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Michael Löwy

For a Critical Marxism

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This essay first appeared in "Marx Apres les Marximes. Tome I:

Marx a la question" (Paris and Montreal: L'Harmattan, Inc.), an
anthology edited by Michel Vakaloulis and Jean-Marie Vincent. It
was translated for "Against the Current" by John Marot, and slightly
edited by ATC. Michael Löwy is the author of many works on
Marxist theory and philosophy, as well as liberation theology, most
recently "War of the Gods" (Verso, 1996).

It's not coincidental that we are publishing this text in the same
issue with several articles on "the lean, mean university" as a
product—and an agent—of corporate capitalist power. We feel that
Löwy's discussion will be of interest to readers who are developing
an interest in Marxism as an alternative world view, a theory of
revolutionary change.

Löwy emphasizes the open quality of this world view, in contrast

with the conventional caricature of a closed, dogmatic system that
has become ossified and irrelevant. Such a caricature of Marx and
Marxism, of course, is useful for all this ideologies and social
scientists whose "secular religion" (as Löwy describes it) would
have us believe that capitalism and its free market are the natural
and inevitable end product of human history.

To be sure, many of Löwy's references to other revolutionary

thinkers and 20th century philosophers may not be clear to some
readers. Perhaps this in itself will stimulate further interest and
study.—The Editors

IF I TURN to Marxism time and again it's because I don't think that Marx was (to
cite a well-known dictum) "a man of science like any other." As Gramsci rightly
emphasized, Marx's thought wrought a" break in the domain of culture", in theory
and practice, philosophy and politics, that continues to reverberate right down to
the present. It brought forth not a "science of history"—that already existed before
him—but a new conception of the world which remains an indispensable
framework for all emancipatory thought and action.

Marxism makes sense only if it is critical toward established social reality, a

quality that was cruelly lacking in the official "Marxisms" which were apologetic
legitimizing doctrines of a "really existing" order [the Soviet Union and other
bureaucratic states-ed.]—and critical toward itself, toward its own analyses as
these are constantly called into question and refashioned, in keeping with
Marxism's emancipatory objectives that constitute its founding wager.
After more than half a century of State "Marxism," the official ideology in the
service of an authoritarian or (as the case may be) totalitarian bureaucratic system,
nothing is more natural than the wish to return to Marx, to rid his thought of
accumulated dross and to once again take up a (critical) dialogue with his
fundamental works.

One cannot but welcome this wish. But one condition must be observed lest one go
seriously astray: the century-long history of Marxism cannot be set aside, a history
where one can find, alongside many dead-ends (not to speak of stalinist
aberrations), a wealth of insights and indispensable leads toward an understanding
of our epoch.

One just can't "return to Marx" without Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, Trotsky and
Gramsci, Lukacs and Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno, Herbert
Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, Lucien
Goldman and Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Mandel and C.L.R. James, Henri Lefebvre
and Guy Debord, Jose Carlos Mariategui and Ernesto Che Guevera—the list could
go on.

These are the 20th century Marxists—drawing on Marx but going well beyond him
—who have helped us understand imperialism and fascism, stalinism, the social
revolutions in the Third World and the new forms of capitalism. They have not
bequeathed to us a homogenous heritage or an orthodoxy but an open and
conflicted diversity which is as necessary to us-from the standpoint of a critique of
the existing state of affairs-as are the works of Marx and Engels.

To call oneself a Marxist, therefore, means necessarily to question certain aspects

of Marx's work. A stocktaking seems indispensable to me, both to determine what
in Marx remains essential to understanding and changing the world, and what in
him must be rejected, critiqued, revised or corrected. I don't pretend that my
balance sheet is the only legitimate one, more "Marxist" or "marxian" than others.
I draw it up as a contribution to a pluralist debate, without worrying about being, as
Lucien Goldman put it, either orthodox or heretical.

Marx's first and perhaps foremost contribution to modern culture is his new
method of thought and action. What is this new vision of the world, which first
appeared in the 1845 Theses on Feuerbach? The best definition, it seems to me, is
still Gramsci's: philosophy of praxis. The great merit of this concept is that it
highlights the discontinuity of Marxist thought in relation to the dominant
philosophical discourses.

In rejecting the old materialism of Enlightenment philosophy—which proposed to

change circumstances in order to liberate man (with its logical political corollary of
an appeal to an enlightened despot or a virtuous elite)—and in rejecting neo-
hegelian idealism (liberate human consciousness to change society), Marx cut the
Gordian knot of the philosophy of his age by declaring (Third Thesis on
Feuerbach) that change in circumstances, and transformation of consciousness,
coincide in revolutionary praxis.
From this flows, rigorously and coherently, Marx's new conception of revolution.
Only through their own experience, in the course of their own revolutionary praxis,
can the exploited and the oppressed shatter the external "circumstances" that
enslave them—Capital, the State—as well as shatter their formerly mystified
consciousness. In other words, no true emancipation exists apart from self-

From this point of view the famous slogan of the Founding Manifesto of the
International Workingmen's Association—"The emancipation of the working class
will be the task of the working class itself"—sums up, with laconic conciseness,
the innermost core of Marxist political thought. As self-liberating praxis,
revolution is simultaneously a radical change in economic, social and political
structures and the realization, by the victims of the system, of their true interests,
the discovery of new, radical and libertarian ideas, aspirations and values.

Within this conceptual framework of revolution, which is of course tied not only to
the seizure of power but to an entire uninterrupted historic period of transformation
as well, there is no room, from the standpoint of the argument itself, for any
"Supreme Savior" ("neither Ceasar nor Tribune"). Marx's philosophy of praxis is
intrinsically hostile to all authoritarianism, substitutionism or totalitarianism. Of
all the manipulations, deformations and falsifications that Marxism has endured,
undoubtedly the worst were produced courtesy of stalinist bureaucratic ceasarism,
which was no "theoretical deviation" but a monstrous system of monopoly power
wielded by a parasitic "estate" (Stand).(1)

Another all-important dimension to the philosophy of praxis is that it sets itself

against the old materialism which posits the contemplative individual
"(anschauend)" standing before "social conditions," in other words, facing
bourgeois society understood as an ensemble of social and economic laws of
"nature" operating independently of the will or action of individuals.

Instead, the philosophy of praxis perceives society as a "practical" network of

concrete social relations, a structure created by human beings in the course of their
historic activity, of their appropriation of nature through labor. In short, the
concept of praxis is at the heart of the Marxist critique of alienation and, later, of
commodity fetishism—understood simultaneously as a "necessary illusion" as well
as the form of social objectification under capitalism.

Today we are as never before subject to what Etienne Balibar calls the
"totalitarianism of the commodity form" under which "individuals are trapped in
the objective structure of exchange from the very moment when not only the things
individuals deal with are commodities, but when their own labor power has itself
become a commodity" so that their very subjectivity is subjected to the commodity

As the 20th century draws to an end, when the capitalist market has become
nothing less than secular religion, with its blind and fanatical cults, its procession
of intolerant dogmas, its rituals of expiation, its international clergy of "experts,"
its excommunication of any and all heresy, the Marxist critique of fetishism allows
us to free ourselves from this unbearably constricting straitjacket, from the stifling
conformism and pervasive hegemony of the "one thought."

Indeed, the Marxist critique has fostered some of the most interesting advances in
20th century social theory, from Lukacs' analysis of reification to the Frankfurt
School's critique of instrumental reason, and the critique of "The Society of the
Spectacle" by the Situationists. [This refers to an essay by the late Guy Debord,
considered to be a classic of a group of writers known as the "Situationist

What gives Marx's thought its strength, its staying- power, its vitality, its perpetual
resurgence despite the triumphalist "refutations," the repeated burials and
bureaucratic manipulations, is its critical and emancipatory quality: It is the
dialectical unity between analysis of capital and the call for its overthrow, between
study of class struggle and a commitment to the proletariat's struggle, between
examination of the contradictions of capitalist production and the utopia of a
classless society, between critique of political economy and the injunction to
"overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, enslaved, neglected and
contemptible being."(3)

If the Marxist critique of capital retains its full value it is above all because the
reality of capitalism, as a world system, despite the undeniable and deep changes it
has gone through in the last century, is still ultimately based on the exclusion of the
majority of humanity, on the exploitation of labor by capital, on alienation,
domination, hierarchy, on the concentration of power and privilege, on the
quantification of life, the reification of social relations, the institutional exercise of
violence, militarization, and war.

To understand this reality, its contradictions and the possibility of radical social
transformation, Marx's work remains an indispensable starting point, an
irreplaceable tool, a compass without which one can easily go astray.

It is obvious that the world of labor has undergone profound transformations,

particularly in the last decades: decline of the industrial proletariat and rise of the
service industry, structural unemployment, and the creation (particularly in 3rd
World countries) of an excluded mass, marginalized from the process of production
—the "povertariat." Marx did not foresee these phenomena and they cannot at all
be grasped with concepts such as "unproductive labor" or "lumpen-proletariat."

In the broad sense of the term, however, the proletariat, i.e. those who live from the
sale of their labor-power or who try to sell it (the unemployed), remains the
principal component of the working population and class conflict between labor
and capital is still the principal contradiction of capitalist formations as well as the
axis around which other emancipatory movements can develop.

The end of the 20th century is characterized, on the one hand, by the most
advanced capitalist globalization, the commodity universalization of the world-
economy and, on the other hand, by the multiplication of the innermost recesses of
identity, of obsessive territorial neuroses and morbid national fetishes: these are the
two sides of the coin. The steady reconstruction of solidarities among the exploited
and oppressed is not only the concrete foundation of a new universality-it is also
the lone red thread allowing us to discover a way out of the labyrinth of self-
referring identity. (4)

This is not to deny the existence of problems, difficulties, limitations and lacunae
in Marx's thought. It seems to me that the most debatable aspect of the marxian
heritage can be found in its analysis of the relations of production with respect to
social and cultural life and to the natural environment. In this contribution I can
only point out these problems, not treat them systemically.

There is in Marx a tendency to underestimate non-economic and non-class forms

of oppression, whether national, ethnic, or sexual. The patriarchal domination of
women, an issue which affects half of humanity, is far from being an essential
theme in the marxian critique of society which remains arguably androcentric
(though Engels did pay closer attention to the problem).

One can find in Capital moving pages on the suffering of working women
pitilessly exploited by English capitalists, but one will seek in vain a sustained
analysis of the specific oppression of women as women, or the construction of
gender as a hierarchical social category, or an account of sexual discrimination in
the workers' movement itself.

Along the same lines, Marx and Engels do not always take into consideration the
relative autonomy of cultural phenomena, the irreducibility of religion and ethics,
for example, to relations of production. If they understood perfectly well the
contradictory nature of religion, at once expression of real misery and protest
against it, nevertheless they were convinced that the dissident role of religion was
over by the time of the 17th century English Puritan revolution.

Their approach to religious phenomena as a legacy of the past exclusively makes it

impossible to understand either the tenacious persistence of obscurantist and
retrograde (the "opium of the people") religious forms throughout the 20th century,
especially today, or the appearance of progressive, even revolutionary forms of
religiousness, such as liberation theology.

Moreover, their often justified critique of idealist "moralism" and legalist ideology
caused them to abstain from formulating ethical values and universal human
rights. No doubt, an emancipatory ethic unquestionably runs throughout the work
of Marx and Engels, but they always opposed its theoretical elaboration and
articulation. This lacuna has favored dubious attempts throughout the history of
Marxism to complete the Marxist heritage with a Kantian, utilitarian,
phenomenological or liberal ethic.

Finally, there remains an issue that perhaps demands the most thoroughgoing
revision of the Marxist theoretical corpus: the relationship between production and

To say "Marxism is a productivism" [an ideology that sees productivity in itself as

the highest good—ed.], as our ecologist friends do, is not very enlightening. Marx
has been second to none in denouncing the capitalist logic of production for the
sake of production, the accumulation of capital, wealth and commodities as ends in

The very idea of socialism—in contrast to its miserable bureaucratic forgery—is

the production of use values, of goods necessary to satisfy human needs. The
supreme goal of technical progress for Marx is not the endless production of goods
(to have), but the shortening of the workday, and the lengthening of free time.

Nevertheless, it is true that there is a tendency in Marx (pronounced in the

Marxism after Marx) to consider the development of the forces of production as
the principal vector of progress, to adopt a fairly uncritical attitude toward
industrial civilization, particularly its destructive relationship to nature. The
"canonic" text where this standpoint is laid out is the well-known Preface to a
Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859), a writing of Marx's
marked by a sharp tendency to embrace an evolutionism, a philosophy of progress,
a scientism (modeled on the natural sciences) and by a wholly unproblematicized
vision of the productive forces.

In Capital one can find here and there references to the exhaustion of nature by
capital as in this oft-cited passage:

All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only

of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in
increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress
towards ruining the more long- lasting sources of that fertility. The
more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the
background of its development, as in the case of the United States,
the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production,
therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of
combination of the social progress of production by simultaneously
undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the

One could find other examples. Even so, Marx does not possess an integrated
ecological perspective. His optimistic, "promethean" conception of the limitless
development of the productive forces once the limits of capitalist relations of
production are removed is today indefensible. This is so not only from a strictly
economic standpoint - incorporating ecological costs in calculating value-but
above all from the standpoint of the threat to the ecological balance of the planet
represented by the productivist logic of capital (and its pale imitator, the "socialist"

The exponential growth of air, soil and water pollution, the accumulation of
uncontrollable nuclear wastes, the permanent threat of new Chernobyls, the
dizzyingly rapid destruction of forests, the greenhouse effect, and the danger of a
break in the ozone layer (which would make impossible all organic life on the
planet), all are setting up a catastrophic scenario where the very survival of
humanity is at stake.
The problem of the environment is, in my view , the greatest challenge for the
renewal of Marxist thought on the threshold of the 21st Century. It demands of
Marxists a deeply critical revision of their traditional conception of the productive
forces, and a radical break with the ideology of progress and the technological and
economic paradigm of modern industrial civilization.

Walter Benjamin was one of the first 20th century Marxists to tackle this problem.
As early as 1928, in his book Sens unique, Benjamin denounced the idea of the
domination of nature as "an imperialist teaching" and proposed a new conception
of technique as "mastery of the relation between nature and humanity." A few
years later, in his Theses on the Conception of History, he suggested enriching
historical materialism with the ideas of Fourier, that visionary utopian who had
dreamt of a kind of "labor which far from exploiting nature, is in a position to call
forth creations lying dormant within it."(6)

Marxism to this day has still not caught up with developments in this field. One of
the leads for a new approach is suggested in a recent text. Starting from a passage
in The German Ideology, where Marx speaks of the productive forces becoming,
under the rule of private property, destructive forces, an Italian Marxist writes:

The statement according to which potentially productive forces are

transformed into really destructive ones, especially with respect to
the environment, seems more appropriate and meaningful than the
well-known schema of a contradiction between (dynamic) forces of
relations and (fettering) relations of production. What is more, this
definition allows a critical and non- apologetic foundation to
economic, technological, and scientific development, and therefore
permits the elaboration of a concept of differentiated progress (E.

Still, ecologists are mistaken if they think they can dispense with the Marxist
critique of capitalism. An ecology that is unaware of the relationship between
"productivism" and the logic of profit is doomed to fail, worse, to be co-opted by
the system.

Ecological socialists, such as the elder Gorz, James O'Connor, Juan Martinez Alier,
Jean Paul Deleage, Fireder Otto Wolf, have fully understood that the blind
rationality of the capitalist market, with its shortsighted profit and loss accounting,
is inherently antithetical to ecological rationality, which takes into consideration
the lengthy temporality of natural cycles and the social necessity to protect the

Against commodity fetishism and the reified autonomization of the economy, at

stake in the future is crafting a non- commodified political economy based on non-
monetary and extra-economic criteria, in sum, "reimbricating" (to take up Karl
Polyani's expression) the economic into the ecological, the social and the political.

Gramsci stressed that "the philosophy of praxis conceives itself historically, as a

transitory phase of philosophical thought" and that it is consequently destined to be
replaced in the new society because the latter is founded not on class contradictions
and necessity but on freedom.(9)

Yet as long as we live in capitalist societies driven by antagonistic social classes, it

would be fruitless to seek to replace the philosophy of praxis by another
emancipatory paradigm. In that light, I think Jean-Paul Sartre was right to consider
Marxism as constituting the "intellectual horizon of our epoch." All efforts to go
"beyond" it can only lead to regression toward inferior levels of thought, not
superceding but falling short of Marx.

The new paradigms now being put forth, whether "pure" ecology or the discursive
rationality touted by Habermas not to mention postmodernism, deconstructionism
and "methodological individualism," while often contributing interesting insights,
do not in any way constitute superior alternatives to Marxism's understanding of
reality, the universality of its critique and the quality of its emancipatory

How then must one correct the many lacunae, limitations and inadequacies of
Marx and the Marxist tradition? By an open- minded approach, by a predisposition
to learn and enrich oneself with critiques and insights coming from elsewhere, in
the first instance from the social movements, whether "classical" like the workers'
and peasants' movement, or novel like the ecological and the women's movement,
the movements in defense of human rights and for the liberation of oppressed
peoples, indigenous people's movements and liberation theology.

But Marxists must also learn to "revisit" other socialist and emancipatory
movements, including those which Marx and Engels had "refuted" at length but
whose intuitions, poorly developed or absent in "scientific socialism," nonetheless
proved fruitful. These are the utopian feminisms and socialisms of the 19th
Century (Owenists, Saint-Simonists and Fourierists), the libertarian socialisms
(anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists), the religious socialisms, and in particular
what I would call the romantic socialists who were most critical about the illusions
of progress: William Morris, Charles Peguy, Georges Sorel, Bernard Lazare,
Gustav Landauer.

Finally, the critical renewal of Marxism also demands that it be enriched by the
most advanced and productive forms of non-Marxist thought, from Max Weber to
Karl Mannheim, from Georg Simmel to Marcel Mauss, from Sigmund Freud to
Jean Piaget, from Fernand Braudel to Jurgen Habermas (to mention but a few), and
that it incorporate the limited but often useful results of university social science.

One must draw inspiration from Marx himself, who was well able to use the
philosophical and scientific works of his age—not only Hegel and Feuerbach,
Ricardo and Saint Simon, but also heterodox economists like Quesnay, Ferguson,
Sismondi, James Stuart, Thomas Hodgkin—as well as the work of anthropologists
fascinated by the communal past, such as Maurer's and Morgan's, Carlyle and
Cobbett's romantic critiques of capitalism, and the work of socialist heretics like
Flora Tristan or Pierre Leroux.
This does not in any way diminsh the theoretical unity and coherence of Marx's
work. To arrogate to Marxism a monopoly on science by casting other trends of
thought down into the purgatory of mere ideology has nothing in common with
Marx's own conception his theory's complex relation to contemporary scientific

Marx's work has often been presented as a monumental edifice whose structure,
from foundation to rooftop, is harmoniously articulated by an impressive
architectural design. Shouldn't we rather consider Marx's work as a construction
site, always incomplete, on which generations of critical Marxists still labor?


1. Editors' Note: The German Stand is variously translated as "class," "estate"

or "social estate," depending on the context. For a brief explanation see
Hal Draper Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution. Volume 1: State and
Bureaucracy (Monthly Review Press, 1977), 37.
2. "Debat entre Jean-Marie Vincent et Etienne Balibar," Critique Communiste
#140, Winter 1994-1995, 94.
3. Karl Marx, "A Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.
Introduction." Early Writings (Vintage, 1975), 251.
4. See Daniel Bensaid's interesting remarks in La discordance des temps.
Essais sur les crises, les classes, l'histoire (Paris, Les Edition de la Passion,
1995), 149, 160, 167.
5. Capital, v.1 (Vintage. 1976), 638.
6. W. Benjamin, Sens unique (Paris, Lettres Nouvelles- Maurice Nadeau,
1978), 243 and "Theses sur la philosophie de l'histoire," in L'homme, le
langage et la culture (Paris Denoel, 1971), 190.
7. Tiziano Bagarolo, "Encore sur marxisme et ecologie," Quatrieme
Internationale, #44, May-July 1992, 25.
8. See Daniel Bensaid's essay, "Le tourment de la matiere." Marx,
productivism et ecologie, Document de travail de L'Institut International de
Recherche et de Formation" (Amsterdam, November 1992), 23.
9. A. Gramsci, Il materialismo storico (Torino, Editori Riuniti, 1979), 115-16.

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