Interview. The German philosopher Peter Jehle, editorial director of the Institute of Critical Theory, discusses the continuing relevance of the Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism, now nine volumes long.

The living dictionary of Marx

The Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism is a one-of-a-kind project, not only for its monumental size and its international character (just think about the number of collaborators participating from all over the world), but above all, for the specific historical moment in which such an operation takes place: a period that, in addition to being very poor in critical international political debate, also seems to have lost a critical reference on the cultural horizon.

This lack of criticism has led to a situation far removed from the “end of ideology” proposed by Francis Fukuyama: The situation in which we live, in fact, is actually the most ideological era in history, with the affirmation of the capitalist model around the globe, supported and never contradicted by the new liberal democracies.

In such a context, the Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism (HKWM, as we’ll call it) is a project of absolute importance and international significance.

We interviewed Peter Jehle, head of the publishing project and a member of the Berlin Institute of Critical Theory (InKriT).

Can you please explain the HKWM project?

As one can easily predict, the historical influence of Marx’s philosophy outlines the main thematic area of ​​HKWM. But the investigation of Marx leads further: “Marxism,” as interpreted by HKWM, is far from an isolated sectarian or specialized phenomenon, but it has developed and influenced a radical change, both practical and theoretical, in issues about the forms of socialization and relationships between man and nature. These are general issues that affect the entire horizon of human life. The research on Marx traces the historical conditions of domination and exploitation, and it has been expanded, developed and supported scientifically in a huge research process. The HKWM, therefore, as a probe, investigates the past in order to understand the scientific, technical and cultural developments of our time.

The most interesting aspect of the dictionary is that it is not limited to a simple work of “Marxist philology,” but it accepts and renovates new political concepts and tries to place them within an evolving theoretical mapping, and sometimes it has to answer to different and conflicting positions within the constellation of Marxist theory, that refer to different political practices, social movements and approaches to theoretical criticism. How can you keep together this plurality of voices?

As we wrote in the preface to the first volume of the dictionary, in 1994, a sustainable Marxism must be able to address the problems of survival of humanity even in an “earth spaceship.” Since then, after 20 years, another 11 volumes have been published (including the divisions in tomes), in which that statement has been confirmed: In addition to the labor movement and the socialist and communist experiences, it also includes issues like the environmental crisis and the feminist movement. Also liberation theology and the issue of the post-colonial “third world” have found a wide space.

The meaning of our project, which is to be a “historical-critical” dictionary, thus assumes a new meaning, which leads it to transcend and go beyond the purely archival publishing aspect, and, at the same time, to respect the rules. There are certain contradictions which our project has to face, like that of reconciling an international job with a publication in a national language, or the tension between the global nature of the project and its local management, or that of a single frame of reference which, however, makes it possible to give expression to a plurality of entries, to a plurality of social movements.

Then, the research on the past is accompanied by focus on the latest social experiences. Today, the future of politics seems to play right on the ability to act and impact not only practical, but also theoretical, social movements. Is Marxist theory really so far away from them? Specifically, what contribution can a project like HKWM provide?

If the main contribution of Marx to theory was the analysis of capitalism, in practical terms it was the birth of the labor movement, which has acted as a programming guide for the international workers’ movement. But the question of Marx is based on the categorical imperative to frame all conditions “in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and reduced to a despicable essence” in the critical perspective of social change: one question, your question, goes far beyond any liberation movement.

The labor movement, as well as social movements, must learn to reflect on their own roles and actions critically and repeatedly. As claimed by the project manager, Wolfgang Fritz Haug, they need to develop “a historical relationship with their own concepts and a critical view of their own history.” This critical awareness should not be limited to a simple and trivial historical knowledge, but it must be an instrument able to face the problems of today’s world. So in the dictionary, entries such as “Hacker,” “Hollywood,” “Jeans” appear. … As does appear the entry “Lorianism,” a term used by Gramsci to define those intellectuals lacking critical spirit, which can be applied, of course, to certain Marxist authors.

Is it, then, a work of critical historical reconstruction of Marxist thought in a self-reflective, or rather self-critical form?

The end of Marxism-Leninism left a historical debt, a huge pile of rubble that threatens to bury and erase hidden germs of a possible future of Marxism, together with the irrational and even dangerous elements. The possibility of a self-critical reflection on their theoretical positions, the very idea of ​​self-criticism, was a taboo in Soviet socialism, the state socialism. Not everyone has yet understood that such a taboo to criticism, to self-criticism, leads to social and political paralysis. Think of Rosa Luxemburg, or Gramsci.

When speaking of “Critical Theory” you immediately think of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main, and authors like Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse. What kind of relationship does InkriT have with Frankfurt? And what kind of positioning theory does it assume in relation to Critical Theory?

The HKWM is a political project, which must nevertheless be carried out respecting the “apolitical” logic of a scientific and theoretical work and would be quite impossible without adequate academic aptitude, a disciplinary division of labor and constant support toward research. These aspects bring us closer to the work carried out by the School of Frankfurt. However, the InKriT does not want to oust the Frankfurt School by appropriating the term Critical Theory: Everyone is aware of the depth of meaning that this term has taken, so that when we refer to the Frankfurt Critical Theory we capitalize it. We write “critical theory” in lower case; and it simply means that we have no relationship with the Frankfurt School. As Benedetto Croce wanted to distinguish what is “alive” and what is “dead” in Hegel, the same way we intend to do with the Critical Theory.

Thanks to the concept of ideology criticism, we can, for example, start to consider Lenin and Marxism neutrally. It shows the gain that we encounter in supporting the Marxian concept of ideology criticism, because thanks to it, you can build something productive. Whereas, the Habermas dichotomy between work and social interaction has limited the perspective of Marcuse, reducing it to a form of alternative rationality of science and technology, at the expense of a global, ecological criticism of capitalism. If many entries in our dictionary refer to the Frankfurt Critical Theory, we do it by applying it both as subject and object of investigation, both as a tool and as analysis material.

We live in a state which obliges and compels thought to fatigue, to pain, but also to the power of the negative, in the words of Adorno. The thinking now must become a merciless criticism to maintain survival conditions: Only in this way, through a critique that is able to illuminate the conscience and reactivate social imagination, can you save humanity from destruction.

–> Originally published in Italian at il manifesto

800 authors and 15 books. And more

“Neo-Fordism, ” “Hegemony,” “technological rationality,” “Feminism,” “Agrarian Reform.” These are just few of the entries that make up the monumental work of the Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism.

This publishing project, led by the Berlin Institute of Critical Theory and the magazine Das Argument, is directed by Wolfgang Fritz Haug and is supported by an editorial board, which included figures like Pierre Bourdieu, Etienne Balibar, Jacques Derrida and Eric Hobsbawm, among others.

Originally, it started in 1983, as a translation of the Dictionnaire du Marxisme Critique until 1989; after the collapse of the USSR, it evolved into a more comprehensive program, gathering contributors from around the world.

So far, eight volumes have been printed (the last one in two volumes), while the number 9/I is in the works (with entries “Maschinerie-Mitbestimmung”).

The complete work will comprise some 15 volumes, more than 1,500 entries and the contribution of more than 800 authors from around the world, and will be the richest, fullest and most international dictionary on Marxism.

For more details about the project, please visit the website of the Berlin Institute of Critical Theory,