Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence
Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence is a 1978 book by Gerald Cohen that interprets Marxism as a scientific theory of history. The culmination of Cohen's attempts to reformulate Karl Marx's doctrines of alienation, exploitation, and historical materialism, it applied the techniques of analytic philosophy to the elucidation and defence of Marx's materialist conception of history, thereby helping to establish Analytical Marxism. The work for which Cohen is best known, it was awarded the Isaac Deutscher memorial prize.
Cohen's interpretation of Marx, which resembles that of Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov, runs counter to most forms of twentieth century Marxism and has been seen as a form of technological determinism. Critics have seen its determinism as misguided.
Interpretation of Marx
Cohen maintains that the technological determinism of Marx's summary of his science of history in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy defines his real views on the subject, a view with which other scholars have disagreed. This interpretation of Marx closely resembles that of Kautsky and Plekhanov, and runs counter to most forms of twentieth century Marxism, which emphasized the importance of the relations of production. Cohen employs analytic philosophy to make his case. He defends technological determinism by arguing for two theses, which he calls the "development thesis" and the "primacy thesis." The development thesis rests upon three presuppositions: that human beings are "somewhat rational", that their historical situation is one of scarcity, and that they "possess intelligence of a kind and degree which enables them to improve their situation." The existence of scarcity ensures a struggle for survival, the existence of intelligence ensures that scarcity-reducing innovations will occur, and the existence of rationality ensures that there will be a tendency to adopt them. Cohen seeks to establish the primacy thesis by arguing that different relations of production have differential capabilities for generating growth in the productive forces at different stages of development.
Influence and scholarly evaluation
Cohen's work helped establish Analytical Marxism as a school of thought, was praised by scholars such as David McLellan, and historian G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, and came to be seen as a classic. Its interpretation of Marxism was called brilliant yet "old-fashioned" by Peter Singer, while Norman Geras described it as the leading philosophical discussion of the way in which the character of human beings in any setting depends upon the nature of the prevailing social relations. Roger Scruton, though finding Cohen's attempt to present historical materialism as a scientific hypothesis impressive, observes that it shows how difficult it is to develop the necessary concepts. M. C. Howard and J. E. King note that Cohen's ideas have played no role in the debate on underdevelopment. They find this surprising, given their relevance to it. They believe that Cohen's analysis is of higher quality than that of the main protagonists in the debate, reinforcing their critical view of the work of Paul Baran, Andre Gunder Frank, and Immanuel Wallerstein.
Terry Eagleton, who understands Cohen to be espousing a determinist theory in which productive forces automatically produce certain social relations, finds Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence to be a skillful defense of a "wrongheaded" idea.
- Karl Marx: His Life and Environment
- Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend
- The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World
- Singer, Peter (2000). Marx: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 105. ISBN 0-19-285405-4.
- Kymlicka, Will (1995). Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 139. ISBN 0-19-866132-0.
- Howard, M. C.; King, J. C. (1992). A History of Marxian Economics Volume II, 1929-1990. London: Macmillan. pp. 213, 223. ISBN 0-333-38814-3.
- McLellan, David (1995). Karl Marx: A Biography. London: Papermac. p. 440. ISBN 0-333-63947-2.
- de Ste. Croix, G. E. M. (1989). The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. xi. ISBN 0-8014-9597-0.
- Berlin, Isaiah; Ryan, Alan; Carver, Terrell (1995). Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. London: Fontana Press. p. 213. ISBN 0-00-686339-6.
- Geras, Norman (1983). Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend. London: Verso Editions. pp. 39–40. ISBN 0 86091 767 3.
- Scruton, Roger (1985). Thinkers of the New Left. Harlow: Longman Group Limited. pp. 100–101. ISBN 0-582-90273-8.
- Eagleton, Terry (2012). Why Marx Was Right. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 49, 242, 243. ISBN 978-0-300-18153-1.