Defending Marxist Hegelianism against a Marxist critique

Chris Cutrone of the US Platypus group takes issue with Mike Macnair

I am writing in response to Mike Macnair’s 2003 critical review of books by John Rees and David Renton,[1] cited in Macnair’s critique of Platypus (‘No need for party?’ Weekly Worker May 12 2011).[2] I wish to refer also to my three letters and article in response.[3]

I find Macnair’s analysis and critique of the political motivations and potential consequences of Rees’s affirmative account of Marxist Hegelianism compelling and good. I agree with Macnair’s conclusion that, despite Rees’s former SWP/UK leader Alex Callinicos’s anti-Hegelian Althusserianism, Rees considering “historical experience summed up in theory” was intrinsically connected to the SWP’s concept of the party as one which “centralises experience”, with all the problems such a conception entails.

I wish to offer a rejoinder to Macnair’s idea that such problematic conceptions of theory and political practice have roots in Lenin, Luxemburg and Lukács, Macnair’s analysis of whom I find to be false. Also, I do not think that Macnair quite gets Hegel, although I agree with his characterisation that “philosophy - as such - is inherently only a way of interpreting the world”, and so limits Hegel’s work for the political purposes under consideration.[4] Furthermore, I agree with Macnair’s interpretation of Lenin with respect to the purposes of his polemical defence of Marxist approaches to philosophy in Materialism and empirio-criticism (1908). Moreover, I agree with his central point that philosophical agreement cannot be the basis of agreement on political action.

However, as Nicholas Brown responded to comrade Macnair’s question at the opening plenary on ‘The politics of critical theory’ of the Platypus convention in Chicago on April 29, it is not possible to ‘Hegelianise’ Marx, because Marx was more Hegelian than Hegel himself.[5] That is, Marx tried to achieve the ‘Hegelian’ self-consciousness of his own historical moment. The question is, what relevance has Marx’s Hegelianism today, and what is the relevance of taking such a Hegelian approach to the history of Marxism subsequent to Marx?

Lukács, Lenin, Luxemburg

I disagree that Lukács’s “subject” of history is the point of view or relative perspective of the proletariat as the revolutionary agent that must assert its “will”. Rather, I take Lukács to be following Lenin and Luxemburg (and Marx) quite differently than Macnair seems to think, in that the workers’ movement for socialism is the necessary mediation for grasping the problem of capital in its “totality”, that the workers must not remake the world in their image, but rather lead society more generally beyond capital. Hence, as Macnair characterises the approach of the Kautskyan “centre” of the Second International, the socialist workers’ movement must be a leading, practical force in democratic struggles beyond the workers’ own (sectional) interests in the transformation of society as a whole.

I disagree that Lenin made a virtue of necessity in the Russian Revolution after October 1917 and adopted a voluntarist (and substitutionalist) conception of the working class and the political party of communism. Rather, Lenin consistently criticised and politically fought against those tendencies of Bolshevism and in the early Third International. I do not think that Lenin’s newly found ‘Hegelianism’ after 1914 was the means by which he achieved (mistaken) rapprochement with the ‘left’.

The key is Luxemburg. I do not think she was a semi-syndicalist spontaneist/voluntarist, or that she neglected issues of political mediation: she was not an ‘ultra-left’. I take her pamphlet, The mass strike, the political party, and the trade unions (1906), to have an entirely different political purpose and conclusion. It was not an argument in favour of the mass strike as a tactic, let alone strategy, but rather an analysis of the significance of the mass strike in the 1905 Russian Revolution as a historical phenomenon, inextricably bound up in the development of capital at a global scale, and how this tasked and challenged the social democratic workers’ movement (the Second International and the SPD in particular) to reformulate its approach and transform itself under such changed historical conditions, specifically with regard to the relation of the party to the unions.

Luxemburg’s perspective was neither anarcho-syndicalist/spontaneist nor vanguardist, but rather dialectical. The mass strike was not a timeless principle. For Luxemburg, 1905 showed that the world had moved into an era of revolutionary struggle that demanded changes in the workers’ movement for socialism. A contradiction had developed between the social democratic party and (its own associated) labour unions, or ‘social democracy’ had become a self-contradictory phenomenon in need of transformation.

Furthermore, I take Lenin’s critiques of Kautsky for being “non-dialectical” to be very specific. This is not a critique of Kautsky ‘philosophically’ (although it does speak to his bad practices as a theorist), but politically. It is about Kautsky’s non-dialectical approach to politics: that is, the relation of theory and practice, or of social being and consciousness, in and through the concrete mediations of the historically constituted workers’ movement. Kautsky failed in this. Lenin agreed with Luxemburg in her Junius pamphlet (1915) that the problem was Kautsky thinking that the SPD’s Marxism (that is, what became Kautsky’s USPD) could “hide like a rabbit” during World War I and resume the struggle for socialism afterward. Or, as Lenin put it in his Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism (1916) and Socialism and war (1915), contra Kautsky’s theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’, the world war must be seen as a necessary and not accidental outcome of the historical development of capitalism, and so a crisis that was an opportunity for revolutionary transformation, and not merely, as Kautsky thought, a derailment into barbarism to be resisted. This was the essential basis for agreement between Luxemburg and Lenin 1914-19.

I do not think the separation of the pre-World War I Lenin from Luxemburg is warranted, especially considering their close collaboration, both in the politics of the Russian movement and in the Second International more generally, throughout the period 1905-12 and again 1914-19. Throughout their careers, Lenin and Luxemburg (and Trotsky) were exemplars of the Second International left, or ‘radicals’ in the movement. They all more or less mistook Kautsky to be one of their own before August 1914. Also, Kautsky himself changed, at various points and times - which is not to say that Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky never changed.

But the question is the nature and character of such change, and how these figures allow us to grasp the history of Marxism. It is not about learning from their trials and errors, I think, but rather from the example of their ‘consciousness’, not merely theoretically, but practically. Moreover, the history of Marxism must be approached as part and parcel, and the highest expression, of the history of post-1848 capital.


Lukács’s ‘Hegelian’ point was that “subjective” struggles for transformation take place in and through “necessary forms of appearance” that misrecognise their “objective” social realities, not in terms of imperfect approximations or more or less true generalised abstractions, but specifically as a function of the “alienated” and “reified” social and political dynamics of capital. Capital is “objective” in a specific way, and so poses historically specific problems for subjectivity.

The reason for Marxists distinguishing their approach from Hegel is precisely historical: that a change in society took place between Hegel’s and Marx’s time that causes Hegelian categories, as those of an earlier, pre-Industrial Revolution era of bourgeois society, to become inverted in truth, or reversed in intention. Marx’s idea was that the “contradiction” of bourgeois society had changed. Thus the dialectical “law of motion” was specific to the problem of capital and not a transhistorical principle of (social) action and thought. Marx’s society was not Hegel’s. The meaning of Hegel had changed, just as the meaning of the categories of bourgeois society had changed. Labour-time as value had become not productive (if not unproblematically) - as in Hegel’s and Adam Smith’s time, the era of ‘manufacture’ - but destructive of society; as a form of social mediation, wage-labour had become self-contradictory and self-undermining in the Industrial Revolution, hence the ‘crisis of capital’.

One fundamental disagreement I have with Macnair’s approach, in which I think I follow Lenin, Luxemburg, Lukács and Marx, is with the idea that the potential transformation of capitalist society involves the confrontation of two antithetical social principles, of the workers (collectivism) vs the capitalists (individual private property). Capital, as Marx understood it, is not based on the mode of existence of the capitalists, falsely generalised to society as a whole, but rather that of the workers. This is not a top-down, but a bottom-up, view - shared by Smith, for example. As Lukács put it, the fate of the worker becomes that of “society as a whole”.[6] The contradiction of capital is the contradiction of the workers’ - not the capitalists’ - existence in society. For Marx, capital is a social mode of production and not merely a relation of production. As a mode of production, capital has become increasingly self-contradictory. As a function of capital’s historical development, through the Industrial Revolution, in which the workers’ own increasing demands for bourgeois rights, to realise the value of their labour, and not merely capitalist competition, played a key, indispensable role, bourgeois society became self-contradictory and self-undermining. That is, the workers centrally or at base constituted the self-destructive, social-historical dynamic of capital through their labouring and political activity. This development culminated in the crisis of world war and revolution 1914-19.

As Lenin put it in The state and revolution, the social relations of bourgeois society - namely, the mutual exchange of labour as the form of social solidarity in capital - could only be transformed gradually and thus “wither away,” and not be abolished and replaced at a stroke.[7] The proletarian socialist revolution was supposed to open the door to this transformation. The potential for emancipated humanity expressed in communism that Marx recognised in the modern history of capital is not assimilable without remainder to pre- or non-Marxian socialism.

As Marx put it, “Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.”[8] This was because, according to Marx, “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction and ... only a particular manifestation of the humanistic principle and is infected by its opposite, private property.”[9] Marx was not the pre-eminent communist of his time, but rather its critic, seeking to push it further. Marxism was the attempted Hegelian self-consciousness of proletarian socialism as the subject-object of capital.

As Lukács’s contemporary, Karl Korsch, pointed out in ‘Marxism and philosophy’ (1923), by the late 19th century historians such as Dilthey had observed that “ideas contained in a philosophy can live on not only in philosophies, but equally well in positive sciences and social practice, and that this process precisely began on a large scale with Hegel’s philosophy”.[10] For Korsch, this meant that ‘philosophical’ problems in the Hegelian sense were not matters of theory, but practice. From a Marxian perspective, however, it is precisely the problem of capitalist society that is posed at the level of practice.

Korsch went on to argue that “what appears as the purely ‘ideal’ development of philosophy in the 19th century can in fact only be fully and essentially grasped by relating it to the concrete historical development of bourgeois society as a whole”.[11] Korsch’s great insight, shared by Lukács, took this perspective from Luxemburg and Lenin, who grasped how the history of the socialist workers’ movement and Marxism was a key part - indeed the crucial aspect - of this development, in the first two decades of the 20th century.

The problem we have faced since then is that the defeat of the workers’ movement for socialism has not meant the stabilisation, but rather the degeneration, disintegration and decomposition, of bourgeois society - without the concomitant increase, but rather the regression, of possibilities for moving beyond it. This shows that the crisis of Marxism was a crisis of bourgeois society, or the highest and most acute aspect of the crisis of capital: bourgeois society has suffered since then from the failure of Marxism.

Crisis of Marxism

The ‘crisis of Marxism’, in which Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky took part (especially in 1914-19, but also in the period leading up to this, most significantly from 1905 on), and Lukács tried to address ‘theoretically’ in History and class consciousness and related writings of the early 1920s, was (the highest practical expression of) the crisis of bourgeois society.

This crisis demanded a Marxist critique of Marxism, or a ‘dialectical’ approach to Marxism itself: that is, a recognition of Marxism, politically, as being a self-contradictory and so potentially self-undermining historical phenomenon (a phenomenon of history - hence the title of Lukács’s book, History and class consciousness), itself subject to necessary “reification” and “misrecognition” that could only be worked through “immanently”. This meant regaining the “Hegelian” dimension, or the “self-consciousness” of Marxism. This is because Marxism, as an expression of the workers’ “class-consciousness”, was - and remains - entirely “bourgeois”, if in extremis. While self-contradictory in its development, the socialist workers’ movement, including its Marxist self-consciousness, pointed beyond itself, ‘dialectically’ - as consciousness of the bourgeois epoch as a whole does.

I follow Adorno’s characterisation of the problem of workers’ consciousness and the necessary role of intellectuals, which he took from Lenin, in his letter to Walter Benjamin of March 18 1936: “The proletariat ... is itself a product of bourgeois society ... the actual consciousness of actual workers ... [has] absolutely no advantage over the bourgeois except ... interest in the revolution, but otherwise bear[s] all the marks of mutilation of the typical bourgeois character. This prescribes our function for us clearly enough - which I certainly do not mean in the sense of an activist conception of ‘intellectuals’ ... It is not bourgeois idealism if, in full knowledge and without mental prohibitions, we maintain our solidarity with the proletariat instead of making of our own necessity a virtue of the proletariat, as we are always tempted to do - the proletariat which itself experiences the same necessity and needs us for knowledge as much as we need the proletariat to make the revolution.”[12]

The problem we face today, I think, is the opacity of the present, due to our lack of a comparably acute, self-contradictory and dialectical expression of the crisis of capital that Marxism’s historical self-consciousness, in theory and practice, once provided.


  1. ‘“Classical Marxism” and grasping the dialectic’ Weekly Worker September 11 2003.
  2. See also Mike Macnair’s ‘Theoretical dead end’, May 19; ‘The study of history and the left’s decline’, June 2; and ‘Divided by a common language?’ June 30.
  3. See Letters May 19, May 26 and July 7; and my article, ‘The philosophy of history’, June 9.
  4. ‘Against philosopher kings’, December 11 2008.
  5. ‘The politics of critical theory’ Platypus Review No37, July 2011: platypus1917.org/2011/07/09/the-politics-of-critical-theory/#q+a
  6. G Lukács Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat (1922) part 1, ‘The phenomenon of reification’ in History and class consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics Cambridge MA 1971, p91: www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc05.htm
  7. See VI Lenin The state and revolution chapter 5, ‘The economic basis of the withering away of the state’, part 3, ‘The first phase of communist society’: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch05.htm#s3
  8. K Marx Economic and philosophic manuscripts (1844), manuscript 3, section 2, ‘Private property and communism’: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm
  9. K Marx, letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843, ‘Ruthless criticism’: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm
  10. K Korsch, ‘Marxism and philosophy’ (1923), in Marxism and philosophy New York 2008, p39.
  11. Ibid p40.
  12. TW Adorno, ‘Correspondence with Benjamin’ New Left Review September-October 1973, pp66-67.