Marx and Critique: “I am not a Marxist.”

It is time to tally the sordid history of Marxist theory and praxis. We must ask the question that Althusser asked in ’78: “What can we retain of Marx today as being truly essential to his thought, even if it has perhaps not always been well understood?” As Marx said of himself: “I am not a Marxist.” Marx was against dogma, of enshrining himself and his work as something other than a critique. We need critique not enshrinement and dogma. What Marx began and advanced was the knowledge of the conditions, forms and effects of class struggle as he understood it within the context of capitalist modes of production of his era. He above all believed he was producing a systematic philosophy that could contribute to, and guide, in a revolutionary movement for the struggle and emancipation of the working masses enslaved within the capitalist machine. Against a grounding of his work as a scientific discipline he affirmed instead that his Capital was a ‘critique’ or ‘criticism’ of the Political Econonmy. As Althusser has emphasized it was the idealism of the Political Economy as ‘objectified’ within the scientistic pretensions of such economists as Smith, Ricardo, Hodgkins, and the Physiocrats that Marx’s work resides as critiqe by seeking to overturn its idealist vision as Political Economy: as ‘objectified’ truth founded within the scientistic void of Reason.

The rationalist traditions that underpinned the enlightenment critiques from Bayle to Kant, that sought a philosophical dignity and a Truth within the radical dictates of Reason must be questioned. Marx himself pursued this tradition into its hiding places, denouncing the ‘irrationality’ at the heart of Reason’s conditions of existence. Yet, one must not look for this in Capital, however, where Marx instigated a differential and functional pursuit of critique; one that sought a “critique of existing reality by existing reality” (17). As Althusser reminds us, for Marx, “critique is the real criticizing itself,” (17) It was the pursuit of a revolutionary materialism against all forms of Idealism and reactionary formations of any type or pursuasion that is the core of Marx’s critique in Capital.

But this critique of the real was not some abstract notion, instead Marx tied his critique to a real material world, he grounded critique within the very dynamics of domination and exploitation of actual working peoples material existence. As Marx himself said of this critique: “In so far as such a critique represents a class, it can only represent the class whose historical task is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes – the proletariat.” (18)

Althusser understood the truth of Marx’s rejection of himself as a Marxist. He understood that the critique, its conception and consequence – as, in fact and deed, a rejection of Marx the Intellectual, the creator of a critique; instead, it “was the real – the worker’s class struggle – which acted as the true author (the agent) of the real’s critique of itself” (18).  As Althusser concludes, Marx wrote for the multitude, the workers who faced in their actual lives the domination and exploitation of capitalism’ dark oligarchic forces:

“In his own fashion and style, with all of his intellectual culture turned upside down by the experience he had acquired and was still acquiring, with his acute sense of the conflicts of his time, the individual named Marx ‘wrote’ on behalf of this ‘author’ [the multitude], infinitely greater than he was – on behalf but, first of all, by its agency and at its urging” (18).

1. Louis Althusser. Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987. Verso; 1 edition (June 17, 2006)