On Marxist Thought

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Intro­duc­tion | Trans­la­tion | Orig­i­nal

Edited and typed in July 1982, this text orig­i­nally included two hand­writ­ten notes by Louis Althusser: its title “On Marx­ist Thought” and the note “Defin­i­tive.” Under­tak­ing in autumn of 1982 the draft­ing of a “the­o­ret­i­cal bal­ance sheet,” Louis Althusser decides to make it chap­ter 11, cross­ing out the title at the same time. In addi­tion to amend­ing details, he intro­duces two impor­tant changes: he adds a long devel­op­ment on the “The­ses on Feuer­bach,” and replaces the last six pages with a brief tran­si­tion to the fol­low­ing chap­ters. Retain­ing the added analy­ses and the final cor­rec­tions, we restore the sec­tion removed by Louis Althusser, thus pub­lish­ing the end of the text in its orig­i­nal ver­sion. These addi­tions are sig­naled in the body of the text and the archival doc­u­ments that were used by the present edi­tion of “Sur la pen­sée marx­iste” are avail­able for con­sul­ta­tion at the Fonds Althusser de l’IMEC. –Note by the Insti­tut Mémoires de l’Edition Con­tem­po­raine1

“Dixi et sal­vavi ani­mam meam.”2 It is with this Latin Church con­fes­sional that Marx con­cluded his Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme (1875). We are famil­iar with the affair. The Ger­man work­ers’ move­ment (just formed) was at the time divided between a Marx­ist party, that of Liebknecht and Bebel, and the party of Las­salle. At Gotha, there was a Con­gress of polit­i­cal fusion. There was there­fore a meet­ing of the lead­ers and they agreed on the text of a pro­gram. Unbe­knownst to Marx. But the affair could hardly remain a secret. Marx was soon in pos­ses­sion of the text, and a great fury, that of the great days of storm, took him by the throat. They had betrayed, in these erro­neous def­i­n­i­tions, long crit­i­cized, the most ele­men­tary fun­da­men­tal def­i­n­i­tions of Marx­ism: wealth, labor, and the State itself… With a venge­ful pen, Marx cor­rected each the­o­ret­i­cal blun­der and put things back in their place, on paper. But he did not pub­lish his cri­tique. This explains the “dixi et sal­vavi ani­mam meam.” For he had spo­ken only to speak, in his soli­tude. He did not pub­lish the text not only because the party was opposed to it (and it would take fif­teen years of Engels’s cun­ning for the text to appear in smug­gled form), but also because, as his­tor­i­cally coun­ter­in­tu­itive or mis­un­der­stood as it seemed – as his “nat­ural” inter­locu­tors, to make prob­lems for him! – the bour­geois jour­nal­ists, above all, and even the work­ers, deluded them­selves to the point of tak­ing the Gotha text “for a com­mu­nist text!” If his­tory sets about advanc­ing with this kind of mis­un­der­stand­ing of the thing itself, all we can do is throw up our hands and let this strange, unex­pected dialec­tic do its work. “Dixi et sal­vavi ani­mam meam” also has this mean­ing. What­ever hap­pens, even the best, I will have done my duty and freed my soul of wrath, even if my text must remain in my drawer.

Strange con­cep­tion of polit­i­cal lead­er­ship for a leader as undis­puted as Marx. Engels also agreed. Did he not explain to Bebel, in a let­ter, when Marx died, that “nei­ther Marx nor myself ever inter­vened in the polit­i­cal affairs of the party, only and exclu­sively to rec­tify the­o­ret­i­cal errors.”3 So on the one hand pol­i­tics, on the other the­ory. Pol­i­tics is solely the affair of the party, the­ory returns to the the­o­rists. Strange divi­sion of labor for the the­o­rists of the union of the­ory and prac­tice. So it was. Not a ques­tion of indig­na­tion, but of under­stand­ing. And to com­pre­hend these slips of the tongue, these symp­toms, is to enter into the logic of a mon­strous real­ity of obvi­ous­ness and dis­tor­tion that has for so long called itself Marx­ist thought or the thought of Marx and Engels.” How many times have we used this term with­out inter­ro­gat­ing its rai­son d’être! When we return today and to him and to the lit­tle symp­to­matic phrases of the cor­re­spon­dence, shame comes to our faces. How could we have pro­nounced the for­mu­las that cart along sim­i­lar stu­pidi­ties, with the impres­sion that we were illu­mi­nat­ing the thing itself?

In order to see it clearly, we need a full analy­sis of the thought of Marx and Engels, on the his­tory of its for­ma­tion, on its rela­tion­ship with the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment and more pre­cisely on the philo­soph­i­cal dis­tor­tions that serve as its guar­an­tee [qui lui ser­vent de cau­tion].4

But this story, like all sto­ries, must be told, even suc­cinctly. So for­give me for telling this tale again for the third time.

The story begins in 1841. When he appeared, burst­ing with youth, in the neo-Hegelian cir­cles of Berlin, what struck every­one about this young beard of Marx, with his proud mane, was the look which sig­ni­fied “genius,” the “philo­soph­i­cal genius.” He crushed every­one with his sci­ence and the sound­ness of his eru­di­tion, and also the proud assur­ance of his asser­tions. One did not argue with him. Engels had to say, remem­ber­ing the time of Won­der, “he alone was a genius,” “we oth­ers were at best tal­ented.” Genius is genius, it is not explained, it is at best declared. That this genius was more­over philo­soph­i­cal, that is of course explained by the relent­less work under­taken for years in the study of the entire his­tory of phi­los­o­phy, from Epi­cu­rus to Hegel, pass­ing through Kant, Rousseau, and fin­ish­ing with Feuer­bach. What, then, was phi­los­o­phy for Marx? In a word the sci­ence of con­tra­dic­tion. Those who under­stood it the best were Hegel and also Feuer­bach, and that is the rea­son why there is no phi­los­o­phy with­out the read­ing of the Greater Logic or the famous para­graphs from the Phi­los­o­phy of Right, and the Essence of Chris­tian­ity. Marx pos­sessed all of that on the tip of his fin­ger, bet­ter than Feuer­bach, bet­ter than Stirner, and it’s why he was the great­est. HE KNEW. He knew for all, and for every­one his sci­ence served as bond, guar­an­tor, and guar­an­tee [sa sci­ence ser­vait de cau­tion, de garant, et de garantie]. If phi­los­o­phy is the sci­ence of con­tra­dic­tion, it is also the the­ory of the guar­an­tee that it indeed is such and that it is enough to trust in it to under­stand the hid­den essence of things.

Proud that he was, Marx was affil­i­ated with the leagues of Ger­man emi­grants in Paris and then in Lon­don, and later with the League of the Just, then the Com­mu­nists. He had to keep a low pro­file there because he met rev­o­lu­tion­ary émi­gré arti­sans, old bearded com­bat­ants with no illu­sions for whom phi­los­o­phy was of the fine grain, but did not weigh heav­ily on the class strug­gle. They were lucky to count among them the great­est philoso­pher of the time: so much the bet­ter. They put him to work by com­mis­sion­ing a project of a polit­i­cal Man­i­festo for regroup­ing in one party the work­ers who already felt the strong wind of 1848 blow­ing over Europe and the Holy Alliance. They com­mis­sioned Engels and Marx together, and Marx set a dead­line, but because he did not keep the promise, the League grew impa­tient and at the end of 1847 Marx had resolved to jot onto paper in great haste the the­ses of said Man­i­festo. The whole story that fol­lows lies in the fab­u­lous mis­un­der­stand­ing of these theses.

Since they were all philo­soph­i­cal, it is not dif­fi­cult to sum­ma­rize them in a few basic principles.

Prin­ci­ple 1: His­tory is entirely the his­tory of class strug­gle, oppos­ing the pro­vi­sional hold­ers (small land­lords in Athens, large landown­ers in Rome, “own­ers of money”5 today) of the means of pro­duc­tion of the period, to the sim­ple pro­duc­ers, slaves, exploited small peas­ants, dis­pos­sessed pro­pri­etors. Class against class. Pri­macy there­fore of classes over the class strug­gle. His­tory advances thusly, the strug­gle being its “motor.”

Prin­ci­ple 2: Con­tra­dic­tion is the prin­ci­ple and the “motor” of the strug­gle, the essence of the strug­gle. A class strug­gles against another only when dri­ven by con­tra­dic­tion, and it’s con­tra­dic­tion that, in its “devel­op­ment,” advances his­tory, push­ing it from one form to another, higher [form], and in par­tic­u­lar, ends by lead­ing it to the cur­rent dom­i­nant Form, the Form of the con­tra­dic­tion between the cap­i­tal­ist class, pos­ses­sors of the mod­ern means of pro­duc­tion, and the pro­le­tar­ian class, stripped of every­thing, final antag­o­nism, after which com­mu­nism (sic).

Prin­ci­ple 3: Every con­tra­dic­tion, engine of its devel­op­ment, con­tains in itself the prin­ci­ple of its super­s­es­sion, of its nega­tion and of the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between its oppos­ing terms. This is the famous prin­ci­ple of Hegelian Aufhe­bung, the nega­tion of the nega­tion that promises the­o­ret­i­cally and infal­li­bly the End of His­tory, the uni­ver­sal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of oppo­sites, after the devel­op­ment of the forms of the his­tor­i­cal dialectic.

Prin­ci­ple 4: It is by nega­tion that his­tory advances. If it does so, it is by way of the “bad side,”6 by the neg­a­tive class, the dom­i­nated, and not by the pos­i­tive class, the dom­i­nant, by the exploited and not by the exploiters, today by the pro­le­tar­i­ans and not by the capitalists.

Prin­ci­ple 5: It is enough that the neg­a­tive class unites in its neg­a­tive con­di­tion, that it con­sti­tutes a class in itself (de facto neg­a­tive) and a class for itself (de jure neg­a­tive). Through this nega­tion it erodes and decom­poses the entire sys­tem of dom­i­na­tion of the rul­ing class, from which it destroys insti­tu­tions, the State, the fam­ily, reli­gion, it rejects ideas [elle en nie les idées], and arranges men into two camps where the strug­gle of ideas becomes pos­si­ble as the strug­gle of classes. It’s in this ide­o­log­i­cal class strug­gle that the pro­le­tariat becomes con­scious of itself and of its mis­sion, con­sti­tutes itself as a class, and that the cap­i­tal­ist class senses the immi­nent end of its reign. (Gram­sci dreamed about this text, to which he lent a fab­u­lous and false “gnose­o­log­i­cal” meaning.)

Prin­ci­ple 6: The cul­mi­na­tion of this con­tra­dic­tory and neg­a­tive process, of the pri­macy of classes over their strug­gle, of the pri­macy of the neg­a­tive over the pos­i­tive (neg­a­tiv­ity), is the end of His­tory, Rev­o­lu­tion, the Great Rever­sal of the No within the Yes, the tri­umph of the exploited over the exploiters, the end of the State, the pro­le­tariat itself becom­ing the State and its ide­ol­ogy the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy. End of the State, end of ide­ol­ogy, end of the bour­geois fam­ily, end of moral­ity and of reli­gion, then it’s Sun­day every day, and the reign of “lazi­ness,” which will one day be cel­e­brated by Lafar­gue, who was seri­ous, begins for all intel­lec­tual and man­ual labor­ers.7

Here’s how the “labor of the neg­a­tive” leads to the Rev­o­lu­tion, announced by the Man­i­festo of 1847-1848 as an obvi­ous fact. Recall that this text passed by com­pletely unno­ticed in the storm of the rev­o­lu­tions of 1847-1848, but at least some­thing of it remains: this text itself in the archives and the mem­ory of the Ger­man Social­ist Party.

It remained there as it was the col­lec­tive work of the com­mu­nists of 1847, of Marx who had writ­ten it, and of Engels who had pre­vi­ously drafted sev­eral ver­sions because the unre­li­able Marx didn’t get crack­ing. (One at least rec­og­nizes Engels’s pen in “The Com­mu­nist Cat­e­chism”8 which is clear as spring water). This part­ner­ship sparked [cette con­jonc­tion est à l’origine de] the most beau­ti­ful and the most scan­dalous story of the cen­tury: the story of the thought of Marx and Engels, these two men who knew to begin with two in order have one thought and spent their lives devel­op­ing, illus­trat­ing and prov­ing it, in the enor­mous works called the Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy, Cap­i­tal, in the cor­re­spon­dence over Cap­i­tal, Anti-Dühring, Rev­o­lu­tion and Counter-Revolution in Ger­many, etc.

That it was nec­es­sary to begin with two in order to con­ceive one thought, this over­turns all the prin­ci­ples of psy­chol­ogy and almost antic­i­pates “inter­sub­jec­tiv­ity.” That two lives were nec­es­sary to develop one thought, this inau­gu­rates a new form of the divi­sion of labor which over­turns the whole Marx­ist the­ory of the mat­ter. Yet it is through this that we must pass in order to under­stand this epic of mod­ern times that leads to what will for­ever be called Marx­ist thought, the thought of Marx and Engels, dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism.

But still, to under­stand, we must tell the story again, the way one tells a story to chil­dren once more. Once upon a time…

Yes, once upon a time, in the 1840s, two young Ger­man students.

One was named Karl Marx, he was the son of a lib­eral Rhen­ish lawyer, con­verted Jew, from Trier, son of a long line of rab­bis, and a won­der­ful, slightly abu­sive mother, daugh­ter of the local aris­toc­racy, beau­ti­ful as the night. He, Engels, was the son of Rhen­ish tex­tile indus­tri­al­ists who owned fac­to­ries almost all over West­ern Europe, with a large one in Man­ches­ter. They both stud­ied law, and Marx pur­sued his­tory and phi­los­o­phy in Berlin. There they met at the Dok­torK­lub and in the cir­cles of the “Young Hegelians,” who in the evening drank big mugs of beer, while singing and dream­ing, to Fred­er­ick William’s acces­sion to the throne, the heir who was known as a lib­eral, and of the great State Reform that he promised. But when he ascended the throne, the prince turned despot and made his arbi­trary law reign over Ger­many, includ­ing the Rhineland. The Young Hegelians became his whip­ping boys, he brought the old reac­tionary philoso­pher Schelling back to Berlin so that Order would reign there, and phi­los­o­phy was reined in, except that of Gans, who, pro­tected by age and knowl­edge, con­tin­ued the lib­eral tra­di­tion at the Uni­ver­sity. They would all go lis­ten to Gans and it is at one of his courses, no doubt, that Marx and Engels got to know each other bet­ter, and for life!

Marx radi­ated with philo­soph­i­cal intel­li­gence. Engels greatly admired him, although he him­self had a great rhetor­i­cal tal­ent and a clear and prac­ti­cal mind with­out par­al­lel. Time passed! Fred­er­ick William IV still stood firm in power. Marx courted Jenny, even­tu­ally mar­ry­ing her. Engels’s par­ents fig­ured he had learned enough and decided to put him in charge of the fac­tory in Manchester.

Engels packed his things and headed towards the future. He was received in Man­ches­ter by the fac­tory man­ager [maitrise de l’usine] who showed him the plant [les bati­ments de la pro­duc­tion]. Dur­ing this offi­cial visit, Engels noticed a young woman at work, he inquired, it was a young Irish immi­grant worker, a semi-skilled worker named Mary. Engels kept silent, took leave of the recep­tion, went home, and returned to the fac­tory alone, at night, to meet this Mary, who appeared to him all the more beau­ti­ful, and accepted, when he asked her, to take him to see the fac­tory again. They trav­eled, but alone, the path of the morn­ing, and Mary spoke. What she said had lit­tle in com­mon with the manager’s com­men­taries. She said: there are (“es gibt”) men and women here who have been thrown into the street, whose homes have been burned, their land enclosed (Fak­tum), who go by foot, their stom­achs empty, on the city high­ways, in search of employ­ment, what­ever work for what­ever price, so that they won’t die of hunger.9 They came all the way here, they found the fac­tory gates open, where they were wel­comed like beg­gars for a mouth­ful of bread. Behind these high walls, there were the great tow­ers of the local indus­trial gen­try, who owned every­thing in the fac­tory and reigned by their remorse­less law. Me, Mary, I too came from Ire­land by foot, it was also in search of work and bread so that I might not die. I live alone. You are hand­some, but why have you returned? You are not of our world, you are of their world, why have you returned? Engels responded only by look­ing at her with ten­der­ness, and she under­stood then that he loved her. Why? Per­haps because of her beauty and her courage. But does one ever know why one loves? She did not say no, and they left together towards the city entirely buried in the refuge of the cold night pierced by light.

Edu­cated by this expe­ri­ence, Engels began the work he stud­ied in books and on the ground, and wrote a book in 1845: The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Classes in Eng­land, which ended with the defeat of Char­tism, and where uni­ver­sal his­tory unfolded quite dif­fer­ently than in the schemas of the Man­i­festo. Every­thing there depended on the con­di­tions of life (Lebens­be­din­gun­gen) and of labor (Arbeits­be­din­gun­gen), imposed on the exploited, every­thing went back to the great dis­pos­ses­sion of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion which had thrown these men out of burn­ing homes onto the streets, and into the hands of the local own­ers of the means of pro­duc­tion. No ques­tion of con­cept, con­tra­dic­tion, nega­tion and neg­a­tiv­ity, of pri­macy of classes over their strug­gle, of the pri­macy of the neg­a­tive over the pos­i­tive. But, a fac­tual sit­u­a­tion, the result of an entire unfore­seen but nec­es­sary his­tor­i­cal process that had pro­duced this fac­tual sit­u­a­tion: the exploited in the hands of the exploiters. As for the strug­gle, it was also the result of a fac­tual his­tory. They had fought to hold onto their lands, they were beaten in order to be dis­pos­sessed, they had lost, they were forced back into the slav­ery of pro­duc­tion and resisted as they could, backs to the wall, day after day, in the fra­ter­nity of the sol­i­dar­ity of the exploited, but alone in the world fac­ing the police, hired hand of the employer and his dik­tat. The only thing they had under­stood was that one does not strug­gle alone, but that it is nec­es­sary to unite in order to give a proper force to lead the strug­gle, con­front dis­ap­point­ments, regroup the com­bat­ants after a defeat and pre­pare tomorrow’s attack. They had even under­stood that the unity of this strug­gle has two degrees, the eco­nomic where the strug­gle leads to liv­ing con­di­tions and the polit­i­cal where the strug­gle leads to power. They under­stood it so well that they did it on their own, with­out the help of any philoso­pher, except Owen, the prac­ti­cal phi­los­o­phy of the for­ma­tion of trade unions and of the Chartist party that aroused the Eng­lish bour­geoisie into its first great ter­ror. That Char­tism was defeated is another story, but Engels him­self also drew the les­son from what, thanks to Mary, he was able to observe: that there is indeed a phi­los­o­phy at work in his­tory, but a phi­los­o­phy with­out phi­los­o­phy, with­out con­cept or con­tra­dic­tion, and it acts at the level of the neces­sity of pos­i­tive facts and not at the level of the neg­a­tive or the prin­ci­ples of the con­cept, it doesn’t give a damn about the con­tra­dic­tion and the End of His­tory, it doesn’t even give a damn about the Rev­o­lu­tion as the neg­a­tiv­ity and the great rever­sal, it is prac­ti­cal, and in it the pri­macy of prac­tice and of the asso­ci­a­tion of men pre­vails over the­ory and the Stirner­ian ego­ist auton­omy of the indi­vid­ual, in short, there is some truth in the Man­i­festo but all is false because it is inverted, and in order to attain the truth, we must think oth­er­wise.

All this was implicit or explicit in Engels’s book [en pointille ou en plein]. It appeared in 1845 in Bre­men, was praised and for­got­ten: after all, Marx thought, Eng­land is Eng­land, it is not the clas­sic coun­try of rev­o­lu­tions like France, or of phi­los­o­phy like Ger­many, under­stand­ing of course that the Rev­o­lu­tion can only be polit­i­cal, or bet­ter philo­soph­i­cal. The defeat of Char­tism proved it: these Eng­lish are not at the height of their his­tory; Engels is nice, but lives with an Irish worker who he has not mar­ried, all the same, we must be seri­ous, it is not semi-skilled women who will give us lessons in world and rev­o­lu­tion­ary his­tory.10

[The jewel in the crown of this mis­un­der­stand­ing remains and will for­ever remain the rough draft (because it is one) of the “The­ses on Feuer­bach” where all the mis­un­der­stand­ings were gath­ered together by Engels into the unity of eleven dis­creet but peremp­tory and hasty the­ses. These the­ses, thrown onto paper by Marx with a hur­ried pen­cil, would be later pub­lished by Engels, in the appen­dix to Anti-Dühring, while call­ing them, beyond the realm of decency, the “germ of our con­cep­tion of the world,” in short, as the promise of a rev­o­lu­tion in phi­los­o­phy, guar­an­tee of every pos­si­ble rev­o­lu­tion, the polit­i­cal included.11

We know that the “The­ses on Feuer­bach,” whose imme­di­ate objec­tive was to break with the man who had inspired the entire Ger­man Left (“we all became Feuer­bachi­ans then,” Engels), crit­i­cized Feuer­bach in the name of Fichte, and an amal­gam of Feuer­bach and Fichte, much more than it depended on a “new con­cep­tion of the world.” Com­pared to Hegel, they would be instead, and by far, a retreat, a step behind the cri­tique of Fichte by Hegel him­self.12 But let’s see how they present them­selves and how they operate.

They come down to an apolo­gia of praxis iden­ti­fied with the sub­jec­tive pro­duc­tion of a Sub­ject that is unnamed (unless it is the Sub­ject of Feuer­bach, human­ity, the “men,” which Stirner, in the absence of Marx, had fully shown to con­sti­tute the new ker­nel of the “reli­gion of Mod­ern Times.”) This is why Arvon was quite right to main­tain that Stirner had “been there.”

It’s in the name of this apolo­gia of praxis, under­stood as “human sub­jec­tiv­ity,” that Marx imme­di­ately crit­i­cized “the chief defect of all hith­erto exist­ing mate­ri­al­ism – that of Feuer­bach included”: real­ity, the con­crete world was there con­ceived only in the form of the object or of con­tem­pla­tion, but not as con­crete human activ­ity, as prac­tice, not sub­jec­tively.13 I chal­lenge any­one to make sense of this sen­ti­ment. It then nat­u­rally fol­lows that the active side, in the his­tory of phi­los­o­phy, was devel­oped by ide­al­ism (!), and that Feuer­bach, “who wants con­crete objects, really dis­tinct from the thought objects,” “does not con­ceive human activ­ity itself as objec­tive activ­ity.” “Hence he does not grasp the sig­nif­i­cance of ‘rev­o­lu­tion­ary,’ of ‘practical-critical,’ activ­ity (sic).”14 And of course! This solemn homage to the phi­los­o­phy of Fichte, which opens the the­ses in all their mag­ni­tude, is nev­er­the­less tem­pered by the inter­ven­tion of Feuer­bachian themes, more “mate­ri­al­ist” ones, like that of the “base.” For exam­ple the famous text on reli­gion: it is nec­es­sary not only to crit­i­cize it the­o­ret­i­cally but also to dis­cover its “earthly base,” “mate­r­ial,” to know that the holy fam­ily is noth­ing but the sub­li­mated trans­po­si­tion of the earthly fam­ily: “once the earthly fam­ily is dis­cov­ered to be the secret of the holy fam­ily, the for­mer must then itself be destroyed in the­ory and in prac­tice…”15 But this is also an illu­sion. Mate­ri­al­ist indeed this text would be, if it did not cash in the def­i­n­i­tion of the heav­enly fam­ily, sure of receiv­ing its “secret” in the earthly fam­ily, while there is some­thing entirely dif­fer­ent there.16 The world thus becomes a com­plete com­pendium, full of mys­ter­ies hid­ing their secrets within them­selves, or close by. Since it holds all its mean­ing in itself and in the man who is its essence, only a good hermeneu­tics is needed to deci­pher it in order to explain it. And despite a force­ful return of Fichte in the short fifth the­sis (“Feuer­bach, not sat­is­fied with abstract think­ing, wants con­tem­pla­tion; but he does not con­ceive sen­su­ous­ness as prac­ti­cal, human-sensuous activ­ity”17), it is Feuerbach’s hermeneu­tics that tri­umphs, as in this final and famous propo­si­tion of a fab­u­lous ide­al­ism: “All social life is essen­tially prac­ti­cal. All mys­ter­ies which lead the­ory to mys­ti­cism find their ratio­nal solu­tion in human prac­tice and in the com­pre­hen­sion of this prac­tice” (one would do well to com­pare this the­sis with Feuer­bach, Philo­soph­i­cal Man­u­scripts, p. 56 and The Essence of Chris­tian­ity, p. 431).18 And to escape this dan­ger­ous path, Marx could fin­ish well with the clar­ion call of the­sis 11: “The philoso­phers have only inter­preted the world, in var­i­ous ways; the point is to change it.” It is beau­ti­ful, but it means noth­ing. What do we gain with this pecu­liar phrase if not a bit more con­fu­sion, for who could these philoso­phers be? They have all wanted to act upon the world, to make it progress just as to make it regress, or to main­tain it in its sta­tus quo. And to which philoso­phers will the his­tor­i­cal mis­sion “to change the world” thus return? One will observe that Marx does not charge the philoso­phers with this super­hu­man task but an enig­matic “it is nec­es­sary,” which is only a ral­ly­ing call, but to whom? Mys­tery. And since noth­ing is said of social classes in this stu­pe­fy­ing text, there is no choice but to believe that every­thing hap­pens in the minds of these philoso­phers, or else whom? of those who repeat and of those who explain, the dif­fer­ence is small and neg­li­gi­ble. But these are only episodes in the tor­mented his­tory of the youth of our revolutionaries.

The Con­di­tion was left on the shelf of future Com­plete Works, and the “The­ses on Feuer­bach,” which were more­over unti­tled (it is Engels who gave them a bap­tism of sorts later on), slept in scrap­books in Marx’s pen­cil, with­out any historico-philosophical cri­tique, as texts to be taken to the let­ter, to their let­ter. And Marx and Engels went back to vis­it­ing these mar­velous Ger­man rev­o­lu­tion­ary arti­sans of Paris and Lon­don (they had never bro­ken off their ties with them): over the entire length of their beard one could see the mag­nif­i­cence of the human con­di­tion spread out, and this mov­ing “social need” when they spoke of the immi­nent and dis­tant future of human­ity. They at least knew what pol­i­tics and orga­ni­za­tion were, and they would not be intim­i­dated by the power of philoso­phers, who were at most only good for think­ing and then tak­ing orders from agi­ta­tional texts, like this famous Man­i­festo that never came.

Let’s resume once again. Thus once upon a time there were two young Ger­man intel­lec­tu­als, one who fre­quented rev­o­lu­tion­ary cir­cles for some time in Paris, where he set about in vain to “infect” Proud­hon with the “Hegelian dialec­tic,” with­out man­ag­ing to make him under­stand what could even be a con­tra­dic­tion, the other estab­lish­ing him­self in his Man­ches­ter res­i­dence, with Mary’s song in his bed and his house, the work of indus­trial man­age­ment dur­ing the week and on Sat­ur­day fox-hunting with the local aris­to­crats. The [two] strug­gled, each one in his own way, for the rev­o­lu­tion that was com­ing, united by the silent illu­sion of a har­mony of thought [accord de pen­sée] on what his­tory, class strug­gle, and the end of his­tory could be. Mis­un­der­stand­ings also make history.

The events of 1848-9 in Europe, the shoot­ings in Paris, Rev­o­lu­tion in the Rhineland and in Cologne, the trial of com­mu­nists, in short the real strug­gle and its mishaps reflect a cer­tain dis­or­der in the the­o­ret­i­cal pre­sup­po­si­tions and pre­dic­tions of the pair, who lived a long time in wait of the Eng­lish rev­o­lu­tion “for tomor­row.” After the defeat of 1850, Marx decided that it was decid­edly nec­es­sary “to start again from the very begin­ning,”19 which is to say with polit­i­cal econ­omy and its secret, the con­tra­dic­tion (?) between use value and exchange value, from Smith and Ricardo, to com­mit him­self to the enor­mous work of Cap­i­tal.

Some­times in Paris, then in Brus­sels and even­tu­ally in Lon­don, he worked on the­ory, while Engels worked in his Eng­lish smog on pro­duc­tion. The the­o­rist never had money, but had child after child, of which sev­eral died of sick­ness and even of hunger, despite the sub­si­dies that the faith­ful Engels sent not only for monthly expenses, but for the daily life of the Marx cou­ple, who were now per­ma­nently estab­lished as refugees in London.

Thus the “thought of Marx and Engels” inau­gu­rated a new form of the divi­sion of labor: on one hand the the­o­rist scour­ing the doc­u­ments and archives of the British Museum, on the other the prac­ti­tioner of tex­tile pro­duc­tion earn­ing money and send­ing it to Marx – there­fore on one hand the crit­i­cal the­ory devoted to elu­ci­dat­ing the mys­tery of money, and on the other money with­out odor20, and in the back­ground the prac­tice of mil­i­tants devoted to the rev­o­lu­tion, for which each worked in his own way, the money of “Hegelian logic” thus match­ing the money of pro­duc­tion and the devo­tion of militants.

Things went so far on this beaten path that one day Marx, receiv­ing word of Mary’s death (this cohab­i­ta­tion was not dear to Jenny Marx’s heart), had the nerve to respond with a dry word of con­do­lences and, in appen­dix, with a let­ter which was a long plea for sub­si­dies. For three weeks, Engels, who wrote almost every day, was silent, then had Marx know that he had almost decided never to see him again. Undaunted, Marx moved on and con­tin­ued writ­ing nonethe­less, to demand cash, and to have con­crete infor­ma­tion, irre­place­able for his the­o­ret­i­cal work: to know how the cap­i­tal­ist assures the sim­ple or expanded repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal, cal­cu­lates the price of his machines and of their obso­les­cence, recruits his work­ers, what are the faux frais21 of pro­duc­tion, etc., prac­tic­ing – as this is legit­i­mately done – the most clas­sic form of the divi­sion of labor between the the­o­rist who knows and thinks, but who needs to learn from the prac­ti­tioner what he is sup­posed to know bet­ter than him. A col­lab­o­ra­tion with­out par­al­lel or prece­dent fol­lowed, of which the Cor­re­spon­dence gives us an impres­sive and mov­ing doc­u­ment, unpar­al­leled and authen­tic, since within is con­tained the truth of an authen­tic the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal divi­sion of labor, which bares itself in the elab­o­ra­tion of a truly com­mon work. This is the great tem­po­rary moment of the unity of the thought of Marx and Engels, which then existed, each know­ing, or at least Engels did, what he was talk­ing about and what the other was talk­ing about. It sur­vived the Con­tri­bu­tion to a Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy, which Marx had the audac­ity to sign alone, in 1859, then finally in 1867 vol­ume one of Cap­i­tal, that Marx was right, this time, to sign alone, since he com­mit­ted his own thoughts, which is to say his own philo­soph­i­cal fan­tasies.22

How­ever, Marx had aged, he had lost an entire year to the calum­nies of Herr Vogt, his ideas were spread­ing around the world and every­one pil­laged them. Loria had to do it in Italy, and even in Ger­many one saw the blind math­e­mati­cian Dühring get an audi­ence with ideas stolen from Marx, and going so far as to men­ace the unity of the Ger­man Marx­ist party, which had been founded in the mean­time. It was nec­es­sary to respond and retort quickly. Marx was sick, it was Engels who came to his defense in a philosophico-economic summa, whose prin­ci­ple Marx approved in writ­ing – in the Pref­ace, even: Anti-Dühring, which con­tained a chap­ter: “Social­ism: Utopian and Sci­en­tific,” which was to pro­foundly “train” a whole new gen­er­a­tion of Marx­ists in the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional and after. Engels offered them in effect the phi­los­o­phy that was miss­ing from Cap­i­tal, these twenty pages on the dialec­tic that Marx never found the time to write (because this was to ask the impossible).

In it, Engels also recounted, in his man­ner, the his­tory of Marx­ist the­ory, result­ing from the fusion of the three ele­ments of Eng­lish polit­i­cal econ­omy, Ger­man phi­los­o­phy, and French social­ism, its con­sti­tu­tion in the strug­gle against Feuer­bach, Stirner, and Proud­hon and the anar­chism of mis­for­tune. He gave an account of the divi­sion of intel­lec­tual labor that was required to pro­duce this unprece­dented result, Marx being at the heart of the syn­the­sis of the Three Ele­ments and Ger­man phi­los­o­phy at the heart of it all. He explained that Marx­ism is above all a phi­los­o­phy, but mate­ri­al­ist, as mate­ri­al­ist as pos­si­ble, which is to say rest­ing on the most naked mat­ter of the world, a mate­ri­al­ism there­fore dis­tinct from all philo­soph­i­cal ide­al­ism, dis­tinct from even Hegel who it was nec­es­sary to turn on his feet, since Hegel was a reversed mate­ri­al­ism, which only had to be reversed a sec­ond time to obtain pure mate­ri­al­ism, and a dialec­ti­cal and not mech­a­nis­tic mate­ri­al­ism, a mate­ri­al­ism which knew how to inte­grate the Hegelian dialec­tic and the sense of evo­lu­tion­ism that it rep­re­sents in the his­tory of cul­ture. Marx let it be, approv­ing, even writ­ing a chap­ter of Anti-Dühring (on the Phys­iocrats) to seal his approval, and declared to the world that their work really was com­mon since Engels wrote its phi­los­o­phy and also spoke of the rev­o­lu­tion and social­ism as in the Man­i­festo.

Engels had some­thing of a knack for polemics, and Anti-Dühring con­tains some pas­sages not lack­ing in great­ness. But the rela­tion to Marx? The rela­tion between these long pages of phi­los­o­phy and the twenty sheets on the dialec­tic that Marx had to regret to the end being unable to write? And if he couldn’t do it, it wasn’t fatigue but the unthink­a­bil­ity of this insane endeavor. Yet every­thing was there, the con­tra­dic­tion and the con­cept and the nega­tion, and the nega­tion of the nega­tion, and the Aufhe­bung, all the para­pher­na­lia of the Hegelian ter­mi­nol­ogy of the Man­i­festo and Cap­i­tal; it lacked noth­ing, it even had too much, an over­flow of phi­los­o­phy that caused phi­los­o­phy – which should hold in two or three con­cepts, as one sees in the greats, Plato, Aris­to­tle, and Kant and even Hegel – to over­flow far enough to cover the whole of real­ity, to take account of every­thing: social his­tory, the his­tory of the sci­ences, and why not also, if the skill was there, cul­tural his­tory, that of lit­er­a­ture and music. The thought of Marx and Engels had become the sub­sti­tute for Absolute Knowl­edge in a summa which was the Philo­soph­i­cal Dic­tio­nary for the time of mod­ern socialism.

Marx had one final burst: the “Notes on Wag­ner” (1883) which refuted any such deduc­tion (of value as con­cept in use-value and exchange value: a deduc­tion sym­bolic of all the oth­ers), then he went from Lon­don to Algiers to recede into death, with­out hav­ing dis­avowed Engels or Social­ism: Utopian and Sci­en­tific, which on the con­trary had the cover of his global author­ity. And it would be Engels who, in the time he had left to live, Engels the “Gen­eral” who gov­erned by inter­ven­ing every­where in the work­ers’ move­ment, who would set him­self to man­ag­ing the illu­sory unity of this “work.” He wrote with clar­ity, every­one under­stood him, every­one admired this ency­clo­pe­dic sci­ence which spoke of any and all of his­tory, in the name of this phi­los­o­phy: dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism. The max­i­mum of mate­ri­al­ism, the min­i­mum of dialec­tic, the min­i­mum of mate­ri­al­ism, the max­i­mum of dialec­tic? This was the great prob­lem of the suc­ces­sors, from Plekhanov and Bern­stein to Lukács, who would each find his home, with­out the prob­lem ever set­tling the prob­lem, each pass­ing from one extreme to the other in his own reflec­tion, a sign that some­thing wasn’t work­ing in this bar­baric ter­mi­nol­ogy, philo­soph­i­cally bar­baric, since one never finds it present in any part of the whole his­tory of phi­los­o­phy. This inca­pac­ity to think the his­tory of phi­los­o­phy in this ter­mi­nol­ogy, from Epi­cu­rus to Lasalle then to Plekhanov, Bern­stein, and Lukács, isn’t noth­ing: it’s the sign that the pro­posed con­cepts are not ade­quate for any­thing but their own affir­ma­tion. Those who prof­ited were Plekhanov and Lenin him­self, then Stalin in the good old days when the dog­ma­tism of two sci­ences tri­umphed, and why not two lan­guages, two musics, and two lit­er­a­tures (“social­ist real­ism”), two con­cep­tions of the world: the bour­geois and the proletarian.

The result, every­one knows: the immense, ridicu­lous, and still­born oeu­vre of the Bene­dictines of his­tor­i­cal and dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism, all of offi­cial Soviet phi­los­o­phy and those of its emu­la­tors in the coun­tries of actu­ally exist­ing social­ism, and how many of the mem­bers or party philoso­phers of Marx­ist the­ory in the West­ern par­ties (!): the result was the death of Marx­ist thought, which was dying even in Italy, the most intel­li­gent coun­try in the world, which was dying already in Gram­sci, the most intel­li­gent leader of the world, in the dark­ness of prison. It’s under­stood, “the French have polit­i­cal minds, Ger­mans philo­soph­i­cal minds, and the Eng­lish eco­nomic minds” (Marx). The fact remains that it was from the coun­try with the polit­i­cal mind, with­out a great philoso­pher, that some­thing like sal­va­tion came to us: not from Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, not the com­men­ta­tors of phe­nom­e­nol­ogy, not a jolt à la Della Volpe, but from ten pages also writ­ten in prison, but Ger­man, by Cavail­lès (on the the­ory of sci­ence) where all the rigor of seri­ous phi­los­o­phy was con­densed, not that of the ide­o­logues, but that of Aris­to­tle to Husserl pass­ing by Descartes, Kant, and Hegel; from ten pages writ­ten in prison by Cavail­lès, unknown to every­one abroad just as Wittgen­stein was in France, and in his own way at Wittgenstein’s level; and from a few untimely arti­cles hid­den by the worst char­ac­ter in the world, Can­guil­hem, who spent 15 years con­found­ing phi­los­o­phy and its inspec­tion, and reigned over French classes with the ter­ror and the rigor that he had drawn from Descartes and… Niet­zsche.23 It was thus in France that a gen­er­a­tion relearned how to think Marx­ist out­side of Marx­ism and teach it to a shocked world.

This is also how Marx­ism, buried since the begin­nings of the trans­po­si­tion to which Marx had sub­jected Engels’s dis­cov­ery, strangely reap­peared. And one finds it with joy in the chap­ter on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion… where the themes of The Con­di­tion of the Eng­lish Work­ing Class return to cen­ter stage, despite all the pre­vi­ous trans­fig­u­ra­tions of the Man­i­festo. But the dam­age had been done. Never did this chap­ter, as great as The Con­di­tion of the Eng­lish Work­ing Class, man­age to inte­grate itself into the devel­op­ments of the “con­tra­dic­tion” between use-value and exchange-value, in the “nega­tion of the nega­tion” which rep­re­sented the pro­le­tariat and the rev­o­lu­tion. This chap­ter floated in the air, like so many other mar­velous texts in Marx, con­demned to dis­avow his work to sal­vage “philo­soph­i­cal” logic. This was the lot of the “genius,” and Engels let it be, too happy to be at least a “tal­ent” in ser­vice to the philo­soph­i­cal genius to which he had devoted his life.

This is what also explains the fecun­dity of Marx­ism. Still­born as phi­los­o­phy, saved as his­tor­i­cal gen­e­sis of the strug­gle and for­ma­tion of classes, its whole des­tiny plays out in this in-between. It is up to us, instead of giv­ing mas­sive con­dem­na­tions or blind apolo­gies, to play this in-between, to sort between the strokes of genius, the first of which come to us from Engels, and the mon­u­men­tal stu­pid­ity, and to make the strokes of genius work on the philo­soph­i­cal stu­pid­ity of Marx. This is also one way of rec­og­niz­ing that nei­ther Engels, who was fool­ish enough to write Anti-Dühring and Marx to sub­scribe to it, nor Marx, the philoso­pher who in “Cap­i­tal­ist Accu­mu­la­tion”24 and “Notes on Wag­ner” knew to break with his own philo­soph­i­cal stu­pid­ity, weren’t just men of a part who had shared these roles between, one the genius, the other the tal­ent, but com­plex thinkers in whom the repressed also made its return all the way to the worst aber­ra­tion, a fact which we can learn from again and again.

If the Marx­ism of the Man­i­festo and a good part of Cap­i­tal is dead, it sur­vives how­ever in this return of the repressed, whose exis­tence nei­ther Marx nor Engels could sus­pect. If Marx­ism is dead, we can still find some­thing in it to think the real­ity of cap­i­tal­ism, of the class strug­gle, upon which every­thing depends, and of the classes who are con­tin­gent upon this strug­gle, and the real­ity of impe­ri­al­ism which is its con­clu­sion, the real­ity of all that and even of other things.

If this recourse to the side of the thought of Marx and Engels is still avail­able to us, unfor­tu­nately the same does not go for the com­mu­nist par­ties. Built on the base of the phi­los­o­phy of the Man­i­festo and Anti-Dühring, these orga­ni­za­tions hold only on bases that are all through and through frauds, and on the power appa­ra­tus that builds itself in the strug­gle and its orga­ni­za­tion. The par­ties, rest­ing on the unions of the labor aris­toc­racy, are the liv­ing dead25, who will sub­sist as long as their mate­r­ial base lasts (the unions hold­ing power in the works coun­cils, the par­ties hold­ing power in the munic­i­pal­i­ties), and as long as they are capa­ble of exploit­ing the ded­i­ca­tion of the class of pro­le­tar­i­ans and abus­ing the con­di­tion of the sub-proletarians of sub­con­tract­ing. From now on there is an irrec­on­cil­able con­tra­dic­tion between the strokes of genius in the thought of Marx and Engels and the organic con­ser­vatism due to the par­ties and the unions. And noth­ing indi­cates that the strug­gle of the most under­priv­i­leged will be as strong as the strug­gle of the priv­i­leged who hold the power appa­ra­tus. If Marx­ism can again, in a flash, come alive, the par­ties are the liv­ing dead, frozen in their power and in their appa­ra­tus that holds this power, and repro­duce them­selves eas­ily to hold it and hold exploita­tion within it.

We live in this con­tra­dic­tion, and it is the fate of our gen­er­a­tion to make it explode. And in spite of all the dif­fi­cul­ties it will explode, in the revolt of the new youth of the world.

—Trans­lated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi


1. We would like to thank Anna Cul­bert­son for care­fully check­ing the trans­la­tion, and Sophie Rollins and Matthew Landry for their help­ful advice. Any remain­ing errors are strictly our respon­si­bil­ity. Fur­ther foot­notes are ours unless oth­er­wise indicated.

2. “I have spo­ken and saved my soul.”

3. Dur­ing this period Althusser fre­quently makes cita­tions with­out check­ing the source. In some cases he accu­rately recalls the French trans­la­tions, which dif­fer slightly from the Eng­lish, and in some cases (as with this one) he alters the word­ing accord­ing to his mem­ory. We will trans­late his ver­sions and give the stan­dard Eng­lish cita­tions in the foot­notes. Here he quotes Engels’s let­ter to August Bebel from March 1875 – in fact eight years before Marx’s death, this let­ter explains some­thing of Marx and Engels’s posi­tion on the Gotha pro­gram: “Peo­ple imag­ine that we run the whole show from here, whereas you know as well as I do that we have hardly ever inter­fered in the least with inter­nal party affairs, and then only in an attempt to make good, as far as pos­si­ble, what we con­sid­ered to have been blun­ders — and only the­o­ret­i­cal blun­ders at that.”

4Cau­tion can refer to a moral or finan­cial guar­an­tee, like a deposit or bail.

5. A ref­er­ence to Marx in Cap­i­tal, in his descrip­tion of “the con­fronta­tion of, and the con­tact between, two very dif­fer­ent kinds of com­mod­ity own­ers: on the one hand, the own­ers of money, means of pro­duc­tion, means of sub­sis­tence, who are eager to val­orize the sum of val­ues they have appro­pri­ated by buy­ing the labour-power of oth­ers; on the other hand, free work­ers, the sell­ers of their own labour-power, and there­fore the sell­ers of labour.” Both Althusser and the French trans­la­tion of Cap­i­tal use “l’homme aux écus” for this phrase. See Althusser’s inter­pre­ta­tion of Marx on the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism in “The Under­ground Cur­rent of the Mate­ri­al­ism of the Encounter” in Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, trans. GM Gos­ghar­ian and ed. François Math­eron and Olivier Cor­pet (New York: Verso, 2006), 196-203.

6. Com­pare to the very dif­fer­ent take on the “bad side” of his­tory in Althusser, “Con­tra­dic­tion and Overde­ter­mi­na­tion” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: Verso, 1977), 98.

7. See Althusser’s cri­tique of the “latent idea of the per­fect trans­parency of social rela­tions under com­mu­nism” in “Marx in His Lim­its” in Phi­los­o­phy of the Encounter, 36.

8. The French title of “The Prin­ci­ples of Com­mu­nism,” Novem­ber 1847, which was pre­ceded by “Draft of a Com­mu­nist Con­fes­sion of Faith,” June 1847.

9. “Es gibt” is meant to recall Hei­deg­ger: “In Being and Time (p. 212) we pur­posely and cau­tiously say, il y a l’Être: ‘there is / it gives’ [’es gibt’] Being. Il y a trans­lates ‘it gives’ impre­cisely. For the ‘it’ that here ‘gives’ is Being itself. The ‘gives’ names the essence of Being that is giv­ing, grant­ing its truth. The self-giving into the open, along with the open region itself, is Being itself”; Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger, “Let­ter on Human­ism,” trans. Frank A. Capuzzi and J. Glenn Gray in Basic Writ­ings, ed. David Far­rell Krell (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 214. Althusser dis­cusses the phrase in “Under­ground Cur­rent,” 170-1. A dis­cus­sion of “Fak­tum” can be found in the same text, 194-5. Althusser does not spec­ify the allu­sion, but it is likely Hei­deg­ger again: “When­ever Dasein is, it is as a Fact [Fak­tum]; and the fac­tu­al­ity of such a Fact is what we shall call Dasein’s ‘fac­tic­ity.’ This is a def­i­nite way of Being, and it has a com­pli­cated struc­ture which can­not even be grasped as a prob­lem until Dasein’s basic exis­ten­tial states have been worked out. The con­cept of ‘fac­tic­ity’ implies that an entity ‘within-the-world’ has Being-in-the-world in such a way that it can under­stand itself as bound up in its ‘des­tiny’ with the Being of those enti­ties which it encoun­ters within its own world”; Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger, Being and Time, trans. John Mac­quar­rie and Edward Robin­son (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 82. See also the com­ments on “pos­i­tive neces­sity,” 358.

10. The brack­eted para­graphs which fol­low did not appear in the orig­i­nal ver­sion of the text (note by IMEC).

11. They were in fact pub­lished as the appen­dix to Engels’s Lud­wig Feuer­bach and the End of Clas­si­cal Ger­man Phi­los­o­phy, intro­duced by the com­ment that they are “the bril­liant germ of the new world outlook.”

12. Engels, Lud­wig Feuer­bach and the End of Clas­si­cal Ger­man Phi­los­o­phy: “Then came Feuerbach’s Essence of Chris­tian­ity. With one blow, it pul­ver­ized the con­tra­dic­tion, in that with­out cir­cum­lo­cu­tions it placed mate­ri­al­ism on the throne again. Nature exists inde­pen­dently of all phi­los­o­phy. It is the foun­da­tion upon which we human beings, our­selves prod­ucts of nature, have grown up. Noth­ing exists out­side nature and man, and the higher beings our reli­gious fan­tasies have cre­ated are only the fan­tas­tic reflec­tion of our own essence. The spell was bro­ken; the ‘sys­tem’ was exploded and cast aside, and the con­tra­dic­tion, shown to exist only in our imag­i­na­tion, was dis­solved. One must him­self have expe­ri­enced the lib­er­at­ing effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthu­si­asm was gen­eral; we all became at once Feuerbachians.”

13. Althusser’s cita­tions of Marx’s “The­ses on Feuer­bach” are nearly entirely accu­rate repro­duc­tions of the French trans­la­tion, sug­gest­ing that he had mem­o­rized them. The major dif­fer­ence is that while Eng­lish trans­la­tions ren­der “sinnlich” as “sen­su­ous,” the French ver­sion uses the word “con­cret.” We have used the stan­dard Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the “The­ses on Feuer­bach,” but have pre­served the word “con­crete” for con­sis­tency with Althusser’s ter­mi­nol­ogy; such trans­po­si­tions are indi­cated in foot­notes. The pas­sage here: “The chief defect of all hith­erto exist­ing mate­ri­al­ism – that of Feuer­bach included – is that the thing, real­ity, sen­su­ous­ness, is con­ceived only in the form of the object or of con­tem­pla­tion, but not as sen­su­ous human activ­ity, prac­tice, not subjectively.”

14. Marx, “The­ses on Feuer­bach”: “Feuer­bach wants sen­su­ous objects, really dis­tinct from the thought objects.” The rest cor­re­sponds, with Althusser’s emphasis.

15. Marx, “The­ses on Feuer­bach”; the French ver­sion more or less accu­rately quoted by Althusser (he has changed the verb tenses) says: “the for­mer must be crit­i­cized in the­ory and rev­o­lu­tion­ized in practice.”

16. Althusser’s term is “pren­dre au comp­tant,” which means “to take lit­er­ally,” but “au comp­tant” also means “in cash.” He seems to be set­ting up the later word­play on the “money of Hegelian logic.”

17. Here, while the French trans­la­tion has “he does not con­sider the sen­su­ous world as the con­crete prac­ti­cal activ­ity of man,” Althusser has given a more accu­rate ver­sion, which also cor­re­sponds directly to the Eng­lish translation.

18. We are unable to find an edi­tion of the trans­la­tion of The Essence of Chris­tian­ity that Althusser gen­er­ally refers to (Joseph Roy, Paris 1864) with a page 431. Althusser was the French trans­la­tor of a col­lec­tion of Feuerbach’s writ­ings, which he titled Man­i­festes Philosophiques [Philo­soph­i­cal Man­i­festos]; here he per­haps had Marx’s 1844 Man­u­scripts on his mind. The page he notes is from Feuerbach’s “Towards a Cri­tique of Hegel’s Phi­los­o­phy,” trans­lated into Eng­lish by Zawar Hanfi in The Fiery Brook (New York: Anchor, 1972). It reads: “Phi­los­o­phy is the sci­ence of real­ity in its truth and total­ity. How­ever, the all-inclusive and all-encompassing real­ity is nature (taken in the most uni­ver­sal sense of the word). The deep­est secrets are to be found in the sim­plest nat­ural things, but, pin­ing away for the Beyond, the spec­u­la­tive fan­tast treads them under his feet. The only source of sal­va­tion lies in a return to nature. It is wrong to look upon nature as con­tra­dict­ing eth­i­cal free­dom. Nature has built not only the mean work­shop of the stom­ach, but also the tem­ple of the brain. It has not only given us a tongue whose papil­lae cor­re­spond to intesti­nal villi, but also ears that are enchanted by the har­mony of sounds and eyes that only the heav­enly and gen­er­ous being of light rav­ishes. Nature opposes only fan­tas­tic, not ratio­nal, free­dom. Each glass of wine that we drink one too many of is a very pathetic and even peri­patetic proof that the servil­ism of pas­sions enrages the blood; a proof that the Greek sophrosyne is com­pletely in con­for­mity with nature. As we know, the maxim of the Sto­ics – and I mean the rig­or­ous Sto­ics, those scare­crows of the Chris­t­ian moral­ists – was: Live in con­for­mity with nature” (94).

19. In the “Pref­ace” to A Con­tri­bu­tion to the Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy.

20. An allu­sion to the Roman emperor Ves­pasian, who sold urine from pub­lic cesspools to tan­ners and laun­der­ers, and col­lected a “Urine Tax” on the sales; he reminded his finicky son that the money itself did not smell. Balzac refers to this maxim in Sar­ra­sine, which is likely Althusser’s ref­er­ence; but it may be through the medi­a­tion of Roland Barthes’ analy­sis of this phrase, as a sym­bol of the “non-origin of money” char­ac­ter­is­tic of bour­geois soci­ety. See Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 40.

21. Althusser made much of this con­cept, which he took to be an illus­tra­tion of the aleatory. See the pas­sage in his mem­oirs, where it is trans­lated as “the inci­den­tal costs of pro­duc­tion”: Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts a Long Time, trans. Richard Veasey and ed. Olivier Cor­pet and Yann Moulier-Boutang (Lon­don: Chatto and Win­dus, 1993), 187.

22. The fol­low­ing para­graphs resume the con­clu­sion of the text in the orig­i­nal ver­sion. (IMEC Note).

23. A great deal of infor­ma­tion has been stuffed into this lengthy run-on sen­tence. Jean Cavail­lès was a philoso­pher of sci­ence who played an active role in the anti-fascist Resis­tance. Some­what like Althusser, who spent five years in a Ger­man pris­oner of war camp, Cavail­lès was cap­tured and sent to mil­i­tary prison, where he wrote On the Logic and The­ory of Sci­ence. He escaped from prison (twice) and resumed his activ­i­ties, includ­ing sub­ma­rine sab­o­tage, but was even­tu­ally cap­tured by the Nazis, then tor­tured and shot. By way of Cavaillès’s sis­ter, On the Logic and The­ory of Sci­ence came into the hands of Cavaillès’s friend Georges Can­guil­hem, another active par­tic­i­pant in the Resis­tance who had refused the posi­tion of Inspec­tor Gen­eral of Phi­los­o­phy dur­ing the Vichy period. After the war, Can­guil­hem, with Charles Ehres­mann, edited and pub­lished Cavaillès’s man­u­script. Two years later, in 1948, he accepted the posi­tion of Inspec­tor Gen­eral. As David Macey remarks in his brief but excel­lent account, Can­guil­hem acquired noto­ri­ety “as an inspecteur de philoso­phie whose intol­er­ance of intel­lec­tual incom­pe­tence, and demands for rigor and seri­ous­ness, could inspire rages that are still recalled with awe” (“The hon­our of Georges Can­gui­hem,” Econ­omy and Soci­ety, 27:2-3, 172). Here Althusser takes a jab at his dif­fi­cult per­son­al­ity, as he did in his mem­oirs: “he has accepted the post of School Inspec­tor in the mis­taken belief that he could reform the way phi­los­o­phy teach­ers thought by shout­ing at them” (Althusser, Future, 331). But he also acknowl­edged in a let­ter to his Eng­lish trans­la­tor that “my debt to Can­guil­hem is incal­cu­la­ble” (For Marx, 257).

The “sal­va­tion” pro­vided by Cavail­lès can be summed up in the penul­ti­mate sen­tence of his man­u­script: “It is not a phi­los­o­phy of con­scious­ness but a phi­los­o­phy of the con­cept which can pro­vide a the­ory of sci­ence.” See Jean Cavail­lès, “On the Logic and The­ory of Sci­ence,” trans. Theodore J. Kisiel, in Phe­nom­e­nol­ogy and the Nat­ural Sci­ences, ed. Joseph J. Kock­el­mans and Theodore J. Kisiel (Evanston: North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity Press, 1970), 409. The sal­va­tion of Can­guil­hem, beyond his efforts in pub­lish­ing Cavail­lès, is traced in Althusser’s afore­men­tioned let­ter to the devel­op­ment of the con­cept of the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break, which Can­guil­hem drew from Gas­ton Bachelard; for finer details, see Dominique Lecourt, “George Canguilhem’s Epis­te­mo­log­i­cal His­tory” in Marx­ism and Epis­te­mol­ogy: Bachelard, Can­guil­hem and Fou­cault, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1975). Finally, for some brief per­sonal rec­ol­lec­tions, see Althusser, Future, 183-5.

24. Althusser is likely refer­ring to the chap­ters of Cap­i­tal on “prim­i­tive accumulation.”

25. Althusser’s term is morts debout, “stand­ing dead,” and he seems to be play­ing on its sev­eral con­no­ta­tions: trees which have died but are still erect, sol­diers who fought to the end, or dead sol­diers so tightly packed in between the liv­ing that they did not fall down. We have opted to trans­late it with a dis­tinct but equally expres­sive Eng­lish idiom.


Illus­tra­tion by Millen Belay.

Author of the article

was the author of Reading Capital and For Marx.