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New Left Review I/184, November-December 1990

Alex Callinicos

The Limits of ‘Political Marxism’

It was hard to read Ellen Wood’s article ‘Rational Choice Marxism: Is the Game Worth the Candle?’ without mixed feelings. [1] nlr 177, September–October 1989. All references in the text are to this article. The general thrust of her critique is undoubtedly correct: in the hands of Jon Elster, John Roemer, Adam Przeworski et al., the attempt to reinterpret historical materialism along methodological-individualist lines has deprived the theory of much of its specificity and substance. She is also right to set Rational Choice Marxism (rcm) alongside post-structuralism as the two main intellectual tendencies which, in the past decade or so, have provided the reaction against Marxism with a ‘left’ guise. Wood sought, however, not merely to demolish rcm, but to do so in part by demonstrating the existence of another, better version of historical materialism. And here the difficulties begin. For while I share most of her criticisms of rcm (indeed, I’ve made quite a few of them myself [2] See Alex Callinicos, ‘Socialism, Justice, and Exploitation’, Morell Studies in Toleration 16, 1985; Making History, Cambridge 1987, especially ch. 2; and ‘Introduction: Analytical Marxism’, in Alex Callinicos, ed., Marxist Theory, Oxford 1989.), her own account of what is distinctive to, and worth defending in, Marxism seems to me seriously inadequate.

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