Trajectories of European Marxism

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By RICARDO MUSSE*

Presentation of the newly released book

There are many, some excellent, stories of Marxism. Most of them focus on describing the incorporation of Marx and Engels' doctrine by working class organizations and its impact on the political action of parties, unions and social movements.

The purpose of this book is diverse. It is about exposing theories that, due to their originality and dissemination, have become established as paradigmatic formulations in the constitution of Marxism as an intellectual tradition.

The referential framework of this work does not differ from the lists that indicate the political and intellectual exponents of Marxism. With the intention of reducing the randomness and arbitrariness inherent in the choice of a few, from a vast array of important names, a precise point was adopted as a selection criterion: the relevance of each person's contribution to changes in the self-understanding of Marxism.

The demarcations that make it possible to group politicians and theorists in the movement, temporally unfolded and labeled as “Marxism”, have always been and still are subject to endless controversies. A less controversial delimitation, which perhaps runs the risk of being innocuous, consists in presenting it as a tradition formed by the addition, to Marx's legacy, of the intellectual and political contribution of his followers, or of the practical-theoretical arsenal developed by various organizations and parties.

A precise determination of this concept requires, however, the clarification of its characteristic elements. Without a doubt, in the field of politics, this is a Herculean task. When only the aspect of Marxism is considered as an intellectual tradition, this effort becomes less arduous.

Karl Marx affirmed the historical character of the modes of production, seeking to make the transition between the different social formations intelligible. He also highlighted the internal historical path of capitalism, whose dynamics rapidly alter the forms of production and social relations. In view of this, its legacy, the undisputed basis of Marxism, periodically lacks updates that accompany the changes crystallized in different diagnoses of the “historical present”.

The repertoire of these “updates” of Marxism encompasses many dimensions. Certainly, the main one concentrates the formulations that accompany and explain developments in the economy, politics and culture, providing support for the determination of the historical present as a relevant inflection in the trajectory of capitalism.

The procedures inherent to satisfying the demand for periodic updating also generate significant changes in the self-representation of Marxism. The identification of historical change, quite often, is accompanied by new interpretations of Marx's thought that resize his legacy and the very systematization of historical materialism. The mapping of a new historical situation paves the way for filling in the blanks and gaps in Marx's work or for clearing areas that remained untouched.

The coordinates proper to the lineage of Marxism, especially those that define the self-understanding that one has (and changes) in different historical moments, were largely determined by the work of the “last” Engels. One can discern there, retrospectively, amidst the tangle of conjunctural and practical concerns, an organizing principle: the systematization of the main measures that made it possible for Marxism to constitute itself as a theoretical and practical tradition after the death of its founders. The set of texts and books produced by Friedrich Engels, in his last years of life, established the formal model that, with greater or lesser variation, was followed by the main theorists of Marxism throughout the XNUMXth century.

In this book, Friedrich Engels is presented, for the reasons explained above, as the first Marxist, and his final work as the birth certificate of this lineage. An analysis of Anti-Duhring (1878) constitutes the temporal starting point of the task outlined here: monitoring the genesis and consolidation of Marxism as an intellectual tradition and the transformations in its self-understanding.

Throughout the book, we seek to unravel, in light of these purposes, the conceptions of Marxism as theory (and inevitably as practice), present in a series of authors, to whom disparate spaces have been dedicated: Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, Georgy Plekhanov , Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Karl Korsch, Georg Lukács and Max Horkheimer.

This journey ends with the analysis of the article “Traditional Theory and Critical Theory” (1937), by Max Horkheimer. It contains the development of theoretical principles – presented, above all, in History and class consciousness – which clarify why each relevant change in the trajectory of capitalism provides updates, guided by changes in the subject, theory and object triad. There were also exposed the elements that make possible, beyond its general determinations, the understanding of the history of Marxism as an intellectual tradition. Like the last Engels, Max Horkheimer systematized the formal coordinates followed from now on by the strand known as Western Marxism.

The first chapter seeks to show how the methodology of Marxism became a decisive topic in its determination. Contemporaries requested, with some insistence, that Marx explain his method. He, however, remained reticent, perhaps faithful to the idea that method constitutes a topic that cannot be exposed separately from theoretical practice. Marxists, however, considered this absence as a gap to be filled. The chapter contemplates, more slowly, the controversy between Eduard Bernstein and György Lukács about the place of dialectics in Marxism and the polemical way in which they positioned themselves before the exposition of the method presented by Friedrich Engels.

The second chapter focuses on the oscillations that made Marxism understand itself sometimes as a science, sometimes as philosophy. Friedrich Engels peremptorily defined Marxism as “scientific socialism”. Some of the first generation exponents of this lineage, in particular Georgy Plekhanov and Antonio Labriola, found elements in Engels' work that made it possible to consider historical materialism as a form of philosophy. Marxism and philosophy, by Karl Korsch, can be considered as the best-founded justification of this hypothesis. This ambivalence marked the self-understanding of Marxism-Leninism – with the duality “historical materialism” and “dialectical materialism” – and the self-representation of this tradition by Western Marxists.

The third and fourth chapters, of greater length, present the genesis of Marxism, its roots in the mass parties created in the last quarter of the XNUMXth century and its developments until the eve of the Second World War.

The first block is entitled “From Friedrich Engels to Rosa Luxemburg”. It focuses on monitoring and commenting on notable episodes in the trajectory of Marxism such as the quarrel of revisionism; the tripartition into distinct currents of the then powerful party of German social democracy, crystallized from disparate receptions of the Russian Revolution of 1905 in Germany; the end of the Second International with the vote, in 1914, on war credits; the controversy surrounding the meaning of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the emergence of the Third International.

The other block, “From Lukács to Horkheimer” begins by showing how and why History and class consciousness, by György Lukács and Marxism and philosophy, by Karl Korsch, both from 1923, were contested at congresses of the Second and Third International. In a 1929 text, “The Current Situation of the Problem (Anti-Criticism)”, Karl Korsch delimits, for the first time, the coordinates of an emerging “Western Marxism”. Finally, the constitution of Critical Theory is discussed, highlighting determinations that became paradigmatic in the development of Western Marxism.

The expositions in the third and fourth chapters, the selection of these facts and a range of authors considered representative of the inflections in the trajectory of Marxism, adopt as their axis delimitations, at each moment, of different understandings of this movement. In a short space of time, the self-representation of Marxism conceived it, among others, as “scientific socialism”, “party ideology”, “revolutionary theory” and “intellectual tradition”.

An excursus, inserted at the end of the book, addresses Western Marxism, one of the most important currents of Marxism in the XNUMXth century, alongside the Second and Third Internationals. Its theoretical framework and political consequences are learned, indirectly, from comments that problematize the analyzes of prominent historians in this field.

Ricardo Musse He is a professor at the Department of Sociology at USP. Author, among other books, of Émile Durkheim: Social fact and division of labor (Attica).

Reference


Ricardo Musse. Trajectories of European Marxism. Campinas, Ed. Unicamp, 2023, 220 pages.
https://amzn.to/3R7K8wt


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