The Crisis of Marxism (1977)

Tor­sione (Gio­van­ni Ansel­mo, 1968)

The text below is based on Louis Althusser’s ini­tial inter­ven­tion at the Novem­ber 1977 con­fer­ence in Venice on “Pow­er and Oppo­si­tion in Post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary soci­eties,” orga­nized by Il Man­i­festo. It was sub­se­quent­ly pub­lished as part of the con­fer­ence pro­ceed­ings. Here Althuss­er broach­es the top­ic of the “cri­sis of Marx­ism” at length for the first time, high­light­ing its the­o­ret­i­cal (the incom­plete char­ac­ter of cer­tain Marx­ist con­cepts) and prac­ti­cal (Marxism’s sta­tus as a “guide to action”) caus­es and poten­tial­ly regen­er­a­tive effects. This ver­sion is Gra­hame Lock’s trans­la­tion, which appeared in Marx­ism Today (July 1978), 215-220, 227, and in Pow­er and Oppo­si­tion in Post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Soci­eties (Lon­don: Inks Ltd., 1979), 225-37.  

I shall lim­it myself to a brief reflec­tion on the sit­u­a­tion which we are liv­ing through. Because our inter­est in the exiles from East­ern Europe is not only based on a need for infor­ma­tion, nor just a man­i­fes­ta­tion of sol­i­dar­i­ty. What is hap­pen­ing in the East­ern coun­tries involves us direct­ly. For what is hap­pen­ing there is also hap­pen­ing to us. Every­thing which goes on in these coun­tries is of imme­di­ate con­cern to us, and has an impact on our points of view, the objec­tives of our strug­gle, our the­o­ry, our bat­tles and ways of work­ing.

I must apol­o­gize in advance for pre­sent­ing my com­ments, in the space of a few min­utes, rather rough­ly and schemat­i­cal­ly – with­out the nec­es­sary nuances. But for a cer­tain time now peo­ple have been start­ing to talk among them­selves about a cri­sis of Marx­ism. In her open­ing remarks Rossana Rossan­da used this phrase.

There are phras­es which have played such a dubi­ous role in the his­to­ry of social strug­gles that you hes­i­tate to use them. For a cen­tu­ry, the phrase “the cri­sis of Marx­ism” has itself been used over and over again by the ene­mies of the Labor Move­ment – but for their own pur­pos­es, in order to pre­dict its col­lapse and death. They have exploit­ed the dif­fi­cul­ties, the con­tra­dic­tions and the fail­ures of the Labor Move­ment in the inter­est of the class strug­gle of the bour­geoisie. Today they are exploit­ing the hor­rors of the Sovi­et camps and their sequels against Marx­ism. Intim­i­da­tion also has its place in the class strug­gle.

We must meet the chal­lenge of this intim­i­da­tion by tak­ing up the phrase “the cri­sis of Marx­ism,” but giv­ing it a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sense from col­lapse and death. We have no rea­son to be afraid of the term. Marx­ism has expe­ri­enced oth­er peri­ods of cri­sis e.g., the one which led to the “bank­rupt­cy” of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al, its deser­tion to the camp of class col­lab­o­ra­tion. But Marx­ism sur­vived. We must not be afraid to use the phrase: it is clear from many signs that today Marx­ism is once again in cri­sis, and that this cri­sis is an open one. Which means vis­i­ble to every­one, includ­ing our ene­mies, who are doing every­thing in their pow­er to exploit the sit­u­a­tion. But we are accus­tomed to these diver­sion­ary tac­tics. We, our­selves, can not only see the cri­sis: we are liv­ing through it, and have been for a long time.

What is this cri­sis of Marx­ism? A phe­nom­e­non which must be grasped at the his­tor­i­cal and world lev­el, and which con­cerns the dif­fi­cul­ties, con­tra­dic­tions and dilem­mas in which the rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tions of strug­gle based on the Marx­ist tra­di­tion are now involved. Not only is the uni­ty of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist Move­ment affect­ed, and its old forms of orga­ni­za­tion destroyed, but its own his­to­ry is put in ques­tion, togeth­er with its tra­di­tion­al strate­gies and prac­tices. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, at the moment of the most seri­ous cri­sis which impe­ri­al­ism has ever known, at a moment when the strug­gles of the work­ing class and of the peo­ple have reached unprece­dent­ed lev­els, the dif­fer­ent Com­mu­nist Par­ties are all going their own sep­a­rate ways. The fact that the con­tra­dic­tion between dif­fer­ent strate­gies and prac­tices is hav­ing its own effects on Marx­ist the­o­ry itself is only a sec­ondary aspect of this pro­found cri­sis.  

Something Which Has “Snapped”

At its most direct, most obvi­ous lev­el, this cri­sis is expressed in remarks like those made here yes­ter­day by our com­rades, the work­ers of Mirafiore. They said: for many of us, some­thing has “snapped” in the his­to­ry of the labor move­ment between its past and present, some­thing which makes its future unsure. At least at first sight, and per­haps also at a deep­er lev­el. For it is a fact that it is no longer pos­si­ble today, as it was, to “inte­grate” the past and present, to “inte­grate” on the one hand Octo­ber 1917, the enor­mous world role of the Sovi­et Rev­o­lu­tion, as well as Stal­in­grad, with on the oth­er hand the hor­rors of the Stal­in regime and the oppres­sive Brezh­nev sys­tem. These same com­rades said that if it is no longer pos­si­ble, as it used to be, to hold the past and present togeth­er, it is because there no longer exists in the minds of the mass­es any “achieved ide­al,” any real­ly liv­ing ref­er­ence for social­ism. We are told that the coun­tries of East­ern Europe are social­ist coun­tries, but that nev­er­the­less, for us, social­ism is some­thing quite dif­fer­ent. This sim­ple fact did not of course pass by unno­ticed: it gave rise to the shock-effect of the 20th Con­gress of the CPSU, and was tak­en up and expressed in the repeat­ed dec­la­ra­tions of the lead­ers of the West­ern Com­mu­nist Par­ties to the effect that “there is no sin­gle mod­el of social­ism,” that “we reject the idea of mod­els,” etc. That is all true, but it does not pro­vide an answer to the ques­tion posed by the mass­es. For you can­not real­ly hope to grasp the present sit­u­a­tion sim­ply by argu­ing that there are “sev­er­al paths to social­ism.” Because in the last resort you can­not then avoid the oth­er ques­tion: what will pre­vent this “dif­fer­ent type of social­ism,” arrived at by a dif­fer­ent path, from end­ing up just like the exist­ing forms of social­ism? And the answer to this ques­tion depends on anoth­er: why and how did Sovi­et social­ism lead to Stal­in and to the present regime?

But this last, key ques­tion, has not been prop­er­ly answered. The cri­sis which we are liv­ing through has been aggra­vat­ed by a spe­cial cir­cum­stance. Not only has some­thing “snapped” in the his­to­ry of the Com­mu­nist move­ment, not only has the USSR “moved on” from Lenin to Stal­in and Brezh­nev, but the Com­mu­nist Par­ties them­selves, orga­ni­za­tions of class strug­gle claim­ing to base them­selves on Marx, have not real­ly pro­vid­ed any expla­na­tion of this dra­mat­ic his­to­ry – twen­ty years after the 20th Con­gress of the Sovi­et Par­ty! They have either been unwill­ing or unable to do so. And behind their ret­i­cence or polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed refusals, behind the ridicu­lous phras­es which we know only too well (“the per­son­al­i­ty cult,” “vio­la­tions of social­ist legal­i­ty,” “the back­ward­ness of Rus­sia,” not to speak of the way in which we have been repeat­ed­ly assured that “the USSR has built the foun­da­tions for democ­ra­cy – just wait a lit­tle longer and it will come to flower”), behind all this there lies some­thing more seri­ous: that is, the extreme dif­fi­cul­ty (every­one work­ing seri­ous­ly on the prob­lem knows this very well) and per­haps even, in the present state of our the­o­ret­i­cal knowl­edge, almost the impos­si­bil­i­ty of pro­vid­ing a real­ly sat­is­fac­to­ry Marx­ist expla­na­tion of a his­to­ry which was, after all, made in the name of Marx­ism! If this dif­fi­cul­ty is not a sim­ple myth, it means that we are now liv­ing through a sit­u­a­tion which is reveal­ing to us the lim­its in Marx­ist the­o­ry, and behind these lim­its some crit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties.  

I think that we must go so far as to say that the cri­sis of Marx­ism has not spared Marx­ist the­o­ry: it does not take place out­side of the the­o­ret­i­cal sphere, in a sim­ple his­tor­i­cal domain of chance, acci­dents and dra­mas. As Marx­ists we can­not sat­is­fy our­selves with the idea that Marx­ist the­o­ry exists some­where, in pure form, with­out being involved in and com­pro­mised by the hard task of the his­tor­i­cal strug­gles and their results in which it is direct­ly con­cerned, as a “guide” to action. It would be quite ide­al­is­tic, as Marx cease­less­ly point­ed out, to con­sid­er that Marx­ist the­o­ry is, as a the­o­ry, respon­si­ble for the his­to­ry made in its name: it is not “ideas,” not even Marx­ist ideas, which make “his­to­ry,” just as it is not “self-con­scious­ness” (the self-appli­ca­tion of the name “Marx­ist”) which defines a man or an orga­ni­za­tion. But it would be equal­ly ide­al­is­tic to con­sid­er that Marx­ist the­o­ry is not involved in and com­pro­mised by the hard test of a his­to­ry in which the actions of orga­ni­za­tions of class strug­gle inspired by Marx­ism or call­ing them­selves Marx­ist have played an impor­tant or deter­min­ing role. A Marx­ist only has to take seri­ous­ly the argu­ment con­cern­ing the pri­ma­cy of prac­tice over the­o­ry in order to rec­og­nize that Marx­ist the­o­ry real­ly is involved in the polit­i­cal prac­tice which it inspires or which uses it as a ref­er­ence: in its strate­gic and orga­ni­za­tion­al dimen­sions, in its ends and means. The forms and effects of this involve­ment nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect back on the the­o­ry, pro­vok­ing or reveal­ing con­flicts, changes, dif­fer­ences and devi­a­tions: these forms and these effects them­selves have a polit­i­cal dimen­sion. It is in this sense that Fer­nan­do Claudin spoke, as long as eight years ago, of a “the­o­ret­i­cal cri­sis,” in order to analyse the cri­sis of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist Move­ment, and that Bruno Trentin referred a short while ago to orga­ni­za­tion­al ques­tions (the rela­tion between par­ty and trade unions) as them­selves hav­ing a the­o­ret­i­cal mean­ing and impor­tance.  

It is in this pro­found­ly polit­i­cal sense that we are forced today, it seems to me, to speak of a the­o­ret­i­cal cri­sis with­in Marx­ism, in order to clar­i­fy the ways in which it affects what is called Marx­ist the­o­ry itself: and in par­tic­u­lar the fact that a num­ber of appar­ent­ly infal­li­ble prin­ci­ples inher­it­ed from the Sec­ond and Third Inter­na­tion­als have now been placed in doubt. It is only too clear that we can­not escape from the shock-effects pro­voked by the cri­sis of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist Move­ment, whether open (the Sino-Sovi­et split) or veiled (between the Sovi­et and West­ern Com­mu­nist Par­ties), nor from the ques­tions posed by the cer­e­mo­ni­al or silent aban­don­ment of prin­ci­ples as impor­tant as that of the “dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at” with­out any demon­stra­ble the­o­ret­i­cal or polit­i­cal rea­son, nor again from the prob­lems posed by the uncer­tain per­spec­tives of the present strug­gles. The obvi­ous polit­i­cal dead-ends, the diver­si­ty of strate­gies, their con­tra­dic­tions, the con­fu­sion pro­duced by dif­fer­ent ways of speak­ing and dif­fer­ent ref­er­ences – all these have an evi­dent polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, which must have an impact on Marx­ist the­o­ry itself. This in fact pos­es a num­ber of prob­lems for Marx­ist the­o­ry, not only with regard to the con­tra­dic­tions of the present his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, but also with regard to its own char­ac­ter.

Three Reactions to the Crisis of Marxism

In these cir­cum­stances, if we leave aside the exploita­tion of Marx­ism by its ene­mies, we can, very schemat­i­cal­ly, dis­tin­guish three reac­tions to this cri­sis.

1. The first reac­tion, char­ac­ter­is­tic of cer­tain Com­mu­nist Par­ties, is to close their eyes so as not to see, and to keep qui­et: in spite of the gen­er­al dis­af­fec­tion from which it suf­fers among the mass­es and young peo­ple of East­ern Europe, Marx­ism con­tin­ues to be the offi­cial the­o­ry and ide­ol­o­gy there. Offi­cial­ly there is no cri­sis of Marx­ism, it is an inven­tion of the ene­mies of Marx­ism. Oth­er par­ties take account of the prob­lem, and in a prag­mat­ic man­ner take their dis­tance on cer­tain select­ed points, or on oth­ers “aban­don” a num­ber of “embar­rass­ing” for­mu­lae, but always keep­ing up appear­ances: they do not call the cri­sis by its name.

2. The sec­ond con­sists in absorb­ing the shock of the cri­sis, in liv­ing through it and suf­fer­ing under it, while at the same time look­ing for gen­uine rea­sons for hope in the pow­er of the Labor Move­ment and the move­ment of the peo­ple. No-one among us can entire­ly avoid this reac­tion, which is how­ev­er accom­pa­nied by many ques­tions and doubts. Because you can­not go on for­ev­er liv­ing with a min­i­mum of per­spec­tive and reflec­tion on an his­tor­i­cal phe­nom­e­non of such great impor­tance: the pow­er of the Labor Move­ment is a real­i­ty, that is true, but it can­not alone take the place of a prop­er expla­na­tion, per­spec­tive and dis­tance.

3. The third type of reac­tion is pre­cise­ly to view the mat­ter with suf­fi­cient his­tor­i­cal, the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal per­spec­tive, in order to try to dis­cov­er – even if the task is not easy – the char­ac­ter, mean­ing and impli­ca­tions of the cri­sis. If we suc­ceed in this, we can then start talk­ing in a dif­fer­ent way, and emerg­ing from a long his­to­ry, instead of stat­ing that “Marx­ism is in cri­sis,” we can say: “At last the cri­sis of Marx­ism has explod­ed! At last it is in full view! At last some­thing vital and alive can be lib­er­at­ed by this cri­sis and in this cri­sis!”

This is not just a para­dox­i­cal way of pre­sent­ing the ques­tion, nor mere­ly an arbi­trary way of turn­ing it on its head. In using the term “final­ly,” I mean to draw atten­tion to a point which is in my opin­ion cru­cial: that the cri­sis of Marx­ism is not a recent phe­nom­e­non; it does not date only from recent years, nor even from the cri­sis of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist Move­ment, which opened pub­licly with the Sino-Sovi­et split and has been deep­ened by the “dif­fer­ences” between the West­ern and Sovi­et Com­mu­nist Par­ties; it does not even date from the 20th Con­gress of the CPSU. Even if it has only come to pub­lic atten­tion since the cri­sis of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist Move­ment broke out, the cri­sis of Marx­ism is actu­al­ly much old­er.

A Blocked Crisis

If the cri­sis of Marx­ism has explod­ed, if it has now at the end of a long process become vis­i­ble, that is because it has been hatch­ing for a very long time: with­in forms which have pre­vent­ed it from explod­ing. With­out try­ing to go back into his­to­ry in order to find the first steps or caus­es of this cri­sis in a more dis­tant peri­od of his­to­ry, we can say that for us, very schemat­i­cal­ly, the cri­sis of Marx­ism emerged in the 1930s: and at the same time as it emerged, was sup­pressed. It was in the 1930s that Marx­ism – which had been alive, liv­ing from its own con­tra­dic­tions – became blocked, entrenched in “the­o­ret­i­cal” for­mu­lae, with­in a line and in prac­tices imposed by the his­tor­i­cal con­trol of Stal­in­ism. In resolv­ing the prob­lems of Marx­ism in his own way, Stal­in imposed “solu­tions” whose effect was to block the cri­sis which these solu­tions had them­selves pro­voked and rein­forced. In trans­gress­ing what Marx­ism had been, even with­in the frame­work of its own ele­men­tary char­ac­ter and dif­fi­cul­ties, Stal­in in effect pro­voked a seri­ous cri­sis in Marx­ism, but with the same means he blocked the cri­sis and pre­vent­ed it from explod­ing.

The sit­u­a­tion which we are liv­ing through today does there­fore have this advan­tage: that at the end of a long and trag­ic his­to­ry, this cri­sis has indeed final­ly explod­ed, and in con­di­tions which oblige us to take a fresh view, and may allow new life to be breathed into Marx­ism. Of course, not every cri­sis con­tains in itself, of itself, the promise of a new future and lib­er­a­tion. Nor can a mere under­stand­ing of the cri­sis guar­an­tee that this future will ever arrive. That is why it would be wrong to relate the “explo­sion” of the cri­sis of Marx­ism sim­ply to the dra­mat­ic his­to­ry which led to the 20th Con­gress of the CPSU and to the cri­sis of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist Move­ment. In order to under­stand the con­di­tions which led to the “explo­sion” of the cri­sis, to its becom­ing a liv­ing force, we must also look at the oth­er side of the mat­ter: not only what is dying off, but what is emerg­ing to take its place: the pow­er of an unprece­dent­ed mass move­ment of the work­ers and of the peo­ple, which has at its dis­pos­al new his­tor­i­cal forces and poten­tial­i­ties. If we can today speak of the cri­sis of Marx­ism in terms of pos­si­ble lib­er­a­tion and renew­al, it is because of the his­tor­i­cal pow­er and capac­i­ties of this mass move­ment. It is this move­ment which has opened a breach in our closed his­to­ry, and which in its repeat­ed endeav­ors (the Pop­u­lar Fronts, the Resis­tance), there­fore both in its defeats and in its vic­to­ries (Alge­ria, Viet­nam) and in the dar­ing chal­lenges of 1968 in France, Czecho­slo­va­kia and else­where in the world, final­ly swept aside the sys­tem of obsta­cles and pro­vid­ed Marx­ism with a real chance of lib­er­a­tion.

But these first signs of lib­er­a­tion are also a warn­ing. We can­not con­tent our­selves with turn­ing back­wards to the past, towards posi­tions which we con­sid­er to have sim­ply been dis­tort­ed or betrayed. The cri­sis through which we are liv­ing forces us to change some­thing in our rela­tion to Marx­ism, and in con­se­quence, to change some­thing in Marx­ism itself.

We can­not in fact accept that every­thing is solved sim­ply by invok­ing the role of Stal­in. We can­not con­sid­er our his­tor­i­cal, polit­i­cal and even the­o­ret­i­cal tra­di­tion as a pure her­itage, which was dis­tort­ed by an indi­vid­ual called Stal­in, or by the his­tor­i­cal peri­od which he dom­i­nat­ed. There is no orig­i­nal “puri­ty” of Marx­ism that only has to be redis­cov­ered. Dur­ing the whole test­ing peri­od of the 1960s when we, in our dif­fer­ent ways, went “back to the clas­sics,” when we read or re-read Marx, Lenin and Gram­sci, try­ing to find in them a liv­ing Marx­ism, some­thing which was being snuffed out by Stal­in-type for­mu­lae and prac­tices, we were all forced, each in his own way, even with­in our dif­fer­ences, to admit the obvi­ous – name­ly, that our the­o­ret­i­cal tra­di­tion is not “pure”; that, con­trary to Lenin’s over-hasty phrase, Marx­ism is not a “block of steel,” but con­tains dif­fi­cul­ties, con­tra­dic­tions and gaps, which have also played, at their own lev­el, their role in the cri­sis, as they already did at the time of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al, and even at the begin­ning of the Third (Com­mu­nist) Inter­na­tion­al, while Lenin was still alive.

The Contradictions in Marxism

This is why I am tempt­ed to say: we are now faced with the vital neces­si­ty of review­ing very close­ly a cer­tain idea which we formed, in his­to­ry and in the strug­gle, of these authors, of Marx, Lenin, Gram­sci and Mao – an idea obvi­ous­ly root­ed in the demand for the ide­o­log­i­cal uni­ty of our par­ties, an idea which, in spite of our crit­i­cal efforts, we have depend­ed on for too long and which we still some­times cling to. Our cho­sen authors pro­vid­ed us with a set of the­o­ret­i­cal ele­ments of an unprece­dent­ed and price­less kind. But we must remem­ber Lenin’s per­fect­ly clear phrase: Marx “gave us the cor­ner-stones…” None of the clas­sics gave us a uni­fied and fin­ished whole, but a set of works com­pris­ing a num­ber of sol­id the­o­ret­i­cal prin­ci­ples and analy­ses, mixed up with dif­fi­cul­ties, con­tra­dic­tions and gaps. There is noth­ing aston­ish­ing about that. If they pro­vid­ed us with the begin­nings of a the­o­ry of the con­di­tions and forms of the class strug­gle in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties, it is nev­er­the­less absurd to con­sid­er that this the­o­ry could have been born in a “pure” and com­plete form. Besides, for a mate­ri­al­ist, what could the idea of a pure and com­plete the­o­ry mean? And how could we imag­ine that a the­o­ry of the con­di­tions and forms of the class strug­gle which denounced the hold and the weight of the dom­i­nant ide­ol­o­gy could com­plete­ly escape, from its first moments, from this very ide­ol­o­gy, with­out being marked by it in some way, even in the strug­gle to break with it? How could we imag­ine that, in its polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal his­to­ry, this the­o­ry could have escaped from any back­lash, from any con­ta­gion by the dom­i­nant ide­ol­o­gy? The break with this ide­ol­o­gy is a strug­gle, but it is a strug­gle which nev­er comes to an end – a truth which we had to pay for dear­ly in order to learn. And since even the unpub­lished papers and the mere study notes of the clas­sic authors are now being dug up, jus­ti­fy­ing a cer­tain required idea about these authors, let us be hon­est enough to rec­og­nize that these men, who were advanc­ing in unknown ter­ri­to­ry, were – what­ev­er their qual­i­ties – sim­ple men: they were search­ing and dis­cov­er­ing, but also hes­i­tat­ing, exposed to the mis­takes, to the con­stant need for cor­rec­tion and to the errors bound up with all research. There is noth­ing sur­pris­ing, there­fore, in the fact that their works bear the mark of the ideas of their “time,” that they con­tain dif­fi­cul­ties, con­tra­dic­tions and gaps.

It is very impor­tant today to real­ize that these man­i­fest dif­fi­cul­ties, con­tra­dic­tions and gaps do exist, and to take full and clear account of them, both in order to draw the con­se­quences for our own sit­u­a­tion, to clar­i­fy cer­tain aspects of the cri­sis which we are liv­ing through, and to rec­og­nize its lib­er­at­ing aspect, to appre­ci­ate the his­tor­i­cal oppor­tu­ni­ty which it offers us, pro­vid­ed that we are able to put things right. For cer­tain of these dif­fi­cul­ties touch pre­cise­ly on vital points of the present cri­sis.

In order to make the point clear­er, I shall give some very rough exam­ples.

Exploitation, State, and Class Struggle

In the work of Marx him­self, in par­tic­u­lar in Cap­i­tal, there exists a the­o­ret­i­cal uni­ty which – as we are begin­ning to see quite clear­ly – is in large part fic­ti­tious. I am not just refer­ring to the fact that Marx thought it nec­es­sary to begin (“every begin­ning is dif­fi­cult […] in all sci­ences”) with an analy­sis of com­modi­ties, there­fore of val­ue (which pos­es many prob­lems), but to the effects of this begin­ning and of a uni­ty of thought imposed on Cap­i­tal which man­i­fest­ly cor­re­spond to a cer­tain idea of Marx him­self con­cern­ing the kind of uni­ty which ought to be dis­played by a true the­o­ry. One of the most impor­tant of these effects is con­nect­ed with the ques­tion of sur­plus val­ue. When you read Sec­tion 1 of Book 1 of Cap­i­tal, you find a the­o­ret­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus val­ue: it is an arith­meti­cal pre­sen­ta­tion, in which sur­plus val­ue is cal­cu­la­ble, defined by the dif­fer­ence (in val­ue) between the val­ue pro­duced by labor pow­er on the one hand, and the val­ue of the com­modi­ties nec­es­sary for the repro­duc­tion of this same labor pow­er (wages) on the oth­er. And in this arith­meti­cal pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus val­ue, labor pow­er fig­ures pure­ly and sim­ply as a com­mod­i­ty. It is clear that this arith­meti­cal pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus val­ue con­forms with the order of expo­si­tion fol­lowed by Marx: it there­fore depends on his “start­ing point” and on sub­se­quent dis­tinc­tions (con­stant cap­i­tal trans­fer­ring a part of its val­ue to the com­mod­i­ty, vari­able cap­i­tal invest­ed in labor pow­er). Even if we were to accept this start­ing point, this begin­ning, and these dis­tinc­tions, we should still be forced to note that the pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus val­ue as a mere cal­cu­la­ble quan­ti­ty – which thus com­plete­ly ignores the con­di­tions of extrac­tion of sur­plus val­ue (con­di­tions of labor) and the con­di­tions of the repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er – may lead to a very strong temp­ta­tion: for this (arith­meti­cal) pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus val­ue may be tak­en for a com­plete the­o­ry of exploita­tion, caus­ing us to neglect the con­di­tions of labor and of repro­duc­tion. Marx does how­ev­er talk about these con­di­tions – but in oth­er chap­ters of this work, the so-called “con­crete” or “his­tor­i­cal” chap­ters, which in fact stand out­side of the order of expo­si­tion (the chap­ters on the work­ing day, on man­u­fac­ture and mod­ern indus­try, on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, etc.). This nat­u­ral­ly pos­es the ques­tion of the pre­sup­po­si­tions and con­cepts bound up with this “order of expo­si­tion,” which have pro­duced cer­tain prac­ti­cal con­se­quences. You can in fact seri­ous­ly ques­tion whether this mis­un­der­stand­ing con­cern­ing the arith­meti­cal pre­sen­ta­tion of sur­plus val­ue, tak­en for a com­plete the­o­ry of exploita­tion, has not final­ly con­sti­tut­ed a the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal obsta­cle, in the his­to­ry of the Marx­ist Labor Move­ment, to a cor­rect under­stand­ing of the con­di­tions and forms of exploita­tion, and whether this restric­tive con­cep­tion of exploita­tion (as a pure­ly cal­cu­la­ble quan­ti­ty) and of labor pow­er (as a sim­ple com­mod­i­ty) has not con­tributed in part to a clas­si­cal divi­sion of tasks in the class strug­gle between the eco­nom­ic strug­gle and the polit­i­cal strug­gle, there­fore to a restric­tive con­cep­tion of each form of strug­gle, which began to hin­der, and is today still hin­der­ing the broad­en­ing of the forms of the whole work­ing class and people’s strug­gle.

There are oth­er dif­fi­cul­ties in Marx, and also many enig­mas. For exam­ple the enig­ma of phi­los­o­phy, and in par­tic­u­lar of the dialec­tic, on which Marx said noth­ing except to pro­pose a few for­mu­lae too schemat­ic to be tak­en lit­er­al­ly and too equiv­o­cal to be thought through. There is the ques­tion of the rela­tion between the dialec­tic in Marx and in Hegel. There is a lot at stake in this ques­tion, in spite of its appar­ent­ly very abstract and philo­soph­i­cal char­ac­ter: it con­cerns the con­cep­tion of neces­si­ty and of his­to­ry, and of the forms of his­to­ry (does it have a mean­ing and an end? Is the col­lapse of cap­i­tal­ism inevitable? etc.), i.e. the con­cep­tion of the class strug­gle and of rev­o­lu­tion­ary action. Marx’s silence, and the dif­fi­cul­ty of recon­sti­tut­ing his philo­soph­i­cal posi­tions on the basis of his writ­ings, did in fact – with some excep­tions (Lenin, Gram­sci) – open the road to pos­i­tivism and evo­lu­tion­ism, whose forms were fixed and frozen for thir­ty years by Stalin’s chap­ter on “Dialec­ti­cal and His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism” in the Short His­to­ry of the CPSU(B).  

Anoth­er exam­ple. There exist in Marx and Lenin two the­o­ret­i­cal gaps of great impor­tance: on the one hand on the State, on the oth­er hand on the orga­ni­za­tions of class strug­gle.

We have to be frank about it: there does not real­ly exist any “Marx­ist the­o­ry of the State.” Not that Marx and Lenin tried to dodge the ques­tion – it lies at the heart of their polit­i­cal thought. But what you find in the clas­si­cal authors is above all, in the form of the estab­lish­ment of a rela­tion between class strug­gle and class rule (deci­sive indi­ca­tions, but left unan­a­lyzed), only a repeat­ed warn­ing to avoid all the bour­geois con­cep­tions of the State: there­fore a neg­a­tive demar­ca­tion line and def­i­n­i­tion. Marx and Lenin do say that there exist “types of State.” But how does the State ensure class rule, how does the State appa­ra­tus func­tion? Nei­ther Marx nor Lenin begin to analyse these ques­tions. In this light, some­thing pathet­ic strikes you when you re-read the lec­ture giv­en by Lenin on July 11, 1919 at the Sverdlov Uni­ver­si­ty on The State. He insists: this is a dif­fi­cult, a very com­pli­cat­ed question„,Over and over again, Lenin repeats: the State is a spe­cial machine, a spe­cial appa­ra­tus, con­tin­u­al­ly mak­ing use of the term “spe­cial” in order to point out very clear­ly that the State is not a machine like oth­er machines—but with­out ever suc­ceed­ing in telling us what “spe­cial” might mean here (nor “machine,” nor “appa­ra­tus”). Some­thing pathet­ic strikes you when you re-read in the same light Gramsci’s lit­tle equa­tions writ­ten in prison (the State = coer­cion + hege­mo­ny, dic­ta­tor­ship + hege­mo­ny, force + con­sen­sus, etc.) which are the expres­sion less of a the­o­ry of the State than of a search, in terms bor­rowed from “polit­i­cal sci­ence” as much as from Lenin, for a polit­i­cal line aim­ing at the con­quest of State pow­er by the work­ing class. The pathos of Lenin and of Gram­sci comes from the fact that they attempt to tran­scend the clas­si­cal neg­a­tive def­i­n­i­tion – but grop­ing­ly, and with­out suc­cess.  

But this ques­tion of the State is today vital for the labor and people’s move­ment: vital for the com­pre­hen­sion of the coun­tries of East­ern Europe where the State, far from “with­er­ing away,” is draw­ing increased pow­er from its fusion with the Par­ty; vital when the ques­tion is posed of how the forces of the peo­ple are to obtain pow­er and to work in the direc­tion of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary demo­c­ra­t­ic trans­for­ma­tion of the State, with a view to its with­er­ing away.

Anal­o­gous­ly, you will not find in the Marx­ist her­itage any real the­o­ry of the orga­ni­za­tions of class strug­gle, and above all of polit­i­cal par­ties and trades unions. There do of course exist polit­i­cal, there­fore prac­ti­cal argu­ments con­cern­ing par­ties and trade unions, but noth­ing which real­ly allows us to grasp their func­tion­ing, includ­ing the forms of their mal­func­tion­ing. The Labor Move­ment did long ago begin to equip itself with trade union­ist and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions of strug­gle, on the basis of its own tra­di­tions but also on the basis of exist­ing bour­geois orga­ni­za­tions (includ­ing, where nec­es­sary, the mil­i­tary mod­el). These forms have been con­served and mod­i­fied: they have a whole his­to­ry, which they have sur­vived. In the East as in the West we are con­front­ed with the grave prob­lem of the rela­tion exist­ing between these orga­ni­za­tions and the State: with the prob­lem, in the East, of the fusion of these orga­ni­za­tions with the State, an open fusion; with the prob­lem, in the West, of the risk of fusion, because the bour­geois State nev­er stops try­ing to inte­grate the orga­ni­za­tions of class strug­gle of the work­ing class into its own oper­a­tions, often with suc­cess.  

Mass Initiatives

But these two “gaps” in Marx­ist the­o­ry are bound up with ques­tions which are deci­sive for us. What is the nature of the State, and in par­tic­u­lar of the type of State found in present-day impe­ri­al­ist soci­eties? What is the nature, what is the mode of func­tion­ing of the par­ties and trade unions? How can we escape the risk of an even­tu­al fusion of the State and Par­ty? How can we grasp now, in order to spur on the process, the need for the “destruc­tion” of the bour­geois State, and pre­pare the “with­er­ing away” of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary State? How can we review and mod­i­fy the nature and func­tion­ing of the orga­ni­za­tions of class strug­gle? How can we trans­form the tra­di­tion­al Com­mu­nist image of the Par­ty, whether as “the par­ty of the work­ing class” or as “the lead­ing par­ty,” how can we trans­form its ide­ol­o­gy in order to allow it to rec­og­nize in prac­tice the exis­tence of oth­er par­ties and of oth­er move­ments? And above all – the most impor­tant of ques­tions for past and future – how can rela­tions be estab­lished with the mass move­ment which, tran­scend­ing the tra­di­tion­al dis­tinc­tion between trade union and par­ty, will per­mit the devel­op­ment of ini­tia­tives among the peo­ple, which usu­al­ly fail to fit into the divi­sion between the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal spheres (even “added togeth­er”)? Because we are wit­ness­ing more and more mass move­ments of the peo­ple aris­ing by them­selves, out­side of the trade unions and par­ties, bring­ing – or capa­ble of bring­ing – some­thing indis­pens­able to the strug­gle. In short, how can we prop­er­ly respond to the demands and expec­ta­tions of the mass­es of the peo­ple? In dif­fer­ent, neg­a­tive or pos­i­tive forms, in a hid­den or open man­ner, objec­tive­ly or sub­jec­tive­ly, the same key ques­tions face us: con­cern­ing the State, the trade unions, and those mass move­ments and ini­tia­tives. But as far as answers to these ques­tions are con­cerned, we have essen­tial­ly no-one to rely on but our­selves.

They are cer­tain­ly not new ques­tions. Marx­ists and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies have tried in the past to find a way to pose them in crit­i­cal peri­ods, but they have been for­got­ten or swept under the car­pet. Yet today they are posed on an unprece­dent­ed scale, and – what is all-impor­tant – they are posed on the scale of the mass­es, in prac­tice, as we are see­ing in Italy. Spain and else­where. Today we can say: with­out the mass move­ment, with­out the ini­tia­tives of the mass­es, we should not be able to pose these ques­tions open­ly – ques­tions which because of this move­ment and of these ini­tia­tives have become burn­ing polit­i­cal ques­tions. Just as we should be unable to pose them as clear­ly if the cri­sis of Marx­ism had not explod­ed.   

A New Transformation

Noth­ing, admit­ted­ly, is won in advance, and noth­ing can be sim­ply changed from one day to the next. The “block­age” of the cri­sis of Marx­ism may – beneath more or less “reas­sur­ing” appear­ances – last for a long time yet in this or that par­ty, or in this or that trade union. The impor­tant point is not that a few intel­lec­tu­als, from East or West, should raise a cry of alarm: it might get no response. The impor­tant point is that the Labor Move­ment and the move­ment of the peo­ple, even if it is divid­ed, even if it seems here or there to have reached an impasse, has in fact nev­er been so pow­er­ful, so rich in resources and ini­tia­tives. The impor­tant point is that this move­ment is begin­ning, in prac­tice, even at the price of hes­i­ta­tions and severe tests to become con­scious of the mean­ing of the cri­sis of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist Move­ment and of the cri­sis of Marx­ism: I am talk­ing here about the seri­ous­ness of the risks involved, about the depth of the cri­sis and about the his­tor­i­cal oppor­tu­ni­ty of lib­er­a­tion which it rep­re­sents. Marx­ism has in its his­to­ry passed through a long series of crises and trans­for­ma­tions. You only have to think back to the trans­for­ma­tion of Marx­ism fol­low­ing the col­lapse of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al, ral­lied to the “Nation­al Cause.” We are now, in the present cri­sis, faced with a sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tion, which is already find­ing its roots in the strug­gles of the mass­es. It can bring about the renew­al of Marx­ism, give new force to its the­o­ry, mod­i­fy its ide­ol­o­gy, its orga­ni­za­tions and its prac­tices, open­ing up a real future of social, polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion for the work­ing class and for all work­ing peo­ple.

No-one will claim that the task is not extreme­ly dif­fi­cult: but the essen­tial point is that, in spite of all the dif­fi­cul­ties which it involves, it is pos­si­ble.


This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled “The Cri­sis of Marx­ism.”

Author of the article

was the author of Reading Capital and For Marx.