The Necessity of Contingency: The Work of Louis Althusser 1945-86
Althusser’s project was to capture the originality of the conception of historical change posited by Marxism. His key concept was structural causality (overdetermination + determination in the last instance by the economy). He started with a concept of structural causality that addressed an epistemological dilemma (the role of theory in practice) but then shifted his emphasis from this epistemological problem to a political one (the primacy of politics). Finally, he arrived at a radical requestioning of social and historical ontology (the necessity of contingency and aleatory materialism).
Considered from a different aspect, Althusser’s project can be seen as an attempt to develop Marxist theory by articulating various theoretical insights from non-Marxist theory and philosophy with Marxism. What pushed him in this direction was an acute awareness of the contemporary crisis of historical Marxism.
Althusser’s significance consists in his attempt to resolve that crisis without destroying Marxism. Althusser’s initial idea was that to rescue Marxism a complete recasting of its basic concepts was necessary; and that this required the importation of various non-Marxist theories into Marxism. This would, in a sense, lead him to oppose what Marx himself had argued, so as to develop the materialist account of history that was the original core of Marx’s work.
Althusser’s project provoked much debate and criticism; and his various theoretical shifts indicate that there existed (and exist) theoretical problems that he never resolved. This is not so much Althusser’s problem as Marxism’s theoretical difficulty. That is, Althusser’s theory reflects and refracts general problems of, and for, Marxism. In this regard, this thesis will investigate what the fundamental problematic of Althusser’s theory is; and how he coped with his theoretical difficulties; and how he ultimately contributed to the development of Marxism.