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Book Review: 'Karl Marx’s Theory of History'

Marx of a Philosopher

'Karl Marx’s Theory of History', by G. A. Cohen. Oxford University Press, 1978, £10.50

The basis of life under capitalism is the workers' sale of labour power to the employers, although this is not generally accepted as a true description of the world we live in. This is so for a number of reasons. On that basis there arise other relations and institutions which serve it and are subordinate to it, and may be very different in kind. Someone may work in a large organisation which obscures class relations, and their own conception of the nature of society and their place in it may leave no room for a recognition of the basic and unpalatable truth. No doubt this plays an important role in the present acceptance of capitalism.

One kind of institution which masks the basic relation and may seem a long way from it is the department of philosophy, a place where young men and women (nearly all workers, as in the population at large) go to gain degrees and diplomas. They may appear to go there to pursue knowledge for its own sake. In fact they are receiving a mental training which equips them for their subsequent tasks as computer workers, managers, civil servants, teachers and so on, in the service of the capitalist class. We can be sure that governments would not spend large sums of money on such places were it otherwise. Nor would provision have been made for an increasing number of students to study the subject. (At Oxford University, one in four take it as some part of their course.)

But what goes on in these places? Don't people just sit around uttering vague, pompous waffle about the Meaning of Life? The answer is that, to some extent, it depends where you are. In the English-speaking world nothing could be further from the truth. Arguments are subjected to the most rigorous and detailed scrutiny, all terms must be defined, all claims supported. It would be truer, indeed to say that here people sit around talking about the meaning of words. (This is a reflection of a line of approach which has been present in philosophy since Socrates. He argued, for example, that he could not decide whether virtue could be taught until it had been stated what virtue meant.)

In itself an insistence on clarity and definition of terms should be welcomed. But in philosophy it has often come to predominate at the expense of the substance of arguments; it has become sterile nit-picking about words. That is one reason why linguistic philosophy in the English-speaking world has hitherto found no place for the study of Karl Marx, who on the whole is not a nitpicker but makes large claims about the nature of society.

In contrast, there is another tradition of thought on some parts of the continent, notably France, where grand thoughts prevail, precision is not highly regarded and Marx gets a look in. Unfortunately, his thought is often so distorted that you could be forgiven for thinking it was a different Marx altogether who was being talked about. Take these choice examples of garbage from the French Stalinist philosopher Louis Althusser:

    "... a philosophical reading of Capital is quite the opposite of an innocent reading. It is a guilty reading, but not one that absolves its crime on confessing it. On the contrary, it takes the responsibility for its crime as a 'justified crime' and defends it by providing its necessity. It is therefore a special reading which exculpates itself as a reading by posing every guilty reading the very question that unmasks its innocence, the mere question of its innocence: what is it to read?

    However, Marx's Dialectics would have been very relevant to us today, since it would have been the Theory of Marx's theoretical practice, that is, exactly a determinant theoretical form of the solution (that exists in the practical state) to the problem we are dealing with: the problem of the specificity of the Marxist dialectic."

Small wonder that Marx exclaimed, concerning French Marxists of his own day, that he himself was no Marxist. Impenetrable rubbish like this contributes nothing to a clear understanding of the nature of capitalism and gives people a perfect excuse for ignoring Marx's theories.

In the context of such murk G A Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History comes like a hard beam of light on a foggy night. He rejects Althusser's approach and states his twin aim of respecting what Marx wrote and also the standards of rigour in the first philosophical tradition mentioned above. On the whole he is highly successful in both respects, and if that tradition goes on ignoring Marx it is no longer for want of a first-rate philosophical text.

In the main part of the book Cohen explains and defends the idea that growth in productive power is the basis of human history, so that different forms of society, different sets of relations between human beings, different class conflicts, come and go depending on how appropriate they are for the continuation of such growth. There is elaborate and painstaking discussion of all the terms implicit in this idea – productive forces, productive relations, the difference between raw materials and instruments of production, what it means to say that other features of society are explained by the development of its productive power, what counts as an example of each of these things, and so on. There are many interesting and enlightening discussions along the way (for instance on the fetishism of commodities), and later in the book Cohen shows that the thirst for profits under capitalism works to prevent an easing of the burden of toil for the worker. Attributions of any view to Marx are supported by detailed reference to his works.

But the question arises whether Cohen does not succeed too well in his stated aims. He is prepared to spend several pages teasing out the meaning of two (admittedly important) sentences from Marx's Preface; he pauses and considers too politely the quibble that workers can own means of production because a garment cutter may own a pair of scissors; he deliberates whether empty space is a productive force. Precision, indeed, but it leaves the book with a certain imbalance. For such attention to marginal questions of detail inevitably leaves fewer pages for the very wide and substantial questions which Cohen also expresses views on. It reinforces the impression that this is philosophy book first and a book about Marx second, and suggests that Cohen's view of the wood is impaired by his love for the trees, and indeed the twigs.

For example, he says little or nothing to back up his claims that there are industrial societies which are not capitalist (he seems to think Russia is one such), that there are doubts about the adequacy of the earth's resources, that there exist "the broad middle classes" and that "Marxist tradition expects revolution only in crisis". All of these views we should reject, and we should certainly challenge anyone who expresses them merely in passing.

Yet there is much in the book which is correct and ought to have saved Cohen from these errors. He recognises that socialism will be a moneyless, democratically planned system of common ownership, that it requires a superabundance to be feasible as well as working class unity, and also that class is a matter of one's relation to the means of production.

Why then does he not get it right? Perhaps only because his main concern with a meticulous statement and defence of the material preconditions of socialism. It is almost as if he thought the human precondition – a united and politically conscious working class – will take care of itself. But it will not. The very idea of taking hold of the means of wealth and creating a moneyless world hardly present at all in the minds of workers and is easily dismissed as cranky. That is why it is so vital to establish it as a serious political possibility. It would be sad indeed to think that Cohen is prepared to advance this idea between the covers of a philosophy book but not in his own political activity.

Again, his statement that "All classes are receptive to whatever ideas are likely benefit them" will bring a wry smile to the face of any socialist who has endured abuse from fellow workers. This will not be true until a class sees itself as a class, and the so-called Marxists of the left wing have created as much confusion here as any defender of capitalism, with their talk of "workers and intellectuals" (as though someone paid to think was not a worker) and the perennial "middle class". Cohen had all the materials to hand to dispel this pernicious confusion and make plain that all those who are dependent on the sale of their labour power are workers. He does not do so, and in that respect (though not in others) his book is a missed opportunity.

The conclusion is therefore irresistible that it is as important for Cohen to read the Socialist Standard as it is for readers of the Socialist Standard to read this unusual and impressive book.

Bill Valinas

Related Reading

George Orwell: “Politics and the English Language” in Collected Essays.

Keith Graham: J. L. Austin. A Critique of Ordinary Language Philosophy.

SPGB: Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse (1932).

Socialist Party of Canada: A World of Abundance.

Susan George: How the Other Half Dies.

E. P. Thompson: The Poverty of Theory.