History & Metahistory

The Concept of Ideology and Other Essays.
by George Lichtheim.
Random House. 327 pp. $5.95.

George Lichtheim, a contributing editor of this journal, is familiar to its readers. His informed, perceptive, and frequently acerbic essays on politics are the work of a publicist whose scholarship would distinguish any university. Lichtheim is in fact the author of the most serious treatment of Marxism we possess in English, and a recent book on Marxism in modern France shows him at home in the nuances of a national tradition not always easy to grasp. His great knowledge of European history is at once a product of experience and reflection; his essays in political philosophy are authentically critical. We should expect any collection of his writings to exhibit these strengths, and the book before us is not disappointing. It also has an elegance of style which would be remarkable for anyone writing on such complex matters, and which is all the more so for one whose mother tongue is not English. What is most striking about the present work is a certain unity of theme or preoccupation. In it, despite the fact that these are disparate pieces written for separate occasions, Lichtheim emerges as a social theorist. The results are at least as interesting as those we are accustomed to in other spheres, and give the intellectual key to his success in the understanding of history and politics.

The book contains twenty-two essays of unequal length, all published since 1963. The first of four sections begins with the essay which lends the book its title, quite properly so, since the relationship between thought and history, philosophy and power, consciousness and action, is Lichtheim's major concern. There follow studies in modern class structure and an illuminating piece on the Marxist notion of the Asiatic mode of production, characteristically utilized by Lichtheim to set Marx squarely in a tradition of 19th-century Western historiography. The second section deals with problems of political change in the epoch between the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise of the present American empire. What can be made of these changes in terms of the traditional arguments over the good society and the right political order? The third section is entitled “The European Civil War,” a phrase which expresses the anguish of a cultivated European, born some fifty-odd years ago, at the harrowing fate of his continent in our time. It deals chiefly with the struggle between Communism and Fascism, and in it Lichtheim agrees with the dictum that the conflict perpetuated the differences between Left and Right Hegelians. This section is marked by particularly close-textured essays on Deutscher's Trotsky and Nettl's Rosa Luxemburg. The final section's culminating piece is a sympathetic account of Sartre's gigantic effort to construct a new metahistory, an ontology of historical immanence.

No summary can do more than indicate the scope and impact of these studies. Lichtheim quarrels, variously, with Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Georg Lukacs, and Hans Morgenthau. His disdain for what he sees as Stalinist dogmatism is matched by his skepticism as to the viability of the conservative revival in political philosophy. In his view, conservatism is irrelevant in a revolutionary epoch, and in no case does it provide an answer to the problem of the survival of the democratic tradition. He is especially acute on the political and social sources of British imperialism, and very witty about efforts to invent a justification for the American Imperium. He touches frequently on the German catastrophe, which he thinks was made possible by Germany's inability, or rather the inability of the educated Germans, to assimilate the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. A socialist and a democrat (although not precisely a Social Democrat), he exempts the United States from the category of nations which have successfully modified capitalism in a more efficient and equitable direction. Most of all, in these essays Lichtheim identifies his own philosophical and political legacy, his descent from early radical democracy and the French Revolution behind it, his adherence to the promise of the Enlightenment. A true theory of man and history, according to Lichtheim, must retrace the steps of empiricism and take up the tasks of theory where Hegel and Marx left off, with an attempt to relate thought to human activity. From these themes, then, I shall select three for discussion: Lichtheim's views on method, his analysis of changes in industrial social structure, and his approach to a metahistory.

“The problem of history is the problem of consciousness. It was Hegel who first pointed this out and his successors—including Marx, who inverted the logic but did not replace it by a radically different manner of thought—continued to pose the question he had raised: how could the rationality of history be perceived by the intellect, given the fact that men are both inside and outside the historical process?” This quotation comes from the essay on “The Concept of Ideology,” which must rank as a very penetrating contribution to the considerable literature on the topic. Lichtheim not only traces the history of the concept, but shows that the notion of ideology and its associated cluster of ideas (“false consciousness,” the vexed distinction between judgments of value and of fact, the alleged universality of propositions about social facts) confronts us with problems as yet unresolved by the social sciences. Lichtheim's own position is unequivocal. The view that the world is as it seems he considers at best shallow, at worst a willful obscuring of the historical dimension of social experience. Commenting on Hobbes, he says that the objection that Hobbes was only a theorist of a particular social order misses the point: no serious thinker could be anything else. A theorist of an age or order is someone who seizes its essence, and this is not simply an assemblage of parts but an historical whole, with the whole or structure giving meaning to the particular events and tendencies it contains. From this point of view, the mistake of empiricism (of the Anglo-American variety) is not its concentration on facts to the detriment of a theoretic interpretation of them, but its false theory. A crude appropriation of natural-science methods in the social sciences does not strike Lichtheim as useful. His disdain for what he thinks of as the scholastic conceptualism of much modern academic sociology is celebrated (among some sociologists, it is notorious) and Lichtheim thinks that this conceptualism is in fact the logical consequence of an excess of nominalism.


What has all of this to do with ideology, a term first developed in the revolutionary aftermath of the Enlightenment to describe a science of ideas? The problem of political philosophy, and of the practice related to it, is to fashion a map of history and society. The political theorists of the Enlightenment thought that they had one in their doctrine of a human nature which could be freed of obscurantism and oppression. Hegel attempted to show that thought and history were one. Marx held that ideology was the antithesis of a true practice, one which could emerge at the right historical moment to materialize the Enlightenment's purely abstract critique of society. Lichtheim sees the later degeneration of Marxism in its transmutation into a mechanical doctrine of the inevitability of revolution, in the elimination of the critical philosophical elements insisted upon by Marx. In a different philosophical genealogy, Weber in the end (with considerable despair) denied that there was any historical truth at all. History consisted of a succession of truths or ideologies, all foredoomed to contend for life space. The question of a method for the attainment of truth, then, is politically relevant. Lichtheim disclaims having any remedy for the dilemma, but calls it to our attention as a painful fact at a time when many social theorists simply deny its existence. Having himself fused historical and sociological analysis in concrete fashion, Lichtheim suggests that some theoretical synthesis of the two ought to be possible. Perhaps too carefully, he refrains from saying much more about it. In the event, Lichtheim's method as well as his political preferences account for his rejection of conservatism. His historical perceptions tell him that the “order” preferred by the conservatives is unattainable, and his sociological insight tells him that its continued propagation can serve now (as it has served in the past) as a legitimation for exploitation and tyranny.


Lichtheim's view of 20th-century social structure in industrial society is essentially this: “What has changed the situation is the fact that there is a new (‘technocratic’) directing and governing stratum, which is about to take over the state, after having successfully captured the key positions within modern industrial society. Is it not precisely this development which helps to account for the circumstances (noted elsewhere by the author) that the modern state shows a quite novel capacity for refashioning society through a planned ‘revolution from above’?” Capitalism, in the advanced capitalist societies (not quite yet in the U.S.), has evolved into a system in which planning is increasingly important. In the state-socialist societies, nothing like workers' or democratic control has occurred; instead, party and party-ruled technocrats constitute a new elite. Class conflicts persist, but they do not take the forms prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (The nearest approximation to a disinherited proletariat in the West can be found in America's underclass.) What characterizes modern forms of class conflict is their interpenetration with political conflict. Where, as in the state-socialist regimes, freedom of communication and political organization are missing, the elite may perpetuate its power and privileges indefinitely. Where even an imperfect democracy exists, some limitation of this power and privilege is at least in principle possible. The attainment of a measure of social democracy in the West has been chiefly the work of the unions and the socialist parties, but those bourgeois groups which have accepted the logic of the democratic tradition have also contributed to the present situation.

The author is not optimistic about the possibilities for a transformation of the present social hierarchy. He notes that toward the end of his life Trotsky had the supreme honesty to doubt whether the proletariat could or would make a revolution, and that the aged revolutionary had concluded that if the workers were unable to revolt, the task of socialism would become “the defense of the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society.” Lichtheim does not, clearly, think of the modern Western working class as enslaved—although he would go rather far in describing the working class in the state-socialist countries as exploited and oppressed. The Western workers, at any rate, live in his view below their human potential and are governed and not governing. Lichtheim's conclusion about Trotsky—“Whatever honor Communism still retains was saved by its arch-heresiarch”—mirrors his reflections on Rosa Luxemburg, whose moralism he finds noble. Refracted in this way, we find Lichtheim's own political principles. He is a despairing socialist, whose realism prevents him from hoping too much for the realization of democratic socialism but whose humanity precludes a capitulation to what merely is.


Lichtheim's writings on the West reflect a differentiated historical consciousness, an awareness of the struggle between rich and poor nations, of the migration of revolutionary potential and actuality to the depressed continents of the world, an awareness of the price being paid in blood and torment to forge for the first time a world society. As to whether that society will be humanly habitable, Lichtheim has doubts: Castro and Mao are no among his heroes. He is philosopher: enough to suppose that the way out may not be found until we revise our metahistorical notions. It is at this point in his thought that Lichtheim turns to what I have termed metahistory.


“An understanding of what is involved in the concept of ideology is thus at the same time an exercise in that historical imagination which enables us to see our predecessor! as men engaged in an enterprise whose outcome still concerns us. In Hegelian language we may say that—the final category retaining and preserving within itself the content of all previous ones—the unification and pacification of the world (if it can be achieved) will demonstrate that history is indeed a concrete universal. For it is only at this level that what is called world history becomes synonymous with man kind's collective emergence from a state of nature.” Lichtheim himself has no very developed views on how that emergence can take place; he does consider it a moral necessity and he sympathizes deeply with those who pose the problem in these terms. His views of Herbert Marcuse's effort to criticize industrial existence are very positive, but it is in his essay on Sartre that Licht-heim's own attitudes are most clearly to be found. He does register some dissent from Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason; he is (oddly) surprised that Sartre should make scarcity, and the resultant fratricidal hostility among men, a fundamental datum of historical experience. Beyond Sartre's concrete description of humanity, however, there is the basic principle of a mankind engaged in a continuous struggle for self-emancipation through self-creation, a doctrine of historical immanence which holds promise of resolving the contradiction between categories traditionally kept apart. Lichtheim obviously approves of Sartre's view that the last battle is as yet unfought, that a progressive direction has not been eliminated from history. Lichtheim seems to think that in the search for terrain on which to fight, a metahistory remains an indispensable weapon for those human groups who (like the intellectuals) are secure enough materially and socially to use their consciousness to explore the situation of men imprisoned by hunger, toil, or routine.


It is here, finally, that a grave (and rather surprising) charge can be leveled at Lichtheim: he suffers from an excess of modesty. His critiques of Marcuse and of Sartre (as well as the rather unfair remarks on Lukacs included in the collection) constitute preliminaries to an effort he has as yet to embark upon fully. The book carries a curious erratum slip: Lichtheim is described on the cover as a “distinguished philosopher and social critic” and Random House has seen fit to amend that to read, “distinguished historian and social critic.” Lichtheim himself believes that history is understood only when philosophy does the work of thought, developing and criticizing the categories with which historical reflection conceives reality. Random House was originally right: Lichtheim now stands as a philosopher who has to complete a task set by himself. After so much immersion in the history of philosophy, so much critical reflection on the assumptions of others and himself, so much experience which transcends the usual provincialism of national intellectual traditions, Lichtheim may be asked to begin to work on that metahistory he be-believes is so necessary. He may not succeed, but on his own evidence, even a partial success would be worth more than the usual evasions.

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