There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth

No reason to get excited, the thief he kindly spoke
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went: barefoot servants too
Outside in the distance a wild cat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

Bob Dylan, All along the Watchtower

In 1977 and 1978, Paul Hirst and Barry Hindess published with their collaborators the two volumes of Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today. In the latter year Gerald Cohen published Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. In retrospect, it is possible to see in these events a turning-point for Anglophone Marxist theory, and the latest evidence of the remarkable capacity of Western Marxism to renew itself, despite everything. Hirst and Hindess, who had been for almost a decade the most influential English exponents of Althusserian Marxism, seemed to announce in 1977 their utter despair at systematic social thought in general and Marxist theory in particular. It appeared that the Althusserian project, initially promising nothing less than a total reconstruction of history and politics on a new basis of social science, had lapsed and crumbled into dust.footnote1 The virtues of Cohen’s work only served to throw this denouement into sharper relief. It might be said tendentiously that while Althusserians talked a great deal about rigour, Cohen actually practised it. His argument was careful, painstaking: chock-ablock with nice distinctions other people hadn’t dreamt were there.footnote2 It proceeded step by step, analytically. It was no longer a case of gathering Marxism into one great mouthful to be swallowed whole or not at all. Instead, Marxism was to be sorted into a list of distinct claims: each one deserving its own interrogation for meaning, coherence, plausibility and truth. The logical relation between claims was an explicit topic of the theory, so that it became more open to judgement which parts of a complex Marxist corpus stood and fell together.

Despite the peculiar authority of his own work, Cohen was never alone in making the analytical move. It is now possible to see a range of other writers—especially John Roemèr and Jon Elster, but also Norman Geras, Allen Wood, Adam Przeworski, Phillipe van Parijs, Erik Olin Wright Mark-II, Robert Brenner and all those of us who have bobbed about in the wake of Michio Morishima and Ian Steedman—as contributing in different fields to a cumulative shift in the accents of Marxist theory. Something of a parallel is apparent in the development of a ‘critical human geography’ by Doreen Massey and her collaborators, and also in the work of anarchist inspiration produced by the inimitable Michael Taylor.footnote3

Inevitably, it is easier to detect that a decisive shift has taken place than to say in what exactly it consists. Precisely because the shift is analytical in the sense suggested above, one would not expect to find a new consensus of opinion across the whole spectrum of concerns brought into a new focus: historical materialism, the labour theory of value, class structure and exploitation, the relation between the individual and the social, conceptions of reason and human nature, the historical reference and general relevance of moral judgements, and much else besides. If complex topics like these are to be picked apart and probed and worried as a deliberate—almost obsessive—policy of method, it is not surprising that a range of competing views quickly becomes evident. This sense of variety will only be enhanced by an accompanying determination to face rather than evade the legacy of awkward questions that the history of the twentieth century has bequeathed Marxist theory—above all, the painful failure of revolution in the West and the almost equally painful success of revolution in the East.footnote4