The Historical Imagination

One of the most interesting developments in the annals of history is the history wars. The history wars are wars over historiography; that is, historical interpretation.  Historian Sean Wilentz tacitly condemns the destructive influence of literary criticism upon history, “English professors are at the head of the line, given the recent trend for literary critics to write about any subject they please, and in a tone of serene authority.”[1]  When, in 1931, British historian Herbert Butterfield published The Whig Interpretation of History—explaining how the progressivist Whig interpretation of history gave meaning to the past to understand the present—Butterfield identified a trend of progressive teleological explanation that later critics would pick up on.

With the impending end of the Cold War, and with its conclusion the end of a fifty year struggle between the liberal democratic West and the Marxian-inspired communist East, Francis Fukuyama wrote his seminal essay “The End of History?”[2]  Later expanded into a book in 1992, Fukuyama’s main thesis was ultimately a revitalization of the progressive, Whiggish view of history as one of linear progress ultimately aimed at a rational end point in a Hegelian manner (though his book ended on a more pessimistic note concerning the end of history and the emergence of the last man and whether the last men paralysis would bring about a revitalization of the conflicts of History).  But this phenomenon of progressive, universal history is a uniquely Western phenomenon; and by Western, I mean those cultures that can be described as Judeo-Christian, or post-Christian (Western and Central Europe, North America, and Oceania in particular).  For Fukuyama, his supporters and detractors, the implication of the end of history means the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism over its principle competitor.

Marxism’s Rise and Fall

The close connectivity between literary criticism and Marxism has long been identified.[3]  Sociological Marxism, a means of interpreting the world through Marxian lenses, has caught on in other disciplines and follows that basic structure of literary deconstructionism to “arrive at the truth” through deconstruction of prevailing mythologies.  In literary criticism the aim of the Marxist literary critic is to expose the bourgeois values, plot, and biases of the author.  Or, the aim of the Marxist literary critic is to explain the hidden messages that the author was actually trying to achieve—like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick as a representation of the struggle between destructive industrial capitalism (Captain Ahab) against the serene innocence of nature (Moby-Dick), or that the death of Quint in the film edition of Jaws and the triumph of the scientific and “technocratic” Hooper and the “law-and-order” Brody over the shark represents the destruction of the populist working-class (Quint) at the hands of the synthesis of technocratic and orderly government (Hopper and Brody).[4]

The rise of literary criticism in the humanities, particularly after the difficult years of the 1950s and 1960s when the Stalinist horrors were made manifest, and with Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest in 1956 and then Prague in 1968 to crush popular, democratic-socialist uprisings, exposed the moral bankruptcy of Stalinist claims of anti-imperialism and human rights, caused a crisis of confidence—both in the field of humanities as a legitimate academic field of study and in the literary critics who were, until then, pedantic cheerleaders for the Soviet State.  These two decades culminated in the revisionist and anti-revisionist debates where social democrats, who had arguably come to embrace the basic superstructures of liberalism (including market capitalism, even if regulated with social welfare programs), were declared heretics and famous Marxist intellectuals experienced rifts because some had come to denounce Stalinism and others still championed it.  The most obvious example of this was the rift between English historians E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, where the former distanced himself from the Soviet Union while the latter continued to support it to his dying breath.  The implied victory of liberal capitalism with the end of the Cold War and the failed rise of an international proletariat revolution against capitalism has left Marxists in the wilderness.

The rise of postmodernism, and the influx of Marxian-inspired literary criticism, especially in history, can best be seen as the reaction of Marxist intellectuals in an increasingly disillusioned state.  Philosopher Stephen Hicks has argued that the main architects of postmodernism (and therefore deconstructionist literary criticism) all have political backgrounds in Marxism.[5]  Likewise, John Ellis also states:

[T]he collapse of Marxism as a viable system of political thought has left campus radicals in a state of disarray.  Marxism had built its case on the notion that capitalism was morally wrong and that a successful economy could be built without competitiveness and the unequal outcomes that a free market presupposes.  Bitter experience in over twenty countries has removed any doubt that those ideas were thoroughly mistaken.[6]

Thus, it has become the responsibility of the Marxist critic to expose either, the bankruptcy of liberal capitalist ideas, or that liberal capitalist ideas have plateaued and stagnated.  The alternative implied to get over the wall is, of course, some form of politicized Marxism—ideally, socialism.  As John Ellis states, “The cruel paradox of the politically correct impulse is that it is impatient with imperfection and wants something better…As Marxism is to the economic sphere, so cultural political correctness is to the culture sphere.  Marxism promised a utopian economic abundance to be shared equally by all.”[7]

The importance to this in history is to challenge the tendency for history to see itself in teleological light.  That is, if history is truly progressive, and if liberal capitalism has triumphed, that means Marxism and its politicized forms: Marxist socialism, communism, Maoism, Leninism, Stalinism, etc., have been defeated and therefore have failed.  The historical determinism of Marxism cannot be true if its chief rival has triumphed, otherwise the orthodox Marxist is left with the ultimate unverifiable cop-out that at the end of history, Marxism will be proven to have been true.  This is why Karl Popper claimed Marxism to be unverifiable, and unscientific.[8]

Yet instead of accepting the refutations the followers of Marx re-interpreted both the theory and the evidence in order to make them agree. In this way they rescued the theory from refutation; but they did so at the price of adopting a device which made it irrefutable. They thus gave a ‘conventionalist twist’ to the theory; and by this stratagem they destroyed its much advertised claim to scientific status.[9]

For all the pomp of “scientific socialism,” Marxism is a failed science and was always a failed science.  This failure, as Popper notes, cannot be accepted for the implications of its failure would result in the complete abandonment of Marxism in its politicized form.  After two millennia, Aristotle is right, humans are social and political animals and therefore sociological Marxism is not enough, Marxism must extend itself into the realm of the social and political moreover than remain a module of sociological analysis.

What becomes evidently clear is the rise of Marxist literary criticism corresponds with two decades of crisis facing the Marxist Left in the 1950s and 1960s.  The influx of Marxist literary criticism is another drive to attack the progressivist, but liberal, view of history and the general emancipation of women, minorities, and the twin expansion of democracy and market economics as evidence of the theory of progress.  The effort becomes necessary when two jostling worldviews that are ultimately incompatible with one another come to the fore.

The Theological Origins of History

Yet, despite the preponderance to condemn the liberal progressive view of history, Marxism itself is a form of universal, progressive history.  To return to what was stated earlier, about the progressive view of history being a Judeo-Christian, or post-Christian phenomenon, historians, sociologists, and philosophers have long viewed the importance of cultural Christianity upon the development of the “Western” mind and worldview.  R.G. Collingwood stated, “Any history written on Christian principles will be of necessity universal, providential, apocalyptic and periodized.”[10]  In 1949, Karl Löwith published his seminal book Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History where he asserted that all forms of Western philosophies of history, secular or otherwise, were dependent upon the inheritance of the Christian view of progressive, universal history.  As he states, “The viewpoint of a Christian interpretation of history is fixed on the future as the temporal horizon of a definite purpose and goal; and all modern attempts to delineate history as a meaningful, though indefinite, progress toward fulfillment depend on this theological thought.”[11]  For Löwith, St. Augustine is the progenitor of this universal, progressive historical tradition as outlined in his magisterial work The City of God.[12]  Likewise, Robert Nisbet agrees.  For Nisbet, the concept of the idea of progress “reaches [a] masterful and lasting expression in St. Augustine.”[13]  William Connolly has also written of this tradition of Augustinian/Christian thinking, stating Augustine “invoked a Hegelian concept [of history] before Hegel.”[14]

Marxism, despite its anti-religious overtures, is an inheritor of a particular religious and theological tradition from Judeo-Christianity.  This is why Ernst Bloch wrote The Principle of Hope, to outline the similarities that Christianity and Marxism shared. As David Byrne has written, “Marxism, despite its atheist pretensions, was influenced by Scripture, particularly the Millenarian [tradition].”[15]  Medievalist Norman Cohn wrote extensively upon the millenarian impulse of utopian movements in the late Middle Ages and early Reformation period.[16]  And it therefore comes as no surprise that Leszek Kołakowski, in his first volume of Main Currents of Marxism, spends time discussing the contributions of many medieval millenarian mystics and utopianists upon Marxism.[17]

Ultimately, any philosophy of the Romantic Counter-Enlightenment is influenced by a “re-enchantment” of sorts.  While this re-enchantment may not take the form of traditional religious idealism that was prevalent from Late Antiquity until the rise of the Enlightenment, this secularized re-enchantment nonetheless places a great emphasis on faith and moralism over the rationalism, empiricism, and ambiguity wrought by the liberal Enlightenment.  The progenitor of the Romantic Counter Enlightenment tradition who influenced later philosophers of Romanticism, German Idealism, and ultimately Karl Marx himself, was Jean-Jacques Rousseau.[18]  After all, there is a close connectivity between Marxist analyses of the capitalist present with similar Romanticist critiques of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century.  As Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre note, “the Romantic critique of the capitalist present is ‘closely bound up with’ nostalgia for the past, and second, in certain cases this critique may take on an authentically revolutionary dimension.”[19]

Rousseau, properly understood, is not the last of the great Enlightenment philosophers.  He is the first of the great Counter Enlightenment philosophers, which includes a multitude of individuals from Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried von Herder, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Schelling, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche among many others.  Rousseau devalued reason in favor of emotion and passion, a key Romanticist precept.  Likewise, his concept of the “general will” is a collectivistic concept that breaks with the individualism of the liberal Enlightenment.  Additionally, Rousseau condemned private property and the inception of the state as the origins of inequality in society—standing in stark contrast to the rationalist, pro-private property and state institutionalism of the Anglo-Scottish liberal philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith.

While not a Christian in the same sense of another Counter Enlightenment figure, Joseph Comte de Maistre, Rousseau’s philosophy teems with Christian theology and egalitarian impulses rooted in the Calvinist tradition.  His state of nature, the perfect egalitarian state prior to “the fall” is a very conservative revision of the Edenic Paradise found in Genesis Two and Three.  As Arthur Melzer states, “Rousseau inaugurated what may be called the philosophical return to Christianity…Rousseau’s religious writings—once so famous and now virtually ignored—are crucial for understanding the whole phenomenon of post-Enlightenment religiosity.”[20]  Indeed, the links between Christian millenarianism and soteriology have long been understood as having significant influence upon the development and evolution of socialism. Rousseau even writes in a footnote in the second book of his Social Contract, “Those who know Calvin only as a theologian much under-estimate the extent of his genius. The codification of our wise edicts, in which he played a large part, does him great honour. . . . Whatever revolution time may bring in our religion, so long as the spirit of patriotism and liberty still lives among us the memory of this great man will be for ever blessed” (ff. 10).

Frederick Denison Maurice was the most famous of the Christian socialist theologians and philosophers of the nineteenth century, the social reformist impetus of the Second Great Awakening in the United States, the rise of millenarian movements in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the turn of the century Social Gospel all have overtures of utopianism, if not explicit endorsements of socialism.  After all, one of the great architects of the Social Gospel movement and its contingent theology of reform, Walter Rauschenbusch famously declared, “the universal judgment of Christian thought was in favor of communism as more in harmony with the genius of Christianity and with the classical precedent of its early social life.”[21]  Like with Rousseau, Rauschenbusch embraces the notion of the collective over the individual—a key liberal Enlightenment idea, “The question is now how quickly Christian thought will realize that individualism is coming to be an inadequate and antiquated form of social organization which must give place to a higher form of communistic organization.”[22]

Secular Salvation and the Historical Imagination

The great counterweight to liberal, individualistic, and therefore entrepreneurial capitalist thought emanated from the forces of the Romantic Counter Enlightenment that re-enchanted the world with a sense of stern moralism, and a return to the classical precedent of early social life that was rooted in family, community, and city (a sense of the collective).  As Löwy and Sayre firmly understand, “Romanticism is anti-capitalist by its very nature.”[23]  Here, one can clearly see the lines being drawn—especially in academic scholarship.  Whereas the liberal, or Whig, historians of the Enlightenment to the present day see history moving towards rational completion—the ultimate triumph of liberal capitalist, and democratic, modernity over the world, the deconstructionist Marxist critics have repositioned themselves through literary and historical criticism as the new avant-garde in the struggle against immoral liberal capitalism.  The burden now falls on the Marxist critic to “disprove,” or to show how shallow the claims of liberal progress are.  Yet, at its roots, Marxism is optimistic towards its own vision of progress.

The Marxian critics are fundamentally opposed by a cohort of liberal historians, philosophers, and other intellectuals who have long seen a genus of reform and progress in the liberal world heading towards inevitable climax and culmination.  In the United States, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. was the most famous and notable of the liberal intellectuals who strongly defended the liberal reformism of the United States.  In his Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Age of Jackson (1945), Schlesinger noted the roots of liberal progressivist thought from Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, through Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and the broader New Deal.  Whereas the Marxian and other leftist critics have now taken their turns assaulting the fathers of liberal reformism in the United States—Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson—Schlesinger’s work is within the realm of the liberal view of history.  Jefferson the democrat, and Andrew Jackson the reformer, pushed progress to its furthest reaches possible in their days.  However, the Marxian critics criticize both men for their treatment of minority groups, women, and contradictory positions to highlight the hollowness of liberal claims of history.  Sean Wilentz, in The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005) continues this tradition of liberal progressivist history.  Unlike the harsh criticism directed upon figures like Jefferson and Jackson, Wilentz rightly declares, “Thomas Jefferson, more than any other figure in the early republic, established the terms of American democratic politics.”[24]  Wilentz continues to state, in words reminiscent of liberal triumphalists, “Since the Second World War, and even more since the great democratic revolutions of 1989-1991, the world has witnessed the continuing resilience and power of democratic ideals.”[25]

The problem with the resilience and power of the democratic ideals is to which democratic ideal that resilience and power is contingent toward.  Liberal democratic capitalism, or the newly preferred Marxian-inspired democratic socialism championed by the New Left?  If that resilience and power of democratic idealism validated by history and historical progression refers to the liberal capitalism that Karl Marx so harshly critiqued and analyzed throughout his life, this poses another problem for the Marxian intellectual.  Liberal capitalism, for all its faults, would have to be more innovative and revolutionary than thought before.  Yet, Marxist-inspired criticism highlighting the opposite—the shallowness of liberal apologists when it comes to the progression of human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, and democracy itself, would re-validate the Marxist critique of liberal capitalism and cast doubt about the legitimacy of the idea of historical progress at least as it pertains to liberal democratic capitalism.

The contest in the new academic history fight is one that pits various philosophical traditions against each other in competing views of the “progress” of history.  This returns us to Löwith’s observations in The Meaning of History.  Löwith notes, “[M]odern men, believing, first of all, in the values of progressive civilization, have a great difficult in believing or even in conceiving how passionately distant peoples and ages have indeed had faith in things invisible.”[26]  Yet, modern humans are guilty in having faith in the invisible idea of progress—whatever that entails.  The rational aspect of the human mind, indeed a gift in Christian theological philosophy, contrasts with the faith-based element of Christianity and is the dichotomy upon which modern humanity is split.  Even the most anti-religious of modern humans subscribe to a hidden faith of progress.  “Fifteen hundred years of Western thought were required before Hegel could venture to translate the eyes of faith in to the eyes of reason and the theology of history as established by Augustine into a philosophy of history which is neither sacred nor profane.  It is a curious mixture of both.”[27]

History is viewed through the prism of faith.  The historical discipline, however, proclaims itself to be a rational, evidence-based, endeavor.  The evidence, for Marxism, is condemning.  Rather than economics being a zero-sum game whereby the few rich would acquire all leaving the rest of the human population in squalor, standards of living, national and personal levels of wealth and life expectancy have all increased.  The proletariat revolution has yet to occur.  Capitalism is not retracted, but expanding.  These results pose a problem for the Marxist critic of history—is history progressing towards liberal capitalist completion?  If so, what are the serious ramifications if that is true? Abstracted out to broader intellectual concerns, we can see the history and counter-history are all interpretative attempts to make sense of history—which is why the History wars wage so viciously. The fulfillment of History has become the secularized eschatological faith of many in the modern West. It is the heavenly city that all are pilgrimaging toward, and the fighting is intensified because of the different visions that the heavenly city takes.


[1] Sean Wilentz, “Does the Gettysburg Address Distract Us from the Real Lincoln?” New Republic, November 23, 2013.

[2] See Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History,” National Interest (Summer, 1989); The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992; reprint, 2006).

[3] See, in particular, Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Meuthen & Co., 1976) and John Ellis, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

[4] Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (New York: Routledge, 1992), 28-29.

[5] See Stephen Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Socialism and Skepticism from Rousseau to Foucault (Milwaukee: Scholargy Publishing, 2004).

[6] Ellis, 116

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (New York: Basic Books, 1962), 37.

[9] Ibid.

[10] R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946), 49.

[11] Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 160.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Robert Nisbet, History of the idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 42.

[14] William Connolly, The Augustinian Imperative: Reflections on the Politics of Modernity (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 109.

[15] David Byrne, “The Victory of the Proletariat is Inevitable: The Millenarian Nature of Marxism,” Kritike 5, no. 2 (December 2011): 59.

[16] See Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957; reprint, 1970).

[17] See Leszek Kołakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, Volume I: The Founders, trans. P.S. Falla (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[18] Arthur Melzer, “The Origin of the Counter-Enlightenment: Rousseau and the New Religion of Sincerity,” American Political Science Review 90, no. 2 (June 1996): 344-360.

[19] Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, trans. Catherine Porter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 91.

[20] Melzer, 44.

[21] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: Macmillon Company, 1907), 396.

[22] Ibid., 396-397.

[23] Löwy and Sayre, 15.

[24] Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), xxi.

[25] Ibid., xxii.

[26] Löwith, 30.

[27] Ibid., 59.

3 thoughts on “The Historical Imagination

    • You’re too kind. But when you don’t have a permanent job besides being a student, had multiple majors as an undergrad, and your only source of income is as an essayist for a humanities journal, and you’re still in grad school — well, you tend to just read, write, and drink.

      I would like to do books, some day…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: The Historical Imagination – The Philosophical Hack

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