Louis Althusser – A Matter of Fact (1949)

Louis Althusser (March 1956)

[First published in Jeunesse de I’Eglise, Cahier X: L’Evangile Captif, February 1949. English translation can be found in Verso’s The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings.]

The only valid way to answer your question – ‘Has the Good News been announced to the men of our time?’- is to consider the question itself, the meaning of the question, i.e., its real origins. Only those real origins can provide us with the elements of a response commensurate with the question.

Let me explain. The Church is like a sick man, who, using the most open-minded and concerned among the faithful as go-betweens, asks his friends: ‘Do I have a right to hope? Are people really turning away from me? Does anyone still listen to me?’, and so on. When a sick man wonders when he will get up and walk again, if life will ever begin again, if he can ever again hope to take his place among the living, when he puts such questions to those around him, it is obvious that:

  1. His illness has become a question for him in a real sense, he is really putting it to the question, and, from now on, he can experience the present and future only by way of this question.
  2. The questions he puts to those around him are the method his illness uses to ask questions about itself, that is, about its outcome (which alone can bring the intolerable to an end), not about its origins.
  3. The sick man’s friends, taken unawares, will not have the heart to leave his questions unanswered, and, assuming they are not playacting, will treat them seriously; they will base their answers on the most valuable of their own experiences, which is to say, once again, on results, without going all the way back to the origins of their own lives, or, a fortiori, to the origins of the sick man’s question. In matters of this sort, friendship is as poor a physician as love.
  4. As for the doctor, he will not take the sick man’s questions seriously; they do not mean to him what they do to his patient. They make up the whole of the sick man’s present life; they are merely signs for the doctor, the discourse of a man enslaved by illness, an unbearable sort of servitude that protests and longs to get things over with. The doctor knows that one restores a sick man to health, not by answering his questions, but by curing the disease that prompts them. The true answer is the one that simultaneously reduces the question to its real origins and really destroys them. In the man who has regained his health, the sick man falls silent; his existence has ceased to be problematic. The true answer renders the question superfluous.

This concrete ‘reduction’ comprises two moments:

  1. The theoretical reduction of the question to its real origins;
  2. The practical reduction of those origins as such.

I. Theoretical Reduction

What, then, are the real origins of your question?

To begin with, the question takes a universal form. It reflects the experience of a fundamental historical situation. On the one hand, the world no longer listens to the Church, whose words fail to reach the men of our day; the Church has become a virtual stranger for broad masses of people who are already the present and future of this world. On the other hand, when we consider the people faithful to the Church, the question arises as to whether their faithfulness is still religious. This historical situation is simultaneously the historical context Christians are living in, and a reality all men, Christians or not, meet at every tum. Just as, in an earlier age, all roads led to Rome, so, today, all roads lead to two obvious and interrelated facts: the modern Church is no longer at home in our times, and the vast majority of the faithful are in the Church for reasons that are not really of the Church.

That historical divorce reflects the kind of social, ideological, and political relations the Church maintains with structures alien to our times. The divorce is essentially social, ideological, and political. Although in 1789 in France, 1848 in Western Europe, 1917 in Russia, and quite recently in Central Europe, we have seen the abolition of feudal structures (economic, social, legal, and political); although the capitalist bourgeoisie – which has, generally speaking, been the successor to feudalism – has, in certain parts of the world, collapsed in its tum, and, in many countries, already senses that it is marked for death, even if it proclaims, as the American bourgeoisie does, that the century belongs to it; although our world is living on the ruins of feudalism and living through the ruination of the capitalist bourgeoisie, the contemporary Church is still very closely tied, by way of its social, ideological, and political positions, to feudal and capitalist structures.

The social situation of the Church

From a sociological standpoint, the body of the faithful is made up, broadly speaking, of:

(a) The peasant populations of ‘young countries’ in which feudal structures have not yet been eroded by industrial development (South America); of ‘young countries’ in which industrial development has taken the form of the mechanization of agriculture outside heavily populated regions (Canada); and of old countries that have stood apart from the trend toward industrialization (Ireland, Spain, Southern Italy, Hungary and Central Europe in general, until quite recently).

(b) The new bourgeoisie, which, after a period when its struggle against feudalism compelled it to oppose religion, has in general found it expedient to accept the official Church’s decision to rally to its support, for reasons often having precious little to do with religion (France, Belgium, Italy, the United States).

We may estimate the mass of the faithful bound to the Church via surviving feudal structures at about fifty per cent of Church membership [du corps de l’Eglise]. Forty per cent of the mass of the faithful are linked to the Church by way of a capitalist bourgeoisie that has already been, or is in the process of being, expropriated. From a sociological standpoint, then, the Church is deeply enmeshed, as far as ninety per cent of its human resources [son corps humain] are concerned, in structures that are no longer those of our world. It must be added that the Church still finds itself, in certain countries, directly tied in to the economic structures of the feudal and capitalist world through its extensive land holdings. Generally speaking, it is only when we take these anachronistic structures into account that we can understand the Church, whether what is in question is its membership, audience, or role (e.g., its schools, and, in many cases, its hospital services and parish registry offices as well).

The ideological situation of the Church

From an ideological standpoint, the archaic nature of the Church’s positions is even more obvious, if that is possible. Everything conspires to suggest that the Church- due to an inertia that reflects, in its fashion, its real ties to an outdated world – is incapable of renouncing the concepts to which that world gave rise. Broadly, it may be said that the conceptual systems the Church finds congenial are based on a philosophy (which can have variants) that is outmoded as far as both its form (qua philosophy), and the concrete content that originally provided its historical legitimation are concerned. Theology, be it Thomist or Augustinian, is based on a ‘world-view’ the Church finds so thoroughly congenial that it has knowingly or unknowingly assigned this philosophy, qua philosophy, the task of leading it to the final moment where it will again find Revelation- as if Christ had come into a world of concepts, not men. Whether God is ‘in the beginning’ or ‘at the end’, whether one takes him as one’s starting point or claims gradually to be making one’s way toward him, he is in classical theology one concept among others, the prisoner of a conceptual universe that no longer makes sense to the men of modem times.

In fact, the Church inhabits a conceptual universe that was established in the thirteenth century; it is based on the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, ‘adjusted’ by the Augustinian tradition and St. Thomas Aquinas. From the thirteenth century on, the Church has consistently taken these central concepts as guidelines in its theology, politics, and ethics, ‘adjusting’ them whenever discrepancies became too flagrant. Far from calling Thomist or Augustinian concepts into question, however, this accommodation plays on their differences. Thus Malebranche, for whom God the Father, ‘in his old age’, became a Cartesian, in fact found his way back to the Platonic tradition via Descartes. The ‘play’ in Augustinian and Thomist concepts thus clears a path for opportunistic variations which, far from invalidating the content of the concepts employed or the traditions they implicitly refer to, and far from destroying, a fortiori, the philosophy that, qua philosophy, authorizes these operations, reinforces and legitimizes them on the practical level.

1. Despite the protestations of the theologians who claim to be investing old concepts with new meanings, the content of these concepts is still alive in a real sense, to the extent that these concepts are still intertwined with vestigial features of the worlds that spawned them. Doubtless, Aristotelian physics no longer exists, and there are no more Aristotelian physicists to defend Thomist concepts. But it should not be inferred that these concepts are today sustained by theology alone, as if theology were holding itself aloft unaided. This conceptual edifice has real foundations that implicitly legitimize its structure and guarantee its validity, while continuing to prevent the Church from giving way before the critique the modem world brings to bear on its outmoded ideas. We feel that this conceptual universe is ripe for demolition, but it lives on; it must plainly have moorings in life in order to persist even as an illusion. These moorings are quite complex, but they are real. In particular, it can be shown that the economic, political, moral and educational conceptions of the Church can not only not provide their own legitimation, as goes without saying, but could not even be legitimized by theology itself (which is insufficient) if other real, unspoken motives did not, even in our own world, justify them in advance of all argument. It is no longer Aristotelian physics that saves Thomist concepts; it is rather the vestiges of the medieval world still present in our own. These concepts do not survive by the grace of God; they are sustained by the lives of men who, because they are subject to archaic structures, conceive and experience their world and lives, politics and economy, practical morality and the education of their children, to say nothing of their naive theology, in terms of the concepts these structures engendered when they held sway. Thus the concept of natural law, which is at the heart of all the Church’s morals and politics, is bound up, as a concept, with the conceptual universe of an historically superannuated world; this conceptual system thinks human activity, society, history, and morality as natural realities instituted by God, because it fails to grasp their real origins. But it is not from this conceptual universe alone that the concept of natural law draws such life as is left it. The concept of natural law and all the concepts it spawns are, rather, sustained by concrete structures that are still ‘lived’ by many of the men of our day, who need these concepts, precisely, in order to legitimize, defend, and perpetuate the structures in which they are born, grow up, and die.

We have to trace matters back to these concrete structures in order to understand the tenacity of obsolete concepts in religious ideology. Moreover, we have to expose these structures in order to help bring them to their appointed end, and to help the men who are brought up in them overcome them and become contemporary with their times. Finally, we have to convince ourselves that these economic, political, familial, and moral structures are bound up with the conceptual edifice of the theologians only to the extent that the Church is, on the whole, itself linked, by virtue of the economic positions it still maintains and the social situation of the great mass of the faithful, to worlds that our period has consigned irrevocably to the past.

2. One word more about the form of the ‘philosophies’ that undergird the Church’s conceptual edifice. Through the uses to which it puts philosophy, the Church effectively defends it as the means par excellence of appropriating truth. Yet our time is in the process of translating Marx’s dictum about ‘doing away with philosophy’ into reality. Let us not be frightened by the word: when he does away with philosophy, man does away with nothing more than illusions, but he does so in order to reclaim, in the very origin of these illusions, a portion of his real activity. Even if this prodigious event continues to escape the notice of many of our contemporaries, we have to recognize that our time has seen (thanks to the activity of the working class taking possession of itself) the advent of a new form of human existence in which humanity’s appropriation of the truth ceases to be carried out in philosophical form, that is, in the form of contemplation or reflection, in order to be carried out in the form of real activity. [*] Here, ‘to appropriate’ means concretely to reclaim possession of human activity and its products through human activity itself. Philosophy is one such product: it must, then, be ‘repossessed’, but this repossession must be accompanied by a critical reduction that will do away with philosophy’s philosophical form, i.e., the illusion that human truth can be originally given to man in an act of contemplative or reflexive appropriation. The Church, which makes use of, and, by that very fact, sanctions philosophy as such, parts company with the men of our day, who are in the process of concretely doing away with the form of philosophy itself by doing away with the human structures that once gave rise to, and still legitimize, it. Here too, the Church can, with some semblance of plausibility, defend a mode of appropriating truth so alien to our times only because it is itself subject, given its position and membership, to the archaic structures that have engendered philosophy and still assure it a paradoxical but tenacious lease on life.

The political situation of the Church

The imbrication of the membership and ideology of the Church in these feudal and capitalist structures, or what is left of them, and the fact that, nolens volens, the overwhelming majority of the faithful are concretely tied to obsolete forms of civilization which are struggling against a world that has condemned them to extinction, necessarily commits the Church to the defence of reactionary political positions directed against the new forces of emancipation. We cannot affirm a priori that religion is reactionary, but, when we examine what actually transpires, we cannot help observing that, in the contemporary world, the economic positions maintained by the Church in certain countries, together with the ties and tendencies of the overwhelming majority of the faithful, determine the policies the Church is currently implementing, overtly and covertly.

These policies are clearly reactionary, whatever the protestations and rhetorical precautions of the most sincere or intellectually supple believers and priests. The most daring public positions of the Papacy, which often anticipated or even offended the general opinion of the broad mass of Catholics (for example, the ‘ralliement‘, the ‘social encyclicals’ etc.), are merely reformist accommodations. The ostensible ‘social doctrine of the Church’ in fact reflects the tacit pact which the Church, in the person of its members and through its attachments, has concluded with faltering structures. This compromise between medieval corporatism and liberal reformism denounces the ‘abuses’ of economic liberalism, but ignores their real causes, and, by its silence, ratifies them. To denounce the scandalous effects without denouncing the real causes of the scandal is plainly a scandalous diversion, for it diverts men’s attention from the real struggle. Just as the Red Cross is an endorsement of war and its moral code, so the Church’s social doctrine is simply the recognition of capitalism, and proof of the Church’s savoir-vivre.

If the Church’s most advanced proposals represent nothing more than a form of reactionary reformism, it is not hard to imagine what its ‘nonadvanced’ policies look like. Through its hierarchy, its exhortations, and the faithful, the Church has recently lent support to fascist governments (at least by its silence, as in Germany, if not by its actions, as in Italy, Spain, and Vichy France), or to profoundly reactionary governments (Ireland, Canada, Latin America). In Central Europe, it is one of the chief counter-revolutionary forces; in Western Europe, where the religious crisis daily impels more and more of the faithful to call its traditional positions into question, the Church nonetheless persists in its support of the sterile, sanctimonious reformism of the Christian Democrats, who – as M. Hours* has recently clearly demonstrated – associate themselves with the German Centre and its nostalgia for the Middle Ages.

In sum, if we consider its policies on a global scale, we must admit that, apart from a few active but isolated small groups, the Church comprises, by virtue of its positions, ideology, membership, and the weight of the masses of the ‘Western hemisphere’, an objective, nonnegligible force that maintains a deep, compromising commitment to world-wide reaction, and is struggling alongside international capitalism against the forces of the working class and the advent of socialism.

The Church is, then, objectively tied to archaic structures doomed to extinction.

On the one hand, these structures condition and determine the archaic, reactionary character of the Church’s social, ideological, and political position in the world.

On the other hand, a large majority of the faithful gain access to religious life through the mediation of these structures, and the Church is so deeply implicated in them, they weigh so heavily on the concrete existence, orientation, and convictions of the men who live in them, that one is entitled to ask whether the mass of the faithful does not, on the whole, conceive and experience its religion as one of the major components of these structures, as their inner logic, legitimation, and theoretical expression.

If so, we are in a position to understand the origin of the twofold anxiety that Jeunesse de l’Eglise’s survey reveals.

1. To begin with, ‘the Good News is no longer being announced to the men of our time’ because the Church announces it in a language men no longer understand. A language cannot be reduced to a vocabulary; it is a totality of real meanings which are experienced and felt every day in life and its gestures, and which the spoken language evokes by allusion; these concrete meanings (social realities, structures, economic and political laws, everyday life, modes of behaviour, gestures) are the real content of the spoken language, which, without them, would be merely noise coming out of people’s mouths. Yet the concrete meanings underpinning the language of the Church are precisely the archaic, isolated structures our age is struggling against, and which live on amongst us because they have, as it were, been granted a temporary reprieve. They have meaning only for those who still inhabit them; but even this meaning cannot be taken for granted, as it once was, and is further eroded with each passing day. The whole world has already laid siege to these structures, and is, little by little, carrying out their complete ‘reduction’. These structures no longer make immediate sense to the world they survive in; they are alien to us. But it is these alien realities that sustain, with their unspoken meaning, the language of the Church! They are present in all the Church says or means to say, in the eloquence of its priests, the concepts of its theologians, and the advice proffered by its confessors, as well as the body of its ethics, social doctrine, and actual politics. When the Church wants to announce the Good News to the men of our day, it does not choose its language; it speaks the sole language it bears within it, or, rather, what it is continues to speak even in the best of those who would save it, whatever their intentions. The Good News speaks a language – in other words, reflects a world – that the men of our day do not understand because it is no longer theirs – when they are not actively combating it because it has become their enemy.

This basic condition narrowly limits the Church’s capacity for ‘adaptation’. It is not enough to borrow people’s vocabulary to speak their language: the same words must refer to realities that coincide and are mutually recognizable. But, however sincere the most open-minded of the priests or the faithful, when they ‘announce’ the good news, even if they use the same words their brothers do, the Church speaks more loudly; it ‘announces’, in its nature and acts, a strange sort of news the men of our day do not recognize as relevant to them.

2. This state of affairs accounts for the other aspect of the contemporary alienation from religion: if the good news does not reach the men of our day because it finds expression in archaic structures, does it, at least, reach the men still under the sway of these structures? The fact is that the Church’s social alienation explains not only the indifference or hostility of the proletariat, but also the religious alienation of the broad mass of those who have remained faithful to it. The Church is so deeply committed to certain determinate social structures, the access the faithful have to religion in their concrete lives is so thoroughly mediated by these structures, religion is, in their perception and their lives, so closely bound up with them, that they experience and conceive it, at the practical level, as a determinant factor in their social universe. How many Christians have recognized the truth of Marx’s analyses here, and have met, as abruptly as one meets a person, this alienation from religious life in an economic, social, or political form! When religion is in reality a social form that takes its place within feudal and capitalist structures, and holds the people in submission, forcing it to experience its submission to men as God’s will; when, in its discourse, silences, or diversionary tactics, it shores up these structures and provides them with their theoretical justification; when it ensures their defence and ‘compensation’; when the faithful experience religion, in reality, as the theory and legitimation of their social universe – one can no longer avoid the question: is this life of religion still a religious life, is it still the Good News that is being announced- even in the world of the Church?

This question brings us back to the heart of the problem. That the Church is like an alien presence in our world, and that the broad mass of the faithful are in the Church for reasons not really of the Church, is attributable to one and the same cause – the Church’s profound historical commitment to those feudal and capitalist structures that are, today, the substance of human alienation.

II. Perspectives for a Practical Reduction

The very historical situation that conditions and poses the present problem indicates its real solution. If the Church is to speak to the men of our day, if it is to reconquer, at the price of an inner struggle, an authentic religious life, it must, to begin with, be freed of the domination of feudal and capitalist structures. Secondly, this social emancipation must be accompanied by a real reappropriation of religious life by the faithful themselves. Two tasks have to be accomplished simultaneously: social emancipation and the reconquest of religious life.

1. The social liberation of the Church. The nature and degree of the Church’s alienation in feudal and capitalist structures – indeed, the very nature of those structures – condition the real means required for the Church’s social emancipation. The ‘theoretical reduction’ of the present religious malaise has led us to identify religious alienation as its true origin. We need, then, to consider the means that can operate a practical ‘reduction’ of that origin by destroying it so as to transform it into its truth. The doctor too ‘reduces’ the cause of the sick man’s illness, calling on means actually capable of modifying his patient’s objective state, that is, capable of acting chemically or physically on the chemical or physical agents which condition the progress of the disease. The nature of these means is itself determined by the nature of the disease to be fought. Broadly speaking, the same holds for our ‘reduction’: the social forces dominating the Church can only be reduced by social forces that are objectively capable of defeating them, and, indeed, that need to defeat them. These cannot be random forces; they must rather be the very forces whose advent threatens the destruction of the old structures, making them appear, precisely, as threatened, archaic, and outdated. These forces of reduction and combat are, today, those being marshalled by the organized proletariat. This problem and this struggle are not religious in nature; but, by virtue of the fact that the reduction of collective religious alienation presupposes this political and social struggle as the condition without which no emancipation, not even religious emancipation, is conceivable, no Christian sincerely concerned about the destiny of the Church can fail to conclude:

(a) that, in the present situation, only the organized proletariat (and its allies) is capable of combating, in a concrete sense, precisely those feudal and capitalist structures responsible for the Church’s alienation;
(b) that the struggle for the social emancipation of the Church is inseparable from the proletariat’s present struggle for human emancipation;
(c) that the Christian who truly wishes to put an end to the Church’s social alienation has to play a real part, in the ranks of the proletariat, in the one struggle that can destroy feudal and capitalist structures: the political, social, and ideological struggle of the organized working class.

2. The reconquest of religious life. While participating in this political and social struggle, which alone can reduce collective alienation because it alone is commensurate with that alienation, the Christian must pursue, at the personal level, the ‘reduction’ of alienation and the reconquest of his religious life. Such reduction implies the destruction and critique, at the personal level, of all the alienated forms even an informed believer is obliged to pass through, in the present state of the Church, if he is to have access to religious life. This reduction must be brought to bear on the Church’s conceptual universe, theology, and moral system, its theory of the family, of education, of Catholic action, of the parish, etc. It must engage and destroy, with a view to founding them in the truth, the modes of behaviour and human conduct, of living and being, that are suggested to, sustained by and reinforced in the Christian masses by those forces which are in the Church but not really of the Church. This ‘purification’ cannot be purely negative. It truly leads, when one lets events and facts freely confront one another and produce their own truth, to the revelation of their origins and the production of that truth, to the constitution of new, concrete modes of behaviour – familial, moral, educational, etc.- that are the truth of the alienated modes. If religion is not, a priori, a form of alienation, this reduction should permit the Christian to reconquer an authentic religious life, whose conditions and limits he must already begin to define, in struggle.

We should not, however, gloss over the fact that, given the present state of affairs, this positive reconquest of religious life through real criticism cannot be the collective work of the Church, which is satisfied with its alienation. It will be undertaken, in the best of cases, by small groups of activists emerging in countries (such as France, Italy, and Belgium) and social milieux whose structures have evolved to the point where religious alienation can criticize itself, and this real criticism can manifest and reflect itself in the concerns and spiritual quest of the best informed amongst the faithful.

But such groups are relatively small and terribly isolated in the immense world of the Church. They are active on its margins, in milieux that have themselves been severely shaken by the events of this century: they can hardly be active anywhere but there, in pockets of humanity that are already on the way to reducing capitalist alienation. Yet, even there, when they meet with men’s silence, they question themselves, wondering why their voice is not heard, without realizing that, even if they pursued their self-criticism to the point of being able to offer men a truth they could recognize as truly theirs, they could not by themselves counter the collective might of the Church or its language, precepts, and alliances. They continue to feel that they are of little moment because they are on the fringes of the Church and cannot seriously expect to shake it up from within, without inducing it to threaten or repudiate them. Although the objective conditions for a social emancipation of the Church through the proletarian struggle already exist, the conditions for a collective reconquest of religious life have not been created. To create them, the Church as a whole would have to be capable of undertaking its self-criticism; but it is subject to the law of structures which defend themselves, and will not tolerate being questioned. It is necessary, then, to shatter these structures and struggle against the forces protecting them.

We are already engaged in this struggle. The future of the Church depends on the number and the courage of those Christians who, day by day, are developing an awareness of the necessity of the struggle and joining the ranks of the world proletariat. It also depends on the concrete reduction, by these same men, of their own religious alienation. The Church will live thanks to those who, through struggle and in struggle, are once again discovering that the Word was born among men and dwelt among them – and who are already preparing a humane place for it amongst men.

[*] This real activity concretely produces, in labour and history, the very life of men in its totality; it also produces the objects philosophy thinks it endows itself with, the contradictions philosophy thinks it resolves, and even philosophy itself – in order to manage, in thought, contradictions that get on all too well not to be hindrances.