In the Cold Light of Theory

On the 85th Birthday of Wolfgang Fritz Haug.

The average university professor, throughout his life, writes about three to four books and many articles because he has to. It has been estimated that the average peer-reviewed article is read by less than ten persons. Of the annual production of 1.5 million articles, 82 percent of those in the humanities and 32 percent of social-science articles are not cited anywhere, even once.

Wolfgang Fritz Haug – the (West) Berlin philosophy professor born in Esslingen 85 years ago – has never been an average university professor. From 1967 to the present day he has written ca. 30 books. He has edited Das Argument – Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Sozialwissenschaften since 1959. 335 issues have appeared up to now – in most of which Haug himself has authored what were often groundbreaking articles. HE has edited the complete works of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. And since 1994 Haug has been editing the Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus (Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism – HKWM), a gigantic, almost megalomaniacal project, which, realised without extensive financial resources but with much idealism and collective intellectual force, has no equal anywhere in the world. For this reason it is being translated into Chinese in its entirety.

Haug is an innate philosopher. Marx himself travelled a path from philosophy to political economy. But Haug is also a Marxist. How does that work? Haug wrote a book on this – Einführung in marxistisches Philsophieren (Introduction to Marxist Philsophising) – and given an answer to the question ‘Is it easy to be a philosopher within Marxism?’ Yes, it is – with the understanding that thinking in political economy must be philosophical, dialectical.

In olden times theology and philosophy were the noble sciences. At a certain point the social and human sciences split off from them. They have been indulging in discipline narrow-mindedness ever since: The sociologist perhaps sees society but not economy and the state, the political scientist the state but not society and economy. The economist knows abstract models that have practically nothing to do with social reality and moreover usually ignores the constitutive role of the state in the economy. By contrast, Haug’s Das Argument still emphasise the unity of philosophy and the social sciences, and in his own analyses he holistically unites all domains of social life. If it is at all possible for polymaths to still exist today, then Haug at least comes close to this status. He is the type of intellectual that is essentially impossible to find today and is in any case dying out. A last example of this kind was possibly his Marxist rival Hans Heinz Holz.

Haug’s Marxism is a living, a moving Marxism. He himself calls it ‘plural’. To many who never want to commit, who think eclectically and act erratically, Haug may appear strict. But they are confusing strict with rigorous. In his diaries, Rudi Dutschke called him ‘SED-Haug’ simply because Haug was no political hotspur. Others, in turn, smelled betrayal; when the ‘crisis of Marxism’ was discussed in Das Argument they asked ‘Crisis of Marxism or crisis of Das Argument?’ Haug went his own way undeterred. Some who criticised his Marxism from the left later passed him on the right. Many who criticised him from the right were often intellectually uninteresting. He himself, in Das Argument, struck a balance between conservation and the ongoing development of the Marxian intellectual heritage. He received the new but also recognised its limits – for example in the dispute within the editorial board around the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. Here too he was spot on.

To produce such a work clearly requires many comrades-in-arms. Some of them – and this too is part of this history – left the cosmos of Das Argument over a conflict involving co-determination or because they retrospectively regretted that their voluntary cooperation in Das Argument slowed down their scholarly career, perhaps even impeded it. At the same time, they ought not to deny how much they have learned from collaborating on the journal and the HKWM. The fact is that if there ever was a meaningful example of ‘challenging and promoting’, then it must apply to Wolfgang Fritz Haug and his life-partner the sociologist Frigga Haug. Generations of socialist intellectuals were shaped by them. Their worldwide network of Marxist university professors who collaborate on the HKWM include dozens who themselves went through the Argument school. Added to this are thousands who over the decades teamed with or passed through Haug’s Capital courses, thousands who attended the Volks-Unis (People’s Universities), which Haug organised from 1980, and the number of people who learned Marxist theory and editorial skills in Das Argument and the HKWM are surely in the three digits. No wonder then that today there are many who, for example in the leadership organs of Die LINKE or in the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, like the author himself, have an Argument past – in part to Haug’s chagrin because, as he often said, he repeatedly lost  gifted and experienced comrades-in-arms.

Haug’s intellectual biography is tied to the particular post-war period, in which it was possible for Marxists to acquire professorial posts in universities of the capitalist state in order more easily to overcome practically the capitalism they sought to analyse. The disappearance of Marxism from German-speaking universities in the mid 2000s – though thankfully never complete – has sometimes resulted in revolutionary impatience and hostility to theory among younger leftists who have had, with great difficulty, to learn their Marxism outside the university. The drama of capitalism’s crises and the increasingly difficult conditions of economic survival are pushing many to immediate political practice and to the need for immediate output. To them Das Argument and HKWM may seem excessive expenditures of intellectual energy when the task is to construct a socialist movement in a very practical way.

Understandable and congenial as this attitude may be, it underestimates the importance of theory for revolutionary political praxis. In the revolutionary labour movement, party leaders were as a rule not only good practitioners but also theoreticians, or rather they were good practitioners because they were also good theoreticians. For how does one change a world if one does not know what “holds it together in its inmost folds”? The left’s identifying ‘talking points’ still arise from the analytical insights that are continuously produced anew by journals like Das Argument. And so: ‘How are we to proceed without Theory? […] without the Cold Brilliant Light of Theory to guide the way?’, the ‘the world’s oldest Bolshevik’ asks in Tony Kushner’s drama Slavs! The answer is: not at all. But fortunately it – living theory – exists. Also thanks to Wolfgang Fritz Haug.

Originally published at the website of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (German)