CfP: Historical Materialism Special Issue on ‘Western Marxism’

Call for papers, deadline 30 November 2022

Ever since the publication in 1976 of Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism, the very notion of Western Marxism has been a reference point, a widely used categorization, and the object of intense debates and controversies. The idea that there is a particular version of ‘Western’ Marxism, opposed to both classical Marxism, but also to ‘Eastern’ Marxism, in the sense of the Marxist orthodoxy projected by the Soviet Union, was not, of course, Anderson’s in the first place. Karl Korsch had already referred in his ‘The Present State of the Problem of “Marxism and Philosophy” – An Anti-Critique’ (1930) to the distinction between ‘orthodox’ and Soviet Marxism on the one hand and ‘Western’ Communists such as Georg Lukács on the other, whereas Maurice Merleau-Ponty re-proposed this distinction at the height of the Cold War. 

However, it was Anderson who indeed popularised the term and offered it as a narrative that could incorporate a great part of the Marxism of the twentieth century. The way he offered a very concise description of the criteria by which to distinguish a particularly ‘Western’ version of Marxism, associated with the defeat of the revolution in Western Europe, the breakdown of the dialectical relationship between theory and practice that the previous generation of Marxists projected, the turn towards more abstract or philosophical forms of theorising instead of more concrete and strategically oriented analysis - all these seemed to offer a rather accurate description of the direction of Marxist theoretical research after WWII. One might add that, although Anderson’s political aim was to suggest a form of incorporation of the advances made by Western Marxism into a renewed form of the particular focus on revolutionary practice associated with classical Marxism, the subsequent developments and the fact that a large part of Marxist research was (and still is) carried out within an academic environment seemed to suggest a further vindication of Anderson’s positions. 

At the same time, there have always been debates that point to Western Marxism being, in a certain sense, a contested terrain. On the one hand, there have been many objections as to whether the notion of Western Marxism can be mainly applied to Marxists in Western Europe or should it also incorporate critical approaches to Marxism in Eastern Europe (especially if we think of figures like Lukács – the archetypical ‘Western Marxist’ for Korsch and Merleau-Ponty – Karel Kosík or Evald Ilyenkov). On the other hand, there were objections to the very way that Anderson chose to designate some Marxists as ‘Western’, especially since some of the figures included in this emerging canon in fact did not represent a rupture of the dialectical relation between theory and practice, especially Gramsci (something that Anderson was the first to admit), and there were particular traditions where it is difficult to see this total break between theory and strategy/practice that Anderson alluded to. Moreover, there was the open question whether the evolution of Marxism could only be explained in this bifurcated succession of classical Marxism by Western Marxism and Stalinist orthodoxy, or whether other traditions of Marxism also emerged, not focused on Western Europe (or North America, although Anderson did not suggest any major North American figure, with the exception of theorists of the Frankfurt School that had to move to the US), traditions that could be described as subaltern. There was also the question of the dialogues with theorists or philosophers outside Marxism that Anderson suggested as one of the characteristic traits of Western Marxism, thus posing the question of whether this was particular to Western Marxism or in fact it represents the critical and dialogical character of the Marxist tradition in its entirety. 

Moreover, there are currents in ‘Marxism in the West’ that point to the problems with Anderson’s definition of Western Marxism, from operaismo to figures like Grossman, Wittfogel or Pollock. At the same time, the very evolution of ‘Western Marxism’ sheds new light to the political economy/culture division that Anderson suggested.

We can also point to other theorists that took up the challenge of discussing the legacy of Western Marxism: Harry Harootunian has argued that the philosophical turn in post-war Western Marxism was a theoretical symptom of the ubiquitous status of the commodity-form in the West at that moment, that the real subsumption of labour and life to the commodity form in the advanced economies had formed the material basis of a totalising thought-form without an outside. It is to non-Western (in the geographical sense) contexts, where we find the co-existence of capitalist and non-capitalist modes production, that Harootunian directs us to find theoretical solutions to the impasse of Western Marxism. In a similar manner, Domenico Losurdo insisted on the ‘missed encounter’ between Western Marxism and the anti-colonial movement. Such a perspective enables us to pose questions about the relationship between economic and theoretical conjunctures and the extent to which we can use the categories Marx develops in his critique of political economy to explain tendencies within the history of Marxist theory/philosophy (the renewed interest in the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel surely points to this direction). Above all, it enables to deal with the broader challenge to ‘deprovincialise Marxism’ and bring forward forgotten or suppressed legacies of anti/post-colonial Marxism.

It is obvious that we are dealing with a series of important and still open questions. 46 years after the appearance of Anderson’s text, it is necessary to return to them. Not only (and not mainly) in the sense of discussing the accuracy of his categorisation or description, but in order to rethink the very history and the different traditions within Marxism. In this sense, it is necessary to rethink whether one could still speak about such a distinctive ‘Western’ strain of Marxism and what directions this incorporates, but also the complexities that actually require a problematisation of this definition, and, of course, the existence of other traditions within the broader contours of Marxism. Moreover, it is important to see what traditions, in particular national traditions, can be described as ‘Western Marxist’, but also, again, what particular challenges to this have emerged. 

What we want to do with this special issue is to reopen this debate, look at the contemporary pertinence of the notions and categorisations used and, in general, discuss whether contemporary Marxism can still be described in the form of the bifurcations suggested by Anderson and, at the same time, enrich this approach by revisiting the many and different traditions that can be described as ‘Western Marxism’, offering an assessment of their contribution but also shortcomings or limitations. In particular, we welcome contributions that:

-        Revisit in a critical manner Anderson’s thesis, its criteria, its validity and its pertinence;

-        Challenge the notion of ‘Western Marxism’ and offer alternative histories and categorisations of Marxist thinking;

-        Discuss particular traditions of ‘Western Marxism’ in regional or national contexts, especially beyond Europe. We are also interested in marginalised or under-discussed currents within ‘Marxism in the West’ such as Marxism in the Iberian Peninsula, Scandinavia, Greece etc.;

-        Revisit particular aspects of the debate around Western Marxism, such as the question of the dialectical relation between theory and practice, or the conceptualisation of notions such that were central in this debate such as ‘totality’, ‘fetishism’, ‘class consciousness’, the ‘dialectic’, and their continuous theoretical (and strategic) efficacy;

-        Offer accounts of the directions that these particular traditions or strains of Marxism took in the years that have elapsed since the publication of Anderson’s book;

-        Discuss the various dialogues between the traditions of Western Marxism and other currents within Marxism and, in particular, the various forms of ‘subaltern’ or ‘indigenous’ Marxist traditions and suggest ways to answer the challenge of ‘de-provincialising’ Marxism;

-        Analyse the political repercussions that the various currents described as ‘Western Marxism’ had both historically and in the contemporary context and to what extent there were social and political movements that took their inspiration from them and also assess to what extent new relations between theoretical questions and political exigencies emerged; 

-        Examine the political stakes of the different currents of ‘Western Marxism’ and how these reflected wider schisms within the international revolutionary project;

-        Revisit some of the questions that Anderson posed and the extent to which they are still pertinent such as the turn from strategic questions towards the philosophical, aesthetic, gnoseological or philological or the dialogue with other theoretical currents and whether we can see a divergence between the intellectual priorities of Marxist activists/militants and theorists. 


Consequently, we encourage contributions to these questions. The themes we mention are not exhaustive and we are open to other proposals on the general thematic of ‘Western Marxism.’ Anyone wishing to contribute, please send a title and an abstract (around 300 words) to outlining the contribution by 30 November 2022. In the e-mail, please indicate that it is for the Western Marxism Special Issue. A selection will be made and then contributors will be asked to submit their articles to the Historical Materialism in order for them to go through the peer-review process and the Journal’s editorial board, as with any other article submitted to the Journal. Accepting the abstract for the proposed article does not imply any commitment from the part of the Journal to also accept the article.