Thomas Piketty, Revenant of Feuerbach?

I am in the process of going through Piketty’s newest book, Capital and Ideology. While I am very admiring of Piketty’s decision to refuse the Legion of Honour, there is a  profound contradiction between the data that Piketty presents in his two books and their implicit implications, and the explicit meaning he himself has given to the data. Were we living in a kind of censorship like the one attributed to Eastern European communism, I would simply assume that it is a stratagem to outplay the censors; fortunately or not, we are not in that situation, which begs the question: why would the title and data of both books be implicitly reminiscent of Marx’s own work (Capital), yet reject so explicitly the basic tenets of Marxian theory?

I had before only briefly noticed and intuited this contradiction, and qualified it as a coincidence/unrelated affair. However, I came upon the passage that follows, and my impression of a coincidence transformed into extreme puzzlement. I first will produce my own translation of the original French version, because I was disappointed by the superficial English translation. I provide both the original French translation and the superficial English translation at the end of this text. Piketty writes (with my emphases):

“We should not, however, exaggerate the importance of ‘material’ determinants of inequality. In historical reality, it is before everything the ideological, political and institutional capacities of societies that justify and structure inequality, which determine its level, and not the degree of wealth or development in itself.”

Let’s start by temporarily stripping down the quote and get to the heart of the matter, and then add the rest to try to explain the problem. Let’s take out the first sentence, then let’s reduce the second sentence to its most central subject-object content:

It is the ideological, political and institutional capacities of societies that justify and structure inequality, which determine its level […].

This statement is in itself puzzling: if it is societal capacities that determine the level of inequality through the justifying and structuring thereof, does this not necessarily presuppose that before the action of these structures, there is a so-to-speak indeterminate level of inequality? What does this “indeterminate inequality” mean?

Does it mean

  1. that an inequality with no level exists a priori, whose level and terms cannot be determined until the a posteriori action of societal capacities?
    • Ignoring the lack of concrete meaning, it still begs the question of how those ideological, political and institutional capacities might remain unaffected, ethereal so to speak, by the powers and privileges exerted by the dominant side of an inequality, as indeterminate as it might be.
  2. that indeterminate inequality actually means equality, so that we start from some “position” of equality, where some debates on the justification of inequality and its acceptable degrees takes place then lead to the realization of the winning arguments of those debates?
    • In this case, we do pray M. Piketty to produce, with the help of his phenomenal quantity of data, proof of the existence of such a “position”/situation in the “historical reality“. He would probably be hard-pressed to do so, because it is a fiction which would surpass the imagination of even Piketty’s much-beloved Balzac, and would only approach the platitudes of the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance“.

Maybe we can better understand if we start adding back parts of the full quote. The closest thing to the sentence we have just examined is the opposition the author explicitly denotes: it is this that determines inequality and its level, “and not the degree of wealth or development in itself“. While it is not only logically possible but indeed desirable that the degree of wealth of a society not determine its level of inequality, we read this in the middle of a chapter about colonization with a multitude of charts (among which this one) showing the more extreme inequality within the poorest of the countries (the colonized) and the less extreme inequality within the wealthier of the countries (the colonizers). More generally, it is impossibly hard to understand how inequality (whose very expression is a difference in the quantity of wealth) might be unassociated to a quantity of wealth, be it within or without the context of colonization: did Europeans not wildly enrich themselves in gold, tea and other commodities at the expense of the colonized peoples? How could this enrichment not be related at least in some way to the inequalities that developed within European nations and between colonizing and colonized peoples?

When we finally add back the sentence preceding this one (“we should not exaggerate the importance of ‘material’ determinants of inequality”), our puzzle remains but it is rendered more clearly: Piketty is indeed concentrating his efforts against that interpretation which would grant material determinations the greatest importance. In doing so, he calls upon the authority of “historical reality” and compounds this temporal notion with the expression “before everything”. As puzzling as it might be for one so attached to the presentation of historical data, it is understandable that confusion and vagueness might ensue once we start looking for what was “before everything”, but on the one condition that material determinants are not the most important.

If these clues have not made yet it clear, Piketty is a staunch anti-Marxist: even though Marx admits that “circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances”(German Ideology), he adds that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (18th Brumaire); furthermore, and to touch base with Piketty’s reproach, “the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).

As much as Marx can be touted to wield the tool of historical materialism, his is also a dialectical approach. The demonstration we have tried to build here should show the weaknesses of the analytical approach which dominates contemporary social sciences. The analytical approach separates in time and space those elements whose integral meaning is only expressed as relations within a whole.

Of course ideology, politics and (state) institutions either directly (eg. taxation schemes) or indirectly (eg. funding of universities) determine the levels of inequality in a society, but these public policies and debates do not simply exist, by themselves, in some ether; they are the product and expressions of struggles and interests within society, who themselves are determined by previous public policies, and so on… “In historical reality“, social structures (ideology, politics, institutions, etc.) are not “before everything” that which determine the levels of inequality, they are rather “after everything”, in the sense of the historical baggage of previous relations of power and struggle, themselves most often expressions of material (dis)advantages.

Let me clarify this even further. In the introduction to Capital and Ideology, Piketty confirms the existence of this ether by saying that in contrast to “approaches sometimes characterized as Marxist, […] I insist that the realm of ideas, the political-ideological sphere, is truly autonomous” (page 7 of English edition). He justifies this position by quoting the variety of forms of inequality and public policies within equally developed countries. While there are indeed “mechanical” Marxists and while we appreciate the sensibility of Piketty on the meaning of this label, it is a non sequitur to point to differences in public policies for countries with a very similar GDP and conclude that the realm of ideas is truly autonomous. There is an overwhelming multitude of sociological studies showing how complex and numerous the combinations of social relations can be, and indeed how they can influence the way in which that person thinks and acts; Piketty himself, only a few pages later, presents a graph showing the almost perfectly linear relation between parental income and university enrolment.


Credits: T. Piketty, Capital and Ideology (link above).

Do you see how puzzling this is? How can one state that the realm of ideas is autonomous, then show that access to higher education is almost perfectly dependent on parental income? Is education unrelated to the realm of ideas???

Thesis 11: Solving the mystery

There is no belittling the realm of ideas: it is through ideas and predominantly their material manifestations (“the written word”) that we remain in contact with and related to humanity in its diversity and universality.

We can also say for certain that Marx was no vulgar materialist. To sum up our response to Piketty’s criticism, let’s take a look at Marx’s famous 11th Thesis on Feuerbach:



I had the good fortune of reflecting on this quote a few weeks ago while reading this review of a new book out on the philosophy of Marx. I had always been under the impression that the second part of the 11th Thesis started with an “aber”, a “but”. I was quite surprised to learn that this was not true, and this made me go back to the quote. I gave it another go at translation, fond as I am with literal translations. I find literal translations, especially in German, to be extremely eloquent and illustrative; for example, while Grund means “reason” as in “the reason why I’m doing this”, it also means ground, as in “the ground I’m standing on”.

How does this relate to Thesis 11? Well, all of the translations more or less disregard this visual imagery, and Thesis 11 usually comes out in English as expressing an opposition between interpreting the world, and changing it (thus the insertion of “but” in some instances):

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it. (Theses on Feuerbach)

But let’s take a look at the words in German: “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an sie zu verändern”. It is quite hard to make a literal translation of this (try it!), because the words and their placement are very ambiguous, but here is my attempt. First, I translate it literally: “The philosophers have the world only differently interpreted; it matters thereupon to change it.” I then try to rearrange the words so that they make more sense, but this is harder.

The nur is especially problematic. Philosophers have interpreted the world like the rest of us, only differently than the rest of us? Or philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways? Here’s the crux of the matter: is it as simple as saying that “nur” means that philosophers have “only” interpreted the world? Or could Marx be suggesting that philosophers have interpreted the world like we do (in order to live in it, to find meaning), only differently in the sense that it’s either more elaborate, obscure, brilliant, etc.?

It’s hard to believe that Marx would belittle interpretation: his theory of capital is itself an interpretation, as all theory is. We also have sufficient evidence (eg. the other 10 Theses) of the importance Marx bestowed on the dialectical relation between social relations (of production) and forms of thinking and representation: this means that interpretation and materiality are not only dependent on each other, but that they are fundamentally expressions of each other. So the philosophers have not “only” interpreted the world, they’ve interpreted it, only differently.

If then, “philosophers have interpreted the world, only differently;”, the second part of the thesis (“es kommt darauf an sie zu verändern”) must be processed through the same interpretative principle of dialectics.

“Ankommen” (written kommt … an by Marx) means either to

  1. to arrive,
  2. to depend on (with preposition auf), or
  3. to matter (with preposition auf).

“Darauf” (written as es kommt darauf an) means either 1)

  1. after,
  2. on top of that, or
  3. on it.

There are not nine, but six possible combinations here, because we do have a version of the preposition “auf” under the form “darauf”, so we can eliminate the meaning “to arrive”. To help us further, let’s try looking at the “es” in “es kommt”. “Es” means “it”, like in “it matters”. But what is “it”, what is the pronoun replacing, “what” matters? It’s not replacing “Welt” (“world”), because “sie” is doing that: there is no other feminine noun “sie” could be replacing. It also can’t be “Philosophen”, a plural masculin word in German.

But the last word of the first part is “interpretiert”; could “it” mean that the act of interpretation, or interpretation itself? If you test it out with different combinations (ex. 2-1, 2-2, 3-1, etc.), you will indeed come to the conclusion that what makes the most sense is: “the interpretation depends on changing the world”. To a German-speaking individual (and probably to English speakers as well), this interpretation and translation probably sounds crazy. Maybe it is.

But think about the usual translation: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” The point to what or of what? Of life, in general? No, Marx had a precise meaning in mind, of which he left signs in all the other Theses. Consider Thesis no. 3 (usual translation is fine here):

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

Now immediately consider our translation of Thesis no. 11:

The philosophers have interpreted the world, only differently; interpretation itself depends on changing the world.

By telling us that the world of ideas is autonomous, is Piketty not forgetting that the “educator must himself be educated”? Is he not reciting the precise “materialist” doctrine which “must divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society”, that is, where the world of ideas is superior, through its power, for example, to determine  inequality?

And does our translation of Thesis 11 not express the exact opposite? That interpretation/ “the world of ideas”, is dependent upon the world and how it changes, that it is in sum not autonomous? Yes, and no.

Our translation of Thesis 11, and more precisely the passage “interpretation depends on changing the world” tries to convey and to give another form to the idea of “revolutionary practice” from Thesis 3. Piketty is right in saying that interpretation/”ideology” has the power to change the world, but this power is also limited by the world changing: on the one hand, old interpretations, based on old social relations, lose their power as social relations change for various reasons (eg. new relations of production); on the other hand, interpretations only have power in their capacity to change the world (as a coincidence of changing of circumstances and changing of human activity).

You would believe that a book titled Capital and Ideology and showing how parental income is almost perfectly correlated to university enrolment would at least emphasize the importance of material conditions (like income) to the forms of conscience in society (world of ideas), if not underline, like Marx does, the profound interrelation between the two. But, for some reason, Piketty chooses another path: to simply declare that “the realm of ideas is truly autonomous” (my emphasis).

In the more specific case of Piketty’s work, not only is its breadth and depth exceptional, the fact that he provides complete access to his database as well as to the charts and tables he presents in his books, and his refusal of honours granted by one of the most regressive presidents in the history of France are all indicators of a man of virtue, that love of equality and of public good.

But his work represents a striking contradiction: on the one hand, its greatest focus is indeed on material elements (income inequality, property distribution, etc.) in a historical perspective, thus coming very close to Marx’s own historical materialism; on the other hand, the author often feels the need to express his distance  from Marxian precepts, attributing the existence of inequalities to the autonomous power of ideas and of governmental policy.


This last expression is taken from the Communist Manifesto. It is a very explosive summary of the minor explanations given in “Wage Labor and Capital”, and of the major explanations given in vol. 1 of “Capital”.

Original quote in French: “Il ne faut toutefois pas exagérer l’importance des déterminants ‘matériels’ de l’inégalité. Dans la réalité historique, c’est avant tout la capacité idéologique, politique et institutionnelle des sociétés à justifier et à structure l’inégalité qui détermine le niveau de cette dernière, et non pas le degré de richesse ou de développement en tant que tel.” (Piketty, Capital et idéologie, p. 320)

Original quote in English translation: “The “material” determinants of in­equality should not be exaggerated, however. In real­ity, history teaches us that what determines the level of in­equality is above all society’s ideological, po­liti­cal, and institutional capacity to  justify and structure in­equality and not the level of wealth or development as such.” (Piketty, Capital and Ideology, p. 267)

Wikipedia links: [1], [2].

BBC article of Piketty refusing Legion of Honour: here.

List of all tables and figures in Piketty’s 2020 publication: here.

Marx works quoted above: German Ideology; 18th Brumaire; A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy; Theses on Feuerbach., one of the best sites ever.

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