Exploring the high moments and small mountain roads of Marxism

The discovery of a wondrous continent is what it felt like when some of us connected with Michael Löwy, a remarkable revolutionary Marxist intellectual and activist—himself a blend of Austrian Jew, Brazilian, and Parisian, seeming to reach out to the world in all directions, an outstanding modern-day representative of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International. Those expecting adherence to Marxist “orthodoxy” are, however, bound to be disappointed. 

Orthodoxy, if understood as a closed system, is an approximation of death—and it is absolutely alien to the fabulous cultural and intellectual convergence that one finds in Michael Löwy’s writings, where Lenin and Trotsky rub elbows with Rosa Luxemburg and Che Guevara, mingling with Georg Lukács and Ernst Bloch, not to mention Antonio Gramsci, José Carlos Mariátegui, Walter Benjamin . . . and innumerable unorthodox others. 

In his preface to this volume, the author tells us that, “These essays have only a fragmentary character and do not at all present a systematic picture of this pluralist growth of the Marxist political philosophy or of its dialectical (contradictory) development.” He likens the collection, instead, to revisiting “some high moments of the revolutionary tradition” and also to following “some small mountain roads” within that tradition. He clearly hopes it will be of use for those who are intent “on changing the world.”

Eight of the essays focus on central aspects of the revolutionary Marxist tradition. The relationship between the French Revolution of 1789–94 and the revolutionary thought of Karl Marx is explored in all its complexity in “‘The Poetry of the Past’: Marx and the French Revolution.” The succinct and illuminating “Rosa Luxemburg’s Conception of ‘Socialism or Barbarism’” suggests that one of Luxemburg’s many contributions to Marxist thought involves an emphasis on “the very principle of historical choice, the very principle of ‘open’ history.” 

“Workers of all countries unite!” was the most famous slogan of the Communist Manifesto—but how does one harmonize this elemental internationalism with the complex realities of nation-states, ethnicity, and nationalism in the modern world? The way that a variety of Marxists wrestled with this is the focal-point of the seminal discussion of “Marxists and the National Question.” Yet another seminal essay is “From the ‘Logic’ of Hegel to the Finland Station in Petrograd.” Here we see the shock of the Socialist International’s moral and political collapse of the face of the First World War forcing Lenin to rethink his Marxism—through an engagement with Hegelian dialectics—helping reconceptualize revolutionary possibilities in 1917.  

Dovetailing with this are two other essays—“The First Revolution of the Twentieth Century” (reviewing an outstanding study of early twentieth-century Russia, The Roots of Otherness, by historian-sociologist Teodor Shanin) and “The Marxism of Results and Prospects” (concisely covering ground explored in his 1981 classic The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development). Both deal with the nature of the Russian Revolution, reflecting uneven and combined development and permanent revolution. In the first of these, Löwy appreciatively describes what some Marxists might see as Shanin’s “heretical” discussion of the peasantry as an anti-capitalist and truly revolutionary force, and even Trotsky (far more than Lenin) comes in for criticism here.

To some extent also fitting into the “mainstream” category are the essays “Gramsci and Lukács” and “Revolutionary Dialectics against ‘Tailism’: Lukács’s Answer to Criticisms of History and Class Consciousness.” Both Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukács are considered foundational figures in what has become known as “Western Marxism,” often portrayed as a philosophically and culturally oriented Marxism divorced from practical politics, particularly the Communist and working-class movements. As Löwy correctly emphasizes, however, while each was steeped in Hegelian philosophy, both were Hegelian Leninists, in the leadership of the Communist parties of Italy and Hungary respectively, immersed in the development of working-class struggle. Focusing especially on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and on Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (and secondarily on the recently discovered Tailism and the Dialectic), he argues that both have much in common. While his political respect tilts more towards Gramsci, he shows that both are well worth reading for those interested in changing the world.

The remaining ten essays in this volume constitute what the author alludes to as “small mountain roads”—byways less traveled within the Marxist tradition. These include presumably “reactionary” romanticism, utopianism, religion, and a rejection of progress. Here we find multiple references to figures in the heretical margins of those identifying with Marxism: Ernst Bloch, Herbert Marcuse, Lucien Goldmann, most especially Walter Benjamin, as well as such decidedly non-Marxist figures as Max Weber and Hannah Arendt (intimate critics of Marxism whose insights may open new pathways of Marxist thought). Löwy’s Marxism involves not simply eloquent reaffirmation, but also insistence on critical renewal—pushing against certitudes, against traditional understandings, to find new ways of understanding the basics of Marxism and to apply those revitalized basics in ways enabling us to engage with more of the complexities that swirl around and within us. 

Especially revealing is Löwy’s shift regarding the philosophical-cultural current known as Romanticism – which he characterizes in an outstanding essay (“Marxism and Revolutionary Romanticism”) as the nostalgia for precapitalist societies and a cultural critique of capitalism (and, one might add, an emphasis on emotion rather than intellect). He previously viewed this backward-looking orientation as the opposite of “forward-looking” Marxism, which is grounded in the Enlightenment conceptions of reason and progress. But he came to an understanding that romantic thought was no less essential to Marx’s own orientation, and it has become crucial for Löwy’s as well. The way Marx affirms the democratic culture and polis of ancient Athens, and the cultures of “pre-civilized” peoples who he became aware of through the work of early anthropologists, brings an awareness that “from a human viewpoint and compared with communities of the past, industrial capitalist civilization is in some respects a decline.” The notion among Marxists of inevitable progress, shared with procapitalist triumphalists, must give way to “the revolutionary-romantic dimension of Marxism,” which means “enriching the socialist perspective of the future with the lost heritage of the past, with the previous treasure of communal, cultural, ethical, and social qualitative values, submerged since the advent of capitalism in the ‘glacial waters of egotist calculation.’” Löwy’s quote is taken from the Communist Manifesto, more commonly translated into English as “the icy waters of egotistical calculation.” 

Similar challenges are offered in the other “small mountain road” essays, for example this from “Marxism and the Utopian Vision”:

Scientific socialism must once again become utopian by drawing its inspiration from the “Principle of Hope” (Bloch) that resides in the struggles, dreams, and aspirations of millions of oppressed and exploited, “the defeated of history,” from Jan Hus and Thomas Münzer [martyred Christian-communist revolutionaries of fifteenth and sixteenth centuries] up to the soviets of 1917–19 in Europe and the 1936–37 collectives in Barcelona. On this level it is even more indispensable to open the door of Marxist thought wide to the gamut of intuitions about the future, from the utopian socialists of yesterday to the romantic critics of industrial civilization and from the dreams of Fourier to the libertarian ideals of anarchism.

Rule by the people can only be consistently fought for, and ultimately won, by the working class majority, which must take political power to make it so. The implications of working-class political power necessarily go in the direction of a socialist transition. This struggle must cross borders if it is not to be defeated, and it must triumph worldwide if socialism is to become a reality. And for any of this to be possible, revolutionary activists must be animated by the creative, critical-minded, outward-reaching, life-affirming approach infusing the essays in On Changing the World