The May events in France last year detonated in England an explosion of Marxian literature. Within 12 months several important texts have been newly translated, others brought out in cheap editions. So far the field has been heavily dominated by work of neo-Hegelians within the Marxist tradition: the Frankfurt school and Marcuse, and now Henri Lefebvre and Lucien Goldmann. Given the infancy of our native Marxism, it is not surprising that the appearance of these texts has been welcomed uncritically by journals of the student left. However the importance of theory for the development of a revolutionary movement in Britain is so great that a critical assessment of the place of such works vis-à-vis orthodox Marxist theory is already overdue.

The return to Hegel and the re-interpretation of Marx through Hegel has acquired prominence at times when the mainstream Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals has visibly degenerated into dogmatism; in the First World War (Lukács, Gramsci), and, more recently, as various anti-Stalinist currents (the Frankfurt School, Marcuse, Lefebvre, Sartre, Kosik, etc). These latter, contemporary neo-Hegelian traditions have influenced the development of the revolutionary student movement, because of their exponents’ success in providing an ideological critique both of present-day capitalism and of the bureaucratized societies of the Soviet bloc. But a gulf separates these contemporary critiques of dogmatism from the classic positions of Marx, Engels and Lenin. This raises the question: to what should we refer as ‘Marxism’

The Marxism that founded the political practice of both classical Social-Democracy and the Comintern was understood as a science of society (historical materialism), whose object was the socio-economic formation, and within which Marx’ Capital had provided the theory of the structure and laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production. The concrete conjuncture of economy, polity and ideology could be analysed with scientific objectivity and rigour, and this analysis was the necessary basis of the strategy to be followed by the organized proletariat in its struggle to overthrow capitalism. Problems of method and ideological controversy with anti-Marxist trends (from Engels’ AntiDühring onwards) required a defence of the scientific status of Marxism at the ‘philosophical’ level, to which the name ‘dialectical materialism’ was given. But the neo-Hegelians break with this tradition in the most fundamental way, by making the basis of Marxism a philosophical anthropology that denies scientific objectivity and reconstructs the Marxian theory of society from the concepts of praxis, alienation, proletariat as universal class and historical subject, class-consciousness, etc. Thus historical materialism is transposed from objective science to proletarian self-consciousness; it is asserted that the working-class understands society by acting on it (praxis), and the content of the revolution is conceived at the ontological level of overcoming of alienation, rather than as a ‘mere’ specific transformation of economic and political relations.

This neo-Hegelian interpretation leans heavily on Marx’s early writings (pre-1845) and was strongly reinforced by the publication in 1932 of the 1844 Paris manuscripts. The practical implications of such an interpretation of Marx are immense. On the one hand the ambit of Marxism is widened by its transformation into a radical philosophical critique of the condition of ‘Man’, a critique which is not appeased merely by concrete changes of the economic base or political/ideological superstructure. But on the other hand the efficacy of the theory for social practice is radically curtailed. For whilst the theory remains the embodiment of proletarian class-consciousness, and thus the ideological work of Marxists is still possible, the denial of objectivity undermines the possibility of a rational practice for the Marxist vanguard, of its leading the organized proletariat in a revolutionary strategy and tactics planned in advance and premised on a scientific analysis of the already existing social structure; it can thus lead to a relapse into spontaneism. Still more does it preclude, if the proletariat with its self-consciousness is the subject of history, the work of the Marxist party in constructing a class alliance between the industrial working-class and other oppressed and exploited groups, classes and nationalities, which in the concrete complexity of every historically given social structure is the only way in which proletarian revolution has been and can be made. Neo-Hegelian Marxism is in this vital sense necessarily divorced from practice, from the practice of the conscious elements of the revolutionary bloc for whom theory can be a guide to action; its only relation to practice can be one of exhortation and commentary from a position on the sidelines of history—it cannot directly articulate its ‘arm of criticism’ with the ‘criticism of arms’.

The crucial ideological significance of the controversy over Marxinterpretation should not be in doubt. It is historical fact that Marx in 1843 and 1844 criticized Hegel and political economy from a philosophical standpoint very close to that of Feuerbach, and it is also historical fact that he was heavily involved both in 1844—50 and 1864—72 in the work of proletarian organization. The neo-Hegelian interpretation relies on proving the continuity of Marx’ theoretical position between his early and his mature writings, and thus driving a wedge both between the ‘naturalistic humanism’ of Marx and the ‘vulgar materialism’ of Engels and Lenin, and hence, inevitably, between the political practice of Marx, which, essentially propagandist, is compatible with either theoretical interpretation, and the political practice of Lenin, which, involving the work of the Marxist cadre in mobilizing the masses and wielding political power to effect social transformation, is compatible only with ‘scientistic’ Marxism.