Western Marxism

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Western Marxism is a current of Marxist theory arising from Western and Central Europe in the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia and the ascent of Leninism. The term denotes a loose collection of theorists who advanced an interpretation of Marxism distinct from that codified by the Soviet Union. [1]


The Western Marxists placed more emphasis on Marxism's philosophical and sociological aspects, and the origins of Karl Marx's thought in the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (for which reason it is sometimes called Hegelian Marxism), [2] as well as what they called the "Young Marx" (the more humanistic early works of Marx). Although some early figures such as György Lukács and Antonio Gramsci had been prominent in political activities, Western Marxism became primarily the reserve of academia, especially after the Second World War. [3] Prominent figures included Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse.

Since the 1960s, the concept has been closely associated with the New Left. Many of the Western Marxists were adherents of Marxist humanism but the term also encompasses their critics in the form of the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser. [2]


The phrase Western Marxism was first used disparagingly by the Third International in 1923. Maurice Merleau-Ponty re-appropriated and popularized the term with his book Adventures of the Dialectic in 1953. [4] While it is often contrasted with the Marxism of the Soviet Union, Western Marxists have been divided in their opinion of it and other Marxist–Leninist states. [5]

History and distinctive elements

Although there have been many schools of Marxist thought that are sharply distinguished from Marxism–Leninism, such as Austromarxism or the left communism of Antonie Pannekoek, the theorists who downplay the primacy of economic analysis are considered Western Marxists, as they focus on areas such as culture, philosophy, and art. [1]

György Lukács's History and Class Consciousness and Karl Korsch's Marxism and Philosophy, published in 1923, are the works that inaugurated Western Marxism. [1] In these books, Lukács and Korsch proffer a Marxism that emphasizes the Hegelian components of Karl Marx's thought. Marxism is not simply a theory of political economy that improves on its bourgeois predecessors. Nor is it a scientific sociology, akin to the natural sciences. Marxism is primarily a critique – a self-conscious transformation of society. Marxism does not make philosophy obsolete, as vulgar Marxism believes; Marxism preserves the truths of philosophy until their revolutionary transformation into reality. [6]

While their work was greeted with hostility by the Third International, [7] which saw Marxism as a universal science of history and nature, [6] this style of Marxism was taken up by Germany's Frankfurt School in the 1930s. [1] The writings of the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, produced during this period but not published until much later, are also classified as belonging to Western Marxism. [1]

After the Second World War, a number of thinkers such as Lucien Goldmann, Henri Lefebvre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre would constitute a French Western Marxism. [1]

Western Marxism often emphasizes the importance of the study of culture, class consciousness and subjectivity for an adequate Marxist understanding of society. [1] Western Marxists have thus tended to stress Marx's theories of commodity fetishism, ideology and alienation [1] and have elaborated these with new concepts such as false consciousness, reification, and cultural hegemony. [8]

Western Marxism also focuses on the works of the Young Marx, where his encounters with Hegel, the Young Hegelians and Ludwig Feuerbach reveal what many Western Marxists see as the humanist philosophical core of Marxism. [8] However, the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser, which attempts to purge Marxism of Hegelianism and humanism, has also been said to belong to Western Marxism, as has the anti-Hegelian Marxism of Galvano Della Volpe. [2]

Political commitments

Western Marxists have held a wide variety of political commitments: [5] Lukács and Gramsci were members of Soviet-aligned parties; Korsch, Herbert Marcuse, and Guy Debord were highly critical of Soviet communism and instead advocated council communism; Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Althusser and Lefebvre were, at different periods, supporters of the Soviet-aligned Communist Party of France, but all would later become disillusioned with it; Ernst Bloch lived in and supported the Eastern Bloc, but lost faith in Soviet Communism towards the end of his life. Maoism and Trotskyism also influenced Western Marxism. Nicos Poulantzas, a later Western Marxist, was an advocate for Eurocommunism.

List of Western Marxists

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Jacoby 1991, p. 581.
  2. 1 2 3 Jay 1984, p. 3.
  3. Anderson 1976, pp. 49-50.
  4. Jay 1984, p. 1; Merleau-Ponty 1973, pp. 30–59.
  5. 1 2 Jay 1984, pp. 7–8.
  6. 1 2 Jacoby 1991, p. 582.
  7. Kołakowski 2005, pp. 994–995, 1034.
  8. 1 2 Jacoby 1991, p. 583.


Anderson, Perry (1976). Considerations on Western Marxism. Bristol: New Left Books.
Jacoby, Russell (1991). "Western Marxism". In Bottomore, Tom; Harris, Laurence; Kiernan, V. G.; Miliband, Ralph (eds.). The Dictionary of Marxist Thought (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN   978-0-631-16481-4.
Jay, Martin (1984). Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas. Cambridge, England: Polity Press. ISBN   978-0-7456-0000-0.
Kołakowski, Leszek (2005). Main Currents of Marxism. London: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN   978-0-393-32943-8.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1973). Adventures of the Dialectic . Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. ISBN   978-0-8101-0404-4.

Further reading

Bahr, Ehrhard (2008). Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. ISBN   978-0-520-25795-5.
Fetscher, Iring (1971). Marx and Marxism. New York: Herder and Herder.
Grahl, Bart; Piccone, Paul, eds. (1973). Towards a New Marxism. St. Louis, Missouri: Telos Press.
Howard, Dick; Klare, Karl E., eds. (1972). The Unknown Dimension: European Marxism Since Lenin. New York: Basic Books.
Jacoby, Russell (1981). Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511571442. ISBN   978-0-521-23915-8.
Kellner, Douglas. "Western Marxism" (PDF). Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved 18 January 2020.
Korsch, Karl (1970). Marxism and Philosophy. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Lukács, György (1971). History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. London: Merlin Press.
McInnes, Neil (1972). The Western Marxists. New York: Library Press.
Van der Linden, Marcel (2007). Western Marxism and the Soviet Union. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill. doi:10.1163/ej.9789004158757.i-380. ISBN   978-90-04-15875-7.
"Western and Heterodox Marxism". Marx200.org. Retrieved 18 January 2020.