The recent publication of Tailism and the dialectic, apparently written in 1925-26 but never referred to by the author in his numerous autobiographical writings and interviews, marks another stage in the attempt of the Socialist Workers Party to appropriate the work of Georg Lukács as one of their own.
The book has a thought-provoking introduction from John Rees, one of the SWP’s leading theoreticians (pp1-38) and has received a number of complimentary reviews in various SWP publications, alongside some critical comment in its International Socialism journal.
The most positive thing about the SWP’s engagement has been its recognition of the need to fuse the understanding of complex philosophical themes with revolutionary praxis. When Althusserian ‘Marxism’ was fashionable amongst academics in the 1960s and 1970s, the almost overriding motif was its complete divorce from practice (although this failed to discourage the SWP’s Alex Callinicos – a writer who was always more sceptical of Lukács – from embracing Althusser).
It should be stressed, however, that the SWP’s project is not without its contradictions: indeed John Rees illustrates that it is likely to become intensely problematic. The root of this is the SWP’s need to find theoretical sustenance for its current practice, which in its essentials is both formalistic and economistic. Alongside this is the organisation’s traditional hostility to ‘official’ communism. In this review we will show how the dual commitment to idealistic political practice and defending Trotskyism leads Rees and others into any number of theoretical knots.
It is surely not an overstatement to say that History and class consciousness (1923) is the seminal text of 20th century Marxism. For those unfamiliar with the work, Lukács subjected the primitive, mechanistic ‘Marxism’ of the Second International to a blistering theoretical assault, making Marxist theory the object of an incisive revolutionary practice, in contrast to a dusty rehearsal of disembodied ‘objective’ laws. Lukács’s negative comprehension of the development of bourgeois philosophical trends and their cross-fertilisation into the theoretical fallacies of the likes of Kautsky and Bernstein was essentially a response to the Second International’s miserable surrender to nationalism in August 1914 and the subsequent success of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Lukács himself had played a courageous role in the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1919 and in the later illegal organisation of the Communist Party of Hungary.
History and class consciousness (hereafter HCC) was to receive a controversial reception inside the communist movement, the debate beginning shortly after its publication and running through the 5th Congress of Comintern in mid-1924. Tailism and the dialectic contains an extended polemic against two of Lukács’s major critics at the time, Lazslo Rudas, a former associate of Lukács in the Hungarian movement, and the former Menshevik philosopher, Abram Deborin.
John Rees is quite clear that what we have here is Georg Lukács defending “his masterpiece, History and class consciousness” (p1). In case we are in any doubt, Rees adds: “Lukács’s reply to Rudas and Deborin makes an unequivocal case for seeing a fundamental unity between History and class consciousness, Lenin and Tailism and the dialectic” (p27).
However, the title, A defence of ‘History and class consciousness’, is something not written on Lukács’s unpublished manuscript, but added posthumously (partly because the publishers want to feed off HCC’s international reputation), his own title being merely Tailism and the dialectic.
On the very first page of his manuscript Lukács casts considerable doubt on the status of such a ‘defence’: “There are many things in the book [HCC] that I deem needful of correction. I would formulate many of the things contained therein quite differently today. It is certainly not my intention to defend the book itself ” (original emphasis – p47). Which is not to say that Lukács does not vigorously defend elements of HCC, but he instantly casts doubt on Rees’s whole project. It was not Lukács’s intention to defend HCC, but John Rees wants to do so.
Which naturally leads on to the question: why is Rees so concerned to construct his case in this manner? I would argue that his willingness to preserve Lukács’s essentially Hegelian construct of the communist party as the ‘identical subject-object’ of the historical process is a complex theoretical rationalisation of how some sections of the SWP see their organisation in relation to the class struggle.
The point that Lukács was attempting to make in the formulation of the proletariat as the ‘identical subject-object’ of history was a simple one. Under the rule of capitalism, the working class is alienated from the products of its labour. Through the operation of the commodity and exchange value, ‘things’ appear to be beyond rational human control. Worse, the commodity appears to control the producer. Social constructs in this instance become reified, seemingly plucked out of the flow of human history. For Lukács it was the position of the working class inside a process which consistently degraded the means of social labour, allied to the conscious, subjective force of the Leninist party, which meant it could overthrow the capitalist order and be able to become the ‘identical subject-object’ of history: i.e., objects would no longer be alien entities, but henceforth amenable to human reason and control.
Rees lauds this sentiment in the following passage: “Subjective and objective constantly trade places. Our wrong subjective decision today will reappear as an objective determinant of our action tomorrow. The objective process and such moments of decision are like a knotted rope; each knot of decision forms part of the objective structure of events stretching out behind us, determining what and how we can decide today” (p30).
On the other hand, this is how Lukács formulates his position in Tailism and the dialectic: “It is impossible to separate the ‘moment’ from the ‘process’. The subject does not face the object inflexibly and unconnectedly. The dialectical method does not intend either an undifferentiated unity or a definite separation of moments” (p56).
Now Rees has the intellectual honesty to present this alongside his above argument and goes on to applaud the notion of ‘differentiated unity’ in relation to the dialectic of nature. Nevertheless, the comparison is not flattering to Rees, who is still stuck with the idea of the ‘identical subject-object’ (”Subjective and objective constantly trade places …” is actually an example of an ‘undifferentiated unity’), whilst Lukács actually appears to be pulling apart his earlier Hegelianism, something that was in fact begun in HCC itself with its emphasis on concrete, historical action.
This is clearly recognised by SWPer Mark O’Brien, who argues that, in Tailism and the dialectic, Lukács ” … aims to defend his materialism, having rejected the possibility of an immediate connection between consciousness and the real world”, thus marking a clear break with HCCInternational Socialism No89, winter 2000). Rees’s notion of a “fundamental unity” between the two works begins to look more and more shaky. (
The reader will forgive the excursion into formal philosophical arguments; we can now judge Rees’s formulation more concretely. Do the subjective and objective “constantly trade places”? Take the Bolshevik Party’s decision to launch the insurrection in 1917 – a perfectly correct tactic considering the objective balance of forces that existed internationally at the time. Now this act is certainly proof of Lukács argument that subjective forces do not face the objective world inflexibly, in that it wove itself into one of the key objective determinants of 20th century politics. But the idea that the Russian Revolution ‘traded places’ with its objective environs is laughable when you consider the panoply of problems that the Soviet regime then faced (civil war, allied intervention, the failure of the world revolution), all of which went on to distort its liberatory promise. Which pays testimony to the complexity of reality and its subsequent impact on subjective decisions, often turning them into the opposite of what was originally intended.
Rees does appear to have some understanding of this. His argument that each decision “forms part of the objective structure of events” is a partial corrective that remains distorted by the overall presentation. Any attempt to pose the identity of subject-object is pure idealism: it can only be achieved in thought. The subjective direction of the proletarian party certainly has the ability to impact on the outside world, but social mediations will take their share of the proceeds. To argue anything else is merely the worst kind of ultra-left voluntarism.
Why then does Rees argue in this way? In reality his desire to enhance the status of HCC emanates from the present practice of the SWP. Even those most sympathetic to the organisation would have to admit that some of its recent analyses of the class struggle have been formalist in the extreme. A good example is the current thesis that we are now experiencing the ‘1930s in slow motion’.
At the CPGB’s Communist University 2000, Chris Bambery illustrated perfectly the superficial nature of this perspective by his elevation of Seattle, various strike waves and the apathetic working class discontent with New Labour into key determinants of a supposedly growing class polarisation. Stuck at the level of peripheral appearances, the SWP fails to acknowledge the period of ideological reaction which was ushered in with the fall of the USSR in 1991.
In reality such theses are not really intended to provide the SWP with a compass in a variegated and contradictory social world: rather they are intended to keep the membership on the boil – which is perfectly buttressed by Rees’s utilisation of Lukács’s philosophy. If the subject (SWP) and the objective (class struggle) manifest themselves as an identity, if they “constantly trade places”, then theories of ‘the 1930s in slow motion’ do not have to explain society in any sophisticated sense. As long as the organisation is kept sufficiently motivated, problems of revolutionary strategy will be solved by the SWP’s simple insertion into the social world. In this manner the SWP kids itself that its analyses will turn themselves into a political pot of gold. The strategy of the organisation thus becomes emasculated around its narrow desire to keep itself together in the short term.
In a key section of Tailism and the dialectic Lukács gets to grips with Rudas’s lame critique of the idea of ‘imputed’ consciousness (pp63-86), a passage that Rees lauds in his introduction.
Lukács gives a clear explanation of how a revolutionary organisation can impute from a given situation what a correct strategy for the working class should be: “By leaving out the inessential details of an objective situation, one can distinguish what people acting according to normal and correct knowledge of their situation were able to do or to allow. According to this measure, their mistakes or their correct insights, etc can be assessed” (p64). Lukács backed up this fundamental Leninist tenet with a number of references to the practice of Marx and Engels: “The criticism that Marx and Engels levelled at the bourgeois parties in 1848-49 consists – methodologically – in always showing what they could have done and should have done, given the objective economic and political situation, and what they, however, failed to do” (pp64-65).
Lukács thus spelled out an interventionist notion of class consciousness: the task of the communist parties is always to point out to the working class what they should and what they are able to do in a given scenario. In other words, it has a clear idea of what is correct and false consciousness on the part of the proletariat.
Rudas, on the other hand, thought this was idealism: “The consciousness of humans is a product of the world that surrounds them … This elementary truth is however incompatible with any ‘imputation’ [of what a correct class consciousness should be] … there is no other hypothetical consciousness, which exists nowhere but in the head of the philosopher …” (p22).
Lukács was not slow to point out that this proscribed the role of the conscious elements of the revolutionary process, Rudas being seemingly content to fall back into the mechanical determinism of Second International ‘Marxism’. For him, class consciousness arose automatically out the objective processes of capitalism. Rudas writes: “The English and the French are already beginning to become conscious of their historical tasks. And the others will follow. How do I know that? Because – says Marx – I know as a materialist that consciousness depends on social being, is a product of this social being. Since this being is constituted such that the proletariat through its suffering, etc is absolutely of necessity forced into action, so too is it absolutely necessary that in time its consciousness will awaken” (p67).
There you have it. Lukács pins the fate of revolution on the conscious action of revolutionaries leading the class, while Rudas looks forward to more proletarian “suffering”. As you might expect, Lukács destroys Rudas’s argument through his greater command of Leninism, making the trenchant point that Rudas is actually making a case for tailing the spontaneity of the class.
As we have stated above, John Rees gives his whole-hearted support to Lukács’s enterprise in this instance. Yet we must stop for a moment and ask ourselves whether the contemporary practice of the SWP appertains to that of a Rudas or a Lukács?
Let us take the example of the Socialist Alliance. Does the SWP impute from this objective situation, where the working class has been disenfranchised from New Labour, and the main revolutionary organisations have come together, what is necessary and achievable? Does it attempt to lead the Socialist Alliance toward a revolutionary strategy? Does it propagandise for the formation of a single Communist Party? Not at all. Instead, it tails the social democratic elements of the Alliance and seeks to make it an outlet for the low level of discontent against Blairism.
The products of this classical economism can be seen in the ahistorical manner in which the SWP refers to the Socialist Alliance as a ‘united front’, which in reality is merely an attempt to step around the fact that the SA is composed, in the main, of members of existing revolutionary organisations. A more perfect example of the kind of politics that Lukács was polemicising against would be hard to find.
Lukács also offers us another passage which has clear echoes in today’s ideological struggles. Lumbered with the idea that class consciousness is essentially fixated on mass psychology, Rudas attempts to mock Lukács: “Now one might believe that comrade Lukács has discovered a third place, where class consciousness realises itself. Perhaps in the head of a god or many gods, perhaps in the head of Madame History or some such thing” (p74).
This extract could have been lifted out of any contemporary polemic against the CPGB. When you pose supposedly ‘maximalist’ demands (abolition of the monarchy for example), the likes of the SWP (alongside their economistic bedfellows in the Socialist Party, the Alliance for Workers Liberty and Workers Power) will give you a Rudas-like reply: ‘real’ workers aren’t interested in that! Our protagonists then move on to accuse us of being obsessed with abstraction.
Lukács gives a pertinent reply to Rudas and his modern-day followers: “But let me mollify comrade Rudas (or, better put, let me upset his tail-ending): this ‘third place’ is not that difficult for a communist to find: it is the Communist Party” (original emphases – ibid.). Therefore Lukács makes it perfectly clear that any attempts to proscribe a party putting forward slogans that are beyond the current psychology of the working class actually leads on to the undermining of the conscious element in the preparation of the revolution.
The above passages illustrate why the SWP’s promotion of this book is such an excellent thing. Mired in economism, it has continually failed the test of Leninism throughout its existence. The fact that young comrades will be picking up Lukács’s text, and finding in it a demolition of their world view can only be to the ultimate benefit of the SWP.
The other major problem with Rees’s introduction is its conceptualisation of Lukács relationship with Stalinism (pp32-35). Now admittedly Rees states that he does not have enough space to do justice to this complex subject. Nevertheless, he does make some detrimental accusations concerning Lukács’s mature development.
After producing HCC in 1923, Lukács brought himself to a tactical accommodation with Stalin in the mid-1920s after perceiving that the post-war revolutionary wave had run its course. Lukács subsequently argued in 1968 that Trotsky’s faction of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union offered no alternative to those of Stalin, Zinoviev and Bukharin, because it shared their subordination to the technical and economic consolidation of the Russian Revolution at the expense of the strategic perspective of working class democracy (G Lukács The process of democratization New York 1991, pp107-115). Lukács remained politically hostile to Trotskyism throughout his life, although he never questioned either Trotsky’s ability or his personal integrity.
Whilst the SWP is not an orthodox Trotskyite organisation, Trotskyism remains one of the cornerstones of its world view. Hence writers such as Rees are forced to limit their appreciation of Lukács to a relatively thin band of work: HHC (1923), Lenin: a study in the unity of his thought (1924) and now Tailism and the dialectic (1925-26). Anything published after this (i.e., around 45 years of work) is simply beyond the Stalinist pale.
As far as I can judge, Rees follows the thinking of Michael Löwy’s Georg Lukács – from romanticism to Bolshevism (which offers a wonderful account of Lukács’s early development, but falls to bits when Löwy views ‘Lukács and Stalinism’ through orthodox-Trotskyite spectacles). This is particularly evident in his treatment of ‘Moses Hess and the problems of idealistic dialectics’ (1926), where Rees sees Lukács’s respect for Hegel’s ‘reconciliation with reality’ as a motif for his accommodation with Stalin and the partial collapse of his dialectical outlook (p34).
Rees makes the questionable assumption that, “Thereafter, Lukács was often a critic of Stalinism, but only ever a right critic” (p35). In a similar vein he argues that, after the defeat of the ‘Blum theses’ in 1928 (in which Lukács attempted to steer the Hungarian Party away from ultra-leftism), Lukács “decided to withdraw from active politics and to cultivate philosophical and aesthetic concerns” (p34). Contained within this compact analysis are a whole raft of misconceptions.
The latter statement makes it look as if Lukács ducked out of the struggle at a time when the Stalinist regime was consolidating itself. In fact this is only a very partial truth. This is how Lukács judged his writings of the 1930s and 1940s at the end of his life: “It is not hard to see today that the main direction of these essays was in opposition to the dominant literary theory of the time. Stalin and his followers demanded that literature provide tactical support to their current political policies … As everyone knows, no open polemics were possible during that period. Yet I did protest consistently against such a conception of literature. A revival of Marx and Lenin’s views regarding the complicated dialectic, rich in contradiction, between the political and social positions of writers and their actual works, ran counter to Zhdanov’s prescriptions. In expounding such and similar views through analyses of a Balzac or a Tolstoy, I not only offered a theory in opposition to the official line but also by clear implication a critique of the official literature” (G Lukács Writer and critic and other essays London 1970, p7).
The reader will forgive the length of the quote, but it does clarify exactly what Lukács was trying to do in constructing a ‘guerrilla struggle’ against the Stalinist bureaucracy. This is not to say that this approach does not have its problems. Mészáros has pointed out on a number of occasions that the abstract nature of this conflict eventually left Lukács bereft of concrete solutions to the crisis of ‘official’ communism. Nevertheless, his concentration on aesthetics and philosophical themes, which Rees refers to as “scholarly seclusion in Moscow’s Marx-Engels Institute”(p35), was not an idle fancy on his part.
In the above passage Lukács demonstrates the nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy: its essentially subjective and manipulative approach to the problems of constructing a socialist society – the logical outcome of its inability to develop democratic control on the part of the proletariat in the Soviet Union. Thus, as Jack Conrad has well illustrated, this left the bureaucracy adrift in a society that it simply could not control in any rational sense. Therefore Lukács’s literary emphasis on realism, as opposed to mere tactical manipulation, cut to the very core of the bureaucracy’s oppressive existence. In no sense can this so-called ‘reconciliation with reality’ be judged as criticism from the ‘right’, precisely because of the democratic questions it begged about the USSR.
Through his evident inability to conceptualise the nature of the bureaucracy, Rees proves unable to give any sort of balanced assessment of Lukács’s opposition to Stalinism. His problems also stem from the deeper source of squaring his views against a Trotskyite assessment of the Soviet Union. In general terms Trotskyites impose a rigid identity-reasoning on their perceptions of Stalinism and the ‘official’ communist movement. All the facets of its existence are ruled against its anti-Bolshevik usurping of the Russian Revolution. The logical incoherence of this idealist standpoint is beautifully illustrated by Rees’s assessment of Lukács’s relationship with Stalinism. Important contradictions fall from view, simply because of his (completely correct) unwillingness to align himself with Leon Trotsky.
Having dealt with John Rees, let us now move to deal with some of the issues raised by Mark O’Brien in International Socialism No89 (pp119-129).
As we have seen above, O’Brien usefully backs up Lukács’s statement that the object of Tailism and the dialectic is not merely to defend HCC in its entirety. O’Brien’s critique is centred on the second part of the book, where Lukács deals with the dialectics of nature (pp94-137). Despite the interesting points raised by O’Brien it must be said that he never really moves beyond abstract, philosophical themes (although, as we shall see, he has a ‘hidden’ political case to make), whereas Lukács is much more concrete about the context of the argument.
The scenario which Lukács establishes is once again that of combating economism and the tail-ending of spontaneity in the workers’ movement: “The bourgeois class, even its most significant scientific representatives, sticks to the immediacy of social forms and is therefore not able to recognise society in its totality, and in its becoming: that is to say … as theoretically and historically dialectical. The opportunistic streams of the labour movement have sensed instinctively why they have to direct their attacks precisely against the dialectic: only by getting rid of the dialectic has it become possible for them to forget historical materialism’s advance beyond the immediacy of bourgeois society, and for them to complete their ideological capitulation in the face of the bourgeoisie” (p94).
Therefore it was Lukács’s recognition of Lenin’s long struggle against all forms of economism that proved the foundation for his denial of an immediate relationship between humans and nature (and the social structures built on its foundation): ” … what my critics call my agnosticism is nothing other than my denial that there is a socially unmediated – i.e., an immediate – relationship of humans to nature in the present stage of social development … Therefore, I am of the opinion that our knowledge of nature is socially mediated, because its material foundation is socially mediated …” (p106).
Rudas showed just how disastrous the rejection of such a standpoint could be when he argued that natural scientists were spontaneously coming toward dialectical materialism through contact with the natural world: “They too are gradually realising that their science is ‘drumming’ dialectics into them” (p95). Lukács was not slow to link this reliance on spontaneity and immediacy with Rudas’s miscomprehension of the role of the Party. The insistence that correct knowledge can be gained through immediate contact with nature and society effectively strips Marxism of its ability to criticise the partiality of bourgeois science and the need for revolutionaries to consciously intervene.
Lukács also rejects any reliance on simple categories of mediation (the way in which humans conceptualise the world), arguing that their determination and discernibility are dependent on higher, more structured forms of mediation. He quotes Marx to suggest that, “the method of advancing from the abstract to the concrete is … the way in which thinking assimilates the concrete and reproduces it as a concrete mental category” (p110).
To make this point more concrete, Lukács goes on to quote a passage from Marx’s Theories of surplus value: ” … [capitalist] crisis … cannot exist without manifesting itself at the same time in its simple form, as the contradiction between sale and purchase and the contradiction of money as a means of payment. But these are merely forms, general possibilities of crisis, and hence also forms, abstract forms, of actual crisis. In them, the nature of crisis appears in its simplest forms … But the content is not yet substantiated … These forms alone, therefore, do not explain why their crucial aspect becomes prominent and why the potential contradiction contained in them becomes a real contradiction” (p111).
Therefore, higher forms of mediation are vital if the working class is to master an understanding of capitalism in its totality. If its critique remains fixed at the level of appearances (i.e., the forms of simple mediation such as sale and purchase) then it stays at the stage of bourgeois political economy with its apologetic or reformist political conclusions. Again we are brought against the necessity of fighting any tendency towards spontaneity and immediacy on the part of the workers’ movement. Capitalism is fought with Marx’s ascent from the abstract to the concrete or it is not fought at all.
Mark O’Brien has immense problems with all this. Indeed the comrade perceives much more clearly than John Rees that Tailism and the dialectic cannot be simply squared off against existing SWP practice, although he leaves us to read this from between the lines.
O’Brien shows that he is completely blind to the Leninist problematic of Lukács’s analysis, appearing confused as to why he throws out the notion of humans having immediate contact with the world with such “urgency”: “For once the unmediated contact between the human subject and the world has been rejected, subject and object are indeed irredeemably thrown apart” (M O’Brien International Socialism No89, winter 2000, p127). As we have demonstrated above, Lukács ditched the notion of immediacy (and thus the idealist construct of the ‘identical subject-object’) precisely because it would potentially lead in practice to the disorganisation of the vanguard Party. If workers can spontaneously gain a knowledge of capitalism through immediate contact with its structures, then what price Bolshevism?
It therefore becomes clear why O’Brien finds Lukács’s rigorous defence of Leninism so uncomfortable. In its practice the SWP appears to rely on the proletariat’s immediate contact with capitalist economics as enough to solve the development of class consciousness. That is why Socialist Worker, its agitational paper, seeks to mirror the spontaneous reality of the working class back to them in a more concentrated form. Any project of developing the working class politically (in other words, leading the class) is completely absent from its pages. This approach precisely neglects the fact that even in a ‘radical’ spontaneous outbreak of strikes, the culture of the workers will be heavily mediated by the ideological superstructures of capital. The SWP must cling on to this idea of immediacy, otherwise its whole modus operandi begins to disintegrate.
We encounter similar errors when we move on to consider O’Brien’s rejection of Lukács’s concentration on the higher, as opposed to simple, forms of mediation. He argues: “… in relation to the question of immediacy, Lukács seems blind to the first part of [a] quote from Marx – ‘Hunger is hunger’. Humans have immediate needs which are invariant. If human experience were entirely historically mediated, there would be no underlying continuity between epochs, and Marx’s concept of ‘labour’ could never have been the key to understanding all other forms of society with their concrete historical mediations” (p125).
Of course, Lukács was well aware of simple mediations such as ‘hunger’, but, in the context of defeating tailist politics, is an ‘immediate’ emphasis on this effective? O’Brien does give the game away: “The relative weight of the ‘higher’, more theorised categories and the ’simpler’, less theorised categories is a matter of real history and not one of a priori assertion” (ibid.).
You will not find a more complete distortion of Lukács’s case. It was precisely “real history” (and not some abstract ordering) that he was interested in. More specifically the Second International with its simplistic economism, and the Bolshevik victory in 1917 with its ‘higher’, political categories. In short the difference between tailism and Leninism.
Once again, the reason O’Brien defends simplistic forms of mediation is that these are a staple diet of SWP practice. The organisation’s propaganda consists of simple economistic ‘them-us’, ‘good-bad’ platitudes. Socialist Worker does not attempt to point the proletariat to the sophisticated understanding it needs of the totality of capitalist relations. Rather it suggests that ‘real workers’ are not interested in all this. To which we answer that it is precisely the job of Leninists to propagate it.
If it has done nothing else, this review has shown how the SWP’s attempt to laud Lukács is fraught with difficulty. His pre-1927 work is saturated with polemical assaults on the economism that the SWP practises today. Lukács’s later output is similarly difficult because of his rejection of Trotskyism. Precisely the reasons why the SWP’s engagement with the greatest Marxist theoretician of the 20th century is so significant.