In recent years the literature that has appeared about, for, and against Marx and Marxism has increased to the point where it can hardly be surveyed. Yet it would be false to conclude that the debate over matters of content has been advanced. To the extent that this literature does not speak the language of the Cold War and attempt to establish a dubious “counter-ideology,” it produces (as political science or Kremlinology) works full of information concerning the state of Soviet Marxist doctrines in terms of their dependence on current political trends. To the extent that Marxian theory itself still enters its field of vision, it is dulled by the fact that people (generally following Karl Löwith) classify it in the historical tradition of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, or else reduce it to an ahistorical interpretation of the problematic of alienation in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.
On the other hand, the group of authors honestly interested in the further development of Marxian theory is exceptionally small. They are able to abstract from what still frequently passes for Marxism in the Eastern half of the world without denying the objective significance of the East-West conflict for their thought. They have involved themselves intensively with texts of Hegel and Marx, which by no means have finally been disposed of, without falling into the hair-splitting ontology — with its consecrated body of quotations — that is typical for the post-Stalinist period in Soviet philosophy. To this group belongs Henri Lefebvre (who has recently become known in Germany through his acute analysis of Stalinism).1 His writings are indispensable to those who aim at an adequate (and therefore critical) understanding of Marx within the limits of the alternatives that have been institutionalized in the political arena: either calling dialectical materialism a “watertight worldview” (Robert Musil) or dismissing it out of hand as a product of the discredited nineteenth century.
If a publisher has decided to bring out an edition of Le matérialisme dialectique,2 a work that appeared over three decades ago, it is because it has scarcely lost its actuality — aside from a few points that needed correction. The philosophical discussion of Marxism that began directly after the First World War with Ernst Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia and Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, and was especially furthered by Karl Korsch, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno, broke off with Hitler’s seizure of power. Therefore, works on Marx from that period, as well as those written in western Europe in the late thirties, are still of great importance to us: not least because those works approached problems in a way far more political and closer to reality than was possible for the new West German attempts at an interpretation of Marx after 1945, which remained more or less academic. These were all essentially centered on the “young Marx” in whom the authors (Thier, Popitz, Fromm) wanted to see an “existential thinker.”
Since Lefebvre’s book also seems at first glance to belong to the existence-philosophical, moralizing, and abstract anthropological school of interpretation, it seems necessary to make the reader somewhat more conversant with Lefebvre’s intellectual development.3 Only on that basis can the central concept of “alienation” in his Dialectical Materialism be understood and differentiated from interpretations using this concept in a sense almost exactly opposed to the Marxian one.
First, some dates in pre-World War II French philosophy. About the year 1930, the philosophical aspect of Marxism began to arouse interest in France. At the same time, a broad general receptivity toward Hegel, interwoven with attitudes toward Kierkegaard, was announced by Jean Wahl’s book, Le malheur de la conscience dans la philosophie de Hegel. Wahl is inclined to reduce the richness of Hegel’s work to the stage of the “unhappy consciousness.” With this emphasis on the romantic moment in Hegel, it becomes almost impossible to separate Hegel and Kierkegaard. Subsequently, the appropriation of the idealist dialectic is paralleled by an interpretation of Marx’s early writings in the light of Heidegger’s Being and Time. This process led to the birth of the French variety of existential ontology: to existentialism. It was completed between 1933 and 1938, years in which Alexandre Kojève gave his now famous lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit4 at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes before students such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Aron, and R. P. Fessard. These lectures follow the same questionable lines as Wahl and see access to Hegel’s entire oeuvre in a single level of consciousness. With Kojève, it is the much-commented-on chapter “Dependence and Independence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage.” Although he wants his interpretation of Hegel to be considered “Marxist,” he does not focus on Marx’s materialist “inversion” of the dialectic. Rather, as Fetscher emphasizes, Kojève already sees in the phenomenological dialectic itself “all the ultimate consequences of the Marxist philosophy of history.”5 Thus “motifs of thought” that first arose from Marx’s critique of Hegel are ascribed to Hegel. But even Marx’s position is not done justice, since Kojève lags behind his claim that one should elevate oneself to real history, that is, to the concrete forms of human relationships, which are determined differently at different moments in time. Instead, he is satisfied with the sterile definition of a Heideggerian “historicity of existence” that is supposedly present in the Phenomenology of Mind as an “existential”6 and radically “finite”7 anthropology. According to Kojève, the anthropological character of Hegelian thought becomes understandable only on the basis of Heidegger’s emphasis on “ontological finitude,” although the anthropology of Being and Time (which Kojève asserts in opposition to Heidegger’s intention) adds nothing new to that developed by Hegel.
The supposedly broader “anthropological-ontological basis”8 with which Kojève wants to dote dialectical materialism is more liable to reduce it to a doctrine of invariable structures. Not the least of the ways that this would develop is in strictly political terms. Insofar as Kojève breaks the structural elements of the Master-Slave dialectic away from its specific historical background (which must always be thought of with it), he inflates labor and the struggle for life and death into eternal factors, à la social Darwinism. Stripped of every concrete determination, man appears as an essence “which is always conscious of his death, often freely assumes it and sometimes knowingly and freely chooses it”; Hegel’s “anthropological philosophy” is viewed as “ultimately one… of death.”9 Anachronistically, and thus in a way that falsifies Hegel, Kojève equates the struggle for “recognition” with a “fight for pure prestige.”10 Human essence and knowledge constitutes itself with a decided “risk” of life. It is as if “self-conscious existence is possible only where there are or — at least — where there have been bloody fights, wars for prestige.”11 On the other hand, it matters little that he abstractly holds firm to the idea of the “realm of freedom” that Hegel anticipated and that has to be realized by Marxism.12 It is a reconciled condition that does not occupy a situation, in which negativity (time and action in their present meanings) ceases, as do philosophy, revolutions and wars as well: his “political-existential” anthropology sharpened by “decisionism” bears fascistoid traces.13 If one starts from the premise that the Hegel and Marx exegesis outlined here was dominant in the France of the thirties, it becomes clear that Lefebvre, even with all the unavoidable concessions to the spirit of the times, took a path all his own. Opposed to every ontology, to the late-bourgeois as well as to the Stalinist ones, he developed himself into a critical Marxist whose standards grew out of a materialist analysis of the course of history. His academic teachers were hardly appropriate to lead his thought in this direction. In Aix-en-Provence he studied Augustine and Pascal14 with the liberal Catholic Maurice Blondel, and at the Sorbonne he worked with Léon Brunschvig, the “intellectualiste” philosopher of judgment who was an enemy of every dialectic. What made Lefebvre (by no means without conflict) turn to Marxism had little to do with university philosophy. It was the political and social upheavals of the postwar period, and more particularly personal problems, psychoanalysis, and association with the literary and artistic avant-garde, the surrealist movement.15 Lastly, it was the suspicion, which turned into a firm conviction, that philosophy as it had been handed down to us had demonstrated that it increasingly was less able to come to grips with, not to mention master, the problems posed by the historical situation of being and consciousness in society. At this point, the call of Marx and Engels, in their early writings, for the “negation” of philosophy and the turn toward a praxis “which would realize philosophical insight,” seemed to offer itself to him. A possibility seemed to open up, not only of more or less articulately mirroring the fragmentation developing in modern existence — the way it happened in irrationalist ideologies — but of grasping it concretely, that is, as something which could be transcended.