Marxism and the Dialectical Method: A Critique of G.A. Cohen

Radical Philosophy (36):4-13 (1984)
Abstract
The dialectical method, Marx Insisted, was at the basis of his account of society. In 1858, in a letter to Engels, he wrote: In the method of treatment the fact that by mere accident I again glanced through Hegel's Logic has been of great service to me... If there should ever be the time for such work again, I would greatly like to make accessible to the ordinary human intelligence, in two or three printer's sheets, what is rational in the method which Hegel discovered.1 But he never did find the time for this work. As a result, Marx's dialectical method and the ways in which it draws on Hegel's philosophy remain among the most controversial and least well understood aspects of Marx's work. My purpose in this paper is to explain some of the basic presuppositions of this method and to bring out their significance for Marx's theories. I shall do so by focusing critically on G.A. Cohen's account of Marxism in Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. In this important and influential work, Cohen contrives to give an account of 2 Marxism in entirely non-dialectical – indeed, in anti-dialectical – terms. By criticising Cohen's views I will seek to show that the dialectical method is the necessary basis for an adequate theory of history and an indispensable part of Marx's thought. The major purpose of Cohen's book is to develop and defend a particular interpretation of historical materialism, the Marxist theory of historical development. Cohen claims that his account is an `old-fashioned' and a `traditional' one (p.x); and, indeed, in certain respects it is. For, in contrast to the tendency of much recent Marxist writing, Cohen strongly emphasises the materialistic and deterministic character of Marx's theory of history. He insists that the development of the productive forces is the primary motive force for historical change, and portrays Marxism as a form of technological determinism. However, there are various different forms of materialism, not all of them Marx's..
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