Karl Marx
Karl Marx; drawing by David Levine

In the days when ex-Radicals in the US and elsewhere hailed the “end of ideology” (by which they meant the end of socialist ideology) there always remained one difficult case to explain: France. That country insisted on maintaining not merely the oldest and strongest Communist Party in Europe, but also an almost unparalleled, indeed in many ways a growing, passion for Marxism among its intellectuals. It is hardly an exaggeration to claim that, with the exception of a few wartime collaborators, every living French intellectual who is reasonably well-known abroad has at one time or another acknowledged the profound influence of Marxism, or at least voted for the Communist Party; and no exaggeration at all to claim that the intellectual life of Paris since the war is incomprehensible to anyone who is ignorant of the internal controversies of continental Marxists. In a sense France has long been unique, for while Italian Marxism is in many ways a more impressive phenomenon, until 1943 it had no continuous history as an organized proletarian mass movement. It is easier to account for Marxism in Italy, which was, after all, an unusually poor and, in some parts, a typically underdeveloped country. Twenty years of fascism had created and prolonged a united front of the Marxist Left, and the political domination of the Roman Catholic Church produced a virtual two-party system in which the Communists (as the senior partner of this united front) benefited because they were the obvious center of anticlerical opposition. In many parts of Italy anyone who was against the priests, that is to say virtually all intellectuals, was in practice forced to support the only effective counter-weight to the Vatican. Moreover, the resistance movement against Germany, always favorable to the Communists, was a much more impressive and widespread phenomenon in Italy than in France.

In France such explanations would not serve. There was no region corresponding to the Italian South. The standard of life, never so low as in Italy, was improving with great rapidity. (At present there are more automobile owners in France than even in Great Britain.) France was politically pluralist to a ridiculous degree, and the Communist Party was, except for a few relatively brief periods, isolated either by its own choice or by the boycott of the other parties. Moreover, neither Marxism nor its bolshevik form of political organization had any very old or strong traditions. It was not until the middle 1930s that the Party established itself as the dominant force on the French Left. Nevertheless, since then its dominance has been unshakeable. While the old Socialist Party has declined into a congeries of local political machines and potential ministers, and the various dissident Socialist and Communist groups have never got far beyond the café-tables of the 5th arrondissement, the Communist Party continues to collect the votes of one in every four or five Frenchmen. The result of the Catholic attempt to recapture the Marxist workers has not been to turn Communists into Catholics—not even Catholic professors—but to turn a good number of workerpriests into Marxists. The Communist Party has been bitterly criticized from all sides, even by its own intellectuals. Yet no political or ideological calculation on the French Left has been able to dispense with it. This is the situation which George Lichtheim sets out to analyze in his excellent study, Marxism in Modern France.

AT FIRST SIGHT this book does not fit easily into the general thesis with which Lichtheim’s readers have been familiar since the publication of his Marxism a few years ago. He there argued, with his customary erudition, intellectual acumen, and clarity, that Marxism was the counterpart of nineteenth-century bourgeois liberalism, and that both disintegrated after 1914 and, even more rapidly, after the Great Slump of 1929. The Marxian perspective of a proletarian revolution that would overthrow capitalism, and in doing so create the conditions for the end of human alienation, the classless society which would also be the age of human freedom, belonged—he suggested—to the ideas of optimism and progress of the nineteenth century. Capitalism, in the sense in which both its supporters and its critics knew it before 1914, broke down, but its inheritor was not proletarian revolution, except (nominally at least) in backward regions where its consequences were very different from those anticipated by Marx in the developed countries. Its successor in the West (with the partial exception of the lone capitalist bastion of the US) was the mixed and managed bureaucratic economy which made both classical liberalism and Marxism obsolete in practice and as theoretical models. Paradoxically, the system of thought which prided itself on the unity of theory and practice was reduced to theory only in the West, to empiricism plus dogmatic theology in the East. The philosopher whose highest aim was not to interpret the world but to change it was now useful to those who wished to interpret rather than to change. Marxism survived, because of the remarkable genius of its founder, but as something much more modest than what Marx had conceived: essentially as an intellectual tool for academics.


THOUGH HE HAS BEEN UNABLE to maintain all the formulations of his earlier book, Lichtheim has seen no reason to alter his fundamental argument. Indeed in many ways this new study of France reinforces it. Certainly the articulate ideologues in Paris, always in large supply, provide further support to his argument. Because the strength and influence of Marxism have been so great in France, its undeniable crisis since 1956 has been particularly dramatic. Because no country is more aware of what revolution means, the absence of revolution is harder to conceal. The electoral strength and revolutionary ideology of the Communists contrast strikingly with the party’s actual political immobility and impotence, and the modest reformism of its policies. The parallel with German Social Democracy before 1914 is tempting. (It is also wrong: The German Social-Democrats were never revolutionary, and used Marxist predictions to conceal the fact; the French Communists were revolutionary, but did not know what to do when there were no barricades to be put up, and no obvious prospects of putting them up.) Marxism remains immensely influential among intellectuals in one form or another. However, it is easy to illustrate the difficulty that some of the ablest of them have in reconciling the theory to the western realities of the 1960s without abandoning the proletarian-revolutionary perspective. Several of the “revisionists” have in consequence argued themselves out of Marxism altogether, like the group around the review Arguments, while other ex-Communists have simply preferred to use their exceptional gifts—for in France the most revolutionary have also tended to be the most gifted—to make money or a brilliant academic career. In a sense France is a delayed case of Marxist crisis and not an exception.

It does not therefore disturb Lichtheim’s analysis in principle. In practice however both France and the years that have passed since the writing of Marxism, have brought about, or so it seems to me, some modifications in the author’s positions. The first is perhaps an emergence rather than a change. A distinct emotional expression has now begun to appear on the hitherto impassive face of the analyst. He has begun to reveal his sympathies, which are “with those revisionist Socialists, in France and elsewhere, for whom the critique of industrial society is to be distinguished from the dissection of the defunct market of liberal capitalism.” The “ring of skepticism” which Lichtheim noted in his conclusions to Marxism seems softer today. His analysis of classical Marxism now admits not only the value of Marxism as a “tool of analysis” (and particularly, as a “critique of liberal economics and a first approximation towards a unified theory of the state”) but also “leaves unchallenged the relevance of an evolutionary socialism tacitly attuned to the necessities of the new industrial and post-bourgeois age”; i.e., a sort of Marxian Fabianism. In his earlier book the “sharpest edge” of what survived in Marxism was “turned against the illusory claims made on its behalf by regimes which purport to represent the fulfilment of its aims.” It may be purely the concentration of the new book on a purely western phenomenon, but the relevance of Marx’s thinking to a critique of Western society is much more emphasized in it.

CURIOUSLY ENOUGH, Lichtheim’s modifications of Marxist theory are in some respects similar to Lenin’s, though his conclusions are not. Like the early Lenin, he stresses the limitations of a purely proletarian movement, more likely to oscillate between the poles of reformism and an instinctive syndicalism than to be genuinely revolutionary. Like Lenin he underlines the role of the intelligentsia and indeed he acknowledges Lenin’s discovery of its “decisive role…in giving political direction to the working-class movement.” What is more, he recognizes the sociological insights implicit in the formation of the Leninist vanguard party, whose “internal structure and ideology. prefigured the social hierarchy of the future.” It is quite clear that Lichtheim’s analysis is hostile to proletarian revolution in the old sense, at all events in the developed countries, and to any form of totalitarianism. Yet much of his analysis might well be acceptable even in such Communist Parties as the Swedish, Austrian, and Italian, i.e., among Marxists who, though not hostile to revolution as such, are convinced that in the developed western countries it is highly improbable, who are also critical of Stalinism in such societies, and who in any case agree with Lichtheim that the chances of a transformation on the Bolshevik model were missed or never existed in western Europe and North America.


It is perhaps possible to detect a further retreat from the skepticism of the author’s earlier position. For the end of classical Marxism, as he now puts it, has left behind not ruin, but two political perspectives which can still draw upon it. Both are based on the same type of analysis, though “Gaullist” revisionists, like Serge Mallet, and ex-Trotskyists falling back upon a quasi-anarcho-syndicalist position, like Pierre Cardan, diverge widely in their political conclusions. The one is a moderate revisionism which pins its faith to a technological intelligentsia allied to a working class with which it has much in common; and the other a proletarian-minded radicalism that, if equally doubtful about the triumph of revolution, expresses the “permanent protest against exploitation and alienation” of any manual working class, which, being essentially subordinate in all “industrial societies,” always has this to protest about.

Yet in Lichtheim’s version the first position does not differ fundamentally from the old-style concept of the unity of workers by hand and brain. It denies (quite rightly) that “intellectuals would function simply as spokesmen of the workers” and points out (equally rightly) that the alliance between these two distinct but not antagonistic strata “was tenuous and might come apart if too much pressure was applied by one side or the other.” On the other hand, it seems to grant that the intelligentsia, technocratic or otherwise, “lacked an adequate political consciousness by itself,” and indeed the book is quite clear about the repeated failures of the French intellectuals’ independent excursions into politics, and especially of their most ambitious effort, under Mendès-France. But this weakens the author’s view that the post-liberal economy is (at least in its political and social aspects) neither “bourgeois” nor “proletarian.” It might be argued with equal plausibility that the bureaucratic technocracy of the mid-twentieth century must fit itself into either a “capitalist” or a “labor” social and political framework, because it is apparently unable to replace either completely on its own.

ON THE OTHER HAND, Lichtheim’s view that there is a permanent basis of protest against exploitation and alienation comes closer than he might find convenient to the admission that Marxism has a continuing function as a revolutionary ideology in western countries. It may be true that such a protest movement is unable to make the “proletarian revolution” of which it dreams, but this is not new. If Lichtheim is right, the labor movement has always operated within such limits, because he argues that there was never much chance of the world-transforming revolution of the working class, which was the “myth” that moved the Left in the past. Conversely, if the basis for such a protest is permanent, it is bound to imply in the minds of those who make it some image, however utopian, of the “good” society to set against the “bad” one of the status quo, an image which will almost certainly become explicit. It is true that Lichtheim suggests that at present this implicit utopia is syndicalist rather than Marxist, and to that extent more primitive, more limited in scope, and almost certainly less effective. But such an attitude can be at once revolutionary and combined with classical Marxism, at least until the victory of revolution, if only because of the vast historical force of the Marxist vision of the end of alienation and exploitation.

Insofar as a social basis for a protest against exploitation remains, there is no reason why in one form or another Marxism should not play its old mobilizing role, even without realistic prospects for its utopia. For whatever the theory, in practice revolutionary sentiments have not depended on the hope of success, but on the unacceptability of the status quo. What makes the temper of urban Negroes in the United States potentially insurrectionary is not optimism about their chances but the intolerability of their situation, and a new political consciousness largely derived from other people’s revolutions. And the revolutionary can always (though he rarely will) comfort himself with the “reformist” argument for his existence—the one formulated by the late Malcolm X in his message to a Negro State Senator:

Tell him that he and all of the other moderate Negroes who are getting somewhere need to always remember that it was us extremists who made it possible.

So long as it is conceded that there is room for a permanent protest against a wrong that cannot be righted by material improvements alone, and that the echoes of other revolutions can reverberate in the minds of rebels, there is no adequate reason to write off the historic role of Marxism as the ideology of revolution. Its chances of success in developed countries are small, but then they were never large. If it were to succeed, it would not inaugurate the millennium, and disappoint many of its former champions. But this has been the fate of both revolutions and revolutionary expectations, and has historically never been an effective argument against either, except in the generations immediately affected. Indeed, one of the reasons for the unusual strength of Marxism in France is precisely the capacity of the revolutionary ideal and model, once historically established, to survive repeated disillusions. The republic was always more beautiful under the empire, but the emperors are nevertheless dead.

Lichtheim, in fact, analyzes one aspect of the persistence of the revolutionary vision in some detail, though not quite in this context. This is the continued strength of the tradition of 1789, which is a main reason for the deeply national character of the French Communist Party—and the withering away of the working-class base of its moderate Socialist rival—and which is probably the chief reason for the revolutionary temper of so many French intellectuals. For the vulgar sociology that explains the rebelliousness of the intelligentsia by its “alienation” plainly does not apply to Republican France, where certified intellectual eminence always enjoyed the sort of status that belongs to bankers and doctors in a small Indiana town. A great many Frenchmen are revolutionary even when this is not called for because revolution remains the major national model of politics. What is more to the point, the Marxist version of revolution has fused so completely with the Jacobin—a consequence, perhaps, of the fact that during World War II, at the moment of truth for modern western socialism, Moscow succeeded where Paris so patently failed—that the two can no longer be separated. If they decline, as is not impossible, 1789 and 1917 will decline together.

THERE IS YET ANOTHER ASPECT of the continued vigor of the Marxist ideology, which Lichtheim might have dealt with more fully. This is the emergence, or re-emergence, of a revolutionary ultra-Left, at present mainly among young intellectuals. This is, of course, not confined to France. Lichtheim is concerned with theory, and it is perhaps understandable that he neglects the young rebels, for their theoretical sophistication is often small and numerically they are not very important. Still, one wishes he had paid attention to Althusser and the rather less native group in the Ecole Normal Supérieure. Unlike so many older versions of the dissident Marxist Left, the present ultra-Left cannot be simply dismissed as a collection of “sectarian splinter-groups,” for it reflects, and often leads, a much more representative body of opinion in schools and universities. There is realism in the Oxford joke that the young man who got the prettiest girls in the early 1960s was a Maoist Old Etonian from Balliol, who studied sociology with a Latin American slant, and had a Bob Dylan haircut. It is possible to dismiss the older generation of French revolutionaries as nostalgic survivors, unwilling to recognize that the days of insurrection have gone. It is not possible so to dismiss the new generation of juvenile militants who have entered polities looking for revolution. They reflect the unexpected, but undeniable, fact that the most brilliant material successes of western society have intensified rather than muted the criticisms of its fundamental nature.

Insofar as this is so, it is too early to hold funeral services over the corpse of Marxism as a revolutionary ideology in the west. However, it would still be possible to argue, as Lichtheim does, that a Marxism which is forced (except as an empirical fact) to cut the “end of alienation” and the “classless society” out of its theoretical system, no longer deserves the name. Possible, but perhaps, like all arguments about the remote future, not very profitable. It would also be possible to argue with him that the empirical persistence of revolutionary Marxism is no longer a specifically anti-capitalist phenomenon, but—since all “industrial societies” provide a similar base for the discontent of the permanently subaltern strata and some intellectuals—a protest equally directed against East and West. This assumes, in the currently fashionable manner, that what all industrial societies have in common is more important than what they have not. This is a tenable view in the abstract, but even if we do not investigate it more closely, it has little bearing on the immediate political situation. This makes Marxism much more effective against the West than within the East. The reasons for discontent in Sverdlovsk are substantially different from those in Detroit, whatever may be the case in future. The arguments against Western mass communications do not touch Izvestia, which has quite other flaws. Moreover, so far as one can tell, the ideological form in which rebellion expresses itself in Communist countries is rarely neo-Marxist or revisionist, though aspirations for reform within the Communist regime often are. There rebellion is much more likely to take the form of a simple reversal of officially inculcated values and norms (which are of course nominally Marxist). Consequently, whether we call the industrial societies of the west capitalist or not, the sharp edge of Marxism will in practice serve to cut chiefly them.

Lichtheim’s theoretical analysis of classical Marxism retains all its considerable interest, but his practical assessment of the situation of Marxism is less firmly based. This does not diminish the great merits of his book. It is probably the best (and the most concise) guide to the perennial love affair of French intellectuals with that marvelous, and, since 1794, fleeting creature, The Revolution. It contains more useful and perceptive information about the Left-wing intellectual scene in Paris than books three times its size and with far more documentation. It continues and amplifies what has long been recognized as one of the most acute critiques of Marxism. In every generation those who sift through the vast junkheaps containing the remains of the works written about (i.e., generally against) Marxism may be lucky enough to salvage a few works of genuine quality. Lichtheim’s writings, including this one, belong to this small number. Anyone interested in the subject ought to read him.

This Issue

October 20, 1966