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  • 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 name a few. These critiques identify two general limits of Marxist theory. The first is its lack of an adequate account of the state and of politics, due to its reliance on a flawed metaphor of society as an edifice whose economic “basis” is causally determinant with respect to its political “superstructure.” The second limit consists in the inadequacy of its account of historical becoming, due to its reliance on the flawed assumption that history follows deterministic laws and processes.5 Althusser took these critiques, these purported limits of Marxist theory, seriously: his thought is a long struggle with and against them. Throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s he re-interprets Marx’s discourse always with an eye to these critiques, attempting to work out an interpretation of Marxist theory that would somehow be immune to them. By 1977 he abandons this project: that year he writes “Marx dans ses limites” (posthumously published in 1994)6, a remarkable text in which he recognizes the impossibility for Marxist-Leninist theory to surpass these limits, and identifies this failure as at least partially responsible for the deviation into the horrors of Stalinism and for the political defeats of Euro-communism.7

The problem of developing an adequate account of the state and of politics occupied Althusser from early on: his first book, published in 1959, was an interpretation of Montesquieu, arguably the most influential thinker of political freedom and of political constitutions in the French tradition of political thought. In the central essay of For Marx, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” Althusser clearly stated that Marxist theory stood in need of an account of the superstructure, and he indicated in Gramsci his sole precursor on the way to such an account.8 Several years later Althusser provided one such an account with his texts on ideological state apparatuses.9 But in “Marx dans ses limites” he signaled the failure of both his own and Gramsci’s attempts. A strong theory of politics and of the state was not to be had through Marx alone.10 Why not? As Balibar has pointed out, what interested Althusser in a theory of the state is an account of domination and resistance that reflects the “structural antagonism between the dominated and the dominant.”11 But if political domination and political freedom are both merely “superstructural” and “ideological,” in the sense that they will both disappear with the final resolution of the contradiction found in the economic “base,” then it is impossible to account for the reality of resistance and for the antagonism it occasions. Conversely, if resistance and struggle are to be considered as primary, then what calls for thinking is the permanence of social antagonism and the consequent autonomy of politics. This specific requirement leads Althusser back to Machiavelli and gives rise to a study entitled “Machiavel et nous” (1972–1986).12 In this text he attempts to provide an account of the state and of politics that has emancipated itself from the base-superstructure schema of Marxist theory, and where the point of view of the texts on state ideological apparatuses is radicalized to the point of being overturned.

Althusser’s interest in a critique of historical determinism also dates from early on. In a late autobiographical text, he writes how he found it “necessary to confront the simple-minded theses of Karl Popper, for whom history (and Marxism, which presumes to have knowledge of history) and psychoanalysis are not at all knowledges, for they are not empirically verifiable; that is, they are not falsifiable.”13 Whether simple-minded or not, Althusser nevertheless took Popper’s challenge to heart since his production during the 1960s was first and foremost concerned with establishing how Marxism (as well as psychoanalysis, in its similarity and difference from Marxist theory) could become “scientific,” and not remain merely “ideological.”14

Althusser’s epistemological questioning of Marxist theory was essentially motivated by the problem posed by the “singularity” of events with respect to any causal schema presumed to have explanatory purchase over them. “In history and psychoanalysis there are only ‘cases’. . . . How, then, to pretend to draw out consequences that are general, that is, abstract, since every case is concrete . . . and one can never abstract from individual singularities in order to reach the abstract concept of the thing itself?”15 How is it possible to think causality (structure) and singularity (event) together? The well known, and much commented upon, concepts of “overdetermination” and “structural causality” in For Marx and Reading Capital are attempts to answer these questions.16 As Althusser would say later, these philosophical terms gave expression to the idea that “singularities are as if traversed and haunted by repetitive or constant invariants, not by generalities but repetitive constants . . . whose repetitive insistence permits us to mark the form of a singularity in presence and, therefore, its treatment.”17 Nonetheless, the concept of repetition itself, upon which these philosophemes necessarily relied, remained relatively unthematized by Althusser in this period (later he would admit his debt to Derrida’s and Deleuze’s conceptualizations of repetition that first emerged in 1967–68).18 Only with his theory of the “reproduction” of the conditions of production, sketched around 1969–70, does Althusser explicitly set the problem of repetition at the center of his preoccupations. Through this work on reproduction he comes to realize that the instance of repetition, or iterability, far from signaling the presence of structure, actually marks its necessary absence. By 1978 Althusser is led to definitively abandon the project of explaining the singularity of events through the “overdetermined” causality of the structure. His last innovative theoretical text, “Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre” (1982), sketches a materialistic account of historical becoming based on the primacy of events or contingent encounters that excludes in principle the ontological reality of every structural law or necessary progression in history.

Balibar’s reconstruction of Althusser’s thought identifies in it “a critique carried in the name of the singularity of conjunctures” side by side with a critique “carried in the name of the complexity of structure.”19 For Balibar, the evolution of Althusser’s oeuvre can be understood as a function of this unresolved ambivalence between structure and conjuncture: at times, Althusser’s writing appears to “annul itself” in an “embarrassing” alternation between “constructive” and “deconstructive” moments;20 at times, it appears to attain a dialectical equilibrium “because the reality of the structure is nothing but the unpredictable succession of conjunctures; conversely, the conjuncture is merely determined as a certain disposition of the structure.”21 In my opinion such ambivalence between event and structure also describes the current theoretical state of post-Marxist thought, from Badiou and Laclau, to Negri and Zizek. The posthumously published texts of the late Althusser, which could not be the object of Balibar’s interpretation, suggest an alternative hypothesis, namely, that the structuralist Althusser is itself symptomatic of a thought suffering from the “absolute limits” of Marx’s discourse, from which the conjunctural Althusser twists free. The self-overcoming of Althusser finds its ripest formulations in the posthumously published texts, where he explicitly affirms the primacy of the event over the structure, and inscribes into theory a decision, perhaps also his most ancient parti pris, for materialism over against dialectics, singularity over against causality, popular resistance over against institutional domination, communism over against Marxist-Leninism, from which contemporary post-Marxist thought may still have something to learn.

2. Marxist Theory and its Absolute Limits: Social Antagonism, the Autonomy of Politics, and Revolution as Ideology

“For Marx, critique is the real [le réel] criticizing itself.”22 In his last major statement on Marx, Althusser returns to The German Ideology where communism is famously identified with “the real movement that abolishes the present state of things.”23 Althusser understands the “real” to refer to “the primacy of the struggle between classes with respect to the classes themselves.”24 Marx’s theory is a critical theory because of its reference to the real of struggle, to communism. At the same time, this distinction between “class struggle” and “classes themselves” problematizes, casts into crisis, its status as a theory.25

Whereas the concept of class is inextricably linked to a socio-economic paradigm of production (whose referents, in Marxist terminology, are the productive forces, the means and modes of production, the division of labor), the concept of a struggle that happens between classes, that falls outside all classes and classificatory schemes, no longer depends on such a paradigm.26 Instead, Althusser locates this struggle at the level of the relations of production. Neither production nor labor are inherently antagonistic activities; only the relations in which these activities take place consist of practices of domination and resistance, and generate exploitation.27 Althusser breaks the analytical relation between class and class struggle that underpins the claims to scientificity on the part of Marxist theory in order to reveal the synthetic character of this relation: production is possible only in and through the conflictual relation between the elements of production. In this way, antagonism is written into the synthesis itself of the social.

Two important consequences follow from this move. First, the social struggle is no longer rooted in the existence of a particular social formation (such as class, although clearly the hypothesis at work here can be extended to analogous social formations like race and gender), but becomes a “wandering” cause of all social formations. Thus Althusser rejects as illusory the belief, common to both the liberal and the Marxist traditions, that the authentic social relation is a cooperative one. Althusser is far closer to Foucault’s thesis, developed roughly at the same time in his Collège de France lectures, that social relations are power relations whose essence is captured in the formula “politics is war continued by other means.”28 Second, Althusser excludes any dialectical overcoming of the antagonism in a synthesis (a unity of opposites) precisely because the synthesis is itself the instance of conflict.29 Moving against the grain of traditional Marxist theory, Althusser holds that “the primacy of the struggle between classes” proves the illusory character of any teleological transition from class struggle to dictatorship of the proletariat to a society without classes.30 Conversely, by rejecting the very idea of a definitive resolution of conflict, the permanence of social antagonism comes to the fore. If in the earlier Althusser an evident anti-Hegelianism still clung incongruously to a belief in dialectical overcoming, the later Althusser shows himself capable of a distinct and unequivocal choice for antagonism over dialectic.31 The rejection of both of these illusions has since become characteristic of post-Marxist thought. The delinking of social antagonism from particular social formations and its insistence in every form of association, the irreconcilable character of social antagonism, and the resistance it poses to every ideological totalization (in particular through the totalization of social-theoretic concepts), are three general theses that one finds, for example, in Laclau and Mouffe, Rancière, and Zizek beyond and above their obvious differences.32

Apart from the idea of an irreconcilable social conflict, another common feature of post-Marxist thought is the overcoming of Marx’s base-superstructure schema through an account of the autonomy of politics. In For Marx Althusser already makes clear that politics, the state, and ideology (which, taken together, I shall refer to as “the political”) can no longer be conceived as a reflection or expression of the social conditions of production, to be abolished once these change.33 But in his last text on Marx Althusser argues, further, that the political must have a separate standing of its own, because the permanence of social antagonism requires the permanence of the political. “The state is the permanent guardian . . . it makes sure that the class struggle, that is, exploitation, will not be abolished but conserved, maintained, and reinforced.”34 For Althusser exploitation occurs in the relations of production, and these relations stand in need of being reproduced: the political is what “assures” the reproduction of the relations of production.35 Only the permanence of the struggle between classes, which follows from the coincidence of this struggle with the social synthesis, with the relations of production themselves, accounts for the self-standing character, for the autonomy, of the political.36

Traditional Marxist theory rejects the autonomy of the political because it tends to represent the relation between the social and the political following the terms of the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859, where a “legal and political” superstructure “rises from” the “economic structure of society, the real basis.”37 In “Marx dans ses limites” Althusser argues that Marx leaves this relation, this moment of emergence, unquestioned.38 The “institution” and “constitution” of the superstructure is never problematized: it represents an “absolute limit” of his theory.39 Using the terminology that Negri has recently imposed, Althusser’s claim is that Marx (pace Negri) lacks a theory of constituent power, of the self-emergence of the political.40

Althusser considers Marx’s idea, present since his early manuscripts, that the state is a force of “separation.”41 But Marx always thought that the separation of the political power is something that needs to be surpassed: he remained throughout faithful to his early insight that “only when man has recognized and organized his forces propres as social forces so that social force is no longer separated from him in the form of political force, only then will human emancipation be completed.”42 Conversely, for Althusser the separation of the political demonstrates the untenability of the Marxist understanding of the relation between base and superstructure. The separate existence of the political has as its sole purpose the preservation of social antagonism, i.e., the reproduction of the relations of production in which exploitation occurs: “the state must last so that the condition of exploitation will last.”43 Since it is the separation from the antagonism that characterizes the political, and since the political is what allows the antagonism (the exploitative relations of production) to reproduce itself, it follows that such an antagonism cannot possibly be the cause of the institution of the political. For Althusser the separation of the political is so fundamental that, far from the political being an effect of the struggle, the former “is made, as much as possible, so that it cannot be affected nor ‘traversed’ by the class struggle.”44 This is one of the places in the late Althusser where the influence of Lacan seems to remain particularly strong, because the relation between the “real” of class struggle and the political in “Marx dans ses limites” is analogous to that between the real and the symbolic in Lacan, with Althusser’s concept of “separation” functioning like Lacan’s “bar of signification.”45 By thinking through the Marxist and Leninist thesis that the state, in order to serve as “instrument” of the dominant class, must be “separate” from the struggle between classes, Althusser arrives at the conclusion, which is properly speaking post-Marxist, that the political must be self-instituting.46

In the 1977 text Althusser overcomes the traditional base-superstructure schema by radicalizing his theory of reproduction with respect to the formulation given in the 1970 article on ideological state apparatuses. Now he claims that without the separation of the political there would be no “class struggle,” because it is only thanks to the “separateness” that the political can reproduce the relations of production. For Althusser, the state is the “machine” for the reproduction of the relations of production, whereas Marx “does not think the state in terms of the relation between reproduction of social conditions (and even material conditions) and production.”47 Althusser’s thesis is that the political reproduces the antagonistic relations of production (wherein the workers are exploited by the owners of the means of production), which in turn make possible economic production (i.e., as a result of the coming together of productive forces and means of production). The struggle between classes has primacy with respect to production (to the social division of labor, to classes), and, in turn, the political has primacy with respect to the reproduction of the class struggle itself. Therefore the conditions (relations) of production have a political condition of possibility. Althusser turns the Marxist basis-superstructure schema completely upside down, and thereby ruins it as a theory of the contradictions between base and superstructure, society and state.48 The struggle between classes is a factum of politics before being an economic or social datum. It follows that no sociological or economical analysis of production can explain the incidence of social antagonism. To this extent, Althusser’s later thought coincides with the basic postulates of Laclau’s theory of hegemony.49

The differences between the late Althusser and the new theorists of hegemony are determined almost entirely by the way each of them understand the kind of relation that subsists between the autonomy of the political and the fact of social antagonism. The late Althusser conceives of the state, along with the system of political parties and the ideological state apparatuses, as a “machine” that transforms the “force” inherent in class exploitation and social domination into legal “power.”50 The political machine is fueled by class struggle; it runs on exploitation: it cannot therefore reconcile the antagonism constitutive of social relations without undermining its own reason for existing. But the political machine does not simply take up and transform “raw” force or domination: this has always already been “submitted under the power of the state, thus under the power of rights, laws, and norms.”51 Althusser is not pointing out a vicious circle in the functioning of the ideological state apparatuses but their fundamental character: no production (relations of force) without reproduction (relations of power). In other words, political power is defined as the capacity of the state-machine to reproduce force as law and exploitation as right, thereby turning the “real” of social antagonism into its most proper legitimation resource.

The sense in which the political machine is a power of separation is best expressed by putting Althusser’s thesis in terms of the division between constituent and constituted powers. The permanence of the political is due to its power to keep social antagonism separate or barred. This separation coincides with the self-division of the political into constituent and constituted powers. What is primary here is the constituted power (the ideological state apparatuses). By reproducing force as power, i.e., by reproducing (in the form of right and law) the exploitative relations in which the productive forces are exercised, the constituted power makes the “real” of social antagonism (dis-)appear as constituent power: ideology is such a “nihilation” of the “real” of struggle. For the constituent power of the state-machine is the revolutionary power to begin the political “out of nothing,” ex nihilo, as if it were self-grounding, auto-constitutive. There is no autonomy of the political, no permanence of the political, without constituent power. Althusser shows that the “nothingness” of its origin is nothing other than the “real” of social struggle under the effect of constituted power. Captivated by the state-machine, the “real movement” of social antagonism is henceforth referred to as “popular sovereignty,” the legitimacy ground of the modern state-form. For the late Althusser, ideology does not cover up a “real movement” of social struggle that exists independently from it and which, periodically, flares up and tears open the ideological cover in a revolutionary uprising. Rather, this antithetical relation between the “real” of the struggle and the “symbolic” of the political is itself the result of the self-separating power of the political that at one and the same time bars the “real movement” of social struggle by instituting it as the revolutionary basis of the state. The separation of “revolution” and “state” is precisely the first and constant achievement of the ideological state apparatus. The belief that there exists a “reality” that can unmask “ideology,” the very belief in an unmasking of ideology, is the best resource of ideology.

The reason why Althusser thinks that the constituted power of the state poses an “absolute limit” to Marxist theory should now be clear. That the constituted power of the state turns out to be the power to keep the class struggle separate from the political to such a degree that the latter, on the nihilistic “basis” of such separateness, can constitute itself, i.e., become constituent power, become the revolutionary ground of the state, all this is properly inconceivable for a theory that holds that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”52 Althusser’s disconcerting discovery is that constituent or revolutionary power is the highest ideological result. Put differently: the most effective state is the most revolutionary one. It follows that Marx’s own “solution” to the separation of the social and the political, i.e., the return or reduction of the political back into the social, simply replicates the effective ground of that very separation, namely, the prior insistence of political reproduction and domination at the heart of economic production and social exploitation.

3. The Return to Machiavelli and Post-Marxist Accounts of the Political

If Althusser’s analysis is correct, then the attempts to ignore, appropriate, or destroy the autonomy of the political that characterize the main tradition of Marxism are from the very beginning misguided and self-defeating. Althusser’s posthumously published writings show that his critique of the Marxist critique of the political was fully developed by 1977. It is a sign of Althusser’s intellectual coherence that once he returns to writing, after the tragic facts that will “forever” mark his “future,” he mostly dedicates himself to a renewed comprehension of Machiavelli.53 In Machiavelli’s text Althusser finds an account of the self-constitution of the political out of the abyssal “basis” of an irreconcilable social antagonism. For the central question of the Florentine Secretary, and one that Marx never broaches, is precisely how a durable political state emerges out of nothing.54 This is the Gramscian problem of the “new prince” as a figure of constituent power. Althusser’s innovation with respect to Gramsci is that he attempts to resolve this problem by returning to Machiavelli’s republicanism in a new, and in many respects brilliant, interpretation of the Discourses on Livy. For Althusser, the republic contains the moment of duration of the state; it is charged with reproducing constituent power, whereas the new prince contains the moment of beginning of the state. Through Machiavelli, Althusser comes to realize that what is essential about the political is actually contained in its republican form, in the republic as the “rule of law,” and not in its princely form.55 This conclusion is implicit already in 1977 when Althusser defines the political as that machine which transforms violence into legal power, but in the interpretation of Machiavelli the primacy of the republican moment for any account of the political stands out, and entails the rejection of the Marxist idea of the state as a form of class “dictatorship,” still present in the 1971 text on ideological state apparatuses.

Through this reading of Machiavelli, Althusser also adds a further degree of reflexivity to the problem of reproduction: whereas in 1971 the primary question only concerns the reproduction of production, in the text on Machiavelli the primary question becomes that of the reproduction of reproduction itself. The analysis of the relation between new prince and republic, between constituent power and constituted power, is meant to answer the problem of how the state (as power of reproduction) actually reproduces itself, and so lasts in time.

Furthermore, the analysis of the reproduction (state as republic) of reproduction (state as prince) marks an important departure from the earlier theory of ideological state apparatuses in that the primacy of reproduction is thoroughly temporalized: it is a question of beginning (in) time, of lasting (in) time, of returning (in) time to its beginnings. By way of contrast, perhaps the most important thesis contained in “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’état” is that “the proper of ideology is to have a structure and a function such that it is a non-historical reality, that is, an omni-historical reality, in the sense that this structure and this functioning are, in the same form, unmovable.”56 The return to Machiavelli signals Althusser’s definitive abandonment of such a structuralist perspective and a move to what I shall call the perspective of the eventual, to the analysis of the political in the dimension of events rather than of structures.

A second important addition found in the text on Machiavelli, with respect to the 1977 critique of Marxism, consists in the introduction of a new idea of “the people,” which names the source of resistance to the reproductive powers of the political. Althusser begins to develop another interpretation of the nihil of social antagonism, one that is no longer instrumental to the foundation of the state. The “real” of antagonism comes to be seen as what draws the people away from the position of being the subject of a form of rule or government, a withdrawal that reveals the utter groundlessness of political practices of domination.57 The “real movement” of social antagonism is a source of power for the people not when it is repressed in order to allow the people to assume the character of constituent power, not through the people’s political subjectivation in the species of “popular sovereignty,” but, on the contrary, when it returns into political life: a “return of the repressed” that manifests itself through the people’s radical withdrawal from the struggle to be empowered by the state-machine. Althusser had expressed, if only in passing, a similar idea when he opposed communism to the project of government in his earlier militant texts: “a communist party cannot, under any circumstance, be defined as a ‘party of government,’ whether the government is under the domination of the bourgeois class, or whether it is under the domination of the proletariat class (‘dictatorship of the proletariat’).”58 As I show below, in his later texts Althusser lays some of the necessary groundwork to pursue the possibility of a “democracy” that would not be a form of government, a self-torn “democracy” in which demos would expose and suspend kratos.

In “Machiavel et nous,” Althusser begins to read Machiavelli where he left off his critique of the Marxist theory of the state, with the question of constituent power. Machiavelli is the “theorist of beginnings” because he poses “the political problem of the constitution (to be accomplished) of Italian unification.”59 Althusser follows Gramsci’s claim that The Prince is a “utopian revolutionary manifesto,”60 and “the New Prince of Machiavelli is thus a definite political form charged with realising the historical exigencies at the order of the day: the constitution of a nation.” But, in a departure from Gramsci, what matters for Althusser is to identify in Machiavelli the “ground” or “basis” of political forms and of their constituent power.

[Machiavelli] does not pose the theoretical problem of the nation in general . . . but in terms of cases, as singular conjuncture. . . . It is not an exaggeration to claim that Machiavelli is the first theorist of the conjuncture [le premier théoricien de la conjoncture] or the first thinker who has . . . constantly, insistingly and profoundly thought in the conjuncture, that is, in its concept of the singular contingent case [pensé dans la conjoncture, c’est-à-dire dans son concept de cas singulier aléatoire].61

The “ground” or “basis” is no longer to be found in a metaphysics of production, as in Marx, nor in a metaphysics of the will, as in Gramsci (“optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect”). It is simply no longer ontological because it corresponds to “nothing,” to the groundlessness of an event or aleatory encounter (what Althusser here calls the “conjuncture”) of the political (virtù) and the social antagonism (fortuna) that falls outside any possible philosophy of history, any discourse about “laws of history” and “historical necessity.”

In thinking about the political from the horizon of the conjunctural or eventual, Althusser sees in Machiavelli a way to overcome at once both of the fundamental theoretical limits of Marxist theory: its lack of an account of the political as well as its reliance on a metaphysics of history. For Machiavelli conceives of history from the singularity of events in which the political encounters, in completely open and unforeseeable ways, the “real movement” of social antagonism. That these free encounters or conjunctures are at all possible is due to the fact that social antagonism no longer functions as a structure, as a “basis,” that determines “in the last instance” the outcome of the political encounter, the “superstructure”: for Althusser “the struggle between existing classes” is completely characterized “by their unequal relation of development, in short by their aleatoric future.”62 Primacy is given to a radically anti-teleological conception of social antagonism as the ungrounding condition for the event or conjuncture out of which emerge political forms, which in the specific case treated by Machiavelli consists in the “political objective” of national unification, to be achieved by “grouping all actually disposable positive forces” into the “form” of the New Prince.63

Althusser’s understanding of the way in which social antagonism functions in Machiavelli’s texts owes much to the ground-breaking interpretation given of them by Lefort.64 The struggle between classes is no longer determinant of the political forms that emerge out of it because Althusser sees that there is no longer a self-identity, an ontological reality, to this struggle.65 The social antagonism is itself what is in contention in a conflict of perspectives:

There exists an irreducible duality between the site of the political point of view and the site of force and of political practice, between the “subject” of the political point of view, the people, and the “subject” of political practice, the Prince. . . . This people, on which Machiavelli bases all the politics of the Prince, is characterized by nothing that imposes, or even suggests that it should constitute itself as a people, transform itself into a people, or even more to the point become a political force. . . . And nothing indicates that Machiavelli attempted anything whatsoever to overcome this division. History must be made by the Prince from the point of view of the people, but the people is not yet the “subject” of history.66

The constituent project of the New Prince is analysed and judged from a perspective that lies outside this project and is more primordial: the perspective of the people. Following Lefort’s reading, Althusser reacognizes that in Machiavelli the perspective of the people is not that of another political subject, but is rather that perspective on social antagonism that prohibits its composition, and pacification, in any political form and by any political force whatsoever.

In my opinion, Althusser here opens a new horizon for the interpretations of Machiavelli to come. The important advance consists in bringing out the difference between the “political point of view” and the “point of view of force and political practice.” By not permitting “the political point of view” to be reduced to the point of view of the constitution of political forms of government, Althusser maintains the people’s perspective as a source of politics that does not have as its telos the institution of a political form. With this insight comes the realization that the people are powerful not in so far as they institute the point of view of a form of government, a democratic government, but because they (counter-)institute the point of view of the political as exceeding any form of government and any political practice of form-giving.

Here Althusser’s reading of Machiavelli is directly opposed to that of Negri. A consideration of this difference is of crucial importance in order to contest the distinction, popularized by Negri, between people and multitude.67 Negri defines the people as “a constituted synthesis that is prepared for sovereignty” to which one has to oppose the multitude as “an inconclusive constituent relation.”68 He also reads Machiavelli’s discourse on the people as if Machiavelli is contributing a theory of the multitude, that is, of constituent action. As such, Negri does not read Machiavelli from the vantage point of the irreconcilable difference between the “political point of view” of the people and the “point of view of force and political practice” of the new prince. That is why Negri can reprise Gramsci and theorize the people (qua multitude) as a new prince, in the sense that he calls upon the people (qua multitude) to institute an “absolute” form of government which he calls “democracy.”69 Althusser’s reading of the people in Machiavelli, on the contrary, allows for the possibility that the people express their political agency precisely by inscribing a resistance to institutionalization, an inscription which is achieved both internally and externally to the political form as such. That political body which contains, in its form, the resistance to its form of domination, Machiavelli calls “republic,” to be carefully distinguished from “democracy” as a form of government (whether revolutionary or otherwise).70

The irreducibly perspectival character of the political is due to the radical contingency of the encounter between virtù and the “real movement” of social antagonism. Because of this contingency, “the point of view of force and political practice” can never entirely compose the social antagonism in a given political form. The encounter between virtù and social antagonism therefore is more than just the construction of political form. It is a mistake to believe that a lack of “form-giving force” in the people means that they lack political agency. For this is to presuppose that the political is reducible to, or exhausted by, the practice of form-giving, a presupposition that the dualism in perspectives contests. Since the people, as Machiavelli never ceases to point out, are characterised by a “desire not to be dominated,”71 it follows that their political agency always exceeds their figurability in a form of government, and indeed is best understood as deconstructive, rather than constructive, of forms of government. The virtù of the “political point of view” figures the immanent and imminent moment of the deconstruction of form, the return of the conflictual event which haunts every emergence of a political form. In this sense, Derrida’s “hauntological” reading of Marx, and of deconstruction as a self-overcoming of Marxism, appears entirely consonant with the sense of Althusser’s return to Machiavelli in his late writings.72

Assuredly, in “Machiavel et nous” Althusser is primarily interested in understanding the construction not “of a government that passes, but of a state that lasts.”73 He finds the answer in Machiavelli’s analysis of the Roman Republic.

What interests Machiavelli is the foundation, the beginning of a durable state which, once it is founded by a Prince, will last thanks to a “mixed” government. . . . This center is Rome, a state that has lasted. The center of Rome is its beginning. The beginning of this republic was the fact of being a monarchy which gave Rome a kind of government that made the state last, namely, a mixed government, which has been pursued in the form of a republic.74

Althusser’s interpretation brings together the princely and the republican moments of Machiavelli’s discourse, traditionally understood as standing in tension, into a coherent account of the state. This account relies on the classical schema of foundation, whose formula “one to found, many to preserve” comes from Plato and is taken up in the Ciceronian political tradition. The foundation of a state that lasts, indeed, requires the continuity between monarchy and republic: “two moments in the constitution of the state. The moment of the absolute beginning, which must be made by one alone. But this moment is in itself unstable. . . . The second moment which is that of duration, which cannot be assured but by a double operation: the giving of laws and the exit from solitude.”75 Althusser’s use of the expression “exit from solitude” is here overdetermined. Claiming that the state is properly founded only when it acquires its republican form, Althusser not only takes the prince out of its constituent “solitude,” but does the same for Machiavelli as theorist, who now comes out of the “solitude” that Althusser had himself identified in his 1977 article on the “Solitude de Machiavel,” and is made to join ranks with the ancients, in this case with Plato and Cicero. Why does Althusser here set aside his claim that Machiavelli stands in “solitude” vis-à-vis the past tradition of political thought, which otherwise always serves him as a hermeneutic guiding principle? An explanation may be that Althusser hears in the classical schema of foundation an echo of his own theory of reproduction, but applied to the state itself. For in the second moment of its constitution, the state “roots” itself in the people through its ideological apparatuses: army, consent (i.e., religion), and above all the rule of law.76 The republican moment of Roman history corresponds to the moment of reproduction, which posits for itself an “absolute,” constituent beginning only in order to be able to understand itself as the “preserving” power of the state.

Althusser uses the constitutional development of the Roman Republic as a template from which to develop an account of how the state, itself the form of reproduction of relations of production, reproduces itself. The constitutional development of Rome contains, so to speak, the ideology (reproduction) of ideology (state as form of reproduction).77 The state’s own ideology is none other than the system that generates political authority, and that the Romans institutionalized in their constitutional development from monarchy to republic: the auctoritas of the state depends on the relationship according to which one founder gives the form (agere) that many citizens augment (gerere).78 For, as Machiavelli explains, “if one individual is capable of ordering, the thing itself is ordered to last long not if it remains on the shoulders of one individual but rather if it remains in the care of many and its maintenance stays with many.”79 The political form can last through time only if the people (the “many”) are set on supporting it. This support requires that the people be deprived, a priori, of the possibility of beginning something radically new, of breaking with the first beginning, with the foundation, which, on the contrary, they are called upon to carry out. This call, coming from the founder (“one individual”) to the citizens, institutionalized in the representative political organs (foremost the legislative assembly) closely corresponds to what Althusser famously termed (in “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’état”) the “interpellation” made by the ideological state apparatuses: its function is to turn the people into the political subjectum, the constituent basis, of the state, which in turn founds the state, giving duration and legitimacy to its practices of subjection and domination.

Although Althusser does not elaborate this point, more can be said about the relation between one and many, beginning and reproduction, that is constitutive for the ideology of the state if one follows Machiavelli’s reading of the figure of Romulus, the founder of the Roman state. Machiavelli argues that Romulus had no choice but to kill his brother in view of instituting a senate alongside a king.80 The founder has to remain alone at the moment of founding the state because in this way the many can sever themselves from the violence inherent in the first establishment of political form so as to accede to the privileged position of a non-violent, legal and routinized form of rule. The founder is “one” always already in relation to those “many,” whom the founder’s isolation allows to accede to a position of authority, an authority which is then followed by the founder itself.

That Romulus was one of those [”who has the intent to wish to help not himself but the common good”], that he deserves excuse in the deaths of his brother and his partner, and that what he did was for the common good and not for his own ambition, is demonstrated by his having at once ordered a Senate with which he took counsel and by whose opinion he decided.81

One cannot find a clearer formulation of Machiavelli’s belief that the system of authority (the constituted power) fashions for itself a founder (constituent power), and not conversely. In Machiavelli’s Romulus the routinization of charisma is at work in the charismatic agent itself since the founder’s charismatic origin of rule is retroactively supposed by that political subject who wants the practice of ruling to appear a matter of routine.82 Machiavelli identifies this political subject, for the sake of which the founder is required to “have authority alone,” as the nobility. In his main theoretical works, Machiavelli always characterizes the nobility as that political subject whose “only desire [is] to rule and command,”83 i.e., the nobility is the “hegemonic” class formed in and through the dominating relations of production. The Discourses on Livy shows why this “desire to dominate” needs to find its political organ in representative institutions generative of the auctoritas of legal rule (such as the Roman Senate), without which the orders of the state would not be “well-founded.”

In Machiavelli’s reading of the Roman republic Althusser finds confirmation for a crucial intuition that could already be read between the lines of “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’état”: the state as ideological apparatus requires for its own foundation, duration or reproduction, that the people become the political subject par excellence, i.e., that the people be the constituent power and thereby offer itself as the basis of government. Here Althusser moves beyond the “absolute limits” of Marx because he discovers that the foundation of the durable state is exclusively ideological: the state as ideological apparatus does not find its ground outside of itself (e.g., as an instrument of specific class interests), but in its own ideology, more specifically, as the exemplar of the Roman Republic shows, in the form of a representative and constitutional democracy. Representative and constitutional democracy is that form of government that best allows the state to fulfill its vocation as ideological apparatus. This is the form that allows for the constituted power to create for itself a constituent power, i.e., the people as subject of the state, which in turn assures the greatest duration, the most effective reproduction, to the state itself.84 Put another way, the institutions and political practices of a representative democratic governance are the most powerful forces of “interpellation.”

It is on this point that the late Althusser diverges considerably from other representatives of post-Marxist discourse. Thus Laclau’s theory of hegemony, restated in Althusserian terms, describes the struggle, ever renewed and ever contested, through which the constituted power attempts to determine for itself a constituent power, a political subject, that can offer it a contingent foundation.85 But in this case Laclau’s grammar and logic of hegemony appears insufficient to operate a radical critique of the state as an ideological apparatus, given Althusser’s demonstration that ideology functions precisely in and through the addressing of social antagonisms as hegemonic struggles. Viewed from the late Althusserian perspective I have reconstructed, it looks as if accepting Laclau’s thesis that “class struggle is just one species of identity politics,” i.e., one form among others of conducting a hegemonic struggle,86 entails the acceptance of the corollary that there exists no exteriority to the specular and speculative relation between constituted and constituent powers that the state institutes in and for itself. Within the horizon of Laclau’s theory, only the struggle internal to the political system and to the state in view of determining the state’s own ideology can appear as politically significant: a struggle which is completely functional to the foundation of the state and its political system.87

Zizek’s response to Laclau consists in a reminder that the class struggle is not ideological because it corresponds to the “real” that stands completely outside of the state and its hegemonic struggles.88 In this sense, Zizek’s application of Lacan’s division between real and symbolic to understand the (non-)relation between social struggle and the political is Althusserian in spirit. But unless Zizek can show how the exteriority of class struggle also thereby articulates a political critique of the reduction of the political to hegemonic struggles made by Laclau, his response remains ineffective. Far from embarking on this path, which the late Althusser has opened, Zizek returns to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and reconnects the “real” of class struggle to a belief in the primacy of the economical basis (“capitalism”) over the political superstructure (“postmodernism”), the very belief that the late Althusser shows to be untenable.89

Negri occupies yet another standpoint: here the “real” of class struggle is conceived in terms of the resistance posed by an external constituent power to the attempt on the part of the state or constituted power to internalize it.90 The problem with Negri’s thesis, as I remarked above, is that it must deprive itself of the crucial Althusserian intuition that constituent and constituted powers are internally related: their separation and apparent opposition is self-posited, is precisely the effect that gives them their power. Negri misses the point that the “exteriority” of constituent power with respect to the state and its apparatuses is the first and highest achievement of the ideological state apparatus itself, of the constituted power. This misrecognition is responsible for the fact that Negri’s theory of constituent power tends to undervalue the power of the state and of politics. The return to the politically and theoretically ambiguous vocabulary of “empire” is perhaps symptomatic of such undervaluation of state power.

Despite Althusser’s recovery of Machiavelli’s discourse on republics in order to radicalize the theory of reproduction, his reading of Machiavelli remains reductive in one crucial respect: it fails to develop the implications of such a discourse for an understanding, not of the arcana of political domination, but of the possibilities of political freedom. By claiming that “Machiavelli is interested only in one form of government: the one that allows a state to last,”91 Althusser himself collapses the point of view of the people into that of the prince. Whereas Machiavelli always makes clear that only for the prince is it essential to aim at a political form that is well founded and can last in time, not so for the people. Machiavelli views the constitution of Roman society, as of every society, not just from the perspective of the prince, with a view to secure the desire to dominate, but also from the perspective of the people, with a view to empower the “desire not to be ruled or commanded.”92 Perhaps the most fundamental thesis shared by the Discourses on Livy and The Prince is that the conflict between these two desires determines historical becoming. This conflict between perspectives is what places the entire problem of how to achieve a durable state into perspective, and prohibits its totalization.

The irreducibility of the people to being the subject-subjectum of the state is equivalent, in Althusserian terms, to the irreducibility of the struggle between classes with respect to the ideological or hegemonic struggle. Machiavelli’s intuition is that the resistance of the social antagonism to its recomposition in the political form corresponds to the contingent character of the internal relation between constituent and constituted powers that is constitutive of political form. The reason why the social anatgonism is not reducible to the hegemonic struggle is precisely that the progression from beginning to duration figured by the internal relation between constituent and constituted powers, a progression which is foundational for the state-form, is for all that not necessary but contingent, and so reversible, revocable. The state (constituted power of duration) can be turned around and back (i.e., revoked) to the people and thereby dissolved, rather than founded, in their power to begin anew. Machiavelli defends this possibility throughout the third part of the Discourses on Livy, where he argues that a political body can live freely only if it undergoes an indefinite series of revocations or returns to beginning (riduzione verso il principio).93 Both in content and in form this return to beginnings denotes a revolution. But revolution according to Machiavelli means that a return is made to the same “origin” of legal authority, the “absolute beginning” of state-founding, in order to strip this beginning of its absoluteness, i.e., of its capacity to impress a political form on historical becoming, and instead reveal the utter contingency of all political forms of domination. From the perspective of the people, politics happens only in the interruption and reversal of the progression from beginning to duration that the state-machine upholds. For the people, politics happens only in emancipating the power to begin from its absoluteness, from its captivation as constituent power, and this can happen only as a “return of the repressed,” i.e., a return to the radical difference between the social antagonism and the hegemonic struggle.

The uniqueness of the Discourses on Livy with respect to all previous and posterior political thinking based on the Roman paradigm consists in its claim that civil life [vivere civile] becomes a free life [vivere libero] only if politics can go beyond the ideal of well-founded rule, which is modeled on the Roman system of authority, and become effectively revolutionary. Machiavelli condenses the meaning of revolutionary politics in his interpretation of the actions of Lucius Junius Brutus, “father of the Roman republic,” who sends off the Roman state into its republican trajectory by expelling the Roman kings and later killing his own sons for attempting to bring them back.94 For Machiavelli, the “sons of Brutus” represent the forces of the nobility, whose political organ is the Senate, and who the Romans would call, following a most ancient custom said to derive from Romulus himself, the “fathers,” patres, from which comes the patrician class.95 It is these patricians who felt, in Machiavelli’s words, that “the freedom of the people seemed to have become their slavery.”96 Brutus’s expulsion of “fathers” (kings) and execution of “sons” (patricians) prepares the entrance of the people, and their desire not to be dominated, into political life, balancing out, as it were, Romulus’s fratricide which prepared the entrance of the nobles as patres. If Romulus figures the continuity between princely and republican moments that accounts for the constitution of the state, then Brutus figures the discontinuity of these moments that accounts for the revolution of the state into a free political life.

Brutus symbolizes the emergence of the republic as a revolutionary event that interrupts, rather than achieves, the process of founding the state. Republican freedom “begins” wherever political life cuts itself off from the ab-soluteness of beginning that imposes the augmentation of the form of rule as the sole end of political action. The symbolic value of the actions of Brutus is to show that the political body augments its freedom in proportion to its capacity of reducing its forms of rule. These actions cut open an isonomical space-time for a plurality, the many-without-one, to voice their desire not to be dominated: on this stage, the claims to rule voiced by the founder-legislator and the nobility (the two subjects active in the system of authority) are carried without authority. To clear such a space-time where the desire not to be dominated is recognized with and against the desire to rule is the sole purpose of actions that “return” the political body “to its beginnings.” Such a return disseminates, rather than absolutizes, beginnings: it amounts to a non-discriminating distribution of the power to begin.

Althusser’s reading of the Roman Republic solely in terms of the problem of the duration of the state misses these other dimensions of Machiavelli’s discourse that are essential to the project of rethinking political freedom in a post-Marxist context. His reading of Machiavelli remains caught up in his own overriding preoccupation with the duration, permanence, and self-institution of the “superstructure.” In contrast, for Machiavelli the thoroughly historical or eventual character of the state also entails the moment or event in which the “state that lasts” comes to its end, in which the state-machine is interrupted. This end or interruption occurs in revolutionary or republican events, having the character of historical originary repetition (return to beginnings), in which the state-form is suspended.

4. A Materialism of Events: History and Freedom Beyond Form

In his last innovative philosophical text, “Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre,” Althusser explicitly asserts the priority of the event over the form, and does so with references to a series of philosophers who had preceded him on this path: Heidegger, Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida.97 Althusser’s “materialism of the encounter” (also called “aleatory materialism” or “materialism of events”) is an attempt to think the emergence of the world of forms out of events.98 What Althusser calls conjuncture in “Machiavel et nous” is now more adequately referred to as rencontre (encounter), in reference to the Epicurean-Lucretian doctrine of the clinamen or swerve of atoms that account for their coming together and constituting a world of forms out of event-like encounters.99

The world can be said to be accomplished fact [le fait accompli], in which, once the fact is accomplished, the reign of Reason, of Sense, of Necessity and of Purpose is established. But this accomplishment of the fact [accomplissement du fait] is nothing but the pure effect of contingency, because it is suspended to the aleatoric encounter of atoms due to the swerve of the clinamen. Before the accomplishment of the fact, before the world, there is nothing but the non-accomplishment of the fact, the non-world which is nothing other than the unreal existence of atoms.100

Nothing precedes the encounter of atoms, nothing determines such an encounter as a necessary one, so that the “constituent” dimension of the “accomplishment of fact” is itself a contingent event, in no way determinable by what Althusser calls “the non-accomplishment of the fact.” In political terms, if the passage from the “accomplishment of” to the “accomplished” fact describes the action of the state, then the contingent character of this passage, the event-character of the “accomplishment” itself, which is due to its reliance on the “non-accomplishment” as a kind of power that remains in-different to its possible realization, corresponds to the deconstructive action of the people, where the people is no longer considered as a political subject of the state, as the constituent power posited by the state, but as the agency of no-rule, the power of disseminated beginnings.101

In “Le courant souterrain,” just like in “Machiavel et nous,” the virtù of the prince is defined as the power that makes the encounter last through time. The prince corresponds to “the forms that give form to the effects of the encounter [des formes qui donne forme aux effets de la rencontre];” the prince is charged with “the becoming-necessary of the encounter of the contingents [le devenir-nécessaire de la rencontre de contingents].”102 But, in a departure from his previous reading of Machiavelli, here Althusser thinks the “submission of necessity to contingency,” which entails that

nothing ever guarantees that the reality of the accomplished fact warrants its everlastingness. . . . History is the permanent revocation of the accomplished fact by another indecipherable fact to-come [une autre fait indéchiffrable à accomplir]. Without knowing in advance or ever, nor where, nor how the event of its revocation will occur. Simply a day will come when the games will have to be redistributed, and the dice thrown again on the empty table [les jeux seront à redistribuer, et les dés de nouveau à jeter sur la table vide].103

The state-that-lasts is now explicitly inscribed within the imminent and immanent possibility of its “revocation” or “return to beginning.” Such a return not only reduces the accomplished fact to the constituent power of the accomplishment of fact; more radically, it enables beginnings that are not foundational by remaining completely in-different to their happening or not happening. Such nihilistic in-difference stands in a secret correspondence with the “other fact” to-come, with the future as future, indecipherable and unforeseeable in terms of a grammar of accomplishment.104 History is at an end, that is, there is no future that comes to its imperturbable unfolding, unless the return to beginnings interrupts the “constituent” progression from beginning to duration.

Althusser never articulates an idea of popular power understood as the power to revoke the accomplished fact. Such power is not only the presupposition for a new constituent action; more primordially, it is the expression of a sovereign in-difference, on the part of the people, and therefore of the political point of view, towards the project of government carried forth by the state and the system of political parties, by the point of view of force and political practice. By employing the term “sovereign in-difference to government” in relation to the power of the people I mean to bring out three characteristics of this power, which is improperly called “constituent.” First, the people are powerful only so long as they uphold their difference from the state’s project of foundation, only so long as they remain “in” this difference. This qualification keeps at bay the traditional “republican” temptation that identifies the people with the ground of the state. Second, the people as agents of no-rule do not have a “common interest” that can be formulated by the state and its project of government; their “in-difference” refers to a radical dis-interestedness in the outcomes of governance that alone permits a true judgment to be brought upon these outcomes. To act as judges of the state, the people cannot function as a reservoir of particular interests that the state and the political system attempt to recompose in order to gain legitimacy. This qualification keeps at bay the “pluralist” temptation that identifies the people with the sum of individual interests in civil society. Third, the people’s “sovereign in-difference” refers to their unresponsiveness to parliamentary interpellation. Whenever and wherever the people are powerful, they do not want to be politically represented precisely because this form of political recognition, coming from the state, is the fundamental way in which their subjection is achieved. This qualification keeps at bay the “liberal” temptation that identifies the people with the constituted public sphere of electoral democracy.

The in-difference of the people with respect to the constituent project of the state gives another meaning to the separation of social antagonism from the political, another sense in which this antagonism functions as nihil originarium, than the one I discussed at the beginning of this essay in relation to Althusser’s discourse. For the in-difference of the people is no longer just the condition of possibility of the constituent power of the state, but also the condition of its impossibility. In the former case, the people and social antagonism are separated from the political by its constituted power, by the state, in the way that Althusser illustrates through his theory of ideological state apparatuses. In the latter case, though, the people withdraw themselves from their captivation as basis of the self-constitution of the state. Their in-difference to the project of political practice, to ruling, is just what makes them inaccessible to interpellation, and therefore to subjection.

In a revolutionary event, properly speaking, the people no longer consider themselves political subjects: what they desire cannot be, as a matter of principle, realized by the state, in a project of government. The desire for no-rule is unrealizable from the perspective of the state, and it is this desire that makes the power of the people truly impossible to manage for the state at that moment. Whenever the people manifest their desire for no-rule, the process of reproduction as a whole suffers an arrest, and the machine of the state comes to a halt. For Machiavelli, the exemplary case of such an occurrence, where political interpellation ceases to work, is the secession of the plebs in early Roman history; for Benjamin, it is the idea of the general strike. The idea of popular power which accounts for these failures of interpellation, for these sudden arrests of the state-machine, is starting to be envisaged by some.105 What is already certain, though, is that such popular power cannot be captured either by the Marxist-Leninist formula of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (i.e., with the conquest of state power, even for the sake of the eventual destruction of the state), or by the participatory formula of “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Both of these formulae express radical forms of hegemonic struggle, that is, struggles for government, whereas what is called for is precisely the attempt to distinguish as rigorously as possible a struggle for no-rule, that will never rule, from its captivation by political practices and forces of hegemony.

Although in his last texts Althusser did not consider the theoretical bases on which to think the arrest of the state-machine, he did, in extremis, signal why the possibility of revoking the constituent process must be considered an essential moment of the political. The thinkers of the materialism of events, among whom Althusser names Epicurus, Machiavelli, Spinoza and Marx, “looked to the concepts of encounter and conjuncture for a way of thinking not only the reality of history, but above all that of politics, and the connection between these two realities once they meet: in the struggle.”106 If the people are powerful, then it is impossible for the constituted power to master the separation between social antagonism and political form. The state attempts to master this separation always by giving the social struggle the form of a struggle for hegemony, a struggle over who is to rule. But as “real movement” the social antagonism is not as such hegemonic nor about hegemony. The in-different and radically non-foundational character of this antagonism with respect to every constituted political form allows for both moments of the political, reproductive and deconstructive, constituent and revolutionary, to exist. Without their interplay, political freedom remains inconceivable.107

Miguel Vatter

Michael Vatter is assistant professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. He is the author of Between Form and Event: Machiavelli’s Theory of Political Freedom. He can be reached at


1. Étienne Balibar, “The Non-Contemporaneity of Althusser,” in Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker, eds., The Althusserian Legacy (London: Verso, 1995), 3.

2. For exemplary discussions of Althusser’s art of reading, see J.M. Vincent, “La lecture symptomale chez Althusser,” and Étienne Balibar, “L’objet Althusser,” both in Sylvain Lazarus, ed., Politique et Philosophie dans l’oeuvre de Louis Althusser (Paris: PUF, 1993). The motif of moving “beyond Marx” through Marx is of course central to Antonio Negri’s work: one recalls Marx oltre Marx (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1979) and L’anomalia selvaggia: saggio su potere e potenza in Baruch Spinoza (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1981). Negri holds onto this formula throughout his later work. For instance, he claims that to go “beyond Marx” means to theorize how “constituent power constitutes society and identifies the social and the political in an ontological nexus” (Antonio Negri, Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999], 328).

3. Louis Althusser, “Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre,” in: Écrits philosophiques et politique, ed. Francois Matheron, vol.I (Paris: Stock/IMEC, 1994), 561. All translations of Althusser from the French are mine.

4. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994), 92.

5. For different variations on these criticisms, see Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); idem., On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1977); Raymond Aron, L’opium des intellectuels (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1955); Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1969); Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963); idem., The Poverty of Historicism (New York: Basic Books, 1960).

6. Louis Althusser, “Marx dans ses limites,” in: Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 359–524. A public, and more moderate, version of some of its theses was presented by Althusser in a lecture delivered in Venice in 1977 entitled “Enfin la crise du marxisme!” Now published in Louis Althusser, Solitude de Machiavel et autres textes, ed. Yves Sintomer, (Paris: PUF, 1998), 267–280. In relation to these late texts, the editor of Solitude de Machiavel speaks of Althusser’s “phase of ‘deconstruction’ of his theory” (ibid., 268). Antonio Negri, in his analysis of what he terms Althusser’s “Kehre,” recalls that in Venice Althusser “opened with the following observation: ‘Something has snapped’.” Negri speaks of Althusser’s “break” with respect to the tradition of Marxism-Leninism. (Antonio Negri, “Notes on the Evolution of the Thought of the Later Althusser,” in: Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory, ed. Antonio Callari and David Ruccio [London: Wesleyan University Press, 1996], 51–68).

7. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 409 and 361.

8. “One has to admit that a theory of the specific efficacy of the superstructures and of other ‘circumstances’ is still to be for the most part worked out; and even before a theory of their efficacy . . . the theory of the essence of the specific elements of the superstructure. . . . After Marx and Lenin, who has really attempted or pursued this investigation? I know only of Gramsci.” (Louis Althusser, Pour Marx [Paris: Francois Maspero, 1966], 113–4).

9. Now see the posthumously published manuscript, “Sur la reproduction des appareils de production,” of 1969–1970, from which the article “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’état” (1971) was drawn, in Louis Althusser, Sur la reproduction, ed. Jacques Bidet (Paris: PUF, 1995).

10. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 499ff. Althusser is particularly critical of Gramsci’s attempt to understand the “autonomy of the political” through a theory of hegemony: “but the fact is that this aberrant thesis [Gramsci’s thesis on hegemony] leaves us at the threshold of another ‘absolute limit’ of Marxist thought: its incapacity to think ‘politics’.” (Ibid., 511).

11. Balibar, “Non-Contemporaneity of Althusser,” 13. On the primary character of the experience of resistance to domination in Althusser, see also Balibar, “Structural Causality, Overdetermination, and Antagonism” in Postmodern Materialism and the Future of a Marxist Theory, 118. For Negri, too, the couplet domination/resistance has become primary: “Communism today does not present itself as project but as resistance, as counterpower, as singularity. . . . Against the state, against capital, against parties, it is necessary to rely on mass movements. . . . They alone can produce liberation and unify insular resistancs and powerful marginalities against the logic of domination.” (Ibid., 58).

12. Althusser, “Machiavel et nous,” in: Écrits philosophiques et politiques, vol. II (Paris: Stock/IMEC, 1995), 42–168. Now in English translation, Machiavelli and Us (London: Verso, 1999).

13. Louis Althusser in Montag and Stolze, eds., The New Spinoza (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 7. It should be noted in this context that Althusser’s first published text is a critique of Aron’s phenomenological reworking of a non-deterministic philosophy of history.

14. A great deal has been written about the vicissitudes of this attempt to distinguish science from ideology in Marxism and psychoanalysis. For a particularly insightful, and historically contextualized, presentation of this Althusser, see Paul Ricoeur, Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 103–158; as well as Balibar, “L’objet Althusser.” Most of the secondary literature on Althusser to date remains attentive only to the published writings up to 1977, concentrating heavily on Althusser’s classic texts of the 1960s like For Marx and Reading Capital. For an overview of these interpretations, see Gregory Elliott, ed., Althusser. A Critical Reader (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994), and Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker, eds., The Althusserian Legacy. The posthumous texts are now mentioned in the annotated bibliography of Warren Montag, Louis Althusser (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

15. Althusser, The New Spinoza, 7.

16. According to Balibar, Althusser in this period is looking for a “schema of original causality, absolutely irreducible to the idealism of emanation or expression as much as to any physicalist mechanism, that would permit the analysis of the singularity of conjunctures (their ‘overdetermination’) which is the sole reality of history.” (Balibar, “L’objet Althusser,” 106). For another reconstruction of Althusser’s thought during this period, in light of the opposition between structure and singularity that emerges in the posthumously published texts, see Warren Montag, “Althusser’s Nominalism: Structure and Singularity (1962–6),” Rethinking Marxism, vol.10, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 64–73.

17. Althusser, The New Spinoza, 7.

18. The exception is the text “Trois notes sur la théorie des discours” of 1966 where Althusser introduces, simultaneously, both the idea of interpellation and that of repetition: “Recruiting the ideological subjects, the ideological discourse installs them as ideological subjects at the same time as it recruits them. It produces as subjects, installs as subjects the subjects that it recruits, in one and the same act. The circularity of the ideological structure, its specular centeredness, reflects the duplicity (in both senses of the word) of this act.” (Althusser, Écrits sur la psychanalyse [Paris: Stock/IMEC, 1993], 137). For an argument on how Althusser may have had more influence on Deleuze in this period than was previously surmised, see Ted Stolze, “Deleuze and Althusser: Flirting with Structuralism,” Rethinking Marxism, vol. 10, no.3 (Fall 1998): 50–63.

19. “Either finalism and the determinism of the ‘meaning of history’ is criticized in the name of the singularity of conjunctures. . . . This is the Leninist, and even more, Machiavellian, side of Althusser’s analyses. . . . Or his critique envisaged above all the idea of ‘totality’ . . . in the name of the complexity of the structure, of its unequal development and its variations: this is the structuralist side.” (Balibar, “L’objet Althusser,” 94).

20. Étienne Balibar, Écrits pour Althusser (Paris: Éditions de la Découverte, 1991), 67; and Balibar, “Non-Contemporaneity of Althusser,” 7, respectively.

21. Balibar, “Structural Causality,” 115. Montag also seems to think that Althusser, at his best, arrives at the idea that “an absent structure, a structure present only in its effects, thus becomes the principle of the diverse — that is, the principle that makes the diverse intelligible without reduction or unification.” (Montag, “Althusser’s Nominalism,” 72). On the unresolved tension between structure and conjuncture in Althusser, see also the comments of Gregory Elliott, “The Necessity of Contingency: Some Notes,” Rethinking Marxism, vol. 10, no. 3 (Fall 1998), 74–79.

22. Althusser, “Marx dans ses limites,” Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 370.

23. “Communism is for us not a state of affairs that is to be established, nor an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement that abolishes the present state of things” (Karl Marx, The German Ideology, pt.1, ed. C.J. Arthur [New York: International Publishers, 1991], A4: 56–7).

24. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 373.

25. I understand in this way Balibar’s claim that Althusser makes possible “a communist critique of Marxist theory.” (Balibar, “Non-Contemporaneity of Althusser,” 5).

26. In his late texts Althusser refers to Wittgenstein’s “Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist”: “the world is all that ‘falls,’ all that ‘happens,’ ‘everything which is the case’ — by ‘case’ we understand casus: occurrence and chance at the same time, what happens in the mode of the unforeseeable and yet in the mode of being.” (Althusser, “Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre,” Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 563).

27. Here I disagree with Negri’s claim according to which the late Althusser shifts focus from “the critique of the ‘relations of production’ . . . to the constitutive processes of the new ‘productive forces’.” (Negri, “Notes on the Evolution of the Thought of the Later Althusser,” 58).

28. See Michel Foucault, “Il faut défendre la société” (Paris: Gallimard, 1997).

29. As he puts the same point in the article “Sur Marx et Freud” of 1976–7, this means that Marxism and psychoanalysis are “conflictual sciences, haunted or even constituted by contestation and struggle.” (Althusser, Écrits sur la psychanalyse, 226). Althusser claims that “the conflictuality of Marxist theory is constitutive of its scientificity, of its objectivity.” (Ibid., 228).

30. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 372. See Karl Marx, “Letter to Joseph Weydemeyer in New York, 5 March 1852”: “My own contribution was 1) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3) that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.” (In: German Socialist Philosophy. The German Library, vol. 40 [New York: Continuum, 1997], 145.) In “Marx dans ses limites” Althusser returns to Marx’s bon mot that he himself was not a Marxist, as if to underscore that his own radical departures from Marxist theory may nonetheless still find its motivations in Marx.

31. Balibar is right to claim that “Althusser conceived antagonism as the core of structural causality, that he read in Marx a preeminence of the category of antagonism.” (Balibar, “Structural Causality, Overdetermination, Antagonism,” 116). But I disagree that this belief in an “irreconcilable antagonism” leads Althusser into “an amazing contradiction” if held together with the belief in communism, the latter understood as “the idea that at every moment there is in capitalism the possibility of its own overcoming in the form of class conflict and mass conflict.” (Ibid., 117) The contradiction subsists only if one thinks of this “overcoming” as dialectical, that is, an overcoming entailing the negation of all irreconcilable conflicts. Far from incurring into contradiction, by discarding this idea of dialectical overcoming Althusser actually gets rid of a contradiction that had plagued his earlier work.

32. See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985); Jacques Rancière, Dis-agreement: Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); and Slavoj Zizek, “The Spectre of Ideology” in: Mapping Ideology, ed. Slavoj Zizek (London: Verso, 1994).

33. This topic is found in the early as well as in late Marx, from The German Ideology: “The conditions under which definite productive forces can be applied, are the conditions of the rule of a definite class of society, whose social power, deriving from its property, has its practical-idealistic expression in each case in the form of the state,” (The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker [W.W. Norton: New York, 1978], 193) to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “On the different forms of property, the social conditions of existence, arises an entire superstructure of different and peculiarly formed sentiments, delusions, modes of thought and outlooks on life.” (Karl Marx, Later Political Writings, ed. T. Carver [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 56).

34. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 485.

35. “How is the reproduction of relations of production assured? . . . It is, for the most part, assured by the juridico-political and ideological superstructure.” (Althusser, Sur la reproduction, 285).

36. The importance of the late Althusser for the development of the idea of “politics as an autonomous practice whose modalities are not reducible to the reproductive logic of the economy or, therefore, to the singular logic of class transformation” is clearly seen by Callari and Ruccio in their “Introduction” to Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory, 11.

37. “The totality of these relations of production forms the economic structure of society, the real basis from which rises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond specific forms of social consciousness. . . . At a certain level of their development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the already existing relations of production. . . . Then an epoch of social revolution commences. With the alteration of the economic foundation the whole colossal superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.” (Marx, Later Political Writings, 159–160.)

38. Balibar points out that “Althusser never ceased to dedicate himself to the ‘deconstruction’ of the form that Marx gave to the presentation of his own topic: the ‘architectural metaphor’ found in the famous text of the Preface.” (Balibar, “L’objet Althusser,” 113). Indeed, in the “Appendix” to the 1970 manuscript on reproduction, entitled “On the primacy of the relations of production over productive forces,” Althusser comments on the same text from the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, but, unlike in the reading he gives of it in “Marx dans ses limites,” there he merely defends the relative priority of the relations of production over the forces of production, without questioning the primacy assigned to the “basis” over the ideological “superstructure”: “the primacy of the relations of production over productive forces cannot be invoked haphazardly, but only on the basis, and within the limits of the objectively existing forces of production.” (Althusser, Sur la reproduction, 251). In 1970 Althusser still defends the Leninist and Maoist reading of the “basis,” according to which it is the relations of production that are more determinant, thereby rejecting the prevalent interpretation of the “basis” in Marxist theory which, following Engels, the revisionism of Bernstein, and later Stalin, had emphasised the causality of the development of productive forces over the “forms” of production. By 1977 Althusser, taking for granted the idea that the “basis” is primarily determined by “relations of production,” questions the priority of this “basis” itself in relation to the “superstructure.” For the distinction between forces and relations of production in Althusser, see also Sur la reproduction, 41–58.

39. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 405–409.

40. On the theory of constituent power, and its presence in Marx’s text, see Antonio Negri, Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). For a critique of Negri’s reappropriation of the concept of constituent power, see Miguel Vatter, “Legality and Resistance: Arendt and Negri on Constituent Power,” Kairos, n.20 (2002): 191–230.

41. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 422–437.

42. Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in Early Writings [New York: Vintage Books, 1975], 234.

43. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 433.

44. Ibid., 437.

45. As Althusser’s Écrits sur la psychanalyse shows, Althusser embraces Lacan’s linguistic interpretation of Freud in his “Freud et Lacan” article of 1964 as the first attempt to provide a “scientific theory” of the unconscious, only to then progressively call into question Lacan’s conflation of the discourse of the unconscious with a general theory of the signifier, to which Althusser opposes the necessity of conceiving the discourse of the unconscious as an ideological discourse, which is the object of a general theory of historical materialism. (Althusser, “Trois notes sur la théorie des discours,” 148–149). In his last text on Freud and Lacan, “La découverte du Docteur Freud,” Althusser argues that Lacan in the end never produced a “scientific theory of the unconscious” but merely a “philosophy of psychoanalysis.” (Ibid., 202–3). Whereas Freud’s greatness consists precisely in developing concepts, such as those of “drive” and “phantasm,” that refer to the unconscious in such a way as to show at the same time that a scientific theory of the unconscious is not possible. (Ibid., 217–8). Irrespective of whether Althusser’s critique of Lacan is tenable, one can still maintain that Althusser’s point regarding the impossibility of a “general theory” of the “real” of the unconscious, or of the “real” of class struggle, is analogous to Lacan’s observation that the “real” remains barred by the laws of signification constitutive of the symbolic. For another recent reading of the relation between Althusser and Lacan, see Warren Montag, “The Emptiness of a Distance Taken: Freud, Althusser, Lacan,” Rethinking Marxism, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 31–38. In this context, it would also be interesting to compare the influence of Lacan on Lefort’s theory of social division and ideology, which has marked affinities with the late Althusser’s idea of ideology. In “Outline of the Genesis of Ideology in Modern Societies,” for example, Lefort argues that ideology is part of the “imaginary” of the social, and emerges directly from it, as its effort to occlude its own division and historicity. (Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986], 200ff).

46. Here one can measure the distance between the late Althusser and Poulantzas: whereas the latter holds on to the “instrumental” character of politics, and so needs to relativize the extent to which politics is “separate” or autonomous with respect to class struggle, Althusser radicalizes the “separation” and, as a consequence, is led to reject the instrumental character of politics. See Nicos Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes (London: Sheed and Ward, 1973).

47. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 457.

48. Balibar also recognizes that Althusser “instead of adding a theory of the ‘superstructure’ to the existing theory of the ‘structure’ . . . aims at transforming the concept of structure itself by showing that its process of ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’ originarily depends on unconscious ideological conditions. As a consequence the social formation is no longer representable in dualistic terms — a thesis that logically should lead to abandon the image of the ‘superstructure’.” (Balibar, “Non-Contemporaneity of Althusser,” 8). Althusser’s destruction of the base-superstructure schema has at least one precedent in the Marxist tradition in Walter Benjamin’s work on Baudelaire. See Letters nos.111–113 in Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence 1928–1940 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 289–312. As well as the persuasive interpretation of this exchange given by Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: the Destruction of Experience (London: Verso, 1993).

49. For a recent restatement of this theory, see Ernesto Laclau, “Identity and Hegemony: The Role of Universality in the Constitution of Political Logics,” in: Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (Verso: London, 2000).

50. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, I, 465–467.

51. Ibid., 484.

52. Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party in The Marx-Engels Reader, 473.

53. On these facts, see Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir (New York: The New Press, 1993).

54. For another reading of Althusser’s return to Machiavelli see the important essay by Emmanuel Terray, “An Encounter: Althusser and Machiavelli” in: Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory, 257–277. Terray’s reading identifies Althusser’s claim that Marx lacks a theory of the state (ibid., 269), but he does not link this lack to its cause, namely, Marx’s unwillingness to think the political as self-constituting separation. This omission is perhaps due to the fact that in 1991, when Terray first presented his reading, the text of “Marx dans ses limites” was still unpublished.

55. In this sense, my reading of Althusser’s interpretation of Machiavelli diverges from the one adopted by Warren Montag according to which Althusser turns to Machiavelli (and Spinoza) in order to reject the “juridical ideology” of consent that lies at the basis of his account of ideological state apparatuses. See Warren Montag, “Beyond Force and Consent: Althusser, Spinoza, Hobbes,” in Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory, 95–97.

56. Althusser, Sur la reproduction, 295.

57. This new idea of the people has important affinities with the one recently developed by Jacques Rancière, for whom “there is politics inasmuch as the people refers to subjects inscribed as a supplement to the count of the parts of society, a specific figure of ‘the part of those who have no-part.’ Whether this part exists is the political issue and it is the object of political litigation.” (Jacques Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” Theory and Event 5:3 [2001], thesis 6).

58. This crucial remark appears in the 1976 “Notes sur les AIE.” The intimation that the true vocation of a communist party is to aid in the formation of a “democracy against the state” has been taken up, without reference to Althusser, in Miguel Abensour’s reading of Marx, La démocratie contre l’État: Marx et le moment Machiavéllien (Paris: PUF, 1997).

59. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, II, 46 and 50.

60. Ibid., 66.

61. Ibid., 54 and 59.

62. Ibid., 60.

63. Ibid., 61.

64. Claude Lefort, Le travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel (Paris: Gallimard, 1972). In the preface to “Machiavel et nous” Althusser praises Lefort: “I do not know of any other analysis as acute and intelligent. . . . I will say that I do not know of other commentaries of The Prince and The Discourses on Livy that go so far . . . in uncovering the turns of thought and of writing of Machiavelli.” (Althusser, “Machiavel et nous,” in Écrits philosophiques et politiques, II, 42).

65. On the character of social antagonism in Machiavelli, see the precious indications in Lefort, Le Travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel, 472–477; as well as Gérald Sfez, Machiavel, la politique du moindre mal (Paris: PUF, 1999). On the lack of self-identity in the concept of class struggle, see also Jacques Derrida, Marx and sons (Paris: PUF/Galilée, 2002).

66. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, II, 70.

67. For a systematic development of this difference, see Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

68. Ibid., 103.

69. On democracy as an “absolute” form of government, see Negri, Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State, 2; on the people as new prince, see ibid., 62–66 and 80–81.

70. On this interpretation of Machiavelli’s republicanism, see Miguel Vatter, Between Form and Event: Machiavelli’s Theory of Political Freedom (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000).

71. “For in every city these two diverse humors are found, which arises from this: that the people desire not to be commanded nor oppressed by the nobles, and the nobles desire to command and oppress the people. From these two distinct appetites one of three effects occurs in cities: principality or freedom or license.” (Machiavelli, The Prince, IX. Emphasis mine). And also: “Without doubt, if one considers the end of the nobles and of the ignobles, one will see great desire to dominate in the former, and in the latter only desire not to be dominated.” (Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I,5. Emphasis mine). Given his thematization of the people’s perspective, it is perplexing that Althusser never analyses the characteristics Machiavelli attributes to the people, above all their “desire not to be dominated.” As a consequence, the character of social antagonism, of which the people are a constitutive element, remains underdetermined in Althusser’s discourse.

72. On the relation between deconstruction and Marxism, see Derrida, Specters of Marx and Marx and sons. On the relationship between Derrida and Althusser, in particular, see “Politics and Friendship: An Interview with Jacques Derrida” in: The Althusserian Legacy, 183–231; as well as Althusser’s memoir.

73. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, II, 86.

74. Ibid., 96.

75. Ibid., 115.

76. Ibid., 135.

77. It is not surprising that the Roman constitutional development, as transmitted by Machiavelli’s analysis of it, was carefully studied (in order to be either applied, in the modern republican tradition, or rejected, in the monarchical tradition) by all of the theorists of the modern state. For the vicissitudes of this history of transmission, see J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975) and Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics, vols. 2 and 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

78. On the Roman system of authority, and the relation between beginning and duration of the state, one can profitably consult Hannah Arendt, “What is authority?” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin, 1977), as well as idem., On Revolution, ch.5, passim. For a different approach to Roman auctoritas see now Giorgio Agamben, L’état d’exception (Paris: Seuil, 2003).

79. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I, 9.

80. “So a prudent orderer of a republic, who has the intent to wish to help not himself but the common good, not for his own succession but for the common fatherland, should contrive to have authority alone; nor will a wise understanding ever reprove anyone for any extraordinary action that he uses to order a kingdom or constitute a republic. It is very suitable that when the deed accuses him, the effect excuses him; and when the effect is good, as was that of Romulus, it will always excuse the deed.” (Ibid.)

81. Ibid.

82. On the routinization of charisma, see Max Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 1121–22. In these passages Weber suggests that, in spite of their formal opposition, charisma and the process of routinization are at bottom connected by a common “religious” character: “The two basically antagonistic forces of charisma and tradition regularly merge with one another. . . . Both charisma and tradition rest on a sense of loyalty and obligation which always has a religious aura.” (Ibid.)

83. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I, 5; idem, The Prince, IX.

84> 84. 84> For one of the most lucid presentations of the ways in which a constituted power can be understood to fashion for itself, internally as it were, its own constitutent power, see the crucial essay by Pasquale Pasquino, “The constitutional republicanism of Emmanuel Sieyès” in: The invention of the modern republic, ed. B. Fontana (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 107–117.

85. Ernesto Laclau, “Identity and Hegemony,” in: Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, 44–59.

86. Laclau, “Structure, History and the Political,” ibid., 202–3.

87. Laclau, “Constructing Universality,” ibid., 301–306.

88. Zizek, “Class Struggle or Postmodernism? Yes, please!,” ibid., 90–101.

89. Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is no discussion of post-1971 texts of Althusser in the exchange between Zizek and Laclau.

90. For a clear statement, see Negri, Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State, 2–29.

91. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, II, 85.

92. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I, 4–6; idem., The Prince, IX.

93. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, III, 1.

94. For the classical narrative concerning this series of events, see Livy, Ab urbe condita, I, 58–60; II, 1–5.

95. Cicero, On the Commonwealth, 2, 14–15.

96. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, III, 1.

97. For Foucault one thinks of L’ordre du discours (1971); for Deleuze of Différence et Répetition (1968); for Derrida of De la Grammatologie (1967). For Althusser’s own presentation of his belated discovery of these discourses, see Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir.

98. For further discussions of Althusser’s “aleatory materialism,” see André Tosel, “Les aléas du matérialisme aléatoire dans la dernière philosophie de Louis Althusser,” Cahiers philosophiques 84, September 2000: 7–39; and Jean-Claude Bourdin, “The Uncertain Materialism of Louis Althusser,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, vol.22, n.1, 2000: 271–287.

99. It is striking that nowhere in this or other texts does Althusser point out that Machiavelli also has a specific theory of the encounter, which he terms riscontro. On this aspect of Machiavelli’s theory see Miguel Vatter, “Chapitre XXV du Prince: l’histoire comme effet de l’action libre,” in: Machiavel. Le Prince ou le nouvel art politique, eds. Yves Charles Zarka and Thierry Ménissier (Paris: PUF, 2001): 209–244.

100. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, II, 542.

101. For this employment of the term “no-rule” see Arendt, On Revolution, who employs it as a translation of isonomia. Agamben has argued for the need to think about possibility or power in non-Aristotelian terms, i.e., in a way that does not privilege the passage to actuality. See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 39–48. Referring to Agamben, Judith Butler has also re-read Althusser’s idea of “interpellation” in light of the problem of non-accomplishment. See Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 130–131. On the concept of “in-difference” and how it can be used to think the all-important difference between “beginning” and “foundation” see the indications found in Massimo Cacciari, Dell’Inizio (Milan: Adelphi, 1990), and in Reiner SchŸrmann, Des hégémonies brisées.

102. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, II, 542 and 566.

103. Ibid., 547.

104. For another approach to these themes in Althusser, see Francois Matheron, “The Recurrence of the Void in Louis Althusser,” Rethinking Marxism, vol. 10, no.3 (Fall 1998): 21–37.

105. The reflections on democracy that have been developed, in the recent past, by Jacques Rancière and Jacques Derrida are particularly significant in this context, also because they represent an Althusserian inheritance without testament.

106. Althusser, Écrits philosophiques et politiques, II, 560.

107. I would like to thank Bonnie Honig, Michael Pelias, and Linda Zerilli for their helpful comments on the early draft of this essay.

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