Reading Capital. Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar 1968

Part II: The Object of Capital
(Louis Althusser)

First published: by Librairie François Maspero, Paris, 1968;
Translated: by Ben Brewster;
This translation first published New Left Books 1970.

Chapter 1. Introduction

In the half-arranged, half-spontaneous division of labour which presided over the organization of this collective study of Capital, it fell to me to discuss Marx’s relation to his work. Under this title, I intended to deal with the following question: what image did Marx have and give of the nature of his undertaking? With what concepts did he think his innovations, and hence the distinctions between himself and the Classical Economists? In what system of concepts did he account for the conditions which gave rise to the discoveries of Classical Economics on the one hand, and his own discoveries on the other? With these questions, I intended to interrogate Marx himself, to see where and how he had theoretically reflected the relationship between his work and the theoretico-historical conditions of its production. In this way, I meant to pose him directly the fundamental epistemological question which constitutes the object of Marxist philosophy itself – and to assess as accurately as possible the degree of explicit philosophical consciousness Marx had acquired during the elaboration of Capital. To make this assessment meant to compare the part Marx had illuminated in the new philosophical field that he had opened in the act of foundation of his science with the part that had remained in the shade. By assessing what Marx had done, I wanted to represent as far as possible what he himself called on us to do in order to situate this field, to estimate its extent, and to make it accessible to philosophical discovery – in short, to define as accurately as possible the theoretical space open before Marxist philosophical investigation.

Such was my project: at first sight, it might seem simple, and require only to be carried out. Indeed, Marx left us in passing in the text and notes of Capital a whole series of judgments of his own work, critical comparisons with his predecessors (the Physiocrats, Smith, Ricardo, etc.) and lastly very precise methodological comments comparing his analytical procedures with the methods of e.g., the mathematical, physical and biological sciences, and with the dialectical method defined by Hegel. Since on the other hand we possess the 1857 Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy – an extremely profound development of the earlier theoretical and methodological comments in Chapter Two of The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) – it seems legitimate to believe that this set of texts really embraced the object of my reflection, and that a systematic arrangement of this already worked-out material was all that was required for the epistemological project I have mentioned to take on body and reality. Indeed, it seemed natural to think that when he spoke of his work and his discoveries, Marx was reflecting on the innovatory character, and therefore on the specific distinction of his object, in philosophically adequate terms – and that this adequate philosophical reflection was itself devoted to a definition of the scientific object of Capital, defining its specific distinction in explicit terms.

But the protocols for a reading of Capital which we have inherited from the history of the interpretation of Marxism, as well as the experiments in reading Capital we can make ourselves, confront us with real difficulties inherent in Marx’s text itself. I shall assemble them under two headings, and these two headings will constitute the object of my study.

(1) Contrary to certain appearances, or at any rate, to my expectations, Marx’s methodological reflections in Capital do not give us a developed concept, nor even an explicit concept of the object of Marxist philosophy. They always provide the means with which to recognize, identify and focus on it, and finally to think it, but often at the end of a long investigation, and only after piercing the enigma contained in certain expressions. Our question therefore demands more than a mere literal reading, even an attentive one: it demands a truly critical reading, one which applies to Marx’s text precisely the principles of the Marxist philosophy which is, however, what we are looking for in Capital. This critical reading seems to constitute a circle, since we appear to be expecting to obtain Marxist philosophy from its own application. We should therefore clarify: we expect from the theoretical work of the philosophical principles Marx has explicitly given us or which can be disengaged from his Works of the Break, and Transitional Works – we expect from the theoretical work of these principles applied to Capital their development and enrichment as well as refinements in their rigour. This apparent circle should not surprise us: all ‘production’ of knowledge implies it in its process.

(2) But this philosophical investigation runs into another real difficulty, one which no longer involves the presence and distinction of the object of Marxist philosophy in Capital, but the presence and distinction of the scientific object of Capital itself. Restricting myself to a single, simple symptomatic question around which turn most of the interpretations and criticism of Capital, what, strictly speaking, is the nature of the object whose theory we get from Capital ? Is it Economics or History? And specifying this question, if the object of Capital is Economics, precisely what distinguishes this object in its concept from the object of classical Economics? If the object of Capital is History, what is this History, what place does Economics have in History, etc.? Here again, a merely literal reading of Marx’s text, even an attentive one, will leave us unsatisfied or even make us miss the question altogether, dispensing us from the task of posing this question, even though it is essential to an understanding of Marx – and depriving us of an exact consciousness of the theoretical revolution induced by Marx’s discovery and of the scope of its consequences. Without doubt, in Capital Marx does give us, in an extremely explicit form, the means with which to identify and announce the concept of his object – what am I saying? – he announces it himself in perfectly clear terms. But if he did formulate the concept of his object without ambiguity, Marx did not always define with the same precision the concept of its distinction, i.e., the concept of the specific difference between it and the object of Classical Economics. There can be no doubt that Marx was acutely conscious of the existence of this distinction: his whole critique of Classical Economics proves it. But the formulae in which he gives us this distinction, this specific difference, are sometimes disconcerting, as we shall see. They do guide us onto the road to the concept of this distinction, but often only at the end of a long investigation and, once again, after piercing the enigma contained in some of his expressions. But how can we establish the differential specificity of the object of Capital with any precision without a critical and epistemological reading which assigns the site where Marx separates himself theoretically from his predecessors, and determines the meaning of this break. How can we aim to achieve this result without recourse precisely to a theory of the history of the production of knowledges, applied to the relations between Marx and his pre-history, i.e., without recourse to the principles of Marxist philosophy ? As we shall see, a second question must be added to this one: does not the difficulty Marx seems to have felt in thinking in (penser dans) a rigorous concept the difference which distinguishes his object from the object of Classical Economics, lie in the nature of his discovery, in particular in its fantastically innovatory character ? in the fact that this discovery happened to be theoretically very much in advance of the philosophical concepts then available? And in this case, does not Marx’s scientific discovery imperiously demand that we pose the new philosophical problems required by the disconcerting nature of its new object ? This last argument calls on philosophy to participate in any depth reading of Capital in order to answer the astonishing questions asked of philosophy in its pages: unprecedented questions which are decisive for the future of philosophy itself.

Such is the double object of this study, which is only possible given a constant and double reference: the identification and knowledge of the object of Marxist philosophy at work in Capital presupposes the identification and knowledge of the specific difference of the object of Capital itself – which in turn presupposes the recourse to Marxist philosophy and demands Its development. It is not possible to read Capital properly without the help of Marxist philosophy, which must itself be read, and simultaneously, in Capital itself. If this double reading and constant reference from the scientific reading to the philosophical reading, and from the philosophical reading to the scientific reading, are necessary and fruitful, we shall surely be able to recognize in them the peculiarity of the philosophical revolution carried in Marx’s scientific discovery: a revolution which inaugurates an authentically new mode of philosophical thought.

We can convince ourselves that this double reading is indispensable a contrario, too, by the difficulties and misconstructions that simple immediate readings of Capital have produced in the past: difficulties and misconstructions which all revolve around a more or less serious misunderstanding of the specific difference of the object of Capital. We are obliged to register this remarkable fact: until relatively recently, Capital was hardly read, among ‘specialists’, except by economists and historians, of whom the former often thought that Capital was an economic treatise in the immediate sense of their practice, and the latter that certain parts of Capital were works of history, in the immediate sense of their practice. This Book, which thousands and thousands of worker militants have studied – has been read by economists and historians, but very rarely by philosophers,[1] i.e., ‘specialists’ capable of posing Capital the preliminary question of the differential nature of its object. With rare exceptions, all the more remarkable for that, economists and historians have not been equipped to pose it this kind of question, at least in a rigorous form, and hence they have not ultimately been equipped to identify conceptually what specifically distinguishes Marx’s object from other apparently similar or related objects whether contemporaneous with him or earlier. Such an undertaking has generally only been accessible to philosophers, or to specialists with an adequate philosophical education – because it corresponds precisely to the object of philosophy.

What philosophers who are able to pose Capital the question of its object and of the specific difference that distinguishes Marx’s object from the object of Political Economy, classical or modern, have read Capital and posed it this question? Knowing that Capital was under a radical ideologico-political interdict imposed by bourgeois economists and historians for eighty years, we can imagine the fate reserved for it by academic philosophy! The only philosophers ready to take Capital for an object worthy of a philosopher’s concern could long only be Marxist militants: only during the last two or three decades have a few non-Marxist philosophers crossed this forbidden frontier. But, whether Marxist or not, these philosophers could only pose Capital questions produced by their philosophy, which was not generally equipped to conceive a real epistemological treatment of its object, even if it did not obstinately reject it. Among Marxists, besides the remarkable case of Lenin, we can mention Labriola and Plekhanov, the ‘Austro-Marxists’, Gramsci, and more recently Rosenthal and Il’ienkov in the USSR, the School of Della Volpe in Italy (Della Volpe, Colletti, Pietranera, Rossi, etc.) and numerous scholars in the socialist countries. The ‘Austro-Marxists’ were merely neo-Kantians: they produced nothing that has survived their ideological project. The important work of Plekhanov and particularly that of Labriola, deserve a special study – as also, and on a quite different level, do Gramsci’s great theses on Marxist philosophy. I shall discuss Gramsci later. It is no slander on Rosenthal’s work (Problèmes de la dialectique dansLe Capital ‘) to reckon it partly beside the point here, since it merely paraphrases the immediate language with which Marx designates his object and his theoretical operations, without supposing that Marx’s very language might often be open to this question. As for the studies of Il’ienkov, Della Volpe, Colletti, Pietranera, etc., they are indeed the works of philosophers who have read Capital and pose it directly the essential question – erudite, rigorous and profound works, conscious of the fundamental relation linking Marxist philosophy with the understanding of Capital. But, as we shall see, the conception they put forward of Marxist philosophy is often debatable. However, in every case, the same exigency is expressed everywhere in the investigations of contemporary Marxist theoreticians: a deeper understanding of the theoretical consequences of Capital requires a more rigorous and richer definition of Marxist philosophy. In other words, to return to classical terminology, the theoretical future of historical materialism depends today on deepening dialectical materialism, which itself depends on a rigorous critical study of Capital. History imposes this immense task on us. Insofar as our modest means will allow, we should like to make our contribution.

Let me return to the thesis I am going to attempt to expound and illustrate. This thesis, it is clear, is not just an epistemological thesis which only concerns the philosophers who take up the question of the difference between Marx and the Classical Economists: it is also a thesis which concerns economists and historians – and, as an obvious consequence, political militants – in short, all of Capital ‘s readers. Posing the question of the object of Capital, this thesis deals directly with the foundation of the economic and historical analyses contained in its text: it should therefore be able to resolve certain reading difficulties which have traditionally been opposed to Marx by his opponents as decisive objections. The question of the object of Capital is not therefore just a philosophical question. If what I have suggested about the relation between scientific reading and philosophical reading is well-founded, the elucidation of the specific difference of the object of Capital may provide the means towards a better understanding of Capital in its economic and historical content too.

I close this foreword with the conclusion that, if I have replaced the original project for this paper, which was intended to deal with Marx’s relation to his work, with a second project dealing with the peculiar object of Capital, this was quite necessary. In order to understand all the profundity of the comments in which Marx expresses his relation to his work, it was necessary to go beyond their letter to the essential point which is present in all these comments and in all the concepts which imply that relation – to the essential point of the specific difference of the object of Capital, a point which is both visible and hidden, present and absent, a point which is absent for reasons arising from the very nature of its presence, from the disconcerting novelty of Marx’s revolutionary discovery. That these reasons may in certain cases be invisible to us at first glance surely derives in the last resort from the fact that, like all radical innovations, they are blinding.

Chapter 2. Marx and his Discoveries

I shall start with an immediate reading, and here I let Marx speak for himself. In a letter to Engels on 24 August 1867, he writes:

The best points in my book are: (1) the two-fold character of labour, according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange value. (All understanding of the facts depends on this.) It is emphasized immediately, in the first chapter; (2) the treatment of surplus-value independently of its particular forms as profit, interest, ground rent, etc. This will come out especially in the second volume. The treatment of the particular forms by classical economy, which always mixes them up with the general form, is a regular hash.

In the Marginal Notes on Wagner’sLehrbuch der politischen Ökonomie ‘, written in 1883, at the end of his life, Marx says of Wagner (Marx-Engels: Werke, Bd. XIX, pp. 370-1):

the vir obscurus [Wagner] has not seen:

that even in the analysis of the commodity, I do not stop at the double mode in which it is represented, but go straight on to the fact that in this double being of the commodity is represented the two-fold character of the labour whose product it is: the useful labour, i.e., the concrete modes of the labours which create use-values, and the abstract labour, labour as the expenditure of labour power, whatever the ‘useful’ mode in which it is expended (on which depends the later representation of the production process);

that in the development of the value-form of the commodity, in the last instance of its money-form, hence of money, the value of a commodity is represented in the use-value, i.e., the natural form of the other commodity;

that surplus-value itself is deduced from a ‘specific’ use-value of labour-power which belongs exclusively to it, etc., etc.;

and that therefore for me use-value plays a far more important part than it has in economics hitherto, but, N.B., that it only ever comes into consideration where such a consideration arises from the analysis of a given economic form, not from reasoning this way and that about the concepts or words ‘use-value’ and ‘value’.

I quote these texts as protocols in which Marx expressly designates the basic concepts that govern his whole analysis. In these texts, therefore, Marx indicates the differences between him and his predecessors. In this way he gives us the specific difference of his object – but, note, less in the form of the concept of his object than in the form of concepts assisting in the analysis of that object.

These texts are far from being the only ones in which Marx announces his discoveries. We find far-reaching discoveries designated all the way through a reading of Capital: e.g., the genesis of money, which the whole of classical economics did not manage to think; the organic composition of capital (c+v), absent from Smith and Ricardo; the general law of capitalist accumulation; the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall; the theory of ground rent, etc. I shall not list all these discoveries, each of which makes intelligible economic facts and practices which the Classical Economists either passed over in silence or evaded because they were incompatible with their premisses. In fact, these detailed discoveries are merely the immediate or distant consequences of the new basic concepts that Marx identified in his work as his master discoveries. Let us examine them.

The reduction of the different forms of profit, rent and interest to surplus-value is itself a discovery secondary to that of surplus-value. The basic discoveries therefore concern:

(1) the value/use-value opposition; the reference of this opposition to another opposition which the Economists were not able to identify: the opposition abstract labour/concrete labour; the particular importance which Marx, as opposed to the Classical Economists, attributes to use-value and its correlate concrete labour; the reference to the strategic points where use-value and concrete labour play a decisive part: the distinctions between constant capital and variable capital, on the one hand, and between the two departments of production on the other (Department I, production of means of production; Department II, production of means of consumption).

(2) surplus-value.

To sum up: the concepts which contain Marx’s basic discoveries are: the concepts of value and use-value ; of abstract labour and concrete labour ; and of surplus-value.

That is what Marx tells us. And there is no apparent reason why we should not take him at his word. In fact, while reading Capital we can prove that his economic analyses do depend on these basic concepts in the last instance. We can, so long as our reading is a careful one. But this proof is not self-evident. It presupposes a great struggle for rigour – and above all it necessarily implies from the beginning something which is present in Marx’s declared discoveries – but present in a strange absence – if we are to complete this proof and see clearly in the very clarity it produces.

As an index which gives a negative foretaste of this absence, one comment will do: the concepts to which Marx expressly relates his discovery and which underlie all his economic analysis, the concepts of value and surplus-value, are precisely the concepts on which all the criticism addressed to Marx by modern economists has focused. It is not immaterial to know in what terms these concepts have been attacked by non-Marxist economists. Marx has been criticized on the grounds that they are concepts which, although they make allusion to economic reality, remain at heart non-economic, ‘philosophical’ and ‘metaphysical’ concepts. Even as enlightened an economist as Conrad Schmidt – who was intelligent enough to deduce the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall from Volume Two of Capital soon after its publication, even though that law was first expounded in Volume Three – even Conrad Schmidt attacked Marx’s law of value as a ‘theoretical fiction’, a necessary one no doubt, but a fiction all the same. I do not quote these criticisms for fun, but because they are directed at the very foundation of Marx’s economic analyses, the concepts of value and surplus-value, which are rejected as ‘non-operational’ concepts designating realities which are non-economic because they are non-measurable, non-quantifiable. Obviously, this reproach in its own way betrays the conception the economists in question have of their own object, and of the concepts it authorizes: but if this reproach does show us the point in which their opposition to Marx is at its most palpable, these economists do not give us Marx’s object in their reproach, precisely because they treat that object as ‘metaphysical’. However, I indicate this point as the point of misunderstanding, the point where the Economists misconstrue Marx’s analyses. But this misunderstanding in their reading was only possible because of a misunderstanding of Marx’s object itself: a misunderstanding that made the Economists read their own object into Marx, instead of reading another object in Marx which is not their own object but a quite different one. This point of misunderstanding which the Economists declare the point of Marx’s theoretical weakness and error is, on the contrary, the point at which he is strongest! the point which marks him off radically from his critics, and also, on occasion, from some of his closest followers.

To demonstrate the extent of this misunderstanding, I should like to quote the letter from Engels to Conrad Schmidt (12 March 1895) from which we took the echo of Schmidt’s objection above. Engels replies as follows:

There (in your objections) I find the same way of going off into details, for which I put the blame on the eclectic method of philosophizing which has made such inroads in the German universities since 1848, and which loses all general perspective and only too often winds up in rather aimless and fruitless speculation about particular points. Now of the classical philosophers it was precisely Kant with whom you had formerly chiefly occupied yourself, and Kant ... was more or less obliged to make some apparent concessions in form to ... Wolffian speculation. This is how I explain your tendency, which also shows in the excursus on the law of value in your letter, to become so absorbed in details ... that you degrade the law of value to a fiction, a necessary fiction, somewhat in the manner of Kant making the existence of God a postulate of the practical reason.

The objections you raise to the law of value apply to all concepts, regarded from the standpoint of reality. The identity of thinking and being, to express myself in Hegelian fashion, everywhere coincides with your example of the circle and the polygon. Or the two of them, the concept of a thing and its reality, run side by side like two asymptotes, always approaching each other yet never meeting. This difference between the two is the very difference which prevents the concept from being directly and immediately reality and reality from being immediately its own concept. Because a concept has the essential nature of that concept and cannot therefore prima facie directly coincide with reality, from which it must first be abstracted, it is something more than a fiction, unless you are going to declare all the results of thought fictions because reality corresponds to them only very circuitously, and even then only with asymptotic approximation.

This reply is astounding (despite the banality of its obviousnesses) and it constitutes a kind of well-intentioned commentary on the misunderstanding, on which Marx’s opponents set out to produce ill-intentioned commentaries. Engels escapes Conrad Schmidt’s ‘operational’ objection with a theory of knowledge made to order – that looks to the approximations of abstraction to establish the inadequacy of the concept as a concept to its object! This answer is beside the point: for Marx the concept of the law of value is in fact a concept perfectly adequate to its object, since it is the concept of the limits of its variation, and therefore the adequate concept of the field of its inadequacy – and in no sense an inadequate concept by virtue of some original sin which affects all concepts brought into the world by human abstraction. Engels therefore transfers to an empiricist theory of knowledge, as a native weakness of the concept, precisely what constitutes the theoretical strength of Marx’s adequate concept! This transfer is only possible with the complicity of this ideological theory of knowledge, ideological not only in its content (empiricism), but also in its use, since it is designed to answer, among other things, precisely this theoretical misunderstanding. There is a risk not only that the theory of Capital will be affected by it (Engels’s thesis in the Preface to Volume Three: the law of value is economically valid ‘from the beginning of exchange ... until the fifteenth century A.D.’ is a disturbing example), but also that Marxist philosophical theory will be marked, and with what a mark! The mark of the empiricist theory of knowledge which serves as a silent theoretical norm both in Schmidt’s objection and in Engels’s reply. I have dwelt on this reply in order to stress the fact that the present misunderstanding may betray not only political or ideological ill-will, but also the effects of a theoretical blindness which is a serious hazard so long as we neglect to pose Marx the question of his object.

Chapter 3. The Merits of Classical Economics

Let us therefore take things as we are told they are, and ask how Marx himself thinks himself, not only directly, when he examines in himself what distinguishes him from the Classical Economists, but also indirectly, when he thinks himself in them, i.e., registers in them the presence or presentiment of his discovery in their non-discovery, and therefore thinks his own perspicacity in the blindness of its closest pre-history.

I cannot go into every detail here, although all of them deserve a precise and exhaustive study. I propose to concentrate on a few elements only, which will act as so many pertinent indices to the problem we are concerned with.

Marx assesses his debt to his predecessors and therefore estimates what is positive in their thought (with respect to his own discovery) in two distinct forms which emerge very clearly in Theories of Surplus-Value:

On the one hand, he pays homage to one or other of his predecessors for having isolated and analysed an important concept, even if the words that express this concept are still caught in the trap of linguistic confusion or ambiguity. In this way he registers the concept of value in Petty, the concept of surplus-value in Steuart, the Physiocrats, etc. He then makes allowances for isolated conceptual gains, usually extracting them from the confusion of a still inadequate terminology.

On the other, he stresses another merit which does not involve any particular detailed gain (any concept) but the ‘scientific’ mode of treatment of political economy. Two features seem to him to be discriminatory in this respect. The first, in a very classical spirit that might perhaps be called Galilean, concerns the scientific attitude itself: the method which brackets sensory appearances, i.e., in the domain of political economy, all the visible phenomena and practico-empirical concepts produced by the economic world (rent, interest, profit, etc.), in other words, all those economic categories from the ‘everyday life’ which, at the end of Capital, Marx says is the equivalent of a ‘religion’. The effect of this bracketing is to unveil the hidden essence of the phenomena, their essential inwardness. For Marx, the science of political economy, like every other science, depends on this reduction of the phenomenon to the essence, or, as he puts it, in an explicit comparison with astronomy, of the ‘apparent movement to the real movement ‘. All the economists who have made a scientific discovery, even a minute one, have done so by way of this reduction. However, this partial reduction is not enough to constitute the science. At this point the second feature intervenes. A science is a systematic theory which embraces the totality of its object and seizes the ‘internal connection’ which links together the ‘reduced’ essences of all economic phenomena. The great merit of the Physiocrats, and of Quesnay in particular, was that, even if only partially (since they restricted themselves to agricultural production), they related phenomena as diverse as wages, profit, rent, commercial gain, etc., to a single original essence, the surplus-value produced in the agricultural sector. It was Smith’s merit that he outlined this systematic while liberating it from the agricultural presuppositions of the Physiocrats. But, at the same time, he was at fault in only half-finishing it. Smith’s unforgivable weakness was that he wanted to think of as having a single origin objects of a different nature: both true (reduced) ‘essences’, and also crude phenomena not reduced to their essences: the result is that his theory is no more than the necessity – less grouping of two doctrines, the exoteric (which unites unreduced crude phenomena) and the esoteric (which unites essences), of which only the latter is scientific. This simple comment of Marx’s is heavy with meaning: it implies that it is not just the form of systematicity that makes a science, but the form of systematicity of the ‘essences’ (of the theoretical concepts) alone, and not the systematicity of interlinked crude phenomena (elements of the real), or the mixed systematicity of ‘essences’ and crude phenomena. However, it was Ricardo’s merit that he thought and went beyond this contradiction between Smith’s two ‘doctrines’, and conceived Political Economy in the true form of scientificity, i.e., as the unified system of concepts which expresses the internal essence of its object:

But at last Ricardo steps in ... The basis, the starting-point for the physiology of the bourgeois system – for the understanding of its internal organic coherence and life process – is the determination of value by labour time. Ricardo starts with this and forces science to get out of the rut, to render an account of the extent to which the other categories – the relations of production and commerce – evolved and described by it, correspond to or contradict this basis, this starting-point; to elucidate how far a science, which in fact only reflects and reproduces the phenomenal forms of the process, corresponds to the basis on which rests the inner coherence, the actual physiology of bourgeois society, or to the basis which forms its starting point; and therefore how far these phenomena themselves so correspond; and in general to examine how matters stand with the contradiction between the apparent and the real movement of the system. This then is Ricardo’s great historical significance for science (Theories of Surplus-Value, Vol. II, p. 166 – modified).

The reduction of the phenomenon to the essence (of the given to its concept), the internal unity of the essence (the systematicity of the concepts unified behind their concepts): these, then, are the two positive determinations which, in Marx’s eyes, constitute the conditions for the scientific character of an isolated result or a general theory. But the reader will have noted that these determinations express with respect to Political Economy the general conditions for the existing scientific rationality (the existing Theoretical): Marx merely borrowed them from the existing state of the sciences, importing them into Political Economy as the formal norms of scientific rationality in general. When he judges the Physiocrats, Smith or Ricardo, he applies these formal norms to them, deciding whether they have respected or ignored them – without prejudging the content of their objects.

However, we shall not restrict ourselves to purely formal judgments. Has the content that these forms abstract from not already been designated by Marx in the Economists themselves? Do concepts that Marx makes the foundation of his own theory, value and surplus-value, not already appear in person in the theoretical charter of the Classical Economists, together with the phenomenon-essence reduction and theoretical scientificity? But this presents us with a strange situation. It seems that, in essentials – and that is how Marx’s modern critics have judged his undertaking – Marx was really no more than the heir of Classical Economics, and a decidedly well-endowed one, since he obtained from his forebears his key concepts (the content of his object) and the method of reduction, as well as the model of internal systematicity (the scientific form of his object). What, then, is peculiar to Marx, what is his historical merit? Simply the fact that he extended and completed an already almost complete work: he filled in the gaps, resolved the problems it had left open; in sum, he increased the patrimony of the classics, but on the basis of their principles, and therefore of their problematic, accepting not only their method and theory, but also together with the latter the definition of their object itself. The answer to the question: what is Marx’s object? what is the object of Capital ? is already inscribed, apart from a few nuances and discoveries, but in principle, in Smith, and especially in Ricardo. The great theoretical web of Political Economy was already there waiting: a few threads awry and a few holes, certainly. Marx tightened the threads, straightened the weave and added a few stitches: in other words, he finished the work, making it perfect. In this account, the possibility of a misunderstanding in reading Capital disappears: Marx’s object is no more than Ricardo’s object. The history of Political Economy from Ricardo to Marx thus becomes a beautiful unbroken continuity, which is no longer a problem. If there is a misunderstanding, it is elsewhere, in Ricardo and in Marx – no longer between Ricardo and Marx, but between the whole of the Classical Economics of labour-value, which Marx merely brilliantly touched up, and modern marginalist and neo-marginalist political economy, which rests on a quite different problematic.

And in fact, when we read certain of Gramsci’s commentaries (Marxist philosophy is Ricardo generalized), Rosenthal’s theoretical analyses or even the much more critical remarks of Della Volpe and his disciples, we are struck by the fact that we never forsake this continuity of object. These authors see no essential difference between Smith’s and Ricardo’s object and Marx’s object. This non-difference of object has been registered in the vulgar Marxist interpretation in the following form: the only difference is in the method. The method which the classical economists applied to their object was merely metaphysical, but Marx’s method, on the contrary, was dialectical. Everything therefore depends on the dialectic, which is thus conceived as a method in itself, imported from Hegel, and applied to an object in itself, already present in Ricardo. Marx simply sealed this happy union with the miracle of genius, and like all happiness, it has no history. Unfortunately, we know that there remains one ‘tiny’ difficulty: the history of the ‘reconversion’ of this dialectic, which has to be ‘put back on to its feet’ if it is at last to walk on the terra firma of materialism.

Here, too, I have not evoked the facilities of this schematic interpretation, which no doubt has its political and historical justification, simply for the fun of disagreeing with them. This hypothetical continuity of object from classical economics to Marx is not restricted to Marx’s opponents or even to some of his supporters: it emerges silently again and again in Marx’s own explicit discourse, or rather it emerges from a certain silence of Marx’s which unintentionally doubles his explicit discourse. At certain moments, in certain symptomatic points, this silence emerges as such in the discourse and forces it against its will to produce real theoretical lapses, in brief blank flashes, invisible in the light of the proof: words that hang in mid-air although they seem to be inserted into the necessity of the thought, judgments which close irreversibly with a false obviousness the very space which seemed to be opening before reason. All that a simple literal reading sees in the arguments is the continuity of the text. A ‘symptomatic’ reading is necessary to make these lacunae perceptible, and to identify behind the spoken words the discourse of the silence, which, emerging in the verbal discourse, induces these blanks in it, blanks which are failures in its rigour, or the outer limits of its effort: its absence, once these limits are reached, but in a space which it has opened.

I shall give two examples: Marx’s conception of the abstractions that underlie the process of theoretical practice, and the kind of criticisms he makes of the Classical Economists.

The third chapter of the 1857 Introduction can rightly be regarded as the Discourse on Method of the new philosophy founded by Marx. In fact, it is the only systematic text by Marx which contains, in the form of an analysis of the categories and method of political economy, the means with which to establish a theory of scientific practice, i.e., a theory of the conditions of the process of knowledge, which is the object of Marxist philosophy.

The theoretical problematic underlying this text allows us to distinguish Marxist philosophy from every speculative or empiricist philosophy. The decisive point of Marx’s thesis concerns the principle distinguishing between the real and thought. The real is one thing, along with its different aspects: the real-concrete, the process of the real, the real totality, etc. Thought about the real is another, along with its different aspects: the thought process, the thought-totality, the thought-concrete, etc.

This principle of distinction implies two essential theses: (1) the materialist thesis of the primacy of the real over thought about the real presupposes the existence of the real independence of that thought (the real ‘survives in its independence, after as before, outside the head’ – Grundrisse, p. 22) (2) the materialist thesis of the specificity of thought and of the thought process, with respect to the real and the real process. This latter thesis is especially the object of Marx’s reflections in the third chapter of the Introduction. Thought about the real, the conception of the real, and all the operations of thought by which the real is thought and conceived, belong to the order of thought, the elements of thought, which must not be confused with the order of the real, the element of the real. ‘The whole, as it appears in the mind as a thought-whole, is a product of the thinking mind’ (p. 22); similarly, the thought-concrete belongs to thought and not to the real. The process of knowledge, the work of elaboration (Verarbeitung) by which thought transforms its initial intuitions and representations into knowledges or thought-concretes, takes place entirely in thought.

No doubt there is a relation between thought-about-the-real and this real, but it is a relation of knowledge,[2] a relation of adequacy or inadequacy of knowledge, not a real relation, meaning by this a relation inscribed in that real of which the thought is the (adequate or inadequate) knowledge. This knowledge relation between knowledge of the real and the real is not a relation of the real that is known in this relationship. The distinction between a relation of knowledge and a relation of the real is a fundamental one: if we did not respect it we should fall irreversibly into either speculative or empiricist idealism. Into speculative idealism if, with Hegel, we confused thought and the real by reducing the real to thought, by ‘conceiving the real as the result of thought’ (p. 22); into empiricist idealism if we confused thought with the real by reducing thought about the real to the real itself. In either case, this double reduction consists of a projection and realization of one element in the other: of thinking the difference between the real and thought about it as either a difference within thought itself (speculative idealism) or as a difference within the real itself (empiricist idealism).

Naturally, these theses pose problems,[3] but they are problems unambiguously implied in Marx’s text. Now, this is what interests us. Examining the methods of Political Economy, Marx distinguishes two such methods: a first one, that starts from ‘a living whole’ (‘the population, the Nation, State, several States ‘); and a second one ‘that starts from simple notions such as labour, the division of labour, money, value, etc.’ There are therefore two methods, one starting from the real itself, the other from abstractions. Which of these two methods is correct? ‘It seems to be correct to start with the real and concrete ... but on closer inspection it is clear that this is false.’ The second method, which starts from simple abstractions in order to produce knowledge of the real in a ‘thought-concrete’ ‘is manifestly the correct scientific method ‘, and this was the method of classical Political Economy, of Smith and Ricardo. Formally, there is no need here to look beyond the obviousness of this discourse.

But in its obviousness, this discourse contains and conceals one of Marx’s symptomatic silences. This silence is inaudible everywhere in the development of the discourse, which sticks to showing that the process of knowledge is a process of work and theoretical elaboration, and that the thought-concrete or knowledge of the real is the product of this theoretical practice. This silence is only ‘heard’ at one precise point, just where it goes unperceived: when Marx speaks of the initial abstractions on which the work of transformation is performed. What are these initial abstractions? By what right does Marx accept in these initial abstractions the categories from which Smith and Ricardo started, thus suggesting that he thinks in continuity with their object, and that therefore there is no break in object between them and him? These two questions are really only one single question, precisely the question that Marx does not answer, simply because he does not pose it. Here is the site of his silence, and this site, being empty, threatens to be occupied by the ‘natural’ discourse of ideology, in particular, of empiricism: ‘The economists of the seventeenth century,’ writes Marx, ‘always begin with a living whole, the population, the Nation, the State, several States, etc. ; and they finish up by disengaging through analysis a number of determinant, abstract, general relations such as the division of labour, money, value, etc. Once these individual moments had been more or less abstracted and established, economic systems began to appear which ascend from simple notions such as labour, division of labour, need, exchange value’ (p. 21). Silence as to the nature of this ‘analysis’, this ‘abstraction’ and this ‘establishment’ – silence, or rather the inter-relationship of these ‘abstractions’ with the real from which they have been ‘abstracted’, with the ‘intuition and representation’ of the real, which thus seem in their purity the raw material of these abstractions without the status of this material (natural or raw?) having been expressed. An ideology may gather naturally in the hollow left by this silence, the ideology of a relation of real correspondence between the real and its intuition and representation, and the presence of an ‘abstraction’ which operates on this real in order to disengage from it these ‘abstract general relations’, i.e., an empiricist ideology of abstraction. The question can be posed in a different way, but its absence will always be noticed: how can these ‘abstract general relations’ be called ‘determinant’? Is every abstraction as such the scientific concept of its object? Surely there are ideological abstractions and scientific abstractions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ abstractions? Silence.[4] The same question can be put in another way: the famous abstract categories of the classical economists, the abstractions that we have to start from in order to produce knowledges, these abstractions were no problem for Marx then. For him, they are the result of a process of preliminary abstraction about which he is silent: the abstract categories can then ‘reflect’ real abstract categories, the real abstract which inhabits the empirical phenomena of the economic world as the abstraction of their individuality. The same question can be put in yet another way: the initial abstract categories (those of the Economists) are still there at the end, they have indeed produced ‘concrete’ knowledges, but it does not look as if they have been transformed, it even seems that they did not have to be transformed, for they already existed from the beginning in a form adequate to their object, such that the ‘thought-concrete’ that scientific work is to produce, can emerge as their concretization pure and simple, their self-complication pure and simple, their self-comparison pure and simple treated implicitly as their self-concretization. That is how a silence can be extended into an explicit or implicit discourse. The whole theoretical description that Marx gives us remains a formal one since it does not question the nature of these initial abstractions, the problem of their adequacy to their object, in short, the object to which they relate; since, correlatively, it does not question the transformation of these abstract categories during the process of theoretical practice, i.e., the nature of the object implied by these transformations. I am not attacking Marx for this: he did not have to say everything, especially in an unpublished text, and in any case, no one can be convicted for not saying everything at once. But his too hurried readers can be attacked for not having heard this silence,[5] and for having rushed into empiricism. By locating accurately the site of Marx’s silence, we can put the question which contains and coincides with this silence: precisely the question of the differential nature of the abstractions which scientific thought works on in order to produce new abstractions at the end of the labour process which are different from the previous ones, and, in the case of an epistemological break like the one between Marx and the classical economists, radically new.

I once tried to stress the necessity of thinking this difference by giving different names to the different abstractions that occur in the process of theoretical practice, carefully distinguishing between Generalities I (initial abstractions) and Generalities III (products of the knowledge process). No doubt this was to add something to Marx’s discourse: but in a different respect, I was merely re-establishing, i.e., maintaining his discourse, without yielding to the temptation of his silence. I heard this silence as the possible weakness of a discourse under the pressure and repressive action of another discourse, which takes the place of the first discourse in favour of this repression, and speaks in its silence: the empiricist discourse. All I did was to make this silence in the first discourse speak, dissipating the second. The reader may think this a mere detail. Certainly, it is, but, when rigour is lacking, the more talkative and self-important discourses which deport Marx the philosopher entirely into the very ideology that he fought and rejected depend precisely on this kind of detail. We shall soon see examples of this, where the non-thought of a minute silence becomes the charter for non-thought discourses, i.e., ideological discourses.

Chapter 4. The Errors of Classical Economics: Outline of a Concept of Historical Time

I now turn to my second example, in which we shall be able to size up the same problem, but in a different way: by examining the kind of criticism Marx made of the classical economists. He had many detailed criticisms of them, and one fundamental one.

I shall only discuss one of the detailed criticisms, one which concerns a point of terminology. It challenges the apparently insignificant fact that Smith and Ricardo always analyse ‘surplus-value’ in the form of profit, rent and interest, with the result that it is never called by its name, but always disguised beneath other names, that it is not conceived in its ‘generality’ as distinct from its ‘forms of existence’: profit, rent and interest. The style of this accusation is interesting: Marx seems to regard this confusion as a mere inadequacy of language, easy enough to rectify. And, in fact, when he reads Smith and Ricardo, he re-establishes the word absent behind the words that disguise it, he translates them, re-establishing their omission, saying precisely what they are silent about, reading their analyses of rent and profit as so many analyses of general surplus-value, although the latter is never named as the internal essence of rent and profit. But we know that the concept of surplus-value is, on Marx’s own admission, one of the two key concepts of his theory, one of the concepts marking the peculiar difference between him and Smith and Ricardo, with respect to problematic and object. In fact, Marx treats the absence of a concept as if it were the mere absence of a word, and this is not the absence of just any concept, but, as we shall see, the absence of a concept that cannot be treated as a concept in the strict sense of the term without raising the question of the problematic which may underlie it, i.e., the difference in problematic, the break that divides Marx from Classical Economics. Here again, in articulating his criticism, Marx has not thought what he is doing to the letter – since he has reduced the absence of an organic concept, which has ‘precipitated’ (in the chemical sense of the term) the revolution in his problematic, to the omission of a word. If this omission of Marx’s is not stressed, he is reduced to the level of his predecessors, and we find ourselves back in the continuity of objects. I shall return to this point.

The fundamental criticism Marx makes of the whole of Classical Economics in texts from The Poverty of Philosophy to Capital is that it had an historical, eternal, fixed and abstract conception of the economic categories of capitalism. Marx says in so many words that these categories must be historicized to reveal and understand their nature, their relativity and transitivity. The Classical Economists, he says, have made the conditions of capitalist production the eternal conditions of all production, without seeing that these categories were historically determined, and hence historical and transitory.

Economists express the relations of bourgeois production, the division of labour, credit, money, etc., as fixed, immutable, eternal categories ... Economists explain how production takes place in the above-mentioned relations, but what they do not explain is how these relations themselves are produced, that is, the historical movement which gave them birth ... these categories are as little eternal as the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products (Poverty of Philosophy, pp. 104, 110).

As we shall see, this critique is not the last word of Marx’s real critique. It remains superficial and ambiguous, whereas his real critique is infinitely more profound. But it is surely no accident that Marx often went only half-way with his real critique in his declared critique, by establishing the only difference between him and the Classical Economists as the non-history of their conception. This judgment has weighed very heavily on the interpretation not only of Capital and of the Marxist theory of political economy, but also of Marxist philosophy. This is one of the strategic points in Marx’s thought – I shall go so far as to say the number one strategic point – the point at which the theoretical incompleteness of Marx’s judgment of himself has produced the most serious misunderstandings, and, as before, not only among his opponents, who have an interest in misunderstanding him, but also and above all among his supporters.

All these misunderstandings can be grouped round one central misunderstanding of the theoretical relationship between Marxism and history, of the so-called radical historicism of Marxism. Let us examine the basis for the different forms taken by this crucial misunderstanding.

In my opinion, this basis directly concerns the relation between Marx and Hegel, and the conception of the dialectic and history. If all that divides Marx from the Classical Economists amounts to the historical character of economic categories, Marx need only historicize these categories, refusing to take them as fixed, absolute or eternal, but, on the contrary, regarding them as relative, provisional and transitory, i.e., as categories subject in the last instance to the moment of their historical existence. In this case, Marx’s relation to Smith and Ricardo can be represented as identical with Hegel’s relation to classical philosophy. Marx would then be Ricardo set in motion, just as it is possible to describe Hegel as Spinoza set in motion; set in motion, i.e., historicized. In this case, Marx’s whole achievement would once again be that he Hegelianized Ricardo, made him dialectical, i.e., that he applied the Hegelian dialectical method to thinking an already constituted content which was only separated from the truth by the thin partition of historical relativity. In this case, we should fall once again into schemata consecrated by a whole tradition, schemata that depend on a conception of the dialectic as method in itself, regardless of the content of which it is the law, irrespective of the specificity of the object for which it has to provide both the principles of knowledge and the objective laws. I shall not insist on this point as it has already been elucidated, at least in principle.

But I should like to point out a different confusion which has neither been denounced nor elucidated, and which dominates the interpretation of Marxism now, and probably will for a long time to come; I mean expressly the confusion that surrounds the concept of history.

To claim that classical economics had not a historical, but an eternalist conception of its economic categories – that, to make these categories adequate to their object, they must be thought as historical – is to propose the concept of history, or rather one particular concept of history which exists in the ordinary imagination, but without taking care to ask questions about it. In reality, it is to introduce as a solution a concept which itself poses a theoretical problem, for as it is adopted and understood it is an uncriticised concept, a concept which, like all ‘obvious’ concepts, threatens to have for theoretical content no more than the function that the existing or dominant ideology defines for it. It is to introduce as a theoretical solution a concept whose status has not been examined, and which, far from being a solution, is in reality a theoretical problem. It implies that it is possible to borrow this concept of history from Hegel or from the historian’s empiricist practice and import it into Marx without making any difficulties of principle, i.e., without posing the preliminary critical question of the effective content of a concept which has been ‘picked up’ in this naïve way; as if it went without saying, when, on the contrary, and before all else, it was essential to ask what must be the content of the concept of history imposed by Marx’s theoretical problematic.

Without anticipating the paper that follows, I should like to clarify a few points of principle. I shall take as a pertinent counter-example (why it is pertinent we shall soon see) the Hegelian concept of history, the Hegelian concept of historical time, which, for Hegel, reflects the essence of the historical as such.

It is well known that Hegel defined time as ‘der daseiende Begriff ‘, i.e., as the concept in its immediate empirical existence. Since time itself directs us to the concept as its essence, i.e., since Hegel consciously proclaims that historical time is merely the reflection in the continuity of time of the internal essence of the historical totality incarnating a moment of the development of the concept (in this case the Idea), we have Hegel’s authority for thinking that historical time merely reflects the essence of the social totality of which it is the existence. That is to say that the essential characteristics of historical time will lead us, as so many indices, to the peculiar structure of that social totality.

Two essential characteristics of Hegelian historical time can be isolated: its homogeneous continuity and its contemporaneity.

(1) The homogeneous continuity of time. The homogeneous continuity of time is the reflection in existence of the continuity of the dialectical development of the Idea. Time can thus be treated as a continuum in which the dialectical continuity of the process of the development of the Idea is manifest. On this level, then, the whole problem of the science of history would consist of the division of this continuum according to a periodisation corresponding to the succession of one dialectical totality after another. The moments of the Idea exist in the number of historical periods into which the time continuum is to be accurately divided. In this Hegel was merely thinking in his own theoretical problematic the number one problem of the historian’s practice, the problem Voltaire, for example, expressed when he distinguished between the age of Louis XIV and the age of Louis XV; it is still the major problem of modern historiography.

(2) The contemporaneity of time, or the category of the historical present. This second category is the condition of possibility of the first one, and in it we find Hegel’s central thought. If historical time is the existence of the social totality we must be precise about the structure of this existence. The fact that the relation between the social totality and its historical existence is a relation with an immediate existence implies that this relation is itself immediate. In other words: the structure of historical existence is such that all the elements of the whole always co-exist in one and the same time, one and the same present, and are therefore contemporaneous with one another in one and the same present. This means that the structure of the historical existence of the Hegelian social totality allows what I propose to call an ‘essential section’ (coupe d’essence), i.e., an intellectual operation in which a vertical break is made at any moment in historical time, a break in the present such that all the elements of the whole revealed by this section are in an immediate relationship with one another, a relationship that immediately expresses their internal essence. When I speak of an ‘essential section’, I shall therefore be referring to the specific structure of the social totality that allows this section, in which all the elements of the whole are given in a co-presence, itself the immediate presence of their essences, which thus become immediately legible in them. It is clear that it is the specific structure of the social totality which allows this essential section: for this section is only possible because of the peculiar nature of the unity of this totality, a ‘spiritual’ unity, if we can express in this way the type of unity possessed by an expressive totality, i.e., a totality all of whose parts are so many ‘total parts ‘, each expressing the others, and each expressing the social totality that contains them, because each in itself contains in the immediate form of its expression the essence of the totality itself. I am referring to the structure of the Hegelian whole which I have already discussed: the Hegelian whole has a type of unity in which each element of the whole, whether a material or economic determination, a political institution or a religious, artistic or philosophical form, is never anything more than the presence of the concept with itself at a historically determined moment. This is the sense in which the co-presence of the elements with one another and the presence of each element with the whole are based on a de jure preliminary presence: the total presence of the concept in all the determinations of its existence. That is how the continuity of time is possible: as the phenomenon of the concept’s continuity of presence with its positive determinations. When we speak of a moment of the development of the Idea in Hegel, we must be careful to observe that this term reduces two meanings to one: the moment as a moment of a development (which invokes the continuity of time and gives rise to the theoretical problem of periodisation); and the moment as a moment of time, as the present, which is never anything but the phenomenon of the presence of the concept with itself in all its concrete determinations.

It is this absolute and homogeneous presence of the determinations of the whole with the current essence of the concept which allows the ‘essential section’ I have been discussing. This is what in principle explains the famous Hegelian formula, valid for all the determinations of the whole, up to and including the self-consciousness of this whole in the knowing of this whole which is the historically present philosophy – the famous formula according to which nothing can run ahead of its time. The present constitutes the absolute horizon of all knowing, since all knowing can never be anything but the existence in knowing of the internal principle of the whole. However far philosophy goes it can never escape the bounds of this absolute horizon: even if it takes wing at dusk, it still belongs to the day, to the today, it is still merely the present reflecting on itself, reflecting on the presence of the concept with itself – tomorrow is in essence forbidden it.

And that is why the ontological category of the present prevents any anticipation of historical time, any conscious anticipation of the future development of the concept, any knowledge of the future. This explains the theoretical difficulty Hegel experienced in dealing with the existence of ‘great men’, whose role in his reflection is therefore that of paradoxical witnesses to an impossible conscious historical forecast. Great men neither perceive nor know the future: they divine it as a presentiment. Great men are only clairvoyants who have a presentiment of but can never know the imminence of tomorrow’s essence, the ‘kernel in the shell’, the future in invisible gestation in the present, the coming essence being born in the alienation of the current essence. The fact that there is no knowing the future prevents there being any science of politics, any knowing that deals with the future effects of present phenomena. That is why no Hegelian politics is possible strictly speaking, and in fact there has never been a Hegelian politician.

I have insisted on the nature of historical time and its theoretical conditions to this extent because this conception of history and of its relation to time is still alive amongst us, as can be seen from the currently widespread distinction between synchrony and diachrony. This distinction is based on a conception of historical time as continuous and homogeneous and contemporaneous with itself. The synchronic is contemporaneity itself, the co-presence of the essence with its determinations, the present being readable as a structure in an ‘essential section’ because the present is the very existence of the essential structure. The synchronic therefore presupposes the ideological conception of a continuous-homogeneous time. It follows that the diachronic is merely the development of this present in the sequence of a temporal continuity in which the ‘events’ to which ‘history’ in the strict sense can be reduced (cf. Lévi-Strauss) are merely successive contingent presents in the time continuum. Like the synchronic, which is the primary concept, the diachronic therefore presupposes both of the very two characteristics I have isolated in the Hegelian conception of time: an ideological conception of historical time.

Ideological, because it is clear that this conception of historical time is merely a reflection of the conception Hegel had of the type of unity that constitutes the link between all the economic, political, religious, aesthetic, philosophical and other elements of the social whole. Because the Hegelian whole is a ‘spiritual whole’ in the Leibnizian sense of a whole in which all the parts ‘conspire’ together, in which each part is a pars totalis, the unity of this double aspect of historical time (homogeneous-continuity/contemporaneity) is possible and necessary.

Now we can see the pertinence of this Hegelian counter-example. What masks from us the relationship that has just been established between the structure of the Hegelian whole and the nature of Hegelian historical time is the fact that the Hegelian idea of time is borrowed from the most vulgar empiricism, the empiricism of the false obviousness of everyday practice[6] which we find in a naïve form in most of the historians themselves, at any rate in all the historians known to Hegel, who did not pose any questions as to the specific structure of historical time. Nowadays, a few historians are beginning to pose these questions, and often in a very remarkable way (Lucien Febvre, Labrousse, Braudel, etc.); but they do not pose them explicitly as a function of the structure of the whole they are studying, they do not pose them in a truly conceptual form: they simply observe that there are different times in history, varieties of time, long times, medium times and short times, and they are content to note their interferences as so many products of their intersection; they do not therefore relate these varieties as so many variations to the structure of the whole although the latter directly governs the production of those variations; rather, they are tempted to relate these varieties, as so many variants measurable by their duration, to ordinary time itself, to the ideological time continuum we have discussed. The Hegelian counter-example is therefore relevant because it is representative of the crude ideological illusions of everyday practice and of the practice of the historians, not only of those who do not pose any questions, but even of those who do pose some questions, because these questions are generally related not to the fundamental question of the concept of history, but to the ideological conception of time.

However, we can retain from Hegel precisely what masks from us this empiricism which he had only sublimated in his systematic conception of history. We can retain this result produced by our brief critical analysis: the fact that the structure of the social whole must be strictly interrogated in order to find in it the secret of the conception of history in which the ‘development’ of this social whole is thought; once we know the structure of the social whole we can understand the apparently ‘problem-less’ relationship between it and the conception of historical time in which this conception is reflected. What we have just done for Hegel is equally valid for Marx: the procedure that has enabled us to isolate the theoretical presuppositions latent in a conception of history which seemed to ‘stand by itself’, but which is, in fact, organically linked to a precise conception of the social whole, can be applied to Marx, with the object of constructing the Marxist concept of historical time on the basis of the Marxist conception of the social totality.

We know that the Marxist whole cannot possibly be confused with the Hegelian whole: it is a whole whose unity, far from being the expressive or ‘spiritual’ unity of Leibniz’s or Hegel’s whole, is constituted by a certain type of complexity, the unity of a structured whole containing what can be called levels or instances which are distinct and ‘relatively autonomous’, and co-exist within this complex structural unity, articulated with one another according to specific determinations, fixed in the last instance by the level or instance of the economy.[7]

Of course, we still have to define more exactly the structural nature of this whole, but this provisional definition is sufficient for us to be able to forecast that the Hegelian type of co-existence of presence (allowing an ‘essential section’) is incompatible with the existence of this new type of totality.

This peculiar co-existence was already fully designated by Marx in a passage from the Poverty of Philosophy (pp. 110-11) which deals with the relations of production alone:

The production relations of every society form a whole. M. Proudhon considers economic relations as so many social phases, engendering one another, resulting one from the other like the antithesis from the thesis, and realizing in their logical sequence the impersonal reason of humanity. The only drawback to this method is that when he comes to examine a single one of these phases, M. Proudhon cannot explain it without having recourse to all the other relations of society, which relations, however, he has not yet made his dialectic movement engender. When, after that, M. Proudhon, by means of pure reason, proceeds to give birth to these other phases, he treats them as if they were new-born babes. He forgets that they are of the same age as the first... . In constructing the edifice of an ideological system by means of the categories of political economy, the limbs of the social system are dislocated. The different limbs of society are converted into so many separate societies, following one upon the other. How, indeed, could the single logical formula of movement, of sequence, explain the body of society, in which all relations co-exist simultaneously and support one another ? (italics, L.A.).

It is all here: the co-existence, the articulation of the limbs ‘of the social system’, the mutual support of the relations between them, cannot be thought in the ‘logical formula of movement, of sequence, of time’. If we bear in mind the fact that the ‘logic’ is, as Marx shows in The Poverty of Philosophy, merely the abstraction of ‘movement’ and ‘time’, which are here invoked directly, as the origin of Proudhon’s mystification, we can see that it is essential to reverse the order of reflection and think first the specific structure of the totality in order to understand both the form in which its limbs and constitutive relations co-exist and the peculiar structure of history.

In the 1857 Introduction, discussing capitalist society, Marx insists once more that the structure of the whole must be conceived before any discussion of temporal sequence:

It is not a matter of the connection established historically between the economic relations in the succession of different forms of society. Still less of their order of succession ‘in the Idea’ (Proudhon) ... but of their articulated-hierarchy (Gliederung) within modern bourgeois society (Grundrisse, p. 28).

This establishes a new point of importance: the structure of the whole is articulated as the structure of an organic hierarchized whole. The co-existence of limbs and their relations in the whole is governed by the order of a dominant structure which introduces a specific order into the articulation (Gliederung) of the limbs and their relations.

In all forms of society it is a determinate production and its relations which assign every other production and its relations their rank and influence (p. 27).

Note a crucial point here: this dominance of a structure, of which Marx gives an example here (the domination of one form of production, e.g., industrial production over simple commodity production, etc.), cannot be reduced to the primacy of a centre, any more than the relation between the elements and the structure can be reduced to the expressive unity of the essence within its phenomena. This hierarchy only represents the hierarchy of effectivity that exists between the different ‘levels’ or instances of the social whole. Because each of the levels is itself structured, this hierarchy represents the hierarchy, the degree and the index of effectivity existing between the different structured levels present in the whole: it is the hierarchy of effectivity of a structure dominant over subordinate structures and their elements. Elsewhere, I have shown that in order to conceive this ‘dominance’ of a structure over the other structures in the unity of a conjuncture it is necessary to refer to the principle of the determination ‘in the last instance’ of the non-economic structures by the economic structure; and that this ‘determination in the last instance’ is an absolute precondition for the necessity and intelligibility of the displacements of the structures in the hierarchy of effectivity, or of the displacement of ‘dominance’ between the structured levels of the whole; that only this ‘determination in the last instance’ makes it possible to escape the arbitrary relativism of observable displacements by giving these displacements the necessity of a function.

If the type of unity peculiar to the Marxist totality really is of this kind, several important theoretical consequences follow.

In the first place, it is impossible to think the existence of this totality in the Hegelian category of the contemporaneity of the present. The co-existence of the different structured levels, the economic, the political, the ideological, etc., and therefore of the economic infrastructure, of the legal and political superstructure, of ideologies and theoretical formations (philosophy, sciences) can no longer be thought in the co-existence of the Hegelian present, of the ideological present in which temporal presence coincides with the presence of the essence with its phenomena. And in consequence, the model of a continuous and homogeneous time which takes the place of immediate existence, which is the place of the immediate existence of this continuing presence, can no longer be regarded as the time of history.

Let us begin with the last point, for it will make us more sensitive to the consequences of these principles. As a first approximation, we can argue from the specific structure of the Marxist whole that it is no longer possible to think the process of the development of the different levels of the whole in the same historical time. Each of these different ‘levels’ does not have the same type of historical existence. On the contrary, we have to assign to each level a peculiar time, relatively autonomous and hence relatively independent, even in its dependence, of the ‘times’ of the other levels. We can and must say: for each mode of production there is a peculiar time and history, punctuated in a specific way by the development of the productive forces; the relations of production have their peculiar time and history, punctuated in a specific way; the political superstructure has its own history ... ; philosophy has its own time and history ... ; aesthetic productions have their own time and history ... ; scientific formations have their own time and history, etc.

Each of these peculiar histories is punctuated with peculiar rhythms and can only be known on condition that we have defined the concept of the specificity of its historical temporality and its punctuations (continuous development, revolutions, breaks, etc.). The fact that each of these times and each of these histories is relatively autonomous does not make them so many domains which are independent of the whole: the specificity of each of these times and of each of these histories – in other words, their relative autonomy and independence – is based on a certain type of articulation in the whole, and therefore on a certain type of dependence with respect to the whole. The history of philosophy, for example, is not an independent history by divine right: the right of this history to exist as a specific history is determined by the articulating relations, i.e., relations of relative effectivity, which exist within the whole. The specificity of these times and histories is therefore differential, since it is based on the differential relations between the different levels within the whole: the mode and degree of independence of each time and history is therefore necessarily determined by the mode and degree of dependence of each level within the set of articulations of the whole. The conception of the ‘relative’ independence of a history and of a level can therefore never be reduced to the positive affirmation of an independence in vacuo, nor even to the mere negation of a dependence in itself; the conception of this ‘relative’ independence defines its ‘relativity’, i.e., the type of dependence that produces and establishes this mode of ‘relative’ independence as its necessary result; at the level of the articulation of component structures in the whole, it defines that type of dependence which produces relative independence and whose effects we can observe in the histories of the different ‘levels’.

This is the principle on which is based the possibility and necessity of different histories corresponding respectively to each of the ‘levels’. This principle justifies our speaking of an economic history, a political history, a history of religions, a history of ideologies, a history of philosophy, a history of art and a history of the sciences, without thereby evading, but on the contrary, necessarily accepting, the relative independence of each of these histories in the specific dependence which articulates each of the different levels of the social whole with the others. That is why, if we have the right to constitute these different histories, which are merely differential histories, we cannot be satisfied, as the best historians so often are today, by observing the existence of different times and rhythms, without relating them to the concept of their difference, i.e., to the typical dependence which establishes them in the articulation of the levels of the whole. It is not enough, therefore, to say, as modern historians do, that there are different periodisations for different times, that each time has its own rhythms, some short, some long; we must also think these differences in rhythm and punctuation in their foundation, in the type of articulation, displacement and torsion which harmonizes these different times with one another. To go even further, I should say that we cannot restrict ourselves to reflecting the existence of visible and measurable times in this way; we must, of absolute necessity, pose the question of the mode of existence of invisible times, of the invisible rhythms and punctuations concealed beneath the surface of each visible time. Merely reading Capital shows that Marx was highly sensitive to this requirement It shows, for example, that the time of economic production is a specific time (differing according to the mode of production), but also that, as a specific time, it is a complex and non-linear time – a time of times, a complex time that cannot be read in the continuity of the time of life or clocks, but has to be constructed out of the peculiar structures of production. The time of the capitalist economic production that Marx analysed must be constructed in its concept. The concept of this time must be constructed out of the reality of the different rhythms which punctuate the different operations of production, circulation and distribution: out of the concepts of these different operations, e.g., the difference between production time and labour time, the difference between the different cycles of production (the turnover of fixed capital, of circulating capital, of variable capital, monetary turnover, turnover of commercial capital and of finance capital, etc.). In the capitalist mode of production, therefore, the time of economic production has absolutely nothing to do with the obviousness of everyday practice’s ideological time: of course, it is rooted in certain determinate sites, in biological time (certain limits in the alternation of labour and rest for human and animal labour power; certain rhythms for agricultural production) but in essence it is not at all identified with this biological time, and in no sense is it a time that can be read immediately in the flow of any given process. It is an invisible time, essentially illegible, as invisible and as opaque as the reality of the total capitalist production process itself. This time, as a complex ‘intersection’ of the different times, rhythms, turnovers, etc., that we have just discussed, is only accessible in its concept, which, like every concept is never immediately ‘given’, never legible in visible reality: like every concept this concept must be produced, constructed.

The same could be said of political time and ideological time, of the time of the theoretical (philosophy) and of the time of the scientific, let alone the time of art. Let us take an example. The time of the history of philosophy is not immediately legible either: of course, in historical chronology we do see philosophers following one another, and it would be possible to take this sequence for the history itself. Here, too, we must renounce the ideological pre-judgment of visible succession, and undertake to construct the concept of the time of the history of philosophy, and, in order to understand this concept, it is absolutely essential to define the specific difference of the philosophical as one of the existing cultural formations (the ideological and scientific formations); to define the philosophical as belonging to the level of the Theoretical as such; and to establish the differential relation of the Theoretical as such firstly to the different existing practices, secondly to ideology and finally to the scientific. To define these differential relations is to define the peculiar type of articulation of the Theoretical (philosophical) with these other realities, and therefore to define the peculiar articulation of the history of philosophy with the histories of the different practices, with the history of ideologies and the history of the sciences. But this is not enough: in order to construct the concept of the history of philosophy, it is essential to define in philosophy itself the specific reality which constitutes philosophical formations as such, and to which one must refer in order to think the mere possibility of philosophical events. This is one of the essential tasks of any theoretical attempt to produce the concept of history: to give a rigorous definition of the historical fact as such. Without anticipating this investigation, I should like to point out that, in its generality, the historical fact, as opposed to all the other phenomena that occur in historical existence, can be defined as a fact which causes a mutation in the existing structural relations. In the history of philosophy it is also essential, if we are to be able to discuss it as a history, to admit that philosophical facts, philosophical events of historical scope, occur in it, i.e., precisely philosophical facts which cause real mutations in the existing philosophical structural relations, in this case the existing theoretical problematic. Obviously, these facts are not always visible, rather, they are sometimes the object of a real repression, a real and more or less lasting historical denegation. For example, the mutation of the dogmatic classical problematic by Locke’s empiricism is a philosophical event with historical scope, one which still dominates idealist critical philosophy today, just as it dominated the whole of the eighteenth century, Kant, Fichte and even Hegel. This historical fact and above all the length of its range (and in particular its importance for the understanding of German idealism from Kant to Hegel) is often suspected; its real profundity is rarely appreciated. Its role in the interpretation of Marxist philosophy has been absolutely decisive, and we are still largely held prisoner by it. For another example, Spinoza’s philosophy introduced an unprecedented theoretical revolution in the history of philosophy, probably the greatest philosophical revolution of all time, insofar as we can regard Spinoza as Marx’s only direct ancestor, from the philosophical standpoint. However, this radical revolution was the object of a massive historical repression, and Spinozist philosophy suffered much the same fate as Marxist philosophy used to and still does suffer in some countries: it served as damning evidence for a charge of ‘atheism’. The insistence of the seventeenth and eighteenth century establishment’s hounding of Spinoza’s memory, and the distance every writer had ineluctably to take with respect to Spinoza in order to obtain the right to speak (cf. Montesquieu) are evidence both of the repulsion and the extraordinary attraction of his thought. The history of philosophy’s repressed Spinozism thus unfolded as a subterranean history acting at other sites (autres lieux), in political and religious ideology (deism) and in the sciences, but not on the illuminated stage of visible philosophy. And when Spinoza re-appeared on this stage in German idealism’s ‘Atheismusstreit’, and then in academic interpretations, it was more or less under the aegis of a misunderstanding. I think I have said enough to suggest what direction the construction of the concept of history in its different domains must take; and to show that the construction of this concept incontestably produces a reality which has nothing to do with the visible sequence of events recorded by the chronicler.

We have known, since Freud, that the time of the unconscious cannot be confused with the time of biography. On the contrary, the concept of the time of the unconscious must be constructed in order to obtain an understanding of certain biographical traits. In exactly the same way, it is essential to construct the concepts of the different historical times which are never given in the ideological obviousness of the continuity of time (which need only be suitably divided into a good periodisation to obtain the time of history), but must be constructed out of the differential nature and differential articulation of their objects in the structure of the whole. Are more examples necessary to convince us of this? Read Michel Foucault’s remarkable studies in the ‘history of madness’, or the ‘birth of clinical medicine’, and you will see the distance between the elegant sequences of the official chronicle, in which a discipline or a society merely reflect its good conscience, i.e., the mask of its bad conscience – and the absolutely unexpected temporality that constitutes the essence of the process of constitution and development of those cultural formations: there is nothing in true history which allows it to be read in the ideological continuum of a linear time that need only be punctuated and divided; on the contrary, it has its extremely complex and peculiar temporality which is, of course, utterly paradoxical in comparison with the disarming simplicity of ideological pre-judgment. An understanding of the history of cultural formations such as those of ‘madness’ and of the origins of the ‘clinical gaze’ (regard clinique) in medicine, presupposes a vast effort not of abstraction but in abstraction, in order to construct and identify the object itself, and in order to construct from this the concept of its history. This is antipodal to the empirically visible history in which the time of all histories is the simple time of continuity and in which the ‘content’ is the vacuity of events that occur in it which one later tries to determine with dividing procedures in order to ‘periodise’ that continuity. Instead of these categories, continuity and discontinuity, which summarize the banal mystery of all history, we are dealing with infinitely more complex categories specific to each type of history, categories in which new logics come into play, in which, naturally, the Hegelian schemata, which are merely the sublimation of the categories of the ‘logic of movement and time’, no longer have more than a highly approximate value, and even this only on condition that they are used approximately (indicatively) in accordance with their approximate nature – for if we had to take these Hegelian categories for adequate categories, their use would become theoretically absurd, and practically either vain or disastrous.

This specific reality of the complex historical time of the levels of the whole can, paradoxically, be tested experimentally by trying to take an ‘essential section’ through this specific and complex time, the crucial experiment of the contemporaneity structure. A historical break of this kind, even if it is applied to a break in a periodisation sanctioned by the phenomena of a major mutation either in the economic or the political order, never produces a ‘present’ with a structure of so-called ‘contemporaneity’, a presence that corresponds to the expressive or spiritual type of unity of the whole. The co-existence which can be observed in the ‘essential section’ does not reveal any omnipresent essence which is also the present of each of these ‘levels’. The break ‘valid’ for a determinate level, political or economic, the break that would correspond to an ‘essential section’ in politics, for example, does not correspond to anything of the kind in the other levels, the economic, the ideological, the aesthetic, the philosophical or the scientific – which live in different times and know other breaks, other rhythms and other punctuations. The present of one level is, so to speak, the absence of another, and this co-existence of a ‘presence’ and absences is simply the effect of the structure of the whole in its articulated decentricity. What is thus grasped as absences in a localized presence is precisely the non-localization of the structure of the whole, or more accurately, the type of effectivity peculiar to the structure of the whole on its ‘levels’ (which are themselves structured) and on the ‘elements’ of those levels. What the impossibility of this essential section reveals, even in the absences it shows up negatively, is the form of historical existence peculiar to a social formation arising from a determinate mode of production, the peculiar type of what Marx calls the development process of the determinate mode of production. And this process, too, is what Marx, discussing the capitalist mode of production in Capital, calls the type of intertwining of the different times (and here he only mentions the economic level), i.e., the type of ‘dislocation’ (décalage) and torsion of the different temporalities produced by the different levels of the structure, the complex combination of which constitutes the peculiar time of the process’s development.

To avoid any misunderstanding of what I have just said, I think it is necessary to add the following comments.

The theory of historical time which I have just outlined allows us to establish the possibility of a history of the different levels considered in their ‘relative’ autonomy. But we should not deduce from this that history is made up of the juxtaposition of different ‘relatively’ autonomous histories, different historical temporalities, living the same historical time, some in a short-term mode, others in a long-term mode. In other words, once we have rejected the ideological model of a continuous time subject to essential sections into presents, we must avoid substituting for this idea another which, although different in style, in fact surreptitiously restores the same ideology of time. There can therefore be no question of relating the diversity of the different temporalities to a single ideological base time, or of measuring their dislocation against the line of a single continuous reference time, remaining content, therefore, to think these dislocations as backwardnesses or forwardnesses in time, i.e., in the ideological reference time. If we try to make an ‘essential section’ in our new conception, we find that it is impossible. But this does not mean that we are dealing with an uneven section, a stepped or multiply toothed section in which the forwardness or backwardness of one time with respect to another is illustrated in temporal space in the way that the lateness or earliness of trains are illustrated in the SNCF’s notice-boards by a spatial forwardness or backwardness. If we were to accept this, we should relapse, as even the best of our historians usually do, into the trap of the ideology of history in which forwardness and backwardness are merely variants of the reference continuity and not the effects of the structure of the whole. We must break with all the forms of this ideology if we are to be able to relate the phenomena observed by the historians themselves correctly to their concepts, to the concept of the history of the mode of production considered – and not to any homogeneous and continuous ideological time.

This conclusion is absolutely crucial if we are to establish the status of a whole series of notions which have a major strategic role in the language of this century’s economic and political thought, e.g., the notions of unevenness of development, of survivals, of backwardness (in consciousness) in Marxism itself, or the notion of ‘under-development’ in contemporary economic and political practice. Where these notions are concerned, therefore, we must be thoroughly precise as to the meaning we can give this concept of differential temporality, for they have far-reaching consequences in practice.


In order to respond to this point we must once again purify our concept of the theory of history, and purify it radically, of any contamination by the obviousness of empirical history, since we know that this ‘empirical history’ is merely the bare face of the empiricist ideology of history. This empiricist temptation is enormous, but it is as lightly borne by the ordinary man and even the historian as the inhabitants of this planet bear the weight of the enormous layer of air that crushes them. In view of this, we must clearly and unequivocally see and understand that the concept of history can no longer be empirical, i.e., historical in the ordinary sense, that, as Spinoza has already put it, the concept dog cannot bark. We must grasp in all its rigour the absolute necessity of liberating the theory of history from any compromise with ‘empirical’ temporality, with the ideological concept of time which underlies and overlies it, or with the ideological idea that the theory of history, as history, could be subject to the ‘concrete’ determinations of ‘historical time’ on the pretext that this ‘historical time’ might constitute its object.

We must have no illusions as to the incredible power of this prejudice, which still dominates us all, which is the basis for contemporary historicism and which would have us confuse the object of knowledge with the real object by attributing to the object of knowledge the same ‘qualities’ as the real object of which it is the knowledge. The knowledge of history is no more historical than the knowledge of sugar is sweet. But before this simple principle can ‘finally assert itself’ in our consciousnesses, we shall no doubt need a whole ‘history’. We must therefore be content for the moment to clarify a few points. We should indeed be relapsing into the ideology of a homogeneous-continuous/self-contemporaneous time if we related the different temporalities I have just discussed to this single, identical time, as so many discontinuities in its continuity; these temporalities would then be thought as the backwardnesses, forwardnesses, survivals or unevennesses of development that can be assigned to this time. In fact, despite any denegations, this would be to institute a reference time in the continuity of which we should measure these unevennesses. On the contrary, we must regard these differences in temporal structure as and only as, so many objective indices of the mode of articulation of the different elements or structures in the general structure of the whole. This amounts to saying that if we cannot make an ‘essential section’ in history, it is only in the specific unity of the complex structure of the whole that we can think the concept of these so-called backwardnesses, forwardnesses, survivals and unevennesses of development which co-exist in the structure of the real historical present: the present of the conjuncture. To speak of differential types of historicity therefore has no meaning in reference to a base time in which these backwardnesses and forwardnesses might be measured.

This amounts to saying that, on the contrary, the ultimate meaning of the metaphorical language of backwardness, forwardness, etc., must be sought in the structure of the whole, in the site peculiar to such and such an element of such and such a structural level in the complexity of the whole. To speak of differential historical temporality therefore absolutely obliges us to situate this site and to think, in its peculiar articulation, the function of such an element or such a level in the current configuration of the whole; it is to determine the relation of articulation of this element as a function of other elements, of this structure as a function of other structures, it obliges us to define what has been called its overdetermination or underdetermination as a function of the structure of the determination of the whole, it obliges us to define what might be called, in another language, the index of determination, the index of effectivity currently attributable to the element or structure in question in the general structure of the whole. By index of effectivity we may understand the character of more or less dominant or subordinate and therefore more or less ‘paradoxical’ determination of a given element or structure in the current mechanism of the whole. And this is nothing but the theory of the conjuncture indispensable to the theory of history.

I do not want to go any further with this analysis, although it has still hardly been elaborated at all. I shall restrict myself to drawing two conclusions from these principles, one of which concerns the concepts of synchrony and diachrony, the other the concept of history.

(1) If what I have just said has any objective meaning, it is clear that the synchrony/diachrony opposition is the site of a misconception, since to take it for a knowledge would be to remain in an epistemological vacuum, i.e. – ideology abhorring a vacuum – in an ideological fullness, precisely in the fullness of the ideological conception of a history whose time is continuous-homogeneous/self-contemporaneous. If this ideological conception of history falls, this opposition falls with it. However, something of it remains: the aim of the epistemological operation of which this opposition is an unconscious reflection, precisely this epistemological operation itself, once it has been stripped of its ideological reference. What the synchrony aims at has nothing to do with the temporal presence of the object as a real object, but on the contrary, concerns a different type of presence, and the presence of a different object: not the temporal presence of the concrete object, not the historical time of the historical presence of the historical object, but the presence (or the ‘time’) of the object of knowledge of the theoretical analysis itself, the presence of knowledge. The synchronic is then nothing but the conception of the specific relations that exist between the different elements and the different structures of the structure of the whole, it is the knowledge of the relations of dependence and articulation which make it an organic whole, a system. The synchronic is eternity in Spinoza’s sense, or the adequate knowledge of a complex object by the adequate knowledge of its complexity. This is exactly what Marx is distinguishing from the concrete-real historical sequence in the words:

How, indeed, could the single logical formula of movement, of sequence, of time, explain the body of society, in which all economic relations co-exist simultaneously and support one another? (Poverty of Philosophy, pp. 110-11).

If this is really what synchrony is, it has nothing to do with simple concrete temporal presence, it concerns the knowledge of the complex articulation that makes the whole a whole. It is not that concrete co-presence, but the knowledge of the complexity of the object of knowledge, which gives the knowledge of the real object.

If this is the case for synchrony, similar conclusions must be drawn where diachrony is concerned, since it is on the ideological conception of synchrony (of the contemporaneity of the essence with itself) that the ideological conception of diachrony is built. There is hardly any need to show how diachrony admits its destitution in those thinkers who assign to it the role of history.

Diachrony is reduced to the sequence of events (à l’événementiel), and to the effects of this sequence of events on the structure of the synchronic: the historical then becomes the unexpected, the accidental, the factually unique, arising or falling in the empty continuum of time, for purely contingent reasons. In this context, therefore, the project of a ‘structural history’ poses serious problems, and a laborious reflection of this can be found in the passages devoted to it by Lévi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology. Indeed, by what miracle could an empty time and momentary events induce de- and re-structurations of the synchronic? Once synchrony has been correctly located, diachrony loses its ‘concrete’ sense and nothing is left of it either but its epistemological use, on condition that it undergoes a theoretical conversion and is considered in its true sense as a category not of the concrete but of knowing. Diachrony is then merely the false name for the process, or for what Marx called the development of forms.[8] But here too we are within knowledge, in the process of knowledge, not in the development of the real-concrete.[9]

(2) I now come to the concept of historical time. To define it strictly, one must accept the following condition. As this concept can only be based on the complex and differentially articulated structure in dominance of the social totality that constitutes the social formation arising from a determinate mode of production, it can only be assigned a content as a function of the structure of that totality, considered either as a whole, or in its different ‘levels’. In particular, it is only possible to give a content to the concept of historical time by defining historical time as the specific form of existence of the social totality under consideration, an existence in which different structural levels of temporality interfere, because of the peculiar relations of correspondence, non-correspondence, articulation, dislocation and torsion which obtain, between the different ‘levels’ of the whole in accordance with its general structure. It needs to be said that, just as there is no production in general, there is no history in general, but only specific structures of historicity, based in the last resort on the specific structures of the different modes of production, specific structures of historicity which, since they are merely the existence of determinate social formations (arising from specific modes of production), articulated as social wholes, have no meaning except as a function of the essence of those totalities, i.e., of the essence of their peculiar complexity.

This definition of historical time by its theoretical concept is aimed directly at historians and their practice. For it should draw their attention to the empiricist ideology which, with a few exceptions, overwhelmingly dominates every variety of history (whether it be history in the wide sense or specialized economic, social or political history, the history of art, literature, philosophy, the sciences, etc.). To put it crudely, history lives in the illusion that it can do without theory in the strong sense, without a theory of its object and therefore without a definition of its theoretical object. What acts as its theory, what it sees as taking the place of this theory is its methodology, i.e., the rules that govern its effective practices, practices centred around the scrutiny of documents and the establishment of facts. What it sees as taking the place of its theoretical object is its ‘concrete’ object. History therefore takes its methodology for the theory it lacks, and it takes the ‘concrete’ of the concrete obviousnesses of ideological time for its theoretical object. This dual confusion is typical of an empiricist ideology. What history lacks is a conscious and courageous confrontation of one of the essential problems of any science whatsoever: the problem of the nature and constitution of its theory, by which I mean the theory within the science itself, the system of theoretical concepts on which is based every method, and every practice, even the experimental method and practice, and which simultaneously defines its theoretical object. But with a few exceptions historians have not posed history’s vital and urgent problem, the problem of its theory. And, as inevitably happens, the place left empty by scientific theory has been occupied by an ideological theory whose harmful influence can be shown in detail precisely at the level of the historian’s methodology.

The object of history as a science therefore has the same kind of theoretical existence and occupies the same theoretical level as the object of Marx’s political economy. The only difference that can be established between the theory of political economy, of which Capital is an example, and the theory of history as a science, lies in the fact that the theory of political economy only considers one relatively autonomous component of the social totality, whereas the theory of history in principle takes the complex totality as such for its object. Other than this difference, there can be no distinction between the science of political economy and the science of history, from a theoretical view-point.

The opposition often suggested between the ‘abstract’ character of Capital and the supposedly ‘concrete’ character of history as a science is purely and simply a misunderstanding, but one which is worth discussing, for it has a special place in the realm of the prejudices which govern us. It is true that the theory of political economy is worked out and developed by the investigation of a raw material provided in the last resort by the practices of real concrete history; it is true that it can and must be realized in what are called ‘concrete’ economic analyses, relating to some given conjuncture or given period of a given social formation; and these truths are exactly mirrored in the fact that the theory of history, too, is worked out and developed by the investigation of a raw material provided by real concrete history, and that it, too, is realized in the ‘concrete analysis’ of ‘concrete situations’. The misunderstanding lies entirely in the fact that history hardly exists other than in this second form, as the ‘application’ of a theory ... which does not exist in any real sense, and that therefore the ‘applications’ of the theory of history somehow occur behind this absent theory’s back and are naturally mistaken for it ... if they do not depend (for they do need a minimum of theory to exist) on more or less ideological outlines of theories. We must take seriously the fact that the theory of history, in the strong sense, does not exist, or hardly exists as far as historians are concerned, that the concepts of existing history are therefore nearly always ‘empirical’ concepts, more or less in search of their theoretical basis – ‘empirical’, i.e., cross-bred with a powerful strain of an ideology concealed behind its ‘obviousnesses’. This is the case with the best historians, who can be distinguished from the rest precisely by their concern for theory, but who seek this theory at a level on which it cannot be found, at the level of historical methodology, which cannot be defined without the theory on which it is based.

On the day that history also exists as theory in the sense defined, its dual existence as theoretical science and empirical science will pose no more problems than does the dual existence of the Marxist theory of political economy as theoretical science and empirical science. On that day, the theoretical imbalance between the banal opposition of the abstract science of political economy and the supposedly ‘concrete’ science of history will disappear, and along with it all the religious dreams and rituals of the resurrection of the dead and the communion of saints which, one hundred years after Michelet, some historians still spend their time celebrating, not in the catacombs but in today’s public places.

I have one more word to say on this subject. The present confusion between history as theory of history and history as supposed ‘science of the concrete’, history trapped in the empiricism of its object – and the confrontation of this ‘concrete’ empirical history with the ‘abstract’ theory of political economy, give rise to a significant number of conceptual confusions and false problems. It could even be said that this misunderstanding itself produces ideological concepts, whose function it is to fill in the gap, i.e., the vacuum, between the theoretical part of existing history on the one hand and empirical history on the other (which is existing history only too often). I do not want to discuss each of these concepts one by one, another book would be necessary to do so. I shall point out three of them as examples: the classical oppositions: essence/phenomena, necessity/contingency, and the ‘problem’ of the action of the individual in history.

According to the economistic or mechanistic hypothesis, the role of the essence/phenomena opposition is to explain the non-economic as a phenomenon of the economic, which is its essence. In this operation, the theoretical (and the ‘abstract’) is surreptitiously substituted for the economy (since we have its theory in Capital) and the empirical or ‘concrete’ for the non-economic, i.e., for politics, ideology, etc. The essence/phenomena opposition performs this role well enough so long as we regard the ‘phenomena’ as the empirical and concrete, and the essence as the non-empirical, as the abstract, as the truth of the phenomenon. The result is to set up an absurd relationship between the theoretical (the economic) and the empirical (the non-economic) by a change in partners which compares the knowledge of one object with the existence of another – which is to commit us to a fallacy. The necessity/contingency or necessity/accident oppositions are of the same kind and have the same function: to fill in the gap between the theoretical part of one object (e.g., the economy) and the non-theoretical part, the empirical part of another (the non-economic, in which the economy ‘asserts itself’: the ‘circumstances’, ‘individuality’, etc.). To say, for example, that necessity ‘asserts itself’ amid the contingent givens and diverse circumstances, etc., is to set up an astonishing mechanism in which two realities with no direct relationship are compared. ‘Necessity’, in this case, designates a knowledge (e.g., the law of determination in the last instance by the economy), and the ‘circumstances’ what is not known. But instead of comparing a knowledge with a non-knowledge, the non-knowledge is put into parenthesis and the empirical existence of the unknown object (called the ‘circumstances’ or contingent givens, etc.) is substituted for it – which allows the terms to be crossed, achieving a fallacious short-circuit in which the knowledge of a determinate object (economic necessity) is compared with the empirical existence of a different object (the ‘circumstances’, political or otherwise, amid which this ‘necessity’ is said to ‘assert itself’). The most famous form of this fallacy is found in the ‘problem’ of the ‘role of the individual in history’ ... a tragic argument which consists of a comparison between the theoretical part or knowledge of a determinate object (e.g., the economy) which represents the essence of which the other objects (the political, the ideological, etc.) are regarded as the phenomena – and that fiendishly important (politically!) empirical reality, individual action. Here again we are dealing with a short-circuit between crossed terms which it is illegitimate to compare: for to do so is to compare the knowledge of one definite object with the empirical existence of another! I do not want to insist on the difficulties which these concepts put in the way of their users, who cannot escape them in practice except by questioning critically the Hegelian (and more generally classical) philosophical concepts which are fish in the water of this fallacy. But I should like to signal that this false problem of the ‘role of the individual in history’ is nevertheless an index to a true problem, one which arises by right in the theory of history: the problem of the concept of the historical forms of existence of individuality. Capital gives us the principles necessary for the posing of this problem. It defines for the capitalist mode of production the different forms of individuality required and produced by that mode according to functions, of which the individuals are ‘supports’ (Träger), in the division of labour, in the different ‘levels’ of the structure. Of course, even here, the mode of historical existence of individuality in a given mode of production is not legible to the naked eye in ‘history’; its concept, too, must therefore be constructed, and like every concept it contains a number of surprises, the most striking of which is the fact that it is nothing like the false obviousnesses of the ‘given’ – which is merely the mask of the current ideology. The concept of the variations in the mode of historical existence of individuality opens the way to what is really left of the ‘problem’ of ‘the role of the individual in history ‘, which, posed in its familiar form, is a false problem, false because unbalanced, theoretically ‘hybrid’, since it compares the theory of one object with the empirical existence of another. So long as the real theoretical problem has not been posed (the problem of the forms of historical existence of individuality), we shall be beating about in the dark – like Plekhanov, who ransacked Louis XV’s bed to prove that the secrets of the fall of the Ancien Régime were not hidden there. As a general rule, concepts are not hidden in beds.

Once we have, at least in principle, elucidated the specificity of the Marxist concept of historical time – once we have criticized as ideologies the commonsense notions that encumber the wordhistory ‘, we can better understand the different effects that this misunderstanding about history has had on the interpretation of Marx. An understanding of the main confusions ipso facto reveals to us the pertinence of certain essential distinctions which have often been misconceived, despite the fact that they appear in so many words in Capital.

In the first place, it is clear why the mere project of ‘historicizing’ classical political economy leads to the theoretical impasse of a fallacy in which the classical economic categories, far from being thought within the theoretical concept of history, are merely projected onto the ideological concept of history. This procedure restores to us the classical schema, once again linked with the misconception of Marx’s specificity: all that Marx did was to seal the union of classical political economy on the one hand, and the Hegelian dialectical method (a theoretical concentrate of the Hegelian concept of history) on the other. But this leads directly to the foisting of a pre-existing and exoteric method onto a pre-determined object, i.e., to the theoretically dubious union of a method defined independently of its object, whose agreement with its object can only be sealed against the common ideological background of a misunderstanding which marks Hegelian historicism as much as economic eternalism. And it follows that the two terms of the eternity/history opposition derive from a common problematic, Hegelian ‘historicism’ being only the historicized counter-connotation of economistic ‘eternalism’.

But, in the second place, we also see the meaning of the still unclosed debates about the relation between economic theory and history in Capital itself. These debates have lasted until today largely under the influence of a confusion between the status of economic theory itself and that of history. When, in Anti-Dühring (London 1959, p. 204), Engels writes that ‘Political economy is ... essentially a historical science,’ because ‘it deals with material which is historical, that is, constantly changing,’ he touches the exact spot of the ambiguity: the word ‘historical’ may either fall towards the Marxist concept or towards the ideological concept of history, according to whether this word designates the object of knowledge of a theory of history, or, on the contrary, the real object of which this theory gives the knowledge. We have every right to say that the theory of Marxist political economy derives from the Marxist theory of history, as one of its regions; but we might also think that the theory of political economy is affected even in its concepts by the peculiar quality of real history (its ‘material’ which is ‘changing ‘). Engels rushes us into this latter interpretation in a number of astonishing texts which introduce history (in the empiricist-ideological sense) even into Marx’s theoretical categories. I am referring particularly to his insistence that Marx could not produce real scientific definitions in his theory because of the properties of his real object, because of the moving, changing nature of a historical reality which in essence rebels against any treatment by definitions, whose fixed andeternal’ forms can only betray the perpetual mobility of historical development.

In his Preface to Volume Three of Capital, Engels, quoting Fireman’s criticisms, writes:

They rest upon the misunderstanding that Marx wishes to define where he only develops, and that in general one might expect fixed, cut-to-measure once and for all applicable definitions in Marx’s works. It is self-evident that where things and their inter-relations are conceived, not as fixed, but as changing, their mental reflections, the concepts, are likewise subject to change and transformation ; and they are not encapsulated in rigid definitions, but are developed in their historical or logical process of formation. This makes clear, of course, why in the beginning of Volume One Marx proceeds from simple commodity production as the historical premise, ultimately arriving from this basis at capital ... (Capital, Vol. III, pp. 13-14 – modified).

The same theme recurs in the preparatory notes for Anti-Dühring (p. 470):

To science definitions are worthless because always inadequate. The only real definition is the development of the thing itself, but this is no longer a definition. To know and show what life is we must examine all forms of life and present them in their inter-connection. On the other hand, for ordinary purposes, a brief exposition of the commonest and at the same time most significant features of a so-called definition is often useful and even necessary, and can do no harm if no more is expected of it than it can convey (italics, L.A.).

Unfortunately, these texts leave no room for ambiguity, since they go so far as to designate quite precisely the site of the ‘misunderstanding’ and to formulate its terms. All the characters in this misunderstanding are on stage here, each playing the part ascribed to it by the effect expected of this theatre. We only have to change their places for them to admit the role that has been assigned to them, abandon it and begin to speak to a quite different text. The whole misunderstanding in this reasoning lies in fact in the fallacy which confuses the theoretical development of concepts with the genesis of real history. But Marx carefully distinguished between these two orders, when, in the 1857 Introduction, he showed that it was impossible to institute any one-to-one correlation between the terms which feature in the order of succession of concepts in the discourse of scientific proof on the one hand, and those which feature in the genetic order of real history on the other. Here Engels postulates precisely such an impossible correlation, unhesitatingly identifying ‘logical’ development and ‘historical’ development. And with extraordinary honesty he points out the theoretical precondition for this identification: the affirmation that these two developments are identical in order depends on the fact that the necessary concepts of any theory of history are affected in their conceptual substance, by the properties of the real object. ‘Where things ... are conceived ... as changing, their mental reflections, the concepts, are likewise subject to change and transformation.’ In order to be able to identify the development of the concepts and the development of real history, he therefore had to identify the object of knowledge with the real object, and to subject the concepts to the real determination of real history. In this way, Engels applies to the concepts of the theory of history a coefficient of mobility borrowed directly from the concrete empirical sequence (from the ideology of history), transposing the ‘real-concrete’ into the ‘thought-concrete’ and the historical as real change into the concept itself. Given these premises, the argument is bound to conclude that every definition is unscientific: ‘to science, definitions are worthless ‘, since ‘the only real definition is the development of the thing itself, but this is no longer a definition ‘. Once again the real thing has been substituted for the concept and the development of the real thing (i.e., the real history of concrete genesis) has been substituted for the ‘development of forms ‘, which was explicitly described, in the Introduction as well as in Capital, as occurring exclusively in knowledge and concerning exclusively the necessary order of appearance and disappearance of concepts in the discourse of the scientific proof. Need I demonstrate that Engels’s interpretation contains a theme we have already encountered in his answer to Conrad Schmidt: the theme of the original weakness of the concept? If ‘to science, definitions are worthless’, it is because they are ‘always inadequate ‘; in other words, the concept is in essence at fault, and this fault is inscribed in its very conceptual nature: his awareness of this original sin forces him to relinquish any claim to define the real, which ‘defines’ itself in the historical production of the forms of its genesis. If the question of the status of the definition, i.e., of the concept, is posed from this starting point, there is no alternative but to confer on it a role which is quite different from the role it claims theoretically: a ‘practical’ role, good enough for ‘ordinary purposes’, a role of general designation without any theoretical function. Paradoxically, it is not without interest to note that Engels, after beginning by crossing the terms implied in his question, is led to conclude with a definition whose meaning is crossed, too, i.e., dislocated (décalé) with respect to the object it is aimed at, since in this purely practical (ordinary) definition of the role of the scientific concept he also gives us the starting-point for a theory of one of the functions of the ideological concept: its function as a practical allusion and index.

This is where we are led by ignoring the basic distinction Marx was careful to draw between the object of knowledge and the real object, between the ‘development of forms’ of the concept in knowledge and the development of the real categories in concrete history: to an empiricist ideology of knowledge, and to the identification of the logical and the historical in Capital itself. It should hardly surprise us that so many interpreters go round in circles in the question that hangs on this definition, if it is true that all problems concerned with the relation between the logical and the historical in Capital presuppose a non-existent relation. Whether this relation is imagined as one which brings the terms featured in the two orders of development (the development of the concept; the development of real history) into direct one-to-one correspondence; or whether the same relation is imagined as one which brings the terms of the two orders of development into inverse correspondence (the basis for the theses of Della Volpe and Pietranera analysed by Rancière),[10] there remains the hypothesis of a relation where no relation exists. Two conclusions can be drawn from this error. The first is simply practical: the difficulties encountered in the solution of this problem are serious ones, indeed insurmountable ones: if it is not always possible to solve a problem that does exist, we can rest assured that it is never possible to solve a problem that does not exist.[11] The second is theoretical: an imaginary solution is required for an imaginary problem, and not just any imaginary solution but the imaginary solution required by the (imaginary) posing of this imaginary problem. Every imaginary (ideological) posing of a problem (which may be imaginary, too) in fact carries it in a determinate problematic, which defines both the possibility and the form of the posing of this problem. This problematic recurs as its mirror-image in the solution given to this problem by virtue of the mirror action peculiar to the ideological imagination (cf. Part One); if it is not in fact found directly as such in the aforesaid solution, it will emerge elsewhere, openly, when it is explicitly in question, in the latent ‘theory of knowledge’ which underlies the identification of the historical and the logical: an empiricist ideology of knowledge. It is no accident therefore that we see Engels literally precipitated by his question into this empiricist temptation, nor that, in a different way, Della Volpe and his pupils support their thesis of the inverse identification of the historical and logical orders in Capital by arguing a theory of ‘historical abstraction’, which is a higher form of historicist empiricism.

To return to Capital, the effect of the mistake I have just pointed out, which postulates the imaginary existence of a non-existent relation, is to make a different relation invisible, a relation which is legitimate because it exists and is established by right between the theory of the economy and the theory of history. If the first relation (theory of the economy and concrete history) was imaginary, the second relation (theory of the economy and theory of history) is a true theoretical relation. Why has it remained until now, if not invisible, at least opaque to us? Because the first relation had the advantage of ‘obviousness’, i.e., of the empiricist temptations of the historians who, reading pages of ‘concrete’ history in Capital (the struggle for the reduction of the working day, the transition from manufacture to modern industry, primitive accumulation, etc.), felt in some sense ‘at home’ in it and therefore posed the problem of economic theory as a function of the existence of this ‘concrete’ history, without feeling any need to pose the question of its status. They gave an empiricist interpretation of analyses of Marx’s which, far from being historical analyses in the strict sense, i.e., analyses sustained by the development of the concept of history, are more the half-finished materials for a history (cf. Balibar’s paper) than a real historical treatment of those materials. They used the presence of these half-elaborated materials as an argument for an ideological concept of history, and therefore posed the question of this ideology of ‘concrete’ history for the ‘abstract’ theory of political economy: hence both the fascination of Capital for them, and their unease before a discourse which seemed to them to be ‘speculative’ in many places. The economists had much the same reaction, torn between (concrete) economic history and (abstract) economic theory. Both hoped to find in Capital what they sought, but they also found something else which they had not ‘sought’ and which they therefore tried to reduce, by posing the imaginary problem of the relation, one-to-one or otherwise, between the abstract order of concepts and the concrete order of history. They did not see that what they had found did not answer their question but a quite different question, which, of course, should have given the lie to the ideological illusion of the concept of history which they had brought with them and projected into their reading of Capital. They did not see that the ‘abstract’ theory of political economy is the theory of region which, as a region (level or instance) is an organic component of the object of the theory of history itself. They did not see that history features in Capital as an object of theory, not as a real object, as an ‘abstract’ (conceptual) object and not as a real-concrete object; and that the chapters in which Marx applies the first stages of a historical treatment either to the struggles to shorten the working day, or to primitive capitalist accumulation refer to the theory of history as their principle, to the construction of the concept of history and of its ‘developed forms’, of which the economic theory of the capitalist mode of production constitutes one determinate ‘region’.

One word more on one of the current effects of this misunderstanding. In it we have one of the origins of the interpretation of Capital as a ‘theoretical model’, a formula whose use can, a priori, always be seen as a symptom, in the precise clinical sense of the word, of the empiricist misunderstanding about the object of a given knowledge. This conception of theory as a ‘model’ is in fact only possible on peculiarly ideological conditions; firstly that the distance separating theory from the empirical concrete is included within theory itself; and secondly, equally ideologically, that this distance is itself conceived as an empirical distance, and hence as belonging to the concrete itself, which one then has the privilege (i.e., the banality) of defining as what is ‘always-richer-and-more-living-than-theory’. No doubt this proclamation of the exalted status of the superabundance of ‘life’ and ‘concreteness’, of the superiority of the world’s imagination and the green leaves of action over the poverty of grey theory, contains a serious lesson in intellectual modesty, healthy for the right (presumptuous and dogmatic) ears. But we are also aware of the fact that the concrete and life may be the pretext for facile chatter which serves to mask either apologetic ends (a god, whatever his plumage, is always lining his nest with the feathers of the superabundance, i.e. ‘transcendence’ of the ‘concrete’ and ‘life’) or mere intellectual laziness. What matters is precisely the use made of this kind of endlessly repeated commonplace about the concrete’s surplus of transcendence. But in the conception of knowledge as a ‘model’, we find the real and the concrete intervening to enable us to think the relation, i.e., the distance, between the ‘concrete’ and theory as both within theory itself and within the real itself, not as in a real outside this real object, knowledge of which is produced precisely by theory, but as within this real object itself, as a relation of the part to the whole, of a ‘partial’ part to a superabundant whole (cf. Part One, section 10). The inevitable result of this operation is to make theory seem one empirical instrument among others, in other words, to reduce any theory |of knowledge as a model directly to what it is: a form of theoretical pragmatism.

We have therefore obtained, with the last effect of this mistake, a precise principle of understanding and criticism: it is this establishment of a relation of one-to-one correspondence in the real of the object between a theoretical ensemble (the theory of political economy) and the real empirical ensemble (concrete history) of which the first ensemble is the knowledge, which has given rise to misconstructions where the question of the ‘relations’ between ‘Logic’ and ‘history’ in Capital is concerned. The most serious of these misconstructions is the blinding effect of the question: it has sometimes prevented any perception that Capital really does contain a theory of history which is indispensable for any understanding of the theory of the economy.

Chapter 5. Marxism is not a Historicism

But this brings us to one last misunderstanding, of the same breed but perhaps even more serious, for it does not only involve our reading of Capital, or Marxist philosophy, but also the relationship between Capital and Marxist philosophy, hence the relationship between historical materialism and dialectical materialism – i.e., the meaning of Marx’s work as a whole – and, lastly, the relationship between real history and Marxist theory. This misunderstanding stems from the oversight which sees in Marxism a historicism, and the most radical historicism of all, an ‘absolute historicism ‘. This claim presents the relationship Marxist theory has with real history in the form of the relationship between the science of history and Marxist philosophy.

I should like to suggest that, from the theoretical stand-point, Marxism is no more a historicism than it is a humanism (cf. For Marx, pp. 219ff); that in many respects both historicism and humanism depend on the same ideological problematic; and that, theoretically speaking, Marxism is, in a single movement and by virtue of the unique epistemological rupture which established it, an anti-humanism and an anti-historicism. Strictly speaking, I ought to say an a-humanism and an a-historicism. But in order to give these terms all the weight of a declaration of rupture which far from going without saying is, on the contrary, very hard to accept, I have deliberately used this doubly negative formula (anti-humanism, anti-historicism) instead of a simple privative form, for the latter is not sufficiently imperative to repel the humanist and historicist assault which, in some circles, has threatened Marxism continuously for the past forty years.

We know precisely what were the circumstances in which this humanist and historicist interpretation of Marx was born, and what recent circumstances have reinvigorated it. It was born out of a vital reaction against the mechanicism and economicism of the Second International, in the period just preceding and, above all, in the years just following the 1917 Revolution. In this respect it has real historical merits; just as the recent renaissance of this interpretation after the Twentieth Congress’s denunciation of the dogmatic errors and crimes of the ‘Cult of Personality’ has real historical sanction, though in a somewhat different way. This recent reinvigoration is merely a repetition and usually a generous or skilful but ‘rightist’ misappropriation of a historical reaction which then had the force of a protest that was revolutionary in spirit, although ‘leftist’. It cannot therefore provide the norm with which we judge the historical significance of its former state. The themes of a revolutionary humanism and historicism emerged from the German Left, initially from Rosa Luxemburg and Mehring, and then, after the 1917 Revolution, from a whole series of theoreticians, some of whom, like Korsch, were lost later, while others, like Lukács, played an important part, or even, like Gramsci, a very important part. We know the terms in which Lenin judged this movement of ‘leftist’ reaction against the mechanistic conventionality of the Second International: he condemned its theoretical fables and its political tactics (cf. Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder), while recognizing that it did then contain authentically revolutionary elements, for example in Rosa Luxemburg and in Gramsci. One day we shall have to illuminate this whole past. Such a historical and theoretical study is indispensable if we are to distinguish rightly in our present itself between the real and ghostly characters, and if we are to establish on indisputable bases the results of a critique which was then conducted amidst the confusions of a battle in which the reaction against the mechanicism and fatalism of the Second International necessarily took the form of an appeal to the consciousness and wills of men, to make the revolution at last which history had given them to make. When this has been done, we may perhaps be a little clearer about the paradoxical title of a famous article in which Gramsci celebrated ‘The Revolution against Capital ‘, proclaiming brutally that the anti-capitalist revolution of 1917 had had to be made against Karl Marx’s Capital by the voluntary and conscious action of men, of the masses and the Bolsheviks, and not by virtue of a Book in which the Second International read the fatality of the advent of socialism as if in a Bible.[12]

Even without this scientific study of the conditions which produced the first, ‘leftist’ form of this humanism and historicism, we are equipped to identify in Marx what was used to authorize this interpretation, and obviously cannot but justify its recent form in the eyes of contemporary readers of Marx. We shall not be astonished to discover that the same ambiguities in formulation which fostered a mechanistic and evolutionist reading have also authorized a historicist reading: Lenin has given us enough examples of the common theoretical bases of opportunism and leftism for us not to be disconcerted by such a paradoxical coincidence.

I have referred to ambiguous formulations. Here too we have stumbled on a reality the extent of whose effects we have already registered: Marx did produce in his work the distinction between himself and his predecessors, but – as is the fate of all inventors – he did not think the concept of this distinction with all the sharpness that could be desired; he did not think theoretically, or in an adequate and advanced form, either the concept or the theoretical implications of the theoretically revolutionary step he had taken. Sometimes, for want of anything better, he thought it partly in borrowed concepts, particularly Hegelian ones, introducing an effect of dislocation between the semantic field of origin from which he borrowed his concepts, and the field of conceptual objects to which they were applied. At others he did think this difference for itself, but only partially or as an indicative outline, as an obstinate search for equivalents,[13] without succeeding in directly formulating the original and strict sense of what he was producing in the adequacy of a concept. This dislocation, which can only be revealed and reduced by a critical reading, is objectively part of the text of Marx’s discourse.[14]

This, rather than any tendentiousness on their part, is the reason why so many of Marx’s inheritors and supporters have produced inaccurate estimates of his thought, while claiming, text in hand, that they remain true to the letter of what he wrote.

Here I should like to go into some detail in order to show on which particular texts it is possible to base a historicist reading of Marx. I shall not discuss Marx’s Early Works or the texts of the Break (For Marx, p. 34), for it is easy to prove it with them. There is no need to do violence to texts such as the Theses on Feuerbach or The German Ideology which still reverberate profoundly with humanist and historicist echoes, to make them pronounce the words demanded of them: they pronounce them of their own accord. I shall discuss only Capital and the 1857 Introduction.

The texts of Marx’s which can be used to support a historicist reading of Marx can be grouped under two heads. The first of these concerns the definition of the conditions in which the object of any historical science is given.

In the 1857 Introduction, Marx writes:

As in general in every historical social science, it must always be borne in mind in the march of economic categories, that the subject, here modern bourgeois society, is given in the mind as well as in reality, and that therefore the categories express forms of existence, conditions of existence and often only single aspects of this determinate society, of this subject (op. cit., p. 26-7).

This can be compared with a passage in Capital (T.I., p. 87; Vol. I, p. 75):

Man’s reflection on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, takes a course directly opposite to the; real movement. It begins, post festum, with already established givens, with the results of the development.

Not only do these texts suggest that the object of all of the social and historical sciences is an evolved object, a result, but also that the activity of knowledge which is applied to this object, too, is defined by the present of this given, by the current moment of this given. This is what some Italian Marxist interpreters, reverting to a term of Croce’s, have called the category of the ‘contemporaneity’ of the ‘historical present’, a category that defines historically and defines as historical the conditions for all knowledge concerning a historical object. As we know, this term contemporaneity can contain an ambiguity.

Marx himself seems to recognize this absolute condition in the Introduction a few lines earlier than the text referred to above:

Historical development so-called generally depends on the fact that the latest form treats the past forms as stages leading up to itself, and, as it is itself only rarely and under very specific circumstances able to criticize itself ... it always conceives them unilaterally. The Christian religion was only able to help in the objective understanding of earlier mythologies once it had, so to speak, dynamei, developed its own self-criticism to a certain level. And bourgeois economics first arrived at an understanding of the feudal, ancient and oriental economies insofar as bourgeois society had begun its self-criticism (p. 26).

To sum up: every science of a historical object (and political economy in particular) applies to a given, present, historical object, an object that has evolved as a result of past history. Hence every operation of knowledge, starting from the present and applied to an evolved object, is merely the projection of the present onto the past of that object. Marx is here describing the retrospection which Hegel had criticized in ‘reflective’ history (Introduction to the Philosophy of History). This inevitable retrospection is only scientific if the present attains the science of itself, criticism of itself, its self-criticism, i.e., if the present is an ‘essential section’ which makes the essence visible.

But here the second group of texts come in, and this is the decisive point at which we might speak of a historicism in Marx. This point concerns precisely what Marx calls in the text above, ‘the very specific circumstances’ of a present’s self-criticism. In other words, in order that the retrospection of the self-consciousness of a present should cease to be subjective, this present must be capable of self-criticism, in order to attain the science of itself. But what do we find if we examine the history of political economy?

We find thinkers who have merely thought within the limits of their present, unable to run ahead of their times. Aristotle: with all his genius he could only write the equation: ‘x objects A = y objects B’ as an equation, and declare that the common substance in this equation was unthinkable since it was absurd. What prevented him from going further?

Aristotle could not READ (herauslesen) out of the value form of commodities the fact that all labour is here expressed as indistinct human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality, because Greek society was founded upon slave-labour, and had, therefore, for its natural basis the inequality of men and of their labour-powers (Capital, T.I., p. 73; Vol. I, pp. 59-60).

The present that enabled Aristotle to make this genial intuitive reading, simultaneously presented him from solving the problem he had posed.[15] The same goes for all the other great inventors of classical political economy. The Mercantilists merely reflected their own present, making their monetary theory out of the monetary policy of their time. The Physiocrats merely reflected their own present, outlining a general theory of surplus-value, but of natural surplus-value, the surplus-value of agricultural labour where the corn could be seen growing, and the surplus unconsumed by a corn-producing agricultural labourer could be seen passing into the farmer’s granary: in doing this they were merely formulating the essence of their present, the development of agrarian capitalism in the rich plains of the Paris Basin which Engels lists: Normandy, Picardy and the Ile-de-France (Anti-Dühring, Part II, Ch. X, p. 336). Even they could not run ahead of their times; they only acquired knowledges insofar as their times offered these knowledges to them in a visible form, had produced them for their consciousnesses: in sum, they described what they saw. Did Smith and Ricardo go any further, did they describe what they did not see ? Did they run ahead of their times? No. If they attained a science which was more than the mere consciousness of their present, it was because this consciousness contained a real self-criticism of this present. Why was this self-criticism possible at this point? The logic of this essentially Hegelian interpretation tempts one to answer: they attained science itself in the consciousness of their present because this consciousness was, as a consciousness, its own self-criticism, i.e., a science of itself.

In other words, what distinguished their living and lived present from all the other presents (of the past) was that, for the first time, this present produced in itself its own critique of itself, and that it therefore possessed the historical privilege of producing the science of itself precisely in the form of a self-consciousness. But this present has a name: it is the present of absolute knowledge, in which consciousness and science are one and the same, in which science exists in the immediate form of consciousness, and truth can be read openly in the phenomena, if not directly, at least with little difficulty, since the abstractions on which the whole historico-social science under consideration depends are really present in the real empirical existence of the phenomena.

Immediately after his discussion of Aristotle, Marx says:

The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent because and insofar as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the commodity form has become the general form of the produce of labour, in which, consequently, the dominant social relation has become the relation between men as producers and exchangers of commodities (Capital, T.I, p. 75; Vol. I, p. 60).

It requires a fully developed production of commodities before, from experience alone, the scientific truth springs up, that all the different kinds of private labour, which are carried on independently of each other, and yet intertwine as branches of the spontaneous social system of the division of labour, are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them (Capital, T.I, p. 87; Vol. I, p. 75).

The recent scientific discovery, that the products of labour, insofar as they are values, are but material expressions of the human labour spent in their production, makes, indeed, an epoch in the history of the development of the human race. (Capital, I, 86; I, 75).

This historical epoch of the foundation of the science of Political Economy does seem here to be brought into relationship with experience itself (Erfahrung), i.e., with the straightforward reading of the essence in the phenomenon. Or, if you prefer, the sectional reading of the essence in the slice of the present seems to be brought into relationship with the essence of a particular epoch of human history in which the generalization of commodity production and hence of the category commodity appears simultaneously as the absolute condition of possibility and the immediate given of this direct reading from experience. In fact, in the Introduction as well as in Capital, Marx says that the reality of labour in general, of abstract labour, is produced as a phenomenal reality by capitalist production. In some sense, history has reached the point and produced the exceptional, specific present in which scientific abstractions exist in the state of empirical realities, in which science and scientific concepts exist in the form of the visible part of experience as so many directly accessible truths.

See how this is expressed in the Introduction:

This abstraction of labour in general is not only the result in thought (geistige) of a concrete totality of labours. The indifference towards determinate labour is the expression of a form of society in which individuals move easily from one kind of labour to another and the determinate kinds of labour they perform are accidental, and hence indifferent to them. Here labour has become a means towards the creation of wealth in general not only as a category but in reality (in der Wirklichkeit) and, as a determination, it no longer coincides with the individuals only in one particular aspect. Such a situation is most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society – the United States of America. There the abstraction of the categorieslabour ‘, ‘labour in general ‘, labour sans phrase, modern economics’ starting-point, is for the first time true in practice (wird praktisch wahr). Hence the simplest abstraction, which modern economics puts before all else and which expresses an ancient relation and one valid for all forms of society, nevertheless only appears in this abstraction as true in practice (praktisch wahr) as a category of the most modern society (op. cit., p. 25 – italics, L.A.).

If the present of capitalist production has produced scientific truth itself in its visible reality (Wirklichkeit, Erscheinung, Erfahrung), in its self-consciousness, and if therefore its self-consciousness, its own phenomenon, is therefore its own self-criticism in act (en acte) – then it is perfectly dear why the present’s retrospection of the past is no longer ideology but true knowledge, and we can appreciate the legitimate epistemological primacy of the present over the past:

Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most varied organization of production. Hence the categories which express its relations, our understanding of its articulation, at the same time guarantee insight into the articulation and production relations of all past forms of society, with debris and elements of which bourgeois society is built, certain unsubdued remnants of which still survive inside it, and certain mere hints of which it develops to their full significance, etc. The anatomy of man is the key to the anatomy of the ape. The pointers to higher species of animals in the lower species can only be understood if the higher species itself is already known. Thus the bourgeois economy provides the key to the economy of antiquity, etc. (op. cit., pp. 25-6).

We need take only one more step in the logic of absolute knowledge, think the development of a history which culminates and is fulfilled in the present of a science identical with consciousness, and reflect this result in a justified retrospection, to be able to conceive all economic (or any other) history as the development, in the Hegelian sense, of a simple, primitive, original form, e.g., value, immediately present in commodities, and to read Capital as a logico-historical deduction of all the economic categories from one original category, the category of value, or even the category of labour. Given this, the method of exposition in Capital would coincide with the speculative genesis of the concept. And this speculative genesis of the concept is identical with the genesis of the real concrete itself, i.e., with the process of empirical history. We should thus be dealing with an essentially Hegelian work. That is why the question of the starting-point becomes of such critical value, for everything may depend on an incorrect reading of the first chapter of Volume One. That is also why any critical reading must, as the exposition above has shown, elucidate the status of the concepts and mode of analysis of the first chapter of Volume One, if it is not to fall into this misunderstanding.

This form of historicism may be regarded as a limit-form, insofar as it culminates and destroys itself in the negation of absolute knowledge. As such, it may be regarded as the common matrix of the other, less peremptory and often less visible, though occasionally more ‘radical’, forms of historicism, because it provided us with a way to understand them.

As proof of this I shall take some contemporary forms of historicism, forms in which the work of certain interpreters of Marxism, particularly in Italy and France, is steeped, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. It is in the Italian Marxist tradition that the interpretation of Marxism as an ‘absolute historicism’ has the most pronounced features and the most rigorous forms: allow me to dwell on this for a few moments.

This tradition goes back to Gramsci, who inherited it largely from Labriola and Croce. I shall have to discuss Gramsci, therefore. I do not do so without profound misgivings, fearing not only that my necessarily schematic remarks may disfigure the spirit of this enormously delicate and subtle work of genius, but also that the reader may be drawn against my will to extend to Gramsci’s fruitful discoveries in the field of historical materialism, the theoretical reservations I want to formulate with respect only to his interpretation of dialectical materialism. I ask therefore that this distinction be kept carefully in mind, for without it this attempt at a critical reflection will trespass beyond its limits.

First of all, I should like to draw attention to one elementary precaution: I shall refuse to take Gramsci immediately at his word on every occasion and on any pretext or text; I shall only consider his words when I have confirmed that they have the function of ‘organic’ concepts, concepts which really belong to his most profound philosophical problematic, and not when they simply play the part of a language entrusted either with a polemical role or with a function of ‘practical’ designation (designation either of an existing problem or object, or of a direction to take, in order best to pose and solve a problem). For example, it would be completely unfair to Gramsci to dub him a ‘humanist’ and ‘absolute’ ‘historicist’ on a first reading of a polemical text such as this famous note on Bukharin (Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce, Einaudi, Milan, 1948, p. 159):

There is no doubt that Hegelianism is (relatively speaking the most important of the philosophical motivations of our author [Marx], also, and in particular, for the reason that it attempted to go beyond the traditional conceptions of idealism and materialism in a new synthesis which undoubtedly had a quite exceptional importance and which represents a world-historical moment of philosophical enquiry. So when the Manual [of Bukharin] says that the term ‘immanence’ in the philosophy of praxis is used in a metaphorical sense, it is saying nothing. In reality the term immanence has here acquired a special meaning which is not that of the ‘pantheists’ nor any other metaphysical meaning, but one which is new and needs to be made precise. It has been forgotten that in the case of a certain very common expression [historical materialism ] one should put the accent on the first term – ‘historical’ – and not on the second, which is of metaphysical origin. The philosophy of praxis is absolutehistoricism ‘, the absolute secularization and earthliness of thought, an absolute humanism of history. It is along this line that one must trace the thread of the new conception of the world.

It is only too clear that these ‘absolute’ ‘humanist’ and ‘absolute’ ‘historicist’ statements of Gramsci’s are primarily critical and polemical in meaning; their functions are, first and foremost: (1) to reject any metaphysical interpretation of Marxist philosophy, and (2) to indicate, as ‘practical’ concepts,[16] the site on which the Marxist conception should be established and the direction it should take in order to break all ties with the previous metaphysics: the site of ‘immanence’, of the ‘down here’ which Marx himself opposed as ‘diesseits’ (down-here) to transcendence, the beyond (jenseits) of classical philosophies. This distinction is featured in so many words in one of the Theses on Feuerbach (the second). However, we can already draw one first conclusion from the ‘indicative-practical’ nature of these two concepts which Gramsci combines in one and the same function (humanism, historicism); a restricted conclusion, it is true, but a theoretically important one: if these concepts are polemical-indicative, they indicate the direction in which an investigation must be begun, the kind of domain in which the problem of the interpretation of Marxism must be posed, but they do not provide the positive concept of this interpretation. In order to be able to judge Gramsci’s interpretation we must first of all bring to light the positive concepts in which it is expressed. What does Gramsci mean by ‘absolute historicism’?

If we go beyond the purely critical aims of his formulations, we immediately find a first positive sense. By presenting Marxism as a historicism, Gramsci is stressing an essential determination of Marxist theory: its practical role in real history. One of Gramsci’s constant concerns is the practico-historical role of what, adopting Croce’s conception of religion, he calls the great ‘conceptions of the world’, or ‘ideologies’: theoretical formations which are capable of penetrating deep into men’s practical lives, and hence of inspiring and animating a whole historical epoch, by providing not only the ‘intellectuals’ but also and above all the ‘ordinary’ men, with both a general view of the course of events and at the same time rules of practical conduct.[17] In this respect, the historicism of Marxism is no more than the consciousness of a task and a necessity: Marxism cannot claim to be the theory of history unless, even in its theory, it can think the conditions of this penetration into history, into all strata of society, even into men’s everyday lives. This perspective enables us to understand a number of Gramsci’s expressions; where, for instance, he says that philosophy must be concrete, real, must be history, that the real philosopher is simply the politician, that philosophy, politics and history are absolutely one and the same.[18] This perspective enables us to understand his theory of intellectuals and ideology, his distinction between individual intellectuals, who can produce more or less subjective and arbitrary ideologies, and ‘organic’ intellectuals or the ‘collective intellectual’ (the Party), who ensure the ‘hegemony’ of a ruling class by carrying its ‘conception of the world’ (or organic ideology) into the everyday life of all men; and to understand his interpretation of Machiavelli’s Prince, whose heritage has, in new conditions, fallen to the modern Communist Party, etc. In all these cases Gramsci is merely expressing a necessity which is inherent in Marxism, not only practically, but consciously and theoretically. Hence the historicism of Marxism is no more than one of the aspects and effects of its own theory, correctly conceived, no more than its own internally consistent theory. A theory of real history, too, must, as other ‘conceptions of the world’ have already done, pass into real history. What was true of the great religions must a fortiori be true of Marxism itself, not despite but because of the difference between it and those ideologies, because of what is philosophically new in it, since this novelty is that it includes in its theory itself the practical meaning of that theory.[19]

However, as the reader will have realized, this last sense of ‘historicism’, which refers us to a theme within Marxist theory, is still very largely a critical indication, designed to condemn all ‘bookish’ Marxists, all those who hope to reduce it to one of the ‘individual philosophies’, destined never to achieve any hold on history – and even all those ideologists who, like Croce, return to the unfortunate tradition of the intellectuals of the Renaissance, wishing to educate the human race ‘from above’, without engaging in political action and real history. The historicism Gramsci affirms means a vigorous protest against this aristocratism of theory and of its ‘thinkers’.[20] The old protest against the bookish phariseeism of the Second International (‘The Revolution against Capital’) is still echoing here; this is a direct appeal to ‘practice’, to political action, to ‘changing the world’, without which Marxism would be no more than the prey of bookworms and passive political functionaries.

Does this protest necessarily contain a new theoretical interpretation of Marxist theory? Not necessarily ; it may simply develop one of the essential themes of Marx’s theory in the practical form of an absolute reminder: the theme of the new relationship between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ which Marx installed within his theory itself. We find this theme in Marx in two places: in historical materialism (in the theory of the role of ideologies and the role of scientific theory in the transformation of existing ideologies) on the one hand, and, on the other, in dialectical materialism with respect to the Marxist theory of theory and practice and their relationship, in what is commonly called ‘the materialist theory of knowledge’. In both these cases what Marx vigorously affirms and what is at stake in our problem is Marxist materialism. Hence the stress Gramsci lays on the ‘historicism’ of Marxism, in the very precise sense we have just defined, is in reality an allusion to the resolutely materialist character of Marx’s conception (both in historical and dialectical materialism). But this reality leads on to a disconcerting comment which contains three aspects, each of which is as disturbing as the next. (1) Whereas it is precisely materialism which is at stake, Gramsci declares that in the expression ‘historical materialism’ ‘one should put the accent on the first term – “historical “and not the second which,’ he says, ‘is of metaphysical origin ‘. (2) Whereas the materialist stress involves not only historical materialism but also dialectical materialism, Gramsci hardly ever speaks of anything but historical materialism – indeed, he suggests that the term ‘materialism’ inevitably sounds ‘metaphysical’, or perhaps more than sounds. (3) It is clear that Gramsci makes the expression ‘historical materialism’, which designates only the scientific theory of history, bear a double sense: it means simultaneously both historical materialism and Marxist philosophy; hence Gramsci tends to make the theory of history and dialectical materialism coincide within historical materialism alone, although they form two distinct disciplines. Obviously I am not basing these remarks or drawing this last conclusion on the authority of the single sentence I am analysing, but on that of a very large number of Gramsci’s other arguments,[21] which confirm it unambiguously and so give it a conceptual meaning. I believe that here we have a new sense of Gramsci’s ‘historicism’, one that can no longer be reduced to the legitimate use of a polemical or critical indicative concept – but one which must be regarded as a theoretical interpretation affecting the very content of Marx’s thought, and one to which our criticisms and reservations must therefore apply.

Finally, as well as his polemical and practical use of the concept, Gramsci also has a truly ‘historicist’ conception of Marx: a ‘historicist’ conception of the theory of the relationship between Marx’s theory and real history. It is not completely accidental that Gramsci is constantly haunted by Croce’s theory of religion; that he accepts its terms, and extends it from actual religions to the new ‘conception of the world’, Marxism; that he ranges these religions and Marxism under the same concept as ‘conceptions of the world’ and ‘ideologies’; that he so easily identifies religion, ideology, philosophy and Marxist theory, without calling attention to the fact that what distinguishes Marxism from these ideological ‘conceptions of the world’ is less the (important) formal difference that Marxism puts an end to any supra-terrestrial ‘beyond’, than the distinctive form of this absolute immanence (its ‘earthliness’): the form of scientifcity. This ‘break’ between the old religions or ideologies, even the ‘organic’ ones, and Marxism, which is a science, and which must become the ‘organic’ ideology of human history by producing a new form of ideology in the masses (an ideology which will depend on a science this time – which has never been the case before) – this break was not really reflected by Gramsci, and, absorbed as he was by the necessity and the practical conditions for the penetration of the ‘philosophy of praxis’ into real history, he neglected the theoretical significance of this break and its theoretical and practical consequences. Hence he often tends to unite under the same head the scientific theory of history (historical materialism) and Marxist philosophy (dialectical materialism), and to think this unity as a ‘conception of the world’ or as an ‘ideology’ basically comparable with the old religions. Similarly, he tends to think the relationship between Marxist science and real history according to the model of the relationship between an ‘organic’ (historically dominant and active) ideology and real history; and ultimately to think this relationship between Marxist scientific theory and real history according to the model of a relationship of direct expression, which does give a fair account of the relationship between an organic ideology and its age. It is here, it seems to me, that the disputable principles of Gramsci’s historicism lie. It is here that he spontaneously rediscovers the language and theoretical problematic indispensable to every ‘historicism’.

Given these premises it is possible to give a theoretically historicist sense to the formulae I referred to at the beginning – for, given the whole underlying context I have just indicated, they also take on this sense in Gramsci – and if I now go on and try to draw out their implications as rigorously as I can in a short space, I do not do so as an attack on Gramsci (who had too fine a historical and theoretical sensitivity not to keep every distance when necessary) so much as to make visible a latent logic, knowledge of which can help us to understand certain of their theoretical effects, whose occurrence would otherwise remain a riddle, whether in Gramsci’s own work, or in the works of certain of those inspired by him or comparable with him. So I shall be expounding a limit-situation here, too, just as I did with respect to the ‘historicist’ reading of certain passages from Capital, and I shall be defining not so much any particular interpretation (Gramsci, Della Volpe, Colletti, Sartre) as the field of the theoretical problematic which haunts their reflections and which emerges from time to time in certain of their concepts, problems or solutions.

To this end, and with these reservations, which are not merely stylistic, I shall now take the statement that Marxism must be conceived as an ‘absolute historicism ‘, as a symptomatic thesis which will enable us to bring a whole latent problematic to light. How are we to understand this statement in our present perspective? If Marxism is an absolute historicism, it is because it historicizes even what was peculiarly the theoretical and practical negation of history for Hegelian historicism: the end of history, the unsurpassable present of Absolute Knowledge. In absolute historicism there is no longer any Absolute Knowledge, and hence no end for history.

There is no longer any privileged present in which the totality becomes visible and legible in an ‘essential section’, in which consciousness and science coincide. The fact that there is no Absolute Knowledge – which is what makes the historicism absolute – means that Absolute Knowledge itself is historicized. If there is no longer any privileged present, all presents are privileged to the same degree. It follows that historical time possesses in each of its presents a structure which allows each present the ‘essential section’ of contemporaneity. Nevertheless, the Marxist does not have the same structure as the Hegelian totality, and in particular it contains different levels or instances which do not directly express one another. Therefore in order to make it susceptible to the ‘essential section’ these levels must be linked together in such a way that the present of each of them coincides with the presents of all the others: i.e., they must all be ‘contemporaneous’. Thus re-organized, their relationship will exclude the effects of distortion and dislocation, which, in the authentic Marxist conception, contradict this ideological reading of a contemporaneity. Hence the project of thinking Marxism as an (absolute) historicism automatically unleashes a logically necessary chain reaction which tends to reduce and flatten out the Marxist totality into a variation of the Hegelian totality, and which, even allowing for more or less rhetorical distinctions, ultimately tones down, reduces, or omits the real differences separating the levels.

The symptomatic point at which this reduction of the levels shows its face – i.e., hides behind the cover provided by an ‘obviousness’ which betrays it (in both senses of the word) – can be defined precisely: in the status of scientific and philosophical knowledge. We have seen that Gramsci was so insistent on the practical unity of the conception of the world and history that he neglected to retain what distinguishes Marxist theory from every previous organic ideology: its character as scientific knowledge. Marxist philosophy, which he does not clearly distinguish from the theory of history, suffers the same fate: Gramsci relates it to present history as its direct expression; philosophy is then, as Hegel intended (in a conception readopted by Croce) ‘the history of philosophy’, and, in short, history. As all science and all philosophy are at bottom real history, real history itself can be called philosophy and science.

But how can one think this double radical affirmation in Marxist theory and create the theoretical conditions which will permit its formulation? By a whole series of conceptual slides (glissements), whose effect is precisely to reduce the distance between the levels which Marx had distinguished. Each of these slides is the less perceptible the less attention has been paid to the theoretical distinctions registered in the precision of Marx’s concepts.

In this way, Gramsci constantly declares that a scientific theory, or such and such a category of a science, is a ‘superstructure’[22] or a ‘historical category’ which he assimilates to a ‘human relation’.[23] In fact, this is to attribute to the concept ‘superstructure’ a breadth Marx never allowed, for he only ranged within it: (1) the politico-legal superstructure, and (2) the ideological superstructure (the corresponding ‘forms of social consciousness’): except in his Early Works (especially the 1844 Manuscripts), Marx never included scientific knowledge in it. Science can no more be ranged within the category ‘superstructure’ than can language, which as Stalin showed escapes it. To make science a superstructure is to think of it as one of those ‘organic’ ideologies which form such a close ‘bloc’ with the structure that they have the same ‘history’ as it does! But even in Marxist theory we read that ideologies may survive the structure that gave them birth (this is true for the majority of them: e.g., religion, ethics, or ideological philosophy), as may certain elements of the politico-legal superstructure in the same way (Roman law!). As for science, it may well arise from an ideology, detach itself from its field in order to constitute itself as a science, but precisely this detachment, this ‘break’, inaugurates a new form of historical existence and temporality which together save science (at least in certain historical conditions that ensure the real continuity of its own history – conditions that have not always existed) from the common fate of a single history: that of the ‘historical bloc’ unifying structure and superstructure. Idealism is an ideological reflection of the temporality peculiar to science, the rhythm of its development, the kind of continuity and punctuation which seem to save it from the vicissitudes of political and economic history in the form of a histonicity and temporality; in this way it hypostasizes a real phenomenon which needs quite different categories if it is to be thought, but which must be thought by distinguishing between the relatively autonomous and peculiar history of scientific knowledge and the other modalities of historical existence (those of the ideological and politico-legal superstructures, and that of the economic structure).

The reduction and identification of the peculiar history of science to the history of organic ideology and politico-economic history ultimately reduces science to history as its ‘essence’. The collapse of science into history here is no more than the index of a theoretical collapse: a collapse that precipitates the theory of history into real history; reduces the (theoretical) object of the science of history to real history; and therefore confuses the object of knowledge with the real object. This collapse is nothing but a collapse into empiricist ideology, with the roles in this presentation played by philosophy and real history. Despite his enormous historical and political genius, Gramsci did not avoid this empiricist temptation in his attempt to think the status of science and above all that of philosophy (for he is little concerned with science). He is constantly tempted to think the relation between real history and philosophy as a relation of expressive unity, whatever mediations may be responsible for the maintenance of this relation.[24] As we have seen, for him, a philosopher is, in the last instance, a ‘politician’; for him, philosophy is the direct product (assuming all the ‘necessary mediations’) of the activity and experience of the masses, of politico-economic praxis: professional philosophers merely lend their voices and the forms of their discourse to this ‘common-sense’ philosophy, which is already complete without them and speaks in historical praxis – they cannot change it substantially. Gramsci spontaneously rediscovers, as an opposition indispensable to the expression of his thought, the very formulations which Feuerbach used in a famous text of 1839 which opposed the philosophy produced by real history to the philosophy produced by philosophers – the formulations opposing praxis to speculation. And Gramsci’s intention to retain what was valuable in Croce’s historicism is expressed in the very terms of Feuerbach’s ‘inversion’ of speculation into ‘concrete’ philosophy: he proposes to ‘invert’ Croce’s speculative historicism, to set it back on to its feet, in order to make it into Marx’s historicism – in order to rediscover real history and ‘concrete’ philosophy. If it is true that the ‘inversion’ of a problematic retains the same structure as that problematic, it is not surprising that the relationship of direct expression (given all the necessary ‘mediations’) between real history and philosophy conceived by Hegel and Croce recurs in the inverted theory: precisely the relationship of direct expression Gramsci is tempted to set up between politics (real history) and philosophy.

But it is not enough to reduce to a minimum the distance within the social structure between the specific site of theoretical, philosophical and scientific formations on the one hand and political practice on the other; that is, the site of theoretical practice and the site of political practice – it is also essential to provide a conception of theoretical practice which illustrates and consecrates the proclaimed identity of philosophy and politics. This latent requirement explains some new conceptual slides, whose effect is once again to reduce the distinction between the levels.

In this interpretation, theoretical practice tends to lose all specificity and to be reduced to historical practice in general, a category which is made to include forms of production as different as economic practice, political practice, ideological practice and scientific practice. Nevertheless, this assimilation poses critical problems: Gramsci himself recognized that absolute historicism threatens to run aground on the rock of the theory of ideologies. But he himself provided the arguments for a solution when he compared the Theses on Feuerbach with a phrase of Engels’s (history as ‘industry and experiment ‘), by proposing as his model a practice which is capable of uniting all these different practices within its concept. The problematic of absolute historicism required that this problem be solved: it is no accident that it has usually given this empiricist problem a solution which is empiricist in spirit. The model may, for example, be that of experimental practice, borrowed not so much from the reality of modern science as from a certain ideology of modern science. Colletti has taken up this hint of Gramsci’s and maintains that history, and even reality itself, have an ‘experimental structure ‘, and therefore that in essence they are structured like an experiment. If real history on the one hand is declared to be ‘industry and experiment’ in this way – and if all scientific practice on the other is defined as experimental practice, it follows that historical practice and theoretical practice have one and the same structure. Colletti pushes this comparison to its extremes, and suggests that history includes in its being, just like science, the moment of hypothesis which is indispensable to a presentation of the experimental structure, in Claude Bernard’s schemata. As history is constantly anticipating itself in living political action (in the predictions of the future indispensable to any action) it is thus hypothesis and verification in action, just like the practice of experimental science. This identity of essential structures makes it possible to assimilate theoretical practice directly, immediately and adequately to historical practice – and the reduction of the site of theoretical practice to that of political or social practice can then be based on the reduction of these practices to a single structure.

I have taken Gramsci and Colletti as my examples. This is not because they are the only possible examples of theoretical variations on a single theoretical invariant: the problematic of historicism. In no sense does a problematic impose absolutely identical variations on the thoughts that cross its field: a field can be crossed by quite different paths, since it can be approached from many different directions. But to come upon it means to submit to its law, which produces as many different effects as there are different thoughts which come upon it: however, all these effects have certain identical features in common: the features of the problematic they have come upon. To give a paradoxical example, we all know that Sartre’s thought in no sense derives from Gramsci’s interpretation of Marxism: it has quite different origins. However, when he came upon Marxism, for his own peculiar reasons Sartre immediately gave a historicist interpretation of it (although he would undoubtedly refuse to call it that), declaring that the great philosophies (he cites Marx’s philosophy after those of Locke and Kant-Hegel) are ‘insurpassable until the historical moment whose expression they are has been surpassed’ (Critique de la raison dialectique, Paris 1960, p. 17; English translation: The Problem of Method, London 1965, p. 7). Here once again we find, in a form peculiar to Sartre, the structures of contemporaneity, expression and the insurpassable (Hegel’s ‘no one can run ahead of his time’), which for him represent specifications of his major concept: totalization – but which nevertheless realize the necessary conceptual effects of his encounter with the structure of the historicist problematic, in the form of specifications of this concept which is peculiar to him. These are not the only effects: we are not surprised to see Sartre using his own means to rediscover a theory of ‘ideologists’ (ibid., pp. 17-18; trans. pp. 7-8) (who cash and comment on a great philosophy, transferring it into men’s practical lives) in many respects very close to Gramsci’s theory of organic intellectuals;[25] nor are we surprised to see Sartre make the same necessary reduction of the different practices (the different levels distinguished by Marx) to a single practice: for him, for reasons related precisely to his peculiar philosophical origins, it is not the concept of experimental practice, but the concept of ‘praxis’ as such, which is responsible for the unity of practices as different as scientific practice and economic or political practice, at the price of innumerable mediations (Sartre is the philosopher of mediations par excellence: their function is precisely to ensure unity in the negation of differences).

I cannot develop these very schematic comments. But they will serve to give some idea of the implications necessarily contained in any historicist interpretation of Marxism, and of the particular concepts this interpretation has to produce in order to solve the problems it poses for itself – at least when it aims, as is the case with Gramsci, Colletti or Sartre, to be theoretically demanding and rigorous. This interpretation can itself only be thought on condition of a whole series of reductions which are the effect of the empiricist character of its project on the order of the production of concepts. For example, only on condition that it reduces all practice to experimental practice, or to ‘praxis’ in general, and then assimilates this mother-practice to political practice, can all practices be thought as arising from ‘real’ historical practice, can philosophy, even science, and hence Marxism, too, be thought as the ‘expression’ of real history. The result is to flatten even scientific knowledge or philosophy, and at any rate Marxist theory, down to the unity of politico-economic practice, to the heart of ‘historical’ practice, toreal’ history. In this way one reaches the result required by all historicist interpretations of Marxism as their theoretical precondition: the transformation of the Marxist totality into a variant of the Hegelian totality.

The historicist interpretation of Marxism may lead to one last effect: the practical negation of the distinction between the science of history (historical materialism) and Marxist philosophy (dialectical materialism). In this final reduction, Marxist philosophy loses in practice its raison d’être, to the advantage of the theory of history: dialectical materialism disappears into historical materialism.[26] This is clearly visible in Gramsci, and in most of; his followers: not only do they have serious reservations about the word dialectical materialism, but also about the concept of a Marxist philosophy defined by a peculiar object. They think that the mere idea of a theoretically autonomous philosophy (autonomous in its object, theory and method), i.e., one which is distinct from the science of history, tips Marxism back into metaphysics, into the restoration of the Philosophy of Nature, for which Engels made himself responsible.[27] Since all philosophy is history, the ‘philosophy of praxis’ can, as a philosophy, only be the philosophy of the philosophy-history identity, or of the science-history identity. Deprived of any object of its own, Marxist philosophy loses the status of an autonomous discipline and is reduced, according to Gramsci, quoting Croce, to a mere ‘historical methodology’, i.e., to the mere self-consciousness of the historicity of history, to a reflection on the presence of real history in all its manifestations:

Separated from the theory of history and politics, philosophy cannot be other than metaphysics, whereas the great conquest in the history of modern thought, represented by the philosophy of praxis, is precisely the concrete historicization of philosophy and its identification with history (Gramsci: Il materialismo storico, p. 133).

This historicization of philosophy reduces it then to the status of a historical methodology:

To think of a philosophical affirmation as true in a particular historical period (that is, as the necessary and inseparable expression of a particular historical action, of a particular praxis) but as superseded and rendered ‘vain’ in a succeeding period, without however falling into scepticism and moral and ideological relativism, in other words to see philosophy as historicity, is quite an arduous and difficult mental operation ... [Bukharin] does not succeed in elaborating the concept of the philosophy of praxis as ‘historical methodology’ and of that in turn as ‘philosophy’, as the only concrete philosophy. That is to say he does not succeed in posing and resolving, from the point of view of the real dialectic, the problem which Croce has posed and has attempted to resolve from the speculative point of view.

These last words bring us full circle: we have returned to Hegelian historicism ‘radicalized’ by Croce, which only needs to be ‘inverted’ to change from speculative philosophy into ‘concrete’ philosophy, from the speculative dialectic into the real dialectic, etc. The theoretical undertaking which interprets Marxism as a historicism does not escape the absolute limits within which this ‘inversion’ of speculation into praxis and of abstraction into the concrete has been performed since Feuerbach: these limits are defined by the empiricist problematic, sublimated in Hegelian speculation, and no ‘inversion’ can deliver us from them.[28]

In the different theoretical reductions indispensable to the historicist interpretation, and in their effects, we can therefore clearly see the basic structure of all historicism: the contemporaneity which makes possible a reading in essential section. And of theoretical necessity we can also see this structure imposed willy-nilly on the structure of the Marxist totality, transforming it and reducing the real distance between its different levels. Marxist history ‘relapses’ into the ideological concept of history, the category of temporal presence and continuity; into the politico-economic practice of real history, by flattening the sciences, philosophy and ideologies into the unity of the relations and forces of production, i.e., in fact, into the infra-structure. Paradoxical as this conclusion may seem – and I shall doubtless be attacked for expressing it – it must be drawn: from the standpoint of its theoretical problematic, and not of its political style and aims, this humanist and historicist materialism has rediscovered the basic theoretical principles of the Second International’s economistic and mechanistic interpretation. If this single theoretical problematic can underlie policies of different inspiration, one fatalist, the other voluntarist, one passive, the other conscious and active – it is because of the scope for theoretical ‘play’ contained in this ideological theoretical problematic as in every ideology. In this case, this kind of historicism can be opposed politically to the theses of the Second International by conferring on the infrastructure the most active qualities of the political and ideological superstructure, in a compensating crossed connection. This transfer of qualities can be conceived in different ways: e.g., by endowing political practice with the qualities of philosophy and theory (spontaneism); by attributing to economic practice all the active and even explosive virtues of politics (anarcho-syndicalism); or by entrusting to political consciousness and determination the determinism of the economic (voluntarism). In other words, if there really are two distinct ways of identifying the superstructure with the infrastructure, or consciousness with the economy – one which sees in consciousness and politics only the economy, while the other imbues the economy with politics and consciousness, there is never more than one structure of identification at work – the structure of the problematic which, by reducing one to the other, theoretically identifies the levels present. It is this common structure of the problematic which is made visible when, rather than analysing the theoretical or political intentions of mechanicism-economism on the one hand and humanism-historicism on the other, we examine the internal logic of their conceptual mechanisms.

Allow me one more comment on the relation between humanism and historicism. It is only too clear that a non-historicist humanism is perfectly conceivable, as is a non-humanist historicism. Of course, here I always mean a theoretical humanism and historicism, considered in their function as theoretical foundations for Marxist science and philosophy. To live by ethics or religion, or by that politico-ethical ideology known as social-democracy is enough to erect a humanist but non-historicist interpretation of Marx: all that is required is to read Marx in the ‘light’ of a theory of ‘human nature’, be it religious, ethical or anthropological (cf. Fathers Calvez and Bigo, and Monsieur Rubel, as well as the Social Democrats Landshut and Mayer, the first editors of Marx’s Early Works). It is child’s play to reduce Capital to an ethical inspiration, whether or no one relies on the radical anthropology of the 1844 Manuscripts. But, inversely, it is just as easy to imagine a historicist but non-humanist reading of Marx: if I understand him correctly, Colletti’s best efforts tend in this direction. To justify this historicist non-humanist reading of Marx it is necessary to refuse, as Colletti does, to reduce the Forces of Production/Relations of Production unity, which constitutes the essence of history, to the mere phenomenon of a human nature, even a historicized one. But let us leave these two possibilities at this point.

It must be said that the union of humanism and historicism represents the gravest temptation, for it procures the greatest theoretical advantages, at least in appearance. In the reduction of all knowledge to the historical social relations a second underhand reduction can be introduced, by treating the relations of production as mere human relations.[29] This second reduction depends on something ‘obvious’: is not history a ‘human’ phenomenon through and through, and did not Marx, quoting Vico, declare that men can, know it since they have ‘made’ all of it? But this ‘obviousness’ depends on a remarkable presupposition: that the ‘actors’ of history are the authors of its text, the subjects of its production. But this presupposition too has all the force of the ‘obvious’, since, as opposed to what the theatre suggests, concrete men are, in history, the actors of roles of which they are the authors, too. Once the stage-director has been spirited away, the actor-author becomes the twin-brother of Aristotle’s old dream: the doctor-who-cures-himself; and the relations of production, although they are the real stage-directors of history, are reduced to mere human relations. Is not The German Ideology stuffed with formulations about the ‘real men’, the ‘concrete individuals’, who, ‘with their feet firmly on the ground’, are the real subjects of history? Do not the Theses on Feuerbach declare that objectivity itself is the completely human result of the ‘practico-sensuous’ activity of these subjects? Once this human nature has been endowed with the qualities of ‘concrete’ historicity, it becomes possible to avoid the abstraction and fixity of theological or ethical anthropologies and to join Marx in the very heart of his lair: historical materialism. This human nature will therefore be conceived as something produced by history, and changing with it, while man changes, as even the Philosophers of the Enlightenment intended, with the revolutions of his own history, and is affected by the social products of his objective history even in his most intimate faculties (seeing, hearing, memory, reason, etc. Even Helvetius claimed this, and Rousseau too, in opposition to Diderot; Feuerbach made it one of the main articles of his philosophy – and in our own day, a horde of cultural anthropologists have adopted it). History then becomes the transformation of a human nature, which remains the real subject of the history which transforms it. As a result, history has been introduced into human nature, making men the contemporaries of the historical effects whose subjects they are, but – and this is absolutely decisive – the relations of production, political and ideological social relations, have been reduced to historicized ‘human relations ‘, i.e., to inter-human, inter-subjective relations. This is the favourite terrain of historicist humanism. And what is its great advantage? The fact that Marx is restored to the stream of an ideology much older than himself, an ideology born in the eighteenth century; credit for the originality of a revolutionary theoretical rupture is taken from him, he is often even made acceptable to modern forms of ‘cultural’ anthropology, and so on. Is there anyone today who does not invoke this historicist humanism, in the genuine belief that he is appealing to Marx, whereas such an ideology takes us away from Marx?

But this has not always been the case, at least not politically speaking. I have said why and how the historicist-humanist interpretation of Marxism came to birth in the portents and in the wake of the 1917 Revolution. Its significance then was that of a violent protest against the mechanicism and opportunism of the Second International. It appealed directly to the consciousness and will of men to reject the War, overthrow capitalism and make the revolution. It rejected absolutely anything, even in theory, which might defer or stifle this urgent appeal to the historical responsibility of the real men hurled into the revolution. In the same movement, it demanded the theory of its will. That is why it proclaimed a radical return to Hegel (the young Lukács and Korsch) and worked out a theory which put Marx’s doctrine into a directly expressive relationship with the working class. From this period, too, dates the famous opposition between ‘bourgeois science’ and ‘proletarian science’, in which triumphed an idealist and voluntarist interpretation of Marxism as the exclusive product and expression of proletarian practice. This ‘left-wing’ humanism designated the proletariat as the site and missionary of the human essence. The historical role of freeing man from his ‘alienation’ was its destiny, through the negation of the human essence whose absolute victim it was. The alliance between the proletariat and philosophy announced in Marx’s early texts was no longer seen as an alliance between two mutually exclusive components, The proletariat, the human essence in revolt against its radical negation, because the revolutionary affirmation of the human essence: the proletariat was thus philosophy in deed and its political practice philosophy itself. Marx’s role was then reduced to having conferred on this philosophy which was acted and lived in its birth-place, the mere form of self-consciousness. That is why Marxism was proclaimed ‘proletarian’ ‘science’ or ‘philosophy’, the direct expression, the direct production of the human essence by its sole historical author: the proletariat. Kautsky’s and Lenin’s thesis that Marxist theory is produced by a specific theoretical practice, outside the proletariat, and that Marxist theory must be ‘imported’ into the proletariat, was absolutely rejected – and all the themes of spontaneism rushed into Marxism through this open breach: the humanist universalism of the proletariat. Theoretically, this revolutionary ‘humanism’ and ‘historicism’ together laid claim to Hegel and to those of Marx’s early texts then available. As for its political effects, some of Rosa Luxemburg’s theses on imperialism and the disappearance of the laws of ‘political economy’ in the socialist regime; the Proletkult; the conceptions of the ‘Workers’ Opposition’, etc.; and in a general way the ‘voluntarism’ which deeply marked the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR, even in the paradoxical forms of Stalinist dogmatism. Even today, this ‘humanism’ and ‘historicism’ find genuinely revolutionary echoes in the political struggles waged by the people of the Third World to conquer and defend their political independence and set out on the socialist road. But these ideological and political advantages themselves, as Lenin admirably discerned, are offset by certain effects of the logic that they set in motion, which eventually and inevitably produce idealist and empiricist temptations in economic and political conceptions and practice – if they do not, given a favourable conjuncture, induce, by a paradoxical but still necessary inversion, conceptions which are tainted with reformism and opportunism, or quite simply revisionist.

Indeed, it is a peculiarity of every ideological conception, especially if it had conquered a scientific conception by diverting it from its true meaning, that it is governed by ‘interests’ beyond the necessity of knowledge alone. In this sense, i.e., on condition that it is given the object of which it speaks without knowing it, historicism is not without theoretical value, since it gives an adequate description of an essential aspect of all ideology, which takes its meaning from the current interests in whose service it is subjected. If the ideology does not express the total objective essence of its time (the essence of the historical present), it can at least express the current changes in the historical situation reasonably well by the effect of slight internal displacements of accent: unlike a science, an ideology is both theoretically closed; and politically supple and adaptable. It bends to the interests of the times, but without any apparent movement, being content to reflect the historical changes which it is its mission to assimilate and master by some imperceptible modification of its peculiar internal relations. The ambiguous example of the Vatican II ‘aggiornamento’ is a sufficiently striking proof: the effect and sign of an indisputable evolution, but at the same time a skilful adjustment to history, thanks to an intelligently handled conjuncture. Ideology changes therefore, but imperceptibly, conserving its ideological form; it moves, but with an immobile motion which maintains it where it is, in its place and its ideological role. It is the immobile motion which, as Hegel said of philosophy itself, reflects and expresses what happens in history without ever running ahead of its own time, since it is merely that time caught in the trap of a mirror reflection, precisely so that men will be caught in it too. That is the essential reason why the revolutionary humanism of the echoes of the 1917 Revolution can serve today as an ideological reflection for various political or theoretical preoccupations, some still related to this origin, others more or less foreign to it.

This historicist humanism may, for example, serve as a theoretical warning to intellectuals of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois origin, who ask themselves, sometimes in genuinely tragic terms, whether they really have a right to be members of a history which is made, as they know or fear, outside them Perhaps this is Sartre’s profoundest problem. It is fully present in his double thesis that Marxism is the ‘unsurpassable philosophy of our time’, and yet that no literary or philosophical work is worth an hour’s effort in comparison with the sufferings of a poor wretch reduced by imperialist exploitation to hunger and agony. Caught in this double declaration of faith, on the one hand in an idea of Marxism, on the other in the cause of all the exploited, Sartre reassures himself of the fact that he really does have a role to play, beyond the ‘Words’ he produces and regards with derision, in the inhuman history of our times, with a theory of ‘dialectical reason’ which assigns to all (theoretical) rationality, and to every (revolutionary) dialectic, the unique transcendental origin of the human ‘project’. Thus in Sartre historicist humanism takes the form of an exaltation of human freedom, in which by freely committing himself to their fight, he can commune with the freedom of all the oppressed, who have always been struggling for a little human light since the long and forgotten night of the slave revolts.

The same humanism, with some shift in accent, can serve other causes, according to conjuncture and needs: e.g., the protest against the errors and crimes of the period of the ‘cult of personality’, the impatience to see them dealt with, the hope for a real socialist democracy, etc. When these political sentiments want a theoretical basis, they always look for it in the same texts and concepts: in one of the theoreticians who emerged in the great post-1917 period (that is the reason for all these editions of the young Lukács and Korsch, and the passion for certain ambiguous formulations of Gramsci), or in Marx’s humanist texts: his Early Works; in ‘real humanism’, in ‘alienation’, in the ‘concrete’, in ‘concrete’ history, philosophy and psychology.[30]

Only a critical reading of Marx’s Early Works and a thorough study of Capital can enlighten us as to the significance and risks involved in a theoretical humanism and historicism, for they are foreign to Marx’s problematic.


The reader will probably remember the point from which we set out on this analysis of a misunderstanding of history. I pointed out that the way Marx thought of himself might emerge from the judgments in which he weighs the merits and faults of his predecessors. At the same time, I suggested that we had to submit Marx’s text not to an immediate reading, but to a ‘symptomatic’ reading, in order to discern in the apparent continuity of the discourse the lacunae, blanks and failures of rigour, the places where Marx’s discourse is merely the unsaid of his silence, arising in his discourse itself. I uncovered one of these theoretical symptoms in the judgment Marx himself gave of the absence of a concept in his predecessors, the absence of the concept of surplus-value, which (as Engels puts it) Marx ‘disdained’ to treat as more than a matter of the absence of a word. We have just seen what happens when another word, the word ‘history ‘, arises in the critical discourse Marx addressed to his predecessors. This apparently full word is in fact theoretically an empty word, in the immediacy of its obviousness – or rather, it is the ideology-fulfilment (plein-de-l’idéologie)[31] which surfaces in this lapse of rigour. Anyone who reads Capital without posing the critical question of its object sees no malice in this word that ‘speaks’ to him: he happily continues the discourse whose first word this word may be, the ideological discourse of history, and then the historicist discourse. As we have seen and as we understand, the theoretical and practical consequences are not so innocent. In an epistemological and critical reading, on the contrary, we cannot but hear behind the proferred word the silence it conceals, see the blank of suspended rigour, scarcely the time of a lightning-flash in the darkness of the text: correlatively, we cannot but hear behind this discourse which seems continuous but is really interrupted and governed by the threatened irruption of a repressive discourse, the silent voice of the real discourse, we cannot but restore its text, in order to re-establish its profound continuity. It is here that the identification of the precise points of weakness in Marx’s rigour is the same thing as the recognition of that rigour: it is his rigour that shows us its weaknesses; and in the brief moment of his temporary silence we are simply returning to him the speech that is his own.

Chapter 6. The Epistemological Propositions of Capital (Marx, Engels)

After this long digression, let us take stock of our analysis. We are looking for Marx’s peculiar object.

In a first moment, we examined the texts in which Marx tells us what his real discovery is, and we isolated the concepts of value and surplus-value as the bearers of this discovery. But we were forced to note that these concepts were precisely the site of the misunderstanding not only of the economists, but also of a number of Marxists about the peculiar object of the Marxist theory of political economy.

Then, in a second moment, we examined Marx through his own judgment of his predecessors, the founders of classical Political Economy, in the hope of grasping Marx himself in the judgment he pronounced on his own scientific prehistory. Here too we stumbled on disconcerting or inadequate definitions. We found that Marx did not really succeed in thinking the concept of the difference between himself and Classical Economics, and that by thinking this difference in terms of a continuity of content, he either projected us into a merely formal distinction, the dialectic, or into the foundation of this Hegelian dialectic, a certain ideological conception of history. We have assessed the theoretical and practical consequences of these ambiguities; we have seen that the ambiguity in the texts did not affect only the definition of the specific object of Capital, but also and at the same time the definition of Marx’s theoretical practice, the relationship between his theory and earlier theories – in short, the theory of science and the theory of the history of science. In this we were no longer dealing only with the theory of political economy and history, or historical materialism, but also with the theory of science and of the history of science, or dialectical materialism. And we can see, if only in relief, that there is an essential relationship between what Marx produced in the theory of history and what he produced in philosophy. We can see it in at least the following sign: the mere existence of an emptiness in the system of concepts of historical materialism is enough to establish in it immediately the fullness of a philosophical ideology, the empiricist ideology. We can only recognize this emptiness by emptying it of the obviousnesses of the ideological philosophy of which it is full. We can only rigorously define Marx’s few and as yet inadequate scientific concepts on the absolute condition that we recognize the ideological nature of the philosophical concepts which have usurped their places: in short, on the absolute condition that at the same time we begin to define the concepts of Marxist philosophy adapted to knowing and recognizing as ideological the philosophical concepts which mask the weaknesses of the scientific concepts from us. In this we are absolutely committed to a theoretical destiny: we cannot read Marx’s scientific discourse without at the same time writing at his dictation the text of another discourse, inseparable from the first one but distinct from it: the discourse of Marx’s philosophy.

Let us now begin the third moment of this examination. Capital, Engels’s prefaces, certain letters and the Notes on Wagner in fact contain what we need to start us off in a productive direction. What until now we have had to recognize negatively in Marx we shall from here on discover positively.

First we shall look at a few comments on terminology. We know that Marx criticized Smith and Ricardo for constantly confusing surplus-value with its forms of existence: profit, rent and interest. The great Economists’ analyses are therefore lacking a word. When Marx reads them he re-establishes this missing word in their texts: surplus-value. This act of re-establishing an absent word may seem insignificant, but it has considerable theoretical consequences: in fact, this word is not a word, but a concept, and a theoretical concept, which is here the representative of a new conceptual system, the correlative of the appearance of a new object. Every word is of course a concept, but every concept is not a theoretical concept, and every theoretical concept is not the representative of a new object. If the word surplus-value has such importance it is because it directly affects the structure of the object whose future is at stake in the simple act of naming. It does not matter that all these consequences were nowhere near Marx’s mind or pen when he criticized Smith and Ricardo for having skipped a word. Marx should not be expected to say everything at once any more than anybody else: what is important is that elsewhere he should say what he does not say when he says it here. Now Marx undoubtedly regarded as a theoretical requirement of the first order the need to constitute an adequate scientific terminology, i.e., a consistent system of defined terms in which not only would the words already used be concepts but in which the new words would also be concepts and moreover ones which define a new object. Criticizing Wagner’s confusion of use-value and value, Marx wrote:

The only stable thing in this German imbecility is that the words value or worth (Wert, Würde) are applied literally directly to the useful things themselves, which existed for a long time, even as ‘products of labour’ before they became commodities. But this has as much to do with the scientifc definition of commodity ‘value’ as the fact that the

word salt was first applied to cooking salt by the ancient world, and that therefore since Pliny sugar, etc., have figured as kinds of salt, etc. (Werke, Bd. XIX, p. 372)

– and slightly earlier:

This is reminiscent of the old chemists before chemistry was a science: because edible butter, which in ordinary life was just called butter (according to nordic custom), has a soft consistency, they called chlorides butter of zinc, butter of antimony, etc., or butyrous humours (ibid., p. 371).

This text is especially clear, for it distinguishes between the ‘literal’ meaning of a word and its scientific and conceptual meaning, on the basis, of a theoretical revolution in the object of a science (chemistry). If Marx proposes a new object, he must necessarily provide a corresponding new conceptual terminology.[32]

Engels put this particularly well in a passage from his Preface to the English edition of Capital (1886 – T.I, pp. 35-6; Vol. I, pp. 4-6):

There is, however, one difficulty we could not spare the reader: the use of certain terms in a sense different from what they have, not only in common life, but in ordinary Political Economy. But this was unavoidable. Every new aspect of a science involves a revolution in the technical terms (Fachausdrücken) of that science. This is best shown by chemistry, where the whole of the terminology (Terminologie) is radically changed about once in twenty years, and where you will hardly find a single organic compound that has not gone through a whole series of different names. Political Economy has generally been content to take, just as they were, the terms of commercial and industrial life, and to operate with them, entirely failing to see that by so doing, it confined itself within the narrow circle of ideas expressed by those terms. Thus, though perfectly aware that both profits and rent are but sub-divisions, fragments of that unpaid part of the product which the labourer has to supply to his employer (its first appropriator, though not its ultimate exclusive owner), yet even classical Political Economy never went beyond the received notions (übliche Begriffe) of profits and rents, never examined this unpaid part of the product (called by Marx surplus-product) in its integrity as a whole, and therefore never arrived at a clear comprehension, either of its origin and nature, or of the laws that regulate the subsequent distribution of its value. Similarly all industry, not agricultural or handicraft, is indiscriminately comprised in the term of manufacture, and thereby the distinction is obliterated between two great and essentially different periods of economic history: the period of manufacture proper, based on the division of manual labour, and the period of modern industry based on machinery. It is, however, self-evident that a theory which views modern capitalist production as a mere passing stage in the economic history of mankind, must make use of terms different from those habitual to writers who look upon that form of production as imperishable and final.[33]

We should retain the following basic theses from this text:

(1) every revolution (new aspect of a science) in its object necessarily leads to a revolution in its terminology;

(2) every terminology is linked to a definite circle of ideas, and we can translate this by saying: every terminology is a function of the theoretical system that provides its bases, every terminology brings with it a determinate and limited theoretical system;

(3) classical political economy was confined within a circle defined by the identity of its system of ideas and its terminology;

(4) in revolutionizing classical economic theory, Marx necessarily had to revolutionize its terminology;

(5) the sensitive point in this revolution concerns precisely surplus-value. Their failure to think it in a word which was the concept of its object kept the classical economists in the dark, imprisoning them in words which were merely the ideological or empirical concepts of economic practice;

(6) in the last resort, Engels reveals the difference between the terminology of classical political economy and Marx’s terminology as a difference in their conceptions of the object: the classics regarding it as imperishable, Marx as passing. We know what to think of this idea.

Despite this last weakness, this text is quite remarkable, since it reveals an intimate relationship between the object of a determinate scientific discipline on the one hand, and the system of its terminology and that of its ideas, on the other. It therefore reveals an intimate relationship between the object, the terminology and the corresponding conceptual system – a relationship which, once the object has been modified (once its ‘new aspects’ have been grasped), must necessarily induce a correlative modification in the system of ideas and conceptual terminology.

Or else, to put the same thing in a different language, Engels asserts the existence of a necessary functional connection between the nature of the object, the nature of the theoretical problematic and the nature of the conceptual terminology.

This connection is even clearer in another astonishing text of Engels’s, the Preface to Volume Two of Capital, a text which can be related directly to the analysis Marx gives of the blindness of the classical economists with regard to the wages problem (T.II, pp. 206ff; Vol. I, pp. 535ff).

In this text, Engels poses the question sharply:

Capitalistic man has been producing surplus-value for several hundred years and has gradually arrived at the point of pondering over its origin. The view first propounded grew directly out of commercial practice: surplus-value arises out of an addition to the value of the product. This idea was current among the mercantilists. But James Steuart already realized that in that case one would necessarily lose what the other would gain. Nevertheless, this view persisted for a long time afterwards, especially among the Socialists. But it was thrust out of classical science by Adam Smith (Vol. II, p. 8).

Engels then shows that Smith and Ricardo knew the origin of capitalist surplus-value. If they ‘did not separate surplus-value as such, considered as a special category, from the special forms which it assumes in profit and ground rent’ (ibid., p. 10), they did ‘produce’ the basic principle of the Marxist theory in Capital: surplus-value.

Whence the epistemologically pertinent question:

But what is there new in Marx’s utterances on surplus-value ? How is it that Marx’s theory of surplus-value struck home like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky, and that in all civilized countries, while the theories of all his socialist predecessors, Rodbertus included, vanished without having produced any effect? (ibid., p. 14).

Engels’s recognition of the enormous effect of the emergence of a new theory – the ‘thunderbolt out of a clear sky’ – is of interest to us as a brutal index of Marx’s novelty. This is no longer a matter of the ambiguous differences (fixist eternalism, history in movement) in which Marx tries to express his relationship with the economists. Engels does not hesitate: he directly poses the true problem of Marx’s epistemological rupture with classical economics; he poses it at the most pertinent, and also the most paradoxical point: surplus-value. Surplus-value is precisely not new, since it has already been ‘produced’ by classical economics! Engels therefore poses the question of Marx’s novelty with respect to a reality which is not new in Marx! The extraordinary intelligence of this question reveals Engels’s genius: he braves the question in its last hiding-place, without retreating an inch; he confronts it just where it was presented in the crushing form of its answer ; where rather the answer’s crushing claims to obviousness enabled it to prevent the slightest question being posed! He is so bold as to pose the question of the novelty of the non-novelty of a reality which appears in two different discourses, i.e., the question of the theoretical modality of this ‘reality’ inscribed in two theoretical discourses. A simple reading of his answer reveals that he has not posed it out of malice or at random, but within the field of a theory of science based on a theory of the history of the sciences. In fact, it is a comparison with the history of chemistry which enables him to formulate his question and define its answers.

What is there new in Marx’s utterances on surplus value ? ...

The history of chemistry offers an illustration which explains this.

We know that late in the past century the phlogistic theory still prevailed. It assumed that combustion consisted essentially in this: that a certain hypothetical substance, an absolute combustible named phlogiston, separated from the burning body. This theory sufficed to explain most of the chemical phenomena then known, although it had to be considerably strained in some cases. But in 1774 Priestley produced a certain kind of air ‘which he found to be so pure, or so free from phlogiston, that common air seemed adulterated in comparison with it.’ He called it ‘dephlogisticated air’. Shortly after him Scheele obtained the same kind of air in Sweden and demonstrated its existence in the atmosphere. He also found that this kind of air disappeared whenever some body was burned in it or in ordinary air and therefore he called it ‘fire-air’.

Priestley and Scheele had produced oxygen without knowing what they had laid their hands on. They ‘remained prisoners of the’ phlogisticcategories as they came down to them ‘. The element which was destined to upset all phlogistic views (die ganze phlogistische Anschauung umstossen) and to revolutionize chemistry remained barren in their hands. But Priestley had immediately communicated his discovery to Lavoisier in Paris, and Lavoisier, by means of this new fact (Tatsache), analysed the entire phlogistic chemistry and came to the conclusion that this new kind of air was a new chemical element, and that combustion was not a case of the mysterious phlogiston departing from the burning body, but of this new element combining with that body. Thus he was the first to place all chem- istry, which in its phlogistic form had stood on its head, squarely on its feet (stellte so die ganze Chemie, die in ihrer phlogistischen Form auf dem Kopf gestanden , erst auf die Füsse). And although he did not produce oxygen simultaneously and independently of the other two, as he claimed later on, he nevertheless is the real discoverer (der eigentliche Entdecker) of oxygen vis-à-vis the others who had only produced it (dargestellt) without knowing what (was) they had produced.

Marx stands in the same relation to his predecessors in the theory of surplus-value as Lavoisier stood to Priestley and Scheele. The existence (die Existenz) of that part of the value of products which we now call (nennen) surplus-value had been ascertained long before Marx. It had also been stated with more or less precision what it consisted of, namely, of the product of the labour for which its appropriator had not given any equivalent. But one did not get any further (Weiter aber kam man nicht). Some – the classical bourgeois economists – investigated at most the proportion in which the product of labour was divided between the labourer and the owner of the means of production. Others – the Socialists – found that the division was unjust and looked for utopian means for abolishing this injustice. They all remained prisoners (befangen) of the economic categories as they had come down to them (wie sie sie vorgefunden hatten).

Now Marx appeared upon the scene. And he took a view directly opposite to that of all his predecessors (in direktem Gegensatz zu allen seinen Vorgänger). What they had regarded as a solution (Lösung), he considered but a problem (Problem). He saw that he had to deal neither with dephlogisticated air nor with fire-air, but with oxygen – that here it was not simply a matter of stating an economic fact (Tatsache) or of pointing out the conflict between this fact and eternal justice and true morality, but of explaining a fact (Tatsache) which was destined to revolutionize (umwälzen) all economics, and which offered to him who knew how to use it the key to an understanding of all (gesamten) capitalist production. With this fact as his starting-point he examined (untersuchte) all the economic categories which he found at hand, just as Lavoisier proceeding from oxygen had examined the categories of phlogistic chemistry which he found at hand. In order to understand what surplus-value was, Marx had to find out what value was. He had to criticize above all the Ricardian theory of value. Hence he analysed labour’s value-producing property and was the first to ascertain what labour it was that produced value, and why and how it did so. He found that value was nothing but congealed labour of this kind, and this is a point which Rodbertus never grasped to his dying day. Marx then investigated the relation of commodities to money and demonstrated how and why, thanks to the property of value immanent in commodities, commodities and commodity-exchange must engender the opposition of commodity and money. His theory of money, founded on this basis, is the first exhaustive (erschöpfende) one and has been tacitly accepted everywhere. He analysed the transformation of money into capital and demonstrated that this transformation is based on the purchase and sale of labour-power. By substituting (an die Stelk ... setzen) labour-power, the value-producing property, for labour, he solved with one stroke (löste er mit einem Schlag) one of the difficulties which brought about the downfall of the Ricardian school, viz., the impossibility of harmonizing the mutual exchange of capital and labour with the Ricardian law that value is determined by labour. By establishing the distinction of capital into constant and variable he was enabled to represent (darzustellen) the real course of the process of the formation of surplus-value in its minutest details and thus to explain (erklären) it, a feat which none of his predecessors had accomplished. Consequently he established a distinction inside of capital itself with which neither Rodbertus nor the bourgeois economists knew in the least what to do, but which furnishes the key for the solution of the most complicated economic problems, as is strikingly proved again by Book II and will be proved still more by Book III. He analysed surplus-value further and found its two forms, absolute and relative surplus-value. And he showed that they had played a different, and each time a decisive role, in the historical development of capitalist production. On the basis of this surplus-value he developed the first rational theory of wages we have, and for the first time drew up an outline of the history of capitalist accumulation and an exposition of its historical tendency.

And Rodbertus? After he has read all that, he ... finds that he himself has said much more briefly and clearly what surplus-value evolves from, and finally declares that all this does indeed apply to ‘the present form of capital’, that is to say to capital as it exists historically, but not to the ‘concept of capital’, namely the utopian idea which Herr Rodbertus has of capital. Just like old Priestley, who swore by phlogiston to the end of his days and refused to have anything to do with oxygen. The only thing is that Priestley had actually produced oxygen first, while Rodbertus had merely rediscovered a commonplace in his surplus-value, or rather his ‘rent’, and that Marx, unlike Lavoisier, disdained to claim that he was the first to discover the fact (Tatsache) of the existence of surplus-value (Vol. II, pp. 14-16).

Let us summarize the theses of this remarkable text.

(1) Priestley and Scheele, in the period dominated by phlogistic theory, ‘produced’ (stellt dar) a strange gas, which the former called dephlogisticated air – and the latter: fire-air. In fact, it was the gas that would later be called oxygen. But, notes Engels, they ‘had produced it without having the least idea of what they had produced ‘, i.e., without its concept. That is why ‘the element which was determined to upset all phlogistic views and to revolutionize chemistry remained barren in their hands ‘. Why this barrenness and blindness? Because they ‘remained prisoners of thephlogistic “ categories as they came down to them ‘. Because, instead of seeing in oxygen a problem, they merely saw ‘a solution’.

(2) Lavoisier did just the opposite: ‘Lavoisier, by means of this new fact, analysed the entire phlogistic chemistry ‘; ‘thus he was the first to place all chemistry, which in its phlogistic form had stood on its head, squarely on its feet ‘. Where the others saw a solution he saw a problem. That is why, if it can be said that the first two ‘produced’ oxygen, it was Lavoisier alone who discovered it, by giving it its concept.

Exactly the same is true of Marx, in his relation with Smith and Ricardo, as of Lavoisier, in his relation with Priestley and Scheele: he truly discovered the surplus-value his predecessors had merely produced.

This mere comparison and the terms in which it is expressed, open up vistas deep into Marx’s work and into Engels’s epistemological insight. In order to understand Marx we must treat him as one scientist among others and apply to his scientific work the same epistemological and historical concepts we would apply to others: in this case to Lavoisier. Marx thus appears as the founder of a science, comparable with Galileo or Lavoisier. What is more, in order to understand the relation between Marx’s work and that of his predecessors, in order to understand the nature of the break or mutation which distinguishes him from them, we must examine the work of other founders who also had to break with their predecessors. An understanding of Marx, of the mechanism of his discovery and of the nature of the epistemological break which inaugurated his scientific foundation, leads us therefore to the concepts of a general theory of the history of the sciences, a theory capable of thinking the essence of these theoretical events. It is one thing whether this general theory as yet only exists as a project or whether it has already partially materialized; it is another that it is absolutely indispensable to a study of Marx. The path Engels designates for us in what he has done is a path we must take at all costs: it is none other than the path of the philosophy founded by Marx in the act of founding the science of history.

Engels’s text goes further. He gives us in so many words the first theoretical outline of the concept of the break: the mutation by which a new science is established in a new problematic, separated from the old ideological problematic. But the most astonishing point is this: Engels thinks this theory of the mutation of the problematic, i.e., of the break, in the terms of the ‘inversion’ which ‘places squarely on its feet’ a discipline which ‘had stood on its head ‘. Here we have a familiar idea! the very terms in which Marx, in the Afterword to the Second Edition of Capital, defined the treatment he applied to the Hegelian dialectic in order to change it from the idealist state to the materialist state. Here we find the very terms in which Marx defined the relationship between himself and Hegel in a phrase that still weighs very heavily on Marxism. But what a difference! Instead of Marx’s enigmatic phrase, Engels gives us a luminous one – and in Engels’s phrase, at last, for the first and perhaps the only time in all the classical texts, we find a clear explanation of Marx’s phrase. ‘To put chemistry which had stood on its head squarely on its feet ‘, means, without any possible ambiguity, in Engels’s text: to change the theoretical base, to change the theoretical problematic of chemistry, replacing the old problematic with a new one. This is the meaning of the famous ‘inversion’: in this image, which is no more than an image and has neither the meaning nor the rigour of a concept, Marx was simply trying to indicate for his part the existence of the mutation of the problematic which inaugurates every scientific foundation.

(3) In fact, Engels describes to us one of the formal conditions for an event in theoretical history: precisely a theoretical revolution. We have seen that it is essential to construct the concepts of theoretical fact and theoretical event, of the theoretical revolution which intervenes in the history of knowledge, in order to be able to constitute the history of knowledge – just as it is essential to construct and articulate the concepts of historical fact and historical event, of revolution, etc., in order to be able to think political or economic history. With Marx we are at the site of a historical break of the first importance, not only in the history of the science of history, but also in the history of philosophy, to be precise, in the history of the Theoretical ; this break (which enables us to resolve a periodisation problem in the history of science) coincides with a theoretical event, the revolution in the science of history and in philosophy constituted by the problematic introduced by Marx. It does not matter that this event went wholly or partly unperceived, that time is needed before this theoretical revolution can make all its effects felt, that it has suffered an incredible repression in the visible history of ideas; the event took place, the break took place, and the history which was born with it is grubbing its subterranean way beneath official history: ‘well grubbed, old mole!’ One day the official history of ideas will fall behind it, and when it realizes this it will be too late for it unless it is prepared to recognize this event and draw the consequences.

Indeed Engels shows us the other side of this revolution: the insistence with which those who have lived through it deny it: ‘the old Priestley ... swore by phlogiston to the end of his days and refused to have anything to do with oxygen’. Like Smith and Ricardo, he held to the system of existing ideas, refusing to question the theoretical problematic from which the new discovery had just broken.[34] I am justified in putting forward this term ‘theoretical problematic’ because in doing so I am giving a name (which is a concept) to what Engels says to us: Engels in fact sums up the critical interrogation of the old theory and the constitution of the new one, in the act of posing as a problem what had hitherto been given as a solution. This is no more than Marx’s own conception, in the famous chapter on wages (T.II, pp. 206ff.; Vol. I, pp. 535ff.). Examining what it was that allowed classical political economy to define wages by the value of the necessary subsistence goods, Marx wrote: ‘It thus unwittingly changed terrain by substituting for the value of labour, up to this point the apparent object of its investigations, the value of labour-power ... The result the analysis led to therefore was not a resolution of the problem as it emerged at the beginning, but a complete change in the terms of that problem.’ Here, too, we can see the content of the ‘inversion’: this ‘change of terrain’ identical with the ‘change of terms’, and therefore the change in the theoretical basis from which the questions are formulated and the problems posed. Here, too, we can see that there is no difference between ‘inverting’, ‘placing what had stood on its head squarely on its feet’, ‘changing terrain’ and ‘changing the terms of the problem’: each of these transformations is the same, affecting the peculiar structure of the basic theory in respect to which every problem is posed in the terms and in the field of the new theory. To change theoretical base is therefore to change theoretical problematic, if it is true that the theory of a science at a given moment in its history is no more than the theoretical matrix of the type of questions the science poses its object – if it is true that with a new basic theory a new organic way of putting questions to the object comes into the world, a new way of posing questions and in consequence of producing new answers. Speaking of the question that Smith and Ricardo put to wages, Engels writes: ‘The question (die Frage) is indeed insoluble (unlöslich), if put in this form. It has been correctly (richtig) formulated by Marx and thereby been answered’ (Vol. II, p. 17). This correct formulation of the problem is not a chance effect: on the contrary, it is the effect of a new theory, which is the system for posing problems in a correct form – the effect of a new problematic. Hence every theory is in its essence a problematic, i.e., the theoretico-systematic matrix for posing every problem concerning the object of the theory.

(4) But Engels’s text contains something further. It contains the idea that the reality, the new fact (Tatsache), in this case the existence of surplus-value, cannot be reduced to ‘simply a matter of stating an economic fact ‘: that, on the contrary, it is a fact destined to revolutionize all economics, and provide an understanding of ‘all capitalist production ‘. Marx’s discovery is not therefore a subjective problem (merely a way of interrogating a given reality, or a changed ‘view-point’, both purely subjective): in correlation with the transformation of the theoretical matrix for posing every problem concerning the object, it concerns the reality of the object: its objective definition. To cast doubt on the definition of the object is to pose the question of a differential definition of the novelty of the object aimed at by the new theoretical problematic. In the history of the revolutions of a science, every upheaval in the theoretical practice is correlated with a transformation in the definition of the object, and therefore with a difference which can be assigned to the object of the theory itself.

In drawing this conclusion, have I gone beyond Engels? Yes and no. No, for Engels does not only take into account the existence of a system of phlogistic ideas, which, before Lavoisier, determined the way every problem was posed, and therefore the meaning of every corresponding solution; as he takes into account the existence of a system of ideas in Ricardo when he notes the ultimate necessity which forced Marx to ‘criticize above an the Ricardian theory of value’ (Vol. II, p. 15). Perhaps yes, if it is true that however acute he may have been in his analysis of this theoretical event and scientific revolution, Engels was not so bold when it came to thinking this revolution’s effects on the object of the theory. We have already noted the ambiguities of his conception on this point of which he was very much aware: they can all be reduced to the empiricist confusion between the object of knowledge and the real object. Engels clearly fears that by risking himself beyond the (imaginary) security of the empiricist thesis he may lose the guarantees he obtains by proclaiming a real identity between the object of knowledge and the real object. He has difficulty in imagining what he is saying, although he does say it and the history of science reveals it to him at every step: the fact that the process of production of knowledge necessarily proceeds by the constant transformation of its (conceptual) object; that it is precisely the effect of this transformation, which is the same thing as the history of knowledge, that it produces a new knowledge (a new object of knowledge) which still concerns the real object, knowledge of which is deepened precisely by this reorganization of the object of knowledge. As Marx says profoundly, the real object, of which knowledge is to be acquired or deepened, remains what it is, after as before the process of knowledge which involves it (cf. the 1857 Introduction); if, therefore, it is the absolute reference point for the process of knowledge which is concerned with it – the deepening of the knowledge of this real object is achieved by a labour of theoretical transformation which necessarily affects the object of knowledge, since it is only applied to the latter. Lenin understood this essential condition of scientific practice perfectly – it is one of the major themes of Materialism and Empirico-Criticism: the theme of the incessant deepening of the knowledge of a real object by incessantly reorganizing the object of knowledge. This transformation of the object of knowledge may take various forms: it may be continuous and impalpable – or, on the contrary, discontinuous and spectacular. When a well-established science is developing smoothly, the transformation of the object (of knowledge) takes on a continuous, progressive form: the transformation of the object makes ‘new aspects’ visible in the object, aspects which were not at all visible before; the object is then like a geographical map of a region which is still little known but in process of exploration: the blanks in the interior are being filled in with new details and corrections, but without modifying the already recognized and accepted general outlines of the region. For example, this is how we have been able since Marx to pursue the systematic investigation of the object Marx defined: we shall certainly add new details, ‘see’ what we could not see before – but inside an object whose structure will be confirmed rather than revolutionized by our results. The reverse is the case in the critical periods in the development of a science when real mutations take place in the theoretical problematic: the object of the theory then suffers a corresponding mutation, which now does not only affect ‘aspects’ of the object, details of its structure, but this structure itself. What is then made visible is a new structure of the object, often so different from the old that it is legitimate to speak of a new object: the history of mathematics from the beginning of the nineteenth century until today, or the history of modern physics, are rich in mutations of this kind. A fortiori, the same is true when a new science is born – when it detaches itself from the field of the ideology from which it breaks at its birth: this theoretical ‘uncoupling’ always and inevitably induces a revolutionary change in the theoretical problematic, and just as radical a modification of the object of theory. In this case, it is strictly correct to speak of a revolution, of a qualitative leap, of a modification affecting the very structure of the object.[35] The new object may well still retain some link with the old ideological object, elements may be found in it which belong to the old object, too: but the meaning of these elements changes with the new structure, which precisely confers on them their meaning. These apparent similarities in isolated elements may mislead a superficial glance unaware of the function of the structure in the constitution of the meaning of the elements of an object, just as certain technical similarities in isolated elements may deceive those interpreters who rank structures as different as contemporary capitalism and socialism within the same category (‘industrial societies’). In fact, this theoretical revolution which is visible in the break which separates a new science from the ideology which gave it birth, reverberates profoundly in the object of the theory, which is at the same moment itself the site of a revolution – and becomes peculiarly a new object. This mutation in the object, like the mutation in the corresponding problematic, may become the object of a rigorous epistemological study. And as a single movement constitutes both the new problematic and the new object, the study of this double mutation is in fact only a single study, belonging to the discipline which reflects on the history of the forms of knowledge and on the mechanism of their production: philosophy.

With this we reach the threshold of our question: what is the peculiar object of the economic theory founded by Marx in Capital, what is the object of Capital ? What is the specific difference between Marx’s object and that of his predecessors?

Chapter 7. The Object of Political Economy

To answer this question, I shall take literally the sub-title of Capital – ‘A Critique of Political Economy’. If the view I have put forward is correct, ‘to criticize’ Political Economy cannot mean to criticize or correct certain inaccuracies or points of detail in an existing discipline – nor even to fill in its gaps, its blanks, pursuing further an already largely initiated movement of exploration. ‘To criticize Political Economy’ means to confront it with a new problematic and a new object: i.e., to question the very object of Political Economy. But since Political Economy is defined as Political Economy by its object, the critique directed at it from the new object with which it is confronted could strike Political Economy’s vital spot. This is indeed the case: Marx’s critique of Political Economy cannot challenge the latter’s object without disputing Political Economy itself, in its theoretical pretensions to autonomy and in the ‘divisions’ it creates in social reality in order to make itself the theory of the latter. Marx’s critique of Political Economy is therefore a very radical one: it queries not only the object of Political Economy, but also Political Economy itself as an object. In order to give this thesis the benefit of its radicalism, let us say that Political Economy, as it is defined by its pretensions, has no right to exist as far as Marx is concerned: if Political Economy thus conceived cannot exist, it is for de jure, not de facto reasons.

If this really is the case, we can understand what misunderstanding separates Marx not only from his predecessors, critics and certain of his supporters – but also from the ‘economists’ who have come after him. This misunderstanding is a simple one, but at the same time it is paradoxical. Simple because the economists make their living from Political Economy’s pretensions to existence – and these pretensions revoke all its rights to exist. Paradoxical, because the consequence Marx has drawn from the de jure non-existence of Political Economy is a vast book called Capital which seems to speak of nothing but political economy from beginning to end.

We must therefore go into detail, uncovering the indispensable corrections, little by little, in the rigorous relationship that unites them. In order to anticipate them, which is necessary if we are to understand them, let us give one first reference point. Political Economy’s pretensions to existence are a function of the nature and hence of the definition of its object. Political Economy gives itself as an object the domain of ‘economic facts’ which it regards as having the obviousness of facts: absolute givens which it takes as they ‘give’ themselves, without asking them for any explanations. Marx’s revocation of the pretensions of Political Economy is identical with his revocation of the obviousness of this ‘given’, which in fact it ‘gives itself’ arbitrarily as an object, pretending that this object was given it. Marx’s whole attack is directed at this object, at its pretensions to the modality of a ‘given’ object: Political Economy’s pretensions being no more than the mirror reflection of its object’s pretensions to have been given it. By posing the question of the ‘givenness’ of the object, Marx poses the question of the object itself, of its nature and limits, and therefore of the domain of its existence, since the modality according to which a theory thinks its object affects not only the nature of that object but also the situation and extent of its domain of existence. As an indication, let us adopt a famous thesis of Spinoza’s: as a first approximation, we can suggest that Political Economy’s existence is no more possible than the existence of any science of ‘conclusions’ as such: a science of ‘conclusions’ is not a science, since it would be the actual ignorance (‘ignorance en acte’) of its ‘premises’ – it is only the Imaginary in action (the ‘first kind’). The science of conclusions is merely an effect, a product of the science of premises: but if we suppose that this science of premises exists, the pretended science of conclusions (the ‘first kind’) is known as imaginary and as the imaginary in action: once known it disappears with the disappearance of its pretensions and its object. The same is true grosso modo of Marx. If Political Economy cannot exist for itself, it is because its object does not exist for itself, because it is not the object of its concept, or because its concept is the concept of an inadequate object. Political Economy cannot exist unless the science of its premises, or if you prefer, the theory of is concepts, already exists – but once this theory exists, then Political Economy’s pretensions disappear into what they are: imaginary pretensions. From these very schematic indications, we can draw two provisional conclusions. If the ‘Critique of Political Economy’ does have the meaning we have proposed, it must at the same time be a construction of the true concept of the object, at which classical Political Economy is aiming in the Imaginary of its pretensions – a construction which will produce the concept of the new object with which Marx confronts Political Economy. If any understanding of Capital depends on the construction of the concept of this new object, those who can read Capital without looking for this concept in it and without relating everything to this concept, are in serious danger of being tripped up by misunderstandings or riddles: living merely in the ‘effects’ of invisible causes, in the Imaginary of an economy as close to them as the sun’s distance of two hundred paces in the ‘first kind of know ledge’ – as close, precisely because it is an infinite number of leagues away from them.

This reference point is sufficient as an introduction to our analysis. We shall proceed as follows: in order to reach a differential definition of Marx’s object we shall make an initial detour: an analysis of the object of Political Economy, which will show us by its structural features the type of object Marx rejected in order to constitute his own object (A). A critique of the categories of this object will indicate to us the positive concepts in Marx’s theoretical practice which are constitutive of his object (B). We can then define this object, and draw a number of conclusions from its definition.


I cannot here provide a detailed examination of the classical theories, nor a fortiori of the modern theories, of political economy, in order to draw from it a definition of the object to which they are related in their theoretical practice, even if they do not reflect this object for itself.[36] I propose only to locate the most general concepts that constitute the theoretical structure of the object of Political Economy: in essentials, this analysis concerns the object of classical Political Economy (Smith, Ricardo), but it is not restricted to the classical forms of Political Economy, since the same basic theoretical categories still underly the work of many economists today. With this in mind, I think I can take as my elementary theoretical guide the definitions proposed in A. Lalande’s Dictionnaire Philosophique. Their inconsistencies and inaccuracies, even their ‘banality’, are not without advantages: they can be taken as so many indices not only of a common theoretical background, but also of the possible resonances and inflexions of sense this background provides.

Lalande’s Dictionary defines Political Economy as follows: ‘a science whose goal is knowledge of the phenomena, and (if the nature of those phenomena allows) the determination of the laws, which concern the distribution of wealth, and its production and consumption, insofar as the latter phenomena are linked to those of distribution. Wealth means, technically, everything which is capable of utilization’ (I, p. 187). The various definitions Lalande proposes, quoting Gide, Simiand, Karmin, etc., put the concept of distribution in the forefront. The definition of the extension of Political Economy to the three fields of production, distribution and consumption is taken from the classics – particularly from Say. Discussing production and consumption, Lalande notes that they are ‘only economic from one point of view. Taken in their totality they imply a great many notions foreign to political economy, notions borrowed, as far as production is concerned, from technology, ethnography and the science of social mores. Political economy deals with production and consumption; but only insofar as they are related to distribution, either as cause or as effect.’

Let us take this schematic definition as the most general basis of Political Economy, and see what it implies, from a theoretical point of view, where the structure of its object is concerned.

(a) First of all, it implies the existence of ‘economic’ facts and phenomena distributed within a definite field which has the property of being a homogeneous field. The field and the phenomena that constitute it and fill it are given, i.e., accessible to direct observation and attention: their apprehension does not depend on the prior theoretical construction of their concepts. This homogeneous field is a defined space in which the different economic determinations, facts or phenomena are, by virtue of the homogeneity of the field in which they exist, comparable, and, to be precise, measurable, i.e., quantifiable. Every economic fact is therefore in essence measurable. This was already the great principle of classical economics: precisely the first point at which Marx directed his critique. Smith’s great error was, in Marx’s eyes, the fact that he sacrificed the analysis of the value-form to a consideration of the quantity of value only: ‘their attention is entirely absorbed in the analysis of the magnitude of value’ (T.I, p. 83 n1; Vol. I, p. 80 n2). On this point modern economists, despite the differences in their conception are on the side of the classics in attacking Marx for producing in his theory concepts which are ‘non-operational’, i.e., which exclude the measurement of their object: e.g., surplus-value. But this attack back-fires on its authors, since Marx accepts and uses measurement – for the ‘developed forms’ of surplus-value (profit, rent and interest). If surplus-value is not measurable, that is precisely because it is the concept of its forms, which are measurable. Of course, this simple distinction changes everything: the homogeneous planar space of the phenomena of political economy is no longer a mere given, since it requires the posing of its concept, i.e., the definition of the conditions and limits which allow phenomena to be treated as homogeneous, i.e., measurable. Let us merely note this difference – but without forgetting that modern political economy remains faithful to the empiricist, ‘quantitative’ tradition of the classics, if it is true that, to use a phrase of André Marchal’s, it knows only ‘measurable’ facts.

(b) But this empiricist-positivist conception of economic facts is not as ‘plain’ (‘plat ‘) as it might seem. Here I am talking about the ‘plainness’ of the planar (‘plan ‘) space of its phenomena. If this homogeneous space does not refer to the depth of its concept, it does do so to a certain world outside its own plane which has the theoretical role of underlying it in existence and founding it. The homogeneous space of economic phenomena implies a determinate relationship with the world of the men who produce, distribute, receive and consume. This is the second theoretical implication of the object of Political Economy. This implication is not always as visible as it is in Smith and Ricardo, it may remain latent and not be so directly thematized in Economics: but it is no less essential to the structure of its object for that. Political Economy relates economic facts to their origin in the needs (or ‘utility’) of human subjects. It therefore tends to reduce exchange-values to use-values, and the latter (‘wealth’, to use the expression of Classical Economics) to human needs. This is also the position of F. Simiand (quoted by Lalande): ‘What makes a phenomenon economic? Instead of defining that phenomenon with respect to wealth (richesses – a classical term in the French tradition, but one that could be imposed on) I believe it would be better to follow more recent economists who take as their central notion the satisfaction of material needs’ (Lalande, I, p. 188). Simiand is wrong to put forward his request as a novelty: his definition merely repeats the classical one, for behind men and their needs it presents their theoretical function as the subjects of the economic phenomena.

That is to say that Classical Economics can only think economic facts as belonging to the homogeneous space of their positivity and measurability on condition that it accepts a ‘naïve’ anthropology which founds all the acts involved in the production, distribution, reception and consumption of economic objects on the economic subjects and their needs. Hegel provided the philosophical concept of the unity of this ‘naïve’ anthropology with the economic phenomena in his famous expression ‘the sphere of needs ‘, or ‘civil society’,[37] as distinct from political society. In the concept of the sphere of needs, economic facts are thought as based in their economic essence on human subjects who are a prey to ‘need’: on the homo oeconomicus, who is a (visible, observable) given, too. The homogeneous positivist field of measurable economic facts depends on a world of subjects whose activity as productive subjects in the division of labour has as its aim and effect the production of objects of consumption, destined to satisfy these same subjects of needs. The subjects, as subjects of needs, support the activity of the subjects as producers of use-values, exchangers of commodities and consumers of use-values. The field of economic phenomena is thus, in origin as in aim, founded on the ensemble of human subjects whose needs define them as economic subjects. The peculiar theoretical structure of Political Economy depends on immediately and directly relating together a homogeneous space of given phenomena and an ideological anthropology which bases the economic character of the phenomena and its space on man as the subject of needs (the givenness of the homo oeconomicus).

Let us examine this more closely. We have been speaking of a homogeneous space of given, economic facts or phenomena. And now, behind this given, we have discovered a world of given human subjects indispensably underlying its existence: The first given is therefore a false given: or rather it is really a given, given by this anthropology, which is itself given. This and this alone, indeed, allows us to declare that the phenomena which are grouped within the space of Political Economy are economic: they are economic as (more or less immediate or ‘mediated’) effects of the needs of human subjects, in short, of what it is that makes man, besides his rational (animal rationale), loquacious (animal loquax), laughing (ridens), political (politicus), moral and religious natures, a subject of needs (homo oeconomicus). It is the need (of the human subject) that defines the economic in economics. The given in the homogeneous field of economic phenomena is therefore given us as economic by this silent anthropology. But if we look closer we see that this ‘giving’ anthropology is, in the strongest sense, the absolute given! unless someone refers us to God as its founder, i.e., to the Given who himself gives himself, causa sui, God-Given. Let us leave this point in which we can see well enough that there can never be a given on the fore-stage of obviousnesses, except by means of a giving ideology which stays behind, with which we keep no accounts and which gives us what it wants. If we do not go and look behind the curtain we shall not see its act of ‘giving’: it disappears into the given as all workmanship does into its works. We are its spectators, i.e., its beggars.

This is not all: the same anthropology that underlies the space of economic phenomena in this way, allowing them to be called economic, re-emerges in them later in other forms, some of which we know: if classical political economy was able to present itself as a happy providential order, as economic harmony (from the Physiocrats to Say via Smith), it was by the direct projection of the moral or religious attributes of its latent anthropology onto the space of economic phenomena. The same type of intervention was at work in liberal bourgeois optimism or in the moral protests of Ricardo’s socialist commentators, with whom Marx constantly crossed swords: the content of the anthropology changes but the anthropology survived, along with its role and the site of its intervention. This latent anthropology also re-emerges in certain myths of modern political economists, e.g., in concepts as ambiguous as economic ‘rationality’, ‘optimum’, ‘full employment’ or welfare economics, ‘humane’ economics, etc. The same anthropology which serves as the original foundation for economic phenomena comes to the fore as soon as there is a question of defining the meaning of these phenomena, i.e., their end. The homogeneous given space of economic phenomena is thus doubly given by the anthropology which grips it in the vice of origins and ends.

And if this anthropology seems absent from the immediate reality of the phenomena themselves, it is in the interval between origins and ends, and also by virtue of its universality which is merely repetition. As all the subjects are equally subjects of needs their effects can be dealt with by bracketing the ensemble of these subjects: their universality is then reflected in the universality of the laws of the effects of their needs – which naturally leads Political Economy towards its pretensions to deal with economic phenomena in the absolute, in all forms of society, past, present and future. The taste for false eternity Marx found in the Classics may have come to them politically from their wish to make the bourgeois mode of production everlasting: this is obvious enough for some of them: Smith, Say, etc. But it may have come to them from a different cause, one older than the bourgeoisie, living in the time of a different history, not from a political cause but from a theoretical cause: from theoretical effects produced by this silent anthropology, which ratifies the structure of the object of Political Economy. This is surely the case with Ricardo, who knew perfectly well that one day the bourgeoisie would have had its day, who already read this destiny into the mechanism of its economy and yet continued to speak the discourse of eternity at the top of his voice.

Need we go further in our analysis of the structure of the object of Political Economy than this functional unity between the homogeneous field of given economic phenomena – and a latent anthropology, and reveal the presuppositions, the theoretical (philosophical) concepts which in their specific connections underly this unity? We should then be faced by philosophical concepts as fundamental as: given, subject, origin, end, order – and connections such as that of linear and teleological causality. All these concepts deserve a detailed analysis showing the role they are forced to play in Political Economy’s stage direction. But this would lead us much too far afield – and, in any case, we shall come across them again from the other side when we see Marx either rejecting them or giving them quite different roles.

Chapter 8. Marx’s Critique

Marx rejected both the positive conception of a homogeneous field of given economic phenomena – and the ideological anthropology of the homo oeconomicus (etc.) which underlies it. Along with this unity he therefore rejected the very structure of the object of Political Economy.

First let us see what was the fate of classical anthropology in Marx’s work. For this purpose I shall make a rapid survey of the major regions of the economic ‘space’: consumption, distribution and production – in order to see what theoretical place is occupied in it by anthropological concepts.


We can begin with consumption, which seems a direct concern of anthropology since it involves the concept of human ‘needs ‘. In the 1857 Introduction, Marx showed that economic needs cannot be defined unambiguously by relating them to the ‘human nature’ of the economic subjects. In fact, consumption is double. It does include the individual consumption of the men in a given society, but also productive consumption, which would have to be defined as the consumption which satisfies the needs of production to consecrate the universal use of the concept of need. This kind of consumption includes: the ‘objects’ of production (natural materials or raw materials, the result of labour transforming natural materials) and the instruments of production (tools, machines, etc.) necessary for production. A full part of consumption is therefore directly and exclusively the concern of production itself. A full part of consumption is therefore devoted not to the satisfaction of the needs of individuals, but to allowing either simple or extended reproduction of the conditions of production. From this statement Marx drew two absolutely essential distinctions, both of which are absent from classical Political Economy: the distinction between constant capital and variable capital, and the distinction between two departments of production, Department I, devoted to the reproduction of the conditions of production on a simple or extended basis, and Department II, devoted to the production of the objects of individual consumption. The proportion between these two departments is governed by the structure of production which intervenes directly to determine the nature and the quantity of a full part of the use-values which never enter consumption for need but only production itself. This discovery plays an essential part in the theory of the realization of value, in the process of capitalist accumulation, and in all the laws that flow from it. This point is the object of an interminable polemic of Marx’s against Smith, which he returns to several times in Volumes Two and Three and which is echoed in Lenin’s critique of the populists and their teacher, the ‘romantic’ economist Sismondi.[38]

However, this distinction does not settle all the questions. It may be true that the ‘needs’ of production avoid any anthropological determination, but it remains true also that part of the product is consumed by individuals, who satisfy their ‘needs’ with it. But here, too, we find that anthropology’s theoretical pretensions have been shattered by Marx’s analysis. Not only does Marx define these ‘needs’ as ‘historical’ and not as absolute givens – (The Poverty of Philosophy, pp. 41-2; Capital, T.I, pp. 174, 228; Vol. I, pp. 171, 232; Vol. III, p. 837, etc.), but also and above all he recognizes them as ‘needs’ in their economic function, on condition that they are ‘effective’ (Vol. III, pp. 178, 189). The only needs that play an economic part are those that can be satisfied economically: those needs are not defined by human nature in general but by their effectivity, i.e., by the level of the income at the disposal of the individuals concerned – and by the nature of the products available, which are, at a given moment, the result of the technical capacities of production. The determination of the needs of individuals by the forms of production goes even further, since production produces not only definite means of consumption (use-values), but also their mode of consumption, including even the wish for these products (1857 Introduction, op. cit., p. 13). In other words, individual consumption itself, which interconnects use-values and needs in an apparently immediate fashion (and therefore seems to derive directly from an anthropology, but a historicized one), refers us to the technical capacities of production (the level of the forces of production) on the one hand, and on the other to the social relations of production, which fix the distribution of income (the forms of the division into surplus-value and wages). This last point leads on to the distribution of men into social classes, which then become the ‘real’ ‘subjects’ (insofar as that term is applicable) of the production process. The direct relationship between ‘needs’ thus defined and an anthropological basis becomes therefore purely mythical: or rather, we must invert the order of things and say that the idea of an anthropology, if it is possible at all, must first take into consideration the economic (non-anthropological) definition of those ‘needs’. Those needs are subject to a double structural, i.e., no longer anthropological, determination: the determination which divides the products between Departments I and II, and assigns to needs their content and meaning (the structure of the relation between the productive forces and the relations of production). This conception therefore rejects classical anthropology’s founding role in economics.


Since distribution has been revealed as an essential factor in the determination of needs – alongside production – let us examine this new category. Distribution, too, has two aspects. It is not only the distribution of income (which refers to the relations of production), but also the distribution of the use-values produced by the production process. But we know that these use-values include the products of Department I, or means of production – and the products of Department II, or means of consumption. The products of Department II are exchanged for individual’s incomes, hence as a function of their incomes, hence as a function of the distribution of incomes, hence as a function of the first distribution. As for the products of Department I, the means of production, intended for the reproduction of the conditions of production, they are not exchanged for income, but directly between the owners of the means of production (this results from the realization diagrams in Volume Two): between the members of the capitalist class, who have a monopoly of the means of production. Behind the distribution of use-values, therefore, we can trace the outline of a different distribution: the distribution of men into social classes exercising functions in the production process.

In its most banal conception, distribution appears as the distribution of products, and thus as further away from and quasi-independent of production. But before distribution is distribution of the product, it is: (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2) what is a further definition of the same relationship, the distribution of the members of the society into the different kinds of production (subsumption of the individuals under determinate relations of production). The distribution of the product is obviously only the result of this distribution which is included within the production process itself and determines the articulation of production (Marx: 1857 Introduction, op. cit., p. 17).

In both cases, whether by the distribution of income or by the distribution of means of consumption and means of production, the index of the distribution of the members of society into distinct classes, we are therefore referred to the relations of production and production itself.

Our examination of categories which at first sight seemed to demand the theoretical intervention of an anthropology of the homo oeconomicus and, for this reason, might have seemed to make it well-founded, has therefore produced two results: (1) the disappearance of anthropology, which has ceased to play its founding role (determination of the economic as such, determination of the ‘subjects’ of the economy). The ‘planar space’ of economic phenomena is no longer doubled by the anthropological space of the existence of human subjects; (2) A necessary reference, implied by the analysis of consumption and distribution, to the site of the true determination of the economic: production. Correlatively, we see this theoretical deepening as a transformation of the field of economic phenomena: their former ‘planar space’ has been replaced by a new pattern in which the economic ‘phenomena’ are thought within the domination of the ‘relations of production’ which define them.

The reader will have recognized one of Marx’s basic theses in this second result: it is production that governs consumption and distribution, not the reverse. Marx’s whole discovery is often reduced to this basic theory and its consequences.

But this ‘reduction’ runs into one small difficulty; this discovery is as old as the Physiocrats, and Ricardo, the economist ‘of production par excellence’ (Marx), gave it its systematic form. In fact, Ricardo proclaimed the primacy of production over distribution and consumption. We must go even further and admit, as Marx does in the 1857 Introduction, that Ricardo claimed that distribution constituted the peculiar object of Political Economy because he was alluding to the aspect of distribution which concerns the division of the agents of production into social classes (1857 Introduction, op. cit., p. 17). But here too we must apply to Ricardo what Marx said of him with respect to surplus-value. Ricardo gave every outward token of recognizing the reality of surplus-value – but he always spoke of it in the forms of profit, rent and interest, i.e., within other concepts than its own. Similarly, Ricardo gives every outward token of recognizing the existence of the relations of production – but he always speaks of them in the form of the distribution of income and products alone – i.e., without producing their concept. When it is only a question of identifying the existence of a reality behind its disguise, it does not matter if the word or words which designate it are inadequate concepts. This is what enabled Marx to translate the language of his predecessor in an immediate substitutional reading, and to pronounce the words surplus-value where Ricardo had pronounced the word profit – or the words relations of production where Ricardo had pronounced the words distribution of income. This is all right so long as there is no need to do more than designate an existence: it is enough to correct a word in order to call the thing by its name. But when it is a matter of the theoretical consequences arising from this disguise, the affair becomes much more grave: since this word then plays the part of a concept whose inadequacy or absence has serious theoretical effects, whether the author in question recognizes them (as Ricardo did the contradictions he ran into) or not. Then one learns that what one had taken for a reality disguised in an inaccurate word is a disguised second disguise: the theoretical function of a concept disguised in a word. On this condition, variations in terminology may be the real index of a variation in the problematic and the object. However, it is just as if Marx had made his own division of labour. On the one hand, he was content to carry out a substitutional reading of his predecessors: this was a sign of the ‘generosity’ (Engels) which always made him calculate his debts unselfishly, and in practice treat ‘producers’ as ‘discoverers’. But on the other hand, though in different places, Marx revealed that he was as pitiless towards the theoretical consequences drawn by his predecessors in this blindness as he was to the conceptual meaning of the facts which they had produced. When Marx criticized Smith or Ricardo with the utmost severity because they were unable to distinguish between surplus-value and its forms of existence, he was in fact attacking them because they did not give a concept to the fact that they had managed to ‘produce’. We can clearly see that the mere ‘omission’ of a word is really the absence of a concept, since the presence or absence of a concept is decisive for a whole chain of theoretical consequences. And in return, this illuminates the effects of the absence of a word on the theory which ‘contains’ this absence: the absence of a ‘word’ from it is the presence in it of a different concept. In other words, anyone who thinks he only has to re-establish a ‘word’ which is absent from Ricardo’s discourse is in danger of deceiving himself as to the conceptual effect of that absence, he is reducing Ricardo’s very concepts to mere ‘words’. In this cross-over of false identifications (the belief that the construction of a concept is no more than the re-establishment of a word; the belief that Ricardo’s concepts are mere words) we must look for the reason why Marx could both exalt his predecessors’ discoveries when they had often only ‘produced’ them without ‘discovering’ them, and criticize them just as sharply for the theoretical consequences, although these consequences have merely been drawn from the ‘discoveries’. I had to go into this amount of detail in order to situate the meaning of the following judgment of Marx’s:

Ricardo, who was concerned to conceive modern production in its determinate social articulation, and who is the economist of production par excellence, precisely for this reason explains not production but distribution as the basic theme of modern economics (1857 Introduction, op. cit., p. 18).

‘Precisely for this reason’ means:

... [he] instinctively conceived the forms of distribution as the most definite expression of the fixed relations between the agents of production in a given society (ibid., p. 17).

The ‘fixed relation between the agents of production in a given society’ are precisely the relations of production, and when Marx took them into consideration, not in the form of an ‘instinctive’ feeling, i.e., in the form of the ‘unknown’ – but in the form of a concept and its consequences, it revolutionized the object of classical economics, and with the object, the science of Political Economy as such.

Marx’s peculiarity, indeed, does not lie in his having claimed or even demonstrated the primacy of production (Ricardo had already done this in his own way), but in his having transformed the concept of production by assigning to it an object radically different from the object designated by the old concept.


According to Marx, all production is characterized by two indissociable elements: the labour process, which deals with the transformations man inflicts on natural materials in order to make use-values out of them, and the social relations of production beneath whose determination this labour process is executed. We shall examine these two points in succession: the labour process (a) and the relations of production (b).

(a) The labour process

The analysis of the labour process involves the material and technical conditions of production.

The labour process, ... the activity whose aim is the production of use-values, the appropriation of external substances for needs, is the general condition for exchanges of matter between man and nature, a physical necessity of human life, and is therefore independent of all its social forms, or rather common to all of them (Capital, T.I, p. 186; Vol. I, pp. 183-4).

This process can be reduced to the combination of simple elements, of which there are three:’ ... (1) the personal activity of man, or labour strictly speaking; (2) the object on which that labour acts; (3) the means with which it acts’ (T.I, p. 181; Vol. I, p. 178). The labour process therefore implies an expenditure of the labour-power of men who, using defined instruments of labour according to adequate (technical) rules, transform the object of labour (either a natural material or an already worked material or raw material) into a useful product.

This analysis brings out two essential features which we shall examine in succession: the material nature of the conditions of the labour process, and the dominant role of the means of production in the labour process.

First feature: Every productive expenditure of labour power presupposes material conditions for its performance, which can all be reduced to the existence of nature, either directly, or as modified by human activity. When Marx writes that ‘labour is, in the first place, a process which takes place between man and nature, and in which man starts, regulates, and controls by his own activity the material exchanges between himself and nature. He opposes himself to nature as a natural force’, he is stating that the transformation of material nature into products, and therefore the labour process as a material mechanism, is dominated by the physical laws of nature and technology. Labour-power, too, is included in this mechanism. This determination of the labour-process by these material conditions is at its own level a denial of every ‘humanist’ conception of human labour as pure creativity. As we know, this idealism has not remained in the state of a myth, but has reigned in political economy itself, and from there, in the economic utopias of vulgar socialism: e.g. in Proudhon (the people’s bank project), Gray (‘labour bonds’), and finally in the Gotha Programme, whose opening line proclaimed:

Labour is the source of all wealth and culture,

to which Marx replied:

Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use-values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour-power. The above phrase is to be found in all children’s primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labour is performed with the appurtenant objects and instruments. But a socialist programme cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that alone give them meaning ... The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labour. (‘Critique of the Gotha Programme,’ Selected Works in One Volume, London 1968, p. 319).

It was this same utopianism that led Smith and all the utopians who have followed him on this point, to leave out of their economic concepts any formal representation of the necessity for the reproduction of the material conditions of the labour process, as essential to the existence of that process – and therefore to abstract from the current materiality of the productive forces (the object and the material instruments of labour) implied in every production process (in this respect, Smith’s Political Economy lacks a theory of reproduction, an indispensable element of any theory of production). The same idealism of labour made it possible for Marx, in the 1844 Manuscripts, to call Smith the ‘Luther of Political Economy’ because he reduced all wealth (all use-value) to human labour alone; and to seal the theoretical union of Smith and Hegel: the first because he reduced the whole of political economy to the subjectivity of labour, the second because he conceived ‘labour as the essence of man’. In Capital, Marx breaks with this idealism of labour by thinking the concept of the material conditions of every labour process and by providing the concept of the economic forms of existence of these material conditions: in the capitalist mode of production, the decisive distinctions between constant capital and variable capital on the one hand, and between Department I and Department II on the other.

This simple example enables us to assess the theoretical and practical effects induced in the field of economic analysis itself by merely thinking the concept of its object. Once Marx thought the reality of the material conditions of production as belonging to the concept of production, economically ‘operational’ concepts emerged in the field of economic analysis (constant capital, variable capital, Department I, Department II) which revolutionized its arrangement and nature. The concept of its object is not a para-economic concept, it is the concept of the construction of the economic concepts necessary for an understanding of the nature of the economic object itself: the economic concepts of constant capital and variable capital, of Department I and Department II, are merely the economic determinations, in the field of economic analysis itself, of the concept of the material conditions of the labour process. The concept of the object exists immediately then in the form of directly ‘operational’ economic concepts. But without the concept of the object, these concepts would not have been produced, and we should have remained in Smith’s economic idealism, exposed to all the temptations of ideology.

This is a crucial point, for it shows us that to call ourselves Marxists it is not enough for us to believe that the economy, and in the economy, production, govern all the other spheres of social existence. It is possible to proclaim these positions and yet, at the same time, develop an idealist conception of the economy and of production, by declaring that labour constitutes both the ‘essence of man’ and the essence of political economy, in short by developing an anthropological ideology of labour, of the ‘civilization of labour’, etc. Marx’s materialism, on the contrary, presupposes a materialist conception of economic production, i.e., among other conditions, a demonstration of the irreducible material conditions of the labour process. This is one of the points where a sentence from one of Marx’s letters to Engels which I have referred to above is directly applicable: the sentence in which Marx points out that he ‘attributed much more importance to the category use-value’ than did any of his predecessors. This is a stumbling-block for all the interpretations of Marxism as a ‘philosophy of labour’, whether ethical, personalist or existentialist: especially Sartre’s theory of the practico-inert, since it lacks any concept of the modality of the material conditions of the labour process. Smith had already related the current material conditions of the labour process to past labour: he thus dissolved the currency of the material conditions required at a given moment for the existence of the labour process in an infinite regression, in the non-currency of earlier labours, in their memory, Hegel was to resurrect this idea in his theory of ‘Erinnerung’. Similarly, Sartre dissolves the current material conditions whose structural combination governs all effective labour and every current transformation of a raw material into a useful product in the philosophical memory of an earlier praxis, itself second to another or several other earlier praxes, and so on down to the praxis of the original subject. In Smith, who was writing an economic work, this ideal dissipation had important theoretical consequences in the realm of the economy itself. In Sartre, it is immediately elevated into its explicit philosophical ‘truth’: the anthropology of the subject, latent in Smith, takes the open form of a philosophy of freedom in Sartre.

Second feature. The same analysis of the labour process reveals the dominant role of the ‘means of labour ‘.

The use and fabrication of means of labour ... is characteristic of the specifically human labour-process, and Franklin therefore defines man as a tool-making animal. Relics of by-gone means of labour possess the same importance for the investigation of extinct economic forms of society, as does the structure of fossil bones for a knowledge of the organization of extinct species of animals. It is less what is produced (macht) than how (wie) it is produced, and by what means of labour, that enables us to distinguish different economic epochs. Means of labour supply a standard of the degree of development of the labourer and they are also indicators (Anzeiger) of the social relations in which he labours (Capital, T.I, pp. 182-3; Vol. I, pp. 179-80).

One of the three constitutive elements of the labour process (object of labour, means of labour, labour-power) is therefore dominant: the means of labour. It is this last element which enables us to identify within the labour process common to every economic epoch the specific difference which will distinguish between its essential forms. The ‘means of labour’ determine the typical form of the labour process considered: by establishing the ‘mode of attack’ on the external nature subject to transformation in economic production, they determine the mode of production, the basic category of Marxist analysis (in economics and history); at the same time, they establish the level of productivity of productive labour. The concept of the pertinent differences observable in a variety of labour processes, the concept which makes possible not only the ‘periodisation’ of history, but above all the construction of the concept of history: the concept of the mode of production is thus established, with respect to our present considerations, in the qualitative differences between different means of labour, i.e., in their productivities. Need I point out that there is a direct relationship between the concept of the dominant role of the means of labour and the economically ‘operational’ concept of productivity? Need I note the fact that classical economics was never able to isolate and identify this concept of productivity – a fact Marx attacked it for – and that its misconception of history was linked to the absence in it of the concept of mode of production?[39]

By producing his key concept of the mode of production, Marx was indeed able to express the differential degree of material attack on nature by production, the differential mode of unity existing between ‘man and nature’, and the degree of variation in that unity. But as well as revealing to us the theoretical significance of taking into consideration the material conditions of production, the concept of the mode of production simultaneously reveals to us another determinant reality, corresponding to the degree of variation in the ‘man-nature’ unity: the relations of production:

Means of labour not only supply a standard of the degree of development to which human labour power has attained, but they are also indices (Anzeiger) of the social relations under which production is carried on ...

Here we discover that the man-nature unity expressed in the degree of variation in that unity is at the same time both the unity of the man-nature relationship and the unity of the social relations in which production takes place. The concept of the mode of production therefore contains the concept of the unity of this double unity.

(b) The relations of production

We have thus arrived at a new condition of the production process. After studying the material conditions of the production process, which express the specific nature of the relations between men and nature, we must now turn to a study of the social conditions of the production process: the social relations of production. These new conditions involve the specific type of relations between the agents of production which exist as a function of the relations between these agents on the one hand and the material means of production on the other. This adjustment is crucial: the social relations of production are on no account reducible to mere relations between men, to relations which only involve men, and therefore to variations in a universal matrix, to inter-subjectivity (recognition, prestige, struggle, master-slave relationship, etc.). For Marx, the social relations of production do not bring men alone onto the stage, but the agents of the production process and the material conditions of the production process, in specific ‘combinations’. I insist on this point, for reasons which are related to Rancière’s analysis of certain of Marx’s expressions,[40] where, in a terminology still inspired by his early anthropological philosophy, it is tempting to oppose, literally, relations between men and relations between things. But the relations of production necessarily imply relations between men and things, such that the relations between men and men are defined by the precise relations existing between men and the material elements of the production process.

How did Marx think these relations? He thought them as a ‘distribution’ or ‘combination’ (Verbindung). Discussing distribution in the 1857 Introduction, Marx wrote (op. cit., pp. 17-18):

In its most banal conception, distribution appears as the distribution of products, and thus as further away from and quasi-independent of production. But before distribution is distribution of the product, it is: (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2) what is a further definition of the same relationship, the distribution of the members of the society into the different kinds of production (subsumption of the individuals under determinate relations of production). The distribution of the product is obviously only the result of this distribution which is included within the production process itself and determines the articulation of production (Gliederung). It is obviously an empty abstraction to consider production while ignoring this distribution which is included in it, while, on the contrary, the distribution of products is implied by this distribution, which originally forms a moment (Moment) of production ... Production must start from a certain distribution of the instruments of production ...

This distribution thus consists of a certain attribution of the means of production to the agents of production, in a certain regular proportion fixed between, on the one hand, the means of production, and on the other, the agents of production. This distribution-attribution can be formally conceived as the combination (Verbindung) of a certain number of elements which belong either to the means of production or to the agents of production, a combination which occurs according to definite modalities.

This is Marx’s own expression:

Whatever the social form of production, labourers and means of production always remain factors of it. But in a state of separation from each other either of these factors can be such only potentially. For production to go on at all they must combine. The specific manner (die besondere Art und Weise) in which this combination is accomplished distinguishes the different economic epochs of the structure of society (Gesellschaftsstruktur) from one another (Capital, Vol II, p. 34 – modified).

In another and probably more important text (Capital, Vol. III, pp. 770-04), on the feudal mode of production, Marx writes:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation (Gestaltung) of the economic community which grows out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form (Gestalt). It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods (Art und Weise) of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret (innerste Geheimnis), the hidden basis (Grundlage) of the entire social structure (Konstruktion), and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the State.

This text’s developments reveal behind the two elements hitherto considered (agents of production, means of production) distinctions of quite crucial importance. On the side of the means of production we find the already familiar distinction between the object of production, e.g., the land (which played a determinant part directly in all the modes of production before capitalism), and the instruments of production. On the side of the agents of production we find, besides the distinction between labourer and labour power, an essential distinction between the direct agents (Marx’s own expression) whose labour power is set to work in production, and other men whose role in the general process of production is that of owners of the means of production, but who do not feature in it as labourers or direct agents, since their labour power is not used in the production process. By combining or inter-relating these different elements – labour power, direct labourers, masters who are not direct labourers, object of production, instruments of production, etc. – we shall reach a definition of the different modes of production which have existed and can exist in human history. This operation inter-relating determinate pre-existing elements might make us think of a combinatory, if the very special specific nature of the relations brought into play in these different combinations did not strictly define and limit its field. To obtain the different modes of production these different elements do have to be combined, but by using specific modes of combination or ‘Verbindungen’ which are only meaningful in the peculiar nature of the result of the combinatory (this result being real production) – and which are: property, possession, disposition, enjoyment, community, etc. The application of specific relations to the different distributions of the elements present produces a limited number of formations which constitute the relations of production of the defined modes of production. These relations of production determine the connections between the different groups of agents of production and the objects and instruments of production, and thereby they simultaneously divide the agents of production into functional groups, each occupying a definite place in the production process. The relations between the agents of production are then the result of the typical relations they maintain with the means of production (object, instruments) and of their distribution into groups defined and localized functionally in their relations with the means of production by the structure of production.

I cannot give a theoretical analysis of this concept of ‘combination’ and of its different forms here: on this point I refer the reader to Balibar’s paper. But it is clear that the theoretical nature of this concept of ‘combination’ may provide a foundation for the thesis I have already suggested in a critical form, the thesis that Marxism is not a historicism: since the Marxist concept of history depends on the principle of the variation of the forms of this ‘combination’. I should just like to insist on the special nature of these relations of production, which are remarkable in two respects.

In the text I have just quoted we have seen Marx prove that a certain form of combination of the elements present necessarily implied a certain form of domination and servitude indispensable to the survival of this combination, i.e., a certain political configuration (Gestaltung) of society. We can see precisely where the necessity and form of the political ‘formation’ is founded: at the level of the Verbindungen which constitute the modes of liaison between the agents of production and the means of production, at the level of the relations of property, possession, disposition, etc.[41] These types of connection, according to the diversification or non-diversification of the agents of production into direct labourers and masters, make the existence of a political organization intended to impose and maintain the defined types of connections by means of material force (that of the State) and of moral power (that of ideologies) either necessary (class societies) or superfluous (classless societies). This shows that certain relations of production presuppose the existence of a legal-political and ideological superstructure as a condition of their peculiar existence, and why this superstructure is necessarily specific (since it is a function of the specific relations of production that call for it). It also shows that certain other relations of production do not call for a political superstructure, but only for an ideological superstructure (classless societies). Finally, it shows that the nature of the relations of production considered not only calls or does not call for a certain form of superstructure, but also establishes the degree of effectivity delegated to a certain level of the social totality. Irrespective of all these consequences, we can draw one conclusion at any rate where the relations of production are concerned: they relate to the superstructural forms they call for as so many conditions of their own existence. The relations of production cannot therefore be thought in their concept while abstracting from their specific superstructural conditions of existence. To take only one example, it is quite clear that the analysis of the buying and selling of labour power in which capitalist relations of production exist (the separation between the owners of the means of production on the one hand and the wage-workers on the other), directly presupposes, for an understanding of its object, a consideration of the formal legal relations which establish the buyer (the capitalist) as much as the seller (the wage-labourer) as legal subjects – as well as a whole political and ideological superstructure which maintains and contains the economic agents in the distribution of roles, which makes a minority of exploiters the owners of the means of production, and the majority of the population producers of surplus-value. The whole superstructure of the society considered is thus implicit and present in a specific way in the relations of production, i.e., in the fixed structure of the distribution of means of production and economic functions between determinate categories of production agents. Or in other words, if the structure of the relations of production defines the economic as such, a definition of the concept of the relations of production in a determinate mode of production is necessarily reached via the definition of the concept of the totality of the distinct levels of society and their peculiar type of articulation (i.e. effectivity).

In no sense is this a formal demand; it is the absolute theoretical condition governing the definition of the economic itself. It is enough to refer to the innumerable problems raised by this definition where modes of production other than the capitalist one are concerned to realize the decisive importance of this recourse: Marx often says that what is hidden in capitalist society is clearly visible in feudal society or in the primitive community, but precisely in the latter societies we can clearly see that the economic is not directly and clearly visible! – just as in these same societies we can also clearly see that the degree of effectivity of the different levels of the social structure is not clearly visible! Anthropologists and ethnologists ‘know’ what to confine themselves to when, seeking the economic, they come upon kinship relations, religious institutions, etc.; specialists in mediaeval history ‘know’ what to confine themselves to when, seeking for the dominant determination of history in the ‘economy’, they find it in politics or religion.[42] In all these cases, there is no immediate grasp of the economic, there is no raw economic ‘given’, any more than there is any immediately ‘given’ effectivity in any of the levels. In all these cases, the identification of the economic is achieved by the construction of its concept, which presupposes a definition of the specific existence and articulation of the different levels of the structure of the whole, as they are necessarily implied by the structure of the mode of production considered. To construct the concept of the economic is to define it rigorously as a level, instance or region of the structure of a mode of production: it is therefore to define its peculiar site, its extension, and its limits within that structure; if we like to return to the old Platonic image, it is to ‘divide up’ the region of the economic correctly in the whole, according to its peculiar ‘articulation’, without mistaking this articulation. The ‘division’ of the ‘given’, or empiricist division, always mistakes the articulation, precisely because it projects on to the ‘real’ the arbitrary articulations and divisions of its underlying ideology. There is no correct division and therefore no correct articulation, except on condition of possessing and therefore constructing its concept. In other words, in primitive societies it is not possible to regard any fact, any practice apparently unrelated to the ‘economy’, (such as the practices which are produced by kinship rites or religious rites, or by the relations between groups in ‘potlatch’ competition), as rigorously economic, without first having constructed the concept of the differentiation of the structure of the social whole into these different practices or levels, without having discovered their peculiar meaning in the structure of the whole, without having identified in the disconcerting diversity of these practices the region of economic practice, its configuration and its modalities. It is probable that the majority of the difficulties of contemporary ethnology and anthropology arise from their approaching the ‘facts’, the ‘givens’ of (descriptive) ethnography, without taking the theoretical precaution of constructing the concept of their object: this omission commits them to projecting on to reality the categories which define the economic for them in practice, i.e., the categories of the economics of contemporary society, which to make matters worse, are often themselves empiricist. This is enough to multiply aporia. If we follow Marx here, too, this detour via primitive societies, etc., will only have been necessary in order to see clearly in them what our own society hides from us: i.e., in order to see clearly in them that the economic is never clearly visible, does not coincide with the ‘given’ in them any more than in any other reality (political, ideological, etc.). This is all the more ‘obvious’ for the capitalist mode of production in that we know that the latter is the mode of production in which fetishism affects the economic region par excellence. Despite the massive ‘obviousness’ of the economic ‘given’ in the capitalist mode of production, and precisely because of the ‘massive’ character of this fetishised ‘obviousness’, the only way to the essence of the economic is to construct its concept, i.e., to reveal the site occupied in the structure of the whole by the region of the economic, therefore to reveal the articulation of this region with other regions (legal-political and ideological superstructure), and the degree of presence (or effectivity) of the other regions in the economic region itself. Here, too, this requirement can be faced directly as a positive theoretical requirement: it can also be omitted, and it then reveals itself in peculiar effects, either theoretical (contradictions and thresholds in the explanation) or practical (e.g., difficulties in planning techniques, whether socialist or capitalist). That, very schematically, is the first conclusion we can draw from Marx’s determination of the economic by the relations of production.

The second conclusion is not less important. If the relations of production now appear to us as a regional structure, itself inscribed in the structure of the social totality, we are interested in this because of its structural nature. Here both the mirage of a theoretical anthropology and the mirage of a homogeneous space of given economic phenomena dissolve simultaneously. Not only is the economic a structured region occupying its peculiar place in the global structure of the social whole, but even in its own site, in its (relative) regional autonomy, it functions as a regional structure and as such determines its elements. Here once again we find the results of the other papers in this book: i.e., the fact that the structure of the relations of production determines the places and functions occupied and adopted by the agents of production, who are never anything more than the occupants of these places, insofar as they are the ‘supports’ (Träger) of these functions. The true ‘subjects’ (in the sense of constitutive subjects of the process) are therefore not these occupants or functionaries, are not, despite all appearances, the ‘obviousnesses’ of the ‘given’ of naïve anthropology, ‘concrete individuals’, ‘real men’ – but the definition and distribution of these places and functions. The truesubjects’ are these definers and distributors: the relations of production (and political and ideological social relations). But since these are ‘relations’, they cannot be thought within the category subject. And if by chance anyone proposes to reduce these relations of production to relations between men, i.e., ‘human relations ‘, he is violating Marx’s thought, for so long as we apply a truly critical reading to some of his rare ambiguous formulations, Marx shows in the greatest depth that the relations of production (and political and ideological social relations) are irreducible to any anthropological inter-subjectivity – since they only combine agents and objects in a specific structure of the distribution of relations, places and functions, occupied and ‘supported’ by objects and agents of production.

It is clear once again, then, how the concept of his object distinguishes Marx radically from his predecessors and why criticisms of him have run wide of the mark. To think the concept of production is to think the concept of the unity of its conditions: the mode of production. To think the mode of production is to think not only the material conditions but also the social conditions of production. In each case, it is to produce the concept which governs the definition of the economically ‘operational’ concepts (I use the word ‘operational’ deliberately, since it is often used by economists) out of the concept of their object. We know which concept in the capitalist mode of production expressed the fact of capitalist relations of production in economic reality itself: the concept of surplus-value. The unity of the material and social conditions of capitalist production is expressed by the direct relationship between variable capital and the production of surplus-value. The fact that surplus-value is not a measurable reality arises from the fact that it is not a thing, but the concept of a relationship, the concept of an existing social structure of production, of an existence visible and measurable only in itseffects ‘, in the sense we shall soon define. The fact that it only exists in its effects does not mean that it can be grasped completely in any one of its determinate effects: for that it would have to be completely present in that effect, whereas it is only present there, as a structure, in its determinate absence. It is only present in the totality, in the total movement of its effects, in what Marx calls the ‘developed totality of its form of existence’, for reasons bound up with its very nature. It is a relation of production between the agents of the production process and the means of production, i.e., the very structure that dominates the process in the totality of its development and of its existence. The object of production, the land, min- erals, coal, cotton, the instruments of production, tools, machines, etc., are ‘things’ or visible, assignable, measurable realities: they are not structures. The relations of production are structures – and the ordinary economist may scrutinize economic ‘facts’: prices, exchanges, wages, profits, rents, etc., all those ‘measurable’ facts, as much as he likes; he will no more ‘see’ any structure at that level than the pre-Newtonian ‘physicist’ could ‘see’ the law of attraction in falling bodies, or the pre-Lavoisierian chemist could ‘see’ oxygen in ‘dephlogisticated’ air. Naturally, just as bodies were ‘seen’ to fall before Newton, the ‘exploitation’ of the majority of men by a minority was ‘seen’ before Marx. But the concept of the economic ‘forms’ of that exploitation, the concept of the economic existence of the relations of production, of the domination and determination of the whole sphere of political economy by that structure did not then have any theoretical existence. Even if Smith and Ricardo did ‘produce’, in the ‘fact’ of rent and profit, the ‘fact’ of surplus-value, they remained in the dark, not realizing what they had ‘produced’, since they could not think it in its concept, nor draw from it its theoretical consequences. They were a hundred miles away from being able to think it, since neither they nor the culture of their time had ever imagined that a ‘fact’ might be the existence of a relation of ‘combination’, a relation of complexity, consubstantial with the entire mode of production, dominating its present, its crisis, its future, determining as the law of its structure the entire economic reality, down to the visible detail of the empirical phenomena – while remaining invisible even in their blinding obviousness.

Chapter 9 Marx’s Immense Theoretical Revolution

We can now go back to the past and assess the distance between Marx and his predecessors – and between his object and theirs.

From now on we can abandon the issue of anthropology, whose function in Political Economy was to establish both the economic nature of economic phenomena (by the theory of the homo oeconomicus) and their existence in the homogeneous space of a given. Once this anthropological ‘given’ has been removed, the space remains, which is precisely what interests us. What happens to it, in its being, once it can no longer be based on an anthropology, what effects does this omission have on it?

Political Economy thought the economic phenomena as deriving from a planar space governed by a transitive mechanical causality, such that a determinate effect could be related to an object-cause, a different phenomenon; such that the necessity of its immanence could be grasped completely in the sequence of a given. The homogeneity of this space, its planar character, its property of givenness, its type of linear causality: these are so many theoretical determinations which, as a system, constitute the structure of a theoretical problematic, i.e., of a certain way of conceiving its object, and at the same time of posing it definite questions (defined by the problematic itself) as to its being, while anticipating the form of its answers (the quantitative schema): in short, an empiricist problematic. Marx’s theory is radically opposed to this conception. Not that it is an ‘inversion’ of it: it is different, theoretically unrelated to it, and therefore in rupture with it. Because he defined the economic by its concept, Marx does not present economic phenomena – to illustrate his thought temporarily with a spatial metaphor – in the infinity of a homogeneous planar space, but rather in a region determined by a regional structure and itself inscribed in a site defined by a global structure: therefore as a complex and deep space, itself inscribed in another complex and deep space. But let us abandon this spatial metaphor, since this first opposition exhausts its virtues: everything depends, in fact, on the nature of this depth, or, more strictly speaking, of this complexity. To define economic phenomena by their concept is to define them by the concept of this complexity, i.e., by the concept of the (global) structure of the mode of production, insofar as it determines the (regional) structure which constitutes as economic objects and determines the phenomena of this defined region, located in a defined site in the structure of the whole. At the economic level, strictly speaking, the structure constituting and determining economic objects is the following: the unity of the productive forces and the relations of production. The concept of this last structure cannot be defined without the concept of the global structure of the mode of production.

Once we have simply put Marx’s fundamental theoretical concepts in their places and posed them in the unity of a theoretical discourse, a number of important consequences follow.

First: the economic cannot have the qualities of a given (of the immediately visible and observable, etc.), because its identification requires the concept of the structure of the economic, which in turn requires the concepts of the structure of the mode of production (its different levels and their specific articulations – because its identification therefore presupposes the construction of its concept. The concept of the economic must be constructed for each mode of production, as must the concept of each of the other ‘levels’ that belong to the mode of production: the political, the ideological, etc. Like every other science, therefore, all economic science depends on the construction of the concept of its object. On this condition, there is no contradiction between the theory of Economics and the theory of History: on the contrary, the theory of economics is a subordinate region of the theory of history, understood of course in the non-historicist, non-empiricist sense in which we have outlined the theory of history.[43] And just as any ‘history’ which does not work out the concept of its object, but claims to ‘read’ it immediately in what is visible in the ‘field’ of historical phenomena, is still bound willy-nilly to be tainted with empiricism, any ‘political economy’ which goes to the ‘things themselves’, i.e., to the ‘concrete’, the ‘given’, without constructing the concept of its object, is still willy-nilly caught in the toils of an empiricist ideology and constantly threatened by the re-emergence of its true ‘objects’, i.e., its objectives (whether these are the ideals of classical liberalism or those of a ‘humanism’ of labour, even a socialist one).

Second: if the ‘field’ of economic phenomena no longer has the homogeneity of an infinite plane, its objects are no longer de jure homogeneous at all points with one another: they are therefore no longer uniformly susceptible to comparison and measurement. This by no means excludes from economics the possibility of measurement or of the intervention of the instruments of mathematics and its peculiar modalities, etc., but it does make it from now on subject to a prior conceptual definition of the sites and limits of the measurable, and of the sites and limits to which the other resources of mathematical science (e.g., the instruments of econometrics and other formalization procedures) can be applied. Mathematical formalization must be subordinate to conceptual formalization. Here, too, the limits between political economy and empiricism, even formalistic empiricism, coincide with the boundary between the concept of the (theoretical) object and the ‘concrete’ object, along with even the ‘mathematical’ protocols of it manipulation.

The practical consequences of this principle are obvious: e.g., in the solution of the ‘technical’ problems of planning, in which ‘problems’ which arise quite simply from the absence of the concept of the object, i.e., from economic empiricism, are frequently treated as real ‘technical’ problems. The intellectual ‘technocracy’ lives by this kind of confusion, securing its full-time employment with it; for nothing takes so long to resolve as a problem which does not exist or has been badly posed.

Third: if the field of economic phenomena is no longer this planar space but a deep and complex one, if economic phenomena are determined by their complexity (i.e., their structure), the concept of linear causality can no longer be applied to them as it has been hitherto. A different concept is required in order to account for the new form of causality required by the new definition of the object of Political Economy, by its ‘complexity’, i.e., by its peculiar determination: the determination by a structure.

This third consequence deserves our whole attention, for it introduces us to an absolutely new theoretical domain. An object cannot be defined by its immediately visible or sensuous appearance, it is necessary to make a detour via its concept in order to grasp it (begreifen grasp, Begriff concept): these theses have a familiar ring to them – at least they are the lesson of the whole history of modern science, more or less reflected in classical philosophy, even if this reflection took place in the element of an empiricism, whether transcendent (as in Descartes), transcendental (Kant and Husserl) or ‘objective’-idealist (Hegel). It is true that much theoretical work is needed to deal with all the forms of this empiricism sublimated in the ‘theory of knowledge’ which dominates Western philosophy, to break with its problematic of subject (cogito) and object – and all their variations. But at least all these philosophical ideologies do ‘allude’ to a real necessity, imposed against this tenacious empiricism by the theoretical practice of the real sciences: i.e., that the knowledge of a real object is not reached by immediate contact with the ‘concrete’ but by the production of the concept of that object (in the sense of object of knowledge) as the absolute condition of its theoretical possibility. If, formally, the task which Marx has allotted to us in forcing us to produce the concept of the economic in order to be able to constitute a theory of political economy, in obliging us to define by its concept the domain, limits and conditions of validity of a mathematization of that object, if it does break with all the empiricist-idealist traditions of Western critical philosophy, then it is in no sense in rupture with effective scientific practice. On the contrary, Marx’s requirements restate in a new domain the requirements which have long been imposed on the practices of those sciences which have achieved autonomy. These requirements often conflict with the practices that have reigned and still do reign in economic science, practices which are deeply steeped in empiricist ideology, but this is undoubtedly because of the youth of this ‘science’, and also because ‘economic science’ is especially exposed to the pressures of ideology: the sciences of society do not have the serenity of the mathematical sciences. As Hobbes put it, geometry unites men, social science divides them. ‘Economic science’ is the arena and the prize of history’s great political battles.

But our third conclusion is quite different, and so is the requirement it imposes on us to think the economic phenomena as determined by a (regional) structure of the mode of production, itself determined by the (global) structure of the mode of production. This requirement poses Marx a problem which is not only a scientific problem, i.e., one that arises from the theoretical practice of a definite science (Political Economy or History), but a theoretical, or philosophical problem, since it concerns precisely the production of a concept or set of concepts which necessarily affect the forms of existing scientificity or (theoretical) rationality themselves, the forms which, at a given moment, define the Theoretical as such, i.e., the object of philosophy.[44] This problem certainly does involve the production of a theoretical (philosophical) concept which is absolutely indispensable to the constitution of a rigorous discourse in the theory of history and the theory of political economy: the production of an indispensable philosophical concept which does not exist in the form of a concept.

Perhaps it is too soon to suggest that the birth of every new science inevitably poses theoretical (philosophical) problems of this kind: Engels thought so – and we have every reason to believe him, if we examine what happened at the time of the birth of mathematics in Greece, at the time of the constitution of Galilean physics, of infinitesimal calculus, at the time of the foundation of chemistry and biology, etc. In several of these conjunctures we find the following remarkable phenomenon: the ‘reprise’ of a basic scientific discovery in philosophical reflection, and the production by philosophy of a new form of rationality (Plato after the discoveries of the mathematicians of the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ, Descartes after Galileo, Leibniz with infinitesimal calculus, etc.). This philosophical reprise’, this production by philosophy of new theoretical concepts which solve the theoretical problems contained ‘in the practical state’, if not explicitly posed, in the great scientific discoveries in question, mark the great breaks in the history of the Theoretical, i.e., in the history of philosophy. However, it seems that certain scientific disciplines have established themselves or thought themselves established by the mere extension of an existing form of rationality (psycho-physiology, psychology, etc.) which would tend to suggest that not any scientific foundation ipso facto induces a revolution in the Theoretical, but presumably only a scientific foundation which is obliged to reorganize practically the existing problematic in the Theoretical in order to think its object; the philosophy capable of reflecting the upheaval produced by the emergence of such a science by bringing to light a new form of rationality (scientificity, apodicticity, etc.) would then mark by its existence a decisive punctuation, a revolution in the history of the Theoretical.

Bearing in mind what has been said elsewhere of the delay required for the philosophical production of this new rationality and even of the historical repressions to which certain theoretical revolutions may be subjected, it seems that Marx offers us precisely an example of this importance. The epistemological problem posed by Marx’s radical modification of Political Economy can be expressed as follows: by means of what concept is it possible to think the new type of determination which has just been identified as the determination of the phenomena of a given region by the structure of that region? More generally, by means of what concept, or what set of concepts, is it possible to think the determination of the elements of a structure, and the structural relations between those elements, and all the effects of those relations, by the effectivity of that structure? And a fortiori, by means of what concept or what set of concepts is it possible to think the determination of a subordinate structure by a dominant structure? In other words, how is it possible to define the concept of a structural causality?

This simple theoretical question sums up Marx’s extraordinary scientific discovery: the discovery of the theory of history and political economy, the discovery of Capital. But it sums it up as an extraordinary theoretical question contained ‘in the practical state’ in Marx’s scientific discovery, the question Marx ‘practiced’ in his work, in answer to which he gave his scientific work, without producing the concept of it in a philosophical opus of the same rigour.

This simple question was so new and unforeseen that it contained enough to smash all the classical theories of causality – or enough to ensure that it would be unrecognized, that it would pass unperceived and be buried even before it was born.

Very schematically, we can say that classical philosophy (the existing Theoretical) had two and only two systems of concepts with which to think effectivity. The mechanistic system, Cartesian in origin, which reduced causality to a transitive and analytical effectivity: it could not be made to think the effectivity of a whole on its elements, except at the cost of extra-ordinary distortions (such as those in Descartes’ ‘psychology’ and biology). But a second system was available, one conceived precisely in order to deal with the effectivity of a whole on its elements: the Leibnizian concept of expression. This is the model that dominates all Hegel’s thought. But it presupposes in principle that the whole in question be reducible to an inner essence, of which the elements of the whole are then no more than the phenomenal forms of expression, the inner principle of the essence being present at each point in the whole, such that at each moment it is possible to write the immediately adequate equation: such and such an element (economic, political, legal, literary, religious, etc., in Hegel) = the inner essence of the whole. Here was a model which made it possible to think the effectivity of the whole on each of its elements, but if this category – inner essence/outer phenomenon – was to be applicable everywhere and at every moment to each of the phenomena arising in the totality in question, it presupposed that the whole had a certain nature, precisely the nature of aspiritual’ whole in which each element was expressive of the entire totality as a ‘pars totalis’. In other words, Leibniz and Hegel did have a category for the effectivity of the whole on its elements or parts, but on the absolute condition that the whole was not a structure.

If the whole is posed as structured, i.e., as possessing a type of unity quite different from the type of unity of the spiritual whole, this is no longer the case: not only does it become impossible to think the determination of the elements by the structure in the categories of analytical and transitive causality, it also becomes impossible to think it in the category of the global expressive causality of a universal inner essence immanent in its phenomenon. The proposal to think the determination of the elements of a whole by the structure of the whole posed an absolutely new problem in the most theoretically embarrassing circumstances, for there were no philosophical concepts available for its resolution. The only theoretician who had had the unprecedented daring to pose this problem and outline a first solution to it was Spinoza. But, as we know, history had buried him in impenetrable darkness. Only through Marx, who, however, had little knowledge of him, do we even begin to guess at the features of that trampled face.

This is merely to return to the most general form of a fundamental and dramatic theoretical problem of which the preceding studies have given us a precise idea. I call it a fundamental problem because it is clear that by other paths contemporary theory in psycho-analysis, linguistics, other disciplines such as biology, and perhaps even physics, has had to confront it, without suspecting that Marx had ‘produced’ it in the true sense, long ago. I call it a dramatic theoretical problem because although Marx ‘produced’ this problem he did not pose it as a problem, but set out to solve it practically in the absence of its concept, with extraordinary ingenuity, but without completely avoiding a relapse into earlier schemata which were necessarily inadequate to pose and solve this problem. It is on this problem that Marx is attempting to focus in the tentative sentences we can read in the Introduction:

In all forms of society it is a determinate production and its relations which assign every other production and its relations their rank and influence. It is a general illumination (Beleuchtung) in which all the other colours are plunged and which modifies their special tonalities. It is a special ether which defines the specific weight of every existence arising in it (op. cit., p. 27).

This text is discussing the determination of certain structures of production which are subordinate to a dominant structure of production, i.e., the determination of one structure by another and of the elements of a subordinate structure by the dominant, and therefore determinant structure. I have previously attempted to account for this phenomenon with the concept of overdetermination, which I borrowed from psychoanalysis; as one might suppose, this transfer of an analytical concept to Marxist theory was not an arbitrary borrowing but a necessary one, for the same theoretical problem is at stake in both cases: with what concept are we to think the determination of either an element or a structure by a structure? It is this same problem that Marx has in view and which he is trying to focus by introducing the metaphor of a variation in the general illumination, of the ether in which bodies are immersed, and of the subsequent alterations produced by the domination of one particular structure in the localization, function and relations (in his own words: the relations, their rank and influence), in the original colour and the specific weight of the objects. The constant and real presence of this problem in Marx has been demonstrated by the rigorous analysis of his expressions and forms of reasoning in the preceding papers. It can be entirely summed up in the concept of ‘Darstellung ‘, the key epistemological concept of the whole Marxist theory of value, the concept whose object is precisely to designate the mode of presence of the structure in its effects, and therefore to designate structural causality itself.

The fact that we have isolated the concept of ‘Darstellung’ does not mean that it is the only one which Marx uses in order to think the effectivity of the structure: a reading of the first thirty pages of Capital shows that he uses at least a dozen different expressions of a metaphorical kind in order to deal with this specific reality, unthought before him. We have retained this term because it is both the least metaphorical and, at the same time, the closest to the concept Marx is aiming at when he wants to designate at once both absence and presence, i.e., the existence of the structure in its effects.

This is an extremely important point if we are to avoid even the slightest, in a sense inadvertent relapse into the diversions of the classical conception of the economic object, if we are to avoid saying that the Marxist conception of the economic object is, for Marx, determined from the outside by a non-economic structure. The structure is not an essence outside the economic phenomena which comes and alters their aspect, forms and relations and which is effective on them as an absent cause, absent because it is outside them. The absence of the cause in the structure’smetonymic causality[45] on its effects is not the fault of the exteriority of the structure with respect to the economic phenomena ; on the contrary, it is the very form of the interiority of the structure, as a structure, in its effects. This implies therefore that the effects are not outside the structure, are not a pre-existing object, element or space in which the structure arrives to imprint its mark: on the contrary, it implies that the structure is immanent in its effects, a cause immanent in its effects in the Spinozist sense of the term, that the whole existence of the structure consists of its effects, in short that the structure, which is merely a specific combination of its peculiar elements, is nothing outside its effects.

This specification is very important when we have to deal with the occasionally strange form which the discovery of this reality and the search for expressions for it take, even in Marx. To understand these strange forms it is essential to note that the exteriority of the structure with respect to its effects can be conceived either as a pure exteriority or as an interiority on the sole condition that this exteriority or interiority are posed as distinct from their effects In Marx, this distinction often takes the classical form of the distinction between the inside and the outside, between the ‘intimate essence’ of things and their phenomenal ‘surface’, between the ‘intimate relations’, the ‘intimate links’ of things and the external relations and links of the same things. And it is well known that this opposition, which derives in principle from the classical distinction between essence and phenomenon, i.e., from a distinction which situates in being itself, in reality itself, the inner site of its concept, and therefore opposes it to the ‘surface’ of concrete appearances; which therefore transposes as a difference of level or of components in the real object itself, a distinction which does not belong to that real object since it is a matter of the distinction which separates the concept or knowledge of the real from that real as an existing object; – it is well known that this opposition sometimes leads Marx to the following disarming pleonasm: if the essence were not different from the phenomena, if the essential interior were not different from the inessential or phenomenal exterior, there would be no need for science.[46] It is also well known that this singular formula may gain strength from all those arguments of Marx’s which present the development of the concepts as the transition from the abstract to the concrete, a transition understood as the transition from the essential, in principle abstract interiority to the concrete, visible and palpable outer determinations, a transition summed up in the transition from Volume One to Volume Three. All these ambiguous arguments depend once again on the confusion between the thought-concrete, which Marx completely isolated from the real-concrete in the Introduction, and this same real-concrete – whereas in reality, the concrete of Volume Three, i.e., the knowledge of ground rent, profit and interest, is, like all knowledge, not the empirical concrete but the concept, and therefore still always an abstraction: what I have been able to and have had to call a ‘Generality III’, in order to stress that it was still a product of thinking, the knowledge of an empirical existence and not that empirical existence itself.

It is therefore essential to be rigorous and draw the conclusion that the transition from Volume One to Volume Three of Capital has nothing to do with the transition from the abstract-in-thought to the real-concrete, with the transition from the abstractions of thought necessary in order to know it to the empirical concrete. We never leave abstraction on the way from Volume One to Volume Three, i.e., we never leave knowledge, the ‘product of thinking and conceiving’: we never leave the concept. We simply pass within the abstraction of knowledge from the concept of the structure and of its most general effects, to the concepts of the structure’s particular effects – never for an instant do we set foot beyond the absolutely impassable frontier which separates the ‘development’ or specification of the concept from the development and particularity of things – and for a very good reason: this frontier is impassable in principle because it cannot be a frontier, because there is no common homogeneous space (spirit or real) between the abstract of the concept of a thing and the empirical concrete of this thing which could justify the use of the concept of a frontier.

I am very insistent on this ambiguity because I want to show clearly the difficulty Marx found when he had to think in a really reflected concept the epistemological problem which he had nevertheless produced: how was he to account theoretically for the effectivity of a structure on its elements? This difficulty was not without its consequences. I have pointed out that theoretical reflection before Marx had provided two and only two models for an effectivity in thought: the model of a transitive causality, Galilean and Cartesian in origin, and the model of an expressive causality, Leibnizian in origin and adopted by Hegel. But by playing on the ambiguity of the two concepts, these two models could quite easily find common ground in the classical opposition between phenomenon and essence. The ambiguity of these concepts is indeed obvious: the essence does refer to the phenomenon, but at the same time secretly to the inessential. The phenomenon does refer to the essence of which it can be the manifestation and expression, but at the same time, and secretly, it refers to what appears to be an empirical subject, to perception, and therefore to the empirical state of mind of a possible empirical subject. It then becomes quite simple to accumulate these ambiguous determinations in reality itself, and to locate in the real itself a distinction which is only meaningful as a function of a distinction outside the real, since it brings into play a distinction between the real and the knowledge of the real. In his search for a concept with which to think the remarkable reality of the effectivity of a structure on its elements, Marx often slipped into the really almost inevitable use of the classical opposition between essence and phenomenon, adopting its ambiguities by force rather than merit, and transposing the epistemological difference between the knowledge of a reality and that reality itself into reality in the form of the ‘inside and the outside ‘, of the real, of the ‘real movement and the apparent movement’ of the ‘intimate essence’ and its concrete, phenomenal determinations, perceived and manipulated by subjects. There are surely consequences in this for his conception of science, as we could have seen when Marx had to provide the concept of what his predecessors had either found or missed – or the concept of the difference between himself and them.

But there were also consequences in this ambiguity for the interpretation of the phenomenon he baptized ‘fetishism ‘. We have proved that fetishism is not a subjective phenomenon related either to the illusions or to the perceptions of the agents of the economic process, that it cannot be reduced therefore to the subjective effects produced in the economic subjects by their place in the process, their site in the structure. But how many of Marx’s texts present fetishism as anappearance ‘, an ‘illusion’ arising purely in ‘consciousness’, show us the real, inner movement of the process ‘appearing’ in a fetishised form to the ‘consciousness’ of the same subjects in the form of the apparent movement! And yet how many other texts of Marx’s assure us that this appearance is not subjective at all, but, on the contrary, objective through and through, the ‘illusion’ of the ‘consciousness’ and perceptions being itself secondary, and dislocated by the structure of this primary, purely objective ‘illusion’! At this point we see Marx most clearly struggling with reference concepts which are inadequate to their objects, now accepting, now rejecting them in a necessarily contradictory movement.

However, and by virtue of these same contradictory hesitations, Marx often takes the side of what he was actually saying: and he then produces concepts adequate to their object, but it is just as if, producing them in a lightning gesture, he had not marshalled and confronted this production theoretically, had not reflected it in order to impose it on the total field of his analysis. For example, when dealing with the rate of profit, Marx wrote:

In fact, the formula s/c [the rate of profit] expresses the degree of self-expression of the total capital advanced ... taken in conformity with its inner conceptual connections (seinem begrifflichen, innern Zusammenhang entsprechend gefasst) and the nature of surplus-value (Capital, Vol. III, p. 45).

In this passage, and in several others, Marx is unambiguously ‘practising’ the truth that interiority is nothing but the ‘concept ‘, that it is not the real ‘interior’ of the phenomenon, but knowledge of it. If this is true, the reality that Marx studies can no longer be presented as a two-level reality, inside and outside, the inside being identified with the pure essence and the outside with a phenomenon, sometimes purely subjective, the state of mind of a ‘consciousness’, sometimes impure, because it is foreign to the essence, or inessential. If the ‘inside’ is the concept, the ‘outside’ can only be the specification of the concept, exactly as the effects of the structure of the whole can only be the existence of the structure itself. Here, for example is what Marx says of ground rent:

As important as it may be for a scientific analysis of ground rent – that is, the independent and specific economic form of landed property on the basis of the capitalist mode of production – to study it in its pure form free of all distorting and obfuscating irrelevancies, it is just as important for an understanding of the practical effects of landed property – even for a theoretical comprehension of a multitude of facts which contradict the concept and nature of ground-rent and yet appear as modes of existence of ground-rent – to learn the sources which give rise to such muddling in theory (Vol. III, p. 610).

Here we have in black and white the double status Marx attributes to his analysis. He is analysing a pure form which is none other than the concept of capitalist ground-rent. He thinks this purity both as the modality and the definition of the concept, and at the same time he thinks it as what he distinguishes from empirical impurity. Still, he does at once think this same empirical impurity in a second correcting movement as the ‘modes of existence ‘, i.e., as theoretical determinations of the concept of ground-rent itself. In this latter conception we leave the empiricist distinction between pure essence and impure phenomenon, we abandon the empiricist idea of a purity which is thus only the result of an empirical purge (since it is a purge of the empirical) – we really think the purity as the purity of the concept, the purity of a knowledge adequate to its object, and the determinations of this concept as the effective knowledge of the modes of existence of ground-rent. It is clear that this language itself revokes the distinction between inside and outside, and substitutes for it the distinction between the concept and the real, or between the object (of knowledge) and the real object. But if we take this indispensable substitution seriously, it directs us towards a conception of scientific practice and of its object which no longer has anything in common with empiricism.

Marx states unambiguously the principles of this quite different conception of scientific practice in the 1857 Introduction. But it is one thing to develop this concept and quite another to set it to work in order to solve the unprecedented theoretical problem of the production of the concept of the effectivity of a structure on its elements. We have seen Marx practising this concept in the use he makes of the ‘Darstellung ‘, and trying to pinpoint it in the images of changes in the illumination or in the specific weight of object by the ether in which they are immersed, and it is sometimes directly exposed in Marx’s analyses, in passages where it is expressed in a novel but extremely precise language: a language of metaphors which are nevertheless already almost perfect concepts, and which are perhaps only incomplete insofar as they have not yet been grasped, i.e., retained and elaborated as concepts. This is the case each time Marx presents the capitalist system as a mechanism, a machinery, a machine, a construction (Triebwerk, Mechanismus, Getriebe ... Cf. Capital, Vol. III, p. 858 – Marx-Engels Werke, Bd. XXV, p. 887 – Capital, Vol. III, p. 859; Vol. II, p. 216; Vol. II, p. 421; Vol. II, p. 509); or as the complexity of a ‘social metabolism’ (Capital, Vol. III, p. 793 – modified). In every case, the ordinary distinctions between outside and inside disappear, along with the ‘intimate’ links within the phenomena as opposed to their visible disorder: we find a different image, a new quasi-concept, definitely freed from the empiricist antinomies of phenomenal subjectivity and essential interiority; we find an objective system governed in its most concrete determinations by the laws of its erection (montage) and machinery, by the specifications of its concept. Now we can recall that highly symptomatic term ‘Darstellung ‘, compare it with this ‘machinery’ and take it literally, as the very existence of this machinery in its effects: the mode of existence of the stage direction (mise en scène) of the theatre which is simultaneously its own stage, its own script, its own actors, the theatre whose spectators can, on occasion, be spectators only because they are first of all forced to be its actors, caught by the constraints of a script and parts whose authors they cannot be, since it is in essence an authorless theatre.

Need I add anything more? Marx’s repeated efforts to break down the objective limits of the existing Theoretical, in order to forge a way of thinking the question that his scientific discovery has posed philosophy, his failures and even his relapses are a part of the theoretical drama he lived, in absolute solitude, long ago, and we are only just beginning to suspect from the signs in our heavens that his question is our question, and will be for a long time, that it commands our whole future. Alone, Marx looked around him for allies and supporters: who can reproach him for allowing himself to lean on Hegel? As for us, we can thank Marx for the fact that we are not alone: our solitude only lies in our ignorance of what he said. We should accuse this ignorance in us and in all those who think they have forestalled him, and I only include the best of them – when they were only on the threshold of the land he discovered and opened for us. We even owe it to him that we can see his weaknesses, his lacunae, his omissions: they concur with his greatness, for, in returning to them we are only returning to the beginnings of a discourse interrupted by death. The reader will know how Volume Three ends. A title: Classes. Forty lines, then silence.

Appendix On the ‘Ideal Average’ and the Forms of Transition

Just a few words on two important theoretical problems which are directly related to Marx’s discovery and to the forms in which he expressed it: the problem of the definition of the object of Capital as ‘the ideal average’ of real capitalism – and the problem of the forms of transition from one mode of production to another.

In a general analysis of this kind [writes Marx], it is usually always assumed that the real relations correspond to their concept, or, what is the same, that the real relations are represented only to the extent that they express their peculiar general type (allgemeinem Typus) (Capital, Vol. III, p. 141 – modified).

Marx defines this general type several times as the ‘ideal average’ (idealer Durchschnitt) of capitalist production. This name, in which average and ideality are combined on the concept’s side while being referred to a certain existing real, poses anew the question of the philosophical problematic which underlies this terminology: is it not tainted with empiricism? This is certainly the impression given by a passage from the Preface to the first German edition of Capital:

The physicist, when accounting for the processes of nature, either observes the phenomena where they occur in their most marked form, and most free from disturbing influences, or he makes experiments under conditions that assure as far as possible the regularity of their occurrence. In this work I have to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the relations of production and exchange corresponding to that mode. Their classical ground is England. That is the reason why I have taken the chief facts and examples which illustrate the development of my theories from England (T.I, p. 18; Vol. I, p. 8).

Marx therefore chooses the English example. However, he subjects even this example to a remarkable ‘purification’, since, on his own admission, he analyses it on the assumption that there are only ever two classes present in his object (a situation which has never existed anywhere), and that the world market is entirely subject to the capitalist mode of production, which is just as far from reality. Marx therefore does not even study the English example, however classical and pure it may be, but a non-existent example, precisely what he calls the ‘ideal average’ of the capitalist mode of production. Lenin restated this apparent difficulty in 1899 in his ‘Once more on the theory of realization’, Collected Works, Moscow 1960, Vol. IV, pp. 86-7).

Let us dwell for a while on the problem that has ‘long interested’ Struve: what is the real scientific value of the theory of realization?

It has exactly the same value as have all the other postulates of Marx’s abstract theory. If Struve is bothered by the circumstances that ‘perfect realization is the ideal of capitalist production, but by no means its reality’, we must remind him that all the other laws of capitalism, re- vealed by Marx, also depict only the ideal of capitalism and not its reality. ‘We need present,’ wrote Marx, ‘only the inner organization of the capitalist mode of production, in its ideal average (in ihrem idealen Durchschnitt), as it were’ (Capital, Vol. III, p. 810). The theory of capital assumes that the worker receives the full value of his labour-power. This is the ideal of capitalism, but by no means its reality. The theory of rent presupposes that the entire agrarian population has been completely divided into landowners, capitalists and hired labourers. This is the ideal of capitalism, but by no means its reality. The theory of realization presupposes the proportional distribution of production. This is the ideal of capitalism, but by no means its reality.

Lenin is merely repeating Marx’s own words, opposing the ideality of Marx’s object to actual historical reality on the basis of the term ‘ideal’ in the expression ‘ideal average’. It would not be necessary to take this opposition very far to fall back into the traps of empiricism, particularly if we remember that Lenin described Marx’s theory as an ‘abstract’ theory, a theory which seems to be naturally opposed to the concrete-historical character of the reality of the actual forms of capitalism. But here again we can grasp Marx’s true intention if we conceive this ‘ideality’ as an ‘idea-ness ‘, i.e., as the mere conceptuality of his object, and the ‘average’ as the content of the concept of his object – and not as the result of an empirical abstraction. Marx’s object is not an ideal object opposed to a real object and distinct from it through this opposition, as ‘ought’ is from ‘is’, the norm from the fact – the object of his theory is an idea, i.e., it is defined in terms of knowledge, in the abstraction of the concept. Marx says so himself, when he writes that, ‘its [the capitalist system’s ] specific difference ... is revealed (sich darstellt) in an its core form (in ihrer ganzen Kerngestalt)’ (Capital, Vol. III, p. 239 – modified). It is this ‘Kerngestalt’ and its determinations that constitute the object of Marx’s analysis, insofar as this specific difference defines the capitalist mode of production as the capitalist mode of production. What to vulgar economists like Struve seems to contradict reality for Marx constitutes reality itself, the reality of his theoretical object. In order to understand this we need only remember what I have said about the object of the theory of history and therefore of the theory of political economy: they study the basic forms of unity of historical existence, the modes of production. Besides, Marx tells us this himself if we are prepared to take his expressions seriously, in the Preface to the first German edition, where he is discussing England:

In this work I have to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the relations of production and exchange corresponding to that mode (T.I, p. 18; Vol. I, p. 8).

As for England, a close reading of Marx’s text shows that it only appears as a source of illustrations and examples, not as the theoretical object studied:

Their classical ground in England. That is the reason why I have taken the chief facts and examples which illustrate the development of my theories from England (ibid.).

This unambiguous statement puts into correct perspective the earlier sentence in which the example of physics was evoked in a way that might suggest that Marx was investigating a ‘pure’ object ‘free from disturbing influences ‘. In this respect, England, too, is an impure disturbed object, but these ‘impurities’ and ‘disturbances’ cause no theoretical trouble since Marx’s theoretical object is not England but the capitalist mode of production in its ‘Kerngestalt’ and the determinations of that ‘Kerngestalt’. When Marx tells us that he is studying an ‘ideal average’, we must therefore understand that this ideality connotes not the unreal or the ideal norm, but the concept of the real; and that this ‘average’ is not an empiricist average, i.e., it does not connote the non-unique, but on the contrary, it connotes the concept of the specific difference of the mode of production concerned.

Let us go further. For, if we return to the English example, if we compare it with Marx’s apparently purified and simplified object, the two-class capitalist mode of production, we have to admit that we must confront a real residue: precisely, restricting ourselves to this one pertinent point, the real existence of other classes (landowners, artisans, small-scale agriculturalists). We cannot in honesty suppress this real residue merely by invoking the fact that Marx proposed as his whole object only the concept of the specific difference of the capitalist mode of production, and by invoking the difference between the real and the knowledge of it!

But it is in this apparently urgent difficulty, which is also the major argument of the empiricist interpretation of the theory of Capital, that what has been said of the theory of history acquires all its meaning. For Marx could only study the specific difference of the capitalist mode of production on condition that at the same time he studied the other modes of production, not only the other modes of production as types of specific Verbindung unity between the factors of production, but also the relations between different modes of production in the process of the constitution of modes of production. The impurity of English capitalism is a real, definite object which Marx did not propose to study in Capital, but which is relevant to Marxist theory nevertheless: this impurity is, in its immediate form, what we can for the time being call the ‘survivals’ of forms within the dominant capitalist mode of production in Britain from modes of production subordinate to but not yet eliminated by the capitalist mode of production. This supposed ‘impurity’ constitutes an object relevant to the theory of modes of production: in particular to the theory of the transition from one mode of production to another, which is the same thing as the theory of the process of constitution of a determinate mode of production, since every mode of production is constituted solely out of the existing forms of an earlier mode of production. This object is in principle part of Marxist theory, and the fact that we can recognize the status of this object in principle does not mean that we can criticize Marx for not providing us with the theory of it. All Marx’s texts on the primitive accumulation of capital constitute the material if not already the outline of this theory, where the constitution process of the capitalist mode of production is concerned – i.e., the transition from the feudal mode of production to the capitalist mode of production. We must recognize what Marx actually gave us and what he enabled us to obtain for ourselves, although he could not give it to us. Just as we can say that we possess only the outline of a Marxist theory of the modes of production before the capitalist mode of production – we can say, and even, since the existence of this problem and above all the necessity of posing it in its peculiar theoretical form are not generally recognized, we must say that Marx did not give us any theory of the transition from one mode of production to another, i.e., of the constitution of a mode of production. We know that this theory is indispensable: without it we shall be unable to complete what is called the construction of socialism, in which the transition from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production is at stake, or even to solve the problems posed by the so-called ‘under-developed’ countries of the Third World. I cannot go into any detail concerning the theoretical problems posed by this new object, but we can regard it as certain that posing and solving these burning contemporary problems is a first priority of Marxist investigation. Not only the problem of the period of the ‘cult of personality’, but also the current problems expressed in the form of ‘national roads to socialism’, ‘peaceful roads’, etc., relate directly to these theoretical investigations.

Here, too – even if certain of his formulations take us to the brink of ambiguity – Marx did not leave us without suggestions or resources. If we can pose the question of the transition from one mode of production to another as a theoretical problem, and therefore account not only for past transitions, but also anticipate the future and ‘run ahead of our time’ (which Hegelian historicism could not do), it is not because of any claim to the ‘experimental structure’ of history, but because of the Marxist theory of history as a theory of modes of production, of the definition of the constitutive elements of the different modes of production, and of the fact that the theoretical problems posed by the process of the constitution of a mode of production (in other words, the problems of the transformation of one mode of production into another) are directly a function of the theory of the modes of production concerned.[47] That is why we can say that Marx did give us enough to think this theoretically and practically decisive problem: knowledge of the modes of production considered provides the basis for posing and solving the problems of transition. That is why we can anticipate the future and theorize not only that future, but also and above all the roads and means that will secure us its reality.

The Marxist theory of history understood as I have just defined it secures us this right, given that we are able to define its conditions and limits very accurately. But at the same time, it gives us a measure of what remains to be done – and it is immense – in order to define with all desirable rigour these roads and means. If it is true that mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve, given that this formula is not understood in any historicist way, it remains essential that mankind has an exact consciousness of the relationship between these tasks and its capacities, that it is prepared to proceed via a knowledge of these terms and their relationships, and therefore via an examination of these tasks and capacities, in order to define the right means to produce and dominate its future. If not, even in the ‘transparency’ of its new economic relations it will risk, as it has already discovered in the silences of the terror – and may do so again in the velleities of humanism – it will risk entering a future still charged with dangers and shades, with a virgin conscience.


1. For very profound reasons, it was often in fact political militants and leaders who, without being professional philosophers, were best able to read and understand Capital as philosophers. Lenin is the most extraordinary example: his philosophical understanding of Capital gives his economic and political analysis an incomparable profundity, rigour and acuity. In our image of Lenin, the great political leader all too often masks the man who undertook the patient, detailed and profound study of Marx’s great theoretical works. It is no accident that we owe to the first years of Lenin’s public activity (the years preceding the 1905 Revolution) so many acute texts devoted to the most difficult questions of the theory of Capital. Ten years of study and meditation on Capital gave the man the incomparable theoretical formation which produced the prodigious political understanding of the leader of the Russian and international workers’ movement. And this is also the reason why Lenin’s political and economic works (not only the written works, but also the historical ones) are of such theoretical and philosophical value: we can study Marxist philosophy at work in them, in the ‘practical’ state, Marxist philosophy which has become politics, political action, analysis and decision. Lenin: an incomparable theoretical and philosophical formation turned political.

2. Cf. Part I, sections 16 and 18.

3.Cf. Part I, sections 16, 17 and 18.

4. The price of this silence: read Chapter VII of Rosenthal’s book (Les problèmes de la dialectique dansLe Capital ‘) and in particular the pages devoted to avoiding the problem of the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ abstraction (pp. 304-5, 325-7). Think of the fortunes in Marxist philosophy of a term as ambiguous as ‘generalization ‘, which is used to think (i.e., not to think) the nature of scientific abstraction. The price of this unheard silence is the empiricist temptation.

5. There must be no misunderstanding of the meaning of this silence. It is part of a determinate discourse, whose object was not to set out the principles of Marxist philosophy, the principles of the theory of the history of the production of knowledges, but to establish the methodological rules indispensable to a treatment of Political Economy. Marx therefore situated himself within an already constituted learning without posing the problem of its production. That is why, within the limits of this text, he could treat Smith’s and Ricardo’s ‘good abstractions’ as corresponding to a certain real, and keep his silence as to the extra-ordinarily complex conditions that gave birth to classical Political Economy: he could leave in suspense the point of knowing what process could have produced the field of the classical problematic in which the object of classical Political Economy could be constituted as an object, giving by its knowledge a certain grasp on the real, even though it was still dominated by ideology. The fact that this methodological text leads us to the threshold of the requirement that we constitute that theory of the production of knowledge which is the same thing as Marxist philosophy, is a requirement for us: but it is also a requirement for which we are indebted to Marx, so long as we are attentive both to the theoretical incompleteness of this text (its silence on this particular point) and to the philosophical scope of his new theory of history (in particular to what it constrains us to think: the articulation of ideological practice and scientific practice to the other practices, and the organic and differential history of these practices). In other words, we can treat the silence in this text in one of two ways: either by taking it for a silence that goes without saying because its content is the dominant theory of empiricist abstraction; or by treating it as a limit and a problem. A limit: the furthest point to which Marx took his thought; but then this limit, far from returning us to the old field of empiricist philosophy, opens a new field before us. A problem: what precisely is the nature of this new field? We now have at our disposal enough studies in the history of learning to suspect that we must look in quite different directions from the empiricist one. But in this decisive investigation, Marx himself has provided our fundamental principles (the structuration and articulation of the different practices). From which we can see the difference between the ideological treatment of a theoretical silence or emptiness, and its scientific treatment: the former confronts us with an ideological closure, the latter with a scientific openness. Here we can see immediately a precise example of the ideological threat that hangs over all scientific labour: ideology not only lies in wait far science at each point where its rigour slackens, but also at the furthest point where an investigation currently reaches its limits. There, precisely, philosophical ideology can intervene at the level of the life of the science: as the theoretical vigilance that protects the openness of science against the closure of ideology, on condition, of course, that it does not limit itself to speaking of openness and closure in general, but rather of the typical, historically determined structures of this openness and closure. In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin constantly recalls this absolutely fundamental requirement which constitutes the specific function of Marxist philosophy.

6. Hegelian philosophy has even been called a ‘speculative empiricism’ (Feuerbach).

7. Cf. ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’ and ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ in For Marx, op. cit., pp. 87ff, and 161ff.

8. Cf. Part I, section 13.

9.To avoid any misunderstanding, I should add that this critique of the latent empiricism which haunts the common use of the bastard concept of ‘diachrony’ today obviously does not apply to the reality of historical transformations, e.g., the transition from one mode of production to another. If the aim is to designate this reality (the fact of the real transformation of structures) as ‘the diachrony’, this is merely to apply the term to the historical itself (which is never purely static) or, by making a distinction within the historical, to what is visibly transformed. But once the aim is to think the concept of these transformations, we are no longer in the real (the ‘diachronic’) but in knowledge, in which – insofar as the real ‘diachronic’ itself is concerned – the epistemological dialectic that has just been set out comes into play: the concept and the ‘development of its forms’. On this point cf. Balibar’s essay below.

10. See Lire le Capital, first edition, Paris 1965, Vol. I, pp. 170ff.

11. We are indebted to Kant for the suspicion that problems which do not exist may give rise to massive theoretical efforts, and the more or less rigorous production of solutions as fantastic as their object, for his philosophy may be broadly conceived as a theory of the possibility of the existence of ‘sciences’ without objects (rational metaphysics, cosmology and psychology). If it so happens that the reader does not have the heart to tackle Kant, he can consult directly the producers of ‘sciences’ without objects: e.g., theologians, most social psychologists, some ‘psychologists’, etc. I should also add that in certain circumstances, the theoretical and ideological conjuncture may make these ‘sciences without objects’ produce or contain, during the elaboration of the theory of their supposed ‘objects’, the theoretical forms of existing rationality: e.g., in the Middle Ages, theology undoubtedly contained and elaborated the forms of the theoretical then in existence.

12. Gramsci: ‘No, the mechanical forces never predominate in history; it is the men, the consciousnesses and the spirit which mould the external appearance and always triumph in the end... . The pseudo-scientists’ natural law and fatal course of events has been replaced by man’s tenacious will’ (from a text published in Rinascità, 1957, pp. 149-58, quoted by Mario Tronti in Studi Gramsciani, Editori Riuniti, Rome, 1959, p. 306).

13. Here we need a full study of his typical metaphors and their proliferation around a centre which it is their mission to focus as they cannot call it by its right name, the name of its concept.

14. The fact and necessity of this dislocation are not peculiar to Marx but common to every scientific founding moment and to all scientific production generally: a study of them is part of a theory of the history of the production of knowledges and a history of the theoretical the necessity for which we feel here also.

15. This is not untrue, of course, but when this limitation is directly related to ‘history’ there is once again a risk of merely invoking the ideological concept of history.

16. In the sense defined in For Marx, pp. 242ff.

17. ‘Assuming Benedetto Croce’s definition of religion as a conception of the world which has become a norm of life, since norm of life is not understood in a bookish sense but as a norm realized in practical life, the majority of men are philosophers insofar as they work practically; a conception of the world, a philosophy is implicit in their working practice’ (Gramsci: Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce, Milan 1948, p. 21).

‘But at this point we reach the fundamental problem facing any conception of the world, any philosophy which has become a cultural movement, a “religion,” a “faith,” any that has produced a form of practical activity or will in which the philosophy is contained as an implicit theoretical “premiss.” One might say “ideology” here, but on condition that the word is used in its highest sense of a conception of the world that is implicitly manifest in art, in law, in economic activity and in all manifestations of individual and collective life. This problem is that of preserving the ideological unity of the entire social bloc which that ideology serves to cement and unify’ (ibid., p. 7).

The reader will have noted that the conception of an ideology which is ‘implicitly’ manifest in art, law, economic activity and ‘all the manifestations of individual and collective life’ is very close to the Hegelian conception.

18. ‘All men are philosophers’ (ibid., p. 3).

‘Since all action is political, can one not say that the real philosophy of each man is contained in its entirety in his political action ?... . Hence the reason why philosophy cannot be divorced from politics. And one can show furthermore that the choice and the criticism of a conception of the world is also a political matter’ (ibid., p. 6).

‘If it is true that every philosophy is the expression of a society, it must react on that society and determine certain positive and negative effects; the precise extent to which it reacts is the measure of its historical scope, of the extent to which it is not an individual “elucubration” but a “historical fact"’ (ibid., pp. 23-4).

‘The identity of history and philosophy is immanent in historical materialism... . The proposition that the German proletariat is the heir of classical German philosophy contains precisely the identity between history and philosophy ...’ (ibid., p. 217). Cf. pp. 232-4.

19. What corresponds here to the concept of ‘historicism’, in this interpretation, has a precise name in Marxism: it is the problem of the union of theory and practice, more particularly the problem of the union of Marxist theory and the workers’ movement.

20. Gramsci, op. cit., pp. 8-9.

21. Cf e.g.: ‘The philosophy of praxis derives certainly from the immanentist conception of reality, but it derives from it insofar as it is purified of any speculative aroma and reduced to pure history or historicity or to pure humanism... . Not only is the philosophy of praxis connected to immanentism. It is also connected to the subjective conception of reality, to the extent precisely that it turns it on its head, explaining it as a historical fact, as the “historical subjectivity of a social group [class],” as a real fact, which presents itself as a phenomenon of philosophical “speculation” and is simply a practical act, the form of a concrete social content and the means of leading the ensemble of society to shape for itself a moral unity’ (ibid., p. 191).

Or again: ‘If it is necessary, in the perennial flux of events, to fix concepts without which reality cannot be understood, one must also, and it is indeed quite indispensable, fix and recall that reality in movement and concept of reality, though logically they may be distinct, historically must be conceived as an inseparable unity’ (ibid., p. 216).

Echoes of Bogdanov’s empiricism are obvious in the first text; the second features the empiricist-speculative thesis of all historicism: the identity of the concept and the real (historical) object.

22. Cf. Gramsci’s astonishing pages on science in Il materialismo storico, pp. 54-7.

23. ibid., p. 160.

24. On the concept of ‘mediation’ see Part I, section 18.

25. Gramsci even gives Sartre’s distinction between philosophy and history in so many words (Il materialismo storico, op. cit., p. 197).

26. The same structural causes can give rise to the opposite effect: with Sartre, we can say just as easily that the Marxist science of history becomes philosophy.

27. Cf. Gramsci’s critique of Bukharin, and Colletti’s introduction to Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, now in Il Marxismo e Hegel, Bari 1969.

28. A moment ago I spoke of the peculiar origins of Sartre’s philosophy. Sartre thinks with Descartes, Kant, Husserl and Hegel: but his most profound thought undoubtedly comes from Politzer and (paradoxical as this juxtaposition might appear) secondarily from Bergson. But Politzer is the Feuerbach of our time: his Critique des fondements de la psychologie is a critique of speculative Psychology in the name of a concrete Psychology. Sartre may have treated Politzer’s themes as ‘philosophemes’: he has not abandoned his inspiration; when Sartre’s historicism inverts the ‘totality’, the abstractions of dogmatic Marxism, he is also ‘repeating’ in a different place and with respect to different objects an ‘inversion’ which, from Feuerbach to the Young Marx and Politzer, has merely conserved the same problematic behind an apparent critique.

29. This surreptitious practice is common to all the humanist interpretations of Marxism.

30. Cf. La Nouvelle Critique, nos. 164, 165, etc.

31. This example can, by analogy, be compared with that of the symptom, the slip of the tongue and the dream – which is, for Freud, a ‘wish-fulfilment’ (plein du désir). [Cf. Louis Althusser: ‘Freud and Lacan’, New Left Review No. 55, May-June 1969, p: 61, n. 6].

32. Cf. Capital, T.I, p. 17; Vol. I, p. 8n, where Marx speaks of the ‘new terminology created’ by him.

33. This is a very remarkable, even exemplary text. It gives us a quite different idea of Engels’s exceptional epistemological sensitivity from that which we have gathered from him in other circumstances. There will be other occasions on which we shall be able to signal Engels’s theoretical genius, for he is far from being the second-rate commentator usually contrasted unfavourably with Marx.

34. The history of science is no different from social history here: there are those in both ‘who have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing’, especially when they have seen the show from the front row.

35. A good example: Freud’s ‘object’ is a radically new object with respect to the ‘object’ of the psychological or philosophical ideologies of his predecessors. Freud’s object is the unconscious, which has nothing to do with the objects of all the varieties of modern psychology, although the latter can be multiplied at will! It is even possible to see the number one task of every new discipline as that of thinking the specific difference of the new object which it discovers, distinguishing it rigorously from the old object and constructing the peculiar concepts required to think it. It is in this basic theoretical work that a science wins its effective right to autonomy in open combat. .

36. On the modern theories, Maurice Godelier’s remarkable article ‘Objets et méthodes de l’anthropologie économique’ (L’Homme, October 1965 and in Rationalité et irrationalité en économie, Paris 1966) can be read with profit.

37. The concept of ‘civil society’, as found in Marx’s mature writings and constantly repeated by Gramsci to designate the sphere of economic existence, is ambiguous and should be struck from Marxist theoretical vocabulary – unless it is made to designate not the economic as opposed to the political, but the ‘private’ as opposed to the public, i.e., a combined effect of law and legal-political ideology on the economic. Chapter 8.

38. Although there is no time to do it here, I should like to note that it would be of great interest to study these long critiques of Marx’s in order to find out on the one hand what distinguishes Marx from Smith in this crucial matter and on the other how and where he locates the essential difference – in order to find out how he explains Smith’s incredible ‘oversight ‘, ‘blindness ‘, ‘misconstruction’ and ‘forgetfulness’ which are at the root of the ‘absurd dogma’ that dominates all modern economics, and finally, in order to find out why Marx felt the need to begin this critique four or five times over, as if he had not got to the bottom of it. And we should then discover, among other epistemologically relevant conclusions, that Smith’s ‘enormous oversight’ was directly related to his exclusive consideration of the individual capitalist, i.e., of the economic subjects considered outside the whole as the ultimate subjects of the global process. In other words, we should discover once again the determinant presence of the anthropological ideology in its directly effective form (essential references: Capital, Vol. II, pp. 189-227 and 359-436; Vol. III, pp. 811-30; Theories of Surplus-Value, Vol. I, pp. 90-100.)

39. For all these questions, barely outlined in this chapter, see Étienne Balibar’s essay – especially his important analysis of the concept of productive forces.

40. See Lire le Capital, first edition, 1965, Vol. I, pp. 93ff.

41. One important specification. The term ‘property’ used by Marx can lead to the belief that the relations of production are identical with legal relations. But law is not the relations of production The latter belong to the infrastructure, the former to the superstructure.

42. Cf. Godelier’s article ‘Objet et méthode de l’anthropologie économique’ (L’Homme, October 1965 and in Rationalité et irrationalité en économie, Paris 1966).

43. Cf. Chapter 3.

44. Cf. Part I, section 14.

45. An expression Jacques-Alain Miller has introduced to characterize a form of structural causality registered in Freud by Jacques Lacan.

46. Capital, Vol. III, p. 797: ‘All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.’ This re-echoes the old dream which haunted all classical political reflection: all politics would be superfluous if men’s passions and reasons coincided.

47. Cf. Balibar’s paper.