Scenes from history

First published a hundred years ago, History and class-consciousness has exerted considerable influence on left sects since the 1960s. Lawrence Parker investigates the philosophy and politics of György Lukács

In early 2023, an English-language version of György Lukács’s The specificity of the aesthetic finally appeared after its first publication 60 years earlier.

In any revolutionary left worth its salt, the opportunity to read this book, Lukács’s mature Marxist aesthetics, would be an exciting one. I might be proved wrong, but I suspect that this work will be mostly ignored and pushed to the margins. Instead, some of the Marxist left has already started debating another largely transitional book written by the Hungarian revolutionary: History and class-consciousness (HCC), first published 100 years ago. HCC was one of the very last works Lukács wanted to be remembered by. As he wrote in 1963, he thought of the 1920s as the “decade of my active political work” and the “period of an internal conflict with Marxism and of its actual acquisition”.1

This exposes one of the key preconceptions around the contemporary celebration of HCC and 1924’s Lenin: it is generally thought not to be advisable to pay much attention to what Lukács subsequently said himself about these works towards the end of his life. Sometimes, of course, authors can be oblivious to the precise conditions of literary production; to paraphrase an old aphorism from Marxist critic Pierre Macherey, a writer is often the first reader of a text. But Lukács was a thinker of a different order, in that he held fast to the old-fashioned dialectical mode of thinking things through to the end … and beyond. HCC had become an exceedingly rare book after World War II (and Lukács had objected to its reissue in the early 1960s under the auspices of the French Arguments group). However, he relented, producing new critical introductions to older works that offered careful appraisals of their strengths and weaknesses, including a famous 1967 preface to HCC. He recorded many lengthy interviews with Hungarian and western scholars and activists, which significantly fleshed out his revolutionary backstory.2

This unwillingness to grapple with what Lukács himself understood about his early transitional works feeds into another tangled thicket of preconceptions and schemas that I attempted to unravel in a recent Cosmonaut article called ‘Two souls within his breast: Georg Lukács, 1925-29’.3 The over-fixation on HCC is a neurotic derivation of Trotskyism that regards pretty much everything produced by a bureaucratically deformed communist movement after the death of Lenin as irretrievably blackened by Stalin.

Lukács’s earliest introduction to a bureaucratised communist movement was in the practice of Comintern head Grigory Zinoviev and his disciple in the Hungarian party, Béla Kun. Lukács’s anti-Kun position thus led him to sympathise with Stalin, when the latter became an opponent of Zinoviev from around 1925. His essays of the mid-1920s thus have a decided anti-bureaucratic bent, obviously aimed at Zinoviev and his followers - notably in Lukács’s critique of an imaginary radicalism lacking any sense of concrete mediation. But in the Trotskyist schema dredged into existence by Michael Löwy,4 such essays have to be ‘rightist’ in orientation, because Lukács did not become a Trotskyist in the mid-1920s.

These are complex matters, and anyone interested in the detail is encouraged to read the Cosmonaut piece, but, in terms of HCC, one can easily see that this book is celebrated by certain Trotskyists because the schema they have in place around these events dictates that material from the early 1920s prior to Lenin’s death is safe.

Fantasy land

If safety is one of the facets of HCC’s appropriation, indolent fantasy is also a powerful motive. This is how John Rees - back in 2000 a leader of the Socialist Workers Party - recommended what he saw as one of the key messages of HCC:

Subjective and objective constantly trade places. Our wrong subjective decision today will reappear as an objective determinant of our action tomorrow. The objective process and such moments of decision are like a knotted rope; each knot of decision forms part of the objective structure of events stretching out behind us, determining what and how we can decide today.5

Thus it is that sect leaders such as Rees can imagine that they can tackle the epoch-shattering task of revolution without mass parties and roots in the proletariat and lacking deep-seated ideological and organisational preparation. Once ‘the struggle’ begins unfolding around strikes and demonstrations, this offers windows of opportunity to tiny organisations on the fringes of the workers’ movement to surf these waves and propel themselves into positions of influence and power. And why not, given that the subjective and objective world can merely “trade places”?

Subjects such as Rees can fantasise that their brand of sub-SWPism has the power to alter the political landscape (Rees paid a brutal price for such daydreams after the Respect debacle). In reality, it is somewhat doubtful that the SWP and its varied offshoots are motivated on a daily basis by the “actuality of the revolution” (to use one of Lukács’s grandiose formulations from 1924); rather, with the putrefying stink of reformism in their nostrils, it is the egg-and-chips instrumentalism of the ‘actuality’ of the next demo and the next strike. To that end, the appropriation of HCC becomes idle sentimentality; a consolation to activists that their organisations might be more radically chic than a tawdry sub-Heideggerian existence might otherwise suggest.

The problem with this standpoint of the SWP (which for the purposes of this article I am using as a synonym for modern Trotskyism) of an interchangeability of the subjective and objective world is that it had been debunked by Leon Trotsky in the early Comintern, when he was wittily critiquing left-communist Herman Gorter in 1920. Trotsky discussed “propaganda of the elect” and its potential impact on leaders and led in the workers’ movement. ‘Consciousness’, in and of itself, had limited purchase in producing effective proletarian leaders without the serious preparatory work of Marxist organisation. Trotsky said:

Generally speaking, the relationship between the leaders and the masses is conditioned by the cultural and political level of the working class; and it is contingent upon the extent of revolutionary traditions and habits of mass action, as well as upon how large a layer of the proletariat has gone through the school of class organisation and Marxist education.6

Seen in this harsh light, the idea of subjective and objective merely trading places seems rather forlorn and silly against Trotsky’s fluid emphasis on the concrete mediations of partyism as opposed to sectism.

Lukács subsequently elaborated a similar critique to Trotsky in more philosophical language, when he criticised the artificial notions in HCC, whereby “the objective theory of class-consciousness is the theory of its objective possibility”7 - in other words, an analytic proposition, in which the truth is inherently self-referential and removed from the world. As Lukács honestly explained in 1967,

I was unable … to progress beyond the notion of an ‘imputed’ [ie, possible] class-consciousness. By this I meant the same thing as Lenin in What is to be done? when he maintained that socialist class-consciousness would differ from the spontaneously emerging trade-union consciousness, in that it would be implanted in the workers ‘from outside’ … Hence what I had intended subjectively, and what Lenin had arrived at as the result of an authentic Marxist analysis of a practical movement, was transformed in my account as a purely intellectual result and thus into something contemplative.8

Similarly, Lukács also dispensed with the metaphysical idea that subjective and objective worlds could merely “trade places” in the form of the proletariat becoming the “identical subject-object of history” - that just repeated an error of Hegel’s, whereby alienation includes every kind of objectification; thus taking the object back into the subject means the abolition of objective reality.9

It is impossible to pursue rational politics along such lines, although Trotskyist fans of HCC nearly always present Lukács’s critique of his earlier ideas as examples of ‘rightism’; this being little more than the previously mentioned historical schema talking. Presenting a turn towards realism and objectivism as ‘rightism’ not only involves a repudiation of Trotsky in 1920; it also puts HCC acolytes in the position of having to enshrine the ‘imaginary radicalism’ which is the lot of a bureaucratic sectarianism that has subsequently become embedded in Trotskyist oil-slick internationals.

Lukács himself had a pretty shrewd idea of why HCC had subsequently been picked up by Trotskyists (among others) in the late 1960s. He put the matter bluntly when asked about it in interviews:

Since the analysis of class-consciousness [in HCC] contains idealist elements and since the ontological materialism of Marxism is less in evidence than in my later works, the book is, of course, more accessible to bourgeois readers.10

‘Bourgeois’ was an unnecessary and crude form of abuse, but Lukács understood all too well that the political marginality of sects and sect-leaders only increased the appeal of HCC to such elements, with its almost fantastical, contemplative account of the formation of proletarian class-consciousness.

Modest goals

In the HCC preface Lukács wrote in Christmas 1922, the authorial goals on display were noticeably modest, compared to the bewitchment that this work still casts on some comrades. He characterised the essays as “attempts, arising out of actual work for the party, to clarify the theoretical problems of the revolutionary movement in the mind of the author and his readers”.11 And, later: “My aim is to stimulate discussion [of dialectics] and, as it were, to put the issue back on the agenda from the point of view of method.”12

The intellectual cast that Lukács put on HCC was also reflected in the book’s publishing backdrop. It was originally released in Berlin by Malik-Verlag, founded by poet and former Dadaist Wieland Herzfelde, along with his brother and montage artist, Helmut (who adopted the name John Heartfield). HCC was the ninth volume of its ‘Little revolutionary library’ series, appearing alongside Zinoviev’s Lenin, Wieland Herzfelde’s Society, artist, communism and Karl August Wittfogel’s Science of bourgeois society. According to Andrew Arato and Paul Breines, the series was presaged on “impassioned pleas to intellectuals to recognise that militant communism offered the only way out of the crisis of bourgeois society and culture”.13 More specifically, the slaughter of World War I had intensified the issue of the relationship of consciousness to society, given that any serious thinking about the war concluded that it was an almost unimaginable quagmire of mechanised horror, clearly counterposed to the ethical interests of the long-suffering proletarians who undertook the actual fighting. That demanded a whole set of specific intellectual responses and Lukács’s work was one of the tributaries of that post-war stream.

This intellectual context was perfectly apparent to hostile critics of HCC. The Russian philosopher, Abram Deborin, said: “Lukács’s views are a colourful mishmash of ideas of orthodox Hegelianism made tasty by doses of Lask, Bergson, Weber, Rickert, …14 Marx and Lenin. In the person of comrade Lukács, we are without doubt dealing with an innovator.”15 On similar lines was Zinoviev’s famous aside at the fifth congress of the Comintern in 1924: “If we get a few more of these professors spinning out their Marxist theories, we shall be lost.”16 But then that leaves us with an interesting hypothetical question: on what side do we think that the pro-HCC SWP would have been in 1924? Would it have been on the side of those attempting to stimulate discussion and, in however flawed a manner, enrich Marxist dialectics? Or would it have been on the side of Zinoviev and friends persecuting ‘theoretical revisionism’ alongside the decidedly double-edged sword of ‘Bolshevisation’?

Leaving conjecture aside, we already know the answer, because it was handed out to us in brittle edicts by ‘comrade’ Callinicos and other SWP leaders when they attempted to steer their sect through the choppy waters of the ‘comrade Delta’ farrago a decade ago (I am guessing that this 10-year anniversary will not be high on the agenda at this year’s Marxism). It was Zinoviev’s notion of ‘Leninism’ (ie, a concept originally elaborated to cocoon bureaucrats in a plastic ‘orthodoxy’) that was wheeled out to confront critics who it was suggested were reducing the SWP to the status of a talking shop due to their darned insistence on debating the political implications of Delta’s appalling behaviour and those who sought to shield him.

The Hobson’s choice posed to critics by a fragile SWP leadership was: either to have an ‘interventionist’ group that positively wheezed with anticipation at every passing strike and demo; or one that sat around ‘like intellectuals’, gazing into its own navel. The idea that you could be active and be an intellectual - that you could walk and chew gum - was, of course, far too complicated, and dialectical. It was the SWP opposition’s ideological vulnerability on this point that sealed its fate and meant it was only able to produce mini-sub-SWP groups and sects of one, whose activist lives are still framed by chasing micro-groups of fascists around à la Benny Hill or adapting themselves to passing fads and fancies of the struggle. (The SWP mothership could live with that quite happily, given that its appeal would always be larger to people who enjoy those sorts of hobbies.) Needless to say, this relentless anti-intellectualism is not very Lukács in 1923: it might approximate to some of the results of HCC, with its amenability to a self-referential sect consciousness, composed of a type of undigested half-thinking; but not to the actual process that Lukács embarked upon in the 1920s, and which eventually led him elsewhere.

Earlier, we introduced the notion of how safe the adoption of HCC can be to its fan base, given that it appeared a year before Lenin’s death. Another area in which it can act as a sedative is in regard to the Second International and its blurred boundary with the Third. Comrades determined to remain chaste on this front (an increasingly elderly and bedraggled bunch these days) and insist on separate beds can always ingest Lukács as a talisman to ward off temptation. And, until now, it has been an easy reach. As Lukács put it in 1967, when recounting the early 1920s, “I strove to go beyond bourgeois radicalism, but found myself repelled by social-democratic theory (and especially Kautsky’s version of it).”17

Our clap-happy HCC fans think they are on safer grounds here in relation to the later Lukács, in that he apparently retained his enmity to the Second International and its theoreticians to the bitter end. Speaking in an interview in the 1960s, he said: “… I do not at all regret today that I took my first lessons in social science from [Georg] Simmel18 and Max Weber, and not from Kautsky.”19


But then, in an interesting aside, his interlocutor, socialist German jurist and political scientist Wolfgang Abendroth, challenged this assertion, stating: “Yes, only we should not forget one thing - that in your case it was the late Kautsky that was at issue. The earlier Kautsky still played a positive role.” Lukács replied: “Yes, of course. I don’t want to make my own biography into a law of development - that is very far from my intention.”20 So, even Lukács - now routinely and boringly trotted out as someone opposed to the ‘mechanistic’ theories of Kautsky and the Second International in toto - seemingly had a part-appreciation of Lenin’s view of Kautsky as ‘renegade’ (ie, reneging on something that was previously positive). When one starts digging into this issue a little more, a realisation dawns that the influence of the Second International might just turn out to be the great, unexplored outer galaxy of Lukács’s revolutionary career; a hitherto unknowable thing in itself.

Some of this mature understanding was also foreshadowed in the pages of HCC. In Lukács’s lecture to the Institute for Research into Historical Materialism in Budapest in June 1919, he discussed the issue of “vulgar Marxism” in relation to Kautsky and German revolutionary socialist Franz Mehring, clearly implying that both were partially guilty of this sin. But notable also is Lukács’s measured and appreciative tone:

After all, even if we must recognise that Mehring’s works have faults and that some of Kautsky’s historical writings are not beyond reproach, it is still true that both men have merited undying fame for their achievements in awakening the class-consciousness of the proletariat; as the instruments of the class struggle and as a driving force in that struggle, their books have brought their authors an immortal renown which does more than compensate for any scientific errors - and this will be the judgement of later generations too.21

Although this was actually the outlier judgement of Lukács in the 1960s, in the interim such a prognosis went awry, as Lukács’s view of Kautsky had obviously hardened by 1924: “Kautsky… has been utterly consistent in attempting at all times to blur theoretically the decisive problems of revolution; he was never prepared to sacrifice organisational unity with the reformists for a single moment …”22

In another controversial incident in his life, Lukács skilfully revived Lenin’s 1905 Second International-era slogan of the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ for the Blum Theses drawn up in 1928, as an intervention into the Hungarian Communist Party’s second congress. This had exactly the same emphasis as Lenin gave it, in that the “proletarian revolution and the bourgeois-democratic revolution, in so far as it was genuine, were not separated from each other by a Chinese wall”.23 As I explore at more length in the recent Cosmonaut article, the traditional Trotskyist schema dictated that, because this was 1928, it must be ‘rightism’, which itself rested on a bad debt from further misconceptions congealed around hostilities to Lenin’s, and thus Lukács’s, Erfurtian heritage (ie, after the German SPD’s Erfurt programme of 1891).

Lukács also came to appreciate the value of some of the democratic struggles undertaken in the era of the Second International - possibly uncovered as part of studies around a late unfinished work that appeared in the US under the title, The process of democratization. He argued in the late 1960s:

Present-day social democracy is thus characterised not only by its resistance to socialism, but by its abandonment of any democracy worthy of the name. The problem of a social-democratisation, of a real democratic development, scarcely retains any significance for the [German] SPD … The ideals of genuine democracy were once pursued very energetically by certain of the old-style social democrats - just think of the position taken by [French socialist leader Jean] Jaurès at the time of the Dreyfus trial - but they no longer mean anything to the SPD; they have almost completely vanished.24

The Dreyfus trial involved French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew of Alsatian origin, who was accused of handing secret documents to the German military. After a closed trial, he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. Dreyfus eventually received a presidential pardon, and his innocence was finally established in 1906. Jaurès took up the gross injustices in this case on behalf of the socialist movement.

Jean Jaurès offered a clear strategy that positioned socialists as heralds defending and extending democratic rights:

There are two parts to capitalist and bourgeois legality: there are a whole mass of laws aimed at protecting the fundamental iniquity of our society … We want to smash these laws, and even by revolution if necessary abolish capitalist legality in order to bring forth a new order. But alongside these laws of privilege and rapine, made by a class and for it, there are others that sum up the pitiful progress of humanity, the modest guarantees that it has little by little conquered through a centuries-long effort and a long series of revolutions.

He added:

And among these laws the one that doesn’t allow the condemnation of a man, whoever he might be, without discussion with him is perhaps the most essential. Contrary to the nationalists, who want to keep of bourgeois legality all that protects capital and turn over to generals all that protects man, we revolutionary socialists want, within today’s legality, to abolish the capitalist portion and save the human portion. We defend legal guarantees against the braided judges who smash them, just as, if the need arises, we will defend republican legality against generals in a coup d’état.25

As in 1928, the elderly Lukács acknowledged the power and force of this essentially Erfurtian strategy.

It has become fashionable to discuss neo-Kantian influences upon Lukács. Neo-Kantianism was the dominant philosophical school of thought in Germany from around 1870 until World War I. The neo-Kantians thought of themselves as reviving and extending the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who had died in 1804. One of the strands of this revival was that philosophy was deemed to be independent of subjective psychology, so epistemology, the theory of knowledge, was to be focused on objective structures established by Kant’s transcendental method, which refers to the capacities of a knowing subject prior to experience (‘transcendental’ should not be confused here with spiritualism or certain types of rave music). These ideas, and their fall-out, began to influence the socialist movement of the time and, indeed, Lenin discussed the percolation of Kant’s ideas in a section of Materialism and empirio-criticism (1909).

Kantian influence

Kantian ideas began to attract German socialists, such as Karl Vorländer and Conrad Schmidt, as well as Austrian socialists, such as Max Adler and Otto Bauer, and Eduard Bernstein made a rhetorical call to return to Kant against the ‘cant’ of orthodox Marxism in 1899 (although some doubt has been cast as to how genuine this call was in relation to Kant’s specific ideas). Kant’s ethical ideas had a particular appeal to some socialists, as his conception of a categorical imperative - whereby moral laws are universalised into all social situations, regardless of circumstances - could be seen as a counterweight to more utilitarian or instrumentalised behaviour.

This was deemed to offer a more fruitful avenue for a humanist, subject-based Marxism and was sometimes accompanied by a caricature of Marx and Engels as being overly determinist and mechanistic in their view of historical change. Kautsky’s critique of this type of Kantian socialism was contained in his Ethics and the materialist conception of history (1906), where he accused its protagonists of conciliating the antagonisms of capitalism rather than trying to overcome them through class struggle.

Lukács’s own Kantianism had led him by World War I to “a mood of permanent despair over the state of the world”. He added: “Clearly my rejection of the war and, together with it, of the bourgeois society of the time was purely utopian; nothing, even at the level of the most abstract intellection, helped to mediate between my subjective attitude and objective reality.”26 This is the classic deadlock of Kant’s categorical imperative and drove Lukács into a purely contemplative position, although it did not diminish his personal hatred of capitalism.

Although Lukács was in the process of moving away from Kant towards Hegel, once he had joined the nascent communist movement and embarked on the essays in HCC, it was this Kantian dilemma, shared with many in the Second International, that he was still trying to solve by making his revolutionary ethics bend towards reality, praxis and a re-engagement with the world (in other words, ‘history and class-consciousness’). Lukács’s conclusion, and the reason for his departure from Kant, was that “despite all his efforts, his ethics leads back to the limits of abstract contemplation”.27 (It was this emphasis on pushing things to their limits, towards objectivism, that partly informed the subsequent thinking of Theodor Adorno and Evald Ilyenkov about Kant; although the seeds of that understanding can also be seen in Lenin.) As we have seen, Lukács’s brittle theoretical constructs in HCC were no more capable than the categorical imperative of elaborating concrete Marxist politics in the here and now. But it is obvious that Lukács, in this instance, was dealing with a legacy of the Second International just as much as the reality of the Third.

I am sure, if you are interested in HCC, that, in this unhappiest of anniversaries, you will have to endure the indignity of a sanitised freeze-frame, where what came before and after it cannot be spoken about on pain of sect excommunication. Either that or you will be told that Lukács and his manifold flaws make him the perfect ‘house’ philosopher for ephemeral Trotskyist sects. The deathless line delivered by a CPGB-PCC email 10 years ago was that the Hungarian communist was “the favourite Stalinist of a number of leading members of the SWP”.28 However, if Lukács escapes the bounds of the freeze-frame, he is also free of the fate of merely being a cadaver for the likes of the SWP.

To that end, his intense unsuitability for either role is best summed up by our earlier quote from Deborin: “In the person of comrade Lukács, we are without doubt dealing with an innovator.”

  1. . G Lukács The specificity of the aesthetic vol 1, London 2023, p21.↩︎

  2. . This article does assume some basic familiarity with Lukács’s revolutionary career and writings. For those interested in doing some background reading (with freely available digital texts), I would strongly recommend the collection of autobiographical writings and interviews contained in Record of a life (archive.org/details/recordoflife00gyrg). There are issues with the way Lukács attempted to ‘tidy’ the narrative of his life a posteriori. However, his interlocutors in these interviews do challenge him in relation to his history, and the results are generally valuable. Similarly, in relation to Lukács’s later work and thought, I would recommend Conversations with Lukács (archive.org/details/conversationswit0000lukc), which features a long, multi-layered interview conducted towards the end of his life.↩︎

  3. . cosmonautmag.com/2023/01/two-souls-within-his-breast-georg-lukacs-1925-29.↩︎

  4. . See M Löwy Georg Lukács - from romanticism to Bolshevism London 1979.↩︎

  5. . J Rees, ‘Introduction’ in G Lukács Tailism and the dialectic London 2000, p30.↩︎

  6. . www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/ffyci-1/ch13.htm#n2.↩︎

  7. . G Lukács History and class-consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics Cambridge (Mass) 1975, p79.↩︎

  8. . G Lukács, ‘Preface to the New Edition (1967)’ in ibid ppxviii-xix.↩︎

  9. . Ibid ppxxii-xxiv.↩︎

  10. . I Eorsi (ed) Georg Lukács: record of a life London 1983, pp77-78.↩︎

  11. . G Lukács, ‘Preface (1922)’ in History and class-consciousness pxli.↩︎

  12. . Ibid pxlvi (original emphasis).↩︎

  13. . A Arato and P Breines The young Lukács and the origins of western Marxism London 1979, pp167-68.↩︎

  14. . Emil Lask (1875-1915) and Heinrich Rickert (1863-1936) were German neo-Kantian philosophers; Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941) was a French analytical philosopher; and Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist.↩︎

  15. . Cited in Arato and Breines op cit p179.↩︎

  16. . Cited in ibid p180.↩︎

  17. . G Lukács ‘Preface to the New Edition (1967)’ in History and class-consciousness px.↩︎

  18. . Georg Simmel (1858-1918) was a German sociologist.↩︎

  19. . T Pinkus (ed) Conversations with Lukács London 1974, p100.↩︎

  20. . Ibid.↩︎

  21. . G Lukács History and class-consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics Cambridge (Mass) 1975, p239.↩︎

  22. . G Lukács, ‘Bernstein’s triumph: notes on the essays written in honour of Karl Kautsky’s 70th birthday’ Tactics and ethics 1919-29 London 2014, p132 (original emphasis).↩︎

  23. . I Eorsi (ed) Georg Lukács: record of a life London 1983, p81.↩︎

  24. . T Pinkus (ed) Conversations with Lukács London 1974, p82.↩︎

  25. . www.marxists.org/archive/jaures/1898/socialist-interest.htm.↩︎

  26. . G Lukács ‘Preface’ The theory of the novel London 1971, p12.↩︎

  27. . G Lukács History and class-consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics Cambridge (Mass) 1975, p127.↩︎

  28. . CPGB, ‘Notes for action’, January 24 2013.↩︎