Historical Materialism at Sixteen: An Interview with Peter D. Thomas

Peter D. Thomas

The longstanding Marxist conference is this weekend in Toronto.

Interview by
George Souvlis

In the age of austerity, the world has witnessed a wide range of social movements fighting back. The 2014 Historical Materialism conference, taking place this weekend at Toronto’s York University, aims to contribute to a discussion on both austerity and resistance, and how to extend and revitalize Left critique and praxis.

Peter D. Thomas is a lecturer in the history of political thought at Brunel University, London. He is the author of The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism. He is a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, and co-editor of the Historical Materialism Book Series.

In this interview, we discuss the trajectory of the Historical Materialism initiative, his view on Western Marxism and its legacy, and the importance of Antonio Gramsci for the wide range of movements that have emerged in the last decade all around the world. The interview was conducted by George Souvlis, a PhD candidate in history at the European University Institute, Florence.

George Souvlis

Let’s begin with how the publication of the Journal of Historical Materialism began. What were the initial aspirations for it?

Peter D. Thomas

The journal began in the late 1990s, emerging out of different seminars attended by young postgraduate students — so, largely people writing PhD dissertations — who fortuitously came together to set up the project. It was initially a rather modest project of establishing a journal where there could be debates and discussions of topics in Marxist theory, after the long seasons of “post-Marxisms.” The journal really entered into a phase of international expansion through coming into contact with people from many different countries who were studying in London or had different connections with London.

These people became involved in the broader project of Historical Materialism and gradually there emerged a development of the journal beyond the boundaries of the English-speaking world, with a very strong focus on international discussions. In other words, we attempt to rebuild some of the bridges to other left-wing and Marxist cultures in other languages which had existed previously in the 1960s and 1970s but which have been lost for generational reasons in the 1980s and early 1990s.

I can’t speak for other members of the editorial board, but in my personal view, the fundamental rationale behind the journal was a commitment to a non-sectarian approach to developing a broad forum of discussion for all of those who identified with the Marxist tradition or the Marxist traditions in many different senses. The project soon developed in the direction of an ongoing self-critique of Marxist knowledge.

The rediscovery of old debates, the initiation of new debates and the attempt to develop a type of research project for contemporary Marxist theory became our central concerns.

George Souvlis

Could you mention some continuities and discontinuities in the sixteen-year history of the journal?

Peter D. Thomas

There have been many continuities in the journal in terms of our focus on encouraging international discussion and always reaching out to other areas of the world and comrades working in languages other than English. Another important continuity is the strong pedagogical focus of the journal; the journal is very much dedicated not simply to publishing the big stars or the established scholars but also to encouraging younger scholars and new emerging research projects.

Another element of continuity is our commitment to non-sectarian discussions and debates. We take very seriously the idea that theoretical debates in the Marxist tradition need to be conducted with the highest standards of scholarly rigor, rather than descending into slanging matches and ritualized abuse. This involves people, without negating their own political commitments, learning new ways of discussing and debating those commitments, beyond the sometimes very polemical and conflictual environments of militant politics.

So, we see ourselves very much as a necessary continuation of politics, albeit at a certain enabling distance. We certainly do not promote an academisist form of Marxism, whatever that may be.

At its best, HM has functioned as a complement to existing political debates and sometimes has helped to create a type of “demilitarized” space for productive scholarly and theoretical conflicts, rather than the destructive conflicts that sometime develop under the pressures of the conjuncture and the urgency of certain forms of militant politics.

The discontinuities are also noticeable. There have been different generations or phases of involvement on the editorial board. Some people for different reasons decided to become engaged in other projects or found their interests moving in other directions. We are thus always looking for the involvement of new members of the editorial board, seeking to connect with younger generations and thus developing an ongoing transmission of the political culture we have tried to develop.

George Souvlis

What do you think is the position of the journal in relation to other Anglophone left-wing journals/magazines like New Left Review, Socialist Register, Red Pepper, or Jacobin?

Peter D. Thomas

All of these journals are committed to broad discussions on the Left in different ways, and I think they should all be seen as complimentary elements of the broader contemporary left-wing and Marxist culture. In my personal view, I would suggest that one of the distinctive features of Historical Materialism is that we aim very seriously not at being an academic journal in a narrow professional sense, but at being a serious scholarly research journal.

Thus, the majority of the articles we publish are serious research papers that have emerged from long-term research projects; engagement with immediate political disputes or with contemporary political issues may very well figure in such articles, but that is not usually the primary focus. There is a certain “time” of theory, or temporality of theoretical practice, as Louis Althusser would have said, and we have tried to respect that temporal dimension, to enable the space for reflection and theoretical elaboration.

In terms of our relations with other Marxist journals in English, which I think also includes many other journals in addition to those you mention, such as Rethinking Marxism and Science and Society in United States, Thesis Eleven in Australia, Capital and Class in the UK, and so on, I think members of the editorial board of HM regard those journals as our comrades and collaborators in building a new left-wing theoretical culture of discussion and debate.

The focus of Historical Materialism, however, is in my view unapologetically theoretical, in a scholarly rather than academic sense, rather than directly interventionist (other members of the editorial board have different perspectives on this question — my comments should not be taken as an “official” position of the editorial board, which does not exist). I think that theoretical work, serious scholarly historical work, serious philosophical work, can make a very important contribution to the broader culture of the Left and to political activity as well.

I don’t think that it is useful or productive for people working in Marxist theory today to feel intimidated by some of the older divisions between an academic and an activist Marxism that emerged from the impasses encountered by the New Left. Theory also is a very important component of political practice, and theoretical practice has an important contribution to make to the broader culture of the Left, as one of our many “resources of hope.”

The Left needs places such as Historical Materialism and other journals to develop the theoretical tools which can then be taken up by all of us in different practices and political struggles.

George Souvlis

Another significant aspect of the Historical Materialism initiative is the conferences that it organizes which have a global character, considering that they are now held annually in four continents (India, Europe, Australia, USA/Canada). Would you like to comment on the origins of this and its transformation through time?

Peter D. Thomas

The Historical Materialism Conferences started in 2004. We held the first conference here, at Birkbeck College in London. It was quite a small gathering, sixty or seventy people, and it involved the collaboration from the beginning with Socialist Register and the Deutscher Prize Committee. It was an attempt to draw together and to connect with some of the older traditions of Marxist theoretical publishing and a new generation.

We really moved decisively the next year, in 2005, to expand our international focus, particularly in Europe at that stage, and in increasing years we have been working hard to be in contact with comrades in Latin America, in South Asia, in South-East Asia, in North America and in many other parts of the world including Africa and the Arabic speaking countries. We have had success in building bridges with some cultures more than others, but we continue to try to reach new discussion partners.

It has been an intense process of expansion: the conference grows each year, there are more and more proposals for panels and for papers. This year we received well over two thousand proposals for papers, though we only had room to accommodate a very small number of these — around 300. International interest has been expanding for a number of years now, with conferences in other parts of the world, such as Toronto, New York, Sydney and Delhi. We are presently engaged in ongoing discussions about organizing conferences in Berlin, in Vienna, in Moscow, in Rome, in Athens and in Brazil.

I think that we can explain this international interest in terms of comrades working in other countries identifying the type of conferences we organize as Historical Materialism as a distinctive model of discussion and debate on the Left. We offer space for theoretical reflection and serious theoretical debate, we do not tolerate sectarian polemics, and we insist that comradely and civil standards of debate are respected, even when people have strong and passionate disagreements.

We are also keen to create a space of discussion in which theory and politics can organically grow together; but as the young Marx teaches us, that means not only that theory should go towards politics, but also that politics should come towards theory.

I would thus suggest that in some sense the Historical Materialism conferences represent a space for a political form of “theoretical practice,” to use an Althusserian phrase (and again, this characterization is one with which many of my fellow editorial board members, non- or anti-Althusserians, certainly will not agree!). I think that our attempt to build the Historical Materialism conferences as a distinctive space of theoretical reflection on the Left has been successful if we judge by the number of people who come to the conferences regularly year after year and have identified these conferences as important spaces for the development of their own work.

It has also been successful judging by the wide international interest in holding events similar to the Historical Materialism conference in many other countries, either in direct collaboration in the journal or as independent initiatives (the recent conference held in Paris, Penser l’émancipation, could be taken as an example of the latter model, inspired in some ways by Historical Materialism).

I think the combination of these elements indicates that Historical Materialism has played a small modest role of leadership in promoting new models of discussion and debate on the Left; but it also indicates that there was a readiness amongst the left and amongst Marxists around the world to work together towards finding these new forms of debate and discussion.

I think that one of the reasons for such an interest has also been the fact that the upturn in social struggles over the last decade has been accompanied by a renewed need for theoretical clarification and preparation for future struggles. The conjuncture has thus given rise to a sort of ‘fortuitous encounter’ between theory and practice.

George Souvlis

The conferences have succeeded at creating a new solid radical milieu around them. What else has HM accomplished?

Peter D. Thomas

I think we have helped to create a space where there are ongoing discussions from one year to the next, which has led to the emergence of new and collective research projects out of Historical Materialism conferences. That has occurred not only in the sense of publications being produced, journal articles, edited collected volumes, and so forth, but also in terms of other conferences emerging from those workshops and seminars.

For a long period, in the 1980s and 1990s, the bridges of the international left collapsed and there was very little regular exchange between different national-theoretical cultures, with some important exceptions. We have attempted to create a space where there is more regular and ongoing contact between different cultures. The success of these efforts up to now is obviously only partially due to the efforts of the Historical Materialism editorial board; equally if not more important has been the enthusiasm with which people have responded to our initiatives, which is what has made them such a success.

Another distinctive feature of the conference of Historical Materialism this year in London was the fact that a lot of panels focused on discussions regarding the current feminist trends.

I think this is a fundamental and decisive development, and one towards which we have been working for very many years. We have been trying for over a decade to reinitiate the Marxist-feminist discussions which, for many difficult reasons, in some countries and some cultures on the Left internationally, had fallen apart after the upsurge of very interesting work in the 1960s and 1970s.

In some cultures, such as Germany, there was a continuing Marxist-feminist dialogue that was very productive, and continues today to produce important new work. In English-speaking world, for different reasons, there was a collapse of the important and integral contacts between important sections and Marxist and feminist theory.

Today, though, we are witnessing a new generation of young women — but also of queer theorists and people from other traditions — engaging with these questions and making an essential contribution to the new theoretical debates.

In my personal opinion, any future vibrant Marxist theory will necessary simultaneously be a socialist feminist-Marxist theory. We cannot develop Marxist theory without this central component, without theorizing one of the core areas of capitalist exploitation and oppression.

We are continuing to promote these discussions and debates and make them not simply one part or one disciplinary area of Marxist discussions, but absolutely fundamental to debates in all areas of Marxist theory. The response that we have received over the last years to these initiatives indicates that there is a lot of energy, particularly amongst younger socialist feminist theorists, to expand this project.

George Souvlis

Moving from the Historical Materialist initiative to something closer to your recent research interests, the tradition of Western Marxism.

Perry Anderson, in his famous book Considerations on Western Marxism supported the argument that “the first and most fundamental of Western Marxism’s characteristics has been the structural divorce of this Marxism from political practice.” Do you agree with this interpretation?

Peter D. Thomas

The concept of Western Marxism is a very fertile and also very problematic concept. The concept had been developed in different ways by theorists before Anderson’s important study, such as Merleau-Ponty and so forth. The economical formulation of the concept that was provided in Perry Anderson’s very creative synthetic work, Considerations on Western Marxism, helped to define a point of political and theoretical orientation in the debates in the 1970s.

Of course, Anderson’s concept was developed also as a way of reckoning accounts with over a decade of Anderson’s own work as editor of New Left Review, engaging with different theorists closely linked, in one way or another, to the communist parties in the postwar period.

I think historically there are some real problems with Anderson’s characterization as a way of comprehending the activity of many Marxist theorists in the “post-October” period. It seems to me quite problematic to characterize Lukács, and even more so Gramsci, as western Marxists in the sense provided to the term by Anderson (though he noted both of them as instances of the “transition” from a classical to western Marxist paradigm), particularly giving their intense engagement with the debates of the Comintern in the 1920s and the classical Marxist tradition.

For example, Gramsci develops many themes that are widely regarded as somehow Gramsci’s own concepts, but which of course in reality are concepts that were very well known to the classical Marxist tradition and particularly the debates of Comintern in which Gramsci participated. Notions of war of positions and war of maneuver were widely discussed by Lenin and Trotsky, for instance.

So, as a historical category, I think that there are some problems with the notion of Western Marxism — problems that today, in changed political circumstances, we should perhaps revisit and rethink, while attempting to develop other concepts to understand the different phases of the development of Marxist theory in the twentieth century. I think in the interwar period and then in in the post-World War II period, there are further complications that need to be taken into account.

One of these is the fact that for many continental Marxist theorists in this period, there was always a very important connection with political practice of different types and theoretical work. This is quite noticeable in particular in those “western Marxist” theorists who were not included in Anderson’s account.

In many respects, his central thesis in Considerations on Western Marxism was formed by means of a synthesis, or a particular reflection upon, the conditions of postwar German theoretical production in the Frankfurt School and some elements of later production in France (primarily among the so-called Althusserian school). Arguably, however, these currents were not in fact representative of broader trends in European Marxism in that period, but quite idiosyncratic or particular.

The real central point of reference for an analysis of Western European Marxist theory in the postwar period has to be upon the largest communist party in Western Europe, which was the Italian Communist Party and the massive galaxy of theorists that it produced. This culture of Marxist theory was quantitatively and qualitatively superior to anything France or Germany produced in the same period, a fact unfortunately only partially registered in the established histories of the period, and grossly underrepresented in terms of the translation and diffusion of post-war Western European Marxist theory into English.

I also think that Marxist theory in this period needs to be understood integrally and politically, that is, not simply in terms of theoretical productions (essays, books, etc.), but also in terms of the political impact of theoretical work. In that sense, the greatest Western Marxist theorist of the postwar period is not Sartre or Althusser or Colletti or any of the other figures discussed at length by Anderson, but instead, Palmiro Togliatti.

In addition to his own theoretical writings — of much greater value than is often supposed today — Togliatti was also a theoretician of politics engaged in creating a hegemonic apparatus that encouraged a profound and real dialectic and real critique of the politics of his period.

Whatever disagreements I might have with his substantive theoretical and political positions — and there are many — this should not preclude acknowledgment of his real importance as a theorist and politician with a real, mass impact on the politics of his time. The theoretical and political culture that Togliatti helped to shape in the Italian Communist Party, and in Italy more generally as this massive party’s sphere of influence radiated across the entire spectrum of the Left, was the example to which other leftists in Europe and around the world looked for inspiration.

Furthermore, Italy was also the site of a wide range of other important thinkers in the period, from the workerist tradition, in the work of Tronti and Panzieri — tragically neglected in the English-speaking world — through to such fascinating figures as Cesare Luporini and many others.

Taking these contributions into account helps us to modify the rather limited picture we can derive from focusing on Marxist theory in Germany, where there was a Berufsverbot against communist party members, or the situation in the French Communist Party, which, whatever prestige it had in the postwar liberation period, and whatever its undoubted strengths, was still the smaller cousin of the much more significant Italian party.

So, revisiting these categories help to us to rethink the real complexity of that period, moving beyond the type of geographical-historical distinction Anderson makes between western and classical Marxism, and to reconsider the political dimensions of the Marxist theory that developed in western Europe in the postwar period.

When we undertake such a rethinking, the situation seems very much different from the picture of a retreat from politics and economics to philosophy and aesthetics, as Anderson claims. Instead, we see the attempt to develop important elements of a political theory of Marxism — here, particularly Poulantzas’s work is one of the high-points of this phase — and also important work in developing not a Marxist economics but a concrete political critique of political economy in the work of some of the early Italian workerists and later also in value-form theorists in Germany.

In short, I think that it is time today to revisit these categories and to re-imagine other possible histories of Marxism in the postwar period, because such a re-imagining will also be one of the preconditions for re-imagining the possibilities of Marxism today.

George Souvlis

Is there something alive from the Western Marxist tradition today?

Peter D. Thomas

There are many important elements that continue to be fundamental. I think in some ways, elements of Althusser’s work and the theoretical anti-humanist tradition or moment in which he participated was a fundamental rupture that we can certainly ignore or neglect if we so choose, but whose historical significance we cannot negate.

There was very important work also in different directions produced in Italy, often by figures not discussed in Considerations on Western Marxism at any length, such as Magri, Gerratana, Badaloni, or Luporini. There were very important theoretical studies of the development of the critique of political economy that are essential for us today to understand, such as the works of Backhaus, Reichelt, Heinrich and also from other traditions in Germany, like the work of Wolfgang Fritz Haug and Frigga Haug.

I think that the main dimensions of so-called “Western Marxism” that might be still vibrant today will only be determined by our attempt to re-imagine forms of continuity with different Marxist traditions in our changed contemporary circumstances. It is this sense of Marxism not being a fixed position or a finished theory, as Althusser once said, but instead of Marxism being a growing and developing tradition, that will help us to determine which elements of that complex history can still speak meaningfully to our present circumstances.

George Souvlis

One last question regarding your book on Gramsci. I think that it is a response, among others, to two dominant interpretational schemes of Gramsci’s thought. On the one hand, it critiques Perry Anderson’s article “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” in which one of the central points is that in Prison Notebooks, there is not an adequate theory of the state.

On the other hand, I think it goes against the post-Marxist tendency, mainly developed by Chantal Mouffe and Erenest Laclau, in which hegemony is used as an analytical tool to interpret processes of social homogenization. Do you agree with this description? If yes, what are the points of your differentiation regarding these two interpretations?

Peter D. Thomas

I agree in broad terms with your understanding. You captured some of the main themes of my work on Gramsci. I began to work on Gramsci because I was very concerned about some of the dominant interpretations of his thought that I had encountered when I was a student in the early 1990s that represented him as someone who, despite remaining a communist militant until the end of his life after many years of suffering in a fascist prison cell, could be characterized as a type of exit, or “pre-exit,” from Marxism and the working-class movement, to which Gramsci had dedicated his life.

This seemed to me to be a slander against his memory as a militant, and it was necessary to confront that slander with the facts.

I considered that it was crucial not only for reasons of historical accuracy, but also because I think Gramsci is the fundamental theorist who formulated the most important perspectives for the future development of Marxism, perspectives that we desperately need to study and to work to develop today. Anderson’s argument ultimately claims that Gramsci was unable to develop a coherent theory of the state that was in accord with the traditional Marxist theory of the overcoming, the abolition, of the bourgeois or the capitalist state.

A much closer examination of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks reveals, though, that Gramsci in fact develops the most sophisticated theory of the capitalist state in the history of Marxism, one whose full significance we are only beginning to appreciate today.

I characterize it as the most sophisticated Marxist theory of the capitalist state also in comparison to the important work of Poulantzas, which I think was much closer to Gramsci’s work than Poulantzas himself was able to recognize. In some ways, the unsolved problems of Poulantzas’s theory of the modern state, and particularly of the political strategy needed to overcome it, are already present in Gramsci’s work.

Gramsci provides us with a powerful analysis of the ways in which the capitalist state represents a “condensation” of the social relations — of production, but also of daily life — that are developed in the context of a class’s hegemonic project. Equally, he provides the outlines for the development of a “politics of another type,” to use a Leninist phrase, of a politics of proletarian hegemony for the self-liberation of the subaltern classes.

So I think by engaging in the dialectic between Gramsci and Poulantzas, we will be more capable today of developing a new theorization of the state, but even more importantly, new forms of organization for the struggle against it. In that sense, Gramsci remains the fundamental author to whom we must always return if we wish to understand the nature of the capitalist state and the tasks required in order to oppose it effectively, in the perspective of abolishing it. It might even be the case that, in this sense, Gramsci is more “contemporary” than we are ourselves.

In terms of the theory of hegemony, obviously the work of Mouffe and Laclau was incredibly influential internationally and it contributed to the diffusion of the word “hegemony” in many different debates and disciplinary fields. However, I think when we read the Prison Notebooks in their entirety, in the critical edition, edited by Gerratana, we discover that Laclau and Mouffe’s theory itself has very little to do with Gramsci’s distinctive theory of hegemony.

For Laclau and Mouffe, hegemony is represented as fundamentally a theory of political unity. This approach belongs to a tradition of modern political thought that goes from Hobbes to Rousseau and beyond, which attempts to think processes of political unification and often homogenization.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, instead, which builds upon the debates in Russian Social Democracy and in the early Third International, is not a theory of political unity, nor is it a Weberian theory of legitimation. It is, instead, a theory of political leadership as a method of political work.

With the theory of hegemony, Gramsci was attempting to understand how it would be possible to introduce a dynamic element of progress into the really existing historical societies of his own time. He wanted to develop a technique of political work that will enable socialists, communists, and Marxists to effectively intervene into the struggles occurring in their societies and to provide leadership for movements that are attempting to resolve those real problems. In that sense, we can say that Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is today an open question.

We need to reconnect with that tradition of studying intensively and thinking seriously about the responsibilities of political leadership and about the ways in which we can encourage real forms of historical progress in our own times. In this very precise sense, Gramsci is the Machiavelli of the modern and the postmodern — if it is still acceptable to use such a contentious term — age. He is one of the central theorists who indicate the fundamental tasks of a revolutionary politics.

As Gramsci himself argued in relation to Machiavelli, one of the perennial fundamental political problems, which the Florentine Secretary himself had noted, was the existence of leaders and the led, the division between those who lead and those who are called upon to follow. For Gramsci, that problem, in the perspective of communist politics, became the problem of reducing the distance between the leaders and the led and the creation of forms of democratic self-determination and of self-governance in the very forms of struggle against the existing capitalist society.

Today, as we see a wide range of movements all around the world emerging, a new generation of critical energies is looking for forms of guidance from the past and theories that help them to understand the situations in which they act. I would suggest Gramsci is one of the fundamental resources from the classical Marxist tradition to which we can return, from which we still have very much to learn.