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New Left Review I/162, March-April 1987

Andrew Levine and Elliott Sober and Erik Olin Wright

Marxism and Methodological Individualism

It is often held that Marxism embodies distinctive methodological doctrines which distinguish it from ‘bourgeois’ social science. [1] ‘Methodology’ here refers to views about theory construction and the conduct of research, including such things as the construction of explanations, the formation and transformation of concepts, and the gathering of data. We would like to thank Robert Brenner, Alan Carling, G. A. Cohen, Jon Elster, Robert Kahn, Margaret Levi, Joel Rogers, Phillipe Van Parijs and Beatrice Wright for comments on earlier drafts of this essay. Some of these individuals dissent strongly from the views advanced here. The difference has been characterized in various ways: Marxism is scientific and materialist, bourgeois theory ideological and idealist; Marxism is holistic, bourgeois theory is individualistic; Marxism is dialectical and historical, bourgeois theory is linear and static; Marxism is anti-empiricist and anti-positivist, bourgeois theory empiricist and positivist. These claims have differed considerably in substance, but the near consensus view has been that an irreconcilable methodological fissure divides Marxism from its rivals. [2] Perhaps the most celebrated and extreme expression of this view is that of Lukács in his essay ‘What Is Orthodox Marxism?’ For Lukács, methodology alone differentiates Marxism from its rivals. All of the substantive claims of Marxian theory could be rejected, Lukács maintained, and yet Marxism would remain valid because of its distinctive method. Cf. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London 1971, pp. 1-26. Recently this unanimity has been broken by a current of Marxist theory, sometimes labeled ‘analytical Marxism’, which categorically rejects claims for Marxism’s methodological distinctiveness. [3] For an anthology containing work of some of the prominent figures in the emerging analytical Marxist school, see John Roemer, ed., Analytical Marxism, Cambridge 1986. In contrast to what has generally been maintained, authors such as Jon Elster, John Roemer, Adam Przeworski and G.A. Cohen have argued that what is distinctive in Marxism is its substantive claims about the world, not its methodology, and that the methodological principles widely held to distinguish Marxism from its rivals are indefensible, if not incoherent.

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Andrew Levine, Elliott Sober, Erik Olin Wright, ‘Marxism and Methodological Individualism’, NLR I/162: £3

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