity of this division with the Passion of Hegelian Spirit, which does not go forth from itself by chance, but in order to appropriate its true nature, and which, in this fall, attains the revelation of a depth realized by the totality. The proletarian discovers the truth of humanity in the depths of human misery. (p. 138) Peppered with references to Kojèveʼs Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, issued while Althusser was preparing his thesis, ʻOn Contentʼ is not a Kojèvian work. In a review of the volume – ʻMan, That Nightʼ – written concurrently, Althusser criticized its unilaterally anthropological interpretation, which valorized the subject at the expense of substance. The upshot was an ʻexistentialist Marxʼ – ʻa travesty in which Marxists will not recognize their ownʼ. Nevertheless, Kojève was to be applauded for ʻrestor[ing] part of Hegelʼs veritable grandeurʼ.

Intellectuals in arms

Even as Althusserʼs notice was appearing, Andrei Zhdanov was laying down the line of ʻtwo campsʼ – bellicose imperialism/irenic socialism – at the inaugural meeting of the Cominform, and intimidating a conference of ʻSoviet philosophical workersʼ: ʻThe question of Hegel was settled long ago. There is no reason whatsoever to pose it anew.ʼ [9] In 1950, an anonymous article, in fact penned by Althusser, was published in La Nouvelle Critique – a new PCF journal, significantly subtitled ʻRevue du marxisme militantʼ. With Zhdanovʼs admonition as one of its epigraphs, ʻThe Return to Hegel: The Latest Word in Academic Revisionismʼ registered the Hegel phenomenon in France since the 1930s:

The consecration followed: Hyppolite instated at the Sorbonne; Hegel recognized … as one of the masters of bourgeois thought; commentaries in the windows of all the book shops; the ʻlabour of the negativeʼ in every term paper; master and slave in every academic talk; the struggle of one consciousness against another in Jean Lacroix; our theologians discoursing on the ʻlesser Logicʼ; and all the to-do connected with the academic and religious jubilation over a reviving corpse. (p. 174) Althusser, who had been compiling what he termed Hégéliâneries (ʻHegelian inanitiesʼ) – the ʻHegelian “Robinsonade” of master and slaveʼ included – castigated the pervasive recourse to the philosophy of 39history or the state. It served the ideological needs of the ʻmoribund bourgeoisieʼ, which had renounced liberalism in this, the crisis-ridden imperialist stage of capitalism; in particular, it validated ʻthe projects of reaction in Franceʼ. Moreover, the Hegel revival tailored the revisions of Marx required to impugn Communism, seeking to discredit the ʻscience and … the events insep-arable from itʼ which portended ʻthe inevitable collapse of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the working classʼ. The question of Hegel had long since been resolved for the proletariat by the founders of ʻscientific socialismʼ, who had retrieved a revolutionary method from the reactionary system. By contrast, the bourgeois return amounted to ʻa revisionism of a fascist typeʼ.

Althusserʼs excoriation of modern ʻirrationalismʼ occasionally reads like a miniature of the monument to this ideological conjuncture in the history of the international Communist movement: Lukácsʼs Destruction of Reason (1953). An isolated published incident, mercifully it did not entail the destruction of his own. By now, all roads were perceived to lead either to Washington or to Moscow. On 1 July 1949, Pope Pius XII, whose record on fascism had been lamentable, issued a decree proscribing Catholics from association with Communists, and menacing recusants with sanctions. [10] That February, Althusserʼs ʻA Matter of Factʼ had featured in Cahiers de Jeunesse de lʼÉglise, one of the principal French groups targeted. There he reprehended the social doctrine of the Church – propounded in the encyclicals Rerum novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo anno (1931) – as ʻa form of reactionary reformismʼ. [11] As to its present political stance,if we consider its policies on a global scale, we must admit that, apart from a few active but isolated small groups, the Church comprises … an objective … force that maintains a deep … commitment to world-wide reaction, and is struggling alongside international capitalism against the forces of the working class and the advent of socialism. (p. 191)Contrariwise, its future depended on the number and courage of those Christians who … are developing an awareness of the necessity of the struggle and joining the ranks of the world proletariat.… The Church will live thanks to those who … are once again discovering that the Word was born among men and dwelt among them – and who are already preparing a humane place for it amongst men. (p. 195) The July anathemas of the Holy Office (the former Inquisition) resolved Althusserʼs ʻmatter of factʼ for him. Henceforth it was not equally to Roman Catholicism, but exclusively to Russian Communism, that he looked for salvation. The ʻYouth of the Churchʼ having been repressed, ʻthe youth of the worldʼ – Vaillant-Couturierʼs characterization of Communism – absorbed Althusserʼs energies. In an extraordinary, disconcerting seventy-page letter to Lacroix, completed in January 1950, Althusser cited this phrase with the ardour of the convert. Part cahier de doléances, part confession of faith, this epistle affords privileged access to the convictions and motivations of its author in his high Stalinist phase. For a start, the later partisan of a ʻleft critique of Stalinismʼ harboured not the least doubt as to the legitimacy of the Rajk show-trial in Hungary in September 1949. Second, the former Hegelian dismissed ʻthe good old problem of the end of history and alienationʼ, claiming that, in Marxʼs residual employment of the category, ʻ[a]lienation is an economic concept, in the broad sense…ʼ. Third, a version of the Viconian verum–factum principle, held up to ridicule in the Reply to John Lewis (1973), was advocated: the proletariat knew the truth of history because it made history; strictly speaking, historical materialism was a proletarian science. Finally, paying homage to Zhdanovʼs injunctions, Althusser extolled the ʻextraordinary freedomʼ vouchsafed Communist intellectuals in and through their conformity to the ʻpartisan positionsʼ defined by the party. The respective conditions of party and intellectuals were marked by a fundamental asymmetry:40I would like you to understand that the truth … is the iron law and condition of the Party, and that we intellectuals, perhaps, do not always live in the same condition. The ʻconditionʼ that is ours does not require us, materially, as a question of life and death, to possess the truth, to put it to the test of struggle, to share it with other men.… We are not condemned to the truth. (p. 224)Hence the duty to ʻshow ourselves worthy of our admirable brothers, who are suffering and struggling for their freedom, for our freedomʼ. Hence the imperative of a ʻrendezvous with the railwaymenʼ – those heroes of a Communist Resistance mythology, not devoid of historical reality, impressed upon Althusser and his like, who were incessantly reminded of the railwaymanʼs rendezvous with the firing squad. [12]

The imaginary debt

Reflecting on the immediate postwar period in For Marx, Althusser observed that ʻthe intellectuals of petty-bourgeois originʼ recruited by the PCF ʻfelt that they had to pay … the imaginary Debt they thought they had contracted by not being proletariansʼ. [13] Even those, unlike Althusser, who had participated in the Resistance, were unquestionably made to feel it by an organization which, substituting itself for the class in whose name it spoke, abased ʻitsʼ intellectuals before la force tranquille of the proletariat – that is to say, itself. If for no other reason, Althusser necessarily missed his rendezvous.

The Introduction to For Marx suggested that ʻ[i]n his own way, Sartre provides us with an honest witness to this baptism of historyʼ, adding: ʻwe were of his race as well.…ʼ Yet the ʻcommitted intellectualʼ, even when a fellow traveller, was of a rather different species from the ʻpartisan philosopherʼ. (In his Masterʼs thesis, Althusser had poked fun at Sartreanism: ʻonly the man who is uncommitted becomes the thinker of commitment, elevating commitment into a systemʼ.) Comparatively sheltered, more importantly, the former vocation was – and is – ʻdeeply ambivalent towards politics. Exclusion from power is its life-blood.ʼ [14] For worse and better, no such ambivalence attached to those who, seeking to escape the ʻintellectual conditionʼ, and contribute to the cause of human emancipation, submitted to the voluntary servitude of Communist Party discipline after the Second World War.

As regards that baptism of history, The Spectre of Hegel provides us with an honest witness. It is the less surprising that when he (re)appeared on the public stage, forewarned and forearmed, Louis Althusser advanced masked.


1. ^ ʻThe Lonely Hour of the Final Analysisʼ, RP 67, Summer 1994, pp. 45–7, here p. 45.

2. ^ Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan, edited by Olivier Corpet and François Matheron, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, Columbia University Press, New York, 1996.

3. ^ ʻThe “1844 Manuscripts” of Karl Marxʼ, in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, Verso, London and New York, 1990, pp. 153–60, here p. 160.

4. ^ As if in conscious contradiction of a saying of which Trotsky was fond: avant trente ans révolutionnaire, après canaille [before thirty, a revolutionary; thereafter, a scoundrel].

5. ^ In particular, the exhortations of the Politburo member responsible for intellectuals, Laurent Casanova. Cf. Le Parti communiste, les intellectuels et la nation, Éditions Sociales, Paris, 1949, e.g. pp. 19, 80.

6. ^ Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, New York and London, 1994, p. 14.

7. ^ Autocritique (1959), second edition, Éditions du Seuil,

Paris, 1970, p. 60. See chapter 2, pp. 27–62, ʻLa Vulgate ou lʼheure de Stalingradʼ.

8. ^ Quoted by Michael Rustin in his obituary, ʻErnest Gellner, 1925–1995ʼ, RP 76, March/April 1996, pp. 55–6, here p. 55.

9. ^ ʻOn Philosophyʼ, in A.A. Zhdanov, On Literature, Music and Philosophy, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1950, pp. 76–112, here p. 102.

10. ^ See Jean-Yves Calvez, La Pensée de Karl Marx, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1956, Part V, chapter 2, ʻLʼÉglise catholique et le marxismeʼ, pp. 582–602 (especially pp. 590–91). And cf. Gilles Perrault, ʻLa germanophilie obstinée de Pie XIIʼ, Le Monde Diplomatique, January 1997, p. 2 (a review of Annie Lacroix-Riz, Le Vatican, lʼEurope et le Reich, de la première guerre mondiale à la guerre froide, Armand Colin, Paris, 1996).

11. ^ One aspect of this ʻreactionary reformismʼ – the new theology of marriage, generating ʻthe illusion of emancipationʼ for women (p. 239) – is mordantly analysed by Althusser in an unpublished text from 1951, ʻOn Conjugal Obscenityʼ.

12. ^ The fate, for example, of Pierre Sémard, Communist leader and secretary of the railway workersʼ union, shot by the Nazis on 7 March 1942.

13. ^ For Marx, p. 27. Cf. Morin, Autocritique, pp. 107ff, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Paris-Montpellier. P.C.P.S.U., 1945–63 (Gallimard, Paris, 1982), p. 75, on an analogous sense of ʻoriginal sinʼ attendant upon privileged social origins.

14. ^ Peter Osborne, ʻPhilosophy and the Role of Intellectualsʼ, in P. Osborne, ed., A Critical Sense: Interviews with Intellectuals, Routledge, London and New York, 1996, p. xiv.