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.

There is, first of all, a rigidly determinist cast to the historical materialism of the Preface that accords poorly with the general tendency of Western Marxist thought. There are also political grounds for opposition. Indisputably, the Preface accords causal primacy (of a sort it does not clearly explain) to what Marx calls ‘productive forces’ (Produktivkräfte) over ‘relations of production’ (Produktionsverhältnisse); thus suggesting precisely the kind of ‘evolutionary’ or ‘economist’ political posture Western Marxists have opposed with virtual unanimity. If it is indeed the case, as Marx contends in the Preface, that ‘no social formation ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed,’ and if ‘new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself,’ then it would seem that socialist transformation depends less on revolutionizing production relations directly, as Western Marxists tend to maintain, than on the development of productive forces.footnote1

This conclusion has indeed been drawn by the Communist Parties, as by many others; and has inspired a political programme in the Soviet Union and elsewhere from which virtually all Western Marxists outside the Communist Parties, and many within, in varying degrees dissent. The litany of Soviet sins, committed for the sake of developing productive forces, is all too well known: the brutal collectivization of agricultural production, the hierarchical structure and ‘productivist’ ideology that governs the factories, the selective and technocratic structure of education, the severe centralization of political power, the indefinite prolongation of police terror and the progressive (and apparently intractable) growth of bureaucratic despotism. Needless to say, commitment to the theoretical positions of the 1859 Preface does not entail the political programmes adopted by the leaders of the Soviet Union; and it is likely that even under the conditions the Soviet Union and other Communist states face, and without slackening the development of productive forces, a more ‘human face’ is an historic possibility. In any case, the best Marxist thought in the West has sought to distance itself from the Soviet experience; and so, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes deliberately, from the theoretical positions that Soviet politics seems to presuppose.

The Cultural Revolution in China (or, at least, Western perceptions of it), in proclaiming ‘politics in command’, in apparently aiming at the revolutionary transformation of relations of production, while neglecting or even disparaging the development of productive forces, provided, at last, a model of an official Marxism at odds with the 1859 Preface. It is not surprising, then, that the tendency in Western Marxist thought most solidly (implicitly) with the Cultural Revolution, and also most intent upon developing Marx’s contributions to a theory of history—the tendency developed by Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar and their co-thinkers—should break expressly with the evolutionary account of historical materialism dominant in the Second and Third Internationals. Even if they did not quite repudiate the 1859 Preface, they so qualified their acceptance of it, that they might as well have struck the text from the Marxist canon.footnote2 Like so many other major Western Marxists, Althusser and Balibar look with ill-disguised embarrassment on the simple declarations of the 1859 Preface, and thus on historical materialism as traditionally understood. To be sure, Althusserians remain adamant defenders of what they call ‘historical materialism’. But their ‘historical materialism’ has little to do with what the term has traditionally meant to generations of Marxists. They retain the term at the cost of altering its meaning. ‘Historical materialism’, for Althusser and Balibar, has come to be synonymous with ‘Marxist social science’ (or, as they would prefer, with the Marxist ‘science of history’). Thus it is distinguished, in their view, from rival accounts of history and society by its methodological positions (its view of causality and explanation, its concept of ‘contradiction’, its logic of concept formation and theory construction) and not at all by its substantive theoretical claims about the primacy of productive forces. And what the Althusserians do more or less explicitly, other Western Marxist tendencies do too, though often even less self-consciously and perspicaciously. Thus historical materialism, in the sense of the 1859 Preface, has effectively been abandoned in the most lively and penetrating Marxist currents.

However, the resurgence of interest in Marxist theory in the English-speaking world, particularly among philosophers trained in the analytic tradition, has kindled a new and generally sympathetic interest in the positions of the 1859 Preface. This emerging tendency, at odds both with earlier orthodoxies and also with the main currents of Western Marxism, has been given major theoretical expression in a new book by G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence.footnote3