The third and final part of Lukacs's essay on reification and alienation, 'The Standpoint of the Proletariat', deals with the experience of reification and how it can be overcome.
As we have seen in the previous posts, reification is only possible on a mass scale with the coming of capitalist society. As commodification draws in more and more social relations and subjects them to its thrall, this not only makes possible the phenomena of mass consciousness, but also its immediate impregnation and moulding by reification. However, reification is experienced differently across the classes. For the bourgeoisie reification feels reassuringly familiar. The abstract position of the individual vs an object-oriented social world can easily be read off from the competitive relationships between capitals and the relation capital has with the inputs that enable accumulation. Reification for the bourgeoisie endows them a subjective position that broadly corresponds to their objective relationships and allows them to function in them. It is different for the working class. Its experience of reification engenders a sense of disempowerment and being-dehumanised. In as far as the reified subjectivity of proletarians matches that of the bourgeoisie it is fleeting and transient.
Lukacs argues the difference in how reification acts upon the classes can be illustrated by philosophy; by comparing their respective methods of historical inquiry. Utilising the example of the machine, for Lukacs bourgeois economics traditionally conceptualises it as a discrete, autonomous entity. But the functions machinery discharge in the production process reappear in bourgeois thought in a contorted form: as its immutable, individual essence. From this reified perspective the production process appears as a series of disjointed independent objects whose meanings and roles derive not from the part they play in production, but from their internal essences. The solution, as Lukacs puts it:
If change is to be understood at all it is necessary to abandon the view that objects are rigidly opposed to each other, it is necessary to elevate their interrelatedness and the interaction between these 'relations' and the 'objects' to the same plane of reality. The greater the distance from pure immediacy the larger the net encompassing the 'relations', and the more complete the integration of the objects within the system of relations, the sooner change will cease to be impenetrable and catastrophic, the sooner it will become comprehensible. (Lukacs 1968, p.154).This is precisely what bourgeois thought cannot do. It is predisposed toward prising apart subject and object, and dissolving reality into rival perspectives whose main 'achievements' are a celebration of the irrational of the real; or a subsumption of everything to highly abstract and over-theorised formal rules; or the development of pretty shallow concepts content to describe the immediate appearances of capitalist society without excavating beneath the surface. In short, bourgeois thought is trapped within the terms of reification, which in turn is fulled by the (unconscious) collective experience of the bourgeoisie as the ruling class.
Lukacs demonstrates above the fundamental difference proletarian thought has vis its opposite number. It proceeds from an understanding of the position the class occupies in history in the present, and the process by which it came into being. As far as Lukacs is concerned, it is a philosophy dependent on conceiving history as an interconnected process, as a totality. But there's more. Immediacy is the limiting horizon of bourgeois thought. Empiricism, the worship of accomplished fact, is as far as it can go. But the first move of proletarian philosophy is to puncture immediacy. As the subaltern class in capitalism, workers are subject to the full force of the system. Employment/unemployment, enfranchisement/disenfranchisement, development/underdevelopment, sexism, racism, homophobia, inequalities and environmental despoliation is the concrete experience of our class as a collective. But for the bourgeoisie, cosseted as they are at the pinnacle of their system, in general the struggle of the working class with these forces exist as abstractions for them.
In a sense, the working class exists as a hypothesis where the bourgeoisie are concerned. They are things-in-themselves akin to Kant's noumena and belong to the system of objects, no different to any other resource that can be manipulated to meet their ends. But labour is qualitatively different to the other elements of accumulation. Labour can be trained to produce commodities and fulfill the tasks desired by their employers, in return for a wage. But it can become conscious of its situation. Labour power is the only commodity that can create value, and simultaneously conscious of itself as a commodity. For Lukacs this introduces something new into commodity relations - what is the objective other outside capitalist experience is the social reality, the terrain of concrete, sensuous experience for the working class. Therefore, as the bourgeoisie works to expand the universe of commodity production, the proletariat emerges with its distinctive interests and modes of thought that reflect this experience.
What this means for reification is a tension between proletarian existence and the forms of thought the former engenders. It is limited by the extent to which labour power is commodified. Consciousness, for the majority of wage earners, is not sold in the same way as it is for bureaucrats, stratas of management and salaried professionals - "the more deeply reification penetrates into the soul of the man who sells his achievement as a commodity, the more deceptive appearances are" (p.172). Their work demands they submit more totally to reified thought. They are about administrating the system, which requires they adopt the habits of reified thought typically associated with their masters. These layers are blind to reification too and are likely to lapse into status consciousness.
However, returning to the working class and reification, Lukacs is careful to avoid suggesting that the positioning of the proletariat under capitalism means an automatic overcoming of reification. Throwing the working class together in social production is an essential prerequisite, but it is not sufficient in and of itself. The consciousness arising from the proletarian standpoint has to be deepened by developing its understanding of history. From this point of view, what appears as the effect of irrational behaviour or forces of nature for the bourgeoisie are grasped as products of human activity, and can be understood as such and worked upon to transform them. This possibility requires not only the abolition of the immediacy of reified relations in thought, but also recognising the possibility and desirability/necessity of their supersession through practical activity. Once this position is achieved, if the latter is discarded there is always a danger of a slip back into fetishised thought. The struggle to retain this is to keep the fusion of theory and practice going, which is simultaneously the act of history becoming conscious of itself. And it is the working class that is the material agent embodying this consciousness, which by its efforts as a conscious agent can put it into practice through the construction of socialism:
Reification ... can be overcome only by constant and constantly renewed efforts to disrupt the reified structure of existence by concretely relating to to the concretely manifested contradictions of the total development (p.197)The wedding of theory to working class political practice is the master key for overcoming reification. Theory, derived as it is from the totality of proletarian experience, plots the coordinates of action by judging where it can be best applied. Therefore, proletarian thought is eminently practical and pragmatic. Truth is tested by practice, and its ultimate success is determined by the extent the proletariat is formed into a class for itself, that is the first class in history not only conscious of its circumstances, but conscious of what needs to be done to transform society according to its interests. This is the point where the subject and object of history, a split that runs through bourgeois thought, is reconciled in practice. In Lukacs's phrase, when the working class is fully conscious, it is the identical subject-object of history.
'The Standpoint of the Proletariat' is a treasure trove of insights and arguments about the lacunae of classical philosophy, the relation between species being and nature, and the place humanism occupies in Marxism. But Lukacs's fusion of theory and practice is his enduring message, and one that has become more timely as we enter the present period of crisis.
A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.