Georg Lukács

What is Orthodox Marxism?


From International Socialism (1st series), No.24, Spring 1966, pp.10-14.
Translated by Mary Phillips.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Editor’s Introduction

It is hoped that IS will be able to present translated extracts from what deserves to be one of the most famous Marxist classics of this century, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (History and Class Consciousness, Malik-Verlag, Berlin, 1923). The translation will be made by Mary Phillips and Charles Posner. What follows is part of the first chapter of the complete volume, translated from the original German by Mary Phillips.

György Lukács, born in Budapest in 1885 into the Hungarian Jewish ‘gentry,’ studied in Berlin and South Germany and published a number of works of philosophical literary criticism before the first World War. It was this war which crystallised his political views, leading to his return to Hungary in 1918 and to his joining the Communist Party. He served as Commissar of Culture in the brief Bela Kun Soviet Republic in Hungary in 1919, and after its defeat, returned to Vienna and subsequently to Berlin. Here he remained, except for a brief stay in Moscow from 1929 to 1931, until the Nazi victory when he returned to Moscow to work for the Philosophical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In 1945, he returned to Hungary and became Professor of Aesthetics at Budapest University. In 1949 he was attacked by the Stalinists for spreading bourgeois influence and cosmopolitanism, and he admitted his errors, particularly his underestimation of ‘socialist realism,’ in Russian Realism and The Destruction of Reason, which has been called his ‘philosophical homage to Stalin.’ In 1956, Lukács supported the Hungarian revolution, was Minister of Culture in the first Nagy government, and one of the founders of the new anti-Stalinist Hungarian Communist Party. At 71 years of age, however, Lukács refused to recant when the Nagy government was crushed with Russian tanks, and after a brief exile in Rumania, was permitted to return to his Chair in Budapest in 1957.

Lukács wrote copiously in all phases of his career, and he has sought to demonstrate the role of literature as a symptomatic and integral expression of the dominant ideology of a society, to reveal culture as part of the social totality. As such, the tenor of much of his work is entirely contrary to the dominant positivism of Stalinism, Fabianism and orthodox bourgeois culture. He sees dialectics, the unity of theory and practice, as the heart of Marxism, and must therefore, by implication, condemn the static empiricism of Stalinist philosophy, its scientism. History and Class Consciousness was condemned by the Fifth Communist International Congress in 1924 as revisionist, reformist and idealist, a position Lukács accepted in his ‘self-criticism.’ The work was thereafter interred in silence, its re-publication or translation forbidden by the author. However, the work is probably Lukács’ greatest, and has had a marginal but subterranean influence on Marxist intellectuals. It is in essence a central critique of the ideology and philosophy that dominates East and West alike, and a reaffirmation of the supreme synthesis, dialectical materialism.

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Chapter One

‘Philosophers have merely interpreted the world in different ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.

This question, which is really quite a simple one, has become a subject of wide discussion in bourgeois circles as well as proletarian ones. But it has gradually become scientifically ‘the thing’ to ridicule any confession of orthodox Marxism. For there is little agreement even in the socialist camp about what constitutes the quintessence of Marxism and what theses one can criticise or indeed reject widiout losing the right to be considered as an orthodox Marxist. So it has come to seem more and more ‘unscientific’ to make scholastic exegeses of older works which have to some extent been outmoded, as with the Bible, and to seek in them and only in them the source of truth. The tendency is to turn completely ‘impartially’ towards the study of ‘facts.’ But the question is not (and never has been) put so simply. For assuming that more recent research has incontestably shown the factual inaccuracy of entire single statements of Marx, then every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist could unconditionally acknowledge all these new results, reject whole single theses of Marx – without for a moment giving up his Marxist orthodoxy. Thus orthodox Marxism does not mean uncritical acknowledgement of the results of Marx’s research, nor does it mean ‘faith’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a sacred book. Where Marxism is concerned, orthodoxy refers far more to method exclusively. It implies the scientific conviction that the Marxist dialectic is the correct method of investigation and that this method cannot be developed, extended or made more profound except in the spirit of its founders. Further, it implies that all attempts to overcome or ‘improve’ it have led and had to lead to shallowness, triviality and eclecticism.


The materialist dialectic is a revolutionary dialectic. This is so crucial to its understanding that, if we want to pose the issue sharply, we must confront this essential point even before we can treat of the dialectic method itself. The problem is that of theory and practice. But we cannot limit it to the sense of Marx’s first critique of Hegel that ‘the theory becomes a material force when it takes hold among the masses.’ More than that, we must study each element, each determination of the theory which makes it a vehicle for revolution; we cannot concern ourselves only with the way in which it penetrates the masses. In short, we must develop the practical essence from the point of view of the theory and the relation which it establishes with its object. Otherwise, this ‘taking hold of the masses’ would be an empty idea. It could then be that the masses are moved by a range of motives and are impelled toward various ends – and that the theory has only an accidental relation to the movement, that it is only the form under which consciousness of the socially necessary or contingent action develops, and that without the theory the action would be essentially and actually related to consciousness.

In the same passage Marx clearly expressed the conditions under which a relation between theory and practice is possible.

‘It is not enough for thought to press towards reality,’ he wrote, ‘reality itself must press towards the thought.’

Or, in an earlier passage,

‘It will be demonstrated that for a long time the world has had the dream of a thing which it has failed to possess in reality solely because it lacks the consciousness.’

Only such a relation between consciousness and reality makes possible the unity of theory and practice. It is only when consciousness coincides with the decisive course which the historical process must take towards its proper end (an end which is constituted by human freedom but which does not depend upon arbitrary human freedom, an end which is not an invention of the human spirit), that theory can serve its historic purpose and make this course actually possible. When one faces a situation where the exact knowledge of society becomes, for a class, the immediate condition of its self-affirmation in struggle; when, for this class, self-consciousness means at the same time the accurate consciousness of the whole of society; when this class is, through its consciousness, both the subject and object of consciousness; then the theory is in an immediate, direct and adequate relation to the process of the social revolution, then the unity of theory and practice, that pre-condition of the revolutionary function of theory, becomes possible.

Such a situation has emerged with the appearance of the proletariat in history.

‘When the proletariat,’ writes Marx, ‘announces the dissolution of the existing social order, it reveals the secret of its own existence, which itself constitutes the effective dissolution of that social order.’

The theory within which this statement is made is not related to the revolution in a more or less contingent way, it is not bound to it loosely, or through a ‘misunderstanding.’ Rather, it is, in its very essence, nothing more than the intellectual expression of the revolutionary process itself. Each stage of this process is fixed deeply in theory so as to become, by its generalisation, communicable, useful, susceptible to development. And just as it is the consciousness of a necessary development, so it becomes at the same time the necessary precondition of the development which must follow.

The clarification of this function of theory opens up the way to a knowledge of its very essence: that is, of the dialectical method. Ignoring this decisive point has introduced a tremendous confusion into the discussion of the dialectic. For whether one criticises Engels’ formulations in Anti-Dühring (crucial for the further development of theory), or whether one conceives them as incomplete, even as inadequate, or considers the work as a classic, it must nevertheless be admitted that it is deficient in precisely this aspect. In effect, Engels conceptualises the dialectic by opposing it to the ‘metaphysical.’ He emphasises the fact that, in the dialectical method, the rigidity of concepts (and of the objects which correspond to them) is dissolved, that the dialectic is the smoothly flowing process of continuous transformation of one determination into another, resolving contradictions which pass into each other. And he argues that, consequently, unilateral, rigid causality must be replaced by reciprocal action. But the most essential interaction, the dialectical relation of subject and object in the process of history, is not even mentioned, let alone placed where it belongs, in the very centre of methodological consideration. Abstracted from this determination the dialectical method, in spite of any affirmation in the last instance of concepts of ‘flowing smoothness,’ ceases to be a revolutionary method. The difference between the dialectic and ‘metaphysics’ should not then be sought in the fact that all metaphysical studies require the object of investigation to be untouched and unchanging, and that the conception consequently remains ‘contemplative’ and cannot become practical, but in the fact that for the dialectic the central problem is that of changing reality.

If one neglects this central function of the theory, then the advantage of a conception of ‘smooth flowing’ becomes problematical, a purely ‘scientific’ affair. The method can be accepted or rejected in accord with the state of science, but without changing one’s attitude towards the question of whether reality is changeable or immutable. The impenetrability of reality, its ‘fatal’ and unchanging character, its conformity to law in the sense of bourgeois, contemplative materialism and its classical economics – this can even be reinforced as it was by those Machians among the followers of Marx. The fact that Mach’s thought could produce voluntarism – equally bourgeois – does not contradict this point. Fatalism and voluntarism are only contradictory in a non-dialectical, non-historical perspective. In the dialectical conception of history, these are polarities united by a single bond: they are intellectual reflections which express the antagonism of the capitalist order and its inability to resolve its own problems on its own terms.

This is why all attempts to deepen the dialectical method in a ‘critical’ manner necessarily end up as a levelling off. In effect, the methodological point of departure for the ‘critical’ position consists precisely in separating method and reality, thought and being. This point of view sees a valuable progress in this separation, the attainment of an authentically scientific science which is opposed to the gross and non-critical method of Marxism. These people are free, of course, to make their point. But then it must be recognised that they are not moving in the direction which leads to the very essence of the dialectical method.

Marx and Engels have expressed this unambiguously. Engels wrote:

‘By this the dialectic was reduced to the science of general laws of movement, laws of the exterior world as well as of human thought – to two series of laws ... identical in substance.’

And Marx put it even more precisely:

‘As in all social and historical sciences, one must always realise when considering the movement of: economic categories, that the categories express the forms and conditions of existence ...’ [1]

When this sense of the dialectic is observed, then it necessarily appears as a useless supplement, an ornament to the ‘sociology’ or the ‘economies’ of Marxism. It seems to be an obstacle to the ‘sober and impartial’ study of the ‘facts,’ an empty construction by means of which Marxism does violence to the facts. Bernstein has expressed his objection to the dialectical method in the most precise and clear fashion, in the name of his ‘impartiality,’ a concept untroubled by any philosophical comprehension. Still he shows us the very real political and economic consequences which he deduces from this desire to liberate method from the ‘dialectical traps’ of Hegelianism; he indicates where his approach leads. For Bernstein demonstrates that one must separate the dialectic from historical materialism if one wishes to originate a serious theory of the opportunities of ‘evolution’ without revolution, of a transition to socialism without a struggle.


But this immediately raises the question: what is the meaning from the point of view of method of these facts which are so worshipped in revisionist literature? To what extent can one see in them the factors for the orientation of the revolutionary proletariat? Obviously, all knowledge of reality starts with facts. But then the problem is: which facts (and in which methodological context must they be placed) should be considered relevant for our understanding? A narrow empkicism denies that a fact does not really become a fact except in the course of an elaboration according to a method. It finds in each factor, in each statistic, in each factum brutum of economic life, an important fact. It does not understand that the simplest enumeration of ‘facts,’ their stringing together without any commentary, is already an interpretation, that at this stage the facts are already examined from a point of view, a method, that they have been abstracted from the context of life in which they were found and introduced into a theory. The opportunists are more refined despite their repugnance for theory. They do not. deny all this, but rather base themselves upon the method of natural science, the way in which it investigates ‘pure’ fact through observation, abstraction and experimentation, its ability to discover interrelations. And they oppose this as an ideal of knowledge to the violent constructions of the dialectic.

The insidious character of such a method is that capitalism itself, in the course of its development, produces a social structure which meets it half-way. And here, we must have recourse to the dialectical method so that we will not be taken in by this social illusion, so that we will be able to go behind the facade and discover the real essence of the matter. The ‘pure’ facts of the natural sciences come into being in the following manner: a

phenomenon is transported from life into a context which permits us to study the laws which it obeys without the intervention of extraneous factors (this is done either actually or in the mind); this procedure is then reinforced by the fact that the phenomena examined are reduced to their quantitative essence, to their numerical expressions and relations. And what the opportunists do not understand is that it is in the very nature of capitalism to produce phenomena in such a way. Marx described a ‘process of abstraction’ from existence in his treatment of labour, but he did not forget to insist vigorously that in this case he was dealing with a characteristic of capitalist society:

‘Thus the most general abstractions do not commonly develop except in the course of the richest, most concrete evolution where one feature seems to be jointly possessed by many things, and is common to all of them. Then it ceases to be thought of uniquely, under its particular form.’

This tendency of capitalist evolution has now developed considerably. The fetishistic character of economic forms, the reification of all human relations, the increasing extension of a division of labour which, with an abstract rationality, atomises the process of production without regard for the human capabilities and potentialities of the direct producers, etc, this process transforms the phenomena of society and with them our perceptions of them. Now ‘isolated’ facts appear, there are groups of isolated facts and specific autonomous sections (economics, law, etc) and their most immediate reality, for this kind of scientific study. Thus, it appears to be ‘scientific’ to raise to the level of science a tendency which is inherent in the facts themselves. But the dialectic insists upon the concrete unity of the whole in opposition to all of these isolated facts and partial systems, it exposes this illusion of appearances which is a necessary product of capitalism.

The unscientific nature of this seemingly scientific method resides in the fact that it does not perceive the historical character of the facts which it uses as its basis, indeed that it ignores this historical character. But we do not have here simply that source of error which Engels called to our attention. The essence of this source of error is located in the fact that statistics, and the ‘exact’ economic theory which is built upon , them, lag behind actual developments.

‘For contemporary history, one will often be forced to treat the most decisive factor as constant, assuming that the economic situation which is found at the beginning of the period continues throughout the period without variation, or else take notice of such changes in this situation as arise out of patently manifest events themselves and are, therefore, quite obvious.’ [2]

But in the fact that capitalist society meets the natural sciences halfway, that it is the social precondition of its exactitude, in this state of affairs, there is something very problematical. If, then, the internal structure of ‘facts’ and their relations is essentially known historically, if they are seen as implicated in a process of uninterrupted revolution, we must ask where the greatest scientific inexactitude lies. Is it when the ‘facts’ are perceived under a form of objectivity where they are dominated by laws which I know with methodological certainty (or at least probability) are not valid for these facts? Or is it when I consciously recognise the consequences of this situation and therefore adopt a critical attitude towards the certainty which is achieved, concentrating upon the moments in which this historical character, this decisive modification, actually manifests itself?

Thus, the historical character of the ‘facts’ which science believes it perceives in their ‘purity’ is fatal to this illusion. As products of historical evolution, these facts are not only involved in constant change. More than that, they are – precisely in the structure of their objectivity – the product of a specific historical epoch: that of capitalism. Consequently, a ‘science’ which takes the immediacy of the facts as its basis, which sees this form of their objectivity as the point of departure for scientific conceptualisation, simply and dogmatically on the terms of capitalist society, accepts essentially and uncritically the structure of the object as it is given, and it takes its laws as the immutable fundament of ‘science.’

To move from such ‘facts’ to facts in the true sense of the word, one must penetrate to the historical context of the facts; one cannot accept them as given and immediate. In short, the facts must be submitted to a historical dialectical treatment, for, as Marx has noted,

‘The finished form which economic relations manifest upon their surface in their actual existence, and consequently the representations of them out of which the bearers and agents of these relations seek to develop a clear idea of them, these are quite different from the inner form which is essential but hidden, they are different from the concept which really corresponds to the form.’ [3]

If the facts are to be known accurately, we must understand the difference between their immediate appearance and their inner core with clarity and precision; we must distinguish between the representation of the fact, and the concept of it. This distinction is the first pre-condition of scientific study which, as Marx pointed out, ‘would be superfluous if the phenomenal manifestation and the essence of things were immediately identical.’ Thus, we must go behind the immediate appearance of facts and discover the core, the essence. In doing so, we will understand their appearance as the necessary form which their inner core takes – necessary because of the historical character of facts, because of their strength in the capitalist environment. This double determination which simultaneously recognises and goes beyond the immediate fact, this is precisely the dialectical relation.

The internal structure of Capital thus causes precisely the greatest difficulty to the superficial reader who uncritically accepts the categories of thought proper to capitalist development. On the one hand the exposition pushes the capitalist character of the economic forms to its extreme limit and constitutes a perspective in which these categories are pure and describe a society which ‘corresponds to theory,’ indeed a society completely capitalist, composed only of capitalists and proletarians. But on the other hand, as soon as this conception is worked out, as soon as the world of phenomena seems to be crystallised theoretically, this result itself dissolves into a mere appearance, it is seen as a simple inverted reflection of a situation which is itself inverted, a reflection which is nothing but ‘the conscious expression of the apparent movement.’

Only in this context can one integrate the different facts of social life (inasmuch as they are elements of a historical development) into a totality, only in this way does the knowledge of facts become the knowledge of reality. This knowledge begins with simple determinations which are pure, immediate and natural (to the capitalist world). It goes from them to a knowledge of the concrete totality as the intellectual reproduction of reality. This concrete totality is, of course, never immediately apparent.

‘The concrete is concrete,’ Marx writes, ‘because it is the synthesis of many determinations, ie, the unity of diverse elements.’

But at this point, idealism falls into the error of confusing the intellectual reproduction of reality with the structural process of reality itself. For

‘in our thought, reality appears as a process of synthesis, as a result, and not as a point of departure, although it is the real point of departure, and, therefore, also the point of departure of observation and conception.’

On the other hand, vulgar materialism – however modernly it may be dressed up by Bernstein and others – is content to reproduce the most immediate and simple determinations of social life. It feels that it is particularly ‘exact’ in accepting these determinations without any previous analysis, without relating them to the concrete totality, it takes the facts in abstract isolation and attempts to explain them by abstract scientific laws which are not a part of the concrete totality.

‘The crudity and shortcomings of this conception,’ wrote Marx, ‘lie in the tendency to see only an accidental, reflexive connection in that which is really an organic union.’ [4]

The conceptual crudity and emptiness of such an approach is located, above all, in the fact that it obscures the historical and transitory character of capitalist society. In it, its determinations appear as timeless and eternal categories common to all social orders. This was apparent in its most blatant form in bourgeois economics, but vulgar Marxism soon took the same path. The dialectical method, with its methodological dominance of the totality over the particular aspect was destroyed, the part no longer found its conception and reality in the whole but, on the contrary, the whole was eliminated from investigation as an unscientific element (or was reduced to a simple ‘idea,’ to a sum of the parts). And, as soon as this was done, the reflexive relations of isolated elements appeared to be the eternal law of all human society. Marx’s formulation that ‘the relations of production of a given society form a whole’ is, in opposition to this approach, the methodological point of departure, it is the key to the historical understanding of social relations. Each isolated single category can be conceived (in its isolation) as having always been present during the evolution of human society. (If one doesn’t find them in a particular social form, then that is the ‘exception’ that proves the rule). Thus, the real stages of social evolution are unclear and ambiguous when they are viewed as changes which take place among isolated, partial elements. And they are most dear when seen in terms of the change in function of the various elements in the whole process of history, in the alterations of their relations to the totality of society.

Part 2


1. K. Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This limitation of the method to the historical and social reality is extremely important. The misunderstandings which Engels’ treatment of the matter have produced developed because Engels – following Hegel – understood the dialectic as applying to the understanding of nature. But the decisive determinations of the dialectic – the reciprocal action of object and subject, the unity of theory and ‘praxis,’ the historical modification of the substratum of categories as the foundation of modifications in thought, etc – are not found in the natural sciences. Unfortunately, this is not the place to discuss this question in detail.

2. Introduction to the Class Struggles in France. But one should not forget that exactness in the natural sciences presupposes precisely this ‘constancy’ of elements. This methodological exigency has already been posed by Galileo.

3. Capital, III, 1. This distinction (which is analysed into the dialectical moments of appearance, manifestation and reality) comes from Hegel’s Logic. Unfortunately we cannot develop here how basic this distinction is to the idea of Capital. The distinction between representation and concept also comes from Hegel.

4. Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. The category of the reflexive connection also comes from Hegel’s Logic.