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New Left Review I/41, January-February 1967

Louis Althusser

Contradiction and Overdetermination

In an article devoted to the Young Marx [1] Sur le Jeune Marx, in Pour Marx (Paris, 1965) pp. 45–83., I have already stressed the ambiguity of the idea of ‘inverting Hegel’. It seemed to me that strictly speaking this expression suited Feuerbach perfectly; the latter did, indeed, ‘turn speculative philosophy back onto its feet’, but the only result was to arrive with implacable logic at an idealist anthropology. But the expression cannot be applied to Marx, at least not to the Marx who had grown out of this ‘anthropological’ phase. I could go further, and suggest that in the well-known passage: ‘With (Hegel) (the dialectic) is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell’ [2] Karl Marx: Das Kapital, Post-script to the second edition. This is a literal translation of the German original. Here is a translation of the crucial passages: ‘In principle (der Grundlage nach) my dialectical method is not only distinct from Hegel’s but its direct opposite. For Hegel, the process of thought, which he goes so far as to turn into an autonomous subject under the name of the Idea, is the demiurge of the real, which only represents (bildet) its external phenomena. For me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing but the material transposed and translated in man’s head. The mystificatory (mystifirende) side of the Hegelian dialectic I criticized about 30 years ago while it was still fashionable . . . I then declared myself openly a disciple of that great thinker, and, in my chapter of the theory of value I went so far as to flirt (ich kokettirt . . . mit) here and there with his peculiar mode of expression. The mystification the dialectic suffered at Hegel’s hands does not remove him from his place as the first to expose (darstellen) consciously and in depth its general forms of movement. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again if you would discover the rational kernel (Kern) within the mystical shell (mystische Hülle).‘In its mystified form the dialectic was a German fashion because it seemed to transfigure the given (das Bestehende). In its rational image (Gestalt) it is a scandal and abomination for the bourgeoisie . . . As it includes in the understanding of the given (Bestehende) the simultaneous understanding of its negation and necessary destruction, as it conceives any mature (gewordne) form as in motion and thus equally in its ephemeral aspect it allows nothing to impose on it, and is in essence critical and revolutionary.’[Althusser here makes several criticisms of French translations of Das Kapital, particularly those of Roy and Molitor. These are not applicable to this passage in the English translation by Moore and Aveling (Moscow 1961) except for the use of ‘the present’ for ‘das Bestehende’ (the given)—but elsewhere this translation leaves much to be desired—Translator’s note], this ‘turning right side up again’ is merely gestural, even metaphorical, and it raises as many questions as it answers.

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Louis Althusser, ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’, NLR I/41: £3

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