Historical Novels and Historical Dramas
Many of us have books on our shelves we have been meaning to read for years, or, if we are old enough, for decades. In my case one such was The Historical Novel, by George Lukacs, a Jewish Hungarian Communist intellectual. A truly cosmopolitan European born in 1885, Lukacs had studied in prewar Germany, coming to know many of the leading lights of the post-Bismarck Prophet generation in that country such as Max Weber and the Mann brothers, but became a Communist during the First World War, participating in the failed Communist revolution in Hungary in 1919. He then moved back to Germany and eventually, after Hitler took power, to Moscow. Lukacs originally wrote The Historical Novel--in what language I am not sure--in about 1936. It was not published in English in Britain in 1962 and I acquired my copy in Britain around 1972. I had previously heard of it from Frederick Jameson, the most brilliant teacher I had in my four undergraduate years at Harvard, in the spring of 1967, but he had put only a copy in French on reserve, and I don't think he had studied it very thoroughly. (Sadly, Jameson joined the vanguard of the new academic ideas I will be referring to later in this post and never fulfilled his early promise.) In 1972 my soon-to-be wife was a graduate student in literature and she read The Historical Novel sometime during that year. She said it was one of the finest books she had ever read, but shortly thereafter she (wisely) abandoned her graduate studies and I never got to it--until now. It is not an easy read, especially because of its use of Marxist terminology, and I am still only a bit more than half way through but have been entirely bowled over by its implications both for history and for current politics--implications which would not have been apparent 40 years ago at all.
I am doing this post because of the contemporary implications of Lukacs's argument but I must briefly review some aspects of it before turning to them. The author was both a Communist and a very careful reader of literature and student of history. Most importantly, his Marxism gave him two critical beliefs: that history could be treated as a science, and that history was going somewhere. What has staggered me about the book is the realization that those ideas, in general at least, were almost universally held by intellectuals and politicians of all stripes as late as the middle of the twentieth century, and that they have now suffered an almost total eclipse, with catastrophic consequences, not least for American politics.
I do not mean to say, obviously, that everyone was in those days a Communist. What I do mean to say was that every major political movement of the twentieth century crisis in the Pacific and the Atlantic World specifically placed itself within a scheme of history which it believed could be scientifically demonstrated. Fascists, Nazis, Communists, democratic socialists in Britain, Japanese imperialists, and, crucially for the US and the world, New Dealers all thought they were on the side of history. Nazis believed they would build a racial utopia in Central and Eastern Europe and add to it a world empire. Russian Communists believed they were the vanguard of world revolution, and Chinese Communists thought so as well. The Japanese thought they were expelling the white man from Asia to create a greater East Asia Co-prosperity sphere. Roosevelt strove to empower labor, create institutions to moderate the excesses of capitalism, and provide for the basic needs of the population. He also fought the Second World War in an attempt to create a world ruled by law. The Second World War effectively consigned the Nazi and Japanese visions of the future to the ashcan of history, but it seemed to validate both the liberal American and Communist ones, as well as the ideas of the British Labour Party, which actually created a socialist economy in 1945-50. It also put an end to a centuries-long movement towards imperialism, a change which was embraced and integrated into a new view of French history in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Charles de Gaulle.
Now there is no question that this global struggle among world views was enormously destructive and, in many ways, tragic. Because the strongest nations of the world were indeed fighting to shape the future for decades to come, they mobilized their economies and their populations on an unprecedented scale, sent men to die by the millions, and obliterated whole cities with aerial bombardment. But at the same time, their world views enabled them to undertake enormous projects of civic importance and focused them--all of them, actually--on the needs of the population as a whole. The New Deal built dams, parks, roads and bridges all over America. Britain created the National Health Service. France eventually decided to draw most of its energy from atomic power. The Soviet Union performed astonishing, if temporary, feats of industrialization. National Socialism meant not only war and death camps, but also the autobahns, the Volkswagen, and Germany's own form of welfare state. After 1945, defeated Germany and Japan embraced the task of building a new, less destructive civic order within an alliance of capitalist and democratic states. Until the mid-1960s, humanity, especially perhaps in the more advanced nations, lived in a world with a purpose, and I would not be who I am today had I not grown up in the midst of it.
Now the real revelation of Lukacs' book occurred, for me, when he discussed the impact of the revolutions of 1848, again within his particular view of history. The drama of the history of the 16th to the 19th centuries, in his view, came from the gradual emergence of bourgeois society and the decline of feudalism. Bourgeois society meant not only capitalism, but equal opportunity, equality before the law, democratic institutions, and so own--all developments thoroughly embraced by Karl Marx as necessary steps towards the eventual emergence, and victory, of the proletariat. Lukacs argues that the greatest historical novels, those by Sir Walter Scott (of which I have to admit that I have never read a single word) and by Balzac (of which I have read about half a dozen), deal with the impact of critical moments in these transformations on the lives of representative figures of different social classes. In Lukacs's eyes such works were chronicling history's march forward. Despite a reaction against these ideals after 1815 among the European leadership, the reading public and middle-class intellectuals, he thought, continued to embrace them until 1848. But in that year, a new bourgeois revolution in France in February--one that was immediately imitated all through Central Europe--led in June to a proletarian insurrection. So frightened were the bourgeoisie by this new development that they not only crushed it, but handed their liberty over to Napoleon III three years later. And suddenly, as Lukacs pointed out, new views of history became more popular, views which did not integrate current events into a progressive scheme. The political consequences of this fear were equally important. In Germany, his adopted home, this led 20 years later to the compromise between the aristocrat Bismarck and the German bourgeoisie, and the creation of a unified Germany in which the monarch and aristocracy still controlled ultimate power. France did create an enduring Republic in the 1870s, but only after a much larger workers' insurrection in Paris, the Commune, had been crushed with the loss of 20-30,000 lives. Britain in 1867 began taking slow steps towards democracy.
And now it is time to jump ahead about a century to look at the parallel developments that have transformed both American intellectual and political life during the last 45 years. Beginning in 1965--the year that the Vietnam War began in earnest and that the Boom generation made up the entire undergraduate bodies of American universities--two new attacks on progress as it had been understood for 35 years began. They have continued without interruption ever since, and they now threaten us with intellectual and political catastrophes which Lukacs and his contemporaries could never have imagined. And they came, this time, from both the right and the left.
The New Deal had established an extraordinary consensus within the United States, built around the idea of a strong state that helped meet the needs of the American people. The opposite view, that the state was the enemy of freedom and that the free market alone would do a better job of meeting the peoples' needs, had become a fringe position by the mid-1960s, as the fate of Barry Goldwater's Presidential candidacy showed. But as so often seems to happen in history, the supreme moment of postwar liberalism, the passage of the Great Society legislation of 1964-5, turned out to presage its almost immediate decline. Johnson's Democratic majority had entirely disappeared by 1968, when Hubert Humphrey won less than 45% of the vote. Twelve years later Ronald Reagan won by a landslide campaigning on the idea that government was the problem, not the solution, and promising to get it off the backs of the American people. Government action to help the people was now seen by the public as government action to help the poor, particularly the black poor--with disastrous results. As the right-wing momentum grew over the decades, the attack on progress led by the government has become an attack on the idea of progress itself, and even on modern science. (Glenn Beck's attempt to demonize the word "progressive"--welcomed by no less a figure than Sarah Palin--sums all this up.) And, of course, as the government abandoned the goal of leveling the economic playing field, income inequality grew apace. Money now dominates our politics and millionaires provide an astonishing number of new candidates.
Much of the right-wing attack, which had never completely stopped all through the New Deal era, was of course to be expected, since the New Deal did make it much harder to amass huge fortunes. The left-wing attack was more surprising and in a way--if one remains committed to twentieth century ideas of progress, as I do--more damaging. Essentially, beginning the late 1960s, the left wing of my generation decided that the whole idea of progress, as heretofore understood, was a fraud, because progress before 1965 had meant progress for white males at everyone else's expense. A new generation of historians, with breathtaking speed, demolished both the idea of history as progress and the idea of history as science. And here it behooves us to look at Lukacs' extraordinary comments about changes (only momentary, as it turned out) in history in the second half of the nineteenth century.
In the age of the French Revolution, Lukacs writes, "both Hegel's objective idealism and the writings of the great historians of the time were permeated through and through with the conviction that objective reality, and therewith history, was knowable. Thus, the important representatives of this period. . . attempted to uncover the real driving forces of history as they objectively worked out and to explain history from them." They believed, in short, in discoverable objective reality, as I still do, with the caveat that 100% certainty will always elude us. But, Lukacs writes about the second half of the century, "This now ceases right along the line. Vulgarized bourgeois economics can no longer act as an auxiliary to history: during this development economics itself turns into an analysis of economic notions rather than the objective facts of production." Lukacs is not a graceful writer, but that sentence would apply equally well to modern economics, which has of course become almost purely theoretical in the last forty years. And he adds, during this same period, "the modernization of history gains a broad ideological basis. It seems that the only possible way of 'understanding' the past lies in projecting our way of seeing things,l in starting out from our own notions." That is exactly the way in which legions of feminist scholars have tried to turn western history into nothing but the history of prejudice against women.
This is not all. The idea that history was no longer going anywhere found clear expression in the Bush National Security Strategy of 2002, which proclaimed that the struggles of the 20th century had established the unique truth of a single model of development, capitalist free markets and electoral democracy. The invasion and occupation of Iraq proceeded on that basis, so far with results that have hardly validated that doctrine. But worse than that, Barack Obama--a progressive liberal who genuinely wants to reverse some of the trends of the last forty years--almost never tries to place what he is doing in any broader scheme of history, something which Lincoln and FDR constantly did. To do so he would have to acknowledge, as they did, that history ultimately is founded upon what Lukacs calls "contradiction," that is, upon struggles between opposing forces, and that he is taking sides. Barack Obama is, among other things, the first President to have passed through our elite educational system after academia had given up the idea of progress as customarily understood, and I cannot help but wonder if that has not affected him in this respect. And because he does not want explicitly to take sides, but rather to rely on the presumed appeal of a reasoned, intelligent approach to our problems, he has, as I mentioned two weeks ago, been unable to mobilize, or counter, the vast anger abroad in the world.
It is time to bring this post to an end, but I am sure I will be taking up these same themes next week. I should however end with a comment on Lukacs' own limitations, which were equally crucial to failures of twentieth century intellectual life. History is a story of contradiction and of struggle, but his Marxist belief in the centrality of class struggles was largely an illusion. The nature of our struggles and their direction varies widely from era to era, and they are driven by psychology as well as by objective reality. Strauss and Howe's great contribution was to understand this, and to identify the 80-year framwework within which the struggles usually take place. They too were in their way mid-century optimists, however, and while they predicted our current crisis in 1993, they were far more optimistic about its outcome than the facts, so far, have confirmed. Of that, more later.