What Is Living and What Is Dead in the Marxist Theory of History

Historical Materialism 19 (2):60-91 (2011)
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Abstract

During the 1980s and 1990s, the debate on the Marxist theory of history centred largely around the work of Robert Brenner’s property-relations-centred construal of it, and G.A. Cohen’s attempt to revive the classical, determinist argument. This article examines two influential arguments by Erik Wright and his colleagues, and by Alan Carling, which acknowledge important weaknesses in Cohen’s work, but which also try to construct a more plausible version of his theory. I show that the attempts to rescue Cohen are largely unsuccessful. And, to the extent that they render the argument plausible, they do so at the cost of turning it, willy-nilly, into a kind of class-struggle theory. I conclude that this spells the demise of the classical version of historical materialism, but also observe that this does not leave us with a voluntaristic understanding of history, as some of its defenders fear.

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