A Response on "Critical Marxism"

— Michael Löwy

I’M VERY HAPPY that my article provoked debate among readers of Against the Current. Several of the remarks seem to me very relevant and I’ll try to answer at least some of them.

I basically share Cyril Smith’s emphasis on self-determination, as well as his rejection of Lenin’s views from 1903 on the introduction of socialist consciousness “from outside”the working class—although I’m inclined to think that he gave up this view in his later years.

I also agree with the need to overcome the tendency to transform October, 1917 into the only model for socialist revolution. And at least since 1979, I’ve been convinced of the inadequacy of the concept of “workers’ state”to describe the nature of the USSR throughout its history.

But I think it would be unfair to say that “Marxism”in general, or even Trotsky—except for a short period, between 1918 and 1923—substituted “the Party”for the proletariat as the historical subject.

Let me now comment on some specific criticisms of Cyril Smith to my paper.

(1)On reductionism: Writing on Thomas Münzer’s revolutionary theology, Engels reduced religion to a “disguise”or “cloak”of class interests. He did not take into account the deeply felt prophetic and eschatological beliefs of the Anabaptist leader, whose preaching he described as mere “biblical phraseology.”

Engels understood very insightfully, however, the utopian—communist—significance of Münzer’s revolutionary religion.

(2)There is indeed no such thing as a Marxist “political economy.”But this is a (small) mistake of my article’s translator: The French version speaks of a “non- commodified economic policy”and not “political economy.”

(3)Marx’s views from 1844 on the “human natural being”are interesting, but they are not the equivalent of an ecological understanding of the dangers flowing from the unchecked growth of the “productive forces.”And I’m afraid we have to take a deeply critical view towards the 1859 Preface [to a Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy]. This is the text from which generations of Marxists and critics have taken and debated formulations on the “economic base”and “superstructure”—ed.].

Fortunately enough, there are significant passages in Marx and Engels which contradict the evolutionist and positivist tendencies present in this text.

Some Limitations

A few comments on Martin Glaberman’s letter, which I value as a very insightful criticism.

I like very much his emphasis on the importance of dialectics for the Marxist method. I tried myself to deal with the political significance of dialectics, particularly in Lenin’s writings, in some of my previous essays (e.g. in my book On Changing the World, Essays in Political Philosophy from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin, Humanities Press, 1996).

In my ATC article there are mentions of it, but I agree with Glaberman that this methodological issue should take a much more central place in a discussion on the present relevance of Marxism.

As far as Marx’s limitations are concerned: Surely, as Glaberman correctly notes, many of them are objective. Marx could not predict what is happening today, and could not “cover everything.”

This is why, in discussing for instance the problem of ecology, the important issue in my view is not so much whether Marx was “guilty,”whether he could or couldn’t have predicted the dramatic consequences of capitalist growth for the environment—in fact, there are some quite “prophetic”passages, like the one from Capital which I quoted in my article—but rather, that we need to perceive some of his views as inadequate for today.

There are some limitations, however, which cannot be explained away through reference to Marx’s time and epoch : One of those is the issue of gender.

There existed already, since the late 18th century, a large body of feminist writings (Olympe de Gouge’s Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Female Citizen, Mary Wollestonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, and many others). In the early 1830s the left wing of the Owenites, including William Thompson, struggled within the Grand Consolidated Trade Union for the equality between women and men workers.

Even more important, the socialist Flora Tristan, whose writings and activity were not unkown to Marx, wrote in her Workers’ Union (1844) that the proclamation of “absolute equality between men and women”and the struggle for women’s political rights was a necessary condition for the unity of the working-class.

Last but not least, Marx hardly took notice of the significant women’s movement for gender equality and equal political rights which developed during the Revolution of 1848 in France.

Haberkern’s Categorical Judgments

I come now to E. Haberkern’s remarks. Many of them are aimed at an imaginary article under the title “Where Marx Went Wrong,”written by an imaginary author, a “revisionist”follower of Bernstein, as well as a partisan of C. Wright Mills and Andre’ Gorz’s (mispelled “Gorsz”by E.H.) New Left ideas (“the organized working class is an obstacle to revolution”).

Since none of this has even the faintest relation to my article in ATC, I don’t feel the need to answer: Let the author referred to by E.Haberkern reply, if he exists.

There are, however, some comments in Haberkern’s letter that do relate to my article. For instance, I suggested a sort of “reading list”of authors which Marxists should take into account.

E.H. assures us that, with the exception of a “handful”of Marxists and of pre-Marx radical political economists, practically every member in my list is a “reactionary,”counterposing to the capitalist system a romanticized version of pre-industrial society.

Indeed I mentioned, among others, the names of what I called “romantic socialists”who criticized the illusions of progress. It is true that these authors idealized pre-capitalist societies. Are they necessarily “reactionary”because of that?

One of these is William Morris, whom E.H. himself qualifies as a “throughgoing revolutionary democrat.”In fact, he was more than that: a revolutionary socialist, but at the same time a romantic dreamer, a member of the Pre-raphaelite society, and certainly an admirer of pre-capitalist forms of production and life, as anyone who has ever read his novel News from Nowhere should know.

Another romantic socialist I mentioned was the anarchist Gustav Landauer, who did not hide his enthusiasm for the Gothic civilisation of the Middle-Ages. Was he therefore “reactionary”? In April, 1919 he became People’s Commissar for Education in the short-lived Bavarian Republic of Workers and Soldiers Councils, and, after the defeat of the revolution, was murdered by the white guards.

Like many other leftist romantics, Landauer transformed the longing for the past into revolutionary energy in the struggle for a socialist future.

Haberkern complains that my reading list includes people like Georges Sorel, Charles Peguy and Thomas Carlyle, who are “precursors of fascism,”and representatives of an authoritarian anticapitalism “dismissed as obsolete”by the Second International.

Well, if Kautsky and other leading worthies of the Second International may have “dismissed”Peguy and Sorel, this is not the case of some of the most creative spirits of 20th century Marxism such as Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Jose Carlos Mariategui, who—without identifying with their somewhat erratic politics—greatly admired the critical insights of these two heterodox and romantic socialists.

As far as Thomas Carlyle is concerned, he was indeed, or became at a certain stage of his evolution, a reactionary. Should we therefore exclude him from our reading list?

Let me quote a passage from an author who had a broader view than E. Haberkern of what Marxists should or should not read:

Carlyle has the merit of having taken a stand against the bourgeoisie in an epoch when the latter’s conceptions, tastes and ideas entirely dominated official English literature, and that in a way which at times was even revolutionary. (...) But in all these writings, the critique of the present is closely connected with an extraordinarily unhistorical apotheosis of the Middle Ages, incidentally also very frequent among the English revolutionaries, for example, Cobbet and some of the Chartists (Friedrich Engels, “Latter-Day Pamphlets, edited by Thomas Carlyle,”1850). 1

E.H. also complains to my mention of Che Guevara—a “hard-line Stalinist”in his view—in a list of 20th century Marxists who should not be ignored. Well, Guevara may have been strongly influenced by Stalinism at the begining of his political life—although he refused to join the Stalinist parties in Guatemala and Cuba, considering them to be bureaucratic and non-revolutionary—but during the `60s he became increasingly critical of Stalinism and of the Soviet model.

It is true that Guevara was killed before he could develop a real understanding of socialist democracy. But he was looking for an alternative to the bureaucratic systems of the Soviet bloc.

It is not an accident that, during the economic debate in Cuba in 1963, his views were attacked by Charles Bettelheim [an economist later to be known as a critic of “Soviet socialism”from a Maoist standpoint—ed.]—in the name of Stalin’s writings on the “economic laws of socialism!”—but supported by Ernest Mandel, a leading theorist of the Fourth International.

Returning from a visit to the USSR in 1964, Guevara told his comrades at the Cuban Ministry of Industry that Soviet officials denounced him as “Trotskyist.”While explaining that he did not agree with many of Trotsky’s ideas (but accepted some of them), he added the following comment: “One cannot destroy an opinion by force, because this prevents the free development of intelligence.”Is this hard-line stalinism?2

One last word on Liberation Theology, whose attitude to the poor closely resembles, according to E.H., that of Mother Teresa. This is very interesting indeed! I was unaware that Mother Teresa advocated, like the Liberation Theologians, an end to charity and the transformation of the poor into subjects of their own liberation.

Nor did I know that she promoted the self-organization of peasants in their struggle against landowners, and that she supported such left-wing forces as the Brazilian Workers Party. Not being as familiar with her sermons as E. Haberkern seems to be, I did not know that she shared the belief of such leading Liberation Theologists as Gustavo Gutierrez on the legitimacy of class struggle:

To deny the reality of class struggle means in practice taking a position in favor of the dominant social structures. Neutrality on this question is impossible. [What is needed] is to eliminate the appropriation by a few of the surplus value produced by the work of the great majority, and not lyrical appeals in favor of social harmony.3

Apparently E.H. has no idea of what Liberation Theology is about. This is no sin: One cannot know everything. But what is the point of writing about what one doesn’t know, even worse, of making such categorical judgments and pretending to teach lessons?


1.In Marx and Engels, Werke, Dietz Verlag, Berlin, 1961, vol.7: 255.

2.E.Guevara, “Le plan et les hommes,”1964, in Oeuvres VI, Paris, 1972: 86.

3.G.Gutierrez, Theologie de la Liberationperspectives, Brussels, 1973: 276.

ATC 76, September-October 1998