Western and Heterodox Marxism

Jean-Paul Sartre und Simone de Beauvoir mit Che Guevara  in Kuba, 1960
Jean-Paul Sartre und Simone de Beauvoir mit Che Guevara in Kuba, 1960 Foto: Alberto Korda Public Domain

The origin of the current within the debate on Marx that would later be known as "Western Marxism" can be traced back as far as the period during which World War One and the Russian Revolution were being worked through theoretically. In part, Western Marxism was a critical response to the beginnings of Marxism's "nationalisation," as well as to Marxism-Leninism, in the Soviet Union. Yet these debates also involved a response to a general "crisis of Marxism," caused, among other things, by the failure of the Second International and of the German Revolution of 1918–19.

One basic feature by which to distinguish "Western" from "Classical Marxism" is the status of theories and debates. While the preceding period had seen theory and political practice closely bound up with one another, this connection was lost in Western and Heterodox Marxism. Earlier, up to and including the period of Austro-Marxism, leading theorists had also been influential political actors; this was true not just of Marx and Engels, but also of Karl Kautsky, Karl Liebknecht, Georgi Plekhanov, Antonio Labriola, Rosa Luxemburg and Otto Bauer, to name only the most well-known. "Western Marxism," by contrast, is characterised by the fact that its debates are academic and influenced by philosophy.

Moreover, on the level of theory, "Western Marxism" addressed new issues and questions.  "Classical Marxism" had focused mainly on the labour/capital contradiction, class struggle and questions of organisation and political struggle, whereas "Western Marxism" poses questions of epistemology, consciousness and subjectivity, and takes a greater interest in (everyday) culture, art and aesthetics.

Moreover, "Western Marxism" distances itself critically from the emphatic expectations still associated, in "Classical Marxism," with society's contradictions and their historical development, as well as with the class struggle and its forms of political organisation. This critical distance is in no small part due to the development of the Soviet Union and Stalinism. Against the dogmatic reduction of Marx's texts to a "Marxist-Leninist worldview," a more enquiring attitude was proposed: one that sees Marx's texts as posing certain problems and seeks to open them up to other philosophical and theoretical influences.

Mainly during the period following the Second World War, Western Marxism also distanced itself from the writings of Engels and Lenin; this was associated with an interest in Marx's early writings, which were characterised by humanism. During the two decades following the Second World War, the search for a "humanist Marx" was a general feature of the various currents of "Western and Heterodox Marxism".

The beginnings of "Western Marxism" are usually identified with György Lukács and his collection of essays History and Class Consciousness, as well as with Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy. Both works were published in 1923. Antonio Gramsci is a similar liminal figure, situated between "Classical" and "Western Marxism." Other protagonists include Galvano Della Volpe, Ernst Bloch, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Lefebvre and, with some qualifications, the writers associated with Critical Theory. The end of the epoch of "Western Marxism" and the beginning of the "re-engagement with Marx in the 1960s" are often identified with the writings of Louis Althusser.

However, the term "Western Marxism" implies certain spatial boundaries. In order not to ignore the critical and heterodox approaches to Marx that developed in the countries of real existing socialism (the "Marxism of the East"), we have chosen to supplement our account of "Western Marxism" with one of "Heterodox Marxism.

Since the term "Western" can in any case not be intended in a purely geographical sense, but refers, rather, to a thematic break with the dogmatic closure of Marxist theory in the countries of real existing socialism (but also within "Marxism-Leninism"), the discussions on Marx conducted in the global South, including in the countries that would later come to be known as "newly industrialising countries," are also included in the rubric "Western and Heterodox Marxism." These discussions were influenced both by the "Marxism-Leninism" of the East and by "Western and Heterodox Marxism." However, there also emerged an independent debate, informed by colonial history, struggles against colonialism and imperialism and the politics of national liberation. This debate would go on to influence currents such as Postcolonial Studies and Subaltern Studies during the 1970s and 1980s.

It is not possible to distinguish various generations within "Western and Heterodox Marxism," as can be done for "Classical Marxism." Nor, however, is "Western and Heterodox Marxism" as plural and fragmented as approaches to Marx were to become during the "re-engagement with Marx since the 1960s." "Western and heterodox Marxism" is best identified with certain persons. It can also be understood, in spite of some overlap, by reference to the debates conducted in the three regions that resulted from the division of the world at the time: Marx in the West, in the East and in the Global South.

Further introductions to the issue can be found, among other places, in Perry Anderson's Considerations on Western Marxism (1976).

Critical Theory (from the 1920s)

Critical Theory, also referred to as the Frankfurt School, emerged in the 1920s and took hold in 1931, when Max Horkheimer became director of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt on the Main.

Heterodox Marxism in the US, Canada and Australia

Like "Western Marxism," the heterodox discussion on Marx in the USA developed in opposition to dogmatic "Marxism-Leninism," proposing as an alternative to it a reading of Marx's texts that is philosophical and humanist in the broadest sense.

Yugoslavia and the Praxis Group (1960–1975, from 1981)

In Yugoslavia, the so-called Praxis Group attempted, during the 1960s and 1970s, to counterpose a humanist Marx to Stalinism and "Marxism-Leninism".

Japan and South Korea (from 1920)

Like Germany, Japan already saw vigorous intra-Marxist debate, as well as debate between Marxists and bourgeois economists, as early as the 1920s. For example, early debates on the theory of value were already conducted in Japan during the 1920s. In Japan as elsewhere, these discussions were radically disrupted by fascism and war, and their protagonists were persecuted. Following the Second World War, they were able to re-gain a foothold, obtaining university positions in far greater numbers than their German counterparts.

The Debate on Marx in the Global South

The geographical term "South" is intended to sum up those debates in theories that build on Marx and neither originate in Western Europe nor in North America, the Soviet Union or the real socialist states of Eastern Europe. The Marxism of the Global South was of course influenced by these two major camps.