… no matter how otherwise heteroclite, they
[theoretical innovations of western marxists]
share one fundamental embleme: a common and latent
All the major departures or developments of substance within this tradition are distinguished from the classical heritage of historical materialism by the darkness of their implications or conclusions. In this respect, between 1920 and 1960, Marxism slowly changed colours in the West. The confidence and optimism of the founders of historical materialism, and of the successors, progressively disappeared. Virtually every one of the significant new themes in the intellectual muster of this epoch reveals the same diminution of hope and loss of certainty. Gramsci’s theoretical legacy was the prospect of a long war of attrition against an immensely stronger structure of capitalist power, more proof against economic collapse than had been envisaged by his predecessors – a struggle with no final clarity of outcome visible. His own life indefectibly bound to the political fate of the working class of his time and nation, Gramsci’s revolutionary temper was tersely expressed in the maxim ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’: once again, it was he who alone consciously perceived and controlled what was to be the timbre of a new and unheralded Marxism. The pervasive melancholy of the work of the Frankfurt School lacked any comparable note of active fortitude. Adorno and Horkheimer called in question the very idea of man’s ultimate mastery of nature, as a realm of deliverance beyond capitalism. Marcuse evoked the utopian potentiality of the liberation of nature in man, only to deny it the more emphatically as an objective tendency in reality, and to conclude that the industrial working class was itself perhaps absorbed past recall within capitalism. …
Benjamin and Gramsci were victims of fascism. But in the post-war epoch, too, the note struck within Western Marxism was often no less sombre.