Sunday, May 1, 2011

Reification and agency in Lukacs

Georg Lukács was the great theorist of revolution in the 20th century. In the process of explaining the principles of the Russian revolution he provided answers to some vital questions: How do capitalist ideas maintain a hold on our consciousness? In what circumstances do people become radicalised? And how can socialists build genuinely mass revolutionary movements?

Lukács’ revolutionary ideas of the 1920s were suppressed by Stalin and have been marginalised by academics and even many on the left. They have lived a kind of underground existence re-emerging whenever fundamental change is being discussed. The book introduces his ideas and argues they are vital to our world of crisis and war.

A philosopher activist

Lukács became a revolutionary and a Marxist during the greatest wave of working class struggle in history, unleashed by the Russian revolution at the end of the First World War. Already a well known intellectual in Hungary, months after joining the newly-formed Hungarian Communist party in December 1918 he found himself a leader in the events which led to the brief Hungarian soviet republic in 1919. He was People’s Commissar for Education and for a short time a political commissar at the battlefront.

The Hungarian Workers Republic ended in disaster. This was, as Lukács himself came to recognise, because it was unstable from the start. The Hungarian Communist Party had called an insurrection in February 1919 well before it had majority support in the workers’ councils. The uprising was crushed, as mass radicalisation proved no substitute for political preparation. All the same, the militancy of peasants and workers and the annexation of parts of the country by foreign powers led to the collapse of the bourgeois government, creating a power vacuum.

The Hungarian Soviet Republic came about in March 1919 through a merger between the Communists and the reformist Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP was handed power by the ruling class in a last ditch attempt to salvage the system. Lukács and the leadership of the Communist Party interpreted the new alliance of reformists and revolutionaries as a spontaneous restoration of proletarian unity, but it turned out to be a recipe for confusion and then disaster.

Communist Party leaders acted as if they were in a revolutionary government, forcing through nationalisation of the land with no concern for the interests of the peasantry while the majority of workers remained under reformist leadership. Faced with new attacks from an alliance of counter-revolutionary powers, the SDP leaders capitulated and the Communists were isolated. A reactionary government was formed, which unleashed a reign of terror on the left, executing 5,000 and driving tens of thousands more out of the country.

Lukács wrote his key works of the 1920s – Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought, History and Class Consciousness and Tailism and the Dialectic – in the aftermath of this experience, while he was in exile in Vienna. We can see now this was a decisive moment for the socialist movement. Before the war the world socialist movement had been organised in the Second International, whose complete accommodation to the system was exposed by its leading parties’ support for the First World War. The Russian Bolsheviks stood out against this betrayal and led a successful revolution that became an inspiration for millions around the world.

Both History and Class Consciousness and Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought express the revolutionary potential of the moment, and the fear that lessons were not being learnt from the experience. By 1925, when Lukács wrote Tailism and the Dialectic, there were signs that the isolation of the Russian revolution was encouraging a new form of fatalism.

Life under capitalism

In History and Class Consciousness Lukács does take the role of capitalist institutions as mediating elements into account. But he explains their capacity to secure workers’ acquiescence as a product of the lived experience of capitalism. He also explains how and why that same experience can create opposition.

Lukács’ starting point is the fact that capitalism turns everything in to a commodity, a unit of product whose only purpose is to generate profit for capitalists. Lukács argues it is no accident that the commodity was also Marx’s starting point when he wanted to ‘portray capitalist society in its totality and lay bare its fundamental nature’ in his major works.

The problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them.

Commodity production shapes how we experience and understand the world. It reduces quality to quantity and it conceals the overall process of exploitation in an immediate world of buying and selling. Echoing Marx’s words in Capital, Lukács described how commodification has the effect of giving relations between people the character of things, of ‘reifying’ them.

In the process relationships acquire a ‘phantom objectivity’ and an autonomy ‘that seems so strictly rational and all embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature.’ This is why commodities have what Marx called ‘the character of a fetish’. Like primitive fetishes made by humans and then worshipped as gods, commodities come to rule over us even though we create them ourselves.

We can only grasp the full impact of this process of reification when we realise that the essential condition for the conquest by the commodity form is the transformation of labour itself into a commodity. If the value of goods is going to be determined by the labour time necessary in their production, labour power must be fully integrated into this rational, universally-quantified system. The worker must sell her labour power like any other commodity on the market.

Neither objectively nor in relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of the process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not.

Commodification shapes the physical process of work itself and our understanding of it. Work becomes dominated by rationalisation, a high division of labour, repetition and obsession with quantity rather than quality. The finished article no longer appears as the object of a process at all. The fragmented process of production of the object ends up producing a fragmented subject: ‘The personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle fed into an alien system.’

Reification then has three reinforcing effects on consciousness. It hides the real, human relations of capitalism; it makes the system appear as if it is driven by an inhuman, preordained logic; and it makes workers feel powerless to do anything about it.

It is often pointed out that Lukács, through his reading of Capital, arrived at a concept almost identical with the idea of alienation contained in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which was written in 1844 but not published until 1932.

But he did more than that. He broke new ground by showing how reification permeated the whole of capitalist society and laid the foundations for the first ‘unified structure of consciousness’ in history. He went on to explore the implications of this for radical politics.

Lukács argued that the state of mind generated by the experience of work at the sharp end of capitalist production is suffused throughout the institutions of capitalist society.

The atomisation of the individual is, then, only the reflex in consciousness of the fact that the ‘natural laws’ of capitalist production have been extended to cover every manifestation of life in society; that for the first time in history the whole of society is subjected, or tends to be subjected, to a unified economic process, and that the fate of every member of society is determined by unified economic laws.

Lukács argued for example that bureaucracies are a corollary to the factory system:

Bureaucracy implies the adjustment of one’s way of life, mode of work and hence of consciousness, to the general socio economic premises of the capitalist economy, similar to that which we have observed in the case of the worker in particular business concerns. The formal standardisation of justice, the state, the civil service and so forth, signifies objectively and factually a comparable reduction of all social functions to their elements, a comparable search for the rational formal laws of these carefully segregated partial systems.

So way beyond the profit-making workplace, in institutions across society, tasks are reduced to quantifiable functions, to ‘unit throughput’, in processes that acquire autonomy from the personality and therefore from human judgement. Even for those dealing directly with other human beings the sense of overall purpose is lost, all sense of cause and effect obscured.

Lukács gives the example of the journalist whose powers of empathy, judgement, knowledge and expression are divorced from personality, and who is placed in an unnatural isolation when confronting the facts or events he or she ‘reports’ on. ‘The journalist’s “lack of convictions,” the prostitution of experiences and beliefs is comprehensible only as the apogee of capitalist reification.’

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