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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
THE LEGACY OF GEORG LUKÁCS IS THE RESULT OF HIS PHILOSOPHICAL and political complexity. He has been at once a symbol of intellectual originality and an example of doctrinal conformity. He was a thinker who deepened the philosophical dimensions of Marxism, and yet has been one of the most neglected thinkers of the 20th century. Today, we generally consider his greatest contribution to be not in the realm of political theory, or in philosophy more generally, but in the realm of cultural criticism. His controversial and influential book History and Class Consciousness is remembered most not for its radical reformulation of Marxist theory but for the concept of reification, which has given rise to a critical theory 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 like the language of Communist Party lingo. At the time of its publication, History and Class Consciousness gave rise to a fierce 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 Marxist theory of commodity fetishism to construct a Marxian theory of alienation via Hegel's category of alienation (Entfremdung). This, as is well known, was done before the discovery of Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which laid out Marx's theory of alienation. Lukács then applied this to the method of revolution which he witnessed taking place in the early 20th century. Class consciousness could not, as the orthodox Marxists maintained, be a mere function of one's economic or material relation to capital. One of the major theses of the book was its bold assertion that class consciousness was not causally related to class location. Instead, the extent to which the reification of the working class was entrenched -- i.e., the extent to which the working 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, "class consciousness" was a perfect, Hegelian, historical moment, an understanding which, if
the working class were able to grasp it properly, would lead it toward revolutionary activity and the transformation of society. Such a diversion from the Marxism of the Second International was bound to come into conflict from the established Marxist-Leninist position which had taken hold among Communists at the time. The result was what has come to be known as the "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 the archives 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 the insights which Lukács espoused to a higher degree in History and Class Consciousness, stressing the necessity for thinking dialectically and resisting the hollow economic determinism which orthodox Marxism had made commonplace in the early 20th century. Tailism and the Dialectic is addressed to two major critics of Lukács' seminal text: Lazslo Rudas, a former associate of Lukács during the Hungarian revolution of 1919, and Abram Deborin, a leading Soviet philosopher who was, years after the Lukács Debate, condemned by Stalin for his Hegelianism. Rudas and Deborin addressed their attacks at Lukács's notion of subjectivity in the revolutionary process. For them, Lukács was smuggling neo-Kantian elements into Marxism. While it was clear 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 that the historical process will mechanistically produce social change. Marx was the secular prophet who had unearthed the laws of history and society, and any diversion from recognizing those laws as deterministic were clearly bourgeois attempts at contradicting Marxism. THE NOTION OF SCIENCE WAS THEREFORE PULLED INTO THE SPOTLIGHT. For Lukács, any interpretation of the social world which utilized the methodology of the natural sciences was itself neo-Kantian. Lukács's position stressed the sociological character of analyzing the dynamics of society as well as knowledge of it. The radical idea implicit here is that politics itself is not a matter of historical inevitability, but an act of conscious, informed will. Indeed, this, for Lukács, was what was problematic with the entire doctrine of orthodox Marxism as it came down through the Second International. But, even more, the implication was that the Marxian laws of history -- as they were interpreted by orthodox Marxism -- were not to be read literally. Instead, the justification for revolution was not to be found in an historical mechanism, but in the implied ethics of those making the conscious choice to follow their own interests in overthrowing the system of capitalism. This was more than a departure from orthodox Marxism; it was also a more complex reading of Marx's sociology. From Hegel, Lukács was able to resurrect the radical insight that human consciousness was essentially dialectical. This he saw as implicit 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 its
implication for the historical process, how could the revolution be guaranteed? Lukács knew that it could not be. Hegel's concept of dialectic was employed by Lukács to show 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 class consciousness," itself a theoretical defense of Bolshevism. As mentioned above, for Lukács, class consciousness is not, and cannot, be produced mechanistically from the objective 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 the work 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 it was soon to become, but the conscious collective will (Gesamtwille) to actual freedom. 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 heretical to 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 Marx had "clearly" argued, one's social context that determined one's consciousness and not the other way around. What was not evident to Rudas and Deborin, as well as to many others who were disciples of the Marxism of the Second International, was that this narrow reading of Marx necessarily bled the Marxian conception of praxis of any real meaning. As Lukács argued in History and Class Consciousness, praxis is not merely activity informed by a politically correct theory, it is the nature of the relation between subject and object in the historical process. Not only does the objective sphere of economic, political and social institutions act on subjective consciousness, but subjective consciousness also acts, and can alter, that objective sphere. It is up to human 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 no question that there is a reliance on the individual's ethical choice, once he or she has shattered reification and finally sees the true content of the objective moment, to choose the revolution. Politics is then not a matter of necessity but of choice, and its symmetry 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 a statement of intellectual creativity and dignity in the face of conformism and doctrinal rigidity. In content, it is also an elaboration of the seminal ideas of Lukács's preStalinist phase, and it probes the deep and profound implications of HegelianMarxism. 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 the contemporary left. Indeed, problems today are no longer issues of party organization
and the precise nature of revolution. But it would be silly to say that the matter of exactly how to think about society and its various dynamics is a coherent and simple matter from a left political perspective. With the entrenchment of relativism in many modes of thought and the simplistic anti-scientism which continues to prevail in many sectors of today's left, Lukács's ideas can provide a critical edge to the questions of how Marxism can still relate to society and a critical account of capitalism. Rethinking Lukács's contribution, in this regard, is not only interesting, but crucial.
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