Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lukacs: bridging the gulf

Gareth Stedman Jones

The Marxism of the Early Lukács: an Evaluation

Nearly half a century after its original publication in Germany, Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness [1] has at last become available in English. Those who now read the book for the first time may find its contents surprising. For the notoriety of this forbidden volume of the early Communist movement seems incommensurate at first sight with the familiarity of many of its themes. Despite the formal difficulty of Lukács’s language, contemporary readers are likely to find themselves at home with most of the central leitmotifs in the book. For in one form or another, these have by now become part of the common intellectual universe of a large part of the left in the advanced capitalist world. But to say this is not to imply that the themes developed by Lukács some fifty years ago and today diffused so generally among socialist intellectuals, are self-explanatory truths or even manifest axioms of Marxism. If they are treated as such, it is because of a second surprising feature of History and Class Consciousness—the virtual absence in almost fifty years of any comprehensive or coherent critique of the book.

Not that it has always been greeted with unanimous acclaim. Far from it: it is well known that it was condemned by the Comintern from the start, was subsequently renounced by Lukács himself, and when republished in Western Europe after 1956, evoked local dissent. Even so, for all the Marxist literature that has appeared since History and Class Consciousness resurfaced it is impossible to discover any systematic or substantial criticism of the book as a whole. [2]

There is no doubt that in part the reason for this is the compelling scope and intensity of the work. Lukács’s book has seemed to constitute a definitive statement, the locus classicus, of certain themes which have been repeated and re-echoed again and again since it was first written. This essay aims to provide at least the beginnings of such a criticism. It will first resume what is taken to be the doctrinal core of the book: secondly, provide the essential historico-cultural background to it, without which it cannot be adequately be understood; thirdly, criticize the intellectual and political consequences of Lukács’s theory; and finally, discuss the fundamental problem the book raises—but does not answer—for historical materialism.

1. Capitalism and Reification

Despite its complexity of logical sequence, the reading of Marxism to be found in Lukács’s book represents a relatively systematic position [3] . The secret of capitalism is to be found in ‘the solution to the riddle of commodity structure’. [4] Marx’s chapter on the fetishism of commodities in Capital ‘contains within itself the whole of historical materialism and the whole self-knowledge of the proletariat seen as the knowledge of capitalist society’. [5] The essential feature, then, of capitalism is commodity fetishism and the essential product of commodity fetishism for Lukács is reification. Lukács identifies reification as the process through which relations between men take on the appearance of relations between things; human society and human history, the products of man, appear not as the products of social activity, but as alien and impersonal forces, laws of nature which impose themselves on humanity from without. As capitalism advances, reification becomes progressively more extensive and intensive. Just as the transition from handicraft via co-operation to manufacture leads to greater and greater fragmentation of the object of production, so this fragmenting process progressively encroaches upon the consciousness of man, the subject of production. Man is no longer the authentic master of the process, ‘he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system’. [6] Human activity becomes less active and more contemplative. Man must conform to the laws of the mechanical system. The activity of man in general becomes analogous to the ‘behaviour of the worker vis ` vis the machine he serves and observes, and whose functions he controls while he contemplates it’. [7]

The hallmark of this reification process is the application of the principle of ‘rational mechanization’ and ‘calculability’ to ‘every aspect of life’. The process of rationalization develops with the division of labour. The result is a specialization of skills which ‘leads to the destruction of every image of the Whole’. [8] Rational calculability, the essence of the capitalist enterprise, increasingly comes to permeate all other features of society. Following Weber, the modern state is viewed as ‘a business concern’; ‘the judge is more or less an automatic statute-dispensing machine’, whose behaviour is ‘predictable’; similarly, bureaucracy manifests the same principle of ‘an inhuman standardized division of labour analagous to that . . . found in industry on the technological and mechanical plane’. [9] The process of reification is to be seen everywhere, whether it is in journalism where ‘the journalist’s lack of convictions, the prostitution of his experiences and beliefs is comprehensible only as the apogee of capitalist reification’, [10] or in modern marriage where man’s ‘qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things he can own or dispose of like the various objects of the external world’. [11]

But for Lukács the most consummate expression of capitalist reification is undoubtedly the method of natural science. ‘There is something highly problematic in the fact that capitalist society is predisposed to harmonize with scientific method . . . when “science” maintains that the manner in which data immediately present themselves is an adequate foundation of scientific conceptualization and that the actual form of these data is the appropriate starting point for the formation of scientific concepts, it thereby takes its stand simply and dogmatically on the basis of capitalist society. It uncritically accepts the nature of the object as it is given and the laws of that society as the unalterable foundation of “science”.’ [12] When the ideal of scientific knowledge is applied to society ‘it turns out to be an ideological weapon of the bourgeoisie . . . it must think of capitalism as being predestined to eternal survival by the eternal laws of nature and reason’. [13]

Scientific method is not merely a passive reflection of the onset of reification. For by its procedures it actively pulverises any organic conception of totality not attained by a formal rational mode of cognition. It thus destroys metaphysics and creates a world of ‘pure’ facts divided up into specialized partial systems of laws unrelated to any meaningful totality.

The Search for an Identical Subject–Object

It was this reified and fragmented conception of the world that produced the distinctive problems of German critical philosophy and 18th-century materialism. Critical philosophy based itself on the idea that thought could only grasp what it itself had created and strove to master the world as a whole by seeing it as self-created. This attempt to establish a universal system on the premisses of rationalism foundered on the problem of the thing-in-itself. The problem of the thing-in-itself symbolized the unpassable barrier erected by reification against any vision of the totality (i.e. ‘the impossibility of apprehending the whole with the aid of the conceptual framework of rational partial systems and the irrationality of the contents of individual concepts’). [14] Contemplative rationalism therefore found itself trapped in an irresoluble antinomy: the ever-fixed gulf between the phenomenal world of necessity and the noumenal world of freedom. In order to transcend this antinomy thought was forced to move from mere contemplation to praxis. Only in this new context would it be possible to conceive a subject of thought which could be theorised as producing existence. This attempt to discover ‘an identical subject-object’ can be seen foreshadowed in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and in the attempts of Fichte, Schiller and Schelling to overcome the dualism of subject and object through art, where contemplative reason is replaced by an intuitive understanding which is seen as practical. Art is therefore seen as a resolution of the antinomy through its creation of a concrete totality. But in order for this solution to work, creation must be mythologized, and the world aestheticized. The real problem remains unsolved. The true location of the solution to the problem was discovered by Hegel, not in art but in history. ‘Only if the true were understood not only as substance but as subject, only if the subject (consciousness, thought) were both producer and product of the dialectical process, only if as a result the subject moved in a self-created world of which it is the conscious form and only if the world imposed itself upon it in full objectivity, only then can the problem of dialectics and with it the abolition of the antitheses of subject and object, thought and existence, freedom and necessity, be held to be solved.’ [15] Hegel was, however, unable to discover the true subject-object of history and was forced to resort to conceptual mythology to arrive at a conclusion. This was not a personal limitation; it was the objective limitation of the bourgeois class outlook. Classical philosophy was paradoxically chasing a philosophy that would mean the end of bourgeois society. [16] For the identical-subject-object was the proletariat.

It is only with the appearance of the proletariat that ‘social reality can become fully conscious’, [17] that man can become conscious of himself as a social being, as the subject-object of the historical process. Such an eventuality had been impossible under feudalism, since social relations had been interpreted as natural relations. It was the bourgeois class which had ‘socialized’ society, but it had performed this task unconsciously. It had pursued its immediate class interests and left the rest to the ruse of reason. The tragedy of the bourgeoisie was that class consciousness was incompatible with class interest (the antinomy between the progressive capitalist socialization of production and the interests of the individual entrepreneur). Bourgeois thought remained trapped, therefore, in the reified contemplative dualism of subject and object, which even Hegel was unable to transcend. The proletariat on the other hand must make history consciously. Since it is the most totally alienated class in capitalist society, it must abolish itself in order to achieve its own liberation, and to liberate itself it must liberate the whole of humanity. To understand itself, it must understand the whole, and to abolish itself, it must move from contemplation to praxis. ‘Thus the unity of theory and practice is only the reverse side of the social and historical position of the proletariat, simultaneously subject and object of its own knowledge.’ [18]

Ascribed Consciousness

This total standpoint of the proletariat, by its very nature shatters the reified consciousness of capitalism. In place of dualism and the fetishistic methods of science, it posits the unity of thought and being as aspects of a dialectical, concrete totality. In its thought the proletariat conceives reality not as empirical existence but as becoming—the mediation between past and future. In place of the reified concepts of the eternal, the natural, the empirical, it posits the social, the historical, the transitory. In place of a world of impersonal, inhuman facts, it sees the world as a product of the relations between men. Thus once fetishism is overcome, man becomes the measure of all things and history becomes the unceasing overthrow of objective forms.

Of course this total consciousness of the proletariat does not coincide with the actual empirical consciousness of that class. It is an ‘ascribed’ (zugerechnet) consciousness. ‘By relating consciousness to the whole of society it becomes possible to infer the thoughts and feelings which men would have in a particular situation if they were able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact on immediate action and on the whole structure of society. That is to say, it would be possible to infer the thoughts and feelings appropriate to their objective situation’. [19] This ‘ascribed’ consciousness of the proletariat manifests itself in the period of revolutionary crisis. As individuals, proletarians remain subject to the reified world of appearance and the contemplative dualism of subject and object. It is only as a class oriented towards praxis that they are able to attain the viewpoint of the totality. Thus the attainment of this ‘ascribed’ consciousness is in effect synonymous with assuming the leadership of society, since an adequate consciousness is already a practice that alters its object. Lukács cites the young Marx to the effect that, ‘it will then be seen that the world has long possessed a dream of things which it has only to possess in consciousness in order to possess them in reality’. [20] Economic evolution can only provide the proletariat with the abstract possibility of changing society. In the last resort however, ‘the strength of every society is . . . a spiritual strength. And from this we can only be liberated by knowledge’. [21] Hence, the fate of revolution depends upon consciousness.

The status of historical materialism follows on logically from this analysis. It is the ‘self-knowledge of capitalist society’. [22] It is the ideological expression of the proletariat’s attempt to liberate itself. Its most important function is that of a ‘weapon of war’, which unmasks capitalist society. [23] The whole idea underlying Marx’s magnum opus is ‘the retranslation of economic objects from things back into processes, into the changing relations between men’. [24] Thus, to call historical materialism a science, at least as the word is usually understood, would be misleading since truth can ‘only achieve an “objectivity” relative to the standpoint of the individual classes’. [25] In effect historical materialism is identical with the ‘ascribed’ consciousness of the proletariat, and thus it is natural that for Lukács, Marxism is properly defined not by the ‘primacy of economic motives in historical explanation’ but by ‘the viewpoint of the totality’. [26]

2. Nature and Science

In most writing on the nature and development of Marxism as a theory, the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness is grouped together with Korsch, Gramsci and other theoretical leftists of the Russian Revolutionary period. In this guise, he like the rest of the group is either praised or condemned for Hegelianism, historicism, humanism, voluntarism, spontaneism or ultra-leftism. At a certain level of theoretical generality, this type of characterization is perfectly appropriate and indeed illuminating. At this level the work of these writers can be seen as no more than individual variations on an invariant theme—the problematic of historicism. What this characterization is forced to ignore however, is precisely what is specific to Lukács’s own theory: a problematic which differentiates him scarcely less radically from other theoretical leftists than from orthodox marxism. In Lukács’s case this specific problematic is by no means a secondary question of local interest to the historian of ideas. For it has in fact cast a long shadow over the subsequent development of ‘western marxism’ and has recently permeated the attitudes and activities of radicals and revolutionaries who may never have read a line of Lukács’s book and act under the banner of a Marx seen through the eyes of Marcuse, the Frankfurt School, Goldmann, Lefebvre or Debord.

This differentia specifica of Lukácsism has passed so naturally into the conceptual vocabulary and thought patterns of marxisant students and intellectuals and has been interiorized so completely into the corpus of western marxism, that it is at first sight difficult to comprehend its foreignness to historical materialism. If this is so, it is because it is part of a problematic much larger than itself: an invariant problematic which has been dominant in bourgeois thought ever since the period of the French Revolution and the onset of industrial capitalism. It thus possesses all the deceptive obviousness of an ideology which fixates thought, and which in the course of its development and elaboration can only reproduce this fixation in different disguises. Like all such problematics, it constitutes a closed circle of thought, which confiscates from its subjects the possibility of thinking outside it. This problematic may be summed up in the opposition: nature versus science or industry.

Until the last years of the 18th century, the tension between these two poles was barely yet perceived. [27] Nature constituted a central category of Enlightenment thought. The path of human progress was in harmony with nature; only feudal contrivance and religious obscurantism withheld the blessings of nature’s unseen hand. The demands of the bourgeoisie were the natural rights of man. Once the baleful influence of priests and kings was removed, nature’s benevolent dominion would ensure social harmony, material prosperity, justice and peace. Man should refrain from unwarranted interference and allow nature to take her course. For nature and reason were in accord.

It was not until the aftermath of the French Revolution and the onset of industrialization that this unproblematic alliance between reason and nature was shattered, and replaced by an unbridgeable gulf between an ideology of scientistic and industrial progress on the one hand and a denunciation of its impoverishing and dehumanizing consequences on the other. It is impossible here to provide more than an extremely schematic account of the contrasting polarity henceforward contained within the couplet, nature/science-industry. In general terms, proponents of a scientistic-industrial viewpoint stressed man’s ability to confront and overcome the unknown with the aid of intellectual weapons fashioned by himself. It was this ability which led to man’s growing mastery over his natural environment: an environment which included both his natural surroundings and his own more primitive instincts. Thus history was viewed as the gradual assertion of man’s power to reason (exemplified by science) over his animal nature whose blind emotions, baseless fears and dark superstitions testified to his original state. Scientific and technological progress was thus a wholly beneficial process which swept away a world of custom and ignorance by a world of calculation and control. This process would be immeasurably hastened by the application of the methods employed so successfully in the natural sciences to the study of man himself: to human behaviour in all its aspects. For this would make possible the formulation of analytic laws governing human behaviour as universal and as regular in their effect as those governing the physical and biological world. Mathematical manipulation of these laws would lead to the progressive elimination of the random and the arbitrary. Instrumental rationality would govern human affairs and social felicity would be predetermined and planned by exact calibration of utilities.

Seen from the viewpoint of the proponents of the ‘natural’ pole of the couplet, this account of the world was a panglossian hypocrisy. For, far from bringing man happiness and fulfilment, technological progress wrenched man away from nature and thus divorced him from his own essential being. Machinery, artifice, sophistication progressively turned man’s achievements against himself. Men could no longer recognise themselves in the world of their own creation. Society became alienated from itself. For man is not just a machine whose motives and activities can be understood in terms of a model derived from mechanics or biology. Human society is not merely an aggregate of atoms subject to scientific laws. Nor are its members solely governed by rational self-interest. Man is also a passionate, feeling being. He does not merely work and feed himself; he also delights in art and play, and possesses a spirit whose freedom cannot possibly be contained within the narrow limits of natural scientific laws. People are not just cogs in a machine, but human beings who live in a community whose values and activities, when left undisturbed, are at one with the surrounding natural world. The real affinity between man and nature is not that of a being governed by the same soulless laws of science; it is, on the contrary a spiritual affinity with the rhythms and patterns of nature. Man should not merely plunder nature of her resources nor simply confront nature with his reason. For man’s relation with nature is an ‘organic’ one. Nature is not only the source of his life, but also of his imagination, of his ideas of beauty and harmony. A triumphant industrial technology only subdued nature at the expense of violating man himself. Once the bonds uniting man and nature were sundered, man became a rootless, disoriented being whose outward material accomplishments were only attained at the expense of inward spiritual loss.

In one form or another, the attack on industrial technology, natural science and enlightenment rationalism reflected a bitter rejection of the pretensions of the bourgeoisie. The form that it took varied from country to country. In France and Germany romanticism was born out of the reaction to the French Revolution. For Madame de Staël, Chateaubriand, De Maistre, the Schlegels, Novalis, Arnim, or Brentano reason was henceforth forever tainted by the excesses of the Terror. In place therefore of a ‘mechanical’ conception of existence, in Schlegel’s words, romanticism stood for an ‘organic’ conception: in place of reason, intuition; in place of criticism, faith; in place of truth, beauty; in place of science, myth and folklore; in place of bourgeois values, the medieval world of fixed estates. [28] In England, on the other hand, the first generation of romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Blake, Hazlitt) rapturously welcomed the French Revolution, and it was left to the Whig Edmund Burke and the political economist Thomas Malthus [29] to lead the tide of reaction against it. In England it was not so much the French Revolution as the visible effects of industrial capitalism justified by a bleakly utilitarian social philosophy that provided the mainspring of romantic protest. The organic ties of human community were being shattered by the triumph of ‘industrialism’. Human relations were being replaced by a ‘cash nexus’.

The Variations of Invariants

The reverberations of this polarity between nature and science/industry set in motion by the dual impact of the French Revolution and the advent of industrial capitalism have lasted down to the present day. The echoes of this problematic are to be found everywhere in the habitual vocabulary of bourgeois thought: traditionalism/modernism; status/contract; gemeinschaft/gesellschaft; verstehen/begreifen; analysis/ intuition; the dissociation of sensibility; pensée sauvage, etc. For the past 170 years it has remained an invariant problematic of bourgeois thought. Mill’s juxtaposition of Bentham and Coleridge could be applied with equal justice to the gulf between Leavis and Snow or Leary and Eysenck.

Since all non-socialist culture and a large part of socialist culture has developed within the confines of this antinomy, the tendency to assimilate one or other of the poles of this couplet to a progressive or reactionary standpoint has been overwhelming. In England, for instance, where the scientistic pole has been dominant and in general closely integrated with the viewpoint of the ruling class, the left has not surprisingly tended to endorse the essentially progressive nature of the romantic anti-scientistic tradition. This can clearly be seen in the work of the Leavisite school, and above all in Raymond Williams’s book, Culture and Society. A simple equation between romanticism and progressive attitudes, however, can only be sustained by ignoring the rabidly racist and élitist character of many of the writings of the later exponents of the tradition: Carlyle’s enthusiastic support of Governor Eyre’s brutal suppression of the Jamaica revolt in 1865–66; Ruskin’s advocacy of what amounted to a modified form of slavery as an alternative to ‘industrialism’; the obsession with ‘blood’ and the proto-fascist anti-industrialism of D. H. Lawrence; T. S. Eliot’s anti-semitism and flirtation with clerico-fascism, etc. At the same time the more progressive features of Ricardo, Hodgekin, J. S. Mill, Huxley, Spencer, Bradlaugh, Keynes and Russell are ignored or underplayed. The unpalatable fact remains that, depending on the prevailing political climate, romantic anti-capitalism is no less assimilable to right-wing extremism and variants of fascism than it is to socialism (exactly the same is also true in different political contexts of the scientistic-technological tradition) [30] . The task which Williams sets out to perform is in fact impossible to accomplish. The Janus-faced character of this romantic tradition cannot be eradicated. The reasons for its ambivalence of political signification are to be found in the very nature of ideological discourse itself. As Althusser has put it, ‘unlike a science, an ideology is both theoretically closed and politically supple and adaptable. It bends to the interests of the times, but without any apparent movement, being content to reflect the historical changes which it is its mission to assimilate and master by some imperceptible modification of its peculiar internal relations . . . Ideology changes therefore, but imperceptibly, conserving its ideological form; it moves, but with an immobile motion which maintains it where it is, in its place and its ideological role’ [31] .

But the fact that the categories of ideological discourse are labile in their signification, in no sense implies that the polarity nature/science-industry, romanticism/positivism is a simple case of the identity of opposites indifferent in their political meaning. What it does mean is firstly that, because of its looseness of articulation, a single ideological position is consistent with a variety of possible readings; and secondly that the precise mélange of ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ sentiment clustered around one pole or the other will vary according to political circumstance. This can clearly be seen in the development of this problematic in the 19th century. In different contexts, Saint Simon could be claimed both as a father of socialism and as the founder of managerial big business ideology. The influence of Comte was extremely reactionary in Europe and in Mexico, where it was employed to legitimate the brutal dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, but relatively progressive in Brazil, where Comte’s slogans appeared on the banners of the republican revolution which abolished slavery, and in England where the leading Positivist E. S. Beesly was the only important intellectual to defend the Commune. A similar ambiguity surrounds the legacy of the German romantic idealist, Max Stirner, who has been claimed both as a father of anarchism and a direct ancestor of Nazism. A large section of the French working class movement could fall under the sway of the romantic anti-technological ideology of Proudhon, while in Germany a significant sector of the socialist movement fell for the positivist ideology of Eugen Dühring. At the end of the 19th century, while socialist working men in Britain avidly read the works of Ruskin, their French contemporaries followed with equal attention the works of Emile Zola (who believed that the novel must become a branch of science through the application of experimental method). The political ambiguity of either pole of the couplet is inherently irreducible.

The Weakness of German Positivism

In Germany, the positivistic pole of the nature/science antinomy remained extremely weak throughout the 19th century. In fact Germany was parexcellence the country of romantic rancour, and the foremost breeding ground of anti-scientific and anti-rationalist philosophy. Even in the golden years of European positivism between the 1820s and the 1870s, Germany produced no positivistic thinker of major stature. Von Stein, Prince Smith and Dühring could scarcely compare with Comte or Mill. Certainly they presented a thin challenge to a tradition that included Novalis, Schleiermacher, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Stefan Georg. Ultimately, no doubt, this general weakness of German positivism was related to the structural political weakness of the German bourgeoisie and the consequently chequered and half-hearted career of German liberalism.

Philosophically, the peculiarity of the German intellectual tradition was enormously reinforced by the Kantian division of human existence into a phenomenal and a noumenal realm. Man was both a physical body and a spiritual being. Nature, the phenomenal world of appearance, followed unalterable causal laws; as a phenomenal being, man was not only a knowing subject, but also an object wholly under the sway of the laws of nature. But man also possessed another aspect. He participated in a world of spirit and freedom. This moral life was free and self-determined. In this noumenal sphere, man was not subject to causal laws in the physical sense; hence, an understanding of man as a social being could only be achieved through the speculative methods of philosophy.

The effect of this Kantian distinction was to drive a firm wedge between science and ethics, fact and value, subject and object, being and thought, the natural and the social. [32] Thus, while in England and France social thought in the 19th century was dominated by a positivistic tradition which applied to society a general analytic theory derived from the model of natural science, in Germany the Kantian distinction set up a strong and permanent counter-positivist position. Since for the idealist philosopher, all that was significant about man, his social life, his culture, was radically excluded from the phenomenal realm, therefore an analytical atomistic approach to human society was forbidden. Thus, while a transitive mechanical causality was appropriate to the natural sciences, the realm of the human spirit could only be understood by the intuition of wholes. Society, history, art, religion and philosophy were manifestations of this human spirit (geist). In this realm the scholar could not ascribe cause, he could only intuit meaning. The effects of this bifurcation were pervasive throughout all branches of the human sciences (geisteswissenschaften). It meant that although Germany did experience a positivistic influence, particularly in the 1850s and 1860s, it made little lasting impact on official German culture [33] (with the exception of psychology). In the annals of official German culture, the positivistic interlude appears virtually as a void between the dissolution of the Hegelian system and the onset of the neo-Kantian revival.

In the last third of the 19th century, the anti-positivistic bias of German thought reasserted itself more strongly than ever, culminating in an irrationalist lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life) which began to exercise a strong influence on younger German intellectuals in the decade before the First World War. The origins of this tendency are to be found in the revival of Kantianism.

The neo-Kantian movement itself was in no sense uniform. [34] In its original and most orthodox manifestations, it remained close to the positivism which it attempted to supersede. The neo-Kantians of the Marburg school were primarily concerned to provide science with a rational epistemology and to combat metaphysics. Like Engels, they firmly restricted the scope of philosophy to logic and epistemology. The effect of their work was to stress a rigorous distinction between science and ethics, fact and value.

The neo-Kantians of the Heidelberg school were much more explicitly anti-positivistic. The chosen battleground of Windelband and Rickert, the most typical representatives of this current, was the status of history, a discipline which had been increasingly claimed by positivism in the middle years of the century. The dominant intellectual influence at Heidelberg was however Wilhelm Dilthey, an unorthodox neo-Kantian who in the later years of his life moved increasingly towards an unorthodox form of neo-Hegelianism. [35] Dilthey began with a position in many respects quite close to Anglo-French positivism. He turned increasingly against these positions in the course of his study of the romantic theologian, Schleiermacher. As a result of this work, Dilthey came to the conclusion that genuine historical knowledge is an inward experience (erlebnis) of its object, whereas scientific knowledge is an attempt to understand (begreifen) phenomena which are external. ‘Mind understands only what it has created. Nature, the object of natural science, embraces that reality which is produced independently of the activity of the mind.’ [36] History is comprehensible because it is essentially composed of ‘objectifications’ of the mind. These cultural totalities, Dilthey called ‘Weltanschauungen’ and were ultimately related by him back to three basic variations in an atemporal psychic structure. They were to be interpreted by the historian through a process which Dilthey, following Schleiermacher, termed hermeneutics; this process basically consisted of a projection of self into the other and this projection was ultimately not an intellectual but an imaginative act.

The Emergence of Lebensphilosophie

Dilthey himself retained positivistic residues until the end of his life, but the effect of his work was to give enormous impetus to the romantic anti-scientific and irrationalist philosophical trends which gathered strength in Germany from the beginning of the 20th century. His stress on intuition, as opposed to rationalist analytical modes of cognition, coincided with Bergson’s intuitionist vitalism and a parallel intuitionist emphasis on non-empirical descriptive statements to be found in phenomenology. It was this combination of elements, together with the symbolist movement in literature, the diffused influence of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky and the irrationalist political philosophy of Sorels which constituted the seedbed of lebensphilosophie. In particular, the stress on intuition fatally impaired the earlier neo-Kantian restriction of philosophy to the fields of logic and epistemology. It thus enabled the reintroduction of ontology back into philosophy already to be found in the work of Rickert’s pupil, Lask, and subsequently to be resurrected on a far more grandiose scale in the works of Scheler and Heidegger.

This pessimistic anti-scientific tendency was also evident in German sociology during the same period. It informed many of the attitudes of Max Weber, although philosophically he clung to the more orthodox and positivistic variants of neo-Kantianism. It was he who first characterized capitalism as the bearer of a certain mode of scientific rationality. The triumphant progress of rationalization in the West was accompanied by a systematic elimination of magic, ritual and traditional corporate attitudes, and the progressive bureaucratization and standardization of everyday life. His attitude to this process was one of stoical resignation. ‘It is horrible to think that the world could one day be filled with nothing but these little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving towards bigger ones . . . This passion for bureaucracy is enough to drive one to despair . . . But what can we oppose to this machinery in order to keep a portion of mankind from this parcelling-out of the soul?’ [37]

The full trappings of lebensphilosophie are even more apparent in the works of Weber’s contemporary, George Simmel, an explicit anti-positivist much closer in spirit to the Heidelberg variant of neo-Kantianism. [38] Following Bergson, Simmel saw life as a perpetual force of creative movement. The opposite of life was form. But life could only become real in forms. The individual experience gave form to contents, and thereby created the objects of external reality. In certain respects, this idea had affinities with Dilthey’s conception of culture as an objectification of the mind. But while in Dilthey this process appeared unproblematic, in Simmel it was loaded with tragic implication. The individual produced objects of culture to extend his life and potentialities. To do this, he had both to utilize the sum total of human products (objective spirit) and further to interiorize and reintegrate them into his own stream of life. But this reintegration of subject and object was unattainable. The objective spirit, in the shape of finished forms, became detached from the stream of life and took on its own dynamic, developing thereafter no longer as means but as ends. Thus man became progressively enslaved by his own products.

The basic tendency of Dilthey, Simmel and the Heidelberg school—Windelband, Rickert, Lask—was not merely to maintain the traditional Kantian distinction between the human and natural sciences, but further to affirm that in some way historical knowledge was more real than scientific knowledge, and that hermeneutic intuition was more authentic than causal analysis. The problem that this assertion posed however was how the truth of historical knowledge could be guaranteed. For as Dilthey had stated: ‘all thinking in the human sciences is axiological. They select their facts and formulate their questions from the standpoint of value’ [39] . Dilthey himself sidestepped the relativistic implications of this statement by his optimistic belief in human progress and his anticipation of the creation of a master science of psychology. The lack of a satisfactory solution to the problem of relativism, however, remained for his followers a crucial unresolved dilemma from which irrationalistic and nihilistic conclusions could be drawn.

It was in these years of mounting reaction against the values incarnated by positivism, that the young Lukács served his intellectual apprenticeship. [40] He studied at Heidelberg, where he was a student of Simmel and a close colleague of Lask and Weber. He was influenced by Dilthey, Husserl, Bergson, Dostoyevsky and the symbolist movement. The themes that preoccupied him were typical of the spiritual flux into which European philosophy had begun to move. His first major work in German, The Soul and Forms (1910) raised from a Kantian position the question of the relation of human life to absolute values and posed the conditions under which human life could be ‘authentic’. It rejected every form of compromise with everyday life as an evasion. The main effect of the book was to reintroduce Kierkegaard into philosophical discussion and the book has been claimed as a founding moment in modern Existentialism. [41] Between The Soul and Forms and his second major work, The Theory of the Novel (1916), Lukács devoted himself to a study of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel. This study was never finished, but the influence of Kierkegaard was strongly apparent in The Theory of the Novel, in its depiction of time as a process of ‘absolute degradation’—a screen that progressively interposed itself between man and the absolute. The Theory of the Novel moves from a Kantian to a Hegelian position, and a dialectical method is employed to contrast the epic of the ancient world where communal values were non-problematic, to forms of the novel (the product of modern individualism) where communal values can no longer be discovered. Whether as a Kantian or a Hegelian however, the dominant influence upon Lukács was that of geistesgesichte, particularly as it had been developed by Dilthey. Writing of this period of his life Lukács stated in 1962, ‘I was then in the course of passing from Kant to Hegel, but without in any way changing my relationship to the so-called human sciences; in this respect I remained essentially dependent on the impressions I had formed in my youth from the works of Dilthey, Simmel and Max Weber. The Theory of the Novel is essentially a typical product of the tendencies of geistesgesichte.’ [42]

Historicism and Social Democracy

It is important to realize that the tradition of historians and philosophers who culminated in the Heidelberg school—the anti-positivist tradition—was predominantly conservative, nationalist and romantic. In origin, the German historicist school was a conscious rebuttal of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. The Hegelian attempt to fuse reason and history was answered by Ranke’s assertion that every age was equal in the sight of God. The theory of natural law, a central weapon of the philosophes, was demolished by the historical school of Savigny. The economic liberalism of classical economics was dismissed by List, and later by Schmoller and the historical school of economics as Smithismus or Manchestertum—not the universally valid analytical laws of economic behaviour, but simply the peculiar manifestation of the English manufacturing bourgeoisie. In its final manifestations, this historicist anti-positivist tradition merged into lebensphilosophie. History was seen as a slow process of degradation. Capitalism meant the rule of the rational, the calculating, the bureaucratic mentality. It aroused in the Wilhelmine intelligentsia, not humanitarian horror, let alone socialist commitment, but rather a romantic aestheticist contempt. Capitalism increasingly narrowed the space in which an authentic life could be lived. The masses were supine or else driven by irrational passions, the bourgeoisie were complacent and philistine, the junkers were coarse and brutish. The only correct stance to adopt was that of the stoicism of the elect.

It is thus not surprising that Marxists and Social Democrats in the Second International and the German spd should have had nothing to do with this tendency in German thought. As far as the revisionists possessed affinities with neo-Kantianism, it was not with the Heidelberg variant, but with the more liberal, progressivist and positivist Marburg current (Herman Cohen, Rudolf Stammler, Karl Vorländer). The German Social-Democratic Movement absorbed from Marxism a firm belief in the value and beneficence of science. The inextricable alliance between natural science and historical materialism had been given the firm imprimatur of Engels. In the work of semi-official party philosophers like Dietzgen and Kautsky, historical materialism was interpreted as an extension of Darwinist evolutionism applied to human history. When the revisionist debate began, neither side questioned the value of a natural scientific approach. The revisionist use of Kant centred on the Kantian distinctions between science and ethics, fact and value. Neither side seriously doubted that Marxism was an empirical science. What was at stake in the eyes of the revisionists was the contamination of Marxism by a dialectical method which obscured the distinctions between thought and being, fact and value. [43] Orthodox Marxists defended against Kantian epistemology a simple materialist view whereby cognition was an emanation of matter and the objective world existed irrespective of perception. Kantianism was attacked, not for its positivist implications, but for its half-heartedness about science—its doctrine of the thing-in-itself, which Engels had labelled as a species of agnosticism. [44]

The sort of anti-capitalism which Lukács professed in the years before 1917 had nothing in common with this German social-democratic tradition. In his early writings, Lukács evinced a form of distaste for the values of bourgeois civilization similar to that found in the work of other Heidelberg thinkers of the period. Unlike Simmel and Weber, however, he did not combine this stoical pose with an unquestioning support for German imperialism; nor did he share with Dilthey or Thomas Mann a belief in the uniqueness and superiority of German culture. Lukács never accepted the cultural chauvinism of Wilhelmine Germany and could therefore take up no position in the First World War except that of absolute rejection and total despair. Perhaps it was because of the tension between world-sick lebensphilosophie and the national democratic aspirations of the Hungarian intelligentsia, which he fully shared, that Lukács could never surrender himself totally to romantic irrationalism. As he later explained his position, it was that of combining an ethical leftism with a right-wing epistemology. [45] While fully sharing the prevailing abhorrence of positivism, he sought to find some secure foothold which would prevent him from falling down the slope which led to the nihilism of Nietzsche. He was engaged in an attempt to discover what he was later to denounce as a ‘third way’. [46] His elaboration of a ‘tragic vision’ in Pascal and Kant, his study of Kierkegaard and his move to Hegel can all be interpreted in this light. His anti-capitalism was not that of an orthodox socialist but that of a solitary romantic individual. Significantly he never felt any affinity with the Second International, and when he made his first serious study of Marx in 1908–9, he saw him through the eyes of Simmel and Weber. [47] Politically he was much more strongly drawn to anarcho-syndicalism and the cataclysmic anti-capitalist phantasies of Sorel than to Hungarian Social-Democracy. [48] His rejection of capitalism in his early years was synonymous with his rejection of everyday life and his search for the authentic. In 1910, he wrote: ‘the man who leads an ordinary life never knows where the rivers which carry him along will lead to, since where nothing is ever achieved everything remains possible . . . for men love everything which is hazy and uncertain in life, and adore the soothing monotony of the Grand Perhaps . . . When a miracle occurs then something real is achieved . . . a miracle forces itself into a man’s life and makes it into a clear and unambiguous sum of things achieved . . . it strips the soul of all the deceitful veils woven from brilliant moments and vague feelings rich with meaning.’ [49]

That ‘miracle’ occurred in 1917.

3. The Assault on Science

It is now possible to assess more clearly the specific place occupied by History and Class Consciousness in the history of Marxist thought. It represents the first major irruption of the romantic anti-scientific tradition of bourgeois thought into Marxist theory. It was not, as has sometimes been supposed, a simple return to a lost tradition of Hegel and the Young Marx, but a recovery of certain themes to be found in them, mediated by the thought of Dilthey, Simmel and the German romantic tradition. Precisely because this romantic anti-scientific tradition was translated into Marxism by a philosopher who, alone among his contemporaries in Central Europe, had read and studied Capital very deeply, the work it produced—History and Class Consciousness—was an extremely brilliant and persuasive one.

It is true, of course, that a certain relativization of science, dictated by the logic of the historicist problematic, is also to be found in the work of Gramsci and Korsch (who are generally assimilated to Lukács in latter-day discussions of theoretical leftism in the 1920s). But there is nowhere to be found in their work a comparably negative characterization of scientific progress as such. On the contrary, within the limits of their respective epistemological positions, both Korsch and Gramsci emphatically defended the emancipatory power of science and expressly defined Marxism itself as a scientific weapon of the working class. The very last page of Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy declares: ‘Just as political action is not rendered unnecessary by the economic action of a revolutionary class, so intellectual action is not rendered unnecessary by either political or economic action. On the contrary, it must be carried through to the end in theory and practice, as revolutionary scientific criticism and agitational work before the seizure of state power by the working class, and as scientific organization and ideological dictatorship after the seizure of state power.’ [50] Gramsci, for his part, went out of his way to stress the enormous secular importance of modern science and its indissoluble link with the emergence of Marxism itself. ‘The rise of the experimental method separates two historical worlds, two epochs, and initiates the process of dissolution of theology and metaphysics and the process of development of modern thought whose consummation is in the philosophy of praxis. Scientific experiment is the first cell of the new method of production, of the new form of active union of man and nature.’ [51]

In Lukács’s book, by contrast, there is no suggestion of the liberating effects of industrialization and scientific discovery, let alone of Marx’s belief that the theory of historical materialism was itself a real and responsible science. Indeed, Lukács actually goes so far as to castigate Engels for his assertion that industry and scientific experiment are forms of ‘praxis’. For Lukács, on the contrary, they are ‘contemplation at its purest’! [52] In fact—and this is perhaps the strongest evidence of all against both Lukács and the whole romantic and post-romantic tradition from which he emerged—Marx himself is strikingly and totally free from the tension between the two invariant poles of bourgeois social thought and sensibility. Nowhere in his work is there even the sign of a serious ‘temptation’ by either romantic anti-industrialism or utilitarian positivism: he had equally scathing contempt for both Proudhon and Bentham. There is no mystique either of Nature or Industry in his writings. An optimistic and promethean imagery that is a far cry from either the ‘felicific calculus’ or the ‘soul and its forms’ permeates his work from start to finish. Moreover, Marx again and again insisted on the historically progressive role of the bourgeoisie and of the enormous material revolution it had wrought with the advent of modern machine industry, whatever the savage exploitation and suffering that had accompanied it in its train. There is a famous tirade against every variety of what is called ‘feudal socialism’ in the Communist Manifesto. [53] He was unshakeably convinced that his mature work itself represented the revolutionary foundation of a new science. Capital opens with the epigraph addressed to ‘those readers who zealously seek the truth’ and states: ‘There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.’ [54] Furthermore, the metaphors of Capital are never those of the Wasteland: for all its immense brutality and oppression, Capitalism was the absolute precondition and material foundation of the classless society of the future. Marx expressed this theme characteristically innumerable times, and nowhere more eloquently than in the famous passage where he declares: ‘The ancient conception, in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production. In fact, however, when the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth, if not the universality of needs, productive powers, and so on, of individuals, produced in universal exchange? What, if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature—those of his own nature as well as those of so-called “nature” ? What, if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions, without any preconditions other than antecedent historical evolution which makes the totality of this evolution—i.e. the evolution of all human powers as such, unmeasured by any previously established yardstick—an end in itself ?’ [55] . Marx, in other words, had completely superseded the eternal bourgeois circle of romanticism/positivism by his theory of the proletarian revolution which by expropriating the expropriators would abolish the social formation which had given rise to it and produce a new order, beyond capital and its insuperable contradictions.

This supersession, which gives its ring to the whole tone of Marx’s work, is completely absent from the version of historical materialism presented in History and Class Consciousness. Instead there is a wholly undialectical and unhistorical depiction of capitalism from its outset as a process of social decay and spiritual fragmentation. Capitalist development is not seen as a ruthless dynamism, liberating as well as destroying, but as an enveloping network of metaphysical passivity. Industry and scientific experiment become mere contemplation. There is nowhere any indication in the book that Lukács actually understood what Marx meant by the liberation of the forces of production from the social relations of production. Yet as Colletti has recently written: ‘The self-government of the masses presupposes: a high productivity of labour, the possibility of a drastic reduction in the working-day, the progressive combination of intellectual and industrial work in the category of the worker-technician, masses conscious and capable of making society function at a higher historical level. In short, the self-government of the masses, the rule of the proletariat, presupposes the modern collective worker. These conditions can only arise on the basis of large-scale industry.’ [56] In Lukács’s book this dimension is wholly absent. The leap from the realm of necessity to that of freedom is given no material content. There is absolutely no vision of an advanced industrial socialism. The proletariat merely dominates that social totality to which it had always ascriptively aspired, and from which commodity fetishism and reification had hitherto separated it. Therewith all objective forms are dissolved into processes.

The Triumph of Geistesgeschichte

This attack upon the role of science and technology is not simply a residual aberration carried over from Lukács’s pre-Marxist past. It forms the theoretical core of the whole book and determines all the political errors and lacunae which thereafter derive from it. To start with, it is this central theme which accounts for the extraordinarily abstract and ethereal role assigned to the proletariat. Its role is not that of a concrete historical force, but that of a hitherto missing term in a geometrical proof. The proletariat is the deus ex machina whose timely appearance resolves the antinomies of geistesgeschichte. The problem that the German anti-positivistic school had been unable to resolve was how hermeneutic intuition was to arrive at a degree of objective certainty analogous, or if possible superior, to the analytic method of natural science. If thinking in the human sciences were really ‘axiological’, how could the spectre of cultural relativism be avoided? The achievement of History and Class Consciousness was the formulation of an elegant yet startling solution to this problem: all truth is relative to the standpoint of individual classes; the proletariat is by its essence a universal class; its subjectivity is universal; but a universal subjectivity can only be objective.

The consequence of this solution is that the traditional terms of debate about the nature of natural science are reversed. Science is subjectivized; value (in the case of the proletariat) is objectivized. Far from social-historical knowledge straining to attain a degree of certainty comparable to natural science, the methodology and findings of natural science are demoted to the status of being a particular form of expression of the world vision of the bourgeoisie. Like the rest of the bourgeois conception of the world, natural science is partial; it is a necessarily false consciousness which will be dialectically transcended by the totalizing standpoint of the proletariat, the last and only true claimant to the universal.

Moreover, just as the analytic rationality of modern science is merely a reflection of that capitalist reification which dominates the historical and social world, and hence can produce only ‘partial’ empirical findings, so conversely the proletariat’s ‘standpoint of the totality’ is integrally valid even when it is incapable of producing any partial empirical truths at all. Thus Lukács seriously declares that: ‘Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious “orthodox” Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto—without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment . . . Orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.’ [57] This famous dictum has been widely accepted and repeated on the Left, and indeed is proudly reaffirmed by Lukács in his 1967 introduction to History and Class Consciousness. [58] In fact, such a credo would simply be an intellectual suicide for Marxism: what scientific method in history has been able to survive the systematic disproof of every one of its findings? What possible charter could there be for it?

The Simplicity of History

The logical and necessary consequence of Lukács’s contempt for those concrete facts which Marx spent so much of his life studying, is that history as such plays a purely spectral role in History and Class Consciousness. In actual fact, there is very little reference to, or awareness of the real history of either the capitalist mode of production or working-class struggle in the book. [59]

Messianic anti-scientism, indeed, inevitably finds itself in insoluble difficulties once it does attempt to discuss the central political and theoretical problems raised by Marx’s work. Thus, in order to be squeezed into the straight-jacket that Lukács’s philosophical position has prepared for it, historical development is pared down to a simple procession of economic-ideological totalities expressing the life conditions of successive class-subjects. Each class-subject possesses a conception of the world which dominates and totally permeates the historical totality which it inhabits. Moreover, since it is the class subject which bestows meaning upon its historical totality and not the mode of production which assigns social roles through the production process to classes which can transform them by struggle, the role of the economic is reduced to that of a shadowy substratum which only surfaces when called upon to explain the transition from one mode of production to another.

The necessary complexity of any given social formation, which may and usually does amalgamate a number of modes of production in a hierarchical set, is annulled from the outset by this imaginary parade. The Russian Revolution, which fused and combined a bourgeois and a proletarian revolution because of the intertwined co-existence of feudal and capitalist relations of production in the Tsarist social formation, is simply unthinkable within Lukács’s scheme. No less so, of course, is the existence of petty commodity production in Western countries: the role of the peasantry in France is inexplicable within the terms of his book. The Eighteenth Brumaire might well never have been written for all its impact on Lukács’s theory.

But it is not simply the economic history of modes of production—the ‘base’—which is etherealized virtually out of existence by Lukács. The whole complexity of differential political and cultural systems in the superstructure is contracted into a few wooden leitmotifs. For Lukács, the thesis that the dominant ideology in any social formation is the ideology of the ruling class is interpreted as the saturation of the social totality by the ideological essence of a pure class subject. But it is important to notice that this domination has virtually no institutional apparatus whatever. It is simply ‘pure ideology’—the unseen rays of a hidden centre of the universe: commodity fetishism. Thus in History and Class Consciousness, Lukács’s whole account of bourgeois ideological domination is reduced to the invisible emanations of reification from commodities, which radiate out to bleach the consciousness of the inhabitants of capitalist society. What is strikingly and completely missing in Lukács’s account is, of course, the whole institutional superstructure of bourgeois class power: parties, reformist trade unions, newspapers, schools, churches, families are scarcely mentioned. The actual cultural systems which in the real world constitute the foundations of bourgeois hegemony and which form the basis of what Lenin is talking about in What is to be Done? when he speaks of the ‘Massive and natural superiority of means’ [60] enjoyed by bourgeois ideology over proletarian ideology, are wholly absent from the disembodied scenario of History and Class Consciousness. There, the bourgeoisie maintains its ideological rule, not through the corporeal communication of its political organizations, voluntary associations, press or educational systems but solely through the ghostly discourse of commodities. They alone speak.

Moreover, quite apart from the huge lacuna of any discussion of the institutions for the transmission of ruling class ideology in a capitalist society, there is also a drastic and crippling simplification of the nature of the ideologies transmitted. For Lukács, the dominant ideology in a social formation will be a pure manifestation of the ideology of the dominant class, and the ideology of the dominant class will be a pure reflection of the life conditions and conception of the world of that class. There are only two classes which can aspire to this form of domination—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Internal political or social differentiation within these classes are explained simply as contingent and adventitious failures to achieve full class awareness. The contamination of a pristine class ideological essence by elements derived from the ideologies of other classes is thus an automatic sign of political decline. In fact, Lukács’s theory of ideology here is not merely ‘schematic’, it is incorrect in principle. For there has never existed the type of pristine ideological sway which he presupposes, because ideologies are not simply the subjective product of the ‘will to power’ of different classes: they are objective systems determined by the whole field of social struggle between contending classes. Thus, as Nicos Poulantzas has written: ‘the dominant ideology does not simply reflect the life conditions of the dominant class-subject “pure and simple”, but the political relationship in a social formation between the dominant and dominated classes’ [61] —to which need only be added the extension of this relationship into the total field of the international class struggle. There are innumerable examples in history of this phenomenon, all of them incompatible with Lukács’s theory of class consciousness. Otherwise, what are we to make of the oft-cited incorporation of Jacobinism—a petty-bourgeois ideology of small producers—into the official doctrines of French capitalism? Or the so-called ‘socialism’ of the Indian big bourgeoisie and its Congress Party today, not to speak of innumerable other ex-colonial countries? Or the impact of imperialist ideology on the ruling establishments of non-capitalist countries?

Hegelian Collapse Theory

In the case of the dominated classes, Lukács’s model leads to even more serious results and is mainly responsible for his inconsistent and uncomfortable handling of the notion of ‘ascribed’ proletarian class consciousness. There is no room in it for conceiving the possibility of a dominated class which does possess a consciousness which is neither ‘ascribed’, nor that of the ruling class, but is uneven and impure. Once again history is littered with examples of this impurity in which radical proletarian class instinct is often deeply overlaid by bourgeois ideological veneers of different sorts, or in which genuine proletarian ideology is mixed with contaminations from allied, rather than enemy, classes—peasants or urban petty producers for example. The Proudhonism of the early French working class is an example of the second type: the Lassalleanism of the early German working class, or the Fabianism of the British labour movement down to this day, are examples of the first. In Italy, Gramsci’s distinction between ‘corporate’ and ‘hegemonic’ ideologies of the proletariat was, of course, precisely designed to grapple with just this problem of the co-existence of different ideological horizons and traditions within the ranks of the exploited. Lukács condemns all this to silence. Indeed, he literally has no other categorical option but to consign structurally ‘impure’ cases of class consciousness to non-existence. The peasantry or petty-bourgeoisie is thus always consigned to the dark void of complete unconsciousness: ‘In all decisions crucial for society its actions will be irrelevant and it will be forced to fight for both sides in turns but always without consciousness. We cannot really speak of class consciousness in the case of these classes (if, indeed, we can even speak of them as classes in the strict Marxist sense of the term) . . . Consciousness and self-interest are mutually incompatible in this instance. Since class consciousness was defined in terms of the problems of ascribing class interests, the failure of their class consciousness to develop in the immediately given historical reality becomes comprehensible philosophically.’ [62]

The proletariat itself is necessarily always at one or the other of these extremes. Short of full ‘ascribed’ consciousness, it is condemned to no consciousness at all. This unconsciousness can only be surpassed by the proletariat as a class breaking through the reified structure of prevailing thought. The question then arises, what determines the proletariat’s swing from one to the other of these two all-or-nothing poles in any particular historical case?

The answer is disconcertingly simple. For all its denunciations of the mechanical Marxism of the Second International, Lukács’s model itself remains securely trapped within the problematic of the Second International belief in the final, cataclysmic economic collapse of capitalism that will usher in the socialist revolution—the Zusammenbruch theory. For the emergence of true proletarian consciousness is mechanically attributed by Lukács to the advent of a full-scale economic crisis. ‘The active and practical side of class consciousness, its true essence, can only become visible in its authentic form when the historical process imperiously requires it to come into force, i.e. when an acute crisis in the economy drives it to action. At other times it remains theoretical and latent, corresponding to the latent and permanent crisis of capitalism.’ [63] Here all Lukács achieves is a restatement of the old Luxemburgist and anarcho-syndicalist couplet, economism/spontaneism, in a new Hegelian terminology.

In the last two essays of History and Class Consciousness, an attempt is made to modify this extremely primitive economist/spontaneist model (which is much poorer than Luxemburg’s more sophisticated version of it, from which it is derived) by suddenly arguing that proletarian class consciousness normally lags behind the objective situation and therefore needs the party to bring it up to the mark of revolutionary Marxism. ‘The class consciousness of the proletariat does not develop uniformly throughout the whole proletariat, parallel with the objective economic crisis. Large sections of the proletariat remain intellectually under the tutelage of the bourgeoisie; even the severest economic crisis fails to shake them in their attitude. With the result that the standpoint of the proletariat and its reaction to the crisis is much less violent and intense than is the crisis itself . . . Proletarian ideology lags behind the economic crisis.’ [64] But Lukács is unable to show why the Party should necessarily be able to compensate for this lag. In effect, he merely substitutes a mystical belief in the ideological efficacy of the party for that of the proletariat. Thus while the class languishes in the swamp of revisionism and menshevism, the party is assumed to be magically proof against this ideological crisis, and is endowed with the power to recall the class to its true historical vocation. The result is ultimately to exchange an economist spontaneism for an organizational voluntarism. Lukács comes little nearer to authentic Marxism, or to real history, with this shift. In fact, of course, it is often the masses who have to educate the party, and not just the party which organizes and guides the masses. The whole trajectory of the Russian Revolution is rich in episodes of this dialectical process. It was not the Bolshevik central committee which overthrew Tsarism in February; who invented the Soviets?

The Spiritualisation of Power

Lukács’s conception of proletarian ideology and of the working-class party, moreover, does not merely prevent him from ever providing in History and Class Consciousness the elements of that ‘concrete analysis of a concrete situation’ which Lenin always said was the ‘soul of Marxism’. It does not only situate the book at a great remove from actual history. It also leads to an ultra-idealist form of politics proper. For Lukács’s conception of class power is so totally confined to an etherealized ideology, that it not merely passes over the whole array of cultural apparatuses whereby the bourgeoisie exercises its ideological dominance in capitalist social formations, but it also largely neglects the political apparatus of capital par excellence: the State. There is very little in the main essays of History and Class Consciousness on the bourgeois State. Such passages as there are often betray a fundamental inability to comprehend its plain class role. Thus Lukács reproaches the judicial branch of the State apparatus for dispensing an impersonal justice like ‘a ticket-machine’—as if it were merely the formal rationality and calculability of this justice which constituted its banefulness, and not the class oppression of its whole substantive content! Apart from this reference and a similar allusion to bureaucracy, there is no discussion of the army or the police. In other words there is no real mention of that State apparatus which Marx and Lenin taught had to be broken physically by the working class with material, insurrectionary struggle, to accomplish the socialist revolution. Lukács effectively ignores this crude coercive instrument of capitalist power.

The logical consequence is that he ends by affirming explicitly that the power of the ruling class is ultimately spiritual in character, and that therefore the emergence of true proletarian class consciousness is itself tantamount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. ‘The strength of every society is in the last resort a spiritual strength. From this we can only be liberated by knowledge.’ [65] Lukács adds the logical rider to this axiom: ‘To become conscious is synonymous with the possibility of taking over the leadership of society.’ [66] The conclusions are in fact inscribed in his whole initial epistemology. For according to the latter, the proletariat, when it accedes to true class consciousness, becomes the identical subject-object of history, and thereby the first class to acquire an adequate social comprehension of society and history. Because this consciousness is the self-knowledge of reality, and embodies the union of thought and being, the proletariat’s very accession to its ascribed class consciousness de facto modifies its own class situation. An adequate consciousness is already a practice which alters its object. Lukács affirms this candidly idealist thesis black on white: ‘An adequate, correct consciousness means a change in its own objects, and in the first instance, in itself.’ [67] Thus when the consciousness of the proletariat as a class breaks through the reified laws of political economy which condemn it to a commodity existence, it thereby decisively modifies its life-condition; ‘When the worker knows himself as a commodity, his knowledge is practical. That is to say, this knowledge brings about an objective structural change in the object of knowledge.’ [68]

Indeed, once the epistemological postulate of the ‘identical subject object’ is established, it is inevitable that Lukács should have simply cancelled any distinction whatever between objectification and alienation, as he himself was later to admit. For if consciousness is itself a practice which alters its object, a subjective ‘interiorization’ of the object can not merely modify but abolish it as an object altogether. Again, Lukács has the courage to follow through the consequences of this surreal logic. He writes: ‘For the proletariat, however, this ability to go beyond the immediate in search of the “remoter” factor means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action.’ [69] Later, he adds that after the victory of the socialist revolution: ‘The social significance of the dictatorship of the proletariat, socialization, means that . . . as far as the proletariat—regarded as a class—is concerned, its own labour now ceases to confront it in an autonomous, objectified manner.’ [70] It is thus perfectly natural for Lukács to argue that for the proletariat to become class-conscious is ‘synonymous’ with the possibility of assuming the leadership of society. If social power is always ultimately spiritual in character, once the proletariat fulfils its vocation as the identical subject-object of history by acquiring an adequate consciousness of capitalist society, it abolishes this society in a final interiorization of it. The exact analogy of this procedure with the movement of Hegel’s Spirit needs no emphasis. All that it omits is the brute, material struggle for power—strikes, demonstrations, lock-outs, riots, insurrections or civil wars—that is the stuff of terrestrial revolutions.

Marxist Lebensphilosophie

Lukács’s basic schema, it should now be evident, is a rigorous form of idealism. Since class consciousness suffices to alter class situation and full class consciousness is equivalent to domination of the social whole, power is ultimately ideological. A ruling class dominates and organizes its social totality by the impregnation of it by its own consciousness. It will be seen that if this syllogism is applied strictly, the Marxist party has no significant role to play in the socialist revolution. Lukács does, however, try to insert the party into his model in the later essays of his book, but the result is often an unhappy compromise between the philosophical millenialism which he was beginning to modify and Leninist theory, with which he was just beginning to become acquainted. Recalling the book in 1967, Lukács was to claim that his idea of ‘ascribed class consciousnesss’ was an attempt to make the same distinction as that developed by Lenin in What is to be Done? between ‘spontaneously emerging trade-union consciousness’ and ‘socialist class consciousness’ which is ‘implanted in the workers from outside, i.e. from outside the economic struggle and the sphere of the relations between workers and employers.’ [71] This retrospective justification is, however, not a convincing one. The Kautsky-Lenin schema, which stresses that bourgeois intellectuals are by definition the possessors of previous scientific accumulations, and must therefore be the initial bearers of Marxist theory ‘to’ the working class, is doubtless only a partial one (for it omits to stress that the historical preconditions and materials of this theory are the real struggles of the nascent working class itself, without which it would be impossible for historical materialism to have been forged). But it is at least, within its own self-declared limits, close to the historical facts, and moreover possesses the merit of posing sharply the question of what happens to the science of historical materialism when the masses adopt it in a revolutionary party. It thus confronts the central problem of the relation between the party and the masses by allowing for their respective autonomy. Lukács’s formulations, however, tend to banish the problem altogether by collapsing science into consciousness, and class consciousness into (acute) class situation. Where Lenin had contrasted revolutionary Marxist science with spontaneous trade-unionism, Lukács juxtaposes a Weberian ‘ascribed class consciousness’ with non-consciousness trapped in the reified world of appearances. The transition from one to the other is presented at times as a moral ascesis, accomplished under the pressure of economic crisis: ‘Class consciousness is the “ethics” of the proletariat, the unity of its theory and its practice, the point at which the economic necessity of its struggle for liberation changes dialectically into freedom. . . . The moral strength conferred by the correct class consciousness will bear fruit in terms of practical politics.’ [72] Here ethics expressly commands politics, in a philosophical moralization of class struggle. The role of the party is thus inevitably a supernumerary one, merely reduplicating the ethical bearing of the class. ‘The true strength of the party is moral: it is fed by the trust of the spontaneously revolutionary masses whom economic conditions have forced into revolt.’ [73] Thus when, in the later essays which end the book, the problem of the party is reposed in more Leninist fashion, there is no epistemological basis for it. The parthenogenetic powers of the class are simply displaced onto the party, without there being any real effort to explain why the party is both distinct from the masses and yet a detachment of them, a vanguard which both teaches the masses and learns from them. These positions are formally affirmed in the closing pages of the volume, but there is no theoretical foundation for them within the book.

In effect the subordination of all political analysis in the main essays of History and Class Consciousness to the exigencies of a philippic against science render impossible any grasp of the complexity of the relations between party and class. By his refusal to concede that Marxism is not only a revolutionary political ideology, but also a materialist science of social formations, Lukács is disabled from discussing the relationship between science and politics, and hence of thinking problems of political strategy. The theoretical logic of the book, as we have seen, is highly idealist: the thaumaturgical powers of consciousness suffice to overthrow capital. But it would be wrong to think that it is reformist. Lukács’s subjective revolutionary sincerity was unquestionable, and there are passages in the book—especially, of course, the later sections—where correct formulations about the character of the socialist revolution and other topics can certainly be found. [74] But these are necessarily unintegrated into the total pattern of the work. In a sense, it is its very remove from concrete politics that saves it from the consequences of its most perilous arguments. The philosophical theory delineated in it can, by changes in the names of categories, co-exist equally genuinely and enthusiastically in different parts of the book both with Luxemburgist and Leninist political loyalties. There is no Lukácsian politics as such in History and Class Consciousness. [75] For the over-riding intention of the book lies elsewhere: its original hope, and ambition, is to arrange a marriage between romantic anti-scientific lebensphilosophie and historical materialism. [76]

The Path of Transition

However, having said all this, it is important to remember that Lukács himself characterized History and Class Consciousness, not as a Marxist essay, but as a transitional work in which elements of Marxism are blended with a pre-Marxist ideological problematic. This can clearly be perceived in the book itself. For there is a marked difference in quality between the last two essays—written in 1922—and the rest. Lukács’s essay on Luxemburg’s critique of the Russian Revolution, despite utopian elements, marks a huge step forward from the idealist abstractions of the preceding essays. For the first time in the book, the necessarily over-determined character of any revolutionary process is grasped. Lukács justly criticizes Luxemburg’s exaggeration of the ‘purity’ of the proletarian character of the Russian Revolution, the consequent faults in her judgment of the critical tactical problems of land, nationalities and the constituent assembly. There is, moreover, an astonishingly perceptive discussion of the political results of the failure of the pre-1914 left inside the spd to understand the importance of separate organization and their corresponding overestimation of the importance of ideological debate within an organically reformist party: the essentially episodic character of the pre-war revisionist-revolutionary debate itself. The main weakness of this essay is Lukács’s failure to understand the gravamen of Luxemburg’s charge that the Bolshevik leaders had under the duress of the civil war subordinated and devitalized the Soviets and Russian working-class institutions, and that this was certain to produce an ulterior degeneration of the ussr if a revolution in the West did not come to its aid. The necessity for autonomous proletarian institutions of political power escaped him. Nevertheless, given this major limitation, the essay is certainly the best appraisal of Luxemburg’s critique written in Europe at that time, and is notable for its serene and warm tone at a time when Luxemburg’s memory was already coming under sectarian attack.

The final essay on Organization reveals something of the same mixture of recurrent mistakes and very real advances. In a direct analysis of the structure and role of the revolutionary party, Lukács was still unable to provide any adequate theory of internal democracy and collective decision-making processes within it—not surprisingly, since only a firm grasp of the inseparability of these from a correct external relationship to the class could have helped him to produce one, and this was precluded by the terms of his initial philosophical model, as we have seen. However, there is clear acknowledgment now of the existence of a dialectical relationship between party and class, even if this is not theoretically founded—as can be seen by Lukács’s solution to the problem of inner-party democracy, which simply proposes mechanical rotation and periodic purges to ward off the dangers of bureaucracy. At the same time, there is still idealist denial of the divisive effects of socio-economic stratifications within the proletariat on its ideological outlook, and hence an inability to see the party’s function in overcoming these. But the essay does contain extremely intelligent sections on collective discipline and personal militancy, and an illuminating critique (much superior to the over-rated work of the renegade sociologist Michels) of the structural causes of reformism and passivity among the rank-and-file of the bureaucratized parties of social-democracy. Thus, right at the end of History and Class Consciousness, Lukács was clearly struggling to escape from the theoretical impasse in which the main problematic of his earlier philosophy had imprisoned him.

The Viewpoint of Historical Materialism

The success with which Lukács did break out of the historicist idealism of History and Class Consciousness, and the real and formidable power of his intelligence, can be seen in the short work which he published a year later—Lenin. [77] This remarkable book is in every respect superior to Lukács’s earlier work: indeed, it inhabits an entirely different universe. Here, for the first time, were systematized and developed most of the lasting cornerstones of Leninist theory. The Hegelian terminology, the identical subject-object and ascribed class consciousness vanish completely. Hostility to science is no longer present; Marxism itself is conceded proper scientific status. Even the term ‘reification’ is abandoned (although the notion is still present). A certain confusion between Lenin’s distinct concepts of the revolutionary situation and the revolutionary epoch is to be found in the initial chapter of the book; and an underlying unawareness of the significance of his final great struggle against bureaucracy, in the last chapter. But with these two exceptions, the main theses of Lenin’s political theory and their structural inter-connexions have to this day never been better expounded and clarified than in this brief volume. This is not the place to discuss all its dimensions and insights. But it is necessary to stress that there are at least five or six absolutely central questions on which Lukács’s Lenin represents a radical rupture with his History and Class Consciousness.

To begin with, in lieu of the formerly economist and spontaneist conception of a working-class revolution provoked by a straightforward depression and trade crisis, there is a singularly firm and lucid grasp of the basic Leninist thesis of the combination of different modes of production within single social formations and historical epochs, and of the necessarily overdetermined character of any revolutionary crisis: ‘A particular mode of production does not develop and play a historic role only when the mode superseded by it has already everywhere completed the social transformations appropriate to it. The modes of production and the corresponding social forms and class stratifications which succeed and supersede one another tend in fact to appear in history much more as intersecting and opposing forces.’ [78] Lukács spells out the consequences of these intersections very explicitly in reference to revolutionary upsurges: ‘The deeper the crisis, the better the prospects for the revolution. But also, the deeper the crisis, the more strata of society it involves, the more varied are the instinctive movements which criss-cross in it, and the more confused and changeable will be the relationship of forces between the two classes upon whose struggle the whole outcome ultimately depends: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.’ [79]

A Materialist Theory of Reformism

Lukács was thus now able to assimilate Lenin’s strategic conception of the weakest link in the ruling order of the class enemy, which had to be seized and attacked if the working class were to wage its struggle for emancipation victoriously: ‘The need to take into account all existing tendencies in every concrete situation by no means implies that all are of equal weight when decisions are taken. On the contrary, every situation contains a central problem the solution of which determines both the answer to the other questions raised simultaneously by it and the key to the further development of all social tendencies in the future.’ [80] At the same time, the party whose function it is to lead the working class in the socialist revolution is an altogether different entity from the shadowy demiurge of History and Class Consciousness. Instead of a Manichean alternation between party and class, Lukács now develops a theory of the party that is authentically close to the conceptions of Lenin, both in its stress on the need for maximum internal coherence and discipline and maximum external concern for the widest possible alliances of the exploited. Moreover, the party is no longer simply a vanguard that awakens the masses from a slumbering lethargy: it listens to the masses and learns from them, in a permanent dialectic between party and class. ‘In no sense is it the party’s role to impose any kind of abstract, cleverly devised tactics upon the masses. On the contrary, it must continuously learn from their struggle and their conduct of it. But it must remain active while it learns, preparing the next revolutionary undertaking. It must unite the spontaneous discoveries of the masses, which originate in their correct class instincts, with the totality of the revolutionary struggle, and bring them to consciousness.’ [81]

Furthermore, Lukács now directly confronts the problem of a working-class consciousness that is not revolutionary, but reformist, and in doing so actually provides in some ways a more complex and subtle account of the roots of the phenomenon of reformism than Lenin himself. For, unlike Lenin, he does not confine his explanation simply to trade-unionist spontaneity and a labour aristocracy corrupted by imperialist superprofits. He stresses in addition to these forces, both the objective pressure of the socio-economic differentiation within the working class and—particularly strikingly—the subjective cultural advantages of a labour bureaucracy over its class, due to its relative monopoly of professional knowledge and administrative skills: ‘Capitalist development, which began by forcibly levelling differences and uniting the working class, divided as it was by locality, guilds and so on, now creates a new form of division. This not only means that the proletariat no longer confronts the bourgeoisie in united hostility. The danger also arises that those very groups are in a position to exercise a reactionary influence over the whole class whose accession to a petty-bourgeois living standard and occupation of positions in the party or trade-union bureaucracy, and sometimes of municipal office, etc, gives them—despite, or rather because, of their increasingly bourgeois outlook and lack of mature proletarian class consciousness—a superiority in formal education and experience in administration over the rest of the proletariat; in other words, whose influence in proletarian organizations thus tends to obscure the class-consciousness of all workers and leads them towards a tacit alliance with the bourgeoisie.’ [82]

Lukács’s Theory of the State

Finally, Lukács in his Lenin supersedes his earlier preoccupation with an idealistically conceived ‘ideology of reification’, unanchored in institutional apparatuses, generically emanating from commodities, and virtually dispensing with the political coercion of the capitalist State itself. He shows in Lenin, how, on the contrary, it is precisely the whole State apparatus of bourgeois democracy in advanced capitalist countries that disintegrates and disorganizes the working class. ‘The pure democracy of bourgeois society, connects the naked and abstract individual directly with the totality of the State, which in this context appears equally abstract. This fundamentally formal character of pure democracy is alone enough to pulverize bourgeois society politically—which is not merely an advantage for the bourgeoisie but is precisely the decisive condition of its class rule.’ [83] However, the bourgeois State is surrounded by a large number of auxiliary apparatuses which in their own right contribute to and consolidate the class power of capital. The varied actors so prominently absent from History and Class Consciousness now step onto the scene: ‘Political democracy of this kind is, of course, by no means enough to achieve this end by itself. It is, however, only the political culmination of a social system whose other elements include the ideological separation of economics and politics, the creation of a bureaucratic State apparatus which gives large sections of the petty bourgeoisie a material and moral interest in the stability of the State, a bourgeois party system, press, schools’ system, religion and so on. With a more or less conscious division of labour, all these further the aim of preventing the formation of an independent ideology among the oppressed classes of the population which would correspond to their own class interests; of binding the individual members of these classes as single individuals, as mere ‘citizens’, to an abstract state reigning over and above all classes; of disorganizing these classes as classes and pulverizing them into atoms easily manipulated by the bourgeoisie.’ [84] Confronted with this serried institutional array of political domination, there is no longer any question of the working class winning power simply by acceding to its proper consciousness. Whereas Lukács had once asserted that ‘the strength of every society is in the last resort a spiritual strength’, he now had no doubts that class rule ‘rests in the last analysis on force,’ [85] and that therefore to break the capitalist State, the proletariat must create its own State apparatus, in the form of Soviets: ‘Even in 1905, in their earliest and most undeveloped form, the workers’ Soviets display this character: they are an anti-government.’ [86] ‘Workers’ Soviets as a state apparatus: that is the state as a weapon in the class struggle of the proletariat.’ [87] Thus here, too, Lukács decisively left behind the idealism of History and Class Consciousness: in his Lenin there is to be found, on the contrary, a classical expression of the materialist conception of the socialist revolution. This book, published in 1924 just as the tide of the international revolution was ebbing, shows that Lukács could possess an extremely clear and incisive grasp of the concrete, and that had his exceptional gifts been allowed to develop, he might well have emerged as one of the foremost political thinkers in the history of the revolutionary movement.

The Retreat from Politics

That this development was cut short must be accounted at once a major intellectual tragedy in Lukács’s case, and a significant loss for the European labour movement in this century. For an extremely brief yet fertile period, Lukács was able to participate in the political life of both the Hungarian and German Communist Parties, although with very different perspectives in these two organizations. Under Zinoviev and Bukharin, the Comintern—for all its manipulative centralism—still possessed a certain plurality of factions and internal vitality. Lukács was a prominent and active member of the Landler tendency in the Hungarian Party, which consistently opposed Bela Kun’s bureaucratic and adventurist leadership. After Landler’s death, Lukács briefly and ambiguously became General Secretary of the Party in 1928, when he drafted the celebrated Blum Theses which constituted a rejection of the Third Period line. The final Gleichschaltung of the Comintern, however, eliminated all diversity or dissent within it: under the notorious doctrine of ‘social fascism’, every party was ruthlessly purged and subordinated to Stalin. Lukács’s theses were ferociously denounced, and he was silenced within the Hungarian Party.

Thus, in 1929, he had to choose between active oppositionism outside the Comintern, or retreat from active politics altogether within it. He opted without hesitation for the latter. The long history of his subsequent literary and philosophical career need not concern us here. It is well-known that after reading Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in Moscow in the 1930s, he was to substitute the more optimistic concept of ‘labour’ for that of the ‘commodity’ as his starting point for historical materialism. [88] He was thereby enabled to abandon his anti-scientific past altogether, and to reinterpret the young Hegel in the light of this new position. Indeed, after the Second World War, Lukács was to write a massive and virulent indictment of the whole German idealist and irrationalist tradition from which he himself had sprung—the Destruction of Reason. [89] In one sense, no one could have gone further in rejecting anti-scientific romanticism. But at a deeper level, Lukács seems to have re-assumed after 1928 the structure of his early weltanschauung, even while repudiating its contents. For, in accommodating himself to Stalinism, Lukács rediscovered the distinctive posture of the tradition which had first formed him: stoical acceptance of the established powers of the external, political world, combined with an internal, aesthetic contempt for them. Indeed, except for a brief interlude in the twenties, Lukács doubtless maintained an attitude of silent, inward reserve and dissociation throughout his life, even when he appeared most closely involved in great political crises. Two examples of this may suffice. During the Hungarian Commune of 1919, Lukács furnished theoretical justification for the self-dissolution of the Communist Party which was later to be regarded as one of its gravest mistakes; he was de facto Commissar for Education and fought with the Red Army on the Tisza front. Yet his later comments reveal that Lukács all along probably regarded the Commune as a doomed and misguided affair. Then, during the second great revolutionary explosion in Hungary of this century, Lukács accepted a Cabinet post in the Imre Nagy government in 1956. But once again, he was to indicate afterwards that he did so only by way of formal solidarity: his tacit, private reservations about the Nagy government separated him from any positive conviction or participation in it. These were the two episodes of Lukács’s career when he was directly involved in mass revolutionary upsurges: even then he kept an invisible distance from them. Most of his political life, however, was spent in the worst decades of Stalinist stagnation and repression. His attitude to this ruling environment seems to have been a faithful homologue of that of his earliest intellectual mentors. Just as Weber helped to provide an intellectual rationale for the practice and aims of Wilhelmine imperialism, while at the same time despising the coarse junkers and provincial bureaucrats who were its executors, so Lukács was to expound and defend the doctrines of Stalinism—from ‘socialist realism’ to ‘peaceful coexistence’—while concealing an inward contempt for Stalin’s scribes and policemen. Stoical accommodation and secret disdain once again became his ruling code. From the viewpoint of revolutionary Marxism, the aristocratic point d’ honneur of this outlook does not in either case save it from a humdrum conformism. The principles of socialist militancy are not those of aesthetic lebensphilosophie.

4. Science and Class Struggle

But in the capitalist world at least, little serious interest has been taken in Lukács’s subsequent political and intellectual development. It is the romantic anti-scientific thematic of History and Class Consciousness that has remained the central focus of interest within western Marxism. Lukács’s interpretation of the ideological battle between capitalism and socialism as a conflict between formal analytic rationality and the viewpoint of the totality is to be found again and again in the works of later thinkers, among them, Goldmann, Marcuse and Sartre. Moreover, in one form or another, this grandiose idea of an epic combat between methodologies has become an almost inseparable component of the spontaneous ideological baggage carried by radical student movements throughout the advanced capitalist world.

As has been shown, however, the pervasive appeal of this theme, is no guarantee of its connection with Marxism. For it rests on a dual misunderstanding of the basic tenets of historical materialism. Historical materialism can theorise the significance of scientific activity as is social practice and can formulate the specific social and historical conditions in which new sciences have emerged: but it does not thereby arbitrate their validity or their scientificity. To believe otherwise is to conflate the social bearers of a science with its substantive contents; the materialist history of a science with its epistemology. The laws of Newtonian Physics do not, in so far as they are scientific, depend for their scientificity upon the historical destiny of capitalism. [90] Seriously to believe that these ‘partial’ and ‘reified’ laws will be transcended by the triumphant totalizing praxis of the proletariat, is to fail to understand that the epistemology of a science is necessarily irreducible to its historical conditions of production. There never will be a millenium in which the formal analytic procedures of natural sciences will cease to be applied to those objects for which they are the adequate instruments of appropriation. For every science employs a method and a conception of causality specific to the construction of its object.

The problematic area is not that of science but of ideology. For, historically, the opening up of new scientific continents have invariably been accompanied by the growth of philosophies parasitic upon them; philosophies which have wrenched methods and conceptions of causality specific to the construction of a certain scientific object away from their proper context and extended them into regions of knowledge where they may cease to have any adequacy: in other words the creation of scientistic ideologies whose modes of practice are the polar opposite of the sciences in whose names they seek to exercise dominion. Platonism, rationalism and positivism can each be seen as ‘imperialistic’ attempts to generalize the procedures of particular sciences and to impose them onto terrains of knowledge where they may be both obscurantist and obstructive. [91] The rational kernel of Lukács’s long irrationalist crusade against ‘science’ in History and Class Consciousness was, in fact, an instinctive and passionate resistance to exactly this kind of philosophical scientism, which in its positivist form, has invaded wider and wider areas of bourgeois thought in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This project which the author of History and Class Consciousness set himself highlights the difficulties encountered by an infant science struggling for its autonomy. For it will be besieged, on the one hand, by those who deny its scientificity in the defence of its claim to autonomy, and on the other hand, by those who attempt to annexe it to the domain of some pre-existing science—thereby denying its autonomy—in the defence of its claim to scientificity. In the case of historical materialism, these twin dangers are represented by romanticism and positivism. If the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness represents Scylla, Kautsky, Bukharin and a whole tradition of positivist Marxism represent Charybdis.

It is above all important for Marxists to realize, firstly that historical materialism is a science and not just a more universal form of consciousness; and secondly, that it is an autonomous science whose criteria of validity and conception of causality are specific to the construction of its object—and therefore cannot simply be borrowed from the methodological procedures of some pre-existing science. Paradoxically, this second point was extremely well put by Gramsci who wrote: ‘Every research has its own specific method and constructs its own specific science, and the method has developed and been elaborated together with the development and elaboration of this specific research and science and forms with them a single whole. To think that one can advance the progress of a work of scientific research by applying to it a standard method, chosen because it has given good results in another field of research to which it was naturally suited, is a strange delusion which has little to do with science.’ [92]

The scientific object which historical materialism is designed to construct is history. Historical materialism is the scientific theory of social formations and their transformation. Marxism is not simply this, however. For it is unified with a political practice, which it both seeks to explain and which in turn is based on it. This political practice is the mass struggle of the proletariat, itself the result of a dialectical relation between the revolutionary party and the working class. This special nexus between historical materialism and class struggle cannot be thought out on the basis of the relationships which govern other physical sciences, for it is dictated by the specificity of its scientific object: the transformation of modes of production. It is clear that the relationship of science to politics, ‘theory’ to ‘practice’, in historical materialism bears no relation to that of hypothesis/experiment in physical sciences (whose practices anyway will differ among themselves). Is it necessary to say that the Marxist practice of proletarian class struggle, which aims to overthrow the capitalist state and relations of production, is not amenable to regulative models imported from physics and chemistry?

The reason for the dual threat to historical materialism from those of its supporters who in the name of ‘scientific Marxism’ import procedures derived from scientistic ideologies relating to pre-existing science, and those who reject all science in abhorrence at this prospect, is that the relation between science and politics, theory and practice, remains largely unsolved. [93] The fact of the non-solution of this problem leaves historical materialism prey to the inrush of alien ideologies (some of them, vast and tragic theoretical monuments of misguided ingenuity) which attempt to fill the conceptual void. Marx aimed and claimed to build a science, that would be the theory of the liberation of the working class. History and Class Consciousness remains the most powerful monument within the modern socialist tradition to the difficulty of this claim and the novelty of the task.




[1] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, tr. Rodney Livingstone, Merlin Press, London, 1971. This edition is excellently translated and contains some useful explanatory notes at the end of the book. One word of warning is necessary, however. Lukács’s 1967 essay which is used as an introduction to the book, was designed for a volume of the German collected works which cover all his political writings in the 1920’s, and not solely History and Class Consciousness (hereafter abbreviated to hcc). Thus, when on p. xiii Lukács refers to his essay on problems of organization, he is not referring to the essay on organization in hcc. It should also be noted that while Livingstone has translated the term ‘zugerechnetes Klassenbewusstsein’ as ‘imputed class consciousness’, I have preferred the term, ‘ascribed class consciousness’.

[2] An English work, entitled Aspects of History and Class Consciousness, ed. Istvan Meszaros, London, 1971, does not contain any direct critique of the actual contents of the book.

[3] It is important to realize that History and Class Consciousness is a collection of essays written at different times, not arranged in chronological order, and not subsequently edited or significantly altered for book publication. The result is that quite apart from important changes of political position contained within it, the book also abounds with minor inconsistencies. This makes it extremely difficult to analyse the argument of the book as a coherent whole. All that can be claimed here is that an attempt is made to examine and criticize the main purport of the theses advanced.

[4] hcc p. 83.

[5] hcc p. 170.

[6] hcc p. 89.

[7] hcc p. 98.

[8] hcc p. 103.

[9] hcc p. 99.

[10] hcc p. 100.

[11] hcc p. 100.

[12] hcc p. 7.

[13] hcc pp. 10–11.

[14] hcc p. 116.

[15] hcc p. 142.

[16] see hcc p. 148.

[17] hcc p. 19.

[18] hcc p. 20.

[19] hcc p. 51. It can be seen that the conception behind the idea of ‘ascribed’ consciousness is very closely related to the Weberian theory of ideal types. There is however a significant difference. For while the Weberian ideal type can never manifest itself in its pure form, since it is always overlaid by the complexity of interests in empirical reality, Lukácsian ‘ascribed’ consciousness appears in its pristine form or not at all.

[20] hcc p. 259. Italics in original

[21] hcc p. 262.

[22] hcc p. 229.

[23] hcc p. 224.

[24] hcc p. 182.

[25] hcc p. 189.

[26] hcc p. 27.

[27] Some writers have attempted to read into Rousseau elements of a later romantic critique of reason, in the name of an idealized state of nature. This is a misreading of Rousseau, for whom the state of nature was not a prescription but a critical device. As Kant at least realized, Rousseau’s ‘writings did not propose indeed that man should go back to the state of nature, but that he should look back on it from the level he has now attained’. Rousseau never counterposed reason to intuition in the manner of the romantics since ‘les plus grandes idées de la divinité nous viennent de la raison seule’. (Emil was taught to govern his life by reason.) Nor did Rousseau present an idealized account of the state of nature: ‘quel progres pourrait faire le genre humain, epars dans les bois parmi les animaux . . . tant qu’il mene une existence solitaire, l’homme n’est qu’un animal stupide et borne . . . C’est seulement au sein d’état qu’il acquiert son intelligence, son droit du devoir’. Rousseau’s disagreement with the philosophes had little or nothing in common with the later romantic critique of the Enlightenment. Both Rousseau and the philosophes agreed that it was reason that bore the torch of social betterment. Disagreement centred around whether man’s moral progress inevitably accompanied this social betterment. For general accounts of the Enlightenment conception of nature, see Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932; tr. F. C. A. Koelln and J. P. Pettegrove, 1951); Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: an interpretation, 2 Vols, 1966 and 1969.

[28] For a discussion of romanticism as a European phenomenon, see A. Lovejoy, ‘On the discrimination of Romanticisms’, Essays in the History of Ideas, Baltimore, 1948, and René Wellek, ‘The Concept of Romanticism in Literary History’, and ‘Romanticism Re-examined’, Concepts of Criticism, Yale, 1963.

[29] Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798, was originally conceived as an attack on Godwin’s Political justice, an anarchist utopia composed in the Enlightenment tradition. By inserting the problem of population into nature, Malthus severely challenged the optimistic conceptions of nature prevalent in the 18th century. As Talcott Parsons has put it, ‘Malthus introduced a very subtle serpent into the harmonious paradise of Locke. The whole theoretical structure threatened to crash.’ (Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, Glencoe, 2nd ed. 1961, p. 104.) Henceforth, those who defended ideologies of technological progress, stressed not so much man’s essential harmony with nature, as his ability to overcome it.

[30] Writing of Romanticism as a European phenomenon, Eric Hobsbawm comes much nearer to an adequate conception of its political character: ‘Whatever its content, it was an extremist creed. Romantic artists or thinkers in the narrower sense are found on the extreme left, like the poet Shelley, on the extreme right, like Chateaubriand and Novalis, leaping from left to right, like Wordsworth, Coleridge and numerous disappointed supporters of the French Revolution, leaping from royalism to the extreme left, like Victor Hugo, but hardly ever among the moderates or whig-liberals in the rationalist centre, which indeed was the stronghold of “classicism”. “I have no respect for the Whigs”, said the old Tory Wordsworth, “but I have a great deal of the Chartist in me”.’ (The Age of Revolution, 1962, p. 259.)

[31] Louis Althusser, Reading Capital, tr. Ben Brewster, London, 1970, p. 142.

[32] For an excellent account of the influence of Kant upon the 19th-century German intellectual tradition, see Parsons op. cit. pp. 473–99.

[33] See W. M. Simon, European Positivism in the Nineteenth Century, Cornell 1963, pp. 238–64, for an analysis of the influence of Comte in Germany; and Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, 2nd ed, ny. 1954, pp. 374–89, for a discussion of Lorenz Von Stein.

[34] The best account of the different schools of Neo-Kantianism to be found in English is Lewis White Beck, ‘Neo-Kantianism,’ Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences, 1966.

[35] The bulk of Dilthey’s writings remain untranslated. A selection of excerpts from his major texts can however be found in H. A. Hodges, Wilhelm Dilthey, London, 1944. See also Carl Antoni, From History to Sociology, London, 1962; R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, Oxford, 1946; R. Aron, Essai sur la theorie de l’histoire dans L’Allemagne contemporaine, Paris, 1938.

[36] Hodges, op. cit. p. 32.

[37] Cited in J. P. Mayer, Max Weber and German Politics, Faber, 1943, pp. 127–8.

[38] Simmel is rather misleadingly known to the English speaking world as a pioneer in the sociology of small groups. His major work, however, was Philosophie des Geldes (Philosophy of Money), 1900. Some account of the main themes contained within this book can be found in S. P. Altmann, ‘Simmel’s Philosophy of Money’, American Journal of Sociology, 1903; and Kurt Heinz Wolff, George Simmel, (ed), 1965.

[39] Hodges, op. cit. p. 80.

[40] The best accounts of Lukács’s early intellectual development are to be found in his autobiographical fragments, Mein Weg zu Marx, 1933; his 1962 introduction to The Theory of the Novel, and his 1967 introduction to History and Class Consciousness; accounts are also to be found in Lucien Goldmann, ‘Introduction aux premiers écrits de Georges Lukács,’ Les Temps Modernes, No. 195, August 1962, and George Lichtheim, Lukacs, Fontana, 1970.

[41] Goldmann, op. cit.

[42] Georges Lukács, La Theorie du Roman, Paris, 1963, pp. 6–7.

[43] On the connections between neo-Kantianism and revisionism, see Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism,ny, 1952; and Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, London, 1970, passim.

[44] Engels, ‘Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German Philosophy,’ Selected Works, Moscow, 1968, pp. 605–6.

[45] Lukács, La Theorie du Roman, op. cit. p. 16.

[46] Georges Lukács, Existentialisme ou Marxisme? Paris, 1948, p. 48

[47] hcc p. ix.

[48] Lukács states that his interest in Sorel was aroused by Ervin Szabo, ‘the spiritual mentor of the Hungarian left-wing opposition in Social Democracy’ (hcc p. x). Lukács’s distaste for Second International Social-Democracy is comprehensible not only in terms of his philosophical formation, but also in terms of the situation in Hungary before the breakup of the Habsburg empire. As a result of the legal repression of any form of explicitly political proletarian struggle, the Hungarian Social Democratic Party was dominated to an even greater extent than elsewhere by a timid and conservative trade-union leadership, whose power was permanently sustained by an organizational structure designed for industrial rather than political purposes (voting for the party leadership was indirect and organized on the basis of shop stewards’ conferences representing each craft and trade). The party leadership was deferential towards the government, unimaginative in strategy (especially towards the peasantry) and unflinchingly anti-intellectual. The result was that the discontent of the Hungarian intelligentsia could find no adequate expression within the party, and political education, which in other countries was generally regarded as part of the normal functions of the party, in Hungary was performed by parallel institutions outside it (particularly the Galileo Circle). Szabo came from a middle-class Jewish family (as did so many of the most prominent representatives of the Hungarian revolutionary intelligentsia) and became a Marxist under the influence of Russian exiles in Vienna. In the early 1900’s he launched a major attack on the Hungarian spd for ‘timid parliamentarism’ and for its establishment of an organizational structure designed to ‘perpetuate the rule of a small trade-union oligarchy’. His general platform for the reform of the party was based on a model derived from French anarcho-syndicalism. For an interesting account of the character of the Hungarian socialist movement up to the revolutions of 1918–9, see Rudolf L. Tokes, Bela Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Stanford, 1967, pp. 1–49.

[49] Cited in Lucien Goldmann, The Hidden God, London, 1964, p. 39.

[50] Korsch, op. cit. p. 84

[51] Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and tr. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, London, 1971, p. 446.

[52] hcc p. 132.

[53] Marx Engels, Selected Works, op. cit. pp. 53–55. For Marx’s view on the Romantic Conception of Nature, see Alfred Schmidt, Marx’s Theory of Nature, London, 1971.

[54] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Moscow, 1961, p. 21.

[55] Karl Marx, Precapitalist Economic Formations, tr. Jack Cohen, London, 1964, pp. 84–85.

[56] L. Colletti, ‘The Question of Stalin’, nlr 61, p. 79.

[57] hcc p. 1.

[58] hcc pp. xxv-xxvi.

[59] Writing of the impact on him of Dilthey’s Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung (Lived Experience and Literary Creation), Lukács later wrote, in his 1962 introduction to The Theory of the Novel: ‘This new terrain appeared to us then as a mental universe of grandiose syntheses, both in the realm of theory and in the realm of history. We failed to see how little these new methods were based on facts. That great thinkers had achieved solid results, not so much because of this method, but in spite of it, was something that escaped us in our youthful enthusiasm. It became the fashion to start off from a few characteristic traits of a tendency or a period—traits usually grasped in a purely intuitive fashion—then to synthesize general concepts from them, and finally to return deductively to individual phenomena, in the conviction that this amounted to a grandiose view of the totality’. (La Theorie du Roman, op. cit. p. 7.) This characterization of the hermeneutic method was designed by Lukács to explain his procedure in The Theory of the Novel. But it could be applied equally well to the method by which the concept of reification is established in History and Class Consciousness.

[60] Lenin, What is to be Done, p. 131.

[61] Nicos Poulantzas, Pouvoir Politique et Classes Sociales, Paris, 1968, p. 219.

[62] hcc p. 61.

[63] hcc p. 40.

[64] hcc pp. 304–5.

[65] hcc p. 262.

[66] hcc p. 268.

[67] hcc p. 199.

[68] hcc p. 169.

[69] hcc p. 175.

[70] hcc p. 248.

[71] hcc pp. xviii–xix.

[72] hcc p. 42.

[73] hcc p. 42.

[74] For example, Lukács fleetingly admits the coexistence and hierarchy of different modes of production in a single social formation (hcc p. 242); once or twice speaks of historical materialism as a true science (hcc p. 224); or refers to workers’ councils in the context of the dictatorship of the proletariat (hcc p. 80).

[75] This point is correctly perceived, if perhaps over-enthusiastically pressed home in Jean-Paul Dollé, ‘Du Gauchisme ` l’Humanisme Socialiste,’ Les Temps Modernes, January 1966, where it is argued that an identical theoretical problematic could both provide the basis for ultra leftism in the 1920’s and a flabby reformism after 1956.

[76] It is significant that only in two passages in the book does Lukács explicitly confront romanticism, in a passing discussion of the romantic conception of nature (pp. 135–40 & footnotes 47–53, pp. 214–5). Here he states that romantics from Schiller, Schlegel and Schelling to Ruskin and Carlyle, through their stress on intuition of the totality (derived from the model of artistic creation) have turned nature into a subjective mood. ‘What would seem to be the high point of the interiorization of nature really implies the abandonment of true understanding of it.’ (p. 214.) However Lukács’s conversion of romantic ‘Natural Philosophy’ into merely a subjective ‘mood’ is an oversimplification which vastly exaggerates the irrationalist element in romantic thought. ‘Natural Philosophy’ was primarily a protest against the narrowness of classical mechanics rather than a rejection of science as such, and did actually result in important scientific discoveries (see Hobsbawm, Age of Revolution pp. 294–6). Moreover, to reduce the romantic critique of science and ‘reification’ to a shapeless and fuzzy emphasis on intuition, is obviously tendentious. One need only think, in the case of England, of Blake’s connection between Newtonianism and ‘dark satanic mills’, or Carlyle’s analysis of the dehumanization of the ‘cash nexus’ or the link between capitalism and the ‘dismal science’ in Past and Present. This summary handling of early romantic anti-capitalism in History and Class Consciousness virtually seems to be designed to cover the author’s own affinities with it.

[77] Georg Lukács, Lenin, tr. Nicholas Jacobs, London, 1970.

[78] Lenin p. 45.

[79] Lenin p. 28.

[80] Lenin p. 84.

[81] Lenin p. 36.

[82] Lenin p. 28.

[83] Lenin p. 65.

[84] Lenin p. 66.

[85] Lenin p. 65.

[86] Lenin p. 62.

[87] Lenin p. 64.

[88] The substitution of the concept ‘labour’ for that of the ‘commodity’ enabled Lukács to arrive at a more internally consistent humanist interpretation of Marxism than had been possible in History and Class Consciousness. An identical subject-object implies a model of development similar to that elaborated by Hegel in the Phenomenology: an originally unitary subject becomes alienated from itself in the course of its development, poses its alienated essence in the form of an object, and finally recuperates it to become again an identical subject-object at the end of history. As Jozsef Revai pointed out in 1924, however, if the identical subject-object is posited to be the proletariat, then the original subject was not present at the beginning of the historical process, but only produced in the course of history by the development of commodity production. Thus the attempt to conceive the proletariat as the identical subject-object logically breaks down, and Lukács is as guilty of ‘conceptual mythology’ as Hegel himself. See Jozsef Revai, ‘A Review of Georg Lukács’s “History and Class Consciousness” ’ Theoretical Practice, No. 1, 1971, pp. 28–29. By substituting the concept of labour—the central notion of the 1844 Manuscripts, Lukács was further enabled to substitute the concept of ‘man’ for that of the ‘proletariat’, and thus could arrive at a subject who would be present both at the beginning and at the end of the historical process. Moreover, once labour becomes the central unifying feature of man’s development, the liberating as well as alienating role of science and industry can then be clearly perceived. For an illuminating comparison between Lukács’s earlier and later philosophical positions, see Ben Brewster, ‘Revai and Lukács’, Theoretical Practice, op. cit. pp. 14–21.

[89] Georg Lukács, Die Zerstörung der Vernunft, Berlin, 1954. This work is also available in Italian and French translation.

[90] This is not to suggest, of course, that the scope and range of a science at a particular time, is not related to its historical condition of production, or that scientific theory at any particular point in time will not be blended with pre-scientific ideological elements generally indistinguishable to contemporaries.

[91] Of course, such philosophical ideologies can play extremely important progressive roles in certain circumstances. The Platonic tradition, for example, played a crucial part in promoting the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Galileo’s statement that ‘the book of nature is written in geometrical characters’ is explicitly Platonic in inspiration (see Alexandre Koyré, Metaphysics and Measurement, London, 1968, pp. 1–43). Similarly it can scarcely be doubted that Hobbes’s transference of the Galilean law of uniform motion into the realm of political theory, if ultimately inappropriate, marked an enormous conceptual advance (see C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, London, 1964, p. 77).

It should not be forgotten that as ideologies, such philosophies were profoundly inflected by class interests. Thus the progressive role of seventeenth and eighteenth century mechanical materialism was closely related to the progressive role of the bourgeoisie during this period. Conversely, the thoroughly reactionary character of positivism in advanced capitalist countries today is a reflection of the overwhelmingly reactionary position of the bourgeoisie in these countries.

[92] Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit. p. 439. Paradoxically, because at another stage in his career Gramsci hinted that history possessed an experimental structure, of which historical materialism was the moment of hypothesis.

[93] This does not mean that historical materialism any more than any other science awaits some final post festum theoreticization divorced from the practice of the science itself.



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