Thursday, April 23, 2009

On the dead and buried: Marx, Structure and Agency.

In The Rebel, Albert Camus locates Karl Marx within a 19th century tradition which attempted to “substitute, everywhere, the relative for the absolute”. For Camus, Marxism represents a revision and re-articulation of Auguste Comte’s evolutionary theory of society. This assessment of Marx characterized his philosophical disposition as an inverted bourgeois positivism. However, Camus’s general interpretation is not without competitors from both Marxists and Non-Marxists alike. There are a myriad of works, which attempt to explain Marx’s social thought and establish his exact position on countless points of controversy. Historical Materialism or the materialist conception of history has been one such point of controversy, especially with regards to the relationship between human agency and social structures implicit within the theory. Within the Marxian tradition itself, two broad perspectives on the structure-agency debate emerged after the suppression of the Budapest uprising in 1956 and the subsequent disillusionment with Stalinism. Marxist humanism sought to emphasize the human actor, whilst Structuralist Marxism laid stress upon the determining nature of social structures. Both intellectual movements asserted their fidelity to the thought of Marx and sought to legitimate their theoretical formulations in reference to Marx’s oeuvre.

There is no direct attempt to form a coherent theory on the relationship between structure and agency within the works of Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels. Neither of the two were theoretical theoreticians, or pedantic academics, but developed theories to underpin their practical engagements. It was in this vain that Marx declared his aim the: “relentless criticism of all existing conditions”. This spirited endeavor led Marx to a critical engagement with British political economy, French socialism and German philosophy, resulting in a ‘relentless’ critique of the bourgeois mode of production and its class dynamics. The scope of Marx’s intellectual scheme invariably impinged upon issues of structure and agency.

However, Marx’s never formulated the problem of structure and agency in those exact terms. Structure and Agency are terms used in contemporary sociological debate to identify dimensions of social life which at first glance seem paradoxical and diametrically opposed. Agency, defined by Anthony Giddens, is the ability of individuals to intervene into the flow of events with the possibility of affecting the direction of “events-in-the-world”. Structure is often used to denote recurrent patterns of social relations, which seem to mold the individual and their social activity. The paradox can be exemplified in this quote from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

Thus at once, human subjects are the authors of society and subjected to conditions independent of their will, not least “the traditions of all the dead generations”. Despite this statement, which acknowledges both structure and agency in the human condition, there is considerable debate over how exactly to situate Marx with regard to human action and social structure. Two divergent and opposed interpretations of Marx’s materialist conception of history and the place of philosophical anthropology within this conception have developed in the second half of the twentieth century. Louis Althusser developed a theoretical position often labeled ‘Structuralist Marxism’, which attributed a pre-eminence to social structure in the thought of Marx. The other interpretation, ‘Marxist humanism’, sought to ascertain the continuity between Marx’s early and later works and establish a conception of Marx’s humanist philosophical anthropology. To avoid the implications of Marx’s early works, Althusser characterized them as non-Marxist and applied the Gaston Bachelard’s concept of “epistemological break” to Marx’s intellectual development.

The thesis of epistemological break, advanced by Althusser, conceived of a shift from Marx’s early philosophical anthropology and humanism to mature works that ceased to be grounded in humanist and idealist notions of “human nature” and “the essence of man”. In place of philosophical anthropology, Marx is said to have made a “scientific discovery” in developing the concepts of the concepts of “social formation, productive forces, relations of production, superstructure, ideologies” and so forth. It is impossible to deny that Marx developed new concept to analyses the nature of society, but these concepts are not incompatible with Marx’s humanism. In fact, Marx’s never repudiated the idea of human nature, though he did stipulate that it was both socially and historically conditioned. Towards the end of Capital volume one, Marx criticizes Jeremy Bentham’s principle of utility for offering an ahistorical and tendentious standard of utility to judge all human endeavors. To correctly apply the principle of utility, Marx argues, one would need to: “first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch”. This reference to human nature is situated after the period Althusser defined as the Marx’s youth, well beyond both the “works of the break” and his “transitional work”, but rather, in the period characterized by Althusser as Marx’s mature period. Given this, Althusser’s thesis of epistemological break is placed in a precarious position, if not completely invalidated.

Marx’s early works and the philosophical anthropology developed therein are therefore legitimate sources for understanding Marx’s intellectual scheme and in particular the relationship between human agents and social structures. In the works of Althusser, human agency is completely eclipsed by structure. The humanist interpretation of Marx, attempted to reintroduce the human agent into the materialist conception of history and therefore defend it against various forms of reductionism and determinism. For many, Marxism constitutes a vulgar economic reductionism: the belief that all of human interaction is fundamentally economic phenomenon. On these grounds Bertrand Russell attacked the application of Marx’s materialist conception of history to the history of philosophy because he felt it reduced all philosophical schools to the given economic conditions. Lord Russell considered this position untenable on several grounds, not least of which is that economic analysis couldn’t adequately contend with the technical content of a philosophical argument. In his later years, Engels acknowledged that both Marx and he neglected to explain the production of ideas, from the perspective of the individual thinkers themselves.

Elsewhere, Engels confessed that he and Marx were partially to blame for the notion that historical Materialism is a form of economic reductionism. Since, Engels says, they had to over-emphasize the importance of economic determinates “vis-à-vis” their intellectual opponents who denied the significance of economic factors in history. This is a central problem in any attempt to interpret Marx’s materialist conception of history and the relative importance he placed upon structure and agency. In combing through Marx and Engels’ collected works, there are numerous exaggerated and overstated claims which are qualified at different points, but nevertheless provide the basis for misinterpretation. Althusser was not unaware of textual criticisms made of his reading of Marx, but dismissed them as vestiges of immaturity that survived after Marx’s epistemological break towards a scientific outlook.

Marx’s work is fertile ground for textual contortions; nevertheless he does form definite ideas about the nature of history, society and invariably the relationship between structure and agency. In contrast to the philosophy of Hegel, and the post-Hegelian philosophers of his time, Marx sought to ground his conception of society in the material existence of individual human beings. Not as abstract entities, but rather as they expressed themselves through their productive activities which constitute a definitive mode of life. Marx’s individual was not defined a priori, like the autonomous Kantian subject, but enmeshed within actual social relations.

In an argument reminiscent of Aristotelian sentiments, Marx asserted that: “the creation of society – is the actual nature of man”. This creative nature is itself a process of self-creation, the expression of humanity’s species essence. Marx’s reasoning led him to the conclusion that: “world history is only the creation of man through human labour and the development of nature for man”. Human life is therefore a product of human agency situated within a given set of material conditions. The interaction of human productive capacities and the prevailing conditions constitutes a definitive mode of life. Material condition are a determining element in social systems, the form of productive activity and therefore the form mode of life that individual engage in is dependent upon the given set of material conditions. The mode of life an individual lives has a definite bearing upon their form of consciousness because as Marx argues: “consciousness can never be anything other than conscious existence”. This point that consciousness is always conscious existence seems self-evident, but Marx takes the argument one step further and claims that all form of ideological expression (morality, religion, metaphysics, and etcetera…) has no history independent of the material conditions of life.

The base-superstructure model is often the juncture point that Marx is declared to be an economic determinist and therefore highly weighted in favour of structural determinates over human agency. But this interpretation neglects the subtle difference between necessary and sufficient causes. The production of literature within the capitalist mode of production is not necessarily the production and expression of bourgeois ideology, but it does presuppose a level of economic surplus which allows individuals the time and means to pursue activities that don’t directly pertain to the production of the means of subsistence. In was this distinction between necessary and sufficient causation that lead Joseph A. Schumpeter to argue that the whole of Max Webber’s arguments about the elective affinity of Protestantism with Capitalism could be subsumed under Marx’s broader paradigm.

The problem of interpreting Marx’s general paradigm has itself become a perennial problem within sociological theory. Michel Foucault has called Marx (along with Freud) a founder of “discursivity”. Discursivity is characterized by the establishment of “an endless possibility of discourse”, whereby the legitimacy of theoretical postulates are derived from the foundational text of the discourse. Both Marxist Humanism and Structural Marxism exhibit a tendency towards discursivity. The humanist interpretation of Marx is more successful in defending his works against several forms of reductionism and determinism. However, Humanist reliance upon early philosophical works for the mainstay of their interpretation is contested by more ‘orthodox’ forms of Marxism.

Despite disagreement over interpretations, thorough textual analysis of Marx’s body of work is not completely futile. He provides the contemporary sociologist with several conceptual tools and a general guideline for the analysis of social and historical dynamics. Marx did not address the structure and agency debate directly and for its own sake, but he did address issues of human nature and necessity in social structures. Human nature however adaptable to historical specifics was for Marx: intrinsically productive, creative and active. The material conditions which prevail constitute a key determinate in mode of life that individuals could take on. This does not mean that all forms of human expression and creativity are reducible to economic causation, but rather that economic development is a constraint or means that enables or disables rather than causes human expression. For contemporary sociology then, it is important to recognize the subtly in Marx’s analyses of society, but also its limitation in addressing contemporary theoretical debates. Marx never put forth a total theory of historical causation; in fact he argued different historical event need to be studied in themselves to understand the key to their development, the supreme virtue of a “grand historico-philosophical theory” Marx said would be its “supra historical” character. Though demonstrably antithetical to the views of Marx, it is important not to fall into the trap of discursivity, an endless self-referential discourse with no chance of a last word. As Marx would have it: “let the dead bury their dead”.

Written by Mathew Toll.


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Mathew Toll said...

Something i wrote on Marx early 2007, "Marx's Grand Narrative: The Materialist Conception of History".

Can be found here:-

Mathew Toll said...

This post has been cited in a PhD thesis, here: