Lukács, György, Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic Lukács, György, Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic. Source: Horst Strum - German Federal Archives - Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license CC-BY-SA 3.0

One hundred years after it was published, Chris Nineham argues that it is time for a revival of Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness

Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness is one of the most important theoretical works to come out of the experience of the revolutionary wave that began in Russia in 1917. It is a unique attempt to integrate the lessons of those tumultuous years into an account of how class consciousness develops under capitalism. The result is perhaps the most comprehensive account of Marx’s method ever written, and a theoretical link between Marx’s Capital and the politics and practice of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Its scope and brilliance have made it legendary, and yet unlike that other great theoretical Marxist document of its time, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, it is rarely read or referred to nowadays, even on the left. This is partly because some of it is written in a philosophical style that can be difficult to follow. But the main reasons lie elsewhere.

Where the prison notebooks are fragmentary and open to different interpretations, History and Class Consciousness aims at a coherent, unified, revolutionary worldview. Amongst other things, this involves a frontal assault on the intellectual and spiritual viewpoint of the capitalist class. As a result, it is completely beyond the pale in bourgeois intellectual circles.

But the book’s stress on workers’ revolutionary self-activity as the key to change has also always been a challenge to the traditions of social democracy and Stalinism. Its insistence that not just revolution but revolutionary theory can only be a product of workers’ self-activity makes for difficult reading in left academia too.

Despite the resulting neglect, one hundred years after it was published, it feels intensely relevant. The tendencies to commodification and crisis in capitalism, that it discusses, are once again pressing on our daily lives. In a world wracked by economic disorder, war and climate breakdown, Lukács’ stress on both the interconnectedness of things and the irrationality of the system that connects them are compelling. His insistence on the need to understand capitalism as a totality is a challenge to the subjectivity and the suspicion of theory that still haunts parts of the left, years after the postmodern turn. Most important of all, Lukács’ account of the way that capitalism can generate both resistance and fatalism amongst working people provides an indispensable basis for a theory of revolutionary organisation and a coherent revolutionary strategy.

Historical context

The book is made up of a series of essays inspired by the revolutionary experience of 1917-1922, the greatest wave of insurgency capitalism has witnessed. Lukács was a Hungarian radical intellectual who was deeply inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917. He became a Marxist and was one of the first to join the Hungarian Communist Party when it launched in 1918. In short order, he emerged as a leader of the Hungarian workers’ republic of 1919. The experiment was crushed by the right. Lukács realised too late that, for all the heroism of those involved, it had been a premature adventure without sufficient support, particularly in the countryside, and that it had been fatally marked by ultra-left politics. After narrowly escaping Hungary alive, Lukács continued to pursue revolutionary politics in Vienna.

The essays address different theoretical questions thrown up by the Russian revolution and the revolutionary struggles that followed it, focussing in particular on how ideas change and how revolutionaries should organise. This involved understanding ‘the essence of Marx’s method and applying it correctly’ on the central issues of revolutionary theory. ‘The goal of these arguments,’ he writes in the preface, ‘is an interpretation, an exposition of Marx’s theory as Marx understood it.’1

Why was this effort so important? Partly because Marx never had time to write a systematic account of his method. Lukács also wanted to rescue Marx’s ideas from distortion by some of his followers. History and Class Consciousness is partly a polemic against the degeneration of Marxism after Marx’s death. In the period of the Second International, Marxism had effectively become a theory of the inevitability of socialism, based on the notion that class consciousness could simply be read off from economic reality. As a result it had relapsed into fatalism.

In practice this led to the view that socialism would come through parliament or that socialists’ job was simply to prepare for a revolution that would spontaneously emerge. Either way the role of socialists was conceived as essentially passive. One of the main thrusts of Lukács’ book was to show in theory how such fatalism and passivity involves a surrender to the system and to bourgeois attitudes to reality.

In order to deal with these problems, Lukács went back to Marx’s theoretical understanding of human beings’ relationship with the material world. The majority of left-wing accounts of consciousness tend to focus on ideology, on the media and other institutions in society. While not ignoring these questions, these essays root their understanding of consciousness in the way we experience the capitalist world and in particular in an analysis of commodification and reification, of the way capitalism turns every aspect of life into things for sale.

Building on Marx’s theory of alienation, Lukács produced a still unrivalled account both of how capitalism manages to sustain itself and of why it remains vulnerable to overthrow, clearly million-dollar questions for anyone who wants to see change. It also lays out a way forward. For Lukács, as for Marx himself, it is only by taking a revolutionary attitude to the world in practice and in theory that it is possible to break through the reified immediacy of capitalist reality and grasp its underlying dynamic. ‘The solution proposed by Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach is to transform philosophy into praxis,’ Lukács says, by which he means revolutionary activity. Revolutionary activity is necessary not just to dismantle the structures of capitalist society, but to penetrate the illusions that capitalism creates.

History and Class Consciousness is not just an abstract call for revolutionary action. The final three essays all address the question of how revolutionaries should organise and operate. The last chapter, ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation’, which he later called the most important in the book, draws detailed political conclusions from the theoretical analysis that precedes it.

It is of course impossible to do justice to the full richness of Lukács’ argument in a few thousand words. What I aim to do here is to introduce potential readers to the main themes of the book in the order in which he addressed them. The book progresses logically, but it is worth pointing out that Lukács continually circles back on the key themes, enriching his argument as he does so. It is also worth noting that Lukács himself suggests that readers not grounded in philosophy might want to come to the most difficult chapter, ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’ last.

Rescuing Marxism

‘In Marxism’, Lukács says in the preface, ‘the true method by which to understand society and history has finally been discovered. In the first two essays, ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’ and ‘The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg’, Lukács explains the fundamentals of Marx’s breakthrough. First, Marxism approaches society as a whole and conceives the world as a totality of different interacting elements, something ruling-class thinking avoids. It is a totality in which the whole has supremacy over the individual elements:

‘It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into a whole new science.’

Secondly, Marxism seeks to understand society and the material world as a historical process. Understanding society historically helps us explain the origin and the development of the present and to overcome the sense of the givenness or permanence of things. So, as he comments later in the book, ‘in the case of almost every insoluble problem we perceive that the search for a solution leads us to history’, and ‘only the historical process truly eliminates the – actual – autonomy of the objects and the concepts of the objects with their resulting rigidity’.

Thirdly, Marxism recognises that these social processes are generated by human beings’ activity even if we don’t have conscious control over that activity.

This includes the institutions of society which tend to ‘appear as the objects of immutable, eternal laws of nature,’ rather than as relations between people. As Marx points out, ‘these definite social relations are just as much the products of men as linen, flax, etc.’

Taken together, the importance of understanding the world as a whole, the appreciation that everything around us has a history, and the recognition that society is created by human beings and is not just given, provide the necessary basis from which to comprehend the world around us. Together they involve seeing the world from the vantage point of ‘the production and reproduction of social life’. This is tremendously liberating. It doesn’t only provide us with a way of understanding the world, conceiving an interconnected and changing world as produced by human beings over time opens up the possibility of changing it anew.

In this light, the present is not static or timeless but a link between the past and the future. It is in this sense ‘a becoming’. The bourgeoisie, despite its own revolutionary origins, tend to do everything possible to close down this sense of change. They can’t completely deny the existence of history but they trivialise it, empty it of any discernible dynamic and, whenever possible, claim it is finished. In Marx’s words, their attitude tends to be ‘there was a history but there is no longer any’.

A crucial further step in overcoming the givenness of things was, for Lukács, to reassert the importance of a dialectical understanding of reality in Marxism. As Lukács explains, Marx’s method involved a transformation of the dialectical method developed by the greatest of the bourgeois philosophers in the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Hegel.

Dialectics involves grasping that things are interconnected not mechanically but dynamically. You simply cannot understand an individual fact without grasping it as part of the wider social process, which, as we have seen, has the organisation of production at its heart:

‘Only in this context which sees the isolated facts of social life as aspects of the historical process and integrates them in a totality, can knowledge of the facts hope to become knowledge of reality’ and ‘the intelligibility of objects develops in proportion as we grasp their function in the totality to which they belong.’

As an illustration, Lukács quotes a famous passage from Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital:

‘A negro is a negro. He only becomes a slave in certain circumstances. A cotton spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. Only in certain circumstances does it become capital. Torn from those circumstances it is no more capital than gold is money or sugar the price of sugar.

In particular, Lukács stresses the importance of seeing human consciousness as part of this dialectical totality. Even the greatest bourgeois philosophers were never able successfully to work out the relationship between thought and reality, to overcome what the philosopher Fichte called ‘the gaping chasm’ between the idea or concept and the thing itself. Inadequate responses to this problem include the ideas that consciousness merely reflects an external reality, which if true would leave us as prisoners of circumstances that are beyond our control. Another is the opposite belief that ideas shape the world, which would mean that all problems could be solved if we could just develop the right thoughts, concepts, or political programmes. Both these mistaken ideas continue to have a strong influence on the left.

By seeing society as a historical process, constituted in part by conscious human activity, Marxism provides the means to overcome this duality between thought and being. It involves understanding consciousness not as something which ‘reflects’ a separate reality, but as a part of an all-encompassing historical process:

‘Thus thought and existence are not identical in the sense that they “correspond” to each other or “reflect” each other, or that they “run parallel” with each other (all expressions which conceal a rigid duality). Their identity is that they are aspects of one and the same historical, dialectical process.’

This is an absolutely crucial element of Lukács’ argument. It involves understanding consciousness dialectically as shaped by the wider totality of social relations, but not reducible to them, and potentially reacting back on the world. It allows us to break from the fatalism of reflection theory, while also understanding ideas and consciousness as always tightly related to social and historical developments.

Hegel recognised a dialectical relationship between ideas and historical development, but he saw history ultimately as an unexplained working out of the idea, in what he called ‘the absolute spirit’. Marx’s crucial move beyond Hegel was to see that self-knowledge of the totality came not from some mystical absolute, but from the life experience and struggle of a crucial part of the divided totality, the working class. 

Lukács quotes Marx explaining that the working class is the negation of capitalism: 

‘In the conditions of its life, all the conditions of contemporary society find their most inhuman consummation; because in the proletariat man is lost to himself but at the same time he has acquired a theoretical consciousness of this loss and is driven by the absolute imperious dictates of his misery – the practical expression of this necessity – which can no longer be ignored or whitewashed, to rebel against inhumanity.’

This life experience gives working people the need and the capacity to grasp the dynamics of the system. The bourgeoisie is so committed to the status quo that it does everything possible to suppress contradictions or any sense of becoming in the present. Those suffering most under capitalism, on the other hand, have an interest in finding elements of a possible future in the here and now:

‘Man must be able to comprehend the present as a becoming. He can do this by seeing in it the tendencies out of whose dialectical opposition he can make the future … only he who is willing and whose mission is to create the future can see the present in its concrete truth.’

Because of its position as the exploited majority, the working class is unique in history in having both a special ability to understand it and a special need to change the world:

‘for the proletariat, the total knowledge of its class situation was a vital necessity, a matter of life and death; because its class situation becomes comprehensible only if the whole of society can be understood and because this understanding is the inescapable precondition of its actions. Thus the unity of theory and practice is only the reverse side of the social and historical position of the proletariat. From its own point of view, self-knowledge coincides with knowledge of the whole so that the proletariat is at one and the same time the subject and object of its own knowledge.’

Like everything else in Lukács’ conception of the world, none of this is given or automatic. Workers have an interest both in understanding the world and in changing it. But one is not achievable without the other, and the development of class consciousness, a self-understanding sufficient to achieve fundamental change, is by definition a conscious and contingent effort. It depends on the outcome of struggles and on an active process of intellectual clarification that has to go hand in hand with struggles as they unfold. It is an attempt to understand and guide this process which is at the heart of History and Class Consciousness.

This understanding is rooted, more than anything, in Lukács’ rescue of Marx’s theory of alienation, which Lukács discusses as reification, the way capitalism turns social processes and relations between human beings into things. Reification has a contradictory impact, on the one hand, it obscures the underlying dynamics of the system, on the other hand, at certain times, it creates the conditions that can lead to those dynamics being exposed and overturned.

The tragedy of the bourgeoisie

A central theme of the book concerns the fact that the capitalist ruling class, the bourgeoisie, is incapable of fully understanding the society that it itself has created. This idea is touched on in the first three essays, but is fully developed in the central and longest essay in the collection, ‘Reification and the Class consciousness of the Proletariat’.

Why is it important to discuss the limits of bourgeois thinking at such length? Partly it is a question of pointing out ruling-class weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Lukács highlights the contradictions in the way that the ruling class approaches society, contradictions that can break open in periods of crisis. The discussion illuminates more generally its inability successfully to take society forward and to deal with the immense challenges that face humanity. But it is also important because of the influence that ruling-class thinking has on wider society and the working class.

Lukács argues that the consciousness of both main classes is deeply shaped by the economic processes of capitalism, and in particular the commodity structure of society, and the reification this creates. This is a product of the unprecedented domination of a single economic system, and the resulting interdependence of the two main classes. The way reification plays out in the two classes is different, but as we shall see, it nevertheless has a deep impact on the lives of working people. 

There are a number of related reasons for the bourgeoisie’s inability to comprehend the central dynamics of capitalism. As a minority, the capitalist class needs to deceive the majority about the robbery at capitalism’s heart – the fact that it makes its wealth by putting huge numbers of people to work and paying them less than the value of the goods they produce. But this deception is important for its own confidence too:

‘The fighting power of a class grows with its ability to carry out its own mission with a good conscience and to adapt all phenomena to its own interests with unbroken confidence in itself.’

So a paradoxical situation emerges in which even though the bourgeoisie came to power through the first openly recognised class struggles in history, faced with an emerging working class, they very quickly did everything possible to try to ‘eradicate the fact of class conflict from the consciousness of society.’

Secondly, our rulers’ inability to grasp the dynamics of the system are reinforced by a core contradiction in their economic system. Capital is a social force which is the product of the interaction of the two great classes in society. But capitalism is a system based on blind competition. As a result, capital is also ‘a social force whose movements are determined by the individual interests of the owners of capital – who cannot see and are necessarily indifferent to all the social implications of their activities’. 

So, in Lukács’ words:

‘It is true that the bourgeoisie acts as a class in the objective evolution of society. But it understands that process (which it is itself instigating) as something external which is subject to objective laws and which it can only experience passively.’

This explains the dissonance in all ruling-class ideology between individualism on the one hand and what is regarded as the ‘natural’ and inevitable process of social development on the other. The exact form of this contradiction varies over time, but it always involves an impossible combination of personal voluntarism – ‘you can be who you want to be’ – and fatalism at the level of society – ‘the market must decide’.

As a result, the bourgeoisie and its supporters are unable to see the fundamental contradictions at capitalism’s heart. They have a high degree of detailed understanding of the world without being able to grasp the overall picture:

‘The tragic dialectics of the bourgeoisie can be seen in the fact that it is not only desirable but essential for it to clarify its own class interests on every particular issue, while at the same time, such a clear awareness becomes fatal when it is extended to the question of the totality.’ 

As Marx himself pointed out, economic crises provide the clearest example of this. They are an expression of the irrationalities of the blind competition that drives capitalism, and, as such, they are bound to remain incomprehensible to capitalists.  In Marx’s words, crises ‘heap theoretical fright on top of practical panic; and the dealers by whose agency circulation is effected shudder before the impenetrable mystery in which their own economic relations are shrouded.’

In general then:

‘Our rulers are then reduced to a crude empiricism when it comes to the particular issue and at best a kind of abstract, mathematical generalisation or eternal laws when it comes to trying to explain the totality.’

Reification is at the heart of this process. As we have seen, reification describes the way in which processes under capitalism take on the appearance of measurable, quantifiable ‘things’. This is inherent to commodity production itself. The exploitation of workers by capitalists generates products whose value is measured by the price they achieve on the ‘free market’ rather than their usefulness. So, the production process takes on a ‘phantom-objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people’.

Lukács argued that the problem of commodities, the starting point for Marx in his great economic work Capital, was also crucial to the wider understanding of capitalist society. It must be seen, Lukács argues, as ‘the central, structural problem of society in all its aspects’, with impacts on every part of the social world.

In making this argument, Lukács was in fact making a considerable advance on Marx, who was writing at a time when capitalism was much less developed. For Lukács, ‘all issues are subjected to an increasingly formal and standardised treatment and in which there is an ever-increasing remoteness from the qualitative and material essence of things’. This was the key, for example, to understanding the development of the bureaucracies that dominate state institutions and much of social life under capitalism:

‘Bureaucracy implies the adjustment of one’s way of life, mode of work and hence of consciousness to the general socioeconomic 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, etc., 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. Subjectively, the divorce between work and the individual capacities and needs of the worker produces comparable effects upon consciousness. This results in an inhuman, standardised division of labour analogous to that which we have found in industry on the technological and mechanical plane.

This in turn leads to a situation in which different elements of the state develop their own autonomous ‘rationality’ based on their own special needs. Engels pointed out, for example, the way in which, ‘In a modern state, law must not openly correspond to the general economic condition and be its expression, but must also be an internally coherent expression which does not, according to its own inner contradictions, reduce itself to nought. And in order to achieve this, the faithful reflection of economic conditions suffers increasingly…’

This process can lead to tensions within and between state institutions. Lukács gives examples of interdepartmental conflicts of the civil service, ‘consider the independence of the military apparatus from the civil administration’, or between academic faculties’ he says. In the section titled, ‘The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought’, perhaps the most difficult section of the book, Lukács goes on to explain how the problems created by reification profoundly shaped the great philosophical works of the bourgeoisie. ‘Modern critical philosophy’, he argues, ‘springs from the reified structure of consciousness’.

Lukács describes the ways that different classical philosophers, unable to understand society as a product of human activity over time, struggled and failed to theorise a relationship between thought and external reality, between ‘knowing’ and ‘being’. The failure to integrate human activity and thinking into a totality has led to a situation in which philosophers either have recourse to abstract system building or simply ‘establishing the irrationality of matter as logically, the ‘ultimate’ fact’. Despite its huge achievements, bourgeois philosophy cannot break out of the contradictions that flow from its class viewpoint. Lukács summarises his argument in this section as follows:

‘Our aim here was to locate the point at which there appears in the thought of bourgeois society the double tendency characteristic of its evolution. On the one hand, it acquires increasing control over the details of its social existence, subjecting them to its needs. On the other hand, it loses – likewise progressively – the possibility of gaining intellectual control of society as a whole, and with that, it loses its own qualifications for leadership.’

The standpoint of the working class

The working class inhabits the same reified world as the bourgeoisie and it is consequently influenced by bourgeois ways of thinking. At the same time, its class position means it is affected differently. For the worker, reification has two aspects.

On the one hand, reification has an objective side. It creates a world in which processes take on the appearance of objects. The way in which the free market appears to set the price of goods gives the whole of the economic process the appearance of being autonomous. It creates a world of immediacy dominated by quantity and calculation. As we have seen, the impact of reification extends to all areas of life, the legal system, the functioning of state institutions, and even philosophy, all of which are veiled in formal, apparently timeless laws.

On the other hand, workers’ labour power also becomes a commodity as it is estranged or alienated from the worker by the capitalist. The fact that the process of production ‘is progressively broken down into abstract, rationalised, specialised operations’ means that ‘the worker loses touch with the finished product.’ The objective fragmentation of the production process necessarily entails the fragmentation or alienation of the worker:

‘In this environment where time is transformed into abstract, exactly measurable, physical space, an environment at once the cause and effect of the scientifically and mechanically fragmented and specialised production of the object of labour, the subjects of labour must likewise be rationally fragmented. On the one hand, the objectification of their labour-power into something opposed to their total personality (a process already accomplished with the sale of that labour-power as a commodity) is now made into the permanent ineluctable reality of their daily life. Here, too, the personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle and fed into an alien system.

And:

In consequence of the rationalisation of the work process the human qualities and idiosyncrasies of the worker appear increasingly as mere sources of error.

This complete dehumanisation has the effect, most of the time, of reinforcing the objective reification of production. It further obscures the real processes that are going on under the surface, and it generates passivity and a sense of powerlessness. As a result, workers are placed in a position in which they can all too easily share the fatalism and passivity that characterises the bourgeoisie:

‘Neither objectively nor in his 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. As labour is progressively rationalised and mechanised his lack of will is reinforced by the way in which his activity becomes less and less active and more and more contemplative.

Part of the reality of the working-class experience, however, points in another direction. As Lukács puts it towards the end of ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, while ‘the bourgeoisie remains enmeshed in its immediacy by virtue of its class role, the proletariat is driven by the specific dialectics of its class situation to abandon it.’

The explanation for this lies in the dynamics of capitalist production itself and specifically in the constant pressure that capitalism exerts for the increase in productivity, longer working days, shorter breaks, faster pace of production, the introduction of new technology and so on. These things appear to the boss as mere changes in quantity, as mathematical calculations. For the worker, they are life-changing attacks on her very existence. As Lukács puts it:

‘The quantitative differences in exploitation which appear to the capitalist in the form of quantitative determinants of the objects of his calculation, must appear to the worker as the decisive, qualitative categories of his whole physical, mental and moral existence.’

The question of labour time then can lead to a conflict that can illuminate their own condition as that of a commodity. ‘This is the point at which the “eternal laws” of capitalist economics fail and become dialectical and are thus compelled to yield up the decisions regarding the fate of history to the conscious actions of men.’

The result is a clash of interests. Lukács quotes Marx’s description of this process in Capital:

‘The capitalist maintains his right as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible and to make, whenever possible, two working days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working day to one of definite, normal duration. There is here, therefore an antimony, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights, force decides. Hence it is that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working day presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e. the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working class.’

The dynamics of capitalism itself then create the circumstances in which workers are periodically forced to rebel against at least the worst implications of commodification. In these struggles, workers have the possibility of starting to understand their commodity status. This self-understanding can develop into an understanding of the way the whole system operates. The special commodity nature of workers’ labour power opens up the possibility of grasping the nature of the commodity system as a whole.

Understanding the commodity nature of society is something that is implicit in workers’ situations, but it is an understanding that has to be struggled for. It is one thing, Lukács says, for workers to become aware of their own status as commodities, as the object of the economic process. But it is only when workers understand capital ‘as an unbroken process of production and reproduction’ that they will also understand that ‘they are also the subject of this process, that they produce not just one particular set of products, but capital itself.’

In complete contradiction to those who call him a determinist, Lukács is stressing here, as he does throughout History and Class Consciousness, that even in periods of struggle, workers don’t automatically or inevitably see beyond the immediacy of reification and grasp the full implications of their situation. Great struggles only increase this possibility.

This is because even in moments of crisis and conflict, the commodity structure continues to have an impact on working-class life. Reification doesn’t fall away in one moment but can be challenged only through a series of ‘mediations’, or collective leaps in consciousness and organisation. As Lukács points out ‘what is historically possible cannot be achieved simply by a straightforward progression of the immediately given (with its laws).’ The extent to which class consciousness develops will depend on the extent to which a growing understanding of the whole of society develops out of the experience of struggle and resistance. This in turn involves ‘a movement of mediations from the present to the future’ What is being raised here is the problem of the political organisation of the working class. 

The theory of organisation

The last three essays in the collection focus on the question of socialist organisation. Lukács points out that the theory of political organisation was underdeveloped in his time, and History and Class Consciousness is above all an attempt to provide the basis on which to ground that theory. Lukács argues that political change is often approached in a utopian way, as a question primarily of developing a programme for a different kind of society. Utopianism always ignores the question of how change can actually happen. Looking back at the development of socialist theory in the years before the Russian revolution, Lukács argues that this was no accident:

‘The great workers’ parties grew up for the most part in periods when the problem of revolution was only conceived as influencing programmes in a theoretical way rather than as something which informed all actions of everyday life. Thus it did not seem necessary to spell out in theoretically concrete terms the nature and the probable course of the revolution.’ 

Even in the period of the great revolutionary upsurges that followed, for all the richness of the experience and of the debates, little theoretical work was done on the question of organisation. If utopianism – the mere imagining of a better future – was one recurring problem on the left, another was the tendency to approach the revolution as a technical question. This involves propagandising the revolution and preparing for it organisationally. The problem with both these approaches is that they encourage passivity, and don’t try to lead workers’ actually existing struggles. While utopian schemers remain aloof from the actual lives of workers and therefore have little impact, Lukács argues that organisations that simply preach for and prepare the revolution ‘always limp behind the real actions of the masses, and … impede rather than further them, let alone lead them’.

To grasp how socialists should organise means going back to the two-sided nature of the working-class experience under capitalism. We have seen that commodification both conceals the nature of exploitation behind a veil of immediacy much of the time and leads to explosive resistance at others, resistance that can open up the possibility of a wider understanding of the need for change. The impact of mass struggles on consciousness depend partly on the wider social context:

‘Where the economic process provokes a spontaneous mass movement in the proletariat there is a fundamental qualitative distinction to be made between a situation in which society as a whole is basically stable and one in which a profound regrouping of all social forces and an erosion of the bases of power of the ruling class is taking place.’

However, even in crisis situations, reification and the passivity it generates is not broken uniformly across the whole of the working class. What actually happens is not the spontaneous development of a revolutionary mood across the working class, but an ideological crisis. The most advanced sections start to draw revolutionary conclusions, while for others the past continues to weigh heavily, in Marx’s words ‘like a nightmare on the brains of the living’. For many workers, Lukács argues:

‘This ideological crisis manifests itself on the one hand in the fact that the objectively extremely precarious situation of bourgeois society is endowed, in the minds of the workers, with all its erstwhile stability.’

On the other hand, the reformist institutions of the labour movement reinforce the dead weight of alienated experience and do their best to confuse and hold back workers’ consciousness and combativity:

‘These organisations now consciously labour to ensure that the merely spontaneous movements of the proletariat (with their dependence upon an immediate provocation, their fragmentation along professional and local lines, etc.) should remain on the level of pure spontaneity. They strive to prevent them from turning their attention to the totality, whether this be territorial, professional, etc., or whether it involves synthesising the economic movement with the political one. In this, the unions tend to take on the task of atomising and de-politicising the movement and concealing its relation to the totality, whereas the Menshevik (moderate) parties perform the task of establishing the reification in the consciousness of the proletariat both ideologically and on the level of organisation.’

Challenging reification

How then can the influence of reification and bourgeois ideas be challenged? First, there needs to be a clear recognition of the unevenness of shifts in consciousness among workers:

‘the class consciousness of the proletariat does not develop uniformly throughout the whole proletariat, parallel with the objective economic crisis. Large sections of the proletariat remain intellectually under the tutelage of the bourgeoisie; even the severest economic crisis fails to shake them in their attitude. With the result that the standpoint of the proletariat and its reaction to the crisis is much less violent and intense than is the crisis itself.’

Because of this, the most militant, class-conscious workers need to organise separately in order to influence the wider layers. The revolutionaries will be an organised minority in the class, at least up till the revolution. Here, Lukács, for all his huge respect for the great Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, makes the point that Luxemburg’s failure to see the need for separate revolutionary organisation in the period before the First World War held back the development of clear class consciousness in practice. ‘Every “theoretical” tendency or clash of views must immediately develop an organisational arm if it is to rise above the level of pure theory or abstract opinion, that is to say, if it really intends to point the way to its own fulfilment in practice.’

Second, given the centrality of revolutionary practice to Marxist theory, socialists must not simply propagandise for revolution, comment on events, produce socialist programmes, or prepare for revolution. All of these things are necessary at different times, but they mean nothing if socialists are not seeking to develop and lead actual struggles in the here and now whenever they can. Socialists must not, however, engage in particular struggles or campaigns simply for their own sake. They must not treat them only as partial, sectional battles, but always attempt to link them to the wider struggle for change. Unless every issue is linked to the goal of transforming society, socialists end up once again caught in the immediacy of capitalist life. This idea is explored in a very rich philosophical passage towards the end of the reification essay. Reification, the immediate reality of capitalism, can only be overcome Lukács argues:

‘By constant and constantly renewed efforts to disrupt the reified structure of existence by concretely relating to the concretely manifested contradictions of the total development, by becoming conscious of the immanent meanings of these contradictions for the total development.’

What this means in practice is that each campaign, each struggle has to be waged in such a way as to take the working class forward, so that the class is strengthened and, at least, a minority increases its confidence and understanding of its overall situation. This connection of the partial struggle to the larger project of revolution is what Lukács is referring to when he says, ‘whether an action is right or wrong is decided ultimately by the evolution of proletarian class consciousness’. It is what Lenin meant when he discussed selecting campaigning priorities on the basis of what issue was ‘the next link in the chain’.

In order to undertake this project, a new type of organisation is necessary, one that can enable ‘the interaction of spontaneity and conscious control’. Such an organisation is necessary because of the uneven consciousness that exists within the working class, the ‘prevailing disunity, the different degrees of clarity and depth to be found in the different individuals, groups, and strata of the proletariat’.

In a fascinating discussion of the characteristics necessary for a successful revolutionary organisation at the end of the methodology chapter, Lukács argues against the sect mentality and the fear of united-front work which betrays the fact that people ‘still frequently follow the sects by acting for the proletariat instead of letting their actions advance the real process by which class consciousness evolves.’ He points out, on the other hand, that social-democratic organisations tend to treat their members as mere objects. In the old social-democratic or bourgeois type of organisation, Lukács argues, ‘the individual can only occur as “the masses”, as follower, as cipher.’

In the kind of revolutionary organisations that had begun to emerge following the Russian revolution, members were seen as participants, organisers, engaged in decision making but also ‘in a state of constant, vital interaction’ with the wider movement. In this kind of organisation, theory and practice are fused, ‘the ability to act, the faculty of self-criticism, of self-correction and of theoretical development all co-exist in a state of constant interaction.’ This must involve a high level of involvement from members. A revolutionary party ‘represents a higher form of organisation than every bourgeois party or opportunist workers’ party, and this shows itself in the greater demands made by the party on its individual members.’ In this connection, Lukács quoted the theses from the Third Congress of the Communist International which states ‘all members should be involved in constant, day to day collaboration’. ‘Of course’, he goes on to say, ‘in many cases this principle exists only on paper even to this day. But this does not in the least detract from its importance.’

For the individual can only begin to overcome the reified nature of their own consciousness in the process of active, collaborative and conscious struggle. Revolutionary organisation aspires to ‘really active participation in every event, really practical involvement of all the members,’ which can only be achieved by ‘engaging the whole personality.’ This in turn requires a collective discipline which ‘can only come into being as the free and conscious deed of the most conscious element’.

The analysis in this final essay, often overlooked in discussions of the book, forms the most coherent theoretical account of the role of revolutionary organisation that exists. It is the crucial culmination of Lukács’ whole argument and the result of an intense period of involvement in and study of revolutionary struggle at the highest level. He is making the case that only revolutionary organisation of the kind he outlines can enable individual workers to challenge the impact of reification on their lives and open up the possibility of collectively making history:

‘for the first time in history the active and practical side of class consciousness directly influences the specific actions of every individual, and … at the same time it consciously helps to determine the historical process.’

Legacy

History and Class Consciousness created a lively debate when it was first published in 1923, and was well received on the revolutionary left. Lukács followed it up in 1924 with a much shorter book explicitly linking his ideas to Lenin’s revolutionary politics, titled Lenin: The unity of his thought.

The historical context however, was not favourable. History and Class Consciousness was published in the same year as the decisive defeat of the revolutionary movement in Germany and a time of gathering degeneration of the Russian revolution. Lenin was forced to withdraw from politics because of ill health, and he died in1924. Stalin and his clique meanwhile were gaining ground and inflicting defeats on Trotsky’s Left Opposition.

By the time of the fifth congress of the Communist International in 1924, the book was being denounced. Reviews by Lazslo Rudas and Abram Deborin attacked it in terms that revealed a strong continuity between Second International determinism and the crude economism of emerging Stalinist ideology. Once again, the argument was being made that consciousness should be understood as a reflection of economic developments.

Lukács wrote a defence of History and Class Consciousness titled Tailism and the Dialectic in 1925 or 1926 which was only discovered in the 1990s. The book brilliantly reconfirmed and elaborated his positions. Further defeats for the revolutionary movements followed however, and Stalin consolidated his grip on power in Russia through the 1920s, abandoning the internationalism so central to the Bolshevik tradition, committing to ‘socialism in one country’ and moving against the ideas and the activists of October 1917.

Faced with the ebbing of the revolutionary tide and Stalin’s vicious clampdown on opposition, Lukács moved to the right and adopted a political position broadly in line with Stalin’s abandonment of the revolutionary project. Soon after, he withdrew from politics altogether focussing instead entirely on cultural questions. Much later in 1967 he wrote a new preface to the book, distancing himself from its revolutionary dialectic.

Despite serial attacks, neglect by much of the left and the fact that it was disowned by its author, History and Class Consciousness has proved irrepressible. It has gained new audiences at moments of revolutionary resurgence, in particularly the great upsurges that began in 1968. As crisis returns to the heart of the system, it is high time for a revival.

Before you go

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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