One of the major problems of a socialist movement is its relationship with the society which it must subsist in and yet oppose absolutely. It is impossible to achieve an isolation from capitalism within capitalism, but many socialist parties have tried to do just this—notably the maximalist psi in Italy and the spd in Germany in the period leading up to the October Revolution. Normal political intervention in the society compromises pure opposition to it, while active revolution threatens the organization that the isolation is based on; the only middle course is one of inaction. This is as true of political theory as of political practice. There is a strong temptation to develop a critique of the society based on an old-established theoretical position, with occasional destructive sorties against the ideologists of the society and their attempts to come to grips with their situation. Hence wholesale denunciations by Marxists of the idealism of all new bourgeois thought. The result is the same in both practice and theory; the isolationist position cannot combat the immediate material advantages of opportunist participation in the society (reformism), or of the uncritical acceptance of the ruling ideas of the society (revisionism). At the same time it cannot combat the immediate spiritual advantages of revolutionary romanticism and utopianism. Marx saw a solution to the theoretical dilemma in the concept of the critique: every false consciousness and theory has its moment of truth, which can be surpassed to create a richer theory—thus Marx’s response to Hegel or Ricardo did not involve pure rejection, but demystification. The implication of this for contemporary Marxism is that we cannot use Marx merely to destroy bourgeois ideology—Marxism must be continually recreated and made possible again for every generation by the reintegration of demystified elements of the contemporary bourgeois theory. Modern Marxism is Marxist insofar as it is a development of Marx’s work, not an exegesis of it.
Similarly, the practice of isolation, essentially the acceptance of a policy valid at one conjuncture as eternally valid, does not allow for the continuous development of capitalist society, its capacity to contain some of its contradictions but its inability to prevent the transposition of these contradictions to another arena. A fixed theory, laying fixed stress on fixed categories soon finds itself abstract in relation to the development of society, and the refusal to recreate categories leads to
A third form of petrifaction within Marxist theory is typically caused by conflicts within the socialist movement itself. Categories and descriptions developed initially as clarifications in a debate on policy can become associated with the opposing factions as slogans, or even as labels. The result is that it is impossible to move theoretically within the context of their debate without committing oneself to one or other of the factions, even when, at some later date, the original and real differences dividing the factions have become obsolete in the real terms of the new conjuncture. The debate between left and right in the cpsu(b) in the twenties has a trajectory of this kind—the theory of permanent revolution is no longer a theory, it is a declaration of Trotskyism, etc. The only solution to this is to move out of the old theoretical arena by considering new problems and employing new concepts—actual differences hidden behind petrified theory can then be dealt with in a new framework in line with the contemporary conjuncture.
All the major modern developments of Marxism have demonstrated this structure. Firstly, the dialectical response to bourgeois culture. Lenin used Hobson’s work in the development of the theory of imperialism; Lukács, as well as returning to the Hegelian origins of Marxism synthesized this with the sociology of Simmel and Weber; Gramsci’s theory was a critique of Croce and Gentile. Secondly, the relationship to social developments. Lenin’s conception of the alliance of proletariat and peasantry was an adaptation to the Russian situation in the early years of this century; Lukács’ theory grew out of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in 1917–20; Gramsci’s idea of the hegemonic party was a response to the failure of that wave in Italy and the success of Fascism. Lastly, the transcendence of faction. Lenin’s theory of organization was developed outside the debates of the Second International, as the spd, its theoretical leader, never discussed organization; Lukács and Gramsci similarly avoided the terms of these debates, Lukács by redefining orthodox Marxism, Gramsci by going beyond the psi’s concepts of revolution and reform in his later theoretical writings. J. P. Sartre’s latest work shows the same structure. Alone among contemporary Marxists, he has devoted a study to a methodological confrontation of Marxism and the modern social sciences: The Problem of Method. At the same time the Critique is the first major meditation on the destiny of the socialist revolutions of the 20th century. It is part of the post-Stalinist Marxist debate, in a
In his earlier work Sartre drew on the writings of Husserl, Heidegger and Freud to present, in L’Etre et le Néant, a demystified existentialism that dealt adequately with individual existence and interpersonal relations, and was conceived as the starting-point for further developments. In an important transitional work, Les Communistes et la Paix, Sartre turned to a study of the Marxist conceptions of party and class. In the Critique de la Raison Dialectique he approaches the problem of human groups, using the previous synthesis of Marxism and existentialism, and critizing the work of social anthropologists such as Lévi-Strauss and American sociologists such as Kurt Lewin. This approach is no mere eclecticism; both Marxism and sociology are powerfully criticized, and the synthesis is both new and coherent. It is a precise example of the kind of recreation of Marxism discussed above.
The Critique, moreover, by reintroducing the key concept of scarcity (rareté) rescues Marxist historicism from an idealism inherent in dogmatic Marxism and sociologism alike. It is competition for scarce means of existence that leads to the social division of labour and thence to the exploitation of man by man, in specific forms in all societies up to the present, according to their specific historical determinations. In a world where socialist and capitalist societies coexist, and within both international differentiation increases in a context of increasing imperialist exploitation, this concept enables Marxism to grasp this specific character of all social situations without nevertheless abandoning the attempt to conceive as a whole the historical development of the human world. Imperialism, neocolonialism, neocapitalism, Stalinism and the post-Stalinist development of the socialist world become comprehensible within the framework of a theory which is also at home with the knowledge accumulated by anthropology about primitive cultures and by history about pre-capitalist societies.
Finally the Critique, as the first global attempt to account for the post-Stalinist world, has dispensed with the theoretical paraphernalia of the Stalin-Trotsky debate and thus is able to comprehend both positions. It has played an important part in the resurgence of Marxist theory today; isolated theorists, many of them members of Communist and Socialist parties, are now able to take part in a real theoretical debate. In France itself Louis Althusser has recently devoted two important books to an attack on Sartrean and allied positions.