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James M. Fenwick

Books in Review

Trapped in Emptiness

(January 1950)

From New International, Vol. XVI No. 1, January–February 1950, pp. 60–62.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Meaning in History
by Karl Löwith
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1949.

Antiquity did not develop a theory of progress. It viewed history as a cycle of birth, growth and death comparable to that observed in natural phenomena. Only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, under the impact of changes wrought by early capitalism, was a theory of progress first articulated by such thinkers as Fontenelle, Vico, Turgot and Condorcet. By the end of the twentieth century the concept was hardly challenged.

World War I delivered the concept a crippling blow, somewhat mitigated by the promise of the Russian Revolution. The world economic crisis of the ’30s, the rise of fascism, the degeneration of Russia, World War II, and the menace of an atomic war almost completely compromised the concept – to the point where it can hardly be said to exist outside of socialist circles, and even there it has been radically reformulated.

Essentially Banal

Karl Löwith, the author of Meaning in History, is one of the survivors of the German professoriat which came to maturity during the unstable Weimar republic. He writes with considerable scholarship, skill in exegesis, urbanity, and epigrammatic provocativeness – all of which, unfortunately, is not sufficient to hide the banality of his essential ideas. Recently a professor at the Hartford Theological Seminary, he now teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York City, the happy diversity of whose staff is bound together by a sophisticated anti-Marxism.

Of all the concepts of history covered in this volume, Löwith finds himself in accord with the ideas of Jacob Burckhardt, the well-known nineteenth century historian. That is to say, Löwith can find no meaning in history, only continuity. “To the critical mind,” he states in opening this collection of essays, “neither a providential design nor a natural law of progressive development is discernible in the tragic human comedy of all times.” This lack, however, is of no real “consequence to a genuine Christian faith in God, as revealed in Christ and hidden in nature and history.” Wisdom consists “not the least in disillusion and resignation, in freedom from illusion and presumptions.” Man’s “planning and guessing, his designs and decisions, far-reaching as they may be, have only a partial function in the wasteful economy which engulfs them, tosses them, and swallows them.”

Working his way backwards in history, Löwith attempts to show that modern theories of progress are basically only successively secular translations of Jewish-Christian eschatological hopes, of belief in future fulfillment. The examination begins with Marx and progresses through Hegel, Proudhon, Comte, Condorcet, Turgot, Voltaire, Vico, Bossuet, Joachim, Augustine, Orosius, and ends with the Biblical view of history.

Löwith bases a good deal of his indictment of Marxism upon the Communist Manifesto, whose inspiration he views as deriving from Jewish messianism and prophetism. It is, “first of all, a prophetic document, a judgment, and a call to action and not at all a purely scientific statement based on the empirical evidence of tangible facts.” In Marx’s doctrine surplus value corresponds to original sin, the proletariat to the chosen people, the bourgeoisie to the children of darkness, the revolution to the last judgment, the communist society to the Kingdom of God. In sum, it “is only in Marx’s ‘ideological’ consciousness that all history is a history of class struggles, while the real driving force behind this conception is a transparent messianism which has its unconscious roots in Marx’s own being, even in his race. He was a Jew of Old Testament stature, though an emancipated Jew of the nineteenth century who felt strongly anti-religious and even anti-Semitic. It is the old Jewish messianism and prophetism – unaltered by two thousand years of economic history from handicraft to large-scale industry ...”

Genetic Fallacy

We are dealing here with an example of the genetic fallacy. Assuming that everything Löwith says is true, to explain the origin of Marx’s ideas is not necessarily to refute them. Marx’s theories might well be true even if they originated whole or in part out of Christian-Jewish eschatological thinking. Here Löwith was obligated to review the startling verifications of Marx’s economic, political, and social insights in the history of the real world – as Löwith did with the random, unsystematized thoughts of Burckhardt, with whose ideas he is sympathetic. Marx’s insights were based upon a wealth of empirically derived data, which is not examined at all. It is, after all, upon the material in Capital that Marx’s case fundamentally rests.

In general, Löwith’s inspection is made on the ideological level, to the exclusion of material factors. If the Christian-Jewish messianic trend was as decisive as Löwith suggests, it is legitimate to ask why the origin of a theory of progress was deferred until the rise of early modern capitalism. Material factors would seem to have been decisive. Finally, assuming that there are eschatological elements in Marx (derived, say, from French socialist theory) another question poses itself: just what are their specific weight as against other, and more secular, factors?

In dealing with nineteenth century figures like Hegel and Comte, where religious antecedents are not only obvious but admitted by the theorists as well, Löwith’s insights are more authentic. Applied to earlier thinkers his erudition and his analyses are useful in elucidating the thought of periods when almost all ideas had a religious investure. Since the death of Marx and Engels a mass of historical writing has been done which has, for obvious reasons, not been assimilated by the socialist movement. Löwith’s work does something toward closing the gap.

But as far as illuminating the modern dilemma is concerned, he has hardly a useful thing to say. His work here is anti-Marxism of a more distinguished order than the usual domestic run, but basically he is no more original.

At the risk of being accused of possessing the mentality of the terribles simplificateurs whom Löwith inveighs against, it is difficult for the reader not to conclude that Löwith’s essays are a product of that culture which Burckhardt foretold would be caught between “the emancipated working class from below and the military hierarchy from above.”

“Disgusted by contemporary history,” say Löwith, articulating his own belief well, “Burckhardt escaped to Italy to write his Cicerone and to collect material for The Age of Constantine ... Feeling that minor amendments would not do when the whole social body is in anarchy, he resolved to retire into a sort of Stoic-Epicurean privacy.”

It is the classic confession that a line of thought has reached a dead end.

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