The Light From the East by Lee Congdon


Martin Jay: Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept From Lukacs to Habermas; University of California Press; Berkeley, CA.


Like the exponents of Critical Theory, the subjects of his first book, Martin Jay considers himself to be an “extraterritorial” outsider. Professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, he insists that he and others on the left have been consigned to the academic ghetto. Radical in his sympathies, he continues to maintain his distance from organized political groups. The tradition of “Western Marxism,” which he made his own during the 1960’s, has remained alive for him “not through its concrete embodiments in movements, mass or otherwise, for radical social change, but rather through a dispersed cultural community of radical … intellectuals.”



Because he is frankly disillusioned by socialism’s record in power as well as by “bourgeois” society’s annoying resiliency, he prefers to reside in the dense verbal world constructed by the contributors to such journals as Telos, New Left Review, Theory and Society, and New German Critique. It is not surprising, then, that he admires Jurgen Habermas’s labyrinthine attempt to wed Marxism to linguistic philosophy. The leading member of the second generation of Critical Theorists, Habermas maintains that “communicative” — as opposed to instrumental — rationality might yet point the way to human “emancipation,” the meaning of which he, like Jay, holds to be self-evident.


This reluctance to delineate the realm of freedom is particularly perplexing in Jay’s case because he wants us to believe that Western Marxism, in contrast to Soviet and East European versions, embodies socialism’s “libertarian, emancipatory hopes.” In order to chart the ups and downs of those hopes, he has focused his attention on the pivotal category of totality. It is an interesting strategy and one that enables him to make some sense of the often bitter disputes within the Western Marxist camp between critical (usually Hegelian) and scientific theorists. Yet by beginning with Georg Lukacs and History and Class Consciousness — the “seminal text of Western Marxism” — he unwittingly betrays the ambiguity that lies at the very origin of the tradition.


A response to the Bolshevik Revolution and the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, Lukacs’s remark­ able essay collection was anything but Western. It was, in fact, a sophisticated defense of Leninism. Furthermore, the remaining founders of the tradition — Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci, and Ernst Bloch — were all, as Jay demonstrates, “avid Leninists in the early 1920’s.” They had almost nothing in common with those whom Raymond Aron rightly identified as authentic Western Marxists-the theorists of the Second International.


Be that as it may, Jay turns next to the members of the Frankfurt School. Although one of them, Herbert Marcuse, retained his utopian enthusiasm to the end, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno renounced Lukacs’s concept of totality and eventually transformed Marxism into a vision of despair. For them, Auschwitz, not the Russian Revolution, was the para­ digmatic 20th-century event. Because Jay would prefer to overcome their bleak resignation, he follows the argument about totality to France, explicating in turn the initially more affirmative Hegelian Marxism of Alexandre Kojeve, Jean Hyppolite, Henri Lefebvre, and Lucien Goldmann; the existentialist Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty; and the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser. Before arriving at Habermas, he pauses to take account of scientific Marxism in postwar Italy, citing the work of Galvano Della Volpe and Lucio Colletti. He concludes his study with some pro­ visional reflections on the post­ structuralist challenge issued to West­ ern Marxism by such overrated intellectual celebrities as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.


On reading Jay’s long history, one cannot help but be struck by the fact that, with the exception of Lukacs and Merleau-Ponty, the so-called Western Marxists were confused and mediocre thinkers. Moreover, none but Lukacs and Bloch — the latter briefly — took up residence in self-styled Marxist states, preferring instead to rail against “capitalist” society from within its comfortable confines. Indeed, what stands out in their work above all else is their hatred of the West and their consequent receptivity to light from the East. It is ironic therefore that it is from the East that new light has begun to play upon the theoretical landscape. Many of the best of those who have experienced official Marxism have now become the bearers of the bad news that Western Marxism “is itself deeply flawed as an antidote to the horrors of its Eastern counterpart.” That, certainly, is the message of the brilliant Polish-born philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, whose masterful Main Currents of Marxism far surpasses Jay’s study. More recently it is also, as Jay observes, the warning of Lukacs’s own students, the Hungarian emigres Mihaly Vajda, György Markus, Agnes Heller, and Ferenc Feher.   cc


Moll and Mouse by Stephen Tanner


Francoise Sagan: Salad Days; Translated by C. J. Richards; E. P.  Dutton; New York.


This short novel is obviously designed as an expression of what the jacket identifies as one of the author’s favorite themes: “star-crossed passion.” A young accountant for a factory in a dreary environment of soot and sameness dis­ covers at the base of a slag heap a leather pouch filled with an assortment of valuable jewels. The landlady of his boardinghouse, a proud and intelligent woman in her fifties who, like everyone else, has viewed the timid, insignificant bookkeeper with indifference, if not contempt, discovers the treasure in his room and learns from the newspaper that a man known to possess such jewels had been stabbed 17 times and dumped in a river. She wants a share, and having once been the mistress of a Marseilles gangster, has a friend who can fence the jewels. Selling them, however, is incidental to the novel’s principal concern: the relationship that develops between these two people.


Mistakenly believing he is a murderer, she views him with new interest and approval. She respects self-assertive strength and is untroubled by moral qualms. Her change of attitude pro­ duces in him such a pleasant new sense of self-esteem that he allows her to believe he is a murderer. He needs to be respected; she needs a man she can respect. His view of what produces respect is shaped pitifully by movie tough guys. Her view of what warrants respect in a man is morally perverse. Their relationship, that of mother-son as well as lovers, fluctuates as she periodically doubts his strength and he consequently reverts to timid insecurity.


The question of how our lives can be changed radically by others’ opinions of us, even when the opinions are based on lies, is intriguing. But this exploration gets little beyond stereotypes. The milk-toast protagonist is, after all, abookkeeper. His supervisor, true to type, is a cowardly bully. The landlady who admires only men strong enough to kill for what they want was formerly a gangster’s moll. The bookkeeper’s re­ peated transitions from meekness to machismo are as abrupt as what happens when Popeye downs a can of spinach or Clark Kent enters a phone booth. The final impression is one of cartoon-level cleverness rather than of penetrating revelation of plausible characters.            cc