Althusser and the Young Marx

MarxEngelsworkers

“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.