Book Review: ‘From Marx to Hegel’

Interpreting the World

‘From Marx to Hegel’, by George Lichtheim. Orbach and Chambers £2.95

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world. But the point is to change it”, wrote Marx in 1845. Lichtheim is one of those who, looking at the failure of the two great movements which proclaimed Marxism as their theory—German Social Democracy and Russian Bolshevism—thinks that the attempt to change the world having failed the point is once again to interpret it. A sort of return to Hegel.

In these book reviews written for the Times Literary Supplement and similar journals over the past ten years, Lichtheim sees himself as using Marx’s method to examine Marxism and concludes that in practice Marxism has been the ideology of the bourgeois revolution in Central and Eastern Europe where the bourgeoisie was too weak or too frightened to carry through its own revolution against autocracy. A not unreasonable conclusion when you examine the practice, rather than the theory, of both German Social Democracy and Russian Bolshevism—and, for that matter, Marx’s own policy of supporting bourgeois revolutions everywhere.

But Lichtheim argues that both these movements misinterpreted Marxism, the former in making the case for Socialism rest solely on the operation of impersonal “scientific laws” and the latter in making it depend on the will and determination of a “vanguard party”. He blames Engels as the first to misinterpret Marx by making his materialist conception of history a doctrine about the nature of matter which he called “historical materialism” and Plekhanov later called “dialectical materialism”. For Marx, according to Lichtheim, dialectics was not a theory about the ultimate nature of the universe but a method of subjecting the world as it is to the critique of Reason. On this view the case for Socialism would rest on the fact that capitalism does not allow mankind to live the free rational life which advanced technology had made possible.

The evidence would seem to back Lichtheim’s interpretation, though Marx was also a “materialist” in the sense of adopting the methods of empirical science in his economic and historical studies. But all this is only of academic interest. For what does it matter if Marx and Engels had differing reasons for being Socialists? In fact what does it matter what their reasons were at all since the case for Socialism does not stand or fall by what they thought?

There is also a good essay on Georges Sorel and his Reflexions on Violence.

Lichtheim is always worth reading, even though his analysis of the modern world seems somewhat pessimistic: that the most we can hope for is that philosophers can preserve a few human values in the face of the ruling bureaucrats and technocrats.

Adam Buick

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