MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




Agency is the subject of social change, who makes history.

For Marxists, it is in the first place, human beings who are the agent of history, not “History” or “The Laws of History” or even “the productive forces” or “The Party” or any other such abstraction.

But in the second place, for Marxists, human beings are not primarily individuals, but social beings. Consequently, people make history in the various social formations which constitute humankind as a species-being.

For example, Marx says:

“But also when I am active scientifically, etc. - an activity which I can seldom perform in direct community with others - then my activity is social, because I perform it as a man. Not only is the material of my activity given to me as a social product (as is even the language in which the thinker is active): my own existence is social activity, and therefore that which I make of myself, I make of myself for society and with the consciousness of myself as a social being. [Private Property & Communism]

Among all the social formations which are active in social change and history, the most important are classes, the large groupings of people based on common relations to the means of productions and roles in the social division of labour.

In comprehending the action of classes and the formation of cultural entities such as language, political parties and movements, etc., the most central process is the contradiction between the social relations of production and the social forces of production.

“The productive forces are the result of man’s practical energy, but that energy is in turn circumscribed by the conditions in which man is placed by the productive forces already acquired, by the form of society which exists before him, which he does not create, which is the product of the preceding generation.” [Letter to Annenkov, 1846]

And the same is true of the political parties, trade unions and so forth through which people are active in history: they are made by people, but conditioned by everything that has gone before.

“The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” [Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859]

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.” [Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859]

In the 1960s, Louis Althusser gave a different slant to the meaning of “agency.” For Althusser, human beings were “agents” of change in just the same way that they are carriers of a disease, i.e., he negated the subjective aspect of agency, leaving change purely as a result of structure, with no place for indivudals.



Usually used to mean denying the possibility of knowing the nature or existence of God, but used by Marxists with the meaning of denying the possibility of knowledge of the objective world. Agnosticism is an extension of Scepticism in that while scepticism is always a valid aspect of investigation, Agnosticism elevates this doubt into an absolute denial of the possibility of knowledge. The term was coined by the British natural scientist Thomas Huxley and could be used to encompass the philosophy of Hume, Kant, neo-Positivism and others.

Agnosticism has various forms: some agnostics see an objective existence of the material world (eg. the tree does make a sound if no one is there to hear it) but deny the possibility of knowing it for certain, others deny the existence of the material world because it cannot be known for certain. (The latter position is similar to Husserl and his philosophy of transcendental subjectivism (phenomonology), with the exception that this is based on the belief that the 'self' is for certain, and therefore transcends all reality, all existance.)