In a body of work which has received considerable attention in France and elsewhere and become one of the focal points of contemporary Marxist controversy, Louis Althusser has registered the necessity for a reading of Marx at once critical and rigorous. Critical: the assimilation of Marx’s important discoveries can only be the product of a major theoretical effort which, so far from taking for granted that the whole of Marx forms a coherent and valid unity, attempts to distinguish in Marx between theoretical deficiencies, terminological ambiguities and ideological ‘survivals’ on the one hand, and truly scientific concepts on the other. Rigorous: the condition for the fruitful application and further elaboration of these concepts is a strict and scrupulous regard for their definitions, their implications, their scope and their boundaries, for what they exclude as much as for what they include. Only by dint of this will Marxist research escape the pitfalls of taking these concepts for what they are not and of remaining satisfied with the inadequate substitutes which can masquerade in their place.

The insistence on this double requirement bears witness to the selfconscious intention of a Communist philosopher to avoid both the shackles of uncritical orthodoxy and the temptations of conceptual imprecision. At the same time, the exercise should not be regarded as a purely academic one in which the only stake is the ‘scholarly’ interpretation and assessment of Marx. For, if Althusser has thought it necessary to challenge those tendencies (humanism, historicism, hegelianism) which have haunted Western Marxism since Lukács’s early work and become powerfully influential in the last two decades, it is because he believes that, being theoretically deficient, they cannot but produce serious negative effects in the political practice of the class struggle. Unable to provide an adequate scientific knowledge of the real political problems thrown up by this struggle, and offering instead the imaginary comforts of merely ideological formulae, such tendencies cannot contribute to the solution of these problems and may indeed be impediments to their solution. The stakes, ultimately, are political. The precise counts on which the humanist and historicist themes of Hegelian Marxism are found to be theoretically deficient will be elaborated in due course. Here it is sufficient to observe that Althusser defines his work as an intervention against these tendencies within Marxism and that it is only by situating it in this context that its significance is properly understood.

The first part of this article is an exposition of the theoretical positions of For Marx (1965) and Reading Capital (1965), Althusser’s major, and most systematic, works to date despite the reservations he has since expressed about them. In the second part, I attempt a critical assessment of these positions, and conclude with some remarks on the texts Althusser has written since 1965—texts which are collected in Lenin and Philosophy and other essays. All these works are now available to the English reader in Ben Brewster’s excellent translations.footnote1

The Althusserian project receives its unity from one central and overriding concern: ‘the investigation of Marx’s philosophical thought.’footnote2 Behind the diverse problems considered and the solutions proposed, there is always one question at issue, for Althusser the essential question, namely, ‘What is Marxist philosophy? Has it any theoretical right to existence? And if it does exist in principle, how can its specificity be defined?’footnote3 The approach to Marx’s Capital too is informed by this question. For all that it is primarily a work of political economy, it is seen by Althusser and his collaborators as the basic site of the philosophy which is the object of their search.footnote4 Thus their reading of that work is an explicitly philosophical one undertaken by philosophersfootnote5 in order to be able to respond to one of the exigencies confronting contemporary Marxist theory: the need for ‘a more rigorous and richer definition of Marxist philosophy.’footnote6

What is the source of this exigency? In the first place, the nature of Marx’s own achievement: ‘By founding the theory of history (historical materialism), Marx simultaneously broke with his erstwhile ideological philosophy and established a new philosophy (dialectical materialism). I am deliberately using the traditionally accepted terminology (historical materialism, dialectical materialism) to designate this double foundation.’footnote7 It is an achievement involving two distinct disciplines, but it is marked by a certain unevenness, for historical materialism and dialectical materialism have received different degrees of theoretical elaboration. The former, the Marxist science of social formations and their history, was mapped out and developed in Marx’s mature works, to be enriched subsequently by theoreticians such as Lenin engaged in the practice of the class struggle. On the other hand, ‘Marxist philosophy, founded by Marx in the very act of founding his theory of history, has still largely to be constituted, since, as Lenin said, only the corner-stones have been laid down.’footnote8 Dialectical materialism, that is to say, represents a philosophical revolution ‘carried in’ Marx’s scientific discoveries;footnote9 at work in them, it exists in an untheorized practical state;footnote10 its mode of existence is merely ‘implicit’.footnote11 Whence the need to give it proper theoretical articulation, resisting the temptation offered by its implicitness simply to confuse it with historical materialism.

For if the latter has been able to develop up to a point in the absence of an explicit and thorough formulation of the principles of Marxist philosophy, this absence has not been without serious consequences and to continue to tolerate it would be to incur further risks. Anticipating somewhat the further course of this exposition, I will simply indicate here that, for Althusser, Marxist philosophy is a ‘theory of the differential nature of theoretical formations and their history, that is, a theory of epistemological history,’footnote12 or, what comes to the same thing, ‘the theory of the history of the production of knowledge.’footnote13 It is, in short, ‘the theory of science and of the history of science.’footnote14 As such, a well-founded Marxist philosophy is indispensable to the science of historical materialism, in order to identify its fragile points, to pose clearly its problems so that they may be capable of solution, to give it the concepts adequate to its tasks, and to facilitate its path in those areas of study where it has only just begun, or has yet to begin, to make its way. As the vigilant guardian of its scientificity, dialectical materialism can assist in consolidating and defending historical materialism against the ideologies which threaten it both at its weak points and at its frontiers. But without this philosophical attention, the scientific activity, left to develop spontaneously, will be helpless in the face of these threats and open to the invasions of ideology. This has happened in the past and will continue to happen so long as the science lacks the explicit theory of its own practice.footnote15 This is why ‘the theoretical future of historical materialism depends today on deepening dialectical materialism.’footnote16

Enough has been said, then, to establish that what we can expect to find in Althusser’s work is primarily an elaboration of this Marxist philosophy, dialectical materialism, a provisional specification of its precise character and content. In aiming for a clear presentation of this Althusserian construction, I shall avail myself of the following distinction. As theory of science and of its history, Althusser’s dialectical materialism contains a series of concepts pertaining to the nature and process of theoretical knowledge, in other words, a set of epistemological concepts. In addition, to the extent that it functions as the theory of the particular science of historical materialsm by reflecting on its concepts and problems, it incorporates a set of historical concepts. The two areas defined by this distinction (which is merely an expository convenience: as will be seen, the epistemological and historical concepts are integrally related) are, however, founded on one and the same first principle, which is principle of intelligibility for both. This principle is the central Althusserian concept of practice or production. The exposition will therefore proceed as follows: from i) a preliminary discussion of the concept of practice/production, to a consideration of ii) the epistemological concepts and iii) the historical concepts which are based upon it.