Michael Löwy: "Marxism forms an enduring, integral part of modern culture"
Löwy discusses the many deaths and afterlives of Marxism, Romantic anti-capitalism, and universalism and Latin American Marxism.
First published in Revista Intersecciones. Translated by Nicolas Allen.
This first question has to do with the crisis of Marxism. Marxism has been written-off as a dead tradition many times over, especially in the 1980s and 90s. Academics and the political class have been happy to pronounce its death, and yet, following the 2008 global economic crisis there seems to have been a “rehabilitation” of Marxist theory. How do you understand this phenomenon?
There is an interesting quote that says: “At last, Marxism is finally dead for all humanity.” And the date? 1989? 1921? No, the quote belongs to Benedetto Croce, from 1907. And ten years later we saw the Russian Revolution.
The death of Marxism has been heralded a thousand times throughout history. This will never change. As long as capitalism still exists, there will always be Marxism. Of course, the demise of the USSR was especially conducive to the crisis of Marxism. Many people felt that the USSR was the embodiment of Marxism, and that attitude created the ideal conditions for the bourgeoisie to attempt to rid itself once and for all of the spectre of Marxism, communism, and socialism. But I think they failed in their efforts.
As you have pointed out, the 2008 crisis created an opening. And that opening is where we now find ourselves, with all its ups-and-downs. There are periods where the bourgeoisie attempts to go on the offensive and lay waste to Marxism, and then there are also periods where the problems of capitalism are so evident that the bourgeoisie is forced to say: “The Marx who was a scholar of capitalism and capitalist crises, we find this version of him interesting. But let’s not have any of this socialism nonsense." But I think the important thing is to identify the line of continuity. By this I mean, with all the superficial fluctuations in terms of media interest and public opinion, it is important to insist on the uninterrupted history of Marxism as forming an enduring, integral part of modern culture. In one way or another, Marxism keeps returning because it is the only form of critical thought that has managed to understand and explain capitalism — how capitalism works — and why it is so unbearable, so inhumane, and unjust, as well as how to bring the capitalist system to an end and replace it with a more just, rational society. This is why Marxism refuses to disappear.
As for the waxing and waning of public interest, I think we need to take it with a grain of salt. The Croce quote serves as a reminder for why we should not take these pronouncements at face value. We need to recognize that Marxism is simply there, as in the Sartre quote, which I feel still has great relevance today: “Marxism is the intellectual horizon of our epoch." Any attempt to go beyond that horizon inevitably leads backwards to pre-Marxist forms of thought, such as liberalism.
Some have argued that there is a relation between the latest crisis of Marxism — that of the 80s and 90s — and the ascent of post-structuralist theory in the academic world, and with it the crisis of certain universalist ideals associated with modernity. How do you see Marxism in relation to the project of Enlightenment and the project of modernity?
[Sighs]: Alright, so…
A pretty difficult question, I suppose.
It is. I think Marxism is clearly a child of the Enlightenment; it is the radical, revolutionary and self-critical version of that legacy. Marxism as an intellectual tradition is basically conscious of the Enlightenment’s own limits. Of course, Marx began from French materialism and German idealism, the two great pillars of Enlightenment thought. But he overcame them dialectically: he recovered what was critical in them and what was useful for his thinking while simultaneously overcoming them. There is thus in Marx a process of dialectical overcoming of very specific Enlightenment traditions. The same can be argued regarding modernity. That is, Marxism is clearly a form of modern thought — it didn’t emerge in medieval times, after all — and it could only come into being in the determinate historical moment that we call modernity. But Marxism was founded on a critical vision of actually existing modernity, which is capitalist modernity.
As for postmodernism, I don’t believe it ever amounted to anything more than an intellectual fad. Yes, it did attract intellectuals and students, and it was responsible for a number of studies, doctoral dissertations, a whole literature, in fact; but it doesn’t have any deep, significant political or cultural import. I see it as a superficial phenomenon. Where the postmodernists did offer some theoretical insights is around the question of so-called “identitarian politics," even if that specific problem preceded and outlived the postmodernists. By “identitarian politics," I am referring to the tendency to negate all universalisms in favour of the self-affirmation of particular identities, be they ethnic, sexual, religious, or national. In point of fact, there are social movements today that we must engage with and whose demands we need to incorporate as our own. They must become part of our revolutionary program, but not without criticizing their limitations and not without asserting the need to articulate their demands within a universalist perspective. And just as importantly, this cannot be an abstract universalism that ignores specific demands; as Hegel would say, this must be a concrete universal that can take into account particularities.
Imagine you were to go to a demonstration for Black Lives Matter in the United States and say: “But the working class struggle is what really matters, since their struggle is truly universal. What you’re doing right now is dividing the working class." They would be completely right to send you packing. The workers’ struggle for socialism has to embrace the cause of the blacks as a central issue. If universalism fails to take into account these oppressions and legitimate demands, then it’s a false universalism. This kind of pseudo-universalism conceals the preservation of discrimination, privileges, and forms of oppression. We must distinguish then between, on the one hand, a legitimate critique of the type of abstract universalism that is represented most obviously by the bourgeoisie —although also by the Left — and a postmodern critique that leads to complete relativism: i.e., “Everyone has their own idea of the truth, of the good, and so on." Even in its most avowedly left-wing versions, Postmodernism eventually reaches an impasse; this is the case with someone like Boaventura de Sousa Santos, a person who I hold in high regard for his critical thought and for his commitment to social struggles. But his theory leads to a dead end, because it asserts an “epistemological plurality," or something to that effect. And then each ethnicity, nation, race, religion, or nation would supposedly have its own way of knowing. And what are we left with? Are these differences all equivalent, or are some better then others? And what if they contradict each other, what is our position? This is where I see the limits of postmodernism most clearly, even in its most left-wing, sophisticated variants.
In your work you have studied the idea of romantic anti-capitalism. One gets the impression that the romantic element tends to accompany a certain experience of modernity, of an unease or discomfort with modernity. Do you see this same experience anywhere in present-day society, in any current anti-capitalist struggles? Where might we find romanticism in contemporary society?
Before answering your question, I want to add one thing about Marx that ties back in with an earlier point I was trying to make. Marx has an interesting quote about romanticism that raises exactly the same issue you have formulated. Marx says: “In earlier periods” — although he never specified which pre-capitalist past he was referring to — “there existed a fuller life because human qualities were not alienated. To wish, as the romantics did, to return to the fullness of the past is absurd and impossible. To settle for the empty present of bourgeoisie society is worse still." Marx’s proposal was clearly of a different order: a leap into the future. “But the bourgeoisie is incapable of answering the romantic critique," the critique that longs for the fullness of the past, “that has its own legitimacy," because there did effectively exist a kind of plenitude, “and therefore the romantic critique will accompany bourgeois society until the bourgeoisie is no more."
Marx raises three important issues here. First, romanticism is the idea that in the past there was a fullness of the world. This is fundamental. Second: this idea contains an element of legitimacy; in other words, there was in fact a past fullness of life. But third, we are incapable of returning to this past, and to hope otherwise would be absurd. On that point — the possibility of retreating into the past — the romantics were mistaken. Still, the bourgeoisie is just as incapable of answering for the romantics’ concerns, since they represent emptiness itself. As long there is a bourgeoisie and as long as there is capitalism, there will be romanticism. This strikes me as the angle from which to understand romanticism. Now, one thing Marx never addressed in the Grundrisse, and it is the only aspect that I feel could be added to Marx’s own thoughts on the subject, is the following: there are different currents within romanticism. Some are more regressive, conservative, reactionary, and truly believe that it is possible to return to the past: to restore the Middle Ages, to return to a state of nature, whatever it might be. Second, there are other currents that are critical of capitalist or bourgeois modernity but still recognize that a return to the past is impossible; for this second current, the future holds no promise either, and thus they adopt a certain fatalism. Society today is wrong and the past was perhaps better, they argue, but being incapable of returning to the past, the only remaining option is to accept the existing state of things. There is a fatalism and resignation underlying this current. Max Weber is a good example of this second romanticism. And then there is a third form of romanticism that does not long for the past, but rather turns to the past as a way of advancing towards the future. This current also exists in the origins of romanticism. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the founder of 18th century romanticism. And what did Rousseau say? “The man living in a state of nature” — and here Rousseau even mentions the savages of Latin America (the “Caribs”) — “was a happy people, there was no private property and there was equality." But what does Rousseau propose? That we return to the forests on all fours, eating grass? Rousseau is clearly advocating for a different vision. In present-day society there is private property, there is no freedom, no equality. We are behind bars, he argues, and man in modern society lives as a prisoner. Rousseau thus imagines a particular kind of democracy (not a communist democracy, mind you), a future democracy in which there is freedom and equality, but this form of democracy will also differ from that of the Caribs. This is what I call “revolutionary romanticism," a revolutionary current that runs constant throughout the last centuries in the form of romanticism. Romanticism has always had these two sides: the conservative, regressive side, and the revolutionary side. This was the case with William Blake and Shelley, in a number of the utopian socialists, and towards the end of the 19th century with William Morris.
In the 20th century we have figures such as Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin, and so on.
But returning to Marx: he was clearly not a romantic. He says as much in the Grundrisse: he was much more a man of the Enlightenment than of romanticism; but he did nevertheless draw on the romantic critique of capitalism and of the bourgeoisie. In his Critique of Political Economy, Marx was starting out from the classics — Smith, Ricardo, etc. — but in order to carry out a critique of those figures he relied on Sismondi. Sismondi was a petit-bourgeois thinker who wanted to revert to an artisanal productive model and a small landholding peasant society. This was of course impossible. But Marx says: “Sismondi’s critique of the bourgeoisie and of capitalist society are correct: it leads to the destruction of the popular classes, produce poverty, social inequality…” There is a whole paragraph of the Communist Manifesto that speaks of Sismondi and his critique of capital. Marx employs certain elements of the romantic critique, but without the aspiration to return the past. We find this same tendency elsewhere, in the later texts of Marx or Engels that deal with the primitive community, what they call “primitive communism." And in his own texts on the Russian rural commune (which are more important politically than anything else), Marx says: “Perhaps the rural Russian commune — pre-modern, pre-capitalist, with semi-collectivized property — could be the springboard for a socialist rebirth of Russia." So there is a revolutionary romantic current in Marx and Engels, even if they were much more men of modernity and the Enlightenment. And with 20th century Marxism we find a current that I would call “romantic Marxism," that comes from Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and in Latin America from José Carlos Mariátegui. Mariátegui typifies this romantic Marxist figure. Perhaps even more than the European figures I’ve mentioned.
To address your question, where is romanticism today? We can find it present in several forms. Romanticism is, for me, a critique of bourgeois society. If it doesn’t provide a critique of that form of society, it isn’t romanticism. So the reactionaries who speak with nostalgia of a bygone past but also accept capitalism, these are not romantics. Evangelical sects in Latin America are an example of this: they appear to be concerned with the past, with a set of historical religious values that are often regressive and reactionary in nature; but these groups are in fact ultra-capitalist and only think in terms of market values — a theology of prosperity — and their churches are basically just capitalist enterprises. This is not romanticism. Romanticism begins by assuming that the past is a serious reference point and is capable of criticizing bourgeois society and capitalism. Again, this can come in different forms, some more reactionary, others more utopian, progressive, revolutionary, whatever word you choose to use.
I think that Latin America offers the best example of the latter kind of romanticism. I have in mind a particular social movement, a whole cultural movement with its own philosophical, anthropological, cultural, literary, and musical forms, which is Indigenismo. Indigenismo is itself a heterogeneous movement with currents that are more or less critical of capitalism. In its critical variant, Indigenismo lodges a critique of capitalist modernity based on Pre-Columbian indigenous values, their traditions and relation to nature (there is thus an ecological dimension too). And the impact of the movement goes well beyond indigenous communities. For example, take the indigenous struggle in the United States around the Dakota Pipeline conflict, a very significant fight from an ecological perspective, against the reliance on fossil fuels, dirty energy and global warming. Their struggle attracted all types of people: youth, women, environmentalists, trade unionists, and leftists. Those people were galvanized by their admiration for the indigenous peoples, their relation to nature, their culture, their communal form of interacting, and their spirituality. If you read Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, you can read about this phenomenon. She’s not herself indigenous, she’s a Canadian Jew. But you can see the identification with the indigenous peoples. This would be one example of a form of progressive romanticism that is active today in the Americas.
One last question, following on the previous one. The accusation is often levelled against Marxism that it is a modernizing ideology, a Eurocentric philosophy, and a philosophy based on the exploitation of nature. How do you respond to these claims?
It’s true, throughout the 20th century there have existed interpretations of Marxism — often times the dominant interpretation — that construed Marx’s writings in those terms, as a theory of modernization that only sought to be more efficient and rational than capitalism; as a mode of production meant to develop productive forces beyond the limits of capitalism. There was of course a great deal of that in the Soviet Union: “Let’s produce more steel than the Americans," things of that nature. So it is true on the one hand that one prevailing version of Marxism — a Stalinist and social democratic variant, primarily — maintained this attitude, the attitude that Marxism is first and foremost a theory of industrial modernization, a more social form of capitalism; or for others, a non-capitalist social form that still worships at the altar of the unlimited development of productive forces. Of course my own feeling is that we need to break away from this tendency, to recover another current of Marxism that offered an alternative interpretation that, without rejecting outright the achievements of modernity, was coloured by the romantic streak that we have been discussing.
Take, for example, José Carlos Mariátegui. Mariátegui is a very important figure for those of us in Latin America, and in fact beyond the region as well. Mariátegui spoke of an “Incan communism," and at the time of his writing he received a great deal of criticism for this idea. He was labelled a “romantic” and a “populist” for his ideas. But prior to the arrival of the Spanish, there did in fact exist a type of agrarian “primitive communism”, commonly associated with the Incan empire. But the communist element was not just the empire itself, whose structure was largely authoritarian; it was also present in its social base, in what is called the “ayllu." This dimension is especially important for us as modern communists, because it means that the message of modern communists can be spread to indigenous communities, to the peasants, and so on. This is an extremely suggestive idea. Mariátegui obviously was not urging for the restoration of the Incan empire, as some indigenistas do in fact advocate. Mariátegui even has a passage in one of his essays where he writes: “What is the difference between Incan communism and modern communism? Incan communism was completely authoritarian, a system in which there was no individual liberty. We want a modern communism that incorporates the modern achievements of individual liberty, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, etc.” So Mariátegui’s is a dialectical vision. He did not reject modernity, but he did remain firm in the idea that the past could serve as a reference point and source of inspiration for revolutionary struggles seeking to build communism in Latin America.
I consider myself a 21st-century follower of Mariátegui. I think now more than ever that Mariátegui is an important source for us in Latin America, and that it is important to read him today and find new inspiration. Naturally, a great deal has changed since the 1930s, but then again the idea was never to copy the Peruvian intellectual’s ideas. Mariátegui is an inspiration throughout Latin America, and yet, we still tend to undervalue him. The Left is accustomed to reading Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, maybe even Mao, but Mariátegui is read less and less, even if he is more fundamental now than ever. What’s more, I think as an intellectual figure he’s of equal importance and quality — from a philosophical and theoretical perspective — as his European contemporaries: the young Gramsci, the young Bloch, the young Benjamin, the young Lukács, they all share a lot in common. I would put him in that pantheon of great 20th century heterodox Marxist thinkers. It’s time to add Mariátegui to that list.[book-strip index="1" style="display"]