Low Marx

Against Fragmentation: The Origins of Marxism and the Sociology of Intellectuals

by Alvin W. Gouldner
Oxford University Press, 333 pp., $27.95

It should be obvious that Marxism is not what its founders thought it to be. It is neither a “scientific” socialism, based upon knowledge of the objective laws of history and sharply opposed to utopianism, nor is it the ideological expression of the proletariat of advanced capitalist countries. Some people still believe that it is a means of universal human emancipation but, in spite of the growing number of Marxists, the grounds for such a belief are becoming weaker and weaker. The historical record of the states and political parties that adopted Marxism as their official ideology can hardly be used to support idealistic views on the potential of Marxism for human emancipation. And it is very doubtful whether the widespread phenomenon of so-called Western Marxism (as opposed to both classical and Soviet Marxism) can be sufficiently explained by the intrinsic appeal of its lofty ideals and universalist aspirations.

Perhaps one reason why Marxism’s weakness as a theory of freedom is today insufficiently grasped is Marx’s own continuing appeal for intellectuals in the West and in underdeveloped countries. Alvin Gouldner’s posthumously published book addresses the question of how Marxist theory can be used by intellectuals to promote freedom. But even where it is critical of Marxist theory, his book illustrates some of the dangers in thinking of Marxist theory as a means of emancipation.

Gouldner’s book is an interesting attempt to throw light on what Marxism really is and was, and in particular to explain the appeal of Marxism to radical intellectuals. Gouldner’s aim is not to marshal evidence for or against Marxist theory, but rather to offer a sociological analysis of the way that theory has been used by some intellectuals and how it may be used by intellectuals in the future. Marxist theory, he says, is an “objective” theory of capitalism, which states that “laws of history” inevitably lead to its collapse and to the creation of a socialist “dictatorship of the proletariat.” But according to Gouldner, we may acquire a deeper understanding of the theory if we look at how radical intellectuals—including Marx—have used this analysis of capitalism and its collapse to assign themselves important parts in the process of social change, and thereby to pursue a better situation for themselves. In seeing Marxism as the ideology of a “new class” of intellectuals, Gouldner thinks that he can explain in some part the success of Marxist socialism and how “in about half a century, something like one-third of the world has come under the governance of those defining themselves as Marxists.”

Much of Gouldner’s book is devoted to the early history of Marxism and the reasons why intellectuals were drawn to it during the late nineteenth century. According to Gouldner, Marxism was the product of two middle-class intellectuals—Marx and Engels—and was influenced by the popular materialism that spread throughout Germany after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, when there was a growth of bourgeois capitalism and the rise of the liberal welfare state under Bismarck. Before…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.