By Brian Williams
The political current Counterfire, which has its origins in the SWP, has chosen to produce as one of its first publications Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukács by Chris Nineham (Nineham, 2010). Such a choice is highly interesting in placing theoretical concepts developed by Lukács in the early 1920s as a basis for the approach of Counterfire. These concepts were specifically rejected by Lenin in very strong terms – he referred to Lukács’s views as ‘purely verbal’ Marxism. As ideas of, or similar to, the early Lukács are the basis not only of Counterfire but of other currents, and as they reveal more generally a misunderstanding of Marxism, analysing why these ideas are wrong – and why Lenin so specifically rejected them – is of importance to more than simply small circles.
Counterfire and Lukács
To take first Counterfire specifically, the central role ascribed to Lukács by the leading theorists in it is explicit and emphatic. According to Counterfire’s website: ‘Georg Lukács was the great theorist of revolution in the 20th century’ (Counterfire, 2010). This claim is repeated on the cover of Chris Nineham’s book.
It is hard to believe that such a characterisation has been thought out seriously. It would entail elevation of Lukács above Lenin, Trotsky, and Gramsci, for example. One assumes that it is actually intended as an (over-)emphatic assertion of the importance of Lukács’s writings in the early 1920s, and not such an elevation of Lukács above these other great revolutionary theorists. But it does indicate an exaggeratedly high regard for early Lukács.
A similar view was expressed by John Rees, another leading figure of Counterfire, who writes in the introduction to Lukács’s Tailism and the Dialectic: ‘in his [Lukács’s] last years, his old revolutionary ardour began to glow in the fire of the world-wide revolt of 1968 and the years that followed. It is the great radicalising impulse of those years that lies behind the modern recovery of the full meaning of History and Class Consciousness… So long as that crisis continues, those who want to resist its ravages will find sure guidance in [Lukács’s books] History and Class Consciousness and Lenin’ (Rees, 2002, p. 35).
Nineham and Rees’s extraordinarily high assessment of Lukács’s writings of the early 1920s was diametrically opposite to that of Lenin. Here is Lenin’s characterisation of one of Lukács’s articles: ‘Its Marxism is purely verbal; its distinction between “defensive” and “offensive” tactics is artificial; it gives no concrete analysis of precise and definite historical situations; it takes no account of what is most essential’ (Lenin V. I., Kommunismus, 1920b, p.165).
It is therefore worth analysing why Lenin specifically, and rightly from the point of view of Marxism, rejected the ideas which Nineham and Rees elevate to such a height.
The interrelation of all classes
Lenin insistently asserted that the political line of the working class must be based on an analysis of the relations between all classes and groups in society. This is a necessary application of the Marxist concept of the totality. As Lenin put it in Left-Wing Communism: ‘the Communist Party… must act on scientific principles. Science… demands that account must be taken of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country’ (Lenin V. I., 1920a, p.81).
As an example of this, Lenin noted: ‘The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the twentieth century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the “lower classes” do not want to live in the old way and the “upper classes” cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph’ (Lenin V. I., 1920a, p.84).
As the early Lukács utilised a terminology specifically derived from Hegel to discuss such issues, to see what is wrong with the early Lukács’s theories we will therefore translate Lenin’s point into the terminology used by Lukács. For Lenin the ‘subject’ of the revolutionary process (that which acted, that which needed to achieve class consciousness) was naturally the proletariat. But Lenin pointed out that what the proletariat needed to understand and therefore to act on, that is the ‘object’, was not only itself but the interrelation of ‘all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses’ – i.e. the whole of society. ‘Subject’ and ‘object’ therefore were not the same and consequently could not be identical.
Lukács and Hegel
As opposed to the insistence of Lenin that a political line had to be based on analysis of the interrelation of all classes, Lukács put forward the concept that what was required was the knowledge by the working class of itself. This is formulated in terms, derived from Hegel, that the ‘subject’ (that which knows, that which acts etc) must be the same as the ‘object’ (that which is known). As Lukács put it in History and Class Consciousness: ‘the proletariat is at one and the same time the subject and object of its own knowledge’ (Lukács, 1922, p.20). Or, referring to the working class, that: ‘the fact that a class understands itself means that it understands society as a whole and when, in consequence, the class becomes both the subject and object of knowledge’ (Lukács, 1922, p.2). Therefore, if for Lenin the subject and the object could not coincide, for Lukács the subject and the object were identical.
Outlining why Lukács wanted to make such an assertion, why it is wrong, and where such terminology and concepts come from, involves a short detour via early 19th century German philosophy but, as will be seen, this will lead directly to much more practical misunderstandings today.
Hegel and the identical subject object
The formulation of the concept of an identical subject-object (that which knows is that which is known) was derived by Lukács directly from Hegel who, as Nineham points out, set about establishing ‘a philosophical system that could overcome the separation between thought and reality’ (Nineham, 2010, p.31).
The concept of an identical subject-object is indeed a fundamental cornerstone of Hegel – the final sentence of his Science of Logic ends with the concept of ‘the self-comprehending pure Notion’ (Hegel, 1831, p.844). Or as Hegel put in the final chapter of that work, ‘The Absolute Idea’, it is the concept of ‘self-knowing truth’ (Hegel, 1831, p. 824).
The concept of an identical subject-object necessarily means that thought (‘the Notion’) and reality coincide – indeed are the same. Therefore Hegel speaks of: ‘the self-knowing Notion that has itself, as the absolute, both subjective and objective, for its subject matter, consequently as the pure correspondence of the Notion and its reality’ (Hegel, 1831, p.826). Nothing exists separate from this identical subject-object: ‘since it is the absolute form, the Notion that knows itself and everything as Notion, there is no content that could stand over against it and determine it to be a one sided external form’ (Hegel, 1831, pp. 839-840). This identical subject-object is consequently itself the totality: ‘the Notion that comprehends itself, being as the concrete and also absolutely intensive totality’ (Hegel, 1831, p. 842).
Hegel held that such unity of subject and object was arrived at through a process: ‘in the Idea of absolute cognition the Notion has become the Idea’s own content. The Idea is itself the pure Notion that has itself for subject matter and which, in running itself as a subject matter through the totality of its determinations, develops itself into the whole of its reality, into the system of science [of logic] and concludes by apprehending this process of comprehending itself.’ (Hegel, 1831, pp. 842-843)
These theories were for Hegel necessarily and explicitly idealist. As that which is knowing (the idea) must be the same as that which is known, the latter must therefore also necessarily be an idea. ‘The Idea, namely, in positing itself as absolute unity of the pure Notion and its reality’ (Hegel, 1831, p.843). Consequently: ‘the absolute Idea alone is being, imperishable life, self-knowing truth, and is all truth’ (Hegel, 1831, p.824).
For Hegel, therefore, the identical subject object was necessarily an idealist subject-object.
Lukács’s twist to Hegel
Turning now to Lukács, evidently no self-proclaimed Marxist could put forward an explicitly idealist concept – as Hegel could. For a self-proclaimed Marxist an identical subject-object had to have a materialist and not an idealist meaning. Lukács therefore attempted, in History and Class Consciousness, to formulate this concept of an identical subject-object in materialist terms.
Definition of the subject was evident. Lukács clearly held that what must be the subject of history in a Marxist analysis was the proletariat. But if the subject and object were to be identical, therefore the object must also be the proletariat. Consequently that which knew (the working class) was must be identical to that which it was required to know – which must also therefore be the working class. To uphold the concept that subject and object were to be identical Lukács therefore had to maintain that both the subject and the object of knowledge were the working class – that which knew was the proletariat and that which was known was the proletariat. To maintain the identity of subject and object, Lukács in History and Class Consciousness therefore necessarily had to arrive at the concept that: ‘the proletariat is at one and the same time the subject and object of its own knowledge’ (Lukács, 1922, p.20). And that: ‘when the fact that a class understands itself means that it understands society as a whole and when, in consequence, the class becomes both the subject and object of knowledge’ (Lukács, 1922, p.2). This concept, however, is in direct contradiction with the point made by Lenin that a political line had to be based on analysis of ‘all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating’.
If that which had to be known was more than the working class, if it included the ruling class and all the other strata of society, then subject and object could not be identical. In short, Lenin’s insistence that ‘the Communist Party… must act on scientific principles. Science… demands that account must be taken of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country’ (Lenin V. I., 1920a, p. 81) was entirely incompatible with Lukács’s concept that the proletariat was a subject-object in which, therefore, it was adequate that the working class had knowledge of itself.
This is why, to put it in philosophical, as opposed to political, terms, Lukács claimed that the subject and object, the working class, were identical, Lenin on the contrary insisted that the subject (the working class) and the object (the interrelation of all classes and groups) could not be identical.
The relation between these apparently abstract philosophical points and politics may now be outlined. Given the concept of an identical subject-object formulated by Lukács in the early 1920s, self-knowledge by the working class of itself was what was required to determine political line and tactics. As Lukács formulated it: ‘Because of their mechanical notion of the class struggle, opportunists and putschists alike are bound to have a static concept of the class, seeing it as a once-and-for-all, unalterably given fact, and not as something dynamic which emerges, grows and brings itself to life in the course of the struggle. However, it is only when the constitution of the proletariat as a class is regarded as the goal and the tendency of the revolution that we can discover a firm basis for the constantly changing tactics of communist activity. The economic, scientific reality of the class is of course the starting point for tactical considerations’ (Lukács, 1920a, p.79).
This latter formula, ‘The economic, scientific reality of the class is of course the starting point for tactical considerations’ is of course directly opposed to Lenin’s: ‘the Communist Party… must act on scientific principles. Science… demands that account must be taken of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country.’
Lukács’s formulation that what the proletariat requires is knowledge of itself (‘the economic, scientific reality of the class is of course the starting point for tactical considerations’) makes no analysis of, for example, the degree of resistance and strength of the ruling class and therefore was connected to ultra-left tactics which underestimated the degree of resistance of the ruling class. This is, for example, precisely the meaning of Lenin’s insistence that even if oppressed classes are completely unwilling to go on in the old way this is not at all sufficient for a revolution. Only if in addition the ruling class is also unable to go on in the old way could a revolution occur. As we already cited, in Lenin’s formula: ‘The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the twentieth century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the “lower classes” do not want to live in the old way and the “upper classes” cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph’ (Lenin V. I., 1920a, p.84).
In contrast to Lenin’s insistence on analysing the interrelation of all classes and groups, Lukács on the contrary presented the matter in terms of the identical subject-object, i.e. that what the proletariat required was knowledge of itself: ‘The economic, scientific reality of the class is of course the starting point for tactical considerations. But the other reality, the living reality of the class effected by the proletariat – this is possible only as a goal of revolutionary action. Every genuine revolutionary act diminishes the tension, the gulf between economic being and active consciousness of the proletariat. Once this consciousness has reached, penetrated and illuminated being, it is immediately possessed of the power to overcome all obstacles and to complete the process of revolution’ (Lukács, 1920a, p.79). This formula, ‘Once this consciousness has reached, penetrated and illuminated being, it is immediately possessed of the power to overcome all obstacles and to complete the process of revolution,’ that is an analysis only of the situation of the working class, is directly counterposed to Lenin’s: ‘for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way.’
In short the different philosophical concepts of Lenin and Lukács were connected to political differences. They also make clear why Lenin so sharply rejected Lukács’s views. He was evidently right to do so. The Marxist concept of totality necessarily means that a political line can only be derived from the analysis of ‘all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating’. It cannot be derived only from one element – that of the situation of the working class itself. Lukács’s false philosophical concept of an identical subject-object led to wrong, to be precise, ultra-left, political views. It is not simply that there is this or that mistake in History and Class Consciousness: its theoretical framework is wrong.
Ramifications of Lukács’s views
Finally, all this is of wider interest because it does not relate simply to historical debates of the 1920s, or to the ideas of Counterfire today. Lukács is significant – and despite the criticisms made above he is a highly interesting writer – among other reasons precisely because it was he that gave a properly theorised form to what otherwise were simply a series of confused and incoherently thought out ideas.
To take an example, one popular misunderstanding which parallels Lukács’s concepts, is the idea that Marxism has the same concepts as ‘history from below’ – a subject which has formed an entire field of research. ‘History from below’ confuses two different ideas. One, which is entirely correct, is that because the ruling class wishes to deny that the mass of the population, who are oppressed and exploited, can play any role in shaping society, their historical activity has been completely grotesquely under-researched. In the words of probably the most famous work of history from below, E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, it is necessary to understand the real role played not just by ‘great figures’ (of the ruling class) but, for example: ‘the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-weaver, the “utopian” artisan and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott’ (Thompson, 1963, p.13).
So gigantic has been the suppression of the real history of the ‘below’, i.e. of the activity of the exploited and oppressed, that overcoming this lack of knowledge, that is to really understand historically ‘all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses’, and not simply to be presented with a history of the ruling class, requires a gigantic field of research on the ‘below’ of society. The entire record of history must be reworked, and the adding of the knowledge of the ‘below’ is a factual key to it.
But a second, wrong, idea is that Marxism is only the study of the ‘below’ – i.e. precisely the concept, paralleling Lukács, that all that is required by the working class is knowledge of itself, or more loosely, all that is required by the oppressed is knowledge of the oppressed. This, as we have seen, is not a Marxist concept. The Marxist concept of history, as of politics, is not to replace the knowledge of ‘the above’ with the knowledge of ‘the below’ but to understand the relation of ‘all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses’ – that is the totality of society.
There are other ideas in the early 1920s writing of Lukács which flow from the fundamentally ultra-left concepts rejected by Lenin. For example, Lukács in his book Lenin – A Study on the Unity of His Thought, states that ‘the core of Lenin’s thought’ is ‘the actuality of the revolution’ (Lukács, 1924, p.11).
This terminology of ‘actuality’, which was never centrally used by Lenin (who was rather good at explaining his ideas clearly!) is an ambiguous concept because it can mean two entirely different things. One is that Lenin regarded the present epoch as revolutionary and was always guided by the final goal of the revolution in matters of tactics, organisation and political line – the revolution was the goal and entirely ‘actual’ in that sense. The second is that the revolution is ‘actual’ in the sense that it is here now – that is that the situation is revolutionary not merely in the sense of the character of the epoch but in a more immediate sense. Precisely because it is ambiguous is probably one of the reasons such a concept was not used by Lenin – who aimed at clarity, not ambiguity, in concepts.
However these are secondary matters. The real core of Lukács’s thought, so much so that he put it as the first chapter in History and Class Consciousness under the title ‘What is Orthodox Marxism,’ is the concept of the identical subject-object constituted by the working class. This idea was profoundly wrong for the reasons already outlined. It is why Lenin categorised Lukács’s views not as ‘the great theorist of the revolution’ but as ‘its Marxism is purely verbal’.
Lenin was strictly right. Lukács’s vocabulary was Marxist but his actual central concept was not Marxist at all.
Appendix – A review of Georg Lukács’s political writings from the 1920s
The following review of Georg Lukács’s political writings from the 1920s appeared in International Volume 4 Number 1 Autumn 1977. This focussed at greater length on the political discussions of that period and their relation to issues of Marxist theory dealt with above. Apart from altering the style of presentation of footnotes and book titles the article is reproduced without alteration.
* * *
Lukács – Political Writings 1921-29 (Lukács, 1972)
The appearance in a paperback edition of this important volume of Lukács’s early writings is a welcome event. It is of course well known that in its first years the Communist International had a major debate around the question of ‘ultra-leftism’, and that several of the chief leaders of this latter trend wrote important and controversial books on Marxist philosophy – notably Lukács History and Class Consciousness (Lukács, 1922), Karl Korsch Marxism and Philosophy (Korsch, 1923), and, somewhat later, Pannekoek Lenin as Philosopher (Pannekoek, 1938). However, while the writings on this subject of Lenin, Trotsky and the majority of the Russian leadership have long been available in English – most notably, of course, Lenin’s Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder – the political writings of the opponents of the Bolsheviks in this discussion are only now becoming available. In addition to the Lukács volume reviewed here, important recent translations include material in International Communism in the Era of Lenin: A Documentary History edited by Gruber (Gruber, 1972), a presentation of Bordiga’s positions in Gwyn Williams’s Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Italian Communism (Williams, 1975), and a number of Bordiga articles in Antonio Gramsci: Selections from Political Writings 1910-20 edited by Quintin Hoare (Gramsci, 1910-1920).
The appearance of this new material does not alter the estimate as to the political outcome of the debate on ultra-leftism. On the contrary, it increases respect for the arguments produced by the Comintern. But, as always, the ability to make an examination of both sides of the polemic gives a much more rounded and clearer conception of the issues involved. Not merely does this increase the political lessons which may be drawn, but in this case it also reveals that the discussions involved issues which remain strikingly relevant today.
It is on this aspect of the Lukács volume that we want to concentrate here. This is not because there is not much else which is valuable in the collection – on the contrary, some of the philosophical writings, including the famous review of Bukharin’s Historical Materialism (Bukharin, 1921) and the essay ‘Moses Hess and the Problem of Idealist Dialectics’, are amongst the most important Lukács ever wrote. However, the real fascination of the book is that it gives an insight into a very different political debate, and a very different Lukács, than that which is generally familiar.
The first conception that may rapidly be dispensed with through a reading of Lukács’s essays of the 1920s, and of the other material available on the early debate in the Comintern, is any idea that the Bolsheviks’ opponents on this issue were some sort of ideological primitives simply marching around the streets screaming ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat Now’. It is true that a few of the groups and theorists of Comintern ultra-leftism were marked by really primitive conceptions – the German Communist Workers‘ Party (KAPD) in its opposition to trade unions, or the ideas of Sylvia Pankhurst, for example. But in general the outlook of the European opposition to Lenin was theoretically sophisticated and not at all patently stupid in its argumentation. Certainly Lukács is profoundly thought provoking and penetrating in this volume, even in his most erroneous positions. Far from defending boycotts of parliament and elections from the point of view of abstract principle, as is frequently assumed in accounts of this period, the ultra-lefts invoked virtually every argument except abstract principle.
Herman Gorter, a Dutch ultra-leftist, explicitly declared for example that the tactics of the Bolsheviks in standing in parliamentary elections in Russia had been entirely correct: ‘Your tactics were brilliant for Russia, and the Russians were victorious because of them’ (Gorter, 1920, p.222). Gorter’s argument against standing in elections was posed at the level of differences in concrete class relations between Russia and Western Europe – an interesting ultra-left twist to a distinction which is today invoked by the West European CPs to justify reformism. Gorter wrote: ‘When you say you did thus and such in Russia… it does not mean very much and therefore neither is nor has to be correct. For Western European class relations in the revolutionary struggle are entirely different from those in Russia’ (Gorter, 1920, p.218).
Differing from Gorter, but again not raising abstention from elections and parliament to a principle, was the position of the Austrian Communist Party. They in fact went so far as to declare that in general participation in parliament was entirely correct in Western Europe – including in Germany. The argument of these ultra-lefts was based on the concrete situation then existing in the country – on the fact that in Austria the struggle had gone beyond the stage of mass working class demonstrations and strikes and had arrived at a situation of workers councils. They wrote: ‘Parliament is important to Communists only as a platform for propaganda. We in Austria have the Council of Workers’ Deputies as a platform for propaganda. We therefore refuse to take part in elections to the bourgeois parliament. In Germany there is no Council of Workers’ Deputies that could be taken in earnest’ (cited in Lenin V. I., 1920c, p. 268).
What could be more apparently Marxist than that? When the class struggle has passed to the formation of workers councils, surely the time has come to boycott the parliamentary fraud and pass directly to the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat?1 Given that the Workers Council which was formed following the fall of the Hapsburg Empire lasted right through to 1922 (admittedly in a diminishing form), this did not appear at all a preposterous position on the face of it.2 Indeed, it could be argued that it was correct on the basis of certain formal analogies with the positions of the Bolsheviks on the boycott in 1905 and Lenin’s call for the boycott of the pre-Parliament in 1917.
Lukács himself, at that time a theoretical leader of Hungarian ultra-leftism, also avoided any argument ‘on principle’ against participation in parliament. On the contrary, he declared that in certain circumstances, namely that of defensive struggles, parliamentary participation was an extremely important tactic: ‘if it [the Communist Party] is forced onto the defensive, by all means let the proletariat use the form of parliament for agitational and propagandistic purposes; let it exploit the possibilities afforded members of parliament by bourgeois “freedom” as substitute for forms of expression otherwise denied it; let it make use of the parliamentary struggles with the bourgeoisie in order to gather its own forces, in preparation for the really basic struggle against the bourgeoisie. Clearly, such a phase may well last for a considerable period of time’ (Lukács, 1920b, pp.55-56).
All Lukács asserted was that, ‘parliamentary activity can never be anything more than a preparation for the real struggle, can never be the actual struggle itself’ (Lukács, 1920b, p.56). He too stated that a decisive criterion in calling for a boycott was whether or not alternative forms of workers democracy were already emerging: ‘Theoretically and tactically, then, we have defined the respective roles of workers council and parliament: where a workers‘ council (on however modest a scale) is possible, parliamentarianism is redundant’ (Lukács, 1920b, p.63).
All these positions of Lukács again sound apparently Marxist and Leninist – to utilise participation in parliament as a subsidiary tactic to prepare the decisive (and therefore necessarily extra parliamentary) clashes with the bougeoisie. After all, didn’t Lenin correctly write even in Left Wing Communism that, ‘action by the masses, a big strike, for instance, is more important than parliamentary activity at all times’ (Lenin V. I., 1920a, p.60)? And, far from being by-passed, such arguments have an extremely familiar ring in the positions taken by ultra-left organisations in Portugal, for example.
It is not possible in a short review to deal with the political arguments which were raised against the writings of the ultra-lefts. These are best followed through reading the relevant works of Lenin and Trotsky in reply to Lukács, Korsch, Pannekoek, Gorter et al. Lenin’s own summary on Lukács’s position was: ‘Its Marxism is purely verbal; its distinction between “defensive” and “offensive” tactics is artificial; it gives no concrete analysis of precise and definite historical situations; it takes no account of what is most essential (the need to take over, and learn to take over, all fields of work and all institutions in which the bourgeoisie exercises its influence over the masses, etc.)’ (Lenin V. I., 1920b, p.165).
Against the Austrians and Lukács on workers‘ councils and parliamentary boycotts, Lenin pointed out that the relevant issue was not whether such bodies existed but whether they were strong enough to overthrow the bourgeois system: ‘As long as we lack the strength to disband the bourgeois parliament, we must work against it from within and without. As long as any considerable number of working people (not only proletarians, but also semi-proletarians and small peasants) still trust in the bourgeois-democratic instruments employed by the bourgeoisie for deceiving the workers, we must explain this deception from the very platform which the backward sections of the workers, and particularly of the non-proletarian labouring masses, consider most important, most authoritative’3 (Lenin V. I., 1920c, p.268).
All in all, the ultra-lefts received one of the most thorough political drubbings which anyone has ever taken – while simultaneously, incidentally, Lenin fought a major struggle against elements such as Paul Levi to try to keep the ‘infantile-leftists’ (such as the KPD) within the Communist International.
If, however, the errors of Lukács and others on the political plane were dealt with relatively early, the controversy has nevertheless continued as to the exact relation between their positions in the debate in the Comintern and their views on philosophy. It is hardly likely to be coincidental that writers with such distinct political positions as Lukács, Pannekoek and Korsch should also have had extremely similar concepts on the field of philosophy. At the same time, however, there is no systematic study of the precise connections between the two. Lukács himself initially stressed as the source of his errors a failure to situate his work in any systematic economic theory and analysis. Finally he reached the conclusion that the correct line of approach to theoretical questions lay via ontology.4 Other recent studies have seen his challenge to Marxist materialism as the chief link between Lukács’s philosophical and political positions of that period.5 Gareth Stedman Jones, in a striking analysis, has stressed Lukács’s concept of a working class ideologically dominated through commodity fetishism, and his inability to analyse the complexity of modes of production and of the capitalist State, as the decisive elements (Jones G. S., 1971).
All these conclusions, particularly that of Stedman Jones, undoubtedly provide elements of an explanation of the theoretical roots of Lukács’s positions on the Comintern debates. However, this present collection of his writings suggests a very clear political deviation whereby Lukács arrived at his wrong positions – although it is undoubtedly an error connected to his early 1920s theoretical concept of class consciousness. Despite the incessant talk of ‘the totality’ which runs throughout these essays, in reality Lukács never attempts to derive a political line from the inter-relation of all elements of capitalist society but takes it solely and exclusively from the state of the proletariat itself.
This concept, which in fact runs throughout the collection of writings, is stated most clearly of all in the essay on the question of ‘Opportunism and Putschism’. Here Lukács states: ‘Because of their mechanical notion of the class struggle, opportunists and putschists alike are bound to have a static concept of the class, seeing it as a once-and-for-all, unalterably given fact, and not as something dynamic which emerges, grows and brings itself to life in the course of the struggle. However, it is only when the constitution of the proletariat as a class is regarded as the goal and the tendency of the revolution that we can discover a firm basis for the constantly changing tactics of communist activity. The economic, scientific reality of the class is of course the starting point for tactical considerations. But the other reality, the living reality of the class effected by the proletariat – this is possible only as a goal of revolutionary action. Every genuine revolutionary act diminishes the tension, the gulf between economic being and active consciousness of the proletariat. Once this consciousness has reached, penetrated and illuminated being, it is immediately possessed of the power to overcome all obstacles and to complete the process of revolution’ (Lukács, 1920a, p.79).
Even leaving aside the evident errors of the ‘philosophy of action’ contained here, the entire way in which the question of the basis of tactics is formulated is, in terms of class relations, totally different from that displayed by Lenin. For Lukács the political tactics are derived from the situation of the proletariat – ‘the economic, scientific reality of the class is of course the starting point for tactical considerations.’ For Lenin, on the contrary, tactics can only be derived from the relation of all the forces and classes of capitalist society – ‘the Communist Party… must act on scientific principles. Science… demands that account must be taken of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country’ (Lenin V. I., 1920a, p. 81).
For Lukács it is simply the achievement of consciousness by the proletariat which suffices for the revolution: ‘Once this consciousness has reached, penetrated and illuminated being, it is immediately possessed of the power to overcome all obstacles and to complete the process of revolution.’ For Lenin, on the contrary, achievement of consciousness by the working class is not at all, in itself, a sufficient condition for revolution: ‘The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the twentieth century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way ‘ (Lenin V. I., 1920a, p.84).
Indisputably, of course, the positions Lukács took on materialism, economics, and the ‘power’of commodity fetishism led to the particular deviation outlined above. In particular, the extremely under-developed concept which exists in Lukács’s work of any specifically political structures plays a crucial role.6 It is only at this specifically political level that the relation of all classes could have been analysed.7 However, no matter what its theoretical origin, in these 1920s essays the operative element which comes over in Lukács’s political positions is the continual attempt to derive a line from the situation of the working class alone. In this concept also, of course, the early Lukács’s positions again clearly link up with contemporary ultra-left concepts.8
Finally, it is worth noting that, in the period following the debates in the Comintern, Lukács pulled back from ultra-leftism and moved sharply towards more correct conceptions. In 1924, in his book on Lenin, Lukács was already able to make a clear self-criticism: that ‘the slogan of left wing radicalism was the rejection in principle of any compromise. Lenin’s polemic shows… that this rejection contains an evasion of decisive struggles, behind which lies a defeatist attitude towards the revolution. For the genuinely revolutionary situation… expresses itself in the fact that there are no areas of the class struggle in which revolutionary (or counter-revolutionary) possibilities are not present’ (Lukács, 1924, p.82).
Unfortunately, however, Lukács collided with Stalin in this process. As he recalled in 1967: ‘In the debate in the Russian Party I agreed with Stalin about the necessity for socialism in one country, and this shows very clearly the start of a new epoch in my thought’ (Lukács, 1967, p.xxviii).
The outcome of this ‘new epoch in his thought’ is clearly revealed in Lukács’s final article in the present collection – the so-called ‘Blum Theses’. These theses, which constitute Lukács’s last major political writings, are a clear expression of a theory advocating a Popular Front. Lukács was to support and give gloss to this political line in his philosophic and aesthetic works throughout the Stalin era. The sole originality of the Theses is that they were produced not in the mid 1930s but in 1928 – at the start of the ultra-left ravings of the Comintern’s Third Period. Lukács paid the price for having anticipated the turn of Dimitrov and Stalin by six years by making a public ‘self-criticism’ and withdrawing from explicitly political writing.
Even this capitulation of Lukács however has its interesting political lessons. The difference between the types of qualities needed to be a theoretician and those needed to be a political leader are well summed up in the reasons Lukács gives to explain his capitulation:
‘When I heard from a reliable source that Bela Kun was planning to expel me from the Party as a “Liquidator”, I gave up the struggle, as I was well aware of Kun’s prestige in the International, and I published a “self-criticism”. I was indeed firmly convinced that I was in the right but I also knew – for example, from the fate that had befallen Karl Korsch – that to be expelled from the Party meant that it would no longer be possible to participate actively in the struggle against Fascism. I wrote my self-criticism as an “entry ticket” to such activity’.
Not merely did this reveal a total lack of the human qualities that are needed to make a political leader – try telling a Left Oppositionist of the 1930s, dying in a labour camp, murdered by the GPU, or even merely struggling to produce a newspaper, that such a prospect of merely being expelled from the party was too much to ask anyone to bear – but it was political bankruptcy. The idea that the political line of an organisation is fundamentally wrong but that this can be compensated for by personally valuable work is, in the strictest scientific sense, a typical concept of petty-bourgeois individualist intellectualism. As to what Lukács really bought an ‘entry ticket’ to, this was well summed up in one of the obituaries following his death in 1971: ‘Lukács recanted… because a refusal – an act of resistance – would have resulted in his expulsion from the Comintern. If this were to happen… he could not join the “anti-fascist struggle”. What concrete insight! What brilliance! We are well acquainted with the Comintern’s brilliant record in the “anti-fascist” struggle. The string of its victories echoes with the hollow laughs of gravestones in the history of the proletariat – Germany, Spain, France’ (Rosemont, 1973).
No matter what his personal intentions, Lukács became in reality a political appendage of Stalinism – and all the more dangerous because of his brilliance. Even leaving aside the purges and Popular Fronts, someone who could write that, ‘the real dilemma of our age is not the opposition between capitalism and socialism, but the opposition between peace and war’ (Lukács, 1957, p. 92)9, can in no serious political sense be said to represent anything remotely resembling the interests of the working class. It is true that at the very end of his life Lukács did once again begin to take a certain position to the left of Stalinism on issues such as the student revolt, but this cannot be said to mark a radical break.10
Undoubtedly throughout the forty years following his capitulation of 1928-29 Lukács produced Marxist writing of truly outstanding quality. Works such as The Young Hegel, Goethe and His Age, and various of the aesthetic essays are, no matter what specific criticism may be made, amongst the finest writings produced since the ‘classic period’ of Marxism was closed by Stalinism. Lukács provides an outstanding example of the fact that in Marxism there is no simple one-to-one relation between theoretical brilliance and political position in defence of the interests of the working class.11 However, in Marxism it is the political position and not the individual theoretical brilliance that is the most decisive criterion. On that level, Lukács was a failure. The person who is revealed in the essays of the 1920s to have been a powerful and original political thinker even when profoundly wrong was irrevocably destroyed by Stalinism.
To read this present volume is not merely to enter into debates which still have contemporary relevance but is to come face to face with one of the major problems and political ‘might have beens’ in the history of Marxism. To discover that a person who served the Stalinist bureaucracy for forty years could be a Marxist writer and theoretician of stunning brilliance is a salutary lesson to all philistine and reductionist revolutionaries. To realise that a near genius could still adopt a political position completely opposed to the interests of the working class should provide food for thought for those intellectuals who think that the degree of personal intelligence is the surest guide to the class line. Either way the experience, and the quality of Lukács’s ideas, is well worth £3.
1 Such a concept will of course be well known to those, such as the PRP and the Socialist Workers Party, who advocated the slogan in Portugal of ‘Dissolve the Constituent Assembly’ in summer 1975.
2 On the situation in Austria at the time, see (Braunthal, 1963, p. 202f) and (Rosdolsky).
3 Lenin, of course, also stressed that in some circumstances, such as that of the Constituent Assembly in Russia, it might even aid in the dispersing of bourgeois parliamentary bodies to have the elections to them – while of course in other conditions, such as 1905 and the pre-Parliament of 1917, Lenin advocated a boycott (as did Trotsky, for example, in relation to the 1931 elections in Spain).
4 Lukács states: ‘Once I had gained a definite and fundamental insight into what was wrong with my whole approach in History and Class Consciousness this search became a plan to investigate the philosophical connections between economics and dialectics. My first attempt to put this plan into practice came early in the Thirties, in Moscow and Berlin, with the first draft of my book on the young Hegel (which was not completed until Autumn 1937). Only now, thirty years later, am I attempting to discover a real solution to this whole problem in the ontology of social existence.’ (Lukács, Preface to the New Edition (1967), 1967, p. xxxv)
5 See (Novack, 1972a) and (Novack, 1972b). This latter issue also contains ‘A Criticism of George Novack’s Stand on Lukács’ by Etienne Abrahamovici.
6 Stedman Jones correctly puts it when he states: ‘Lukács’ conception of class power is so totally confined to an etherealised ideology that it not merely passes over the whole array of cultural apparatuses whereby the bourgeoisie exercises its ideological dominance in capitalist social formations, but it also largely neglects the political apparatus of capital par excellence: the State. There is very little in the main essays of History and Class Consciousness on the bourgeois State… there is no real mention of that State apparatus which Marx and Lenin taught had to be broken physically by the working class… (op. cit., pp51-52).
Perry Anderson has made the same point in terms of a more general theoretical framework in ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’ (Anderson, 1976-1977).
7 ‘Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and to the government, the spheres of interrelations between all classes.’ (Lenin V. I., 1902, p. 422)
8 Again Portugal provides the classic contemporary case of these errors. During the summer of 1975 a whole section of the ultra-left attempted to develop its line simply from the relation of forces amongst the proletariat of Lisbon. This method, which totally left out of account the situation of the peasants in the north of the country and the state of the bourgeois forces themselves, inevitably led to disastrous ultra-left conceptions of the relation of forces – Socialist Worker of 6 December 1975, for example, believed that insurrection had only been ‘some weeks’ away prior to 25 November. (For a critique of these conceptions, see (Jones A., 1976)
9 At least in the case of Lukács – and the above quotation of 1955 is merely the expression of his essential political development for 20 years previously – it is not possible to accept the assessment of Perry Anderson on ‘Western Marxism’ that: ‘Despite everything, its [Western Marxism’s] major thinkers remained immune to reformism’ (Anderson: Considerations on Western Marxism, p.93).
10 Michael Löwy: ‘Lukács and Stalinism’, in New Left Review 91, attempts to make out a case for a final political regeneration of Lukács (Lowy). However, the absolutely meagre evidence which is all that even this heroic effort can bring shows how thankless the task is. Apart from various criticisms of US imperialism, which were standard even in the most ‘peace-oriented’ period, the most that Löwy can dig out of real criticism of the Stalinist system (as opposed to the Stalin individual) is that Lukács apparently said in a conversation with one of his ex-students that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was ‘the greatest disaster for the communist movement since the social-democrats approved the Kaiser’s war credits in 1914’ (cited in ibid., p.38).
Doubtless it is interesting to know that Lukács opposed the invasion – as certainly he was disgusted at the time by much of Stalinism. However, on the basis of this and a few other phrases, Löwy comes out with the following amazing statement: ‘On 4 June 1971 death cut short, at its outset, this astonishing “return to first principles”; after half a century of “reconciliation” and “lost illusions”, Lukács had, in the last three years of his life, begun to rediscover the intense hopes, the red flame of the People’s Commissar of 1919′ (ibid., p.41). In his admiration for Lukács’s theoretical gifts, Löwy has unfortunately lost all sense of political proportion. Even completely non-Marxist and humanist dissidents in Eastern Europe at least visibly demonstrated and acted on the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Trotskyists denounced as scoundrels all those who did not. Does Lukács, on the basis of a private conversation of dissociation, become ‘the red flame of the People’s Commissar’? If so, we must assume that the cellist Rostropovich, who greeted the invasion by at least giving a performance of Dvorak’s music, must be the Trotsky of our time. The reality is that Lukács, whose fame would have protected him and would have made world wide impact if he had spoken out, remained publicly silent on this ‘greatest disaster to the communist movement since 1914’. Just as, throughout the preceding 50 years, Lukács moaned and groaned a bit but did precisely nothing. If Löwy wants to try to suggest anything different he has in reality abandoned all serious political standards. To take an obvious analogy, Lenin might well have admired Plekhanov’s philosophy greatly, but he would never have dreamed of covering up for his rotten politics.
11 In that sense and respect the present author must make a certain self-criticism for the obituary written at the time of Lukács’s death (Jones A., Georg Lukacs – Fate of the Unattached Intellectual, 1971). This article committed the opposite error to that of Löwy above. In the name of a (perfectly justified) attack on Lukács’s political record, it attempted to deny virtually any theoretical merit to the work produced following his capitulation to Stalinism. Such a reduction of Marxist theory to politics is not merely wrong but positively harmful in that through denying any merit to that which evidently possesses real value it only diverts attention onto false debates. The real point which has to be made is the distinction and relative autonomy between politics and theory and, within that, the primacy of the political criterion.
Anderson, P. (1976-1977, November-January). The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci. New Left Review, pp. 5-80.
Braunthal, J. (1963). History of the International 1914-1943. (J. Clark, Trans.) London and Camden New Jersey: Nelson 1967.
Counterfire. (2010, August 24). Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs. Retrieved February 4, 20100, from Counterfire: http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/theory/37-theory/6368-capitalism-and-class-consciousness-the-ideas-of-georg-lukacs
Gorter, H. (1920). Open Letter to Comrade Lenin: An Answer to Lenin’s Pamphlet “‘Left-Wing”‘ Communism an Infantile Disorder’. In H. Gruber (Ed.), International Communism in the era of Lenin (pp. 216-226). New York: Anchor Books 1972.
Gramsci, A. (1929-1935). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. (Q. Hoare, G. N. Smith, Eds., Q. Hoare, & G. N. Smith, Trans.) London: Lawrence and Wishart 1971.
Gruber, H. (Ed.). (1972). International Communism in the era of Lenin. New York: Anchor Books.
Hegel, G. W. (1831). Science of Logic (1969 ed.). (A. V. Miller, Trans.) London and New York: George Allen and Unwin, Humanities Press.
Jones, A. (1971, June 15). Georg Lukács – Fate of the Unattached Intellectual. Red Mole.
Jones, A. (1976, January 8). Winning the Masses. Red Weekly.
Jones, G. S. (1971, November-December). The Marxism of the Early Lukács: An Evaluation. New Left Review 70, pp. 27-64.
Korsch, K. (1923). Marxism and Philosophy (New Left Books 1970 ed.). (F. Halliday, Trans.) London: New Left Books.
Lenin, V. I. (1920a). “Left-Wing” Communism – An Infantile Disorder. In Lenin, Collected Works (1966 ed., Vol. 31, pp. 21-118). Moscow: Lawrence and Wishart.
Lenin, V. I. (1920b). Kommunismus. In V. I. Lenin, Collected Works (1966 ed., Vol. 31, pp. 165-167). Moscow: Lawrence and Wishart.
Lenin, V. I. (1920c). Letter to the Austrian Communists. In V. I. Lenin, Collected Works (Vol. 31, pp. 267-269). London: Lawrence and Wishart 1966.
Lenin, V. I. (1902). What is to be Done. In V. I. Lenin, Collected Works (1961 ed., Vol. 5, pp. 349-529). London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Lowy, M. (n.d.). Lukács and Stalinism. New Left Review , 91.
Lukács, G. (1922). History and Class Consciousness (1971 ed.). (London, Ed., & R. Livingstone, Trans.) Merlin.
Lukács, G. (1924). Lenin – A Study in the Unity of his Thought (New Left Books 1972 ed.). (N. Jacobs, Trans.) London: New Left Books.
Lukács, G. (1920a). Opportunism and Putchism. In G. Lukács, & R. Livingstone (Ed.), Political Writings 1919-1929 (M. McColgan, Trans., 1972 ed., pp. 71-79). London: New Left Review Editions.
Lukács, G. (1972). Political Writings 1919-1929. (R. Livingstone, Ed., & M. McColgan, Trans.) London: New Left Review Editions.
Lukács, G. (1967). Preface to the New Edition (1967). In G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (R. Livingstone, Trans., The Merlin Press 1971 ed., pp. ix-xlvii). London: The Merlin Press.
Lukács, G. (1957). The Meaning of Contemporary Realism. (J. Mander, & N. Mander, Trans.) London: Merlin Press Limited 1963.
Lukács, G. (1920b). The Question of Parliamentarianism. In G. Lukács, & R. Livingstone (Ed.), Political Writings 1919-1929 (M. McColgan, Trans., New Left Books 1972 ed., pp. 53-63). London.
Nineham, C. (2010). Capitalism and Class Consciousness – The Ideas of Georg Lukács. London: counterfire.
Novack, G. (1972a, January). Georg Lukács as Marxist Philosopher. International Socialist Review .
Novack, G. (1972b, July-August). In Defence of Materialism. International Socialist Review .
Pannekoek, A. (1938). Lenin as Philosopher (The Merlin Press 1975 ed.). (A. Pannekoek, Trans.) London: The Merlin Press.
Rees, J. (2002). Introduction. In G. Lukács, Tailism and the Dialectic (E. Leslie, Trans., 2002 ed.). London and New York: Verso.
Rosdolsky, R. (n.d.). La situation revolutionnaire en Autriche en 1918 et la politique des sociaux-democrates. Critique Communiste , 8-9.
Rosemont. (1973). In Memory of Georg Lukács. Chicago: Surrealist Editions.
Thompson, E. P. (1963). The Making of the English Working Class (1968 ed.). Middlesex, UK: Penguin.
Williams, G. A. (1975). Proletarian Order – Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Communism in Italy 1911-1921. London: Pluto Press.