History and Event: From Marxism to Contemporary French Theory
Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2015. 213pp., £70 hb
Reviewed by Edward Thornton
Edward Thornton is studying for a PhD in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his research tackles the political implications of the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (email@example.com).
This book is, in many ways, a noble and impressive attempt to get to grips with one of the central issues in Marxist thought, namely the question of the mechanics of political change itself. Specifically, Coombs is keen to overcome the apparent incommensurability that exists between those theories that explain the dynamics of the continuous development of historical epochs, and those that focus on the discontinuous and revolutionary events that disrupt this evolutionary progress. The question that animates this book is whether it is possible to develop a science of history that can account for both the continuous change that we call ‘history’ and the discontinuity of those ruptures we call ‘events’, without inadvertently prioritising the former and ending up with a naïve theory of determinism and without accidentally prioritising the latter and collapsing into the depths of unknowable indeterminacy.
The book is split into three chronologically ordered sections. The first is further divided into three shorter chapters that tackle the work of Hegel, the philosophy of Marx and Engels, and the theory Lenin respectively, ultimately arguing that while classical Marxism offers a rational articulation of history, it cannot account for the radical discontinuity of revolutionary events. Part II jumps forwards to address the work of Althusser, Badiou, and Meillassoux, who Coombs sees as the only thinkers capable of successfully theorising the discontinuity of events. After concluding that the promising beginnings of these contemporary French attempts to think through the dynamics of events all lead to unworkable, idealist philosophical forms of tyranny, in Part III Coombs turns to the modern science of complexity theory to put forward his own suggestion for a new science of history. This book is one of cautious and tactical equivocations. For each thinker addressed in the text, Coombs is not interested in arguing for their ultimate success or failure, but only to show how, out of each of their botched attempts to construct a workable science of history, it is possible to scavenge functional elements that can be pieced back together for the construction of something new. This is most evident in the analysis of Althusser, who forms the central pivot of the whole book and who emerges as its valiant yet dangerous anti-hero, whose failed genius provides the most insightful lessons on how not to produce a rational, scientific history of discontinuous events.
Before reaching Althusser, however, Part I of the book charts the development of classical Marxism. In the opening chapter, Coombs characterises Hegel as a thinker unable to escape a naïve conception of history, in which the development of thought is played out across a series of teleologically ordered epochs. According to Coombs’s argument, which draws mainly on Hegel’s Science of Logic, it is Hegel’s attempt to subordinate mathematics to philosophy by first omitting any analysis of irrational numbers, and then by offering a dialectical explanation of the mathematical infinite that makes it impossible for him to think the radical discontinuity of revolutionary events. What is key here for Coombs, is that Hegel’s conception of quantity-quality leaps, far from implying sudden, incommensurable jumps in history, in fact reinscribes these breaks within an all encompassing dialectical teleology. The prose in this chapter is clear, even when Coombs is dealing with complex sections of the Logic, but the reading he offers of Hegel is one motivated by a prior commitment to Marxist theory; Coombs is only interested in the sections of Hegel’s work that Engels will later use to introduce the dialectic into classical Marxism. Consequently, while those already convinced of Hegel’s errors will find this chapter does a good job of showing how Engels’ future uses of Hegel will repeat his predecessor’s mistakes, those who maintain Hegel’s ability to deal with traditional Marxist critiques are unlikely to be convinced by Coombs’s arguments.
The following two chapters complete Part I of the book by tracing the impact of Hegel’s historical thinking into Marxist theory. Here Coombs will argue that, despite their supposed materialist reorientations of Hegel’s work, both Engels and Lenin are unable to explain the genuine incommensurability of the event in its relationship with the longue durée of historical development because they rely too heavily on their predecessor’s conception of quantity-quality leaps to think through the mechanics of revolutionary politics. The most insightful passage here is probably Coombs’s analysis of the way in which Marx opens up a possible escape from the overcoding of the Hegelian dialectic by offering a non-historical logic of capital. In conversation with thinkers such as della Volpe and Colletti, Coombs aims to show that for Marx the difference between ‘the commodity form and the separation of workers from the means of production should be identified with the historical contingency of the latter’ (54), and that, in failing to recognise this difference, Engels reintroduces Hegel’s errors into classical Marxist dialectics. In the chapter on Lenin, on the other hand, Coombs argues against scholars such as Dunayevskaya and Anderson, who claim that Lenin produced ‘a discontinuous dialectics of revolution transcending the rigid, teleological science of history inspired by Engels’ (67), by returning directly to an engagement with Hegel. Instead, through a close reading of Lenin’s notebooks on Hegel, Coombs argues that ‘rather than fundamentally rethinking the dialectics of revolution in 1914, Lenin was instead attempting to deepen his understanding of classical dialectical materialism… to uphold its central revolutionary concept: the idea of leaps between quantity and quality’ (68). Coombs concludes here that despite the many differences between Hegelian-Marxism and classical dialectical materialism, ‘their articulations of history and event are of a kind’ (86), and that ‘although classical Marxism offers a rational articulation of the relation of history and event, it does not capture discontinuous events’ (88).
To reach the second major section of the book, Coombs skips over thirty years of Marxist theory and across the globe to France to discuss Althusser and his legacy. This leap is justified by the somewhat ad hoc confidence on Coombs’s part that Althusser’s ‘theoretical revolution’ will prove to be the ‘boldest and most fecund refoundation of the science of history in Marxism’s history’, adding that ‘[n]othing Trotsky, Gramsci, Mao or any Western Hegelian-Marxist thinker proposed comes close to Althusser’s radicality’ (88). If Part I of the book was a careful attempt to find the root cause behind traditional Marxism’s inability to think the event, then Part II of the book can be seen as its mirror image, namely as a diagnosis of the reason behind twentieth century French Marxism’s inability to think through the continuous nature of history in light of its radical acceptance of the discontinuity of events. Moving from Althusser, to Badiou, and finally to Meillassoux, Coombs tends to spend less time actually arguing that each thinker was wrong, and instead accepts their fallibility from the beginning and swiftly moves on to perform the post-mortem necessary to discover exactly how, where, and why they made their mistakes. These analyses are convincing and his ability to tease out the implicit political theses underlying the philosophical moves performed by this trio is impressive. With both Althusser and Badiou, Coombs is clear from the beginning that their respective attempts to revive a ‘rationalist science of history’ can each be considered failures because their respective philosophical methods lead each of them in, what Coombs calls, ‘a troublingly Platonic direction’ (92), which cuts them off from the real, material process of history. We are told that, despite his later self-criticisms of it, Althusser’s early work successfully managed to think discontinuous events within the Marxist paradigm, but that in order to do this he was forced to detach his own method from the forms of justification provided either by scientific-empirical or Hegelian-dialectical reasoning, leaving him with a viciously circular ‘decisionistic ontology’ (93). Coombs writes that, ‘in severing all links with empiricism and teleology, Althusser forgoes all criteria on which epistemological breaks could be defended as a rupture from ideology or science or by which a true historical event could be distinguished from the merely accidental’ (106).
Badiou’s work is then interpreted as a continuation of Althusser’s earlier epistemological programme and is given a similar diagnosis by Coombs. Working through Badiou’s ontological repurposing of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory and his use of the mathematics of Cohen’s forcing technique for a new foundation of the subject, Coombs ultimately sides with Ray Brassier in claiming that Badiou’s philosophy comes to ‘occupy a seemingly transcendent status with respect to the historical processes it rationalises’ (134), resulting in an abstract science of history that can never be epistemologically or historically verified. Following from this, Coombs concludes: ‘For all its elegance and formal beauty, then, Badiou’s new science of history, like Althusser’s, is a self-referential rationalism that cannot transcend the arbitrariness of its own construction’ (138).
In the final chapter of Part II, Coombs attempts to continue his adventure into the perverting power of Althusser’s work by disclosing the ways in which Althusserian problems are transmitted to the work of Quentin Meillassoux. By reading Meillassoux’s most famous philosophical work, After Finitude, alongside its more political precursors, including both The Divine Inexistence and The Number and the Siren, Coombs argues that Meillassoux’s project is best understood as an attempt to take Althusser and Badiou’s rationalisms to their logical conclusion, making the implicit Platonism of these philosophies explicit: ‘Meillassoux simply strips this intellectual trajectory of its theoretical inhibitions and realises its authoritative implications unencumbered by Marxist political commitments’ (159).
Coombs covers a tremendous amount of ground in this book, first explaining and then critiquing six different philosophies of history in the space of a single monograph. This breadth of content is the book’s biggest asset, but is also, ultimately, its Achilles’ heel: the text functions as an instructive overview of the great variety of ways in which both classical and modern Marxists have tried to account for the difficult relation between history and its events, but by stretching itself so thin, there is almost no space remaining in the book for a truly sustained analysis of any one thinker. This lack of intellectual elbowroom is evident again in Part III of the text, where Coombs is forced to introduce the history of the science of complexity theory, evaluate the strength of its competing schools, and adapt its methods to the task of rethinking Marxist notions of history all in the space of fifteen pages. The work in this section is promising and Coombs does a good job of showing how theories of emergence and practices of simulation developed in both the physical and social sciences can ‘preserve the best aspects of classical Marxist and post-Althusserian theory’ and thus how they might provide ‘a scientific interface between the rational and the empirical’ (165). Unfortunately, however, this promise remains unrealised and the concluding paragraphs restrict themselves to making accommodating suggestions for further research.
In his hurry to cover so many different philosophical points of view, Coombs also skims over the question of his own methodological position. While much of the text aims to tease out the hidden disciplinary hierarchies in the work of other thinkers to show how they inadvertently subordinated the sciences to philosophical thought, it is not clear how Coombs’s own analysis is situated in regards to theory and to empirical science respectively. At certain moments in the book, Coombs is happy to criticise other philosophers on pragmatic grounds – pointing out how their theories have been proved false by history – while at other moments our author opts for a kind of internal, rationalist critique in which he aims to pick out the inconsistencies of a system of thought from within. What is never made clear is the relationship between these two methods in Coombs’s own work. Despite this, History and Event remains an enjoyable read, with moments of real insight. It will be of most interest to those who accept Coombs’s underlying premise that a unified science of history is still possible today, and who want some direction when sifting through the rubble of both nineteenth and twentieth century defeats in order to locate, and then salvage, those theoretical elements that are still fit for purpose.
28 November 2016