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Chapter 3 Science, Ideology, and Philosophy
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Marx's "Epistemological Break"

Marx not only founded a new science, Althusser insists, but also opened up a third "continent" of human knowledge as well, an achievement comparable to the creation of mathematics by the Greeks and of physics by Galileo. There is no point in debating such an extravagant claim, yet the metaphor is an interesting one, for it provides a graphic example of the relationship between knowledge and power that Althusser put forward several years before Foucault made the idea popular (by eliminating all Marxist connotations from it). "A continent, in the sense of the metaphor, is never empty: it is always already 'occupied' by many and varied more or less ideological disciplines which do not know that they belong to that 'continent.' . . . Before Marx, the History Continent was occupied by the philosophies of history, by political economy, etc. The opening-up of a continent by a continental science not only disputes the rights and claims of the former occupants, it also completely restructures the old configuration of the 'continent'" (Althusser 1972, 166). In opening this new "continent," Marx did two things which, according to Althusser, have general significance for the historical explanation of the constitution of a science. First, Marx


broke radically with existing philosophies of history—the theoretical humanism of Feuerbach and the essentialist and teleological elements of the Hegelian dialectic. Second, as a result of this previous break Marx was able to engage in a "symptomatic" reading of contemporary political economy that yielded, with the publication of the first volume of Capital , the problematic of a new science of history.[8]

Althusser argues that between the 1844 Manuscripts and Capital there exists a radical break in Marx's thought, a break announced in the "Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach" (1845), which identifies human nature with the ensemble of social relations, thereby rejecting Feuerbach's ahistorical, abstract, and passively contemplative concept of "species being." The break is clearly evident, albeit in a partially negative and sharply polemical form, in the German Ideology (1845-46), in which the term productive forces emerges as a new strategic concept within Marx's thinking. This break was itself brought about by a philosophical shift from the radical-democratic political position that Marx held in the early 1840s to his adoption of a proletarian class position after his move to Paris in October 1843, a move that exposed him for the first time to an authentic popular political movement—the socialist movement of French and German artisans.

According to Althusser, the seeds of discontent with radical democracy are already present in Marx's "Introduction to the Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right," written in 1843. In this work, Marx questions Hegel's inversion of reality and thought, contending that Hegel did not so much overcome the distinction between the world and the Idea as dissolve the empirical into the asserted, but unprovable, Idea as so many contradictory manifestations of the latter's unified essence. Thus for Marx, Hegel's vision of the political state as the mediating, reconciling agency of society and social conflicts is merely another idealist abstraction masking the real contradictions of society—contradictions between the citizen and the common good on the one hand and competitive, bourgeois individualism on the other. Marx's critique of Hegel locates the source of human "alienation" in society, not in consciousness, but it is still far from constituting a break with the Hegelian dialectic or the anthropological humanism of Feuerbach. However, Althusser contends this philosophical shift did bring about a theoretical crisis in the form of a contradiction between Marx's new political position and the humanist-Hegelian theoretical position to which he still adhered. The 1844 Manuscripts are properly understood, in Althusser's view, as an attempt to resolve this problem, an


effort doomed from the start by the contradiction between Marx's desire to provide a materialist explanation of the present condition of the proletariat and the inadequacy of the anthropological and teleological dialectic with which he attempted to elaborate his explanation.

What Marx achieved in the 1844 Manuscripts was not insignificant. Taking over the Feuerbachian notion of "species being," Marx reformulated it in historical and dynamic terms. For Marx, human nature was defined by human activity—the productive power of labor to transform the given world of nature and thereby the world of society. This view of human nature as a historically determined and variable phenomenon creates a tension within Marx's thought between the still metaphysical notion of alienation, the idea that there is some primal lack behind capitalist social relations, and the newly emerging emphasis on the constitutive role of social relations in defining human nature and society. In The German Ideology , Marx and Engels resolve the tension of the 1844 Manuscripts , albeit in a still tentative and embryonic form. In this massive (more than six hundred pages) and sustained indictment of German "Left Hegelianism," the term productive forces emerges as an explanatory principle within a new social theory. Although there remains some confusion between technical and social (class) relations within production, a confusion clarified in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), the concept of "man" or "alienation" no longer plays any explanatory role in The German Ideology . Where it continues to be used, it functions as a symptom, a characteristic of capitalist relations of production, and not as a causal explanation of historical development.

The period between 1845 and 1857 was, in Althusser's view, a transitional period in Marx's thinking. During these years the philosophical rejection of the humanist problematic, the emerging conceptualization of the forces and relations of production as class relations and the ultimate explanatory principles of historical development, and the concept of history as a process without a subject were applied to a systematic investigation of political economy. By operating within a problematic other than that of bourgeois economics, namely, the still embryonic historical materialism, Althusser contends that Marx was able to focus on questions and pose problems that Smith and Ricardo were driven toward without being able either to recognize or to resolve—for to do so would have put into question the capitalist system which they were attempting to defend as well as explain. By examining capitalist society in terms of existing notions of surplus labor and the labor theory of value and by seeing these as historical-social rather than natural rela-


tionships, Marx was able to formulate the concept of capitalist exploitation in terms of relationships between wages, labor, and capital. From this reformulation followed the concept of the mode of production and with it the structural contradiction between the forces and relations of production, as well as the topographical metaphor of "superstructure," which defines the ways in which men and women become conscious of this contradiction and fight it out—both clearly expressed in the 1859 "Preface to the Critique of Political Economy."

By the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867, Marx had, in Althusser's opinion, rounded out his new science of history and formulated the basic concepts of historical materialism. Surplus value rigorously specified the logic of capitalist exploitation and the mechanisms of the capitalist mode of production. The concept of surplus value was in turn essential for the development of a general concept of capitalist relations of production since it laid bare the relationships of class power embedded in the social relations of production. This new concept forced Marx to reverse his earlier tendency (in the 1859 "Preface") to privilege the forces of production at the expense of the relations of production and to recognize the latter as an integral aspect of the dynamics of a capitalist mode of production. According to Althusser, not only does Capital contain the basic concepts of historical materialism, but these concepts are either absolutely new—as are mode of production, social formation, surplus value, infrastructure, and superstructure —or have been given new and different meanings—as have dialectic, class , and class struggle . Significantly, in Capital the concept of "fetishization of commodities," often misrepresented as a survival of the problematic of alienation, is clearly posited by Marx as a product of capitalism and not its source, an unequivocal indication that Marx has rejected the humanist problematic of his early works. Class and class struggle are the new explanatory principles of history, and the struggle revolves around surplus value. While perhaps Hegelian in its mode of presentation, Capital lacks any reconciliation of the contradictions of capitalism, any overarching moral-ethical teleology or imperative.

The concepts of Capital not only have new meanings, but they actually function in a new way, a way that Althusser, looking back on his interpretation of Marx, describes in the following manner:

I showed that in practice Marxist theory functioned quite differently from the old pre-Marxist conceptions. It seemed to me that the system of basic concepts of Marxist theory functioned like the theory of a science: as a basic conceptual apparatus, opened to the infinitude of its object, that is designed


ceaselessly to pose and confront new problems and ceaselessly to produce new pieces of knowledge . . . it functioned as a (provisional) truth, for the (endless) conquest of new knowledge, itself capable (in certain conjunctures) of renewing this first truth. In comparison, it appeared that the basic theory of the old conceptions, far from functioning as a (provisional) truth , for the production of new pieces of knowledge, actually tried in practice to operate as the truth of History, as complete, definitive and absolute knowledge of History. (Althusser 1976, 154)

What Marx accomplished, then, was an "epistemological" break with certain views of history—Feuerbachian humanism, Hegelian dialectics—a break that resulted in a new way of thinking about history. Althusser insists that this new way of thinking is scientific because it provided Marx not only with an alternative explanatory mode or problematic but also with a new and more powerful level of explanation. By means of his epistemological break, Marx created a problematic capable of criticizing bourgeois political economy for its errors, such as its fetishization of the commodity form, but also capable of explaining the fetishization of commodities as a necessary phenomenological form within bourgeois society. Althusser agrees with Marx in labeling these rejected notions ideological, that is, erroneous, but goes on to emphasize a fact whose significance Marx himself seems not to have fully appreciated: such a designation is possible only retrospectively. It is only after the emergence of historical materialism from its ideological environment, that is, only from the point of view of the Marxist problematic, that political economy is erroneous. "Ideology [ideology/error] can only be identified from outside, after the event," Althusser insists, "from the standpoint of a Marxist science of history . . . not simply from the standpoint of the existence of Marxist science as science [a Theory of theoretical practice], but from the standpoint of Marxist science as the science of history " (Althusser 1976, 155).

Despite its significance, both as an example of what Althusser views as a "break" between ideology and science and as a political position within the spirited controversy over Marx's intellectual development, I will not comment further on the debates over Althusser's interpretation of Marx. Suffice it to say that Althusser's views have been defended and developed by certain Marx scholars and bitterly opposed by others. We are already familiar with Althusser's criticisms of humanism, empiricism, historicism, and the Hegelian dialectic; whether or not Marx actually subscribed to them cannot occupy us here, nor is it essential to the present discussion. The basic concepts that Althusser finds in Capi-


tal must ultimately stand or fall independently of their origins. Despite the undeniable political "stakes" in the philosophical debates of "what Marx really meant," here we can do no more than acknowledge the existence of those debates.

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