How it started/how it is going
Louis Althusser is most known for his argument regarding an epistemic break between the young and mature Marx. According to Althusser the works of the eighteen forties, most significantly The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, are burdened by a humanist and idealist conception of history that Marx inherited from Feuerbach and Hegel. In this conception capitalism alienates humanity from his or her productive essence. Marx breaks with this influence over the course of the eighteen fifties, eventually developing his own, anti-humanist and materialist philosophy in Capital. Marx broke with his focus on humanity and the human essence to focus on capitalism as a system of relations of exploitation. Althusser in part borrowed this notion of a break, a division between ideology and science, from Spinoza’s understanding of the division between the first and second kind of knowledge in the Ethics. Althusser equated the first kind of knowledge with ideology, with the imagination, and the second (and third), with science. That Althusser relied on Spinoza’s epistemology to drive a wedge between the young and the old Marx has, as its perhaps unstated corollary, that Spinoza is to be identified with the late Marx, with Capital.
The connection is not just Spinoza in general, but the Ethics. It is from the Ethics that Althusser would draw most of his central arguments, not just the epistemic break, but also immanent causality and the theory of ideology. The Spinoza/Marx connection in Althusser is most of all a connection between the Ethics and Capital, those two completed works of maturity. Two recent works on Althusser and Spinoza have not so much questioned this connection, but complicated and expanded it. Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop's Althusser et Spinoza: Détours et Retours, cites an interview from 1966 in which Althusser states, "the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is the Capital of Spinoza, because Spinoza is preoccupied above all with history and politics." This point is further developed in Jean Matthys' Althusser Lecture de Spinoza . Matthys shows that the connection between Spinoza, Marx, and Althusser is the problem of reading. Spinoza reads scripture in order to reveal the hidden text of obedience, its politics; Marx reads political economy in order to find the politics it necessarily cannot admit; and Althusser reads Marx to find the philosophy that he never developed. This is not to discount the emphasis of the Ethics on Althusser's thought, or to argue for some kind of break between the TTP and the Ethics, but to insist on not only different theoretical stakes and objects, such as the theory of reading, and as Matthys argues, a different idea of what it means to do theory, not a grandiose system but a specific intervention (I should add that this model of theory makes it easier to trace a direct connection to the conjunctural interventions of Balibar and Macherey).
I make this connection only to make a different suggestion, a very un-Althusserian one, as I have mentioned, again and again on this blog, on social media, to random people on the street, I recently translated Franck Fischbach's La Production des hommes: Marx avec Spinoza, now out in English as Marx With Spinoza: Production, Alienation, History. One of the many merits of this book is that it argues for a connection between Spinoza's Ethics and Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. In doing so it makes a case for a post or non-humanist reading of the 1844 Manuscripts. In doing so he joins Gerard Granel and, more obliquely, Deleuze and Guattari in arguing for a nonhumanist reading of that text. I will say, as something as an aside, that one of the strange things about the argument about the humanism of the young Marx is that it is rarely contested; it is more or less accepted as either a good thing, Marx is a humanist, Yay!, or a bad, thing, Marx is a humanist, Boo!. In philosophy, where everything is a Kampfplatz, and nothing is settled once and for, it seems odd that this point has remained mostly uncontested.
Fischbach does not directly contest this claim about the young Marx, but transforms it through the engagement with Spinoza. Fischbach's own particular strategy of reading is to use Spinoza as an agent, a developer, to bring to light the philosophical dimension of Marx's thought. Following this we can say that if for Spinoza the formulation of humanism is to treat man as a "kingdom within a kingdom," as something that breaks rather than confirms nature's laws, then Marx's assertion in the 1844 Manuscripts that man is a part of nature is consistently Spinozist. To quote Marx,"Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature."As Fischbach writes, summing up this connection.
"What exactly does this affirmation of man as a being of nature, as a part of nature, mean for Marx, because after all, he could or could not give these formulations a literal spinozist sense. It means first of all that man is “objective, natural, and sensuous” that is to say a finite mode amongst an infinity of other such modes. The determination of humanity as a objective being would be returned to by Marx again and again up to and including Capital, where he writes that, “the human being itself, considered as a pure existence of labor power, is a natural object, a thing, certainly living and conscious of itself, but a thing—and work properly speaking is a reification of this force.” Adopting the point of view according to which the human being is first of all a being in nature, a thing in the world, is exactly to adopt the spinozist point of view according to which humans must first be grasped as a finite mode: to start, as does Spinoza, from the double fact, to know that on one hand that “man thinks” and, on the other, that “we feel that a certain body is affected in many ways,” it being understood that these two traits are at the same level and of equal importance..."
This is not to say that this is a simple identity, humanity is nature, Marx is Spinoza. All of these strategies of the "sive" from Spinoza's Deus sive Natura to "man is nature" are transformations as much as they are identifications. If humanity is part of nature, then that also means that nature and history are not opposed but part of the same process of transformation. As Fischbach writes,
"What preserves Marx from a hypostasis of historicity is, as we have already seen, precisely his Spinozism. Because if there is a philosophy that does not know the opposition between nature and history and which resists positing their separation, it is the philosophy of Spinoza. Not just because there is for Spinoza no real difference between nature and history, but also because with Spinoza it is difficult to even hope to understand history if one isolates it from the general order of nature. If the actors of history are certainly the peoples and states, the latter nonetheless are first and foremost made up of natural individuals, subject as such to natural necessity. If history is the history of states, and the history of a state is the history of its formation, its development, dissolution, and disappearance is made by internal dissensions and other seditions. In other words, there is for Spinoza in the Political Treatise a knowledge of nature that makes possible the understanding of history, a nature that makes history intelligible. History is made up of nothing other than the natural effort that human beings expend in order to create their collective power, to create the conditions that increase this power, and from the causes (equally natural) which contradict this effort and return human beings to their native impotence. We can therefore say, as Etienne Balibar argues, that with respect to Spinoza “nature…is nothing other than a new way of thinking about history, according to a method of rational exegesis that seeks to explain events by their causes.” Historical knowledge cannot be of a different order than natural knowledge for the reason that actors of history are themselves nothing other than things in nature, parts of nature."
Lastly, to add one more sive to the list, as the passage above indicates the relation of human beings to nature, of nature and history, is all because of another relation, equally important and equally overlooked, and that is humanity to society: humanity, that is society. We are nature and historical beings because we are social beings. Of course this sentence could be rewritten in multiple ways, we are social because we are natural (our needs met by society), or we historical because we are natural, and so on. Part of nature, part of history, part of society. This conception underlies one of Fischbach's most important theoretical interventions, a redefinition of alienation, not as the loss of the self, the subject in an object, but a reduction to subjectivity,
"This is why we interpret Marx’s concept of alienation not as a new version of a loss of the subject in the object, but as a radically new thought, of the loss of the essential and vital objects for an existence that is itself essentially objective and vital....Alienation is not therefore the loss of the subject in the object it is the loss of object for a being that is itself objective. But the loss of proper objects and the objectivity of its proper being is also the loss of all possible inscription of one’s activity in objectivity, it is the loss of all possible mastery of objectivity, as well as other effects: in brief, the becoming subject is essentially a reduction to impotence. The becoming subject or the subjectivation of humanity is thus inseparable according to Marx from what is absolutely indispensable for capitalism, the existence of a mass of “naked workers”—that is to say pure subjects possessors of a perfectly abstract capacity to work—individual agents of a purely subjective power of labor and constrained to sell its use to another to the same extent that they are totally dispossessed of the entirety of objective conditions (means and tools of production, matter to work on) to put to effective work their capacity to work."
This is one merit of rereading the 1844 Manuscripts today, a new definition of alienation, one that is well suited to a world in which we are encouraged to see our existence as "kingdoms within a kingdom," separated from nature, history, and society, as our liberation and freedom. Fischbach shows how the reduction to pure subjectivity, a subject without nature, history, or society is subjection, not liberation. However, I would like to close with a different justification, that in the age of the collapse of the three ecologies, to borrow Guattari's term, natural, social, and psychic, we need to take up the problems of the 1844 Manuscripts in a nonhumanist way, to rethink what it means to be part of nature, history, and society. This is a different sort of theoretical intervention than what Althusser called for, more philosophical, even metaphysical.