Louis Althusser 1963
I should like briefly to present this translation of Pour Marx to an English audience, and, on the same occasion, to make use of the time that has elapsed since it was written to take some ‘bearings’ on the philosophical content and the ideological significance of this small book.
Pour Marx appeared in France in 1965. But only its Introduction (‘Today’) dates from that year. All the other chapters were published earlier, between 1960 and 1964, in the form of articles in French Communist Party journals. They were collected together exactly as originally written, without any corrections or alterations.
To understand these essays and to pass judgment on them, it is essential to realize that they were conceived, written and published by a Communist philosopher in a particular ideological and theoretical conjuncture. So these texts must be taken for what they are. They are philosophical essays, the first stages of a long-term investigation, preliminary results which obviously demand correction; this investigation concerns the specific nature of the principles of the science and philosophy founded by Marx. However, these philosophical essays do not derive from a merely erudite or speculative investigation. They are, simultaneously, interventions in a definite conjuncture.
As the Introduction shows, this conjuncture is, first, the theoretical and ideological conjuncture in France, more particularly the present conjuncture in the French Communist Party and in French philosophy. But as well as this peculiarly French conjuncture, it is also the present ideological and theoretical conjuncture in the international Communist movement.
Of course, the essays you are about to read do not bear on the political elements of this conjuncture (the policies of the Communist Parties, the split in the international Communist movement). They deal with the ideological and theoretical problems present in the conjuncture and produced by it. In certain respects these problems are new ones; in others they refer us back to debates which have long characterized the history of the workers’ movement.
A consideration of the recent elements of this conjuncture reveals that, since Stalin’s death, the International Communist movement has lived in a conjuncture dominated by two great events: the critique of the ‘cult of personality’ by the Twentieth Congress, and the rupture that has occurred between the Chinese Communist Party and the Soviet Communist Party.
The denunciation of the ‘cult of personality’, the abrupt conditions and the forms in which it took place, have had profound repercussions, not only in the political domain, but in the ideological domain as well. In what follows I shall deal only with the ideological reactions of Communist intellectuals.
The critique of Stalinist ‘dogmatism’ was generally ‘lived’ by Communist intellectuals as a ‘liberation’. This ‘liberation’ gave birth to a profound ideological reaction, ‘liberal’ and ‘ethical’ in tendency, which spontaneously rediscovered the old philosophical themes of ‘freedom’, ‘man’, the ‘human person’ and ‘alienation’. This ideological tendency looked for theoretical justification to Marx’s Early Works, which do indeed contain all the arguments of a philosophy of man, his alienation and liberation. These conditions have paradoxically turned the tables in Marxist philosophy. Since the 1930s Marx’s Early Works have been a war-horse for petty bourgeois intellectuals in their struggle against Marxism; but little by little, and then massively, they have been set to work in the interests of a new ‘interpretation’ of Marxism which is today being openly developed by many Communist intellectuals, ‘liberated’ from Stalinist dogmatism by the Twentieth Congress. The themes of ‘Marxist Humanism’ and the ‘humanist’ interpretation of Marx’s work have progressively and irresistibly imposed themselves on recent Marxist philosophy, even inside Soviet and Western Communist Parties.
If this ideological reaction, characteristic above all of Communist intellectuals, has, despite some resistance, been capable of such a development, it is because it has benefited from the direct or indirect support of certain political slogans laid down by the Communist Parties of the U.S.S.R. and the West. On one side, for example, the Twenty-second Congress of the C.P.S.U. declared that with the disappearance of the class struggle, the dictatorship of the proletariat had been ‘superseded’ in the U.S.S.R., that the Soviet State is no longer a class State but the ‘State of the Whole People’; and that the U.S.S.R. has embarked on the ‘construction of communism’, guided by the ‘humanist’ slogan, ‘Everything for Man’. On the other, for example, Western Communist Parties have pursued policies of unity with socialists, democrats and Catholics, guided by certain slogans of related resonance, in which the accent is put on the ‘peaceful transition to socialism’, on ‘Marxist’ or ‘socialist humanism’, on ‘dialogue’, etc.
The ‘humanist’ interpretations of Marxist theory which have developed under these definite circumstances represent a new phenomenon as compared with the period just past (the period between 1930 and 1956). However, they have many historical precedents in the history of the workers’ movement. Marx, Engels and Lenin, to refer only to them, ceaselessly struggled against ideological interpretations of an idealist, humanist type that threatened Marxist theory. Here it will suffice to recall Marx’s rupture with Feuerbach’s humanism, Engels’s struggle against Dühring, Lenin’s long battle with the Russian populists, and so on. This whole past, this whole heritage, is obviously part of the present theoretical and ideological conjuncture of the international Communist movement.
To return to the recent aspects of this conjuncture, I shall add the following remark.
In the text entitled ‘Marxism and Humanism’, dating from 1963, I have already interpreted the present inflation of the themes of Marxist or socialist ‘Humanism’ as an ideological phenomenon. In no sense was I condemning ideology as a social reality as Marx says, it is in ideology that men ‘become conscious’ of their class conflict and ‘fight it out’; in its religious, ethical, legal and political forms, etc., ideology is an objective social reality; the ideological struggle is an organic part of the class struggle. On the other hand, I criticized the theoretical effects of ideology, which are always a threat or a hindrance to scientific knowledge. And I pointed out that the inflation of the themes of ‘Marxist humanism’ and their encroachment on Marxist theory should be interpreted as a possible historical symptom of a double inability and a double danger. An inability to think the specificity of Marxist theory, and, correlatively, a revisionist danger of confusing it with pre-Marxist ideological interpretations. An inability to resolve the real (basically political and economic) problems posed by the conjuncture since the Twentieth Congress, and a danger of masking these problems with the false ‘solution’ of some merely ideological formulae.
It was in this conjuncture that the texts you are about to read were conceived and published. They must be related to this conjuncture to appreciate fully their nature and function: they are philosophical essays, with theoretical investigations as their objects, and as their aim an intervention in the present theoretico-ideological conjuncture in reaction to its dangerous tendencies.
Very schematically, I should say that these theoretical texts contain a double ‘intervention’, or, if you prefer, they ‘intervene’ on two fronts, to trace, in Lenin’s excellent expression, a ‘line of demarcation’ between Marxist theory on the one hand, and ideological tendencies foreign to Marxism on the other.
The object of the first intervention is to ‘draw a line of demarcation’ between Marxist theory and the forms of philosophical (and political) subjectivism which have compromised it or threaten it: above all, empiricism and its variants, classical and modern – pragmatism, voluntarism, historicism, etc. The essential moments of this first intervention are: a recognition of the importance of Marxist theory in the revolutionary class struggle, a distinction of the different practices, a demonstration of the specificity of ‘theoretical practice’, a first investigation into the revolutionary specificity of Marxist theory (a total distinction between the idealist dialectic and the materialist dialectic), etc.
This first intervention is situated essentially in the terrain of the confrontation between Marx and Hegel.
The object of the second intervention is to ‘draw a line of demarcation’ between the true theoretical bases of the Marxist science of history and Marxist philosophy on the one hand, and, on the other, the pre-Marxist idealist notions on which depend contemporary interpretations of Marxism as a ‘philosophy of man’ or a ‘Humanism’. The essential moments of this second intervention are: the demonstration of an ‘epistemological break’ in the history of Marx’s thought, a basic difference between the ideological ‘problematic’ of the Early Works and the scientific ‘problematic’ of Capital; first investigations into the specificity of Marx’s theoretical discovery, etc.
This second intervention is situated essentially in the terrain of the confrontation between Marx’s Early Works and Capital.
Behind the detail of the arguments, textual analyses and theoretical discussions, these two interventions reveal a major opposition; the opposition that separates science from ideology, or more precisely, that separates a new science in process of self-constitution from the prescientific theoretical ideologies that occupy the ‘terrain’ in which it is establishing itself. This is an important point; what we are dealing with in the opposition science/ideologies concerns the ‘break’ relationship between a science and the theoretical ideology in which the object it gave the knowledge of was ‘thought’ before the foundation of the science. This ‘break’ leaves intact the objective social domain occupied by ideologies (religion, ethics, legal and political ideologies, etc.). In this domain of non-theoretical ideologies, too, there are ‘ruptures’ and ‘breaks’, but they are political (effects of political practice, of great revolutionary events) and not ‘epistemological’.
This opposition between science and ideology and the notion of an ‘epistemological break’ that helps us to think its historical character refer to a thesis that, although always present in the background of these analyses, is never explicitly developed: the thesis that Marx’s discovery is a scientific discovery without historical precedent, in its nature and effects.
Indeed, in conformity with the tradition constantly reiterated by the classics of Marxism, we may claim that Marx established a new science: the science of the history of ‘social formations’. To be more precise, I should say that Marx ‘opened up’ for scientific knowledge a new ‘continent’, that of history – just as Thales opened up the ‘continent’ of mathematics for scientific knowledge, and Galileo opened up the ‘continent’ of physical nature for scientific knowledge.
I should add that, just as the foundation of mathematics by Thales ‘induced’ the birth of the Platonic philosophy, just as the foundation of physics by Galileo ‘induced’ the birth of Cartesian philosophy, etc., so the foundation of the science of history by Marx has ‘induced’ the birth of a new, theoretically and practically revolutionary philosophy, Marxist philosophy or dialectical materialism. The fact that, from the standpoint of its theoretical elaboration, this unprecedented philosophy still lags behind the Marxist science of history (historical materialism) is explained by historico-political reasons and also simultaneously by theoretical reasons: great philosophical revolutions are always preceded and ‘borne along’ by the great scientific revolutions ‘active’ in them, but long theoretical labour and long historical maturing are required before they can acquire an explicit and adequate form. If the accent is laid on Marxist philosophy in the texts you are about to read, it is to assess both its reality and its right to existence, but also its lateness, and to begin to provide it with a theoretical form of existence a little more adequate to its nature.
Naturally, these texts are marked, and sometimes sensibly so, not only by errors and inaccuracies, but also by silences or half silences. Neither the impossibility of saying everything at once nor the urgency of the conjuncture completely explain all these silences and their effects. In fact, I was not equipped for an adequate treatment of certain questions, some difficult points were obscure to me; as a result, in my texts I did not take into account certain important problems and realities, as I should have. As a ‘self-criticism’, I should like to signal two particularly important points.
If I did lay stress on the vital necessity of theory for revolutionary practice, and therefore denounced all forms of empiricism, I did not discuss the problem of the ‘union of theory and practice’ which has played such a major role in the Marxist-Leninist tradition. No doubt I did speak of the union of theory and practice within ‘theoretical practice’, but I did not enter into the question of the union of theory and practice within political practice. Let us be precise; I did not examine the general form of historical existence of this union: the ‘fusion’ of Marxist theory and the workers’ movement. I did not examine the concrete forms of existence of this ‘fusion’ (organization of the class struggle – trade unions, parties – the means and methods of direction of the class struggle by these organizations, etc.). I did not give precise indications as to the function, place and role of Marxist theory in these concrete forms of existence: where and how Marxist theory intervenes in the development of political practice, where and how political practice intervenes in the development of Marxist theory.
I have learnt from experience that my silence on these questions has not been without its consequences for certain (‘theoreticist’) ‘readings’ of my essays.
Similarly, if I did insist on the theoretically revolutionary character of Marx’s discovery, and pointed out that Marx had founded a new science and a new philosophy, I left vague the difference distinguishing philosophy from science, a difference which is, however, of great importance. I did not show what it is, as distinct from science, that constitutes philosophy proper: the organic relation between every philosophy, as a theoretical discipline and even within its theoretical forms of existence and exigencies, and politics. I did not point out the nature of this relation, which, in Marxist philosophy, has nothing to do with a pragmatic relation. So I did not show clearly enough what in this respect distinguishes Marxist philosophy from earlier philosophies.
I have learnt from experience that my half-silence on these questions has not been without its consequences for certain (‘positivist’) ‘readings’ of my essays.
I intend to return to these two important questions, which are intimately connected from a theoretical and practical point of view, in later studies.