5

Structural Causal ity,
Overdetermination,
and Antagonism
Etienne Bali bar
Some timc ago, a very rich and interest ing volume was dedi cated by some
Italian sc holars and ac tivists to the " Ma rxism of Lou is Althusscr " (Giacomett i
et al. IYll6). At a time when the very name of Althusser see med to he
complete ly forgott en (more likely it was carefully rep ressed), thi s was the first
attempt to show that some of the original questions di scu ssed by Althusser in
the tield of Ma rxi st theory had not reall y been addressed . I bel ie ve that
Althu sscrs concepts are st ill provocative for contemporary phil osoph y. 1 also
believe that many of those who today clai m that Mar xism is outdated can do
so only because they pret end to ignor e the ques tions raised by Althusser -
questions that, in their own way, took Mar xism beyond the traditional road s of
"orthodoxy" and " revisionism:' It is only too easy for many of our co ntempo-
rarie s to redu ce the history of Marxism to these rather exhausted figures.
I am not a rep resent ati ve of "the Althusse rian School"-for the si mple
reason that that school never existed as such. Therefore, I have no intenti on to
di scr iminate among var ious, often co ntradictory readin gs of Althu sser 's work .
What I wa nt to do is to jo in the discussion by trying 10 revisi t some notions
that seem to me to encaps ulate the more central and therefore also more
problemat ic aspect s of his legacy.
As I sai d, there was nothing like an Althusser ian "school," with :1 more or
less unified doct rine. a research program. or an instit utional frame (like the
This paper is a revised and enlarged version of my cont ribut ion to the co llec ti ve volume If
marxism» di LOI/;,I ' ,II ,IIII.I·.I ('r (1990). with paper s hy Maria Giacomelli. Grahame Lock . Fili ppo
Poglia ni. Pn. ' vc' , Mar ia Tu n.h cuo.
109
110 Totality, Causality, and Explanat ion Bal ibar: Struc tural Causa lity II I
Fra nkfurt Sc hoo l or. in other disciplines , the Annales School and to some
extent also the "Analytica l Marx ism" school today) . What existed was, rath er,
a series of pe rsonal collaborations, each lasti ng a longer or shor ter period of
time according to the ind ividuals involved, and thi s makes it difficult for those
who were involved to have an objective view of Althusscrs contribution.
There is in Alt husscrs epistemo logy an el ement- of cle ar Freudian or igin-
that can serve here as a warni ng. Th e " letter" of Althusser's te xts is ce rta inly
very differe nt from the self- interpretations (including his self-c riticis ms) that
the author himself proposed . It is rea sonable to expect that ot her readers, who
arc serious and accurate but were not part of (if not unt ouched by) the
int ctlectual adven ture of the autho r, will be in a better position to clarify "what
Al rhusse r reall y thou ght" and to di scuss how his work can possibly be
trans formed and ca rried on further today. What Althusscr "thought" is, of
course, not what he "wanted to think." It is what he act ually wrot e, with all the
contradictions and apo rias of the written text, whi ch we may call its "uncon -
sc ious": nei ther a subje ctive key to be unr ave led nor a mystical sec ret behind
the door but an objective meaning to be produced by mea ns of a symptomatic
readin g. However, eve n if there are these obstacl es, there is no interdiction to
prevent me from proposin g some tracks for the di scussion .
Theoretical Pract ice in t he Conjuncture
The spec ific point on whi ch I want to resume the old debates is structural
caus alitv. But given Althu sser 's "self-critical" remark s on structuralism , a
prel imina ry reflection is inescapable. It see ms to me that when Althusser in his
lirs! matur e writings tried to give a definition of this conceptual conj unction,
placing it at the very heart of his readi ng of Marx, he was not moved by " pure"
phi losophical reasons. What pushed him in that direct ion was an ac ute aware-
ness of the "current" cri sis of Marxism, which found few equivale nts in his
lifet ime. Admitted ly, the expression "cris is of Marxi sm" is oft en used in too
facile a way, whi ch deprives it of any rea l critical effe ct. But thi s should not
prevent us from unde rstanding it in a more serious way. Th e cris is of Marxism
is not hing new; in its modern form it has ex isted at least since the 1930s.
which means that even a theoreti cian like Gramsci can be understood ;;-nly
against its background. We should also understand that the cris is of Mar xism
:, inseparably polit ical and theoretical. But the theoret ica l crisis is roo ted in
Marx' s own original problema tic: in his basic concepts and in the opposi te
tradition s that deri ve from the cont radic tions in his thcory.
I am certainly not claimi ng that Althusser is more profound than or goe s
beyond Gramsc i in his atte mpted resolut ion of the crisis of Marx ism. But I
think that, compa red with Gramsci-and no doubt owi ng to his coming a
generation later and in a different cultural env iron ment -Althusser gai ned a
superior de gree of lucidity on the ph ilosophical side of the que st ion ., Wh at tie J
under stood' is' that, to come out of the crisis with out destroying Mar xism, it is
in some sense necessary to cr oss the boundari es of Marxi sm itsel f. It is
necessary to extri ca te oneself not on ly from the Marxi st ort hodoxy, not on ly
from the conflic ts between right and left currents of Marxism. but above all
from the probl ematic of Mar x as he himsel f understood it, from Mar x's
philosophical self-consciousness . In the beginning. this idea of Althu sser;s
took t he well -known '(iind j1{itly debated ) thesis of a line of demarcation
between the phil osophical co nsci ous ness of the "young Mar x" and the politi -
ca l and sci entific consciousness of the "matu re Marx." The pol emi cs concen-
trated mainly around thi s for mulation, thc famous "break" in Mar x' s intellec -
tual evolution. But as Costanzo Prcve has co rrec tly observed, I ' Althusser
himsel f clearl y indicated that the " line" of demarcati on between the Marx who
is not yet Mar x and the Mar x who is already Marx cannot be found cmpiri-
" ca lly, as a simpl e date. It existed . rather . as an inne r. theoretical tension. -::
I Marx' s conceptual tho ugh!:the'rc"fore, found a stable
ever, stabil itiis a requ irement ofany "systematic" in and
philosophy: that is why Marx needed to invent a figure of stability, that is, he
needed to imagine it, amid the conditions of his time. It was to this imagi nary
stable figure , or problematic, that the name " histori ca l Inateriali sm" wa s
finall y given: - " _
initia l idea, then . was that it had become necessary to provide
Mar x' s thought wi th a coherence it could not reac h originally. A complete
recas ting of the basic conce pts was necessary, which meant maki'n-g their
, phil osophica l prerequi sites e xplic it and at the same time correcting them on
cruclal 'polnts. Th is would lead Alt husser to oppose what Marx himself had
Wiltteii-andthought. in order to develop the material ist tendency that is the
origi nal part of his work . No do ubt this strategy put Althusser on a dange rou s
path. But perhaps on ly dange rou s pat hs ca n allow us to ove rcome the cris is of
Marxism without destr oying it. The idea was Althusscr 's way of ant icipating
the coming effec ts of the crisis of Marxism wit hout engaging a simple
liquidat ion of Mar x's theoretical and politi cal legacy. Rut this is al so clearly
an idea di fficult to formulat e in a rigorous and demonstra tive mode. We
should not exclude the possibilit y that Althusser himsel f did not achieve a full
consciousness of it and a clear understanding of what it imp lied.
To this we mu st add that , qu ite obvious ly, the pol itical conj uncture- "over-
determined" the si tuation. It is not ce rta in that the ef fect was posit ive in every
l . Costanzo Prcvc, " La ricostruzionc dcl marxismo fra lilosofia e scicnza : Un pcrcorso di
reflessionc dalla rivoluzionc epistcmologica di Loui s Althusscr alia nfondazi onc filosofica di
Gyorgy Lukacs ," in Gia comelli ct aL. ( 19X6. X7- 14}\.
2. Cr. Mar ia Turchet to, "Per la critica di uri' autocr itica: riflessioni suI signi fica te di ' tilosotia. '
'sc ienza.' ' ideologia ' ncll' claboruzione teor ica di Louis Althusscr,' in Giacomelli et al. ( l9Rei).
-
-
113
-
Bal ibar: Structural Causal ity
-
Structural Causality and the Dilemmas of "Change"
I can now address the que stion of "s tructural ca usality." It should be cle ar
right from the beginning that , with respect to this questi on, Althu sser followed
a path that progressivel y shifted the emphasi s from an epistemological prob-
personal experience, which in fact was shared by a whole generati on, Al-
I drew the conc lusion that, if the solution is difficult t!' achi eve inside
I the" existi ng organi zations, it would be pract icall y impossible outside any.
) orgamzation and inst itution.
- He nce,-i"he second point : on "science. " We ca n observe that Althu sser was
moving in the directi on of a critique of any positivi st conce ption of sei ence -
including those forms of positi vi sm that are still influencing the traditi on
of critical rati onali sm, notabl y, in France, the tradition of Bachel ardian
epistemology - of which a linear ordering of theory and practi ce (or an
understanding of practice as "applied theor y") is an essential part . This cr itica l
orientation, as I reca lled, was clear in hi s "new definiti on" of phil osoph y as
"class struggle in theory. " At the same time, the pressur e of eve nts in France
and the world pushed him (like others) toward a radi cal critique of those forms
of working-class organization that came from the Second and Th ird Intema-
. tionals. Neverth eless. he could never make up his mind to aba ndon these ;
I and party or o.rganittr-. _ .
l
tion. No C10UDt he was convinced that , m the current mtell ectual con uncture,
tOJetllson these telms wmrr a e rocfii'CCd""1ii'iiY'Sif lcatlOn, the illusion of an
imaginary 'satisfaction, not a liberat ion from do 'mati sm. ._-
a co nsequence . Althusser co nfronted the crisis of Marxism with untime-
ly fomlUlations. It was not wit hout consequences. regarding both hi s rela tions
'With the academi c institution (on the side of "science") and his rel ations wi th
the French Communist Part y (on the side of polit ical "organization") . :rhe
result was a schizophrenic situation, in whi ch , altl].\.l..uglJ criticizin almost
I p. 'cl ottli" ' pi-a'cti ' ommull ist organization and the functi on-
i ing of the bourgeoi s academic institution, ' w u ule
necessity to remain a member of the organization and to work in the inst itu-
ti n. woulO ce rtai nly agree that such a schizophrel1lc snuatron Imposed
... limitations on Althu sser 's endeavor to overcome the crisis of Marxi sm.
But it is also an aspect of histor ical (Machiave llian) " materialism" on which
we must reflect. Maybe we can displ ace these limi tations ourselves, accordi ng
to the new co ndi tions we face, but we cannot hope to remove the necessity to
cope with the constraints of the inst itution as such. The logic of historical
practi ce is a logic of coincidcn tia oppositorum, in other words. a logic of
finitude.
Totality, Causality, and Explanation 112
respe ct; witness the discussion of "cl ass strugg le in theory. " Still. the political
backgro und was not simply a negat ive factor. I have no doubt that Allhusser
would not have reached clarity on his obj ectives if he had not been immersed
in this conj uncture. if he had not been submitted to the shocks it produced
from all sides . However. when he tried to rect ify what he ca lled his -
J
" theoreticism" - tiiai"is-;-'hisseparaliOh-of "tI1eoretlcal p; aZtice" and' ;:pOlitical ;
practice" (therefore, also, ilis descr ipt fon of-an -exremu( opposition' between
"s cience" and "i deology' tj-s- he could not escape to some' extent hi;/";; 'illg"his'
own decisi ve break with epi stemological relativi sm and histor icism. rei.:lf
'trodlieing a "class determination" of the :" line's of demarcat ion iil theor y" tlmt)
could he read in a sociological rnanne r.? The pol itical conjuncture led AI-
thusser himself to do what. in the preface to For Marx. he h;,d defined as the
worst possible thing for any theoretician, namel y. to react to certain quest ions
in the very language in whic h they are pose d, to reply in a symmetric manner
to interrogat ions and pressur es either from individuals, from the ideological
environment , or from the organizations to whic h one belongs.
In this respect, Althusser was indeed in a very delicate situation. squeezed
between the Communist Part y and the group of young French Maoists, in
which he saw two disjo int members of the Intemational Communist Move-
ment. which had bee n split by history. was not so much PlaYing l
a "double game" between them (as he was acc used of t as trying to maiii1i!f n
rela tionships with both sides in order to prepare the ir reunification through
"theoretical intervention." These reasons, so it seems to me. allow us to
understand the ambiguity that many reader s saw in Alt husscrs texts. when he
started "correcting" his posit ions. The di fficul ties arc conce ntrated in two
clearly related points: the question of "organ ization" and the quest ion of
"scie nce ."
- (}n 'iY;e flrst point, let lTI e say that All husser-ri htl or wron ' l - never
aba;ldoned the idea that the ca pital islllJ-2L-
proletarian oliti . be or anized. Ther efore, to some extern it must be
institutionalized. Without an organization. . the proletari at is disar med and
powerless. not only because it lacks the strength given by the concentration of
forces against the state but especially because it is deprived of any possibility
of achieving a real " fusion" wi th theory. Now, for the workers to personall y
establish links with theory is obvi ously very difficu lt in the "revolutionary"
organizations that we know or knew, because they tend to reproduce internally
exactly the same forms of division bet ween " intellec tual" and "manual" labor.
the same socio logica l distance between the intell ectuals or the scie ntists and
the workers, that we find everywhere in class society. Neverthe less , from his
114 Totality, Causality, and Explanation Balibur: Structural Causa lity 115
lcrn to a political one and finally to a question regarding social and histori cal
ontology." Was this shifting merel y speculative? Althusscr started with a 'J
\ concept of "s tructural ca usality" that add ressed an
, i' he, i "hc t'hai the implica ilorls '
'-- questi ons as ked in this general framework (notabi;' 'tile the consti-
uni on of the subj ect as it was posed in the paper on Ideological St ate
Apparatuses) revealed an eve n more deci sive subst ratum: the ontological
questi on of the individual and of transindividual structures .
In my view. this was not a process of mechani cal disp lace ments. Thro ugh
successive rectifications. a principal preoccupat ion remained as a guiding
thread. Essent ial clements are preserved. to be ex pressed in a new guise. But
the question of structural ca usality remained at the hea rt of Althussers init ial
epis temological enterprise. his new reading of Capital. Everyone agrees on
this point. But this reading of Capital did not aim at introducing a new
Erkcnntnisthcorie, another scientific methodol ogy. It had a more ambitious
goal. Althusser was ex plicit that his proje ct was to ex press the origina lity of
the co ncept of histor ical movement. which is the real content of the revolu -
tionary " break" achieved by Marx . It was not a question of simply describing
the di scursi ve forms or the scientific methods of exp ositi on and verific ation. as
a theory of knowledge or a positivistic epistemol ogy would do. On the
contrary, the kind of question that was at stake is: in which sense did Mar x' s
revol ution ary standpoint open a new "continent." that of the histor ical pro-
cess? Also. is there here a possibility of ove rcoming the cl assical alternative of
the natural and the social scicnces 'r' But such a possibility exists only if the
question is asked at a more basic of the nature and models of
causality.
Let me recall here Althusser 's emphas is on the idea that the concept of
causality that can be found in Mar x's theo retica l developments (es pecially in
Capi tal ) differs radically from all the cl assical models of causality. This is
particularly the case with the two great models Althu sser referred -to as
" mechanical causality" (whi ch rema ins present in the posi tivistic concept of
dete rminism) and "e xpress ive causal ity" (which can be retrac ed in vitalist
conce pt ions of biol ogy and spiritualistic co nce ptions of history as well).
To be sure. Althusser himself spoke of an (articulated) "whole" in order to
define the Marxi st notion of causality. This would seem to place him on the
second side of the alternative; it is verYdiflicult indeed to di stinguish the
meaning of " whole" from the meaning of "total ity" in the philosophical
tradition (Spinoza is the great exception here). For this reason. I prefer to
J . There are excelle nt remarks on thi s poi nt in the paper by Costanzo Preve (Giacomell i et al ,
t ')K{lI. In the " line col lective volume, sec Aug usto Illu minati, "R ileggcre Althus scr,"
-I. Maria Turchei to very clearly indicates this perspective in her paper (Giacomelli ct al.
IlJK61.
emphasize other idea s: first of all. the idea of overdetermination. But it is
necessary to point out that. for Althu sscr, ovcrdctermi nation was never separ-
able from underdcterrnination." The two reciprocal point s of view of ove r-
determinat ion and underdet er mi nation always come into play at the same
time. What this means is that in a give n conj uncture the explanation of ./
histori cal phenomena. above all the emergence of a new soc ial form. is in the
1 fast analysis never redu cibl e to a single or uniform ca usality. It is always
\ manifested in the comple ment arity of di fferent modes.
I Th is should not bec kon us to move in an irrational ist, eve n myst ical
direct ion. for other elements mus t also be considered. First of all. this concep -
tion of an ove rdetermined and undcrdctcrmincd causality immedia tely rc-
moves the trad itional opposition of "s tructure" and "conj uncture"; bett er sai( r:
it suggests that these two terms arc reciprocal. It is no longe r a question of
viewing the conj uncture as a short moment in the life of the structure or /
I transiti on betwee n successive stages of the structure, because the real ity of the
t stl}lclL! re_iU .lothin successio;'-of
vcrscly , the conj uncture IS mer el y determin ed as a cert ain ell posui on of the
I structure. (Notice that such a formul ation is on ly the " temporal" counterpart of
what. in Reading Capi tal. Althu sser had called the "absent cause ." combining
it with a conce pt of "differential temporal ity" for the elements of the structure:
the whole is nothing other than the reciprocal act ion of its " parts .")
Th is change has a potenti al consequence : it leads to a complete transforrna -
tion in the traditional problem of historical " transition" (and more profoundl y.
of histori cal time, which ca n no longer he represe nted as a successi ve order
with uniform dura tion). But here we must admit that Althusser himself and.
r above all. his disciples (my own contribution 10 Reading Capital being a clear
l example) had litt le awareness of what all this rea lly meant. Many of us
desper ately kept trying to apply thc device of Althu sseri an ove rdeterrninat ion
(rather than undcrdcterm ination) to analyze "transitions" or " passages" from
one structure to another. following the clas sical model of peri odi zat ion that
comes from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophy of history. Indeed.
Marx himself, when dea ling with such entities as " feuda lism," "capi talism: '
and "communism" (whether defined as " modes of production" or "social
forma tions" ). never ceased to refer to this model in his evo lutionary pictures
of universal history.
On the other hand. if, against the traditio nal understandin g of the distinc-
tion bet wee n long and short time spans. we push to the extreme Ihe idea that
the distinction merely refer s to the fact that conjunc tures arc "s tructurally
[
5. Althou gh the n.olion ot.· ov. crd.. ..\""a"' .C!", ICi.al ]
with Uil'lICi1letenll llliitiOil-W';lsinaoc ex plici t onl y 111 "Souicnancc dAmic ns." repri nted in AI-
mu" e! ( 1976h.- r:!T.:nnr:ng,1iStl· framn:iTIiiii; "1, li 'Siillple lo' Be- a-M;;xT;lill Philosophy?" in
Alihusser [ 1970a . t 6J - 207 \).
116 Total ity. Causality. and Explanation Balibar: St ruc tura l Causa lity 117
unpredictable" or that it is their unpr edi ct abl e char acter which express es their
t;, st ruct ura l necessity . cannot avoid critica l consequences for the donl lna nt
represen tations of politics. I am thinking here pa rticularl y of Althu sser 's
constantly mui ntuincd thesi s that "socialism does not exist," in the sense that
the re can he nothing like a "socialist mode of production." Instead. there is the
problem ofcommunism, whi ch emerges (or becomes ac tive) in eac h and e very
successive conj unc ture of the history of ca pitalism. If we disc uss this in terms
of possibi lity (neg lecting the ambiguities of the ca tego ry of the " poss ible,"
aga inst wh ich Althussc r had bee n warned by his readin g of Spi noza), we can
say that communism was possibl e at the time of the Communist Manifesto
(a lbeit pro bab ly not as the " apocalyptic" transition that mo st revolutionari es,
incl ud ing Marx and Enge ls, imagined); it \I'lIS possible at the time of the Paris
Commune; it WI/S possi ble at the time of the 1917 revolut ion. And to some
extent these possibi lities were realized : communism began to emerge as a
kernel. or a network of soc ial relati ons. which later on wa s ove rcome by other
social forces (so me of them ac ting under the name of offic ial "com munism").
Of course, this communis m eac h time was historicall y si tuated; it was not the
same at the end of the nineteenth ce nt ury and at the time of the Oc tober
Revolution. Althusser concluded that , if a ce rt ain communism is to be aga in
possib le today, it must be very different from the communism of Leni n' s
epoch or the communis m of Ma rx' s epoc h, that we may perhaps not even be
able to recogni ze it because it emerges under diffe rent names and with a
different "consc iousness ." As a "c ritical and revo lutionary tendency" in the
singul.n: histor y of capitalism. communis m mu st al ways differ from itsel f. it
cannot be an ident ical ess ence .
In gene ral terms, we could say that there arc possible bifurcations in
histor y. These bifurcat ions, or alternative path s, are stopped sooner or later.
and there is no way to mak e sure that they wi ll not be stopped defi nitivel y. In
allY case , once they have started, they result in a devel opm ent that differs from
the " law" or "te nde ncy" that could be obse rved in the past. Or to put it another I
way. is it I
is cun tinuous dive rgence from any preestabli shed orienta tion.
But this leads us to introd uce the not ion of antagonism in a new way. It
see ms to me that Althusse r co ncei ved antagonism as the core of str uctural
causality. that he read in Marx a preeminence of the ca tegory of ant agonism.
The difficulty comes from the fac t that (very much as in the case of " ideolo-
!,:y" , he attributed to Ma rx himsel f a conce pt of "antago nism" that was almost
completely inverted with respec t to its original meaning. Not only the young
Marx hut also the mat ure Marx had conce ived of irreco ncilable contradictions
in capi tali sm. but they were irreconcil able on ly in a pro visional man ner,
according tn the law of the " negation of the negation," beca use they ant ici-
pat ed a fina l " reconci liation" in co mmunism. The future Co mmunist society
was imagined as a free. transpar ent "as soc iation of humans. " whi ch mean s, as
Althusser explai ned right from the begin ning. that Mar x never really aban-
doned the pat tern of alienation, even when he was prod uci ng concre te an-
alyses of the ca pitalist relati ons of production that. de facto, contradicted this
idea list pattern . As he himself co nsistently mai nt ained , Althussc r ' s proj ect
was 10 ge t rid of the notion of alienation in a definitive mann er. Under the
name of antagonism, he wo uld think what he himself called a "process
without an Origin or an End" : an irreco nci lable contradiction that does not
require eithe r an or igina ry subjec t (e.g.. the ide ntification of labor as the
human esse nce) or a final suppression of antagonism.
Hence, from the poli tical point of view, there was an amazing contradiction
in Althusscr, whic h his critics perfectly gras ped. Il ow 10 co mbine the idea of
irreconcilable antagonis m and the idea tha t at every moment there is in
capi talism the possibi lity of its own overcoming, in the fonn of class conflict
and mass conflict '! How to combi ne the idea that capitalism is not an "ete rna l"
mode of prod uction and the idea that there is no " reconciliation," that antago -
nism should not be co nce ptualized agai nst the background of social unity as a
univer sal tclos?
Now, if we take some dist ance from Althus scrs text. we might perha ps
suggest the foll owing interpretat ion: the root of ant agon!sm. the -
[
is somethi ng all.
forcorrectivities . This would mean that, although capitalism actually succeeds
in imposing iiI; forms of " real subsumption" upon the labor force- tha i. ,
transforming labor power into a commodity- there is an actual limit to thi s
process. In the last analys is. the form of human ..(both ind ividu al and
[
cOllec tiverrl;;l,l lns . to the ('linditi6ii "oi' -ii' commodi ty. which is
understand under. the unbear abJ e,:"
\ - This ;-ould mean. then . that the ca pitalist mode of product ion can never be
jreproduced in an identica! manner. It is impossible for capitalism to keep ihe'
relations of prod uction in the same form in whi ch they ex isted at a certain
moment in history. in a ce rtain phase of acc umulation. I agree on this poi nt
\ with all those who ins ist on at'
\ analysis of the capitalist mode and rel at ions 0 1 product ion . Ca pitalism IS
\ forced to transfor m itsel f. its own modes of ex ploi ting the labor force, its
mode of socializing individual s. It is therefore impossible for ca pitalism 1/0110 I
l
,/(' 1'01,'(' . and this is the onl y poss ible form of its "reproduction." Th is is
capitalism's neccssitv . ,
As a consequence , for us, too, it is impossible not to evolve. At 1
[
moment (not " ' inal" or . stage.)
is A baSIC inst ab ility IS underlying Its appar ent
stability (or in less naturalistic. more political. Machiavellian terms. the reason
for its stahi lity is not its intrins ic coherence or its product ivit y: it is onl y its
118 Totality, Causality, and Explanation Balibar: Structura l Causality 119
abi lity to ga in social strength through antagonism, its success in usi ng antago-
nistic for ces as its own means of reproduction in the class st rugg le). We must ]
f that the for
\ .?: .I.S •. IS
l lllcompallble WIth the "system." It is the possibi lity for those anticapiliiTi st
forces that the Marxist tradition identified with the working class or the
proletariat , and also for other unpred ictable forces or movement s, to insert I...'
themselves into the play of the contradiction.
In other words, structural causality introd uced anothe r way of thinking
abo ut the rela tionshi ps of historical time and practice , at least in principl e. l
Hist orical time can no longer remain the externa l, "cosmo logical," framewor k
in which prac tice becomes insert ed a pos teriori (in thi s respect , Althusser is
probably more of a Hegel ian than he thought or than he initially said).
Prac tice , ill fact, escapes the tradi tional oppos itions of philosop hy, parti cu lar ly
the binary opposition with theory, because it esc apes the oppos ition of repro-
duc tion .and tran sformat i?n. The basic hist o:i cal pr:oblem is never a dil emma \\
of Identity and change ; It eme rges always III reality as a problem "of w ntch
change becomes we should not imagine that there' exTsis i. iify j
guarantee that the "s pontaneo us" tend ency of change is for the best, not even
that there are only two possibil ities in every situation. On the contrary, the
very logic of overdeterminat ion and underdeterminati on would sugg'estthat
the alternative is never as simple as that, alth ough it is almostoO iiways
ideologically pict ured that way.)
This leads me to a final questi on: to what extent does such a concept of
structural causality, in whic h antago nism is deci sive and yet escapes ever y
total izati on , imply the not ion of negati vity? The question is import ant be-
cause, from Hegel onwa rd, this not ion was a cr iterio n of demarcation bet ween
dia lec tics and positivism, wi th its cult of "o bjec tive tendenci es" (more often
than not another name for the existing sta te of affairs, the reason that many
critical Mar xists insist on the necessity of " utopia") .
I would agree that things her e are probably more difficu lt than Althusse r
himscl r had bel ieved, at least at first glance . His critique of Hegel ian and
humanistic Marxism wou ld suggest that the Hegelian pict ure of negat ivit y
was inseparable from a (foundational) catego ry of the subject of history,
whet her conceived as Spirit, Humanki nd, or the Pro letariat. In other words, it
would see m imposs ible to define negativit y apa rt from alienation- the aliena-
lion of an empirical subj ect or the alienation of the metaph ysical subjec t that
emerges in universal history. It seems to me that, although he probably never
round the bes t phi loso phica l formulati ons for it, at least in his published
wr itings, Alth usser progressivel y realized that the conce pt of negativity (better ' )
said: a certain co ncep t of negati vity) cannot be spared. Without s uch- a
conce pt, there is no rea l possibility of formulating st ruc tura l antagonis m as
References
Althusser, L 1976a. Essays ill Self- Cri ticism . London : New Left Books.
---. 1976b. Positions. Paris: Edi tions Socia les,
Giacomelli, M., A. Illuminati, M. Poreavo, C. Prcve, and M. Tu rcheuo . 1986. La
cognizione del/a crisi : Saggi sulmarxismo eli LOII ;s Al thusser. Milan: Centro Studi
di Mater ial ismo Storico ,
___ . 1990./1 marxismo di LOllis Althusscr. Milan: Centro di Matcrialismo Storico.
Pi sa: Vallerini Edit rice.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful