Althusser on Causality in Marx

I have not posted anything for some months for two reasons.  First I had to complete a chapter on Money and Finance for the Handbook on Marxism, to be published by Sage, edited by Beverley Skeggs, Sara Farris and Alberto Toscano.

Then in November I had a meeting with Demet Dinler – unfailing source of inspiration and good advice – about what work to do next. Demet urged me to return to themes which I first explored in 2005-9 in a series of papers on Marx’s value theory and on the conceptual narrative of Capital.  (These are available on my ResearchGate website).

Roughly, what I was attempting at that time was to bring into alignment and interplay two areas of Marxist research: (1) ways of reading Marx’s text which register its metaphorical and performative dimensions; (2) the logics and selective pressures of the law of value, reconsidered in the light of recent developments in complexity theory and in ecology.

As her own outstanding research and editorial work will testify, Demet has a brilliant sense, of where in the present period, creative Marxist research can and needs to be done.  She has persuaded me that further work on the above topics, however modest, would be worthwhile.

It has taken me several months to catch up with only some of the necessary reading.  Partly this is because of the sheer volume of relevant material which has appeared over the past ten years.

But also because a further difficulty had to be faced.  In my training and approach to the reading of Marx, the central philosophical reference point was always Hegel.  But some of the most powerful strands of Marxist thought in recent years have roots less in Hegel than in Spinoza.  Think only of the many currents which derive from the autonomist project and the debates which it has provoked in areas such as: labour process, cognitive capital, social reproduction, and eco-Marxism.

There is too the literature of commentary on Althusser by scholars working in the tradition he established. When Althusser died in 1990 he left a large archive of manuscripts, many of which have now been published.  This new material, together with revised ways of reading his earlier books, have posed a radical challenge to the earlier, and widely held view, that Althusser was a doctrinaire structuralist who distorted Marx by denying the role of human agency in history.  Instead of the implacable dogmatist, Althusser now emerges as a tortured thinker, exploring conflicting positions, within and around Marxist thought, in a highly productive way.  But, on many important issues, without being able to come to a final and definitive resolution.  Warren Montag, one of the finest of recent commentators on Althusser, writes that:

In opposition to the mechanistic doctrine attributed to him by E. P. Thompson and others, Althusser worked to overcome the opposition between chance and necessity by defining historical necessity as the product of chance encounters between absolutely singular entities.[i]

The intense exploration of paradoxical propositions like this, not surprisingly, led to texts characterised by severe tensions. Montag, in the final summary of his magnificent book Althusser and His Contemporaries (2013), comments on,

the tumult of Althusser’s oeuvre, its risks, its tragedies, its exultations, the way in which he frenetically pursues a meaning that constantly eludes him, even if this meaning is none other than the pursuit itself, producing … a new way of inhabiting philosophy, that is, the philosophical conjuncture, that makes visible the lines of force that constitute it, opening the possibility of change … the shattering of obstacles that opens new perspectives.[ii]

What has been carefully studied in recent research on Althusser by Montag and others, are the implications of his characterisation of himself as a follower of Spinoza. As Althusser explained: ‘We never were structuralists … We were guilty of an equally powerful and compromising passion: we were Spinozists’[iii]

I believe that recent scholarly work on the Spinoza-Hegel connection, and on ‘the new Althusser’, can point the way to some promising developments in Marxist theory.

Here I start with the question of causality in Marx.

The year 2015 saw the publication, for the first time, of a complete English translation of Reading Capital written by Althusser and four of his students. Lire le Capital had appeared in Paris in 1965, but until three years ago the only English translation available was of the severely truncated second edition of 1968).

In the studies of Marx’s Capital which Althusser and his team summarise in this book, a huge weight is placed on the concept of structural causality.  In their view it was the central and decisive element in the theoretical revolution effected by Marx in Capital.  Here, they argued, was a new form of causality, without precedent in earlier scientific work.

They considered however that Marx did not have available to him the concepts with which to formulate explicitly and clearly the innovative form of causality which he was using in a practical way in his political economy. But were Althusser and his co-workers able to do any better?

Althusser has a chapter in Reading Capital, called ‘Marx’s Immense Revolution’, in which he explores at length the question of causality.  He explains that in the scientific and philosophical tradition which Marx inherited there were only two systems of concepts with which to think causation.

  • Mechanistic causality. This term (not a very happy one) covered the concepts and forms of causality operative both in everyday life and in scientific work.  Here particular causes were seen as having particular effects.  The link is some kind of direct transitive effectivity.  Such a model, Althusser suggests, has a serious limitation. It cannot register the effectivity of a whole – a totality – on its constituent elements.[iv]
  • Expressive causality. This second system was one conceived precisely in order to deal with the effectivity of a whole on its elements.  It was classically formulated by Leibniz in his concept of expression. The parts express the essential character of the whole. ‘This’, says Althusser, ‘is the model that dominates all Hegel’s thought. It presupposes that the whole in question be reducible to an inner essence, of which the elements of the whole are then no more than the phenomenal forms of expression’.[v]

As an example of expressive causality in Marxism, consider the influential account of Capital in History and Class Consciousness by Georg Lukacs. In this, two concepts are central – totality and commodity. What Lukacs argues can be summarised as follows:

(1) It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts, is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science.[vi]

(2) In the dialectical totality the individual elements incorporate the structure of the whole. This was made clear on the level of theory by the fact that e.g. it was possible to gain an understanding of the whole of bourgeois society from its commodity structure.[vii]

(3) The commodity can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reification produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the stance adopted by men towards it.[viii]

Althusser and his colleagues were hostile to all variants of expressive causality in Marxist thought.[ix]  These seemed to them to represent a regression into idealism.  They accepted of course that commodity fetishism was an element in Marx’s account of capitalism, and the chapter by Pierre Macherey in Reading Capital discussed what Marx wrote about the commodity in the first section of Capital Vol. 1.  But not the commodity as some kind of essence which, once identified, allows the analyst to read off at sight the entire structure of a capitalist society.[x]

Instead their attention was focused on Marx’s account of the differing modes of production in historical development.  Here they emphasised the interrelation between forces of production and relations of production, and the patterns of uneven development which result. They saw the political, legal, religious and other major institutions as determined in the last instance by the economic structure.

Althusser asks: how is it possible to define the concept of structural causality? He comments that:

This simple theoretical question sums up Marx’s extraordinary scientific discovery: the discovery of the theory of history and political economy, the discovery of Capital. But it sums it up as an extraordinary theoretical question contained ‘in the practical state’ in Marx’s scientific discovery, the question Marx ‘practised’ in his work, in answer to which he gave his scientific work, without producing the concept of it in a philosophical opus of the same rigour…

This simple question was so new and unforeseen that it contained enough to smash all the classical theories of causality – or enough to ensure that it would be unrecognized, that it would pass unperceived and be buried even before it was born.[xi]

Althusser is arguing that Marx’s breakthrough was so revolutionary that the subsequent  commentary literature on Marx has simply overlooked that a new concept of causality is operative in Capital. They have been able to avoid this recognition because Marx himself did not have the categories to clarify the profound shift in scientific procedure which he was implementing in practice.

What we find instead in the Marxist theory of the 2nd International and in the Communist Parties is a reversion to simple transitive causality. The economic base determines the superstructure of politics, law, ideology etc.

But how could Althusser and his Reading Capital co-authors argue that it was the economic structure which was fundamentally determinative, while,at the same time, avoiding mechanistic cause-effect patterns?

Here I mention only one of the paths they tried to take through this difficulty.  This was by invoking Marx’s suggestion that economic relationships were decisive in the last instance.

Balibar notes,

the principle explicitly present in Marx of a definition of the determination in the last instance of the economy. In different structures, the economy is determinant in that it determines which of the instances of the social structure occupies the determinant place. Not a simple relation, but rather a relation between relations; not a transitive causality, but rather a structural causality.[xii]

As Balibar explains, the Marxist vision is of societies characterised by,

a certain type of complexity, the unity of a structured whole containing what can be called levels or instances which are distinct and ‘relatively autonomous’, and co-exist within this complex structural unity, articulated with one another according to specific determinations, fixed in the last instance by the level or instance of the economy.[xiii] . 

So, if we follow the contortion of this prose, does the economic structure in fact predominate?  Well yes … sort of … but only in the last instance.

But this implies that the last instance must eventually come along to exercise the causative powers of the economy on the superstructure. But such a final arrival is just what is flatly ruled out by Althusser in some memorable phrases:

In History, these instances, the superstructures, etc. — are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the Time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes.[xiv]

More is involved here than simple inconsistency or confusion.[xv]  The Althusser team are wrestling with some serious difficulties in Marxist theory which are often ignored or treated evasively in the literature. I believe their difficulties about the concept of structure are illuminating and worth careful study.  In my next post will try to show why.


Althusser, Louis 1977 For Marx, (Trans. Ben Brewer), London: Verso.

Althusser, Louis, Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, and Jacques Rancière, 2015, Reading Capital, (Trans. Ben Brewer and David Fernbach), London: Verso.

Eliot, Gregory 1987, Althusser: The Detour of Theory, London: Verso.

Lukacs, Georg 1971, History and Class Consciousness, (Trans. Rodney Livingstone), London: Merlin Press.

Montag, Warren, 2013, Althusser and His Contemporaries, Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Sotiris, Panagiotos 2014, Rethinking Structure and Conjuncture in Althusser, Historical Materialism, 22,3: 5-51.

Thomas, Peter 2002, Philosophical Strategies: Althusser and Spinoza, Historical Materialism, 10,3: 71-113.


[i] Montag 2013, p. 10.

[ii] Montag 2013, p. 210.

[iii] Althusser 1974, p.132.

[iv] Or not at least without contortions.  Althusser here refers to mechanistic causality as theorised by Descartes.  He notes that when Descartes tried to formulate the type of causality through which a whole (e.g. the mind) controls another whole (e.g. the body), he was compelled to fall back on the famous absurdity of the pineal gland as acting as a point of transmission and control.

[v] Althusser et al. 2015, p.342.

[vi] Lukacs 1968, p. 27.

[vii] Ibid, p.198.

[viii] Ibid, p. 86.

[ix] See Elliot 1987 for a valuable discussion of the political reasons why Althusser and co. attacked alienation centred Marxism – its adoption by the French CP as central to the theoretical justification of the pro-Stalinist position.

[x] See on this question, and on some of the other topics I discuss here, two meticulously argued articles: Thomas 2002 and Sotiris 2014.

[xi] Althusser et al. 2015, p.342.

[xii] Ibid p. 385.

[xiii] Althusser et al. 2015, p.244.

[xiv] Althusser 1977, p.113.

[xv] Though inconsistency there certainly is: see Thomas 2002 for a lucid analysis.

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