Political Theory Bookshelf: The Philosophy of Marx


Written by Etienne Balibar, one of political theory’s leading thinkers, The Philosophy of Marx examines all the key areas of Marx’s writings in their wider historical and theoretical contexts — including the concepts of class struggle, ideology, humanism, progress, determinism, commodity fetishism, and the state.

Balibar traces the unity and tension within Marx’s philosophy, and shows how Marx’s thought was motivated by the desire to bring the history of philosophical concepts to the terrain of contemporary political struggles and their major turning points, including the revolutionary periods of 1848 and the Paris Commune.

In this same spirit, Balibar reflects on the relevant political and theoretical developments that occurred in the intervening years between the original publication and the new edition of 2017.

The brief excerpt below is drawn from Balibar's introduction to the 2017 edition.

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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 Pirious, 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 that It can be said that those objective have pretty much been achieved, both in the Francophone world (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 endeavor 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 wherewithal to discuss his relevance. It also allowed me to formulate some interpretive keys which I had been researching for a long time, comparing them with those of other readers who were my contemporaries.

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 a readily be put by French or English speakers.

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 an 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.


One 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 vacillation — and Marxism — an intellectual and institutional historical phenomenon, circumscribed in time and by the end of the historical cycle of organization of the labour movement and class struggle (from the emergence of 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 though and, if need be, create it, I had to endeavor instead to present it as essentially multiple, uncertain abut 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 cries or dramas), but not integrated into an organic whole.


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.


In order to proceed as far as possible in [this] 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), 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.

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