Goldmann’s Wager

Review - Mitchell Cohen’s The Wager of Lucien Goldmann. By Rowan Fortune.


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This was a Marxist who did not portray his aspirations for humanity’s future as an inexorable unfolding of history’s laws, but as a wager akin to Pascal’s in God. “Risk,” he wrote in The Hidden God, “possibility of failure, hope of success, and the synthesis of the three in a faith which is a wager are the essential constituent elements of the human condition.”

Goldmann protested that his was a worldview of dialectical hope, that it was as a dialectician that he analyzed tragedy. Yet by comparing his own wager to Pascal’s and by accepting the possibility of failure, Goldmann acknowledged that, potentially, he was a tragic dialectician. Pascal the tragedian opened a path to the dialectic and therefore hope, according to Goldmann’s theory, Goldmann the dialectician, by accepting the possibility of a historical dialectic unfulfilled, opened the possibility of a tragic Marxism. This brings him in fact to an existential dialectic, that is, to one that never attains ultimate synthesis.

Mitchell Cohen’s intellectual study The Wager of Lucien Goldmann examines the titular’s heterodox marxist conception of a tragic hope, one that remains intimately timely. Goldmann’s unique thought is shown to have emerged out of readings of various philosophers and authors: notably, Kant, Hegel and, most interestingly, Pascal; his was to be ‘a dialectical French countertradition—or the foundation of one—to Cartesianism (and by extension to positivism).’ This project also occurred through more direct engagements with the contemporaneous work of György Lukács and the pioneering psychologist Jean Piaget.

Goldmann’s views were strange among marxists. At various points, for example in his rejection of Stalinism and French Structuralism, in his continued insistence on the centrality of Hegel to marxist theory and his emphasis on the humanist legacy that was the crux of Marx’s vision, he would remain closer to the philosophical Marx than most others of his day. He was also frequently inclined to depart even from Marx, for example by seeing in Feuerbach a truth Marx did not accept. Ultimately, while Goldmann’s views would advance and change (particularly at odds with marxism on class and, therefore, revolution), one of his most controversial perspectives remained unerringly the key of his whole project.

Goldmann[…] embraces the notion, rejected with chagrin by most Marxists, that Marxism did, indeed, resemble a religion. Echoing Feuerbach, he presented Marxism as a godless religion of man. A messianism with a transcendent supernatural being as its focus, he once commented, is more primitive than a messianism without it, just as magic proceeded theism, which in turn preceded atheism. It was Christian culture and its concept of transcendence, he argued elsewhere, that provided the intellectual universe permitting the creation of socialist thought. In The Hidden God he goes very far in comparing his own faith to Augustinianism.

While forming his early ideas, and picking up from phenomenology in general, Goldmann takes up Heidegger’s relationship to Lukács. He goes along with Heidegger’s notion that the ‘anonymous one/they is inauthentic; it is the historically constituted “we” that creates the authentic community.’ But if this is a key insight in his early thought, Goldmann only concurs with this notion by ditching Heidegger’s solution to inauthenticity. To be precise, Goldmann rejects, as a Marxist, Heidegger’s retreat into an individualistic and lonely relationship to death and mortality. Instead, he adopts Lukács’s understanding of the communist basis for a new form of community:

the commodity is an object that embodies the entirety of capitalist relations of production, and since the worker is commodified in that he sells his labour power for a wage[…] the class consciousness of the proletariat is equivalent to the self-consciousness of the commodity. Thus its commodity status is overcome; subject and object are identical; and this is the basis of the future, socialist, nonreified community.

For Goldmann, ‘Marxist humanism represented the culmination of what was best in the European heritage. His fear was that capitalism would savage that heritage and cut it short.’ Two thinkers who represented that heritage came to the core of his undertaking. The first was Lukács, and particularly his early work, his enmeshed Hegelian notions of the subject-object of history, totalities, reification and the universality of the proletariat. The second was Swiss psychologist Piaget, and especially Piaget’s reading of Kant. That is, Goldmann aimed at a ‘synthesis of Lukács and Piaget’. Kant, for Goldmann and Piaget, and at odds with most adherents of Kant’s ideas, was positioned foremost as a humanist philosopher of the authentic human community. Goldmann’s interest in Kant, here, is as a philosophical articulator of the horizons of liberalism. In this reading, Kant

articulates the positive values generated, though they are unrealizable, by liberal capitalism—equality, respect for the individual, and tolerance. It is because these are unfulfillable given the limits of the bourgeois world, and because Kant strives to go beyond these limits, that his worldview ultimately becomes tragic.

Kant’s separation of theory and practice by means of opposing two realms is explicable by the social reality of Kant’s Germany; unity of theory and practice could not then be achieved by the weak German bourgeoisie. Consequently Kant reified the phenomenal realm and opposed it to the noumenal one.

This facet of Kant Goldmann accused neo-Kantians (including socialist ones who differed from him in seeing Kant as a completion, rather than a step towards, marxism) of ideologically jettisoning. In doing so they avoid the tragic implications of the transcendental dialectic in the Critique of Pure Reason and, more particularly, the concept of Ding-an-Sich. However, this viewpoint leads Goldmann to agree with neo-Kantians that there is indeed a radical kernel in Kant’s universalising ethics (treating everyone as an end, never only as a means), where Lukács is dismissive. Cohen quotes Goldmann:

[T]his supreme value is humanity in the person of each individual man. Not the individual alone as with the rationalists nor totality alone in its different forms (God, state, nation, class) as in intuitionist and romantic mystiques, but the human totality, the community embracing all of humanity, and its expression, the human person.

A premise of this tragic reading of Kant, and therefore of Goldmann’s dialectics, is a rejection of determinism, which precludes the tragic. It positions Goldmann to return to Pascal (who he later takes to be the instigator of the modern dialectic, rather than Kant) and Racine, ‘to elucidate “the structure of facts of consciousness and their philosophical and literary expression.”’ This coincided with rejecting the positivist fetishisation of facts, as we ‘always place facts into a constellation that gives them meaning, makes them intelligible, and thus we interpret them the moment we try to comprehend them.’ This is the bedrock of Goldmann’s readings of the ‘facts’ of Kant, Pascal and Racine.

[Goldmann] proposes that judgments of value and aesthetics be conceived not as a matter of disinterest, but in broad terms of the community’s interest. The individual, the self, is part of the community, of the “We,” through his or her participatory action in constituting it, in the same sense that he or she may create something of aesthetic value that is intersubjectively valid when it is experienced as beautiful. The theoretical, the practical, and the beautiful are thereby rendered as a totality.

Seeking to understand the human being, Goldmann turned to the epistemological implications of Piaget’s theories of childhood development (taking his gestalt theory beyond a model of a static structured experience), concluding ‘that mental structures always evolved and are always in genesis, in processes of what he called structuring and destructuring.’ In turn, this implies a viewpoint conceiving of knowledge dialectically, as ‘a process, not a fact, and therefore [one that] cannot be conceived as a composite of static, “known” invariants.’ The upshot being that ‘there is no human praxis independent of the external world. Consciousness is a fundamental part of reality, but only a part of it.’ And consciousness, dependent on praxis, cannot be unmoored from society.

For Goldmann ‘no human actions, be they defined historically, politically, culturally, or otherwise, are solely those of individuals, of Robinson Crusoes. Everyday life demonstrates that it is the “We”—not the “I” or the “you and I”—that acts.’ This “We” Goldmann dubs the “transindividual subject”, i.e. ‘an ensemble of individuals with common [but unconscious and implicit] mental structures’, with each individual engaging in various transindividual subjects. The socially created, historical mental structures of the transindividual subject give rise to Goldmann’s “duality of thought”, deductive and empirical, which

[…]rests on the concept of evolving mental structures. Here, again, we may see his theory as the culmination of a process that begins with Kant’s transcendental subjectivity and journeys via Hegel’s Geist, Marx, Adler, Lukács, and Piaget to the transindividual subject. Kant, whose philosophy Goldmann called “resolutely non-genetic,” posited a priori categories that enable us to order our experiences. Hegel, Marx, and Lukács posited a historical, and therefore genetic subject, subject-object relation with the world around us. Adler fashioned his notion of a priori sociability on the basis of the possibility of communication. When synthesized with Piaget’s genetic epistemology, all these elements become a new totality in Goldmann’s hands—the theory of the transindividual subject. Our thought is deductive and empirical because of the interrelation between possible consciousness and the mental structures in genesis that tend towards it and give us the infrastructure for grasping reality and possibilities in the world.

There are necessary (empirical) deviations from the ideal striving towards self-consciously existing as a transindividual subject in which the subject-object becomes identical (the class in and for itself). This grasping made possible by human thought can and does go awry, and within the context of class consciousness Goldmann supplies opposing examples into which he categorises the contemporaneous workers movement:

The first is exemplified by Blanquism, anarchism, and Trotskyism. These are working class versions of idealist subjectivism that underestimate objective conditions and overestimate man. The second is exemplified by Stalinism, reformism, and economism. These are forms of objectivist materialism that underestimate man and overestimate objective conditions.

It is an interesting way to understand opposing errors within the marxist tradition, but one that is odd in its selections. Much of anarchism and all Blanquism are not really working class at all; that is, they do not see the working class as the historical agent in Marx’s sense. Trotskyism, on the other hand, is hardly so ultra as this binary suggests. The real binary being posited here seems to be between ultraism in general and economism in general. But these are not equal errors; when it goes awry ultraism simply removes itself from political relevance by ignoring material conditions, whereas the likes of Stalinism actively contribute to undermining class struggle.

What defines a class within this schema is a worldview, on which Cohen quotes Goldmann directly as being ‘that ensemble of aspirations, sentiments and ideas, which unites members of a group (most often a social class) and which opposes them to others.’ A class is a privileged type of transindividual subject because its worldview can realise new relations between human beings in the world. Therefore, a class is, alongside the marxist notion, only those social groups whose economic relations allow them to do this—i.e. the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. And even bourgeoisie represent a distinct advancement, which can be shown in Goldmann’s treatment of empiricism and (Cartesianism) rationalism.

Goldmann’s goal is a dialectical transcendence. The medieval world, with its all-embracing corporate system and all-encompassing worldview, is negated by bourgeois society [i.e. empiricism’s sense perception and Descartes’ distinct ideas], to be negated—or so Goldmann wagered—by the socialist community and the self-conscious social individual. From an undifferentiated whole, we move to a world of parts, and finally arrive back at a whole, which is now a unity of diversity.

Pascal’s tragic vision occurs within the transition point between the medieval world and bourgeois society, during the undermining of the absolute rule of the monarchy which had strategically placed itself to quell and obscure class conflict. That is, as a way to achieve a balance of powers between the medieval aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie. When this arrangement fell into question, the stage was set for the Jansenism of Pascal and Racine to emerge.

Within Jansenism as a current, Goldmann proposed there existed two factions: a moderate (Thomist centrism that ceded ground to Cartesianism and was exemplified by Pascal’s Provincial Letters) and an extremist one (representing a retreat that concedes nothing of God’s to Cartesianism and finds relief instead in a tragic solitude, exemplified by Pascal’s Pensées). The extremist position is a tragic paradox, ‘a posture of refusal of the world from within it, the position of Pascal’s famous wager’. Reformulated in the context of the transition from the bourgeois world to the socialist one, the possibility Pascal’s position, his wager, reemerges again:

German social democratic reformism and Stalinism represented systems of compromise with reality. In contrast, Lukács (in History and Class Consciousness) and Rosa Luxemburg embodied radical refusals of capitalist society. Their positions, however, were formulated before Stalin and Hitler, and were based on absolute surety of the role of the working class in history. Lukács, who was defeated by Béla Kun in factional fights within the exiled Hungarian Communist Party in the 1920s, did and withdrew from active political life (at least until 1956). Goldmann also witnessed—and experienced—Stalinism and Hitlerism, and the failure of the proletariat to play its ascribed role; he, therefore, can only wager, which is to say yes while admitting—being haunted by—the possibility of no. Goldmann repeatedly contended that he was a dialectician studying tragic thought and not a proponent of tragic thinking, yet here, again, we see that it is a dialectic of tragedy and hope that structures his thought. In his own thinking that parallels the “position of tragic paradox” that he presents as Pascal’s; Pascal is, for Goldmann, the first modern man, and modern man cannot have the absolute faith of medieval man.

Existentialism was adopted by Goldmann as a parallel to, a complementary insight alongside, the tragic worldview. To put this differently, for him ‘phenomenology and existentialism also represented a break with traditional bourgeois philosophy, which was based on subject-object dualism, with its accompanying bifurcations of determinism/freedom, power/humanisms, knowledge/morality, synchrony/diachrony.’ The ideas of Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and even of the early Lukács, are seen within this existentialist frame. Through his engagements with Heidegger, but more so with Sartre, however, Goldmann also differentiates himself as a marxist dialectician of the tragic from a strict existentialism.

For Goldmann, especially in The Hidden God, the source of tragedy is not human freedom but the refusal of the world from within it. Tragic man is not defined by his necessary exercise of choice, but by his quest for a totality, a wholeness, that is unattainable, making the world all and nothing at once[…] Finally, in Goldmann’s theory it is through transindividual action, or through recognizing its historical possibility, that one moves from the tragic to the dialectical.

Sartre also adopts something much like this position. Ultimately, even framing it in the same terms of a Pascalian wager. Here, Cohen quotes Sartre from an interview directly acknowledging the parallel with Pascal:

I am wagering on man, not on God. But it is true that either man crumbles… or else this revolution succeeds and creates man by bringing about his freedom. Nothing is less sure. In the same way, socialism is not a certainty, it is a value: it is freedom choosing itself as the goal.

Goldmann’s theories of historical tragedy lead him to differentiate himself from Marx and from Lukács. That is, while ‘Marx described the proletariat as in but not of capitalist society, Goldmann hesitatingly determined that it had, at least to a very significant extent, actually become of that society.’ This helps explain developments in the wake of the failure to realise a socialist alternative to capitalism: especially, the successes of western imperialism and unionism to raise living standards in the west, and the rise of centralised planning.

At the same time, Lukács’s failure to foresee the robustness of the postwar bourgeoisie stems from a similar deterministic framework; that is, the bourgeoisie had overcome its narrow horizons in terms Lukács deemed impossible. What could not be transcended in bourgeois terms—as Pascal exemplified—was the tragic inability to realise a totality or wholeness in the world. Goldmann therefore displaces the working-class from the revolutionary task Marx assigns to it.

Although Goldmann made prominent use of the term ‘structure’ in characterising the ideas he developed from Lukács and Piaget, he sharply rejected the structuralism that developed out of the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure and characterised structuralism as coming about due to the unanticipated success the capitalist class in avoiding their demise. The poststructuralist work of Lévi-Strauss and Foucault, and particularly the marxist structuralism of Althusser were reflective not of an understanding of the process towards totality, but its obstruction.

That is, whereas ‘existentialism coherently expressed the traumatized individual of capitalism in crisis, structuralism was a coherent expression of stabilized “organised capitalism,” with its great narcotic—consumerist culture.’ Cohen could award some additional credit to Goldmann, here. Goldmann’s critique, after all, will be echoed by later marxist critiques of postmodernism and poststructuralism, such as that of Fredric Jameson who sees these intellectual trends as a quiet capitulation to the forms of domination typical of globalisation, but also as a symptom of that trend, obscured by postmodernism’s rejection of historicism.

Goldmann’s humanist alternative to the trajectory Structuralism establishes is subtle, because again like Jameson, Goldmann shares with the Structuralists a rejection of bourgeois humanism and its emphasis on the lone, Crusoeian individual subject in favour of his transindividual subject. ‘Nongenetic structuralism, Goldmann complained, rejected the subject on behalf of linguistic, mental, or social structures; men become roles, functions of structures. Genetic structuralism, while rejecting the individual subject, both historically and culturally, did so on behalf of a transindividual one.’ That is, paraphrasing Marx, ‘Structures did not make history, Goldmann insisted; men and women do, although always in signifying and structured ways.’

As with his diagnosis of the problem of objectivist materialism that Cohen elucidates earlier, Goldmann is accusing the structuralists of underestimating man and overestimating objective conditions. That the likes of Althusser would put it to use to defend the legacy of Stalinism substantiates Goldmann’s essential point, here. Moreover, Althusserianism (and all nongenetic structuralism) is positivist because it poses a non-ideological science that can encompass its structures. Goldmann’s differentiation from Althusser is as nuanced as his general problems with nongenetic structuralism. He rejects both the idea of an unfolding human essence as being a form of idealism, but also Althusser’s decentering of man from history

Althusser eliminated the subject of history but still believed that the science of Marxism demonstrated the necessity of proletarian revolution, while Goldmann abandoned belief in the revolutionary role of the proletariat and its status as universal subject, yet refused to yield the concept of man as transindividual that acts in history and constitutes the basis for the study of social structures and history. Structures, for Goldmann, are composed of men who act, and to conceive of the relations of production, for example, as anything but structured relations among human beings, is nothing less than a reification. Who creates and sustains these structures? Asks Goldmann. Did they appear ex nihilo? Theoretical antihumanism turns structures themselves into reified subjects.

Genetic structuralism (that is, dialectics), which is how Goldmann came to characterize his perspective (the non-marxist adherents of which he identifies as Hegel, Freud, and Piaget) is defined by three features

1. They examine human behavior in terms of significative structure.

2. They seek meaning not in what is immediately manifest, but by integrating an object of study into a “larger relative totality” (for example, class for Marx, and the unconscious psyche for Freud); and

3. They maintain that structures are dynamic and not static, and must be analyzed in terms of their genesis.

When it came to the role of philosophy in politics (or theory in praxis) Goldmann elucidated his thoughts most clearly in the 60s (when he aligned with the party of the French New Left, the Parti Socialiste Unifie), which was articulated in a book titled Philosophie et politque. Here he rejects the attitude of the ancients of philosophy as advisory, or the bourgeois moderns of philosophy as observatory, and instead sees philosophy as making direct changes in the world. This would be his “philosophy of community, of the we, which surmounts oppositions between contemplation and action, the individual and the community.’ The surmounting was put in the terms of Hegel’s Aufhebung, a dialectical transcending.

This engagement of philosophy is limited by the configuration of the period in which Goldmann lives. Here his prioritisation, which Cohen describes as ‘rather schematic’ rests on the limits erected by capitalism. That is, ‘first liberal capitalism suppresses precapitalist transindividual values in the name of the individual, and next the individual is jeopardized by capitalism’s ensuing evolution’. The individual, without its proper basis in the transindividual, becomes concerned with its own limits, especially (and in Heidegger’s philosophy most explicitly) its mortality. This is the period of existentialism and the early Lukács. But organised capitalism, the technocratic period after WWII, overcomes this crisis, reaching a totalizing perspective. Cohen quotes Goldmann:

[B]ourgeois society, far from disappearing as Lukács believed, surmounted the crises and transformed itself into a technocratic society of organized capitalism which has assured a considerable development of productive forces. This is, in part, due to the integration… of the whole of the economy [into the thought of] the theoreticians of the bourgeoisie and their official thinkers.

In essence, without renouncing the hope of a post-class Aufhebung, a wagering on the transcending of capitalist society, Goldmann adopted a view comparable to that of James Burnham’s diagnosis in The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World. (Although this is not a comparison that Cohen himself makes.) That is, without strictly saying that the managerial layer constituted a new class, as Burnham did, Goldmann believed that capitalism had found a way to legitimise its own power as an arbiter on behalf of the whole of society, rather than as representing one class interest. And this had stablised capitalist rule.

But unlike Burnham, Goldmann did not sink into a pessimism about an inevitable (and therefore ahistorical) Machiavellian rule that could only be mildly mitigated. Rather, Goldmann advocated what was being called revolutionary reformism, which he (joining Serge Mellet and André Gorsz’s theory of neocapitalism) believed would be advanced by society’s middle stratas or new working class, bucking the pessimism of the Frankfurt School. (The word ‘strata’ here is curious, since under this system of thought the ‘middle strata’ would be acting as at least somewhat like a marxian revolutionary and universal class; this is also something Cohen doesn’t elucidate.) For Mellet, Gorsz, and Goldmann:

Structural reforms would be sought in the workplace, but the purpose of such reforms would not be amelioration of capitalism’s ills and consequent enhancement of the integrative capacities of an apparently ever-expanding system. Instead, qualitative demands [that] would undo the system, for human needs, not the logic of the system, would be the focus of reform. In particular, reform would aim at continued democratization of the labor process and increased autonomy within and eventual control over the workplace by workers.

This became the basis for what Goldmann would call autogestion. That is, a proposed potential future course for society influenced more by Proudhon and Spanish anarchism (and that he saw as, albeit with slim chances of success, preluded in Tito’s Yugoslavia) than it was shaped by Marx’s writings. This would be, in his own words, a ‘synthesis… of the socialist historical consciousness and … individual liberty and tolerance.’ However, it was still with revolutionary reformism in the west that he staked the likeliest course away from capitalism. Importantly, autogestion comprised a form of market socialism, and in this crucial respect also departed from Marx. (Hence Goldmann’s qualified interest in Yugoslavia.) Cohen is (I would say justly) critical of this aspect of Goldmann’s political analysis.

In the final analysis, is not Goldmann’s advocacy of market socialism the recognition that socialist community, conceived as autogestion, is something less than “totality”? that subjective and objective authenticity, like subject and object, cannot be one and the same? If reification is the necessary result of a market economy, if central planning threatens the humanist values born of the market, and if autogestion implies a return to some of the characteristics of the liberal phase of capitalism, then some form of reification must survive in Goldmann’s community.

Goldmann’s assessment of Pascal and tragedy is remarkable and, I would argue, still relevant. Additionally, he was an insightful critic of contemporaneous currents of marxism and related intellectual trends. However, he understandably exaggerates capitalism’s postwar recovery. He was not an economist, and like most at the time (bar, to a certain degree, Henryk Grossman) could not foresee that the postwar settlement would fail to resolve capitalism’s crisis-ridden nature beyond the late 70s, and this failure would not be brought about by any middle strata or new working class. Interestingly, this creates the potential to reintegrate Goldmann’s wager back into a marxist theory of class and capitalist crisis.

The parallels Goldmann makes between the post-fascist/postwar situation and that facing Pascal are apt. Such invocations to be for and against the world, an attitude of contingent wagering on the future, are timely again with the reemergence of capitalist crisis after 2008 and the failure of neoliberalism as an intermediary period of capitalist stabilisation in the wake of the postwar settlement. Again, we occupy an historical interregnum, but one also marked by the profound existential threat of the metabolic rift of global warming.

None of this constitutes a particularly blameworthy oversight from Goldmann, although it is paramount to any new reading of his present-day value. And while he gave up the axis of Marx’s key philosophy (as have so many others in the marxist tradition), a.k.a. the unique viewpoint of the working-class as positioned to be the universal agent of history, Goldmann avoids the despair typical of other marxists from the same period.

For example, he rejected the bleakness of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, even if he agreed with the more generalisable Frankfurt School notion that the then reconfiguration of capitalism made ‘the prospects that contesting transindividual subjects could emerge’ appear less likely. That is, he continued to wager. It is an attitude that continues to be vital, as the left still faces a crisis of hope and an inability to imagine the future it exists to bring into being.

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Rowan Fortune is an editor and revolutionary socialist. On their weekly blog, they write on utopian literature and imagination, why grimdark is the dystopian fiction of our time and more. They wrote Writing Nowhere: A Beginner's Guide to Utopia; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the multi-authored System Crash: An activist guide to making revolution.

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