The publication of Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness in 1923 created a rift in the international Marxist movement unlike any other. The book challenged key tenets of an emerging Soviet orthodoxy, including the moratorium on ‘bourgeois philosophy’, the dogma of party infallibility, and the strong tendency within Marxist thinking to focus on the future rather than the present as the relevant locus of political hope.
The book was so scandalous that at the 1924 party congress, Grigorii Zinoviev denounced Lukács as a revisionist and launched a public onslaught against him that eventually resulted in Lukács renouncing his position. Its reception in orthodox Marxist circles was unrelentingly scathing. Most notably, Lukács was attacked by Abram Deborin and Laszlo Rudas, both of whom found their comrade to have seriously overstepped established lines.
Yet History and Class Consciousness also became a foundation stone of the ‘Western Marxist’ tradition that oriented itself to Marx while distancing itself from Soviet orthodoxy. To give just a couple of examples: Andrew Feenberg has demonstrated the book’s subterranean influence on the first generation of Frankfurt School thinkers, while others such as Michael Löwy have noted the book’s seminal impact on Walter Benjamin.
Ernst Bloch was also deeply affected by Lukács’ book, which he reviewed in the March 1924 issue of Der neue Merkur. (The review was later included in volume 11 of Bloch’s collected works in German.) I have translated Bloch’s review into English for the first time, as part of a recent special issue of Thesis Eleven, guest edited by Lukács expert Daniel Lopez, and containing contributions from scholars engaged in a multifaceted revival of interest in Lukács’ work.
Story of a friendship
Bloch and Lukács met in Berlin, at one of Georg Simmel’s private seminars and immediately the pair became firm friends. They soon were in touch by letter almost daily, and in 1912 they together moved to Heidelberg where they joined the intellectual circle around Max and Marianne Weber. In the years before the First World War, the pair developed a truly symbiotic relationship, sharing common interests in theological, aesthetic, and political questions: both were committed pacifists, interested in a vision of socialism that emphasised the humanistic elements in Marx.
Cracks began to show in their relationship when Lukács returned to Budapest for military service in 1915, which the arch-pacifist Bloch interpreted as a betrayal of their once-shared ideals. When Lukács joined the Hungarian Communist Party in 1918, Bloch—who was himself at times dogmatic but nevertheless perpetually unaligned—believed his friend’s decision coincided with a narrowing of intellectual horizon.
By the time History and Class Consciousness was published, the two men were no longer in regular contact. Their personal relationship had soured, but they had also parted ways intellectually to a significant degree. Though Bloch’s 1924 review of the book was highly favourable, it bears witness to both the points of intersection and contention between their thought.
Bloch’s review makes clear that while he remained committed to the significance of a certain utopian perspective within Marxism—a perspective that Lukács had himself once avowed—his friend now rejected utopianism. In History and Class Consciousness, Lukács denounced utopian thinking as a harmful distraction from the necessary project of socialist revolution, while Bloch still saw it as a galvanising force.
Meanwhile, whereas Lukács rejected Engels’ commitment to a dialectics of nature, arguing along post-Kantian lines that dialectical thinking was only applicable to the humanly constructed world, Bloch continued to argue for the emergence of human consciousness as the constitutive exception that validated a dialectics of nature.
On the flip side of this epistemological dispute, however, Bloch himself took the Kantian side. Lukács wanted to argue that it was possible for class consciousness to constitute itself in such a way as to be able to perceive what was to be done politically in the present moment. On the contrary, Bloch (following Kant’s injunction on the limits to knowledge of the in-itself) claimed that the lived moment is always ‘dark’, which implied that it was impossible fully to discern what was the right course of action.
What they both agreed on, however, was that the present was the privileged locus of political hope because—whatever its relation to the future—it is the only possible space of action.
By revealing these key differences and overlaps between two of the twentieth century’s most influential critical thinkers, my translation of Bloch’s review is of significant historical interest. However, it also has a much broader import for the question of—to borrow Quentin Skinner’s phrase—meaning and understanding in the history of ideas.
Significance of reception history
The battle over the meaning of Lukács’ work was as much a battle over his interpretation of previous thinkers as it was over the content of his claims.
Lukács’ work seemed to rearticulate Kant’s ‘scandal of philosophy’—the idea that philosophy could give no rational proof of the existence of an external natural world. Even if he claimed that the social world could be known, his claim was anathema to certain Marxists, for whom the meaning of previous theories was not up for ‘revision’.
The true scandal of History and Class Consciousness was thus that it contained substantial discussion of the legacies of previous thinkers rather than merely rehearsing well-worn tropes. It was clear to all that Lukács’ reception of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin and others was not merely reception: he used these interpretations to advance his own position.
These debates over the reception history of philosophy were highly politicised. When Bloch moved to East Germany after 1945, his own favourable reception of Hegel landed him in serious trouble with the party, eventually leading to his dismissal from his post as Professor of Philosophy in Leipzig, in terms that recalled verbatim those in which History and Class Consciousness had once been denounced.
Certainly, in the context of the Third International, such debates reached heights of pro forma ideological fervour unlike those seen before or since. However, I argue the questions raised remain valid for our own times.
Historians have long acknowledged that history is as much about the present as it is about the past. Historians narrativize the past, give it starting points that we select, and position ourselves within it. These dynamics are less well recognised in contemporary philosophy and theory, but they are nevertheless at work.
As the debate between Bloch and Lukács reveals, the reception of a particular philosopher’s thought is as much a battleground about contemporary issues as it is a dispassionate reconstruction of some antiquated subject matter. When philosophers and theorists present us with an account of some predecessor, it is to a significant extent their own ideas that are on display.
In other words, reception history is always a site of struggle in the history of ideas, in which the meaning, our understanding, of our own time is very often what’s at stake.