Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2


On Changing the World

Michael Löwy,
On Changing the World,
Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1993, pp. 189, $39.35

THIS collection of essays by Michael Löwy, on subjects ranging from Marx’s analyses of the French Revolution, interconnections between Gramsci and Lukács, Marxist attitudes to the national question, and the revolutionary credentials of liberation theology, gathers together articles previously published in New Left Review, Critique, Telos and Social Compass, as well as a couple of pieces written specially for the book. The book is printed on a yellowish paper, lending it the feel of an old delicate document from the archives, and thus of historical rather than contemporary interest. Many detractors will indeed view it as a worthless dabbling in a past that is best left forgotten, given the fact that the book’s main aim is to defend the continuing validity of Marx’s Marxism against the accusations of general failure now levelled at the Marxist project.

Löwy writes in order to level his own accusations; primarily at ‘actually existing Socialism’, whose recent collapse, he asserts, has now opened up a space for the critical excavation of its excluded other: humanistic, anti-Stalinist and ecology-conscious Marxism. The book seeks to exonerate a certain selected Marxist ‘tradition’, largely defeated in actuality during the 1920s and 1930s by the twin totalitarianisms, Stalinism and Fascism. The subtitle of the book, Essays in Political Philosophy from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin, signals Löwy’s agenda, which traces a continuity directly from Marx to Benjamin. Löwy insists on Benjamin’s cardinal place in his alternative pantheon of Marxist heroes, alongside political activists – Luxemburg, the early Lenin, Lukács, Gramsci and Trotsky – as well as more theoretical Marxists – Marcuse and Bloch.

Löwy is not particularly drawn to an engagement in current philosophical debates. He continues on his own track, seeking political relevance and guidance from Marx’s writings, as well as from anti-mechanistic and anti-Stalinist contributions to revolutionary theory and practice. Löwy criticises an anti-humanist, technocratic and nature-exploiting Marxism, which is seen to crop up in figures as diverse as Plekhanov and Althusser, and which calls for the uninhibited expansion of the productive forces. He rejects the contributions of scientific Socialism, structuralist Marxism, and poststructuralist and analytical Marxism.

The true heritage of Marx’s project – ‘the pitiless criticism of everything that exists’ – he insists, is dialectical, historicist, humanist, anti-positivist and anti-evolutionist. This tradition is seen to take its clues more authentically from Marx himself, drawing on his central concepts of praxis: dialectics, the analysis of commodity fetishism, alienation, workers’ revolutionary self-emancipation, and is inspired by the utopia of a classless, stateless society. Löwy’s ‘good’ tradition of Marxism is set up to provide theoretical models of practice, which overcome the ‘dilemma of impotence’ manifested, according to Lukács, in the neo-Kantian ethics of pure intentions, a moralism unable to theorise active working-class self-emancipation, and the positivist fatalism of the necessary working out of pure laws, which infected Second International Marxism.

Löwy uncovers a very specific Marxist tradition which developed critically out of or in opposition to the inevitabilistic Social Darwinist optimism of Social Democracy, with its metaphysics of progress. Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky are discussed as providers of varying but connected examples of a theoretical-practical break from this tradition. They emphasise conscious proletarian activity in the context of ‘open’ historical processes: Socialism is conceived by them not as an inevitable consequence of the development of the productive forces, but as the potential result of consciously executed action, given the precondition of economic and social development. The only ‘necessary’ component is the eventual onset of barbarism, given the absence of Socialist revolution.

A common node in the theoretical writings of many of Löwy’s protagonists is a romantic idealist-inspired critique of both soulless capitalist society and mechanistic Marxism. Marxist political culture and romanticism are reconciled by Löwy specifically in their common critique of the ‘humanly regressive aspect of capitalism’. Löwy desires to bring to the forefront both an ethical, conscious and activist moment in class politics, and the ‘hidden romantic moment’ in Marxist political philosophy. For Löwy, Marxism is primarily a protest against industrial bourgeois society in the name of romantic and non-conservative ‘precapitalist’ values. This is the root of the author’s recurrent interest in primitive Communism and early societies. For Löwy, both romanticism and Socialism draw on the qualitative values of a precapitalist past – use values, ethical and organic community, aesthetic and religious values – rather than the quantitative values of capitalism.

In several senses, this analysis is consistent with his longstanding interest in questions concerning the peasantry and Third World revolutions. He responds favourably to those Marxists who have appealed to the peasantry and have, furthermore, politically integrated them as activists into a proletarian-led party. An essay in this collection on Marxism and the national question illustrates this concern. Löwy tends to judge the politics of Marxists by their assessment of the peasantry. One of the book’s few criticisms of Luxemburg (annoyingly called Rosa) disparages her underestimation of the revolutionary role of the peasantry and the oppressed. Connected with this concern is Löwy’s insistence that Marxism must take on the challenges of the new social movements.

Löwy’s important service is to write against the current academic mode which states that ‘Marxism is definitely dead for humanity’. He uncovers this attitude to have been a proposition floated by intellectuals recurrently throughout this century. Löwy’s retort is unambiguous and literal. He writes: ‘Socialism is not yet dead for the good reason that it is not yet born.’ The Soviet-orbit societies are analysed as non-capitalist, having existed without the central mechanism of private property, but also non-Socialist, because their political systems were undemocratic, and failed to empower the working class. He makes little structural study of the Eastern Bloc. He locates the degeneration of the Soviet Union and the deformation of the satellite states, but makes few comments about the specifics of their economic and political formation. He hints at how the isolated and impoverished situation of the early Soviet Union encouraged the development of a vicious bureaucratic caste, and asserts that Eastern Bloc societies were authoritarian, bureaucratic command economies, but economic-political reconstruction is not his aim. His essays serve rather more as manifesto-type writings which insist on the importance of utopia, the redemption of Marx, and an underground Marxist tradition of heretics, subversion and opposition to the bureaucracy, in the face of a newly-born, generalised ‘post-dictatorship over needs’ faith in the market.

The author tags himself onto the tradition of heretics who row against the streams of both inherited orthodox Marxism, now deeply wounded, and bourgeois ideology, which gleefully imagines the death of Marxism. He is keen to point out identities between revolutionary utopias and heretical forms of religion, including Jewish-German messianic culture and Latin American liberation theology.

On the whole, Löwy does not write about anyone he does not like. In this sense, the essays are generally affirmative pieces, engaged in bringing out a certain continuous tradition. In some ways, despite the author’s protestations against homogenising, the whole project of the book is to forge a firm tradition of good Marxism, and squeezes into profile differences between selected Marxists, rather than emphasising differences between them. Löwy tries, for example, to bring Lenin back closer to Luxemburg by minimising their differences. In similar fashion, he reconciles Weber with Marx in a discussion of Weber’s famous refutation of economistic historical materialism in The Protestant Ethic. Löwy, however, is forced to admit that the tradition he wishes to unearth is difficult to conceptualise. This comes out, for example, in his struggle with language. Running up against the limits of expression in language, borrowing a new word from Teodor Shanin – the ‘alternativity’ of history – demonstrates that the adequacy of language to practice is itself refracted through the importance of practice itself. If there is no concept for a practice, it is because for us that concept has had no practice. Sadly enough, Löwy’s ‘good’ Marxist tradition has often been shunted away from the terrain of actual political practice.

Benjamin becomes the most subtle exponent of Löwy’s alternative tradition of ‘warm Marxism’ (Bloch), and the four essays on German messianic Marxism are among the most passionate in the collection. Benjamin, read most passionately as a political philosopher, rather than as a cultural critic, is seen to undertake a ‘modern critique of modernity’. This consists in his rejection of modernity’s technological progress and the optimistic fatalism of the Second International, combined with an insistence on the necessity of revolution in the name of the sold-out values of equality, democracy and freedom, values of the first modern revolution, the French Revolution, whose tokens have yet to be cashed in.

Benjamin is recognised as an early prophet of two most pressing contemporary dangers: ecological disaster and military technological immolation. The author romanticises Benjamin somewhat, de-dialecticising Benjamin’s grasp of forces and relations of technological production, making him actually more anti-technology and more nature-loving than evidence from Benjamin’s writings actually yields. Löwy takes to heart a number of Benjamin’s powerful allegories, none more ardently perhaps than the notion of revolution as interruption, as the conscious and desperate grasp to the emergency brake to halt the unremitting surge of technological ‘progress’ which signals social regress. Löwy’s and Benjamin’s revolution looks nothing like Plekhanov’s locomotive forging without cessation down the one-way track of historical progress. Löwy insists repeatedly on the continuing relevance of the phrase ‘Socialism or barbarism’, and attempts to show that whether one or the other becomes our historical reality is purely a matter of the state of class struggle, and the commitment of revolutionaries to that struggle as well as to the conservation of nature.

Esther Leslie

Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011