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International Socialism, Autumn 1995


George Paizis

Back to the future


From International Socialism 2:68, Autumn 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Alex Callinicos
Theories and Narratives: Reflections on the Philosophy of History
Polity Press 1995, £12.95

Their life and ours takes an exactly opposite direction. If we laugh, it’s about what makes them turn pale. If they laugh, it’s over something that we hate.
Robert Antelme

As capitalism ceaselessly strives to expand, drawing ever greater numbers of people more tightly into its web, so it becomes more unstable and increases the forces that can oppose it. As it looks forward towards the ever greater globalisation of production, so the competition between its constituent elements becomes more intense, so its own institutions act as a drag on the present. As the pace of change accelerates, so is the past brought to the present, and the present is seen more clearly in terms of its future consequences.

Callinicos’s book about the nature of history is, therefore, very timely because we need to establish the difference between what Trotsky might have called ‘their history and ours’. This book is a response to currents of thought making the academic rounds that challenge either historical materialism or the tradition from which it emerged. It is also a call to action in response to a more immediate need, because the debate surrounding history is gaining urgency and wider currency. The recent re-emergence of fascist organisation across Europe has made attacks on Holocaust revisionism more important and has drawn many more into the debate than ever before. Unwittingly, governments stir up debate whenever they seek legitimation. For example, the commemoration of various events related to the Second World War certainly gave governments an opportunity to don cloaks of righteousness, but it also exposed divisions between them. More importantly, it provided the opportunity for people to measure their subsequent social and political experience against what they had been told and not told at the time. Teachers, parents and school governors were brought into the debate about historiography and the nature of history as the Tories searched for ways to strengthen their control over the school curriculum. At the same time, history is gradually becoming a part of the entertainment and culture industry. This popularisation takes many forms – biopics, Vietnam or recently-dead-president films from Hollywood, widely viewed serials with computer assisted graphics like BBC2’s Storm in the East on Genghis Khan, glossy periodical publications, museums, historical theme parks and holidays. As we rush faster and faster towards the future, so the status and the meaning of history become ever more widely relevant and contested.

This book also has wider concerns: to explore the nature of history, its similarities and differences to other human disciplines; how best to define and understand its mechanics. In doing so, Alex seeks to defend the position and contribution of Marxism to the task of understanding the past in terms of the need to change the present.

His material divides into two: what history is not and what it is. The first chapter of the book looks at the relations between history and philosophy and more specifically whether history can ultimately be reduced to philosophy. This is an approach to history that claims to find an underlying meaning in the historical process, one that gives it a direction and unity that stretches across time. The second chapter looks at history as narrative. Here the book examines an opposite process, one which does not attempt to discover history’s underlying meaning but rather puts forward the view that historians do nothing more than impose meaning by ordering events into a causal chain to suit their own ideological purposes. History as narrative is history as stories, all with an equally valid claim to authenticity, all using the same narratological strategies as fiction. In rejecting the reductionism of the first and relativism of the second, the inevitability of the deployment of a wider theoretical account is posed and this leads to the third chapter.

The constituent elements of a theory of history are examined before undertaking a comparative evaluation of the two principal contenders, neo-Weberian historical sociology and historical materialism. One of the necessary elements of a theory of history, directionality, provides the centre of the final chapter. The book looks at the underlying patterns of human history, the degree to which history is an account of human progress – and the possibility of regression – and the conditions under which it can help in the task of human liberation.

Against the pessimism that pervades much of present intellectual life, Alex sets out to discover ‘the rose in the cross of the present’ [1] and he follows a variety of paths in search of that rose. Some paths are vital, like the defence of Marxism against the charge of Eurocentrism, some are more enjoyable than others, and some are more peripheral. He seeks to make his argument relevant to current academic debates but in so doing he often tends to argue by proxy, marshalling and juxtaposing a mass of references and materials. This often makes the argument hard to follow. The reader is unsure what side the quoted source is on, and especially so when the target is obscure. On this ground, this book may surely be criticised for academicism. However, it should be remembered that it is published by a commercial publishing house whose target readership has preoccupations not necessarily the same as those of the readership of our journal.

The point that needs to be kept in mind is whether such digressions are obscure or flaw the argument, and, with a little good will, they do not. However, apart from the confusion this technique sometimes produces in the mind of the reader, it sometimes results in the author not leaving himself enough room to speculate or to develop his own ideas. For example, the argument in the first chapter on history as philosophy is conducted in terms of a critique of Fukuyama’s thesis of the end of history. One of the latter’s two central presuppositions is that the historical process is governed by universal laws and displays patterns analogous to those of individuals’ consciousness and their relations between them. A version of this is a projection onto the plane of history of Hegel’s master-slave relationship. Alex does make the point that the anthropomorphic view of history – history as the struggle for recognition or as the will to power – concentrates exclusively on the struggle between people/classes and does not take into account the relation/contradiction between the means and relation of production. Therefore this produces a one sided and idealist version of history because all is governed by the ‘will to power’ or the master-slave relationship and does not integrate it with the material context within which the struggle is carried out. But rather than tackling this reading of the historical process head on – which would have been useful to many readers – Alex pursues his argument by casting doubt on Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelian credentials, and then on the contradictions and inconsistencies of those who had influenced him. The result is that, though Fukuyama and Kojève are dissected at length, the argument remains unfocused and the central idea is given much too little space in the last few pages of the chapter.

A recurring theme in the book is the distinction between theory and philosophy of history. The first is the exploration of an open ended causality where the results of conflict are not predetermined. The second traces and retraces a predetermined teleology. Both use empirical evidence, but to diametrically different ends. The former needs it in order to proceed in the process of discovery, relies on it but can never be reduced to it. The latter, on the other hand, uses empirical data but its meaning is reduced to explain a determined ‘end’ to which history is heading. It thereby effaces ‘the distinction between moral judgement and causal explanation’. [2] But how can these two be distinguished from one another? Underlying this opposition is the problem of representation – which requires ordering and therefore selection of information, and of necessity an adoption or exercise of a point of view. Put in another way, the debate is between the inadequacy of relativism versus the limits of objectivity.

The second chapter examines the notion of narrative as a necessary fact of representation, via a discussion of Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White. For Ricoeur, narrative is the organisation of time and events into a causal chain, and is an inevitable human strategy to cope with the experience of living in time and space. But necessary though narrative may be to both history and fiction, Ricoeur does not abandon the distinction between the two. He distinguishes the former on the grounds of its necessarily referential nature. White, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the pragmatics of narrative, its rhetorical strategies, and he thus effaces the difference between history and fiction. [3]

What makes history different from fiction is neither that history can dispense with the narrative, nor that it can dispense with devices for presenting its material – how things are said to achieve maximum clarity and effect. Rather, argues Alex, the key to distinguishing the one form the other lies in whether what is produced is seen to be ideology or knowledge. In the scientific account, the one that produces knowledge, the narrative is open ended, heuristic i.e. seeking to uncover experience and explain change. In the ideological account, events are ordered teleologically. This means that history is seen as a sequence of events working towards a set end – like a James Bond movie where all the tests faced by the hero are necessary preludes to his final triumph. Alternatively, events are thought to be shaped [1*] by some concealed and unchanging code or set of rules – for example, the struggle between the principles of dictatorship, or a view of history as an eternal competition by some form of natural selection. But if the above is a sufficient criterion to choose between food and bad history, what about the difference between history and fiction?

At this point Alex appears to seek to distinguish fiction from history by drawing a parallel between the former and the conceptual framework of Ancient historiography. He contrasts the characteristic features of history before and after the Enlightenment to show that the first sought to preserve the memory of the past and presupposed the constancy of human nature, the cyclicality of time and the collectivity of experience. [4] In contrast, the second sought to explore the contingent and determinant nature of time and place. And rather than seek in history the re-affirmation of some eternal laws, it critically reconstructed the past guided by the assumption that, ‘beyond the differentiation of human history into a multiplicity of social forms each possessing its own idiosyncratic internal logic’, human history displays ‘an underlying unity’. [5]

The problem here is that Alex does not also provide an account of modern, post-Enlightenment literature. If he did, he would have to show that these qualities are almost precisely the ground on which the novel (which means the new) is usually distinguished from forms of literature developed in pre-capitalist societies – myth, legend, and tragedy, with the transitional form of the epic. [6] This does not mean that history cannot be distinguished from fiction, but rather that the above does not provide a sufficient basis for such a distinction. And it does not help the argument to introduce the distinguishing criterion of production of knowledge because one of our tradition’s most authoritative accounts of the relationship between literature and society, Lukács’s critical realism, is based on the criterion of value being precisely the capacity of good fiction to produce knowledge of society. [7] A more sure criterion of differentiation is not the relationship or otherwise with the real, but the forms of its representation. However, even this leads to problems because Alex rightly points out that there is no such thing as one unique and correct historical genre. Therefore it is very difficult to see how one can draw water tight distinctions between the edges of historical studies – such as Ginsburg’s The Cheese and the Worms – oral history, biography, autobiography and literature.

Alex is very strong in refuting the relativist theory of history, whether it is that of Lyotard or Hayden White, because both base their theories on the non-referentiality of language. He is much weaker when it comes to the distinction between history and fiction because of the difficulty of providing a coherent view of their relationship. The parameters of the issue were recently illustrated by the debate over Schindler’s List, some attacking it as an impermissible exercise, some for its distortions of reality, while others assumed their position towards the film principally on the grounds of its effect. If we set aside the doubts as to the legitimacy of making such a work of fiction, and the metaphysics of correspondence between discourse and reality, the issue boils down to the question of what makes interpretation of the past possible and why it is desirable.

The answer provided by Alex is that what makes it possible is ‘the existence of something in common between the interpreter and the interpreted’, whether we are talking about the historian and the past or the reader and historical text. [8] The link is the fact of being human and that which establishes the link between the past and the present, the particular and the general, is theory – and hence theory is inevitable. And the book is very forceful in its establishment of the necessity of a theoretical position, explicit or implicit, which either the historian or the reader of the history must inevitably deploy. But if the common link is the fact of being human, is humanity homogenous? It is precisely because Marxism seeks to build a universal theory of human development that Marxism has been accused – among other things – of Eurocentrism.

The last chapter of the book defends the value of Marxism in providing a perspective that takes into account the particularities of the experience of oppression and struggle either historically or in the present, without at the same time resorting to relativism. The first defence is against the charge of theoretical imperialism. Here Alex is less convincing than elsewhere because he puts forward a defence of realism ‘according to which knowledge is arrived at through the construction of a set of theoretical concepts designed to identify the essential structures of the real, which are usually inaccessible to direct observation’. The concept of theory is traceable to the Ancient Greeks but for them it was an essentially contemplative notion. Now, to paraphrase Marx, ‘the historians have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it’. Yet, although Alex stresses that ‘knowing nature is inseparable from acting on it’, he goes on to try to refute the charge of ‘theoretical imperialism’ on the grounds that ‘the objective of theoretical activity is to establish the essential structure of the real.’ The problem with this formulation is that although the ‘particular’ point of view of an oppressed group can be subsumed within the wider formulation of the ‘essential’, the bourgeoisie too has a theoretical activity. What makes Marxism desirable is not its greater scientificity compared to bourgeois theory but rather its point of view and its effect, its instrumentality, if you like. Marxism is a theory for a job and in certain domains is proudly and justly inferior to bourgeois ‘science’. Either way, however, the argument is concluded with a brilliant critique of political separatism and identity politics and shows that the working class is uniquely able and interested to provide unity and a final outcome to these partial struggles.

Finally, there is the question of irony. The epigraph of the concluding chapter quotes Joseph Conrad: ‘Women, children and revolutionaries have no taste for irony’. Irony is the favourite trope of the postmodernist intellectual in which all endeavour is resolved in futility. It is the expression of the pessimism and of the distance of those who think they stand above the ‘mêlée’ of human conditions. Yet Alex shows that there is a revolutionary irony that also measures distance – the distance between what society could be and what it does, what it says and what people experience, the contradiction between the present potential of humanity and the threat of ever greater misery and destruction. Revolutionaries, like women and children, feel the contradictions of the world but then seek to expose and comprehend them. To do so, their irony measures the forces at work in the world, not from a point of self consciousness but from a point of social consciousness, a political point of view of the agency of social change, the workers. And Alex ends by posing powerfully the notion of class as the organising category for understanding our past and present, and for charting the means of securing our future.

Note by ETOL

1*. In the printed version instead of “shaped” the non-existent word “hueded” was used. After consultation with the author he suggested this amendment.


1. A. Callinicos, Theories and Narratives (Polity Press 1995), p. 14.

2. Ibid., p. 42.

3. One of the most entertaining parts of the book is where Alex (section 2.2) gives an account of White trying to explain why the Holocaust is not a fiction.

4. Ibid., section 2.2.

5. Ibid., pp. 64–66.

6. I. Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Chatto and Windus 1957), ch. 1.

7. G. Jenkins, Novel Questions, International Socialism 62.

8. A. Callinicos, op. cit., p. 86.

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