Thematic Innovations of Western Marxism


To mark the publication of two new books by Perry Anderson — The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci and The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony — we are offering a 40% discount on all of Anderson's books through June 4 at midnight UTC.

Georg Lukács, 1913.


This text is excerpted from Considerations on Western Marxism, written in 1974 as the introduction to a reader on Western Marxism whose publication was ultimately delayed before appearing as a standalone volume in 1976. "The essay published here," Anderson writes in his foreword, "is concerned with the general coordinates of 'Western Marxism' as a common intellectual tradition...The present text, focused on the formal structures of the Marxism that developed in the West after the October Revolution, abstains from substantive judgements of the relative merits or qualities of its main representatives."

The book's first chapter surveys the "Classical tradition" that begins with Marx and spans the two generations of historical materialists who succeeded him, concluding in the mid-1920s with the death of Lenin and "the consolidation of a bureaucratically privileged stratum above the working class [in the Soviet Union]," after which "the revolutionary unity of theory and practice that had made possible classical Bolshevism was ineluctably destroyed." Anderson then traces the appearance of a distinct Western Marxism that begins in Lukács, Korsch, and Gramsci, and identifies the qualities that formally distinguish it from its predecessors. Here, Anderson locates the new thematic preoccupations of the Western Marxists. 

Some general facets can be discerned at once. Western Marxism, as we have seen, was progressively inhibited from theoretical confrontation of major economic or political problems, from the 1920s onwards. Gramsci was the last of its thinkers to broach central issues of class struggle directly in his writings. He too, however, wrote nothing about the capitalist economy itself, in the classical sense of analysing the laws of motion of the mode of production as such.1 After him, an equivalent silence typically shrouded the political order of bourgeois rule, and the means of overthrowing it, as well. The result was that Western Marxism as a whole, when it proceeded beyond questions of method to matters of substance, came to concentrate overwhelmingly on study of superstructures. Moreover, the specific superstructural orders with which it showed the most constant and close concern were those ranking "highest" in the hierarchy of distance from the economic infrastructure, in Engels’s phrase. In other words, it was not the State or Law which provided the typical objects of its research. It was culture that held the central focus of its attention.

Above all, within the realm of culture itself, it was Art that engaged the major intellectual energies and gifts of Western Marxism. The pattern in this respect is arresting. Lukács devoted the largest part of his life to work on literature, producing a serried file of critical studies on the German and European novel — from Goethe and Scott to Mann and Solzhenitsyn, culminating in a massive general Aesthetics — his longest and most ambitious published work.2 Adorno wrote a dozen books on music, including both global analyses of the musical transformations of the twentieth century and interpretations of individual composers such as Wagner or Mahler, besides three volumes of essays on literature; he too completed his oeuvre with an overall Aesthetic Theory.3 Benjamin’s most significant theoretical legacy within Marxism was an essay on Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction, and his major critical achievement in the thirties was a study of Baudelaire.4 His accompanying concern was the work of Brecht.5 Goldmann’s principal work was an analysis of Racine and Jansenism — The Hidden God, which at the same time set out a general canon of literary criticism for historical materialism; his other writings explored the modern theatre and novel (Malraux).6 Lefebvre in turn wrote a Contribution to Aesthetics.7 Della Volpe, for his part, produced another full-scale aesthetic theory, Critique of Taste, besides essays on films and poetry.8 Marcuse wrote no separate work on any specific artist, but systematically keyed aesthetics as the central category of a free society, in which "art as form of reality" would finally shape the objective contours of the social world itself — a theme common to both Eros and Civilization and An Essay on Liberation.9 Sartre’s first encounter with Marxism coincided with his publication of What is Literature?; during the transition towards his own work within Marxist theory, his major output was on Genet, while also writing on Mallarmé and Tintoretto 10; and when he had finally completed his passage to Marxism, he spent the next decade on a monumental study of Flaubert — conceived on a scale larger than the sum of all his earlier philosophical works combined.11 Gramsci represents, as usual, a related but distinct case within this gallery. He wrote at considerable length on Italian literature in the Prison Notebooks, but the primary object of his theoretical enquiry was not the realm of art, but the total structure and function of culture for systems of political power in Europe, from the Renaissance onwards.12 Thus his most profound and original investigations were institutional analyses of the historical formation and division of intellectuals, the social nature of education, and the role of mediate ideologies in cementing blocs between classes. Gramsci’s whole work was unremittingly centred on superstructural objects, but unlike any other theorist in Western Marxism he took the autonomy and efficacy of cultural superstructures as a political problem, to be explicitly theorized as such — in its relationship to the maintenance or subversion of the social order. Althusser too, finally, left the shores of method for substantive analysis only to explore exclusively superstructural questions: his lengthiest essay of this type was on ideology and education, its starting-point overtly derived from Gramsci; shorter texts discussed theatre or painting (Brecht or Cremonini), and the nature of art; while the only developed application of his ideas outside the field of philosophy proper to appear under the imprint of his personal authority has been a theory of literature.13 The cultural and ideological focus of Western Marxism has thus remained uniformly predominant from first to last. Aesthetics, since the Enlightenment the closest bridge of philosophy to the concrete world, has exercised an especial and constant attraction for its theorists.14 The great wealth and variety of the corpus of writing produced in this domain, far richer and subtler than anything within the classical heritage of historical materialism, may in the end prove to be the most permanent collective gain of this tradition.

At the same time, however, the major intellectual systems within Western Marxism have typically also generated specifically new theoretical themes, of wider import to historical materialism as a whole. The mark of these conceptions is their radical novelty to the classical legacy of Marxism. They can be defined by the absence of any indication or anticipation of them in the writings of either the young or the old Marx, or the work of his heirs in the Second International. The pertinent criterion here is not the validity of these innovations, or their compatibility with the basic principles of Marxism: it is their originality. A critical evaluation of the merits of each is not the task of these considerations, whose limits it would exceed. For the moment, it will be enough to isolate the most significant conceptual departures from precedent in the development of Western Marxism. Any such attempt must inevitably be to some extent arbitrary in its selection: particularly within the narrow scope of this essay, there can be no question of providing any exhaustive survey.15 But certain distinctive themes stand out unmistakably in the theoretical array under discussion. They can be taken as a minimum count of the sui generis contributions of the tradition in question.

In this respect, first and foremost comes Gramsci’s notion of hegemony. The term itself was derived from the Russian socialist movement, where Plekhanov and Axelrod had been the first to employ it, in strategic discussions of the future leadership by the working class of a revolution in Russia.16 Gramsci’s adoption of the term in effect transformed it into something like a new concept altogether in Marxist discourse, designed precisely to theorize the political structures of capitalist power that did not exist in Tsarist Russia. Recalling Machiavelli’s analyses of force and fraud and tacitly inverting them, Gramsci formulated the concept of hegemony to designate the decisively greater strength and complexity of bourgeois class rule in Western Europe, which had prevented any repetition of the October Revolution in the advanced capitalist zones of the continent. This hegemonic system of power was defined by the degree of consent it obtained from the popular masses which it dominated, and a consequent reduction in the scale of coercion needed to repress them. Its mechanisms of control for securing this consent lay in a ramified network of cultural institutions — schools, churches, newspapers, parties, associations — inculcating passive subordination in the exploited classes, via an ensemble of ideologies woven from the historical past and transmitted by intellectual groups auxiliary to the dominant class. Such intellectuals, in turn, could be either annexed by the ruling class from earlier modes of production ("traditional"), or generated within its own social ranks ("organic") as a new category. Bourgeois rule was further buttressed by the allegiance of secondary allied classes, welded into a compact social bloc under its political leadership. The flexible and dynamic hegemony exercised by capital over labour in the West through this stratified consensual structure, represented a far harder barrier for the socialist movement to overcome than it had encountered in Russia.17 Economic crises, of the type which earlier Marxists had seen as the central lever of revolution under capitalism, could be contained and withstood by this political order. It permitted no frontal attack by the proletariat on the Russian model. A long and difficult "war of position" would be necessary to contend with it. With this set of conceptions, Gramsci alone among its thinkers directly sought to find a theoretical explanation of the basic historical impasse that was the origin and matrix of Western Marxism itself.

Gramsci’s theory of hegemony possessed another peculiarity within this tradition, too. It was based, not only on personal participation in contemporary political conflicts, but also on an extremely close, comparative enquiry into the European past. In other words, it was the product of scientific study of empirical material, in the classic sense in which this was practised by the founders of historical materialism. This was not to be true of any other major thematic innovation in Western Marxism. All the others were to be speculative constructions, in an older philosophical sense: a priori conceptual schemes for the understanding of history, not necessarily inconsistent with empirical evidence, but always undemonstrated by it in their mode of presentation. Characteristically, these conceptions have lacked any concrete grid of periodization, articulating them to straightforward historiographical categories of the sort that Gramsci carefully respected. The most sweeping and unexpected theory of this type was the vision of the relationship between man and nature developed by the Frankfurt School. Its origins go back to the philosophy of Schelling, who in mid-career had adopted a counter-evolutionist metaphysic, in which all recorded history was seen as a regression from a higher to a lower state of "fallen nature," after an original "contraction" of divinity from the world, and prior to an eventual "resurrection" of nature with the reunification of deity and universe.18 This religio-mystic doctrine was adapted and transformed by Adorno and Horkheimer into a secular "dialectic of enlightenment." The classical Marxist view of the march of history, from primitive communities to capitalism, had emphasized the increasing control of man over nature with the development of the forces of production as a progressive emancipation of human society from the tyranny of natural necessity (Naturnotwendigkeit); the fruits of this liberation were confiscated by successive exploiting classes through the social division of labour, but with the advent of communism would be reappropriated by the producers themselves to create at last a society of generalized abundance, whose final mastery of nature would be the token of the "realm of freedom." Adorno and Horkheimer converted this affirmative conception into a radically interrogative, or even negative one. For them, the original rupture of man with nature, and the subsequent process of his growing ascendancy over it, brought no necessary progress in human emancipation. For the price of domination over nature, of which man himself was inseparably a part, was a social and psychic division of labour that inflicted ever greater oppression on men, even as it created ever greater potential for their liberation. Subordination of nature proceeded pari passu with consolidation of classes, and hence subordination of the majority of men to a social order imposed as an implacable second nature above them. The advance of technology hitherto only perfected the machinery of tyranny.

At the same time, the structure of reason as the precondition of civilization was erected on the repression of nature in man himself, creating the psychological split between ego and id which made possible the rational control of his spontaneous impulses. The instrumental refinement of reason into logic and science steadily reduced the natural world outside man to mere quantified objects of manipulation, erasing the distinction between subsistent things and cognitive concepts to an operational identity. The return of the repressed that was the fatal consequence of this suppression of nature eventually achieved philosophical form in the Enlightenment, when Nature itself became inversely identified with Reason; and finally its political form in Fascism, when brute barbarism took its revenge on the civilization that had secretly preserved it, in a savage vengeance of degraded nature over reason.19 The refinement of industrial technology too was to culminate in the possibility of planetary self-destruction: all its artefacts were subject to annihilation by explosion or pollution of the elements. A liberated society would thus cease to pursue any presumptuous quest: its historical goal would be, not domination of nature, but reconciliation with it. This would mean abandonment of the cruel and hopeless attempt to dictate an identity of man and nature, by the subjugation of the latter to the former, for an acknowledgement of both the distinction and relation between them — in other words, their vulnerable affinity.20 The "fall" of nature would then at last be redeemed, without and within men: but their non-identity would still preclude any harmony free of contradiction between them.

This basic thematic was common to the Frankfurt School as a whole. Marcuse, however, gave a special inflection to it. In his work, both nature and society acquired more precise and programmatic references. For Marcuse, directly following Freud, the instinctual nature in man was essentially sexual libido — Eros. Over and above the original repression necessary for primitive man to struggle against want and to achieve civilization, postulated by Freud, the structure of class society generated successive historical forms of "surplus repression" derived from inequality and domination. The technological wealth of advanced capitalism, however, now made possible the end of surplus repression, by the inauguration of a socialism of abundance.21 Therewith the pleasure principle (coupled with its obverse principle of avoidance of pain, called Thanatos by Freud) could at last concord with the reality principle of the external world, once the constraints of alienated labour were abolished. Human and natural emancipation would then coincide in erotic liberation. This would mean not merely a polymorphous release of sexuality, but a diffusion of libidinal investment into work and social relations themselves — that would confer on every practice of a pacified existence the sensuous qualities of aesthetic play. In this Orphic world beyond the "performance principle" of capitalism, sublimation would cease to be repressive; erotic gratification would flow freely through all social life; man and nature would be finally attuned in a harmonious unity of subject and object.22 This affirmation sharply distinguished Marcuse from Adorno, whose work contained no such sensuous solution. However, for Marcuse the actual course of history negated its possible outcome: contemporary capitalism realized the very inverse of a true libidinal emancipation — the "repressive de-sublimation" of a commercialized and pseudo-permissive sexuality, damming up and deadening any rebellion of erotic impulses at a deeper level. A comparable fate had befallen art — once critical, now incorporated and neutralized in a culture celebrated by established reality. Technology, in turn, had ceased to contain the hidden possibility of an alternative society: the very advance of modern forces of production had become an involution, perpetuating existing relations of production. The abundance it had created now merely permitted capitalism to integrate the proletariat into a monolithic social order of oppression and conformity, in which it had lost all consciousness of itself as a separate and exploited class.23 Democracy was thus now the normal guise of domination, tolerance a suave agency of manipulation within a homogeneous system in which the masses — deprived of any dimension of negative consciousness — mechanically elected their own masters to rule them.

The central use of Freud to develop a new theoretical perspective within Marxism, evident in Marcuse’s work, was paradoxically also to characterize Althusser’s. The selection of concepts from psychoanalysis, and their transformation, were however in this case very different. Where Marcuse adapted Freud’s metapsychology to formulate a new theory of instincts, Althusser took over Freud’s concept of the unconscious to construct a new theory of ideology. Althusser’s radical break with the traditional conceptions of historical materialism lay in his stark claim that "ideology has no history," because it is — like the unconscious — "immutable" in its structure and operation within human societies.24 The authority for this dictum was, by analogy, the work of Freud, for whom the unconscious was "eternal." Ideology, for Althusser, was a set of mythical or illusory representations of reality, expressing the imaginary relationship of men to their real conditions of existence, and inherent in their immediate experience: as such, it was an unconscious system of determinations, rather than a form of consciousness as ordinarily conceived. The permanence of ideology as a lived medium of delusion was, in turn, a necessary consequence of its social function, which was to bind men together into society, by adapting them to the objective positions allocated them by the dominant mode of production. Ideology was thus the indispensable cement of social cohesion, in every period of history. For Althusser, the reason why it was inescapable as an ensemble of false beliefs and representations was that all social structures were by definition opaque to the individuals occupying posts within them.25 Indeed, the formal structure of all ideology was an invariant inversion of this real relationship between social formations and the individuals within them: for the key mechanism of any ideology was always to constitute individuals as imaginary "subjects" — centres of free initiative — of society, so as to assure their real subjection to the social order, as blind supports or victims of it. Religion in general (the "binding" of man to God), and Christianity in particular, provided in this respect the archetypal model of the effects of all ideology — to instil the illusions of liberty the better to ensure the workings of necessity. Spinoza had furnished a complete account of this characteristic operation of ideology, and precisely with respect to religion, earlier and more thoroughly than Marx. But the unconscious nature of ideology could today be related and articulated to Freud’s scientific concept of the psychic unconscious, itself "initiated" by the forms of ideology peculiar to the family as an objective structure.26 Finally, the transhistorical statute of ideology as the unconscious medium of lived experience, meant that even in a classless society, its system of errors and delusions would survive to give vital cohesion to the social structure of communism itself. For this structure, too, will be unseen and impermeable to the individuals within it.27 The science of Marxism will never coincide with the lived ideas and beliefs of the masses under communism.

The conclusions of the work of Sartre have certain curious similarities of undercurrent to those of Althusser. But the defining theme of Sartre’s system, that distinguishes it from any other, is set by the category of scarcity. The term itself was coined by the Italian philosophe Galiani during the Enlightenment, who first formulated value as a ratio between utility and scarcity (rarità) in any economic system;28 this technical notion of scarcity passed marginally into Ricardo, was virtually ignored by Marx, and eventually re-emerged as a central category in neo-classical economics after him. Sartre’s use of the term, however, had virtually nothing in common with that of Galiani. For the latter believed that the original condition of mankind was one of abundance: the most useful objects were also the most plentiful in nature.29 Marx was more ambiguous in his allusions to the question. But while occasionally suggesting a primitive state of scarcity,30 he more usually implied an original profusion of nature relative to the paucity of human needs before the advent of civilization.31 Moreover, his theory of value contained no reference to scarcity whatever, unlike even the nominal mention of it by Ricardo. For Sartre, on the other hand, scarcity was the "fundamental relation" and "condition of possibility" of human history, both the contingent starting-point and the "passive motor" of all historical development. No original unity between man and nature existed: on the contrary, the absolute fact of scarcity determined nature as the "negation of man" from the start, and history conversely as an anti-nature. The struggle against scarcity generated the division of labour and so the struggle between classes: therewith man himself became the negation of man. Violence, the incessant oppression and exploitation of all recorded societies, is thus internalized scarcity.32 The harsh dominion of the natural world over men, and the divided antagonism of their efforts to transform it to assure their lives, typically give rise to serial collectivities — inhuman ensembles of which each member is alien to each other and himself, and in which the ends of all are confiscated in the total outcome of their actions. Such series have always been the predominant form of social coexistence in every mode of production to date. Their formal antithesis is the "fused group," in which all men are members of one another, united in a fraternal enterprise to achieve a common goal, in and against the milieu of scarcity. The supreme example of a fused group is a mass movement at the apocalyptic moment of a successful revolutionary rising.33 But to maintain itself in existence, pursuing an unequal combat in a world of violence and want, such a group must endow itself with organizational inertia and functional specialization in its turn, losing its fraternity and dynamism to become an "institutional" group. Petrification and dispersion now await it: the next step is to transfer the unity of the group upwards into a "sovereign" authority above it, to achieve a vertical stabilization. The State is the final embodiment of such a sovereignty, and its invariable structure is that of a restricted, authoritarian summit manipulating dispersed series beneath it, through a bureaucratic hierarchy and repressive terror. With its consolidation, the active group that originally created it is degraded once more to serialized passivity.34 If groups and series compose the "formal elements of any history" for Sartre, the real history of social classes charts the complex combinations or conversions of these forms into each other. Classes themselves, however, never constitute fused groups as a whole: they are always an unstable compound of apparatuses, groups and series — in which the latter will normally predominate. Thus the classical Marxist notion of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was an impossible contradiction in terms, a bastard compromise between active sovereignty and passive seriality.35 For no class as such can coincide with a State: political power cannot be exercised by the entire working class, and the State is never a real expression of even the majority of it. The bureaucratization and repression of all post-revolutionary States produced by history so far is thus linked to the very nature and condition of the proletariat as a social ensemble, so long as global scarcity and class divisions exist. Bureaucracy remains an ineliminable accompaniment and adversary of socialism in this epoch.

It will be seen that the successive innovations of substantive theme within Western Marxism, just surveyed, reflected or anticipated real and central problems that history posed to the socialist movement during the half-century after the First World War. Gramsci’s absorbing concern with hegemony prefigured the consensual stabilization of the capitalist State in the West, two decades before it emerged as a durable and general phenomenon. Many of Adorno’s preoccupations with nature, at the time an apparently perverse by-way of the Frankfurt School, suddenly reappeared in the later widespread debate over ecology within the imperialist countries. Marcuse’s analyses of sexuality presaged the institutional breakdown of erotic constraints and sensibility, emancipation as enervation, characteristic of much bourgeois culture after the mid-sixties. Althusser’s main excursus on ideology was directly inspired by the wave of revolts within the higher educational system of the advanced capitalist world in the same period. Sartre’s treatment of scarcity schematized the universal crystallization of bureaucracy after every socialist revolution in the backward countries, while his dialectic of series and groups anticipated much of the formal course of the first mass rising against capitalism in the developed countries after the Second World War (France in 1968). The relative value or adequacy of the solutions advanced by each system to the problems under its purview is not our concern here. It is rather the collective direction of the theoretical innovations peculiar to Western Marxism that needs to be elicited and emphasised.

For, no matter how otherwise heteroclite, they share one fundamental emblem: a common and latent pessimism. All the major departures or developments of substance within this tradition are distinguished from the classical heritage of historical materialism by the darkness of their implications or conclusions. In this respect, between 1920 and 1960, Marxism slowly changed colours in the West. The confidence and optimism of the founders of historical materialism, and of their successors, progressively disappeared. Virtually every one of the significant new themes in the intellectual muster of this epoch reveals the same diminution of hope and loss of certainty. Gramsci’s theoretical legacy was the prospect of a long war of attrition against an immensely stronger structure of capitalist power, more proof against economic collapse than had been envisaged by his predecessors — a struggle with no final clarity of outcome visible. His own life indefectibly bound to the political fate of the working class of his time and nation, Gramsci’s revolutionary temper was tersely expressed in the maxim "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will": once again, it was he who alone consciously perceived and controlled what was to be the timbre of a new and unheralded Marxism. The pervasive melancholy of the work of the Frankfurt School lacked any comparable note of active fortitude. Adorno and Horkheimer called in question the very idea of man’s ultimate mastery of nature, as a realm of deliverance beyond capitalism. Marcuse evoked the utopian potentiality of the liberation of nature in man, only to deny it the more emphatically as an objective tendency in reality, and to conclude that the industrial working class was itself perhaps absorbed past recall within capitalism. The pessimism of Althusser and Sartre had another but no less grave horizon, the very structure of socialism itself. Althusser declared that even communism would remain opaque as a social order to the individuals living under it, deceiving them with the perpetual illusion of their liberty as subjects. Sartre rejected the very idea of a true dictatorship of the proletariat as an impossibility, and interpreted the bureaucratization of socialist revolutions as the ineluctable product of a scarcity whose end remained inconceivable in this century.

These specific substantive theses were accompanied by general accents and cadences absolutely unwonted in the earlier history of the socialist movement. These too were in their own less direct way unmistakable signs of the profound alteration of historical climate that had now come over Marxism in the West. No previous thinker within the tradition of historical materialism could have written in tones and images such as those that Adorno or Sartre, Althusser or Gramsci, were to use. The Frankfurt School’s constant perception of history was best expressed by Benjamin, in a language that would have been virtually incomprehensible to Marx or Engels: "This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress." Benjamin typically wrote, of the annals of all class struggle: "Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins; and this enemy has not ceased to be victorious."36 Gramsci meanwhile, in prison and defeat, summed up the vocation of a revolutionary socialist in the epoch with a desolate stoicism: "Something has changed, fundamentally. This is evident. What is it? Before, they all wanted to be the ploughmen of history, to play the active parts, each one of them to play an active part. Nobody wished to be the 'manure' of history. But is it possible to plough without first manuring the land? So ploughman and manure are both necessary. In the abstract, they all admitted it. But in practice? Manure for manure, as well draw back, return to the shadows, into obscurity. Now something has changed, since there are those who adapt themselves 'philosophically' to being 'manure,' who know that is what they must be…. There is not even the choice between living for a day like a lion, or a hundred years as a sheep. You don’t live as a lion, even for a minute, far from it: you live like something far lower than a sheep for years and years and know that you have to live like that."37

Benjamin and Gramsci were victims of fascism. But in the post-war epoch, too, the note struck within Western Marxism was often no less sombre. Perhaps the most powerful single essay by Althusser, for example, could describe the social development from birth to childhood that initiates the unconscious, with fierce violence, as an ordeal "all adult men have passed: they are the never forgetful witnesses, and very often the victims, of this victory, bearing in their most hidden, i.e. in their most clamorous parts, the wounds, weaknesses and stiffnesses that result from this struggle for human life or death. Some, the majority, have emerged more or less unscathed — or at least, give this out to be the case; many of these veterans bear the marks throughout their lives; some will die from their fight, though at some remove, the old wounds suddenly opening again in psychotic explosion, in madness, the ultimate compulsion of a 'negative therapeutic reaction'; others, more numerous, as 'normally' as you like, in the guise of an 'organic' decay. Humanity only inscribes its official deaths on its war memorials: those who were able to die on time, i.e. late, as men, in human wars in which only human wolves and gods tear and sacrifice one another."38 Yet another savage metaphor was to be used by Sartre, to describe the relations between men in a universe of scarcity: "Our fellow appears to us as a counter-man in so far as he who is the same appears as radically other — that is to say, bearer of a threat of death to us. In other words, by and large we understand his ends (they are our own), his means (we share the same), the dialectical structure of his acts; but we understand them as if they were the traits of another species, our demoniac double. No being, in effect — neither wild beasts nor microbes — is so deadly for man as an intelligent, carnivorous, cruel species capable of understanding and foiling human intelligence, whose end is precisely the destruction of man. This species is, of course, our own, as each man apprehends it in every other in the milieu of scarcity."39 Passages like these belong to a literature fundamentally foreign to the world of Marx, Labriola, or Lenin. They betray a subterranean pessimism, beyond the declared intentions or theses of their authors 40 — none of whom renounced optimism of volition in the struggle against fascism or capitalism. Marxism spoke thoughts once unthinkable for socialism through them.

The circle of traits defining Western Marxism as a distinct tradition can now be summarized. Born from the failure of proletarian revolutions in the advanced zones of European capitalism after the First World War, it developed within an ever increasing scission between socialist theory and working-class practice. The gulf between the two, originally opened up by the imperialist isolation of the Soviet State, was institutionally widened and fixed by the bureaucratization of the USSR and of the Comintern under Stalin. To the exponents of the new Marxism that emerged in the West, the official Communist movement represented the sole real embodiment of the international working class with meaning for them — whether they joined it, allied with it or rejected it. The structural divorce of theory and practice inherent in the nature of the Communist Parties of this epoch precluded unitary politico-intellectual work of the type that defined classical Marxism. The result was a seclusion of theorists in universities, far from the life of the proletariat in their own countries, and a contraction of theory from economics and politics into philosophy. This specialization was accompanied by an increasing difficulty of language, whose technical barriers were a function of its distance from the masses. It was also conversely attended by a decreasing level of international knowledge or communication between theorists themselves from different countries. The loss of any dynamic contact with working-class practice in turn displaced Marxist theory towards contemporary non-Marxist and idealist systems of thought, with which it now typically developed in close if contradictory symbiosis. At the same time, the concentration of theorists into professional philosophy, together with the discovery of Marx’s own early writings, led to a general retrospective search for intellectual ancestries to Marxism in anterior European philosophical thought, and a reinterpretation of historical materialism itself in the light of them. The results of this pattern were three-fold. Firstly, there was a marked predominance of epistemological work, focused essentially on problems of method. Secondly, the major substantive field in which method was actually applied became aesthetics — or cultural superstructures in a broader sense. Finally the main theoretical departures outside this field, which developed new themes absent from from classical Marxism — mostly in a speculative manner — revealed a consistent pessimism. Method as impotence, art as consolation, pessimism as quiescence: it is not difficult to perceive elements of all these in the complexion of Western Marxism. For the root determinant of this tradition was its formation by defeat — the long decades of set-back and stagnation, many of them terrible ones in any historical perspective, undergone by the Western working class after 1920.

But nor can the tradition as a whole be reduced to this. Despite everything, its major thinkers remained immune to reformism.41 For all their distance from the masses, none capitulated to triumphant capitalism as Second International theorists like Kautsky, far closer to class struggle, had done before them. Moreover, the historical experience which their work articulated, amidst its very inhibitions and aphasias, was also in certain critical respects the most advanced in the world — encompassing the highest forms of the capitalist economy, the oldest industrial proletariats, and the longest intellectual traditions of socialism. Something of the wealth and complexity of this total record, as well as its misery and failure, inevitably entered into the Marxism that it produced or permitted — if always in oblique and incomplete forms. In its own chosen fields, this Marxism achieved a sophistication greater than that of any previous phase of historical materialism. Its depth in these was bought at the price of the width of its range. But if there was a drastic narrowing of focus, there was no complete paralysis of energy. Today, the full experience of the past fifty years of imperialism remains a central and unavoidable sum still to be reckoned up by the workers’ movement. Western Marxism has been an integral part of that history, and no new generation of revolutionary socialists in the imperialist countries can simply ignore or bypass it. To settle accounts with this tradition — both learning and breaking from it — is thus one of the preconditions of a local renewal of Marxist theory today. This necessary double movement of reconnaissance and rupture is not, of course, an exclusive task. The nature of its object precludes this. For in the last resort, the very ties of this tradition to a particular geography have also been its dependence and weakness. Marxism aspires in principle to be a universal science — no more amenable to merely national or continental ascriptions than any other objective cognition of reality. In this sense, the term "Western" inevitably implies a limiting judgement. Lack of universality is an index of deficiency of truth. Western Marxism was necessarily less than Marxism to the extent that it was Western. Historical materialism can exercise its full powers only when it is free from parochialism, of any kind. It has yet to recover them.


1. Gramsci’s silence on economic problems was complete. Yet, ironically and mysteriously, one of his closest and most life-long friends was Piero Sraffa — who mediated his correspondence with the PCI outside Italy during the final years of his imprisonment, and was probably the last man to talk over international politics with Gramsci, a few months before his death in 1937. There is a certain symbolism in this strange relationship between the greatest Marxist political thinker in the West and the most original economic theorist of the post-war epoch, with its combination of personal intimacy and intellectual separation. There appears to have been no remote connection between the universes of their respective works. Sraffa’s eventual critique of neo-classical economics was to be more rigorous and damaging than anything achieved within the field of Marxism itself. Yet this signal achievement was accomplished by a return, beyond Marx, to Ricardo, and the system which emerged from it was scarcely less inclement for the theory of value in Capital.

2. Aesthetik, Berlin/Neuwied 1963. The most important works of Marxist literary criticism so far translated into English are Studies in European Realism (1950), The Historical Novel (1962), The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1963), Essays on Thomas Mann (1964), Goethe and His Age (1967), Solzhenitsyn (1970); all but the first have been published by Merlin Press, which has also translated the pre-Marxist Theory of the Novel (1971).

3. Aesthetische Theorie, Frankfurt 1970. Of the major musical studies, only Philosophy of Modern Music (London 1973) has so far been translated into English. The three volumes of Noten zur Literatur were published in Germany (Berlin and Frankfurt am Main) 1958–61.

4. See Illuminations, pp. 219–53; and Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, London NLB 1973.

5. Benjamin was, of course, a close interlocutor of Brecht in exile. Brecht’s own aesthetic thought, while obviously of great intrinsic importance in the history of European Marxism in his time, was always subordinate to his authorial practice as a dramatist, and therefore falls somewhat outside the scope of this essay. For Brecht’s dual relationship to Benjamin and Lukács, see Understanding Brecht, pp. 105–21, and the essays translated in New Left Review, No. 84, March-April 1974 ("Against Georg Lukács"). Adorno’s criticisms of Benjamin and Brecht, for their part, may be found in the texts translated in New Left Review, No. 81, September-October 1973 ("Letters to Walter Benjamin") and New Left Review, No 87/8, September-December 1974 ("Commitment"). These complex exchanges form one of the most central debates in the cultural development of Western Marxism.

6. Pour une sociologie du roman, Paris 1964.

7. Contribution à l’esthétique, Paris 1953.

8. Critica del Gusto, Milan 1960; Il Verosimile Filmico, Rome 1954.

9. His most explicit statement can be found in his essay "Art as a Form of Reality," in New Left Review, No. 74, July-August 1972.

10. The studies of Mallarmé and Tintoretto, of which only fragments have been published, were in fact full-length books: see M. Contat and M. Rybalka, Les écrits de Sartre, Paris 1970, pp. 262, 314–15.

11. L’idiot de la famille, Vols I—III, Paris 1971–2. There is a strange likeness between Sartre’s work on Flaubert, and Benjamin’s on Baudelaire, for all the contrast between the gigantism of the one and the miniaturism of the other. Benjamin’s study was to be divided into three parts: Baudelaire himself as an allegorist; the social world of Paris in which he wrote; and the commodity as a poetic object synthesizing the meaning of both poet and capital. Sartre’s study was also designed in a tripartite scheme: the subjective formation of Flaubert’s personality; the Second Empire as the objective field of his reception as an artist; and Madame Bovary as the singular historical unity of the two.

12. The volume Letteratura e Vita Nazionale is the longest in the Einaudi edition of the Prison Notebooks; but it includes Gramsci’s early theatre criticism, before his imprisonment.

13. See "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," "Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract," "A Letter on Art," in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays; "The 'Piccolo Teatro': Bertolazzi and Brecht," in For Marx; and Pierre Macherey, Pour une théorie de la production littéraire, in Althusser’s Théorie series, Paris 1966.

14. It is significant that the only work of real quality ranging widely over Western Marxism as a whole, should be an aesthetic study: Frederic Jameson’s Marxism and Form.

15. It will be seen that the major systems which yielded no radically new departures from the canon of earlier Marxist theory are those founded by Della Volpe and Lukács. In both cases, this was related to closer textual fidelity to the writings of Marx himself (for better or worse?). Development of themes such as those of alienation or reification in the young Lukács do not qualify as genuine innovations, however widespread they became in much later Western Marxism, since they pervade the Young Marx.

16. The evolution and significance of the concept of hegemony will be discussed at length elsewhere, in a forthcoming essay on Gramsci in New Left Review.

17. Among the key passages in Gramsci setting out these ideas, see in English translation, Prison Notebooks: pp. 229–39, 52–8, 5–14.

18. Schelling: "Does not everything announce a sunken life? Did these mountains grow as they now are? Did the ground that supports us rise to its present level, or fall back to it? … Oh not those debris of primeval human magnificence, for which the curious traveller visits the wastes of Persia or the deserts of India, are the true ruins! The whole earth is an enormous ruin, whose animals dwell in it as ghosts, and men as spirits, and where many hidden forces and treasures are held fast as if by unseen powers or magic spells." Werke, IV Erg. Bd., Munich 1927, p.135.

19. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, London 1973, esp. pp. 81–119, 168–208.

20. Minima Moralia, p. 155–7; Negative Dialectic, pp. 6, 191–2; 270.

21. Eros and Civilization, pp. 35–7, 151–3.

22. Eros and Civilization, pp. 164–7, 194–5, 200–8, 116.

23. One-Dimensional Man, 60–78, XVI, 19–52.

24. Lenin and Philosophy, pp. 151–2.

25. See in particular, "Théorie, Pratique Théorique et Formation Théorique. Ideologie et Lutte Ideologique" — a text hitherto published in book-form only in Spanish translation: La Filosofía como Arma de la Revolución, Córdoba 1968, pp. 21–73. Its theses are unequivocal: "In a society without classes, just as in a class society, ideology has the function of securing the bond between men in the ensemble of the forms of their existence, the relation of individuals to their tasks fixed by the social structure … the deformation of ideology is socially necessary as a function of the very nature of the social whole: more specifically, as a function of its determination by its structure which renders this social whole opaque to the individuals who occupy a place in it determined by this structure. The representation of the world necessary to social cohesion is necessarily mythical, owing to the opacity of the social structure." pp. 54–55.

26. Lenin and Philosophy, pp. 160–5.

27. For Marx, p. 232; La Filosofia como Arma de La Revolución, p. 55.

28. Fernando Galiani, Dalla Moneta, Milan 1963 edition: "Value, then, is a ratio; and this is composed of two ratios, expressed by the names of utility and scarcity" (p. 39). His use of the term was subsequently adopted by Condillac. For Ricardo: "Possessing utility, commodities derive their exchangeable value from two sources: from their scarcity, and from the quantity of labour required to obtain them." The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, London 1971 edition, p. 56. In practice, however, Ricardo largely ignored scarcity in his theory of value, since he regarded it as pertinent only to very restricted categories of luxury goods (statues, paintings, wines).

29. "With marvellous providence, this world is so constituted for our good that utility, generally speaking, never coincides with scarcity…. The things needed to sustain life are so profusely spread over the whole of the earth, that they have no, or relatively little, value": Dalla Moneta, p. 47.

30. In The German Ideology, Marx wrote that "the development of the forces of production is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it scarcity is merely generalized (nur der Mangel verallgemeinert), and with destitution (Notdurft) the struggle for necessities would begin again and all the old filth would necessarily be reproduced." See Werke, Vol. 3, pp. 34–5. This passage was to be recalled by Trotsky in his analysis of the reasons for the rise of Stalinism in Russia, which made scarcity (nuzhda) a central category of its explanation: see The Revolution Betrayed, New York 1965, pp. 56–60.

31. The most representative statement is perhaps to be found in the Grundrisse: "Originally the free gifts of nature [are] abundant, or at least merely to be appropriated. From the outset, naturally arisen association (family) and the division of labour and cooperation correspond to it. For needs themselves are scant at the beginning." Grundrisse, London 1973, p. 612. At the same time, of course, for both Marx and Engels the "realm of freedom" was defined by material super-abundance beyond the "realm of necessity" that governed both pre-class and class societies.

32. Critique de la Raison Dialectique, pp. 200–24. The analogy often drawn between Sartre and Hobbes is unfounded. For Hobbes, as for Galiani, nature assured an original plenty to man, who had to do little more than receive it as the fruits of the earth. See Leviathan, XXIV, London 1968 edition, pp. 294–5.

33. Critique de la Raison Dialectique, pp. 306–19 ff, 384–96 ff.

34. Critique de la Raison Dialectique, pp. 573–94, 608–14.

35. Critique de la Raison Dialectique, pp. 644, 629–30.

36. Illuminations, pp. 259–60, 257.

37. Prison Notebooks, p. XCIII.

38. Lenin and Philosophy, pp. 189–90.

39. Critique de la Raison Dialectique, p. 208.

40. At this point, it is necessary to say something of the writings of Sebastiano Timpanaro, alluded to earlier. Timpanaro’s work contains the most coherent and eloquent rejection of what he himself calls "Western Marxism" to have been written since the war. It is, therefore, all the more striking that in a number of critical respects his own work conforms, despite itself, to the pattern considered above. For Timpanaro’s work too is essentially philosophical — not political or economic — in focus. Moreover, it too makes a central appeal to an intellectual ancestor prior to Marx, through whom Marxism is then substantially reinterpreted. In this case, the commanding predecessor is the poet Giacomo Leopardi, whose particular form of materialism is deemed the salutary and necessary complement to that of Marx and Engels, because of its unflinching awareness of the insurmountable limits — of frailty and mortality — imposed on man by a hostile nature. The most distinctive theme of Timpanaro’s own work is therefore the inevitability of the ultimate victory, not of man over history, but of nature over man. It is thus more finally pessimistic, with a classical sadness, than that of perhaps any other socialist thinker of this century. In all these ways, Timpanaro can be regarded as paradoxically yet unmistakably part of the tradition of Western Marxism that he opposes. It could be argued that the notable importance of ancient philology — a discipline entirely dominated by non-Marxist scholarship, from Wilamowitz to Pasquali — in his formation also corresponds to the pattern discerned in this essay. This said, it must immediately be emphasized that in other respects Timpanaro’s work presents a genuine and manifest contrast with the norms of Western Marxism. The differences are that Timpanaro’s philosophy has never been primarily reduced to a concern with epistemology, but has sought to develop a substantive outlook on the world, in a critical allegiance to the heritage of Engels; that his use of Leopardi has never relied on a claim that Marx was ever influenced by or knew of the poet, or that the two systems of thought are at all homogeneous — Leopardi being presented as supplying something missing, not something hidden, in Marx; and that his pessimism is consciously declared and defended as such, in a limpid prose. Lastly, it may be said that these traits have been accompanied by a degree of freedom from the field of force of official Communism greater than that of any other figure of Western Marxism. Timpanaro born in 1923, was uniquely neither a member of the Communist Party nor an unattached intellectual, but a militant in another working-class party — first on the left of the PSI (Italian Socialist Party) and then of the PSIUP, in Italy.

41. Horkheimer is the only example of renegacy: but he was always intellectually of secondary rank as a thinker within the Frankfurt School.


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