And even our recent moments of political practice have neither originated within the parameters of Marxism, nor have they generated a specifically Marxist discourse.
In our situation it has become difficult to say what “Marxism” , what distinguishes it as a theory, and why it matters. And of all the definitions and redefinitions of Marxism, Louis Althusser’s were perhaps the most controversial.
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.
We are taking this opportunity to reanimate a sorely misunderstood thinker, trace his trajectory, and draw out the contemporary political implications of his theory.
These early works of Althusser cannot be understood outside the political history of Marxist theory.
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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.
For Althusser, that this necessary criticism should come from the “Right” was a disaster, with humanism and Hegel in theory and Soviet tanks rolling through Budapest in practice.
Althusser recalled a similar dynamic earlier in the century, when a number of theorists dissented against the orthodoxy of the Second International.
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.