We have travelled with Lukács. Despite the global pandemic conditions of lockdown induced by COVID-19, as a group of scholars forged through collective intellectual labour, we each picked up György Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness and travelled, at least intellectually. Based in Australia, Turkey, and Germany, the seven of us read this groundbreaking text along with other colleagues in the Past & Present Reading Group in 2020. After that we embarked on a joint co-authoring of a journal article to advance the relevance of Lukács to present-day debates in political economy and radical geography on the production of socio-nature. That article has now been published in Review of International Political Economy entitled ‘The Life-Nerve of the Dialectic: György Lukács and the metabolism of space and nature’.
What does it mean to travel with Lukács? Since its first appearance in 1923 nearly one hundred years ago, History and Class Consciousness is considered to be one of the most important texts in Marxist philosophy and dialectics. In this post we explore the nature of ‘travelling theory’ to distil Lukács’ spatio-temporal insights and his critique of the production of space and socio-nature, which should appeal to political economists and radical geographers alike. In a subsequent post available HERE, we also reveal the unfolding of our collective intellectual labour process, inspired by Raewyn Connell’s vision of The Good University.
Our engagement with Lukács draws from Edward Said’s approach to ‘travelling theory’ in The World, The Text and the Critic to argue that the Hungarian Marxist’s approach to dialectics and the notion of totality does travel so that its fiery core can be reignited and reinvigorated in the hereness of today. A once insurgent theory, Said notes, can become a methodological trap if it is subsequently used uncritically, repetitively, and limitlessly. Alternatively, as subsequently relayed in Reflections on Exile, a transgressive theory can travel to different locales, sites, and situations to flame out from its formulation, to restate and reaffirm new tensions and conditions.
We offer a fresh reading of Lukács to reveal his spatial contribution to the critique of political economy and socio-nature and the mediations constitutive of the production of space. Our article, in the first section, engages two prominent critics of Lukács (Jean-Paul Sartre and Moishe Postone) to disclose, in the second main section, Lukács’ dialectical view of totality. What does this mean?
Totality can refer to the structuring conditions of global capitalism, which avoids arguments reliant on pure contingency, or a system ruled by chance. As Lukács reminds us in History and Class Consciousness, claims advocating the primacy of totality are often dismissed so that ‘with the totality out of the way, the fetishistic relations of the isolated parts’ become dominant. The recent dismissal in International Political Economy (IPE) by Jacqueline Best, Colin Hay, Genevieve LeBaron and Daniel Mügge of a ‘narrow’ lens focusing on global capitalism in favour of the interaction of ‘complex intersectional dynamics’ would merely be the latest manifestation of these attempts to overthrow the methodological primacy of totality. In contrast, we argue that a conception of totality is something that needs to be re-examined and revisited against approaches that, as Fredric Jameson details, ‘reconfirm the status of the concept of totality by their very reaction against it’.
For Lukács, the dialectical method is the simultaneous recognition and transcendence of immediate appearances to unveil the inner, though concealed, core of social existence. Two clear examples that gravitate to the heart and soul of political economy concerns animate Lukács. The first example he provides is an abstract simple one of causality that presages the parsimonious states-as-actors ‘billiard ball’ model in international politics:
if by interaction we mean just the reciprocal causal impact of two otherwise unchangeable objects on each other, we shall not have come an inch nearer to an understanding of society.
As he continues, there can be interaction between two billiard balls when one is struck by the other but ‘the interaction we have in mind must be more than the interaction of otherwise unchanging objects’.
The second example is at a more concrete complex level and reflects on the dualist disconnection of the ‘state’ (or politics) from ‘economics’ (or markets), which has bedevilled IPE and its attempt to connect them through interaction but always on the prior isolation of such phenomena. ‘Already the mechanical separation between economics and politics precludes any really effective action encompassing society in its totality, for this itself is based on the mutual interaction of both these factors’, states Lukács. Hence, he continues, ‘in a world where the reified relations of capitalism have the appearance of a natural environment it looks as if there is not a unity but a diversity of mutually independent objects and forces’. The false state/market dichotomy no better represents how these forms are posited and separated when actually they should be treated as internally related. The method of dialectics assists in transcending these reified categories of the social world and enables an understanding of social processes as a totality. In the third and final main section of our article we then trace how Lukács connects dialectics and totality to behold the metabolic exchange between society and nature.
Flowing from this final substantive focus on the production and re-production of socio-nature, our conclusion is that Lukács also offers methodological potential on issues of totality and that simply ignoring it is ‘like describing a road without its setting in the landscape’. Lukács thus adds to a register of classical Marxist theorists that advance the philosophy of internal relations, regarded as the hallmark of historical materialism.
Put differently, there is a dialectical aspect of methodological relationalism evident in Lukács that we regard as currently defining the most exceptional advances in contemporary critical political economy and radical geographical imaginaries. The notion of totality, we argue, is able to advance relational comparison of social processes that can also be witnessed in the method of incorporated comparison led by Philip McMichael and Heloise Weber, or Gillian Hart, Bob Jessop, and Ian Bruff. To wit, citing Nicola Short, ‘Lukács offers the tools to consider the material and subjective effects of neoliberalism in a methodologically holistic manner’.
Returning to travelling with Lukács, the collective intellectual labour process of our reading group stemming from different geographical bases and with a diversity of scholarly interests, gave us an opportunity to refine the relational methodology in History and Class Consciousness and enrich our understanding of totality. It is his relational method that can insert moments dialectically within a totality ‘to detect the part in the whole and the whole in the part’. A departure from the reified, alienating, and compartmentalised worldview of mainstream political economy (preoccupied with a focus on the philosophy of external relations) as well as constructivist political economy (enamoured by the surface appearances of everyday life and conjunctural conditions), is thus enabled.
More than this, however, our travelling with Lukács also suggests that our pathways in radical geography can be fruitfully guided by his spatial and socio-ecological contributions to the critique of political economy.