- Machiavelli After Marx: The Self-Overcoming of Marxism in the Late Althusser
1. The Crisis of Marxism and Althusser’s Evolution
During the last two decades it has become a consolidated opinion that Marxism is surpassed, that there is no real alternative to the neo-liberal “one-way street,” and the only choice is how fast or slow to move along it. These decades have also coincided with Althusser’s thought being enveloped in an embarrassed silence. Trying to account philosophically for this disrepute, Balibar once conjectured that Althusser posed a stumbling block for both orthodox Marxists and orthodox anti-Marxists.1 His heterodoxical interpretations dispelled the assumption that Marx had cast a unitary theory in a dogmatic form. He showed, on the contrary, that this theory developed, evolved, perhaps could even break away from itself (the famous coupure!) in order to remain true in its effects. How then could anti-Marxist orthodoxy believe that Marxist theory could be rejected en bloc if there was no such thing? But Althusser provided no comfort to orthodox Marxists either. He gradually came to realize, and openly proclaim, that if there was a truth to Marxist theory, this could only be a function of its immanent and imminent crisis, of its finite and fallible character, which remains effective as a theory only because it points beyond itself. This essay attempts to pursue and radicalize these conjectures on the basis of an interpretation of the posthumously published texts of the late Althusser. These texts suggest a way to understand the post-Marxist moment not as a surpassing of Marxism but as its self-overcoming: a movement with and against Marx that breaks open alternative paths for thought and action.
From the vantage point of the posthumously published texts the evolution of Althusser’s oeuvre appears as a protracted effort to come to terms with the paradox that Marx’s discourse is congenitally in crisis, survives only through its crisis, and refers beyond itself to an “after Marx.” This expression can be understood in two senses. According to a more optimistic sense, “after Marx” comes the true Marx. Althusser’s early “symptomatic readings” show how the significance of Marx’s texts exceeds, and therefore casts into crisis, every attempt to formalize them into a stable “theory” or “science,” a formalization that was attempted not only by Marx himself, but also by his more or less faithful followers, including Althusser in certain moments of his writing, and that led to the formation of a more or less canonical Marxist-Leninist tradition. Balibar and Negri are among those who have best and furthest explored this sense of a “Marx beyond Marx.”2
This essay pursues another “after Marx.” According to this other sense, the “effective truth” of Marx’s texts advenes to them only after the “death” of Marx as discursive origin, after the “exhaustion” of the homonymous tradition to which this origin gives rise. The sur-vival of Marx is not a possibility solely preserved in, and withheld by, his texts. On the contrary, for the late Althusser this possibility requires exposing these texts to their “absolute limits”: a going under of Marx that is a prelude of a self-overcoming. The self-overcoming of Marx’s texts happens as a series of fortunate encounters with heterodox texts (foremost among which, in the late Althusser, the text of Machiavelli): displacements without origin or end that conjure alternative genealogies and subterranean traditions. The materialist philosopher “takes a running train and forcefully jumps on to the convoy that eternally flows, like Heraclitus’s river.”3 This dissemination advocated by the late Althusser is a characteristic of all contemporary post-Marxist thought: one finds it in Laclau and Zizek, as much as in Badiou and Rancière, and, for reasons discussed below, first of all and most emblematically in Derrida’s own understanding of deconstruction as “this attempted radicalization of Marxism.”4
But the late Althusser is also post-Marxist in the sense that he has taken the full measure of the critiques of Marx made by those who first reflected upon the totalitarian developments of Marxism-Leninism, authors like Popper, Aron, Berlin and Arendt, to...