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Gregory Elliott

The Odyssey of Paul Hirst

Over the last decade and a half, widespread shifts have occurred within
Britain’s Left intelligentsia, in a complex series of changes, with many cross-
currents—making for an intellectual and political scene today very different
from that of the early 70’s. Some of these changes have been challenging and
radicalizing: most obviously, the rise of a new and confident feminism. Others
have been involutionary, or retrogressive—trends that might be summarized
as the transition from subscription to some variant of Marxism and commit-
ment to revolutionary socialism, in one form or another (accompanied by
the normal correlate: rejection of the local representatives of social democracy)
to thorough-going theoretical renunciations and pronounced political moder-
atism (predictably accompanied by reorientation to the centre and right of
the Labour Party and disdain for its supposedly ‘hard left’). The figure of
Paul Hirst, Professor of Social Theory at Birkbeck College, sometime editor
of three journals, frequent contributor to others as well as to numerous
collections, author or co-author of eight books, occupies a prominent yet
particular position within this latter constellation. His has been in many
ways an exemplary career, typical of the trajectory of not a few of his
generation, yet also preceding or exaggerating more general alterations
of outlook and disposition. Although maître d’école of a ‘discourse theory’
that has established certain bridge-heads in a number of academic
disciplines (sociology, anthropology, cultural and media studies) and
mainstream publishers’ lists, it is less breadth of influence than sharpness
of stance that distinguishes Hirst’s postures today. His novelty is the
alacrity and ruthlessness with which he has settled accounts with his
erstwhile theoretico-political consciousness—to the extent of pioneering
much of the current commonsense of Marxism Today and its cousins
well before it was in full vogue, yet moving further to the right even
as others were coming round to what were once his somewhat rarefied
revisions. Paul Hirst is not the, or even an, éminence grise of that
contemporary English hybrid, Eurolabourism; but he is one of the
unsung heroes of the de- and re-alignment of Communist, Labour and
independent Marxist intellectuals, whose theoretical contribution to
such transformations warrants some retracing, however selective.*

1. Class of ’68

Hirst’s emphatic appearance on the public scene began in 1971 with the
launching of the journal Theoretical Practice, of which he was a prime
mover. Theoretical Practice declared that its ambition was to establish
the necessity and irreducibility of ‘theoretical practice’ in the British
revolutionary movement, and to demarcate genuine Marxism from its
competitors, thereby assisting in the ‘recommencement of the scientific
practice of historical materialism and the development of Marxist-
Leninist political practice’.1 The task was rendered urgent by the
appearance in English of texts by Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci, Marcuse
and Sartre and the contemporary efflorescence of interest in Marxism,
Western and Classical. ‘The problem we face’, as the first issue succinctly
put it, ‘is no longer ignorance, but eclecticism.’2 The basis upon which
the indicated discrimination was to be made was the work of Louis
Althusser, whose major writings had recently become available to an
anglophone audience. In their first statement of intent, the editors
confided their belief that ‘no development of scientific Marxism is
possible which does not start from what Althusser has achieved’.3
Theoretically, then, Theoretical Practice was to be Althusserian. Politi-
cally, it was to be Marxist-Leninist. For while the journal gave priority
to theoretical struggle and education, ‘our position’, it insisted, ‘does
not imply theoreticism, i.e., the development and practice of theory
apart from politics and the class struggle . . . Scientificity in theory
demands a correct and militant political position. This journal is politi-
cally situated within the anti-revisionist movement, i.e. it is Marxist-
Leninist (against distortions in Marxism-Leninism by Trotskyist, neo-

* I am grateful to Sarah Baxter and John Taylor for their help with this article; needless to say, neither
bears any responsibility for the end-product.
Editorial, Theoretical Practice 3/4, Autumn 1971, p. 2.
TP 1, 1971, p. 14. See also Editorial, p. 3.
Editorial, TP 1, p. 1.

Stalinist and humanist ideology)’.4 For all this affirmation, the contents
of the journal were to be distinctly apolitical in any mundane sense.
Some relationship to the official Chinese outlook of the time can be
surmised, but its extent probably varied considerably—some contribu-
tors perhaps swallowing large doses of Peking’s political line, while for
others Maoism may have been a residual sympathy after the (‘revisionist’)
alternatives enumerated in the editorial to TP 1 had, on Althusserian
grounds, been eliminated.5 At any rate for all, the class struggle in
theory was the order of the day: ‘Theoretical Practice’s theoretical work
is philosophical in this sense. It is an intervention in a particular
conjuncture. We have attempted to specify the characteristics of this
conjuncture: the dominance of revisionist political and theoretical pos-
itions in the British revolutionary movement and, on a wider scale, the
absence of a correct conception of historical materialism and of a
scientific practice of historical materialism. We have maintained that the
philosophical recovery of the scientific concepts of historical materialism
is the dominant task to be undertaken in the struggle against revisionism
and an essential pre-condition for the creation of a Marxist-Leninist
party.’6 In Britain at least, theory was politics.

With the second issue of Theoretical Practice, Hirst made his debut—
entering the lists to defend the new definition of philosophy adumbrated
by Althusser in 1968. His exposition of it revealed him an orthodox
Althusserian at this stage. Marxism was composed of two autonomous
theories, a science and a philosophy. The former was historical material-
ism, the science of history—an anti-humanist, anti-historicist, anti-
economistic theory of modes of production and social formations.
The latter was a revolutionary practice of philosophy—simultaneously
political intervention in theory and theoretical intervention in politics—
to which Althusser referred by the traditional designation of ‘dialectical
materialism’. Its role was the defence of the sciences, including historical
materialism, against myriad ubiquitous ideologies. In line with this
programme, the next (double) issue of the journal was devoted to
‘Marxism and the Sciences’. It contained items by some of Althusser’s
pupils, explorations of the relations between Althusser and Bachelard,
discussion of the concept of ‘epistemological break’, reflections from
Barry Hindess (who now joined the editorial board) on ‘materialist
mathematics’, and a critique of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge,
charging it with a perilous epistemological neutrality—although, it
should be said, the editors evinced general sympathy for modern French
philosophy of science, and for Freud in a Lacanian rendering, as
potential theoretical allies of Marxism. By the spring of 1972, when
Hirst joined the editorial board, the site of struggle had tended to shift
from dialectical to historical materialism, as a new issue concentrated
on Marx’s ‘Marginal Notes on Adolph Wagner’s Lehrbuch der Politischen
Ökonomie’—one of only two items in the canon certified by Althusser

lbid, p. 3. See also Editorial, TP 2, Aped 1971, p. 4, and Editorial, TP 3/4, p. 3.
For some light on the journal’s relations with Marxist-Leninist organizations in Britain, see John
Taylor and David Macey, The Theoreticism of ‘Theoretical Practice’, London 1974, pp. 42–44.
6 Editorial, TP 3/4, p. 6.

in 1969 as being without ‘the shadow of a trace of Feuerbachian-
humanist or Hegelian influence’.7

Some time in the following months, however, both Hindess and Hirst
resigned from the journal—apparently because of a disagreement with
the assessment of priorities set out in an editorial to what in the event
proved to be the final number of Theoretical Practice. At issue, evidently,
was the decision to focus on historical materialism, though no details
were forthcoming. In the event, the unruffled confidence expressed by
the remaining editors was belied by the pages that followed. For while
texts by Althusser and Lecourt drew out some of the implications of
the second definition of philosophy previously endorsed by Hirst, in a
dissenting register Anthony Cutler and Michael Gane argued the virtues
of Althusser’s original ‘theory of theoretical practice’ and the vices of its
supposed rectification. Moreover on the terrain of historical materialism
itself, a letter from Cutler to Etienne Balibar occasioned a response
which dismayed his correspondent. Cutler had queried a number of
themes in Balibar’s contribution to Reading Capital relating to the
key category of ‘structural causality’—in particular, his discussions of
determination in the last instance and historical transition. In the ‘Self-
Criticism’ this elicited, Balibar repudiated both the whole project of a
‘general theory’ of modes of production (as one of ‘typologistic or
structuralist inspiration’), and a fortiori of any ‘general theory’ of tran-
sition from one mode of production to another.8 Cutler’s ‘Response’
made no attempt to conceal his disappointment. In conjunction with
Althusser’s own work, Balibar’s original paper had ‘entirely revolution-
ized the science of history’; retraction of it conduced to empiricism and
was liable to ‘open the door’ to revisionism.9 An acerbic review by
another contributor, Athar Hussain, of Maurice Godelier’s Rationality
and Irrationality in Economics brought the issue, and with it the life-span
of the journal, to an end.
‘A philosophy does not make its appearance in the world as Minerva
appeared to the society of Gods and men’, Louis Althusser remarked
in 1975.10 What were the historical characteristics of the particular
conjuncture in which Theoretical Practice appeared? Under what balance
of forces was a collective attempt to naturalize Althusser’s Marxism for
the purpose of cadre formation, with the aim of putting the revolution-
ary movement on a sound scientific footing, a matter of some moment?
The conditions of possibility of this exercise lay in the electric inter-
national, and national, atmosphere of the time: a world-wide solidarity
campaign against the US war in Vietnam; a radical student movement
across four continents; major proletarian revolts in France and Italy;
Black insurrections in America; renewal in Czechoslovakia and upheaval
in China; and at home the moral collapse of Labour in office, and the
eruption of the most successful mass workers’ struggles in Britain this
century. This was the crucible in which the class of ’68 was formed and
under the impact of which it rallied, often in apocalyptic mood, to the
Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, New Left Books, London 1971, p. 99.
Etienne Balibar, ‘Self-Criticism’, TP 7/8, January 1973, pp. 56–72.
9 TP 7/8, p. 83.
10 Essays in Self-Criticism, New Left Books, London 1976, p. 165.

cause of socialist revolution. Yet no hint of this was ever to be found
in the pages of Theoretical Practice itself. There, the programme of a
defence and development of historical materialism as the prerequisite
for the formation of a revolutionary party apparently forbade any
reference to politics, even as it implied a year zero of Marxist theory in
Britain. A decade later, Hirst was to remark that on its importation
into England Althusser’s Marxism exerted a considerable attraction
on social scientists ‘as a general philosophical system and alternative
metaphysics . . . as a methodology but not as a means of analysis of
political situations.’ By contrast Theoretical Practice, he claimed, had
subscribed to the authentic Althusserian conception of historical material-
ism as ‘fundamentally a theory of politics and as providing theoretical
tools for the assessment of political situations’.11 A calmer reliance on
the amnesia of its reader would be hard to conceive. For if the general
position of the journal was that Marxism must be developed as the
science of history—hence of politics—it never actually got round to
the slightest concrete analysis of any concrete situation, let alone to
proposing a Marxist-Leninist strategy for turbulent contemporary Bri-
tain. Moreover, one of the British social scientists for whom Althusser’s
‘general philosophical system’ exercised the greatest attraction was Hirst

Hyper-Althusserianism, Highest Stage of Marxism

Indeed, while still editors of Theoretical Practice, Hirst and Hindess had
joined the board of a new academic journal, Economy and Society, whose
first issue in February 1972 announced the social sciences to be in a ‘state
of crisis’, itself promising an ‘attempt to contribute to the scholarship’
required to repair their plight.12 In its pages Hirst and Hindess inveighed
against the theoretical poverty of contemporary British sociology, pro-
posing to remedy it by the introduction of the ‘advanced theoretical
works’ of Althusser, Bachelard, Foucault, Koyré and Lacan.13 The
necessary corrective to prevailing indiscipline, and characteristic product
of their writing in the journal, was a series of epistemological critiques
of the problematic governing errant authors such as Durkheim or
their schools. These were examined for symptoms of illicit theoretical
ideologies—empiricism, historicism, humanism etc.—and, where con-
victed, were rejected in the name and in favour of a truly scientific
problematic: Althusser’s.14

Yet by early 1974 Hindess and Hirst were no longer on the editorial
board of Economy and Society. Setting out the reasons for their resignation
a year later, they violently denounced the academicism of the journal,
and criticized themselves for their collaboration with it. The programme
of Economy and Society was merely anti-empiricist—not committed to
any ‘definite theory of the social totality’ (read: Althusser’s). They
had persevered because they believed it to furnish a ‘medium for

Marxism and Historical Writing, London 1985, p. 133.
Editorial, Economy and Society 1:1, February 1972, pp. iii–iv.
See especially Paul Hirst, ‘Recent Tendencies in Sociological Theory’, ES 1:2, May 1972, pp. 216–
Some of this material was later collected in Hirst’s Durkheim, Bernard and Epistemology, London 1975.

disseminating advanced theory to the social scientific intelligentsia
and for criticizing the empiricism of the social sciences’. When the
contradictions of this project proved unbearable, they had proposed a
drastic change of direction: a ‘leftist and Marxist’ journal which would
not merely provide a venue for ‘progressive theory’, but also carry
articles relevant to ‘current politics’. But this prospectus had been turned
down by their colleagues, and so they had resigned. Happily, as it
transpired. For even their closing bid on Economy and Society had been
vitiated by a progressivist variant of ‘culturalism’, as indeed had been
their position on Theoretical Practice. Now, however, they had seen the
error of their ways—that they had been pursuing no more than a
‘theoretical equivalent’ of Eurocommunist and social-democratic strat-
egy. Instead of devoting themselves to educational work to form Marxist
cadres for the analysis of the current conjuncture in Britain and for the
nucleus of a Leninist party, they would henceforward give priority to
‘the analysis of the present conjuncture and the production of theoretical
work necessary to that analysis’. Rather than train others to this end,
Hindess and Hirst announced their own dedication to it, and the news
that they had begun the necessary labours on monopoly and finance

The song remains the same—with the slight, but crucial difference that
in the course of their mea culpa Hindess and Hirst now criticized
their philosopher-general for the first time. Previously, the theoretical
universe had been manichean. An outpost within it was enlightened:
Althusserianism and its avant-garde allies. The remainder was benighted:
all rival claimants to the title of Marxism and every other form of social
thought, each ideological or idealist to greater or lesser degree. Now,
however, Hindess and Hirst had detected a flaw in the French philos-
opher himself. Althusser, it emerged, was complicit with Western
Marxism in so far as he retained the very notion of Marxism as a science
of history. If the problem of Economy and Society was that it was not
Althusserian at all, Althusser’s was that he was not Althusserian enough.
Marxism, Hirst and Hindess insisted in a passage of some significance
for their later work, ‘is anti-historical because it is committed to history
in another meaning of the work, to the crucial struggles of our age.’
Yet ‘the notion of Marxism as a theory or science of history is almost
universal in western Marxist philosophy, whatever its tendency. Even
Althusser attempts to provide the philosophical foundation for a “sci-
ence of history” . . . This philosopher’s Marxism almost overshadows
Althusser’s main project, namely, to make Marxism once again a
theoretical force, to reconstitute a Marxism once again capable of
analysing the political conjunctures of the current period and of provid-
ing strategic leadership for political practice. It is this uncompleted
project that needs to be continued.’16 In short, Hindess and Hirst had
become plus royalistes que le roi. Marxism was not a theory of history
after all, but a ‘political theory’, one ‘directed towards a definite
‘Letter to Economy and Society’, ES 4:2, May 1975, pp. 235, 241–44. Hindess and Hirst also belaboured
‘certain of Althusser’s followers’ for lapsing into mere ‘depoliticized epistemological critique’.
Unbowed, the editorial board issued a sharp rejoinder: ‘Reply to Hindess and Hirst’, loc. cit., pp.
‘Letter to Economy and Society’, pp. 238–39.

politics’.17 If For Marx and Reading Capital, till now the apogee of
scientificity, had on inspection proved to be infected with Western
metaphysics, then the requisite science of the current conjuncture had
to be refounded before any concrete analysis or strategic guidance of
value could be forthcoming.

2. The Forward March of the Productive Forces

In 1975 Hindess and Hirst’s first full-length work, Pre-Capitalist Modes
of Production, was published. Its ambition was to develop a theory of
modes of production distinct from either Balibar’s ‘On the Basic Con-
cepts of Historical Materialism’ (now perceived as a philosophical
enterprise) or his ‘Self-Criticism’ (condemned as empiricist). Its authors
rejected the project of a general theory of modes of production as
‘scientifically unfounded’, the ‘effect of a teleological and idealist philos-
ophy of history’,18 and Balibar’s own version as a mere structuralist
variant of it. The object of the work would not be the analysis of
concrete pre-capitalist social formations, but the interrogation of the
‘theoretical status and validity of certain abstract general concepts within
the Marxist theory of modes of production’—an undertaking justified
by the consideration that such concepts were ‘theoretical means for the
production of knowledge of concrete social formations and of concrete
conjunctures’, in other words, ‘the tools that make it possible’.19
Whilst Marx’s 1859 Preface emphatically did not license an ‘economic
determinist’ interpretation of Marxism, neither did it provide a ‘rigorous
basis’ for the construction of Marxist concepts. Nor was it innocent of
imputing a ‘universal mechanism’ of transition from one mode of
production to another—namely, the trans-historical contradiction
between forces and relations of production. In a properly Marxist
theory, modes of production must be conceived neither—in the fashion
of Althusser and Balibar—as self-reproducing Spinozist ‘eternities’,
whose replacement is a matter of untheorizable hazard, nor—in the
manner of Stalin—as self-subversive historical forms, whose quasi-
Hegelian supersession is a matter of predetermined necessity. What,
then, was a mode of production? In a move at variance with Marx’s
own pronouncements, Hirst and Hindess defined it as an ‘articulated
combination of relations and forces of production structured by the
dominance of the relations of production’.20 Any mode of production
in its turn required certain ‘conditions of existence’ (economic, ideologi-
cal and/or political) to be secured and reproduced in a given ‘social
Once the primacy of productive forces was displaced by that of relations
of production, wherein lay the principal dynamic of history? Hirst and
Hindess’s answer was that the reproduction, modification or transform-
ation of the ‘conditions of existence’ of a mode of production was the
Ibid, p. 236.
Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production, London 1975, pp. 5, 7.
19 PCMP, pp. 18, 9.
20 See PCMP, pp. 9–10.

outcome of the class struggles ceaselessly traversing a social formation.
The transition from one mode of production to another was, potentially
and contingently, effected by such struggles interrupting the repro-
duction of the dominant relations of production, thus of the mode of
production. Class struggle was no mere executor of an ‘evolutionary’
drama whose real protagonist was progressively developing productive
forces, and whose plot was the sundering of the retarded relations of
production fettering them; it was the fons et origo of the transition itself.
The ‘teleological causality’ hitherto prevalent in Marxist thought, of
which Althusser’s ‘structural causality’ was merely a mutation, should
make way for a ‘material causality’ according primacy to ‘what has
always been essential to Marxist theory, namely, the role of the class
struggle in history.’21

A Maoist Theoreticism

The Maoist provenance of such motifs is evident enough. But it should

be stressed that in Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production they are firmly
subordinated to a defiant theoreticism. For in tandem with the apparent
elevation of the class struggle to first mover of history ran an epistemo-
logical polemic against the relevance of any historical research. Hindess
and Hirst now attacked Althusser’s account of knowledge as contami-
nated by empiricism; for it had retained a realist postulate—the suspect
notion of an ‘object of knowledge’ that could appropriate in thought a
concrete ‘real object’. Althusser’s epistemology, in point of fact, had
always been marked by a characteristic tension between realism and
conventionalism. Hindess and Hirst now radically resolved this in the
direction of the latter. ‘This book’, they proclaimed at the outset, ‘is a
work of scientific Marxist theory.’ As such, its central propositions
could only be judged in terms of ‘their theoretical rigour and theoretical
coherence’; they could not be ‘refuted by any empiricist recourse to the
supposed “facts” of history’. For, they went on, ‘facts are never given;
they are always produced’—by a scientific practice whose necessity and
specificity would be infringed were it otherwise.22 Hence, quite the
reverse of theoretical constructions being confirmed or refuted by an
extra-theoretical ‘concrete’, it was concepts that ‘make possible and
validate analyses of the concrete’.23 The appropriate ‘mode of proof’
was therefore to take the pre-capitalist economic formations described
by Marx and Engels, and submit each to the exigencies of Hirst and
Hindess’s own general definition of a mode of production. If it passed
this test, it was ‘a valid concept of the Marxist theory of modes of
production’. If not, it had ‘no validity in terms of Marxist theory’.24

Such claims, however exorbitant, would still seem to allow for some
residual interest—if only as a conceptual gymnasium—in the past. But
even this was annulled in the drastic conclusion of the work. There

PCMP, p. 9.
PCMP, pp. 2–3. Elsewhere, Hirst was at the same moment claiming that ‘correspondence with the
“facts” of experience is . . . an absolute guarantee of non-scientificity.’ (Durkheim, Bernard and
Epistemology, p. 8.)
23 PCMP, p. 180.
24 PCMP, p. 18.

Hirst and his co-author, not merely rejecting historical ‘antiquarianism’,
berated any ‘conflation between Marxist theoretical work and the histori-
an’s practice’ as such. In ringing words they declared: ‘Marxism, as a
theoretical and political practice, gains nothing from its association with
historical writing and historical research. The study of history is not
only scientifically but also politically valueless. The object of history,
the past, no matter how it is conceived, cannot affect present conditions.
. . . It is not the “present”, what the past has vouchsafed to allow us,
but the “current situation” which it is the object of Marxist theory to
elucidate and of Marxist political practice to act upon. All Marxist
theory, however abstract it may be, however general its field of appli-
cation, exists to make possible the analysis of the current situation.’25
Development of Marxist theory was the basic condition of adequate
concrete analysis; such concrete analysis then formed the juncture
between scientific theory and revolutionary politics. Thus whereas
theoretical research was the prelude to scientific socialism, Marxist
historiography was irrelevant to it, impairing the loop between theory
and practice.
This wholesale rejection of historical materialism was made in the year
that gave us Hobsbawm’s Age of Capital, Hill’s World Turned Upside
Down, Hilton’s English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages and Thompson’s
Whigs and Hunters—a veritable annus mirabilis of Marxist historiography.
Even as Britain’s Marxist historians were producing some of their most
brilliant work, a volume of ‘scientific Marxist theory’ was dismissing it
as intellectually and politically worthless.26 It is scarcely surprising
that one of the foremost practitioners of that historiography, Edward
Thompson, should thereafter have read Althusser’s own work to a great
extent through the distorting lens of Hirst and Hindess. But in fact—a
point which bears emphasis in the light of that reading—with Pre-
Capitalist Modes of Production, Hindess and Hirst had cut adrift from
Althusser. Marxism was now neither ‘dialectical materialism’ (a philos-
ophy) nor ‘historical materialism’ (the science of history), but simply a
theory of the current conjuncture, and thereby a guide to socialist
politics. According to their erstwhile English champions, Althusser and
Balibar had betrayed their own best epistemological instincts in having
any truck with classical historical materialism. Outbidding them, Hin-
dess and Hirst concluded by expressing the conviction that they had
contributed to an authentically ‘anti-historicist theory of modes of
production’, whose main future tasks would be rigorous concepts of
finance capitalism and the socialist mode of production. Without such
revolutionary theory, there could be no revolutionary practice: ‘Marxist
politics is only possible on condition that it is based on theory, that its
problems, programmes and practice are defined by and subject to the
criticism of theory. This relation between theory and political practice
is the essence of Marxism. . . . It is in the light of this that we consider
the abstractions and generalities in this book to be pertinent to the
present.’27 In this conception, theoretical struggle implicitly becomes
PCMP, pp. 308, 312.
For a cogent defence of the indispensability of historical knowledge to the study—and practice—
of politics, see Colin Leys’s outstanding Politics in Britain, Verso, London 1986, p. 12.
27 PCMP, p. 323: the closing lines.

the highest form of the class struggle and ‘correct’ politics flow from
correct—scientific—theory. These or cognate proposals underlie the
Conclusion to Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production and supply a justification
for a book on pre-capitalist modes of production which devotes consider-
able space to demolishing history as a discipline. Hindess and Hirst were,
in effect, offering their work as nothing less than a recommencement of
Marxist theory dormant—or at least distorted—since Lenin (with the
partial exception of Althusser), and a commencement tout court of
Marxism in Britain. Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production was, as it were, a
prolegomenon to any possible future scientific socialism.
In reality, of course, the book’s taedium historiae amounted to little more
than a summary ‘Marxist’ replication of aspects of the conventionalist
critique of history launched by Lévi-Strauss in the concluding chapter
of The Savage Mind. Significantly, it was precisely here that Althusser
drew the line at a ‘flirtation’ with structuralism (of course many would
argue that his was still a liaison dangereuse); otherwise theoretically more
sympathetic to France’s leading anthropologist than Sartre, Althusser
had dissented from Lévi-Strauss’s attempt to expel history from the
realm of the scientific, explicitly seeking in Reading Capital to vindicate
it as a science. For Hindess and Hirst, by contrast, all historiography
was irredeemably compromised by empiricism, a mere working up of
tainted raw material given it by ideology, recalcitrant to transformation
into scientific knowledge. Quite how the ‘current situation’ escaped this
stricture, where ‘the past’ succumbed, was never explained. The denial
that history is a real object might be read, more prosaically, as the view
that history exists—is accessible—only in ‘representations’ of it which,
although real enough in themselves, are inherently ideological. The
extent of Hindess and Hirst’s own adherence to even this maxim is
indicated by their reliance throughout Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production
on the ‘representations’ of the historians they denigrate for the raw
material of their own theoretical constructions; good for nothing else,
empiricists were apparently serviceable for some ‘Generalities I’.
Modes and Motors

If all historiography was bunk, the class struggle was nevertheless the
motor of history. Andrew Levine has suggested that in the 1960s both
Maoism and Althusserianism ‘led what appears in retrospect to have
been a revolt against historical materialism’, as articulated in Marx’s
1859 Preface.28 The conjunction here of the official doctrine of a post-
capitalist state and a dissident variant of Western Marxism is not
accidental, since the Althusserian recasting of historical materialism, if
scarcely just a theoretical relay of Maoist ideology, was not wholly
innocent of connection with it either. At any rate, with the addition of
Hindess-Hirstianism the plot thins. In Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production
productive forces were denied any effectivity whatsoever, dissolved as
an independent variable and reduced to specifications of relations of
production—from which, in any particular mode of production, they
could be ‘deduced’. ‘Forces of production’ were not, as in Marx, the
means of production (objects plus instruments of production) and labour
Andrew Levine, Arguing for Socialism, London 1984, p. 163.

power; they referred to ‘the articulation of the elements of the labour
process . . . not to the elements themselves’.29 In company with many
others, Hindess was about this time deploring the political consequences
of the thesis of the primacy of productive forces in Stalinist Russia. But
the political consequences of its inversion—the claim for primacy of
the relations of production—had a dramatic contemporary illustration—
the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. ‘Technological determinism’
has no monopoly on the tragedies that have befallen revolutionary
states. The blatantly idealist and voluntarist belief that socialism can be
‘built’ regardless of material conditions (in other words, that highly
developed productive forces are not one of its necessary conditions) has
wreaked more than its own share of havoc for the reputation of
If this was the political upshot of the eclipse of forces of production
by—their sheer ‘derivation’ from—relations of production, what were
its theoretical implications? Once the contradiction between forces and
relations was abolished, class struggle alone could operate historical
transformations from one mode of production to another. Even within
Hindess and Hirst’s own framework this failed to do the (transitional)
trick. For their modes of production—‘articulated’, as opposed to
‘contradictory’, combinations of forces and relations of production—
were quite as immortal as anything to be found in the pages of Reading
Capital. The transition from one to another could only be conceived as
the aleatory outcome of struggles located elsewhere—at the political
and ideological levels—and not theorized as such. Class struggle floats
free of its anchorage in determiinant modes of production to assume the
status of an ‘unmoved mover’30 which destroys the ‘conditions of
existence’ of one mode and ushers in another, equally arbitrarily.
It was in the name of a struggle against evolutionism that Hirst and
Hindess plunged into this voluntarism, repudiating historical material-
ism itself—for better or worse, but indisputably, a theory of ‘historical
transformation and its direction’.31 Conflating causality and inevitability,
historical evolution and teleology, Hindess and Hirst were utterly
unreconciled to this legacy of Marx. In Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production
they denied its interpretative accuracy; their later realization that it was
a faithful rendition provoked, as we shall see, a different set of responses.
But their opposition to it even when Marxists must be underscored.
Refusing any truck with a general theory of historical development,
and rejecting the pertinence to the present—and future—of understand-
ing the past, Hindess and Hirst circumscribed Marxism to a sociology
of discontinuous conjunctures—a gesture subversive of the very project
of a ‘scientific socialism’ founded on historical materialism. The theory
of the ‘current situation’ was denied any genuine purchase on the real
by conventionalist protocols in which the empirical was confused with
the empiricist; yet was simultaneously granted plenipotentiary powers
over it by a rampant rationalism which trumped Althusser’s epistemo-
logical Spinozism itself. Hindess-Hirstian ‘scientific theory’ was indeed

PCMP, pp. 11–12.
Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class, Verso, London 1986, p. 81.
Levine, op. cit., p. 191.

the index of its own truth and everyone else’s falsehood (Althusser’s
included). Conceptual construction proceeded via deductions from its
own privileged basic notions. Its products were internally validated and
immune to external refutation (by ‘supposed facts’); they also served as
so many shibboleths with which to detect theoretical deviations and
certify non-scientificity. Given the extremism of their own excursion
into it, there is perhaps little wonder that shortly after their ‘magnil-
oquent death sentence’32 on history, Hindess and Hirst should have
donned the black cap for epistemology too.

3. Critique, Autocritique, Rectification: Post-

Despite their promise eventually to cash their theoretical labours in some
concrete analysis, the guardians of rigour and scourges of ‘opportunism,
abstraction from the current situation [and] sloganizing’33 never made
it to their construction of yet more concepts (finance capital, socialist
mode of production) preliminary to a Marxist analysis of the British
conjuncture. The royal road to science led to the abandonment of
Marxist theory-as-science—i.e. to Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today,
the first volume of which was published in 1977. While readers were
still digesting the iconoclastic tenets of Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production,
these were being transmogrified into an altogether non-Marxist mélange:
The ‘problematization’ which led to Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism
Today was released to the public in several instalments. The first sign
in print of a drastic reorientation came in two essays by Hirst: ‘Althusser
and the Theory of Ideology’ (1976) and ‘Economic Classes and Politics’
(1977). The critique of the French Marxist’s conceptions of ideology
and social formation heralded a final breach with the past.
The Marxist theory of ideology had been one of Hirst’s interests early
on. In 1972, while still associated with Theoretical Practice, he had written
a text entitled ‘A Critique of Jacques Rancière’s and Louis Althusser’s
Theories of Ideology’34 in which he had criticized the former’s contri-
bution to Reading Capital for structuralism and the latter’s seminal
‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ for functionalism. Initially,
Hirst’s ambition had been to repair these defects and construct the
veritable Althusserian theory of ideology—to out-Althusser the master,
as it were. But he had abandoned this project. Reiterating the charge
of functionalism against Althusser’s understanding of ideology, Hirst
now concluded that it denoted a more fundamental ‘failure to break
with economism and class essentialism’. Althusser was all too faithful
to the social topography of the 1859 Preface and thus to the concept
and ‘classic problematic’ of representation—namely, the idea that ‘classes
as social forces exist prior to and independently of representation and
determine it’. The 1859 Preface did after all secrete that ‘tendency
towards vulgar materialism’ which had been strenuously—and implausi-

Gareth Stedman Jones, Languages of Class, Cambridge 1983, p. 24.
PCMP, p. 323.
Reprinted in abbreviated form in On Law and Ideology, London 1979, pp. 75–95.

bly (given its authors’ protocols)—denied in Pre-Capitalist Modes of
Production. Accordingly, this time it was not simply Althusser’s problem-
atic that had to be rejected, but Marx’s too—as economistic. In Althus-
ser’s essay on ideology, Hirst now maintained, he had effectively aban-
doned the relative autonomy of the political and ideological with which
he had sought to redeem Marx—and of necessity, not by accident,
for relative autonomy was a ‘fragile’ category. Whatever degree of
complexity it introduced into the formula, its use retained the premise
of ‘determination in the last instance by the economy’—hence eo ipso
economism. ‘Representation’ too was an untenable conception, since it
implied—in defiance of linguistics since Saussure—the existence of an
extra-discursive reality somehow ‘represented’ more or less accurately
in, say, ideology. Against this was to be set a (post-) structuralist
problematic wherein the supposedly ‘represented’ exists only as ‘an
effect of a process of signification’.35 This axiom was henceforward to
be a core component of post-Althusserian doctrine.
It might be thought that in one limited respect these revisions consti-
tuted an advance on Hirst’s part. Rather than belabouring everyone else
since Lenin for insufficient rigour and fidelity to Marxism, he was finally
accepting that some of the putatively ‘vulgar materialist tendencies’ he
habitually excoriated were present in Marx. But this was cold comfort.
For what the change meant, of course, was that the boundaries of
theoretical rectitude were now simply redrawn to exclude Marx: Marx-
ism per se had become vulgar. In place of its incorrigible economism,
Hirst appealed to the prospect of a ‘non-reductionist theory of the
political and ideological “levels”’ which would conceive social classes
as ‘formed and transformed by the conditions of the political represen-
tation and its effects, and by ideological social relations’.36

‘Economic Classes and Politics’37 pressed home the attack on Classical

and Althusserian Marxism alike. Lenin and Mao had grappled with the
specificity of the political and had come to terms with it ‘in political
practice’. But they had failed to theorize it, and economism reigned.
Althusser had attempted the requisite theorization in ‘Contradiction and
Overdetermination’. Yet his bid too was a failure: relative autonomy
was cancelled by determination in the last instance, as politics in some
way ‘represented’ an anterior economic reality. This would not do:
‘the notion of relative autonomy is untenable. Once any degree of
autonomous action is accorded to political forces as means of represen-
tation vis-à-vis classes of economic agents, then there is no necessary
correspondence between the forces that appear in the political (and
what they “represent”) and economic classes. It is not simply a question
of discrepancy (the political means “represent” the class more or less
accurately) but of necessary non-correspondence. One cannot, despite
Lenin, “read back”—measuring the political forces against what they
are supposed to represent. That is to conceive the represented as external
to, as the autonomously existent measure of, its means of representation.
Classes do not have given “interests”, apparent independently of definite
35 Ibid., pp. 51–53, 68–69.
36 Ibid., p. 53.
37 In Alan Hunt (ed.), Classes and Class Structure, London 1977, pp. 125–54.

parties, ideologies, etc. and against which these parties, ideologies, etc.,
can be measured. What the means of representation “represent” does
not exist outside of the process of representation.’ The choice facing
Marxism now was: ‘either economism, or the non-correspondence of
political forces and economic classes’.38 Naturally, Hirst opted for the
latter of these loaded alternatives. In the new paradigm ‘discourse’ was
severed from its object, ideology and politics from class. If not (yet) an
adieu to the working class, this was certainly a farewell to the primacy
of class struggle. No more than any other form of politics could socialism
be grounded in extra-discursive material class interests. Everything was
discursively constructed in and by particular ‘political ideologies’ and
means of representation.

Marxism, Discourse and Society

The next step in Hirst’s radical reformulation of the relations between

discourse and reality came with Mode of Production and Social Formation
(1977)—billed explicitly as ‘An Autocritique of Pre-Capitalist Modes of
Production’. In their earlier work, Hirst and Hindess had remained
committed, whatever their differences with Althusser or Balibar, to a
theory of modes of production. In sharp contrast the new book denied
the ‘pertinence’ of the concept at all, and with this impertinent item
went the notion of determination in the last instance.39 While they were
at it, Hindess and Hirst repudiated ‘epistemological discourse itself’ as
well. This by no means entailed a rejection of theoretical discourse
tout court, only of theories—epistemologies—positing ‘correspondence’
between the order of discourse and some extra-discursive order. In their
opening chapter Hindess and Hirst defended an outré conventionalism—
while denying its logical consequence, relativism. ‘Objects of discourse’,
they announced, ‘do not exist. The entities discourse refers to are
constituted in and by it.’ Althusser’s original critique of empiricism was
extended to embrace all epistemologies (including his own, and their
own to date). They now rejected the rationalism that rested theoretical
construction or criticism on privileged ‘basic concepts’—a modus operandi
which not only imposed ‘dogmatic closure’ of discourse but also, in its
postulation of a prior harmony between concept and real object, col-
lapsed the order of things into the order of discourse. No less vehement
against realism, Hirst and Hindess asserted the impossibility of reference
to extra-discursive objects. At most, theoretical discourses might be
‘examined with regard to the internal structure of relations between
concepts and the levels and forms of inconsistencies entailed in these
relations’.40 The world was composed of discursive and extra-discursive
realms; and nothing any longer reunited these two hermetically sealed
worlds. The ‘real object’, simultaneously honoured and abused by
Althusser, was simply abolished. Such was what might be called the
‘anti-epistemological break’ between the Young rationalist-scientific
Hirst and Hindess, and their mature ideological-discursive selves.
The rest of Mode of Production and Social Formation was devoted to the
38 Ibid., pp. 130–31.
39 Mode of Production and Social Formation, London 1977, pp. 1–2.
40 MPSF, pp. 6, 7, 20, 31.

theoretical and political implications of its affiliation to the ‘revolution
of language’. The upshot of these was that the new epistemological
relativism paved the way for an old sociological pluralism. As a ‘basic
concept’ endowed with ‘autoeffectivity’,41 the idea of a mode of pro-
duction imprisoned Marxism, and should be displaced by that of social
formation. The latter was not to be understood in any Althusserian
sense whatever: ‘At most the concept of a determinate social formation
specifies the structure of an “economy” (forms of production and
distribution, forms of trade, conditions of reproduction of these forms),
forms of state and politics and forms of culture and ideology and their
relations to that economy, economic classes and their relations, and the
conditions for a transformation of certain of these forms.’42 Social
formations were emphatically not social totalities—articulated ensem-
bles of structural levels or variant forms of base and superstructure,
governed by any causal priority of the economic. They were congeries
of discrete elements which, whilst they might furnish the ‘forms in
which the conditions of determinate relations of production are secured’,
were irreducible to their effects. In Theoretical Practice philosophical
anthropology had been considered an ‘epistemological obstacle’ to
concrete analysis. In Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production historical material-
ism was identified as another. Now the concept of mode of production
and the notion of epistemology themselves suffered the same fate—the
former indicted for ‘setting limits’ to analysis: an objection which could,
of course, be levelled against any concept, including that of social
formation, in whatever acceptation. As one shrewd critic pointed out,
the unintended result of the latest twist in the iconoclastic spiral was ‘a
metaphysics of the concrete which is little more than an incoherent
empiricist attack on all conceptual thought.’43

Despite their abandonment of mode of production and social totality

as intrinsically ‘epistemological’ concepts which obstruct fruitful analysis
of contingent conjunctures, Hirst and Hindess still insisted that they
were working ‘within’ Marxism, ‘problematizing’ but also reconstruc-
ting it, so that it could engage with contemporary capitalism. Mode of
Production and Social Formation closed by indicating its authors’ conviction
that ‘a radical change in concepts and problems is necessary if we are
to be able to deal with the social relations and current political problems
that confront us. A radical change in the basic political outlook of many
Marxist theorists is also necessary if these problems are to become
possible and pertinent ones for them.’ By now some of their sympathi-
zers might have run out of patience, despairing of ever seeing the oft-
promised ‘politically relevant analysis’. Forthcoming, however, would
be a work in which they and their co-authors had ‘attempted the critique
of Capital we consider necessary for the Marxist analysis of capitalism

MPSF, pp. 28–29.
MPSF, p. 57.
43 Alex Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism?, London 1982, p. 190.
44 MPSF, p. 74.

4. Reading Capital, or Against Marx
For once the promissory note was honoured. The two volumes of
Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today (1977–78) constitute the post-
Althusserian answer to Reading Capital. Recalling something of the
genesis and development of the project five years later, Hirst argued
that however critical an attitude he and his co-authors had eventually
adopted to their Althusserian and Leninist starting-points, their joint
study was not merely negative: it also offered a ‘new and distinct
theoretical framework’.45 The claim betrays what Norman Geras has
recently described as a ‘double form of amnesia: of content and con-
text’.46 For the content of this framework was ultimately novel only as
regards the modernist discourse in which it was articulated, otherwise
amounting to a not unfamiliar pluralism and reformism. As to context,
Hirst characteristically abstracted entirely from ‘current situations’. Yet
the environment in which Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today was
conceived was, of course, markedly different from that of the late sixties
and early seventies, already sufficiently disembodied in Hirst’s fleeting
allusions of that time. By the later seventies the post-war boom was
over, and worldwide depression had set in. The main beneficiaries of
the turbulence of the previous years now appeared to be, not the forces
of any radical socialism, but the traditional mass Communist Parties
of Western Europe, each newly wedded to strategies of gradualist
moderation—the Historic Compromise in Italy, the Common Pro-
gramme in France, the Pact of Freedom in Spain. The advent of
Eurocommunism announced an explicit break with the original aims of
the Third International and the legacy of Leninism in the West. In the
East the red star waned over China with the passing of Mao and the
disowning of the Cultural Revolution. In Britain itself, the Labour
regime brought to power by miners’ strikes had become monetarist
avant la lettre, and conservative in all but name on virtually every issue,
domestic or foreign, confronting it: Callaghan presiding over deepening
British decline in a spirit of steady as she sinks.
It was this recessive configuration which formed the real background
to the intellectual discoveries of Hirst and his colleagues. Whereas the
later sixties had seen a revolt of some of Althusser’s French disciples
against his tactical—or theoretical—positions in the name of more
radical alternatives, the British equivalent of the later seventies was to
be a right—and not a left—critique of Althusserianism. As such it
coalesced with other efforts to plot a new reformist course in the West,
among them the stirrings of the intellectual right of the CPGB—not vet
enjoying the salience in the party’s apparatus they would later, but
already impatient with much Marxist baggage and the temporizations
and ad hoc adjustments of the party leadership. Wider circles of Britain’s
Left intelligentsia too were starting to recoil from the strange—at any
rate failed—gods they had recently embraced. Marx’s ‘Capital’ and
Capitalism Today was thus no bolt from the blue, intimations of splendid
and beleaguered isolation notwithstanding. Yet unencumbered by
residual organizational loyalties and any consequent need for ideological
See Marxism and Historical Writing, pp. 134–36.
Literature of Revolution, Verso, London 1986, pp. xvi–xvii.

discretion, Hirst and his colleagues could not only cast in more extreme
form and in post-Althusserian idiom themes—‘anti-economism’, ‘anti-
statism’, ‘anti-workerism’—being developed in more piecemeal fashion
and neo-Gramscian mode on the new right of the Communist Party.
They offered to provide a theoretically glamorous rationale for the
humblest of practical accommodations. ‘Positive reorientation in theory
toward the heterogeneity of [social] relations’, Hirst explained, paralleled
and could, if taken far enough, guide ‘attempts in political practice to
get beyond the workerism and essentialism of existing Marxist and
socialist theories’.47 A conventionally reformist politics could now be
endowed with impeccably avant-garde credentials.
Announcing that ‘Capital does not provide us with the basis for the
kind of work we need to undertake’,48 Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism
Today proceeded to a frontal assault on the corpus of classical Marxism.
The labour theory of value was, of course, dismissed at the outset.
Marxist and non-Marxist economics contested each other on a ‘common
terrain of problems’.49 Pursuing unnecessary and unavailing general
explanations of profits, prices and other phenomena, both posited a
unitary determinant of their explananda. Whilst not assenting to the
exact terms of Foucault’s pronouncements of 1966, the post-Althusser-
ians thus rallied to the view of the archaeologist of the human sciences
that there was no profound ‘discontinuity’ between Marxism and ‘bour-
geois’ economics.50 With the epistemological break between historical
materialism and its competitors went the rupture between the Young
and the mature Marx. Althusser and Rancière were wrong after all:
although Capital did not exhibit a ‘simple ontology of human labour’,
much of its architecture could only be sustained by the kind of ‘philo-
sophical anthropology’ deployed in the 1844 Manuscripts.51 It was necess-
ary to reject this whole problematic—and the very idea of ‘exploitation’
central to it, which was ‘untenable’. This did not mean that capitalism,
economic classes or class struggle did not exist—only that they must
be conceptualized quite differently.52
Equally erroneous were all ‘laws of motion’ attributed to capitalism by
Marx. Economic determinism was anyway a ‘super-historical’ principle
without foundation. The 1859 Preface which set out Marx’s ‘materialist
conception of history’ revealed just such a ‘general historical-philosophi-
cal theory’ as he denounced in November 1877—a technological deter-
minism which represented history as a ‘process with a subject and an
end’, humanity and communism, respectively.53 Even where, in parts
of the Grundrisse and Capital, relations and forces of production had
been thought as a ‘unity’ and ‘dominance’ assigned to the former, the
crippling postulate of causal priority of the economic had always been

On Law and Ideology, pp. 12–13.
Anthony Cutler, Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst and Athar Hussain, Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism
Today, London 1977–78, Vol. I, p. 2.
49 MCCT, I, p. 19.
50 See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, London 1977, pp. 261–62.
51 A point made with particular acerbity in Anthony Cutler et al., ‘An Imaginary Orthodoxy—A Reply

to Laurence Harris’, Economy and Society 8:3, August 1979, especially pp. 326–30.
52 MCCT, I, pp. 45–47.
53 MCCT, I, pp. 135–41.

retained by Marx. In fact the whole architecture of classical Marxism
was unsound from beginning to end—its conceptions of economy,
polity, ideology, law and their inter-relations, not to speak of social
classes or social formations, being unsustainable.
A New and Distinct Framework?

The end of Volume I drew four conclusions from this shattering of the
rationalist kernel and mystical shell of Marxism, and their replacement
by a new pluralist conception of social formations. Firstly, and familiarly,
politics and ideologies were in no wise amenable to any ‘reading’ of
them for the economic class interests they might represent. Secondly,
no ontological primacy could be accorded to any of the sets of relations
present in a social formation: ‘discursive primacy’ might be assigned
one or the other as a function of socialist political ideology or objec-
tives—but that was another matter. Thirdly, and perhaps most importan-
tly, any dichotomy of reform and revolution was a false, utterly obstruc-
tive, one: ‘If the social formation is not conceived as governed by the
essential structure of a mode of production and its corresponding forms
of State, politics, and ideology then the options facing socialist politics
can no longer be reduced to a matter of confronting this essential
structure or else refusing to do so . . . This means that socialists
should be concerned with expanding the areas of socialization and
democratization in the social formation.’ Finally, and pregnantly, the
relevance of class analysis to ‘socialist political calculation’ stood in
need of some interrogation.54
In the midst of these findings, as if to reassure themselves, Hirst and
his colleagues remarked parenthetically that their critique of Marxist
theory implied ‘no attempt to defend the capitalist system, rather the
reverse, to provide a better foundation for its criticism and transforma-
tion’.55 Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today was, as it were, both a
post-Althusserian Reading Capital and a post-Marxist Capital—Volume
I representing the first, and Volume II the second. What did the latter
amount to? After taxing Marx with treating social formations as so
many ‘instantiations’ of a (non-existent) capitalist mode of production
in general, its authors had called for concepts that would specify
‘economies and economic class-relations, their political and legal con-
ditions of existence, and the possibilities of their transformation’—
without reconvening a social totality.56 But beyond repetition of these
recommendations and the accompanying proliferating injunctions,
remarkably little of the six-point programme for future conceptualiz-
ation tabled as an alternative to the various items demoted and inter-
dicted was executed. Volume II, it is true, offers analyses of ‘money
and financial institutions’ and of ‘enterprises and capitalist calculation’.
Yet amid the incessant invocation of the specificity, distinctness, particu-
larity, difference, heterogeneity of the phenomena treated, it is less the
monotony of the ritual than the paucity of its fruits that impresses the
reader. Where not given over to identifying the defaults of Marx,

MCCT, I, pp. 314–18.
MCCT, I, p. 151.
MCCT, I, pp. 230–31.

Hilferding or Lenin on the one hand, and their mainstream opponents
on the other, these add up to a plea to attend to things as they really
are in the ‘capitalist countries of today’,57 rather than superimposing a
deforming global theory on them. Thus any general theory of capitalist
calculation is to be condemned for positing an undifferentiated ‘universal
calculating subject’ (the capitalist class) and a corresponding homo-
geneous domain of application (capitalism). Any attempt to cash these
in the arena of distinct national economies, the argument runs, is
disabled by the particular conditions or criteria of calculation, and
heterogeneous forms of enterprise, characteristic of such economies.58
Considerable illustration of this thesis ensues, but yielding little beyond
a limited empirical information (not to be scorned in the manner
of Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production) on such subjects as the diverse
measurements of profit in different accounting systems. As reconstruc-
tions go, it is modest fare.

Hirst was subsequently to complain that the ‘new theory of financial

capital, of enterprises, of calculation [etc.]’ presented in Marx’s ‘Capital’
and Capitalism Today is invariably neglected by critics.59 Here he strayed
into hyberbole—not in asserting neglect, but in referring to a ‘new
theory’. For the unmistakable reflex throughout the book is to inveigh
in general against general theory and then explain all over again why
the particular subjects under discussion are resistant to such theory.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise. After all, the ‘economy-
as-totality’ was shown the front door together with its illustrious
companions; any general theory of it—from Marx to Marshall, from
Smith to Sraffa—was dismissed as ‘essentialism’.60 Hence there was
inevitable something of a discrepancy between the theoretically-satu-
rated nature of the (negative) critiques of all and sundry, and the
modestly descriptive character of the (positive) alternatives offered. Had
it been otherwise, Hirst and his colleagues might have ended up placing
themselves within range of their own guns. However often Marx’s
‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today gestured towards reconstruction, its logic
could only return it compulsively to deconstruction. Less an alternative
theory than a rebuke to theoretical ambitions? If so, these collective
volumes were, in the first instance, a reproof to their authors’ own in
the shape of their reductio ad absurdum of Althusser’s recasting of Marx-
ism. Having constructed a straw tradition of rationalism and essential-
ism, workerism and catastrophism permeating the whole of historical
materialism, Hirst and his colleagues had proceeded to demolish it to
their evident self-satisfaction. The one domain that might legitimately be
homogenized, it appears, was the complex, heterogeneous, contradictory
history of Marxism itself, now blithely corralled into the all-embracing
problematics and categories of ‘evolutionism’, ‘economism’ or ‘histori-
cism’, effacing manifold differences. This was indeed reductionism writ

Self-conscious mould-breakers, with their rejection of determination in

57 MCCT,
II, p. 108.
See, for example, MCCT, II, pp. 129–30.
59 Marxism and Historical Writing, p. 136.
60 See, for example, MCCT, II, pp. 229–30.

any instance by the economic, the post-Althusserians ‘anticipated a
scandal’. Would not its repudiation, they asked in tones of mock horror,
‘lead to an eclectic pluralism in social causation, with a necessary slide
toward the multi-factorial empiricism of sociology?’.61 Whether it must
is debatable; that it does, indubitable—and a conclusion not to be
deflected by the sarcasm of its anticipation. Characteristically, Hirst and
his collaborators argued that they were challenging all ‘general catego-
ries of causality’—whether of monist or pluralist inspiration—not replac-
ing one by another. But if their principles could be termed ‘causal-
agnostic’ rather than ‘causal-pluralist’,62 scrutiny of their theoretical
practice reveals it to be precisely a promiscuous pluralism of unrelated
factors and contingencies. The incoherence of the final outcome scarcely
needs stressing—an a prioristic empiricism which nevertheless con-
stantly invokes the ‘necessity of theory’ against any mere pragmatism.
5. ‘Taking Reformism Seriously’
The practical significance of such arguably abstruse issues became clear
as Hirst and his colleagues spelt out the gradualist political implications
of their revocation of classical Marxism, ascending to the British con-
crete and descending on the Labour Party. While disavowing ‘the
standpoint of national “economic management”’, the authors of Marx’s
‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today adopted ‘“national” economies’ as the
appropriate unit of analysis63 and believed that the case for socialism in
Britain depended on ‘practical achievements in political struggle and
socialist construction’64 at home. There, ‘the central problems to be
thought out are the construction of a strategic power bloc in the absence
of its necessity and the seizure and exercise of power under conditions
other than those of armed insurrection.’ Accordingly, the struggle for
a non-utopian socialism should be conceived in Gramscian fashion as
a ‘“protracted war” without arms’, a “‘war of position”’, a ‘succession
of investments and sieges’—a process in which there was no rubicon
separating reform and revolution.65 Denouncing ‘insurrectionism’ and
‘oppositionism’—‘discourses of resignation in the face of capital’66—
Hirst and his colleagues insisted on the importance of developing a
programme of practical reforms whose acceptance and implementation
were realistic prospects. There could be only one credible agent of such
changes: the Labour Party, with its command of mass electoral support,
was the indispensable vehicle of socialist advance. It was true that the
party was itself in need of profound transformation. But in what
direction? Here the originality of the revisions under way started to
become plainer. At the very time Hirst and his colleagues were writing
their conclusions, the first signs of the dramatic conflict that was to
erupt in the Labour Party during the next years over its whole nature
and future were surfacing—as what was already called a ‘Bennite’ Left
began to challenge both the organizational structures of power within
MCCT, I, p. 128.
See Erik Olin Wright, ‘The Value Controversy and Social Research’, in Ian Steedman (ed.), The
Value Controversy, Verso, London 1981, p. 40 n. 5.
63 See MCCT, II, pp. 259, 244–45.
64 MCCT, II, p. 262.
65 MCCT, II, p. 240–41, 266.
66 MCCT, II, p. 260.

the party, and the overall policies pursued by it. Against the latter, the
banner of an Alternative Economic Strategy had been raised. This had
rallied the Communist Party, where it found wide favour among most
intellectuals as well. After a conventional enough Left advocacy of
gradualism in general, however, the authors of Marx’s ‘Capital’ and
Marxism Today precisely did not endorse the politics of the Left that
was engaged in trying to change the Labour Party. On the contrary,
the AES was brusquely rejected as unsuitable—it presumed too great an
exercise of state power, and would provoke too great a resistance to it.
Moreover, it comprised in itself numerous shibboleths that needed to
be jettisoned: commitment to nationalization, opposition to cuts in
public expenditure, hostility to incomes policy.67 More moderation was
necessary. Above all, the reprehensible workerism and statism of both
labourist and revolutionary socialist traditions must finally be put to
rest. Redemption of a ‘weak and ghettoized’ British Left lay in ‘taking
reformism seriously’.68
At the time these enjoinders were made, there was a limited audience
for them on the Left. Even incipient intellectual cousins in the CP were
still some distance from such bald moderatism. But within a short span
of time the national and international conjuncture had changed again,
for the worse. By the start of the eighties Eurocommunism itself had
suffered a general debacle in Southern Europe, one soon followed by
the disgrace of Eurosocialism. In Britain, a dismal Callaghan epilogue
had given way to the triumphant rule of Thatcher. In the United States
Reagan was mobilizing a Second Cold War. The general resurgence of
militant reaction rapidly shifted the whole parameters of bien-pensant
culture on the left. In these conditions, it was not long before a
wider constituency for ideas first canvassed by Hirst and his colleagues
emerged—even as they, in their turn, drifted further along the road of
revisions to the right. The immediate spur to this progress was undoubt-
edly the situation within Labour, where—confounding their hopes—
the Bennite insurgency rocked the Party to its foundations in 1980–
81, leading to the SDP secession. This was a profoundly unwelcome
development. Confronted with a choice between traditional labourism
and an unexpectedly combative socialism, the post-Althusserians—in
common with increasing numbers of others—opted for the former,
retracting previous indictments in the name of ‘realism’ and reserving
their hostility for the latter.
The Moving Right Side-Show

The medium for this moving right side-show was a journal founded in
1980, Politics and Power. Anticipating many of the later concerns of
Marxism Today in academic format, it brought together Labour and
Communist intellectuals in the interests of a general ‘reconstruction of
the left’.69 The overall tone was set in the first number, in which the
AES was scourged in these suggestive terms: ‘The British Left can hardly
expect to be taken seriously when it claims to favour the most extensive

MCCT, II, pp. 282 ff.
MCCT, II, pp. 292–93, 262, 263–64.
69 See Politics and Power 1, London 1980, pp. 5–6.

democratization of all aspects of social and economic life and to uphold
the traditions of Western Parliamentary Democracy, pluralism and civil
liberty, if at the same time its economic programme savours of the alien
and oppressive traditions of the East.’70 The second issue contained a
glowing affidavit for Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin as paragons
of socialist virtue, at the same time contrasting the sincerity and
practicality of Anthony Crosland in later days with the coerciveness of
Bennery.71 On the international front, CND was alerted against the
‘bestial system of repression emanating from Moscow’ and told that
‘Western Europe definitely does have something to defend’ in the NATO
order.72 Hirst and fellow-interviewers for their part were enquiring of
MP Frank Field how the Left’s proclivity for ‘patently unrealistic policies’
might be avoided, and assuring Sue Slipman, former Communist student
leader freshly converted to the SDP, that they at least did not consider
her a renegade—while vainly seeking to impress her with the good
sense of Denis Healey.73 Meanwhile Barry Hindess was polemicizing
against talk of a Left Labour government, ridiculing radical criticism
of the Callaghan years, clamouring for the preservation of a ‘broad
Church’, and scouting the idea of an anti-Thatcher coalition, concluding:
‘In the eyes of many of its supporters and affiliated unions Labour’s
task is not to overthrow capitalist society but precisely to manage it
better . . . The successful management of the British economy is an
important and worthwhile political objective for the Labour Party, and
one that will be difficult enough to satisfy . . . In the end what is most
disturbing about the dominant strategies for a left Labour government
is that they seem designed to ensure that Labour doesn’t get the chance
to manage capitalism at all.’74
Hindess acknowledged that his views would be ‘anathema to many on
the left’, yet appeared oblivious of the fact that as recently as Marx’s
‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today—only two years before—the ‘standpoint
of national “economic management”’ had been eschewed by him. Hirst’s
evolution proved anathema rather closer to home. Reviewing Jacques
Donzelot’s The Policing of Families, he had declared that feminists must
‘adjust their politics to the place of the family in capitalism’ and take
‘full account of mass investment in the values of family life’. At this
the majority of women on the board of Politics and Power quit the
journal, writing that ‘the implications for radicals in politics of Paul
Hirst’s conclusions are horrific’, and that ‘nothing differentiates his
position from old-fashioned Labourism’.75 In fact, the journal had in
general been a theatre of drastic shifts in outlook, featuring a group of
intellectuals who variously doubted the very existence of capitalism,
denounced nationalization as alien and Eastern, rejected price controls
as impractical while asserting the necessity of wage controls, toyed with
monetarism, urged respect for the role of the family under liberal
David Purdy, ‘The Left’s Alternative Economic Strategy’, PP 1, p. 67.
Nina Fishman, ‘The Labour Government 1945–51’, PP 2, London 1980.
David Fernbach, ‘The Impasse Facing CND’, PP 3, London 1981, pp. 205–18.
See PP 2, p. 31; and PP 4, London 1981, p. 218.
Hindess’s contributions were subsequently expanded and published in book form: see Barry Hindess,
Parliamentary Democracy and Socialist Politics, London 1983, p. 156.
Sec Paul Hirst, ‘The Genesis of the Social’, PP 3, pp. 67–82; and Fran Bennett, Beatrix Campbell
and Rosalind Coward, ‘Feminists—the Degenerates of the Social?’, PP 3, pp. 83–92.

capitalism, admired the British Constitution and its civil service, paid
homage to the traditions of Morrison and Crosland, scorned every
element of even the most modest Labour Left, and opted fulsomely for
the American Alliance and NATO. This was taking reformism seriously
indeed: promoting the administration and amelioration of capitalism,
and restricting polemic to those committed to its abolition. If ever there
was a ‘discourse of resignation in the face of capital’, this, surely, was
The last issue of Politics and Power appeared in the Christmas of 1981.
However short-lived, it had proved premonitory. By 1982 the Commu-
nist Party leadership and its principal organ Marxism Today, which had
wooed Benn when the tide was running for the Left in the Labour
Party, turned towards the Centre and Right once he was defeated as
Deputy Leader. Henceforward they would take up many of the themes
and positions pioneered by Hirst and his colleagues, with far greater
sense of public relations and journalistic effect, as eager outriders of the
Kinnock bandwagon. The familiar result, over the past three years, has
been the Eurolabourist consensus that now constitutes the standard
conformism of so much of the intellectual Left in Britain. Even as this
took shape, however, Paul Hirst showed his ability to keep one or two
steps ahead of his contemporaries. A recent collection, Marxism and
Historical Writing, contains an essay first drafted with Barry Hindess in
1982 and then reworked in 1985, ‘Labour’s Crisis—Principles and
Priorities for Social Reconstruction’, that is an astonishing document
even by the norms of the prevailing wisdom.
In it, after congratulating the Centre and Right of the Labour Party for
their ‘genuine realism’, and the Leader for his ‘radical but realistic
campaigning position’,76 Hirst goes on to write in more general terms:
‘The Labour Party has been an effective party of government. It was
capable, in the period since 1965 (sic) and until the débâcle of 1979, of
providing efficient and stable decision-making within the prevailing
parliamentary and economic system and, therefore, of commanding the
respect of the leading administrators in the civil service and local
government and of management in the big public and private corpor-
ations. Many on the Left will dismiss this with contempt, but they are
unwise to do so. It is a crucial condition for being able to do anything
in the way of alternative policies and significant reforms. It stands in
clear contrast with the experience of the Tory party in the post-
Macmillan era. Civil servants, local government officials and busi-
nessmen are widely resentful and critical of capricious and unpredictable
Tory decision-making. The ability to make the system “work” is a
condition for electoral success and for its meaningful and acceptable
reform.’77 It would be difficult to imagine even the Editors of Marxism
Today or New Socialist, of New Fabian Essays or New Statesman, giving
quite this encomium to the Golden Age of Harold Wilson and George
Brown, James Callaghan and Merlyn Rees. The combination of obsequi-
ousness towards an archaic British establishment and delusions of
matchless service to it here reaches a pitch of inanity rarely equalled
76 Marxism and Historical Writing, pp. 154, 156.
77 MHW, p. 152.

even in the annals of Labourism and Fabianism, with their traditionally
bovine respect for the British state.
The ‘principles and priorities for social reconstruction’ themselves form
a familiar enough roster. Renationalization is undesirable. A permanent
incomes policy is essential. Limited measures of ‘industrial democracy’
might compensate for a necessary shake-out in manpower. Trade unions
bear a heavy responsibility for industrial inefficiency; but Labour is
ideally placed to reform them. All thought of a left Labour government
must be abandoned. For Labour’s transcendent virtue lies, on the
contrary, in its very amplitude and indefinition. ‘The party as a whole’,
as Hirst puts it, is strong because it ‘remains in touch with the opinions
of the British people and the facts of political life.’78 Was it really
necessary, then, to take such a laborious detour via Marx and Engels,
Lenin and Mao, Althusser and Bachelard, Foucault and Lacan, in order
to arrive at the ‘opinions of the British people and the facts of political

6. An Absolutism of the Intellect

Where, indeed, do these latest pronouncements leave their author? No
doubt sensing the problem, Hirst admits elsewhere in the same volume
that he has been ‘led a long way from the words, concepts and political
positions of Marx’.79 But at the same time he continues to protest his
fidelity not merely to the project of Althusser, but to the inspiration of
Marx. Striking a new note of pathos he now avows: ‘I cannot abandon
or renounce the claim to be a Marxist given my theoretical and political
position. I will admit to being heterodox and ultra-critical, yes, but I
will not accept the charge of ceasing to be a Marxist. My work makes
no sense if I reject what Marx tried to do rather than how he did it. I
cannot renounce the broadest aims Marx set himself, to provide the
theoretical basis for a non-utopian socialist politics which would lead
the people of this earth to make a human condition without famines,
ignorance, war and oppression.’80 Ronald Reagan himself, of course,
could subscribe to this worthy catalogue. Such is what is left of Marxism
at the end of the pilgrimage which started with Theoretical Practice—no
longer a jot that would distinguish historical materialism from any other
theoretical outlook or separate the aspirations of socialism from the
professions of its enemies. In reality, of course, Hirst has long since
parted with Marx. The authentic accents of the repented and redeemed
tell their own story, in the same pages, where Marxist politics ‘cannot
accept ambiguities, absurdities, lost causes or the existence of human
evil’.81 Liberal pieties have replaced Leninist dogmas. In the course of
that transformation, materialism was demoted and then erased altoge-
ther, as a critique of representation disconnected language from reality,
ideology from class, and politics from economics. Yet the same epistemo-
logical relativism generated sociological pluralism, which justified politi-
cal reformism. Socialism dwindled to social reconstruction. Such has

MHW, p. 154.
MHW, p. 7.
80 MHW, pp. 7–8.
81 MHW, p. 28.

been the odyssey of Paul Hirst to date. The only safe surmise for the
future is that these are unlikely to be the last of its vicissitudes.

The sharpest lessons of this journey have less to do with specific

positions adopted or rejected in the course of it, than with general styles
of intellectual work on the Left. For throughout his career Hirst’s work
has been characterized by an enduring absolutism all the more impressive
for his multiple and abrupt changes of direction. From Theoretical
Practice to Economy and Society to Politics and Power; from Pre-Capitalist
Modes of Production to Mode of Production and Social Formation to Marx’s
‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today to Marxism and Historical Writing; from
Leninism to Labourism, and from socialism to social-democracy; from
science of history to theory of modes of production to theoretical
framework for analysis of social formations; from rationalist epistem-
ology to critique of epistemology; from structural Marxism (uncon-
ditional Althusserianism) to post-structural non-Marxism (critical Fou-
cauldianism)—Hirst, his colleagues, and whoever has received their
temporary benediction have exclusively occupied the place of rigorous
theory and realistic politics, the vantage-point from which all others
may be indicted. The ‘necessity of theory’ currently underpins a politics
that mingles echoes of Hattersley with undertones of Owen. But from
first to last, whatever the political or intellectual way-station, the lonely
hour of the theoretical instance has never ceased to strike. In this respect,
Hirst’s relation to other socialists has never substantially changed: it
remains a stance of militant Reformation.

But such reformation is most needed elsewhere—in that intellectual

practice which adopts and rejects positions in toto, embracing and
parading the whole of a doctrine as apodictic only to dismiss it shortly
afterwards as worthless. The age of such theoretical absolutism, from
whatever quarter of the Left, ought to be over. Marxism above all calls
for a fallibilist conception of knowledge. Greater initial sobriety about
the present explanatory powers of historical materialism than that ever
displayed by such as the Young Hirst can only serve to enhance
them, by encouraging necessary criticisms and forestalling gratuitous
disillusionments of the kind narrated here. The recent ‘deconstruction’
of Marxism has been destructive both politically—reinventing capitalism
in the act of reconstructing socialism—and intellectually. This is not to
claim that classical Marxism is some foundational truth in comparison
with which all else is mere passing opinion. But it is to say that as a
research programme historical materialism will only be surpassed when
it has been improved upon. Bref, marxisme faute de mieux, as Sartre once