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Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos

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252SCIENCE
SOCIETY 
 
Science & Society 
, Vol. 70, No. 2, April 2006, 252–274
252
G. A. Cohen and the Critiqueof Political Economy 
 ALEX CALLINICOS
ABSTRACT 
: G. A. Cohen’s
Karl Marx’s Theory of History 
(KMTH)bears examination from the standpoint of the renewed critiqueof capitalism promoted by the anti-globalization movement.Cohen’s own current view of his book places it firmly within theframework of rational-choice Marxism, which is characterized by a nihilist attitude towards the entire tradition of Marxist politicaleconomy. KMTH itself displays an ambivalent attitude towards
Capital 
, simultaneously basing itself on a close reading of Marx’seconomic writings and seeking to make ever more explicit Cohen’s rejection of the labor theory of value. This results insignificant conceptual tensions, notably in Cohen’s effort sharply to distinguish between the material and the social, but also weak-ens KMTH’s account of the fettering of the productive forces by capitalist relations of production. The effect — particularly whencombined with Cohen’s espousal of rational-choice Marxism — is,regrettably, to shut him off from the current renaissance of Marx-ist political economy.
 A 
SSUMING THAT ONE’S INTEREST in Marxism is more thanphilological, any consideration of its theoretical foundationsmust always address the familiar question of this tradition’scapacity to help us engage with the present. Not, of course, that Marxism’s claim to intellectual attention is reducible to whatever isasserted about this capacity. One major contribution of Jerry Cohen’sgreat work
Karl Marx’s Theory of History 
(hereinafter KMTH) has beento remind us of Marx’s claim to offer a general theoretical account of the mechanisms of historical change. It is perfectly coherent todeny that Marx is of much help in addressing the present but to find
 
COHEN AND POLITICAL ECONOMY253
him — or at least the intellectual tradition he founded — indispens-able in unravelling, say, the mysteries of Byzantine history. Some suchdevice has no doubt helped many Marxist scholars to keep going overthe past 25 years. All the same, the problem of Marx’s relation to the present seemsinescapable. It has certainly survived all the efforts to bury him po-litically and intellectually since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whateverone thinks of Jacques Derrida’s attempt to recruit Marx to his haunto-logical speculations in
Spectres of Marx 
, Marx has certainly proved a very hard ghost to lay. The main reason is pretty obvious. Capitalism— certainly in the neoliberal form that supposedly triumphed withthe collapse of the Stalinist regimes — has become, with remarkablespeed, an object of contestation once again. The most visible evidenceof this shift is provided by the emergence since the Seattle protestsof November 1999 of a movement that has many names — the anti-globalization movement, the anti-capitalist movement, the global justice movement, the movement for another globalization — but one definite target, neoliberalism.The revival of protest has been accompanied by the re-emergenceof critiques of capitalism — most famously Naomi Klein’s
No Logo 
and, interestingly, more recently by the appearance of attempts tospell out programmatic alternatives — for example, Michael Albert’s
Parecon 
and George Monbiot’s
The Age of Consent 
. There has, in other words, been a rediscovery of Marx’s main subject, the critique of political economy. Yet — by comparison with the last great wave of radicalization in the 1960s and 1970s — it is striking how relatively marginal an intellectual reference point Marx himself is today. Some version of Marxism, however bizarre or bowdlerized, was the naturalterminus point of the individual political itineraries taken by hun-dreds of thousands of young people at the end of the 1960s. Now,however, if Marxism figures in the intellectual fare of their counter-parts today it is most likely in the extremely abstract and eccentric version offered by Michael Hardt and Toni Negri in their celebratedbook
 Empire 
, a work that generally seeks to disavow a connection withanything resembling Marxist orthodoxy.This state of affairs is easy enough to explain: its roots surely liein the crisis of Marxism and indeed more generally of the traditionalleft that set in during the second half of the 1970s. The present situ-ation is far from being an unhealthy one. There was much that 
 
254SCIENCE
SOCIETY 
deserved to perish in the long agony of the Western left during thelast decades of the 20th century. And it is a good discipline for those who still consider themselves Marxists to have to show a new genera-tion of activists that their tradition still has something to say to those who want to resist capitalism, rather than to rely on a kind of taken-for-granted equation of Marxism and anti-capitalism that was oftensustained by the influence of Stalinism in the Western workers’ move-ment. In any case, it is here that Marxism’s capacity to speak to thepresent must surely be tested: what does the tradition (or, more ac-curately, the cluster of traditions) inaugurated by Marx have to offerto those seeking to develop a critical understanding of capitalism inits present forms and of the feasibility of alternatives to it?
1
Analysis and Dogmatism 
It is in the light of this question that I intend to assess KMTH. But how does Cohen himself now judge the overall significance of hisproject? In the Introduction to the 2000 edition of KMTH, he distin-guishes broad and narrow senses of the term “Analytical Marxism”:“analytical thinking, in the broad sense of ‘analytical,’ is opposed toso-called ‘dialectical’ thinking, and analytical thinking, in the narrowsense of ‘analytical,’ is opposed to what might be called ‘holistic’ think-ing” (xvii).
2
Cohen offers very little elaboration about Analytical Marx-ism in the broad sense, beyond the assertion that “belief in dialectic asa
rival 
to analysis thrives only in an atmosphere of unclear thought”(xxiii). He does say rather more about the narrower version:
In that narrower sense the analyticalness of analytical Marxism is its dispo-sition to explain molar phenomena by reference to the micro-constituentsand micro-mechanisms that respectively compose the entities and underliethe processes which occur at a grosser level of resolution.... Insofar asanalytical Marxists are analytical in this narrower sense, they reject the point of view in which social formations and classes are depicted as entities obey-ing laws of behaviour that are not a function of the behaviours of their con-stituent parts. (xxiii.)
1I try to offer some answers of my own in Callinicos, 2003. I am grateful to all those whotook part in the conference on KMTH for which the original version of this paper was written, and in particular to Jerry Cohen himself. I would also like to thank Alan Carlingand Paul Wetherly for their very helpful comments on a revised version.2All undated references in the text are to Cohen, 2000.

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