Monday, 9 March 2009

Assessing History and Class Consciousness

It's about time this series of blogs were properly put to bed. If there's one thing I learned from reading History and Class Consciousness, it's that it isn't an easy read. And as I've found during my blogging efforts on each of Lukacs's essays and lectures, it's not a book that can be easily summarised either. But seeing as H&CC was heavily criticised by the 'official' communist movement of the time, and these criticisms were added to by layers of received socialist opinion since, including the self-criticism Lukacs (pictured) undertook in his 1967 preface, is there anything worthwhile left? Can socialists safely give this thick and imposing tome a miss?

Lukacs himself characterises
H&CC as a transitional work between his pre-Marxist career and later mature outlook. He deemed it irredeemably stamped by a toxic mix of Hegelian excrescences and ultra-left exaggeration. Seems like the book can be left to gather dust with the blessings of its author. But why?

The first of these self-criticisms concerns
H&CC's treatment of ontology - the nature of being. Lukacs demonstrates how his youthful work upholds an understanding of the social and natural worlds that radically opposes the two, which he resolves by collapsing nature into society. He suggests society is the only object of philosophical reflection and that thinking about nature is subordinate because 'nature' is only a category defined by society. It is easy to understand how Lukacs came to this view. Taking Britain as an example, there's precious little of our environment that remains unshaped by human hands. The landscape has been fundamentally remade by hunter-gatherers, peasants, agrarian capitalism, industry, and urbanisation. Our taming of nature appears to be all one way - society has expanded at the natural world's expense, suggestive of the view that society is active, nature is passive, and society can categorise nature according to society's subordination of nature to society's ends. Echoes of this perspective remain alive and well in poststructuralist thinking - its emphasis on the text and there being nothing "outside" of it is merely a contemporary reworking of this perspective.

In one sense the young Lukacs is right - how we define and understand nature is transmitted and conditioned by the historical relationship society has with nature. But we shouldn't confuse the things of logic with the logic of things and conceptually rule nature out. As far as the mature Lukacs was concerned, Marx's materialism was premised on the ontological objectivity of nature. This isn't to reverse the poles of determination, making nature 'active' and society 'passive'. The materialist conception of history points out that society and nature are in a metabolic relationship with one another, which is mediated by labour. In pre-capitalist and pre-industrial societies, the primitive state of the forces of production meant that scarcity was imposed by the forces of nature. With the emergence of capitalism and its constant revolutionising of the productive forces, the metabolic relationship, in a sense, became more equal. Scarcity in modern Britain is not the fault of natural limits but rather the social limits of capitalism itself. This is where the progressive character of capitalism lies - it has developed the productivity of labour to the extent that society is no longer "ruled" by nature. But unfortunately, because of the blind and chaotic characteristics of the system and the way capitalism exploits and pollutes the environment, we are looking at revenge of nature-type scenarios in looming ecological collapse and climate change. Only by establishing global socialism and consciously regulating our metabolic interchange with nature can the worst of the effects be mitigated (see
Marx's Ecology).

The mature Lukacs argued that
H&CC was blind to this, and therefore blind to a true appreciation of how radically different Marx's materialism was compared with bourgeois philosophy. From this a couple of other errors flowed. The first of these was his theorisation of revolutionary praxis - we saw him repeatedly criticise bourgeois philosophy for its contemplative stance vis the material world, in contrast to the activist stance of Marxism. But because the young Lukacs did not appreciate the role labour occupied in Marxist ontology, his understanding of praxis (the unity of theory and practice) was not based on the actual concrete activity and consciousness of the working class but on a theoretical construct - the idea of imputed class consciousness (see the essay on class consciousness). Here Lukacs argues his younger self philosophically worked out the interests of the proletariat , its place and trajectory in the philosophical process, and the thought-obstacles capitalism constantly throws up to prevent it from realising its socialist fate (false consciousness). For the mature Lukacs this is the mirror image of bourgeois philosophy and is equally as contemplative in spite of the radical verbiage. Implicit is the belief the working class ought to act in a particular way because theory says so, and that they are bound to do so sooner or later - reproducing the mechanistic errors of Second International 'Marxism'.

This is one instance where Lukacs's desire to distance himself from
H&CC prevents a considered reflection of this position. It is true that Lenin saw socialism growing from concrete, conscious political action by the mass of our class, action in turn founded on the long challenging work undertaken by the militant class conscious minority within it. But what Lukacs implies in his criticisms is an autonomy of philosophy. Philosophy is, in the words of Louis Althusser, class struggle in (the realm of) theory. It is the abstraction of the experiences of classes and class fractions into contending schools of philosophy and social theory - a point which the younger Lukacs makes often enough about the relationship between Marxism and the proletariat. Therefore the criticisms one can make of poststructuralist attacks on Marxism, which were touched on in this post can partially apply to the mature Lukacs. What the younger Lukacs accomplished was a philosophical sketch of what the working class has done throughout its history. The set of relationships workers enter into in the workplace are antagonistic and this antagonism will find collective expression in some way, even in the absence of class conscious workers and/or Marxist ideas. Imputed consciousness therefore is not an idealist construct, it is a philosophical abstraction of the everyday experiences of our class. Similarly, I may not be a fan of the expression, but the young Lukacs's understanding of false class consciousness is a theoretical rendering and explanation of the ideological barriers capitalism puts in place that have to be overcome by socialist politics. In neither can a trace of essentialism and contemplation be found, provided one stands firmly on the ground of Marxist epistemology.

The second of the mature Lukacs's criticisms concerns his early relationship with Hegel, whose treatment he thought was insufficiently materialist. He says "it is undoubtedly one of the great achievements of
History and Class Consciousness to have reinstated the category of totality in the central position it had occupied throughout Marx's works and from which it had been ousted by the 'scientism' of the social democratic opportunists" (1968, p.xx). But the mature Lukacs thought H&CC made use of Hegel in a straight forward and hence a problematic fashion for materialists, and this particularly impacts on his widely influential essays on reification.

Lukacs's first charge is how the young Lukacs describes the historical destiny of the proletariat. In Hegel's philosophy history is a process of 'the spirit' becoming conscious of itself as it overcomes alienation. Each form of society corresponds to a particular stage in its development toward the absolute, the point where subject and object become identical and reason reigns for ever more. The young Lukacs reworks this casting class consciousness as the subject and the (unconscious) proletariat as the unconscious object of history. When the two become fused this marks the period of revolution and the building of communist society, the point where history is now the result of conscious activity. The mature Lukacs suggested this was merely metaphysics, of providing a philosophical justification for communism that attempted to "out-Hegel Hegel" and come up with a solution to alienation, a solution Hegel relegated to a liminal space provided by his system.

The second problem is how alienation is conceptualised. In Hegel alienation is synonymous with objectification (in the neutral sense), that is the separation of reality from consciousness. Thus in Hegel's schema, the resolution of subject and object in the absolute means the abolition of alienation and thereby the "destruction" of reality. The young Lukacs didn't hold to this view but the species of alienation he described was similar in form to Hegel's - for example his discussion of the individual facing society as a subject versus a system of objects that are outside and beyond their subjectivity has clear echoes of Hegel. As the mature Lukacs says, "only when the objectified forms in society acquire functions that bring the essence of man into conflict with his existence, only when man's nature is subjugated, deformed and crippled can we speak of an objective societal condition of alienation and, as an inexorable consequence, of all the subjective marks of an internal alienation" (ibid. p.xxiv).

Lukacs goes on to discuss his changing views when Marx's
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was published when he was domiciled in Moscow in the early 30s, but only to put radical distance between himself and the essays on reification. But this is something of an exaggeration. There are moments where Lukacs's early arguments mirror Hegel's, but his examination of the relation between the proletariat and reification seems a pretty accurate reconstruction of Marx sans the Paris Manuscripts, regardless of what the mature Lukacs thought.

Lukacs then goes on to list the positives - the treatment of Marx's work as a whole,
H&CC's tendency toward a dialectical and materialist reinterpretation of Marx, and, peculiarly, the mature Lukacs endorsement of What is Orthodox Marxism?. If you recall this is the stress on totality as the defining characteristic of the Marxist method (more here). As John Rees observes in his Algebra of Revolution, this is not the case. What differentiates Marxism from other social theories is not just its relationship to socialist practice but the totality of all the characteristics of materialist dialectics - totality, change and contradiction, premised on a sophisticated materialist ontology.

Understandably the essays on method, class consciousness and reification have drawn the lion share of criticism and comment down the years, but this is not all there is to
H&CC. For example, the critique of spontaneism in his second essay on Rosa Luxemburg and the revolutionary party are especially useful restatements of socialist political practice, as long as they're read with a critical anti-voluntarist eye. Legality and Illegality at the same time shows how to and how not to do ideology critique.

What is also interesting about the book was its subsequent fate at the hands of so-called Western Marxism. This trend was primarily a movement in academia, picking up on
H&CC's Hegelianism and taking their brand of Marxism in a number of interesting directions. However, what unites the variegated philosophies of Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, and Habermas (with the possible exception of Marcuse) is their aversion to practice, reducing Marxism to a radical species of contemplative thought. The responsibility for this cannot be laid at Lukacs's door - despite the errors and criticisms the appeal of H&CC lies in its being a philosophical call to arms that not only makes the case for militancy in theory, but concrete socialist activism in practice.

I began by noting how a book like
H&CC defies easy summary. It can be maddeningly complex and pretty straight forward. Reading the essays in a different order do not seem to bring any extra clarity, but a crash course in Kant and Hegel are definitely useful for the middle essay on reification - I'm still not sure if I entirely understood everything Lukacs had to say on the subject.

In his 1967 preface Lukacs said it was a book of its time and had little bearing on then contemporary debates. Is this still the case more than 40 years later? No. In Britain Marxism has lived something of a twilight existence these last 20 or so years. Its enrichment and development has gone largely unseen as the revolutionary left and a handful of academics and journals have kept it going. Now the neoliberal tide has turned and increasing numbers are looking to Marx and Marxism for answers,
H&CC as a statement of the fundamental basics of Marxist philosophy is very likely to attract more activist and scholarly interest. Provided H&CC is regarded as a primer and not the final word on Marxism, it could play an important role in educating the next generation of socialists.

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

11 comments:

Phil BC said...

The full (and final!) list of posts on History and Class Consciousness are;

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

Legality and Class Consciousness

Luxemburg and the Organic Conception of Socialism

Lukacs and the Revolutionary Party

Assessing History and Class Consciousness

Rob said...

I'm not sure you can legitimately lump Benjamin in with the other residents of the Grand Hotel Abyss. I also think we shouldn't dismiss some of the problems Adorno flags up with some of the 'practice' oriented activists of his day, although Adorno was evidently in the wrong, I don't think people give his position a fair hearing (and one should note that the position is one increasingly mirrored by Zizek).

Furthermore, I think we have to take Lukacs' criticisms with a pinch of salt. We really can't ignore the fact that the Lukacs of 1967 had made his peace with the stale 'Marxism' of the Soviet Union and had something of a vested interest in opposing those radicals who were taking up HCC.

Lukacs is also pretty disingenuous in his criticisms insofar as he omitted to mention that he wrote Tailism and the Dialectic in defence of HCC (which of course makes the transitional view of HCC harder to defend) and the link that one can draw between the Lenin book and HCC.

And of course, I will conclude by saying thanks for such an informative, intelligent voyage through HCC. Are you thinking of reading/have you read Tailism and the Dialectic?

Phil BC said...

I shouldn't be too hard on Western Marxism as it did play a role in deepening the subversive thoughts I was having about things when I was a young reader of Class War. I remember reading Marcuse's Eros and Civilisation and having a light bulb moment. I can't remember about what but it helped encourage me to read more about Marx and Marxism, a process that's never stopped really.

Re: Zizek, hand on heart I know next to nothing about him except for his "provocative" behaviour. But Zizek does look like someone who could do with a few needles taking to his egotistical balloon. Any volunteers?

Of course, your point about Lukacs is spot on. He more or less admits as much when he confesses to dumping some of his arguments so he could stay in the party "to fight fascism". There's also a lumping of Trots in with the ultra lefts, a declaration for socialism in one country and that sort of thing. There's definitely more than a whiff of expediency about this transition thing.

I've got no plans to look at Tailism and the Dialectic, unless someone fancies sending me a copy! I'm planning to start writing about Mill's On Liberty soon, possibly followed by Burke and a bit of Althusser, and then Lukacs' Ontology of Social Being (ok, maybe not).

Anyway Rob, glad you appreciated the posts. Forcing myself to write about History and Class Consciousness has meant I've had to think about it more deeply than I would have done otherwise. I recommend doing this sort of thing to any blogger.

Roobin said...

"But Zizek does look like someone who could do with a few needles taking to his egotistical balloon. Any volunteers?"

I tried reading Iraq - a borrowed kettle and gave up because life is too short and if I finished it I could never unread such nonsense... and I gave the book away. How's that.

Re Lukacs - I remember an old professor years ago moaning that all the students were constantly trying to look for subtexts in the simplest works. Why can't people take things more literally?

Why can't we accept that Lukacs became a sincere stalinist and that he put forward his later self-criticism in good faith? In some way it would diminish him to suggest he changed tack later in life just to stay in with the CP, and didn't mean a word he said.

Rob said...

Phil, if you'd be willing to send it back I have a copy of Tailism and the Dialectic I could send you to borrow (although obviously you are busy with other stuff, so don't feel obliged to say yes).

Roobin - I think it's quite problematic to call Lukacs a 'Stalinist' (but then I generally have problems with how the term gets used) as he basically cut off all of his political activity (and indeed was a Minister in the Nagy government) and his theoretical work was pretty apolitical and not really consonant with 'Stalinist' philosophy.

This aside, I'm not saying that Lukacs made his arguments (necessarily) in bad faith, merely that his precarious political position, as well as his life experiences with HCC shaped the way he viewed the book in later terms, and explain some of the shoddy arguments used in the '67 preface. This is given added weight by the fact that Lukacs never mentions the existence of Tailism and the Dialectic

It's also quite telling that Lukacs notes:

If I have concentrated on my errors, there have been mainly practical reasons for it. It is a fact that History and Class Consciousness had a powerful effect on many readers and continues to do so even today. If it is the true arguments that achieve this impact, then all is well and the author’s reaction is wholly uninteresting and irrelevant. Unfortunately I know it to be the case that, owing to the way society has developed and to the political theories this development has produced, it is precisely those parts of the book that I regard as theoretically false that have been most influential. For this reason I see it as my duty on the occasion of a reprint after more than 40 years to pronounce upon the book’s negative tendencies and to warn my readers against errors that were hard to avoid then, perhaps, but which have long ceased to be so.

Clearly the looming revolutionary events of the period (in which many of the participants invoked Lukacsian ideas) were on his mind.

Roobin said...

"I think it's quite problematic to call Lukacs a 'Stalinist'".

He did say, for example, in the 1967 intro to HCC that he favoured the line of Stalin etc. He was a stalinist although, as you say, labels are always a problem, either beeing to broad or too transient to be accurate.

Rob said...

Without wanting to derail this conversation too much, this is the one of the real issues I have with the use of the word 'Stalinist', surely the term applies a more meaningful agreement than simply agreeing with Stalin's line on certain issues, if you don't do this then there are real problems. Firstly, I think it almost becomes a political swearword to to delegitimise certain positions on which I think there can be genuine disagreement. Secondly, because there really were a lot of people who agreed with Stalin on a bunch of tactical (and strategic) issues who nonetheless probably shouldn't be dubbed Stalinists, insofar as there theoretical and political trajectory more broadly doesn't really reflect Stalinian Marxism.

Lukacs is a case in point here, whilst he obviously isn't a Trotskyist (and again here is another problem I have with the use of the term 'Stalinist', it seems to me like it often becomes a Manichean term whose purpose is merely to denote people who aren't Trotskyists) I think the stuff he wrote in 1968 puts some distance between him and 1) the actual concrete theory/practice of Stalin and 2) the particular orthodoxy of the communist movement at the time (which I assume you would also call 'Stalinist').

Roobin said...

What do you think of EP Thompson (who broke with the CP but, seemingly, not with the Popular Front tactic) and his characterisation of Althusser? If I'm right, what he says is 'stalinism' pre-Althusser was actually an ad-hoc collection of justifications for the Russian regime and the regime in the Third International. Althusser refined this into an actual, plausible system (albeit disaterous from an emacipationary point of view).

Rob said...

I have to admit to never finding E.P. Thompson that useful. Whilst 'history from below' may be a necessary corrective to some forms of elitism I don't find it partiuclarly fruitful as a research programme (and I don't think I'd characterise it as 'Marxist').

As a preliminary I would say that Althusser actually put forward one of the most articulate critiques of Stalinian Marxism, which I've always found very useful. I'd also point out that it's difficult to pinpoint one single 'Althusser' upon which a project can be pegged. His earlier and later is rather different in chracter and there is variation across everything he has written.

I find the description of 'Stalinism' as a series of ad hoc justifications for the Russia regime as a good one. I think if was to to properly define the main tendencise of Stalian Marxist it would be something along these lines, with the proviso that one of its chief characteristics is the elevation of tactics to strategy and the elevation of both into principle. This is confined with a kind of mundane orthodoxy (reminscent of how the Marxism of the Second International is portrayed), which makes it quite schizophrenic.

I don't really see how it can be said that Althusser systematises this, as - to be frank - I think it defies systematisation. That being said, I think Althusser's emphasis on contingency (which comes to the fore later), over-determination and the general complexity of his work means I find it difficult to identify it as such. If anything, there are traces of Mao and Maoism (although not entirely, because obviously there is more 'voluntarism' in Maoism, which Althusser is not traditionally associated with).

Phil BC said...

I still have a deep affection for Althusser - For Marx had quite an effect on me, and in general I agree with Robert Resch's definitive study on Althusser and Althusserianism (Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory biblio-fans!) His contributions are extremely fruitful - I'm even finding him useful to smuggle in to the model of individual activist mobilisation I'm trying to develop in my PhD. But anyway.

Cheers for the offer, Rob. I'm going to have to pass for the moment - I'm closely reading the Therborn book in the 'currently reading' for the Sociological Review, and I think I need a break from Lukacs.

Andy Wilson said...

Of course there are obvious problems with the 1967 Preface, but I don't see any reason to doubt his claim there that in HCC, with the idea of imputed class consciousness he was trying to create a philosophical rationale for Lenin's idea in What is to be Done? that socialist consciousness is injected into the working class 'from without'. This, for me, is a key problem with HCC, despite its many crucial insights.