Althusser and the Young Marx


“On the Young Marx,” dat­ing from Novem­ber 1960, first appeared in the March-April 1961 issue of La Pen­sée, and was then repub­lished in For Marx. The back­ground for its writ­ing was the release of a spe­cial issue of Recherches Inter­na­tionales on the topic of the Young Marx, which gath­ered stud­ies from Marx­ist schol­ars on this theme, nearly all of them com­ing from East­ern Europe.1 It is Althusser’s first impor­tant text, with the excep­tion of the short book on Mon­tesquieu from the year prior, and was a ver­i­ta­ble bomb­shell at the time. In this text it is pos­si­ble to dis­cern the broad lines of an ori­en­ta­tion of thought, form­ing a start­ing-point for all of Althusser’s future approaches.

The sub­ti­tle Althusser chose for this arti­cle, “Ques­tions of The­ory,” openly plays upon the title of the long intro­duc­tion Jean-Paul Sartre had placed at the begin­ning of his Cri­tique of Dialec­ti­cal Rea­son, “Ques­tions of Method,” released the same year and pub­lished sep­a­rately in Les Temps Mod­er­nes.2 Right away, this directs atten­tion to the fun­da­men­tal stakes of the study: it is not con­cerned with a par­tic­u­lar issue in the his­tory of ideas, but advances a whole con­cep­tion of “philo­soph­i­cal” work, rechris­tened under the name of “The­ory” the con­cep­tion that Althusser would go on to prac­tice in what he would write, no doubt shift­ing cer­tain modal­i­ties of its imple­men­ta­tion, but with­out los­ing sight of the orig­i­nal points of empha­sis first expressed on this occa­sion.

Althusser’s three-part arti­cle approaches the prob­lem posed by the works of the Young Marx through its “polit­i­cal,” “the­o­ret­i­cal,” and “his­tor­i­cal” dimen­sions, respec­tively.

The polit­i­cal dimen­sion of the prob­lem is that the works of the Young Marx – by def­i­n­i­tion antecedent to the works of his matu­rity were redis­cov­ered after the lat­ter had been widely dis­sem­i­nated and stud­ied, and thus were an oppor­tu­nity for a “revi­sion­ist” enter­prise à la let­tre: i.e., the attempt to reassess the mean­ing of the whole of Marx’s thought in light of these early writ­ings which remained for the most part unknown until the 20th cen­tury, with the excep­tion of the The­ses on Feuer­bach, exhumed by Engels after Marx’s death and pre­sented as the “the bril­liant germ of the new world out­look.” Althusser sum­ma­rizes the spirit of this revi­sion­ist under­tak­ing: “Cap­i­tal is an eth­i­cal the­ory, the silent phi­los­o­phy of which is openly spo­ken in Marx’s Early Works.”3 Here the path was illu­mi­nated by those who became the fiercest defend­ers of the hith­erto ignored fig­ure of the Young Marx, “through whom spoke the Truth”; whereas in the Later Marx this fig­ure would be killed off, or at least expressed in a muted fash­ion, accom­pa­ny­ing his explicit state­ments in deaf­en­ing silence. Here as well, the debate arose over the ques­tion of know­ing who was the “true” Marx: between the ortho­doxy, rigidly encamped on a doc­tri­nal basis; and the “revi­sion­ists” of all stripes, agree­ing amongst them­selves only on the need to trace this doc­trine back to its sources, and thus against its offi­cial ver­sion, in order to recover its real or authen­tic stakes. 

With the debate set up in this way, Althusser takes delight in remark­ing that the ortho­dox the­o­rists – who have adopted a purely defen­sive atti­tude, rail­ing against the “revi­sion­ist” mis­cre­ants – have still man­aged to be taken com­pletely by sur­prise, and have con­se­quently responded in a clearly reac­tionary man­ner, ani­mated by a “devout fear,” as Althusser says. But all the same, it should be remem­bered that this ortho­doxy bears the respon­si­bil­ity for the long, long, neglect shown towards the thought of the Young Marx, and that it was up to them to redis­cover it, with the help of pio­neer­ing works by Franz Mehring or more recently Auguste Cornu, and are thus caught in a trap they have unwit­tingly cre­ated. The usurped virtues in which ortho­doxy dresses itself up have, as their reverse, the crime of igno­rance; a crass igno­rance speci­fic to a cer­tain post-war French Marx­ism, which had to hastily fill the holes by prac­tic­ing what Althusser calls retriev­ing a for­mula from Adam Schaff, who also jus­ti­fied this approach, with a degree of naivété a read­ing of these embar­rass­ing works of youth “in the future ante­rior,” prac­ticed in the name of the “tri­bunal of fully devel­oped Marx­ism,” and in a way that forces their mean­ing to make it adhere to the doc­trine such as it was already known and sup­pos­edly included under the sov­er­eign author­ity of the tri­bunal.4 This approach reveals, more­over, a pro­found inabil­ity to con­sider Marx’s thought as not hav­ing fal­len from the sky fully formed: an inabil­ity which amounts to the purest ide­al­ism.

This leads to an exam­i­na­tion of the sec­ond dimen­sion of the prob­lem, its the­o­ret­i­cal dimen­sion, since, as Althusser writes: “Even where par­ry­ing is con­cerned, there can be no good pol­i­tics [poli­tiques] with­out good the­ory.”5 It is not enough, in fact, to adopt a “cor­rect” polit­i­cal line to be able to know, in the speci­fic sense of the term, how to read the texts writ­ten by the Young Marx the­o­ret­i­cal texts that, as such, call for a the­o­ret­i­cal read­ing. Yet the polit­i­cal par­ry­ing within the “Young Marx” oper­a­tion impro­vised by the keep­ers of ortho­doxy, is not, prop­erly speak­ing, with­out the­o­ret­i­cal foun­da­tions; rather, it should be said that it rests upon very weak foun­da­tions, all the more con­testable since they remained implicit. In the back­ground of this defen­sive approach is an imma­ture con­cep­tion of the­ory, reduced to a doc­trine arti­fi­cially ren­dered autonomous and cut off from any ground­ing in real­ity. This was the con­di­tion for assum­ing the the­o­ret­i­cally inde­fen­si­ble posi­tion how­ever polit­i­cally cor­rect of a “whole Marx,” that is, a Marx whose thought con­sti­tutes a homo­ge­neous, self-suf­fi­cient, and indi­vis­i­ble total­ity, to be accepted or rejected en bloc. Althusser explains that this way of under­stand­ing Marx’s thought reflects two pre­sup­po­si­tions one ana­lyt­i­cal, the other tele­o­log­i­cal. Both have, as a pre­con­di­tion, their own pre­sup­po­si­tion, which “regards the his­tory of ideas as its own ele­ment, main­tains that noth­ing hap­pens there which is not a pro­duct of the his­tory of ideas itself and that the world of ide­ol­ogy is its own prin­ci­ple of intel­li­gi­bil­ity.”6 Yet this pre­sump­tion of an “auto-intel­li­gi­bil­ity of ide­ol­ogy” rests on no other foun­da­tion than the refusal to rec­og­nize what we could call the mate­rial-prac­ti­cal sta­tus of the­ory, marked by a his­toric­ity that does not fall under a ten­dency inter­nal to the order of ideas. 

Althusser opposes to such an approach a con­cep­tion that he would increas­ingly empha­size, before finally pre­sent­ing it as a “the­sis”: the refusal to reduce Marx’s the­ory as seemed nat­u­ral, and as Engels first did for pro­pa­ganda pur­poses to a “world­view,” that is, to ideas, to an inevitably ide­al­is­tic per­spec­tive on things and real­ity; a per­spec­tive autonomous in rela­tion to the latter’s own order, over­lay­ing [sur­plom­bant] them in the man­ner of, what we usu­ally call, a “view.” If Marx’s the­ory is rev­o­lu­tion­ary, that is, prac­ti­cally engaged in the move­ment of trans­form­ing the world, it is pre­cisely because it can­not be reduced to a “view,” how­ever vision­ary; his the­ory can­not be reduced to a set of ideas about the world or to what the world says about itself it is sim­ply a part of the world whose the­ory it pro­duces, not in the form of a fin­ished doc­trine, but of a work in pro­gress, the out­come of the­o­ret­i­cal work. This the­o­ret­i­cal labor is indis­pens­able if the­ory is itself to get to work on trans­form­ing the world by mak­ing its mark upon it.

In the end, it was pri­mar­ily the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an eter­nal Marx­ism, rigidly adher­ent to its sin­gu­lar and uni­fied doc­trine, that had to be chal­lenged because of the restora­tion of this process, with the thick­ness of its com­plex tex­ture, marked by the all the con­tin­gen­cies of the real his­tory to which it belonged through­out. At the same time, another argu­ment began to take shape: that what is usu­ally called “Marx­ism” was ulti­mately noth­ing but the open­ing of a field of debate, whose “the­ory” was open to con­tin­ual recon­fig­u­ra­tion. To close this debate would doom Marx­ism to wither away [dépérir]; what is specif­i­cally “the­o­ret­i­cal” for Marx­ism does not mean pure the­ory, but the per­ma­nent labor of pro­duc­tion, repro­duc­tion, and trans­for­ma­tion of the­ory, and which would not really be the­ory or mate­rial-prac­ti­cal, real the­ory if it was defin­i­tively, almost mirac­u­lously, expunged of its impu­ri­ties. So Althusser was not, as it was believed at the time, propos­ing to con­struct a new ortho­doxy by advanc­ing his own con­cept of the­ory; instead, he expected it would provide a vital crit­i­cal instru­ment for the destruc­tion of ortho­dox­ies, wherever they arise and what­ever the moti­va­tion or argu­ments they hold as proof of their auto-intel­li­gi­bil­ity.

In the arti­cle on the Young Marx, the pri­mary tar­get of this crit­i­cal per­spec­tive is tele­ol­ogy; the real point of depar­ture of Althusser’s approach is located in his inter­ro­ga­tion of tele­o­log­i­cal pre­sup­po­si­tions. More­over, this allows for a bet­ter under­stand­ing of why Spin­oza ‒ intro­duced at the end of the arti­cle as the only true alter­na­tive to Hegel in a foot­note on Aufhe­bung or “super­s­es­sion,” where the need for sci­ence to break with ide­ol­ogy is asserted ‒ is an essen­tial philo­soph­i­cal ref­er­ence for Althusser, one who is always present in his the­o­ret­i­cal work [tra­vail de reflex­ion].7 To per­form a read­ing of Marx’s early writ­ings in the future ante­rior, attempt­ing to read in them the antic­i­pa­tions of the mature Marx ‒ sup­pos­edly the “true” Marx, the truth of every­thing that bears Marx’s sig­na­ture ‒ makes these writ­ings vec­tors or chan­nels of a des­ti­na­tion: an itin­er­ary that changes through stages and must finally lead to the unveil­ing of a totally devel­oped fig­ure, of which they con­sti­tute only imma­ture sketches, like a “mean­ing in sus­pen­sion” already present and trans­par­ently read­able through the very forms of its absence. Althusser opposes to this another con­cep­tion, where these early writ­ings are appre­hended through their liv­ing con­tent [leur teneur vivante], such as they were writ­ten, and do not pos­sess any other des­ti­na­tion, pro­vided that this con­cept is still applic­a­ble, than them­selves. Whence the need to enter into the stakes of these writ­ings in order to bet­ter under­stand them, instead of seek­ing to impose exter­nal inter­pre­ta­tive norms on them: what we inevitably do when we over­lay argu­men­ta­tive schemas upon texts after the fact, which they per­haps made pos­si­ble in the first place, not to men­tion “pre­pared” by antic­i­pat­ing their emer­gence.

What stakes did Marx enter into, and what risks did he take on when he wrote these famous man­u­scripts in 1844, with­out being able to know – for good rea­son – what their dis­tant pub­li­ca­tion would lead to, sim­ply because they lead to nowhere else than what is lit­er­ally inscribed in them? In for­mu­lat­ing such a ques­tion, we can bet­ter see what prob­lems [incon­vénients] the notion of world­view presents: pre­cisely because, taken in them­selves, on their own terms, like other writ­ings of the Young Marx, they are in no way indica­tive of a world­view that can be detached or extracted from them, like the tele­o­log­i­cal pre­sup­po­si­tion that requires this to be done when the mat­u­ra­tion cycle of this world­view comes to fruition [par­venu à son terme]. Noth­ing pre­vents us, more­over, from approach­ing the stakes that Marx would later enter into while writ­ing Cap­i­tal, and cer­tainly not with the aim of bet­ter defin­ing the con­tours of a world­view that has already grasped the con­di­tions of its own intel­li­gi­bil­ity. We do not see why the rules of read­ing applied to Marx’s early texts would not also apply to his later or mature texts. 

How, then, do we go about under­stand­ing the gen­e­sis of Marx’s thought? To answer this ques­tion, Althusser advances what he calls the “the Marx­ist prin­ci­ples of a the­ory of ide­o­log­i­cal devel­op­ment,” break­ing with the ana­lytico-tele­o­log­i­cal method and the Hegelian pre­sup­po­si­tions that haunt it. There are three prin­ci­ples.

The first holds that: 

Every ide­ol­ogy must be regarded as a real whole, inter­nally uni­fied by its own prob­lem­atic, so that it is impos­si­ble to extract one ele­ment with­out alter­ing its mean­ing.8

This prin­ci­ple, which could be called the prin­ci­ple of total­ity, and whose fun­da­men­tal inspi­ra­tion is struc­tural­ist, though Bergson could also be named as an influ­ence with equal valid­ity, states that what we can call an expe­ri­ence of thought [expéri­ence de pen­sée] appears in the form of a con­crete, non-seg­mentable unity, and is there­fore irre­ducible to either an agency or a stream of inde­pen­dent ideas, and is organ­i­cally ordered, start­ing from its basic prob­lem­atic: this is what opens up the sin­gu­lar per­spec­tive within which all of its ele­ments take their place, in accor­dance with the speci­fic neces­sity of its orga­ni­za­tion, func­tion­ing in this way as a vital schema. At the same time, each of these expe­ri­ences of thought present them­selves as an autonomous total­ity, mak­ing it impos­si­ble to place them on the same evo­lu­tion­ary tra­jec­tory, like the steps of a sin­gle path. This prin­ci­ple of total­ity, expressed first and grant­ing it a pre­req­ui­site sta­tus, is nec­es­sary but not suf­fi­cient: in fact, its imple­men­ta­tion poses a prob­lem to the extent that it rein­tro­duces the pre­sup­po­si­tion of the auto-intel­li­gi­bil­ity of the expe­ri­ence of thought in ques­tion – the lat­ter is sup­posed to refer only to itself, dis­qual­i­fy­ing any cri­te­ria of ver­i­fi­ca­tion exter­nal to its own order. 

This is why the prin­ci­ple of total­ity must be com­pleted or sup­ple­mented [com­plété], one could even say cor­rected, by a sec­ond prin­ci­ple, which states:

The mean­ing of this whole, of a par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy (in this case an individual’s thought), depends not on its rela­tion to a truth other than itself but on its rela­tion to the exist­ing ide­o­log­i­cal field and on the social prob­lems and social rela­tions which sus­tain the ide­ol­ogy and are reflected in it; the sense of the devel­op­ment of a par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy depends not on the rela­tion of this devel­op­ment to its ori­gins or its end, con­sid­ered as its truth, but to the rela­tion found within this devel­op­ment between the muta­tions of the par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy and the muta­tions in the ide­o­log­i­cal field and the social prob­lems and rela­tions that sus­tain it.9

This is very sim­i­lar to Bour­dieu avant la let­tre: an organic expe­ri­ence of thought – one orga­nized around its fun­da­men­tal and sin­gu­lar prob­lem­atic, as shown through the imple­men­ta­tion of the pre­vi­ous prin­ci­ple – is only pos­si­ble because it is inscribed in a “field” by the inter­me­di­ary term that it relates to: with a cer­tain num­ber of “social prob­lems and social rela­tions,” to employ Althusser’s exact terms. The “ide­o­log­i­cal field” that plays a con­stituent role in the for­ma­tion and devel­op­ment of an expe­ri­ence of thought, and can­not be treated as a neu­tral frame­work, must be con­sid­ered as fluc­tu­at­ing; that is, it affects the expe­ri­ence of thought at hand as well as the organic total­ity that it forms though a cer­tain coef­fi­cient of insta­bil­ity: its order is rel­a­tive to “the social prob­lems and rela­tions that sus­tain it,” to again take up Althusser’s terms. “They sus­tain it” – in other words, social prob­lems and rela­tions con­sti­tute the mate­rial base of the ide­o­log­i­cal field; they reflect it, and, in its turn, this expe­ri­ence reflects these social prob­lems and struc­ture of which it is a mode of expres­sion or his­tor­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion. For this rea­son, this sec­ond prin­ci­ple should be called the prin­ci­ple of his­toric­ity.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, the expres­sion of this first prin­ci­ple is orga­nized around the notion of a “prob­lem­atic,” whereas the ref­er­ence in the sec­ond prin­ci­ple is to “social prob­lems” with a mean­ing that is dis­so­ci­ated from but not com­pletely unre­lated to the first instance. This could be inter­preted as say­ing that an ide­o­log­i­cal whole can be con­sid­ered to be an organic total­ity when it is reduced to one bundle of ques­tions which fun­da­men­tally struc­tures its ele­ments from the start. But where does this ques­tion­ing derive from? Did it develop in the realm of pure ideas, and was then set within an entirely intel­lec­tual field, the way one would view, as it were, a game of wits [un jeu d’esprit]? Does this not express the fact that in the expe­ri­ence of thought in ques­tion, some­thing causes a prob­lem, affects this expe­ri­ence through what we have called a coef­fi­cient of insta­bil­ity? But if some­thing causes a prob­lem here, it is not enough for it to be han­dled by an effort to bring in an appro­pri­ate solu­tion, like how cross­word answers are inserted into a pre-exist­ing grid. Instead of con­fronting a prob­lem head-on, this expe­ri­ence of thought must imma­nently work through the prob­lem, com­mu­ni­cat­ing its oper­a­tions in an open – rather than closed – dynamic, and as such, is exposed to the changes that place it within a global cycle of trans­for­ma­tion. Here, the pass­ing ref­er­ence to “social prob­lems” takes on its full mean­ing: an ide­o­log­i­cal struc­ture, with its fun­da­men­tal prob­lems, reflects the dif­fi­cul­ties and con­tra­dic­tions tra­vers­ing the social real­ity that defines its “field,” and – with­out tend­ing towards a pre­de­ter­mined des­ti­na­tion – devel­ops in the direc­tion of its shifts, shifts that are not the ful­fill­ment of a des­tiny but the result of a process of work, in which the ide­o­log­i­cal struc­ture at hand is com­pletely enmeshed. If an expe­ri­ence of thought “reflects” social real­ity, it is to the extent that it recov­ers the “prob­lems” that cause its own prob­lems, instead of auto­mat­i­cally dis­play­ing real­ity as a panoramic image that is as faith­ful [ressem­blant] as pos­si­ble: what Althusser calls “the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions” and which can only be for­mu­lated in a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive of change and trans­for­ma­tion. In more abstract terms, it could be said that what is reflected is not the state but the process of things. 

The first prin­ci­ple evi­dences an inter­nal­ist char­ac­ter, slightly weak­ened by the sec­ond prin­ci­ple, which intro­duces the idea that an “expe­ri­ence of thought” is not an ordered whole, but a total­ity in move­ment, where things move under the pres­sure of a prompt­ing com­ing from this experience’s real anchor­ing site – namely, a speci­fic social struc­ture with con­flicts that com­pose it and cause it to move. This leads to the third prin­ci­ple, which, against the first, has an exter­nal­ist dimen­sion. It dic­tates that: 

the devel­op­men­tal motor prin­ci­ple of a par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy can­not be found within ide­ol­ogy itself but out­side it, in what under­lies (l’en-deça de) the par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy: its author as a con­crete indi­vid­ual and the actual his­tory reflected in this indi­vid­ual devel­op­ment accord­ing to the com­plex ties between the indi­vid­ual and this his­tory.10

Note that Sartre did not say any­thing fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from this pas­sage in his Search for a Method: the rela­tion of res­o­nance and con­flict between a sin­gu­lar process and the global con­text in which this process tran­spires [s’accomplir] and imparts to it both objec­tive and sub­jec­tive dimen­sions, along the lines [suivi de] of a rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion between the sub­jec­tive and objec­tive, explains the tra­jec­to­ries of this process, as charted, for exam­ple, by the Young Marx in 1840s Ger­many.

After stat­ing these prin­ci­ples – which we could freely cat­a­log under the respec­tive author­i­ties of Bergson, Bour­dieu, and Sartre – Althusser gives them a more gen­eral reflec­tion where, although the word is not stated, he seems closer to the notion of the [epis­te­mo­log­i­cal] break that he will deploy later. He in fact clar­i­fies that these prin­ci­ples

are not in the strict sense ide­o­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples, but sci­en­tific ones: in other words, they are not the truth of the process to be stud­ied (as are all the prin­ci­ples of a his­tory in the “future ante­rior”). They are not the truth of, they are the truth for, they are true as a pre­con­di­tion to legit­i­mately pos­ing a prob­lem, and thus through this prob­lem, to the pro­duc­tion of a true solu­tion. So these prin­ci­ples too pre­sup­pose “fully devel­oped Marx­ism,” but not as the truth of its own gen­e­sis, rather, as the the­ory which makes pos­si­ble an under­stand­ing of its own gen­e­sis as of any other his­tor­i­cal process.11

We see the notion of truth return here in force in the form of “truth for,” attain­ing a level of sci­en­tific dig­nity, and dis­tin­guished from a “truth of,” rel­e­gated to the level of ide­ol­ogy, and thus dis­qual­i­fied. How should this “truth for” be under­stood? Pre­sum­ably as the truth that emerges from a process of knowl­edge oper­at­ing at a dis­tance from its object, because instead of con­sid­er­ing the lat­ter as a whole given by imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence, which can at best grasp its truth as a “truth of,” this process com­pletely recon­structs this object in order to trans­form it into what Althusser will later call a the­o­ret­i­cal object, an object of thought, a “con­crete-in-thought,” in accor­dance with what he des­ig­nates as being a pre­con­di­tion to legit­i­mately pos­ing a prob­lem. Glimpsed in this analy­sis are the some­what prim­i­tive epis­te­mo­log­i­cal lessons that Althusser gath­ered from his read­ing of [Gas­ton] Bachelard and [Alexan­dre] Koyré, and which would go on to sus­tain Althusser and his stu­dents’ reflec­tions on the con­cept of the break: a sci­ence wor­thy of the name does not study objects that would be directly avail­able to it, as if on a plat­ter, through the spon­ta­neous move­ment of real­ity and life, but only con­sid­ers objects it has come to prob­lema­tize by its own means, by rework­ing them start­ing from its own inquiries, and thus by pos­ing “the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions” to these objects and gen­er­at­ing a “truth for,” which is not merely a ques­tion of method, con­cerned solely with gain­ing access to a “truth of.”

How do these con­sid­er­a­tions apply to the Young Marx’s thought? In that, to take up Althusser’s terms, they lead to “the the­ory which makes pos­si­ble an under­stand­ing of its own gen­e­sis as of any other his­tor­i­cal process.” What Althusser calls “the fully devel­oped Marx­ism,” and we will return to this shortly the expres­sion “con­sti­tuted Marx­ism” would doubtlessly have been more for­tu­nate allows the work of the Young Marx to be rethought. It allows for “an under­stand­ing of its gen­e­sis” inso­far as this gen­e­sis is treated in the same way as any other his­tor­i­cal process. Hence, with­out get­ting too close and col­lud­ing with a doc­trine that rev­els in its self-intel­li­gi­bil­ity, entrust­ing itself with the task of sup­ply­ing its own “truth of,” but with the self-detach­ment required by activ­ity seek­ing a “truth for,” which com­pels itself to recon­struct its objects using “the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions” to iden­tify what it is within these objects that leads to changes, trans­for­ma­tions; on the basis of prob­lems that work upon them from within and with­out, accord­ing to a dual dimen­sion, sub­jec­tive and objec­tive. As Althusser writes fur­ther, “every­thing is in play between the rigor of a sin­gle thought and the the­matic sys­tem of an ide­o­log­i­cal field…at the pre­cise instant when that con­crete indi­vid­ual the Young Marx emerged into the thought world of his own time, to think in it in his turn[.]”12

This analy­sis rests on a pre­sup­po­si­tion, indi­cated by the expres­sion “‘fully devel­oped Marx­ism’”; and, of course, there is the ques­tion of know­ing what dis­tin­guishes this pre­sup­po­si­tion from a prej­u­dice [préjugé]. What is it that allows one to affirm the exis­tence of a the­ory that has taken, once and for all, its dis­tance from the objects with which it is con­cerned [s’appliquer], and con­se­crated, by some sort of divine anoint­ing, the prac­tice of “truth for,” once it has exor­cised the demons of “truth of?” Do we not find here, under the name of The­ory, an ide­ol­ogy of sci­ence at work, that presents the for­mer as con­sti­tu­tive of sep­a­rate order, and as such makes use of an exor­bi­tant priv­i­lege to keep regimes of knowl­edge that have inter­vened in its gen­e­sis at a dis­tance, hav­ing won its homo­gene­ity at the price of this sep­a­ra­tion? And isn’t this ide­ol­ogy polit­i­cal in the last instance, pro­vided that it responds above all to the neces­sity for the work­ers’ party and the masses to have a defin­i­tively viable doc­trine, at least viable enough to draw out the the­o­ret­i­cal guar­an­tees of its prac­tice? But doesn’t the fact that a “the­ory” serves to guar­an­tee prac­tice auto­mat­i­cally detract from the nature of an authen­tic the­ory?

We can pro­vi­sion­ally put these lines of ques­tion­ing [inter­ro­ga­tions] on hold, and look to under­stand which ele­ments of “truth for” this fully devel­oped Marx­ism – which, Althusser imme­di­ately clar­i­fies, is not a com­pleted Marx­ism, that is, a Marx­ism that would no longer pro­duce new knowl­edges – con­tributes to an under­stand­ing of the Young Marx’s thought, since that is the prin­ci­pal object this inves­ti­ga­tion has led to. The first of these ele­ments is the pre­vi­ously advanced con­cept of an “ide­o­log­i­cal field.” How can this con­cept, pro­vided that it mer­its the dig­nity of a true con­cept, be con­sid­ered to hold impor­tance for “the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions?” Because it encour­ages a recon­struc­tion, alongside the sin­gu­lar thoughts that Marx had in his own name dur­ing this period, of the com­plex the­matic envi­ron­ment inside of which his enter­prise of reflec­tion was his­tor­i­cally con­ducted with­out its con­clu­sion – inas­much as at a given moment it did occur – being in any way pre­fig­ured in its ini­tial con­di­tions.

From this point of view, it seems that study­ing the works of the Young Marx loses any “sci­en­tific” char­ac­ter, since they are con­sid­ered to be autonomous, and are at most re-inscribed in the con­text of a self-intel­li­gi­ble “world out­look bap­tized under the name of ‘Marx­ism,’” sup­pos­edly pre­sid­ing over its own ges­ta­tion by remain­ing essen­tially the same through­out. The the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tion that is then raised, and which, we can admit, puts an end to the con­fu­sion that had pre­vi­ously sur­rounded the study of the Young Marx, can be cap­tured in a sim­pli­fied form as fol­lows: how can what we have come to call Marx­ism – a sin­gu­lar term that cov­ers over a com­plex and con­flict­ual intel­lec­tual real­ity – have been elab­o­rated from mate­ri­als that were not ini­tially part of “Marx­ism,” and thus were not already Marx­ist, but have nonethe­less been indis­pens­able for the effec­tive pro­duc­tion of this Marx­ism, whose struc­ture was not pre-inscribed in the realm of pure ideas where world­views are pro­duced? How was Marx­ism con­sti­tuted from the work car­ried out by a few indi­vid­u­als? In the first place, there is Marx him­self, via the broader cur­rents of thought that struc­tured the “ide­o­log­i­cal field” of 1840s Ger­many: essen­tially Hegel and Feuer­bach, but also the work that emerged from the book-cult around [August] Cieszkowski, who in 1838 augured a phi­los­o­phy of action from a post-Hegelian per­spec­tive, as well as other, more secret approaches, such as the auto­di­dact Moses Hess, who served as a medi­a­tor with utopian social­ism, or even the very first dis­cov­er­ies in the field of polit­i­cal econ­omy by Engels, the young indus­tri­al­ist, enchanted by rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas and con­cerned with the con­di­tion of the work­ing class. This intense fer­ment of ideas [ce bouil­lon­nement d’idées] aroused not only the intel­lec­tu­als of the period, but also the groups in Ger­many and France that pre­fig­ured the first orga­ni­za­tional forms of the work­ers’ move­ment.

Marx’s rela­tion to Feuer­bach, a topic that Althusser was very inter­ested in at the time, hav­ing just fin­ished a trans­la­tion of Feuerbach’s Philo­soph­i­cal Man­i­festos him­self, is par­tic­u­larly impor­tant in this respect.13 When, at a cer­tain moment of his intel­lec­tual devel­op­ment, Marx rede­ploys Feuer­bachian schemas of thought by dis­plac­ing their point of appli­ca­tion – at a first level, from reli­gion to pol­i­tics, and at a sec­ond level from pol­i­tics to the econ­omy, as Engels first drove him to do with his “Out­li­nes of a Cri­tique of Nation­alökonomie” – should we con­sider the the­o­ret­i­cal for­ma­tions gen­er­ated within these con­di­tions to have resulted in a com­bi­na­tion between cer­tain ele­ments that would be “of Feuer­bach” and oth­ers that would not, and thus could be sur­mised to pre­fig­ure the Marx yet to come, with this com­bi­na­tion giv­ing rise to the for­ma­tion of a mixed, hybrid thought, whose com­pos­ite char­ac­ter can itself be called a decant­ing oper­a­tion [opéra­tion de décan­ta­tion], one seem­ingly inevitable?

Rightly, no. What needs to be under­stood – but is very dif­fi­cult to do so – is that this speci­fic moment in the devel­op­ment of the Young Marx’s thought presents the unity of a “typ­i­cal sys­tem­atic struc­ture” defined by a “prob­lem­atic”; that is, what gives this struc­ture its own coher­ence is the man­ner in which it reflects its objects, by rework­ing them in light of the ques­tions that we are able to ask about them. Althusser adds: “to dis­cover in this unity a deter­mi­nate con­tent which makes it pos­si­ble both to con­ceive the mean­ing of the ‘ele­ments’ of the ide­ol­ogy con­cerned – and to relate this ide­ol­ogy to the prob­lems left or posed to every thinker by the his­tor­i­cal period in which he lives.”14

In other words, we could say that the unity of a struc­ture of thought has, in the last instance, a prac­ti­cal basis, not a the­o­ret­i­cal one. The expres­sion “the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions,” or “ques­tions of the­ory,” which is the sub­ti­tle of Althusser’s arti­cle, acquires a new dimen­sion, since it appears that the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions are not merely or sim­ply the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions, or intra-the­o­ret­i­cal. The­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions should not be under­stood solely by the ques­tions the­ory poses or poses to itself, but also by the ques­tions posed to the­ory, ques­tions that the­ory defines itself in rela­tion to, by react­ing in a way accor­dant with the means at its dis­posal. Why is this impor­tant? Because it indi­cates that what is at stake is hold­ing together two ends of a chain: grasp­ing the unity of a the­o­ret­i­cal struc­ture that pro­duces deter­mi­nant mean­ing-effects, and simul­ta­ne­ously mea­sur­ing at what point this struc­ture, although it forms a uni­fied whole, is affected by a cer­tain degree of insta­bil­ity despite its inter­nal coher­ence, an insta­bil­ity imparted to the­ory by the his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture in which it is located as one com­po­nent; a con­junc­ture with its own real prob­lems, to which the­ory reacts with its own means, that is, its own the­o­ret­i­cal means.

We can start to under­stand, then, why Althusser through­out all of his analy­ses per­sis­tently focuses on the notion of ide­ol­ogy, which he sys­tem­at­i­cally applies to the Young Marx’s thought. Ide­ol­ogy should be under­stood as a thought struc­ture that is both uni­fied and unsta­ble, and is thereby pro­pelled into a per­ma­nent move­ment of restruc­tura­tion which exploits its inter­nal and exter­nal dif­fi­cul­ties – the two types of dif­fi­cul­ties that ide­ol­ogy faces, inso­far as it approaches the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lems by simul­ta­ne­ously fac­ing real prob­lems. We should bear in mind that this move­ment of restruc­tura­tion does not fol­low log­i­cal con­di­tions and that its end­point, if there is one, is not pre­pared or announced in its start­ing point; and all the less so, given that the con­tin­u­a­tion of this move­ment does not fol­low rea­sons falling under reflec­tive the­o­ret­i­cal con­scious­ness, but is effec­tu­ated in a mostly uncon­scious, and there­fore blind man­ner. As Althusser writes regard­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal struc­ture that deter­mi­nes thought in these con­di­tions: “in gen­eral a philoso­pher thinks in it rather than think­ing of it.”15

How is the ide­o­log­i­cal struc­ture, with the works of the Young Marx as one part, con­sti­tuted? For Althusser it has an essen­tially anthro­po­log­i­cal form, which explains the role Feuer­bach plays in the for­ma­tion of Marx’s thought dur­ing this period. It mat­ters lit­tle that this anthro­po­log­i­cal per­spec­tive is applied to dif­fer­ent objects, whether reli­gion, pol­i­tics, his­tory, or eco­nom­ics: what mat­ters is the “basic prob­lem­atic” that these dis­tinct objects are always related to, as they are invari­ably inter­preted as being objects of man, or objects in which man projects and even­tu­ally alien­ates his generic species-being by trans­form­ing his own objects into an object-form, as Feuer­bach affirms. The cen­tral ques­tion Marx faces as long as this ide­o­log­i­cal struc­ture begins to be a prob­lem is this: how to stop being Feuer­bachian? This ques­tion is raised by him explic­itly when he drafts the The­ses on Feuer­bach some­time around 1845, after hav­ing writ­ten The Ger­man Ide­ol­ogy with Engels.

Of course, we need to go beyond what Althusser does here: even if he was aware of this project, did Marx ever stop being a Feuer­bachian? Did he ever defin­i­tively clear away the anthro­po­log­i­cal prob­lem­atic from his analy­ses, which had been present from the start? The whole con­tro­versy over the­o­ret­i­cal human­ism is in this ques­tion in nuce; today, we can haz­ard that Althusser was impru­dent in defin­i­tively absolv­ing Marx the one he held to be the true Marx, the Marx of “fully devel­oped Marx­ism” of all anthro­po­log­i­cal sus­pi­cion, a sus­pi­cion that in fact answered to one of Althusser’s very speci­fic philo­soph­i­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions – at least the young Althusser who writes his arti­cle on the Young Marx on the basis of rec­ol­lec­tions stem­ming in large part from Spin­oza. This care­less­ness is the pro­duct of one of Althusser’s con­vic­tions, bluntly stated over the course of his analy­sis: “Marx­ism is not itself an ide­ol­ogy.” This is why, between the marx­ism, with a low­er­case, of the Young Marx, and the Marx­ism, cap­i­tal­ized, of the Marx who had become him­self, the true Marx, there is a major incom­pat­i­bil­ity. Althusser sub­se­quently expresses this incom­pat­i­bil­ity by employ­ing the notion of a break.

The third sec­tion of the arti­cle is devoted to specif­i­cally his­tor­i­cal aspects of the prob­lem posed by the inter­pre­ta­tion of the Young Marx’s works: does it solve the dif­fi­culty that has been raised? In this last sec­tion of his text, Althusser exam­i­nes what he calls “Marx’s path,” that is, the evo­lu­tion that leads him, at a cer­tain moment – which Althusser marks by 1845, the prob­a­ble date when Marx drafts the The­ses on Feuer­bach – to repu­di­ate the anthro­po­log­i­cal ide­o­log­i­cal struc­ture that he had largely inherited from Feuer­bach. What is the the “motor” of this evo­lu­tion? Althusser very quickly runs through the aspects of this ques­tion that are tied to Marx’s own per­son­al­ity, and we can eas­ily under­stand why; this relates to what Sartre, ref­er­enced on this occa­sion, calls the author’s “basic project,” from which all the con­sti­tu­tive ele­ments of their work radi­ate, inso­far as through this project, the author real­izes their free­dom.

The temp­ta­tion to reduce Marx’s evo­lu­tion to a work of reflec­tion, and there­fore an intra-cog­ni­tive effort, needs to be resisted – a work of reflec­tion whose “mate­rial” would be sup­plied by the “ideas” he then had at his dis­posal, namely those of Hegel and Feuer­bach, ideas that he would have sought out at all costs, by mak­ing them work oth­er­wise, extract­ing their truth-con­tent. This is what Marx would have done, for exam­ple, by invert­ing the Hegelian dialec­tic in way that, fol­low­ing the well-known for­mula, turns it “right side up again” or “back on its feet”; that is, trans­form­ing the ide­al­ist dialec­tic into a mate­ri­al­ist dialec­tic, as if the word “dialec­tic” could pos­sess the same mean­ing in a mate­ri­al­ist con­text as an ide­al­ist one. Althusser sum­ma­rizes this temp­ta­tion as the fol­low­ing:

The reader can­not resist the trans­parency of this reflec­tive rigor and log­i­cal strength in Marx’s early writ­ings. And this trans­parency quite nat­u­rally incli­nes him to believe that the logic of Marx’s intel­li­gence coin­cides with the logic of his reflec­tion, and that he did draw from the ide­o­log­i­cal world he was work­ing on a truth it really con­tained. And this con­vic­tion is fur­ther rein­forced by Marx’s own con­vic­tion, the con­vic­tion that shi­nes through all his efforts and even through his enthu­si­asms, in short, by his con­scious­ness.16

The aim of this analy­sis is to rep­re­sent how the motor of Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal evo­lu­tion would have been a con­scious­ness of truth, in the sense of a hid­den truth that must be uncov­ered or brought to light by any means, but which pre­dates this exhi­bi­tion, as it were: a truth that is ideal, in a sense, since it does not need to be enacted, or one could say be prac­ticed, in order to actu­ally exist as truth. But, if we want to have any hope of under­stand­ing how Marx, or the Marx of marx­ism with a low­er­case m, became Marx, the Marx of Marx­ism with a cap­i­tal M, this hermeneu­tic approach which would view truth as a secret await­ing rev­e­la­tion needs to be done away with; the whole ques­tion is then know­ing if there is already a des­ti­na­tion within the very idea of truth closely con­nected to this approach, to the extent that it turns truth into a thought-con­tent inde­pen­dent of the mate­ri­ally known fact.

This is why it is nec­es­sary to dis­so­ci­ate what falls under a real logic of inven­tion from what falls under an ideal logic of reflec­tion, to use Althusser’s terms. What dis­tin­guishes them first of all, is the fact that the logic of reflec­tion appears as a logic of neces­sity, while the logic of inven­tion is a logic of con­tin­gency, or what could be called a logic of the event. Yes, the advent of Marx­ism with a cap­i­tal M, the con­sti­tu­tion of The­ory (in that it is not ide­ol­ogy), is a process that falls under to the con­tin­gency of the event. What does this mean? That this The­ory is not a pure the­ory, a the­ory that could be cat­e­go­rized squarely on the the­o­ret­i­cal level, but is in part the uncer­tain out­come of a deter­mi­nate his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture, that of 1840s Ger­many to be exact, when a young philoso­pher by the name of Marx needed to, in Althusser’s view, invent a new sci­ence, the sci­ence of the con­ti­nent of his­tory, under con­di­tions resem­bling those in which all sci­ences are effec­tively invented – through work that is not exclu­sively a work of intra-the­o­ret­i­cal, ideal-con­scious reflec­tion, but is rather tra­versed by the irrup­tion of real his­tory, in the move­ment of the trans­for­ma­tion of thought.

In think­ing this irrup­tion of real­ity, or what appears as an irrup­tion within the devel­op­men­tal course of a body of thought [une pen­sée], Althusser speaks again in terms of  a “sud­den emer­gence” [sur­gisse­ment] that forces this thought to return to its fun­da­men­tal prob­lems, and which con­se­quently causes thought, now solicited and and pro­voked by real­ity, to entirely recon­struct its approach. This can be under­stood as point­ing towards the elab­o­ra­tion of a mate­ri­al­ist the­ory of knowl­edge, a con­cep­tion in which, to put it sim­ply, things have their say [les choses ont leur mot à dire] in the for­ma­tion of the the­ory con­fronting them. This is because what we are call­ing “things” do not merely rep­re­sent a state of immo­bile, dead facts, offered up on a plate to the gaze of knowl­edge – akin to a slack, motion­less order, which would exist in order to be com­pre­hended as objec­tively as pos­si­ble – but also exist in a dynamic form as action: a prac­ti­cal and liv­ing process in which the oper­a­tions of thought are thor­oughly invested and involved. If what we are call­ing “things” do not work “on” thought in the sense of mechan­i­cal causal inter­ven­tion, then they work “in” thought, since thought does not come from things, that is, is in things. Thought itself is a thing; it belongs to the order of things, and it is one ele­ment among oth­ers within the nature of things.

The premises of this mate­ri­al­ist con­cept of knowl­edge, still to be elab­o­rated, can be read in the inter­stices of Althusser’s arti­cle on the Young Marx; they provide its secret drama, and doubtless con­sti­tute its most sig­nif­i­cant and sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tion. But these premises appear in com­bi­na­tion with other ele­ments: intra-the­o­ret­i­cal and, we could say, tak­ing up Althusser’s lan­guage, ide­o­log­i­cal ele­ments. How­ever, as Althusser him­self notes, the sta­tus of a liv­ing thought can­not be under­stood by pulling a com­bi­na­tion of ele­ments from it that are de jure sep­a­ra­ble; the arti­cle on the Young Marx con­sti­tutes, then, an organic unity tra­versed or pen­e­trated by con­tra­dic­tions, by “prob­lems” which indi­cate real con­flicts. In order to bet­ter grasp the nature of these prob­lems, Althusser’s approach, in turn, must be placed back in its own “ide­o­log­i­cal field”; that is, it must be sit­u­ated in rela­tion to the set of debates that made French intel­lec­tual life in the 1960s both a coher­ent and unsta­ble whole – fun­da­men­tally antag­o­nis­tic, but also, as a result, in motion.17 This con­firms that the his­tory of a thought – whether Althusser’s or Marx’s – never appears in a pure form, and that the project of expung­ing impu­ri­ties is doomed to fail­ure. In the final pages of his arti­cle, Althusser speaks of the “dra­matic gen­e­sis of Marx’s thought,” which he says “did lead to Marx­ism, but only at the price of a prodi­gious break with his ori­gins.”18 Wouldn’t this drama be pre­cisely the gen­e­sis of all thought? This would be the best lesson to draw from the the­o­ret­i­cal essays of the young Althusser.

– Trans­lated by Patrick King

The trans­la­tor wishes to thank Ted Stolze, Tijana Okíc, and Robert Cavooris for their help­ful com­ments on ear­lier drafts.

This essay first appeared in Actuel Marx, 31.1 (2002), 159-175.

This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled “A Strug­gle With­out End”: Althusser’s Inter­ven­tions.

  1. Translator’s note: In adher­ing to Althusser’s styl­iza­tions in the arti­cle under dis­cus­sion, I have cap­i­tal­ized “Young Marx” through­out. 

  2. See Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method, trans. Hazel E. Bar­nes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963). Translator’s note: Ben Brew­ster trans­lated “Ques­tions de théorie” into Eng­lish as “The­o­ret­i­cal Ques­tions,” thus miss­ing some of the tenor of Althusser’s polemic. 

  3. Louis Althusser, “On the Young Marx,” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: Verso, 2007 [1970]), 52. 

  4. Ibid., 54. 

  5. Ibid., 55. 

  6. Ibid., 57. 

  7. Ibid., 78, n40. 

  8. Ibid., 62. 

  9. Ibid., 62-63. 

  10. Ibid., 63. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. See Lud­wig Feuer­bach, Man­i­festes philosophiques: tex­tes choi­sis (1839-1845), trans. Louis Althusser (Paris: Presse uni­ver­si­taires de France, 1960). The first text in For Marx is an intro­duc­tion to this Feuer­bach col­lec­tion, which appeared in the PUF’s “Epiméthée” col­lec­tion, headed by Jean Hyp­po­lite. 

  14. Althusser, “On the Young Marx,” 67. 

  15. Ibid., 69. 

  16. Ibid., 74. 

  17. Translator’s note: On this point, now see Knox Peden, Spin­oza Con­tra Phe­nom­e­nol­ogy: French Ratio­nal­ism from Cavail­lès to Deleuze (Stan­ford: Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity Press, 2014), Chap­ters 5 and 6. 

  18. Ibid., 82, 84. 

Author of the article

is Professor of Philosophy at Université Lille Nord de France.