the mature Marx?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Dec 24 15:52:52 MST 2000

>Althusser and the Althusserians have exhibited a  lot of confusion
>on this point.   Originally, Althusser did seem to think
>that Marx attained "maturity" around 1845 or so when he
>was supposed to have made his epistemological break with
>Feuerbachian humanism.  However, later on Althusser revised
>his opinion when it became aparent to him that significant
>residues of humanism remained in Marx's writings well past
>1845 including even *Capital* and other late writings.  In
>some of Althusser's later statements, it appears that Marx
>did not fully become "mature" until as late as the 1870s
>and even then, he never fully overcame his earlier
>Jim F.

For newcomers to academic Marxism, it should be explained that the
"humanism" referred to above is different from what is commonly known as
humanism, such as volunteering your skills to serve struggling third world
peoples or believing that human beings should not bow down to priests, etc.
In fact, Marx was a humanist throughout his life as are we.

The distinction arises in French philosophy of the Marxist left in which
Sartre is known as a "humanist" and Althusser--in contradistinction--is a
"scientist". Supposedly "humanism" characterized the early Marx, which
focused on the "human essence" and the priority of the subject. Supposedly,
according to Althusser, Marx's evolution is a long journey away from these
early philosophical distortions.

To find some kind of additional support for his arguments outside of
Marxism itself, Althusser borrowed liberally from what is called
"structuralism", a French school of thought that used to be very trendy
when your moderator was young. One of the main structuralist thinkers are
anthropologist Levi-Strauss who purported to discover "structures" in
primitive societies that appeared throughout the world. An example would be
ritualized gift-giving, usually referred to as "potlatch". Another is
Althusser's psychoanalyst Lacan who muddled Freud even worse than the
original pseudo-scientific, cocaine-addled product. (Lacan couldn't have
done a very good job, since Althusser killed his wife in a fit of rage. He
should have opted for medication.)

Some of Lacan's silly Freudian notions pop up in Althusser in the concept
of "overdetermination". (Freud invented the term "overdetermination", as
far as I can tell, to describe objects in dreams that combined
contradictory elements such as vampires in diapers riding motorcycles with
training-wheels.) Althusser uses it to describe the phenomenon of various
contradictions in bourgeois society to the point of provoking a
revolutionary crisis. Rather than looking for a single contradiction, which
virtually amounts to economic determinism, you must analyze the entire
ensemble of social relations. Here is how he puts it in "For Marx":

"Here again we encounter an apparent overdetermination: are not all
historical societies constituted of an infinity of concrete determinations,
from political laws to religion via customs, habits, financial, commercial
and economic regimes, the educational system, the arts, philosophy, and so
on? However, none of these determinations is essentially outside the
others, not only because together they constitute an original, organic
totality, but also and above all because this totality is reflected in a
unique internal principle, which is the truth of all those concrete

My advice is to steer clear of Althusser unless you have ambitions to write
for the journal "Rethinking Marxism" one of these days. You are better off
studying the history of coffee production in Central America or how heavy
industry oriented to Hitler in the 1920s while light industry preferred the
social democracy, etc. That's my opinion, for what it's worth.

Louis Proyect
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