The theoretical work of Louis Althusser has by now attracted a wide range of comment and criticism in Western Europe. Most of this discussion has centred on the philosophical significance of Althusser’s oeuvre, with some reference to the political implications of his characteristic philosophical themes. In England, Marxism Today has in the past year published an important exchange between John Lewis, Althusser himself, and Maurice Cornforth, which represents the latest debate of this sort (see Marxism Today, January and February 1972, October and November 1972, May 1973): a debate which is still under way. It has been noticeable, however, that ever since its first publication in 1965, there has been comparatively little analysis or assessment of Althusser’s ‘Sketch for a Concept of History’, which in fact forms the core of Reading Capital, his major work. In particular, no qualified historian responded seriously to it from within the profession.
The publication in Annales of the lengthy essay by Pierre Vilar, translated below, is thus a development of exceptional interest. The Annales, founded by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, is today probably the most widely-read and prestigious historical journal in the world. In England and the United States, the recent translation of Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World at the Time of Philip II (Vol. 1) and Capitalism and Material Life, and of a collection of Febvre’s essays A New Kind of History, has had a generally enthusiastic reception. It is thus perhaps a particularly appropriate moment for the appearance of an Annales appreciation of Althusser. Although it has always enjoyed close relations with scholars in Eastern Europe and Russia, the Annales has never in any sense been a denominational journal. Unlike most of the leading historians associated with it, Vilar is himself a Marxist. Readers of this review will recollect his famous essay ‘The Age of Don Quixote’, printed in nlr 68. In fact, his major work has always been concerned with Spain, and his magnum opus is a three-volume study of La Catalogne dans l’Espagne Moderne published in 1962, whose introduction provides a brief intellectual autobiography, and many of whose themes—price fluctuations, geographical determinants, national problems—are echoed in the text printed here. Most recently, he has written a broad synthesis entitled Oro y Moneda en la Historia 1450–1920 (Barcelona 1969). This book will shortly be published in English by nlb as A History of Gold and Money. Vilar’s qualifications within his field are thus outstanding. Few more propitious inceptions for a general debate on the theoretical problems of Marxist historiography, now urgently needed, could be hoped for than the vigorous and generous essay below, which was first published in Annales, January–February 1973. The footnotes have been added to the text by nlr throughout.