British Marxism

Richard Norman

  • Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence by G.A. Cohen
    Oxford, 369 pp, £10.50, December 1978, ISBN 0 19 827196 4
  • Marxism After Marx: An Introduction by David McLellan
    Macmillan, 355 pp, £8.95, December 1980, ISBN 0 333 72208 6

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.