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John Molyneux

The latest thing

(June 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review 121, June 1989, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Marxist Theory
Ed. Alex Callinicos
OUP £6.95

THE FIRST thing to be said about this collection of articles is that its title is misleading. Marxist Theory might suggest this will be an exposition of the main outlines of Marx’s thought or some kind of representative selection of classical Marxist writing.

In fact it is neither. It is a selection of essays from one small tendency within current academic Marxism – the school of “analytical Marxism”.

Analytical Marxism is a trend which has developed since the late 1970s predominantly within the universities of the English speaking world and is concerned with what it is pleased to call “high theory”, i.e. “the basic explanatory principles of historical materialism and their relationship to philosophical doctrines and debates”.

Its main aim is to effect a marriage between Marxism and the tradition of Anglo Saxon analytical philosophy. In its own words it “is distinguished by the use of ‘state of the art methods of analytical philosophy and positivist social science’” (J. Romer cited by Callinicos). Its main work to date is Gerry Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History – a Defence.

Marxist Theory comprises primarily four articles relating to issues arising from Cohen’s book. They include arguments for and against the primacy of the forces of production over the relations of production in historical materialism, for and against the legitimacy of functionalist-type explanations in Marxism and the applicability of “game theory” to the analysis of the class struggle.

This debate climaxes in a rather pathetic article by Cohen virtually renaming Marxism. There is also a useful but over-reverential critique of the Weberian sociologist Anthony Giddens by Callinicos and two rather turgid articles on ethics by Richard Miller and Norman Geras.

I am not over enamoured with this work. There are four main reasons for this.

First, I disagree completely with the whole approach to Marxism exhibited here. I take it as fundamental that Marxism is the theory of proletarian revolution. Its purpose is to serve as a guide to action in the class struggle. For this reason all the real advances and breakthroughs in Marxism have come from revolutionaries actively involved in trying to change the world.

It is practice which poses the problems which generate theory. It is in practice that theory is tested. Academic Marxism, for all its self-proclaimed erudition, rigour and precision, has contributed little of lasting value to the real Marxist tradition.

Analytical Marxism strikes me as a version of Marxism at its furthest remove from practice and from the working class. It is a Marxism of the senior common room and the ivory tower – scholastic and pedantic in the extreme.

By comparison the likes of Marcuse and Sartre, Althusser and Poulantzas appear as engaged militants. The corruption of such an isolated and detached school, its infection by bourgeois academic ideology is surely as inevitable as the corruption of Labour MPs and trade union bureaucrats cut off from rank and file control.

Cohen’s lamentable reconsideration of historical materialism is a case in point. He says he does not exactly believe that historical materialism is false but is “not sure how to tell whether or not it is true” and besides it doesn’t matter very much because: “The political significance of retreat from historical materialism should not be exaggerated”. It is impossible to imagine someone who felt a responsibility to the working class writing in this kind of petty bourgeois sceptical manner.

Secondly, I disagree altogether with the philosophical foundations of this enterprise. Analytical Marxism, we are told, is “post-Hegelian Marxism” and also “post-Althusserian Marxism” in that its precondition was “the expulsion of Hegelian modes of thinking from Marxist theory” and in so far as Althusser’s main achievement was to break out of the Hegelian straightjacket!

But the Hegelian dialectic is one of the key building blocks, or component parts, as Lenin puts it, of the Marxist synthesis. In its materialist form it is Marxism’s philosophical foundation and cannot simply be discarded without a major break with the Marxist tradition.

Moreover, the materialist dialectic has proved itself, in the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky etc., to be a most powerful tool for the analysis of the development of capitalism and the class struggle.

What does post-Hegelian Marxism offer in its place?

In the case of Althusser we are offered a mixture of alienated structuralism and idealism which served as a bridge to outright anti-Marxism and revisionism.

In the case of analytical Marxism we get abstract metaphysics and a choice between mechanical technological determinism and individualist game theory. The fruits of technological determinism have already been seen in the Marxism of the Second International. And is it really suggested that game theory will yield analysis of the class struggle superior to The Eighteenth Brumaire, Results and Prospects or other books contaminated by the Hegelian dialectic? If so, one can only say that this book provides no evidence for it.

My third reason for disliking this book is that I find most of the specific arguments advanced false. For reasons of space two examples must suffice.

On the question of the forces and relations of production, it is essential for the coherence of historical materialism to defend the orthodox position on the primacy of the productive forces – but not in the deterministic way Cohen defends it.

The forces of production are primary in that they are the point of departure for the Marxist theory of history. But they are not the whole story. The development of the forces of production to the point where they come into conflict with the relations of production both throws the old order of society into crisis and creates the materialist basis for the new higher order. But this does not in itself ensure the transition. This depends on the outcome of the class struggle, which is not technologically or economically predetermined.

On Jon Elster’s methodological individualism it is of course true (indeed it is a truism) that societies are composed of individuals, but it does not follow from this that the individual can be regarded (whether historically or methodologically) as prior to society. The individual is always a social individual – the product of society.

Elster’s notion of social structures as the unintended consequences of individual actions neglects the fact that the fundamental human activities are production and reproduction and both are and always have been social activities.

Even that favourite exception Robinson Crusoe proves the rule, for Crusoe produces on his island with the aid of tools and knowledge that are social acquisitions. Elster concedes that “many properties of individuals such as ‘powerful’, are irreducibly relational, so that accurate description of one individual may require reference to other individuals”, but this is a massive understatement.

The first property of individuals that is irreducibly relational and requires reference to other individuals is that of being human. Human beings are irreducibly social.

My fourth reason for disliking this book is that I feel Alex Callinicos has been trapped by his role as editor into being far too uncritical of this specious Marxism. And when he is critical he is far too diplomatic.

The problem is that his name on the jacket unavoidably associates him with the contents of the book. The danger is that the subtle caveats and carefully qualified objections that litter his introduction will be insufficient to counter the impression that he is somehow recommending this feeble fare as “the latest thing” in Marxism when in reality it is merely “the latest thing” in the repetitive story of revisionism.

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