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Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (Princeton Paperbacks) Paperback – 25 Mar 2001

3.3 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 472 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 2Rev e. edition (25 Mar. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691070687
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691070681
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 3 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 523,328 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description


Winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize

"Cohen's blend of sound scholarship and acute philosophical reasoning has produced a work with which anyone seriously interested in understanding Marx must come to terms."--Peter Singer, New York Review of Books

"A clear, definite, and well-reasoned interpretation of what the theory really is. . . . Admirably argued and generally exhilarating."--Anthony Quinton, The Times Literary Supplement

"[Karl Marx's Theory of History] is an ambitious and impressive work. . . . Cohen writes with limpidity, verve, and honesty."--William H. Shaw, American Historical Review

From the Back Cover

"An admirable and formidable book."--E. J. Hobsbawm

"Every sentence has the feel of having been deeply thought through over a long period of time."--Gareth Stedman Jones

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Inside This Book

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LENIN SAID that the 'three sources and component parts' of historical materialism were German philosophy, British political economy, and French socialism. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

3.3 out of 5 stars
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Format: Paperback
Karl Marx's Theory of History has been rightly acclaimed as a classic of Marxism. Cohen's book has three aims. First, in distinction from Marxist philosophers such as Georg Lukács and Louis Althusser, Cohen wishes to set out what he considers to be Marx's view of historical materialism and not some revision of the theory. Second, by scouring Marx's texts, he wishes to represent Marx's theory in a logically consistent fashion. Thirdly, in representing the theory in this fashion he wants to refute its major critics. While Cohen achieves his first two aims in an impressive manner, he falls at the final hurdle.
The version of historical materialism Cohen defends, and which he convincingly demonstrates to be that held by Marx, is a form of technological determinism. Forms of society rise and fall, on this view, according to the level of development of the productive forces they possess. Adopting functional explanation, Cohen argues that the superstructure (the legal and political order of any class society) is as it is in order to support the relations of production (the way in which owners and producers relate to one another and the forces of production). The relations of production are as they are in order to promote the development of the productive forces. In other words, what drives the historical process according to Cohen, is the constant development of the productive forces.
As his critics have argued, how can we claim that there is constant development of the productive forces across societies when the historical record shows many instances of productive stagnation and even regression? Cohen argues, however, that there is no more than a tendency for the productive forces to develop.
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3 Comments 36 of 43 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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A book that every student of Marx must read! Thought, critics and debate are examined and discussed, carefully and critically. Ad maiora.
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Format: Paperback
As a species, humanity is prone to hubris and we all find the admission of failure difficult; especially if that admission must be made in the full glare of public scrutiny. Thus it often seems easier to 'manipulate' the facts, to give the impression that there has been no failure; rather than face public humiliation. Hence we frequently see massive organisations being very obviously led to disaster; whilst those employed within these organisations ignore reality, laud the 'vision' of their leaders and curry favours at every turn. A classic but far from unique example of this behaviour is the subject of this book; the old Soviet Union.

I felt this book should have made far clearer the fact that Tsarist Russia was a hugely wealthy empire; providing in abundance all the natural/mineral resources, raw materials, plus the vast hard-working population that a modern industrial power needs. It could have explained that in 1917, an accident of history placed the Bolsheviks in charge of that empire, when the long suffering Russian people finally refused to endure any more of the Tsar's incompetence. This small, incredibly fortunate group of determined young 'Socialist' idealists, set out to build the 'perfect' paradise world; whatever the initial costs and sacrifice.

Sadly, decade's of privation and misery followed; as these idealists cruelly bullyed and hectored their people, in mismanaged attempts to 'prove' that their fantasies would become reality. Rather than the long-winded, convoluted excuses the author provides, he could merely have explained that fifty/sixty years later, it was obvious to any impartial observer that the communist experiment had failed; and radical changes were urgently needed if the decaying system was not to collapse completely.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x9959a858) out of 5 stars 3 reviews
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x99733bdc) out of 5 stars Classic defense of the economic determinist interpretation 16 Jan. 2006
By cutting-edge - Published on
Format: Paperback
Cohen's classic book is a defense of the Second International thesis that the productive forces (roughly technology and labor power) are the "motive forces" of history. In the first version of the book this idea, widely disputed among Marxists, was intended to show that socialism was the necessary culmination of a history of increasing development of the productive forces. This is a difficult thesis to maintain today, and indeed in more recent work, some of which is embodied in the second edition of the book, Cohen retracts it, suggesting only that the development of the productive forces makes socialism possible. (Subsequently he seems to have backpedaled even on this.) The implications of the weakening of historical materialism (along with a sharp critique of Cohen's original view, one that he now largely accepts) were offered by Wright, Levine, and Sober in their Reconstructing Marxism, an essential companion piece to Cohen's book. They essentially involve taking apart the optimistic claims that Marxism offers an integrated scientifically based program of social change that inspires optimism about progress towards socialism. Cohen's main thesis, as an interpretation of Marx and as a _defense_ of Marx, seems much less plausible than, for example, the alternative "class struggle" interpretations of historical materialism urged, for example, by Robert Brenner or (formerly) Richard Miller in his Analyzing Marx.

Nonetheless, Cohen's book remains a model of clarity, depth, and ruthlessly honest exposition that shows up the places where it runs into problems. It contains must that is salvageable, not least an interpretation of what it is for the economic to be "primary" in terms of a theory of functional explanation, on which the ideological superstructure and the state are explained in part in terms of their functionality for the economic base, and revolutionary social change due to "fettering" of the productive forces understood in terms of dysfunctionality. People who like their Marx fuzzy and obscure enough to avoid intelligible criticism (Althusserians, for example) have never liked this book, but if Marxism _as a theory_ has a future in the wake of collapse of the Marxism _as a movement_, Cohen here set the standard for what that theory should look like in procedure and rigor if not necessarily in its substanative claims. Serious study of Marx's theory of history starts here.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x99733c3c) out of 5 stars A Strong Defense 25 Feb. 2004
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
In the Base-Superstructure debate that has been raging for a while, and still is, within modern Marxism, GA Cohen's Defense of Karl Marx's Theory of History is one of the more powerful blows struck and deserves to be read.
Cohen is a supporter of "the primary of productive forces" (the word primacy here being used to avoid the label of being a determinist or vulgar marxist) and argues to uphold the base-superstructure metaphor which Marx set forth in the 1859 preface to the Contribution to Political Economy. In a nutshell, the metaphor basically said that the base of all society is the economic structure, where everything else (legal and political institutions, for example) rise as a superstructure on this base. The implication is that the most influential thing in society is indeed our economic system. The further implication here, and surely what Marx was trying to say, is that capitalism is the defining aspect of everything and essentially the primarily determining entity in society.
GA Cohen upholds this metaphor by first scouring the 1859 preface, then other Marx works and finally arguing for the legitimacy of the "primary of productive forces" himself. His arguments are concise and powerful. If you are a serious student of Marxism, the read is basically mandatory and helps break the illusion that there is really one theory of Marxism and thats it. Cohen's interpertation of Marx tends to be the one that most people identify Marx with themselves and also tends to paint Marxism as cold and determinist (despite his attempts to keep away from the dreaded title).
However, if you are going to read this, be sure to read Althusser, Williams and Lukacs. These are the other three major points on the debate and reading them will give you a rounded perspective on the entire thing. I tend not to agree with Cohen (though that doesn't show in my rating) and think that if you read a lot of Marx, you can see he himself differing from Cohen. The famous 11th statement in his Thesis of Feurbach sums it all up:
"The philosophers have only interperted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."
Cohen's views on the economic base's primacy doesn't leave much room for this statement to be anything other than a hollow statement.
27 of 52 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x994fc8ac) out of 5 stars The starting point for all critics of Marx 21 Aug. 2005
By Dave Death - Published on
Format: Paperback
This book has some virtues, in terms of clarity of exposition, but as a reading of Marx it leaves a lot to be desired. Like Jon Elster's attempts of making (non)sense of Marx that followed it, this text reads into Marx a set of assumptions taken for granted within neoclassical economics but entirely foreign to Marx's work. If you want to see how Marx and Marxism measure up to the unquestionable and seemingly unthinkable criteria of bourgeois thought, read this. But if you want to understand Marx, read Althusser. 'For Marx' is a good place to start, but be sure to read the essays collected in 'The Humanist Controversy' and 'Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists' too, not to mention 'Reading Capital' and 'Machiavelli and Us' ... Cohen may be easier to read, but only because Cohen doesn't challenge any of the ideology of capitalism that is as invisible to most people as water is to the fish that swim in it.
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