On Your Marx

Marx and History: From Primitive Society to the Communist Future

by D. Ross Gandy
University of Texas Press, 190 pp., $14.95

Marx's Interpretation of History

by Melvin Rader
Oxford University Press, 242 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Marx's Theory of History

by William H. Shaw
Stanford University Press, 202 pp., $12.50

Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence

by G.A. Cohen
Princeton University Press, 369 pp., $18.50

Standing by Karl Marx’s grave, Friedrich Engels spoke to the assembled mourners of Marx’s achievements. First among them he placed Marx’s discovery of “the law of development of human history,” a discovery he compared with Darwin’s discovery of the law of development of organic nature. Marx’s discovery was, Engels went on, that “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.”

That Marx’s materialist conception of history is the core of his thought cannot be disputed; he said so himself on more than one occasion. Engels’s interpretation of it is another matter. The nature of Marx’s “law of development of human history” has been the subject of dispute since Marx’s own lifetime, when his Russian readers debated whether Russia would have to become a fully developed capitalist nation before it could pass over to socialism. Asked for his opinion, Marx replied that different circumstances could lead to different outcomes—a reply which must have cheered the Russians, but is not easy to reconcile with what he says elsewhere.

After Marx’s death, Engels had to handle a barrage of queries about the theory of history. His—and Marx’s—exasperation at some interpretations is shown by a letter in which he describes Marx, irked by misrepresentations of his theory, exclaiming: “All I know is that I am not a Marxist!” Yet the summary Engels gave at Marx’s graveside is obviously inadequate, for a chronological sequence is not a law of history. The problem is in what way the fact that we must first eat affects our later pursuit of politics, science, religion, and so on.

Engels’s role as authoritative interpreter of Marx’s legacy was unenviable. On the one hand he had to present the theory in a plausible form, a form not refuted by everyday observation of the effect of politics, science, religion, etc. on the process of production. At the same time, as his graveside parallel between Marx and Darwin indicates, he wanted to present Marx’s theory as a major scientific discovery.

There is tension between these aims. There has been an understandable tendency to make Marx’s theory more plausible by allowing that ideas can have an effect on the material process of production. But this threatens the scientific clarity of the theory that the process of production determines politics, ideas, religion, and so on. Once a two-way causal interaction between ideas and material production is admitted, how is the primary role of the latter to be established? Isn’t it like trying to say which came first, the chicken or the egg? What seemed to be a hard-edged theory is now in danger of dissolving into mush.

Faced with this choice, Engels hedged. He described the economic side as “ultimately” or “finally” determining everything else, though he never explained whether inserting these terms merely stretched the chain of material causes (leaving the theory no less rigid an account of one side causing everything on the other side) or whether they allowed a…

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