Analytical Marxism: Historical Materialism and Cohen’s Grounding Thesis

Philosophy Is No Secret
9 min readMar 5, 2020
Très Riches Heures, 15th-century

What distinguishes Marxism from other theories of history is its emphasis on materialism. There are two distinct senses for the word materialism. Firstly, materialism is an ontological position on what exists. From the materialist perspective, only physical entities exist — there are no Gods, souls. Materialism as an ontological position is not new or unique to Marxism. Materialist traditions in metaphysics have survived since Ancient Greece. There is, however, according to the political philosopher Charles W. Mills, another meaning of materialism in what he calls “the socio-political sense” that is more important for questions of social ontology and justice (Mills 2010). According to Mills, Marxist historical materialism is “a claim or set of claims about patterns of socio-political causality” (Mills 2010). Marxists interpret history as an ongoing, unfolding process. Reforms and revolutions do not have their fate decided according to any divine plan. What makes Marxism “scientific” is its unique emphasis on material explanations for historical phenomena.

Mills defines historical materialism in the socio-political sense as divided into three elements:

1. “The socio-political system can be differentiated into different elements.”

2. “Some of these elements should be thought of as material, some as ideal.”

3. “Overall patterns of socio-political causality are determined by the material elements.”

(Mills 2010)

Historical materialism as a method insists upon a distinction between material and ideal elements. Economics bears the causal explanations for social phenomena. The fundamentally real level of society is its mode of production. A mode of production is made up of the social relations directing forces of production and allocating output. The social dynamics of society find their cause in how production is organized in relations between people. In the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx writes,

“The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” (Marx-Engels Reader, p.4; bold mine)

The agency of history for Marx is primarily economic, not ideal. Everyday conflicts appear “almost completely disguised in the form of battles of ideas, or political or religious disputes,” but for a Marxist analysis, “the immediate matters under debate conceal, even from the protagonists themselves, the underlying theme of class opposition” (Heilbroner 1980, p.68). Historical process unfolds according to material conditions independently of what minds might think of it. In this manner, the agency of history is class struggle.

Class struggle is the dialectical motor of historical change. This “motor” or agency for history is dialectical because there is a contradiction or opposition between the forces of production requiring cooperation to sustain life and relations in conflict over access and ownership. Class is defined by one’s relations to the process of production and distribution. In the capitalist mode of production, a tiny minority hold exclusive ownership of the means of production. Private capital is the defining feature of capitalism as a mode. Capital is fundamentally a social relation. Marx calls capital a relation between people masquerading as a relation between things. What appears as an organization of forces, machines, and resources is simultaneously, and more fundamentally, an arrangement of people into unequal social relations.

The unequal social relations of capitalism install a class antagonism as a permanent feature in the economic structure of society. There is an intrinsic power differential between those who acquire wealth solely in virtue of owning capital, excluding others from using your means of production, and those who have nothing to sell but their own labor-power, their capacity to work.

The existing arrangement of wealth and power is “attacked by those who are its sufferers and defended by those who are its beneficiaries” (Heilbroner 1980, p.68). The irreconcilability of class antagonisms produces the state, a public authority above society. The state becomes a tool for enforcing the unstable capitalist machine. A great deal of energy is expended in the ideological superstructure to the overall effect of making unequal relations appear uncoerced and even inevitable.

Agency in the Superstructure
In Marxist analysis, society is a complex unity of the more primary economic base, and the superstructure containing culture and ideology. The base contains the material processes of labor and production which sustain the reproduction of society itself.

As Mills puts it, Marxism does not deny “ideal elements have some causal efficaciousness.” This is explicitly affirmed in Engels letter repudiating economic determinism: “if anybody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase” (The Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 760, 762). Marxist theory is vulnerable to criticism insofar as it conserves the ambiguities in the base/superstructure model for society.

Engels writes in Anti-Dühring:

“…the ultimate causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in the minds of men, in their increasing insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the mode of production and exchange; they are to be sought not in the philosophy but in the economics of the epoch concerned” (Handbook of Marxism, p.279; bold mine).

Granting unqualified significance to the economic base leads to technological determinism hindering the explanatory power of Marxist theory. Cohen criticizes historical materialism for its failure to prevent its expressions of technological determinism. In her article on Cohen in Socialist Review, Elaine Coburn writes that Cohen’s project of Analytical Marxism notably includes “the rejection of determinist theses about the inevitability of socialism” because Cohen rehabilitates Marxist history from “untenable arguments about the emergence of a large, world-wide, impoverished working class with nothing to lose and on the equally untenable prospect of material abundance without natural, ecological limits” (Coburn 2012, p.12). From Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (1978), we learn that overcoming the limits of determinism requires us to qualify historical materialism as an emphasis on, rather than an affordance of complete superiority to material elements in the economic base.

The question for our current analysis is whether the mode of production “conditions” or determines the “social, political, and intellectual life process in general.” By reconfiguring the role of the economic base as a conditional, rather than deterministic agent, we can read Marx as relying less on his untenable arguments for determinism.

Egalitarian Socialism after Cohen’s Grounding Thesis
Ethical principles of justice, for determinist Marxists, are determined by our historical facts, which are defined by the economic relations of production in the base. It is only in the superstructure that justifications are made in order to preserve the prevailing system of private property relations. Unequal relations are justified by ideological notions of what is “natural” or “unavoidable” for society in its historical position. From the point of view of Cohen’s grounding thesis, conservative free-market ideologies are equally untenable for their appeals to the facts of inevitability of capitalist relations.

Cohen is scrupulous towards Marxist arguments that do not hold up. He is unconvinced by theses of historical determinism or the inevitability of proletarian revolution. Moral justification does not consist in the mechanics of the original position, nor the pre-figured economics of the material base. The legwork of justification is played out at the level of normative principles which largely go unstated because arguments fail to apprehend the more ultimate level of justification. Instead, philosophers disappointingly settle for “the facts” of historical class antagonisms, or analytic rationality from the original position.

By establishing his proof of fact-insensitivity, Cohen does not say that beliefs about ultimate principles cannot be justified, as the non-cognitivist line goes. Rather, Cohen writes that ultimate principles are justified in other non-factual ways (238). Egalitarian justice for Cohen is shaped by the logical commitments of his judgement on the intrinsic value of equality. Facts have very limited import for a discussion aimed at dissuading someone from their normative position.

The priority of higher principles is, for Cohen, a priority which is “purely logical, and not temporal or epistemic” (247). Logical Priority, then, as he continues, “is a matter of what utterances of principle commit one to, not of how one comes to believe or know what one says in uttering them” (247).

It is precisely the determining role of economics which discredits “looser and more romantic representations of Marxism” for Cohen (Coburn 2012). Cohen rejects the idea that socialism is inevitable (Cohen 2000). Instead, Cohen calls for rigorously argued moral appeals. Cohen proposes a thoroughly normative philosophy dedicated to “the search for “timeless truths” and specifically for ultimate, “fact-insensitive” principles of egalitarian justice. The rejection of the inevitability of socialist revolution re-orients political philosophy toward justifying socialist alternatives in the properly ethical domain of fact-insensitivity.

The Failure of Liberalism: Concessions to Capital
Liberal capitalism is by any metric the global hegemonic order of political economy. In earlier decades, the capitalist mode could be contrasted with Soviet Communism. But no such opposition continues past the fall of the Soviet Union. Economic planning has become synonymous with failures of Marxist-Leninism in the twentieth century. It is important to emphasize that liberal Democracy is not a homogenous monolith. Modern liberal governments each have their own particular economic policies and regulations. Within governments themselves, parties squabble over differences in approach, over how to regulate. Liberal governments do not dare problematize the prevailing liberal model for a mixed economy. Degrees of regulation do not strike at the heart of the matter, that the capitalist mode of production is constituted by intrinsically unequal social relations.

Neoliberal democracies in capitalist countries are seeing the rise of far-right parties in the governments of the United States, Brazil, United Kingdom, Bolivia, and others. Either by vote or by violent coup, right-wing political parties have taken power through populist movements in recent years. In more ways than one, the liberalism of Rawls has proven to be naturally concessive to non-liberal far-right groups who want power and will cheat to get it.

Rawls programs liberalism as naturally concessive toward economic inequality. He narrowly applies the difference principle to institutions and leaves liberalism blind to market inequalities. Under capitalism, economic relations are considered separately from matters of public authority. The exclusive distinction between public and private spheres of life governs all questions of justice. Rawlsian liberalism in particular reproduces this distinction, and so inadvertently justifies the unequal relations. For liberalism, the unequal relations of production are outside the purview of social institutions. On the historical materialist view, it is the institutions themselves which are subject to the requirements of commodity production, capital accumulation, and the infinite generation of surplus-value for its own sake. As a result, the social inequalities of capitalist relations fester into an ongoing state of unmatched catastrophe. Only one hundred companies are responsible for seventy-percent of global carbon emissions (Carbon Majors Report 2017). The resulting ecological crisis disproportionately threatens the people in the global south who have contributed the least to climate change.

There is an ideology which presents capitalism as the natural state of things. This thinking precludes the possibility of market intervention by labeling it unjustly coercive in principle. We feel powerless to imagine alternatives for economic redistribution which are materially necessary for egalitarian relations. We are lexically unequipped to address the most pressing inequalities, especially in the terms appropriate to immense geophysical change.

The analytical case for egalitarian justice comes at a time when global warming and immense inequality attest to the need for alternatives to the dominant form of liberalism. The hegemonic economic order of neo-liberal capitalism is supported by Rawls and Nozick. Rather than defending the status quo, we need philosophers like Cohen who take seriously the project of imagining a Socialist alternative to go beyond the prevailing inequalities of a capitalist system.

Cohen is fundamentally an egalitarian. His normative theory holds that equality is intrinsically valuable in such a way that we ought to strive for it. Equality does not have to be the only value, but it is one of them. A certain kind of equality satisfies the conditions for being intrinsically valuable, that is, valuable for its own sake. Conceptions of justice, in the proper sense of the word, are grounded in rigorously argued appeals for liberty, equality, and fraternity. If equality is of any value at all, then justice cannot concede to a preservation of unequal relations presenting themselves as natural facts.