previous sub-section
Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
next sub-section

History as a Process Without a Subject

Althusser steadfastly maintains that there can be no "Subject" of history or goal which history may be said to be moving toward or realizing. Nowhere within the concept of structural causality can uneven development be pinned down to a single, solitary cause or expressed in terms of origins and ends. Neither determination in the last instance by the economy nor the concept of a mode of production is intended as a


solution to metaphysical puzzles such as why humans exist or ethical dilemmas such as what we should do. This does not mean that history is accidental but simply that the human sciences cannot aspire to complete knowledge of it. The process by which European feudalism was succeeded by capitalism, for example, was determined, not contingent, but nothing in the concept of feudalism necessitates a logically inevitable transition to capitalism. The difference between determination and teleology is a subtle but important one. It turns on the difference between history conceived as a rationalist "science" of the type envisioned by Spinoza (but also by Hegel) and history conceived as a scientific, necessarily incomplete, research program. For Althusser, historical knowledge cannot be absolute, nor can history be written in the future anterior.

The absence of any trace of a subject or a teleology from the concept of structural causality brings us to an important corollary of Althusser's science of history and an important motif in both For Marx and Reading Capital —namely, a rejection of methodological individualism and voluntaristic categories, what Althusser calls "humanism," within the human sciences. Reacting strongly against the anthropocentric idealism of so-called Marxist humanism and Hegelian Marxism in Western Europe, as well as the political mystification of the self-proclaimed "socialist humanism" promulgated within the Soviet Union during the sixties, Althusser joined forces with French structuralists in fierce polemics against the explanatory value of the category of the human subject and in defense of an opposing position that Althusser provocatively labeled "theoretical anti-humanism."[7] In For Marx , he went so far as to declare theoretical anti-humanism to be "an absolute (negative) precondition of the (positive) knowledge of the human world itself, and of its practical transformation," insisting that "it is impossible to know anything about men except on the absolute precondition that the philosophical (theoretical) myth of man is reduced to ashes" (Althusser 1969, 229).

Moreover, Althusser has consistently maintained this position throughout his later writings. Even as he began to emphasize class struggle over structural causality, using language that became increasingly populist as well as stridently political, Althusser adamantly refused to admit the primacy of the human agent in the process of history. Against British Communist Party member John Lewis's contention that "Man makes history," Althusser defended the thesis that "class struggle is the motor of history," a position that rejects not only the essentialist and voluntarist concept of "Man" but also the implication that classes


themselves are the "makers" or subjects of history. For Althusser, it is no longer a question of who makes history because history, properly understood, has no subject. "History is a process without a Subject or a Goal where the given circumstances in which 'men' act as subjects under the determination of social relations are the product of class struggles. History therefore does not have a Subject, in the philosophical sense of the term, but a motor : that very class struggle" (Althusser 1976, 99).

From Althusser's point of view, humanism—that is, the approach that takes the human being as the subject of history—is based on two erroneous postulates: "(1) that there is a universal essence of man; (2) that this essence is the attribute of 'each single individual' who is its real subject" (Althusser 1969, 228). The existence and unity of these two postulates presupposes a world view that is, in Althusser's opinion, both empiricist and idealist: "If the essence of man is to be a universal attribute, it is essential that concrete subjects exist as absolute givens; this implies an empiricism of the subject. If these individuals are to be men, it is essential that each carries in himself the whole human essence, if not in fact, at least in principle; this implies an idealism of the essence" (Althusser 1969, 228).

As a social, ideological product, the phenomenon of "Man" undoubtedly and even necessarily exists. All social formations function by means of the constitution of human subjects who, within the realm of ideology—that is, within the apparently spontaneous but actually conditioned relation between their actual existence and their experienced or "lived" relation to the world—develop a "consciousness" of themselves as subjects. However, human individuals are not "free" and "constitutive" subjects in the philosophical sense of these terms. Individuals are social "agents" working in and through the "determinations of the forms of historical existence. . . . But that is not all, these agents can only be agents if they are subjects " (Althusser 1976, 95). No human individual "can be the agent of a practice if he does not have the form of a subject," Althusser acknowledges, yet it is the social formation and its "ideological social relations, which, in order to function, impose the subject-form on each agent-individual" (Althusser 1976, 95). Thus, for Althusser, "Men (plural), in the concrete sense, are necessarily subjects (plural) in history, because they act in history as subjects (plural). But there is no Subject (singular) of history" (Althusser 1976, 94).

Althusser maintains that the notion of "Man" is a myth of bourgeois ideology that has insinuated itself into theory. "Far be it from me to


denigrate this great humanist tradition whose historical merit was to have struggled against feudalism, against the Church, and against their ideologists, and to have given man a status and dignity. But far be it from us, I think, to deny the fact that this humanist ideology which produced great works and great thinkers, is inseparably linked to the rising bourgeoisie, whose aspirations it expressed" (Althusser 1976, 198). History cannot start from "Man" because such a move inevitably produces an ethical distortion; subjects as they are and history as it is are ineluctably transformed into subjects as they could or should be and history as it is supposed to be.

For when you begin with man, you cannot avoid the idealist temptation of believing in the omnipotence of liberty or of creative labor: that is you simply submit in all "freedom" to the omnipotence of the ruling bourgeois ideology, whose function is to mask and to impose, in the illusory shape of man's power of freedom, another power, much more real and much more powerful, that of capitalism. If Marx does not start with man, if he refuses to derive society and history theoretically from the concept of man, it is in order to break with this mystification which man expresses, an ideological relation of force, based on the capitalist production relation. Marx therefore starts out from the structural cause producing the effect of bourgeois ideology which maintains the illusion that you should start with man. (Althusser 1976, 205)

Rather than starting from "Man," Althusser insists that historical practice begin with the "economically given social period": "At the end of analysis, when it 'arrives,' it may find real men . These men are thus the point of arrival of an analysis which starts from the social relations of the existing mode of production, from class relations, and from the class struggle. These men are quite different men from the 'man' of bourgeois ideology" (Althusser 1976, 52-53). To start from the proposition that "man makes history" no longer serves, as it once did, to oppose a conception of history as Providence or as submission to God's will, nor does it serve everyone without distinction insofar as they are all men. Rather, it "serves those whose interest it is to talk about 'man' and not about the masses, about 'man' and not about classes and the class struggle. It serves the bourgeoisie, above all; and it also serves the petty bourgeoisie" (Althusser 1976, 63). As Saül Karsz explains, history from the point of view of "Man" implies that "the subject . . . is only concrete and real in as much as it manifests a general human essence in a particular form. . . . [T]heoretically, this means that men are


always something other than they are, and that to understand them, it is necessary to envisage not what they do and what they are at a concrete conjuncture, but the human essence they are supposed to manifest. Politically, it signifies that the material economic, political and ideological struggles are secondary to a primary, eternal struggle: man in general against material conditions in general" (Karsz 1974, 261). The political effect, Althusser insists, is to reinforce the status quo: "If the workers are told that 'it is men who make history,' you do not have to be a great thinker to see that, sooner or later, that helps to disorient or disarm them. It tends to make them think that they are all powerful as men, whereas in fact they are disarmed as workers in face of the power which is really in command: that of the bourgeoisie, which controls the material conditions (the means of production) and the political conditions (the state) determining history" (Althusser 1976, 63-64).

Within the problematic of Structural Marxism, the real protagonists of history are the social relations of economic, political, and ideological practice that constitute the contradictory places assigned to human protagonists within the complex and unevenly developed structure of the social formation. The concept of social relations and that of a philosophical subject are mutually exclusive, for human individuals are "subjects" only to the extent that they are the bearers or supports of socially defined places and functions. Speaking specifically of economic practice, Althusser argues in Reading Capital that

the structure of the relations determines the places and functions occupied and adopted by the agents of production, who are never anything more than the occupants of these places, insofar as they are "supports" (Träger ) of these functions. The true "subjects" (in the sense of constitutive subjects of the process) are therefore not these occupants or functionaries, are not, despite all anthropology, "concrete individuals," "real men"—but the definition and distribution of these places and functions. The true "subjects" are these definers and distributors: the relations of production (and political and ideological social relations). But since these are "relations" they cannot be thought within the category subject . (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 198)

Two important points must be made here. First, Althusser's attack on the philosophical category of the subject and his argument that social relations rather than real men are the "subjects" of historical processes does not empty human practice of either its complexity or its capacity to transform society. As we shall see, Althusser's concept of interpellation , that is, the process by which individuals become social


subjects, is both complex and contradictory. Interpellation does not imply a functionalist equilibrium; rather, as Göran Therborn's work amply demonstrates, it allows us to conceptualize the contradictions between the different ways we all are interpellated as members of society as well as the tensions between the forces of submission, inherent in our conformity to the roles which we are assigned by society, and the enabling power that comes from our qualification as social subjects through these same roles. In the hands of Pierre Bourdieu, the concept of a social agent does not define human beings as mindless robots but rather as decision-making players within a rule-bound yet open-ended, interactive system of dispositions, discourses, and interests that Bourdieu calls the "habitus." The habitus, in other words, is a historically specific and class-biased "generating-enabling" structure whose complexity cannot be reduced either to the free will of "Man" or to a mechanistic reflection of the relations of production.

The second point pertains to the relationship between Althusser's attack on the category of the subject and his thesis that class struggle is the motor of history. We have already seen how the idea that "man makes history" serves to render classes and class antagonism invisible. Althusser opposes to this view the thesis that "it is the masses which make history." Arguing that it is impossible to give any substance to the term "make" in the case of "Man" without an impossibly simplistic reduction of social diversity to the unity of a "species being," Althusser insists on the term masses in order to move as far as possible from the category of a single subject. The idea of the masses is complex: "The masses are actually several social classes, social strata and social categories, grouped together in a way which is both complex and changing . . . . And we are dealing with huge numbers: in France or Britain . . . with tens of millions of people, in China with hundreds of millions: can we still talk about a 'subject' identifiable by the unity of its 'personality'?" (Althusser 1976, 48). The only coherent way to think of the masses as a "subject" is to transpose the latter category onto the field of social classes and their structured relations: the class struggle as the motor of history. Conceiving things in terms of a "motor" rather than a "subject" eliminates the question of who makes history and foregrounds the idea of class struggle, a concept whose adequacy has yet to be demonstrated, but one that at least forces us to speak in terms of process (classes do not precede class struggle but are the outcome of class struggle) and the material basis of that process (class struggle exists only within determinant structures, values, and institutions).


previous sub-section
Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
next sub-section