‘History and Event: From Marxism to Contemporary French Theory’ reviewed by Edward Thornton


History and Event: From Marxism to Contemporary French Theory

Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2015. 213pp., £70 hb
ISBN 9780748698998

Reviewed by Edward Thornton

About the reviewer

Edward Thornton is studying for a PhD in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, where…

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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

6 comments

  1. I am not a philosopher, but IMHO, the subject of the book that is reviewed here, is a non-problem, or more exactly this problem was solved in the 19th Century by the physicists and for biology by Charles Darwin, and for human history by the infamous pair of Germans.

    I will as an aside, observe that the reviewer mentions repeatedly “errors” that he does not specify. Presumably all the clever-clogs on this list know to what he is referring. I do not.

    Instead of complexity theory or any other modern sounding new fashion [complexity theory is a very useful notion about 50 years old and previously had different names], I suggest that Coombs would do better to use phase-transitions as a metaphor or a guide. Coombs is apparently of the opinion that the notion of history and its dynamics advanced by the two Germans, is incomplete. I would say he is wrong.

    But let us first see whether natural science can help us at all. The phase-transition of a liquid to a gas is a ‘sudden’ event. It is in fact, initiated when energy is put into a liquid, which then increases the velocity of movement of the molecules of the liquid. This ‘slow’ addition of energy will be interrupted by a ‘rapid, sudden’ change when the velocity of movement of the molecules overcome the restraining force of surface tension. Then, ‘suddenly’ the liquid is changed in form and becomes a gas.
    I put the time words in apostrophes because all time is relative. The ‘gradual’ historical process, the long duree, may last milliseconds, seconds, days, years, centuries or millenia, it is still in all these cases a long duree compared to the ‘rapid’ event. The crucial point to grasp is that the the rapid event, the sudden change in form or phase, is an inherent consequence of the previous history.

    In biology, Darwin shows exactly the same relationship between the long duree, the slow accumulation of genetic changes over centuries which is the direct cause of the change in the composition of a biological population. From being composed of just one species there is now two species.

    It is important to stress that in these two examples the exact mechanisms which operate are completely different and totally unrelated. This is of crucial importance. The constant is the very general features of the two historical processes. And yes, both in physics and in biology as in human society, there are historical processes. It was precisely this discovery, this realization by Darwin that so upset his contemporaries and still upsets some ignoramuses.

    The same general pattern is to be found in human social history. Forces inherent to each stage of human history develop in a specific way. They are always faced by countervailing forces which push in a different direction. Eventually, under appropriate conditions, the first force may overcome the countervailing force and create completely new social relationships. This is human history. The important point again, is that the rupture IS the result of the development over extended periods [extended is again a relative term here] of forces inherent to the structure of the developing society.

    It is important to emphasise that in all three examples, the slowly developing changes would be invisible unless the observer knew to specifically look for them. And for this the observer must first identify these forces. This is an empirical task. It is generally known as scientific investigation.

    So, in conclusion, I suggest that Coombs would spend his time more usefully searching out the detailed empirical facts of the ‘events’ or ‘ social revolutions’ that interest him. He would then, I argue, on the basis of these new empirical facts and a sound materialist theory of social history [already provided in outline] be able to construct a theory of how these ‘events’ are the direct result of the long historical development. And also he would then be able to identify the necessary and sufficient forces or conditions to permit the the event to occur.

  2. Coombs writes, according to the reviewer, that, ‘… by which a true historical event could be distinguished from the merely accidental’ (106).

    I am deliberately raising this issue separately because it is quite different to my other comment.

    I want to stress quite strongly that there is no such thing, as far as we currently know, as the ‘merely accidental’. In practice when someone writes accidental or random they are merely saying in a very inelegant way, that they do not know the explanation.

    There are two possible meanings of accidental or random.

    The first is, as I have just written, that we do not know the explanation of the relevant phenomenon.

    The second meaning is possibly of interest to philosophers. The second meaning is the the phenomenon being discussed does NOT have a cause. It just happens without any antecedent cause or condition being required.

    I am firmly of the opinion that the latter type of event or phenomenon has never once been truly proven to happen.

    There are two types of people who argue to the contrary.
    Religious people obviously, so not interesting.
    Some, but only some, physicists in the field of quantum mechanics will argue that this is indeed the case in quantum mechanics. But other expert physicists in the relevant field point out that in the theory of quantum mechanics each individual event has a definite and identifiable cause which can be mathematically described.

    So for the moment at least I argue that we should only use the words accidental, contingent or random when we clearly mean that we do not currently understand exactly the dynamics of the process or the phenomenon.

  3. I’d like to ask the reviewer whether the post-Althusserians mentioned here actually solve the problem of the connection between subjective (human) agency, which makes world history happen on a pragmatic, everyday basis, and the sudden leaps of world-historical change, which appear to happen without self-conscious human agency, even if subjective agents are necessary to make them happen. I’ve always thought that the problem with Althusser’s structural Marxism is that it reduces human subjects to “effects of structure” and sees world history as “a process without subject or goal,” thus eliminating any incentive for political change by human agents.

    By the same argument, Sydney’s discussion of complexity theory as an explanation for those sudden bursts of radical change (the precipitous catalyzation of phase-transitions from one state to another, right?) also relies upon theories that eliminate human agency, reducing world history to strictly physical, material processes, even when quantum theory provides a certain element of indeterminacy in those processes. Unless Sydney wants to argue that subjective human agency is a quantum indeterminate process?

    Frankly, I find Hegel’s discussion of the master/slave dialectic more interesting than Althusserian structural Marxism, because it describes the physical, visceral processes of caste/class domination that sustain the ruling-class system and actually drive world history: the struggle of the slave to supersede the master’s domination. And what gave Marx his A-Ha Erlebnis was when he realized that Hegel had described the 19th C. class struggle, although Marx then reduced Hegel to the strictly economic terms of the class struggle, forgetting the problems of the peasant and slave classes, among others. What does Althusserian theory have to say to the Third World oppressed classes struggling to overcome exploitation and domination in the multi-national world-system, even if they are not facing actual slavery? Which some people still are. Do the post-Althusserians have anything to add here that might actually speak to the contemporary situation of sweat-shop workers or sex workers, for whom exploitation is a very physical, sweat-&-blood issue?

    And what does any of this have to say to the Syrians or Palestinians of the Muslim world, who literally face a struggle-unto-death against the terrible violence of domination every day, either under Western bombing or under terrorist attacks? Can Marxist theory really speak to them? And, if not, doesn’t Marxist theory need revision, to actually address the suffering and pain of breathing, living human beings, in the contemporary world-historical situation? Which is the problem Marx and Engels started out to address, in the first case…

  4. Eric, writes above;

    By the same argument, Sydney’s discussion of complexity theory as an explanation for those sudden bursts of radical change (the precipitous catalyzation of phase-transitions from one state to another, right?) also relies upon theories that eliminate human agency, reducing world history to strictly physical, material processes, even when quantum theory provides a certain element of indeterminacy in those processes. Unless Sydney wants to argue that subjective human agency is a quantum indeterminate process?

    No, I do not eliminate human agency from human history. That would be daft, to say the least.

    I explained that the ‘event’ is the inherent consequence of the development during the preceding period.
    I did not say anything concrete about this development or the consequent event. To answer Eric, I will now do so.

    The crucial and decisive element of this development is precisely human agency. Human history is self-evidently the story of human agency.
    But, firstly, the really difficult question was, what determines the concrete specifics of this human agency? Marx and Engels have provided the essentials of the answer to the question, at least in broad outline.
    It is now up to practising scientists of human history to fill in the concrete details of this transient history, of how specifically, in this or that age, these central, underlying, partly-hidden forces play out in practice. In simple terms, this means, how does the capitalist class and its government execute their self-interested prejudices in concrete terms. And equally, it means how do the working class and its allies find their true self-interests, in contrast to the lies and propaganda to which they are subjected from birth. And finally, how do the working-class and its allies act at any given moment of their intellectual subjugation and self-enlightenment. These are concrete questions which must be answered empirically. And do remember, as I am sure that you do, that the subject matter of this investigation is an historical process and that the subject, but only partially, is at the same time the investigator.
    This result must integrate the underlying forces, the laws of capitalist political economy with the concrete investigation of the culture and most crucially, of the actions of all the classes in this conflict. This investigation is currently sorely short of answers. It needs close attention of people of good-will.
    Secondly, is the question of human agency in the ‘event’. Because the event is an inherent consequence of the development process, its character and properties must be at the forefront of this investigation. This investigation, however, looks to understand what precisely, are the conditions that must necessarily be present so that the event will occur. And what are the conditions that make it likely that the working class will dominate the result. Once again, this investigation must integrate underlying social conditions, the power relationships of the relevant classes with the subjective attitudes and objective actions of all the relevant classes.
    We have some, but rather limited knowledge in this area. We have the experience in Russia in 1917, in China during the first half of the 20th century and in Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s. But once again, this is entirely an empirical investigation. It cannot be resolved by thought experiments because we simply do not have enough historical data on which we can rely.
    So, for both of these big questions, I think that we are entering uncharted waters. We must feel our way by trial and error. And yes, there will be lots of errors, inevitably. Our responsibility is to be aware of this high probability of errors and thus to look repeatedly and early for faults and defects.

  5. What Marx said on structure and subject/agency and his method:

    ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’

    One must ,’bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production.’

    ‘Concrete analysis of concrete situation’ is a well-known Leninist dictum derived from Marx.

  6. Thank you again, Sarban.
    I will explicate a bit the quote from Marx;

    … but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

    These circumstances include the subjective, cultural, educational characteristics of the working classes.

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