Gregory Elliott

The Odyssey of Paul Hirst

Over the last decade and a half, widespread shifts have occurred within Britain’s Left intelligentsia, in a complex series of changes, with many crosscurrents—making for an intellectual and political scene today very different from that of the early 70’s. Some of these changes have been challenging and radicalizing: most obviously, the rise of a new and confident feminism. Others have been involutionary, or retrogressive—trends that might be summarized as the transition from subscription to some variant of Marxism and commitment to revolutionary socialism, in one form or another (accompanied by the normal correlate: rejection of the local representatives of social democracy) to thorough-going theoretical renunciations and pronounced political moderatism (predictably accompanied by reorientation to the centre and right of the Labour Party and disdain for its supposedly ‘hard left’). The figure of Paul Hirst, Professor of Social Theory at Birkbeck College, sometime editor of three journals, frequent contributor to others as well as to numerous collections, author or co-author of eight books, occupies a prominent yet

particular position within this latter constellation. His has been in many ways an exemplary career, typical of the trajectory of not a few of his generation, yet also preceding or exaggerating more general alterations of outlook and disposition. Although maître d’école of a ‘discourse theory’ that has established certain bridge-heads in a number of academic disciplines (sociology, anthropology, cultural and media studies) and mainstream publishers’ lists, it is less breadth of influence than sharpness of stance that distinguishes Hirst’s postures today. His novelty is the alacrity and ruthlessness with which he has settled accounts with his erstwhile theoretico-political consciousness—to the extent of pioneering much of the current commonsense of Marxism Today and its cousins well before it was in full vogue, yet moving further to the right even as others were coming round to what were once his somewhat rarefied revisions. Paul Hirst is not the, or even an, éminence grise of that contemporary English hybrid, Eurolabourism; but he is one of the unsung heroes of the de- and re-alignment of Communist, Labour and independent Marxist intellectuals, whose theoretical contribution to such transformations warrants some retracing, however selective.*

1. Class of ’68
Hirst’s emphatic appearance on the public scene began in 1971 with the launching of the journal Theoretical Practice, of which he was a prime mover. Theoretical Practice declared that its ambition was to establish the necessity and irreducibility of ‘theoretical practice’ in the British revolutionary movement, and to demarcate genuine Marxism from its competitors, thereby assisting in the ‘recommencement of the scientific practice of historical materialism and the development of MarxistLeninist political practice’.1 The task was rendered urgent by the appearance in English of texts by Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci, Marcuse and Sartre and the contemporary efflorescence of interest in Marxism, Western and Classical. ‘The problem we face’, as the first issue succinctly put it, ‘is no longer ignorance, but eclecticism.’2 The basis upon which the indicated discrimination was to be made was the work of Louis Althusser, whose major writings had recently become available to an anglophone audience. In their first statement of intent, the editors confided their belief that ‘no development of scientific Marxism is possible which does not start from what Althusser has achieved’.3 Theoretically, then, Theoretical Practice was to be Althusserian. Politically, it was to be Marxist-Leninist. For while the journal gave priority to theoretical struggle and education, ‘our position’, it insisted, ‘does not imply theoreticism, i.e., the development and practice of theory apart from politics and the class struggle . . . Scientificity in theory demands a correct and militant political position. This journal is politically situated within the anti-revisionist movement, i.e. it is MarxistLeninist (against distortions in Marxism-Leninism by Trotskyist, neo* I am grateful to Sarah Baxter and John Taylor for their help with this article; needless to say, neither bears any responsibility for the end-product. 1 Editorial, Theoretical Practice 3/4, Autumn 1971, p. 2. 2 TP 1, 1971, p. 14. See also Editorial, p. 3. 3 Editorial, TP 1, p. 1.


TP 3/4. discussion of the concept of ‘epistemological break’. charging it with a perilous epistemological neutrality—although. For some light on the journal’s relations with Marxist-Leninist organizations in Britain. His exposition of it revealed him an orthodox Althusserian at this stage. anti-historicist. It is an intervention in a particular conjuncture. been eliminated. pp. We have attempted to specify the characteristics of this conjuncture: the dominance of revisionist political and theoretical positions in the British revolutionary movement and. p. p. The Theoreticism of ‘Theoretical Practice’. the contents of the journal were to be distinctly apolitical in any mundane sense. a science and a philosophy. p. Some relationship to the official Chinese outlook of the time can be surmised.4 For all this affirmation. With the second issue of Theoretical Practice. Its role was the defence of the sciences. and a critique of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge. TP 2. 3. In line with this programme. the absence of a correct conception of historical materialism and of a scientific practice of historical materialism. but its extent probably varied considerably—some contributors perhaps swallowing large doses of Peking’s political line. when Hirst joined the editorial board. p. It contained items by some of Althusser’s pupils. Aped 1971. 4. See also Editorial. while for others Maoism may have been a residual sympathy after the (‘revisionist’) alternatives enumerated in the editorial to TP 1 had. it should be said. including historical materialism. as potential theoretical allies of Marxism. the science of history—an anti-humanist. the next (double) issue of the journal was devoted to ‘Marxism and the Sciences’. and for Freud in a Lacanian rendering. Marxism was composed of two autonomous theories. the editors evinced general sympathy for modern French philosophy of science. The former was historical materialism.’6 In Britain at least. antieconomistic theory of modes of production and social formations.Stalinist and humanist ideology)’. theory was politics. We have maintained that the philosophical recovery of the scientific concepts of historical materialism is the dominant task to be undertaken in the struggle against revisionism and an essential pre-condition for the creation of a Marxist-Leninist party. against myriad ubiquitous ideologies. 6 Editorial. explorations of the relations between Althusser and Bachelard. on Althusserian grounds. on a wider scale. the site of struggle had tended to shift from dialectical to historical materialism. The latter was a revolutionary practice of philosophy—simultaneously political intervention in theory and theoretical intervention in politics— to which Althusser referred by the traditional designation of ‘dialectical materialism’. TP 3/4. reflections from Barry Hindess (who now joined the editorial board) on ‘materialist mathematics’. as a new issue concentrated on Marx’s ‘Marginal Notes on Adolph Wagner’s Lehrbuch der Politischen Ökonomie’—one of only two items in the canon certified by Althusser 4 5 lbid. see John Taylor and David Macey.5 At any rate for all. and Editorial. Hirst made his debut— entering the lists to defend the new definition of philosophy adumbrated by Althusser in 1968. the class struggle in theory was the order of the day: ‘Theoretical Practice’s theoretical work is philosophical in this sense. 3. 42–44. London 1974. 6. 83 . By the spring of 1972.

99.9 An acerbic review by another contributor. and a fortiori of any ‘general theory’ of transition from one mode of production to another. This was the crucible in which the class of ’68 was formed and under the impact of which it rallied. At issue. often in apocalyptic mood. ‘Self-Criticism’. London 1971. the unruffled confidence expressed by the remaining editors was belied by the pages that followed. Balibar repudiated both the whole project of a ‘general theory’ of modes of production (as one of ‘typologistic or structuralist inspiration’). was the decision to focus on historical materialism. In the ‘SelfCriticism’ this elicited. a letter from Cutler to Etienne Balibar occasioned a response which dismayed his correspondent. For while texts by Althusser and Lecourt drew out some of the implications of the second definition of philosophy previously endorsed by Hirst. atmosphere of the time: a world-wide solidarity campaign against the US war in Vietnam. In the event. and the eruption of the most successful mass workers’ struggles in Britain this century. renewal in Czechoslovakia and upheaval in China. Black insurrections in America. to an end.7 Some time in the following months. and with it the life-span of the journal. New Left Books. pp. 56–72. though no details were 1969 as being without ‘the shadow of a trace of Feuerbachianhumanist or Hegelian influence’. however. 10 Essays in Self-Criticism. with the aim of putting the revolutionary movement on a sound scientific footing.10 What were the historical characteristics of the particular conjuncture in which Theoretical Practice appeared? Under what balance of forces was a collective attempt to naturalize Althusser’s Marxism for the purpose of cadre formation. New Left Books. Balibar’s original paper had ‘entirely revolutionized the science of history’. to the 7 8 Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. London 1976. January 1973. ‘A philosophy does not make its appearance in the world as Minerva appeared to the society of Gods and men’. and national. Athar Hussain. p. Etienne Balibar. major proletarian revolts in France and Italy. 165. both Hindess and Hirst resigned from the journal—apparently because of a disagreement with the assessment of priorities set out in an editorial to what in the event proved to be the final number of Theoretical Practice. In conjunction with Althusser’s own work.8 Cutler’s ‘Response’ made no attempt to conceal his disappointment. 83. p. p. in a dissenting register Anthony Cutler and Michael Gane argued the virtues of Althusser’s original ‘theory of theoretical practice’ and the vices of its supposed rectification. and at home the moral collapse of Labour in office. a radical student movement across four continents. 84 . of Maurice Godelier’s Rationality and Irrationality in Economics brought the issue. evidently. Louis Althusser remarked in 1975. his discussions of determination in the last instance and historical transition. a matter of some moment? The conditions of possibility of this exercise lay in the electric international. Cutler had queried a number of themes in Balibar’s contribution to Reading Capital relating to the key category of ‘structural causality’—in particular. 9 TP 7/8. retraction of it conduced to empiricism and was liable to ‘open the door’ to revisionism. Moreover on the terrain of historical materialism itself. TP 7/8.

London 1975.cause of socialist revolution. 13 See especially Paul Hirst. and characteristic product of their writing in the journal.11 A calmer reliance on the amnesia of its reader would be hard to conceive. was a series of epistemological critiques of the problematic governing errant authors such as Durkheim or their schools. ‘Recent Tendencies in Sociological Theory’. they violently denounced the academicism of the journal. Hirst and Hindess had joined the board of a new academic journal. These were examined for symptoms of illicit theoretical ideologies—empiricism. 14 Some of this material was later collected in Hirst’s Durkheim. the programme of a defence and development of historical materialism as the prerequisite for the formation of a revolutionary party apparently forbade any reference to politics. Foucault. and criticized themselves for their collaboration with it. Economy and Society. Highest Stage of Marxism Indeed. . iii–iv. p. were rejected in the name and in favour of a truly scientific problematic: Althusser’s. For if the general position of the journal was that Marxism must be developed as the science of history—hence of politics—it never actually got round to the slightest concrete analysis of any concrete situation. Economy and Society 1:1. one of the British social scientists for whom Althusser’s ‘general philosophical system’ exercised the greatest attraction was Hirst himself. February 1972. There. May 1972. pp.14 Yet by early 1974 Hindess and Hirst were no longer on the editorial board of Economy and Society.—and. where convicted. . itself promising an ‘attempt to contribute to the scholarship’ required to repair their plight.’ By contrast Theoretical Practice. Koyré and Lacan. ES 1:2. A decade later. proposing to remedy it by the introduction of the ‘advanced theoretical works’ of Althusser. Bachelard.12 In its pages Hirst and Hindess inveighed against the theoretical poverty of contemporary British sociology. Yet no hint of this was ever to be found in the pages of Theoretical Practice itself. had subscribed to the authentic Althusserian conception of historical materialism as ‘fundamentally a theory of politics and as providing theoretical tools for the assessment of political situations’. even as it implied a year zero of Marxist theory in Britain. humanism etc. The programme of Economy and Society was merely anti-empiricist—not committed to any ‘definite theory of the social totality’ (read: Althusser’s).13 The necessary corrective to prevailing indiscipline. whose first issue in February 1972 announced the social sciences to be in a ‘state of crisis’. Editorial. as a methodology but not as a means of analysis of political situations. Hirst was to remark that on its importation into England Althusser’s Marxism exerted a considerable attraction on social scientists ‘as a general philosophical system and alternative metaphysics . London 1985. Moreover. while still editors of Theoretical Practice. Bernard and Epistemology. 216– 28. Hyper-Althusserianism. They had persevered because they believed it to furnish a ‘medium for Marxism and Historical Writing. pp. 133. let alone to proposing a Marxist-Leninist strategy for turbulent contemporary Britain. 12 11 85 . he claimed. Setting out the reasons for their resignation a year later. historicism.

but a ‘political theory’. Hindess and Hirst had become plus royalistes que le roi. they had proposed a drastic change of direction: a ‘leftist and Marxist’ journal which would not merely provide a venue for ‘progressive theory’. 86 . however. Previously. the theoretical universe had been manichean. Marxism. But this prospectus had been turned down by their colleagues. 241–44. ES 4:2. . Althusser’s was that he was not Althusserian enough. cit. however. May 1975. Rather than train others to this end. and so they had resigned. It is this uncompleted project that needs to be continued. An outpost within it was enlightened: Althusserianism and its avant-garde allies. Althusser. pp. but also carry articles relevant to ‘current politics’. . they would henceforward give priority to ‘the analysis of the present conjuncture and the production of theoretical work necessary to that analysis’. to the crucial struggles of our age. The remainder was benighted: all rival claimants to the title of Marxism and every other form of social thought. For even their closing bid on Economy and Society had been vitiated by a progressivist variant of ‘culturalism’.disseminating advanced theory to the social scientific intelligentsia and for criticizing the empiricism of the social sciences’. 244–48. Instead of devoting themselves to educational work to form Marxist cadres for the analysis of the current conjuncture in Britain and for the nucleus of a Leninist party.15 The song remains the same—with the slight. one ‘directed towards a definite 15 ‘Letter to Economy and Society’. pp. Now. ‘is anti-historical because it is committed to history in another meaning of the work. was complicit with Western Marxism in so far as he retained the very notion of Marxism as a science of history. Hirst and Hindess insisted in a passage of some significance for their later work. to reconstitute a Marxism once again capable of analysing the political conjunctures of the current period and of providing strategic leadership for political practice.’16 In short. and the news that they had begun the necessary labours on monopoly and finance capitalism. Now.. loc. namely. pp. it emerged. Even Althusser attempts to provide the philosophical foundation for a “science of history” . each ideological or idealist to greater or lesser degree. 16 ‘Letter to Economy and Society’. When the contradictions of this project proved unbearable. Marxism was not a theory of history after all. but crucial difference that in the course of their mea culpa Hindess and Hirst now criticized their philosopher-general for the first time. as it transpired. the editorial board issued a sharp rejoinder: ‘Reply to Hindess and Hirst’. they had seen the error of their ways—that they had been pursuing no more than a ‘theoretical equivalent’ of Eurocommunist and social-democratic strategy. 238–39. Hindess and Hirst had detected a flaw in the French philosopher himself. Happily. Hindess and Hirst announced their own dedication to it. whatever its tendency.’ Yet ‘the notion of Marxism as a theory or science of history is almost universal in western Marxist philosophy. This philosopher’s Marxism almost overshadows Althusser’s main project. 235. If the problem of Economy and Society was that it was not Althusserian at all. as indeed had been their position on Theoretical Practice. to make Marxism once again a theoretical force. Hindess and Hirst also belaboured ‘certain of Althusser’s followers’ for lapsing into mere ‘depoliticized epistemological critique’. Unbowed.

‘the tools that make it possible’. 18. then. Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production. Nor was it innocent of imputing a ‘universal mechanism’ of transition from one mode of production to another—namely. Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production. p. pp. Once the primacy of productive forces was displaced by that of relations of production. modes of production must be conceived neither—in the fashion of Althusser and Balibar—as self-reproducing Spinozist ‘eternities’.19 Whilst Marx’s 1859 Preface emphatically did not license an ‘economic determinist’ interpretation of Marxism. 9. 7. pp. In a properly Marxist theory. whose replacement is a matter of untheorizable hazard.18 and Balibar’s own version as a mere structuralist variant of it. London 1975. 87 . the ‘effect of a teleological and idealist philosophy of history’. 20 See PCMP. What. whose quasiHegelian supersession is a matter of predetermined necessity. was published. then the requisite science of the current conjuncture had to be refounded before any concrete analysis or strategic guidance of value could be forthcoming. ideological and/or political) to be secured and reproduced in a given ‘social formation’. 5. was a mode of production? In a move at variance with Marx’s own pronouncements.17 If For Marx and Reading Capital. wherein lay the principal dynamic of history? Hirst and Hindess’s answer was that the reproduction. had on inspection proved to be infected with Western metaphysics. Its authors rejected the project of a general theory of modes of production as ‘scientifically unfounded’. modification or transformation of the ‘conditions of existence’ of a mode of production was the 17 18 Ibid. 236.politics’. but the interrogation of the ‘theoretical status and validity of certain abstract general concepts within the Marxist theory of modes of production’—an undertaking justified by the consideration that such concepts were ‘theoretical means for the production of knowledge of concrete social formations and of concrete conjunctures’. The Forward March of the Productive Forces Halted In 1975 Hindess and Hirst’s first full-length work. neither did it provide a ‘rigorous basis’ for the construction of Marxist concepts. the trans-historical contradiction between forces and relations of production. The object of the work would not be the analysis of concrete pre-capitalist social formations. in other words. nor—in the manner of Stalin—as self-subversive historical forms. Its ambition was to develop a theory of modes of production distinct from either Balibar’s ‘On the Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism’ (now perceived as a philosophical enterprise) or his ‘Self-Criticism’ (condemned as empiricist).20 Any mode of production in its turn required certain ‘conditions of existence’ (economic. 9–10. 19 PCMP. 2. Hirst and Hindess defined it as an ‘articulated combination of relations and forces of production structured by the dominance of the relations of production’. pp. till now the apogee of scientificity.

the role of the class struggle in history. 22 21 88 . it was concepts that ‘make possible and validate analyses of the concrete’. for it had retained a realist postulate—the suspect notion of an ‘object of knowledge’ that could appropriate in thought a concrete ‘real object’.’21 A Maoist Theoreticism The Maoist provenance of such motifs is evident enough. Hindess and Hirst now radically resolved this in the direction of the latter. they are always produced’—by a scientific practice whose necessity and specificity would be infringed were it otherwise. they proclaimed at the outset. There PCMP. 9. If it passed this test. 180. Althusser’s epistemology. The transition from one mode of production to another was.23 The appropriate ‘mode of proof’ was therefore to take the pre-capitalist economic formations described by Marx and Engels. The ‘teleological causality’ hitherto prevalent in Marxist thought. p. however exorbitant.22 Hence. 2–3. If not. 24 PCMP. . 8.24 Such claims. its central propositions could only be judged in terms of ‘their theoretical rigour and theoretical coherence’.outcome of the class struggles ceaselessly traversing a social formation. p. it had ‘no validity in terms of Marxist theory’. they could not be ‘refuted by any empiricist recourse to the supposed “facts” of history’. Class struggle was no mere executor of an ‘evolutionary’ drama whose real protagonist was progressively developing productive forces. should make way for a ‘material causality’ according primacy to ‘what has always been essential to Marxist theory. had always been marked by a characteristic tension between realism and conventionalism. it was ‘a valid concept of the Marxist theory of modes of production’.) 23 PCMP. But it should be stressed that in Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production they are firmly subordinated to a defiant theoreticism. would still seem to allow for some residual interest—if only as a conceptual gymnasium—in the past. effected by such struggles interrupting the reproduction of the dominant relations of production. . namely. Hindess and Hirst now attacked Althusser’s account of knowledge as contaminated by empiricism. an absolute guarantee of non-scientificity. PCMP. and submit each to the exigencies of Hirst and Hindess’s own general definition of a mode of production. ‘facts are never given. Bernard and Epistemology. pp. and whose plot was the sundering of the retarded relations of production fettering them.’ As such. they went on. 18. For. For in tandem with the apparent elevation of the class struggle to first mover of history ran an epistemological polemic against the relevance of any historical research. Hirst was at the same moment claiming that ‘correspondence with the “facts” of experience is . thus of the mode of production. ‘This book’. it was the fons et origo of the transition itself. Elsewhere. in point of fact. quite the reverse of theoretical constructions being confirmed or refuted by an extra-theoretical ‘concrete’. p.’ (Durkheim. ‘is a work of scientific Marxist theory. But even this was annulled in the drastic conclusion of the work. p. of which Althusser’s ‘structural causality’ was merely a mutation. potentially and contingently.

Thus whereas theoretical research was the prelude to scientific socialism. but simply a theory of the current conjuncture. berated any ‘conflation between Marxist theoretical work and the historian’s practice’ as such. Outbidding them. such concrete analysis then formed the juncture between scientific theory and revolutionary politics. 27 PCMP. see Colin Leys’s outstanding Politics in Britain. 323: the closing lines. All Marxist theory. impairing the loop between theory and practice.26 It is scarcely surprising that one of the foremost practitioners of that historiography. 308. but the “current situation” which it is the object of Marxist theory to elucidate and of Marxist political practice to act upon.’25 Development of Marxist theory was the basic condition of adequate concrete analysis. But in fact—a point which bears emphasis in the light of that reading—with PreCapitalist Modes of Production. should thereafter have read Althusser’s own work to a great extent through the distorting lens of Hirst and Hindess. as a theoretical and political practice. It is not the “present”.Hirst and his co-author. . Marxism was now neither ‘dialectical materialism’ (a philosophy) nor ‘historical materialism’ (the science of history). there could be no revolutionary practice: ‘Marxist politics is only possible on condition that it is based on theory. . p. pp. Verso. London 1986. cannot affect present conditions. Hilton’s English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages and Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters—a veritable annus mirabilis of Marxist historiography. theoretical struggle implicitly becomes 25 26 PCMP.’27 In this conception. For a cogent defence of the indispensability of historical knowledge to the study—and practice— of politics. Without such revolutionary theory. 12. the past. not merely rejecting historical ‘antiquarianism’. 89 . It is in the light of this that we consider the abstractions and generalities in this book to be pertinent to the present. Marxist historiography was irrelevant to it. gains nothing from its association with historical writing and historical research. This relation between theory and political practice is the essence of Marxism. Althusser and Balibar had betrayed their own best epistemological instincts in having any truck with classical historical materialism. Hindess and Hirst had cut adrift from Althusser. Even as Britain’s Marxist historians were producing some of their most brilliant work. . 312. The object of history. Edward Thompson. In ringing words they declared: ‘Marxism. whose main future tasks would be rigorous concepts of finance capitalism and the socialist mode of production. . . Hindess and Hirst concluded by expressing the conviction that they had contributed to an authentically ‘anti-historicist theory of modes of production’. . p. programmes and practice are defined by and subject to the criticism of theory. however abstract it may be. what the past has vouchsafed to allow us. that its problems. This wholesale rejection of historical materialism was made in the year that gave us Hobsbawm’s Age of Capital. and thereby a guide to socialist politics. According to their erstwhile English champions. The study of history is not only scientifically but also politically valueless. exists to make possible the analysis of the current situation. a volume of ‘scientific Marxist theory’ was dismissing it as intellectually and politically worthless. no matter how it is conceived. Hill’s World Turned Upside Down. however general its field of application.

with the addition of Hindess-Hirstianism the plot thins. p. although real enough in themselves. dissolved as an independent variable and reduced to specifications of relations of production—from which. London 1984. a prolegomenon to any possible future scientific socialism. good for nothing else. These or cognate proposals underlie the Conclusion to Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production and supply a justification for a book on pre-capitalist modes of production which devotes considerable space to demolishing history as a discipline. they could be ‘deduced’. otherwise theoretically more sympathetic to France’s leading anthropologist than Sartre. as articulated in Marx’s 1859 Preface. by contrast. it was precisely here that Althusser drew the line at a ‘flirtation’ with structuralism (of course many would argue that his was still a liaison dangereuse). offering their work as nothing less than a recommencement of Marxist theory dormant—or at least distorted—since Lenin (with the partial exception of Althusser). Significantly. all historiography was irredeemably compromised by empiricism. a mere working up of tainted raw material given it by ideology. Hindess and Hirst were. Andrew Levine has suggested that in the 1960s both Maoism and Althusserianism ‘led what appears in retrospect to have been a revolt against historical materialism’. as in Marx. since the Althusserian recasting of historical materialism.28 The conjunction here of the official doctrine of a postcapitalist state and a dissident variant of Western Marxism is not accidental. are inherently ideological. was never explained. if scarcely just a theoretical relay of Maoist ideology. For Hindess and Hirst. Quite how the ‘current situation’ escaped this stricture. At any rate. in effect. of course. the class struggle was nevertheless the motor of history. 163. Althusser had dissented from Lévi-Strauss’s attempt to expel history from the realm of the scientific. as the view that history exists—is accessible—only in ‘representations’ of it which. Modes and Motors If all historiography was bunk. Arguing for Socialism. and a commencement tout court of Marxism in Britain. the book’s taedium historiae amounted to little more than a summary ‘Marxist’ replication of aspects of the conventionalist critique of history launched by Lévi-Strauss in the concluding chapter of The Savage Mind. Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production was. recalcitrant to transformation into scientific knowledge. the means of production (objects plus instruments of production) and labour 28 Andrew Levine. was not wholly innocent of connection with it either. The denial that history is a real object might be read. as it were. In reality. The extent of Hindess and Hirst’s own adherence to even this maxim is indicated by their reliance throughout Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production on the ‘representations’ of the historians they denigrate for the raw material of their own theoretical constructions. more prosaically. in any particular mode of production. In Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production productive forces were denied any effectivity whatsoever. empiricists were apparently serviceable for some ‘Generalities I’. 90 .the highest form of the class struggle and ‘correct’ politics flow from correct—scientific—theory. ‘Forces of production’ were not. explicitly seeking in Reading Capital to vindicate it as a science. where ‘the past’ succumbed.

Levine. what were its theoretical implications? Once the contradiction between forces and relations was abolished. Hindess-Hirstian ‘scientific theory’ was indeed 29 30 31 PCMP. In Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production they denied its interpretative accuracy. Even within Hindess and Hirst’s own framework this failed to do the (transitional) trick. The transition from one to another could only be conceived as the aleatory outcome of struggles located elsewhere—at the political and ideological levels—and not theorized as such. Refusing any truck with a general theory of historical development. But the political consequences of its inversion—the claim for primacy of the relations of production—had a dramatic contemporary illustration— the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. that highly developed productive forces are not one of its necessary conditions) has wreaked more than its own share of havoc for the reputation of Marxism. It was in the name of a struggle against evolutionism that Hirst and Hindess plunged into this voluntarism. a different set of responses.power. Verso. Ellen Meiksins Wood. equally arbitrarily. their later realization that it was a faithful rendition provoked. but indisputably. 191. Class struggle floats free of its anchorage in determiinant modes of production to assume the status of an ‘unmoved mover’30 which destroys the ‘conditions of existence’ of one mode and ushers in another. But their opposition to it even when Marxists must be underscored. Hindess and Hirst were utterly unreconciled to this legacy of Marx. p. London 1986. cit.. not to the elements themselves’. and rejecting the pertinence to the present—and future—of understanding the past. The Retreat from Class. Hindess and Hirst circumscribed Marxism to a sociology of discontinuous conjunctures—a gesture subversive of the very project of a ‘scientific socialism’ founded on historical materialism. . op. as we shall see. 11–12. a theory of ‘historical transformation and its direction’. historical evolution and teleology.31 Conflating causality and inevitability. The theory of the ‘current situation’ was denied any genuine purchase on the real by conventionalist protocols in which the empirical was confused with the empiricist. pp. For their modes of production—‘articulated’. ‘Technological determinism’ has no monopoly on the tragedies that have befallen revolutionary states. p. 81. yet was simultaneously granted plenipotentiary powers over it by a rampant rationalism which trumped Althusser’s epistemological Spinozism itself. . Hindess was about this time deploring the political consequences of the thesis of the primacy of productive forces in Stalinist Russia.29 In company with many others. they referred to ‘the articulation of the elements of the labour process . repudiating historical materialism itself—for better or worse. If this was the political upshot of the eclipse of forces of production by—their sheer ‘derivation’ from—relations of production. class struggle alone could operate historical transformations from one mode of production to another. The blatantly idealist and voluntarist belief that socialism can be ‘built’ regardless of material conditions (in other words. combinations of forces and relations of production— were quite as immortal as anything to be found in the pages of Reading Capital. 91 . as opposed to ‘contradictory’.

the guardians of rigour and scourges of ‘opportunism. Languages of Class. p. Reiterating the charge of functionalism against Althusser’s understanding of ideology. 75–95. The Marxist theory of ideology had been one of Hirst’s interests early on. 24.the index of its own truth and everyone else’s falsehood (Althusser’s included). The royal road to science led to the abandonment of Marxist theory-as-science—i. abstraction from the current situation [and] sloganizing’33 never made it to their construction of yet more concepts (finance capital. as it were. Hindess and Hirst should have donned the black cap for epistemology too. Cambridge 1983. 323. there is perhaps little wonder that shortly after their ‘magniloquent death sentence’32 on history. The first sign in print of a drastic reorientation came in two essays by Hirst: ‘Althusser and the Theory of Ideology’ (1976) and ‘Economic Classes and Politics’ (1977). Hirst’s ambition had been to repair these defects and construct the veritable Althusserian theory of ideology—to out-Althusser the master. p. 34 Reprinted in abbreviated form in On Law and Ideology. Hirst now concluded that it denoted a more fundamental ‘failure to break with economism and class essentialism’. The ‘problematization’ which led to Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today was released to the public in several instalments. Althusser was all too faithful to the social topography of the 1859 Preface and thus to the concept and ‘classic problematic’ of representation—namely. the first volume of which was published in 1977. pp. 3. Given the extremism of their own excursion into it. PCMP. Autocritique. these were being transmogrified into an altogether non-Marxist mélange: post-Althusserianism. The critique of the French Marxist’s conceptions of ideology and social formation heralded a final breach with the past. Conceptual construction proceeded via deductions from its own privileged basic notions. they also served as so many shibboleths with which to detect theoretical deviations and certify non-scientificity. while still associated with Theoretical Practice. In 1972. 92 .e. But he had abandoned this project. the idea that ‘classes as social forces exist prior to and independently of representation and determine it’. Critique. While readers were still digesting the iconoclastic tenets of Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production. to Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today. Rectification: PostAlthusserianism Despite their promise eventually to cash their theoretical labours in some concrete analysis. Its products were internally validated and immune to external refutation (by ‘supposed facts’). socialist mode of production) preliminary to a Marxist analysis of the British conjuncture. London 1979. he had written a text entitled ‘A Critique of Jacques Rancière’s and Louis Althusser’s Theories of Ideology’34 in which he had criticized the former’s contribution to Reading Capital for structuralism and the latter’s seminal ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ for functionalism. Initially. The 1859 Preface did after all secrete that ‘tendency towards vulgar materialism’ which had been strenuously—and implausi32 33 Gareth Stedman Jones.

Hirst now maintained. Against this was to be set a (post-) structuralist problematic wherein the supposedly ‘represented’ exists only as ‘an effect of a process of signification’.. as politics in some way ‘represented’ an anterior economic reality. not by accident. since it implied—in defiance of linguistics since Saussure—the existence of an extra-discursive reality somehow ‘represented’ more or less accurately in. In place of its incorrigible economism. 53. as the autonomously existent measure of. Rather than belabouring everyone else since Lenin for insufficient rigour and fidelity to Marxism. Once any degree of autonomous action is accorded to political forces as means of representation vis-à-vis classes of economic agents. That is to conceive the represented as external to. 68–69. Ibid. One cannot. despite Lenin. Lenin and Mao had grappled with the specificity of the political and had come to terms with it ‘in political practice’. “read back”—measuring the political forces against what they are supposed to represent. 36 pp. Accordingly. for relative autonomy was a ‘fragile’ category. p. But they had failed to theorize it. ‘Representation’ too was an untenable conception. It is not simply a question of discrepancy (the political means “represent” the class more or less accurately) but of necessary non-correspondence. and economism reigned.bly (given its authors’ protocols)—denied in Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production. This would not do: ‘the notion of relative autonomy is untenable. 125–54. 37 In Alan Hunt (ed. But this was cold comfort. its means of representation. Classes and Class Structure. For what the change meant. Althusser had attempted the requisite theorization in ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’. Yet his bid too was a failure: relative autonomy was cancelled by determination in the last instance. but Marx’s too—as economistic. It might be thought that in one limited respect these revisions constituted an advance on Hirst’s part. Whatever degree of complexity it introduced into the formula. of course. In Althusser’s essay on ideology. say. its use retained the premise of ‘determination in the last instance by the economy’—hence eo ipso economism. 93 . pp. and by ideological social relations’.36 ‘Economic Classes and Politics’37 pressed home the attack on Classical and Althusserian Marxism alike. London 1977. apparent independently of definite 35 Ibid. ideology. Classes do not have given “interests”. he was finally accepting that some of the putatively ‘vulgar materialist tendencies’ he habitually excoriated were present in Marx. he had effectively abandoned the relative autonomy of the political and ideological with which he had sought to redeem Marx—and of necessity.. was that the boundaries of theoretical rectitude were now simply redrawn to exclude Marx: Marxism per se had become vulgar. then there is no necessary correspondence between the forces that appear in the political (and what they “represent”) and economic classes. Hirst appealed to the prospect of a ‘non-reductionist theory of the political and ideological “levels”’ which would conceive social classes as ‘formed and transformed by the conditions of the political representation and its effects. 51–53. this time it was not simply Althusser’s problematic that had to be rejected.).35 This axiom was henceforward to be a core component of post-Althusserian doctrine.

to a theory of modes of production.’ The choice facing Marxism now was: ‘either economism. In the new paradigm ‘discourse’ was severed from its object. Hindess and Hirst repudiated ‘epistemological discourse itself’ as well. The rest of Mode of Production and Social Formation was devoted to the 38 39 40 Ibid. in its postulation of a prior harmony between concept and real object.40 The world was composed of discursive and extra-discursive realms. they announced. ‘do not exist. In sharp contrast the new book denied the ‘pertinence’ of the concept at all. No less vehement against realism.parties. collapsed the order of things into the order of discourse.’ Althusser’s original critique of empiricism was extended to embrace all epistemologies (including his own. Hirst opted for the latter of these loaded alternatives. ‘Objects of discourse’. Marxism. this was certainly a farewell to the primacy of class struggle. Hirst and Hindess asserted the impossibility of reference to extra-discursive objects. MPSF. Hirst and Hindess had remained committed. At most. In their earlier work.38 Naturally. In their opening chapter Hindess and Hirst defended an outré conventionalism— while denying its logical consequence. 94 . Discourse and Society The next step in Hirst’s radical reformulation of the relations between discourse and reality came with Mode of Production and Social Formation (1977)—billed explicitly as ‘An Autocritique of Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production’. etc. Mode of Production and Social Formation.39 While they were at it. This by no means entailed a rejection of theoretical discourse tout court.. 1–2. whatever their differences with Althusser or Balibar. London 1977. ideology and politics from class. can be measured. and their own to date). Such was what might be called the ‘anti-epistemological break’ between the Young rationalist-scientific Hirst and Hindess. ideologies. theoretical discourses might be ‘examined with regard to the internal structure of relations between concepts and the levels and forms of inconsistencies entailed in these relations’. and nothing any longer reunited these two hermetically sealed worlds. and with this impertinent item went the notion of determination in the last instance. If not (yet) an adieu to the working class. What the means of representation “represent” does not exist outside of the process of representation. The entities discourse refers to are constituted in and by it. pp. Everything was discursively constructed in and by particular ‘political ideologies’ and means of representation. 130–31. ideologies. simultaneously honoured and abused by Althusser. 20. etc. and their mature ideological-discursive selves. or the non-correspondence of political forces and economic classes’. pp. relativism.. No more than any other form of politics could socialism be grounded in extra-discursive material class interests. 6. and against which these parties. The ‘real object’. was simply abolished. They now rejected the rationalism that rested theoretical construction or criticism on privileged ‘basic concepts’—a modus operandi which not only imposed ‘dogmatic closure’ of discourse but also. 7. pp. 31. only of theories—epistemologies—positing ‘correspondence’ between the order of discourse and some extra-discursive order.

and the conditions for a transformation of certain of these forms. Now the concept of mode of production and the notion of epistemology themselves suffered the same fate—the former indicted for ‘setting limits’ to analysis: an objection which could. In Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production historical materialism was identified as another.’ By now some of their sympathizers might have run out of patience. in whatever acceptation. forms of state and politics and forms of culture and ideology and their relations to that economy. As a ‘basic concept’ endowed with ‘autoeffectivity’. however. forms of trade. p. 74. 190. London 1982. A radical change in the basic political outlook of many Marxist theorists is also necessary if these problems are to become possible and pertinent ones for them. Forthcoming. Mode of Production and Social Formation closed by indicating its authors’ conviction that ‘a radical change in concepts and problems is necessary if we are to be able to deal with the social relations and current political problems that confront us. MPSF. p. They were congeries of discrete elements which. 44 MPSF. pp.theoretical and political implications of its affiliation to the ‘revolution of language’. The latter was not to be understood in any Althusserian sense whatever: ‘At most the concept of a determinate social formation specifies the structure of an “economy” (forms of production and distribution. were irreducible to their effects. including that of social formation. whilst they might furnish the ‘forms in which the conditions of determinate relations of production are secured’. In Theoretical Practice philosophical anthropology had been considered an ‘epistemological obstacle’ to concrete analysis. of course. ‘problematizing’ but also reconstructing it. governed by any causal priority of the economic. 95 . the unintended result of the latest twist in the iconoclastic spiral was ‘a metaphysics of the concrete which is little more than an incoherent empiricist attack on all conceptual thought. would be a work in which they and their co-authors had ‘attempted the critique of Capital we consider necessary for the Marxist analysis of capitalism today’. conditions of reproduction of these forms). so that it could engage with contemporary capitalism.’43 Despite their abandonment of mode of production and social totality as intrinsically ‘epistemological’ concepts which obstruct fruitful analysis of contingent conjunctures. be levelled against any concept.’42 Social formations were emphatically not social totalities—articulated ensembles of structural levels or variant forms of base and superstructure.41 the idea of a mode of production imprisoned Marxism. Hirst and Hindess still insisted that they were working ‘within’ Marxism. and should be displaced by that of social formation. 57. 28–29. p. 43 Alex Callinicos. despairing of ever seeing the oftpromised ‘politically relevant analysis’. As one shrewd critic pointed out.44 41 42 MPSF. Is There a Future for Marxism?. economic classes and their relations. The upshot of these was that the new epistemological relativism paved the way for an old sociological pluralism.

among them the stirrings of the intellectual right of the CPGB—not vet enjoying the salience in the party’s apparatus they would later. of course. Wider circles of Britain’s Left intelligentsia too were starting to recoil from the strange—at any rate failed—gods they had recently embraced.46 For the content of this framework was ultimately novel only as regards the modernist discourse in which it was articulated. The advent of Eurocommunism announced an explicit break with the original aims of the Third International and the legacy of Leninism in the West. the British equivalent of the later seventies was to be a right—and not a left—critique of Althusserianism. intimations of splendid and beleaguered isolation notwithstanding. Yet unencumbered by residual organizational loyalties and any consequent need for ideological 45 46 See Marxism and Historical Writing. Hirst characteristically abstracted entirely from ‘current situations’. The main beneficiaries of the turbulence of the previous years now appeared to be.45 The claim betrays what Norman Geras has recently described as a ‘double form of amnesia: of content and context’. but already impatient with much Marxist baggage and the temporizations and ad hoc adjustments of the party leadership. the Pact of Freedom in Spain. Yet the environment in which Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today was conceived was. Literature of Revolution. As such it coalesced with other efforts to plot a new reformist course in the West. domestic or foreign. In the East the red star waned over China with the passing of Mao and the disowning of the Cultural Revolution. Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today was thus no bolt from the blue. Hirst argued that however critical an attitude he and his co-authors had eventually adopted to their Althusserian and Leninist starting-points. 96 . and conservative in all but name on virtually every issue. Recalling something of the genesis and development of the project five years later. their joint study was not merely negative: it also offered a ‘new and distinct theoretical framework’. and worldwide depression had set in. In Britain itself. Whereas the later sixties had seen a revolt of some of Althusser’s French disciples against his tactical—or theoretical—positions in the name of more radical alternatives. It was this recessive configuration which formed the real background to the intellectual discoveries of Hirst and his colleagues. Verso. As to context. not the forces of any radical socialism. pp. already sufficiently disembodied in Hirst’s fleeting allusions of that time. xvi–xvii. London 1986. or Against Marx For once the promissory note was honoured. the Common Programme in France. Reading Capital. markedly different from that of the late sixties and early seventies. the Labour regime brought to power by miners’ strikes had become monetarist avant la lettre. confronting it: Callaghan presiding over deepening British decline in a spirit of steady as she sinks. but the traditional mass Communist Parties of Western Europe. By the later seventies the post-war boom was over. pp. otherwise amounting to a not unfamiliar pluralism and reformism.4. 134–36. each newly wedded to strategies of gradualist moderation—the Historic Compromise in Italy. The two volumes of Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today (1977–78) constitute the postAlthusserian answer to Reading Capital.

London 1977–78. This did not mean that capitalism.48 Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today proceeded to a frontal assault on the corpus of classical Marxism. both posited a unitary determinant of their explananda. 51 A point made with particular acerbity in Anthony Cutler et al. guide ‘attempts in political practice to get beyond the workerism and essentialism of existing Marxist and socialist theories’. The labour theory of value was. respectively. 48 47 97 . Economy and Society 8:3. ‘Positive reorientation in theory toward the heterogeneity of [social] relations’. paralleled and could.. I. Anthony Cutler. I. ‘antistatism’. 326–30.47 A conventionally reformist politics could now be endowed with impeccably avant-garde credentials. They offered to provide a theoretically glamorous rationale for the humblest of practical accommodations. I. much of its architecture could only be sustained by the kind of ‘philosophical anthropology’ deployed in the 1844 Manuscripts. Vol. The 1859 Preface which set out Marx’s ‘materialist conception of history’ revealed just such a ‘general historical-philosophical theory’ as he denounced in November 1877—a technological determinism which represented history as a ‘process with a subject and an end’. 45–47. prices and other phenomena. Marxist and non-Marxist economics contested each other on a ‘common terrain of problems’. of course. the post-Althusserians thus rallied to the view of the archaeologist of the human sciences that there was no profound ‘discontinuity’ between Marxism and ‘bourgeois’ economics. p. dismissed at the outset. ‘anti-workerism’—being developed in more piecemeal fashion and neo-Gramscian mode on the new right of the Communist Party.49 Pursuing unnecessary and unavailing general explanations of profits. Whilst not assenting to the exact terms of Foucault’s pronouncements of 1966. if taken far enough.53 Even where.50 With the epistemological break between historical materialism and its competitors went the rupture between the Young and the mature Marx. economic classes or class struggle did not exist—only that they must be conceptualized quite differently. Economic determinism was anyway a ‘super-historical’ principle without foundation. pp. August 1979. London 1977. humanity and communism. ‘An Imaginary Orthodoxy—A Reply to Laurence Harris’. pp. in parts of the Grundrisse and Capital.52 Equally erroneous were all ‘laws of motion’ attributed to capitalism by Marx. Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today. Paul Hirst and Athar Hussain. Announcing that ‘Capital does not provide us with the basis for the kind of work we need to undertake’.51 It was necessary to reject this whole problematic—and the very idea of ‘exploitation’ central to it. the crippling postulate of causal priority of the economic had always been On Law and Ideology. Hirst and his colleagues could not only cast in more extreme form and in post-Althusserian idiom themes—‘anti-economism’. 50 See Michel Foucault. I. The Order of Things. pp. 52 MCCT. 19. 12–13. 261–62. Althusser and Rancière were wrong after all: although Capital did not exhibit a ‘simple ontology of human labour’. 49 MCCT. 135–41. p. relations and forces of production had been thought as a ‘unity’ and ‘dominance’ assigned to the former. 2. Barry Hindess. 53 MCCT. Hirst explained.discretion. especially pp. which was ‘untenable’. pp.

utterly obstructive. it is true. 151. Thirdly.’ Finally. and ideology then the options facing socialist politics can no longer be reduced to a matter of confronting this essential structure or else refusing to do so . as if to reassure themselves. Hirst and his colleagues remarked parenthetically that their critique of Marxist theory implied ‘no attempt to defend the capitalist system. Secondly. offers analyses of ‘money and financial institutions’ and of ‘enterprises and capitalist calculation’. being unsustainable. the relevance of class analysis to ‘socialist political calculation’ stood in need of some interrogation. and familiarly. no ontological primacy could be accorded to any of the sets of relations present in a social formation: ‘discursive primacy’ might be assigned one or the other as a function of socialist political ideology or objectives—but that was another matter. and perhaps most importantly. remarkably little of the six-point programme for future conceptualization tabled as an alternative to the various items demoted and interdicted was executed. heterogeneity of the phenomena treated. Volume II. 54 55 56 MCCT. A New and Distinct Framework? The end of Volume I drew four conclusions from this shattering of the rationalist kernel and mystical shell of Marxism. ideology. as it were. Where not given over to identifying the defaults of Marx. distinctness. What did the latter amount to? After taxing Marx with treating social formations as so many ‘instantiations’ of a (non-existent) capitalist mode of production in general. I.55 Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today was. rather the reverse. particularity. and the possibilities of their transformation’— without reconvening a social totality. 314–18. and their replacement by a new pluralist conception of social formations. . pp. and pregnantly. This means that socialists should be concerned with expanding the areas of socialization and democratization in the social formation.54 In the midst of these findings. I. law and their inter-relations. it is less the monotony of the ritual than the paucity of its fruits that impresses the reader.56 But beyond repetition of these recommendations and the accompanying proliferating injunctions. MCCT. p. one: ‘If the social formation is not conceived as governed by the essential structure of a mode of production and its corresponding forms of State. In fact the whole architecture of classical Marxism was unsound from beginning to end—its conceptions of economy. both a post-Althusserian Reading Capital and a post-Marxist Capital—Volume I representing the first. not to speak of social classes or social formations. . politics. Yet amid the incessant invocation of the specificity. I. difference. their political and legal conditions of existence. and Volume II the second. 98 . any dichotomy of reform and revolution was a false. 230–31. Firstly. polity. its authors had called for concepts that would specify ‘economies and economic class-relations. pp. to provide a better foundation for its criticism and transformation’. politics and ideologies were in no wise amenable to any ‘reading’ of them for the economic class interests they might represent.retained by Marx. MCCT.

heterogeneous. workerism and catastrophism permeating the whole of historical materialism. for example. 229–30. characteristic of such economies. Perhaps this should come as no surprise.]’ presented in Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today is invariably neglected by critics. effacing manifold differences. 99 . This was indeed reductionism writ large. 136. and the modestly descriptive character of the (positive) alternatives offered. these collective volumes were. it is modest fare. p. Hirst and his colleagues had proceeded to demolish it to their evident self-satisfaction. As reconstructions go. Hirst and his colleagues might have ended up placing themselves within range of their own guns. Had it been otherwise. pp. the ‘economyas-totality’ was shown the front door together with its illustrious companions. its logic could only return it compulsively to deconstruction. ‘economism’ or ‘historicism’. II.57 rather than superimposing a deforming global theory on them.58 Considerable illustration of this thesis ensues. any general theory of it—from Marx to Marshall. contradictory history of Marxism itself. with their rejection of determination in 57 MCCT. in the first instance. Thus any general theory of capitalist calculation is to be condemned for positing an undifferentiated ‘universal calculating subject’ (the capitalist class) and a corresponding homogeneous domain of application (capitalism). 59 Marxism and Historical Writing. 108. a reproof to their authors’ own in the shape of their reductio ad absurdum of Althusser’s recasting of Marxism. For the unmistakable reflex throughout the book is to inveigh in general against general theory and then explain all over again why the particular subjects under discussion are resistant to such theory. After all. it appears. is disabled by the particular conditions or criteria of calculation. for example. was the complex. Any attempt to cash these in the arena of distinct national economies. MCCT.59 Here he strayed into hyberbole—not in asserting neglect. Self-conscious mould-breakers. However often Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today gestured towards reconstruction. of enterprises. of calculation [etc. but in referring to a ‘new theory’. 58 II. 129–30. the argument runs. II. but yielding little beyond a limited empirical information (not to be scorned in the manner of Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production) on such subjects as the diverse measurements of profit in different accounting systems. MCCT. pp. See. Hirst was subsequently to complain that the ‘new theory of financial capital. Less an alternative theory than a rebuke to theoretical ambitions? If so. and heterogeneous forms of enterprise.Hilferding or Lenin on the one hand. from Smith to Sraffa—was dismissed as ‘essentialism’. p. The one domain that might legitimately be homogenized. 60 See. and their mainstream opponents on the other. Having constructed a straw tradition of rationalism and essentialism. now blithely corralled into the all-embracing problematics and categories of ‘evolutionism’. these add up to a plea to attend to things as they really are in the ‘capitalist countries of today’.60 Hence there was inevitable something of a discrepancy between the theoretically-saturated nature of the (negative) critiques of all and sundry.

62 scrutiny of their theoretical practice reveals it to be precisely a promiscuous pluralism of unrelated factors and contingencies. in Ian Steedman (ed. There could be only one credible agent of such changes: the Labour Party. London 1981. 262.65 Denouncing ‘insurrectionism’ and ‘oppositionism’—‘discourses of resignation in the face of capital’66— Hirst and his colleagues insisted on the importance of developing a programme of practical reforms whose acceptance and implementation were realistic prospects. 259. Verso. II. But in what direction? Here the originality of the revisions under way started to become plainer. The incoherence of the final outcome scarcely needs stressing—an a prioristic empiricism which nevertheless constantly invokes the ‘necessity of theory’ against any mere pragmatism. While disavowing ‘the standpoint of national “economic management”’. they asked in tones of mock horror. II. 64 MCCT. See Erik Olin Wright. was the indispensable vehicle of socialist advance. Characteristically. But if their principles could be termed ‘causalagnostic’ rather than ‘causal-pluralist’. 40 n.any instance by the economic. Would not its repudiation. 63 See MCCT. II. p. the first signs of the dramatic conflict that was to erupt in the Labour Party during the next years over its whole nature and future were surfacing—as what was already called a ‘Bennite’ Left began to challenge both the organizational structures of power within 61 62 MCCT. ‘The Value Controversy and Social Research’. ascending to the British concrete and descending on the Labour Party. 66 MCCT. 65 MCCT. It was true that the party was itself in need of profound transformation. 100 . p. with its command of mass electoral support. p. pp. 260. a ‘succession of investments and sieges’—a process in which there was no rubicon separating reform and revolution. There. 240–41. a “‘war of position”’. that it does. the struggle for a non-utopian socialism should be conceived in Gramscian fashion as a ‘“protracted war” without arms’. Hirst and his collaborators argued that they were challenging all ‘general categories of causality’—whether of monist or pluralist inspiration—not replacing one by another. indubitable—and a conclusion not to be deflected by the sarcasm of its anticipation. ‘lead to an eclectic pluralism in social causation. At the very time Hirst and his colleagues were writing their conclusions. 5. with a necessary slide toward the multi-factorial empiricism of sociology?’. II.’ Accordingly. The Value Controversy. ‘the central problems to be thought out are the construction of a strategic power bloc in the absence of its necessity and the seizure and exercise of power under conditions other than those of armed insurrection.). p. I. ‘Taking Reformism Seriously’ The practical significance of such arguably abstruse issues became clear as Hirst and his colleagues spelt out the gradualist political implications of their revocation of classical Marxism. 266. 128. 244–45. the post-Althusserians ‘anticipated a scandal’. the authors of Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today adopted ‘“national” economies’ as the appropriate unit of analysis63 and believed that the case for socialism in Britain depended on ‘practical achievements in political struggle and socialist construction’64 at home. p. 5.61 Whether it must is debatable.

Redemption of a ‘weak and ghettoized’ British Left lay in ‘taking reformism seriously’. The immediate spur to this progress was undoubtedly the situation within Labour. and would provoke too great a resistance to it. 282 ff. the reprehensible workerism and statism of both labourist and revolutionary socialist traditions must finally be put to rest. The Moving Right Side-Show The medium for this moving right side-show was a journal founded in 1980.69 The overall tone was set in the first number. 5–6.67 More moderation was necessary. This was a profoundly unwelcome development. in their turn. This had rallied the Communist Party. pp. drifted further along the road of revisions to the right. hostility to incomes policy. in which the AES was scourged in these suggestive terms: ‘The British Left can hardly expect to be taken seriously when it claims to favour the most extensive 67 68 MCCT. it comprised in itself numerous shibboleths that needed to be jettisoned: commitment to nationalization. Moreover. Anticipating many of the later concerns of Marxism Today in academic format. however. the post-Althusserians—in common with increasing numbers of others—opted for the former. one soon followed by the disgrace of Eurosocialism. London 1980. the banner of an Alternative Economic Strategy had been raised. MCCT. By the start of the eighties Eurocommunism itself had suffered a general debacle in Southern Europe. and the overall policies pursued by it. it brought together Labour and Communist intellectuals in the interests of a general ‘reconstruction of the left’. opposition to cuts in public expenditure. retracting previous indictments in the name of ‘realism’ and reserving their hostility for the latter. In these conditions. the AES was brusquely rejected as unsuitable—it presumed too great an exercise of state power. Politics and Power. a dismal Callaghan epilogue had given way to the triumphant rule of Thatcher.the party.68 At the time these enjoinders were made. pp. there was a limited audience for them on the Left. leading to the SDP secession. 69 See Politics and Power 1. II. In the United States Reagan was mobilizing a Second Cold War. the authors of Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Marxism Today precisely did not endorse the politics of the Left that was engaged in trying to change the Labour Party. pp. Above all. for the worse. The general resurgence of militant reaction rapidly shifted the whole parameters of bien-pensant culture on the left. 292–93. where it found wide favour among most intellectuals as well. Confronted with a choice between traditional labourism and an unexpectedly combative socialism. Even incipient intellectual cousins in the CP were still some distance from such bald moderatism. 262. Against the latter. II. it was not long before a wider constituency for ideas first canvassed by Hirst and his colleagues emerged—even as they. After a conventional enough Left advocacy of gradualism in general. 101 . But within a short span of time the national and international conjuncture had changed again. In Britain. where—confounding their hopes— the Bennite insurgency rocked the Party to its foundations in 1980– 81. On the contrary. 263–64.

London 1981. and assuring Sue Slipman. 67–82.71 On the international front. and PP 4. 156. clamouring for the preservation of a ‘broad Church’. urged respect for the role of the family under liberal 70 71 David Purdy. 102 . 218. writing that ‘the implications for radicals in politics of Paul Hirst’s conclusions are horrific’. . 205–18. The successful management of the British economy is an important and worthwhile political objective for the Labour Party. CND was alerted against the ‘bestial system of repression emanating from Moscow’ and told that ‘Western Europe definitely does have something to defend’ in the NATO order.72 Hirst and fellow-interviewers for their part were enquiring of MP Frank Field how the Left’s proclivity for ‘patently unrealistic policies’ might be avoided. Reviewing Jacques Donzelot’s The Policing of Families. Parliamentary Democracy and Socialist Politics. the journal had in general been a theatre of drastic shifts in outlook. pp. . he had declared that feminists must ‘adjust their politics to the place of the family in capitalism’ and take ‘full account of mass investment in the values of family life’. if at the same time its economic programme savours of the alien and oppressive traditions of the East. 67.75 In fact. former Communist student leader freshly converted to the SDP. p. rejected price controls as impractical while asserting the necessity of wage controls. ‘The Impasse Facing CND’. 75 Sec Paul Hirst. Hirst’s evolution proved anathema rather closer to home.73 Meanwhile Barry Hindess was polemicizing against talk of a Left Labour government. At this the majority of women on the board of Politics and Power quit the journal. .’70 The second issue contained a glowing affidavit for Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin as paragons of socialist virtue. p. . 83–92. London 1980. PP 3. 72 David Fernbach. 74 Hindess’s contributions were subsequently expanded and published in book form: see Barry Hindess. ridiculing radical criticism of the Callaghan years. concluding: ‘In the eyes of many of its supporters and affiliated unions Labour’s task is not to overthrow capitalist society but precisely to manage it better . PP 2. pp. and scouting the idea of an anti-Thatcher coalition. yet appeared oblivious of the fact that as recently as Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today—only two years before—the ‘standpoint of national “economic management”’ had been eschewed by him. In the end what is most disturbing about the dominant strategies for a left Labour government is that they seem designed to ensure that Labour doesn’t get the chance to manage capitalism at all. that they at least did not consider her a renegade—while vainly seeking to impress her with the good sense of Denis Healey. p.democratization of all aspects of social and economic life and to uphold the traditions of Western Parliamentary Democracy. ‘The Left’s Alternative Economic Strategy’. Beatrix Campbell and Rosalind Coward. featuring a group of intellectuals who variously doubted the very existence of capitalism. PP 3. Nina Fishman. p. and that ‘nothing differentiates his position from old-fashioned Labourism’. PP 3. ‘Feminists—the Degenerates of the Social?’. toyed with monetarism. ‘The Genesis of the Social’. pp. 31. PP 1. ‘The Labour Government 1945–51’. and Fran Bennett. London 1981.’74 Hindess acknowledged that his views would be ‘anathema to many on the left’. London 1983. 73 See PP 2. and one that will be difficult enough to satisfy . at the same time contrasting the sincerity and practicality of Anthony Crosland in later days with the coerciveness of Bennery. pluralism and civil liberty. denounced nationalization as alien and Eastern.

was it. Many on the Left will dismiss this with contempt. therefore. A recent collection. of commanding the respect of the leading administrators in the civil service and local government and of management in the big public and private corporations. with far greater sense of public relations and journalistic effect. paid homage to the traditions of Morrison and Crosland. as eager outriders of the Kinnock bandwagon. it had proved premonitory. In it. of New Fabian Essays or New Statesman. It stands in clear contrast with the experience of the Tory party in the postMacmillan era. James Callaghan and Merlyn Rees. Paul Hirst showed his ability to keep one or two steps ahead of his contemporaries. MHW. 152. However short-lived. scorned every element of even the most modest Labour Left. and opted fulsomely for the American Alliance and NATO. p. pp. after congratulating the Centre and Right of the Labour Party for their ‘genuine realism’. in the period since 1965 (sic) and until the débâcle of 1979. over the past three years. It was capable. If ever there was a ‘discourse of resignation in the face of capital’. has been the Eurolabourist consensus that now constitutes the standard conformism of so much of the intellectual Left in Britain. of providing efficient and stable decision-making within the prevailing parliamentary and economic system and. turned towards the Centre and Right once he was defeated as Deputy Leader. surely. The familiar result. By 1982 the Communist Party leadership and its principal organ Marxism Today. The combination of obsequiousness towards an archaic British establishment and delusions of matchless service to it here reaches a pitch of inanity rarely equalled 76 Marxism 77 and Historical Writing. Marxism and Historical Writing. The last issue of Politics and Power appeared in the Christmas of 1981. which had wooed Benn when the tide was running for the Left in the Labour Party. ‘Labour’s Crisis—Principles and Priorities for Social Reconstruction’. contains an essay first drafted with Barry Hindess in 1982 and then reworked in 1985. The ability to make the system “work” is a condition for electoral success and for its meaningful and acceptable reform.76 Hirst goes on to write in more general terms: ‘The Labour Party has been an effective party of government. It is a crucial condition for being able to do anything in the way of alternative policies and significant reforms.capitalism. admired the British Constitution and its civil service. and restricting polemic to those committed to its abolition. but they are unwise to do so. Henceforward they would take up many of the themes and positions pioneered by Hirst and his colleagues. Even as this took shape. that is an astonishing document even by the norms of the prevailing wisdom. Civil servants. This was taking reformism seriously indeed: promoting the administration and amelioration of capitalism. local government officials and businessmen are widely resentful and critical of capricious and unpredictable Tory decision-making. and the Leader for his ‘radical but realistic campaigning position’.’77 It would be difficult to imagine even the Editors of Marxism Today or New Socialist. 103 . however. this. giving quite this encomium to the Golden Age of Harold Wilson and George Brown. 156. 154.

but to the inspiration of Marx. 7–8. p. to take such a laborious detour via Marx and Engels. is strong because it ‘remains in touch with the opinions of the British people and the facts of political life. For Labour’s transcendent virtue lies.even in the annals of Labourism and Fabianism. but I will not accept the charge of ceasing to be a Marxist. then. Yet the same epistemological relativism generated sociological pluralism. Renationalization is undesirable. lost causes or the existence of human evil’. and politics from economics. I cannot renounce the broadest aims Marx set himself. 80 MHW. where Marxist politics ‘cannot accept ambiguities.’78 Was it really necessary. 154. An Absolutism of the Intellect Where. ‘The party as a whole’. Socialism dwindled to social reconstruction. 104 . p. of course. Lenin and Mao. do these latest pronouncements leave their author? No doubt sensing the problem. A permanent incomes policy is essential. Hirst admits elsewhere in the same volume that he has been ‘led a long way from the words. of course. Limited measures of ‘industrial democracy’ might compensate for a necessary shake-out in manpower. but Labour is ideally placed to reform them. My work makes no sense if I reject what Marx tried to do rather than how he did it. I will admit to being heterodox and ultra-critical. 81 MHW. absurdities.81 Liberal pieties have replaced Leninist dogmas. In reality. Such has 78 79 MHW. materialism was demoted and then erased altogether. The ‘principles and priorities for social reconstruction’ themselves form a familiar enough roster. to provide the theoretical basis for a non-utopian socialist politics which would lead the people of this earth to make a human condition without famines.79 But at the same time he continues to protest his fidelity not merely to the project of Althusser. Foucault and Lacan. with their traditionally bovine respect for the British state. Trade unions bear a heavy responsibility for industrial inefficiency. 28. All thought of a left Labour government must be abandoned. MHW. Such is what is left of Marxism at the end of the pilgrimage which started with Theoretical Practice—no longer a jot that would distinguish historical materialism from any other theoretical outlook or separate the aspirations of socialism from the professions of its enemies. Striking a new note of pathos he now avows: ‘I cannot abandon or renounce the claim to be a Marxist given my theoretical and political position. on the contrary. indeed. concepts and political positions of Marx’. in the same pages. ideology from class. The authentic accents of the repented and redeemed tell their own story. ignorance.’80 Ronald Reagan himself. in order to arrive at the ‘opinions of the British people and the facts of political life’? 6. yes. as a critique of representation disconnected language from reality. In the course of that transformation. Althusser and Bachelard. p. could subscribe to this worthy catalogue. Hirst has long since parted with Marx. war and oppression. pp. which justified political reformism. 7. as Hirst puts it. in its very amplitude and indefinition.

In this respect. and from socialism to social-democracy. Bref. and whoever has received their temporary benediction have exclusively occupied the place of rigorous theory and realistic politics. Marxism above all calls for a fallibilist conception of knowledge. his colleagues. The recent ‘deconstruction’ of Marxism has been destructive both politically—reinventing capitalism in the act of reconstructing socialism—and intellectually. by encouraging necessary criticisms and forestalling gratuitous disillusionments of the kind narrated here. Hirst’s relation to other socialists has never substantially changed: it remains a stance of militant Reformation. embracing and parading the whole of a doctrine as apodictic only to dismiss it shortly afterwards as worthless. from Leninism to Labourism. than with general styles of intellectual work on the Left. ought to be over. But such reformation is most needed elsewhere—in that intellectual practice which adopts and rejects positions in toto. marxisme faute de mieux. The ‘necessity of theory’ currently underpins a politics that mingles echoes of Hattersley with undertones of Owen. as Sartre once said. from structural Marxism (unconditional Althusserianism) to post-structural non-Marxism (critical Foucauldianism)—Hirst. This is not to claim that classical Marxism is some foundational truth in comparison with which all else is mere passing opinion. But from first to last. the vantage-point from which all others may be indicted. But it is to say that as a research programme historical materialism will only be surpassed when it has been improved upon. The only safe surmise for the future is that these are unlikely to be the last of its vicissitudes. The age of such theoretical absolutism. from whatever quarter of the Left. 105 . From Theoretical Practice to Economy and Society to Politics and Power. For throughout his career Hirst’s work has been characterized by an enduring absolutism all the more impressive for his multiple and abrupt changes of direction. from science of history to theory of modes of production to theoretical framework for analysis of social formations. Greater initial sobriety about the present explanatory powers of historical materialism than that ever displayed by such as the Young Hirst can only serve to enhance them. The sharpest lessons of this journey have less to do with specific positions adopted or rejected in the course of it.been the odyssey of Paul Hirst to date. from rationalist epistemology to critique of epistemology. from Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production to Mode of Production and Social Formation to Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today to Marxism and Historical Writing. whatever the political or intellectual way-station. the lonely hour of the theoretical instance has never ceased to strike.

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