Louis Althusser 1963
First published: in La Nouvelle Critique, December 1960.
La Nouvelle Critique has asked me to situate the writings by Feuerbach published a few months ago in the Collection Epimétheé (P.U.F.). I am glad to be able to do so by giving brief answers to a number of questions.
Under the title Philosophical Manifestoes, I have gathered together the most important texts and articles published by Feuerbach between 1839 and 1845: A Contribution fo the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy (1839), the Introduction to The Essence of Christianity (1841), the Provisional Theses for the Reform of Philosophy (1842), the Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (1843), the preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity (1843) and an article replying to Stirner’s attacks (1845). This selection does not include all of Feuerbach’s output between 1839 and 1845, but it does represent the essentials of his thought during these historic years.
Why the title ‘Philosophical Manifestoes’?
The expression is not Feuerbach’s own. I hazard it for two reasons, one subjective, the other objective.
Anyone who reads the texts on the Reform of Philosophy and the Preface to the Principles will realize that they are true proclamations, a passionate annunciation of the theoretical revelation which is to deliver man from his chains. Feuerbach calls out to Humanity. He tears the veils from universal History, destroys myths and lies, uncovers the truth of man and restores it to him. The fullness of time has come. Humanity is pregnant with the imminent revolution which will give it possession of its own being. Let men at last become conscious of this, and they will be in reality what they are in truth: free, equal and fraternal beings.
Such exhortations are certainly manifestoes as far as their author is concerned.
So were they for their readers. Particularly for the young radical intellectuals of the 1840s, arguing one another through the contradictions of the ‘German misery’ and neo-Hegelian philosophy. Why the 1840s? Because they were the testing years of this philosophy. In 1840, the Young Hegelians, who believed there was a goal to history – the realm of reason and liberty – looked to the heir to the throne for the realization of their hopes – the end of the autocratic and feudal Prussian order, the abolition of censorship, the reduction to reason of the Church, in short, the installation of a regime of political, intellectual and religious liberty. But hardly had he reached the throne than this so-called ‘liberal’ heir, now Frederick William IV, returned to despotism. This confirmation and reaffirmation of tyranny was a terrible blow to the theory which was the basis and sum of all their hopes. In principle, history should be reason and liberty; in fact, it was merely unreason and slavery. The facts had provided a lesson to be learnt: this very contradiction. But how could it be grasped? At this point The Essence of Christianity appeared, and then the pamphlets on the Reform of Philosophy. These texts may not have liberated humanity, but they did release the Young Hegelians from their theoretical impasse. Precisely at the moment of their greatest disarray, Feuerbach gave them an exact answer to the dramatic question they were asking each other about man and history! The echo of this relief and enthusiasm can be seen forty years later in Engels. Feuerbach was precisely the ‘New Philosophy’ that made tabula rasa of Hegel and all speculative philosophy, that put the world which philosophy had made to walk on its head back on to its feet again, that denounced every alienation and every illusion but also gave reasons for them, and made the unreason of history thinkable and criticizable in the name of reason itself, that at last reconciled idea and fact, and made the necessity of a world’s contradiction and the necessity of its liberation comprehensible. This is why the neo-Hegelians, as the old Engels had to admit, ‘all became at once Feuerbachians’. This is why they received his books as Manifestoes announcing the Paths of the Future.
I should add that these Manifestoes are philosophical. For, quite obviously, everything was still taking place in philosophy. But philosophical events had become historical events as well.
What is particularly interesting about these writings?
First of all, they are of historical interest. I did not choose these works of the 1840s simply because they were the most famous and the most lasting (indeed they have lasted until today, when certain existentialists and theologians look to them for the origins of a modern tendency), but also and primarily because they belong to a historical moment and had a historical role (among a restricted circle, of course, but one with a great future). Feuerbach was both witness to and actor in the crisis in the theoretical development of the Young Hegelian movement. It is essential to read Feuerbach to understand the writings of the Young Hegelians between 1840 and 1845. In particular, this reveals the extent to which Marx’s early works are impregnated with Feuerbach’s thought. Not only is Marx’s terminology from 1842 and 1845 Feuerbachian (alienation, species being, total being, ‘inversion’ of subject and predicate, etc.) but, what is probably more important, so is the basic philosophical problematic. Articles like On the Jewish Question or the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State cannot be understood outside the context of the Feuerbachian problematic. Naturally, Marx’s themes go beyond Feuerbach’s immediate preoccupations, but the theoretical schemata and problematic are the same. To use his own expression, Marx did not really ‘settle accounts’ with this problematic until 1845. The German Ideology is the first work indicating a conscious and definitive rupture with Feuerbach’s philosophy and his influence.
A comparative study of Feuerbach’s writings and Marx’s early works makes possible a historical reading of Marx’s writings, and a better understanding of his development.
Does this historical understanding have any theoretical significance?
Certainly. Once Feuerbach’s writings in the years from 1839 to 1845 have been read it is impossible to make any mistakes as to the derivation of the majority of the concepts traditionally used to justify ‘ethical’ interpretations of Marx. Such famous expressions as ‘philosophy’s world-to-be’, ‘the inversion of subject and predicate’, ‘for man the root is man himself’, ‘the political State is the species-life of man’, the ‘suppression and realization of philosophy’, ‘philosophy is the head of human emancipation and the proletariat is its heart’, etc., etc., are expressions directly borrowed from Feuerbach, or directly inspired by him. All the expressions of Marx’s idealist ‘humanism’ are Feuerbachian. Admittedly, Marx did not merely quote or repeat Feuerbach, who, as these Manifestoes show, was always thinking about politics, but hardly ever talked about it. His whole concern was with the criticism of religion, of theology, and with that secular disguise for theology known as speculative philosophy. The Young Marx, on the contrary, was haunted first by politics and then by that for which politics is merely the ‘heaven’: the concrete life of alienated men. But in On the Jewish Question, Hegel’s Philosophy of the State, etc., and even usually in The Holy Family, he is no more than an avant-garde Feuerbachian applying an ethical problematic to the understanding of human history. In other words, we can say that at this time Marx was merely applying the theory of alienation, that is, Feuerbach’s theory of ‘human nature’, to politics and the concrete activity of man, before extending it (in large part) to political economy in the Manuscripts. It is important that the real origin of these Feuerbachian concepts should be recognized, not so as to assess everything according to a standard of attribution (this is Marx’s, that Feuerbach’s, etc.), but so as to avoid attributing to Marx the invention of concepts and a problematic he had only borrowed. It is even more important that it be recognized that these borrowed concepts were not borrowed one by one, in isolation, but en bloc, as a set: this set being precisely Feuerbach’s problematic. This is the essential point. For borrowing a concept in isolation may only be of accidental and secondary significance. Borrowing a concept in isolation (from its context) does not bind the borrower vis-à-vis the context from which he extracted it (for example, the borrowings from Smith, Ricardo and Hegel in Capital). But borrowing a systematically interrelated set of concepts, borrowing a real problematic, cannot be accidental, it binds the borrower. I believe that a comparison of the Manifestoes and of Marx’s early works shows quite clearly that for two or three years Marx literally espoused Feuerbach’s problematic, that he profoundly identified himself with it, and that to understand the meaning of most of his statements during this period, even where these bear on the material of later studies (for example, politics, social life, the proletariat, revolution, etc.) and might therefore seem fully Marxist, it is essential to situate oneself at the very heart of this identification, and to explore all its theoretical consequences and inferences.
I feel that this requirement is a crucial one, for if it is true that Marx espoused a whole problematic, then his rupture with Feuerbach, his famous ‘settling of accounts with our erstwhile philosophical conscience’, implied the adoption of a new problematic which even if it did integrate a certain number of the old concepts, did so into a whole which confers on them a radically new significance. I am pleased to be able to express this in an image from Greek history which Marx himself used: after serious set-backs in the War against the Persians, Themistocles advised the Athenians to leave the land and base the future of their city on another element – the sea. Marx’s theoretical revolution was precisely to base his theory on a new element after liberating it from its old element: the element of Hegelian and Feuerbachian philosophy.
But this new problematic can be looked at in two ways:
Firstly, in Marx’s mature writings – The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy, Capital, etc. But these works do not contain any systematic exposition of Marx’s theoretical position comparable to the exposition of Hegel’s philosophy in The Phenomenology of Mind, the Encyclopaedia, and the Larger Logic, or the exposition of Feuerbach’s philosophy in the Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. Marx’s writings are either polemics (The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy) or positive studies (Capital). Marx’s theoretical position, what can be called, ambiguously, his ‘philosophy’, is certainly active in these works, but it is buried in them, and confused with his own critical or heuristic concerns, and rarely, if ever, explicitly discussed for its own sake in a systematic and extensive form. Naturally, this situation does not simplify the interpreter’s task.
At this point a knowledge of Feuerbach’s problematic and of why Marx broke with Feuerbach can come to our aid. For through Feuerbach we have an indirect access to Marx’s new problematic. We can find out what was the problematic that Marx broke with, and we can discover the theoretical horizons ‘opened up’ by this rupture. If it is true that we can learn as much about a man by what he rejects as by what he adheres to, then a thinker as exacting as Marx should be illuminated by his break with Feuerbach as much as by his own later statements. As this rupture with Feuerbach occurred at the decisive point in the constitution of Marx’s definitive theoretical position, a knowledge of Feuerbach thereby becomes an irreplaceable means of access to Marx’s philosophical position, rich in theoretical implications.
In the same way, I feel that it makes possible a better understanding of the relation between Marx and Hegel. If there was this rupture between Marx and Feuerbach, the critique of Hegel to be found in most of the former’s early works must, at least as far as its ultimate philosophical presuppositions are concerned, be regarded as inadequate, or even incorrect, to the extent that it was a critique from a Feuerbachian viewpoint, that is, a viewpoint that Marx later rejected. Now, usually for reasons of convenience, there is a constant and innocent tendency to believe that, even though Marx later modified his viewpoint, the critique of Hegel to be found in the early works is none the less justifiable and can therefore be ‘retained’. But to do so is to neglect the basic fact that Marx set himself apart from Feuerbach when he realized that the Feuerbachian critique of Hegel was a critique ‘from within Hegelian philosophy itself’, that Feuerbach was still a ‘philosopher’, who had, indeed, ‘inverted’ the body of the Hegelian edifice, but had retained its ultimate structure and bases, that is, its theoretical presuppositions. In Marx’s eyes, Feuerbach had stopped within Hegelian territory, he was as much a prisoner of it as its critic since he had merely turned Hegel’s own principles against Hegel himself. He had not changed ‘elements’. The truly Marxist critique of Hegel depends precisely on this change of elements, that is, on the abandonment of the philosophical problematic whose recalcitrant prisoner Feuerbach remained.
To summarize the theoretical interest of this privileged confrontation between Marx and Feuerbach’s thought in a manner which is not without its bearing on contemporary polemic, I should say that what is at stake in this double rupture, first with Hegel, then with Feuerbach, is the very meaning of the word philosophy. What can Marxist ‘philosophy’ be in contrast to the classical models of philosophy? Or, what can be the theoretical position which has broken with the traditional philosophical problematic whose last theoretician was Hegel and from which Feuerbach tried desperately but in vain to free himself? The answer to this question can largely be drawn negatively from Feuerbach himself, from this last witness of Marx’s early ‘philosophical conscience’, the last mirror in which Marx contemplated himself before rejecting the borrowed image to put on his own true features.