On "History and Class Consciousness" as an "Unfinished Project" [1]

Response for the seminar 'What is Alive and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel Today?'
Sketch Draft Friday, by Geoff Boucher, 11 June 1999

The Hegelian Imaginary

Every generation, it seems, discovers its own Hegel. This proposition has to be understood in three ways. Not only does every generation seems to find its own concerns anticipated in Hegel. Modernity tirelessly reinvents the central motifs of the Hegelian philosophy even in the same breath with which it declares that philosophy to be definitively superseded. And every generation also locates a philosophy who seems to embody the 'cultural logic' of the moment — a characteristic philosophy which is seen to embody the cultural logic of the period. What Hegel might look like in the postmodern, why modernity tirelessly reinvents Hegelianism and how Hegel might be characteristic of the logic and the limits of a certain aspect of modernity would seem to be the contemporary form in which the question of "what is alive and what is dead" is characteristically posed.

Indeed, it would seem that the characteristic contemporary gesture is to accede to Hegel's own self-description as a unity of form and content which precludes any separation into "method vs. system". Philosophy — in the continental scene at least - would seem to want to either utterly renounce Hegel, or to perennially engage with Hegel. No-one, however, seems to be keen any more on the dialectical sublation of Hegel attempted by Feuerbach and Marx, or the separation into method and system (Engels), immanent dialectical logic and triadic external structure (Croce), or dual ontology and methodology of the reflection determinations (Lukács).

The paradox of the 'postmodern condition' appears to be that of the actuality of Hegel: while there are no Hegelians, the 'post-Hegelian' moment tirelessly reinvents Hegelian motifs. Nonetheless, it is those who would term themselves postmodernists who claim to be free of Hegel. Symptomatic of this desire is the presence of Hegel in the canonical text of postmodernism, Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition. While seldom mentioned by name, Lyotard's polemic against "speculative thinking" and "grand narratives" in reality refers primarily to Hegel. These themes are precisely what postmodernism seeks to liberate itself from. This was confirmed by Lyotard's subsequent Postmodernism Explained:

The 'metanarratives' I was concerned with in The Postmodern Condition are those that have marked modernity: the progressive emancipation of reason and freedom, the progressive or catastrophic emancipation of labour (source of alienated value in capitalism), the enrichment of all humanity through the progress of capitalist techno-science, and even — if we include Christianity itself in modernity (in opposition to the classicism of antiquity) — the salvation of creatures through the conversion of souls to the Christian narrative of martyred love. Hegel's philosophy totalises all of these narratives and, in this sense, is itself a distillation of speculative modernity.[2]

The problem seems to be that while it is no longer tenable to maintain that Hegelian philosophy can be divided in a revolutionary method and a conservative system, the speculative dialectic, with its subordination of social being to philosophical logic and ambience of 'reconciliation under duress,' is something definitely to be avoided. As Stuart Barnett has argued:

It is thus not too far-fetched to suggest that one could easily recast the story of post-war continental thought as the story of Hegelianism by other means. Although one cannot make an argument such as the one just outlined in anything but a Hegelian manner, it is necessary to put it forth because we still inhabit a Hegelianism of sorts. To truly think the end of Hegel it will be necessary to remain Hegelian to a degree. Most of the confident attempts to transcend Hegelianism have been in fact brilliant continuations of Hegelianism. As a result, speculative thought remains for the most part unchallenged. To truly confront Hegel, therefore, it will be necessary to account fully for our failure to transcend Hegel.[3]

But this task was in evidence long before postmodernism. Indeed, Marx's bitter observation that "the proletariat is the unreason of every reason" already outlines an entire theoretical and practical program lying at the very limits of modernity. Whether Marxism can escape from recapture by the speculative dialectic, whether Marxism lies outside of the sphere of influence of the Hegelian Imaginary, is the question posed by this talk.

The decisive superiority of the philosophy of praxis over the speculative dialectic is its location of the source of the problems and impasses of philosophy in the contradictions of social life, and the consequent realisation that the transcendence of philosophy can take place only through the practical resolution of these real contradictions. The defining trait of the philosophy of praxis is therefore the claim to show that the antinomies of philosophy can be resolved only in history. Marx argued that because Hegel could not conceive of radical changes in modern culture, Hegel rationalised temporary historical conditions as though they were eternal necessities. Social revolution, and not philosophical speculation, was needed to 'go beyond' Hegel and Kant. "The philosophers," Marx famously asserted, "have only interpreted the world — the point is to change it."

Yet this lapidary formulation was taken by later generations as a call for the renunciation of any engagement with philosophy whatsoever, under the sign of "scientific socialism". In Adorno's celebrated formulation from the 1930s:

Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgement that it has merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.[4]

Indeed, in the hands of the Second International Marxism became a mechanical determinism allied to a relapse into neo-Kantian ethics. It was not until the explosive wave of revolutions from 1917 to 1921 that the hegemony of the notion of the definitive supersession of Hegel could be challenged. It is the particular merit of Georg Lukács' 1923 work History and Class Consciousness to have reconstructed the logic of a philosophy of praxis from Marx's apparently most narrowly "scientific" work, Capital.

History and Class Consciousness

The importance of HCC cannot be underestimated. At a time when Marxist theory still lagged behind many of its bourgeois counterparts in philosophical sophistication, Lukács nearly single-handedly succeeded in raising it to a respectable place in European intellectual life. Indeed, HCC re-established the possibility of exploring Marxism's philosophical dimension, disposing of the naive position that Marxism was a science that had overcome the need for philosophical reflection. Finally, it offered a brilliant explanation of, and justification for, the cultural and intellectual validity of the Russian Revolution at a time when Lenin and Trotsky were engaged in desperate military and political struggles and unable to articulate any such defence. As such, History and Class Consciousness has to be seen as the most articulate expression on a theoretical level of the world historical events of 1917 — presenting a twentieth century parallel to Kant's Critiques and their relation to the French Revolution, or to Hegel's Phenomenology and its relation to the internationalisation of the bourgeois revolution. In fact, the high water mark of Hegelian Marxism came with the cresting of the revolutionary wave; its decline — which can already be discerned in the final sections of the book — followed swiftly upon the postwar stabilisation of capitalism and the reversals of fortune of the Russian Revolution. Its partial revival had to wait for a comparable revolutionary wave, after 1968. In short, HCC was one of those rare synthetic visions that launch a new paradigm or problematic, in this case, that of Western Marxism.

Lukács' core innovation was the methodological, political and conceptual centrality of the category of the totality:

"It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts, is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science … Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of the totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science."

But Lukács' concern for totality was only a part of his even more fundamental assumption that methodology was the critical determinant of a revolutionary intellectual posture. This method — it should be noted — substantially anticipated the publication of Marx's most Hegelian text, the Grundrisse, particularly in its emphasis on the "methodology of the reflection determinations" from Hegel's "logic of essence" (which are for Lukács "what is alive in Hegel").

In Hegelian fashion, Lukács linked action and knowledge, contending that the apparent immediacy of facts had to be overcome by mediating them through a dynamic understanding of the whole: "Only in this context, which sees the isolated facts of social life as aspects of the historical process and integrates them in a totality, can knowledge of the facts hope to become knowledge of reality."

Instead of equating the concrete with discrete entities or individual facts, Lukács followed Marx's Hegelian usage: "the concrete is concrete because it is a synthesis of many particular determinants ie. a unity of diverse elements." The totality could be concrete precisely because it included all of the mediations that linked the seemingly isolated facts. This enabled a vision of the totality of history as a coherent and meaningful process of emancipation. But Hegel's concept of a retrospective totalisation, where the owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk, is absent from HCC. Lukác's stress on deeds, action and praxis means that those who make history are no longer separated from those who come to understand it.

However, the historical subject of this totality was seen by Lukács not only as a collective subject, but as the "creator of the totality of content". Lukács criticised philosophy in general for its transcendental and ahistorical notion of the subject. Like Marx, Lukács insisted that grasping the subject of history really meant recognising which social groups were practically active, and which were not. Throughout all previous history, Lukács argued, no social group could lay claim to the role of universal subject (although some has attempted to do so). Only now, with the rise of the proletariat to power an imminent prospect, could such a claim justly be made. It is from this link between totality and subject of history that Lukács notorious "identical subject-object of history" springs.

Lukács, like Hegel before him, contended that this possibility applied only when a universal totaliser made history in a deliberate and rational manner. To know the whole was thus dependent on the existence of a collective historical subject which could recognise itself in its objectifications:

"Only when a historical situation has arisen in which a class must understand society if it is to assert itself; only when the fact that a class understands itself means that it understands society as a whole and when, in consequence, the class becomes both the subject and object of knowledge; in short, only when these conditions are all satisfied will the unity of theory and practice, the precondition of the revolutionary function of theory, become possible. Such a situation has in fact arisen with the entry of the proletariat into history."

Certainly, capitalism had laid the groundwork for the proletariat's entrance by its relentless socialisation of the world, its incorporation of more and more of the globe into its economic system. But knowledge of the whole was denied to the capitalists themselves because they were not the true makers of history, however much they might have parasitically benefited from the labour of those who unconsciously were. Accordingly, mainstream bourgeois thought could not transcend its individualist, analytic and formalist biases.

In adopting an expressive notion of totality, Lukács was able to achieve a seemingly valid resolution of the antinomies of bourgeois thought and culture. The source of these logical impasses and the persistence of irrationalism within bourgeois philosophy, Lukács argued, sprang from the contradictory nature of bourgeois social existence. Extrapolating from Marx's discussion of commodity fetishism in Capital, and applying insights from Bergson, Simmel and Weber, he introduced the concept of reification to characterise the fundamental experience of bourgeois life. This term, one not found in Marx himself, meant the petrification of living processes into dead things, which appeared as an alien "second nature". Weber's "iron cage of bureaucratic rationalisation," Simmel's "tragedy of culture" and Bergson's spatialization of durée were thus part of a more general process. This process of the reification of thought had infected the Second International as well. The neo-Kantian split of the revisionists between facts and values, and the orthodox with their economic fatalism and failure to consider subjective praxis, were both ideological expressions of a non-revolutionary age.

The central antinomies Lukács identified as characteristic of the bourgeois era were the separation of facts and values; the distinction between phenomena, or appearances, and noumena, or essential things in themselves; and the opposition between free will and necessity, form and content, subject and object. To regain the lost unity of subject and object was only possible if a transcendental and ahistorical morality of the Kantian type were replaced by the Hegelian notion of ethical life and the concrete customs of a specific historical totality. It was instead the acceptance of the partial relativism of the historical process in which collective values were posited by specific historical subjects. To Lukács, the "is" and the "ought" would merge once the subject of history, the proletariat, objectified its ethical principles in the concrete mores and customs of an achieved communist society. Recognising itself in the world it had created, it would no longer be subjected to the moral alienation plaguing bourgeois culture.

A comparable resolution of the antinomy between phenomena and noumena would follow from the coming to consciousness of the proletariat, for, from the perspective of totality, the mysterious impenetrability of the thing in itself will be revealed as no more than an illusion of a reified consciousness incapable of recognising itself in its products.

In addition, general fragmentation of modern life, including the separation of will and fate, freedom and necessity, would also wither away, once the external world was no longer perceived as ruled by alien forces experienced as if they were a "second nature". The very opposition, popular among neo-Kantians and vulgar Marxists alike, between a world of objective matter and subjective consciousness would end as humanity adopted a practical attitude towards the objective world. Being would be understood as becoming, things would dissolve into processes, and, most important of all, the subjective origin of these processes would become apparent to the identical subject-object of history. Freedom was reconcilable with necessity because it was equivalent to collective action, action which constituted the world out of itself.

Collapse of History and Class Consciousness

Lukács solution to the antinomies of bourgeois culture appeared remarkably powerful. But it soon became apparent that they could not bear close scrutiny. HCC was no sooner printed than the paradigm began to collapse — not least at Lukács own hands. An early indication was the social form which was to mediate between the proletariat's non-revolutionary consciousness and its historical mission as identical subject object. During the book there is a shift, from Lukács argument for an organisational mix between the party and the soviets, in which the latter play a key role, towards the vanguard party. While protesting that the party was never to "function as a stand in for the proletariat, even in theory," the logic of this shift is clear enough.

The solution to the antinomies of bourgeois thought itself contained a number of fundamental theoretical difficulties. As Lukács came to understand a decade later, he had erroneously conflated the process of objectification with the phenomena of reification. As Lukács later said:

"I can still remember even today the overwhelming effect produced in me by Marx's statement that objectivity was the primary material attribute of all things and relations. This links up with the idea already mentioned that objectification is a natural means by which humanity masters the world and as such it can be either positive or negative. By contrast, alienation is a special variant of that activity that becomes operative in definite social conditions. This completely shattered the theoretical foundations of what had been the particular achievement of HCC."

By equating praxis with the objectification of subjectivity, instead of viewing it as the interaction of a subject with a pre-given object, Lukács had missed the importance of the dialectic of labour as the model of social praxis in Marxism. Thus, although stressing activity as opposed to contemplation and arguing that the abolition of contradictions "cannot simply be the result of thought alone, it must also amount to the practical abolition as actual forms of social life," he nonetheless underestimated the material resistance of these forms. As Lukács subsequently acknowledged: "the proletariat seen as the identical subject-object of the real history of mankind is no materialist consummation that overcomes the contradictions of idealism. It is rather an attempt to out-Hegel Hegel."

Equally absent from Lukács work is a notion of concrete human needs or a recognition that the proletariat as self-identical subject is based on the abstract notion of a completely unifiable class. The result, as one commentator argued, is an "abstract negation of a totally reified world".

Equally damaging was Lukács hostility towards natural science. Over-reacting to the mechanical determinism of the scientific Marxists, for whom society could be understood in exactly the same way as nature, Lukács argued that "nature is a social category". Lukács was certainly right to protest against Engels' naive assimilation of history to nature, but Lukács erred in the opposite direction by categorically separating them.

Restricting the sphere of validity of the dialectic to history was, however, essential to the argument that those who make history can know it. Without this proviso, Lukács would have been forced to confront the fact that Kant's distinction between noumena and phenomena referred primarily to the natural world, which could not be construed as the objectification of a creative subject (except by Hegel).

For Lukács, this represented nothing short of an admission that science was incapable of grasping reality as a totality. In HCC, Lukács added the further reproach that science was an inherently contemplative enterprise, the witnessing by a detached observer of a process outside their control. "Scientific socialism" was therefore an expression of reification — a position Lukács later retracted, while never renouncing his hostility to the notion of a dialectic of nature. In The Ontology of Social Being Lukács argues that while "social being cannot be conceived as independent from natural being, Marx's ontology of social being just as sharply rules out a simple, vulgar materialist transfer of natural laws to society".

The leap out of nature into social being, the "retreat of the natural boundary," as Marx put it, remained for Lukács the crucial step for humanity. It justified his continued stress on the applicability of the dialectical method, with its mediation of subject and object, to history alone.

Lukács privileging of history over nature, his emphasis on subjective consciousness over objective matter, his premature confidence that the whole proletariat would emulate its most radical wing, and his reliance on an expressive view of totality were all obvious indications of the euphoric mood engendered by the events of 1917 and their immediate aftermath. The stabilisation of capitalism and the regrowth of the social democratic and labour parties, the need for a theory of united front tactics and the inherent theoretical weakness of many of Lukács' theoretical formulations all meant that revision was inevitable. Central to this revision was a weakening of the expressive concept of totality and a retreat from the notion of the proletariat as identical subject-object of history.

By 1926, in the important works Lenin, A Study in the Unity of His Thought and "Moses Hess and the Problems of Idealist Dialectics," the expressive totality as the objectification of a historical metasubject was quietly set aside. In Lenin, Lukács certainly argued that "for every genuine Marxist there is always a reality more real and therefore more important than isolated facts and tendencies — namely, the reality of the total process, the totality of social development".

But no longer did he try to equate that totality with the objectifications of a creative subject. In so doing, Lukács moved towards a "decentred" or non-genetic view of totality. No longer was the proletariat the metasubjective totaliser of history. Equally, Lukács distanced himself from figures like Korsch, for whom theory was simply and directly the theory of practice: "Without orientation towards totality there can be no historically true practice. But knowledge of the totality is never spontaneous; it must always be brought into activity 'from outside,' that is, theoretically. The predominance of practice is therefore only realizable on the basis of a theory which aims to be all-embracing. But, as Lenin well knew, the totality of being as it unfolds objectively is infinite, and therefore can never be adequately grasped."

Unfinished Project

Marxism, then, is condemned to engage with philosophy precisely because theory is never the direct and unmediated expression of practice. The subsequent history of Western Marxism can be understood as an immense collective effort to rectify and then to reverse the paradigm launched by Lukács, by producing a viable 'Marxist philosophy'. As each Western Marxist became entangled in the Hegelian Imaginary which Lukács represents for Marxism, their synthesis unravelled and was superseded by an even more disillusioned edition, a kind of Phenomenology in reverse, without perspectives for redemption or even for renunciation. And the really interesting thing is that this logic applied as much to the anti-Hegelian currents of Western Marxism as for the direct descendants of Lukács' line.

So the anti-totalising and anti-Hegelian Adorno, for whom "philosophy … must renounce the illusion … that the power of thought is sufficient to grasp the totality of the real,"[5] rejoins in some curious fashion the totalising but scientific anti-Hegelianism of Althusser, whose concept of "structural totality" was intended precisely to be an alternative to the Lukácsian totality. Indeed, Fredric Jameson has persuasively argued that "Adorno's life work stands or falls with the concept of totality,"[6] for Adorno's characteristic philosophical move is to displace the Lukácsian totality forwards into an abstract future — "the standpoint of redemption," Adorno says in Minima Moralia — as a regulative norm by which to measure the reified and fragmented reality of the present. Althusser, meanwhile, has to be read in the context of political struggles between Maoism and post-Stalinism in the French Communist Party, so that "Hegel here is a secret code word for Stalin". "Althusser's program for a structural Marxism," Jameson argues, "must be understood as a modification within the dialectical tradition" — precisely the same modification Lukács made in 1926 with the shift to a decentred concept of the totality as a methodological imperative and not an identity of the metasubject of history with the historical totality. "Indeed, in some paradoxical and dialectical fashion, Lukács' conception of the totality may be said to rejoin the Althusserian notion of History or the Real as an 'absent cause'".[7]

Yet in the terms being developed here, this means the recapture of both Adorno and Althusser by the Hegelian Imaginary — and so we will not be surprised to learn that Althusser's concept of totality shatters within a decade of its elaboration, while Adorno's work increasingly refracts into disconnected fragments until ultimately renouncing Marxism altogether.

The characteristic mistake of Western Marxism after Lukács is to imagine that History and Class Consciousness represents a research programme for the development of a Marxist philosophy. Adorno's return to the notion of philosophy as interpretation and Althusser's idea of "theoretical praxis" express this misconception perfectly. But HCC is not an attempt to develop a Marxist philosophy at all. Instead, for all its faults, it is conceived as a contribution to Marxism understood as "the theory of the revolutionary process" intended to answer the specific question: "how far is commodity exchange together with its structural consequences able to influence the total inner and outer life of society?" As such, HCC operates in three registers:

Let's look at this more closely. I believe the way to both engage with the Hegelian Imaginary and avoid its logic of speculative totalisation lies with a reconceptualisation of the place of praxis in Marxism. In order to do so, I want to draw on Fredric Jameson's appropriation of the work of the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. This requires a brief exposition of Lacan's distinction between the three registers of discourse: the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. The Imaginary is the register of speculative identification, making it the register of the ideological par excellence. For this reason Althusser recast the Marxist definition of ideology as "Imaginary solutions to Real contradictions". The Symbolic Order, meanwhile, is the framework of language and culture, as defined and structured by alienation and relations of power and authority. The Real, finally, is "that which resists symbolisation absolutely": in psychoanalysis, the unspeakable fact of castration, or more generally, the reality of disempowerment. For Lacan, all discourse is inhabited by these three registers, in a dynamic relationship, and the unconscious is the name given to the repressed knowledge of the Real of castration, lack, disempowerment.


Jameson recasts these registers as follows:

Political Imaginary
The Social and Cultural

Where the political unconscious is the repressed knowledge that "history is the history of class struggles". For Jameson, "history is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in textual form — and that our approach to it and the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious". [8]

Now, in one way, Marxism did not need Jacques Lacan to tell us this, for clearly the following diagram applies to Marxism:


But if there is a 'Marxist unconscious,' it is the above all the repressed knowledge of the symbolic, discursive nature of praxis. The characteristic Marxist illusion is the collapse of theory into practice — "a conceptual reproduction of reality" — and the denial of the decentring fact that "the totality of being as it unfolds objectively is infinite, and therefore can never be adequately grasped" ie that praxis, class consciousness, is never identical with theory or with practice.

I believe that this has the potential to unlock part of the puzzle of the persistence of the Hegelian Imaginary within Marxism: the unsettling possibility that Lukács' definitive work is both necessary and an illusion, that the perspective of action requires totalization just as the perspective of historical events ceaselessly undoes every theoretical totality. But I also believe that it is only Marxism which can approach this problem, for Marxism alone, it seems to me, has this relationship to the unfolding of history. It is in this sense, finally, that History and Class Consciousness is an 'unfinished project': not just as a theoretical demand to cognitively map the totality of capitalist society from the perspective of transformation; not just as an intervention into the current cultural malaise of relativism and the metaphysics of contingency; but also, and ultimately, as a practical revolutionary project which has yet to begin.

1 Compare with Fredric Jameson, "History and Class Consciousness as an 'Unfinished Project'," in Rethinking Marxism no. 1


2 J. F. Lyotard, cited in Stuart Barnett, "Hegel Before Derrida," in Stuart Barnett, Hegel After Derrida, (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), p3.

3 Stuart Barnett, "Hegel Before Derrida," in Stuart Barnett, Hegel After Derrida, (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), p25.

4 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), p3.

5 Theodor W. Adorno, "The Actuality of Philosophy," Telos 31 (Spring 1977).

6 Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism. Adorno, Or, the Persistence of the Dialectic, (London and New York: Verso, 1992), p9.

7 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), pp37, 49 and 54.

8 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious, p35.