Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You wrote “Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas”. Why, in your opinion, has totality been at the center of the thought of early Marxist philosophers such as Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci and Bloch?
Prof. Martin E. Jay: The category of totality, whose importance for Marxist theory Lukács emphasized in History and Class Consciousness (1923), was introduced to overcome the exaggerated role given to the economy by traditional, Second International Marxism. Although under capitalism, the economy as a distinct sub-sphere of society as a whole did play an exorbitant role, it was never simply a “base” or “substructure” on which a “superstructure” of culture, politics, religion, etc. was entirely dependent. Even more importantly, in the transition away from capitalism, which the theorists you mention hoped was actually happening, the relative autonomy of culture and politics within the totality of social relations would grow. Tellingly, Gramsci called the Russian Revolution a revolution against Das Kapital because he saw it as an assertion of political will against the dead weight of economic determinism, which had led to the relative inertia of Second International politics. The role of culture was understood to be vital not only for its expression of desires for a post-capitalist future—Bloch in particular stressed its utopian yearnings—but also for its consoling and distracting effects in the present. What Gramsci called “hegemony” and the Frankfurt School “the affirmative character of culture” suggested that protests based on economic exploitation could be blunted by ideological compensations that prevented working-class solidarity. The power of what had been dismissed by crude materialists as epiphenomenal and derivative had to be acknowledged and the critical heritage of Idealism—Hegel in particular—recovered.
In Marxism and Totality, I tried to trace the fortunes of the concept of totality from the early Western Marxist theoreticians through later figures, such as Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno, Sartre, Goldman, Merleau-Ponty, Della Volpe, Colletti, Lefebvre and Goldmann up to Habermas. Several key problems undermined its viability. First, the complicated relationship between the synchronic notion of totality, which I called “latitudinal,” and the diachronic, which I called “longitudinal,” defied easy resolution. Was there a genetic totalizer responsible for the integration of the social whole, an “expressive” center which still dominated its current workings? Or was it “decentered” from the beginning, always a complicated, articulation of moving parts that never really cohere into a stable equilibrium? Was the idea of history as a single, meaningful narrative, especially one of progressive emancipation from injustice, the imposition of a theoretical conceit onto the messiness of contingent happenings? Was there a covert Eurocentrism in the notion that “advanced” capitalist countries were the cutting edge of history and the European revolutionary tradition from 1789 to 1917 the template for the rest of the world? Was the normative notion of totality as an integrated community without class or other divisions an expression of nostalgia for a pre-modern, pre-capitalist social order that had never really existed? Who occupied the theoretical vantage point from which the social whole could be known, especially after the privileged position of the working class assigned it by classical Marxism was progressively eroded? Were intellectuals somehow able to grasp the whole by themselves? Had Hegel been wrong to say “the whole is the true,” and instead, was Adorno right to conclude that “the whole is the false” in the sense that the current whole thwarted whatever possibilities for freedom and justice there might be lurking in its interstices?
For all of these reasons and many more than can be listed, the current status of Marxist holism is not very healthy. But ironically, the need to find a way to transcend parochial and particle viewpoints is stronger than ever. First, despite the recent resurgence of nationalism exemplified by Brexit and Trump’s “America First” neo-isolationism, globalization is not going to end any time soon. Not only are the economies of the world increasingly intertwined, but communication networks and flows of people, exacerbated by the migrant crisis, are increasing in importance. Second, the climate crisis means that “planetary” consciousness, the awareness that we are all in it together when the seas rise and the deserts expand and the weather worsens, necessitates acting together to stop impending catastrophe. In other words, the imperative to find a viable concept of totality, for all its difficulties, remains on the agenda.
In your book “Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America”, you evoke the leak of the main German thinkers to the United States. What was the real impact of these exiled intellectuals on the cultural life of the United States?
Perhaps comparable only to the flight of Christians after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, which helped stimulate the Italian Renaissance, the migration of German and other European emigres to America during the fascist era had an enormous effect on de-provincializing our culture. Virtually all fields in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences were enriched by both established and younger scholars, who were forced to flee either for ethnic reasons—they were Jewish according to Nazi racial categories—or political ones. Many artists, musicians, architects and writers also came to America to avoid persecution in Europe. Although a small number returned after the war—I remember seeing the number 17% somewhere—the vast majority settled in their new home and generally made successful careers. The qualification “generally” has to be applied, because it would be wrong to assume that everyone who came was able to surmount linguistic obstacles, especially challenging for older emigres, or American anti-Semitism, which was by no means negligible during this period. And, of course, some had difficulties adjusting to academic or professional conventions in their new home.
But by and large, the story of the migration is one of considerable achievement and influence on the part of talented and learned individuals who found America a welcoming environment. Because of the variety of people who came, it is impossible to make easy generalizations about what that influence was exactly. Politically, the emigres brought with them many different viewpoints, and often evolved in unexpected ways—mostly towards moderation—during their American experience. There were figures on the left—Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Hans Pachter, Franz Neumann, to name a few—and their counterparts on the right—for, example, Ernst Kantorowicz, Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, Eric Voegelin, and Erich Heller. And even some more or less in the center, such as Ernst Cassirer, Hans Kelsen, Siegfried Kracauer and George Mosse. Some moved from the left to the right and others, perhaps most notably Hannah Arendt, defied political categorization entirely, espousing positions all her own that sometimes seemed on one end of the spectrum and at others times on the opposite end. Whatever their political viewpoint, they have been widely praised by historians of the migration for raising the level of political discourse among at least American intellectuals and providing models of erudition and sophistication for generations of students who were lucky enough to study with them.
Similar importance can be attributed to emigres who represented modernist artistic currents, such as Arnold Schoenberg, Hans Hoffman, Erwin Piscator, and Walter Gropius, as well as innovative contributors to popular culture, including Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk, Ernst Lubitsch and Fritz Lang, who helped make American cinema the global juggernaut that it remains to this day. And of course, fields such as psychoanalysis, which combined theory and practice, were immeasurably enriched by emigres, some of whom had worked directly with Freud during their European training.
It would be possible to multiply examples in different fields, provide more fine-grained analyses of individual émigré stories, or dwell on the impact of the occasional groups that found a new home together in American exile, such as the members of the Institute of Social Research, which later became known as the “Frankfurt School.” But what I would like to emphasize in conclusion is that because of the broad consensus among Americans that the intellectual migration from fascist Europe—indeed the migration as a whole—was so beneficial, it has been particularly troubling to see the current hostility to immigrants expressed by the populist right and the current administration. American Jews in particular—with the occasional exception such as Trump’s xenophobic adviser Stephen Miller—have been outspoken in their support for more openness to asylum seekers from Central America, the Middle East and Africa.
You wrote “Refractions of Violence“. How do you explain that modern society is increasingly violent?
There are few more disturbing and, alas, mystifying issues than the continuing role violence plays in human interactions (and, we might add, the domination of the natural world, including our animal cousins). I say continuing rather than increasing, because it is very difficult to know exactly how to define “violence” and to come up with a reliable metric for measuring it. After the 20th-century global atrocities we call the two world wars, the past 75 years may well seem relatively tranquil. The shadow of Hiroshima still lingers, but we have so far avoided repeating its horror. To be sure, increased media coverage of the effects of violence and growing sensitivity to its previously occluded variants—for example, domestic violence towards women and abuse of sexual minorities or the symbolic violence we call “hate speech”—mean that we are aware of it as never before. In fact, a recent book by the British historian Richard Bessel called it a “modern obsession” and described its ubiquity in the media, serving both as spectacle and admonition. Does that obsession numb us to its prevalence, allowing us to bemoan past genocides but do little to prevent current and future ones? Or does it help us to value individual lives, even the most humble, rather than treating them instrumentally in the service of some larger cause? Do we still believe in the consoling rhetoric of “sacrifice” and “martyrdom” or reject it as an ideological excuse for the slaughter of innocents?
Perhaps one thing that can be said for sure is that the monopolization of violence by the state, which Max Weber famously said was one of the earmarks of modernity, is in serious danger of being eroded. That is, non-state actors determined to wreak havoc, either for political or pathological reasons, have at their command weapons of mass destruction that were once only available to the military or police. Ironically, the right-wing Americans interpreting the “second amendment right to bear arms” as a way to defend themselves against an allegedly intrusive government and left-wing terrorists determined to undermine oppressive state authority share in what can be called the democratization of weapons of mass destruction.
Another deeply disturbing trend is the appalling normalization of “collateral damage,” a cynical euphemism for the casual destruction of civilians who get in the way of the purveyors of violence, whether states or not. Can there be any more heart-wrenching image than that of the children being starved to death in Yemen by the intransigence of zealots on both sides of the civil war? Although much noise is made by those who decry such atrocities, little is done to avoid them. We all, alas, live in a war zone now, and even more ominously, there are no safe havens from the counter-violence about to be visited on us by a planet whose climate has been so ruthless exploited by short-sighted humankind.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Prof. Martin E. Jay?
Martin Jay is the Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a renowned Intellectual Historian and his research interests have been groundbreaking in connecting history with other academic and intellectual activities, such as the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, other figures and methods in continental Social Theory, Cultural Criticism, and Historiography, among many others.
He is the author of many books, including: Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas (1984); Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America (1985); The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Weimar & Now: German Cultural Criticism) (1996); Refractions of Violence (2003); Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme (2004); The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics (2010); Essays from the Edge: Parerga and Paralipomena (2011); and