The aim of this article is to question the structuralist finery in which Althusser has decked Marxism, and to demonstrate the weakness of its seams. If we find that Althusser’s theory comes apart philosophically, it will be by measuring what he says against what he says, and not against what Marx may have said, or what other readings of Marx expound as the truth of Marxism. Hence we shall restrict ourselves to Althusserian texts alone. The focus of our procedure will be the internal consistency of the texts examined; our aim will be to locate the central contradiction under which the whole system can be seen to collapse. In order to do this, an understanding of the Althusserian programme as a whole is needed. Althusser’s project (his interrogation of Marx) is to be found in the function that two key concepts—production and theory—play in it. The realization of his project (how he makes Marx talk) involves two different types of structural analysis. The ensuing ‘duplicity’ will reveal the lines of fracture in his structuralism, which will furnish the specific object of our criticism. footnote1

Althusser’s basic concepts have a dual function. The first is polemical. It challenges all other readings of Marx and lays down what it conceives to be the deviations from Marxism. The second is architectonic. It guides Althusser’s investigation into the logic of Capital. The concept of production is thus central in two ways, because it both regulates the primordial divisions of the Althusserian universe, and establishes the breaks by which scientific theory ensures its independence vis-`-vis ideology and politics.

Everything is production, and as productions, the productions have the same status. There are four kinds of production: material, political, ideological and theoretical. The unity of theory and practice is not achieved between the different productions but first of all within each of them. ‘So a practice of theory does exist; theory is a specific practice which acts on its own object and ends in its own product: a knowledge.’ footnote2

Each production obeys its own laws in the sphere in which it exercises its autonomy: ‘It is perfectly legitimate to say that the production of knowledge which is peculiar to theoretical practice constitutes a process that takes place entirely in thought, just as we can say, mutatis mutandis, that the process of economic production takes place entirely in the economy.’ footnote3

This structural autonomy of the different types of production leads to a strictly theoretical reading of Capital, a reading which does not allow itself any proof by ethics (humanism) or history. It also rejects straight away an original unity of praxis (labelled ‘Hegelian’), whether in its subject (Lukács), in its historical act (the Italian school) or its mediations (Sartre).

Although there is no original production manifested in the different types of production, there is a general concept that refers to a ‘general definition of practice’. footnote4 The productions are not unified by a common being but by a homologous form (‘the structure of a production’ footnote5 ). ‘By practice in general I shall mean any process of transformation of a determinate given raw material into a determinate product, a transformation effected by a determinate human labour, using determinate means (of ‘production’)’. footnote6

The tripartition which separates the raw material (material in one case, ideological and pre-scientific in the other: Generality I), the labour (‘means’ and ‘forces’ of labour; the axiomatic and method of a science: Generality II) and the product (object, commodity, object of knowledge: Generality III) is identical not in its terms but only in its form. This formal unity implies more than the use of the same term. By invoking the general essence of ‘production’, Marxism safeguards itself against two of its greatest temptations: a ‘technologistic’ understanding of material production and ‘Hegelianism’ in theoretical production. ‘In any practice thus conceived, the determinant moment (or element) is neither the raw material nor the product, but the practice in the narrow sense: the moment of the labour of transformation itself, which sets to work, in a specific structure, men, means and a technical method of utilizing the means.’ footnote7