In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

British MarxismRichard Norman
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence 
by G.A. Cohen.
Oxford, 369 pp., £10.50, December 1978, 0 19 827196 4
Show More
Marxism After Marx: An Introduction 
by David McLellan.
Macmillan, 355 pp., £8.95, December 1980, 0 333 72208 6
Show More
Show More

Is there a British Marxism? David McLellan’s new book offers, implicitly, an answer. In his comprehensive survey of ‘Marxism after Marx’, one of the 24 chapters is devoted to British Marxism – and it is almost the shortest in the book. After a brief history of the British Left, he mentions the good work of some Marxist historians and economists. But the implication is that there has been no distinctive Marxist tradition in this country, drawing on the particular features of the national culture. And that, I think, would be correct. Since the editors of New Left Review, some years ago, bemoaned the absence of a British Marxism, neither they nor anyone else have been able to do much more than fill the gap with importations.

In this situation, Cohen’s defence of historical materialism represents a significant new departure. Unlike most Marxists, and in particular most Marxist philosophers, Cohen sees great value in the techniques and achievements of British analytical philosophy. In his book he brings the resources of analytical philosophy to bear on the interpretation and defence of the Marxist theory of history. The result is immensely impressive. It must surely rank as the clearest, most rigorous and most convincing presentation of historical materialism to have been written. It stands in thoroughly welcome contrast to the generality of recent Marxist writing. Too often Marxism has been dressed up in obscure and pretentious garb. Too often, also, it has been presented by recent Marxists as a closed system of thought, a total conceptual system which can generate its own theses and permit the assessment of them, but which is not itself, as an overall framework, capable of verification or falsification Cohen’s object is to formulate historical materialism in a way which will effectively permit an assessment of its truth or falsity. He succeeds admirably, and in so doing reveals a subtlety in Marx’s own thought which has not often been appreciated by either his detractors or his admirers. Cohen then marshals arguments, appealing to general features of human nature and social life, in defence of the theory. That he is concerned to argue for the truth of the theory, not just to state and interpret it, is itself a disconcertingly rare event.

Is the book, then, a vindication of analytical philosophy? Here I am less convinced, and I am not sure exactly what Cohen wants to claim. The summary on the dust-jacket asserts that ‘the principles and methods of analytical philosophy, so often seen in hostility to Marxism, are rallied to interpret and defend it …’ But Cohen cannot be held responsible for the publisher’s blurb. His own formulation, in his Foreword, is that ‘the presentation respects those standards of clarity and rigour which distinguish’ 20th-century analytical philosophy. That is a significantly different way of putting it, and a more accurate one. The very fact that the book defends a large-scale theory of history, and appeals to extremely general claims about human nature, sets it apart from ‘the principles and methods of analytical philosophy’. One has only to recall the typical approach of analytical philosophers to the philosophy of history – analysing the logic of historical explanation and historical knowledge, but eschewing any general theory of history, and predisposed to suspect any such theory of being either a vacuous tautology or an empirical claim so general that it is bound to be false. So the very idea of a marriage between analytical philosophy, in the strict sense, and the Marxist theory of history must turn out to be a marriage of incompatibles. Cohen’s real debt to analytical philosophy (apart from superficial influences such as numbering the most important propositions, and translating some of them into symbolic notation in footnotes) is rightly described as a matter of ‘standards of clarity and rigour’. In that sense, the debt is a small one, but it is an important one: a debt not so much to analytical philosophy, perhaps, but rather to the British intellectual tradition in general, which has rightly prized the qualities of clarity, directness and unpretentiousness, and a preoccupation with verifiability or falsifiability. If these qualities were to become the hallmarks of a British school of Marxism, and if Cohen’s work were to stimulate such a development, this would be more than welcome.

In speaking of Cohen’s work in terms of a possible ‘British school of Marxism’, however, I ought not to give the impression that what he offers is a distinctively new version of Marxism. The approach is new, at least in its formal aspects, but the version of Marxism which Cohen defends is, as he puts it, ‘an old-fashioned historical materialism … a traditional conception in which history is, fundamentally, the growth of human productive power, and forms of society rise and fall according as they enable or impede that growth’. Appealing mainly to Marx’s 1859 Preface. Cohen argues for the view that super-structure and ideology are determined by the relations of production, which in turn are determined by the stage in the development of the productive forces. ‘Productive forces’ are held to consist mainly in instruments of production, raw materials and labour power. And I do not think it would distort Cohen to suggest that the implicit emphasis is on the first of these – instruments of production. For if we ask what could count as the development of these productive forces, the answer would surely have to be: technological development. Anticipating an accusation of ‘technological determinism’, Cohen points out that the development of productive forces can also be equated with the ‘enrichment of human labour power’. But it is difficult to see how, on his account, labour power could be enriched other than by technical and scientific invention.

McLellan would not, I think, like this version of Marxism. Not that his book is intended as a critical assessment of competing Marxisms. It is, rather, a guidebook, a survey of the various traditions of Marxist thought since Marx. McLellan doesn’t confine himself to the intellectual superstars of Marxism. Although he does indeed provide excellently clear and concise summaries of the thought of such as Lukacs, Gramsci, Sartre and Althusser, he also provides a remarkable amount of political history: the development of Soviet and of Chinese Marxism, for example, is narrated within accounts of the history of the Soviet and Chinese Revolutions. Not surprisingly, then, with all this ground to cover, McLellan has no space for an extended critique of any of these theoretical achievements. He largely limits himself to a historical survey: one which manages to be extremely informative within its relatively small compass. Not only is his account an admirably lucid one, achieving the impressive feat of compressing the work of such difficult thinkers as Lukacs and Althusser so as to render the original more comprehensible rather than more opaque. He also contrives to be eminently readable. The book has something of the quality of a family chronicle, in which we trace the vicissitudes of different branches of the family, as some of them find success but are then corrupted by it, while others struggle for years without reward or without recognition. (McLellan even provides us with a diagrammatic family tree, albeit a somewhat puzzling one, with some disconcertingly immaculate conceptions, and some unexplained diagonal lineages.)

So, though he is not out to provide an assessment, McLellan cannot help conveying some impression of what he takes to be the successes and the failures among the various versions of Marxism. And I suspect that he would link Cohen’s position with what he regards as the excessively mechanistic and fatalistic Marxism of the German Social Democrats and the Second International: he speaks, for example, of Kautsky’s ‘excessive emphasis on productive forces and objective necessity’. With this he often contrasts favourably a Marxism which he tends to describe as more ‘dialectical’ and as having learned more from ‘dialectical’ and as having learned more from Hegel. He sees these theoretical characteristics as going hand-in-hand with a greater emphasis on the active role of the working class in the political struggle for its own emancipation.

Cohen anticipates that his own position may meet with criticisms of this kind. The assertion of the primacy of productive forces is, he notes,

considered demeaning to humanity… Those who take this line stigmatise the thesis as ‘technological determinism’, and complain that it presents machinery and allied subhuman powers as the agencies of history. On the technological view – so it is felt – the inhuman prevails against men.

This assessment displays a failure to appreciate the extensive coincidence in fact and in Marx’s perception between the development of the productive forces and the growth of human faculties. Once we notice that the development of the forces is centrally an enrichment of human labour power the emphasis on technology loses its dehumanising appearance.

Cohen’s answer is fine as far as it goes. It shows that the development of productive forces is not something separate and remote from human activity. But what kind of human activity? Cohen still seems committed to the view that the kind of human activity capable of effecting social change would have to be not consciously political activity but technical and scientific activity: the invention of new technology, having as its unconscious by-product the emergence of new social relations. And this is apparent also in Cohen’s subsequent account of the role of class struggle in history. The role is necessarily a restricted one. The immediate explanation of historical change may be the successful political activity of a rising class, but, for Cohen, the political activity is successful only because it corresponds to the requirements of new productive forces. One would have to add, I think, that class struggle is on this account not only less than fundamental: it is also an activity whose nature is bound to be opaque to those who engage in it. Politically contending classes may see themselves as engaged in a struggle to end oppression and exploitation, but in reality their struggle is to facilitate the utilisation of new technology. The destruction of the power of an exploiting class may also come about, but only incidentally. Cohen’s position, then, remains one which can in a significant sense be described as politically pessimistic and ‘dehumanising’ – though of course it may, for all that, be correct.

I should like to suggest a possible modification to Cohen’s position which might avoid such criticisms, while remaining in keeping with the general pattern of his defence. I have in mind the status which he allots to ‘material relations of production’. By these he means the relations of co-operation and interdependence within the work process itself: relations governing, for example, the manning of a machine, the organisation of a production line, the technical division of labour within a factory or an industry or a network of exchange, and so on. Such relations would presumably also include the authority relations obtaining within the workplace: the nature and extent of the division between mental and manual labour, between managerial and directly productive functions etc. Thus the degree of workers’ self-management would be a feature of the material relations of production.

Within Cohen’s scheme these material relations of production are assigned to a kind of conceptual limbo. They are distinguished from the ‘relations of production’ proper, which are social relations, the ownership relations which make up the economic structure. This distinction is part of a wider distinction between the ‘social’ and ‘material’ elements of a mode of production, which Cohen takes to be of great importance for Marx’s historical materialism. The ‘relations of production’ proper are social, whereas the productive forces are material. But though the ‘material relations of production’ are also material in the requisite sense, Cohen doesn’t want to include them among the productive forces. This is because productive forces are things used in the activity of production, and hence ‘a force is not a relation.’

This exclusion seems arbitrary. Though material relations are not ‘used’ in the way tools are, one doesn’t have to force language in order to suggest that different kinds of material relations represent human capacities which can be utilised to extend productivity. Now if one were to include material relations of production among the productive forces, this would allow for a version of the Marxist theory immune to the accusations of ‘dehumanising’ which Cohen wants to avoid. For the development of productive forces would then include not just technological change but also the reorganisation of relations within the work process. And one could see this as capable of being brought about, not merely indirectly, but directly, through the struggle of human beings to emancipate themselves from oppressive relationships. Cohen’s defence of the primacy of the productive forces appeals in part to the assumption that in a situation of scarcity human beings, insofar as they are relatively rational, will use their intelligence to improve their situation by expanding their material productivity. Now these features of the human condition are surely equally capable of explaining, not just why human beings will tend to develop technical skills, but also why they will lend to change their material relations of production when this will enlarge their productivity. Cohen recognises that change may take the form of new techniques requiring new material relations, which in turn require new social relations. Why then shouldn’t the change in social relations be explained, in some cases, purely by the greater productivity of new material relations, without any need for further reference to (other) productive forces? (Marx, in a well-known and contentious section of Capital, describes the initial development of capitalist manufacture as taking precisely this form.)

The issue is, of course, of central importance for the possibility of change in a socialist direction. The technological version of Marxism must presumably place its hopes for a socialist society on the silicon chip. I should like to think that this is not the whole story: that the prospect for increased productivity in a socialist economy might also derive directly from the creative human energies which could be harnessed by the co-operative organisation of economic labour.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.