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 role for nonmaterial causes (thus softening the distinctive character of the theory).

Later Marxists took up both “hard” and “soft” extremes, as well as varied positions in between. The orthodox interpretation, in the communist movement especially, was always on the hard side, emphasizing the causal role of the level of technology. This reading made it easier to regard Marxism as a science, and it ruled supreme until 1923, when the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács published History and Class Consciousness, which argued that Marx’s mature theory should be seen as a development from his earlier Hegelian ideas. Just as Hegel saw society as an organic whole, so, according to Lukács, Marx saw society as an interacting whole, though one in which material factors, not ideas, are most basic. This was a more philosophical, less scientific view of Marx. Predictably, Stalin forced Lukács to recant his heresies, and they did not dislodge the established view of Marx in the communist states. In the West, however, Lukács’s novel speculations were widely seen as confirmed by the publication, after the Second World War, of Marx’s hitherto unavailable early writings, as well as the Grundrisse, an enormous manuscript which is, in part, a rough draft for Capital. In these writings Marx’s Hegelianism is much more pronounced than in his published works.

The orthodox view of Marx, holding that the process of production determines politics and ideas, therefore passed out of favor in the West. It seemed to make Marx too rigid and too easy to refute. It was also tainted by its association with Stalin. Its place was taken by a new, more humanist Marx, a Marx of subtle and profound insights into the interrelatedness of everything with everything else.


This new image of Marx was not, however, expounded in any detail as far as Marx’s theory of history was concerned; nor was the more traditional interpretation given a sustained modern defense. This is astonishing in view of the heap of recent scholarly works on Marx, a heap discussed in these pages by Robert Heilbroner (NYR, June 29, 1978). In the past decade books have appeared on Marx’s life and thought, on his early years, on his inner psychological conflicts, on his theories of alienation, of revolution, of politics, of the state, and on almost everything else about Marx. Yet prior to the appearance of the books to be discussed in this review, the only full-length discussion of Marx’s theory of history available in English was M.M. Bober’s Karl Marx’s Interpretation of History, which first appeared in 1927, too early to take account of the previously unpublished writings which have been so influential in revising the understanding of Marx prevalent in the West.

Scholars delight in filling vacuums. This hole in the center of contemporary Marx studies has now been plugged by no fewer than four books on Marx’s theory of history. The quartet is split between the “hard” and “soft” interpretations, with the hard side getting a better defense than it has had for a long time. William H. Shaw portrays Marx as a “technological determinist,” and he implies no criticism by the term. G.A. Cohen is equally happy to call his version of Marx’s theory “technological,” although he is less sure about the propriety of “determinism.” Melvin Rader finds textual evidence for both hard and soft interpretations and tries to reconcile them, but his is definitely a softer, less scientific Marx. Finally D. Ross Gandy regards technological determinism as a distortion with which Marx is saddled by hostile critics who seize upon passages in which Marx wrote carelessly; the real Marx, Gandy thinks, saw society as an organic unity of interacting events.

All four books are serious and scholarly. Most readers would obtain some benefit from each of them. In the case of Gandy’s Marx and History, however, the benefit may be small. On its front flap this book is described as “based on extensive research, including an exhaustive study of the forty-volume Marx-Engels Werke.” (The Werke is the East German edition of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels.) The flap’s claim must be true, for the book’s 169 pages of text are followed by over a thousand footnotes, virtually all to the Werke; but extensive citations are no substitute for coherent exposition, which Gandy fails to provide. Moreover the value of all those footnotes is reduced by the fact that they simply give the volume and page of the Werke, not the title of the work being cited. If you can’t read German or don’t happen to have your forty-volume German edition handy, that is just too bad, for you won’t be able to discover from which texts Gandy quotes.

Rader’s Marx’s Interpretation of History is more helpful. Rader explores three models of history for which textual support can be found in Marx’s writings: “dialectical development,” “base and superstructure,” and “organic totality.” The base and superstructure model corresponds to the hard interpretation, and the organic totality model to the soft one; the model of dialectical development is somewhere between these two, and Rader has difficulty keeping it distinct from them. It is perhaps best thought of as a softer base and superstructure model in which the superstructure has a reciprocal causal effect on the base.

Rader develops his models patiently and illustrates them with well-chosen quotations. Unusually for the author of a book on Marx, he shows no strong feelings for or against his subject. (He is the only one of these four authors who does not present himself as defending Marx.) I found only one error of fact, the claim, on page 10, that Marx, unlike Engels, did not describe the economic side as “finally” or “ultimately” asserting itself. This is a myth which others have propagated, but a similar phrase occurs in the Grundrisse (on page 495 of the Vintage edition, translated by Martin Nicolaus).

Notwithstanding its patience, objectivity, and general accuracy, Marx’s Interpretation of History is an unsatisfying work. It reminded me of an essay by those diligent but timid students who when asked to write on a topic on which there are two opposing schools of thought carefully set out the contending positions and then abruptly conclude by saying that there is truth in both views. Sometimes, of course, this is correct; but we still need to know how the conflicting positions are to be reconciled.

I am not suggesting that Rader’s book is no better than a student essay. On its own superior level, however, Rader’s attempted reconciliation is similarly shallow. After several chapters of exposition of the different models, Rader spends only a few pages on trying to sort out the conflicts between them, and he leaves too many loose ends and unasked questions for these pages to be convincing. What, for instance, are we to make of these sentences from Rader’s penultimate paragraph, in which he suggests that there is no necessary conflict between the different models of history used by Marx:


The mode of production is the more efficacious, but all the other structural elements are involved in the “organic” play of forces. The simplistic concept of linear causality is replaced by the idea of dialectical interaction and interdependence within a comprehensive field. This solution accounts for both the holistic character of Marx’s thought and the strong emphasis on the mode of production.

Does it? Or does it simply glue conflicting models together into an artificial unity from which they will spring apart as soon as the flow of amalgamating prose dries up? “Dialectical interaction and interdependence within a comprehensive field” is simply incompatible with any hard-line base and superstructure model; and Rader never tells us how it is to be established that the mode of production is “more efficacious” within this interaction and interdependence.

The books by Cohen and Shaw seek to render Marx more precise and scientific. Both authors are less concerned with being faithful to every word Marx wrote than with expounding a theory of history that is both a tenable theory and a theory which Marx would have acknowledged as his own. Both dismiss the “organic totality” model which is so prominent in Rader’s book. They regard Marx’s notorious claim that “the handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist” not as a careless exaggeration (as Gandy and Rader would have it) but merely as a blunt statement of Marx’s basic belief in the dominance of the forces of production over the form of society.

Shaw’s Marx’s Theory of History is a fine brief account of the arguments for a technological interpretation of Marx. Believing that Marx understood historical materialism as an empirical, scientific theory, Shaw thrusts the Hegelian side of Marx’s ideas into the background of his discussion: “What I intend to offer,” he writes, “is an analysis of one portion of the empirical side of Marx’s thought. The fact that this side has traditionally been taken to be that which is distinctive of Marx may enhance this essay, but my study is not undermined if such a ‘scientific’ conception of Marx turns out to be misguided.”

Given the care with which Shaw stakes out his territory and the intelligence of his exploration of it, it is significant that in the end there is still some doubt about whether Shaw’s strictly scientific reading can make good sense of Marx. Shaw has to admit that the arguments Marx offers for the key idea of historical materialism—that material production dominates social life—are “flimsy and perfunctory.” How can this be, if Marx considered himself a scientist and this was his great discovery? Shaw’s explanation is that Marx was so convinced that the primacy of production was obvious that he did not see the need for more argument. But why was he so convinced that it was obvious? Here Shaw uneasily confesses: “one senses that [Marx and Engels] attached some sort of ontological primacy to material production, from which its explanatory weight for social science follows.” In short Marx and Engels simply regarded production as more “real” than politics, religion, and ideas. Moreover, Shaw adds, Marx and Engels seem to have considered the determining role of the productive forces to be somehow logically necessary, rather than an observed fact about the way the world happens to be.

Had Shaw not been so determined to present Marx-without-metaphysics, he might have located this sense of ontological primacy and logical necessity in Marx’s materialist transformation of Hegel’s philosophy of history—which also sees history as one ontologically prior element necessarily determining another element which is in some manner just a reflection of what is ultimately real. In Hegel’s case, of course, it is “spirit”—the mental side of life—that is ultimately real, and the material world that is necessarily determined by it. For Marx it was the other way around, and we can see why it seemed to him and Engels that it was obviously the other way around: after all, “man kind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.” This explanation of the primacy of the forces of production, however, makes historical materialism more a philosophy of history than a science of history.

Notwithstanding this doubt about the feasibility of the task Shaw sets himself, Marx’s Theory of History is a valuable contribution to the debate over the interpretation of Marx. It is, however, overshadowed by Gerald Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. The similarity between these two books is not coincidental, for Shaw’s preface includes an acknowledgment of his debt to Cohen, his “friend and teacher.” To be overshadowed by Cohen’s book is no disgrace: 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.

Gerald Cohen is a philosopher at University College, London. Trained in the analytic tradition, he is also strongly sympathetic to Marx. Most analytic philosophers think the application of the standards of clarity and rigor to which analytic philosophy aspires sufficient to torpedo Marx’s claims to philosophical greatness. Most Marxists show their implicit agreement with this view by spurning the standards of analytic philosophy. Cohen attempts to defend Marx by using analytic standards of clarity and rigor to derive a tenable theory of history from Marx’s words. Whatever one may think of the ultimate success or failure of this unorthodox approach, it illuminates Marx’s ideas as few commentaries have ever done.

The first surprise is yielded by Cohen’s careful taking apart of each sentence of Marx’s own summary of the “leading thread” of his studies, in the famous 1859 Preface to A Critique of Political Economy. This reveals that Marx’s theory of history is not the standardly conceived two-part model in which the economic base determines the legal and political superstructure. It is, instead, a tripartite model in which the forces of production—labor-power, raw materials, and the machines available to process them—are fundamental. They dominate the second part of the model, the economic structure of society which can be identified in the relations between classes and the ownership of the means of production. By “owner-ship” here Cohen means not legal ownership, but effective power. The economic structure in turn forms the basis on which the superstructure—including law, politics, religion, and the world of ideas—rests. Scholars as eminent as H.B. Acton, David McLellan, C. Wright Mills, and John Plamenatz failed to see this because they mistakenly regarded the productive forces as part of the economic structure. Because they did not distinguish the causal effect of the technology available to a society from the causal effect of the relations of owning, hiring, enslaving, and so on which, according to Marx, arise from the level of development of the productive forces, their interpretations missed the primary role Marx gives to the productive forces, attributing it instead to the economic structure as a whole. The result is a much less clear-cut account of what, according to Marx, is the driving force of history.

On Cohen’s reading of the preface, which he backs up with passages drawn from most of Marx’s major works, Marx held that the productive forces tend to develop throughout history. They therefore provide the progressive force of human history. The economic, social, legal, religious, and political structures of society change as the productive forces change.

The claim that Marx saw the productive forces as the motor of human history is crucial to Cohen’s attempt to render Marx both precise and tenable. It makes Marx’s theory clear-cut because the productive forces are much more easily enumerated and distinguished from society as a whole than the “economic base” which, in so far as it includes relations of production like “owning” or “is employed by,” is itself a constituent of society. This enables Cohen to refute the claims of critics like Plamenatz that production is too closely identified with other aspects of the social structure, such as the authority and political power of the producer, to be their cause. This may be true of production as a whole, but it is not true of the productive forces by themselves.

Removing the circularities and confusions caused by failing to distinguish the productive forces from the economic base of society is only part of Cohen’s defense of Marx’s theory of history. The other part is an attempt to demonstrate, first that it is plausible to suppose that the productive forces really do tend to develop throughout history; and secondly that the development of the productive forces explains the development of the other major aspects of society.

Cohen accomplishes the first task by making an argument we do not find explicitly stated in Marx. He notes that the historical situation of human beings has been one of scarcity in which to satisfy our wants we must perform tasks which, in themselves, we would rather not do. Since we are intelligent enough to discern easier ways of satisfying our wants, and rational enough to take advantage of these easier ways when we find them, our productive abilities tend to grow. This does not mean that they are constantly growing, but simply that the tendency for growth is there, deep-rooted in our nature and the nature of the world in which, up to now, we have always lived.

Using supposed facts about human nature to defend Marx is an interesting innovation, in view of the traditional Marxist denial of the existence of an unchanging human nature. Marx was not, however, the founder of this tradition—Cohen refers to a passage in Capital where Marx implicitly accepts the idea of a human nature—and as Cohen points out, it is absurd to deny that there are some enduring facts about the nature of human beings.

So far, so good. Cohen’s second task is to show that the development of the forces of production explains the development of the relations of production and, through these relations, the structure of society. Here Cohen must face the question that faces all who attempt to make Marx’s theory hard science: how can we be confident that A causes B, rather than the other way around, when we can see that B has an effect on A? Applied to Cohen’s tripartite model this question has two parts: how can we be confident that the productive forces explain the relations of production, rather than the other way around? And how can we be confident that the economic structure explains the superstructure? How, for example, can we be sure that the availability of steam power explains the change from lords and serfs to capitalists and employees, when it might seem that the introduction of steam power itself is to be explained by the availability of free laborers and the existence of capitalists willing to employ them? And how can we be sure that the economic structure of capitalism explains a change in the religious superstructure like the rise of Calvinism when Calvin, by rejecting the old prohibitions on usury, did so much to make capitalism possible?

At this hurdle which has brought down so many who have tried to make Marx scientific, Cohen takes a bold leap. He asserts that the central explanations of Marx’s theory are functional explanations. This means, roughly, that Marx explains specific relations of production and specific superstructures by the fact that they function so as to allow the productive forces to develop. For instance, Marx explains the existence of capitalism by saying—to over-simplify hugely—that feudal laws and ideas, by tying serfs to the land, did not permit maximum use to be made of steam power; hence feudal society gave way to a free market system which could supply ample labor for factories driven by steam. With the free market came new notions of private property, freedom of contract, and individual rights, all of which allow maximum use to be made of the free market and thus of steam power.

The beauty of functional explanations, for Cohen, is that the interaction of what is to be explained with what explains it ceases to be a problem. It becomes, instead, an integral part of the explanation. It is precisely because the free market does have an effect on the use of steam that we are able to explain its existence by saying that its function was to enable steam power to be used to the full. It is precisely because Calvinism had an effect on capitalism that we are able to say that it came about because its function was to aid the development of capitalism.

The price that must be paid for this entrancing aspect of functional explanations, however, is high. It is a doubt about whether, outside the limited field of purposive behavior, functional explanations really explain anything at all. Cohen is well aware that the validity of functional explanation has been contested. He devotes two of his eleven chapters to defending functional explanation, both in general and in Marxism. He suggests—shades of Engels—that explanation in Marx takes a form similar to explanation in Darwin. According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, says Cohen, giraffes have long necks because long necks increase their prospects of survival. This is a functional explanation of the length of giraffes’ necks, parallel in structure to a Marxist explanation of, say, the dominance of laissez-faire ideology by referring to its function in allowing capitalist production to increase.

If Marxist explanations were similar to Darwinian explanations, it would be impossible to doubt their scientific character. But Cohen’s picture of the structure of explanation in Darwin’s theory of evolution falls into a popular misconception. That long necks help giraffes survive was not new with Darwin. Darwin’s distinctive insight was into the mechanism by which the forces of evolution operate, namely natural selection of varying types. A Darwinian account of the length of giraffes’ necks starts with giraffes which have, for whatever reason—Darwin did not know about genes or random mutation—necks of different lengths. Because long necks help giraffes to obtain food, only those with longer necks survived to pass their traits on to their descendants. Hence giraffes today have long necks. Long necks may be described as functional for giraffes, but Darwin did not explain long necks by saying that the neck has the function of enabling giraffes to survive. That would explain nothing. We would still need to ask how animals get the features they need to survive. Why were giraffes so blessed, but not dinosaurs? Darwin’s theory of natural selection eliminates the necessity of explaining this in functional terms. One might say that it is a scientific explanation for that very reason.

Another name for “functional explanation” is “teleological explanation.” Cohen avoids this term, no doubt because “teleological” implies a design or purpose. If human history had some overall purpose, we could explain whatever happens by identifying its function in the overall plan. (Just as we can say that knives are sharp because their function—in someone’s plan—is to cut.) Thinking of human history as having an overall purpose is, of course, unscientific. The question is whether functional explanations of history are not irreducibly tied to this idea of purpose, and hence themselves irreducibly unscientific.

This is not a question to be settled in a review. I have done no more than voice a doubt about functional explanation which Cohen’s discussion did not satisfy. If Cohen’s attempt to make science out of Marx’s theory fails, it will be no discredit to his interpretation of Marx. Rather, his book will stand as the clearest demonstration of the difficulty of this task.

But it would not be at all surprising if Cohen should turn out to be right in thinking that Marx offers a functional explanation of history, and yet wrong in thinking that functional explanations are scientifically valid. For as Cohen admits in his intriguing opening chapter on images of history in Hegel and Marx—the import of which Cohen blithely neglects for the remainder of his book—Marx developed his ideas as a transformation of. Hegel’s philosophy of history. Marx’s theory of history preserves close structural parallels with Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel’s interpretation of history is avowedly teleological. For Hegel, history is the history of the growth of the world spirit toward complete self-knowledge, a goal which it must eventually reach.

We saw that Shaw’s attempt to press Marx into a scientific mold, excluding all elements of Hegelian philosophy, broke down at precisely this point: the explanation of Marx’s belief in the determining role of material production. Reluctantly, Shaw conceded that for Marx this role was somehow logically necessary. Now Cohen’s parallel attempt to render Marx scientific has led us to a Marx who explains the primacy of the productive forces in a manner best suited to those who think of history as having an overall purpose. The most plausible explanation of why both Shaw’s and Cohen’s accounts point toward these unwelcome—from their point of view—conclusions, is this: when Marx transformed Hegel’s image of history into one in which history is the history of the growth of human productive powers toward the point at which complete abundance is reached, he retained the underlying attitude that this was, in some obscure way, the purpose of human history. This interpretation would explain why Marx was so certain that communism, the state of abundance for all, would eventually be reached. It would explain why the determining role of material production in history is for Marx not merely an observed fact about the world but a philosophically necessary truth. It would also explain why Marx’s explanations why functional. Finally it would explain why Marx’s theory, like Hegel’s cannot be classed as science.

This Issue

December 20, 1979