This is an excellent piece of Marxist writing. First published in France in 1970, this 2005 edition should be on the reading list of everyone trying to understand Karl Marx's ideas and his method.
It also contains useful discussion on revolutionary organisation as envisaged by figures such as Lenin, Trotksy, Luxemburg, Lukacs and Guevara. But the bulk of the book is an attempt to analysis, using Marx's theory of Historical Materialism, the origin and development of Karl Marx's own thought. In particular his path to the idea of communist revolution.
Löwy begins by looking at Marx's ideas. He makes the point that "one must not separate Marx's theoretical work from his practical activity, the 'scientist' from the 'politician'." In particular, he strives to examine Marx's evolving ideas in the context, not just of theoretical debates, but also his experience in the world around him; particularly the arena of class struggle, and most specifically, the struggles of the developing proletariat.
Löwy points out that it is for this reason, that Marx's ideas were of his time. "Marx's doctrine could not have appeared during the peasant wars of the 16th century, not could Müntzer's doctrine have developed after the 1848 revolution." That said, there was nothing automatic about the development of these ideas, the "19th century proletariat offered many 'possibilities' besides Marxism".
Marx was not from the working class. So Löwy's discussion on why, despite this, Marx could become the most important proletarian theoretician is very useful. What matters when discussing such thinkers, Löwy says, is "not to what class he belongs... but what class he represents by his ideas."
From early in his life, Marx engaged with and in attempts to change the world. This took place at first as he tried to analyse and study the various movements taking place as various European countries tried to shake of the old vestiges of the feudal orders. At university Marx identifies with the ideas of Hegel, but he begins to break with this as his ideas clash with his experiences. As the author puts it;
"First, he obviously rejects, along with most of the Left-Hegelians, identification of the existing Prussian state with the realized rational state, and inclines towards a resolutely democratic position.... we find in his articles a virulent and radical criticism which we would look for in vain in Hegel: denunciation of particular interests and private-property owners... and pessimism regarding the possibility of making them harmonize with the general interest of the state."
But the criticism of private property owners did not automatically make Marx a communist. It did however send him down a particular route. As a newspaper editor, confronted by the class struggles of the poor, Marx begins to examine their condition. Initially his articles had as their "actual object", "peasant poverty... and not workers' poverty." But even at this early stage, Marx recognises that the poor are a "species" which "has only numerous arms with which to pluck the fruits of the earth for higher races". They are also "the only serious defender of freedom" when compared to the impotent and cowardly bourgeois.
Throughout the book Löwy demonstrates the way that Marx's ideas are evolving and changing as his study of the world as well as his experience of class struggle shapes him. For example;
"Between his break with the liberal bourgeoisie at the beginning of 1843 and this 'discovery' of the proletariat at the beginning of 1844 there lay, for Marx, a period of 'democratic-humanist' transition, a phase of ideological loss of bearings and of feeling his way which would bring him eventually to communism."
In order to understand this transition, Löwy quotes extensively from Marx's own writings. He also examines the various class struggles that influenced Marx - that of the Silesian Weavers for instance, as well as the various left wing, socialist and workers' organisations that Marx was involved in. Ultimately, Löwy helps us understand the importance of Marx's famous saying, "ThepPhilosopher's have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point is to change it." This represents not just Marx's arrival at revolutionary communism, but his break with passive philosophy and his transition to an understanding of the proletariat, as subject and object of history.
Marx's revolutionary communism then means that he spends the rest of his life engaging, in various ways, in movements to overthrow capitalism and advance the interests of the working class. Key to that, is the building of workers organisation. Löwy's discussion on what that meant for Marx and Engels forms a key part of the remainder of this book, as does his analysis of other revolutionary thinkers who followed Marx.
I found this section of the book less stimulating that the first half. In part because it wasn't in depth enough to fully grasp complexities. But also because the concluding remarks on the importance of Che Guevara's theory of revolutionary organisation felt like a break with Löwy's early chapters. Here Löwy argues that guerrilla organisation can, in certain circumstance, act as a catalyst for wider revolutionary struggles. This seems to me, to go against Löwy's (and Marx's) key point, that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class. Indeed, elsewhere, Löwy is keen to emphasis the way that Lenin and other revolutionaries purposely avoided seeing vanguard organisation in these terms, celebrating the "spontaneous" role of the masses at the same time as understanding that revolutionary organisation must be in a constant, dialectical relationship with those masses. Learning from, shaping and developing the struggle.
This final criticism however shouldn't lead to potential readers avoiding this book. This is an extremely interesting book that will stimulate and provide food for thought for every socialist who reads it, and hopefully improve the understanding of both Marx and Marxism.
Mehring - Karl Marx: The Story of his Life
Molyneux - The Point is to Change it: An Introduction to Marxist Philosophy