For the last book of 2020, the Past & Present Reading Group tackled Georg Lukács’ classic, History and Class Consciousness. There was a general sense that although the text remains a critical work for the development of a theory of praxis and for historical materialism more broadly, as well as an important historical document of the political debates of his time, it left us wanting. I found myself wanting to rescue Lukács from his own history and absolute belief in the Party, a program that we, with hindsight, knew would not end well. Despite these drawbacks, questions such as “what is to be done?” and the nature of the gap between a consciousness of objective crisis conditions and revolutionary agency are key and continue to hold relevance today. Moreover, his expansion of conceptions of the state to include ideology; claims of ‘first’ and ‘second’ nature; and the demand of a self-reflective methodology remain critical. So, although we may not always agree with Lukács’ final conclusions, there remains much to be said for the questions he was grappling with.
Of particular interest both historically and methodologically was how, throughout the text, Lukács holds in tension both history and theory. Although there is a continuous sense that key theoretical arguments such as the privileged position of the proletariat and the possibility for rupture are not taken to their logical conclusion and are, instead, brought back or restrained by the political demands of the time, the attempt to do both was refreshing. This was because Lukács was both a theoretician and politician trying to navigate the role of praxis and strategy. The combination made the text as much a political dialogue with his opponents within the Party as it is an important theoretical work in its own right. In its historical context the volume can be read as an argument against the social democratic, or what he terms vulgar and opportune, Marxists in his Party who he saw as committed to bourgeoise forms of organisation, knowledge, and reformism.
As many of us with positions in academia try to navigate political work both inside and outside the academy where our theoretical discussions can appear far removed from the everyday of our political reality, Lukács’ attempts to maintain this dialogue is important. This also gave the text a historical specificity, which highlighted the necessity of reading an author in their context.
Despite the limitations that come with needing to toe a Party line, there are some critical arguments that remain relevant for contemporary discussions. To start, a continuum throughout the text is how historical materialism, rather than bourgeoise science, is the only scientific method that can both show the objective crisis conditions of capitalism and pave a way out. This is primarily because bourgeoise science, according to Lukács, cannot understand the totality. Instead, as a scientific method bourgeois science aims to segregate and atomise in order to make sense of phenomena. Because of this – and in contrast to historical materialism – the internal relations that underpin the totality are obscured. In Lukács’ critique we start to see the arguments for a theory of internal relations and totality develop. Abstract labour that marks capitalism from other social formations demands logics of rationalisation, rationalisation in turn requires segmentation and specialisation, and the bourgeoise scientific method necessarily replicates such segmentation to reinforce the underlying ideology that we began with. The result being that each social relation, process, or crisis tendency appears arbitrarily connected rather than as an organic integrated whole. As Lukács describes it: ‘In the second place, this fragmentation of the object of production necessarily entails the fragmentation of its subject.’ The only totality that can be revealed through such a methodology is one ‘ruled by chance.’ In contrast, the historical materialist method that Lukács develops, and a critical response to his own detractors at the time who were pushing forward the ability to replicate the natural sciences, demands that historical materialism must also be self-reflective.
It is in his critique of bourgeoise knowledge that many of Lukács’ claims reflect the current state of academia where a continued specialisation and siloisation of knowledge obscures the whole, such that the more scientific a discipline, the more closed a system it becomes. The case of economics being one example where economic laws are continually abstracted from their concrete relations and crisis is reduced to quantitative elements divorcing them from qualitative conditions.
A rejection of bourgeoise science rests on the necessity of thinking in totality. What is less clear in the text is how open this totality is. The totality described has the economic at its centre, where the commodity-structure and logics of reification mediate everything else. As such, the structuring conditions of capitalism are present and can be comprehended in each commodity. To cite Lukács:
In brief, from this point of view, the essence of the dialectical method lies in the fact that in every aspect correctly grasped by the dialectic the whole totality is comprehended and that the whole method can be unravelled from every single aspect.
A further interesting point embedded – although not fully explored – within Lukács’ totality of capitalism is Nature. He argues that what marks the capitalist totality as different from previous social formations is the control of Nature through seemingly natural laws of the economy. Where previous social formations were governed by Nature, capitalism is the socialisation of Nature, where natural limits recede, and Nature becomes a ‘social category’. I would have appreciated more exploration of the socio-nature relation and its implications for political strategy. However, and like other claims he makes, there is a tension between the possibility of his argument and the fairly closed conclusions. For example, drawing on his claims of the socialisation of Nature, he concludes that socialisation must take place for communism to emerge, because the process of socialisation enables self-knowledge of humans as social beings, a necessary pre-condition for communism. I am uncomfortable with the underlying fatalism and arguments of progress that such statements make. Moreover, it sits uncomfortably with Lukács’ other claims throughout the text about the lack of immediate reflection of objective crisis conditions with revolutionary action, or put differently the gap between theory and practice.
This tension is also present in his continuous argument for the privileged position of the proletariat and the somewhat closed definition of ‘who’ this subject can be. For Lukács, the bourgeois and worker share the same self-alienation of all parts of life but where they differ is that the capitalist feels at home and confirmed by this position. So, although both are in the same objective conditions it is only the standpoint or mediation that is different for each class. The proletarian standpoint is unique because of its distinctive subject position within these objective conditions as a commodity, or as alienated from its own labour. This standpoint allows for a consciousness of the internal relations and contradictions inherent to the totality. Such consciousness is impossible for the bourgeoisie because their knowledge can only understand reality in fragments and consciousness is individualised, meaning it can never be collective so that to comprehend the totality would mean the death of their own position.
Yet who is the proletariat? It is Lukács’ answer to this that made many of us feel that his political conditions required a certain Party line. For him, the proletariat is a certain idealised form of factory worker. However, thinking through this claim in relation to the necessity for historical conditions and reflexivity made above, it is perhaps possible to argue that his conclusions were reflective of the historical political conditions he was operating within, and that with contemporary conditions, different, contemporary conclusions could be possible. Moreover, if we are to put this overarching question to the side, the issue of standpoints is a critical intervention that can traced throughout much feminist and post-colonial scholarship – different subject positions provide different lenses onto phenomena, each with their own knowledge claims.
Linked to these claims of the proletariat is the importance of the Party and more broadly the necessity of organisation rather than purely spontaneous activity for revolutionary struggle. Again, we see this tension between Lukács the theoretician who is grappling with the gap between self-knowledge of objective conditions – the capacity to understand society in its totality – and radical action, and Lukács the politician who is toeing the Party line. When Lukács states: ‘Organisation is the form of mediation between theory and practice’, it is the Party that mediates. However, like his other political conclusion, if we can put aside our knowledge of what the Party he is talking about was in the process of becoming, and instead take the Party as a synonym for organisation there may be something to be rescued within these claims. He dismisses Rosa Luxemburg’s position on the relation between spontaneous mass activity and class consciousness, arguing instead that the transformation of a crisis into a crisis for capitalist reproduction depends on the proletariat moving from passive object of crisis to its subject, a transformation dependent upon organisation. It is organisation that allows for violence not only to be destructive but also productive of the new in the process of tearing down the old. Furthermore, opportunism can only be countered if the organisational form is designed to counter such tendencies i.e. both form and content matter. The relation of form and content and mediating role of organisation are important interventions.
Following our last group discussion of the book, we met with Daniel Andrés López in a dedicated forum on History and Class Consciousness who suggested that although Lukács holds on to the necessity of the Party, his conception of it was a radically democratic one. Like Lukács’ other claims of an open totality, or a more processual and relational subject of change, there were hints of this throughout the text, but these hints were not enough to erase the lingering totalitarianism that came with reading the text with hindsight of what the Party Lukács subscribed to would become.
There is a lot more that could be said about this text and our discussions over the last few months. The key points that I will take forward are the necessity of a historical materialist method that can connect and reveal rather than obscure and segment, but also that this method must be applied to itself – the need for a self-reflexive approach to theory and strategy.