Class and Civil Society: The Limits of Marxian Critical Theory

By Jean L. Cohen | Go to book overview

Chapter 4 The Historical Writings

History or historical materialism?

I on the contrary, demonstrate how class struggle in France created the circumstances and relations that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero's part. 1

At first glance, Marx's historical writings appear to be freed from the extreme determinism and panlogism of the doctrine of historical materialism. 2 Their importance to us is not the historical information they provide but their status as examples of class analyses of revolutionary current events. Here, if nowhere else, we should expect to find the clearest expression of the interrelation between praxis and "objective" structures, between political action and economic conditions, and between the "subjective" and the "objective" factors in an empirically informed sociological class analysis. Indeed, the complexity of events and the immersion in present history lent a flexibility to Marx's writing. Here he confronts the active struggles of several social strata other than the bourgeoisie and proletariat, as well as the role of a state over which the "natural" ruling class has obviously relinquished control. The 1848 revolution and the 1870 Paris Commune called for an analysis of political forms and ideological motivations that could not be derived from economic interests imputed from forces and relations of production. Moreover, they required an interrogation of a historical process that ran counter to the evolutionary model of historical materialism.

To be sure, the brilliance of Marx's insights into the diversity of cultural, traditional, and symbolic factors involved in concrete political activity is, in the end, covered over by the reimposition of the logic of historical materialism and its concomitant class theory on the heterogeneity of historical events. Indeed, insofar as Marx's self-conception

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