Margherita von Brentano in conversation with Joachim Schickel and Werner Reuther

“I am – or I would like to be – a socialist,” said Margherita von Brentano of herself. But it distances itself from dogmatic Marxism. (CEP Lieck)

Philosophizing from the Ivory Tower – the philosopher Margherita von Brentano did not think about it. She has always been politically active. She was one of the few professors to have taught at the Free University of Berlin in the early 1970s.

The abolition of bourgeois idealist philosophy – this is what young philosophers had picked up in the wake of the 1968 movement. At the Free University of Berlin, it went so far that some employees only wanted to allow Marxist teaching. The heated dispute between Marxists and non-Marxists over ideological orientation and the filling of posts almost completely paralyzed the Philosophical Institute of the Free University of Berlin for several years after 1968.

Pioneer in the university cosmos

At the time, one of the institute’s staff was the philosopher Margherita von Brentano, one of the few women to teach as a professor at a German university at the time. In a 1975 radio interview, she wondered what political philosophy should be like – and how she herself felt about Marxism.

Marx and Lenin as guiding stars: for the student movement of the 1960s and 1970s, philosophy and politics were united. (dpa)

Von Brentano has distanced himself from a dogmatic Marxism which regards this doctrine, as it is, as the “ultimate truth”. But if you take the broader Marxism, namely as a scientific theory of socialism, it has nothing against being called a Marxist. “Although I turn away from myself because I don’t like these brands,” stressed the philosopher. “I would put it this way: I am – or I would like to be – a socialist.”

Von Brentano regarded Marxism as a philosophy – although she was aware that some Marxists would contradict her here. “Because many Marxists interpret certain Marxist theses in this way: philosophy is henceforth abolished.

Marxism – the legitimate heir of ancient philosophy

But Marxism is more than an economic theory, it tries rather to go beyond the individual scientific discipline to find an answer to the question of the whole. It is not unusual for Brentano that he offers answers that are completely different from the previous philosophies:

“You can say that the philosophy was to always cancel the previous philosophy, and not just in the details, but as a whole,” she said.

“In this respect, Marxism is indeed the legitimate successor, also of the old philosophy, the heritage of the old philosophy when, with what was a fact in the history of philosophy, but always as a scandal, it was seen as the philosophy which believed that it was the highest, dominant, general, highest, abstract and eternal science, which it was not at all. It was a battle of opinions and a very rapid succession of doctrines.

Class hierarchy in Plato

Von Brentano also contradicted this idealistic view of philosophy with regard to contemporary theories:

She was critical of the fact that Karl Popper’s genuinely “outdated” philosophy nonetheless came back into vogue in the 1970s – because it was “the type of philosophical theory” with which social democratic politics could be legitimized.

“Philosophy is political and it is eminent today, it always has been and this is also where it acts as if it has nothing to do with politics.”

For example with Plato: Of course he is not talking about class struggle, according to Brentano. “But in ancient philosophy, questions of class and questions of economics play a huge role.”

Because Plato’s philosophy has conservative traits, which it explains with the origin of the philosopher of a noble family: his claim that the best should reign in politics is correct and beautiful. “But of course there is also something about class hierarchy, so to speak.”


After studying philosophy, Margherita von Brentano (1922-1995) first worked as an editor for Südwestfunk, before moving to the Philosophical Institute of the Free University as assistant to Wilhelm Weischedel in 1956. As as an academic advisor, she was the first woman vice-president of the FU from 1970 to 1972. In 1972, she was appointed professor. Until her retirement in 1987, she taught at the Free University of Berlin. Politically, she pledged to face the crimes of the National Socialists, against the rearmament of the Federal Republic in the 1950s and for the equality of women.