Notes on Goldmann and the faith of Marxism

Daniel Avatar

The Hidden God by Lucien Goldmann is what Marxist genealogy ought to be. If you want to track ur-concepts such as the “authentic,” “the good,” “community” and so on, well where do you start? How do you situate the worldview of the ruling class of our own time in a historical trajectory? In what exemplary cases, figures of thought, or historical moments might we identify the formation of the worldview of a class?

Let’s suspend the post-structuralist critique of Lukácsian worldview Marxism for a moment and interrogate Goldmann’s text on its own terms. After all, if the theory of the social bond in Marx is based on a theory of consciousness as he articulates with Engels in The Holy Family and in Theses on Feuerbach this consciousness is found in “the ensemble of social relations.” What exactly is this ensemble and how does it sing?

Goldmann reminds us that the worldview of the proletariat is not about what one proletarian thinks; it is about what the potential consciousness of the proletariat thinks. Potential consciousness is contrasted with real consciousness, or the concepts of space, time, good, evil, history, causality and so on which structure consciousness.

Potential consciousness is founded in the ensemble of social relations, i.e. it is found in the splits within the dominant class and the interstices of its zones of unrepresentable injustice. For Goldmann, what is at stake in Marxist freedom is the conscious self-determination of the “We” of the proletariat, a freedom that is founded in a wager of faith capable of emerging in history as a self-conscious transindividual subject: a fully realized human community unmediated by the mechanisms of capitalism, which engender reification.

Before we submit this idea of a community beyond reification to a certain reflexive cynicism as we are disciplined to do today, let us jump into The Hidden God and work with the text. As I mentioned, this text was treated as a heretical work in mid-twentieth century Marxist circles, but its maddening precision and remarkable arguments must not be ignored today. Adorno, in all of his snobbishness rejected the work as far too sociological and Lukácsian. The Hidden God was first put on my radar when reading Lacan’s Seminar XVI wherein Lacan presents a series of reflections on the wager in Pascal and how this framework relates to the act of the analyst within clinical settings. One gets the impression that Lacan admired The Hidden God a great deal.

It is also worth noting how much Leszek Kołakowski, the author whom I have noted as the most important liberal commentator on Marx, really admired Goldmann. In fact, The Hidden God inspired Kołakowski to write his own history of Pascalianism in God Owes Us Nothing.

Published in 1955, The Hidden God builds a genealogical account of the worldview of the bourgeoisie as a fundamentally tragic worldview which was refined in the 17th century in the thought of Pascal and the plays of the French dramatist Racine. The event of rationalism in scientific discourse during the 16th – 17th century had:

“destroyed the two closely connected ideas of the community and the universe, and had replaced them by the totally different concepts of the isolated individual and of infinite space. In the history of the human mind, this represented a twin conquest of immense importance: on the social plane the values to be recognised were those of justice and individual liberty; on the intellectual plane the system as valid was that of mechanistic physics.”

The rationalist discoveries in science thus open up a paradox in which human actions can be judged as good or evil only by reference to an independent system of ethical criteria which transcends the individual and exists independently of her. These criteria may be theological or they may be social, but in either case there is something—God or the community—which stands outside and above the individual. The characteristic of rationalism, Goldmann notes, “tends to abolish both God and the community, and it is this which explains why the rise of rationalism was accompanied by the disappearance of any external norm which might guide the individual in his life and actions.”

In the infinite space of rational science God falls silent, because in elaborating this concept man has been obliged to give up any genuinely ethical norm. We thus have concurrent with the rise of rationalism a new paradigm of tragedy wherein the central problem which tragic thought and the tragic mind had to face is a problem which only dialectical thought can solve on both the moral and the scientific plane, i.e. that of discovering whether there still was some means and some hope of reintegrating supra-individual values into this rational concept of space, which had now replaced for ever the Aristotelian and Thomist universe. The problem was whether man could still rediscover God; or, to express the same idea in a less ideological but identical form, whether man could rediscover the community and the universe.

Rediscovering God is another name for enacting a realization of the social totality in an ideal community (notice the connection here to Marx’s notion of potential consciousness of the proletariat). Importantly, this quest for totality rests on a faith, an aspiration he believes may be discerned in all men and women, reinvented in different times and places in varied garbs. For Pascal, it was a quest for God; for rationalists, it was a quest for truth and glory; for socialists, it is a quest for the ideal community.

Pascalianism is the foundational philosophy of the bourgeoisie because it submits entirely to the fate of atomized individuality and reduces the wager to resist this situation to a paradox split between nothingness or eternity. Affirming a wager on the paradox of eternity and nothingness leaves aside the transformation of the social order of atomization itself. Pascalianism affirms an absent and hidden God, a God which human consciousness is too exhausted to know or found. Goldmann attempts to show how there is a genealogical continuity from Pascal’s Jansenist conspiracy of this tragic worldview and that it ends up forming the world vision of the social class of the noblesse de robe prior to the French Revolution and that its ideological composition makes up the primary anti-revolutionary ideology of the bourgeoisie. He takes it even further by showing how 20th century existentialism continues this tragic worldview up to the present.

What existentialism and Pascalianism have in common is the fact that they all condemn the world without putting forward any hope of transforming it in and through history. Marxism becomes the only antagonist capable of laying down a revamped theory of the wager, but one that insists on a certain knowability of God, a wager that affirms meaning in history.

The tragic worldview becomes a glove for bourgeoisie, a certain edgy hipsterism: it swaps in a theory of human greatness based on the idea that suffering is imposed upon human beings by virtue of a meaningless world. Suffering is thus a freely chosen and creative suffering. The idea of going beyond human wretchedness via a significant action such as revolution which rejects compromise and relative values in the name of a demand for absolute justice and truth is fundamentally off the table in Pascalianism.

“The greatness of tragic man lies in the fact that he sees and recognises these opposites and inimical elements in the clear light of absolute truth, and yet never accepts that this shall be so. For if he were to accept them, he would destroy the paradox, he would give up his greatness and make do with his poverty and wretchedness (misère). Fortunately, however, man remains to the very end both paradoxical and contradictory, ‘man goes infinitely beyond man’, and he confronts the radical and irredeemable ambiguity of the world with his own equal and opposite demand for clarity.”

But let’s be clear, rationalism, despite this affirmative pessimism of Pascal’s tragic worldview, also opens up another avenue by which social reality as a whole is now thinkable. It is this think ability which links together both values and actions that is at the heart of dialectics. It is the Hegelian and, above all, the Marxist dialectic that plays the same role for the tragic vision of Pascal and Kant that Socratic and Platonic rationalism had played for Greek tragedy, and which modern rationalism and empiricism had played for Shakespearian tragedy: that of going beyond the tragic vision by showing that man is capable of achieving authentic values by his own thoughts and actions.

Hopefully you are starting to see the ingenuity of Goldmann’s genealogical method here. If the use of the word faith and God is making you uncomfortable, Goldmann would reply that his project is not attempting to introduce transcendental values, but a faith in the future which men make for themselves in and through history. Or, more accurately, a faith in the future that we must make for ourselves by what we do, so that this faith becomes a ‘wager’ which we make that our actions will, in fact, be successful. This is a transcendental element present in Marxism, but it is not supernatural and it does not take us outside or beyond history; it merely takes us beyond the individual. This is sufficient to enable us to claim that Marxist thought leaps over six centuries of Thomist and Cartesian rationalism and renews the Augustinian tradition.

In putting Goldmann back onto the table today we might ask where the tragic worldview resides, in what figures of thought does it speak? And by what movements and cadence does the ensemble of the proletariat sing?

4 responses

  1. danwebstere

    It’s such a beautiful text. I think it’s in his shorter work just on Racine, where he has one of the funniest correct lines of theatrical analysis, to the effect that ‘monologues in Racine are very importantly not soliloquies, where the character speaks their thoughts out loud to allow the audience access to their solitude. Rather they are dialogues with God, who simply never responds.’

    1. don socha

      I appreciate this as a fan of Rolland Barthes. But ‘monologues with God’ is a compelling concept for any lover of theoretical fiction.

  2. danwebstere

    This book and Engels’ pamphlet on the peasant war were the texts that most convinced me of the value of engaging with theological texts as not only as historical and social artifacts, but also as expressions of thought worth responding to as contemporary to our moment. I believe liberation theology is mentioned briefly in the Goldmann, but it and Ambedkar’s Buddhism, to cite two religious movements, are real components of the ideological terrain of radical global theology today.

    1. don socha

      I appreciate the allusion to Ambedkar very much. Now you got me wondering what the equivalent to an apparently fruitless dialogue with God might be for a Buddhist. Are you aware of the work of Antoine Volodine?

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