One of the most important lessons I’m learning about academic study is that when you are engaged in a task it is easy to become enraptured in it. Historical research has a tendency to privilege the particular and prefer filling in the gaps in existing thought rather than summarizing or theorizing about what has already been discovered. Drilling down into an endless stack of books and articles, we historians start to fancy ourselves empirical scientists of a sort, looking scornfully on theoretical systems that inevitably fail to capture what we would call the “true complexity” of a given moment. If we were artists, we would be the French academic painters sneering at Manet: we’re committed to precise representation and mannered storytelling.
Most of the time, therefore, we’re not concerned with what we’re actually studying, what we’re digging for in those dusty archives. This is because when we are enraptured by the texts, we seem to believe that they simply supply us the subjects. It’s a natural enough assumption: if you want to understand Meiji Japan, find a book with a relevant title, then another and another, until you have a good sense of what people have already said. Then move on to the primary sources and read them closely, since these are the all-important raw materials with which we fashion our sleek designs. Once we find something novel, we integrate it into a story that is mostly repetition of existing stories couched in a critical tone in order to highlight our own discoveries. We expose the inadequacy of our predecessors and make the existing historical edifice a little stronger. In our mode of communicating, we’re not too different from bards or oral storytellers who gild old tales with their own particular twist. The crucial difference, we would protest, is that we don’t pretend that our stories are definitive and have a whole empirical-critical method that allows us to sift facts out of old documents and artifacts.
The point: when we’re in the rabbit hole of historical research and writing we normally take what we’re studying for granted. That is, we take the object of our study as a given for us rather than something that itself might have a history or a glaring gap or mistake. We then “find” our objects of study in the texts we study, not realizing that while we’ve been holding up a tome in one hand we’ve been carrying our object with us the entire time. Inevitably, this uncritical object is going to have a strange shape, a chimera of our own prejudices and the institutional and methodological baggage a longstanding discipline accumulates. We become spontaneous theorists, naively producing volume after volume of work while working with a potentially damaging or useless framework for making sense of what we find. At this point, we need to break out of our tunnels and expose these strange objects to the light. We need to ask the question: what does the historian study?
Simple answers to this question are not hard to find. David Christian, for example, in an essay contextualizing human history in a systematic cosmology, names world history “the discipline that studies the history of human beings.”¹ It’s somewhat confusing that the word “history” appears in both the definition and the term being defined, but this is nonetheless a good commonsense answer if you just assume that the “history” in the definition means “the past” and the term refers to the discipline. So history is “the discipline that studies the past of human beings.” It’s enough to satisfy most curious onlookers or pesky interrogators. It seems obvious for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s the only part of the past that we can have more direct knowledge of. It’s not the Pleistocene or the birth of the universe, events that lie beyond the reach of textual evidence and need to be reconstructed with other tools in other disciplines. Second, the human past, at least the last five thousand years or so, is documented by human beings. Who or what else could we be studying except the human beings that produced this text.
We can think about this individually, i.e. studying the people who wrote the text or are mentioned in it. Or we can think of it collectively, thinking about the societies and cultures that produced it and the place of the individual within it. Unless we’re going to posit a God who directly puppeteers human beings into doing what they did, we can assume that the same humans who made the texts are the ones who made the history documented in the texts. And that’s the way narrative forms work for the most part. Classically, narratives boil down to very simplistic sequences. A person does this, another person does that, there is a thing they both want, and one of them, both of them, or neither of them gets that desired thing, depending on the genre. Historical narratives tend to work the same way. These narratives are the means we use to communicate historical truths, that make it possible to take narrative and non-narrative sources and infuse them with meaning. Modern stories like those in novels, which influenced modern historical writing, focus on the reasons for why humans perform actions and the consequences of those actions on things and other people. If history can be thought of the same way, most historical narratives have a three-part subject:
This simplified representation emphasizes both the social nature of history––people interact with other people––as well as the importance of environment and other objective factors (“things”). Any historian will add that this three-part subject evolves over time. So if we imagine this graphic spinning and anchored to a timeline, I think it gives a good impression of how narratives, including academic historical narratives, tend to operate. Some will emphasize people over things, and others things over people, and some will emphatically make the “other” or “subaltern” the subject of their stories. At all points, however, people are posited as free human beings who make decisions based on their own dispositions and their interactions with other people and their environments. It has the benefit of removing a grand puppeteer from history but it ends up creating another, smaller one in its place, transcendent individuals or collectives that, despite all limitations of context, move history inexorably forward by force of decision.
But you can take numerous examples from recent reading I’ve done to illustrate this basic scheme. In David Christian’s article, which I quoted above, the primary “thing” at stake in the story is energy, and the role of every object in the universe, including his human subjects, is to appropriate that energy to perpetuate itself as an ordered complex being. You find a similar story in Shigeto Tsuru’s Japan’s Capitalism, where the people are the Japanese, the international community is the “other people,” and economic growth, natural resources, human development are the “things.” More generally, the things are factors of economic production. These are clearly deficient categories in numerous ways, but they help make sense of the various actors in stories and what they are acting upon. David Worster, an environmental historian, wrote an article called “Hydraulic Society in California.” To him, history is about looking at “the interplay between humans and nature…and the social consequences it has produced––to discover the process by which, in the remaking of nature, we remake ourselves.”² That’s a clear instance of this tripartite narrative. People produce useful things from nature and there are social consequences. While that has a specifically environmental and Marxist ring to it, bourgeois history tends to follow the same outline, only substituting “culture” or “ideas” or “politics” as its engine rather than the economy or nature itself. And many histories emphasize the “multivalent” aspect of historical causation, or deny we can find it and simply produce narratives about how people redefined meanings and language because of historical events. These, too, are looking at social consequences that result from human interactions with each other and with non-human objects from cities to farmland to mountains.
The past can be interpreted in other ways as well, though. Just because this method of historical inquiry and communication are dominant does not mean we should accept them as given. At the same time, outright rejection seems unwarranted since narrative is a singularly powerful way of organizing meaning in an intelligible way. My point is that historians need to ask their documents the right questions, and it is worth examining whether the narrative/human subject questions are the right ones, and whether the three-part subject comprises the sum total of what history can investigate. It’s also worth examining the effects of narrative forms on the possibility of establishing a truly scientific history, one that transcends description and interpretation to offer more powerful explanations of reality. Here, we need recourse to philosophy of history, a voice that can help orient us towards a more critical conception of what we’re studying when we’re reading sources.
Althusser’s Contribution: Generating Proper Concepts, Asking Proper Questions
Louis Althusser was a structuralist and Marxist French philosopher who wrote his most important works in the 1960s. These books, For Marx, Reading Capital, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, and various other articles, constitute a theoretical assault on humanistic and historicist Marxism. These positions are summed up best in a polemical letter to John Lewis, where he sets the humanist theses of history against his own.
- It is man who makes history.
- Man makes history by transcending history.
- Man only knows what he himself does.
- It is the masses who make history.
- The class struggle is the motor of history.
- One can only know that which exists.³
We should recognize the humanist theses, since we’ve been dealing with them in one form or another in this entire post. What’s important about them is not so much that they are inaccurate. What’s important is that they restrain the development of history as a science, as a discipline that can produce truth in theory and practice. Communists often need to employ historical narratives in an ideological and partisan way to expose bourgeois fabrications. Such stories, however, are the products of but cannot nourish a revolutionary movement. Revolutionary movements need revolutionary theories, and revolutionary theories must be scientific, capable of providing truly objective knowledge of the state of class struggle and how that struggle can be waged. Though it seems like an ideological history from a Marxist perspective about how Communists and party members make history would be more useful and inspirational to militants, such histories can only harm a revolutionary movement when they depart from the truths about class struggle discovered by historical materialism.
History, therefore, must be transformed into the history of class struggle and all of its configurations. Balibar, in his contribution to Reading Capital, phrases the matter in a less politically overt way. Historical materialism in his account is the study of particular social formations, combinations of invariant elements whose configurations change through revolutions that emerge from contradictions inherent in their combination. Each level of practice in a particular society, from the economic “infrastructure” to legal, political, and cultural practice, conforms in the last instance to class struggle but the various practices are all relatively autonomous. They have their own history and their own time despite relating to the other practices in profound ways.⁴
The human subject disappears because the structure evolves without reference to human activity, with new combinations emerging through frictions inherent in structures rather than because of human action. It takes the triangular subject above and diminishes the points while reemphasizing the geometry. Obviously, certain readings of this idea seem to suppress the importance of political activity and establish an absolute determinism despite notions of “relatively autonomy.” Yet the emphasis on class struggle as the motor of history and the continuing importance Althusser clearly placed on the role of the party and the militant suggests that this scientific history that divests itself of a human subject, that analyzes structures and relationships instead of “humanity” in the traditional sense, can be reconciled with political practice. After all, political practice is a separate activity from historical knowledge production, even if they are articulated together. That practice, class struggle, is what history as a science mines for its study, thus keeping the connection.
Of course, all of these are provisional thoughts. I think the critical value of Althusser in my historical theory at this point is that he emphasized the role of correct concepts. Concepts that can explain the world are more powerful than ones that cannot, and producing such concepts is the role of historical study. These are artificial but not arbitrary, concepts that are not reality but can correspond to reality in such a way that we can explain how reality works. These concepts are not generated through theory alone but through the practice of class struggle, “from the masses, to the masses, ” as Mao would have it. After all, it is the masses who make history, who provide the historian with the raw materials. The second valuable insight I find in Althusser is that human beings are born into structures that operate beyond simple human decision. The world is not driven by sinister conspiracies manipulating events, nor by the brave heroism of individuals or mere aggregates of individuals. Rather, as in nature, individuals are locked into interdependent and objective social structures that have a life of their own. Althusser, as Mark Poster notes, gives this level of history, the history of structures, a life of its own, one that we can now identify and study with greater precision, carrying on the work of Marx and other historical materialists since.⁵ Part of this work is theoretical, the other political and practical, united yet separate moments of scientific work that changes the world rather than interprets it.
That is the task of historical materialism: revolution. For my part, as a historian, the problem is how to produce scientific histories that can inform and edify revolutionary movements. This is not the most important task of a revolution by far, and intellectual production per se has only very specific uses. It is only when theory becomes the weapon of the masses that it can materialize in the world. Though I doubt that I’ll be able to divorce myself from a narrative form, it is always helpful to take a moment and consider the impact of one’s practice beyond just the next paper, the next book or presentation. This has been a somewhat hasty presentation of a highly complex idea, but I at last feel somewhat equipped to ask the right questions about what I’m studying and for what reason.
1.David Christian, “World History in Context,” Journal of World History 14, no. 4 (December 2003): 437-52.
2. Donald Worster, “Hydraulic Society in California,” Agricultural History 56, no. 3 (July 1982): 503-515.
3. Louis Althusser, “Reply to John Lewis,” in Essays in Self-Criticism, 1973. http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/ESC76i.html#s1a
4. Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital, 1967. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1968/reading-capital/ch03.htm
5. Mark Poster, “Althusser on History Without Man,” Political Theory 2, no. 4 (November 1974): 393-409.