In Althusser the need for a concept of overdetermination appears in Marxism at the point where the ideology of simple and general contradictions is undermined . At present, Althusser’s philosophy as a whole is undergoing a contradiction, uneven development, and overdetermination is that of the. Richard L. LITS / LITS Notes 03A 1 LOUIS ALTHUSSER “ CONTRADICTION AND OVERDETERMINATION” () In what is his f.

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I could go further, and suggest that in the well-known passage: How should we really understand its use in this quotation? From The German Ideology onwards we know that such an undertaking would be meaningless.

We are now concerned with the dialecticand the dialectic alone. The shell, the mystical wrapping speculative philosophyshould be tossed aside and the precious kernel, the dialectic, retained. But in the same sentence Marx claims that this shelling of the kernel and the inversion of the dialectic are one and the same thing, How can an extraction be an inversion?

Let us look a little closer. We could therefore take over the dialectic from him and apply it to life rather than to the Idea. But such an inversion in sense would in fact leave the dialectic untouched. Even in the rapidly written lines of the afterword to the second edition of Das Kapital Marx saw this difficulty clearly.

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By the accumulation of metaphors, and, in particular, in the remarkable encounter of the extraction and the inversion, he not only hints at something more than he saysbut in other passages he puts it clearly enough, though Roy has half spirited them away.

It would be difficult to indicate more clearly that the mystical shell is nothing but the mystified form of the dialectic itself: It is not enough, therefore, to disengage it from its first wrapping the system to free it. It must also be freed from a secondalmost inseparable skin, which is itself Hegelian in principle Grundlage. We must admit that this extraction cannot be painless; in appearance an unpeeling, it is really a demystificationan operation which transforms what it extracts.

It is hardly worth pointing out that, in the first case, the application of a method, the exteriority of the dialectic to its possible objects poses a pre-dialectical questiona question without any strict meaning for Marx.

The second problem on the other hand, raises a real question to which it is hardly likely that Marx and his disciples should not have given a concrete answer in theory and practice, in theory or in practice. It also means that these structural differences can be demonstrated, described, determined and thought. And if this is possible, it is therefore necessaryI would go so far as to say vitalfor Marxism.

I say vitalfor I am convinced that the philosophical development of Marxism currently depends on this task. Lenin gave this metaphor above all a practical meaning. A chain is as strong as its weakest link.

In general, anyone who wants to control a given situation will look out for a weak point, in case it should render the whole system vulnerable. On the other hand, anyone who wants to attack it, even if the odds are apparently against him, need only discover this one weakness to make all its power precarious.

So far there is no revelation here for readers of Machiavelli and Vauban, who were as expert in the arts of the defence as of the destruction of a position, and judged all armour by its faults. But here we should pay careful attention: How was this revolution possible in Russia, why was it victorious there?

It was possible in Russia for a reason that went beyond Russia: The concentration of industrial monopolies, their subordination to financial monopolies, had increased the exploitation of the workers and of the colonies. Competition between the monopolies made war inevitable. But this same war, which dragged vast masses, even colonial peoples from whom troops were drawn, into limitless suffering, drove its cannon-fodder not only into massacres, but also into history. Why this paradoxical exception?

For this basic reason: The Great War had, of course, precipitated and aggravated this weakness, but it had not by itself created it. Already, even in defeat, the Revolution had demonstrated and measured the weakness of Tsarist Russia.

This weakness was the product of this special feature: Contradictions of large-scale capitalist and imperialist exploitation in the major cities and their suburbs, in the mining regions, oil-fields, etc. Contradictions of colonial exploitation and wars imposed on whole peoples. A gigantic contradiction between the stage of development of capitalist methods of production particularly in respect to proletarian concentration: In short, as precisely these details show, the privileged situation of Russia with respect to the possible revolution was a matter of an accumulation and exacerbation of historical contradictions that would have been incomprehensible in any country which was not, as Russia was, simultaneously at least a century behind the imperialist world, and at the peak of its development.


Lenin said this time and time again, and Stalin summarised it in particularly clear terms in his April speeches.

Contradiction and Overdetermination

The unevenness of capitalist development led, via the War, to the Russian Revolution because in the revolutionary situation facing the whole of akthusser Russia was the weakest link in the chain of imperialist states.

It had accumulated the largest sum of historical contradictions then possible; for it was at the same overdeterminatikn the most backward and the most advanced nationa gigantic contradiction which its divided ruling classes could neither avoid nor solve. In other words Russia was overdue with its bourgeois revolution on the eve of its proletarian revolution; pregnant with two revolutions, it could not withhold the second even by delaying the first.

What else did Marx and Engels mean when they declared that history always progresses by its bad side? This obviously means the worse side for the rulers, but without stretching the sense unduly we can interpret the bad side as the bad side for those who expect history from another side!

For example, the German Social-Democrats at the end of the nineteenth century imagined that they would shortly be promoted to socialist triumph by virtue of belonging to the most powerful capitalist State, then undergoing rapid economic growth, just as they were experiencing rapid electoral growth such coincidences do occur.

Conttadiction forgot that, in fact, this simple quintessence of contradiction was quite simply abstract: What is the essence of this practical experience and the reflections it inspired in Lenin? Before there wasbefore the great historical deceptions of Altnusser and Germany, before that the Commune, even earlier the German failure of How else should we summarise these practical experiences and their theoretical commentaries other than by saying that the whole Marxist revolutionary experience shows that.

How else could the class-divided popular masses proletarians, peasants, petty bourgeois throw themselves togetherconsciously or unconsciously, into a general assault on the existing regime? And how else could the ruling classes aristocrats, big bourgeois, industrial bourgeois, finance bourgeois, etc.

Contradictiln, strictly speaking, it cannot be claimed that these contradictions and their fusion are merely the pure phenomena of the general contradiction. They derive from the relations of production, which are, of course, one of the terms of the contradiction, but at the same time its conditions of existence ; from the superstructures, instances which derive from it, but have their own consistency and effectivity from the international conjuncture itself, which intervenes as a determination with a specific role to play.

In constituting this unity, they reconstitute and complete their basic animating unity, but at the same time they also bring out its nature: I am not particularly taken by this term overdetermination borrowed from other disciplinesbut I shall use it in the absence of anything better, both as an index and as a problemand also because it enables us to see clearly why we are dealing with something quite different from the Hegelian contradiction.

Indeed, a Hegelian contradiction is never really overdeterminedeven though it frequently has all the appearances of being so. Strictly speaking, only the first contradiction — between sensuous consciousness and its knowledge can be called simple. The further we progress in the dialectic of its production, the richer consciousness becomes, the more complex is its contradiction. However, it can be shown that this complexity is not the complexity of an effective overdeterminationbut the complexity of a cumulative internalisation which is only apparently an overdetermination.

In fact at each moment of its development consciousness lives and experiences its own essence the essence corresponding to the stage it has attained through all the echoes of the essence it has previously been, and through the allusive presence of the corresponding historical forms. Hegel, therefore, argues that every.

But these past images of consciousness and these latent worlds corresponding to the images never affect present consciousness as effective determinations different from itself: Because the past is never more than the internal essence in-itself of the future it encloses this presence of the past is the presence to consciousness of consciousness itself, and no true external determination. A circle of circles, consciousness has only one centrewhich solely determines it; it would need circles with another centre than itself — decentred circles — for it to be affected at its centre by their effectivity, adn short for its essence to be over-determined by them.

Ovegdetermination this is not the case. This truth emerges even more clearly from the Philosophy of History. Here again we encounter an apparent overdetermination: However, none of these determinations is essentially outside the others, not only because together they constitute an original, organic totality, but also and above all because this totality is reflected in a unique internal althuserwhich is the truth of all those concrete determinations.


Of course, this internal principle contains as echoes the principle of each of the historical formations it has superseded, but as echoes of itself — that is why, too, it only has one centre, the centre of all the past worlds conserved in its memory; that is why it is simple.

And its own contradiction appears in this very simplicity: This is the contradiction which will bring down Rome and produce its future: We have only to ask why Hegel thought the phenomena of historical mutation in terms of this simple concept of contradiction, to pose what is precisely the essential question. The simplicity of the Hegelian contradiction is made possible only by the simplicity of the internal principle that constitutes the essence of any historical period.

If it is possible, in principle, to reduce the totalitythe infinite diversity, of a historically given society Greece, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, England, and overdeterminahion on to a simple internal principle, this very simplicity can be reflected in the contradiction to which it thereby acquires a right. Must we be even plainer? This reduction itself Hegel derived overdeterminatioon idea from Montesquieuthe reduction of all the elements that make up the concrete life of a historical epoch economic, social, political and legal institutions, customs, ethics, art, religion, philosophy, and even historical events: It is why there is never for him any basic ccontradiction, no actual end to any real history — nor any radical beginning.

From that vantage point what does it matter if a people die once it has embodied the determinate principle of a moment of the Idea which has plenty more to comeonce, having embodied it, it has cast it off to add it to that Pverdetermination which is History, thereby delivering it to such and such another people even if their historical relation is very tenuous!

Let us return to Lenin and thence to Marx. For, after all, are we not always in exceptional situations? The failure of the Revolution in Germany was an exception, the contrzdiction in Paris in was an exception, the German Social-Democratic failure at the beginning of the twentieth century pending the chauvinist betrayal of was an exception.

One day it will be necessary to do what Marx and Engels did for utopian socialism, but this time for those still schematic-utopian forms of mass consciousness influenced by Marxism even the consciousness of certain of its theoreticians in the first stage of its history: They draw from them the basic notion that the Capital-Labour contradiction conntradiction never simple, but always specified by the historically concrete forms and contradictiom in which it is exercised.

What can this mean but that the apparently simple contradiction is always overdetermined? For however accurate and verified it may be in political practice, we have only so far used it descriptivelythat is, contingentlyand like all descriptions it is still at the mercy of any philosophical overdeterminatikn that happens to come along. But this raises the ghost of the Hegelian model again — not of its abstract model of contradiction, but of the concrete model of the conception of history reflected in it.

This can be quickly illustrated. For Marx, on the other hand, the material life of men explains their history; their consciousness, their ideologies are then merely the phenomena of their material life. To push this to extremes, almost to caricature: A conception of society which overddetermination over the achievements of eighteenth-century political theory and political economy, and regards every society every modern society of course; but the present reveals what was once only a germ as constituted by two societies: In other overdeterkination, schematically, by material life on the one hand and spiritual life contradoction the other.

For Hegel, material life civil society, that is, the economy is merely a Ruse of Reason. Apparently autonomous, it is subject to a law outside itself: So here again we have a way of inverting Hegel which would apparently give us Marx. It overdetemrination simply to invert the relation of the terms and thus to retain them: While for Hegel, the politico-ideological was the essence of the economic, for Marx, the economic will be the essence of the politico-ideological.

Is this a caricature?