The book you are about to read is quite the opposite of an occasional work, a work of improvisation.
I took a passionately keen interest in the problems of activity. It was partly the wish to do psychology which, as actual student in 1945, made me turn to philosophy (in French education it includes psychology) and later, a certificat de license in prompted me to opt for the one in psychophysiology. But, although often captivating in detail, existing psychology was nothing but a disappointment overall. I found scientific rigour only in the anything that had actual bearing on problems of real human life, in the first place my own. It was almost independently of this university education in psychology, and often in opposition to literary or philosophical drafts in search of autobiographical understanding. La Crise de la psychologie contemporaine had been published in 1947 by Editions sociales: this profound critique by Politzer played a part in directing my thought towards Marxism. The fact that the uncompromising nature of his rejection of conventional psychology resulted precisely in the promise of a psychology that was both concrete and scientific, which was just about what I was longing for, that's what mattered to me. I agreed about what Politzer rejected as much as about what he proclaimed. Although appearing to me to contain a large kernel of truth in this respect, psychoanalysis interested me less than the disliked work of Janet which, in spite of its limitations, filled me with enthusiasm with its understanding of psychological activity and the historico-social nature of the personality.
A crucial turning point in this reflection on psychology resulted from the fact that from 1950 onwards I seriously undertook the study of Lenin. In Lenin’s school I gained the firm that bourgeois ideology which naturalizes psychological activity and the personality — that this naturalism may assume materialist or spiritualistic forms. In Lenin, on the contrary, I thought I psychology in which the real life of the individual is understood as the interiorisation of political relations. This is why when in several articles in its No. 4 (1953) issue, the Marxist physiology as the basis of a truly materialist psychology, I sent a long letter of disagreement in which I sought to trace the boundary, i.e. the limits of validity, between the Pavlovian which I wished to base on historical materialism but which at that time I confused, in actual fact, with a ‘social psychology’. It is this position which is expressed in my article in L Raison, in No. 9—10, December 1954) and in my intervention in symposium on Lenin organized by La Pensée (‘Lénine et psychologie’, La Pensée, No. 57, September 1954).
But in the meantime another crucial turning point had taken place in my thought, of which these publications as yet showed no trace:close reading and study of Capital in 1953,a reading in which I did not forgo putting my psychological questions to Marx’s text. In numerous notes which remained in the state of rough drafts I began to discern; specific terrain for the psychology of personality articulated with historical materialism, and by way of Capital I thought out a number essential concepts which the final chapter of the present work brings into play, in particular the concept of labour-time, a crucial one in my opinion. However, many indispensable aspects of knowledge in psychology and even more in Marxism were lacking to me. My work on psychology continued until 1956, but it was getting bogged down, and the course of my activities resulted in my devoting myself mainly to other problems during these years: criticism of revisionist distortions of Marxism,the dialectic, the history of French philosophy since nineteenth century.
In actual fact, through the underlying logic of all theoretical research when it concerns a really fundamental theoretical problem and pursued for several decades, each of these subjects led me in some to the theory of personality: the struggle against rightist revisions Marxism and the critique of existentialism presented the problem of psychologism; the history of French philosophy in the nineteenth century that of biologism; as for studying the dialectic, to which, I increasingly devoted myself, it is the crucial epistemological prerequisite for any theoretical work which aspires to scientific rigor. Teaching philosophy at the lycée, both through the psychology curriculum I had to cover and through the psycho-educational practice which I had to develop, also never stopped pushing me in the same direction. That is why when the journal L’Ecole et la nation asked me in 1962 for an article on the problem of relations between teachers and pupils’ parents, I saw straight away that this was an opportunity to express publicly a number of ideas I had been hatching for years and, in particular, to take up again the ever necessary critique of physiologism at the simple and popular but really central level of the belief in ‘natural aptitudes’. A first brief article published in November 1962 L ‘Ecole et la nation provoked a lively discussion in the course of which I returned to the problem in more detail (June 1963), and which forced me to work through a comprehensive specialized bibliography. After very lively private and public discussions, I took up the question again in a long article, ‘Les “dons” n’existent pas’ L’Ecole et la nation, October 1964).
In my opinion the criticisms directed at me derived on the one hand from the still inadequately developed concept of the personality underlying this study and, on the other, from the persistence, even among Marxists, of tenacious pseudo-materialist illusions on the subject of man. Nevertheless, with regard to the general thrust of the article, i.e. the refutation of the bourgeois ideology of ‘natural aptitudes’, approval of the main point clearly carried the day in the end. I think that Jean Rostand’s approbation, which has been publicly expressed at various times, should be noted. It is all the more significant if one bears in mind that, on the basis of some of his older works, he is often held to be a defender of the innateness of intellectual aptitudes.
By giving me a more acute awareness of everything in the theory of personality that remained to be clarified, both in my own ideas and in the existing scientific literature, these two years of work on the question of ‘natural aptitudes’ were the direct source of the present work. This was all the more so because the really central importance of the problem of human individuality was emerging at all the key points in Marxist research and ideological debate: criticising and surpassing dogmatic distortions of Marxism like its ‘humanist’ deformation; precise elaboration of historical materialism and reflection on the modalities and human aims of socialism; discussion of recent advances in the human sciences and structuralist antihumanism — all constantly put this formidable question on the order of the day: What is man? At the beginning of 1964 I therefore drew up a plan of a short essay in which hypotheses would be put forward about how to solve this huge question in depth by way of Marxism, and in the summer of 1964 I began a first draft but lack of time and the sudden appearance of new theoretical difficulties at each step stopped me halfway.
The publication of the three volumes by Louis Althusser and his comrades in 1965 marked a new stage in my work. The theoretical antihumatust interpretation given there of Capital and, through that, ofall Marxism, resoundingly confirmed some of the theses in my paper, absolutely contradicted others, and called for a new, deeper investigation of all of them. These extremely rich volumes and the no less rich discussion to which they gave rise, compelled me to develop in a much more forceful way my own position which was fundamentally at issue with, although on the same terrain as, theoretical antihumanism and therefore to postpone my work on the business entirely, which says sufficiently how much it is indebted to them. In 1966 I began a second draft of my book, which seemed as though it would quickly arrive at its conclusion, and an excerpt from which devoted to Capital, and to the lessons which emerge from it as far as the concept of man is concerned, appeared in La Nouvelle Critique in November 1966. Because of numerous difficulties and because of the way the problem matured both subjectively and objectively, I was only able to take up this work again in the summer of 1967, this time producing an almost completed third draft which corresponds to the text of a lecture on Marxist theory and human individuality delivered at L ‘Université nouvelle de Paris u March 1968. The text to be read here is the result of a fourth drafting which once again involved substantial reworking, starting in April and brought to a conclusion between August and December 1968.
I am certainly not blind to the numerous flaws in this work as it presented here. I can already see many things which would justify a fifth draft. As Marx wrote in a letter to Lassalle on 22nd June 1858, when he was at work on what he believed to be the final version of the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (and what an agonizing truth it is), ‘The job is making very slow progress because things which one has for many years made the chief object of one's investigations constantly exhibit new aspects and call forth new doubt whenever they are to be put in final shape. Besides, I am not the master of my time but rather its servant.’ But a time comes when from the very point of view of conducting research nothing is more indispensable than collective criticism, and this presupposes publication.
Thus, written on the basis of successive investigations, publication and enquiries carried on over nearly twenty years, the book you ca read here expresses a point of view which, whatever one’s judgment of it, has come to maturity as far as the essential is concerned. I express the hope that it will be read and judged as such.