Lukács: The philosophy trap
György Lukács provided the theoretical overkill for the bureaucratic centralism of groups like the SWP, argues Mike Macnair
This article is at least partly a response to Lawrence Parker’s criticisms of comments made by James Turley1 and by me2 (though what I wrote was no more than casual references) about the 1920s Marxist philosophers, György Lukács and Karl Korsch. It is partly self-critical - my casual references were over-summary. Comrade Turley, who wrote in much more depth about Lukács’s philosophical ideas, can speak for himself. But I defend the main line of my arguments against comrade Parker’s criticisms. This is, however, ‘work in progress’ attempting to summarise a larger argument.
I am not primarily concerned with philosophical questions, though I am inevitably going to talk about them to some extent. I am primarily concerned with political questions which affect present-day politics: what Moshé Machover has called “actually existing Leninism”.3
I have commented casually in more than one place that the standard left critique of the Second International is that it was characterised by mechanical and undialectical Marxism; and that this mechanical and undialectical Marxism meant that the collapse in 1914 was fore-ordained by the philosophical positions of the Second International; and that this idea is linked to the views of the ultra-lefts against whom Lenin in 1920 wrote ‘Left’ wing communism, an infantile disorder. Comrade Parker in his critique provides an additional point along the same lines. He suggests that the Second International failed to develop a Marxist critique of culture - and hence that its cultural activities involved a wide theoretical eclecticism, which borrowed from various cultural approaches of the bourgeoisie; and that this is also a part of the story of the collapse.
My view is that this general approach to the collapse of the Second International - that it was insufficiently theoretically or philosophically Marxist - foresees the creation of a mass of competing groups, sects founded on the basis of theoretical agreements. Such sects can never get beyond organisations of the character of the Socialist Workers Party, even if in situations of revolutionary crisis they may temporarily become rather large, like the Iranian Fedayeen. Nonetheless, they remain in their thinking at the level of an organisation of a few thousand or less, and hence break up and are actually unable to politically lead the broad masses under conditions of revolutionary crisis.
Comrade Parker’s critique is that I and James Turley - in identifying the Lukács of History and class-consciousness and Lenin and the Korsch of Marxism and philosophy as the most explicit and systematic defenders of the view that the problem with the Second International is that it was ‘mechanical Marxism’, undialectical, insufficiently Hegelian, and so on - have failed to grasp that these writings are transitional towards Leninism from an earlier ultra-leftism. Instead we have mistakenly identified them with the tradition of the ultra-left (going back to Anton Pannekoek in the ‘mass strike’ debate of 1911-12 and beyond, perhaps, to the revolutionary syndicalist, Georges Sorel). He also accuses me in particular of imagining that John Rees accurately reports Lukács, when he does not.
On the first of these points, I am happy to self-criticise for identifying Lukács and Korsch in the 1920s as simply philosophers of the communist ultra-left. It is certainly true that at the time of Lukács writing History and class-consciousness as published, and at the time of Korsch writing Lenin and philosophy, these authors were trying to theorise Lenin, including the Lenin of ‘Left’ wing communism.
It would be more precise, however, to say that what they were trying to theorise is the conception of the Communist Party expressed in the resolution on The role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution adopted by the Comintern in 1920 and the resolution on The organisational forms of the Communist Parties adopted in 1921, and that they were also trying to theorise what we now know, thanks to the work of Lars T Lih and others, to be a completely false history of What is to be done? and the split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903: that is, that 1903 created a separate Bolshevik party, which applied military-style discipline, and that it was because of this separate Bolshevik ‘party of a new type’ that the Russian Revolution could be victorious. What this myth did was to project back certain aspects of the practice of the Russian party in the civil war period (1918-21) onto the completely different practice of the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP (and as it developed into a party) down to 1918.
It is a commonplace among critics of the myth, particularly those influenced by Trotskyism, to blame all this false history on Grigory Zinoviev, and hence to push its development forward in time to ‘after Lenin’. It is true that Zinoviev’s 1923 History of the Bolshevik party is part of the creation of the myth, written as it was to slant history in favour of the views of the troika against Trotsky and ‘Trotskyism’ in 1923-24. However, if Zinoviev was to blame, our authors would be writing before the falsification. But the false narrative of the long, separate history of Bolshevism is present in Lenin’s ‘Left’ wing communism and present in the arguments about the role of the Communist Party and its organisational nature in the Comintern which produced the 1920 and 1921 resolutions. The 1921 resolution was, in fact, drafted by Lenin and Otto Kuusinen.
I would add that Lukács in History and class-consciousness and in Lenin, and Korsch in Marxism and philosophy, did in defending this ‘Leninism’ draw for intellectual resources on ideas from the existing critique of the Second International and Social Democratic Party of Germany ‘centre’ developed among the pre-war mass-action ‘left’. My discussion here is partly of Lukács, mainly of his context; I will leave Korsch on one side on this occasion.
I begin by returning to the present and to Alex Callinicos’s infamous article, ‘What sort of party do we need?’4 This is a good example of how Lukács is used by the modern far left - to defend ‘1921 Leninism’:
So revolutionaries still confront the problem of how the working class and the oppressed can match and ultimately smash the concentrated power of the state, sustained by their own self-organisation. It is this that lies behind the question of ‘the party’: how to marry what Antonio Gramsci called “the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the directing and organising will of the centre”?5
A little later in the article:
But it is Georg Lukács, in his little book on Lenin (subtitled A study in the unity of his thought), who highlights the particular importance to him of the question of the party: “Lenin was the first and for a long time the only important leader and theoretician who tackled this problem at its theoretical roots and therefore at its decisive, practical point: that of organisation.”
“Theoretical roots”? Where is Lenin - according to Lukács - talking about the party question at its “theoretical roots”? It is certainly not in Materialism and empirio-criticism. This is, of course, a reference to What is to be done? For Lukács, that is, the conception of WITBD has inaugurated a new philosophical epoch in the history of the workers’ movement. WITBD is a philosophical book?
In his master-work, History and class-consciousness, Lukács again highlights the strategic importance of the question of organisation, as addressed by Lenin:
“Organisation is the form of mediation between theory and practice. And, as in every dialectical relationship, the terms of the relation only acquire concreteness and reality in and by virtue of this mediation. The ability of organisation to mediate between theory and practice is seen most clearly by the way in which it manifests a much greater, finer and more confident sensitivity towards divergent trends than any other sector of political thought and action. On the level of pure theory the most disparate views and tendencies are able to coexist peacefully, antagonisms are only expressed in the form of discussions which can be contained within the framework of one and the same organisation without disrupting it. But no sooner are these same questions given organisational form than they turn out to be sharply opposed and even incompatible.”
Here Callinicos offers Lukács as providing the philosophical justification for the ban on permanent factions in the Socialist Workers Party. The same argument goes to justify the fact that the SWP has, since its forerunner, the International Socialists, abandoned entry in the Labour Party in the late 1960s, always regarded it as a matter of principle that the SWP should exist as a fully separate organisation and not as a faction of a broader party; and that this is based on theory: ie, Marxism-Leninism-Tony Cliff Thought (‘revolution from below’, state capitalism, ‘deflected permanent revolution’). The organisational separation of the SWP is a fundamental principle, but equally its coherence - meaning its agreement on theory and the absence of ‘permanent factions’ - is a fundamental principle.6 As we will see later, Lukács also provides the justification for the view that permanent activism - running round after every event that happens and so on - and internal debate reduced to ‘how to do activism’ is fundamental to the conception of the party.
Is Callinicos here misreporting Lukács? Was John Rees misreporting Lukács in his book on the dialectic? The answer, I have to say, is no. Precisely, they are due to the reason that comrade Parker correctly criticises me for: Lukács is in these passages attempting to theorise ‘Leninism’, meaning by that 1921 Leninism, as opposed to the practice of the Bolsheviks down to 1918.
The SWP (and before it the old ‘official communist’ parties, various Maoist parties and most of the ‘Leninist’ or ‘vanguardist’ Trotskyist parties) does faithfully follow the model laid out in the 1920 and 1921 Comintern resolutions. Over and above that, modern ‘Lukács users’ have adopted a philosophical theorisation of ‘1921 Leninism’ which (so far as one accepts the theorisation) forecloses the possibility of thinking that this approach to organisation might be wrong, or at least wrong for conditions which are not those of 1919-21.
I have used elsewhere the expression, “theoretical overkill” (in particular of Jairus Banaji’s theoretical critique of the Indian Naxalites).7 What I mean by this is that it is possible to over-theorise critiques of false positions, and that by over-theorising you can fall into the opposite political error to that of the people you are criticising in the first place.
More specifically, in relation to theorisation which is about the grounds of belief, and particularly the employment of Kantian, Hegelian and post-Kantian philosophical arguments about the grounds of belief, you create a closure against adverse empirical evidence. It seems to me that this problem of theoretical overkill affects in particular the use of Lukács.
What Lukács and Korsch were trying to theorise in History and class-consciousness and Marxism and philosophy is the party question. Why does the working class need a party? But, in addition, why does the working class need the sort of party which is proposed in the 1920 and 1921 resolutions? There is involved here a shift away from Marx’s and Engels’ conception of the party - one which had begun before 1914, but is here accentuated.
In essence, the ‘party question’ arises for Marx and Engels because it is insufficient for the working class to simply carry on trade union struggles and/or build cooperatives (the views of Proudhonists, Owenites or British trade unionists pure and simple). The argument is that the working class as a class needs to intervene in high politics, to form its own independent political platform and to seek its own political power. This idea is not in fact original to Marx and Engels. It is a legacy of the left Chartism of the 1830s-early 1840s.
This argument is a consistent thread in Marx’s and Engels’ political arguments, from the 1846 ‘Address of the German Democratic communists of Brussels’ to ‘Mr Feargus O’Connor on the occasion of his election victory’, through the Communist manifesto, the Inaugural address of the First International and Marx’s speech at the 1871 congress of the International, to the 1880 programme for the French Parti Ouvrier.
A strikingly clear account of the issue is given in an 1871 letter from Marx to Friedrich Bolte:
... the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc, is a purely economic movement. On the other hand, the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc, law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement: that is to say, a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion ...8
In the Second International there was a degree of confusion over the issue. We can see this in the first place in Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet The mass strike: a loss of the understanding that the working class needs to go beyond trade union struggle to addressing the question of political power in the society as a whole. And that loss is visible in the formulation:
... the separation of the political, and the economic struggle and the independence of each, is nothing but an artificial product of the parliamentarian period ...
... in the peaceful, “normal” course of bourgeois society, the economic struggle is split into a multitude of individual struggles ...
As soon as a period of revolutionary struggle commences, that is, as soon as the masses appear on the scene of conflict, the breaking up the economic struggle into many parts, as well as the indirect parliamentary form of the political struggle ceases ...9
We can see a related but different confusion in the 1909 discussion on whether or not the Labour Party should be admitted to the Second International. Lenin’s report of the meeting of the International Socialist Bureau discusses this. Karl Kautsky has recommended the admission of Labour on the ground that, although the party does not have a socialist, class-struggle perspective, nonetheless by organising independently, it breaks with the bourgeoisie.
Lenin (correctly) says that organising a Labour Party on its own does not in itself break with the bourgeoisie: in practice Labour is not a party which is really independent of the Liberals, and does not pursue an independent class policy. However, he says that Labour has to be allowed to affiliate, because under the rules trade unions, for example, may do so. Although the party does not represent a political break with the bourgeoisie, the as yet unrealised logic of organising independently does; to avoid confusing the potential and the realised, Labour should be admitted as an organisation of the trade unions.
Radek, representing the ‘left’ as opposed to the ‘centre’ of the International, argues that Labour should not be admitted because it is not a socialist party, and he asks: “Is a united Labour Party - which is not socialist - possible? We say no. Without socialism the working class is a heterogeneous mix of different categories.”10
Kautsky, later defending his position against critics, argues that there are two tasks: one the broad organisation of the Labour party, and the other propaganda for socialism. Hence admit the Labour Party to the International as the broad party of labour, and the distinct job of the communists, organised in the Social Democratic Federation, is to propagandise for socialism. In this argument he has merged the idea of the fully independent political organisation of the working class into the idea of propaganda for socialism, and hence lost sight of it.
Confusion continued in the Comintern congress theses of 1920 and 1921. In essence the view of the function of the party in these theses is to centralise and organise the direct class struggle, strikes, mass actions and so on, pointing towards civil war: “Every class struggle is a political struggle. The aim of this struggle, which inevitably turns into civil war, is the conquest of political power.”11
And: “The same class struggle demands in the same way the centralisation and common leadership of the different forms of the proletarian movement (trades unions, cooperatives, works committees, cultural work, elections and so forth). Only a political party can be such a unifying and leading centre.”12
But also that the party’s role is to represent the class:
Until the time when state power has been conquered by the proletariat, and the proletariat has established its rule once and for all and secured it from bourgeois restoration, until that time the Communist Party will only have the minority of the working class organised in its ranks.13
And that it must have ‘iron military order’:
The Communist International is of the opinion that, particularly in the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Communist Party must be built on the basis of an iron proletarian centralism. To lead the working class successfully in the long and hard civil wars that have broken out, the Communist Party must create an iron military order in its own ranks.14
Lenin in 1920:
A political party can only comprise a minority of the class in the same way that really class-conscious workers only form the minority of workers in any capitalist society. Therefore we are forced to recognise that the great mass of workers can only be led and guided by the conscious minority.15
And from the 1921 theses:
The different levels of the party apparatus must decide whether any given question should be publicly discussed by individual comrades (in the press, in pamphlets), in what form and to what extent. If the decision of the organisation or leading party body is in the view of certain other members incorrect, these comrades must not forget, when they speak or act in public, that to weaken or break the unity of the common front is the worst breach of discipline and the worst mistake that can be made in the revolutionary struggle.16
The texts are available on the Marxist Internet Archive. To read them is to become clear that the regime of the SWP, the ortho-Trots and so on does faithfully reflect the Comintern resolutions.
Lukács in HCC, in essence argues that the organisational form of the party is not only necessary for practical action, but is also necessary for consciousness. From ‘What is orthodox Marxism?’ (1919), criticising Engels’ treatment of the dialectic in the Anti-Dühring:
But he does not even mention the most vital interaction, namely the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process, let alone give it the prominence it deserves. Yet without this factor dialectics ceases to be revolutionary.17
Then, from ‘The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg’ (1921):
The party must ensure that “in every phase and every aspect of the struggle the total sum of the available power of the proletariat that has already been unleashed should be mobilised and that it should be expressed in the fighting stance of the Party. The tactics of Social Democracy should always be more resolute and vigorous than required by the existing power relations, and never less”.18
This is Lukács the ultra-left, the advocate of the so-called ‘theory of the offensive’, which the communist left, particularly in Germany, borrowed, I think, from French general Marshal Foch. Lenin’s discussion in ‘Left’ wing communism about the need for retreat as well as attack is directed against this sort of thinking.
From ‘Towards a methodology of the problem of organisation’ (1922):
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.19
This is about the Russian Revolution of 1905, and again it is repeating Luxemburg’s arguments in The mass strike.
Another quote from ‘Towards a methodology’:
Escape from the crisis, the ‘economic’ solution to the crisis can only come through the intensified exploitation of the proletariat. For this reason the tactical theses of the Third Congress very rightly emphasise that “every mass strike tends to translate itself into a civil war and a direct struggle for power”.
This was written 18 months after the March Action, which had quite clearly demonstrated that the mass strike, when launched in inappropriate circumstances, led not to “civil war and a direct struggle for power”, but to ignominious defeat.
More: “What was novel in the formation of the communist parties was the new relation between spontaneous action and conscious theoretical foresight ...” The philosophical argument here is precisely addressed to the ‘1921 Leninism’ and precisely on the basis of the false history which says that Bolshevism began as a separate organisation in 1903.
Now I jump a long way back. There is a peculiar comment in Lukács’s 1926 article, ‘Moses Hess and the problems of idealist dialectics’:
There is no denying that ‘egoism’ did in fact play a big part in the growth of bourgeois ideology; in this sense, then, it was not wholly inappropriate to relate the critique of the bourgeois class to this question. But it must be remembered that for the first great champions of this ideology (Hobbes, Mandeville, Bayle et al) the struggle to establish the new morality was a very real one. Not only was there a close connection between the war on feudal morality (and that of the Puritans when the bourgeois class was just emerging) and the elaboration of the theoretical cornerstone of the whole bourgeois ideology, classical economics, but this ideology also provided very important weapons for the bourgeoisie’s actual class struggle.20
This is a weird thing for anyone with knowledge of 17th century politics to read, because Thomas Hobbes argued for the absolute power of the English monarchy, and opposed the bourgeoisie (or any other class) having any political say.
Who did theorise the revolutionary politics of the bourgeoisie? Among others, particularly John Locke, who was an active Whig revolutionary in the political crisis of 1679-83, went into exile, and came back with William of Orange in 1688. Locke wrote in the 1670s An essay concerning human understanding, though it was not published until 1689 because it was subversive. In it he argues that it is not the understanding of texts, not the collective authority of the church, not political authority, which gives us reason to believe propositions. Rather, we start with the perception of the senses and then we work up ideas through simple to complex categories. Following from this approach, Locke argues that there is no absolutely certain knowledge - only probable knowledge; but that this probabilistic knowledge is nonetheless sufficient for us to justifiably act on it.
Locke’s views in An essay concerning human understanding became for a while the credo of the English enlightenment. But they were also always scandalous, precisely because they implied that there was no justification for the state imposing tests of religious orthodoxy. This was their original purpose in the 1670s. They were also scandalous - as the conservative wing of the ruling elite argued - because, if knowledge is based on sense-perceptions, that implies that any cobbler is entitled to have religious or political opinions. Or, even worse, a barber!
Hence arguments were offered against Locke, in the first place by bishop Berkeley and later by Hume, that, actually, we cannot derive knowledge from sense perception. See optical illusions, and so on. Of course, it is true that we cannot get certainty from sense perception, and Locke admits it, but he says we can get probabilistic knowledge which is sufficient for us to act on. Berkeley and Hume argue that sense perception is an unsound basis. For Berkeley therefore, since sense perception is an unsound basis, we can be certain of nothing except for what god has told us. Only divine revelation is a source of certainty.
Hume is less obvious. He says that, since there is no basis for certainty, we should all be sceptics: we should not believe there is any truth. But then he says (in his History rather than the philosophical works) because there is no certain truth, therefore we should accept the conventional authority of the existing state: to claim the right as an individual to promote ideas which are against the official ideas of the state is to lead to the path of civil war. Hume thus uses the critique of sense perception as a route back to the political philosophy of Hobbes.
When we move into the German ‘philosophical revolution’, Kant takes his starting point from Hume. Why? It is hardly surprising. Kant is writing in the context of the ‘enlightenment’ of ‘enlightened despotism’, of Voltaire and the enlightened prince Frederick the Great of Prussia. If we concede probabilism based on sense-perceptions, we will end up taking seriously the opinions of cobblers and barbers on religion and politics.
This is counter-enlightenment philosophy. And precisely because of its political and religious commitments, the arguments are creating a closure against adverse empirical evidence. This is done precisely by making the relation between subject and object the starting point. To do so is to build in at the starting point Berkeley’s and Hume’s critiques of Locke. In doing so, it immunises theory against empirical refutation.
This is quite certainly not Marx. At an early stage of The German ideology we find the comment that:
The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.21
This commitment is a clear rejection of Hegel’s critique of sense perception (drawn from Hume by way of Kant) in the first part of the Phenomenology of spirit and also in the first part of the shorter Logic. Its results are delivered in the mass of empirical supporting evidence found in Capital.
Subject-object and party
When we apply the subject-object starting point to the question of the party, the result is, as Lukács argues, that:
The conscious desire for the realm of freedom can only mean consciously taking the steps that will really lead to it ... It implies the conscious subordination of the self to that collective will that is destined to bring real freedom into being and that today is earnestly taking the first arduous, uncertain and groping steps towards it. This conscious collective will is the Communist Party.22
the discipline of the Communist Party, the unconditional absorption of the total personality in the praxis of the movement, was the only possible way of bringing about an authentic freedom …
If every member of the party commits his whole personality and his whole existence to the party in this way, then the same centralising and disciplinary principle will preside over the living interaction between the will of the members and that of the party leadership, and will ensure that the will and the wishes, the proposals and the criticisms of the members are given due weight by the party leaders. Every decision of the party must result in actions by all the members of the party and every slogan leads to deeds in which the individual members risk their whole physical and moral existence.
For this very reason they are not only well placed to offer criticism: they are forced to do so together with their experiences and their doubts ... And the post festum criticism - which is inevitable at the moment - will be transformed into an exchange of concrete and general, tactical and organisational experiences that will be increasingly oriented towards the future.
This “exchange of concrete and general, tactical and organisational experiences” is exactly what the SWP’s bureaucratic centralism produces as a substitute for real debate. And, as people from both SWP oppositions have explained, the result is to dumb down discussion and increase the distance between the leaders in the apparatus and the led.
I do not mean to blame Lukács for this crap. It is the product of the Comintern resolutions, for which Lukács merely provided ideological support - or, rather, theoretical overkill. The problem is that without rejecting the theoretical overkill, people who started out as opponents of Stalinism find themselves doomed to mimic it in miniature.
1. ‘Lukács reloaded’ Weekly Worker March 7 2013.
2. ‘A matter of Korsch’ Weekly Worker May 9 2013.
3. ‘The party we need’ Weekly Worker November 7 2013.
4. www.socialistreview.org.uk/article. php?articlenumber=12358.
5. That is, incidentally, a single sentence in a circular letter of Gramsci’s which contains no explanation of the tag whatever and is mostly about very concrete questions.
6. Of course, as Trotsky pointed out in The Third International after Lenin, and it cannot be repeated often enough, the full-time apparatus is inherently a permanent faction, so that the ban applies only to permanent factions other than the apparatus.
7. ‘Marxism and theoretical overkill’ Weekly Worker January 20 2011. I have made a rather similar point about ‘Frankfurt school’ explanations of (supposed) mass worker support for Nazism in ‘Divided by a common language?’ (Weekly Worker June 30 2011).
8. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/ letters/71_11_23.htm.
9. www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/ mass-strike/ch08.htm.
10. www.marxists.org/archive/radek/1909/03/ unity.htm.
11. www.marxists.org/history/international/ comintern/2nd-congress/ch03a.htm.
15. www.marxists.org/history/international/ comintern/2nd-congress/ch02.htm.
16. www.marxists.org/history/international/ comintern/3rd-congress/party-theses.htm.
20. www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/1926/ moses-hess.htm. There is a casual reference to Hobbes which is less explicit but on the same general line in HCC.
21. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/ german-ideology/ch01a.htm#a2.