Mitchell Cohen has co-edited Dissent magazine since 1991. He is professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University. His books include The Wager of Lucien Goldmann and Zion and State. He is currently finishing a book on political ideas in opera. Here Mitchell discusses George Lichtheim's Imperialism. (Because of the length of the essay I am spreading it over two posts.)
Mitchell Cohen on Imperialism by George Lichtheim
George Lichtheim is missing. You may not have noticed, especially if you don't peruse political journals from the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s (or didn't read them back then). You may have noticed if the history of the left matters to you. If you don't know his work and the left's future concerns you, you should miss him too.
Lichtheim was an independent intellectual spirit - the real thing, not the self-announced sort. His histories of socialism and Marxism are among the most intelligent that we have. They are works of learning, insight, critical engagement. Even if you would dispute him on something or many things, you'll feel smarter for the disagreement. He didn't just gobble a few secondary sources and then blurt 'expertise'; he didn't seek to display theoretical acumen by spry style and self-congratulating 'irony'. Footnotes didn't frighten him. His friend Walter Laqueur reports an idiosyncratic but appealing quality: Lichtheim would not quote a book he didn't own. (I take details about Lichtheim's life mostly from Laqueur's accounts of it).
Lichtheim's prose did not glitter, or it did so rarely. It was always straightforward, but there were acerbic riffs and sometimes he just ran out of patience. Consider an observation on Hannah Arendt. In his essay entitled 'Two Revolutions', Lichtheim wrote that in her book On Revolution she...
... shows an inclination to discuss political topics in philosophical terms, and vice versa, until the distinction between metaphysics and politics is lost or dimmed in a twilight zone where it no longer seems to matter whether we are dealing with actual events, contemporary beliefs about these events, or subsequent reflections upon them by thinkers motivated by convictions and interests quite foreign to the participants. At some stage a writer has to decide whether the discussion is to be about the political realm ordinarily so called, or about the most general principles regulating human behaviour. It is no use asserting that this distinction was overcome once and for all by Aristotle and his successors. (Who are they? Do they include the medieval Aristotelians who no longer had a polis to reflect upon?)
One phrase here - 'At some stage a writer has to decide...' - finds its way over and again into Lichtheim's works, in one way or another. Writers need to decide just what they are addressing. Making reference to a current event (he writes in 1964), he explained that 'the recent tentative rapprochement between the Vatican and the Kremlin cannot be sensibly discussed in terms of Thomist and Leninist philosophy, although it is a fact that both have a common source in Aristotle'. His point ought to elicit reflection by contemporary concocters of notions like 'Islamo-Fascism'.
Lichtheim's books and essays provide synthetic understanding rather than reaching originality. He was not known for intellectual modesty; nonetheless, he used first person pronouns sparingly. The temperament is not that of the 1960s and it is not postmodern: the point of writing is the subject matter not the writing subject (whole, fragmented, constructed, conjunctural, whatever). 'I trust I have learned something from modern scholarship and from the literature of the past four decades,' he wrote not long before his suicide in 1973, 'but my instinctive sympathies lie with the representative thinkers of the age that ended in 1914.' Was this autodidact telling readers to historicize his own writings? Or that he was out of synchrony with his own century, and especially its intellectuals?
Well, it wasn't a very good century, the 20th, and he certainly knew that. Lichtheim was born in Berlin in 1912. His father was a leading German Zionist whose politics were on the centre-right, although he had Kantian sympathies. Young George was attracted to Hegel, Marx, Heine, and the quirky (then) left-wing thinker Franz Borkenau. He studied law at Heidelberg and militated towards independent radical groupings before fleeing Hitler. He went to Britain, where he had spent some time earlier in the 1920s, and found himself working for Marks & Spencer – surely a good subject for a Tom Stoppard play. Lichtheim left for Palestine, where he became a journalist and eventually foreign editor of the daily The Palestine Post.
He frequented intellectual circles in Jerusalem where he befriended Gershom Scholem (and translated his Main Currents in Jewish Mysticism) as well as Hans Jonas. But he didn't find Zionism or Jewish philosophy compelling, and in 1946 went to London. From there he wrote for The Post (renamed The Jerusalem Post after Israel's birth) and became an editor for Commentary (this was long before that magazine plunged into the neo-depths – or, rather, shallows).
Lichtheim covered the Nuremburg Trials and in the next two and a half decades he wrote, sometimes under the pen name G.L. Arnold, on European and intellectual affairs for an array of journals, ranging from Partisan Review, Dissent, The New Leader and Encounter, to The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books. He began to publish wide-ranging works on intellectual history and the left, including Marxism (which made him well-known in 1961), The Origins of Socialism, and A Short History of Socialism. Hegelianism marked his mindset; he was out of sympathy with the simplified, scientized Marx promoted by Engels and beloved by one too many Marxists and Leninists. In the 1960s he paid sympathetic and increasing attention to Jürgen Habermas's writings.
Lichtheim's studies of the left are not equally satisfying. For one example, he wrote a book on Georg Lukács that is so obsessed with the unattractive features of this Marxist's career, which were plentiful enough, that the interesting aspects of Lukács's thought go out of focus. But hard Marxists, especially Leninists, disliked Lichtheim for other reasons. He said things they did not want to hear. Marx, he thought, offered a brilliant theoretical response to the bourgeois phase of European industrialization, but Marxism did not incarnate unalterable laws of history, let alone nature. Marx and his ideas also had to be historicized, not reified. Then it becomes obvious that a critique of classical 'bourgeois' society is inadequate once that society is gone - and it was. If the point is to change the world, then your thinking must be a function of the world. If your life is devoted to saving Marxism as a doctrine, as the explanation of everything, well, that is something else.
Attacks on Lichtheim for 'anti-communism' were predictable and missed the point. Read his essay 'Happy Birthday' - it was the Bolshevik Revolution's 50th - and you'll detect his appreciation of Martov, the Menshevik leader who fought as a Marxist for a democratic Russia, first against an autocratic old regime headed by a Tsar, and then against a new one-party state headed by his one-time comrade Lenin. The Martovs like the Lichtheims - they are not alone - seem to have vanished from left-wing recall, and if the left is ever to renew itself intellectually, it will need to ask why. These days, Louis Althusser, the French Communist philosopher and proponent of 'theoretical anti-humanism' is being reprinted. Read his much cited essay on 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses' along with Lichtheim's 'The Concept of Ideology' and think about which one makes you smarter. Or read Jacques Derrida's Spectres of Marx together with Lichtheim's Marxism and ask which text teaches you more about the left, its problems and, indeed, Marx.
Not that the intellectual right can gain succour from Lichtheim - at least not candidly. Lichtheim would never have hit a delete button on those Continental intellectual traditions that gave us the best in socialist thought. Yes, neoconservatives may want to claim him in some way as they have the other George (Orwell, that is). But they will be able to do so only with their usual intellectual means - not ham-handed, but ham-headed. A lesson of Lichtheim: dislike of Leninism or Stalinism was (and is) not the private property of neoconservatives; and it ought not to be accompanied by histrionics or sneers whenever Marx's name is mentioned.
Lichtheim wrote his slim tract on Imperialism in 1970. Another book (on Europe) was also in preparation, but this was the appropriate conclusion to his writings about the left, even if is not his best work. It is worth rereading since 'imperialism' and 'empire' are again prominent in the left's vocabulary, even though Marxism's hold on intellectual precincts, so strong when he wrote, is now gone.
When Lichtheim wrote Imperialism, decolonialization was pretty much complete, British and French empires mostly dismantled. The Cold War still chilled and the Vietnam war still raged. Armies massed on the Sino-Soviet border. Beijing, quaking from the Cultural Revolution, was denouncing Moscow's 'imperialism'. Left groupuscules whirled about within the Western left and Lichtheim believed Marxism 'too important to be left to the post-Leninist sects – tiny, ferocious creatures devouring each other in a drop of water'.
He wasn't right entirely. Ferocious, yes, but from drops come ripples. They never came close to comprising a majority within the Western left except in the obsessed minds of liberals about to become neoconservatives. Yet they did sometimes function a bit too much like the larger left's super-ego - a little like extremer 'anti-globalization' militants sometimes do today. Towards his book's end, Lichtheim points out sadly, but with irritation, that the word 'imperialism' had turned into a source of endless confusion.
As 'imperialist' became a catch-all epithet, a new Subject of History was distilled from some of those ripples. The Third World would save Marxism from the obvious fact that the proletariat had obstinately not become history's universal class. Reformist talk on the left – some of it quite smart - of market-socialism and 'feasible socialism' was swept aside. And postmodernism and/or excitement about 'new social movements' displaced a lot of traditional socialist theory. The latter seemed to go nowhere beyond rapprochement with liberalism, a useful but limited move.
In the meantime, the West seemed to rest increasingly on technocratic laurels and a sturdy-enough welfare state, able to withstand occasional tremors. Lichtheim, though not a devotee of social democrats, thought classical liberalism had been put to historical rest. He did not foresee the coming crisis of the welfare state (and of social democracy) or the resurgence of hard liberalism, that Milton Friedman-economic theology translated into political alchemy by Thatcher and Reagan. Faced with this, social-democratic thought (liberalism, in America's context) stuttered. Conservatives funded think tanks, journals, and fostered young pundits - and all this as the world was poised for a communications revolution. Nobody, left or right, imagined 1989.