Sneven Best The Politics of Historical Vision: Marx, Foucault, Habermas





The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.

—MARX AND ENGELS (1978:149-150)

Karl Marx lived and wrote during what he understood to be the most momentous social transformation in the history of humanity—the emergence of capitalist modernity. Marx was one of the first social theorists to analyze systematically the capitalist mode of production and to see it as constituting a modern world radically different from all previous social forms. Marx noted that although capitalism produced a massive rupture in the fabric of history, knowledge of the origins and nature of the new social system transforming the entire globe was occluded. This was the result of the sheer novelty and complexity of the wage and market system, of the oppressiveness of its effects on human beings, and of an ideology that obscures underlying social relations, presenting the movement of commodities and the hegemony of exchange value as if governed by natural laws.

The underlying motivations of Marx's work were to understand thoroughly the nature of the capitalist mode of production, to analyze it as a radically new form of society, and to lay bare its fundamental mechanisms of operation. These analytic aims were subordinated to the political goals of exposing these operations as mechanisms of domination, of tearing off the veils that clouded the political vision of the working class, of organizing the working class into a unified international body, and of abolishing capitalism as a system based on exploitation, dehumanization, and class antagonism. In order to accomplish these tasks, Marx required immense historical knowledge, a historical method that treats all social and cultural phenomena as socially constituted, a social theory informed by this assumption, and a theory of history that grasps the basic outlines and mechanisms of historical change. Such modes of understanding allowed Marx to contextualize capitalism and understand its origins, trajectories, and seemingly impending demise.

Marx's critical outlook was developed by assimilating numerous theoretical and political influences. Most importantly, these included French utopian socialism, English political economy, and German idealism. Marx shared many political sentiments with the utopian socialists, but he condemned their lack of theoretical rigor and developed a "scientific socialism" (Engels) based on empirical analysis rather than moralizing rhetoric. Through a scientific account of human activity, Marx sought to grasp the dynamics of social and historical change, to uncover the constituting forces of the present, and to predict the probability of future events.

Although Marx uncritically embraced the positivist attitude that elevated scientific knowledge and method over all other forms of knowledge (1978: 155), he rejected the positivist search for ahistorial "laws" of development and its pretension to value neutrality. For Marx, the whole point of science was to help the working class overthrow forces of oppression. In Capital, Marx alternated passages of dense empirical analysis of capitalism with stinging attacks on its "vampire-like" thirst for the blood of living labor (see Kellner 1983). Marx's scientific attitude was informed by a strong moral sense, by a "categorical imperative to over-throw all those conditions in which man is an abased, enslaved, abandoned, contemptible being" (Marx 1978:60). But Marx saw no contradiction between the "scientific" and moral-political character of his theory. Most theorists simply interpreted the world, but Marx maintained that the time had come to change it, by merging science and critique, theory and practice. Marx thus sought a theory of history and society that was both endowed "with the precision of natural science" (1978:5) and also was "in its very essence critical and revolutionary" (1977:103).

Marx believed that dialectics grants this revolutionary character to social and historical analysis.1 Marx's version of science was radically different from what later emerged as "scientific Marxism," and the differences stemmed principally from Marx's more supple appropriation of Hegelian dialectics.2 Against the ahistorical methods of Western philosophy, Hegel developed a dialectical vision of reality that treats all phenomena as historically and socially produced, and sees conflict and contradiction as the driving forces behind historical change. The dialectical method made it possible for Marx to overcome the reifying approach of positivist science that sees social reality as static and given. Marx's emphasis on the historical constitution of all things was evident in his critique of Feuerbach's materialism. According to Marx, Feuerbach grasped the reality of the sensuous empirical world, but failed to see that it was "not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of historical product" (1978:170).

Hegel's dialectical method had revolutionary implications because, according to Marx, it helped to overcome fatalistic resignation to "the way things are," and shifted focus to how they have been constituted and can be changed. In Marx's hands, dialectical method revealed the changing forms of conflict and crisis that operate in society, undermine its stability, and create new social dynamics. Dialectics also enabled Marx to move beyond the positivist method of treating phenomena as external and separate from one another by grasping the movement of things in their interrelationship, as different aspects of the same structure or system, as "opposites" united in the same relation. This allowed Marx, for example, to see gross wealth and poverty as inseparable effects of the capitalist market.

Of course, Marx argued that Hegel, by emphasizing the causal primacy of consciousness over social activity and relationships, understood dialectics in a mystified, inverted manner; consequently, Marx redefined dialectics in a materialist context. For Marx, the contradictions that propel history forward are not, as for Hegel, logical contradictions among opposing ideas, but conflicting material forces rooted within a particular social system. Marx shared Hegel's view that human beings transform themselves and their societies through the activity of production, but Marx saw this activity as the work of human beings rather than "Spirit."3 In his call for a "real history" of human beings in their changing forms of productive labor, Marx developed the "materialist interpretation of history" and was one of the first modern social theorists to interpret history as the product of human beings in their concrete, productive activity.

For Marx, the primary forces of history were not ideas, political machinations, or war, but rather production, commerce, and industry: "In the whole conception of history up to the present this real basis of history has either been totally neglected or else considered as a minor matter quite irrelevant to the course of history" (1978:165). Marx's materialist standpoint placed him in opposition to the idealism of Dilthey, Collingwood, and others who understood historical explanation to consist of identifying and sympathetically reconstructing the thoughts and motives of past historical agents. Where humanist historians like Vico anticipated Marx in their analysis of history as a human product, and theorists such as Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and St. Simon understood eco nomics to be a central human activity, it was Marx who developed these ideas most forcefully and consistently. Against Carlyle and others who exalted the determinant role of great men in history, Marx, following Michelet and Vico, emphasized the crucial role of common people and the "masses" in shaping history.

On Marx's conception, dialectics is neither an immanent historical force, nor a totalizing worldview that subsumes all differences into an undifferentiated whole; rather, it is a supple empirical method, "a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world" (Ollman 1993:10). Theorists such as Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, and Lukacs rightly emphasized dialectics as the heart of Marx's methodology, but dialectics must also be understood as a theoretical and political vision that projects future emancipatory possibilities based on the analysis of existing society and past history. Where dialectical method relates to analysis of the present and past, dialectical vision is future oriented and grounds the norm of human emancipation in actual historical possibilities disclosed by dialectical method, while seeking to overcome debilitating oppositions in social and personal life.

In order to carry out a materialist analysis of modern capitalism, Marx, beginning in 1844, immersed himself in the study of political economy. While he drew from Ricardo, Smith, Mill, and others, Marx developed a sharp critique of political economy and shifted its analytic and political perspective. He showed that political economy was not a science, but rather an ideology that analyzed rent, profit, and other categories apart from the exploitation of the working class. Where political economy operated from the hidden point of view of capital, Marx analyzed social and economic phenomena from the perspective of the working class and its struggles for autonomy from capitalist exploitation (see Cleaver 1979, 1992).

Marx was decisively influenced by the Enlightenment movement and was very much a "modernist" in his basic temperment. He personified the Enlightenment emphasis on critique and its demand for rational social reconstruction and universal values. Early in his life, he called for a "ruthless criticism of everything existing" and carried through sharp but fragmentary attacks on religion, philosophy, property, law, money, the state, and Hegel. It is no accident that Marx entitled a later work, in the spirit of Kant, Critique of Political Economy. "Critique" for Marx, however, did not involve an analysis of autonomous forms of knowledge and their limits, but rather of the sociohistorical conditions underlying knowledge and the crisis tendencies that threaten the stability of capitalist society. Marx also embraced the modernist celebration of change and innovation as liberating forces (see Berman 1982). Far from advocating a return to simple communal life, Marx's historical vision was oriented toward the future. He emphasized the limitations of static, isolated social forms and praised the dynamic qualities of capitalism that overturned tradition and provincial boundaries to unleash new social forces and establish new universal human relations. Marx praised the "revolutionary" bourgeoisie for accomplishing "wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids,

Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals" (1978:476); for liberating the productive forces that "slumbered in the lap of social labour" (477); for creating new wants, international interdependency, and the urban environment; and for rescuing much of the population from the "idiocy of rural life" (477).

Despite its empirical and "scientific" character, Marx's theory belongs to the "philosophy of history" tradition. While rejecting the theological interpretation of history, Marx nevertheless retained the narrative codes of salvation within the secular context of progress. With Condorcet, Comte, and other Enlightenment thinkers, Marx developed a metanarrative that linked advances in science, technology, and rationality with advances in freedom and progress. Marx thus accepted the Enlightenment view that history, in however a tortured or indirect way, represents a progressive development toward a rational society and free individuality. But unlike apologists for the modern world, Marx was acutely aware of the negative side of modernity, and he condemned capitalism as a system of exploitation that thwarts the very possibilities for progress and emancipation that it calls into being. Moroever, unlike Habermas (see Chapter 3), Marx did not accept the rationalist faith in the power of reason and lofty moral principles to dissolve social conflict and self-interest. Marx believed instead that those who abuse power can only be removed through force, and he derided all liberal attempts to reconcile antagonisms without changing their fundamental sources rooted in class domination. Marx was rationalist enough, however, to believe that the proletariat would break its capitalist chains once it attained a rational understanding of the material conditions of its oppression.

While Marx analyzed the emergence of a universal history, he saw this as the result of real historical developments, of an increasingly global form of capitalism, rather than as a manifest destiny or the autonomous march of reason. The idea of a universal history, of a common social goal and international form of association, was fundamental to Marx's vision of history and concept of human liberation. From the beginning to the end of his career, Marx was decisively influenced by the Hegelian-Romantic vision of a social and individual being no longer divided against itself, of a harmonious and unalienated mode of human existence that overcomes the forms of antagonism and fragmentation created by the historical process. Marx's vision of emancipation foresaw the possibility of a future communist society where the conflicts among human beings and between humanity and nature can be overcome, where the human species can join in a rational and democratic association that reconciles particular and general interests, where national differences are eliminated in an international social order, and where the contradiction between "human essence" and human existence is abolished so that human beings develop rather than mutilate themselves in their activity.

Following Hegel, Marx interpreted history as a process of differentiation, driven by conflicts and contradictions. In its historical development, an original unity, be it a concept or a communal clan, is sundered apart, alienated from itself, differentiated into various aspects, and eventually returns to itself in a climactic moment that signals the end of history, at least as hitherto known. For Marx, history involves the alienation of a subject—not Reason, but humanity—from its creative powers. But the movement of history allows for an eventual recuperation of these powers in a higher, more developed form. Marx's theory of history traced the historical process of domination and alienation, but it analyzed the tendencies whereby this same process ultimately can lead to human liberation.

Marx's historical vision, as I show below, is a materialist translation of Hegel's notion of a "concrete identity," of a differentiated unity that can become whole again after protracted alienation through historical movement.4 Since Marx's unity, unlike Hegel's, is not guaranteed by history, but has to be produced out of tendencies and possibilities within the present, his emancipatory norm requires a political vision of how the working class can collectively transform present possibilities of freedom into a social reality and thereby win the emancipation of all humanity. Throughout his life, Marx sought a viable theory and practice that would empower workers all over the globe to seize the reins of history. Once this was accomplished, he believed, the movement of communism would bring the end of one history, the hitherto existing history of human alienation, and inaugurate the beginning of a new history of human freedom. This vision of a future communist society is an apocalyptic vision of a rupture in history as great as capitalism, yet which also builds on the achievements of the entire historical past.

Marx's dialectical method and vision of history is the focus of this chapter. Against all readings that essentialize Marx as a particular kind of theorist, such as a humanist or a positivist, or that claim he developed a crudely reductionist method, I present Marx as a supple and complex, but not always consistent, theorist of historical change and revolution. As Adamson (1985) forcefully demonstrated, we cannot speak of "the Marxist theory of history" since Marx developed various models and visions, and frequently changed his mind on fundamental issues. Although Marx advances a forceful, monoperspectival interpretation of history as determined by the dynamics of production and class struggle, he employs, within this context, various theoretical and political models to examine social reality from numerous standpoints. I undertake a "contextualist" reading of Marx, which maintains that he adopts different theoretical and political models in different contexts according to different analytical and political intentions and shifting historical conditions. This reading brings out the various tensions in Marx's work, such as have been resolved falsely one way or another by many of his interpreters and followers.

I begin with an analysis of Marx's concept of alienation and vision of human emancipation as it develops in his early and later texts. I show that Marx examines history from the standpoints of both continuity and discontinuity. Against some of Marx's critics, I argue that these models are complementary rather than contradictory, and consider their different political implications. I then turn to the argument, recently revived by analytic Marxists, that Marx is a technological determinist. I counter this thesis by showing that he employs a multicausal model of historical change which privileges forces or relations of production in different contexts. I then consider some of the key methodological assumptions and problems of Marx's work that relate to his use of "rational abstraction." Examining some of the critiques of Marx's analysis of precapitalist societies, I describe the tension between his continuity models—which treat all history as determined by economic, technological, and political dynamics, and so as amenable to a historical materialist analysis—and his discontinuity model, which argues for a fundamental rift between precapitalist and capitalist societies and calls into question the applicability of historical materialism to precapitalist modes of production. This chapter raises numerous issues and debates that are important for understanding the post-Marxist theories of Foucault and Habermas. As I argue throughout the book, Marx commits certain theoretical errors that Foucault and Habermas help to overcome, but he contributes a wealth of important insights and values that need to be retained and developed in our own historical context.


Throughout all of his works, Marx advances a Hegelian vision of history as a continuous evolutionary process driven by the dynamic of "objectification." In their interaction with nature through productive activity, human beings concretize and embody their personality and creative powers in their objects. As they shape and change their world, they simultaneously shape and change themselves. The development of the individual follows the evolution of its social forms of interaction, which themselves are determined by the dynamics of production.

This evolutionary view emphasizes lines of continuity from tribal to communist society. Marx employs three different continuity models in different stages of his work: (1) the humanist model, which interprets history as both the alienation and realization of the "human essence"; (2) the productive forces model, which interprets history as the progressive augmentation of the productive forces, a movement governed by the contradiction between the forces and relations of production; and (3) the class struggle model, which interprets historical change as resulting from the struggles between contending classes.5 While these are logically distinct models, Marx frequently combines them in his concrete historical analyses.

The humanist model is developed mainly in the early stage of Marx's work, but remnants of it turn up frequently in his later works. Following Hegel, Marx sees history as the progressive development of human freedom throughout various stages of history. But this is a double movement where freedom emerges only through the advance of alienation. For Hegel, alienation involves the separation of Reason from itself in the process of its objectification in history. Marx, in contrast, understands alienation as the separation of human producers from the "objective conditions of production," the communal context of their labor, and their own "species-being" and "human essence." These later two phrases derive from Feuerbach and designate sociality, historicity, and creative activity as fundamental attributes of a distinctly human, rather than "merely" animal, nature.

Like Hegel's Spirit, Marx's "human essence" unfolds in the process of historical development and is realized in a final stage of history. Marx views history as a continuous movement of a two-sided process: the humanization of nature and the naturalization of humanity. The humanization of nature is the process whereby human beings progressively enlarge the field of their objectification and gain increasing control over nature; the naturalization of humanity involves the evolution of the human being from a limited to a universal being and the consequent realization of its sensuous, natural powers in a free social context. Both aspects of the historical process result from the human interaction with nature through productive activity. As Marx says, "for the socialist man the whole of what is called world history is nothing more than the creation of man through human labor, and the development of nature for man" (1975a:357). Unlike Habermas, therefore (see Chapter 3), Marx sees history strictly in terms of labor and production, excluding analysis of language and moral development as important dynamics of their own,

Marx grasps the totality of history not only as the alienation of the laboring subject from the process and products of production, but also as the "reintegration or return of man into himself" (1975a:347), a movement that culminates in communism. While presented as the "negation of the negation," communism is nonetheless defined as a positive move ment, insofar as it appropriates the whole "wealth" of history, both human wealth (which Marx interprets in terms of human individuation and the formation of the senses) and technological-economic wealth (the development of the productive forces). The early Marx sees communism as "the positive supersession of private property, as human self-estrangement, and hence the true appropriation of the human essence through and for man; it is the complete restoration of man to himself as a social, i.e., human, being, a restoration which has become conscious and which takes place within the entire wealth of previous periods of development" (84).

Usurping the place of Absolute Knowledge in Marx's materialist rewriting of the Hegelian narrative, communism is the practical movement that overcomes the conflicts, contradictions, and disunities produced in history. Communism reunites individuals with the material conditions of their existence, with nature, with one another, and with their own human essence: "it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature, and between man and man, the true resolution of the conflict between existence and being, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species. It is the solution to the riddle of history and knows itself to be the solution" (348). The riddle of history is that freedom is contained in alienation and cannot be attained without the entire process of social differentiation: "'Liberation' is a historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the [development] of industry, commerce, [agri]culture, [and] the [conditions of intercourse]" (Marx and Engels 1978:169). Marx believes the movement of history, the dynamic of differentiation/ recuperation, leads toward the emergence of communism. The "very difficult and protracted process" of communism is "the goal of.historical movement" (Marx 1975a:365). While communism represents the next stage of history, it does not create itself; rather, Marx believes that communism requires a conscious and practical act of appropriation.

Thus, Marx's initial vision of history is thoroughly inspired by Hegel and Feuerbach. It deploys a metaphysical concept of a human essence whose inner nature is realized in the process of history. History is the single, totalizable story of the realization and universalization of human freedom. The self-actualization of humanity unfolds through a teleology. Like Hegel, Marx sees nature as completing itself through human freedom and self-awareness. "History itself is a real part of natural history—and of nature's becoming man" (1975a:355). The main difference is that Marx took nature to be primary and originary rather than as the objectification of a preexisting Spirit or Reason. Yet, in his vision of history—as determined by the logic of production and objectification, as constituted by a single "transsubjective" agent, as expressing the unfolding of its capacities, and as involving its emancipation through a conscious appropriation of the past —Marx adopts the standpoint of the "philosophy of the subject" that has been rejected by Foucault and (not altogether successfully) Habermas (see Benhabib 1986).6

The productive forces model first appears in The German Ideology, Just one year after completing the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, influenced by Engels' work on political economy, Marx attained a much more detailed and empirical understanding of the material forces behind historical change. He abandoned Feuerbach's terminology and much of his

Hegelian baggage. The essentialist view of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts whereby a historical subject expresses its nature is relinquished in favor of a "pragmatological" view (Fleischer 1973) that stresses the active role of human beings in shaping their history. This view posits a dialectic between needs and productive activity, where the existence of needs requires production and production creates new needs.7 In place of a nondifferentiated account of the "universal meaning" of history, Marx, with Engels, now divides history into a series of "modes of production"— tribal, ancient, feudal, capitalist, and communist—each of which represents a different form of social interaction with nature and creates different modes of life. Once again, we find a single, universal narrative of history, this time interpreted as the evolution of human activity through successive historical generations.

Despite a periodization scheme in which both capitalism and communism are represented as historical ruptures, Marx and Engels underline the fundamental continuity in history across successive modes of production. From this standpoint, continuity is understood not in terms of the realization of the human essence, but rather the cumulative development of the productive forces themselves: "at each stage [of history] there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, a historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor; a mass of productive forces, capital funds and conditions" (Marx and Engels 1978:164). Each historical product is "the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its [i.e., the former's] industry and its intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs [of the new system]" (170).

Marx and Engels find "the whole evolution of history" to be "a coherent series of forms of intercourse, the coherence of which consists in this: in the place of an earlier form of intercourse, which has become a fetter, a new one is put, corresponding to the more developed productive forces and, hence, to the advanced mode of the self-activity of individuals—a form that in its turn becomes a fetter and is then replaced by another" (Marx and Engels 1978:194-195). For the first time, they make the claim that spawned technological determinist readings of their work: "all collisions in history have their the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of [social] intercourse (196).

This and other statements made by Marx in subsequent works points to the following (seemingly universal) dynamic of historical change: the technical basis of a given society calls into being certain relations of production that serve optimally to promote the continued development of the productive forces. Relations of production "correspond to" forces when they further the growth of the productive forces, and they become a conservative "fetter" to this growth when a particular social class tries to retain its social power rather than promote technological development that threatens this power. At this stage there is a "contradiction" rather than a correspondence between the forces and relations of production; a new set of relations (and hence a new economic base and a new superstructure) will emerge in order to better promote technological advance. The relations of production are subordinate to forces of production insofar as their function merely is to promote technological development.8 The contradiction between forces and relations is described as the fundamental "motor" of historical change. Thus, on this model, the development of the productive forces is the main impetus behind the ever-expanding division of labor and the process of social differentiation. Appearing first in the individual family, the division of labor, spurred on by technological advance, results in the formation of various social classes, of industrial, commercial, and agricultural forms of labor, as well as in divisions between town and country and mental and manual labor.

The third continuity model, the class struggle model, is anticipated both in The Holy Family and The German Ideology, but makes its first explicit appearance with the publication of The Communist Manifesto. It also turns up in the 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and is the privileged model of Capital. On this perspective, the unity of all (written) history is interpreted from the standpoint of class struggle: "Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes" (Marx and Engels 1978:473-474). Although capitalism is again represented as a break in history, it is also seen as "the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange" (475). As a form of class society, capitalism stands in continuity with all past societies; it is "the last antagonistic form of the social process of production" and prepares to bring "the prehistory of human society" to a close (Marx 1978: 5). Communism inaugurates both the end of (alienated) history and the beginning of (nonalienated, free) history.

Thus, one can identify various continuity models that Marx develops in different stages of his thought. Rather than seeing these models as incompatible, or as discontinuous formulations divided by an "epistemological break" (Althusser 1979; Fleischer 1973; Adamson 1985), I suggest they stand as different perspectives on history, each articulating a different yet related aspect of continuity, and that Marx employs all of them together in his later work. To be sure, there are incompatible elements in these various models; the determinism of the anthropological and nomological models, for example, contradicts the emphasis on a humanly shaped history in the pragmatological model.

But there are also fundamental lines of coherence that link these models together in a multiperspectival vision of history. While after 1844 Marx abandoned the metaphysical concept of human essence, along with the anthropological model of history, the problematic of alienation is integral to later writings (e.g., the Grundrisse, Capital, and Theories of Surplus Value) where terms such as "alienation" and "objectification" still appear frequently (see Schaff 1970; Rosdolsky 1977). The humanist model is presupposed in both the productive forces and class struggle model insofar as the development of productive forces involves a progressive separation of labor from the process and products of production, and alienation is a motivating force of class struggle. There is a direct link, moreover, between the productive forces model, and the class struggle model since Marx sometimes interprets class struggle as the active political expression of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. This contradiction "necessarily on each occasion burst[s] out in revolution" and the "collisions of various classes" (Marx and Engels 1978:197). On the technological determinist model (see below), this involves a struggle between ascending and descending classes, between those classes that advance the development of the productive forces and those that impede it.

Underlying all three continuity models are the constant themes of the mutual transformation of human beings and nature through production; economics, technology, and class struggle as the decisive causal forces of social change; the evolution of individuals and society by means of the evolution of the productive forces and the division of labor; and the progressive advance of history toward communism and human emancipation. From the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts to Capital, one finds the same Hegelian vision of a collective subject of history realizing its potentiality through a process of objectification whereby the estranged products of its labor can be regained. Although Marx interchanges human beings for Spirit, he retains the Hegelian motif of a Subject behind history that emerges through a process of externalization in its conscious objectifications. Marx's "Subject," however, is unified only in the abstract, in the name of the praxis of humanity; specified more concretely, the sub ject of world history is fragmented into warring classes. This specification, nevertheless, leaves intact the assimilation of different social groups and activities to the logic of production.

Moreover, Marx never abandons the metanarrative of progress and emancipation, whether phrased in terms of the formation of the five senses or the transition from "necessity to freedom." Marx's vision of emancipation as reconciliation of alienated divisions of life is most pronounced in his early text, The Jewish Question. Here, following Hegel, Marx represents capitalism as a structure where differentiation assumes the form of dualistic separation and mutual antagonism. Capitalism is organized around the division between state and civil society, where civil society is the economic sphere of private interests at war with one another and the state is the political sphere where individuals are integrated with one another in theory but not in practice.9 For Marx, this social division leads to a fractured existence of the human individual itself since it is divided into a public and private being, into an abstract citizen and a concrete producer or worker.

Under these conditions, the social nature of the human being appears as something accidental or extraneous; it is degraded into a mere means for the realization of private, egoistic ends. To recover the true social nature and integrity of human beings, Marx calls for the overthrow of private interests, the recuperation of species-being, and the return of the individual to itself as a coherent totality: "Only when real, individual man resumes the abstract citizen into himself and as an individual man has become a species-being in his empirical life, his individual work and his individual relationships, only when man has recognized and organized his forces propres as social forces so that social force is no longer separated from him in the form of political force, only then will human emancipation be completed" (Marx 1975a:234). A key opposition communism overcomes, therefore, is between society and the individual. Within the mediated unity of communism, as Marx envisages it, the communal integration of precapitalist societies exists, as does the individual element of capitalism, but the two elements are no longer in contradiction to one another; rather, communism creates the free, social individual whose rich inner being is dependent upon conditions of social equality where the freedom of each requires the freedom of all.


We have just examined the various continuity models Marx employed. In addition to mapping the progressive development of the objective and subjective forces of history, Marx employs a vision of historical discon tinuity to mark a rupture in history with the advent of capitalism and to project an emancipatory break with capitalism through the norm of a possible future communist society.

Marx's most sustained vision of historical discontinuity can be found in the long historical section of the Grundrisse, "Pre-capitalist Economic Formations." In this text, Marx tries to establish the historical originality of the capital-wage-labor relationship. His intention is not a theory of precapitalist modes of production, but rather a genealogy of capitalist forms and categories. Marx attempts to grasp the historical preconditions of capitalism, "the evolutionary history of both capital and wage-labour .the historic origin of the bourgeois economy" (Marx 1965:86). The relationship of labor to capital, where the worker finds the conditions of production external to him or her as capital and the capitalist finds the worker as a propertyless being, "presupposes a historic process which dissolves the different [precapitalist property] forms, in which the labourer is an owner and the owner labours" (97), with the result that the laborer owns nothing and the owners do not labor.

This genealogy has immediate political motivations and implications, for Marx is concerned to demystify the fetishized ideology of capitalism as an eternally present form of society and to underline it as a break from more organic types of society. Rather than seeing the "worker" as a universal category, as does bourgeois political economy, Marx insists that the worker is a specific historical creation. "The establishment of the individual as a itself a production of history" (1965:68). The "worker" is precisely that abstract, laboring being who is divorced from the socionatural context of production, from both (1) the "objective conditions" of his production, and (2) its communal context. I shall briefly address each of these factors.

In his description of the various precapitalist societies, Marx argues that all are relatively continuous modifications of the basic tribal mode of production and its direct communal property form. He says, for instance, "Where the fundamental relationship is the same [in precapitalist societies], this [tribal property] form can realise itself in a variety of ways" (1965:69, my emphasis). Thus, ancient society "is the product of a more dynamic historical life, of the fate and modification of the original tribes" (71), and "Slavery and serfdom are.simply further developments of property based on tribalism" (91).

Whatever their differences—which amount to a gradually evolving differentiation of the tribal form and hence emergent forms of private property—these historical mutations are always, until capitalism, confined within the basic structural limits of tribal society. The "original" definition of property, as Marx states throughout the Formen, articulates a symbiotic relation of the producing individual to the land and the community. "Property—and this applies to its Asiatic, Slavonic, ancient classical and Germanic forms—.originally signifies a relation of the working (producing) the conditions of his production or reproduction as his own" (1965:95). In all precapitalist societies, producers are integrated with the materials of labor that constitute their objective conditions of production, and which they relate to as their property. "The individual is related to himself as a proprietor, as master of the conditions of his reality" (67) and these become his condition of "realisation," where the earth itself is his "natural laboratory" (67) and is understood as an extension of his very being. The purpose of production in these precapitalist societies is not the creation of exchange value, but of simple use value, of the maintenance of the individual, family, and the community as a whole. Each individual is related to the other, therefore, as a coproprietor, as a co-owner of common property.

Producers in these social formations are owners only insofar as they are members of the community that is the crucial mediating context of their relation to the land. Marx speaks, therefore, of the social "preconditions" of production, or the "communal character" of production, which is maintained throughout all precapitalist social formations: "Only in so far as the individual is a member—in the literal and figurative sense—of such a community, does he regard himself as an owner or possessor. In reality appropriation by means of the process of labour takes place under these preconditions, which are not the product of labour but appear as its natural or divine preconditions" (1965:69). The fact that the "communal ties of blood, language, custom, etc." (68) are the preconditions of all appropriation explains Marx's remark that in precapitalist society labor is not the origin of property, rather, property is the origin of labor— property, that is, as a communal form and concept.10

Thus, in precapitalist societies producing individuals are tied to the land and immersed in the community. Individuals produce only insofar as they participate in the community, and communal property mediates all relations to the land. Community and land constitute a primordial bond in the unity of conditions of production in precapitalist society. Although Marx is concerned to grasp the specific differences of each precapitalist mode of production, the emphasis in the Formen is on what they have in common: the natural and communal character of production. Here, Marx wishes to underline their continuity with one another (as "precapitalist economic formations") and their collective discontinuity from capitalism: "What requires explanation is not the unity of living and active human beings with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolism with nature, and therefore their appropriation of nature. what we must explain is the separation of these inorganic conditions of human existence from their active existence, a separation which is only fully completed in the relationship between wage-labour and capital" (1965:86-87).

While each new property form is a gradually emerging mode of alienation (in the most narrow sense of the separation of producers from the objective conditions of production), all property formations are confined within the structural limits of the tribal form and none represent the complete "dissolution" of the production-land-community triad that capitalism alone represents. While there are socially significant changes in the passage from one mode of production to another and an ever-growing division of labor and development of technology, the basic production-land-community triad and the "objective relation" of producers to the earth is preserved. It is only with capitalist society that this rupture occurs and we find, for the first time, "the total isolation of the mere free labourer" (1965:82).

Capitalism is a radical negation of all precapitalist societies, of the basic tribal property form. It involves "the dissolution" (1965:97) of the socionatural character of all prior forms of production, and fully alienates these individuals. It severs their relations to the land and community and renders them propertyless and divided; it destroys the organic "attitude to the land, to the earth as the property of the working individual" (81), who now appears as a mere abstraction, the "worker." Capitalism overturns the simple priorities of production in use value and self-preservation in order to establish the hegemony of exchange value, production, and work for their own sake. Only in capitalist society do "the productive forces appear as a world for themselves, quite independent of and divorced from the [producing] individuals.. Never, in any earlier period, have the productive forces taken on a form so indifferent to the intercourse of individuals as individuals" (Marx and Engels 1978:190, first two emphases mine).11

Capitalism shatters the inert ballast of tradition to generate modernity and its unique form of temporality, which is based on rapid and ceaseless change. All societies change and develop throughout history, but none as rapidly and drastically as capitalist societies, where crisis and instability are structural norms and constants. In Marx and Engels' famous words:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. (1978:476, my emphases)

Thus, capitalism is not simply unique or specific, as one might say of any mode of production; it is radically different from all preceding modes of production. To employ Althusser's distinction—which is implicit in Marx— capitalism is the first society where the economic level of the mode of production is both dominant and determinant, rather than simply ("ultimately") determinant.12 This perspective of discontinuity, which sees capitalism as a break from rather than a summation of history, is an independent one and should not be subsumed under a generalized continuity model. What we find are not two conflicting models of historical development, capitalism as summation of and break from all preceding history, but rather two different perspectives on the same historical transition.13 Marx views one and the same transition to capitalism from two different analytic levels: a highly abstract level that seeks the lines of historical continuity at the level of the productive forces, and a more concrete and historical perspective that delves beneath this abstraction to see the radical changes that this development effects at the level of economic and social relations of production. These perspectives form two inseparable, complementary strands in the larger web of Marx's theory of history.


Our task is to drag the old world into the light of day and give positive, true shape to the new one.

—MARX (1975a:206)

The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.


Just as Marx has multiple models of history, so he has various models of politics and different conceptions of the relation between theory and practice.14 As incisively analyzed by Adamson (1985), Marx's changing interpretations of the relationship between theory and practice were informed by changing political realities. During the period from 18431844, Marx believed the role of the radical theorist was to stimulate critical consciousness and clarify mystified social conditions. In his early, Hegelian outlook, the world was tending toward the realization of freedom, and Marx thought the task of the theorist was to facilitate what already was coming into being by awakening the world to itself.15 While Marx rejected any dogmatic or authoritarian concept of the intellectual, he saw social subjects to be passive in nature and in need of the outside assistance of theory that has already grasped the nature of the real.

This conception of the role of theory changed, Adamson claims, in the summer of 1844 as a result of the Silesian workers' struggles in Germany and the influence of Engels. Abandoning his Hegelian vision of history as tending toward its realization, Marx saw the working class (now identified as the main agent of social change) as active, critical, and capable of producing its own education and theory without the need for intellectuals. Criticism is still understood to be an active historical force, but it is no longer the only one. This shift is registered in the 1845 Theses on Feuerbach, where Marx recognizes that educators themselves need educating and rejects a hierarchical division between intellectual and worker. In The German Ideology, moreover, Marx claimed revolution, not criticism, was the driving force of history and he reduced the role of philosophy from the Hegelian task of grasping the nature of reality to the positivist task of merely summing up the results of science. Consequently, Marx privileged practice over theory and saw theory as emerging organically from the proletariat's experience in the workplace and in revolutionary practice. As the workers were gaining class consciousness they were assisted by the bourgeoisie itself, which Marx now thought to be demystifying social reality by reducing it to immediately visible social forces and relations.

As a result of political defeats for the working class in the period between 1848 and 1851, Adamson claims that Marx began to doubt the ability of the working class to gain critical consciousness on its own. He arrived in revolutionary Paris in March 1848 confident in the predictions of the recently written Communist Manifesto, but subsequent events greatly disappointed him. In this period, "Marx's strategic ideas shifted frequently —from 'democratic revolution,' to 'social-republican revolution,' to a Blanquist minoritarian coup d'etat—and reflected his increasing frustration" (Adamson 1985:54). Not wanting to abandon the model of an active proletariat, however, Marx came to emphasize the patience revolutionaries need for workers to train themselves adequately for the exercise of political power, insisting that it may take decades more for the working class to be prepared to seize power.16

But the break with the 1845 model that privileged practice over theory first appeared in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in which Marx recognized that bourgeois society was quickly remystifying what it was demystifying. Ideology proved to be a more potent force than Marx had previously thought, leading him to develop the notion of com modity fetishism in 1857. He then concluded that it would take severe economic crisis for the proletariat to become politically galvanized. Reversing ground, Marx argued that theory could not be subordinated to practice and he returned to his initial view that the working class was passive and needed the leadership of intellectuals such as Marx himself. This is the model, Adamson claims, that dominates Marx's political writings of the 1860s and 1870s. Works such as the Grundrisse and Capital depict workers increasingly subordinated to the process of production and distant from an adequate apprehension of social reality. Finally, pessimistic about any praxis-oriented tactic, Adamson claims that Marx could find possibility for social change only by positing objective laws independent of proletariat consciousness. "Nomological history is an antidote to. pessimism, in the obvious sense that it proffers the hope of a favorable historical resolution arising automatically out of capitalism's institutional working" (Adamson 1985:71).

Although I disagree that Marx embraced this determinist position (see below), Adamson's account is valuable for pointing to some of twists and turns in Marx's political thinking.17 In 1848 Germany, Marx advocated mass, armed insurrection; in the 1870s, he envisioned the possibility of a peaceful road to socialism in America, England, and Holland. At the onset of the 1848 revolutions, Marx sought to forge alliances between the proletariat and bourgeoisie on the assumption that they shared common interests in overthrowing absolutism. But the ruthless counterrevolutionary actions of the bourgeoisie led him to insist on the need for a communist-led, worker-peasant alliance that fought against the bourgeoisie for an immediately red republic. It was natural that in situations where class struggle was sharp and the proletariat strong, Marx would advocate the primacy of practice over theory. In situations where the proletariat were weak, he would abandon the tactic of armed insurrection, focus more on the need for theory and the guidance of intellectuals, and prepare for a long-range political battle.

Rather than seeing Marx's philosophical and tactical shifts as "inconsistencies," it is better to understand them as contextualist responses to complex historical situations where the dynamics of class struggle were constantly changing and required a flexible mode of response.18 The various changes in Marx's political views and tactics show that he modified theory to adapt to changing political reality rather than trying to make the reality fit the theory. They demonstrate that historical materialism, as Marx insisted, is not a master theory or recipe for absolute knowledge, but a supple guide for studying political reality that does not predetermine its results.

Despite the various changes in Marx's political perspective, there are also important continuities. Once he became a communist, Marx always rejected the possibility that capitalism could be adequately changed through reform, and he tirelessly denounced liberal, pragmatic, and gradualist visions of change, as well as merely utopian perspectives that had no understanding of the dynamics of class struggle. On the other hand, except for a very brief flirtation with Blanquism in the spring of 1850, Marx also rejected premature attempts to force change through a revolution putsch led by a tiny band of radical cognoscenti whom he denounced as "professional conspirators" and self-appointed "alchemists of revolution." Marx was always cautious and skeptical about the actual possibilities for revolution and he argued that no elite group could gain power or force change if the working class itself was not sufficiently developed and capable of supporting a revolutionary struggle. Against hotter heads among revolutionists, Marx advocated the careful, patient building of a revolutionary movement in difficult times. Marx subsequently rejected any firm distinction between reform and revolution, and supported reform measures such as universal suffrage and free education not only for the immediate gains they would bring but more importantly for their pedagogical value in training proletariat consciousness.

Marx' political focus was always on ways of organizing the working class into a unified, ultimately international organization. The dominant tendency in his work was to advocate an independent, self-organizing proletariat, but in his later years he increasingly insisted on the need for discipline, centralization, and intellectual leadership. Although there is a significant tension between emphases on leadership and working class independence that in later historical experiences such as the Bolshevik revolution was resolved in favor of apotheosis of the party, these values are not incompatible.19 At no time did Marx evince elitist attitudes; his advocation of intellectual leadership was designed to bring about proletarian independence, not impede it. As late as 1879, during a period Adamson characterizes as pessimistic and deterministic, Marx, in a letter to the German Social-Democratic Workers' Party, denounced the idea that "the working class is incapable of liberating itself by its own efforts" and must therefore "accept the leadership of 'educated and propertied' bourgeois, who also have 'opportunity and time' to acquaint themselves with what is good for the workers" (Marx, quoted in Miliband 1977:120). However difficult the political situations of his time, Marx never lost sight of the possibility for human emancipation, of a future society based on human self-realization rather than exploitation and alienation. Political vision could never rely on moral outrage and critique alone, nor on predetermined "laws." Rather, it required a firm empirical analysis of shifting forces of class struggle and a practical commitment to social change on the part of the masses.

Contrary to common belief, Marx did not only focus on the proletar at; until the end of his career he worked to bring into a revolutionary alliance, artisans and peasants (whom he did not see merely as a regressive social class). Nor did he envisage socialism as occuring only in advanced industrial nations, recognizing revolutionary possibilities in less developed countries such as Russia. This also means it is false that Marx always insisted on the need for a bourgeois revolution before a socialist revolution, a tactic that has disastrous political implications if it requires building capitalism where the possibilities for a socialist revolution are directly at hand.20

Marx's visions of historical continuity and discontinuity have different political implications that form complementary perspectives. The various continuity models and the use of Hegel's term "appropriation" imply a politics that advances the progressive achievements of history, particularly as explosively developed by capitalism. Rather than a total negation of the past and present, Marx seeks to retain and build on the wealth of history in a process of Aufhebung (overcoming). In Benhabib's terms (1986), Marx's visions of historical continuity entail a politics of "fulfillment" rather than a politics of "transfiguration" that aims to create qualitatively new needs and relations. But these two politics, as Benhabib understands, are inseparable. Marx believes that the wealth of history cannot be appropriated and realized without being transfigured, since capitalism blocks the realization of the forces it creates. What distinguishes Marxian politics from mere liberalism is the understanding that the "rational kernal" of the old can be genuinely preserved only within fundamentally different historical conditions. The politics of transfiguration envisages communism as a second major rupture in history, as the "negation of the [capitalist] negation" of all past history. Politically, therefore, Marx privileged the discontinuity model; he always subordinated reforms to the goal of revolution and his varying political tactics were simply different experimental means to the end of revolution. Let us now consider what Marx takes to be the main causal forces in history and examine his alleged determinist positions.


In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensible and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis, on which rises a legal and political super-structure, and to which correspond definite forms of so cial consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

—MARX (1978:4)

This passage from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is one of the most cited in Marx's work, but it is also one of the most misunderstood. As the main source of economic and technological deterministic misreadings, it is a bad place to begin understanding Marx. From reading this and other general statements of Marx's method, many interpreters have argued that Marx adheres to the following model of history: (1) all human history is a unified and coherent whole; (2) each mode of production, from tribal to communist society, succeeds the other through an invariable law of internal change; (3) this mechanism involves a progressively evolving state of productive forces bursting through a series of social fetters that thwart and "contradict" its motion; (4) history therefore unfolds with strict necessity and inexorably advances toward communist society.

According to this model, Marxism is a dogmatic, a priori system that deduces historical reality from application of a universal law of social constitution and change. From passages like this, theorists have drawn various absurd conclusions, such as that Marx denies human freedom and moral responsibility (Berlin 1957; Tucker 1961), or is committed to predictions about inevitable historical outcomes (Popper 1966). Such deterministic and scientistic interpretations of Marx's theory of history are caricatures of his actual analyses and political activities, although they have some textual support and Marx himself is partly responsible for these readings. In one oft-cited passage in Capital, for example, Marx refers to "the natural laws of capitalist production.working themselves out with iron necessity" (1977:91). Similarly, Marx seems to hold a crude copy-theory of knowledge that denies human agency when he says "the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought" (102).

The problem with all reductionist and determinist readings of Marx's work is not that they lack a textual basis, but that they focus only on one aspect or passage of his work to the exclusion of others and ignore Marx's concrete political activities. In his Theses on Feuerbach, for example, Marx rejects a reflection theory of knowledge by praising idealism for grasping the active character of the mind. In The Holy Family, he and Engels explicitly repudiate the kind of Hegelian teleology found in the Economic and Philosphic Manuscripts and implied in other statements by Marx: "History does nothing, it posesses 'no immense wealth,' it 'makes no bat tle.' It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; history is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims" (Marx and Engels 1975:110). Although Marx sees communism as the "goal of history," he is referring to a historically created potential that requires human intervention to be actualized. "Marx sharply rejects every school of thought which would subject history to some lawfulness or purposiveness.external and alien to the content of activities of concrete historical individuals" (Markus 1978:54).

Such tensions in Marx's work can be resolved in a number of ways; the differences in interpretation of Marx, such as we find between Plekhanov and Lukacs, result from the ambiguities and inconsistencies in his texts. There is therefore no "authentic" Marx, but a careful reading will avoid simple and dogmatic positions of any kind and bring out the tensions and changes in his work. The problem with relying on Marx's methodological reflections is that they often grossly oversimplify and misrepresent the complexity of his actual analyses.

Perhaps the most fundamental tension in Marx's work is the discrepancy between what he says in his theoretical summaries and what he does in his concrete studies. Here a key problem relates to the issue of whether or not Marx was a technological determinist, whether he privileged forces of production (technology, knowledge, work relations) over relations of production (social classes) as the fundamental causal dynamic of history. The crucial interpretative problems in the "Preface" concern the strength of the causal force behind the "determining" operations of the economic base, the meaning of the "correspondence" between forces and relations of production, and what elements constitute the economic base of society and its mode of production.21 Deterministic readings of Marx in large part emerge from different answers to these questions.

On the economic determinist reading, the base comprises both the forces and relations of production, both technology and economic classes, and it "determines" the superstructure in the strong sense of a oneway, mechanical causal force that prevents any reciprocal interaction between the base and superstructure. While many of Marx's critics still hold to this reading, orthodox Marxists such as Kautsky and Plekhanov rejected it and emphasized the reciprocal interaction between base and superstructure. Yet they and many others adopt a technological determinist reading of Marx.22 Like economic determinism, the technological determinist reading holds that the base determines the superstructure, but it adds that the most important factor determining the base itself is technology. In other words, a more fundamental rung is added to the causal hierarchy of society: the growth of technology determines the nature of economic activity and relations, which in turn determine the superstructure of social life.23

On the technological determinist reading, Marx holds that the ultimate driving force in history is technological development and that class relations are to be explained according to their function in promoting or retarding this growth. This thesis need not argue for a one-way causal determination of forces over relations of production; it need only maintain that the productive forces ultimately determine the relations of production, that relations of production are ultimately to be explained by the development of the forces of production.24 Thus, although "analytic Marxists" Cohen (1978) and Shaw (1978) criticize a nondialectical version of technological determinism that recognizes only one-way causality between forces and relations of production, and claim that Marx saw reciprocal influence on both sides, they remain technological determinists insofar as they functionally subordinate the relations to the forces of production and assert that the main role of social relations is to develop technology.25 Cohen attempts to support his "primacy [of the productive forces] thesis" with the "developmental thesis" that human beings, fundamentally rational in nature and living in constant conditions of scarcity, seek to acquire ever greater control over nature and therefore strive constantly to develop the forces of production. The relations of production that best develop the forces of production become the ruling social classes and survive as long as they serve the role of advancing technological growth.

For all their analytic sophistication, the major flaw of Cohen and Shaw's interpretations is their failure to emphasize the distinctly political character of Marx's historical explanations and the complex political-economic dialectic he develops—a problem that stems from their false separation of productive forces and work relations (see below). They transform a revolutionary political vision intended for the working class into an academic theory of history designed for historians. It is precisely this functionalist subordination of the relations to the forces of production that prompts other theorists to decry determinism and to insist on the primacy of the relations of production. As early as 1933, theorists such as Sidney Hook had begun to argue against the technological determinist claims made by Kautsky and Plekhanov and to champion the primacy of the relations of production. This argument was most ambitiously developed by Hindess and Hirst (1975) who reject the primacy of the productive forces, however qualified or reciprocal in nature, as a "technicism," as a functionalist subordination of consciousness, politics, and class struggle to technology. For Hindess and Hirst, the primacy of the forces of production thesis "renders inexplicable any operation of the relations of production which has the effect of not [merely] distributing the conditions of production so as to reproduce the forces" (1977:54).

Hindess and Hirst claim that for Marx, "it is the relations of production which are the crucial element in any concept of the economic level" (1975: 230). Unlike Cohen and Shaw, they privilege class struggle as the fundamental motor of history: "It is the forms of class struggle and their outcomes which determine the specific forms of the forces of production" (247). To support their reading, they point to quotes ignored by Cohen and Shaw where Marx defines class relations as "the specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labor is pumped out of the direct producers," which suggests that the relations of production determine the forces of production.

The opposing claims of these theorists each provide only a partially correct and one-sided reading of Marx. The technological determinist reading rightly emphasizes that Marx grants fundamental importance to the role of technology in human life. For Marx, "Technology discloses man's mode of dealing with nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them" (quoted in Shaw 1978:53). Marx does indeed claim that technology and the productive forces are key to explaining social change: "In acquiring new forces of production men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist" (1963: 109). He also argues elsewhere that "The (economic) relations and consequently the social, moral, and political state of nations changes with the change in the material powers of production" (1972:430). These emphases are conveniently glossed over in Hindess and Hirst's interpretation of Marx and they wrongly deny the forces of production any significant determining power in history.26 But they correctly point to counteremphases on the role of class struggle in history as an independent causal force that cannot be adequately captured by technological determinism. Neither position grasps the tensions and ambiguities in Marx's analyses. The one-sidedness of the readings of Cohen and Shaw and Hindess and Hirst need to be rejected in favor of a more nuanced, contextualist approach.


In his book Analyzing Marx (1984), Richard Miller criticizes both economic and technological determinist readings of Marx, while also trying to preserve Marx's unique emphasis on the importance of economic relations and technology in structuring society. Miller develops forceful arguments against every major aspect of the technological determinist interpretation of Marx: "Economic structures do not endure because they provide maximum productivity. Productive forces do not develop autono mously. Change in productive forces, in the narrowly technological sense that excludes work relations, is not the basic sources of change in society at large" (1984:188).

Arguing that Marx grants causal priority in an a priori way to neither forces nor relations of production, Miller develops a "mode of production" thesis which holds that, for Marx,

basic, internal economic change arises (whenever it does, in fact, take place) on account of a self-transforming tendency of the mode of production as a whole, that is, the relations of production, the forms of cooperation [work relations] and the technology through which material goods are produced.. Change may be based on developments in the forms of cooperation or in technology, giving access to enhanced productive power to an initially subordinate group, and motivating their resistance to old relations of production because the latter come to inhibit the further development of that new productive power (1984:172, my emphasis).

Like technological determinists, Miller claims that Marx always rooted social change within the dynamics of a given mode of production, but Miller argues for a broader and nonreductionist understanding of the causal forces comprising a mode of production. This argument makes the important claim that elements within a mode of production are inseparable and so it is impossible to isolate forces or relations as primacy. Miller makes two key moves in granting a broader context of causal factors in Marx's work. First, he argues that Marx included work relations, or "modes of cooperation," among forces of production, thereby denying causal priority to technological factors as in any way autonomous from social relations. This crucial move was blocked by Cohen and Shaw with a nondialectical logic that forces a categorical separation between social and material logics that is entirely foreign to Marx's method. If we undo this dichotomy to claim, with Marx himself, that work relations are integral aspects of the forces of production, then technological determinism becomes untenable.27

Second, Miller claims that Marx believed social change frequently came about due to internal contradictions within a given economic structure, independent of its relation with forces of production. On Miller's interpretation, Marx holds that social change can be stimulated as much by economic relations as by technological development; economic structures can select productive forces as much as productive forces can select economic structures. Miller rejects Cohen and Shaw's functionalist subordination of relations to forces of production as well as Hindess and Hirst's voluntarism to argue in favor of a "zig-zag dialectic" between forces and relations, "with priority on neither side" (1984:190). Miller therefore adopts a symmetrical thesis is as much to be explained as due to structure and the processes to which they give rise as the nature of changes in structures is due to forces" (213). Forces and relations of production, in other words, are too interdependent to raise any causal priority claim.

Miller also rejects the schizophrenic reading that Marx is a technological determinist in his general statements but not in his concrete analyses; the possibility for symmetrical causation "is left open by Marx's general theory and realized in his specific explanations" (1984:212). Marx's general statement that relations correspond to forces is only "a synopsis of a specific scenario for change in structure" and not "an assessment of the balance of ultimate causal influences" (213). Rather than subscribing to a monolithic model privileging forces or relations of production, "Marx treats primacy as relative to the questions being asked" (207). In my own terms, Marx is a contextualist who privileges different causal factors in different contexts.

If we open the pages of Capital, it is hard to resist the conclusion that in his most important and definitive work, Marx privileges relations over forces of production. In a sustained analysis (1977:455-491), he describes the shift from feudalism to capitalism as a shift from a mode of production based on handicrafts to one initially based on manufacturing. Capitalism develops by appropriating and extending the cooperative form of labor employed in handicrafts within a new context of manufacturing whose aim is the maximization of surplus value. The "starting point" of capitalism involves assembling in one place and one labor process a number of workers under the control of a capitalist. Formerly independent and specialized craftsworkers engaged in a variety of tasks now occupy positions within a more complex division of labor that is indifferent to needs and creative abilities, appropriating human beings as sheer labor power. In the transition from feudal handicrafts to capitalist manufacturing, before the era of large-scale industry, there is no basic change in the technical basis of production since "handicraft skill is the foundation of manufacturing" (489). Rather, the change leading to a new mode of production occurs at the level of work and ownership relations through a political struggle between classes. The productive forces of feudal society are put to new use in a different social context. Newly established capitalist work relations and production relations, in turn, condition subsequent technological developments in the form of machine production and large-scale industry.

If this change is interpreted as a change in productive forces, it has to be understood in the broad sense that includes work relations. It is clear, however, that Marx believes that capitalism does not arise through a technological revolution, but rather through "the revolution in the relations of production" (1977:879). In fact, for Marx, it is the relations of production that are most crucial in explaining the transition to capitalism. The incredible unleashing and development of the productive forces characteristic of capitalism can only occur after a revolution in relations of production. Before the technological basis of industrial capitalism could be developed, the proletariat first had to be formed as a class. The mass of newly created proletarians thrown onto the labor market resulted from the dissolution of bands of feudal retainers and the forced expropriation of peasants from the land. The motivation behind this was economic: through a rapid expansion in wool manufacturing and a rise in the price of wool, the new nobility found it most profitiable to drive the peasantry off the land in order to raise sheep. The desire here was to acquire money, not to develop technology (878-879).

Marx says that "the revolution in property relations on the land were accompanied [n.b., not determined] by improved methods of cultivation, greater cooperation, a higher concentration of the means of production and so on" (1977:908). Newly emerging bourgeois property relations also led to the destruction of subsidiary trades in the countryside and to the creation of a home market (910-911). Hence, Marx speaks of "the productive forces resulting from co-operation and the division of labour" (508). He states that "the expansion of industries carried on by means of machinery and the invasion of fresh branches of production by machinery were dependent upon the growth of a class of workers who, owing to the semi-artistic nature of their employment, could increase their numbers only gradually, and not by leaps and bounds" (504).

Of course, as Hindess and Hirst fail to see, the productive forces have their own influence and effect the nature of work and ownership relations. In Chapter 15 of Capital, Marx shows how the machinery employed in large-scale industry had great consequences on further developments in technology and on the social mode of production as a whole.28 It forced a mechanization of all aspects of production, transforming workshops, domestic industry, and agriculture. Initially machinery increased the demand for workers, intensively exploiting women, children, and all forms of unskilled labor. Sunsequently, however, it displaced manual labor, allowed greater capitalist domination over the working class, and heightened class struggle (1977:590ff.). The impact of large-scale industry was most pronounced in agriculture, where machines displaced a multitude of workers, overturned the economic foundation of the old familial system, and substituted the wage-laborer for the peasant (636-639). Yet the development of machinery cannot be understood apart from a legal and political context. Marx analyzes how the implementation of the Factory Acts, beginning in 1835, transformed the character of technical, work, and capital composition (599ff.).

Thus, we find a dialectic of influence between forces and relations of production, base and superstructure, where the relations of produc tion are most crucial in the transition to capitalist and the forces of production become crucial in subsequent developments. Capital is an excellent text for showing how Marx examines historical change from a number of perspectives. In his analysis of the accumulation of capital Marx concentrates on the proletarianization of the agricultural population that removed the main fetters on the accumulation of capital. Yet among the number of other significant factors for capital accumulation, Marx lists the "discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins" (1977: 915). Commerical wars, conflicts among nations, methods of brute force and colonization, but not technological development, are described as the key factors in the transition to capitalism. Nor is there any textual evidence that Marx intended all of these factors to be "ultimately" determined by the development of technology.

While Marx always discusses social change in terms of contradictions within a given mode of production, he rarely analyzes these in terms of a contradiction between forces and relations of production as he and Engels do, for example, in The German Ideology. More often, Marx sees contradictions that arise within the economic structure itself, apart from any antagonistic relation to the productive forces. In the Grundrisse, a text that makes constant rhetorical reference to the primacy of the productive forces (1965:96, 97, 105), Marx shows how relations of production may be self-transforming. As the population of early Roman society expanded, for example, new households were given farms obtained through colonization. The expansion process, however, increased the power of the rich farmers who controlled the army and administration of public resources. These farmers used their increased power over land, slaves, and the political apparatus to become a new ruling class of large-scale absentee owners who exploited and dispossessed other farmers (92-93). Changes in the nature of productive labor, the shift from agriculture to manufacturing, "arises from intercourse with strangers, from slaves, the desire to exchange the surplus product, etc." (94) and these changes dissolve the mode of production.

In one passage, Marx describes war as the basic source of change; war is "the great all-embracing task, the great communal labour, and it is required either for the occupation of the objective conditions for living existence or for the protection and perpetuation of such occupation" (1965: 71). The ancient community "is therefore in the first instance organised on military lines" (71-72). The tendency toward war in societies like ancient Greece and Rome, or the communities of Jews "drives [them] beyond these limits" of simple reproduction (92). Marx shows how (mainly military) interaction with other communities can affect the basic nature of a given society and undermine its reproduction (71, 72, 89).29

In this and other accounts, Marx explains change in terms of population increase, war and colonization, class struggle, and commercial activity, rather than technological development and a contradiction between forces and relations of production. The primacy of the productive forces thesis makes its appearance only in passages that sum up Marx's general views and never in the context of concrete analysis. In fact, this thesis conflicts with Marx's concrete analyses. (Significantly, the forces/relations of production dialectic is nowhere mentioned in the thousand pages of Capital.) Where Marx does employ the forces/relations schema, he typically means forces in the broad sense that includes work relations, and he points to other determining factors in social change, sometimes privileging relations of production. Thus, the expansion of productive powers "is not primarily based on an autonomous drive toward technological progress" and enhanced productive power "usually results from changed forms of cooperation, not new technology" (Miller 1984: 173). Even when Marx limited himself to a rather narrow consideration of productive forces alone, "productive enhancement still lacks the particular primacy and the technological character assigned to it by technological determinism" (173).

According to Miller, technological determinism is wrong on other crucial counts. Frequently, changes in technology occur not to improve efficiency, but rather to develop wealth. In his analysis of ancient and feudal society, Marx does not suggest that slavery and feudal economic forms survive because they are the most productive economic structures at the time, but because of the relative strengths and weaknesses of different classes. In the case of feudalism, for example, "so far as productivity is concerned, a structure dominated by peasants and artisans would have been at least as effective as the feudal economic structure. But sustained unity and collective discipline over large geographic areas would have been required to break the bonds that the overlords forged from the surplus they controlled. The social relations of peasants, by focusing loyalties on the family and the village, guaranteed that the needed class solidarity would not arise" (Miller 1984:209).

Nor is the technological determinist explanation of social stability correct. According to this thesis, an economic structure remains stable so long as it continues to promote growth of the productive forces. In his analysis of slavery and feudalism, however, Marx describes both as structures maintained by the power of an economically dominant class in the face of alternatives at least as productive (Miller 1984:191). Feudalism and slavery persist because farmers and artisans lack the economic or political means to overturn the aristocratic ruling class.

Moreover, if technological determinism is true, how do we account for societies that seem consciously to reject technological advance or exist for long periods of time without substantial technological progress? In his numerous analyses of various non-European societies (which he lumped together under the concept of "Asiatic mode of production"), Marx emphasizes the static character of their productive forces. Beneath the constant change of political empires, the mode of production remained unaltered and changed only under the influence of colonization from dynamic Western countries. These analyses suggest that the primacy of the productive forces, when valid at all, applies for Marx only to Western countries and is not a universal principle applicable to all human societies— a key point on which Marx insisted (see below). Nowhere in his analyses of precaptialist societies does Marx apply the forces/relations couplet to understand the mechanisms of historical change. Rather, in the Grundrisse, Marx argues that ancient and feudal societies are variations on the basic tribal form of property and do not "dialectically" succeed one another. Far from a universal law of social transformation, Marx only applies this scheme to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This suggests that Cohen's "developmental thesis" is wrong, or seriously restricted, insofar as many societies exist where people do not consciously seek technological progress and may even suppress it in order to preserve tradition.30

Given the complexity of Marx's writings, his own summary statements and the innumerable parrotings they have given rise to are grotesque simplifications and parodies of his actual method. These statements suggest a universal, a priori, deductive method that Marx frequently railed against and never employed. They are false and misleading because they isolate and emphasize one factor, technological innovation, out of a broad context of many relevant factors that are nonreducible to technology and are frequently privileged over it. Marx never appealed specifically to economic or technological factors of change, but rather to a broad complex of forces including political, legal, and ideological elements.31

The discrepency between Marx's general statements and his concrete analyses raises the question of why Marx embraces a technological determinism in his abstract statements that he abandons in practice. If, as Miller claims, Marx includes work relations within the productive forces, then even Marx's summary statements have to be read in a broad and non-technological detevvrminist way and the problem dissolves itself. But this may not fully explain Marx's rhetorical emphasis on technology over social relations. Miller therefore suggests that Marx's emphasis on the productive forces, especially those created by modern capitalist society, was influenced by his polemics with anarchists who condemned industrial technology (1984:219-220). Miller claims that in response to the anarchists Marx felt compelled to argue for the progressive effects of technological development and to insist that human needs could only be met through advanced technology. Miller speculates that given his broad definition of productive forces, Marx "may well have hoped that explanations that seemed to depart from the narrower mode of production theory could be reconciled with it, on further analysis" (219-220).

Perhaps more plausibly, Larrain (1986:88) suggests that Marx's summary privileging of technology is the result of his uncritical appropriation of positivist scientism and the Enlightenment dogma that human progress is won through science and technology. On this hypothesis, Marx felt a need to legitimate his work through scientific credentials and the progressivist strain of his own thought led him to overemphasize the productive forces as the source of change. Possibly, the ideological pull of positivist and Enlightenment concepts was strong enough to lead Marx to contradict his concrete analyses. Or, finally, it is possible that Marx, as Sorel would do later, invented a myth of immanent social change in order to foster hope among the working class. But, as mentioned above, Adamson (1985: 70-71) suggests that Marx invented a teleological myth as an antidote to his own pessimism, that as social reality become increasingly mystified by bourgeois ideology, Marx turned to forces of history that guaranteed revolution independent of the consciousness of the working class.32 I find this an implausible claim because it requires that Marx completely abandon the acute sense of contingency that informs his concrete analyses.

If Marx's own motivations for adopting scientistic rhetoric are ultimately uncertain, it is much easier to understand why technological determinism has been embraced by communist governments, for it diverts attention way from democratization of social relations toward the development of technology under bureaucratic command and justifies the use of domination and force to achieve "progress" (see Reinfelder 1980). On the narrow sense, technological determinism denies the need and efficacy of political struggle, since the outcome of history is preordained and guaranteed. The broader interpretation of Cohen and Shaw may not in theory deny the need of political struggle, but the implications of their version of technological determinism suggest it in practice. As an example of how Marx himself can overstate his case, consider his claim that "No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed" (1978:5). This has the troubling political implication that social change must wait until such a point is reached. Aside from the difficulty of knowing exactly when this time arrives, a system like twentieth-century capitalism seems capable of developing its productive forces indefinitely and along highly destructive paths, while containing all progressive potential for change. Except for his early metaphysical determinism and his later nomological rhetoric, the dominant tendency in Marx himself is to insist that conscious, collective action is necessary for social transformation and that this action must be the product of a self-determining proletariat.


Learning how to abstract is the first step in learning how to think.


Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever.

—MARX AND ENGELS (1978:155)

The fundamental tension in Marx's use of different historical models does not involve incompatible continuity and discontinuity perspectives, but rather ambivalent attitudes toward the applicability of his materialist categories to precapitalist and non-Western forms of production. On the one hand, Marx feels that history is continuous enough to legitimate extending an analysis that took shape in modern capitalist society to all of history. Marx's implicit argument is this: (1) in all societies, human beings have to produce to survive; (2) production is the ultimately determining activity of any society; therefore (3) the materialist theory of production is applicable to any and all societies.33

Yet, on the other hand, Marx is acutely aware of the specificity of different forms of production and believes that there are serious qualifications to be placed on the applicability of the materialist theory of history to precapitalist and non-Western social forms. Thus, there is tension between the diachronic and synchronic perspectives in Marx's work, between the attempts to shed some light on the dynamics of human history in general and the belief that precapitalist and non-Western societies are radically different from capitalist society and Western societies in general. The problem is: can a continuous (diachronic) model of history be applied legitimately throughout discontinuous historical formations? Can one situate an analysis of the originality of capitalism and Western society within a larger historical narrative or does this uniqueness disrupt any attempt to comprehend "the whole of history"? Can all human history be understood adequately from the standpoint of material production?

To address this problem, I begin with Marx's metatheoretical reflections on the nature and limitations of his historical method as pursued in the dense opening sections of the Grundrisse. Here, Marx is preoccupied with a representation of history that would grasp both the specificity of each mode of production and the general features each shares in common within one historical narrative. Marx wants to employ production as the basic category to speak of any and all social formations. As such, "production" is an abstraction, but not of the same order as employed by political economists. In his critique of political economy (1978:222ff.), Marx condemns the use of ahistorical abstractions which are applied indiscriminantly and without regard for concrete historical differences—the bourgeois search for "general preconditions of all production" (225), which does nothing but produce "flat tautologies" and reductionist formulations. Political economists such as Mill mistakenly read the bourgeois articulation of production throughout all history, transforming precapitalist societies into a mirror image of capitalism.34

As the example of political economy shows, it is "possible to confound or to extinguish all historic differences under general human laws" (1978: 225). For Marx, abstractions are not bad or wrong, rather they are a necessary analytic device; they allow one to draw comparisons between social epochs and to make helpful generalizations across and within different social formations. It is only ahistorical and overgeneralizing uses of abstraction that Marx attacks. The issue then is a methodological problem of how to make one's abstractions valid, or "rational," such that two negative results are avoided: lapsing into tautology and obscuring historical differences. In Marx's statement of the issue:

Whenever we speak of production, then, what is meant is always production at a definite stage of social development—production by social individuals. It might seem, therefore, that in order to talk about production at all we must either pursue the process of historic development through its different phases, or declare beforehand that we are dealing with a specific historic epoch such as, e.g., modern bourgeois production, which is indeed our particular theme. However, all epochs of production have certain common traits, common characteristics. Production in general is an abstraction, but a rational abstraction in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element and saves us repetition. Still, this general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times and split into different determinations. Some determinatins belong to all epochs, others only to a few. [Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient. No production will be thinkable without them; however, even though the most developed languages have laws and characteristics in common with the least developed, nevertheless, just those things which determine their development, i.e., the elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity— which arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and of the object, nature—their essential difference is not forgotten (1978: 223-227).

We see that however different modes of production are, they retain essential elements in common that can and must be grasped in order to produce a theory of production as a general theory of history and to understand fully the nature of any one mode of production. Diachronically, while specific social modes of relating to nature differ, all societies are organized around production and class dynamics. Synchronically, while Marx's analytic focus is on the most developed capitalist mode of production of his time, that of modern England, he believes he can legitimately abstract from that context to speak of the "capitalist mode of production" in general.

Abstractions are rational to the extent that they incorporate change, interaction, and the concrete social relations from which they derive. In a key section of the Grundrisse ("The Method of Political Economy," 1978: pp. 236-244) we see Marx reducing abstractions to ever greater concreteness. He resolves, for instance, the standard sociological abstraction "population" into classes, which in turn is resolved into an even more concrete analysis based on the constitutive elements of capital and wage labor. But in the dialectic of the concrete and the abstract, all these categories require recontextualization within the whole to which they belong—which, in this case, is the synchronic category of the "capitalist mode of production." Similarly, each mode of production is itself related to its larger whole, the process of history itself.

An abstraction such as "production"—provided that "essential difference is not forgotten," provided that it returns to the concrete—is a meaningful and helpful category. Without some way to register not only the differences between modes of production, but also their essential similarities, we would "fall back," as Fredric Jameson says, "into a [nominalist or postmodern] view of present history as sheer heterogeneity, random difference, a coexistence of a host of distinct forces whose effectivity is undecideable" (1991:6). Marx's use of rational abstraction allows him to avoid both an abstract universalism that seeks ahistorical laws of social movement and obscures complex differences, as well as a nominalism that claims there are only specific events and irreducible particulars of history and that denies the validity of any generalization or cross-historical comparison. For Marx, "production" is a needed and valuable abstract category, but there is "no production in general" (1978: 234), that is, no form of production exists that is not historically mediated and constituted by specific social relations of production. Hence, Marx's definition of production states: "All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society" (226, my emphasis).

If the abstract bears within it the determinations of the concrete, then the most abstract process, the capitalist mode of production, bears within it a host of historical forces. In the Grundrisse, Marx argues that the continuous development of the productive forces throughout history makes possible a retrospective comprehension of the entire historical process from the standpoint of capitalist society:

Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allow insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered remnants are carried along with it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it, etc. Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the highest development is already known. (1978:241)

On the assumption, therefore, that capitalist society is the "most developed and the most complex historic organization" of the productive activities that structure all societies, an understanding of capitalism provides the key to understanding all historical societies. Earlier societies express in incubo what is fully clear only in the most advanced societies. Unlike the approach that studies events in the order in which they occur, Marx's retrospective method moves from result to precondition. It attempts to deduce what was required for social phenomena to appear and function as they did, but without assuming events had to unfold in a predetermined way or that societies have to pass through a circumscribed path of development (Ollman 1993). This later model of historical explanation also breaks with the forward-looking models in his 1844-1845 period of an unfolding human essence or evolution of modes of production, With Hegel, Marx believes that history can only be understood retrospectively, only after its most essential dynamics have unfolded and matured, although he does not follow Hegel in thinking that science arrives too late to change the world. If one accepts Marx's premise that there is a strong continuity throughout history in terms of evolving productive forces, then it seems plausible to conclude (1) that this dynamic can only be fully understood at the end (or maturation) of its development, and (2) that capitalist society therefore provides "a key" for the comprehension of all history. In this later retrospective model, Marx develops the hermeneutical insights that all understanding is dependent upon one's historical and theoretical standpoint. In Adamson's words (1985:26), "There is no starting point for gaining knowledge about genesis and development other than what currently exists."

Yet the danger of such an approach is that one might read capitalist social relations throughout all of history and thereby falsify the specificity of precapitalist societies. Marx is highly sensitive to this problem and thinks he avoids it through qualifications about the applicability of his method to precapitalist societies. His qualifications concerning his use of abstractions and his warnings against their dangers and misuse is dramatically evident in a key correspondence (1975b) regarding the application of historical materialism to non-Western countries.35 Railing against a critic who misinterpreted his views concerning the question of what path of development Russia should pursue, Marx takes pains to emphasize Russia as a unique social and historical formation that cannot fit unqualifiably into the context of his theory. Referring to his chapter on primitive accumulation in Capital, Marx claims that his intention is only to chart the emergence in Western Europe of the evolution of capitalism feudal society. Thus, he says, the critic wrongly "insists on transforming my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historic-philosophic theory of the general path of development prescribed by fate to all nations, whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves, in order that they may ultimately arrive at the economic system which ensures, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man" (1975b:293-294). Marx then offers a comparison between subjugation of labor and "big money capital" in Roman and modern times and concludes: "Thus events strikingly analogous but taking place in different historical surroundings led to totally different results. By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenomenon, but one will never arrive there by using as one's master key a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being supra-historical" (294).

Marx places similar qualifications on his method in the third section of the introduction to the Grundrisse. Regarding exchange, for instance, he says it is only of marginal importance in early Peruvian and Slavian societies and appears in significant form outside the boundaries of simple communities. Money exists in the most advanced part of the ancient world, but does not become a major consituting force of society until the birth of modern capitalism. "This very simple category [money], then, makes a historic appearance in its full intensity only in the most developed conditions of society. By no means does it wade its way through all economic relations" (1978:239).

Similarly, the concept of labor is "immeasureably old," but it is also "as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction" (1978:239-240). Labor

has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society—in the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category "labour," "labour as such," labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice. The simplest abstraction,then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society. (240-241)

The example of labor, Marx argues, shows how even the most abstract categories are a historical product and possess their full validity only within historical relations. Finally, summarizing, Marx says: "Although it is true, therefore, that the categories of bourgeois economics possess a truth for all other forms of society, this is to be taken only with a grain of salt. They can contain them in a developed, or stunted, or caricatured form etc., but always with an essential difference" (1978:242).


We see that Marx struggles against a Eurocentric, universal history that reduces all historical cultures and dynamics to that of the modern West. Against critics like Leff, Marx does not unqualifiably treat his own categories "as timeless, of universal application to all social phenomena" (1969:xii). While in the most general and abstract sense, all societies are organized around production, Marx insists that the forms such production take are very different and that the categories applied to modern bourgeois society cannot be applied unqualifiably to precapitalist societies.

Yet, there are profound ahistorical, Eurocentric, and totalizing dimensions to Marx's analyses. For many critics, Marx's qualifications represent the logical self-destruction of his theory and reveal an inherent reductionist drive to totalize beyond and despite perceived limitations on its historical range. Initiating his categorical rejection of Marxism, Baudrillard asks, "What does it mean to say 'valid for all epochs' but 'fully applicable only for some'?" (1975:84). Similarly, Balbus asks: "How can the category [of production] be both historically specific and transhistorical?" (1982: 16) and he concludes, "Marx clearly wants to have it both ways: the concept of a mode of production both is and is not a transhistorical category" (31). How is it possible, in other words, that Marx's historically specific categories provide the means to grasp the fundamental dynamics of all societies? And does this mean that historical materialism itself is only "fully valid" in capitalist society and only partially valid in all preceeding epochs? What sense does it make to say that such a theory is both a general theory of history and of partial applicability to all but a small fraction of that history?

Contra Balbus and Baudrillard, I see no logical difficulties in the way Marx presents his argument. On a nondialectical logic, something is either valid or invalid and there are no mediating degrees. Yet Marx's analysis applies to a changing history, and not to static "facts" to which a "truth" does or does not "correspond." In this context it does make logical sense to speak of "degrees" of validity. To the extent that (1) the categories of historical materialism can and do apply to precapitalist societies, and (2) the material practices and relations they illuminate are not as historically developed as they are in capitalist society, then (3) these categories have less validity in more undeveloped conditions than they do in developed conditions. If we accept premises (1) and (2), then the conclusion follows and Marxism will have at least some validity in an analysis of precapitalist societies.

Marx's "inconsistencies" or "contradictions," his qualifying distinctions between different forms of labor, exchange, production, and so on, provide the conceptual and historical basis of his critique of political economy.

They allow him to demystify the ideology of political economy that universalizes throughout history categories that apply only to capitalist society, where "labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any form" (Marx 1978:240-241). It is this "indifference toward particular kinds of labour" (241) that Marx so forcefully exposes, criticizes, and negates in his own work. It is a virtue of Marx's approach that he historicizes not only the categories of political economy, but those of his own method.

When Marx states, therefore, that the categories of historical materialism are valid for all epochs, but only "fully valid" for some, he is speaking the dialectical language of continuity/discontinuity where the "full validity" of the categories of exchange, labor, and production is realized because capitalist society has abstracted production from a socionatural context and has rid itself of all elements that would hinder the reified goals of exchange value and production for private profit. Consequently, "production" is an abstraction that applies to every social epoch, but only through a "rational" analysis that identifies the specific features of each mode of production. The thrust of Marx's qualifying remarks, therefore, do not logically undermine historical materialism as a methodology, they only oppose dogmatic, a priori applications of the theory in abstraction from specific historical contexts.

The problem that arises with Marx's theory is not that his qualifying remarks ensnare him in irresolvable logical antinomies, but that (1) they may be so serious and extensive as to undermine the explanatory power of historical materialism as a general theory of history, as opposed to a theory that applies only or mainly to modern capitalist society, and that (2) "production" is nevertheless coded as the fundamental logic of history. Recent critical work suggests that the "partial validity" of historical materialism vis-a-vis precapitalist societies may be even more partial than Marx thought. Sahlins (1972) provides intriguing evidence that the notion of transhistorical scarcity is a myth and that many early cultures spent the bulk of their time in ritual, festival, and play. Sahlins also claims (1976) that culture and kinship relations are far more important in these societies than Marx allowed. Both Sahlins and Baudrillard argue that Marx imposes a utilitarian means-end logic on precapitalist societies in which exchange is primarily symbolic in character (e.g., the potlatch or the gift exchange as described by Marcel Mauss [1967]). Baudrillard (1975) effectively shows that Marx takes use value to be an unproblematic given, relating to innate human needs, when it fact it is a historical construction of societies that have rationalized both subjects and objects.

Giddens argues that materialist categories do not have the structural primacy Marx granted them and he draws a distinction between "class-divided societies" and "class societies." The former category refers to precapitalist societies where classes indeed exist, but "class analysis does not serve as a basis for identifying the basic structural principle of organisation of that society" (Giddens 1981:108). "Class society," in contrast, refers to capitalist society where classes are of fundamental importance in the structuring of society. Habermas argues that Marx conflates material production with symbolic interaction and subsequently misses the fundamental importance of language, commmunication, and moral development as determinants of historical change (see Chapter 3). Perry Anderson (1979) claims that the forces of production in Asiatic societies were more developed and dynamic than Marx allowed and that Marx's remarks about "peoples with history" suggest a Eurocentric ideology. Bookchin (1991) convincingly argues that domination and hierarchy ultimately stem from institutionalized differences of age and sex rather than surplus production and economic classes. Bookchin also claims that Marx has internalized the Western view of nature as stingy inert matter and reproduces the myth of scarcity that requires an antiecological outlook and justifies domination as necessary for social development.

All of these critiques point to the same underlying problem: Marx has falsely universalized categories specific to modern society. Despite his seemingly cautious use of rational abstractions, Marx's theory has reductive and bourgeois dimensions. While Marx analyzes the specificity of different forms of labor and production, he reduces all forms of human interaction and practice to the model of work. Though he is right that all human societies produce the means of their subsistence, he wrongly foists an economistic logic on precapitalist social forms by subsuming a diversity of cultural practices and logics under the concept "mode of production" which a priori assigns a primacy to economic values and relationships. His privileging of production over other forms of action and interaction is arbitrary. If, as Lukacs argues (1971:55, 57), precapitalist societies are an organic whole where "economic elements are inextricably joined to political and religous factors" and "economic and legal categories are objectively and substantively so interwoven as to be inseparable" (Lukacs' emphasis) then it is impossible to justify the claim that material production is primary, "the first historical act" (Marx and Engels 1978: 156), and that the economic is "ultimately" or in "the last instance" the most decisive factor in history. Echoing Lukacs' point, Seidman states that "economic laboring practices always are embedded in a sociocultural and political context that involves normative and legal regulation and structures of institutional and political authority as well as gendered identities and relations" (1992:57). Hence, to privilege economic activity as the "first premise of all human history," as Marx and Engels do, is to succumb to ethnocentric and androcentric prejudices.

If the universal history described by historical materialism is more fragmented and localized than Marx thought, then his abstractions are in fact not "rational." His attempts at a retrospective reading of the past from the standpoint of present dynamics projects a false line of continuity throughout history, organized around the primacy of production, despite his awareness of the historical discontinuities created by capitalism. Marx appears to be in a double bind: if he is too totalizing in his materialism, he becomes, like the political economists he criticizes, reductive and ahistorical; if, on the other hand, he burdens his theory with substantive qualifications about its limited applicability in precapitalist societies, he undermines its explanatory power as an alleged general theory of history. As it stands, Marx has not escaped the "mirror of production" (Baudrillard) that sees the past too much merely as a paler image of present dynamics. Historical materialism may be a, but not the, perspective for understanding past cultures.


Bifurcation is the origin of the need for philosophy.


Throughout this chapter I have tried to show that determinist readings of Marx's theory of history are one-sided and false. Although there are deterministic and teleological tendencies in Marx's work, these occur mainly in the abstract summaries or presentations of his method. The thrust of his concrete analyses, in contrast, points in nondeterministic and non-teleological directions. From his texts, it is clear that Marx does not posit a linear development of modes of production leading from tribal to communist society, does not see history as a seamless narrative of progress, does not believe in an immanent law of motion leading inevitably toward communism, and does not embrace an economic or technological determinist account of social change. Rather, he sees discontinuities between Western and non-Western social forms and, within Western history, between precapitalist and capitalist societies; he holds that human beings shape, and are shaped by, their social and natural environment; he claims that history is a human product; and he believes that the "unfolding" of the contradictions of capitalism guarantee nothing but what conscious political subjects can make of them.

I have also argued that the dominant view of Marx as a facile reductionist and totalizer is wrong. Although he treats all social practices as derivative of labor and is too economistic in his analysis of precapitalist societies, Marx is opposed to any universal method that attempts to substitute deduction of historical laws for concrete analysis of specific social situations. Within the framework of historical materialism, Marx adopts a rich, complex, and multicausal analysis of social change.

Diachronically, he analyzes continuities and discontinuities; synchronically, he analyzes social change from the standpoints of economics, politics, technology, work relations, war, and other factors. As Daniel Little has argued, the methodology of Capital is "irreducibly pluralistic" in its "variety of different forms of analysis and descriptive matter" (1986:20). These include economic, historical, political, and sociological arguments and modes of description, along with moral critiques of exploitation and alienation. "The variety displayed in these different elements in Marx's analysis in Capital shows that his treatment of capitalism does not take the form of a unified deductive system from which all relevant particulars can be deduced. Instead, Marx's account is a family of related explanatory arguments, bits of analysis, historical comments, and descriptive efforts loosely organized by a common perspective. No general theory akin to atomic theory permits Marx to unify all his material into a single deductive system" (18).

The fact that Marx adopts a pluralist, multicausal mode of analysis does not mean that he is an eclectic who vacuously believes everything determines everything else. As Althusser insisted (1979:215), the logic of overdetermination Marx employs rejects both economistic monism and the "theoretical void" of epistemological pluralism, which asserts that all perspectives and explanatory frameworks are equally valid and which fails to specify ultimately determining causes in society. Marx believes that only a materialist analysis can represent real social dynamics, and yet within this framework he specifies numerous factors of determination as they interrelate within a "structure in dominance" (Althusser). Despite the differ ent models, standpoints, and tensions in Marx's works, there is also a good deal of coherence and consistency. Marx always tries to account for change in terms of dynamic developments within a society that lead to internal contradictions, but he does not limit this to a simple contradiction between forces and relations of production. He consistently roots the basic factors of social change in the mode of production of social life, appealing to technology, economics, work relations, and political forces.

My argument has been that Marx adopts a contextualist approach that sees historical change as the result of a complex interaction of social phenomena, all of which must be analyzed in concrete empirical contexts, where no a priori rules determine the results beyond the general principle that it is the mode of production of a given society that determines its mode of life. The usual practice of distinguishing between an "early" and "late" Marx does not begin to do justice to the complexity of his different views of history, politics, culture, and ideology. A contextualist reading of this contextualist method allows us to look beyond surface contradictions in Marx's works and to see deeper continuities within a broad materialist framework. A contextualist approach does not try to absolve Marx of all inconsistencies or contradictions; rather, as contextualist, it examines each theoretical issue independently. When a complex and prolific writer like Marx analyzes a rapidly changing social world from different vantage points over a long period of time, contradictions and inconsistencies will certainly occur, but along many lines one also finds a great deal of continuity and coherence to Marx's work.

One such line of continuity and coherence is the Hegelian vision of history as a dialectic of alienation and freedom, differentiation and unification, loss and recuperation. On this vision, human emancipation, just like the freedom of Spirit, cannot be achieved in pure, abstract, and unmediated form; rather, freedom is a historical product that requires a process of differentiation and alienation. Against Rousseau, Marx does not believe that humanity is born free and then placed in chains. It is only when there is established a complex social division of labor, an advanced development of technology, a creation of universal forms of human association, and the evolution of individuals beyond "sheep-like or tribal consciousness" (Marx and Engels 1978:158) into beings rich in abilities and needs that the historical preconditions of human freedom exist. But since differentiation unfolds as alienation, the process reaches a point where the divisions and antagonisms that dynamically drive history forward are no longer needed and become an impediment to further progress; emancipation can be attained only through the abolition of conflicts, contradictions, and oppositions.

For Marx, this stage in history is reached in nineteenth-century capitalist society. Marx praises capitalism for its powerful development of the productive forces, for establishing universal social relations, and for producing complex individuals, but he condemns it for organizing these dynamics around the imperatives of production for private profit and thereby blocking the historical movement of democracy, equality, and freedom. Only through the abolition of capitalism and the creation of communism can the historically accumulated powers of humanity be realized in conditions of freedom.

Through analysis of actual historical possibilities, Marx foresees the end of human need (as privation) and greed and envisages a transition from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. "Freedom...can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature" (Marx 1978:441). In Marx's vision, the task of communism is to overturn all forces of alienation in order to allow human beings to gain control over the conditions of their practical existence, to appropriate the objective and subjective wealth of history, and to overcome all debilitating oppositions. This requires the abolition of the capitalist state, private property, religion, money, and all other alienating forces that mediate the direct relationship among freely interacting human beings and between each individual and its own nature.

By abolishing all false mediations and oppositions, Marx believes that communism can resolve the most fundamental contradiction, that between (human) essence and existence, between potentiality and actuality, such that objectification (productive activity) is no longer alienation but selfactualization. By abolishing the division of labor in the form of the "fixation of social activity," communism is the movement of human beings developing their multifaceted abilities in various ways without being restricted to any one mode of activity. "Only at this stage [of history] does self-activity coincide with material life, which corresponds to the development of individuals into complete individuals" (Marx 1975a:192). The ultimate goal of communism is to return to the individual the most important possession he or she can have, the free time needed to develop one's personality and creative abilities.36 Communism is defined therefore as a "fresh confirmation of human powers and a fresh enrichment of human nature" (358); it is designed to render it "impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals" as an alien power (Marx and Engels 1978: 193).

Human progress from now on is to be measured in terms of the degree of the all-around development of human individuals themselves; the so cial imperative shifts from development of objective to subjective forces. The social whole that Marx envisages is not an abstract or homogenous whole that erases all distinctions and levels individuality, but rather a con crete or mediated unity that allows for the genuine flourishing of differences in an unantagonistic way. Where precapitalist societies produced sociality without sufficient individuality, and capitalism produced individuality without sufficient sociality, Marx sees the goal of communism to be the overcoming of this opposition through the creation of the social individual, of free and creative individuals interacting harmoniously in solidarity with one another. To borrow Adorno's phrase, Marx's vision of history is informed by a "negative dialectics" that eschews oppressive homogeneity without abandoning the norm of unity and community.

Turning to Foucault and Habermas, we encounter two different critical assessments of Marx's theory of history and society. While both have been influenced by Marxian concepts, each seeks to move beyond Marxism to develop new critical theories relevant to contemporary capitalist conditions. As detailed below, Habermas, despite his break from Marxism, remains bound to a Hegelian vision of history and, to some extent, a philosophy of the subject, that Foucault overturns in favor of a Nietzschean vision that challenges totalizing tendencies and Enlightenment premises shared by both Marx and Habermas.


1. As first schematized by Engels, Marx's dialectics studies four kinds of relationships: identity/difference, interpenetration of opposites, quantity/ quality, and contradiction. The first two relations focus on synchronic phenomena. Marx attempts to analyze various aspects of society, while understanding them as part of a single system. Within this system, seemingly "opposite" things (such as the capital/labor relation) are really contrasting aspects of the same relation. The last two relations focus on diachronic phenomena. As discussed below, the impetus of historical change is contradictions within social orders. Gradual, quantitative accumulations of change eventually lead to a qualitative rupture and a new form of society. For a more complete analysis of dialectics, see Engels (1976), Lenin (1981), Ollman (1976, 1993), and Bologh (1979).

2. However "scientific" Marx's account of history, his analysis never relinqished strong ties to Hegelian dialectics. Later texts such as Capital and the Grundrisse are dialectic in their method and mode of exposition. For elaboration of this argument, see Ollman (1976) and Rosdolsky (1977).

3. "The act of reproduction itself changes not only the objective conditions— e.g. transforming village into town, the wilderness into agricultural clearings, etc.— but the producers change with it, by the emergence of new qualities, by transforming and developing themselves in production, forming new powers and new conceptions, new modes of intercourse, new needs, and new speech" (Marx 1965: 93). Thus, Marx believes that human subjects too are throughly historical in nature, that the human being itself is a historical product.

4. For Hegel, Spirit is originally an abstract and undifferentiated identity, an empty substance without any reality. To be actual and self-actualizing, it must undergo a process of externalization and differentiation in space and time, where it eventually becomes whole again, this time as a "concrete unity." Similarly, I am arguing, Marx recognizes that early human societies may be organically unified, but the human beings living within them cannot be free until a new unity, differentiated and "concrete," is historically produced.

5. My scheme differs in detail and substance from the valuable analyses of Rader (1979), Fleischer (1973), and Adamson (1985). Rader also identifies three different models of history in Marx—the "base/superstructure" model, the "dialectical" model, and the "organic" model—and emphasizes their logical continuity, but without seeing important points of discontinuity. Fleischer too distinguishes between three different historical models in Marx's work, which he identifies as "anthropological," "pragmatological," and "nomological." The anthropological model of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts is a form of metaphysical determinism that sees history as the realization of the human essence. Immediately after developing this model, Fleischer claims, Marx abandons it in favor of the pragmatological model of The German Ideology and Theses on Feuerubach. These texts display a nonmetaphysical, empirical analysis of history as determined by the concrete practical activities of human beings. The

nomological model is another form of determinism that sees history as the movement of objective processes and laws independent of human will.

Adamson adopts Fleischer's scheme, but adds a fourth model, found in the 1857 introduction to the Grundrisse, which breaks from the simple realism and evolutionism of The German Ideology. Unlike Fleischer, Adamson focuses on the discontinuities and logical incompatibilities between Marx's different models. In particular, Adamson stresses the conflict between the pragmatological focus on human freedom and the determinism of the nomological model. Both Fleischer and Adamson, however, occlude the continuities between the Manuscripts and The German Ideology. Just as the Manuscripts are not simply Hegelian and speculative, but show Marx's first attempts to incorporate empirical method and political economy into his work ("I have arrived at my conclusions through an entirely empirical analysis based on an exhaustive critical study of political economy" [Marx 1975a:281]), so The German Ideology has some residual speculative Hegelian and teleological aspects in the discussion of communism. As I discuss below, I use the Grundrisse to bring out a discontinuity model in Marx that sees ruptures rather than continuities in history. Neither Fleischer, Rader, nor Adamson identify such a model. Against Adamson and Fleischer, I find the nomological model to be more a rhetorical tendency in Marx than an analytic model in its own right.

6. As I will argue, against Benhabib, Marx breaks with the essentialism of this model after 1844 and shows that the "unitary" subject of history changes and is fragmented into competing classes. Still, because Marx reduces human activity to production, the general agent of history remains a continuous subject of production.

7. "The satisfaction of the first need (the action of satisfying, and the instrument of satisfaction which has been acquired) leads to new needs; and this production of new needs is the first historical act" (Marx and Engels 1978:156). The productive forces model in The German Ideology therefore suggests two different "motors" of history: the dialectic between needs and production and the dialectic between forces and relations of production. In Fleischer's terms, the former dynamic is the basis of the pragmatological view, while the latter became the basis of the nomological view. While these two versions of history are incompatible insofar as the former sees history as the outcome of free human practice and the later as the determined result of laws independent of human will, the causal dynamics as stated in The German Ideology are compatible insofar as the productive forces/relations dynamic is put into play by the existence of human needs, and together the forces/ relations of production shape new needs historically.

8. In the words of Marx's orthodox followers, "a certain state of the productive forces is the cause of the given production relations" (Kautsky); relations of production are an "outgrowth of the system of technology" and the whole "mental life of society is a function of the forces of production (Bukharin); changing "in conformity with" the productive forces (Stalin). Ultimately, "technical progress constitutes the basis of the entire development of humankind" (Kautsky). All quotes are cited in Larrain (1986:45-46).

9. The important difference between Hegel and Marx on this point, of course, is that Hegel argued that the state, as the universal embodiment of Reason, worked to reconcile conflicting interests, whereas Marx saw it, on one major level, as the legal and political instrument of the bourgeoisie. For a detailed analysis of Marx's varying views on the state, see Miliband (1977).

10. "Hence the tribal community, the natural common body, appears not as the consequence, but as the precondition of the joint (temporary) appropriation and use of the soil" (Marx 1965:68).

11. Marx also employs a discontinuity model to represent communist society. "The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas" (Marx and Engels 1978:489-490). Although communism builds from previous historical accomplishments, it is the first mode of production that abolishes antagonistic divisions between social classes, and in which human producers gain a conscious and practical mastery over the material forces of social existence. "The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production" (Marx 1978:5).

12. Althusser's distinction comes mainly from this key passage in Capital: "For our own times.material interests are preponderant, but not for the Middle Ages, dominated by Catholicism, nor for Athens and Rome, dominated by politics.. [Yet] [o]ne thing is clear: the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world live on politics. On the contrary, it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why on one case politics, in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part (1977: 176n.). Only in capitalism, Marx claims, is the producer separated from the means of production; in prepcapitalist forms of production, we find a nonseparation between producers and the means of production and the resulting necessity of noneconomic forms of sanctioning relations of exploitation that allow for the dominance of super-structural phenomena.

13. Anthony Giddens (1981) and Claude Lefort (1978) argue that Marx's continuity and discontinuity perspectives are contradictory and incompatible images of history. For a critique of their claims, see Best (1991a).

14. Marx's political activities consisted mainly of journalistic writing and editing and organizing existing proletarian organizations. His direct involvement with proletariat groups occured mainly during the years between 1847-1852, when he worked with the Communist League (formerly the League of the Just), and 1864-1875, when he organized the first International. Marx played a decisive role in the formation of both organizations. He began his political career at the beginning of 1842, at age 24, as a liberal democratic journalist editing the Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne. Through his journalistic experiences, such as his articles on the wood-theft law, Marx transformed himself into a revolutionary communist.

15. See Marx's famous letter to Ruge in Marx and Engels (1978:12-15).

16. The 1850 split in the Communist League resulted from differences over this issue, with some advocating immediate, armed uprising, and Marx insisting on the possible need for a prolonged self-education of the working class.

17. For an excellent, detailed analysis of Marx's politics and shifting political vision, see Gilbert (1981).

18. This is also the position in Gilbert's analysis of Marx's politics. "From the Theses on Feuerbach on, Marx involved a continuous attention to fresh practical experience, that is, a sort of contextualism, as one of the central

facets of his theory____ Only a contextual examination can ferret out the

crucial, relatively constant elements in Marx's theory and strategy, spell out the contradictions of tensions within it, and specify Marx's own reasons for changing it" (1981: 258-259).

19. The tension between intellectual representation and education and working class independence inherent in any notion of a party is clearly evident in the Communist Manifesto. One the one hand, Marx and Engels insist that "The Communists do not form a separate part opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole (1978: 483). Yet, on the other hand, they also claim that Communists are "practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country" and "theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement" (484). As Miliband notes, historically "from the notion of a vanguard to a vanguard party, there was only a short step" (1977: 128). The degeneration of Marxism into scientific socialism helped to erase this distinction and to promote the view that the party alone grasped the Truth of history which it would impart to the working class ex cathedra.

20. Before and after 1848, Marx argued that the democratic revolution must precede the communist revolution; during 1848, however, Marx at times thought the peasants and proletariat could combine both stages of struggle to take power directly in a socialist republic. Clearly, however, socialism cannot appear at just any point in history and requires a certain level of technological, economic, and political development, if only to satisfy Marx's demand for automated production and reduction of the workday. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels inveighed against premature attempts at revolution where the struggle for necessity would replicate "all the old filthy business" of a scarcity-based history. The political implications of such a view, however, are clear in Marx's 1853 analysis of British imperialism in India, where he defends the material achievements of modern imperialism whatever their consequences for the colonized cultures and their "stagnant," superstitious, parochial, cruel, and hierarchical ways of life. Such a utilitarian logic legitimates any imperialist adventures so long as it yields technical and economic gains in the colonized country. (See Marx and Engels 1978: 653644.)

21. Marx himself never rigorously defined the terms "forces and relations of production" and a great deal of controversy has ensued concerning what they actually mean, whether there is a valid distinction between them, how they relate to the term "mode of production," and even whether they can be defined at all. The problem is to find definitions that are not too narrow, and therefore are supple enough to include some of Marx's nuances, but that also are not too broad, and therefore conflate key distinctions that Marx wished

to maintain, namely those between forces and relations of production, and base and superstructure.

The forces of production are the basic elements employed in the production process. Marx refers to them in various ways, as the "conditions," "instruments," or "means of production." In the Grundrisse, Marx distinguishes between objective and subjective dimensions of productive forces. The objective dimensions include raw materials and natural resources, tools and machines, and transportation and communication systems. The subjective conditions of production refer to what Marx called "labour-power," or "the aggregate of those mental and physical capacities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description" (Marx quoted in Shaw 1978:15). The physical capacities of labor power involve strength and skill, and the mental capacities involve practical and scientific knowledge. On a too narrow definition of productive forces, important factors like science are left out, despite clear indications by Marx that it was a productive force: "But the development of only one aspect, one form in which the development of the human productive forces i.e., of wealth, appears" (Marx quoted in Shaw 1978:21). On a too broad definition (Rader 1979) law and morality are included, thus collapsing the distinction between base and superstructure. McMurtry (1978), Cohen (1978), and Shaw (1978) all define a force of production as anything that is directly, physically, and actually used in the process of production, rather than something that is necessary for production to occur (see Cohen [1978:32ff.], McMurtry [1978:55ff.], and Shaw [1978:10ff.]). While government, law, or morality might be a necessary precondition of productive activity, they are not directly or physically employed in production as are tools, raw materials, or even scientific knowledge. Thus, the distinction between base and superstructure, while not rigid, can nevertheless be preserved. One important point of controversy concerns whether or not productive forces include what Marx terms "modes of cooperation." I examine this below, and in note 27.

22. Not all technological determinist interpretations of Marx are the same. The earlier orthodox readings (Kautsky, Plekhanov, Bukharin, Lenin, Stalin, and others) give a considerably more mechanistic and deterministic rendering of Marx than the neo-orthodox interpretations of analytic Marxists. The more narrow account tends to see the causal relationship between forces and relations as a one-way route with little reciprocal determination of relations on forces. Moreover, it sees history as moving through immanent laws of motion independent of and wholly determining human agency, such that the unfolding of the productive forces of history guarantee the transition from capitalism to socialism.

The crudest version of technological determinism, such as we can find in Marshall McLuhan and Jacques Ellul, sees technology as developing throughout history on its own dynamic in complete abstraction from social relations. Marx's analyses show that he did not understand technology as a self-generating process or as unfolding through some immanent rationality. For Marx, the material is social; the development of the productive forces occurs only within given social relations of production that play a crucial role in determining the development and nature of the productive forces. Social relations are built into Marx's definition of production: "All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society" (Marx 1973:87).

Marx never separated technological development from its economic and political context. He destroyed the fetishized concept of technology through a twofold contextualization: the invention, application, and development of modern technology was seen to be determined by capitalist accumulation imperatives, and these imperatives in turn were shaped by the struggles of the working class. For Marx, the existence of a given technical state of development, and the use to which technology is applied, is always conditioned by a given social context and the objectives of the class controlling the productive forces of society. "Crises," for example, do not result from a malfunction within a self-governing system, but rather are the result of the power of the working class to disrupt capitalist accumulation imperatives (see Cleaver 1979). Marx mediates between two antithetical arguments: (1) technology develops strictly on its own accord regardless of human goals or intentions, and (2) human beings have full and conscious control of technology and are self-determined in their thoughts and action. For Marx, the freedom of individuals to shape their world occurs within a pregiven history and context that conditions them; yet they are able to transform this context, altering it more or less to suit their purposes.

23. It is traditional to define the economic base as comprised of forces and relations of production. Cohen (1978) has challenged this view by arguing that Marx only meant to include relations of production within the base and that the forces of production belong outside of the base, as a sort of subfoundation of social life. The best account of the complexities in defining forces and relations of production is Shaw (1978). For an argument that there is no valid distinction between forces and relations of production see Althusser and Balibar (1970) and Leff (1969).

24. The relations of production, for example, define the nature of work (duration, intensity, means of extraction of surplus labor, etc.), the distribution of the products of labor, as well as the social division of labor. Relations of production can either promote the development of the forces of production (as the bourgeois revolution did by abolishing feudal restrictions on trade and production) or retard it (as workers can do by going on strike or as the state can do by passing proenvironmental legislation).

25. Shaw, for instance, states, "The relations of production must be understood on their own level, not as the 'effects' of the productive forces to which they correspond" (1978:75). Cohen argues that the productive forces cannot fully ex plain the nature of the productive relations: "They might explain, for example, why the economy is self-based, without explaining the precise distribution of rights between lord and peasant" (1978:163), which, presumably, would be specified through an account of relatively autonomous politicolegal relations and institutions. Shaw states, "Of course the productive force 'depend' on the relations of production which utilise them because production cannot take place outside production relations, but this does not imply the productive relations determine the productive forces" (1978:64). Rather, "The productive forces both articulate and provide the foundation for the introduction of new relations [of production]" (52). "The relations change only in response to the possibilities provided by man's improving productive abilities (66). For Cohen, Marx's statement that the relations of production "correspond to" the forces of production means that the relations are "explained by" the forces (1978:136ff.). Thus, however much the relations may condition the forces, they receive their character and function from the forces, and not vice versa. Cohen and Shaw therefore conceive the relations of production as an adaptive response to the forces of production.

26. As George Elliot observes, "In Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production productive forces were denied any effectivity whatsoever, dissolved as any independent variable and reduced to specifications of relations of production —from which, in any particular mode of production, could be 'deduced'" (1986:90). Hindess and Hirst beg the question by failing to block the argument by Cohen and Shaw that the efficacy of the relations of production is simply an assigned function of the forces of production. The technological determinist can grant the relations a dominant role in a given situation, while still insisting that this dominance itself was assigned by the productive forces. Indeed, in a later "auto-critique" of PreCapitalist Modes of Production, Hindess and Hirst themselves acknowledged the one-sidedness of their position and adopted a broader explanatory framework that granted more importance to the role of forces of production. They suggested the relation between forces and relations of production should be understood in terms of "conditions of existence" where each provides a context for the existence of the other and must be specified in terms of the other (1977:50, 54, 72). Relations of production, for instance, cannot be specified without reference to "the determinate technical functions" necessary for their existence. There is an "interdependence of the technical and social divisions of labour" (72). Hence, they move toward the symmetrical thesis, although, quite curiously, they still privilege relations of production as a theoretical concept (5-6). This move is further supported by Hirst's later claim (1985:15) that the proper response to the privileging of the forces of production is not to switch to the primacy of the relations of production.

27. The term "work relations" refers to the technical relations between producers in the productive process, as considered in abstraction from economic and political relations of control over people and things in that process. The arguments of Cohen and Shaw contradict numerous passages where Marx clearly defined modes of cooperation as a productive force. In The German Ideology, for example, Marx and Engels say: "By social we understand the cooperation of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what manner, and to what end. It follows from this that a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a 'productive force'" (1978:157). Modes of cooperation fit the definition of a productive force, since, like science or a machine, they are directly employed in the production process to make use values. Marx's point is that the sheer fact of material cooperation among human beings is

itself a powerful force used in production, contrasted to the possibilities allowed by individuals working in isolation from one another.

28. "By means of machinery, chemical processes, and other methods, [large-scale industry] is continually transforming not only the technical basis of production but also the functions of the worker and the social combinations of the labour process" (Marx 1977:617).

29. Marx develops a similar account of the self-destructive tendencies of the feudal mode of production as a result of its inherent tendency toward civil war, resulting from the extraction of surplus goods through dominance of a military force controlled by independent family groups over land and its tillers. This account of transition highlights the importance of political factors. As Miller puts it, "In the feudal wars, lords did not compete in agricultural output. They killed each other in dynastic conflicts" (1984:227). Moreover, according to Miller, Marx's discussion of the origins of the division of labor in society, an important influence on the development of tools, assigns the causal force to contact and barter among social groups, rather than than a drive for greater productivity (190-191), and his account of preclass societies emphasizes conquest and exchange among social groups (206, n. 47).

30. In capitalism, moreover, capitalists have consistently blocked the development of technology where it threatened greater profits. Just as the auto industry fought against mass transportation, and electric companies struggled to suppress solar heating and other alternative energy sources, so the American Medical Association has harassed the chiropractic profession and derided viable holistic approaches to health, and giant media corporations have attempted to block technologies that allow consumers access to cable and satellite TV. In all such cases, it is commercial and political interests, or the social relations of production, not an alleged rational interest in technological development, that operate. These take precedence over and determine the development, or nondevelopment, of technology.

31. For example, as Gilbert notes, "When Marx first conceived a strategy for Germany in the 1840s, he did not look mainly to the impact of the steam engine and the future unfolding of capitalism," but rather to lessons from the French revolution and the immediate political situation in Germany (1981:30).

32. As Kellner suggests (1984), it is a constant temptation for radicals to seek emancipatory norms outside of history, to seek guarantees for revolution in nomological laws or dynamics independent of the contingencies of social struggle and political consciousness. Where Marx, for example, relied on the rhetoric of objective laws of history, Marcuse found the guarantee of revolution in the biological dimension itself, where freedom was allegedly an ingrained need.

33. Every society is rooted in material production; what does differ is the specific character of production, the type of production that prevails over others: "In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relation thus assigns rank and bathes all the other colors and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it" (Marx 1978:242). Thus, one society will be rooted in hunting and fishing, another in settled agriculture, still another in industrial manufacture, where agriculture itself "more and more becomes a branch of industry, and is entirely dominated by capital" (243).

34. "The aim present production—see e.g. Mill—as distinct from distribution etc. as encased in natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled back in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded" (Marx 1978:225).

35. See also: "The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society. One can understand tribute, tithe, etc. [land payments of precapitalist societies], if one is acquainted with ground rent [a land payment of capitalist society]. But one must not identify them" (Marx 1978:241).

36. Beyond the realm of necessity "begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with the realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is its basic prequisite" (Marx 1978:441). Marx's vision of a society organized around creature leisure, rather than arduous work, was an important emancipatory norm in the nineteenth-century context of radical thought, which was shaped by scarcity and problems of toil and want. As Bookchin notes, however, Marx's vision was not lost in twentieth-century socialism, which developed its own puritanical work ethic: "Instead of focusing their message on the emancipation of man from toil, socialists tended to depict socialism as a beehive of industrial activity, humming with work for all" (1986:115).