This article is an attempt to consider the implications for Marxist philosophy of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It would be well to start by saying what Marxist philosophy is taken to be here. A convenient map of the field is provided by Alex Callinicos in his Introduction to a recent collection of essays. Confining himself to tendencies which have had a living presence in the West, he distinguishes between Hegelian, Althusserian or structuralist and analytical Marxism.footnote1 This corresponds pretty closely, one suspects, to the sort of picture most people interested in the matter carry in their heads. Moreover, Callinicos’s view of the relations between the various tendencies would have widespread assent. According to it, Hegelian modes of thought, dominant since the nineteen-twenties, were expelled from Marxist theory by Althusser, thereby creating the conditions for analytical Marxism. It is plain that Callinicos sees this as a progressive development, as being, if he would allow the use of the term, a kind of dialectic. It is for him a movement from the Hegelian mists through the cleansing gales of Althusserianism into the sunlight of analysis. Against this background it may seem merely perverse to seek to undo the verdict of time by returning to the first stage of the triad. For Hegelian Marxism is surely well and truly dead, dead twice over, as it were. Adapting a metaphor from Callinicos, we have, it appears, to accept that its ancient groves have been felled and cleared away by Althusser, leaving the site to be redeveloped by the enterprise of the analytical school. Yet it is just on behalf of this apparently superseded doctrine that the present paper will speak. Indeed, it will seek to represent it as the best theoretical framework for understanding the complexities of the contemporary world.

There are a number of considerations one might cite to encourage such a project. The first has a somewhat negative force. It is that a satisfactory response to recent events is scarcely to be expected from the other tendencies identified by Callinicos. In the case of Althusserian Marxism the response is likely to be silence, and not silence of the rich, meaningful kind that invites, even as it eludes, interpretation, but simply non-being, a void. The problem, put more literally, is a dearth of committed and articulate interpreters. Callinicos is surely on safe ground in suggesting for the analytical movement a post-Althusserian as well as post-Hegelian character.footnote2 The difficulty with that movement itself, on the other hand, is that it seems increasingly clear that it is best regarded as an episode in the history of analytical philosophy, a late flowering perhaps, rather than of Marxism. This truth emerges plainly enough, even if unwittingly, from the work of sympathetic commentators. Thus, Callinicos points out that ‘analytical Marxists tend to deny much of the substance of Marx’s thought.’footnote3 If words are to have their usual meanings, and, in particular, if ‘Marxist’ is to retain any identity at all, these deniers of substance should not be included under the rubric of what they deny. To say this, of course, is not itself to make any kind of critical remark, since there can be no intellectual obligation to be a ‘Marxist’, however the term is defined.

The case for ascribing some special responsibility at the present time to Hegelian Marxism may be put in more positive terms. For this body of thought has a need and a duty to respond to what happens in the world in a way its rivals do not. It is at heart a philosophy of history, a scheme of interpretation that purports to make the course of historical change rationally intelligible. No one has taken the task of assimilating the flux of events, of redeeming it for reason, more seriously than Hegel. At times this commitment finds expression with a literalness verging on the absurd, as in the following words:

The morning reading of the newspaper is a kind of realistic morning prayer. It orients one’s attitude to the world with respect to God or with respect to what the world is. The latter provides the same security as prayer, in that one knows where one stands.footnote4

This attitude might be hard to sustain through the morning engagement with the British press today. Nevertheless, no reader of that press could have been in doubt as to the extraordinary importance of the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe. Indeed, it was mildly surprising how often the Hegelian-sounding phrase ‘world history’ was invoked in characterizing them. For a philosophy of world history this situation is both an unequalled opportunity and a challenge it cannot evade. It is, one may say, unconditionally obliged to take to itself the injunction ‘Hic Rhodus, hic salta’ of which both Hegel and Marx were so characteristically fond.

It may be that some dialectical categories other than ‘world history’, which in more ordinary times can appear exotic or uncouth, will now take on a different aspect. In those times their most hardened exponents could scarcely avoid a kind of self-consciousness that hinted at ironic, even comic, possibilities. Now that reality seems, as it were, to be rushing to meet thought the categories of negation, contradiction, mediation and totality may come into their own. It might even be possible to find some respectable use for the notion of Aufhebung, a notion so removed from common sense that there is no satisfactory rendering of it in English.footnote5 At any rate it is evident that Hegelian Marxism has the vocabulary to match its ambition to deal with great events. Whether it will actually succeed in doing so in the present case is a crucial test of the entire movement of thought.

To gauge the prospects of success one should turn at once to the deepest roots of the movement. What Hegelian Marxist philosophy essentially offers, it was suggested, is a reading of history. It is not hard to discern the constitutive principle of Hegel’s own reading, for he affirms it openly and often. World history is, he tells us, among many similar formulations, ‘the progress of the consciousness of freedom’.footnote6 There is room for debate as to the relative importance of speculative thought and historical study in deriving and establishing this thesis. There can, however, be no doubt that Hegel regards it as fully in line with, and as yielding a realistic reading of, the empirical record. Thus, he makes regular appeals, in the course of filling it out, to our sense of what actually happened in history. In one version the appeal has the form of general taxonomy, comprising the oriental world in which one was free, the classical world in which some were free, and the modern world in which ‘man’ as such is free.footnote7 In another the appeal is to certain key episodes in the unfolding of the theme, from the destruction of the polis to the coming of Christianity and on to the Protestant Reformation of the Christian Church. The series culminates for Hegel in the French Revolution as the embodiment of the demand that freedom should be the organizing principle of political and social life. It is in his view the specific task of the modern world to work out the implications of this demand and realize them universally in practice.footnote8