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New Left Review I/123, September-October 1980

Andrew Levine, Erik Olin Wright

Rationality and Class Struggle

It is commonplace for writers on Marx, whether Marxists of various tendencies or critics of varying degrees of sympathy for Marxism, to hold that among Marx’s major theoretical achievements was the inauguration of a new ‘theory’ of history, designated ‘historical materialism’. While aspects of this theory were intimated throughout Marx’s writings, only rarely did it get explicit and sustained discussion, most notably in the celebrated Preface (1859) to The Critique of Political Economy. Nonetheless, for all its acknowledged importance, historical materialism has fared poorly in the Marxist literature. The schematic assertions of the 1859 Preface, while hardly transparent, seem disarmingly simple, lending themselves to easy adoption in the ‘orthodox’ Marxisms of the Second and Third Internationals. In consequence, what is hardly more than a sketch of a theory has been effectively frozen into dogma, immune from the often facile but sometimes trenchant criticisms levelled against it, and impervious to theoretical elaboration or even clarification. It is only with the disintegration of orthodoxy that the pressing need for an account of historical materialism, and a sustained defence or criticism of it, has come to be recognized. Despite the virtual absence of direct discussion, it is clear that the cutting edge of twentieth century Western Marxism, as it has developed in more or less overt opposition to the official Marxisms of the Communist Parties, has tended to oppose the historical materialism of the Preface: though, to be sure, Western Marxists have seldom, if ever, acknowledged doing so; and sometimes even outdo those they write against in professing allegiance to ‘historical materialism’. The reasons for opposing the classical formulation of historical materialism are nonetheless readily apparent.

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