Intellectuals and Class Consciousness - Root & Branch


Review of Georg Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness for issue #4 of Root & Branch, a U.S. libertarian socialist journal. Published in 1973.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on March 15, 2022

[Editors note: Can't make out the author's last name, Stu Porzan? Leave a comment if you can confirm]

History and Class Consciousness
Studies in Marxist Dialectics
By Georg Lukacs
MIT Press, 1971

For nearly half a century, History and Class Consciousness by Georg Lukacs has been considered a sort of underground Marxist Classic. When an ENglish translation finally appeared last year, it was greeted by a frontpage review in the New York Times Book Review -- an old compliment for a musty collection of revolutionary essays. The pleasurable suppleness of Lakacs’ mind notwithstanding, his Hegelianized Marxism makes this book quite difficult to read. Why then, instead of moldering on the shelves of a few university libraries, has it become a sort of Bible for a certain type of radical intellectual?

The central theme of the book is that modern society has become too confusing for workers to understand, and that therefore they can only achieve “class consciousness” when it is inculcated in them by a special font of knowledge, the Communist Party. The appeal of this position to the would-be fonts of knowledge is not difficult to discern. For those who can resist the flattery and glory of holding a pivotal place in world history, however, Lukacs’ book will prove to be nothing other than an attack on fundamental principles of Marxism, and a defense of the basic principles of class society.

The fundamental idea of the Marxian theory of capitalism is that the development of the relation between capitalists and workers in capitalist society puts the working class in a position where it can and must itself take control of production. The liberation of the working class, Marx held, is the taks of the working class alone.

Kautsky and Lenin, chief fonts of wisdom for the Socialist Second and Communist Third Internationals respectively, disagreed with Marx. They held that by itself, working class struggle could never pass beyond the framework of capitalism; that on their own, workers would only make “trade union” demands. Workers could only achieve “revolutionary consciousness” if it was brought to them by intellectuals of the middle class. Lenin cites Kautsky approvingly on this point in What is to be Done? Lukacs agrees; he writes in the preface to the new (1967) edition that by his concept of “class consciousness” he meant the same thing that Lenin did “when he maintained that socialist class consciousness . . . would be implanted in the workers ‘from outside,’ i.e. ‘from outside the economic struggle and the sphere of relations between workers and employers.’” History and Class Consciousness is essentially a new justification for this position. Lukacs points out that under capitalism, things are not what they seem. One instance of this is the “fetishism of commodities” analyzed by Marx, by virtue of which workers experience the products of their own labor as something independent of and antagonistic to themselves. Lukacs expands this notion: while in fact all social phenomena are the products of people’s activity, they appear to people as foreign, alien forces. From this, Lukacs draws the conclusion that the working class is unable to achieve a true conception of its position in society by itself; that conception must be brought to it by the intervention of the Comunist Party.

The first thing to note about this position is its opposition to the Marxian theory of consciousness. For Marx, ideas grow out of real social relations and conditions. Lukacs seems to use this approach in explaining why the working class is unable to form a true conception of its position in society. But when he tries to formulate the means by which revolutionary consciousness can be achieved, he falls back on an entirely idealistic solution -- the superior wisdom of the Party, which presumably sees all and knows all. Indeed, if we lift the Marxist disguise, we can see in Lukacs’ conception of the Party which comprehends history in its totality -- the Hegelian philosopher who comprehends history in its entirety and therefore discovers its “truth”! It should be no surprise that more orthodox Leninists felt embarrassed by Lukacs’ defense -- it exposed their own abandonment of Marxism all too clearly.

Nonetheless, Lukacs put his finger on one of the most important problems of revolutionary theory -- how people come to grasp the social basis of their individual situations. For it is undoubtedly true that in capitalist society our life problems are at first experienced as particular problems, rather than as products of the organization of society as a whole. As a result, we look at first for individual, partial solutions, rather than for a revolutionary reconstruction of the whole society.

To understand how such approaches can change, we have to look at why people hold some ideas rather than others. Ideas, insofar as they are relevant to action, are essentially maps of the environment and plans for how to operate in it. They are generally accepted or rejected on the basis of how well the predictions based on them allow people to function in the world. Thus, for example, as long as people have to deal with capitalism as individuals, such absurd, fetishistic ideas as “the power of money” are useful, indeed essential, for survival; anyone can see that you can’t eat money, but just try feeding a family without it. On the other hand, ideas about the general transformation of society are of little use to people in their daily lives until they are joined with others as part of a social force potentially able to bring them about.

This helps explain why in normal times the working class does not exhibit “revolutionary consciousness.'' When capitalism is functioning well, revolutionary ideas can be more of a hindrance than a help in getting through life. More conservative ideas may be full of distortions and contradictions, they may even conflict with known facts, but they give at least some guidance for day-to-day activities -- making a living, maintaining a home, staying out of trouble. Indeed, up to a certain point, people may cling all the tighter to old ideas when they begin to fail; it is natural to consider even a poor guide to action better than none at all, especially if it has worked in the past.

But if capitalism encourages such individual adaptation, it simultaneously generates a process which tends in the opposite direction. This is the point Lukacs ignores: that the development of working class struggle itself overcomes the fragmentation of bourgeois society. Marx makes the process quite clear as early as the Comunist Manifesto. At first, the workers “form an Incoherent mass scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition.” Because of their oppression, the class struggle begins, carried out first by “individual laborers, then by the work people of a factory, then by the operatives of one trade, in one locality . . .” Win or lose, “the real fruit of their battle lies . . . in the ever expanding union of the workers.”

It is this process of class formation which provides the solution to the problem Lukacs poses. For this struggle itself constitutes a series of social experiments through which the working class clarifies for itself the actual structure of society and the real nature of the problems it faces. At first, individual workers try to solve their problems individually and fail; they soon come to see that they must cooperate with those they work with to win anything. These groups in turn see that they must support one another or be defeated one by one. It gradually becomes clear that workers are powerless when they are isolated, but that the more closely they cooperate, the stronger they become. The fragmentation created by capitalism is overcome at the point where individual workers see that their individual problems are the problems of the class as a whole, and can only be eliminated by solving them for the class as a whole.

This process can be observed empirically at various different levels. For example, E.P. Thompson’s classic Making of the English Working Class shows how, over a forty year period, English workers changed from thinking of themselves as a collection of disparate individuals and groups to seeing themselves as the working class. At another leveI, Rosa Luxemburg in The Mass Strike shows how during the Russian revolution of 1905 the workers of entire regions would strike to protest the firing of a single worker, whereas a few months before they had been apathetic in the face of the most extreme attacks; in the intense intervening struggles they had come to see the relation between their own position and that of every other worker -- of the working class as a whole. For all of his talk about praxis, Lukacs is so preoccupied with the praxis of the Party that he fails to understand the real development of working class praxis -- how the conditions of the working class force it to act, and how this action and its results provide the basis for understanding the workers’ position in society.

There is another side to this process of clarification through the class struggle itself. At first the various institutions of capitalist society seem to operate independently and even in conflict with each other -- another of the mystifications of bourgeois society. The various employers, the different strata of capital, the state, the army, the schools and churches, all seem in confilict with each other. The workers appear as simply another such group. As the class struggle intensifies, however, a polarization of society takes place. In a revolutionary situation, when the working class threatens to take over the means of production and run them itself, all the forces which want to perpetuate a class society will unify against it. The employers, the state, and their allies lose their appearance of diversity and stand revealed as the force maintaining present social relations and present social misery. And this without any tutelage of the workers by any font of wisdom “from outside.”

Of course, such situations do not occur every day. During the long stretches when the class war is muted or suppressed, when the working class appears integrated into capitalism, they are difficult even to imagine. But the magic want of the Party and its superior knowledge is of no use in whisking away this situation. For if the Party’s arguments are truly revolutionary, they will be of no practical use and make little sense to the majority of workers, and the Party will remain only an isolated sect. History has shown that in order to avoid this fate, most self-proclaimed revolutionary parties in practice become reformist, whatever their rhetoric, and become a barrier to the next revolutionary upsurge.

What the working class needs in a non-revolutionary period is not the sophisticated tutelage of radical intellectuals bemoaning the workers’ incapacity, but a sense of how its immediate struggles relate to the long-term historical struggle of the working class to take control of production. This relation is extremely difficult to grasp as an abstract intellectual argument -- no matter how brilliant the intellectuals who are presenting it. But as George Sorel points out in his Reflections on Violence, it can be clearly and vividly seen if we take the present strikes and other class struggles and envision their development into a general strike and general war against capitalism. Revolution can best be understood as the expansion and completion or the workers’ daily struggle against their immediate oppression. Such a universalised struggle is the totality the working class must grasp. A consciousness based on it leaps over all the problems of “reified consciousness” posed by Lukacs by presenting their solution -- people taking conscious control of their social activity. If even this consciousness is difficult to maintain during periods of social peace, we should hardly expect more success with the subtle dialectics of Lukacs’ revelation of reification.

In a revolutionary situation, “revolutionary consciousness” develops directly out of the practical problem the working class faces -- namely, the unified opposition of the capitalists, the state, and their allies. It is the old ruling class which presents the workers with the choice between submitting or taking over society, in other words, which leads than to be revolutionary. Thus in Russia in 1917, the factory owners tried to break the workers’ drive for “immediate demands” by declaring massive lockouts; the workers responded by taking over the factories and running them themselves. This action -- the essence of socialist revolution -- required no tutelage from a revolutionary party: it grew out of the practical situation in which the workers found themselves. In fact even the most radical party, the Bolsheviks, opposed workers management of production and eventually succeeded in destroying it. In Italy in 1920, it was similarly a management counter-offensive in the form of a lockout which triggered the great factory occupations and the reopening of production under direction of the workers. This development too was opposed by the socialists. The highly touted role of the maverick socialist Gramsci was essentially to clarify the significance of what the Turin workers were already doing by arguing that their factory committees could in fact become the cells of a new society. In Spain, the revolt of the generals and their attempt to suppress the working class forced the working class to take over production and to combat the revolt with armed force. In all these cases we can see that the jump from struggle within capitalism to struggle against capitalism does not come from the teachings of a revolutionary party, but from the practical problems faced by the working class itself. In this at least history vindicates Marx’s theory, and refutes Lukscas’ view that “revolutionary consciousness” is impossible without the education of the workers by a revolutionary party.

Lukacs gives an important clue to the origin of his position in his 1922 attack on Rosa Luxemburg's “Critique of the Russian Revolution.” Her error in evaluating the Russian Revolution, he argues, “consists in the overestimation of its purely proletarian character,” “the underestimation of the importance of the non-proletarian elements in the revolution,” and her consequent “underplayinging of the role of the party in the revolution.” Since the revolution depended as much on the peasantry and the lower middle class as on the working class, it followed as a consequence that only a revolutionary party could draw together and lead these disparate elements. This is of course identical with Lenin’s analysis of the class forces in Russia. It reveals how closely Lukacs’ theory -- indeed, Leninism itself -- was tied to the underdeveloped conditions of capitalism in Eastern Europe. The inappropriateness of this policy in the industrial countries of Western Europe was the point made by the Left Communists who were expelled from the Third International, and against when Lenin wrote his pamphlet Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder. Leninism was in essence an abandonment of working class revolution both in theory and practice, in favor of an alliance of disparate social elements -- many of which had no interest in working-class rule of society -- led by the Communist party.

In an era when imperialism has made private capitalist development impossible in backward countries, this has proved to be a formula through which many nations have been able to achieve development through state capitalism. But it has precious little to do with socialism -- the direction of the production process by the producers themselves. Only socialism was and is revolutionary for the industrially advanced countries -- indeed, state capitalism was the reactionary solution to the problems of capitalism, as the rise of fascism revealed.

Even more concretely, Lukacs’ theory reflects the conditions of the Hungarian “Revolution” of 1919, in which he played a leading part and achieved the supreme tutorial position of Commissar of Education. A general strike by the workers led to the collapse of the monarchy, which was followed by an inept bourgeois republic. When the new government in turn collapsed, Bela Kun and his small band of Conummist cadres stepped into the vacuum and declared a Soviet Republic, in alliance with the Socialist Party. They operated completely from above, establishing a government of their own officials, promulgating a constitution, and issuing a multitude of directives for nationalization and reform -- much in the manner of benevolent despots. Apparently the masses were not appreciative. In his capitulation speech at the and of his 133-day rule, Bela Kun attributed his government’s collapse to the abandonment of the leaders by the masses, who he claimed lacked revolutionary class consciousness. We can see this experience of would-be revolutionary leaders unappreciated by the masses recapitulated in sophisticated theoretical form in Lukacs’ book.

This leads us to a final consequence of Lukacs’ non-marxian premises. Marx postulates that it is their real social conditions and relations which determine peoples’ consciousness. If this is so, then any group which is separate in its life conditions from the working class will develop ideas and interests that grow out of its own situations and needs, in contrast to those of the working class itself. Examples of this process are described in detail in Michels’ Political Parties. It can be seen in the consistency with which self-proclaimed revolutionary parties have followed their own interests by either supporting capitalist governments or establishing themselves as a new ruling class. Here at least the Marxian theory seems to be borne out by the historical evidence. Those who would form a “real” revolutionary party without the defects and corruptions of the old ones: please note.

Lukacs seems to regard the revolutionary party as immune to this process because of the purity of its ideas. Because it can comprehend the totality, it can point out the interests of the working class as a whole. Here again, under the disguise of Marxism we can see the idealist philosopher, who has no interests of his own and therefore can see the interests of the whole. But it is one function of Marxism precisely to unmask such illusions -- to show the specific social interests that lie hidden behind such formulations. For every ruling class proclaims that its rule reflects not its own interests but the general good. We must apply the Marxian postulates to Lukacs himself and to the Leninism he defends.

In this light, Lukacs’ theory is clearly revealed as a brilliant argument for the control of society by an ‘enlightened’ minority of organized radicals. For them it provides the two great justifications needed by any ruling group: that it alone has the understanding needed to direct society, and that the masses are incapable of directing society themselves. Thus his theory not only flatters radical intellectuals, but provides a perfect excuse for them to take power themselves -- naturally “for the good of” a working class “too ignorant” to know its own interests. While Lukacs’ theory can never hope for mass appeal, it is perfectly suited to be the in-group faith, the “esoteric doctrine” of those who, in a time of social crisis, may well be the “last, best hope” of class society.

Stu Porzan