History won’t save us: a reply to Donny Gluckstein

Issue: 182

Alex Callinicos

I am very grateful to Donny Gluckstein for his kind and attentive review of my new book, The New Age of Catastrophe.1 It is a real pleasure to have one’s work reviewed by someone who is a long-standing comrade and also the author of books that are both engaged and erudite. Praise from someone of this calibre is praise indeed. However, I was a bit taken aback by Donny’s criticisms of the method that I used in The New Age of Catastrophe. Of course, Marxists often disagree about philosophy, as the pages of this journal have shown. Yet, in this case, the problem seems to be a misunderstanding of what I say that sometimes verges on polemical misrepresentation.

The nub of Donny’s criticism of my book is that I fail sufficiently to emphasise Karl Marx’s explanation of historical change as a result of the development of the productive forces and the conflicts that this gives rise to between those productive forces and the social relations of production, instead relying on French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s notion of overdetermination. According to this conception, historical change arises from “the contingent conjunction of multiple determinations”.2 Althusser himself elaborates on the latter: “Whatever the social reality or event, it is never pure, it is never singly determined, it is always over-determined or under-determined… Meaning that it is never simple, but plural—and this plural is always a plural of more or less than the determination that we think, that we believe we have established in our research”.3

Donny notes in passing that these two perspectives on historical causation “are not mutually exclusive”. Exactly! It is a pity that he did not stop there. Instead, he goes on to suggest that I think “the dialectical contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production” is “made irrelevant by the ‘contingent conjunction of multiple determinations’”.4 This is completely false; rather, the first is the basis of the second.

What was the problem that I was trying to address in my book? It has become a cliché to say that we live in a period defined by multiple crises. The critical economists Isabella Weber and Evan Wasner nicely call these our “overlapping emergencies”: economic stagnation, climate change, the pandemic, inter-imperialist rivalry.5 The brilliant left-liberal economic historian Adam Tooze has popularised the term “polycrisis” as a means of exploring these interrelated crises, and there is now an interesting website devoted to the subject.6 Yet, as immensely valuable as Tooze’s work is, his approach is essentially pluralist, treating these different “emergencies” as having distinct causes and studying their interactions.

From a Marxist perspective, this is not good enough. At the beginning of the 20th century, in a book that influenced Leon Trotsky, the pioneering Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Labriola criticised what he called the “theory of factors”, which, “by abstractly separating the factors of an organism, destroys them as elements in the unity of the complex whole [complesso]”. He contrasts this approach to historical materialism, which “alone has value for the intelligence of history”, because it “distinguishes and separates the elements only to recognise the objective necessity of their cooperation in the result”.7 Georg Lukács spelled out the implication of this in his 1923 book History and Class Consciousness, where he stated that “the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought” lies in “the point of view of totality”.8 Marxism is thus characterised by what Fredric Jameson calls “the methodical imperative of totalisation”, that is, the drive to weave together all the different aspects of a situation into a structured whole.9

Now, it is easy enough to demand totalisation, but very difficult to do it. Basic to my approach in The New Age of Catastrophe is the explanatory primacy of the forces and social relations of production—what Marx called the “real foundation” of every social formation.10 Not only have I elsewhere written extensively in defence of this fundamental proposition of historical materialism, but in my introduction to The New Age of Catastrophe I cite the passage in the 1859 “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy from which Marx’s formulation comes and explain how this passage structures the book.11

Bafflingly, Donny quotes what I say here but then continues: “Given his subject matter is catastrophe, Callinicos’s avoidance of dependence on what we might call the ‘forces/relations perspective’ may arise from the way Marx’s ‘Preface’ has been used to justify a mechanistic, overly optimistic stages theory of history that sees the economic base as dominant in all circumstances”.12 This bears no relation to my views. I reject the dismissal of the 1859 “Preface” by Althusser, among others, as “evolutionist” and “determinist”. I much prefer the approach taken by Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, for whom the text is one of the main inspirations in his own very creative interpretation of Marxism, which focuses on the interplay between the structural contradictions that develop in the economic base and the struggle between rival hegemonic projects in the politico-ideological superstructures.13

Nor is it true that I avoid the “forces/relations perspective”. The contradiction between the forces and relations of production runs through the first volume of Marx’s Capital, in the concrete form it takes under the capitalist mode of production as the distinction between the labour process (the production of use-values) and the valorisation process (the self-expansion of capital through the appropriation of the surplus-value created by wage labour when it produces commodities). This contradiction, however, finds its fullest expression in Part 3 of Capital’s third volume, which deals with the tendential law of the rate of profit to fall. Marx shows that individual capitals seek to improve the productivity of their workers and thereby lower their costs through technical innovations, thereby increasing their profits; but, when generalised, these innovations lead to a rise in the organic composition of capital (the ratio between capital invested in purchasing means of production and in employing wage labour) and hence to a fall in the average rate of profit. Thus, within the framework of capitalist economic relations, the development of the productive forces driven by the process of competitive accumulation is the underlying cause of crises.

Chapter 3 of The New Age of Catastrophe, “Economic Stagnation”, starts with the chronic crisis of profitability responsible for what Marxist political economist Michael Roberts calls the “Long Depression”, which started with the 2007-8 global financial crisis and continues today—and, indeed, is actually spreading.14 So, the “forces/relations perspective” plays an important role in my book, even if this does not take the form of genuflecting at the altar of the 1859 “Preface”. It is true that my overall analysis of the polycrisis starts elsewhere, with “The Destruction of Nature” in Chapter 2. This is because I wanted to emphasise what is new in the present era of catastrophe, namely the increasing role played by what Chris Harman calls the “external limit to capital”—that is, the way in which the accumulation process is reacting back on and undermining its natural presuppositions. Yet, this is entirely in line with Marx’s own approach, as the Marxist ecological analyses of John Bellamy Foster and the late (and much missed) Paul Burkett, among others, has shown.

Donny is, however, a bit uncomfortable with this emphasis. He thinks I should have stressed more the positive results of the development of the productive forces even at the present stage of capitalist development: for example, lengthening life expectancy and furnishing our ability to support a much larger human population. Fair enough, and indeed I did mention a couple of important recent innovations, such as the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines (for which Donald Trump can claim some credit—a good example of the dialectical contradiction between the forces and relations!). I also pointed, for example, to the potential benefits for planning of the digital feedback infrastructures used by the likes of Amazon.

Nonetheless, it is an open question how sustainable this continuing growth in the productive forces is. One feature of the Long Depression is the slowing of productivity growth, mainly because of the falling share of investment in GDP, itself a consequence of chronically low profitability. Moreover, the current optimism in ruling-class quarters that the 2021-2 inflationary surge is being overcome may prove short-lived if climate change continues to disrupt agricultural production and push up food prices (which are still rising at elevated rates). The economist James Meadway (formerly of this parish) has come up with some interesting speculation that we may be returning to the kind of capitalism envisaged by bourgeois political economist David Ricardo in the early 19th century, where falling agricultural productivity leads to economic stagnation and the intensification of class struggle over a shrinking social product.15 Agricultural productivity and output continue to rise, and the impact of climate change on food production is complex, since higher temperatures may actually increase output in some regions.16 Nevertheless, there do not seem to any theoretical grounds for ruling out in principle the kind of scenario projected by Meadway.

I should, though, add that I disagree with Meadway’s rather strange polemic against what he calls “the dubious anthropocentrism of the falling rate of profit”, where anthropocentrism means the “belief…that human society can be understood as analytically (and actually!) superior to its natural environment”.17 The idea that Marx’s critique of political economy is anthropocentric in this sense has been thoroughly refuted by Burkett.18 This critique is informed by the founding conception, forged by Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, of humans interacting with the rest of nature through their labour. Moreover, as I have already said, The New Age of Catastrophe argues that, in addition to the “normal” tendencies to crisis inherent in the capitalist mode, above all in the form of low/falling profitability, the destructive impact of the accumulation process on the rest of nature is increasingly becoming a source of crises. Often (as in the case of the pandemic), this is mediated through the effect on prices and hence on the division of new value between wage-labour and capital. I see nothing anthropocentric about this.

In 1938, Trotsky wrote, “Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth”.19 He was wrong then, but this does not mean that capitalism may not eventually reach the point where the effects of environmental destruction outweigh the rising productivity promoted by competitive accumulation. Furthermore, even if we are not at this stage, and perhaps will never reach it, the innovations that capitalism generates are taking increasingly destructive forms. Take, for instance, smartphones, a remarkable technology that has changed the lives of vast numbers of people in both the Global South and the Global North. Yet, alongside the benefits they bring, smartphones reinforce the very powerful tendencies reducing us to individual consumers ever more reliant on the extraction of critical materials such as coltan and on Big Tech’s computer servers, which pump huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Elsewhere in the issue of International Socialism in which Donny’s review appears, industrial relations scholar Bob Carter takes Matt Vidal to task for trying to abstract the productive forces from the relations of production. Maybe this stricture applies to Donny as well:

The forces of production and social relations of production are entwined in practical, material tasks. Even though the two processes are analytically discrete, they cannot be separated in the empirical manner of Vidal. As Marx insisted, labour processes do not occur in the abstract but under definite social relations in concrete societies. In contrast, Vidal wants to spring the forces of production and the labour process from their capitalist form.20

Even if there is a substantive disagreement between Donny and myself here, it does not justify his misrepresentation of my overall argument. He seems to have been misled by this passage from my book: “One of the valuable features…of what Althusser called ‘overdetermination’ is that it refuses to deduce important historical events from the abstract dialectic of the forces and relations of production, but rather sees them arising from the contingent conjunction of multiple determinations”.21 There is nothing necessarily wrong with abstraction—indeed, Marx criticised Ricardo for being insufficiently abstract. However, in a famous passage he also writes that “the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete”. In other words, the abstract starting point identifies structural features of the situation on the basis of which one can then introduce further determinations that are integrated together “as a rich totality of many determinations and relations”.22 In this approach, therefore, the “multiple determinations” are presented as part of the process of constructing the totality that is based on the primacy of the forces and relations of production.

One of the inspirations for Althusser’s famous essay “Contradiction and Overdetermination” was Lenin’s “Letters from Afar”. Writing in March 1917, Lenin was seeking to understand the overthrow of the Tsarist monarchy a few weeks earlier:

That the revolution succeeded so very quickly, and (seemingly, at the first superficial glance) so radically, is only due to the fact that, as a result of an extremely unique historical situation, absolutely dissimilar currents, absolutely heterogeneous class interests, and absolutely contrary political and social strivings have merged, and in a strikingly “harmonious” manner. Namely, the conspiracy of the Anglo-French imperialists, who impelled Alexander Milyukov, Pavel Guchkov and Company to seize power for the purpose of continuing the imperialist war, for the purpose of conducting the war still more ferociously and obstinately, and for the purpose of slaughtering fresh millions of Russian workers and peasants in order that the Guchkovs might obtain Constantinople, the French capitalists Syria, the British capitalists Mesopotamia, and so on. This on the one hand. On the other, there was a profound proletarian and mass popular movement of a revolutionary character (a movement of the entire poorest section of the population of town and country) for bread, for peace and for real freedom.23

Lenin is able to lucidly analyse the complexity of the situation that led to the February Revolution in Russia, without, as far as I can tell, once mentioning the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. This contradiction was, however, implicit in the starting point of his analysis—the theory of imperialism, which he was already developing prior to the outbreak of the revolution. I do not want to big myself up via comparisons with Lenin, but I was trying in the book to unravel the complexity of the polycrisis. This involved both developing an in-depth analysis of each of its different dimensions and (in this respect going beyond Tooze’s liberal pluralism) integrating them into a totality constituted by capitalist relations of production, which, as Marx says, “naturally correspond…to a certain level of development of the type and manner of labour, and hence to its social productive power”.24

Donny himself is kind enough to say that I pulled this off:

Achieving it meant Callinicos had to overcome at least two hurdles. First, analysing each category on its own would lose the essential interconnectedness of what is happening. Second, and conversely, simply describing the interconnections would risk obscuring the specific internal processes and developmental logic of each category. Callinicos accomplishes the necessarily tricky balancing act between these two approaches with panache.25

So, what’s the problem? I think it partly lies in the idea of overdetermination as a “contingent conjunction of multiple determinations”. Thus, Donny writes: “The concept of a ‘contingent conjunction’ is more accidental in character and fails to explain as well the coincidence of timing in so many areas at once”.26 This last objection is pretty weak: the “coincidence of timing” is not explained by the concept of a contingent conjunction, but by the actual conjunction—in this case, that of the global financial crisis and its aftermath with the defeat of the US in Iraq and the economic and geopolitical ascent of China, all against the background of accelerating climate change. In the last case, the old Hegelian theme of quantity turning into quality, to which Donny appeals as an alternative explanatory framework, does have some traction, but in the much more concrete shape of the feedback mechanisms being unleashed by global warming. However, it is important to notice that the different determinations are not, as Donny says (contradicting his earlier praise of my balancing act), “a set of disparate processes”, but are interconnected through their common source in the process of capital accumulation.27

Contingency and accident, run together by Donny, are not at all the same concepts. As Spinoza affirmed, everything has a cause and therefore belongs to some kind of law-like pattern. This is as true of phenomena that are understood in specific contexts to be contingent or accidental rather than necessary. All three concepts can only be applied concretely relative to a specific situation. To say that the two alternatives x and y are contingent is to say that either is possible given the fundamental determinants of the situation that one is trying to analyse. To say that z is an accident, by contrast, implies that its causes lie outside this situation. Relative to other situations, however, z may be understood as contingent or even necessary.

So, let’s take the example of Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. This was a contingent outcome of the situation—politics in the US after the global financial crisis. If the Democrats had campaigned much more effectively than Hillary Clinton actually did—in particular, paying serious attention to the deindustrialised Midwest, which Barack Obama had cultivated in 2012—they might have tilted enough states into their column to beat Trump in the electoral college (remember that he lost the popular vote). Of course, further analysis is needed to understand why they did not, focusing especially on the corporate takeover of the Democratic Party, but all these determinations are internal to the situation under analysis. If, however, Trump had not made it into the White House because he died of a heart attack or in a plane crash, that would have been an accident since its causes would lie outside the situation, in biology or aeronautics.28

Contingency is important partly because it makes us think about agency and the role that it plays in determining which of the alternative possibilities implied by a specific historical situation is actually realised. This should matter especially for those, such as Donny and me, who approach the world from a revolutionary socialist perspective. Nevertheless, he is uneasy about my use of German Marxist thinker Walter Benjamin’s metaphor that “revolutions are attempts by the passengers on this train—the human race—to activate the emergency brake”.29 This discomfort sends Donny off onto a bizarre riff motivated by the idea that, rather than advocating a socialist revolution that would inaugurate humanity’s transition to communism, I propose merely “blocking the operation” of the various mechanisms of the polycrisis—whatever this means.30 It is in this context that he stresses the growth of the productive forces and of the human capabilities that could be mobilised much more effectively on the basis of democratic planning. It is beyond me how these points are supposed in any sense to contradict my own argument, especially since I devote a section of the final chapter of the book to making the case for a democratically planned economy as the progressive alternative to capitalism.31

What Donny does here—stressing as points against me things that I actually say in the book—is so odd that it is tempting to speculate about its sources. The passage I quote from Benjamin comes from a draft for “On the Concept of History”, which he wrote in the year before he committed suicide in September 1940. For all the obscurities and outright errors this text contains, it is immensely valuable as a critique of the idea that socialism is inevitable. Thus, we have the famous description of a picture by German artist Paul Klee that Benjamin owned portraying “the angel of history” staring aghast into the past; “where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe”, while “a storm from paradise” blows him into the future. What we call progress is this storm.” Then Benjamin goes on to draw the political implications of this image of history:

Nothing has so corrupted the German working class as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological development as the driving force of the stream with which it thought it was moving.32

“On the Concept of History” is thus the sharpest possible critique of the idea, central to the Marxism of the Second International, that socialist revolution will develop out of capitalism by “natural necessity”, as German theorist Karl Kautsky called it. Benjamin is saying that, if we rely on “technological development”—the growth in the productive forces—to deliver socialism, then we will suffer catastrophe. In his time, catastrophe meant the world wars, fascism, the Stalinist Terror and the Holocaust (though he did not live to see the last). So, the train he wants to stop is capitalism, hurtling us into the abyss. The revolution he desperately hopes for is exactly the overthrow of capitalism sought by Marx and those inspired by his thought. Benjamin just does not think we can depend on objective processes—economic contradictions, class formation, and so on, to secure victory.

You can say, with some justification, that Benjamin overstates the role of subjectivity and counterposes it too strongly to these processes. Maybe this is what Donny is worrying about when he so misrepresents my argument. Or maybe he is tempted by the productive forces determinism Benjamin is rejecting. In any case, the revolutionary defiance Benjamin expresses, at what Russian Marxist Victor Serge called “midnight in the century”, when Hitler and Stalin seemed triumphant, seems little different from the attitude Trotsky expressed writing to Russian-Italian revolutionary Angelica Balabanoff a couple of years earlier, during the Moscow Trials: “History has to be taken as she is; and when she allows herself such extraordinary and filthy outrages, one must fight her back with one’s fists”.33

Today, we find ourselves amid a comparable catastrophe to the one Trotsky and Benjamin faced—one in which, added to all the horrors they confronted, climate chaos is developing. This is no reason to despair. The flames of revolt are burning stronger than when I wrote The New Age of Catastrophe. We have seen the development of powerful wage-strikes, notably in the two advanced capitalist societies that pioneered neoliberalism, Britain and the US. Moreover, the war in Gaza—which has given new depth to the idea of catastrophe with the Israel Defence Forces’ slaughter of innocent people and destruction of the conditions of normal life—has stimulated the growth of a worldwide anti-imperialist movement. Struggles such as these provide some of the raw materials for the revolution we need to fend off even worse catastrophe and to lay the basis of an emancipated society. However, History will not deliver us. Only we ourselves and many more like us will.

Alex Callinicos is Emeritus Professor of European Studies at King’s College London, co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism, and a columnist for Socialist Worker.


1 Gluckstein, 2024.

2 Callinicos, 2023a, p12; see Althusser, 1969. Thanks to Joseph Choonara for his very helpful comments on this article in draft.

3 This quotation is an extract from a television interview with Italy’s RAI public broadcaster, recorded on 30 April 1980, which features in Bruno Oliviero’s film, Althusser: An Intellectual Adventure (2017; translation corrected). There is much more to be said about the concept of overdetermination than I do here or indeed in my book. I have touched on this in my recent article on Dutch rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza, in many ways a companion piece to The New Age of Catastrophe, and in an earlier discussion of Daniel Bensaïd’s Marxism—see, respectively, Callinicos, 2023b and 2012.

4 Gluckstein, 2024, p121.

5 Weber and Wasner, 2023, p188.

6 Tooze, 2021, p6. The website I mention can be viewed at www.phenomenalworld.org/series/the-polycrisis

7 Labriola, 2014, p1065. See Trotsky, 1975, chapter 5.

8 Lukács, 1971, p27.

9 Jameson 1981, p51. More generally, see chapter 1 of this work.

10 Marx, 1975.

11 Callinicos, 2023a, pp8-10. See my earlier discussions of historical materialism in Callinicos, 2004 and 1995.

12 Gluckstein, 2024, p21.

13 Callinicos, 2021.

14 See Roberts, 2016.

15 See, for example, my Twitter exchange with Meadway—https://twitter.com/alex_callinicos/status/1587023528221675520. See also these recent, very wide-ranging pieces: Meadway, 2023 and 2024.

16 Thanks to Joseph Choonara for these points.

17 Meadway, 2022.

18 Burkett, 2014.

19 Reisner, 1973, p180.

20 Carter, 2024, p111. Carter’s article is part of a debate about Vidal, 2022. For a particularly adventurous recent example of the sort of labour process analysis upon which Carter builds his arguments, see Matteo Pasquinelli’s fascinating new history of artificial intelligence—Pasquinelli, 2023.

21 Callinicos, 2023a, p12.

22 Marx, 1973, pp101 (italics added) and 100.

23 Lenin, 1917. Guchkov and Milyukov were leading liberal figures in the Provisional Government, which came to power in the February Revolution and was overthrown by Lenin’s Bolsheviks in October 1917.

24 Marx, 1981, p927.

25 Gluckstein, 2024, p118.

26 Gluckstein, 2024, pp121-122.

27 Gluckstein, 2024, p122.

28 This way of differentiating between the contingent and the accidental is my own, but it is in the spirit of earlier discussions, for example, by US philosopher Sidney Hook in Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation, an excellent work of his early, Marxist phase—see Hook, 1933, chapters 11-13.

29 Benjamin, 2003, p402.

30 Gluckstein, 2024, p122.

31 Callinicos, 2023a, pp163-168.

32 Benjamin, 2003, pp392 and 393. Episode 2 of the enjoyable 2023 Netflix mini-series Transatlantic, about the efforts to smuggle antifascist exiles out of Nazi-occupied France, is actually called “The Angel of History”. It includes Benjamin’s suicide after his failure to cross the Pyrenees into Spain.

33 From a letter of 3 February 1937, quoted in Deutscher, 1963, p363. See my discussion of Benjamin’s conception of revolution and its limitations in Callinicos, 2004, chapter 5. Theodor Adorno, Benjamin’s friend, has an interesting critical exploration of what he calls the “negative universal history” implicit in “On the Concept of History”—see Adorno, 2006, lecture 10. The Moscow Trials were a series of show trials instigated by Stalin between 1936 and 1938, mainly targeting supposedly “Trotskyists” and “Rightists”.


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