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.