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‘A Marxist Analysis of the Thought of the Young Marx’: Interview with Michael Löwy

In honor of the re-issue of Michael Löwy's book, The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx, the French publication interviewed Löwy about his approach to Marx's work and how his relationship to Marx and Marxism has evolved over time.

Michael Löwy19 February 2024

‘A Marxist Analysis of the Thought of the Young Marx’: Interview with Michael Löwy

This interview, conducted by Léo Texier, originally appeared in Contretemps on 2 February 2023.

 

Les Éditions sociales have just reissued Michael Löwy’s book The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx. This is an opportunity for us to ask the author a few questions about his approach at that time, the relationship between his militant roots and his appropriation of Marx’s thought, the place of the ‘romantic moment’ in his critique of capitalism, and much more.

 

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Your book The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx is a reprint of your doctoral thesis, written under the supervision of Lucien Goldmann and originally published in 1970 by Maspero. Could you remind us of the circumstances in which this was written, and what reception it had at that time?

I was born in Brazil and studied at the University of São Paulo (1955-60). In 1961, I left for France on a scholarship, with a very precise and well-defined project: to do a doctorate on the young Marx with Lucien Goldmann. Unless I’m mistaken, I think I was his first doctoral student. He met me for an initial conversation and, after checking that I knew German well (it was my mother tongue as a child), agreed to supervise my thesis. I followed his courses at the École des Hautes Études, which focused on Marx and Marxism; a little later, around 1963, he switched to the sociology of literature, much to my disappointment.

My political involvement in Brazil in a small ‘Luxemburgist’ organisation influenced my reading of Marx to a large extent. By placing the idea of the revolutionary self-emancipation of the proletariat at the centre of my project, I proposed a ‘Luxemburgist’ interpretation of Marx. At the same time, I tried to follow as closely as possible Lucien Goldmann’s method of (Marxist) sociology of culture, which analyses the worldviews present in various cultural works (literature, philosophy, religion) in relation to social classes.

For example, in his great classic, The Hidden God, Goldmann showed the link between the tragic worldview of authors close to Jansenism, such as Racine and Pascal, and the hopeless situation of the noblesse de robe in the 17th century. Goldmann was a great help to me in giving shape to my research; I saw myself as his disciple. We were both in the Parti Socialiste Unifié, though not of the same persuasion. With a touch of irony, I called myself a ‘left-wing neo-Goldmannian’. I wrote my thesis directly in French, with the help of a young student from the École Normale Supérieure, Régis Debray, whom I had met at the time. In its final version, the thesis had two closely linked strands:

1) A philosophical hypothesis. With the Theses on Feuerbach (1845), Marx had formulated, as Engels put it, ‘the brilliant germ of a new conception of the world’, which went beyond both 18th-century French materialism and neo-Hegelian German idealism. The central idea of this ‘philosophy of praxis’ (Gramsci) was formulated in Thesis 3: in revolutionary praxis, change of self and change of circumstances coincide. I tried to show the link between Marx’s philosophy of praxis and the idea of revolution as the self-emancipation of the oppressed class.

2) A sociological hypothesis. Marx’s new worldview, and his theory of revolution, were related to a social class in formation: the proletariat. It was by studying the concrete experiences of proletarian struggles in his time, and the writings of authors from this class (Proudhon, Wilhelm Weitling, Dezamy, etc.) that Marx identified with this class and became its principal theorist. The theory of revolution as proletarian self-emancipation takes as its starting point the real movement (and the first reflections) of the most advanced sectors of the class.

When I defended my thesis in 1964, the jury, composed mainly of historians (Jacques Droz and Ernest Labrousse), expressed doubts about the relevance of the sociological hypothesis, querying the existence of a proletariat at that time (the 1840s). The same was true of my supervisor, Lucien Goldmann, who was not at all convinced by my demonstration. On the other hand, my philosophical hypothesis went completely unnoticed. I can’t complain, as the jury gave me the highest grade anyway.

For reasons that I still find hard to explain, my 1964 thesis was not published until 1970, by François Maspero, in the Bibliothèque Socialiste directed by Georges Haupt, another ‘Luxemburgist’. There were very few reviews at the time. One very sympathetic review was from Sami Naïr, who had grasped very well – though in order to criticise it – the ‘Luxemburgist’ perspective of my interpretation of Marx.

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The book was translated into Spanish, Italian and Japanese, and much later (in the 2000s) into Portuguese and English. I don’t think it was widely read by my comrades in the Ligue Communiste, perhaps because of the very un-Leninist character of my interpretation of Marx. On the whole, I think the reception was a bit of a failure, at least in France. The later reception in Brazil was perhaps more important, although my friend Ruy Fausto, a well-known Brazilian philosopher (and ex-Marxist), in a long review, focused solely on the sociological hypothesis, neglecting the philosophical theme.

The most important reception of my book was in the United States, by Hal Draper, the great North American Marxist historian: in his monumental four-volume work, Marx’s Theory of Revolution, he borrowed from my book (which he quotes from the French edition) not only the title, but also the importance given to the principle of self-emancipation. But I would add that, in Brazil, I had regularly read an American newspaper, Labor Action, edited by Draper. There was a mutual influence.

 

Could you look back at the way in which this thesis on Marx influenced or was influenced by your own militant career? What role did it play in your political commitment – and in particular your choice of the PSU, then your membership of the LCR and the Fourth International?

As I explained above, it was my militant career in Brazil that influenced my thesis on Marx. While I was working on my thesis, I joined the PSU, where I soon found myself in its left wing, the revolutionary-socialist tendency, led by an old Trotskyist veteran, Michel Lequenne.

Around 1963, I also joined Voie Communiste, led by an ex-Trotskyist, Denis Berger (active in the 1950s in supporting the FLN) and Félix Guattari. I also kept in touch with my Brazilian comrades. In 1961, shortly before I left Brazil, I had taken part in the founding of POLOP (‘Workers’ Politics’), the largest organisation to the left of the Brazilian CP, heavily influenced by the Cuban revolution. My thesis related to all these commitments, but it didn’t determine my militancy in the 1960s.

After May 68, I met one of my Brazilian comrades, who was passing through Paris, and we decided to join the Fourth International. I’d always had a certain sympathy for Trotsky, but it was the role of the JCR in 1968 that made my decision. The other decisive factor was the Fourth International’s turn towards armed struggle in Latin America. In 1968-69 I was in England, so it was in the English section of the Fourth International, led by Tariq Ali, that I started my militancy. It wasn’t until 1969, on my return to France, that I joined the Ligue Communiste.

My ‘Luxemburgist’ political culture made it difficult for me to adapt to the League’s ‘hasty Leninism’, but I was reassured by Ernest Mandel’s sympathy for Rosa Luxemburg. In short, it wasn’t because of my book on the young Marx that I joined the Fourth International, but there was, undoubtedly, a certain affinity between the two.

 

In your book, you distinguish several stages in the genesis of the theory of revolution in the thought of the young Marx.

The idea of a revolution in Germany first appeared in Marx’s brilliant ‘Introduction’ to his ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’, published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher in early 1844. According to Marx, Germany needed a human emancipation that was much more radical than a mere political emancipation aimed at the abolition of the absolutist monarchy.

In his view, the only revolutionary class was the proletariat, but it had to be enlightened by philosophy, which fell like a bolt of lightning on the ‘naïve terrain of the people’. Revolution, he wrote, is born in the mind of the philosopher, before taking hold of the masses: ‘theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses... Revolutions require a passive element, a material basis’. This vision of revolution, typically neo-Hegelian idealist, attributes the ‘active’ role to philosophy, which sets the masses in motion, the ‘passive element’.

The young Marx began to move beyond this neo-left-Hegelian vision during the years 1844-45, when he met communist workers in Paris, discovered Chartism through Friedrich Engels, and read Flora Tristan’s plea for the Workers’ Union, as well as proletarian communist writings (Wilhelm Weitling). But, in my opinion, the decisive event, which marked a real turning point in his thinking, was the revolt of the Silesian weavers in June 1844. In the polemical article against Ruge that he published shortly afterwards in the journal Vorwärts – edited by left-wing German exiles in Paris – he enthusiastically hailed this event and added this comment: ‘A philosophical people can find its corresponding practice only in socialism, hence it is only in the proletariat that it can find the dynamic element of its emancipation.’[1]

This assertion contains three decisive new elements in relation to his conceptions in the articles in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher:

 

  • The revolution does not begin in the ‘philosopher’s mind’, since the people themselves are philosophical;
  • Socialism is not a pure ‘theory’, but a praxis;
  • The proletariat is no longer the ‘passive’ element, but the active element of emancipation.

 

This political break with neo-Hegelianism (represented here by Arnold Ruge) would pave the way for the philosophical break that would come a few months later, with the Theses on Feuerbach – after a brief passage through what might be considered an uncritical adherence to ‘French’ materialism in The Holy Family (1845). In the Theses on Feuerbach, the young Marx formulated a new vision of the world, the philosophy of praxis, going beyond – in the sense of dialectical Aufhebung (negation, conservation, overcoming) – earlier materialism and idealism. In Thesis 3, he proclaims: ‘The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.’ The political significance of this thesis was to be spelt out in The German Ideology (1846):

 

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution: the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.[2]

It was at this point, then, that the fusion of the philosophy of praxis with the conception of revolution as the self-emancipation of the oppressed class took shape in the young Marx.

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You say at one point that you take up Louis Althusser’s famous idea of the existence of an ‘epistemological break’ in Marx’s work, between his early writings and those of his maturity, but you interpret it in very different terms from those defined by the author of For Marx. How do you understand the appearance of this break in terms of the sociological and historical method you have applied?

I categorically reject Althusser’s thesis of a ‘break’ between the young Marx and the ‘mature’ Marx as a separation between ‘ideology’ and ‘science’. I argued against this profoundly positivist view in various essays in the 1970s. I refuse to define the thought of the young Marx as ‘ideology’ and that of the Marx who wrote Capital as ‘science’.

I situate the epistemological break in the philosophical and political journey of the young Marx himself: it is the advent, in 1845-46, of a new vision of the world, which can be called ‘historical materialism’ or the philosophy of praxis, which goes beyond both earlier materialism and idealism. As I try to explain, this ‘break’ is not a pure product of ‘theory’, a ‘scientific discovery’ comparable to those of Lavoisier (as Althusser believed), but resulted from Marx’s interaction with the most advanced sectors of the proletarian movement of his time.

 

In 1970, you introduced your book by saying that you had sought to produce a ‘Marxist analysis of the genesis of Marxism itself’. More precisely, in this book, you set out to reinscribe the thought of the young Marx not only in the context of ideology, but also in the social and historical context of its emergence. It might seem that this enterprise could be seen as a ‘Goldmannian’ attempt – and you have yourself acknowledged your debt towards Goldmann’s thought.

In his 1955 book The Hidden God, however, what Goldmann undertook was a sociological and materialist analysis of Jansenism as the ideology of a noblesse de robe ousted from power by the monarchy, whose tragic vision of the world it sought to rediscover in Pascal’s thought and Racine’s theatre. It also seems that the relationship Goldmann wanted to highlight was established, above all, between an ideological construct (Jansenism) and the historical situation of a fraction of a social class (the noblesse de robe).

Is it possible to proceed in a similar way to understand the way in which the thought, and even a precise element of the political conception of an individual, Marx’s theory of revolution, would be the ideological expression of the situation of an entire social class, the proletariat – a class to which, as you yourself note, Marx did not belong?

As I have already mentioned, Lucien Goldmann did not share my analysis of the revolutionary thought of the young Marx as an expression of the most advanced struggles of the proletariat of his time. He expressed his doubts when I defended my thesis, and later in a lecture he gave in 1969 (‘Revolution and Bureaucracy’):

How did Marxism come about? There’s a common answer (even a thesis written for me on the subject, by Michael Löwy, who tried to convince me) to the effect that Marx expressed the thought of the proletariat. That Marx assigned a fundamental revolutionary role to the proletariat is obvious; but whether this thought was, at the time it was born in France, in England, the thought of the proletariat (because for Marx, and as I’ve tried to show in all my historical analyses, it’s always social groups that elaborate the major categories), whether the categories of French socialism in general at that time – the great renaissance of socialism took place in France in the first half of the nineteenth century – were elaborated by the proletariat, I’m not sure. But in any case it’s an important problem. How was Marxist thought born, from a thought that was the left wing of bourgeois-democratic thought, of the neo-Hegelians in Germany and of French democratic socialism?[3]

Unlike my teacher, I don’t think that Marxist thought was born as the left wing of bourgeois-democratic thought. This may apply, perhaps, to the Marx of 1841-42, when he was editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, but not to the young Marx from 1843-44, when he rallied to communism. Admittedly, Marx himself was not a proletarian, but what defines a thought is not the social origin of the intellectual but the social class with which he identifies. Kropotkin was a prince from the Russian aristocracy, but he chose the side of the lower classes; the same applies to the industrialist Friedrich Engels and the journalist Karl Marx. Moreover, Racine himself was not a member of the noblesse de robe (even though he was educated by the Jansenists at Port-Royal). Intellectuals are not a social class, but a social category defined by extra-economic criteria. They provide the ideological weapons for the various social classes that clash. The socio-political itinerary of the young Marx, his break with the liberal bourgeoisie, his adherence to left-wing Hegelianism, and finally his discovery of communism and the proletariat would transform him into the theoretician of a class that was, at that moment, beginning to manifest itself through its struggles and socialist thinking. The revolution could not have arisen in the mind of the philosopher Marx had there not been, in the socio-historical reality of the 1840s in Europe, the beginnings of a proletarian movement with a subversive vocation.

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It is interesting to note that a conservative Prussian thinker, Lorenz von Stein, in a book published in 1842[4] -- and carefully read by Marx around 1844-45 – had explained the rise of communist doctrines in France as the expression of ‘the entry onto the scene of the autonomous proletariat’. Admittedly, these proletarians were not the industrial workers of the late 19th century, they were still close to craftsmen or employees in petty manufacture, but they were already beginning to emerge as a distinct social class.

If we attempt a Marxist analysis of Marx’s thought, we cannot explain it by the solitary work of a kind of Lavoisier of the social sciences, or by the ‘influence’ of Hegel, Ricardo, and Fourier. We need to situate it in its social and historical context, in relation to the class struggles of its time. This does not reduce Marx’s thought to a ‘reflection’ of social conditions: thought, philosophy and political theory have a certain autonomy in relation to these conditions. They develop in their own sphere, in discussion with other philosophies and theories.

 

In your preface to the new edition of your book, you indicate that, since you wrote it, your reading of the young Marx has also changed. In particular, you mention the importance for you of the discovery of a tradition critical of capitalist society that you describe as ‘romantic’, and to which you have devoted several works. You also say that this romantic aspect is not absent from the thought of the young Marx. In what way and to what extent does Marx’s thought prior to Capital seem to you to fit into this particular romantic constellation?

By romanticism I do not mean the literary school of the early 19th century, but a vision of the world that protests against capitalist modernity in the name of pre-capitalist social or cultural values. One of the best Marxist definitions of romanticism can be found from Marx himself, in the Grundrisse (1857-58). Marx was not a romantic, but he did recognise a certain relevance in romantic criticism. This is what he wrote:

In earlier stages of development the single individual seems to be developed more fully, because he has not yet worked out his relationships in their fullness, or erected them as independent social powers and relations opposite himself. It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois point of view has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint (Über den Gegensatz gegen jene romantische Ansicht ist die bürgerliche nie Herausgekommen), and therefore the latter will accompany it as legitimate antithesis (berechtigeter Gegensatz) up to its blessed end.[5]

This passage is interesting in several respects: first, it takes up the romantic argument about the ‘fullness’ of the pre-capitalist past; second, it presents the romantic illusion of a return to the past and the bourgeois apology for the present as connected. Finally, he sees the romantic critique of the bourgeois world as legitimate and as a kind of negative counterpoint to it, which will accompany it to the end, that is, for as long as bourgeois society exists. This explains why romanticism did not disappear in 1830 or 1848, as literary historians claim, but persists, in new forms, to this day.

Some biographers of Marx seem to reduce his relationship with romanticism to his poems of the 1830s. In fact, the philosophical and political writings of the young Marx contain many themes inspired by the romantic critique of capitalist civilisation. This is particularly true of his denunciation of the brutally quantifying nature of the bourgeois ethos, the dissolution of all qualitative values – cultural, social, or moral – by a single quantitative value, measured by money. This is a problem developed at length in the 1844 Manuscripts, but we also find it in an astonishing passage from The Poverty of Philosophy (1847):

This is the time when the very things which till then had been communicated, but never exchanged; given, but never sold – virtue, love, conviction, knowledge, conscience, etc. – when everything finally passed into the hands of commerce. It is the time of general corruption, of universal venality.[6]

Or again, in the famous lines of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, which denounce a society invaded by the ‘icy waters of selfish calculation’, where the only link between human beings that remains is ‘cash payment’, the cash nexus, in short, a society in which the dominant class, the bourgeoisie, ‘has turned personal worth into exchange value’.[7] What characterises these critiques as romantic is the comparison – implicit or explicit – with a pre-capitalist past, where this corruption of social relations had not yet taken place. This aspect of the young Marx’s thinking was still absent from my doctoral thesis. It was only in the 1970s that I discovered the ‘romantic moment’ in Marx.

 

Between the first publication of your book and today, the social and political paradigm has massively changed, in France, Europe and the world. In your new preface, you mention the fall of the USSR and the ‘monstrous Berlin Wall’ as important factors in this paradigm shift. The end of regimes claiming to be Marxist, you say, could be the occasion for a rediscovery of the ‘original Marxian message’, but, at the same time, you also call for a correction of Marx’s ‘many gaps, limitations and inadequacies’ by turning our attention to non-Marxist revolutionary traditions. How do you link these two proposals?

I don’t see the two as contradictory. I think that the ‘original Marxian message’ – the theory of revolution as the self-emancipation of the oppressed – is still relevant today. The fall of the Wall confirmed Marx’s intuition: it is impossible to ‘build socialism’ without the working people (or against them), without a genuine revolutionary democracy – of which the Paris Commune gave the first historic example.

However, I believe that this 19th-century Marxian heritage must be complemented by the contributions of 20th-century Marxists: Marxism is a thought in motion, which did not stop with the death of Marx and Engels. It is also an open form of thought, capable of integrating (critically) the contributions of other revolutionary currents: utopian socialisms and feminisms, libertarian socialisms and romantic socialisms (William Morris, Charles Péguy, Georges Sorel, Bernard Lazare, Gustav Landauer), as well as the contributions of the human sciences, from Max Weber to Sigmund Freud, to cite two obvious examples.

A word on the ecological question. It is present in Marx’s writings, as the work of John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett and Kohei Saito has shown, especially from the 1860s onwards. But it occupies only a marginal place, which is easily explained by the fact that the ecological crisis was not in his time, as it is today, a decisive social and political issue. The Marxism of the 21st century can only be an eco-Marxism, in other words, a theory that places the question of the destruction of ecosystems and climate change at the centre of the debate on capitalism and the socialist alternative.

 

Michael Löwy is a sociologist and Emeritus Research Director at the CNRS. His work focuses on Jewish culture in Central Europe (through studies of authors such as Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin), the history of Marxism and communism (in works devoted to figures such as Che Guevara and Rosa Luxemburg), the history of revolutionary romanticism and the sociology of religion. He has won various prizes for his important books, including a silver medal from the CNRS in 1994 and, more recently, the European Walter Benjamin Prize in 2020 for his book La Révolution est le frein d’urgence (Éditions de l’éclat, 2019).

Translated by David Fernbach

 

[1] ‘Critical Marginal Notes on the Article “The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian”’, MECW 3, p. 202.

[2] The German Ideology, MECW 4, pp. 52-3.

[3] Lucien Goldmann, ‘Révolution et bureaucratie’, in L’Homme et la société 21, 1971, p. 80.

[4] Lorenz von Stein, Der Socialismus und Communismus des heutigen Frankreichs: ein Beitrag zur Zeitgeschichte (Leipzig, 1842; available online).

[5] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, p. 162.

[6] Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, MECW 6, p. 113.

[7] ‘The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation’ (Manifesto of the Communist Party, MECW 6, pp. 486-7).

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