Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
‘The concrete totality as a totality of thought, as a thought concretum, is in fact a product of thought and conception; but in no sense a product of the concept thinking and engendering itself outside or over intuitions or conceptions, but on the contrary, a product of the elaboration of intuitions and conceptions into concepts.’
Karl Marx, 1859.
What is the problem of History? It is, as Marx puts it, that we do not make our history, be it personal or collective, under circumstances of our choosing.
What are these circumstances?
To describe them and the manner in which they seize hold of us, never again quite to release their grip, consider what happens to a child born into a specific society, in a particular place, at a particular moment in time:
Before anyone is ever born, on the eve of one’s birth, assuming that one does not come into the world in a moment when everything is a matter of war or utter chaos, but even to a high degree under those circumstances, men and women are already highly organized, one could say ‘fixed,’ into definite patterns of social existence.
Already, there are customs and rituals being observed; expectations about how men and women are to behave in contradistinction to one another; specific technologies of production to which are wedded specific social relations, i.e., individuals who, being part of a system of production, assume specific functions within that system, as peasants or mechanics or engineers or plant managers, and so on. A state may rule over the people, governing through a host of overseeing bureaucracies and institutions, adding other layers of imbricated social complexity to the original and underlying mix, further elaborating the overall division of labour of society; part and parcel to all of this is an ideological dimension, itself subject in some respects to the phenomenon of specialization, since professions or specific roles within the overall system of production and oversight help to produce not only goods and services but also to cast mindsets into very specific molds, since work habits do not become established but by also becoming the conditioned reflexes of the minds of the people who acquire and manifest them.
All of this taken together comprises what we can call a society, and this society, of course, interacts with its natural environment, itself very much an aspect of this social system that both conditions and is conditioned by that system, since a society cannot but change its natural environment, and that change in turn must impact the practices of the society – the rituals, the activities of production, the social relations therein embedded, entrenched opinions and beliefs, and so on – since either a society adapts to its incrementally or rapidly impacted natural environment or it begins to disintegrate.
A child, then, is born into a world that, although always changing, sometimes quickly, but mostly incrementally, is from her standpoint already fully formed and stable if not exactly static.
Willy-nilly, the child will come to conform to a high degree to the practices and beliefs and attitudes that are widespread and common in her society and that saturate and structure her experiences; thus the child inherits, through the pressures of enculturation and environmental conditions, as many modalities of the ambient culture(s) as she is exposed to and internalizes.
Therefore, it is as if an element of fate is at play: the child does not pick and choose or invent which practices and beliefs and attitudes will eventually become her own, or to the degree that she does, she will only manage it within a very limited scope of tolerance for self-expression or idiosyncrasy. She will at some point and for a while and in most respects be very much the product of her cultural environment, and for most, this condition obtains into and throughout their adulthood. This is the case not just for each child, but for all children, without exception.
Since all children are in this fashion enculturated, since they are molded into the persons they become by the ‘conditions of existence,’ which includes all aspects of culture, they cannot possibly be responsible for their enculturation, for the cultural habits that eventually become the sum of their individual practices in body and mind as adults; and we can add to this that in this way culture – which is inherited somewhat like a genetic constitution, uncritically assumed because it must be assumed by everyone in the course of their childhood, as a thing for which no one is really responsible – consequently has a life of its own, so to speak, independent of the will or desires of any one individual, and that also as a consequence, may be spoken of as being in effect a ‘force of nature,’ a ‘material force’ that molds the character of all men and women.
Louis Althusser somewhere suggests (I forget where for the moment) that what Marx took over from Hegel, what he took to be the nub of rationality in Hegel, was that history was a process without a subject. 
Hegel saw culture as the divine emanation of God in the world and called it Spirit; he understood that culture seemed to evolve quite independently of men’s collective desires or aspirations. But he believed that cultural change, in the dimension of ideas, of articulated cultural or academic consciousness, happened first in the sequence of historical change and that then all of the other modalities of social life, that is, the rituals and practices of men, followed in its train.
For Marx, however, inverting Hegel’s thesis was a better approximation to what Marx then deemed to be the reality: change did not by and large happen first in the thoughts of people, and especially not in the minds of academics or philosophers, but tended to occur first in the material circumstances of life, be it in the natural environment or in the independently, unconsciously evolving cultural conditions or dimensions of society, forcing men to alter their practices in an attempt to adapt to what was largely beyond their control, into contriving this or that very specific strategy of mitigation. Only after such new mitigating practices, hit upon by trial and error, had successfully materialized or become customary, did the thinking emerge which delusively claimed itself to be the cause and raison d’être of these now institutionalized practices.**
So, for example, the tenets of the discipline of ‘political economy’ were not first created in the heads of people like Adam Smith and David Ricardo as the projected bases for a new society that was subsequently to be developed into what today we call capitalist society. Rather, the structured whole that we call capitalism was already up and running by the time it began to be formally theorized and explained, and reasons concocted to justify its existence, by people like Smith and Ricardo. The effect of their efforts was not to urge and inspire men into bringing capitalism into existence, but to legitimize by theorizing an already existing (or almost fully fledged) system of juridical, political, and economic relations and practices.
Insufficiently self-aware, theoretically uncritical or innocent of its own epistemological stance toward its object of inquiry, the ‘political economy’ of people like Smith and Ricardo, as an intellectual discipline, becomes yet another layer of culturally induced cognitive reflexes further entrenching and stabilizing the social relations of capitalist society by providing an additional array of rationales for the presumed natural necessity and indisputable legitimacy of those relations.
So we have in the examples of Smith and Ricardo and, yes, even in Hegel, as well as in most all other intellectuals of Marx’s day and even of our own, a mode of theorizing society that merely decodes or maps out what already exists in practice, and thus Marx is able to suggest that the contents of the minds of men, as a general rule, even as they struggle to arise to a condition of lucid contextual awareness, is more a passive mirroring and acceptance of what is, of the world as it is already embodied in its immediate and structured material effects.
This mindset, Marx might have argued, is the conditioned, conservative and unreflective mindset of the status quo; as such, it is the most prevalent and dominant outlook of a society, and being inherently unreflective, is incapable of critically distancing itself from the reality in which it is submerged. The social reality which exists, of which it is the offspring, is from the standpoint of this mindset what should exist if only because it is what in fact exists.
Of course, not everyone who is an ideological product of his social circumstances — and everyone is — is in this manner unreflectively conservative and a born cheerleader of things just as they are, although such people tend to be far and few between, even among those who may be ill served or roundly abused by their circumstances.
All societies and social circles have their non-conformists and dissenters, people who in spite of themselves notice problems that tend to be played down or entirely ignored by the ascendant and blinkered orthodoxy.
They notice things like poverty and hunger and war and oppression, and wonder why these things might be happening and how they might be stopped, and in their wonder, they reflect, and in the course of their reflections come to recognize patterns in the way that they themselves think or have been taught to regard the world around them and their place in it, in the way that some of these patterns are common to their peers and others not; and then their awareness of who and what they are, of the degree of their own unwitting complicity in the miseries and horrors they cannot discount, begins to shift and augment, and soon they are talking and even behaving differently than once they did, becoming a disturbance in the complex unity of all established and accepted social practices, which include, among a great many others, political practices (spontaneous or formally organized) and ideological practices (which affect the consciousness of men and thereby, at least potentially, how they might behave – practices, that is, whether of a kind that is “. . . religious, political, moral, legal or artistic . . .” (Louis Althusser, 1963)).
And herein lies the hope of our future, I think, that reflection — in this day being prompted by the reality of increasing dislocations and misery — itself may become an endemic social practice in its own right, thereby multiplying the odds that we collectively arrive at an accurate understanding of those social relations among us, in which we ourselves are implicated, that make for domination, dispossession and oppression, that we might on the basis of this awareness develop other sets of organized social practices whose end is the effective disruption and eventual quashing in our society of the exploitation of man by man — to echo Frantz Fanon, as he put it in addressing the issue of racism:
I, the man of color, want only this:
That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever. That is, of one by another. That it be possible for me to discover and to love man, wherever he may be.
The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.
Both must turn their backs on the inhuman voices which were those of their respective ancestors in order that authentic communication be possible. Before it can adopt a positive voice, freedom requires an effort at dis-alienation. At the beginning of his life a man is always clotted, he is drowned in contingency. The tragedy of the man is that he was once a child.
It is through the effort to recapture the self and to scrutinize the self, it is through the lasting tension of their freedom that men will be able to create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world.
Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?
Was my freedom not given to me then in order to build the world of the You?
[. . .] I want the world to recognize, with me, the open door of every consciousness.
My final prayer:
O my body, make of me always a man who questions!
Frantz Fanon, 1986
**(In my opinion, Marx’s inversion of Hegel simply consists in the recognition that ‘society’ is a complex ‘whole’ or ‘totality’ that includes the natural environment as well as every other aspect of ‘human existence’ that you care to isolate or objectify; nothing could ever be as simple as Spirit – ideas, intuitions, concepts – being the causa sui of history, although to be sure, ideas and concepts most certainly do affect the course of history, but within narrow limits, as merely parts of a very complex and dynamic whole.)
Pertaining to this claim that I make:
“Louis Althusser somewhere suggests (I forget where for the moment) that what Marx took over from Hegel, what he took to be the nub of rationality in Hegel, was that history was a process without a subject.”
While I still can’t remember “where” I read “that” in Althusser’s work, I did come across this in something that I am in the middle of reading at this moment, which proves that I’m not imputing “ideas” to Althusser that he did not in fact hold (and with which I happen to agree):
Last year, in a paper I read at Jean Hyppolite’s seminar, I showed what Marx owed to Hegel in theory. After critically examining the dialectic of what may be called the conceptual experiment carried out by Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts, where Feuerbach’s theory of the alienation of the Human Essence underwent a Hegelian injection, precisely the injection of the process of historical alienation – I was able to show that this combination was untenable and explosive, and in fact it was abandoned by Marx on the one hand (the Manuscripts were not published and their theses were progressively abandoned later), while on the other it produced an explosion.
The untenable thesis upheld by Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts was that History is the History of the process of alienation of a Subject, the Generic Essence of Man alienated in ‘alienated labour’.
But it was precisely this thesis that exploded. The result of this explosion was the evaporation of the notions of subject, human essence, and alienation, which disappear, completely atomized, and the liberation of the concept of a process (procès or processus)without a subject, which is the basis of all the analyses in Capital.
Marx himself provides evidence of this in a note to the French edition of Capital (this is interesting, for Marx must have added this note three or four years after the appearance of the German edition, i.e. after an interval which had allowed him to grasp the importance of this category and to express it to himself). This is what Marx wrote:
The word ‘procès’ (process) which expresses a development considered in the totality of its real conditions has long been part of scientific language throughout Europe. In France it was first introduced slightly shamefacedly in its Latin form – processus. Then, stripped of this pedantic disguise, it slipped into books on chemistry, physics, physiology, etc., and into a few works of metaphysics. In the end it will obtain a certificate of complete naturalization. Let us note in passing that in ordinary speech the Germans, like the French use the word Prozess (procès, process) in the legal sense [i.e. trial] (Le Capital, Editions Sociales, t.I, p. 181n.).
Now, for anyone who ‘knows’ how to read Hegel’s Logic as a materialist, a process without a subject is precisely what can be found in the Chapter on the Absolute Idea. Jean Hyppolite decisively proved that Hegel’s conception of history had absolutely nothing to do with any anthropology. The proof: History is the Spirit, it is the last moment of the alienation of a process which ‘begins’ with Logic, continues with Nature and ends with the Spirit, the Spirit, i.e. what can be presented in the form of ‘History’. For Hegel, quite to the contrary of the erroneous view of Kojève and the young Lukács, and of others since them, who are almost ashamed of the Dialectics of Nature, the dialectic is by no means peculiar to History, which means that History does not contain anywhere in itself, in any subject, its own origin. The Marxist tradition was quite correct to return to the thesis of the Dialectics of Nature, which has the polemical meaning that history is a process without a subject, that the dialectic at work in history is not the work of any Subject whatsoever, whether Absolute (God) or merely human, but that the origin of history is always already thrust back before history, and therefore that there is neither a philosophical origin nor a philosophical subject to History. Now what matters to us here is that Nature itself is not, in Hegel’s eyes, its own origin; it is itself the result of a process of alienation which does not begin with it: i.e. of a process whose origin is elsewhere – in Logic. (Source: Lenin before Hegel, Althusser, 1969 [– you will want to scroll down almost to the bottom of the page].)