Etienne Balibar - From Althusserian Marxism to the Philosophies of Marx? Twenty Years After


Etienne Balibar's short book, The Philosophy of Marx, has rightly become the classic introduction to Marx's work since its first publication in English in 1994. Covering the entire range of Marx's writings, from his early philosophical writings to Capital and his later work, The Philosophy of Marx is not only a clear and concise guide to Marx but places his writing in its theoretical and historical context.

The new edition of The Philosophy of Marx is substantially updated, with a two substantial new essays which examine Marx's philosophy (one covering his Theses on Feuerbach, the second on Marx and politics), as well as a new introduction, reproduced below. In it, Balibar discusses the genesis of the book, his relationship to Althusser's philosophical reading of Marx, and the problems of a Marxist philosophy.

For this week only, and to celebrate the publication of the new and substantially updated edition of Etienne Balibar's now classic introductory text, we have 40% off our entire list of Karl Marx primers. To see the full list click here.

I wrote this little book on Marx’s philosophy in 1993, at the request of two friends: François Gèze, managing director of Éditions La Découverte, and my colleague at the University of Paris I, Jean-Paul Piriou, an economist and trade unionist no longer with us, who founded the ‘Repères’ collection to help educate students in the social and human sciences in a spirit critical of reigning orthodoxies and uninhibited by disciplinary boundaries. Obviously, the publisher’s idea was that these titles, written so far as possible in an accessible style, without jargon but also without over-simplification, might prove of interest to a wider readership. Twenty years later, I think it can be said that those objectives have pretty much been achieved, both in the Francophone world (where the book has been reprinted several times) and abroad (where several translations are still in print). So I do not regret the effort I devoted in a few weeks of intensive work to assembling and summarizing, in a strictly limited space, what I believed I had learned over thirty years about the ‘objects’ of Marx’s philosophical thinking and its modalities and problems. The endeavour seems to have enabled various groups of readers, whether beginners or not, to enter Marx’s intellectual universe from a particular angle, supplying them with the where- withal to discuss his relevance. It also allowed me to formulate some interpretative keys which I had been researching for a long time, comparing them with those of other readers who were my contemporaries.1

But twenty years is a long time. The world has changed – the social world which Marx’s famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach demanded should be ‘changed’, not merely ‘interpreted’. I myself (to say nothing of other philosophers of my generation) have changed. Would I write this little book in the same way today? Such, in sum, is the question posed to me by Frieder Otto Wolf in the name of future readers of this book in the German-speaking world, and which might just as readily (or so I believe) be put by French or English readers.

The answer, obviously, is no: I would not write it in the same way. But the answer is also that I am not convinced I would be able to produce such a synthesis today, although I have not stopped going back to Marx’s texts since the 1990s: to test their efficacy in dealing with various current philosophical and political issues (in no particular order we might cite the economy of violence and the ambivalence of its effects, the changes in subjectivity and the capacity for action induced by capitalist globalization, the internal conflicts of universalism, the administrative and ideological function of borders, the prospects for trans-national citizenship, the crisis of European secularism and its French variant, laïcité, etc.); and, in return, to examine the potential which such issues might lead us to discover in the thought of the author of the Communist Manifesto and Capital. I could of course proceed to numerous additions and corrections, but the likely upshot would be a much greater dispersion of themes and problems and today, unlike in 1993, I could probably not construct a guiding thread that makes it possible to connect them for the purposes of a single question.

Yet far from believing that the ‘forcing’ I engaged in is meaningless, I am tempted to think that it involves a kind of necessity, at the intersection of a major historical turning point and an experience of collective philosophical composition with which I was closely associated. And since I am wholly persuaded that the ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’ utilization of philosophers must always contain a self-critical dimension (even a self-deconstructive one, as Derrida would say) which demands an awareness of their own historicity, I shall today take the risk of asserting that an understanding of this ‘encounter’ from yesterday is one of the conditions for our thinking tomorrow, ‘with and against Marx’. I must therefore say a word about it – and to that end must ask readers to use their imagination to take themselves back to the start of the 1990s, especially in Europe. (I shall return in a moment to the implications of such Eurocentrism.)

It might very simply be said that what collapsed then, with the sudden democratic revolutions in the countries of ‘real socialism’ under Soviet hegemony, was the very idea of social revolution, and that what began to emerge was the highly problematic character (in Europe and beyond) of the ‘virtuous circle’ wherein a combination of market economy and liberal parliamentarism supposedly ensured the transformation of politics into its opposite: what was just beginning to be referred to as ‘good governance’.2 In a way, this change of perspective was a trompe-l’oeil, because it was based on a strict inversion of the discourse of revolution, without any real analysis of the history of socialism or the transformation of capitalism (and their interaction). But it also contains an injunction to rethink the categories of the philosophy of history which in the West, from the onset of modernity, made it possible to conjoin ideas of progress, emancipation and revolution, giving rise to various right-wing or left-wing ‘grand narratives’. (Among them, in speculative terms, the ‘dialectical’ narrative of progress via the ‘power of the negative’, or by the conversion of violence into social institutions and formations, is unquestionably one of the most effective.)3 Those, like me, who share the hope for emancipation contained in the idea of communism (and who – let us confess it here – still share it, though without any illusions about it answering to some historical necessity or containing in and of itself any guarantee of its correct application), should be particularly sensitive to this injunction. If they wish to be philosophers, they need to understand, theoretically and historically, what blocked Marxism’s capacity for self-criticism (and, in practice, what rendered inoperative or doomed to disaster all attempts at a ‘revolution in the revolution’, to quote the phrase coined by Régis Debray à propos the Cuban Revolution at its outset, but which also applies to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or at least the idea behind it, and the ‘Prague Spring’).4 But they would also need to determine whether, in the family complex constituted by the teleologies of historical progress in the bourgeois era (Turgot, Kant, Hegel, Comte, Spencer, etc.), Marxism contains a specific difference, even an irreducible difference, guaranteeing it an enduring critical role beyond the ‘decline in the idea of progress’ (Georges Canguilhem).5

Was ‘Althusserian’ Marxism, to which from the time of the texts written with Althusser in the 1960s (Lire le Capital)6 I sought to contribute as best I could, well placed to confront such questions and their philosophical implications? Yes and no.

Yes, because like other major twentieth-century Marxists such as Benjamin or Bloch (and, it should be said, in almost complete ignorance of their contributions: aside from Marx, Engels and the major classical philosophers, plus Freud, his principal interlocutors were Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Gramsci, Brecht and Lukács), what Althusser (and we along with him) sought in his recasting of the ‘concept of history’, and his attempts to construct a ‘topography’ for historical materialism (organizing different ‘practices’ within one and the same over-determined causality), was essentially a way of wresting the historicity of class struggles from linearity, predetermination or prophecy, so as to restore to it its character of unpredictable eventfulness and perpetual ‘beginning’.

Yes, again, because, at the cost of numerous oscillations and contradictions, its stubborn use of the concept of science, relating it to an analysis of the objectivity of social relations and ‘concrete’ historical situations, tended decreasingly to apply to Marx a pre-existing model of scientificity (be it axiomatizable mathesis, the ‘applied rationalism’ of the experimental sciences, or what Foucault called the structuralist counter-sciences: linguistics, psychoanalysis and anthropology), and increasingly to transform the concept of science by incorporating in the knowledge process, in a reflexive but open or even aporetic fashion, the very conflictuality that it sought to explain. This was also a way of continuing the Leninist idea of a ‘party science’, except that partisanship now no longer contained any a priori criterion of truth or correctness.7

But no, because Althusser quite deliberately remained a Marxist – heterodox on some points and very orthodox, even dogmatic, on others. This had various, possibly connected consequences. First of all, it meant, obviously, that he had no intention of giving up on the reality of class struggles in the economy, society and history (which remains, I believe, one of the least contestable strong points of Marxist discourse and its critical capacity vis-à-vis the dominant ideologies), but also that he saw nothing sociologically or culturally determined about the forms of organization deriving from a certain European history (in particular, a certain hierarchical ordering of ‘civil society’ and the ‘state’), which made it possible for class conflicts to become relatively autonomous and generate a specific ‘consciousness’. By the same token, despite sometimes fruitful encounters and dialogues (for Althusser with Charles Bettelheim; for me, subsequently, with Immanuel Wallerstein), criticism of the Eurocentrism pervading historical Marxism (whether party Marxism, state Marxism or intellectual Marxism) could not be taken to a conclusion, and the teleology inherent in the idea of a European model of world history remained unshaken (de te fabula narratur, Marx had underscored in Capital, virtually addressing the whole world ‘from the wings’).

Second, it meant that the concept of emancipation underlying Althusser’s thought (though rarely formulated as such) remained structurally conceived in terms of a (revolutionary) transformation of the conditions of exploitation of labour in its various forms and degrees. This made capitalism not only a determinate mode of production, but the essential social relation on which all the rest depended. This ruled out regarding other forms of domination as themselves ‘structural’ and deprived the concept of over-determination, just formulated, of much of its analytical function. Hence Althusser’s blindness, in particular, to women’s struggles against patriarchy and sexism (even if some feminists have been able to import into their analysis categories such as ‘interpellation’, fashioned by Althusser in connection with the dominant ideology),8 to say nothing of his vehement repudiation of the student struggles against the disciplinary model of bourgeois education in 1968.

Finally, it meant that, prior to completely displacing the question by inventing the ‘aleatory materialism’ of his last texts (which dispels the very idea of a social formation divided into differentiated instances, each of them contributing in its way to the ‘society effect’), and despite his celebrated declaration in For Marx that ‘the lonely hour of the last instance never comes’, Althusser could not (in fact, would not) accept that the mechanism of the displacement of ‘dominance’ in different historical conjunctures extended to calling into question ‘determination in the last instance’ by the economy. This prevented him from criticizing the economism dominant in state ideology (socialist or liberal) since the nineteenth century as radically as he criticized ‘humanism’ – other than by peremptorily inverting this economism into a utopianism or eschatology of the ‘end of economics’.9

On account of these characteristics, which I am in no way claiming (with the dubious superiority of the survivor) betray weakness of thought or character and have only to be formulated for it to be obvious how to overcome them, at least if one does not wish to abandon conceiving emancipation in terms of social conflict, Althusser (and with him the ‘Althusserians’, of whom I was in a way the most loyal – i.e. the least lucid) therefore remained utterly ‘Marxist’. It might even be said that he made it a point of honour, at a time when so many others were happily declaring either that Marxism had failed completely or that it had never existed in the sense of an honestly defensible intellectual position. And thus (other than in some messianic insights which, strangely enough, aligned him with what other philosophers looked to Marx for when it came reawakening the ‘spectre’ and restoring him to life amid the devastation of the neo-liberal order that succeeded the collapse of ‘real social- ism’),10 he entertained an essentially negative image of the way to break the circle of Marxism and anti-Marxism (still very much alive today), which principally consisted in an internal critique of its conceptual economy.

With this summary description of the conjuncture as it appeared to me in 1993, on the basis of my own formation and my experience, I hope to create a better understanding of how I proceeded in my little book, making the most of the constraints imposed by the kind of text it was and the moment of its publication.

On the one hand, I had decided to draw as radical a line of demarcation as possible between the philosophy of Marx – which I conceived as a problematic open to all kinds of transformations, reformulations and extrapolations, whose starting point is not the oblivion of Marx’s words and sentences but their intrinsic vacillation11 – and Marxism – an intellectual and institutional historical phenomenon, circumscribed in time by the end of the historical cycle of organization of the labour movement and class struggle (from the emergence of the social-democratic parties in the late nineteenth century to the collapse of the regimes of ‘real socialism’ in the late twentieth century) and circumscribed in space (not so much by confinement within the borders of Europe as by the exportation from Europe of a certain model of analysis of social struggles and their ‘becoming-conscious’, concomitant of imperialism and opposed to it). There was no question of separating a ‘good Marx’ from a ‘bad Marxism’, to prevent the second contaminating the first, in accordance with a firmly established tradition among Marxists themselves. The point was to vouchsafe the means with which to vary the relations uniting them (in Marx already, for it would be illusory to think he had nothing to do with the constitution of Marxism), and thus to bring out a discrepancy or non-contemporaneity in their relationship which is also a means of analysis and a spur to reflection for us today. But since any Marxism, even of the heterodox variety, basically needs to attribute a certain consistency and completeness to Marx’s thought and, if need be, create it, I had to endeavour instead to present it as essentially multiple, uncertain about its own options and strictly unfinishable – in the hope that this description would help introduce new ‘philosophical workers’ to the successive worksites opened by Marx, which can become inter-linked depending upon the conjuncture (particularly its crises or dramas), but not integrated into an organic whole.

I tried to persuade my publisher to entitle the book The Philosophies of Marx, to signal this internal multiplicity and openness. But he refused (thus depriving me of a certain aesthetic satisfaction but possibly saving me from a misunderstanding), both because he thought that title unintelligible to students and because the same collection featured two books devoted to Marx’s Economics and Marx’s Sociology, respectively.12 This division of labour was not exactly down to me, because I had in mind what (in his preface to the German translation) Frieder Otto Wolf excellently dubs a philosophische Tätigkeit – in other words, a philosophical activity – rather than some self- standing philosophy, whether ‘system’ or ‘method’. I constantly had in mind Foucault’s formula, defining his own activity as ‘philosophical fragments in historical worksites’.13 The two authors cannot be superimposed, but they share a refusal of philosophy as a meta-theoretical precondition and hence the same postulate of the immanence of the philosophical in inquiries and analyses pertaining, if you like, to materialism.

On the other hand, I had decided to try to grasp and explain the speculative question that makes it possible for Marx’s investigations to unfold as alternative openings (from which I constructed the three chapters of my book). I identified this guiding thread with the old issue of the unity (or fusion) of ‘theory’ and ‘practice’. We know that this has its roots in the very origins of Western metaphysics, in the verses by Parmenides asserting that ‘thought and being are the same’ and the Socratic debates about the relationship between two types of philosophy: that which teaches a form of ‘conduct’, ‘way of life’ or manner of ‘self-government’ and that which ‘contemplates’ the eternal verities reflected in the structure of the human soul. But we also know it underwent a radical transformation with the discovery by German idealism that theory’s horizon is the elucidation of the conditions of experience and that the immanent objective of ‘practice’ is transformation of the world. Marx unquestionably belongs to this line of thought. That is why, in the wake of the critical schema for transcending the antithesis between the ‘old materialism’ and ‘idealism’ set out in the Theses on Feuerbach, I often point out today, by way of provocation and to demonstrate the relativity of these terms in context, that Marx is the last great representative of German idealism – more precisely, its activist variant.14 The issue, however, is whether he pertains to it in the form of a consummation and, consequently, a ‘synthesis’ or ‘system’ even more coherent than those of his predecessors (Kant, Fichte, Hegel) or whether, on the contrary, he represents a displacement of it and a reopening which, without any pre- defined solution, revives the issue of what an inherently critical philosophical activity might consist in.

In order to proceed as far as possible in the second direction, starting out from Marx’s own formulations, I chose in my book (especially its conclusion) to convert ‘theory’ into science (with the caveats indicated above: a science still to come in its procedures and objects) and ‘practice’ into revolution (which from my standpoint obviously means a ‘revolution in the revolution’ that revolutionizes itself, at the same time as its historical models), to make critique the objective of their articulation or encounter. In short, I sought to definitively distance myself from the dialectical schema of the resolution of the split between subject and object which dominated the whole of classical idealism, even if this schema yielded extraordinary speculative fruit in Marxism itself – in particular, the messianic conception of the proletariat as the ‘subject-object of history’ in Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (1923), a work of genius inseparable from the brief moment when the Bolshevik Revolution seemed to be the beginning of a world revolution. And, against a certain legacy of the Frankfurt School (even though I admire, along with the critique of the effets pervers of rationality in general, its unique capacity to analyse everyday forms of subjection to the logic of the commodity – something wholly lacking in Althusserianism),15 I also sought to conceive that theory is never critique in and of itself, but only by dint of a problematic (‘aleatory’) relationship to emancipatory processes, real rebellion or revolution, which it anticipates or whose repercussions it experiences. In short, in the mode of philosophical activity which I believed I had discovered in Marx (and possibly others), the requirement of knowledge is taken so far that it risks not only undermining the dominant ideologies, but also revealing the illusions that inform the desire for emancipation. The requirement of revolution (or the refusal to adapt endlessly to the intolerable ‘existing state of affairs’) is pushed so far that it always risks revealing its aims to be not so much possible as impossible, given what we perceive of the tendencies to transformation of capitalism (and, more generally, ‘market’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘patriarchal’, ‘imperial’ society) and their counter-tendencies. But this double risk is precisely what must be run to introduce something new, in philosophy as well as in existence.

Today, with as much conviction as yesterday, I believe I can say that Marx did indeed run that risk to the benefit of science as well revolution, creating between them, in an interface which can only be grasped via its effects, a field of critical intervention and conceptual creation with very few equivalents in the history of modern thought. I repeat it here, even if much has changed in the way I would now attempt to think for my own part, or through new readings, the philosophical ‘objects’ with which Marx was concerned: the collective (or, rather, relational, trans-individual) political subjectivity he called praxis; the effect of misrecognition inherent in social relations of domination (which he alternately called ideology and fetishism, sometimes prioritizing the relationship between individuals and classes and sometimes their relationship to the commodity and monetary form); the repercussion on capitalism’s individualistic and utilitarian logic of its own destructive effects (what, in The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx called the ‘bad side’ by which history ‘progresses’ – if it progresses).

That is also why, to put it in a word when a whole discussion (out of place here) is required, I did not introduce into the discussion the notion of an ethics peculiar to Marxism, which might be said to be the requisite ‘systematic’ complement of any articulation of scientific knowledge with revolutionary politics. I know that this absence will astonish or even shock some readers. It will be taken as evidence of an inveterate anti-humanism that has resisted all the bereavements and lessons of history. Might I hazard a rather different working hypothesis? Ethics does not need to be named as such to inhere in thought. Or rather, as soon as it is named as such and proposes to represent the philosophical ‘mediation’ between the standpoints of knowledge of the world and transformation of the world, it inevitably becomes an enterprise of conciliation and reconciliation (Versöhnung), albeit in a hypothetical, ‘normative’ form. In my view, what is required to give ethics its due, in knowledge and politics alike, is instead to dwell in contradiction: not in immobile, passive fashion, but in the form of a constant, uneasy endeavour to find their shared points of application and to effect the convergence therein of substantial intellectual and social forces. I have certainly changed a lot in twenty years, while the conjuncture in which we live is now almost the complete opposite: not the terminal crisis of an attempt to build ‘socialism’, but a structural crisis, whose development is unpredictable, of a (productivist) mode of accumulation and a (financial) mode of regulation of capitalism, at the cost of extremely violent ruptures in the consciousness and affectivity of subjects. But I still think that with Marx, as I construe him at least, the ethics we need is one which divides between irreconcilable demands, rather than assuming they will emerge as two sides of the same coin if only human beings demonstrate a modicum of good will. Science must no more be sacrificed to revolution than revolution to science; it is the malaise or ‘angst’ consequent upon this permanent tension that should stop us from slumbering.

The new edition of The Philosophy of Marx is out now, and available from the Verso website with a 40% discount (alongside all the other books in our Marx reading list), free postage and bundled ebook.



1. I was moved to discover on the website devoted to the online publication of Daniel Bensaïd’s archives a note on ‘Étienne Balibar,
La Philosophie de Marx’, dated 1993, which underscores our points of agreement and disagreement. See

2. The World Bank’s discussion paper ‘Managing Development: The Gov- ernance Dimension’, often cited as initiating systematic use of the term in its contemporary sense, dates from August 1991.
3. I have discussed this in
Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Politi- cal Philosophy, trans. G.M. Goshgarian, Columbia University Press, New York, 2015.

4. Régis Debray, Revolution in the Revolution? Armed Struggle and Political Struggle in Latin America (1967), trans. Bobbye Ortiz, Penguin, London, 1968.
5. See Georges Canguilhem, ‘The Decline in the Idea of Progress’,
Economy and Society, Vol. 27, nos. 2–3, 1998. On the origins of the ‘complex’, see also Bertrand Binoche, Les trois sources des philosophies de l’Histoire (1764–1798), second edition, Presses de l’Université Laval, Quebec, 2008. 6. I cannot resist the (self-) ironic pleasure of informing readers that the collective work Lire le Capital by Louis Althusser, Jacques Rancière, Pierre Macherey, Étienne Balibar and Roger Establet, published in 1965 by François Maspero, has been included on the list of ‘national com- memorations’ for 2015 by an ad hoc committee of the Culture Ministry. Shamelessly, I even agreed to compose the notice for this purpose, for one must face up to the ‘lesson’ of the passage of time, of which institutional recognition is also a part. Obviously, some will see this as confirmation of their least indulgent prognoses.

7. By a fortunate invention of translation, this idea, which featured in particular in an unpublished essay of 1976, ‘Sur Marx et Freud’, became, in the 1977 German version provided by Rolf Löper and Peter Schöttler, the idea of a ‘schismatic science’, which is much more powerful and clear than its partial French equivalents. See Louis Althusser, Ideologie und ideologische Staatsapparate. Aufsätze zur marxistischen Theorie, Reihe Positionen 3, VSA, Hamburg and West Berlin, 1977, p. 93. An English translation of the French text can be found in Louis Althusser, Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, Columbia University Press, New York, 1996.

8. The most brilliant example, combined with a very interesting critique, is obviously that of Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1997.
9. The most detailed work from the Althusserian school studying the sym- metry between economism and humanism in the light of the theses of
For Marx, is François Regnault’s ‘L’idéologie technocratique et le teilhard- isme’, published anonymously (under the signature ‘XXX’) in Les Temps modernes, no. 243, August 1966.

10. Obviously, I am thinking of Jacques Derrida’s famous book, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, New York, 1994, which, without naming him, contains a sharp critique of Althusser. See my ‘Eschatologie/téléologie. Un dialogue philosophique interrompu et son enjeu actual’, Lignes, nos. 23–24, November 2007.

11. ‘Vacillation’: a word I had previously used to propose a genealogy of the issue of ‘ideology’ in Marxism. See ‘The Vacillation of Ideology’ (1983–87), in my Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philoso- phy before and after Marx, trans. James Swenson, Routledge, New York, 1994.

12. See Pierre Salma and Tran Hai Hac, Introduction à l’économie de Marx, Editions La Découverte, Paris, 1992; and Jean-Pierre Durand, La Sociologie de Marx, Editions La Découverte, Paris, 1995.
13. Michel Foucault, Michelle Perrot, et al.,
L’impossible prison, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1980, p. 41.

14. See my ‘Praxis’ (in collaboration with Barbara Cassin and Sandra Laugier), in Barbara Cassin (ed.), Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philo- sophical Lexicon, trans. Steven Rendall, et al., Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2014.

15. Whereas it was rediscovered in his own way by the other great French Marxist of the twentieth century, Henri Lefebvre, who put it at the centre of a whole section of his oeuvre, from the Critique of Everyday Life (1947–81) to The Right to the City (1968) and The Production of Space (1974).