Friday, 2 January 2009

Legality and Class Consciousness

Lukacs's essay, 'Legality and Illegality' is more than just a meditation on the revolutionary party's adoption of legal and illegal methods of work. He looks at the law as a potent ideological weapon used by the bourgeoisie in the class struggle, the level of drag it has on proletarian class consciousness, and the changing functions of legalism once the working class have assumed power. But Lukacs begins not with the question of black letter law, but how laws, in the social scientific sense, function to reproduce the capitalist state and society. He argues "the organs of authority harmonise to such an extent with the (economic) laws governing men's lives, or seem so overwhelmingly superior that men experience them as natural forces, as the necessary environment for their existence. As a result they submit to them freely. (Which is not to say that they approve of them) (Lukacs 1968, p.257).

For example, we are not forced to go to work and perform a set of tasks in the workplace on pain of legal sanctions, we do so because we need the wage to reproduce ourselves as physically, and as individuals with the necessary set of basic cultural competencies. But that millions upon millions do this every day without a gun held to our heads reproduces the appearance of this as a force of nature, which, of course, grants the exploitative relations that stand behind it a (mostly unacknowledged) legitimacy that is very difficult to dislodge. Contrast this with societies whose rulers depended heavily on the use of force, such as with capitalist dictatorships. Its reliance on force to meet oppositional upswells from below means they are more prone to revolutionary situations than liberal democracies. Repeated state violence does not allow for the appearance of natural harmony between authority and the economy to emerge. Instead power appears as something illegitimate, and that threatens not just the regime, but can lead to a revolutionary movement against capitalism itself.

Therefore Lukacs makes a distinction (familiar to Trotskyists) between political revolutions, whose outbreak effects only the political form of the state and, in capitalist societies, replaces the old regime with a legal superstructure more in tune with the 'natural' motion of the economy. Social revolutions, on the other hand, are more thoroughgoing: they aim to change the system itself. Unsurprisingly, "any such change violates the instincts of the average [bourgeois] man so deeply that he regards it as a catastrophic threat to
life as such, it appears to him to be a blind force of nature like a flood or earthquake. Unable to grasp the essence of the process, his blind despair tries to defend itself by attacking the immediate manifestations of change that menace his accustomed existence" (p.258). The revolution does not appear as such to the movement of our class, provided it has become fully conscious of its position in capitalist society and the role it will be playing in the construction of socialism.

The existence of Marxism, as the theoretical distillation of the experience of the proletariat, and awareness of its theoretical and practical consequences does not means its outlook has been incorporated in the consciousness of the class. Some layers are more passive than others. Parts of the working class are concentrated in large workplaces, others may lead a more solitary work life. In short the variations among our class in conditions when consciousness is low can leave it prey to the effects of reification and alien ideologies. This helps explain how the differences in working class politics, between the Marxists, and the reformists, social democrats and labourists, are sustained. The objectives of the two camps are qualitatively different. The Marxists seek to organise against the state. Reformist politics struggle against their bourgeois counterparts for control over the state - not to strike a blow for workers' power but for the privilege of managing the common affairs of the capitalists. In so far as class enters the reformist world view, the state is an organ that rises above and is neutral in the struggle between the classes. It fetishises the trappings of authority, especially those that appear in congruence with the "natural" appearance of capitalism. The law, which is the ideological guarantor of legitimate authority, is likewise defended as something that is above class struggle. They collude in capitalism's naturalist conceit.

Obviously, Marxists differ:
What is essential is to realise that the capitalist state should be seen and evaluated as a historical phenomenon even while it exists. It should be treated therefore purely as a power structure which has to be taken into account only to the extent to which its actual power stretches. On the other hand, it should be subjected to the most painstaking and fearless examination in order to discover the points where this power can be weakened and undermined. This strong point, or rather weak point in the state is the way in which it is reflected in the consciousness of the people. Ideology is in this case not merely a consequence of the economic structure of society but also the precondition of its smooth functioning (p.261)
When capitalism is in a relatively stable period it's unsurprising that the working class can be found occupying ideological positions within the limits of the system. The job of Marxism is to create a frame of mind in which the common sense natural view of capitalism and the state are seen for what they are: the products of history. This knowledge (defined as practical-critical political activity) strips both of their reservoir of latent "spiritual" strength. Spreading these insights are the key task because ideology, accepting capitalism's naturalism, is what stymies opposition. But doing this is premised on Marxists themselves achieving a revolutionary understanding of the law in relation to strategy and tactics. As we saw, reformism fetishises the legal apparatus. The flip-side of this, the ultra-left romanticism of illegality, associates all legal activity with opportunism and sees the state as a straight forward condensation of class power. This, for Lukacs, is counter-productive because the investment of illegal methods with an aura inadvertently confers the state more legal legitimacy. Thus grand gestures that vocally declare the breaking of the law can actually reinforce the preservation of its authority.

The party escapes the closed game of legality and illegality by granting special status to neither: in itself it has decisively broken with legal ideology. This is very different from movements who "specialise" in illegality. Lukacs cites the example of the
Socialist Revolutionaries before and after the Russian revolution. Under Tsarism, they and their forerunners participated in several assassinations, bomb plots, peasant uprisings, etc. But this did not prevent the majority of the party from passing into the camp of capitalist counterrevolution during the civil war. For Lukacs, their commitment to illegality signified their adherence to legal ideology. But the party's indifference to legalism, its treatment of legality and illegality as merely a matter of tactics is necessary for proletarian self-education. "For the proletariat can only be liberated from its dependence upon the life-forms created by capitalism when it has learnt to act without these life-forms inwardly influencing its actions" (p.264).

Lukacs argues the successful struggle for power is only the
start of the education against legalism. Once the working class has won power most are still affected by the lingering sense that capitalism is really the only properly authentic and legal social order. Thus if the soviet system can quickly seize the weapon of legality to legitimate itself it puts itself in an advantageous position vis a vis the less conscious sections of the working class. It also robs the restorationist bourgeoisie of a key ideological prop of its rule. But, Lukacs gloomily concludes, until our class has a sense of its own legality, it will be partly disarmed in front of its opponent. It would not be constructing the relations and institutions of socialism with assurance, but half-heartedly and with the guilt of the usurper.

This is probably the most problematic of Lukacs's essays. It sits rather uneasily with the thrust of the rest of the book. The emphasis up until now has rightly been on practical working class activity as the means of successfully waging class struggle., but Lukacs here falls into prioritising ideological struggle without reference to his previous insights. The essays on reification demonstrate how the relations of capitalist production give rise to the objectification of phenomena, and how class struggle is simultaneously the fight against reifying processes. But this is separated out. Reification is undoubtedly the wellspring of seeing and experiencing capitalism as a natural force, therefore his claim that ideology is the biggest obstacle to conscious opposition is erroneous to say the least. But understandable. The essay was written in 1920, after the failure of the Hungarian soviet but during the period when the revolutionary window of opportunity was open. It appeared the objective circumstances were favourable, so why wasn't the working class entering the struggle in greater numbers? Lukacs's emphasis on ideology in general and legalist naturalism in particular as his answer reflects an underestimation of the resilience of capitalism, typical of impatience. For all the thousands of words spent on the importance of totality, Lukacs loses sight of it. Even during periods of revolutionary crisis, the ideological resources of capitalism are constantly replenished to the extent waged labour exists and property remains in private hands. It is not enough to struggle against ideology, as important as that is. "Practical-critical activity" needs to patiently proceed on all fronts, and particularly in the workplace, which, after all, is where our class is concentrated.

A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.

10 comments:

Phil BC said...

Here's the previous posts on History and Class Consciousness:

Lukacs and Orthodox Marxism

Luxemburg, Revisionism and Revolution

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

Commodities and Reification

Structure of Bourgeois Philosophy

Overcoming Reification

Capitalism and Historical Materialism

directionlessbones said...

It's a good point that privileging illegality just reinforces the importance of legality. However, I wasn't quite sure what was meant by "seize the weapon of legality to legitimate itself". Is this something that a new government can fail to do?

I'm just wondering what forms of post-revolutionary activity would involve claiming legality and which wouldn't. When I think of 'the rule of law' what springs to mind is things like the Red Terror, i.e. can the executive simply give the instruction 'round up some random middle-class people and hang them', or does there have to be a procedure of charge, trial, etc. ?

Phil BC said...

A lot I suppose depends on the balance of forces. The more a socialist government has to meet the counterrevolution with violence, the greater difficulty there is of co-opting the naturalistic aura of the rule of law to its cause. At least that's what I think Lukacs would argue.

directionlessbones said...

That sounds a little like 'the more people we massacre, the harder it is to convince people that we represent their best interests.' As in, true enough, but perhaps missing the point.

More constructively, I guess what I'm saying is that if the flipside of law is that it restricts the government as well as the people (even if governments try to break the law, they are forced to abide by most of its requirements in order to preserve that sense of 'naturalism'), the rule of law would mean the socialist government restricting itself in order to not just get more support from the masses, but better deserve that support.

Roobin said...

"More constructively, I guess what I'm saying is that if the flipside of law is that it restricts the government as well as the people..."

I see what you're saying. The trouble comes when we consider what practical situation we are faced with. Any government is based on a combination of force and consent. In order to put this into code, i.e. a constitution, you need a stable situation (truly post-revolutionary).

This is very difficult to apply to a civil war, which is a lawless war because neither side, by definition, recognises the other. If the Marxist theory of the state is correct it's also difficult to apply post-civil war, because you have a power which is slowly dissolving itself, along with class differences.

directionlessbones said...

"If the Marxist theory of the state is correct"

I tend to think it's not, and that this is the key issue here.

When you say "Any government is based on a combination of force and consent...This is very difficult to apply to a civil war" you're right, and because of this the logic of statism mandates indiscriminate terror, militarisation of labour, suppression of dissent, and so forth, in any situation like that which a revolution is likely to produce.

Now, I don't think it's likely that such a state will then simply 'dissolve' or give away its power when it has successfully crushed all opposition to itself, on its own side as well as the other side. If I'm right, then going into a revolution with statist ideas is a recipe for repeating the Russian experience (although I do recognise the role played by the specific circumstances of Russia).

Roobin said...

"and because of this the logic of statism mandates indiscriminate terror".

No, that's a bit... um. No state uses indiscriminate terror. No ruling class.

"I don't think it's likely that such a state will then simply 'dissolve' or give away its power when it has successfully crushed all opposition to itself".

That's not what was said. A working class state is a living contradiction. Contradiction because, by definition you cannot work and rule. Living because it has actually existed. Certainly it existed in Paris in 1871. It certainly existed in European Russia at the end of 1917. I would argue it existed in straightened circumstances across the Soviet Union until 1928. I would even argue it existed in unacknowleged form in Spain 1936 and Hungary 1956.

But that's not the question. The state exists in class society to secure the rule of one group and the suppression/aquiesence of all others, which is why the state is never indistriminate in its violence.

In order for the working class to maintain its power it must undermine its own existence as a class (and all other classes) through redistribution of the wealth.

Rob said...

One problem I have with your 'take' on Lukacs here is the idea that he is 'privileging ideological struggle'. The adoption, or non-adoption of legalistic methods may (on some level) be an ideological question but is also one with direct material results. Over the past year I've become pretty interested in this particular questinon and the way in which you can read Lukacs, I'm tempted to say that even if his own concern is with 'ideology' we don't have to read it this way.

Briefly, I've been reading Lukacs in conjunction with Pashukanis to the effect that whilst the content of legal struggle can be progressive, the very fact that it is a 'legal' struggle gives this content definite material limits. As such, the strategy suggested by Lukacs is very useful, as it attempts to take advantage of the progressive potential of legal content, without falling foul of the problems of form.

I also think that a Gramscian approach to these questions, which Roobin seems to be alluding to, is woefully inadequate, as I argue here.

directionlessbones said...

"No state uses indiscriminate terror...the state is never indistriminate in its violence"

I was using 'indiscriminate' to mean 'not targeting specific individuals known to have done a certain thing, or those who present an immediate threat'. Dropping a bomb into the middle of a crowded street in Gaza city is 'indiscriminate'. Rounding up arbitrarily selected members of a certain class and hanging them is 'indiscriminate'. That seems like the most common meaning to me.

I imagine we have different understandings of what qualifies as a 'state'. I would say that the state character of the soviets themselves was not yet fixed - a state emerged with the bolshevik council of commissars, secret police, etc. As you say that's not really the question, but may clarify.

"A working class state is a living contradiction."

And to resolve the contradiction either the state stops being a state, or it stops representing the working class. My feeling is that its preference will usually be very much to prefer the latter, and that this preference will be backed up with its equipment for 'securing the suppression of all others'. So I don't think we should aim to set up this living contradiction.

Of course I may be wrong, and this hardly an unprecedented dispute we're having.

Roobin said...

I don't think the workers of Paris had any choice. If they made any mistake it was not suppressing Theirs and his army soon enough.

"And to resolve the contradiction either the state stops being a state, or it stops representing the working class."

Because the working class a category ceases to exist. Marx's conception is in the last analysis anti-state, he just recognised there was one last revolutionary use for it, keeping capitalism down.