Part III: The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism

The preceding papers have already formulated the idea that Marx's work contains a general scientific theory of history. In particular, they have shown that, in the formulation of this theory, Marx's construction of the central concept of the 'mode of production' has the function of an epistemological break with respect to the whole tradition of the philosophy of history. For in its generality it is absolutely incompatible with the principles of idealism, whether dogmatic or empiricist, and it progressively revolutionizes the whole problematic of society and history.

If this is the case, we know that it is because Marx's 'historical materialism' gives us not only elements of scientific historical knowledge (e.g., elements restricted to the history of 'bourgeois' society, in its economic and political aspects), but, in principle, a true theoretical science, and therefore an abstract science. The concept of the 'mode of production' and the concepts immediately related to it thus appear as the first abstract concepts whose validity is not as such limited to a given period or type of society, but on which, on the contrary, the concrete knowledge of this period and type depends. Hence the importance of defining them at the level of generality that they demand, i.e., in fact, the importance of posing a number of problems which the science of history has been waiting for since Marx.

Althusser however, in his paper, has shown us that the explicit formulation (and therefore recognition) of an abstract theory of history is surrounded by difficulties and ambiguities. He has shown the historical and philosophical reasons for this. Marx's theory was able to realize the paradox of having as its constant object the very history whose scientific knowledge it inaugurated, and yet of offering nowhere the adequate concept of this history, reflected for itself. I should like first to add a few specifications of this point, which will serve as a direct introduction to my particular problem.

It is not quite accurate to say that this theoretical formulation is missing: several texts give a remarkable outline of it, e.g., the first section of The German Ideology (which already contained a whole new definition of 'production'), the various preparatory drafts for Capital collected into the Grundrisse der Kritik der politishen Ökonomie,[1] and above all the Preface to
1 Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf 1857-8), Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1953. Notable among these manuscripts is the one called Formen, die der kapitalistischen [cont. onto p. 203. -- DJR] Produktion vorhergehen, pp. 375-413. References below are to this text and to the English translation by Jack Cohen, edited and introduced by E. J. Hobsbawm, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, Lawrence and Wishart, London 1964.

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A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the terms of which have been constantly discussed in the Marxist tradition. These are very general, prospective or summary texts; texts in which the sharpness of the distinctions and the peremptoriness of the claims are only equalled by the brevity of the justifications, the elliptical nature of the definitions. By an unfortunate accident, which is really a true historical necessity, the only expositions of the principles of the theory of history and the main expositions of its method (the 1857 Introduction ) are of this type, and most of them were also intentionally left as incomplete and unpublished manuscripts. So despite the malicious critical intentions that inspire those readers of Marx who have asked 'Where precisely did Marx set out his conception of history?', they have not been completely unfair.

The reader will be familiar with the young Lenin's answer in What the Friends of the People Really Are :[2] this theory is everywhere, but in two forms; the Preface to A Contribution presents 'the hypothesis of historical materialism'; Capital sets this hypothesis to work and verifies it against the example of the capitalist social formation. These concepts enable Lenin to formulate what is for us a decisive commentary: in the expression 'historical materialism', 'materialism' means no more than science, and the expression is strictly synonymous with that of 'science of history'. But at the same time, these concepts belong organically to the empiricist, even pragmatist theory of science, and this text of Lenin's is throughout an application of such a theory (hypothesis/verification). However, let us reconsider its movement in other terms.

In reality, this Preface to A Contribution, if it is read attentively, does not present us with the form of a hypothesis, but explicitly that of an answer, an answer to a question we must try to reconstitute.

As an example, let us take a familiar text, one of those programme-texts whose interest I have just discussed, in which Marx states what was new in what he had proved : his letter to Weydemeyer on 5 March 1852:

No credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society, nor yet the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle of the classes, and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production. . . .

2 Lenin: 'What the Friends of the People Really Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats', Collected Works, Vol. 1.

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Here we find a procedure characteristic of Marx when he wants to think his own 'novelty', i.e., his rupture, his scientificity: the delimitation of a classicism. Just as there is an economic classicism (in England), there is a historical classicism, represented by the French and German historians of the early nineteenth century (Thierry, Guizot and Niebuhr). This, therefore, is Marx's point of departure: their point of arrival. Historical knowledge in its most advanced form shows the succession of 'civilizations', 'political regimes', 'events', 'cultures', organized and rationalized by a series of class struggles, a general form whose patterns can be listed: slaves and free citizens, patricians and plebeans, serfs and feudal lords, masters and journeymen, land-owners and bourgeois, bourgeois and proletarians, etc. This heritage, this fact, proposed by history, but itself already the result of a labour of knowledge, is reflected in the famous opening of the Manifesto : 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.' This sentence is not the first statement of Marx's theory, it predates it, it summarizes the raw material of its work of transformation.

This is a very important point, for it enables us to formulate Marx's question more precisely, the question contained in the Preface to A Contribution: on what conditions can the claim that history is the history of class struggles be a scientifc utterance ? In other words what classes are these? what are classes? what is their struggle?

If we turn to the text of the Preface itself, we do indeed find an exposition of a relationship between the 'social formation' (Gesellschaftsformation ) and its 'economic base' or 'economic structure' (Struktur ), the anatomy of which is constituted by the study of the mode of production. The social formation is the site of a first 'contradiction' between the classes which Marx describes in terms of struggle, war, and opposition, a 'contradiction' which can be 'now hidden, now open', and whose terms are 'in a word, oppressor and oppressed' (The Communist Manifesto ). Here it is related just as to its essence to a second form of 'contradiction' which Marx is always very careful not to confuse with the first, even terminologically: he calls it an 'antagonism', 'not in the sense of individual antagonism' (nicht im individuellen Sinn ), i.e., not a struggle between men but an antagonistic structure; it is inside the economic base, typical of a determinate mode of production, and its terms are called 'the level of the productive forces' and 'the relations of production'. The antagonism between the productive forces and the relations of production has the effect of a revolutionary rupture, and it is this effect which determines the transition from one mode of production to another ('progressive epochs in the economic formation of society'), and thereby the transformation of the whole social formation. Marx himself chose to restrict his study to the level of the relatively autonomous sphere or stage of this 'antagonism' inside the economic structure.

But it remains strictly impossible for us to locate this sphere, since the terms that define it do not yet have any meaning. Indeed, it would be

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absolutely wrong to take the descriptive style of some of these terms or the direct simplicity with which Marx presents them as a pretext for believing them to be given in immediate experience and of obvious significance. On the contrary, they have been produced by Marx (who is careful to remind us -- notably in his use of the term 'civil society' -- that a considerable part of the raw material of this production had been constituted by economic and philosophical tradition), and they are so little obvious that it is extremely difficult to make use of them in actual sociological analyses without first mastering the definitions that Marx gave of them elsewhere. That is why they are often described from the standpoint of bourgeois empiricist sociology as paradoxical, heteroclite or inconsistent, or else assimilated without further ado to other terms: technology, economics, institutions, human relations, etc.

Taking this textual reading further, we can draw from it the two principles on which is based the transformation of history into a science: the principle of periodization and the principle of the articulation of the different practices in the social structure. One diachronic principle, it seems, and one synchronic principle. The principle of the articulation of the practices refers to the construction (Bau ) or mechanism of 'correspondence' in which the social formation is presented as constituted out of different levels (we shall also speak of them as instances and practices). Marx lists three : the economic base, the legal and political superstructures, and the forms of social consciousness. As for periodization, it distributes history according to the epochs of its economic structure. These two principles introduce a double reduction of temporal continuity. Leaving aside the problem of primitive societies (i.e., the way Marx conceived the origin of society: there is no allusion to this here, any more than there is in the Manifesto ), there is, first, a reduction to an absolute invariance in the elements which are found in every social structure (an economic base, legal and political forms, and ideological forms); second, there is a division into periods which replaces historical continuity with a discontinuity, a succession of temporarily invariant states of the structure which change by rapid mutation ('revolution'): the antagonism that induces the mutation can only be defined by this invariance itself, i.e., by the permanence of the terms which it opposes.
These states of the structure are the modes of production, and the history of society can be reduced to a discontinuous succession of modes of production.
Now it is essential to pose the question of the theoretical status of these concepts. Are they all positive concepts? Does the text as a whole have a homogeneous content of theoretical knowledge, at the level of scientific abstraction which I have just discussed, as Gramsci thinks, for example, regarding it as he does as the most exact exposition of the 'philosophy of praxis'?

I think, on the contrary, that within theoretical practice itself, this text has the status of what is called a set of practical concepts.[3] In other words, this text offers
3 Louis Althusser: 'A Complementary Note on Real Humanism', For Marx, pp. 242-7.

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us concepts which still depend in their formulation precisely on the problematic which has to be displaced; at the same time, without being able to think it in its concept they indicate where we must go in order to pose otherwise (and at the same stroke solve) a new problem which has arisen within the old problematic.

To demonstrate this characteristic, I shall take as my main example the concept of periodization. This concept belongs completely to the traditional conception of history which Marx is questioning here. It is the concept of discontinuity in continuity, the concept which fragments the line of time, thereby finding the possibility of understanding historical phenomena in the framework of an autonomous totality (in this general form, the problem does not change whether we look for 'civilizations' or for 'structures' as opposed to 'conjunctures'). Thus the concept of periodization gives theoretical form to a problem which historians have never been able to evade in their practice, but without itself providing them with a theoretical solution, a precise theoretical methodology, for fundamental reasons which the rest of this paper will reveal. A problem which manifestly haunts these texts of Marx's, too: the problem of the 'right break'. If the right break or breaks are found, history, without ceasing to unfold in the linear flux of time, becomes intelligible as the relationship between an essential permanence and a subordinate movement. The questions necessarily contained in this problematic do not differ in their essence whether it is economic structures or ages (the 'age of Louis XIV') that have to be distinguished. The latter formulation even has the advantage that it constantly reminds us that these problems are constrained to respect the conditions imposed on them by the linearity of time: or in other words to transpose all discontinuities onto the plane of temporal discontinuities. It is in this way that it has been possible for the main instrument of historical conceptualization which emerged in modern economic history to have been a distinction between the long term and the short term, i.e., a distinction entirely 'rotated' into the linearity of time. The historian seeks to distinguish the long-term phenomena from the short-term phenomena, and to show how the latter are inserted into the movement of the former and into their determinism. At the same time, he perpetuates two kinds of difficulties: those relating to the notion of the historical event, which is assessed according to the single criteria of brevity (suddenness) and is therefore almost of necessity confined to the sphere of political events; and those relating to the impossibility of making clean breaks.

Marx therefore seems to treat matters in exactly the same way; simply proposing a new criterion of periodization, a means of making the right break, the one which gives the best periods, the periods which must not be described as artificial but not arbitrary, but which correspond to the very nature of historical social reality.[4] In fact, if we are to take the idea of an
4 'Artificial but not arbitrary.' Here I have adopted Auguste Comte's very words in the Cours de philosophie positive (First Lecture, Vol. I, p. 24) about the division of science [cont. onto p. 206. -- DJR] into several branches. The problem of the 'break' between the different states of a single science is of the same nature: 'It is impossible to assign a precise origin to this revolution . . . It is constantly more and more complete. . . . However, . . . it is convenient to fix an epoch in order to prevent our ideas from straying' (ibid., p. 10). Bacon, Descartes and Galileo thus determine the transition of physics to positivity, and at the same time the beginning of the general preponderance of the positive state. With his double articulation of the sciences and the law of the three states, Comte is the most rigorous thinker so far of this general theoretical problem: how the distinct practices which constitute a 'division of labour' are articulated together, and how this articulation varies with the mutations in these practices ('breaks').

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epistemological rupture seriously, we should have to say that the very nature of the criterion chosen (epochs in the economic structure) implies a complete transformation of the way the problem has to be posed. Marx would say: in order to periodize the history of mankind, we must approach it from the side of economic science rather than from that of art, politics, science or law. But it is then clear that what is theoretically essential in this concept, what is new in its contribution, what defines it differentially, cannot lie in the general form that it has in common with all the other periodizations, but in its particular answer to the question.

We must now think in all its epistemological singularity the form in which Marx proposes his own theory to us here: the theoretical specificity of Marx's own concept of periodization lies solely in the fact that it is a particular answer to a question which, for its part, belongs to an old problematic, a question which is not decisive in the constitution of the science. Such a situation necessarily implies and envelops Marx's own inability to justify his particular answer at this level -- in fact it is impossible to justify it at this level -- and that is perhaps why the text we are discussing is so dogmatically brief; and also Marx's inability to formulate the true theoretical concept of this periodization, since it would be the concept of the only way to periodize which abolishes the earlier problematic of periodization based on the linear conception of time and at grips with it.

What is true of the concept of periodization is also necessarily true of the concepts in the Preface which designate the different instances of the social structure other than the economic base (which, as we have seen, is designated by new concepts which are specific if not yet defined: productive forces, relations of production, mode of production). These concepts and all the terms which designate the peculiar articulation of their objects ('corresponds ', 'on which rises', etc.) are remarkably vague and yet they have sustained all Marxist reflection on the problem of ideologies and superstructures. They have no other function than to indicate where, provisionally, Marx is not going to go on this occasion; they do not therefore constitute a knowledge of these levels and their mutual relations, but merely a practical registration (practical in the sense of theoretical practice, of course) which disengages the level of the economic structure which Marx is now undertaking to study, in its relative autonomy. Nevertheless, if this registration is to be possible,

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certain theoretical conditions must be met which constitute its real meaning: on condition that its concept is redefined, the economic structure must really possess the relative autonomy which allows us to delimit it as an independent field of research. A plurality of instances must be an essential property of every social structure (but we shall regard their number, names and the terms which designate their articulation as subject to revision); the problem of the science of society must be precisely the problem of the forms of variation of their articulation.[5]

Finally, these same comments are valid for the concept 'men ': the 'men' who support the whole process. Let me say without prevarication that all the rest of this paper is governed by a principle of critical reading, which I hope will be granted me: I shall refrain from pre-judging the meaning of such a term ('men') until I have elucidated its conceptual function in the theoretical structure which contains it -- since its theoretical meaning depends entirely on this function. The 'obviousness', the 'transparency' of the word 'men' (here charged with every carnal opacity) and its anodyne appearance are the most dangerous of the traps I am trying to avoid. I shall not be satisfied until I have either situated it and founded it in the necessity of the theoretical system to which it belongs, or eliminated it as a foreign body, and in this latter case, replaced it by something else. The formulations in this Preface ('In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations . . . their material productive forces . . . It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being . . . ideological forms in which men become conscious
5 Here we should note a serious difficulty for our reading, not only where the Contribution is concerned, but also Capital : the term 'social formation' which Marx uses, may be either an empirical concept designating the object of a concrete analysis, i.e., an existence : England in 1860, France in 1870, Russia in 1917, etc., or else an abstract concept replacing the ideological notion of 'society' and designating the object of the science of history insofar as it is a totality of instances articulated on the basis of a determinate mode of production. This ambiguity includes, first, philosophical problems of a theory of science and of the concept, which are not explicitly solved, and the empiricist tendency to think the theoretical object of an abstract science as a mere 'model' of existing realities (see Althusser's paper on this point). But, secondly, it also includes an objective omission from historical materialism itself, which can only be imputed to the inevitably gradual character of its development: Capital, which expounds the abstract theory of the capitalist mode of production, does not undertake to analyse concrete social formations which generally contain several different modes of production, whose laws of coexistence and hierarchy must therefore be studied. The problem is only implicitly and partially contained in the analysis of ground rent (Volume Three); it is only present practically in Marx's historical and political works (The Eighteenth Brumaire, etc.); Lenin alone, in The Development of Capitalism in Russia and the works of the period of the transition to socialism, begins to treat this problem theoretically.

And we should also note that the insufficient elaboration, in this first draft, of the concepts which designate the articulation of the instances of the social formation, is in itself the (negative) cause of a constant confusion in Marxist literature between the social formation and its economic infra-structure (which is itself often related to one mode of production). Many of the contemporary discussions of non-capitalist or pre-capitalist modes of production bear witness to this.

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of this conflict . . .') must be compared with many others in The German Ideology, in The Poverty of Philosophy, in the correspondence (notably in Engels's letter to Bloch: 'We (=men) make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions . . .'). All these formulations are the matrices of the idea that it is men who make history on the basis of previous conditions. But who are these 'men'? A first, 'naïve' reading of our Preface suggests that they are firstly the agents of the process of the historical transformation of the social structure via the mediation of the activity of economic production. We are to understand that men produce their material means of survival, and at the same time, the social relations in which they produce, which are either maintained or transformed. In consequence, they are secondly the real (concrete) supports of the different practices articulated into the social structure: this articulation is precisely given only by the men who at one and the same time take part in the production process, are legal subjects and are consciousnesses. The importance of this concept can thus be measured by the function of structural cohesion it fulfils in theory. But its ambiguity is revealed in the fact that it belongs simultaneously to several incompatible systems of concepts: theoretical and non-theoretical, scientific and ideological. The concept of 'men' thus constitutes a real point where the utterance slips away towards the regions of philosophical or commonplace ideology. The task of epistemology here is to stop the utterance slipping away by fixing the meaning of the concept.

If this really is the ambiguous status of these concepts, if they really are practical concepts, signal concepts within a still unbalanced problematic (periodization, correspondence -- articulation of the practices, men), then this task becomes necessary. I propose to begin this work here, an explicit labour which transforms these 'practical' concepts into theoretical concepts of the Marxist theory of history, a labour which strips them of their present theoretical form in order to make them theoretically adequate to their practical content. At the same time, those concepts, which are no more than expressions of the exigencies of the old ideological problematic, will disappear completely. And at the same time, too, weak and open points will appear which will demand the production of new theoretical concepts even in the region explored by Marx, and make this production possible. For, at the most abstract level, the fruitful incompleteness of Marx's work is the necessary effect of its scientific character.

Since the theoretical concepts of the Preface to A Contribution have this compound status as the anticipations and summaries (or 'results') of an analysis, the text of Capital cannot therefore constitute a mere 'verification' or application of them. The text of Capital, in its necessary order of exposition, is the process of the production, construction and definition of these theoretical concepts, or at least of some of them. If we take the 'mode of production' as the main object of our analysis, it is because in that very exposition Marx himself designates the theoretical object of Capital as the concept of the capitalist mode of production.

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