Capital in (De)Composition: How to Read the Circuits of Capital


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Emerging from the depths of Volume One of Capital and into the world of circulation in Volume Two tends to leave one in a state of dizziness. What was presented in Volume One, the production of surplus value, is a relatively simple schematic, comprised of one social relation between two actors, capital and labor. For the most part, the production of surplus-value could be easily, if abstractly, mapped onto a relatively closed, narrow system-image. A particular factory would suffice as the site for mapping the universal process within total capitalist production. Volume Two, however, following the emergence of the commodity from the factory into circulation brings with it a much wider array of determinations and possible actors.

Marx grapples with this variegated, moving, total social realm by constructing three abstract schemas, each characterized by the particular form taken by capital that drives forward the process and delimits the qualifications for its normal functioning. It’s this latter subject-matter that will be the focal point for these rough notes. If the productive process reveals the highest contradiction within capital, that between the capitalist and the worker, the circuits capital must take in its valorization unearth a whole series of other possible latent contradictions, gaps, and barriers to the normal functioning of capital.

Marx in Capital is not merely re-presenting an image, a conceptualization of capitalism out of a purely objective, separate sense of analysis. Rather, the project of critiquing political economy is one that necessarily attempts to reproduce conceptually the real, concrete points of contention and struggle that are possible within capital. The scientific presentation of capital is an critical sense, a map for the immanent, conscious negation of it. When reading through the first chapters of Volume Two, we should approach the three circuits with an eye towards their possible decomposition. Reflecting the nature of reproduction as shaped and reconfigured by the contradictory-in-unity relations of capital, such decomposition can occur through two distinct, though interlocking mechanisms: money’s movement against humanity or humanity’s movement against money.


Tracing Autonomia: From Post-War Reconstruction to Insurrection (Part One)


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Thus we hear of the “subjective preparation” of the proletariat, of the “education” of the proletariat (and whose turn is it to play the role of educator?); but everybody knows that only those who jump in water learn how to swim (and for this reason, among others, it is best to start by throwing the Enlightened “educator” in the water).

-Raniero Panzieri, Seven Theses on Workers’ Control (1958)


Fiat workers on strike, 1969



The Italian struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s stand alongside the 1968 French mobilizations as the major cultural and political reference points by which much of the amorphous communist-anarchist groupings of the past few decades have come to understand themselves. Not much has to be said for the romantic cadences of these struggles. They involved actors, areas of action, and tactics bursting with novelty, innovating against their less mobile ‘institutional’ communist counterparts (and at times, adversaries).

Yet in the case of the radical reception of Italy, there remains an analytic gap. A critical political economic approach has not been widespread within the reception of the Italian revolutionary aura. Such an approach would trace the historical, objective mediations that determined the appearance and repetition of particular revolutionary actors, forms, and practices. This lack is not merely a gap in the historical record; it belies a greater need to grasp the identity (and the difference) that exists between this moment and that previous one. Without this, the logic of revolution at play then—and the one developing today—remain obscure.

By ‘political economy,’ something much more complex than economic performance or dynamics is indicated (though this is not to say that such measures/categories are not within the realm of political economy). These “objective” elements are emphasized in the first part of this study/overview out of the belief that they, at a *broad* level, give shape to the social moving whole. Political economy denotes the total configuration of political, social, and economic relations operating within historically determinant and capital specific bounds or forms.

This articulation of capital should be regarded as the articulation of specific class-structured social relations expressed and existing through objects like money and commodities which mediate and determine social relations and the terms involved in these relations (between specific capitals and specific workers, between Capital as a whole and the Proletariat as a whole, between the State and Capital, between the different factions of Capital, between different segments of the Proletariat as a whole).

These relations are never expressed in their ‘purity’ or ‘essence’. The pure proletarian never comes up against the pure capitalist allied with the pure State. Specific historical, national, and international conditions give existing society a richness that is difficult to fully grasp under any one method of analysis or crystallized political strategy.

One key conclusion of this overview is that revolutionary situations emerge in periods of reconfiguration and transformation of existing capitalist relations. These periods are often set off by ‘economic’ crises that clarify current limits to continued capitalist accumulation. By working within, coming up against, and overcoming existing political forms as well as constructing new ones, the different elements of class society mobilize in such a way to either construct a new configuration that reproduces the ultimate bounds of capitalist society or initiate the foundation of a new, non-capitalist society.

The first part of this brief study outlines the general nature and trends of Italian political and economic development, focusing on the the post-war period up until the mid-1960s following the first major break with post-war growth trends in 1963. The 1963 slump highlighted major tensions in Italian social reproduction, as well as bringing into relief vast changes that had occurred and that were occurring in Italian civil society and its concurrent class composition. The second part will focus on the cycles of struggle that emerged in the 1968/69 “Hot Autumn” and carrying on to the mid-1970s wave of social struggles, proletarian youth groups, and armed far-left sects. A typology of the forms of struggle that found a degree of generalization will be presented. Finally, some remarks on the resonance between the Italian cycles of struggle and present cycles of struggle will be put forward. If so much attention is paid to this particular episode in the history of class struggle and capitalist development, it is out the belief that there is a deep, structural continuity between that moment and the present moment.

PART ONE: Towards the Hot Autumn and Beyond

Italian Political Economy: A Brief Overview


Italy prior to unification


If all European states exhibit a peculiarity in their origins, then Italy proves to be an exceptionally illustrative case that accords to this historical rule. The Italian state was formed in a manner that diverged from the classical bourgeois political model. In its coalition of revolutionary classes, the Italian bloc displayed none of the working-class or peasant initiative present in the French case. The Italian alliance of bourgeois and landed classes bypassed any tactical or institutional ties to the unpropertied classes. State organs and political channels of contestation created in the aftermath of unification left no room for determination or participation by the mass, unpropertied classes. Clientelism was profoundly widespread, with popular classes integrated into the political functioning of the Italian state only through irregular and localized relations of direct benefit in exchange for acquiescence.

The popular classes were thus external to the state’s regular functioning. While the Italian state was able to evade the kind of social democratic pressure and determination that was present elsewhere in Western Europe, it paid for this with generalized national disunity. Southern peasant resistance to nationalization and the persistence of local/familial networks not integrated into the national-state framework meant that the formally unified Italian state was never a unity in content. Prior to 1945, the working class of the North was regularly excluded from political activity. There was a severe lack of parties, elections, and greater civic ‘culture’ that could express the sectional interests of the popular classes. The corporatism of the fascist project precluded any such political autonomy. Italy experienced no period of political activity that resembled the social democratic configurations of Germany or France prior to 1945. Mobilization during the war resulted in the aggravation of class tensions rather than their dissolution into a stable national-civic body. The absence of popular participation in government thus precluded the kind of class coalitions that sprang up in Great Britain, the US, and France. This specifically geographic political disparity continued to characterize the Italian state in the post-war order. This was in part due to the particular nature of fascism’s retreat during the war, with the advanced bureaucratic apparatus of the fascist regime retreating to the North during much of the war and the South coming under the (mis)administration of the Allied command held onto liberated Italy.


The immediate political task of post-war Italy was the establishment of liberal, democratic parliamentary state. From the left, this task was taken upon by class organizations and the PCI as the “democratic revolution”. The revolutionary horizon was restricted to modernizing Italy politically, socially, economically. None of this portended a break with capitalist development—only its determination by social democratic parties. Whatever strategy or political program the PCI put forward was in a certain sense inconsequential. In 1948, political power was consolidated by the Center/Right led state parties and employers’ federation—a grasp on power that was to last until 1960. Postwar reconstruction along liberal-democratic lines gave way to the reconquest of the state by ex-fascists and its codification into law. There was widespread and heavy policing of industrial conflict, tasked with its depoliticization via violence and police repression. Between 1948-1954, repressive forces killed 75 workers and wounded 500 more. As we will discuss later, repression of independent class action also took less overtly violent forms.

What role then did the PCI play during this period? It limited itself essentially to rank-and-file reeducation. The ordering question was how it could integrate a body of workers and social networks into the project of democratization and nationalization? Though its political exclusion from governance ushered in the repression of independent, mass class organs, it remained tied to its strategy of social democracy and democratic ‘revolutionary’ horizons.

In many aspects, Italian reconstruction was an aberrant phenomenon in the European postwar trajectory, despite its inclusion in the Marshall Plan led period of European Reconstruction. It did not follow the pattern set by the Allied states. It’s development resulted in no welfare state, no set of effective social policies tasked with curbing instabilities in the employment relation. Its economic development was almost entirely determined by the needs of private capital, rather than constructed consciously so as to a produce a class-collaborative national body. The ‘economic miracle’ was itself not of the scale or intensity of the greater Western European miracles. Centered on export-based production with a small consumer base (only 11% had fridge in 1960!), industrialization resulted in the mass movement of labor from the South to the North due to the South’s continued technological and social stagnation. As the post-war period waned and the crisis years loomed, social tensions flared and political arrangements became increasingly unstable.

The decimation of independent civil society after the fascist reaction to the Red Years in 1922 explains in part why the creation of a new political arrangement was so haphazard. Labor unions during the fascist years were brought under state control and the State attempted widespread subsumption of all extra-work social activities. In this context, the intense years of Italian class struggle in the pre-Fascist years is misleading—left activity prior to and during the fascist resistance and the post-war period were in a real way discontinuous. The material tradition and cultural memory of communism was terribly decimated by fascist reaciton. Civil society as emerging from fascist rule was thus a project of thorough reconstruction rather than simple rehabilitation. The peculiar political trajectory of civil society was directly related to its decades of underdevelopment.

The Post-1960 Arrangement

The early 1960s bore out the reconfiguration of Italian political economic order, though at first firmly limited to a reformist horizon. In 1963, declining rates of growth set off this chain of political transformation. Resistance to right-wing coalition rule was exercised by the mass mobilization of left parties and their mass class bases. These political maneuvers were oriented around the democratic revolution, tasked with defending the nominally liberal constitution drawn up in the immediate aftermath of the war. This reformist strategy resulted in the formation of a Center-Left coalition.

The Center-Left coalition was ineffective in pushing through a reconstruction of the national economy based on the collaborative model of the welfare states. Blocked by factional private capitalist interests and the unyielding Christian Democrat Party (DC), this approach to Italy’s problems proved its limits in practice. The fundamental instabilities remained and their particular acuteness placed social issues (housing, health, education, etc.) firmly within the field of political contention. The 1963 general strike over housing was in this situation an initial sign of the working class and popular forms of political action that would emerge given the inability of existing parties and organizations to politically resolve questions of social reproduction.

1963 can be seen as the major line of demarcation in Post-War Italy’s political economic trajectory. All major and persistent tensions within Italy’s economic development erupted this year. Price inflation was rampant. Italy’s economy, based on the export of commodities, was facing a balance of payments deficit. Growth as a whole slowed, with new investment virtually ceasing. The high cost of labor figured as an especially tense site operated on by the trade unions, the militant rank and file, and the governing parties.

Though the PSI entered government alongside the Christian Democrats, there was still an inability to reorganize and stabilize the national situation. The post-war State’s underdeveloped social organs could not respond to the vast shifts in labor-capital relations—especially acute was the migration of labor to the Northern urban/industrial zones which couldn’t meet basic needs (housing, education, etc.). Politically, the Center-Left coalition proved weak and internally divided, unable to actualize the reform program.

Class Compostion in the Post-War Period


Milanese car factory, 1960s

Political defeat in the 1948 elections did not extend to a complete victory by reaction. Yet the 1950s witnessed major decline in organization/resistance. This was a period of the disciplining of the proletariat. 1950-59: mass redundancies, firing politically active workers; persistence unemployment; intense surveillance of labour; intensifying of absolute and relative surplus value production—taylorization of factory, deskilling and sucking up of unskilled labor; dismantling worker representation. A logic of industrial paternalism prevailed, alongside the exclusion of the PCI and CGIL from activity either within government or within the firm. A process of “declassing” or rather, extreme class fragmentation set in. Through the implementation of wage-differentials, factory hierarchies, and widespread favoritism, management sought to limit the extent to which militant unity within the firm could form. One division was to became structural within the post-war Western Economies at large (and often presented as the ‘demise’ of the proletariat’): white collar laborers of the firm materially set apart from low-skilled ‘shop floor’ labor.

Paternalism, however, had its limits. Profit rates still determined the extent and intensity of labor’s integration into the firm. The company created and controlled labor organizations failed to replace the CGIL or end general shop floor conflict. Despite widespread repression, political activity and agitation by the PCI and worker-militants in CGIL continued, though relatively isolated from majority of workers. The PCI’s position in relation to labor was itself ambivalent, often failing to connect to the rank and file.

The differentiation and deskilling of the labor force combined with rapid deunionization: from 61% to 23.7% union rates by the end of the 1950s. The unskilled and semiskilled labor brought in to replace skilled, older, and male labor was often young or female. Repression intesnfied the chasms between skilled and unskilled workers. White collar workers within the firm functioned as a “floating” class, unconnected to the traditional labor organizations and most extensively tied to factory paternalism. Alongside the composition of the workforce, the patterns of work themselves changed, with firms often replacing long-term employment with seasonal labor. These changes and their critical manipulation by management was never adequately analyzed by the CGIL or PCI. Communist and militant activity often failed to respond to changes within the class. The regular unions themselves contributed to the docility of labor. During the 1950s, the trade unions underwent an Americanization, collaborating with the firm and depoliticizing its activity.

The 1960s witnessed the emergence of resistance to the paternalism of the large firms and the deeply asymmetrical capital-labor relation. Mass mobilizations against the DC marked a turning point for politicized labor. These intensely political mass actions coupled with declining unemployment and economic upturn allowed workers greater bargaining power.

The North figured prominently in this resurgence. The years of the ‘economic miracle’ were characterized by a geographic concentration of new labor and rapid economic success without simultaneous gains by workers. Struggles were first generalized via wage conflicts—pushing against the regime of low wages and importantly, the practice of wage differentiation.

The capitalist counter-offensive came with the rationalization and restructuring of the plant to capture productivity gains. Speedups and increased workloads and continued suppression of independent labor organization/activity by management were also widespread. The tensions generated by this reversal were intensified by the CGIL/PCI class conscious propaganda and ideology of consumer needs.

The years prior to 1968/69 were a reversal of the gains of the early 1960s. Social democracy as the political horizon waned, with heightened class conflict and intense factional interests coupled to state weakness proscribing that path of development. 1963 to 1967 saw the return of high unemployment and reversal of wage gains via inflation. The internal weakness and political temerity of the Center-Left coalition and the unions riding in on the wave of social militancy meant a counter-revolution by management was all but unstoppable. Unions failed to encompass the divergent strands of newly incorporated labor and stuck to the male/skilled/older workers. The new elements entering the workforce failed to gain any adequate channels for action or organs of representation. The fundamentally asymmetrical structure of the firm that exposed them most went unchallenged and unchanged.

The capitalist counter-offensive did not mean a solid, unified class/state bloc. Division within the capitalist class itself was rife—the willingness of large firms with long-term capital investments to engage in political/collaborative reforms was stymied by the conservatism of the smaller firms that needed low wages and minimal government interference.

The crisis of the mid-60s illustrated the central role played by a strong, capable state and Italy’s own inability to achieve such a political formation. Private firms were unwilling to put forward the solutions it did not allow the state itself to produce. The capitalist class as a whole was unwilling to delegate the management of consensus-formation to the state. The state would then necessarily have to be given the capacity to act against the immediate interests of capital—activity essential to the distinctly capitalist state. What the struggles of the late 1960s then represent is the decomposition of a stable capitalist political form. This expressed itself not only in extreme levels of proletarian self-activity, but also in the cycling through of different governing coalitions, each operating with a dual strategy, differently emphasized (heavy legal/police repression and a mixture of monetary/fiscal state policy).

The mid 1960s was characterized the fermentation and coming to political formation of a class stuck in a cycle of reproductive instability, without the adequate organs and institutions that could provide redress and negotiation. What measures it did take to solve this problem would extend past the bounds of ‘proper’ or ‘healthy’ class conflict. Under-girding this class self-activity was the weakness of the state and the over-extension of capitalist class coercion. The delegitimization of channels and organizations tasked with mediating between proletarians and the State/Capital necessitated novel activity. The unions were in disarray and existing class organs were colored throughout by a heterogeneous mix of militancy, state loyalty, and conservatism. Discontent mounted without channels for its mobilization

Major Limits to Social Reproduction:

Urban Question 

Italy’s urban and residential landscape was decimated by the war years. Though redevelopment was carried out by the private sector, state subsidies and financial regulations coupled to the 1949 Housing Plan meant that the re-urbanization of Italy was subject to political determination and contestation. Relations between the state and private sector were such that the financial regulations nominally tasked with encouraging construction co-extensively created a market dominated by speculative undertakings.

Land and housing markets were often points towards which industrial profits flowed. This speculative dynamic to re-urbanization created an Italy that was spatially incongruent, housing in no way tied to transport networks that could link multiple sites of development. Housing construction thus focused on the inner city. Italy did not experience the wave of sub-urbanization that the UK or the US did. As housing development intensified via waves of speculation, public spaces and social commons were often destroyed to make way for profitable investment and failed to undergo expansion that matched urban population growth.

Overcrowding was rampant and few public housing options were available. Rents skyrocketed, pushing profit rates in the housing and development sector beyond what existed in other sectors of the economy. Class structures were reflected in the urban terrain, with the bourgeois concentrated in the city centers and the white-collar workers, factory workers, and agricultural population in that order radiating outwards. Migration patterns that brought large numbers of Southern workers to these urban centers intensified underlying issues. The State was here the major obstacle, its intervention into housing enabling private sector speculative profits while doing nothing to mitigate the public costs of speculative housing waves.

Health care 

Haphazard and ineffective State performance characterized the health sector as well. Infant mortality rates were high (especially so in the South). Accident and sickness rates in factories were exceptional. In 1971, for example, there were 1,640,000 accidents in the workplace (with 5,000 of those being fatal). General health services lacked comprehensive care, with little in the way of preventative health care practices. Services for the old and others figuring in the ‘peripheral’ population were non-existent. Despite attempts at reform in the late 1960s, facilities remained without improvement, the construction of new facilities lagged, and general conditions for patients and personnel deteriorated. Hospitals often faced overcrowding, with doctors and other health professionals inadequately distributed throughout the country to match local and regional needs.

Despite the decimated state of the health care sector, costs in this area exceeded European averages. The proportion of the wage that was directed towards health insurance was greater than in any other European country. Despite calls and movements within the State for a comprehensive public approach operating at different levels of administration, the unevenly developed nature of the Italian bureaucracy stymied any such efforts. Local health services were limited, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in urban centers further strained them, and the State seemed unable to solve any major and persistent issues.


Rooted in the mass mobilization of labor, operaismo’s development into autonomia reflected the drastic shifts in employment that Italy witnessed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is in Italy that the question of widespread destabilization in the employment relation first emerged. This did not simply mean that unemployment numbers rose beyond a certain normal level. That phenomenon is nothing new to dynamics of the capitalist labor market. What Italy experienced, and what would later be seen in other Western States, was the rise of a non-active population. Activity rates in Italy went from 65.4% of the working age population in 1959 to 55.7% of the working age population in 1970 (working aged defined as 15-64). 1971 and 1972 brought the total working population of Italy even further down, with only 35.5% of the total population engaged in employment. Given the lack of public channels for social reproduction in Italy, this sharp decline in labor participation rates expressed a deep social crisis in Italian reproduction. The high selectivity of the labor market coupled with the restructuring of sectors of production added to the ossification of these stagnant populations.

Revolutionary Initiative? Before Mass Struggle


Quaderni Rossi journal collection

The mass nature of class struggle in the late 1960s can be claimed to have been the product of a series of inter-linking objective conditions. Any mass insurgency of the class can at a certain level of determination be said to be the product of a particular set of combinatory factors: the material nature of production and the kind of social forms that accompany it, the political channels and organizations available to class interests seeking to contend current social configurations, and the overall dynamic and health of capital accumulation.

Reducing any revolutionary situation to these conditions, however, is inadequate. The extent to which active revolutionaries and communist initiative can “produce” or participate in a revolutionary situation is an open question. Revolutionaries certainly do not create revolutions through sheer will, but it also cannot be said that they play no role. Their effectiveness, their ability to shape the course of circumstances is always dependent upon the content and logic of those circumstances themselves.

In the Italian case, it cannot be denied that certain sets of actors and ‘minor’ currents early on played a part far out of proportion to their size within the class at large. Two examples stand out: the intellectual radical left current of the mid-1960s and the activity of worker agitators and communist militants in labor conflicts prior to 1968.

The intellectual current of operaismo developed through material channels of communication. The ‘review’ played the role of material mediator in the small, though fertile intellectual climate, revolving around questions posed by the transformation of Italian Capitalism in the 1960s. Either because of evasion or simple ignorance, the PCI and the PSI failed in this instance to put forward a set of concepts and analytic categories that could serve as a point of orientation for the militant, yet theoretically underdeveloped ‘new’ left arising in the Central intellectual zones and the Northern industrial areas.

Composed by those often peripheral to the political parties, the review presented a public medium through which a collective conceptualization of a re-configuring capital was possible—this in contradistinction to the usual top down knowledge channels of the PCI/PSI. The peripheral status of the review and its contributors to the PCI and the PSI allowed for the articulation of a perspective critical of social democratic orthodoxy. Critique though fierce remained within a Marxian theoretical framework. In many cases, the work in these reviews presented itself as a return to the fundamentally revolutionary core of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. Two figures, each respectively coming out of the PSI and the PCI epitomized this tendency: Raniero Panzieri and Mario Tronti. Both, emphasizing different aspects, centered their analysis of Italian capitalism on the transformation of the labor process and the coextensive transformation of the laborer within capital. Both prefigured much of the late 60s wave of militancy with their collaborations across the pages of Quaderni Rossi

Panzieri, who in 1960 was expelled from the PSI, challenged the horizon of ‘revolutionary’ strategy put forward by the two socialist parties. Premised on gaining political power so as to able to shape the planning of production and the articulations of property, orthodoxy saw itself as engaging in a strategy in which the shaping of capitalist development (alongside the center parties) could evolve into socialism. Rejecting both the orthodox line of disciplined, institutional economic development along evolutionary lines and a revolutionary vision premised on a catastrophe theory of capitalist breakdown, Panzieri emphasized the self-activity of the proletariat in its struggles over the control of the production process. It was the qualitative transformation of this struggle that would, in its intensification and its generalization, produce an immediately anti-bourgeois form of political power alongside a logic of development that though premised on the advancement of industry and production, would move unbounded by the distinctly capitalist logic of accumulation (i.e. the compulsory profit mechanism).

Tronti, who vacillated in his relationship to the PCI while remaining within the party, would go even further in his emphatic focus on the self-activity of the proletariat. Challenging a model of capitalism he viewed as dominated by a level of analysis that subordinated proletarian struggles to the structures and agency of capital itself, Tronti would instead make the working class the active subject in the labor-capital relation. It was the evolving, constantly generalizing struggles of the proletariat through immediate practice that forced the development of capitalism not only at the firm level, but in its total articulation. Through this creative, immediate struggle, the task of the proletariat was to evade the tactics of capture by mediating organizations while moving towards the formation of its own immediately political organs. This political problematic would come to define the general limits of the Italian struggles as they wore on from peaks to retreats to the final ’77 initiative.

These intellectual currents had their practical counterparts in the the worker and firm level militants and communists who prior to 1968, expressed the most advanced line of proletarian struggle. Militants and agitators were often drawn from the PCI and formed the backbone of the trade union organizations. Their connection to the PCI linked them to the extra-firm level networks that provided moral and intellectual support as the political edge of the unions themselves blunted through the 50s and 60s. Among these militants, the Marxist traditional was central, though at times filtered through the social particularities of Italian society—often this resulted in a radical combination with the strong Catholicism floating within the labor movement.

Militants and communist agitators within the firm (and significantly, from the universities) provided the impetus with which a breaking with the established channels of contestation was rendered possible. The existing set of political materials and forms was weak and unable to adapt to the shifting terrain of Italian capitalism. The failure to politically generate any successful gains or reforms further destabilized the legitimacy of ‘regular’ political tactics and firm level forms of struggle. Agitators and militants in this conjuncture played an important role in mobilizing the social fabric that had knotted itself in the tiring twists of party and union politics. Though not a numerically large presence, these actors were a strong force in the precipitation of the mass movement. Not insignificantly, agitators and militants tactically and formally innovated channels of struggle while bringing into contemporary struggles, the revolutionary history and tradition of Italy’s communist past. Those coming from the university would early on provide the linkages that expanded struggle beyond the factory and place it within the general social sphere.


History and Structure: On Alfred Schmidt’s Conception of Historical Materialism


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It may seem strange to return to a theoretical debate that has seemingly resolved itself, if not in the form of a solution, then at least in the manner of a detente. The Althusserian school of structuralist Marxism and the old Hegelian-Marxist thrusts of attack strike on the present as soft, barely perceptible blows. They are the stuff of 50 year anniversary conferences and basic university courses. But perhaps if we note the pre-methodological considerations that impelled the debate forwards, it would shed some light on why a return to this moment of theoretical struggle and clarification is important. After all, the questions running beneath the overall debate are questions that are no less pertinent today: What is the relationship between history and human practice? What are the structural conditions that not only impose limits on social intervention, but in crooked ways illuminate where contentious sites within structure may lie? Can structure can give way to history? Is structure from the first historical? To what extent can we think of History as both a methodological supposition and a real, contradictory movement?

Though these questions strike out at us on first inspection in theoretical, abstract terms, the shock of this strike and the force it generates stems from real social reality, from the conditions of concrete material life. Most clearly and most bluntly one can formulate that point beyond the beginning of theory as the wound–the wound that makes itself felt when history and individual and social human practice seem compelled to be in a relation of mutual independence. This has been formulated elsewhere by John Holloway as the Scream. What form is given to the Scream within the terms of this specific theoretical debate?

From the point of view of normal consciousness, history is something beyond, something above us–if not as Spirit, then at least in the movement of unthinking, objective processes. History, that realm of human society, appears as terribly inhuman. We are to that extent, unhistorical beings. Life, as it presents itself, imbibes us in its immediacy. There may have been another world, but it is no longer. There may be another world, but it is no longer important to think of it. There is this world, there is this reality, there is this need to survive within the world as it exists. Things may be otherwise, but to think otherwise would be a risk to our existence within the structure that generates us. One can see the striking imposition of the wage-relation and the condition of separation that generates such anti-historical tendencies.

It is from this site that Alfred Schmidt in his 1971 essay History and Structure chooses to begin his inquiry into the relation between those two aforementioned terms. From the outset, Schmidt makes it clear that though polemical in nature, the investigation aims to relate Althusserian thought to traditional Hegelian-Marxist critical theory in such a way that transforms both of these terms. The act of relating these two bodies of thought generates a relation that extends substantively beyond a formal combination of the two or a polemical victory of the one over the other.

Schmidt interestingly posits between Althusser and the Hegelian-Marxists a third, destabilizing term: Nietzsche. It is the early Nietzsche, the Nietzsche after The Birth of Tragedy and yet before the deconstructive turn of the Genealogy that brings forward the question of progress. One can relish here the act of bringing in that figure derided–unfairly–as the monarch of traditionalism and anti-modernity to defend the notion, the possibility of progress. And yet Nietzsche’s deconstruction of the present–and to that extent the past–must be brought into consideration alongside the question of progress. Such a notion of progress can clearly not be formulated in terms conditioned by the negated present. Nietzsche, as quoted by Schmidt, puts this particular conception of progress in the following terms:

“Men can consciously resolve to develop themselves towards a new culture; whilst formerly they only developed unconsciously and by chance, they can now create better conditions for the rise of human beings…progress is possible…On the other hand, progress in the sense and on the path of the old culture is not even thinkable.”

Nietzsche, Human All-Too-Human, Aphorism 24 as quoted by Schmidt

From this beginning, Schmidt sets the terms of his own working through of progress and history. What is revealed by such a choice of quotation is both the role consciousness plays in historical conditions and their possible transcendence and the fact that such a rupture is critically only that–possible. To think that historical progression is necessary, is inevitable and thus beyond conscious human action is to fall back into the dogmatic sway of Marxist-Leninist thought which was the primary target of Althusser’s reformulation of historical materialism.

When we situate ourselves at the point of consciousness, of subjectivity and in a condition of the insecurity of only possible progress, the affective orientation of the 20th century school of critical theory of which Schmidt is a part of reveals itself and shines light upon the theoretical work done after the eruption of this “pre-theoretical” insight. Schmidt is largely defending this theoretical and non-theoretical world inaugurated by Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, with Schmidt taking up the argument “that historical continuity and an undamaged subjectivity still capable of reflection belong together” (Schmidt 3). This can be re-conceptualized and integrated into that essential categorical insight of the Hegelian-Marxist school of thought: that subject and object must be considered in unity with one another. It is only on the condition of this unity that history is thinkable at all, that one can both methodologically study history and consider one’s social activity as constituting history.

Regarding the former, the “objective”, “critical” study of history, Schmidt distinguishes it from a purely formal, disciplined study of the past. “A conscious working through of the past comprises only one side of the historical consciousness” (Schmidt 3). This one sided approach must necessarily be brought into relation with a perspective oriented towards the future. This dialectical relation then allows for a truly historical subjectivity to arise, one that considers itself as stretched between the past and the future, understanding “how deeply past and future are intertwined with one another” (Schmidt 3).

And yet this historical consciousness is also necessarily in relation to the unhistorical being that characterizes the mass of social activity. It is the play between these two modes of social being that allow for the transformation of events, of seemingly objective, non-intentional phenomena into history, that realm characterized by a conscious moving towards the fulfillment of human, social activity. It is interesting to note the particular topology at play in such a relationship. The ground of history is revealed to be deeply unhistorical.

It is from this deeply unhistorical moment in historical materialism that Althusserian thought arises. From here, Althusser derives the popularly discussed concepts of Capital as an examination of a process without subject, as presupposing a history without an anthropological or subjective center. History then, with its center removed, reduces to structure. Though Schmidt notes that the Althusserian investigation is not entirely bereft of history, its methodological assumptions create a tendency towards “the synchronic over the diachronic,” towards an investigation of the structures that can discerned in present material reality over an investigation that accords the historical development of these structures (Schmidt 5). Such an investigational priority can in the worst instance, devolve into a complete theoretical, logical understanding of Marx’s work, with the content of history, the material of investigation reduced to present structures of reality.

In light of such a dangerous tendency within the Althusserian project, Schmidt turns to Johann Gustav Droysen’s thought regarding Historik, his particular theory of history.  Droysen’s work was itself compelled by the familiar concerns of theory that posed themselves in the Althusserian-Hegelian debate: how do we regard the relation between politics, historical scholarship, and historical theory (Schmidt 6)? Schmidt explicitly, and arguably Althusser implicitly, take on Droysen’s own sentiments, namely that the three aforementioned considerations must be “equally significant moments of a single intention” (Schmidt 6). These considerations, derived from material history, “can be unraveled only from the perspective of the present and its needs” (Schmidt 7). The conceptualization of Marx’s historical materialism is thus not a matter for pure academic debate or objective accuracy, but a project built upon and constantly relating itself to the needs of present material reality.

This aspect of historical materialism is essential for Schmidt. In Schmidt’s approving reading of Droysen, “historical method is adequate to its task if it reflects the special nature of its material” (Schmidt 8). The production of historical knowledge and the subject producing that historical knowledge enter into a complex, dialectical relationship with one another, the object of analysis being undertaken by a subject which is also firmly situated within the same material reality. Historical materialism is thus revealed to be a process of self-knowledge, of a production of theoretical knowledge that can illuminate our own subjective tendencies and the objective movements of material reality because they reside on the same plane. Droysen, as quoted by Schmidt, puts it in the following terms: “We are and feel ourselves to be essentially similar and in relations of reciprocity [with the products of historical knowledge]” (Schmidt 8).

Rrom this engagement with Droysen contra Althusser, Schmidt engages in situating Marx’s theory of history in distinction to the type of anthropological, essential history that was being put forth by Feuerbach. This “science of history,” this ongoing, unfinished product of the initial rupture with the left-Hegelian theory of history sought to fashion, if at least provisionally, “out of the complex, infinitely rich reality of history, a theoretical pattern” that could function as a guide for further research (Schmidt 9).

It is important to note here that such a theoretical pattern functioned only as the starting point for further analysis, rather than as a stable, formalized universal method which could function as a “key” to the study of history. In Marx’s later words, the initial conception of the materialist approach to history was oriented towards “self-clarification,” as a theoretical ground from which proper analysis could begin. This theoretical ground would itself be subject to revision in light of the course of analysis.

Schmidt distinguishes this science of history, Marxian historical materialism, by way of three critical differences that emerge when compared with other approaches to history. These essential differences can be schematically put forth as: 1) A radical, new conception of the relation between nature and history that opposed “all tendencies which postulated an absolute difference, or even contradiction” between the two; 2) A rejection of the “notion that there is a purely immanent, an ideal, course of events”; and 3) A conception of world history, of universal history as necessarily being a product of concrete, material developments within reality (Schmidt 10, 11, 15).

From these basic principles, several integral aspects of the theory emerge–particularly in relation to the epistemological undercurrent that runs throughout the approach. In this regard, one can perceive the ramifications of disallowing any sort of essential contradiction between nature and history. If one takes nature and history to “belong to the same world, one whose cognitive (and also increasingly actual) unity is established by collective praxis,” then the epistemological frameworks applied to both are identical (Schmidt 10). This is not to say that one can then approach the study of history–usually understood as distinguished from the natural sciences–as one would approach the study of the “objective”, natural sciences.

The unity of nature and history then does not lend an objective realism to materialist historiography, but rather destabilizes any claims to approaching history as one would approach the study of biology or geology. For Marx, all sensuous phenomena–including nature as such–is “the product…of the state of society..a historical product,” a result mediated by historical, social activity (Schmidt 10). If nature is in essence always historical and if history is moreover the site at which relations between men and nature and men and one another encounter one another in unity, then there is no recourse to retreat into an essentialist, or “genetic,” conception of the unity of man and nature (Schmidt 10). Essence then dissolves into activity.

Schmidt makes it clear that, for Marx, this activity was of a character that encompassed both the social life processes inherent to all human formations and the critical activity of the scholar within these formations. Conceived in other terms, activity is both a “completed immediacy” presenting itself to the individual and the act of tracing those “natural-historical and social-historical mediations” within empirical findings (Schmidt 10). The materialist conception of history thus collapses any sharp distinctions that can be made between the merely empirical approach to history and the speculative framework of a philosophy of history.

Yet bringing the speculative down into the material realm of empirical immediacy, though preserving the rough methodological framework of the former, transforms the content of previous speculation. If essence is revealed to be activity, then any conception of history as the unfolding of a particular, supra-historical essence is unthinkable. The materialist approach to history cannot merely take the Hegelian historical framework and replace Spirit with productive forces–such a theoretical move would not critically distance itself from Feuerbach’s own replacing of Spirit with Man. If productive forces, if the material activity of society are to be firmly placed within the historical materialist framework, it is not as a “determining factor” or as an eternal Subject realizing itself throughout history (Schmidt 12). Productive forces and the relations of production are then merely the structural beginning point for historical analysis, rather than any sort of universal key that can explain the “final” products of empirical historical analysis (Schmidt 12).

This material, “economic” basis for human social formations holds the epistemological primacy it does for Marx because of its constituting a totality. “The structure which they take on at different times transforms an epoch into a concrete, ascertainable totality. It is only the totality which has a history accessible to a unified theory” (Schmidt 12). Marx derives this claim to totality through a basic observation: all human societies must first establish the means for sustaining and reproducing their material lives before they can engage in the stuff of Spirit. 

This totality, as empirically evidenced by the constant transformation of material production and social relations of production, is a moving one. Social formations, in the process of reproducing themselves, constantly revolutionize their means of production and reproduction. If morality, religion, philosophy, and other such products of consciousness correspond to particular material-social formations of production–“human beings as well as their culture succumb to radical transitoriness” (Schmidt 12). To engage in any approach to history that presumes present ideological or psychological categories as a basis for further exploration would be to ignore the transitory character of these categories. It would amount to engaging in an unhistorical study of history.

Here we stumble upon perhaps the deepest implication of the materialist approach to history: history itself becomes historical. To consider history as a homogeneous, eternal entity that persists relatively unchanged throughout its development would be to ignore the dynamic relationship between the content of history and its form. In so far as the content of history develops beyond its previous boundaries and in doing so, extends itself spatially throughout different geographies, the form of history itself changes. History is transformed into world history in the concrete sense, in the sense that the material-social productions and relations of humanity have extended themselves in a structurally unified manner throughout the world. Under such a concretely established world history, the social activity of individuals necessarily extends far beyond local or national social forms. As Marx states: “World history has not always existed; history as world history is a result.” (Marx 1857, as quoted by Schmidt 15).

That is not to say that world history then also develops into universal history as it is commonly understood. To turn world history as it emerges under capitalism into a conceptual schematic for the development of history throughout its whole development would be to ignore the immediate unevenness of the movement of history. One can here see the fault at play when the materialist conception of history is reduced into a determinate series of productive formations that extends from primitive communism to feudalism to capitalism to communism. To do this would be to place oneself at the risk of the necessity of progress, rather than its absolute possibility.

Any exploration of concrete history reveals “considerable disproportions and cleavages” (Schmidt 15). Again, centering analysis on productive forces and social relations of production is the theoretical starting point for an analysis of history that has to confront the concrete content of its material. In so far as this concrete historical material presents us with seeming dis-junctions (for example, the persistence of Roman legal forms into developed capitalist formations), we are then forced to delineate in a more nuanced fashion the roles contingency and necessity play within history and the development of social formations. What may await us in these cleavages within historically determined social-formations?

If capital transforms history into World History, it does so in an inverted sense. Though the potentialities of human activity are unleashed by capital, they are diverted by that very same process into the narrow space accorded by the valorization of capital. World History emerges but with it, the sense of Humanity that is accorded an expansive degree of creative activity is only present latently, as “an empty phrase” (Schmidt 18). Marx emerges here as a “humanist” but not in the sense of Feuerbach and his philosophical followers. Rather, his humanism is a revolutionary one–revolutionary in the sense that it is explicitly tied to an insistence on the transformation of concrete, material reality necessary to realize itself. If humanity is to become at all, it cannot content itself with the mere playing with of mental constructs, with revolutions of separated thought. As Lukacs put it elsewhere: “Materialist dialectic is a revolutionary dialectic.”

The later, “mature” Marx cannot be conceived of as breaking with these early orientations. Rather, one can see the later work of Marx as the more complete development of these initial theoretical frameworks and pre-theoretical desires. To realize this only possible humanity, Marx engaged in his decades of material analysis, driven by “the necessity of deriving the shape of the future from a material analysis of the present rather than attempting to do so with mere constructs” (Schmidt 18). The model, the form, the method embodied by Marx’s life work can here serve as some initial guidance to our own contemporary needs, to our own social imagination of possibilities. It is only in the direct engagement with material reality that such possibilities can be conceived as no longer residing within imagination as such, but within present, concrete reality.