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Interview with Robert W. Cox

Par Daniel Drache


How did you become a historical materialist? You began life in Montreal in an Anglo Canadian family. When you look back over the years, how did you come to this very large, rich, and diverse theoretical viewpoint?

When I was at McGill University studying history, I was not only studying history in the sense of certain times and places — medieval, modern, European or Canadian, and so forth; but I also began to think about what is the nature of history. In that regard, one of the things I read was a book called The Idea of History, a collection of lectures and papers by R.G. Collingwood put together and published after Collingwood died. It is a rather coherent collection and it showed me a way of thinking about the nature of history as a form of knowledge. And that stuck with me pretty well through my life. I keep going back to it. Collingwood began with the study of Giambattista Vico who lived in the 18th century in Naples. He was a counterpoint to the Enlightenment. René Descartes, the great father of modern science, theorized the method of modern science based on the separation of the observer from the observed. Vico was more aware of the unity of observer and observed – of how the individual was creating the world through his thought and actions.

Later, when I began to study Marxism, I was constantly comparing the Marxist theory of history with Vico’s. Karl Marx thought in terms of a progressive history, history leading towards an ideal end, an end that was going to result in a communist society. Vico was concerned with history as a cyclical process and the organic way societies evolve from birth to maturity and decline with the possibility of rebirth and a new cycle beginning. It was a very different concept of history from the Enlightenment view of progress towards some ultimate goal.

As an innate pessimist, I found Vico’s conception more compatible with what I understood about the world. So, when I came to reflect upon Marxism, I thought that Antonio Gramsci approached it from perhaps a more subjective – a more Vician — point of view. This was the point of view of ideas, motivations, and the creation of the collective will to change, something that Gramsci derived from Georges Sorel. Sorel is another person I keep returning to who influenced my thinking – especially his idea of the social myth and the way an idea is inserted into the collective consciousness and becomes a powerful force for change.

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