From International Socialism (1st series), No.6, Autumn 1961, pp.31-32.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Marxism. An Historical and Critical Study
Marxists, priding themselves on their historical approach, have been reluctant, paradoxically, to examine the historical development of their own ideas. The reason for this is quite obvious: it results from the tendency to regard each Marxist classic as the holy writ, that cannot be improved upon or amended, and therefore cannot be seen as a partial view, set against the background of personal and historical limitations.
George Lichtheim, being a non-Marxist, has no such inhibitions. Yet he does not fall into the customary trap of anti-Marxists of attributing every misfortune, right from the Paris Commune to last week’s flu epedemic, to sinister red machinations. Instead, with a wealth of detail and commendable objectivity, he traces the development of ideas in their political context.
This leads to many startling discoveries and fresh insights. He lucidly shows the changing emphasis, indeed in some places flat contradiction, between Marx’s early philosophical writings and latter ones of Engels; the central role of Kautsky in the pre-1914 German Labour Movement; and the importance of Plechanov to Russian Social Democracy.
But all these points are made merely to support Lichtheim’s central thesis: namely, that Marxism, to use its own jargon, contains ‘the seeds of its own destruction’. The conditions that gave rise to it – the growing pains of industrial society – have now vanished, and with them has gone the relevance of Marxism. The confusion and fragmentation of the Left today are, to Lichtheim, simply indications of this fact.
Now personally I disagree with Lichtheim’s views. Undoubtedly Marxism is in a profound crisis, but I think it resembles that of Hegelians in the 1840s, when they divided into right and left Hegelian thinkers, those who strove to use their ideas in the interests of the state, to quell discontent, and those who sought to kindle the sparks of rebellion. To-day we have Marxism in Russia, employed to bolster a class society, while protest movements throughout the world, trying to abolish exploitation, increasingly use Marxist concepts.
So far nobody has analysed these conflicting trends sufficiently. Yet within, they contain the key to understanding our present epoch. And whenever anybody does come to examine them, they are sure to turn to Lichtheim’s book, stimulating, provoking – and a challenge to all who consider themselves Marxists.
Last updated: 21 February 2010