Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/marxism-western/v-1
Western Marxism is used here as an umbrella term for the various schools of Marxist thought that have flourished in Western Europe since Marx’s death in 1883. It is sometimes used more narrowly to refer to those Marxist philosophers whose thinking was influenced by the Hegelian idea of dialectics and who focused their attention on the cultural as opposed to the economic aspects of capitalism. In the broader sense, Western Marxism does not denote any specific doctrine, but indicates a range of concerns that have exercised Marxist philosophers in advanced capitalist societies. These concerns primarily have been of three kinds: (1) epistemological – what would justify the claim that Marxist social theory and, in particular, the materialist conception of history are true?; (2) ethical – does the Marxist critique of capitalism require ethical foundations, and if so, where are these to be discovered; and (3) practical – if the economic collapse of capitalism can no longer be regarded as inevitable, who are the agents who can be expected to carry through a socialist transformation?
In relation to the first issue, the main debate has been between those who, following Engels, adhere to ‘scientific socialism’ (that is, the view that Marxism is a science in the same sense as the natural sciences), and those who claim that Marxist epistemology relies on a form of dialectics quite distinct from the methods of natural science. The most prominent exponent of this second view was the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács, who drew upon the dialectical method of Hegel, with class consciousness replacing Geist (Spirit) as the vehicle of dialectical reason. Thus, for Lukács the truth of historical materialism and the goodness of communism were both established dialectically, through the class consciousness of the revolutionary proletariat. Lukács’ advocacy of dialectics was later taken up and developed by the philosophers of the Frankfurt School.
In relation to the second issue, early dissenters from the orthodox Marxism of Engels like Eduard Bernstein looked outside Marxism itself, and especially to the philosophy of Kant, for the ethical principles that would justify socialism. The position changed somewhat with the rediscovery of the young Marx’s Paris Manuscripts (1844) from which later Marxists, and in particular those associated with the Frankfurt School, were able to extract a humanistic ethics centred on the notion of alienation.
In relation to the third issue, most Western Marxists continued to look to the proletariat as the agency of revolutionary change, often distinguishing, as did Lukács, between the true consciousness of that class and the false consciousness that reflected the distorting effects of bourgeois ideology. But in the case of the Frankfurt Marxists, the critical theory that pointed the way to a liberated human future was detached from any specific agency and treated merely as critique. The most original contribution was made by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who argued that the working class must use the power of its ideas to establish hegemony over the other classes in bourgeois society, who would then join the proletariat in overthrowing capitalism.
The disintegration of Western Marxism began in the 1960s when the French philosopher Louis Althusser attacked both the use of Hegelian dialectics by Marxists and the various forms of Marxist humanism. Althusser insisted that Marxism was a science which required no ethical foundations. His critique was informed by a conviction that human subjectivity, together with the philosophical problems generated by subject–object dualism, are illusions.
Althusserian Marxism became fashionable in English-speaking universities, but its cavalier and paradoxical style also led, by reaction, to the rise of analytic Marxism in the late 1970s. Analytic Marxists returned to interrogating Marx’s texts in more conventional ways, using the methods of analytic philosophy and contemporary social science to reformulate them to withstand academic scrutiny by non-Marxists. A tendency rather than a movement, analytic Marxism perhaps marks the final stage of a process that began with Lukács, that of turning Marxism into a purely academic study remote from politics.
Torrance, John. Marxism, Western, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S038-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/marxism-western/v-1.
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