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On George Lichtheim

Europe in the Twentieth Century

by George Lichtheim
Praeger, 424 pp., $12.95

George Lichtheim’s death has silenced the voice of a writer unique in the English-speaking world. It was a distinctive voice—dry, precise, subtle, shrewd, sophisticated, detached, ironic, mordant, supercilious, magisterial. It was also a profoundly European voice, addressing the Anglo-Saxons, urging them to deepen their vision of the world by taking serious account of the German intellectual tradition, above all of what he called “the great tradition of German idealism—a tradition extending from Kant, via Hegel and his pupils, to Marx,” only to be cheapened and perverted first by Engels and subsequently by Russian communists and their Western counterparts. For Lichtheim, the importance of that tradition, and of Marxism in particular, was not only historical and sociological but also philosophical. It made the only possible sense of the past and provided the most promising basis for understanding the present and the future. It furnished the intellectual tools for achieving what he saw as “the urgently required integration or interpenetration of sociology and history.” And, above all, it was the only ground from which one might hope to “make sense of human history as a whole.”

Lichtheim, then, was a European to the core, coming from what he proudly called “the center of the Old Continent…the ancient geographical and spiritual heartland of Marxism,” via Palestine to pitch his tent, as he once put it, within the ruins of the collapsing British empire. He lived in England after 1945, writing as a political commentator, initially under the name of G. L. Arnold, and, under his own name, as a scholar—an isolated, private scholar, without a degree and with only occasional attachments to American universities—who established himself as a major world authority on and exponent of Marxism.

His attitude toward Marxism was also distinctive. He had no time for any “ideologically defined political movement” and was as bitterly hostile to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxies as he was haughtily skeptical of the anarchistic and revolutionary left. He placed himself in the tradition of Hegelian Marxism or “critical theory,” standing, as he described himself, “in a tradition inaugurated by scholars such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse in the 1930s, and subsequently revived after the war by the successors of the original Frankfurt school—Professor Jürgen Habermas above all.”

For Lichtheim, the Marxist method of social analysis survived its collapse as a unified system of thought and action appropriate to the “defunct market society of liberal capitalism,” in which class conflicts still had major political significance. Thus he sought to help rescue and revive what he saw as still living in Marx’s thought from the debris of classical Marxism, which found no place in the subsequent Marxist-Leninist edifice. That living essence was a method of social analysis which rests upon a view of man’s nature and history’s logic: as he wrote, Marx was a “humanist whose scientific studies concretized an eminently philosophical anthropology.” Lichtheim’s aim was to retrieve this method, together with its philosophical basis, and to apply it to the understanding of the history of our times and of the emergent industrial society of the future.

This aim implied a number of related tasks, to which he applied himself (with differing degrees of success). First, there was the scholarly task of interpreting Marxism itself, as a historical movement and as a body of ideas. Hence his fine historical studies of the history of Marxism (Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study and Marxism in Modern France) and of the socialist tradition in general (The Origins of Socialism and A Short History of Socialism). Hence also his sharp and often deep studies of particular Marxist and socialist theorists (especially his abrasive little book on Lukács, and his essays on Hegel and Marx, Sorel and Adorno in From Marx to Hegel and on Sartre in the Collected Essays).

Second, there was the task of evaluating contemporary interpretations of Marxism (especially in From Marx to Hegel, where the Frankfurt view emerges supreme). Third, there was the task of treating directly the central issues in Marxist theory (in, for example, the essays on ideology, the significance of class, and the “Asiatic mode of production” in The Concept of Ideology and Other Essays and the short book on Imperialism). Fourth, there was the task of interpreting our history—which for Lichtheim meant the history of Europe (in Europe in the Twentieth Century).

And finally, there was the task of analyzing contemporary society, which he did in two ways—first, in the political commentaries he wrote throughout his life (in the form of essays, some of them reprinted in Collected Essays, and in his book The New Europe); and second, in his more sociological discussions of the nature and prospects of modern industrialism (especially in The New Europe and in the essay on the role of the intellectuals in From Marx to Hegel). I think that Lichtheim’s qualities were such that he was weakest as a sociologist and strongest as an interpreter, critic, and historian.

Those qualities were rare in their degree of refinement and rarer still in their combination. He was a scholar, quite at home in three cultures (German, French, and English), deeply read and unfailingly accurate. Moreover, he was a scholar with a mind of his own: he never subordinated himself to his subject matter, but always preferred to argue with it, so that his books always read like a permanent running debate with other thinkers. He was indeed a thinker of the highest order, with a firm grasp of the most difficult and abstract issues. This made him a superb teacher—a teacher who taught through his writings. Shortly before his death, he wrote to me that he was “not much of a lecturer where students were concerned,” finding it difficult at the age of sixty to “get on their wavelength.” He preferred, he said, “students to read my books rather than listen to my lectures.” His many readers, myself included, learned an immense amount from him.

Finally, he was a marvelous stylist, who did not learn to write in English until he went to England. Not only did he write with remarkable clarity and force, but also with a keen wit. Readers of this Review will recall his splendid attack on Althusser (“A New Twist in the Dialectic,” January 30, 1969, reprinted in From Hegel to Marx)—“Evilly disposed people have been known to hint that Althusser is really after the replacement of Stalinism by structuralism…. It has also been suggested that the remedy is worse than the disease, since after all Stalinism merely kills the body whereas structuralism destroys the mind”—and his description of Max Eastman (“The Romance of Max Eastman,” January 14, 1965, reprinted in Collected Essays) as “strictly an indoor Marxman—not required to shoot anyone or even to denounce people for failing to be wholehearted about the Revolution.”

Perhaps the chief mark of his style was his withering scorn. He was, as Eric Hobsbawm has said, a “great practitioner of intellectual contempt”: “Mr. Crossman,” he wrote, “has not learned to distinguish between thinkers and litterateurs.” “When he comes to areas outside the United States, Mr. Lipset does not know what he is talking about.” “One should not perhaps worry too much about the Sorokins of this world.” “Popper’s comprehensive ignorance of the philosophical tradition he was criticising enabled him to fasten upon Hegel the wholly unfounded charge of having inaugurated the disastrous habit of making political theory dependent upon historical prediction.” “For Lenin as for Engels, the dialectic represented ‘the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought.’ This particular manner of ‘standing Hegel on his feet’ retained the ontological character of his metaphysics, the sole difference being that the Absolute was now termed ‘matter,’ instead of being called ‘spirit.’ This is really all that needs to be said of Soviet philosophy….”

The two books under review, which were his last, show Lichtheim at his best. One is a remarkable attempt at historical synthesis, the other a collection of his essays and reviews published over two decades. Europe in the Twentieth Century is an exhilarating work, concerned with the transformation of European society since 1900, and written on the assumption that there have been definable trends shaping events during the period and certain overriding problems common to the entire culture, which “represents a unity, quite distinct from the Eurasian land mass of the USSR on the one hand, the United States on the other.” The text combines concise summaries of political and military history, background sections on economic and social trends, rather hasty surveys of art and literature and the natural and social sciences, and extended discussions of the history of ideas and ideologies. It really cannot be claimed that these various subjects are successfully integrated, but the effort to do so is impressive.

Lichtheim brings to the task his Hegelian perspective (thus the interwar period furnished “ample proof that history does indeed proceed by way of internal contradictions seeking a synthesis at a higher level”; and the “real movement of history comports total and irreversible changes”) and an explanatory approach far indeed from any “tedious” economic determinism. Thus, for example, he protests that what lay behind the European movement in the 1950s was “not cartelization but the common experience of the Resistance movement, plus democratic convictions and the will to make an end of senseless inter-state rivalries.”

Indeed, his explanatory approach might even seem to border on the eclectic, stressing by turns economic factors (“the capitalist mode of production, once it has come into being, creates a social environment adapted to its functioning”), technological factors (“…the technological momentum which had created I. G. Farben was part of a more general process whereby industry and government had become interlinked”), political factors (“Stalinists, Maoists and Fascists may or may not go to war against each other—the decision depends on political factors not deducible from the character of their respective societies”; and “The aims set by the planners reflect norms which in the final analysis are subject to political choice”), the role of ideas (“…but for Nietzsche the SS…would have lacked the inspiration which enabled them to carry out their programme of mass murder in Eastern Europe”), and the crucial role of particular individuals (especially Hitler and Churchill).

However, behind this apparently eclectic refusal to adopt an economically determinist method, there lay a theory, which Lichtheim shares with Habermas, about the increasing irrelevance of the Marxist distinction between “material base” and “ideological superstructure.” In his view both have largely been taken over by the state, while the “forces of production” become increasingly dependent on science. Thus:

Once the autonomy of a supposedly self-regulating system is sacrificed to the overriding concerns of the State, the political realm recovers the central role it had temporarily lost at the peak of the liberal era. Marx’s “critique of political economy” was both a theory of bourgeois society and a challenge to its ideology. The new society is no longer bourgeois, and its critique is no longer functionally dependent upon an analysis of economic theory. In its place there arises a critical assessment of the part played by science and technology in legitimizing the new mode of existence.

In general, the achievement of Europe in the Twentieth Century—quite apart from its fascinating and sometimes perverse judgments, interpretations, and digressions—is that it tries to make connections, albeit unsystematically, among what the author calls “the autonomous spheres of political, social and intellectual life,” and that it does so with a panache typical of its author.

Lichtheim’s Collected Essays, which, being occasional, lack such coherence, nonetheless reveal all his concerns and distinctive qualities. There is an excellent scholarly essay on socialism and the Jews, a splendid piece on Churchill, presenting him as a latter-day Whig, and discussions ranging over the collapse of the British empire, the Fabians, Disraeli, Bertrand Russell, Oakeshott, Walter Lippmann, the follies of American sociology, de Gaulle, French communism and other French topics (“What is most striking about France” is “the commitment of so many Frenchmen of all political hues to a kind of doctrinal rigidity foreign to the Anglo-American mentality”), European history, A.J.P. Taylor’s view of Germany, the West German intellectual scene, the concept of social class, various topics in communist history and Marxist theory, Simone Weil, Thomas Mann, and Graham Greene. Lichtheim the essayist, as this collection shows, was a formidable and luminous writer.

George Lichtheim’s achievement was that of a heroic bridge builder. He spanned three divergent cultures, and his great intellectual ambition was to link “the representative thinkers of the age that ended in 1914” (with whom, he wrote, “my instinctive sympathies lie”) to the analysis of modern industrial society. He firmly believed that the former provided the crucial intellectual tools for pursuing the latter—but it must be said that he never succeeded in demonstrating this, chiefly because he never really applied his subtle version of Marxism to a sustained and detailed analysis of modern societies.

His picture of the evolution of industrial society emphasizes the growing obsolescence of class conflict, the “long-run tendency toward greater complexity of organization, central planning and conscious control,” and the corresponding growth of what he called a “new, key stratum,” which he variously described as “the intellectuals,” “the intelligentsia,” “the technical intelligentsia,” “the elite of administrators and managers (public and private),” “the technocracy,” “the bureaucracy,” and so on.

In effect, Lichtheim’s argument comes down to this: that if this alleged new “stratum” is becoming the crucial “directing stratum of industrial society,” which “incorporates the rational principle,” representing “the ‘brain’ of the social organism,” which “does the thinking for the rest of society,” and if the new society’s “basic institutions are no longer held together by a class of independent property owners, but rather controlled by a hierarchy of planners, managers, bureaucrats and technicians”—then the revolutionary perspectives of Marxism fade into the past, class conflict becomes an ever-more-distant memory, and the new stratum acquires the possibility of conscious control over the levers of social change, so that it “carries within itself the main possibility of evolution still open to mankind,” making possible “the transition to a wholly rational, scientifically controlled planetary order.”

Now, quite apart from the validity of this argument, Lichtheim never begins to establish the empirical truth of its premise, or indeed to sort out the extreme ambiguity with which it is expressed. The “stratum” in question floats in a kind of social and political empyrean, wrapped in organismic metaphors, and is never analyzed and located in an adequate sociological manner. Moreover, Lichtheim wavered in his attitude toward it from resigned pessimism to a kind of skeptical hopefulness: if there is to be any hope, it lies in winning over the stratum in question to rational and humane ends, pointing toward “the unified and pacified world of the future.” He even wrote that realizing such a future calls for “practical efforts whose theoretical justification is meta-scientific.” But he gives us no idea what these “practical efforts” are to consist in.

The fact is that Lichtheim (unlike Marx) was not a sociologist or an economist. He was a man for big thinkers, big ideas, and big, difficult questions—questions like: What is the logic of history? How are rational values to be grounded? How can we “bridge the seemingly impassable gulf between a positivist methodology and an existentialist decisionism?” What is the future of industrialism? Where is humanity heading? He did not succeed in answering these questions. His great achievement lay in getting so many people to see the point of asking them.

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