Louis Althusser 1963

Part Five. The ‘1844 Manuscripts’ of Karl Marx
Political Economy and Philosophy

‘The 1844 Manuscripts’ first appeared in La Pensée, February 1963.

The publication of the 1844 Manuscripts is a real event, one I should like to draw to the attention of the readers of La Pensée.[1]

It is, first of all, a literary and critical event. Up till now, the Manuscripts have only been accessible to French readers in the Costès edition (Molitor, Vol. VI of the Oeuvres Philosophiques). Anyone who had to use it knows from experience that this partial text, with important arguments cut out and afflicted with errors and inaccuracies, could not serve as a tool for serious work. Thanks to E. Bottigelli, who is to be highly praised, we now have an up-to-date version (the most up to date there is, for Bottigelli has made use of the latest readings and emendations, sent him from the Marx-Engels Institute, Moscow) presented in the most reasonable order (that of the M.E.G.A.) and in a translation remarkable for its rigour, its attention to detail, its critical annotations, and may I add – and this is particularly important – for its theoretical reliability (it should be obvious that it is impossible to conceive of a good translator except on the express condition that he be much more than a translator, in fact, an expert, steeped not only in the work of his author but also in the conceptual and historical universe in which the latter was brought up. On this occasion this condition has been fulfilled.)

But it is also a theoretical event. This is the text which has for thirty years been in the front line of the polemics between defenders of Marx and his opponents. Bottigelli gives a good account of the way the roles were shared out in this great debate. First Social Democrats (initially its first editors, Landshut and Mayer), then spiritualist philosophers, existentialist philosophers, phenomenological philosophers, etc., ensured this great text’s success; but, as might be expected, in a spirit foreign to an understanding of Marx or even to the simple comprehension of his formation. The Economic-Philosophic manuscripts have nourished a whole ethical or (what amounts to the same thing) anthropological interpretation of Marx – making Capital, with its sense of perspective and apparent ‘objectivity’, merely the development of a youthful intuition which finds its major philosophical expression in this text and in its concepts: above all in the concepts of alienation, of humanism, of the social essence of man, etc. As we know, Marxists did not think to react until very late, and their reaction was often of the same order as their fears and haste: they have tended to defend Marx in toto, and to take over their opponents’ thesis, thereby overestimating the theoretical prestige of the 1844 writings, but to the profit of Capital. On this point Bottigelli has some noteworthy comments (pp. IX, XXXIX). They are a prelude to a demand which no serious commentator can avoid: the demand for a definition of a new and rigorous method of investigation, ‘another method’ (p. X) than that of a simple prospective or retrospective assimilation. So we can and must now deal with these Manuscripts, which have been the argument of a struggle, the pretext for a prosecution, or the defence’s redoubt, by an assured method: as a moment in the formation of Marx’s thought, which, like all the moments in an intellectual development, does obviously contain a promise for the future, but also pin-points an irreducible and singular present. It is no exaggeration to say that in this irreproachable translation Bottigelli has given us a privileged object which has a dual theoretical order of interest for Marxists: because it concerns the formation, or rather the transformation of Marx’s thought, but also because it provides the Marxist theory of ideology with an excellent opportunity to exercise and test its method.

Finally, I should like to add that this translation is introduced by an important historical and theoretical Presentation, which not only brings us to the essential problems, but also situates and clarifies them.

What, in fact, is the specific feature of the 1844 Manuscripts if they are compared with Marx’s earlier writings? What is there in them which is radically new? The answer is given by the fact that the Manuscripts were the result of Marx’s discovery of political economy. Naturally, this was not the first time that, as he put it himself, he experienced the ‘embarrassment’ of having to give an opinion on questions of an economic order (as early as 1842, the question of wood thefts evoked all the conditions of feudal agrarian property; similarly, also in 1842, an article on censorship and the freedom of the Press came up against the reality of ‘industry’, etc., etc.,), but these encounters with Economics only concerned some economic questions, and from the angle of political debates: in other words, these were not encounters with political economy, but with particular effects of an economic policy, or the particular economic conditions of social conflicts (The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). But in 1844 Marx was confronted with political economy as such. Engels had prepared the way with his ‘brilliant sketch’ of England. But Marx had been impelled in this direction, as had Engels himself, by the need to look beyond politics for the reasons for its insoluble internal conflicts. It is difficult to understand the Manuscripts without taking into account this encounter, this first encounter. In his Parisian period (February to May, 1844), decisive in this respect, Marx gave himself over to the classical economists (Say, Skarbek, Smith, Ricardo), he took copious notes which leave their mark in the body of the Manuscripts themselves (the first part contains long quotations) – as if he wanted to take into account a fact. But while recognizing it, he states that this fact rests on nothing, at least in the economists he has read, it is ungrounded and lacks its own principle. So, in one and the same movement, the encounter with political economy is a critical reaction to political economy and a thorough investigation of its foundations.

What is the source of Marx’s conviction that Political Economy is unfounded? The contradictions it states and registers, or even accepts and traduces: and before all else, the major contradiction opposing the increasing pauperization of the workers and the remarkable wealth whose arrival in the modern world is celebrated by political economy. This is the crux, the stumbling-block of the optimistic science which is built upon this feeble argument, just as the wealth of the proprietors is on the poverty of the workers. This is also its disgrace, which Marx wants to suppress by giving economics the principle it lacks, the principle which will be its light and its verdict.

Here we come upon the other aspect of the Manuscripts: their philosophy. For this encounter of Marx’s with political economy is, as Bottigelli correctly points out (pp. XXXIX, LIV, LXVII, etc.), an encounter of philosophy with Political Economy. Naturally, not of any philosophy: of the philosophy erected by Marx through all his practico-theoretical experiments (Bottigelli sketches out the essential moments: the idealism of the very first writings, closer to Kant and Fichte than to Hegel; Feuerbach’s anthropology), modified, corrected and amplified by this encounter itself. But a philosophy still, for all that, profoundly coloured by the Feuerbachian problematic (Bottigelli, p. XXXIX) and leaning hesitantly towards a return from Feuerbach to Hegel. This is the philosophy which resolves the contradiction of Political Economy by thinking it, and through it, by thinking the whole of Political Economy and all its categories, with a key-concept as starting-point, the concept of alienated labour. This brings us to the real heart of the problem, and close to all the temptations both of idealism and of a hasty materialism... . For, at first sight, we are in familiar territory, I mean in that conceptual landscape in which we can identify private property, capital, money, the division of labour, the alienation of the labourer, his emancipation and the humanism which is his promised future. These are all, or nearly all, categories we shall meet again in Capital, and on this basis we might accept them as anticipations of Capital, or better, as a project for Capital, or even as Capital crayoned, already outlined, but only as a sketch, which, if it has the genius of the completed work, has not yet been filled in as it is in the latter. Painters do pencil sketches of this kind, drawn in one movement, new-born, and precisely because of this emergence, greater than the works they contain. There is something of this glitter in the fascination of the Manuscripts, in the irresistibility of their logic (Bottigelli correctly notes their ‘rigorous reasoning’ pp. XXXIII, LXII, LIV, and their ‘implacable logic’) and the conviction of their dialectic. But there is also the conviction, the meaning conferred by this logic and rigour on the concepts we recognize in it, and therefore the very meaning of this logic and rigour: a meaning which is still philosophical, and when I say philosophical I am using it in the same sense as that to which Marx later linked an absolute condemnation. For rigour and dialectic are worth no more than the meaning they serve and add lustre to. One day we shall have to study this text in detail and give a word-by-word explanation of it; discuss the theoretical status and theoretical role assigned to the key concept of alienated labour; examine this notion’s conceptual field, and recognize that it does fill the role Marx then assigned it, the role of original basis; but also that it can only fill this role so long as it receives it as a mandate and commission from a whole conception of Man which can derive from the essence of Man the necessity and content of the familiar economic concepts. In short, we shall have to discover beneath these terms imminently awaiting a future meaning, the meaning that still keeps them prisoners of a philosophy that is exercising its last prestige and power over them. And except that I would rather not abuse my freedom to anticipate this proof, I should almost say that beneath this relation, that is, beneath philosophy’s relation of radical domination over a content soon to become radically independent, the Marx furthest from Marx is this Marx, the Marx on the brink, on the eve, on the threshold – as if, before the rupture, in order to achieve it, he had to give philosophy every chance, its last, this absolute empire over its opposite, this boundless theoretical triumph, that is, its defeat.

Bottigelli’s presentation takes us to the heart of these problems. Among the most remarkable sections are the pages where he discusses the theoretical status of alienated labour, where he compares the economic concepts of the Manuscripts with the economic concepts of Capital, where he raises the basic question of the theoretical nature (for Marx in 1844) of the just encountered political economy. The simple sentence: ‘Bourgeois political economy appeared to Marx as a kind of phenomenology’ (p. XLI) seems to me to be decisive, also, the fact that Marx accepts political economy precisely as it presents itself (p. LXVII) without questioning the content of its concepts or their systematicity as he was to do later on: it is this ‘abstraction’ of the Economy that authorizes the other ‘abstraction’: that of the Philosophy which is used to give it a basis. So a recognition of the philosophy at work in the Manuscripts necessarily returns us to our point of departure: the encounter with political economy, forcing us to ask the question: what is the reality that Marx encountered in the terms of this economics? The economy itself? Or more likely an economic ideology inseparable from the economists’ theories, that is, in the powerful expression quoted above, aphenomenology ‘?

I have only one more remark to make before closing. If some people find this interpretation disconcerting, it is because they give credence to a confusion (a confusion difficult for our contemporaries to avoid, be it said, for a whole historical past snares them a distinction between these roles) between what have been called the political positions and the theoretical positions adopted by Marx in his formative period. Bottigelli has seen this difficulty very well and he takes it by the horns when, for example, he writes (p. XXXIII) that the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) ‘signals Marx’s adhesion to the cause of the proletariat, that is, to Communism. This does not mean that historical materialism had already been worked out.’ So it is a political and theoretical reading of the writings of Marx’s youth. A text such as On the Jewish Question, for instance, is a text politically committed to the struggle for Communism. But it is a profoundly ‘ideological’ text: so it cannot, theoretically, be identified with the later texts which were to define historical materialism, and which were to be capable of illuminating even the basis of that real Communist movement of 1843 which was born before them and independently of them, and to whose side Marx had rallied at that time. Anyway, even our own experience should remind us that it is possible to be ‘Communist’ without being ‘Marxist’. This distinction is essential if we are to avoid the political trap of confusing Marx’s theoretical positions with his political positions, and justifying the former from the latter. But this illuminating distinction brings us back to the demand formulate by Bottigelli: we must conceive of ‘another method’ to explain Marx’s formation, that is, his moments, his stages, his ‘presents’ in short his transformation: to explain this paradoxical dialectic whose most extraordinary episode this is, the Manuscripts that Marx never published, but which, no doubt precisely for that reason, show him naked in his triumphant and vanquished thoughts, on the threshold of becoming himself at last by a radical realignment, the last: that is, the first.

December, 1962


1. Presented, translated and annotated by Emile Bottigelli (Editions Sociales).