The Other George: Lichtheim on Imperialism

The Other George: Lichtheim on Imperialism

George Lichtheim is missing. You may not have noticed, especially if you don’t peruse political journals from the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s (or didn’t read them back then). You may have noticed if the history of the left matters to you. If you don’t know his work and the future of the left is of concern to you, you should miss him too.

Lichtheim was an independent intellectual spirit—the real thing, not the self-announced sort. His histories of socialism and Marxism are among the most intelligent that we have. They are works of learning, insight, critical engagement. Even if you would dispute him on something or many things, you’ll feel smarter for the disagreement. He didn’t just gobble a few secondary sources and then blurt “expertise”; he didn’t seek to display theoretical acumen by spry style and self-congratulating “irony.” Footnotes didn’t frighten him. His friend Walter Laqueur reports an idiosyncratic but appealing quality: Lichtheim would not quote a book he didn’t own. (I take details about Lichtheim’s life mostly from Laqueur’s accounts of it.)

Lichtheim’s prose did not glitter, or it did so rarely. It was always straightforward, but there were acerbic riffs, and sometimes he just ran out of patience. Consider an observation on Hannah Arendt. In his essay entitled “Two Revolutions,” Lichtheim wrote that in her book On Revolution she

shows an inclination to discuss political topics in philosophical terms, and vice versa, until the distinction between metaphysics and politics is lost or dimmed in a twilight zone where it no longer seems to matter whether we are dealing with actual events, contemporary beliefs about these events, or subsequent reflections upon them by thinkers motivated by convictions and interests quite foreign to the participants. At some stage a writer has to decide whether the discussion is to be about the political realm ordinarily so called, or about the most general principles regulating human behavior. It is no use asserting that this distinction was overcome once and for all by Aristotle and his successors. (Who are they? Do they include the medieval Aristotelians who no longer had a polis to reflect upon?)

One phrase here—“At some stage a writer has to decide . . .”—finds its way over and again into Lichtheim’s works, in one way or another. Writers need to decide just what they are addressing. Making reference to a current event (he writes in 1964), he explained that “the recent tentative rapprochement between the Vatican and the Kremlin cannot be sensibly discussed in terms of Thomist and Leninist philosophy, although it is a fact that both have a common source in Aristotle....

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

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