New Works of Michael Löwy

Against the Current, No. 52, September/October 1994

Alan Wald

Marxism in Latin America from 1909 to the Present
Edited by Michael Löwy
Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1992,
296 + lxix pages, $49.95 cloth.

On Changing the World:
Essays in Political Philosophy, from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin. By Michael Löwy
Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1993,
189 pages, $39.95 cloth.

Redemption and Utopia:
Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe,
A Study in Elective Affinity
By Michael Löwy
Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992,
276 pages, $32.50 cloth.

THE APPEARANCE IN English of three new books by the Brazilian-born Marxist Michael Löwy may at long last consolidate his reputation in the United States as one of the most eloquent, erudite and creative voices of our time on behalf of emancipatory socialism. Until now, the extraordinary breadth of his oeuvre, combined with its only partial translation into English, has imparted an elusive quality to Löwy’s writings as they have become available to U.S. readers, despite his high rate of productivity and the international acclaim accorded to his work on the theory of the “national question” and on the philosophy of the young Georg Lukács.

First known among scholars and activists in the Latin American solidarity movement in the United States for his sophisticated Trotskyist appreciation of The Marxism of Che Guevara (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), Löwy had earlier completed a doctoral dissertation on the revolutionary theory of the young Karl Marx. This work, still untranslated but published in French as La théorie de la révolution chez jeune Marx (Paris: Maspero, 1970), anticipated in its focus the first two volumes of Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution published by Monthly Review Press in 1977 and 1978.

After establishing himself in philosophical circles with his monumental book George Lukács: From Romanticism to Bolshevism (London: New Left Books, 1981), Löwy appeared to shift gears in his stunning defense of Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development (London: Verso, 1981). Meanwhile, he steadily produced essays translated into English on Lenin’s philosophy, romantic anticapitalism, Walter Benjamin, Rosa Luxemberg, Max Weber, Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci, and religion in a range of international publications, including New German Critique, New Left Review, Telos (when it still had credibility as a radical publication), Monthly Review, Against the Current, and International Marxist Review.

Those fluent in French may have been aware of his Festschrift coedited with Sami Naïr honoring his teacher, Lucien Goldmann, Goldmann (Paris: Éditions Seghers, 1973); his book on the sociology of knowledge, Paysages de la verité (Paris: Anthropos, 1985); and his recent study of romantic anticapitalism (coauthored with Robert Sayre), Révolt et mélancholie (Paris: Payot, 1992). Löwy’s favorable assessment of Liberation Theology, an example of which appears in Marxism and Liberation Theology (Amsterdam: Notebooks for Study and Research No. 10, 1989), earned him a satiric fictional portrait as Father Rossi in Tariq Ali’s otherwise forgettable novel, Redemption (London: Penguin, 1990).

Löwy’s three latest publications will demonstrate to U.S. readers the cohesion and coherency that actually lie at the core of his achievement.(1) However, it may also be helpful to consider several of the factors accounting for the range and diversity in Löwy’s work.

First is Löwy’s unique origin — born in Sáo Paulo in 1938 of Jewish refugees from Austria who had earlier traveled to the USSR in search of work during the Depression. Radicalized in his high school years in the 1950s and politically influenced by a local follower of Max Shachtman (a founder of U.S. Trotskyism and leader of a dissident current after 1940), Löwy made a pilgrimage from Brazil to Paris to study with Lucien Goldmann, a former student of Lukács and among the foremost Marxists of his generation. Then followed a decade of teaching in places such as Israel and England before settling in France at the University of Paris VIII and finally as Research Director in Sociology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris.

Second is Löwy’s unfashionable political stance, which has sustained him for thirty-five years as a militant in various revolutionary socialist organizations. Steeped in the revolutionary traditions of Latin America as well as Europe, Löwy is a much too genuinely unorthodox thinker to join the herd of “unorthodox Marxists” coalescing in the universities since the decline of radicalism in the 1980s. It is true that Löwy’s classical Marxist and Leninist stance is somewhat apart from the canonical versions of Bolshevism with which we are familiar in the United States; Löwy prefers the young Lukács to Plekhanov, is skeptical of any parallel between a dialectics of social development and a “dialectics of nature” (although he otherwise admires Engels), participates in international surrealist circles, and treats Liberation Theology with a seriousness that causes him to rethink and challenge what have sometimes passed as Marxist and Leninist pieties about the irreconcilable politics allegedly flowing from philosophical materialism and idealism.

At the same time, Löwy stands apart from the familiar, garden-variety type of “heretical Marxist” in the United States who ritualistically arrives at the “brilliant” discovery that “Leninism leads to Stalinism,” insists that party commitment precludes individualism, and conceives of his or her role as primarily excoriating those of us in the activist/organized left for failing to see all the subtleties and complexities noted from an armchair observation post. In other words, Löwy’s unorthodoxy, like Rosa Luxemburg’s, is a genuine expression of revolutionary praxis — not just another excuse for sideline criticism or academic careerism.

This may help account for a third reason why a substantial U.S. audience may have had difficulty gaining a perspective on Löwy’s achievement. Unlike his more familiar leading contemporaries who have likewise produced brilliant contributions to Marxist culture — Fredric Jameson and Perry Anderson, to name two for whom I have the highest regard — Löwy is equally at home whether he is writing philosophical, historical and sociological analysis for scholarly contemplation, or meticulous rogrammatic critique and exegesis for immediate, practical mplementation.

A book such as The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development, or, to take another example, his stunning sixty-five page “Introduction” to Marxism in Latin America, bears the unmistakable marks of decades of first-hand political experience, in which the theoretical questions really matter because the well-being and maybe even the lives of struggling individuals are at stake.

Factors such as these have probably caused Löwy’s achievement to “fall between the cracks” of conventional disciplinary and other classificatory categories. Only a few activist-scholars in the United States, such as Manning Marable, even make gestures toward crossing such borders. No doubt many of Löwy’s political associates immersed in day-to-day struggles are less cognizant of his philosophical and sociological contributions, while his intellectual admirers fail to respond to the political Löwy. Yet the unique component of his achievement lies precisely in the integration of these two halves; each nourishes the other, and the totality of his work can only be grasped in the intimate interaction of theory and practice, the unity of philosophical subject and political object.

One could hardly hope for a more useful introduction to the evolution of Lwöy’s intellectual achievement than On Changing the World. This third volume in the Humanities Press series “Revolutionary Studies,” edited by the Trotskyist historian and activist Paul Le Blanc, will enormously aid students of Marxist theory through its assemblage and reprinting of fourteen of Löwy’s most stimulating essays on European and Latin American political culture. An incisive preface by Löwy situates these texts within the broader debates over the meaning of socialism.

His definition of socialism is, first of all, in the classical vein –- “a society where the associated producers are the masters of the process of production.” (ix) But it is also a definition clearly differentiated from Maoist and Stalinist authoritarianism – “democratic rights — freedom of expression and organization, universal suffrage, political pluralism — are not `bourgeois institutions’ but hard-won conquests of the labor movement.” (ix) Most significantly, perhaps, for debates of the current moment, Löwy radically differentiates his project from that of the proponents of Market Socialism. He argues that the failure of Soviet and other post-capitalist societies was not a consequence of unrealistic aims on the part of their leading parties, but, rather, because their “break with the productivist pattern of industrial capitalism and with the foundations of modern bourgeois civilization was not sufficiently radical.” (xi)

Thus the tradition that Löwy upholds within Marxist thought is in sharp distinction to those theorists from Plekhanov to Althusser who are actually rooted in the eighteenth century “ideology of progress.” In Löwy’s view, they erroneously regard the socialist project as simply removing “the relations of production that are an obstacle for the free development of the productive forces” and follow “the bourgeois/positivist model, based on the arbitrary extension to the historical sphere of the epistemological paradigm of the natural sciences, with its `laws,’ its determinism, its purely objective prediction,’ its linear evolutionism….” (xi) In contrast, Löwy takes his stand on behalf “utopia” which implies “a new way of producing and living, with productive forces of a qualitatively different nature.” (xi) This, he believes, is the main content of a Marxism based upon “the philosophy of praxis and the dialectical/materialist method …the analysis of commodity fetishism and of capitalist alienation…the perspective of workers’ revolutionary self-emancipation….” (xii)

The fourteen essays that follow the preface recapitulate Löwy’s journey to his present position, the stages by which he has enlarged upon (not recanted or repudiated) the original vision of Marxism held at the time he published his book on Lukács. The most significant component in this process of enrichment is Löwy’s reassessment of romanticism, which he defines as “the protest against industrial/bourgeois civilization in the name of precapitalist values.” (xiii) Dramatically, he rejects his earlier treatment of romanticism as antithetical to Marxism, now embracing romanticism as a “hidden moment” within Marxism that must be regarded in the “forefront” of the contributions of theorists discussed in this essay collection — Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemberg, Lukács, Gramsci, Marcuse, and Benjamin.

His masterful survey, “Marxism and Revolutionary Romanticism,” is obviously a key text in this evolution. Here he establishes a far broader understanding of romanticism as a world outlook than the more familiar simplifications of romanticism as merely a nostalgia for feudalism. In an erudite review of scholarship and the ideas of influential romantic thinkers, Löwy further specifies, and personally identifies with, a sub-trend of “revolutionary romanticism”; this means a renaissance of precapitalist elements of social existence “worth conserving” (the phrase is from Martin Buber in reference to the Jewish-German libertarian socialist Gustav Landauer). In one of Löwy’s most brilliant moves, he maps the terrain of possible evolutions from the romantic matrix to alternative outcomes such as “Past-oriented or Retrograde Romanticism,” “Conservative Romanticism,” and “Disenchanted Romanticism.” (2-3)

It may not be possible to fairly summarize and describe even a small portion of the complex and stimulating ways in which this argument is developed throughout the rest of the volume. What is clear is that Löwy’s studies of the Utopian Vision, Liberation Theology, Lenin’s “April Theses,” Luxemburg, Gramsci and Lukács, the French Revolution, and the four essays mainly about Walter Benjamin, are consistent — and persuasive — in their elaboration of the “hidden moment” within Marxism. The argumentation culminates memorably in his link between the prophetic images and allegories of Benjamin, and the emergence of the two late twentieth century social movements of ecology and antinuclear pacifism. Löwy is entirely sympathetic to the view, inspired by Benjamin, that “the revolution is not `progress,’ improving the established order….It is a `messianic’ interruption of the course of history…the emergency brake that brings to a stop the headlong rush of the train toward the abyss.” (22)

Marxism in Latin America from 1909 to the Present is a signal contribution to the understanding of the lessons to be learned from a century of struggle against U.S. imperialism “in our backyard.” Divided into four major sections (“The Introduction of Marxism to Latin America,” “The Revolutionary Period,” “Stalinist Hegemony,” and “The New Revolutionary Period”), the volume embraces close to fifty different contributors (some appear more than once, such as Luis Emilio Recabarren, Julio Antonio Mella, José Carlos Mariátegui, Vincente Lombardo Toledano, Fidel Castro, and Ernesto Che Guevara).

Although no individual compilation can claim to be comprehensive or definitive, Löwy has achieved a major breakthrough in bringing together a combination of key political documents, influential manifestos and speeches, representative “positions” of a variety of organizations, and trenchant critiques from revolutionary Marxist (especially Trotskyist, Sandinista and Brazilian Workers’ Party) perspectives.

Redemption and Utopia is in large part the culmination and application of many strands of thought found in On Changing the World. Here Löwy extends the “elective affinities” he finds between revolutionary utopian politics and heretical forms of religion, originally noted in Liberation Theology but now discovered as well in Jewish-German messianic culture. Nine incisive chapters pursue this theme in the lives and work of over a dozen figures, including many Löwy has not previously explored — Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem, Leo Lowenthal, Franz Kafka, Erich Fromm and Bernard Lazare.

These three books provide an opportunity for a reassessment of Löwy’s scholarship of the period following the publication of his book on Lukács. He is now in an enviable position to step back and map out his direction for the 1990s and beyond. Some weaknesses and limitations of his work so far — problems shared by many others of us — may now be rectified. One is the systematic neglect of feminist issues and a feminist method. Here it is not just a matter of “adding on” a female to his list of case studies. He already did this by including a sole essay on Rosa Luxemburg alongside the thirteen others on men in On Changing the World, and he might possibly have done something similar by stretching his definitional borders a bit to include Hannah Arendt, Rachel Varnhagen or Simone Weil along with those central European Jewish males in whom he has perceived an “elective affinity” in Redemption and Utopia.

Instead, the rectification must come through reformulating basic issues around women’s concerns. This would be consistent with his remark on page nineteen of On Changing the World, where he calls for “the integration of feminism as an essential and permanent dimension of the Marxist program….” Such an effort would undoubtedly expand the cultural breadth of his politico-intellectual project.

Moreover, while Löwy’s work by far transcends the narrow Eurocentrism of most Marxism produced in Western Europe, due in part to his multi-continental origins and participation in the international socialist movement, there remain significant limitations. In particular, the components of his work responsive to the African diaspora and indigenous people seem unnecessarily small. When he offers examples of underground, anti-bureaucratic currents, they are too frequently limited to the European revolutionary tradition.

The figures who qualify for his “elective affinity” in this particular study are, as he freely acknowledges, only those similar to his own family’s background; one might almost forget that Löwy has demonstrated in earlier books that he is a thoroughgoing internationalist who also feels a genuine cultural consanguinity with many other like-minded people regardless of regionalancestral commonalities.(2) Romantic anticapitalism, Löwy’s crucial, and, yet, in my view, oddly underdeveloped category, would become far richer and have greater explanatory force if expanded to include not only some currents within feminism (Margaret Fuller, George Sand and Christa Wolf are possibilities), but also the Negritude movement, Harlem Renaissance, Latin American modernismo, the corrido balladeers, and so forth.

In its present form, the centrality he gives to even the most palatable current of “revolutionary romanticism” may be a bit hard for some of us to swallow. This is not because one is a vulgar “positivist” but because one is justifiably suspicious, as was Marx, of attempts to celebrate elements of Medieval society by idealizing them (mainly achieved by highlighting some features and ignoring others), and, also, because many of us feel alienated from Marx and Engel’s unabashed Hellenocentrism.

Of course, the question of resolving the need for a socialist incorporation of romanticism, like earlier debates over incorporating elements of Existentialism and the current controversy over postmodernism, hinges largely upon one’s definition. According to conventional usage, romanticism is virtually the obverse of Marxism in its extreme celebration of individualism and “instincts” (including a dubious notion of “genius”), anti-scientific bias, and philosophical idealism. Conventional studies in romanticism (to which Löwy’s work bears some resemblance) tend to have an individualist/biographical focus, and to contain little information about how the retrieved visionary impetus embedded in texts admired by the scholar might be integrated into practical social movements.

Finally, it is worth remarking on the degree to which Löwy’s work is fixated on “high culture,” something of a contradiction to his strong identification with surrealism, an artistic movement that aspired to burst the barriers between the constructed categories of the “elite” and “mass.” I particularly recommend that Löwy explore the connections between his concept of revolutionary utopia and the “critical utopia” that emerged from the feminist, anti-racist and gay/lesbian science fiction of the United States after the 1960s, as in the work of Joanne Russ, Ursula LeGuin, Marge Piercy, and Samuel Delaney.(3) Nevertheless, by a selective emphasis and interpretation of certain elements within romantic thought, Löwy does seem to render the anticapitalist/revolutionary strain within it quite recuperable. Surely an interrogation and enlargement of the category along the above lines would only make it far more viable.


  1. Actually, an earlier version of Marxism in Latin America was published in French in 1980 and Redemption and Utopia is a translation of a work appearing in 1988; the essays comprising On Changing the World first appeared between the mid-1970s and 1990.
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  2. Other books by Löwy evidence a close sympathy with Latin American revolutionaries, Liberation Theologists, Gramsci, etc.
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  3. A superb study of this trend is Tom Moylan’s Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (New York: Metheun, 1986).
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ATC 52, September-October 1994