Class and Civil Society: The Limits of Marxian Critical Theory

By Jean L. Cohen | Go to book overview

Chapter 1 Civil Society and Its Discontents

For Marx, the duality of state and civil society is the hallmark of modernity. 1 On the basis of this never-abandoned theoretical framework, Marx developed a theory of the specifically modern principle of stratification—socioeconomic class relations. The distinction between state and civil society also served as the underlying basis for his pathbreaking analysis of the capitalist mode of production as a system with its own internal dynamics, logic of development, and crisis tendencies. To be sure, Marx inherited the concept of civil society from his most important teacher and predecessor, G. W. F. Hegel, 2 but Marx's attitude toward civil society was both less apologetic and more ambivalent than that of Hegel. Thus, for Marx, the emergence and development of civil society could appear simultaneously as the sine qua non for freedom, autonomy, individuality, and social justice and as the basis for new forms of domination, restriction, alienation, and inequality. The vicissitudes of this concept within Marx's oeuvre, the gains and losses involved in his selective appropriation and critique of Hegel's theory of civil society, have crucial bearing on the class theory, the theory of revolution, and the various models of the communist future he developed. Moreover, the concept of civil society is crucial to Marxian methodology, for the object of investigation, the concept of ideology, and the method of analysis employed all shift according to changes in the interpretation of civil society.

An underlying assumption of my discussion is that any attempt to "save" Marx by extracting a specific method (or period) as the "true" one, be it a Marxian philosophy, science, or critique, can achieve coherence only at the price of misunderstanding the deep-seated antinomies in his work—antinomies that the class theory seems to but, as we will see, does not resolve. On the other hand, any analysis that traces the development of Marx's class theory in relation to changes in his concept of civil society implies a periodization of Marx's oeuvre as a

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