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italian translations Arrow vol 4 no 2 contents
About borderlands Volume 4 Number 2, 2005



Recent Italian Translations of Althusser's Texts
on Aleatory Materialism

Louis Althusser, Sul materialismo aleatorio, edited by Vittorio Morfino and Luca Pinzolo (Milan: Unicopli, 2000).
Louis Althusser, Marx nei suoi limiti, edited by Fabio Raimondi (Milan: Mimesis, 2004).

Augusto Illuminati

trans. by Arianna Bove


1. A series of texts by Louis Althusser from the '70s and '80s has been recently translated into Italian (from Althusser 1994) and published in a complete series of Althusser's writings edited by Maria Turchetto, first for the publishing house of Unicopli and then for Mimesis. Several Italian authors (Fabio Frosini, Fabio Raimondi, Filippo Del Lucchese, Vittorio Morfino) have also recently published works on Machiavelli and Spinoza that are strongly influenced by Althusser's interpretation. These publications have placed the French thinker back on the agenda and in particular the core themes going under the names of either aleatory materialism or the materialism of the encounter.

2. Louis Althusser's writings from the '80s coincide with a very delicate period in his life, and in their repetitive and fragmentary nature, suffer from the scant control the author exercised over his late production. Nonetheless, they take the most innovative element of his thought to extreme levels, and are today perfectly in synch with the historical conjuncture and the (hopefully productive) crisis of communist intellectuals and movements. The reflections presented in Sul materialismo aleatorio (Althusser 2000) correspond to the lack of foundations for a revolutionary project, and coincide with the greatest opening up of possibilities, rather than with the cogent necessity of old models.

3. If not now, after the forced abandonment of any dialectical providentialism, when can Machiavelli's lesson on fortuna be better learnt?   There are two moments of great awareness of the casual necessity of revolution: at the apex of success and in the abyss of desperation. A day earlier was too soon, a day later too late - as Lenin said of the 7th of November, immediately seizing a revolutionary opportunity resulting from unique and contingent circumstances, the loss of which would have been irrecoverable for decades. Given a discouraging series of defeats, or worse, of break-ups, the situation today is reversed. But the awareness of an imperceptible fluctuation and of the irrecuperability of the opportunity is equally alive.   The movements that have substituted for the defeated Bolshevik and social democratic parties now fluctuate between the crests and troughs of the big waves; the instability of their means of organisation and mobilisation is adequate to the aleatory character of historical events.      

4. According to Althusser there is a formidable yet misunderstood tradition of aleatory materialism - of rain, deviation, of encounter and capture: the Epicurean and Lucretian rain of atoms, where a small clinamen imprints a chance combination, the parallel flow and the Spinozian entanglement of the infinite series of modifications of the two attributes of thought and extension, the Machiavellian ability to seize fortuna by the hair at the right moment, realising in the moment all of its virtù-potenza. This is also helped by the virtù of the fox and the (Spinozian!) power of the individual or the Prince to succeed in transforming sad passions into joyous ones. Fortuna faces the void with no other guarantees, it seizes the opportunity in short-circuits that could also be missing, almost secularising the relation between the mystic and God in negative theology. A materialism of the encounter and of contingency poses as a totally alternative theory and opposes the various materialisms of necessity and teleology; these are in the last instance the forms of a masked idealism, variations on the great theme of Western metaphysics, of the logocentrism that postulates the priority of Meaning over everything real. The most sophisticated oblivion of the materialism of encounter is the one that takes contingency to be the realm of human freedom - removed from the common empire of nature.   Rather than consoling ourselves with such a complacent view of contingency as the modality or exception of necessity, we should think of necessity as the becoming necessary of the encounter of contingencies. The birth of a world from the clinamen of atomic rain calls for a radical interpretation: the very existence of atoms only reaches them from the deviation and the encounter, before which they only lead an imaginary existence.   For Althusser the world is an accomplished fact where Meaning, Reason, End etc. are established a posteriori , yet it is the pure effect of contingency: before it all we have is the unreal existence of atoms, the non-world, and an unaccomplished fact. In this sense that with him we can read Ludwig Wittgenstein's saying: Die Welt is alles, was der Fall ist (Tractatus logico-philosophicus 1), which literally means: the world is everything that be-falls, everything that is the case (fall, occurrence, chance).

5. The secret philosophy of the encounter runs from Epicurus to Marx in contraposition to every philosophy of essence, logos, origin and telos, of the rational, whether moral-religious or aesthetic Order; it rejects the Whole in favour of dissemination and disorder, it thinks of origin as nothingness and shapeless, it "catches a moving train" (Althusser 2006c) and, with strong arms, jumps on the wagon that runs from eternity like Heraclitus' water, without knowing where it comes from and where it's going. Through Althusser's image we see in the materialist philosopher almost an IWW activist who travels through America to trigger off strikes, hiding from the cops and beating the industrial centres and mine pits along the railway...

6. The genealogy of aleatorism that starts with atomism goes through Machiavelli (cfr. University lectures of 1962 and 1972, translated into Italian as Althusser 1999a and into English as Althusser 1999b), Spinoza (who rejects any transcendental reassurance from practice and knowledge), even through a certain Hegel (who circularly cancels the subject and the end in the process), through Nietzsche (the herald of the predominance of deviation over a linear path, of residue over origin), and it culminates in Deleuze and Derrida, with the understanding of limit as the absolute condition of each action and thought. All is repeated and only exists in differential repetition. Deconstruction concludes that the 'void is philosophy itself', its infinite possibility with no obligation or attractions. Like history, it is the factual result of a combination of elements, effect without cause, born of the occasional encounter of virtù and fortuna.

7. Marx and Engels's place in this current of materialism is far more problematic than in Pour Marx and Lire le Capital. A relatively more compact positing of the problem can be found in the unpublished 1978 essay Marx dans ses limites (Althusser 2006a), recently translated into Italian and edited by Fabio Raimondi (Althusser 2004). The text is incomplete and refers to previous texts that are explicitly mentioned in the work, in particular those on the ideological state apparatuses. It also contains anticipations of a later project on a subterranean history of aleatory materialism. In the previous two years Althusser had publicly and decisively intervened on two occasions and definitively, though late, broken his ties with the PCF. One was during a lecture at La Sorbonne on the 16th of December 1976, presented to French young communists; the other was during a debate organised by the radical newspaper Il Manifesto in Venice on the 11-13th of November 1977 (Althusser 1979), to which followed the publication of the important essay 'Il marxismo come teoria "finita"' ['Marxism as "finite" theory'] in the newspaper dated April 4th , 1978. During these years the analysis of Machiavelli (and of solitude!) is drawn and   the late '80s approach, paralleled by the tragic murder of his wife and two clinical internments. Contemporary analyses of Machiavelli and Marx have a profound significance. They deal with the question, raised by the Florentine, of how to develop a political action on the basis of a situation of decadence and corruption, of taking initiative whilst counting on nothing and occupying the place of the impossible, and operating on a rupture that connects novelty and beginning. What we need for the regeneration of Marxism and communism is a practical theory that thinks the unthinkable again and takes into account the aleatory character of history. Politics has become unthinkable because it has been swallowed up in the mortal grip between party and state. Marx is not without responsibility for this, in that his limits inhibited the development of a theory that did not rely on the (reversed) mechanism of alienation and fetishism - a Hegelian heritage aggravated by the persistent illusion that Feuerbach signals its reversal and materialist realisation.

8. In the 1978 essay cited above (Althusser 2006a), Althusser rigorously develops the premise of class struggle as a process without a subject, which entails that no single intellectual (Marx or Engels for instance) or collective intellectual (the Party) can impose revolutionary ideas, of which he/she is supposedly the original author, over it. In other words, it is unthinkable that anyone can apply an idea from the outside, personal or impersonal, on a conflictual dynamic as a possible solution to it. We are at the antipode of the degenerative phenomenon that led Kautsky and Lenin, with opposing intentions, to place revolutionary consciousness outside of the working class, thus abandoning it to mere economism.   This is another example of that separation between knowing and not knowing, between managers and subordinates, which is the essence of any class power or of universal history as the history of the victorious, as Walter Benjamin would have said. The reactionary mythology of the party was not Marx's; however, it recalls the subjectivist historicism of the Thesen über Feuerbach, still entrenched in that Fichtian-Feuerbachian orientation that he tried to correct. The anticipated return to 'things in themselves' was a 'delirious but interesting philosophy of history', still innocent but later capable of producing poisonous fruits. Things got worse when Engels legitimated the continuity with previous traditions - through the infamous theory of the three sources of Marxism: German philosophy; British political economy; and French socialism - a reassuring genealogy that blurs ruptures and subversions, reducing the three mentioned threads respectively to dialectical materialism, scientism and philosophy of history. Hence the recurring Marxian problem of breaking the illusion of an Origin and a correlative End or Meaning of history is in place and doubles the yearning for transparency in an ordered succession of modes of production and their progressive evolution through the exhaustion of their productive forces and shifts to the successive mode.

9. The decisive turning point, as shown by the critical, reticent and failing stance of 1875 against the Gotha program, lies in the difficulty for theory to deal with the issue of the state and for practice to manage the relationship with the first party-form: German social democracy. In this respect, it is important to note Althusser's reformulation of the 'separate' character of the state, which, rather than a mere reflection of the process of alienation (as in the writings of the young Marx), is a 'machine', as in the political writings between Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Napoleon (1852) and the experience of the Commune in 1871. How is it a machine and how is it separate? It is separate from class struggle as a means of external control over it, it is not traversed by it more than marginally, yet is ready to intervene in order to maintain the system of exploitation and eventually to lead a class struggle within the dominant class, to avoid divisions and repress the sectors that threaten to weaken it (see De Gaulle against Pétain or Roosvelt's New Deal at a time of social crisis). The state is a machine in so far as it transforms an energy (the violent force of the ruling class) into another energy (the exercise of 'legal' power through a body of loyal functionaries, whatever their class) with the aim of ensuring the material conditions of reproduction that allow for the perpetuation and evolution of relations of production and exploitation: the shortening of the working day; public works to contain unemployment levels; the keeping of public order; and a whole range of 'police' actions -   from repression to biopolitics. The differential of class struggle is transformed by the state into right, laws and norms -   in other words, governmentality. Any hypothesis of a state above the classes (as a neutral arbiter) and any illusion of investing class struggle in the state are thus rigorously rejected, as are the pretences of the autonomy of the political that had become common currency in the pseudo-Althusserian hyper-politicist wing of the Italian Communist Party at the time (see the journal Laboratorio politico ). Moreover, there is a sharper separation between the category of politics and those of state and party-state; historical innovation belongs to the former and here the contraposition of politique (conflictual initiative, inclusion of the excluded) and police (reformist governmentality) is anticipated. The former Althusserian Jacques Rancière will later expertly argue this in his La Mésentente (1995; Rancière 1998).

10. The 1982 essay Sur la pensée marxiste (translated in Italian as part of Sul materialismo aleatorio) looks back on the young Engels of Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England as the author of a philosophy without concept nor contradiction, alien to any apologies for a praxis defined as the subjective production of a Subject. Bad philosophical residues and dialectical equivocation pertained to many chapters of Das Kapital, and to a greater extent in the Antidühring, whilst Engels' original realism triumphed in the chapter on primitive accumulation of capital in Das Kapital and in the Randglossen zu Adolph Wagners Lehrbuch der politischen Ökonomie (1879-1880), where the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value disappears, along with the negation of negation. There is a Marx who conceives of the mode of production as the aleatory encounter of the owner of money and the proletarian deprived of everything; this encounter has taken place and has produced an accomplished fact that can be described through the laws of tendency after the event.   But there is also a Marx who imagines this combination essentially as necessary a priori, as a structure that generates its elements in order to reproduce itself. For that Marx individual stories no longer fluctuate in history as atoms in a void and the bourgeoisie is destined to decompose the feudal mode of production in order to generate one anew, etc. ('Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre', 1982 - Althusser 2006b). Only the former Marx is useful to us in the age of globalisation, of the dematerialisation and flexibilization of labour (all of which were greatly anticipated in an essay of 1985).   Althusser acutely intuits the shift from traditional politics to ideology, the primacy assumed by economic automation (an anarchic economy indeed), and the employment of showmen on the scene of a circus politics: Reagan in the US then; Berlusconi in Italy now. The conclusion is rather sceptical: we find some elements of critique, but no overall strategic prospects or anything that can forecast the future and found a new Principality.  

11. We could mistrust an aleatorism still too anchored to the effectiveness of the negative, to the mystical void that prevails on any formalism like nothingness on any form (Althusser 2006b). However, this method is fertile at a time when a new diagram of relations between language, labour and politics posits the question of an alternative between communism and the power of control and exploitation again as a non-dialectical alternative determined by an encounter of elements, and on that basis by the subjectivation of new figures of class struggle. In other words, dialectics are non-conciliatory and founded on an uneven and overdetermined contradiction that constantly reproduces its own conditions of existence through the contradiction itself. Althusser's return to Machiavelli's notion of 'chance' and his reflections on the relation between virtù and fortuna obviously leads him to assume the primacy of the relation between things over their intimate essence and that of aleatory materialism over any theology or teleology of the Cause. It thus becomes impossible to predict an end and an origin with respect to the event.   From this perspective the most innovative category elaborated by the Italian thinkers of operaismo, which found a popular expression at the international level in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's diptych Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004), is notoriously unsatisfactory. Such ideology risks slipping into the dialectical illusion of an inevitably positive outcome of the dis-measure created between the power of cooperation of the multitude and the imperial institutions of control (despite episodes of war and barbaric regressions). But what guarantees the positivity of the multitude and its inevitable seizure of a power reduced to the parasitic surface of the social power of cooperation?

12. The power of the multitude certainly exceeds structural relations and institutional representation, but not to the extent that, like Christ, it can bear on itself the whole weight of redemption, of a second creation from nothingness. The dis-measure of the multitude is, so to speak, lateral rather than preordained; it is neither omnipotent nor does it stand above the course of the world. Its conflictual nature is never resolved in absolute democracy and even less so in a fusion. It can only be an 'idle' community. It is not a subject, even though it produces subjectivity and praxis. Typically, it is praxis without a subject that alone allows for a reversibility of individual bodies and social practices, of singularity and transindividuality and builds provisory collective subjectivities. The lack of the subject coincides with the moment of impotence that makes this omnipotence - denied by the facts - problematic and paves the way for a wise and careful examination of internal inconsistencies, negative factors, and links to the imperial and capitalist command.

13. The risk is falling into the dialectical temptation of reversing imperial homogeneity into multitudinal homogeneity, swinging between the pretence of an accomplished victory that only needs perfecting, and the epochal delusion that awaits around the corner at the first difficulty faced by the movement. The recourse to imperial war crumbles any assumed homogeneity like the two world wars denied Kautsky's prediction of ultra-imperialism. The effective subjectivation of the cooperative collective labourer has very tortuous itinerary, and promises of non violence, the demure seduction of the voluntary sector and entrepreneurial self-valorisation will not contribute to it; even less the rhetoric of nomadism.

14. The lack of a Marxist theory of organisation of class struggle - which Althusser pointed out in Venice in 1977 (Althusser 1979) - and the age of politics as the oblivion of politics, following the humorous paraphrasing of Badiou in the famous Heideggerian formula, converge in the denunciation of the statalisation of revolution and party, of their substantial failure after a brief and despicable historical realisation.

15. The suggestive element in Althusser is his definition of Marxism as a finite and limited theory, i.e., as solely relative to the overcoming of capitalism, and more generally a non-teleological theory open to the flaws of aleatorism. Perhaps Badiou goes a step further: democracy is the positioning of the particular under the law of the universality of political will, the conjunction between singular and political situations that follows from an egalitarian prescription, the lack of which causes the return of the manifestations of a state particularism that creates exceptions and subaltern categories. Democratic politics creates spaces for emancipation from the community and from the state and keeps declaring the impossibility of non-egalitarian statements. It relies on the latest injustice to cure it, beyond any mass programme or feature, and is wary of the insidiousness of institutional subordination inherent to any subversive initiative. Let us recognise that in this way the Marxian link between exclusion and inter-modal class - i.e. the capability of shifting from one to another mode of production - is weakened. However plausibly defined as another term for labour-force more than the biopolitical aspect of human kind, the multitude has no coherence and its role remains far from that of the Marxian industrial proletariat. The loss of a latent providential design is one and the same as the loss of an all-rounded socio-economic profile. However, theory cannot afford to regret the loss of a gone reality, it should rather engage in decomposing and negating the present one.


Augusto Illuminati is Ordinary Professor in Philosophy at the University of Urbino.   In the past Augusto was involved in the political activity of the extra-parliamentary left, and during the '70s and '80s he contributed to the magazines Alfabeta and Luogo Comune.   He is currently a regular columnist for the daily newspaper Il Manifesto .   His books include   Esercizi politici   - quattro sguardi su Hannah Arendt (Manifestolibri, 1994),  Il teatro dell'amicizia - metafore dell'agire politico (Manifestolibri, 1998), Il filosofo all'Opera (Manifestolibri, 1999), Del comune - cronache del general intellect (Manifestolibri, 2003), Bandiere: Dalla militanza all'attivismo (DeriveApprodi, 2003), and Revenge! Filosofia, cinema, rock (Manifestolibri, 2005).

Arianna Bove is an independent researcher in philosophy, involved in the making of,   where her research, articles and translations can be found.   Arianna has translated many works from Italian and French, including texts by Althusser, Foucault, Negri, Bifo, Virno, and others.   Her recent translations have appeared in A. Negri , Books For Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy (Verso, 2005) and T. Murphy and A. Mustapha (eds.), The Philosophy of Antonio Negri: Resistance in Practice (Pluto, 2005).



Althusser, L. (1978). 'La Questione dello Stato, Oggi e nella Transizione', Il Manifesto, 4 April.   (Published in French as 'Entretien', Dialectiques, 23, Spring 1978, 7-21.)

Althusser, L. (1979). 'The Crisis of Marxism', trans. G. Lock, in Il Manifesto, Power and Opposition in Post-Revolutionary Societies, London: Ink Links, 225-237.   (Originally published as 'Finalmente Qualcosa di Vitale si Libera della Cris e nella Crisi del Marxismo', in Il Manifesto, Potere e Opposizione nella Societá Post-Rivoluzionare , Rome: Alfani, 1978.)

Althusser, L. (1994). Écrits philosophiques et politiques, Vol. 1, Paris: Stock/IMEC.

Althusser, L. (1999a). Machiavelli e noi, ed. F. Matheron, Rome: Manifestolibri.

Althusser, L. (1999b).   Machiavelli and Us, ed. F. Matheron, trans. G. Elliott, London: Verso.

Althusser, L. (2000). Sul materialismo aleatorio, ed. V. Morfino and L. Pinzolo, Milan: Unicopli.            

Althusser, L. (2004). Marx nei suoi limiti, ed. F. Raimondi, Milan: Mimesis.

Althusser, L. (2006a).   'Marx in his limits', in Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-87, ed. F. Matheron and O. Corpet, trans. G.M. Goshgarian, London: Verso (forthcoming).

Althusser, L. (2006b).   'The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter', in Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-87, ed. F. Matheron and O. Corpet, trans. G.M. Goshgarian, London: Verso (forthcoming).

Althusser, L. (2006c).   'Portrait of the Materialist Philosopher', in Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-87, ed. F. Matheron and O. Corpet, trans. G.M. Goshgarian, London: Verso (forthcoming).

Hardt, M., and Negri, A. (2000).   Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardt, M., and Negri, A. (2004).   Multitude, New York: The Penguin Press.

Marx, K. (1977). Capital, Vol. 1, trans. B. Fowkes, London: Penguin.

Marx, K. (1996). Later Political Writings, ed. and trans. T. Carver, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rancière, J. (1998). Dis-agreement, trans. J. Rose, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1998). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London: Routledge.

For a bibliography of recent publications of Althusser's work in Italian, together with several introductions, prefaces, and reviews, see the website of Associazione "Louis Althusser", Milan .   As indicated in the bibliography above and in Jason Smith's prefatory note to Vittorio Morfino's essay in this issue, many of the writings mentioned here have already been published, or are forthcoming, in English translations from Verso.   All translations in this review essay, however, are by Arianna Bove - Editor.


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