Georg Lukács made a large contribution to Marxist theory, but especially significant are the series of essays he wrote under the title History and Class Consciousness (published in 1923). Of these the crowning achievement remains the section Reification and the Class Consciousness of the Proletariat’.
Lukács’ Reification and the Class Consciousness of the Proletariat is a disorganized but masterful essay written in the aftermath of the greatest revolution ever known. 1917 shook the entire world and all over the poor and oppressed were given a powerful impetus, not least because now history could no longer appear as a phantasmagoria, a nebulous and remote myriad of wishes, desires and policies shaped in the minds of Tsars or ministers and formalized in huge, fortified buildings which exclude the vast majority of humanity.
1917 powerfully revealed to man ‘the tendencies out of whose dialectical opposition he can make the future’ and demonstrated that these tendencies exist in society’s midst. The present was revealed through consciousness as ‘a process of becoming’.
History morphed into something which people could lay their hands upon and make their own, thereby changing the world. The effect that this has upon a single life is beautifully described by John Reed when he records the following in the days after the October revolution:
‘Across the horizon spread the glittering lights of the capital, immeasurably more splendid by night than by day, like a dike of jewels heaped on the barren plain.
The old workman who drove held the wheel in one hand, while with the other he swept the far-gleaming capital in an exultant gesture - “Mine!” he cried, his face all alight. “All mine now! My Petrograd!”’
Lukács’ greatest works are imbued with this sense of profound democratic freedom. But his essay has been widely described as idealist, as over-playing the role of consciousness in the development of class struggle. The reason for this is quite clear - the essay itself is a concentrated examination of the forms of consciousness which take shape in, and affect, bourgeois society. To someone unable to penetrate the heart of this work - its methodological depth - it will appear to be idealist precisely because of its subject matter (consciousness).
But at no point does Lukács abandon the materialist standpoint. Although the focus of the essay is consciousness and its reified states, that from which all other categories are deduced (and take shape from) is the commodity form itself. Lukas never once loses sight of this.
Commodities, capitalism and class consciousness
The Hungarian Marxist makes this observation about capitalism: ‘The universality of the commodity form is responsible both objectively and subjectively for the abstraction of the human labour incorporated in commodities'. Lukács explains how this works on both objective and subjective levels in capitalist society:
'objectively in so far as the commodity form facilitates the equal exchange of qualitatively different objects….subjectively, this formal equality of human labour in the abstract…becomes the real principle governing the actual production of commodities’.
Abstract labour becomes the ‘real principle governing the actual production of commodities’. It imposes its ‘quantitative’ character on the production process. This development came with the development of industrial capitalism.
Before the development of modern capitalism, any one product was the visible and organic unity of a series of different operations. The cobbler would be skilled in the various stages of work required to make the shoe. He was overseer to the whole process and the completed article was the conscious end of his endeavours.
Moving from handicrafts through to factory production, the qualititative element is increasingly phased out. The labour process is relentlessly broken down: split into isolated and specialised routines, such that the end product is lost to the individuals that create it.
As Lukács puts it - ‘the unity of a product as a commodity no longer coincides with its unity as a use-value’.
The ‘rationalisation’ of the labour process also impacts on the way that labour is understood and organized. Lukács states, ‘the time necessary for work to be accomplished…is converted, as mechanisation and rationalisation are intensified, from a merely empirical average figure, to an objectively calculable work stint that confronts the worker as a fixed and established reality’.
The X hour day, time sheets, clocking in machines and the factory gong are not the super objective, time honoured means by which a fair and precise exchange of labour for wages is facilitated. They are instead expressions of the change in character undergone by the labour process itself, whereby ‘time sheds its qualitative ,variable flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable things’.
The reality of social existence is, in a certain way, the same for both proletariat and bourgeoisie but only in its immediacy. The means by which this immediacy ‘becomes’ for both classes are fundamentally different. And here Lukács makes a vital point:
‘Engels talks about quantity to quality - water to steam…he ignores the fact that when the point of view is changed even transitions which seem to be purely quantitative now become qualitative’.
Lukács gives an example: ‘let us compare these two series (the growth or reduction in the sum of money and the increase or decrease in labour time)…...in the first case we are confronted by what Hegel calls a ‘nodal line of measure relations’ whereas in the second case every change is one of quality in its innermost nature although its quantitive appearance is forced on to the worker by his social environment’.
Though both the capitalist class and the proletariat are expressions of human alienation, differences in exploitation to the capitalist appear as necessarily quantitative. He may tally up profits at the end of the year and based on this, with an eye toward re-investment and competition, make a brisk calculation as to how much the workers' wages should increase or fall. But for the worker this same calculation becomes a determiner of ‘his whole physical, mental and moral existence’.
An increase or decrease in wage for the worker is a qualitative fact which permeates their inner life. It determines standard of living. It establishes whether or not the worker's family are able to take a holiday in the summer or the quality of health care the worker's children receive etc.
This is profoundly important because it shows just how the bourgeoisie is bound to the most immediate and quantifiable forms of thought by its objective class position. For the bourgeoisie ‘method arises directly from its social existence….mere immediacy….. constituting its outermost barrier, one that cannot be crossed’. Lukács goes on examine how this is reproduced across the various spheres of social life. He notes that the ‘need to systematise and to abandon empiricism, tradition and material dependence was the need for exact calculations’.
In law, for instance, this meant the old forms where justice was dispensed according to living tradition and the highly specific aspects of each case were replaced by ‘a rational systematisation of all statutes regulating life, which represents, or at least tends towards a closed system applicable to all possible and imaginable cases’.
More and more do the judges become the mere mouthpiece of a rigid set of laws endowed with a ‘ghostly objectivity’. This is the essence of reification - the sense of powerlessness and passivity brought about by those things which, though created by human beings, assume a life over and above them.
As a result of ‘the splitting of man into an element of the movement of commodities’, every semblance of the whole is lost. The proletarian is denied the chance to be master of his work, to envisage the total process by which is created an end product, and to realise his own personality.
Ideology and consciousness in capitalist society
The commodity form exerts its influence more broadly. A single factory is a highly organized unit but the same factory considered alongside others enters into a broken and disordered chain. When it comes into contact with other factories, that which brings them together is nothing more than arbitrariness. It is blind compulsion, the force of competition.
There is nothing necessary in the connection. A conscious, totalizing principle is almost always absent (war time economies are sometimes exceptions). Lukács says ‘The Capitalist process of rationalisation based on private economic calculation requires that every manifestation shall exhibit this very interaction between details which are subject to laws and a totality ruled by chance. It presupposes a society so structured. It produces and reproduces this structure so far as it takes possession of society.’
This structure is expressed in and through the development of the sciences: ‘the more intricate a modern science becomes and the better it understands itself methodologically, the more resolutely it will turn its back on the ontological problems of its own sphere of influence….the more highly developed it becomes and the more scientific, the more it will become a formally closed system of practical laws’.
Trotsky once wondered how it was possible that the man who formulated the theory of evolution was in the same moment a devoted believer in God. The answer, in part, lies in the fragmentation of the whole as a necessary feature of bourgeois thought (though Darwin’s theory was a splendid confirmation of dialectics, and therefore totality and process within certain limits, it nevertheless remained isolated in the sphere of nature).
When scientists seek totality intuitively and unconsciously, for there is no other means available to them within the parameters of bourgeois thought, they often discover the notion of the whole preserved in the fixed and unchanging guise of God. Of course there are scientists who reject God, or do not even try to grasp the ontological problems of our age.
There are a good few scientists (and we see this a lot nowadays) who raise an ontological problem over and above their own specialisation; a problem which does indeed confront all human beings in totality. But this problem is not deduced from a concrete analysis of the connections between those human beings and the processes which animate them, but instead comes into being fully formed and therefore, like God himself, artificially whole.
Lukács describes how in philosophy, too, ‘the impossibility of comprehending the whole with the conceptual framework of the rational partial systems’ expresses itself. This time it can be found in the form of the unknowable ‘thing in itself’(Kant). Lukács concedes that ‘bourgeois thought landed in these antinomies after great mental strife’ but the ‘irrational chasm between the subject and object of knowledge’ is the inevitable resting place ‘of a theoretical approach based on unmediated contemplation’.
So it is that, once again, Lukács returns to the notion of immediacy, or the ‘unmediated’, as not simply an aspect of bourgeois thought but its very foundation. Bourgeois thought expresses the fact that bourgeois society ‘acquires increasing control of the details of its social existence, subjecting them to its needs’ but that society is unable to unite those details in a rational system.
Bourgeois thinking corresponds to this in so much as it too is unable to escape those ‘details’ in the theoretical realm, but neither can it comprehend them as ‘aspects of a totality, i.e the aspects of a total social situation caught up in the process of historical change’. And so it is compelled to concentrate on these details so the details themselves emerge as the reality at the expense of the connections between them. A concept is raised ‘in itself’ and therefore brought into conflict with other isolated concepts whereupon we experience the lifeless division between ‘subject and object, freedom and necessity, individual and society, form and content etc’.
Lukács describes how this became apparent in the bourgeois understanding of history which also ‘became polarised into two extremes: on the one had, there were the ‘great individuals’ viewed as the autocratic makers of history, on the other hand, there were the ‘natural laws’ of the historical environment. They both turned out to be equally impotent.’
In a paragraph which contains a certain sadness Lukács describes what the acceptance of immediacy means for a single person and their everyday life in society. He writes:
‘anyone who insists upon immediacy may never go beyond this first sight his whole life long - it may look as though the next stage implied a purely intellectual exercise, a mere process of abstraction. But this is an illusion….where the immediately given form of the objects, the fact of their existing here and now and in this particular way appears to be primary, real and objective, whereas their relations seem to be secondary and subjective. For everyone who sees things in such immediacy every true change must seem incomprehensible’.
This is relevant today. On a psychological level there are many people to whom real change seems incomprehensible and also, therefore, frightening. This is the result, maybe, of the depth of reification which 21st century society experiences. There are others who embrace immediacy and exalt their own ignorance.
We find, in the gutter press, the often abstract but well intentioned attempts to help the most oppressed in society described as ‘politically correct’ and met with bitter venom. The struggle to move beyond immediacy becomes stigmatized yet the very narrowness of human thinking is raised up and applauded; the limited movement of thought within the rigid confines of ‘common sense’ is regarded as an expression of realism and wisdom.
Many of the ugliest things in society - racism, sexism, prejudice - emerge somehow fortified by their superficiality and baseness. Part of the greatness of Lukács’ essay lies in the fact that it provides a powerful context from which some of this can be understood today.
Overcoming the limits of contradictory consciousness
But is it possible for human beings to overcome this narrowness, to transcend immediacy? If so, then how?
Lukács writes that although ‘immediacy….is the relation of bourgeois thought to the social and historical reality of bourgeois society’ the other great social class, the proletariat, is necessarily forced beyond immediacy because ‘for the worker labour-time is not merely the objective form of the commodity he has sold, i.e his labour power (for in that form the problem for him too is one of the exchange of equivalents i.e a quantative matter)'.
But in addition is the determining form of his existence as subject, as human being. Lukács as a genuine Marxist recognised the importance of ‘the special objective character of labour as a commodity, it’s ‘use value’ (its ability to yield surplus produce)’ It is the sale of this commodity upon which the whole system rests.
A worker is unique as he is, in a manner of speaking, a living commodity for he ‘directly possesses the naked and abstract form of the commodity’. Hence the consciousness of the true nature of a social system based on the sale of commodities is for the proletariat at the same time a consciousness of self.
We have seen how the bourgeoisie is compelled to perceive ‘the subject and object of the historical process and of social reality in a double form’ but for the proletariat social reality does not exist in this way - consciousness ‘is not the knowledge of an opposed object but is the self consciousness of the object’.
Lukács states that ‘when the worker knows himself as a commodity…..the special nature of labour as a commodity which in the absence of this consciousness acts as an unacknowledged driving wheel in the economic process now objectifies itself by means of this consciousness.’ It becomes ‘abundantly clear that quantification is a reified and reifying cloak spread over the true essence of the object and can only be regarded as an objective form of reality inasmuch as the subject is uninterested in the essence of the object to which it stands in a contemplative or (seemingly) practical relationship’.
It is only from the standpoint of the proletariat that history ceases to be:
‘an enigmatic flux to which men and things are subjected. It is no longer a thing to be explained by the intervention of transcendental powers or made meaningful by reference to transcendental values. History is, on the one hand, the product (albeit the unconscious one) of man’s own activity, on the other hand it is the succession of those processes in which the forms taken by this activity and the relations of man to himself (to nature, to other men) are overthrown’.
But it is not enough to raise this standpoint in consciousness alone. What is required is the active intervention which such consciousness paves the way for. Repeatedly Lukács emphasises the importance of practice and in this connection cites Marx and Engels.
‘Proletarian thought is practical thought and as such is strongly pragmatic. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Engels says, providing an idiomatic gloss on Marx’s second Thesis on Feuerbach:
“The question whether human thinking can pretend to objective truth is not a theoretical but a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the ‘this-sidedness’ of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”
This pudding, however, is the making of the proletariat into a class: the process by which its class consciousness becomes real in practice. This gives a more concrete form to the proposition that the proletariat is the identical subject-object of the historical process, i.e. the first subject in history that is (objectively) capable of an adequate social consciousness.
It turns out that the contradictions in which the antagonisms of the mechanics of history are expressed are only capable of an objective social solution in practice if the solution is at the same time a new, practically-won consciousness on the part of the proletariat. Whether an action is functionally right or wrong is decided ultimately by the evolution of proletarian class consciousness.
This is vitally important, for it shows that in Lukács the relationship between consciousness and practice is an organic one. Lukács appreciates very well the dialectical tension between freedom and necessity. He understands that the objective economic evolution of society creates the conditions and the necessity for its revolutionary transformation, but also that without the conscious appreciation of this necessity on the part of the proletariat the situation comes to nothing.
Class consciousness is the mediation through which the actions of the proletariat can be self determined and therefore free. It is in and through this process that the revolutionary party is formed.
Tragically, the 1917 revolution was physically annihilated. Revolutionary movements rose throughout the world and were betrayed and defeated while the Stalinist apparatus grew increasingly powerful.
Through fear or despair Lukács tried to accommodate Stalinism - he, and the word is fitting, denounced his own ‘History and Class Consciousness’ turning his back on ‘political’ activity and confining his Marxism to the consideration of literature, with the important exception of a brief period of activity in 1956.
Lukács survived until 1971. It is hard not to contrast his situation with that of Leon Trotsky who made not a single concession to Stalinism and was subsequently murdered. Trotsky’s sacrifice was infinitely more profound, but we should remember that there is something of the tragic too in the story of this brilliant Marxist theoretician who was compelled to renounce the creativity, which had once inspired him and filled him with so much hope.
Lukács has left us with his ‘History’ and his examination of Lenin (Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his thought, published in 1924). These works are powerful affirmations of the dialectical materialist tradition and therefore great resources, especially for the many today who have never heard of Georg Lukács.