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.

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