Marxism is an approach to
Marxist theory that was prominent
amongst English-speaking philosophers and social scientists during the
1980s. It was mainly associated with the September Group of academics,
so called because of their biennial September meetings to discuss
common interests. Self-described as "Non-Bullshit Marxism", the
group was characterized, in the words of David Miller, by "clear and
rigorous thinking about questions that are usually blanketed by
ideological fog." The most prominent members of the group were G.
A. Cohen, John Roemer, Jon Elster, Adam Przeworski, Erik Olin Wright,
Hillel Steiner, and Philippe van Parijs.
Members of this school seek to apply the techniques of analytic
philosophy, along with tools of modern social science such as rational
choice theory to the elucidation of the theories of
Karl Marx and his
successors. The best-known member of this school is Oxford University
philosopher G.A. Cohen, whose Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence
(1978) helped start this school. In that book, Cohen attempted to
apply the tools of logical and linguistic analysis to the elucidation
and defense of Marx's materialist conception of history. Other
prominent analytical Marxists include the economist John Roemer, the
social scientist Jon Elster, and the sociologist Erik Olin Wright.
They all have attempted to build upon Cohen's work by bringing to bear
modern social science methods, such as rational choice theory, to
supplement Cohen's use of analytic philosophical techniques in the
interpretation of Marxian theory.
Cohen himself would later engage directly with
Rawlsian political philosophy in attempt to advance a socialist theory
of justice that stands in contrast to both traditional
Marxism and the
theories advanced by political philosophers such as the left-liberal
John Rawls and the right-libertarian Robert Nozick. In particular, he
points to Marx's maxim of "from each according to his ability, to each
according to his needs."
Rational choice Marxism
2.2.1 Jon Elster
3.3 Justice and power
4 See also
8 External links
Marxism is understood to have originated with the
publication of G. A. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence
(1978). Cohen's book was, from the outset, intended as a defence of
historical materialism. Cohen painstakingly reconstructed
historical materialism through a close reading of Marx's texts, with
the aim of providing the most logically coherent and parsimonious
account. For Cohen, Marx's historical materialism is a technologically
deterministic theory, in which the economic relations of production
are functionally explained by the material forces of production, and
in which the political and legal institutions (the "superstructure")
are functionally explained by the relations of production (the
"base"). The transition from one mode of production to another is
driven by the tendency of the productive forces to develop. Cohen
accounts for this tendency by reference to the rational character of
the human species: where there is the opportunity to adopt a more
productive technology and thus reduce the burden of labour, human
beings will tend to take it. Thus, human history can be understood as
a series of rational steps that increase human productive power.
At the same time as Cohen was working on Karl Marx's Theory of
History, American economist
John Roemer was employing neoclassical
economics in order to try to defend the
Marxist concepts of
exploitation and class. In his A General Theory of Exploitation and
Class (1982), Roemer employed rational choice and game theory in order
to demonstrate how exploitation and class relations may arise in the
development of a market for labour. Roemer would go on to reject the
idea that the labour theory of value was necessary for explaining
exploitation and class. Value was in principle capable of being
explained in terms of any class of commodity inputs, such as oil,
wheat, etc., rather than being exclusively explained by embodied
labour power. Roemer was led to the conclusion that exploitation and
class were thus generated not in the sphere of production but of
market exchange. Significantly, as a purely technical category,
exploitation did not always imply a moral wrong (see section Justice
Rational choice Marxism
By the mid-1980s, "analytical Marxism" was being recognised as a
"paradigm". The September group had been meeting for several years,
and a succession of texts by its members were published. Several of
these appeared under the imprint of Cambridge University Press's
series "Studies in
Marxism and Social Theory", including Jon Elster's
Making Sense of Marx (1985) and Adam Przeworski's Capitalism and
Social Democracy (1985). Among the most methodologically controversial
were these two authors, and Roemer, due to their use of rational-actor
models. Not all analytical Marxists are rational-choice Marxists,
Elster's account was an exhaustive examination of Marx's texts in
order to ascertain what could be salvaged out of
Marxism employing the
tools of rational choice theory and methodological individualism
(which Elster defended as the only form of explanation appropriate to
the social sciences). His conclusion was that – contra Cohen – no
general theory of history as the development of the productive forces
could be saved. Like Roemer, he also rejected the labour theory of
value and, going further, virtually all of Marxian economics. The
"dialectical" method is rejected as a form of Hegelian obscurantism.
The theory of ideology and revolution continued to be useful to a
certain degree, but only once they had been purged of their tendencies
to holism and functionalism and established on the basis of an
individualist methodology and a causal or intentional explanation.
Przeworski's book uses rational choice and game theory in order to
demonstrate that the revolutionary strategies adopted by socialists in
the twentieth century were likely to fail, since it was in the
rational interests of workers to strive for the reform of capitalism
through the achievement of union recognition, improved wages and
living conditions, rather than adopting the risky strategy of
revolution. Przeworski's book is clearly influenced
by economic explanations of political behaviour advanced by thinkers
Anthony Downs (An Economic Theory of Democracy, 1957) and
Mancur Olson (The Logic of Collective Action, 1965).
The analytical (and rational choice) Marxists held a variety of
leftist political sympathies, ranging from communism to reformist
social democracy. Through the 1980s, most of them began to believe
Marxism as a theory capable of explaining revolution in terms of
the economic dynamics of capitalism and the class interests of the
proletariat had been seriously compromised. They were largely in
agreement that the transformation of capitalism was an ethical
project. During the 1980s, a debate had developed within Anglophone
academia about whether
Marxism could accommodate a theory of justice.
This debate was clearly linked to the revival of normative political
philosophy after the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice
(1971). Some commentators remained hostile to the idea of a Marxist
theory of justice, arguing that Marx saw "justice" as little more than
a bourgeois ideological construct designed to justify exploitation by
reference to reciprocity in the wage contract.
The analytical Marxists, however, largely rejected this point of view.
G. A. Cohen (a moral philosopher by training), they argued that
Marxist theory of justice had to focus on egalitarianism. For Cohen,
this meant an engagement with moral and political philosophy in order
to demonstrate the injustice of market exchange, and the construction
of an appropriate egalitarian metric. This argument is pursued in
Cohen's books, Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995) and If
You're an Egalitarian How Come You're So Rich? (2000b).
Cohen departs from previous Marxists by arguing that capitalism is a
system characterised by unjust exploitation not because the labour of
workers is "stolen" by employers, but because it is a system wherein
"autonomy" is infringed and which results in a distribution of
benefits and burdens that is unfair. In the traditional Marxist
account, exploitation and injustice occur because non-workers
appropriate the value produced by the labour of workers. This would be
overcome in a socialist society where no class would own the means of
production and be in a position to appropriate the value produced by
labourers. Cohen argues that underpinning this account is the
assumption that workers have "rights of self-ownership" over
themselves and thus, should "own" what is produced by their labour.
Because the worker is paid a wage less than the value he or she
creates through work, the capitalist is said to extract a
surplus-value from the worker's labour, and thus to steal part of what
the worker produces, the time of the worker and the worker's powers.
Cohen argues that the concept of self-ownership is favourable to
Rawls's difference principle as it ensures "each person's rights over
his being and powers" — i.e. that one is treated as an end always
and never as a means — but also highlights that its centrality
provides for an area of common ground between the
Marxist account of
justice and the right-libertarianism of Robert Nozick. However, much
as Cohen criticises Rawls for treating people's personal powers as
just another external resource for which no individual can claim
desert, so does he charge Nozick with moving beyond the concept of
self-ownership to his own right-wing "thesis" of self-ownership. In
Cohen's view, Nozick's mistake is to endow people's claims to
legitimately acquire external resources with the same moral quality
that belongs to people's ownership of themselves. In other words,
proprietarianism allows inequalities to arise from differences in
talent and differences in external resources, but it does so because
it assumes that the world is "up for grabs", that it can be justly
appropriated as private property, with virtually no restriction(s).
Marxism received criticism from a number of different
Marxist and non-Marxist.
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A number of critics argued that analytical
Marxism proceeded from the
wrong methodological and epistemological premises. While the
analytical Marxists dismissed "dialectically oriented"
"bullshit", others maintain that the distinctive character of Marxist
philosophy is lost if it is understood "non-dialectically". The
crucial feature of
Marxist philosophy is that it is not a reflection
in thought of the world, a crude materialism, but rather an
intervention in the world concerned with human praxis. According to
this view, analytical
Marxism wrongly characterizes intellectual
activity as occurring in isolation from the struggles constitutive of
its social and political conjuncture, and at the same time does little
to intervene in that conjuncture. For dialectical Marxists, analytical
Marxism eviscerated Marxism, turning it from a systematic doctrine of
revolutionary transformation into a set of discrete theses that stand
or fall on the basis of their logical consistency and empirical
Analytical Marxism's non-
Marxist critics also raised methodological
objections. Against Elster and the rational choice Marxists, Carver
argued that methodological individualism was not the only form of
valid explanation in the social sciences, that functionalism in the
absence of micro-foundations could remain a convincing and fruitful
mode of inquiry, and that rational choice and game theory were far
from being universally accepted as sound or useful ways of modelling
social institutions and processes.
Cohen's defence of a technological determinist interpretation of
historical materialism was, in turn, quite widely criticised, even by
analytical Marxists. Together with Andrew Levine, Wright argued that
in attributing primacy to the productive forces (the development
thesis), Cohen overlooked the role played by class actors in the
transition between modes of production. For the authors, it was forms
of class relations (the relations of production) that had primacy in
terms of how the productive forces were employed and the extent to
which they developed. It was not evident, they claimed, that the
relations of production become "fetters" once the productive forces
are capable of sustaining a different set of production relations.
Likewise, Cornell political philosopher Richard W. Miller, while
sympathetic with Cohen's analytical approach to Marxism, rejected
Cohen's technological interpretation of historical materialism, to
which he counterpoised with what he called a "mode of production"
interpretation which placed greater emphasis on the role of class
struggle in the transition from one mode of production to another.
The Greek philosopher Nicholas Vrousalis generalized Miller's
critique, pointing out that Cohen's distinction between the material
and social properties of society cannot be drawn as sharply as Cohen's
Marxist critics argued that Cohen, in line with the Marxist
tradition, underestimated the role played by the legal and political
superstructure in shaping the character of the economic base.
Finally, Cohen's anthropology was judged dubious: whether human beings
adopt new and more productive technology is not a function of an
ahistorical rationality, but depends on the extent to which these
forms of technology are compatible with pre-existing beliefs and
social practices. Cohen recognised and accepted some, though not
all, of these criticisms in his
History, Labour, and Freedom (1988).
Roemer's version of the cause of change in the mode of production as
due to being inequitable rather than inefficient is also the source of
criticism. One such criticism is that his argument relies of the legal
ownership of production which is only present in later forms of class
society rather than the social relations of production.
Justice and power
Many Marxists[weasel words] would argue that
Marxism cannot be
understood as a theory of justice in the sense intended by the
analytical Marxists. The question of justice cannot be seen in
isolation from questions of power, or from the balance of class forces
in any specific conjuncture. Non-Marxists may employ a similar
criticism in their critique of liberal theories of justice in the
Rawlsian tradition. They argue that the theories fail to address
problems about the configuration of power relations in the
contemporary world, and by so doing appear as little more than
exercises in logic. "Justice", on this view, is whatever is produced
by the assumptions of the theory. It has little to do with the actual
distribution of power and resources in the world.
Criticisms of Marxism
^ Acton, H. B. (1955). The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-
a Philosophical Creed, Cohen and West.
^ Cohen 2000a.
^ Cohen, G.A. (1978), ix. Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence,
Clarendon Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-827196-4.
^ Miller 1996.
^ Roemer 1986.
^ Veneziani 2010.
^ Wood 2004.
^ Cohen 1995.
^ Cohen 1995.
^ Carver and Thomas 1995; Roberts 1997.
^ Levine and Wright 1980.
^ Miller 1984.
^ Vrousalis 2015.
^ Carter 1988.
^ Hirst 1985.
^ Wood 2004.
^ a b http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/farmelant080809.html
^ Levine, A. and Olin Writght, E., 1980. Rationality and Class
Struggle in New Left Review, I/123, September–October 1980
^ Analytical Marxism:
Socialism without Class Struggle by Gil Hyle.
Trotskyist International Issue 20. 30 June 1996.
Acton, H. B. (1955) The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-
Leninism as a
Philosophical Creed, Cohen and West.
Carter, A. (1988) Marx: A Radical Critique. Boulder: Westview Press.
Carver, T. and Thomas, P. (eds.) (1995) Rational Choice Marxism.
London: MacMillan. ISBN 0-271-01463-6
Cohen, G. A. (1978) Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. Oxford:
Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-691-02008-6
Cohen, G. A. (1988) History, Labour, and Freedom: Themes from Marx.
Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-824816-4
Cohen, G. A. (1995) Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47751-4
Cohen, G. A. (2000a) Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence
(Expanded Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cohen, G. A. (2000b) If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So
Rich? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Elster, J. (1985) Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. ISBN 0-521-29705-2
Elster, J. (1986) An Introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. ISBN 0-521-33831-X
Gordon, D. (1991) Resurrecting Marx: The Analytical Marxists on
Freedom, Exploitation, and Justice. New Jersey: Transaction
Publishers. ISBN 0-88738-390-4
Hirst, P. (1985) 'G. A. Cohen's Theory of History', in
Historical Writing. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7100-9925-8
Husami, Z. I. (1980) 'Marx on Distributive Justice', in Marx, Justice,
and History. Ed. M. Cohen, T. Nagel, and T. Scanlon. Princeton:
Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02009-4
Levine, A. and Wright, E. O. (1980) 'Rationality and Class
Struggle[permanent dead link]', New Left Review 123.
Mayer, T. F. (1994) Analytical Marxism. Thousand Oaks, California:
Sage. ISBN 0-8039-4681-3
Miller, D. (1996) London Review of Books, October 31, 1996.
Miller, R. W. (1984) Analyzing Marx: Morality, Power, and History,
Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01413-2
Przeworski, A. (1985) Capitalism and Social Democracy. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-26742-0
Roberts, M. (1996) Analytical Marxism: A Critique. London: Verso.
Roemer, J. (1982) A General Theory of Exploitation and Class.
Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-674-34440-5
Roemer, J. (ed.) (1986) Analytical Marxism. Cambridge: Cambridge
Tarrit, F. (2006) 'A Brief History, Scope and Peculiarities of
"Analytical Marxism"', Review of Radical Political Economics 38.4.
Van Parijs, P. (1993)
Marxism Recycled. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. ISBN 2-7351-0536-9
Veneziani, R. (2010) 'Analytical Marxism'. Journal of Economic Surveys
Vrousalis, N. (2015) The Political Philosophy of G.A. Cohen. London:
Bloosmbury. ISBN 1-472-52828-X
Wood, A. (2004) Karl Marx. New York: Routledge.
Wright, E. O. (2003) 'Autobiographical Essay', in Stephen Turner and
Alan Sica (eds.), A Disobedient Generation. Thousand Oaks, California:
Sage Publications. ISBN 0-7619-4275-0
Erik Olin Wright, Interrogating Inequality: Essays on Class Analysis,
Socialism and Marxism, Verso, 1994, Ch. 8: "What is Analytical
Nicolas Vrousalis, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, Oxford
University Press, 2016 "Analytical Marxism"
G. A. Cohen
Erik Olin Wright
Philippe Van Parijs
Robert-Jan van der Veen