For a Critical Marxism

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

Michael Löwy

This essay first appeared in “Marx Apres les Marximes.  Tome I: Marx a la question” (Paris and Montreal: L’Harmattan, Inc.), an anthology edited by Michel Vakaloulis and Jean-Marie Vincent.  It was translated for “Against the Current” by John Marot, and slightly edited by ATC. Michael Löwy is the author of many works on Marxist theory and philosophy, as well as liberation theology, most recently “War of the Gods” (Verso, 1996).

It’s not coincidental that we are publishing this text in the same issue with several articles on “the lean, mean university” as a product—and an agent—of corporate capitalist power.  We feel that Löwy’s discussion will be of interest to readers who are developing an interest in Marxism as an alternative world view, a theory of revolutionary change.

Löwy emphasizes the open quality of this world view, in contrast with the conventional caricature of a closed, dogmatic system that has become ossified and irrelevant.  Such a caricature of Marx and Marxism, of course, is useful for all this ideologies and social scientists whose “secular religion” (as Löwy describes it) would have us believe that capitalism and its free market are the natural and inevitable end product of human history.

To be sure, many of Löwy’s references to other revolutionary thinkers and 20th century philosophers may not be clear to some readers.  Perhaps this in itself will stimulate further interest and study.—The Editors

IF I TURN to Marxism time and again it’s because I don’t think that Marx was (to cite a well-known dictum) “a man of science like any other.”  As Gramsci rightly emphasized, Marx’s thought wrought a” break in the domain of culture”, in theory and practice, philosophy and politics, that continues to reverberate right down to the present.  It brought forth not a “science of history”—that already existed before him—but a new conception of the world which remains an indispensable framework for all emancipatory thought and action.

Marxism makes sense only if it is critical toward established social reality, a quality that was cruelly lacking in the official “Marxisms” which were apologetic legitimizing doctrines of a “really existing” order [the Soviet Union and other bureaucratic states-ed.]—and critical toward itself, toward its own analyses as these are constantly called into question and refashioned, in keeping with Marxism’s emancipatory objectives that constitute its founding wager.

After more than half a century of State “Marxism,” the official ideology in the service of an authoritarian or (as the case may be) totalitarian bureaucratic system, nothing is more natural than the wish to return to Marx, to rid his thought of accumulated dross and to once again take up a (critical) dialogue with his fundamental works.

One cannot but welcome this wish. But one condition must be observed lest one go seriously astray: the century-long history of Marxism cannot be set aside, a history where one can find, alongside many dead-ends (not to speak of stalinist aberrations), a wealth of insights and indispensable leads toward an understanding of our epoch.

One just can’t “return to Marx” without Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci, Lukacs and Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, Lucien Goldman and Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Mandel and C.L.R.  James, Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord, Jose Carlos Mariategui and Ernesto Che Guevera—the list could go on.

These are the 20th century Marxists—drawing on Marx but going well beyond him—who have helped us understand imperialism and fascism, stalinism, the social revolutions in the Third World and the new forms of capitalism. They have not bequeathed to us a homogenous heritage or an orthodoxy but an open and conflicted diversity which is as necessary to us-from the standpoint of a critique of the existing state of affairs-as are the works of Marx and Engels.

To call oneself a Marxist, therefore, means necessarily to question certain aspects of Marx’s work. A stocktaking seems indispensable to me, both to determine what in Marx remains essential to understanding and changing the world, and what in him must be rejected, critiqued, revised or corrected. I don’t pretend that my balance sheet is the only legitimate one, more “Marxist” or “marxian” than others.  I draw it up as a contribution to a pluralist debate, without worrying about being, as Lucien Goldman put it, either orthodox or heretical.

Marx’s first and perhaps foremost contribution to modern culture is his new method of thought and action.  What is this new vision of the world, which first appeared in the 1845 Theses on Feuerbach?  The best definition, it seems to me, is still Gramsci’s: philosophy of praxis.  The great merit of this concept is that it highlights the discontinuity of Marxist thought in relation to the dominant philosophical discourses.

In rejecting the old materialism of Enlightenment philosophy—which proposed to change circumstances in order to liberate man (with its logical political corollary of an appeal to an enlightened despot or a virtuous elite)—and in rejecting neo-hegelian idealism (liberate human consciousness to change society), Marx cut the Gordian knot of the philosophy of his age by declaring (Third Thesis on Feuerbach) that change in circumstances, and transformation of consciousness, coincide in revolutionary praxis.

From this flows, rigorously and coherently, Marx’s new conception of revolution.  Only through their own experience, in the course of their own revolutionary praxis, can the exploited and the oppressed shatter the external “circumstances” that enslave them—Capital, the State—as well as shatter their formerly mystified consciousness.  In other words, no true emancipation exists apart from self-emancipation.

From this point of view the famous slogan of the Founding Manifesto of the International Workingmen’s Association—”The emancipation of the working class will be the task of the working class itself”—sums up, with laconic conciseness, the innermost core of Marxist political thought. As self-liberating praxis, revolution is simultaneously a radical change in economic, social and political structures and the realization, by the victims of the system, of their true interests, the discovery of new, radical and libertarian ideas, aspirations and values.

Within this conceptual framework of revolution, which is of course tied not only to the seizure of power but to an entire uninterrupted historic period of transformation as well, there is no room, from the standpoint of the argument itself, for any “Supreme Savior” (“neither Ceasar nor Tribune”). Marx’s philosophy of praxis is intrinsically hostile to all authoritarianism, substitutionism or totalitarianism.  Of all the manipulations, deformations and falsifications that Marxism has endured, undoubtedly the worst were produced courtesy of stalinist bureaucratic ceasarism, which was no “theoretical deviation” but a monstrous system of monopoly power wielded by a parasitic “estate” (Stand).(1)

Another all-important dimension to the philosophy of praxis is that it sets itself against the old materialism which posits the contemplative individual “(anschauend)” standing before “social conditions,” in other words, facing bourgeois society understood as an ensemble of social and economic laws of “nature” operating independently of the will or action of individuals.

Instead, the philosophy of praxis perceives society as a “practical” network of concrete social relations, a structure created by human beings in the course of their historic activity, of their appropriation of nature through labor.  In short, the concept of praxis is at the heart of the Marxist critique of alienation and, later, of commodity fetishism—understood simultaneously as a “necessary illusion” as well as the form of social objectification under capitalism.

Today we are as never before subject to what Etienne Balibar calls the “totalitarianism of the commodity form” under which “individuals are trapped in the objective structure of exchange from the very moment when not only the things individuals deal with are commodities, but when their own labor power has itself become a commodity” so that their very subjectivity is subjected to the commodity form.(2)

As the 20th century draws to an end, when the capitalist market has become nothing less than secular religion, with its blind and fanatical cults, its procession of intolerant dogmas, its rituals of expiation, its international clergy of “experts,” its excommunication of any and all heresy, the Marxist critique of fetishism allows us to free ourselves from this unbearably constricting straitjacket, from the stifling conformism and pervasive hegemony of the “one thought.”

Indeed, the Marxist critique has fostered some of the most interesting advances in 20th century social theory, from Lukacs’ analysis of reification to the Frankfurt School’s critique of instrumental reason, and the critique of “The Society of the Spectacle” by the Situationists.  [This refers to an essay by the late Guy Debord, considered to be a classic of a group of writers known as the “Situationist International”—ed.]

What gives Marx’s thought its strength, its staying- power, its vitality, its perpetual resurgence despite the triumphalist “refutations,” the repeated burials and bureaucratic manipulations, is its critical and emancipatory quality: It is the dialectical unity between analysis of capital and the call for its overthrow, between study of class struggle and a commitment to the proletariat’s struggle, between examination of the contradictions of capitalist production and the utopia of a classless society, between critique of political economy and the injunction to “overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, enslaved, neglected and contemptible being.”(3)

If the Marxist critique of capital retains its full value it is above all because the reality of capitalism, as a world system, despite the undeniable and deep changes it has gone through in the last century, is still ultimately based on the exclusion of the majority of humanity, on the exploitation of labor by capital, on alienation, domination, hierarchy, on the concentration of power and privilege, on the quantification of life, the reification of social relations, the institutional exercise of violence, militarization, and war.

To understand this reality, its contradictions and the possibility of radical social transformation, Marx’s work remains an indispensable starting point, an irreplaceable tool, a compass without which one can easily go astray.

It is obvious that the world of labor has undergone profound transformations, particularly in the last decades: decline of the industrial proletariat and rise of the service industry, structural unemployment, and the creation (particularly in 3rd World countries) of an excluded mass, marginalized from the process of production—the “povertariat.”  Marx did not foresee these phenomena and they cannot at all be grasped with concepts such as “unproductive labor” or “lumpen-proletariat.”

In the broad sense of the term, however, the proletariat, i.e. those who live from the sale of their labor-power or who try to sell it (the unemployed), remains the principal component of the working population and class conflict between labor and capital is still the principal contradiction of capitalist formations as well as the axis around which other emancipatory movements can develop.

The end of the 20th century is characterized, on the one hand, by the most advanced capitalist globalization, the commodity universalization of the world-economy and, on the other hand, by the multiplication of the innermost recesses of identity, of obsessive territorial neuroses and morbid national fetishes: these are the two sides of the coin. The steady reconstruction of solidarities among the exploited and oppressed is not only the concrete foundation of a new universality-it is also the lone red thread allowing us to discover a way out of the labyrinth of self-referring identity. (4)

This is not to deny the existence of problems, difficulties, limitations and lacunae in Marx’s thought.  It seems to me that the most debatable aspect of the marxian heritage can be found in its analysis of the relations of production with respect to social and cultural life and to the natural environment.  In this contribution I can only point out these problems, not treat them systemically.

There is in Marx a tendency to underestimate non-economic and non-class forms of oppression, whether national, ethnic, or sexual.  The patriarchal domination of women, an issue which affects half of humanity, is far from being an essential theme in the marxian critique of society which remains arguably androcentric (though Engels did pay closer attention to the problem).

One can find in Capital moving pages on the suffering of working women pitilessly exploited by English capitalists, but one will seek in vain a sustained analysis of the specific oppression of women as women, or the construction of gender as a hierarchical social category, or an account of sexual discrimination in the workers’ movement itself.

Along the same lines, Marx and Engels do not always take into consideration the relative autonomy of cultural phenomena, the irreducibility of religion and ethics, for example, to relations of production.  If they understood perfectly well the contradictory nature of religion, at once expression of real misery and protest against it, nevertheless they were convinced that the dissident role of religion was over by the time of the 17th century English Puritan revolution.

Their approach to religious phenomena as a legacy of the past exclusively makes it impossible to understand either the tenacious persistence of obscurantist and retrograde (the “opium of the people”) religious forms throughout the 20th century, especially today, or the appearance of progressive, even revolutionary forms of religiousness, such as liberation theology.

Moreover, their often justified critique of idealist “moralism” and legalist ideology caused them to abstain from formulating ethical values and universal human rights.  No doubt, an emancipatory ethic unquestionably runs throughout the work of Marx and Engels, but they always opposed its theoretical elaboration and articulation.  This lacuna has favored dubious attempts throughout the history of Marxism to complete the Marxist heritage with a Kantian, utilitarian, phenomenological or liberal ethic.

Finally, there remains an issue that perhaps demands the most thoroughgoing revision of the Marxist theoretical corpus: the relationship between production and nature.

To say “Marxism is a productivism” [an ideology that sees productivity in itself as the highest good—ed.], as our ecologist friends do, is not very enlightening.  Marx has been second to none in denouncing the capitalist logic of production for the sake of production, the accumulation of capital, wealth and commodities as ends in themselves.

The very idea of socialism—in contrast to its miserable bureaucratic forgery—is the production of use values, of goods necessary to satisfy human needs. The supreme goal of technical progress for Marx is not the endless production of goods (to have), but the shortening of the workday, and the lengthening of free time.

Nevertheless, it is true that there is a tendency in Marx (pronounced in the Marxism after Marx) to consider the development of the forces of production as the principal vector of progress, to adopt a fairly uncritical attitude toward industrial civilization, particularly its destructive relationship to nature.  The “canonic” text where this standpoint is laid out is the well-known Preface to a Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859), a writing of Marx’s marked by a sharp tendency to embrace an evolutionism, a philosophy of progress, a scientism (modeled on the natural sciences) and by a wholly unproblematicized vision of the productive forces.

In Capital one can find here and there references to the exhaustion of nature by capital as in this oft-cited passage:

All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long- lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in the case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction.  Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social progress of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.(5)

One could find other examples.  Even so, Marx does not possess an integrated ecological perspective.  His optimistic, “promethean” conception of the limitless development of the productive forces once the limits of capitalist relations of production are removed is today indefensible.  This is so not only from a strictly economic standpoint – incorporating ecological costs in calculating value-but above all from the standpoint of the threat to the ecological balance of the planet represented by the productivist logic of capital (and its pale imitator, the “socialist” bureaucracy.)

The exponential growth of air, soil and water pollution, the accumulation of uncontrollable nuclear wastes, the permanent threat of new Chernobyls, the dizzyingly rapid destruction of forests, the greenhouse effect, and the danger of a break in the ozone layer (which would make impossible all organic life on the planet), all are setting up a catastrophic scenario where the very survival of humanity is at stake.

The problem of the environment is, in my view , the greatest challenge for the renewal of Marxist thought on the threshold of the 21st Century. It demands of Marxists a deeply critical revision of their traditional conception of the productive forces, and a radical break with the ideology of progress and the technological and economic paradigm of modern industrial civilization.

Walter Benjamin was one of the first 20th century Marxists to tackle this problem.  As early as 1928, in his book Sens unique, Benjamin denounced the idea of the domination of nature as “an imperialist teaching” and proposed a new conception of technique as “mastery of the relation between nature and humanity.”  A few years later, in his Theses on the Conception of History, he suggested enriching historical materialism with the ideas of Fourier, that visionary utopian who had dreamt of a kind of “labor which far from exploiting nature, is in a position to call forth creations lying dormant within it.”(6)

Marxism to this day has still not caught up with developments in this field.  One of the leads for a new approach is suggested in a recent text. Starting from a passage in The German Ideology, where Marx speaks of the productive forces becoming, under the rule of private property, destructive forces, an Italian Marxist writes:

The statement according to which potentially productive forces are transformed into really destructive ones, especially with respect to the environment, seems more appropriate and meaningful than the well-known schema of a contradiction between (dynamic) forces of relations and (fettering) relations of production.  What is more, this definition allows a critical and non- apologetic foundation to economic, technological, and scientific development, and therefore permits the elaboration of a concept of differentiated progress (E.  Bloch).(7)

Still, ecologists are mistaken if they think they can dispense with the Marxist critique of capitalism.  An ecology that is unaware of the relationship between “productivism” and the logic of profit is doomed to fail, worse, to be co-opted by the system.

Ecological socialists, such as the elder Gorz, James O’Connor, Juan Martinez Alier, Jean Paul Deleage, Fireder Otto Wolf, have fully understood that the blind rationality of the capitalist market, with its shortsighted profit and loss accounting, is inherently antithetical to ecological rationality, which takes into consideration the lengthy temporality of natural cycles and the social necessity to protect the environment.

Against commodity fetishism and the reified autonomization of the economy, at stake in the future is crafting a non- commodified political economy based on non-monetary and extra-economic criteria, in sum, “reimbricating” (to take up Karl Polyani’s expression) the economic into the ecological, the social and the political.(8)

Gramsci stressed that “the philosophy of praxis conceives itself historically, as a transitory phase of philosophical thought” and that it is consequently destined to be replaced in the new society because the latter is founded not on class contradictions and necessity but on freedom.(9)

Yet as long as we live in capitalist societies driven by antagonistic social classes, it would be fruitless to seek to replace the philosophy of praxis by another emancipatory paradigm.  In that light, I think Jean-Paul Sartre was right to consider Marxism as constituting the “intellectual horizon of our epoch.”  All efforts to go “beyond” it can only lead to regression toward inferior levels of thought, not superceding but falling short of Marx.

The new paradigms now being put forth, whether “pure” ecology or the discursive rationality touted by Habermas not to mention postmodernism, deconstructionism and “methodological individualism,” while often contributing interesting insights, do not in any way constitute superior alternatives to Marxism’s understanding of reality, the universality of its critique and the quality of its emancipatory radicalism.

How then must one correct the many lacunae, limitations and inadequacies of Marx and the Marxist tradition? By an open- minded approach, by a predisposition to learn and enrich oneself with critiques and insights coming from elsewhere, in the first instance from the social movements, whether “classical” like the workers’ and peasants’ movement, or novel like the ecological and the women’s movement, the movements in defense of human rights and for the liberation of oppressed peoples, indigenous people’s movements and liberation theology.

But Marxists must also learn to “revisit” other socialist and emancipatory movements, including those which Marx and Engels had “refuted” at length but whose intuitions, poorly developed or absent in “scientific socialism,” nonetheless proved fruitful.  These are the utopian feminisms and socialisms of the 19th Century (Owenists, Saint-Simonists and Fourierists), the libertarian socialisms (anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists), the religious socialisms, and in particular what I would call the romantic socialists who were most critical about the illusions of progress: William Morris, Charles Peguy, Georges Sorel, Bernard Lazare, Gustav Landauer.

Finally, the critical renewal of Marxism also demands that it be enriched by the most advanced and productive forms of non-Marxist thought, from Max Weber to Karl Mannheim, from Georg Simmel to Marcel Mauss, from Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget, from Fernand Braudel to Jurgen Habermas (to mention but a few), and that it incorporate the limited but often useful results of university social science.

One must draw inspiration from Marx himself, who was well able to use the philosophical and scientific works of his age—not only Hegel and Feuerbach, Ricardo and Saint Simon, but also heterodox economists like Quesnay, Ferguson, Sismondi, James Stuart, Thomas Hodgkin—as well as the work of anthropologists fascinated by the communal past, such as Maurer’s and Morgan’s, Carlyle and Cobbett’s romantic critiques of capitalism, and the work of socialist heretics like Flora Tristan or Pierre Leroux.

This does not in any way diminsh the theoretical unity and coherence of Marx’s work. To arrogate to Marxism a monopoly on science by casting other trends of thought down into the purgatory of mere ideology has nothing in common with Marx’s own conception his theory’s complex relation to contemporary scientific production.

Marx’s work has often been presented as a monumental edifice whose structure, from foundation to rooftop, is harmoniously articulated by an impressive architectural design.  Shouldn’t we rather consider Marx’s work as a construction site, always incomplete, on which generations of critical Marxists still labor?


ATC 71, November-December 1997