Georg Lukács 1923

History and Class Consciousness


THE collection and publication of these essays in book form is not intended to give them a greater importance as a whole than would be due to each individually. For the most part they are attempts, arising out of actual work for the party, to clarify the theoretical problems of the revolutionary movement in the mind ,of the author and his readers. The exceptions to this are the two essays Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat and Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation which were both written specially for this collection during a period of enforced leisure. They, too, are based on already existing occasional pieces.

Although they have now been partly revised, no systematic attempt has been made. to remove the traces of the particular circumstances in which they were written. In some cases a radical recasting of an essay would have meant destroying what I regard as its inner core of truth. Thus in the essay on The Changing Function of Historical Materialism we can still hear the echoes of those exaggeratedly sanguine hopes that many of us cherished concerning the duration and tempo of the revolution. The reader should not, therefore, look to these essays for a complete scientific system.

Despite this the book does have a definite unity. This will be found in the sequence of the essays, which for this reason are best read in the order proposed. However, it would perhaps be advisable for readers unversed in philosophy to put off the chapter on reification to the very end.

A few words of explanation — superfluous for many readers perhaps — are due for the prominence given in these pages to the presentation, interpretation and, discussion of the theories of Rosa Luxemburg. On this point I would say, firstly, that Rosa Luxemburg, alone among Marx’s disciples, has made a real advance on his life’s work in both the content and method of his economic doctrines. She alone has found a way to apply them concretely to the present state of social development. Of course, in these pages, in pursuance of the task we have set ourselves, it is the methodological aspect of these questions that will be most heavily stressed. There will be no assessment of the economic content of the theory of accumulation, nor of Marx’s economic theories as such: we shall confine our discussion to their methodological premises and implications. It will in any case be obvious to the reader that the present writer upholds the validity of their content. Secondly, a detailed analysis of Rosa Luxemburg’s thought is necessary because its seminal discoveries no less than its errors have had a decisive influence on the theories of Marxists outside Russia, above all in Germany. To some extent this influence persists to this day. For anyone whose interest was first aroused by these problems a truly revolutionary, Communist and Marxist position can be acquired only through a critical confrontation with the theoretical life’s, work of Rosa Luxemburg.

Once we take this path we discover that the writings and speeches of Lenin become crucial, methodologically speaking. It is not our intention to concern ourselves here with Lenin’s political achievements. But just because our task is consciously one-sided and limited it is essential that we remind ourselves constantly of Lenin’s importance as a theoretician for the development of Marxism. This has been obscured for many people by his overwhelming impact as a politician. The immediate practical importance of each of his utterances for the particular moment in which they are made is always so great as to blind some people to the fact that, in the last resort, he is only so effective in practice because of his greatness, profundity and fertility as a theoretician. His effectiveness rests on the fact that he has developed the practical essence of Marxism to a pitch of clarity and concreteness never before achieved. He has rescued this aspect of Marxism from an almost total oblivion and by virtue of this theoretical action he has once again placed in our hands the key to a right understanding of Marxist method.

For it is our task — and this is the fundamental conviction underlying this book — to understand the essence of Marx’s method and to apply it correctly. In no sense do we aspire to ‘improve’ on it. If on a number of occasions certain statements of Engels’ are made the object of a polemical attack this has been done, as every perceptive reader will observe, in the spirit of the system as a whole. On these particular points the author believes, rightly or wrongly, that he is defending orthodox Marxism against Engels himself.

We adhere to Marx’s doctrines, then, without making any attempt to diverge from them, to improve or correct them. The goal of these arguments is an interpretation, an exposition of Marx’s theory as Marx understood it. But this ‘orthodoxy’ does not in the least strive to preserve what Mr. von Struve calls the ‘aesthetic integrity’ of Marx’s system. On the contrary, our underlying premise here is the belief that in Marx’s theory and method the true method by which to understand society and history has finally been discovered. This method is historical through and through. It is self-evident, therefore, that it must be constantly applied to itself, and this is one of the focal points of these essays. At the same time this entails taking up a substantive position with regard to the urgent problems of the present; for according to this view of Marxist method its pre-eminent aim is knowledge of the present. Our preoccupation with methodology in these essays has left little space for an analysis of the concrete problems of the present. For this reason the author would like to take this opportunity to state unequivocally that in his view the experiences of the years of revolution have provided a magnificent confirmation of all the essential aspects of orthodox (i.e. Communist) Marxism. The war, the crisis and the Revolution, not excluding the so-called slower tempo in the development of the Revolution and the new economic policy of Soviet Russia have not thrown up a single problem that cannot be solved by the dialectical method — and by that method alone. The concrete answers to particular practical problems lie outside the framework of these essays. The task they propose is to make us aware of Marxist method, to throw light on it as an unendingly fertile source of solutions to otherwise intractable dilemmas.

This is also the purpose of the copious quotations from the works of Marx and Engels. Some readers may indeed find them all too plentiful. But every quotation is also an interpretation. And it seems to the present writer that many very relevant aspects of the Marxist method have been unduly neglected, above all those which are indispensable for understanding the coherent structure of that method from the point of view Of logic as well as content. As a consequence it has become difficult, if not almost impossible, to understand the life nerve of that method, namely the dialectic.

We cannot do justice to the concrete, historical dialectic without considering in some detail the founder of this method, Hegel, and his relation to Marx. Marx’s warning not to treat Hegel as a ‘dead dog’ has gone unheeded even by many good Marxists. (The efforts of Engels and Plekhanov have also been all too ineffectual.) Yet Marx frequently drew attention to this danger. Thus he wrote of Dietzgen: “It is his bad luck that he managed not to study Hegel.” (Letter to Engels, 7.11.1868.) And in another letter (dated 11.1.1868) we read: “The gentlemen in Germany ... think that Hegel’s dialectic is a ‘dead dog’. In this respect Feuerbach has much on his conscience.” In a letter dated 14 January, 1858 he lays emphasis on the ‘great benefits’ he has derived for his method of procedure with the Critique of Political Economy from his re-reading of Hegel’s Logic. But we are not here concerned with the philological side of the relation between Marx and Hegel. Marx’s view of the importance of Hegel’s dialectic is of lesser moment here than the substantive significance of this method for Marxism. These statements which could be multiplied at will were quoted only because this significance had been underestimated even by Marxists. Too much reliance has been placed on the well-known passage in the preface to Capital which contains Marx’s last public statement on the matter. I am referring here not to his account of the real content of their relationship, with which I am in complete agreement and which I have tried to spell out systematically in these pages. I am thinking exclusively of the phrase which talks of ‘flirting’ with Hegel’s ‘mode of expression’. This has frequently misled people into believing that for Marx the dialectic was no more than a superficial stylistic ornament and that in the interests of ‘scientific precision’ all traces of it should be eradicated systematically from the method of historical materialism. Even otherwise conscientious scholars like Professor Vorländer, for example, believed that they could prove that Marx had ‘flirted’ with Hegelian concepts ‘in only two places’, and then again in a ‘third place’. Yet they failed to notice that a whole series of categories of central importance and in constant use stem directly from Hegel’s Logic. We need only recall the Hegelian origin and the substantive and methodological importance of what is for Marx as fundamental a distinction as the one between immediacy and mediation. If this could go unnoticed then it must be just as true even today that Hegel is still treated as a ‘dead dog’, and this despite the fact that in the universities he has once again become persona grata and even fashionable. What would Professor Vorländer say if a historian of philosophy contrived not to notice — in the works of a successor of Kant, however critical and original, that the ‘synthetic unity of apperception’, to take but one instance, was derived from the Critique of Pure Reason?

The author of these pages wishes to break with such views. He believes that today it is of practical importance to return in this respect to the traditions of Marx — interpretation founded by Engels (who regarded the ‘German workers’ movement’ as the ‘heir to classical German philosophy'), and by Plekhanov. He believes that all good Marxists should form, in Lenin’s words “a kind of society of the materialist friends of the Hegelian dialectic”.

But Hegel’s position today is the reverse of Marx’s own. The problem with Marx is precisely to take his method and his system as we find them and to demonstrate that they form a coherent unity that must be preserved. The opposite is true of Hegel. The task he imposes is to separate out from the complex web of ideas with its sometimes glaring contradictions all the seminal elements of his thought and rescue them as a vital intellectual force for the present. He is a more profitable and potent thinker than many people imagine. And as I see it, the more vigorously we set about the task of confronting this issue the more clearly we will discern his fecundity and his power as a thinker. But for this we must add (and it is a scandal that we should have to add it) that a greater knowledge of Hegel’s writings is utterly indispensable. Of course we will no longer expect to discover his achievement in his total system. The system as we have it belongs to the past. Even this statement concedes too much for, in my view, a really incisive critic would have to conclude that he had to deal, not with an authentically organic and coherent system, but with a number of overlapping systems. The contradictions in method between the Phenomenology and the system itself are but one instance of this. Hegel must not be treated as a ‘dead dog’, but even so we must demolish the ‘dead’ architecture of the system in its historical form and release the extremely relevant and modem sides of his thought and help them once again to become a vital and effective force in the present.

It is common knowledge that Marx himself conceived this idea of writing a dialectics. “The true laws of dialectics are already to be found in Hegel, albeit in a mystical form. What is needed is to strip them of that form,” he wrote to Dietzgen. I hope it is not necessary to emphasise that it is not my intention in these pages to propose even the sketchiest outline of a system of dialectics. My aim is to stimulate discussion and. as it were, to put the issue back on the agenda from the point of view of method. Hence, at every opportunity attention has been drawn as concretely as possible both to those points at which Hegelian categories have proved decisive for historical materialism and also to those places where Hegel and Marx part company. In this way it is to be hoped that material and, where possible, direction has been provided for the very necessary discussion of this problem. These considerations have also determined in part the detailed account of classical philosophy in Section II of the chapter on reification. (But only in part. For it seemed to me equally essential to examine the contradictions of bourgeois thought at the point where that thought received its highest philosophical expression.)

Discussions of the kind contained in these pages have the inevitable defect that they fail to fulfil the — justifiable — demand for a completely systematic theory, without offering any compensation in the way of popularity. I am only too aware of this failing. This account of the genesis and aim of these essays is offered less as an apology than as a stimulus — and this is the true aim of this work — to make the problem of dialectical method the focus of discussion as an urgent living problem. If these essays provide the beginning or even just the occasion for a genuinely profitable discussion of dialectical method, if they succeed in making, dialectics generally known again, they will have fulfilled their function perfectly.

While dwelling on such shortcomings I should perhaps point out to the reader unfamiliar with dialectics one difficulty inherent in the nature of dialectical method relating to the definition of concepts and terminology. It is of the essence of dialectical method that concepts which are false in their abstract one-sidedness are later transcended (zur Aufhebung gelangen). The process of transcendence makes it inevitable that we should operate with these one-sided, abstract and false concepts. These concepts acquire their true meaning less by definition than by their function as aspects that are then transcended in the totality. Moreover, it is even more difficult to establish fixed meanings for concepts in Marx’s improved version of the dialectic than in the Hegelian original. For if concepts are only the intellectual forms of historical realities then these forms, one-sided., abstract and false as they are, belong to the true unity as genuine aspects of it. Hegel’s statements about this problem of terminology in the preface to the Phenomenology are thus even more true than Hegel himself realised when he said: “Just as the expressions ‘unity of subject and object’, of ‘finite and infinite’, of ‘being and thought’, etc., have the drawback that ‘object’ and ‘subject’ bear the same meaning as when thy exist outside that unity, so that within the unity they mean something other than is implied by their expression: so, too, falsehood is not, qua false, any longer a moment of truth.” In the pure historicisation of the dialectic this statement receives yet another twist: in so far as the ‘false’ is an aspect of the ‘true’ it is both ‘false’ and ‘non-false’. When the professional demolishers of Marx criticise his ‘lack of conceptual rigour’ and his use of ‘image’ rather than ‘definitions’, etc., they cut as sorry a figure as did Schopenhauer when he tried to expose Hegel’s ‘logical howlers’ in his Hegel critique. All that is proved is their total inability to grasp even the ABC of the dialectical method. The logical conclusion for the dialectician to draw from this failure is not that he is faced with a conflict between different scientific methods, but that he is in the presence of a social phenomenon and that by conceiving it as a socio-historical phenomenon he can at once refute it and transcend it dialectically.

Vienna, Christmas 1922.