In his essay, 'The Changing Function of Historical Materialism' (unfortunately, not yet available online), Lukacs considers the application of historical materialism and its relationship to capitalism and the class struggle. To reiterate Lukacs's position on historical materialism, it "is no doubt a scientific method by which to comprehend the events of the past and to grasp their true nature. In contrast to the historical methods of the bourgeoisie, however, it also permits us to view the present historically and hence scientifically so that we can penetrate beneath the surface and perceive the profound historical forces which in reality control events". But historical materialism is more than this, more than a mere research programme. He continues "in the case of the class struggle of the proletariat, the war for the liberation of the last oppressed class, the revelation of the unvarnished truth became both a war-cry and the most potent weapon. By laying bare the springs of the historical process historical materialism became, in consequence of the class situation of the proletariat, an instrument of war" (Lukacs 1968, p.224).
Because historical materialism is intimately linked to the position and trajectory/destiny of the working class, for the bourgeoisie to admit to any of its truths would mean transcending, in thought, the limits of bourgeois consciousness, and therefore abandon its ability to fight for their class interests. But that said, the key position of historical materialism - the decisive role played by class struggle in history (which is ordinarily denied by bourgeois thinking) - can appear at two moments in the history of ruling class thought. First at the moment the bourgeoisie locks horns with the land-owning aristocracy of feudal society and struggles for hegemony over society. And second is during the final revolutionary crisis of capitalism, when the bourgeoisie faces its dissolution. But at times, despite this, they are more than capable of a hard-nosed appreciation of reality, especially among those circles at the sharp edge of managing capitalism, such as employers' associations and state elites. This kind of thinking may be regarded by them as for "internal use only", but from the standpoint of historical materialism, they remain fully within the limits of bourgeois thinking. As we saw in Lukacs's essay on the contradictions of bourgeois philosophy, society confronts the capitalist as an alien power, but one that can be understood as a force of nature, and which can be manipulated and second guessed to accumulate capital. Within this narrow horizon of action, instrumental rationality is possible, up to and including when the capitalists face an uppity workforce. However, Lukacs argues that while this can be the case, capitalism is in the process of objective decline, and as it does so the opinions and ideologies of the ruling class become ever more incoherent.
If we are in a period of decline and it's only a matter of time before the revolutionary crisis hits, wouldn't the expected acknowledgement of class struggle in bourgeois discourse mean it possesses greater coherence? Lukacs says no, and the reason for this can be laid at historical materialism's door: there has been an unconscious and unacknowledged partial capitulation to Marxism. Economics, for example, is no longer "completely bourgeois". The discipline's development in pre-revolutionary Russia, for example, was heavily imprinted by so-called legal Marxism. The same was true in the influence Marxian economics had on mainstream Japanese political economy in the inter and post-war periods. As far as Lukacs was concerned, any branch of economics associated with planning or war owe debts to historical materialism. This situation is an effect of the increasing social weight the proletariat possess in society. More specifically, the ideological crises in the international workers' movement (in chronological order up to the time of History and Class Consciousness; individual socialists entering bourgeois governments; the move of sections of the movement into outright reformism; the formal split between social democrats and communists marked by the foundation of the Communist International), saw defections from the proletarian camp to that of the bourgeoisie. With these new "adherents", capitalism, which no longer possessed sufficient organic ideological resources to meet its systemic needs, now had parliamentary socialism to buttress their legitimacy. This meant the bourgeoisie had more ideological weaponry at their disposal, but the greater range is ultimately a recipe for confusion on their part, not clarity.
Despite this, the consciousness of the working class grows and that of its antagonists decline, thanks to the power of historical materialism. In response, the bourgeoisie have launched numerous critical counterattacks. One they often have recourse to is what they see as turning historical materialism against itself. If it is the case that bourgeois ideologies are functions of capitalist economic realities, doesn't this apply Marxism too? Among the smug, this may be a killer argument, but for Lukacs, it doesn't undermine the scientificity of historical materialism nor threaten a lapse into relativist irrationalism:
The substantive truths of historical materialism are of the same type as were the truths of classical economics in Marx's view: they are truths within a particular social order and system of production. As such, but only as such, their claim to validity is absolute (p.228).Marx performed a substantive investigation and critique of the political economy of his day in the three volumes of Capital and elsewhere, and the same can be done to historical materialism by applying its categories to its emergence and function. The ability to do so does not weaken its scientific claims because of the intimate, dialectical relationship it has to proletarian interests, but enhances it. Bourgeois thought, on the other hand, is incapable of doing so.
But like all claims to validity, the theoretical object 'capitalism' is not the same thing as really-existing capitalism. It is an approximation whose truth claims can be tested by practice. The "purer" capitalism is, the more fully it has penetrated the fabric of society, the closer the approximation historical materialism achieves. The purity, or rather maturity of capitalism is determined by the extent to which economic forces act like natural forces and extra-economic compulsion has, on the surface, largely been dispensed with. It is the capitalism we in the West are familiar with, where the economy has assumed independent and autonomous powers vis the rest of society. For historical materialism, this means it is confronted with crucial differences when it analyses pre-capitalist societies and the transition period between it and its feudal forebear. The key discrepancy is the absence of reification in these social formations. Capitalism is dominated by the phantom forces called up by the processes it sets into motion - as we saw in Lukacs's essays on reification. Its predecessors are definitively conditioned by nature: its vagaries predominate over what could be spoken of as the "laws" of feudal society. Feudalism's relationship to nature and its organisation of production and extraction of the surplus is qualitatively different to the corresponding relations in societies where capitalism was beginning to emerge, and mature capitalist societies. Therefore using historical materialism in these different contexts requires subtlety and, especially, an appreciation of the specifics of the era's class struggles.
Returning to the Marxist analysis of mature capitalism, economic relations, despite the autonomy of the economy, are never purely economic. They are shot through with relations of force and the threat of force. They are the sites of countless battles between employers and employees. They are the stuff of class struggle. If we return to the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it did not take place because the new production system maturing in the womb of the old was more productive, its victory, instead, was won because the nascent bourgeoisie won the class struggle against the feudal aristocracy. Lukacs notes there are also historical moments where the class forces representing each mode of production are balanced out. The old system is no longer hegemonic, but the new hasn't been able to stamp society definitively with its character. Engels in the Origin of the Family pointed out the state can assume an independent role in these circumstances and become the dominating power in society - the absolute monarchies of the 17th and 18th centuries being cases in point.
What definitely didn't happen in the transitional period was a gradual and peaceful takeover of society by economic relations. And so it is with the transformation of capitalism into socialism. The economic plans hatched by the capitalist class to deal with crisis are simultaneously plans of struggle. If the proletariat is mainly passive, as is the case in the present balance of class forces in Britain as it enters a serious recession, and it continues to remain so, the capitalists will struggle to get the working class to pay for the crisis and prepare the ground for future growth. But if the proletariat is conscious, the crisis can bring the class antagonism between socialist production and privatised appropriation out into the open. "Solutions" become objects of struggle - the capitalists and proletariat put forward their positions and battle it out for hegemony. And as with previous transitions between modes of production, what is decisive are the relations of forces. Violence is the decisive economic factor.
The function of historical materialism changes once again. The tool of historical analysis, the weapon of class struggle, becomes an aid for constructing socialist society if the proletariat wins the class struggle. This is an entirely different situation for it to operate in. But projecting forward, Marx and Engels forecast that a victorious working class would use historical materialism in a context where collective social action is determined by the collective social will, socialisation and democratisation crashes through and transforms institutions, and crucially, labour no longer confronts the working class as an object in thrall to an alien power. And every conscious turn in constructing socialism is a qualitative leap forward in the understanding of historical materialism, which dialectically informs its capacity to assist the conscious regulation of society, and so on. The dialectic of theory and practice finally and permanently become fused.
A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.