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International Socialism, Spring 1981


Ann Rogers

Review of G. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History – A Defence


From International Socialism, 2 : 12, Spring 1981, pp. 125–128.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Since its publication, Cohen’s book has acquired a formidable reputation in certain left circles; both as heralding a return to orthodox Marxism, and as a masterpiece of philosophical rigour. Cohen himself sees his mission as being to introduce the ‘precision of intellectual commitment’ which he thinks was a product of British philosophy’s engagement with logical positivism, to an interpretation of historical materialism ‘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.’

According to Cohen, ‘The primacy thesis is that the nature of a set of production relations is explained by the level of development of the productive forces embraced by it.’ (Cohen’s emphasis). In order to develop this thesis, in accordance with a technological interpretation of history, Cohen introduces several subsidiary theses. The most important of these are as follows:

  1. That the productive forces ‘tend to develop throughout history’ (henceforth referred to as ‘the development thesis’).
  2. That historical development can only be understood given some ‘permanent facts’ about human nature. In particular Cohen argues that the inevitability of socialist revolution lies in ‘what men, being rational, are bound predictably to do.’
  3. That there is an absolute distinction between the social and the material in Marx’s work. The distinction between the forces and relations of production being a special case of this distinction.
  4. That Marxism is a form of functional explanation, i.e. it explains the existence of economic structures not by looking at the forces that created them, but in terms of their success in the development of the productive forces.

The first two theses we shall consider here, looking in particular at Cohen’s arguments which are both internally incoherent and lead to reformist conclusions.

The Development Thesis

The development thesis is basically the notion that ‘the productive forces have a systematic tendency to develop’. Cohen notes the ‘striking historical datum: that societies rarely replace superior productive forces by inferior ones’ as empirical evidence to reinforce his argument.

The argument depends on an assertion that a theory of history is not answerable to ‘abnormal occurrences’. Cohen is right about this when he cites, as examples of abnormal occurrences, such things as natural disasters like earthquakes. But he realises there is a real problem in accounting for such phenomena as the decline of the Roman Empire: he admits it was ‘accompanied by an appreciable deterioration of the productive forces in Europe.’ But his technological interpretation of historical materialism means he is forced to try to distinguish the ‘normal’ course of history in which productive forces develop in a relatively uninhibited way) from periods in which the productive forces are restricted in their development. This leads to Cohen asserting that

‘... if we could devise a concept of a normal society comparable to that of a normal organism we could distinguish between historical theory and historical pathology, and we could enter the development thesis as an hypothesis within the former. It should not be impossible to construct a suitable concept of social normality.’

‘If we could’? But that is a very big ‘if. It begins to look like an arbitrary and ad hoc device to avoid the very real evidence that would refute Cohen without it. Besides, if Cohen is right, then Marx is wrong and historical materialism is not above all a location of the contradictions inherent in class society, and a guide to the revolution necessary to resolve them. So it is worth pointing out the strangeness of Cohen’s attempt to defend historical materialism by ghettoising such contradictions in the realm of ‘historical pathology’ rather than ‘historical theory’.

Cohen adopts this view because he believes that ‘When the relations endure stably, they do so because they promote the development of the forces.’ He does however recognise that there is an asymmetry between those production relations which facilitate the development of productive forces and those which do not. The latter are taken to be a temporary historical aberration, where the relations have not yet caught up with the forces. Such a notion is hard to reconcile with an economic system such as ageing capitalism which has become locked in crises. Wisely (for himself) Cohen ignores the questions of the constant reappearance of economic crises throughout the history of capitalism even when it was rapidly expanding the forces of production. If he looked at such crises more closely he would realise that they exist at the core of capitalism, not just as peripheral malfunctions.

Understanding this leads to theories which emphasise the need to overthrow capitalism. As it is, the logic of Cohen’s argument is to expect the productive forces and the production relations automatically and inexorably to realign themselves this logic leads to serious omissions: he fails to give an adequate account of forces such as the state, or ideology in maintaining capitalism, and the continuing struggles involved in doing so.

Human Nature

Cohen says that: ‘It is a Marxist tradition to deny that there exists an historically invariant human nature.’ Therefore he goes to considerable lengths to justify his utilisation of such arguments. He wishes to base the development thesis on ‘claims about what people are like in all times and places.’

These claims are as follows: (i) that men are ‘somewhat rational’, (ii) that the historical situation of men is one of scarcity, and (iii) that men possess intelligence of a kind and degree which enables them to improve their situation.

There is a difference in the status of these claims. In the second Cohen is speaking about a certain type of biological animal in a certain type of physical situation. In this sense he is correct to argue that Marxists must accept that human beings have an invariant nature. But the other two claims introduce concepts (of ‘rationality’ and ‘intelligence’) which go beyond the notion of the person as a physical entity into the realm of what is socially conditioned or even socially produced.

It is giving these fundamentally different types of attributes the same logical status which leads Cohen to attempt to explain (in part, at least) the development of productive forces in terms of human inertia. He tells us: ‘There is a strong, partly unreasoned attachment to the inherited productive forces, as to nearly everything in human life. People adapt themselves to what they are used to. Yet productive forces are frequently replaced by better ones.’ Cohen is here using supposed facts about human nature to justify what he takes to be the apparent stability of society. But this immediately presents him with the problem of trying to give an account of radical change.

Cohen argues that the Marxist dislike of arguments appealing to human nature is a response to the fact (undoubtedly true) that such arguments have generally been used by conservatives to justify authoritarianism. He thinks he can use such arguments without the implication that permanent features of human nature are the nasty anti-social features beloved by conservatives. But concepts of a permanent human nature are very often implicit (though rarely explicit) among reformists as well as conservatives. Behind the notion of representative democracy lies the assumption that the mass of the human race (especially the proletarian part of it) are, by nature, passive rather than active. Although they may have periods of activity in times of extreme crisis these are essentially aberrations, which do not last long enough to make workers’ power, rather than workers’ representation, a real option. It is to this category that features such as Cohen’s notion of inertia belong.

Cohen ties his notion of permanent human nature closely to the science of biology, as is currently fashionable among left (and not so left) philosophers. He tells us ‘Man is a mammal with a definite biological constitution, which evolves hardly at all in some central respects throughout the millennia of history.’

The problem with such an argument is that there is no satisfactory way of isolating these permanent aspects. Furthermore technology has an awkward habit of undermining the ‘permanence’ of some of them. A good example of this would be contraception, which has radically altered the seemingly central biological facts of human reproduction.

Cohen’s final argument for the permanent features of human nature is both very old and quite invalid. He says ‘Must they [Marxists] not accept that human beings have a nature in virtue of which a given form of society shapes their behaviour in a particular way?’, an old argument because it is just a restatement of a philosophical tradition which goes back to Plato; stating that there must be something which exists as permanently unchanged if we are to account for change. And it is an invalid argument even if we accept Cohen’s biologism. For he has moved from a thesis concerning the physical nature of human beings to one about their social nature, without offering any arguments as to the connection between the two.

Technological Determinism

Cohen argues as if it is only technological determinists like himself who admit that productive forces have any role to play in history. He speaks as if, unless we assign primacy to the productive forces, we are unable to explain why socialism didn’t follow from the Stone Age. In short, he contrasts his model of history with that of voluntarism. He decries those who see class struggle as the motor of history, but is himself unable to give any account of the contradictions between forces and relations of production which give rise to class struggle.

The great weakness of Cohen’s argument is that it is completely unable to provide a guide to political action (and conversely an explanation of such action). On Cohen’s model class struggle should arise when, and only when the ‘exhaustion of the productivity of the old order is reached.’ What this point is, and how we recognise that it has been reached, is never explained. We have no idea at which points for Cohen, class struggle becomes functional (to ‘unlock the productive forces’), and therefore at which point it becomes a politically viable option. Instead he tells us:

‘... that class tends to prevail whose rule would best meet the demands of production. But how does the fact that production would prosper under a certain class ensure its dominion? Part of the answer is that there is a certain stake in stable and thriving production, so that the class best placed to deliver it attracts allies from other strata in society.’

Cohen comes dangerously close to replacing the notion of class seizing power with that of a broad alliance which will unlock the productive forces and therefore serve the general good. He has no way of explaining the resistance which attempts to ‘unlock the productive forces’ will face. Thus he gives no account of how the proletariat should go about seizing power.

This inability to see classes as an expression of the contradictions within capitalism means that Cohen is unable to locate the state as a political expression of the ruling class. Instead it becomes a ‘political guardian’ which deals out reforms to the working class when this will suit the development of the productive forces. The state is counter-posed to the individual capitalist who is unable to see what is good for capitalism as a whole. This view has a certain superficial plausibility (or rather it would have had before state capitalism appeared) in that it is frequently in capitalism’s interests to concede to the demands of workers. But this is not only to improve the productive power of capitalism, but also to deflect the militancy of workers. Cohen is correct that reform is essential to capitalism’s survival but wrong about the reasons. Reform is necessary because of the contradictions within capitalism – expressed above all by the class struggle – not because of the needs of capitalism with regard to the productive forces.

Because Cohen is unable to come to terms with capitalism as a contradictory system, he is only able to offer an inadequate and reformist account of what action is necessary for its overthrow. The inadequacies of the politics, in fact, reflect the illogical gaps in the philosophy and history that underpin it.

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