Sunday, August 22, 2010

Historical Novels and Historical Dramas

This post will begin with a somewhat lengthy digression, but please bear with me--I think it will be one of the more important ones I have done.

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.


Cheryl Rofer said...

The idea that there is a discoverable reality, indeed, seems to be disappearing from American society. That idea is essential to science, which may be part of the reason why it's been so easy for a variety of groups, with a variety of agendas, to convince the public that there is no such thing as global warming, or that it doesn't matter.

I've been writing a bit about it from the science side here, here, and here.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

What a coincidence...just started "The Great Transformation" by Lukacs' contemporary and fellow traveller, Karl Polyani. You know, every once in a while, a serious Marxian analysis is just the ticket for framing.

What an insightful and well woven post (running out of vocabulary for praise here) for which am grateful and hope to soon have the time to read The Historical Novel.

BTW, and in the same vein, I would like to recommend Jennifer Delton's crack article in March 2010 issue of The Journal of the Historical Society on Rethinking Post World War II Anticommunism. Someone finally got around to explaining why jettisoning ballast (Iiberal anti-communism) was crucial yet at the same time paved the way for the return of conservatism.

alexandralynch said...

Wow. I'm very glad I found your blog, and will be reading it on a regular basis.

galacticsurfer said...


The Genuine Progress Indicator 2006
On October 28, 2005 the following headlines appeared in leading newspapers throughout the
United States:
GDP muscles through
Economy brushes off storms and expands by 3.8 percent in 3Q, beating estimates.The U.S. economy shook off headwinds from hurricanes Katrina and Rita to grow at a faster-than expected 3.8 percent annual rate in the third quarter, a Commerce Department report showed Friday.(Reuters, 2005)
Perhaps no headline in recent history does a better job of illustrating why our nation’s most trusted measure of economic performance is so woefully out of sync with people’s everyday experiences. In one fell swoop, these headlines dismissed the inequitable and catastrophic toll associated with 1,836 preventable deaths, over 850,000 housing units damaged, destroyed, or left uninhabitable, disruption of 600,000 jobs, permanent inundation of 118
square miles of marshland, destruction of 1.3 million acres of forest, and contamination caused by millions of gallons of floodwaters tainted by sewage, oil, heavy metals, pesticides,
and other toxins as irrelevant to the U.S. economy.1 Few would dispute the fact that gross domestic product (GDP) fails as a true measure of economic welfare. For decades, many economists have acknowledged that the GDP has fundamental shortcomings. “GDP is not a measure of welfare,” wrote William Nordhaus and James Tobin, prominent economists at Yale in the early 1970s (Nordhaus and Tobin, 1972). The GDP is simply a gross tally of everything produced in the U.S.—products and services, good things and bad. In fact, in a 1934 report toCongress GDP’s chief architect, Simon Kuznets, cautioned that “[t]he welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income” (Kuznets, 1934). Despite these cautions, GDP maintains its prominent role as a catchall for our collective well being. Perhaps this is because there has been little consensus on a suitable replacement. Perhaps, more fundamentally, it is that there is even less consensus on how well being should really be measured and if quantitative measurements can be made
at all. Nevertheless, efforts to find replacements are critical since GDP forms the basis for important public policy decisions—i.e. those predicted to increase GDP growth fare better while those shown to restrict GDP growth are often killed by political shortsightedness. Recently, GDP growth was a prominent justification for highly controversial tax cuts on capital gains while efforts to secure long overdue increases in the federal living wage have been thwarted by persistent gloom and doom forecasts with respect to effects on jobs and economic growth (Foertsch, 2006; Roth, 2005).


Progress is inevitable, i.e. going from A to B, however if you are carrying the wrong map you could end up being where you don’t want to go. That wrong map is economic theory. The right and left seem to have no workable solutions. They are going in circles. The end of history is just tha theya re at the end of their ropes. We need new ideas but those just get rejected as crazy.

alohamac said...

David - Good article : I think Robert Cooper's 2003 essay- The Breaking of Nations; Order and Chaos in the twenty-first Century -- makes some of the same points.

Gerald Meaders said...

Great discussion. Very interesting period for me, but I have only really scratched the surface.

I especially have enjoyed Daumier's illustrations.

He was really a proletarian at heart, laboring in the still not all that old, and largely bourgeois, field of publishing,

and had to cater, especially earlier in his career, during the time you discuss around 1848.

Much more important an artist, politically and artistically, than most Americans are aware of. Did a lot of good criticism of the rising bourgeoisis in France. It was already being seen, quite rightly, as a trend tending dangerously toward spiritual bankruptcy.

Gerald Meaders said...

Just another note, on this brief passage:

"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..."

This was Fukuyama's curious thesis, that perhaps the end of history had arrived, (not that it hadn't gone anywhere, but that it had gone somewhere, and had arrived) in his book The End Of History And The Last Man.

Fukuyama's interpretation was in a tradition, of what I would call (in Butterfield's sense) 'Whig' history. Actonian, etc.

I know this will seem obscure to some readers, but Professor Kaiser will appreciate it, perhaps.

all the best,

partisan said...

I don't think you can really blame the New Left for undercutting a robust preogressive view of history. I would think this view was clearly undercut with the Cold war. Not only did the Partisan Review crowd not really show much enthusiasm for any particular reform by 1950, but Kennedy himself didn't really see himself as a very liberal reformer. It was the shock of his assassination rather than an appeal to history that encouraged the Great Society. Come to think, the Republicans haven't done much to present a coherent historical appeal. Nixon was fond of suggesting that Wilson was his favorite president. Reagan may have brought back Coolidge's portrait to the White House, but he more often advertised his admiration for FDR. As for neoconservatives, they claimed that it was only until the gap between the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the 1966 Congressional elections that liberalism really lost its way.

Anonymous said...

These days, it’s best to expect the ‘unexpected’

GM said...

I came across my copy of The Historical Novel a few weeks ago in my bookcase. A 1962 translation from German by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell, the original version appears to have been in Russian.

I attempted to read it when I first got it around 1970, but couldn't get past the dialectic. It is hard to tell whether awkward constructions are the result of the translation or the original. I may have to attempt it again.

Thank you for the interesting analysis.