Every day, the walls spoke. For the young Lucien Goldmann and his friends in the Romanian Communist Youth, the walls of Bucharest’s working-class districts were the last, fragile line of communication left standing as their country stumbled towards fascism. Their posters would go up overnight, once or twice a week, calling the masses to revolt and revolution. Within a few days, even a few hours, the police would tear them down again. Yet the next morning, a new edition would be plastered to the wall. If there was ever an archive of the strange, ad-hoc paper, it did not survive the next two decades of war, genocide and starvation. But the authors did.
For Goldmann — then Geri, the tearaway son of a Rabbi — those nightly missions were an introduction to the power and fragility of ideas. In the first years of the 1930s, the outlook was bleak for Romania’s small, embattled communist party. Threatened by rising fascism at home and war abroad, the Comintern’s consolidation around Stalin had turned the party against itself. Goldmann, combining “courage with a complete lack of calculation” as an old friend later put it, took sharp issue with the party’s new direction. When Trotsky was condemned, he made sure to be seen in public leafing through the old Bolshevik’s autobiography. His exit from the party — and from his homeland — soon followed.
He fled to Vienna in 1934, picking up a new name, Lucian, en route. There, he studied under the dissident Marxist Max Adler, and a personality defined by principle and paradox began to take shape. Deeply committed to Marxism, Goldmann refused the party-lines that had started to carve up and confine socialist thought across Europe. To a generation of socialists, it was common sense that revolutionaries subordinate intellectual freedom to party-politics. To Goldmann, it was anathema.
For too many socialists, he wrote in a 1940 letter, the “humanist philosophy” of Marx had been superseded: “men, the truth, morality, had become means without value-in-themselves”. For Lucien, as Herbert Marcuse later noted, “the intellect was by its very nature revolutionary.” And it was his intellect that led him out of Austria — already sliding towards Anschluss — heading for European humanism’s last remaining stronghold: Paris.
On his arrival in 1935, the smoke of the February 6 riots still lingered in the skies of the great city; grave and growing doubts over the future of the republic clouded the minds of many. In Paris Lucian became Lucien, and the rabbi’s son enrolled at the University of Paris where he witnessed the final flowering of the pre-war intelligentsia, attending talks by Benjamin, Bukharin, Kojeve and others. Later in life, Goldmann would admit he was penniless much of the time: dependent on odd jobs and borrowed money to fund his studies. But in the Left Bank’s cafes and bars, where Neo-Kantians, Marxists, left-wing Catholics, followers of Durkheim and Bergson met almost every night to drink — and argue — together, in the city he called the “centre of the world”, Goldmann found a home.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
Away from the city of lights, darkness was gathering. In 1938, Lucien received news from the east: Romania’s fragile democracy had collapsed, his friends in the communist party in prison or exile. A year later, the Spanish Republic, bled white by civil war, collapsed. Fascism ruled in Bucharest; marched through Madrid. The discussion in the cafes around Goldmann turned towards one topic and one word: war.
On the 5th of June 1940 Nazi Germany’s armoured divisions broke the Weygand line, storming into France. Nine days later, the Wehrmacht reached the outskirts of Paris. By then, Goldmann was already heading south. As a Jew, a communist, and an undocumented migrant, he was triply unwanted by the fascist occupiers and their Vichy collaborators. Lucien kept a low profile, eking out a living near Toulouse, teaching and studying. Then, March 1942, the first convoy left France for Auschwitz. With deportations beginning in earnest — and foreign Jews a special target — Goldmann knew it was time to leave.
In October 1942, Goldmann made his way over the Swiss border – and into a concentration camp. Gierenbad, near Zurich, was a former factory given over to housing several hundred illegal refugees. There Goldmann spent four or five months, sleeping on straw and debating the fine points of political philosophy with his fellow internees. While interned, he heard a talk given by Manes Sperber that changed his life. Sperber, a noted novelist and former Comintern agent, brought his copy of Gyorgy Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness to the camp. In several lectures to his fellow inmates, he stressed the early Lukacs’ romantic, heterodox approach to Marxism, his concept of tragedy, and his deep sense of continuity between communism and the humanism of the Enlightenment. Goldmann was transfixed.
By the time he was released, Goldmann had become devoted to Lukacs’ early work; above all to his concept of “tragic vision”. Philosophy places an insuperable demand upon us, Lukacs taught. We are compelled to seek absolute values — truth, goodness, beauty — that the world cannot give. This melancholy obligation has fallen to the communist movement. Communists fought for human community precisely because authentic human community is, in the world we live in, impossible. Between the absolute and the mundane, infinite good and everyday evil, we make our destinies, Lukacs wrote. Within contradiction we write our lives.
Working on his doctoral dissertation at the University of Zurich, Goldmann was inspired by Lukacs — in spite of the older man’s vehement opposition: obedient to the party, he had disowned his own early work many years before. Goldmann’s topic was Kant; his goal, self-set, was to reconcile the philosophes with the dialectical thinkers of modernity: Kant with Marx. Completed in late 1944, published a year later, it was an ambitious — and hopeful — work. It was a book that matched the times. Fascism had been defeated; socialist and communist parties swept elections across Europe; popular uprisings demanded new forms of common life from Rome to Berlin. For a moment, the old sectarianisms seemed dead. A brighter, better world appeared to be just around the corner.
And then the wind changed, all at once, and Goldmann looked again at a world destroyed. An all-consuming arms race between the US and USSR split the left. Barbed wire strangled Europe. The walls went up, higher than ever before. Little news made it from Bucharest to Paris. That which did was not good. Four hundred thousand Romanian Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust. Four hundred thousand Romanian Jews had been murdered in the holocaust. The world that Goldmann was born into had ceased to exist. Worse still, the nation of the enlightenment, of Goldmann’s heroes - Marx, Goethe, Kant - was responsible. His faith in the humanist legacy was shattered.
In the preface to the 1948 French edition of his book on Kant, Goldmann almost entirely disowned his conclusions of just a few years prior. “Conditions” he wrote, “are clearly unfavourable for a philosophy of optimism and hope … In place of a better world and a better community, new clouds are gathering. The possibility of another war has become part of the normal order of things.” In the era of nuclear weapons, Goldmann said, “we can no longer close our eyes to the fact that humanism today is undergoing a crisis which threatens its very existence.”
Confronted with the same crisis, others in Goldmann’s position adapted, adhering to one or another power bloc. Still others retreated from politics altogether. Goldmann turned instead to a figure totally alien to his own tradition. A rationalist, an atheist and a materialist, Goldmann was a man propelled and sustained by utopian hope in the future of mankind. Blaise Pascal was none of these things. Born to a middle-class French family in 1632, Pascal was a prodigal, precocious child. At the age of 18, he invented the mechanical calculator. By the time he was thirty he was famed across France for his scientific genius. He was the toast of salonnieres, a royal favourite, the flower of the academies.
And then, on 23 November 1654, he realised he had been doing everything wrong. That night God spoke to him, and after that experience — direct, intense, near-incommunicable — Pascal was never the same. He withdrew from the world of science and the courts of power, secluding himself at the Port-Royal monastery outside Paris. He threw himself into the religious disputes convulsing France, lacerating the influential Jesuit order in his Provincial Letters, compiling his thoughts on Christianity in his Pensées. Then, in 1662, not ten years after his mysterious conversion, Pascal died. He was thirty-nine years old.
Reading and rereading Pascal’s work, Goldmann found the ideas he spent his life thinking through — humanism, individualism, freedom, morality — remade. Pascal held the conflicts of modernity against the light of divine providence. By that light, he saw a world transformed. Pascal and his co-thinkers in the Jansenist movement used the tools of the enlightenment to reject the world the enlightenment made.
In the moral universe of Jansenism, contradiction was the natural state of man. Christianity’s demands were complete, absolute, and irreconcilable with the corrupt and corrupting world we are born into. There was only one exit to this bitter, painful paradox, one solution to the problem of individual man: the direct and personal intervention of God in human history. The force Christians call grace. This total distrust of the world was matched and overmastered by an equally total reliance on God. But the world of mediaeval Christianity, bound fast by the divine chain of being, was dead. The religion of the enlightenment — an administrator-God, clarifying and dispensing natural laws — seemed no religion at all. For such a religion, popular at court and influential within the Church, “it was no longer a question of the place to be assigned to reason in a life built on faith,” Goldmann wrote, “but rather of what place there could be for faith within a world vision grounded on reason.”
It was in conflict with that religion — satisfied with the secession of economic and social life to the amoral rule of the market — that Jansenism moved from private dispute to public crisis. Against the mainstream of church opinion, a small band of intellectuals maintained the commands of the Gospel, radical and all-consuming. Against the influential Jesuit order, confessors to the rich and powerful, they insisted on sin and repentance as spiritual realities, not legal norms. Against the world, in speech and word, they raised the cross.[book-strip index="2" style="buy"]
Seeking the friendship of heaven, the Jansenists received the hatred of the world. “Non seulement des hérétiques” King Louis XIV was reported to mutter, “mais des rebelles”. Not just heretics: rebels too. The full force of Church and state descended on the small congregation at Port-Royal. Pascal and his confreres were asked to sign the “formulatory”, a condemnation of their movement’s views as contrary to the Christian faith. The preachers of paradox were caught in a final, fatal contradiction.
Agreeing to the formulary, they would condemn themselves as heretics; but the very fact of their refusal would prove their guilt. Convinced of the ultimate truth of Catholicism, but faithful to their ideals, Jansenists agonised over whether to sign. Torn, like Goldmann himself, between commitment and intellect, Pascal prevaricated until the final moment. Some sources claim he repented on his deathbed; others that he remained firm in his beliefs; still others that the man Chateaubriand called a “frightening genius” was too sick to speak.
Pascal would live on in his writing. His movement did not. Jansenism, battered by repeated waves of institutional censure, withered away. Port-Royal was closed by papal command in 1708; the resident nuns who resisted were evicted a year later. The schools and hermitages were destroyed, the cemeteries razed. In one apocryphal story, royal soldiers took a special revenge upon les jansenistes: they fed the bones of nuns to roadside dogs
It’s a dramatic, colourful story. It was also, to Goldmann’s mind, the perfect test case for his unique mix of sociology, history and literary criticism. Jansenism was the product of a declining class, the Noblesse de Robe, educated bureaucrats mistrusted by the aristocracy and sidelined by absolutism. Through the works of Pascal and the playwright Racine, readers could see the struggles of their own class. They could glimpse, too, the great intellectual and social transitions remaking their world.
Bourgeois thought upheld enlightenment freedoms in form and denied their real content. Jansenism glorified the content — freedom, tolerance, reason — whilst abhorring their form.
Caught between the past and the future, the Jansenists discovered a radically new way of looking at the world. “Tragic thought is not simply an episode in the past,” the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre wrote in a review of Goldmann’s book on Pascal, The Hidden God. “Pascal, in Goldmann’s view, is not only illuminated by Marx and Lukács,” Macintyre added, “he is their ancestor.”
With senses darkened by sin — and in a fallen world that God has hidden himself from — human beings have no firm cause for belief. “We see by faith, and not by sight”, the apostle Paul wrote: God could be experienced but not measured, known but not understood. Reason, Science, Philosophy: none could deliver the certainty they promised. “I look on all sides,” Pascal wrote, “and everywhere I see nothing but obscurity. Nature offers me nothing that is not a matter of doubt.”
Centuries before post-war Marxists began to rethink the enlightenment, Pascal had arrived at the limits of scientific thought. But faith wasn’t, he discovered, an alternative to reason. The truth of Christianity was no longer as it had been, self-evident. The search for conclusive evidence of the existence of God was a contradiction in terms. Somewhere, at some point, a leap of faith was necessary. A wager had to be made.
And so it was in Goldmann’s time too. France, his home, was mired in a bloody colonial war and sliding towards dictatorship. Progressive forces were split between a socialism that denied the legacy of the enlightenment and a liberalism that hollowed that legacy out from within. The march of progress terminated at Auschwitz station; universal history led, in Adorno’s acrid words, “from the slingshot to the atom bomb”.
The “trans-individual values” that made humanism possible could no longer be relied upon. Science, the party, the internal logic of history: none could explain why socialism was inevitable, or even possible. In the face of annihilation, how could a utopian faith in humanity be justified? These were questions without answers. Centuries on from Pascal, Goldmann wrote, we are still left wondering “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.”
Ultimately Goldmann concluded, communism as much as Christianity depends on “an act of faith”, on “reasons of the heart in Pascal, or the validity of reason in Kant and Marx, a wager that goes beyond and integrates theory and practice.” The future gives meaning and purpose to the present, but only if the gamble is made, the course of action committed to: the struggle to bring the future into being embarked upon in the here and now. The tragic vision calls us not to pessimism but action. With commitment, of course, success is never guaranteed. Without it, failure always is.
What form that action had to take remained unanswered. As the fifties and sixties wore on, Goldmann continued to write and teach, taking on a constellation of doctoral students: Julia Kristeva, Michael Lowy, Ernest Mandel. Here was, as the TLS headlined his obituary a “the intellectual as midwife”. He kept his eyes on the world situation, training his sight for the unexpected or out-of-place: cracks in the carapace of the ideological Cold War.
And there were cracks everywhere, he thought, for those who had eyes to see them. Goldmann hailed Titoist Yugoslavia’s experiments with workers’ control. He endorsed, not long after, Andre Gorz’s proposals that technical workers constitute a new revolutionary class. In his 1960 book on the origins of the enlightenment, he proposed Christians and Marxists unite against the technocracies he saw crowding history’s horizon.
Capitalism was creating a “fundamentally secular and deconsecrated industrial society … all men will live in comfort. But it is a society that threatens to deprive human life of all spiritual content, a society in which the growth of freedom is likely to be accompanied by the growth in numbers of those whose inner emptiness robs them of the desire to use it”. Such a society would preclude all tragedy, and all commitment, political or religious. It would mean, Goldmann wrote, “the end of history”.
But it was also clear that the suppression of market economies, and the bourgeois societies they created, led also to the destruction of the humanism they nurtured. The question was, Goldmann said, how to give vacant forms real content: how to embody the values of the enlightenment in authentic human community. It was a question he struggled to answer. In Kristeva’s novel about her student years, The Samurai, Goldmann appears as a faintly comical figure: obsessed with the solitaires of Port-Royal because he had, in part, come to resemble them.
It’s a portrait with some resemblance to the truth. One friend, the sociologist Jean Piaget, recalled that the price for his independence and courage as a thinker was that no-one took him seriously. Neither bourgeois academicians nor Marxists wanted much to do with him, Piaget wrote, the latter least of all. To orthodox Marxists, he wrote, Goldmann was a heretic. In one of Goldmann’s final lectures, he applied the same archaic term to himself. But thinking no doubt about Pascal and the formulary — the long, painful contest between intellect and obedience — he observed that heretics had two qualifications. One: dissent, a critical and consequential disagreement with the institution. Two: commitment to that institution, in spite of everything.
When the great rebellion of 1968 broke out, Kristeva’s Goldmann is admonished by his own mentees. “I don't think there are any loners left now,” Goldmann is told at the barricades, “not even in Port-Royal…God's no longer hidden — He's taken to the streets." The fictional Goldmann is disappointed in his students. As Kristeva writes: “they did not understand each other. The generation gap”. Other stories suggest Goldmann’s response to 1968 was anything but tragic. One, possibly apocryphal, story told by Goldmann’s right-wing detractors has the great academic announcing that his nine-year-old son had completed his own life’s work — by throwing a brick through a police station window. True or not, Goldmann’s own writings show a man reinvigorated by the global wave of rebellion shaking the corridors of power, East and West.
Yet, he didn’t live long enough to see it fail. Goldmann died in October 1970, aged only 57. No disciples were left behind, nor did he found an original school of thought. But his legacy, in friendship and in inspiration, was unusually rich. "To meet in Goldmann,” Raymond Williams wrote in a posthumous tribute, “a man who wrote literary theory and analysis, sociology and cultural history as a single intellectual enterprise — was like coming home and knowing one's own country.”
Williams’ words were echoed by many others: students and colleagues; comrades and friends. One of those, Herbert Marcuse, remembered how he always felt, somehow, that Goldmann was always suffering, but that he never let it show. Reading Goldmann’s papers after his death, Marcuse had his suspicions, and his admiration, confirmed. “Reading these papers,” he wrote, “one knows that Goldmann was suffering, but he did not lose his smile of knowledge and hope — his faith in liberation.”
“No man ever believes with a true and saving faith unless God inclines his heart” runs an aphorism of Pascal’s: “and no man, when God does incline his heart, can refrain from believing.” In one of his final public lectures, Goldmann reflected on the uprising, unforeseen and unprepared, of young people in countries and continents spanning the globe. Left and right, states and parties, bureaucracies and institutions: none of them saw it coming. The reason, he thought, was simple: the powerful looked at the world, but they didn’t see it; they read but they couldn’t understand. They listened to newspapers and radio and the speeches of politicians. The young people, wherever they were, listened to the walls. Posters were going up, Goldmann said, on walls all around the world. They wouldn’t, he thought, be coming down.[book-strip index="3" style="buy"]