Issue 86 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Spring 2000 Copyright © International Socialism
Although his work on the novel became hugely influential, the towering achievement of Georg Lukács' life remains History and Class Consciousness. But despite the book's status as a Marxist classic, there has always been a mystery at the heart of the debate sparked by its attack on determinism.
It was to be expected that those who held to a Second International emphasis on history's 'objective laws' of development, like Kautsky and leading members of the German KPD, would attack it. Neither was it surprising that prominent figures in the Soviet and Hungarian Communist parties, along with Soviet philosophers like Abram Deborin, should join in at a time when Marxism in Russia was becoming increasingly influenced by this kind of fatalism. What is curious, however, is that Lukács did not respond to the criticism. As Michael Löwy puts it, 'For ten years Lukács kept silent in the face of this philosophical barrage; it was an enigmatic silence which requires explanation, although we ourselves do not know of an adequate one'.1 This book provides it and represents a sustained and vigorous defence of History and Class Consciousness.
Following its publication in 1923, History and Class Consciousness was subjected to ferocious criticism. Lukács publicly distanced himself from it on numerous occasions, first of all in 1933, later going as far as to unsuccessfully oppose its republication in a French edition in 1960, and then writing a preface to the 1967 English edition which denounced it as a book 'based on mistaken assumptions',2 and tarnished by idealism, confusion and 'messianic utopianism'.3
In disowning History and Class Consciousness Lukács effectively turned his back on the classical Marxist tradition, a tradition which the book had powerfully reasserted and updated. As the 1920s wore on, he rallied to Stalin, and in 1929 his career as a leading member of the Hungarian Communist Party was curtailed when he was denounced at the party's second congress and forced to withdraw from active politics. Aside from a brief period during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution when Lukács took part in the anti-USSR Nagy government, and in the aftermath of the events of 1968 when he publicly voiced his opposition to the regimes of the Eastern bloc, Lukács devoted the last 40 years of his life to writing literary criticism and building a career as an academic philosopher.
History and Class Consciousness
For a brief period, then, Lukács played a significant role as an active revolutionary at the heart of the international communist movement at a time when socialism, in the wake of the Russian, German and Hungarian revolutions, was a genuine and immediate prospect for millions. This is the context in which History and Class Consciousness was written.
Central to the book is Marx's analysis of commodity production whereby relations between men take on the appearance of relations between things. Just as in religion, which creates the illusion that 'productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race', so with the development of the market, 'the products of men's hands', commodities, appear to take on a life of their own. This Marx called the 'fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour'.4 Its effect was to obscure the fact that society and its institutions 'are just as much the products of men as linen, flax, etc'.5 'The objects of history', argued Lukács, 'appear as the objects of immutable, eternal laws of nature'.6 Man therefore seemed powerless to influence the world around him.
Under capitalism, then, man is confronted with a reality which he has 'made', but which appears to be a natural phenomenon both alien to him and, moreover, in control of him. Lukács set out to demonstrate that this process of 'reification' applies not just to economic life but to the workings of society in its entirety. All of human life under capitalism is affected, from the institutions of the state to all intellectual and cultural activity. Ideas, opinions, even subjectivity are turned into commodities. Lukács famously described the journalist's 'lack of convictions' as the epitome of reification, whereby 'subjectivity itself, knowledge, temperament and powers of expression' are divorced from the personality of their owner and transformed into an autonomous and abstract mechanism.7 In the same vein he cites Weber's description of judges as 'automatic statute-dispensing machines',8 and Kant's characterisation of marriage as 'the union of two people of different sexes with a view to the mutual possession of each other's sexual attributes for the duration of their lives'.9 The tendency towards greater and greater specialisation of skills under capitalism 'leads to the destruction of every image of the whole'.10 In the case of modern science, the more developed it becomes, the more it turns into a 'formally closed system of partial laws', with the result that 'the world lying beyond its confines, and in particular the material base which it is its task to understand, its own concrete underlying reality lies, methodologically and in principle, beyond its grasp'.11
This analysis had important ramifications when it came to explaining how consciousness developed under capitalism. While the ruling class had at its disposal a whole array of ideological weapons (church, school, press, etc), the identification of workers with ruling class ideas (nationalism, racism, etc) could not be put down solely to indoctrination, important though this was. As society develops, the sense of powerlessness induced by reification not only 'sinks more deeply...into the consciousness of man',12 but this feeling is experienced as something that seems normal and right, with the effect that feelings of deference and submission are generated spontaneously by workers as a consequence of their everyday experience of life under capitalism.
But this was not the whole story. Workers' position as the most exploited class gives rise to conflict over the form and duration of their exploitation. Their position in society therefore pushes workers into taking action against the injustice they suffer. In the process, they begin to understand their relationship to society in its totality. As a result of their own life experience workers discover within themselves the potential to change the course of history. History itself:
This puts the working class in a unique position as the only class capable of achieving true class consciousness ('the sense, become conscious, of the historical role of the class')14 and of liberating humanity, since its own liberation can only be achieved through the abolition of class society. The bourgeoisie is incapable of achieving this consciousness, regardless of its insights into the laws of historical and economic development, since its role within the totality of society is to shore up its own minority rule against the interests of the majority: 'the barrier which converts the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie into "false" consciousness is objective; it is the class situation itself'.15
But although workers possess the capacity to understand society as a totality and their role within it, their immediate circumstances prevent them from grasping this. Hence Lukács insists on the distinction between 'false consciousness', or the day to day psychological or mass psychological consciousness of workers, and 'imputed consciousness', the consciousness which is objectively theirs. He illustrates this idea with a quote from Marx:
For Lukács' this concept of imputed consciousness is bound up with the Leninist model of the revolutionary party, since there is nothing inevitable about the process by which workers shake off their false consciousness and grasp their historic role. Revolution involves not only a struggle by the working class against an external enemy; it also requires an internal struggle against itself, 'against the devastating and degrading effects of the capitalist system upon its class consciousness'.17 It is here that the revolutionary party plays a role in bridging the gap between 'false consciousness' and 'imputed consciousness', organising the most class conscious elements and striving to overcome the divisions and unevenness in workers' heads.
Criticism of History and Class Consciousness
By applying Marx's theory of alienation to the way in which consciousness develops under capitalism, Lukács brilliantly reaffirmed the Marxist method in the face of a growing tendency to transform historical materialism into an 'objective law' of historical development. In 1924, the year of Lenin's death, Lukács' work was subjected to a barrage of criticism. His comrade in the Hungarian Communist Party, Laszlo Rudas, attacked the notion of imputed consciousness as idealism. Lukács had presented the dialectic not as 'an objective theory of the laws of development of society and nature that is independent of man, but a theory of the subjective laws of man'.18 Rudas was followed by Bukharin and then Zinoviev, general secretary of the Comintern, who condemned History and Class Consciousness as a work of 'theoretical revisionism'.19
In 1926, the year the Left Opposition was expelled from the Politburo as Stalin began to consolidate his leadership, Lukács published Moses Hess and the Problems of Idealist Dialectics in which he praised Hegel's reconciliation with the Prussian state as proof of his 'dialectical realism'.20 In his study of Lukács, Michael Löwy shows how Hegel's accommodation to Thermidor, the post-revolutionary period of bourgeois rule, became, in Lukács' mind, a metaphor for his own reconciliation with Stalinism. In contrast to the poet Hölderlin, who remains a revolutionary and is 'broken by a reality which has no place for his ideals', Hegel 'builds up his philosophy precisely on an understanding of this new turning point in world history' and takes his place 'in the main current of the ideological development of his class'.21
The analogy between the respective paths taken by Lukács, who compromises with the Stalinist Thermidor in order, he hopes, to play an important role in an 'unheroic' but nevertheless 'progressive' period, and Trotsky, who refuses to compromise and is murdered, is clear. The former's denials and self criticisms thus become an 'entry ticket' to meaningful activity.22 Lukács survived until 1971 but his compromise with Stalinism led him, as Marshall Berman puts it, 'to enlist actively in the fight against his life and thought',23 poisoning and distorting his creativity and making of him 'one of the real tragic heroes of the 20th century'.24
History and Class Consciousness is in many ways a demanding work, not simply because of the level of theoretical abstraction, but because the book, a collection of essays written between 1919 and 1922 (the earliest of which were subsequently revised prior to publication), contained a number of ambiguities. Many of these, not least his apparent rejection of the notion of the dialectic in nature, were thrown back at Lukács by hostile critics. But a further problem for anyone wishing to understand History and Class Consciousness is that the book also has to be defended 'from its own author'.25 The criticisms made by Lukács about the book's 'overriding subjectivism' in his extraordinary preface to the 1967 English edition were used to bolster a new round of attacks made by a number of prominent Althusserians. Criticism of Lukács centred on the question of the dialectic in nature and the question of imputed class consciousness. Lukács, it was argued, overestimated the role of the latter to such an extent that the attainment of class consciousness became a substitute for the 'brute, material struggle for power'.26
The most coherent of these criticisms, by Gareth Stedman Jones, used a selective reading of History and Class Consciousness27 to accuse Lukács of idealism, claiming that he offered no epistemological basis for his concept of the revolutionary party whose role in transforming society is, according to Stedman Jones, at first reduced to insignificance by Lukács' insistence on the centrality of the miracle-working 'powers of consciousness',28 and then, as Lukács flips from economic spontaneism to organisational voluntarism, invested with a 'mythical belief' in its, rather than workers' 'ideological efficacy'.29 In any case, he argues, Lukács had no grasp of the complexities between party and class, and failed to show how the party compensates for the lag between working class consciousness and the objective crisis of society. Lukács fails to take into account either the institutional means by which ruling class ideology bolsters its power or the means by which workers'ideas may become contaminated by bourgeois ideology. Ultimately, Lukács does not see the working class as a concrete historical force but sees it in abstract and ethereal terms, as 'a hitherto missing term in a geometrical proof'.30
Forming the 'theoretical core' of History and Class Consciousness was Lukács' attack on science and technology. In rejecting positivism Lukács was guilty of scorning the natural sciences as examples of bourgeois false consciousness and ignoring the fact that 'the epistemology of a science is irreducible to its historical conditions of production'.31 In the process, then, Lukács not only rejected Marx's emphasis on the progressive effects of industrialisation and technological advance, most importantly as a precondition for socialism, but also denied the possibility that historical materialism could be considered an autonomous science.
These criticisms were echoed elsewhere. Poulantzas referred to the inadequate theoretical status Lukács granted to ideologies, which were seen as simply the 'products' of consciousness or of freedom, alienated from the subject,32 like 'numbers plates carried on the backs of class subjects'.33 Leszek Kolakowski argued that Lukács 'endows Marxism with an irrational and anti-scientific character' which revealed 'the mythological, prophetic and utopian sense of Marxism'.34
Lukács was therefore variously presented as an idealist, a voluntarist and a theoretical apologist for Stalinism. Behind the seductive language and the references to Marx, Weber, Simmel and Kant critics spied a trickster philosopher who had taken the dialectic and replaced Hegel's metaphysical belief in the transcendent power of the 'Spirit' with an equally metaphysical belief in the power of the working class to acquire knowledge of class society and thereby put an end to it.
Tailism and the dialectic
Lukács' defence of History and Class Consciousness, presented here with an introduction by John Rees and a postface by Slavoj Žižek, is divided into two parts: the first dealing with the notion of imputed consciousness and the role of the revolutionary party in raising and generalising class consciousness, the second with the dialectic in nature. The defence begins with a statement of the aims of History and Class Consciousness:
History and Class Consciousness, Lukács argues, was concerned with demonstrating the dialectical interaction between subject and object. To view consciousness simply as a reflection of the individual's position in the production process is to make subjective activity separate from, and dependent on, objective circumstances. Human activity is in this way subordinated to 'formal, transhistorical laws'.36 Marxism is reduced to nothing more than bourgeois sociology. Politically, this results in 'tail-ending' or 'tailism': an accommodation to the general, rather than most advanced level of class consciousness on the basis that this consciousness will only be raised by changes in objective circumstances.
This interaction between subject and object or, to be more specific, the unique role of the working class as the only force able consciously to make its own history, can only be understood in relation to practical politics. Separated from concrete circumstances this interplay breaks down and becomes just another abstract concept, resulting in an idealist 'mythology of concepts'. The historical process will occasionally throw up 'moments' (here Lukács contrasts the October days in 1917 to the failed Hungarian Revolution) in which the essential tendencies of the process come to a head and demand action. The course of action taken will, in turn, determine the future development of the process. Objective circumstances can therefore be seen to be constituted in part by subjective action.
Failure to grasp the fact that the historical moment and the historical process form a differentiated unity, that they are distinct but not separate entities, means that the role of conscious, human intervention, in this case the role of the revolutionary party, is either underestimated (spontaneism) or exaggerated and turned into an 'empty phraseology of subjectivism' (ultra-leftism).37 The key to understanding the historical process is therefore its contradictory nature, 'jerkily unfolding in advances and retreats in every--apparently--calm moment'.38
The thesis put forward at the Third Congress of the Comintern, that 'there is no moment when a Communist Party cannot be active', rings true, argues Lukács, since 'there can be no moment where this character of the process, the germ, the possibility of an active influencing of the subjective moments, is completely lacking'.39 Revolutionary activity consists not in anticipating a time when the proletariat will reach ideological maturity, or of limiting its ideological influence to educational work, but in responding to 'the more concealed moments' neither with fatalism nor opportunism, but active intervention 'in the process of developing of proletarian class consciousness from its actual position to the highest level that is objectively possible'.40 The centrality of Lukács' conception of the role of the party is clear:
Does this mean Lukács overestimates the ideological aspects of the subjective factor at the expense of the 'brute, material struggle for power?' Crises, he argues, will throw up revolutionary situations but their resolution depends ultimately on the active and conscious intervention of the most class conscious vanguard. The art of insurrection, then, is 'one moment of the revolutionary process where the subjective moment has a decisive predominance'.42
In developing the guidelines for action and the slogans that flow from them the party is not engaged in simply handing down 'correct' consciousness from on high. The relationship between workers and a party attempting to raise and generalise the level of class consciousness must:
The party's role is one of mediation. It acts as a link between the outward appearance of reality and its underlying essence. It arises out of both class struggle and consciousness and stands in a dialectical relationship to the class as an organisational form 'in which and through which develops and is developed the consciousness that corresponds to the social being of the proletariat'.44
The dialectic in nature
In the second half of his essay Lukács addresses the question of the dialectic in nature. The focus of this discussion, however, is not the issue which raised so much controversy in History and Class Consciousness, as to whether the dialectic in nature can be said to exist (Lukács does not dispute this point) but rather the way in which knowledge of nature is formed, and the role that knowledge plays in our relationship to nature.
The core of the controversy with Rudas is summed up as follows: 'Do people stand in an immediate relationship to nature, or is their metabolic interchange with nature mediated socially?'45 In other words, as Žižek puts it in his provocative postface to the book, it 'is not sufficient to oppose the way things "objectively are" to the way they "merely appear to us": the way they appear (to the observer) affects their very "objective being".'46 Moreover:
On the one hand, then, it is self evident that 'society arose from nature', that its laws existed before society and that the dialectic 'could not possibly be effective as an objective principle of development of society, if it were not already effective as a principle of development of nature before society, if it did not already objectively exist'.48 But the dialectical conception of knowledge as a historical process implies both the discovery of previously unknown contents and objects, and the development of new principles of knowledge with which they can be understood. It also implies that the process of knowledge forms part of, and is therefore determined by, the particular stage of the objective social process of development.
Our relationship to nature is therefore subject to a 'double determination': firstly, as an interaction with nature (which exists independently of humans) and secondly, and simultaneously, the economic structure of society at any time. To claim, therefore, that the natural sciences exist independently of social being would imply that the natural scientist stands outside society. Lukács argues that various scientific categories which appear 'eternal' (taken directly from nature) may be seen to be historical. He cites Kautsky's observation that the replacement of theories of catastrophe in the natural sciences by theories of imperceptible development reflected the bourgeoisie's development from a revolutionary to a conservative class; and Marx's view that the conceptions of both Descartes, with regard to animals, and Lamettrie, with regard to humans, were shaped by 'the period of manufacture'.49 Likewise, argued Marx, Darwin recognised 'in animals and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, search for new markets, "inventions" and Malthus's "fight for existence".'50
Human knowledge, then, 'is determined according to its source'.51 This is not a relativist argument for counterposing both primitive conceptions and modern natural science (both products of their time) to 'objective truth'. Instead Lukács argues that the level of knowledge achieved at any point in history is only relative in that its flaws can be exposed 'through a higher development of the economic structure of society'. But this is not to deny that this knowledge may be considered 'absolute truth', given that there is no external measure of objective truth standing outside society, and to the extent that this knowledge 'pertains to the objective reality of social being and the nature mediated through this'. The status of knowledge only changes once a more correct and comprehensive form of knowledge 'overcomes' it.52
Since it is axiomatic, argues Lukács, for Marxists to understand Egyptian astronomy or Aristotelian physics as products of their time, why should modern natural sciences be any different? In an important sense, however, they are different because they develop with capitalism, and it is only under capitalism that the economic structure of society and the 'true driving forces of its history' can be discerned. Moreover, whereas early capitalism inherited from feudalism elements of technology, it was the development of industry that unified them, producing the 'material, economic and social preconditions for socialism', and creating a formidable technological inheritance which socialist society will work with and develop and eventually transform.53 An 'adequate, objective and systematic knowledge of nature' then is not only made possible by capitalism, it is 'a necessity for it', since capitalism requires an unprecedented command over natural forces.
The superiority of historical materialism over previous scientific methods lies in its comprehension of reality as a historical process and of knowledge as a product of this process. Lukács' insistence that knowledge of nature is socially mediated, and therefore that knowledge of society and knowledge of nature do not develop independently of each other, forms the basis of his 'attack' on the dialectic in nature since to view the two as separate reduces the dialectic to 'a principal of knowledge, a type of higher logic. That is to say it becomes idealistic'.54 'Historical materialism is not compelled to absolutise either the knowledge itself, or the present historical reality which determines the form and content of knowledge'.55
We are brought back, then, to Lukács' original attack on the tendency to see the dialectic as a set of objective laws of development. The appearance of things is not something to be stripped away like a veil, revealing the law-bound course of history beneath. Those like Rudas, who observe the fatalistic unfolding of history and 'anticipate' revolutionary developments, do not just follow events--the dialectic is robbed of its revolutionary implications, and 'tail-ending turns into apologia':56
Tailism and the Dialectic offers more than a defence of History and Class Consciousness against those who condemned it on publication. It also presents a convincing rebuttal of many of the attacks made on it since its publication in English in 1967. More importantly, it offers a powerful restatement of the political and organisational consequences of Marxist dialectics first elaborated in the final essay of History and Class Consciousness, 'Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation', and later in Lukács' 1924 biography of Lenin. In this sense, as John Rees points out in his introduction to the book, it forms part of a trilogy, with History and Class Consciousness and Lenin, and represents Lukács' 'last great affirmation of the formidable theoretical unity that he forged in History and Class Consciousness between a fully effective account of ideology and Lenin's theory of the party'.58
In the wake of the events of spring 1968, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the French May, Lukács told an interviewer, 'I suppose that the whole experiment that began in 1917 has now failed, and has to be tried again at some other time and place'.59 After a lifetime as one of the most prolific writers of his generation, which embraced both the optimism of the revolutionary period opened up by 1917 and the appalling distortions of the Stalinist bureaucracy to which he himself became prey, practically the last words Lukács wrote were, 'Both systems in crisis. Authentic Marxism the only solution'.60 This volume represents, from beyond the grave, a return to the revolutionary optimism of the early Lukács and a valuable tool for those seeking to pick up the thread of authentic Marxism broken by Stalin in the early 1920s.