Review: Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism by Russell Jacoby (Cambridge U.P., 1981, Reprint: 2001)

Russell Jacoby’s Dialectic of Defeat is one of those books that is excellent in what it critiques but confused in what it advocates.   A history of alternate traditions of “Western Marxism,” particularly focusing on Left Communism and Marxist Humanism varieties, as well as a critique of the idea that “Victory makes right” in the Marxist-Leninist models, particularly of the Soviet Union.   While his critique is strong, he particularly dissects Althusser’s claims and reversals as well as the particular forms of Hegelianism that dominated each side, such as the Soviet Union’s attempt to square a form of positivism that fit with its adoption of Taylorism from the capitalist world (as well as cybernetics later) with Hegelian historicism.  These first two chapters are particularly strong, and eerie in that they hint at severe problems in the Soviet conception that probably played a role in its collapse ten years after the book was written.

Jacoby is strongest when talking about the transition from Marxist to the Social Democratic parties and communist parties of revolutions in 1918 in German as well as discussing the Italian Hegelian tradition.   He is also quite strong at pointing out that Engel’s attempt at scientific positivism was critiqued obliquely in Marx but that the direct critique was never made. Indeed, many of the texts where this element of Marx’s thinking is most clear, Engel’s himself talked Marx out of publishing (such as the the Critique of Gotha Program).  However, Jacoby does not totally cleave Marx from Engels pointing out how vital Engel was to Marx’s program including editing and releasing many important texts, such as Capital volume three.  In discussing the Italian materialist Hegelians of late 1890s and early 20th century, Jacoby points out that many did wonder why Marx did not more publicly correct Engel’s attempt at a dialectical materialism that could function like positive science.

Jacoby tend points out that Hegelianism favored by Soviets, partially in response to Lukacs’s use of the Phenomenology of Spirit, whereas the Soviet Hegelians–who were later purged themselves under Stalin, but who were following Lenin’s lead–focused on Hegel’s Science of Logic. Interestingly, Jacoby goes a long way to prove that this focus was not just a result of Soviet beliefs in their scienticity, but also in the focus of Russian readings of Hegel going back into the 19th century.

This focus on Phenomenology of Spirit seems to be why Jacoby sees Merleau-Ponty and Sartre as part of his tradition of Western Marxism, along with a humanistic focus, but does not discuss their actual political affliations or even their ideas within the book.   Sartre’s Maoism was inconsistent with his existential philsophy, which itself was a rejection of Hegelian historical thinking.  Sartre’s politics, however humanistic, were aligned with Althusser’s.  Jacoby seems particularly weak on France even though he references it without much explanation through the book.

Jacoby’s separation of the Hegelian “historical” school that dominated in the Marxism of Frankfurt school and in many left communist groups as well as Soviet’s “scientific” school is a clarifying rubric.  Yet, as the problems with Sartre, or even Lukacs’s own wavering on his early work indicate, this did not politically make that much sense. Furthermore, while Jacoby knows the Italian, Dutch, and German left communist histories as well as their marginalization and purging within the official communist parties, he seems to completely ignore groups in France from the 1960s that where highly influenced by the left communists in ways that Sartre and Merleau-Ponty or even Lefebvre were not:  the Marxism of the Situationists.

With three exceptions, Jacoby’s discussion of Italian’s is the strongest part of the book. Recovering forgotten figures as well as discussing well-known players in Italy, Jacoby paints a picture about why Italy had been so important in this process. Again, however, Jacoby does not mention recent traditions, skipping discussions of Autonomia and Operaismo.  Still, Jacoby’s discussion of  Benedetto Croce and Antonio Labriola, as well as their students, Giovanni Gentile, Georg Sorels, and Antonio Gramsci is worth the price of the book. Gentile’s honest reading of Hegel as well as Labriola’s frustration at Marx not articulating his idea of “theory of mind” while hinting at it in his critique of Feuerbach is important.   Then Jacoby discusses the left factions within the Italian Communist Party.

The there exception here are vital. Jacoby strongly critiques Amadeo Bordiga’s Leninism as opposed to the council communist tendencies of most of the so-called ultra-left.  Bordiga did deviate because unlike the Dutch traditionalists or later Gramsci’s focus on cultural hegemony, Bordiga did not think culture was the dominant force on working class consciousness.  Bordiga was trained scientist, and thus did not have a tendency to see aesthetic forces as being so predominant.  What Jacoby does not mention is that Bordiga also had a strong critique of positivism  and its relationship to industrial society in both Soviet Union and capitalist countries.  Furthermore, the focus on Bordiga’s faith in the party and not the working class may be a legitimate critique, but it is important that Bordiga’s Leninism was fundamentally different from Gramsci, whose actual politics Jacoby does not discuss.  Gramsci completely endorsed the Bolshevikization of the Italian Communist Party, whereas Bordiga utterly opposed it.  Bordiga’s Leninism was based on what Lenin stated he wanted to do, not what he did, and was closer to Luxemberg’s pluralism.   In fact, while Jacoby makes all kinds of excuses for Lukacs semi-Stalinism, but he does not recognize that Bordiga’s Leninism is fundamentally different from the Marxist-Leninism of say Sartre or the center- left communists in the German communists in that he advocated for absolute pluralism within the party beyond that of even council communists. Bordiga has many, many flaws, but Jacoby’s reading here seem to imply a scientistic vision similar to the Soviets that was not really one of them.  The second exception I have already mentioned:  while Jacoby loves Gramsci’s cultural focus, which he probably did develop from Croce, he fails to mention Lenin’s own words advocating studying the local cultures of the working class within the various national regions.  He also ignores Gramsci’s role in the Stalinization of the PCI.

While Jacoby admits that Lenin separated philosophical and political mistakes: Lenin often criticized the philosophy of political allies and praised the philosophy of political enemies within the communist motion, he also seems to distance himself from the actual politics of his subjects, particularly in the French case, where Maoism played a much stronger role than it did in Germany or Italy.  Furthermore, while I learned a lot of Soviet attempts to play different schools of Hegelians and different kinds of Left communists off of each in other, particularly in Germany–Grigory Zinoviev, himself one of the first purged by Stalin for being a “left oppositionist,” was good at putting the moderates of the left faction in power, having them purge “ultra-leftist,” and then purging them for failure on another tactical front.  Certain philosophical figures popular in the academy (Sartre, Gramsci) are continuously name-dropped but left out of discussion of later manipulations.  The third exception is that Jacoby does not try to deal with the fact that seemingly half of culturally-focused Marxist-Hegelians in Italy became proto-fascists (Sorels) or fascists outright (Gentile).

In short, the closer one gets to recent history, and the more away one is from the critique of the Soviet Union, the more selective Jacoby is in his criteria.  One of the best and worse part of the Jacoby’s book is the treatment of the Frankfurt school.  He focuses primarily on Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse.  He plays up Marcuse’s cultural awareness and his influences from Heidegger, but ignore Marcuse’s long flirtation with Maoism that drove a wedge between him and the other two members Jacoby focuses on.   He also doesn’t discuss the various divisions in the Frankfurt school beyond that and that the idea of a “worker’s unconsciousness,” on which Jacoby seizes, is really under-explored.  Jacoby’s prior work on the history and abuse of psychoanalysis in his first book probably does indicate why there would be such an interest in this element, but it is profoundly under-explored.

I feel as if I critiqued this book in ways that make it sound irrelevant or problematic. It is not.   It is very, very incomplete and seems to have been driven in categories more by sympathies within the US academy at the time and not necessarily political coherence.  This is a fairly good response to Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism and a strong historical critique of Soviet “scientific socialism,” which Jacoby does point out seemed to adopt a ton from capitalism and didn’t seem all that actually scientific at many, many points.  Furthermore the period from 1890 to 1917 is under-explored, and this is where Jacoby particularly is strong.  The idea of “Western Marxism” that he is defending seems to be more incoherent grouping that he dealt with from prior categorizations more than a coherent category, but his attempt at contextualization is admirable.

Despite all the problems I see in this book, it is, for better or worse, one of the better historical books on this topic by academic press. It is a classic in this area for a reason, but it should be read with caveats.


4 thoughts on “Review: Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism by Russell Jacoby (Cambridge U.P., 1981, Reprint: 2001)

  1. As the author of this book, I have to say I salute the reviewer: this is a smart and informed piece. But one big thing is missing: he fails to note that the book is 35 years old! This might explain some of its deficiencies


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