Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

Chapter 2 Modes of Production and Historical Development

Hindess and Hirst and the "Post-Althusserian" Negation of History

If Balibar may be said to have taken the concept of a mode of production in an essentialist and rationalist direction, British sociologists Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst have used Balibar's error as a pretext for pushing Structural Marxism beyond rationalism into a realm of "discourse" where no correspondence between concepts and reality, no matter how attenuated, can be (or need be) maintained, and beyond essentialism to an absolute rejection of all concepts of structural determination. In successive elaborations of their position, beginning with Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (1975), followed by the auto-critique Mode of Production and Social Formation (1977), and culminating in a weighty two-volume work (coauthored with Antony Cutler and Athar Hussain), Marx's Capital and Capitalism Today (1977, 1978), Hindess and Hirst have come to defend a self-styled "post-Althusserian" post-Marxism based on the absolute autonomy of discourse from all material processes and historical conditions and a radical "anti-epistemology" that rejects any claim as to the reality of objects. Hindess and Hirst take an extreme anti-realist and anti-materialist philosophical position. They argue that all forms of realism are ultimately either empiricist or rationalist and, furthermore, always tautological. Hindess and Hirst proceed to reject not only the project of any epistemological guarantee for scientific discourse, a position taken by Althusser himself, but also Althusser's materialist thesis of the primacy of the real over thought about the real, a position that defends realism while acknowledging the fact that it can never be proven (or disproven) apodictically. For Hindess and Hirst, the failure of epistemology implies nothing less than the collapse of realism and materialism: "There is no question here of whether objects of discourse exist independently of the discourses which specify them. Objects of discourse do not exist at all in that sense: they are constituted in and through the discourse which refers to them" (Cutler, Hindess, Hirst, and Hussain 1977, 216-17).

According to Hindess and Hirst, Althusser's project for a differential


history is problematic because, after all is said and done, it remains a history—that is, a discourse premised on the existence of an intransitive world that circumscribes the play of discourse:

Althusser fails to break with the notion of history at the very moment of splitting from it. . . . Althusser does not say that there is no real object "history," that the notion of a real concrete history is an illusion. . . . [Although] he differentiates the thought object from the real object . . . the distinction of the objects [continues to pose] the question of the mode of their correspondence, for both are held to exist, the concrete existing prior to and independently of thought, and thought being the form in which the concrete is known. . . . The continued and uncriticized existence of the real object allows a shadow "history" to emerge parallel to the theoretical history, a shadow which reproduces the outlines of the history which Althusser has criticized. The very notion of a real object, history, the object theory appropriates, is an index of this reprise. (Hindess and Hirst 1975, 318)

Althusser insists on the distinction of the theoretical from the real object and rejects any philosophical guarantee of their correspondence, yet he does admit the necessity of historical facts (while denying their self-evident nature) and the legitimacy of historical determination as a theoretical problem (while maintaining that history has no subject or goal). These positions, scandalous as they are to many historians, do not go far enough for Hindess and Hirst, who categorically "reject the notion of history as a coherent and worthwhile object of study" in favor of a hermetic, strictly internal analysis of the logical preconditions and consequences of concepts and conceptual discourse (Hindess and Hirst 1975, 321). In their view, the acceptance of historical facts, however qualified, condemns history to empiricism since such facts introduce into the theoretical object determinations that are, properly speaking, epiphenomena. "Far from working on the past , the ostensible object of history, historical knowledge works on a body of texts . . . this or that body of representations with the status of a record. . . . The writing of history is the production of texts which interpret these texts" (Hindess and Hirst 1975, 311).

The existence of historical facts makes history a "potentially infinite text" in contrast to what Hindess and Hirst call the "analysis of the current situation," which may be "rigorously conceptualized" on the basis of "the conditions of existence of present social relations" (Hindess and Hirst 1975, 312). The idea that the current conjuncture can be more rigorously conceptualized than the past (that it is somehow really there) would seem to be untenable within the terms of their own


anti-epistemology, and Hindess and Hirst never present any explicit arguments in defense of the epistemologically privileged status of the contemporary over the historical. At bottom the logic of their position is political, not theoretical. In Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production , Hindess and Hirst reject Balibar's rationalism in favor of what Gregory Elliott (1986) has accurately, if polemically, described as "Maoist theoreticism."[7] Balibar's concept of a mode of production (an articulated combination of relations and forces of production requiring the securing and reproduction of certain conditions of existence) is still acceptable, and following the lines of Balibar's own self-criticism, Hindess and Hirst insist that class struggle is the agency by which the conditions of existence of a mode of production are altered. However, moving well beyond Althusser and Balibar's vague but still historical conception of class struggle, Hindess and Hirst are completely unwilling to discuss the class struggle except as a free-floating and autonomous force—a "class voluntarism of the Cultural Revolution variety," to quote Elliott again. The epistemological rejection of history is thus a necessary step in the "liberation" of political practice from all structural and historical determination. The pursuit of political voluntarism dictates first an equation of history and teleology—"there can be no history without a philosophy of history" (Hindess and Hirst 1975, 311)—and second an escape from history by the expulsion of causality from the discursive analysis of social relations: "Causal doctrines are not necessary for specific discursive analysis. Dispensing with them also dispenses with debates and problems created solely by their presence" (Cutler, Hindess, Hirst, and Hussain 1977, 131).

What takes the place of history for Hindess and Hirst then is politics or, more precisely, political intentionality , which confers on the current situation whatever meaning it has. "The current situation must not be conceived as an object given in the real social reality at a given moment in time. . . . [T]he current situation does not exist independently of the political practice which constitutes it as an object" (Hindess and Hirst 1975, 322). Political practice dictates the choice of concepts, and their elaboration requires only the adumbration of their logical conditions of existence and the working out of their internal effects; both processes are completely independent of any consideration of the objective reality of these conditions of existence (which are theoretically emptied of any causal effectivity) or any correspondence between the logical deduction of such effects and any empirical reality. Strictly speaking, theoretical discourse entails nothing more than "the construction of problems for


analysis and solutions to them by means of concepts. Concepts are deployed in ordered successions to produce these effects. This order is the order created by the practice of theoretical work itself: it is guaranteed by no necessary 'logic' or 'dialectic' nor by any necessary mechanism of correspondence with the real itself" (Hindess and Hirst 1977, 7).

Within the terms of such a radical separation of discursive practice from reality and such an uncompromising rejection of the theoretical legitimacy of causality, there is obviously no place for a social formation in the Althusserian sense of the term, that is, an unevenly developed structured whole. Hindess and Hirst move rapidly from the antirealist voluntarism of Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production to a systematic rejection of any theoretical expression of structural interrelationships in Mode of Production and Social Formation and Marx's Capital and Capitalism Today . In the latter works, the concept of social structure is ruthlessly simplified by dissolving the Structural Marxist concept of relative autonomy into an infinity of absolute autonomies. There can no longer be, as there is for Structural Marxism, distinct theoretical levels ranging from the concepts of distinct structured elements to the complex whole of a "structure of structures" because, according to Hindess and Hirst, there is "no necessary form in which these concepts must be articulated into the concept of the essential structure of a social formation" (Cutler, Hindess, Hirst, and Hussain 1977, 229). While the conditions of existence of specific relations—for example, economic relations—may be logically deduced, the other social relations and practices that provide these conditions of existence cannot: "the form in which the conditions of existence of determinate relations of production are secured cannot be conceived either as empirically given to theory or as derivable in principle from the relations of production whose conditions of existence they secure" (Hindess and Hirst 1977, 25-26).

Balibar's concept of a mode of production, his concepts of correspondence and non-correspondence of the forces and relations of production, and indeed the very idea of forces and relations of production themselves are all finally dismissed by Hindess and Hirst as aberrations that follow from insisting that the conditions of existence of a mode of production be derived from its effects. This latter view, they argue, is conditioned in turn by the belief that a rational, unified concept of a social whole is necessary in order to account for the historical "fact" of transformation. For Hindess and Hirst, by contrast, "once the conception of social formation as a determinate unity of being, existence corresponding to its concept, is abandoned, then the problems of empirical


contingency on the one hand and of determination in the last instance on the other must vanish" (Hindess and Hirst 1977, 48). Hindess and Hirst reverse the terms of Balibar's rationalist essentialism, not in order to acknowledge irreducible discontinuities between concepts pitched at the level of the complex whole (the social formation) and those pitched at the level of the relatively autonomous elements (the economic, political, and ideological instances), but in order to eliminate the complexity of the social formation altogether and reduce it to "a single structure of social relations" (Hindess and Hirst 1977, 5).

Hindess and Hirst propose a concept of the social formation "conceived as a determinate form of economic class relations, their conditions of existence and the forms in which these conditions are secured" (Hindess and Hirst 1977, 50). They arrive at this concept by rejecting Balibar's distinction between the forces and relations and collapsing the former into the latter. Since the concept of a mode of production is now identical to that of the relations of production, it is superfluous and can be eliminated.

If relations of production are conceived as involving the social distribution of means-conditions of production between classes, that is, the distribution of possession of and separation from the means of production among different social categories of economic agents, then the specification of determinate relations of production necessarily involves an explicit or implicit reference to determinate means and processes of production, that is to determinate "forces of production." The "forces of production" provide certain of the conditions of existence of the relations of production in question. The specification of determinate "forces of production" must therefore be included in the specification of the forms in which the conditions of existence of a determinate set of relations of production are secured. Thus, if mode of production is not conceived in rationalist form as a necessary combination of distinct objects, then the concept "mode of production" is entirely redundant. (Hindess and Hirst 1977, 54-56)

All that remains of Balibar's concept of a mode of production is the concept of economic forms and their conditions of existence. Anything more than this, Hindess and Hirst contend, introduces the specter of "rationalist" causality:

Either the articulation of relations and forces of production is conceived in terms of the connection between social relations and the forms in which their conditions of existence are realized or it must be conceived in terms of some kind of necessity in which the character of one object of discourse, the "relations" or the "forces," is deducible from the concept of the other. The first alternative means there is no reason to posit "modes of production" as distinctive objects of analysis . . . while the second leads directly to the quagmire of rationalized conceptualizations. (Hindess and Hirst 1977, 55)


Hindess and Hirst's "new" conception of a social formation is actually nothing more than the concept of the social whole from the perspective of one of its instances, the economy, a nominalist move that suppresses the effectivities of the social whole and the non-economic practices. Hindess and Hirst are, in effect, privileging economic relations, but there is no reason for this privilege or any reason why it could not or should not be extended to any of the other practices (yielding commensurately different definitions of social formation). Having eliminated any objective reality outside discourse (including Althusser's materialist thesis) and all concepts of determination inside discourse (differential yet interrelated levels of analysis), Hindess and Hirst can produce no defense of the discursive primacy of the economy; any attempt to do so would simply restore the complexity of structural causality. Hindess and Hirst acknowledge a certain "discursive" effectivity: the specification of economic relations "involves the explicit or implicit reference to the effects of other social relations and of social practices other than economic production" (Hindess and Hirst 1977, 25), and the conditions of existence of those relations gives "certain abstract and general conditions which must be satisfied by political, legal, and cultural forms" (Cutler, Hindess, Hirst, and Hussain 1977, 127). However, in the face of their rejection of any concept of the articulation of the instances, it is difficult to see what difference this qualification makes.

Their nominalist reversal of Balibar's essentialist concept of a mode of production forces Hindess and Hirst to eliminate uneven development just as surely as Balibar does, but with even more regressive implications. If Balibar's rationalism hungers to eliminate contradiction in order to achieve unified and certain knowledge (the old rationalist desire to be God by participating in his logic), Hindess and Hirst simply reject knowledge altogether. The curse of the finite as opposed to the infinite intelligence—the distinction between concepts and things, the irreducible dislocations and aporias within discourse, and so on—is taken by Hindess and Hirst as a pretext for reducing theory to a cognitive epiphenomenon of political will: if Man cannot become God through knowledge, he can become a little God by subjugating knowledge to practice. In place of a scientific justification for the primacy of economic relations, Hindess and Hirst substitute the pragmatic justification of politics. "Problems created by politics . . . constitute the objects of theorisation and problematisation in Marxist discourse. . . . The political objectives of a socialist transformation of economic class relations pose the problem of the relations of production and their po-


litical and cultural conditions of existence as primary objects of theorisation" (Cutler, Hindess, Hirst, and Hussain 1977, 230). Once again we are witness to an underlying equivalence between the nominalism of the concept and the voluntarism of the will that is the essence of Hindess and Hirst's post-Althusserian post-Marxism. Ultimately class voluntarism lurks behind the false either/or of "essentialism or nominalism" by which Hindess and Hirst eliminate first the concept of the forces of production and then the concept of a mode of production itself from Marxist theory. These concepts must be eliminated not because they are theoretically superfluous (as Hindess and Hirst maintain) but because their existence constitutes a limitation, if only within theory, on political practice, a (theoretical) denial of the power of the political will over its (objectively real) conditions of existence.

Hindess and Hirst fuse the most abstract theoreticism with the most uncompromising political voluntarism. Political "calculation" (as they call it) is no longer a function of historical knowledge or indeed any knowledge at all except in the pragmatist sense of an explicitly formulated political interest. The complexity of a historically determinate social formation and the material relations of determination and subordination that create the space of the political subject are vitiated by a concept of the political class struggle as a free-floating process: "There are no 'socialist' issues and areas of struggle per se , assigned as 'socialist' by class interest and experience. Socialism is a political ideology. The basis for support for socialist politics is whatever issues and struggles from which it can be made" (Cutler, Hindess, Hirst, and Hussain 1978, 258-59). Political calculation creates the concept of the present situation and a concept of the future to be realized; political action destroys the former and calls into being the latter. By reducing politics to will to power unencumbered by knowledge, and social theory to a nominalism of concepts unencumbered by reality, Hindess and Hirst have moved not only "beyond" Althusser but "beyond" Marxism as well. Unable to provide either a compelling critique or a theoretically interesting alternative to structural causality and the concept of a mode of production, their particular current of post-Marxism flows smoothly into the larger stream of postmodernism.

Chapter 2 Modes of Production and Historical Development

Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.