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New Left Review I/41, January-February 1967

Ben Brewster

Presentation of Althusser

In the first half of the 20th century Marxist theory was dominated by two orthodoxies: before 1914 by the Kautskyism of the Second International, and from 1920 to 1950 by Bolshevism, the theory of the Third International. The collapse of Kautskyism was due to the spd’s collapse into chauvinism on the outbreak of War, and the rise of Bolshevism to the October Revolution and the establishment and consolidation of the ussr. But the revolutionary upheaval of 1917 did not affect Russia alone; as a crisis of Imperialism, its effects were felt more or less in every European country. The Western revolutionary movements also sought for a replacement for the discredited Second International theory—a theory discredited not only by its association with the spd but also by its failure to comprehend the events of the years immediately following the War. The theory of the inevitable development of the contradictions of capitalism to its collapse was replaced by a theory of the proletariat as the subject of the revolutionary transformation of society. The most notable theorists of this group were Lukács and Gramsci, and their position took the form of an attack on positivism and determinism and hence of renewed stress on Marx’s close relationship to Hegel. The trend was enormously reinforced by the publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in 1932, since when it has concentrated largely on an exposition of Marx’s early works. Marcuse and Henri Lefebvre are representative of this emphasis. Within this ‘Western Marxism’ there are, naturally, considerable variations, so that Gramsci, for example, can be seen as prefiguring later developments (see below, nn. 23 & 29). Bolshevism was always distinct from this tendency (although the latter’s proponents usually proclaimed their Leninism), and in the ’30’s, when Bolshevism sclerosed into Stalinist dogmatism, the two were in clear opposition. But, curiously, the crude practicality of Stalinism and the philosophical sophistication of Western Marxism formed a viable opposition, until the death of Stalin and the thaw weakened the Bolshevik orthodoxy and this stable opposition crumbled. Western Marxism assumed a revolutionary proletariat as an epistemological basis; the absence of this basis was never theoretically resolved, and its practical consequence was political ambiguity. The spd published Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts as a weapon against the Communists; Lukács and Korsch took directly opposite stands with relation to Comintern policy; in this country since the Second World War it has been Trotskyists who have shown most interest in the Western tradition. In the ’50’s, and increasingly since 1956, a diluted form of the Western theory—so-called ‘Marxist humanism’—has become something close to an orthodoxy for the revisionist wings of Western Communist Parties. Some new response to the growing eclecticism of the once persecuted Western Marxism was inevitable.

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Ben Brewster, ‘Presentation of Althusser’, NLR I/41: £3

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