The Overdetermined Dialectic: Althusser.

Martin Stirner kindly gives us a preview of Chapter 4 of his forthcoming book:  “Dialectic: From Hegel to Althusser”: 

The mystification which dialectics suffers at Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him
from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and general manner. With Hegel, the dialectic is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.” 1

With this passage from Marx, French philosopher and member of the Communist Party of France Louis Althusser (1931-1990) situates his analysis of the Dialectic and draws his conclusions as to what properly constitutes a Marxist as opposed to an Hegelian influenced Dialectic. He advocates his thesis in his essays Contradiction and Overdetermination and On the Materialist Dialectic: On the Unevenness of Origins both of which are contained in For Marx.2

Hegelian Dialectic.

As we’ve read in the first chapter on Hegel, his dialectic method is intricately linked with his systematic developmenthegel99 of the Concept reaching fruition in the Absolute Idea. Hegel’s philosophy is characterised by the singular and central development of the Concept and his dialectic is inherent to this. Namely, human consciousness dialectically superseding what is other or alien within itself -as identified by Negative Reason- so as to achieve a higher, augmented level of identity. This process is teleological – moving in one direction toward the ultimate end or goal of the Absolute – the end being the realisation of the potential in the beginning. Hegel’s dialectic is also cumulative – Aufgehoben- preserving what is overcome in a higher, progressive and comprehensive result. So Hegel’s dialectic is a linear, dialectical trajectory of a single principle – the realisation of the Concept in the Absolute Idea.

Althusser cites this characteristic of Hegel’s dialectic in the latter’s Philosophy of History(3). Here, the dialectical tension between the potential of the Concept and its actuality at a given stage of society, is the dynamic behind each particular historical epoch.

The simplicity of the Hegelian contradiction is made possible only by the simplicity of the internal principle that constitutes the essence of any historical period. If it is possible, in principle, to reduce the totality, the infinite diversity of an historically given society (Greece,Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, England and so on) to a simple internal principle, this very simplicity can be reflected in the contradiction to which it thereby acquires a right” 4

He continues:

This reduction itself…, the reduction of all the elements that make up the concrete life of an historical epoch (economic, social, political and legal institutions, customs, ethics, art, religion,philosophy and even historical events: wars, battles, defeats and so on) to one principle of internal unity, is itself only possible on the absolute condition of taking the whole of concrete life of a people for the externalisation-alienation of an internal spiritual principle, which can never be anything but the most abstract form of that epoch’s consciousness of itself: its religious or philosophical consciousness, that is, its own ideology” 5

That is why for Hegel, history is dialectical, moved by the dynamic of a simple contradiction. A contradiction which finds itself echoed in all instances of a given, historical society: ‘the externalisation-alienation of an internal, spiritual principle’. It involves the reduction of a complex society to a simple contradiction and as such, displays what Althusser calls Expressive Causality (6). In respect to this, what does Althusser understand by the inversion of Hegel’s dialectic?

Marxist Dialectic: a Simple Inversion?

Althusser writes that as a pedagogical introduction to Marxist social analysis, it is possible to read Marx as havingLouis Althusser ‘inverted’ the Hegelian dialectic. For Marx himself had written that Hegel’s Dialectic was standing on its head and must be turned ‘right side up’.

“…..Hegel explains the material life, the concrete history of all peoples by a dialectic of consciousness (the people’s consciousness of itself: its ideology). For Marx on the other hand, the material life of men explains their history, their consciousness,their ideologies are then the phenomena of their material life.” 7

For Hegel the State in its broader sense (Religion, philosophy, customs, traditions) is the site of the realisation of the Concept, of Reason and a people’s consciousness of itself at a given historic time; Civil Society (the society of material needs, economy) is merely a manifestation of this process-the ‘Ruse of Reason’ -working itself out to be expressed and instantiated in the State as an epoch’s consciousness of itself as part of the realisation of the Concept. So history is the progress of the consciousness of Freedom as realised and objectified in the State. If a simple inversion of Hegel’s dialectic is performed, then Civil or Material, economic Life (the ’Base) becomes primary and the realm of the State as an epoch’s consciousness of itself in philosophies, religion, customs etc becomes secondary (the ‘Superstructure‘). Thus “..for Hegel, the political-ideological was the essence of the economic, for Marx the economic will be the essence of the politico-ideological”.

The political and the ideological will therefore be merely pure phenomena of the economic which will be their truth. For Hegel’s ‘pure’ principle of consciousness(of the epoch’s consciousness of itself), for the simple internal principle which he conceived as the principle of the intelligibility of the determinations of an Historical people, we have substituted another simple principle, its opposite: material Life, the economy – a simple principle which in turn becomes the sole principle of the Universal intelligibility of all the determinations of an historical people.” 8

In other words, the economic determines human consciousness, ideas, ideologies etc and not as with Hegel, where human consciousness, ideas etc determines the economic. Idealism is replaced by Materialism in the inversion.

steam millThis simple inversion of Hegel’s dialectic in which the economic determines historical development unfortunately runs head first into charges Technological Determinism. That is, human history is motivated by changes, by innovations in the means of production alone. Changes in the economic base cause changes in the Superstructure, as history is nothing but the development of the Productive Forces, a linear, one directional causal relation holds. Hence Marx’s mentioning of the steam mill whereby in ‘acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production and, in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations (9). This causal relation downplays the importance of conscious class struggle to the point of removing it. As the political practice of Marxism is primarily about class struggle, technological determinism qua Marxism, cannot be sustained.

Yet this view of the inversion could be accused of being a caricature: Technological determinism is not a necessary conclusion. If Hegel’s Concept and its dialectical movement is turned upside down to become the dialectical movement of the economic base, then as the base is composed of the Forces of Production and, the Relations of Production, contradiction arises between them in Class Struggle and class-consciousness of this, most importantly, proletarian class consciousness arises. History is the history of material, conscious class struggle and the charge of the blind, Technological Determinism is refuted. Yet Althusser would still contend that despite the inversion, this ‘Marxist Dialectic’ retains Hegelian structures applicable only to Hegel’s Idealism and therefore is not appropriate for a truly Marxist analysis. For it still utilities structures and categories that are specific to Hegel’s Idealism; the structures and categories of the Marxist Dialectic are very different. The rational kernel remains to be be extracted from the mystical Hegelian shell.

Marxist Overdetermined Contradiction.

Althusser cites the letter by Engels to J. Bloch in which he distances himself and Marx from the social analysis practiced by some, which prioritise the economic base (the forces and relations of production) as the only significant factor:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc.,juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary.” 10

From this Althusser reads Engels as proffering ’an accumulation of effective determinations’ in a society in which the economy is determinant but, ‘in the last instance’. In other words, the instances of the Superstructure also play their part in the normal social process and in times of revolutionary change. Most Marxists would agree with this assessment that instances of the Superstructure do play a part in the socio-historical process. Yet Althusser would accuse them of remaining within Hegel’s expressive causality. That is, the Economic Base, the contradiction between the Forces and Relations of Production or Capital and Labour is merely expressed in the instances of the Superstructure perpetuating the Hegelian view of a simple, singular contradiction. In the terminology, the instances of the superstructure have the status of being mere epiphenomena of the economic base.

For Althusser, the instances of the superstructure are characterised by having varying degrees of autonomy, their own dynamic, their own modality and are not mere epiphenomena. At a time of social revolution when social contradictions are acute and exacerbated, the contradiction between Capital and Labour never has singular priority; it does not exist in singular purity. Contradiction is a combination of many contradictions present in the other instances of society – albeit, the economic is ’determinant in the last instance’. This combination of contradictions in a general contradiction constitutes what Althusser calls an Overdetermined contradiction. Hence Althusser writes that Overdetermination follows and is thinkable as soon as the ‘real existence of the forms of the superstructure and of the international and national conjuncture has been recognised – an existence largely specific and autonomous and therefore irreducible to a pure phenomenon’. That is, contradictions are specific to each instance and are never reducible to or mere expressions of the ‘pure’ contradiction between Capital and Labour. 11

For if this general contradiction is to be ‘active’, to become a ‘ruptural principle’ there needs to be an ‘accumulation of circumstances and currents so that whatever their origin and sense….they fuse into a ruptural unity’.

Of course, the basic contradiction dominating the period…is active in all these contradictions and even in their ’fusion’. But strictly speaking, it cannot be claimed that these contradictions and their fusion are merely the pure phenomena of the contradiction. The ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ which achieve it are more than its phenomena pure and simple. They derive from the relations of production….from the superstructures
(instances which derive from it) but have their own consistency and effectivity. This means that if the ’differences’ which constitute each of the instances in play(manifested in the accumulation discussed by Lenin) merge into a real unity, dissipated as pure phenomena in the internal unity of a simple contradiction.

The unity they constitute in this ’fusion’ into a revolutionary rupture, is constituted by their own essence and effectivity, by what they are and according to the specific modalities of their action. In constituting this unity they reconstitute and complete their basic animating unity but at the same time they also bring about its nature: the contradiction is inseparable from the total structure of the social body in which it is found, inseparable from its formal conditions of existence and even from the instances it governs; it is radically affected by them determining but also determined in one and the same movement and determined by the various and instances of the social formation it animates; it might be called over-determined in its principle.” 12

To reiterate: at times of revolutionary change, the various instances fuse into ruptural unity. The nature of this unity april thesisdetermines and is determined by the instances themselves: it is nothing more than this. Hence a revolutionary conjuncture is never a matter of a pure, simple ‘lonely’ economic contradiction between the productive forces and the social relations but, is a complex one, a combination of many instances of the social whole. Althusser famously employs imagery to reinforce his point:

“…the economic dialectic is never active in its pure state; in History, these instances, these superstructures etc – are never seen to respectfully step 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.” 13

Does this mean that contradictions in society are autonomous, independent and indifferent to the economic contradiction, the so-called ‘last instance’? If so, how could such a Dialectic be considered Marxist?

The social instances may display autonomy and independence at varying degrees but they are not indifferent to the ‘last instance’. Overdetermination is precisely a revolutionary conjuncture of many effective contradictions unified in a ruptural unity with the economic contradiction and not simply the existence of the economic alone. Overdetermination ‘links’ the various contradictions in ruptural unity.

Ruptural Unity or Conjuncture is ipso facto the very nature of Structural Causality: the actions of the Structural instances upon themselves, as they actually exist which is vastly different from the Expressive Causality Althusser finds in Hegelian influenced view of Dialectical Contradiction. Althusser would maintain that this is how revolutions actually are, as evidenced by the October Revolution of 1917 and the Communist victory in China in 1949. Secondly, as the effectivity of the economic is of a ‘last instance’, there is no pure contradiction between capitalist and worker alone as the simple Marxist inversion of Hegel holds. Whilst contradictions might not be pure economistic contradictions i.e. class struggle at the level of the means of production such as strikes, general strikes; there are other contradictions in the instances of the social whole such as the ideological, the religious, ecological, the political, cultural and so on which precisely constitute an Overdetermined contradiction. These contradictions indirectly and directly affect the class struggle.

Hence Althusser writes that when a contradiction becomes a ruptural unity, there will be an “accumulation of circumstances and currents so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its direct opponents): they fuse into a ruptural unity..” (My emphasis. MJ) 14 That is, they will affect the class struggle in the various instances and the directly economic, ’in the last instance’ just as it will affect them. There will be in effect, a Unity or intermediation of contradictions mutually reinforcing each other. Thus in Contradiction and Overdetermination, Althusser cites all the conditions present in the Overdetermined contradiction that was October 1917.

  • A feudal regime attempting to rule more ferociously over a mass of peasants, the latter’s revolt associating with the workers revolution.

  • Contradictions between workers and capitalism/Imperialism in the means of production in urban areas.

  • Contradiction between concentrated and developing capitalist production and the lagging behind of the medieval state of the countryside.

  • The exacerbation of class struggles throughout the nation not restricted to capital and workers but including feudal elements supporting the Tsarist state; the lesser nobility involved in constant conspiracy; the big and the liberal bourgeoisie in opposition to the Tsar; the petty bourgeoisie oscillating between the support for the regime and anarchistic ’leftism’.

  • The presence of an advanced Bolshevik Party far ahead of any other European socialist party in consciousness and organisation, having had the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905 and the development of a new form of political organisation: the soviets.

  • The effect of the Imperialist war on Russia which encouraged the weaknesses of the Tsarist regime. 15

Support for the Overdetermined Dialectic is found, according to Althusser, not only in Marxist political practice of 1917, 1949 and elsewhere, it is also evidenced in theoretical practice concerned with actual circumstances. It is found in Lenin’s associated writings such as What Is To Be Done? It is found in Mao Zedong’s On Contradiction, found in Marx’s mature writings such as Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, The Class Struggle in France, The Civil War in France, The Eighteenth Brumaire, The Critique of the Gotha Programme and in Engels’ The Critique of the Erfut Programme, Revolution and Counter Revolution in Germany. 16 In sum, a revolutionary fusion is the accumulation of many contradictions including the economic one of Capital and Labour albeit ‘in the last instance’. This is the Overdetermined contradiction, the Marxist understanding of contradiction; applicable to actual existing social complexity not restricted to the simple contradiction between Capital and Labour borne of a simple materialist inversion of Hegel’s Dialectic. So there is not just an inversion of Hegel’s Dialectic but a move away from it’s structures to to those structures applicable to actual Marxist analyses and practice. The rational kernel has finally been extracted from the mystical shell. The structures further are elaborated in a subsequent work.

Pre-Given Complex Structured Whole.

In his 1963 article On the Materialist Dialectic: On the Unevenness of Origins, Althusser elaborates his understanding of the social whole and the role of contradictions in it (17). Whereas, as we’ve seen, a simple inversion of the Hegelian Dialectic by Marxists would produce a simple, singular contradiction between the productive relations and productive forces alone, the Marxist Dialectic recognises many instances in the social whole, each with their own specificity. That is, the instances display their own specific dynamic, modality (way of being), their own intensity of contradiction and consequently, effectivity upon and from other instances and their contradictions. In other words, the different instances display an uneven line of development. This lends itself to a more complex Dialectic as the nature and effects of such instances of a given society, could not be accounted for by a simple dialectic operating between Capital and Labour alone. Society is much more complex. Indeed, Althusser contends there has never been a social revolution based on the pure inverted Hegelian contradiction for, events such as the October Revolution of 1917 displayed a ruptural unity involving many contradictions and not simply a pure contradiction between Capital and Labour. Accordingly, the social whole is described by Althusser as a ‘Pre-Given Complex Structured Whole’.

“The specific difference of Marxist contradiction is its ‘unevenness ‘ or ‘overdetermination ‘, which reflects in it its conditions of existence, that is, the specific structure of unevenness (in dominance ) of the ever-pre-given complex whole which is its existence. Thus understood, contradiction is the motor of all development. Displacement and condensation, with their basis in its overdetermination, explain by their dominance the phases (non-antagonistic, antagonistic and explosive ) which constitute the existence of the complex process, that is, ‘of the development of things ‘. If, as Lenin said, the dialectic is the conception of the contradiction in the very essence of things, the principle of their development and disappearance, then with this definition of the specificity of Marxist contradiction we should have reached the Marxist dialectic itself.” 18

Althusser cites Lenin’s study of Hegel’s Logic where he notes that the dialectic ‘is the study of contradiction in the very essence of objects’ or what comes to the same thing: ‘the doctrine of the Unity of Opposites’ (19).  Althusser embellishes these insights with those of Mao Zedong as found in his 1937 essay On Contradiction (20) Mao for instance proposes that in a social whole there can be found:

  • The existence of a Principal and of Secondary Contradictions which can change places.

  • A distinction between the Principal aspect and secondary aspect of each contradiction which can also change places.

  • The uneven development of such contradictions.

The existence of a Principal and a Secondary contradictions implies a plurality of contradictions and, a relation of dominance between them. That is, a hierarchical structure between the instances of the complex structured whole. This chimes with Althusser for:

In other words, each contradiction, each essential articulation of the structure and the general relation of the articulations of the structure in dominance, constitute so many conditions of the complex whole itself…… means that the structure of the whole and therefore the ‘difference’ of the essential contradictions and their structure in dominance, is the very existence of the whole; that the ‘difference’ of the contradictions(that there is a principal contradiction etc and that every contradiction has a principal aspect) is identical to the conditions of the existence of the complex whole.” 21

So each specific contradiction exists in the relation of dominance between the Principal, Secondary and others, which is also the consequence of the uneven development between them. Secondary contradictions are not permanently subordinate and inferior, they can switch places to become the Principal. Thus ‘the secondary contradictions are the existence of the principal contradiction, that they really constitute its condition of existence, just as the principal contradiction constitutes their condition of existence’. In the same manner, the two aspects of a contradiction reinforce each other and, can change places with one becoming the principal aspect and the other the subordinate aspect This movement between Principal, Secondary contradictions and the two aspects of a contradiction is termed ‘Displacement’ by Althusser.

So we have a complex social whole of instances existing in uneven development with each other; each exude their own contradiction and the contradictions are ordered in a fluid hierarchy. The hierarchical ordering of such contradictions is precisely the Unity of Opposites. This is, according to Althusser, the properly Marxist Dialectic, a materialist Dialectic shorne of all Hegelian categories. The latter cannot account for the actuality of the complex whole of actual society and that the instances and their contradictions existing in a relation of uneven development.

Structure in Dominance.

Also in On the Materialist Dialectic, the term ‘Structure In Dominance’ is introduced. This offsets any claim that society understood as a Complex Social Whole garners a nebulous pluralism of instances. Each contradiction of the Complex is unified and conditioned by the ‘Structure in Dominance’.

It is the reflection of the structure in dominance that constitutes the unity of the complex whole within each contradiction.”


..conditions are contradictions each reflecting in itself the organic relation it has with the others in the structure in dominance of the complex whole”.


Because each contradiction reflects in itself (in its specific relation of unevenness with the other contradictions and, in relation of specific unevenness between its two aspects) the structure in dominance of the complex whole in which it exists and therefore, because of the current existence of this whole, of its current conditions, the contradiction is identical with these contradictions.” 22

This is also the event of Overdetermination as described above.

“The 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 ‘ 23

Each contradiction in each instance of the social whole ‘reflects in itself….the structure in dominance’ and appears to be identical with its contradictions. This position exists in tension with the stated relative autonomy, particular effectivity and modality Althusser maintains each instance displays. For we apparently have a situation in which each contradiction of the social whole is simply the contradiction of the Structure in dominance and this sounds uncomfortably like the simple Hegelian type of contradiction Althusser has been ostensibly writing against. However, it is also stated that contradictions in each instance reflect ‘in itself the organic relation’ it has with others in the structure in dominance i.e. a relation exists between contradictions preserving their relative autonomy and particular modality: not a conflation of them in one simple contradiction.

What constitutes the structure in dominance? Is it the economic in the last instance? Is it the principal contradiction? How precisely is it determined which structure will dominate? The economic in the last instance determines which structure of the complex whole, dominates over and in, the others.

“…….the elements (of the complex whole) are asymmetrically related but autonomous(contradictory); one of them is dominant. [The economic base determines, (in the last instance) which element is to be dominant in a social formation. LA] 24

Further, as Marx himself observed:

the middle ages could not live on Catholicism nor the Ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the economic conditions of the time that explain why here politics and there religion played the chief part. It requires slight acquaintance with the history of the Roman republic to be aware that its secret history is the history of its landed property. On the other hand, Don Quixote long ago paid the penalty for wrongly imagining that knight errantry was compatible with all economic forms of society”. 25

Perhaps other examples of a the structure in dominance might be evidenced by that of Apartheid in pre-1994 South Africa, a structure determined in the last instance by the economic; of National Liberation Struggles by Communist forces against Imperialism post World War Two. As Robin Blackburn and Gareth Steadman Jones write:

If the Marxist totality were merely an inverted form of the Hegelian totality, the contradictions of a capitalist society could in the last instance be expressed as a ‘pure’ contradiction between capital and labour. But, as Althusser puts it the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes”. The transition from capitalism to socialism never comes about through a pure and final manifestation between capital and labour or between the forces and relations of production. This was not the case in the Russian or Chinese revolutions. Nor was it the case, as is evidenced by Marx’s own writings, in France in 1848 – 1851”. 26

Is Althusser’s Structure in Dominance the same as the Principal contradiction as espoused by Mao Zedong? Reading Althusser, it is possible to interpret the structure in dominance as a separate structure. For example, he writes of the displacement or reversal of roles between the principal and secondary contradictions occurring ’in the structure in dominance while this latter remains stable’ i.e. as occurring within a separate structure that is the structure in dominance. 27 This structure is not to be understood as existing apart from the Principal and secondary contradictions, as existing independently. Rather the contradictions are the very content of the form that is the structure in dominance; whilst the content may change, the form remains stable – there will always be a Structure in Dominance. That is, the displacement of a Principal contradiction by a Secondary one is a ‘variation’ of the invariant form that is the structure in dominance, only the content has changed. Further, it is the Structure in Dominance which immanently pervades, influences in varying degrees, the other instances if the Complex Social Whole thereby providing unity.

Thus in a revolutionary conjuncture, the concrete situation of the Structure in Dominance displays the ’Unity of Opposites’ , an Overdetermination of contradictions in the instances fused into a ruptural unity or a condition of ‘condensation‘ as Althusser terms it.

This is the basis of the reality, decisive in and for political practice….of the displacements of domination and the condensation of the contradictions, which Lenin gave us in such a clear and profound analyses of the 1917 Revolution (the ‘fusion’ point of the contradictions;in both senses of the word, the point where several contradictions condense – fuse- so that this point becomes the fusion point -the critical point- and the point of revolutionary mutation, of recrystalisation.)” 28

Concluding Remarks.

If this is indeed the case, we should have acquired a theoretical result that might be expressed schematically in the following form: The specific difference of Marxist contradiction is its ‘unevenness ‘ or ‘overdetermination ‘, which reflects in it its conditions of existence, that is, the specific structure of unevenness (in dominance ) of the ever-pre-given complex whole which is its existence. Thus understood, contradiction is the motor of all development. Displacement and condensation, with their basis in its overdetermination, explain by their dominance the phases (non-antagonistic, antagonistic and explosive ) which constitute the existence of the complex process, that is, ‘of the development of things ‘. “If”, as Lenin said, “the dialectic is the conception of the contradiction in the very essence of things, the principle of their development and disappearance, then with this definition of the specificity of Marxist contradiction we should have reached the Marxist dialectic itself.” 29

The object of Marxist theoretical analyses for the purpose of Political practice, is society. Society is a Complex whole constituted by instances themselves expressing varying intensive degrees of contradiction, with the varying degrees of contradiction placing them in a hierarchy due to the mutual influences of them on the others and vice versa determined in the last instance, by the economy. The hierarchy of contradictions is dialectically articulated as a fluid Unity of Opposites. It is Althusser’s contention that this complex object of analyses cannot be accomplished by an inverted Hegelian Dialectic.

“What has been said of Hegel enables us to understand in what sense the Hegelian dialectic is a motive force, and in that sense the concept is ‘autodevelopment’. In a text as beautiful as the night, The Phenomenology celebrates ‘the labour of the negative ‘ in beings and works, the Spirit’s sojourn even in death, the universal trouble of negativity dismembering the corpse of Being to give birth to the glorious body of that infinity of nothingness become Being, the Spirit — and every philosopher trembles in his soul as if he was in the presence of the Mysteries. But negativity can only contain the motor principle of the dialectic, the negation of the negation, as a strict reflection of the Hegelian theoretical presuppositions of simplicity and origin.

The dialectic is negativity as an abstraction of the negation of the negation, itself an abstraction of the phenomenon of the restoration of the alienation of the original unity. That is why the End is in action in every Hegelian beginning; that is why the origin does no more than grow by itself and produce in itself its own end, in its alienation. So the Hegelian concept of ‘what maintains itself in being-other-than-itself is the existence of negativity. So contradiction is a motive force for Hegel as negativity, that is, as a pure reflection of ‘the being-in-itself even in being-other-than-itself’, therefore as a pure reflection of the principle of alienation itself: the simplicity of the Idea” 30

The motor force of Hegel’s dialectic is the Negation of the Negation within the framework of the Concept and it operates from the origin to the end goal of Absolute Spirit. Problems develop within Spirit itself that are other to it, are an alienation from itself. These Negations are Negated marking a higher unity and so continues the process until the Absolute Idea is reached. Hence Hegel’s Dialectic is an ‘autodevelopment’ of the Concept determined by the origin which is also the end.

In his philosophy of History, Spirit is the realisation of Reason in the World. The negation of irrational actuality is negated until the principle of an epoch is realised, the ultimate realisation being the Rational society of Absolute Spirit as outlined in The Philosophy of Right. 31 The principle and its dialectical movement is mirrored in every aspect of society. That is why Althusser terms Hegel’s Dialectic as simple, the goal determined by the origin just as the acorn contains the end goal of the Oak.

If this Dialectic is inverted, the Concept becomes the Economic Base with its dialectical contradictions between Capital and Labour fought out in Class War with the Negation of Capitalism negated by Proletarian Revolution. The instances of the Superstructure pace Hegel, mirror the Class struggle, as mere epiphenomena of the Base. It is however, Althusser’s contention that Marxist practice recognises society as more complex than this Dialectic allows. Society is a Complex whole, with instances having differing intensities, displaying degrees of autonomy determined in the last instance, by the economic. Consequently, there are different degrees and intensities of contradictions expressed in a fluid hierarchy. These can only be accounted for by the Dialectical Unity of Opposites which recognises the ordering of contradictions (Principal, Secondary and so on) as they actually exist. A simple materialist inversion of Hegel’s Dialectic which retains his structures cannot account for Marxist Theory nor Practice.


1. P. 14/5. Afterword to the second German edition of Capital. 1873.  Progress Publishers. Moscow.

2. Louis Althusser. For Marx. Penguin. 1969.

3. GWF Hegel. The Philosophy of History. Dover Philosophical Classics. 2004.

4. P. 103. Contradiction and Overdetermination. For Marx. Op cite above.

5. ibid.

6. Expressive Causality is a model of causality attributed by Althusser to Hegel in respect of his dialectical view of historical change. Here, the dialectical development of the Concept (which is simultaneously the progressive realisation of Reason in societies) establishes the Principle of an Age which is expressed in every area of that society. It can be likened to a simple, mono-causality. In Althusser’s the phenomena of a society are reducible to and expressive of, it’s Essence. In other words, the Essence is expressed in every area of society and is the moving Principle of Historical change.

Structural Change. For Althusser, society is a complex unity of instances or structures determined, in the last instance, by the Economic instance. Each structure has its own dynamic, modality and influences and is influenced by, other structures. The strongest structure is that which causally influences the others to the highest degree – as determined in the last instance, by the Economic. Hence it is termed ‘the Structure in Dominance’. The Structure in Dominance is therefore, the Primary contradiction in a hierarchy of Contradictions. So Causality operates immanently between the structures themselves in the manner described. Unlike Hegel, there is no underlying primary cause which expresses itself in the structures and which are reducible to it. Dialectical Contradiction is the hierarchical arrangement of a Unity of Opposites constituted by the Structure in Dominance and subordinate contradictions.

See also P. 310. Louis Althusser & Etienne Balibar. Reading CapitalVerso. 2009.

7. P. 107. Contradiction and Overdetermination. Op cite above.

8. P. 108. ibid.

9. P. 103. Ch 2 . Karl Marx. The Poverty of Philosophy. Foreign Language Press. Peking. 1977.

10. Frederick Engels. Selected Correspondence. 417. Progress Publishers. Moscow. 1975.

11. P. 113. Contradiction and Overdetermination. Op cite above.

12. P. 100/1. ibid.

13. P. 113. ibid.

14. P. 99. ibid.

15. P. 96. ibid.

16. P. 97. ibid.

17. On the Materialist Dialectic: On the Unevenness of Origins. Louis Althusser. For Marx. Op cite above.

18. P. 217. ibid.

19. P. 220 – 222. Vol. 38. Lenin. Collected Works.  Progress Publishers, Moscow 1965.In brief, dialectics can be defined as the doctrine of the Unity of Opposites. This embodies the essence of Dialectics but it requires explanation and development”.

20.Mao ZeDong. On Contradiction. 13-56 Selected Works. Lawrence & Wishart. 1954.

21. P. 205. On the Materialist Dialectic. Op Cite above.

22. P. 206/7 ibid.

23. P. 206. ibid.

24. P. 319. Glossary. Reading Capital. Op cite above.

25. Cited on P. 370/1 in Robin Blackburn & Gareth Steadman Jones. Louis Althusser and the Struggle for Marxism.  The Unknown Dimension: European Marxism since Lenin. Ed: Karl Klare. Methuen. London. 1972

26. P. 370. ibid.

27. P. 212. On the Materialist Dialectic. Op cite above.

28. P. 217. ibid.

29. P. 214. ibid.

30. GWF Hegel. The Philosophy of Right. Oxford University Press. 2008.

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