Reply to Ben Burgis: G.A. Cohen’s work is useful, but not mandatory to understanding Marxism. By: Paul SoRead Now
Ben Burgis, an analytic philosopher and Marxist, wrote a short essay defending the contribution of G.A. Cohen to Marxism. G.A. Cohen, like Burgis, is both an analytic philosopher and a Marxist. While Cohen is known for his contributions to egalitarianism and distributive justice in response to Rawls’ Theory of Justice, he’s most well known for his arguments for Marxism. However, what differentiates Cohen as a Marxist from many academic and non-academic Marxists is manifold.
First, Cohen attempts to divorce historical materialism from the dialectical method because of the perceived lack of rigor and precision in the latter. Second, as a result of the first, Cohen presents his own analytic interpretation of historical materialism that identifies the development of forces of production (e.g., complex instruments used to produce commodities) as the primary and fundamental driver for socioeconomic development (whereas changes of social relations is secondary insofar as they facilitate development of productive forces). Third, Cohen sees himself as having interpreted historical materialism in such a way that could easily explain the fall of the Soviet Union and avoid being falsified by the rise of socialist countries in relatively less industrialized countries. In short, historical materialism predicts that a successful socialist economy will emerge as a result of a revolution in a developed and industrialized capitalist society. Since the Soviet Union emerged as a result of a revolution in an undeveloped semi-feudal society with pockets of capitalism in the cities, it was bound to fail.
Burgis takes all three above points to be positive. In particular, he argues that Cohen’s contribution to Marxism is invaluable because it fixes a perceived theoretical deficiency in Marxist theory which could not sort out the causal relationship between the productive forces and social relations. The apparent theoretical deficiency according to Burgis and Cohen is the lack of clarity to the question: “which one comes first with respect to the changes in the mode of production - changes in social relation or changes in productive forces?” Which one is more fundamental and basic? A standard answer from a classical Marxist is that both contribute to the change; neither is more fundamental than the other. Social relations function as “fetters” on the development of productive forces and the development of productive forces eventually facilitates the replacement of outdated social relations with new ones. Burgis thinks that Cohen’s answer- that productive forces are primary and fundamental illuminates historical materialism. While Burgis never explicitly says that Cohen divorces historical materialism from the dialectical method, it is well understood by many readers of Cohen’s work that his project, Analytic Marxism, aims to sever the tie between the two precisely because Cohen believes that the dialectical method contributed to the theoretical deficiency (e.g., lack of clarity and confusion) in historical materialism.
While there is more to Burgis’ essay, these three points he made are the focus of my paper. I wish to address all three points. I’ll begin with the third point and then proceed backwards to the second and then the first. Before I begin, I wish to make it clear that I do believe G.A. Cohen’s contribution should not be ignored. His rigor and precision are definitely valuable to Marxists. For instance, I wholeheartedly agree with G.A. Cohen’s definition of the proletariat as someone who lacks ownership of the means of production which he could use to make a sufficient living without working with a capitalist. There are some proletarians who technically own some means of production, but they clearly do not make a sufficient living working such means of production without selling their labor power to the capitalists. I also think G.A. Cohen’s normative approach to Marxism (see Self-ownership, freedom, and equality) which supplements Marxism with some normative ethical arguments is valuable. Even though Marxism is not a normative ethical theory and often emphasizes its scientific nature, there is still room to make a normative ethical argument for socialism and this is the space Cohen helped fill up. Now, let’s address Burgis’s points.
With regard to the third point, Cohen and Burgis seem to be committed to some variation of stageism- an interpretation of historical materialism that societies must pass through all the perquisite stages of development in the right order before reaching socialism or the lower stage of communism. For instance, before society A reaches socialism, A must experience the capitalist stage of development first. Why? Because the capitalist stage of development involves the development of productive forces which in turn creates the necessary capacity as a precondition for a flourishing socialist economy that will emerge in the next stage of development. But there is one problem with this view that is not well known among many people. Karl Marx himself did not really hold this view in his later life. While Marx does believe that in Western Europe a proletarian revolution will create socialism from the ashes of a developed capitalist society, he doesn’t necessarily universalize this to all societies around the world.
For instance, a Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich wrote a letter to Marx asking for his position on whether or not a socialist revolution could take place in Russia. For context, Russia during the time of Zasulich’s correspondence with Marx was largely a feudal economy with some pockets of capitalist development. There was a debate among revolutionaries on whether or not Russia should first complete its capitalist development before reaching socialism or boldly jump forward to a socialist revolution. Many self-declared Marxists argued that Marx himself would argue in favor of the former while others resisted the argument. Zasulich sympathized with the latter camp, so she contacted Marx with a letter to confirm whether or not the self-declared Marxists interpreted his argument accurately. Marx tried to respond to Zasulich’s letter by writing many drafts worth many pages, but eventually he settled with a final draft that was concise and brief.
Marx argued that the so-called Marxists misinterpreted his argument because they generalized Marx’s prediction about western Europe to the entire globe, while Marx had made it clear that a bulk of his works and predictions about economic development were about western Europe alone. What this means is that Marx is sensitive to the fact that each region has different present material conditions due to the differences in their past socioeconomic development. Furthermore, based on Marx’s research on Russia’s political economy and material conditions he believed that Russia was suitable for socialism because it had peasant communes. These peasant communes had social or communal ownership of agrarian productive forces. They had the suitable social relations (e.g., communal social relations) that would engender a communist-like social consciousness, but they lacked the appropriate productive forces to reach socialism.
Given the content of Marx’s correspondence with Zasulich, it seems that Marx’s understanding of historical materialism was much more nuanced than the stageist interpretation. Marx thought that it is not only possible, but, in fact, a reality that each region has a different path to socialism. Western Europe had to undergo complete capitalist development before it could reach socialism, but Russia did not necessarily need to do the same because it already had suitable social relations in peasant communes. In effect, Burgis’ claim that Joseph Stalin’s prediction that socialism will arise and flourish from some pre-capitalist societies would not undermine historical materialism, instead, it would confirm historical materialism as understood by Marx towards the end of his life.
With regards to the second point that development of productive forces are much more fundamental than changes in social relations to overall societal development, Burgis makes the following complaint about Marx’s understanding of the causal roles of social relations and productive forces:
“Marx’s answer is that when an old system “fetters” the further development of the productive forces the old system is defeated and the new one is born. But this is confusing. If the idea is that later technological progress explains earlier shifts in social systems, that sounds suspiciously like effects are being used to explain causes instead of the other way around” (my underline).
In other words, Burgis argues that Marx’s answer that old social relations fettering further development of productive forces implies backward causation: the later development of productive forces explains the earlier shifts in social relations. It’s not entirely clear how Burgis comes to this interpretation of Marx’s answer. Burgis proceeds to introduce Cohen’s theory of how fettering works in such a way that doesn’t indicate backward causation. Cohen writes:
Imagine a productively weak society whose members live in equality at subsistence level, and who wish they were better off. One of them suspects that the introduction of treadmills on the bank of the river on which they rely for irrigation would increase the flow of water onto the land, raise its yield, and thus enhance their welfare. He puts his idea to the community, who are impressed, and a group is forthwith commissioned to design and construct the devices. These are then installed at suitable points on the river bank, and tested, all members of the community participating in the test. They correctly perceive the benefits regular use of the treadmills would bring, and there is a request for volunteers to man them. But none come forward: it is a task relished by no one in the society. Nor is it feasible, for reasons we allow the reader to conjecture, for everyone to contribute just some of his time to treadmilling. Many full-time treaders are needed. It is agreed to select them by lot, and this is done. So rebarbative is the job, however, that it becomes apparent it will not be efficiently performed without severe supervision. For that role there is no dearth of applicants, and a number are, by some means, selected for it. Gradually a class structure (supervisors, farmers, treaders) rises in what was an egalitarian community. One may now say that the relations have changed because otherwise the forces would not have progressed, and that the forces do progress because the relations have changed. But it is clear, despite the second part of the last sentence, that the change in the forces is more basic than the change in relations: the relations change because the new relations facilitate productive progress.
Cohen’s explanation is that it’s not social relations that cause development of productive forces, but rather it’s the development of productive forces that ultimately cause old social relations to die out and determines which new social relations are suitable for the new productive forces to facilitate their further development. Ultimately, productive forces determine the social relations and social relations themselves at most facilitate the development of productive forces. When productive forces reach a certain stage of development, the same social relations that previously facilitated the development of productive forces become fetters on productive forces. Once the productive forces “mature,” they determine new social relations that further facilitate their development.
While there is an undeniable theoretical elegance to Cohen’s argument, Sean Sayer brings up the fundamental problem with Cohen’s understanding of historical materialism: by treating development of productive forces as more fundamental or basic than social relations, insofar as productive forces determine what social relations are suitable for facilitating the development of productive forces, Cohen overlooks the important role social relations play in a dialectical outlook on the relationship between productive forces and social relations. In particular, productive forces are productive forces rather than a meaningless amalgamation of parts because they exist in the context of certain social relations. If productive forces are abstracted away from social relations, they’re merely physical objects without social significance. Nikolai Bukharian made a similar argument:
“Present-day society, for instance, with its vast stone cities, its giant structures, its railroads, harbors, machines, houses, etc.; all of these things are material technical ‘organs’ of society. Any specific machine will at once lose its significance as a machine outside of human society; it becomes merely a portion of external nature, a combination of pieces of steel, wood, etc. When a great liner sinks to the bottom, this living monster with its powerful engines that cause the whole marvelous structure of steel to vibrate, with its thousands of appliances of every possible kind, from dish-rags to wireless station, now lies at the bottom of the sea and the whole mechanism loses social significance. Barnacles will attach themselves to its body, its wood constructions will rot in the water, crabs and other animals will live in the cabins, but the streamer ceases to be a streamer; having lost its social existence, it is excluded from society, has ceased to be a portion of society, to perform its social service, and is now merely an object- no longer a social object- like any other part of external nature which does not come in direct contact with human society. Technical devices are not merely pieces of external nature: they are extensions of society’s organs.”
Bukharin uses an example of a great liner that exists as a great liner because it bears relationship to society, but when it’s permanently detached from society by sinking into the bottom of the ocean it becomes merely a physical object rather than a social object. A similar point can be said about productive forces. A productive force is not merely a physical object, but rather it is a social artifact, or more specifically a productive asset, by virtue of being owned by a social group for the purpose of production and, possibly, expropriation of surplus value from laborers. In this respect, productive forces aren’t more fundamental than social relations precisely because they literally cannot exist as productive forces without social relations. Another way to put it is that if nobody owned and used a particular productive force, it would cease to be a productive force at all. An abandoned and disused steel factory is no longer a steel factory. What’s implicit in the concept of steel factory, from a Marxist point of view, is that some social artifact owned by some social group (usually shareholding capitalists) is used for the purpose of production of steel by steel workers, and, under capitalism, for the creation of surplus value for the bourgeoisie. If a physical object no longer bears such purposes circumscribed by social relations, it’s no longer a productive force. Contrary to what Burgis and Cohen think, the dialectical method is useful for historical materialism because it explains the nature of productive forces as social objects.
This brings me to the first point: Cohen attempts to divorce the dialectical method from historical materialism because he believes it introduces theoretical vices into historical materialism. But the dialectical method helps us understand productive forces as social objects rather than merely physical objects. How? The central feature of the dialectical method is the recognition of the interpenetration of opposites or unity of opposites. Productive forces and social relations are opposites that interpenetrate one another or constitute one another. The existence of a productive force implies a social relation and, conversely, the existence of a social relation implies a productive force. Furthermore, they are opposites insofar as at a certain stage of development they are in tension with one another.
At an initial stage of development, a set of social relations will contribute to the development of productive forces, but at a much later stage the causal role of the same set of social relations changes from contributing to development of productive focus to fettering the development of productive forces. This movement from contributing to development of productive forces to fettering development of productive forces is a dialectical movement of a phenomenon turning into its opposite. In particular, a social relation’s causal role of contributing to the development of productive forces changes into its opposite: fettering development of productive forces. The fettering of productive forces causes the productive force to malfunction because its original purpose at its earlier stage of development has changed into something new in its later stage of development that is no longer congruent with the old social relations. In the context of capitalism, the members of the capitalist class constantly need to improve the efficiency of their productive forces in order to compete with one another. But the same capitalist class that improves the productive forces to survive competition becomes a fetter on productive forces.
One of the features of improving productive forces is consolidating or “socializing” productive forces under the control of monopolistic corporations. This increases efficiency in terms of mass production of commodities, but it also increases the amount of fixed capital (e.g., factories, raw resources, instruments for repair, and so on) and possibly variable capital. This increase in fixed capital, variable capital, and efficiency eventually contributes to the falling rate of profit. Monopolistic corporations can produce so many commodities at such a relatively cheap price, but they do not pay workers enough wages to buy back all commodities. Moreover, the increase of cost in fixed capital and variable capital cuts into the profit margin of monopolistic corporations. This leads to a capitalist crisis in which workers are eventually laid off in order to alleviate the crisis; but laying off workers is not contributing to the development of productive forces, rather, it is preventing concentrated productive forces from developing into the kind whose primary purpose is for human flourishing rather than for profit. This is the fettering of productive forces in the context of capitalism. At some point, workers will expropriate productive forces from the capitalists in order to reorganize production primarily for use rather than for profit.
The above process shows how the same set of social relations that facilitate development of productive forces eventually fetters the development of productive forces. The capitalists contribute to the development of productive forces through intra-class competition, but when productive forces are consolidated and intra-class competition becomes narrower, the capitalists no longer contribute but function as fetters on their development. Precisely because the capitalist class’s fettering of the development of productive forces harms the working class in the form of layoffs, reduction of wages, and so on to keep the profit margins high, the working class will eventually become a class-for-itself (class conscious) and expropriate the productive forces from the capitalist class whose role is no longer progressive with respect to the development of production, but reactionary.
 Sean Sayer, “Marxism and the Dialectical Method: A Critique of G.A. Cohen,” Radical Philosophy (1984): 5.
 Nikolai Bukharian, Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology (New York: International Publishers, 1925). 132-133.
Paul So is a graduate student who studies philosophy in a PhD program at University of California Santa Barbara. While Paul’s research interests mostly lie within the tradition of Analytic Philosophy (e.g. Philosophy of Mind and Meta-Ethics), he recently developed a strong passion in Marxism as his newfound research interest. He is particularly interested in dialectical materialism, historical materialism, and imperialism.