Following the completion in the Past & Present Reading Group of Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness we thought it would be novel to pose a set of questions about the book to Daniel Lopez as one of the most prominent and fresh experts to engage the dialectician and philosopher.
As a consequence, we offered “10 Questions on Georg Lukács” to Daniel Lopez. This is a form of engagement that has worked well in the past and can be considered now as something of a regular feature on Progress in Political Economy (PPE). For instance see the similar “10 Questions to Bertell Ollman”.
Here are our “10 Questions on Georg Lukács”.
1. Since the publication of History and Class Consciousness, how have Georg Lukács’ ideas impacted radical political discourse and movements? That is, how have his ideas been received (either critically or wholeheartedly) and to what effects? What thinkers have either consciously or unconsciously appropriated the ideas he sets forth? And again, to what effects?
Adjacent to this, how has this impacted (maybe even restricted) the frames by which theory and praxis (as inspired by Lukács) have been pursued (negatively and positively)?
Lukács participated in the First Marxist Work Week in 1923, a gathering of radical intellectuals sponsored by Felix Weil (who also funded the publication of HCC) that is credited as the event at which the Frankfurt School was first conceived. And as Gillian Rose observes in Hegel Contra Sociology, the leading leftist minds associated with the Frankfurt School received History and Class Consciousness (HCC) as an “invitation to hermeneutical anarchy.” Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Karl Korsch, Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno were deeply impacted by Lukács’s philosophy of praxis, although in very different and often incompatible ways. As Kavoulakos and others have noted, Adorno was perhaps the most committed to “unorthodox Lukácsian” Marxism during the 1920s — although he subsequently developed a strident yet shallow critique of his one-time inspiration.
As Lucien Goldmann argued persuasively, in Lukacs and Heidegger — Towards a New Philosophy, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time can be read as a direct reply to History and Class Consciousness, and an attempt to construct a theory of reification that isn’t centred on the commodity form or the standpoint of the proletariat.
Speaking politically, however, History and Class Consciousness went down like the proverbial lead balloon. As is well known, Lukács was roundly denounced at the 5th Congress of the Comintern, by no less than Lenin’s one-time right hand man, Grigory Zinoviev. This helped ensure that Lukács’s political philosophy almost entirely failed to find an audience in the 1920s. This speaks to the dogmatic orthodoxy of early 20th century Marxism, and especially Russian Marxism. As Bloch commented in his 1923 review of HCC — recently translated by Cat Moir and published in Thesis Eleven — the Russian Bolsheviks were politically far superior to the Social Democrats. But when they spoke philosophically, they did so “like uneducated dogs.”
There’s also deeper historical, political and philosophical reason for Lukács’s failure to find a political audience. By 1923, there was no meaningful trace of workers’ democracy in Russia. The dictatorship of the proletariat had become the dictatorship of a proletarian party, although the party still enjoyed the support of the working class, who fought and died to defend their victory over Tsarism, German imperialism and foreign intervention. This said, I don’t agree with the classic Leninist/Trotskyist reading of the October Revolution; the working class was only ever sovereign in name. In the same way as the U.S. president represents the “people,” the Communist Party was sovereign. It claimed legitimacy via the workers and soviets.
Especially as conditions in the USSR deteriorated, in Western Europe, the communist movement adopted a kind of bureaucratic voluntarism that sought to force the pace of revolution internationally. Laying the basis for Stalin’s rise, following Lenin’s illness and death, Zinoviev and other apparatchiks consolidated their control over the various European communist parties, and helped to promote an intellectual culture that regarded any trace of nuance or heterodoxy as a dangerous indulgence at best, or a bourgeois deviation at worst. In short, the workers movement at the time was not capable of encountering or sustaining its own self-consciousness.
In the chapter “The Changing Function of Historical Materialism,” Lukács argues that historical materialism must be applied to itself. In my reading, Lukács’s philosophy of praxis was an incomplete attempt to carry out this program. Nevertheless, you can see why a rising, pragmatic bureaucracy would instinctively distrust a philosophy that demanded Marxism give an account of itself. This was why Zinoviev and his allies — as well as leading Social Democrats — denounced HCC.
Lukács did have a few scattered supporters in the communist movement, including Jószef Révai, Béla Fogarasi and Karl Korsch. The first two were exceptional in that during the 1920s, they were more Lukácsian than Lukács. Later, however, they accommodated to Stalinism and became mediocrities. Meanwhile, Korsch — who always reserved his differences of opinion with Lukács — quit the Communist Party of Germany quite early, in protest over the erosion of democracy.
During the 1930s, it seems clear that Norbert Guterman and Henri Lefebvre read HCC — although they did not say so explicitly, again due to Lukács’s status as a heretic. There’s also evidence that Franz Fanon was influenced by Lukács’s 1920s philosophy. It’s not difficult to see how he transforms Lukács’s idea of the standpoint of the proletariat into the standpoint of a colonized people, of course, with the addition of psychoanalysis that Lukács himself would have rejected.
After World War Two, Lukács found a number of new audiences, most notably among radicals of the 1968 generation. Marshall Berman’s essay “Georg Lukács’s Cosmic Chutzpah” captures his reception among this new generation of radicals very well. However, the enthusiasm of radical students did not result in a “Lukácsian” political movement. The fact that Lukács himself was still alive and vigorously denouncing his own youthful work probably didn’t help.
In the Western far left (including in the Trotskyist, Maoist and Communist movements) Lukács was always seen as a heretic at worst, and as an apocryphal figure at best. Wherever Althusserian Marxism was popular, Lukács was not on the menu de jour. For these scientific, structuralist Marxist scientists cleansed of all subjectivity, Lukács was the petit-bourgeois humanist Marxist par excellence. It has to be said, this tradition did itself a grave disservice in not producing an in depth, critical reading of Lukács. Authors like Stedman Jones, Colletti and Althusser himself instead repeated cliches dating back to the Frankfurt School and, before them, to the official Communist and Social Democratic critiques of Lukács.
My favourite example of hyper-critical Trotskyist readings of Lukács is a pamphlet produced by a group of Chicago surrealists 1971. The typesetters chose to complement essays with titles like “Georg Lukács and the Pseudo-Marxist Goulash” with charming engravings including ones of Emiliano Zapata, a seal and a dolphin. I’m still not sure if it was a parody, sincere or both.
With respect to those in far left groups who did enjoy Lukács, I’d describe their attitude as follows. Basically, if you’d read enough Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky (or Mao, depending on your tastes), and you were looking for a way to spice up your theoretical life, then you could turn to the party’s approved “additional reading” list and often find Lukács (along with Gramsci and the early Marx). So long as you didn’t drink too deeply from the Hegelian cup, dropping the word “totality” or “reification” in a party meeting was a sure-fire way to generate some intellectual clout.
To be fair, for a few communists — including in the Communist Party of Australia — Lukács became something of a bridge to the New Left. Otherwise, at times, Lukács was especially appealing to Marxists in various sects who needed a theory that could explain the false-consciousness of the proletariat and anticipate the emergence of revolutionary class consciousness, and with it, their tendency’s ultimate historical vindication. What’s interesting about these “revolutionary left” readings of Lukács is that while they wholeheartedly endorse his Bolshevism, they tend to underplay, skip over or mis-read his philosophy.
The Budapest School, of whom Agnes Heller was the leading light, were taught by Lukács and were very much influenced by his late-Marxist work, as well as his pre-Marxist work. But they neatly sidestepped Lukács’s philosophy of praxis, largely as a result of their rejection of his 1920s support for Bolshevism. They were also more interested in his literary and aesthetic theory than his politics.
Perhaps Guy Debord is the single theorist whose work most closely resembles Lukács’s 1920s philosophy, if read at its most messianic. I’m not qualified to comment extensively on this, although I would refer readers to Debord, Time and History by Tom Bunyard.
There has been very little cross-fertilization between Lukács’s philosophy of praxis and other philosophies of praxis. Within Marxism, Gramsci is often regarded as a philosopher of praxis (he does, after all, use the term to refer to historical materialism). But aside from one excellent PhD thesis authored in the 1980s, there has been no in depth consideration of the philosophical affinities and differences between the two. There are other Marxian or Marx-adjacent philosophers of praxis, for example, Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez or Paulo Freire. For the most part, they did not comment extensively on Lukács. So, any lineages, if present, are relatively subterranean. For anyone interested in praxis as a figure of thought, it would be an interesting project to investigate whatever conceptual affinities and genealogies do exist.
The main reason for the poor reception of Lukács’s 1920s work in the 20th century is that among leftist intellectuals, was quickly seen as a dangerous hyper-Leninist Hegelian idealist. This line was repeated by virtually everyone from Habermas to Kołakowski. It really was stultifying. At the same time, there was always a “minority report” on Lukács. The most important text in this heterodox interpretative tradition is Adventures of the Dialectic by Merleau-Ponty, and especially the chapter “Western Marxism.” If I were to recommend just one text on Lukács (aside from my book, of course), it would be that one. Michael Löwy’s political-theoretical biography, Georg Lukács — From Romanticism to Bolshevism is also excellent and helped to clear a space for a mature consideration of Lukács’s thought.
Interestingly, things have begun to turn around in the last decade or so. People still occasionally publish hysterical materialist critiques of Lukács. But now, that side has become the minority. I suspect the end of the cold war and the exhaustion of other Marxisms has helped. So, a greater number of sympathetic and high-quality works on Lukács have come out in the last fifteen years than in the whole 20th century. The key figures in this “Lukács Renaissance” are Andrew Feenberg, Konstantinos Kavoulakos and Richard Westerman. Broadly speaking, these authors read Lukács in light of his neo-Kantian inheritance.
There’s more to be said, of course — I give a more detailed account of History and Class Consciousness’ fate in the introduction to my book. I also counter the anti-Lukács polemics in the course of reconstructing his philosophy, while citing the authors with whom I partly agree.
I will say one last thing on this topic: I think it’s impossible, politically, to be an orthodox 1920s-style Lukácsian. It’s conceivable, of course, that one might develop a political-strategic schematic based on his 1920s writing. However, that necessitates one of two paths: either you must build a nostalgic political philosophy that amounts to “the Russian Revolution will rise again.” Or, alternately, you must extract a Lukácsian political methodology to be applied in a different historical context. But both of these strategies are inadmissible to Lukács of the 1920s. He would regard the former as sectarian, dogmatic idealism. And he’d see the latter as relativist and eclectic, given that a revolutionary political methodology must be built in light of a concrete historical situation, in part by overcoming the abstraction of theory prior to praxis.
Philosophically, Lukács’s position from the 1920s is also unstable. This is why, in my view, you can only really develop it in about three or maybe four directions. Firstly, you could follow Lukács himself and shift towards a more orthodox Marxist position. This requires discarding the full importance he accorded to the concept of praxis. Secondly, you could follow Benjamin and develop a critical philosophy that trades Lukács’s Hegelian rigour for a messianic aesthetic, perhaps with the help of Nietzsche. Thirdly, you could develop Lukács’s philosophy of praxis in a methodological direction — which, I think, turns it into a variety of radical Kantianism. For all the problems with Adorno’s explicit critique of Lukács, I think he takes most seriously the problem raised by the defeat of praxis and subsequent estrangement between theory and praxis. I have in mind texts like Marginalia to Theory and Praxis or Resignation.
Finally, if Lukács tried to “out-Hegel Marx,” (as he said of himself) then it must also be possible to “out-Hegel Lukács.” That’s what I tried to do in my book. For me, Lukács’s philosophy can only be comprehended rationally from the standpoint of speculative philosophy. This necessitates an immanent critique of Lukács which de-reifies his thought not by reference to some emergent praxis, but by way of speculative criticism. I see this as a contribution towards the “reformation of Marxism” that Gillian Rose called for.
2. Your book Lukács: Praxis and the Absolute maintains that Lukács’s philosophy of praxis should “be read as a theoretical totality, in which the parts are illuminated by and organically give rise to the whole” (p. 39). However, the book also claims that the elder Lukács’s self-criticism (the Lukács of the 1967 Preface) should be refuted (p. 41) because it is “based on a one sided reading of his own philosophy of praxis” (p. 98).
If we are to grasp Lukács oeuvre as a theoretical totality, wouldn’t it be more Hegelian to embrace, rather than exclude, the negativity that the 1967 Preface represents within the Lukácsian theory of praxis? Put differently, what if we understand the 1967 Preface as a contradictory yet fundamental aspect of Lukács’s thought, so that we remain faithful to the Hegelianism of History and Class Consciousness, especially where Lukács maintains that theoretical contradictions “are not a sign of the imperfect understanding of society; on the contrary, they belong to the nature of reality itself and to the nature of capitalism” (HCC: p. 10)?
I disagree that it’s necessary to embrace the elder Lukács’s own self-criticism as the necessary immanent development of his 1920s philosophy. This is why I didn’t read his oeuvre as a theoretical totality, but instead focused on his 1920s work.
I think this is justified for two reasons, one historical and one philosophical. Historically speaking, Lukács was one of those philosophers who radically rejected his early work every few decades — no doubt the result of the sweeping and radical historical events he lived through (not to mention his melancholic temperament, his willingness to subsume himself under the other and his talent for very sincere self-criticism.)
The period in which Lukács developed a philosophy of praxis was bookended, on the one side, with his conversion to Marxism (announced in the essay “Tactics and Ethics”) and on the other, with his self-criticism following the defeat and condemnation of “The Blum Theses,” his 1928 programmatic intervention into the Hungarian Communist Party.
But Lukács was never a cynic; he was closer to what Georg Simmel described as a “sanguine enthusiast.” So, while his intellectual shift in the 1930s undoubtedly took place under duress and in a spirit of accommodation, he also felt the need to genuinely comprehend and work through the intellectual limits of his early Marxism. In the 1920s, the concept of praxis was at the apex of his philosophical system and informed all of its elements. After the 1930s, Lukács replaced praxis with Marx’s critique of political economy. This is why he focuses in depth on Marx’s early engagement with political economy in The Young Hegel. This isn’t to denigrate this or other works from the last half of Lukács’s career, but rather to point out the key theoretical differences.
Now, it might be suggested that that move was the necessary outcome of Lukács’s 1920s philosophy. This implies, however, that the immanent development of a philosophical position must, by logical necessity, travel down a set path. This is a wrong presupposition. Theorists can evolve in all sorts of directions over time, and we all have a degree of choice in which paths to take. And some paths are worse than others. For example, you may well think that Trotky’s History of the Russian Revolution is a wonderful book — I do. But must we also embrace the “The Transitional Program” of 1938 in all of its grandiose sectarian excesses? Additionally, no theory is univalent and no theorist’s intellectual development is perfectly internally coherent. One theoretical position can therefore generate a number of possible pathways.
This gets to my philosophical point. Just as we can never fully know ourselves, the other or the social totality, no theorist ever understands the full truth of their own work. Everyone who has written something has had the strange experience of seeing the piece you’re working on transform as you work. This is also because no idea starts its life complete. One often discovers occluded aspects of one’s own idea while trying to express it. And after you’ve published something, it then confronts you as an objective artefact; the echo of your thought from an earlier time. Perhaps you agree with it, perhaps you don’t. But the gap is undeniable.
This problem recurs in a different form when we encounter someone else’s work. To put it in the Hegelian (or Kantian) parlance, when we read a book, we come to know it for us. But there still remains an in itself. However, texts themselves don’t change. They are still and silent and their words remain the same decade after decade. And yet, miraculously, every decade, someone finds something new in Lukács — or, for that matter, in Marx and Plato. What, then, can account for the hidden depths that can be found in a text? Quite simply, the meanings of texts are revealed by living and thinking readers, who are situated in their own historical context. After all, every reading is conducted from the vantage point of the present, whether this is acknowledged by the author or not. This gap between text and reader is where the work of the negative can be undertaken.
The method of speculative criticism demands we read a work (or works) wholly, that is, by discerning an inner logical structure to the work that illuminates all of its parts. And by discovering the aporias in a work, we can discover an occluded substratum within it that is both historical and speaks to the author’s blind spots. And to do so honestly, we must account for our own viewpoint — how else could we see a truth in a text that was hidden to the author and her or his earlier readers? The existence of these problems means we are entirely within our rights to differ with Lukács’s later development or self-criticism. And even if we do agree with his later philosophy, to see it as the necessary outcome of his 1920s work is to dogmatically impute one possible meaning into a work that evidently bears many.
This said, it’s not a case of “it’s on for young and old.” To criticise well, we need to practice a fidelity to the text. Indeed, developing a new reading of an old philosophy can take the form of an intellectual crisis. To cite an example from when I was writing my book, I began by trying to reproduce an “orthodox Lukácsian” position. About halfway through, I realised that I’d backed myself into a very schematic and ultimately nihilistic position. Praxis became the “night in which all cows are black.” Or, to put it a little differently, if you believe in yourself, there’s really no objection to the philosophy of praxis that can’t be overcome by yet another rearticulation of praxis, of course, with this or that modification. It’s a kind of philosophical sectarianism.
Now I may well have simply discarded Lukács’s concept of praxis at that point. Or, I could have sought a more robust concept of praxis elsewhere. Instead, I chose to develop one particular immanent path that exists within Lukács’s philosophy of praxis — namely, the Hegelian path. As I argue, this is grounded in Lukács’s philosophy. He was, after all, the most important Hegelian Marxist of the 20th century. But developing this element in Lukács took his position beyond itself, and certainly beyond the way in which Lukács understood his own position.
To put it again in Hegelian terms, these problems represent theoretical encounters with absolute negativity. One can attempt to overcome the lacunae within Lukács’s philosophy of praxis via dogmatic positivity — but that simply means the problem will be posed elsewhere, in less rational form. Instead, in Hegelian philosophy, absolute negativity is overcome by determinate negativity — and this movement makes possible development of a new, positive truth. So, to get out of the bind I’d constructed for myself, I had to discover the determinate conceptual contradiction that led to a nihilistic position. In my view, the problem was bound up with contradictions internal to Lukács’s concept of praxis.
This is why I agree with the quote embedded in the question, that “theoretical contradictions ‘are not a sign of the imperfect understanding of society; on the contrary, they belong to the nature of reality itself and to the nature of capitalism.’” Because our present is contradictory and changing, and because society can never be fully known to itself (or to us), we will always discover new problems in old texts (of course, provided they are of sufficient quality). Philosophically, this is why it’s methodologically rational and consistent to distance ourselves from the elder Lukács’s self-criticism.
Of course, this does demand that I demonstrate why the elder Lukács was wrong about himself. In short, the elder Lukács argues that his younger self had conflated reification and objectification and, in so doing, obscured the concept of labour. This just isn’t true, textually, as I demonstrate in Chapter Three. Lukács also accused his younger self of voluntarism. But this forgets that his 1920s philosophy was a systematic attempt to overcome the bureaucratic voluntarism of European communists like Béla Kun. Why did Lukács make these mistakes? Well, he was badly burned by the failure of his political career. And also, living in the USSR was a hell of a thing. I think it’s to his credit that he sought to honestly overcome the limits of his earlier position. I just don’t find his solution very compelling.
3. How should we interpret the category of totality in History and Class Consciousness, considering the relations between the totality and its parts in the context of the contemporary moment of global capitalism?
This is a difficult question that partly calls for a totalising analysis of the present historical moment that’s probably beyond the scope of a Q&A. I might touch on this briefly towards the end, but first, there’s plenty to be said about Lukács’s concept of totality.
In his analysis, the social totality under capitalism is governed by an economic logic which colonises other spheres of society — for example, law, culture, interpersonal relationships, politics, etc. Still, his theory has very little in common with crude analyses of the “superstructure” that reduce other areas of life to economics. For Lukács, every sphere of the social totality has a determinate logic that is also conditioned by historical conjunctures. For example, the legal system demands internal coherence and gives rise to a demand for justice — and in many ways, this means the law can come into conflict with the blunt economic imperatives that helped create the rational, modern legal system. And this does not mean that all legal systems under capitalism are equal. A legal system based on British colonial law, and founded on Terra Nullius is a worse legal system than one which legally recognizes Indigenous sovereignty, although both are possible under capitalism.
This also suggests the social totality isn’t a monolithic whole; it’s inherently fractured in a number of ways. Lukács outlines a few such fractures. They include a contradiction between parts and the whole. For instance, a whole economy may badly disrupt a particular economic sector. Or, the family, the site in which labour power is generated and regenerated, may begin to break down in light of economic developments or social crises. There are also contradictions that can play out internally to the different spheres of the social totality. For example, I would suggest that the social institution of nature is presently in deep crisis. Climate change is revealing a crisis between the conception of nature instituted by capitalism and nature itself. And lastly there are contradictions within the overall economic logic of the social totality — namely, economic crises.
So, Lukács’s picture of totality is inherently dissonant and lends itself well to a theory of multiple overlaid but non-identical structures. Additionally, he categorically rejects the idea that the economic totality can be known completely. In fact, he notes that the assumption that economic laws can be fully known grows on the basis of the apparent rationality of the market — and that it conceals the reified and irrational logic of the market. This is why he rejected, for example, Bukarin’s textbook on Historical Materialism. Bukharin insisted that comprehensively collected statistics may allow us to know social laws completely. Lukács argued that this is a utopia that uncritically reproduces a basically bourgeois methodology. Fascinatingly, in the essay on “The Standpoint of the Proletariat,” he even argues that the full derivations of the concept of capital (including speculative capital, etc.) will only be understood under Communism. This, I note, has not discouraged a few generations of Marxist political-economists.
In short, Lukács knew his Max Weber and his Georg Simmel well. So, instead of proposing a schematic, closed totality, he speaks of an “aspiration towards totality.” In a sense, then, the idea of “totality” is a real abstraction. Clearly, there is a totalising logic to the world system. But for Lukács, we can only approach a more concrete picture of the totality insofar as there’s a crisis that exposes the really existing mediations between the parts and the whole, and insofar as the workers’ movement is in a position to consciously alter the social totality. To grasp the totality concretely, Lukács argues that a totalising subject is required. This is why a general strike or a workers council is so important for him. These forms of struggle entail socially and economically grounded practices which transcend the economic class struggle and by exercising political hegemony within the social totality, could come to know the totality in a way that goes far beyond what theory alone is capable of. I discuss this more in Chapters Two and Three of my book.
As for today, I would say the social totality has changed considerably. But this is also where Lukácsian Marxism still has a lot to offer. In Lukács’s day, the economic contradiction in the social totality manifested primarily in World War One. This opened space for a number of secondary contradictions — for example, national liberation movements, the agrarian question, the crisis of politics, a cultural crisis, and so on.
Today, as I suggested above, it seems to me that what Lukács called “second nature” (following Hegel and others) is in crisis. The distinctive feature of this crisis is that while WWI threatened European civilization, and human life on a vast scale, the ecological crisis threatens to eradicate life on Earth as such, or at least, to so radically transform the planet that most existing life will be extinguished.
Additionally, there’s a crisis of hegemony in the western world: neoliberalism must be replaced, but no one has yet assembled a hegemonic coalition with a project that can institute a new form of capitalism or, for that matter, socialism.
I’m sure there’s much more to be said. But then, I see myself as working within a more Hegelian paradigm than a Lukácsian Marxist one. So while I think that production is governed by an economic logic, and this clearly impacts on other spheres in determinate ways, I think those other spheres have their own internal logics. Insofar as I would posit a logic that transcends these various spheres, I would probably call it World Spirit, which I see as something like a historical totality of totalities.
4. In the focus on ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, Lukács makes an important distinction (HCC: pp. 167-8) between: 1) capitalist production where a dialectic prevails between social existence and consciousness in the worker, which forces subjectivity beyond mere immediacy so as to comprehend social existence as a commodity producing self-knowledge; and 2) precapitalist societies, for instance based on slavery, where direct extra-economic power prevents labourers from achieving clarity about their social position.
But how much does this bifurcation stand up to historical scrutiny when we consider something as obvious as revolts against slavery, for instance in the San Domingo revolution of 1792?
Well, firstly I think that Haitian slavery should be distinguished from antique slavery. It was driven by commercial capitalism. And the Haitian Revolution was directly and self-consciously inspired by the Great French Revolution. Toussaint L’Overture was both the Robespierre of Haiti and, in important respects, carried the emancipatory logic of the French Revolution far further than the Jacobins or other radical factions in Paris.
But then the same question could be posed with any number of pre-modern rebellions, for example, the one that Spartacus led against the Roman Republic. Now, nothing in Lukács’s theory precludes revolution, resistance and class struggle prior to capitalism. For example, he understood well the importance of what Marxists usually call the bourgeois revolutions. But he would have agreed with the classical Marxist view that these revolutions were incapable of generating a self-knowing society that could once and for all end class domination and de-reify the social forms that dominate us.
Historically speaking, this is a closed question — no historic rebellion or revolution has yet created a free, self-aware, non-exploitative and de-reifying society. After Toussaint L’Overture came Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who we might cheekily describe as the Napoleon of Haiti. I’m sure anyone who’s part of the contemporary left will delight in Dessalines’ military triumphs over the French, Spanish, Americans and others. Without Dessalines, it’s doubtful that slavery would have been abolished in Haiti. And I don’t shed many tears over the expulsion of whites from Haiti. But it’s no disservice to His Imperial Majesty, Jacques I the First Emperor of Haiti to suggest that he may not have created an autonomous communist society.
In suggesting that capitalism makes possible a socialist revolution, and that this is to be led by the subject-object of history, the modern proletariat, Lukács did not invite us to disdain previous revolutions — or, indeed, modern revolutions that are not led by the proletariat. Rather, he believed that capitalism, for the first time, universalises the logic of commodity production to the whole of society. He argued that this meant that capitalism makes it possible, for the first time in history, to grasp the truth of history. Of course, prior to capitalism classes existed and struggled against each other — but their existence, their self-conceptions and their forms of organisation were not purely economic, but interlaced with other social and cultural forms that prevented the emergence of class consciousness.
The bourgeoisie, in Lukács’s view, is far too dependent on the economic form of its domination to develop a non-contradictory class consciousness. The working class, however, is reduced to a pure economic object. This is an inhuman and intolerable condition, as is slavery. But the key difference is that the worker owns their own labour power; a slave does not. The fate of the salve is undoubtedly more brutal — but suffering does not usually lead to consciousness. A worker, on the other hand, by selling their labour power for a wage becomes an agent in their own exploitation. This, paradoxically, gives the worker a freedom and capacity for collective organisation that, in Lukács’s view, goes beyond what was possible in pre-modern, slave revolts (or, for that matter, peasant revolts, revolutions led by non-conformist sects, etc.)
None of this discounts forms of power that are not directly economic. But he did argue that the working class is uniquely situated to develop a totalising class consciousness that can grasp the connections between economics and politics and, in so doing, create a self-knowing, free and emancipated society. And to do this, Lukács argued that the working class must also liberate other oppressed groups. This was Marxist orthodoxy at the time.
Now, obviously enough, this vision didn’t work out. One or two failures may be coincidental — but after a century of failure, I think we have to fault the theory. So I don’t defend Lukacs’s position. I think part of the issue is that an emancipatory social consciousness must be formed and actualized on the level of politics. Classes — as well as any other social group — can only achieve political consciousness and power via organisation. Organisations such as parties may well claim to represent the working class — or other groups; the nation, a community, etc. — but they can never do so completely or purely. This is something that the socialist and communist parties of Lukács’s day did not acknowledge or understand well, with a few honourable exceptions, including Rosa Luxemburg.
The social democratic parties aspired towards a unity of the class and party. In their view, the party would organise the entire working class and become synonymous with it. This concealed the domination of parliamentary representatives and trade union bureaucrats. Bolshevism, by contrast, claimed to represent the pure consciousness of the proletariat organised in a vanguard. Clearly, the Bolsheviks did enjoy enormous working class support, which is why they were able to lead the Russian Revolution and take steps towards the emancipation of non-working class groups, including oppressed nationalities, religious groups, women, peasants and so on.
But even if a party does genuinely represent the consciousness of the working class one day, there’s no guarantee it will do so tomorrow or the day after. In my view, this is because there always a constitutive gap between the party and the social group it purports to represent. And if this gap becomes pernicious — if a workers’ party, in power, ceases to represent workers — then there are really only two options. The first is for the party to dominate politics in the name of a class it no longer represents, and exclude other parties. The result is, obviously, a bureaucratic dictatorship. And to be clear, I’m not sure that anything better was possible in Russia after 1917; after all, the whole nation was pulverized, and every other party eventually lent material support to the counter-revolution. This is part of the tragedy of the Russian Revolution. But then, this is only a difficulty if we look to the past for a perfect model of emancipatory politics. To do so assumes that the present is a flat repetition of the past — a classically conservative view of history.
The only other option is a more rigorously democratic form of socialism. If a workers’ party acknowledges that it represents its constituents without claiming an absolute monopoly over them, it acknowledges that it may also fail to represent its constituents. And should that happen, the party deserves to lose power to another party that better represents the members of that polity. And although I’m convinced that the working class is the necessary social basis for socialist politics, I don’t agree that all politics must be subsumed under working class politics. There can and should be other parties representing different strata of society. In a society that is not predicated on exploitation and oppression, therefore, politics can become what it should be: an agonistic sphere in which social groups contest, via political organisation, representation, leadership, alliances and coalitions, to determine the legal and political frameworks under which we live.
5. What is/are the quality/qualities of the break with capitalist totality, for Lukács? That is, what is the substance of this break? And from whence does it come?
The political forms that Lukács envisaged for a socialist revolution were generalised from the experience of the Russian Revolution and, to a lesser extent, from the experience of the Hungarian and German Revolutions. He believed that soviets should form themselves into a state that would begin the work of ending capitalism. It’s important to stress here that Lukács advocated for a radically democratic relationship between party and class; arguably, a relationship that never really existed, except perhaps in the high-points of revolution. In the classical Marxist narratives of the Russian Revolution, the perspective of the party is higher than that of the class. But in Lukács — as Merleau-Ponty grasps admirably in “Western Marxism” — the class is higher than the party.
As for the historical and conceptual content that Lukács argued characterised the break with capitalism, he argued that the revolution must be the “free choice” of the working class. In fact, he suggested that this represents, for the first time, the victory of freedom over necessity in history. He didn’t think this would create an absolutely free society, but rather, one in which the dominant social logic tends towards freedom. This is also the conceptual significance of his concept of praxis.
Praxis is one of those words that seems to mean anything to anyone. You may give a lecture in the morning, attend a reading group in the afternoon and go to a demonstration in the evening — and if you are so inclined, you could describe each as “praxis.” After all, all doing involves thinking. But for Lukács, there was an interlocking and dialectical hierarchy of the forms of praxis. The most immediate form of working class praxis may be a strike. But strikes don’t necessarily rise to the level of political or theoretical consciousness (although strikers, clearly, do have theoretical and political ideas.) The highest form of praxis, for Lukács, is the conscious political practice of the working class, led by a party it has freely chosen, in seizing power and overthrowing capitalism.
This form of praxis, for Lukács, has an enormous historical and philosophical significance. He approaches this via his famous discussion of the “Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought.” The contradiction he discerns in German Idealism can be summarised as that between “logic” and “genesis.” Genesis refers to the historical development of new contents of life. Logic refers to the interconnections between these contents of life and the forms in which they are understood. To give you an example, in Lukács’s account, the historical development of capitalism created the commodity as a social form — and then Marx understood this social form logically, in Capital.
Lukács aspired towards uniting logic and genesis in theory. In Hegelian philosophy, the absolute unites logic and genesis, and the task of philosophy is to develop an absolute method (or, the practice of absolute knowing) that can grasp this unity after the fact. Lukács was dissatisfied with this. He argued that Hegelian philosophy conceals a contradiction: on one hand, Hegel created a vast, dialectical system of logical categories that strained towards the dynamism of history; of genesis. But, on the other hand, absent a collective subject that could know history while it makes history, Lukács argued that Hegelian philosophy devolved into an abstract logical schematic. The problem with this, Lukács argued, is that it creates a philosophy that blocks our knowledge of the new, or subsumes the new under a theoretical system inherited from the past. As a consequence, when the new does emerge in history, it seems irrational and violent.
Communist praxis, for Lukács, overcomes this problem by transcending theory as such, by way of praxis. So, communist praxis simultaneously creates the historical new while knowing that it is doing so. This is why he sees communism as the world-historic victory of consciousness over blind necessity. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean a world in which everything is always known already. But it does suggest a society whose fundamental social logic pushes towards de-reifying the social forms that it institutes for itself. Lukács’s attitude towards science is a good case in point of what he had in mind. He didn’t advocate for abolishing “bourgeois” science. But he did argue that science must become aware of the social basis of its method and categories, in order to develop more rationally.
The essential difference between capitalism and communism, for Lukács, is that the former represents the blind domination of economic logic. Communism would not abolish economics, but rather would render economic forms subordinate to human needs. And Lukács was also quite clear about what he thought the telos of communism should be: culture, grounded in an ethic of love and mutual recognition. For my part, I largely agree with this vision. But I do think Lukács expects far too much of praxis, and in so doing, he mythologizes it.
6. To what extent would you agree with Moishe Postone in Time, Labor and Social Domination that Lukács delivers a sophisticated social critique from the standpoint of “labour” that remains within the framework of the subject-object problematic?
Lukács’s breakthrough clearly echoed in the work of Isaak Illich Rubin, Alfred Sohn-Rethel and other Marxists whose work later inspired that of Postone and the other value-form Marxists. But despite this, it’s quite common for authors associated with that tradition to dismiss Lukács as a proponent of “traditional Marxism.”
As I argue in my book, I think Lukács developed a political theology of Bolshevism, and this entailed a mythologization of the proletariat that, ultimately, necessitates an insufficiently critical standpoint of labour. So in this regard, I agree with Postone’s critique of Lukács.
But I think there are two problems with the way that Postone handles the critique. The first is the simplest. Postone simply doesn’t see much value in Lukács. Like so many other critics, he skips over Lukács’s very extensive attempt to produce a critical Marxism. This is related to the second issue I take with Postone. Curiously, the value-form Marxists are least articulate when it comes to politics and, more generally, the political forms by which an emancipatory, anti-capitalist social consciousness may arise. Different value-form Marxists suggest different answers to this question, and I engage with a few in my book. For example, John Holloway is attracted to revolutionary practices that either exist within the interstices of capitalism (i.e., the Zapatistas) or that absolutely reject it — the scream. Neither of these answers have aged very well. I’m more sympathetic to Neil Larsen, who proposes that society must become subject. But even so, his proposal isn’t very well developed.
The great political value in Lukács’s work, notwithstanding the shortcomings I have pointed to, is that he attempts to chart the complex chain of mediations whereby an emancipatory political consciousness can emerge in practice. Ultimately, I don’t think he’s successful. But his failure is a productive one because it can open the way for an immanent critique of the political theology of the proletariat. This can help us to de-reify the concept of labour, contributing towards a critical Marxism. But more importantly, I think it can lay the basis for critical Marxism — or, a kind of Marxist Hegelianism (as opposed to Hegelian Marxism) that could develop a critical Marxist politics.
I have already touched on what this might look like, to some extent. But to say a little more, I think a critical Marxist politics must refuse to premise socialism on a mythologised concept of the proletariat (or, for that matter, any other social group or concept). I’m not advocating for a turn away from the working class — in a capitalist political economy, the left will only win if we build a working class movement that can exert power.
Instead, what I’m suggesting is that by fetishizing the working class, the left blinds itself to the truth of its own project, which is predominantly a political project that draws its logic from the forms of bourgeois politics. When the left romanticises or fetishizes the working class via the standpoint of the proletariat, it is representing the truth of the left’s own project in an estranged, politically theological form. This means that there’s an aspect to what we’re saying and doing that we don’t understand.
Instead, I think the self-consciousness of the proletariat must give way to the self-consciousness of the socialist movement. My view is that socialism represents the political utopianism of capitalism turned against actually existing capitalism. If we can build a left that can realise this, then when we get a shot at political power, maybe we will use it well, rather than being used by it. And of course, to do this, we will need to rebuild a left with deep roots in the workers’ movement, not to mention other groups who have an interest in overcoming capitalism. However, by passing over Lukács’s failed attempt to develop a self-critical Marxist politics, I think Postone and other value-form Marxists miss an opportunity to study the political form of emancipation from capitalism. Yes, capital is subject — but surely the point is that capital should not be the subject. And surely, ending the reign of capital as subject means replacing it with another, freer and more rational form of social subjectivity. This is a political question.
7. To what degree does Lukács reduce the revolutionary subject to a pre-constituted proletarian (and specifically the industrial worker) and is it necessary to reconfigure his assessment of the agency for change in light of contemporary conditions and debates?
I’ve already responded to this question to some extent, but there are a few more comments to be made. Firstly, to reiterate, yes, I do think Lukács tends to reduce the revolutionary subject to a pre-constituted proletarian. But he does not exclude other social strata or impose a monolithic or overly simple view of the proletariat. In fact, his political experience in the Hungarian Revolution, in leading the Hungarian Communist Party from exile, during the 1920s, and his political interventions into the European communist movement pushed sharply in the other direction. He always emphasised the need for deep, concrete attention to lived realities. This was partly why he proposed a radically democratic model of the party. His book Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought is excellent on these questions, if you can get past the ultra-Bolshevik rhetoric.
As for the situation today, well, I am rather sceptical of theories that suggest some other absolute subject-object of history — say post-colonial nations. That kind of approach seems increasingly dated. I’m also sceptical of theories that suggest multiple subject-objects. They seem eclectic. After all, if we are talking about a socialist transformation, then multiple subject-objects will have to be united behind one project.
In a sense, I think part of the problem is the framing of the question. At its most basic, the idea of a “subject-object” refers to a social organisation of people that can think and act in a way that transcends the capacity of each individual member. A trade union is a subject-object, in this sense, although often not a particularly conscious one. So is a party, as is a neighbourhood organisation, a campaign committee, a corporation and so on.
Of course, these social forms aren’t all equal. But the goal is an autonomous social totality in which we freely institute the forms that govern life, be they economic, legal, political or whatever. Well, surely this will involve many different social groups — and many subject-objects. But what, then, unifies the process? Capitalism derives its power from the domination of the economy, and this is the key to its political power, although in saying this, I note that bourgeois political power is just as active in creating the economic conditions required to preserve this power. Given this, I don’t see much possibility for a socialist transformation without the working class. But at the same time, I don’t think the working class has ever been or will ever be an absolute subject-object. The socialist transformation will have to construct a new hegemonic bloc that will incorporate many different social groups, some of which will not organise primarily as workers. The overarching logic, I think, will be a political logic — and it must be one that makes space for different social actors. In a sense, I see the socialist transformation as completing the promise of modern politics. This is why I’m sympathetic to Larsen’s proposal about society as subject.
Now, things have definitely changed since Lukács’s time. There hasn’t been something resembling a Soviet for more than 40 years. On the other hand, there is a revival of socialist consciousness around the western world. But at this stage, it’s primarily political, and not closely linked to class struggle. And concurrently, we’re living through a crisis of hegemony and have witnessed the emergence of other movements — Black Lives Matter, for example — that don’t exhibit a clear-cut class logic.
And at any rate, every historic left tradition and project has failed. This doesn’t mean that the various left traditions are valueless, although some are clearly less valuable than others. Rather, I think this situation demands a degree of modesty. I don’t think anyone can anticipate the economic, political and social forms the socialist transformation will take. This doesn’t mean there are no answers, however. Rebuilding the left into a politically powerful movement and rebuilding workers’ industrial organisation are both very good ideas, as is supporting other radical movements. But these are partial answers and are obviously context dependent.
Articulating further answers is where Lukács’s emphasis on transformative practice can help. The unfolding practice of economic and political class struggle, for Lukács, makes it possible to revolutionize our theory while we participate in the movement of history. Practice, as the socialist refrain goes, often runs ahead of theory. In this sense, social struggles will reveal what has and hasn’t changed about our world. Prior to that, our analyses and programmatic proposals are, at best, hypotheses.
But if we do our homework well, we can test these hypotheses. And those theorists with a more acute insight, if they can connect with organisations and struggles, may play a role in shaping the polyvalent truth of history as we make it. In fact, this is crucial. The left will only win if we develop a clearer and more accurate view of the historical present than the bourgeoisie. And to do this, we need to free ourselves from dogmatic answers that task one absolute subject-object with the work of emancipation. In fact, these types of answers usually reveal more about those who propose them than they do history itself.
8. If we are to pursue a socio-ecological reading of History and Class Consciousness, how would you position ‘nature’ in relation to the ‘totality,’ in light of Lukács’ statement that: ‘the question whether in any given society a direct confrontation with nature is at all possible is one that can only be answered from within historical materialism’ (HCC: p. 234)?
Lukács has been accused many times of reducing nature to society — but this is a shockingly crude, light-minded misreading. He responded to this mischaracterisation in the Defence of History and Class Consciousness, where he sets out the most comprehensive account of nature and natural science he gave in the 1920s.
I respond to the mischaracterisations of Lukács on nature and natural science in Chapter Four of my book. I draw extensively on Andrew Feenberg’s work, which is excellent on this topic. Lukács’s position, as I understand it, is as follows. Our understanding of nature is, in the first place, socially determined — but this does not suggest that nature is reducible to society. Each historic form of society creates a different relationship with nature, and within these frameworks, we do encounter nature, but not in a way that is “pure” or devoid of traces of the conceptual framework we have inherited. For example, in the middle ages and, to some extent, during the Renaissance, nature was viewed in far more religious terms than it is today. Accordingly, creation was ranked in accordance with a divine order, with animals like snakes at the bottom, regal animals like lions higher up, and with different ranks of humans at the top, underneath saints, angels and God. Clearly, we don’t think like that anymore — and the shift didn’t come about because someone wandered outside the city walls and took a good long look at nature.
The essential difference, for Lukács, between capitalism and pre-capitalist modes of production is that capitalism, for the first time, establishes the dominance of society over nature. This is clearly not to say that we control nature completely. But rather, we are freed, relatively speaking, from natural rhythms like seasons or weather patterns. The logic of the social totality is now the dominant force structuring our lives and our interaction with nature.
This social logic is predicated on the way of life of the capitalist class which, as it becomes hegemonic, takes on a natural appearance. This is, incidentally, why bourgeois ideology has a strong naturalistic bent. As commodity production and exchange and the legal and political frameworks that construct them are universalised, they take on a natural appearance; in this way, society becomes a “second nature.” Hence, therefore, theories of natural law, human nature, and so on. Capitalism naturalises itself.
Beyond this, because commodity exchange is mediated by money and is geared towards the accumulation of capital, capitalism also cultivates a more abstract and formal relationship towards people and objects, including natural ones. So, natural resources are abstracted from their overall ecosystem and commodified. This, in addition to the exigencies of competition, makes capitalism a far more scientific system than any before it — thus the close relationship between the Enlightenment and natural science. It’s also at the core of the destructive logic of extractive capitalism. Ecosystems are profoundly interconnected totalities; to extract one element of an ecosystem often harms the whole badly.
So while natural science allows us to understand natural phenomena in a much deeper way, it also alienates us from nature and leads us to perceive natural objects and patterns in a fragmentary and reified manner. This was the first view of nature that Lukács identified — we could call it a kind of instrumentally rational approach to nature. However, he argued that this gives rise to a second, romantic view of nature, as a primal and immediately qualitative totality. Fascinatingly, Lukács uses the example of landscape painting to illustrate this. Landscape painting only becomes possible when we are removed from nature. This is to say, in proportion to our alienation from nature, we also begin to dream of a return to nature. Often such views of nature are burdened with a colonial imagination that fetishizes pre-modern peoples as having a more wholistic and spiritual connection with nature. Of course, it’s true that scientific modernity de-spiritualises nature — but the key point here is that the romantic view of nature is equally modern; it’s the flipside of the former view.
This would suggest that an immediate confrontation with nature is not possible; our interactions with nature are always mediated by the social and cultural forms within which we find ourselves. I would argue that this is just as true for pre-modern peoples as it is under capitalism, although of course, those social and cultural forms may be very different. They may be in some respects superior and in others inferior, although of course, such evaluations also draw on extant social norms.
But this is not to say that there is no knowledge of nature, either today or prior to capitalism. It simply says that the idea of an immediate experience of nature is ideological. And indeed, in a society of systematic alienation and reification, there can emerge a fascination with immediate experience of various sorts. Did Henry David Thoreau experience nature in an unmediated or direct way, or was his naturalism governed by a basically libertarian dislike for the crowd? And anyway, what does “direct” mean, really? Is it any less direct an experience of nature to observe a black hole using an array of radio telescopes?
I would suggest that Lukács has two major points to contribute to contemporary eco-socialism. The first is what I’ve touched on. By helping to critique the naturalism of capitalism (be it of a rationalistic-scientific variety or be it of the romantic variety), Lukács can help eco-socialists avoid technological utopianism on the one hand, and romantic naturalism or primitivism on the other.
The second is point is more radical. If we are able to de-reify society, then it will be possible to de-pathologize our scientific-industrial relationship to nature. This will make it possible to preserve and extend the achievements of science while mitigating their ecologically destructive aspects. And at the same time, this will make it possible to recover and to extend non-scientific modes of encountering nature, including romantic, spiritual, aesthetic and philosophical ones.
9. Lukács develops his “philosophy of praxis” through a critique of the antinomies of bourgeois thought within the philosophical tradition of German Idealism. He justifies his decision to critique this specific philosophical tradition because it is the ideological expression (or “sociological desublimation”, as you refer to it in Lukács: Praxis and the Absolute: pp. 69, 130) of capitalist commodity fetishism and reification.
What is the nature of this privileged stance of German Idealism? And why should we think German Idealism in fact has such a privileged stance vis-à-vis capitalist social relations?
Lukács justifies privileging German Idealism by way of a historical narrative. Essentially, he divides capitalism into three periods: a heroic period, an interregnum and a period of decline and degeneracy. The German Idealists, he argued, emerged in the middle period. They raised the social logic of capitalism to the pinnacle of abstraction, and in so doing, they made capitalism comprehensible theoretically. And yet, because the modern proletariat had not yet emerged, no solution was available to the philosophical contradictions they were concerned with. In Lukács’s view, Hegel came closest to finding a solution to this problem insofar as his philosophy strained towards history and concrete social practices. Nevertheless, Lukács argues that Hegel’s ultimate solution — World Spirit — was mystifying. Hence, in Lukács’s narrative, Marx completes the German Idealist tradition and in so doing, he overthrows it and brings to an end the historic role of philosophy.
This is a fairly common narrative among Marxists and perhaps the clearest expression of it is in Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. There’s a very big downside to this narrative: it leads towards a dismissive attitude towards post-Hegelian philosophy. This is very clearly on display in Lukács’s The Destruction of Reason in which literally every non-Marxist philosopher after Hegel is said to have been in some way an antecedent to fascist irrationalism. I mean, with Heidegger, fair enough. But it’s a bit rough to say Simmel was somehow a stepping stone towards fascism.
Although I am quite invested in Hegelian philosophy, I do not follow Lukács in this argument or in privileging German Idealism as the royal road to philosophical truth. This is because, as I argue in my book, I think there is a hidden philosophical dialogue going on in “The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought.” Lukács’s second interlocutors were neo-Kantian philosophers and social theorists. When Lukács criticises Kant, Fichte, Schiller and Hegel, he is just as much implicitly referring to Windelband, Rickert or Lask, not to mention Max Weber and Georg Simmel and others. Kavoulakos’ work in particular details Lukács’s deep (and deeply critical) relationships with these and other thinkers associated with German academic neo-Kantian philosophy.
But if this is the case, then Lukács’s breakthrough was not conditioned by his engagement with German Idealism alone, but also by his engagement with contemporary philosophy. And this implicitly rehabilitates post-Hegelian philosophy, notwithstanding Lukács’s disdain for his contemporaries.
Beyond this, I part company with Lukács on this topic for three further reasons. Firstly, while I do argue that the praxis of the Russian Revolution was crucial to Lukács’s breakthrough in History and Class Consciousness, as I’ve outlined, I think his concept of praxis was in part mythological. This means that Lukács represented the truth of his philosophy under the sign of praxis. Or, to put it another way, he presented himself as articulating the truth of praxis. He made himself the philosophical spokesperson for praxis, if you like. I think this occludes his own contribution and prevented Lukács from recognizing its essentially philosophical nature.
This was a corollary of his view that philosophy proper had ceased to play a progressive historical role. Although he believed an engagement with philosophy was necessary in order to de-reify Marxist theory, ultimately he thought that philosophy was the highest form of reified thought and that it should be replaced by a self-knowing humanity. Prior to that, Lukács believed that the standpoint of the proletariat — even if articulated crudely — represented a higher truth than the standpoint of philosophy, which was ultimately individualistic and caught between nihilism and relativism. Put simply, Lukács’s philosophy of praxis is an anti-philosophical philosophy; it’s a philosophy that aims at its own overcoming.
My argument is that Lukács’s true value is that he produced an implicitly speculative philosophy that, if understood fully, may open a pathway within Marxism back to Hegelian philosophy proper. Suffice to say, Lukács wouldn’t have liked this reading. But this said, I don’t argue that philosophy — be it Hegelian or otherwise — can replace Marxism or other more directly political social theories. The point of speculative philosophy, as I understand it, is to develop a standpoint that can mediate the antinomies of modern thought and, in so doing, help to raise modern theories, Marxism included, to a more self-conscious and rational level. There is no guarantee within this that it will lead to a better understanding of society or history or to better political practice — although ideally, it may help.
One final point: I follow Gillian Rose’s distinction between dialectical and speculative philosophy, outlined concisely in “From Speculative to Dialectical Thinking: Hegel and Adorno,” collected in Judaism and Modernity. In her view (and in Hegel’s view), the standpoint of speculative philosophy is post-Kantian not because it abolishes the antinomies of Kantian philosophy, but because it grasps a conceptual logic, a method, that can reconcile those antinomies. Reconciliation cannot be finally completed because the condition of our knowing anything is separation and contradiction; we can never close the gaps between self and other, between being and nothing, between is and ought or between theory and practice. But we can reflect on the deep interconnectedness of these antinomic terms and practice a type of thinking that traverses the gap. This is also the work of the negative.
Now if this is true, two things follow. Firstly, the standpoint of speculative philosophy must have a validity that transcends the work of any one philosopher. If, due to some awful disaster (or, for some, a moment of glorious salvation), every one of Hegel’s works disappeared from the world, his philosophical conclusions would still be true. This is because they are grounded in the absolute. And if so, there must be many philosophical pathways to absolute knowing, or, to speculative philosophy. In fact, Lukács himself proves this: he resolved the antinomies of neo-Kantian philosophy in such a way as to produce an implicitly speculative philosophy. If this is true, notwithstanding his obvious debt to German Idealism, it implicitly de-privileges that tradition.
Of course, the absolute is notoriously difficult to pin down — and rightly so, given we are finite. And yet, Hegel and Rose (and Lukács, for that matter) argue that we can know the absolute, indeed, by virtue of our finitude. For Hegel and Rose (but not for Lukács), the key is absolute method. This is where the Science of Logic ends. Absolute method is not the “one weird trick to knowing everything that the Kantians don’t want you to know.” It’s a method that, like any other method, arises from specific contents and that must prove its results.
I think the value of this method, for Marxism, is that it provides a philosophical standpoint outside and above Marxism from within which Marxism might think itself philosophically, that is, critically and freely. This standpoint is not a substitute for Marxist political economy, social theory or political praxis. But it does, I believe, have the potential to help elucidate the aporias and contradictions within Marxism and between antagonistic Marxisms.
In the Book of Revelation, it is said that in the Kingdom of God, children will be able to play next to snake’s nests with no fear. Well, in the Kingdom of Speculative Marxism, the Althusserians and the Lukácsians will be comrades, both camps possessing part of a living truth that flourishes through the mediation of antinomies and in the recognition of the other in difference.
10. In Lukacs’ writing in HCC, especially the essay ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’ (p. 8), the importance of an imaginative engagement with totality sits side by side with a fierce criticism of the dangers of utopian thinking about the future as a straightjacket on genuine revolutionary praxis. Could you talk more about the specific nature of proletarian imagination and its grounding in praxis?
As a question, are the requirements of methodology and revolutionary praxis themselves contradictory?
This is a difficult question because Lukács, as a rather dour fellow, did not accord a particularly important place to the imagination (or the imaginary, as in the philosophy of a later praxis-oriented thinker, like Castoriadis). You could potentially build a concept of the imagination into Lukács, but I think you’d have to acknowledge that you were doing so. Then, I’d suggest paying very close attention to the way he understands labour, art, play (following Schiller) and the “new.”
As I read him, Lukács is quite close to the early Marx in that he understands labour to be fundamentally creative, and as the human faculty that mediates between ourselves, other people and nature. Interestingly, Lukács develops a philosophical concept of labour via his discussion of Schiller’s play instinct, which has an aesthetic dimension that helps to escape the rigid formalism of reified social forms.
Lukács is famously dismissive of philosophies that aestheticize reality or that propose artistic praxis as a solution to reification. Rather, the point of the play instinct is that it redirects his search for a concept that can mediate between form and content (or, in the context of his discussion of Hegel, between logic and genesis) towards labour. Pace Marx, Lukács recognizes that labour is alienated under capitalism — and again, he does tend towards a rather bleak picture in which labour is absolutely unfree and reified under capitalism, and will only become free and human under communism. So while the concept of labour underpins his concept of praxis, the point is for praxis to liberate labour. To do so, it must traverse class struggle on the levels of economics and politics. Perhaps there’s a role for a proletarian imaginary here, in the creativity of the masses or the party. But as the question acknowledges, Lukács’s distrust of utopianism would demand that imagination submit itself to fairly strict tests.
On a broader level, there is a tendency towards closure in Lukács’s philosophy of praxis which is, I think, a corollary of his mythologization of praxis. In short, everything leads towards praxis. And while the path is strictly determined by history, owing to reification, discovering the path towards praxis is both difficult and requires a huge intellectual and political labour that is partly creative. But there isn’t a great deal of room for the imagination; at best, it would be a passing moment.
And yet, Lukács had an imagination. This is why I think there’s a rather fascinating counter-tendency in Lukács’s 1920s philosophy to resist closure, although he does so in a less than rational and often fairly nihilistic manner. What I mean is this: at various points, when he discusses concepts and spheres of meaning like love, nature, culture, religion and philosophy, he suggests that reification excludes the possibility of realising their truth under capitalism. But he won’t discard them — instead, he suggests that we will only appreciate their full significance under communism.
Let’s take love for example. In a speech he gave during the Hungarian Soviet Republic entitled “The Moral Foundations of Communism,” Lukács argues:
… when economic life as well as the problems of life-sustenance cease to play a role in the construction of human existence — when the question arises: what will sustain and bind this new society; what will be the most important content of its members’ lives? This question can only be answered by ethics. The radical extermination of class differences has only a meaning when, with its ouster, everything else that divided human beings from one another, from their mutuality of existence, was also ousted: every anger and hatred and jealousy and every vanity. With one word: when the classless society becomes the society of mutual love and understanding. For this however we must all prepare ourselves inwardly. And, this preparation is so much the more difficult, since we are in the midst of struggle. And while we struggle, the new moral foundation of society, its very base, cannot be established. … On the other hand, if we want to make this class struggle truly victorious, it is necessary that in the moment of victory, this inner preparedness for love be present in everyone; it is necessary that in the instant of genuine termination of class differences … a readiness for a new attitude be present in everyone: for love, understanding and togetherness.
On one level, it’s a beautiful sentiment. On another, it’s quite tragic. And it may have something to do with Lukács’s recently ended, horribly ill-fated affair with the Russian Social Revolutionary fanatic, Ljena Grabenko.
And anyway, just a few years later, Lukács met his second wife, Gertrúd Bortstieber, with whom he remained very much in love until his death. So, according to Lukács’s life, it wasn’t really the case that love could only flourish under communism.
Anyway, as much as Lukács exhibits a tragic, nihilistic and self-contradictory tendency to exclude concepts that can’t be built into his dialectic of praxis, at the same time, he keeps open escape hatches. But the contradiction is this: if experiences of meaning such as love, nature, culture, religious truth and philosophical truth will have their full realization under communism, then we can only anticipate this if they exist, in some form, in the present.
To get beyond this tragic contradiction, in the conclusion to my book, I turn to Bloch’s wonderful review of HCC. Bloch described Lukacs’s view as a “peculiar agnosticism … which is only concerned with the transcendent insofar as the concrete dialectical mediation is ripe to manifest concretely.” Bloch describes Lukács as combining a kind of Calvinist asceticism with a Hegelian historical dialectic. The result is that Lukács strictly defers any investigation of questions aside from praxis until after the triumph of praxis.
But what happens when we consider these transcendent elements of life in light of a critique of Lukács’s absolutization of praxis? If we stop insisting that everything must lead to praxis, we can discover that history is much more, quite apart from all the demands of the omnia ubique, a polyrhythmic structure, and not only the social extraction of a still hidden social humanity, but also the artistic, religious, metaphysical production of the secret transcendental human being is a thinking of being, of a new deep relationship of being. Certainly these various deep relationships and their objects are not sharply delineated from one another, but rather stand in a dialectical exchange, almost ceaselessly intersecting, mixing, merging, establishing the precision of the lower stage of being again and again in the higher one. But with the restriction of homogenisation to purely social matter (which for Lukács governs, despite all the will to totality), one will adequately grasp neither life nor nature nor even those nearly always eccentric contents of the dianoetically related processes of comprehension.
How does this relate to the imagination? Simply put, if we liberate Lukács’s philosophy from the burden of having absolutized the concept of praxis, then not only can we recover it as a philosophy, we can also liberate praxis so that it needn’t solve every problem of human existence, but rather, focus on what it should be good at: transforming human society.
Not only will this open the way for a less dogmatic, more critical and more free concept of praxis, but it might allow us to find spaces within Lukács’s philosophy where the imagination does operate, albeit behind the scenes. After all, without an imagination, how is love possible?
 Claussen, D. Theodore W. Adorno — One Last Genius. London: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 83.
 Rose, G. Hegel Contra Sociology. London: Verso, 2009, p.
 Kavoulakos, K. Georg Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis. London: Bloomsbury, 2018, p. 3.
 Stedman Jones, G. “The Marxism of the Early Lukács” in Western Marxism — A Critical Reader, London: New Left Books, 1977. Colletti, L. Marxism and Hegel, London: New Left Books, 1973. Althusser, L and Balibar, É. Reading Capital, London: New Left Books, 1970.
 See: Rose, G. Hegel Contra Sociology, London: Verso, pp. 234-5.
 I understand my recourse to the absolute won’t be palatable to those who have not drunk the Hegelian cool-aid. I refer sceptical readers to The Phenomenology of Spirit.
 Lukács, G. “The Moral Foundations of Communism”, in Zitta, V. (trans.) Georg Lukács’s Marxism — Revolutoin and Counter Revolution, Querétaro: Hear-Hear, 1991.
 Bloch, E. (trans. Moir, C.) “Actuality and utopia: On Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (1923)” in Thesis Eleven, No. 147, Melbourne: Sage, April 2020.