Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs is under attack. We repost a talk given by Chris Nineham at the recent conference in Budapest to defend him
The legacy and even the memory of the great Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs are under threat. The far-right government of Victor Orban has ordered the removal of the statue of Lukacs from the banks of the Danube in Budapest and is threatening to shut down his archive. Perhaps it is not surprising that as capitalism enters into its deepest social crisis since the 1930s, resurgent forces of the right are trying to erase all trace of Lukacs’ thought.
Georg Lukacs’ revolutionary writings of the 1920s provide a devastating account of the way capitalist commodification shapes every aspect of our lives. In particular, they show how living in this commodified world can blind people to capitalism’s underlying drives and therefore prolong the system’s existence.
But unlike so much of the critical theory that came after his seminal essays collected in History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs doesn’t stop at exposing capitalism’s mystifying qualities. He is in fact focused on revealing the other, often ignored but explosive side of the commodification of human beings, the aspects which periodically lead to rebellion. What the right finds even more objectionable about these great works of philosophy is their preoccupation with turning this rebellion into revolution. Not content with identifying the source of mass opposition to capitalism, Lukacs was concerned to work out how conscious human action can encourage and develop resistance into a movement to overthrow reification by overturning the system that creates it.
Lukacs’ short 1924 book, Lenin and the Unity of his Thought works as a complement to History and Class Consciousness, summarising and developing its ideas on revolutionary organisation. It is one of the great attempts to theorise Lenin’s method, something Lenin never had the chance to attend to fully. The idea of the actuality of revolution is a central theme, even the organising principle of the book. In Lukacs’ view it is the key to understanding Lenin’s crucial contribution to Marxism, the way that he saved Marx from those who want to turn his work into a mere critique of capitalism or - not much better - a fatalistic belief in the system’s inevitable demise.
The idea of the actuality of revolution remains controversial on the left. Some Marxists regard it as a concept relevant only in places and periods already marked by revolutionary turmoil. Others see it as as describing a generally valid political method not limited to a particular period. The sensible assumption that it combines and both raises the question of what kind of period it applies to and whether it is relevant in our own turbulent times
The future in the present
One thing is easy. What the phrase doesn’t mean is the thing that on first glance it might most obviously imply; we are in a revolutionary moment. Throughout the book, Lukacs emphasises the fact that acting on and arguing for the generally revolutionary potential of his time, Lenin was at odds with large sections, often the vast majority of the left. In fact most of the time the phrase has a very different significance. Lukacs uses it to make the case that, even in periods in which there is no immediate revolutionary crisis, socialists have to find ways to connect our present to a future revolution.
This doesn’t mean context is irrelevant. In a powerful and important recent article, Jodi Dean describes the meaning of the actuality of revolution as confidence in a specific vision of the future, which helps turn it into a reality. With it she says, ‘Lenin shifts the register of the question of revolution from knowledge to belief’.[i] True in a sense, but perhaps here Dean is allowing the idea to float too freely. We shouldn’t miss the fact that Lukacs roots the concept the actuality of revolution in an analysis of historical trends. Two were particularly important. The first was Lenin’s estimation – echoing Marx - that in the later nineteenth century, the emerging bourgeoisie, at least in the more advanced countries, had ceased to play a revolutionary role. Faced with growing demands and opposition from organised workers, post 1848, the bourgeoisie had become more and more wary of confronting its aristocratic and monarchical class enemies for fear of sparking revolutionary cycles it could not control.
The second was Lenin’s own insight that imperialism was converting the national question into an international one. National democratic aspirations and demands were now no longer directed merely against feudal regimes at home, but against the great capitalist powers that were trying to dominate the globe. The result was twofold: ‘From now on the proletariat is the only class capable of taking the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusion’ and ‘imperialist war, therefore, creates allies for the proletariat everywhere provided it takes up a revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie’.[ii]
Time and place
Lukacs argues that for Lenin the collapse of the Second International at the start of World War One was ‘a sign that the period of civil war is now unavoidable.’[iii] But it was also true that in Lenin’s estimation, the war was the eruption of tendencies that had been building beneath the surface for years. As Lukacs points out, Lenin had struggled with the rest of the left since at least 1903, trying to convince activists to recognise and respond to the revolutionary characteristics of the age. The dispute in the Russian party at the Brussels/London Congress of 1903 hinged precisely on this reading of the revolutionary nature of the situation. The Mensheviks, the moderate socialists in this debate, dismissed Lenin and his followers as putchists. This claim, Lukacs argues, was a complete misunderstanding. The highly active and accountable concept of party organisation Lenin was arguing for at the congress:
“does not for one moment have the task of either ‘making’ the revolution, or – by their own independent, bold actions – of sweeping the inactive masses along to confront them with a revolutionary fait accompli. Lenin’s concept of party organisation presupposes the fact – the actuality – of the revolution.”[iv]
This presupposition was vindicated within eighteen months by the outbreak of revolution in Russia in 1905.
In the very different context of the relative stabilisation of the system in the early 1920s, Lukacs shows Lenin arguing against both ultra-leftism and its apparent opposite, opportunism. Both he argued, were rooted in a defeatist attitude towards the revolution. Both were ‘pessimistic regarding the proximity of the proletarian revolution,’ because they both involved ‘an evasion of decisive struggles’.[v]
In short, Lukacs shows that with different degrees of immediacy and with different practical outcomes depending on the situation, keeping the revolution in view was always strategically vital for Lenin.
The meaning of the method
So, what is the significance of the notion of the actuality of revolution in practice? Lukacs argues that Lenin’s crucial innovation was to use the future revolution as a guide to the present. Connecting the present with a potential revolutionary future provides the key to making correct decisions in the here and now. It grants the strategic perspective from which it is possible to ‘see the specific in the general and the general in the specific’, and to judge priority:
“You must be able at each particular moment to find the particular link in the chain which you must grasp with all your might in order to hold the whole chain and to prepare firmly for the transition to the next link; the order of the links, their form, the way they differ from each other in the historical chain of events, are not as simple and not as meaningless as those in an ordinary chain made by a smith”.[vi]
Looked at from another angle, it allowed socialists to avoid succumbing to the pressures of reification and accommodation in existing reality. Lukacs argues, for example, that the disastrous decision by the socialist parties of the Second International to back their own governments at the start of World War One was a result of their pushing the prospect of revolution into the remote future. Such a move inevitably leads socialists to compromise, to accept the logic of the lesser of two evils, to embrace electoralism and to miss revolutionary opportunities.
There is a further dimension to Lukacs’ argument. Connecting the present to a revolutionary future is an essential counter to a deterministic attitude to revolution. For Lenin as for Marx, socialist revolution is nothing if not a consciously organised challenge to the existing order. In what Lukacs calls ‘a double break with mechanical fatalism’, stressing the actuality of revolution involved a challenge not just to the practice of the Second International but to much of what passes for Marxist politics.[vii]
It is often assumed that revolutionary organising involves general propaganda on the one hand and preparing for the revolutionary crisis in the other. But for Lukacs and in his view Lenin, the revolutionaries’ role is not just to prepare the working class intellectually and materially for what lies ahead, for something that is simply going to happen, important though those things are. It is also a question of helping to create the conditions for revolution themselves:
"The party he said, must prepare the revolution. In other words it must…try to accelerate the maturing of these revolutionary tendencies by its actions". [viii]
Socialists have to do their best to bend the present to the revolutionary future at all times. But the subjective element becomes more important the greater is the social crisis. While conscious actions can always create historical facts, in revolutionary moments they can become the dominant factor. Imagine, Lukács says, the situation in Russia if the Bolsheviks had not seized power in 1917. In the end there would have been an authoritarian, counter-revolutionary solution to the social crisis for which the left would have paid a terrible price. In a similar vein, Trotsky famously said that without the October Revolution, fascism would have been a Russian not an Italian word.
What then of the actuality of revolution today? In his 1967 postscript to the book on Lenin, Lukacs distances himself from some of the positions taken in 1924 (although on close reading perhaps not as far as some have suggested.) The times, he argued, had changed, in particular, ‘the Leninist thesis that imperialist development necessarily leads to world war has lost its general validity in the present’[ix]
In hindsight, this assertion and the implication that he was no longer living in an era of the actuality of the revolution is not quite as authoritative as it might have seemed at the time. Lukacs was writing just over two decades after the greatest imperialist war the world had yet seen, in the midst of the escalation of a new US imperial war in Vietnam and one year before the events of 1968 that opened up a period in which revolution came back onto the agenda in a series of countries.
It is clear, however, that a number of mid-century tendencies, particularly the inter-imperialist stand-off of the Cold War and the connected long boom in the west, allowed various ruling classes the room to meet at least some workers’ demands and aspirations, and thus to be seen to move society forward, however partially.
The prerequisite for all this, the containment and defeat of the revolutionary wave unleashed in 1917, was more thoroughgoing than anyone could possibly have imagined at the time. As well as the fascist catastrophe, it involved the smothering of the Russian Revolution, the wiping out of its leadership and the genuinely liberatory traditions of October in the authoritarian parody of socialism that was Stalinism.
For all these reasons, the subjective space for revolutionaries undoubtedly narrowed in the period after World War Two, making it difficult for some decades to organise significant revolutionary currents, but it is important to register that the space never disappeared. There were in fact a number of revolutionary moments in different parts of the world in this period, particularly in the years following 1968 when the post-war ‘settlement’ started to unravel. It is not too much of a generalisation to say that the missing element in these episodes tended to be the kind of organised revolutionary subjectivity that Lukacs is at such pains to advocate.
But looking around the globe in Trump times, any alert activist must conclude that we are well and truly in a new phase. The first major crisis in the post war order that began in 1968, was ultimately resolved in our rulers’ favour by neoliberal shock and awe, aided by the creeping capitulation of social democracy. But the resulting regimes, for all their longevity, have not managed even the levels of legitimacy achieved during the years of the long boom. The causes of the current political unravelling are structural. Imperialism is once again threatening confrontation between great powers, armed to the teeth. Hyper-globalised capitalist competition continues to drive down wages and working conditions to intolerable levels, creating unmeasured misery, failing to restore profitability and raising the prospect of environmental catastrophe. Ruling classes, visibly losing the consent that comes from at least appearing to take society forward, are more and more resorting to authoritarian measures.
In these circumstances the analysis presented in Lukacs’ revolutionary work seems to me to acquire a fresh force. His challenge to pessimism - the virtually inevitable product of years of relative passivity - has particular resonance. Marxism, he points out, can easily become the science of bourgeois invincibility:
“(T)o a vulgar Marxist, the foundations of bourgeois society are so unshakeable that, even when they are most visibly shaking, he only hope and prays for a return to ‘normality’, sees its crises as temporary episodes, and regards a struggle even at such times as an irrational and irresponsible rebellion against the ever-invincible capitalist system."[x]
It is important to confront the mainstream narrative that the crisis of the centre is simply driving society to the right. The reality is a widespread if uneven polarisation to radical alternatives on the left and the right. The surge of support for Corbyn, Sanders in the US and Melenchon in France, to mention just the most recent examples, show that determined and radical left projects can appeal to millions.
This leads directly to the contemporary importance of breaking from fatalism. The radical left needs to address itself to actually shaping reality and not just to commentary, propaganda and preparation. The far right is active and organising. To reconnect with wide sections of the population and convince them of their transformative capacities, the left needs to prove in practice that mass action can make a difference in the present.
Finally, we surely have to reassert the actuality of revolution itself. The elites face a series of interlocking crises that they are finding intractable. The fantasy formulas of neoliberalism are unravelling very publicly. And yet no new direction is being proposed. People sense this impasse. The subjective crisis of the extreme centre lies precisely in the fact that so many working people are rejecting not just the policies, but the organisations and personnel of the regime. Only new politics and radical critiques will connect. Only commitment to fundamental change will inspire confidence.
At the same time, we need to be aware of a contradiction in the left’s reaction to the situation. It is a commonplace amongst radicals to say that the current crisis of legitimacy is rooted in the failure of the neoliberal economic regime which so dominates 21st century capitalism. And yet the most effective or at least high profile left responses so far have been electoral, wagering on parliamentary renewal to institute systemic change. This is not surprising. For most people most of the time, politics is what happens in parliament. But while energetically supporting and pushing forward the heartening series of left parliamentary projects, radicals need to be frank about their prospects.
Lukacs warned repeatedly of the recuperative power of the capitalist state and reification in general. The left electoral surges have helped popularise socialist arguments and sharpen the crises of the elites. But we need to be clear it is inconceivable that the complex of problems and forces that we face can be dealt with by projects based only on replacing one set of politicians by another. The possibility of deeper transformation needs to be asserted if we are to chart a path forward. If it is not, there will be moments of confrontation and decision which will turn too easily into defeat. The disastrous decision by Syriza’s leadership to capitulate to the IMF over the austerity package in July 2015, despite the vote of the Greek people, was reluctantly accepted precisely because no more radical solution was being widely circulated. To assert the radical, revolutionary choice contained in that moment in hindsight is easy, it is also too late.
[i] Dean, Jodi, The Actuality of Revolution in Socialist Register 2017, p. 63
[ii] Lukacs, Georg, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought, 1974, pp.49/50
[iii] As above, p.49
[iv] As above, p.26
[v] As above, p.82
[vi] As above, p.84
[vii] As above, p.29
[viii] As above, p.32
[ix] As above, p.91
[x] As above, p.11
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.
More articles from this author
- Culture under capitalism: Why art is alienated – The Dialectics of Art review
- Britain's war machine: imperial fantasies and the tilt to China
- The crisis over Ukraine in dates
- Cameron, getting caught and the new corruption
- Who starts it? Violence, protest and what the police are really for
- Social movements can beat attacks on the right to protest - podcast
- 'America is back': Biden and the continuation of US imperialism