MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms


Immanent Critique

Immanent critique is the practice of criticising a theory “from inside,” that is, by basing itself on the same premises as the theory which is being criticised.

Though the term was introduced by Georg Lukācs in 1923, immanent critique was originated by Hegel in 1807. In the case of each of the sciences which Hegel critiqued, his starting point was to identify the concept which was fundamental concept of the science, from which all the subordinate concepts could be successively unfolded. This starting point may not be universally recognised, but is demonstrated by the immanent critique itself. This fundamental concept arises from outside the science which grows up in the effort to understand that concept and what it represents and all its subordinate phenomena.

Because Marxists conceive of sciences and theories as practices, rather than as ideal formations, Marxists generally aim to discover the founding conception in the social position and relevant social practices of proponents of the theory. The idea of a theory having social roots however must not be exaggerated, as any theory or social practice worthy of critique will inevitably have universal significance. Denunciation of a theory as expressive of a non-proletarian outlook fails as an internal critique if it is not recognised as such and embraced by the relevant class.

Hegel began his critique of philosophy with the concept of Being. Hegel showed how Philosophy itself had originated historically with the Eleatics (c. 500 BCE) who declared “Being is everything.” Hegel progressed his critique by showing that to be philosophically coherent and consistent the concept of Being, understood as the starting point of philosophy, must be empty, and thus identical with the concept of Nothing. Thus began his critique of Logic and philosophy as a whole. His critique of Natural Science begins with the concept of Space, his critique of Social Science begins with concept of Freedom. At each stage, Hegel demonstrates the internal contradiction and in general the limits to the generalisation of a concept and uncovers a concept or set of concepts which resolves that contradiction. Thus Hegel’s dialectic is both negative (in exposing the limitations of a concept) and positive (in generating new, more concrete concepts). This is the aim of immanent critique – not to disprove a theory, but rather to show where it rationally leads to.

Immanent critique can only be practised where there is a relatively coherent theory which is the target and a shared field of agreed fact against which the validity of the critique can be demonstrated. For this reason present-day conservative thinking does not offer a very fruitful target of critique, as compared for example, to the founding figures of bourgeois thought such as Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek or even John Rawls. Every theory generates its own version of the facts, as Thomas Kuhn demonstrated in relation of Scientific Revolutions, so finding agreement on facts is difficult even in the most favourable conditions. The Correspondence Principle first used by Einstein and then in Quantum Mechanics, requires that a new theory must validate in its own terms the description of the facts as given in the old theory.

An important part of immanent critique is making sense of the actual historical evolution of a science or theory. This helps to identify and clarify what are the central concepts of the theory and strip away those concepts which have not withstood internal critique. Any science or theory worthy of the name is continuously subject to immanent critique by its own adherents – this is the dynamic which drives the historical development of any theory. The concept of “immanent critique” is relevant when a writer who stands outside the theory and its institutions makes a critique: instead of dogmatically rejecting the premises of the target institution, the critic accepts those premises but shows that properly understood they lead to different conclusions.

Marx’s chief project was the critique of political economy, and Capital begins with his examination of the concept of value which he took to be the fundamental concept of political economy. When Marx uses the term “political economist,” though, he means the capitalists themselves, and he takes the economists to be expressing the practices of the capitalists in theoretical form, in which it could be subject to criticism.

Citing Hegel’s Introduction to the Encyclopaedia (§15), Lukācs first used the term in History and Class Consciousness, where he argued that the working class has, immanent within its condition of life, the necessity to organise to fight for its class interests and that this struggle inevitably leads to Socialism.

The idea was also embraced by Karl Korsch and subsequently became the leit motif of the Frankfurt School – Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and their more recent figures like Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth.

With the Frankfurt School, also known as ‘Critical Theory’, immanent critique has been marked by critique of other political theorists, philosophers and sociologists as well as their own predecessors in the Frankfurt School. This critique has been used to ‘appropriate’ the theoretical gains of other writers, thus building a more general and powerful theory without falling into eclecticism.

In this way, immanent critique can become an important means of unification on the Left, leading to broader and more coherent practice, rather than an eclectic kind of rainbow alliance.


Immediate knowledge

Knowledge gained without proof, by a direct contemplation of truth, as distinct from discursive knowledge (mediated knowledge) which is always mediated by the data of experience and by logical reasoning. Immediate knowledge may be sensuous experience or a priori, intuitive knowledge.



An advanced stage of capitalism, attained by some nations in the 20th-century.

The epoch of imperialism opens when the expansion of colonialism has covered the globe and no new colonies can be acquired by the great powers except by taking them from each other, and the concentration of capital has grown to a point where finance capital becomes dominant over industrial capital. Lenin enumerated the following five features characteristic of the epoch of imperialism:

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopoly capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.
[Lenin, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, LCW Volume 22, p. 266-7.]

"The development of capitalism has arrived at a stage when, although commodity production still "reigns" and continues to be regarded as the basis of economic life, it has in reality been undermined and the bulk of the profits go to the "geniuses" of financial manipulation. At the basis of these manipulations and swindles lies socialized production; but the immense progress of mankind, which achieved this socialization, goes to benefit... the speculators." (p. 206-207)

The surplus capital of these corporations, which arose from the exploitation of Labour, is exported to less developed countries where capital is more scarce, the price of land lower, wages lower, and raw materials cheaper; all resulting in a widening of profit margins. Capitalists need to export capital because in the most developed countries capitalism has become "overripe", the working class consciousness too advanced for heavy exploitation (i.e. huge profit margins), and while finance capital has a breeding ground for growth, productive capital (computer and clothing factories, etc) can be much more profitable elsewhere.

Thus, the history of capitalism generally begins with free competition; i.e. petty-bourgeois production), which naturally progresses to a concentration of production (bourgeois production), which continually strive towards monopolies (socialized production). Monopolies, being so contrary to the foundations of capitalism, are the greatest contradiction of capitalism, a contradiction rampant in the imperialist stage – for every business not only strives toward, but needs to dominate markets completely, to become a monopoly, while government must do everything it can to prevent this in order to survive, realising this social form of production ultimately destroys the capitalist system.

"[Imperialism] is something quite different from the old free competition between manufacturers, scattered and out of touch with one another, and producing for an unknown market. Concentration [of production] has reached the point at which it is possible to make an approximate estimate of all sources of raw materials (for example, the iron ore deposits)... [throughout] the whole world. Not only are such estimates made, but these sources are captured by gigantic monopolist associations [now called multi-national conglomerates]. An approximate estimate of the capacity of markets is also made, and the associations "divide" them up amongst themselves by agreement. Skilled labor is monopolized, the best engineers are engaged; the means of transport are captured – railways in America, shipping companies in Europe and America. Capitalism in its imperialist stage leads directly to the most comprehensive socialization of production; it, so to speak, drags the capitalists, against their will and consciousness, into some sort of a new social order, a transitional one from complete free competition to complete socialization.

"Production becomes social, but appropriation remains private. The social means of production remain the private property of a few. The general framework of formally recognized free competition remains, and the yoke of a few monopolists on the rest of the population becomes a hundred times heavier, more burdensome and intolerable." (p. 205)

Vladimir Lenin
Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism


Impossibilism means the advocacy of a purist doctrine of socialism from which it can only be concluded that socialism is impossible. Henry Hyndman’s S.D.F. was accused of impossibilism and the S.D.F. made the same charge against Jack Fitzgerald and others who went on to found the Socialist Party of Great Britain on impossibilist doctrines – typically that “socialism is impossible until the working class understands what socialism means.” But of course, the working class cannot understand what socialism means until socialism is already a well-established social formation and way of life, so one can only conclude that socialism is impossible.

Other varieties of impossibilism include such demands that under socialism there can be no state of any kind, even simply for the provision of social services, etc.; or that socialism can only be achieved by a thoroughly egalitarian movement of the working class as would have no place even for any political party, etc. See Sectarianism.

See Theo. Rothstein’s sympathetic treatment of the S.D.F.’s impossibilism in Marx, Engels and the SDF and a critique of impossibilism published in the US Socialist: At the Parting of the Ways, by Hermon Titus.