Mannheim, Coser and Lasswell on the
Origins of Critical Marxism

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Just as I have not been the first to distinguish between Scientific and Critical Marxisms, neither does the analysis of their social origins begin here. There is an established intellectual tradition that in effect (and sometimes expressly) links Critical Marxism to backwardness and Scientific Marxism to the historically progressive. In outlining these other analyses of the origins of Critical Marxism I shall use the occasion to sharpen my own perspective. For all practical purposes, the discussion begins with a brief paragraph in Karl Mannheim which states rather cryptically:

Marxist thought appears as the attempt to rationalize the irrational. The correctness of this analysis is vouched for by the fact that to the extent that Marxian proletarian groups rise to power, they shake off the dialectical elements of their theory and begin to think in the generalising methods of liberalism and democracy, which seeks to arrive at universal laws, whilst those who, because of their position, still have to resort to revolution, cling to the dialectical element (Leninism).1

One can sympathize with Mannheim's judgement on the dialectic, considering that some Marxists tend to invoke it, like the idea of a miracle, to plain events when no logical explanation is available. In that vein there is Sorel's tongue-in-cheek remark, "There is no agreement on the meaning of the term 'dialectic' but it seems that the dialectic is a very important thing."

I do not agree, however, that the dialectic is to be equated with irrationalism This illusion occurs only from the singular perspective of those who equate rationality with the Enlightenment outlook and fail to understand—as I shall show in a later volume—that the dialectic is an attempt to overcome the limits of Enlightenment rationality. Mannheim's view is that this "dialectical" Marxism is somehow associated with the lack of power and irrationalism; like the other perspectives on Critical Marxism considered below, the premise is that Critical Marxism is symptomatic of a kind of "backwardness." While I shall return to that issue, I can say at this point that Mannheim seems correct in implying that Critical Marxism has an elective affinity for those with weaker, and Scientific Marxism for those with stronger, power bases. But to go beyond that, and associate weakness with backwardness/irrationality, would imply that the forces of the status quo already in power, ought always to represent the most rational elements in society.

In 1967, Harold D. Lasswell's comparative analysis of "Russia and China in a Modernizing World"2 argued that the "voluntarism" of some of these societies (which I associate with Critical Marxism) stems from their development in traditionalistic, prescientific societies. Here, again, Critical Marxism is linked with backwardness.

Lasswell views technology and science as disciplining fantasy, inhibiting persons from believing in the power of will, and curbing the subjective factor. Indeed, he tends to equate reliance on the subjective factor with magic, thus altogether ignoring the latter's invocation of the sacred through meticulous conformity to ritual. His general implication, then, is that Scientific Marxism is the product of a culture's scientific and technological development, while Critical Marxism is produced in and by backward societies.

Several things need to be said, perhaps the first being that his view is grounded on a certain anthropological insensitivity; for example, the reduction of magic to a "subjective factor." Moreover, his view implicitly overstates the voluntarism even of traditional societies. After all, people in traditionalist societies do not simply practice magic to feed their families or defeat their enemies. They also work and fight. Indeed, even in tribal societies, work and magic coexist; the existence of magic never implies the absence of work. The great Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski long ago observed that magic is more likely when work outcomes are less certain; i.e., when persons pursue goals for which routine, technologically adequate means do not exist, magic enables them to control their anxieties and carry on with their project.

Lasswell's thesis, that a voluntaristic political ideology is the product of a pre-industrial society, ignores the modern experience with Naziism and fascism. Clearly, these were among the most extremely voluntaristic and irrational politics produced anywhere in the contemporary world. Yet it is equally obvious that the societies in which they emerged were not backward but among the world's most scientifically and technologically advanced and whose populations, according to Lasswell's thesis, should therefore have been immune to voluntarism.

Lewis Coser's analysis of "Marxist Thought in the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century"3 is a most illuminating work but, much like Mannheim and Lasswell, associates Critical Marxism with backwardness and has the same difficulties as Lasswell's views. Essentially Coser sees Scientific Marxism as grounded in the industrially advanced parts of Europe, particularly Germany, thus missing the way in which Scientific Marxism serves to counterbalance the decline of religion as a source of security among workers. At the same time, Coser holds that a voluntaristic Marxism is the product of the industrially backward parts of Europe. Tom Bottomore has noted that Coser can hold this thesis only by ignoring the fact that Karl Korsch, a left voluntarist for a while, was a product of the heartland of German industry and only by ignoring Sorel's Paris-fostered voluntarism. As Bottomore asks, "why emphasize so strongly the formative influence of Gramsci's Sardinian childhood and not his student years in the industrial city of Turin?"4 One should add that Lukacs, the arch apostle of a Critical Marxism was, though Hungarian by birth, greatly under the influence of German culture and education, including the strong influence of Max Weber and Georg Simmel.

All of the leaders of the critique of Scientific Marxism—Lukacs (1885), Korsch (1886), Gramsci (1891), and Horkheimer (1895)—are a generation cohort born after the stabilization of capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century. Sorel, who was born in 1847, did not start writing as a socialist until he was 45 in 1892, and published his Reflections on Violence in 1908. It was their generation that grew up with the conviction that Marxism had been proved wrong or was irrelevant; but they had sought a remedy from the left, as Bernstein had sought it from the right.

A basic difficulty with both Lasswell's and Coser's view is that it makes inferences about the ideology of this intellectual elite from larger conditions in certain types of "backward" societies, "traditionalist" according to Lasswell, and the rimland economies beyond the industrial center in Europe, according to Coser. This supposes that this elite was actually formed by the same backward conditions as were the masses of people in these societies. Such an assumption, however, is unfounded. Critical Marxism was the product of an intellectual elite with advanced education and considerable familiarity with science and technology, either through their studies or from first hand travels in industrial societies. Their development thus does not reflect the magical premises or backwardness of traditionalist, preindustrial economies but of cultures as advanced as any of their time. Indeed, Critical Marxism was the product of an advanced elite who knew that modern science was undergoing a major transformation Theirs was not an ignorance of science but a critique of it; their position about science did not reflect a naive traditionalism but the most advanced philosophy of science of their time (e.g., Sorel) and other very sophisticated and sociological traditions (Lukacs and Gramsci). This elite was impelled toward Critical Marxism because, unlike Bernstein, they persisted in their revolutionary ambitions in the face of the collapse of the "automatic crash." That their doctrines were subsequently attractive to people in less developed areas of the world does not imply that those people had been primed for them by immersal in a culture of magical traditionalism, but rather that they, too, were bent on an activistic radicalism while a Scientific Marxism seemed to counsel passivity. For them, therefore, Critical Marxism allowed continued revolutionary activism despite their own economic backwardness, and substituted a politico-military catastrophism for Scientific Marxism's economic catastrophism.


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1. Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1946), p. 118.

2. In Donald W. Treadgold, ed., Soviet and Chinese Communism: Similarities and Differences (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967).

3. Lewis Coser, "Marxist Thought in the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century," American Journal of Sociology, vol. 78, no. 1 (July, 1972).

4. Ibid., introduction to issue.


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From Alvin W. Gouldner,  The Two Marxisms.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 1980,  Chapter 5 - Appendix - "Mannheim, Coser and Lasswell on the Origins of Critical Marxism"   pp. 151-154.

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