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La politique

The approach to politics and the history of political thought in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse is marked by the priorities and methods of their main sources of inspiration: Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan.

The Cahiers pour l’Analyse is not a ‘political’ journal in the same explicit sense as its immediate predecessor and rival at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Les Cahiers Marxistes-Léninistes, but its general orientation remains faithful to Althusser’s anti-humanist commitment to a ‘science of history’ and a rigorous theorisation of political action (cf. Marxism). Volume 6 of the Cahiers is dedicated to the ‘Politics of Philosophers’, Volume 8 includes a couple of articles that engage with Rousseau’s politics (including Althusser’s own essay on The Social Contract), and several of the more programmatic Cahiers pieces deal in general theoretical terms with perhaps the main political question that preoccupied the post-Sartre generation of the 1960s (and 70s): the relation between structure and subject.

Althusser orients his teaching in line with Lenin’s prescription: ‘without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary practice’. ‘Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary workers’ movement’, since under circumstances constrained by bourgeois dominance and ideology this movement tends to be ‘spontaneously’ reformist. Science is to be the midwife of true revolutionary practice. In opposition to humanist ideological illusions like ‘man, alienation, man’s reappropriation of his species-being, the whole’, etc., ‘the Marxist science of history’, Althusser explains, ‘takes as its theoretical foundation a system of concepts: mode of production, infrastructure (productive forces and relations of production), superstructure (juridico-political and ideological), social class, class struggle, and so forth’. 1 On the basis of this genuinely conceptual foundation, Marxist theory thereby ‘enables the workers’ movement to transform itself and become objectively revolutionary; this theory alone enables it to rid itself of the theoretical and practical effects of “spontaneous” anarchist-reformist ideology. Why is Marxist theory capable of ensuring this transformation and this emancipation? Because it is not one “ideology” among others, that is a distorted and therefore subjective representation of the history of societies, but a scientific and therefore objective conception of it.’2

Althusser conceives of politics specifically as one of the several primary dimensions, levels or practices (together with the economic and the ideological) of complex, ‘overdetermined’ social orders ‘structured in dominance’. Each dimension enjoys a relative autonomy, and exerts a relatively distinct causal force upon the field of its effects. Depending on the circumstances, one or another of these dimensions will tend to play the most dominant role. Any given social instance (e.g. the balance of class forces) is then ‘over-determined’ by the ‘conjunction of different determinations on the same object, and the variations in the dominant element among these determinations within their very conjunction.’3 Analysis of such a ‘conjuncture’ and the corresponding balance of historical forces – as with Lenin’s diagnosis of the revolutionary opportunities of October 1917 – is an essential component of this Marxist science of politics. 4 (Following the publication of Reading Capital and For Marx in 1965, Althusser came to emphasise the directly political dimension of theory and philosophy more emphatically. By the time he came to write the 1967 preface to the English translation of For Marx, he acknowledged that he had ‘left vague [in For Marx] the difference distinguishing philosophy from science that constitutes philosophy proper: the organic relation between every philosophy as a theoretical discipline […] and politics.’5 Althusser accordingly proposed a new definition of philosophy as nothing other than ‘class struggle in theory’).

The Cahiers editors were influenced not only by Althusser’s political theory and priorities but also by his approach to the history of political thought. Much of Althusser’s teaching in the 1950s was devoted to philosophers who preceded and influenced Marx, including Hegel and Feuerbach. His Ecole Normale course of 1955-56, for instance, addressed ‘Problems in the Philosophy of History’, divided into four roughly equal sections on: the seventeenth century; the eighteenth century (Montesquieu, Voltaire, Condorcet, Helvétius, Rousseau); Hegel; the young Marx. In his Montesquieu: Politics and History, published in 1959, Althusser hailed Montesquieu’s proto-scientific analysis of the ‘concrete behaviour of men’, while regretting his ‘idealist’ tendency to accept the limits imposed by existing political institutions and ideological formations. In the 1960s, much of Althusser’s teaching was again dedicated to the history of political thought, with a course on Machiavelli in 1962 (the primary influence on Regnault’s article on Machiavelli and Descartes, CpA 6.2) and a course on ‘Rousseau and his Predecessors’ in 1965-66 (which determined part of the context for CpA 8, on Rousseau). 6

Jacques Lacan is not a political writer in the same sense as Althusser, of course, and the clinical focus of psychoanalysis on individual if not idiosyncratic experience is enough to block any immediate or facile application to the political domain. But as is now widely acknowledged, especially in the wake of Slavoj Žižek’s work, there is more to Lacan’s politics than his Marxist sympathies and his profound scorn for ‘the American way of life’, with all its connotations. In his early work on psychosis, Lacan already emphasised the constitutive role of ‘social tensions’ and their relative state of ‘equilibrium or disequilibrium’ in determining the ‘personality in the individual.’ As Lacan’s work developed, notes Yannis Stavrakakis,

he was led to deconstruct the whole essentialist division between [the individual and the social], by introducing a novel conception of subjectivity, a ‘socio-political’ conception of subjectivity not reduced to individuality, a subjectivity opening a new road to the understanding of the ‘objective’ […]. In this context, what is most important in Lacanian theory is that it permits a true implication or inter-implication – and not a mere ‘application’ – between psychoanalysis and socio-political analysis […]. As Ernesto Laclau has put it, ‘Lacanian theory permits the confluence between these two fields neither as the addition of a supplement to the former by the latter, nor as the introduction of a new causal element – the unconscious instead of the economy – but as the confluence of the two, around the logic of the signifier as a logic […] of [real] dislocation […, the] logic which presides over the possibility/impossibility of the construction of any identity’ […]. What reveals the major political significance of Lacan’s work is the fact that his split subject is coupled by a ‘split object’, a split in our constructions of socio-political objectivity. 7

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In his ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 3.1:5-13), Lacan reminds his interlocutors that the main target of his critical efforts remains that strain of ego psychology still internationally dominant within psychoanalysis, an approach that opposes the radically decentering implications of Freudian theory for any account of subjectivity. Lacan derides the ‘managerialism’ of modern psychology as complicit in social order defined according to the mere imperatives of ‘income tax’. Lacan rejects, however, any facile correspondence between the subject of alienated labour and the subject of alienated desire, insisting that for him, there is no subject of desire, in the strict sense, but only that of fantasy. The subject of fantasy is ‘stopped up’ by the object-cause of desire (objet petit a); analysis of such a subject requires an emphasis on the externality and objectality of the cause of the subject’s desire, and with it a complex topological approach to the relations between subject, ego, fantasy, and the object-cause of desire.

The most significant work on politics in the Cahiers is contained in Volume 6, dedicated to the ‘Politics of Philosophers.’ François Regnault’s ‘La Pensée du Prince’ focuses on the gap between Machiavelli and Descartes. As with everything else, Descartes insists that politics ‘must be founded on reason’ (CpA 6.2:24), understood in terms that effectively serve to rationalise submission to the established order of things (CpA 2.2:28). Since we cannot judge the wisdom of divine Providence, since ‘there are no clear and distinct ideas in politics’, so then ‘one must therefore wager that the King who reigns is the good one’ (CpA 6.2:29). Machiavelli, by contrast, is prepared to consider the repressed history that lies behind the actual acquisition (i.e. usurpation) of political power, and to address directly the implications that accompany such insight. In the extract of Machiavelli’s Discourses reproduced as CpA 6.3, Machiavelli assumes that every republic or religion rests on a certain ‘virtue [virtù]’, to which it must periodically return (as the result of chance, or through exemplary action, or a result of deliberate planning) in order to revitalise itself.

Bernard Pautrat, in his article on Hume’s political theory (‘Du sujet politique et de ses intérêts’, CpA 6.5:69-74), acknowledges Hume as the first thinker to realise that classical theories of authority are caught in an antinomy between, on the one hand, the appeal to immemorial divine right, and, on the other, the affirmation of a voluntary social contract. Hume was the first to recognise authority simply ‘as fact and evidence, as a violence already there’, without fundamental justification – and thus as a form of power requiring continuous ‘management’ (CpA 6.5:70). With Hume, the philosophical problem shifts from legitimation of authority to the need for an account of the genesis and maintenance of authority and ‘subjection’ to authority, i.e. for a psychology of ‘obedience’. Established political authority will have to persuade the people that their real desires are not identical to their immediate desires, and to induce them, one way or another, to accept that their ‘real desire, the desire for peace and human commerce’ can only be fulfilled by ‘taking the path of blind obedience’.

The final article in CpA 6, Jacques Bouveresse’s ‘L’Achèvement de la révolution copernicienne et le dépassement du formalisme’, argues that Fichte’s attempt to overcome the limits of a merely formal (i.e. Kantian or liberal) conception of law culminates in an authoritarian if not totalitarian theory of the State. Bouveresse argues that Fichte’s insistence on the purely ‘rational’ prescription of a universally binding justice in fact leads him to endorse an irrational and ultimately disastrous theory of (proto-fascistic) political action.

The eighth volume of the Cahiers is dedicated to Rousseau. Althusser’s contribution, based on lectures at the Ecole Normale given in 1965-66, is a reading of book I chapter 6 of the Social Contract, in which Rousseau poses what he calls the ‘fundamental problem’ of the work as a whole. ‘The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before’ (Social Contract I:6). Rousseau suggests that the only feasible form of such association requires ‘the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community’ (ibid.). Althusser argues that Rousseau’s solution to this problem raises further problems that can only be avoided on the basis of several successive discrepancies. These discrepancies compromise the theoretical integrity of his argument and eventually drive Rousseau away from the terrain of political science towards the field of literature pure and simple (CpA 8.1:42).

Alain Grosrichard’s ‘Gravité de Rousseau’ (CpA 8.2:43-64) serves in part to ‘balance’ Althusser’s reading, and presents Rousseau’s work as itself a sort of conceptual balancing act, i.e. the search for a way to reconcile reference to ‘natural’ or ‘naturally balanced’ humanity with a discourse of perverted humanity ‘subjected’ to the disruptive symbolic order of civil life. Grosrichard reads The Social Contract as an extension of Emile expanded from the individual subject to the ‘people’ as a collective subject. ‘Although Emile and The Social Contract apparently develop in two independent fields, they in fact converge toward a centre which is never said as such: moral and religious ideology can only support itself by applying itself to a positive, political legality, and the political state only finds its fixed seat [assiette] with a moral and religious ideology’ (CpA 8.2:59).

Jacques Derrida’s student Patrick Hochart, in his ‘Droit naturel et simulacre’ (CpA 8.3:65-84), considers the ambivalent status, in Rousseau’s account of a social body, of his reference to natural law and to the universal or ‘general’ conception of society associated with it. He shows that Rousseau can only justify such reference through an appeal to theology, i.e. to a divine model through which the difference between universal nature and particular, ‘patriotic’ social convention is apparently abolished. An abiding symptom of his ambivalence persists, however, in the unstable relation between the original natural ‘model’ and any actual social ‘simulacrum’.

Two articles in Cahiers Volume 9 address more general politico-philosophical issues. Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6) considers, among other things, the sort of inter-subjectivity consistent with its neo-Lacanian conception of the subject. What unites the subject and the Other and ‘arranges their relations, of which we only perceive the effects, is knotted [se noue] and decided on an Other Scene, and refers them to an absolute alterity in absence, or so to speak, exponentialised [exponentiée]’ (CpA 9.6:99). No intersubjectivity can fill the lack essential to structuration, ‘except by an imaginary formation that sutures it’. Liberal and humanist politics participate in such a ‘suture’, indefinitely searching for that object which might come to fill in what they conceive as natural human ‘dissatisfaction’, and thus guarantee the transparency of inter-human relations. Any (liberal-humanist) idea of a ‘politics of happiness’ can only reinforce ‘the inadequation of the subject to the structure’. In truth, since the subject only appears ‘in the real’, through misrecognizing itself, ‘an alienation is essential to the subject’. Understood along these lines, in terms of a theatrical metaphor, the subject is better understood less as a ‘director’ than as an ‘actor’ (CpA 9.6:100).

Alain Badiou, in his ‘La subversion infinitésimale’ (CpA 9.8:118-137) evokes in passing a fundamental thesis, one that he would continue to explore in much of his subsequent work: ‘in science as in politics, it is the unperceived which puts revolution on the agenda’ (CpA 9.8:128).

Select bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis. Pour Marx. Paris: Maspero, 1965. For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969.
  • ----. Politics and History. Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: NLB, 1972.
  • ----. ‘The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy’. In The Humanist Controversy and Other Writing, ed. François Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso 2003.
  • ----. Politique et Histoire de Machiavel à Marx. Cours à l’École Normale Supérieure. Paris: Seuil, 2006.
  • Aron, Raymond. ‘Note sur la structure en science politique’. In Sens et usage du terme ‘structure’ dans les sciences humaines, ed. Roger Bastide. The Hague: Mouton & Co, 1962.
  • Badiou, Alain. L’Etre et l’événement. Paris: Seuil, 1988. Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum, 2005.
  • ----. Abrégé de métapolitique. Paris: Seuil, 1998. Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker. London: Verso, 2005.
  • Stavrakakis, Yannis. Lacan and the Political. London: Routledge, 1999.


1. Louis Althusser, ‘The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy’, 186.

2. Althusser, ‘The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy’, 161.

3. Althusser, ‘The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy’, 200-201.

4. Althusser, ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’, For Marx, 87-128.

5. Althusser, For Marx, 15.

6. See Althusser, Politique et Histoire de Machiavel à Marx. Cours à l’École Normale Supérieure (Paris: Seuil, 2006).

7. Yannis Stavrakakis, Lacan and the Political, 4, 8 , citing Ernesto Laclau, ‘Beyond Discourse Analysis’, in New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (London: Verso, 1991), 96. Stavrakakis continues: ‘Beyond his “socio-political” conception of subjectivity Lacan articulates a whole new view of the objective level, of the level of social reality, as a level whose construction (the construction of social objectivity and political identity as a closed, self-contained structure) is ultimately impossible but, nevertheless, necessary (we are necessarily engaged all the time in identity construction exactly because it is impossible to construct a full identity). In this regard, Lacanian theory is indispensable in showing that understanding social reality is not equivalent to understanding what society is, but what prevents it from being. It is in the moment of this prevention which is simultaneously generating – or causing – new attempts to construct this impossible object – society – that the moment of the political is surfacing and resurfacing again and again’ (ibid.).