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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.