Class and Civil Society: The Limits of Marxian Critical Theory

By Jean L. Cohen | Go to book overview

Chapter 3 Class and History: The Evolutionist Version of the Theory

From philosophy to science: the dehistoricization of the categories

The classic reformulation of the concept of class from the standpoint of the theory of historical materialism was written by Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer in 1852:

As to myself, no credit is due me for discovering either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic anatomy of the classes What I did that was new was to demonstrate: 1) that the existence of classes is merely linked to particular historical phases in the development of production, 2) that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society. 1

It will be my task in this chapter to analyze this formulation and to unfold the fundamental antinomic structure of the concept of class it implies. In short, I will attempt to present the best-known model of the class theory, the one that corresponds to the evolutionist theory of history. In propounding the theory of historical materialism, Marx hoped to ground his class theory (above all, the revolutionary potential of the proletariat) in the scientific analysis of the logic of history— that is, in production relations. But, far from closing the gap between the philosophical and sociological components of his class concept, the theory of historical materialism added another and more complex set of contradictions to a correspondingly reformulated class theory. In this chapter I will reveal the links between the new class concept, the triumph of determinism over contingency, and an ultimately statist model of communism.

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