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An interview with Louis Althusser: The Crisis of Marxism1

I am very pleased to be here in Rome. You should know that, for us


French people, the city of Rome, as well as all Italy, are places where one
comes across almost miraculous characters. These are the opening words
of Louis Althusser before the interview2 began, on one of the rooftops of
Rome overlooking the cupola of San Pietro church of the Vatican.
Preferring to be a behind-the-scenes, Louis Althusser, a Marxist
theoretician, did not often give television interviews. Indeed this is a rare
television interview he gave in April 1980, just weeks before he killed his
wife Hlne. The interview was broadcast by Italian Radio Television RAI
for the programme Multimedia Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical
Sciences by Renato Parascandolo, an Italian journalist, essayist and
lecturer.

Journalist: How has Althusser become Althusser?


Althusser: But this is not of any interest.
Journalist: Can you explain your journey?
Althusser: My journey is very simple. I was born in Algeria. My mother
was the daughter of alittle poor peasant from Movo, central France, who
had decided to go to Algeria to work as a forest guard. My father was the
son of an Alsacian3 , who chose to come to France in 1971, but the
Government of France deported them to Algeria. And this is how my
mother and father met each other. I lived in Algeria until 19804 . I then
lived in Marseille for six years, and later in Lyon for three years. I joined
the army for one year, then got imprisoned and sent to Germany for five
years. I returned to France where I finished my studies in Philosophy in
1948. I stayed at the cole Normale Suprieure as a professor.
Journalist: What about your intellectual and cultural journey?
Althusser: I encountered two men. The first one was Jean Guitton, who
was a catholic philosopher, a friend of Pope Saint John XXIII and a close
friend of Pope Paul VI. He helped me complete my dissertation. The other
was a professor of history, whose name was Joseph Hours. He was a
wonderful man. During the years 19361939, he talked to us about all that
had happened: the war, the defeats, the miracle of Petains defeat. He
explained how Petain had to come to power; he explained everything that
has passed wonderful. So I thought in these lines, considering that at
the same time I was a Catholic, I had established a catholic circle
[association] in the Lyce where I was studying; I was profoundly
Catholic, and had two points of view. On the one hand, there was the
church which called for considering and studying social problems with
great respect And on the other, there was this history professor [Hours], a
Catholic but GalatianJacobin; he would tell us about everything he was

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working on, an incredible world for its specificity. This is how I was
shaped.
Journalist: In which moment did you become communist?
Althusser: I became communist because I was Catholic. I did not change
religion, but I remained profoundly Catholic. I dont go to church but this
doesnt matter; you dont ask people to go to church. I remained a
Catholic, that is, an internationalist universalist. I thought that inside the
Communist Party there were more adequate means to realize universal
fraternity. And then, there was the influence of my wife who had fought in
the terrible resistance and who had taught me a lot, a lot. Everything has
come to me through women, and this is the reason why I attribute a very
important role, a predominant role, to the womens movement. Women
dont know their capacity, the possibilities, their capability to do politics.
Journalist: What role does catholic culture have today?
Althusser: Oh it has a giant role. In my view, today social revolution or a
profound social change depends on the alliance between Catholics (I am
not saying the church, though the church can also be part of it), the
Catholics of the world, all religions of the world, and communists.
Journalist: Regarding science and humanism: you have criticized the
thought of young Marx saying that he could not do philosophy without
establishing the basis of science. Now you are in the footsteps of Marxs
Capital, establishing a Marxist philosophy. Is there a Marxist
philosophy?
Althusser: Marxist philosophy does not exist, and it cannot exist. I
mentioned this a long time ago, two months after I wrote a brief
introduction for the Italian edition of Capital. After the publication of the
book, I understood that almost everything was wrong. Finally one had to
talk about the Marxist position within philosophy, but not of Marxist
philosophy. Now, I am sure and I am speaking with the experience of 15
years that a Marxist philosophy is impossible to exist, just impossible.
Journalist: Can dialectical materialism not exist either?
Althusser: They are the same thing, even worse

On Communism...
Journalist: The word auto-determination refers to the word
communism?
Althusser: Well, not for me...
Journalist: What is the difference?
Althusser: Because the word auto-determination does not have until now
any substance/content. On the other hand, communism exists. Auto-
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determination does not exist, but communism does. For example, it exists
among us here on this rooftop of Rome.
Journalist: In what sense?
Althusser: Communism is a mode of production where there are no
economic relationships of exploitation nor any political relationships of
domination. Neither are there ideological relationships of intimidation or
pressure, nor of ideological enslavement. And here among us these
relationships do not exist.
Journalist: Among us here, in this very moment?
Althusser: Yes, in this moment. There are islands of communism
everywhere across the world, for example: the church, certain trade
unions, also in certain cells/units of the Communist Party. At my
Communist Party we have a cell/unit which is communist; it means that
communism has been realized Look at how football is played, what
happens It is not about market relationships, it is not about political
domination, it is not about ideological intimidation. There are people
from [different] teams that oppose each other, they respect the rules, that
is, they respect each other. Communism is the respect for humankind.
Journalist: What is the difference between respect and love?
Althusser: There is a great difference. Look at the church. When Christ
said that you have to love your neighbor, love turns into an order; an
order according to which, by including the other, you have to love the
neighbor as yourself. But I dont want any order. Whereas respecting the
other is something that belongs to you. If you say that you have to love
others, the other becomes involved in your love, he cannot escape. And if
he doesnt care about (for) your love, what can he do. What do you do if
you insist: I have to love you, I have to love you because Christ asked me
to? You run away. But if you have respect for the other, then he will leave
you to do whatever you want. If he wants you to love him, then its fine.
But if he doesnt, its also fine. If you love him, you try to explain to the
other that you love him, but if you dont love him do whatever you like.
Journalist: Lenin said that between anarchists and Marxists there were
nine-tenths of identity and only one-tenth of difference; that communists
wanted the extinction of the state and anarchists wanted its immediate
abolishment. Do you agree?
Althusser: Yes, I agree. I am an anarchist, a social anarchist. I am not a
communist, because social anarchism is beyond communism.
Journalist: Why has it broken down, this cultural unification between
anarchism and communism?
Althusser: This is very dramatic history. You know that in the relationship
of Marx and Bakunin there was the story of the prepotent traits of Marxs
personality. It is a terrible story, just terrible. I want to say that Marx has
treated anarchists in an impossible way, unjustly. This has resulted to a
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resentment of the masses that you cannot absorb as such from one day to
another. These are things that last, just like when you have been badly
treated by the other, you would need to be Christ in order to speak to him
again; you cannot forgive, nor can you forgive for others. How can you
violate people like this and have no respect for them, like Marx did to
Bakunin?5 Bakunin was a little crazy, but this doesnt mean anything. We
have many crazy people everywhere; I am also crazy.

On Revolution...
Journalist: Lets speak for the revolution in the West. What are the
historical conditions today in order for a revolutionary process to
emerge in the West today?
Althusser: This is a very difficult question that goes beyond our field of
research. Its very difficult. For instance, lets take the situation in Italy
which is blocked, as well as in France. However, in my opinion, it is more
blocked here in Italy than France, although this is more of a hypothesis.
Lenin has provided the general conditions. It is always true that those
who are at the top cannot govern anymore, and those who are at the
bottom cannot continue to be governed like this anymore. [This] is a
condition. But this condition does not exist yet. People who are at the top
cannot anymore govern, this is true; but people who are at the bottom
workers, peasants, intellectuals, etc are still able to support the existing
regime; they still support it. It is enough to say that when a regime is
rejected by those at the bottom, then the revolution will break out.
Journalist: So, you say that the eruption of the socialist revolution will
happen only thanks to the crises of the capitalist modes of reproduction?
Althusser: Capitalist modes of reproduction are always in crisis. It is
Marxs definition of capitalism, that is, capitalism is always in crisis; in
other words crisis is normal for capitalism.
Journalist: You say that ideological state apparatuses are very
important structures for domination of one class...
Althusser: Yes, I do. But I emphasize ...of the state, and this is a problem,
because everyone is used to the term ideological apparatuses. I did not
know that Gramsci had used the term hegemonic apparatus; it is the
same thing, only that the state disappears. I am very careful on keeping
the state, because it is the most important thing: these are ideological
apparatuses of the state. Of course, it depends a lot on the definition that
you give to the state. You have to give another definition to the state,
instead of the classic definition given by Marx, because Marx did not
understand anything about the state. Yes, he understood that [the state]
was an instrument of the dominant class, this was right, but didnt
understand anything with regard to the functioning of the state, or lets
say the space of the state.
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Journalist: For example, Gramsci too spoke about newspapers, noting


that regardless whether they are public or private, [newspapers] are
nevertheless hegemonic apparatuses.
Althusser: Yes, I do agree completely.
Journalist: Now, the apparatuses of reproduction are not limited to the
means of mass communication, such as parties, trade unions, and
families. For instance, factories too produce certain apparatuses of
reproduction (e.g. hierarchy, career, etc.)
Althusser: Oh, yes, yes, of course. I didnt speak about this, but it is
correct.
Journalist: You are known, above all, for the creation of a new notion
overdetermination. Can you explain this concept?
Althusser: I developed this concept through Freud. And I used it in a
theoretical field that doesnt have any connection with Freud. Currently,
you cannot establish any relationship between the thought of Freud and
Marx, except in the relationship to philosophy, that of philosophical
analogy materialism, and so on. I used it to talk about various things in
reality of society, historical events. [The concept] is not always
encountered as determination, but also as overdetermination or
underdetermination. This is not simple, but in plural; in this plural,
there is a plural in more or in less of determination that you think, or
that you believe that you think, that you believe you obtained of your
research.
Journalist: Can you give an example?
Althusser: For example, the case of Stalin. A very overdetermined case.
The explanation that Khrushchev gave, in short, was that Stalin was crazy.
He became crazy. This is a determined explanation. But, it is more than
clear that it is insufficient; that this explanation is not enough to
understand the personality and the world of Stalin. Other
determinations are needed overdetermination and
underdetermination because when you believe that you have
understood the pillars of determination, you dont know where exactly
you are in reality, in front of reality, it can be that you are over-reality or
under-reality. You should go up, beyond, or under.
Journalist: Over-reality means that you are forward in respect to
reality?
Althusser: It means that, in general, you are late in reality. It may happen
that in certain situations for example, poets, musicians, and utopian
philosophers, are ahead of reality. For instance, here [on the rooftop], we
are certainly late in reality. Absolutely. Because we do not recognize
[reality], we only try to recognize it.
Journalist: We are underdetermined?
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Althusser: Yes, underdetermined.


Journalist: Ernest Bloch said that the destiny of man is to be always
anachronistic, to live always before their history, or to live their own
history by thinking as they were thinking 20 years ago, or one century
ago.
Althusser: Yes, they are always late. Its true, but he did not help. He was
speaking for others, not for himself.

Politics
Journalist: Your method of work is to study, no...
Althusser: I tend to do that; I consider it the most important thing for
everything. I think that the word order is the number one word. Then,
the change of thinking, change in the way of thinking; and then,
afterwards, change in the way you act. This means change the way to
organize, to mobilize, to make others understand things, to encourage
people to act, to organize actions in trade unions, in politics, and so forth.
Journalist: This means to change also the way of doing politics. What is
politics?
Althusser: What is politics? [Laughing]. To act for freedom and equality.
Journalist: What does it mean to know how to do politics, for example?
Althusser: It means to be conscious of the real relationships between men
who have ideas about politics and other things.
Journalist: You once used a metaphor that said to know how to do
politics, you need to know how to play the piano. What does it mean?
Althusser: Yes, it was Maos words. I explained it in an article which will
be published it is not necessary to repeat it today.
Journalist: Another story that you have told is that of the oak tree and
donkey...
Althusser: Well, that is a very simple story. I have been told that Lenin
told this story when he was in Switzerland. He tried to explain to people
that they needed to change their way of thinking. The story goes like this.
It takes place in Russia, in a rural, semi-deserted area. Around 3 oclock in
the morning, a man named Ivan is awakened by strong knocks on the
door, while sleeping at his home. He wakes up, goes to the door to see
what is happening. At the door he finds a young man called Gregori who
is screaming: There is a horrible thing, horrible... please come with me.
The young Gregori takes Ivan to a field, in the center of which there is a
magnificent tree, an oak tree. It is night and one cannot see very well.
Young Gregori says: Do you know what they did to me? They gave back
my oak tree to the donkey. But the fact remains that a donkey was tied up
around the oak tree. and Ivan responds: You are totally crazy, Gregori.
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Its enough to change your thinking. Dont say that they tied up the oak
tree to the donkey, but that they tied up the donkey around your oak tree
instead.
Journalist: I dont have any questions to do unless you have to say
something.
Althusser: Can we go to the beach? It is a beautiful day.
The last minute of the interview, which has not been translated here, is a
brief dialogue between the journalist and Althusser. Althusser is curious
about the cupola of the church he was seeing from the terrace, which is, in
fact, the cupola of San Pietro church of the Vatican. When the journalist
explains to him that the cupola is the place where the Pope lives,
Althusser says that he is ready to go and visit the Pope at any time
during the day, night, winter, and summer encouraging the journalist to
join him.

1This interview was conducted for a television program. Many sentences are
cut off in the middle and are sometimes confusing. In transcribing this
interview, we have tried to remain as faithful as possible to the original
version.
The original interview can be watched
2

here: http://bit.ly/AlthusserInterviewRAI
3 Translator's note: a person from Alsace region.
4Althusser makes a mistake when he speaks about the year in which he moved
to France and when he finished his studies. We dont know whether this is
due to the language barriers. However, Althussers father moved his family to
Marseile in 1930. He finished his diplme d'tudes suprieures in 1947, under
the direction of Gaston Bachelard.
5Translators note: In the interview, Althusser says Bukharin instead
Bakunin. It might have been a mistake by Althusser since he was speaking
about the tensions between Marx and Bakunin, and not Marx and Bukharin.
Moreover, Bukharin was born on 1888, whereas Marx died in 1883, showing
how any tension between Marx and Bukharin was not possible.

Translated by Ron Salaj