Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 1


Defence of History and Class Consciousness

Georg Lukács
A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic
Verso, London, 2000, pp182

WHEN Lukács’ book History and Class Consciousness appeared in 1922, it caused an uproar in the Communist International. Its author, the highly-educated scion of a wealthy Hungarian family, was one of those who had opposed the First World War and had been swept into political activity by the October Revolution. Participating in the confused formation of the Hungarian Communist Party, Lukács (1885–1971) had served in the ill-fated Workers’ Republic in 1919, and escaped from the executioners of the right-wing military dictatorship to live as a revolutionary exile in Vienna, where he edited a Left Communist journal. Lenin attacked it in 1920, in the course of his fight against ‘ultra-leftism’ in the International.

History and Class Consciousness was an attempt to overcome the philosophical heritage of the Second International, in particular by restoring the connections between Marx’s ideas and those of Hegel. Lukács tries to give a philosophical account of the rôle of the Bolshevik party by identifying the proletariat as ‘the identical subject-object’. To do this, he makes a distinction between the consciousness in the heads of any particular group of workers, and the class-consciousness of the proletariat, by which he understands the ‘ascribed’ or ‘putative’ (zugerechnet) consciousness represented by the Party. This leads Lukács to a version of dialectics which clashes with that of Engels in his Ludwig Feuerbach, in that it ‘applies’ solely to history, and not to nature.

At the Fifth Congress of the Communist International in 1924, its leader Grigorii Zinoviev famously denounced Lukács, along with the German Communist Karl Korsch, whose Communism and Philosophy had been independently written with a similar message. In his speech entitled The Struggle Against the Ultra-Lefts and Theoretical Revisionism, Zinoviev declared: ‘If we get more of these professors spinning out their Marxist theories, we shall be lost. We cannot tolerate theoretical revisionism of this kind in our Communist International.’ Bukharin, soon to replace Zinoviev as Stalin’s chief ally in the International, told Korsch: ‘We can’t put every piece of garbage up for discussion.’ It is doubtful whether either Zinoviev or Bukharin had ever read Lukács’ book.

That is how all discussion of Lukács’ important effort to develop philosophy among Communists was suppressed. Soon, Zinoviev set his ideological thugs to work, including an onslaught in Pravda. It has often been said that Lukács’ response to these attacks was to make a self-criticism of History and Class Consciousness, and then to fall silent until the 1960s. But a typescript in German, entitled Chvostismus und Dialektik, which was discovered in the Moscow CPSU archives and which appeared in Budapest in 1996, shows that Lukács was still vigorously defending his book, at least as late as 1926.

It is an answer to two of his critics. The former Menshevik Abram Deborin (1881–1963) was working his way to becoming the most prominent of Soviet philosophers. He succeeded, at least until his denunciation as a ‘Menshevising idealist’ in 1930. László Rudas was a founder of the Hungarian Communist Party and an ally of Lukács in Vienna. In 1923, he went into exile in Moscow and became a loyal Stalinist. Lukács has no difficulty in slapping these two down, and refuting their ritual denunciations of his book as ‘subjectivist’.

The present volume contains a translation by Esther Leslie of Chvostismus und Dialektik, together with an Introduction by John Rees, a translation of an introduction to the Hungarian edition by László Illés and a postface by Slavoj Žižek. (I don’t want to make a fuss about it, but the translation doesn’t make the reader’s far from easy task any easier. Translating both the word ‘Augenblick’ – ‘instant’ – and the important Hegelian term ‘Moment’ as ‘moment’ sometimes renders it impossible to see what Lukács is driving at. As for the gibberish ‘knotted line of mass conditions’, this reviewer can only shake his aged head over the lamentable state of education these days. Couldn’t anybody at Verso recognise ‘der Knotelinie der Massverhältnisse’ to be Hegel’s famous ‘nodal line of measure relations’? It appears that nobody knows or cares about such things any more.)

I don’t think this volume adds a great deal to our knowledge of the work of Lukács, although the fact that the author of History and Class Consciousness did not give in as easily as we used to think is historically important. John Rees’s introduction certainly doesn’t help. He wants to have his traditional Lenin cake, while eating a bit of Lukácsised Hegel icing. Rees tells us that History and Class Consciousness ‘recovered the greater part of Marx’s theory of alienation’. But Marx’s conception of alienation, which is the root conception of all his work, especially Capital, centres on ‘universal human emancipation’, and this does not feature anywhere in Lukács’ work, I believe.

The Postface by Žižek is called Georg Lukács as the Philosopher of Leninism. I think he makes a good case for this title, but while he means it as a compliment to Lukács, I see it as a condemnation.

Today, the work of recovering Marx’s ideas should indeed take account of History and Class Consciousness, but this requires great care and attention. It is not the slightest use putting Lukács forward as the founder of ‘Western Marxism’, or ‘Hegelian Marxism’, without rescuing Marx’s actual ideas from all varieties of the ‘Marxist’ tradition. Anyone beginning a serious study of Lukács would do well to read the lengthy comments of István Mészáros in his Beyond Capital. (Rees has the chutzpah to refer to Beyond Capital, without telling anybody that it contains, among other things, an extended criticism of History and Class Consciousness.)

Mészáros shows that Lukács’ relationship with Stalinism is far more complex than a simple ‘capitulation to the bureaucracy’. He investigates, as a unity, Lukács’ evolution from youthful romanticism, through devotion to Bolshevism, to his own kind of Stalinism. He can then demonstrate the constant elements within this history, concerning precisely the philosophical problems of the relation between mass movement and subjectivity.

Cyril Smith

Updated by ETOL: 6.10.2011