Lukács and reification

Liam O Ruairc responds to Mike Macnair

Mike Macnair’s article, ‘Classical Marxism and grasping the dialectic’, was very interesting (Weekly Worker September 4). It was particularly strong on the political implications of Hegelian Marxism. I would, however, like to raise a number of issues regarding Georg Lukács (1885-1971) that Mike did not include.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of Lukács’s major work, History and class consciousness (1923). It is one of the most famous and influential books of the 20th century, and certainly one of the major texts of Marxist philosophy. The book has been very controversial - it was famously condemned by Zinoviev and Bukharin at the 5th Congress of the Comintern in 1924 (see also the article in Pravda, July 25 1924).

This ‘heretical’ work deviated in many respects from the philosophical orthodoxy of dialectical materialism then promoted by the international communist movement. It rejected the so-called reflection theory and dialectics of nature. Lukács was the first to return to the German idealist philosophical roots of Marxism. He was one of the few Marxists that had a real understanding of Hegel’s thought and German idealist philosophy.

Lukács’s pioneering work contributed significantly to the rebirth of the dialectic. It was a major attempt to recast Marxism conceptually, with the proletariat playing the role of the Absolute Spirit, as the subject-object of history. For Lukács, the entry of the proletariat into history signals the potentiality of true, unalienated, self-conscious knowledge: for the first time individuals can become conscious of themselves as social beings, both the subject and the object of the historical process. The “identical subject-object of history” simultaneously creates society through its actions and is solely capable of understanding it (G Lukács History and class consciousness Cambridge Mass 1971, pp121-2).

Society is reducible to its creator subject and history is the continuous unfolding of this subject. History is thus seen as one all-embracing teleological process, as the progressive realisation of the unity between subject and object. The antinomies between subject and object will therefore dissolve and the totality will become transparent. Thus the dualisms of classical philosophy are overcome historically and politically with the birth of the proletariat.

For Lukács, Marxist orthodoxy refers solely to method, that of the point of view of totality. The position of the proletariat represents the vantage point from which history and the social whole can be rationally understood. That is the point of view of “totality” (ibid p27). However, when claiming that “orthodoxy refers exclusively to method”, and that it would not be invalidated if “recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses”, Lukács’s idea of a method immune to empirical verification is dubious, to say the least (ibid p1).

Lukács’s ‘Hegelian’ position is not the most interesting aspect of his thought and was not unique. The same year that his book came out also saw the publication of Karl Korsch’s Marxism and philosophy. Korsch (1886-1961) developed positions - though with less metaphysical brilliance - which were very close to Lukács’s, with his insistence on totality, the German idealist roots of Marxism, etc. What made Lukács’s book so influential was his analysis of the phenomenon of reification.

Lukács’s analysis of reification is probably his most significant contribution. Looking back on the book in 1967, Lukács pointed out correctly that it owed its profound influence on intellectuals to the fact that it took estrangement to be the central problem of the critique of capitalism. One of its achievements was that it was the first book that was able to reconstruct with great insight Marx’s theory of alienation (with both similarities and major differences with what Marx wrote) - this 10 years prior to the publication of the 1844 Economic and philosophical manuscripts.

Lukács discusses the nature of reification (Verdinglichung) in the first section of his essay on ‘Reification and proletarian consciousness’. He takes as his starting point Marx’s chapter on ‘The fetishism of the commodity’ in Capital. For Lukács, the chapter on commodity fetishism “contains within itself the whole of historical materialism and the whole of the self-knowledge of the proletariat seen as the knowledge of capitalist society” (ibid p170). The “problem of commodities” is “the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects” (ibid p83).

Commodity fetishism is the central, definitive characteristic of capitalist society. What is extraordinary about Lukács is that he was one of the few Marxist philosophers who really added something to Marx’s views. Lukács goes further than Marx, developing the notion of reification in a way it is not developed in Capital. For Lukács, commodity fetishism was the “basic phenomenon of reification”, which refers to the process through which the exchange of the products leads to the transformation of social relations among human beings into apparently natural relations among things.

Lukács’s achievement was to show how this commodity fetishism and its concomitant reification have permeated every aspect of capitalist society. While Marx had limited his analysis to the reification of labour, Lukács had transformed reification into a universal affecting the whole of society. His strength is to have shown how it is possible “for the commodity structure to penetrate society in all its aspects and to remould it in its own image” (ibid p85). He insists repeatedly on the total nature of this phenomenon: “The basic structure of reification can be found in all the social forms of modern capitalism” (ibid p171).

“Reification is, then, the necessary immediate reality of every person living in capitalist society.” In short, reification is the tendency to fetishise our own activity, when that tendency has grown into a universal and determining influence over every aspect of our lives. It is important to note that Lukács did not exhaust the possible developments of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. The concept of fetishism is really crucial and can be developed in different directions. Etienne Balibar, for example, believes that “Lukács chose, in a very powerful manner, one of the possible directions, but there is another direction which you can take, which is the direction of symbolic structures. That is an alternative to Lukács, so to speak.” (quoted in Eva Corredor Lukács after communism Durham 1997, p119).

Lukács’s analysis of reification has not been exhausted at all, given the fact that the whole of contemporary society turns around commodity fetishism. However, there are major theoretical and conceptual problems with it. One of the central themes of the book is the equation of capitalist reification with science and industry in themselves, putting “the growth of mechanisation, dehumanisation and reification” on the same plane (ibid p136).

By generalising the concept of fetishism to the whole of society, Lukács also controversially stated that reification extended itself to sciences, both natural and social. He identifies capitalist reification with the ‘reification’ engendered by science and believes that “capitalist society is predisposed to harmonise with scientific method”. Scientific concepts “behave within science like commodities in society”  (Lukács op cit p131). Lukács counterposed the point of view of totality to natural sciences, which express the fragmented and reified vision of the bourgeoisie.

The problem is that Lukács confuses science with its positivistic interpretation and starkly counterposes analytical to dialectical thought. By identifying all science with bourgeois science, he is led to condemn science as such and reduces Marxism to the theory of the self-knowledge of the proletariat, denying all the claim of historical materialism to be scientific. Lukács is not simply a ‘Hegelian Marxist’ (like Henri Lefèbvre, Herbert Marcuse or Raya Dunayevskaya): he was part of the whole idealist and romantic reaction against science and materialism. He smuggled the whole romantic anti-industrial and anti-modern ethos into Marxism.

Then there is Lukács’s own 1967 self-criticism for failing to distinguish between the process of reification and objectification. The latter is the inevitable process by which people objectify themselves materially, which is reflected in related patterns of social organisation; the former a form of alienation: “Objectification is a natural means by which man masters the world … By contrast, alienation is a special variant of that activity that becomes operative in definite social conditions.”

The problem is that Lukács identifies reification with objectivity, whereas they cannot be considered socially or conceptually identical: “It is in Hegel that we first encounter alienation as the fundamental problem of man in the world and vis-à-vis the world. However, in the term ‘alienation’, he includes every type of objectification.” Thus ‘alienation’, when taken to its logical conclusion, is identical with objectification. Therefore, when the identical subject-object transcends alienation it must also transcend objectification at the same time. But since, according to Hegel, the object, the thing, exists only as an alienation from self-consciousness, to take it back into the subject would mean the end of objective reality and thus of any reality at all.

History and class consciousness follows Hegel in that it too equates alienation (Entfremdung) with objectification (Vergegenständlichung). It is necessary to make such distinction, because only in certain forms of society is there reification of external objects. And without this distinction, it means that de-reification will imply that there are no objects, material or social.

This kind of idealism is evident when Lukács says of the physical world: “Nature is a societal category. That is to say, whatever is held to be natural at any given stage of social development, however this nature is related to man and whatever form his involvement takes - ie, nature’s form - its content, its range and its objectivity are all socially conditioned.”

To borrow the terminology of Roy Bhaskar, Lukács not only reduces the intrinsic into the extrinsic aspect of science: he collapses the intransitive dimension into the transitive dimension.

Finally, there remains the question of the political consequences of Lukács’s position. It was a ‘leftist’ and idealist reaction to the positivism and reformism of the Second International. Mike Macnair clearly shows that there is a correlation between Lukács’s philosophical position and semi-spontaneist and semi-syndicalist politics, through which the proletariat escapes from the dynamics of commodity fetishism. Lukács’s view of the proletariat is heavily marked by apocalyptic messianism and utopianism.

However, eight decades after its original publication, History and class consciousness is still an indispensable work to be studied, though with critical vigilance.