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Source: Marxist Internet Archive

Louis Althusser 1971
Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays

Preface to Capital Volume One

Written: March 1969;
First Published: by Garnier-Flammarion, 1969;
Translated: by Ben Brewster;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

Now, for the first time in the history of French publishing, Capital Volume One is available to a mass audience.

What is Capital?

It is Marx’s greatest work, the one to which he devoted his whole life after 1850, and to which he sacrificed the better part of his personal and family existence in bitter tribulation.

This work is the one by which Marx has to be judged. By it alone, and not by his still idealist ‘Early Works’ (1841-1844); not by still very ambiguous works like The German Ideology,[1] or even the Grundrisse, drafts which have been translated into French under the erroneous title ‘Fondements de la Critique de l’Économie Politique’ (Foundations of the critique of political economy);[2] not even by the famous Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,[3] where Marx defines the ‘dialectic’ of the ‘correspondence and non-correspondence’ between the Productive Forces and the Relations of Production in very ambiguous (because Hegelian) terms.

Capital, a mighty work, contains what is simply one of the three great scientific discoveries of the whole of human history: the discovery of the system of concepts (and therefore of the scientific theory) which opens up to scientific knowledge what can be called the ‘Continent of History’. Before Marx, two ‘continents’ of comparable importance had been ‘opened up’ to scientific knowledge: the Continent of Mathematics, by the Greeks in the fifth century B.C., and the Continent of Physics, by Galileo.

We are still very far from having assessed the extent of this decisive discovery and drawn all the theoretical conclusions from it. In particular, the specialists who work in the domains of the ‘Human Sciences’ and of the Social Sciences (a smaller domain), i.e. economists, historians, sociologists, social psychologists, psychologists, historians of art and literature, of religious and other ideologies – and even linguists and psycho-analysts, all these specialists ought to know that they cannot produce truly scientific knowledges in their specializations unless they recognize the indispensability of the theory Marx founded. For it is, in principle, the theory which ‘opens up’ to scientific knowledge the ‘continent’ in which they work, in which they have so far only produced a few preliminary knowledges (linguistics, psycho-analysis) or a few elements or rudiments of knowledge (the occasional chapter of history, sociology and economics) or illusions pure and simple, illegitimately called knowledges.

Only the militants of the proletarian class struggle have drawn the conclusions from Capital: they have recognized its account of the mechanisms of capitalist exploitation, and grouped themselves in the organizations of the economic class struggle (the trade unions) and of the political class struggle (the Socialist, then Communist Parties), which apply a mass ‘line’ of struggle for the seizure of State Power, a ‘line’ based on ‘the concrete analysis of the concrete situation’ (Lenin) in which they have to fight (this ‘analysis’ being achieved by a correct application of Marx’s scientific concepts to the ‘concrete situation’).

It is paradoxical that highly ‘cultivated’ intellectual specialists have not understood a book which contains the Theory which they need in their ‘disciplines’ and that, inversely, the militants of the Workers’ Movement have understood this same Book, despite its great difficulties. The paradox is easy to explain, and the explanation of it is given word for word by Marx in Capital and by Lenin in his works.[4]

If the workers have ‘understood’ Capital so easily it is because it speaks in scientific terms of the everyday reality with which they are concerned: the exploitation which they suffer because of the capitalist system. That is why Capital so rapidly became the ‘Bible’ of the International Workers’ Movement, as Engels said in 1886. Inversely, the specialists in history, political economy, sociology, psychology, etc., have had and still have such trouble ‘understanding’ Capital because they are subject to the ruling ideology (the ideology of the ruling class) which intervenes directly in their ‘scientific’ practice, falsifying their objects, their theories and their methods. With a few exceptions, they do not suspect, they cannot suspect the extraordinary power and variety of the ideological grip to which they are subject in their ‘practice’ itself. With a few exceptions, they are not in a position to criticize for themselves the illusions in which they live and to whose maintenance they contribute, because they are literally blinded by them. With a few exceptions, they are not in a position to carry out the ideological and theoretical revolution which is necessary if they are to recognize in Marx’s theory the very theory their practice needs in order to become at last scientific.

When we speak of the difficulty of Capital, it is therefore essential to apply a distinction of the greatest importance. Reading Capital in fact presents two types of difficulty which have nothing to do with each other.

Difficulty No. 1, absolutely and massively determinant, is an ideological difficulty, and therefore in the last resort a political difficulty.

Two sorts of readers confront Capital: those who have direct experience of capitalist exploitation (above all the proletarians or wage-labourers in direct production, but also, with nuances according to their place in the production system, the non-proletarian wage-labourers); and those who have no direct experience of capitalist exploitation, but who are, on the contrary, ruled in their practices and consciousness by the ideology of the ruling class, bourgeois ideology. The first have no ideologico-political difficulty in understanding Capital since it is a straightforward discussion of their concrete lives. The second have great difficulty in understanding Capital (even if they are very ‘scholarly’, I would go so far as to say, especially if they are very ‘scholarly’), because there is a political incompatibility between the theoretical content ofCapital and the ideas they carry in their heads, ideas which they ‘rediscover’ in their practices (because they put them there in the first place). That is why Difficulty No. 1 of Capital is in the last instance a politicaldifficulty.

But Capital presents another difficulty which has absolutely nothing to do with the first: Difficulty No. 2, or the theoretical difficulty.

Faced with this difficulty, the same readers divide into two new groups. Those who are used to theoreticalthought (i.e. the real scientists) do not or should not have any difficulty in reading a theoretical book likeCapital. Those who are not used to practising works of theory (the workers, and many intellectuals who, although they may be ‘cultured’ are not theoretically cultured) must or ought to have great difficulty in reading a book of pure theory like Capital.

As the reader will have noted, I have used conditionals (should not … should …). I have done so in order to stress something even more paradoxical than what I have just discussed: the fact that even individuals without practice in theoretical texts (such as workers) have had less difficulty with Capital than individuals disciplined in the practice of pure theory (such as scientists, or very ‘cultivated’ pseudo-scientists).

This cannot excuse us from saying something about the very special type of difficulty presented by Capitalas a work of pure theory, although we must bear in mind the fundamental fact that it is not the theoretical difficulties but the political difficulties which are really determinant in the last instance for every reading ofCapital and its first volume.

Everyone knows that without a corresponding scientific theory there can be no scientific practice, i.e. no practice producing new scientific knowledges. All science therefore depends on its own theory. The fact that this theory changes and is progressively complicated and modified with the development of the science in question makes no difference to this.

Now, what is this theory which is indispensable to every science? It is a system of basic scientific concepts. The mere formulation of this simple definition brings out two essential aspects of every scientific theory: (1) the basic concepts, and (2) their system.

These concepts are concepts, i.e. abstract notions. First difficulty of the theory: to get used to the practice of abstraction. This apprenticeship, for it really is an apprenticeship (comparable with the apprenticeship in any other practice, e.g. as a lock-smith), is primarily provided, in our education system, by mathematics and philosophy. Even in the Preface to Capital Volume One, Marx warns us that abstraction is not just the existence of theory, but also the method of his analysis. The experimental sciences have the ‘microscope’, Marxist science has no ‘microscope’: it has to use abstraction to ‘replace’ it.

Beware: scientific abstraction is not at all ‘abstract’, quite the contrary. E.g., when Marx speaks of the total social capital, no one can ‘touch it with his hands’; when Marx speaks of the ‘total surplus-value’, no one can touch it with his hands or count it: and yet these two abstract concepts designate actually existing realities. What makes abstraction scientific is precisely the fact that it designates a concrete reality which certainly exists but which it is impossible to ‘touch with one’s hands’ or ‘see with one’s eyes’. Every abstract concept therefore provides knowledge of a reality whose existence it reveals: an ‘abstract concept’ then means a formula which is apparently abstract but really terribly concrete, because of the object it designates. This object is terribly concrete in that it is infinitely more concrete, more effective than the objects one can ‘touch with one’s hands’ or ‘see with one’s eyes’ – and yet one cannot touch it with one’s hands or see it with one’s eyes. Thus the concept of exchange value, the concept of the total social capital, the concept of socially necessary labour, etc. All this is easy to explain.

The second point: the basic concepts exist in the form of a system, and that is what makes them a theory. A theory is indeed a rigorous system of basic scientific concepts. In a scientific theory, the basic concepts do not exist in any given order, but in a rigorous order. It is therefore necessary to know this order, and to learn the practice of rigour step by step. Rigour (systematic rigour) is not a fantasy, nor is it a formal luxury, but a vital necessity for all science, for every scientific practice. It is what Marx in his ‘Afterword’ calls the rigour of the ‘method of presentation’ of a scientific theory.

Having said this, we have to know what the object of Capital is, in other words, what is the object analysed in Capital Volume One. Marx tells us: it is ‘the capitalist mode of production and the relations of production and exchange corresponding to that mode’. This is itself an abstract object. Indeed, despite appearances, Marx does not analyse any ‘concrete society’, not even England which he mentions constantly in Volume One, but the capitalist mode of production and nothing else. This object is an abstract one: which means that it is terribly real and that it never exists in the pure state, since it only exists in capitalist societies. Simply speaking: in order to be able to analyse these concrete capitalist societies (England, France, Russia, etc.), it is essential to know that they are dominated by that terribly concrete reality, the capitalist mode of production, which is ‘invisible’ (to the naked eye). ‘Invisible’, i.e. abstract.

Of course, this does not deal with every misunderstanding. We have to be extremely careful to avoid the false difficulties raised by these misunderstandings. For example, we must not imagine that Marx is analysing the concrete situation in England when he discusses it. He only discusses it in order to ‘illustrate’ his (abstract) theory of the capitalist mode of production.

To sum up: there really is a difficulty in reading Capital which is a theoretical difficulty. It lies in the abstract and systematic nature of the basic concepts of the theory or theoretical analysis. It is essential to realize that this is a real difficulty that can only be surmounted by an apprenticeship in scientific abstraction and rigour. It is essential to realize that this apprenticeship is not quickly completed.

Hence a first piece of advice to the reader: always keep closely in mind the idea that Capital is a work oftheory, and that its object is the mechanisms of the capitalist mode of production alone.

Hence a second piece of advice to the reader: do not look to Capital either for a book of ‘concrete’ history or for a book of ‘empirical’ political economy, in the sense in which historians and economists understand these terms. Instead, find in it a book of theory analysing the capitalist mode of production. History (concrete history) and economics (empirical economics) have other objects.

Hence a third piece of advice to the reader. When you encounter a difficulty of a theoretical order in your reading, realize the fact and take the necessary steps. Do not hurry, go back carefully and slowly and do not proceed until you have understood. Take note of the fact that an apprenticeship in theory is indispensable if you are to be able to read a theoretical work. Realize that you can learn to walk by walking, on condition that you scrupulously respect the above-mentioned conditions. Realize that you will not learn to walk in theory all at once, suddenly and definitively, but little by little, patiently and humbly. This is the price of success.

Practically, this means that it is impossible to understand Volume One except on condition of re-reading it four or five times in succession, i.e. the time it takes to learn to walk in theory.

The present preface is intended to guide the reader’s first steps in the theory.

But before I turn to that, a word is needed on the audience who are going to read Capital Volume One.

Of whom is this audience likely to be composed?

  1. Proletarians or wage-earners directly employed in the production of material goods.
    2. Non-proletarian wage-labourers (from the simple white-collar worker to middle and higher executives, engineers and research workers, teachers, etc.).
    3. Urban and rural artisans.
    4. Members of the liberal professions.
    5. Students at school and university.

Among the proletarians or wage-earners who will read Capital Volume One, there will naturally be men and women who have obtained a certain ‘idea’ of Marxist theory from the practice of the class struggle in their trade-union and political organizations. This idea may be more or less correct, as one passes from the proletarians to the non-proletarian wage-workers: it will not be fundamentally falsified.

Among the other categories who will read Capital Volume One, there will naturally be men and women who also have a certain ‘idea’ of Marxist theory in their heads. For example, academics, and particularly ‘historians’, ‘economists’ and a number of ideologists from various disciplines (for, as is well known, in the Human Sciences today, everyone claims to be a ‘Marxist’).

But nine-tenths of the ideas these intellectuals have in their heads about Marxism are false. These false ideas were expounded even in Marx’s own lifetime and they have been tirelessly repeated ever since without any remarkable effort of the imagination. Every bourgeois or petty-bourgeois economist or ideologist[5] for the last hundred years has manufactured and defended these false ideas in order to ‘refute’ Marxist theory.

These ideas have had no trouble ‘winning’ a wide audience, since the latter was ‘won’ to them in advance by its anti-socialist and anti-Marxist ideological prejudices.

This wide audience is primarily composed of intellectuals and not of workers, for, as Engels said, even when proletarians have not grasped the most abstract demonstrations in Capital, they do not allow themselves to be ‘caught out’.

On the contrary, even the most generously ‘revolutionary’ intellectuals and students do allow themselves to be ‘caught out’ in one direction or another, since they are massively subject to the prejudices of petty-bourgeois ideology without the counterpoise of a direct experience of exploitation.

In this preface, I am therefore obliged to take conjointly into account:

  1. the two orders of difficulties which I have already signalled (Difficulty No. 1 – political, Difficulty No. – theoretical);
    2. the distribution of the audience into two essential groups: the wage-labouring audience on the one hand, the intellectual audience on the other, it being understood that these two groups intersect at one of their boundaries (certain wage-earners are at the same time ‘intellectual workers’);
    3. the existence on the ideological market of supposedly ‘scientific’ refutations of Capitalwhich affect the various parts of this audience more or less profoundly according to their class origins.

Allowing for all these facts, my preface will take the following form:

Point I: Advice to the reader with the aim of avoiding the toughest of these difficulties for the time being. This point can be quickly and clearly dealt with. I hope that proletarians will read it because I have written it for them especially, although it is valid for everybody.

Point II: Suggestions as to the nature of the theoretical difficulties in Capital Volume One which provide a pretext for all the refutations of Marxist theory.
This point will inevitably be much more arduous, given the nature of the theoretical difficulties in question, and the arguments of the ‘refutations’ of Marxist theory which are erected out of these difficulties.


Continue reading Althuser’s preface (yes, there is a whole lot more): Preface to Capital Volume One


1. 1845. A work which remained unpublished in Marx’s lifetime. English language translation published by International Publishers, New York, 1947.

2. The ‘Grundrisse’, manuscripts written by Marx in 1857-59. French translation published by Éditions Anthropos, Paris.

3. Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), published by International Publishers, New York, 1971.

4. See for example the beginning of Lenin’s State and Revolution, in Selected Works, International Publishers, New York, 1967.

5. These are not polemical phrases, but scientific concepts from the pen of Marx himself in Capital.


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