The Concept of Ideology

Vintage Books, $1.95, pp. 315

GEORGE Lichtheim has collected a number of his essays and reviews, composed over the last four years for various periodicals, added a short introduction, and published the lot under the too-dramatic title, The Concept of Ideology.

Since in what follows I am going to be critical, I had better begin by saying that this is a worth-while book. It is quintessential Lichtheim: urbane, arrogantly knowledgeable, wonderfully robust.

As for subject matter, there is the expected melange: the French moodiness of assorted epochs, German Idealism, the early Lukacs and the sad, grey condition of Eastern Europe. The formal discussion of ideology takes up less than 50 pages, albeit 50 dense pages. Though many of the succeeding essays illustrate points raised in the initial section, none does so in the least systematically.

More important, Lichtheim is a master of that peculiarly German form, the Ideengeschichte. His integration of Marx and the Enlightenment is masterful. Finally, Lichtheim takes his Marxism seriously. Whatever defects there may be in his method, however bitter his denunciations of Communism as it is practiced, he never ceases to treat his subjects as reasonable men whose criticisms of society have likewise to be met in a reasonable fashion. Lichtheim remains a philosopher (indeed that is his chief shortcoming) and he has thus been proof to the current fashion which spares itself the difficulty of replying to Marx by dismissing him as a moralist of this or that persuasion. No one who has read the Paris Manuscripts could deny that there is some truth in their charge; anyone who has glanced at 18th Brumaire or The German Ideology cannot pretend that Marxism begins and ends with an eschatology.

LICHTHEIM'S theme, stated most fully at the end of the first essay, is straightforward enough. The central problem in the philosophy of the last 200 years, he argues, is posed in this question: "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 leads to the search for a vantage point--an "identical subject-object of history'--from which to view the disparate and fluid arrangements of human affairs. To look at history from any but this vantage point would be to obtain at best an incomplete, at worst a distorted or ideological notion of affairs.

But the various attempts to resolve this dilemma do not merely represent successive stages in "dispassionate search for objective truth." For each solution, each theory of cognition and history from Comte to Nietzsche, was shaped by the "tension between the actual historical process and a critical consciousness nourished by the traditions of classical rationalism."

Today, Lichtheim continues, "as the globe shrinks and historically divergent and disparate cultures press against one another," the need to find such a vantage point has become all the more crucial. Only when unwarped or "true" consciousness is attained, will "individuals and groups belonging to the most varied societies and cultures" discover the interests to bind them together--a conclusion, by the way, redolent of Professor Louis Hartz's more speculative remarks in The Founding of New Nations.

MY objection to all this, hinted at parenthetically a moment ago, is that Lichtheim never offers a satisfactory account of the relation between ideas and social movements. He has an intuition of "tensions" between first-rate thoughts which beat about inside first-rate heads and the societies within which they function. "There must be some correspondence between the collective experience of a culture and the way in which this experience is generalized in thought," he remarks a trifle desparately.

But Lichtheim, to paraphrase Brecht, would have to sweat to get the common people into his book and he doesn't take the trouble. So history becomes the battle of great thinkers, each a bit self-conscious in this un-Hegelian day and age, looking over his shoulder now and again to see if the rude folk are in fact trailing along behind.

Lichtheim's comments on German history, then, will serve as a nice demonstration of his fundamental idealism. "The basic fact about German history since the eighteenth century," we are told, "has been the failure of the Enlightenment to take root." Why did it fail to thrive? In an essay entitled "The European Civil War," we learn that "national attitudes in the three countries [France, Germany and Italy] were different, and that the difference went back to the impact of the French Revolution." This is some help, but not much, for we now want to know what factors determined the reception accorded the French Revolution.

The closer Lichtheim comes to the Nazi catastrophy, the more outlandish his observations seem. Nietzsche's influence is to be set down to the fact that he "had the advantage of addressing himself to readers already predisposed by a century of literary romanticism to come down on the irrationalist side." What predisposed the reading public to romanticism is never disclosed. At any rate, this German, with his "course mind," had broken the rules of the game by shouting that it all might not be comprehensible after all.

The fall of Weimar and the rise of Hitler is accomplished in a paragraph or so:

"The leaders of the Third Reich (notably the SS, the core of the whole movement) really had taken Nietzsche seriously. So had large strata of the German educated class in general...How could a movement of this sort have gained power in a major European country? Dreadful though it is, the answer must be: largely by accident. For there can be little doubt that an early successful attempt on Hitler's person would have caused his party to collapse ... The Third Reich was a oneman show.

CERTAINLY one need not hold an utterly materialist view of society to maintain that this is over-doing it. Why Hitler and not someone else? Why some strata and not others?

Without some history and sociology, then, Lichtheim's notion of a "dialectic between the French Revolution and German Counter-Revolution" is not overly helpful. Nor do his unfortunately diffuse comments on ideology represent a theoretical advance: in the 20's Mannheim was rejoicing at the possibilities for intellectual advance provided by the collision of cultures and the dissolution of old systems. Still, look the book over. Even when Lichtheim loses his battles, which is far from always, he does it with panache.