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Georg Lukacs: philosophy and politics

Georg Lukacs, born in Hungary in 1885, was inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917 which he described as a “window into the future”. He joined the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) in December 1918. But by 1929 he had accommodated to Stalin, after which he retreated into literary criticism and academic philosophy.

Students who encounter Lukacs today are likely to only learn about his literary criticism. They probably won’t learn that he was an active participant in a workers’ revolution in Hungary in 1919, a Commissar in the Hungarian Soviet government of that year, and a political Commissar in their Red Army. They are unlikely to learn that between 1918 and 1926 Lukacs articulated a philosophical restatement of some of Marx’s most important ideas.

History and Class Consciousnessis a series of articles written between 1920 and 1923 which provide a materialist explanation of why workers accept capitalist ideas, but also how they can become class conscious. Lenin: a study in the unity of his thought, written soon after Lenin’s death in 1924, is a philosophical argument for a revolutionary party based on Lenin’s practice. Then in 1926, Lukacs wrote In Defence of History and Class Consciousness, Tailism and the Dialectic, in which he systematically demolishes crude attacks on him by Stalin’s acolytes. In the process he demolishes the assumption – which still dominates academia – that Stalinism was the logical outcome of Lenin’s theory and practice.

So Lukacs’s philosophy is still of vital relevance because it is a defence of the genuine revolutionary ideas of Marx and Engels for which Lenin had fought all his life.

From 1906 Lukacs mixed in a milieu of poets, artists, writers, academics – a whole layer of disaffected intellectuals in Max Weber’s Heidelberg Circle in Germany, and what became known as the Sunday Circle in Hungary. Influenced by anti-feudal Jacobinism and romantic anti-capitalism, they included people like Thomas Mann the novelist, George Simmel, Robert Michels, then a syndicalist, the pacifist poet Ernst Toller, future Kierkegaardian philosopher Karl Jaspers, the composer Bela Bartok and Dostoevsky admirer Ernst Bloch. Along with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy’s pacifism and Nietzsche’s irrationalism were influential.

The Hungarian circle was influenced by the revolutionary syndicalist Irvin Szabo, and the revolutionary poet Endre Ady. Ady, with a poet’s lyrical genius, expressed his ideas of the coming revolution, or at least one he yearned for. In a remarkable essay, “Earthquake”, written after the 1905 revolution in Russia he wrote:

Russia is carrying out two revolutions at once: the old one, which Europe has already experienced, and a new one… Russian democracy is triumphantly shaking the throne by means of blood, rubble, and ashes… History will be proud of this formidable earthquake…Rotten and impotent societies can be saved only by the people, the working people invincible and irresistible.

Feeling isolated and smothered by backward Hungary and uninspired by the ultra conservative Social Democratic Party (SDP), these radical intellectuals felt alienated, angry and frozen. Lukacs glimpsed in Endre Ady’s poetry the passion and the tragedy of the revolutionary in Hungary. Referring to himself as much as anyone Lukacs wrote of Ady that he was the “poet of the Hungarian revolutionaries without a revolution. His audience is pathetically grotesque…” He added: “there is a need for revolution, but it is an impossible hope… There would be only leaders.”

The mood was summed up in Ady’s Psalm of Blessed Impossibility:

Since I expect what cannot be had

Expect only what cannot be had,

Oh, I suffer the most bloody of bloody tortures

My brain is dizzy, my throat is hoarse

And borne down by the demented twilight

Oh blessed accursed impossibility

I intone thy consuming song.

Michael Löwy, a biographer of Lukacs, sums up the impact of the Russian revolution on the Sunday Circle: “Their bitter, anguished despair was transformed, through a brilliant explosion, into immense, passionate and messianic hope.” Talk of explosion – others refer to a sudden rupture – makes it sound as if Lukacs leapt from bourgeois intellectual to revolutionary in “the interval between two Sundays” (in the words of one of his friends) after meeting Bela Kun, who had founded the Communist Party on 20 November 1918.

But Lukacs had read Marx while still at school. When war broke out he returned to Marx and had begun to see that his economic analysis of capitalism provided a framework for understanding the whole of capitalist society and its superstructure. And he was impressed by Rosa Luxemburg’s economic writings. Lukacs’s tragic world view had been rooted in the belief that there was no way out of the society he and others so hated. He said many years later: “The Russian Revolution was the world-historical solution to my dilemma.”

In March 1919, the HCP merged with the SDP, which had a mass working class following. Bela Kun and others languished in jail, at the hands of the government in which the SDP participated! This new party formed a government when the regime collapsed in the face of a workers’ revolutionary uprising. The soviet government lasted 133 days before the onset of the white counter-revolution inflicted by the invading Romanian army.

As Lenin suspected it would be, the merger was a fatal mistake. It meant that the revolutionaries were unable to act independently to play the role the Bolsheviks did after February 1917 – leading the masses towards an understanding that they had to take power through their own workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils, and of the treacherous role of the social democrats. But this was only part of the problem.

The Red Army, established by decree, was really the old army with a new name. It was under the control of a Social Democrat backed up by commissars, most of whom were Social Democrats, and staffed by officers of the former regime.

Lukacs, Kun and other leading communists combined right wing jags with ultra-leftist policies. They rejected Lenin’s position of giving the land to the peasants. They proposed a program of collectivisation, which they argued would prevent the peasants becoming hostile property owners. This was most acceptable to the SDP – the farms were “collectivised” under the ownership of the old landowners! The result was that the peasantry very quickly became hostile; and the government had no authority to requisition food like the Bolsheviks were able to do when it was necessary. As well, there was no example which may have helped them win over invading Romanian soldiers, mostly peasants in uniform.

Lukacs’s three books between 1920 and 1926 summed up his conclusions drawn from the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks’ role in that and his own participation in the 1919 Hungarian revolution. He had concluded that workers could, by their own struggles, come to class consciousness just as Marx had argued. They could be more than the mere object of history and become the subject of history.

Lukacs’s Marxist intervention into philosophy

Marx and Engels had argued in The German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it.

But this is not a sufficient explanation of why workers accept ideas contrary to their interests. Why do capitalist ideas find any resonance among workers? Lukacs argues, following Marx, that workers have little power to control the things which determine our lives such as what hours we work, what we’re paid, or what products will be produced. The feeling of powerlessness this breeds – which Marx called alienation – means that workers defer to authority figures and therefore are prone to accept ideas propagated by them.

In Capital Marx goes beyond his early theory of alienation. He discusses how the market and the commodities sold on it, while created by humans, dominates our lives. “The fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour”, he says, obscures the fact that society and its institutions “are just as much the products of humans as linen, flax, etc.” The consequence of this “commodity fetishism” is that it is difficult to see how the system works.

Lukacs called these processes reification. And he showed that alienation and commodity fetishism are both rooted in the material circumstances of capitalism and therefore dialectically related:

There is both an objective and a subjective side to this phenomenon. Objectively a world of objects and relations between things springs into being (the world of commodities and their movements on the market). The laws governing these objects are indeed gradually discovered by man, but even so they confront him as invisible forces that generate their own power… Subjectively…a man’s activity becomes estranged from himself, it turns into a commodity which, subject to the non-human objectivity of the natural laws of society, must go its own way independently of man just like any consumer article.

Put simply, we go to the supermarket to buy goods we need with money earned at work. We have no real relationship with the workers who produce these commodities. What should be relationships between people appear as relationships between things. These two phenomena – commodity fetishism and alienation – explain why workers accept ideas which benefit their class enemies; it’s not because workers are stupid, or uneducated.

To explain how workers can become the subject of history, Lukacs again looks to the structures of capitalism. The regular crises of the system reveal that there is nothing “normal” about the rule of the market. Because workers’ ability to labour is a commodity on the market like any other, they are continually in conflict with capitalists over their wages and conditions. So in certain circumstances, mass struggles can reveal the true nature of capitalism, and build workers’ confidence that they could change society. Witness the Arab revolutions today.

When Lukacs published History and Class Consciousness in 1924, he was subjected to a vitriolic campaign to discredit his ideas because they illuminated how far from Marx’s revolutionary ideas Stalin’s supporters were moving. Two figures – Deborin, a former Menshevik, and Rudas from the HCP – led the charge.

They attacked Lukacs’s argument that at key “moments” in history ideas and organisation can be the critical factor. Lenin understood this. It is the basis for his conception of “the art of revolution” – being able to judge when to advance, when to retreat, having a feel for what the masses are prepared to do to take their struggle forward, and what their capitalist exploiters are capable of doing to crush them.

The dialectical interaction of constantly changing objective reality and consciousness is Lukacs’s theoretical basis for the need for a revolutionary party. In fact he says in the Defence that Lenin’s practice of building a vanguard party is the logical conclusion to draw from the Marxist explanation of class consciousness, and its relationship to objective reality.

The controversy might seem abstract, but it illustrates that philosophy can impact on political ideas. Deborin accuses Lukacs of a theory of identity of the subjective and objective. Lukacs says Deborin accepts the “vulgar standpoint of bourgeois everyday life and science: inflexibly and mechanically they split subject from object.” He says of Deborin, and others like him: “They protest in a tone of extreme scientific indignation if an active and positive role is accorded to a subjective moment in history”.

Lukacs argues that ideas and the material world can only be separated in theory – we can talk of an objective social situation, e.g. whether there is boom or crisis, war or peace, democracy or dictatorship, and we can separate out the ideas of political parties or groups of workers – for example the influence of political parties, shop stewards’ organisations, the size of the left, or today, the feeling that it’s not possible to win reforms but which is contradicted by the Arab revolutions, as the subjective element.

But in practice, the subjective is part of the objective reality that has to be taken into account. The social, objective situation and ideas, or the subjective, are not identical, but they make up a dialectical whole. Lukacs restates what he’d written in History and Class Consciousness: “their identity is that they are moments of one and the same real historical and dialectical process.”

Deborin says: “The sole materialist sense of this ‘mutual influence’ can only be its conception in a process of labour, as a process of production, as activity, as the struggle of society with nature.”

Lukacs replies that this means “for Deborin, there is no class struggle! ‘Society struggles with nature.’ And that’s it! What takes place within society is mere appearance, subjectivism.” As Lukacs says, to put it mildly, this completely revises Marxism; and it fitted neatly with the interests of Stalin’s rising bureaucracy. The last thing they wanted was to promote class struggle and workers’ revolutions.

Rudas, who had identified with the Bolsheviks when he joined the HCP, doesn’t go so far. But his is merely a “formal acknowledgement of the Leninist theory of revolution”. Rudas rejected the analysis that the errors of the Hungarian CP in 1919 were critical in the defeat the Hungarian workers suffered. As Lukacs says, “Whether he over- or underestimates ‘the subjective moment’, he always carefully separates it off from the ‘objective’ and guards against regarding the two moments in their dialectical interaction.

Lukacs argues “the dialectical interaction [between the objective situation and the subjective elements] that I have outlined arises ‘exclusively’ in ‘praxis’.” And those who stay on the abstract terrain in which subject and object are cut off from each other, if they deny “praxis” they must collapse into idealism. If “the rigid opposition of subject and object” is taken over from “pure” theory into praxis, “it abolishes praxis”. Politically this results in “tailism”, hence the subtitle of the book: “tailism and the dialectic”. Tailism means just accepting working class consciousness as it is, assuming it will develop in line with material reality, i.e. workers are merely the object of history.

Deborin and Rudas minimised the subjective role of organisation to the point of denial, thereby absolving revolutionaries of the responsibility to intervene to develop workers’ consciousness to the highest level possible. This – and Lukacs quotes Lenin who made this point – is very convenient for failed revolutionaries such as Rudas. They can deny that their intervention could have been critical in a defeated struggle.

The “left” variant of this is the glorification of spontaneity and a downgrading of the party and conscious intervention in the struggle, so it ends up in similar territory to the more right wing position – both downplay the need to build a revolutionary party.

If ever there was a clear example that revolutionaries are not made overnight, that the spontaneity of the masses and inspired individuals does not guarantee they will know how to take their struggle to victory, that the “objective”, material circumstances, even when revolutionary, will not automatically end with workers’ victory, it is Hungary in 1919. For all their heroism and their commitment to the working class revolution, the communists failed the crucial test of practice. Lukacs, having taken seriously Lenin’s criticisms of them, insists, by a detailed analysis of the circumstances, that with more correct policies they might well have defeated the counter-revolution of August 1919. In the event, their mistaken actions were critical.

If there had been a revolutionary organisation clearly based on Marxism in Hungary, it’s possible individuals from Lukacs’s circle may have been convinced earlier. In the absence of revolutionary Marxism, intellectuals like Lukacs remained under the influence of Szabo’s syndicalism.

Eventually Lukacs capitulated to Stalin’s counter-revolution. However, for all the problems with his politics, Lukacs’s arguments in the three books of 1920-26, summing up as they do his conclusions from the turbulent years 1917-1924, are a restatement of the genuine, revolutionary ideas of the Marxist tradition, expressed with great philosophical depth. They are a powerful weapon in the fight for human liberation.

This article, by Sandra Bloodworth, first appeared in Socialist Alternative.



Comment from Mike Ballard
Time June 8, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Reification exists in our minds when we transfer the power of humans into either their ideas or products. Cars, perfumes and stockings are not sexy, humans are. The displacement of agency leaves the subject in a passive mental position thus, leaving the workers, who create the wealth of nations in control of the nation (in reality a ruling class). As Marx points out time and again, wage-labour is the separation of the product from the producer thus his constant call on workers to organise to abolish wage labour, to gain both control over the product of their labour and their own lives, working conditions and position as a class in the struggle over the collective product of their labour.

Comment from paul walter
Time June 13, 2011 at 1:11 am

Yes, its the best thing Ive read for a bit (not that Im reading much) very crucial in these times of carbon taxes, Asylum seekers and media scare campaigns in understanding what is behind the herd mentality.