The trade of history has something in common with the detergent industry: in both, novelty is frequently passed off as real innovation. But there is also a difference: in the former business, brand-names are very poorly protected. Anybody can call himself a historian. Anybody can add ‘Marxist’ to the title if he sees fit. Anybody can call anything he likes ‘Marxist’. Nevertheless, if there is one thing more difficult and rare than to become a historian, it is to be a Marxist historian. For the term ought to imply the strict application of an elaborate theoretical mode of analysis to the most complex of all scientific subject-matters: the social relationships among men and their modalities of change. One may even wonder if the high standards of this definition have ever been met. Ernest Labrousse likes to repeat: ‘History has yet to be written’, an epigram at once tonic and intimidating. Louis Althusser has reminded us that the very concept of history has yet to be formulated.

To be less ambitious for a moment, let me admit that on the whole—in science as in life—the results of the dialogue between thought and action, between theory and experience, have only a very slow influence on practice. This being so, it is surely significant that when we look about us today we find that the history historians write is more like history according to Marx (or according to Ibn Khaldun) than it is like history according to Raymond Aron (i.e. history in the manner of Thucydides).

By this I mean the manifest fact—rarely noted, yet surely significant—that the deadening old objections made for so long against Marx are now raised only at lower levels of polemic (even if some Nobel-prize winner still falls back on them occasionally). Chance versus necessity, free-will versus determinism, the individual versus the masses, the spiritual versus the economic: today historians no longer oppose these categories, they spend their time trying to combine them in different ways. While, without exception, all the new instruments and forms historians have introduced into their work—whether linguistic, psychoanalytic or economic—accept one basic hypothesis: that the subject-matter of history is structured and accessible to thought, is scientifically penetrable like any other sort of reality.

Marx himself said nothing else. If objections are made to him today on this higher level, it is in the name of a ‘hyper-materialism’ or an ‘anti-humanism’ far removed from the old complaints. Which does not, of course, prevent the latter from remaining as the staple diet of vulgar ideology (or ruling ideology). Hence, while some historians are more Marxist than they think, others are less Marxist than they imagine.

It may be said that in that case history is a strange ‘science’. And it is true that it is a science still under construction. But all sciences are always under construction. The notion of an ‘epistemological threshold’ is useful if it serves to distinguish between successive adequations of the constructions of the mind to the structures of reality. The motto of an ‘epistemological break’, on the other hand, is dangerous if it suggests the possibility of passing brusquely from ‘non-science’ to ‘science’. Marx knew this, the Marx who sought passionately to locate the smallest germs of his own discoveries in the most remote past. He did not let these discoveries eclipse the possibility that there had been previous preparatory or partial scientific developments: ‘Science, unlike other architects, builds not only castles in the air, but may construct separate habitable storeys of the building before laying the foundation stone.’ footnote1

This phrase from the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy should be drawn to the attention of those who, under the pretext of finding the beginning of all things in Marx, would really like to be the beginning of all things themselves. That is, to those who attach quasimagical virtues to the ‘foundation stone’, so that they can hurry on to justify once again the construction of castles in the air.

The problem posed by Marx (and by all those who care about understanding the mechanisms of human societies, in the hope that one day we may master them) is a three-fold one. The science of these societies must be at once coherent, thanks to a solid and common theoretical framework; total, that is, capable of submitting to its jurisdiction every useful field of analysis; and lastly dynamic, since no stable state lasts for ever, and nothing is more important than to lay bare the principles of change.