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.

References   [ + ]

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.