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Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence Paperback – May 21, 1980

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Editorial Reviews


Winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize

"Cohen's blend of sound scholarship and acute philosophical reasoning has produced a work with which anyone seriously interested in understanding Marx must come to terms."--Peter Singer, New York Review of Books

"A clear, definite, and well-reasoned interpretation of what the theory really is. . . . Admirably argued and generally exhilarating."--Anthony Quinton, The Times Literary Supplement

"[Karl Marx's Theory of History] is an ambitious and impressive work. . . . Cohen writes with limpidity, verve, and honesty."--William H. Shaw, American Historical Review

From the Back Cover

"An admirable and formidable book."--E. J. Hobsbawm

"Every sentence has the feel of having been deeply thought through over a long period of time."--Gareth Stedman Jones


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 390 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (May 21, 1980)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691020086
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691020082
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.5 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #707,309 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful By cutting-edge on January 16, 2006
Format: Paperback
Cohen's classic book is a defense of the Second International thesis that the productive forces (roughly technology and labor power) are the "motive forces" of history. In the first version of the book this idea, widely disputed among Marxists, was intended to show that socialism was the necessary culmination of a history of increasing development of the productive forces. This is a difficult thesis to maintain today, and indeed in more recent work, some of which is embodied in the second edition of the book, Cohen retracts it, suggesting only that the development of the productive forces makes socialism possible. (Subsequently he seems to have backpedaled even on this.) The implications of the weakening of historical materialism (along with a sharp critique of Cohen's original view, one that he now largely accepts) were offered by Wright, Levine, and Sober in their Reconstructing Marxism, an essential companion piece to Cohen's book. They essentially involve taking apart the optimistic claims that Marxism offers an integrated scientifically based program of social change that inspires optimism about progress towards socialism. Cohen's main thesis, as an interpretation of Marx and as a _defense_ of Marx, seems much less plausible than, for example, the alternative "class struggle" interpretations of historical materialism urged, for example, by Robert Brenner or (formerly) Richard Miller in his Analyzing Marx.

Nonetheless, Cohen's book remains a model of clarity, depth, and ruthlessly honest exposition that shows up the places where it runs into problems.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 25, 2004
Format: Paperback
In the Base-Superstructure debate that has been raging for a while, and still is, within modern Marxism, GA Cohen's Defense of Karl Marx's Theory of History is one of the more powerful blows struck and deserves to be read.
Cohen is a supporter of "the primary of productive forces" (the word primacy here being used to avoid the label of being a determinist or vulgar marxist) and argues to uphold the base-superstructure metaphor which Marx set forth in the 1859 preface to the Contribution to Political Economy. In a nutshell, the metaphor basically said that the base of all society is the economic structure, where everything else (legal and political institutions, for example) rise as a superstructure on this base. The implication is that the most influential thing in society is indeed our economic system. The further implication here, and surely what Marx was trying to say, is that capitalism is the defining aspect of everything and essentially the primarily determining entity in society.
GA Cohen upholds this metaphor by first scouring the 1859 preface, then other Marx works and finally arguing for the legitimacy of the "primary of productive forces" himself. His arguments are concise and powerful. If you are a serious student of Marxism, the read is basically mandatory and helps break the illusion that there is really one theory of Marxism and thats it. Cohen's interpertation of Marx tends to be the one that most people identify Marx with themselves and also tends to paint Marxism as cold and determinist (despite his attempts to keep away from the dreaded title).
However, if you are going to read this, be sure to read Althusser, Williams and Lukacs.
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23 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Dave Death on August 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book has some virtues, in terms of clarity of exposition, but as a reading of Marx it leaves a lot to be desired. Like Jon Elster's attempts of making (non)sense of Marx that followed it, this text reads into Marx a set of assumptions taken for granted within neoclassical economics but entirely foreign to Marx's work. If you want to see how Marx and Marxism measure up to the unquestionable and seemingly unthinkable criteria of bourgeois thought, read this. But if you want to understand Marx, read Althusser. 'For Marx' is a good place to start, but be sure to read the essays collected in 'The Humanist Controversy' and 'Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists' too, not to mention 'Reading Capital' and 'Machiavelli and Us' ... Cohen may be easier to read, but only because Cohen doesn't challenge any of the ideology of capitalism that is as invisible to most people as water is to the fish that swim in it.
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