Physical Distancing with Feuerbach

If social media posts are the measure, it seems that academics working from home have moved from ‘now I have all this extra time’ to ‘I cannot get anything done’ during the first weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown.

I went to ‘I cannot get anything done’ directly.

But, of course, ‘anything’ here refers to writing—that perpetual source of academic bad conscience. I have been reading hundreds of pages of PhD manuscript drafts, MA theses (drafts and assessments), and done six different review jobs (two books, four articles). So, I guess I have done ‘something’. Alas, the writing devil on my shoulder is relentless.

However, in between all this I somehow managed to squeeze in Feuerbach (1977) by Marx W. Wartofsky (check out that first name!) and Ludwig Feuerbach (1967) by Bernard Byhovsky. I read the books in preparation for a course I’m hoping to run one day—for once I started early—and not only did a learn a great deal about the 19th century philosopher, but the act of reading itself forced me to think about the state we are in as scholars. If there is one truism in academia, it is that you cannot develop your own thinking without reading. Unfortunately, the pressure to constantly publish makes writing the ultimate academic achievement. Reading is what one does when all the emails have been answered. But without reading our writing becomes stale and repetitive (I speak from experience here).

Found at Skoob books, another of my fav London bookstores.

So, I was inspired—generally speaking. As a sociologist of religion, less so. For Wartofsky, Feuerbach’s writings on religion are the surface appearance of his philosophical journey from idealism to materialism. Indeed, he considers Feuerbach’s critique of religion in The Essence of Christianity as a ‘manifest’ thesis, underlying which is the ‘latent’ thesis, ‘a radical reinterpretation of philosophy itself’. In his attempt to reinstate Feuerbach as a significant name in the history of philosophy, Wartofsky goes out of his way to downplay the social sources and consequences of Feuerbach’s critique of religion. Methodologically, this means that Feuerbach’s personal history or the social context of his philosophical discoveries plays hardly any role in Wartofsky’s account. His is a philosophical analysis, not intellectual history. It also means that Feuerbach’s critique of religion is treated as an epiphenomenon.

It was fascinating to read Bernard Byhovsky’s CPSU-approved (I assume) portrait of Feuerbach side by side with Wartofsky. For Byhovsky, Feuerbach’s worth is, first and foremost, in paving the way for Marx, Engels, and Lenin. In fact, two of the eight chapters in the book are dedicated to Feuerbach’s legacy. In these, Feuerbach emerges as a ‘pre-materialist’, in the shadow of Marx, who is, predictably, credited with the development of the true ‘science’ of historical/dialectical materialism. The last chapter is dedicated to protecting Feuerbach’s legacy against the later ‘bourgeois’ misrepresentations of his work (including appropriating Feuerbach for theological uses).

The publisher Kansankulttuuri was owned by the Finnish-Soviet Friendship Society and focused on translations of Soviet political literature. It was banned between 1941-44, when Finland was at war with the USSR. As far as I know, the book has not been translated into English.

So, one book takes a narrow geneaological (Wartofsky calls is the ‘genetic’) approach, and the other one reads Feuerbach teleologically. For Wartofsky, philosophy must be assessed in isolation from Feuerbach’s social or political context. Byhovsky, in turn, moves backwards from official Marxism-Leninism and Soviet atheism to find sources for these in the political-religious struggles of 19th century Germany. Clearly, both present a selective picture.

Reading about Feuerbach in isolation creates an interesting affinity with the man himself. After being denied a career in academia (because of his controversial views on religion), Feuerbach holed up in the village of Bruckberg, removed from collegial university life. His copious Briefwechsel shows that Feuerbach was far from socially isolated, though. He was zooming and emailing away with the technology of his time.

The best bit about collegial meetings—not to mention exchanging actual, thoughtful letters, which I sorely miss—is, I think, the opportunity to learn. There will always be academics who are more interested in being right than listening and learning (mea culpa, I have been one of those people many times), but at its best true conversation can be as enlightening as reading a book like these works on Feuerbach. The good thing about being a professional reader is that you can have an internal conversation. I am not very interested in deciding which one of the Feuerbach portraits is right. It is much more important to understand why each would say what they say.

A Sociologist Reads a Novel

In April 1888 Friedrich Engels wrote a letter to budding novelist Margaret Harkness, who had sent him the manuscript of her future debut, City Girl. Discussing the art of the realistic novel, Engels writes: ‘Balzac, whom I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas passés, présents et a venir [past, present and future], in “La Comédie humaine” gives us a most wonderfully realistic history of French “Society”’.

I cannot remember now where I first read this quote, but it was recently on my mind while reading Germinal, Émile Zola’s novel of a miner’s strike that takes place in northern France during the final years of the Second French Empire. I read Balzac’s Old Goriot (1835) several years ago and liked it. I did not like Zola’s Nana (1880) nearly as much, but Germinal (1885), despite a slow start, hit a note. Based on three books from the voluminous oeuvre of both authors, I am not qualified to discuss Engel’s assessment, but both novels made me realise what much of contemporary “literary fiction” seems to be missing.

My lovely beaten-up copy bought for a pound from Bookmarks, Gower Street, London.

Looking back at my own reading in the last couple of years, most novels I’ve read take middle-class experience as the standard, unquestioned reality of contemporary life. I loved Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, because it dissected the middle-class predicament that is closest to mine in tragicomic ways. But the idea of class as such, or the relations between social classes, is absent from it (as far as I remember). Classes, meanwhile, have not gone anywhere, despite the best attempts of right-wing politicians, postmodern theorists, and fashionable sociologists.

That is why Germinal and the now-distant world that Zola conjures for the reader felt so refreshing. The novel is sociologically astute not only in its depiction of 19th century miners and their masters, but for the material it provides for understanding class in the first place. This was Engels’s point as well. He said that Balzac created ‘a complete history of French Society from which, even in economic details (for instance the rearrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) I have learned more than from all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together’. Where are the novels that do this in the 21st century?

The modern argument against ‘social realism’ such as Balzac and Zola’s is that it kills the art. Yes, Zola (in Germinal, at least) is often ham-fisted and Balzac overdramatic. Engels, the great socialist revolutionary, agrees that the point of art is not to ‘glorify the social and political views of the authors. This is not at all what I mean. The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art’. A sociologically interesting novel does not need to be a ‘point-blank socialist novel, a “Tendenzroman”’, as Engels says. But the modern novel seems to be poorer for marginalising other than middle-class experience.

Some recent writing by Zadie Smith, John Lanchester, Tony White, and Colson Whitehead, for example, ignite in me the same sociological spark as Germinal did. There are countless other novels that tackle gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity (fewer on religion, though). Many of these are masterful studies of human psychology, but I would like to see more writing that lets my sociological imagination fly. As an educator, I also think we need that kind of literature. There are never too many works of fiction that inspire people to think critically about society. (What happened to all the ‘Sociology through literature’ courses?).

Speaking of fact and fiction, I think Engels had a personal bone to pick with Zola. Engels’s best friend and partner in revolution, Karl Marx, makes an appearance in Germinal. While Zola sympathises with the downtrodden, the ideologues of the International are portrayed in a much less positive light. Grumpy Engels probably could not stomach this only two years after his friend’s passing. But as he would probably agree, sociologically insightful literature is not about fitting with preconceived ideas about society. It is about drawing attention to the social part of being human itself.


PS. ‘Where are the novels that do this in the 21st century?’ is a genuine question. I’d love your recommendations.