Tuesday 30 December 2008

Capitalism and Historical Materialism

In his essay, 'The Changing Function of Historical Materialism' (unfortunately, not yet available online), Lukacs considers the application of historical materialism and its relationship to capitalism and the class struggle. To reiterate Lukacs's position on historical materialism, it "is no doubt a scientific method by which to comprehend the events of the past and to grasp their true nature. In contrast to the historical methods of the bourgeoisie, however, it also permits us to view the present historically and hence scientifically so that we can penetrate beneath the surface and perceive the profound historical forces which in reality control events". But historical materialism is more than this, more than a mere research programme. He continues "in the case of the class struggle of the proletariat, the war for the liberation of the last oppressed class, the revelation of the unvarnished truth became both a war-cry and the most potent weapon. By laying bare the springs of the historical process historical materialism became, in consequence of the class situation of the proletariat, an instrument of war" (Lukacs 1968, p.224).

Because historical materialism is intimately linked to the position and trajectory/destiny of the working class, for the bourgeoisie to admit to any of its truths would mean transcending, in thought, the limits of bourgeois consciousness, and therefore abandon its ability to fight for their class interests. But that said, the key position of historical materialism - the decisive role played by class struggle in history (which is ordinarily denied by bourgeois thinking) - can appear at two moments in the history of ruling class thought. First at the moment the bourgeoisie locks horns with the land-owning aristocracy of feudal society and struggles for hegemony over society. And second is during the final revolutionary crisis of capitalism, when the bourgeoisie faces its dissolution. But at times, despite this, they are more than capable of a hard-nosed appreciation of reality, especially among those circles at the sharp edge of managing capitalism, such as employers' associations and state elites. This kind of thinking may be regarded by them as for "internal use only", but from the standpoint of historical materialism, they remain fully within the limits of bourgeois thinking. As
we saw in Lukacs's essay on the contradictions of bourgeois philosophy, society confronts the capitalist as an alien power, but one that can be understood as a force of nature, and which can be manipulated and second guessed to accumulate capital. Within this narrow horizon of action, instrumental rationality is possible, up to and including when the capitalists face an uppity workforce. However, Lukacs argues that while this can be the case, capitalism is in the process of objective decline, and as it does so the opinions and ideologies of the ruling class become ever more incoherent.

If we are in a period of decline and it's only a matter of time before the revolutionary crisis hits, wouldn't the expected acknowledgement of class struggle in bourgeois discourse mean it possesses
greater coherence? Lukacs says no, and the reason for this can be laid at historical materialism's door: there has been an unconscious and unacknowledged partial capitulation to Marxism. Economics, for example, is no longer "completely bourgeois". The discipline's development in pre-revolutionary Russia, for example, was heavily imprinted by so-called legal Marxism. The same was true in the influence Marxian economics had on mainstream Japanese political economy in the inter and post-war periods. As far as Lukacs was concerned, any branch of economics associated with planning or war owe debts to historical materialism. This situation is an effect of the increasing social weight the proletariat possess in society. More specifically, the ideological crises in the international workers' movement (in chronological order up to the time of History and Class Consciousness; individual socialists entering bourgeois governments; the move of sections of the movement into outright reformism; the formal split between social democrats and communists marked by the foundation of the Communist International), saw defections from the proletarian camp to that of the bourgeoisie. With these new "adherents", capitalism, which no longer possessed sufficient organic ideological resources to meet its systemic needs, now had parliamentary socialism to buttress their legitimacy. This meant the bourgeoisie had more ideological weaponry at their disposal, but the greater range is ultimately a recipe for confusion on their part, not clarity.

Despite this, the consciousness of the working class grows and that of its antagonists decline, thanks to the power of historical materialism. In response, the bourgeoisie have launched numerous critical counterattacks. One they often have recourse to is what they see as turning historical materialism against itself. If it is the case that bourgeois ideologies are functions of capitalist economic realities, doesn't this apply Marxism too? Among the smug, this may be a killer argument, but for Lukacs, it doesn't undermine the scientificity of historical materialism nor threaten a lapse into relativist irrationalism:
The substantive truths of historical materialism are of the same type as were the truths of classical economics in Marx's view: they are truths within a particular social order and system of production. As such, but only as such, their claim to validity is absolute (p.228).
Marx performed a substantive investigation and critique of the political economy of his day in the three volumes of Capital and elsewhere, and the same can be done to historical materialism by applying its categories to its emergence and function. The ability to do so does not weaken its scientific claims because of the intimate, dialectical relationship it has to proletarian interests, but enhances it. Bourgeois thought, on the other hand, is incapable of doing so.

But like all claims to validity, the theoretical object 'capitalism' is not the same thing as really-existing capitalism. It is an approximation whose truth claims can be tested by practice. The "purer" capitalism is, the more fully it has penetrated the fabric of society, the closer the approximation historical materialism achieves. The purity, or rather maturity of capitalism is determined by the extent to which economic forces act like natural forces and extra-economic compulsion has, on the surface, largely been dispensed with. It is the capitalism we in the West are familiar with, where the economy has assumed independent and autonomous powers
vis the rest of society. For historical materialism, this means it is confronted with crucial differences when it analyses pre-capitalist societies and the transition period between it and its feudal forebear. The key discrepancy is the absence of reification in these social formations. Capitalism is dominated by the phantom forces called up by the processes it sets into motion - as we saw in Lukacs's essays on reification. Its predecessors are definitively conditioned by nature: its vagaries predominate over what could be spoken of as the "laws" of feudal society. Feudalism's relationship to nature and its organisation of production and extraction of the surplus is qualitatively different to the corresponding relations in societies where capitalism was beginning to emerge, and mature capitalist societies. Therefore using historical materialism in these different contexts requires subtlety and, especially, an appreciation of the specifics of the era's class struggles.

Returning to the Marxist analysis of mature capitalism, economic relations, despite the autonomy of the economy, are never purely economic. They are shot through with relations of force and the threat of force. They are the sites of countless battles between employers and employees. They are the stuff of class struggle. If we return to the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it did not take place because the new production system maturing in the womb of the old was more productive, its victory, instead, was won because the nascent bourgeoisie won the class struggle against the feudal aristocracy. Lukacs notes there are also historical moments where the class forces representing each mode of production are balanced out. The old system is no longer hegemonic, but the new hasn't been able to stamp society definitively with its character. Engels in the
Origin of the Family pointed out the state can assume an independent role in these circumstances and become the dominating power in society - the absolute monarchies of the 17th and 18th centuries being cases in point.

What definitely didn't happen in the transitional period was a gradual and peaceful takeover of society by economic relations. And so it is with the transformation of capitalism into socialism. The economic plans hatched by the capitalist class to deal with crisis are simultaneously plans of struggle. If the proletariat is mainly passive, as is the case in the present balance of class forces in Britain as it enters a serious recession, and it continues to remain so, the capitalists will struggle to get the working class to pay for the crisis and prepare the ground for future growth. But if the proletariat is conscious, the crisis can bring the class antagonism between socialist production and privatised appropriation out into the open. "Solutions" become objects of struggle - the capitalists and proletariat put forward their positions and battle it out for hegemony. And as with previous transitions between modes of production, what is decisive are the relations of forces.
Violence is the decisive economic factor.

The function of historical materialism changes once again. The tool of historical analysis, the weapon of class struggle, becomes an aid for constructing socialist society if the proletariat wins the class struggle. This is an entirely different situation for it to operate in. But projecting forward, Marx and Engels forecast that a victorious working class would use historical materialism in a context where collective social action is determined by the collective social will, socialisation and democratisation crashes through and transforms institutions, and crucially, labour no longer confronts the working class as an object in thrall to an alien power. And every conscious turn in constructing socialism is a qualitative leap forward in the understanding of historical materialism, which dialectically informs its capacity to assist the conscious regulation of society, and so on. The dialectic of theory and practice finally and permanently become fused.

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


Phil said...

Previous posts and discussions on History and Class Consciousness can be read here:

Lukacs and Orthodox Marxism

Luxemburg, Revisionism and Revolution

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

Commodities and Reification

Structure of Bourgeois Philosophy

Overcoming Reification

Anonymous said...

I'm sure a lot of hard work went into your effortless looking, jargon free, brief summary. Just a quick comment or two.

When reading Lukacs' essay (actually a lecture), it is worth keeping in mind that it was written in June 1919, when Lukacs was in the leadership of the Hungarian Soviet, which arose in March 1919 and was overturned in August, shortly after this lecture was given, due primarily to serious ultra-leftism (and some serious opportunism) from this leadership.

(When History and Class Consciousness was published, Lukacs re-wrote the essays with the intention of removing the ultra-leftism.)

This explains the fact that this essay was a lecture Lukacs gave for the "inaugeration of the Institute for Research into Histoical Materialism" in Budapest, established during the Soviet period

Lukacs begins by saying that the victory gained by the proletariat "evidently confronts it with the task of perfecting as far as possible the intellectual weapons" in its hands. But in fact it was the intellectuals of the leadership of the soviets which needed a serious course in perfecting the task of leadership, including listening to the proletariat, rather than the working class which needed to have its intellect sharpened.

Rather than inaugurating an institute, (such things as these apparently caused Lenin to complain) there were in fact far more pressing tasks. I think June 24 saw the first counter-revolutionary uprising, which should have served as a serious warning. It is difficult to emphasise enough how important it was that the Russian revolution spread, in order to ensure that the it did not remain isolated - which was in fact its fate - so that it would not be crushed by trade embargos, imperialist intervention and civil war.

But there is a deep irony here. A proper use of the method of historical materialism - which Lukacs believes he understands - would have helped the Hungarian soviet leadership, Lukacs in particular, comprehend the errors it was making. Lukacs even emphasises the word "concrete" in his opening remarks, but, like ultra-leftism in general, it was precisely the problem of not concretely examining its policies which caused the failure of the Soviet.

Far from being concrete, Lukacs moves always (in History and Class Consciousness) to the abstract. He generalises to the point to which, firstly, one can to an extent interpret him how one wants, and secondly, he misleads the reader as to the fundamental finding of Marx and Engels which was precisley to move away from the riddles of 'dialectical' (Hegelian) generalisation, precisley into the concrete.

One mildly annoying point reflected in Phil's account is that as the son of one of the richest investment bankers in Hungary, Lukacs, seems, as one wanders through the pages, transfixed altogether too much with the bourgoisie. The essay on class consciousness, for instance, rather conspicuously spends the vast majority of its ink on the "tragedy" of the bourgoisie, until one tires of the subject, while the actual supposed subject of the essay (the working class and its consciousness) gets relatively short shrift.

Phil manages to capture something of the essentially idealist nature of Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness writings also - again ironic for someone writing about historical materialism: In the blather about the coherence or otherwise of the bourgoisie in times of crisis, in which Phil can tell there is something wrong, Phil explains, "Lukacs says no, and the reason for this can be laid at historical materialism's door." Thus a philosophical outlook (historical materialism), rather than material circumstances (the class struggle itself), is elevated, in typical fashion, by Lukacs to motivate the bourgoisie. It is a kind of misdirection which could lead to errors. There may be many better examples, but this gives at least an indication to the idealist inclination of Lukacs' thought.

This comment really only takes up the errors on the first page of this essay of Lukacs (together with the two general points about idealism and bourgois outlook).

One important discussion is to dispute Lukacs' comments about nature ("nature is a societal category") and the enormous errors which Lukacs and his followers made out of this (most importantly on this, see the first essay). This is the systemic error which Lukacs first criticised when he damned altogether this collection of essays in his 1967 introduction (having previously refused to let them be published in English or indeed any language), and which continue to mar academic study of Marxism.

But it is perhaps enough to show that we should not give Lukacs too much credit. Both the text itself and the wider context, I think, of Lukacs' essay exposes that it is fatally flawed.

ian said...

'Far from being concrete, Lukacs moves always (in History and Class Consciousness) to the abstract. He generalises to the point to which, firstly, one can to an extent interpret him how one wants, and secondly, he misleads the reader as to the fundamental finding of Marx and Engels which was precisley to move away from the riddles of 'dialectical' (Hegelian) generalisation, precisley into the concrete.'

This fact is not discussed enough by the main Marxist groups in the UK.It worries me that this is the case as what is needed now in the Marxist movement is concrete direction not vague idealism.

Ms Chief said...

My favourite Marxist writing is George Novak's Long View of History.

Phil said...

Sorry for taking an age to reply.

Ian first, I hope in a modest way this series contributes toward an excavation of our theoretical heritage and a clarification of what Marxism is all about. I did choose to write about H&CC because I've been meaning to read it for years (it's been a very long time since I last dipped into Marxist philosophy), and because Lukacs attempts to systematise the basics of the method, though not without difficulties.

Re: Pete, can you recommend a decent source on the experience of the Hungarian soviet?

Second, one fascinating tension I find in H&CC is, on first appearances, how it is a clarion call to "activist" Marxism, but then its subsequent fate as a corner stone of so-called Western Marxism. A trend not without its insights, but one very much rooted in the academy. What is appreciably missing from his pieces up until 'Legality and Illegality' is a theorisation of the party. For example, in his lengthy meditation on reification, he argues that theory is the way the working class becomes conscious of its position and role in history. But the revolutionary party does not feature in the process by which our class becomes conscious.

Regards the rest of your comments, I wouldn't disagree, though I have to say I did find his discussion on bourgeois consciousness fascinating.

One other thing, I wonder why H&CC didn't have as much an impact on English-speaking academic Marxism as, say Althusser, who was translated at more or less the same time. Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,
First a correction – I wrote above that I had only criticised the first page (p223) of this lecture, The Changing Function of Historical Materialism, but in fact I only took up the first paragraph. Anybody reading Lukacs will notice the second para asserts that up till now historical materialism was “hardly more than a programme” (strange way to refer to Marx’s Capital, for instance) and that “the whole of history really has to be re-written” – umm… And worse, in the next para, sounding the death knell of the Hungarian soviet, “the class struggle is now waged from above and not from below.” Hopelessly undialectical also.
Just on your questions,
1. “A decent source on the experience of the Hungarian soviet?” Not really, I’ll dig around a bit.
2. “the revolutionary party does not feature” – this is another of the critical flaws. It flows from Lukacs ultra-leftism, (his “messianic sectarianism” as he calls it (pxiii) which was anti leadership.

But it is worse than that. Lukacs’ over-generalises his use of the term “Proletariat” leading to terrible confusion.

Compare Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, which is of course about history and class consciousness, and is a remarkable work of Marxist theory. Here, the dialectical interplay between the class, the revolutionary party and the leadership, are worked out in detail.

In Lukacs we just have the proletariat, which sometimes means the leadership, the Bernstein leadership, the class, and sometimes the party, and sometimes even the Bolsheviks.

For instance, in Legality and Illegality, we read: “the evolution of the class consciousness of the proletariat advances homogeneously and in a straight line.”

Now leave aside just how false this is at all levels from the shop floor to the revolutionary uprising, and leave aside how even someone with as little experience of revolutionary politics as Lukacs in 1920 (two years a member of the CP) and with as little experience of the working class as Lukacs, dialectics alone (which Lukacs claims to know about) would indicate that this claim is suspect and worth checking out, before italicising it for emphasis.

But my point is that as an example of this contention, Lukacs cites the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. IN this instance, the “Proletariat” is conflated with the most advanced leadership of the most advanced revolutionary party. And even here, by the way, as we know Lenin’s position (immediate peace) was in a minority. The majority of old Bolsheviks, even at district level, favoured Lenin’s old “revolutionary war” position, and it was Trotsky’s position, (negotiate peace but delay signing, use as a propaganda vehicle as the German revolution develops, as Lukacs correctly explains) which Lenin then supported, which then won a majority backing. So we have struggle going on at leadership level.

3. H&CC not much an impact on English speaking world, almost certainly, in the UK and USA, because the CP had very little influence, while the Labour Party had Marxists like Aneurin Bevan and Laski who had a critique of Stalinism which was not bad.

Perhaps in addition, consider that Lukacs refused to have H&CC translated until 1967 and then only with an introduction which slammed the work comprehensively, and sometimes from a correct perspective, although it makes a number of elementary errors (such as that Lenin had “affirmed” that socialism could survive in one country. One only needs to look at any of Lenin’s writings after the revolution, from the first day to his last breath, to find it replete with statements about the necessary of socialist revolution in “a number of advanced capitalist countries.)

Finally, on your pertinent criticism of the failings of Legality and Illegality, keep in mind that Lukacs never revised this 1920 position in H&CC, e.g. in his subsequent 1922 writings in the collection (e.g. Reification), and the later essays should be seen very much as a further development of the same errors, thinly disguised in by abstractions.
Sorry to be so rushed,

Anonymous said...

Sorry, forgot to add page ref for “the evolution of the class consciousness of the proletariat advances homogeneously and in a straight line.”

Phil said...

It is very strange Lukacs can make such an error, seeing as he spends a lot of his time talking about the uneveness in working class consciousness in his final essay!

Anonymous said...

You write: “If we return to the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it did not take place because the new production system maturing in the womb of the old was more productive, its victory, instead, was won because the nascent bourgeoisie won the class struggle against the feudal aristocracy.”

However, arguably (i.e. presenting detailed material historical facts chronologically) the ‘cause’ of the bourgeoisie win was the more efficient productive systems (“with in the womb of the old”) which created wealth and power that exceeded the feudal aristocracy. Once the bourgeoisie started loaning money to aristocrats and manufacturing weapons that aristocrat’s needed for war, the bourgeoisie ascendance was assured.

If this type of historical argument is valid, then the question is: how will the working class ascend? Will they develop a more efficient means of production; will the bourgeoisie become dependent up the working-class? It is hard to conceptualize a working-class ascendance identical or analogous to the bourgeoisie’s. It is not providing an alternative means of production or accumulating greater wealth. This is why; it seems to me, that political/activist Marxism become revolutionary. Marxist cannot conceive of any other way for the working-class to ascend except through violent revolution that takes over the bourgeoisie system and wealth by force rather than displace the old system with the new.