On Revolution and Utopia

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

Terry Murphy interviews Michael Löwy

Terry Murphy interviewed Michael Löwy for Canada’s Socialist Challenge last year in Ann Arbor, when Löwy was lecturing at the University of Michigan. We have abridged their discussion for publiation here.

Terry Murphy: What are your formative intellectual and political experiences?

Michael Löwy: I was born in Sáo Paulo, Brazil in 1938, from Viennese-Jewish parents who had left Austria during the 1930s. I became a socialist on May 1, 1954 by distributing a leaflet on the Haymarket Martyrs. Soon afterwards I took part in the foundation of a small — very small — group, called the Independent Socialist League, created by some ex-Trotskyists and some partisans of Max Shachtman. The ISL was committed to socialist revolution and strongly opposed to Stalinism.

Rosa Luxemburg was the main guiding light and inspirer of the group’s ideas. Reading her writings was to be for me one of the most powerful and lasting formative experiences of these years.

During 1960 I became attracted by the Cuban Revolution, and joined, with other comrades of the ISL, a regroupment of small organizations and circles that led to the foundation of the revolutionary Marxist organization, Worker’s Politics, the first relatively important group of the Brazilian radical left.

In 1961 I finished my social science studies at the University of Sáo Paulo. I had participated in a study group reading Marx’s Capital, among whose participants were young lecturers and graduate students who are now well known in Brazilian cultural and political life.

At the same time I discovered the writings of the French/Jewish/Rumanian Marxist sociologist Lucien Goldmann, which opened a new and broader intellectual horizon before my eyes. Fascinated by his brand of humanist Marxism (inspired by Georg Lukács), I decided to apply for a scholarship to study in Paris and work on a Ph.D. with Goldmann. I have lived in France, except for a few years spent in Israel and England; in 1968 I joined the Fourth International.

TM: What importance do you attach to non-positivist currents in the social sciences? What are the wider implications that other areas of human thought and creativity — ranging from poetry to historical alchemy to certain tendencies in religious thought — have for a future sociology of knowledge?

ML: Positivism has always been a powerful force in Brazilian culture, particularly among the military. The Brazilian flag, created by the military in 1889 when they created the Republic, has a positivist motto in the middle of the colors: “Order and Progress.” One of the first things I learned from reading Marx — and later Lucien Goldmann — was to reject positivism as a method in social sciences and as a world view.

In fact, the great contribution of Lukács, Bloch, Gramsci, Goldmann, Henri Lefebvre and the Frankfurt School — and in Latin America, José Carlos Mariátegui — is that they rescued Marxism from the deadly embrace of positivism which dominated the so-called orthodox Marxist doctrine of the Second and (Stalinist) Third Internationals, and brought it back to its utopian, humanist and revolutionary romantic dimensions.

While positivism insists in using concepts, categories and methods drawn from the natural sciences — pretending to establish a “value-free social science,” and in fact serving the established order — a critical social science, committed to emancipatory goals, should have rather a humanistic tendency, borrowing its tools from history, philosophy, literature. In Redemption and Utopia I tried to work with the concept of “elective affinity” (of alchemical origin, then used by Goethe in his famous novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften in order to understand better the complex reciprocal relations between cultural forms (in this case, Messianism and Libertarian Utopia). But I should stress that Max Weber had already used this term, as a sociological concept, in his well-known essay on the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. I think this concept can be of great usefulness in future studies on the interlinking of political, cultural or artistic phenomena.

The importance of surrealism is that it developed all the revolutionary and utopian potentials of the romantic critique of bourgeois “rationality.” Challenging the capitalist “principle of reality,” surrealism tapped the magic powers of art in order to subvert the cultural order, and opened a secret door leading to a different world. Its magnetic force of attraction results from the burning fusion of two imperatives: “Transform the World” (Marx) and “Change Life” (Rimbaud).

TM: In Redemption and Utopia you write of “feeling intimately implicated…in this cultural heritage, by the dispersed spiritual universe of a Central European Judaism.” The philosophy you examine there was born of a series of incredibly harsh defeats. What is the relationship between such a painful “landscape of the truth” and contemporary everyday life? Is it true today, as it was for Walter Benjamin in 1940, that “they have not ceased to be victorious”? Is suicide a serious political option in this so-called New World Order?

ML: I do not think that our times, as somber as they may seem, are comparable to the moment when Walter Benjamin wrote his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” I do not see any reason for suicide, so long as we are not threatened, as Benjamin was in August 1940, with being delivered into the hands of the Gestapo (and chose to put an end to his life).

I believe, however, that the enemy — today, as then, imperialism, capitalism, exploitation, oppression — has not ceased to be victorious during these last few years. And observing the growing unemployment in Europe, the worsening of life conditions in the Third World, and the incredible rise on a world scale of religious intolerance, aggressive fundamentalism, expansionist nationalism, murderous racism, blind xenophobia and, worst of all, fascism (a phenomenon that, as Benjamin insisted, is not a strange “regression” to the past but the dark side of modern capitalist/industrial civilization), one can be legitimately worried about the future. If one adds to this the impending ecological catastrophe resulting from the whole mode of production, consumption and waste imposed on our small planet by capital, one cannot deny the actuality of Benjamin’s prophetic remarks.

There is no automatic socialist future, no guaranteed progress and no “final crisis of capitalism” leading by itself to the proletarian utopia: the choice between socialism and barbarism is still open, and its outcome depends on each one of us.

TM: In Paysages de la verité, you note your failure to incorporate the insights of feminism (and, I would add, the lesbian and gay liberation movement) into your conception of a sociology of knowledge. How could such an incorporation take place? What would the resulting model of this transformed sociology look like?

ML: I think that the book’s main shortcoming was its exclusive focus on class as the foundation of a higher and broader viewpoint in social knowledge, largely ignoring gender, race and other key aspects. The great task for a critical sociology of knowledge — but also for the formulation of a revolutionary program — is to build a unified emancipatory standpoint, articulating and combining all the exploited and oppressed layers of society.

I still believe that the working class (in the broadest meaning of the concept, including the service wage workers, the unemployed, the Third World excluded poor) is a decisive and central component in the construction of this universal standpoint because it is a universal social category. But this requires, of course, that the labor movement overcome its corporatist limitations, its gender blindness (or worse,
its male chauvinism), its productivist limitations.

TM: Could you comment on the relationship between “the actuality of wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions” on the one hand and the developing consciousness of an individual toward revolutionary ideas on the other?

ML: The horrors of the Gulf War revealed to a younger generation the harsh realities of our post-Cold War times. Instead of a New World Order of peace and international cooperation, we find the old patterns of imperialist intervention and brutal warfare in order to secure Western capitalist access and control of nature resources. All the rhetoric by the United States and European governments could not hide the fact that this was above all, and basically, an oil expedition.

These factors have certainly contributed to the radicalization of many people in the advanced capitalist countries. But what is lacking — in contrast to the generation that became radicalized between 1905 and 1923 (Trotsky and Lukács, among many others) — is the positive revolutionary example, the experience of proletarian/socialist uprising, the hope of an emancipatory alternative to the established order.

Now there have been truly revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe, leading to the uprooting of the corrupt, authoritarian and anachronistic post-Stalinist systems known as “really existing socialism.” Popular masses were the major actors in these anti-bureaucratic upheavals, under the banner of democracy and national self-determination, from Berlin to Estrevan and from Warsaw to Bucharest.

However, the hopes that this democratic revolution would lead to a socialist democratic alternative, or to a self-managed workers republic (Solidarnosc’s program of 1980) soon faded away, and were replaced by the harsh realities of capitalist restoration actively promoted by the state and national wars, under the banner of the “death of socialism.”

Of course, more than ever, the need for an internationalist and socialist alternative to the present pandemonium of chauvinism and intolerance is urgent. In this sense the ideas of revolutionaries from the beginning of the century — Trotsky and Luxemburg, Lukács and Bloch — are still a most valuable resource, on the condition that they are confronted with the new perspectives and horizons opened up by key social movements like feminism, ecology and Liberation Theology.

ATC 52, September-October 1994

1 comment

  1. can you tell me where and how to find marxist literature about the fight against racist prejudice among white activists in the US and against colonial alienation ( cf postcolonial approach ?)in such countries as Puerto Rico, Cuba, in your archives… thanks in advance!

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