A note on Althusser

I was recently reading Althusser's book On The Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. I was interested by his formulation (elaborated on in Appendix 1) of the relations of production as primary over the forces of production.

Let me clarify this a little more. Althusser, and all good Marxists, say that the relations of production (the economic relations which govern the world-system) and the forces of production (the physical machines which produce things, and on a more abstract level 'technology') are in a dialectical relationship, where each affects the other and is formed by the other. He then further goes on to say that the relations of production, in this relationship, take primacy over the forces of production. What does this mean?

The concept of primacy here is a complex one, so let's first clear up what this does not mean. For examples here I'll use the perhaps less fraught dialectic of the "base" and "superstructure"—or, which is the same, the dialectic of "materialism" and "idealism". Now, as we all know, Marx was a historical materialist: hence he thought that the motor of history was not the struggles of ideas, as did e.g. Hegel, nor the actions of Great Men who embody an idea, but rather the economic, material class system and the class conflict that arises from it.

Does this mean that Marx thought that all of history could simply be reduced to the effects of class struggle? Does this mean that ideology can all be easily traced back to a material cause? No. Here I will quote Engels on the subject:

According to the materialistic conception of history, the production and reproduction of real life constitutes in the last instance the determining factor of history. Neither Marx nor I ever maintained more. Now when someone comes along and distorts this to mean that the economic factor is the sole determining factor, he is converting the former proposition into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis but the various factors of the superstructure – the political forms of the class struggles and its results – constitutions, etc., established by victorious classes after hard-won battles – legal forms, and even the reflexes of all these real struggles in the brain of the participants, political, jural, philosophical theories, religious conceptions and their further development into systematic dogmas – all these exercise an influence upon the course of historical struggles, and in many cases determine for the most part their form.
—Friedrich Engels

In short: the material world only determines history in the "last instance", that is: history can be influenced by many things, but when "push comes to shove", what really matters is the material world. Another formulation of this is Marx's famous statement that "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already." Bringing this back to the dialectic of the forces and relations of production (both of which, note well, are part of the economic "base" of society, or the material world, rather than the superstructure), when Althusser says that the relations of production are primary over the forces of production, he is saying that ultimately, when "push comes to shove", economic relations determine what technology is used to produce things.

What, concretely, does this mean for Althusser's political program? Althusser contrasts his view to the perhaps more "orthodox" Second International view of e.g. Plekhanov, which is that the forces of production have primacy over the relations of production. This view is that a change in the relations of production occurs, in the words of Marx, when "the productive forces that [the current relations of production are] spacious enough to hold have been developed"—that is, that the world's productive forces develop until they are in contradiction with the relations of production (for example, when production is socialised, made communal, to such an extent that to further develop it would necessitate large-scale economic planning), at which point current economic system ceases (at least in many important ways) to promote innovation and instead "fetters" the productive forces. Althusser says that this view would mean that Lenin and Mao should not have carried out a socialist revolution in their countries, because the productive forces were not "ripe": rather than being highly advanced countries, Russia and China were backwaters of the world economy.

But hang on a second, back up–it seems somewhat unmarxist, indeed idealist, to say that economic relations, which though material in one way are in another way ideal, are the final determiner of the actually material means of production. Althusser recognises this, and makes pains to state that "the primacy of the relations of production over the productive forces should not be indiscriminately invoked, but invoked on the basis of, and within the limits set by, the objectively existing forces of production." This language seems suspect to me. It seems to me that Althusser here is saying that, "in the last instance", or in the "limit case", the forces of production actually determine the relations of production! And indeed, his language here is very similar to Marx's words above stating the primacy of the material over the ideal: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already." In other words, the ideas and actions of men have an effect, even a huge effect, but only within the limits of the material circumstances they find themselves in.

So if Althusser recognises that the limit to the power of the relations of production is the material state of the forces of production, in what sense are the relations of production primary over the forces of production? It is instructive at this point to look to Althusser's essay Contradiction and Overdetermination. In this article Althusser proposes that by taking the concept of the dialectic from Hegel Marx has altered it. In Hegel, apparently (I am not a Hegelian scholar), the contradiction proceeds its development as a thing in itself: it is not affected by outward forces, or other contradictions. The unfolding of this contradiction may create some situations that outwardly appear to be complex, but every facet derives ultimately from the basic forces at work within the contradiction. In Marx, however, the world is not so simple: though the main contradiction in world-history is the contradiction of the classes, its unfolding is affected by multiple other contradictions. Althusser names this "overdetermination", because the situation is determined not only by the main contradiction but by the various other factors in the first instance. Althusser says that although in the "last instance" the main contradiction, and the primary side of that contradiction, is the engine of history, the "last instance" will never come. To draw on mathematics for a minute, it might be best to think of this conception of the last instance as a limit as time goes to infinity, which will always be approached but never necessarily reached.

Now I can finally propose a different formulation to Althusser's. We have seen that although he says that the relations of production are primary over the forces of production, he qualifies this by stating that the forces of production impose a limit on the relations of production. I argue that the forces of production are still, as was traditionally thought, primary over the relations of production: but I qualify this by adding: "in a world-historical sense", or equivalently "in the last instance". (This qualification is arguably implicit in a good understanding of dialectics, but it is best to be explicit.) But how do I reconcile this with, for example, my support of Lenin and Mao in their revolutions? I'll here draw from Althusser's other, perhaps less hasty, idea of overdetermination. Though in general the forces of production are primary over the relations of production, in the case of Lenin and Mao the relations of production were primary over the forces of production. For imperialism had intervened, and the natural progress of the forces of production was being fettered by a underdevelopment caused by the way the West was exploiting their countries. As the forces of production had been fettered, the relations of production had to change in order to develop them: hence the relations of production were primary in that context. I would even go further and argue that the relations of production are the primary side in this contradiction in all of the world today, as the forces of production are no longer sufficient to produce the endless growth which capitalism, the relations of production, requires: hence the increasing financialisation of the economy (that is, investment of value in primarily financial instruments that derive value from "thin air" rather than investment in traditional companies that, er, make things) that led to the 2008 crash and that is still ongoing today. Indeed, perhaps relations of production overcame forces of production the day that socialism gained widespread currency, for then the forces of production could not proceed any further with socialisation of production without empowering the trade-union movements.

So though, for practical purposes today, the relations of production are primary to the forces of production, the forces of production are still "in the last instance" primary over the relations of production.