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

1. For important debates on the concept of a mode of production, see Hindess and Hirst 1975; Wolpe 1980; Foster-Carter 1978; and J. Taylor 1979. For discussions of slave-tributary mode of production (not discussed here), see P. Anderson 1974a; Saint-Croix 1981; Wood 1988; Garlan 1988. For the Asiatic mode of production, see Krader 1975; Bailey and Llobera 1981; Godelier 1978; and P. Anderson 1974.

2. For the primacy of "technological determinism" see Cohen 1978; for the primacy of "class struggle" see Robert Brenner's articles in Aston and Philpin 1985. Both arguments reduce the forces and relations to technological development and class struggle in order to separate them and privilege one over the other. Once it is made clear that it is the unity of the forces and relations that constitutes the class struggle at a given level of economic development, then it also becomes clear that Cohen's defense of technological determinism establishes not the primary of the forces over the relations of production but rather the dominance of a more advanced mode of production over a less advanced mode. Similarly, it becomes clear that Brenner's defense of the primacy of class struggle implies the dominance of relations of production and the class exercising economic ownership within a given mode of production and not the primacy of the political over the economic function nor the freedom of ruling or exploited classes to leap ahead of the existing forces and relations that as a unity constitute their powers and define their interests.

3. Conceptualizing the labor process in this way opens up its political and ideological dimensions, what Michael Burawoy has aptly called "the politics of production," for investigation; see Burawoy 1979; 1983.

4. See Dupré and Rey 1980 for a penetrating critique of "formalist" and "substantivist" perspectives within economic anthropology. Formalists envision primitive societies in terms of neo-classical economic concepts derived from capitalist societies (marginal utility, maximization of scarce resources, and so forth). Substantivists, such as Karl Polanyi and his followers, insist on the anachronism of formalist methodology and restrict the term economics to capitalist market societies. For the substantivists, kinship, religion, and politics must be employed to explain the "economies" of pre-capitalist societies. Structural Marxists, such as Dupré and Rey, contend that both the formalists and the substantivists deal only with surface phenomena ("the market," kinship, religion, and so forth) and fail to explain pre-capitalist societies in terms of underlying functions and structures, most fundamentally, the relations of ownership and labor process that define their modes of production. For Dupré and Rey, exchange can be understood only relative to the mode(s) of production involved in the exchange.

5. Althusser has been frequently, and rather uncritically, lumped together with Structuralists such as Lévi-Strauss. While Althusser acknowledges a "flirtation with Structuralist terminology" in his early works (1976, 126), the comparison can easily obscure more than it reveals, as is often the case with Miriam Glucksmann's comparative study of Althusser and Lévi-Strauss (Glucksmann

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1974). For other useful accounts, see Jameson 1972; Coward and Ellis 1977; and Merquior 1986. For a Structural Marxist critique of Lévi-Strauss, see Godelier 1972, vii-xlii; 1977, 15-98. See also Sebag 1964 and the uncompromising, if perhaps excessively naturalist, critique of Structuralist anthropology in Harris 1979, 165-215.

6. Balibar's self-criticism goes so far as to throw out the baby with the bath-water, rejecting along with rationalism the utility of any cross-cultural concepts, including the concept of a mode of production:

In such a perspective [the concept of a mode of production], the very designation of "instance" in the social formation can only lead to the designation of further elements , invariant essences of historical analysis . . . pre-existing the process of their historical transformation. . . . This means . . . that the term "economic" will have the same meaning in the feudal or capitalist mode of production, and in fact in any mode of production whatsoever. In short, it is the risk of a return to the ideological presuppositions of political economy and bourgeois historiography. (E. Balibar 1974, 230-31)

Such a dramatic retreat into nominalism and historicism ignores the fact that concepts pitched at different levels of generality are equally valid—"abstract" concepts of general functions (economic, political, and ideological) produce knowledge in exactly the same way as do "concrete" concepts of particular social formations (French capitalism during the Second Empire). The general concept of the economic function and the particular concept of the economy of the Second Empire are both concepts; neither is more "true" or more "real" than the other. We must, of course, avoid treating ''the economic" as an idealist essence existing apart from concrete social formations and imparting to them its reality in an approximate and imperfect form. However, rejecting idealism does not oblige us to abandon general concepts of social functions actually existing in every human society albeit in qualitatively distinct structures and institutions.

Balibar's born-again enthusiasm for the particular is inseparable from the voluntarist espousal of "class struggle" embraced by him and Pierre Macherey during the early seventies. Inspired by a distorted understanding of Maoism, such voluntarism bears within it the seeds of a further move, toward either neo-liberalism (e.g., Glucksmann, Hirst) or postmodern dissidence (Rancière, Laclau). The question of general concepts raised by the "new historicism" of Balibar and Macherey is discussed in chapter 5.

7. On the "theoreticism" of Hindess and Hirst, see John Taylor's two-part review of Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (Taylor 1975, 1976). For a brief discussion of the post-Althusserian view of the autonomy of discourse and its relation to democracy, a view most fully developed in the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985), see "Introductory Conclusion," note 13.

8. We cannot trace the evolution of Marxist anthropology in France or even the various divisions within the ranks of the Structural Marxists themselves. Although one must avoid attributing too much homogeneity to the latter, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that most of the (often nasty) disagreements between them are motivated by concerns other than those of science. Meillassoux and Godelier initially shared a view of "primitive" societies as economic sys-

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tems to which ahistorical, neo-classical economic concepts were inapplicable, and both have been reluctant to associate their work with that of Althusser despite the obvious influence of the latter on their work. Meillassoux remained suspicious of the "theoreticism" of Althusser even as he came to take a position progressively less distinguishable from Althusser's own. Godelier initially shared the basic Althusserian framework of structural causality, mode of production, and so on, but he retained a positive view of Lévi-Strauss as well. In his later work, Godelier moves away from the concept of the social formation as an articulation of distinct structural functions and toward a more essentialist view of the structured whole within which functional distinctions have no meaning and thus no hierarchy. Godelier also places greater value on mental structures than do other Structural Marxists, although he continues to insist that such mental structures adapt to changing modes of production. Godelier's earlier views are presented in Godelier 1977, and his more recent development is evidenced in Godelier 1986. For an excellent overview of Marxism and anthropological theory, see Bloch 1985. For French developments in particular, see Kahn and Llobera 1981, 263-329; and Jean Copans and David Seddon, "Marxism and Anthropology: A Preliminary Survey," in Seddon 1978. Valuable collections of essays, in addition to those edited by Kahn and Llobera and Seddon, include Bloch 1975 and Friedman and Rowlands 1977. See also Dialectiques 21 (1977), a special volume devoted to Structural Marxist anthropology.

9. Meillassoux 1978; 1964; see also 1980.

10. I concentrate on Marxism and "Primitive" Societies in order to contrast Terray's initial defense of the primacy of the forces of production, a view that has had considerable impact independent of Terray's later retractions, with the rival views of Rey (emphasizing the relations of production) and Meillassoux (emphasizing reproduction as well as production). The subsequent development of Terray's views on dominance and subordination of articulated modes of production, in the context of the relationship between trade and the constitution of political authority in West Africa, can be followed in Terray 1974; 1975; 1977; 1985.

11. For further discussions of Rey, see Foster-Carter 1978; Bradby 1980; and Brewer 1980. The literature on Rey suffers from the fact that critics tend to concentrate on one aspect of his work—the lineage mode of production, imperialism, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and so on—without demonstrating an awareness of the existence of the others or of the overall position that integrates all of them into a single problematic.

12. I do not wish to exaggerate the opposition between modes of production analysis and the global system approach of dependency theory. The problematic I am defending here has a place for both levels of analysis; indeed, despite important and obvious differences between national, regional, and global structures, this approach insists on the necessity of analysis of each of them for exactly the same reasons it insists on different structural levels of analysis within individual social formations. The literature on dependency and the global capitalist system is, of course, enormous. It is perhaps most helpful to refer the reader to Brewer 1980, who cogently compares the positions of André

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Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, Ernesto Laclau, Giovanni Arrighi, Arghiri Emmanuel, Robert Brenner, and Samir Amin and provides a useful bibliography as well. Stern 1988, a critique of Wallerstein, surveys an enormous amount of recent work from a mode of production perspective.

13. The following discussion draws on debates over the nature of the feudal mode of production and the transition from feudalism to capitalism inaugurated by Maurice Dobb's pioneering mode of production analysis (Dobb 1963). For major collections of articles pertaining to these debates, see Hilton 1976; Aston and Philpin 1985; Aston 1965. For their special relevance to the application of the concept of mode of production to feudalism and the transition to capitalism, see Kula 1976; Kriedte, Medick, and Schlumbohm 1981; de Vries 1976; Wallerstein 1974; Wallerstein 1980; Wallerstein 1983; Wallerstein 1989; Porchnev 1972; Ladurie 1969; and Lublinskaya 1968.

14. For a critical discussion of Rey's analysis of the transition, see Cutler and Taylor 1972. Robin 1970 and Postel-Vinay 1974 attempt to apply Rey's framework to eighteenth-century France. Comninel 1987 criticizes Rey, Robin, and Postel-Vinay in a work flawed by the author's misunderstanding of the Structural Marxist concepts. Comninel's revisionist criticism—namely, that traditional Marxist interpretations of the French Revolution apply the term capitalism too loosely to forces and relations that are still feudal in character—has some validity against Rey (an Africanist after all) but misfires when applied to Robin and Postel-Vinay, who are, in fact, quite careful about such matters. In any case, this is an empirical, not a theoretical, question, and its resolution has no impact on the validity (or invalidity) of the Structural Marxist conception of articulation and historical transformation, about which Comninel hasn't a clue. Finally, Comninel's assertion that the "ancien régime . . . shows no sign of either developed capitalism or its emergence" (1987, 192) is an indefensible overstatement. Not only does Comninel fail to shake Postel-Vinay's persuasive interpretation of the capitalist nature of the relations of production introduced by the fermiers , but he also ignores the breakthrough of capitalist relations initiated by nobles in Toulouse and other regions. Comninel likewise ignores the undeniable proto-industrialization of the countryside of northern France and, even more seriously, fails to take into account the work of Bois, Kriedte, and others regarding the logic of feudal accumulation and the emergence of capitalism. My own account of these positions, whatever its shortcomings, is sufficient to refute the theoretical criticisms that Comninel directs at Structural Marxism. Furthermore, I would argue that it is precisely from the Structural Marxist position of Rey, Robin, and Postel-Vinay that a new framework for "rethinking" the French Revolution in light of the revisionist challenge is in the process of emerging.

15. Robert Brenner has engaged Bois in yet another chicken-egg controversy over "politicism" and "economism" in articles published as part of the so-called Brenner Debate (and collected in Aston and Philpin 1985). In his response to Brenner's critique of the neo-Malthusian interpretation of the crisis of feudalism from a "class struggle" perspective, Bois accuses Brenner of "politicism" and of ignoring the structural dynamics of a feudal mode of production. Brenner responds by consigning Bois to eternal damnation for the sin of

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"economism." Brenner's arguments against Bois are considerably weaker than those he marshals against his other critics, not least because of the straw-man tactics he employs. Brenner consistently refuses to acknowledge Bois's recognition of the "political" nature of the feudal levy and the inherent class struggle over it, as well as Bois's arguments regarding the possibility, indeed, the inevitability, of aristocratic political centralization as an outcome of this class struggle. Brenner's own emphasis on seigneurial political power and organization, although much more nuanced in his final essay (largely because he takes over much of Bois's own position, as well as that of Perry Anderson, who is not even cited by Brenner) continues to reify political power. Brenner, following a path already taken by Rey (who is also not cited), treats class power as if it were somehow independent of the forces and relations of production. How can class be distinct from production when it is the forces and relations of production that constitute classes? Brenner makes an interesting and persuasive contrast between France and England as if he were thereby refuting Bois's general concept of feudalism. All Brenner has really accomplished, however, is an identification of the degree of variation of the English and French cases, that is, their uneven and combined development within the logic of feudalism, something Bois himself explicitly recognizes. Brenner's central argument—that because different outcomes can be demonstrated from similar feudal conditions, the independent variable must be class power, not the mode of production—is simply specious. If English lords had significantly more class power than did their French counterparts, they had it simply because the forces and relations of production in England were significantly different from those of France.

16. The debate has many dimensions; the central division, however, is between the Weber-Pirenne-Polanyi-Wallerstein position (which asserts first the inherently capitalist nature of cities, merchants, and markets and second the primacy of cities and trade in the evolution of capitalism) and the Marx-Dobb-Bois-Brenner position (which argues, if not for the primacy, at least for the importance of agrarian transformation and which denies the ahistorical view that all economic exchange is capitalist in nature). These debates, of course, echo those between formalists and substantivists, Marxists and Weberians, mode of production analysis versus dependency theorists, and so on. Kriedte follows Dobb in emphasizing the transformation of urban feudal classes (merchants and artisans) into capitalist classes (owners and workers) in articulation with agrarian transformations from seigneurs and peasants to landowners, tenants, and wage laborers.


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