Althusser and Macherey on Structure

Althusser triumphantly hailed the concept of structural causality which he saw as at the core of Marx’s theoretical revolution.  But what exactly does the word structure mean in such a form of causality?

Warren Montag, in his excellent book Althusser and His Contemporaries, shows that there is incoherence in the way that Althusser defines structure in his contributions to the 1st edition of Reading Capital published in 1965.  Montag records that when this edition was being made ready for publication, one of the other contributors, Pierre Macherey, wrote to Althusser pointing out the ambiguity of the latter’s treatment of structure in his chapter ‘The Object of Capital’.  Macherey suggests that Althusser sometimes implies that there must be some kind of totality – or whole – whose structure is exercising causative powers. At other times Althusser suggests that in structural causality the structures exist only in their effects – thus causation is an immanent process.

Macherey himself wants to hold to the immanent concept of structure, i.e. as having no existence other than in its effects. In his letter to Althusser he says,

it seems to me that when you speak of a set (ensemble) or of a whole, you thereby add a concept that is absolutely unnecessary to the demonstration and which may later become an obstacle.[i]

There certainly is a contradiction here. In a useful paper, Giorgos Fourtounis comments that, ‘the concept of the structured whole cannot but invalidate the thesis that structure is nothing outside its effects’.[ii]  He thus agrees that Montag is right to see an antinomy between holistic and immanent concepts of structure.  The danger is, as Macherey says, that in the totality variant, structure becomes the equivalent of an essence, a transcendent determining principle.  There is then a conceptual drift back towards the expressive model which, as I noted in a previous post, Althusser had argued that Marx had overcome in and through his repeated critiques of Hegel.

Althusser wrote back to Macherey accepting the criticism and acknowledging that, I have a tendency to take refuge in certain of Marx’s texts where there is a reference to an “organic whole”. At this stage Althusser made no alterations to the chapter in Reading Capital which Macherey was criticising and it was duly published, as it stood, in 1965  in the 1st edition of Reading Capital. However he did appeal to Macherey in the same letter, to suggest how he might, ‘replace the provisional concepts with better defined concepts. I still lack the latter’. Macherey responded in a further letter that, ‘the solution to this problem will take some time’ – but that he believes the elements of an alternative are to be found in Lucretius and Spinoza.[iii]

Macherey developed his idea of an alternative concept of structure in a text written in November 1965 and which can be found in his book A Theory of Literary Production as a chapter called, ‘Literary Analysis: The Tomb of Structures’.

Here I can only provide a very rough summary of Montag’s careful and detailed analysis of the account of structure in Macherey’s Literary Production book.  We are certainly in strange terrain here. Montag says little about the fact that the whole discussion in his own book has slipped away from structure as economic mode of production – to structure as employed by analysts of literature and other cultural material. Literary structure is the entire focus of Macherey’s book.  Evidently some kind of analogy between literary texts and socio-economic reality is being tacitly assumed by Montag, Althusser and Macherey. However let’s suspend judgement on this, and see where their discussion takes us.

Having read the Tomb of Structures paper Althusser wrote to Macherey that he now sees the ambiguity that the latter was criticising.  The division,

between a conception of structure as interioritythe “latent structure” or “latent dynamic” of the work… and another conception, very close to your own, in which structure is thought as absent exteriority, the concept of the dialectique à la cantonade.[iv]

La cantonade is the part of a theatrical stage not visible to the audience – in English, off-stage, the wings.  The metaphor is of a dialectic which operates immanently, in the action taking place on-stage. Structure is there, but is invisible and absent, existing only in the play as it unfolds.[v]

The 2nd edition of Reading Capital was about to go to press and Althusser responded to Macherey’s criticisms by making a number of cuts in ‘The Object of Capital’ chapter.  He did not however alert his readers to these changes or offer any explanation for them.[vi]  The cuts had the effect of inflecting his argument more strongly towards the concept of structural causality as operating in an immanent way, existing only in its effects.  But, in Montag’s view, enough of the ambiguity is still present to sow confusion in the minds of readers of the 2nd edition – and it was this edition which got translated into English and other languages.[vii]

Montag’s book contains a close study of the passages which were excised by Althusser.  Montag believes – correctly in my view  – that Althusser’s ambiguities and struggles with this issue are worth careful study.  It is not simply the case that Macherey was right when he said that the holistic totality version of structure should be abandoned in favour of a more correct immanent variant.  Both Macherey himself, and also Montag, see the difficulty.  Montag writes that, ‘Macherey’s question becomes all the more pertinentwhy preserve the concept of structure at all, if, even in Althusser’s own work it appears destined to transmit as if by contagion an ideology of the whole anterior to and greater than its parts?’  Surely, as a concept, ‘structure implies a totality or ensemble … if not, then  why use the word’.  And, Montag adds, it is also surely the case that ‘the concept of structure also implies a latent meaning or order’.[viii]  

What complicates the situation is that in his Tomb of Structures chapter Macherey rejects both of the above ways of defining structure.  He wants to retain the term – but to detach it from any association with a concept of order  He refuses to accept the traditional implication that whatever is structured is a unified whole. Such a way of defining the meaning of structure is associated with organic and conservative metaphors of the social order. Macherey writes that:

Structure should be used to identify ‘that which maintains the work as it is in its irreducible complexitystructure ‘holds it (la tient)’ all the more in that the work is diverse, scattered, irregular. To see structure is to see irregularity.”[ix]

Thus, in Macherey’s new concept, structure becomes the principle of the unevenness of a literary work – how its scatteredness is tied together.  But equally important, Macherey argues that structure is to be that which explains the necessity of this unevenness. He uses the phrase determinate disorder ­– a disorder which can be accounted for and given significance.[x]

Throughout his book on literature Macherey is attacking traditional literary criticism’s way of dealing with major works of art.  One of the things that makes a work major is that directly or indirectly it registers the social conflicts and tensions of the period in which it was written – in form, or imagery, or narrative plot, or via fantasy elements etc. etc.  But as social contradictions impact, the effect is to generate disorder in the text.  Macherey attacks forms of literary criticism whose impulse is to deny and repress the symptoms of social conflict and injustice as these show up in texts.  Traditional criticism seeks to identify an inner harmonious order out of the diverse meanings at play in the text. In reducing the text to a hidden order they become unable to account for the singularity of work – what makes it uniquely what it is.  In such an approach the interpretation of the work ends up by being treated as more real than the work itself.

But throughout all this Macherey clings on to the concept of structure as a way of resisting a drift towards an endless randomisation and proliferation of meanings.  There is, he insists, a causality at work which determines the significance which emerges in and through the disorder in a text. A structural causality.

Thus, as I have noted above, Althusser found that Macherey’s ‘Tomb of Structures’ chapter helped clarify an ambiguity in his own thinking about structural causality.  But, given the radicality of Macherey’s new direction, it is perhaps not surprising that Althusser’s immediate reaction was no more that a series of unexplained cuts in his ‘Object of Capital’ chapter as Reading Capital was revised in 1966 for its 2nd edition.  For indeed Macherey has laid out a formidable set of proposals.

He is arguing; (1) that structural causality in a Marxist analysis of history can be illuminated by the materialist assault on the way in which major literary works have been converted into ideology by traditional criticism.  (2) He wants invoke a causality in which there is concept of structure which: (a) exists only immanently in its effects; (b) does not deny or assume away the disorder and unevenness of social development; but (c) which is able to identify some kind of necessity or logic which operates to give significance and unity to that unevenness and disorder. In addition, when such concepts of structure are deployed in the analysis of socio-economic situations it must be in ways which allow for the operation of chance as well as logic.  After Althusser died in 1990, the archive of his papers were found to contain a huge number of unpublished manuscripts. Scholarly work on this material has show that, already in the early 1960s, concepts of the aleatory (i.e. chance) and of conjuncture were a central and obsessive focus in Althusser’s thinking about structure and causality.[xi]

Not surprisingly the commentary literature on Althusser and Macherey has found it difficult to know what to do with all this. To take only one example, it is Warren Montag who has provided the most detailed accounts of the evolution of thinking about these questions by Althusser and his team.  But Montag’s final evaluation is, in the end, that Althusser remained tangled in paradoxes.  For example, that, for Althusser, structural causality means that it is the economic which determines social structure – but only in the last instance … and Althusser insists precisely that the last instance never actually arrives. (See my last post) Montag refers optimistically to:

the diverse lines of enquiry that might be summarised under the heading of “structural causality” (the presence / absence of the structure in its effects, the site of an oscillation rather than a dialectical unity) merged to produce the fault that runs across Reading Capital giving it its unevenness and conferring upon it the permanent instability that is  source of its power.[xii]

Montag explains, in a fascinating account, that, in the Reading Capital period, Althusser found himself in sync with the paradoxical thinking of Jacques Lacan. For example Althusser suggested a parallel between how the economic acted as a cause which existed only in its effects, and the way in which, ‘the unconscious is manifested, that is, exists in its effects’. Montag adds that:

Like Althusser, and just as at ease with paradox and contradiction, Lacan recognises that the very inquiry he pursues demands a theory of causality that does not (yet) exist and which can only emerge from the very inquiry that cannot proceed in its absence.[xiii]  

 Good luck with that …. is the tempting and obvious response.

But a less dramatic but more practical way forward has been suggested by Panagiotis Sotiris.  In an exceptionally perceptive article, he reflects on Althusser’s contributions to Reading Capital in relation to the accounts of causality given in two of the earlier essays in  For Marx – ‘Contradictions and Overdetermination’ and ‘On the Materialistic Dialectic’.  Sotiris fully acknowledges the never-resolved tension in Althusser between: (1) a concept of structure as present but latent; and (2) a structural causality which is immanent in its effects and which can allow for, and account for, singularity and conjuncture in situations and events.[xiv] Sotiris suggests that:

instead of remaining within the contours of the supposed structure / conjuncture dichotomy, it is better to try to rethink new ways to theorise the differential effectivity of both structural and conjunctural elements: within a conception of social forms that combine relationality, singularity, and reproduction.[xv].

Sotiris proposes that we can and should read,

the existence of a structure in its effects … as a highly original concept of structural determinations and / or law-like tendencies that do not have any existence of their own other than in concrete social formations.  In this sense structure is not ontologically prioritised not is it considered to be beneath the surface. Moreover, structural causality should not be opposed to the dynamics of transformation and the possibility of historical change.’[xvi]

 In his reference to law-like tendencies Sotiris pointing to a direction not taken by Montag.  It is an approach which is powerfully developed by Vittorio Morfino in his astonishing book Plural Temporality (2014).  Morfino emphasises his conviction that Althusser and his team were on to something crucial and indispensable about Marx’s concept of modes of production, and associated structural causality  But Morfino argues that the necessary analogy which they needed to invoke was not with structure and unevenness in literary texts, nor with the treatment of the unconscious in psychoanalysis.  But rather with complexity in populations of living creatures.  Morfino has a chapter on how Darwin studied the contrasting patterns of natural selection at work in a two pieces of land in Staffordshire (how concrete can you get!) It is Morfino’s proposal that this would be an example of structural causality in action.

The approach developed by Morfino opens up promising questions of logics of competition and cooperation in the analysis of modes of production.  In case of capitalism it suggests an analogy between the selectivity operated by Marx’s law of value and Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In both paradigms a principle of structuration operates by asserting itself, via selectivity, in and through a haze of random encounters and events.  In Marx’s words:

[in] the division of this social labour and the reciprocal complementarity or metabolism of its products, subjugation to and insertion into the social mechanism, is left to the accidental [zufälligen] and reciprocally countervailing motives of the individual capitalist producers.

 Since these confront one another only as commodity owners, each trying to sell his commodity as dear as  possible (and seeming to be governed only by caprice [Willkür] even in the regulation of production), the inner law operates only by way of their competition [setz sich das innere Gesetz, nur durch vermittelst ihre Konkurrenz]  their reciprocal pressure on one another, which is how divergences are mutually counterbalanced.

 It is only as an inner law, a blind natural force [blindes Naturgesetz] vis-à-vis the individual agents, that the law of value operates here and that the social balance of production is asserted in the midst of accidental fluctuations [wirkt hier das Gesetz des Werts … inmitten ihrer zufälligen Fluktuationen].[xvii]

 Here are some of the themes which Macherey was invoking.  Structural patterns which emerge not because of external regulation or command – but as the result of the operation of an inner law – an immanent process.  Marx is talking about how the system controls what is to count as valid value-creating social labour and what will be treated as wasted labour.  This is determined not by fiat, but by the law of value asserting itself in and through the accidental fluctuations of capitalist competition.  The concept of law implies some kind of necessity operating, not as an underlying essence beneath the surface of an economy, but via the everyday competitive pressures [Drucks] on capitalists to reduce costs of production and circulation.

In a future post I’ll say more about Morfino, Marx and the Darwinian analogy.


[i] Montag 2013, p. 74.

[ii] Fourtounis himself prefers to see both of these concepts of structure as necessary to a Marxist concept of structure and urges that they be amalgamated.  The resulting combination, he optimistically hopes, can involve ‘creative tension’ rather than the contradiction of logical incoherence. (Fourtounis 2005 p.105.)

[iii] Montag, 2013, p.75.  Macherey found inspiration in a remarkable article on Lucretius which Deleuze published in 1961 and which is to be found as an Appendix in Deleuze 1990. Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things [de Rerum Natura] was based on the philosophy of Epicurus which was one of the main topics of Marx’s PhD thesis.  Deleuze emphasises themes in Lucretius which were resumed in Macherey’s work on literature.  Nature as diverse and non-totalisable; the swerving and thus aleatory movement of atoms [the clinamen]; hence the role of chance in causation.  But also an insistence on structure as linked to causation   ‘Lucretius’ naturalism’, writes Deleuze, ‘requires a highly structured principle of causality to account for the production of the diverse inside different and non-totalizable compositions and combinations of the elements of Nature’ (p.268),

[iv] Montag 2013, p.76.

[v] I have no space in this post to comment on the important question of Darstellung – i.e. the analogy between how capitalism represents itself and the staging of a play. Darstellung is a theatrical analogy occasionally used by Marx and picked up again by the Althusser team – especially in the brilliant chapter by Rancière in Reading Capital.  See also the perceptive discussion in Montag 2003 of Althusser’s Piccolo Teatro chapter in For Marx.

[vi] Also Deleuze had sent to Althusser a draft article about structuralism which the latter discussed with Macherey and sent back the comments which Deleuze had requested.  See the interesting account of this exchange in Stolze 1998.

[vii] Montag 2013, p.80.

[viii] Montag 2013, pp. 78 and 84.

[ix] Montag 2013, p.78.

[x] Montag 2013, p.79.

[xi] See Matheron 1997, p.10 for working notes made by Althusser in 1966.  These mention Epicurus and the clinamen [swerve of the atom], ‘theory of the encounter, conjuncture  (= structure)’,  i.e. structure as linked to role of chance. In an annotation made by Althusser on his copy of Macherey’s Literature book he writes: ‘Theory of a clinamen.  First theory of the encounter’.  Recent scholarship on Althusser has emphasised that categories of chance, encounter, and the aleatory were central in his thinking from the mid-1960s onwards and not just – as in the received mythology – a new last phase in the 1980s. See the introduction to Goshgarian (ed.) 2006.  But for a variety of reasons the encounter and allied concepts remained a submerged and repressed undercurrent in his published work of the 1960s and 1970s.  Recent scholarship has also traced the complex linkages in Althusser’s work between concepts of structure, chance and plural temporalities.

[xii] Montag in Nesbitt (ed.) 2017, p.176. See also the chapter on Lacan in Montag 2013.

[xiii] Althusser as quoted by Montag in Nesbitt (ed.) 2107, p.181.

[xiv] Sotiris 2014 p.30.

[xv] Sotiris 2014, p. 7.

[xvi] Sotiris 2014, p.14. See also Sotiris in Diefenbach et al. (eds.) 2013.

[xvii] Marx 1981, p.1020.


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.

Deleuze, Gilles 1990 The Logic of Sense, London: Athlone Press.

Diefenbach, Katja, Sara R. Ferris, Gal Kirn and Peter D. Thomas  2013, Encountering Althusser: Politics and Materialism in Contemporary Radical Thought, London: Bloomsbury.

Fourtounis, Giorgos 2005, On Althusser’s Immanentist Structuralism: Reading Montag Reading Althusser Reading Spinoza, Rethinking Marxism 17,1.

Goshgarian, G.M 2006, Introduction to Althusser Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987, London: Verso.

Marx, Karl 1981, Capital Vol. 3, London: Penguin Books.

Matheron, Alexandre 1997, Introduction to Althusser, The Spectre of Hegel; Early Writings (trans. G. M. Goshgarian), London: Verso.

Montag, Warren 2003, Louis Althusser, London: Palgrave.

Montag, Warren 2013, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War, Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Morfino, Vittorio 2014, Plural Temporality: Transindividuality and the Aleatory Between Spinoza and Althusser, Leiden: Brill.

Nesbitt, Nick (ed.) 2017,The Concept in Crisis, Durham NC: Duke University Press.

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

Stolze, Ted 1998, Deleuze and Althusser: Flirting with Structuralism, Rethinking Marxism 10, 3: pp. 51-63.

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