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Michael Löwy's collected essays on romanticism and Marxism represent an important attempt to restore the revolutionary tradition, but he sometimes seeks for it in problematic places

Michael Löwy, On Changing the World: Essays in Political Philosophy, from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin (Haymarket 2013), xiv, 216pp.

How you go about interpreting the world has a direct relationship with the possibility of changing it. For the Young Hegelians, the world was essentially the product of ideas, so that ultimately all that needed to be done, or could be done, in order to change it was to adopt a different perception. Against this, Marx rebelled to develop a revolutionary materialist way of understanding, and therefore changing the world.

Too often, however, Marx’s materialism has been interpreted as simply the standard materialism of bourgeois thought. Such materialism takes the stance of an observer separated from the world in order to perceive an ‘objective’ reality. This premise tends to produce a static understanding of a fixed, flat reality. The philosophical position was typical of Second-International understandings of Marxism. Here socialism would be the objective, inevitable result of deterministic laws of history. In practice, objective material conditions were never ripe for the revolution to take place, which was conceived as always some time in the distant future. The Stalinised Communist Parties of the 1920s soon all succumbed to a variant of this way of understanding reality. Present day social-democratic parties who assume they must ‘triangulate’ to the right in order to win elections proceed from a similarly static, ‘objective’ starting point.

Marx’s materialism was not, however, of this ‘objectivist’ variety. Understanding the world is not a separate activity from changing the world; labour interacts with its environment, and in the process of working on nature, changes it. In so doing, the labourer comes to an understanding of reality. The human observer is not an objective viewer perceiving a separate reality, but is rather a part of it, interacting with it, in the process of coming to understand it.  Marx’s materialism was thus an activist one; it neither disappears back into the subjective understanding of the Young Hegelians, nor does it take ‘what is’ to be all that is possible.

Reality is not a fixed object that we study from a point of detachment, but a contradictory series of unstable processes in which we are continually intervening and changing. A revolutionary understanding needs to grasp the real possibilities and alternatives at hand, and must not be ‘reconciled to reality’. That way lies the ‘need of “modernising” Marxism, adapting it to the ruling ideas, to liberalism, to individualism, to positivism – and above all to the new religion of the market, with its idols, its rituals, and its infallible dogmas’ (p.xi). Reconciling to this reality would have us accept the ideas of the ruling class, and dismiss any notion that there is an alternative.

On Changing the World is an expanded collection of essays first issued in 1993, and spanning well over three decades, but linked by some common themes around the sources of revolutionary thought in Marx himself, and a handful of revolutionaries who, between 1900 and 1940, were able to recover the really revolutionary understanding at the heart of Marx’s thinking. The most frequently recurring theme is the importance of romanticism to the revolutionary impulse. Löwy defines the essence of the romantic worldview as ‘the protest against the industrial/bourgeois civilisation in the name of pre-capitalist values’ (p.xiii).

Clearly this attitude need not in any way lead to a progressive alternative, and can indeed be conservative, and deeply reactionary. It is true however that a good few revolutionaries came to Marxism through a romantic anti-capitalism; William Morris most famously in Britain. The reason romanticism can be a source of anti-capitalism is that reaching back into the past is a way of finding an alternative to the dominant capitalist reality of the present. The past offers different values and ways of living. However, the romantics’ tendency to look back to the Middle Ages was likely to produce a largely reactionary stance, apart from a few exceptional cases.

The more fruitful avenue was to look farther back still towards early egalitarian, classless societies; this form of romanticism was a way of questioning the insistence of bourgeois thinking that capitalist relations reflect an eternal human nature. Recalling past egalitarian societies is a way of imagining a different future, since if the present is not an eternal truth of human nature then it can be changed. Thus Löwy quotes Marx writing to Engels in 1868 that ‘in the oldest, the newest’ (p.158). A continuing advantage of the romantic tendency is the critical attitude it brings to notions of bourgeois ‘progress’, which is increasingly just as likely to be destructive, ecologically in particular, as to offer any new potential for improved human existence.

The romantic refusal of bourgeois reality has been a source of the revolutionary impulse, and remains an encouragement of anti-capitalist critique. Yet, by no means always does this lead to a socialist perspective of any sort; it can lead to a mystical anti-urbanism instead. Those who gather at Stonehenge each summer solstice are, in a sense, heirs to a romantic return in the imagination to the classless society that built that monument over a period of hundreds of years in very distant antiquity. That there are problematic aspects to this sort of cultural tendency would be an understatement.

For the romantic perspective to contribute to proletarian revolution, a dialectical process of overcoming and preserving, Aufhebung (or sublation), needs to take place. Löwy explains this concept in the context of discussing Marx’s own romanticism (p.4), and it recurs elsewhere (p.91 or p.214, for example). Romanticism needs to be negated, but the fruitful element preserved in a more advanced system of thought, which is precisely what Marx was able to do. Thus also Lukács, who overcame his early romantic anti-capitalism to arrive at a fully dialectical revolutionary Marxism in the mid-1920s. Löwy also finds a romantic element in Rosa Luxemburg, who praised an original agrarian communism, where it was missing in other Second International figures such as Plekhanov (p.8).

Luxemburg’s famous formulation of humanity’s choice of ‘socialism or barbarism’, rejecting the orthodox view of socialism’s inevitability, is thus an assertion of the importance of revolutionary initiative, of the subjective moment. Socialism will not happen ‘if the material conditions that have been built up by past development don’t flash with the sparkling animation of the conscious will of the great popular masses’ (quoted, p.94). Still, if there is quite plausibly a trace of romanticism in Luxemburg’s thought, it has indeed been dialectically transformed. There is here no wild, voluntaristic spirit that would seek to transform society on the basis of mere will. Luxemburg’s positions are rooted in material conditions, but she sees the limited possibilities from which humanity must choose.

At points, Löwy links the issue of utopianism to his theme of revolutionary romanticism (pp.20-1). There is a point here too, in that a revolutionary optimism must be able to conceive of a liberated society and unalienated human relationships. Even the perception of the possibility of revolution can be accused of being utopian, just as the Menshevik, Martov, attacked Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, as it went beyond ‘the historical task which flows from the existent level of productive forces’ (p.211). Of course the issue here, as Löwy explains, is Martov’s undialectical understanding of history, his inability to see alternative possibilities within the contradictions of the social totality. Against this is Trotsky’s grasp of the point that history does not proceed in a flatly linear development. As Löwy argues, there is ‘an intimate link between the dialectical method and revolutionary theory’ (p.211). It is a case of grasping Marx’s activist dialectic, of the distinction between conventional and Marxist materialism.

A dialectical understanding of phenomena is needed also in the treatment of religion, as Löwy argues in an essay considering Liberation Theology. It is characteristic of religion to be contradictory, and so it tends, whichever of the great religions is being considered, to contain both ‘sometimes a justification of existing society and sometimes a protest against it’ (p.24). In the case of Latin America in the 1980s, Löwy argues that ‘the revolutionary idealism of the liberation theologians is superior to the idiotic materialism of bourgeois economists and of Stalinist “Marxism” ’ (p.39). The damage done by reductive materialist approaches is evident in this case. Löwy notes André Gunder Frank’s criticisms of Marxist theoreticians who promoted bourgeois regimes on the grounds that they represented progress against a notional feudal remnant in Latin American societies (p.35, and see Gunder Frank’s still important Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America, 1969). The expected capitalist development did not come, while revolutionary impulses were stifled. Against this, the values-based attack on capitalist reality coming from the liberation theologians would seem attractive.

While Löwy notes various problems with Christianity in relation to socialism, he does wish to point out several areas where Marxists could learn from liberation theology. This argument is a good deal less convincing now than it would have been originally; the religious tendency on which it depends has been largely defeated, both within the Catholic Church and in practical terms. Witness the decline of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. Even so, from a Marxist perspective in the 1980s, Liberation Theology was liable to overemphasise the moral and voluntaristic, in contrast to the determinism of orthodox communism.

The point to make is surely that Liberation Theology is an example of how highly useful alliances can be made with genuine anti-capitalists coming from a religious tradition. In this case, Löwy seems to be in danger of falling for his romanticist theme as such, in his frustration with certain brands of Marxism, rather than seeking the Aufhebung of Marx’s dialectics. In general, the role of romanticism is well-taken, but it would seem that the value of the analysis here would be to point out that this religious romanticism is a recurring structure of feeling to which revolutionaries need to relate, and to influence in a Marxist direction.

Of the eighteen essays in this collection, there is hardly a one that could not be the basis of a really fruitful discussion. Löwy’s emphasis on the dialectical nature of revolutionary perspectives, and the dialectically transformed elements of romanticism and utopianism, is frequently illuminating. However, there are some moments where the direction of Löwy’s thought gives pause, as in the case of Liberation Theology above.

Another issue is an occasional tendency to see Engels as being insufficiently dialectical, for example on the question of religion (p.25 and p.94), or on the question of nationality, where there are indeed some early statements that need criticism (p.58). Largely, however, the notion held in some quarters that Engels was somehow a ‘positivist’ rather than truly dialectical thinker is entirely untenable. If Engels’ texts are read carefully as their wholes and in the context of his close relationship with Marx, rather than as phrases isolated from his wider intent, then he appears as no less a dialectical thinker. Since Engels-bashing appears very often to be an attempt to uncover a pure essence of Marxist theory in texts isolated from the political practice of Marx and Engels together, it is disquieting to see Löwy give the argument some credence.

The goal of Löwy’s work in these essays has been to recover and explore a non-Stalinist, revolutionary Marxism, and this motivating spirit gives the collection great value. Nonetheless, at times the project threatens to jettison important elements of the genuine revolutionary tradition it seeks to restore. The tendency to denigrate Engels as a dialectical and revolutionary thinker is a case in point. Another issue which follows is a criticism of Georg Lukács’ views on class consciousness and the role of the revolutionary party. This involves a separation of Lukács’ argument in History and Class Consciousness (HCC) from his riposte to critics in the somewhat recently discovered work often referred to as Tailism and the Dialectic (T&D). Löwy states that in comparing the position of the two books ‘one cannot avoid the impression that his interpretation of Leninism in the last piece [T&D] gained a distinct authoritarian slant’ (p.204). Löwy allows that Lukács’ position in T&D is in no way Stalinist, and is certainly preferable to the ‘positivist’ take on Marxism of the semi-official Communist, and ex-Menshevik, critics to whom he was responding (p.205). Nonetheless, he is criticising a central political theme of Lukács’ revolutionary period, the importance to class consciousness of the Party.

Lukács’ concept of ‘imputed consciousness’ is crucial to the discussion here. This proceeds from the argument that the proletariat, as a whole class, does not develop a revolutionary consciousness on its own, but relies upon the vanguard, organised as the Communist Party, actively to develop that consciousness. Löwy recognises that in HCC this position is ‘a dialectical process in which the class, assisted by its vanguard, rises to the zugerechnetes Bewisstein [possible imputed consciousness] through its own experience of struggle’ (p.204). Yet it is hard to see the argument in T&D as any less dialectical in its presentation of the relationship between the ‘empirical’ consciousness of the proletariat and the Party.

Where Lukács quotes from Lenin’s What is to Be Done, arguing that a revolutionary class consciousness has to be introduced ‘from without’, the meaning of this phrase is made clear: ‘However, this is a historical process, and the spontaneous element is the germ seed of a conduct that is conscious of its aims … there is, of course, a dialectical interrelationship between this “from without” and the working class’ (Lukács, T&D, p.82). Lukács seems to be going out of his way here actually to avoid any ambiguously ‘authoritarian’ meaning, emphasising the interrelationship between Party and class, and the historical production of revolutionary theory.

Lukács is at this point developing a subtle analysis of the relationship between the political and the economic in the consciousness of the proletariat. Class consciousness will only develop so far simply from within the strictly economic sphere, and so the proletariat, understood in the economic sense, needs this ‘from outside’ pole as part of a historical relationship: ‘For the social being of the proletariat places it immediately only in a relationship of struggle with the capitalists, while proletarian class consciousness becomes class consciousness proper when it incorporates a knowledge of the totality of bourgeois society.’ Lukács goes on then to quote from Lenin that the full understanding can only be gained in ‘the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes’ (p.83).

This is to argue that in the context of purely economic relations, even where the level of trade-union organisation is achieved, the full perspective will not be gained. Only where the proletariat has the capacity to create a wider political stance will this become possible. This view could only be seen as authoritarian if it is assumed that an individual member of the proletariat is necessarily only an economic being, and not also a social and political one, able to reach beyond economic experience into other spheres. Yet further, for this to be possible, at a collective level, given the dominance of bourgeois institutions and ideology, the proletariat needs political organisation to provide that total view of society from a proletarian perspective. We need the Party. Otherwise, whatever spontaneous perceptions we might all be capable of generating, in the end these will remain isolated and undeveloped sparkles of dissidence, unable to develop into a collective class consciousness. Löwy periodically refers to the autonomy of the political in these essays (p.116 for example), but fails to invoke that (possibly problematic) formulation here where it might at least have been useful.

The rest of Löwy’s criticisms of T&D seem to miss the mark, as when he complains of silences, such as the absence of the HCC discussion of soviets as the ‘political/economic overcoming of reification’ (p.205). Yet T&D is a defence against semi-authorised assaults on his earlier work, and the absence of a point cannot be taken to show that the author has changed his position. Löwy seems to be peculiarly unhappy with T&D as an expression of Lukács’ thought, objecting even that a substantial section of the book concerns the dialectics of nature, an issue which Löwy claims can ‘hardly’ be seen as an ‘essential issue in revolutionary dialectics’ (p.204).

This later criticism seems to be a serious lapse in interpretation given that the issues of the dialectics of nature intersect, at the very least, with those problems of dialectical as opposed to positivist method that Löwy, even a page later, agrees are so important. Lukács is defending an understanding of science and epistemology which is directly related to his arguments about consciousness and the subjective pole in revolutionary politics, so it is somewhat alarming that Löwy seems to miss this. The argument involves a distinction between the role of conscious labour in the dialectics of society as opposed to those of nature, and are far from abstract, but relate back to the ability of an activist materialism to conceive of a world different from that which is empirically given.

It is hard to see why Löwy could arrive at these judgments of T&D unless he was significantly out of sympathy with the views on class consciousness and the Party that are clarified in this little work. Given that Löwy regards the position in HCC as being an attempt at a ‘synthesis between Luxemburgism and Leninism’ (p.204), and the absence of Lukács’ Lenin (A Study on the Unity of his Thought, Verso 2009), from the discussion, this perhaps betrays a hesitation about the nature and role of the Leninist party as such. If so, it would be an unfortunate lacuna in the project to rediscover an authentic revolutionary tradition, as, despite the criticisms levelled at Lukács from various directions, the three works from his revolutionary period do represent a very clear apperception of that tradition.

Löwy seems to have more enthusiasm for another figure in the so-called ‘Western’ Marxist tradition, Walter Benjamin, to whom no fewer than six essays in this collection are devoted. These essays, like Benjamin himself, are full of fascinating insights, and they provide ample opportunity for Löwy to develop further his perception of romanticism and aspects of religious thinking, as sources for revolutionary enthusiasm and creative responses to alienation. Benjamin’s note that the ‘irrationalities of fascism are but the seamy side of modern (instrumental) rationality’ is an illuminating example of romantic scepticism about bourgeois progress (p.168).

Nonetheless, while Löwy is not necessarily endorsing Benjamin’s perspectives in their entirety, there is a lack of critical perspective on some of the more problematic aspects of his thinking. Benajmin’s approach seems to lack mediation at crucial points, and his ‘anarcho-Bolshevism’, as Löwy has it, seems to have pushed him towards some ‘apocalyptic’, and certainly ultra-left political attitudes, such as his ‘radical contempt for social democracy’ (p.151). Benjamin’s thinking may be exhilarating in many respects, but perhaps needs to be treated critically from the perspective of revolutionary strategy. Certainly also, Löwy is less convincing here than elsewhere that the romantic impulse, this time including anarchist as well as ‘apocalyptic’ elements, is entirely overcome and incorporated into a fruitful revolutionary Marxism.

Michael Löwy is unquestionably a tremendous figure in the decades-long attempt to recover an authentic revolutionary tradition from the wreckage of Stalinism, and these essays are very often powerful examples of this process. However in attempting to escape from actually authoritarian and deterministic readings of Marxism, it is possible to career so far in the other direction as to miss the revolutionary moment altogether. Rejections of the Leninist party as necessarily authoritarian are an example of this problem. Occasionally, Löwy tends in this direction in his concern to avoid the errors on the other side. In doing so, he is missing the point that Lukács’ understanding of the Leninist party is precisely a humanist understanding of the potential for human beings consciously to change the world. Nonetheless, in the end, Löwy’s essays are certainly stimulating explorations of a range of issues of revolutionary methodology and consciousness.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).


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