There was a time, not very long ago, when one of the most serious and frequent criticisms levelled against Marxism was that it subscribed to a mechanical and simplistic view of history according to which all societies were predestined to go through a single, inexorable sequence of stages from primitive communism to slavery to feudalism, and finally to capitalism which would inevitably give way to socialism. What was at issue was not simply the value of Marxism as a theory of history and its alleged inability to account for the variety of historical patterns on display in the world, but also the viability of the socialist project itself. Since Marxism was so clearly wrong about the unilinear course of history, surely it was equally wrong about the inevitability—indeed, the possibility—of socialism.

Now that this view of history has been widely disowned by Marxists, not only in the West but even in the East, now that it has been acknowledged by many Marxists as an aberration, which had less to do with Marxist theory than with Stalinist dogma and was always incompatible not only with Marx’s own understanding of history but with the fundamental principles of historical materialism and its conception of class struggle, the ground of criticism has shifted. We are now being told that without a mechanically deterministic and unilinear history, Marxism cannot exist at all. Having lost hold of its lifeline, its albeit profoundly mistaken conception of history, Marxism is dead. And whither Marxist history, so too goes the socialist project, since there can no longer be any grounds for believing that history has laid the foundation for socialism.

The Times Literary Supplement, has been a particularly popular venue for these pronouncements of death. In the past two years, at least three exceptionally long reviews have been largely devoted to these themes: two typically provocative and often incisive, though deeply flawed, analyses by Ernest Gellner, which belong to a different genre from the lurid anti-Marxist tirades more usual in the TLS footnote1; and a smugly ill-informed right-wing polemic by John Gray. It should be said, however, that critics of Marxism have not been alone in believing that something vital has been lost with the unilinear conception of history and that the socialist faith suffered a serious blow when it was compelled to give up the simple belief in a universal pattern of history characterized in particular by an inexorable growth of productive forces. This consideration must certainly have figured in G. A. Cohen’s attempt to revive a technological-determinist Marxism, and a similar view has recently appeared in nlr. Eric Hobsbawm, in ‘Marx and History’, has argued that in the absence of such a universal historical pattern, the materialist conception of history ‘as a way of changing the world’ loses two important things: ‘a) the sense that the triumph of socialism is the logical end of all historical evolution to date; and b) that it marks the end of “pre-history” in the sense that it cannot and will not be an “antagonistic” society.’footnote2 Unable to sustain a unilinear view but unwilling to give up what he takes to be its fruits, Hobsbawm proposes a compromise in the form of the proposition that ‘all development is mixed development.’footnote3

It will be argued in what follows that (while we must take seriously Hobsbawm’s valuable discussion of the need to appreciate the complexities of ‘mixed development’) there is no need to rescue the Marxist theoretical and political project from its loss of unilinearity. No rescue operation is required because no grievous injury has been sustained. On the contrary. In fact, the assumptions underlying both Hobsbawm’s unease and the very differently motivated triumph of the critics are profoundly questionable: that Marxism, for one reason or another, needs a (more or less) unilinear conception of history conceived as a universal pattern of systematic and constant growth of productive forces; and that the socialist project is deeply compromised by the failure of such a view, because on this conception of history depends the conviction that the inevitable rise of capitalism will prepare the ground for socialism with equal inevitability.

John Gray, reviewing no less than fourteen recent books dealing with various aspects of Marxism, draws our attention to one of the ‘most disastrous errors’ of Marxist thought. Although Marx professed to acknowledge the particularities of specific cultures and the unevenness of economic development, Gray maintains, he nevertheless ‘subscribed to a belief in something like a law of the increasing development over human history of productive forces. He asserted this not just as a brute historical fact nor yet as a mere trend, but as the unifying principle of human history.’footnote4 On this rock, the whole Marxist project has foundered. Any attempt to sustain such a view (Gray specifically mentions Cohen’s recent effort as the best of its kind) ‘ . . . has to confront, however, the inconvenient fact that the systematic and continuous expansion of productive forces over many centuries appears to have occurred within capitalist Europe and its offshoots and nowhere else. Explaining the singularity of capitalist development generates a most fundamental criticism of the Marxian scheme of historical interpretation. For, contrary to Cohen’s attempted reconstruction of historical materialism in Darwinian functionalist form, a mechanism for filtering out inefficient productive arrangements exists only within the capitalist mode of production. Within a capitalist market economy, there is a powerful incentive for enterprises to innovate technologically, and to adopt innovations pioneered by others, since firms which persist in using less efficient technologies will lose markets, reap dwindling profits and eventually fail. Nothing akin to this selective mechanism of market competition existed in the Asiatic mode of production, and it has no replica in existing socialist command economies. Cohen’s defence of the Development Thesis is bound to fail because it attempts to account for the replacement of one productive mode by another by invoking a mechanism which features internally in only a single mode of production, market capitalism.’

Gray is so precisely on the mark in his insistence on the singularity of capitalism and his characterization of that system as uniquely driven by a ‘powerful incentive’ to revolutionize productive forces, that it seems churlish to point out that Marx thought of it first (and in terms far less simplistic and question-begging than Gray’s own).footnote5 Indeed, this can be said to be the heart of Marx’s analysis. Marx’s account of capitalism has as one of its principal objects an explanation of this ‘powerful incentive’, the unique imperatives that impel capital to constant self-expansion and create the uniquely capitalist drive to increase labour-productivity. The uniqueness of capitalism in this respect, far from constituting an embarrassment to Marxism, is the very core of its theoretical being. It was Marx who first provided a systematic explanation of this unique phenomenon; indeed it was Marx who recognized that it required an explanation and could not be taken for granted as inscribed in human nature—whether in the natural development of human reason, or in the inclination to ‘truck, barter and exchange’, or in human acquisitiveness and/or indolence. And it is still Marxists who are making the most serious efforts to develop and improve this explanation.

In contrast, the conventional ‘bourgeois’ accounts of economic and technological development have, since the very beginnings of classical political economy, tended to rely, implicitly or explicitly, on unilinear, ‘stagist’ conceptions of progress in which the improvement of the ‘practical arts’ and material prosperity has inexorably accompanied the unfolding of human nature, as humanity has evolved from primitive pastoralism (or whatever) to modern ‘commercial’ society. Contemporary economists may have jettisoned the historical and moral perspectives of their predecessors, but they are if anything even more dependent on hidden assumptions about the natural acquisitiveness of human beings, the ‘unlimited’ character of human desires, the necessity of accumulation, and hence the natural tendency to improve the forces of production.