Archive for September, 2011

Ingo Elbe. Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory: II. Western Marxism

Freitag, September 9th, 2011

II. Western Marxism

The formation of a Western Marxism1 arises from the crisis of the socialist workers movement in the wake of the First World War (the collapse of the Second International as a result of the policy of defense of the fatherland, the defeat of revolutions in Central and Southern Europe, the emergence of fascist forces, etc.). Here it is Georg Lukács‘ and Karl Korsch’s texts published in 1923 which assume a paradigmatic character. Above all Lukács is considered the first Marxist theorist who at the level of social theory and methodology called into question the hitherto self-evident assumption of the complete identity of Marx’s and Engels‘ theories. At the center of his critique stood Engels‘ neglect of the subject-object dialectic as well as his concept of a dialectic of nature, to which the fatalism of Second International Marxism was oriented. Against this ontologization of historical materialization into a contemplative worldview, Lukács, like Western Marxism as a whole, understands Marx’s approach to be a critical revolutionary theory of social praxis. Against the scientistic talk of “objective laws of development” of social progress, Lukács posits the critique of ideology of reified consciousness, deciphering the capitalist mode of production as a historically specific form of social praxis ossified into a “second nature”, and the emphasis upon revolution as a critical act of practical subjectivity. Self-descriptions such as “philosophy of praxis” (Gramsci) or “critical theory of society” (Horkheimer) therefore do not constitute code words or conceptual equivalents for official party doctrine, but rather emphasize a learning process from which “arises a critical, action-oriented current of thought of Marxist heritage”.2 Although Western Marxism at first positively took up the activist impulses of the October Revolution, early on its leading representatives would come to reject the doctrine of Leninism, above all its continuation of a naturalistic social theory and its false universalization of the experience of the Russian Revolution. Georg Lukács‘ critique of Bukharin’s “Theory of Historical Materialism” serves as an example of the former. In his critique, Lukács charges that Bukharin’s theory, with its concepts of the primacy of the development of the forces of production and the seamless application of the methods of natural science to the study of society, is fetishistic and obliterates the “qualitative difference” between the two subject areas of natural and social sciences, thus acquiring “the accent of a false ‚objectivity‘ and mistaking the core idea of Marx’s method, namely the ascription of “all economic phenomena to the social relationships of human beings to one another.”

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci provided the exemplary critique of the fixation of revolutionary strategy upon the model of the October Revolution. Initially, he had greeted the October Revolution as a “revolution against Karl Marx’s Capital”,3 that is to say as a refutation of the allegedly proven impossibility of socialist revolution in industrially backwards countries. In an almost revolutionary manner, he cited the voluntaristic “socialist annunciation” as a source of a collective socialist “popular will” against a class consciousness mechanically derived from the economy and the level of its forces of production. Later, Gramsci would confront the Marxism of the Third International with his theory of hegemony, which rejects the “war of maneuver” of a frontal attack upon the repressive state apparatus as being a useless revolutionary strategy for modern Western capitalist societies. According to Gramsci, within these social formations “civil society” is comprised of a labyrinthine structure of apparatuses in which patterns of thought and behavior are generated which exhibit an inertia that cannot be shaken by grandiose political deeds. The Russian revolutionary model is also condemned to failure in the West because the belief in the universal nature of experience of the Bolsheviks with a centralist-despotic czarism leads to a disregard for the relevance of ideological socialization by means of the apparatuses of civil society and their effect: subjection in the form of autonomous agency. However, both Lukács and Gramsci remain loyal to the “exclusively proletarian” conception of revolution to the extent that the former, despite his reflections upon reified consciousness, still attributes an epistemological privilege to the proletariat guaranteed by its economic position, while Gramsci’s strategically motivated theory of civil society is fixated upon the room for maneuver of the working class.

With the attempt at a social-psychological exploration of the drive/structural foundations of the reproduction of an “irrational society”, above all in the form of authoritarian and antisemitic attitudes, the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research since Max Horkheimer’s assumption of the directorship in the year 1931 achieved a level of reflection that other representatives and currents of Western Marxism could not catch up with,4 and which gives up on the reassuring support of an imagined class consciousness of the proletariat. Finally, the empirical class consciousness of the proletariat as the only existing class consciousness is subjected to analysis and “irrational”, emotional dimensions of social praxis ignored by other theorists, such as the social dimensions of the libidinal, are considered. This theoretical insight into the uncompromising nature of critical theory is at the same time an admission of the historical process of an increasing rift between emancipatory theory and the perspective of revolutionary praxis: with the propagation of socialism in one country, the Bolshevization of the Western Communist Parties and the establishment of Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology of the Third International since the middle of the 1920s, there begins the characteristic isolation of the representatives of Western Marxism: there exists neither political influence, nor (with the possible exception of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research) the institutional foundations for a normal scholarly praxis. That which characterizes this formation of Marxism as an intellectual learning process – its sense for the Hegelian legacy and the critical-humanist potential of Marx’s theory, the incorporation of contemporary “bourgeois” approaches to elucidate the great crisis of the workers movement, the methodological orientation, the sensitization to social-psychological and cultural phenomena in connection with the question concerning the reasons for the failure of revolution in “the west”5 – becomes within the framework of this constellation the source for a new type of restricted Marx exegesis. This is essentially characterized by the neglect of problems of politics and state theory, a selective reception of Marx’s theory of value, and the predominance of a “silent orthodoxy” concerning the critique of political economy. In the “founding document” of Western Marxism, Lukács‘ “History and Class Consciousness” – which at least for the first time refers to the character of capitalist rule as understood by Marx: anonymous, objectively mediated, and having a life of its own – a reconstruction of Marx’s theory of capitalism is avoided. Instead of an analysis of Marx’s dialectic of the form of value up to the form of capital, which in the theory of real subsumption offers an explanation of the connection – so decisive for Lukács – between commodification and the alienated structure of the labor process, one finds merely an analogizing combination of a value theory reduced to the “quantifying” value-form (due to an orientation towards Simmel’s cultural critique of money) and a diagnosis, oriented towards Max Weber, of the formal-rational tendency of the objectification of the labor process and modern law. Until the mid-1960s, there appeared to be no Western Marxists who extended their debate with traditional understandings of Marx to the realm of value theory. Some positions go even further than this silent orthodoxy, and – without having seriously engaged with the critique of political economy – contrast the “humanist cultural critic Marx” with the “economist Marx” or even regard a “Marxism” without a critique of political economy as being possible.6

  1. The term was probably first used in a Leninist polemic against Lukács‘ History and Class Consciousness (see Walther 1982, 968), but did not achieve greater significance, as a polemical formulation nor as a self-description by the theorists commonly subsumed under the name (such as Lukács, Korsch, Bloch, the Frankfurt School, Gramsci, Lefebvre, etc.). Here, I follow Perry Anderson’s (1976) usage of the term. As fruitful as the concept of Western Marxism might be as a heuristic model, its limits must be clearly shown (see the critique of Anderson by Haug (1987) and Krätke (1996, 77) []
  2. Haug, 1996, 8. For a critique of the “code word thesis” with regard to Gramsci’s work, see Haug 1995, 1195-1209 []
  3. []
  4. A scientific psychology cannot be found in the thought of most representatives of Marxism, apart from positive references to Pavlov’s behaviorism. Psychoanalysis was mostly rejected, if not demonized as “bourgeois-decadent”. Helmut Dahmer (1982, pp. 241-277) offers a critical overview of such reactions; within the framework of Western Marxism, it was primarily Lukács who distinguished himself in the condemnation of Freud. Gramsci by his own admission “was not able to study Freud’s theories”. []
  5. As further characteristics of Western Marxism, Anderson names the recourse to pre-Marxian philosophy in order to clarify the method of a critical social theory; the incorporation of contemporary “bourgeois” theories: an esoteric writing style; a rather pessimistic appraisal of historical development markedly divergent from the triumphalist diction of classical Marxism and Marxism-Leninism; a preference for problems of aesthetics. []
  6. For example, Erich Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man or Jürgen Habermas‘ “Reconstruction of Historical Materialism” []