What follows will not only introduce “On Marxist Thought,” contextualize it, and provide the beginnings of a close reading, but will also attempt to reconstruct Althusser’s own theoretical development from the ground up.
Not only was the later Marx distinct from the earlier one, but he operated in an entirely different problematic that had nothing to do with the one which had ensnared him in his youth.
In short, at some point in 1845, Marx broke with his ideological past by founding an entirely new science, complete with its own principles, logic, and language, just as the ideological morass of alchemy became the science of chemistry, or astrology became astronomy.
These early works of Althusser cannot be understood outside the political history of Marxist theory.
A new political conjuncture had emerged after Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech condemning the “personality cult,” initiating a process of “de-Stalinization” which would not only fail to destroy the bureaucracy, but would also turn the militant currents lingering from the Resistance towards social-democratic compromise.
Even voices of dissent within and outside the Party, from Henri Lefebvre to Cornelius Castoriadis, would attempt to work out their opposition within the theoretical categories also embraced by the reformist leadership.
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For Althusser, this was the danger of the dissent that had started as “a vital reaction against the mechanicism and economism of the Second International,” a reaction with “real historical merits”: like de-Stalinization in politics, it would channel revolutionary currents towards the Right by way of philosophy, as evidenced by the PCF’s “‘rightist’ misappropriation of a historical reaction which then had the force of a protest that was revolutionary in spirit.” So he set about a reinterpretation of the entire pre-existing tradition, attempting a critique that broke with the whole ideology, both the positivist philosophy of nature and Hegelian subjectivism.
Though Marx’s 1844 had been published in 1932, they had gone largely unnoticed until now, when they were avidly taken up by the Communist Parties.
In the French Communist Party (PCF), this was represented in a dramatic extreme by the “official philosopher” Roger Garaudy.
The Second International, oriented by Kautsky and Plekhanov and grounded in Engels’s , developed a form of dialectical and historical materialism that viewed history as an evolutionary process driven by technological development, which would ultimately result in socialism.
Despite its attempt to pass itself off as a scientific philosophy of nature against Hegelian idealism, the teleology of the Second International, which would eventually be reproduced by the Third, actually represented an impoverished Hegel.