The Real World of Ideology, Joe McCarney 1980

Chapter 4
Traditions in Marxism

THIS essay began with an attempt to state the essentials of Marx’s conception of ideology. It was argued that they are best captured in the formula that ideology is thought which serves class interests. The same idea was found to be central in the work of Lenin and Lukács, and was there developed and applied in ways that justify speaking of a single, evolving tradition. It is one which, in view of its membership, may reasonably be accorded a classic status within Marxist treatments of the subject. The formula was proposed as having the merit of fixing the notion in its place within the theory of class struggle. It can stand for the recognition that sets of ideas have ideological significance only in so far as they bring values to bear on the institutions and practices that are the site and the instruments of that struggle. The classic texts were drawn on to develop some models in terms of which this process may be understood. They served to suggest a distinction between a mode of operation that is ‘semantic’ in character and one that is ‘syntactic’, between cases where what is ideological is part of the meaning of particular elements and cases where it shows itself in their configuration and is enforced by formal analogy with the structures of the social world. The discussion was conducted against the background of a contrast between the classical position and some others that also lie under the umbrella of ‘Marxism’. The contrast has an obvious chronological aspect: the alternatives were worked out after the close of Lenin’s active career and the publication of History and Class Consciousness (1923).

There are two distinct directions in which one must look in the later period, towards philosophy on the one hand and towards the theory of society on the other. In philosophy the significance of the notion of ideology has been primarily epistemological. It has been used to theorize certain cognitive states which have the social world as their object, but fail in one way or another to apprehend its true character. A typical expression of this tendency is the reliance on a dichotomy of ‘the ideological’ and ‘the scientific’. In social theory ideology has come to serve as the focal point for a number of problems. It has been used to raise general questions about the social determination of ideas, about the nature of class consciousness, and about the sources of the cohesion of human societies. Taken together, the two directions of development involve a considerable modification and expansion of the original concept and its release from the specific context on which its sense depended. They can derive so little inspiration or support from the classical position that one is forced to recognize a serious discontinuity here. The impression of an organic connection can be sustained only through the systematic misreading of key texts, backed by the practice of assertion on a large scale. The consequence of all this is a considerable region of theoretical confusion and nullity in recent Marxist treatments of the subject. In pointing to it one has also to recognize the strength of the pressures that have brought it about. It would be extraordinary if the way in which the concept of ideology has changed were an accidental or isolated phenomenon. It is natural to look instead for some larger pattern in the development of Marxist thought into which it may befitted. An appropriate one seems recently to have been provided ready-made in Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism.[1] Its attractions are such that one may be tempted to say at once that the post-classical history of the concept in the realms of philosophy and social theory simply is the unfolding of its destiny within ‘Western Marxism’. The thesis of this essay would benefit if such a suggestion could be sustained and, incidentally, Anderson’s scheme of explanation should gain in substance and authority through being applied successfully in an important particular case. Before any of these advantages can be reaped, however, there is an irksome difficulty to be overcome. The process of doing so will shed some light both on the strengths and weaknesses of his scheme and on the general interpretation of our thesis.

The difficulty is that while History and Class Consciousness has been depicted here as a major text of the classical tradition, Anderson locates it firmly within the ‘Western Marxism’ of which Lukács is taken to be a representative figure. His initial approach to the distinction is made through certain ‘generational and geographical’ criteria. Lukács does not fit them neatly, having been born earlier. and further cast, than some members of the classical group. These, however, could only be minor anomalies, and in any case, the criteria themselves represent merely a first approximation to the theme:

The historical dates and geographical distribution of ‘Western Marxism’ provide the preliminary formal framework for situating it within the evolution of socialist thought as a whole, it remains to identify the specific substantive traits which define and demarcate it as an integrated tradition.[2]

It is when one comes to consider these ‘specific traits’ that serious misgivings arise. The ‘first and most fundamental’ of them ‘has been the structural divorce of this Marxism from political practice’.[3] This scarcely seems an apt description of the situation of the younger Lukács who, as Anderson notes, was a Deputy People’s Commissar in the Hungarian Soviet Republic, fought with its revolutionary army, and played a leading role in the Hungarian Communist Party in the twenties, briefly becoming its general secretary in 1928.[4] It was only from 1929 onwards that he ‘ceased to be a political militant, confining himself to literary criticism and philosophy in his intellectual work’.[5]A second defining feature of the tradition which seems hardly more appropriate to his case is its ‘consistent pessimism’: ‘The hidden hallmark of Western Marxism as a whole is ... that it is a product of defeat’.[6] ‘Its major works’, Anderson asserts, ‘were, without exception, produced in situations of political isolation and despair’, and he goes on at once in illustration of this: ‘Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (1923) was written in exile in Vienna, while white terror raged in Hungry after the suppression of the Hungarian Commune.’[7] Even as a thumbnail sketch this is highly tendentious, Lukács’s own testimony strongly suggests that he was suffering at the time neither from isolation nor despair. On the contrary:

As a member of the inner collective of Communism I was active in helping to work out a new ‘left-wing’ political and theoretical line. It was based on the belief, very much alive at the time, that the great revolutionary wave that would soon sweep the whole world, or Europe at the very least, to socialism, had in no way been broken by the setbacks in Finland, Hungary and Munich. Events like the Kapp Putsch, the occupation of the factories in Italy, the Polish-Soviet War and even the March Action, strengthened our belief in the imminence of world revolution and the total transformation of the civilised world.[8]

There seems no good reason for doubting this account: it has been generally accepted by people who knew him well and by later scholars.[9] Moreover, the internal evidence of the text itself is unequivocal and, surely, decisive. Pessimism is almost the last attribute one would naturally associate with it, and indeed its characteristic defects stem rather, as we have seen, from a surfeit of the opposite.[10] It seems reasonable to suggest at this point that some adjustment needs to be made in Anderson’s scheme.

An obvious possibility, which is supported by many of the details of his discussion, is that one’s sense of the chronology needs to be revised. That is to say, the critical time for the origins of ‘Western Marxism’ should be shifted deeper into the interwar period, clearly postdating History and Class Consciousness. This looks like a step in the right direction. It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that it could be taken without affecting the rest of the analysis. The discussion of Lukács’s case has methodological implications also: in particular it sheds an unfavourable light on Anderson’s tendency to rely on lists of major figures to enforce the distinctions he requires.[11] This leaves the impression that the primary unit of the scheme is the individual ‘career’, treated as a homogeneous entity. Taken together a cluster of contemporaneous careers forms a ‘generation’, and two or more generations are apt to be considered a ‘tradition’. The result, in a curious echo of old-fashioned styles of bourgeois historiography, is a somewhat rigid and unwieldy framework that seems ill-suited to coping with the fluidity of historical process and movement. It most tend to abstract from the significance of those events in the public realm that are always liable to cut across the careers of individuals; disrupting, reshaping, crowning or untimely terminating them, and creating as they do so new patterns of continuity and discontinuity within and across generations. It is not difficult, at least at the level of explanation that concerns us here, to see what are the developments of this kind that shape the emergence of post-classical Marxism. Anderson draws attention to them again and again: in this respect his narrative is better than, and works against, his taxonomy. The general background is constituted by ‘the failure of proletarian revolutions in the advanced zones of European capitalism after the First World War’.[12] The rise of Fascism and Stalinism are the specific mediations that are decisive for our theme. Their significance is illustrated in the way Lukács was forced out of active party politics by growing Stalinist pressures in the late twenties, and then into exile in the Soviet Union by the Nazi victory in Germany. It emerges also in Anderson’s account of how the members of the Frankfurt Institute, the quintessential ‘Western Marxists’, were driven by the same circumstances into exile in the opposite direction and into an ever deepening retreat from active politics.[13] His feeling for the essentials of the story is further shown when going beyond the more formal attributes of the tradition to characterize its distinctive preoccupations and subject matter. The first point to be noted is ‘a basic shift in the whole centre of gravity of European Marxism towards philosophy[14] and, specifically, ‘a marked predominance of epistemological work’.[15] When ‘Western Marxism’ did proceed ‘beyond questions of method to matters of substance’ it ‘came to concentrate overwhelmingly on study of superstructures’.[16] Here too the influence of the basic determinants is made quite clear:

In the absence of the magnetic pole of a revolutionary class movement, the needle of the whole tradition tended to swing increasingly away towards contemporary bourgeois culture. The original relationship between Marxist theory and proletarian practice was subtly but steadily substituted by a new relationship between Marxist theory and bourgeois theory.[17]

Hence it is that one encounters

the studied silence of Western Marxism in those areas most central to the classical traditions of historical materialism: scrutiny of the economic laws of motion of capitalism as a mode of production, analysis of the political machinery of the bourgeois state, strategy of the class struggle necessary to overthrow it.[18]

Gramsci is, as Anderson remarks, ‘the single exception to this rule’,[19] the last Western Marxist thinker ‘to broach central issues of class struggle directly in his writings’.[20] This point will have to be taken up later. For the present we may simply note that the circle of traits defining ‘Western Marxism’ is now complete: it is comprised of a remoteness from political practice, a pervasive pessimism, and a theoretical concentration on epistemological and superstructural questions.

The ease with which the case of ideology fits into this account hardly needs, in the light of the preceding discussion, to be expatiated on at length. The disengagement from the theory of class struggle described by Anderson left the notion free to embark on a fresh career, and the pressure of the new interests he cites ensured that it would do so. When Marxist thinkers became preoccupied with questions of epistemology and with theorizing the superstructure of bourgeois society, it was natural that they should turn for help in devising the necessary tools of inquiry to the classical writers, and especially to Marx. As he had never had the opportunity to develop a sustained interest in either field, it was a meagre inheritance on which to draw. Among the small stock of concepts with some semblance of eligibility, ideology had a prominent place. Obviously, it had in Marx’s usage something ‘superstructural’ about it. When this sense is reified and drained of its specificity the concept becomes available for new tasks, to theorize a formation of the superstructure or the place within it of consciousness in general. Moreover, as our discussion has shown, circumstances combined to give the original idea other kinds of potential. The failure to register the real significance of Marx’s interest in ideological error, together with a fetishized use of Engels’s remarks about ‘false consciousness’, provided the impetus needed to transform it into a category of epistemology. These developments, as Anderson’s account would suggest, occur in the context of a growing interaction with bourgeois theory. In that sphere, once the concept had been assimilated, the dominance of sociological and epistemological themes was wholly to be expected, not least in view of their usefulness for drawing the teeth of the original Marxist doctrine.[21] Thus it was that the concept of ideology came to acquire the theoretical burdens with which this essay has been concerned. As Anderson’s discussion would also lead one to expect, they have not been cheerfully borne. The pessimism of which he speaks is as marked here as elsewhere, finding perhaps its most developed expression in Althusser’s insistence that even a communist society cannot escape the imaginary, distorted, ideological relationship.[22]

It seems fair to conclude that Considerations on Western Marxism offers many important elements of the framework of historical understanding our theme requires. It should be added, however, that, even at the level of a preliminary conceptualization, the actual framework it contains is in need of some theoretical modification and enrichment. The need arises in large part from a curious feature of the work, the extent of its ‘studied silence’ on the question of the dialectic. The few references to it are entirely casual, and simply represent enforced acknowledgements of the concerns of the subjects of the discussion.[23] Such a treatment altogether fails to do justice to the significance it had for most of these thinkers. For the rest the silence is complete, even where its effect is unnatural, as in the attempts to draw up the unfinished agenda of Marxist thought.[24] The suspicion that it reflects the fact that the question does not loom very large in Anderson’s view of things is, unfortunately, supported by his methodology. The barren and ossified character of the taxonomy is again significant here. A dialectical approach must surely sweep away the schematism of careers and generations, so as to allow the shape of the conceptual field to reflect directly the fate of the socialist movement within the totality of the historical process. The dangers of hypostatized categories need no further emphasis in this essay so far as ideology is concerned.[25] It has been shown that the tendency is a characteristic weakness of the post-classical literature on the subject. But the dialectic is not simply involved here as a source of reminders of the need to preserve fluid categories. The discussion has also noted a familiar sense in which the specifically dialectical quality of the concept of ideology has to be borne in mind. This sense arises from its role in theorizing the dynamic processes of conflict and contradiction that constitute the class struggle in the realm of ideas. It is a role which has to be grasped in a spirit different from that of Anderson’s approach and, indeed, it is only within a dialectical perspective that his specific insights can be made to yield their full significance.

These issues may be taken a stage further by looking more closely at a particularly interesting and ambiguous figure in his account. The recognition that Gramsci took no part in the retreat from the theory of class struggle has already been noted, and his position is anomalous in other ways also. He was ‘the one major theorist in the West who was not a philosopher but a politician’.[26] Moreover, his case ‘symbolizes, in its very exception, the historical rule that governed (the) general retreat of theory from classical Marxist parlance’,[27] and, unlike the other major representatives of ‘Western Marxism’, ‘the primary object of his theoretical enquiry was not the realm of art’.[28] The scale of these qualifications is enough to suggest that in a more flexible scheme he would be accepted as a transitional or intermediary figure, rather than assigned to a category to most of whose constituting rules he is an exception. Such an acceptance would allow recognition of the genuine affinities he does possess with ‘Western Marxism’. Thus, his personal fate illustrates, in the most dramatic way, the impact of Fascism on the working-class movement. His intellectual work was ‘unremittingly centred on superstructural objects’, and achievement in this field is usually taken to be the chief source of his importance as a theorist. It is true, however, that, as Anderson goes on to point out, the field was treated by him in a distinctive way: ‘unlike any other theorist in Western Marxism he took the autonomy and efficacy of cultural superstructures as a political problem, to be explicitly theorized as such – in its relationship to the maintenance or subversion of the social order’.[29] To say this is just to acknowledge once more the central fact of his continued commitment to issues of class struggle. The point that is now emerging is the conventional one that his achievement lay in pursuing the theoretical implications of these issues into areas untouched by Marx or Lenin, but which are vital for revolutionary strategy in advanced capitalist societies. In accepting it, there is another complication to be borne in mind, one that testifies again to the way he straddles the two worlds of Marxism. For his case is not simply one of the extension or novel application of classical themes. They now appear bathed, as it were, in a different light: everything falls under the rubric to which he was so partial of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.[30] However this is glossed, it could not naturally serve to encapsulate the views of Marx or Lenin. They had their moments of personal doubt, or even despair, but their characteristic doctrine can only properly be described as one of an optimism of the intellect and of the will: its central thrust is always towards the laying of rational foundations for the goal of the socialist society. Gramsci’s slogan signifies the beginnings of the transformation of this position into a species of stoicism, a process that was to establish the characteristic tone of voice of ‘Western Marxism’ as a whole. The stance it expresses is an honourable and, in some ways, an attractive one, but it is not that of the classical writers.

The scattered references to ideology in the Prison Notebooks bear the marks of this complex background. The reader is, for much of the time, in a familiar world, borne along by the pressure of an obvious and vivid concern with questions of class struggle, and reassured by the standard imagery of ‘ideological weapons’ and ‘the ideological front’.[31] Much of what is usually regarded as Gramsci’s distinctive theoretical contribution poses no special problem either. Thus, the difficult notion of ‘hegemony’ may be taken as embodying, among other things, a recognition of the pervasive character of bourgeois ideology, and the need to combat it at a multiplicity of levels. As such it represents a theoretical refinement of insights which, as was remarked earlier, are already present in Marx’s writings on contemporary history.[32] As against all this, however, one has to set the influence of the specifically ‘Western Marxist’ dimension of the text. It shows itself in the first place in the familiar shape of a tendency towards conceptual inflation and reification. Here, for instance, one should note the conception of the way in which ideology ‘serves to cement and to unify’ an ‘entire social bloc’.[33] The image of ideology as social cement was to be found deeply congenial in later Marxism, and an instance of its use has been noted in discussing the work of Poulantzas.[34] Still more interesting, however, is the way in which the dual character of the new concerns is reflected in Gramsci’s argument. It is caught, for instance, in the comment, on the 1859 ‘Preface’, that ‘the thesis which asserts that men become conscious of fundamental conflicts on the level of ideology is not psychological or moralistic in character, but structural and epistemological’.[35] The claim that the significance of ideology is structural and epistemological could hardly be improved on as a statement of what is distinctive in the post-classical treatment of the subject. But here one must again heed his own warning against reading too much into ‘single casual affirmations and isolated aphorisms’. A solider significance may be attached to his more extended discussion of the development of usage in this area. Gramsci remarks that ‘the meaning which the term “ideology” has assumed in Marxist philosophy implicitly contains a negative value judgement’. He goes on to explain that in this sense ‘every ideology is “pure” appearance, useless, stupid, etc.’. His own preferences emerge by contrast in the insistence that ideology ‘must be analyzed historically, in terms of the philosophy of praxis as a superstructure’. From such a standpoint the fact that ‘the bad sense of the word has become widespread’ is unfortunate: the effect is that ‘the theoretical analysis of the concept of ideology has been modified and denatured’.[36] This discussion is interesting in a number of ways. There is, in the first place, the implication that ‘the bad sense’ was not something integral to Marxist philosophy from the beginning, but an aspect of a development that had come to fruition by the time of writing. There is, moreover, the recognition, which is as clear as the cryptic manner of the Prison Notebooks allows, of the contrast between the use of the term for epistemological purposes, as denoting ‘pure’ appearance, and for those of social theory, in the analysis of a superstructure. Most significantly perhaps, there is the suggestion that these two uses cannot easily be held harmoniously together.

Here again one can hardly fail to be struck by the prophetic and cautionary value of Gramsci’s work. Many later commentators have believed that there is indeed a problem in reconciling the two kinds of requirement within the category of ideology. It has been thought that its epistemological status must carry with it commitments that will prove embarrassing for the analysts of superstructures to try to satisfy, and that the same will be true in reverse for the epistemologists when it comes to fixing social correlates for their distinctions. Since, as this essay has tried to show, the association of either set of ambitions with the classical Marxist view of ideology is a fundamental error, it stands in no danger from their supposed lack of coherence. Nevertheless, the assumption that it is inescapably involved in some such tension is widespread inside and outside ‘Marxism’. Thus, one finds Althusser attributing some of the blame for his earlier ‘theoreticism’ to the influence of the equivocal notion of ideology that appears in The German Ideology, ‘where one and the same term plays two different roles, designating a philosophical category on the one hand (illusion, error), and a scientific concept on the other (formation of the superstructure)’.[37] In view of this, there is a measure of irony in the fact that some well-disposed critics find the same equivocation in his own thought, early and late: ‘there is an ongoing coexistence of – and perhaps an irresolvable tension between – ideology conceived as the epistemological antithesis to science-in-general and conceived as an intrinsic element of the structure or fabric of social formations’.[38] The sense of the uneasy relationship between the social and the epistemological in the classical Marxist treatment of ideology has been expressed by other writers within a quite different perspective. Raymond Williams concludes a discussion of the position of Marx and Engels by remarking that ‘ “ideology” then hovers between a system of beliefs characteristic of a certain class” and “a system of illusory beliefs – false ideas or false consciousness – which can be contrasted with true or scientific knowledge"’, and he adds: ‘This uncertainty was never really resolved.’[39] The difficulty perceived here is dealt with sympathetically by Williams, but in other hands the belief in the unresolved uncertainty supplies the grounds for a wholesale dismissal of the classical Marxist achievement. It may be useful to illustrate this tendency more fully.

A central plank in Martin Seliger’s discussion is the attribution to Marx and Engels of a ‘restrictive’, ‘dogmatic’, ‘pejorative’, ‘truth-excluding’ use of the term ‘ideology’; its identification with ‘the falsifying presentation of reality’.[40] Its other main plank is the assumption that ‘the Marxist theory of ideology ... embodies the central hypotheses offered by Marxism for the understanding of social life’.[41] The chief vehicle of this understanding on Seliger’s account is a social determinism which is constantly assumed, though never satisfactorily defined. Ideology is said to be identified by Marxism with socially determined consciousness,[42] and the specific agent of the determination is variously acknowledged as ‘class’, ‘class interests’, ‘class structure’, and ‘economic and social conditions (and the relationship between them)’.[43] He then tries to show that the two planks will not fit neatly together; that, for instance, it is ‘untenable to identify ideology with distorted consciousness and to ascribe it to the belief system of a certain class alone’.[44] He further argues that the tension between the epistemological commitment and the requirements of social explanation was felt by the founders themselves: ‘it is safe to assume that Marx could not abide by his dogmatic conception of ideology, because he believed in the possibility of an adequate social science, his social science, and thus found it difficult to judge all existing social science, let alone the natural sciences, in terms of a falsified and falsifying superstructure’.[45] Hence it is that one has to allow for constant, thought always unacknowledged, ‘deviations’ from the official doctrine on the part of both Marx and Engels. The process of drawing it ‘into the orbit of an empirically tenable theory of ideology’ was continued by Lukács, again without any acknowledgment of the significance of what was taking place.[46] In the meantime, Lenin, under the pressures of practical needs, had broken completely with the dogmatic sense, and begun to speak of ideology in an ‘inclusive’, ‘non-pejorative’ way.[47] This too was accomplished without any hint that the original doctrine was being abandoned. Thus, the picture that emerges of the classical Marxist treatment of ideology is of a medley of disparate elements, given a semblance of unity by the bland assumption or dogmatic assertion of loyalty and continuity, but inherently liable to fly apart at the touch of analysis.

It will by now be clear that every important element in this picture is misconceived. At the heart of it is the familiar, gratuitous assumption that classical Marxism identifies ideology with ‘the falsifying presentation of reality’. Moreover, the suggestion that the theory of ideology embodies its central hypotheses for understanding social life involves a gross error of scale, which flows in this case from the particular mistaken belief that that it also seeks to identify ideology with socially determined consciousness. As classical Marxism is involved in neither of these identifications, it escapes the difficulties of trying to reconcile them, and attacks on them, whether they are taken singly or together, leave it wholly unscathed. What must be emphasized here is that one is dealing not with figments of an individual imagination but with representative features of a whole climate of misunderstanding that has come to envelop Marxist and non-Marxist commentators alike. The exemplary point of Seliger’s discussion lies just in the way it manages to crystallize so many significant kinds of error and confusion. An attempt has been made in this chapter to suggest the outlines of an explanation of how such a climate could develop in the course of the transition to post-classical Marxism. A great deal of work remains to be done in order to arrive at a fully satisfactory account. For the present one can only insist on the need to dispel the fog, so as to allow the true shape of an important area of intellectual history to be apprehended.

For Marxists the task is yet more pressing, if they are to achieve an adequate sense of the resources afforded by their intellectual inheritance and of the continuing responsibilities it imposes. When the fog is lifted it becomes possible to see that the classical treatment of ideology has an austere kind of continuity. It emerges as a concept with a simple, coherent structure and a limited, though strategic, role in the theory of class struggle. That body of theory is itself central to a Marxist understanding of pre-socialist societies. As such it has constantly to be reviewed in the light of the lessons of praxis. In every historical conjuncture the questions arise of what precisely it has to offer, of how it needs to be developed or modified, and of what can be sustained of the spirit of rational optimism in which it was originally framed. Such questions have as much urgency as ever at the present time. An unfortunate consequence of the systematic distortion surrounding the topic of ideology is that it tends to mask their significance, and makes it harder for them to be posed in complete clarity. Nevertheless, they constitute, together with the more specifically philosophical question highlighted earlier in this discussion of the precise nature of the materialist dialectic, a large part of the programme confronting Marxist thought.

This might be described as a programme of a return to origins; one whose character is fixed by the problems that continue to be posed by the classical literature. Hence, it would be appropriate for attempts to implement it to take their starting points directly from the creators of that literature. Above all, it should involve a return to Marx, still the least understood of those figures. This essay has tried to show something of the resources of his thought, but in philosophy its fertilizing power has hardly begun to be seriously exploited. It is a situation which is due, in part, to the fact that it has so seldom received the kind of patient, rational exegesis given to other major thinkers as a matter of course. It seems natural to suppose that in the context of Britain the attempt to improve matters should be able to make some use of insights and achievements of the linguistic and analytical tradition. The practice of scrupulous, detailed inquiry is, after all, often thought to be its stock-in-trade. Besides, in some areas the issue of relevance is in little doubt: the student of dialectic can hardly afford to ignore its work in the philosophy of logic and of mind and action. A naive observer might even suppose that from the standpoint of that tradition Marx would appear as a not wholly uncongenial figure. Some qualities in his thought may suggest a curious kind of affinity; as, for instance, its love of the concrete and antipathy to metaphysical speculation, its sceptical realism and caution about exceeding the resources of the argument. Even such less attractive features as the relentless verbal wrangling of the earlier, polemical works do not tell against the suggestion. In fact, of course, little fruitful interaction has taken place: relations have been marked on each side by hostility or condescension. It is true that Marxists can hardly be blamed if the virtues of the analytical school have not been clearly visible to them. For it has consistently turned its least attractive face in their direction. This is in part a consequence of the general tendency for the ‘linguistic analysts’, in considering the ideas of a philosopher of the past, ‘to argue with this dead figure as if he were a colleague in their common-room’.[48] Such egalitarianism has its risks. As the simile suggests, it takes for granted that the argument is, so to speak, always conducted on the analysts’ home ground, and their interlocutor may suffer the complete loss of the context on which his individuality depends. Instead of a living exchange, one then gets a monologue aimed at a ghost. Moreover, the official – dispensing with the need for any discipline of historical imagination may tend to leave the analysts at the mercy of their preconceptions. It is, at any rate, true that some of the greatest figures in the history of thought have fared badly in these common-room encounters.[49] Marx hardly seems the most suitable of guests, and the commentaries on his work produced in the analytical tradition have indeed been marked by failure to respect its independent reality, or to come to terms with its self-conception of its existence, even as a prelude to rejection. They have suffered, that is to say, from the lack of a kind of basic seriousness that their undertaking requires. The consequences are pervasive and corrupting, and have been felt not least in a slipshod approach to matters of elementary scholarship.[50] In addition, one has occasionally to acknowledge the presence of an animus derived from objectives that are ideological in the sense with which this essay has been concerned. The consequence of all this is that some of the most widely-canvassed of such works are virtually worthless as commentaries on Marx. This failure has been obvious to thinkers who regard themselves as Marxists, and have some acquaintance with the power and solidity of his thought from the inside. Unfortunately, their rejection of the analytical movement has all too often led to an isolation from all practice of philosophy as such in this country, and thus from what is at least a potentially valuable source of techniques and controls. Instead there has developed a field of ‘Marxist theory’, with its own conventions governing significance and accomplishment. This is a natural response to a hostile environment, and it has allowed much interesting work to be done. But there has been a price to be paid. The autonomous character of the development has tended to go together with the sense of an audience exclusively of the converted. These circumstances have encouraged some strange forms of self-indulgence on the part of the theorists; a wilfulness in argument, at times even a certain deliberate outrageousness, qualities whose natural affinity is with quite other tendencies in the history of thought than classical Marxism. Moreover, the practice of autonomy works, as one might expect, so as to close the enterprise off from the mainstream of intellectual life: it means in effect the giving up of any ambition to take part in a hegemonic contest; that is, to engage fully in the class struggle in the field of theory. What does emerge is then in danger of being merely a hothouse growth, an exotic kept alive by artificially recreating the conditions of other climates. The will and resources needed for this can hardly be sustained indefinitely. The theory must be naturalized if it is to survive with any vigour, and in doing so it will have to enter into a critical and creative relationship with native strains of thought. Some of the omens for this now seem to be favourable, but it must be admitted that in philosophy the process of getting Marx to speak English has a long way to go.


1. P. Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, London, 1976, (hereafter referred to as CWM).

2. CWM, p. 29.

3. Loc. cit.

4. CWM, pp. 29-30.

5. CWM, p. 3 1.

6. CWM, p. 42.

7. CWM, p. 42-43.

8. HCC, p. XIII.

9. See, e.g., Lucien Goldmann’s essay ‘Reflections on History and Class Consciousness’ in I. Mészáros, (ed.), op. cit., p. 69, and G. H. R. Parkinson, Georg Lukács, London, 1977, p. 7.

10. See above, p. 57.

11. CWM, pp. 7-8,25-26.

12. CWM, p. 92.

13. CWM, pp. 32-34.

14. CWM, p. 49.

15. CWM, p. 93. See also pp. 52-53 and pp. 91-92, n.40.

16. CWM, p. 75.

17. CWM, p. 55.

18. CWM, pp. 44-45.

19. CWM, p. 45.

20. CWM, p. 75.

21. The key text here is Karl Mannheim’s Ideologie und Utopie, Bonn, 1929; published in English with additional material as Ideology and Utopia, London, 1936.

22. FM. pp. 231-36. See above. pp. 66-72, pp. 97-99.

23. CWM, see pp. 72,81,91.

24. CWM, pp. 101-06,113-2 1.

25. Perhaps the most striking use of such categories is in the argument purporting to show that the traditional understanding of ‘the unity of theory and practice’ needs to be qualified:

If the proper designation for Marxism is historical materialism, it must be above all – a theory of history. Yet history is – pre-eminently – the past ... The past. which cannot be amended or undone, can be known with greater certainty than the present, whose actions have yet to be done, and there is more of it. There will thus always remain an inherent scissiparity between knowledge and action, theory and practice, for any possible science of history.

CWM, pp. 109-10. It is of course true that the traditional view cannot be sustained unless it is understood as a specifically dialectical unity that is in question. The function of the dialectic is precisely to dissolve such abstract oppositions as that of ‘the past’ and ‘the present’ here. It would also, incidentally, act as a safeguard against the kind of ingenuousness that is displayed. Anderson labels his objection ‘insuperable’, and adds: ‘It is strange that it has not been made more frequently before.’ (CWM, p. 109). No doubt Lukács goes too far in defining ‘orthodox Marxism’ solely in terms of allegiance to the dialectical method, independently of any commitment to substantive theses (HCC, p. 1). The present case illustrates the opposite kind of danger, in showing that a radical conscience and an eye for the social determinants of ideas do not suffice to constitute a Marxist historiography.

26. CWM, p. 67. This point is acceptable so far as it goes, but a full discussion would have to take account of the importance for Gramsci of the idea that ‘the real philosopher is, and cannot be other than, the politician, the active man who modifies the environment, understanding by environment the ensemble of relations which each of us enters to take part in’. SPN, p. 352.

27. CWM, p. 54.

28. CWM, p. 77.

29. CWM, p. 78.

30. See, e.g., SPN, p. 175, n.75 and text corresponding.

31. SPN, pp. 388,432,433.

32. See above, pp. 6-7.

33. SPN, p. 328.

34. See above, p. 54.

35. SPN, p. 164.

36. SPN, p. 376.

37. ESC, p. 119.

38. WPCS, p. 103.

39. R. Williams, Marxism and Literature, Oxford, 1977, p. 66.

40. MCI, See, e.g., pp. 3,7,8,10,87. This point is not developed with much care or consistency by Seliger, and is sometimes stated in what seem to be gratuitously extreme forms. Thus at one point ‘Marx and Engels’s dogmatic conception of ideology’ is said to require that one ‘go on insisting that as a matter of principle all consciousness is false consciousness’, (p. 81). Elsewhere he seems to take the ‘false consciousness’ thesis as implying that ideology is constituted solely by propositional elements, each one of which has the truth value of falsity. See p. 142.

41. MCI, p. 202.

42. MCI, p. 76.

43. See, in sequence, pp. 77,7 and 157,166,126.

44. MCI, p. 22.

45. MCI, p. 143.

46. MCI, P. 118.

47. MCI, p. 107. See also pp. 81-94.

48. This description is from a discussion between Bryan Magee and Bernard Williams, The Listener, 9.3.78, p. 299. Its accuracy is accepted by Williams who goes on to defend the value of such an approach.

49. There is not space to document this fully here and, in any case, the worst excesses are now in the past. Something of the atmosphere of the common-room in those days is caught in the following anecdote by Anthony Kenny: ‘Some fifteen years ago I was invited by a publisher to write a textbook on Descartes. I was disinclined to do so. “Why do a book on Descartes?” I said to a friend who was a senior philosopher. “He writes well enough, but you could put his main ideas on the back of a postcard, and they are all wrong. He would not repay the effort of working through his writings."’ The Times Higher Educational Supplement, 14.4.78., p. 185. Fuller documentation is provided in a work in the ‘Philosophy Now’ series, Philosophy and its Past, by J. Wit, M. Ayers and A. Westoby, Hassocks, 1978.

50. Some examples should be given here. For Plamenatz, see Ch. 3, n.26. Egregious instances also occur in the writings of Karl Popper, perhaps the critic of Marx most admired within the analytical movement. Thus, in the anxiety to prove Marx an ‘historicist’, he cites the statement of the aim of Capital as being ‘to lay bare the economic law of motion of human society’, where the actual text reads ‘modern’ for ‘human’. (The Poverty of Historicism, London, 1961, p. 49. See Cap(i), p. 20). One should also note the ruthless use of selective quotations for the same end. Thus, he refers to the statement of ‘the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation’, while omitting the qualification that immediately follows it: ‘Like all other laws it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here.’ (The Open Society and its Enemies, vol(ii), London, 1952, p. 186. Cap(i), p. 603) See the discussion of these examples in W. A. Suchting, ‘Marx, Popper, and “Historicism”’, Inquiry, 15, Autumn, 1972, pp. 235-66.