‘On Changing the World: Essays in Political Philosophy, from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin’ reviewed by Benjamin Hirst

Reviewed by Benjamin Hirst

About the reviewer

Benjamin Hirst is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the …


Michael Löwy is part of a lineage of social theorists concerned with restoring the non-orthodox, anti-diamat spirit of Marxist thought, forming an attempt to resist the modernisers and advocates of the Third Way, and affirm instead the ‘hidden romantic moment’ (xii) which lies within the dark and much maligned history of socialist thought. According to Löwy, such modernisers have tended to throw out the ‘baby’ of non-capitalist forms of social organisation with the ‘(extremely) dirty water’ (xi) of Soviet-style communism. As such, the iron laws of history, the reification of labour and technology, and the tendency towards centralised and authoritarian government may have been denigrated as a dangerous ideology, but so too have the hopes for a radically different future. Löwy has therefore consistently and emphatically argued that the totalising and totalitarian projects that defined the Soviet Union were and are antithetical to the true spirit of Marxism; a profound betrayal of its revolutionary-romantic and utopian origins which materialist historiography must restore.

In this sense, Löwy undoubtedly has in mind a certain essence of Marx and Marxism, finding common cause with writers such as Leszek Kolakowski, Karl Löwith and more recently David Harvey who, contra the likes of Louis Althusser, maintain that the humanist-utopian strand of thought is a consistent theme throughout Marx and ought not to be simply dismissed through an appeal to the so-called ‘epistemological break’. Against the Althusserian tendency, Löwy calls for a focus on ‘the history of Marxism as political philosophy’ (xii), the essays collected in On Changing the World operating as Löwy’s ongoing contribution to this project. However, as we are informed, this emphasis on political philosophy should not be confused with politics as it relates to ‘questions of power and the state’, but rather to ‘the broad range of issues concerning human common life in the polis’ (xii). Therefore, although Marxism ought not to be explicitly concerned with questions of government, it must nevertheless have a transformative or redemptive function, thereby following the spirit of Marx’s oft-cited eleventh thesis on Ludwig Feuerbach, alluded to in the books’ title.

Written between 1976 and 2010 (although only nine of the essays are dated, the rest presumably demanding some intelligent guess- or Google-work), On Changing the World presents a series of remarkably cogent, well researched and intellectually rigorous essays on the history of Marxist and non-Marxist thought, drawing on the humanist, dialectical and historicist traditions exemplified by a diverse array of thinkers including Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Max Weber, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, many of whom are also discussed in greater detail in other books by Löwy, such as Georg Lukács: From Romanticism to Bolshevism (1979), The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America (1996) and Fire Alarm: reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the concept of history’ (2005) to name a few. Remaining consistent with the 1993 edition, the essays are arranged in a thematic, rather than a chronological order, with the book’s form putting into practice the claim that ideas do not always develop in a linear fashion! Unfortunately this is not the case with the four additional essays, which are merely tacked onto the end of the collection. Nevertheless, although he manages to cover a variety of topics – including Lenin’s turn to Hegel in the 1914 ‘April Theses’; the historical-humanist reading of Marxism developed by Gramsci and Lukács; and the Marxist concept of the ‘nation’ – due to the consistency of Löwy’s style and thought, and the persistence of certain themes and terms, this doesn’t pose much of a problem.  

Among the conceptual vocabulary deployed by Löwy is ‘elective affinity’. Borrowed from the German sociologist Max Weber, it is defined as an ‘active relationship between two social or cultural configurations leading to mutual attraction, mutual influence and mutual reinforcement’ and is seen by Löwy as ‘one of Weber’s most fruitful contributions to the sociology of culture’ (46). In very much the same way that Weber identified a mutual influence between Calvinism and the emergence of modern capitalism in the seventeenth century, the notion of elective affinity allows Löwy to find a number of affinities between, for example, Marxism and liberation theology in Latin America, Marxism and romanticism, revolutionary utopia and religiosity, as well as finding in Walter Benjamin a precursor to modern ecology and anti-nuclear movements. It also allows Löwy to look beyond the usual figures associated with the Marxist tradition in order to make a variety of illuminating comparisons, and therefore explore with greater sophistication the development of the European political and cultural imaginary in the first half of the twentieth century, including its possible uses for the present.

One such attempt to bring together two seemingly disparate intellectual traditions can be found in one of the collection’s new additions: a comparative piece on Max Weber’s ‘value-free’ (Wertfrei) analysis of capitalism in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and Walter Benjamin’s explicitly anti-capitalist 1921 fragment, ‘Capitalism as Religion’. The essay picks up on a few ideas developed in an earlier essay on Weber and Marx in which Löwy questions the validity of the great gulf that has been produced between the two thinkers. Following the publication of The Protestant Ethic in 1908, conservative writers such as Hans Delbruck had gone to great lengths to find in Weber a refutation of, and alternative theoretical framework to historical materialism. By giving the ‘values’ of Protestant sects a greater priority over material (economic) forces in the development of capitalism, Weber was seen as putting forward an analysis utterly incompatible with Marxism. This view was also shared on the Left by another one of Löwy’s targets, Karl Kautsky, who feared that Weber would eventually bring down the historical materialist project entirely. Throughout the twentieth century, this division has been perpetuated further, in particular by the popularisation of Weber in English-speaking countries by Talcott Parsons; an intervention which has influenced the way in which both Weber and Marx have been taught to sociology students for over half a century.

For Löwy, however, Marx was not entirely dismissive of religious motivations, nor did Weber entirely overlook the importance of economic developments, and both of course saw the capitalist mode of production as inherently irrational. Yet this is by no means an attempt at synthesis. Focusing in particular on Weber’s often inaccurate and emotionally charged readings of Benjamin Franklin and his analysis of American capitalism, Löwy concludes that Weber’s historical sociology 1) fails to give an accurate account of the context of capitalism in America, and 2) gives ideas and values too central a place in the historical process, seeing them as exterior, and not immanent, to capitalism. Therefore Löwy ultimately sides with Marx, who, in the Grundisse (published in 1939) clearly recognised an ‘affinity between Puritanism and capitalism’, specifically concerning the ascetic and self-denying ‘cult of money’ (52).

In this respect, the Weber-Benjamin comparison developed in the later essay is of much interest, as it continues the argument made by Marx that capitalism itself has a religious character. Although taking Weber as a point of departure, Benjamin states that capitalism itself functions as a kind of religious cult, rather than as a system which simply secularises religion. For Benjamin capitalism replaces the laws of God with the laws of Capital or the Market, instantiating guilt and the logic of indebtedness into the minds of both rich and poor alike, producing social exclusion as its apparently necessary and unquestionable by-product. This is undoubtedly a fruitful insight, which owes much to Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality (2007) and has been developed further within Maurizio Lazzarato’s recently translated book The Making of the Indebted Man (2012). The essay also introduces some interesting historiographical research which discusses the way German anti-capitalists in the first decades of the twentieth-century took up certain aspects of Weber’s analysis of capitalism, for example allowing Ernst Bloch (‘a sui generis Marxist fascinated by Catholicism’ 199) to find in Weber a refutation of capitalism and its Protestant origins.

Reading through the collection it becomes clear that Benjamin is a major influence on Löwy, with six essays devoted to him in one way or another, and with references scattered throughout the collection. Löwy even goes as far as to suggest that Benjamin’s `Theses on the Philosophy of History’ is ‘one of the most path-breaking, and seminal documents of revolutionary thought since Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach’ (159-60), and expresses the ‘burning spiritual flame of his oeuvre: the revolutionary redemption of humanity’ (160). However, as is often the case with Benjamin, it ought to be asked whether this ‘spiritual flame’ ever erupts into the fire of revolutionary violence? In a comparative piece on Marcuse and Benjamin, one can find the first and only discussion of violence in the entire collection. Both are said to affirm the ‘absolute negation of the existing social order’ (139) and the necessity of ‘using violence against the oppressors’ (139). As Marcuse observed, in the case of Benjamin’s affirmation of divine violence, he does not mean that the oppressed should murder their oppressors, creating a rupture in the system of oppressor and oppressed, whilst paradoxically reproducing this very opposition. Yet Löwy does not allude to what this other violence may be.

The question of violence becomes even more pressing in the case of the possibility of ecological catastrophe, an issue which is clearly close to Löwy’s heart. In a remarkably Benjaminian quote from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, we read that: ‘We … have our foot stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards the abyss’ (188). Lowy’s response: ‘will humanity apply the revolutionary brakes?’ (189) Of course, considering what Löwy sees as being the ‘intrinsically perverse logic of the capitalist system based on unlimited expansion’ (187) and thus the sheer inability of capitalist institutions to apply the brakes themselves, or to use a phrase cited at various points by Löwy, ‘to cut the fuse before it reaches the dynamite’, when it comes to finding a response to global warming and ecological catastrophe, one is forced to ask ‘what is to be done?’ Löwy is here at his most explicitly messianic, stating, in a style somewhere between Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Walter Benjamin: ‘see what will happen, unless … if we do not … The future is still open. Every second is the narrow gate through which salvation may come’ (189). The question of who will force open this gate, and how, remains an open question.

In keeping with the kind of messianism that characterised thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse, Löwy only allows the faintest glimmer of light into his vision of the future, instead concentrating on the catastrophe to come if we do not begin to act responsibly towards one another. As such anyone looking to this book for concrete programs for political action will have to look elsewhere. Rather Löwy allows the reader to form his/her own conclusions regarding the possibilities for political and social action that might emerge from historiographical and comparative research.

2 September 2013


  • Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2012 The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
  • Löwy, Michael. 1979 Georg Lukács: From Romanticism to Bolshevism London: NLB.
  • Löwy, Michael. 1996 The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America. London and New York: Verso.
  • Löwy, Michael. 2005 Fire Alarm: reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the concept of history’. London and New York: Verso
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2007 On the Genealogy of Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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