Against Historical Materialism: Marxism as a First-order Discourse - Richard Gunn

Engels on his head

In 1992, Richard Gunn writes against a teleological account of Marx's theory for Open Marxism volume 2. 

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on December 20, 2023

Marx is famous as a social theorist. that is, as one who adopts ‘society’ as an object of theoretical reflection. The aim of the present piece is to argue that he is neither a social theorist, nor indeed a ‘theorist’, in this sense. (By “theorist”, I understand one who reflects upon any object whatever, the object concerned being specified in some set of concepts, or categories, or terms.) An initial version of my point can be reported as follows: Marx offers not a social theory but a critique of social theory in the same sense as he offers a critique of philosophy (in his early writings) and a critique of political economy (commencing in 1844 and renewed in the Grundrisse manuscripts of 1857-8 and Capital). The same point can be stated by saying that Marx was not a sociologist but a critic of sociology: ‘Marxist sociology’ is a contradiction in terms. (By ‘sociology’ I understand not merely the specific discipline erected on neo-Kantian foundations in the latter half of the nineteenth century — cf. Rose 1981, ch. 1 — but any general theory of society whatever; a definition of ‘general’ theory is supplied below.) A further statement of my contention runs thus: historical materialism is unmarxist and not just for reasons of terminology1 or of the economic determinism to which, for instance, the formulations of Marx’s 1859 Preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy succumb.2

Before proceeding to specific arguments, it is necessary to set the above contentions in context. Politically they lie within a broadly-construed ‘autonomist outlook; theoretically — and it is to their theoretical aspect that I here confine myself — they originate with an exploration of the relation between (first-order) ‘theory’ and (second-or higher-order) ‘metatheory" in Marxist thought. Marxism refuse the conventional distinction between discrete theoretical, e. g. sociological or scientific, and metatheoretical, e. g. philosophical or methodological, bodies of thought. This refusal is consequent upon the species of reflexivity for which Marxism declares (a theory counting as ‘reflexive’ when it reflects upon the validity of the categories, terms, etc. it employs). Marxism’s specific requirement is that theory be practically reflexive (a theory counting as practically reflexive when it reflects upon the validity of its own categories in the course of reflecting upon its own practical situation, and vice versa: cf. Gunn 1987a). Specifically practical reflexivity undermines the conventional theory/metatheory division inasmuch as its permits first-order — practical, ‘social’, etc. — reflection to impinge metatheoretically, and vice versa: as it were, it advances simultaneously and in one and the same theoretical movement upon ‘theoretical’ and ’metatheoretical’ fronts. It is in this way that dialectical thought comprises totalisation for Marx and, I would argue, for Hegel as well.

In other words the theory/practice unity contended for by Marx entails a theory/metatheory unity. Elsewhere (Gunn 1989a), I have followed through some of the implications of this along the axis of ‘metatheory’: the implications are to the effect that Marxism contains no conceptual gap which philosophy, or methodology, might fill. It contains no such gap, not because it dismisses (á la positivism) the questions philosophy asks but because it condemns their philosophical form, i.e. their appropriation into the field of a discrete discipline. In the present article, it is with the first-order or ‘theoretical’ axis of theorisation that I am concerned. Once the theory/practice totalisation is sprung apart, with the consequence that theory and metatheory part company (becoming the objects of separate disciplines), not just the relation between first- and higher-order theorising but the character of each becomes affected. In the first place, they stand in relation to one another as opposite but complementary sides of the same coin, just as the state is the obverse side of the coin of civil society, and civil society the obverse of the state, for Marx. But, in the second place, conundrums break out within each of theorisation’s now mutually exclusive parts.

Metatheory reserves to itself the task of validating, or criticising, theory’s categories. It must do so, granted the premise of a theory/metatheory severance, because otherwise first-order theory would have to validate its own categories with the consequence that vicious circularity would result.3 But if it does do so then, granted the same premise, infinite regress is substituted for vicious circularity: a second-order theory requires a third-order theory for its own validation . . . and so on, without hope of cessation. The threat of just such a regress echoes through the history of philosophy, from the ‘Third Man’ argument in Plato (cf. Cornford 1939) to disputation over the argumentation for the validity of categories in Kant.

First-order theory devotes itself to the task of explicating, by whatever means, a cognitive object specified in metatheoretical terms. First of all metatheory defines the object of theory, and then theory sets to work. To be sure, these days, matters are not quite so straightforward. Metatheory is inclined to adopt an underlaboarer role, as in Kuhn (1962), Althusser (1976) or Bhaskar (Bhaskar et al. 1988; Bhaskar 1989). In Kuhn, the underlabourer position takes the form of assimilating philosophy of science to history of science: in Althusser, ambiguously,4 it takes the form of a historicisation of philosophy; in Bhaskar the underlabourer function appears in the shape of transcendental argument from the practice of science to the reality of the causal structures science reveals.5 (So called ‘post-empiricist’ philosophy of science is largely a restoration of such philosophy to the underlabourer status bestowed upon it by Locke, three hundred years ago: in the 1980s and 1990s, humility appears to be all the rage.) But this shift to underlabouring achieves nothing (for instance Bhaskar remains more hubristic than humble in the passages where he urges that Critical Realism, as a metatheory, is able to set out of bounds such sciences as do not acknowledge the reality of causal structures). Indeed the hubristict/humble dichotomy fails to capture the complicity — the two-sides-of-the-same-coin aspect — which erupts between theory and metatheory once they are construed as reciprocally distinct. Either the underlabourer manoeuvre amounts to sheer relativism, simply taking the practices of first-order theory on trust, or it amounts to the proposal that theory sets the problems which it is up to metatheory to solve. In other words it requires that ‘theory’ wait upon metatheory’s solutions (just as metatheory perforce waits upon theory’s questions) and vice versa: popular consciousness awaits the solution of philosophical problems by scientific means. ‘Once the metatheorists have got it sorted out we can start working’; ‘once the theorists get it established, finally, we can draw conclusions’: each movement in this sort of argument takes in the other’s washing. Respectively, either infinite regress or vicious circularity are the consequence of arguments pitched in this way.

For the purposes of the present paper. it is the theoretical as distinct from the metatheoretical consequences which concern us. And they can be summed up as follows: any ‘theory’ is a theory of . . . That of which theory is a theory is specifiable only metatheoretically, even if the interplay of theory with metatheory (announced by the underlabourer strategy) comes into play. A ‘theory of’ requires an object which is categorially specific; theory of a categorially specific object is ‘theory of’. These days, we tend to think of all theory whatever as ‘theory of’, that is, we tend to assimilate theorising per se to the standpoint of what Hegel (e.g. 1977, Intro.) terms ‘consciousness’; the characteristic of ‘consciousness’ in its Hegelian meaning being that it construes its object — and thereby constitutes it as an object — as something which stands over against the subject who lays claim to know it. Consciousness, in short, and theory qua ‘theory of’, runs the risk of reifying its object. This point is of such fundamental importance that I permit myself elaboration of it at greater length.

Because ‘theory of’, or ‘consciousness’, tends to reify its object, Hegel links it with the practical statute of an alienated world. Twentieth-century phenomenology reports the same thing: according to Merleau-Ponty (1962), consciousness tends to overshoot itself from first-person into third-person views. If, then, theory per se appears to us as ‘theory of’, and if consciousness per se strikes us as thus overshooting, this, on Hegelian and Marxian premises, can be attributed to the estrangement of the world in which, as so to say theoretico-practical beings, we live. Reification within cognition reports alienation within practice, and vice versa. So dense is this alienation that we find it difficult to imagine what theory might be, if it ceased to be ‘theory of’. Only on the margins of epistemological discourse is the soi disant presentation of theory as ‘theory of’ challenged. For instance, a refrain in Frankfurt School Critical Theory is to the effect that truth and falsity pertain not just to theorising about facts but to the facts themselves. Or again: ‘In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false’ (Debord I987, para. 9). In fact, as the previous citations demonstrate, construal of theory as anything other than the theory of something (of concepts, of societies, of nature: but all these terms are problematic) is likely to find its only cultural resource in paradox.

To see that something more than wilful paradox is involved we have to examine the notion of ‘theory of’ more closely. A ‘theory of’ anything whatever is what I shall term a general theory. A general theory is one which addresses all of its object and only its object (this being the ‘extensive’ condition of general theory) while at the same time (this being its ‘intensive’ condition) it neither overdetermines nor underdetermines its object. For instance, a general theory of society (extensive condition) would have to be competent to address all societies but only societies, this latter part of the condition excluding theological and naturalistic conceptual schemes. (To be sure, such a theory is competent to reflect on e.g. society’s relation to nature, as does historical materialism, and even to make this relation pivotal, but only on condition that it construe the society/nature relation as a social relation for its part: nature is a ‘societal category’, as Lukács reports (1971).) Further, a general theory of society (intensive condition) must neither underdetermine its object, by for example introducing theological or naturalistic explanations, nor overdetermine it by privileging some aspect of social existence, such as the economic or the cultural: it must address the ‘society effect’ in Althusser’s (1970) phrase. (To be sure, some aspect of society may turn out to be de facto privileged, but no such privilege can be established on methodological grounds.) To specify both extensive and intensive conditions for general theory may seem needless, inasmuch as a successful general theory is one in which extensive and intensive conditions are conjointly met: if ‘society’, to resume our example, is theoretically neither under- nor overdetermined then all of society and only society will be theory’s object, and vice versa. But it makes sense to distinguish the conditions because each of them plays a different role in general theory’s constitution. The extensive condition supplies the (in a hermeneutical sense) prejudgement or preconception of general theory’s object: in the above instance, we all know informally and approximately what ‘society’ means. Hence the extensive condition points to something indispensable, namely general theory’s starting point, but if only the extensive condition were in operation general theory would be consigned to the wholly implausible domain of reporting brute, i.e. category-neutral, facts. (And whatever its aporias it has almost always resisted entry into this domain.) The intensive condition of general theory, by contrast, comes into play once extensivity has posed the problems: if we are to know for instance what society is — if we are neither to overdetermine nor underdetermine it in our knowledge of it — then we are compelled to address the issue of the terms and concepts and categories by which it may be known. Intensivity reports a second step in the constitution of general theory, albeit a step which involves (how well are the initial questions posed?) retrospective interrogation of the first. And, in fact, it is the intensive condition which has logical priority. For unless adequate categories can be enunciated for the prospective resolution of a problem the problem falls. This priority is reflected in my definition of general theory, which construed it as in effect generality with respect to some object. (A general theory of a single molecule, on this definition, would not be impossible.) The ‘with respect to’ clause foregrounds intensivity, i.e. the metatheoretical issue of determining the categories by which this or that object may be an object or in other words something potentially known.

General theory is accordingly ‘theory of’, and vice versa: first-order theory becomes general theory once — by virtue of a theory/practice disunity, which is to say by virtue of alienation — its metatheoretical dimension is prised away.

Our specification of ‘theory of’ as general theory brings something important to light: firstly, the relation between universal and particular characteristic within purely first-order thought. Inasmuch as intensivity takes priority over extensivity the universal takes priority over the particular: the only possible objects of ‘theory of’ are those which can be brought within the ambit of universal categories of some kind. To be sure, these universal categories may be known prior to encounter with the particulars (Kant’s ‘determinate judgement’, predominant in his first two critiques) or they may be generated in and through contact with the particulars (as in ‘underlabourer’ approaches, together with the ‘reflective’ judgement of Kant’s third critique — but this latter already begins to break with general theory per se). What remains suspect in both approaches, the determinate and the reflective, is the view that particulars which cannot be subsumed beneath universals are not worthwhile objects of cognition at all. Either they are nonexistent or trivial or revolting: Plato for instance (cf. Cornford 1939) averted that there were no Forms, or universal Ideas, of ‘hair’ (pubic hair?) and ‘dirt’. Here, in fact, we are in the presence of a central motif of Western thought, which has always assumed theory to be general theory (‘theory of’) ever since Socrates began to speak. How can we know particulars — how can we allocate to them ‘categorial rights’ — without subordinating them to universals‘? Kant, for instance, in his first critique went so far as to contend that twelve and only twelve categories were the ‘lenses’ through which objectivity might be uniquely seen. The problem of relating these universals to particulars surfaces in his discussion of ‘schematism’ and the related notion of ‘productive imagination’ in the Critique of Judgement (cf. Walsh 1975): which takes logical priority? Schemata or productive imagination? The first critique or the third? Kant scholars have never been able to decide.

Once again, we are returned to the margins of epistemological thought should we seek a rehabilitation of the particular. Nominalism foundered (a) on the problem of induction — which is in effect Kant’s entitlement out of Hume — and (b) on the self-evident circumstance that all knowledge of particulars, for its part, comes through universal categories. Frankfurt School theory accordingly reports that any cognition refusing the murder and dismissal of particulars involves thought (which as such deals in universal categories) thinking against itself (Hegel had already equated sheerly universalistic ‘understanding’ with murder in his Phenomenology of Spirit). Adorno (1973) winds up the paradox to the extent of declaring particularity itself to be a universal category. The twentieth century has seen a rehabilitation of particulars surrealistically in, for instance, the doctrine of truth as a ‘constellation’ of particulars rather than as an induction from them in Walter Benjamin’s introduction to The Origins of German Tragic Drama (the idea here being that particulars are ‘monads’, containing the universal within themselves) and in the early writings of Bataille (1985). This rehabilitation remains untheorised, however. To demonstrate that particulars are already qua particular universal leaves it an open question how universals qua universals contain particularity in themselves.

The second point of importance arising from our characterising of ‘theory of’ as general theory concerns the relation between genus and species which general theory entails. This relation is the familiar tree-diagram one of individuals falling beneath species which fall beneath genera in their turn. In the event, that such relations obtain (general-theoretically) is merely an inference from the point concerning universals/particulars discussed above. But the point can be unfolded from the notion of general theory per se.

General theory counts as ‘general’ to the extent that it can marshal a field of particulars into an ‘object’ specified, intensively, in some set of categorial terms. Only then can theory count as theory of. But, precisely insofar as this marshalling is successful, further extensive questions (above and beyond specific intensive programmes for systematising problems and generating prospective resolutions) break out. Can the data supplied by this general theory be drawn under the wing of a general theory of, so to say, a still more general kind? Can the constitution-movement from extensivity to intensivity become the starting point for a further movement of the same sort? Such questions derive their logical force from the circumstance that no knowledge is category-neutral (there are no ‘brute facts’) so that data as such, even when it is generated as theory’s outcome, can never figure purely as a result; it must also count as a fresh starting point for reflection even should all concerned accept it as true. Data raises new questions and true data raises questions of a generic as opposed to a specific kind. Problematic data passes us up the metaladder of infinite regress; well ascertained data passes us up the ladder which ascends from species to genus, and so on. (Equally it passes us down the ladder: can species not be individualised and particularised [/i]ad infinitum[/i], or, at any rate, increasingly?) So to speak, ‘theory of’ flattens out the vertical ascent through metatheories into a one-dimensional ascent obtaining within first-order theorising alone. Foucault’s The Order of Things discusses the eighteenth-century rendition of this point eloquently. To be sure, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have cut away from any such Aristotelian schemes. But to the extent that these severances are successful they place a question-mark not just against a local and cultural Aristotelianism but against the notion of general theory itself. The logical structure of general theory allows it to sit at mid-point between individual and genus. Once this mid-point is deconstructed the overall structure of general theory totters or, better, falls.

The above has attempted a sketch of the framework of a first-order theory progressing under the sign of a metatheory separated from it. The charge brought against such theory, quite apart from logical ones, is to the effect that it swims in alienated waters: the theory/practice split. I have now, so to speak, established legitimacy for the currency which the remainder of my paper will expend in a more or less polemical way. In doing so, I shall outline an alternative to theory as general theory. Establishing such an outline and carrying through theoretical reflection within it I take to be the unique (the unsurpassed) achievement of Marx.

What has to be dispensed with? In the first place, and in my earlier definition, sociology. Sociology (as any general theory of society whatever, whether voluntarist or determinist, individualist or structuralist, Weberian or Durkheimian, ‘bourgeois’ or ‘Marxist’) perishes once the notion of general theory is overthrown. Marx cannot be a social theorist — again, in my earlier definition — if he takes his thesis of a unity between theory and practice seriously. In fact he is not a social theorist inasmuch as he declares (‘Theses on Feuerbach’, VIII) that ‘all social life is essentially practical’ and, to the same effect in the 1844 Manuscripts, that alienated labour is the key to the institution of private property rather than the converse. The emphasis of such categories is on action, or practice, in contradistinction to social structures: if you want to understand ‘society’, he seems to be saying, do not look at society per se but at the practice from which (currently, and under the sign of alienation) society results. The temptation is of course to read such passages in the sense of advocacy for an action-oriented sociology. But, in the light of the above discussion, we can now read them better: they announce (broadly speaking avant la letter) a critique of sociology as such. Even an action-oriented sociology — and quite apart from the individualist overtones which such sociology has generally carried — remains a theory of society: and it is these two complementary things, a ‘theory of’ and a ‘society’, which Marx energetically contends against. ‘Theories of’ and ‘societies’ subsist only once the theory/practice unity has fallen apart.

As mentioned earlier, these reflections overturn everything coming forward in the guise of a Marxist sociology, however conjunctural such a sociology may be, for, ultimately, ‘generality’ was defined intensively. Not only is small-scale analysis no recourse, but small-scale relates to large-scale as does species to genus: each legitimates the other. For instance, the fordist/post-fordist debate belongs within the genre ‘sociologies of transition’, sociology of transition having been more or less the definition of sociology per se ever since the author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism took up his pen. Or again Gramsci, who projects conjunctural analysis paradigmatically, is as much dependent on elite-theories as on Marxism (Bellamy 1987). Finally, the offer of Rational Choice theory to reconstruct a macropolitics of class out of a micropolitics of individual decision (Elster 1985; Roemer 1986) turns upon general questions at the moment when it brings the notion of equilibria into play. The point is not that, in each of these conjunctural schemes, an un-Marxist general theory is invoked; rather, it is to the effect that the general theories which are invoked have to be un-Marxist, for Marxism, as construed above, contends against a general theory (e.g. a general theory of society) of whatever kind.

Secondly, historical materialism has to be dispensed with. Historical materialism, so-called, is the nearest approach to a general theory of society which Marx’s writings — notably The German Ideology Part One and the 1859 Preface — contain. The ‘general’ character of historical materialism can best be illustrated by reference to the problems to which it has given rise. Extensively, there awaits a Marxist reckoning with the Asiatic mode of production (Wittfogel 1953; Lichtheim 1963; cf. Hobsbawm 1964, Intro.), a reckoning made the more politically urgent by Bahro’s (1979) indication of the Asiatic mode of production as the site where a crisis of Marxism might be expected to break out. Debates on the status of an Asiatic mode refer, of course, within a historical materialistic framework, to history’s beginnings; no less logically powerful extensive considerations break out at history’s end. An entire school of Marxism (Lukács 1971, fifth essay; Marcuse 1941; Horkheimer 1972, p. 229; Sartre n.d., p. 34) avers that historical determinism is all very well as a report of capitalism, which is deterministic de facto, but no sure guide to the emancipatory existence towards which the antagonistic relation of labour to capital clears the way. This latter school abuts on to intensive considerations even while foregrounding extensive ones: the problems here concern the overt economic determinism of Marx’s 1859 Preface. For instance, according to Lukács (1971, p. 27): ‘It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality.’ To be sure, formulations like ‘motives’ and ‘points of view’ still remain too close to the Weberian paradigm in which Lukács had been educated; methodological individualism (the obverse, Weberian, side of the coin of structuralism) remains their norm. But it is clear enough that Lukács is saying — along with, later, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Sartre and indeed Gramsci — that economic determinism (a) underdetermines social existence by assimilating it to the sort of ‘society of beavers’ alluded to by Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts, while at the same time (b) overdetermining it by bracketing off, as superstructural, the entirety of the social realm ‘in which men become conscious of . . . conflict and fight it out’ (Marx 1921, p. 21). The equivocation within historical materialism between totalising and causalist perspectives (see fn. 12, below) throws into relief its problematic character along the intensive axis of generalising thought.

In other words historical materialism falls victim to the Marxist critique (deriving from the thesis of a theory/practice unity) of theory as ‘theory of’. The Leninist and Engelsian idea of Capital as a specific application6 of a generic historical materialist conception goes by the board (along with genus/species relations themselves). So, too, do contemporary fordist/post-fordist sociologies — and for reasons quite other than those raised in debates concerning their Marxist provenance. Their historical materialist provenance can be allowed but, still, they fail. The critique of historical materialism here raised addresses less its content than (as a general theory, intensively specified) its form. Debates within, and concerning, historical materialism, have of course been numerous. For example there is the recurrent question of whether historical materialism is totalising or causalist; the connected question of whether an economic ‘base’ can be conceptualised independently of a political and legal and ideological ‘superstructure’;7 and a dispute in regard to the question of whether ‘forces’ of production have priority over ‘relations’ of production or vice versa.8 The question of the precise definition of forces and relations of production remains no less controversial.9 None of these debates addresses the question of historical materialism’s status, or form. Hence, from the present point of view, they count as secondary. Perhaps the only sensible word which has been spoken in the course of them is to the effect that Marx's 1859 Preface omits (in the course of describing the ‘guiding thread’ of his studies) all mention of class, whereas the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto characterises this thread exclusively as the practice of class struggle.

It was mentioned earlier that historical materialism belongs amongst the least original departments of Marx’s thought. Spotting ‘anticipations’ of historical materialism has become something of an academic hobby (e.g. Pascal 1938; Skinner 1965; Meek 1976). To Comninel (1987; and cf. Gerstenberger’s contribution in Volume One) we are indebted for the suggestion that, whereas in Marx’s writings political economy is processed through critical mills, he takes his conception of history — and thereby of the ‘society effect’ — more or less on trust. Anticipations can be readily discovered only because, in historical materialism, there is nothing new. Comninel foregrounds struggle as the crucial historical materialist issue, and his work contains a magnificent diagnosis of the teleologism inherent in sociologies of transition (cf. Bonefeld 1987 for an argument to the same effect as regards fordism/post-fordism), but still it is a historical materialism of struggle which Comninel wants. My own contention is that struggle detonates (explodes and implodes) the boundaries of historical materialism, and points beyond its confines, inasmuch as a ‘theory of’ struggle — a general theory with struggle as its subject-matter — is a contradiction in terms. The argument supporting this contention has been presented above. Either struggle or the reifications of general theory: between them there lies no middle, or third, way.10

This is not to say that all of the arguments within and concerning historical materialism are equally vacuous (or valid). Some of the arguments threaten a break with historical materialism’s form whereas others do not. Those which do are the arguments premised upon totality, for they bring the question of the relation of universality to particularity into play. The genus/species schema according to which particulars (in a telling phrase) fall beneath universals is problematised by a conception of totality which, however simple or ‘complex’ (cf. Althusser 1969, 6; 1970, ch. 5), records the presence of the universal within the particular and vice versa. When Sartre (n.d.; 1976) polemicises against Lukács, rightfully seeking to stress the activity of totalisation as against the passivity of ‘totality’, this amounts to a minor though welcome correction, or in other words to an in-house debate: totality signals nothing other than the movement of contradiction (cf. Hegel’s Jena Logic: Hegel 1986, p. 35ff.). Once particularity receives its due, generality — or rather pure generality, as defined earlier — detonates. Lukács et al., therefore, move out of the orbit of general theory not just extensively but intensively as well. The question they raise is that of the historical specificity of soi disant general, or universal, categories: Marx’s interrogation of fetishism, or reification (cf. Goldmann 1977), problematises nothing else.

I permit myself, at this point, a parenthesis. If anything whatever in the above chain of argument is found valid, or intriguing, then there is no option but to revise a conception of Marx's intellectual development which has become a virtual orthodoxy in its own right. This conception divides Marx up as between his ‘early’ and his ‘mature’ writings, weighting the one against the other equally or unequally as the case may be. The most extreme version of this periodisation is of course Althusser’s: Althusser (1969; 1970; 1976) urges that an ‘epistemological break’ erupts within Marx round about 1845. Prior to 1845 Marx was an ideological humanist; subsequent to 1845 Marx began to lay down the foundations for a historical materialist science (whose outlines Althusser finds himself unable to make clear).11 David McLellan’s numerous commentaries on Marx (their summa being McLellan 1973) proffer a watered-down version of the same thesis: Marx (pace Althusser) did not stop being a humanist in 1845 but none the less the historical materialism adumbrated in the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ and consolidated, at least provisionally, in The German Ideology represented a profound step forward in his thought. The implication of the argument presented in this essay is that it amounted to no such a thing. The historical materialism of 1845 (and remembered, inaccurately, in 1859)12 signals less a theoretical advance than an ‘infantile disorder’ (Lenin) which beset the critique of political economy, and of society, in its early days. The true line of continuity extends from 1844, when the critique of political economy was first enunciated, albeit within a moralistic framework of competition, to 1857 when the ‘Introduction’, subsequently replaced by the 1859 Preface, was laid out in draft. What is astonishing in Marx is the single-minded continuity of his class-oriented writings from first to last. Within the line of this continuity historical materialism figures as something which the 1980s have familiarised us with, namely, a blip. It is as though Marx, having announced the critique of political economy and of society, faltered and fell back upon a social theory as the underpinning for his views. The 1859 Preface, whatever its distortions, reports this circumstance honestly: it is at the end of this Preface, Marx tells us, and not in the course of it, that we stand at ‘the entrance to science’ (Marx 1971, p. 83). In the very last decade of his life we find Marx fighting the same battle no less vigorously: the ‘Notes on Wagner’ report ‘value’ to be quite other than a ‘concept’, i.e. a genus beneath which species of commodity production might be ranged.

But what might Marxism be, minus historical materialism‘? The overall answer to this question is implicit in what has gone before. Marxism announces struggle in place of stasis, activity (or practice) in place of passivity, subjectivity in place of substance, particularity in-and-through universality in place of universality (and its genus/species differentiation) alone, etc. In other words, we can initially identify Marxism’s concerns by means of privileging the first of each of the terms announced in a list such as this over each of the second terms. Marxism, along its first-order axis, approximates less to an action-oriented sociology — and this has nothing at all to do with the typically methodological individualism of such sociologies, against which Marxism also declares (1976 p. 280) — than to a critique of sociology in the name of action.13 This is not to say that the second term in each of the above-mentioned pairs is unreal, or trivial, according to Marx. When social relations between commodity producers appear, to them, as ‘social relations between things’ they appear as ‘what they are’ (Marx 1976, p. 166; cf. Geras 1972). We can fall beneath policemen’s truncheons — a social reality — just as easily as we can fall beneath universals or over physical objects in the dark. Stasis exists, in the Marxist conception, but it exists as struggle subsisting alienatedly, i.e. in the mode of being denied. Structure exists as practice, but in the same mode (Gunn 1987b). The second of each of the pairs just reported — and the list could be extended — signals a parasitism, i.e. a dislocation of theoretical objects from ‘the sheer unrest of life’ (Hegel 1977, p. 27). Nonalienated being, reports Hegel (1977. p. 265), ‘no longer places its world and its ground outside of itself’. Marx’s polemics on alienation, derived from Hegel, say the very same thing. General theory, even in a historical materialist guise, disrupts everything. A political practice guided by a general theory consolidates rather than deconstructs — its deconstruction is only a polite one — the demarcations of a territory through which it charts a path. All this is, I take it, on the basis of the above discussion, perfectly clear.

What is clear is a specification of the terrain of Marxist theorizing spelt out in terms of what such theorising is not. This, arguably, is sufficient given the sonority of Marx’s silence - as if it were the tolling of dampened bells — which rings out across his discourse concerning this world at the very points where a discourse concerning an emancipated world seems to be announced (Gunn 1985). Were this article to be authentically Marxist it would end here. Communism, for instance, is nowhere reported by Marx as a form of ‘society’ but only as (in The German ldeology and The Civil War in France) the real — or, better, actual14 - movement of the working class. Communism, thus, already exists - ‘existence’ being here understood in the sense of ek-stasis á la Sartre or Ernst Bloch. Existence, in Bloch’s phraseology, is always and already existence not-yet. Marxism ‘is a theory not of oppression but of the contradictions of oppression’ (Holloway 1989); and these contradictions move. This said, however, I shall attempt an account of what Marxist theorising is. Some more polemical asides are, after all, called for. To anyone who has followed through my argumentation and endorsed it the remainder of my paper is, strictly speaking, de trop. Stop reading here.

The more emphatic or positive account of Marxist theorising turns upon a deepening of the notion of practical reflexivity, signalled above. This is what Marx undertakes in his (abandoned and thus silent) 1857 Introduction (Marx 1973, pp. 83-111). This text is one of the most disputed within Marxism — it was published by Kautsky, cited by Lukács against Kautsky, declared to be structuralist by Althusser and deemed humanist and totalising by McLellan — and, no less, it reports the critique of Marx’s historical materialist alter ego as undertaken by Marx himself. Everything here flows. The focus of the text is upon an issue which may seem rebarbative, or academic: viz. abstraction. Depending upon how we construe abstraction, Marx seems to be saying, turns our politics on the right or the wrong side of the class struggle (Negri 1984, Lesson One; 1988, ch. 4). In other words, seemingly esoteric conceptual points can carry along with them directly exoteric political connotations. That they must necessarily do so is the force of Marx’s 1857 critique. How we think is not innocent. Whoever tries to rise from the particular to the the generic, or universal, - whoever remains faithful to the programme of what used to be called 'inductivism’ — remains (Marx 1973, pp, 100-1) tramelled within a world where false facts may be true and true facts false. A ‘chaotic representation [Vorstellang]’ is the result: in Hegelian terminology Begriff lies, still, ahead. The way to transmute Vorstellang into Begriff is, says Marx (1973), to ascend not from the concrete and particular to the abstract but from the abstract to the concrete. Here of course the danger of idealism (in the sense of a priori and practice-disconnected thinking) breaks out. Marx declares against such thinking in the Introduction (pp. 101-2) while sometimes appearing to lapse into it (Preface to the First Edition of Capital: Marx 1976). The question arises: what systematic defences against such a course i as it were, deductivism in place of inductivism — did he command? The remainder of the 1857 Introduction makes everything clear.

Inductivism is ‘abstraction from’. It offers to bring particulars within the ambit of universals and the critique of it (from Hume to Popper) declares, rightfully, that it cannot. Dedactivism is ‘abstraction into’; its standpoint is that of Kant’s ‘determinate judgement’; its offer is to subsume all possible particulars under universals of some kind. The rightful condemnation of deductivism (from the Sophists whom Socrates/Plato targeted to Adorno/Benjamin and Bataille) is to the effect that particulars are recalcitrant: against any conceivable system of classification the particulars, especially when they are human, tend to fight back. Thus both ‘abstraction from’ and ‘abstraction into’ — let me call any conception of abstraction which depends upon the one or other of these strategies empiricist abstraction — fail. If Marx’s (silent) 1857 Introduction is to support its case then it has to develop a conception of abstraction of neither an inductivist nor a deductivist sort. That indeed the Introduction is silent testifies to Marx’s consistency regarding the thesis of the unity of theory and practice: ‘a general introduction, which I had drafted, is omitted since . . . it seems to me confusing to anticipate results which still have to be substantiated’ (Marx 1971: emphasis added); the substantiation, I take it, is (as always in Marx) of a practical and political kind. In other words Marx’s 1857 appeal to the non-inductivist and non-deductivist conception of abstraction adumbrated in his 1857 Introduction — consigned to the silence which builds communism — has the status of a wager15 upon the outcome of the actually present struggle of class. ‘Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape’ (Marx 1973, p. 105): this, I take it — and I take it so because the above has shown that Marx cannot be a general theorist — is a declaration in favour not of some sort of Aristotelian teleologism but of the notion that abstractions prefigure a radically open future, much in Bloch’s (1986) sense. Marx announces a temporality of abstractions, which both ‘abstraction from’ and ‘abstraction into’ deny. Apes do not tend, teleologically, to become humans; but humans, because their practice is premised upon a projection of a novel future, can make sense of apes - and of their own past. Abstractions for Marx exist in time; and by the same token, universal though they be, they exist as particulars for their part. Instead of universalistic thought having to think against itself (Adorno) in order to capture particulars, we have the particularistic - historical social, practical — existence of universalistic thought: in other words, totalisation (Marx 1973, pp. 100-1).

The example of a universalistic category, construed in this way, which Marx offers in the 1857 Introduction, is that of labour. Labour as an ‘abstraction from’ or an ‘abstraction into’ obtains, to be sure, in ‘all epochs’; however, labour as an abstraction existing - abstractly - in practice obtains only once capitalist social relations (commodity production so general and intensive that even labour-power subsists only as a commodity) comes to the fore (Marx 1973, p. 105). Anyone who sets out to sell the use of their labour-power in the labour market discovers immediately the truth of the proposition that labour is abstract. Hegel’s contention that the abstract understanding is ‘murderous’ is here replayed in a practical mode (as a report on the deaths of workers).

This said, it has to be confessed that Marx’s example of ‘labour’ is ill-chosen. Perhaps any example would be ill-chosen, inasmuch as examples per se inhere, as a mode of rhetoric, in the genus/species conception of abstraction — the conception from which, in 1857, Marx is breaking free. Throughout his life Marx declared against the political economists who understood labour in a generic, and thus a general, way. A more telling example would have been not labour, but the capital/labour interrelation: only within this interrelation (a relation of struggle) can labour as an abstraction subsisting not just in theory but in practice appear. ‘Work [itself a problematic category] which is liberated is liberation from work’ (Negri 1984, p. 165): communism, this liberation, already ex-sists. In accordance with the above argument, the example of the capital;/labour relation, instead of labour, would have better illustrated the deconstruction of empiricist abstraction in Marx’s (post-1857) thought.

What might a thought renouncing empiricist abstraction look like? Surely, it might look like the Grundrisse and Capital: Marx was the first-ever (and only) social theorist to make a point of principle out of dealing only in terms of abstractions which exist in practice. Marx thus historicises, or totalises, his own thought in a radical way. I stress the word only in case this reflection appears banal, for after all (from McLellan and humanism through to Althusser and structuralism; and beyond) no-one has ever denied that a thesis concerning the unity of theory and practice controls Marx’s thought.

Of course everything turns on how this thesis is understood. Above, I have suggested that it is to be understood in the sense of practical reflexivity. This allows Marx to understand abstractions not merely as socially situated (as ideological forms) but as socially real. All social life, abstraction included, is essentially practical. To be sure there can be socially unreal — or, better, unactual — abstractions; but only practically reflexive thought can illumine the existence of abstractions (labour, class, value, etc.) which are real; and moreover practical reflexivity requires the interrogation of abstractions with regard to the reality which is, or is not, theirs. In other words it requires, and renders possible, a distinction between empiricist abstraction and what might be termed substantive or determinate abstraction (Gunn 1987b) — the latter being such abstraction as inheres not just in theory but in practice as well.

The continuity of Marx’s work lies, thus, along a line which points directly from the early writings (up to and including the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’), wherein the thesis of a theory/practice unity is articulated, to the 1857 Introduction, where the notion of determinate abstraction first appears. The German Ideology, which announces historical materialism, and more especially the 1859 Preface, which misremembers The German Ideology, count only as digressions along the way.

Upon this notion of determinate abstraction much depends. Empiricist abstraction is purely first-order abstraction: to it belongs the distinction between species and genus and the problematising of universals over particulars. Empiricist abstraction is the guiding thread of the 1859 Preface as distinct from the 1857 Introduction. This reflection goes some way to explain the causalist tone of Marx’s 1859 remarks. To be sure, not all analysis which privileges universals over particulars needs to be causalist (all metaphysical schemes of an a priori kind from Plato to Kant would stand as exceptions to such a rule) but, no less surely, causalist schemes are consonant with privilege of just this kind: causalism's demotion of particulars lies in the circumstance that, as a condition ef causal explanation’s intelligibility, the same cause must be seen as generating the same effects everywhere and everywhere. Particulars necessarily figure only as instances, falling beneath universals that (qua universal) are indifferent to their diversity: causalism and the genus/species/particular differentiation go hand in hand. And once universal categories are thus privileged along the theoretical or first-order axis of theorisation, infinite regress along the metatheoretical or higher-order axis begins; in other words, the axes separate. So far as Marx is concerned, notice that we are here taking exception not merely to the specifically economic determinism of the 1859 Preface's content but to the causalism (the weakly or strongly deterministic character) of its form. All causalisms, even action-oriented ones and ‘causalities of freedom',16 stand condemned in the light of the above remarks. Moreover, inasmuch as causalism privileges universals and thus relies on a genus/species division, we discover grounds for taking exception to the 1859 Preface’s specification of modes of production (‘mode of production' being understood here universally and generically) as ‘Asiatic, ancient, feudal, modern bourgeois' and so forth (Marx 1971, p. 21).17 Precisely such a sociology is un-Marxist, and is so quite regardless of whether (cf. Althusser 1970; 1971, p. 98) these specific modes of production be construed diachronically - as ‘epochs‘ - or synchronically, or as the unity of the two. What is objectionable is the form of the specification itself (cf. Comninel 1987; Gerstenberger's contribution in Volume One). Moreover it is objectionable whether or not there is a plurality of ways forward, or only a single way, along history's path (Hobsbawm 1964).

Empiricist abstraction is the mode of discourse of general theory, because inductivism and deductivism (and transcendental deduction) await, alike, metatheoretical validation of the universal. Categorial lenses through which particulars are to be seen. Once universals can be seen as, themselves, particulars — and vice versa — everything changes: the educator (qua metatheorist a theorist and vice versa) can become educated. Precisely the notions of self-education and self-emancipation which Marx ascribes to the proletariat18 depend on the theory/metatheory interrelation being seen in this way. Stated otherwise: determinate abstraction — abstraction capable of practical and particular existence — is the mode of discourse which breaks with general theory; and which in doing so simultaneously clears a way towards critical theory and critical practice.

Still a further formulation of the same point runs as follows: totalising theory breaks not just with causalism’s discrimination between areas, elements, instances, practices or factors within social life but with the general-theory format (as outlined earlier) upon which causalism relies. Universals already stand contaminated with particularity if, between universality and particularity, an internal relation obtains. Species and particulars already fall beneath universals — ‘murderously’, as Hegel has it - once an external relation between them is elevated to a principle of thought. Form and content equate with metatheory and theory, respectively, thus fomenting all the difficulties of vicious circularity and infinite regress considered earlier, once the totalising contention that universal categories can have concrete (‘actual’) existence is denied. Marx’s pivotal insight, that which allows us to read the Grundrisse and Capital as spectra of original glories, is to the effect that a totalisation of theory and practice, in the sense of practical reflexivity, is the key to totalisation per se. Even to say that theory and practice are internally related - and not just causally related, as in bourgeois ‘sociologies of knowledge’ — is too weak. Only as a first approximation might we say that theory and practice ‘interact’. Just as there is nothing in human self-consciousness, or self-reflection, which is asocial (cf. Hegel 1977, pp. 110-11), so, and by the same token, there is nothing in even the most ratified regions of theory — cf. Marx on ‘science’ in the 1844 Manuscripts - whose constitution-principle lies outwith seme practical field. In The Poverty of Philosophy Marx condemns Proudhon fer relying upon abstractions. This condemnation is all too easily misunderstood. What Marx holds against Proudhon is less the wishfulfillment and unreality of his abstractions than their all-too-real, and conformist, subsistence — their subsistence-in-practice — within a bourgeois world. In short, Proudhon, according to Marx, failed to understand his abstractions (failed practically to reflect upon them) as determinate. To be sure, in 1847, this dimension of Marx’s Proudhon-critique remained underdeveloped. But in the parallel passage in the Grundrisse (Marx 1973, pp. 248-9) everything is made clear.

Only totalising theory can interrogate the status of abstractions sufficiently vigorously. Not all totalising thought enunciates an interrogation that goes sufficiently deep. Practical reflexivity, determinate abstraction and a rigorous totalisation belong together: this is one way of stating the positive conclusion which our argument has so far reached.

But of course it is only one way: I take it to have been proved by the above remarks, however sketchily, that general social theory far from being a pillar of Marx’s thought has no place within it. Practical reflexivity, and its attendant resistance to a theory/metatheory severance, turns general theory into a death-rattle. General social theory, for instance historical materialism, is - because once any social theory is announced the question of practical reflexivity appears as all but inescapable — precisely the rattlesnake’s tail. Marx catches this tail, and shakes it: sometimes (1859) the snake bites; at other times (1857) its back is broken. Setting every appeal to humanism aside, we have to be able to distinguish the moments where poison enters into Marx’s thought.

Sociological Marxism — a Marxism depending on empiricist rather than determinate abstraction — is a contradiction in terms. Historical materialism likewise, by virtue of its general-theoretical form.19 These conclusions, so far as I can tell, stand confronted by only a single objection: if we throw overboard empiricist abstraction what might the first-order aspect of Marxist theory be? Do we not ascend into the heavens of theory as an a priori and ‘independent realm’ (cf. Marx 1975, V, p. 447) in the same movement as the anchor-line of empiricism is cut?

The reply to an objection along these lines turns upon an understanding of form. Abstractions can exist concretely and in practice; universals can exist qua particular and vice versa; the concrete can exist as abstract (as in the example of labour under capital, i.e. value-producing labour, according to Marx). That is to say, the form of something can be construed as its mode of existence, whether this ‘something’ be abstract or concrete and whether (respectively) its form be concrete or abstract. The notion of ‘mode of existence’ is, here, the crucial one. It links determinate abstraction to practice (cf. Gunn 1987b; 1989a). Every ‘is’, so to say, has a concomitant ‘how’; and is dependent upon it. Saints can exist only in saintly fashion. Saintly action is the condition of the being of saints. Adjectives (as in ‘the thing with many properties’ : cf. Hegel 1977, ch. 2) shift over into adverbs, so that action is construed as prior to thinghood, ‘saintly existence’ making sense only if ‘existence’ is read as exsistence or ek-stasis or ecstacy, i.e. in an active way. In the same fashion ‘appearance’ can be understood as the mode of existence of ‘reality’ (Hegel, Encyclopaedia, para. 131) solely on condition that appearance is understood as appearing and on the further condition that ‘reality’ , or essence, be understood as bound up with ‘actuality’ as that term was defined above. The term ‘mode of existence’ is the suitable one to invoke here only once it is perceived that nothing static — as in, for instance, Spinoza’s notion of conatus - inheres within it. Mode-of-existence (form) explodes ontology (that of Spinozistic ‘modes’ included) in every case where ontology privileges being over the forms it takes. Immediacy - the self-presence of being in, for instance, Heidegger (cf. Adorno 1973) — stands condemned. Through and through, form is dialectical. But denounced in the same breath as we declare the equivalence of form and mode of existence is every species of dialectics which, abstracting in the empiricist sense from practice, enunciates universal laws.

Abstraction could not exist concretely were the notion of ‘form’ just explicated to be dismissed. And ‘form’ does impinge on action, which makes Marx’s declaration to the effect that alienated labour (activity) is the condition of private property (a social institution: passivity) all the more prescient for his later writings, and profound. Conversely, practice exists — in the above sense, it counts as ecstatic - through its forms; and, to be sure, most of these forms have been alienating. Practice during the entire course of recorded history (cf. the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto) has subsisted solely in the form, or mode, of being denied. Discourse thematising concrete or practically-existing abstraction is accordingly discourse which introjects practice into reified categories. Determinate abstraction and practically-oriented abstraction go hand in hand. Hence whatever such abstraction does, theoretically, it is far from constituting theory as an ‘independent’ - a practice-independent — realm.

For the empiricists, however, an argument along these lines may not go sufficiently far. Theorisation in the mode just sketched is liable to appear ‘formless’ . It lacks specific focus (cf. Jessop’s charge against Holloway,20 and Althusser’s polemics on ‘essentialism’ , or in other words the reduction of species to genus: Althusser and Balibar 1970). How can a Marxism turning upon the notions of form and mode of existence and determinate abstraction address conjunctural questions? To enquiries of this kind it would be far too simplistic to say (what is indeed true) that ‘conjuncture’ belongs within a genus/species discursive world. What is asked after is Marxism’s purchase on the real, or actual, world and on this score empiricism has its own version of mode of existence to state. Emphatic traces of form as mode of existence can be discerned within the discourse of empiricist abstraction inasmuch as, in common with the nominalist tradition from which it springs, empiricism regards species as more real than genera and particulars as more real than both. Here, as in all nominalism, there is a serious move towards the rehabilitation of the particular which — however - does not go far enough. Particulars are brought into focus only so that they can fall beneath universals once more. It is as though someone were to say: ‘individuality exists already, under capitalism’, thus omitting (and thereby sotto voce writing an apologia for) the alienations which individuality suffers at capital’s hands. Form-critique is accordingly the key to soi disant individualistic theories. In the same way, the emancipatory and nominalist current within empiricism can receive its due only once empiricist abstraction is replaced by abstraction of a determinate kind. The concrete (the conjuncture) subsists only as a contradictory impacting of abstractions, says the 1857 Introduction of Marx. In other words: once the linkage of abstraction to genus/species schemata is severed, the charge of ‘formlessness’ (e.g. Jessop 1991) is rendered impotent or, rather, reversed. For empiricism can address conjunctures only insofar as the latter ‘fall beneath’ something or other; only, that is to say, insofar as they can be assimilated upwards (the intriguing side of Althusser’s anti-essentialist critique). Conjunctures construed as a constellation of determinate abstractions retain a sharper focus in the sense that the abstractions needful for the construal of the conjuncture are seen as inhering in (indeed as constituting) the conjuncture itself. The conjuncture is shown in sharp focus because it falls beneath, and is assimilated to, nothing. To this degree a helping hand is extended towards empiricism. But the hand is withdrawn at the same time as the implications of this helpfulness are unfolded: (a) there is in the end nothing within the idea of determinate abstraction to which empiricism might approximate and (b) once conjunctures are construed as constellations they cease, in the empiricist sense, to exist.

To render the above defence clear two definitions are required: ‘determinate abstraction’ and ‘form’. Both definitions are implicit in what has been said earlier. Determinate abstraction is abstraction in and through which phenomena obtain, unlike empiricist abstraction which is abstraction from the phenomena concerned. Numerous empiricist abstractions indeed are determinate abstractions, but only in a fetishised or reified world: this is the import of Marx’s critique of political economy. Existence-in-practice (however alienated the practice) is the criterion which determinate abstractions must meet.

Form, as above proposed, is to be understood in the sense of mode of existence. ‘Form’ presupposes ‘determinate abstraction’ and vice versa, inasmuch as the abstract can be the mode of existence of the concrete (and the other way round). Signalled, here, is the notion of an internally related ‘field’: anything can be the mode of existence of anything else (which is not of course to say that everything is the mode of existence of everything else, in fact). Moreover, just as the terms which are thus internally related are various — abstract, concrete, universal, particular, etc. - so too can be the modes in which they subsist. One limiting case is in this regard especially important: a term may exist (cf. Gunn 1987b) in the mode of being denied. That is, one term may exist in and through another which contradicts it. This, I take it, is the key to Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism. When we learn that social relations which appear as ‘material relations between persons and social relations between things’ appear, thus, as ‘what they are’ (Marx 1976, p. 166) we are being informed of a circumstance that is unintelligible unless the notion of existence-in-the-mode-of-being-denied is taken on board.

This understanding of form as mode of existence is the central thematic of Hegel’s Science of Logic. Space forbids an elucidation of such a contention; however, I suggest that it is in this sense that Hegel’s insistence that his logic is also a metaphysics, or ontology (Hegel 1969, p. 63; Encyclopaedia, para. 24), is to be read. Thoughtforms qua determinate abstractions are modes of existence. And Marx’s declaration that ‘in the method of treatment the fact that . . . I again glanced through Hegel’s Logic’ (Marx to Engels, 14 January 1858: Marx/Engels n.d., p. 121) is, surely, to be received in the same light.21

Empiricist abstraction’s tendency is to favour a discourse of external relations: particulars stand one to another indifferently, and are united only through species (just as the relation between species obtains only through a genus which stands over and above). Determinate abstraction, by contrast, and as just indicated, points towards internal relatedness inasmuch as an internal relation obtains between A and B wherever B is A’s mode of existence, or ‘form’. If now we think of A as also (perhaps) B’s mode of existence, and C as (perhaps) also A’s mode of existence, and D as (perhaps) a mode of existence of B while also having its own mode of existence as A, and so forth, we discover a criss-crossing field of mediations which amounts to a totality: no term in the field stands as its own. This reinforces my earlier contention that ‘totalising’ historical materialism22 stands in a closer relation to Marxism than does ‘causalist’ historical materialism (causalist theories always requiring, for their intelligibility, an external-relatedness of cause and effect). But equally it reinforces my contention that totalising historical materialism points beyond historical materialism, i.e. beyond ‘sociology’ construed as any general social theory whatever, since determinate abstraction explodes the notion of ‘theory of’ upon which empiricist abstraction rests.

This last point calls for further discussion. First of all, totalising theory requires the notion of determinate abstraction. Minus this notion, the conception of a ‘mutual interaction’ taking place between ‘different moments’, as is the case with ‘every organic whole’ (Marx 1973, p. 100) amounts to banality: everything somehow affects everything else (cf Williams 1973). To put bones into the flesh of totality we need to understand how terms can exist not just through one another but in and through — or, better, as — one another. We need to understand how terms can form and reform, or constitute and reconstitute, other terms: how one term’s mode of existence can be another term, without remainder. This logically stronger conception redeems totality, and ‘dialectics’ , from the vague notion of mere reciprocal interaction (an action which could be causalist or not as the case may be). Not all interactions count as totalising, on this logically stronger approach. Of course - in the light of the above argument it should go without saying - a totality can exist in the mode of being denied, for its part.

Secondly, the notion of ‘theory of’: the programme of empiricist abstraction goes something like this. Once we are in possession of the generic concept we can have a theory of species (for instance, once we know the genus we can begin to frame causal explanations premised on universal laws: lightning belongs under the genus ‘electrical discharge’ rather than ‘God’s anger’ , etc.); metatheory underpins the generic concepts in their turn. A proper fit, or mapping, as between concept and object is the result. We have seen already that this idea of theoretical consonance is what defines general theory. What has now to be made clear is the, so to say, dissonance of determinately abstract (totalising, ‘dialectical’) theory in this regard. Determinately abstract theory can be a ‘theory of’ nothing because it situates its own terms within the practical field that it reports.23 It abnegates what Hegel terms the standpoint of ‘consciousness’ (see above). There is nothing standing over against determinately abstract theory for it to report. It throws the movement of its concepts into the crucible of its object (practice or ‘actuality’: see earlier) at every turn, thus undermining the separation of ‘concept’ and ‘object’ upon which ideas of consonance or mapping turn. General theory projects a theory (or metatheory) of its object first and a theory in its object only second. Determinately abstract theory reverses this priority, so to say setting out from inside. This being so, positivism is quite right, from its own point of view, in pouring ridicule on dialectics. Much more suspect are the dialectical theorists — as it were ‘from Engels to Bhaskar’ — who reckon that some rapprochement between different species of abstraction can be reached.

My argument has a final step. Does a shift from empiricist to determinate abstraction - from general theory to totalising theory, from historical materialism or sociology to Marxism - serve only to place theorising at the mercy of contingent practical winds? Once ‘theory of’ is dislodged from its pre-eminence, who can say on what shores we shall finish up?

In fact determinate abstraction, for better or for worse, carries with it a specificity of its own. That is, we can prescribe from it as a metatheory to the first-order theory it secretes. In fact a dilemma operates. Either we fall silent as to the first-order consequences of abandoning general theory (just as, and perhaps in part for the same reason that, Marx refuses to prescribe communism) or we concede - and this was always positivism’s countercritique - that to condemn empiricism is to court irrationalism, whether sotto voce or in full voice. To escape this dilemma is to become unfaithful to ourselves, through prescription; to remain in it is to confess defeat. To resist both horns of the dilemma is to renew the theory/metatheory, and hence the theory/practice, split. Even supposing a reader to have found the argument so far compelling, this amounts only to a compulsion to cut the ground from his or her feet.

In fact no answer to objection along these lines is possible. Determinately abstract theory theorises nothing: it is — and this is our answer in effect — the only species of theorising which can. From ‘nothing’ to no-thing, i.e. to nothing which can ever be determined, conditioned or pinned down: instead of taking refuge in paradox (see earlier) this may seem like seeking refuge in a pun. No ‘theory of’ nothing is possible, self-evidently, as everyone from Parmenides and Plato onwards has declared for two thousand years. Nothingness has been confronted with the awful dilemma: either it really is something (in which case it contradicts itself) or it is indeed nothing (in which case, from Plato through Augustine, it is a privation of being, or of the good). So far as I am aware Hegel was the first to break with all such interdicts: man is ‘evil’ by nature, he said, in the course of discussing the Fall (Encyclopaedia, para. 24) and by this he meant not to that humankind is sinful within God’s framework but that humanity qua negative escapes forever (or always-already) God’s clutches. For it is only ‘something’ - some thing, in the mode of fetishism — that God can create. In prefering no answer to the above objections, therefore, we hardly concede the case. Nothingness escapes empircist abstraction, and our business is to trace the escaperoute. Empiricism and theology construct fetishes (for instance ‘society’ as a reification), and acknowledging this simplifies matters wonderfully. The objection to tracing the escape-route ceases to be conceptual. It is just a matter of not telling our jailors, in advance, where we mean to go.

Determinate abstraction prescribes the terms of first-order theory only when looked at from the jailors’ point of view. Determinate abstraction is first-order theory (while also being metatheoretical), and vice versa: here is the space of spontaneism.24 The rigours of the first-order theory come into view, according to Marx, alongside communism, characterised neither in The German Ideology nor in The Civil War in France as a future estate of man but, in both, as the practically reflexive site of theorising: the real or actual movement of the working class. All discretely metatheoretical levels are rescinded. The prolepsis of the workers figures, methodologically (but even methodology stands detonated) as theorisation’s common sense. (‘Common’, here, refers to theory’s and metatheory’s unity.) Far from amounting to irrationalism we discover here the most severe - because the most open-to-all-comers — test before which theorisation can ever be placed. Truth-claims can be raised only on the condition that you can say (against them) what you like.25

The nothing which practically reflexive or determinately abstractive theory theorises looks something like this: it consists in contradiction. From empiricist abstraction’s point of view discourse which addresses itself to a reality (or actuality) viewed as contradictory can amount only to incoherence, or arbitrariness, because from a contradiction any proposition whatever can be deduced (Popper 1963, p. 139). And this is certainly right: programmes seeking to defuse ‘dialectical’ contradiction into some species of non-formal contradiction (e.g. Cornforth 1968; Gunn 1973) miss the point that if A is the mode of existence of B then A is A and not-A at the same time. (In Hegelian terminology: the ‘motionless tautology of “I am I ” ’ - Hegel 1977, p. 105 — fails to report the self-movement of self-consciousness.) Contradictions are real, or rather actual. Empiricist abstraction, from Thales’ contention that everything is really water onwards, has sought to defuse contradiction by assimilating it to the difference (the reciprocal indifference) of terms hanging together in some genus/species string. It has to do this since the premise of a ‘theory of’ is that everything be what it is and not another thing. (A theory of . . . what?) Determinate abstraction has to accept the actuality of contradiction since, as reported, if A can be the mode of existence of B then A can be not-A: there’s no way out. Thus dialectical or totalising (Marxist) thought has to meet Popper’s objection head-on. The only way in which it can meet it is to aver: from the indefinite range of what can be inferred from a contradiction only some inferences are to the point. The ‘pointfulness’ of the inference is to be decided by the subject-matter in hand (a concept/object unity once again).26

And so the defence against irrationalism comes down to a discussion of determinately abstract theory’s subject-matter. By alluding to autonomist theory and to Marx’s conception of communism we have already sketched a preconception of this: it is nothing other than the working class. But, as it happens, we can do better than to offer preconceptions. Basing ourselves on Hegel’s and Marx’s prolepses, we can say something about how contradiction appears. The following is what I have characterised as a wager, and no more.

All contradiction is complex, and triadic. For entirely non-formalistic reasons all contradictions go in threes, at least. For a contradiction can be contradicted only by a contradiction: were no thing (a contradiction) to be contradicted by something the outcome would be incoherence or stasis rather than the movement - the ‘can be contradicted’ or modus vivendi (Marx 1976, p. 198) - of the contradiction itself. In the same sense - perhaps in the same spirit - Spinoza declared that only freedom can delimit freedom. The same point obtains conversely. A contradiction identified as real, or actual, is one which ‘has power to preserve itself in contradiction’ (Hegel, Encyclopaedia, para. 382). ‘The life of spirit is not the life that shrinks from death . . . but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it’ (Hegel 1977, p. 19). In other words contradiction-contradicted is, at least potentially, the condition of contradiction itself. So far we have two out of our notionally three terms.

But even this two-fold version of contradiction can do logical — ontological and political - work. Contradiction (i) is what Hegel (1977, p. 101) terms ‘this absolute unrest of pure self-movement’ and Marx the real movement of the working class. That is to say, the set of a theorist who for present purposes may be termed Hegel/Marx is towards being which is self-determining. Marx’s comments on ‘species being’ in the 1844 Manuscripts say nothing else. Self-determination entails actually existing contradiction inasmuch as such being is what it is not (yet) and is (not yet) what it is (Kojeve 1969, p.7; Bloch 1986, Intro.). Conversely, only in regard to the subject-matter of self-determining being does it makes sense to impute contradiction. Within the order of nature a stone is a stone is a stone (it is what it is) unless we kick it. Once we kick it we turn nature into a ‘societal category’ (Lukács 1971). But if the pre-kicked stone is already construed as contradictory, as in, say, Engels (cf. Gunn 1977),27 then nothing but an ‘animist projection’ (Monod 1972) can be the result. For it is the existing-not-yet dimension of being which gives sense to the notion of real contradiction. Only beings with projects can so subsist. Nature being a societal category the humankind/nature interaction counts as human for its part (Schmidt 1969). The political conclusions to be drawn here run as follows: neither the categories of a technological violation of nature nor of a non-violating stewardship of nature make any sense. We are out here on our own.

Humanist Marxism28 stops with the level of contradiction (i): self-determination when focused on alone turns into self-gratification. Contradiction (ii) — the contradiction which contradicts contradiction qua self-determination - brings to light the force of what Marx calls the workers’ ‘self-emancipation’ and also what he terms self-criticism, in the opening pages of the Eighteenth Brumaire. Throughout the history of political thought contradiction (ii) has generally been counterposed against contradiction (i): for instance in the distinction drawn between freedom and emancipation in Arendt (1973). The same distinction underlies Rousseau’s famous ‘forced to be free’ paradox. The question underlying Arendt’s and Rousseau’s reports is that of how we can move from an unfree to a free state. If we move freely then we were not unfree to begin with, but if we move unfreely then freedom (at any rate in the sense of self-determination) can never be the result. Arendt’s distinction and Rousseau’s paradox are at any rate more rigorous than Hegel’s conception (Encyclopedea) of the transition as one from potentiality into actuality: if, in effecting the transition, potential freedom plays a role then it is actual already; if it has no role to play then it is non-potential and non-actual at the same time. The trick has to be to see unfreedom as a mode of existence of freedom. Empiricist abstraction can contribute nothing to an understanding of how (uncontradicted) freedom might come about.

From the standpoint of determinate abstraction the matter can be viewed as follows. Contradiction (i) is the contradiction in which freedom, qua self-determination, consists. When this contradiction stands contradicted (contradiction (ii)) this amounts not to unfreedom, stated literally, but to unfree freedom, to freedom-contradicted, or to freedom subsisting alienatedly, i.e. in the mode of being denied. (And only freedom qua self-determination, or as contradiction, can do this.) For this reason freedom has the ‘power to preserve itself’ (Hegel). Unfreedom subsists solely as the (self-contradictory) revolt of the oppressed. There is no question of climbing from unfreedom into freedom, as in Rousseau and Arendt, because the former is non-existent: communism obtains already as the real movement of the class. Potentiality/actuality distinctions are overturned along with stages of history and empiricist abstraction. Stated otherwise: contradictions (i) and (ii) are the same while maintaining their difference intact. If they were completely the same there would be no distinction between freedom and unfreedom whereas if they were completely different the ascent from unfreedom to freedom would be impossible. Each is and is not each other. Each is the other, but in the mode of being denied.

So far, we have remained on more or less humanistic ground because only two moments of contradiction have come before us. If we halted at this point the consequence, rightly identified by Althusser, would be an essentialism of contradiction (i). At most we would have a vulgar spontaneism - ‘Just get on to the streets!’ - no less fetishising contradiction (ii). Althusser’s signal and crucial shift is to what I shall call contradiction (iii): the contradiction in which the contradiction which contradicts contradiction consists. That is, contradiction (ii) relates two terms each of which is contradictory for its part:29

Were any one of these terms to be something rather than no thing (rather than a contradiction) the space of the ‘field’ or totality — indicated in the above diagram by the outward-pointing arrows — would collapse. For a contradiction can ‘preserve itself’ only when contradicted by a contradiction. In other words it is contradiction by, precisely, a contradiction which allows a contradiction not sheerly to detonate but to ‘move’ (Hegel 1977, p. 101; Negri 1984; Marx 1976, p. 198). This is not to say that a contradiction contradicted by something simply dissolves. But for it not to dissolve its relation to the non-contradictory ‘something’ has to be understood as contradictory on its own account (for instance the humankind/nature relation has to be seen as a social relation). And that means that the notion of contradiction per se has to be addressed first, as above. Unless these three moments of contradiction are thematised contradiction vanishes: for each implies the other. Each is and is not the other. Were contradiction to consist in (i) alone it would be itself, purely, which is to say that it would not be (exactly positivism’s charge). For it to be and not be — for it to subsist in its own mode, i.e. as contradiction - (ii) has to come into play. However a contradiction contradicted by nothing would remain something, i.e. a non-entity; and so contradiction (ii) must carry in its wake contradiction (iii). Contradiction (iii) counts as something from the standpoint of contradiction (i): for instance the whole weight of social structures oppresses individuals struggling to be self-determining, or free. Durkheim, thus, focuses on contradictions (i) and (iii) alone, in abstraction from contradiction (ii), when in the Rules of Sociological Method he reports social facts as coercive. Durkheim gives the somethingness of (iii) its full weight. However if (i) and (iii) are related contradictorily then (iii) is shot through with contradiction for its part. Social worlds comprise not just a ‘dead essence’, reports Hegel (1977, p. 264); each of them is ‘actual and alive

Althusser of course picks up on just this liveliness. Hence his notion of a process without a subject which, abstracting (iii) from (i) and (ii), he goes so far as to attribute to Hegel (Althusser 1976). Althusser thus confirms the alibi of a sociology: humanists (first contradiction) are left floundering and autonomists (second contradiction) remain merely on the threshold of social ‘theory of’. For undoubtedly contradiction (iii) taken on its own focuses exactly on the ‘society effect’ (Althusser 1970). Social structures flourish, but whether the flush on their cheeks is that of health or fever, or of life or death, remains undecidable once contradiction (iii) is taken as the sole theme. Unsurprisingly ‘alienation’ is a category which Althusser — I cite him only because he is the most rigorous of sociological Marxists - hurls away. Unsurprisingly the humanists (McLellan et al. in the 1970s) champion alienation and simply shout Althusser down. The whole debate was, of course, useless: contradictions (i) and (iii) can be brought into relation qua contradictions only through the mediation of contradiction (ii).

At this point a caveat has to be entered. It was Kant in the Critique of Judgement who first declared for the logical (and sotto voce the ontological) primacy of the number three. Behind this declaration lie, of course, Augustine and Joachim of Fiore and so on. Hegel in his introductory material to the Science of Logic urges - a small voice in a wilderness - that ‘three’ should not be taken in a formalistic sense. The uprising of Engels changed everything. Not only did Engels, in the Anti-Duhring and the Dialectics of Nature, propound the teleological notion of thesis/antithesis/synthesis: by an amazing coincidence he discovered three (and only three) dialectical laws. Triadism, subsequently, never managed to recover its dignity from such a bathetic celebration. Since I have declared contradiction within its own internal structure to be triadic it therefore behoves me to say: no one of the three contradictions constituting contradiction has primacy. No synthesis is to be discovered within what I have termed contradiction’s ‘field’. The numbers (i), (ii) and (iii) are purely nominal. The same argument could have been constructed no matter what entry-point we assumed. Teleology vanishes the moment contradiction, thus understood, appears.

And subsequent to the caveat, a claim: the above exposition of contradiction remains unintelligible where only empiricist abstraction, or general theory, rules. It remains unintelligible because to make the matter clear we have to say that each contradiction is the mode of existence of each other. Each is the form (each re-forms) each other. None, separately, can exist without such a re-formulation: in theory and practice as well. And returning to an earlier theme in the chapter we have to say, also: there is nowhere outwith such a field of contradiction where (practical reflexivity counting as operational) any theorist of society might stand. Determinate abstraction mediates practical reflexivity into contradiction and vice versa: particulars and universals dance, whether or not to the same tune. ‘Form’ has to be understood as mode of existence rather than as species (with all the unpredictability and anarchism that modes of existence, construed to be sure proleptically but without teleology, may take). Empiricist, or general-theory, abstraction takes ‘form’ as something fixed, or at any rate fixable; determinate abstraction takes it to be movement and as nothing (no thing) else. A secondary claim should be, here, entered. The unfixity of form signals its openness to a future.30 This openness is intrinsic to contradiction. Therefore contradiction (ii) takes priority over contradictions (i) — humanism - and (iii) — structuralism - alike. Ultimately, this is why the autonomists of the 1970s were on the right track.

I close with a number of theses, each entailed by the argument I have sketched. Each one of these theses is true:

• Marxism is the critique of general social theory rather than its confirmation; therefore Marxist sociology, along with historical materialism, should be condemned if not ignored.

• In more detail, totalising Marxism is more rigorous than the causalist version: but no comfort for either humanist or structuralist Marxism is preferred by this thought.

• Whereas general theory stands back from its object and reflects upon it, Marxist theory situates itself within its object (practical reflexivity) and construes itself as constituted through its object (determinate abstraction).

• That is to say Marxist theory has no object. For a theory to have an object is for it to project an adequate relation between its object and its concepts (cf. Hegel 1977, Intro., on being-for-consciousness and being-in-itself), a relation requiring to be metatheoretically underpinned (cf. Hegel 1977 on the notion of ‘criterion’). If one likes one can say that Marxism has the movement of contradiction as its object; but such a formulation is more misleading than helpful since the peculiarity of contradiction (in its threefold guise) is that it moves: it is precisely that which, in contrast to ‘objects’ — in all the received ontological and epistemological meanings of that term - can never be pinned down. All ‘mappings’, including the mapping of concepts on to objects, require at least a relative stasis on the part of that which is mapped. Marxism demythologises stasis. A static society is for Marxism a special instance, i.e. an instance of alienation or fetishism; such a society is to be construed as contradiction subsisting in the mode of being denied.

• Stated schematically: structures are modes of existence (‘forms’) of struggle. To say this is not to fall into an essentialism of struggle, however, because contradiction (iii) is just as real as contradictions (i) and (ii). Nor, conversely, is it to endorse an eclecticism whereby (cf. Jessop 1988) structure and struggle are reciprocally conditioning; for contradiction (iii) is contradictions (i) and (ii). It is, and is not. Between the three contradictions precisely — as it must do — a contradictory relation obtains.

• It follows from this that our three contradictions are far from amounting to three ‘levels’ of abstraction, in the empiricist sense. Each is a form of each other but none is a species of each other. Each is the other’s mode of existence. Inasmuch as contradiction is threefold it follows that contradiction becomes invisible once empiricist abstraction is brought into play.

• All of the above follows from the enunciation of practical reflexivity, which allows a sort of common sense of theory and metatheory to break out. The notion of a theory having an object depends on the theory/metatheory split. Concept and object spring apart (bringing the programme of ‘mapping’ into play) in the same movement as do theory and metatheory. A unity of theory and metatheory situates the concept in the object and vice versa.31 The standpoint which Hegel termed that of ‘consciousness’ is surpassed. ‘Objects’ are detonated. Doubtless theory belonging within what I have called empiricism and relying on the theory/ metatheory severance sometimes alludes to what resembles practical reflexivity (e.g. Bhaskar et al. 1988; cf. Gunn 1989a, p. 94-5). Such an allusion achieves nothing, however. It ignores all the innovative opportunities and consequences for theorising along a first-order axis which the present paper has sought to clarify. Practical reflexivity places what counts as theory up for grabs.

• The distinction between social theory and a theory of society (a ‘sociology’) is all important: the latter reifies society as something standing out in front of the theorist whereas the former construes the constitution of categories as occurring behind the theorist’s back. The latter depends on a subject-object split (the standpoint of ‘consciousness’) whereas the former invokes reflexivity, viz. reflexivity of a practical kind. From the former’s point of view the latter’s objectivity appears fetishised (cf. Backhaus, Volume One) whereas from the former’s point of view the latter appears metaphysical — but only because empiricist abstraction is already presupposed a priori.

Asocial critiques of theories of society are two-a-penny. Society does not exist from, say, a methodological individualist point of view. But the individualism of, for instance, an Elster (1985) or a Roemer (1986) has to bend over backwards to discern even the faintest traces of the social and intersubjective constitution of the individual upon which the discourses of a Hegel or a Marx turn. (For of course ‘the individual’ is a determinate abstraction once more.) Social critiques, on the other hand, have been all too sociological: Althusser and his structuralist epigones translate social theory into (fetishised) theory of. Between social theory (Marx) and sociological theory (the epigones: not just the structuralist ones, but the individualists too in the sense that even the latter announce a rapprochement to ‘society’ in terms of equilibria or a law of unintended consequences as the case may be) a wedge therefore has to be driven. The illusion according to which social theory must automatically be sociological theory has to be brought into question, reflexively. The illusion which declares that non-sociological theory has to be methodologically individualist requires challenge, no less. The wedge has to be driven in at the appropriate angle: a highly precise one. The geometry of such a theoretical and practical intervention is what the present chapter has aimed to make clear.


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Taken from:

  • 1Neither Marx nor Engels employed the term ‘historical materialism’. Engels (Marx 1971. p. 220) favoured the locution ‘materialist conception of history’. No equivalent locution is to be found in Marx. Despite this, I think that historical materialism is a reasonably accurate designation of the version of general social theory into which Marx (occasionally) and Engels (always) lapsed.
  • 2 Much cited as historical materialism‘s locus classicus. The citation is the more remarkable because it comes from all sides. According to Lenin we have here ‘an integral formulation of the fundamental principles of materialism as applied to human society and its history’ (n.d, 21, p. 55). (N.B.: the idea of ‘application’.) According to Eduard Bernstein’s commentary (1909, p. 3) — although it turns out that Bernstein bases himself more closely on Engels’s letters to Bloch, Schmidt et al. of the 1890s — ‘No important thought concerning the Marxist philosophy of history is wanting here’. Plamenatz (1970, p. 18, 19) sees the Preface as Marxism’s ‘classic formulation’. According to Michael Evans (1975, p. 61) the Preface is the ‘classic account’ of Marx‘s ‘general conclusions’. Cohen (1978) declares for the same view.
  • 3See for example Althusser 1970, p. 59 who declares that sciences only once they are ‘truly constituted and developed’ can supply their truth-criteria. But what counts as a true constitution? Does first-order theory itself determine it? Althusser proclaims Spinoza’s view according to which truth per se is the indication (index) of truth and falsity. Can then scientology, for example, or UFOlogy testify in their own case?
  • 4 From Althusser’s For Marx through his Lenin and Philosophy into his Essays in Self-Criticism we can read the self-humbling of philosophy as metatheory. It started off as the ‘Theory of theoretical practice’ and finished up as ‘class struggle in the realm of theory’. And yet, despite this humbling, philosophy remains, in Althusser’s view, the decisive instance within ‘dialectical materialism’. The upshot is a historicism and relativism (see also previous note) which is the other side of the coin of the structuralist ‘science of history’ which Althusser sets out to defend.
  • 5 Transcendental arguments become viciously circular when they attempt to ground categories: if X presupposes Y this in no way demonstrates either Y‘s validity or (as an inference from Y) the validity of X. Hence relativism and historicism again. Transcendental forms of argument have a respectable role as ad hominem arguments but Bhaskar, although presenting himself as an underlabourer (cf. Bhaskar 1989), apparently wants them to achieve more.
  • 6Application, however ‘creative’, inheres within a genus/species framework. And in case it should seem that, in urging a genus/species framework to be un-Marxist, we are contending against a straw man it should be noted: an entire school of Marxist orthodoxy (dialectical materialism or DIAMAT) made this framework its own. Dialectical materialism was seen as a species of the genus ‘materialism’, and historical materialism was understood as a species of materialism of a dialectical kind. Communist Party education classes, and the readers for them, were organised in just this Aristotelian way. The first moves against this genus/species scheme were made by Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness and Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which privileged historical materialism over dialectical materialism and history over materialism (e.g. Gramsci 1971, p. 454-6).
  • 7Acton 1955; Plamenatz 1970. ch. 5. section 2; Cohen 1978, ch. 5; Lukes 1984; and so forth.
  • 8 Poulantzas 1978; Panzieri 1976.
  • 9According to Marx the ‘forces of production’ include natural science. Additionally, they include ‘general social knowledge’ and ‘the human being himself’ (Marx 1973, p. 706, 422). Labour is itself ‘the greatest productive power’ (ibid., p. 711). Also included are the powers of cooperation and of intercourse in Capital and The German ideology. From a general-theory standpoint the difficulty is less to know what does than what does not count as a productive force. And from the same standpoint just the same difficulty applies to productive relations. In Wage Labour and Capital (Marx 1967, p. 28) we learn that all social relations are relations of production — that is, not just ‘basic’ or ‘economic’ relations — should we construe them in that way. Forces and relations of production therefore seem to interweave. Each can count as the other. Should we see this as a strength or a weakness in Marx’s thought?
  • 10Either/or formulations are always problematic, and so a word of caution should be entered. The either/or contrast refers only to theory’s starting point, the reduction of structure to struggle being just as obnoxious as its converse. The dialectical question here concerns the categories ‘form’ and ‘content’, which for reasons of space this chapter is able to comment upon only briefly. The only question can be that of mutually exclusive problematics. A dialectics of subjectivity is able to encompass objectivity as reification. whereas a dialectics of objectivity expels subjectivity from its consideration and can re-engage with it only via decisionism or historicism. Hence there is no question of a reductionism here.
  • 11See the definition of ‘structure-in-dominance’ in the glossaries of all of Althusser’s books. Whichever moment or practice or instance is dominant within some epoch figures as economically determined — in the last instance. Ultimately Althusser appears solely as a commentator on Engels’s late letters. Do non-economic factors appear as independent variables (however slight) or just as local disturbances? Can they make any real difference to history’s vector (Engels’s metaphor)? On this score neither Engels nor Althusser teach us anything approaching a clear view.
  • 12The text which Marx in 1859 declared to be left to the gnawing criticism of the mice was of course The German ideology. The 1859 Preface presents an intellectual autobiography (‘A few brief remarks concerning the course of my study': Marx 1971, p. 19) culminating in a report of the ‘guiding principle (Leitfaden)' at which Marx arrived ‘in Brussels', the place of The German Ideology's drafting. The famous ‘general conclusion' at which he arrived, and which the 1859 Preface summarises, is accordingly that reported in The German Ideology (esp. Part One). Two comments are in order here. First: the summary contained in the 1859 Preface has no scientific status, not just because Marx who had re-read Hegel's Logic in 1857-8 may well have shared Hegel's view of pre-faces — a view apparently endorsed by Engels when in his correspondence of the 1890s he says that only a Hauptprinzip (cf. the introductory material in Hegel's Science of Logic) can be recovered from Marx's 1959 views - but also because it is only at the end of the 1859 Preface that, according to Marx, ‘science flllissenscltaft)‘ erupts. Secondly, and more importantly, the discourse of The German ideology is falsified, consciously or unconsciously, by the Marx of 1859. A reading of the section of The German Ideology Part One entitled ‘The Premises of Historical Materialism' — an editor's subtitle if ever there was one — reveals an ambiguity in Marx‘s 1845-6 approach as between totalising and causalist views. The premises concerned are reported as those of the production of the means of subsistence, of ‘new needs', of sexually reproductive structures, of ‘a certain mode of co-operation', of language (and hence consciousness): all in an ascending order (Marx/Engels 1975, Vol. 5 p. 41-44). This notion of ascendancy is causalist on a grub-before-ethics basis, just as was Engels's speech at Marx‘s graveside, where, in Social Darwinist fashion, the necessary and sufficient (causalist) conditions of social development became so fatefully confused. But Marx adds (Marx/Engels 1975, p 43) that the ‘aspects of social activity' he has mentioned ‘are not to be taken as . . . different stages' but rather as distinguishable ‘moments' of social existence per se. Here the perspective ceases to be causalist (grub conditions ethics) and becomes totalising: because once the production of the means of subsistence or of new needs becomes social (re)production, mediated for instance through consciousness, or self-reflection, nothing can ever be the same again. Precisely the ‘ordering' of the alleged premises is problematised. The last might just as well come first. Social (reflective, antagonistic) production fails to equate with the unreflective production of bees, beavers or ants. In The German Ideology, this ambiguity between causalist and totalising views remains fertile, allowing Marx to pitch against each other the ‘mechanism' of the eighteenth-century materialists and the ‘teleology' of Hegel and Kant. In the 1859 rendition of The German Ideology insight, only causalism is remembered and totalisation drops out of view. Marx himself may have had good (Realpolitiker) reasons for such a misremembering (cf. Prinz 1969) but his reasons can hardly be our own.
  • 13‘In the name of action . . .': here again it is indispensable that we become cautious, because action construed sui generis is so easily an empty form. Form-analysis is the key. Only in the name of action, I want to say (cf. Backhaus's critique of ‘objctivity' a la Adorno: Volume One), can form-analysis break out. Even classical bourgeois political economy ‘has never once asked the question of why this content has assumed that particular form’ (Marx: 1976, p. 174). My point relates to the categorical considerations which allow this difficulty to be posed.
  • 14In German the pun as between ‘actuality ([i]wirklichkeit[/i)'] and ‘activity’ works just as it does in English (vide Hegel 1969. p. 546; Moltmann 1985, p. 313). Actuality connotes not so much reality (and certainly not a static ‘given' reality) as practice. Marx's ‘actual, active (wirkliehe werkended)’ labourers in The German Ideology register the same point: actuality and activity are the same thing.
  • 15I mean it in Pascal’s sense. The kitsch version of Pascal is to the effect that you might as well reckon yourself to be immortal because, that way round, you have nothing to lose. The less kitsch version of Pascal reports that you have to bet your reason against your salvation. The secular version of Pascal avers (but it's only a wager once again) that reason and salvation — philosophy and the proletariat — can be understood from the same set of cards.
  • 16Cf. Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason —passim, or for instance, Thomas Reid's Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind. Always, freewill discourse has linked hands with causalism. Hermeneutical sociology (e.g. Weber) does the same thing inasmuch as it awaits a causal explanation for the interpretations preferred. Weber's Economy and Society sociologises action (i.e. it brings action under the sign of empiricist abstraction) in the same movement as it defines social action as action which takes account of others' views. Giddens's conception of ‘human action' as action which manages to ‘construct the social world' while also being ‘conditioned or constrained by‘ the ‘very world' of its creation (Giddens 1981, p. 54) inheres in the same tradition. So too does Bhaskar (1989. ch 5). The ancient dispute concerning voluntarist versus determinist sociologies (together with their putative interrelatons) becomes needless. I want to say, once the terms of discourse are shifted on to a non-empiricist terrain.
  • 17To declare against genus/species frameworks in regard to the idea of a historical sequence of modes of production (or of social formations, in the more sophisticated structuralist version) may seem too easy a point to score. For how then are pre-capitalist modes to be theorised? The implication of my argument is to the effect that they can be theorised only from within an approach which, qua practically reflexive, construes itself as sited on capitalist (i.e. socially contradictory) soil. For it is only then that ethnological abstractions — religion, the family. magic, economics and production itself - can be problematised. ‘Primitive religion' or indeed ‘feudal religion', for instance, remain senseless abstractions. For an illustration of how deep this problematising can go into the apparently socially neutral category of labour (for surely all societies must ‘work' in order to produce their means of subsistence?) cf. Baudrillard 1975. In other words, the still-empirical category of ‘production-in-general' employed in Marx's 1857 Introduction is not the key here. Marx in the same text goes so far as to say that ‘there is . . . no general production' (Marx 1973, p. 86), as though pulling his empiricist alter ego - the author of the 1859 Preface — up short. On the origins of the 'modes of production' debate see Dobb 1946; Hilton 1978;. Hobsbawm in Aston 1965.
  • 18In the 1872 version of the rules for the first Communist International.
  • 19Not even the notion of ‘intermediate’ levels of abstraction, as advertised by the Regulation Approach and Fordism/post-Fordism, can rescue it. Intermediacy inheres totally in — indeed it is the very definition of — abstraction which has taken a genus/species and thereby an empiricist form.
  • 20Jessop 1991 declares against the ‘formless’ character of class struggle as Holloway, for instance, reports it. Jessop for his own part announces a programme of ‘fleshing out’ the ‘modalities’ of class struggle: ‘we will be misled . . . if we focus on class struggle without regard to its specific forms’ . Some struggles, furthermore, can ‘acquire class-relevance’ and others cannot. A genus/species scheme, thus, is deployed by Jessop both amongst class struggle’s modalities and between the modalities of specifically class struggles and struggles of other kinds. ‘Form’ is understood solely in terms of ‘species’ and not at all in terms of ‘mode of existence’ (see below). The notion of the re-forming of precapitalist struggles — over the family, for instance (cf Gunn 1987) - in and through the capital/ labour class relation thus drops out of sight. Modalities are just species falling, statically, beneath a genus of some kind. The fundamentally sociological aspect of Jessop’s discourse in the piece here under discussion emerges, likewise, in his comments on value. He refers to ‘the dominance of the value form (or, better, since it has several different moments, meta-form)’ : the ‘different moments’ are for instance those of the ‘commodity, price, and money forms’ . In other words value is for Jessop a ‘meta-form’ solely because it is a genus containing numerous species — or ‘forms’ in the sense of species — within it. The horizontal extension of this reflection from species to genus which (counting as a renewed species) reflects into a further genus . . . requires, of course, some metatheoretical vertical ascent to sort matters out. Hence perhaps the eagerness with which Jessop (1988/9) embraces the Critical Realism of Bhaskar. Sociology (first-order discourse severed from metatheory) and philosophy (higher-order discourse severed from the theory it seeks to underlabour for, or command) are, I propose, two sides - each requiring the other — of the same coin: either vicious circularity or infinite regress. And this coin has no currency of a Marxist kind.
  • 21The categories of universal/particular, form/content, etc. upon which the present chapter reflects are all Hegel’s. Were my paper to be more than a sketch, either a rewriting or a critique of the Science of Logic - which throughout dwells upon the notion of determinate abstraction - would be the outcome. See e.g. Marcuse 1987. On one Hegelian category, that of quantity/quality, I permit myself further comment. Engelsian Marxism is famous for having declared that quantitative change (at some point) passes over into qualitative change and vice versa (e.g. Engels 1964, p. 63). The parallel passages in Hegel’s Science of Logic are much celebrated, and commented upon in Lenin’s ‘Philosophical Notebooks’. But then there comes in Hegel (1969, p. 375ff.) a passage where quantity is discussed not just as passing over into quality but as quality: on this Lenin finds it possible to remark only ‘Transition . . . expounded very obscurely’ (Lenin n.d., xxxviii, p. 125). Unfortunately for Engels and Lenin this ‘transition’ is a crucial passage in Hegel upon which Marx’s Capital relies. For there, quantitative categories - value, surplus-value, etc. - are construed as qualitative, i.e. as issues in class struggle (cf. Cleaver 1979). Even the notion of just such an inverse ratio as that obtaining between necessary labour and surplus labour is selected by Hegel as his example showing how and why quantitative distinctions require construal as qualitative as well (1969, p. 378): here if anywhere — cf. MacGregor 1984 — the notion of surplus-value unfolds within Hegel’s thought. Engels and Lenin failed to read what lay before their eyes. Quantity is for Marx and Hegel quality’s mode of existence, and vice versa. Quantity transforming into quality and vice versa remains an all too external relation: Marxist sociology is its result, also bourgeois-Marxist economics (cf. Backhaus, Volume One. Quantity as quality (and vice versa) announces the critique of sociology — of general social theory - inasmuch as the externality of the relation between ‘theory’ and ‘of’ in the expression ‘theory of’ is problematised. Lenin’s ‘very obscurely’ announces the defaulting of more than DIAMAT’s putative Marxist thought.
  • 22See for example Lukács 1971, 5th essay; Marcuse 1941, p. 316-9; Sartre n.d., p. 34. Within this totalising discourse capitalism appears as the first sociological society in virtue of the fetishised character of its objectivity, (cf. Backhaus, Volume One, and Horkheimer 1972, p. 229 on ‘mechanism’ and machines). In other words, Marx at his most general (as in the 1859 Preface) is Marx at his most particular, or at least specific, when read in the most charitable way. Only capitalist society is historical materialist society, with all the determinism that entails. A particular focus thus underlies the most generic of Marxist abstractions. A historical materialism (a sociology) of communism, for instance, would be a contradiction in terms.
  • 23The term ‘field’ is, here, to be stressed. Outside of the field of contradictions which I discuss later on there lies nothing, or rather the dualism of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ is overturned. There is nowhere outwith a terrain of (practical) contradiction for theory to stand: cf. Kojeve 1972 who reports the same point vis-à-vis ‘totality’ in that term’s Hegelian sense.
  • 24Spontaneism in the ‘classic’ sense of a movement of contradiction rather than in the ‘vulgar’ sense of sheer immediacy: ‘On the one hand we have the day-to-day struggle; on the other, the social revolution. Such are the terms of the dialectical contradiction through which the socialist movement makes its way’ (Luxemburg 1970, p. 128-9).
  • 25For a defence of this severely informal notion of rigour see Gunn 1989b. Gunn, in this piece, still relies far too much on the empiricist notion of a one-to-one mapping of concepts on to objects: ‘theory of’. His more logically powerful insight is to the effect that a truth which hits its mark in a ‘correspondence’ sense is like a golf ball which scores a hole in one: neither the theorist who raises truth claims nor the golfer who raises his club need be able to say how their respective successes are achieved. The consensus version of truth which Gunn sets out to defend involves a German-philosophic principle of reflexivity: truth counts as such if and only if it can be defended, before all comers. Coincidental accuracy fails to qualify as truth, in this way. The deficiency of correspondence theories of truth is that they admit just such coincidences into their canon, and so open themselves to the charges of historicism and relativism raised above. Truth involves reflexivity. Truth minus reflexivity amounts to guessing. Reflexivity opens the path to determinate abstraction, and determinate abstraction the path to society of mutual recognition wherein (Communist Manifesto) the freedom of each is the condition, and the result, of the freedom of all. Gunn raises well-intentioned points, but these need to be bathed in the fire which determinate abstraction represents. Only if the freedom of each is the condition of the freedom of all can truth-claims, within the ambit of a (practical) reflexivity which requires some notion of their audience, be redeemed.
  • 26‘Pointfulness’ , here, requires a further dialectical twist. ‘Points’ appear epistemologicaily as all-too-well - as all-too-fetishistically and reifiedly - established. Across an epistemological world construed under the sign of such a fixity determinate abstraction drives like one more hurricane. To appreciate the point of the pointfulness which the sentence here noted invokes we have to be able to see that if abstractions can be real (qua determinate) then societies can be true or false, for their part. False societal abstractions can require true determinately abstract theory, if indeed their truth - the truth of their falsity - is to be reported well. ‘In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false’ (Debord 1987). The subject-matter-in-hand is one preformed in such a way as to drop through the fingers which want to hold it, in any sociological sense. Cf. Horkheimer 1972 and Adorno 1973.
  • 27Gunn 1977 makes the awful mistake of construing contradictions as merely conceptual (= nominalist, = empiricist). This deficiency being subtracted, however, the rest of his argument more or less stands.
  • 28Here I refer not merely to McLellan, who within the exigencies of class struggle can appear overly anodyne, but to, e.g., the not-yet-existence of Bloch. Bloch has the sheer human decency to imply that our future might be uncoloured by our past sins: immediacy, therefore; vulgar spontaneism despite Bloch’s own Leninist politics. Contradiction (i), on its own, inheres in empiricist abstraction: people in general, whether they be apocalypticists or Utopians (cf. Gunn 1985), are in the last instance nice. Cf. Holloway 1988 for the same Bloch-inspired optimistic view. The mangles of contradictions (ii) and (iii) still lie ahead, however, and so read on.
  • 29Cf. Gunn 1988. The diagram which follows is nothing but a literal rendition of the following two sentences in Hegel: ‘Spirit is, in its simple truth, consciousness, and forces its moments apart. Action divides it into substance, and consciousness of the substance; and divides the substance as well as consciousness’ (Hegel 1977, p. 266). Everything in Hegel’s discussion of the alienations of spirit (1977, ch. V I) depends on this point.
  • 30For the sake of clarity three senses of ‘form’ should be distinguished: (i) form can refer to conceptual status (as in ‘the form of Marx’s 1859 Preface is at least as problematic as its contents’); (ii) form can refer simply to species (as in Jessop 1988/9); and (iii) form can refer to mode of existence, the sense of ‘form’ which must needs be rediscovered should anything approaching radicalism wish to break out. It goes without saying that ‘mode of existence’ , in its turn, should not be construed statically. Existence = ek-sistence = ecstasis or ecstacy. We live ecstatically, ahead of ourselves, into and through our forms.
  • 31This point is developed eloquently in Hegel 1977, Intro., where it is declared that ‘being-in-itself’ has always to be a ‘being-in-itself-for-consciousness’. The planes of theory and metatheory according to Hegel intersect, and the Kantian view (for example: cf. Bhaskar 1989) of cognition as an ‘instrument’ falls over its own feet.