Commentary Magazine

New Left Marxism

Some time ago a speaker on the BBC expressed the hope that Jean-Paul Sartre would in future devote more of his time to drama and less to philosophy. Similar observations are made occasionally in France by people whose political commitments do not differ much from those of Sartre, but who are skeptical of his claim to have effected a synthesis of Marxism and Existentialism. Sartre is, of course, a public figure as well as a philosopher, and his utterances commonly receive the kind of attention reserved in Britain for the pronouncements of Lord Russell. When he declares that Marxism is the last of the great philosophies and the central intellectual concern of our age, the statement is not shrugged off as an eccentricity, as it would be were it made by a prominent American or British writer, supposing such an unlikely thing to occur. These background differences cannot be gone into here. One simply registers the fact that a work such as Sartre’s Critique de la Raison Dialectique—seven hundred fifty closely printed pages of Marxist, or pseudo-Marxist, dialectics published in 1961—could not have been produced anywhere but in France. Not because the subject is of purely local concern, but because Sartre’s way of dealing with it presupposes a certain intellectual tradition. In a way this is an old story—as old perhaps as the difference between Descartes and Hobbes—but the point is that the cleavage persists even in the case of writers concerned with a contemporary phenomenon such as Marxism.

To stay a moment longer with the current situation in France: a paper like Le Monde—a daily after all, not a literary weekly—allots considerable space to review-articles on neo-Marxist literature, and this literature in turn is closely related to the concerns of educated people, whatever their political preferences. It deals with matters that affect everyone: modern civilization, technology, the arts, education, and so on. The nearest equivalent in Britain are the sociological studies associated with Mr. Raymond Williams and his friends of the New Left circle. There is in fact a fairly precise parallel between the British New Left and its Parisian counterpart who appear in a monthly review Arguments. But again one has the impression that the French group has a wider public and finds a more resonant echo among what it is now proper to call the intelligentsia. This cannot be due to the size of the French Communist party, for the writers in question are mainly ex-Communists and in some cases ex-Marxists as well. Rather it seems to reflect a habit of theorizing about social and cultural phenomena at a level of generality which in Britain is commonly reserved for technical philosophy. Writers like Henri Lefebvre—for many years a prominent Communist until he broke with the party on political and theoretical grounds—are indeed philosophers in the technical sense, but they do not confine themselves to academic work, and their writings reach a public that does not ordinarily go in for logical subtleties.

I mentioned Lefebvre just now. He is less well-known than Sartre, but may become a greater influence on the non-Communist Left in France, not least because for years he was an orthodox Marxist-Leninist: something Sartre has never been. His break with the party was an aspect of that internal crisis which in recent years has driven thousands of intellectuals out of its ranks and created a new mental climate. Although the root cause is political, this weakening of the Communist party’s hold over the intellectuals in France takes the form of a debate in which its critics make use of Marxist concepts to show up the inadequacy of the standard Communist approach. Lefebvre for example, in his recently published Introduction à la Modernité, concerns himself with ordinary contemporary reality as it affects the individual living in a modern industrial country. He thus to some extent blots out the distinction between capitalism and socialism: a grave sin from the Communist viewpoint. To talk about the impact of mass communications, or about the position of women in a society which no longer regards thirty as a mature age, must appear frivolous to the party stalwarts for whom such phenomena hardly exist. Outside France, where this kind of literature has been proliferating for some years, it may seem less of an intellectual innovation for a theorist to discover that modern society has certain problems simply because it is modern, i.e., highly industrialized. The lag may be due to the fact that the French are only now beginning to realize to what an extent their country has in recent years undergone a material and technical transformation. What used to be called Americanism (before people had discovered that it was simply modernism) has finally broken through the crust of the old bourgeois way of life, with the result that all of a sudden everyone is talking about the same things: technology, specialization, loneliness, and the role of the individual in a mass society. To that extent the literature of the New Left is simply a way of adapting Marxist sociology to modern life.



There are, however, philosophical issues which differentiate the French movement sharply from its counterparts in the United States, where liberalism remains the official philosophy, or even in Britain with its indigenous socialist tradition. The difference in some cases perhaps amounts to little more than a habit of quoting Hegel and Marx instead of Jefferson or William Morris, but it makes for a different manner of theorizing and verbalizing about trends that everyone is aware of. When Lefebvre complains that the Communists have transformed “the romanticism of the revolution” into a “moralizing neo-classicism,” he is perhaps saying no more than has been said in Britain by a New Left writer like Alasdair MacIntyre. But he says it against the background of a national tradition within which the term “revolution” has far greater resonance than it possesses in Britain. Again, when he plays off the young Marx against the Communist movement, and affirms his unshakable commitment to Marx’s concept of “the whole man,” he is saying something that followers of William Morris, and admirers of D. H. Lawrence, can appreciate even if they have not read the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 or the German Ideology; but the echo it evokes has a different sound because in France it is not a mark of eccentricity to affirm oneself a socialist in the Marxist tradition. After all, Marx did compose these seminal writings in Paris or Brussels, and one of his more influential early works was actually written and published in French. It took the postwar interest in all things German to acclimate his Hegelian terminology in France, but by now the thing has been done, and even Catholic theologians have begun to fill stout volumes of critical studies with hundreds of pages devoted to the analysis of such concepts as “objectification” and “alienation.”

With these evocative terms we have crossed the borderline into philosophy proper, and must now try to navigate among its sandbanks and shallows. This is not made easier by literary fashions that tend to fasten on concepts originally destined for more technical usage. “Alienation” is a case in point. For all one knows there are people who believe it has something to do with mental disturbance, just as there certainly are some enthusiasts who seem to confuse it with Brecht’s theories about the stage. The German terms “Entfremdung” and “Verfremdung” are sufficiently similar to encourage such misconceptions. In California, one gathers, it is now established ground among the more advanced spirits that Marx was a forerunner of both psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism. Setting aside these misapprehensions, what is the real cause of the interest shown in recent years by the New Left movement in the hitherto almost unknown, because untranslated, philosophical writings of the young Marx? For those familiar with them, no explanation is required. They are relevant because they deal with what Malraux called “la condition humaine.” Incidentally, Malraux in his youthful days was a thoroughgoing romantic, a kind of Trotskyist Saint-Exupéry. But then in those days it was still possible to believe that the Russian Revolution would give birth to a new world and transform human nature: more or less what the young Marx looked forward to on the eve of 1848.

Are we then confronted with a revival of romanticism? Yes and no. The political failure of the 1848 movement—and even more its economic success in launching Western and Central Europe on the road of bourgeois development—killed romanticism in France and Germany, and incidentally turned Marx from a philosopher into an economist, and from an apostle of unlimited creative freedom into a kind of determinist. The prosaic outcome of the Russian Revolution may have done something similar for the modern Communist movement. Its official ideology, as Lefebvre quite rightly points out, has become moralistic and authoritarian: not surprisingly since it is now the creed of a ruling class which must try to keep the show going against individual resistance and popular indifference. This is the situation in the USSR and in Eastern Europe, except for some rebellious mutterings in Poland. But in the West, where the Communist party is not in power and may even be losing ground, it cannot easily dispense with the old romantic fervor. The Italian Communists have struck a compromise by placing the official seal upon the libertarian and quasi-romantic philosophy of their party’s founder, Antonio Gramsci: a pupil of Croce and a Hegelian Marxist of considerable subtlety. The French have no Gramsci and are stuck with the dreary orthodoxy of Soviet Marxism and its French exponents, whose scholastic narrowness matches the political rigidity of M. Thorez’s party. In Britain the situation is similar, and there is a corresponding reaction against Marxist academicism. It is, when all is said and done, an anti-rationalist reaction. The Communists having ridden the rationalist horse to death, the submerged romantic element inescapably present in every revolutionary movement tries to assert itself, and it naturally does so by appealing to the young Marx, who was something of a romantic himself.

If one were to cite the relevant texts this suggestion could easily be made plausible, but space forbids. Nor is it possible here to go into all the recent English-language literature on the subject. Much of it, though by no means all, is in some way connected with the New Left. Amidst a growing body of work, some recent scholarly studies by Mr. Gordon Leff1 and Dr. Eugene Kamenka2 require mention for their analysis of the theme of moral responsibility in the light of Hegelian and post-Hegelian thinking. These writers do not obtrude their commitments, but neither do they conceal them. Mr. Leff writes as a socialist, but also as an empiricist (although he takes issue with Karl Popper); Dr. Kamenka, a Central European transplanted to Australia, appears to sympathize with the anarchists. At any rate he reproaches Marx with not having been sufficiently radical in rejecting all moral principles hostile to the unfettered freedom of the individual. There is a similar stress on the moral element of choice in the work of Kostas Axelos, a Greek ex-Communist now resident in France and one of the principal figures of the group around Arguments. What such writers seem to feel is that the starting point for a reconsideration of Marxism is to be found in the young Marx: which is another way of saying that what concerns them most is the human condition, not the mechanism of social change, let alone the technical problem of making a socialist economy work. They take it for granted that human beings will have unsolved problems even under socialism, and that philosophy must attend to them.



There is here a link with the young Marx, but also a point of departure from him, for Marx in 1844 committed himself to the bold statement that the coming revolution would “realize” the aims of philosophy, in consequence of which philosophy as such would disappear, as would religion (and the state). By “philosophy” he meant Hegel’s thought, the only metaphysical system he took seriously. If one holds that metaphysical concerns are linked to mortality and cannot disappear as long as man is a finite being, there is something rather romantic about Marx’s expectation, which in any case corresponded only to a fleeting moment in his youthful development. Sartre, at any rate, does not believe philosophy will come to an end: in the Critique de la Raison he suggests on the contrary that once Communism has been established, it is Marxism that will disappear, while a “philosophy of liberty” (possibly not very different from Sartre’s own) will take its place. This is a neat way of turning the tables, but not convincing to all of Sartre’s critics, who incidentally include Lefebvre. The latter, it may be noted, remains close to the Marx of 1844/45 in asserting that the overcoming of “human alienation” requires the end of religion, philosophy, politics, and art, as specialized and “alienated” activities: the “complete man” lives a life in which these projections of the human spirit are no longer “externalized,” but rather “resumed” into his daily existence. “Pour que la vie devienne art de vivre, Part doit se perdre et se retrouver dans la vie.” This is more or less what Marx says in the Manuscripts. It is also in tune with the idealist and proto-romantic expectations of his German predecessors, including the youthful Hegel and his poet friend Hoelderlin. Behind it there lies the vision of the polls as the humanists saw it: not a fantastic never-never-land, but a concrete historical experience. In this sense it is doubtless true, (as has been suggested by R. G. Tucker), that Marxism has its roots in German idealism; though one need not follow him in his assertion that the common denominator is human self-deification.



The evident attraction of this return to the origins lies in the revival of the concept of freedom: not as a mere ideal but as the central constituent of human nature. This was how Hegel viewed the matter, at any rate in his early writings, and the youthful Marx took over from him the idea that in and through history, men realize their latent potentialities. Socialism could then be defined as a struggle for the enlargement of human freedom, the obstacles resulting not simply from antagonistic class interests, but from past historic acquisitions, themselves due to the effort to overcome the resistance of the non-human environment. The concrete form of this dialectic is the “alienation” which makes men treat as external and “objective” what are in fact their own creations: the state, the moral law, etc. The only permanent reality is human freedom which projects itself into history, and the critical task consists in ceaselessly unmasking these seemingly non-human or super-human alienations, including the supreme alienation of all: religion. Clearly it is this vision which connects the young Marx with the Existentialist school. Indeed one can say that insofar as the New Left represents a philosophical attitude, it is just this synthesis of Marxism and Existentialism: with the qualification that its version of Marxism is somewhat selective and perhaps incompatible with the skeptical and less idealist thinking of the mature Marx. There is scarcely room in this philosophy for the notion that history is subject to discoverable and unalterable laws, and once this belief is abandoned, a good deal of thinking popularly called Marxist has to be revised.

No doubt it can be done. Marx himself drew a distinction between “conditioning” and outright determination. It may perhaps be said that while material conditions circumscribe our activity they do not determine it; that the human task under given historical circumstances is to enlarge the area of freedom; and that in our epoch this can only be done by socializing the means of production. There can be no logical objection to such a formulation, but the shift from causal determination to conscious activity implies that one has to reckon with the possibility of material failure. If it should turn out that historical circumstances are not, in our age, propitious to the realization of socialism so defined, the individual is thrown back on himself, or at most the socialist intellectuals are thrown back upon the task of criticizing the society surrounding them. At any rate they now have a yardstick independent of “history” in the Leninist sense of the term, i.e., Communist Realpolitik.

It is in this liberation from a kind of pseudo-“realism” that the enduring significance of the movement may be thought to lie. When Moscow proclaims that this or that abomination—Stalin’s reign for choice—was “historically necessary” and therefore justified, or when Peking extends such reasoning in all seriousness to the prospect of nuclear war, it is not at first sight obvious that this kind of talk is simply an ex-post rationalization of politics in terms of an abstraction called “history.” Real history, human history, is always about human beings; it is the record of their prolonged struggle with nature and with themselves. In recovering this philosophical dimension with the help of the Hegelian categories employed by Marx in his time, the socialism of the New Left has at the same time recovered its critical freedom. If the atmosphere of Paris, and even of Warsaw, has once more become breathable, it is thanks to this intellectual liberation.




1 The Tyranny of Concepts: A Critique of Marxism. Ambassador Press (Toronto), 203 pp., $4.25.

2 The Ethical Foundations of Marxism. Praeger, 208 pp., $6.50.

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.