Saturday 9 August 2008

Lukacs and Orthodox Marxism

Georg Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness was a seminal moment in 20th century Marxist philosophy. It contains a series of interlinked essays on dialectics, the distinctive character of the Marxist method, Rosa Luxemburg, and the development of class consciousness. At the centre of the book is Lukacs' reconstruction of Marx's theory of alienation, a remarkable achievement considering this was written a decade before Marx's own writings on alienation were published! Lukacs' work proved to be immensely influential. History stimulated scholarly interest in the relationship between Hegel and Marx and the emerging programme of so-called Western Marxism. It was this Hegelian reintroduction that was the target of Louis Althusser's polemics and purging of Marxism on an anti-Hegelian, "anti-humanist" basis. (NB the complete list of postings in this series on Lukacs are at the foot of this post).

So for anyone interested in the development of Marxism,
History is a key work that deserves to be read and understood. This is what I'm attempting to do at the moment. As I work through the book I plan to write a series of posts about each of the essays. These will hopefully bring Lukacs' ideas to an audience that have neither the time nor inclination to wade through such a weighty tome. I also hope they will clarify my own thoughts about the Marxist method, whether I've understood Lukacs' arguments properly and any critical comments I may have.

'What is Orthodox Marxism?', the first essay in the volume, was written in early 1919. Lukacs begins almost immediately with this bold claim:

Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx's individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto – without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders. (1968: 1)
If this method is the road to truth, it stands to reason that materialist dialectics are revolutionary. But what is its unique revolutionary quality? Why does it become a material force for revolution when it has seized the minds of the mass of working class people, when other theories and ideas do not? For Lukacs, part of the answer lies in the relation between theory and practice. For a revolution to take place, theory and practice has to be fused together on a mass scale. This fusion depends on the elaboration of revolutionary theory - this is a necessary condition, but not sufficient in and of itself. It requires the emergence of the proletariat, the class of propertyless wage labourers who depend on the sale of their labour power to materially and culturally reproduce themselves. Revolutionary theory is the expression in philosophy of the role this class of proletarians can play, and this role is their potential to act as agents for dissolving capitalism and laying the basis of the new socialist society. Therefore there is an intimate relation between the class and the philosophy that expresses its interests in the realm of theory.

However, the relationship between class and theory is not immediately apparent. In an attack on the social democratic revisionists of the day, namely
Eduard Bernstein, the Austro-Marxists and sundry Menshevik exiles, and mainstream sociological thinking, Lukacs argued their theoretical understandings of the social world rested on 'facts', which were unique, discrete, self-contained and isolated. The obviousness of these facts were reinforced continually through everyday individual experience. Take my typical week day for example. I hop on two buses every morning to get me to university. I spend my time on there either with my nose in a book or chatting to people I know who happen to be taking the same journey. When I reach the office, I settle down with a cup of coffee and spend the day flicking between my PhD, admin work, news sites, blogs and what have you. And most days this is punctuated by chats with office mates, the cleaner and green teas with Brother S. At four or five I usually catch the bus to the nearby supermarket, get some shopping done, and walk via the canal back home. The evening is then spent doing some Socialist Party-related activity, or in domestic bliss. It therefore appears my average day can be divided up into a series of episodes, each of which involve certain types of activity, different people and so on. The only thing joining them together, from my individual standpoint is my presence in them.

For Lukacs, bourgeois social theory takes a similar, albeit more abstract position. It takes this at face value, it only describes what it can see. But for Marxists this is not enough. Lukacs argues we need to go beyond these surface layers and grasp the inner core underlying and constructing these appearances. There is a crucial distinction between what
appears to be going on and what is actually going on. And the only way we can strip the essence of things of their appearance is by understanding that apparently independent and discrete phenomena are aspects of the same whole, as part of what he calls totality.

To illustrate Lukacs suggests we look at contending and contradictory theories drawn from bourgeois social science. For argument's sake, let us pick rational choice theory and postmodern approaches to subjectivity. Rational choice starts from the premise that individuals are instrumental resource maximisers that rationally seek ways of acquiring goods, money or advantage at least possible cost to their own resources. Postmodern writings on subjectivity however note the differences between infinite plays of blending identities, cultural practices, behaviours etc. means there is no one overarching social theory that can describe what's going on. Therefore, one theory claims to have the master key to all individual behaviour, while the other holds that endless contingency rules out the very possibility of unlocking social complexity in this way. Here, Lukacs would argue the tension in the theories arises from their reflection of very real contradictions within the capitalist system itself. The material basis of rational choice speaks of the experience of those employed by capitalism to make strategic decisions on behalf of capital, those who buy and sell for companies, those whose primary experience of the social world is tied up in some way with capitalism's exchange relationships. Postmodernism captures the collective experience of individual consumption, of capitalism's marketing machine addressing us as unique people and flattering the consumer choices we make. The variegated character of postmodern individualism is a reflection of its burial beneath the crushing burden of consumer choice.

Only by taking a step back from scrutinising individual phenomena can the whole picture emerge. Capitalism is a system where workers are separated from the control and fruits of their work, where the total sum of social labour in a given society is chopped up into a tightly specialised and quite rigid division of labour, where each action within the labour process is subject to reformation by the introduction of new technologies, and where the vast array of commodities produced by this process - industrial goods, food, jewellery, information, are reduced to expressions of a single exchange equivalent. This means two things. First, because all of these contradictory features are part of the same capitalist social totality they are not essentially similar or interchangeable with one another. You can no more swap around production, distribution and exchange than you can substitute the heart for the kidneys. Secondly, an individual can only experience one aspect of this vast interconnected system. To be parcelled up in one corner of a profoundly alienating division of labour militates against the ability to understand the system in its totality. And because bourgeois social thought proceeds from the starting point of the individual, it is small wonder its theories are partial, disconnected and mutually contradictory.

But if the philosophical standpoint of the individual is inadequate to the task of conceptualising totality, how was it possible for Marx, Engels, Lukacs and any other Marxist you care to mention to do so? They could do so because they proceed from a different starting point:

... the discovery of the class-outlook of the proletariat provided a vantage point from which to survey the whole of society. With the emergence of historical materialism there arose the theory of the “conditions for the liberation of the proletariat” and the doctrine of reality understood as the total process of social evolution. This was only possible because for the proletariat the total knowledge of its class-situation was a vital necessity, a matter of life and death; because its class situation becomes comprehensible only if the whole of society can be understood; and because this understanding is the inescapable precondition of its actions. Thus the unity of theory and practice is only the reverse side of the social and historical position of the proletariat. From its own point of view self-knowledge coincides with knowledge of the whole so that the proletariat is at one and the same time the subject and object of its own knowledge. (1968: 20)
There is the reflection in theory of proletarian experience. As the class is dispersed among the division of labour its collective experience drawn from across the system as a whole constantly enriches and forces further elaboration of revolutionary theory. As the knowledge of its position in capitalist society grows, so does the awareness of its potential as capitalism's gravedigger - the greater the understanding of its objective position, the greater the potential the class has for acting as a revolutionary subject. This is the starting point for Marxism - its philosophical standpoint and that of the class are identical. It is a collective standpoint.

All that said, it does not mean the working class spontaneously draws historical materialist conclusions from its lived experience. Like the bourgeoisie before it whose unconscious actions called it into being, class consciousness, the growth of workers' organisations, its historical fortunes and knowledge of its potential arises through the course of historical development, understood as the incessant struggle between it and the class whose power rests on the exploitation of its surplus labour. Lukacs argues the emergence of historical materialism at a certain point in time reflected the extent of the proletariat's historical evolution (historical materialism did not emerge just from the brains of Marx and Engels', it was the result of an encounter between radical Hegelianism, other currents in German philosophy, the impact of workers' struggles and the two men's experience of those conflicts). And now it has emerged, the mass movement for socialism, the prospect of the proletariat going from being a class "in itself" to a class "for itself" is a real historical possibility.

But the path, as history has shown, from the emergence of historical materialism to its consummation in a socialist society is not a smooth development. As the proletariat becomes increasingly conscious, capitalism's contradictions intensify as does the struggle with the boss class. This also requires constant elaboration on the part of revolutionary theory. Among his closing words, Lukacs writes "Marxist orthodoxy is no guardian of traditions, it is the eternally vigilant prophet proclaiming the relation between the tasks of the immediate present and the totality of the historical process" (1968: 24).

In case there are any Lukacs experts reading, I hope I've more or less got the gist of his arguments correct. But there are some problems. First is his bold claim about the character of Marxist orthodoxy resting solely on the question of method. If we accept his arguments about totality and theory being the philosophical sum of the total experience of the proletariat, it means the conceptual arsenals of Marxist thought are organically related to this experience. Take Marx's theory of surplus value. Marx argues capital exploits the labour power of workers by not paying them the full value of their labour. This ultimately is the source of the surplus in capitalist social formations that enables the payment of taxes, rents, liabilities, and of course, profit. This theory is an abstraction of the work relationships two and a half billion proletarians enter into every day. If it and the other Marxist concepts were disproved, either the working class were engaged in entirely different forms of economic behaviour or the method is somehow at fault. The relationship between the dialectical method Marxism rests on and the concepts it generates is tighter than Lukacs supposes. They stand and fall together.

Second is totality. While it is true alienation and the division of labour continues to atomise and work against the generalisation of class consciousness, and life is still experienced in a fragmentary way without direct experience of the interconnections and relationships that bind us all together, mainstream sociology has positively embraced totality, albeit in a distorted fashion. We are constantly reminded of the global economy in which we live, of how decisions taken thousands of miles away can affect peoples' livelihoods here, how "global competition" justifies wage restraint, deteriorating conditions and job losses. The bosses are more than capable of evoking 'totality' to aid their quest in naturalising capitalist social relations. So in itself, though totality is an important component of the Marxist method, it is only one component. Contradiction and change (or, if you want the old phrases, the transformation of quantity into quality, the interpenetration of opposites and the negation of the negation) are just as important as totality for grasping the social world surrounding us.

The third point is historical destiny of the proletariat. Throughout this commentary I've tried to make it clear that the socialist destiny of the proletariat is by no means guaranteed. As Marx noted, the outcome, or rather irresolution of the class struggle could lead to the mutual ruination of the contending classes. Because the proletariat was unable to take power in the cold war period and disarm the bourgeoisie of the west and the bureaucrats of the east, the threat civilisation could disappear underneath a mushroom cloud was ever present. Today unless class struggle positively resolves itself within the next few decades, it is likely climate change and environmental despoliation will lead to the death and impoverishment of millions. The socialist outcome of class struggle is by no means guaranteed. I'm sure Lukacs didn't think so either, but its inevitability is implied time and again when he speaks of the proletariat's historical destiny.

Finally, what is the repository of revolutionary theory? What agency is capable of transforming the collective experience of the proletariat into theory? A few Marx-like geniuses? Or something more inclusive? This gap in Lukacs' account will be looked at in the next post on his essay on Rosa Luxemburg.

The complete list of postings on History and Class Consciousness is below:

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


ajohnstone said...

Also worth reading is Paul Mattick on Karl Korsch

Karl Korsch: His Contribution to Revolutionary Marxism


The Marxism of Karl Korsch

Adam Marks said...

It's a fine book. However, Lukacs gets a deserved pile on for:

"Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx's individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto – without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment."

What kind of theory is right but produces wrong results?

Phil said...

Quite right, Roobin. Credit where credit's due, I remember thinking John Rees' chapter on Lukacs in his Algebra of Revolution was very good when I read it many moons ago. Also, already, I can tell from what I've read so far that Althusser's polemics against Hegelian Marxism were way off base. I don't think you can accuse Lukacs of reducing all phenomena to a simple essence, especially when Lukacs himself warns against that procedure! Makes you wonder if Althusser really did bother reading History and Class Consciousness ...

Adam Marks said...

"Also, already, I can tell from what I've read so far that Althusser's polemics against Hegelian Marxism were way off base."

There is a secret tunnel between the two (both, of course, were ultimately stalinists). Both are stated Marxism's of method. Althusser's Marxism was self-verifying, idealist... precisely what he saw as wrong with Hegelian Marxism.

Phil said...

Yep. The more I read Lukacs, the more it appears to me that For Marx and Reading Capital were linguistic reconstructions of Marxism in the fashionable language of the day. I'll probably dig out my old For Marx notes at some point and start blogging about them, that's if I haven't bored everyone to death with Lukacs by then ;) Btw, good post on Marx.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading "History and Class Consciousness" now and stumbled across this blog. I appreciate the great analysis and look forward to reading more posts about Lukacs. I'll be forwarding this to a buddy who is reading the book as well. Thanks.