History Versus Theory

Over the next couple of months I will be using this blog to make a few notes and try out a few ideas on a more substantial piece I am writing on the relationship between the academic discipline of sociology and political activism. This is the first note.

I am currently reading David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 2.  in the introduction but he makes a claim about the relation between Marx’s theory and his historical analysis. In particular there is a contrast between the historical analyses and the general framework of his political economy. His historical writings don’t seem to make much reference to his general theory and this in turn mostly ignores historical particularities. The generality of the theory is problematic when one attempts to apply it to concrete historical and political contexts and it is not clear how activist political programmes can be informed by it. However, according to Harvey, the exclusion of the historical details and contingencies allows Marx to develop a framework which transcends his own time and is applicable to the subsequent development of capitalism and today. Harvey refers to a more detailed account of this claim in his article  History versus Theory: On Marx’s Method in Capital. I have not so far managed to get hold of this but the summary in the introduction to his ‘Companion’ may be sufficient for my purpose which is to explore the tension between sociological ‘detachment’ and political engagement – the possibility of an activist sociology. Harvey concludes his introduction with a call to arms:

Confining himself so tightly within the level of generality permitted Marx to construct an understanding of capital that transcended the historical particulars of his own time. This is why we can still read him today – even Volume II – and make sense of so much of what he has to say. On the other hand, this framework makes for difficulties of any immediate application to actually existing circumstances. This is the work we are left to do.

Harvey’s approach implies that there is something more detached (more scientific?) about Marx’s general theory of capitalism as an economic system than is the case with his detailed historical and political writings.  His theoretical writings are about how things are, a relativity neutral account of how things work, whereas his political commentary is influenced by how he would like things to be and a programme to achieve this.  In my longer piece I will be questioning this distinction between the detached nature of  theory and the involved nature of politically orientated thought and action.  Rather than an opposition it might be seen as a fruitful, even unavoidable, alliance. It is here that Norbert Elias’s ideas on involvement and detachment and notions of ‘involved detachment’ and ‘detours via detachment’  can usefully be elaborated. I’m not aware of anyone reversing these terms before but there may be scope to explore the possibilities of ‘detached involvement’ and ‘detours via involvement’, especially the idea that there is a constructive dialectical relationship between theoretical accounts and politically informed projects. This would be particularly the case if an ‘objectively’ detached approach reveals the incomplete and contingent nature of history, politics and social reality and that it has always been ‘completed’ for the moment along with the ideological illusion of  finality (‘there is no alternative’ e.g.) by some group or others’ political project. If  ‘involvement’ in some fundamental social sense actually constitutes the objects of neutral detached ‘apolitical’ theoretical contemplation and theoretical construction, then the call for social sciences to be detached, objective and politically neutral is both forlorn and naive.

There is a video of a lecture Harvey gave in November 2011 with the same title as the later 2012 article History versus Theory: On Marx’s Method in Capital