GV4G7 - week 1

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These are my notes from January 09 for GV4G7 at the London School of Economics for the 2017-2018 school year. I took this module as part of the one-year Inequalities and Social Science MSc program.

The usual disclaimer: all notes are my personal impressions and do not necessarily reflect the view of the lecturer.

The materialist conception of history


Why Read Marx Today? by Jonathan Wolff (misc selections)

It’s a short book, so I just read the whole thing (some notes in Bookmarker). His coverage of various Marxist concepts seemed decent (I don’t really have enough knowledge to judge with any level of discernment) but his conclusions felt suspect to me. Worth reading though.

Karl Marx: selected writings, edited by David McLellan

This will be the reference text for all the primary readings. Sections for this week:

Forces and Relations of Production by G. A. Cohen

Recommended reading. No clue what book this is found in.

His core thesis (which he ascribes to Marx) that he states at the outset is that:

history is, fundamentally, the growth of human productive power, and that forms of society rise and fall according as they enable and promote, or prevent and discourage, that growth.

Defining relations of production (p13):

Relations of production are relations of economic power, of the economic power people enjoy or lack over labour power and means of production. In a capitalist society relations of production include the economic power capitalists have over means of production, the economic power workers (unlike slaves) have over their own labour power, and the lack of economic power workers have over means of production.

Distinguishing between the forces of production, the base, and the superstructure:

Now the sum total of relations of production in a given society is said to constitute the economic structure of that society, which is also called - in relation to the superstructure - the basis, or base, or foundation. The economic structure or base therefore consists of relations of production only: it does not include the productive forces. […] the forces […] are below the economic foundation, the ground on which it rests.

On his definition of “superstructure” being a lot narrower than others (this chapter is limited to consideration of the legal order):

It is certainiy false that every non-economic social phenomenon is superstructural: artistic creation, for example, is demonstrably not, as such, superstructural for Marx.

On the transition between one mode of relations to another (when they’ve become fetters):

it is because ruling classes have an interest in the maintenance of obsolete relations that their immediate replacement by freshly suitable relations is not to be expected. People do not rush towards the dustbin of history just as soon as they have played out their historical role. (p17)

He’s very insistent that the explanatory claims of historical materialism are functional (as opposed to deterministic? not entirely sure), as otherwise he can’t reconcile (3) and (5) with (6) and (7):

(3) the level of development of productive power explains the nature of the economic structure (5) the economic structure explains the nature of the superstructure (6) the economic structure promotes the development of the productive forces (7) the superstructure stabilizes the economic structure. (all p18)

He spends a couple of pages talking about class struggle and its relationship to the forces of production (complicated, as far as I can tell)—class struggle can bring about social change, and yet the ultimate success of class struggle also depends on the level of development of the production forces. I guess I agree overall though I should probably read more of his work to better understand his POV.

Rationality and Class Struggle by Andrew Levine and Erik Olin Wright

Recommended reading. Published in the New Left Review I/123, September-October 1980. Draws on Marx’s Preface to a Critique of Political Economy from the readings above.

They summarise Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History (possibly where the reading above comes from?), boiling it down to a defence of the Primary Thesis in Marx’s Preface:

the nature of a set of production relations is explained by the level of development of the productive forces embraced by it (to a far greater extent than vice versa)

I gave up midway through … way too dry for me sorry



I re-read my notes from the seminar and realised that most of what I wrote was already in the readings (which I hadn’t done by the time of the seminar). Only a few notes below.