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Nigel Harris

History and Class Consciousness

(April 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.47, April/May 1971, pp.28-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

History and Class Consciousness – Studies in Marxist Dialectics
George Lukacs
Merlin Press, £2.50

Books on Marxism have never been produced in such large numbers. Marxism is fashionable, and, so far as publishers are concerned, profitable. Marxists may doubt the revolutionary implications of so much purely ‘theoretical’ interest, but they can only be delighted at the sudden availability of rare historical material, orthodox and heretic alike. At long last, one of the great heretic classics (heretic in the tradition of world Stalinism) has been published in an English edition. It is still not a cheap paperback, but that cannot be long behind.

The process has been long and tortuous. The book was originally published in German in 1923. It was condemned by the fifth, Comintern Congress of 1924 – in substance as Hegelian and ‘Idealist’; but Lukacs’ politics also came in for a drubbing as reformist and revisionist. Thereafter, the book led only a secret existence. Lukacs himself earned his passage back into Stalinism by condemning the work. But even after the liquidation of Stalinism proper, he continued to criticise sharply his early work. He refused to allow it to be reprinted or translated. Nevertheless, a pirate French edition appeared in 1960; and there were other sporadic attempts to translate parts of the book – this journal reproduced the first essay in two issues of 1966, but the full translation of the work was blocked by Lukacs himself and Merlin’s threat of legal action. Now, fortunately, all this has been overtaken by Livingstone’s translation.

The book is a series of essays, written – as Lukacs puts it – as he was moving towards Marxism between 1918 and 1922. It is not a continuous argument, but covers an enormously wide range of issues. What unity it has derives from a preoccupation with certain key philosophic issues. The central concern is with the nature of ‘consciousness’ – what men think and what they are impelled to think by the structure of capitalist society – and the relationship of consciousness to the proletarian revolution. In exploring this broad area, Lukacs tries to identify the essence of Marxism, what makes a Marxist (in the essay, What is Orthodox Marxism). He finds this essence embodied in Rosa Luxemburg’s work, although later in the book he disagrees sharply with her criticism of Bolshevik tactics in the Russian revolution. The core of the book lies in the long central essay on Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat (by ‘reification’ Lukacs means, roughly speaking, the process in capitalist society by which human qualities, relations and even concepts seem transformed into objects that dominate individual men). The implications of this essay are the chief concerns of the other pieces. The book concludes with an excellent essay on organisation, an analysis which ought to be required reading for all serious Marxists.

To begin to follow some of Lukacs’ arguments, one has to understand what was meant by ‘Marxism’ by Social Democracy up to the. First World War. When Social Democracy abandoned its claim to be revolutionary by failing to oppose the world war and lining up with the national forces of the belligerent ruling classes, the shock split the movement between revolutionaries – who opposed the war – and the rest. The revolutionaries had to re-examine the entire theoretical inheritance of Social Democracy in order to see where it had gone wrong. How was it possible that the inner core could have been so eaten away without it becoming obvious? Above all, the tasks of reappraisal and reconstruction were begun in the most important works of Lenin. But others continued the critique, both within the new born Communist movement – men like Lukacs and Gramsci – and among those that left the movement (like Korsch, Pannekoek).

The profound shock delivered to the pre-war orthodoxy in 1914 forced the reappraisal to begin. In Lenin’s case, he ‘rediscovered’ Hegel, as he explains in his Philosophical Notebooks, but he had little time to develop a very extended critique. And even while the work was being started, elements of the old orthodoxy were seeping back into the new, so that many of the assumptions characteristic of pre-war Social Democracy appeared again in what became known as Stalinism. Despite Lenin, Lukacs’ attempt to develop a critique of Social Democracy came to be as much of a threat to the new movement as to the old. Unlike Lenin, Lukacs was not a political fighter, nor was he able to develop a critique both of the theory and the concrete tactics of Stalinism. He would not join the Left Opposition, although in the late ‘twenties he was accused of supporting the Bukharinist Right.

What was the old orthodoxy? Put very crudely, the argument went something like this: Marxism is a science because it deals in the analysis of facts, not mere speculation or subjective wishes. Marxism ‘reflects’ the way the real world is, not our wishes about it. If science is basically concerned with the establishment of laws about how events occur, then Marxism’s status as science is demonstrated by its ability to frame laws about society and derive predictions from these laws about future social events. If the future events occur, the law is proved and Marxism vindicated. Now this version of Marxism is almost identical to the standard idea of science in nineteenth century bourgeois Europe. A scientific law was created by accurately observing the world, not by active involvement in it. Indeed, the philosophers argued that active involvement made it positively impossible to identify scientific laws. Essentially, the observer must be neutral, impartial, outside of it all, so that his ‘private’ views would not unconsciously shape his view of reality. The observer’s mind,his consciousness, should be only a sort of mirror which ‘reflected’ reality – a smudged mirror if the observer is ‘prejudiced’ (or biased), a sparkling one if he is ‘objective’.

This was not an academic issue. Implicit in the case was the argument that the ‘facts’ would produce the proletarian revolution, rather than the active intervention of revolutionaries. The revolution was inevitable because the scientific laws of Marxism had predicted it. And being inevitable, it would be wrong to interfere in the logic of history by trying to achieve the revolution ‘prematurely’, before the facts determined it. There was no place for active mass participation, for consciousness, in the revolution.

This was offered as conceptual rationale for the practice of Social Democracy, Marxist in name but essentially reformist in practice. Since the revolution would come when history was ripe, sensible men would devote themselves in the interim to practical social reform. As a result, what was called ‘Marxism’ became a system of false consciousness, a set of axioms designed to conceal the real nature of the status quo rather than reveal it. What was called ‘materialism’ was merely bourgeois vulgar materialism, not dialectical materialism.

The orthodoxy had absorbed what Lukacs’ calls ‘scientism’. But materialism had been the answer to an earlier case, a wide range of ‘Idealist’ doctrines. Only two points in these doctrines concern us here. Firstly, idealists stressed the central role of consciousness in organising and analysing our thought, not just passively ‘reflecting’ an external world. Indeed, so important did this role seem for some philosophers that they argued that our minds invent the external world on the basis of what would be, without our minds, confused meaningless images. But if we create our world in our minds, what is the basis on which we create. If I see a cat, is there indeed some kind of cat-thing ‘underneath’ the cat image I have in my mind? The insoluble puzzles that flowed from this position preoccupied generations of philosophers, but the only point which concerns us here, is the emphasis upon the active role of consciousness. In addition, in the work of the German philosopher Hegel, the concept of the dialectic was a fundamental contribution by idealist thought to Marxism. In terms of dialectical thought, there are no longer ‘facts’ in the world, but only contradictory processes.

Lukacs – following Marx – argues that the two alternatives, crude materialism or idealism, matter or mind, are equally impossible. The opposition reflects the separation of subject and object in class society, the separation of an active ruling class and a passive working class. Consciousness is neither a passive reflection of some ‘external reality’, nor is it the sole principle of reality: it is neither nothing nor everything. Contrary to the crude materialists, consciousness can organise and transform reality, not (as the idealists argued) by inventing concepts in the mind to analyse experience, but by actually setting out to achieve given purposes in the world, a world whose objectivity is demonstrated in the attempt to change it. Practice – the attempt to act in the world – reconciles the two half truths embodied in the two doctrines, and makes possible the re-identification of subject and object when the proletariat becomes the ruling class. And this practice is not some abstract activity, it is purposive and collective action in real society. Thus, it is in social action that the ‘theoretical constructs of the mind’, of consciousness, are tested against a real world, and that the real world reshapes the purposes and constructs of the mind.

What happened to Marxism in the old orthodoxy was ‘reification’. But relocation is a generalised tendency in thought under capitalism. As a result, revolutionary thought is always threatened by an inner corruption arising out of the nature of that society. What should be flexible concepts become frozen into ‘Principles’ that ultimately inhibit revolutionary action. Lukacs’ primary concern is to identify reification, in order that the conditions for true consciousness – and thereby the proletarian revolution – can be understood. Consciousness can only remain true if it is organised in a party under Leninist discipline, linked directly with, but separate from, the working class, and concerned, not with the immediate ‘facts’ of existence but with the strategic purpose of the revolution. Again, the philosophic issues and immediate questions are directly related:

‘Thus only when the theoretical primacy of the “facts” had been broken, only when every phenomenon is recognised to be a process, will it be understood that what we are wont to call “facts” consist of processes. Only then will it be understood that the facts are nothing but the parts, the aspects of the total process that have been broken off, artificially isolated and ossified’. (p.184)

Each strike means something different seen as an isolated dispute than if seen as a tributary stream in the achievement of proletarian consciousness.

A review can do little justice to the richness of Lukacs’ work. These essays are full of illuminating comments and observations on a wide range of topics. He does not solve all the problems, but at a host of points, he suggests or hints at many solutions (cf. for example, his discussion of the concept of freedom, p.193). But it also needs to be said that the book is very difficult, particularly for those – the overwhelming majority of revolutionary socialists – who are unfamiliar with the writing of Hegel and unlikely ever to get the opportunity to make themselves familiar with it. The style is opaque, occasionally obscure, and the structure of the argument often unclear. This is not a book to be read from cover to cover.

There are also difficulties in the thought, some of which are eliminated as Lukacs’ thought evolves through the book. For example, early in the book Lukacs seems to suggest that man’s alienation from capitalist society can be measured by the degree to which his nature or essence is distorted. In other words, there is an essential human nature from which men diverge under capitalism (for example, cf. p.99). The idea that there is an essential human nature is an old doctrine, and of particular appeal to those opponents of capitalism who look back to a golden age before the creation of industry when human nature existed, supposedly, in more conducive conditions. It is a view characteristic of Utopian socialists, not of Marx. Lukacs himself criticises the same view later in his book (cf. p.187 on Feuerbach). For man is no constant, with an invariable human nature underlying its different historical appearances. Collectively, men make their own ‘nature’ as well as their world, relative to the purposes they choose. Alienation is not the frustration of some true human nature. It is the distortion of the possibility of men rationally creating and recreating themselves as they recreate their world.

The case on ‘human nature’ is answered in the book. But there are other difficulties which remain unresolved. The separation of subject and object which had supposedly been closed with the concept of practice, re-emerges at times as another pair of concepts, ‘consciousness’ (mind) and ‘economics’ (matter). This time the two are not reconciled, so that, in affirming the importance of ‘consciousness’, Lukacs seems at times to be asserting its prior importance. This is a position particularly attractive to intellectuals who are, for whatever reasons, unable to participate in, or identify with, real worker struggles. All they have is ‘theory’, true consciousness, without the power of ‘economics’, real working class struggle. In the Lukacs’ account ‘economics’ is some outside factor, in principle decisive, but somehow not incorporated into his analysis – ‘Parallel with the economic struggle, a battle is fought for the consciousness of society’ (p.228). But the two are not ‘parallel’, and, indeed, not ‘two’ at all, but one. Raising ‘consciousness’ to this separate significance – like placing such primary stress upon cultural questions – leads back to an ‘idealism’, disguised in materialist clothes and remote from real working class practice. This problem is only made worse by the abstractness of the discussion, by its remoteness from the real course of events, from history. The lack of a relationship to history (to ‘economics’, to the real working class – as opposed to an abstraction) allows Lukacs to assert methodological half-truths as if they were general principles (for example, ‘The whole system of Marxism stands and falls with the principle that revolution is the product of a point of view in which the category of totality is dominant’, p.29). It allows him also to Identify as the essence what is often only a temporary historical phase (cf. for example, his comments on planning in capitalism, p.67).

The 1967 German republication of his book includes a new preface (translated here) in which Lukacs criticises his youthful errors. He was guilty in those days, he says, of ‘messianic utopianism’, of ultra-Leftism. Again, a half-truth, from the vantage-point of the post-Stalinist Lukacs, is written as a general comment. The old Lukacs notes, correctly, that ‘in the absence of a basis in real praxis (practice – NH), in labour as its original form and model, the over-extension of the concept of praxis would lead to its opposite: a relapse into idealistic contemplation’ (p.xviii). But what practice is it which the old Lukacs is offering as ‘the real’? Loyalty throughout the ‘thirties and ‘forties to Stalinism? Loyalty to a movement which destroyed the possibility of proletarian revolution wherever it could? The contradictions lie too thick across his biography to determine an alternative clear enough to indict the youthful ‘ultra-leftist’. The preface offers excuses, and can do no more in the absence of a full, rather than a partial ‘cultural’, critique of Stalinism. The critique of Stalinism would need to reappraise the rebels – including Trotsky – that Lukacs rejects.

Merlin are to be congratulated in making available this edition. The translation, occasionally marred by obscurities, unexplained expressions or poor proof-reading, is as clear as can be expected given the original. But it is a pity there was not more sustained editorial guidance. The book cries out for a long introduction (rather than Lukacs’ modern ‘autocritique’) which lays out the historical and philosophical context of the essays, the main issues at stake, and makes some attempt to explain Hegelian terminology. There are some apparently random notes at the end, but they cover very little, and that poorly. The index guides only the most primitive enquiries. However, what we have is far more than might have been expected only a short time ago. And for that, much thanks.

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