Duncan Hallas

Unworthy opponents

(March 1988)

From Socialist Review, No.107, March 1988, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Making history
Alex Callinicos
Polity Press £27.50

ALEX CALLINICOS’S book is, without doubt, a work in our tradition, what we believe to be the central Marxist tradition. Its aim “to examine the question of agency, structure and historical change ... even if it conflicts with Marxist orthodoxy” is admirable. Yet I do not much like the structure or emphasis of the book.

Of course only an ignorant philistine would object to a detailed examination of the views of serious intellectual opponents of Marxism or of the views of various pseudo-Marxists.

Nevertheless there is the question of the weight to be given to various critics and to our own perceptions of the intellectual difficulties inherent in our tradition.

To be blunt, the Oxford “analytical philosophers” who have evidently replaced their “linguistic” predecessors of the Cold War period (and before) do not seem to be the most worthy opponents, certainly not to justify the space and argument devoted to them in this book.

They seem to represent, to an unreconstructed adherent of Engels’s view that “philosophy, which has been expelled from nature and history” is left only with “logic and dialectics”, a school of neo-scholastics.

And scholasticism, neo or not, has been made historically obsolete by the advance of science. Of course there is always the question-historically obsolete for who? Certainly for Marxists. But must they be combated? Yes. But with some sense of perspective.

The “Marxist” variant of this trend of thought, e.g. constructions that Alex Callinicos calls Orthodox Historical Materialism (OHM à la Cohen), “Rational-Chain Marxism” etc. etc., are not to be refuted by logical arguments but, in the first case, by argument from history and experience, and in the second by ridicule – it is exactly on a par with the ultra-right wing theory of “rational expectation” in economics. And is as absurd.

There are indeed a great many problems with historical materialism. The whole base-superstructure debate is, in part, a failure to apply the theory concretely enough (i.e. to do enough work).

It would have been good to have such matters discussed at greater length (there is a short and interesting section in the book). Then there is the whole question of historical “anomalies” (on our theory) – Sung China will serve as an example but it is by no means the only one.

Of course it is unacceptable to criticise a book for what the writer did not set out to do. I suppose that I have sinned in this respect. On the question of agency-which means the working class under capitalism – the fifth and final chapter is so splendid as to disarm criticism.


Last updated on 8.11.2003