Analytical Marxism

From New World Encyclopedia

Analytical Marxism refers to a style of thinking about Marxism that was prominent among predominantly English philosophers and social scientists during the 1980s. It was mainly associated with the September Group of academics, so called because they have biennial meetings in varying locations every other September to discuss common interests. The group had various nicknames and was characterized in the words of David Miller, by "clear and rigorous thinking about questions that are usually blanketed by ideological fog."[1] The most prominent members of the group were G. A. Cohen, John Roemer, Jon Elster, Adam Przeworski, Erik Olin Wright, Philippe van Parijs, and Robert van der Veen. They attempted to discern, using analytic methods, what aspects of Marxism could be empirically verified. In the end, most of the "metaphysical" aspects of Marxism were discarded as unverifiable.


Analytical Marxism is usually understood to have taken off with the publication of G. A. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (1978). More broadly conceived, it might be seen as having originated in the post-war period in the work of political philosophers such as Karl Popper, H. B. Acton, and John Plamenatz, who employed the techniques of analytical philosophy in order to test the coherence and science of Marxism as a theory of history and society.

Those thinkers were all hostile to Marxism. Cohen's book was, from the outset, intended as a defense of historical materialism. Cohen painstakingly reconstructed historical materialism through a close reading of Marx's texts, with the aim of providing the most logically coherent and parsimonious account. For Cohen, Marx's historical materialism is a technologically deterministic theory, in which the economic relations of production are functionally explained by the material forces of production, and in which the political and legal institutions (the "superstructure") are functionally explained by the relations of production (the "base"). The transition from one mode of production to another is driven by the tendency of the productive forces to develop over time. Cohen accounts for this tendency by reference to the rational character of the human species: Where there is the opportunity to adopt a more productive technology and thus reduce the burden of labor, human beings will tend to take it. Thus, human history can be understood as the gradual development of human productive power.


At the same time as Cohen was working on Karl Marx's Theory of History, American economist John Roemer was employing neoclassical economics in order to try to defend the Marxist concepts of exploitation and class. In his General Theory of Exploitation and Class (1982), Roemer employed rational choice and game theory in order to demonstrate how exploitation and class relations may arise in the development of a market for labor. Roemer would go on to reject the idea that the labor theory of value, a nineteenth century anachronism, was necessary for explaining exploitation and class. Value was, in principle, capable of being explained in terms of any class of commodity inputs, such as oil, wheat, etc., rather than being exclusively explained by embodied labor power. Roemer was led to the conclusion that exploitation and class were thus generated not in the sphere of production but of market exchange. Significantly, as a purely technical category, exploitation did not always imply a moral wrong [see §4 ["Justice"] below].

Rational choice Marxism

By the mid-1980s, "analytical Marxism" was being recognized as a "paradigm".[2] The September Group had been meeting for several years, and a succession of texts by its members were published. Several of these appeared under the imprint of Cambridge University Press's series "Studies in Marxism and Social Theory." Included in this series were Jon Elster's Making Sense of Marx (1985) and Adam Przeworski's Capitalism and Social Democracy (1986). Elster's account was an exhaustive trawl through Marx's texts in order to ascertain what could be salvaged out of Marxism by employing the tools of rational choice theory and methodological individualism (which Elster defended as the only form of explanation appropriate to the social sciences). His conclusion was that—contrary to Cohen—no general theory of history as the development of the productive forces could be saved. Like Roemer, he also rejected the labor theory of value and, going further, virtually all of Marx's economics. The "dialectical" method was savaged as a form of Hegelian obscurantism. The theory of ideology and revolution continued to be useful to a certain degree, but only once they had been purged of their tendencies to holism and functionalism and established on the basis of an individualist methodology and a causal or intentional explanation.

Przeworski's book uses rational choice and game theory in order to demonstrate that the revolutionary strategies adopted by socialists in the twentieth century were likely to fail, since it was in the rational interests of workers to strive for the reform of capitalism through the achievement of union recognition, improved wages and living conditions, rather than adopting the risky strategy of revolution. Przeworski's book is clearly influenced by economic explanations of political behavior advanced by thinkers such as Anthony Downs (An Economic Theory of Democracy, 1957) and Mancur Olson (The Logic of Collective Action, 1971).


The analytical (and rational choice) Marxists held a variety of leftist political sympathies, ranging from communism to reformist social democracy. Through the 1980s, most of them began to recognize that Marxism as a theory was capable of explaining revolution by means of the economic dynamics of capitalism and the class interests of the proletariat had been seriously compromised. They were largely in agreement that the transformation of capitalism was an ethical project. During the 1980s, a debate had developed within Anglophone academic Marxism on whether Marxism could accommodate a theory of justice. This debate was clearly linked to the revival of normative political philosophy after the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971). While analytic moral philosophy holds that one is free in all situations to make a moral judgment that is in the interests of all equally, some commentators remained hostile to the idea of a Marxist theory of justice, arguing that Marx saw "justice" as little more than a bourgeois ideological construct designed to justify exploitation by reference to reciprocity in the wage contract.[3]

The analytical Marxists, however, largely rejected this point of view. Led by G. A. Cohen (a moral philosopher by training), they argued that a Marxist theory of justice had to focus on egalitarianism. For Cohen, this meant an engagement with moral and political philosophy in order to demonstrate the injustice of market exchange, and the construction of an appropriate egalitarian metric. This argument is pursued in Cohen's books, Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995) and If You're an Egalitarian How Come You're So Rich? (2000b).

In contrast to traditional Marxism, Cohen rejects the argument that capitalism is unjust because workers experience alienation, or a lack of self-fulfillment as workers. For Cohen, this thesis is based on an untenable metaphysical account of human nature, namely the claim that all persons have one purpose and aim toward one end, productive labor. In short, Marxism failed because it was based on an incorrect understanding of anthropology. Because such a claim cannot be inferred from a priori truths of logic or from experience, it is not justifiable by the restricted means available to analytic philosophy.

Cohen further departs from previous Marxists by arguing that capitalism is a system characterized by unjust exploitation not because the labor of workers is "stolen" by employers, but because it is a system in which "autonomy" is infringed upon, resulting in an "unfair" distribution of benefits and burdens. In the traditional account, exploitation and injustice occur because non-workers appropriate the value produced by the labor of workers, something that would be overcome in a socialist society where no class would own the means of production and be in a position to appropriate the value produced by laborers. Cohen argues that underpinning this account is the assumption that workers have "rights of self-ownership" over themselves and thus, should "own" what is produced by their labor. Because the worker is paid a wage less than the value he or she creates through work, the capitalist is said to extract a surplus-value from the worker's labor, and thus to steal part of what the worker produces, the time of the worker and the worker's powers.

Cohen argues that the concept of self-ownership is favorable to Rawls's difference principle as it acknowledges "each person's rights over his being and powers"[4], but also highlights that its centrality provides for an area of common ground between the Marxist account of justice and the right-wing libertarianism of Robert Nozick. However, much as Cohen criticizes Rawls for treating people's personal powers as just another external resource for which no individual can claim merit, so does he charge Nozick with moving beyond the concept of self-ownership to his own right-wing "thesis" of self-ownership. In Cohen's view, Nozick's mistake is to endow people's claims to legitimately acquire external resources with the same moral quality that belongs to people's ownership of themselves. In other words, libertarianism allows inequalities to arise from differences in talent and differences in external resources, but it does so because it assumes that the world is "up for grabs"[5], that is, to be appropriated as private property.


Analytical Marxism came under fire from a number of different quarters, both Marxist and non-Marxist.


A number of critics argued that analytical Marxism proceeded from the wrong methodological and epistemological premises. While the analytical Marxists dismissed dialectically oriented Marxism as nonsense, many Marxists would maintain that the distinctive character of Marxist philosophy is lost if it is understood non-dialectically. The crucial feature of Marxist philosophy is that it is not a reflection in thought of the world, a crude materialism, but rather an intervention in the world concerned with human praxis. According to this view, analytical Marxism wrongly characterizes intellectual activity as occurring in isolation from the struggles constitutive of its social and political conjuncture, and at the same time does little to intervene in that conjuncture. For dialectical Marxists, analytical Marxism eviscerated Marxism, turning it from a systematic doctrine of revolutionary transformation into a set of discrete theses that stand or fall on the basis of their logical consistency and empirical validity.

Analytical Marxism's non-Marxist critics also objected to its methodological weaknesses. Against Elster and the rational choice Marxists, it was argued that methodological individualism was not the only form of valid explanation in the social sciences, that functionalism in the absence of micro-foundations could remain a convincing and fruitful mode of inquiry, and that rational choice and game theory were far from being universally accepted as sound or useful ways of modeling social institutions and processes.[6]


Cohen's defense of a technological determinist interpretation of historical materialism was, in turn, quite widely criticized, even by analytical Marxists. Together with Andrew Levine, Wright argued that in attributing primacy to the productive forces (the development thesis), Cohen overlooked the role played by class actors in the transition between modes of production. For the authors, it was forms of class relations (the relations of production) that had primacy in how the productive forces were employed and the extent to which they developed. It was not evident, they claimed, that the relations of production become "fetters" once the productive forces were capable of sustaining a different set of production relations.[7] Other non-Marxist critics argued that Cohen, in line with the Marxist tradition, underestimated the role played by the legal and political superstructure in shaping the character of the economic base. Finally, Cohen's anthropology was judged dubious: Whether human beings adopt new and more productive technology is not a function of an ahistorical rationality, but depends on the extent to which these forms of technology are compatible with pre-existing beliefs and social practices.[8] Cohen recognized and accepted some, though not all, of these criticisms in his History, Labour, and Freedom (1988).

Justice and power

Many Marxists would argue that Marxism cannot be understood as a theory of justice in the rather narrow sense intended by the analytical Marxists. The question of justice cannot be seen in isolation from questions of power, or from the balance of class forces in any specific conjuncture. Non-Marxists may employ a similar criticism in their critique of liberal theories of justice in the Rawlsian tradition. Most of these theories fail to address problems about the configuration of power relations in the contemporary world, and by so doing appear as little more than exercises in logic. "Justice," on this view, is whatever is produced by the assumptions of the theory. It has little to do with the actual distribution of power and resources in the world.


As a project, analytical Marxism had largely disappeared by the end of the 1990s. Most of its practitioners agreed that the Marxism they had set out to interrogate and, to an extent, defend, was not theoretically or, for the most part, politically defensible (as the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrated). Its leading lights now focus their energies in other areas—moral and political philosophy (Cohen, van Parijs) or democratic theory employing economic models (Roemer, Elster).


  1. Miller 1996
  2. Roemer 1986
  3. Wood 2004
  4. Cohen 1995.
  5. Cohen 1995.
  6. Carver and Thomas 1995; Roberts 1997.
  7. Levine and Wright 1980.
  8. Hirst 1985


  • Carver, T. and Thomas, P. (eds.) (1995) Rational Choice Marxism. London: MacMillan. ISBN 0-271-01463-6
  • Cohen, G. A. (1978) Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-691-02008-6
  • Cohen, G. A. (1988) History, Labour, and Freedom: Themes from Marx. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-824816-4
  • Cohen, G. A. (1995) Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47751-4
  • Cohen, G. A. (2000a) Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (Expanded Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924206-2
  • Cohen, G. A. (2000b) If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00218-0
  • Elster, J. (1985) Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29705-2
  • Elster, J. (1986) An Introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-33831-X
  • Gordon, D. (1991) Resurrecting Marx: The Analytical Marxists on Freedom, Exploitation, and Justice. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0-88738-390-4
  • Hirst, P. (1985) 'G. A. Cohen's Theory of History', in Marxism and Historical Writing. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7100-9925-8
  • Levine, A. and Wright, E. O. (1980) 'Rationality and Class Struggle', New Left Review 123.
  • Mayer, T. F. (1994) Analytical Marxism. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage. ISBN 0-8039-4681-3
  • Miller, D. (1996) London Review of Books, October 31, 1996.
  • Parijs, P. (1993) Marxism Recycled. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 2-7351-0536-9
  • Przeworski, A. (1985) Capitalism and Social Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-26742-0
  • Roberts, A. (1996) Analytical Marxism: A Critique. London: Verso. ISBN 1-85984-855-9
  • Roemer, J. (1982) A General Theory of Exploitation and Class. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-674-34440-5
  • Roemer, J. (ed.) (1986) Analytical Marxism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-31731-2
  • Wood, A. (2004) Karl Marx. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-31698-7
  • Wright, E. O. (2003) 'Autobiographical Essay', in Stephen Turner and Alan Sica (eds.), A Disobedient Generation. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. ISBN 0-7619-4275-0


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