Issue 99 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 2003 Copyright © International Socialism

Philosophy and the masses

A review of Stathis Kouvelakis, Philosophy and Revolution: From Kant to Marx (Verso, 2003), £17


Is Marxism simply an insightful way of looking at capitalism, or does it possess a plausible strategy for transforming society?

In the late 1990s there was a certain revived interest in Marx. But this was Marx as the great critic of the anarchy of capitalist production. This was the time of the Asian economic crisis, and even free market apologists were thrown into panic and talked of 'the end of capitalism'. But Marx's communism and advocacy of working class revolution remained derided and dismissed.1 The argument was that Marx's political project was not to be taken seriously in the wake of the collapse of the regimes in Eastern Europe. Theory and practice were thus kept at arm's length. You can use Marx to analyse capitalism, but don't attempt to change it.

In fact, the claim that Marx had no coherent theory of politics was one of the central themes in the onslaught on Marxism in the late 1970s. The alleged role Marx gives to the economy leaves no space for human intervention in the realm of politics, and Marx's emphasis on society over the individual leads to a rejection of the classical issues concerning liberal political thinkers, namely justice, rights, and so on. The argument runs that this paves the way for totalitarianism, where an all-powerful state annihilates the individual.2

Stathis Kouvelakis's Philosophy and Revolution has the great merit of taking Marx's political project seriously. It traces the emergence of Marxism through a careful study of the evolution and development of Marx's ideas as a young German radical in the 1840s, when Marx was still in his twenties. Marx was not born a Marxist, but by the mid-1840s the new theory of historical materialism was sketched out in fundamentals at least, and Marx, together with Frederick Engels, had embarked on a lifelong commitment to revolutionary socialism. How did this happen? Why did Marxism emerge in this precise period and manner?

Germany in the 1840s

In Marx's youth Germany was still a patchwork of small states under the hegemony of Prussian absolutism. It was mired in backwardness, yet with a feudalism already breaking down under the impact of new social relationships associated with the rise of a new form of society, capitalism. Caught between the old world and the new, German society was dominated by the question of its relationship to its French neighbour, or more precisely to that country's great revolution. Was the French Revolution of 1789 Germany's future?

Reactionaries were, of course, hostile to everything the French Revolution stood for, and to the whole tradition of the Enlightenment which had preceded it. But the response of the majority of German intellectuals who detested this stultifying old order was not a simple desire to repeat the experience. From Immanuel Kant onwards, they defended the French Revolution against the reactionaries, but they outlined a different path for Germany, a road to modernity that would avoid revolution. Thus they were plagued by a desire to reap the gains of the French Revolution, the abolition of feudalism and so on, but without unleashing the mass upsurge from below that had been at the heart of the French experience. 'Revolution without revolution' was the first hallmark of the 'German road'. How would this be attained? Quite simply, it would be philosophy that would offer the prospect of reaping the fruits of the French Revolution without its traumas and risks. The realm of ideas allied to a reforming state would supplant the role of the masses. Kouvelakis puts it like this:

Nor was this accidental. It reflected the weakness of the German bourgeoisie and the threat from below. Kouvelakis argues that Kant, for example, 'both fears and...deems utopian' any repeat of the revolutionary mass mobilisations of the 1790s.4 Both fears and deems utopian? At first glance these might appear contradictory responses. After all, to be a danger the revolution must at least be a feasible prospect, and if it is an impossibility then why feel threatened by it?

But from a class perspective it falls into place. The German bourgeoisie is too weak to overthrow Prussian absolutism on the model of its French counterpart. But it is already beginning to fear a working class breathing down its neck which is stronger than that of 1789. In other words, the 'German road', the hope for a 'revolution without revolution', modernisation from above through reforms is rooted in the historical situation the German bourgeoisie found itself in. A victorious German bourgeois revolution is utopian, but any attempt might trigger something altogether more radical from below. In 1848 this is of course what happens, when the bourgeoisie takes fright and turns back to the arms of reaction.

Central to this attempt to construct a 'German road' avoiding revolution is that intellectuals like Kant abstain from engaging in agitation for radical change among the masses. Self censorship will maintain the divide between intellectuals and the mass of the population--to the point even of cultivating a deliberately obscure style. Philosophy will address only the king and an 'educated' property-owing public. This carefully limited public arena is to serve as a substitute for revolution in the hope that it will foster a reforming, rational spirit in the state.5 In return Kant asks that the state tolerate this circumscribed debate, and hopes that it will take the advice of the philosophers and begin a process of reform from above. This gap between philosophy (intellectuals) and the masses, between theory and practice, is the second hallmark of the majority of German radicals from Kant through to Marx's contemporaries (and Marx himself, initially).

Kant's quandary is that he recognises that this strategy may well fail. What if Prussian absolutism remains immune to the call of the philosophers, and revolution erupts instead? It is precisely this fear that turns into a reality in the 1840s. In 1840 a new Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, meant new hopes for progress. These were rapidly dashed. Press freedom was quashed, and the followers of a radical interpretation of Hegel (the 'young Hegelians') were pushed out of the universities. By 1842-1843 the democratic movement in Germany was sharply confronted with a crisis, as the new monarchy turned to repression. Any hope of reform was put paid to:

If you look to the state to reform itself to avoid the prospect of social revolution, how do you respond if that same state sets its face against any modernisation, precisely because it fears any reforms will inevitably open the door to revolution? At this point the German democratic movement entered into crisis. From this period on the Young Hegelians are riven by polarisation and fragmentation. Bruno Bauer, once the key figure and Marx's mentor, together with his Berlin coterie, 'the Free' retreat from all political engagement, blaming the masses for not rising in support of the philosophers in the face of this repression. They instead champion an idealist and elitist 'critical criticism' as the only adequate response. Marx savages this in 'The Holy Family', his first collaboration with Frederick Engels in 1844 (although Engels only makes a small contribution to the final text).

'True' socialism

More important than Bauer and 'the Free' is the response of Moses Hess, who turned to a 'philosophical communism' that formed the basis of what Marx and Engels call 'True' socialism in The Communist Manifesto. This was probably the dominant current among German radicals on the eve of the 1848 revolutions that swept both Germany and most of Europe. Indeed, Kouvelakis stresses that these ideas held a strong sway inside the workers' movement of the 1840s, not least among the German emigre workers in Paris who formed the League of the Just. It took a protracted struggle for Marx and Engels to win the battle against the ideas of Hess and 'True' socialism. The Communist Manifesto comments that 'True' socialism 'spread like an epidemic' in the 1840s.7

The 'True' socialists looked for a new principle to act as a substitute for revolution in Germany. Hess wished to 'appropriate the results of the French Revolution peacefully'.8 This principle or concept is that of the 'social' or 'social-ism', which is to play the role of an alternative to both liberal individualism and revolution.9 Following the pioneer utopian socialist, Saint Simon, society for Hess was possessed of an underlying, intrinsic harmony. This had been temporarily obscured by the competitive laws of the market which fostered a war of all against all. The task was to rectify this situation and reveal the inner truth of this innate human bond, that is to say 'True' socialism. Hess converts Saint Simon into the language of German philosophy.

In The European Triarchy, written in 1841 in the flush of optimism about prospects for change in Germany, Hess clearly identified the Prussian state as the vehicle for introducing this programme of what Kouvelakis aptly describes as 'top-down reform'.10 Indeed, Hess contrasts the state's 'supreme regulate the spiritual, the physical, and the ethical in society' with an elitist disdain for the masses, 'The multitude has always been uncultivated'. This fear of the masses who are seen as always open to manipulation by reaction 'haunted the pages of The European Triarchy, as it did almost all of the Young Hegelians'.11

But in response to the crisis in the democratic movement, and the closing of the road of reform, Hess, like Bruno Bauer, engaged in what Kouvelakis calls 'retreat disguised as philosophical offensive'. Hess now declared that the form of government is irrelevant and therefore there is no need to confront the state. Instead he puts forward an increasingly anti-political concept of the 'social'. Simultaneously, socialism and communism are purged of any association with the proletariat.12 This is the outlook of a socialist humanism aiming at class reconciliation, not revolution. For Hess, communism is the expression of a principle, not of a class interest.

How will this principle triumph? Through education and gradual change. This will allow the triumph of the true essence of humanity, namely love. This transcends class boundaries, overcoming the alienation of capitalists as much as proletarians from a world of money, competition and exploitation. Kouvelakis summarises the political stakes at issue between the 'True' socialists and those like Marx who turned towards revolution: 'The main bone of contention was the question of humanism: class struggle or the dialectic of the human essence; revolution or ethical sermonizing and peaceful propaganda'.13

What kind of revolution?

By contrast with Moses Hess, Kouvelakis explores the work of the German poet Heinrich Heine.14 For Kouvelakis he forms a crucial link between the generation of Hegel and the young radicals of the generation of the 1840s, and he sees in Heine a vital precursor to Marx.

Heine set himself against those who wished the French Revolution to be over, done and dusted, and safely relegated to the past. Heine shunned any craving for harmony, social peace and political moderation.15

The central question here was the relationship any new revolution would have to 1789. For Heine it was not simply a question of repeating 1789 but looking to a new revolutionary wave even more radical than its forerunner. For Kouvelakis, Heine is the true initiator of the Young Hegelians and the interpretation of Hegel's thought as revolutionary. He imbues classical idealism with the French spirit--the heritage, in other words, of the French Revolution. Thus he looked to a Franco-German alliance as the key to the future revolution, one that would combine German philosophy and the French revolutionary experience. Theory and practice would at last be united.

The relationship between the past and present also preoccupies Heine's work. He challenges the amnesia of bourgeois society, which sought to deny its birth on the barricades and lived only in a present without any reference to history. Heine saw conflict brewing beneath the surface of the Orleanist regime which had confiscated the French Revolution of 1830.16 He counterposed antagonism to harmony. But he also challenged traditional republicans who simply repeated the slogans of the past and focused solely on the nature of the political regime--monarchy or republic. However, Heine did not draw from this conclusion an approach that dismissed all political questions in favour of a purely social transformation:

Heine's goal was to preserve the 'spirit' rather than just the letter of the French Revolution. Heine was attentive to the altered context of France and Germany in the 1840s--above all the rise of a new force, the proletariat, and the increasingly explosive contradictions of bourgeois society that the French Revolution had left unresolved. It was not enough to simply repeat the old republican formulas--to do so now carried the danger of aiding reaction by not addressing questions of property and equality. So, neither a denial of the past nor its simple repetition rose to the needs of a new historical period.

These, then, are the themes thrown up by Heine's reflections on the nature of the forthcoming revolution--antagonism over reconciliation, the need for any new revolution to go beyond the limits of 1789 and address the 'social' question, but without falling into an apolitical retreat from confronting the state. The idea that the new revolution must be both a political act and a social transformation was at the centre of Marx's inheritance from Heine. The 'revolution is one and indivisible', as Heine put it.

Marx and a new conception of politics

Lenin famously described Marxism as the outcome of a synthesis between German philosophy, French politics and English political economy.18 Central to Kouvelakis's approach is the claim that this insight only takes us so far. As he successfully shows in his 'group portrait' of German radicals of the 1830s and 1840s, some attempt to combine these elements was almost a common sense in this milieu.19 Yet those who were to evolve into revolutionaries were a distinct minority.

Kouvelakis structures his book around a contrast between Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx on the one hand, and Moses Hess and the young Frederick Engels on the other.20 The latter are presented as representatives of 'True' socialism, while Heine and Marx are by contrast the minority current which lays the basis for the theory of a new revolution which preserves the 'spirit' of the French Revolution while going beyond it--a proletarian revolution.

The upshot of this is to demonstrate that Marx's specific way of combining these elements is unique, and represents as much a radical break from all three traditions as any simple synthesis. That this was the case is amply shown by Marx's subsequent polemics with those who hadn't made the break from these traditions, for example Proudhon and French socialism or the various 'Young Hegelians', in The German Ideology. Behind this lies the gulf separating Marxism from all forms of liberalism. This, then, is a claim for the novelty of Marx's conception of communism--it is not just a question of taking over pre-existing traditions and combining them, but of a sharp break.

Kouvelakis charts Marx's development from a reformist outlook that assigned a pivotal role to a free press (Marx was editor of a radical bourgeois newspaper in this period, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung) to a revolutionary perspective and the birth of a new worldview. In particular Kouvelakis emphasises that this process is a politically driven one for the young Marx, and at the same time involves the emergence of a radically new conception of politics itself.

To begin with Marx, like all the other Young Hegelians, operates within the framework of the 'German road' of reform not revolution. Yet from the outset Marx saw a much more active and engaged role for philosophy. Like Kant, he demanded a public sphere outside the control of absolutism that could conduct a campaign for democratic reform. But Marx aims for a situation in which 'philosophy becomes worldly and the world became philosophical'. 21

He even calls on philosophy to 'become a newspaper correspondent'! Here is an aspiration for philosophy to overcome its separation from the world of practice. It also breaches the self censorship advocated by Kant. By its nature a newspaper has a greater audience than a philosophical tract. Of course, the very real censorship of the Prussian state still had to be negotiated.

Marx also takes a far more critical approach to Hegel's view of the state. Initially he still accepted the premise that the state's role is to reconcile the conflicts which threaten to tear civil society--the world of the market, private property, competition, and so on--apart. Marx, however, is highly sceptical of Hegel's account of the mechanisms and institutions that will perform the role of overcoming these conflicts. For example, Hegel rejects the argument for representative democracy, and instead talks of 'corporations' which organise the various classes or 'estates' in society. It is these corporations that are to be represented in the state rather than individuals directly. In other words, he gives an inbuilt advantage to the landowning aristocracy, who as an 'estate' are guaranteed a political weight way beyond their actual numbers. Hegel also saw the state civil service as an embodiment of the 'universal'--in other words, the public interest. For Marx these are false solutions--they are 'sham meditations'. From the outset Marx looks to a democratisation of the state, but of the existing state at this point.

But the crisis beginning in 1842-1843 as the Prussian state turned to repression closed off this option. Marx now looked again at the relationship between civil society and the state. What is at stake is nothing less than the question of revolution. Kouvelakis insists that behind this theoretical shift is a political radicalisation. It is not a question of purely abstract intellectual enquiry, but a product of the double crisis of absolutism and reformism in Germany in 1842-1843. But neither can it be seen simply as a reflection of these new circumstances, because only a minority of existing radicals go over to the side of revolution. Thus Kouvelakis sees Marx's shift as a political act in the 'heat of battle': 'Before discovering the proletariat, before forging the concept of his theory of history, Marx makes the leap; he is virtually the only one in the democratic German opposition to do so, with the exception...of Heine'.22

So Marx becomes a revolutionary before he becomes a Marxist. He now calls for the battle for democracy in Germany to be openly joined. He rejects any attempt to solve the crisis that evades this question, as the 'True' socialists argue.23

Marx now moves to settle accounts with both Hegel and the French Revolution. Marx engages in what Kouvelakis describes as a Hegelian critique of Hegel. Marx sees Hegel as failing to deliver on the promise of his own dialectic. Instead of uncovering the real and ceaseless movement of history, it ends up accommodating to empirical reality--the actually existing Prussian state. So, what comes to pass in history turns out simply to be what already exists. The revolutionary promise of Hegel's idealist dialectic turns out to be a conservative justification of the status quo.24

Marx then proceeds to launch a critique of the notion of representative government itself. Crucially, this centres on the fact that even this--the maximum possible democracy under capitalism--fails to overcome the division between civil society and the state. The state under representative democracy claims to treat everybody as an equal citizen, yet in the realm of private property the division between the propertied and propertyless remain. Indeed, the state itself is a product of those divisions. Without a state, this polarisation of wealth threatens to explode. The state doesn't 'reconcile' these divisions, it entrenches them:

So any revolution that fails to eradicate the cleavage between civil society and the state must fall short of real human emancipation, however much it might succeed in democratising the existing state:

Bourgeois property and the modern state are two sides of the same coin. They are mutually interdependent. So you cannot, as the 'True' socialists argued, transform bourgeois society without addressing the question of the state. But nor will a purely 'political' revolution suffice. You cannot, says Marx, 'leave the pillars of the house standing'. The revolution must be simultaneously political and social.

So, politics is central to Marx's thought. His ideas are formed in a fight against the apolitical notions of the 'True' socialists, but it is a new way of thinking about politics that cannot be separated from the 'social'. Kouvelakis, somewhat abstractly, calls this a 'transformation of the political that amounts to posing it as a power of transformation'.27

There are two related points here. First, Marx is seeking to abolish a view of politics as a separate autonomous sphere. Politics cannot be viewed as a distinct entity from economics or the 'social'. Such a view is a central feature of liberalism. Second, for Marx, overcoming the division of politics and economics is part of the process of establishing truly democratic control from below over the organisation of society. Abolishing politics as a separate sphere is to subject it to conscious human control. Politics will no longer be an alienated realm offering only a fictitious equality and democracy even under representative democracy, but 'truly democratic'.

Kouvelakis's book, while very rich and suggestive, is also demanding and at points slightly ambiguous. It is not always clear whether he believes the state will continue to exist under communism. So he says on the one hand, that the 'state "disappears"--but only as a separate entity, a fixed, immutable given--in order to dissolve into the network of mediations that constitute concrete universality'. But he then insists, 'The "disappearance" of the political state does not in any way signify the pure and simple absence of law, a constitution, or even state institutions. Marx is resistant to "anarchist temptations".'28

Perhaps the tightly focused nature of Kouvelakis's book is a hindrance. He only takes the story of Marx's development up to 1844. It might be argued that Marx himself is still ambiguous in what he is saying at this point. Either way, a discussion of Marx's response to the Paris Commune (mentioned in passing) or to the rich tradition of soviets or workers' councils thrown up repeatedly in revolutionary situations in the 20th century would perhaps serve to clarify the issues at stake here. Kouvelakis's argument about Marx's turn to revolution as a political act also provokes some questions. If he is saying that it must be seen as the product of Marx's engagement in the struggle, and not simply as an abstract theoretical development, that seems clear and right. But when he also insists it cannot be interpreted in 'sociological' terms and that Marx's breakthrough to the new perspective 'surges up out of the contradiction', then is there not a danger of saying that it has no relationship to real struggles, to the objective world?

This aside, Philosophy and Revolution is a welcome return to the question of Marx's political project. It is a robust defence of Marx's profound concern with the issue of democracy. Given the renewal of the movement against capitalism, this is certainly timely. In particular, Marx's attention to the limits of even representative democracy (remarkably, one written in the 1840s when genuine parliamentary democracy was still only an aspiration) has a real force at a time when the hollow nature of parliamentary democracy has rarely been more apparent.

Marxism was formed at a time of crisis, and the resulting radicalisation of a wing of a movement that had initially sought reform, not revolution. Kouvelakis's insistence that a central part of this process was a confrontation with 'True' socialists who were indifferent to questions of the state and politics has something real and urgent to say to those today seeking a way to successfully challenge capitalism.


  1. J Rees,'The Return of Marx', International Socialism 79 (Summer 1998).

  2. Gareth Stedman Jones's introduction to the new Penguin edition of the The Communist Manifesto (London, 2002) reiterates this liberal critique of Marx (p179). Indeed, Stedman Jones only reserves any praise for Marx's famous celebration of the revolutionary dynamism of the capitalist system (p5).

  3. S Kouvelakis, Philosophy and Revolution, (London, 2003), p274.

  4. Ibid, p14.

  5. Ibid, p19.

  6. Ibid, p145.

  7. K Marx and F Engels, The Communist Manifesto, op cit, p251.

  8. S Kouvelakis, op cit, p141.

  9. Ibid, p131.

  10. Ibid, p143.

  11. Ibid, see pp141-144.

  12. Ibid, p153.

  13. Ibid, p165.

  14. Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) is perhaps best known among socialists for the poem 'The Silesian Weavers', written after the 1844 uprising of the weavers. The poem can be found in Heinrich Heine (London, 1997). Testimony to his radicalism is the fact that Hitler, after occupying Paris, ordered the poet's grave at Montmartre to be destroyed.

  15. Ibid, p45.

  16. In July 1830 revolution broke out in France after the last Bourbon king, Charles X, had attempted to suppress the liberal press. It ended in the establishment of the 'bourgeois monarchy' under Louis-Philippe, from the rival Orleanist dynastic house contending for the French crown.

  17. Heinrich Heine, quoted in S Kouvelakis, op cit, p60.

  18. See V I Lenin, 'The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism', in V I Lenin, Marx, Engels, Marxism (Beijing, 1978).

  19. For example, the very title of Moses Hess's The European Triarchy reflects his attempt to distil a synthesis of English, French and German experiences, in this case to find a path for evading revolution.

  20. Kouvelakis argues that the young Frederick Engels was highly influenced by Moses Hess, and was a 'True' socialist prior to his 'real encounter' with Karl Marx. Kouvelakis interprets Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England as a 'True' socialist text. This seems to me to 'bend the stick' far too hard, to say the least. Too many hostages are being offered to the argument that counterposes Engels to Marx, and sees in the former the source of the mechanical Marxism prevalent in the Second International. An account of how Engels--and not just Marx, who after all was also strongly influenced by Hess for a time--makes the transition to a consistent revolutionary outlook might reveal a more rounded perspective on the young Engels' break from 'True' socialism. For a different perspective, see 'The Revolutionary Ideas of Frederick Engels', International Socialism 65 (Winter 1994).

  21. Ibid, p259.

  22. Ibid, p278.

  23. Stedman Jones describes the section in The Communist Manifesto on 'True' socialism as 'sectarian'. Yet surely it was the tendency of some 'True' socialists to turn their fire on those fighting for democracy on the eve on the 1848 revolutions that was both sectarian and reactionary, however radical the rhetoric was that cloaked it. Marx and Engels' polemic insisted that socialists took part in the fight for democracy even while they sought to extend into a struggle for socialism. This is one of their most important contributions to the revolutionary tradition. See, for example, August Nimtz's excellent treatment of this question in A Nimtz, Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany, 2000).

  24. S Kouvelakis, op cit, pp288-292. See also J Rees, The Algebra of Revolution (New Jersey, 1998), for one of the clearest approaches to Marx's relationship to Hegel.

  25. S Kouvelakis, op cit, p300.

  26. Ibid, p326.

  27. Ibid, p310.

  28. Ibid, pp309-310.

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