In recent years we have seen in Britain a systematic identification of Marxism with neo-Hegelianism, by left political groups and by bourgeois commentators alike. Neo-Hegelianism views society as a homogeneous totality revolving around one central contradiction; constituent elements are dissolved into an undifferentiated unity, and the internal contradictions and inter-relationships of specific levels and structures within a given social formation are ignored. Theory is denied any autonomy, and becomes an expression of class consciousness rather than a science capable of rigorous analysis and of providing a framework for political strategy. As no content is given to the strategic and organizational aspects of practice, this too is reduced to a spontaneous expression of consciousness. Neo-Hegelianism is thus a purely reflective, if critical, activity.

Though as yet few of his works are available in Englishfootnote1, Lucien Goldmann is one of the best known contemporary exponents of this trend, drawing con-clusions from the theoretical premises of the early Lukács on the plane of literary analysis as well as of philosophy and politics. The brevity of his most recently translated book, The Human Sciences and Philosophy, constrains Goldmann to stating rather than arguing his points, and the book can only be seen as an indication of the total theoretical perspective expounded in his more substantial works.footnote2 It is a summary exposition of the way Marxism differs from classical sociology. The validity of dialectical materialism is due, he claims, to its more comprehensive framework. It takes account of the historical dimension of social life: ‘Only the dialectical attitude can achieve a synthesis (of history and sociology: M.G.) by understanding past as a necessary and valid stage and a path towards the common action of men of the same class in the present in order to realize an authentic and universal community in the future’footnote3—and of the need to accept the social determinism of our thought, including our theories of society, which are therefore more akin to philosophy than to objective science—‘since all historical or sociological thought is subject to profound social influences, it is not then a question of suppressing these influences but of rendering them explicit and integrating them into scientific research so as to avoid or reduce their distorting effect to a minimum’.footnote4

Dialectical sociology is based on the axiom of the ‘total’ character of human activity and of the bond between ideas and the economic structure, and the task of social research is to integrate our knowledge of partial facts into the totality of which they are a part (thus avoiding the hyper-empiricism of microsociology whose concentration on case studies and statistical analyses imposes a very limited horizon) and to demonstrate the relationship between the different parts of the social structure and the economic base. Goldmann lists the three major structural elements of social life as the importance of economic life, the historical function of social classes and the existence of potential consciousness. The book thus takes the form more of a restatement of Lukacs’ conception of Marxism than an original statement about the relationship between the social sciences and philosophy. To illustrate the suggestion that theories, including those of Marxists, are socially determined, he takes an example that is very unfortunate for his thesis, that of the differences between Lenin’s and Rosa Luxemburg’s political theories: ‘. . . in the dispute between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, the former reflects, for the most part, the Russian experience, while the latter develops her theories in the light of the German experience. Lenin insists on the importance of the revolutionary party in the revolution, while Rosa Luxemburg is suspicious of it and sees as the essential element the spontaneity of the masses. The difference of opinion becomes clear particularly if we recall that in Russia at the time there already existed an organized revolutionary party, while in Germany the only socialist party was reformist, and that Rosa Luxemburg based her hopes on the creation of certain radical proletarian strata to fight against the leadership of this party.’footnote5

This account is not only factually wrong but posits a causal relationship between theory and practice which, if it were the case, would guarantee unsuccessful political practice. Goldmann is here expressing his standard view that theory is an emanation of the pre-existing practice of the masses and a passive expression of revolutionary consciousness. But theory, particularly in its strategic and organizational aspects, is active in relation to its social base. It actively opposes the evolution of the existing state of things and posits revolutionary alternatives, and thus has a necessary autonomous and voluntarist aspect which permits it to articulate the strategy essential for the transition from the present to the desired state of affairs. Types of political practice are premissed on revolutionary theory and evaluated in its terms. Lenin continually emphasized the relative autonomy of theory—and this cannot be reduced to or explained by the preexisting structure of the Party. The relationship between theory and practice is much more complex than Goldmann admits, and to reduce one to the other, as he does consistently, amounts to denying the very capability of men to conceive of a world structured in accordance with their image of how it should be, as well as reducing any political activity to spontaneism. His emphases are an implicit admission of the practical impotence of his own theory. This passage reveals also the weakness of the sociology of knowledge since any attempt to explain political theory must realize that its referents are both past and future, and that it is thus both determined and autonomous.

Extreme as they may appear, Goldmann’s contentions about Leninist and Luxemburgist theory are integrally related to the premises of his philosophy: social determinism, humanism, idealism, anti-scientism, evolutionism. His assumption of the social determinacy of ideas is complemented by a view of theory in general as consciousness and of Marxism in particular as critical philosophy, rather than as science: ‘The knowledge of social and historical life is not science but consciousness, although it must obviously strive towards the attainment of a rigour and precision comparable to those achieved by the natural sciences’.footnote6

Lukàcs avoided the total relativism of social determinism by postulating that only the proletariat, as the living negation of capitalist society and the subject of history, can achieve correct and objective knowledge —the proletariat ‘simultaneously knows and constitutes society’.footnote7Goldmann follows Lukács in espousing this essentialist conception of the proletariat and in denying the possibility of a social science—his view of theory is diametrically opposed to that of Marx, Lenin and Mao. Goldmann subsumes theory with practice under the wider concept, praxis, which expresses the totality of man’s action on society, and he fails to distinguish them as two separate levels of practice.

Goldmann’s theory of society, like his epistemology, rests on certain concepts—praxis, negation, totality, alienation—which form an internally coherent theoretical framework which entirely determine the conclusions of his specific analyses. His interpretation of contemporary capitalism is based on the conviction that the concept of ‘reification’ as elaborated by Lukàcs is the most important tool of Marxist theory: Marx’s analysis of the economic structure of capitalism is rejected as obsolete in the era of consumption capitalism which guarantees high standards of living for the majority of the population. Thus he claims that the struggle between socialists and capitalists is for control over the consciousness of the proletariat (false or real consciousness) rather than anything to do with the material conditions of life.footnote8 This conviction leads Goldmann to a particular interpretation of Marx and a peculiar conception of what socialism entails. He highlights the early idealistic work of Marx at the expense of his later analysis of capitalism as a mode of production, i.e. a structure amenable to objective analysis from the outside.