Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What if Marx and Engels had been Englishmen? Helmut Gollwitzer’s answer...

In his autobiographical reflection on life lived as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union after World War 2, Helmut Gollwitzer recounts – or, perhaps better, reconstructs – a conversation he had shared in during that time. In it he imagines how things might have been different had Marx and Engels been born in England. The resultant reflection, which I reproduce below, is both amusing and profound.

Helmut Gollwitzer, Unwilling Journey (SCM, 1956), 128.
The fateful thing about Marxism was that it had been founded by two Germans. If Marx and Engels had been Englishmen they would have planned a practical political programme for the liberation of the working classes and for the reorganization of society. As Germans, however, and above all as disciples of Hegel, they could not be pragmatists. Instead of contenting themselves with the discovery that in a capitalist society all political strife meant class-warfare, they immediately had to magnify this in the Communist Manifesto into a problematical teaching concerning world history; and instead of being satisfied at least with historical materialism, they must needs put it at once into a framework of dialectical materialism, and of an all-embracing dogma about life in general. As a result we were faced (ed.: in philosophical discussions within the prison camp) with the grotesque situation that any philosophical query—for example, whether like Kant I denied that one could recognize the essential nature of a thing, or, like Lenin, I held the opposite view—took on a political aspect, and a political discussion became a metaphysical one. As long as Marxism did not only base itself on Marx’s political economy but also on his philosophy, it was not in a position to allow genuine freedom of religious and philosophical belief, but had to endeavour to make real not only its political supremacy but also the supremacy of its philosophy of life.

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1 comment:

Nathan Maddox said...

It's ironic that Gollwitzer's argument about Marxism's fate is itself idealist. HG works largely in the realm of concepts and grants far to much causal/determinative force to high intellectual theory and culture.

I'd say Marxism's inability to gain traction has very little to do with a material ordering of *his* philosophy and critique of political economy and more to do with the circumstances of power active where communist currents present themselves in societies.
For instance, the fate of Marxism in Germany during the revolution (and after) was due to a confluence of several material factors like:

(a) External pressures in the fallout of the war. (The US, supported by other Ally powers, tried to back Germany into a democracy by demanding the abdication of the emperor as a condition for surrender, which lead to the Revolution.)

(b) The steady crescendo-ing of the power and popularity of gradualist reform measures, which were sustained by alliances with soldiers, workers, and middle-class petty business-owners (This would include statist Social Democratic parties [SPD USPD], workers, and theorists to the right of Marx and Engels)

(c) The political interests of the SPD/USPD majority in fostering a curtailed sympathy for some imperial political measures.

(d) Fragmentation of the workers parties and alliances, the majority of which despised the minority, anti-nationalist/statist communist party.

This example probably tells you what I think: minimum wage and dependent workers (which today includes the overwhelming majority of us) have never realized their own potential for shared power. Sure definite changes are made, but the activities of Marxian revolutionary groups are stifled or absorbed by less radical parties as soon as they present themselves.

Also, as far as Marx's concepts go, there is a transition from historical materialism to dialectical materialism, but I don't think transition can't be traced back to Marx's original thought -- or his Germanic blood for that matter. As I understand it, Engels later work in history and anthropology was influential in authorizing the conceptual transition (and, along with that, the easy re-introduction of Hegel's spectre into Marxian theory).

Regardless, when Marx talks about historical necessity and communist rule he isn't talking about an idealist process, on the one hand, or the consummate society and economy of the future, on the other. Early on (e.g. in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844) Marx critiques these types of socialism and communism. Really, they have far more in common with the Left Hegelians of Marx's day than Marx himself and they are prototypes of later dialectical materialism.

So why the language of necessity and alienation, etc. in Marx? I think Marx wants to maintain the force of the language of necessity and the ambitions of wholesale abolition of bougie private property. But, as he says in the Manifesto and in his early writings on Hegel, political economy, and in "The German Ideology," he is not interested in a new gospel or a new vision for an absolute society or state. Quite literally, he says, no true materialist could ever *think* this without undue recourse to idealism or theology.

(Of course, there are contemporary political and theological subtexts to my interest, and I'm sure you would same.)