Debate: Lukács reloaded
Dealing with the complex legacy of Georg Lukács demands something more sophisticated than treating him as an honorary member of the SWP, argues Lawrence Parker
James Turley’s supplement on Lukács was an interesting and thought-provoking read (‘The antinomies of Georg Lukács’ Weekly Worker January 24). Indeed, I think the CPGB owes a debt of gratitude to the comrade, in that his contribution can be counted as the only really serious intervention on the subject from one of its members since the ‘star’ of Lukács began to wane in the organisation.
Up until the early 2000s, majority opinion in the CPGB was, of course, extremely critical of the legacy of Lukács, but his earlier works, History and class consciousness (HCC) in particular, were given some respect. This has seemingly changed and I have been frankly appalled at the some of the ignorant nonsense about Lukács (‘elitist’, ‘obfuscatory’, ‘not worth reading’ and so on) that has been spouted in various CPGB forums over recent years (I exempt comrade Turley from this charge).
The leader of this particular pack has been Mike Macnair. I have some time for Macnair as a thinker and a writer, but on the subject of Lukács (or Althusser, or the Frankfurt School and so on) you can pretty much guarantee a heap of parrot droppings each time you put your money in the slot. The issue with comrade Macnair is that I have not read anything resembling the recent supplement (which actually attempts to dissect a piece of work from Lukács) emanating from his keyboard. What I have read is material looking at the work of John Rees on Lukács, which is then used to debunk Lukács.1 I do not have the space to go into this in more detail, but I would respectfully suggest that using John Rees as a means to master Georg Lukács is rather like using Jimmy Savile as a means to master Stoke Mandeville Hospital.
When John Rees (or Alex Callinicos, etc) pontificate, as they do on, for example, Lenin, there is a whole battalion of CPGB writers on hand to illustrate the ways they are wrong; if the Socialist Workers Party writes about Lukács (in its own degenerate manner) then this is seemingly taken as absolute truth and the last word on the subject. Why would we take anything the SWP writes at face value (particularly with a subject as complex as Lukács)? Well, we would do this if it was simply convenient to smear Lukács through guilt by association with the SWP, because he is deemed a threat (wrongly, as I will argue) to the project of rehabilitating the practice of the Second International centre.
Turley adds another note of complication, in that his motivation is partly based upon salvaging what he can of the Althusserian tradition. Emaciated visions of History and class consciousness have long been the philosophical gruel of this camp (I know - I have eaten it enough times). However, I do not see many of Turley’s comrades buying into this particular motivation and, if anything, there is even more enmity and incomprehension directed towards Althusser, as he simply cannot be made to fit into the ‘What is the next link in the chain?/How can we bend the stick, this month?’ instrumental rationalisations that more obscure theoretical debates in the CPGB get smothered with sooner or later.
I am not writing as a follower of Lukács or his career. I do not self-define as a ‘Hegelian Marxist’. History and class consciousness certainly does border on irrationality and mysticism with the idea of the proletariat being the identical subject-object of history, and it certainly is no surprise to me that comrade Turley finds a whole host of crap in the book. However, I think History and class consciousness is still a brilliant work, but it simply does not fit into the Stalinised, instrumental way that the left approaches such texts. I try and treat all such works as unrealised - something like a painter’s sketch, where you are alive to brilliance, but perceive the flaws. While following Karl Korsch’s idea that philosophy needs to be realised, I agree that we should not sign up for ‘philosopher kings’ and that such a realisation would be hesitant, partial and in constant flux.
But, while it is a worthy exercise to dethrone our monarchs, I would be wary of another trap. Macnair and Turley want to knock Lukács off the (absurdist) pedestal of the ‘philosopher of Lenin’, but in doing so they have been trying to make him into a sort of useless philosophical jester. This shares the errors of the ‘philosopher king’ rationale: someone is being disposed of so that other figures in the Marxist historical canon (Althusser, Kautsky) can rise up again. Maybe they will not be kings, but there will certainly be some writers that are more equal than others, know what I mean?
‘New Left’ method
Turley writes: “For Lukács - as he survives for us today - has a ‘second life’, with the emergence of the 1960s-70s ‘New Left’. His persistence as a theoretical touchstone to this day is a product of the 1960s as much as the 1920s, not least because it is the 1960s generation of Marxists who are most clearly indebted to him.” It is completely correct to locate a fault-line in this generation’s adoption of Lukács, which suffers from its inability to perceive History and class consciousness as merely one of many points of departure, or, to paraphrase Trotsky, not a closed circle, but a loop: one end moving into the past; the other into the future.
The problem for the so-called ‘New Left’ is that, in general, it has been unable to locate History and class consciousness in this movement, which results in a fixing of and fixation on History and class consciousness. Part of the issue behind this is that the ‘New Left’ was instrumentally concerned with constructing a set of frail, sect orthodoxies, which, in the case of Lukács, led to a suspicion of his ‘ultra-leftism’ in the period before History and class consciousness, while the works of the mid-1920s were suspect because of his support for Stalin’s faction in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (despite the fact that all of Lukács’s post- History and class consciousness oeuvre has an enormously contradictory relationship to ‘official’ communism - see below). So the ‘New Left’ was left with an History and class consciousness freeze-frame, a snapshot, which it was forced to endlessly pore over in its dark towers. Unfortunately for Turley, his presentation is implicated in this method, in that History and class consciousness is taken for granted as the ultimate point of departure for understanding Lukács. While I accept that this is an advance on taking John Rees as the last word on the subject, this inability to establish any dialectic in relation to Lukács himself leads to a flattening and distorting effect in Turley’s account.
Turley argues: “In particular, the directly political content of History and class consciousness is indebted most heavily to the ‘mass action’ left of the socialist movement, which hit its moment of greatest plausibility during the post-war, post-October revolutionary wave which spread across Europe.” However, he then moves on to partially contradict this statement, by discussing, quite correctly, the fact that Lukács’s leftism had begun to unravel by the time of the publication of History and class consciousness in 1923. But, for Turley, this process of unravelling has no consequences for History and class consciousness itself (at least none that I can see).
Unfortunately, as I have previously pointed out in debate with the comrade, his account of this process is fundamentally garbled. In response to the specific point that History and class consciousness was a continuation of an earlier ultra-leftism, Michael Löwy points out that Lukács had substantially recast at least two of the essays (‘What is orthodox Marxism?’ and ‘Class consciousness’) for its 1923 publication with the ‘watershed’ moment coming in the middle of 1920, when Lenin’s Leftwing communism - an infantile disorder pamphlet appeared.2
For example, the following passage was inserted into the 1922 version of ‘What is orthodox Marxism?’: “Do not let us forget either that every attempt to rescue the ‘ultimate goal’ or the ‘essence’ of the proletariat from every impure contact with - capitalist - existence leads ultimately to the same remoteness from reality, from ‘practical, critical activity’ and to the same relapse into the utopian dualism of subject and object, of theory and practice, to which revisionism has succumbed.”3 Helpfully (or I guess unhelpfully for comrades Turley and Macnair), Lukács briefly tips his hat to Leftwing communism in the footnote to this point, suggesting that he saw it (rightly or wrongly) as of a piece with Lenin’s work. Attentive readers will also note that such passages do not lend themselves very easily to the idea of ‘mass action’ leftism with its undertone of conspiracy behind the backs of the proletariat.
It might be helpful if, at this point, I give my own view of what is going on in History and class consciousness. Lars T Lih has argued that Lenin had a ‘heroic’ scenario of the revolutionary party inspiring a genuine mass movement (and a mass conscious party) of the popular classes (as opposed to the traditional Trotskyist perversion of this, which involves a tiny minority manipulating the befuddled masses). My take on Lukács in 1923 is of an activist who was starting to absorb Lenin’s standpoint, which means that History and class consciousness is essentially transitional and internally dislocated. The full flowering of his engagement with Lenin’s ‘heroic scenario’ was, in my reading, not in History and class consciousness at all, but in the later, and also problematic, Lenin (1924).
One can see this ‘heroic’ perspective clearly flowering into life in an essay such as ‘Class consciousness’ (dated 1920, but, as pointed out above, recast for publication in 1923). The arguments presented here are infused with the idea of the objective possibilities (not the mundane, sociological realities pored over by Lukács’s critics) inherent in the proletariat and proletarian class-consciousness: “Only the consciousness of the proletariat can point to the way that leads out of the impasse of capitalism.”4 What a contrast with the petty tyrants of today’s left with their lamed and incremental view of working class consciousness (‘Keep it simple for the workers’ and so on)!
Other points, such as where Lukács discusses examples of reified consciousness in relation to empiricism and abstract utopianism could stand as good (if rather abstract) injunctions against the practice of today’s proponents of the ‘mass strike’: “In the one case, consciousness becomes either a complete passive observer, moving in obedience to laws which it can never control. In the other, it regards itself as a power which is able of its own - subjective - volition to master the essentially meaningless motion of objects.”5 So, when comrade Turley talks of the “semi-anarchist, mass-action leftism that informed History and class consciousness” or “its status as the expression of Lukács’s philosophical voluntarism, rather than his ‘realistic’ political activism”, we have to reply that this is not just factually incorrect, but undialectical nonsense of the first order.
As for the so-called ‘followers’ of Lukács included in comrade Turley’s grisly litany of modern-day Hegelian villains (the new ‘Holy Family’), well, he can scarcely be asked to answer for their heresies; any more than Lenin should be held to account for Alex Callinicos. Of course, Lukács’s account of class-consciousness is somewhat abstract and flawed, and it is quite correct for Turley to reproduce a quote from Lukács’s 1967 preface to History and class consciousness: “... 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 into a purely intellectual result and thus into something contemplative. In my presentation it would indeed be a miracle if this ‘imputed’ consciousness could turn into revolutionary praxis.”6
However, at least Lukács’s preface is trying to come up with a balance sheet of History and class consciousness; to determine what of it belongs to the past and what links it to the future (even if sifting his rather notorious double-think becomes somewhat tiresome and counterproductive). In other words, he is thinking dialectically; Turley (in what is an entirely appropriate metaphor for his theoretical practice) is concerned merely to “nail the coffin shut”, to fix Lukács as an immobile, inert concept among exterior objects.
Comrade Turley is utterly precluded from seeing any movement in his subject (away from ‘ultra-leftism’ and, imperfectly, towards Lenin’s ‘heroic’ perspective for the proletariat), partly because, as already noted, there is little or no sense in his piece of what proceeded and what followed History and class consciousness; and partly because, in the current ‘CPGB version’ of Lukács, as he has many followers in the SWP, he simply must be made up as a straw man, on which to hang all the anti-democratic fallacies of the ‘mass strike’ theory. In reality, as many of us saw years ago, the SWP’s adoption of Lukács (partial and fallacious as it was) was a howling contradiction in relation to its practice in the real world: there is no simple and neat homology between its philosophical adoption of Lukács and its other nefarious practices. In that light, the CPGB’s current ‘orthodoxy’ stands revealed as a rather naked and unimpressive instrumentalism.
These problems reach an absolute farcical pitch when Turley turns his attention to what, to my mind, is the sharpest (although, again, thoroughly transitional) essay in History and class consciousness: ‘Towards a methodology of the problem of organisation’. Turley, clearly underwhelmed, writes of this: “The bulk [of the essay] is based around rather obtuse philosophisations of that ‘Leninist party’ form which emerges from the early Comintern. In this respect, some arguments are perceptive and illuminating (on the relationship between discipline and bourgeois individual freedom, in particular); others simply recapitulate classic ‘mass action’ arguments against the Second International centre, albeit obscured by Hegelian jargon.” At the very best, such a statement could be read as ambiguous and grudging; at its worst it is downright misleading.
The first point is a historical one. This essay is dated September 1922, long after the ‘watershed moment’ of Leftwing communism. And it shows. It is crystal-clear that we are not dealing with a pure ultra-left any more. For example, Lukács dismisses both right and left critics of the united front tactic in the following terms: “The debates about a united front demonstrated that almost all the opponents of such a tactical manoeuvre suffered from a lack of dialectical grasp, of appreciation of the true function of the party in developing the consciousness of the proletariat. To say nothing of those misunderstandings that led to the united front being thought of as leading to the immediate reunification of the proletariat at the level of organisation.”7
To move on to the substantive point of this: did Lukács “simply recapitulate classic ‘mass action’ arguments against the Second International centre”? No, he did not do this, simply or otherwise. In substance, he reprised the arguments of the Second International centre (of which the Bolsheviks were part) against a sectarian view that abstracted the struggle of the party from the struggles of the class into a modern-day Blanquism; to that end his arguments are not without import today.
The problem with this for the unwary was that Lukács was obviously confused in regards to the political physiognomy of the Second International: he reads the Bolsheviks as always having been on the left, as against Kautsky and the centre, which is obviously incorrect.8 However, that misunderstanding should not obscure what he was actually saying. And certainly ‘Towards a methodology of the problem of organisation’ bears similar ‘transitional’ markings to the rest of History and class consciousness. Thus Lukács does argue: “The Russian Revolution clearly exposed the limitations of the west European organisations. Their impotence in the face of the spontaneous movements of the masses was clearly exposed on the issues of mass actions and the mass strike.”9 But by the end of the essay, what we understand as the contemporary implications of this theory of mass actions and mass strikes, of political sects bobbing along and manipulating the unconscious masses into ‘power’, has been thoroughly emptied out (although the trace of its form remains, as a trap for the unwary).
I think the following three quotes exemplify his shifting perspective, his clear anti-sectism and the fact that Lukács is determined not to yank the party and a conscious proletariat into undialectical poles, despite the necessity of defending, dialectically, the organisational independence of the Communist Party:
The formal, ethical view of the sects breaks down precisely because it cannot understand that [the party and masses] are unified, that there is a vital interaction between the party organisation and the unorganised masses. However hostile a sect may be towards bourgeois society, however deeply it may be convinced - subjectively - of the size of the gulf that separates it from the bourgeoisie, it yet reveals at this very point that its view of history coincides with that of the bourgeoisie and that, in consequence, the structure of its own consciousness is closely related to that of the bourgeoisie.10
If the sect acts as the representative of the ‘unconscious’ masses, instead of them and on their behalf, it causes the historically necessary and hence dialectical separation of the party organisation from the masses to freeze into permanence.11
The struggle of the Communist Party is focused upon the class-consciousness of the proletariat. Its organisational separation from the class does not mean in this case that it wishes to do battle for its interests on its behalf and in its place. (This is what the Blanquists did, to take but one instance.)12
The issue with ‘Towards a methodology of the problem of organisation’ is assuredly not that it recapitulates “classic ‘mass action’ arguments against the Second International centre”. The problem arises from the diametric opposite: the partial reiteration of the Second International centre’s arguments against sectism, and implying that the various communist parties (Russian and international) were now the carriers of those values in the context of 1922, means that the essay (as Debord correctly stated) reverted, in that context, to the status of an empty state ideology (one that was further developed a couple of years later in Lenin: a study in the unity of his thought). In the Soviet Union, the dialectical unity of party and class was being increasingly restricted to the formulations of its propagandists and thus Lukács, against his will, succumbs to ideology.
On the topic of reification and Lukács’s conception of totality, I feel that comrade Turley has been sadly led adrift by his Althusserian inheritance, and this works back onto his reading of the ‘Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat’ essay in History and class consciousness. (I do, however, take on board Turley’s recognition that Althusser’s take on ‘totality’ has its problems; indeed, one of the weird paradoxes of this debate is that I suspect, from various conversations, we have come to broadly similar conclusions on Althusserian Marxism.)
... why on earth should the commodity have such an extraordinary power to colonise everything? In order to ensure its continued existence as a mode of production, capitalism needs to return enough people to work every day to reproduce themselves, as well as a parasitic class of exploiters on top of them. It does not need to colonise anyone’s soul - in fact, it has been much happier, in a good many situations, to leave that job to the priests (and ‘secular’ inheritors, such as the mass media), who - after all - know one or two things about colonising souls.
In Lukács, this all-conquering power of the commodity is simply assumed. It is a perfectly rational assumption on the basis of Hegelian idealism, where the totality is embodied homogenously across its particular elements. Althusser and his school called this the ‘expressive totality’, and it can be crudely likened to a stick of Brighton rock: wherever you break it, the same message is written on the cross-section ... Nonetheless, the prognosis he offers is pertinent: the various instances of society - the different spheres in which that complicated animal we call the human has its existence - lose their own specificity. They become reducible one and all, via various degrees of mediation, to a single principle.
But this principle, in a cruel twist of the dialectic, is condemned to lose its explanatory power. If commodity fetishism/reification accounts for the stupidities both of Mitt Romney and Joseph Ratzinger, then it cannot provide a satisfactory account of either.
Is the all-conquering power of the commodity assumed in the manner of reducibility to a single principle? To argue this line means ripping apart History and class consciousness and viewing its constituent parts in frozen isolation (a practice Lukács rather eloquently destroys on a number of occasions). In ‘What is orthodox Marxism?’ Lukács writes: “We repeat: the category of totality does not reduce its elements to an undifferentiated uniformity, to identity. The apparent independence and autonomy which they possess in the capitalist system of production is an illusion only in so far as they are involved in a dynamic dialectical relationship with one another and can be thought of as the dynamic dialectical aspects of an equally dynamic and dialectical whole.”13
A few points become clearer from this. First, the Althusserian critique of Lukács’s ‘expressive totality’ (which can “be crudely likened to a stick of Brighton rock: wherever you break it, the same message is written on the cross-section”) is not worth the paper it was written on: he was obviously aware of the danger of merely identifying different societal spheres in a simplistic and undialectical manner. Also, the emphasis on dynamic interrelationships means it would be very surprising if Lukács merely assumed the power of reification in the manner Turley ascribes - he is not setting up a fixed category of ‘reification’ that we can pore over in isolation and bloodlessly define.
This Althusserian muddle can partly be explained by confusion over the object of Lukács’s critique and the nature of that critique itself, which, in an exquisite irony, Turley crudely solders together so that “wherever you break it, the same message is written on the cross-section”. It is perfectly true that the process of reification is seen by Lukács as expansive: “The divorce of the phenomena of reification from their economic bases and from the vantage point from which alone they can be understood is facilitated by the fact that the [capitalist] process of transformation must embrace every manifestation of the life of society if the preconditions for the complete self-realisation of capitalist production are to be fulfilled.”14
But this power is not assumed - Lukács foresees a time when the ‘natural’ forces of ‘the market’ come to an end: “In its unthinking, mundane reality that life seems firmly held together by ‘natural laws’; yet it can experience a sudden dislocation because the bonds uniting its various elements and partial systems are a chance affair even at their most normal.”15 Lukács was, of course, mercilessly critical of the abstraction, quantification and alienation inherent in capitalist society but, whatever the crudities of History and class consciousness, his critique was not the mere methodological equivalent of what he was being critical of.
Turley, in what I presume is another Althusserian lurch, this time back towards ascribing ‘relative autonomy’ to various societal spheres, queries why the commodity has the power to colonise everything. Isn’t it, after all, the churches and mass media that do a rather better job of this? And can commodity fetishism/reification account “for the stupidities both of Mitt Romney and Joseph Ratzinger”?
In the flat, fixed and undifferentiated spectacles through which Turley views Lukács, then the theory of commodity fetishism/reification clearly cannot account for anything much. The dialectical reality of History and class consciousness is somewhat different. Lukács identifies a clear trend towards quantification in capitalist society that blurs distinctions: “The distinction between a worker faced with a particular machine, the entrepreneur faced with a given type of mechanical development, the technologist faced with the state of science and the profitability of its application to technology, is purely quantitative; it does not directly entail any qualitative difference in the structure of consciousness.”16
But this shift also entails the division of labour: “This enables the artificially isolated partial functions to be performed in the most rational manner by ‘specialists’ who are specially adapted mentally and physically for the purpose. This has the effect of making these partial functions autonomous and so they tend to develop through their own special laws independently of the other partial functions of society....”17
So Lukács is acutely alive to the issue of differentiation and specialisation, which precisely flows from the expansive totality bewitched by the commodity, and thus his theory emphatically does provide a framework to account “for the stupidities both of Mitt Romney and Joseph Ratzinger”.
Finally, it is probably necessary to say something on the rather depressing topic of Lukács and Stalinism. Turley does not deal with this in his critique (and I largely agree with his comments, as against the ‘capitulation’ dogma of Chris Cutrone).18
A few weeks back, sympathisers of the CPGB were sent an email (‘Notes for action’, January 24) introducing comrade Turley’s critique with the join-the-dots line that Lukács was “the favourite Stalinist of a number of leading members of the SWP”. This is horseshit on a number of levels. First, as you would hope the writer of this charming epithet would realise, the SWP generally does not praise Lukács on any level after his ‘capitulation’ to Stalin in the mid-1920s. Second, if Lukács did become a ‘Stalinist’, then it was of a very peculiar stamp.
On one level, there is no way to prettify Lukács in the mid-1920s. By choosing Stalin’s faction and the illiterate politics of ‘socialism in one country’ (which a man as erudite and cultured as Lukács must surely have known were complete nonsense), he effectively maimed his politics. Right up until his death in 1971, he still stuck to mealy-mouthed logic-chopping on subjects such as the Moscow trials (he maintained that he personally found the trials to be monstrous, but was tactically neutral on the broader political issues involved). This means that anybody who self-identifies themselves as ‘Lukácsian’ or as a follower of Lukács across his entire career risks making their politics almost entirely useless for the 21st century. That much is clear.
However, to make that correct judgement there are a host of countervailing factors to take into account. Lukács always had his own line and appeared to view his career as an underground guerrilla war against the Stalinist bureaucracy. Most of his works from the 1930s onwards, couched in Aesopian language, can be read as indictments of this or that ‘official’ communist inscription - an obvious example being his rearguard defence of critical reason as against the irrationality of the Soviet ideological conjuncture.
Towards the end of his life Lukács did become a much more outspoken critic of ‘actually existing socialism’, but the tactical choices he had made earlier in his career still maimed his outlook. As he bluntly put it himself, “I have always thought that the worst form of socialism was better to live in than the best form of capitalism.”19 Unfortunately, this absurd outlook meant choosing the worse kind of bureaucratic police dictatorship; in Terry Eagleton’s brilliant critique “... Lukács gibbed at Stalinism’s dreary philistinism and privately winced at its pathetic ‘socialist realism’. A lonely, aloof Hegelian, he became the Idea that entered upon real, alienated existence - the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions, and indeed, at base, the opium of the people”.20
But here is another thought: I have heard plenty of comrades mouthing off about their own anti-Stalinist credentials and using Lukács as a kind of whipping boy to prove their impeccable revolutionary moral fibre. However, this stance ignores the fact that Lukács was an active opponent of the Soviet-inspired police dictatorship in Hungary, particularly after his participation in the Nagy government of 1956. Of course, it would not have been Lukács if there had not been a strong dose of naivety in regards to the potentiality of the bureaucracy to ethically reform itself. Thus, for example, Lukács subscribed to the bizarre illusion that the Warsaw Pact would protect Hungary from western and Soviet interventions.21
Lukács was eventually captured by the Russians and held prisoner in Romania, a process under which he refused to submit to a demand to denounce his comrades and came out with a great deal of honour. On this occasion, there was to be no lying ‘self-criticism’: “My interrogators said to me that they knew I was no follower of Imre Nagy and so there was no reason why I should not testify against him. I told them that as soon as the two of us, Imre Nagy and myself, were free to walk around Budapest, I would be happy to make public my opinion of all of Nagy’s activities.”22
For those tempted to smear Lukács as just another run-of-the-mill Stalinist or, at best, a mere capitulator: think hard, comrades, and think long.
1. See M Macnair, ‘“Classical Marxism” and grasping the dialectic’ Weekly Worker September 11 2003.
2. M Löwy Georg Lukács - from romanticism to Bolshevism London 1979, pp172-75.
3. G Lukács History and class consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics Cambridge (Mass) 1975, p22.
4. Ibid p76. Quotes are all with original emphasis.
5. Ibid p77.
6. ‘Preface to the new edition (1967)’ in ibid ppxviii-xix.
7. Ibid p328.
8. Ibid p302.
9. Ibid p297.
10. Ibid p321.
11. Ibid p322.
12. Ibid p326.
13. Ibid pp12-13.
14. Ibid p95.
15. Ibid p101.
16. Ibid p98.
17. Ibid p103.
18. Letters Weekly Worker February 21.
19. ‘Interview with New Left Review’ in G Lukács Record of a life London 1983, p181.
20. T Eagleton Walter Benjamin or towards a revolutionary criticism London 2009, p84.
21. I Eörsi, ‘The right to the last word’ in G Lukács Record of a life London 1983, p21.
22. G Lukács Record of a life London 1983, p132.