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Who Makes History?


Allhassel”s anli-hamanis..

John Mepham
I am very much aware that in what follows I solve no
philosophical problems. I attempt some conceptual
clarifications and I propose some interpretations
of theses of Louis Althusser.

I hope this will at
least make it possible to pose some problems more
clearly than they are posed in Norman Geras’ article
‘Marxism and Proletarian Self-Emancipation’. I
think that those of us who are Marxist philosophers
can learn from Althusser.

It is important tqat his
work be debated, discussed, criticised and rectified.

It’s very important that we do not dismiss it. Norman
Geras knows this and his ,very useful article
‘Althusser’s Marxism: an Account and Assessment’

in New Left Review 71 Jan-Feb 1972 is a good example
of a thoughtful study of Althusser. But I disagree
with some things in this article.

I think that
Geras has misunderstood certain of Althusser’s theses.

I also think that these same misunderstandings are
present in some of his comments about Althusser in
bis more recent essay. I think also that Geras’

comments are based on his interpretation of
Althusser’s work up to 1965. As Geras himself
points out however Althusser has rectified his own
work in many respects since that date, he has warned
us against certain interpretations of that earlier
work, he has engaged in self-criticism, he has moved
on. Geras seems not to have kept up with him. He
seems no longer willing to learn. Now, instead of
discussing him, he dismisses him.

Geras makes three comments about Althusser.

Each of these is either false or is the kind of
oversimplification which impedes theoretical

They are as follows:

(1) He claims that the doctrine that ‘it is men who
make history’ is ‘theoretically indigestible for
the Althusserians’.

(2) He says that Althusser’s view that ‘men are
nothing more than the supports/effects of their
social, political and ideological relations’ is to
be identified with ‘the view of the masses as the
true objects of their circumstances’.

(3) He attributes to Althusser the view that the
masses can only destroy and transform these relations ‘by the power of a knowledge (Theoretical
Practice) brought to them from elsewhere’.

In what follows I discuss these three comments
in the order given.

The Humanist Formula
Geras’ first remark is filled out as follows:

‘It is

men who make history albeit on the basis of objective conditions which they have to take as given’.

Let us label this formula for conveience The Humanist
Formula (HF). This ‘significant truth’ is said to
be decisive because it ‘represents Marx’s break with
the whole problematic I have just surveyed, and it
informs all of Marx’s more concrete and specific
theoretical constructions ••. Men are neither passive
effects nor omnipotent wills, but at once the
subjects and objects of a practice which generates
and transforms social and ideological structures,
and transforms men themselves in the process’ .

Now it is true that the formula ‘It is men who
make history on the basis of objective conditions
which they have to take as given’ is significant by

virtue of being a rejection of several alternative
approaches to the problem of human history.

It is
a denial of the crude environmentalist thesis that
circumstances make men, and also of the idealist
thesis that men are masters of their circumstances.

It is a rejection, therefore, as Geras points out,
of a huge variety of positions of both the ‘man
makes history’ kind and of the ‘legislators/
educators make history’ kind (Rousseau, Robert Owen).

The trouble is however that this rejection is not,
in the above formula, achieved by the elaboration
of concepts which are fundamentally different from
those involved in these other (idealist, materialist)

It simply takes the old concepts, designating sources of determination (men, circumstances),
and instead of asserting the primacy of one source
of determination over the other i t says that history
comes about as a result of a mixture df the two, a
bit of one (men, not passive effects, subjects) and
a bit of the other (objective conditions, not omnipotent wills, objects).

It therefore is significant,
at an ideological level (and that is important)
but it contains no new knowledge.

It does not tell
us how to think about history, about men, about
‘social conditions’. The important question is,
does Marx provide other cohcepts which do constitute
an important advance in understanding history, and
are they such as to allow the formula ‘men make
history’ to be replaced? Althusser’s research has
been based on the belief that the ‘men make history’

formula represents a ‘break with the old problematic’

only in the sense that it is a denial of positions
taken within that problematic by other social
theorists and philosophers: but it remains within
that old problematic because the terms of the denial
are still the terms of the old problematic. A
genuine break is only achieved when old formulae
are not simply denied but replaced.

Althusser argues that Marx did replace the old
problmatic, did break with it, did therefore provide
new concepts. He also believes that it is important,
both in theory and in politics, to identify the new
concepts as clearly as possible and to learn how to
operate with them rigorously.

It is important
because the old formula and the old concepts both
impede theoretical research and are politically and
ideologically dangerous. The old formula is one
with which Sartre, for example, can happily operate.

It is not rigorous enough to demarcate between
marxist and non-marxist theory. Althusser’s arguments about the scientific and political effects of
the formula ‘man makes history’ are equally applicable to the formula ‘men make history’. Philosophers
who use this formula ‘mix everything up’ and thus
they disarm revolutionary philosophers, theoreticians
and militants. They disarm them because in effect
they deprive them of an irreplacable weapon: the
objective knowledge of the conditions, mechanisms
and forms of the class struggle ••• If the workers
are told that ‘ i t is men who make history’ that
helps to disarm them.

It tends to make them think
that they are all-powerful as men, whereas in fact
they are disarmed as workers in the face of the
power which is really in command: that of the
bourgeoisie, which controls the material and political
conditions determining history. The humanist line
turns them away from the class-struggle, prevents
them from making use of the only power they
possess: that of their organisation as a class,
by means of their class organisations (the trade
unions, the party)’ (‘Reply to John Lewis: Self
Criticism’ Part 2, Marxism Today, November 1972).

What then of the claim that this formula, which
has been used by ‘all of the greatest Marxist
thinkers and revolutionary militants’ (Geras) is
‘theoretically indigestible for the Althusserians’?

This claim amounts implicitly to saying that any
formula used by Marx, Engels and Lenin must not be
tampered with. I, as a Marxist, reject this and so,
of course, does Norman Geras. The formula was used,
in fact, as an important political weapon by Marx,
Engels and Lenin. It was used to combat, for
example, certain forms of ~rude mechanical determinism (and revisionist politics) within the Second



International. But it is not philosophically,
scientifically or politically adequate and it is
important to find a better weapon if we can.

This is clearly illustrated by one of the most
famous of the texts in which HF o~curs – Engels
letter to Bloch of 1890 (Selected Works, 1962
edition, vol.2, p488).

In this letter Engels also
refers us, for confirmation, to perhaps the most
famous of all the occurrences of HF in Marx’s
writings, that in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis
Bonaparte. In the letter Engels says ‘We make
history ourselves, but, in the first place, under
very definite assumptions and conditions. Among
these the economic ones are ultimately decisive •.• ‘

Engels’ explicit concern here is to combat
‘economic determinism’. He does this by emphasising
the political and ideological elements ‘also exercise
their influence upon the course of the historical
struggles’. So far so good. The trouble is,
however, that Engels is in the pOsition of having
set up a thesis (a correct one) in a form that
invites more questions than he can answer. The
‘economic element is ultimately determining’ but the
superstructure also ‘play a part’. There is
scarcely a text in all of the works of Marx and
Engels which has suffered so many different interpretations, most of them bourgeois and incorrect,
or which is so obviously open to the charge of
evading all the ~ssues. The questions of how it is
possible for ‘economic elements’ and superstructures
to be in such a combination, of just what they are
and how they function, are not answered here, and
the interpretation to be given to HF is therefore
not specified.

In the next paragraph of the letter Engels
attempts a brief philosophical exposition of the
way in which men are agents in the historical
process. That is, he attempts to explain HF. He
does this in terms of the metaphor of the parallelogram of forces.

The combination of individual
wills produces a process which works unconscio~sly
so that the overall effect is something that no
individual has willed.

In this exposition Engels
in effect falls back into the old problematic in
which individual wills are determined by the
combination of micro-contingencies (‘circumstances’)
and combine in a way that seems to be pure magic
to produce intelligible history. The fact that
this is a ‘classic text’ has not prevented
Althusser from demonstrating its philosophical
weakness, the way it fails to give an historical
materialist account of the determination of
‘individuality’, and of the way in which men are
the makers of history.

(He has done this in the
Appendix to his article ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’, For Marx, pp.117-128).

In this
text (the Appendix)’ Althusser makes no attempt to
solve the problems he raises. The gen~ral
problem of the relation between Marxist theory
and philosophy is what underlies these particular
questions. About this he says ‘But perhaps we may
have to be convinced of the existence of the problem
before we will find either the will or the way to
pose it correctly and then resolve it’. And this,
I think, is my pOSition also on Geras’ article.

What he takes as solutions (which at a certain
level, against certain enemies, as weapons, are
‘solutions’) rest on a philosophical baSis which is
no solution at all. We need to be convinced of the
fact that Marxist philosophy is in an embryonic
state, and we need to discover the will and the way
to develop it beyond the state in which it has been
left to us by Marx, Engels and Lenin.

Althusser’s Anti-Humanist Formulae
Does Althusser provide us with a replacement for
the formula ‘men make history’? In fact he has
provided two. They are both ‘anti-humanist’ and I
will label them for convenience AFl and AF2. They
are as follows:

AFl ‘It is the masses which make history. The
class-struggle. is’the motor of history’.


AFl occurs more frequently in Althu8ser’s more
recent work (see, for example, ‘Reply to John Lewis:

Self-Criticism’ in Marxism Today October and
November 1972). But not only in his more recent
work. It is also present in For Marx for example
(p21S). The question is whether it is compatible
with AF2. This occurs only in scattered passages
and is never given systematic exposition. Because
of this I give two versions of it which may not in
fact be equivalent.

AF2 ‘The “subjects” of history are given human
societies’ (For Marx p.231)
‘The true subjects of the practices of social
production are the relations of production. Men
are never anything more than the bearers/
supports/effects of these relations’.

This latter version is not a direct quote from
Althusser but is an attempt to stat~ clearly what
is meant by the only passage in his work in which
he offers a general formula (a formula not related
only to the analysis of theoretical practice) to
express the implications of his theory of the
social totality for the problem ‘Who makes history?’.

The direct quote is as follows:

The structure of the relations of production
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 the
‘supports’ (Tr~ger) 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 appearances, the
‘obviousnesses’ of the ‘given’ if naiv.e
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).’

(Reading Capital p.180)
We are on difficult ground here for yarious

(i) There are very few passages in which
Althusser uses the concept of Tr~ger in relation to
the problem of how we are to understand history.

In fact the only other discussion of the concept in
this relation seems to be in Reading Capital pp.

111-112 where he attempts to replace the ‘false
problem’ of ‘the role of the individual in history’

with the problem of ‘the historical forms of
existence of individuality’.

(ii) in relation
between his various uses of the concept is that they
are all in one way or another based on a generalised
concept of ‘practice’ as forms of production in which
specific forms of work transform material to produce
new objects. For a clear exposition of this
concept see Norman Geras’ NLR article. The problem
is that in spite of the fact that this concept is
central it nowhere receives anything like adequate
presentation or justification. For example it is
not at all clear what might be meant by ‘the
places and functions determined by the social relations of ideological practice’ or what the relation
is between the concept of social relations and that
of theoretical practice.

That is, there is at work
here a half-cocked analogy in which certain concepts
derived from the analysis of the process of material
production are generalised to cover also other
processes (object, material, work, transformation);
and other concepts, with a different origin, are
associated with them in a way that leaves them more
or less totally Obscured (functions, places,
distributors, supports/effects). Some other concepts (structure, relations) occur sometimes as
part of the half-cocked analogy and sometimes
independently of it.

(iii) This structuralist
terminology (the second group of concepts above)
has more or less completely disappeared from
Althusser’s later work and was more or less absent
also from his work prior to Reading Capital.

should be noted in what follows that Althusser’s

anti-humanism is not specifically dependent on his
use of the concepts of this analogy (the first two
groups of concepts above). This is true not only
of his anti-humanism but also of his analysis of the
dialectic inasmuch as this relies on the concept’s
contradiction, overdetermination, conjuncture etc.

In fact almost everything in For Marx survives a
criticism of the structuralist generalised concept
of practice.

The First Anti-Humanist Formula



I imagine that Norman Geras would not want to deny
the truth of AFI. The question is in what relation
does AFl stand to HF? Althusser claims that it is
an advance on HF, that it captures an essential
truth of Marxist theory, whereas HF does not, and
that it is important to insist on a rigorous
exclusion of HF in favour of AFI. Are the two
formulae incompatible (in spite of the fact that
many people have asserted them both)? Or is it
merely a matter of a difference of emphasis which
has ideological importance? Since Althusser claims
that the formulae have effects both in politics and
in science he clearly regards the two competing
formulae as incompatible and not just differing in
ideological or pedagogical power or usefulness. But
he also clearly regards them not as incompatible in
the logical sense that they could not both be true
but as existing within different problematics.

They are conceptually incompatible – the concepts
cannot coherently coexist within a discourse.


If you want to engage in political practice
what kinds of knowledge do you need? Knowledge of
What? The formula ‘men make history under definite
objective circumstances’ suggests that you would
need to know about men, and this in two senses.

You would need to know what men are, that is you
would need to know human nature. And you would need
to know what men are in the particular situation.

You would ne~d to know their subjective states,
beliefs, attitudes, prejudices etc. This is how
political economy thought about men. And also
empiricist philosophy, utilitarianism etc. This is
how ‘politicians’ talk about men. Listen to them
talking about the crisis in the British economy listen to Jenkins and Maudling.

‘The trouble is
that we do not have confidence in our ability to
compete in world markets’.

‘We need a new attitud~
to work and a new sense of re~ponsibility towards
the less well off’. They believe that men make
history and that if only Englishmen, and especially
English workers, had a different attitude the crisis
would disappear. And it’s not just that we must
defend the workers against this rubbish because
they’re too dumb to know any better. On the
aontrary, they are by and large more likely to be
suspicious about such talk, to be spontaneously
cynical about such talk, than are ‘the intellectuals’.

There was hardly ever an intellectual who sold
himself to a TV discussion program without talking
rubbish like this. Of course I’m not accusing
Norman Geras of talking in such a way. What I’m
saying is that the formula ‘men make history’

invites such talk (and also much more sophisticated
talk of course; existentialist talk, libertarianutopian talk, Telos-talk). And i t does not
immediately hit such talk over the head with the
decisive and all-important counter-concepts: the


Then one would need to know about ‘the objective
conditions’. And one enormous problem here is to
know what on earth this means.

It does in fact
seem more like a vacant space, in which any old
bourgeois concept could settle, than a concept. One
would then have to try to understand in what way
these ‘objective conditions’ somehow leave ‘causal
gaps’ within which individual men could operate.

You would try to understand what room there is for
the play of individual wills, how individuals might
intervene so as to decisively alter the historical
outcame which is otherwise inscribed in the determin-

ation of the ‘objective conditions’. You might see
it as impossible f~r men (all men) to intervene, but
only possible for some man (Rousseau’s Legislator)
or same group of men (the educators in Robert Owen) .

The formula does not tell one which men it will have
to be. How is it possible in these terms to think
of men acting as members of a class engaged in
class-struggle? How does the decisive fact
discovered by Marx that society is class society
enter? Does it enter as a fact about men
(individual men aggregated)? Or as a fact about
‘objective circumstances’ (acting on men who are
somehow ontologically prior to their class-membership)? Classes are not reducible to their
individual members plus the ‘human relations’ between
them. Nor are they circumstances external to their
members which those members take as given. Social
relations of production are reproduce~ continually
but the agents of this process of reproduction are
not men simpliciter. The wage-labourer who sells
his labour power for a wage thereby reproduce~the
relation in which he stands to capital because he
produces surplus-value which the capitalist can use
as capital, to pay his wages next time round, or to
buy raw materials or whatever. But it is the fact
that the labourer is precisely a wage-labourer, that
he sells his labour power to the owner of capital,
that labour power is precisely a commodity that
sells for less than it can produce, it is these
relations that reproduce themselves (over the process
of social production as a whole) in the production
and appropriation of surplus value. We have here an
example of a process in which a social relation
reproduces itself, although the individual’s agency,
in this case his human labour power and all the
specific skills, techniques and knowledges that
constitute i t in the particular case, while being
indispensably involved in the process of reproduction, is not the agency which effects the

In other cases, cases of political relations
for example, we might not be able to present what
is involved in quite the same way (on this more
below). But we could at least say this. An
individual man is always some determinate kind of
man (a proletarian, a functionary in the State
apparatus, a petty bourgeois etc) , not in the sense
that men are the kinds of beings who always exist
already-determined-internally by virtue of the fact
that they occupy some place in a system of social

I think that in this restricted sense
it is true that men are ‘representatives’ or
‘personifications’ or ‘effects’ of places in a
system of social relations; and that the formula
‘men make history’ is conceptually incompatible
with this important assertion.

Political practice guided by the formula ‘The
masses make history; the class struggle is the
motor of history’ is different from the political
practice suggested by HF. The central concept of
the theory of political practice is the concept of
the conjuncture. The concept conjuncture replaces
the concept ‘circumstances’ (although not always
the word) in the writings of Lenin and Mao.

Althusser has done more than any other contemporary
western philosopher to clarify the concept of conjuncture and to locate it within the science of
historical materialsm. As far as knowledge is
concerned the task in political practice is the
analysis of ‘the present situation’, and that means
an analysis in terms of classes, fractions of
classes, alliances between classes, primary and
secondary contradictions, tendencies etc et. On
the basis of this knowledge, which is not,
incidentally, the kind of knowledge produced by
professional bourgeois intel~ectuals, which is not
the kind of knowledge that they are trained or
equipped to produce, political practice can transform
the balances of forces and ultimately can transform
the system of social relations. This practice is
possible only by class organisations, by cooperative
and combative class action. Althusser has never
denied, as far as I.know, that individual agents


are operative within the class struggle nor that the
subjective conditions of the various members of the
different classes are an important aspect of the
balance-of class forces. On the contrary he has
often asserted precisely that. For example in For
Marx he explains just why no theory of imperialism
(or of the capitalist mode of production in Capital
come to that) could replace the specific knowledge
and other aspects of political practice. ‘As if a
single word (imperialism) could thus magically
dissolve the reality of an irreplacable practice,
the revolutionaries’ practice, their lives, their
sufferings, their sacrifices, their efforts, in
short, their concrete history, by the use made of
another practice, based on the first, the practice
of a historian – that is of a scientist, who
necessarily reflects on necessity’s fait accompli;
as if the theoretical practice of a classical
historian who analyses the past could be confused
with the practice of a revolutionary leader who
reflects on the present in the present, on the
necessity to be achieved, on the means to produce
it, on the strategic application points for these
means; in short, on his own action, for he does
act on concrete history.’ (p.l79)
What has been denied is that it is these
individual agents who make history. It is not just
that individual agents very often do not know what
they are doing, do not understand the meaning or
consequences of their actions (this is what is
involved in the Engels metaphor of the parallelogram of forces mentioned above). It is that they,
as individual agents, could not do what in fact gets
done. No individual worker could be said to be the
agent who by his actions reproduces the social
relations of the capitalist mode of production, and
nor could individual workers taken together,
aggregated, be said to be this agent. No individual
revolutionary militant, not even Lenin or Mao, could
be said to be the agent who transformed the social
relations of production, and nor could all the
revolutionary militants taken individually and
aggregated be said to have been this agent either.

And yet the social relations of production are
reproduced and are transformed and will be transformed.

It is worth noting here that AFl is not only
preferable to HF but also to the formula ‘The
self-emancipation of the proletariat’. This for
two reasons. The first is that ‘proletariat ‘ is
not the name of a self but of a class. The second
is that emancipation is to be achieved not by the
proletariat_ but by the ‘masses’. This is an
important political reminder of how these abstract
formulae are to be applied in particular, concrete
historical situations. In concrete, revolutionary
political practice it is important to identify ‘the
masses’ or ‘the people’ i.e. to discover which
classes and fractions of classes are or could be
in alliance with the proletariat (poor peasants,
petty bourgeoisie, subproletariats).

‘As long as
you can’t answer the question: What, today, comprises
the people in a given country (today, because the
composition of the people varies historically; in
a given country, because the composition of the
people changes from place to place) , you can!t do
anything in politics. Only by knowing what ‘the
people’ means can you then develop: (1) a mass
political line; (2) corresponding political actions.’

(Althusser in Macciocchi’s Letters from inside the
Italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser, New
Left Books, 1973). So even abstract formulae can
be more or less rigorous and can point the way more
or less clearly to correct political practice.

The Second Anti-Humanist Formula
What is the difference between what I above called
the restricted sense in which men are ‘personifications’ or ‘effects’ of places in a system of social
relations and the second version of AF2, ‘The true
subjects of the practices ef social production are
the relations of production. Men are never anything


more than the bearers/supports/effects of these
~elations’? One might s~y that this restricted
sense is, as it stands, a way of locating the site
of important theoretical and philosophical problems.

It is not a theory. It is not a solution to these
problems. But it does help to indicate something
of the content that concepts in such a theory would
have to have. It indicates that we need to understand the efficacy of structures of social relations
and of classes, and it indicates that our understanding of what it is to be a human individual, a
subject, will be dependent on and not prior to this
understanding of classes (compared with the situation
in most philosophy where this order of things is
reversed). As I understand it AF2 is a formula which
is based on an attempt to provide at least the outlines of such a theory and of such solutions. There
are many criticisms that could be made of this
formula. But if I am right about its theoretical
‘origins at least one kind of criticism will be
quite wrong. This is any criticism that is based
on the identification of the view that men are the
supports/effects of social relations with the view
that ‘the masses are the total objects of their
circumstances’. Here we have arrived at the second
of Geras’ comments with which I am slowly dealing in
this discussion. My reply to this second comment
is that, regardless of other criticisms of AF2 one
may wish to make,it is to completely miss the whole
point of AF2 to criticise it on the basis of an
identification of it with another formula1which it
is in fact designed to replace; or to interpret
it in terms of a problematic with which it is
meant to mark a break.

The concepts supports/social relations are
specifically designed to replace, not to be
translations of, the concepts men/circumstances.

They do this by attempting at any rate to theorise
a relation in which ‘men’ and ‘structures of social
relations’ are internally related and mutually
determining rather than externally related and
causally co-mingling. The trouble with the Geras
comment .then is that it is so wrong that it makes
any criticism or discussion of AF2 impossible. This
is equally true of his remark in the NLR article in
which he sums up his exposition of AF2 by saying
‘Thus, the human subject is definitively abolished’.

It would of course take more than any intellectual
operations in Althusser’s head, however bYZantine,
to abolish human subjects. An attempt has been
made to explain human subjectivity, to identify
human agents. as effects of social relations, to deny
that human subjects ar e the subjects of the social
processes we call history. Is this to abolish them?

It is rather as if a philosopher who defended the
‘identity thesis’ were criticised on the grounds
that he had abolished human pains. It is the kind
of remark that merely cuts off discussion.

However, at this point I want to deal separately
with two distinct problems.

(1) There may be
involved in Geras’ rejection of Althusser’s AF2
certain implicit general assumptions about the question ‘Who makes history?’ with which I would agree.

What is at stake here is this. What kinds of abstraction and what concepts do we need in order to
understand social formations, political practice and
history? Can we formulate some very general criteria
of what would count as mistaken answers to these
questions? Now I think this is a very risky enterprise because the possibility of rigour is very
limited. But we can try.

(2) The second problem I’ll
try to deal with is that of the interpretation of
AF2. Geras relies on an interpretation which I
think is incorrect. What is the correct one?

In answer to the first question here, to be
treated with caution are some possibilities.

(1) Whatever might be meant by saying that men are
‘ensembles of social relations’ in Marx’s formulation, or ‘supports/effects’ of social relations in
the Althusserian ‘improvement’, such a formula must
not be given an interpretation which is incompatible
with the fact that human social relations are only
‘possible because they involve (whatever that means)

men and not, say, rocks or dogs.

There is an
intelligible and important problem here: how, by
virtue of what, is it possible for there to be human
social relations? Such a question does not
necessarily involve the assumption that we need a
‘science of man’ but it does involve the assumption
that there must be sciences other than the science
of social formations, sciences such as linguistics,
psychoanalytic theory, anthropology. In as much
as the phrase ‘never anything more than … ‘ in AF2
is a denial of this then it is a mistake. What
Althusser is, correctly, keen to emphasise is that
such sciences cannot be subsumed under a general
heading, ‘the study of human nature’, where this is
given the interpretation i t was given by all
philosophical and proto-scientific enquiries concerning man before Marx (and by and large since
Marx also). Thus is he concerned to emphasise that
one cannot first study ‘human nature’ and then, on
that basis, study human social relations. What he
has neglected to emphasise (although he has never
denied it and clearly believes it to be true) is
that the science of social formations does not
exhaust the scientific knowledge of human life.

(2) A connected point: if Althusser has not
abolished the human subject has he at any rate
sought to abolish the concept of ‘the human subject’,
or the concepts ‘man’ and ‘men ‘I? I said earlier
than HF and AFl are conceptually incompatible.

take this to mean that there is no admissable
concept of ‘men’ or ‘subject’, but that any such
concept could not be the same concept as that of
‘men’ (and ‘subject’) as they exist within either
the pre-Marxian problematic or in the ideological
discourse of everyday life. That this is, in part,
what Althusser means, and that he is not in the
absurd position of having asserted that men do not
exist, is clear for example in For Marx (pp.229,
243) ‘It is impossible to know anything about men
except on the absolute precondition that the
philosophical (theoretical) myth of man is reduced
to ashes …. Once the scientific analysis of this
real object has been undertaken, we discover that
a knowledge of concrete (real) men, that is a
knowledge of that ensemble of the social relations
is only possible on the condition that we do
completely without the theoretical services of the
concept of man (in the sense in which it existed
in its theoretical claims even before the displacement).’ But I would certainly agree that
such statements are not so rigorous that one could
guarantee that they could not have undesirable
effects in politics and science.

(3) Geras may be relying on the criterion that any
view would be incorrect (and would have undesirable
effects in politics) if that view had the implication that human subjectivity and human agency are
only epiphenomenal to the process of historical
change; that is that they are not implicated in the
causal mechanisms which produce that change. I
agree with this. The question of whether Althusser
has views which do have this implication is a
difficult one. Certainly he would not admit to
holding such views.

They would not only contradict
other views that he clearly does hold (e.g. about
political practice) but would amount to a version
of reductivist materialist determinism that so much
of his work on the dialectic and on overdetermination
etc has sought to refute. However, Geras is right
when he insists (NLRarticle) on the Althusserian
view that ‘the rigour of a text counts for more than
the intentions of its subject-author’.

The concepts of the second Anti-Humanist Formula
Now for the problem of the interpretation of AF2.

I do not want to minimize the difficulties involved
in understanding AF2. These difficulties are certainly in part caused by the fact that Althusser
has made no attempt to give to AF2 the extended
exposition that it re’Iuires. The off-hand way in
which this formula is sometimes dropped into the
argument without detailed exposition is bound to
have, as Althusser would put it, undesirable effects

in science and politics.

As I understand it the concept ‘support’ (Tr~ger)
as used by Althusser has two quite distinct origins.

The first origin is in structural linguistics and
related areas of research such as structuralist
literary analysis and psychoanalytic theory.

In the
sections in Reading Capital in which Althusser
discusses (theoretical and ideological) discourse,
symptomatic reading and so on he is, without ever
discussing the problems involved, leaning heavily on
the methods and concepts of these ‘structuralist’

sciences, in particular on Lacan’s psychoanalytic
theory(hence the appearance of the concept of ‘the unconscious of a test’}.

Now I do not want to attempt
here any discussion or assessment of this aspect of
Althusser’s work except to say that the concept of
‘subject’ is very much in the nature of a problem for
all the structuralist influenced theoretical enquiries.

Inasmuch as Althusser gives’~he impression
in Reading Capital that he is relying in these
sections on some body of accomplished philosophical
research he is guilty of at least evasion. For all
the back-pedalling in the ‘Forward’ (‘we believe that
despite the terminological ambiguity the profound
tendency of our texts was not attached to the
“structuralist ideology”‘) I think he can be accused
of having allowed some attachment to give his work
a false sense of rigour.

Notice however, that I am not saying that this
attachment to a structuralist terminology and method,
as applied to the analysis of texts, is wrong. The
particular form of abstraction involved in this
approach raises serious questions. One practises
an abstraction that produces, as an object of analysis, a text. For the purposes of analysis one
severs the links which existed between the production
of the (real, concrete) text and (a) the activity of
a subject-author and (b) a social formation.

the latter aspect of the abstraction see Geras’

useful discussion in the NLR article). Althusser
practises this abstraction but does not discuss how
it is possible, nor demonstrate its limits. I agree
with Geras that this lack of discussion leads
Althusser (and this is even truer of Ranci~re) to
adopt positions which are idealist.

Trager in Capital
The second source of the concept ‘Tr~ger’ is its use
by Marx in Capital. Let us be quite clear about
this. The concept is not just one which was
invented by Althusser in order to give a modish
structuralist flavour to his work. It is Marx’s
cone,ept; it occurs regularly throughout Capital.

If we need a philosophical exposition of itlthis is
not because there is any a priori obligation on us
to defend Althusser.

It is because we need to
understand Marx.

In Marx’s use the concept is once again produced
by abstraction, in this case with the production of
the concept ‘men only in so far as they are bearers/
effects of the economic social relations of production of the capitalist mode of production (CMP) ‘.

The question is, what is it that makes this abstraction possible? I can’t provide here the detailed
analysis of Capital that would be required to answer
that question properly. But my emphasis is this: the
concept TrMger does seem to be an important aspect
of the scientific achievement of Capital. Therefore
it is important not to dismiss it. It is important
to study it and understand it and on that basis to
decide whether or not the use made of it by
Althusser is correct.

Here are three points about Marx’s use of Tr~ger
and its variants in Capital. Each of them is
related to the inadequacy of the concepts ‘men’ and
‘circumstances’ in the analysis of the CMP.

(1) Capital vol 1 p.592. Here the capitalist is said
to be ‘personified capital’. In his actions the
capitalist is ‘the effect of the social mech~ism of
which he is but one of the wheels. The development
of capitalist production makes i t constantly necessary to keep increasing the amount of capital laid
out in a given industrial undertaking, and competi-


tion makes the immanent laws of capitalist production
to be felt by each individual capitalist as external
coercive laws’.

One of the points of the concept ‘effect/support’

is then to get at the way in which each individual
capitalist (or worker) is related to the necessity
which derives from the laws of operation of the
system as a whole. There are only a certain number
of ‘places’ in this system which an individual can
occupy (schematically, capitalist of the industrial,
landlord, merchant varieties, productive and unproductive labour etc) and these places are continually reproduced and continually develop in what
‘they’ demand of their occupants. Certain laws
operate in the process of reproduction of these
places and relations; competition between individual
capitals, expoloitation of wage-labour by the
appropriation of surplus value and so on.

(2) p.152: ‘As the conscious representative (TrMger)
of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a
capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the
point from which the money starts and to which it
returns. The expansion of value, which is the
objective basis or mainspring of the circulation
M-C-M, becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in
so far as the appropriation of ever more and more
wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of
his operations, that he functions as a capitalist,
that is, as capital personified and endowed with
consciousness and a will.’

The point here is to do with the way in which
occupying a ‘place’ in the structure of the social
relations of production is related to the subjectivity of the individual ‘representative’, to his
consciousness and his will. This seems to be the
area of discussion that Althusser has in mind when
he talks of the problem of the ‘historical forms of
the existence of individuality’ (Reading Capital
p.112). But these human subjects, although they are
subjects active within the process of social
production are “not given as the subjects of that
process, nor are they given as the objects of that
process (these are Geras’ concepts – he says that men
are both of these).

In so far as he occupies a
place (is a capitalist for example) it is because
the objective basis of circulation (expansion of
value) becomes his subjective aim (ownership of
wealth in the abstract, money) .

(3) On the other hand it is only in so far as men
personify economic social relations of production
that they enter into the analysis of the CMP
Capital vol.l p.85 ‘In the course of our investigation we shall, in general, find that the characters who
appear on the economic stage·~re but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between
them’ (or in another translation – ‘as bearers
(TrMger) of which they encounter each other’).

This is of course the fundamental point about Marx’s
analysis on which Balibar relies on his exposition
of the ‘TrMger’ concept in Heading Capital.

It is
essential that we investigate the significance of
this face, that Marx demonstrates the structure of
the social process of the capitalist production, its
reproduction and the laws of its development without
having to discuss
(as subjects, as individuals
with consciousness and will) except in so far as
they ‘personify’ or are ‘effects of’ the social
relations of production. And let us not underestimate the scope of Marx’s discoveries about the
CMP made on this basis. Not: just the reproduction
of capitalist relations of production. But also the
laws of development; the concentration of capital,
the socia1isation of productive forces (development
of forms of organisation and cooperation) , the
extension of capitalist social relations to all
branches of production and 1:he formation of a world
market, the constitution of an industrial reserve
army, and the decline in the average rate of profit.

(‘l’his list is an approximati.on of that given by
Balibar in Reading Capital p.284). As far as this
analysis is concerned Marx nowhere relies on the
notion that ‘men make history’ and it is surely
correct that this notion would in fact have con-


stituted an obstacle to the production of this
scientific knowledge.

(The one reference Geras
gives to Capital as a source for this formula is
actually a quote from Vico.)
The limits of the ‘TrMger’ concept
What are the limits of the knowledge given in Capital?

The absence of ‘men’ in Capital is determined by the
limits of the object of the theory given in that
text. That object is the economic instance of the

I shall raise two issues about the extent to
which concepts found in Capital might not be sufficient for the production of knowledge of other

Is the conceptual restriction, whereby
men enter only in so far as they are supports/
effects of social relations of production, possible
when it is a matter of knowledge of periods in which
the political class struggle is dominant, for
example of periods of transition between modes
of production? And secondly is this restriction
possible when it is a matter of knowledge of a

The mechanisms of the structures of the
economic social relations of the CMP as described
in Capital only operate on the assumption of the
dominance of the economic instance, and of the
successful articulation of this instance with the
operations of the structures of the political and
ideological instances.

One might ask what is
involved in that assumption. Whatever the answer
to that question outside the limits of this assumption the laws of the capitalist economic structures
break down (or have yet to be established). This
is clearly seen in Capital in its treatment of the
transition from feudalism to capitalism, and
marginally in its few remarks about the dissolution
of capitalism.

In those parts of Capital in which
Marx is discussing periods such as these, when
political class struggle is dominant his analysis
no longer operates within the same conceptual

In relation to the transition from
feudalism to capitalism Marx says (p.737) that once
the CMP is established the reproduction of the
social classes can be left to ‘the natural ~aws”of
production’ i.e. to his (the worker’s) dependence
on capital, a dependence springing from, and guaranteed in perpetuity by the conditions of production

It is otherwise during the historic
genesis of capitalist production’.

In this genesis
capitalist social relations were established by force
and by the use of the state, in short by political
and ideological class struggle
As Balibar puts in (Reading Capital p.306ff)
‘Instead of an intervention governed by the limits
of the mode of production, primitive accumulation
shows us an intervention of political practice, in
its different forms, whose result is to transform
and fix the limits of the mode of production …

In a transition period there is a ‘non-correspondence’ (between the different levels) because the
mode of intervention of political practice, instead
of conserving the limits and producing its effects
within their determination, displaces them and
transforms them’. Are there laws of development of
such a process which could be analysed in the same
way that the laws of the development of capitalism
are analysed in Capital? Balibar’s discussion of
the possibilities of analysis here is as follows:

‘But the analysis of this struggle and of the
political social relations which it implies is not
part of the study of the structure of production.

The analysis of the transformation of the limits
therefore requires a theory of the different times
of the economic structure and of the class struggle,
and of their articulation in the social structure.

To understand how they can be joined together in
the unity of a conjuncture (e.g. how, if other
conditions are fulfilled, the crisis can be the
occasion for a – revolutionary – transformation of
the structure of production) depends on this, as
Althusser has shown in an earlier study (‘Contradiction and Dverdetezmination’)’. (Reading Capital


Indeed everything depends on this. What
kind of knowledge is knowledge of a conjecture?

What forms of abstraction and of conceptual restriction are possible here? What has Althusser shown,
in his famous essay, about conjunctural analysis?

Althusser cites Lenin’s statement ‘The soul of
Marxism is the concrete analysis of a concrete
situation’. Capital does not, by itself, provide
such a concrete analysis; it develops some of the
concepts for such analyses. Althusser’s insistence
on the formula ‘the masses make history; the class
struggle is the motor. of history’ is related to his
investigation of what is involved in the concrete
analysis of a concrete situation.

In these
discussions, which he conducts in terms of the
concepts ‘primary and secondary contradictions’,
‘uneven development’, ‘the complex whole with the
unity of a structure articulated in dominance’ etc.

Althusser does not rely on a doctrine that in a
knowledge of a conjuncture men would only appear
in so far as they are the ‘effects/supports’ of the
places distributed by the social relations of
production. What he does rely on is what I called
above ‘the restricted sense’ of this concept that
men enter always as members of classes, or of fractions of classes and as engaged in class struggles
and operating with class ideologies.

But there is
all the difference in the world between talking
about bourgeois ideology and talking about ‘supports
of the ideological relations of production’ or
‘personification of political social relations’

or whatever.

The stronger sense, that involved in
AF2, would suggest that the structure of class
relations, and its development and transformation,
could be known ‘with the precision of natural
science’, and would be experienced as external
necessities beyond men’s control. And yet the whole
point of revolutionary political practice is to
know how to act so as to shift the basic balance
of forces in a concrete situation, and ultimately
to produce a ‘ruptural unity’ in which the decisive
transformation can come about.

Theory and Politics
The problem of knowledge of the conjuncture brings
me, at last, to the third of Norman Geras’ comments
on Althusser which I wish to discuss. The problem
here is theory and its relation to politics. Even
less than with the above problems is i t possible for
me to do justice here to the complex issues

Geras says that it follows from Althusser’s AF2
that men can only transform social relations ‘by the
power of a knowledge (Theoretical Practice) brought
to them from elsewhere’. This is taken by Geras as
following from the doctrine that men are nothing
more than the supports/effects of social relations.

It does not in fact so follow.

On the incorrect
interpretation of this doctrine given in his essay
(which equates the doctrine with the view that ‘the
masses are the total objects of their circumstances’)
it would not follow because there would be no elsewhere for theoretical practice to come from. This
is so because the doctrine that men are supports of
social relations, whatever interpretation it is
given, is a doctrine about all men and not just
about the masses.

So there would be no possibility
of some men, e.g. intellectuals, being different
from the masses in this respect and hence being the
‘elsewhere’ from which the power to transform
social relations by theoretical practice couI~ come.

If, however, we take instead the interpretation of
the ‘supports/effects’ doctrine that is implicit.

in Geras’ NLR article we find the following. The
concepts ‘supports/effects’ are given content by
their place in the more general theory that men
function as occupants of places in systems of social
practices (economic, political, ideological,
scientific). These practices are ‘mechanisms’

whereby various kinds of production occur by work
performed on different kinds of objects. Now
Althusser explicitly identifies political practice
as the practice which transforms social relations

by work performed on the object ‘the present conjuncture’. We have the problem of what i t means
to say that within these practices men are ‘supports/
effects’, and the question of whether this whole
conceptual construction is in any case based on a
generalisation of concepts which in Marx perform a
much more restricted role. But whatever the answers
to these questions it is quite clear (i) that to
the extent that men are not the subjects of the
processes performed by political practice they are
to exactly the same extent not the subjects of
processes which come about as a result of theoretical practice. Theoretical practice could not
therefore be brought from anywhere at all to save
men from the consequences of not being the subjects
of social processes. And (ii) that it is in any
case political practice and not theorlT.tical practice which transforms social relations.

So it is quite impossible to find room within
this theory for the view that theoretical practice
is the practice which transforms social relations
or for the view that theoretical practice is
achieved by some group within society but elsewhere
than with the masses; e.g. by intellectuals or
philosophers. There is thus no basis in any of
this for Geras’ charge (‘NLR p.84) that for Althusser
‘the relation between Marxist theory and the working
class is a unilateral and purely pedagogic one: the
intellectuals ‘give’ the class the knowledge i t
needs. This is only the final consequence of every
idealism: elitism. When knowledge celebrates its
autonomy, the philosophers celebrate their dominance’.

It is certainly true that Althusser has not produced
a satisfactory account of the ‘mechanisms’ which
produce knowledge, nor of the relationsh~p between
theory and politics. Althusser has himself pointed
this out. But it is equally clear that the abstract
thought objects ‘Theoretical Practice’ and
‘Political Practice’ do not designate real objects
which are to be found distributed respectively to
the social groups known as ‘the intellectuals’ and
‘the masses’.

On a connected point, it is also perfectly clear
that the concepts ‘science’ and ‘ideology’ ?o not
‘refer to realities (systems of representations) which
can be located in the heads of, respectively, intellectuals (or philosophers) on the one hand and the
masses on the other.

If the masses live ideologically
according to Althusser this is not because they are
the masses but because they are men, and this goes
for intellectuals too. Whether the ideology is one
wh~ch is mystificatory or one which ‘depends on
science – which has never been the case before’

(Reading Capital p.131) depends not on the bearer
of that ideology being an intellectual or a worker
but on that ideology being produced within bourgeois
or socialist society.

These points about Althusser are important not
just because it is important to defend him against
a charge of being an elitist, Qut because it is
important to emphasise what we can learn from his
work about the relation between theory and politics.

Two themes run throughout his work which are not
only direct refutations of the charge that he is an
elitist but which are also important truths which it
is important for us to understand and assimilate.

The first of these is the centrality in Marxist
theory and practice of the knowledge of conjunctures
which I have already mentioned. Revolutionary
political practice is not guided by Marxist science
in the abstract, but by the application of Marxist
science within the political class struggle to
concrete situations. Put like this one can see the
absurdity of supposing that the task of producing
the knowledge required in political practice and for
political practice should fall on the shoulders of
that thoroughly unrevolutionary bourgeois group’

‘the intellectuals’. And this is the second theme;
the intellectuals. Here one should study the
following texts by Althusser: “Interview on Philosophy’ and ‘Preface to Capital’ both in Lenin and
Philosophy (New Left Books 1971) and Althusser’s
contributions to Macciocchi’s Letters from Inside
the Italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser


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