Kept recanting, kept correcting, kept adjusting

A hundred years of muddle

Marking the centenary of György Lukács’s hugely influential History and class consciousness, Mike Macnair spoke to an Online Communist Forum on May 14 about the book, the man and the politics

Let me start by saying that I spoke on this issue less substantially and at less length at the Platypus convention in Chicago on April 1, and this talk expands on what I said there.1 I should add that there are two really useful articles on Lukács by comrade Lawrence Parker in Cosmonaut in January, and in the Weekly Worker in April.2 I have also written at length on related issues in the Weekly Worker between 2003 and 2014.3

There are two major directions in which the use of Lukács is taken by the left. One is by the Trotskyist and near-Trotskyist left to justify what is very broadly a Bakuninist political perspective, in which, essentially strikes are central and the basic way forward is from strikes to the generalised mass strike. This perspective is (probably partially falsely, but certainly not completely) attributed to Rosa Luxemburg, and equally so to Lukács.

On the other hand, there is an enormously wide section of the left - particularly the academic left - for which History and class consciousness (HCC) is a starting point for the ‘Frankfurt school’, for ‘western Marxism’, and for the narrative, which is extraordinarily widespread among ‘new left’-influenced academics, that Engels vulgarised Marx. This argument was not original in Lukács: it was already present in Georges Sorel, writing around 1900, and in Parvus’s arguments in 1914-15 justifying support for the German war effort, among other places.4 That line of approach takes us into a whole new world of the ‘dominant ideology thesis’ and so on.


I will discuss here mainly the politics of HCC and of some of Lukács’s related writings, and to a lesser extent how the philosophy bears on the politics. We start with Lukács. He was born in 1885. At university in 1905-06, he was influenced by the Sorelian revolutionary syndicalist, Ervin Szabó (1877-1918).5 Following Sorel, Szabó and other revolutionary syndicalist writers basically considered Bernstein’s critique of ‘Kautskyian’ (or Engelsian) Marxism as being broadly correct: that the ‘orthodox’ Second International perspective was scientistic and led to automatism and gradualism. The alternative was a radical shift in mass consciousness, which could only take place in the form of mass action: and hence the syndicalist, as opposed to the partyist, perspective.

After his undergraduate years Lukács went to Heidelberg and became heavily influenced by Max Weber and Georg Simmel, as well as other contemporary neo-Kantians.6 In this period, he wrote on several aesthetic matters. During the war he was influenced by ‘Russianism’ in the sense of the ideas of Dostoevsky. As late as early 1918, he was still very much an anti-Bolshevik, but in December 1918 jumped into the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) - very unexpectedly to people who had read his previous work.

The immediate context was the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy and the Hungarian revolution. In March 1919, the Hungarian Socialists invited the HCP to join them in a ‘soviet’ government;7 Lukács served in this government as deputy commissar of public education, and as a political commissar with the short-lived Hungarian Red Army. After the revolution was defeated, he did clandestine work for a while, before he finally had to flee to Vienna in October 1919.

In Vienna, Lukács worked with the collective which produced the journal Kommunismus with Ruth Fischer - later one of the leaders of the left wing of the German Communist Party - and other lefts. In that capacity he was personally targeted by Lenin as an ultra-left in a June 1921 review of Kommunismus.8 This character is strongly visible in the articles from this period collected in English translation in Tactics and ethics: political writings 1921-29.9

HCC was published sometime in spring 1923. The preface is dated Christmas 1922, which is the point at which the text went off to the printer. So Lukács was finalising the text closely contemporaneously with the fourth congress of Comintern (November 5 – December 5) and is unlikely to have taken into account anything decided at that Congress. The first hostile review of the book, by Hermann Duncker, is dated in late May, so it must have come out long enough earlier for Duncker to have skim-read it.10

Most of the chapters in HCC are separately dated. ‘What is orthodox Marxism?’ in March 191911; ‘The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg’ in January 1921; ‘Class consciousness’ in March 1920. The central essay, ‘Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat’, is undated, so probably goes back to autumn 1922. ‘The changing function of historical materialism’ is June 1919; ‘Legality and illegality’ July 1920. ‘Critical observations on Rosa Luxemburg’s “Critique of the Russian Revolution”’ is January 1922; and ‘Towards a methodology of the problem of organisation’ September 1922.

These dates confirm the point that the book is, as comrade Parker has argued, transitional between, on the one hand, the ultra-leftism of Kommunismus (and Lukács’s support, along with Fischer, for the March Action in Germany, against its critics) and, on the other, a response to Lenin’s ‘Leftwing’ communism (LWC) published in July 1920, and the decisions of the second (July 19 – August 7 1920) and third (June 22 – July 12 1921) congresses of Comintern. Relatively little of it was written after the 1921 March Action, and the book came out well before the German ‘failed October’ in October 1923.12

These events are relevant (and the date of publication was unfortunate for Lukács) in two ways. First, Karl Korsch, who solidarised with Lukács, continued to maintain the ‘theory of the offensive’, which underlay the March Action, as did Ruth Fischer and her co-thinkers. In this sense HCC could appear as an immediate intervention on the side of the ‘lefts’ in the KPD.

Second, Lenin had his third stroke, which completely disabled him, on March 10 1923, and died on January 21 1924. In connection with the struggle for power after Lenin’s disablement, Trotsky countered the campaign against ‘Trotskyism’ and his own Menshevik history, by arguing that the troika of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev were guilty of resisting Lenin’s call to struggle for power in 1917, due to residual ‘Second international Marxism’ - and that the same errors underlay the KPD’s failure in October 1923. Although Lessons of October was not published till October 1924, this debate had already been running for some time. In that context, by spring 1924 HCC would have appeared as an intervention on Trotsky’s side of this debate - as, also, could Korsch’s Marxism and philosophy - though what in both cases is involved is trying to hold on to elements of what the old Kommunismus group had been arguing. Hence its violent denunciation by Zinoviev and those close to him.13

Lukács wrote Tailism and the dialectic in 1925 or 1926. This stayed in manuscript until it was published in Budapest in 1996 and then in translation by Verso, with an introduction by John Rees, and a postface by Slavoj Žižek, in 2000.14 Comrade Parker argues that Tailism is not a defence of HCC, and Lukács certainly disavows it as being such a defence. But the ‘tailism’ he denounces is, in essence, the failure to take revolutionary initiatives. So, in this sense, Lukács in Tailism is still defending the ‘leftist’ aspect of HCC. It is also a deeply factional document - philosophy addressed to the factional combat within the HCP.


It is generally accepted that Lukács later became a ‘Stalinist’ - meaning that he was for practical purposes a supporter of the majority of the Comintern leadership. It is not clear that this was an actual change. I do not think Lukács was trying to be oppositional or even state a markedly distinct line to that of the Comintern leadership when he wrote HCC; and this is a phenomenon which actually is displayed throughout his political activity in the 1920s.

In the Kommunismus period Lukács is attempting to defend the idea of the absolute present possibilities of revolution and the immediacy of soviet power, as opposed to parliamentarism, reforms, etc - which is actually characteristic of the first congress of Comintern and the 1918-19 debate on soviet power. LWC and the second congress of Comintern represented a partial shift against this perspective, but that shift only became fully clear with the third congress. HCC partially tries to follow this shift, but without conceding to the right social democrats and centrists who had argued that revolution was not on the agenda.

To some extent HCC slavishly follows the arguments of LWC and the second congress. In particular, ‘Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat’ is distinctly neo-Kantian and Weberian: but it is also intimately related to the second congress’s Theses on the role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution with its explanation of class-consciousness as taking form in the party as a minority.15 ‘Towards a methodology of the problem of organisation’ has the same characteristics, and also follows Lenin’s claim in LWC that the Bolsheviks were ‘steeled’ by long experience and had existed as a distinct party with a radically disciplined regime since the split of 1903. This is just false, involving retrojection of the split from a much messier history to 1903, and retrojection of the militarisation of the party from 1919 back to 1903.

After Lenin’s death, the initial Comintern leadership role was taken by Zinoviev. But in 1925 Stalin broke with Zinoviev and Kamenev, forming a bloc instead with Bukharin and Rykov round a much more cautious and ‘peasant-friendly’ policy, which was also associated with the line of ‘socialism in a single country’. Zinoviev and Kamenev went into opposition - initially independently (the ‘Leningrad opposition’) and then jointly with Trotsky and his co-thinkers’ ‘left opposition’ (the ‘joint opposition’). The sixth congress of Comintern, at which Bukharin took the lead, happened in July-August 1928. Contemporaneously, Jenő Landler, who was the leader of the faction Lukács supported in the exile HCP, died (February 25 1928) and Lukács was commissioned to draft the HCP perspectives. This draft, the ‘Blum theses’ (from Lukács’s then cadre name), written some time in autumn 1928, is carefully and loyally adapted to the political line of the sixth congress of Comintern.16

However, at the same time (July 1928) Bukharin and Rykov fell into disagreement with Stalin about the question of more aggressive exploitation of the peasantry, the promotion of collectivisation and a crash industrialisation programme. Stalin made a zigzag. By this stage both the left and the Leningrad oppositionists had been excluded, and Stalin proceeded to steal a version of their political clothes. In April 1929 Bukharin was sacked as editor of Pravda and Stalin announced the existence of a “right deviation in the party”. The Comintern leadership threw its support behind Bela Kun’s faction in the HCP and denounced Lukács’s ‘Blum theses’ as opportunist. Lukács duly recanted them (though he later retracted this recantation as merely tactical). When they were written, the ‘Blum theses’ were not oppositional, nor were they ‘premature popular frontism’: they were simply an application of the line of the sixth congress of Comintern, but Lukács was caught short by the turn in Moscow - as he had been in 1920-21 and again in 1923-24.

HCC, then, has a history in the 1920s of Lukács’s attempts to catch up with the Soviet leadership and attempts to do grand-theoretical justifications for particular factional positions in relation to Russian, German and Hungarian Europe politics of the time.


The history of the subsequent reception of HCC is complicated. We start with the German, which is that it leads into what becomes the Frankfurt School. Karl Korsch welcomed HCC in a postscript to his Marxism and philosophy, though by 1930 he disliked being tarred with the brush of Lukács’s rejection of dialectics of nature. HCC also influenced Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse - from the earliest days of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. The book was reportedly also engaged, in a coded fashion, by Martin Heidegger, while Karl Mannheim in his 1929 Ideology and utopia used HCC’s arguments as a reason for rejecting Marxism as utopian.17

This reception reflects the fact that HCC was academically respectable, where other Marxist writing on philosophical issues was not: both because Lukács had an academic background in Heidelberg neo-Kantianism; and because the whole book is consistent with the Weberian and marginalist critiques of Marxism being true. ‘What is orthodox Marxism?’ concedes that all of Marx’s substantive claims could be wrong, several arguments about ‘rationality’ and points of history are explicitly Weberian, and none of the book’s arguments are inconsistent with the (supposed) truth of marginalism. In 1933, in his ‘Mein Weg zur Marx’ article, Lukács largely repudiated the book; and, though this text might be considered a mere formal recantation, Lukács took broadly the same view of HCC in 1957, and refused to authorise republication of the German text till 1967.18

In 1955, nonetheless, HCC was picked up in France by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his book Adventures of the dialectic. The purpose of the book was to argue that Jean-Paul Sartre had become too close to the French Communist Party; and for this purpose, Merleau-Ponty invents ‘western Marxism’ - by which he means the Marxism of HCC. ‘Western Marxism’ is, I think, a meaningless category, and becomes more meaningless when we add other authors to it - for example, the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks (as opposed to the Gramsci of L’Ordine Nuovo).

I think not wholly disconnected from this background, Michael Harrington (the later founder of the Democratic Socialist Organising Committee) translated ‘What is orthodox Marxism?’ in 1959 for the Shachtmanite Young People’s Socialist League.

Lukács in 1967 authorised a reissue in German, in which he wrote a long critical preface, in which he recanted some important aspects, but not others. It is this reissue which was translated into English in 1971; and the translation into English is in essence the basis of the influence of HCC on the Socialist Workers Party and others - though there was also the indirect influence of Michel Löwy’s 1976 Pour une sociologie des intellectuels revolutionnaires - l’évolution politique de Lukács 1908-1929 in the 1979 English translation retitled Georg Lukács - from romanticism to Bolshevism.19

Where this ‘left’ reception comes from, I think, is partly from Lukács’s participation as junior minister in the short-lived Nagy government in Hungary (October-November 1956), with the result that, although he avoided execution, he was exiled in 1956-57 and excluded from the party until 1967. Lukács now appears as an oppositionist in spite of the fact that he has been a loyal ‘official communist’. Indeed, in the 1967 introduction to HCC he says he was never a Trotskyite; he agreed with Stalin on the question of socialism in one country - which was, indeed, clearly plausible to the overwhelming majority of the existing communist movement.20

The point is not that Lukács is a Stalinist, but that he does not construct an independent line of march or political line for the movement - not just unlike Trotsky and his co-thinkers, but also unlike Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow on the left, or Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer on the right. He appears as an oppositionist because modern leftists staple together HCC - read as being a work of ‘classical Marxism’ of the early Comintern or of ‘western Marxism’ - with Lukács’s role in the Nagy government, leaving the middle bit out, and hence identify Lukács as a critic of Stalinism. He was, indeed, a critic of the bureaucratic dictatorship as such: but not of the institutional and political grounds on which this bureaucratic dictatorship rested.

Comrade Parker correctly states that we should not say this means that Lukács’s work while he was an ‘official communist’ is to be ignored. Really important historical work - and, for that matter, philosophical work - was done by people who were more unambiguously ‘official communists’, which we have to read and take seriously.

New left

But reading Lukács as an oppositionist is also reading HCC as an additional argument for the politics of the ‘new left’ which developed after Hungary 1956. The problem is that the ‘new left’ emerged into a world in which the core ‘official communist’ ideas - the people’s front, socialism in one country and national roads to socialism, and the concept of the party as a militarised monolith - all appear to be categorically proved by events between 1941 and 1949.

‘New left’-ists were repulsed by the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the character of the political regimes in the east - and they were repulsed in a different way by the gradualism of The British road to socialism and the equivalent documents of the French Communist Party, the Italian Communist party, and so on. They thought this perspective non-revolutionary. This is in a sense the same symptom as the guys in today’s Young Communist League wanting to celebrate Stalin, or indeed the Maoists of the 1960s and 1970s wanting to celebrate Stalin as a way of combating revisionism and gradualism, and the scientism of Khrushchev; but to do so without falling into ‘Trotskyism’. because to fall into ‘Trotskyism’ would be to reject the people’s front, national roads and the party monolith (and ‘Trotskyism’ is taken to be disproved by the course of events between 1941 and 1949).

On this basis, on the one hand, we get, from around 1960, forms of Maoism; and, on the other hand, picking up HCC, leftists could use it as a foundation for a Frankfurt School approach to politics, which is centred on culture and ideology and is third-campist (or indeed first-campist in the sense of seeing Nato as the defence of civilisation against ‘totalitarianism’, whether Nazi or Stalinist).

Or you could use HCC in support of ‘Luxemburgism’ (the chapter, ‘The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg’), mass-strikism (by this route and by way of ‘Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat’) and bureaucratic centralism (by way of ‘Reification’ and of ‘Towards a methodology of the problem of organisation’ and the false narrative of Bolshevik history). This latter was the path travelled by the Cliffites (Socialist Review group, International Socialists, Socialist Workers party), and, it seems, by the Japan Revolutionary Communist League (Kakumaru).


As previously stated, I am going to say little about the substantive philosophical content of HCC. Some of what I have to say, Lukács himself says in ‘Mein Weg zu Marx’ and in the 1967 preface to HCC. He makes the point that he overstated the relative significance of grasping the totality as such. He thought it was correct to reject “mechanistic fatalism”, but at the same time makes the point that “praxis” is intervention into the material world, not simply intervention into the social world. And praxis in this context depends on a correct perceptual reflection of reality (If I don’t look where I’m going, I’m going to walk into a lamppost or a tree). Equally if I want to fit a speedometer into a car on the assembly line, I have to actually see that I have the right parts and the right screws in the right spot.

I think this is, however, a more fundamental question than Lukács makes of it even in ‘Mein Weg’ or the 1967 preface. The problem is the idea that dialectical reasoning involves essentially the grasp of ‘the’ totality (a totality which is closed, not open) carries with it the question how you grasp ‘the’ totality. And the answer - given in ‘Towards a methodology of the problem of organisation’ - is that it is only possible through the collective action of an organisation. Indeed, for Lukács (faithfully following the Comintern second congress Theses) the proletariat can only be class-conscious through the party.

But then the consequence is that he quite clearly has fully internalised the notorious idea that you cannot be right against the party, which was a common idea of the ‘capitulators’ - the people who went over from opposition to Stalinism and at the end of the day laid down to be massacred by the secret police (GPU) without fighting back. This is a foundational error.

Secondly, Lukács in ‘Mein Weg’ and the 1967 preface half-breaks from the proposition in HCC that the physical and social sciences are radically separate and that giving physical (or biological) foundations to the social sciences is to fall into a ‘contemplative’ method. (In this half-break, incidentally, he parts company with the Frankfurt school.) But he does not break completely with this idea, and equally he does not break with the idea that the dialectic is something which is really only applicable to capitalism; he does not break with his insistence that to be historical is to insist on radical discontinuity and the determination by the totality of the present.

In my opinion (and this is just my opinion), that conception of historicity also carries with it the impossibility of actually grasping the historical dynamics at work in the inferences from the recent past to the near future, which we call ‘the present’ (a concept which Lukács seems not to interrogate), in a way which will allow you to make serious proposals for action. In my view it is partly because of the things which he objects to in ‘Second International Marxism’ - the tie to physical science, the concept of history in the longue durée, and so on - that Lukács is in the 1920s unable to formulate his own perspective, or fight a corner (any corner) with any degree of persistence against the Comintern leadership.

Finally, ‘What is orthodox Marxism?’ starts with the proposition that orthodox Marxism “refers exclusively to method” and continues:

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.

And in the 1967 preface, this text is one of the things Lukács still maintains.

But, as I have argued elsewhere21, this is no more than a closure of argument against adverse evidence (reflecting the influence of Sorel via Szabó and of Weber, Simmel and co): that Lukács was explicitly unwilling to defend historical materialism in its ‘Engelsian’ or German ideology and Contribution to the critique of political economy sense, and implicitly unwilling to defend the labour theory of value and the related arguments. But the result of this closure against adverse evidence must be, at the end of the day, intellectual sterility.

I am certainly not saying, ‘Don’t read this book’. It has an important role in its historical reception. But I think it is certainly a mistake to treat Lukács’s philosophical arguments in HCC as foundational for a future Marxism.

  1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAGkjsgbOxQ (at 22.06).↩︎

  2. cosmonautmag.com/2023/01/two-souls-within-his-breast-georg-lukacs-1925-29; ‘Scenes from history’ Weekly Worker April 27 2023 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1440/scenes-from-history). Add comrade Parker’s April 3 blog comment on the Platypus panel: communistpartyofgreatbritainhistory.wordpress.com/2023/04/03/100-year-gyorgy-lukacs.↩︎

  3. The earlier articles are referenced in ‘Fantasy history, fantasy Marx’ Weekly Worker December 18 2014 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1039/fantasy-history-fantasy-marx); and add to this list my ‘Against philosopher kings’ Weekly Worker December 11 2008 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/749/against-philosopher-kings).↩︎

  4. Sorel: in several places in the excerpts from ‘Critical essays on Marxism’ in JL Stanley (ed) From Georges Sorel New York 1976. Parvus: discussion and reference in B Lewis, ‘World War I: SPD left’s dirty secret’ Weekly Worker June 26 2014 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1016/world-war-i-spd-lefts-dirty-secret).↩︎

  5. On Szabó, see G Litván and JM Bak (eds) Socialism and social science: selected writings of Ervin Szabó (1877-1918) Abingdon 2011.↩︎

  6. Discussion in A Arato and P Breines The young Lukács and the origins of western Marxism London 1979, chapters 2-4.↩︎

  7. ‘Soviet’ is in scare-quotes because there was only a limited organic development of workers’ councils - still less of soldiers’ or peasant councils - but merely a left turn of the Hungarian Socialists in response to an Entente ultimatum and Russian Red Army successes, to bring the Communists into government, involving renaming existing institutions as ‘soviets’: see RL Tőkés Bela Kun and the Hungarian soviet republic London 1967, chapters 6-7.↩︎

  8. VI Lenin CW vol 31, p165.↩︎

  9. M McColgan (trans), R Livingstone (ed), London 1972, pp53-116.↩︎

  10. See A Arato and P Breines op cit p176.↩︎

  11. Though this text is substantially extended from the version in Tactics and ethics, which Lukács there dated “before the dictatorship of the proletariat”: ie, before March 21.↩︎

  12. On the ‘March action’, see B Lewis, ‘Before, during and after March’ Weekly Worker supplement May 6 2021 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1346/supplement-before-during-and-after-march). On the ‘failed October’ there is a good deal of detail, from a Trotskyist perspective, in johnriddell.com/2021/12/01/the-german-october-of-1923-a-failed-bid-for-workers-power; see also M Jones, ‘Germany 1923’: www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol5/no2/jones.html; marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol8/no3/jones.html; A Thalheimer, whatnextjournal.org.uk/Pages/History/1923.html.↩︎

  13. See A Arato and P Breines op cit chapter 10; on Rees, see E Leslie (trans), ‘Introduction’ A defence ofHistory and class consciousness’: tailism and the dialectic London 2000, pp17-25; and comrade Parker’s articles.↩︎

  14. See note 13 above.↩︎

  15. www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch03a.htm.↩︎

  16. Tactics and ethics pp227-23. It should be noted that this is extracts, rather than a full text.↩︎

  17. See A Arato and P Breines op cit pp203-05.↩︎

  18. ‘Autobiographisches Vorwort: mein Weg zur Marx’ in Marxismus und Stalinismus: politische Aufsätze, aufgewählte Schriften IV, Hamburg 2018; and ‘Postscriptum 1957 zu mein Weg zu Marx’ in idem.↩︎

  19. Patrick Camiller (trans), London 1979.↩︎

  20. R Livingstone (trans) History and class consciousness London 1971, ppxxviii-xxix.↩︎

  21. M Zurowski (trans), ‘Introduction to M Sommer’ Anti-Postone: cosmonautmag.com/2022/02/anti-postone-introduction.↩︎