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International Socialism, Winter 1999


Rob Hoveman

History of theory


From International Socialism 2:85, Winter 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Alex Callinicos
Social Theory: A Historical Introduction
Polity 1999, £14.99

Alex Callinicos’s latest book embodies all those qualities that have come to characterise his writing. Social Theory is elegantly and clearly written. It reflects an enormous range of reading and the assimilation of a wide range of often complex thinkers and theories. Anyone interested in social theory, especially undergraduate students working in the area of social studies, will find key theories succinctly encapsulated without loss of subtlety. They will also have their horizons expanded as Alex makes the compelling case for the inclusion of a much broader understanding of who should be counted as a social theorist than the more conventional hidebound bourgeois textbooks. For he does not just discuss the ‘usual suspects’ in terms of theorists of society – for example, Hegel, Marx, Durkheim and Weber – although there are excellent chapters devoted to each of them. He also discusses Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Lukács, Heidegger, Keynes and Hayek. And whilst this is obviously not the first book that someone new to Marxism would most benefit from, those who have a somewhat greater familiarity with the tradition will find the book very stimulating and edifying.

The social theories that emerged within the Enlightenment and since may be classified in three different ways according to their attitude to ‘modernity’, i.e. capitalism. The first approach is ‘represented above all by Marx … He ... kept his concept of history as a dialectical process motored by contradictions inherent in specific social formations. Civil society, or rather bourgeois society ... is not the End of History, but simply a historically transitory social form whose claims to realise individual freedom are belied by its roots in capitalist exploitation. The Enlightenment aspiration to create an authentically rational society requires a further social revolution’. [1]

The second position is that of social theories which accept modern bourgeois society and provide a broad defence of it, modern liberalism being the prime example. Its theorists range from Tocqueville and Mill through Durkheim and Weber, who ‘both make clear their emphatic belief that the hope of social revolution that will radically improve on actually existing modernity is the merest illusion’, to Talcott Parsons. In examining these different thinkers Alex brings out some of the tensions in their attitude towards, and indeed reservations that some of them had about, modernity. Indeed, for summary descriptions of the principal views of these thinkers Alex’s account can rarely have been bettered. He even makes Parsons, the dominant bourgeois sociologist in much of the post-war period (and someone I’ve always thought boring as well as politically reactionary), an interesting thinker whose views deserve comprehension and then rejection.

Finally there is the position taken by Nietzsche of radically rejecting modernity and the scientific rationality that the Enlightenment introduced. Nietzsche’s philosophy was widely influential, particularly in Germany towards the end of the 19th and in the early decades of the 20th century. It had a key influence on Weber, even though Weber’s social theory ultimately represents the acceptance of ‘modernity’ rather than its reactionary rejection. Later Nietzsche was to have a significant effect on one of the most influential and controversial philosophers and social theorists of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, and then on the postmodernists, and particularly one of their most interesting theorists, Michel Foucault.

Social Theory takes a chronological approach, showing the development of the principal theories through the work of the most important theorists. Alex locates the development of these ideas in relation to economic, social and political developments of the day. However, there is no hint of reducing the ideas he deals with to some kind of passive reflection of the ideological needs of particular classes. Alex is well aware of the influence that preceding thinkers and theories have on serious social theorists, the manner in which they respond to pre-existing intellectual traditions and pursue their own intellectual curiosity and ability.

In one fascinating chapter he provides a brilliant summary of Darwin’s theory of evolution, contrasting it with inaccurate pop versions of the theory that owe more to Lamarck. He then shows how Darwin’s scientific theory is taken up and used in different ways by on the one hand the liberal, Spenser, and on the other by the Marxist, Kautsky. In the same chapter he goes on again to give a wonderfully concise summation of the principal elements of Nietzsche’s theories with their extraordinary combination of ‘naturalism which treats humankind as continuous with nature and an anti-naturalism which insists on what sets human beings apart from other species’. [2] Social Darwinism (e.g. Spenser’s theories) and biological racism ‘are repellent instances of naturalism; Weber is the most important champion of anti-naturalism; Marxism, even in its Kautskyan version, seeks to span the two traditions’. [3] Nietzsche’s peculiarity lies in the way the ‘human subject is naturalised, reduced to an incoherent cluster of biological drives, while nature is subjectivised, since all aspects of the physical as well as the social world are expressions of the will to power’. [4] In the space of just a few lines Alex once again deftly illuminates the similarities and differences between a wide range of diverse theories.

This is again brought out in Alex’s treatment of Freud, a thinker profoundly influential on the 20th century mindset but not perhaps immediately obvious as a social theorist. Freud’s significance, Alex argues, lies in ‘the decisive step of cracking open the self and exposing the forces responsible for its constitution’. [5] Freud’s theory of the mind is most important for establishing ‘the most powerful and influential formulation of the concept of the unconscious’. [6] Again, for the single clearest, most concise and yet sufficiently comprehensive summary of Freud’s principal theories over the space of just six pages, Alex cannot be surpassed.

It is here that I would like to enter a small reservation. Alex is, quite correctly, extremely impressed by the power and imagination of the intellectual edifice that Freud constructed. Nor can Freud’s general influence on the spirit of the age be denied. Alex refers to the challenge Freud might appear to pose to the Enlightenment confidence in the use of reason, given the existence of hidden desires and drives, but seeks to show that Freud’s work marked ‘a major extension, and not the abandonment, of the Enlightenment project’. [7] He goes on to refer apparently favourably to attempts within the Frankfurt School, and in particular by Herbert Marcuse, to forge out of historical materialism and psychoanalysis a broader theory of human liberation. My reservation is that Freud’s detailed theories seem unlikely to be true and some of the intellectual framework he brought to the study of the mind is lacking in coherence, and that there are therefore more profound criticisms that might be raised.

In another striking chapter Alex juxtaposes Lukács and Gramsci to Heidegger. Lukács and Gramsci represent a Hegelian reaction to the determinism of Second International Marxism, which had failed so abysmally in the face of the supreme test of the First World War. Lukács and Gramsci in their different ways laid far greater emphasis on the subjective element in the historical process, the nature and development of class consciousness compared to objective economic structures. Lukács emphasised that ‘reality can only be understood and penetrated as a totality, and only a subject which is itself a totality is capable of this penetration’. [8] It is only the working class which represents this subjective totality and which therefore is the only class from whose standpoint genuine understanding of capitalist society is possible, ‘because the transformation of labour power into a commodity is the real basis on which that society is built’. [9]

Heidegger has been an immensely important figure, not so much in this country with its more insular and parochial philosophical tradition, but in continental Europe. He continues to exert a strong intellectual influence in Germany, France and Italy. He is probably the single most important intellectual influence on the doyen of the deconstructionist postmodernists in France, Jacques Derrida. This is perhaps all the more surprising since Heidegger warmly endorsed the coming to power of the Nazi regime in 1933, endorsed or acquiesced in the purge of academics, in particular Jews, upon his elevation at the Nazis’ behest to Rector of Freiburg University, and continued to support an idealised National Socialism even when he became disappointed by actually existing Nazism. Alex quotes the infamous letter he wrote to Marcuse in January 1948: ‘I expected from "National Socialism" a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety, a reconciliation of social antagonisms and a deliverance of Western Dasein [human existence] from the dangers of communism’. [10] He claimed soon to have recognised his ‘political error’, but, as Alex points out, ‘he nevertheless refused to condemn the extermination of the Jews, comparing it to the expulsion of Germans from areas annexed by Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War’. [11]

Despite this despicable political background Heidegger was a serious philosopher, particularly in his masterwork Being and Time, written in the late 1920s before he was so politically compromised. Again Alex provides a good summary of some of the principal ideas of what is a very difficult work. A key intention of his analysis of Dasein is to overcome the Cartesian dualism which had permeated much, but by no means all, of Enlightenment thinking. Alex describes Heidegger’s analysis of ‘Being-in-the-world’ as ‘stunning’, ‘one of the great philosophical achievements of the 20th century’. [12] I confess to being somewhat less stunned by Heidegger’s analysis, and I do not believe that Heidegger successfully overcomes some of the persisting philosophical problems concerning the relationship of human beings to a reality beyond them and to other human beings themselves. Be that as it may, Heidegger is interestingly portrayed as a thinker who is responding to the tumultuous times of the 1920s, a social world ‘as alienated as that evoked by Lukács in his theory of reification. But, unlike Lukács, he finds no agency internal to this world that offers an escape’. [13] Alex quotes Richard Wolin’s observation that, for Heidegger, ‘once the inauthenticity of all traditional social norms has been existentially unmasked, the only remaining basis for moral orientation is ... a radical assertion of will ... unconstrained by the impediments of social convention’. [14] And here we can discern the link, albeit underdetermined, between Heidegger and Nietzsche, and Heidegger and Hitler, even though his relationship to both came some years later.

Many readers will be most eager to reach the sections of the book which deal with more contemporary thinkers and arguments. Alex demonstrates, however, that an understanding of the intellectual history and tradition of social theorising can be crucial to getting a handle on more contemporary thinkers and their strengths and vulnerabilities. In the last two chapters of the book Alex comes into the more contemporary period, examining the structuralism of Levi-Strauss and Althusser, the post-structuralism of Foucault, and the theories of Habermas and Bourdieu, the latter a leftist French intellectual who has actively supported the oppositional movements which started with the wave of public sector strikes in France in 1995. He goes on to examine the views of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens.

Alex identifies the limitations of the Saussurean model of language on which the structuralists drew so heavily, and his brief portrayal of Althusser’s theories seems unsympathetic to Althusser’s project in just about every respect. In particular Alex contrasts Althusser’s claim that ‘history is a process without a subject’, with the theories of Gramsci and Lukács. [15] The intellectual weaknesses of structuralism made it an easy target for the disillusioned post-1968 post-structuralists. As Alex puts it, the ‘conceptual flaws of Althusserian Marxism thus meant it was liable to collapse into something much closer to the kind of Nietzschean social theory which began to gain ground in the mid-1970s’. [16] The key figure in this process was Michel Foucault. Ironically, for all the talk of the rejection of ‘grand narratives’, Foucault’s underlying theory was just as much a grand narrative, if a less sophisticated one, than Marx’s attempts to provide a theory of the capitalist system. And for all the brilliance of some of Foucault’s detailed historical and social analyses, his underlying philosophy ultimately lacked coherence. The all-pervasiveness of the ‘will to power’ denied him a vantage point from which he could legitimately claim to have got to the truth about the systems of domination he sought to analyse, and provided no coherent ground on which to theorise resistance to that domination. Alex’s comprehensive demolition of the whole postmodernist edifice in Against Postmodernism is briefly but very usefully echoed in the critique of Foucault.

Alex’s views on Habermas, Giddens and Bourdieu have been expounded at some length in other publications. He is more in favour of Habermas and Bourdieu, who have retained a critical edge to their work, and less in favour of Beck and Giddens, as one might expect, although he detects vulnerabilities and weaknesses in all four. In the final chapter he gives reasons to reject the novelty and validity of the critique of modernity offered by Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida in particular. He also points out the ambiguity of the term ‘modernity’ as it has been used by social theorists. There is the philosophical idea of modernity as ‘the historical realisation of the Enlightenment’s conception of a present which justifies itself by its difference from the past it leaves behind and by the indefinite progress it will achieve in the future’. [17] Secondly, there is the view that modernity refers to a particular kind of society, and thirdly, that it is a particular form of experience within society. Alex gently teases out the differences in these conceptions in order then to test out the theories, particularly those of Giddens and Beck, which have come to dominate the academy and which prefer to deploy the concept of modernity to that of capitalism.

Alex claims that ‘most versions of social theory would benefit from a dialogue with a naturalistic conception of the world which recognises the continuities between both the physical and social worlds and the forms of understanding appropriate to them, but which does not suppress or ignore the discontinuities between them’. [18] On this Alex is undoubtedly right. He has never been afraid to draw on and develop theory where he feels there are legitimate questions which even the best of the classical Marxist tradition has either not addressed or not answered adequately. Social Theory shows the same commitment to understand our enemies’ theories, the better to contest them intellectually and shore up any weaknesses on our side.

Alex goes on to argue that the widespread tendency amongst contemporary social theorists towards a pessimism about the possibility of radical social change is not just the product of a reasonable induction from the historical experience of the 20th century, but has material roots in the increasingly narrow specialisms of academic life, cut off from political activity and practice. Even Bourdieu’s call for an ‘International of intellectuals committed to defending the autonomy of the universes of cultural production’ [19], whilst progress itself ‘serves to underline how deeply entrenched the idea of a radical disjunction between theory and practice has become among those intellectuals who seek to situate it historically and sociologically’. [20]

Alex finishes by arguing that the attempt to silence Marx will not be so easily accomplished. Marx’s analysis of capitalism remains unsurpassed. Firstly, he saw capitalism as a dynamic mode of production spreading out and coming to dominate the whole of the world, an extraordinarily prescient analysis which has finally come to pass at the end of the 20th century. Secondly, Marx saw that the dynamism was beset by chronic instability, an instability which destroys production and lives and which exposes as nonsense the claim that capitalism is the ‘fairest and most rational way of meeting humankind’s economic needs’. [21] Thirdly, ‘there is a necessary connection between the process of capital accumulation and the exploitation of wage-labour. In remaking the world, capitalism creates a class of workers who over time will develop the numbers, cohesion and self-organisation necessary to revolutionise society’. [22] ‘Social theory ... belongs to the heritage of the Enlightenment ... spurred on by the voice of the radicalised Enlightenment, social theory can become what the philosophers believed reason to be, a force for liberation’. [23] Alex’s excellent and timely book is a significant contribution to increasing the chances of social theory becoming that force for liberation.


1. A. Callinicos, Social Theory (Cambridge 1999), p. 56.

2. Ibid., p. 115.

3. Ibid., p. 115.

4. Ibid., p. 115.

5. Ibid., pp. 188–189.

6. Ibid., p. 189.

7. Ibid., p. 193.

8. Quote from Lukács, ibid., p. 207.

9. Ibid., p. 207.

10. M. Heidegger, Letter to Herbert Marcuse, 20 January 1948, reprinted in R. Wolin (ed.), The Heidegger Controversy (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1993), p. 162.

11. A. Callinicos, op. cit., p. 217.

12. Ibid., p. 219.

13. Ibid., p. 220.

14. R. Wolin, The Politics of Being (New York 1990), p. 39, quoted in A. Callinicos, op. cit., p. 221.

15. L. Althusser, Politics and History (London 1972), p. 183, quoted in A. Callinicos, op. cit., p. 270.

16. Ibid., p. 276.

17. Ibid., p. 297.

18. Ibid., p. 306.

19. P. Bourdieu, The Rules of Art (Cambridge 1996), p. 344, quoted in A. Callinicos, op. cit., p. 310.

20. Ibid., p. 310.

21. Ibid., p. 316.

22. Ibid., p. 316.

23. Ibid., p. 318.

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