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Western Marxism is a current of Marxist theory arising from Western and Central Europe in the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia and the ascent of Leninism. The term denotes a loose collection of theorists who advanced an interpretation of Marxism distinct from that codified by the Soviet Union.
The Western Marxists placed more emphasis on Marxism's philosophical and subjective aspects, as well as the origins of Karl Marx's thought in the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (for which reason it is sometimes called Hegelian Marxism), and what they called the "Young Marx" (the more humanistic early works of Marx). Although some early figures such as György Lukács and Antonio Gramsci were prominent in political activities, Western Marxism became primarily the reserve of academia, especially after the Second World War. Prominent figures included Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse.
Since the 1960s, the concept has been closely associated with the New Left. While many of the Western Marxists were adherents of Marxist humanism, the term also encompasses figures and schools of thought that are strongly critical of Hegelianism and humanism.
The phrase Western Marxism was first used disparagingly by the Third International in 1923. Maurice Merleau-Ponty reappropriated and popularized the term with his book Adventures of the Dialectic in 1955. Merleau-Ponty delineated a body of Marxist thought starting with György Lukács that differs from both the Soviet interpretation of Marxism and the earlier Marxism of the Second International.
History and distinctive elements
Although there have been many schools of Marxist thought that are sharply distinguished from Marxism–Leninism, such as Austromarxism or the Dutch left communism of Antonie Pannekoek and Herman Gorter, the theorists who downplay the primacy of economic analysis are considered Western Marxists. Where the base of the capitalist economy is the focus of earlier Marxists, the Western Marxists concentrate on the problems of superstructures, as they emphasise culture, philosophy, and art.
Perry Anderson notes that the tradition was born from the failure of proletarian revolutions in various advanced capitalist societies in Western Europe - Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy - in the wake of the First World War. He argues that Western Marxism represents a divorce between socialist theory and working-class practice that resulted from the defeat and stagnation of the Western working class after 1920.
Western Marxism began in 1923 with the publication of György Lukács's History and Class Consciousness and Karl Korsch's Marxism and Philosophy. In these books, Lukács and Korsch proffer a Marxism that underlines the Hegelian basis of Karl Marx's thought. Marxism is not simply a theory of political economy that improves on its bourgeois predecessors. Nor is it a scientific sociology, akin to the natural sciences. Marxism is primarily a critique – a self-conscious transformation of society. Marxism does not make philosophy obsolete, as vulgar Marxism believes; Marxism preserves the truths of philosophy until their revolutionary transformation into reality.
Their work was greeted with hostility by the Third International, which saw Marxism as a universal science of history and nature. Nonetheless, this style of Marxism was taken up by Germany's Frankfurt School in the 1930s. The Prison Notebooks of the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, written during this period but not published until much later, are also classified as belonging to Western Marxism. Ernst Bloch is a contemporaneous figure who is likewise sometimes judged to be one of Western Marxism's founding fathers.
After the Second World War, a French Western Marxism was constituted by theorists based around the journals Arguments, Les Temps Modernes and Socialisme ou Barbarie such as Lucien Goldmann, Henri Lefebvre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. One aspect that marked this later generation of Western Marxists was that they were overwhelmingly professional academics, and frequently professors of philosophy.
Western Marxism often emphasises the importance of the study of culture, class consciousness and subjectivity for an adequate Marxist understanding of society. Western Marxists have thus tended to heavily use Marx's theories of commodity fetishism, ideology and alienation and have elaborated these with new concepts such as reification and cultural hegemony.
Engagement with non-Marxist systems of thought is a feature that distinguishes Western Marxism from schools of Marxism that preceded it. Many Western Marxists have drawn from psychoanalysis to elucidate the effect of culture on individual consciousness. Moreover, concepts taken from German Lebensphilosophie, Weberian sociology, Piagetian psychology, French philosophy of science, phenomenology and existentialism have all been assimilated and critiqued by Western Marxists.
The epistemological principles of Marx's thought are an important theme for Western Marxism. In this regard, Western Marxists denigrate the theoretical contributions of Friedrich Engels's Anti-Dühring as a distortion of Marx. Engels advances a view of dialectics as a universal and scientific law of nature. The Western Marxists, by contrast, do not see Marxism as a general science, but as solely a theory of the cultural and historical structure of society.
Many Western Marxists believe the philosophical key to Marxism is found in the works of the Young Marx, where his encounters with Hegel, the Young Hegelians and Ludwig Feuerbach reveal what they see as the humanist core of Marxist theory. However, the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser, which attempts to purge Marxism of Hegelianism and humanism, also belongs to Western Marxism, as does the anti-Hegelian Marxism of Galvano Della Volpe. Althusser holds that Marx's primary philosophical antecedent is not Hegel or Feuerbach but Baruch Spinoza. Della Volpe claims that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a decisive precursor to Marx, while Della Volpe's pupil Lucio Colletti holds that the true philosophical predecessor to Marx is Immanuel Kant.
While Western Marxism is often contrasted with the Marxism of the Soviet Union, Western Marxists have been divided in their opinion of it and other Marxist–Leninist states. Some have offered qualified support, others have been highly critical of it and others still have held the former position at one point in time and the latter at another: Lukács, Gramsci and Della Volpe were members of Soviet-aligned parties; Korsch, Herbert Marcuse, and Guy Debord were inimical to Soviet Communism and instead advocated council communism; Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Althusser and Lefebvre were, at different periods, supporters of the Soviet-aligned Communist Party of France, but all would later become disillusioned with it; Ernst Bloch lived in and supported the Eastern Bloc, but lost faith in Soviet Communism towards the end of his life. Maoism and Trotskyism also influenced Western Marxism. Nicos Poulantzas, a later Western Marxist, was an advocate for Eurocommunism.
List of Western Marxists
- Louis Althusser
- Arguments Group
- Walter Benjamin
- Daniel Bensaïd
- Marshall Berman
- Ernst Bloch
- Bertolt Brecht
- Lucio Colletti
- Guy Debord
- Galvano Della Volpe
- Frankfurt School
- Lucien Goldmann
- André Gorz
- Antonio Gramsci
- Franz Jakubowski
- Fredric Jameson
- Alexandre Kojève
- Leo Kofler
- Karl Korsch
- Georg Lukács
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty
- Antonio Negri
- Georges Politzer
- Moishe Postone
- Nicos Poulantzas
- Wilhelm Reich
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Socialisme ou Barbarie
- Alfred Sohn-Rethel
- Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez
- Jean-Marie Vincent
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- Jay 1984, p. 2-3.
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