Althusser and Poulantzas: The Politics of a Friendship

The philosophical and political importance of Althusser’s autobiography The Future Lasts a Long Time has yet to be fully appreciated. Scattered throughout its pages are comments which, I believe, can lead to the formulation of a very interesting philosophy of love. However, right now I am more interested in the friendships he announces over the course of the book. It is significant, and disappointing to me, that he does not mention Deleuze even once over the course of the book, although there is a chapter more or less dedicated to his friendship with Derrida. As far as his relationship with Deleuze goes, he only makes a passing reference to the Spinoza reading group at which Deleuze was an occasional speaker. However, in his Philosophy of the Encounter, he goes as far as attributing to Deleuze one of the foundations of his own thought (“the primacy of the positive over the negative”), and there are scattered comments relating to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus.

If in his relationship to Deleuze there are grounds on which to be surprised, these grounds being precisely the absence of a friendship when a theoretical relationship appeared to have flourished between the two men, the case is different with regards to Poulantzas. Althusser remarks that Poulantzas was one of the few people dedicated enough to him to visit while he was in hospital for treatment during one of his intense depressive episodes. This comment, though passing, carries an unmistakeable affective charge: Althusser says much in his very few words on the topic. He conveys his remorse at the fact that Poulantzas killed himself shortly after visiting him, and his admiration of the Greek for having mustered the strength to visit his ailing friend after having unsuccessfully attempting to kill himself beforehand as well. Perhaps it was because of his abandonment to the void of death that Poulantzas was able to visit Althusser at the point when Althusser was a dangerous person to associate with. The desire for death lends one a unique perspective on social relations, to the extent at least that one ceases to be concerned with what others will make of what we have done in the aftermath of our demise. Althusser was almost universally reviled; but not by Poulantzas who, like Althusser, had a foot already in the grave.

In 1979, Nikos Poulantzas threw himself from the window of a friend’s apartment. He perished when his body struck the cobbled streets of Paris from the air. In the following year, Althusser was institutionalised for the accidental murder of his wife, an act committed during one of his psychotic episodes. Although both Poulantzas and Althusser were friends, and Althusser’s thought is an unmistakeable influence on Poulantzas, it would be difficult to find two theorists on the left more opposed to one another. Althusser was a clear enemy of democratic socialism, having condemned the PCF in his 1978 essay ‘Marx in his Limits’ for their endorsement of the so-called ‘democratic path’ to socialism. Poulantzas, on the other hand, is championed as the leading theorist of Eurocommunism, best known for defending the possibility of democratically creating socialism. As much as I disagree with Poulantzas’ politics, I admire his ability to read Althusser impartially at a time when the latter was uniformly denounced as a Stalinist. I have remarked many times that the Greeks, not only Poulantzas but also Sotiris and Kouvelakis, were somehow much better readers of Althusser than were the French, and it was because of Poulantzas that there was a Greek reception to Althusser’s thought.

How are we to understand this friendship between a revolutionary socialist and a democratic socialists, one which manifested not only in a touching emotional solidarity between the two troubled men, but also in an astonishing theoretical communion? Better yet: why should it be surprising that these two men were friends at all? It is just because of the utterly opposite conceptions of praxis espoused by them both, especially at the time when Althusser was vehemently attacking the PCF for its regression to a democratic socialist model. If Althusser was so opposed to the PCF, his own party on these grounds, how could it nonetheless be that his friendship with Poulantzas was able to traverse the fissure which had erupted between Althusser and the politics which Poulantzas and the PCF had equally come to represent? Two possibilities for this come to mind.

In the first case, as I have already said, Poulantzas as a reader of Althusser had displayed his penetrating, although obviously still imperfect understanding of the latter’s thought. Could Althusser really be blamed fot cultivating a friendship with a man who, imperfectly but unlike almost all of his peers, had decoded his ideas and grasped their true meaning beneath the veneer of a rigid and elitist scientism – in other words, who truly understood him? This much, however, would leave the friendship’s reciprication as mystifying as ever. If Althusser, desperate to be understood (a constant theme of his autobiography) had associated with Poulantzas on these grounds, what did Poulantzas gain from associating with Althusser? After all, Poulantzas’ touching gestures towards Althusser when both were plagued with mental ill-health are not the festures of an analyst to their analysand. But if Althusser associated with Poulantzas just because the latter had understood him, then Poulantzas would be little more than an analyst to him.

I feel there is something far more interesting to be said, in the second case, about the relation between friendship and politics, especially as this relation is mediated by a third, heterogenous term: comradeship. It cannot be doubted that Althusser and Poulantzas were friends, despite their political disagreements. Perhaps this prospect is surprising only to the militantly-minded. For us, politics is more important than anything else. It takes on, as it were, the relation of a transcendental signifier – something of which Derrida was harshly critical, but which is nonetheless apt to describe our mindset. Politics being primary in relation to everything else, how could it thus be subordinated to a friendship? It seems most natural to say that, in some cases, especially if one’s politics are not too sectarian, although it ordains the possibilities of a friendship, these possibilities are nonetheless inclusive of some degree of disagreement. It is possible to be consistent in one’s militant politics and be friends with one’s interlocutors (within limits: I would not consider friendship with a transphobe or a racist possible, although I would with an anarchist or possibly a social democrat).

Should it therefore be concluded that Althusser and Poulantzas, although friends, could nevertheless not been comrades because of their disagreements? As a revolutionary communist, I would struggle to call a democratic socialist my comrade – largely because our political understandings of the world (and especially of the state and democracy) are too different for a political platform of mutual activism to be agreed upon. Is this a sufficient condition for delineating between friends and comrades? Or can two people be comrades on the grounds of something other than direct activism, perhaps through the commonality of a political struggle in which both are forced to partake?

About this latter prospect it is possible to speak more directly. Even if Althusser and Poulantzas disagreed on the means for creating communism, the two men must also have experienced a ‘micropolitical’ solidarity, not in terms of grand politics, but in terms of the social and political struggle with depression and suicide. This struggle is always a political one – the desire to end one’s life, as Lacan’s passage a la acte, is best understood as a gesture of frustration and denial with respect to an unfair world. In Althusser’s case though, I do not believe that he and Poulantzas discussed their mutual, internal struggle. But as far as comradeship goes, even the desire for a relation is as good as the relation itself, since solidarity is always a movement of desires or affects along the same trajectory.

Shortly after Poulantzas visited Althusser in hospital, Althusser discovered that Poulantzas had succeeded in killing himself and, before visiting Althusser, had attempted to do so already. This tells us that they did not speak of these things when they met. However, it succeeds in demystifying Poulantzas’ friendship with Althusser: the latter’s difficulties were no secret, and had resulted several times before in his heavily-publicised hospitalisation. Beyond this, as far as a factual account of the two men’s emotional and personal friendship goes, we must stop and gaze onward, towards the expanse left unexplored. Any attempt to say more about Althusser and Poulantzas must resign itself to stopping here, where we have said almost nothing, have so much more to say, and yet are in a place where nothing more can possibly be said.

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