Review: Louis Althusser, The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings, ed. François Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (London: Verso, 1997), pp. 264.

(This review appeared in QUID, no. 6, Nov. 2000, pp. 5-9.)

This elegantly produced book translates Althusser’s published and unpublished texts from 1945-51. The book concludes with an essay ‘On Marxism’ (1953) which marks Althusser’s break with Hegel along with pious recommendations for Stalin’s ‘profoundly scientific conception of history’ (p. 247). The longest and most significant of these earlier texts is Althusser’s graduate thesis ‘On Content in the Thought of G.W.F. Hegel’ (pp. 36-169), completed in 1947 but published only after Althusser’s death. François Matheron’s introduction indicates that he kept his thesis secreted away, ‘but felt the need to declare in 1963 that Merleau-Ponty had wanted to publish it.’ (p. 1) The thesis is remarkable in many ways and is necessary reading for anyone interested in Althusser and/or the Marxist struggle with Hegel.

The other essays in this book are decidedly minor. Remarks such as ‘Hegelian Spirit, that mysterious third term, is nothing other than the triumphant kingdom of humanity joined in a circleÖ’(p. 170) make little sense without reference to Althusser’s graduate thesis. The essays do provide indications absent from the thesis, however, notably a note on Heidegger’s influence, via Kojève, on Althusser’s reading of Hegel. A 1950 essay even suggests that the revisionist return to Hegel is ‘revisionism of a fascist type’ (p. 183). These minor essays provide insights into the peculiarities of the French, while Althusser’s move from Catholicism to Communism provokes reflections on the relation of Church to Party within Marxism. In a 1949 Althusser wrote that: 'Although the objective conditions for a social emancipation of the Church through the proletarian struggle already exist, the conditions for a collective reconquest of religious life have not been created. To create them, the Church as a whole would have to be capable of undertaking its self-criticism; but it is subject to the law of structures which defend themselves, and will not tolerate being questioned.’ (p. 195) This suggests a pattern for Althusser’s involvement with the Communist Party. But what are we to make of Althusser’s remark that Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises provide ‘an historical dialectic, that is in no wise inferior to Marx’s, or even Hegel’s’ (p. 184)? Matheron suggests that Althusser’s shift from the Catholic Church to Stalinism was unsurprising, but Althusser’s unimpressive remarks on show trials and Trotskyism remind us that men make their own history.

This book reveals how Althusser’s intellectual development retraced the movement from Hegel’s early theological writings, through the Phenomenology of Spirit into the early Marx. Althusser’s explicit reflections on faith and knowledge rarely rise to Hegel’s level and remain interesting primarily because of Althusser’s later repudiation of Hegel. During the 1970s many British intellectuals embraced Marxism through Althusser, only to abandon faith in Althusserianism and the rest of Marxism, retaining merely a tone of dogmatic theoretical belief in the face of more awkward historical arguments. The speed of these transformations revealed an emptiness in the rhetorical Marxisms of the 1970s which has marked subsequent developments in critical and literary theory. In short, the acceptance or rejection of Althusser’s work was less significant than the ideological formation represented by Althusser’s prominence. Given the implosion of Althusser and Althusserianism it hardly seems necessary to deconstruct this already tottering edifice. For those who have never worshipped at the church of Althusser, these minor essays offer few incentives to begin confirmation classes. The use, however, of ‘spectre’ for the book’s English title suggests more than a superficial marketing analogy with Derrida’s Specters of Marx. Althusser’s early engagement with Hegel poses significant questions for the repression of Hegel and philosophy within the supposedly scientific strains of Marxism.

‘On Content in the Thought of G.F.W. Hegel’ bears comparison with works suppressed by the Third International, such as Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness and Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy, and with Herbert Marcuse’s early works on Hegel and Marx. The key questions involve the attempt to retrace the ‘end’ of philosophy in Hegel and the actualisation of philosophy argued for by Marx and Marxism. Althusser sees Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as offering radical resources for contemporary Marxism within a distinctive reading of Hegel’s historical significance. Althusser provides some striking expositions of Hegel’s work, but it is unlikely that these expositions will have much retrospective impact on Hegel scholarship. Rather, Althusser’s thesis needs to be read historically as a symptomatic text in the ideological genesis of French Marxism, a text to be set against the readings of Hegel suggested by Kojève, Hyppolite, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre.

Althusser’s thesis divides into three parts. The first part, ‘Origins of the Concept’, offers an account of Hegel’s early writings and critical relation to Kant. Althusser reads the development of the concept of content in Hegel’s thought as the destruction of the given (donné). This involves Althusser in a tendentious and idiosyncratic account of the void (le vide) in Hegel’s thought: ‘In taking cognizance of Kant, Hegel simply appropriated and explained the historical moment in which, by thinking the void, human thought had already become the desire for a plenitude it could not conceive, yet longed for.’ (p. 60) This gulf between the historical moment and alienated longing recurs in Althusser’s critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

The second part, ‘Cognition of the Concept’, offers an immanent philosophical exposition of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Althusser tries to show how the destruction of the given in Hegel’s phenomenology is restored in the cognition of the concept: ‘the very act by which I destroy what is given in the content is the initial moment of a dialectic at the end of which the content I aimed at will be restored to cognition - not, this time, as an original given, but as a mediated result.’ (p. 66) For Althusser, the Phenomenology of Spirit can be defended against attempts to reduce the historical content revealed to a logical formalism or ontology. He provides useful criticisms of the imposition of dialectical schema onto the content of Hegel’s system: ‘Hegel’s absolute is not the restitution of a transcendent in-itself which, whether in the form of the Word, Nature, or Spirit, produces and presides over the world; it is the concrete, immanent totality in which the content of its moments attains its truth; it is the absolute content born and brought to fulfilment in its own history.’ (p. 93) The second part, then, provides an immanent reconstruction of the thought of history as the content of the Absolute in the Phenomenology of Spirit.

The third part, ‘Miscognition of the Concept’, argues that Hegel’s position cannot be sustained historically. Hegel’s thought, according to Althusser, falters in response to historical events after the Phenomenology, a faltering exemplified by the Philosophy of Right. This part, then, offers a critique of ‘the error’ and necessity of error in Hegel’s conception of the Prussian state through an exposition of Marx’s critique of Hegel. This needs to be read as a reflection on how Hegel became the ‘last’ philosopher. Althusser’s structural account of circularity in Hegel’s thinking provides the figurative terms for his exposition: ‘The whole paradox of the Berlin philosophy of the state is contained, then, in the following problem: how is one to transform a pyramid into a circle, bend the Prussian back-and-forth into the circularity of universality, or, in a word, invest a given content with a meaning it lacks?’ (p. 119) Althusser argues that Hegel was forced either to abandon claims for the truth of history in order to criticise the present, or to abandon contemporary content so as to save his system of absolute truth.

This incompatibility between the truth of Hegel’s philosophical thought and the false reality of the Prussian state reveals a historical contradiction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ familiar from subsequent Marxist critiques of utopian thinking. Marx, accordingly, was no more able than Hegel to leap over his time. This gives rise to some of Althusser’s most striking formulations of the way Marx remained imprisoned within Hegel’s thought:

'Hegel takes his most spectacular revenge, by silently reconquering Marx from within. Not only does Hegel take back what is his by Marx’s definition of him; Hegel is the one who inspires it, and who thus inspires Marx’s truth. If Marx brings the necessity of error to light in Hegel, it is only by virtue of the presence of Hegel himself, who has become, in Marx, the necessity of truth.' (p. 133).

Marx, then, is thoroughly informed by Hegelian truth, such that the central insight of Marx’s thought is that ‘Capitalism is man become nature: capitalism is a hidden humanity (Spirit) that must reappropriate itself.’ (p. 139) The attempt to actualise philosophy in the existing historical world is condemned to a dualistic conception of truth and reality. History becomes the concrete historical totality for which Marx’s Capital is ‘our transcendental analytic’ (p. 154).

This conception of history is thoroughly indebted to Hegel, but in a movement in which: ‘The disintegration of Hegelianism thrusts us back into transcendentalism.’ (p. 154) Prefiguring incompatibility with his later work, Althusser concludes that: ‘the Marxist movement is a materialism, arguing as it does, the domination of matter; but also a humanism, since this matter is human matter, struggling against inhuman forms.’(p. 156) Conceptions of history, science, research and structure emerge against the grain of the vocabulary of humanism and alienation which Althusser later rejected. Perhaps the most important opposition is between historical relativism and historical determinism, between pragmatics and scientific conceptions of theory and research. Althusser rethinks the relation of freedom and necessity within Marxism as a tension between the historically achieved truth of Hegel’s thought and the philosophical regress of actual history. That there ought to be a proletarian revolution while conditions may not (yet) be ripe has been a traditional reason for developing class consciousness through the revolutionary party. But there are severe historical and ultimately philosophical difficulties in relating faith in the future of socialism to knowledge of actually existing capitalism.

These difficulties specify Hegel’s continuing relevance for Marxism. Althusser does not make the tension between Hegel’s philosophical achievement and his historical conditions thematic in his reading of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Althusser, however, is not the first to have found the speculative identity of logic and history in Hegel’s system difficult to contextualise and criticise. Analogously, the concrete and historically specific developments of capitalism cannot be identified speculatively with a pure logic of capital. The class struggles and contradictions of capitalism live off the non-identity of material conditions and the logic of capital. The speculative identity of logic and history as spirit is one way of understanding this non-identity, but few Marxists are comfortable with the debt to Hegel in such conceptions.

Althusser’s reading emphasises Hegel’s relevance within the development of Marx’s thought and for understanding contemporary ideology: ‘Ideologically speaking, then, we are dominated by Hegel, who comes back into his own in modern philosophical endeavour; and this dependence is genuine, since it does not break free of the decay of Hegel, i.e., the transformation of Hegelian truth into ideology. Modern ideologies are reappropriated by Hegelian ideology – right down to their deliberate ingratitude – as if by their mother-truth.’ (p. 151) Althusser’s later work becomes subject to such Oedipal ingratitude. His account of the misrecognition of Hegel’s truth can be redescribed as an aporia in the overcoming or end of philosophy. Classical Marxism, notably in Lenin’s formulation, has long noted the combination of German idealism, French socialism and English political economy in Marxism. But it has proved difficult for Marxism to sustain Marx’s critique of Hegel. The ideological decay of Marxism can be understood as a refusal to recognise the philosophical aporetics involved in Marx’s critical appropriation of Hegel. Dogmatic resistance to Marx’s Hegelianism has all too often determined the philosophical polemics of Marxism, whether in the name of social science or within strategic polemics against bourgeois philosophy. But Hegel remains aporetic for Marxism because the overcoming of Hegelian thought is torn between theory and practice, between theoretical appropriation of its intellectual origins and the historical actualisation of possibilities revealed by its theory. The choice between socialism and barbarism remains a question whose theoretical dimensions emerge from and return to questions of practice.

Dogmatic resistance to Hegelianism merely confirms Marxism within the decay of Hegelianism. What is needed, then, is the renewal of the critique of Hegel developed by Marx, not just as a difficult exercise in philosophical reconstruction, but by developing Marx’s critique of the conditions of the possibility of modern thought as more than a new brand of philosophy. This difficulty can be gauged by the contradictions of so-called ‘Marxist philosophy’. Michel Henry’s remarkable book Marx: A Philosophy of Human Reality (1983) suggests the difficulty of sustaining a philosophical reconstruction of Marx’s thought, while Derrida’s Specters of Marxsuggests the potential absurdities of reading the spirits of Marx without recognising the truth claims of Marxism. The torn halves of philosophical reconstruction and deconstructive practice are exemplified by Etienne Balibar’s formulation in The Philosophy of Marxthat: ‘there is no Marxist philosophy and there never will be; on the other hand, Marx is more important for philosophy than ever before.’ The desire to mark an epistemological break with Hegel’s significance for Marxism is part of the ideological misrecognition of these dynamics. Thus Althusser’s reading of Hegel bears witness to significant historical and philosophical contradictions within the genesis of Marxism, just as the ultimate failure of Althusser’s subsequent attempts to rethink what it means to read Marx are important and revealing.

‘On Content in the Thought of G.W.F. Hegel’ is then a significant contribution to rethinking Marxism’s relation to Hegel. It highlights a dogmatic inversion in Althusser’s later denunciations of Hegelian Marxism, while the questions it poses are not merely philosophical but profoundly historical. Althusser suggests that the aberrations of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right reflect the way in which Hegel: ‘did not re-appropriate, in reality, the distance he took from the world, but rather withdrew into a feigned maturity without reclaiming his origins. His childhood regained was mere childishness. If he exalted truth, he did so the way a prisoner sang in the camps: in a condition of servitude that was not himself.’ (p. 130) There are many cruel ironies in the life and work of Althusser, but this suggests something of Althusser’s awkward relation to the different camps of Stalinism. His repression of the Hegelian phase of his Marxism constituted an intellectual servitude which imprisoned the more penetrating insights of his philosophical restlessness, a servitude whose necessity remains open to question.

A few remarks on the translation are perhaps appropriate. Without checking the translation systematically I have found some surprises. A sentence in the French text reads: ‘En un sens qui n’est pas étranger à Marx, notre monde est devenu philosophie, ou plus précisément Hegel devenu est devant nous, c’est-à-dire notre monde: le monde est devenu hégélien dans la mesure òu Hegel était une vérité capable de devenir monde.’ This is translated as: ‘In a sense that is not un-Marxist, our world has become philosophy, or, more precisely, Hegel come to maturity now stands before us – is, indeed, our world: the world has become Hegelian to the extent that Hegel was a truth capable of becoming a world.’ (p. 36) The peculiar double negative ‘not un-Marxist’ is awkward, and obscures the critical difference between Marx and Marxism, but perhaps less evident is the difficulty of grasping what Althusser means by ‘monde’ or ‘world’, which has philosophical connotations more evident in the French text. Several key terms involve translations between German, French and English, notably in Althusser’s criticism of the translation of Hegel’s Begriff as ‘notion’. The translator deals elegantly with many such problems, even suggesting that some of Althusser’s own translations are inaccurate, but important philosophical connotations are lost in translation. This is made trickier by occasional notes on puns and etymological ambiguities, a translation practice which seems to have spread like a virus from Derridean literalism. These notes can give a false sense of the arbitrariness of the highlighted allusiveness. The translator, for example, suggests that Althusser’s French phrasing ‘Il n’y a pas de nature hereuse’ echoes Aragon’s poem, Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux, but the echo of Hegel’s reflections on the unhappy consciousness is just as significant. These, however, are minor blemishes in a translation which is illuminating and readable. Althusser’s own notes provide many intriguing cross-references: an interesting footnote on Freud; a note on Sherlock Holmes and the Iliad; the claim that Rimbaud’s images often clarify Hegel’s intuitions; and, perhaps most startling of all, the suggestion that Hegel’s merit has no equivalent except ‘the capture of depth in Cézanne’s paintings.’ (p. 161)


Copyright 2009, Drew Milne