Theory and Practice

Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study.
By George Lichtheim.
Praeger. 412 pp. $8.50.

Not many of the scores of books on Marxism that have appeared in the last few decades are likely to remain of enduring interest. George Lichtheim’s magnificently compressed yet fully comprehensive study ought to be an exception. Free both from ideological animus and apologetics, it yet manages to avoid being “academic” in its demonstration of the relevance of Marxist ideas to modern history. Lichtheim is uniquely qualified for the task he has undertaken. Having grown up in Germany and long a resident of England, he is well versed in both German philosophy and British economics, a background he shares with the chief protagonist of his book, but with few recent analysts of Marxism. It may not be necessary to be Julius Caesar in order to understand him, but in trying to understand a thinker (as opposed to a historical actor) it is invaluable to be thoroughly acquainted with the intellectual ingredients that went into the original theoretical synthesis. And such an acquaintance becomes all the more valuable when one’s goal is to carry forward the history of the synthesis into the present, showing how it has been influenced by later developments, intellectual as well as political.

All great philosophical systems are, of course, syntheses of previously distinct intellectual traditions. Marx’s thought has commonly been described, both by his supporters and by his critics, as a union of German philosophy, French politics, and British economics. To orthodox followers—of whom there are virtually none left, if one excludes the selective and distorted constructions of Soviet ideologists—it is an immense edifice of enduring value and universal significance. Critics, on the other hand, have seen it as a hodgepodge of disparate elements held together only by the revolutionary hopes and will of its author. Since the hopes have not been fulfilled, Marxist theory, they contend, must be measured by the standards of modern scholarly and scientific thought in the various intellectual disciplines it touches, and by these standards it is found wanting.

Lichtheim pays tribute to the grandeur of the Marxian synthesis by refusing to treat it with the historically short-sighted condescension of latter-day critics, while nevertheless demonstrating its fragmentation and loss of relevance now that the circumstances of European history to which it was a response no longer exist. “The 19th century,” he writes, “was . . . a great age of system-building; it was also an epoch rich in revolutionary social currents. But the two came together only in the person of Marx—they signally failed to do so in the case of Comte, Mill, or Spencer, to mention three of the leading claimants to celebrity in the field of social philosophy. The unmistakable aura of absurdity which clings to figures like Comte or Spencer . . . and the diminishing relevance even of Mill, suggests a failure rendered all the more conspicuous by Marx’s achievement.” Four hundred pages later Lichtheim writes the epitaph of a system which, both as idea and as guide to political action, was as much a creature of its time as the bourgeois society it aimed to transcend: “What remains is, on the one hand, the travestied fulfillment of these aims in a reality which is their actual negation; and on the other, the caput mortuum of a gigantic intellectual construction whose living essence has been appropriated by the historical consciousness of the modern world; leaving the empty husk of ‘dialectical materialism‘ to the ideologists of a new orthodoxy. In the sunset of the liberal era, of which Marxism is at once the critique and the theoretical reflection, this outcome confirms the truth of its own insight into the logic of history; while transferring to an uncertain future the ancient vision of a world set free.”



Between these opening and concluding statements, Lichtheim combines critical exegesis with intellectual and social history—a method which, as he recognizes, is consistent with that of Marxism itself. His unifying conception is the definition of Marxism as the theoretical and political link between the French and the Russian Revolutions. Not that (it is perhaps unnecessary to add) he affirms the Communist claim that the Russian Revolution was the fulfillment and extension of the libertarian ideals of its predecessor. Soviet totalitarianism, in fact, constitutes the final failure of Marxism, since it transforms Marxism into the ideology of a new political oligarchy which has reversed the relationship between state and society that Marx and Engels—in common with their Victorian contemporaries—always took for granted. 1918 is the terminal date of the period that begins with the rise of the Jacobins, the period in which the elements of the Marxist synthesis originated and for which it provided a viable analysis and a relevant guide to action.

According to Lichtheim, Marx’s early left-Hegelian phase was a response to the impact of the French Revolution on backward and divided Germany. After the defeat in 1848 of hopes for a German re-enactment of 1789, Marx turned away from the revolutionary chiliasm he had inherited from the Jacobin tradition and subordinated his political vision to his analysis of the mechanics of capitalist development with its indication that revolution would come only “in the fullness of time.” The practical counterpart to his concentration on the “dismal science” was his interest in establishing organizational links between revolutionary socialists and moderate, non-socialist trade unionists, especially in England. His opposition to the revolutionary extremism and conspiratorial tactics of Blanqui’s followers and of the Anarchists, the carriers of the old Jacobin vision, also now became overt. A “scientific socialism” based on the labor movement became the distinctive hallmark of Marxism, although the old messianism came briefly to life—to be interred forever after by Marx and Engels themselves—in Marx’s passionate eulogy of the Paris Commune of 1870. By the next decade Marxism had come to stand for “reform” rather than revolutionary utopianism in France, even before it became the ideology of German Social-Democracy.

But it was in Germany, a country which unlike France had never experienced a revolutionary break in its history, that the “orthodox Marxism”—still equated with Marxism as such by many who know better than to take seriously the ritualism of Soviet ideologists—was developed, chiefly by Engels, in the years after Marx’s death in 1883. It became the ideology of a labor movement which was compelled to give priority over socialist goals to the demand for political democracy that had already been achieved in France and England. Authoritarian government, combined with an improving economic situation as Germany became industrialized and rose to the rank of a major world power, favored the substitution of reformist practice for revolutionary agitation. In order to bring theory into line with the actual practice of the Social-Democratic party, the revisionists, led by Bernstein, tried to modify the expectations of revolution which were built into received Marxist doctrine. But this attempt was successfully resisted by the party’s orthodox, centrist wing, headed by Kautsky. After the turn of the century the mounting international crisis led to efforts by the Austro-Marxists and by Polish socialists—Rosa Luxemburg was the most famous—to reformulate the expected collapse of world capitalism in terms of imperialist conflict and war. Among Russian Marxists the long debate began over the shape of the coming Russian Revolution.



Such, in bare summary, is the historical framework, sketched in with admirable economy and penetration, of Lichtheim’s study. But he is not merely writing the history of Marxism in 19th-century European politics. The essential value and originality of his approach lies in the freedom with which he moves backward and forward between the crucial events of the period covered—showing how, for example, the link between democratic revolution and nationalism in the Jacobinism of 1790 evoked echoes among the German radicals of 1848, only to be broken by the subsequent defeat of German liberalism and the triumph of conservative authoritarianism, until it was forged again in post-revolutionary Russia. Lichtheim’s intention is not to write history as such but to portray the shaping of Marxist theory by each of the major events of the period—events to which radical intellectuals reacted in terms of their own national situations. The interaction between theory and history is his true subject, and his dual perspective illuminates the tensions within Marxism to a degree that the conventional contrast between Marxist theory and the evolution of capitalism on the one hand, and the Soviet regime on the other, quite fails to match.

Thus Lichtheim demonstrates that the young Marx of the 1840’s, on becoming a revolutionary in a Germany “still struggling to emerge from the Middle Ages,” rejected the aging, conservative Hegel by reaching back “without knowing it. . . to the youthful Hegel . . . [who] had sketched a scheme of liberation as far-reaching as anything envisaged in the Communist Manifesto or the Critique of the Gotha Programme in 1795-6.” Over fifty years later a similar reversal occurred with vastly greater historical consequences when Lenin, after the February Revolution of 1917, abandoned the political strategy deduced from the now orthodox doctrine (to which the mature Marx and Engels had contributed) by seizing “upon those elements of the Marxian synthesis which went back to the Jacobin strain in Marx’s own thinking.”

Before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Lenin, in common with all Russian Marxists, accepted the orthodox “German” view that the collapse of Czarism must lead to a “bourgeois” rather than a “proletarian” revolution, since the latter required the prior creation of a fully capitalist economy. Today it has become a cliché to insist that the victory of the Bolsheviks is an anomaly in terms of Marxist doctrine. Lenin’s sudden adoption of the view that his party could and should seize power in its own name is usually attributed to sheer political opportunism or the influence of his pre-Marxist, populist-terrorist background—a background indigenous to Russia. Certainly these played an important part. But Lichtheim shows that the entire issue of the role of a proletarian socialist party in a “bourgeois” revolution was prefigured in 1848 when Marx and Engels, facing the prospect of revolution in a Germany as backward in relation to France as was the Russia of 1917 in relation to Western Europe as a whole, for a short time held a position similar to Lenin’s on the eve of October. “The simplest way of putting the matter is to say that the situation erroneously assumed by Marx and Engels in 1848 to exist in Germany turned out, seventy years later, to be present in Russia. By then, however, Marxism had become synonymous with European socialism and the latter had become democratic.” Even before his about-face in 1917, Lenin’s organizational model of a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries was reminiscent of the Blanquist overtones of the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League drawn up by Marx and Engels in 1850.

What came to be known as Leninism, therefore, is neither utterly discontinuous with previous Marxist thinking, nor is it simply its practical application, as claimed by those whose interest in Marxism is limited to anti-Soviet polemics. Viewed historically (as Lichtheim views it), Marxism is seen to have contained conflicting tendencies corresponding to the variety of situations faced by radicals of the previous century. But Lenin’s success in 1917 had fatal consequences for Marxism. With supreme power in the hands of a Marxist party, the initiation of state-controlled industrialization was the next step: it took the form of Stalinist totalitarianism based on “planned revolution from above.” In this way, Soviet Marxism came to show its present face to the world as a technique for forcibly industrializing and totally reorganizing backward societies, while at home “the official ideology performs the basic service of protecting the self-appointed guardians of the status quo from the danger of acquiring too clear a notion of their veritable role.” Thus Marxism, originally determined to abolish the gap between ideal and reality, itself becomes an ideology papering over a similar gap between its libertarian professions and the actuality of Soviet totalitarianism.



In stressing his historical and political argument, I have neglected the strictly theoretical parts of Lichtheim’s book, which include an extremely lucid review of Marxian economics. But his most original thesis is his contention that the core of Marxism, derived from Hegelian philosophy, was originally the belief in the “union of theory and practice” and that this standpoint was gradually adulterated and abandoned by Engels after Marx’s death. Influenced by positivism and Darwinian evolutionism, Engels refashioned Marxism into a total “scientific” theory of nature as well as of human nature and history. Thus he, not Marx, is the author of “dialectical materialism” and of the historical inevitabilism which has proved so vulnerable to criticism. Engels’s restatement of Marxism makes problematic the role of a revolutionary party when the breakdown of capitalism is in any case held to be inevitable. Moreover, it exposes Marxian theory to the positivist “fact-value” problem of how and why it is mandatory to affirm the socialist future as desirable merely because this future is the guaranteed outcome of natural laws operating in the realm of history.

Other analysts of Marxism have seen the doctrine of the union of theory and practice as central—some of Sidney Hook’s early writings and Alfred G. Meyer’s short volume published in 1954 come to mind. But no one writing in English, at least, has (to my possibly imperfect knowledge) shown as fully as Lichtheim the intimate connection between this Hegelian perspective and Marx’s revolutionary hopes for “a world made new,” or its incompatibility with a positivist methodology and theory of knowledge. Marx’s famous statement that “other philosophers have only interpreted the world whereas the point is to change it” is usually understood as an essentially arbitrary assertion of a preference for political action over purely theoretical understanding sine ira et studio. But what Marx meant was that the world can only be interpreted or understood correctly in the very act of trying to change it. The dualisms within positivist methodology of objective fact and subjective value, of prediction and control, are overcome in such a theory of knowledge no less than the metaphysical distinction in German Idealism between the ideal and the real, which Marx was specifically concerned with criticizing.

If criticism that treats Marxism as a scientific determinist theory is not fully relevant, one may still reject Marx’s inverted Hegelian theory of knowledge as metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. Yet there are curious resemblances between it and a number of tendencies in modern thought: theory and practice—understanding and changing—are inseparably fused in the experience of psychoanalytic therapy, if not in Freud’s old-fashioned scientific objectivism; certain aspects of existentialist thought and some theories of knowledge which take their point of departure from aesthetic experience point in the same direction; so in the philosophy of science does the conception of “personal knowledge” developed by Michael Polanyi, who also happens to be an uncompromising critic of Marxism and all its works.

It would take another book to explore the implications for modern thought of Marx’s materialized or “secularized” Hegelianism. George Lichtheim’s purpose is the different one of showing how the Hegelianderived conception of a revolutionary act fusing for all time the ideal and the real in a new “kingdom of freedom” influenced Marx’s political outlook and was later subordinated to the demands of a changed political and intellectual situation. Lichtheim is prepared to acknowledge that there may be salvageable elements in Marxism, but—as his refusal to become involved in the rather tiresome contemporary debate over the “humanism” and “existentialism” of the young Marx indicates—he is disposed to insist that the original synthesis cannot be grasped if it is considered sub specie aeternitas rather than as a historical product. And here he convinces us that he remains true to the spirit of the system whose ultimate failure he records.



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