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Structural Marxism as a Modernist Science of History

Althusser was also a major architect of the Structuralist critique of traditional historicism—rejecting linear continuity, teleological views of the evolution and realization of historical processes or goals, autonomous human agency, unified social subjectivity, undifferentiated concepts of distinct social structures, direct or reductive forms of causality, and the idea that historical knowledge is self-evidently true or complete.


However, unlike the work of other prominent Structuralists such as Lévi-Strauss and Foucault, the objective of Althusser's critique was to revive historical thinking, not to destroy it. Althusser sought to establish the scientificity of history by an original reworking of the ideas of science and historical discourse and to elaborate a nonreductive view of economic determination that would do justice to the complexity of social formations and human subjectivity within a Marxist framework of class struggle. Although the many individuals discussed in this book vary in their degree of commitment to Althusser's problematic—some accept all the central concepts of Structural Marxism while others choose more selectively among them—all share a large common ground. Although I have deliberately cast my net widely, I believe I am justified in representing the following précis as a more or less unified theoretical problematic.

The object of Structural Marxist analysis is a social formation structured on the basis of a mode of production. Structural Marxists insist that the economy is determinant "in the last instance," but they conceptualize economic determination not directly, in reflectionist terms, but indirectly, in terms of a hierarchy of heterogeneous, unequal, yet interrelated structures exercising various economic, political, and ideological functions. The mode of production, comprised of relations of ownership and production obtaining between laborers and non-laborers with respect to the means of production, defines the economic function. The economic function is held to be determinant; that is, the mode of production is understood by Structural Marxists as constituting the deep structure of a social formation.

The economic functions of ownership and production united in the mode of production may be separated at the surface level of the social formation. The function of economic ownership may be exercised within institutional apparatuses distinct from economic production and thus, at least superficially, non-economic in nature. Given this state of affairs, it is necessary to distinguish the determinant role of the economic function, the deep structure of the mode of production, from the dominant role that a particular institutional apparatus, be it political, ideological, or economic, may exercise at the surface level of the social formation. It is typically the case that the institutional apparatus exercising the function of economic ownership will be dominant at the level of the social formation. However, it is always the deep structure of the mode of production that accounts for dominance at the level of the social formation.


Structural Marxism conceives of economic determination within a modernist framework of structural causality. The social formation is a parallelogram of economic, political, and ideological forces manifested in determinate social structures and relations. While the economic function is primary, political and ideological functions have their own distinct character and effectivity, and all determinate structures and relations—political, ideological, and economic—are simultaneously, if unequally, at work as a structured whole, the social formation. In addition, Structural Marxism lacks any teleology or goal toward which economic determination is propelling the social formation. Economic determination refers to the historical effectivity of the social formation as a complex whole on individual structures and relations. The social formation, in other words, constitutes the historical matrix or intransitive conditions of existence of individual structures, yet it exists only as the "complex unity" of their present or transitive effectivities. Because the economic function is always primary within the historical matrix (if not always dominant as a distinct institutional form), all social structures and practices are "always already" assigned a place and a function indirectly—that is, in the last instance—determined by the economy.

Structural Marxism also recognizes contradictory tendencies within and between social structures, contradictions stemming from the uneven development of the social whole and the relative autonomy of individual structures. The primacy of the economy sets boundaries or limits on political and ideological structures, but it does not specify each and every political institution, nor does it directly determine ideological apparatuses such as the family, the university, or the church. Political and ideological structures have a relative autonomy and an internal dynamic that is not coordinated in advance with the development of the economy. At the same time, economic determination is itself contradictory since the production of objective changes within the economic structures and relations themselves may not readily facilitate their reproduction. Thus economic determination "in the last instance" respects the variety of causal determinations at work within the social whole, neither ignoring their particularity nor presuming their reproduction over time. This is a modernist vision of complex determination that avoids mechanical statics and teleological evolution without slipping into vulgar pluralism.

Structural Marxism is a science of social formations. However, Althusser rejects the notion that historical science will ever grasp the to-


tality of history once and for all or be able to transform itself from an interpretive to a predictive form of knowledge. He recognizes that individual or "regional" theories (of politics, discourse, and so on) will never correspond perfectly with each other, nor will they ever lose the particularity that is a function of their distinct theoretical object and inquiry. Philosophically, Althusser defends the validity of historical knowledge by subordinating, in classic modernist fashion, the historicity of knowledge to the reality of its object. While he admits the conventionality and historicity of all knowledge and insists on the distinction between reality and thought about reality (the fact that thought about reality is never fully adequate, never corresponds perfectly to reality itself), Althusser subordinates such epistemological qualifications to the principle of ontological realism that asserts the primacy of reality over thought about reality. Without pretending to prove apodictically the validity of scientific knowledge (epistemological questions can never be proven or disproven by philosophy and philosophy has no claim to being the arbiter of any science, including history), Althusser takes a position in philosophy defending the category of science and the scientificity of historical materialism on the basis of their explanatory power and on the basis of a series of withering critiques of alternatives put forward by their opponents.

Structural Marxists take exception to the semiological premise that discursive practices and other social phenomena are structured as arbitrary and autonomous systems of differential signifiers only marginally related to any objective reality or signified. For Structural Marxists, discourse is not only syntactic; it is also semantic. All discursive practices are fundamentally bound up with social relations of power; they are neither free-floating systems of metalanguages (Barthes) nor ahistorical transcendental structures (Lévi-Strauss). However, Structural Marxists also reject the claims of those, like Foucault, who claim that discourse is just power (and thus largely independent of meaning, object, and validity or theoretical determinations) and that power is spontaneous, unmotivated, and unrelated to class interests. By elaborating functional concepts of scientific, philosophical, ideological, and aesthetic practices, Structural Marxism has developed a powerful general theory of discourse and a firm theoretical foundation for historical analysis of its social production and reception. Finally, Structural Marxism is able to ground discursive practice in history without slipping into historicist or hermeneutic solipsism.

Structural Marxism vitiates a long-standing debate between techno-


logical determinists and defenders of class struggle as the explanatory principle of historical development. Since technology only exists in the context of class struggle, and since class powers and interests only exist in the unity of the forces and relations of production, Structural Marxists reformulate the question of historical development in terms of distinct modes of production and their interrelationship (articulation). In the case of any mode of production, the relations of production are dominant because it is the function of ownership to appropriate the social product and to allocate a portion for reproducing the existing forces of production. In the case of any articulation of two different modes of production, it is always a matter of the dominance of the more productive over the less productive mode and the subordination of the reproduction of the latter to that of the former. Individuals exercising the ownership function within a mode of production, of course, constitute its ruling class, and the ruling class of the dominant mode within a given articulation will dominate the dominant class of the subordinate mode. In sum, within any given mode of production we may speak of the dominance of the relations over the forces, yet the question of technological determinism versus class struggle cannot be meaningfully posed. However, within any articulation of two modes of production, we may speak of technological determinism but only in the sense of the one mode (one unity of forces and relations and one class struggle) dominating a second.

The concept of a mode of production also permits Structural Marxists to demonstrate the relevance of economic determination to non-capitalist social formations. First, by conceptualizing the forces and relations of production as two social relations among three elements—laborers, technology, and non-laborers—Structural Marxists are able to isolate the economic functions of ownership and production within any given social formation. Second, by distinguishing both economic and non-economic functions from particular institutions that are the bearers of those functions (the lineage, the manor, and so on), Structural Marxist analysis is able to specify relations of determination invisible to methodologies that are content simply to describe institutions and behavior patterns. Third, by specifying relations and their structured interrelationship, Structural Marxists are able to balance general theory and concrete research in a productive and interactive fashion, developing general concepts of a variety of distinct modes of production while respecting the historical individuality of social formations in a given time and place. In short, the concept of a mode of production


posits, in classic modernist fashion, abstract structural determinations as objectively real as gravity, yet like the force of gravity, visible only in their effects. Structural Marxism is quintessentially modernist not only because it insists on the objective reality of abstract structural determinations, but also because it recognizes the impassable gulf that separates knowledge—that is, abstract concepts of reality—from its object, reality itself.

Far from denigrating human subjectivity, as is so often claimed, Structural Marxism has always recognized its significance and devoted considerable attention to developing concepts of both subjectivity and practice. The difference between Structural Marxism and its postmodern and neo-liberal rivals is that for the latter, human subjectivity is accepted as the basis of social theory, while for Althusser and the Structural Marxists, the social structures and relations that produce social subjects are primary. Structural Marxists wish to explain first the structures and processes by which social subjects are created and second the relationships between social subjectivity, power, and practice. Structural Marxism explores the contradictions among the different ways we are all constituted as social subjects as well as the tensions between forces of submission—inherent in our conformity to the roles and positions that we are assigned by society—and forces of empowerment stemming from our capacity to act as social subjects by means of these same roles and positions. Social agents are not mindless robots; they are creative, decision-making players within a rule-bound yet open-ended and interactive system of dispositions, discourses, and interests. This system, or habitus , is a historically specific and class-based structure whose enabling-restricting capacities cannot be reduced to the utilitarian free will of "man" or to a mechanistic reflection of the relations of production. Social subjectivity is a condensation of structural forces whose effectivity—the practice of individual social subjects—is precisely as open-ended as the contradictions within and among these same structural forces, including, of course, knowledge itself. The science of history has its own indeterminacy principle insofar as knowledge of its particular object alters the object of its particular knowledge. In comprehending both the intransitive and transitive dimensions of social subjectivity (without collapsing one into the other), Structural Marxism advances not only our knowledge of the past but also our capacity to act effectively in the present.

Unlike the many proponents of Western Marxism, Althusser defends the "vulgar" Marxist thesis that "class struggle is the motor of history."


While not presuming the ubiquity of class exploitation in human society, the Structural Marxist concept of a mode of production exposes exploitation where it exists, penetrates the myriad forms within which it is disguised, and discredits the variegated ideologies by which it is legitimized. Structural Marxist "orthodoxy" with respect to class struggle turns out to be quite unorthodox: it is, in fact, nothing less than a reconceptualization of the ontology of social subjects as class subjects. For Structural Marxists, not only are individuals constituted as class subjects by virtue of their objective relation to the means of production, as in the traditional concept of class, but they are also class subjects by virtue of their objective relation to non-economic structures and relations. Because the myriad positions and roles constituting the social space are always already structured by their historical conditions of existence, they are always already assigned a place and a function commensurate with the primacy of economic functions within the social formation. Social subjects who internalize this system of relations and who occupy these positions and roles are therefore necessarily constituted as members of social classes.

Defining class in terms of the internalization of a structured hierarchy of positions and roles has earned Structural Marxism enemies on the Left as well as the Right. For many on the Left, what such an approach gains in scientific explanation it loses in mythic power, ideological appeal, and political utility. By presenting the full complexity of the contemporary class struggle and revealing how deeply rooted capitalist hegemony actually is, Structural Marxist analysis rejects the mentality of "instant gratification" that has infected contemporary political thinking on the Left. Of course, any demonstration of the ongoing validity of class analysis threatens the political Right, but by producing a sophisticated, non-reductive class analysis, Structural Marxism undermines the whole anti-Marxist consensus of contemporary social theory and disrupts the otherwise smooth transition from anti-Stalinist Marxism to vulgar liberalism undertaken by so many fugitives from the Left. Finally, the Structural Marxist concept of class discredits recent attempts by many social historians to eliminate class analysis from historical research by means of a tactic I would call "anti-reductionist reductionism." What began as a legitimate critique of vulgar Marxist reflectionism has now reached a point where almost any attempt to provide a class-based analysis of historical events is condemned as "reductionist." The loss of explanatory power attending this substitution of vulgar pluralism for class analysis—for this is the essence of anti-reductionist reductionism—seems to have passed unnoticed.


This is particularly the case with those postmodern methodologies that substitute an explanation by power for an explanation of power. Structural Marxist theory possesses a concept of power every bit as relational and differential as its postmodern rivals. However, unlike postmodern theories, for which power is everywhere and nowhere, a primal energy spontaneously erupting from the senseless flux of "history" to oppress and dominate otherwise "free" individuals, Structural Marxism demonstrates how power is grounded in the hierarchy of social structures and overdetermined by class relations—how, without necessarily transforming them directly, class power limits the range of variation of all other forms of power. Structural Marxist analysis also explains how class power "condenses" in a capitalist state that is formally separated from economic relations and is even popular-democratic in nature. Structural Marxism explains why, in capitalist modes of production, the popular-democratic state is necessarily a class state whose primary function is to organize the hegemony of the ruling class and reproduce existing relations of class exploitation.

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