Louis Althusser 1963

(March 1965)



I venture to publish together these jottings, which have appeared in various magazines during the last four years. Some of them are now unobtainable; this is my first, purely practical, excuse. If, hesitant and incomplete as they are, they nevertheless make some sense, this should be brought out by grouping them together; this is my second excuse. Ultimately, I must present them for what they are: the documentation of a particular history.

Nearly all these pieces were born of some conjuncture: a comment on a book, an answer to criticisms or objections, an analysis of a theatrical production, etc. They are marked by their date of birth, even in their inconsistencies, which I have decided not to correct. I have struck out a few passages of unduly personal polemic; I have inserted the small number of words, notes or pages that had then to be cut, either to spare the feelings of those with certain prejudices, or to reduce my expositions to a suitable length; I have also corrected a few references.

Each the result of a special occasion, these pieces are none the less products of the same epoch and the same history. In their own way they are witnesses to the unique experience which all the philosophers of my generation who tried to think with Marx had to live: the investigation of Marx’s philosophical thought, indispensable if we were to escape from the theoretical impasse in which history had put us.

History: it had stolen our youth with the Popular Front and the Spanish Civil War, and in the War as such it had imprinted in us the terrible education of deeds. It surprised us just as we entered the world, and turned us students of bourgeois or petty bourgeois origin into men advised of the existence of classes, of their struggles and aims. From the evidence it forced on us we drew the only possible conclusion, and rallied to the political organization of the working class, the Communist Party.

The War was just over. We were brutally cast into the Party’s great political and ideological battles: we had to measure up to our choice and take the consequences.

In our political memory this period remains the time of huge strikes and demonstrations, of the Stockholm Appeal and of the Peace Movement – the time when the great hopes aroused by the Resistance faltered and the long and bitter struggle began in which innumerable human hands would push back the shadow of catastrophe into the Cold War horizon. In our philosophical memory it remains the period of intellectuals in arms, hunting out error from all its hiding-places; of the philosophers we were, without writings of our own, but making politics out of all writing, and slicing up the world with a single blade, arts, literatures, philosophies, sciences with the pitiless demarcation of class – the period summed up in caricature by a single phrase, a banner flapping in the void: ‘bourgeois science, proletarian science’.

To defend Marxism, imperiled as it was by Lysenko’s ‘biology’, from the fury of bourgeois spite, some leaders had relaunched this old ‘Left-wing’ formula, once the slogan of Bogdanov and the Proletkult. Once proclaimed it dominated everything. Under its imperative line, what then counted as philosophy could only choose between commentary and silence, between conviction, whether inspired or forced, and dumb embarrassment. Paradoxically, it was none other than Stalin, whose contagious and implacable system of government and thought had induced this delirium, who reduced the madness to a little more reason. Reading between the lines of the few simple pages in which he reproached the zeal of those who were making strenuous efforts to prove language a superstructure, we could see that there were limits to the use of the class criterion, and that we had been made to treat science, a status claimed by every page of Marx, as merely the first-comer among ideologies. We had to retreat, and, in semi-disarray, return to first principles.

I write these lines for my own part and as a Communist, inquiring into our past solely for some light on our present which will then illuminate our future.

Neither bitterness nor nostalgia makes me recall this episode – but the wish to sanction it by a comment that will supersede it. We were at the age of enthusiasm and trust; we lived at a time when the enemy gave no quarter, the language of slander sustaining his aggression. But this did not save us from remaining long confused by this detour into which certain of our leaders, far from holding us back from the slope of theoretical ‘Leftism’, had actively led us, without the others showing any sign of restraining them or giving us any warning or advice. So we spent the best part of our time in agitation when we would have been better employed in the defence of our right and duty to know, and in study for production as such. For we did not even take this time. We knew nothing of Bogdanov and the Proletkult, or of Lenin’s historic struggle against political and theoretical Leftism; we were not even intimately familiar with Marx’s mature works, as we were only too eager and happy to rediscover our own burning passions in the ideological flame of his Early Works. But what of our elders? Those whose responsibility it was to show us the way – how was it that they too were living in the same ignorance? This long theoretical tradition, worked out in so many trials and struggles, blazoned by the testimony of so many great texts, how could it have become a dead letter for them?

In this way we came to realize that under the protection of the reigning dogmatism a second, negative, tradition, a French one this time, had prevailed over the first, a second tradition, or rather what, echoing Heine’s ‘German misery’, we might call, our ‘French misery’: the stubborn, profound absence of any real theoretical culture in the history of the French workers’ movement. The French Party may have been able to reach its present position by using the general theory of the two sciences in the form of a radical proclamation, it may have been able to make it the test and proof of its indisputable political courage, but this also meant that it was living on meagre theoretical reserves: those it had inherited from the past of the French workers’ movement as a whole. In fact, other than the utopians Saint-Simon and Fourier whom Marx loved to invoke, Proudhon who was not a Marxist at all, and Jaurès who was, but only slightly, where were our theoreticians? In Germany there were Marx and Engels and the earlier Kautsky; in Poland, Rosa Luxemburg; in Russia, Plekhanov and Lenin; in Italy, Labriola, who (when we had Sorel!) could correspond with Engels as equal to equal, then Gramsci. Who were our theoreticians? Guesde? Lafargue?

A whole theoretical analysis would be necessary to account for this poverty, so striking when compared with the richness of other traditions. With no pretensions to undertake this analysis, a few reference points can at least be established. Without the efforts of intellectual workers there could be no theoretical tradition (in history or philosophy) in the workers’ movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The founders of historical and dialectical materialism were intellectuals (Marx and Engels), their theory was developed by intellectuals (Kautsky, Plekhanov, Labriola, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Gramsci). Neither at the beginning, nor long afterwards, could it have been otherwise – it cannot be otherwise, neither now nor in the future: what can change and will change is the class origin of intellectual workers but not their characterization as intellectuals.[3] This is so for those reasons of principle that Lenin, following Kautsky, impressed upon us: on the one hand, the ‘spontaneous’ ideology of the workers, if left to itself, could only produce utopian socialism, trade-unionism, anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism; on the other hand, Marxist socialism, presupposing as it does the massive theoretical labour of the establishment and development of a science and a philosophy without precedent, could only be the work of men with a thorough historical, scientific and philosophical formation, intellectuals of very high quality. That such intellectuals appeared in Germany, Russia, Poland and Italy, either to found Marxist theory or to become masters of it, is not a matter of isolated accidents; the social, political, religious, ideological and moral conditions prevailing in these countries quite simply denied their intellectuals any activity, the ruling classes (the nobility and the bourgeoisie, allied and united in their class interests and supported by the Churches) could in general only offer them servile and derisory employment. Under these conditions, the intellectuals could only seek their freedom and future at the side of the working class, the only revolutionary class. In France, on the contrary, the bourgeoisie had been revolutionary, it had long been able to assimilate intellectuals to its revolution and to keep them as a whole at its side after the seizure and consolidation of power. The French bourgeoisie had successfully carried through a complete, clear revolution, driving the feudal class from the political stage (1789, 1830, 1848), it had set the seal of its own command on the unity of the nation in the process of revolution itself, it had defeated the Church and then adopted it, but only to separate itself at the right moment and cover itself with the slogans of liberty and equality. It had been able to use both its position of strength and its past standing to offer the intellectuals a sufficient space and future, sufficiently honourable functions and a sufficient margin of freedom and illusion to keep them within its authority and under the control of its ideology. With a few important exceptions, who were precisely exceptions, French intellectuals accepted this situation and felt no vital need to seek their salvation at the side of the working class; and when they did rally to the working class, they could not radically cast off the bourgeois ideology in which they were steeped and which survived in their idealism and reformism (Jaurès) or in their positivism. Nor was it accidental that the French Party had to devote a long and courageous struggle to the reduction and destruction of a reflex ‘ouvriériste’ distrust of intellectuals, which was in its own way the expression of a long historical experience of continual deception. Thus it was that the forms of bourgeois domination themselves long deprived the French workers’ movement of the intellectuals indispensable to the formation of an authentic theoretical tradition.

Need I add another national reason? This is the pitiful history of French philosophy in the 130 years following the Revolution of 1789, its spiritualist persistence in reaction, not just conservatism, from Maine de Biran and Cousin to Bergson, its contempt for history and for the people, its deep but narrow-minded ties with religion, its relentless hostility to the only mind worthy of interest that it produced, Auguste Comte, its incredible ignorance and lack of culture. In the last thirty years things have taken another turn. But the burden of a long century of official philosophical stupidity has also played a part in crushing theory in the workers’ movement itself.

The French Party was born into this theoretical vacuum, and it grew despite this vacuum, filling in as best it could the existing lacunas, nourishing itself from our sole authentic national tradition, the political tradition for which Marx had the most profound respect. Despite itself it has been marked by this primacy of politics and a certain failure to appreciate the role of theory, particularly philosophical theory as opposed to political and economic theory. If it was able to rally itself some famous intellectuals, these were above all great writers, novelists, poets and painters, great natural scientists and also a few first-rate historians and psychologists – and they came primarily for political reasons; but it very rarely attracted men of sufficient philosophical formation to realize that Marxism should not be simply a political doctrine, a ‘method’ of analysis and action, but also, over and above the rest, the theoretical domain of a fundamental investigation, indispensable not only to the development of the science of society and of the various ‘human sciences’, but also to that of the natural sciences and philosophy. It was the fate of the French Party to be born and to grow up in these conditions: without the heritage and assistance of a national theoretical tradition, and as an inevitable consequence, without a theoretical school which could produce masters.

This was the reality we had to learn to spell out, and that all by ourselves. By ourselves because there were no really great philosophical maîtres in Marxist philosophy amongst us to guide our steps. Politzer, who might have become one if he had not sacrificed the great philosophical achievements he had in him to urgent economic tasks, left us only the genius of the errors in his Critique des Fondements de la Psychologie. He was dead, assassinated by the Nazis. We had no maîtres. There was no lack of willing spirits, nor of highly cultivated minds, scholars, literary figures and many more. But I mean masters of Marxist philosophy, emerging from our own history, accessible and close to us. This last condition is not a superfluous detail. For we have inherited from our national past not only a theoretical vacuum, but also a monstrous philosophical and cultural provincialism (our form of chauvinism), we do not read foreign languages, and more or less ignore anything that happens to be thought beyond a line of mountains, the course of a river or the width of a sea. Is it an accident that in France the study and commentary of Marx’s work has long been the work of a few courageous and tenacious Germanists? If the only name fit for display beyond our frontiers is that of a quiet lone hero, who, unknown to French learning, spent many years in a minutely detailed study of the left neo-Hegelian movement and the Young Marx: Auguste Cornu?

These reflections throw some light on our predicament, but they do not abolish it. We are indebted to Stalin for the first shock, even within the evil for which he bears the prime responsibility. His death set off the second – his death and the Twentieth Congress. But meanwhile life had done its work among us as well.

Neither a political organization nor a real theoretical culture can be created overnight or by a simple fiat. So many of the young philosophers who had come of age in the War or just after it were worn out by exhausting political tasks but had taken no time off from them for scientific work! It is also characteristic of our social history that the intellectuals of petty bourgeois origin who came to the Party at that time felt that they had to pay in pure activity, if not in political activism, the imaginary Debt they thought they had contracted by not being proletarians. In his own way, Sartre provides us with an honest witness to this baptism of history: we were of his race as well; it is no doubt a gain of recent years that our younger comrades seem free of this Debt, which perhaps they pay in some other way. Philosophically speaking, our generation sacrificed itself and was sacrificed to political and ideological conflict alone, implying that it was sacrificed in its intellectual and scientific work. A number of scientists, occasionally even historians, and even a few rare literary figures came through unscathed or at least only slightly bruised. There was no way out for a philosopher. If he spoke and wrote the philosophy the Party wanted he was restricted to commentary and slight idiosyncrasies in his own way of using the Famous Quotations. We had no audience among our peers. Our enemies flung in our faces the charge that we were merely politicians; our most enlightened colleagues argued that we ought to study our authors before judging them, justify our principles objectively before proclaiming and applying them. To force their best opponents to pay them some attention, some Marxist philosophers were reduced, and by a natural movement which did not conceal a conscious tactic, to disguising themselves – disguising Marx as Husserl, Marx as Hegel, Marx as the ethical and humanist Young Marx – at the risk of some day taking the masks for the reality. This is no exaggeration, simply the facts. We are still living the consequences today. We were politically and philosophically convinced that we had reached the only firm ground in the world, but as we could not demonstrate its existence or firmness philosophically, no one else could see any firm ground beneath our feet – only conviction. I am not discussing the spread of Marxism, which luckily can radiate from other spheres than the philosophical: I am discussing the paradoxically precarious existence of Marxist philosophy as such. We thought we knew the principles of all possible philosophy, and of the impossibility of all philosophical ideology, but we failed to offer an objective and public proof of the apodicity of our convictions.

Once aware of the vacuity of the dogmatic approach we were left with only one way of accepting the impossible situation we had been reduced to in our efforts towards a real grasp of our philosophy: to treat philosophy itself as impossible. So we were led into that great, subtle temptation, the ‘end of philosophy’, encouraged by some enigmatically clear texts in Marx’s Early Works (1840-45) and of his epistemological break (1845). Those of us who were the most militant and the most generous tended towards an interpretation of the ‘end of philosophy’ as its ‘realization’ and celebrated the death of philosophy in action, in its political realization and proletarian consummation, unreservedly endorsing the famous Thesis on Feuerbach which, in theoretically ambiguous words, counterposes the transformation of the world to its interpretation. It was, and always will be, only a short step from here to theoretical pragmatism. Others, of more scientific bent, proclaimed the ‘end of philosophy’ in the manner of certain positivistic formulations in The German Ideology, in which it is no longer the proletariat or revolutionary action which take in charge the realization and thereby the death of philosophy, but science pure and simple: does not Marx call on us to stop philosophizing, that is, stop developing ideological reveries so that we can move on to the study of reality itself? Politically speaking, the former of these two readings was that of the majority of those philosophical militants who gave themselves completely to politics, making philosophy the religion of their action; the latter on the contrary was that of those critics who hoped that a scientific approach would fill out the empty proclamations of dogmatic philosophy. But if both groups made their peace with politics, both paid for it with a bad philosophical conscience: a practico-religious or positivist death of philosophy is not really a philosophical death of philosophy.

So we contorted ourselves to give philosophy a death worthy of it: a philosophical death. Here again we sought support from more texts of Marx and from a third reading of the others. We proceeded on the assumption that the end of philosophy could not but be critical, as the sub-title of Capital proclaims that book to be of Political Economy: it is essential to go to the things themselves, to finish with philosophical ideologies and to turn to the study of the real world – but, and this we hoped would secure us from positivism, in turning against ideology, we saw that it constantly threatened ‘the understanding of positive things’, besieged science and obscured real characteristics. So we entrusted philosophy with the continual critical reduction of the thread of ideological illusion, and in doing so we made philosophy the conscience of science pure and simple, reduced it completely to the letter and body of science, but merely turned against its negative surroundings as its vigilant conscience, the consciousness of those surroundings that could reduce them to nothing. Thus philosophy was certainly at an end, but it survived none the less as an evanescent critical consciousness for just long enough to project the positive essence of science on to the threatening ideology, and to destroy the enemy’s ideological phantasms, before returning to its place amongst its allies. The critical death of philosophy, identified with its evanescent philosophical existence, gave us at last the status and deserts of a really philosophical death, consummated in the ambiguous act of criticism. Now philosophy had no fate other than the consummation of its critical death in the recognition of the real, and in the return to the real, real history, the progenitor of men, of their acts and their thoughts. Philosophy meant retracing on our own account the Young Marx’s critical Odyssey, breaking through the layer of illusion that was hiding the real world from us, and arriving at last in our native land: the land of history, to find there at last the rest afforded by reality and science in concord under the perpetual vigilance of criticism. According to this reading, there could no longer be any question of a history of philosophy; how could there be a history of dissipated phantasms, of shadows traversed? The only history possible is that of reality, which may dimly arouse in the sleeper incoherent dreams, but these dreams, whose only continuity is derived from their anchorage in these depths, can never make up a continent of history in their own right. Marx said so himself in The German Ideology: ‘Philosophy has no history’. When you come to read the essay ‘On the Young Marx’ you will be able to judge if it is not still partly trapped in the mythical hope for a philosophy which will achieve its philosophical end in the living death of a critical consciousness.

* * *

I have recalled these investigations and these choices because in their own way they carry the traces of our history. And also because the end of Stalinist dogmatism has not completely dissipated them as mere circumstantial reflexes; they are still our problems. Those who impute all our disappointments, all our mistakes and all our disarray in whatever domain, to Stalin, along with his crimes and errors, are likely to be disconcerted by having to admit that the end of Stalinist dogmatism has not restored Marxist philosophy to us in its integrity. After all, it is never possible to liberate, even from dogmatism, more than already exists. The end of dogmatism produced a real freedom of investigation, and also in some a feverish haste to make philosophy an ideological commentary on their feeling of liberation and their taste for freedom. Fevers sink as surely as stones. What the end of dogmatism has restored to us is the right to assess exactly what we have, to give both our wealth and our poverty their true names, to think and pose our problems in the open, and to undertake in rigour a true investigation. It makes it possible for us to emerge partly from our theoretical provincialism, to recognize and acquaint ourselves with those who did exist and do exist outside us, and as we see this outside, we can begin to see ourselves from the outside and discover the place we occupy in the knowledge and ignorance of Marxism, and thereby begin to know ourselves. The end of dogmatism puts us face to face with this reality: that Marxist philosophy, founded by Marx in the very act of founding his theory of history, has still largely to be constituted, since, as Lenin said, only the corner-stones have been laid down; that the theoretical difficulties we debated in the dogmatist night were not completely artificial – rather they were largely the result of a meagrely elaborated Marxist philosophy; or better, that in the rigid caricatural forms we suffered or maintained, including the theoretical monstrosity of the two sciences, something of an unsettled problem was really present in grotesque and blind forms – the writings of theoretical Leftism (the young Lukács and Korsch) which have recently been re-published are a sufficient witness to this; and finally, that our lot and our duty today is quite simply to pose and confront these problems in the light of day, if Marxist philosophy is to acquire some real existence or achieve a little theoretical consistency.


I should like to give some guidance to the road traversed by the notes you are about to read.

The piece on the Young Marx is still trapped in the myth of an evanescent critical philosophy. Nevertheless, it does contain the essential question, irresistibly drawn from us even by our trials, failures and impotence: What is Marxist philosophy? Has it any theoretical right to existence? And if it does exist in principle, how can its specificity be defined? This essential question was raised practically by another, apparently historical but really theoretical, question: the question of reading and interpreting Marx’s Early Works. It was no accident that it seemed indispensable to submit these famous texts to a serious critical examination, these texts which had been inscribed on every banner, in every field, these openly philosophical texts in which we had hoped to read Marx’s personal philosophy more or less spontaneously. The question of Marxist philosophy and of its specificity with respect to Marx’s Early Works necessarily implied the question of Marx’s relation to the philosophies he had espoused or traversed, those of Hegel and Feuerbach, and therefore the question of where he differed with them.

It was the study of the works of Marx’s youth that first led me to a reading of Feuerbach, and to the publication of the most important of his theoretical writings in the period from 1839 to 1845 (cf. my remarks on pp. 43-8). The same reasoning quite naturally led me to begin studying the nature of the relation of Hegel’s philosophy to Marx’s in the detail of their respective concepts. The question of the specific difference of Marxist philosophy thus assumed the form of the question as to whether or no there was an epistemological break in Marx’s intellectual development indicating the emergence of a new conception of philosophy – and the related question of the precise location of this break. Within the field defined by this question the study of Marx’s Early Works acquired a decisive theoretical importance (does this break exist?) as well as a historical importance (where is it located’?).

Of course, the quotation in which Marx himself attests to and locates this break (‘we resolved ... to settle accounts with our erstwhile philosophical conscience’) in 1845 at the level of The German Ideology, can only be treated as a declaration to be examined, and falsified or confirmed, not as a proof of the existence of the break and a definition of its location. The examination of the status of this declaration called for a theory and a method – the Marxist theoretical concepts in which the reality of theoretical formations in general (philosophical ideologies and science) can be considered must be applied to Marx himself. Without a theory of the history of theoretical formations it would be impossible to grasp and indicate the specific difference that distinguishes two different theoretical formations. I thought it possible to borrow for this purpose the concept of a ‘problematic’ from Jacques Martin to designate the particular unity of a theoretical formation and hence the location to be assigned to this specific difference, and the concept of an ‘epistemological break’ from Gaston Bachelard to designate the mutation in the theoretical problematic contemporary with the foundation of a scientific discipline. That one of these concepts had to be constructed and the other borrowed does not imply at all that either is arbitrary or foreign to Marx, on the contrary, it can be shown that both are present and active in Marx’s scientific thought, even if this presence is most often in the practical state.[4] These two concepts provided me with the indispensable theoretical minimum authorizing a pertinent analysis of the process of the theoretical transformation of the Young Marx, and leading to some precise conclusions.

Let me summarize here in extremely abbreviated form some of the results of a study which took several years and to which the pieces I am presenting here bear only partial witness.

(1) There is an unequivocal ‘epistemological break’ in Marx’s work which does in fact occur at the point where Marx himself locates it, in the book, unpublished in his lifetime, which is a critique of his erstwhile philosophical (ideological) conscience: The German Ideology. The Theses on Feuerbach, which are only a few sentences long, mark out the earlier limit of this break, the point at which the new theoretical consciousness is already beginning to show through in the erstwhile consciousness and the erstwhile language, that is, as necessarily ambiguous and unbalanced concepts.

(2) This ‘epistemological break’ concerns conjointly two distinct theoretical disciplines. By founding the theory of history (historical materialism), Marx simultaneously broke with his erstwhile ideological philosophy and established a new philosophy (dialectical materialism). I am deliberately using the traditionally accepted terminology (historical materialism, dialectical materialism) to designate this double foundation in a single break. And I should point out two important problems implied by this exceptional circumstance. Of course, if the birth of a new philosophy is simultaneous with the foundation of a new science, and this science is the science of history, a crucial theoretical problem arises: by what necessity of principle should the foundation of the scientific theory of history ipso facto imply a theoretical revolution in philosophy? This same circumstance also entails a considerable practical consequence: as the new philosophy was only implicit in the new science it might be tempted to confuse itself with it. The German Ideology sanctions this confusion as it reduces philosophy, as we have noted, to a faint shadow of science, if not to the empty generality of positivism. This practical consequence is one of the keys to the remarkable history of Marxist philosophy, from its origins to the present day.

I shall examine these two problems later.

(3) This ‘epistemological break’ divides Marx’s thought into two long essential periods: the ‘ideological’ period before, and the scientific period after, the break in 1845. The second period can itself be divided into two moments, the moment of Marx’s theoretical transition and that of his theoretical maturity. To simplify the philosophical and historical labours in front of us, I should like to propose the following provisional terminology which registers the above periodization.

(a) I propose to designate the works of the earlier period, that is, everything Marx wrote from his Doctoral Dissertation to the 1844 Manuscripts and The Holy Family by the already accepted formula: Marx’s Early Works.

(b) I propose to designate the writings of the break in 1845, that is, the Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology which first introduce Marx’s new problematic, though usually still in a partially negative and sharply polemical and critical form, by a new formula: the Works of the Break.

(c) I propose to designate the works of the period 1845-57 by a new formula: the Transitional Works. While it is possible to assign the crucial date of the works of 1845 (the Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology) to the break separating the scientific from the ideological, it must be remembered that this mutation could not produce immediately, in positive and consummated form, the new theoretical problematic which it inaugurated, in the theory of history as well as in that of philosophy. In fact, The German Ideology is a commentary, usually a negative and critical one, on the different forms of the ideological problematic Marx had rejected. Long years of positive study and elaboration were necessary before Marx could produce, fashion and establish a conceptual terminology and systematics that were adequate to his revolutionary theoretical project. That is why I propose to designate the works written between 1845 and the first drafts of Capital (around 1845-57), that is, the Manifesto, the Poverty of Philosophy, Wages, Price and Profit, etc., as the Works of Marx’s Theoretical Transition.

(d) Finally, I propose to designate all the works after 1857 as Marx’s Mature Works. This gives us the following classification:

1840-44: the Early Works
1845: the Works of the Break.
1845-57: the Transitional Works.
1857-83: the Mature Works.

(4) The period of Marx’s Early Works (1840-5), that is, the period of his ideological works, can itself be subdivided into two moments:

(a) the liberal-rationalist moment of his articles in Die Rheinische Zeitung (up to 1842).

(b) the communalist-rationalist moment of the years 1842-5.

As my essay on ‘Marxism and Humanism’ briefly suggests, the presupposition of the works of the first moment is a problematic of Kantian-Fichtean type. Those of the second moment, on the contrary, rest on Feuerbach’s anthropological problematic. The Hegelian problematic inspires one absolutely unique text, which is a rigorous attempt to ‘invert’ Hegelian idealism, in the strict sense, into Feuerbach’s pseudo-materialism: this text is the 1844 Manuscripts. Paradoxically, therefore, if we exclude the Doctoral Dissertation, which is still the work of a student, the Young Marx was never strictly speaking a Hegelian, except in the last text of his ideologico-philosophical period; rather, he was first a Kantian Fichtean, then a Feuerbachian. So the thesis that the Young Marx was a Hegelian, though widely believed today, is in general a myth. On the contrary, it seems that Marx’s one and only resort to Hegel in his youth, on the eve of his rupture with his ‘erstwhile philosophical conscience’, produced the prodigious ‘abreaction’ indispensable to the liquidation of his ‘disordered’ consciousness. Until then he had always kept his distance from Hegel, and to grasp the movement whereby he passed from his Hegelian university studies to a Kantian-Fichtean problematic and thence to a Feuerbachian problematic, we must realize that, far from being close to Hegel, Marx moved further and further away from him. With Fichte and Kant he had worked his way back to the end of the eighteenth century, and then, with Feuerbach, he regressed to the heart of the theoretical past of that century, for in his own way Feuerbach may be said to represent the ‘ideal’ eighteenth-century philosopher, the synthesis of sensualist materialism and ethico-historical idealism, the real union of Diderot and Rousseau. It would be difficult not to speculate that Marx’s sudden and total last return to Hegel in that genial synthesis of Feuerbach and Hegel, the 1844 Manuscripts, might not have been an explosive experiment uniting the substances of the two extremes of the theoretical field which he had until then frequented, that this extraordinarily rigorous and conscientious experiment, the most extreme test of the ‘inversion’ of Hegel ever attempted might not have been the way Marx lived practically and achieved his own transformation, in a text which he never published. Some idea of the logic of this prodigious mutation is given by the extraordinary theoretical tension of the 1844 Manuscripts, for we know in advance the paradox that the text of the last hours of the night is, theoretically speaking, the text the furthest removed from the day that is about to dawn.

(5) The Works of the Break raise delicate problems of interpretation, precisely as a function of their place in the theoretical formation of Marx’s thought. Those brief sparks, the Theses on Feuerbach, light up every philosopher who comes near them, but as is well known, a spark dazzles rather than illuminates: nothing is more difficult to locate in the darkness of the night than the point of light which breaks it. One day we will have to show that these eleven deceptively transparent theses are really riddles. As for The German Ideology, it offers us precisely a thought in a state of rupture with its past, playing a pitiless game of deadly criticism with all its erstwhile theoretical presuppositions: primarily with Feuerbach and Hegel and all the forms of a philosophy of consciousness and an anthropological philosophy. But this new thought so firm and precise in its interrogation of ideological error, cannot define itself without difficulties and ambiguities. It is impossible to break with a theoretical past at one blow: in every case, words and concepts are needed to break with words and concepts, and often the old words are charged with the conduct of the rupture throughout the period of the search for new ones. The German Ideology presents the spectacle of a re-enlisted conceptual reserve standing in for new concepts still in training ... and as we usually judge these old concepts by their bearing, taking them at their word, it is easy to stray into a positivist conception (the end of all philosophy) or an individualist-humanist conception (the subjects of history are ‘real, concrete men’). Or again, it is possible to be taken in by the ambiguous role of the division of labour, which, in this book, plays the principal part taken by alienation in the writings of his youth, and commands the whole theory of ideology and the whole theory of science. This all arises from its proximity to the break, and that is why The German Ideology alone demands a major critical effort to distinguish the suppletory theoretical function of particular concepts from the concepts themselves. I shall return to this.

(6) Locating the break in 1845 is not without important theoretical consequences as regards not only the relation between Marx and Feuerbach, but also the relation between Marx and Hegel. Indeed, Marx did not first develop a systematic critique of Hegel after 1845; he had been doing so since the beginning of the second moment of his Youthful period, in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843 Manuscript), the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), the 1844 Manuscripts and The Holy Family. But the theoretical principles on which this critique of Hegel was based are merely a reprise, a commentary or a development and extension of the admirable critique of Hegel repeatedly formulated by Feuerbach. It is a critique of Hegelian philosophy as speculative and abstract, a critique appealing to the concrete-materialist against the abstract-speculative, i.e. a critique which remains a prisoner of the idealist problematic it hoped to free itself from, and therefore a critique which belongs by right to the theoretical problematic with which Marx broke in 1845.

In the search for Marxist philosophy and in its definition, it is clear that the Marxist critique of Hegel should not be confused with the Feuerbachian critique of Hegel, even if Marx started it in his name. The decision as to whether or no the critique in Marx’s writings of 1843 is Marxist (in fact it is Feuerbachian through and through) makes a major difference to our idea of the nature of Marx’s later philosophy. I stress this as a crucial point for contemporary interpretations of Marxist philosophy, by which I mean serious, systematic interpretations, based on real philosophical, epistemological and historical knowledge, and on rigorous reading methods – not mere opinions (books can be written on this basis too). For example, there are the writings of Colletti and Della Volpe in Italy, which I regard as of the greatest importance, because in our time they are the only scholars who have made an irreconcilable theoretical distinction between Marx and Hegel and a definition of the specificity of Marxist philosophy the conscious centre of their investigations. Their work certainly presupposes the existence of a break between Marx and Hegel, and between Marx and Feuerbach, but they locate it in 1843, at the level of the Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right! Such a simple displacement of the break profoundly affects all the theoretical conclusions drawn from it, and not only their conception of Marxist philosophy, but also, as a later work will show, their reading and interpretation of Capital.

* * *

I have permitted myself these remarks so as to clarify the meaning of the pages devoted to Feuerbach and the Young Marx, and so as to reveal the unity of the problem dominating these Notes, since the essays on contradiction and on the dialectic equally concern a definition of the irreducible specificity of Marxist theory.

That this definition cannot be read directly in Marx’s writings, that a complete prior critique is indispensable to an identification of the location of the real concepts of Marx’s maturity; that the identification of these concepts is the same thing as the identification of their location; that all this critical effort, the absolute precondition of any interpretation, in itself presupposes activating a minimum of provisional Marxist theoretical concepts bearing on the nature of theoretical formations and their history; that the precondition of a reading of Marx is a Marxist theory of the differential nature of theoretical formations and their history, that is, a theory of epistemological history, which is Marxist philosophy itself; that this operation in itself constitutes an indispensable circle in which the application of Marxist theory to Marx himself appears to be the absolute precondition of an understanding of Marx and at the same time as the precondition even of the constitution and development of Marxist philosophy, so much is clear. But the circle implied by this operation is, like all circles of this kind, simply the dialectical circle of the question asked of an object as to its nature, on the basis of a theoretical problematic which in putting its object to the test puts itself to the test of its object. That Marxism can and must itself be the object of the epistemological question, that this epistemological question can only be asked as a function of the Marxist theoretical problematic, that is necessity itself for a theory which defines itself dialectically, not merely as a science of history (historical materialism) but also and simultaneously as a philosophy, a philosophy that is capable of accounting for the nature of theoretical formations and their history, and therefore capable of accounting for itself, by taking itself as its own object. Marxism is the only philosophy that theoretically faces up to this test.

All this critical effort is indispensable, not only to a reading of Marx which is not just an immediate reading, deceived either by the false transparency of his youthful ideological conceptions, or by the perhaps still more dangerous false transparency of the apparently familiar concepts of the works of the break. This work which is essential to a reading of Marx is, in the strict sense, simultaneously the work of theoretical elaboration of Marxist philosophy. A theory which enables us to see clearly in Marx, to distinguish science from ideology, to deal with the difference between them within the historical relation between them and to deal with the discontinuity of the epistemological break within the continuity of a historical process, a theory which makes it possible to distinguish a word from a concept, to distinguish the existence or non-existence of a concept behind a word, to discern the existence of a concept by a word’s function in the theoretical discourse, to define the nature of a concept by its function in the problematic, and thus by the location it occupies in the system of the ‘theory’; this theory which alone makes possible an authentic reading of Marx’s writings, a reading which is both epistemological and historical, this theory is in fact simply Marxist philosophy itself.

We set out in search of it. And here it begins to emerge, along with its own first, most elementary demand: the demand for a simple definition of the preconditions of this search.

March, 1965


1. With the exception of the article on Bertolazzi and Brecht, which was published in the Catholic review Esprit.

2. For explanation of terms used see Glossary, page 249.

3. Naturally this term ‘intellectuals’ denotes a very specific type of militant intellectual, a type unprecedented in many respects. These are real initiates, armed with the most authentic scientific and theoretical culture forewarned of the crushing reality and manifold mechanisms of all forms of the ruling ideology and constantly on the watch for them, and able in their theoretical practice to borrow – against the stream of all ‘accepted truths’ the fertile paths opened up by Marx but bolted and barred by all the reigning prejudices. An undertaking of this nature and this rigour is unthinkable without an unshakeable and lucid confidence in the working class and direct participation in its struggles.

4. On this dual theme of the problematic and of the epistemological break (the break indicating the mutation of a pre-scientific problematic into a scientific problematic), see the pages of extraordinary theoretical profundity in Engels’s Preface to the Second Volume of Capital (English translation, Moscow 1961, pp. 14-18). I shall give a brief commentary on them in Lire le Capital, Vol. II.