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Marxist Philosophy


Marxist philosophy is the aggregation of philosophical ideas developed from various aspects of Karl Marx's social theory by later thinkers. Marx did not intend to write a philosophy and would have regarded "Marxist philosophy" as a contradiction in terms. He considered his work to be scientific, historical, and sociological, as opposed to "philosophical" divagations on social affairs, which he rejected as class-biased ideology. Moreover, he held that his social theory showed that philosophy was about to end. Philosophy, he said, was a symptom of social malaise and would disappear when revolution put society on a healthier foundation. The young Marx thought that this would happen because revolution would "realize" philosophy, would give solid reality to the ideal phantoms of reason, justice, and liberty that philosophers in sick societies consoled themselves with. The older Marx thought that revolution would destroy philosophy, would simply make it unnecessary, by bringing men back to the study of "the real world." Study of that world is to philosophy "what sexual love is to onanism." In either case Marx never varied in the opinion that the reign of philosophy over men's minds was drawing to a close. Thus, he naturally would not have contributed to its survival by writing a "Marxist philosophy."

Marxism and Traditional Philosophies

Within a few years of Marx's death, however, there were attempts to turn Marxism into philosophy. These have continued ever since and, indeed, have gathered force since the discovery of Marx's earliest writings. There are two explanations for this posthumous transformation. First, there is the familiar paradox that efforts to get rid of philosophy by argument are themselves philosophical. Thus, Marx's antiphilosophy and the theory of historical materialism on which it is based blossomed into a veritable philosophical doctrine, to which Georg Lukács gave consummate form. Second, after the empirical social sciences had taken from Marx's work all that was useful to them (and it was a great deal), there remained much drossdisproven prophecy, hasty generalization, and plain error. Instead of being discarded, as the errors and absurdities of Isaac Newton and Louis Pasteur were discarded in the physical and biological sciences, this nonempirical material was kept alive by a social movement committed to preserving intact the whole of Marx's legacy. It has been called Marxist philosophy.

Because Marxism is not explicitly a philosophy, those who have treated it philosophically have largely sought to find the philosophy to which it "corresponds," from which it "derives," or which it "implies." Solutions have been extremely varied and incompatible. Enrico Ferri put Marxism into the Spencerian system, and Karl Kautsky connected it with Darwinism. Eduard Bernstein and Max Adler found its philosophical complement in Immanuel Kant, and "Back to Kant!" became the slogan of the revisionists. Georgii Valentinovich Plekhanov noted Marx's Hegelian origins but preferred to ally Marxism with materialism, notably that of Ludwig Feuerbach. This opinion was widely accepted by Marxian political activists but was ardently combated by intellectuals. Otto Bauer said that Marxism could not be annexed by materialism because it was compatible with any philosophical doctrine, "including Thomism." Henri de Man essayed a combination of Marx and Freud, whereas the Marburg school of neo-Kantians made a synthesis of Kant's ethics and Marx's socialism. The Russians whom V. I. Lenin attacked in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism had married Marxism to the positivism of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. Lenin himself followed Plekhanov in putting Marxism in the tradition of mechanist materialism, later adding a dialectical theory of development to distinguish it from classic materialism. Georges Sorel, René Berthelot, and various Italian writers found the extension of Marxism in pragmatism, and this view became influential in the United States through the writings of Sidney Hook. Antonio Gramsci and Giovanni Gentile, in their different ways, reacted against the "materialist debasement" of Marxism by coupling it with Italian neoidealism. The search for new philosophic settings for Marxism, such as existentialism, continues and is necessarily inconclusive.

The variety of opinions confirms that there is no Marxist philosophy. Nevertheless, some efforts to incorporate Marxism into philosophy are less successful than others, for Marxism is not philosophically neutral even if it does fail to define its position in respect to the major philosophical traditions. Least successful are alliances of Marxism with materialism, from Baron d'Holbach to L. Büchner, or with positivism, whether Mach's or Herbert Spencer's. The tendency of decades of criticism has been to show that the idealist content of Marx's thought is too dominant to allow those confusions. Conversely, the alliance that has proven most fruitful and that has grown in authority over the years is that between Marxism and the Hegelian dialectic. Though Antonio Labriola had noted this, it was ignored for more than a generation until Lukács insisted that Marx belonged in the Hegelian tradition. In this Lukács has been followed by Karl Mannheim, Herbert Marcuse, Lucien Goldmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Everywhere, Marxism's principal philosophical consequence has been to stimulate the study of G. W. F. Hegel. Otherwise, it has had singularly little effect on philosophy, even on pragmatism, with which it has evident affinities.

Orthodox Marxism

The distinction between a materialist and an idealist reading of Marx does not exactly coincide with the division between the orthodoxy of the Communist parties and the independent criticism of the so-called Western Marxists, but the history of the subject must be told in terms of the latter division. The orthodox tradition begins with Friedrich Engels, not with Marx. It uses two principal texts, Engels's Anti-Dühring and Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The name of Marx is very seldom mentioned in these discussions, for Marx never explicitly stated the doctrines set out by Engels, taken over and interpreted by Lenin, and then dogmatically systematized by Joseph Stalin. He sometimes appeared to hold opinions resembling those they expressedfor example, the representationist theory of knowledgeyet his early manuscripts seem far removed in spirit from the materialism of these works. That is why the early works, which are the basis of most Marxist philosophy in the West, were dismissed by Soviet writers as juvenile hangovers from Hegelianism that the mature Marx disowned.


Orthodox Marxist philosophy has developed very little over the years, being accepted as much by Rosa Luxemburg as by Lenin, as much by Leon Trotsky as by Stalin, as much by Mao Zedong as by Nikita Khrushchev. Its epistemology is naive representationism: The "concepts in our heads" are images, reflections, or copies of "real things." Objections to that view have been familiar since Bishop Berkeley, but they are held by orthodox Marxists to be answered by a reference to practice. We can compare mental images and the things they copy by noting our success or failure in manipulating those things. This manipulation is primarily economic activity or is affected by it, so it must differ for each technological age and each class. There is therefore no nonpartisan science. There is a contradiction here, for it is contended that the mind has exact copies of reality and yet its knowledge is historically relative. This is admitted but is circumvented by asserting that absolute knowledge is the historical goal but relative knowledge is the present plight.


In metaphysics the orthodox doctrine distinguishes itself from classic materialism by insisting on dialectic process, as opposed to mechanism, in the development of things. Matter is subject to laws that are causal and determinist but not mechanist. It evolves toward the better and more complex, and it does so in a series of revolutionary jumps, in which accumulations of quantitative difference produce sudden qualitative changes after a period of tension and conflict. Matter is the unique reality. Chance does not exist, and there is no breach in this absolute monism. Mind is an epiphenomenon producing, in consciousness, reflections of matter. Matter does not determine mind directly, as the medical materialists said, but indirectly, by way of society. Society, too, develops dialectically, in revolutionary jumps that resolve its recurrent self-contradictions or internal conflicts. Human liberty consists in awareness of the necessity of social process.

religion, ethics, and aesthetics

Religion is doomed to disappear, being a symptom of unjust and self-negating social conditions. Ethics and aesthetics evolve as society changes, for there are no eternal, nonhistorical laws in either. Beauty is objective but appreciation is relative to class, so art is implicated in the class struggle.

In ethics the situation is more complex. At first the exclusion of eternal, suprahistorical laws was held to warrant amoralism, ethical indifference, or at least some experimentation in new ways of living. Soviet authorities found that attitude socially inconvenient, and eventually Stalin formally condemned all applications of historical relativism that suggested that the new polity could have a new ethics (or a special new logic). Since then the position has been that Marxist philosophy substantially accepts the ethical ideals preached in other contemporary societies but adds that only a communist nation can escape hypocrisy by living up to those ideals, by practicing what it preaches. Thus, not only is ethical innovation discouraged in communist countries, but ethical criticism in noncommunist countriesfor instance, by existentialistsis strongly deplored as a diversion from the work of creating the social conditions for the application of the uncriticized ethical code common to all modern societies.

Western Marxism

The Western Marxists, whose first generation, in the 1920s, comprised Lukács, Karl Korsch, Bela Fogarasi, and Josef Revai, rejected the representationist theory of knowledge, but their quarrel with orthodoxy centered on the dialectic. On this issue the orthodox followed Engels, the Westerners the young Hegelian Marx.

Engels had posited the triadic dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis as an eternal law of cosmic development, applying as much to nature as to mind and society. Everywhere, one would find constant progress from lower to higher by way of objective tensions. The tensions are caused when something engenders its own opposite or negation and are resolved when the opposites merge in a synthesis (the negation of the negation). Engels's immediate successors, whether social democrats, revisionists, Austro-Marxists, or independent students such as Benedetto Croce and Sorel, could make nothing of these ideas and simply ignored the dialectic. At first Lenin did the same, in 1894 dismissing it as a "vestige of Hegelianism." However, he later adopted Engels's dialectic as the badge that distinguished Marxist materialism from classic or vulgar materialism. This dialectic embellishment of materialism has remained a point of honor with subsequent Marxist philosophers even when the dialectic is seldom applied or evoked. The law of the negation of the negation has found little use, and the examples of it offered by Engels, August Thalheimer, and Paul Sandor have been generally rejected by philosophers and scientists. Stalin formally declared that the other law of dialectic, the law of the transformation of quantity into quality, did not have universal scope but applied only to class-divided societies. With the two laws in effect discarded, orthodox Marxist materialism no longer has a characteristic theory of development. There remains only the law of the union of opposites, which serves to reconcile contradictions (and to justify inconsistencies).

The role of the dialectic in Western Marxism is very different. It does not operate in physical nature and is not a law at all. It concerns the relation between mind and social history. That relation comes to the fore because of an evident difficulty encountered by the historical relativism of Marx. If all knowledge is partial, provisional, relative, class-biased, and historically limited, then is this not true of Marxism itself? The answer of Engels and Lenin was that everything was relative except a small number of absolutely true propositions that included logic and Marxist theory. Seeing the impossibility of maintaining this dualism of relative and absolute knowledge, Lukács abandoned absolute (or unconditionally true) knowledge and accepted the relative and partial character of all knowledge. The relation between our knowledge and all other worldviews that constitute cultural history is a dialectical one, meaning that none is completely true or completely false. More generally, all relations between subject and history are dialectical in the sense of being ambiguous, reciprocal relations that leave room for "contrary and inseparable truths." This is true because, on the one hand, the subject is a social and historical product and, on the other hand, because historical forces are alienated spirit, reified personality. There is conflict and tension between the two terms of that relation, and they will be removed by revolution, which will effect the synthesis of the two and will represent the triumph of the human spirit over the alienation or reification of its products. In this view the crux of historical materialism is the relation between mind and history, the dialectic relation between the personal subject and the apparently impersonal, material forces of society. In showing that those forces are really alienated personality, the theory denounces the objectification of spirit in inhuman institutions. It foresees the victory of spirit over that dehumanization.

Marxist historical materialism, said Lukács, thus criticizes itself according to its own principles. It comes to hold itself as provisional, as, at most, a progress toward a truth that is yet to be attained. Because this relativization seemed to lower Marxism from the status of a dogma to that of one ideology among others, it was no doubt the main reason for the condemnation of Western Marxist philosophy by the orthodox. Yet even the relativism of Lukács (and also of Karl Mannheim) still claims to have dogmatic knowledge of the whole of history, which is the total process into which all partial ideologies fit dialectically and which they all reflect more or less faithfully. With this notion of totality the relativists have brought back the Absolute that they first threw out in favor of the historically relative.

Common Features

Because of a dualism in Marx's own thinking, which he never cared to resolve, Marxist philosophy has thus divided into two broad streams. On the one side, there is emphasis on the determinist, evolutionist, materialist, and sociological themes. On the other side, there is the idealist strain that looks forward to the deliverance of humanity from economic determinism. This idealist strain, stressing the primacy of present human activity over the solidified, alienated products of past human activity, has aptly been called titanism by Nikolai Berdyaev. It is a powerful factor in all modern Marxist thoughtnot only in Western Marxism, where it is explicit, but also in orthodox Soviet Marxism. After a profession of materialist faith, orthodox Marxism introduces the idealist element by attributing to matter a readiness to cooperate with progressive causes. (In other contexts such an attribution of spiritual purposes to matter is called magic.)

The two varieties of Marxist philosophy retain other common features. Both abandon the distinction between truth and falsity in favor of a relativist notion that sees truth as a historical goal and knowledge as never more than progress toward absolute truth. This relativist concept appears in all philosophical developments of Marxism, from Engels to Gramsci and Lukács. Moreover, both sorts of Marxist philosophy cling to the idea of an ultimate reality. Though this is called matter in one case and history in the other, the difference is not great wherever matter has tacitly been endowed with a purposefulness and spirituality (by evolving dialectically) that make it resemble history. Marxism started with the recognition of all things as events or processes that interact, and it emphasized, in the theory of historical materialism, some sorts of interaction that had been overlooked. In its philosophical extensions it has gone on from there to the concept of a moving totality of things to which single things are relative and within which single things have ambiguous, dialectical relations with one another. This view is as familiar to philosophers as the representationist theory of knowledge that Lenin revived and has been as thoroughly criticized. For this reason, among others, Marxist philosophy has seldom secured consideration or academic influence outside of countries where it is politically privileged.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Avenarius, Richard; Berkeley, George; Büchner, Ludwig; Darwinism; Engels, Friedrich; Existentialism; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Freud, Sigmund; Gentile, Giovanni; Gramsci, Antonio; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'; Kant, Immanuel; Kautsky, Karl; Labriola, Antonio; Lenin, Vladimir Il'ich; Lukács, Georg; Mach, Ernst; Mannheim, Karl; Marx, Karl; Materialism; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Metaphysics; Neo-Kantianism; Newton, Isaac; Plekhanov, Georgii Valentinovich; Positivism; Religion; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Sorel, Georges; Thomism.


works by marx and engels

Engels, Friedrich. Dialektik der Natur. Berlin, 1927. Translated by Clemens Dutt as Dialectics of Nature. New York: International Publishers, 1940. This work was first written in 18721873.

Engels, Friedrich. Herr Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft. Leipzig, 1878. Translated by E. Burns as Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science. London, 1935. The AntiDühring.

Engels, Friedrich. Herr Eugen Dühring's der klassischen deutschen Philosophic. Stuttgart, 1888. Translated as Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. New York: International Publishers, 1934.

Marx, Karl. Oekonomische-philosophische Ausgabe. Frankfurt, 1932. Translated by Martin Milligan as Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Moscow and London, 1959.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Die deutsche Ideologic. Berlin, 1932. Translated anonymously as The German Ideology. Edited by S. Ryazanskaya. Moscow, 1964.

marxist writings

Gramsci, Antonio. Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce. Turin: Einaudi, 1940.

Lenin, N. Materializm i Empirio-Krititsizm. Moscow, 1908. Translated by David Kvitko and Sidney Hook as Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. New York, 1927.

Lukács, Georg. Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. Berlin: Malik, 1923. Translated as Histoire et conscience de classe. Paris, 1960.

Mannheim, Karl. Ideologie und Utopie. Bonn: Cohen, 1929. Translated by Louis Wirth and Edward A. Shils as Ideology and Utopia. London: Routledge, 1936.

Mao Zedong. On Contradiction. New York: International Publishers, 1953.

Mao Zedong. On Practice. New York, 1953.

Mao Zedong. Selected Works, 4 vols. New York: International Publishers, 19541956.

Plekhanov, Georgi. Izbranniye Filosofskie Proizvedenia v Piati Tomakh. Moscow, n.d. Translated as Selected Philosophical Works. London, 1961.

Plekhanov, Georgi. Osnovnie Voprosi Marksizma. 1910. Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul as Fundamental Problems of Marxism. London: M. Lawrence, 1929.

Stalin. Concerning Marxism and Linguistics. Moscow, 1950.

Stalin. Leninism, Selected Writings. New York, 1938. Contains the essay "Dialectical and Historical Materialism."

works on marxism

Berdyaev, Nikolai. The Origin of Russian Communism. Translated by R. French. London: Centenary Press, 1937. This work has never been published in Russian.

Bocheński, I. M. Der sowjetrussische dialektische Materialismus (Diamat). Bern and Munich, 1950. Translated by Nicholas Solluhub as Dialectical Materialism. Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1963.

Carew Hunt, R. N. Marxism Past and Present. New York: Macmillan, 1954.

Fetscher, I. Der Marxismus: Seine Geschichte in Dokumenten, Vol. I, Philosophic, Ideologic. Munich: R. Piper, 1963.

Hook, Sidney. From Hegel to Marx. London, 1936.

Hook, Sidney. Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx. New York: John Day, 1933.

Korsch, Karl. Marxismus und Philosophie. Leipzig, 1923; 2nd ed., 1930.

Leningrad Institute of Philosophy. Textbook of Marxist Philosophy. Translated by A. Moseley. London, 1937.

Lichtheim, George. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. London, 1961.

Marcuse, Herbert. Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Les aventures de la dialectique. Paris: Gallimard, 1955.

Vranicki, P. Historija marksizma. Zagreb, 1961.

Wetter, Gustav. Der dialektische Materialismus. Vienna, 1952. Translated by Peter Heath as Dialectical Materialism: A Historical and Systematic Survey of Philosophy in the Soviet Union. New York: Praeger, 1958.

Neil McInnes (1967)

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