The Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism: A Noah’s Ark of Critical Thinking*

Looking for a title that could express how I’d like to understand our project—and how I’d like it to be understood by others—I browsed through the Foreword to Volume I of the Dictionary1 and came across the metaphor of a Noah’s Ark, carrying the hidden treasures of Marxism through the collapse of administrative socialism into a different time. Since any such image risks being saddled with misleading connotations, I should add that the title is not meant to suggest the apocalyptic and elitist vision of being the only Ark in the Flood. But it conveys the knowledge that there is something precious to be found under the rubble; that humanity has a stake in its rescue and renewal; and that we have no guarantee that these treasures can be handed down to future generations given the enormous weight of commodification that governs not only politics and the media, but also academic life.

Huge Project, Slim Resources

Let me start with a few remarks about who we are, and what the Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism (HKWM) looks like. Its publisher, the Berlin Institute for Critical Theory (INKRIT), is a pretty young institution, founded in 1996. It is not affiliated with any political party or organization; this is considered to be a necessary prerequisite for the independence and the pluralistic profile of the dictionary. If you look at the patrons of the “Inkrit,” you can see at a glance that the institute is supported by a broad international range of outstanding scholars, from Étienne Balibar to Immanuel Wallerstein, from Pierre Bourdieu to Eric Hobsbawm, from Jacques Derrida to Dorothy Smith. Its main task is to promote critical theories in interaction with social movements. To this end, it organizes each spring a conference on topics crucial for the dictionary’s further development, e.g. on Gramsci (1997), on the centenaries of Brecht, Eisler and Marcuse (1998), on the problem of rethinking “progress” (1999), on Justice, Violence, and Hegemony (2000). The conferences combine panels with other forms of presentation, focusing on the discussion of particular articles for the dictionary.

Such an ambitious editing project depends on being embedded in a broader theoretical culture. It developed around the dictionary’s editor-in-chief, Wolfgang Fritz Haug, who is one of the best-known independent Marxist philosophers in Germany. Some of you may know him because of his translated Critique of Commodity Aesthetics;2 others may know him as a Gramsci-scholar: we are doing the same job as Joseph Buttigieg is doing for the English-speaking world, namely editing the Prison Notebooks of Gramsci in German. Wolf Haug is, together with Frigga Haug, the editor of the theoretical review, Das Argument, founded in the 1950s, and still an important outlet for critical thinking. During the period of the student movement, he used his teaching position to build up a large network of study groups working on Marx’s Capital. In the ‘70s, this became almost a mass-movement of hundreds of students studying Marx with a serious commitment to uncovering the hidden secrets of capitalist society. This was the time when I was drawn into Marxist theory, beginning with the Critique of Political Economy, then continuing with Marxist approaches to ideology, religion, and philosophy.

Let us turn to the product itself, consisting of four volumes so far, ranging from A to mid-way through G. We are now working on the fifth volume (from mid-G to mid-H), which is to be published in 2001. As can be seen immediately, it is a conceptually organized dictionary, thus excluding direct entries for individuals. Certainly, there are many concepts that are linked to individual names, like e.g. Leninism, Brecht school, Fidelism, Della Volpe school, and each volume also contains a name-index where you can look up the individuals mentioned in the articles. But our primary focus is on the intellectual material. We use the theoretical concepts as tools, as entry points, to cut from many sides through the contradictory historical formation called Marxism.

If you look at the authors of the dictionary, you can observe an interesting shift. The first two volumes are clearly marked by the dominance of German traditions of Marxism (I will explain in a moment why this is not only a limitation). When it comes to the third volume, however, you can see a considerable increase in the number of non-German authors, especially of the English-speaking world, and by the fourth volume, you find already one fifth of all the authors living in the US. This originally German project has indeed been developing into a more and more international enterprise.

We think it’s good to widen the international scope of the project. We would like to find a sponsor for an English translation of the dictionary. In the meantime we are building up a website (;, where the articles written in English will be published.

The dictionary will have a total of 15 volumes with about 1500 entries and more than 800 authors. When it is finished, it will be the biggest, the most comprehensive, and the most international dictionary of Marxism. At the same time, we do all this with a very limited amount of money. We have some financial support from the Bundesstiftung Rosa Luxemburg (Berlin), the Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici (Naples), and the Centrum för Marxistika Samhällsstudier (Stockholm), but the money is quickly absorbed by just the production costs of a volume. There is only one low-paid job of coordination, and apart from this, the entire work is done on a voluntary basis.

The Historical-Critical Dictionary and the collapse of Marxism-Leninism

The immediate origin of the dictionary was another Marxist dictionary, namely the French Dictionnaire Critique du Marxisme edited by Georges Labica and Gérard Bensussan. As soon as it was published in 1982, we began to translate it, and published it in 8 small volumes. At the same time we were planning some supplementary “German” volumes. They were intended to open up links to the new social movements, which became fairly strong in Western Germany with the rise of the feminist and ecological movements and the emergence of the Green party. But we encountered obstacles within the leftist culture in Western Germany: the small Communist party, the DKP, refused to cooperate, because it was afraid that the intended renewal of Marxism could actually mean its dissolution, and the Social Democrats did not participate in any project where Communists were invited to participate as well. We decided, therefore, to internationalize the project. The response was so positive that we had to start our own dictionary; we could no longer see our work as a mere supplement to an earlier project.

While preparing for the first volume, we were confronted with the failure of Perestroika, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the end of the whole world-order that had emerged out of the October Revolution of 1917 and the Second World War. The falling apart of the Eastern bloc cannot be separated from the victory of neoliberalism, based on the rapid development of new electronic, computerized productive forces, which undermined or destroyed the class-compromises of the social-democratic welfare state. The two tendencies together created a new situation for the dictionary, a kind of “epistemological break,” that changed our work enormously. We couldn’t just continue as before. Many articles written during the time of global bipolarity and Western reformism, suddenly looked awfully outdated, and we had to throw them away or to rework them from scratch.

One must keep in mind the contradictory character of this historical moment. On the one hand, Marxist theory got the chance to free itself from the control of Communist states and parties, and from a certain inner fixation to them. The archives of Marxism-Leninism were opened. It became clear that the German origin of the Historical-Critical Dictionary was not only a restriction, but offered an important historical opportunity. From the outset, we were forced to combine Western and Eastern strands of Marxist thought flowing together in the same “reunified” country, i.e. different types of knowledge and experience, and also different types of intellectuals. We had to find a productive way to work with these differences and contradictions, both on the level of authors, and in the editorial group itself. We do not have fifty-fifty representation, but we are building one of the rare overarching projects that helps to save precious intellectual resources of Eastern Marxism from falling into oblivion.

On the other hand we were confronted with the over- whelming triumphalism of the Western victors, who now excluded especially the critical intellectuals of Eastern Germany from any influential position in Germany. The entire history of state-socialism, with all its hidden struggles, contradictions, and dialectics is now being reduced in an essentialist way to a single and evil dictatorship, Gulag, almost Auschwitz. The dominant paradigm is to declare Marxism’s death, to bury all hope for a better society as utopian and therefore ultimately totalitarian. This suffocating strategy had an especially strong impact on the intellectuals of Eastern Germany, who were torn between two equally barren options: on the one hand, leaving Marxism behind and replacing it quickly with Western social theories, once again overlooking the critical, heretical lines of Marxist thought; on the other hand, clinging to the traditional forms of Marxism-Leninism, preserving it as a sort of passive resistance against the West.

Between these opposite tendencies of abnegation of Marxism and its dogmatic preservation, it was not easy to open up space for a critical and self-critical renewal of Marxism. But this was the challenge we had to take up.

Plural Marxism and Rescuing Critique

One of the tragedies of Marxist theory in the Soviet Bloc was its direct submission to political rule. A theoretical critique was transformed into an official ideology unable to analyze the internal contradictions of socialist society, its paralyzing structures, and Marxism’s own lack of hegemony. Therefore, we had to rediscover and re-articulate Marxism as a critical theory, as a theoretical critique of any domination: class-domination, state-domination, patriarchal domination, and exploitative domination over nature. And we had to re-invent it as an analytical tool for criticizing its own history, in all its achievements, tragedies, and crimes.

Walter Benjamin once coined the term rettende Kritik, whose literal translation would be “rescuing critique.” It is a transformative criticism, which does not shrink from recklessly unveiling the gaps, blockages, and deformations in Marxist traditions, while rescuing their elements of rationality, hope, and commitment. Such a critique is the opposite of denunciation. Instead of totalizing Marxism, treating it as an essentialist entity, it reconstructs its historical conditions and internal splits.

Closely linked to this concept of critique is the commitment to accept and to reconstruct Marxism as a plurality of different and often antagonistic tendencies. For the dictionary, the problem of Marxist plurality is not primarily a problem of political correctness, e.g. how can we distribute the entries so as to give, say, 15 to the former Communists, 10 to the Trotskyists, 12 to the Eco-Socialists? The real challenge is how to make sure that the articles themselves show the plural development of Marxist thinking. Whenever a Marxian concept is adopted by different strands of Marxism and interpreted differently, the author has to demonstrate these differences, whatever his or her own opinion might be. In this respect, our guidelines are very clear: “No one has to deny his or her standpoint, but competing positions must also be represented—and in ‘Dialogue’ form. The entries should not be treated likes fortresses in a war of position.” This requires a certain critical-historical distance, which prevents us from just reproducing the pitfalls and failures of our history. It could enable us to dissolve the blind compulsion to repeat.

One important task of a plural understanding of Marxism is to deal in a critical and self-critical way with the relationship between First- and Second-World Marxism and Marxism in the so-called “periphery.” Eurocentrism is a problem of our tradition as well. We have also the extreme opposite, an uncritical third-world-revolutionarism, which tends to cover up the failures and deformations of liberationist movements instead of analyzing them. The dictionary contains many entries that contribute to a correction of Eurocentric bias, from Anti-Colonialism (written by Samir Amin) to the Zapatistas, from Arab Socialism to the Green Revolution in India, from Dependency Theory to the Vietnam War. But we would violate our historical-critical approach if we did not work on the manifold “tiersmondist” illusions and deformations as well, including e.g. an article on Pol-Pot-ism and its horrible genocidal politics.

Keeping Up With New Developments

Let me get to a third conclusion: the dictionary is not only a space where Marxist key-concepts are carefully expounded, as a sort of well elaborated canon of Marxism, but it also claims to pick up the thread wherever Marxist theories intervene in relevant problems of humanity or connect themselves to relevant social movements. It is this understanding of an intervening and connecting Marxism that makes this project so big and in some ways difficult to handle.

We have to be aware that Marx’s analyses are not sufficient for resolving the current problems of our world. In a way, this was already true for the first half of the 20th century. Marx could not anticipate that 20th century capitalism, and especially US capitalism, was able to create a new mode of production and regulation, which prevented the revolutionary crisis he had been expecting in the capitalist centers. It was primarily Antonio Gramsci who tried to conceptualize this new social formation that he called Americanism and Fordism. This is one of the reasons why Gramscian concepts have a large place in our dictionary, much larger than is common in US Marxist discourse.

Several entries of our dictionary deal with these specific features of 20th century capitalism, based on mass-production, Taylorism, consumerism, and a specific “Fordist” class-alliance between the bourgeoisie and a part of the upper working class. But the most challenging and difficult task is to explore what forms of capitalist domination are now being imposed by the rule of neoliberalism. To give an example: How can we conceptualize, on the one hand, the new high-technological mode of production, often described as information society, postindustrialist, non-material production etc., and on the other hand, the brutal revival of older forms of capitalist production, which we can observe in the maquilas at the US-Mexican border. If you look e.g. at the Smithfield plant, the biggest slaughterhouse in the world, as reported in the New York Times (June 16, 2000),3 you can see a sort of Super-Fordism (without the old Fordist class-compromise), based on an extremely exhausting overexploitation at the assembly line, and operated by a cruel racial division of labor.

In order to keep up with these developments, we have to include many new terms, which do not originate in Marxism, but about which Marxists have something important to say: e.g., Information Society, Postindustrialism, Postfordism, Neoliberalism, Toyotism (unfortunately, many of them begin with the prefix “neo” or “post,” which always indicates that it is not quite clear what the new phenomenon exactly is). By this means we try to gather the best analyses of contemporary Marxists, e.g. the investigations of the so-called Regulation school around M. Aglietta, A. Lipietz, or Bob Jessop. In the next (fifth) volume of the dictionary, we will publish, e.g., a very substantial article by Christoph Ohm on this new type of computer-intellectual or computer-rebel called Hacker.

As a general principle, we do include terms unknown to the Marxist traditions if these terms articulate historically new problematics or if they illuminate neglected facets of Marxism. In this vein, we included e.g. the Weberian term Charisma/charismatic leadership, because it points to a crucial dimension of political practice that is a blind spot in Marxist theory.

Marxist Border-Crossings

Let me give some examples of the border-crossings we try to carry out, in order to establish connections to the most relevant social movements:

Marxism-Feminism: Promoted and encouraged by Frigga Haug, a large number of articles are related to gender, gender relations, domestic labor, feminization of poverty, feminist discussion of ethics, and even feminist theology. The article Gender [Geschlecht] is being written by Donna Haraway. Obviously, class-domination and patriarchy can neither be deduced from each other (or reduced to each other), nor separated from each other. They largely intersect and overlap and perpetuate each other. We try both to inscribe feminist critique into the Marxist traditions, and conversely, to re-inscribe Marxist critique into feminism. Several articles have to deal with the problem that Marx’s focus on wage labor led him to underestimate the role of female domestic labor in the reproduction of capitalism. And on the other hand, our article Feminism, written by Rosemary Hennessy brings the class-issue back into the history of feminism itself: she demonstrates how the social base of white upper- and middle-class women in the capitalist power-centers could lead to a moderate, liberal, postmodernist Cultural-Feminism, which has largely accommodated itself to neoliberal ideology.

Eco-Socialism: Fortunately I can rely here on two authors present in this panel, John Foster and Victor Wallis, who have demonstrated in their articles4 that in Marx’s critique of political economy class-questions are closely linked to human relations to nature, and that he already anticipated what came much later to be labeled sustainable development. Obviously, our task as a historical- critical dictionary is again a twofold one: we must uncover a terrible neglect of environmental questions in Marxist traditions, most of which have been marked by a sort of Fordist industrialism. As you certainly know, it was the negative comment in the Manifesto about the “idiocy of rural life” that held sway in the Second and Third Internationals, and served to justify a reckless industrialization that had consequences like those Marx had ascribed to capitalist agriculture: “undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.” And we have to showcase that there are still precious treasures to be discovered in Marx’s criticisms of the exploitation and destruction of nature, e.g., Marx’s later appreciation of the Russian rural commune and its communal ownership of land as a possible springboard into socialism. And above all: each current strategy for sustainable development, if it is serious, must transform the organization of production itself, and therefore needs a perspective that goes beyond the capitalist mode of production.

I don’t want to enumerate all the social areas, battlefields, and movements that urgently need a reconnecting with Marxist analysis, or rather, to put it the other way round: to which Marxism is to be reconnected in the interest of its own sustainability. Two other authors on this panel, Richard Lichtman, the author of Freudo-Marxism, and Inez Hedges, the author of Photomontage [Fotomontage], express some of the connections that are vital for such a re-opening of Marxism. My own focus in the editorial group of the dictionary is on the reconnecting of Marxism with liberationist tendencies in religion. What is often missing in Marxist criticism of religion is the analytical distinction, within religion, between ideology from above and resistance from below, between paralyzing effects and the dynamics of empowerment. We have in Europe a long tradition of Christian-Marxist dialogue, and even of a Christian Marxism. You shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, if you find in the dictionary articles on Justice [Gerechtigkeit] in the Bible, Materialist Bible Reading, Congregation [Gemeinde], Faith [Glaube] (distinguished from Religion), and even God.

Philology as a Medium of Reconnection

I hope you do not have the impression of a huge and shapeless agglomeration of dispersed elements. When we speak of Plural Marxism and Marxist border-crossings, we are not praising the colorful world of difference as such, nor are we celebrating the disconnectedness of contemporary academic Marxisms from each other and from popular movements. Deconstruction may play an important role in our dissolving of false certainties, but it is not an end in itself. Our program is critical reconstruction and reconnection.

I’d like to comment on a quite modest but indispensable instrument of such reconnection, namely, a careful philology. It is a connector because it enables the readers to have a look at the original texts themselves, to do their own research, to create their own connections, independently of the opinion of the author. In the Historical-Critical Dictionary, all quotes and references to sources have to be carefully recorded, in order to assist further independent work.

I’d like to give you a personal example. Last year, I was asked to write an article for Socialism and Democracy about Marx’s concept of civil society, related to current debates on civil society in the US.5 Looking at different standard works on this subject (from Cohen/Arato to John Ehrenberg), I continuously stumbled over the assumption that Marx was “the peerless nineteenth-century critic of modern civil society,” and fervently desired a dedifferentiated, classless society etc.6 The general version in the debate is, simply put, that either you are a Marxist and against civil society, or you are supportive of civil society and against Marx but in the same camp as, say, Hillary Clinton and Mayor Giuliani, who both use the term copiously.

But Marx himself, writing mostly in German, used the term bürgerliche Gesellschaft, which is ambivalent: it can mean civil society (opposed to the State), but also bourgeois society, defined by capitalist domination. Whenever Marx criticizes the bürgerliche Gesellschaft in the name of a classless society, it is bourgeois society he is targeting. But the English translations, including the translation of Marx’s Collected Works, often got it wrong, by translating bürgerliche Gesellschaft as civil society, even where Marx was clearly referring to bourgeois society.7

This is one example that shows how a sloppy philology has disconnecting and harmful consequences for political strategy. In this case, it prevents Marxists from intervening into the contradictions of civil society and from claiming civil achievements against bourgeois domination. And it helps bourgeois politicians to denounce Marxists as anti-democratic and premodern. In this blocked constellation, I rediscovered the importance of the Dictionary and especially its philological value for my own work, not as an editor, but as a user. This was because Reinhard Markner’s article bürgerliche Gesellschaft focused precisely on deciphering the term’s different meanings in Marx’s writings, giving their contexts and, not least, the precise passages and pages, so that I could get directly to the sources in a relatively short time.

In Closing

Any declaration of Marxism’s death is premature, because the existential problems which it had begun to address have not been solved and have not been rendered meaningless. Just as the history of Christianity did not end with the fall of the “Christian” Roman Empire, so too the search for a socialist society has not ended with the fall of Communist rule.


1. Reference throughout is to the Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus (HKWM)(Hamburg: Argument Verlag, 1994+).

2. W.F. Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

3. Charlie LeDuff, “At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die; Who Kills, Who Cuts, Who Bosses Can Depend on,” New York Times, June 16, 2000.

4. Foster: Earth [Erde]; Wallis: Species Questions [Gattungsfragen].

5. Jan Rehmann, “’Abolition’ of Civil Society? Remarks on a Widespread Misunderstanding in the Interpretation of ‘Civil Society,’” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 13, no. 2, 1999.

6. Cf. Jean L. Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 97, 228, 231, 256, 346, 410, 643n.101.

7. Cf. Collected Works, 5:5.

*Adapted from a presentation at the Amherst Conference “Marxism 2000,” September 23, 2000: Roundtable together with Joseph A. Buttigieg, John Bellamy Foster, Inez Hedges, Richard Lichtman, and Victor Wallis.

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