- Politics: Transcendent or Immanent?: A response to Miguel Vatter’s ‘Machiavelli After Marx’
Insofar as Miguel Vatter’s “Machiavelli After Marx” offers an interpretation of the work of Louis Althusser (and it is this part of the essay that I will address in what follows), it is a provocation. It challenges us to see Althusser as one of the most powerful thinkers of his time (a time which was not lacking in powerful thinkers) while insisting simultaneously that his importance not only can but must be separated from the Marxism which furnished the element within which he thought and wrote, and which provided the reference points that guided him whether he was reading Montesquieu, Lacan or Epicurus. For years, even decades, now the most damning charge against Althusser by those who cared enough even to condemn him was that he had been a structuralist (are you now or have you ever been a structuralist?). Perhaps Vatter’s singular concern with Althusser’s Marxism is a sign that this peculiar form of resistance to Althusser’s work is weakening (and certainly the recent publication in English translation of his anti-structuralist polemics from the mid-sixties1 has played a role in this). In this sense, Vatter’s return to Althusser is also a return to the critique of Althusser that was nearly contemporaneous with the writing of the texts that Vatter finds particularly valuable: the works of the late seventies and eighties, particularly the posthumously published texts, Machiavelli and Us (which, although begun in the early seventies, if not before, was revised after 1980), “Marx in his Limits” and “The Underground Current of a Materialism of the Encounter.” I refer to those critics like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe who counterposed a politics of radical democracy to socialism and populism to the class struggle. And why shouldn’t Vatter return to these critics (and others, more compelling than they) who, after all, like Althusser, were responding to a new conjuncture, the same conjuncture, even if their theoretical and political itineraries remained distinct and even opposed? What is striking in all this is that Marxism, after being repeatedly declared dead or irrelevant, once again requires a vigorous refutation, as if it poses a clear and present danger to freedom and the rule of law that upholds it. Vatter’s very attempt to save Althusser from his Marxism confers an importance on that from which Althusser must be saved and, indeed, Marxism in the essay is not simply error, it is a danger, the danger of totalitarianism (an overdetermined and symptomatic term if ever there was one), the danger of struggle without limits.
Vatter’s attempt to isolate a non-Marxist, if not anti-Marxist, philosophical strain in the late Althusser, however necessary for the constitution of this strain as an object of analysis, can only be the starting point of a new reading of Althusser. The next, equally necessary, step would be to determine the extent to which this tendency is continuous with or marks a break from the other tendencies of which Althusser’s work is composed. Although Vatter tends to approach this problem as a historical or even, to use an Althusserian term, historicist one, it is also a question of determining the tendencies with which the “aleatory” coexists in Althusser’s texts, and even more importantly the extent to which this coexistence is marked by difference and conflict. I say that Vatter’s work tends to think conflict and difference (and not only that found in Althusser’s texts) in the form of chronology, in the privileged figure of before and after, because he simultaneously thinks in other ways. In one sense, of course, this is posterity’s revenge on Althusser: to have his work treated as he treated Marx’s, even to the degree that one speaks as dismissively of the early Althusser as he himself once did of the early Marx, as if the latter’s texts were homogenous expressions of the Kantianism or Hegelianism that Althusser argued they did not escape. The text “Marx in his Limits” is an attempt to come to terms with the effects of the theoretical...