Analytical Marxism

Analytical Marxism is an approach to Marxist theory that was prominent amongst English-speaking philosophers and social scientists during the 1980s. It was mainly associated with the September Group of academics, so called because of their biennial September meetings to discuss common interests. Self-described as "Non-Bullshit Marxism",[1] the group was characterized, in the words of David Miller, by "clear and rigorous thinking about questions that are usually blanketed by ideological fog."[2] Members of this school seek to apply the techniques of analytic philosophy, along with tools of modern social science such as rational choice theory to the elucidation of the theories of Karl Marx and his successors.

The best-known analytical Marxist was Oxford University philosopher G. A. Cohen, whose Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (1978) helped start the school. In that book, Cohen attempted to apply the tools of logical and linguistic analysis to the elucidation and defense of Marx's materialist conception of history.[1] Other prominent analytical Marxists include the economist John Roemer, the social scientist Jon Elster, and the sociologist Erik Olin Wright. They all have attempted to build upon Cohen's work by bringing to bear modern social science methods, such as rational choice theory, to supplement Cohen's use of analytic philosophical techniques in the interpretation of Marxian theory.

Cohen would later engage directly with Rawlsian political philosophy to advance a socialist theory of justice that contrasts with both traditional Marxism and the theories advanced by political philosophers such as the left-liberal John Rawls and the right-libertarian Robert Nozick. In particular, he points to Marx's maxim of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."


Analytical Marxism is understood to have originated with the publication of G. A. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (1978).[2] Cohen's book was, from the outset, intended as a defence of historical materialism.[3] Cohen painstakingly reconstructed historical materialism through a close reading of Marx's texts, with the aim of providing the most logically coherent and parsimonious account. For Cohen, Marx's historical materialism is a technologically deterministic theory, in which the economic relations of production are functionally explained by the material forces of production, and in which the political and legal institutions (the "superstructure") are functionally explained by the relations of production (the "base"). The transition from one mode of production to another is driven by the tendency of the productive forces to develop. Cohen accounts for this tendency by reference to the rational character of the human species: where there is the opportunity to adopt a more productive technology and thus reduce the burden of labour, human beings will tend to take it. Thus, human history can be understood as a series of rational steps that increase human productive power.



At the same time as Cohen was working on Karl Marx's Theory of History, American economist John Roemer was employing neoclassical economics to defend the Marxist concepts of exploitation and class. In his A General Theory of Exploitation and Class (1982), Roemer employed rational choice and game theory to demonstrate how exploitation and class relations may arise in the development of a market for labour. Roemer would go on to reject the necessity of the labour theory of value to explain exploitation and class. Value was in principle capable of being explained in terms of any class of commodity inputs, such as oil, wheat, etc., rather than being exclusively explained by embodied labour power. Roemer was led to the conclusion that exploitation and class were thus generated not in the sphere of production but of market exchange. Significantly, as a purely technical category, exploitation did not always imply a moral wrong (see section Justice below).

Rational choice Marxism

By the mid-1980s, "analytical Marxism" was being recognised as a "paradigm".[4] The September Group had been meeting for several years, and a succession of texts by its members were published. Several of these appeared under the imprint of Cambridge University Press's series "Studies in Marxism and Social Theory", including Jon Elster's Making Sense of Marx (1985) and Adam Przeworski's Capitalism and Social Democracy (1985). Among the most methodologically controversial were these two authors, and Roemer, due to their use of rational-actor models. Not all analytical Marxists are rational-choice Marxists, however.[5]

Elster's account was an exhaustive examination of Marx's texts in order to ascertain what could be salvaged out of Marxism employing the tools of rational choice theory and methodological individualism (which Elster defended as the only form of explanation appropriate to the social sciences). His conclusion was that – contra Cohen – no general theory of history as the development of the productive forces could be saved. Like Roemer, he also rejected the labour theory of value and, going further, virtually all of Marxian economics. The "dialectical" method is rejected as a form of Hegelian obscurantism. The theory of ideology and revolution continued to be useful to a certain degree, but only once they had been purged of their tendencies to holism and functionalism and established on the basis of an individualist methodology and a causal or intentional explanation.

Przeworski's book uses rational choice and game theory in order to demonstrate that the revolutionary strategies adopted by socialists in the twentieth century were likely to fail, since it was in the rational interests of workers to strive for the reform of capitalism through the achievement of union recognition, improved wages and living conditions, rather than adopting the risky strategy of revolution. Przeworski's book is clearly influenced by economic explanations of political behaviour advanced by thinkers such as Anthony Downs (An Economic Theory of Democracy, 1957) and Mancur Olson (The Logic of Collective Action, 1965).


The analytical (and rational choice) Marxists held a variety of leftist political sympathies, ranging from communism to reformist social democracy. Through the 1980s, most of them began to believe that Marxism as a theory capable of explaining revolution in terms of the economic dynamics of capitalism and the class interests of the proletariat had been seriously compromised. They were largely in agreement that the transformation of capitalism was an ethical project. During the 1980s, a debate had developed within Anglophone academia about whether Marxism could accommodate a theory of justice. This debate was clearly linked to the revival of normative political philosophy after the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971). Some commentators remained hostile to the idea of a Marxist theory of justice, arguing that Marx saw "justice" as little more than a bourgeois ideological construct designed to justify exploitation by reference to reciprocity in the wage contract.[6]

The analytical Marxists, however, largely rejected this point of view. Led by G. A. Cohen (a moral philosopher by training), they argued that a Marxist theory of justice had to focus on egalitarianism. For Cohen, this meant an engagement with moral and political philosophy in order to demonstrate the injustice of market exchange, and the construction of an appropriate egalitarian metric. This argument is pursued in Cohen's books, Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995) and If You're an Egalitarian How Come You're So Rich? (2000b).

Cohen departs from previous Marxists by arguing that capitalism is a system characterised by unjust exploitation not because the labour of workers is "stolen" by employers, but because it is a system wherein "autonomy" is infringed and which results in a distribution of benefits and burdens that is unfair. In the traditional Marxist account, exploitation and injustice occur because non-workers appropriate the value produced by the labour of workers. This would be overcome in a socialist society where no class would own the means of production and be in a position to appropriate the value produced by labourers. Cohen argues that underpinning this account is the assumption that workers have "rights of self-ownership" over themselves and thus, should "own" what is produced by their labour. Because the worker is paid a wage less than the value he or she creates through work, the capitalist is said to extract a surplus-value from the worker's labour, and thus to steal part of what the worker produces, the time of the worker and the worker's powers.

Cohen argues that the concept of self-ownership is favourable to Rawls's difference principle as it ensures "each person's rights over his being and powers"[7] — i.e. that one is treated as an end always and never as a means — but also highlights that its centrality provides for an area of common ground between the Marxist account of justice and the right-libertarianism of Robert Nozick. However, much as Cohen criticises Rawls for treating people's personal powers as just another external resource for which no individual can claim desert, so does he charge Nozick with moving beyond the concept of self-ownership to his own right-wing "thesis" of self-ownership. In Cohen's view, Nozick's mistake is to endow people's claims to legitimately acquire external resources with the same moral quality that belongs to people's ownership of themselves. In other words, proprietarianism allows inequalities to arise from differences in talent and differences in external resources, but it does so because it assumes that the world is "up for grabs",[8] that it can be justly appropriated as private property, with virtually no restriction(s).


Analytical Marxism received criticism from a number of different quarters, both Marxist and non-Marxist.


A number of critics argued that analytical Marxism proceeded from the wrong methodological and epistemological premises. While the analytical Marxists dismissed "dialectically oriented" Marxism as "bullshit", others maintain that the distinctive character of Marxist philosophy is lost if it is understood "non-dialectically". The crucial feature of Marxist philosophy is that it is not a reflection in thought of the world, a crude materialism, but rather an intervention in the world concerned with human praxis. According to this view, analytical Marxism wrongly characterizes intellectual activity as occurring in isolation from the struggles constitutive of its social and political conjuncture, and at the same time does little to intervene in that conjuncture. For dialectical Marxists, analytical Marxism eviscerated Marxism, turning it from a systematic doctrine of revolutionary transformation into a set of discrete theses that stand or fall on the basis of their logical consistency and empirical validity.

Analytical Marxism's non-Marxist critics also raised methodological objections. Against Elster and the rational choice Marxists, Carver[9] argued that methodological individualism was not the only form of valid explanation in the social sciences, that functionalism in the absence of micro-foundations could remain a convincing and fruitful mode of inquiry, and that rational choice and game theory were far from being universally accepted as sound or useful ways of modelling social institutions and processes.


Cohen's defence of a technological determinist interpretation of historical materialism was, in turn, quite widely criticised, even by analytical Marxists. Together with Andrew Levine, Wright argued that in attributing primacy to the productive forces (the development thesis), Cohen overlooked the role played by class actors in the transition between modes of production. For the authors, it was forms of class relations (the relations of production) that had primacy in terms of how the productive forces were employed and the extent to which they developed. It was not evident, they claimed, that the relations of production become "fetters" once the productive forces are capable of sustaining a different set of production relations.[10] Likewise, Cornell political philosopher Richard W. Miller, while sympathetic with Cohen's analytical approach to Marxism, rejected Cohen's technological interpretation of historical materialism, to which he counterpoised with what he called a "mode of production" interpretation which placed greater emphasis on the role of class struggle in the transition from one mode of production to another.[11] The Greek philosopher Nicholas Vrousalis generalized Miller's critique, pointing out that Cohen's distinction between the material and social properties of society cannot be drawn as sharply as Cohen's materialism requires.[12]

Other non-Marxist critics argued that Cohen, in line with the Marxist tradition, underestimated the role played by the legal and political superstructure in shaping the character of the economic base.[13] Finally, Cohen's anthropology was judged dubious: whether human beings adopt new and more productive technology is not a function of an ahistorical rationality, but depends on the extent to which these forms of technology are compatible with pre-existing beliefs and social practices.[14] Cohen recognised and accepted some, though not all, of these criticisms in his History, Labour, and Freedom (1988).

Roemer's version of the cause of change in the mode of production as due to being inequitable rather than inefficient is also the source of criticism. One such criticism is that his argument relies of the legal ownership of production which is only present in later forms of class society rather than the social relations of production.[15]

Justice and power

Some Marxists argue, against analytical Marxist theories of justice, that it is mistaken to suppose that Marxism offers a theory of justice [16]; others question analytical Marxists' identification of justice with rights.[17] The question of justice cannot be seen in isolation from questions of power, or from the balance of class forces in any specific conjuncture. Non-Marxists may employ a similar criticism in their critique of liberal theories of justice in the Rawlsian tradition. They argue that the theories fail to address problems about the configuration of power relations in the contemporary world, and by so doing appear as little more than exercises in logic. "Justice", on this view, is whatever is produced by the assumptions of the theory. It has little to do with the actual distribution of power and resources in the world.

See also


  1. ^ Acton, H. B. (1955). The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed, Cohen and West.
  2. ^ Cohen 2000a.
  3. ^ Cohen, G.A. (1978), ix. Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence, Clarendon Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-827196-4.
  4. ^ Miller 1996.
  5. ^ Roemer 1986.
  6. ^ Veneziani 2010.
  7. ^ Wood 2004.
  8. ^ Cohen 1995.
  9. ^ Cohen 1995.
  10. ^ Carver and Thomas 1995; Roberts 1997.
  11. ^ Levine and Wright 1980.
  12. ^ Miller 1984.
  13. ^ Vrousalis 2015.
  14. ^ Carter 1988.
  15. ^ Hirst 1985.
  16. ^ Wood 2004.
  17. ^ Furner 2018.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Levine, A. and Olin Writght, E., 1980. Rationality and Class Struggle in New Left Review, I/123, September–October 1980


  • Acton, H. B. (1955) The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed, Cohen and West.
  • Carter, A. (1988) Marx: A Radical Critique. Boulder: Westview Press. ISBN 0-7108-0449-0
  • Carver, T. and Thomas, P. (eds.) (1995) Rational Choice Marxism. London: MacMillan. ISBN 0-271-01463-6
  • Cohen, G. A. (1978) Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-691-02008-6
  • Cohen, G. A. (1988) History, Labour, and Freedom: Themes from Marx. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-824816-4
  • Cohen, G. A. (1995) Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47751-4
  • Cohen, G. A. (2000a) Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (Expanded Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924206-2
  • Cohen, G. A. (2000b) If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00218-0
  • Elster, J. (1985) Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29705-2
  • Elster, J. (1986) An Introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-33831-X
  • Furner, J. (2018) Marx on Capitalism: The Interaction-Recognition-Antinomy Thesis. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-32331-5
  • Gordon, D. (1991) Resurrecting Marx: The Analytical Marxists on Freedom, Exploitation, and Justice. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0-88738-390-4
  • Hirst, P. (1985) 'G. A. Cohen's Theory of History', in Marxism and Historical Writing. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7100-9925-8
  • Husami, Z. I. (1980) 'Marx on Distributive Justice', in Marx, Justice, and History. Ed. M. Cohen, T. Nagel, and T. Scanlon. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02009-4
  • Levine, A. and Wright, E. O. (1980) 'Rationality and Class Struggle', New Left Review 123.
  • Mayer, T. F. (1994) Analytical Marxism. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage. ISBN 0-8039-4681-3
  • Miller, D. (1996) London Review of Books, October 31, 1996.
  • Miller, R. W. (1984) Analyzing Marx: Morality, Power, and History, Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01413-2
  • Przeworski, A. (1985) Capitalism and Social Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-26742-0
  • Roberts, M. (1996) Analytical Marxism: A Critique. London: Verso. ISBN 1-85984-855-9
  • Roemer, J. (1982) A General Theory of Exploitation and Class. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-674-34440-5
  • Roemer, J. (ed.) (1986) Analytical Marxism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.0-521-31731-2
  • Tarrit, F. (2006) 'A Brief History, Scope and Peculiarities of "Analytical Marxism"', Review of Radical Political Economics 38.4.
  • Van Parijs, P. (1993) Marxism Recycled. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 2-7351-0536-9
  • Veneziani, R. (2010) 'Analytical Marxism'. Journal of Economic Surveys 26, 649-73.
  • Vrousalis, N. (2015) The Political Philosophy of G.A. Cohen. London: Bloosmbury. ISBN 1-472-52828-X
  • Wood, A. (2004) Karl Marx. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-31698-7
  • Wright, E. O. (2003) 'Autobiographical Essay', in Stephen Turner and Alan Sica (eds.), A Disobedient Generation. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. ISBN 0-7619-4275-0

External links

  • Erik Olin Wright, Interrogating Inequality: Essays on Class Analysis, Socialism and Marxism, Verso, 1994, Ch. 8: "What is Analytical Marxism?"
  • Nicolas Vrousalis, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, Oxford University Press, 2016 "Analytical Marxism"
Analytic philosophy

Analytic philosophy (sometimes analytical philosophy) is a style of philosophy that became dominant in the Western world at the beginning of the 20th century. The term can refer to one of several things:

As a philosophical practice, it is characterized by an emphasis on argumentative clarity and precision, often making use of formal logic, conceptual analysis, and, to a lesser degree, mathematics and the natural sciences.

As a historical development, analytic philosophy refers to certain developments in early 20th-century philosophy that were the historical antecedents of the current practice. Central figures in this historical development are Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, G.E. Moore, Gottlob Frege, and the logical positivists. In this more specific sense, analytic philosophy is identified with specific philosophical traits (many of which are rejected by many contemporary analytic philosophers), such as:

The logical-positivist principle that there are not any specifically philosophical facts and that the object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts. This may be contrasted with the traditional foundationalism, which considers philosophy to be a special science (i.e., the discipline of knowledge) that investigates the fundamental reasons and principles of everything. Consequently, many analytic philosophers have considered their inquiries as continuous with, or subordinate to, those of the natural sciences. This is an attitude that begins with John Locke, who described his work as that of an "underlabourer" to the achievements of natural scientists such as Newton. During the 20th century, the most influential advocate of the continuity of philosophy with science was Willard Van Orman Quine.

The principle that the logical clarification of thoughts can be achieved only by analysis of the logical form of philosophical propositions. The logical form of a proposition is a way of representing it (often using the formal grammar and symbolism of a logical system), to reduce it to simpler components if necessary, and to display its similarity with all other propositions of the same type. However, analytic philosophers disagree widely about the correct logical form of ordinary language.

The neglect of generalized philosophical systems in favour of more restricted inquiries stated rigorously, or ordinary language.According to a characteristic paragraph by Russell:

Modern analytical empiricism [...] differs from that of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume by its incorporation of mathematics and its development of a powerful logical technique. It is thus able, in regard to certain problems, to achieve definite answers, which have the quality of science rather than of philosophy. It has the advantage, in comparison with the philosophies of the system-builders, of being able to tackle its problems one at a time, instead of having to invent at one stroke a block theory of the whole universe. Its methods, in this respect, resemble those of science.

In the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia, the majority of university philosophy departments today identify themselves as "analytic" departments. Analytic philosophy is often understood in contrast to other philosophical traditions, most notably continental philosophies such as existentialism and phenomenology, and also Thomism and Marxism.

Australian philosophy

Australian philosophy refers to the philosophical tradition of the people of Australia and of its citizens abroad.


Axiology (from Greek ἀξία, axia, "value, worth"; and -λογία, -logia) is the philosophical study of value. It is either the collective term for ethics and aesthetics, philosophical fields that depend crucially on notions of worth, or the foundation for these fields, and thus similar to value theory and meta-ethics. The term was first used by Paul Lapie, in 1902, and Eduard von Hartmann, in 1908.Axiology studies mainly two kinds of values: ethics and aesthetics. Ethics investigates the concepts of "right" and "good" in individual and social conduct. Aesthetics studies the concepts of "beauty" and "harmony." Formal axiology, the attempt to lay out principles regarding value with mathematical rigor, is exemplified by Robert S. Hartman's science of value.

Cosmology (philosophy)

Philosophical cosmology, philosophy of cosmology or philosophy of cosmos is a discipline directed to the philosophical contemplation of the universe as a totality, and to its conceptual foundations. It draws on several branches of philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of physics, philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, and on the fundamental theories of physics. The term cosmology was used at least as early as 1730, by German philosopher Christian Wolff, in Cosmologia Generalis.

Danish philosophy

Danish philosophy has a long tradition as part of Western philosophy.

Perhaps the most influential Danish philosopher was Søren Kierkegaard, the creator of Christian existentialism, which inspired the philosophical movement of Existentialism. Kierkegaard had a few Danish followers, including Harald Høffding, who later in his life moved on to join the movement of positivism. Among Kierkegaard's other followers include Jean-Paul Sartre who was impressed with Kierkegaard's views on the individual, and Rollo May, who helped create humanistic psychology.

Early modern philosophy

Early modern philosophy (also classical modern philosophy) is a period in the history of philosophy at the beginning or overlapping with the period known as modern philosophy.


Ethnophilosophy is the study of indigenous philosophical systems. The implicit concept is that a specific culture can have a philosophy that is not applicable and accessible to all peoples and cultures in the world; however, this concept is disputed by traditional philosophers. An example of ethnophilosophy is African philosophy.

Jon Elster

Jon Elster (; born 22 February 1940, Oslo) is a Norwegian social and political theorist who has authored works in the philosophy of social science and rational choice theory. He is also a notable proponent of analytical Marxism, and a critic of neoclassical economics and public choice theory, largely on behavioral and psychological grounds.

In 2016, he was awarded the 22nd Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science for his contributions to political science.

List of Slovene philosophers

Slovene philosophy includes philosophers who were either Slovenes or came from what is now Slovenia.

List of years in philosophy

The following entries cover events related to the study of philosophy which occurred in the listed year or century.

Marxist schools of thought

Marxism is a method of socioeconomic analysis that frames capitalism through a paradigm of exploitation, analyzes class relations and social conflict using a materialist interpretation of historical development and takes a dialectical view of social transformation. While it originates from the works of 19th century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marxism has had several different schools of thought.

Neo-Marxian economics

The terms neo-Marxian, post-Marxian and radical political economics were first used to refer to a distinct tradition of economic theory in the 1970s and 1980s that stems from the Marxian economic thought. Many of the leading figures were associated with the leftist Monthly Review School.


Neo-Marxism encompasses 20th-century approaches that amend or extend Marxism and Marxist theory, typically by incorporating elements from other intellectual traditions such as critical theory, psychoanalysis, or existentialism (in the case of Jean-Paul Sartre).

An example of the syncretism in neo-Marxist theory is Erik Olin Wright's theory of contradictory class locations which incorporates Weberian sociology, critical criminology and anarchism. As with many uses of the prefix neo-, some theorists and groups designated as neo-Marxist have attempted to supplement the perceived deficiencies of orthodox Marxism or dialectical materialism. Many prominent neo-Marxists, such as Herbert Marcuse and other members of the Frankfurt School, have historically been sociologists and psychologists.

Neo-Marxism comes under the broader framework of the New Left. In a sociological sense, neo-Marxism adds Max Weber's broader understanding of social inequality such as status and power to Marxist philosophy. Examples of neo-Marxism include critical theory, analytical Marxism and French structural Marxism.

Philosophy of dialogue

Philosophy of dialogue is a type of philosophy based on the work of the Austrian-born Jewish philosopher Martin Buber best known through its classic presentation in his 1923 book I and Thou. For Buber, the fundamental fact of human existence, too readily overlooked by scientific rationalism and abstract philosophical thought, is "man with man", a dialogue which takes place in the "sphere of between" ("das Zwischenmenschliche").

Philosophy of film

The philosophy of film is a branch of aesthetics within the discipline of philosophy that seeks to understand the most basic questions regarding film. Philosophy of film has significant overlap with film theory, a branch of film studies.

Philosophy of geography

Philosophy of geography is the subfield of philosophy which deals with epistemological, metaphysical, and axiological issues in geography, with geographic methodology in general, and with more broadly related issues such as the perception and representation of space and place.

Rate of exploitation

In Marxian economics, the rate of exploitation is the ratio of surplus value to variable capital.

Turkish philosophy

Turkish philosophy has long been affected by Islam and the country's proximity to Greece and ancient Greek philosophy.

September Group
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