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…

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