Over the last decade and a half, widespread shifts have occurred within Britain’s Left intelligentsia, in a complex series of changes, with many cross-currents—making for an intellectual and political scene today very different from that of the early 70’s. Some of these changes have been challenging and radicalizing: most obviously, the rise of a new and confident feminism. Others have been involutionary, or retrogressive—trends that might be summarized as the transition from subscription to some variant of Marxism and commitment to revolutionary socialism, in one form or another (accompanied by the normal correlate: rejection of the local representatives of social democracy) to thorough-going theoretical renunciations and pronounced political moderatism (predictably accompanied by reorientation to the centre and right of the Labour Party and disdain for its supposedly ‘hard left’). The figure of Paul Hirst, Professor of Social Theory at Birkbeck College, sometime editor of three journals, frequent contributor to others as well as to numerous collections, author or co-author of eight books, occupies a prominent yet particular position within this latter constellation. His has been in many ways an exemplary career, typical of the trajectory of not a few of his generation, yet also preceding or exaggerating more general alterations of outlook and disposition. Although maî tre d’école of a ‘discourse theory’ that has established certain bridge-heads in a number of academic disciplines (sociology, anthropology, cultural and media studies) and mainstream publishers’ lists, it is less breadth of influence than sharpness of stance that distinguishes Hirst’s postures today. His novelty is the alacrity and ruthlessness with which he has settled accounts with his erstwhile theoretico-political consciousness—to the extent of pioneering much of the current commonsense of Marxism Today and its cousins well before it was in full vogue, yet moving further to the right even as others were coming round to what were once his somewhat rarefied revisions. Paul Hirst is not the, or even an, éminence grise of that contemporary English hybrid, Eurolabourism; but he is one of the unsung heroes of the de- and re-alignment of Communist, Labour and independent Marxist intellectuals, whose theoretical contribution to such transformations warrants some retracing, however selective.footnote

Hirst’s emphatic appearance on the public scene began in 1971 with the launching of the journal Theoretical Practice, of which he was a prime mover. Theoretical Practice declared that its ambition was to establish the necessity and irreducibility of ‘theoretical practice’ in the British revolutionary movement, and to demarcate genuine Marxism from its competitors, thereby assisting in the ‘recommencement of the scientific practice of historical materialism and the development of Marxist-Leninist political practice’.footnote1 The task was rendered urgent by the appearance in English of texts by Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci, Marcuse and Sartre and the contemporary efflorescence of interest in Marxism, Western and Classical. ‘The problem we face’, as the first issue succinctly put it, ‘is no longer ignorance, but eclecticism.’footnote2 The basis upon which the indicated discrimination was to be made was the work of Louis Althusser, whose major writings had recently become available to an anglophone audience. In their first statement of intent, the editors confided their belief that ‘no development of scientific Marxism is possible which does not start from what Althusser has achieved’.footnote3 Theoretically, then, Theoretical Practice was to be Althusserian. Politically, it was to be Marxist-Leninist. For while the journal gave priority to theoretical struggle and education, ‘our position’, it insisted, ‘does not imply theoreticism, i.e., the development and practice of theory apart from politics and the class struggle . . . Scientificity in theory demands a correct and militant political position. This journal is politically situated within the anti-revisionist movement, i.e. it is Marxist-Leninist (against distortions in Marxism-Leninism by Trotskyist, neo-Stalinist and humanist ideology)’.footnote4 For all this affirmation, the contents of the journal were to be distinctly apolitical in any mundane sense. Some relationship to the official Chinese outlook of the time can be surmised, but its extent probably varied considerably—some contributors perhaps swallowing large doses of Peking’s political line, while for others Maoism may have been a residual sympathy after the (‘revisionist’) alternatives enumerated in the editorial to tp 1 had, on Althusserian grounds, been eliminated.footnote5 At any rate for all, the class struggle in theory was the order of the day: ‘Theoretical Practice’s theoretical work is philosophical in this sense. It is an intervention in a particular conjuncture. We have attempted to specify the characteristics of this conjuncture: the dominance of revisionist political and theoretical positions in the British revolutionary movement and, on a wider scale, the absence of a correct conception of historical materialism and of a scientific practice of historical materialism. We have maintained that the philosophical recovery of the scientific concepts of historical materialism is the dominant task to be undertaken in the struggle against revisionism and an essential pre-condition for the creation of a Marxist-Leninist party.’footnote6 In Britain at least, theory was politics.

With the second issue of Theoretical Practice, Hirst made his debut—entering the lists to defend the new definition of philosophy adumbrated by Althusser in 1968. His exposition of it revealed him an orthodox Althusserian at this stage. Marxism was composed of two autonomous theories, a science and a philosophy. The former was historical materialism, the science of history—an anti-humanist, anti-historicist, anti-economistic theory of modes of production and social formations. The latter was a revolutionary practice of philosophy—simultaneously political intervention in theory and theoretical intervention in politics—to which Althusser referred by the traditional designation of ‘dialectical materialism’. Its role was the defence of the sciences, including historical materialism, against myriad ubiquitous ideologies. In line with this programme, the next (double) issue of the journal was devoted to ‘Marxism and the Sciences’. It contained items by some of Althusser’s pupils, explorations of the relations between Althusser and Bachelard, discussion of the concept of ‘epistemological break’, reflections from Barry Hindess (who now joined the editorial board) on ‘materialist mathematics’, and a critique of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, charging it with a perilous epistemological neutrality—although, it should be said, the editors evinced general sympathy for modern French philosophy of science, and for Freud in a Lacanian rendering, as potential theoretical allies of Marxism. By the spring of 1972, when Hirst joined the editorial board, the site of struggle had tended to shift from dialectical to historical materialism, as a new issue concentrated on Marx’s ‘Marginal Notes on Adolph Wagner’s Lehrbuch der Politischen Okonomie’—one of only two items in the canon certified by Althusser in 1969 as being without ‘the shadow of a trace of Feuerbachian-humanist or Hegelian influence’.footnote7

Some time in the following months, however, both Hindess and Hirst resigned from the journal—apparently because of a disagreement with the assessment of priorities set out in an editorial to what in the event proved to be the final number of Theoretical Practice. At issue, evidently, was the decision to focus on historical materialism, though no details were forthcoming. In the event, the unruffled confidence expressed by the remaining editors was belied by the pages that followed. For while texts by Althusser and Lecourt drew out some of the implications of the second definition of philosophy previously endorsed by Hirst, in a dissenting register Anthony Cutler and Michael Gane argued the virtues of Althusser’s original ‘theory of theoretical practice’ and the vices of its supposed rectification. Moreover on the terrain of historical materialism itself, a letter from Cutler to Etienne Balibar occasioned a response which dismayed his correspondent. Cutler had queried a number of themes in Balibar’s contribution to Reading Capital relating to the key category of ‘structural causality’—in particular, his discussions of determination in the last instance and historical transition. In the ‘Self-Criticism’ this elicited, Balibar repudiated both the whole project of a ‘general theory’ of modes of production (as one of ‘typologistic or structuralist inspiration’), and a fortiori of any ‘general theory’ of transition from one mode of production to another.footnote8 Cutler’s ‘Response’ made no attempt to conceal his disappointment. In conjunction with Althusser’s own work, Balibar’s original paper had ‘entirely revolutionized the science of history’; retraction of it conduced to empiricism and was liable to ‘open the door’ to revisionism.footnote9 An acerbic review by another contributor, Athar Hussain, of Maurice Godelier’s Rationality and Irrationality in Economics brought the issue, and with it the life-span of the journal, to an end.

‘A philosophy does not make its appearance in the world as Minerva appeared to the society of Gods and men’, Louis Althusser remarked in 1975.footnote10 What were the historical characteristics of the particular conjuncture in which Theoretical Practice appeared? Under what balance of forces was a collective attempt to naturalize Althusser’s Marxism for the purpose of cadre formation, with the aim of putting the revolutionary movement on a sound scientific footing, a matter of some moment? The conditions of possibility of this exercise lay in the electric international, and national, atmosphere of the time: a world-wide solidarity campaign against the us war in Vietnam; a radical student movement across four continents; major proletarian revolts in France and Italy; Black insurrections in America; renewal in Czechoslovakia and upheaval in China; and at home the moral collapse of Labour in office, and the eruption of the most successful mass workers’ struggles in Britain this century. This was the crucible in which the class of ’68 was formed and under the impact of which it rallied, often in apocalyptic mood, to the cause of socialist revolution. Yet no hint of this was ever to be found in the pages of Theoretical Practice itself. There, the programme of a defence and development of historical materialism as the prerequisite for the formation of a revolutionary party apparently forbade any reference to politics, even as it implied a year zero of Marxist theory in Britain. A decade later, Hirst was to remark that on its importation into England Althusser’s Marxism exerted a considerable attraction on social scientists ‘as a general philosophical system and alternative metaphysics . . . as a methodology but not as a means of analysis of political situations.’ By contrast Theoretical Practice, he claimed, had subscribed to the authentic Althusserian conception of historical materialism as ‘fundamentally a theory of politics and as providing theoretical tools for the assessment of political situations’.footnote11 A calmer reliance on the amnesia of its reader would be hard to conceive. For if the general position of the journal was that Marxism must be developed as the science of history—hence of politics—it never actually got round to the slightest concrete analysis of any concrete situation, let alone to proposing a Marxist-Leninist strategy for turbulent contemporary Britain. Moreover, one of the British social scientists for whom Althusser’s ‘general philosophical system’ exercised the greatest attraction was Hirst himself.