On Marx and History

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By LOUIS ALTHUSSER*

Excerpt from the newly edited book "Writings on history (1963-1986)”.

When one reads Marx, one has a very strange impression, comparable to what one experiences when reading some rare authors, such as Machiavelli and Freud. Impression of being faced with texts (even theoretical and abstract ones) whose status does not fit into the usual categories: texts always beside the place they occupy, texts without an inner center, texts that are rigorous and yet, as if dismembered, texts designating another space than yours.

so it is The capital. Theoretical, systematic, but unfinished text, in every sense of the term: not only because Books II and III are nothing more than fragments of Marx grouped together by Engels and Kautsky (Book IV), but because it presupposes a completion other than theoretical, an outside where the theory would be "pursued by other means".

Marx gave us the reason for this strangeness in two or three clear texts, in which he expressly gives his theoretical position the form of a topic. For example, the Preface to Contribution (1859) exposes the idea that every social formation is so made that it includes an infrastructure (Basic ou Structure in German) economic and a political and ideological superstructure (uberbau in German). The topic is thus presented under the metaphor of a building, where the floors of the superstructure rest on an economic base.

Well, we don't know of many theories that take the form of a topic, except for Marx and Freud. What does this mean in Marx? topical?

It designates, in every “social formation” (society), a distinction between the base (economic) and the superstructure (political and ideological). It shows, therefore, different levels of reality and different realities: the economic, the juridical-political and the ideology.

But this distinction is much more than a simple distinction of realities: it designates degrees of effectiveness within a unit. It indicates the base as the “ultimate determination” of the social formation and, within this overall determination, it indicates the “reciprocal determination” of the superstructure on the base. Philosophically, the ultimate determination by the base, by economic production, attests to Marx's materialist position. But this materialistic determination is not mechanistic.

For the indication of the “last instance” presupposes that there are other instances, which can also determine in their order, and that there is, therefore, a game of determination and in determination: this game is the dialectic. Determination in the last instance does not, therefore, exhaust all determination; it determines, on the contrary, the play of other determinations, preventing them from exercising themselves in the void (the idealist omnipotence of politics, ideas, etc.). This point is very important for understanding Marx's dialectical position.

The dialectic is the game opened by the last instance between itself and the other “instances”, but this dialectic is materialist: it does not play in the air, it plays in the game by the last, material instance. In the topic, Marx thus inscribes his materialist and dialectical position.

But that is not all. In its form, the topic is something other than a description of distinct realities, something other than a prescription of the forms of determination: it is also a frame of inscription and, therefore, a mirror of position for the one who enunciates it and for the one who sees it. . By presenting his theory as a topic, saying that every “society” is so made that it comprises a juridical-political and ideological base and superstructure, and saying that the base is ultimately determinant, Marx inscribes himself (his theory) somewhere in the topic and at the same time inscribe every reader who comes there.

Therein lies the last effect of the Marxist topic: in the game or even in the contradiction between the effectiveness of such a level, on the one hand, and the virtual position of an interlocutor in the topic, on the other. Concretely, this means: the game of the topic becomes, from the fact of this contradiction, an interpellation, an appeal to practice. The internal device of the theory, insofar as it is unbalanced, induces a disposition to practice that continues the theory under other means. It is what gives Marxist theory its strangeness and makes it necessarily unfinished (not like an ordinary science, which is unfinished only in its theoretical order, but in another way). In other words, Marxist theory is haunted, in its very device, by a certain relationship with practice, which is, in turn, an existing practice and a practice to be transformed: politics.

It seems that one could, albeit in different terms, say the same thing about psychoanalytic theory. She would also be haunted in her theory by a certain relationship with practice (the cure). Freud's task of thinking his theory in the form of a topic could correspond to this obscure need.

That said, let's try to go a little further. What does Marx bring, what does he discover? He himself says, in his Preface to Capital, which he proposes to analyze (again a term that brings him closer to Freud: Marx prided himself on having introduced the “analytical method in political economy”), to the analysis of the capitalist mode of production. In fact, all of his work is centered on this object, to which he is the first to have given his name as a mode of production. But Marx also does, in The capital, excursions into pre-capitalist modes of production, he also speaks (but very little, not wanting to “prescribe recipes for the tavern menu of the future”) of the communist mode of production to come.

In the Preface to Contribution, he also outlines a type of periodization of history, in which primitive-communist, slave-owning, feudal, capitalist modes of production follow each other. If Marx remains, therefore, strictly in the analysis of the capitalist mode of production, in this he does not less consider past history and does not hesitate to write about the history that is being made, French history (The 18th of Brumaire etc.), the history of England, Ireland, the USA, the Indies, etc.

Marx therefore has a certain idea of ​​history, and not just a theory of the capitalist mode of production. He had already enunciated this idea in the famous phrase of The Manifest: all history up to our days is the history of the class struggle. It would be enough to bring this phrase closer to the succession of modes of production to give it body and meaning.

However, things are not so simple. This approximation can give rise to different interpretations. It can be said, for example: the class struggle is the motor of history, and thanks to the class struggle – this negativity – history progresses, from one mode of production to another, until its end, the suppression of classes and of the class struggle, each mode of production containing in itself, virtually, the next mode of production. In this case, a Hegelian conception of dialectical development is developed, or an evolutionist conception of the necessary stages, in short, there will be a philosophy of history, in which history is an entity, a Subject, endowed with an End, a a Telos, which it has pursued since its origins, through exploitation and class struggle.

In such a conception, history always has a meaning (in both senses of the word: an end, a meaning). This conception is not that of Marx. If there are cunning na history (cunning and derision), there is no cunning da history; if there is sense na story, no sense da history. This distinction between the em and the de it is sometimes very difficult to maintain, it is sometimes very difficult to guard against confusing a current dominant trend in history with the meaning of history, but the integrity of Marx's materialism is conditional on this distinction.

Marx, in effect, could not write The capital if not on the condition of breaking with every philosophy of history, as with every (philosophical) theory that claimed to exhaustively account for the totality of observable phenomena in human history. To understand this, one must represent to oneself what his position is and how he sees it.

We need to imagine ourselves as a hidden Marx, I would say mocozeado (that “old boy”, who is his weakness) in the middle of the XNUMXth century, and knowing him and having managed to understand what capitalism means. Now, this Marx there, confined to the horizon of what he can know (and nothing else), writes bluntly: “what is called historical development rests, taking everything into account, on the fact that the last form considers past forms as stages leading to their own degree of development. The representation of history is therefore “spontaneously” haunted by a prodigious illusion: that past forms are destined to produce the present.

As the present is the result of a past, the present is imagined to be the end of the past! And Marx adds: "[and as] this last form was rarely able, and that only under very determined conditions, to carry out its own critique... it conceives of past forms under a one-sided aspect". In order to be able to escape the teleological illusion and its effects, the “ultimate form” must be in a state of making its “self-criticism”, that is, of seeing clearly in itself. “The self-criticism of bourgeois society”, as Marx says, can then allow us to understand “feudal, ancient, oriental societies”. This “self-criticism of bourgeois society” is The capital, largely redacted in 1857-1859. Armed with this knowledge, Marx could climb out of his hole and tackle this strange thing called history.

The critique of the teleological illusion leads Marx to refuse to project the categories that explain the present society on the societies that existed in the past as such. According to the cases, certain categories present are partially or totally absent in such a past formation, and when they are present, they are very often displaced, play a different role, and even if it is similar, it is Cum grain salis.

But this history presupposes the existence of a certain past, which can itself, in turn, be considered as the end of its own prehistory. It is necessary to push the teleological illusion of history to the end of its last defenses. We know Marx's little phrase: "the anatomy of man is the key to the anatomy of the ape". It means: assuming that the ape-man line is established in fact, that man is the result of the ape, it is not (contrary to all evolutionists) the anatomy of the ape that will give us the anatomy of man, but the anatomy of man. which will give us “a key”, and only one key, to the anatomy of the ape.

Resuming a famous formula from Hegel, who demanded that “the result in its becoming” never be presented, but who considered that the becoming of the result already contained the result in itself, Marx would say: every result is indeed the result of a becoming, but becoming does not contain in itself your result. In other words, if the good result is the necessary result of a becoming, the becoming that produced this result does not have the form of a becoming. telos. That is why "the last form" cannot regard "past forms as leading to its degree of development".

This last idea introduces us to what I would call a “counter-history”, a negative history, as the background and unforeseen events of “positive” history. History, as it is commonly conceived, is the history of results as the stages of the becoming of the present form, it is the history of the results retained by history: it is not the history of non-results, of becomings without results and of results without becoming. , aborted forms, repressed forms, dead forms, in short, flaws, not the flaws that history retains, but flaws that it does not retain.

Official history, written in our Western tradition by and for the ruling class, is the history of domination, which crushes the other history, that of shadows and the dead. However, wrote Marx, in misery of philosophy, it is always on the bad side that history advances. It was there that Marx gave life to an entire repressed history, he discovered a future without result, that of the exploited, oppressed masses, exploitable and employable without scruples for all jobs and all massacres: the bad side.

But there Marx opened up the immense field of non-history in all its forms, that of societies that disappeared forever (results without becoming), that of lost births (capitalism in the cities of Northern Italy in the fourteenth century in the Po Valley), that of the “antediluvian” existence, that of “survivals”, that of premature revolutions and many other stories in which repression, repression and oblivion compete for failure.

It is by combining the history of results and the repressed counter-history that Marx manages to think of history in a different way than under the categories of teleology and contingency.

I will, by way of a bias, try to answer the question: under what conditions does human history exist, or even, how is history rooted in a human group, in a social formation?

For Marx, who does not question himself about prehistoric anthropology, man is a social animal that has this particularity of producing his material conditions of existence. Now, Kant already said that man is an animal that works, and Franklin before him: man is an animal that makes tools. Marx cites Franklin in The capital: man makes tools to produce his means of subsistence, to extract them from nature by his work. But he does not work in solitude. Even in the most primitive groups, there is a division of labor, therefore forms of cooperation and work organization. A human group or a social formation therefore produces its subsistence.

Now, if such a group exists, it is because it has managed to reproduce up to now. Here is the point where everything unfolds. For this group reproduced itself not only biologically, but socially: by reproducing the conditions of production of its means of subsistence. In other words, behind the visible production that makes Franklin say that man is an animal that makes tools, behind the dialectic of work exalted by Hegel, Marx designates (after the physiocrats) a silent process that commands the first and that does not see: the reproduction of the conditions of production.

Practically, this means, first of all, that production must include a material surplus, a surplus product, and it doesn't matter what it is, but a definite surplus product, which makes it possible to reproduce, after each of its cycles, the elements of the production process: tools in surplus to replace used tools, too much wheat for seed, etc. In short, an excess that is a determined reserve to ensure the reproduction of the material conditions of production (and we know that, for centuries, war was one of the means of ensuring this reproduction: for land, for slaves, etc.). If these conditions are not ensured by reproduction, the social formation perishes and dies. Where there is no continuity in existence, there is no history. If, in biology, to exist is, for a species, to reproduce itself, in history, to exist is to reproduce the material and social conditions of production.

For it is also necessary that the social conditions, and not only the material conditions (tools, seeds, labor force), be reproduced. It is necessary that the social division and forms of cooperation be reproduced, which presupposes an entire political and ideological superstructure, able to ensure the reproduction of functions and their coordination in production. One can see them in primitive societies, in which myths and their priests play the role of regulating the social conditions of reproduction, sanctioning the division of labor, kinship relations, rhythms, therefore, the organization of work, etc.

All of this, which has become familiar to us, Marx deciphered in his analysis of the capitalist mode of production and cannot, of course, be applied to pre-capitalist formations unless Cum grain salis. But this unity of production and reproduction and the effect of superstructure as a condition of social reproduction are essential to Marx's idea of ​​history, as well as the distinction he makes, at the beginning [of the second section of Volume I] from O Capital, between simple reproduction (over the same base) and enlarged reproduction (over a larger base).

The capitalist mode of production does not know simple reproduction, but it reveals its possibility. And it is no coincidence that Marx insists on the historical existence of stagnant societies, which ensure their reproduction within the narrow limits of their previous production, on the historical “ceiling” reached by pre-capitalist societies. Unlike them, capitalism is ineluctably subjected to expanded reproduction, to worldwide expansion.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this view of history:

One can understand the fact, already pointed out, that “societies” disappear completely: when certain conditions of their reproduction come to be lacking for one reason or another. It can also be understood that certain social formations have aborted, such as the first forms of capitalism in Northern Italy (absence of national unity = absence of a sufficiently large market).

It can be understood that in the “societies” that existed, history did not have the same speed, the same rhythm, the same “time”, that stagnant societies had, some immobilized after a progression, others condemned to a breathless development.

Finally, it is possible to understand the role of the superstructure indicated in the Marxist topic. The function of the superstructure, the State and law, politics, ideology and all works that live off ideology is to contribute to the reproduction of forms of production, and in class societies, to the reproduction of social and ideological forms of division. in classes. But at the same time, one can understand that the superstructure does not assume and does not cover class violence without sanctioning it on the basis of ideology, God's authority, the general interest, Reason or Truth.

Material and social reproduction takes the form of the “eternity” of ideological values ​​of which politicians are only the representatives. That is why, until Marx, history boils down to and is reduced to the superstructure, that is why there is no official history but of the superstructure, of the great politicians, scientists, philosophers, artists and writers, in short, a history “one-sided” as Marx says: a history that does not penetrate to the depths of the material and social conditions of production and reproduction, a history that does not reach determination “in the last instance”.

But another conclusion can be drawn from this vision, which concerns the capitalist mode of production.

That history, for Marx, is not homogeneous, we already perceive from his observation according to which it is not any social form that is in a state to carry out its own “self-criticism” and from his concern to avoid the teleological illusion of spontaneous history. Only societies where the capitalist mode of production reigns are capable of this. It is that the capitalist mode of production is not like the others, but unique in its order. It presents this organic particularity, inscribed in its structure (valuation of value, production of surplus value) of reproducing itself on an uninterruptedly expanding base, corresponding to its tendency to grow, deepen and expand without stopping the exploitation of wage labor power. .

I can't go into the details here, but things can be represented schematically like this. In a sense, all pre-capitalist modes of production have an “open” or “gap” structure, whereas the capitalist mode of production is marked by its closed structure. What ensures the closure of the capitalist mode of production is what Marx often calls the generalization of mercantile relations, which not only makes all products products as commodities, but makes labor power itself a merchandise.

In pre-capitalist modes of production, there were indeed commodities, products sold as commodities but not produced as commodities, and labor power was not a commodity: there remained an “opening”, a whole game in which the The master exploited to enjoy and not to accumulate capital, in which the serf could, within a certain limit, and under certain servitudes, lead his own life. With the capitalist mode of production, labor power becomes a commodity; the master, a capitalist who exploits the workforce to accumulate capital. There is no possible way out of the raging law of exploitation, which is at the base of capitalist class struggle, the spread of exploitation and world domination.

The capitalist mode of production is condemned to a gigantic flight forward, thrown into crises that are like solutions on the backs of the exploited and subjected to an antagonistic tendency law: to increase more and more concentration and accumulation, but, at the same time, at the same time, to educate and force the exploited masses more and more into the class struggle, to provoke the colonized zones towards their liberation, to live in this mortal contradiction until death.

For Marx, this tendency is irresistible: imperialism is the last form that this tendency takes, the union of industrial and bank capital into finance capital, the domination of the capital market over the commodity market on a world scale, the struggle to share the world between the monopolies leading to imperialist war, etc. But this irresistible tendency is not a fatality, which contains in advance its solution without alternative.

We know Engels' sentence: "socialism or barbarism". The history we live gives full meaning to this double exit. We can experience the irresistible tendency of imperialism in the forms of “rottenness” (Lenin) and “barbarism” (Engels), of which fascism gives us a first idea. And this could last for a long time, because what was characteristic of capitalism before was, and what is characteristic of imperialism always is, an extraordinary capacity to transform its crises into historical cures, either by installing itself in them, as in fascism or other latent forms, or by get out of them, as in 1929, but by world war. It remains that with each world war, 1914-1918, 1939-1945, the imperialist world could only come out of its crisis by paying the price each time of one or several socialist revolutions. The alternative to barbarism can be socialism. For what is inscribed in the irresistible tendency of imperialism is, indissolubly, at the same time, the growth of exploitation and its extension on a world scale, the exasperation of the class struggle.

It is on this basis that the organization of the working class struggle for the seizure of power and for socialism is possible. Certainly, it is necessary that there are organizations of the working class struggle, and that they know how to insert themselves in the contradictions of imperialism at the Archimedean point: that which allows, not to revolt the world, but to transform it.

*Louis Althusser (1918-1980), Marxist philosopher, was a professor at the École Normale Supérieure (Paris). Author, among other books, of By Marx (Unicamp).

Reference

Louis Althusser. Writings about history (1963-1986). Text established by GM Goshgarian. Translation: Diego Lanciote. São Paulo, Contracurrent, 2022, 252 pages.

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