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Rethinking Marxism

A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society

ISSN: 0893-5696 (Print) 1475-8059 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rrmx20

Overdetermination: Althusser versus Resnick and


Wolff
Hyun Woong Park
To cite this article: Hyun Woong Park (2013) Overdetermination: Althusser versus Resnick and
Wolff, Rethinking Marxism, 25:3, 325-340, DOI: 10.1080/08935696.2013.798968
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08935696.2013.798968

Published online: 25 Jun 2013.

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Rethinking Marxism, 2013


Vol. 25, No. 3, 325 340, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08935696.2013.798968

Overdetermination: Althusser versus


Resnick and Wolff

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Hyun Woong Park


This paper is a critical investigation of Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolffs theory of
overdetermination. I demonstrate the overall structure of Louis Althussers original
theory of overdetermination through a close examination of his major works and
compare it to Resnick and Wolffs reformulation. My main interest in this task lies not
so much in revealing the difference between the two as it does in questioning Resnick
and Wolffs understanding of Althusser as not antiessentialist enough, leaving some
essentialist moments in his works. I show that, as with his major concepts such as
determination in the last instance and structure in dominance, Althusser was so
serious and consistent that Resnick and Wolffs allegation of inconsistency is unfair.
Furthermore, I argue that these allegedly essentialist concepts are not something
that can be removed from the overall structure of Althussers theory of overdetermination as suggested by Resnick and Wolff.
Key Words: Louis Althusser, G. W. F. Hegel, Overdetermination, Dialectics, Contradiction

Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolffs project of an antiessentialist and antideterminist


reformulation of Marxism, as presented in Knowledge and Class, relies heavily on
Louis Althussers theory of overdetermination. However, whether or not their concept
of overdetermination faithfully reflects Althussers original is controversial.1 In fact,
Resnick and Wolff are not hesitant in pointing out their disagreement with Althusser.
Namely, they allege that there do exist essentialist moments in Althusser and readily
admit that their works are, to some degree, an attempt to overcome them by
extending the antiessentialist moments into those unfortunate essentialist ones.
However, various aspects of Resnick and Wolffs theory generate an impression that
they are actually departing from Althusser at a fundamental level. This recognition
raises the questions of how to understand the relation between Althussers original
theory of overdetermination and that of Resnick and Wolff and, what is more, in what
sense their theory can be characterized as Althusserian. This way of posing the
question is not for the trivial purpose of correcting labels; my concern lies in that the

1. It was not easy to find any work tackling this issue.


This article was written before our unfortunate and sorrowful loss of Steve. Even though I raise
objections to his theory of overdetermination in what follows, my respect for Steve as a radical
scholar and a passionate teacher is never undermined.
2013 Association for Economic and Social Analysis

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original idea of Althussers theory of overdetermination seems to fall from sight in


Resnick and Wolffs reformulation.
In order to clarify the relation between the two approaches to overdetermination, I
will first briefly present Resnick and Wolffs theory of overdetermination. Examination of Althussers original concept will follow; there I will closely investigate related
chapters in Althussers major works. In comparing the two approaches to overdetermination, my main interest lies not merely in revealing their difference, which
is already admitted by Resnick and Wolff, but I am more concerned with questioning
the way they conceive and problematize Althussers overdetermination, which
provides a basis for their move towards an antiessentialist reformulation of Althusser
and Marxism. As I proceed, I will show how concepts such as the distinction between
primary and secondary contradiction, determination in the last instance, and
structure in dominance, condemned by Resnick and Wolff as unfortunate moments
of essentialism in Althusser, are in fact central to Althussers concept of overdetermination. This observation will lead to questioning Resnick and Wolffs
appropriation of Althussers theory of overdetermination.

Resnick and Wolffs Theory of Overdetermination


Resnick and Wolffs (1987, 25) overdetermination as presented in Knowledge and
Class can be most succinctly described as everything determines everything.
Nothing is privileged over anything else in causal hierarchy; thus, everything is equal
in terms of effectivity. Theories that dictate otherwise are rejected as essentialist
and determinist. For them, such overdetermination operates in two dimensions:
epistemology and ontology, or social theory (49).
First, Resnick and Wolffs overdeterminist epistemology is presented as against
empiricism and rationalism, both of them broadly defined as two major Western
epistemological traditions. They reject both traditions as essentialist due to their
search for the singular truth obtained when the gap between thinking and being*
existing independently from each other*is bridged, the only difference between
empiricism and rationalism being that the former places the truth criterion in being
whereas the latter is in thinking. Against these traditions, Resnick and Wolffs
overdeterminist epistemology states that the subject and object of knowledge
overdetermine each other, neither of them being the essence or origin of truth
knowledge. Using Althussers terminology, they insist that the thought-concrete and
the concrete-real overdetermine each other.
Second, according to Resnick and Wolffs overdeterminist ontology, the social
totality is formed through the dynamic, dialectical process in which its constituent
social spheres overdetermine one another. In this formulation the traditional Marxian
approach where the economic is privileged over the noneconomic is rejected as
essentialist. Emphatically, it is stressed that no constituent sphere is more essential
than any other in forming the social totality.
What interests me is how Resnick and Wolff characterize their overdetermination in
relation to Althussers original concept. Notice that Resnick and Wolffs stance is twosided. On one hand they conceive that Althusser rightly problematized essentialist

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fallacies pervading existing Marxist tradition and thus that his theoretical system was
motivated by a grand objective of overcoming them through an antiessentialist
framework, which was represented by the theory of overdetermination. In this sense,
Resnick and Wolff maintain that their antiessentialist theory is substantially informed
by Althusser. On the other hand, they point out that the old legacy of essentialist
elements are not entirely absent in Althusser, which makes his theoretical system
subject to inconsistency. On this basis, they readily admit that their antiessentialist
project is basically an extension or a completion of Althusser, bringing him further
into the areas where he failed to pursue his antiessentialism.
In order to have a more concrete picture of how Resnick and Wolff understand
Althusser, I quote in the following those passages where they comment on his alleged
inconsistency.2
[Q1] His contribution has been to show that the usual epistemological
aspects of economic determinist positions, their empiricist or rationalist
aspects, render them outside Marxian theory, as do the parallel epistemological bases of the more or less anti-economic-determinist tendencies
within the traditional debate. However, freed of these epistemological
aspects, a kind of economic determinist argument still survives, although
just barely, in Althussers formulation of Marxian theory. The clearest
statement of this argument emerges in his conception of the overdetermined social totality as a structure of instances or aspects articulated in
dominance. (93; emphasis added)
[Q2] Apparently, Althusser cannot take that last step in extricating Marxian
theory from that debate, cannot see a way finally to let go of the ontological
sort of primacy and privilege accorded the economic in and for Marxian
theory. So he both affirms that Marxian theory cannot and does not capture
any economic or other essence of the concrete-real and yet also affirms that
for Marxian theory the social totality is approached as a structure of
instances articulated by the ultimate determinance of the economic. (93;
emphasis added)
[Q3] [D]espite the rejection of all forms of essentialism required by his
overdeterminist position, apparent concessions to economic determinism
appear often in Althussers works. His essays return repeatedly to the thorny
issue of economic determinism in the last instance, which he seems to
endorse as a feature of specifically Marxian theory. Yet in his 1962 essay
Contradiction and Overdetermination, his strong position on the antiessentialism of Marxian theory leads him to the following remarkable
statement: From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the last
instance never comes. Here Althusser comes close to accompanying the
epistemology basis of his rejection of the economic determinism debate
with a direct dismissal of economic determinism. Yet his 1974 essay Is it
Easy to Be a Marxist in Philosophy? despite his demonstration of the
polemical purpose of Marxs statements, comes close to a reading that
2. They are numbered for later use in the last section.

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affirms substantive commitment to last instance economic determinism.
(92 3)

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[Q4] Our specification of overdetermination goes well beyond Althussers


original formulation in 1963: On the Materialist Dialectic and Overdetermination and Contradiction, in For Marx . . . It is closer to his later
emphasis on the notion of a process without a subject . . . [in] Marxs
Relation to Hegel . . . [and] Reply to John Lewis. (291 2)
[Q5] Unfortunately Maos terminology refers to principal and secondary
contradictions, which connotes more and less social effectivity; we reject
this connotation . . . (80)
Q1 and Q2 show that, based on their overdetermination doubly operating in
epistemology and ontology, Resnick and Wolff point out Althussers inconsistency as
being antiessentialist in epistemology and determinist in ontology. In Q3, Resnick and
Wolff stress that Althussers slip into ontological determinism is most vividly found
when he makes two incompatible expressions: that is, determination in the last
instance and lonely hour of the last instance never comes. According to Resnick
and Wolff, the two phrases are incompatible since the former is essentialist while the
latter is antiessentialist. Q4 clearly shows that Resnick and Wolff think there was a
major change in Althussers concept of overdetermination from its early essentialist
formulation to an antiessentialist one in his later years. Since Maos theory of
contradiction is a building block in Althusser, as will be shown below, I also have
quoted their critique of Mao in Q5, in which it is implied that Resnick and Wolff trace
Althussers essentialist moments to Mao.
Taken as a whole, these quotes unambiguously verify the following: while
recognizing Althussers inconsistency, Resnick and Wolff perceive that an antiessentialism congruent with their overdetermination surely exists in Althussers theory. In
this sense, it seems that their appropriation of Althusser is meant to be more a
completion of than a departure from his thinking. The question that necessarily
follows is whether Resnick and Wolffs evaluation of Althusser is justified. In order to
verify this, I turn to a close examination of Althussers relevant works.

Althussers Theory of Overdetermination


It is first necessary to clarify where the concept of overdetermination is located
within Althussers overall theoretical system. We must remember that Resnick and
Wolff conceptualize overdetermination as operating both in epistemology and
ontology (i.e., social theory). However, this issue is a little more complicated in
Althusser. Let us start with Althussers conception of practice. Using a Marxist analogy
of the production process, practice is defined as any process of transformation of
determinate given raw material into a determinate product, a transformation
effected by a determinate human labor, using determinate means (of production)
(Althusser [1965] 1969, 166 7). Accordingly, four distinct practices are identified:
namely, theoretical, economic, political, and ideological practices. These constitute

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the social totality. In Althussers epistemology, knowledge is a result of theoretical


practice*i.e., a product of the process of production of knowledge. From this we
observe that, in Althusser, epistemology emerges at the level of spheres constituting
the totality.3 On the other hand, as we will see, the notion of overdetermination
emerges at the level of totality, or to use Resnick and Wolffs terminology, at the level
of ontology. In a word, overdetermination is a concept devised to grasp dialectical
interactions among spheres or practices forming a totality.
In light of this observation, Resnick and Wolffs way of distinguishing between
epistemology and ontology as two parallel disciplines and of problematizing Althusser
for being overdeterminist in the former while not in the latter as shown in Q3 seems
somewhat misplaced. This is because in Althusser the social totality*corresponding
to ontology*already contains the theoretical practice*corresponding to
epistemology*as its constituent sphere. In addition, since overdetermination is
operating at the level of the social totality as different social practices overdetermine each other, the theoretical practice (i.e., epistemology) cannot but be
governed by the principle of overdetermination as well. Of course, this is not to
object to a separate treatment of Althussers epistemology. Indeed, over many pages
in his works we find Althussers struggle with the relation between the subject knower
and the object known. This is reflected in the fact that Althusser changed his view on
one of the very crucial epistemological issues: science versus ideology. In his later
works Althusser rejected his early distinction between an ideological, theoretical
practice and a scientific one, but not with a complete and decisive break.
My point is that in Althussers presentation, epistemology and overdetermination
are more or less separately discussed, yet the more general aspects of epistemology
are already addressed in the theory of overdetermination as the latter describes how
the theoretical practice interacts with the other social practices. This recognition
justifies my examination of Althussers overdetermination in the rest of the paper,
excluding the specific epistemological issues related to overdetermination as raised
by Resnick and Wolff in Q1.
Now I turn to the main task of examining the related chapters on overdetermination
from the following major works by Althusser: For Marx ([1965] 1969), Reading Capital
. Balibar), Politics and History ([1964] 1972), and Essays in Self([1965] 1970, with E
Criticism ([1974] 1976).4 The first thing to note is that Althusser, at least with the
concept of overdetermination, was fairly consistent across these works. In fact,
Althusser so systematically laid out his theory of overdetermination in two chapters
of For Marx, which first dealt with the topic, and in such a rich and almost complete
form, that his subsequent works add very little, if anything, to it. In fact, the
subsequent works rather supplement and reinforce what was already said in For
Marx.5 For this reason, I will dwell longer on the chapters from For Marx than on other
post For Marx pieces.
3. In both Althussers and Resnick and Wolffs terminology, sphere and practice could safely be
used interchangeably as a constituting element of (social) totality.
4. Brackets indicate the year of the original French publication.
5. One of the few new concepts in his later works is the concept of process without a
subject, which we will deal with below.

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For Marx
As is well known, Althussers lifelong project was to establish a Marxist philosophy
that radically departed from preexisting ones. The main question he posed concerned
the specificity of Marxist dialectics in contrast to Hegelian dialectics; his answer was,
in essence, the formers complex character. Two chapters from For Marx directly deal
with this issue. In chapter three, Contradiction and Overdetermination, Althusser
compares the Marxist concept of contradiction with the Hegelian concept and
strenuously demonstrates that the former is characterized by its complexity while the
latter is simple. On the other hand, in chapter six, On Materialist Dialectic, the
concrete meaning of the complexity of Marxist theory is elaborated in detail;
notice, moreover, that for this he relies on Maos theory of contradiction. The
concept of overdetermination emerges in this very context: Althusser throughout
these two chapters strenuously demonstrates Marxist contradiction as
overdetermined contradiction in contrast to Hegelian simple contradiction. Hence,
key to Althussers overdetermination is capturing the full meaning of complex, key
to which, in turn, is his discussion of Maos theory of contradiction. As can be seen,
Maos theory is a building block of Althussers investigation into Marxist dialectic. So
let us first examine chapter six and then chapter three.

On Materialist Dialectic
In the chapter On Materialist Dialectic, Althusser thoroughly examines Maos
theory of contradiction as a way to answer the question of the specificity of Marxs
dialectic. The crucial elements in Maos theory of contradiction, according to
Althusser, are the distinction between principal and secondary contradictions, the
distinction between principal and secondary aspects of each contradiction, and the
uneven development of contradiction. Althusser ([1965] 1969, 194) notes that,
These concepts are presented to us as if thats how it is. We are told that they are
essential to the Marxist dialectic, since they are what is specific about it, and he
continues, It is up to us to seek out the deeper theoretical reasons behind these
claims. Althussers subsequent undertaking of this task in On Materialist Dialectic
can be summed up as highlighting four essential aspects of Maos theory of
contradiction: plurality with difference, relativity (or unfixedness), mutual conditioning, and structure.6 The specificity of Marxist dialectic, as understood by
Althusser, comes into light as he elaborates on these four aspects.
(1) Plurality with difference: Althusser makes an insightful comment that the
principal/secondary contradiction distinction necessarily presupposes the existence
of many contradictions since no distinction whatsoever would be possible in case of
the existence of only one contradiction (194). In the sense that contradiction is
plural, not singular, it is complex.7 Hegels totality as well appears to have many
6. This categorization is mine.
7. Althusser quotes Mao ([1965] 1969, 194): A simple process contains only a single pair of
opposites, while a complex process contains more.

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constituent spheres with their own contradictions. However, Hegelian idealism


conceives those spheres as mere phenomenal moments of the essence of the totality,
and the variety of contradictions simply as a phenomenon of one essential contradiction. Therefore, in Hegel the seemingly complex process with plural contradictions
is merely a result of development*or alienation in Hegelian terminology*of the
simple process with one essential contradiction; here the real difference among those
plural contradictions disappears since they are all equal to each other as a mere
development of the essence of the totality.8 As a consequence, the principal/
secondary distinction cannot be made for Hegels concept of contradiction since
there is only one contradiction in Hegel. In this regard, Althusser writes, that is why
one determinate contradiction can never be dominant in Hegel (203; emphasis in
the original).
In contrast, the Marxist complex totality with many contradictions is not a mere
result of the manifestation of one simple origin; rather, it is taken as pre-given on its
own (199). Therefore, the difference among plural contradictions in Marx is not a
mere semblance as in Hegel but is real and concrete; hence, hierarchical difference,
the distinction of principal/secondary or of dominant/subordinate, is a necessary
character of genuine plurality. Althusser quotes Mao as saying that there are many
contradictions in the process of development of a complex thing, and one of them is
necessarily the principal contradiction (194). It is also in this sense that the Marxist
contradiction is complex.9 Eventually, Marxist contradiction is doubly complex: i.e.,
complex in the sense that there are many contradictions (plurality), and also in the
sense that all those contradictions are hierarchically different (difference).
(2) Unfixedness: Following Mao, Althusser argues that the principal and secondary
positions are not fixed and that in the course of the process they could possibly
change place (209 10). What Mao has in mind with his remark on this dynamic process
is the core thesis of dialectics, simply put, that everything changes. However, it needs
to be stressed that a situation where the secondary and principal contradictions
change place is when the revolutionary change from one totality to another takes
place. Mao (1967, 333 4) gives an example of the historical transition from feudalism
to capitalism as caused by the fact that the capitalist elements, which had been a
secondary contradiction in the feudal society, became the principal contradiction.
This implies that the principal and the secondary would not, or cannot, change places
within one given totality. In this respect, it is important to emphasize for our purpose
that the possibility of change in hierarchical status does not undermine the
determinacy of hierarchy itself.
(3) Mutual conditioning: From the implication of the plurality with difference
thesis that the principal contradiction is different from essence, the phenomena of
8. [E]very concrete difference featured in the Hegelian totality, including the spheres visible
in this totality (civil society, the State, religion, philosophy, etc.), all these differences are
negated as soon as they are affirmed: for they are no more than moments of the simple
internal principle of the totality, which fulfills itself by negating the alienated difference that it
posed (Althusser [1965] 1969, 203).
9. As Althusser ([1965] 1969, 194) writes, the complexity of the process is a plurality of
contradictions, one of which is dominant.

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which are the secondary contradictions, it necessarily follows that the secondary
contradictions also are essential to the existence of the principal contradiction, that
they really constitute [the latters] condition of existence, just as the principal
contradiction constitutes their condition of existence. Althusser ([1965] 1969, 205)
suggests that, according to Marxs principle, the relation of the forces of production
vs. relations of production and of base vs. superstructure is not that of essence
vs. its pure phenomena, but rather of mutual conditioning.
(4) Structure: The mutual conditioning along with the unfixed character of the
principal/secondary relation appears to undermine the determinate character of the
principal/secondary distinction and eventually to nullify the hierarchy. Against this
false perception Althusser warns, the domination of one contradiction over the
others cannot, in Marxism, be the result of a contingent distribution of different
contradictions in a collection that is regarded as an object. And he goes on to say,
In this complex whole containing many contradictions we cannot find one
contradiction that dominates the others as we might find the spectator a head taller
than the others in the grandstand at the stadium (201; emphasis added).10 That is, in
Maos theory, the hierarchical difference of principal/secondary contradictions
further implies that the complex whole is characterized as structured as opposed
to contingent. Now we have the meaning of complexity further extended: it is
complex in that its hierarchy is a structured hierarchy and not an arbitrary, contingent
one. This is what Althusser implies with structure in dominance.11 So to speak, the
structure in dominance operates as some sort of anchor that guarantees a unity of the
complex totality even in the midst of mutual conditioning, an ever-changing role
among many different contradictions. It is exactly in this sense Althusser uses the
notion of determination in the last instance. In a word, without the structure in
dominance or determination in the last instance, the totality would be completely
chaotic, in which case it would be no totality at all from the outset*whether
Hegelian or Marxist*since totality is an organic system.12 So, for Althusser the
structure in dominance and determination in the last instance are the absolute
precondition for the complex whole (204).13
10. For another interesting quote, right after mentioning the unfixed character of principal/
secondary roles, Althusser ([1965] 1969, 209) warns: But we must add that, while no longer
univocal, it has not for all that become equivocal the product of the first-comer among
empirical pluralities, at the mercy of circumstances and chance, their pure reflection, as the
soul of some poet is merely that passing cloud. Quite the contrary, once it has ceased to be
univocal and hence determined once and for all, standing to attention in its role and essence, it
reveals itself as determined by the structured complexity that assigns it to its role, as*if you
will forgive me the astonishing expression*complexly-structurally-unevenly determined.
11. That one contradiction dominates the others presupposes that the complexity in which it
features is a structured unity, and that this structure implies the indicated dominationsubordination relations between the contradictions (Althusser [1965] 1969, 201).
12. As opposed to Hegelian totality with the center, the glossary of Reading Capital defines
Marxist totality as decentred structure in dominance (Althusser and Balibar [1965] 1970, 322).
13. Domination is not just an indifferent fact, it is a fact essential to the complexity itself.
That is why complexity implies domination as one of its essentials: it is inscribed in its structure
(Althusser [1965] 1969, 201).

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Thus far, we see that Maos theory of contradiction is carefully investigated by


Althusser in the context of his search for the specificity of the Marxist dialectic.
Combining the four aspects of Maos theory, we have the following coherent account:
many different contradictions constitute the complex totality where the principal
contradiction dominates the other secondary ones; all contradictions, whether
principal or secondary, have their conditions of existence provided by all; principal
contradiction and secondary contradictions can possibly change place according to
the concrete circumstance they are in; yet, at the fundamental level, the mode of
codeterminations and interactions among distinct contradictions are governed by the
structure in dominance. This overall picture is exactly what Althusser has in mind with
his concept of overdetermination. He stresses: This reflection of the conditions of
existence of the contradiction within itself, this reflection of the structure
articulated in dominance that constitutes the unity of the complex whole within
each contradiction, this is the most profound characteristic of the Marxist dialectic,
the one I have tried recently to encapsulate in the concept of overdetermination
(206; emphasis in the original). With this concept of overdetermination, Althusser is
shedding light on the specificity of Marxist philosophy, the Marxist dialectic.
To better understand Althussers concept of overdetermination, it helps to be
reminded what he was opposing with it. First, we have observed above that Althusser
countered Hegelian with Marxist philosophy. And the main thrust of the former is that
every aspect of the totality is reduced to, or explained by, one essence and one
origin, the internal logic of the totality. So to speak, Althussers overdetermination is
a strong critique of Hegelian essentialism. He expressed his critique of the latter in a
literary fashion by saying that the lonely hour of the last instance never comes.14
The lonely hour of the last instance refers to the moment when one essence rules
as the only cause, the only origin. The statement that such a moment never comes is
a flat rejection of Hegelian essentialism.
Yet, Althusser is very sensitive to a possible misunderstanding that might arise from
his emphasis on complexity/plurality/difference over one essence/origin. Listen to
the warning he makes against those who stretch him too far to the other extreme,
opposite to the one against which he was arguing:
So to claim that this unity is not and cannot be the unity of a simple, original
and universal essence is not, as those who dream of that ideological concept
foreign to Marxism . . . to sacrifice unity on the altar of pluralism*it is to
claim something quite different: that the unity discussed by Marxism is the
unity of the complexity itself, that the mode of organization and articulation of the complexity is precisely what constitutes its unity. It is to claim
that the complex whole has the unity of a structure articulated in
dominance. (201 2; emphasis in the original)
In a similar vein, right after emphasizing the mutual conditioning aspect of the
principal and secondary contradiction, Althusser warns:
14. This phrase appears in the chapter on Contradiction and Overdetermination in For Marx,
to which we will come back shortly.

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Please do not misunderstand me: this mutual conditioning of the existence


of the contradictions does not nullify the structure in dominance that
reigns over the contradictions and in them (in this case, determination in the
last instance by the economy). Despite its apparent circularity, this
conditioning does not result in the destruction of the structure of
domination that constitutes the complexity of the whole, and its unity.
Quite the contrary, even within the reality of the conditions of existence of
each contradiction, it is the manifestation of the structure in dominance
that unifies the whole. (205 6)
In the above two quotes nothing can be clearer than that the extreme opposite of
Hegelian essentialism*i.e. relativism, pluralism, etc.*is also what Althusser is
rejecting with his theory of overdetermination. Particularly, Althussers defense
against a misconceived charge of his being a relativist strongly implies that the
concepts of principal/secondary contradiction and the structure in dominance are
central for his critique of Hegelian essentialism. From this we can make another
important warning against any confusion that collapses either the principal/
secondary or domination/subordination relations into Hegelian essentialism. Once
this confusion is avoided, we realize that the Marxist dialectic as a critique of
Hegelian essentialism can never be grasped even an inch without the principal/
secondary relation and structure in dominance. This point is clearly provided in the
following quote, which also summarizes what Althusser thinks is the specificity of the
Marxist dialectic as against the Hegelian dialectic:
This principle [i.e. the concepts of principal/secondary contradiction and
the structure in dominance] must be grasped and intransigently defended if
Marxism is not to slip back into the confusions from which it had delivered
us, that is, into a type of thought for which only one model of unity exists:
the unity of a substance, of an essence or of an act; into the twin confusions
of mechanistic materialism and the idealism of consciousness. If we were
so precipitate as to assimilate the structured unity of a complex whole to the
simple unity of a totality; if the complex whole were taken as purely and
simply the development of one single essence or original and simple
substance, then at best we would slide back from Marx to Hegel, at worst,
from Marx to Haeckel! But to do so would be precisely to sacrifice the
specific difference which distinguishes Marx from Hegel: the distance which
radically separates the Marxist type of unity from the Hegelian type of unity,
or the Marxist totality from the Hegelian totality. (202; emphasis in original)
Lastly, we have very briefly noted above that determination (by the economic) in
the last instance is used as meaning the structure in dominance and that the phrase
the lonely hour of the last instance never comes is a literary expression of the
critique of essentialist Hegelian dialectics. Understood in this way, it is more than
clear that they are not incompatible as has been usually thought. On the contrary,
they are compatible with each other, one necessarily implying the other, and vice
versa. What the determination by the economic in the last instance contrasts
would not be the lonely hour phrase, but the extremist notion of the unilateral

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determination by the economic, the economic conceived as the only cause/origin/


essence. It is my argument that this distinction between an extremist and a more
nuanced notion of determination is crucial in Althussers critique of Hegel and his
theory of overdetermination. This point becomes manifest in my examination of
chapter three of For Marx, Contradiction and Overdetermination.

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Contradiction and Overdetermination


In this chapter Althusser discusses Lenins concept of the weakest link as a good
example of how overdetermination operates, specifically in a concrete historical
space (94 101). It is the concept Lenin devised to explain why the Revolution
occurred, not in the developed capitalist countries, but in Russia where feudal
remnants were still strongly observed. Althusser shows how the core ideas of
overdetermination as described above are substantially reflected in the concept of
the weakest link. Another importance of this chapter is that, through it, we attain a
clear understanding of what Althusser means by those controversial phrases the
determination by the economic in the last instance and the lonely hour of the last
instance never comes.
The main thrust in Lenins analysis of the Russian Revolution is that the general
contradiction between capital and labor is never realized into revolution in its pure
state*i.e. by itself alone*but requires the condition of its realization.15 This
condition is that a number of other contradictions of various social realms accumulate
to the extent that the explosion of the general contradiction into the revolutionary
rupture is impending. Lenin calls those countries where this condition develops the
weakest links of the imperialist world system. And Russia was the very weakest link.
There, the most degenerate aspects of militaristic police Tsarism, deceitful
priesthood, and the medieval state of the countryside were prevalent alongside
the most notable and intense development of the capitalist mode of production. In
this historical circumstance, with the escalation of the former noneconomic contradictions, the condition was ripe for the economic contradiction to be exploded into a
revolutionary rupture. In this respect, revolution did not take place in Western
European countries *where the general, principal contradiction of capitalist
character was no less developed*because those other secondary contradictions of
the nonclass, noneconomic spheres were absent.
It is exactly in this sense that Althusser states that the realization of the general
contradiction into the revolutionary rupture is overdetermined by the other contradictions, and eventually overdetermined by the economic in the last instance, as he
stresses: It is sufficient to retain from [Engels], what should be called the
accumulation of effective determinations (deriving from the superstructures and
from special national and international circumstances) on the determination in the
last instance by the economic. It seems to me that this clarifies the expression
overdetermined contradiction (113; emphasis in the original).
15. Althusser, following Lenin, uses the phrase general contradiction in the sense of
principal or dominant contradiction.

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In Lenins weakest link theory of the Russian Revolution, secondary contradictions


such as militaristic police Tsarism, deceitful priesthood, and the medieval
state of the countryside are not simply reduced to the results or pure phenomena of
the principal capitalist contradiction, but rather they have their own relatively
autonomous logic of development and exist alongside the latter, affecting it.16
According to Althussers overdetermination as exemplified by Lenins weakest link
theory, the economic dialectic is never active in the pure state (113; emphasis
added). With this statement, Althusser is opposing the idea of unilateral determination by one cause or, we would say, unilateral determination by the economic. This
is exactly what is implied in his famous*or infamous*phrase the lonely hour of the
last instance never comes. Right after the statement just quoted in italics, he
continues to note in a very literary style: In History, these instances, the
superstructures, etc.*are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is
done or, when the Time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His Majesty
the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the first
moment to the last, the lonely hour of the last instance never comes (113).
Understanding Althussers overdetermination in this way, the two controversial
phrases*last instance and lonely hour*do not contradict each other as usually
thought; rather, I argue, they are pointing to one and the same reality: i.e.,
overdetermined contradiction.
In sum, our major finding from the examination of the overall structure of
Althussers overdetermination as presented in two chapters of For Marx is the
following. What Althusser rejects with his theory of overdetermination is the
extremist view of unilateral determination by the economic. As opposed to this,
Althussers overdetermination suggests determination by the economic in the last
instance as an alternative in Marxist theory; the lonely hour of the last instance
never comes is the twin of the former phrase. And concepts of Maoist principal/
secondary contradiction and structure in dominance are employed to theorize them.
That is, they are all essential, indispensable parts of Althussers theory of overdetermination, without which the latter cannot be completely grasped in its entirety.

Post For Marx Works


It should be stressed that Althusser was fairly consistent with his concept of
overdetermination in his post For Marx works. In those texts where we can find his
ideas on overdetermination, in most cases Althusser explains what he did and what he
intended to do in For Marx and provides further elaborations. What especially
captures the attention is his substantial effort in post For Marx works to emphasize
the importance of the economic determination in the last instance for his theory of
overdetermination.
16. This overdetermination is inevitable and thinkable as soon as the real existence of the
forms of the superstructure and of the national and international conjuncture has been
recognized*an existence largely specific and autonomous, and therefore irreducible to a pure
phenomenon (Althusser [1965] 1969, 113).

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Let us first consider Reading Capital. As for the topics related to the theory of
overdetermination, Althusser in most cases reiterates the same arguments as
presented in For Marx or adds more sophistication.17 Particularly, the same strenuous
efforts are spent on stressing the specificity of Marxian dialectics as compared to
Hegelian dialectics. In this context, two points are noteworthy. First, hierarchical
relations of various realms constituting the complex whole are much more explicitly
emphasized in Reading Capital when compared to For Marx. In elaborating the
structured nature that distinguishes Marxist totality from Hegelian totality, Althusser
insists the structure of the whole is articulated as the structure of an organic
hierarchized whole (Althusser and Balibar [1965] 1970, 98). Here it is also suggested
that the hierarchy is not a static one but that the degree of effectivity among
different spheres ever changes. However, Althusser emphasizes that what guarantees
the unity of the complex totality as intelligible is the concept of determination in
the last instance. That is, determination in the last instance makes the structure
of the whole the structure in dominance, not the structure of contingency or the
arbitrary structure, which is the same argument we have already seen in For Marx.
Althusser argues that only this determination in the last instance makes it possible
to escape the arbitrary relativism of observable displacement by giving these
displacements the necessity of a function (99).
Second, Althusser criticizes the approach that views the relation between the
economic and the noneconomic as one of essence/phenomenon (111). This criticism
supports one of our findings in For Marx that treating the economic/noneconomic
relation as the principal/secondary relation is entirely different from treating it as an
essence/phenomenon relation. This point is reinforced in the definition of decentered structure and structure in dominance given in the glossary at the end of the
book. There it is explained that, as opposed to the Hegelian totality that
presupposes an original, primary essence that lies behind the complex appearance
that it has produced by externalization in history and which thus is a structure with
a centre, the Marxist totality has no centre, only a dominant element, and a
determination in the last instance and thus is a decentered structure (319). In
particular, this glossary strongly supports another crucial finding from For Marx about
the relation between the in the last instance phrase and the lonely hour phrase,
as follows: The phrase in the last instance does not indicate that there will be
some ultimate time or ever was some starting-point when the economy will be or was
solely determinant, the other instances preceding it or following it: the last instance
never comes (319).
Althussers elaborations in Reading Capital on the topics from For Marx show how
important the concept of determination in the last instance is in understanding his
theory of overdetermination. Another effective demonstration of its importance is
found in the chapter entitled Is It Simple to Be Marxist in Philosophy? in his Essays
in Self-Criticism. This chapter is one of Althussers later works. In it, he takes a
retrospective view of his early major works*especially For Marx and Reading
Capital*and makes comments on his achievements. He identifies three paths
17. See Althusser and Balibar (1965, 197, 58, 97, 98 9, 106, 111, etc.).

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through which to reach his early studies, and determination in the last instance is
one of them. So this chapter is a good source for us to verify whether the authors
view on the concept changed in his later years. And we observe Althusser ([1974]
1976, 177) consistently defending his original idea of determination in the last
instance against two opposite extremist misconceptions: one taking it for mechanistic materialism and the other for either idealism or relativism.
One new concept introduced in later works with relation to our concern is process
without a subject.18 It appears in the chapters Marxs Relation to Hegel in Politics
and History and Reply to Lewis in Essays in Self-Criticism. In the former, Althusser
explains that viewing history as a process without a subject is a positive heritage
Marx inherited from Hegel. Other than a thesis that the subject of process without a
subject is the process itself, not much noteworthy information is given in this text.
We rather find Althusser ([1964] 1972, 173) commenting on Reading Capital,
maintaining that one of three achievements he made in that work is A non-Hegelian
conception of the social structure (a structured whole in dominance). Obviously, this
is another support from the later Althusser for my reading of his overdetermination.
What Althusser means by process without a subject is further detailed in his
Reply to Lewis in Essays in Self-Criticism. We find the concept reflects exactly the
same idea contained in Althussers theory of overdetermination. As was the case with
his earlier works as demonstrated thus far, Althussers primary motivation with the
notion of process without a subject is to refute Hegelian simple dialectics.
Althussers own voice would most clearly convey the message:
In advancing the Thesis of a process without a Subject or Goal(s), I want
simply but clearly to say this. To be dialectical-materialist, Marxist
philosophy must break with the idealist category of the Subject as Origin,
Essence and Cause, responsible in its internality for all the determinations of
the external Object, of which it is said to be the internal Subject. For
Marxist philosophy there can be no Subject as an Absolute Centre, as a
Radical Origin, as a Unique Cause. ([1974] 1976, 96)
Collapsing determination of the economic in the last instance into unilateral
determination by the economic could lead one to interpret the above quotation as
supporting Resnick and Wolffs theory of overdetermination. However, a more
sensitive and nuanced distinction between the two determinations as suggested in
this paper would avoid such misinterpretation. We have observed several times that a
critique of Hegels search for origin, essence, or cause is perfectly compatible with
endorsing the concepts of determination in the last instance, structure in
dominance, or the primary/secondary contradiction distinction. Interestingly, a few
lines below the above-quoted passage where he explains that with the process

18. This concept particularly captures the attention since Resnick and Wolff make an argument
that it shows that Althusser in his later years changed his view from that presented in For Marx
and Reading Capital and that their overdetermination is informed by this concept. Their
argument to this effect was quoted above in Q4.

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339

without a subject he is refuting Hegelian dialectic, Althusser claims that the Marxist
alternative lies in the determination in the last instance (96).19

Conclusion

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Let us list three major findings from the reading of Althussers works on his theory of
overdetermination:
F1: Althussers first demonstration of overdetermination is found already in
its most systematic and complete form in two chapters in For Marx. He was
fairly consistent on the theory in his major subsequent works, which
supplement and reinforce what had been said in For Marx. A new concept
introduced in his later works, process without a subject, also clearly reflects
Althussers original concept of overdetermination.
F2: Distinction between principal and secondary contradiction, structure in
dominance, and determination in the last instance*all of which are
informed by Maos theory of contradiction but are criticized by Resnick
and Wolff as essentialist and as thus what should be cast out of truly
antiessentialist Althusser*are in fact central elements of Althussers theory
of overdetermination.
F3: Determination by the economic in the last instance and the lonely
hour of the last instance never comes are two different ways to express the
same idea. The former is in contrast to unilateral determination by the
economic, not to the latter. This careful distinction between determination in the last instance and unilateral determination is crucial in
understanding Althussers critique of Hegelian essentialism.
Now we are ready to assess Resnick and Wolffs theory of overdetermination and their
comments from Q1 through Q5 on Althussers overdetermination in light of the
findings from F1 through F3. First, Resnick and Wolff attempt to reformulate
Althussers overdetermination to reject as essentialist any social theory that
privileges one sphere over the others to whatever degree is undermined by F2.
Second, based on their antiessentialist understanding of Althusser, they criticize his
inconsistency as in Q1 and Q2. These misdirected charges result from the fact that
Resnick and Wolff fail to distinguish between determination by the economic in the
last instance and unilateral determination by the economic as found in F3. For
them, the former is as essentialist as is the latter. Their understanding of Althussers
overdetermination is problematic in that it does not see his more nuanced critique of
Hegelian essentialism, which reduces everything into one essence. To Althussers
critique of Hegel, a particular type of causality of the determination in the last
19. In reality Marxist philosophy thinks in and according to quite different categories:
determination in the last instance*which is quite different from the Origin, Essence or Cause
(Althusser [1974] 1976, 96).

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instance is central. Third, as in Q3, Resnick and Wolff charge Althusser with
inconsistency between the last instance and the lonely hour phrases. This
charge contradicts F3. Fourth, Resnick and Wolff in Q4 argue that Althussers concept
of process without a subject is similar to their antiessentialist overdetermination.
However, my investigation shows that the concept faithfully reflects Althussers
overdetermination as noted in F1. Fifth, Q5 reveals Resnick and Wolffs flat rejection
of Maos theory of principal/secondary contradiction as contradicting their antiessentialist overdetermination. F2 effectively shows that the latter fundamentally
departs from Althussers overdetermination, which is based on Maos distinction
between principal and secondary.
Overall, Q1 through Q5 indicate that Resnick and Wolff treat Althussers
essentialist moments as unfortunate problems caused by inconsistency and an
inability to free himself from the remnants of the old legacy. This is an unfair
treatment that does not grasp Althussers theory in its own right. I am not claiming
that in Althusser there is no element of inconsistency or that everything is perfectly
clear throughout his whole works. What I intend to show through an examination of
the development of Althussers theory of overdetermination is that he was too serious
and consistent with the notion of principal/secondary distinction, determination in
the last instance, and structure in dominance to be charged with being inconsistent
and to be reformulated in line with Resnick and Wolffs interpretation of overdetermination.
These observations finally point us toward the ultimate question posed in the
beginning of the paper: i.e., how to understand the relation between Althussers
original theory of overdetermination and Resnick and Wolffs reformulation of it. My
comparative demonstration indicates that Resnick and Wolffs theory of overdetermination is more of a departure from, rather than a completion of, Althussers
concept. What they call antiessentialist moments in Althusser which need to be
extended into those unfortunately essentialist ones actually do not exist in the first
place. These findings raise the question in what sense Resnick and Wolffs theory of
overdetermination is Althusserian when it is different from Althussers original
theory in fundamental aspects.

References
Althusser, L. (1964) 1972. Politics and history: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel and
Marx. 2d ed. Trans. B. Brewster. London: New Left Books.
***. (1965) 1969. For Marx. Trans. B. Brewster. Harmondsworth: The Penguin Press.
***. (1974) 1976. Essays in self-criticism. Trans. G. Lock. London: New Left Books.
. Balibar. (1965) 1970. Reading Capital. Trans. B. Brewster.
Althusser, L., and E
London: New Left Books.
Mao, T. 1967. On contradiction. In Selected works of Mao Tse-tung, vol. 1. Peking:
Foreign Language Press.
Resnick, S., and R. Wolff. 1987. Knowledge and class: A Marxian critique of political
economy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.