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Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

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Chris Wickham: A review of Alex Callinicos, Making History: Agency, Structure, and Change in Social Theory.

This is an important book [Leiden: Brill, 2004], though not an easy one. It is the second edition of a work first published in 1987, and this new edition has a chunky 30-page introduction reacting to new work and in some cases revising positions taken in the main text. This means that one has to have a double image in one’s mind—after one has followed the often complex arguments in the main text, one has to check that the author has not changed his mind. Callinicos has as his main aim an exploration of how an understanding of structural analysis and an understanding of agency—why and how people make the choices they make—can be compatible.


This is essentially a theoretical issue, and Callinicos is a professional philosopher and political theorist, so the problem gets a highly theoretical answer. In Callinicos’s introduction to the second edition (p. xix) he concedes that parts of the book, notably Chapter 3, may be ‘heavy going’; he’s right here, for sure. You would need a philosophy degree to find them straightforward—I am a historian, so I certainly found I had problems. Even setting out the arguments of the book is going to be a fairly abstract task.


Callinicos is trying, as Gerry Cohen did in the 1970s (G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, Oxford, 1978), to arrive at a Marxist analysis through a version of first principles, constructing a Marxist position anew from the philosophy, political theory, economics and sociology of (in most cases) non-Marxists. Because Callinicos is more wide-ranging than Cohen, one has to work more—one succeeds in unpicking one sort of argument and technical vocabulary, and then one turns the page and he has started again with a different set of opponents cum building blocks. Sometimes I felt that I was going though an unusually fast course in contemporary philosophy. It is worth it, all the same. Structure versus agency is an important issue in contemporary social theory. It is also an important issue for anyone who is interested in where Marxism is going intellectually and how it can continue to offer a scientific analysis capable of supporting political change. Seventeen years after the book first came out, it might risk being outdated, but it is not—a tribute to its rigour. I will point out some more recent challenges, but overall the book stands very well. Since it was written in the aftermath of the miners’ strike, it cannot be accused of being overoptimistic about the political moment, as much 1970s Marxist theory was. Callinicos’s pessimism of the intellect, clear enough in this book, is as valid now as then—but he  also  shows  the  optimism  of  the will which is the other side of the coin for the originator of the image, Antonio Gramsci.

Chapter 1 of this book deals with how human agency works. Chapter 2 does the same for structures. Chapter 3 discusses (among other things) language and the concept of interest. Chapter 4 focuses on ideology and objectivity. Chapter 5 analyses the rationality of revolution. Chapter 3 is the most technical, while chapters 4 and 5 are probably the place to start if you want to get a sense of where Callinicos is going, as they are less philosophical. Callinicos does build up his argument, but it is possible to skip sections, as he always reprises. I will go through the text sequentially for this review, however—that seems the best way to get at Callinicos’s argument, its occasional weaknesses, and its general, considerable, strengths.

In Chapter 1 Callinicos wants to establish that human nature is ‘natural’—that it cannot be separated off from the natural world and analysed with completely different methods to those of science (he comes back to this in Chapter 3 too). He also wants to establish human agency as ‘real’—not just reducible to the position humans have inside structures, as Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault argued in their different ways. Finally, he wants to argue that human agency is not the sole element that is worth studying in social action—that structures cannot be reduced to a set of individual intentions. This is the start of an attack on one of the major targets of the book, the methodological individualism of Max Weber and, most recently, of rational-choice Marxists, who argue precisely this last point. This is a necessary step for Callinicos to take in preparation for Chapter 2, on structures, which is at the heart of the book and is in many ways its most satisfying section.

Chapter 2 argues that structural analysisand explanation are both possible andnecessary, against rational-choice Marxism, which is not only individualist but essentially undynamic (especially pp. 69-84). (Note that he does not define structure here—but he does in his new introduction, p. xxiii). On the way, Callinicos seeks to criticise Cohen’s emphasis on the primacy of the productive forces over the relations of production in the Marxist analysis of modes of production. Callinicos is more interested in how to understand exploitation, which lies inside any analysis of production relations, and is hostile to the teleology of ‘orthodox historical materialism’—the idea that the movement to a socialist society is an eventually inevitable consequence of the contradictions between the productive forces and the relations of production. He establishes his points very effectively in both arguments: ‘social systems do not have purposes’ (p. 91)—only actors inside them do that. One therefore needs to have an theory of agency, but such a theory has to situate agents inside social structures, above all inside production relations, in order for their actions to make sense and to be empowered. (In his introduction to the second edition, however, especially p. xxxiii, he changes his mind, reinstating the primacy of the productive forces, without really saying why. I do not follow him here, and I would need much more persuasion than he gives us here to do so.) He ends the chapter with his own attempt (pp.102-106) at establishing a middle way between Cohen and rational-choice theorists such as Jon Elster. He accepts that there will indeed be crisis situations in which the (slowly developing) productive forces will come into contradiction with the relations of production, but says that how these are actually resolved will depend on the way the class struggle develops
in given situations, and this depends on analysing agency.

Put like this, Callinicos’s argument may not seem especially surprising, and on one level it is not—many people assume that this is exactly what Marx intended, and it point is established with care and rigour here, against a large number of counterpositions, which are themselves powerful in their own terms. Like the Red Queen, we have to run to stay in the same place. I liked the result a lot. One thing that bothers me as a historian about complex structural analyses (it was particularly problematic in the Althusserian tradition) is that the more complex they are, the harder it is to see how they can change, except by equally cumbersome and implausible devices like the teleology of the Second International. The only way to solve this sort of problem is by establishing complex models that contain dynamic but also open-ended elements, and this is what Callinicos allows us to do. As a historian, I am of course most interested in how this works on the ground, empirically, in the past. So, for example, I would like him to get into the vexed issue of what the logic of development of individual modes of production is (not just the capitalist mode, but the feudal mode as well, an ill-studied area) in their ‘normal operation’,  not  just  in their crisis. But I also guess that is my job, not his, and I will be indebted to Callinicos’s rigour if ever I manage it.

Chapter 3 is the hardest to characterise, as it is not only the most abstract, but also moves so fast across so much terrain. Callinicos throughout the book takes sideswipes at all manner of theorists (Anthony Giddens, Jürgen Habermas, Jean-Paul Sartre and many others). In this chapter he deals with even more. Callinicos is here trying, perhaps above all, to defend the proposition that one can understand the objective interests of human agents (including collectivities of agents), and counterpose those to their empirically demonstrable wants. In other words, he wants to create a tenable philosophical underpinning for at least a weak version of ‘false consciousness’, for the wants of the members of collectivities (including classes) may not be the same as their objective interests. Callinicos is unsurprisingly happy with the idea of ‘class’ being an objective reality whether or not its members have any consciousness of themselves as a collectivity (it is odd that he does not cite E. P. Thompson here—the most serious proponent, at least among historians, of the contrary position). To push the argument on here, he neatly develops an insight of Giddens (p. 146) that an awareness of one’s interests entails an awareness of how to go about realising them, which allows a structural analysis of the awareness of individual actors (he is, here as elsewhere, worrying at the relation between structure and agency), and of the relationship between this awareness and the actors’ class positions. This is convincing. But Callinicos also gets sidetracked by linguistic philosophy in this chapter. This leads him to a discussion of how to understand language which is not only the most difficult section of the book, but also the most dated, for it precedes the immense amount of work that has been done on language in the post-structuralist tradition. Callinicos is hostile to that tradition, and has written against it elsewhere, but it would need more attention than he gives it here (and did already in 1987).

Callinicos also rejects hermeneutic traditions of understanding human motivations as being too tied up with the belief that human action cannot be explained by scientific principles. But he does not put anything in their place, so as to help us understand the actions of people in other cultures, which in practice are generally based on alien principles (and of course are also expressed in alien languages). As a historian, who studies alien cultures by definition, I found this section unhelpful. I accept Callinicos’s naturalistic account of human action, but have also found various methods more similar to Weberian ‘Verstehen’, ‘understanding’ (not at all a fluffy concept in Weber’s hands), essential in making sense of the actions of people in the past. I would argue that one could get between them in a constructive and noncontradictory way by invoking the strategic analyses of Pierre Bourdieu. He does not figure in this book (though, again, Callinicos has discussed him elsewhere), but his work is both rigorous in its discussion of the strategic framework of human action and also not as romantic as much hermeneutic theory. That work was already mostly in the public domain in 1987, and its absence here is

a flaw.

Chapter 4 comes back to consciousness, but it does so in a much more accessible form. This is the other chapter I particularly liked, and, as noted earlier, anyone could start here. Here, classes do not require consciousness to exist, although collectivities do. Ideologies do not have to be false. Traditional theories of dominant ideologies do not work, for there are always contrary ideologies in working class or peasant culture, irreducible to ruling class values. All the same, as Gramsci showed, a weak version of the dominant ideology theory is valid (Gramsci called it ‘hegemony’, though Callinicos does not), in which the ruling class at least manages—very often, at least—to ensure that Subaltern ideologies do not get sufficiently coherent to challenge the ruling class rules of the game (Callinicos also uses Michael Mann on asymmetrical relationships to good effect—that the ruling class is usually better organised than any subaltern class). Callinicos then shows how nationalism can be explained in Marxist terms (though he does not try the same with gender), and ends with a defence of the base-superstructure model, inside carefully defined limits. I was with Callinicos all the way in all these arguments, and he covers an amazing amount of ground in 50 pages. I might push him on the problems with commodity fetishism (p. 159), which seem to me less great than he says, and, linked to that, I think he could develop the different role of ideology in the feudal mode from that in the capitalist mode (cf. pp. 164, 176). But it would take more space than I have to go further on these points. On hegemony, Callinicos also wrote before Jim Scott’s powerful work on the subject, which he would now have to take on board (though he would not agree with Scott, I am sure,
and I would be with him there).

Finally, Chapter 5 discusses how revolutionary action can be seen as rational, transcending difficult philosophical issues such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Amartya Sen is useful here), and that it is in trouble if it relies too much on images of the past, against Walter Benjamin. Structure and agency fuse in revolutionary situations. This does not make them unusual, or radically discontinuous to ‘ordinary’  life,  all the same. Here Callinicos is on more familiar ground, but he sets
the problems out with his customary rigour and verve.

This review cannot in the space do justice to the density of Callinicos’s argumentation, and to the multiple directions he takes the reader in. He is always interesting. There are few omissions among rival theorists known to me, although I’d like him to take on W. G. Runciman more (he does a little in the main text, and also in the later introduction, but without much detail—Runciman’s main contributions postdated 1987), and also use Bourdieu, whose project is in my view (though perhaps not that of Callinicos) not inconsistent with his own. The reader may well find this book a challenge, but engagement with it is fully worth the effort.



First published by International Socialism 110, Spring 2006.