From International Socialism (1st series), No.47, April/May 1971, pp.29-30.
Transcribed by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
New Left Books, 30s.
‘Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.’
The Georg Lukacs who opened his short book on Lenin with these words in 1924 was a revolutionary. He had been People’s Commissar for Culture in the short lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 and, at the time the book was written was a leader of the Hungarian Communist emigré group in Vienna.
‘The first sentence itself demonstrates the prejudices of the time: “Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.” No doubt this is the expression of an important determinant of historical materialism. But equally certainly it is not the only, not the determination of its essence.’
The Georg Lukacs, who put this criticism of his own work into the 1967 Postscript to the book, was a long standing apologist for Stalinism who had evolved into a spokesman for the ‘liberal’ wing of the ruling state-party bureaucracy in his native Hungary.
The latter-day Lukacs is influential, superficial and essentially anti-marxist. Or pseudo-marxist. For like the apologists for social-democracy, who were a prime target of the revolutionary Lukacs, the ex-revolutionary Lukacs uses the terminology of marxism to justify support for a class society.
‘The prejudices of the time.’ It is quite true. This very short work is permeated with the authentic communist tradition. Its six chapters contain a brilliant summary of all the essential elements of that tradition.
‘The actuality of revolution: this is the core of Lenin’s thought and his decisive link with Marx ... In this sense, as both the objective basis of the whole epoch and the key to an understanding of it, the proletarian revolution constitutes the living core of Marxism’.
Classical Social-Democracy, on the other hand, emphasised the automatic, inevitable, almost extra-human character of the historical process. In the writings of Karl Kautsky, Rudolph Hilferding and Heinrich Cunow, that valid and important element of Marx’s thought which stressed the objective constraints on human behaviour had become so exaggerated and distorted as to completely overshadow the revolutionary essence of Marxism. This was the intellectual counterpart to Social-Democracy’s adaption to permanent co-existence with the rulers of Imperial Germany.
Lukacs’ counter emphasis on human activity is often attributed to his intellectual background as a Hegelian and student of Weber.
It may be so, but it was in any case an accurate rendering of Lenin’s thought. And it was in no sense voluntaristic. Not anything is possible. At a given moment there are a limited number of historical choices open. What decides which will be taken?
‘Lenin’s answer to this question, as to any other, is clear and unambiguous: the class struggle.’
Social-democratic marxism is dead – though its ghost still wanders through the ideology of western Communist Parties. Populism, on the other hand, is very much alive. Today it too usually appears in ‘Marxist’ or ‘Marxist-Leninist’ dress. A valuable feature of ‘Lenin’ is its demonstration that the twentieth century communist traditions was formed, not only in a struggle to recover marxism from its ‘orthodox’ high priests, but also in the struggle against Populism.
The principle features of the Narodnik ideology were – and are – the stress on an undifferentiated ‘people’, typically a peasantry, as the revolutionary class and the emphasis on an elite of heroic ‘enlighteners’ who inspire and direct the ‘people’.
It is useful to be reminded of the Leninist position.
‘The peasants, not only because of their extreme cultural backwardness, but above all because of their objective class position, are only capable of instinctive revolt against their increasingly intolerable situation. Because of their objective class position they are doomed to remain a politically vacillating stratum – a class whose destiny is ultimately decided by the urban class struggle, the destiny of the towns, large scale industry, the state apparatus ... But because the consciousness and ability to lead this struggle exist – in objective terms – only in the class consciousness of the proletariat, it alone can and must be the leading class of social transformation in the approaching revolution.’
Or again, on the party:
‘as Lenin said, the group of professional revolutionaries does not for one moment have the task of either ‘making’ the revolution or – by their own independent, bold actions – of sweeping the inactive masses along to confront them with a revolutionary fait accompli ... They are – in other words – the tangible embodiment of proletarian class consciousness. The problem of their organisation is determined by their conception of the way in which the proletariat will really gain its own class-consciousness and be itself able to master and fully appropriate it.’
Yet latter day Narodniks like Mao and Castro have succeeded in shattering state-machines, in ‘making the revolution’, without the intervention of a class conscious working class. If such revolutions are regarded as nonetheless ‘proletarian revolutions’ in some sense or other then the Leninist tradition – and that means the original Marxist tradition – has to be regarded as, at best, merely an ideal aspiration and in no sense a necessary guide for revolutionaries. Nor does the matter rest there. If totalitarian or semi-totalitarian statist regimes are regarded as socialist – or, as in the neo-Trotskyist view, as ‘workers’ states’ – then the central core of Marxism, the concept of socialism as the self-liberation of the working class has to be rejected. The ‘Utopians’, who sought to organise ‘socialism’ through the rule of ‘enlighteners’ over the workers, have to be rehabilitated. What remains of Marxism, of historical materialism, is no. more than some insights into the historical process, insights which, as Marx himself pointed out, are by no means specifically ‘Marxist’.
These fundamental questions cannot be adequately discussed in a review. The point is nevertheless obvious. Any realistic assessment of Lenin’s practical and theoretical work at the present day depends heavily on an analysis of Stalinism, of Maoism and of the events of the last five decades. No such analysis, is to be found in Lukacs’ Postscript. In so far as he can be said to have a theory at all it is purely idealist.
‘For, however false the solutions offered by Stalin and his followers to the developing crisis of the Revolution, there is no question that anyone else at that time could have provided an analysis or perspective which could have given a theoretical guide-line to the problems of the later phases as well.’
The problem is seen as one of a failure to produce the correct ideas. The class struggle has vanished!
Apart from the complete dishonesty of this approach – Lukacs is well aware of the struggles and perspectives of the left opposition – what is so striking is its abandonment of even the semblance of a Marxist critique. The Lukacs of 1924 knew better.
‘The crux of the matter is, therefore, not to what extent the outward forms of the economy are in themselves socialist in character, but exclusively to what extent the proletariat succeeds in actually controlling heavy industry – the economic apparatus of which it took possession when it seized power and which is at the same time the basis of its own social existence – and to what extent it succeeds in really using this control to further its own class aims.’
Last updated on 9.2.2008