On Marxist Thought

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.