Lundi 27 mai 2013.
Université de Montpellier 3, site Saint Charles
Retrouvez la vidéo de cette conférence
En 1962-63, Althusser cherchait à démontrer la spécificité de la contradiction marxiste en la distinguant du modèle hégélien de l’évolution historique (ou de ce qui passait pour tel dans la tradition communiste). Présumant que le texte de Mao, Sur la contradiction, proposait une nouvelle manière de la penser, Althusser se tourna vers Lénine, le « philosophe officiel » des partis communistes, dont il trouvait le travail un peu « faible » et plus pratique que théorique.
Mais en relisant Contradiction et surdétermination aujourd’hui, on s’aperçoit qu’Althusser découvre tout l’opposé d’un penseur dogmatique, un Lénine, sinon « aléatoire », du moins à la recherche de nouveaux concepts, qui permettent pour le moins de saisir la surdétermination de l’évènement et l’immanence de la contradiction à la complexité même de la conjoncture.
Ni la nature ni l'histoire ne connaissent de miracles ; mais chaque tournant brusque de l'histoire, et notamment chaque révolution, offre une telle richesse de contenu, met en jeu des combinaisons si inattendues et si originales de formes de lutte et de rapports entre les forces en présence que, pour un esprit vulgaire, bien des choses doivent paraître miraculeuses.
Lénine, Lettres de loin
Althusser’s Lenin, that is, a patchwork Lenin, an assemblage built from bits and pieces of different texts, both “philosophical” (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and the Philosophical Notebooks), and political/practical (above all, his reflections on the revolutions of February and October 1917), has received little attention. In the Anglophone world (the case of the Francophone world is only slightly better), even the essays in which Althusser explicitly takes Lenin as his object, not only “Lenin before Hegel” but even “Lenin and Philosophy,” have never really been examined in detail and seldom appear even in the form of references or notes in scholarly treatments of Althusser. The case of his extended use of Lenin, specifically the Lenin of the period 1917-1921, in “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” is even more striking: his account of Lenin’s descriptions of the conjunction of conflicts that made the Russian Revolution not simply possible but necessary, are cited from time to time, but as if they offered a kind of raw material for theoretical or philosophical reflection rather than an example of such reflection. In fact, the role of Lenin in “Contradiction and Overdetermination” is often assumed to be that of a stand-in or place-holder for Mao whose “On Contradiction” Althusser legitimates by reading it not only as a continuation of Lenin’s reflections on historical contradiction, but an attempt to systematize them as the theoretical form of what in Lenin’s texts had remained in the “practical state.” For many of Althusser’s readers, Lenin, or rather one of the many Lenins “selected by the conjuncture” and employed for different and even opposing purposes, was always and necessarily a stand-in for other political theoreticians or philosophers, from Machiavelli and Spinoza to Mao, as if Lenin, for reasons that remain to be articulated, could not have been the proper object of Althusser’s reflections.
The question of Lenin’s significance is further complicated by Althusser’s fascination with what he called philosophical strategy (itself already a very Leninist conception). His sense from early in his philosophical career of both the inadequacy of “official Marxism” and the difficulty of transforming or displacing it, convinced him of the futility of a frontal assault or direct confrontation. The work of transformation instead required a strategy of infiltration. Thus, when Althusser identified the way in which Spinoza impersonated his enemies in order to gain access to and thus occupy their stronghold and to turn their own weapons against them, he undoubtedly sought to theorize his own practice of philosophy by means of Spinoza. Thus, Althusser’s Lenin emerges not simply as the name of an oeuvre or a political event, but as an institution and thus a place infiltrated and occupied, its weapons (concepts and modes of analysis) turned against the original and “rightful” occupants: a Leninist analysis of how the Leninist mode of analysis was taken over and placed in the service of institutions whose relation the existing order could only with difficulty be described as antagonistic, and therefore (to borrow Negri’s figure) a Lenin beyond Lenin.
Althusser’s repeated insistence on the strategic necessity of impersonation and disguise, of the fraud that, with force, was one of the cardinal virtues of war according to Hobbes, undoubtedly helped shape the way his own work was read. Critics accused him of advancing Spinoza disguised as Marx and, at nearly the same moment, as smuggling Marx into philosophy by packaging him as Spinoza. Even commentaries sympathetic to Althusser resorted to a sort of typological reading that often took the form of “in talking about X, he is really talking about Y,” which assumed that Althusser could not or would not speak directly about Y, insofar as the latter was understood to be the object of some kind of repression or exclusion, bearing a truth for which the world remained unprepared. Under such conditions, reading Althusser became above all an operation of translation: X equals Y (and theories X1 X2 X3= Y1 Y2 Y3, etc.).
I do not deny that there is some truth in this very Straussian reading of Althusser. Indeed, in the case of Lenin, Althusser’s correspondence would appear to support the idea that he sought, especially in the crucial years 1962-63, that is, from “Contradiction and Overdetermination” to “On the Materialist Dialectic,” use Lenin strategically to propose notions and concepts to an audience unprepared to accept them unless they could be attributed retrospectively to an authority of Lenin’s stature, as if the more unprecedented and perhaps subversive the ideas Althusser advanced, the greater the need to attach them to a foundational figure. But this is what Althusser intended to do, or at least said he intended to do, and not necessarily what he did: if a discussion of Lenin was intended to be merely a pretext, preceding and for a time obscuring the discussion that it served merely to facilitate, I want to argue that, in this case at least, the pretext deviates from the purpose it was introduced to serve, to become as important as what it conceals. If, as he himself avowed and others insisted, his texts are frequently, if not obsessively, marked by what we might call a logic of the stand-in (Lenin for Mao, Marx for Spinoza, or the reverse) at crucial points this logic by virtue of its very operation breaks down and gives way to usurpation, to a confusion of the impersonator and the impersonated, of stand-in and original actor. Thus, to follow Althusser’s constant strategic and tactical ruses and evasions, his use of philosophical fraud and disguise, is to enter a circle in which every stand-in stands in for another stand-in, constituting a chain of substitutions without origin or end. With this in mind, let us now follow Althusser into his infernal circle.
At the end of 1962, and therefore in the interval that separated “Contradiction and Overdetermination” from “On the Materialist Dialectic,” published in 1963, Althusser wrote to his correspondent, Franca Madonia, that he had been rereading Lenin in order to prepare his response to the critics of “Contradiction and Overdetermination:” “Je lis, (ou relis) des textes théoriques de Lénine, sur la philosophie. Dieu, que c’est faible. Je vérifie une nouvelle fois que Lénine, incomparable clinician politique, incomparable théoricien-pratique (au sens de la rélexion sur des situations concretes, de la réflexion sur des problèmes historiques concrets) est un faible théoricien dès qu’il s’élève au-delà d’un certain degree d’abstraction” (Franca 22-XII-62). What makes Lenin “faible” here is the fact that he remains a “théoricien-pratique,”according to Althusser, and that no matter how “incomparable” his “concrete analyses,” he cannot “rise beyond” or above the practical state to the degree of abstraction necessary to theory. A few sentences later, Althusser adds that when Lenin is doing theory or thinks he’s doing theory, “il ne fait que définir et énoncer des concepts pratiques, c’est à dire des concepts avec lesquels on mènera le combat au corps à corps, des concepts tactiques de défense immediate, de combat rapproché, de “close-combat” comme on dit . . . alors que la vraie théorie suppose autre chose que ces concepts tactiques, mais des perspectives proprement et théoriques, et “strategiques.” The fact that Lenin engaged in practice, not theoretical practice, but its opposite, practical theory that is, practice disguised as theory when in fact it has subordinated what is properly theoretical, that is, the abstraction philosophy requires, to the accomplishment of immediate, tactical, objectives, might once have been necessary, but its effect on “la tradition officielle de la philosophie marxiste” is now profoundly negative. The difficulty at this point, that is, the end of 1962, lies not in explaining this fact, “mais à faire l’ accepter.” To attempt to do so is to risk provoking the defensive reactions of “un système qui n’est pas seulement d’ordre théorique, mais en meme temps institutionnel, ou un stimulus determinant une conduit.”
I want to make two observations on what is admittedly an early assessment of Lenin’s relation to philosophy, but which is nevertheless interesting and above all surprising.
1) These criticisms, although less explicitly aimed at Lenin, will appear in “On the Materialist Dialectic,” written a few months later. In fact, it now appears that Althusser’s “first” definition of philosophy, a definition that seeks to protect philosophy (and its privileged relation to the sciences) from the contamination of the political, that is, not simply from the attempts by the PCF to impose an “official philosophy” on its adherents, but even from the combat that is constitutive of politics itself, represents an initial “distance prise” from Lenin’s positions. To free philosophy from the imperatives imposed by the struggle in its immediacy, that is, the ever-changing adjustment of tactics in a war that postpones the construction of a theory, even a theory of Marxism, to the time of peace that will never come, Althusser must raise it to a level of abstraction beyond the close combat in which Lenin, using every weapon at his disposal in a struggle whose boundaries could not be fixed in advance, did not hesitate to engage the enemy even on the terrain of philosophy itself. It is at this moment that Althusser will distance philosophy from the exigencies of political practice by introducing the distinction between Theory, “theory” and theory. Althusser defines theory as “une forme spécifique de la pratique,” “theorie (entre guillemets)” as “le système théorique déterminé d’une science réelle,” the concepts by which it reflects upon the results of its own practice, and “Theorie (majuscule)” as “la théorie générale, c’est-à-dire, la Theorie de la pratique en générale, elle-même élaborée a partir de la Théorie des pratiques théoriques existantes (des sciences), qui transforment en “connaissances” (verities scientifiques), les produits idéologiques des pratiques “empiriques” (l’activité concrete des hommes) existantes.” Althusser’s decision to preserve the word theory, altered only by purely graphic, and therefore unpronounceable distinctions, had the effect (although this is not its only effect) of uniting the different notions of theory in the form of a hierarchical succession whose apogee would be Theory, raised by the majuscule as well as by its “generality” above the theoretical practice of the sciences, which are in turn elevated by their practice above the ideological products of the empirical practices or concrete activity of men. The letter to Madonia allows us to see the extent to which Althusser’s first definition of philosophy is not simply a “theoreticist” (or rationalist) error as he would later say, but represents an attempt actively to deny, not simply its political character, but more importantly the extent to which philosophy participates in social and political struggle.
2) While it is well-known that Althusser rather quickly renounced the definition of philosophy advanced in “On the Materialist Dialectic” which would thus represent an early stage in his thought, it is worth noting that within a few years Althusser would repeat the very propositions he attributes to Lenin, not as negative examples of philosophy held captive by politics, but precisely as the only adequate description of what philosophy does, especially when it denies its political dimension. But can Althusser’s development be understood as a linear succession of coherent and theoretically consistent stages without unevenness or conflict? To do so would in fact be to declare him the exception to the rule that there are only exceptions (“le grande loi de l’inegalité ne souffre aucune exception”), that philosophy lives and moves on the basis of its internal conflicts, the contradictions that animate it and bring it to life, imposed by its immanence in the struggles that traverse social life. “Lenin” then might be understood as the name of the contradiction proper to Althusser’s reflection on contradiction, the structure inherent in its dispersion and its perpetual deviation from itself. In this sense, the struggle for or against Lenin, a struggle obscured by Althusser’s apparent attempt not to appear to criticize Lenin in his published texts, apparent because it is never clear that his Lenin is Lenin and not a stand-in or substitute for another figure (individual or collective) or whether his analysis is positive or negative. This obscurity is internal to Althusser and his project, the effect rather than the cause of its conflictuality: it thus may be said to be constitutive.
In order to put these hypotheses to the test, we must grasp them or the phenomena they concern, in “the practical state,” the discursive forms they take in Althusser’s texts. We might start by returning to the Lenin of “Contradiction and Overdetermination” to see if he is indeed the mere practitioner (or “clinician” to cite Althusser’s striking phrase) who diagnoses and treats the contradictions of the “current situation” or conjuncture as it presents itself to him without understanding it through its causes or producing a general theory of historical contradiction. It is worth recalling here that the criticisms directed at Althusser’s 1962 essay, namely that it advanced a pluralist, “hyperempiricist” conception of the social whole that rendered its essential unity unthinkable and had jettisoned the motor force of history, the contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production, were in fact, although none of the concerned parties would say so, responses less to what Althusser himself said than to his citations from Lenin, particularly from the Lettres de Loin. It was as if, through Althusser’s Communist critics, the official philosophy of Communism, supposedly founded by and in Lenin, was defending itself against Lenin’s own words:
Si la révolution a triomphé si vite et - en apparence, pour qui se contente d'un coup d'œil superficiel - d'une manière si radicale, c'est uniquement parce que, en raison d'une situation historique d'une extrêmeoriginalité, des courants absolument différents, des intérêts de classe absolument hétérogènes, des tendances politiques et sociales absolument opposées se sont fondus avec une «cohésion» remarquable.
This is hardly surprising given that Lenin in his own way sought to impress upon his comrades and potential allies the utter inadequacy of the notion, central to the theory and practice of the Second International, that the apparent diversity of the historical moment could be understood as a series of emanations from this central contradictionwhich had not yet matured into revolution. For Althusser, Lenin’s insistence on the “absolutely different” and “the absolutely heterogeneous” currents whose very conjunction produced an explosion was driven by the pressing need to move the revolutionary forces from a philosophical/theoretical heritage that had hardened into “dogma,” to a theory that could serve as a guide to action by making intelligible that balance of forces and the concatenation of antagonisms in which the Bolsheviks had to intervene with “clinical”exactitude. The citation of Lenin’s words served simultaneously, however, to repudiate the theoretical culture secreted by the official institutions of Western European Communism in 1962 and their tendential imitation of the very Social Democratic parties Lenin criticized at the dawn of the twentieth century. Althusser, by presenting these key passages, routinely overlooked by the official philosophers, has essentially played his Lenin against the mythical figure of Communist hagiography, citing text against text, to call into question not simply the theoretical errors that follow from the notion of a “simple historical contradiction,” but its political effects as well. The assault on the theoretico-political fortress entailed certain risks, however, and Althusser had leaped into a philosophical void called “le concept marxiste de la contradiction,” the abyss before which “le développement philosophique du marxisme” had come to a halt.
However, as he himself said, there is no “coin vide en philosophie” and thus in a footnote Althusser introduces Mao’s “On Contradiction” as offering a theory of historical contradiction that is in its essence foreign to the Hegelian conception as Althusser has described it. In Mao’s text, the law of uneven or unequal development disrupts all the categories of the Hegelian dialectic, above all the idea of a single contradiction, whose opposing terms are identical, of which every aspect of the historical totality would be the phenomena and would thus be reducible to the center from everything radiates. Mao begins his operation of decentering by importing inequality into the contradiction itself, declaring its terms unequal—a principle and a secondary aspect—an unequally related to each other. His materialization of what are in Hegel necessarily spiritual aspects of contradiction into forces, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, might appear crude in certain respects, but the contradiction between them can never be understood as an identity of opposites susceptible to a fusion into one term. Equilibrium or equality between these aspects could only be a temporary effect of their inequality or, more precisely, of the active antagonism that joins them in battle.
A contradiction thus understood cannot produce or reproduce itself in what would be the phenomena of its essence. The central contradiction is not only disrupted and disturbed, but displaced, leaving the center empty, and permitting a constant alternation of contradictions. The one divides into two: at any given moment there exist a principle contradiction one the one hand and the set of secondary contradictions on the other. Further, the precise relations between the aspects even of the principle contradiction are subject to constant variability: determined by the interaction between all the contradictions that comprise a specific situation, the opposites in struggle in every contradiction are not necessarily antagonistic, that is, in open, irreversible conflict. While there is always contradiction, not every contradiction is antagonistic or explosive. As in the case of Lenin, Mao’s immediate objective was to move the party from dogma to a theory able to guide its actions. The “dogmatists” in the period 1935-1937 vehemently rejected the position advocated by Mao that their struggle could only be advanced by entering into a patriotic, anti-imperialist united front with the Guomindang, the party of the “national bourgeoisie,” whose army had waged relentless war against the Communist Party and the Red Army. Mao’s response was to deliver a lesson in the theory of contradiction that destabilized it and set into motion a multiplicity of contradictions, any one of which might be, in a given conjuncture, the principle or determinant contradiction, while the others remained secondary. Similarly, only a concrete analysis of the concrete situation could reveal to the party which contradictions were composed of forces locked in antagonism and which were, always only temporarily, non-antagonistic and capable of temporary unity.
Althusser’s note, while acknowledging that Mao’s sketch of contradiction “apparaît sous un jour étranger à la perspective hégélienne,” concludes by exposing in the form of a paradox its two weaknesses: it remains at once both “descriptive” and “abstract.” In fact, the exposition of Mao’s theory of contradiction might well be understood as a striking an example of what Althusser condemns in Lenin: the elaboration of a “tactical concept,” or concepts whose emergence and function was fundamentally practical: to shift the direction of the Chinese Communist Party toward a united front with the Guomindang against Japanese Imperialism. Were the distinctions between primary and secondary and antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions separable from the specific struggles Mao used them to describe, that is, could they rise to the level of generality proper to theory as Althusser understands it in his letter to Madonia?
At the same time that it does not rise above the level of description, Mao’s theory, “à certains égards,” and “en partie” is “abstract,” presenting the problem of contradiction in terms that would seem to pertain to a general dialectic of history rather than to the specificity of the Marxist conception of contradiction. While Althusser notes the apparent incompatibility of the terms of his critique of Mao, he makes no effort here or elsewhere to resolve or explain it. His brief summary of “On Contradiction,” however, is highly suggestive. In this short note, he reduces the theory to a set of relations between three binary oppositions: “contradiction principale et contradiction secondaire: aspect principale et aspect secondaire de la contradiction; contradictions antagonistes et non-antagoniste,” all governed by “le loi de l’inégalité de developpement des contradictions.” Althusser’s account of Mao is thus a structuralist and even formalist theory of contradiction in which history invariably presents itself in the invariant forms of each aspect of contradiction. A given historical moment in can only be understood as the actualization of a set of possible forms: e.g., principle or secondary (contradiction or aspect of a contradiction), antagonistic or non-antagonistic. All of history can be read through the grid of these oppositions, which alone give coherence and intelligibility to a particular conjuncture. It can be applied indifferently to any epoch, mode of production or social formation and moreover offers the kind of theory that, despite Mao’s own phrases (*****), can be learned and applied by rote. From this system, there emerges a theory of contradiction not as a spiritual identity of opposites whose essence pervades the material world which is never more than the form of the concealment that precedes the time when we will see face to face, but instead as a system arising from the allotment of its unequal and dissymmetrical roles or positions.
Interestingly, no one more clearly understood the implications of Althusser’s note than Alain Badiou writing more than a decade later. In his very anti-Althusserian text Théorie de la contradiction (1975), he articulated the silences of Althusser’s brief note very precisely to describe and then immediately reject the reading of Mao’s “On Contradiction” inherent in Althusser’s summary. As if speaking à la cantonnade, responding to an objection never voiced in his text, Badiou takes great care to warn the reader that Mao’s theory, which might mistakenly be read as a logic of pre-given places into which competing parties are distributed, as if to read Mao in 1960s France was to translate the theory of contradiction into a synchronic order of places or roles, something like a syntax of history, is in fact a theory of forces: “la pensée de la contradiction ne consiste pas à redouble la systéme des places par une estimation structurale (combinatoire) des forces. Le processus est essentiallement dissymétique, d’une disymmétrie non schématisable, parce qu’elle est qualitative” ( 93). But what in Mao’s text is not useful for developing the Marxist theory of contradiction, and perhaps even threatens to take it backwards by its apparent resemblance to structuralist inquiries in the social sciences, will prove effective in warding off the attacks (primarily from within the Marxist camp) on the “pluralism”and “hyper-empiricism”of Althusser’s notion of the overdetermined contradiction.
Mao’s theory of contradiction thus serves Althusser in a double capacity: it both provides an “official” alternative to if not a critique of the simplicity of the Hegelian notion of contradiction, and the reassurance that to complicate this simple notion, to insist on the irreducible complexity and heterogeneity of contradiction, is not automatically to fall into what Althusser himself would later call the reign of the aleatory. The brief note serves in a sense to introduce Lenin in “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” as if Lenin, despite being Mao’s predecessor in a chronological sense, is his successor in the temporality proper to theory and, more specifically, the theory of contradiction. Here, the form of the Hegelian contradiction, what Althusser calls (with a certain audacity) its simplicity, a simplicity that will survive even its “materialist” transformation, so that contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production becomes by itself the motor of history and its center, all other contradictions being its phenomena and thus reducible to it, divides into two. Mao takes his distance from Hegel by showing that the simplicity of the single beautiful contradiction understood as an identity of opposites can itself only be the effect of the operation of a set of oppositions whose terms cannot be understood as identical but unequal and dissimilar: principle and secondary, contradiction and antagonism, antagonistic and non-antagonistic.
When Althusser turns to Lenin, the foundation and center of the official tradition from which he hopes to escape unnoticed, “tenter de réfléchir un instant sur le concept marxiste de la contradiction,” he does so, he tells us at his “risques et perils.” What is the risk in (re)turning to Lenin, a figure all the more important to party apparatuses as he is, to use own Althusser’s phrase from 1967, regarded as a philosophical non-entity, ignored, if not despised by philosophers, including Marxist philosophers of every school and tendency, beginning with Althusser himself, at least according to his own testimony? What follows in Althusser’s text shows very clearly that the peril he faces does not lie in the fact that he will criticize Lenin for not being the philosopher he should have been, but that he precisely will not do so, that he will instead reflect on Lenin’s own reflections on the precise nature of the contradiction that produced or determined the Russian Revolution in 1917. This is what Althusser meant when he spoke of “philosophical adventure:” to set aside the “morceaux choisis” that passed for Lenin, to follow Lenin’s words à la lettre without knowing in advance where they might lead, like an explorer in an unknown world. What constitutes the risk of reading Lenin, then, is precisely the risk of entering an unknown world that we did not know was unknown, a world we assumed we knew and could not know that we didn’t know it until we actually entered it to experience a kind of philosophical unheimlichkeit. If we in turn follow Althusser as he follows Lenin, we will be led to the question to which, along the way, he silently points like someone tracking his prey and which it is left to us to articulate: does anything in Lenin’s reflections resemble what we have thus far understood as contradiction?
Althusser’s discussion of Lenin’s contribution to the Marxist theory of contradiction begins not with a quick summary of the theoretical abstractions necessary to analysis, but precisely in the realm of practice, the level from which Lenin had such difficulty rising. In fact, it is not simply the realm of practice, but more specifically, the realm of combat. Referring to Machiavelli’s Art of War and Vauban’s Two treatises (Traité de l‘attaque des places et Traité de la defense des places), Althusser argues that Lenin, who had no choice but to master the arts of both advance and retreat, attack and defense, learned that strategy begins with the ability to discover “le point faible, le maillon faible ou le defaut” in either the system of defense or attack. While such a theory clearly served Lenin well in determining the correct tactics for bringing about and defending the revolution, Althusser insists that the theory of the weak link also provided the means of explaining the fact or event of the revolution. Yes, Russia was the weak link in the system of imperialist states, politically and economically backward and little prepared for the war it had so confidently entered. The war brought enormous suffering for both combatants and non-combatants alike but it had found and brought to light and not created the “weakness” of the weak link. Its weakness “résultait de ce trait spécifique: l’accumulation et l’exaspération de toutes les contradictions historiques alors possibles en un seul état (PM 94). As if to underscore the importance of this proposition, Althusser will repeat the phrase “accumulation et exaspération de toutes les contradictions historiques” one page later. And it does not appear possible to enumerate all the contradictions, as if their number exceeds the requirement of his argument and would overwhelm his account of the conditions of possibility of the Russian revolution. In fact, it appears that the sheer number of contradictions is less important than their aggregation or addition (Althusser uses the verbs “accumuler” and “cumuler”) which he links to the exasperation of these contradictions as if the intensity of the opposing forces increases as they are added together.
If Althusser appears at certain points to have proposed a purely quantitative notion of contradiction, such that every contradiction is equivalent to and commensurable with every other, as if they could be added and subtracted, multiplied and divided, he will turn to Lenin’s words to reintroduce the element of incommensurability proper to any revolutionary situation. To the “accumulated” contradictions which from this point on seem less like an addition than a conjunction or an encounter that takes (qui prend) between dissimilar things, Lenin insists must be added “des évenements, d’autres circonstances “exceptionelles,” inintelligibles en dehors de cet “enchevêtrement” des contradictions intérieure et extérieure de la Russie” (95). Here enchevêtrement (in English, “entanglement”) has replaced or perhaps more accurately qualified and specified the sense of accumulation to describe how a great number of contradictions are joined or fused together, without thereby losing their singularity, and in their proximity produce an effect. But the effect of revolution, of rupture, as Althusser will say, with the existing system both internal and external to Russia requires beyond the contradictions between opposing forces an encounter with “exceptional events and circumstances,” precisely what Lenin would describe as so rare as to appear miraculous.
Althusser’s Lenin is far from Hegel indeed, far from the notion of the historical contradiction and its phenomena and just as far from assigning contradictions to the hierarchy of places in a given historical moment: only a concept borrowed from Freud, a practical concept appropriated as a kind of weapon in the heat of a struggle over theory that is also necessarily a struggle within theory, will allow Althusser not to supply the theory that Lenin’s descriptions lacked, but to read in them the theory they already have. Freud’s “overdetermination” does nothing more but also nothing less than make visible the terms and even concepts of Lenin’s theory of contradiction, better understood as an enchevêtrement or entanglement of lines, a knot or node (noeud) through which alone the central contradiction between labor and capital must be “activated. ” The entangelement allows “une accumulation de “circonstances” et de “courants” telle que, qu’elle qu’en soit l’origine et le sens (et nombre d’entre eux sont necessaireiment, par leur origine et par leur sens, paradoxalement étrangers, voire “absolument opposés” à la revolution),” to fuse “en une unité de rupture” (PM 98). This represents his reading of the following remarkable passage in “Lettres de loin:” Si la révolution a triomphé si vite et - en apparence, pour qui se contente d'un coup d'œil superficiel - d'une manière si radicale, c'est uniquement parce que, en raison d'une situation historique d'une extrême originalité, des courants absolument différents, des intérêts de classe absolument hétérogènes, des tendances politiques et sociales absolument opposéesse sont fondus avec une «cohésion» remarquable.
To say that the central contradiction of capitalism must be “activated” as a contradiction means that it does not exist before or outside of the conjunction of absolutely different, incommensurable and heterogeneous “currents” and “tendencies,” not even stable “elements” or forces, but movements, tendencies, and flows whose “unity,” “fusion” or “merger” constitutes a “unité de rupture” that is, in actu, as if only a specific combination necessarily unknown in advance can produce historical fission. The fact that Althusser would later return to these themes under the banner of aleatory materialism does not compel us to assign his reflections in 1962 to the category of prolepsis or anticipation, as if the later were superior to the earlier. In fact, in defending Lenin, as much against the criticisms he himself makes in his correspondence as against Mury and co., against precisely the charge that his “analyses” are nothing more than lists or inventories of “factors” which do not inscribe them in the logic that must determine their appearance and function, Althusser advances a phrase whose meaning he is not prepared in 1963 fully to determine and from which he will retreat: Lenin is the theoretician of “the structure of the conjuncture.”
The name Lenin will soon, within a decade, give way to that of Machiavelli, that other philosopher of the conjuncture, but not before Lenin’s practical concepts are set to work within philosophy itself. Invoking Lenin against the pretensions of philosophers who seek to theorize theory or adjudicate its conflicts, Althusser seemed to confine philosophy to the non-existence of le rien philosophique, to a pure immanence in a line “qui n’est meme pas une ligne, pas meme un trace, mais le simple fait de se démarquer, donc le vide d’une distance prise.” The conjuncture thinking itself in its conflictuality and dispersion, as if philosophy were the line that marks its conflicts and their enchevêtrement, the rationality that reflects on it or produces effects of reflection only insofar as it is in the knot upon which it reflects, the continuous surface that is its other side. Here in these early texts, at the beginning of Althusser’s philosophical adventure, it was Lenin who showed the way forward, Lenin, known as a dogmatist, who paradoxically abandoned himself to the entanglement of the conjuncture, into which in a certain sense he disappeared. That Althusser could only follow him part of the way was certainly the effect of his own conjuncture in which the power to think ebbed and flowed with the power to act.