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Thompson_Michael J. - Lukács Revisited

Thompson_Michael J. - Lukács Revisited

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Published by: Rogger Metchel Paath on May 11, 2013
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Lukács Revisited
By: Michael J. Thompson
[from
 New Politics
, vol. 8, no. 2 (new series), whole no. 30, Winter 2001]
MICHAEL J. THOMPSON
is a staff economist with the NYC Housing Authority.
 
THE LEGACY OF GEORG LUKÁCS IS THE RESULT OF HISPHILOSOPHICAL
and political complexity. He has been at once a symbol of intellectual originality and an example of doctrinal conformity. He was a thinker whodeepened the philosophical dimensions of Marxism, and yet has been one of the mostneglected thinkers of the 20th century. Today, we generally consider his greatestcontribution to be not in the realm of political theory, or in philosophy moregenerally, but in the realm of cultural criticism. His controversial and influential book 
 History and Class Consciousness
is remembered most not for its radical reformulationof Marxist theory but for the concept of reification, which has given rise to a criticaltheory of consumerism and its effects on culture under capitalism. Even more,Lukács's legacy has been hard to trace since his thought was so variegated, complex,and, at times, contradictory. His Leninist and Stalinist phases are replete with powerful, critical ideas even as they are masked in what sounds to modern readers likethe language of Communist Party lingo.At the time of its publication,
 History and Class Consciousness
gave rise to afierce debate over the core issues of Marxist philosophy and the revolutionary method of political and social change. But, more importantly, it went back to the Marxisttheory of commodity fetishism to construct a Marxian theory of alienation via Hegel'scategory of alienation (
 Entfremdung
). This, as is well known, was done before thediscovery of Marx's
 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts
, which laid out Marx'stheory of alienation. Lukács then applied this to the method of revolution which hewitnessed taking place in the early 20th century. Class consciousness could not, as theorthodox Marxists maintained, be a mere function of one's economic or materialrelation to capital. One of the major theses of the book was its bold assertion that classconsciousness was not causally related to class location. Instead, the extent to whichthe reification of the working class was entrenched -- i.e., the extent to which theworking class saw its position as a "natural" one in society or saw its position,however unfortunate, as acceptable in the overall structure of capitalist society --determined the extent of class consciousness it possessed. For its part, "classconsciousness" was a perfect, Hegelian, historical moment, an understanding which, if 1
 
the working class were able to grasp it properly, would lead it toward revolutionaryactivity and the transformation of society.Such a diversion from the Marxism of the Second International was bound tocome into conflict from the established Marxist-Leninist position which had takenhold among Communists at the time. The result was what has come to be known asthe "Lukács Debate," and it was from this that Lukács's
Chvostismus und Dialektik 
 (
Tailism and the Dialectic
) was written. Newly discovered, and gathering dust in thearchives of the CPSU in Moscow, this defense of 
 History and Class Consciousness
shows that Lukács continued to defend his ideas as late as 1925 or 1926, when the present manuscript was written. It is also a document which develops some of theinsights which Lukács espoused to a higher degree in
 History and ClassConsciousness
, stressing the necessity for thinking dialectically and resisting thehollow economic determinism which orthodox Marxism had made commonplace inthe early 20th century.
Tailism and the Dialectic
is addressed to two major critics of Lukács' seminaltext: Lazslo Rudas, a former associate of Lukács during the Hungarian revolution of 1919, and Abram Deborin, a leading Soviet philosopher who was, years after theLukács Debate, condemned by Stalin for his Hegelianism. Rudas and Deborinaddressed their attacks at Lukács's notion of subjectivity in the revolutionary process.For them, Lukács was smuggling neo-Kantian elements into Marxism. While it wasclear to them that it was the material foundations of society, of the production process,which brought about the reality of class consciousness and the revolution itself,Lukács was offering a more subjectivistic conception of the theory of revolution."Tailism," as Lukács uses the word, or "tail-ending,"refers to this interpretation of history and social reality. Deborin and Rudas are "tailists" insofar as they accept thatthe historical process will mechanistically produce social change. Marx was thesecular prophet who had unearthed the laws of history and society, and any diversionfrom recognizing those laws as deterministic were clearly bourgeois attempts atcontradicting Marxism.
THE NOTION OF SCIENCE WAS THEREFORE PULLED INTO THESPOTLIGHT
. For Lukács, any interpretation of the social world which utilized themethodology of the natural sciences was itself neo-Kantian. Lukács's position stressed the sociological character of analyzing the dynamics of society as well as knowledgeof it. The radical idea implicit here is that politics itself is not a matter of historicalinevitability, but an act of conscious, informed will. Indeed, this, for Lukács, waswhat was problematic with the entire doctrine of orthodox Marxism as it came downthrough the Second International. But, even more, the implication was that theMarxian laws of history -- as they were interpreted by orthodox Marxism -- were notto be read literally. Instead, the justification for revolution was not to be found in anhistorical mechanism, but in the implied ethics of those making the conscious choiceto follow their own interests in overthrowing the system of capitalism.This was more than a departure from orthodox Marxism; it was also a morecomplex reading of Marx's sociology. From Hegel, Lukács was able to resurrect theradical insight that human consciousness was essentially dialectical. This he saw asimplicit in Marx's sociology, but its application to the revolutionary process could not be underplayed. If workers were not cognizant of their class position and its2
 
implication for the historical process, how could the revolution be guaranteed? Lukácsknew that it could not be. Hegel's concept of dialectic was employed by Lukács toshow that the essential relationship for the revolutionary process was not a dialectic of nature but a dialectic between the conscious understanding of one's class position and the objective economic and social conditions which determine that particular class position.This necessarily led Lukács to a defense of his notion of "imputed classconsciousness," itself a theoretical defense of Bolshevism. As mentioned above, for Lukács, class consciousness is not, and cannot, be produced mechanistically from theobjective situations the proletariat finds itself in. On the contrary, there exists a gap between the
objective
context of the working class and the
subjective
 
recognition
of the situations produced by this context. This gap can only be bridged through thework of a vanguard political party. For Lukács, this was the Communist Party, which,for him at that time, was not the bureaucratic exemplar of dogmatic conformism itwas soon to become, but the conscious collective will (
Gesamtwille
) to actualfreedom.But more importantly, Rudas attacked Lukács's interpretation of Marxism.Dialectical materialism, after all, was the radical notion that the material world determined one's consciousness. Imputed class consciousness was therefore hereticalto the fundamental principles of Marxism as interpreted by both Rudas and Deborin,namely, that objectivity in the historical process was primary and that it was, as Marxhad "clearly" argued, one's social context that determined one's consciousness and notthe other way around.What was not evident to Rudas and Deborin, as well as to many others whowere disciples of the Marxism of the Second International, was that this narrowreading of Marx necessarily bled the Marxian conception of praxis of any realmeaning. As Lukács argued in
 History and Class Consciousness
, praxis is not merelyactivity informed by a politically correct theory, it is the nature of the relation betweensubject and object in the historical process. Not only does the objective sphere of economic, political and social institutions act on subjective consciousness, butsubjective consciousness also acts, and can alter, that objective sphere. It is up tohuman beings to mold the future of social liberation.Even more, the issue of the relation between ethics and politics is raised.Although Lukács did not spell this out explicitly in this phase of his work, there is noquestion that there is a reliance on the individual's ethical choice, once he or she hasshattered reification and finally sees the true content of the objective moment, tochoose the revolution. Politics is then not a matter of necessity but of choice, and itssymmetry with ethics should be emphasized, for this remains one of the most potentially rich areas in Marxist philosophy.
Tailism and the Dialectic
is not merely a defense of Lukács's ideas. It is also astatement of intellectual creativity and dignity in the face of conformism and doctrinalrigidity. In content, it is also an elaboration of the seminal ideas of Lukács's pre-Stalinist phase, and it probes the deep and profound implications of Hegelian-Marxism. The relevance of this text must be seen in more than an historical or  biographical light. The issues Lukács raises in his text are still relevant for thecontemporary left. Indeed, problems today are no longer issues of party organization3

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