Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lukács on Bukharin's "Theory of Historical Materialism"

Ben Brewster: Introduction to Lukacs on Bukharin

Merleau-Ponty once described Lukács’ work as a ‘too notional dialectic (which) does not convey the opacity, or at least obscurity of real history’. This remark probably expresses most readers’ immediate reaction to Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. Recently, this abstraction has been cited as part of a general indictment of all Lukács’ work, and all that of those Marxists in the tradition which he initiated. Whatever our ultimate judgment of his work as a whole, Lukács’ celebrated criticism of Bukharin—never before translated into any language—shows that the impression of abstraction derives from the special purpose of Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein, not from the essence of Lukács’ Marxism. Lukács’ training in the social sciences was from Simmel and Weber, that is, classical German sociology. Weber’s work, the summation of this tradition, is notorious for two things: firstly its erudition, the wealth of detailed comparative analyses of every kind of society; and secondly its obsession with rationality, which took the form of a surreptitious evolutionism that saw increasing rationalization and socialization everywhere as the destiny of the West. As Weber refused a general theory of social development, this evolutionism, though all-pervasive in his work, remains untheorized. In Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein Lukács used concepts from this side of the tradition (socialization, reification) to reveal new aspects of what was a general historical scheme—Marx’s analyses of feudalism and capitalism and the passage between them. This is, of course, also the favourite field of T�es, Simmel and Weber, but Lukács’ concept of the historical totality enabled him to link their conceptual abstractions to the concrete history of the last few centuries. In the process Weber’s overall conceptions are concretized, but Marx’s highly specific historical analyses are etherealized. Hence the abstraction of Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein is relative to Das Kapital, not to Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.

The other dimension of German sociology, however, is apparently highly concrete: its vast stock of comparative detail and historical example. It is here that Weber’s work is frequently at its strongest. In 1925, Lukács brought this part of the tradition to bear on the oversimplifications and false emphases of Bukharin’s Marxist primer, The Theory of Historical Materialism, a Popular Textbook of Marxist Sociology (1921). The weaknesses of this work are well-known (see Gramsci’s criticisms, for example) even though its presentation of Marxism as a technological determinism is still widely accepted by both Marxists and non-Marxists. What is as interesting, however, is that Lukács does not confine himself to a purely philosophical critique, but examines crucial areas of the Marxist interpretation of history to show the weakness of Bukharin’s work. The concreteness of this approach contrasts sharply with the abstraction of Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. However, they are fundamentally in harmony, and have explicitly in common the concern to combat the evolutionist determinism which descended from the Second International, and replace it with a theory of revolutionary action.

Marx argued that the motor of historical change was the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. If only the latter moment is regarded as social, the forces of production must mean pure technology. As in the last analysis the development of the forces of production produces a breakdown of existing relations of production and the creation of new relations, technology becomes the determining factor in the structure and change of all societies. This view has been widely debated and much effort has gone into attempts to prove or disprove the importance of technology with respect particularly to moral factors. Within American sociology, Alvin Gouldner has attempted a wide-ranging quantified analysis in Notes on Technology and the Moral Order. Whatever the results of such comparisons, it must be asked whether the historical relevant question can be posed in terms of this simple opposition. Lukács argues that it cannot; technology is only a moment of the forces of production which are in themselves social phenomena. The contradiction between forces and relations of production is that between the real conditions of appropriation of nature—all the social relations, cultural and physical factors that go into the process of production—and the conditions of expropriation—the relations determining the ownership and distribution of the product.

Naturally enough, Marxists have concentrated on the study of the transformations from feudalism to capitalism and from capitalism to socialism, as they have been closer to these transitions than to any other. It is therefore of great interest that Lukács here extends the analysis to a transition that is rarely discussed in depth in Marxist literature, though non-Marxist historians and sociologists have given it considerable attention: the transition from the Roman Empire to the feudal middle ages. If evolutionism is rejected, this transition cannot be regarded as just one more homologous link in the historical chain, of academic interest only, but as an immense, autonomous event whose consequences we are still living. It is a pity that neither the detailed work of non-Marxist theoreticians nor this initiative of Lukács’ have provoked much response from Marxists.

Lukács’ other central criticism of Bukharin is his insistence on the impossibility of prediction in the social sciences. As in Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein he stresses that this methodological error is opposed to the revolutionary spirit of Marxist theory; it diverts attention from the real possibilities of revolution—problems of revolutionary action —to the assertion of the inevitability (or perhaps the impossibility) of the downfall of capitalism and its replacement by socialism.

For all its brevity, this review unites all the major aspects of Lukács’ theory, perhaps in a more balanced form than in Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. Concrete historical analysis, methodological criticism and a political position are seen to be inextricably linked in a revolutionary synthesis.

Ben Brewster.

Georg Lukacs: Technology and Social Relations

Bukharin’s new work serves the long-felt need for a systematic Marxist summary of historical materialism. Nothing of this kind has been attempted within Marxism since Engels’ Anh-Dühring(except for Plekhanov’s small volume). Summaries of the theory have been left to the opponents of Marxism, who have generally only understood it very superficially. Therefore Bukharin’s attempt is to be welcomed even though its methods and results must be criticized. It should be said that Bukharin has succeeded in drawing together into a unified, systematic summary that is more or less Marxist all the significant problems of Marxism; and further, that the presentation is generally clear and easily understood, so that the book admirably fulfils its purpose as a textbook.

As Bukharin’s aim is only to produce a popular textbook, the critic must be indulgent towards particular statements especially in rather obscure areas. This, and the difficulty of obtaining the relevant literature in Russia, also excuses the fact that in his handling of art, literature and philosophy Bukharin draws almost completely on secondary sources, ignoring most recent research. But this intensifies Bukharin’s risk of simplifying the problems themselves in the effort to write a popular textbook. His presentation is brilliant and clear, but at the same time it obscures many relations rather than explaining them. But we must never accept a simplified presentation that simplifies the problems and solutions themselves, rather than the historical constellations of problems and solutions, especially as Bukharin’s tendency to simplification is not confined to marginal ideological creations, but encroaches on central questions. For example, Bukharin sets out a precise parallel between the hierarchy of power in the structure of economic production on the one hand and that of the the State on the other. He closes with the remark: ‘Thus we see here that the structure of the state apparatus reflects that of the economy— i.e. the same classes occupy the same positions in both.’ This is undoubtedly correct as a developmental tendency. It is also true that a long-run, major contradiction between the two hierarchies usually leads to a revolutionary upheaval. But concrete history will not fit into Bukharin’s over-schematic, simplified formula. For it is perfectly possible that a balance of economic power between two classes in competition may produce a state apparatus not really controlled by either (if it must secure many compromises between them) so that the economic structure is by no means simply reflected in the State. This is true for example of the absolute monarchies at the beginning of the modern era. A class may even reach economic power without being in a position to mould the state apparatus completely to its own interests, or to stamp it with its class character. Mehring has convincingly demonstrated that the German bourgeoisie was so afraid of proletarian assistance in its bourgeois revolution that, even in the energetic struggle for bourgeois reforms at the time of its most rapid economic advance, it left the Junkers’ state apparatus alone and quietly accepted the survival of its feudal-absolutist power structure. Of course, a textbook cannot be expected to deal with these questions in depth. But the absence even of a hint of the importance of such exceptions to the model makes Bukharin’s presentation somewhat suspect. Plekhanov and Mehring have frequently demonstrated in more specialized works how a popular presentation is compatible with a basically scientific approach. Bukharin has accepted the timely and important task of summarizing all the problems of Marxism; but in many respects he does not attain the standard reached by Plekhanov and Mehring.

But we must not confine ourselves to details. More important than such oversights, Bukharin deviates from the true tradition of historical materialism in several not inessential points, without thereby proving his points or improving on the highest level reached by his predecessors; indeed, he hardly even reaches that level. (It goes without saying that we consider his achievement, remarkable even in its errors, to partake of the best tradition of Marxism; popularizers rarely deal with such matters). This remark applies particularly to the introductory philosophical chapter, where Bukharin is suspiciously close to what Marx aptly called bourgeois materialism. Bukharin apparently does not know of the critique of this theory by Mehring and Plekhanov, not to mention Marx and Engels themselves, which sharply restricts its validity for an understanding of the historical process because of the particular place of history in historical, dialectical materialism. When every ‘idealist’ from Bernstein to Cunow has inverted this real centre of Marxism, it is understandable and, in the last analysis, healthy, that there should be a reaction. But in his philosophical remarks, Bukharin rejects all the elements in Marxist method which derive from classical German philosophy, without realizing the inconsistency this involves. Of course, Hegel is mentioned from time to time, but the essential comparison of his and Marx’s dialectic is absent. Characteristically, the only reference to Feuerbach is to note that with him ‘matter came to the fore’; ‘his influence on Marx and Engels assisted the development of the true theory of dialectical materialism.’ He completely ignores the problem of the relation between Feuerbach’s humanism and the Marxist dialectic.

This point has been particularly stressed because it clearly reveals the essential error in Bukharin’s conception of historical materialism. The closeness of Bukharin’s theory to bourgeois, natural-scientific materialism derives from his use of ‘science’ (in the French sense) as a model. In its concrete application to society and history it therefore frequently obscures the specific feature of Marxism: that all economic or ‘sociological’ phenomena derive from the social relations of men to one another. Emphasis on a false ‘objectivity’ in theory leads tofetishism.

The Role of Technology

The discussion of the role of technique in social development highlights these remnants of undissolved quiddity (unaufgelõster Dinghaftlichkeit) and false ‘objectivity’. Bukharin attributes to technology a far too determinant position, which completely misses the spirit of dialectical materialism. (It is undeniable that quotations from Marx and Engels can be found which itis possible to interpret in this way.) Bukharin remarks: ‘Every given system of social technique determines [1] human work relations as well.’ He attributes the predominance of a natural economy in classical times to the low level of technical development. He insists: ‘If technique changes, the division of labour in society also changes.’ He asserts that ‘in the last analysis’ society is dependent on the development of technique, which is seen as the ‘basic determinacy’ of the ‘productive forces of society’, etc. It is obvious that this final identification of technique with the forces of production is neither valid nor Marxist. Technique is a part, a moment, naturally of great importance, of the social productive forces, but it is neither simply identical with them, nor (as some of Bukharin’s earlier points would seem to imply) the final or absolute moment of the changes in these forces. This attempt to find the underlying determinants of society and its development in a principle other than that of the social relations between men in the process of production (and thence of distribution, consumption, etc)— that is in the economic structure of society correctly conceived— leads to fetishism, as Bukharin himself elsewhere admits. For example, he criticizes Cunow’s idea that technique is bound to natural conditions, that the presence of a certain raw material is decisive for the presence of a certain technique, on the grounds that Cunow confuses raw materials and the subject of labour, forgetting ‘that there must be a corresponding technique for which wood, ore, fibres, etc., can perform the role of raw materials . . . the influence of nature in the sense of material requisites is itself a product of the development of technique’. But should we not apply this valid criticism to technique itself? Is the conclusion that the development of society depends on technique not just as much a false ‘naturalism’ as Cunow’s theory, just as much a somewhat refined version of the ‘environmental’ theories of the 18th and 19th centuries? Naturally, Bukharin avoids the crude error of this ‘naturalism’: the attempt to explain change by a fixed principle. For technique indeed changes in the course of social development. His explanation of change is thus correct from the point of view of formal logic, in that it explains change by a variable moment. But technique as the selfsufficient basis of development is only a dynamic refinement of this crude naturalism. For if technique is not conceived as a moment of the existing system of production, if its development is not explained by the development of the social forces of production (and this is what needs clarification), it is just as much a transcendent principle, set over against man, as ‘nature’, climate, environment, raw materials, etc. Nobody doubts that at every determinate stage of the development of the productive forces, which determine the development of technique, technique retroactively influences the productive forces. Bukharin emphasizes this in reference to all ideology (Engels’ later theoretical insights are relevant here); but it is altogether incorrect and unmarxist to separate technique from the other ideological forms and to propose for it a self-sufficiency from the economic structure of society.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

This is a serious error, for if technique is seen as even only mediately determinate for society, the remarkable changes in the course of its development are completely unexplained. Take for example the difference between classical and medieval technique. However primitive medieval technique may have been in performance, however much it may have represented a retreat from the well-known technical achievements of antiquity, medieval technique’s principle was development on a higher level: i.e. the rationalization of the organization of labour as compared with classical society. Labour performance remained unrationalized, and the rationalization of the organization of labour was achieved rather through the ‘door of social violence’ [2] than through the development of technical rationality. But this laid the basis for the possibility of modern techniques, as Gottl has clearly demonstrated for the water-mill, mines, firearms, etc. This crucial change in the direction of technical development was based on a change in the economic structure of society: the change in labour potentialities and conditions. One of the essential co-determinate causes of the breakdown of classical society was, of course, its inability to support the social basis of its productive organization: the wasteful exploitation of inexhaustible slave material. The middle ages laid the general basis of the new form of social organization necessary. Max Weber [3] has convincingly demonstrated that the coexistence of slaves and freemen in antiquity hindered the development of guilds and hence of the modern state—another contrast between the Orient or Antiquity, and modern society. Medieval social organization arose in quite opposite circumstances (shortage of labour, etc.) which then determined the essential course of technical development. So when Bukharin asserts that ‘a new technique made slave labour impossible; as slaves ruin complex machinery slave labour no longer pays’, he turns the causal relation on its head. Slavery is not made possible by a low level of technique; rather slavery as a form of the domination of labour makes the rationalization of the labour process, and hence a rational technique, impossible. Little work has yet been done on slavery as a relatively isolated enclave in a world economy based on wage labour, so we know little about the modifications it introduces. [4]

This inverted relationship appears even more clearly if we turn to the transition from medieval production to modern capitalism. Marx explicitly stresses that the transition from guild handwork to manufactures involved no change in technique: ‘With regard to the mode of production itself, manufacture in its strict meaning is hardly to be distinguished, in its earliest stages, from the handicraft trades of the guilds, otherwise than by the greater number of workmen simultaneously employed by one and the same individual capital. The workshop of the medieval master handicraftsman is simply enlarged. At first, therefore, the difference is purely quantitative.’ (Capital I p. 322). It is the capitalist division of labour and its power relations, which give rise to the social preconditions for a mass market (dissolution of the natural economy) which produces a qualitative change. The social preconditions of modern mechanized techniques thus arose first; they were the product of a hundred-year social revolution. The technique is the consummation of modern capitalism, not its initial cause. It only appeared after the establishment of its social prerequisites; when the dialectical contradictions of the primitive forms of manufacture had been resolved, when ‘At a given stage of its development, the narrow technical base on which manufacture rested, came into conflict with requirements of production that were created by manufacture itself.’ (Capital I p. 368). It goes without saying that technical development is thereby extraordinarily accelerated. But this reciprocal interaction by no means surpasses the real historical and methodological primacy of the economy over technique. Thus Marx points out: ‘This total economy, arising as it does from the concentration of means of production and their use en masse . . . originates quite as much from the social nature of labour, just as surplus-value originates from the surplus-labour of the individual considered singly.’ (Capital III p. 79).

Sociologism and History

We have considered this question in some detail because of its methodological importance. This importance does not only derive from the central position it has for Marxism, but also from the fact that Bukharin’s solution is typical of his false methodology. We have already referred to his attempt to make a ‘science’ out of the dialectic. The externalization of this tendency in scientific theory is his conception of Marxism as a ‘general sociology.’ His leanings towards the natural sciences and his frequently acute dialectical instinct are here inevitably in contradiction. Engels reduced the dialectic to ‘the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought’ (MarxEngels, Selected Works 1962, 11 p. 387). Bukharin’s theory of sociology as a ‘historical method’ is in conformity with this view. But, as a necessary consequence of his natural-scientific approach, sociology cannot be restricted to a pure method, but develops into an independent science with its own substantive goals. The dialectic can do without such independent substantive achievements; its realm is that of the historical process as a whole, whose individual, concrete, unrepeatable moments reveal its dialectical essence precisely in the qualitative differences between them and in the continuous transformation of their objective structure. The totality is the territory of the dialectic. A ‘scientific’ general sociology, on the other hand, if it does not surpass itself into a mere epistemology, must have its own independent substantive achievements allowing only one type of law. Bukharin wavers between various conclusions. On the one hand he realizes that there is clearly no such thing as society ‘in general’, but he does not see what necessarily follows from this, as his theory (his applications of his theory are often much better than the theory itself) sees historical variation merely as a ‘determinate historical shell’, a ‘uniform’ (sic). On the other hand, his attempt to establish a distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘method’ makes sociology a unified science—inevitably, given the confused posing of the question. The basically incorrect theory of the primacy of technique which we have analysed is merely the substantive result of Bukharin’s attempt to create a general sociology. It is not an accidental oversight, but the necessary consequence of superficially examined premises.

This confusion emerges particularly clearly in Bukharin’s conception of a scientific law. It is fortunate that he usually forgets his theoretical presuppositions in his concrete analyses. For example, he derives a general type of law for equilibrium and its disturbance in determinate systems, whether these belong to inorganic or organic nature, or to society. Marx and Hegel are thereby linked in a fairly inorganic way. But in spite of this theoretical position, Bukharin admits that these relationships ‘can only be applied to complex systems such as human society at best as analogies’. Thus he fortunately forgets his theory in concrete analyses, with the result that his conclusions are frequently very interesting in defiance of his starting point. His attacks on the various ‘organic’ social theories, and so on, often lead to remarkable critical comparisons.

Prediction and Practice

But his preoccupation with the natural sciences is crudest where he examines the theoretical purpose of sociology. ‘Everything we have said indicates that prediction is possible in the social sciences just as it is in the natural sciences. At the moment we are unable to predict the point in time when this or that phenomenon will appear . . . This is because we are still not sufficiently informed of the laws of social development which are statistical in nature. We cannot tell the speed of social processes, but we know their direction.’ Bukharin’s bias towards the natural sciences has made him forget that our knowledge of directions or tendencies rather than statistical predictions is not a result of the difference between what we actually know and what there is to be known, but of the objective, qualitative difference in the object itself. Marx and Engels knew this perfectly well. I only need refer in passing to Engels’ intelligent and thoughtful methodological remarks in the Introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France (Marx-Engels, Selected Works 1962, 1 p. 119) on the impossibility of understanding the immediate present through statistics. Marx, of course, in his equally basic theory of the average rate of profit, drew a sharp methodological distinction between certain statistical facts and the social tendencies of the process as a whole. ‘As concerns the perpetually fluctuating market rate of interest, however, it exists at any moment as a fixed magnitude, just as the market price of commodities . . . On the other hand, the general rate of profit never exists as anything more than a tendency.’ (Capital 111 1 p. 359). Lenin himself repeatedly stressed this notion of the tendency of development, whose tendential character is not the result of our ignorance, but is based on the type of objectivity of social events whose structure also, on the other hand, founds the theoretical possibility of social relations and the reality of ‘revolutionary praxis.’ In his critique of the Juniusbrochüre (Against the Stream, Collected Works xxii, pp. 305 f.) Lenin stressed the unmarxist character of the thesis that national wars are impossible in the era of imperialism. He argues that, though they may be very unlikely, an analysis of developmental tendencies cannot absolutely exclude their possibility. A fortiori, it is methodologically impossible to know the timing of any historical event. In his speech to the Second Congress of the Communist International on the international struggle he gave even more emphasis to this methodological impossibility:

‘Here we must first of all note two widespread errors . . . revolutionaries sometimes try to prove that there is absolutely no way out of the crisis. This is a mistake. There is no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation . . . To try to ‘prove’ in advance that there is ‘absolutely’ no way out of the situation would be sheer pedantry, or playing with concepts and catchwords. Practice alone can serve as real ‘proof’ in this and similar questions.’ (Selected Works 1961 111 p. 490, Collected Worksxxxi).

Marx, Engels and Lenin are not just quoted here as authorities. Our purpose is to point out that Bukharin’s theoretical aim is different from that of the great tradition of historical materialism, which descends from Marx and Engels through Mehring and Plekhanov to Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg (it is, incidentally, unfortunate, but methodologically consistent, that Bukharin hardly refers to Rosa Luxemburg’s essential economic theses at all). A really thorough discussion of this theoretical aim would exceed the space of a review. It would have to show how Bukharin’s basic philosophy is completely in harmony with contemplative materialism; that instead of making a historical-materialist critique of the natural sciences and their methods, i.e. revealing them as products of capitalist development, he extends these methods to the study of society without hesitation, uncritically, unhistorically and undialectically. But although Plekhanov’s work on Holbach, Helvetius and Hegel has provided some of the groundwork for such a critique, it has not yet been attempted, so we can only note those consequences of Bukharin’s conception which confuse his concrete sociological results and lead them into dead ends.

This short criticism cannot consider many details of the book. It has been limited to demonstration of the methodological source of the errors. It should be stressed that these errors remain in spite of Bukharin’s worthy goal of systematically organizing into a popular form all the results of Marxism. Perhaps we may express the hope that in later editions many of these errors will be corrected, so that the whole work may achieve the level of its—many—excellent sections.

[1] Gottl,Writschaft und Tecbnik. Grundriss der Sozialökonomik II, 236-39.

[2] Gottl, Wirtschaft und Technik. Grundriss der Sozialókonomik II. 236-39.

[3] Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.

[4] See however Marx’s notes on slavery in the Southern States of teh usa(Elend der philosophie p. 93-94) where the purely technical aspect is seen only as a moment of the overall socio-economic processes.

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