By the time of his death, in the autumn of 1970, Lucien Goldmann’s standing as a Marxist theorist had noticeably begun to diminish. The reasons for this were both theoretical and political. European Marxist thought in the 1960s was characterized by the rapid, ebullient development of theoretical currents (represented in France by the work of Louis Althusser, and in Italy by the very different work of Galvano della Volpe, and subsequently Lucio Colletti) deeply hostile to the neo-hegelian tendencies which, it was argued, had become dominant in contemporary Western Marxism, threatening to compromise the properly scientific vocation of historical materialism. The principal targets of these sustained and often cogent attacks were the leading representatives of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse) and Georg Lukács. Goldmann, who had been deeply influenced by Kant and Hegel, and retained his allegiance to the work of the young Lukács long after the latter had himself repudiated them, was especially vulnerable to the anti-humanist, anti-historicist Marxism of Louis Althusser and his associates. Already a favoured target of such theoretical criticisms, Goldmann was compromised by his professions of support for Yugoslav ‘market socialism’ and his reiterated belief in a peaceful, ‘non-revolutionary’ passage to socialism in the advanced capitalist world—positions which naturally found little favour with revolutionary Marxists, especially after May 1968.footnote1 However Goldmann’s response to the May events was in fact to be warm and enthusiastic—he welcomed them as a rejection of the bourgeois model of civilization and of the bureaucratic deformations of the workers movement.

In the sphere of Marxist aesthetics, Goldmann’s unqualified relegation may have been somewhat premature. In the first place, it should be borne in mind that the charge of ‘historicism’ remains generic, and as such is no substitute for detailed and balanced assessments of its variant manifestations; and moreover, as Timpanaro has shown, some of the current Marxist critiques of ‘humanism’ may themselves stand in need of materialist corrections.footnote2 Secondly, theoretical positions are not merely emanations of political stances; and conversely, the former cannot be evaluated simply in terms of their political consequences. (The censorious response with which Goldmann’s political idiosyncrasies have been met is in strange contrast with the indulgent treatment that some of his contemporaries have enjoyed.)

It is significant too that in the field of institutionalized literary studies, in Britain at least, the opposite has been the case. Increasingly disregarded in Marxist aesthetic debates, which have become more insistently political and oriented towards the problems of revolutionary art, Goldmann’s work has received growing attention in academic circles. Most of his work is now available in English—a translation of his last major study, Pour une sociologie du roman (1964), appeared earlier this year—and his contribution to the sociology of literature has been the subject of critical discussion in a number of books and essays. The most important of these was Raymond Williams’ ‘Literature and Sociology’ (nlr 67) which paid tribute to Goldmann’s work in the field, and laid particular emphasis on the possible radical impact of this body of work on the cramping empiricist mould in which British cultural thought had been set by the Leavisian tradition.footnote3 It is not difficult to see why Goldmann should have had this appeal. The norms of subject-matter and procedure that governed his writing were, to a degree uncommon among his Marxist contemporaries, those of established academic practice. It may indeed, as Williams maintained, have represented a very different kind of intellectual culture, but its general demeanour was none the less recognizable as that of the academy. In contrast with Brecht and Benjamin, Goldmann showed little interest in the problems of revolutionary art. He did not share Adorno’s remarkable cultural versatility or his preoccupation with the contemporary period.footnote4 If he was not nearly so easily discountenanced by the literary productions of the modernist era and after as Lukács was, he was nevertheless at one with the latter in his predominating concern with the literature of the past (his general theoretical dependence on Lukács was, of course, very considerable). So radical a restriction of interest was bound to have certain negative effects. But these should be measured against their complementary merit: a concentration of interest that produced important contributions to the historical sociology of literature and thought and an appreciation of the classical achievements of bourgeois culture. The problem to which Goldmann devoted the bulk of his working life—the elaboration of a Marxist theory of the relations between artistic and intellectual productions and the social structures within which they are produced—is incontrovertibly valid, and central to any Marxist theory of culture.

The essay translated here was written in 1947, two years after the publication of Goldmann’s first full-length work, Mensch, Gemeinschaft und Welt in der Philosophie Immanuel Kants. This study was primarily concerned to establish Kant as the precursor of the dialectical tradition that Goldmann traced through Hegel and Marx to Lukács, and it is in this aspect that the book is of importance in any consideration of Goldmann’s thought as a whole. Its chief interest in the present context, however, is that it presented, in preliminary form, an example of the sociological method that eventually became ‘genetic structuralism’. This new method was exercised mainly in the first chapter of the book, which attempted to relate the divergent paths of the Enlightenment philosophers of England, France and Germany to the different situations of the bourgeoisie in those countries. The French version of this study, La communauté humaine et l’univers chez Kant (1948), was expanded by the addition of a short discussion of the social bases of the ‘tragic vision’ in seventeenth century France—a new departure that anticipated the themes of his best-known work, Le dieu caché (1956). Although twenty years were to elapse before Goldmann returned to the Enlightenment period to elaborate his early analyses in the light of a fully developed genetic structuralism, it was in this period that the basic principles of the theory were established. Thus, ‘Dialectical Materialism and Literary History’ marks a crucial stage in the development of Goldmann’s thought. Published almost exactly half-way between his first major study (of Kant) and his second (of Racine and Pascal) it is at once a stock-taking and a prospectus, generalizing the theoretical experience of his early researches, and setting out lines of inquiry that he was to follow throughout his subsequent careers.footnote5

In this essay, Goldmann enunciates the constitutive theoretical and methodological principles of his dialectical sociology of literature. All social practices form significant wholes, each with its own logic and coherence, and these practices compose an ensemble that is itself a significant whole. It is therefore necessary, in literary criticism, to make a primary methodological distinction between explanation and comprehension: the elucidation of the ‘objective significance’ of a literary text demands both a sociological account of its relations with the social totality that it inhabits, and an ‘immanent aesthetic analysis’ of its own peculiar structure. Goldmann’s central contention is that literary and philosophical works articulate ‘world visions’, which are in no sense the private constructions of their authors but rather are fully social in origin and function. A world vision encompasses the complex of ideas, feelings and aspirations that defines the consciousness of a social class. The ultimate source of a literary text, then, is not the ‘I’ of its author, but the ‘we’ of the social class whose world vision it embodies—as Goldmann was later to put it, literary creation is the work of a ‘transindividual subject’. The role of biographical analysis in the explication of literary works is therefore secondary; and moreover, in the measure that the work in question is truly great, biographical data can in fact be dispensed with. Biographical analysis is commonly necessary to explain inferior works, or defective elements in works of mixed quality, but great literature achieves a kind of impersonality that emancipates it from the contingencies of the individual author’s existence, and a rigour and coherence that make reference to subjective authorial intention unnecessary. Goldmann’s category of ‘genius’ is the logical outcome of this argument. In works of genius, world visions are brought to their highest peak of elaboration and coherence: such works are literally microscosms of their age, and thus are uniquely amenable to sociological explanation, and to immanent structural analysis.