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Free to read or download online, Chris Nineham's short book looks at the ideas of Georg Lukács the Hungarian revolutionary whose work explored the hold of capitalist ideas on workers' consciousness and how it could be broken.

Georg Lukács was the great theorist of revolution in the 20th century. In the process of explaining the principles of the Russian revolution he provided answers to some vital questions: How do capitalist ideas maintain a hold on our consciousness? In what circumstances do people become radicalised? And how can socialists build genuinely mass revolutionary movements?

Lukács’ revolutionary ideas of the 1920s were suppressed by Stalin and have been marginalised by academics and even many on the left. They have lived a kind of underground existence re-emerging whenever fundamental change is being discussed. The book introduces his ideas and argues they are vital to our world of crisis and war.

Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs by Chris Nineham

Extract from Capitalism and Class Consciousness

A philosopher activist

Lukács became a revolutionary and a Marxist during the greatest wave of working class struggle in history, unleashed by the Russian revolution at the end of the First World War. Already a well known intellectual in Hungary, months after joining the newly-formed Hungarian Communist party in December 1918 he found himself a leader in the events which led to the brief Hungarian soviet republic in 1919. He was People’s Commissar for Education and for a short time a political commissar at the battlefront.

The Hungarian Workers Republic ended in disaster. This was, as Lukács himself came to recognise, because it was unstable from the start. The Hungarian Communist Party had called an insurrection in February 1919 well before it had majority support in the workers’ councils. The uprising was crushed, as mass radicalisation proved no substitute for political preparation. All the same, the militancy of peasants and workers and the annexation of parts of the country by foreign powers led to the collapse of the bourgeois government, creating a power vacuum.

The Hungarian Soviet Republic came about in March 1919 through a merger between the Communists and the reformist Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP was handed power by the ruling class in a last ditch attempt to salvage the system. Lukács and the leadership of the Communist Party interpreted the new alliance of reformists and revolutionaries as a spontaneous restoration of proletarian unity, but it turned out to be a recipe for confusion and then disaster.

Communist Party leaders acted as if they were in a revolutionary government, forcing through nationalisation of the land with no concern for the interests of the peasantry while the majority of workers remained under reformist leadership. Faced with new attacks from an alliance of counter-revolutionary powers, the SDP leaders capitulated and the Communists were isolated. A reactionary government was formed, which unleashed a reign of terror on the left, executing 5,000 and driving tens of thousands more out of the country.

Lukács wrote his key works of the 1920s - Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought, History and Class Consciousness and Tailism and the Dialectic - in the aftermath of this experience, while he was in exile in Vienna. We can see now this was a decisive moment for the socialist movement. Before the war the world socialist movement had been organised in the Second International, whose complete accommodation to the system was exposed by its leading parties’ support for the First World War. The Russian Bolsheviks stood out against this betrayal and led a successful revolution that became an inspiration for millions around the world.

Both History and Class Consciousness and Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought express the revolutionary potential of the moment, and the fear that lessons were not being learnt from the experience. By 1925, when Lukács wrote Tailism and the Dialectic, there were signs that the isolation of the Russian revolution was encouraging a new form of fatalism.

Life under capitalism

In History and Class Consciousness Lukács does take the role of capitalist institutions as mediating elements into account. But he explains their capacity to secure workers’ acquiescence as a product of the lived experience of capitalism. He also explains how and why that same experience can create opposition.

Lukács’ starting point is the fact that capitalism turns everything in to a commodity, a unit of product whose only purpose is to generate profit for capitalists. Lukács argues it is no accident that the commodity was also Marx’s starting point when he wanted to ‘portray capitalist society in its totality and lay bare its fundamental nature’ in his major works.

The problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them.

Commodity production shapes how we experience and understand the world. It reduces quality to quantity and it conceals the overall process of exploitation in an immediate world of buying and selling. Echoing Marx’s words in Capital, Lukács described how commodification has the effect of giving relations between people the character of things, of ‘reifying’ them.

In the process relationships acquire a ‘phantom objectivity’ and an autonomy ‘that seems so strictly rational and all embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature.’ This is why commodities have what Marx called ‘the character of a fetish’. Like primitive fetishes made by humans and then worshipped as gods, commodities come to rule over us even though we create them ourselves.

We can only grasp the full impact of this process of reification when we realise that the essential condition for the conquest by the commodity form is the transformation of labour itself into a commodity. If the value of goods is going to be determined by the labour time necessary in their production, labour power must be fully integrated into this rational, universally-quantified system. The worker must sell her labour power like any other commodity on the market.

Neither objectively nor in relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of the process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not.

Commodification shapes the physical process of work itself and our understanding of it. Work becomes dominated by rationalisation, a high division of labour, repetition and obsession with quantity rather than quality. The finished article no longer appears as the object of a process at all. The fragmented process of production of the object ends up producing a fragmented subject: ‘The personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle fed into an alien system.’

Reification then has three reinforcing effects on consciousness. It hides the real, human relations of capitalism; it makes the system appear as if it is driven by an inhuman, preordained logic; and it makes workers feel powerless to do anything about it.

It is often pointed out that Lukács, through his reading of Capital, arrived at a concept almost identical with the idea of alienation contained in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which was written in 1844 but not published until 1932.

But he did more than that. He broke new ground by showing how reification permeated the whole of capitalist society and laid the foundations for the first ‘unified structure of consciousness’ in history. He went on to explore the implications of this for radical politics.

Lukács argued that the state of mind generated by the experience of work at the sharp end of capitalist production is suffused throughout the institutions of capitalist society.

The atomisation of the individual is, then, only the reflex in consciousness of the fact that the ‘natural laws’ of capitalist production have been extended to cover every manifestation of life in society; that for the first time in history the whole of society is subjected, or tends to be subjected, to a unified economic process, and that the fate of every member of society is determined by unified economic laws.

Lukács argued for example that bureaucracies are a corollary to the factory system:

Bureaucracy implies the adjustment of one’s way of life, mode of work and hence of consciousness, to the general socio economic premises of the capitalist economy, similar to that which we have observed in the case of the worker in particular business concerns. The formal standardisation of justice, the state, the civil service and so forth, signifies objectively and factually a comparable reduction of all social functions to their elements, a comparable search for the rational formal laws of these carefully segregated partial systems.

So way beyond the profit-making workplace, in institutions across society, tasks are reduced to quantifiable functions, to ‘unit throughput’, in processes that acquire autonomy from the personality and therefore from human judgement. Even for those dealing directly with other human beings the sense of overall purpose is lost, all sense of cause and effect obscured.

Lukács gives the example of the journalist whose powers of empathy, judgement, knowledge and expression are divorced from personality, and who is placed in an unnatural isolation when confronting the facts or events he or she ‘reports’ on. ‘The journalist’s “lack of convictions,” the prostitution of experiences and beliefs is comprehensible only as the apogee of capitalist reification.’



Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukács cover

Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukács

By Chris Nineham

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#1 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácsbill j 2010-09-12 04:20
"Georg Lukács was the great theorist of revolution in the 20th century"

A bold claim indeed by someone trained as a Stalinist apparatchik and sent into Hungary to establish a degenerated workers state after WWII. Presumably his revolutionary theory didn't get in the way of his advocacy of Stalinist Bonapartism? Or was Stalinism the natural result of that theory?
#2 Lukacs and StalinismAlex Snowdon 2010-09-12 04:35
Chris Nineham's article (and most of the short book it's taken from) focuses on Lukacs' pathbreaking and important theoretical work between 1918 and 1925. What happened after that? I answer that question in my article 'Lukacs after Leninism', published on Counterfire.

Lukacs' accommodation to Stalinism involved a sharp break from his earlier ideas and a great deal of intellectual distortion. My article summarises the process he went through, and hopefully illuminates the forces at work in this degeneration.
#3 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácsbillj 2010-09-12 07:01
Well they didn't involve a sharp break according to Lukacs. Plekhanov is routinely denounced as a "determinist" and the proof of his determinism is allegedly his opposition to the "voluntarist" Russian revolution.
But with Lukacs the opposite applies. His theory, which essentially amounts to an incoherent and self contradictory set of semi-Hegelian abstractions, is excused and his political trajectory namely an uncritical adoption of Stalinism, which it should be pointed out he adopted very early in the 1920s, separated from the "theory" which is allegedly in contradiction to it.
This "contradiction" between theory and practice was not one that existed according to Lukacs, that's all.
#4 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácslyapunov 2010-09-12 07:43
perhaps not according to the *later* lukacs, no (although note his self-criticism in the 1960s preface to history and class consciousness)

but since that later lukacs was, in your own description, a "Stalinist apparatchik", you have to wonder how seriously we should take this appraisal, or why you're offering it for consideration.

lukacs' most important work was written during his brief period as a revolutionary socialist. it is a peculiarly anti-marxist method to try and find in them a kind of stalinist original sin without taking into account the collapse of the worldwide revolutionary movement they were written for.
#5 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácsbillj 2010-09-12 08:03
Actually if you read Lucaks pamphlet on Lenin

You see its value to the Stalinist. Published in 1924, the year that Stalin unveiled the theory of Socialism in One Country it sets out to establish what? The unity of the working class with the peasantry - an attack on Trotsky who allegedly "underestimated" the peasantry and the vanguard role of the party and its historical continuity with Lenin at the time when the Left Opposition were precisely calling this into question.
And of course he celebrates a strong state as a weapon of class struggle as opposed to the semi-state of the Lenin's state a revolutionary.
So altogether a pretty right wing and Stalinist tract, which puts to the lie the idea that there was anything in Lukacs philosophy counterposed to Stalinism.
He was after all, a Stalinist.
#6 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácslyapunov 2010-09-12 08:27
er, it does no such thing. lukacs argues precisely the opposite point in very clear terms. quote from lenin, ch.3:

"The approach of a revolutionary period is also heralded by all the dissatisfied elements of the old society seeking to join, or at least to make contact with, the proletariat. But precisely this can bring with it hidden dangers. If the proletarian party is not organized so that the correct and appropriate class policy is assured, these allies – who always multiply in a revolutionary situation – can bring confusion instead of support. For the other oppressed sections of society (peasants, petty-bourgeoisie, and intellectuals) naturally do not strive for the same ends as the proletariat. The working class provided it knows what it wants and what its class interests dictate, can free both itself and these other groups from social bondage. But if the party, the militant representative of proletarian class-consciousness, is uncertain of the direction the class should take, if its proletarian character is not even institutionally safeguarded, then these other groups will stream into it and deflect it from its path. Their alliance, which would have benefited the revolution if the proletarian party had been sure of its class organization, can then instead be the greatest danger to it."

your argument would be (marginally) more convincing if, ignoring the evidence in the text itself, lukacs hadn't presented a strong defence of his position in both history and class consciousness, and lenin, against his stalinist critics - actual stalinists, not the ones that exist in your head - in his "tailism and the dialectic". it is perfectly clear that he defended both h&cc an lenin as anti-stalinist texts until well after the publication of lenin in 1924.

if you wish to adopt a malicious stalinist misreading of lukacs' lenin, feel free to do so. it's very clearly not the author's intention at the time of its writing and it will do little to advance anybody's understanding of marxism and history, but you're entirely at liberty to make it.
#7 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácsbillj 2010-09-12 11:38
Er yes he does.
HIs book on Lenin is entirely consistent with Stalinism. It advocates a strong state - Lenin's position from around 1918 onwards - against the semi-state of State and Revolution. It advocates the link between the proletariat and peasantry, the slogan of Stalin/Bukharin against the left opposition in the mid-1920s, it opposes democracy and the opening up of the party - in direct support of the monolithic theory of the Stalinists, it advocates revolutionary realism - part of Lenin's advocacy of what he called "state capitalism" against workers control of industry and so on.
It is absolutely in accord with the prevailing Stalinist orthodoxy of the time. Lukacs indeed never associated himself with the Left Opposition in any of its forms. He was easily assimilated in to the bureaucracy and became a Stalinist hack, a trusty, who oversaw the establishment of a Stalinist regime in Hungary after the war. Only the most trusted lackeys of the apparatus were given such positions. Lukacs adopted Stalinism pretty much wholesale and uncritically from the beginning. Clearly he felt at the time, in the 1920s that it was not in contradiction to his philosophy.
On his philosophy itself, it consists of a rather garbled repetition of certain phrases learn from Hegel. But its definitely not Hegelian, rejecting the basis of Hegel's thought in reality and experience. What is it? Basically a mess. And a Stalinist mess at that.
#8 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácslyapunov 2010-09-12 11:45
er, no he doesn't, as the quote above - directly contradicting your earlier claim - makes clear. i notice you've not bothered to respond to it.

more substantively, lukacs defends a clearly anti-stalinist reading of his own early/mid-1920s work in his tailism and the dialectic. whatever excuses and criticisms he, as a stalinist, later offered, his defence at the time was on the basis of the classical marxist tradition. i said this earlier, too, and you've not bothered to respond to this point, either.

i suppose one way of conducting an argument is to make a series of unsupported assertions and ignore any evidence to the contrary. it's certainly a novel rhetorical device; good luck trying to persuade anyone with it.
#9 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácsbillj 2010-09-12 12:28
That quote is in no way contradictory to Stalinism. In fact its pretty clearly Stalinist in as much as it advocates a monolithic policy to ensure the correct line. What would uncle Joe object to in that?
You can assert his anti-Stalinism all you like. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. He never joined the left opposition, and was incorporated straight into the Stalinist apparatus. If he had been any sort of leftist he would have been executed in the purges. If he ever defended anti-Stalinism (and if the evidence is so abundant please produce it) then the Stalinists would not have adopted him as one of their own.
I suppose one way to carry out these arguments is to ignore all the historical evidence and waffle on in the usual abstract way.
Its a typical rhetorical device and is great for avoiding the issues.
#10 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácslyapunov 2010-09-12 14:19
the quote completely contradicts your earlier claim that lukacs set out to establish "the unity of the working class with the peasantry". very obviously he is doing nothing of the sort and you have failed, again, to acknowledge this.

you now claim instead that this quote, which contradicts entirely your earlier argument as to lukacs' stalinism in 1923/24, still demonstrates that lukacs was a stalinist in the early 1920s- on completely opposite grounds. instead of lukacs urging the fundamental "unity" of the working class and peasantry as "proof" of his stalinism at the time of writing, you claim that his firm stand *against* a belief in this fundamental unity is now evidence of his stalinism!

this is an absurd, nonsensical way to conduct an argument: you proceed entirely by assertion; you barely refer to the texts you claim to be criticising; when it is pointed out to you that the texts you are commenting on directly, explicitly contradict your claims about them, you insist that your assertions are still correct, but on completely the opposite grounds to those you were just arguing.

this, if you don't mind me saying, is a basically fundamentalist mode of proceeding: it's nice for you that you have an unshakeable faith in lukacs' stalinism in 1923/24 that no amount of evidence to the contrary will alter. i'm sure in a world that you must finding terribly confusing it helps a great deal to cling on to this sort of thing. but it's not a good or useful way to conduct an argument on the left.

i am, as i said, not particularly interested in lukacs' later stalinist degeneration. i am interested in these three critical texts - history and class consciousness, lenin, and tailism and the dialectic - and their relevance (or otherwise) to activists today. you are evidently interested in no such thing; i'm not, by now, convinced you've actually read (let alone understood) any of the books you're commenting on, but in any case you would evidently rather indulge in the pleasant sport of heresy-hunting and establishing your own mini-inquisition. have fun with that.
#11 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácsbill j 2010-09-13 02:43
Lukacs was a Stalinist and therefore its reasonable to assess his writings in terms of their historical context - the rise of Stalinism in 1924.
That's what historical materialism does. It looks at writers in their social context and understands how society influenced and shaped their work.
Lukacs book on Lenin is entirely in accord with the Stalinist norms of the already degenerate Bolshevik Party of 1924.
Which of Lukacs writings criticise Stalin?
I'm sure if there were any - and I'm referring of course to actual not mythical criticisms - then you would be shouting them out loud.
Your silence about the business at hand speaks volumes.
Which of Lukacs writings assert any affinity with the Left Opposition?
None of them do.
Lukacs advocates the smycha - the unity of the working class and peasantry - but lead by the working class - in fact the Stalinist party "leading" the working class. Or substituting itself for it.
That was the Stalinist version of Lenin's pre-1917 position.
Or course you're not interested in Lukacs Stalinist degeneration. If you were interested then you would see the strong affinity between Lukacs writings and Stalin, for that an application of historical materialism not myth making is required.
And its not me that has unshakeable faith in Lukacs Stalinism - it was Lukacs and Stalin. Who should I listen to them or you? Lukacs never disavowed Stalin or aligned himself with the opposition. All oppositionists and former oppositionists - in other words most of the Bolshevik party at one time or another - were liquidated in the purges of the 1930s. Lukacs was untouched.
Why, if his writings were so anti-Stalinist?
The myth of Lukacs anti-Stalinism is a latter day invention by fans who want to paint him up as something he was not.
#12 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácslyapunov 2010-09-13 03:19
lukacs was not a stalinist at the time of writing lenin and history and class consciousness. he defended both works, on anti-stalinist terms, against actual stalinist critics. this defence can be found in his tailism and the dialectics - a work i've mentioned a few times previously, despite your apparent failure to notice. (go back and check.)

lukacs later became a stalinist. however, it is very obviously ahistorical and certainly anti-marxist to attempt to read his later sins back into his earlier work, *especially* when it is clear that, at the time of his writing, he did not intend these works to be read as support for stalinism. indeed the later, stalinist lukacs attacked these works *precisely* as being insufficiently in line with his later, stalinist, beliefs.

just to make this clear: the stalinist lukacs disavowed lenin and history and class consciousness because they were *not stalinist enough*. at the time of their writing, however, he defended them *against* stalinists, on anti-stalinist grounds.

is this getting through to you? i want to make sure that you're aware of just how weak your argument is at this point.

you've embarrassed yourself once already on all this. it takes some doing to offer, as a reference in support of your position, something which very clearly says precisely the opposite to what you claim. it strongly suggests you either haven't read, or didn't understand, the text you were citing.

when this error was pointed out to you, you simply claimed you were right all along, anyway - but on completely opposed, contradictory grounds. as i said, this is fundamentalism - not marxism; not even worthwhile literary criticism.

i now notice you're grimly back to asserting something that lukacs demonstrably was not arguing for.

this is tedious. you're not in any way serious about understanding what lukacs wrote, still less in assessing its relevance (or otherwise) for activists today. i've wasted enough time with you.
#13 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácsbillj 2010-09-14 14:31
Lukacs was a Stalinist from the early 1920s. How do we know? He said so. And Stalin said so. What's more not only did he say so, but everything he wrote was entirely in accord with Stalinism. Let's judge him by what he did at the time. There was the left opposition. He opposed it.
His pamphlet on Lenin, starts with typical Stalinist hagiography, absolutely in accord with the cult of the personality, and then repeats all the cliches of Stalinist thought, the alliance with the peasantry, the leadership of the "working class" - that is the Stalinist Bolshevik Party, the support for "Real politik" etc.etc.etc.
So you're patronising as well as ignorant. Don't worry you're in good company.
Lukacs philosophy was always an incoherent mess of half digested phrases. Stalin liked them. So do you. Heh? What can you do?
#14 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácslyapunov 2010-09-15 01:35
ok, i'll try stating all this once more, as it doesn't appear to be sinking in yet:

lukacs became a stalinist after completing history and class consciousness, lenin, and tailism and the dialectic: certainly by the end of the 1920s, and in making this sharp shift he was not alone. this much is not in dispute.

but you cannot read his *later* history back onto his books of the early 1920s. the only way you have been able to do this is through misinterpretation and outright distortion - to the point where it is doubtful you have even read, never mind understood, the texts you are commenting on. an example is this fundamental "unity of the proletariat and the peasantry" nonsense: it is lukacs' aim, in h&cc, developed in lenin, and then defended in tailism and the dialectic, to demonstrate the *distinctiveness* of the working class and its consciousness as *against* all other classess in society.

in fact, when you attempted - for the sole time you have attempted this - to demonstrate your point on the "unity of working class and the peasantry" by actually referring to one of his writings, the link you provided entirely contradicted the point you were seeking to make: it said precisely the opposite of what you wished or believed it to say. you can see why, under these circumstances, it is hard to believe you have actually read the books you presuming to criticise.

finally, the stalinists themselves denounced lukacs' early marxist works, and stalinist authorities had them repressed. it was not until the 1960s that "official" editions got published. if these were such reputable stalinist tomes, why did the stalinist feel the need to denounce and suppress them?

this is a stale, scholastic debate: you have a set of *beliefs* about what you think lukacs said, and to make what he *actually* wrote and meant fit with them you are forced to reinvent chunks of history and ignore the texts you are commenting on. (i am being generous here: it really is doubtful you have ever read what you are commenting on - why, for example, do you quote so rarely in support of your points? - so really any criticism you are offering is essentially worthless. i am absolutely certain, by the way, that you have never read tailism and the dialectic; the others i merely strongly doubt.)

what should concern any serious activist, rather than a one-man hunter of stalinist witches, is whether these early texts, written at the crest of the revolutionary wave in europe, have anything to offer activists today. is lukacs' account of the formation of class consciousness still relevant? does commodity fetishism and reification matter? does his critique of bourgeois rationality still apply? are his organisational conclusions still the correct ones? these are the sorts of more useful questions to raise: ones that engage with the text, rather than offering blind denunciations.

this discussion is closed. you can either offer another round of ignorant dogmatics - i won't respond - or you could try and actually read, and make some effort to understand, the works you are currently attempting to comment on.
#15 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukácsbillj 2010-10-08 11:11
Its not in dispute? Of course its in dispute. If you read Lukacs book on Lenin its thoroughly Stalinist. Take for example the chapter on soviets where he fails to notice that soviets did not actually exist in the USSR in 1924. And speaks of the state as a powerful weapon of the class - at a point where it had already been politically expropriate by the Stalinists.
That's what you get when you wrench writings out of their historical context.
How do we know that Lukacs got the vote of approval from Stalin? Simple. He was a Stalinist agent and loyal apparatchik. Any real fighters were killed in the purges.
No Lukacs.
#16 Lukacs and sexual terrorismTorn Halves 2011-08-03 11:23
Leaving aside the vexed issue of Lukacs and Stalinism, just wondering if you guys have a reply to the hundereds of claims circulating on the web among ultra-rightwing groups like the English Defense League and the Gates of Vienna that Lukacs tried to institute some terrible sex education policies in Hungary when he was minister of Education? I presume this is a myth, but I would like to know the truth.
#17 RE: Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg LukácsChavdar Popov 2011-09-17 13:09
Stalinist my foot. You could get shot for reading and discussing "heretics" like Lukacs or Horkheimer and Adorno or Gramsci in Stalin's lifetime. Adhering to them later on - after the cult of Stalin was renounced in 1956 - could cost you a career. They were really dangerous to those exhausted and ossified regimes because they showed alternative models of workers and social emancipation. In the 1970s the relations between communist parties in the developed countries and the Soviet block were almost fully broken, after the so called "eurocommunsts" embraced Gramsci, Altusser etc.

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