Louis Althusser 1971
Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays
Lenin and Philosophy
Written: February 1968;
First Published: by François Maspero, 1968;
Translated: by Ben Brewster;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.
May I thank your Society for the honour it has done me in inviting me to present to it what it has called, since it came into existence, and what it will doubtless long continue to call, by a disarmingly nostalgic name: a communication.
A scientist is justified in presenting a communication before a scientific society. A communication and a discussion are only possible if they are scientific. But a philosophical communication and a philosophical discussion?
Philosophical communication. This term would certainly have made Lenin laugh, with that whole-hearted, open laugh by which the fishermen of Capri recognized him as one of their kind and on their side. This was exactly sixty years ago, in 1908. Lenin was then at Capri, as a guest of Gorky, whose generosity he liked and whose talent he admired, but whom he treated nevertheless as a petty-bourgeois revolutionary. Gorky had invited him to Capri to take part in philosophical discussions with a small group of Bolshevik intellectuals whose positions Gorky shared, the Otzovists. 1908: the aftermath of the first October Revolution, that or 1905, the ebb-tide and repression of the Workers’ Movement. And also disarray among the ‘intellectuals’, including the Bolshevik intellectuals. Several of them had formed a group known to history by the name ‘Otzovists’.
Politically, the Otzovists were leftists, in favour of radical measures: recall (otzovat) of the Party’s Duma Representatives, rejection of every form of legal action and immediate recourse to violent action. But these leftist proclamations concealed rightist theoretical positions. The Otzovists were infatuated with a fashionable philosophy or philosophical fashion, ‘empirio-criticism’, which had been updated in form by the famous Austrian physicist, Ernst Mach. This physicists’ and physiologists’ philosophy (Mach was not just anybody: he has left his name in the history of the sciences) was not without affinity with other philosophies manufactured by scientists like Henri Poincaré, and by historians of science like Pierre Duhem and Abel Rey.
These are phenomena which we are beginning to understand. When certain sciences undergo important revolutions (at that time Mathematics and Physics), there will always be professional philosophers to proclaim that the ‘crisis in science’, or mathematics, or physics, has begun. These philosophers’ proclamations are, if I may say so, normal: for a whole category of philosophers spend their time predicting, i.e. awaiting, the last gasp of the sciences, in order to administer them the last rites of philosophy, ad majorem gloriam Dei.
But what is more curious is the fact that, at the same time, there will be scientists who talk of a crisis in the sciences, and suddenly discover a surprising philosophical vocation – in which they see themselves as suddenly converted into philosophers, although in fact they were always ‘practising’ philosophy – in which they believe they are uttering revelations, although in fact they are merely repeating platitudes and anachronisms which come from what philosophy is obliged to regard as its history.
We are philosophers by trade, so we are inclined to think that if there is a ‘crisis’, it is a visible and spectacular philosophical crisis into which these scientists have worked themselves up when faced with the growth of a science which they have taken for its conversion, just as a child can be said to have worked itself up into a feverish crisis. Their spontaneous, everyday philosophy has simply become visible to them.
Mach’s empirio-criticism, and all its by-products, the philosophies of Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Bazarov, etc., represented a philosophical crisis of this kind. Such crises are chronic occurrences. To give some contemporary idea of this, other things being equal, we can say that the philosophy which certain biologists, geneticists and linguists today are busy manufacturing around ‘information theory’ is a little philosophical ‘crisis’ of the same kind, in this case a euphoric one.
Now what is remarkable about these scientists’ philosophical crises is the fact that they are always orientated philosophically in one and the same direction: they revive and update old empiricist or formalist, i.e. idealist themes; they are therefore always directed against materialism.
So the Otzovists were empirio-criticists, but since (as Bolsheviks) they were Marxists, they said that Marxism had to rid itself of that pre-critical metaphysics, ‘dialectical materialism’, and that in order to become the Marxism of the twentieth century, it had at last to furnish itself with the philosophy it had always lacked, precisely this vaguely neo-Kantian idealist philosophy, remodelled and authenticated by scientists: empirio-criticism. Some Bolsheviks of this group even wanted to integrate into Marxism the ‘authentic’ humane values of religion, and to this end called themselves ‘God-builders’. But we can ignore this.
So Gorky’s aim was to invite Lenin to discuss philosophy with the group of Otzovist philosophers. Lenin laid down his conditions: Dear Alexei Maximovich, I should very much like to see you, but I refuse to engage in any philosophical discussion.
To be sure, this was a tactical attitude: since political unity among the Bolshevik émigrés was essential, they should not be divided by a philosophical dispute. But we can discern in this tactic much more than a tactic, something I should like to call a ‘practice’ of philosophy, and the consciousness of what practising philosophy means; in short the consciousness of the ruthless, primary fact that philosophy divides. If science unites, and if it unites without dividing, philosophy divides, and it can only unite by dividing. We can thus understand Lenin’s laughter: there is no such thing as philosophical communication, no such thing as philosophical discussion.
All I want to do today is to comment on that laughter, which is a thesis in itself.
I venture to hope that this thesis will lead us somewhere.
And it leads me straightaway to ask myself the question which others cannot fail to ask: if no philosophical communication is possible, then what kind of talk can I give here? It is obviously a talk to philosophers. But as clothes do not make the man, the audience does not make a talk. My talk will therefore not be philosophical.
Nevertheless, for necessary reasons linked to the point we have reached in theoretical history, it will be a talk in philosophy. But this talk in philosophy will not quite be a talk of philosophy. It will be, or rather will try to be, a talk on philosophy. Which means that by inviting me to present a communication, your Society has anticipated my wishes.
What I should like to say will indeed deserve that title if, as I hope, I can communicate to you something on philosophy, in short, some rudimentary elements towards the idea of a theory of philosophy. Theory: something which in a certain way anticipates a science.
That is how I ask you to understand my title: Lenin and Philosophy. Not Lenin’s philosophy, but Lenin on philosophy. In fact, I believe that what we owe to Lenin, something which is perhaps not completely unprecedented, but certainly invaluable, is the beginnings of the ability to talk a kind of discourse which anticipates what will one day perhaps be a non-philosophical theory of philosophy.
If such is really Lenin’s greatest merit with respect to our present concern, we can perhaps begin by quickly settling an old, open dispute between academic philosophy, including French academic philosophy, and Lenin. As I too am an academic and teach philosophy. I am among those who should wear Lenin’s ‘cap’, if it fits.
To my knowledge, with the exception of Henri Lefebvre who has devoted an excellent little book to him, French academic philosophy has not deigned to concern itself with the man who led the greatest political revolution in modern history and who, in addition, made a lengthy and conscientious analysis in Materialism and Empirio-criticism of the works of our compatriots Henri Poincaré, Pierre Duhem and Abel Rey, not to speak of others.
I hope that any of our luminaries whom I have forgotten will forgive me, but it seems to me that, if we except articles by Communist philosophers and scientists, I can hardly find more than a few pages devoted to Lenin in the last half-century: by Sartre in Les Temps Modernes in 1946 (‘Matérialisme et Révolution’), by Merleau-Ponty (in Les Aventures de la Dialectique) and by Ricoeur (in an article in Esprit).
In the last named, Ricoeur speaks of State and Revolution with respect, but he does not seem to deal with Lenin’s ‘philosophy’. Sartre says that the materialist philosophy of Engels and Lenin is ‘unthinkable’ in the sense of an Unding, a thought which cannot stand the test of mere thought, since it is a naturalistic, pre-critical, pre-Kantian and pre-Hegelian metaphysic; but he generously concedes that it may have the function of a Platonic ‘myth’ which helps proletarians to be revolutionaries. Merleau-Ponty dismisses it with a single word: Lenin’s philosophy is an ‘expedient’.
It would surely be unbecoming on my part, even given all the requisite tact, to open a case against the French philosophical tradition of the last one hundred and fifty years, since the silence in which French philosophy has buried this past is worth more than any open indictment. It must really be a tradition which hardly bears looking at, for to this day no prominent French philosopher has dared publicly to write its history.
Indeed, it takes some courage to admit that French philosophy, from Maine de Biran and Cousin to Bergson and Brunschvicg, by way of Ravaisson, Hamelin, Lachelier and Boutroux, can only be salvaged from its own history by the few great minds against whom it set its face, like Comte and Durkheim, or buried in oblivion, like Cournot and Couturat; by a few conscientious historians of philo- sophy, historians of science and epistemologists who worked patiently and silently to educate those to whom in part French philosophy owes its renaissance in the last thirty years. We all know these names; forgive me if I only cite those who are no longer with us: Cavaillès and Bachelard.
After all, this French academic philosophy, profoundly religious, spiritualist and reactionary one hundred and fifty years ago, then in the best of cases conservative, finally belatedly liberal and ‘personalist’, this philosophy which magnificently ignored Hegel, Marx and Freud, this academic philosophy which only seriously began to read Kant, then Hegel and Husserl, and even to discover the existence of Frege and Russell a few decades ago, and sometimes less, why should it have concerned itself with this Bolshevik, revolutionary, and politician, Lenin?
Besides the overwhelming class pressures on its strictly philosophical traditions, besides the condemnation by its most ‘liberal’ spirits of ‘Lenin’s unthinkable pre-critical philosophical thought’, the French philosophy which we have inherited has lived in the conviction that it can have nothing philosophical to learn either from a politician or from politics. To give just one example, it was only a little while ago that a few French academic philosophers first turned to the study of the great theoreticians of political philosophy, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, Grotius, Locke and even Rousseau, ‘our’ Rousseau. Only thirty years earlier, these authors were abandoned to literary critics and jurists as left-overs.
But French academic philosophy was not mistaken in its radical refusal to learn anything from politicians and politics, and therefore from Lenin. Everything which touches on politics may be fatal to philosophy, for philosophy lives on politics.
Of course, it cannot be said that, if academic philosophy has ever read him, Lenin did not more than repay it in kind, ‘leaving it the change’! Listen to him in Materialism and Empirio-criticism, invoking Dietzgen, the German proletarian who Marx and Engels said had discovered ‘dialectical materialism’ ‘all by himself’, as an auto-didact, because he was a proletarian militant:
‘Graduated flunkeys’, who with their talk of ‘ideal blessings’ stultify the people by their tortuous ‘idealism’ – that is J. Dietzgen’s opinion of the professors of philosophy. ‘Just as the antipodes of the good God is the devil, so the professorial priest had his opposite pole in the materialist .’ The materialist theory of knowledge is ‘a universal weapon against religious belief’, and not only against the ‘notorious, formal and common religion of the priests, but also against the most refined, elevated professorial religion of muddled idealists’. Dietzgen was ready to prefer ‘religious honesty’ to the ‘half-heartedness’ of free-thinking professors, for ‘there a system prevails’, there we find integral people, people who do not separate theory from practice. For the Herr Professors ‘philosophy is not a science, but a means of defence against Social-Democracy’.
‘Those who call themselves philosophers – professors and university lecturers – are, despite their apparent free-thinking, more or less immersed in superstition and mysticism ...and in relation to Social-Democracy constitute a single ...reactionary mass .’ ‘Now, in order to follow the true path, without being led astray by an the religious and philosophical gibberish, it is necessary to study the falsest of all false paths (der Holzweg der Holzwege), philosophy’ (Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Collected Works, Moscow, 1962, Vol. 14, pp. 340-41).
Ruthless though it is, this text also manages to distinguish between ‘free-thinkers’ and ‘integral people’, even when they are religious, who have a ‘system’ which is not just speculative but inscribed in their practice. It is also lucid: it is no accident that it ends with an astonishing phrase of Dietzgen’s, which Lenin quotes: we need to follow a true path; but in order to follow a true path it is necessary to study philosophy, which is ‘the falsest of all false paths’ (der Holzweg-der Holzwege). Which means, to speak plainly, that there can be no true path (sc. in the sciences, but above all in politics) without a study, and, eventually a theory of philosophy as a false path.
In the last resort, and more important than all the reasons I have just evoked, this is undoubtedly why Lenin is intolerable to academic philosophy, and, to avoid hurting anyone, to the vast majority of philosophers, if not to all philosophers, whether academic or otherwise. He is, or has been on one occasion or another, philosophically intolerable to everyone (and obviously I also mean myself). Intolerable, basically, because despite all they may say about the pre-critical character of his philosophy and the summary aspect of some of his categories, philosophers feel and know that this is not the real question. They feel and know that Lenin is profoundly indifferent to their objections. He is indifferent first, because he foresaw them long ago. Lenin said himself: I am not a philosopher, I am badly prepared in this domain (Letter to Gorky, 7 February 1908). Lenin said: I know that my formulations and definitions are vague, unpolished; I know that philosophers are going to accuse my materialism of being ‘metaphysical’. But he adds: that is not the question. Not only do I not ‘philosophize’ with their philosophy, I do not ‘philosophize’ like them at all. Their way of ‘philosophizing’ is to expend fortunes of intelligence and subtlety for no other purpose than to ruminate in philosophy. Whereas I treat philosophy differently, I practise it, as Marx intended, in obedience to what it is. That is why I believe I am a ‘dialectical materialist’.
Materialism and Empirio-criticism contains all this, either directly or between the lines. And that is why Lenin the philosopher is intolerable to most philosophers, who do not want to know, i.e. who realize without admitting it, that this is the real question. The real question is not whether Marx, Engels and Lenin are or are not real philosophers, whether their philosophical statements are formally irreproachable, whether they do or do not make foolish statements about Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’, whether their materialism is or is not pre-critical, etc. For all these questions are and always have been posed inside a certain practice of philosophy. The real question bears precisely on this traditional practice which Lenin brings back into question by proposing a quite different practice of philosophy.
This different practice contains something like a promise or outline of an objective knowledge of philosophy’s mode of being. A knowledge of philosophy as a Holzweg der Holzwege. But the last thing philosophers and philosophy can bear, the intolerable, is perhaps precisely the idea of this knowledge. What philosophy cannot bear is the idea of a theory (i.e. of an objective knowledge) of philosophy capable of changing its traditional practice. Such a theory may be fatal for philosophy, since it lives by its denegation.
So academic philosophy cannot tolerate Lenin (or Marx for that matter) for two reasons, which are really one and the same. On the one hand, it cannot bear the idea that it might have something to learn from politics and from a politician. And on the other hand, it cannot bear the idea that philosophy might be the object of a theory, i.e. of an objective knowledge.
That into the bargain, it should be a politician like Lenin, an ‘innocent’ and an auto-didact in philosophy who had the audacity to suggest the idea that a theory of philosophy is essential to a really conscious and responsible practice of philosophy, is obviously too much. ...
Here, too, philosophy, whether academic or otherwise, is not mistaken: it puts up such a stubborn resistance to this apparently accidental encounter in which a mere politician suggests to it the beginnings of a knowledge of what philosophy is, because this encounter hits the mark, the most sensitive point, the point of the intolerable, the point of the repressed, which traditionally philosophy has merely ruminated – precisely the point at which, in order to know itself in its theory, philosophy has to recognize that it is no more than a certain investment of politics, a certain continuation of politics, a certain rumination of politics.
Lenin happens to have been the first to say so. It also happens that he could say so only because he was a politician, and not just any politician, but a proletarian leader. That is why Lenin is intolerable to philosophical rumination, as intolerable – and I choose my words carefully – as Freud is to psychological rumination.
It is clear that between Lenin and established philosophy there are not just misunderstandings and incidental conflicts, not even just the philosophy professors’ reactions of wounded sensibility when the son of a teacher, a petty lawyer who became a revolutionary leader, declares bluntly that most of them are petty-bourgeois intellectuals functioning in the bourgeois education system as so many ideologists inculcating the mass of student youth with the dogmas – however critical or post-critical – of the ideology of the ruling classes. Between Lenin and established philosophy there is a peculiarly intolerable connexion: the connexion in which the reigning philosophy is touched to the quick of what it represses: politics.
But before we can really see how the relations between Lenin and philosophy reached this point, we must go back a little and, before discussing Lenin and philosophy in general, we have to establish Lenin’s place in Marxist philosophy, and therefore to raise the question of the state of Marxist philosophy.
I cannot hope to outline the history of Marxist philosophy here. I am in no position to do so, and for an altogether determinant reason: I should have to know precisely what was this X whose history I proposed to write, and if I knew that, I would also have to be in a position to know whether this X has or has not a History, i.e. whether it has or has not the right to a History.
Rather than outlining, even very roughly, the ‘history’ of Marxist philosophy, I should like to demonstrate the existence of a symptomatic difficulty, in the light of a sequence of texts and works in History.
This difficulty has given rise to famous disputes which have lasted to the present day. The names most often given to these disputes signal its existence: what is the core of Marxist theory? a science or a philosophy? Is Marxism at heart a philosophy, the ‘philosophy of praxis’ – but then what of the scientific claims made by Marx? Is Marxism, on the contrary, at heart a science, historical materialism, the science of history – but then what of its philosophy, dialectical materialism? Or again, if we accept the classical distinction between historical materialism (science) and dialectical materialism (philosophy), how are we to think this distinction: in traditional terms or in new terms? Or again, what are the relations between materialism and the dialectic in dialectical materialism? Or again, what is the dialectic: a mere method? or philosophy as a whole?
This difficulty which has provided the fuel for so many disputes is a symptomatic one. This is intended to suggest that it is the evidence for a partly enigmatic reality, of which the classical questions that I have just recalled are a certain treatment, i.e. a certain interpretation. Speaking very schematically, the classical formulations interpret this difficulty solely in terms of philosophical questions, i.e. inside what I have called philosophical rumination – whereas it is undoubtedly necessary to think these difficulties and the philosophical questions which they cannot fail to provoke, in quite different terms: in terms of a problem, i.e. of objective (and therefore scientific) knowledge. Only on this condition, certainly, is it possible to understand the confusion that has led people to think in terms of prematurely philosophical questions the essential theoretical contribution of Marxism to philosophy, i.e. the insistence of a certain problem which may well produce philosophical effects, but only insofar as it is not itself in the last instance a philosophical question.
If I have deliberately used terms which presuppose certain distinctions (scientific problem, philosophical question), this is not so as to pass judgement on those who have been subject to this confusion, for we are all subject to it and we all have every reason to think that it was and still is inevitable – so much so that Marxist philosophy itself has been and still is caught in it, for necessary reasons.
For finally, a glance at the theatre of what is called Marxist philosophy since the Theses on Feuerbach is enough to show that it presents a rather curious spectacle. Granted that Marx’s early works do not have to be taken into account (I know that this is to ask a concession which some people find difficult to accept, despite the force of the arguments I have put forward), and that we subscribe to Marx’s statement that The German Ideology represented a decision to ‘settle accounts with his erstwhile philosophical consciousness’, and therefore a rupture and conversion in his thought, then when we examine what happens between the Theses on Feuerbach (the first indication of the ‘break’, 1845) and Engels’s Anti-Dühring (1877), the long interval of philosophical emptiness cannot fail to strike us.
The XIth Thesis on Feuerbach proclaimed: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’ This simple sentence seemed to promise a new philosophy, one which was no longer an interpretation, but rather a transformation of the world. Moreover, that is how it was read more than half a century later, by Labriola, and then following him, by Gramsci, both of whom defined Marxism essentially as a new philosophy, a ‘philosophy of praxis’. Yet we have to face the fact that this prophetic sentence produced no new philosophy immediately, at any rate, no new philosophical discourse, quite the contrary, it merely initiated a long philosophical silence. This silence was only broken publicly by what had all the appearances of an unforeseen accident: a precipitate intervention by Engels, forced to do ideological battle with Dühring, constrained to follow him onto his own ‘territory’ in order to deal with the political consequences of the ‘philosophical’ writings of a blind teacher of mathematics who was beginning to exercise a dangerous influence over German socialism.
Here we have a strange situation indeed: a Thesis which seems to announce a revolution in philosophy – then a thirty-year long philosophical silence, and finally a few improvised chapters of philosophical polemic published by Engels for political and ideological reasons as an introduction to a remarkable summary of Marx’s scientific theories.
Must we conclude that we are the victims of a retrospective philosophical illusion when we read the XIth Thesis on Feuerbach as the proclamation of a philosophical revolution? Yes and no. But first before saying no, I think it is necessary to say yes, seriously: yes, we are essentially the victims of a philosophical illusion. What was announced in the Theses on Feuerbach was, in the necessarily philosophical language of a declaration of rupture with all ‘interpretative’ philosophy, something quite different from a new philosophy: a new science, the science of history, whose first, still infinitely fragile foundations Marx was to lay in The German Ideology.
The philosophical emptiness which followed the proclamation of Thesis XI was thus the fullness of a science, the fullness of the intense, arduous and protracted labour which put an unprecedented science on to the stocks, a science to which Marx was to devote all his life, down to the last drafts for Capital, which he was never able to complete. It is this scientific fullness which represents the first and most profound reason why, even if Thesis XI did prophetically announce an event which was to make its mark on philosophy, it could not give rise to a philosophy, or rather had to proclaim the radical suppression of all existing philosophy in order to give priority to the work needed for the theoretical gestation of Marx’s scientific discovery.
This radical suppression of philosophy is, as is well known, inscribed in so many words in The German Ideology. It is essential, says Marx in that work, to get rid of all philosophical fancies and turn to the study of positive reality, to tear aside the veil of philosophy and at last see reality for what it is.
The German Ideology bases this suppression of philosophy on a theory of philosophy as a hallucination and mystification, or to go further, as a dream, manufactured from what I shall call the day’s residues of the real history of concrete men, day’s residues endowed with a purely imag- inary existence in which the order of things is inverted. Philosophy, like religion and ethics, is only ideology; it has no history, everything which seems to happen in it really happens outside it, in the only real history, the history of the material life of men. Science is then the real itself, known by the action which reveals it by destroying the ideologies that veil it: foremost among these ideologies is philosophy.
Let us halt at this dramatic juncture and explore its meaning. The theoretical revolution announced in Thesis XI is in reality the foundation of a new science. Employing a concept of Bachelard’s, I believe we can think the theoretical event which inaugurates this new science as an ‘epistemological break’.
Marx founds a new science, i.e. he elaborates a system of new scientific concepts where previously there prevailed only the manipulation of ideological notions. Marx founds the science of history where there were previously only philosophies of history. When I say that Marx organized a theoretical system of scientific concepts in the domain previously monopolized by philosophies of history, I am extending a metaphor which is no more than a metaphor: for it suggests that Marx replaced ideological theories with a scientific theory in a uniform space, that of History. In reality, this domain itself was reorganized. But with this crucial reservation, I propose to stick to the metaphor for the moment, and even to give it a still more precise form.
If in fact we consider the great scientific discoveries of human history, it seems that we might relate what we call the sciences, as a number of regional formations, to what I shall call the great theoretical continents. The distance that we have now obtained enables us, without anticipating a future which neither we nor Marx can ‘stir in the pot’, to pursue our improved metaphor and say that, before Marx, two continents only had been opened up to scientific knowledge by sustained epistemological breaks: the continent of Mathematics with the Greeks (by Thales or those designated by that mythical name) and the continent of Physics (by Galileo and his successors). A science like chemistry, founded by Lavoisier’s epistemological break, is a regional science within the continent of physics: everyone now knows that it is inscribed in it. A science like biology, which came to the end of the first phase of its epistemological break, inaugurated by Darwin and Mendel, only a decade ago, by its integration with molecular chemistry, also becomes part of the continent of physics. Logic in its modern form becomes part of the continent of Mathematics, etc. On the other hand, it is probable that Freud’s discovery has opened a new continent, one which we are only just beginning to explore.
If this metaphor stands up to the test of its extension, I can put forward the following proposition. Marx has opened up to scientific knowledge a new, third scientific continent, the continent of History, by an epistemological break whose first still uncertain strokes are inscribed in The German Ideology, after having been announced in the Theses of Feuerbach. Obviously this epistemological break is not an instantaneous event. It is even possible that one might, by recurrence and where some of its details are concerned, assign it a sort of premonition of a past. At any rate, this break becomes visible in its first signs, but these signs only inaugurate the beginning of an endless history. Like every break, this break is actually a sustained one within which complex reorganizations can be observed.
In fact, the operation of these reorganizations, which affect essential concepts and their theoretical components, can be observed empirically in the sequence of Marx’s writings: in the Manifesto and The Poverty of Philosophy of 1847, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859, in Wages, Price and Profits of 1865, in the first volume of Capital in 1867, etc. Other reorganizations and developments have followed, in the works of Lenin, especially in that unparalleled work of economic sociology, unfortunately ignored by sociologists, called The Development of Capitalism in Russia, in Imperialism, etc. Whether or no we accept the fact, we are still inscribed in the theoretical space marked and opened by this break today. Like the other breaks which opened up the other two continents that we know, this break inaugurates a history which will never come to an end. That is why we should not read the XIth Thesis on Feuerbach as the announcement of a new philosophy, but as that necessary declaration of rupture with philosophy which clears the ground for the foundation of a new science. That is why from the radical suppression of all philosophy to the unforeseen ‘accident’ which induced the philosophical chapters in Anti-Dühring, there is a long philosophical silence during which only the new science speaks.
Of course, this new science is materialist, but so is every science, and that is why its general theory is called ‘historical materialism’. Here materialism is quite simply the strict attitude of the scientist to the reality of his object which allows him to grasp what Engels called ‘nature just as it exists without any foreign admixture’.
In the slightly odd phrase ‘historical materialism’ (we do not use the phrase ‘chemical materialism’ to designate chemistry), the word materialism registers both the initial rupture with the idealism of philosophies of history and the installation of scientificity with respect to history. Historical materialism thus means: science of history. If the birth of something like a Marxist philosophy is ever to be possible, it would seem that it must be from the very gestation of this science, a quite original sister, certainly, but in its very strangeness a sister of the existing sciences, after the long interval which always divides a philosophical reorganization from the scientific revolution which induced it.
Indeed, in order to go further into the reasons for this philosophical silence, I am driven to put forward a thesis concerning the relations between the sciences and philosophy without going further than to illustrate it with empirical data. Lenin began his book State and Revolution with this simple empirical comment: the State has not always existed; the existence of the State is only observable in class societies. In the same way, I shall say: philosophy has not always existed; the existence of philosophy is only observable in a world which contains what is called a science or a number of sciences. A science in the strict sense: a theoretical, i.e. ideal (idéelle) and demonstrative discipline, not an aggregate of empirical results.
Here in brief are my empirical illustrations of this thesis.
If philosophy is to be born, or reborn, one or more sciences must exist. Perhaps this is why philosophy in the strict sense only began with Plato, its birth induced by the existence of Greek Mathematics; was overhauled by Descartes, its modern revolution induced by Galilean physics; was recast by Kant under the influence of Newton’s discovery; and was remodelled by Husserl under the impetus of the first axiomatics, etc.
I only suggest this theme, which needs to be tested, in order to point out, in the empirical mode still, that ultimately Hegel was not wrong to say that philosophy takes wing at dusk : when science, born at dawn, has already lived the time of a long day. Philosophy is thus always a long day behind the science which induces the birth of its first form and the rebirths of its revolutions, a long day which may last years, decades, a half-century or a century.
We should realize that the shock of a scientific break does not make itself felt at once, that time is needed for it to reorganize philosophy.
We should also conclude, no doubt, that the work of philosophical gestation is closely linked with the work of scientific gestation, each being at work in the other. It is clear that the new philosophical categories are elaborated in the work of the new science. But it is also true that in certain cases (to be precise, Plato, Descartes) what is called philosophy also serves as a theoretical laboratory in which the new categories required by the concepts of the new science are brought into focus. For example, was it not in Cartesianism that a new category of causality was worked out for Galilean physics, which had run up against Aristotelian cause as an ‘epistemological obstacle’? If we add to this the fact that the great philosophical events with which we are familiar (ancient philosophy descending from Plato, modern philosophy descending from Descartes) are clearly related to inducements from the opening of the two scientific continents, Greek Mathematics and Galilean Physics, we can pronounce (for this is all still emprical) certain inferences about what I think we can call Marxist philosophy. Three inferences:
First inference. If Marx really has opened up a new continent to scientific knowledge, his scientific discovery ought to induce some kind of important reorganization in philosophy. The XIth Thesis was perhaps ahead of its time, but it really did announce a major event in philosophy. It seems that this may be the case.
Second inference. Philosophy only exists by virtue of the distance it lags behind its scientific inducement. Marxist philosophy should therefore lag behind the Marxist science of history. This does indeed seem to be the case. The thirty-year desert between the Theses on Feuerbach and Anti-Dühring is evidence of this, as are certain long periods of deadlock later, periods in which we and many others are still marking time.
Third inference. There is a chance that we shall find more advanced theoretical elements for the elaboration of Marxist philosophy than we might have expected in the gestation of Marxist science, given the distance we now have on its lag. Lenin used to say that one should look in Marx’s Capital for his dialectic – by which he meant Marxist philosophy itself. Capital must contain something from which to complete or forge the new philosophical categories: they are surely at work in Capital, in the ‘practical state’. It seems that this may be the case. We must read Capital in order to find out.
The day is always long, but as luck would have it, it is already far advanced, look: dusk will soon fall. Marxist philosophy will take wing.
Taken as guide-lines, these inferences introduce, if I may say so, a kind of order into our concerns and hopes, and also into certain of our thoughts. We can now understand that the ultimate reason why Marx, trapped as he was in poverty, fanatical scientific work and the urgent demands of political leadership, never wrote the Dialectic (or Philosophy) he dreamed of, was not, whatever he may have thought, that he never ‘found the time’. We can now understand that the ultimate reason why Engels, suddenly confronted with the necessity, as he writes, of ‘having his say on philosophical questions’, could not satisfy the professional philosophers, was not the improvised character of a merely ideological polemic. We can now understand that the ultimate reason for the philosophical limitations of Materialism and Empirio-criticism was not just a matter of the constraints of the ideological struggle.
We can now say it. The time that Marx could not find, Engels’s philosophical extemporization, the laws of the ideological struggle in which Lenin was forced merely to turn his enemy’s own weapons against him, each of these is a good enough excuse, but together they do not constitute a reason.
The ultimate reason is that the times were not ripe, that dusk had not yet fallen, and that neither Marx himself, nor Engels, nor Lenin could yet write the great work of philosophy which Marxism-Leninism lacks. If they did come well after the science on which it depends, in one way or another they all still came too soon for a philosophy, which is indispensable, but cannot be born without a necessary lag.
Given the concept of this necessary ‘lag’, everything should become clear, including the misunderstanding of those like the young Lukács and Gramsci, and so many others without their gifts, who were so impatient with the slowness of the birth of this philosophy that they proclaimed that it had already long been born, from the beginning, from the Theses on Feuerbach, i.e. well before the beginnings of Marxist science itself – and who, to prove this to themselves, simply stated that since every science is a ‘superstructure’, and every existing science is therefore basically positivist because it is bourgeois, Marxist ‘science’ could not but be philosophical, and Marxism a philosophy, a post-Hegelian philosophy or ‘philosophy of praxis’.
Given the concept of this necessary ‘lag’, light can be cast on many other difficulties, too, even in the political history of Marxist organizations, their defeats and crises. If it is true, as the whole Marxist tradition claims, that the greatest event in the history of the class struggle – i.e. practically in human history – is the union of Marxist theory and the Workers’ Movement, it is clear that the internal balance of that union may be threatened by those failures of theory known as deviations, however trivial they may be; we can understand the political scope of the unrelenting theoretical disputes unleased in the Socialist and then in the Communist Movement, over what Lenin calls mere ‘shades of opinion’, for, as he said in What is to be done?:
The fate of Russian Social-Democracy for very many years to come may depend on the strengthening of one or other “shade.”
Therefore, Marxist theory being what it is, a science and a philosophy, and the philosophy having necessarily lagged behind the science, which has been hindered in its development by this, we may be tempted to think that these theoretical deviation were, at bottom, inevitable, not just because of the effects of the class struggle on and in theory, but also because of the dislocation (décalage) inside theory itself.
In fact, to turn to the past of the Marxist Worker’s Movement, we can call by their real names the theoretical deviations which have led to the great historical defeats for the proletariat, that of the Second International, to mention only one. These deviations are called economism, evolutionism, voluntarism, humanism, empiricism, dogmatism, etc. Basically, these deviations are philosophical deviations, and were denounced as philosophical deviations by the great workers’ leaders, starting with Engels and Lenin.
But this now brings us quite close to understanding why they overwhelmed even those who denounced them: were they not in some way inevitable, precisely as a function of the necessary lag of Marxist philosophy?
To go further, if this is the case, and even in the deep crisis today dividing the International Communist Movement, Marxist philosophers may well tremble before the task – unanticipated because so long anticipated – which history has assigned and entrusted to them. If it is true as so many signs indicate, that today the lag of Marxist philosophy can in part be overcome, doing so will not only cast light on the past, but also perhaps transform the future.
In this transformed future, justice will be done equitably to all those who had to live in the contradiction of political urgency and philosophical lag. Justice will be done to one of the greatest: to Lenin. Justice: his philosophical work will then be perfected. Perfected, i.e. completed and corrected. We surely owe this service and this homage to the man who was lucky enough to be born in time for politics, but unfortunate enough to be born too early for philosophy. After all, who chooses his own birth date?
Now that the ‘history’ of Marxist theory has shown us why Marxist philosophy lags behind the science of history, we can go directly to Lenin and into his work. But then our philosophical ‘dream’ will vanish: things do not have its simplicity.
Let me anticipate my conclusion. No, Lenin was not born too soon for philosophy. No one is ever born too soon for philosophy. If philosophy lags behind, if this lag is what makes it philosophy, how is it ever possible to lag behind a lag which has no history? If we absolutely must go on talking of a lag: it is we who are lagging behind Lenin. Our lag is simply another name for a mistake. For we are philosophically mistaken about the relations between Lenin and philosophy. The relations between Lenin and philosophy are certainly expressed in philosophy, inside the ‘game’ which constitutes philosophy as philosophy, but these relations are not philosophical, because this ‘game’ is not philosophical.
I want to try to expound the reasons for these conclusions in a concise and systematic, and therefore necessarily schematic, form, taking as the object of my analysis Lenin’s great ‘philosophical’ work: Materialism and Empirio-criticism. I shall divide this exposition into three moments:
1. Lenin’s great philosophical Theses.
2. Lenin and philosophical practice.
3. Lenin and partisanship in philosophy.
In dealing with each of these points, I shall be concerned to show what was new in Lenin’s contribution to Marxist theory.
1. Lenin’s Great Philosophical Theses
By Theses, I mean, like anyone else, the philosophical positions taken by Lenin, registered in philosophical pronouncements. For the moment I shall ignore the objection which has provided academic philosophy with a screen or pretext for its failure to read Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Lenin’s categorial terminology, his historical references, and even his ignorances.
It is a fact itself worthy of a separate study that, even in the astonishing ‘in lieu of an introduction’ to Materialism and Empirio-criticism which takes us brusquely back to Berkeley and Diderot, Lenin in many respects situates himself in the theoretical space of eighteenth-century empiricism, i.e. in a philosophical problematic which is ‘officially’ pre-critical – if it is assumed that philosophy became ‘officially’ critical with Kant.
Once we have noted the existence of this reference system, once we know its structural logic, we can explain Lenin’s theoretical formulations as so many effects of this logic, including the incredible contortions which he inflicts on the categorial terminology of empiricism in order to turn it against empiricism. For if he does think in the problematic of objective empiricism (Lenin even says ‘objective sensualism’) and if the fact of thinking in that problematic often affects not just the formulations of his thought, but even some of its movements, no one could deny that Lenin does think, i.e. thinks systematically and rigorously. It is this thought which matters to us, in that it pronounces certain Theses. Here they are, pronounced in their naked essentials. I shall distinguish three of them:
Thesis 1. Philosophy is not a science. Philosophy is distinct from the sciences. Philosophical categories are distinct from scientific concepts.
This is a crucial thesis. Let me indicate the decisive point in which its destiny is at stake: the category of matter, surely the touchstone for a materialist philosophy and for all the philosophical souls who hope for its salvation, i.e. its death. Now Lenin says in so many words that the distinction between the philosophical category of matter and the scientific concept of matter is vital for Marxist philosophy:
Matter is a philosophical category (Materialism and Empirio-criticism, p. 130).
The sole property of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality (op. cit., pp. 260-61).
It follows that the philosophical category of matter, which is conjointly a Thesis of existence and a Thesis of objectivity, can never be confused with the contents of the scientific concepts of matter. The scientific concepts of matter define knowledges, relative to the historical state of the sciences, about the objects of those sciences. The content of the scientific concept of matter changes with the development, i.e. with the deepening of scientific knowledge. The meaning of the philosophical category of matter does not change, since it does not apply to any object of science, but affirms the objectivity of all scientific knowledge of an object. The category of matter cannot change. It is ‘absolute’.
The consequences which Lenin draws from this distinction are crucial. Firstly, he re-establishes the truth about what was then called the ‘crisis of physics’: physics is not in crisis, but in growth. Matter has not ‘disappeared’. The scientific concept of matter alone has changed in content, and it will always go on changing in the future, for the process of knowledge is infinite in its object itself.
The scientific pseudo-crisis of physics is only a philosophical crisis or fright in which ideologists, even though some of them are also scientists, are openly attacking materialism. When they proclaim the disappearance of matter, we should hear the silent discourse of their wish: the disappearance of materialism!
And Lenin denounces and knocks down all those ephemerally philosophical scientists who thought their time had come. What is left of these characters today? Who still remembers them? We must concede at least that this philosophical ignoramus Lenin had good judgement. And what professional philosopher was capable, as he was, of committing himself without hesitation or delay, so far and so surely, absolutely alone, against everyone, in an apparently lost cause? I should be grateful if anyone could give me one name – other than Husserl, at that time Lenin’s objective ally against empiricism and historicism – but only a temporary ally and one who could not meet him, for Husserl, as a good ‘philosopher’, believed he was going ‘somewhere’.
But Lenin’s Thesis goes further than the immediate conjuncture. If it is absolutely essential to distinguish between the philosophical category of matter and every scientific concept, it follows that those materialists who apply philosophical categories to the objects of the sciences as if they were concepts of them are involved in a case of ‘mistaken identity’. For example, anyone who wants to make conceptual use of categorial oppositions like matter/mind or matter/consciousness is only too likely to lapse into tautology, for the ‘antithesis of matter and mind has absolute significance only within the bounds of a very limited field – in this case exclusively within the bounds of the fundamental epistemological problem of what is to be regarded as primary and what as secondary [i.e. in philosophy]. Beyond these bounds [i.e. in the sciences] the relative character of this antithesis is indubitable’ (op. cit., p. 147).
I cannot go into other very wide-ranging consequences, e.g. into the fact that from Lenin’s point of view the distinction between philosophy and the sciences necessarily opens up the field of a theory of the history of knowledges, or the fact that Lenin announces in his theory the historical limits of all truth (sc. all scientific knowledge) which he thinks as a theory of the distinction between absolute truth and relative truth (in this theory a single opposition of categories is used to think both the distinction between philosophy and the sciences, and the necessity for a theory of the history of the sciences).
I would just ask you to note what follows. The distinction between philosophy and the sciences, between philosophical categories and scientific concepts, constitutes at heart the adoption of a radical philosophical position against all forms of empiricism and positivism: against the empiricism and positivism even of certain materialists, against naturalism, against psychologism, against historicism (on this particular point see Lenin’s polemical violence against Bogdanov’s historicism).
It must be admitted that this is not so bad for a philosopher whom it is easy to dismiss as pre-critical and pre- Kantian on the grounds of a few of his formulations, indeed, it is far rather astonishing, since it is clear that in 1908 this Bolshevik leader had never read a line of Kant and Hegel, but had stopped at Berkeley and Diderot. And yet, for some strange reason, he displays a ‘critical’ feeling for his positivist opponents and a remarkable strategic discernment within the religious concert of the ‘hyper-critical’ philosophy of his day.
The most amazing thing of all is the fact that Lenin manages the tour de force of taking up these anti-empiricist positions precisely in the field of an empiricist reference problematic. It certainly is a paradoxical exploit to manage to be anti-empiricist while thinking and expressing oneself in the basic categories of empiricism, and must surely pose a slight ‘problem’ for any philosopher of good faith who is prepared to examine it.
Does this by any chance mean that the field of the philosophical problematic, its categorial formulations and its philosophical pronouncements are relatively indifferent to the philosophical positions adopted? Does it mean that at heart nothing essentially happens in what seems to constitute philosophy? Strange.
Thesis 2. If philosophy is distinct from the sciences, there is a privileged link between philosophy and the sciences. This link is represented by the materialist thesis of objectivity.
Here, two points are essential.
The first concerns the nature of scientific knowledge. The suggestions contained in Materialism and Empirio-criticism are taken up, developed and deepened in the Philosophical Notebooks: they give their full meaning to the anti-empiricism and anti-positivism which Lenin shows within his conception of scientific practice. In this respect, Lenin must also be regarded as a witness who speaks of scientific practice as a genuine practitioner. A reading of the texts he devoted to Marx’s Capital between 1898 and 1905, and his analysis of The Development of Capitalism in Russia is enough to show that his scientific practice as a Marxist theoretician of history, political economy and sociology was constantly accompanied by acute epistemological reflections which his philosophical texts simply take up in a generalized form.
What Lenin reveals, and here again, using categories which may be contaminated by his empiricist references (e.g. the category of reflection), is the anti-empiricism of scientific practice, the decisive role of scientific abstraction, or rather, the role of conceptual systematicity, and in a more general way, the role of theory as such.
Politically, Lenin is famous for his critique of ‘spontaneism’, which, it should be noted, is not directed against the spontaneity, resourcefulness, inventiveness and genius of the masses of the people but against a political ideology which, screened by an exaltation of the spontaneity of the masses, exploits it in order to divert it into an incorrect politics. But it is not generally realized that Lenin adopts exactly the same position in his conceptions of scientific practice. Lenin wrote: ‘without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement .’ He could equally have written: without scientifc theory there can be no production of scientific knowledges. His defence of the requirements of theory in scientific practice precisely coincides with his defence of the requirements of theory in political practice. His anti-spontaneism then takes the theoretical form of anti-empiricism, anti-positivism and anti-pragmatism.
But just as his political anti-spontaneism presupposes the deepest respect for the spontaneity of the masses, his theoretical anti-spontaneism presupposes the greatest respect for practice in the process of knowledge. Neither in his conception of science, nor in his conception of politics does Lenin for one moment fall into theoreticism.
This first point enables us to understand the second. Materialist philosophy is, in Lenin’s eyes, profoundly linked to scientific practice. This thesis must, I believe, be understood in two senses.
First in an extremely classical sense which illustrates what we have been able to observe empirically in the history of the relations which link all philosophy to the sciences. For Lenin, what happens in the sciences is a crucial concern of philosophy. The great scientific revolutions induce important reorganizations in philosophy. This is Engels’s famous thesis: materialism changes in form with each great scientific discovery. Engels was fascinated by the philosophical consequences of discoveries in the natural sciences (the cell, evolution, Carnot’s principle, etc.), but Lenin defends the same thesis in a better way by showing that the decisive discovery which has induced an obligatory reorganization of materialist philosophy does not come so much from the sciences of nature as from the science of history, from historical materialism.
In a second sense, Lenin invokes an important argument. Here he no longer talks of philosophy in general, but of materialist philosophy. The latter is particularly concerned with what happens in scientific practice, but in a manner peculiar to itself, because it represents, in its materialist thesis, the ‘spontaneous’ convictions of scientists about the existence of the objects of their sciences, and the objectivity of their knowledge.
In Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Lenin constantly repeats the statement that most specialists in the sciences of nature are ‘spontaneously’ materialistic, at least in one of the tendencies of their spontaneous philosophy. While fighting the ideologies of the spontaneism of scientific practice (empiricism, pragmatism), Lenin recognizes in the experience of scientific practice a spontaneous materialist tendency of the highest importance for Marxist philosophy. He thus interrelates the materialist theses required to think the specificity of scientific knowledge with the spontaneous materialist tendency of the practitioners of the sciences: as expressing both practically and theoretically one and the same materialist thesis of existence and objectivity.
Let me anticipate and say that the Leninist insistence on affirming the privileged link between the sciences and Marxist materialist philosophy is evidence that here we are dealing with a decisive nodal point, which, if I may, I shall call Nodal Point No. 1.
But precisely in this mention of the spontaneous philosophy of the scientist something important is emerging which will bring us to another decisive nodal point of a quite different kind.
Thesis 3. Here, too, Lenin is taking up a classical thesis expounded by Engels in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, but he gives it an unprecedented scope. This thesis concerns the history of philosophy conceived as the history of an age-old struggle between two tendencies: idealism and materialism.
It must be admitted that in its bluntness, this thesis runs directly counter to the convictions of the great majority of professional philosophers. If they are prepared to read Lenin, and they will all have to some day, they will all admit that his philosophical theses are not so summary as reputation makes them. But I am afraid that they will stubbornly resist this last thesis, for it threatens to wound them in their most profound convictions. It appears far too crude, fit only for public, i.e. ideological and political, disputes. To say that the whole history of philosophy can be reduced in the last instance to a struggle between materialism and idealism seems to cheapen all the wealth of the history of philosophy.
In fact, this thesis amounts to the claim that essentially philosophy has no real history. What is a history which is no more than the repetition of the clash between two fundamental tendencies? The forms and arguments of the fight may vary, but if the whole history of philosophy is merely the history of these forms, they only have to be reduced to the immutable tendencies that they represent for the transformation of these forms to become a kind of game for nothing. Ultimately, philosophy has no history, philosophy is that strange theoretical site where nothing really happens, nothing but this repetition of nothing. To say that nothing happens in philosophy is to say that philosophy leads nowhere because it is going nowhere: the paths it opens really are, as Dietzgen said, long before Heidegger, ‘Holzwege’, paths that lead nowhere.
Besides, that is what Lenin suggests in practice, when, right at the beginning of Materialism and Empirio-criticism, he explains that Mach merely repeats Berkeley, and himself counterposes to this his own repetition of Diderot. Worse still, it is clear that Berkeley and Diderot repeat each other, since they are in agreement about the matter/mind opposition, merely arranging its terms in a different way. The nothing of their philosophy is only the nothing of this inversion of the terms in an immutable categorial opposition (Matter/Mind) which represents in philosophical theory the play of the two antagonistic tendencies in confrontation in this opposition. The history of philosophy is thus nothing but the nothing of this repeated inversion. In addition, this thesis would restore a meaning to the famous phrases about Marx’s inversion of Hegel, the Hegel whom Engels himself described as no more than a previous inversion.
On this point it is essential to recognize that Lenin’s insistence has absolutely no limits. In Materialism and Empirio-criticism, at least (for his tone changes on this point in the Philosophical Notebooks), he jettisons all the theoretical nuances, distinctions, ingenuities and subtleties with which philosophy tries to think its ‘object’: they are nothing but sophistries, hair-splitting, professorial quibbles, accommodations and compromises whose only aim is to mask what is really at stake in the dispute to which all philosophy is committed: the basic struggle between the tendencies of materialism and idealism. There is no third way, no half-measure, no bastard position, any more than there is in politics. Basically, there are only idealists and materialists. All those who do not openly declare themselves one or the other are ‘shame-faced’ materialists or idealists (Kant, Hume).
But we must therefore go even further and say that if the whole history of philosophy is nothing but the re-examination of arguments in which one and the same struggle is carried to its conclusion, then philosophy is nothing but a tendency struggle, the Kampfplatz that Kant discussed, which however, throws us back onto the subjectivity pure and simple of ideological struggles. It is to say that philosophy strictly speaking has no object, in the sense that a science has an object.
Lenin goes as far as this, which proves that Lenin was a thinker. He declares that it is impossible to prove the ultimate principles of materialism just as it is impossible to prove (or refute, to Diderot’s annoyance) the principles of idealism. It is impossible to prove them because they cannot be the object of a knowledge, meaning by that a knowledge comparable with that of science which does prove the properties of its objects.
So philosophy has no object, but now everything fits. If nothing happens in philosophy it is precisely because it has no object. If something actually does happen in the sciences, it is because they do have an object, knowledge of which they can increase, which gives them a history. As philosophy has no object, nothing can happen in it. The nothing of its history simply repeats the nothing of its object.
Here we are beginning to get close to Nodal Point No. 2, which concerns these famous tendencies. Philosophy merely re-examines and ruminates over arguments which represent the basic conflict of these tendencies in the form of categories. It is their conflict, unnameable in philosophy, which sustains the eternal null inversion for which philosophy is the garrulous theatre, the inversion of the fundamental categorial opposition between matter and mind. How then is the tendency revealed? In the hierarchic order it installs between the terms of the opposition: an order of domination. Listen to Lenin:
Bogdanov, pretending to argue only against Beltov and cravenly ignoring Engels, is indignant at such definitions, which, don’t you see, ‘prove to be simple repetitions’ of the ‘formula’ (of Engels, our ‘Marxist’ forgets to add) that for one trend in philosophy matter is primary and spirit secondary, while for the other trend the reverse is the case. All the Russian Machists exultantly echo Bogdanov’s ‘refutation’! But the slightest reflection could have shown these people that it is impossible, in the very nature of the case, to give any definition of these two ultimate concepts of epistemology, except an indication which of them is taken as primary. What is meant by giving a ‘definition’? It means essentially to bring a given concept within a more comprehensive concept.... The question then is, are there more comprehensive concepts with which the theory of knowledge could operate than those of being and thinking, matter and sensation, physical and mental? No. These are the ultimate, most comprehensive concepts, which epistemology has in point of fact so far not surpassed (apart from changes in nomenclature, which are always possible). One must be a charlatan or an utter blockhead to demand a ‘definition’ of these two ‘series’ of concepts of ultimate comprehensiveness which would not be a ‘mere repetition’: one or the other must be taken as primary (Materialism and Empirio-criticism, p. 146).
The inversion which is formally the nothing which happens in philosophy, in its explicit discourse, is not null, or rather, it is an effect of annulment, the annulment of a previous hierarchy replaced by the opposite hierarchy. What is at stake in philosophy in the ultimate categories which govern all philosophical systems, is therefore the sense of this hierarchy, the sense of this location of one category in the dominant position, it is something in philosophy which irresistibly recalls a seizure of power or an installation in power. Philosophically, we should say: an installation in power is without an object. An installation in power, is this still a purely theoretical category? A seizure of power (or an installation in power) is political, it does not have an object, it has a stake, precisely the power, and an aim: the effects of that power.
Here we should stop for a moment to see what is new in Lenin’s contribution with respect to Engels’s. His contribution is enormous if we are really prepared to weigh up the effects of something which has to often been taken for a mere shade of opinion.
Ultimately, although Engels has strokes of astonishing genius when he is working on Marx, his thought is not comparable with Lenin’s. Often he only manages to juxtapose theses – rather than managing to think them in the unity of their relations.
Worse still: he never really rid himself of a certain positivist theme from The German Ideology. For although he recommends its systematic study, for him philosophy has to disappear: it is merely the craftsman’s laboratory in which the philosophical categories necessary to science were forged in the past. These times have gone. Philosophy has done its work. Now it must give way to science. Since the sciences are scientifically capable of presenting the organic unitary system of their relations, there is no longer any need either for a Naturphilosophie or for a Geschichtsphilosophie.
What is left for philosophy? An object: the dialectic, the most general laws of nature (but the sciences provide them) and of thought. There thus remains the laws of thought which can be disengaged from the history of the sciences. Philosophy is thus not really separate from the sciences, hence the positivism that insinuates itself into certain of Engels’s formulations, when he says that to be a materialist is to admit nature as it is ‘without any foreign admixture’, despite the fact that he knows that the sciences are a process of knowledge. That is why philosophy does have an object for all that: but paradoxically, it is then pure thought, which would not displease idealism. For example, what else is Levi-Strauss up to today, on his own admission, and by appeal to Engels’s authority? He, too, is studying the laws, let us say the structures of thought. Ricoeur has pointed out to him, correctly, that he is Kant minus the transcendental subject. Levi-Strauss has not denied it. Indeed, if the object of philosophy is pure thought, it is possible to appeal to Engels and find oneself a Kantian, minus the transcendental subject.
The same difficulty can be expressed in another way. The dialectic, the object of philosophy, is called a logic. Can philosophy really have the object of Logic for its object? It seems that Logic is now moving further and further away from philosophy: it is a science.
Of course, at the same time, Engels also defends the thesis of the two tendencies, but materialism and dialectics on the one hand, tendency struggle and philosophical advance exclusively determined by scientific advance on the other hand are two things very hard to think together, i.e. to think. Engels tries, but even if we are prepared not to take him literally (the least that can be asked where a non- specialist is concerned) it is only too clear that he is missing something essential.
Which is to say that he is missing something essential to his thought if he is to be able to think. Thanks to Lenin we can see that this is a matter of an omission. For Engels’s thought is missing precisely what Lenin adds to it.
Lenin contributes a profoundly consistent thought, in which are located a number of radical theses that undoubtedly circumscribe emptinesses, but precisely pertinent emptinesses. At the centre of his thought is the thesis that philosophy has no object, i.e. philosophy is not to be explained merely by the relationship it maintains with the sciences.
We are getting close to Nodal Point No. 2. But we have not got there yet.
2. Lenin and Philosophical Practice
In order to reach this Nodal Point No. 2, I shall enter a new domain, that of philosophical practice. It would be interesting to study Lenin’s philosophical practice in his various works. But that would presuppose that we already knew what philosophical practice is as such.
Now it so happens that on a few rare occasions, Lenin was forced by the exigencies of philosophical polemic to produce a kind of definition of his philosophical practice. Here are the two clearest passages:
You will say that this distinction between relative and absolute truth is indefinite. And I shall reply: it is sufficiently ‘indefinite’ to prevent science from becoming a dogma in the bad sense of the term, from becoming something dead, frozen, ossified; but at the same time it is sufficiently ‘definite’ to enable us to draw a dividing-line in the most emphatic and irrevocable manner between ourselves and fideism and agnosticism, between ourselves and philosophical idealism and the sophistry of the followers of Hume and Kant’ (Materialism and Empirio-criticism, p. 136).
Of course, we must not forget that the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely. This criterion too is sufficiently ‘indefinite’ not to allow human knowledge to become ‘absolute’, but at the same time it is sufficiently definite to wage a ruthless fight on all varieties of idealism and agnosticism (op. cit., pp. 142-3).
Other passages confirm Lenin’s position. These are clearly not rash or isolated formulations, but the expressions of a profound thought.
Lenin thus defines the ultimate essence of philosophical practice as an intervention in the theoretical domain. This intervention takes a double form: it is theoretical in its formulation of definite categories; and practical in the function of these categories. This function consists of ‘drawing a dividing-line’ inside the theoretical domain between ideas declared to be true and ideas declared to be false, between the scientific and the ideological. The effects of this line are of two kinds: positive in that they assist a certain practice – scientific practice – and negative in that they defend this practice against the dangers of certain ideological notions: here those of idealism and dogmatism. Such, at least, are the effects produced by Lenin’s philosophical intervention.
In this drawing of a dividing-line we can see the two basic tendencies we have discussed confronting one another. It is materialist philosophy that draws this dividing-line, in order to protect scientific practice against the assaults of idealist philosophy, the scientific against the assaults of the ideological. We can generalize this definition by saying: all philosophy, consists of drawing a major dividing-line by means of which it repels the ideological notions of the philosophies that represent the opposing tendency; the stake in this act of drawing, i.e. in philosophical practice, is scientific practice, scientificity. Here we rediscover my Nodal Point No. 1: the privileged relation of philosophy to the sciences.
We also rediscover the paradoxical game of the inversion of terms in which the history of philosophy is annulled in the nothing it produces. This nothing is not null: since its stake is the fate of the scientific practices, of the scientific, and of its partner, the ideological. Either the scientific practices are exploited or they are assisted by the philosophical intervention.
We can thus understand why philosophy can have a history, and yet nothing occurs in that history. For the intervention of each philosophy, which displaces or modifies existing philosophical categories and thus produces those changes in philosophical discourse in which the history of philosophy proffers its existence, is precisely the philosophical nothing whose insistence we have established, since a dividing-line actually is nothing, it is not even a line or a drawing, but the simple fact of being divided, i.e. the emptiness of a distance taken.
This distance leaves its trace in the distinctions of the philosophical discourse, in its modified categories and apparatus; but all these modifications are nothing in themselves since they only act outside their own presence, in the distance or non-distance which separates the antagonistic tendencies from the scientific practices, the stake in their struggle.
All that can be truly philosophical in this operation of a null drawing is its displacement, but that is relative to the history of the scientific practices and of the sciences. For there is a history of the sciences, and the lines of the philosophical front are displaced according to the transformations of the scientific conjuncture (i.e. according to the state of the sciences and their problems), and according to the state of the philosophical apparatuses that these transformations induce. The terms that designate the scientific and the ideological thus have to be re-thought again and again.
Hence there is a history in philosophy rather than a history of philosophy: a history of the displacement of the indefinite repetition of a null trace whose effects are real. This history can be read profitably in all the great philosophers, even the idealist ones – and in the one who sums up the whole history of philosophy, Hegel. That is why Lenin read Hegel, with astonishment – but this reading of Hegel is also a part of Lenin’s philosophical practice. To read Hegel as a materialist is to draw dividing-lines within him.
No doubt I have gone beyond Lenin’s literal meaning, but I do not think that I have been unfaithful to him. At any rate, I say simply that Lenin offers us something with which we can begin to think the specific form of philosophical practice in its essence, and give a meaning retrospectively to a number of formulations contained in the great texts of classical philosophy. For, in his own way, Plato had already discussed the struggle between the Friends of the Forms and the Friends of the Earth, declaring that the true philosopher must know how to demarcate, incise and draw dividing-lines.
However, one fundamental question remains: what of the two great tendencies which confront one another in the history of philosophy? Lenin gives this question a wild answer (une réponse sauvage), but an answer.
3. Partisanship in Philosophy
The answer is contained in the thesis – famous, and it must be said, shocking to many people – of partisanship in philosophy.
This word sounds like a directly political slogan in which partisan means a political party, the Communist Party.
And yet, any half-way close reading of Lenin, not only of Materialism and Empirio-criticism, but also and above all of his analyses in the theory of history and of the economy, will show that it is a concept and not just a slogan.
Lenin is simply observing that all philosophy is partisan, as a function of its basic tendency, against the opposing basic tendency, via the philosophies which represent it. But at the same time, he is observing that the vast majority of philosophers put a great price on being able to declare publicly and prove that they are not partisan because they do not have to be partisan.
Thus Kant: the ‘Kampfplatz’ he discusses is all right for other, pre-critical philosophers, but not for critical philosophy. His own philosophy is outside the ‘Kampfplatz’, somewhere else, whence it assigns itself precisely the function of arbitrating the conflicts of metaphysics in the name of the interests of Reason. Ever since philosophy began, from Plato’s qewrein to Husserl’s philosopher as ‘civil servant of humanity’, and even to Heidegger in some of his writings, the history of philosophy has also been dominated by this repetition, which is the repetition of a contradiction: the theoretical denegation of its own practice, and enormous theoretical efforts to register this denegation in consistent discourses.
Lenin’s response to this surprising fact, which seems to be constitutive of the vast majority of philosophies, is simply to say a few words to us about the insistence of these mysterious tendencies in confrontation in the history of philosophy. In Lenin’s view, these tendencies are finally related to class positions and therefore to class conflicts. I say related to (en rapport), for Lenin says no more than that, and besides, he never says that philosophy can be reduced to the class struggle pure and simple, or even to what the Marxist tradition calls the ideological class struggle. Not to go beyond Lenin’s declarations, we can say that, in his view, philosophy represents the class struggle, i.e. politics. It represents it, which presupposes an instance with (auprès de) which politics is thus represented: this instance is the sciences.
Nodal Point No. 1: the relation between philosophy and the sciences. Nodal Point No. 2: the relationship between philosophy and politics. Everything revolves around this double relation.
We can now advance the following proposition: philosophy is a certain continuation of politics, in a certain domain, vis-à-vis a certain reality. Philosophy represents politics in the domain of theory, or to be more precise: with the sciences – and, vice versa, philosophy represents scientificity in politics, with the classes engaged in the class struggle. How this representation is governed, by what mechanisms this representation is assured, by what mechanisms it can be falsified or faked and is falsified as a general rule, Lenin does not tell us. He is clearly profoundly convinced that in the last resort no philosophy can run ahead of this condition, evade the determinism of this double representation. In other words, he is convinced that philosophy exists somewhere as a third instance between the two major instances which constitute it as itself an instance: the class struggle and the sciences.
One more word is enough: if Nodal Point No. 1, the instance of the Sciences, is to be found in Engels, NodalPoint No. 2, the instance of Politics, is not, despite his mention of tendency struggles in philosophy. In other words, Lenin is not just a commentator of Engels; he has contributed something new and decisive in what is called the domain of Marxist philosophy: what was missing from Engels.
One more word and we are through. For the knowledge of this double representation of philosophy is only the hesitant beginning of a theory of philosophy, but it really is such a beginning. No one will dispute the fact that this theory is an embryonic one, that it has hardly even been outlined in what we thought was a mere polemic. At least these suggestions of Lenin’s, if accepted, have the unexpected result that they displace the question into a problem, and remove what is called Marxist philosophy from the rumination of a philosophical practice which has always and absolutely predominately been that of the denegation of its real practice.
That is how Lenin responded to the prophecy in the XIth Thesis, and he was the first to do so, for no one had done it before him, not even Engels. He himself responded in the ‘style’ of his philosophical practice. A wild practice (une pratique sauvage) in the sense in which Freud spoke of a wild analysis, one which does not provide the theoretical credentials for its operations and which raises screams from the philosophy of the ‘interpretation’ of the world, which might be called the philosophy of denegation. A wild practice, if you will, but what did not begin by being wild?
The fact is that this practice is a new philosophical practice: new in that it is no longer that rumination which is no more than the practice of denegation, where philosophy, constantly intervening ‘politically’ in the disputes in which the real destiny of the sciences is at stake, between the scientific that they install and the ideology that threatens them, and constantly intervening ‘scientifically’ in the struggle in which the fate of the classes is at stake, between the scientific that assists them and the ideological that threatens them – nonetheless stubbornly denies in philosophical ‘theory’ that it is intervening in these ways: new in that it is a practice which has renounced denegation, and, knowing what it does, acts according to what it is.
If this is indeed the case, we may surely suspect that it is no accident that this unprecedented effect was induced by Marx’s scientific discovery, and thought by a proletarian political leader. For if philosophy’s birth was induced by the first science in human history, this happened in Greece, in a class society, and knowing just how far class exploitation’s effects may stretch, we should not be astonished that these effects, too, took a form which is classical in class societies, in which the ruling classes denegate the fact that they rule, the form of a philosophical denegation of philosophy’s domination by politics. We should not be astonished that only the scientific knowledge of the mechanisms of class rule and all their effects, which Marx produced and Lenin applied, induced the extraordinary displacement in philosophy that shatters the phantasms of the denegation in which philosophy tells itself, so that men will believe it and so as to believe it itself, that it is above politics, just as it is above classes.
Only with Lenin, then, could the prophetic sentence in the XIth Thesis on Feuerbach at last acquire body and meaning. (Until now) ‘the philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’. Does this sentence promise a new philosophy ? I do not think so. Philosophy will not be suppressed: philosophy will remain philosophy. But knowing what its practice is and knowing what it is, or beginning to know it, it can be slowly transformed by this knowledge. Less than ever can we say that Marxism is a new philosophy: a philosophy of praxis. At the heart of Marxist theory, there is a science: a quite unique science, but a science. What is new in Marxism’s contribution to philosophy is a new practice of philosophy. Marxism is not a (new) philosophy of praxis, but a (new) practice of philosophy.
This new practice of philosophy can transform philosophy. And in addition it can to some extent assist in the transformation of the world. Assist only, for it is not theoreticians, scientists or philosophers, nor is it ‘men’, who make history – but the ‘masses’, i.e. the classes allied in a single class struggle.
1. A communication presented to the Société Française de Philosophie on 24 February 1968 and reproduced with the permission of its president, M. Jean Wahl.
2. Now, alas, we have to add the name of Jean Hyppolite to this list.
3. I have italicized Lenin’s quotations from Dietzgen. Lenin himself stressed the key phrase ‘der Holzweg der Holzwege’.
4. See Appendix.
Introduction by Fredric Jameson
“Today we are in a position to return to Althusser’s work in a new way, and make a new assessment of it,” writes Fredric Jameson in his Introduction to this new edition of Louis Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy.
No figure loomed larger than Althusser in Marxist thought in the West during the 1960s and 70s—the decades in which the Soviet model was discredited in the West and new avenues opened up in Marxist philosophy and politics. Althusser stood out for his attempt to define a Marxist philosophy that was rigorous, scientific, and revolutionary. In the process he set new standards of argumentation for Marxist theory.
As Jameson shows in his introduction, the essays that had so massive and fertile an influence in those decades continue to speak to us today. From these essays there emerges a conception of Marxism as something more and other than a philosophy, whose “concepts are also forms of practice, so that one cannot simply debate them in a disinterested philosophical way without the uncomfortable intervention of practical positions and commitments.”
This classic work covers the broad range of Althusser’s interests and contributions in philosophy, economics, pyschology, aesthetics, and politics. It includes his major essay on “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” This path-breaking analysis of ideology has inspired a range of recent approaches to this field, which remains central to our own time.
Lenin and Philosophy also contains Althusser’s essay on Lenin’s study of Hegel; “Freud and Lacan” his “Letter on Art,” and “Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract”. The book opens with a 1968 interview in which he discusses his personal, political and intellectual history.
Louis Althusser (1918 – 1990) studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and taught philosophy there from 1948. His books include For Marx and Reading Capital, both initially published in 1965, and Machiavelli and Us, published posthumously in 1999. He was a member of the French Communist Party and an independent voice within the French left. Fredric Jameson is the pre-eminent Marxist writer on literature and culture today. His recent works include Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism and The Cultural Turn. He is chair of the Program in Literature at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
An extremely valuable collection of essays.