About Critical Social Research (1990)



© Lee Harvey 1990, 2011, 2014, 2018, 2019

Page updated 31 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1990] 2011, Critical Social Research, available at, last updated 31 January, 2019, originally published in London by Unwin Hyman, all rights revert to author.


A novel of twists and surpises


Critical Social Research

2. Class

2.2 Addendum Marxism after Marx
Engels (Marx & Engels, 1953) argued that the failure of the British workers to exploit the new franchise of 1867 to secure working-class dominance in Parliament was due to their desire for 'respectability' and consequent eagerness to accept bourgeois social values and political ideas. However, Engels did not see this aberration as affecting the ultimate validity of Marx's theory as he saw embourgeoisement in Britain as a function of its position as the world's leading industrial nation that enabled a sizeable section of the working class to enjoy conditions that encouraged bourgeois aspirations.

Bernstein (1899) went somewhat further in his revision of Marxism. In particular, Bernstein argued against the view that capitalism was faced with imminent collapse due to class polarisation and deepening economic crisis. Rather than revolution, he favoured a reforming Marxism in which the gradual extension of political and economic rights of the working class ensured a peaceful transition to Socialism. In this he drew on Engels' (1895) argument favouring a non-violent approach to political struggle on the grounds that bourgeois legality will itself provide the means for the proletariat to gain ascendancy.

Kautsky was the leading critic of Bernstein's revisionist ideas. He combined a commitment to working-class revolutionary action with a defence of parliamentary democracy. This view represented the classical version of Marxism from Engels through to the Mensheviks (McLellan, 1988). However, this view of democracy brought Kautsky into conflict with Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks who accused him of centrism. Kautsky (1918) later criticised the Bolsheviks for instituting a party dictatorship and he reaffirmed the importance of universal suffrage and parliamentary democracy, since the proletariat needs democracy not only before its conquest of power but also afterwards. Luxemburg (1900) had earlier replied to Bernstein's revisionism in claiming that trade union and parliamentary activity may reform but can never abolish capitalist relations of production. The working class must grasp political power in order to abolish capitalist relations of production. Inspired by the failed 1905 revolution in Russia, Luxemburg (1906) advocated the mass strike as the most important weapon to promote spontaneous creative working-class involvement in revolutionary activity: this lead to her break from Kautsky who favoured a more cautious parliamentary approach.

Marx (1882) had seen the possibility of the revolution starting in Russia and, influenced by Plekhanov, Lenin came to see Russia as an already capitalist country where it was incumbent upon the proletariat, led by its intelligentsia, to spearhead a movement to overthrow tsarist autocracy. He was of the view that the imminent bourgeois political and economic revolution in Russia would be led by the proletariat (Lenin, 1905). However, Lenin (1902) had argued that the workers need a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries if the workers are to achieve anything more than 'trade union consciousness'. He developed a more specific thesis about the role and nature of the party. The party was central in combating bourgeois ideology. It was necessary to ensure that a revolution, which had resulted in the proletariat seizing power, would enable them to keep it. For this, Lenin argued that the party would need ideas, information and scientific knowledge derived from all sections of society and not just restricted to the experiences of the working class. Most importantly, a strong party organisation, which was not dominated by intellectuals and one where theory was not separated from practice, was essential. This party organisation was based on the idea of free discussion and agreement on policy decisions but a complete

The triumph of reaction in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution resulted in a growing scepticism among Russian revolutionaries. The latter part of the first decade of the twentieth century saw a growing popularity of the view that the workers were no longer the proletariat that Marx and Engels had known but instead were embryonic bourgeoisie. Plekhanov, Russia's leading Marxist theorist of the 19th century, even argued that the lesson of Marxism is that Marxism must also, in its turn, be discarded. Lenin fought hard against such revisionism, declaring himself and the Bolsheviks against centrist liberal democracy and 'economism' (piecemeal economic reform).

Lenin argued forcibly and uncompromisingly for the dictatorship of the proletariat and equated Marxism with this goal. However, he criticised ultra-left Marxists who rejected altogether the idea of participating in bourgeois trade unions or parliaments (Lenin, 1920). Lenin (1917) was confident that the emergent socialism built on the proletariat dictatorship would be libertarian and participatory. Luxemburg (1904), however, had criticised Lenin's conception of a highly organised vanguard party, which she argued would prevent the broad mass of workers giving themselves political expression. Although indicating her fundamental support for the Bolshevik revolution she criticised Lenin and Trotsky for what she saw as their tendency to substitute dictatorship for democracy (Luxemburg, 1920).

Bukharin's analysis of imperialism also influenced Lenin, particularly the view that competition between capitalist states was more important than internal competition. Lenin developed a clearer and more specific analysis of imperialism. He argued that the 'last stage of capitalism' is imperialism where exploitation goes beyond national boundaries as monopolistic cartels become increasingly powerful. Hence Lenin saw socialism/communism as concerned with the international interests of the working class and argued for world revolution. By the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin (1916) was arguing that an immediate move to socialism was possible thanks to the imperialist tendencies of monopoly finance capital. This corresponded with Trotsky's idea of 'combined and uneven development', which saw the possibility of the compression of the stages of economic development. A backward country does not develop by passing through all the stages already traversed by advanced countries, it is possible to combine the most backward with the most advanced features. This led to a second major idea, that of 'permanent revolution'. The uneven development and the lack of a long capitalist stage made it feasible for a substantial and politicised proletariat to exist without a correspondingly powerful bourgeoisie. Thus revolutionary momentum could be telescoped (like the stages of economic development) and socialism be placed on the agenda of even comparatively backward countries such as Russia.

Lenin was further influenced by Bukharin's view that Marxists should be hostile in principle to any conception of the State. Bukharin (1920) admitted that the proletarian revolution implied an initial disintegration of the productive forces and insisted, at this stage, on the all-encompassing coercive role of the State; reflecting the desperate period of War Communism. Bukharin moderated his views following the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921 and, in Historical Materialism (Bukharin, 1924), he discussed the relation between classes, State, and future communist society and explained Marxist dialectics as the establishment and breakdown of equilibrium.

Although Lenin modified Marxism he was a thoroughgoing advocate of Marx's theory and materialist epistemology, which he frequently defended from attacks, especially from the subjective idealism of Machian positivists. More importantly Lenin argued for a reassessment of the Marxist dialectical theory of knowledge. He argued that an insufficient appreciation of how Marx had 'stood Hegel on his feet' had contributed to Marxists, after Marx, seeing Marxist theory as a body of knowledge rather than concerning themselves with Marx's own prime concern, which was the understanding of the derivation of knowledge. Practice, for Marx and for Lenin is informed dialectically by theoretical knowledge. Lenin reaffirmed the need to understand the process of abstraction from perception to practical application.

By 1923, Lenin was registering his concern at the increasingly bureaucratic and high-handed nature of the emergent Soviet state. In the wake of Stalin's ascendency, Trotsky (1937) developed these concerns and explained the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. The primary factors were a parasitic bureaucracy, consequent upon the attempt to build socialism in one country (Stalin, 1926), and the neglect of the vital international dimension of the revolution.

Stalin had become general secretary of the Russian Communist party in 1922. After Lenin's death, Stalin successfully ousted rivals (Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin) and became undisputed leader of the party by 1929. Stalin (1924) expressed a lucid and rigidly dogmatic version of Marxist-Leninism, emphasising the dictatorship of the proletariat, which became widely influential as the unquestionable orthodoxy of the world-wide Communist movement. This orthodoxy shifted Marxism from a philosophy to a science of history and tended to develop a mechanistic conception of dialectics based on Engels' dialectical materialist analysis of the social and natural sciences. Underpinning this is the view that although each science has its own domain and its own specificity, there is a fundamental logical, methodological and doctrinal unity binding together all the sciences, and constituting the basis for a philosophical world-view of a radically new type.

Orthodox Marxist-Leninism, in analysing the development of capitalism in the West in the twentieth century, has been squarely faced by the problem of the lack of revolutionary activity amongst the working class. The response to this (for example, Varga (undated)) has tended to be that the situation is 'temporary' due to the protracted death throes of capitalism achieved through imperialism, nationalism, militarism and consumerism. However, in the West in particular, the continuing lack of historical validation for Marx's theory of the working class led to a number of new Marxist critiques of Marx's thesis in which the revolutionary potential of the working class, the deterministic nature of productive relations and the role of ideological and cultural elements were reconsidered.

An alternative historicist tradition had existed for some time but, as late as the 1950s, was largely unknown. Gramsci's (1971) Prison Notebooks were unpublished, Lukacs' ([1923], 1971) History and Class Consciousness remained untranslated as did his debates with Bloch, as well as the debates between Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno (Bloch, 1977). The work of Korsch (1970) and of Luxemburg (1971) were virtually unknown until the 1960s and it was not until 1932 that Marx's influential Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts were published in German and much later before they were translated.

Historicist Marxism argues that the dialectical analysis of social processes is dependent upon an adequate historical analysis. Gramsci's 'absolute historicism' (Schmidt, 1981) identifies the theoretical process with the real course of history and with historiography (writing history). The focus of the historical analysis should be the collective, not the individual subject. In Goldmann's genetic structuralism and Lukacs' analyses it is social classes that are the historical subject because it is they, as trans-individual subjects, that (unlike institutions such as the family) are unique in manifesting a group consciousness. It is class consciousness, manifested in a class Weltanschauung (world view), that is seen as the basis for the transformation of social relations. Class consciousness is also fundamental to the production of knowledge. Class consciousness, through the practice of class struggle informs the superstructural relations, which includes the production of scientific knowledge. Scientific (in its broadest sense) knowledge is part of the class Weltanschauung (world view).

History is important, it is argued, because it takes account of the limitation on action of prevailing social conditions. Such conditions effect the scope of social class action, which itself attempts to modify the conditions. Thus, it is the structuring of history that effects the freedom of social classes. However, historicist approaches, arguably, adopt a positive view of ideology and replace ideology by class Weltanschauung. That is, the primary focus of attention is on the general system of ideas common to a class and which serves to unite the members. As such, the concept of ideology looses its specificity. This is most clearly evident in the concern of historicist Marxists with false consciousness. As knowledge is, in effect, class based all knowledge is ideological. More to the point, all such ideological knowledge is a function of false consciousness. In effect, all classes have a distorted view of the relationship between classes and their relationship to the productive base. This false consciousness maintains social structures. Ultimately, the only 'true' or 'objective' consciousness is that of the revolutionary proletariat who have no need of a distorting legitimation or consciousness.

Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks contain a radical attempt to rethink the applicability of Marxism to capitalist societies. Gramsci, through his dialogue with Marxism, addresses the issue of the relationship between history and structure. Gramsci is concerned with the scientific theoretical status of Marx's theory. Gramsci refuses to detach Marx's philosophy from his economics and political writing. He does not accept the ontological determinism of the economic base nor does he view Marx's approach as nomological. Gramsci saw Marxism as a philosophy of praxis that required a general methodology of history. He argued for a historiography that would, without degenerating into a descriptive chronicle, conform to historical sequence and retain the specificity and non-repeatability of events. He opposed historiography that tied broad sweeps of history to predetermined theory, nor did he want particulars sacrificed to abstract laws.

Crucial to Gramsci's superstructural analysis is his notion of hegemony, which offers a non-reductive analysis emphasising the positive role of dominant classes in shaping general features of society and winning consent from subordinate groups. Hegemony shifts attention from repressive to consensual features of class domination and begins to explain why political formations of the state do not follow entrenched economic class interest. In particular, the state is conceived not simply as repressive but also as 'a positive educative force' promoting new forms of 'civilization'. Intellectuals have an important role in modern society through the way they help organize a network of beliefs and socio-political relationships that ensure the consent of the governed. This consent is 'historically' caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) that the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production. Where consent breaks down, in moments of crises, the apparatus of 'legal' state coercive power is brought to bear on those groups who do not 'consent' either actively or passively. Thus cultural hegemony, as a concept, mediates the interests of the most powerful group 'by enabling groups of organic intellectuals to interpret the present in terms of the interests of the dominant group' (Buci-Glucksmann, 1980, Boggs, 1976) and in so doing reproduce false consciousness through their involvement in superstructural formation.

Gramsci's analysis of the problems of history and the nature of the intellectual life enables an understanding of the precise locus of the dominant ideology; the precise functions of the intellectuals in determining it; and the precise process whereby individual and collective needs of other groups are subordinated to the dominant interest group. As such, hegemonic analysis permits the analysis of a variety of forms of social struggle.

Changes in the nature of the state can only occur, Gramsci argued, through the transformation effected by the revolutionary party where 'an intellectual and moral transformation is offered'. The party is the basis for a new conception of the world and provides the basis for a new state. At the limit, this process must, at some time, bring about the 'fading away of the State'. In this he reflects Lenin's view of the withering of the state under Communism. A Marxist strategy for the West, however, would have to be very different from that adopted by Lenin in Russia since in capitalist societies the bourgeoisie exercised a hegemony that would have to be undermined before a frontal assault on state power could be successful.

Lukacs also addressed the superstructural aspects of revolutionary activity in his influential collection of articles published as History and Class Consciousness (1923). They were written during and immediately after the October Revolution. He reflected Lenin in emphasising class consciousness and its embodiment in a revolutionary party whose theory and practice would break through the reified forms of bourgeois society. The book was condemned by the Soviet authorities in 1924 and in a preface written in 1967 he retracted his 'revolutionary Messianism'. However, the book influenced Marcuse and student radicals of the late 1960s.

Western European Marxism became characterised by the development of so-called 'humanist Marxism'. Early humanist Marxism, (Korsch, Frankfurt School), developed as a reaction to Stalinism. It picked up a critique begun by Engels, and reconsidered the implicit unidirectional base-superstructure model and focused on questions of meaning, experience, and individuality as mediations. Drawing on phenomenology, with its concern with language and meaning, and those aspects of logical positivism that emphasised the relationship of language and knowledge, humanist Marxism increasingly emphasised experience as a mediating term in the relations between social structures and individual lives. It rejected the conventional idea that the working class is located between false consciousness and revolution and instead asked how human beings create meaningful social realities, focusing on culture and ideology as the site of domination and resistance.

This early humanist Marxism, particularly in the work of the Frankfurt School, attempted a Hegelian reconstruction of Marxism and drew heavily on Marx's early works, and used alienation as its key concept. Advanced technology, for example, may change the nature of work and worker-management relations but this does not alter the subordinate position of the worker who is powerless to control what is produced and how. Work is not creative but simply a means to fulfil 'repackaged symbols of humanity' (Gortz, 1965) created by consumerism. Labour, even in advanced technological plants, is still alienated labour. Alienation of the worker has not disappeared, indeed its existence explains the absence of revolutionary class consciousness. Although the simple survival of the worker has been provided for in modern capitalism the changing nature of human labour meant that the needs of workers as humans remain unfulfilled (Marcuse, 1964). Work has not become emancipatory but simply instrumental to accessing the consumer society.

Capitalism, in alienating people in their work, 'is better equipped to alienate them as consumers; and conversely, it alienates them as consumers the better to alienate them in work' (Gortz, 1965, p. 349). Greater consumer power has been diverted into false needs generated by the media and advertising. These needs, however strongly felt, are a function of consumer society and do not derive from real freedom in self-expression but are the result of indoctrination and manipulation.

Later humanist Marxists fall into two camps, the existential and the cultural, although both placed the active human agent at the centre of their theoretical perspective. Existentialist Marxists, such as Sartre (1976) and Merleau-Ponty were opposed to the Stalinist version of Orthodox Marxism, specifically the reliance on 'naturalism' and 'scientism' (in the casting of dialectical materialism); the economic and technological determinist accounts of historical process; and the conception of historical materialism as a science. Fundamentally, they opposed the view, embedded in the Orthodox Marxist approach to dialectical materialism, that there is a unity between natural and social worlds. The idea of inherent contradiction in a system, where forces and relations of production are incompatible and the former will 'progress' at the expense of the latter, they argued, denies a role for creative human action. This opposition to Stalinist Marxism involved not just a break in the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin lineage, but a re-reading of Marx based upon phenomenological and existential categories.

Cultural Marxists such as Thompson (1963), Williams (1965), Berger (1972), Lefebvre (1984) and Petrovic (1967) gave human consciousness and culture a still more active role in accounts of social life. Culture became a major concern, not something removed to the periphery of economic-based analysis. They emphasised the notion of multiple cultures. Much attention was focused on working-class culture as the location of resistance to dominant (ruling-class) culture. Other analysts approached the mass media and popular culture as the location of even more complex relations of power and meaning.

Humanist Marxism contains within it (via its locating of theory directly within the historical process) a potential solution to the Orthodox Marxist problem of 'how can the science of Marxism make contact with the lived experience of the working masses?'. However, it is at a cost. The radical non-determinist concept of human freedom means that theory is incapable of guiding strategies and tactics for practice (Benton, 1984).

Humanist Marxism, along with the revival of Gramscian analyses, increasingly led Marxists to address superstructural factors in rejecting the political impotence of the working class. Mass society and mass culture increasingly became the concern of Marxist analysts. It is not through control over violence or production but through control of cultural institutions, education, art, mass media, that the dominant class retains and legitimates control. Dominant ideology is maintained and social thought becomes 'one-dimensional' (Marcuse, 1964). It was thus felt, in the heady days of the 1960s, that, in the conditions of late capitalism, revolution requires the left-wing vanguard to win the battle for hegemonic power (Anderson & Blackburn, 1965). The vanguard was not necessarily, or even likely, the party of the proletariat, for there were grave doubts about the revolutionary potential of the working class. Instead, the potentially revolutionary subject had been displaced from working-class organisation to protest movements of blacks, women, and middle-class students. These movements had a number of successes but their basically existential critiques lacked an economic base and the movements failed both to present an alternative organisational infrastructure and to produce any broad and pervasive political change.

This failure became the challenge for the theorists of the 1970s. The rise of the New Left gave the newly emerging Western Marxist theories an, albeit loose, organisational form and provided the networks and energy for the debate within Marxist theory. Beginning in England, the New Left challenged the ability of inherited/orthodox versions of Marxism to give adequate accounts of racism and imperialism on either side of the Iron Curtain. The subsequent success, towards the end o the century, of grass-roots activities encapsulated in mass 'feed the world' charity events and organisations have, however, re-awakened interest in the protest movements of the 1960s and there is a (re-)developing view that Marxism should develop along decentralised, self-critical and pluralist lines. This view was further supported by developments in the Soviet bloc and China during the late 1980s.

In Europe in the middle and late 1960s (although not reaching USA and GB until the early 1970s) Marxism engaged with structuralism and semiotics. Althusser (1969), in attempting to rescue Marxism from the cultural humanists, argued that the human subject is itself an historical product, an ensemble of social relationships, not something essential and permanent. Subjectivity is culturally determined; a function of ideological practices by which certain subject positions become historically available.

For Althusser, Marxism was the result of Marx's rejection of the philosophical humanism of his early years which is threatened by the retreat to humanism in the face of Stalinism. While humanist approaches were right to attack the inhumanity, economism and technical determinism of Stalinism, the construction of a non-Stalinist socialism requires a political strategy (not derivable from humanist Marxism), which in turn requires a scientific analysis of Stalinism and the conditions by which it came into existence. Such a scientific analysis is not possible via humanist philosophy. So, while not starting from a structuralist position, Althusser's reworking of Marx systematically refutes historicism and adopts a structuralist-inspired position.

For Althusser, the determination, in the last resort, of the superstructure by the economic base is a structural (synchronic) relation not an historical one. The corollary of this is the relative autonomy of the superstructure. This implies that simply changing the economic base is insufficient for a thoroughgoing revolution. Further, Althusser argues that Stalinism misappropriates Marxism, in a way that mirrors humanist misappropriation. The teleological thesis of the humanists (the progress of human subject through self-alienation to final self-consciousness and self-emancipation) is re-presented in Stalinism as the inevitable progress of productive processes over time, unmediated by a human subject (Benton, 1984).

Althusser sets a 'proper' Marxist conception of history (as history without a subject) against this. This means that no social form has any necessary transcendence embedded in its origins. Historical change can occur in any direction and its outcome is contingent. There is no ineluctable historical tendency towards socialism embodied in contradictions.

Althusser attempts to authenticate his restructuring of the Marxist tradition by recourse to epistemology and philosophy of science. Marxist philosophy is to be an epistemological theory through which concepts and propositions are authenticated as 'scientific' or assigned the status 'ideology' (non-knowledge). Althusser drew not only on structuralism but also on conventionalism in developing his reconstruction of Marxism. Observation is not theory neutral, and thus empirical evidence is not the final arbiter that empiricist approaches would want. Science is constructed. Thus ethical, aesthetic, instrumental or other 'extrinsic' conditions can then enter into scientific theory construction. Science is thus not a simple (internal) logical account. Conventionalists thus allow science to be taken seriously as an historical process subject to transformation and locked into relationships with other social practices. Any account of science from this conventional point of view requires an engagement with concrete episodes. Althusser, thus, locates this authority in the general framework of conventionalist theories of science (notably drawing heavily on Bachelard) and rests it on the notion of 'epistemological break' and the constant transformation of science.

The epistemological break that Althusser locates in Marx serves to locate both the historical moment of the emergence of 'historical materialism' in the texts of Marx, and also to indicate the shift in cognitive status to a scientific theory which occurs with this break. Althusser therefore spoke of a double intervention in the intellectual history, on the one hand to 'draw a line of demarcation' between philosophical subjectivism (embodied in empiricism, voluntarism, pragmatism, historicism) and Marxist theory and, on the other hand to distinguish 'true Marxism' from pre-Marxist idealism (which can be found in Marx's earlier writings and on which humanist Marxism relies). Science, for Althusser is an autonomous realm apparently unrelated to any specific system of social relations or mechanisms, and as such is opposed to ideology.

Structuralism thus led to a reconsideration the relatively autonomous levels of social practices. Ideology thus gained a central and determining influence rather than as a residual legitimation. The overdetermination of any social practice by all the levels of the social formation meant that culture could not be reduced to the effects of economic relations, even if mediated through ideology. Thus, in areas such as the analysis of non-class forms of social oppression, and the nature of the legitimating 'mechanisms' of oppressive structures, Althusserian Marxism has made significant advances over classical Marxism, through the concept of 'interpellation' and the 'relative autonomy of ideology'. This reflected on cultural Marxists who began to accept the ideological bases of their own theoretical and political positions and thus began to realise the problematic and contingent nature of their own interpretations.

In the 1980s Marxism, especially in Western Europe has engaged in debate and been hugely effected by post-modernism, post- structuralism, feminism and radical black perspectives, (see, for example, the articles in the magazine Marxism Today). These have reaffirmed the problematic of multiple readings of a text and revived interest in Marx's epistemological engagement with positivism and scientism. Much Marxism since Marx (with a few exceptions like Lenin and Sartre) has not adequately critiqued prevailing scientistic notions (and their ideological discourse) (Aronowitz, 1988). This has led to a reconstruction of Marxist epistemology (Schmidt, 1981, Resnick and Wolff, 1982). Epistemological concerns have also been tied to a revival of interest in Marx's methodology (Sayer, 1980; Zeleny, 1980; Wolff, 1985; Delphy, 1977, 1980, 1985). Particularly important have been Marxism's interactions with how power is exercised in terms of hierarchical structures of difference (racism, sexism, colonialism), which are not reducible to the model of class exploitation.

All this has lead to a continued questioning of the emancipatory process: the role of the working class; the functions of intellectuals; the determining nature of the mode of production; and the place of the state apparatus. Marxism is no longer (if it ever was) a theory in isolation from other intellectual and political positions nor apart from the wider exigencies of history. Marxism is a dynamic, evolving, critical analytic framework. By refusing to take its own categories for granted, contemporary Marxism has re-appropriated the critical power of Marx's interpretive practice.



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© Lee Harvey 1990 and 2011, last updated 9 June, 2011

Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1990] 2011, Critical Social Research, available at, last updated 9 May, 2011, originally published in London by Unwin Hyman, all rights revert to author.