RSS FeedRSS FeedLivestreamLivestreamVimeoVimeoTwitterTwitterFacebook GroupFacebook Group
You are here: Platypus /Archive for tag Georg Lukács

Jensen Suther

Platypus Review 59 | September 2013


On July 3rd, 2013, at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Germany, Jensen Suther interviewed Axel Honneth, director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and author of numerous books and articles, on behalf of Platypus. Their conversation focused on the problem of “reification,” or the tendency for processes of transformation to appear as, and be treated as if they were, static objects of an immutable nature. Reification was the theme of several writings Honneth delivered as the Tanner Lectures at Berkeley in 2005. These lectures are compiled in the book Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.


 Georg Lukács in 1913

Jensen Suther: In your 2005 Tanner Lecture series, you argue that Georg Lukács’s Marxist analysis of the problem of reification is problematic, particularly in that he ascribes the overcoming of alienated social relations to the working class. You end the lecture by emphasizing that, pace Lukács, for whom reification is generated by the commodity form, different sets of social practices give rise to reifying behavior and no one group, class, or social movement can be singularly assigned the task of abolishing reified social relations. However, reification has historically been an important concept for the Left. Do you see the critique of reification as necessarily leftist? How, if at all, does your contribution to the discourse on reification relate to the Left?

Axel Honneth: This is a surprising question, one I would not have thought to ask, so my answer comes very much ad hoc. I do not believe that concepts belong to any specific political community or group. The degree to which concepts help us explore something or see something new, they should be taken as an instrument potentially available for everyone in society. So, in that sense, I do not believe that reification is an automatically leftist concept. Moreover, in terms of the history of ideas, I am not even sure that reification is necessarily a concept developed only by leftists. For instance, the French Marxist thinker Lucien Goldmann sought to demonstrate the similarities between the approaches of Lukács and Heidegger. You can find in Heidegger an idea of reification, which already indicates that reification was a concept also utilized by the right, or on the right. There are many problems with Lukács’s analysis. The almost mystical role he assigns the proletariat is only one of them. Even if we grant that his was one of the most fruitful periods in the Left tradition, in the history of Western Marxism, I think that today we can see much more clearly the limits of that analysis and the mistakes bound up with those limits. And, surely, the biggest mistake is not only the emphasis on the world-historical role of the proletariat, but also how this is emphasized, namely by way of a very peculiar set of background ideas, let’s say, about the social structure of reality. Lukács relies on a kind of Fichtean-Hegelian metaphysical concept by which all human society is thought to be grounded in a certain kind of world-constituting activity, and so Lukács thinks that the only class that can overcome reification, which is seen as the destruction of that world-constituting activity, is the class which is representing—even under alienated or distorted conditions—that kind of praxis. Therefore, we have this almost fantastic piece within the whole study, wherein Lukács wants to reveal this one moment of the overcoming of these distorted conditions. For Lukács, this moment looks almost like this one revolutionary act; I mean, you almost get the sense that in one second all these destructive conditions are overcome. It’s a very peculiar analysis—enormously inspiring, but also very strange.

JS: You argue in your 2005 lectures that reification does not eliminate non-reified forms of social praxis, but only papers over them, and you claim that this was also Lukács’s position. In other words, you argue that a “genuine form of human existence,” one based on mutual recognition, perseveres beneath reified social relations. Even if this is the case, is it possible to grasp this genuine, underlying social reality, “as it really is”? Or is it rather the case, as Theodor Adorno suggests, that misrecognition is constitutive of our social condition? And what of Lukács’s claim that the commodity form not only generates reification, but also produces consciousness?

AH: That strikes me as an epistemological question, or probably better still an ontological question: If we grant the condition that reification is constitutive of our society, how could we ever attain a less distorted, or “undisturbed,” form of praxis? If we are to avoid contradicting ourselves, we can only hold out hope for this better form of praxis if we also believe that there must always already be an element of the better, undisturbed form of praxis in our already existing society. This is a difficult issue in Lukács. One way to understand him is to say that all praxis in the present moment of capitalist society is completely reified. But then you have this problem of how one has access to any sense that an undistorted form of praxis is possible. In Adorno it is trickier still. Even when Adorno is saying that reification is constitutive, he believes that there are still alternatives, or signs of another form of praxis. Be it in art, the artwork, or be it in small examples of everyday practices—there are, he claims, elements of an undistorted practice. So in Adorno you have this idea of the immanent appearance of an undistorted praxis, whereas Lukács is much more radical in his claim that reification is total. But this makes it much more difficult for Lukács to think the revolution, or think social change. Thus for Lukács it has to be this completely eschatological transformation, a complete reversal. With respect to this question I think Adorno is more open.


The interior of the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance, Frankfurt, Germany.

JS: To come back to the last part of my previous question, isn’t it the case, for Lukács and Adorno, that reification does not merely represent the ossification of social relations, nor just the objectification of individuals? For both thinkers reification also had a positive significance, as the basis for abolishing current social relations. Adorno, for instance, in his “Reflections on Class Theory,” argues that, “in reified human beings reification finds its outer limits.”[1] In several places Adorno stresses that every second nature is always already a new first nature. Similarly, Lukács speaks of how, during a revolutionary period in the crisis of capital, one sees the intensification, not the diminution, of reification. Indeed, he makes clear that reification is integral to the dialectic of theory and practice, and not simply an obstacle to it. How does this dimension of reification figure into your account? Or, to put the question a different way, what are the limitations to the immanent analysis of reification?

AH: I do not see that, I’m afraid. That has to do, I think, with one’s strategy for identifying reification. There is a huge difference between Lukács and Adorno, on one side, and myself, on the other. For them, the background idea is that capitalist exchange relations, as such, are producing reification. I have doubts about such a totalizing idea. I do not think forms of reification are automatically or necessarily produced by capitalist societies, but rather that specific forms of capitalism and specific forms of practices within capitalism are what produce really reified attitudes. Aside from this difference, however, I also think that Adorno and Lukács make mistakes even in terms of their own conceptualizations. If you take reification literally, which I think Lukács wants to do, then you cannot really say that all economic exchange, even exchange directly involving the labor force, is reification as such. Not all practices involved in the production process necessarily require that the human potentialities of the workers must be exacted from them. Capitalist production as such entails the use, as a commodity, of the human potentialities of the labor force, but only in some specific cases does this form of production also exhibit the opposite—namely, an ignorance of, or disregard for, human potential. Only in these particular cases does it make sense to speak of reification. In the sex trade, for example, we have a clear case of reification. But reification does not obtain in all forms of capitalist production.

JS: In an essay you wrote that concludes the Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, entitled “A social pathology of reason: on the intellectual legacy of Critical Theory,” you argue that the process of social rationalization, or what Hegel would have called the historical unfolding of freedom, has been interrupted, and that it is the task of Critical Theory to think through the contradiction between capitalism and the aspirations of bourgeois society. You claim that this interruption poses a moral or ethical challenge, whose resolution does not necessarily require the sublation of capitalism, and that history has demonstrated that the “Marxist wing of left Hegelianism” was wrong, since the working class did not “automatically develop a revolutionary readiness.” You argue that, in light of the failure of Marxism, psychoanalysis may offer powerful tools for analyzing social irrationality. In your view, what would be the significance of psychoanalysis for a revitalized emancipatory politics?

AH: It is a very complicated question. First, I would not claim that Marxism as such has failed, but that it has clearly erred in one respect, namely in its conviction that the proletariat or the class of the labor force will automatically develop a critical perspective. An empirical doubt of that premise had already been formulated by the early Frankfurt School. Their starting point, in a way, was hesitation as to precisely that premise.

I think Adorno and some of the other representatives of the Frankfurt School relied mainly on psychoanalysis as a way to think through the emancipatory mechanisms already immanent in capitalism. In certain passages Adorno suggests that a certain component of our psychic life simply resists the existent capitalist conditions because of the element of suffering implicit in these conditions. However, if you follow Freud, suffering produces certain dispositions, not for emancipation, but for enlightening knowledge. Nonetheless, Adorno, until the end, believed in that kind of psychic mechanism. With Marcuse it is completely different. Marcuse argued there are certain drives that permanently resist the capitalist form of rationalization, which would point to a completely different usage of psychoanalysis. But, regarding how I think psychoanalysis might contribute to emancipation, I would give several answers. First, I am most interested in object relations theory, a certain strain within psychoanalysis. In brief, I think this strain, and the work of Donald Winnicott in particular, is very helpful in order to think about emancipatory moments in normal human life. More generally, one element I would take from psychoanalysis is a deep suspicion about the completely rational actor. Psychoanalysis is one tradition among others that helps us to see that human beings are driven not only by their purposive rational interests, but also by their unconscious wishes. I take this insight to be necessary for any analysis of emancipatory potentialities within a given capitalist society.

JS: In a recent interview, you announced your support for the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance (Institut für die Vergleichende Irrelevanz, or IvI), just before the building it has occupied for nearly a decade was seized. In a February 2012 dispatch entitled, “Critical Thinking Needs and Takes Time and Space,” available on its website, the IvI writes that it sees itself as offering an alternative form of politics based around a self-organized space within which it is possible for participants of any age, gender, or ethnicity to achieve autonomy.[2] Do you think this sort of alternative political project realizes, or at least approximates, the kind of mutual recognition and de-reifying behavior that you call for in your work? Adorno argues in several places, most notably in his late essay “Resignation,” that attempts to “rescue enclaves of immediacy in the midst of a thoroughly mediated and rigidified society” amount to pseudo-activity, obscuring the need for change on the level of society.[3] How would you respond to this critique?

AH: I would hope that the notion of mutual forms of recognition can help to make a little bit clearer what Adorno had in mind, actually. Concerning the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance, I think one should support it, simply because this is one expression of the interests of students to have alternative spaces for their own way of thinking, within a non-regulated, non-hierarchical form of university education. And I think it is a good sign for a generation of students if they develop interest in creating such spaces. I do not think that these spaces represent another form of life. In the IvI’s own self-description it does sound as though the IvI has already created an alternative form of life. I do not think it has done that, but the IvI nevertheless has, through a legitimate form of occupation, created a unique place close to the university. They occupied the building in order to reclaim a space for free thinking and free discussion outside the control of official representatives of knowledge. I think this is a good step. There is still a determined group of students who believe they need these places, beyond the specific regulations of education within the university, where they can debate and discuss their own matters, their own theoretical interests, their own insights. It is a good sign if a university allows those spaces, because that’s the whole idea of a university — not to distribute formal knowledge that allows one to attain a position within society, but to represent a space where free thinking is possible. And, if the usual forms of teaching are being put under greater pressure of certain economic interests, then more places like the IvI become necessary. |P

[1]. Adorno, Theodor, “Reflections on Class Theory,” in Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 110.

[2]. The full text of “Critical Thinking Needs and Takes Time and Space” (“Kritisches Denken brauchtund nim- mt sich-Zeit und Raum”) can be found online at <http://>.

[3]. Adorno, Theodor, “Resignation,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 291.

Jeremy Cohan

Platypus Review 38 | August 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

At the Marxist Literary Group’s Institute on Culture and Society 2011, held on June 20–24, 2011 at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago, Platypus members Spencer Leonard, Pamela Nogales, and Jeremy Cohan organized a panel on “Marxism and the Bourgeois Revolution.” The original description of the event reads: “The ‘bourgeois revolutions’ from the 16th through the 19th centuries—extending into the 20th—conformed humanity to modern city life, ending traditional, pastoral, religious custom in favor of social relations of the exchange of labor. Abbé Sieyès wrote in 1789 that, in contradistinction to the clerical First Estate who ‘prayed’ and the aristocratic Second Estate who ‘fought,’ the commoner Third Estate ‘worked:’ ‘What has the Third Estate been? Nothing.' 'What is it? Everything.' Kant warned that universal bourgeois society would be the mere midpoint in humanity’s achievement of freedom. After the last bourgeois revolutions in Europe of 1848 failed, Marx wrote of the ‘constitution of capital,’ the ambivalent, indeed self-contradictory character of ‘free wage labor.’ In the late 20th century, the majority of humanity abandoned agriculture in favor of urban life—however in ‘slum cities.’ How does the bourgeois revolution appear from a Marxian point of view? How did what Marx called the ‘proletarianization’ of society circa 1848 signal not only the crisis and supersession, but the need to fulfill and ‘complete’ the bourgeois revolution, whose task now fell to the politics of ‘proletarian’ socialism, expressed by the workers’ call for ‘social democracy?’ How did this express the attempt, as Lenin put it, to overcome bourgeois society ‘on the basis of capitalism’ itself? How did subsequent Marxism lose sight of Marx on this, and how might Marx’s perspective on the crisis of the bourgeois revolution in the 19th century still resonate today?” An audio recording of the event is available at the above link. What follows is an edited version of Jeremy’s Cohan’s opening remarks.

IN HIS “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” Immanuel Kant sets forth to tell the story of humanity as if it were one of progress. This is not easy, says Kant,

Since men in their endeavors behave, on the whole, not just instinctively, like the brutes, nor yet like rational citizens of the world according to some agreed-on plan, no history of man conceived according to a plan seems to be possible…One cannot suppress a certain indignation when one sees men’s actions on the great world-stage and finds, beside the wisdom that appears here and there among individuals, everything in the large woven together from folly, childish vanity, even from childish malice and destructiveness.[1]

For Kant, rationality in human history depends on the future. By completing the seeds of freedom and development implicit in the present, we might illuminate and make meaningful the sound, fury, and idiocy thus far characteristic of world-history. The stakes are high:

Until this last step…is taken, which is the halfway mark in the development of mankind, human nature must suffer the cruelest hardships under the guise of external well-being; and Rousseau was not far wrong in preferring the state of savages, so long, that is, as the last stage to which the human race must climb is not attained.[2]

Georg Lukács sought to revive a Marx that, like Kant, strove to bring the crisis-character of the present to self-consciousness, but under changed conditions. This Marx understood the problem of his—and our—epoch as the unfinished bourgeois revolution, whose gains would be meaningful only from the standpoint of redemption—what Lukács called the standpoint of the proletariat. The “orthodox” Marx Lukács found in the politics of the radicals of the Second International, Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin, stood at the edge of an historical abyss.

As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra puts it: “Man is a rope tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.”[3] On the other side of the rope, the completion of the human freedom whose possibility the “bourgeois epoch” had begun. Beneath, the whoring subservience of bourgeois thought and socialism both, to a status quo with ever dwindling possibilities for human freedom.

This is a very different Lukács than the one who has gained some academic respectability of late. A sector of the academic left thinks we ought to take up many of the analytical tools Lukács has given us to become more “reflexive” critics of capitalism, paying attention to our “standpoint” of critique to get past objective and subjective dichotomies that plague debate in the social sciences, and to talk about ideology as “socially necessary illusion” rather than mere will o’ the wisp. Sure, we have to ditch the politics—the crypto-messianic or proto-Stalinist (whichever you prefer) “proletariat as the identical subject-object of history.” But Lukács can help us become keener, more critical academics.

I want to resist this assimilation of Lukács into the barbarism of academic reason.

As Lukács put it in his “What is Orthodox Marxism?”: “Materialist dialectic is a revolutionary dialectic.”[4] Lukács is not the mere “analyst” of reification, on the model of his cultural studies epigones. He sought to demonstrate that Marxism was, from beginning to end, only possible as a practical self-clarification of the ongoing crisis of society triggered by the unfinished bourgeois revolution. Recent attempts to rescue the “academic” Lukács are an exercise in contradiction. It is precisely when he stopped being an academic that he could move forward with his philosophical problems, because they were being addressed politically by the revolutionary Marxism of his day.

But the attempt to recover the political Lukács may be just as futile. For Lukács’s moment is not ours; the crisis and possibility of the early 20th century is far from what we face. So any “recovery” of Lukács must operate on two levels: one, by asking seriously whether we have overcome the crisis that Lukács attempted to formulate theoretically, and two, by recognizing that, if we have not, we cannot simply take up where he left off.


The problem of epistemology, morals, aesthetics “Reification” essay is reason at odds with itself; reason that ends in mythology, suffering, and unfreedom.

We return to Kant, this time offering the battle cry of the Enlightenment: “Ours is the genuine age of criticism, to which everything must submit.”[5] Not just ideas, but social institutions and forms of life too, must justify themselves by appealing to reason, rather than through claims of tradition or dogma. The philosophical Enlightenment and the political revolutions that fought under its banner—the American, the French, the Haitian, and those of 1848—looked forward to the realization of reason, freedom, and human self-development in the world, in our social institutions and in ourselves. This would be emancipation—humanity’s “maturity” as Kant puts it.

But bourgeois society has been unable to fulfill its promise. We all-too reasonable moderns seem consigned to contemplate a ready-made world. Lukács shows this reason—a more powerful and mythical dominating force than nature ever was—at odds with itself, and in play in all forms in society: from the factory machine to the bureaucratic state, from jurisprudence to journalism. He peoples his essay with characters from the great social scientists of his day, Max Weber and Georg Simmel—the bureaucrats, the abstract calculative individuals—to describe a society whose “reason” is a soulless restrictive rationalization shaping humanity in its narrow image. He might, like Weber, have also turned to Nietzsche’s “last man”—the shrunken, all-too reasonable, modern toady. Happy; unable to give birth to a star.

Nor does academia help us out of this crisis of modern reason. Disciplinary fragmentation is the rule, wherein the more we seem to know, the more reasonable each science becomes, the less it has to say about the nature of our society as a whole. Weber puts it like so in his “Science as a Vocation,” “Natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we wish to do to master life technically. It leaves quite aside…whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so.”[6] We once thought we could go to reason with our deep questions; we now know better, says Weber.

And, importantly, Marxism has been on the whole no better—it has been only a more advanced form of this domination-reconstituting reason. The target of most of History and Class Consciousness is, after all, Marxism itself, a “vulgar” Marxism that loses the capacity to affect the course of events. This Marxism had signed on to national war efforts in WWI; this Marxism was responsible for the tightening and spread of state control over everyday life. We will return to this point: Marxism, for Lukács, faced a crisis in which it would either have to transform itself or would become one more apologia for the status quo.

This betrayal of emancipation by reason—this formalization, fragmentation, and tyrannous indifference to the particular—is what Lukács calls reification. None of this, let me emphasize, can be solved by interdisciplinary programs. This is a problem, Lukács asserts, that arises in our textbooks, because it is real, it has a basis in our form of life. Capitalist totality really does proceed fragmentarily, unconsciously, relegating humans into mere things. Reification is a Gegenstandlichkeitsform, a “form of objectivity.” It cannot be overcome except through consciousness, but it cannot be overcome through consciousness alone.


We might read the entirety of the second part of the “Reification” essay, “The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought,” as demonstrating, again and again, that reification cannot be overcome in thought alone. But Lukács is not setting up philosophy for a fall. Instead, Lukács gives an account of “Idealist” philosophy struggling to express the problems and potentials of freedom in its moment—that philosophy’s ambition, and the limits it reached, are characteristic of the “high” moment of bourgeois politics. Bourgeois philosophy, says Lukács, is the self-consciousness of a contradictory age, whose further transformations and developments necessitated its (self-)overcoming. This attempt to realize a freedom not “imposed upon” but immanent in social reality is passed on to Marxism. Marxism, in turn, is undergoing its own deep split, its own crisis, taking up in transmuted form the earlier crisis of thought and action.

Marxism, for Lukács, is the direct inheritor of a bourgeois practical philosophy of freedom. This definitively separates Marxism from many other varieties of anti-modern discontent (of which postmodernism is the most recent variety). Philosophy seeks to express, and through expression to become midwife to, the birth of the freedom implicit in our social relations. And while this task is more opaque in Lukács’s moment, Lukács refuses to sadly shrug his shoulders at the coming barbarism; he calls us to risk achieving the Enlightenment’s promise. Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Schiller, and Hegel would not cede the attempt to combine reason, freedom, and human development, even as they conscientiously recognized that these could not be reconciled in a bourgeois world. They express that bourgeois society has not yet given up on itself.

Bourgeois philosophy stuck with its ambition: “…the idea that the object…can be known by us for the reason that, and to the degree in which, it has been created by ourselves.”[7] But through epistemology, morals, aesthetics (the subjects of Kant’s three critiques) and even Hegel’s invocation of history, this philosophy kept finding itself left with, on the one side, an incomplete formal reason, on the other side an inert and irrational object; on the one side a free, self-determining subject, on the other the brute facts and “laws” of the world. Reason simply reproduces a subject denuded of its capacity to shape the world and itself, reconciled at the expense of unfreedom.

Classical philosophy’s honest focus on its limits was one of the things Lukács admired most about it. But even more importantly, that philosophical lineage attempted to probe and overcome its difficulties through developing a certain form of knowledge: the “identical subject-object,” “its own age comprehended in thought,” or practical self-consciousness. Classical idealist philosophy shows that freedom is possible only through a transformative self-consciousness, where “knowing” and “practical transformation” are mutually constitutive—where knowledge is immanent, rather than abstract.

Reason is not an abstract form to be imposed on a hostile reality—it is realizing something implicit in an object, an object which is actually us. A neurotic symptom appears to be a horrible hostile entity to be conquered, but it is rather a development of self to be understood and practically overcome. By knowing myself, I change myself. I am, but am not, the same self I was. Self-knowledge allows me, as Nietzsche puts it, to “become myself.”

Marxism is the attempt to realize the form of practical self-knowledge which offers the only hope of achieving freedom, reason, and development. But Marxism has inherited not only the tasks, but also the problems and crises, of the practical philosophy of freedom. Neo-Kantian, scientistic Marxism, connected with varieties of reformism, becomes the farcical repetition of Kant’s achievement: it fails to radicalize the Kant–Hegel–Marx lineage. Much like what Freud would call regression—the use of outdated psychic tools to cope with new problems and changed conditions—Marxism threatened to become “stuck,” thus failing to justify the leap the bourgeois revolutions had initiated. Marxism needed to learn to grow up. Or, more specifically, it needed to learn to stop thinking that it had already grown up.


Lukács insists that revolutionary Marxism is able to concretely pose the problem of emancipation, because its politics seeks to practically achieve the self-consciousness of capitalist society in its crisis. And capitalist society’s crisis, in its most acute form, is the historical development and consciousness of the proletariat. As Lukács puts it, “the proletariat is nothing but the contradictions of history become conscious” (71). But why?

Firstly, because the rise of the proletariat meant, historically, the decline of bourgeois radicalism. The proletariat’s incipient demand that they become the subjects promised by bourgeois society—free, creative, and equal—led the bourgeoisie to become “vulgar,” to give up on the radical implications of the Enlightenment and to call for “law and order.” Capital’s tragedy is that it is always also the proletariat. The bourgeoisie’s tragedy is that it must, by necessity, be always one step behind capital.

Second, because the proletariat is a commodity, and thus the ultimate object, she sells herself on the market, is enslaved by the machine, and is thrown about by economic crises over which she has not a whit of control. But bourgeois society also promises that each human being might become a self-determining subject. For Lukács, “the worker can only become conscious of his existence in society when he becomes aware of himself as a commodity.” Or “[the proletariat’s] consciousness is the self-consciousness of the commodity” (168). The commodity, this irrational reason, can itself make demands for its emancipation because the typical commodity is the proletariat. The inverse is also true: the proletariat is the quintessential “abstract” bourgeois subject, whose struggles to appropriate society for its purposes demand that the object—the product of the history of social labour—be infused with subjective purpose.

We are used to thinking of the natural constituency of the Left as those who are “marginal” to society. Lukács develops the daring claim of revolutionary Marxism that capitalism must overcome itself, not through the intervention of those outside, but by the action of those at its very center. “[The proletariat’s] fate is typical of the society as a whole,” says Lukács (92). The only advantage the worker might have is that her reification is often experienced as a form of powerlessness and therefore might be mediated politically into a transformative practice. Marxism is not the resistance to capitalism or reification or bourgeois subjectivity—it is their self-conscious realization and self-overcoming.

As proletarians seek to really become “bourgeois subjects,” their demands for subjectivity begin to strain against the limits of what is possible in bourgeois society. But the proletariat’s social position does not at all guarantee that it will radically push forward the demands of emancipation, only that it might. Politics is the attempt to realize this potential.

Lukács saw in the crisis of Marxism precipitated by World War I, but already presaged in the “revisionist debate,” a re-enactment at a new level of the crisis of bourgeois philosophy. Here self-consciousness could advance the new tasks posed, or thinking would become little more than an apologia for domination. In the radicals of Second International Marxism, especially Luxemburg and Lenin, Lukács saw the attempt to meet the tasks of the present, to formulate the politics that could realize bourgeois society’s—and Marxism’s—potential self-overcoming.

The essence of Lenin and Luxemburg’s Marxist politics was that socialism, in order to achieve emancipation, would have to be a conscious human act, immanent in present realities; it could not be deduced from social being nor a fervent wish from beyond. If one could “stumble into socialism,” as if socialism were fated from time immemorial by inexorable laws, then it would be one more form of unfreedom, of fake subjectivity. Human consciousness would be an integral part of “objective” development, or nothing at all.

This was exemplified in their focus on the “non-automatic” character of the transition to socialism. They criticized both inevitabilism and the reduction of the proletariat as just another sectional interest, seeking its “cut of the pie.” This was not Marxism, the politics of freedom, at all. Passages like the following from Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution, were key for Lukács:

So that if we do not consider momentarily the immediate amelioration of the workers’ condition – an objective common to our party program as well as to revisionism – the difference between the two outlooks is…[a]ccording to the present conception of the party [Luxemburg’s position], trade-union and parliamentary activity are important for the socialist movement because such activity prepares the proletariat, that is to say, creates the subjective factor of the socialist transformation, for the task of realising socialism…we say that as a result of its trade union and parliamentary struggles, the proletariat becomes convinced, of the impossibility of accomplishing a fundamental social change through such activity and arrives at the understanding that the conquest of power is unavoidable.[8]

Luxemburg sought, then, to struggle with the proletariat in its halting attempts to achieve bourgeois subjectivity in order to constantly push against the limits of how much subjectivity capitalism could grant the workers—all so that the proletariat might someday demand the end of their being an object tout court. Furthermore political education and action around these limits would be designed to call workers to learning about how they came to be what they are—i.e. to understand historically their being as an expression of the crisis of capital—and thus be faced with the gravity of the task ahead for achieving freedom.

The revolutionary Marxism of Luxemburg and Lenin, then, was for Lukács the attempt to realize the promises and possibilities of bourgeois society by consistently pressing forward the demand for subjectivity contained in the commodity itself: the proletariat. This politics, in extremely telescoped form, insists on:

  • the leading role of the proletariat as the most typical element and crisis-point of capitalism
  • an emphasis on the subjective development of the proletariat in any struggles it undergoes
  • a fight against the reduction of Marxism into sectional interest, seeking its “cut of the pie”
  • the importance of emphasizing not victories, but limits in any given interest-pursued action by the proletariat
  • the concomitant value of self-criticism and self-transformation
  • the centrality of self-transformative political practice
  • an organization—or party—dedicated (as Lukács quotes Marx in the Communist Manifesto) to clarifying the international and historical significance of any given action.

This self-conscious capitalist politics elucidated, for Lukács, what the practical philosophy of freedom would have to look like in order to overcome the present and to realize the endangered, fragile past, soon to become only the miserable precursor to an even more miserable sequel.

This struggle with the proletariat to achieve its own possibility was for Lukács the other side of the struggle of bourgeois society to achieve its potential, an historical open question that would be decided only by self-conscious self-action. The crisis of modern society is the crisis of the bourgeois revolution—which at a new, more deadly level, is the crisis of Marxism.

If this politics is unsuccessful, there will certainly be plenty of movements and resistance. But unless capital, the dynamo of modernity, is overcome from within, rather than by a deus ex machina from without, you won’t get the self-overcoming of capitalist society at its highest point and the realization of the potential freedom implicit in modernity. Instead resistance becomes the cry accompanying a resigned acceptance to the unfreedom of the whole.


Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness might be summed up in Freud’s description of the goal of psychoanalysis: Wo Es war, soll Ich werden; where it was, I shall be. Self-consciousness changes us, but we are still somehow “us”; we have realized something about ourselves. Nor is self-consciousness merely in the brain. To be really self-conscious we need to change our whole way of being. Lukács’s Marxism is trying to recognize that Marxism poses the question to bourgeois society and to modernity as a whole whether or not it can achieve this kind of transformative self-consciousness. The prospects do not look bright.

But why return to Lukács? Especially if I insist that he was attempting to make sense of his practical moment, to raise the moment of world-historical danger and possibility of roughly 1917-1923 to self-consciousness, what relevance does he have in a moment whose practical possibilities are so different, and so diminished? Psychoanalysis again, perhaps, provides a useful metaphor. We do not revisit our childhoods to relive them—only to recognize how we have yet to integrate them by overcoming them. Lukács helps us see that we haven’t grown up.

This means that perhaps Lukács’s “identical subject-object” seems so “messianic” to us not because we have surpassed Lukács and his silly metaphysical speculations, but because we find ourselves no longer able to imagine this kind of freedom. We no longer believe that we can overcome capitalism for the better, realizing the reason, freedom, and human development it promises. Capitalism is a brute, inert, foreign entity, dominating us and our capacities. All we can do is look to the marginal, the suffering, and the pained, and offer sympathy and solidarity with their struggles: struggles that are part of the natural laws of history. There will be power, there will be resistance. Our politics take something like the form of Niezsche’s eternal return. As “critical” as we are, we can only imagine freedom swooping in from beyond and bringing its liberation into our miserable lives. And we are right—for we are surely in the age of second childhood, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Was Lukács a fool for wagering on the possibility of freedom by becoming, politically, a Marxist? Lukács would insist on Luxemburg’s call—socialism or barbarism. Either the immanent overcoming of capitalism and its irrational rationality, or resignation to ever-new, ever-horrifying, forms of “reasonable” barbarism.

To end, I offer two quotes. The first from Lukács:

When the moment of transition to the ‘realm of freedom’ arrives this will become apparent just because the blind forces really will hurtle blindly towards the abyss, and only the conscious will of the proletariat will be able to save mankind from the impending catastrophe. In other words, when the final economic crisis of capitalism develops, the fate of the revolution (and with it the fate of mankind) will depend on the ideological maturity of the proletariat, i.e. on its class consciousness (69).

The second from Rilke in the first of his Duino Elegies:

Yes—the springtimes needed you. Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it. A wave rolled toward you
out of the distant past, or as you walked
under an open window, a violin
yielded itself to your hearing. All this was mission.
But could you accomplish it?[9]

Without Lukács’s Pascalian wager on freedom, it is not clear to me that Lukács is worth much of anything at all. The demon that drove him from philosophy to the politics of revolutionary Marxism is what should call out to us today, not the analytical tools we can dig up from the grave of his practical philosophy of freedom. Or maybe he is just a dead dog. |P

[1]. Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” in Kant on History, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963[1784]), 12.

[2]. Ibid., 21.

[3]. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1978[1891]), 126.

[4]. Georg Lukács, “What is Orthodox Marxism,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 2.

[5]. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 [1787]), 100-101.

[6]. Max Weber. “Science as a Vocation” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958 [1918]), 144.

[7]. Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 112. Hereafter referred to parenthetically with the appropriate page number(s).

[8]. Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Waters (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1979[1900]), 84-5.

[9]. Rainer Maria Rilke. Duino Elegies in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell (NY: Random House, 1982[1922]), 151.

Third Annual Platypus International Convention

Opening plenary

Chris Cutrone, Andrew Feenberg, Richard Westerman, and Nicholas Brown

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

The opening plenary of the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, held April 29–May 1, 2011 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was a panel discussion between Nicholas Brown of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Chris Cutrone of Platypus, Andrew Feenberg of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and Richard Westerman of the University of Chicago. The panelists were asked to address the following: “Recently, the New Left Review published a translated conversation between the critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer causing more than a few murmurs and gasps. In the course of their conversation, Adorno comments that he had always wanted to ‘develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin, while keeping up with culture at its most advanced.’ Adorno, it seems, was a Leninist. As surprising as this evidence might have been to some, is it not more shocking that Adorno’s politics, and the politics of Critical Theory, have remained taboo for so long? Was it really necessary to wait until Adorno and Horkheimer admitted their politics in print to understand that their primary preoccupation was with maintaining Marxism’s relation to bourgeois critical philosophy (Kant and Hegel)? This panel proposes to state the question as directly as possible and to simply ask: How did the practice and theory of Marxism, from Marx to Lenin, make possible and necessary the politics of Critical Theory?” The full audio recording of the event is available at the above link.

Opening remarks

Waiting for history: Horkheimer and Adorno’s theatre of the absurd

Andrew Feenberg

IN 2010 the New Left Review (NLR 65) translated a dialogue between Horkheimer and Adorno on “a new manifesto.”[1] This dialogue, which took place in 1956, is only understandable against the background of Marx and Lukács’s interpretation of the theory-practice relation. In this talk I will try to explain how that background blocks the production of the manifesto and reduces discussion of it to absurdity. But first, let me show how Horkheimer and Adorno set up the problem.

Their dialogue is a strange document. The pretension to update the Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Engels in 1848 is astonishing, particularly given the silliness of much of their talk. For example, what are we to make of the first exchanges on the misplaced love of work, which then devolve into a conversation about the anal sounds emitted by a motorcycle? The dialogue returns constantly to the question of what to say in a time when nothing can be done. The communist movement is dead, killed off by its own grotesque success in Russia and China. Western societies are better than the Marxist alternative that nevertheless symbolically represents an emancipated future. Horkheimer is convinced that the world is mad and that even Adorno’s modest hope that things might work out someday stinks of theology. Horkheimer remarks, “We probably have to start from the position of saying to ourselves that even if the party no longer exists, the fact that we are here still has a certain value.” In sum, the only evidence that something better is possible is the fact that they are sitting there talking about the possibility of something better.

Horkheimer asks, in this situation, “In whose interest do we write?” “People might say that our views are just all talk, our own perceptions. To whom shall we say these things?” He continues, “We have to actualize the loss of the party by saying, in effect, that we are just as bad [off] as before but that we are playing on the instrument the way it has to be played today.” And Adorno replies, cogently and rather comically, “There is something seductive about that idea—but what is the instrument?” Although Adorno remarks tentatively at one point that he has “the feeling that what we are doing is not without its effect,” Horkheimer is more skeptical. He says, “My instinct is to say nothing if there is nothing I can do.” And he goes on to discuss the tone and content of the manifesto in such a way as to reduce it to absurdity: “We want the preservation for the future of everything that has been achieved in America today, such as the reliability of the legal systems, the drugstores, etc. This must be made quite clear whenever we speak about such matters.” Adorno replies, “That includes getting rid of TV programmes when they are rubbish.” Contradicting himself, Horkheimer concludes the recorded discussion with the grim words, “Because we are still permitted to live, we are under an obligation to do something.”

In 1955, shortly before this exchange occurred, Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot. The speculations of Vladimir and Estragon anticipate Max and Teddie’s absurdist dialogue. Vladimir says, for instance: “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed….But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”[2]

This introduction to the discussion of Horkheimer and Adorno’s text may seem unfair. Do they deserve my mockery? “Yes and no,” to quote Horkheimer. In one sense their text is already self-mocking. The lighthearted tone of many of the exchanges shows them to be well aware of the literal impossibility of carrying out their project. Horkheimer claims that the tone in which the manifesto is written must somehow overcome its futility in the present period when it can have no practical effect. Something similar takes place in the dialogue. The tone reveals what cannot be explained adequately about the contradiction between the existential situation of the speakers and their project. But they do try their best to make the contradiction explicit.

The obstacle is their conception of the relation of theory to practice. Adorno points out that Marx and Hegel reject abstract ideals and reconstruct the concept of the ideal as the next historical step. This means that theory must be tied to practice, to real historical forces. As Horkheimer later says: “Reality should be measured against criteria whose capacity for fulfillment can be demonstrated in a number of already existing, concrete developments in historical reality” (55).

But, Adorno argues, Marx and Hegel did not live in a world like ours in which the unwillingness to take the next step blocks the actual realization of utopia. Under these conditions, the temptation to utopian speculation returns, but the pressure to meet the Hegelian-Marxist historical desideratum blocks the further progress of thought. Horkheimer concludes that, “the idea of practice must shine through in everything we write” without any compromise or concession to the actual historical situation, a seemingly impossible demand. This yields what he calls “a curious waiting process,” which Adorno defines as, “in the best case…theory as a message in a bottle” (56, 58).

What is most peculiar about this exchange is the refusal of these two philosophers to derive a critical standard from philosophical reflection once history can no longer supply it. This is what Habermas would do later: admit the breakdown of the Hegelian-Marxist historical approach and establish a properly philosophical basis for critique. If no “next step” lights the way, perhaps ethics can do the job in its place. But Horkheimer and Adorno insist on the importance of situating their thought historically both in terms of their own position and the absence of a party and a movement. As Horkheimer notes, “We have to think of our own form of existence as the measure of what we think.” How can critique negate the given society since that society is the critic’s sole existential support? The critic is the highest cultural product of the society. In the absence of any realistic alternative his capacity to negate the society justifies it. He can neither escape from history into the transcendental, as Habermas would have it, nor can he rest his historical case on the progressive movement of history. No wonder the dialogue wavers between the comic and the portentous.

How did Marxism end up in such a bind? As I mentioned at the outset, I believe this question leads back to Marx and Lukács. Lukács’s important book History and Class Consciousness contained the most influential reflection on the relation of theory and practice in the Marxist tradition. He renewed the Hegelian-Marxist historical critique of abstract ideals that underlies the dilemma at the heart of the dialogue. This text was known to Horkheimer and Adorno and its impact on their own reflections is obvious.

Lukács introduces the problem of theory and practice through a critique of an early text in which Marx demands that theory “seize the masses.” But, Lukács argues, if theory seizes the masses it stands in an external relation to their own needs and intentions. It would be a mere accident if the masses accomplished theoretical goals. Rather, theory must be rooted in the needs and intentions of the masses if it is to be really and truly the theory of their movement and not an alien imposition.

Lukács takes up this theme at a more abstract level in his critique of Kantian ethics. In Lukács’s terms, the antinomy of theory and practice is an example of the more general antinomy of value and fact, “ought” and “is.” These antinomies arise from a formalistic concept of reason in terms of which theory and practice are alien to each other. This concept of reason fails to discover in the given facts of social life those potentialities and tendencies leading to a rational end. Instead, the given is conceived as fundamentally irrational, as the merely empirical, factual residue of the process of formal abstraction in which rational laws are constructed. Lukács explains, “Precisely in the pure, classical expression it received in the philosophy of Kant it remains true that the ‘ought’ presupposes an existing reality to which the category of ‘ought’ remains inapplicable in principle.”[3] This is the dilemma of bourgeois thought: political rationality presupposes as its material substratum an irrational social existence hostile to rational principles. The rational realm of citizenship, illuminated by moral obligation, stands in stark contradiction to the crude world of civil society, based on animal need and the struggle for existence.

But, if this is true of bourgeois theory, what of the theory of the proletarian movement? Is Marxism just a disguised ethical exigency opposed to the natural tendencies of the species? This is the flaw of heroic versions of communism, which oppose morality to life. Demanding sacrifice for the party, the next generation, and the “worker,” conforms precisely to the bourgeois pattern Lukács criticizes. This is not Marx. Starting from the Hegelian critique of abstract ethics, the early Marx arrived at a general concept of revolutionary theory as the “reflection” of life in thought.

There is for example a letter to Ruge in which Marx writes: “Until now the philosophers had the solution to all riddles in their desks, and the stupid outside world simply had to open its mouth so that the roasted pigeons of absolute science might fly into it.” Instead, philosophy must proceed from actual struggles in which the living contradiction of ideal and real appears. The new philosopher must “explain to the world its own acts,” showing that actual struggles contain a transcending content that can be linked to the concept of a rational social life. “We simply show it [the world] why it struggles in reality, and the consciousness of this is something which it is compelled to acquire, even if it does not want to.” “The critic,” Marx concludes, “therefore can start with any form of theoretical and practical consciousness and develop the true actuality out of the forms inherent in existing actuality as its ought-to-be and goal.” This is what Horkheimer meant by his remark that society must be measured against “concrete developments in historical reality.” As Marx writes elsewhere, “It is not enough that thought should seek to realize itself; reality must also strive toward thought.”

Marx’s later writings are ambiguous, conserving only traces of this reflexive theory of consciousness, as for example in this brief passage in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. . . . What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drives the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent.[4]

This passage invites revision to say that the proletariat too confronts “problems” that are “solved” theoretically by Marxism in a way that reflects the similar practical solution to which its life circumstances drive the class. Unfortunately, the later Marx did not make such an application of this suggestive remark. Instead, he proposed the historical materialist theory of the “determination of thought by being.” This deterministic language leaves open the question of the relation of Marxist theory to proletarian class consciousness.

This is the question Lukács addressed. He needed to show that Marxism was not related in a merely accidental manner to the thought and action of proletarians, that it is not a scientific “consciousness from without,” for which the proletariat would serve as a “passive, material basis,” but that it was essentially rooted in the life of the class. His misunderstood theories of reification and class consciousness relate to the form in which the social world is given immediately to the consciousness of all members of a capitalist society. Lukács writes that “in capitalist society reality is—immediately—the same for both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.” And again: “The proletariat shares with the bourgeoisie the reification of every aspect of its life.” However, the experience of reification differs depending on class situation. It is interesting that Lukács cites as evidence for this one of the few Marxian passages on alienation to which he had access. “The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.”

Bourgeois and proletarians experience the “same” alienation, Marx claims, but from different vantage points. Similarly, Lukács remarks that where the capitalist perceives lengthening the work day as a matter of increasing the quantity of labor power purchased at a given price, for the worker this “quantity changes into quality.” The worker goes beyond the reified quantitative determinants immediately given in the reified form of objectivity of his labor because he cannot ignore the real qualitative degradation of life and health associated with them. Thus, “the quantitative differences in exploitation which appear to the capitalist in the form of quantitative determinants of the objects of his calculation, must appear to the worker as the decisive, qualitative categories of his whole physical, mental and moral existence.”

The proletariat sees beyond immediacy in the act of becoming (socially) self-conscious. This self-consciousness penetrates beneath the reified form of its objects to their “reality.” This more or less spontaneous critique of reification gives rise to everyday practices that can be developed into the basis of a revolutionary movement by union and party organizations.

Lukács thus claims that the workers’ response to the reification of experience under capitalism is the foundation on which Marxist dialectics arise. In a sense one could say that Marxism and the proletariat share a similar “method,” demystifying the reified appearances each in its own way—the one at the level of theory, the other at the levels of consciousness and practice. Where the theory shows the relativity of the reified appearances to deeper social structures, workers live that relativity in resisting the imposition of the reified capitalist economic forms on their own lives. Both theory and practice lead to a critique of the economic and epistemological premises of capitalism. As Marx himself writes in Capital, “So far as such criticism represents a class, it can only represent the class whose vocation in history is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes—the proletariat.”

Marx and Lukács established the methodological horizon of Marxism for the Frankfurt School. This is the background against which Horkheimer and Adorno discuss their new manifesto. They accept the critique of pure theory; but now that the proletariat no longer supports a transcending critique of society, any concession to practice drags theory back into the realm of everyday political wheeling and dealing or, worse yet, into complicity with the murder of millions by totalitarian communist regimes. As Adorno remarks, “What is the meaning of practice if there is no longer a party? In that case doesn’t practice mean either reformism or quietism?”

There appears to be no way out of the trap set by the tension between norm and history, now that the revolution has failed. To return to the “roasted pigeons of absolute science,” that is, to some sort of utopian or transcendental thinking, is now impossible. But there is no way to anticipate the “next step” of history toward a better world. Horkheimer poses the dilemma in two contradictory propositions, saying, on the one hand, “Our thoughts are no longer a function of the proletariat,” and, on the other hand, that “Theory is theory in the authentic sense only where it serves practice. Theory that wishes to be sufficient unto itself is bad theory.”

Is there no alternative within the Marxist framework? In fact there is an excluded alternative occasionally evoked in the course of the dialogue. This alternative, referred to derisively is Marcuse, who hovers like Banquo’s ghost over the conversation. Adorno comes closest to articulating this position and is pulled back by Horkheimer each time. At one point he remarks, “I cannot imagine a world intensified to the point of insanity without objective oppositional forces being unleashed” (42). This will turn out to be the thesis Marcuse hints at in One-Dimensional Man and develops in An Essay on Liberation. But Horkheimer rejects this view as overly optimistic. A bit later Adorno refuses to accept that human nature is inherently evil. “People only become Khrushchevs because they keep getting hit over the head” (44). But again Horkheimer rejects the hope of a less repressive future and even ridicules Marcuse by claiming he expects a Russian Bonaparte to save the day and make everything right.

What are we to make of this ghostly presence of a Marcusean alternative? It seems to me that these remarks already anticipate and condemn Marcuse’s openness to the return of the movement in the form of the New Left. Where Horkheimer and Adorno ultimately rejected the New Left, Marcuse took the Hegelian-Marxian- Lukácsian plunge back into history. Adorno was sympathetic to the movement at first but eventually condemned what he called its “pseudo-activism.” Marcuse was well aware that the New Left was no equivalent to Marx’s proletariat, but he tried to find in it a hint of those “objective oppositional forces” of which Adorno spoke in 1956. In this way theory might be related once again to practice without concession to existing society, although also with no certainty of success.

Marcuse’s important innovation was to recognize the prefigurative force of the New Left without identifying it as a new agent of revolution. We still live under the horizon of progressive politics established by the New Left; its issues are still ours although of course transformed in many ways by time. But the most significant impact of the New Left is on our identity as leftists. The New Left invented a non-sectarian form of progressive opposition that defines the stance of most people on the Left today.

Much to Marcuse’s surprise, on his 80th birthday, Beckett published a short poem as a tribute to him. The poem recognizes the obstinacy required by the seemingly impossible demands of the Frankfurt School’s stance toward history. Here is the poem:

pas à pas
nulle part
nul seul
ne sait comment
petits pas
nulle part

step by step
not a single one
knows how
tiny steps

Lukács’s party and social praxis

Richard Westerman

THE FOUNDATIONAL TEXTS of Critical Theory, Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness [HCC] and Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy, were the products of a crisis in European Marxism. Both published in 1923, they represented a response to both failed and successful revolutions: whilst the Bolsheviks had taken control of Russia despite its relative underdevelopment, Communist governments in Hungary and Germany had rapidly been toppled due to a lack of popular support. Notably, both Lukács and Korsch had served in these governments—Lukács himself on the front lines with the Hungarian Red Army. Though memorably condemned as “Marxism of the Professors” by the nascent Soviet orthodoxy, the deeply philosophical readings of Marx that Korsch and Lukács developed were very much the product of their personal involvement in and response to practical revolutionary situations.

The fact that these books were written, as Lukács observed, as “attempts, arising out of actual work for the party, to clarify the theoretical problems of the revolutionary movement” is usually forgotten.[5] This is evident in the reception of the concept of reification. Loosely, reification describes a social pathology in which individuals understand society and social relations through fixed, unalterable laws, with the result that they feel isolated and unable to change society. It is usually—wrongly—assumed that Lukács’s solution is an updated version of German Idealism, according to which the proletariat suddenly realizes that it is the creator of this objective world, and so spontaneously reappropriates its creation to free itself. As a result, Lukács’s account of the role of the party in the final essay of HCC is read through this misinterpretation of reification, and he is accused of paving the way for a centralized state controlled by an authoritarian party. On this standard interpretation, Lukács apparently believes that because the proletariat hadn’t realized that it was the subject of history, the revolutionary party simply needed to act for them. He is seen as endorsing a Blanquist party that would deteriorate into post-revolutionary dictatorship.

Surprisingly few of Lukács’s interpreters have recognized that he actually envisages a much more democratic party. The central reason for this common misrepresentation is a failure to understand adequately what Lukács means by his central concept of reification, and the way it shapes his theory of party organization. Most interpretations of Lukács think reification is a mistake made by a thinking subject—even if the mistake is attributed to social reasons. The party would then try to correct this mistake. Reification does not, however, describe an epistemology; from the outset, it describes a type of praxis. Lukács’s party isn’t there to play the role of a wise leader to guide the proletariat—it’s there to provide a locus for genuinely dereified, and thus dereifying praxis. Rather than a Blanquist cadre of professional revolutionaries, Lukács’s party is essentially a more institutionalized version of Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike.

I am going to start by tracing the roots of the problem Lukács is trying to solve to Marx’s critique of the distinction between state and civil society in “On The Jewish Question” [OJQ], and showing how this problem clearly could not be solved by a vanguardist party. I’ll then consider Lukács’s own position: I’ll argue that his vision of the party sits somewhere between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, in that he sees the formal organization provided by the party as essential for real proletarian class consciousness. Finally, I’ll suggest a few ways in which this might provide a model for the sort of democratic activity that might provide a counterweight to existing social and political structures.

Marx’s OJQ, written in response to Bruno Bauer’s pamphlet on the question of full Jewish emancipation within the German state, radically reinterprets the meaning of social freedom. Arguing that the secularization of the state would only mean the reproduction of religious division at the level of society, Marx questioned the Hegelian division of state and civil society. Civil society, for Hegel, was the realm of particular satisfaction and immediate social unity: the individual was tied to other individuals through an economic system of needs, rationalized through social institutions built on this basic necessity. In contrast, the state was the realm of rational freedom, in which citizens were united as rational universal individuals. For Marx, this was an alienated form of freedom: first, it meant that political forms seemed to come from an impersonal universal force of reason, rather than free human action; second, it treated the categories of social existence as invariable, necessary, and open only to knowledge, not change. Marx proposed, therefore, that we bring heaven down to earth and make society itself into the realm of freedom by transforming social relations themselves. Real freedom thus means collective control over such relations.

It’s this sort of freedom that Lukács sees in party activity. But I think it should be obvious at once why a party that sought to carry out revolution on behalf of the proletariat would be unable to realize it. Such a party would reduce the working class to the role of spectators, just as unfree as before. In fact, Lukács is extremely clear in his rejection of such a top-down party, and it’s hard to see how an honest and rigorous reading could come up with any other conclusion. He states explicitly that “even in theory, the communist party does not act on behalf of the proletariat,”[6] lest it reduce the masses to “a merely observing, contemplative” attitude that leads to “the voluntaristic overestimation of the active significance of the individual (the leader) and the fatalistic underestimation of the significance of the class (the masses).”[7] And he repeatedly uses the word “reification” to caution against fixing any one organizational form and insulating it from criticism or change by the masses. Lukács could not be more clear: a top-down, proto-Stalinist party would represent a return to the lack of freedom of capitalist society.

Lukács draws heavily on Rosa Luxemburg, which was perhaps rather an unusual tactic in 1922, when the success of the Bolsheviks seemed to indicate a clear victory for Lenin’s idea of a disciplined cadre of revolutionaries. The mass strike in which she vested such hopes was supposed to bring about the spontaneous development of class consciousness by forcing all strata of the working class into organizing themselves. Luxemburg’s party plays a very secondary role, little more than a sort of secretarial role in fact, and certainly not any kind of leadership.

Nevertheless, Lukács also repeatedly praises Luxemburg for her insights. He explicitly endorses her criticisms of Western European parties who underestimated mass action, and thought only an educated party was ready to assume leadership.[8] However, he suggests that she makes the opposite mistake, and criticizes her for “underplaying of the role of the party in the revolution.”[9] As we’ve seen, he doesn’t think this role entails “leadership” in a conventional sense, so to understand what Lukács means, we need to look a little more closely at his definition of reification.

Most interpretations of Lukács take reification to be an epistemological error. The problem they think Lukács identifies is that the categories that capitalist society is construed in are too abstract and formal. As a result, they think his project is to replace such categories with more substantial ones that “accurately” reflect the qualitative underlying reality. Unfortunately, this interpretation doesn’t withstand a close reading of the text.[10] Reification—Verdinglichung, “thingification”—doesn’t refer to a problem of abstraction, of quantity opposed to a qualitative substrate—but rather to the undialectical ossification of forms as things that cannot be changed. This is clear enough in the central essay of the book, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” Here, Lukács presents an interpretation of what he calls “bourgeois” philosophy, the classical German thought of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. He identifies the epistemological preoccupation of such philosophy: it starts from the separation of subject and object; therefore, its central question is, How far can our knowledge and its forms match up with a reality that is external to consciousness? This epistemological standpoint, Lukács argues, reduces us to mere spectators of society: we think it is only possible to grasp it through predetermined forms. Lukács’s problem with this isn’t that the forms are wrong – rather, it’s the very attempt to separate subject, object, and consciousness from one another. We can see what Lukács means by “reification” in the more detail in the way he talks about the party.

In the first place, Lukács’s party essentially serves as the institutional form of proletarian class consciousness. Without a party, such consciousness would be formless and immediate; the proletariat needs to give an institutional form to its self-consciousness in order to understand itself properly. The party, therefore, is the form that the revolutionary proletariat gives itself. The leading sections of the working class organize themselves in a party. As Lukács puts it, “the organizational independence of the communist party is necessary, in order that the proletariat can see its own class consciousness, as a historical form … so that, for the whole class, its own existence as a class can be raised to the level of consciousness.”[11] Whereas a Blanquist party would be there to tell the workers what to think, the Lukácsian party embodies the proletariat in its organizational forms. Moreover, these forms aren’t just a representation of what is already there – a more or less accurate representation of an underlying substrate of labor or essence. Rather, Lukács states that the party is the proletariat’s “act of self-conscious becoming.” It’s only by taking on form for itself that the proletariat really becomes a class.

Furthermore, the close ties Lukács establishes between form and existence indicate how reification could return as a problem in the organization of the party. Though tactical concerns play some role in organization, this should not result in the imposition of certain forms in the name of exigency. Rather, what’s crucial is that forms come from the self-organization of the proletariat. “The emergence of the communist party,” as he says, “can only be the consciously-performed work of the class-conscious workers.”[12] As a result, organization is not a once-and-for-all action: Lukács is not trying to replace one set of (abstract, quantifiable, capitalist) forms with other, more “authentic,” or “qualitative” forms. To do this would be, he suggests, to risk the return of reification—which he identifies with the organizational structures of party leadership. For Lukács, it’s not so much what the party does that matters, but more the opportunities it affords proletarians to become actively involved in shaping the forms of their existence. He writes, “insofar as the communist party becomes a world of activity for every one of its members, it can overcome the contemplativity of bourgeois man.”[13]

Lukács identifies the party as the practical overcoming of reification. “Organization is the form of mediation between theory and practice.”[14] Like Luxemburg, he rejects a Blanquist party that takes control on behalf of the workers. But he goes beyond Luxemburg in his insistence on some kind of fluid institutional form for proletarian consciousness, without which it would be vague and ineffective. Dereification, therefore, is necessarily practical—it means deliberate engagement in practices that give form to one’s own existence. The party is practical consciousness, the embodiment of such forms in a way that allows for their transformation.

Although Lukács’s account rests very specifically on the conditions of the industrial working classes and the phenomenological construction of proletarian self-consciousness, I think his fundamental concept of dereified praxis can help inform progressive democratic organization more generally. Even within current social and political forms, the idea of reification can be used to critique universalist discourses of rights, starting from a fixed standpoint that makes it impossible to negotiate the boundaries of citizenship or group membership in any substantial way. More radically, though, Lukács’s party provides a model for broad-based social action. Democratization would, for Lukács, entail much more comprehensive involvement in forming our social relations than just reformation of legal and political categories. We should understand social forms through the idea of practices—that is, structured, repeatable interactions that acquire a certain significance or meaning within the totality of a culture. It is these practices that become reified. Rather than seeing them as things that we do, things that are recharged with meaning only because we continue to practice them, we wrongly treat them as fixed and immutable. Social practices can seem almost divinely sanctioned. Alternatively, we might come up with a supposedly scientific theory that explains such practices in terms of an eternal, unchangeable human nature that inevitably develops into specific social forms. We seem only able to interact in these ways.

Dereification would entail a deliberate transformation of these practices: we should, Lukács would argue, treat our practices as things we can adapt to circumstances. We cannot recreate social forms at will out of nothing—but at the same time, by recognizing that forms as practices are things we do, we can open them to steady transformation. At the suggestion of Sourayan Mookerjea, I’d like to point to the alter-globalization example, as a model. Alter-globalists welcome the growth of global interaction and cooperation that current development has generated. However, they reject neo-liberal ideas that such development can only take place in one way, determined by scientifically-knowable economic processes. Alter-globalization therefore tries to develop alternative social practices, orienting itself towards positive redefinition of social interaction, not the unthinking rejection of internationalism.

Lukács’s model of the party also indicates ways such activity needs to be carried out: it must be a grassroots movement with a deliberate orientation towards the problem of its own organization. That is, emancipatory movements shouldn’t view themselves as instrumentally-oriented towards attaining a particular end; rather, they need to devote much of their energy to themselves, and to shaping the ways in which they hold together as organizations. In doing so, they afford their members an opportunity for the very sort of dereified praxis that Lukács aspires to.

To sum up: Lukács’s understanding of the revolutionary Party aims to fulfill some of the emancipatory goals of Marx’s OJQ. Rather than a centralized cadre of professional vanguardists, Lukács’s party is shaped by Luxemburgian aspirations of grassroots self-organization. By interpreting the party as the conscious form of social relations, Lukács indicates the importance of some objective presentation of our practices, if we are to understand our social existence properly. But he also suggests a new definition of praxis. The very act of self-organization, or of consciously modifying the practices that make up our social and cultural totality is, for Lukács, the essence of revolutionary praxis. If we accept certain ways of interacting as eternal and unchangeable, we succumb to reification. Only by constantly struggling against the ossification of our practices into unchangeable forms can we hope to be emancipated.

Adorno’s “Leninism”

Chris Cutrone

THE POLITICAL ORIGINS of Frankfurt School Critical Theory have remained opaque, for several reasons, not least the taciturn character of the major writings of its figures. The motivation for such reticence on the part of these theorists is itself what requires explanation: why they engaged in self-censorship and the encryption of their ideas, and consigned themselves to writing “messages in a bottle” without immediate or definite addressee. As Horkheimer put it, the danger was in speaking like an “oracle;” he asked simply, “To whom shall we say these things?”[15] It was not simply due to American exile in the Nazi era or post-World War II Cold War exigency. Some of their ideas were expressed explicitly enough. Rather, the collapse of the Marxist Left in which the Critical Theorists’ thought had been formed, in the wake of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia and the German Revolution and civil war of 1918–19, deeply affected their perspective on political possibilities in their historical moment. The question is, in what way was this Marxism?

A series of conversations between Horkheimer and Adorno from 1956, at the height of the Cold War, provide insight into their thinking and how they understood their situation in the trajectory of Marxism in the 20th century. Selections from the transcript were recently published in the New Left Review (2010), under the title “Towards a New Manifesto?” The German publication of the complete transcript, in Horkheimer’s collected works, is under the title “Discussion about Theory and Praxis,” and their discussion was indeed in consideration of rewriting the Communist Manifesto in light of intervening history. Within a few years of this, Adorno began but abandoned work on a critique of the German Social-Democratic Party’s Godesberg Programme, which officially renounced Marxism in 1959, on the model of Marx’s celebrated critique of the Gotha Programme that had founded the SPD in 1875. So, especially Adorno, but also Horkheimer, had been deeply concerned with the question of continuing the project of Marxism well after World War II. In the series of conversations between them, Adorno expressed his interest in rewriting the Communist Manifesto along what he called “strictly Leninist” lines, to which Horkheimer did not object, but only pointed out that such a document, calling for what he called the “re-establishment of a socialist party,” “could not appear in Russia, while in the United States and Germany it would be worthless.” Nonetheless, Horkheimer felt it was necessary to show “why one can be a communist and yet despise the Russians.” As Horkheimer put it, simply, “Theory is, as it were, one of humanity’s tools” (57). Thus, they tasked themselves to try to continue Marxism, if only as “theory.”

Now, it is precisely the supposed turning away from political practice and retreat into theory that many commentators have characterized as the Frankfurters’ abandonment of Marxism. For instance, Martin Jay, in The Dialectical Imagination, or Phil Slater, in his book offering a “Marxist interpretation” of the Frankfurt School, characterized matters in such terms: Marxism could not be supposed to exist as mere theory, but had to be tied to practice. But this was not a problem new to the Frankfurt Institute in exile, that is, after being forced to abandon their work in collaboration with the Soviet Marx-Engels Institute, for example, which was as much due to Stalinism as Nazism. Rather, it pointed back to what Karl Korsch, a foundational figure for the Institute, wrote in 1923: that the crisis of Marxism, that is, the problems that had already manifested in the era of the Second International in the late 19th century (the so-called “Revisionist Dispute”), and developed and culminated in its collapse and division in World War I and the revolutions that followed, meant that the “umbilical cord” between theory and practice had been already “broken.” Marxism stood in need of a transformation, in both theory and practice, but this transformation could only happen as a function of not only practice but also theory. They suffered the same fate. For Korsch in 1923, as well as for Georg Lukács in this same period, in writings seminal for the Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were exemplary of the attempt to rearticulate Marxist theory and practice. Lenin in particular, as Lukács characterized him, the “theoretician of practice,” provided a key, indeed the crucial figure, in political action and theoretical self-understanding, of the problem Marxism faced at that historical moment. As Adorno remarks, “I have always wanted to . . . develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin” (59). So, the question becomes, “faithful” in what way?

Several statements in two writings by Horkheimer and Adorno’s colleague, Herbert Marcuse, his “33 Theses” from 1947, and his book Soviet Marxism from 1958, can help shed light on the orientation of the members of the Frankfurt School towards the prior politics of “communism,” specifically of Lenin. Additionally, several letters from Adorno to Horkheimer and Benjamin in the late 1930s explicate Adorno’s positive attitude towards Lenin. Finally, writings from Adorno’s last year, 1969, the “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” and “Resignation,” restated and further specified the content of his “Leninism” in light of his critique of the 1960s New Left. The challenge is to recognize the content of such “Leninism” that might otherwise appear obscure or idiosyncratic, but actually points back to the politics of the early 20th century that was formative of Adorno and his cohort. Then, the question becomes, what was the significance of such a perspective in the later period of Adorno’s life? How did such “Leninism” retain purchase under changed conditions, such that Adorno could bring it to bear, critically, up to the end of his life? Furthermore, what could Adorno’s perspective on “Leninism” reveal about Lenin himself? Why and how did Adorno remain a Marxist, and how did Lenin figure in this?

One clear explanation for Adorno’s “Leninism” was the importance of consciousness in Adorno’s estimation of potential for emancipatory social transformation. For instance, in a letter to Horkheimer critical of Erich Fromm’s more humane approach to Freudian psychoanalysis, Adorno wrote that Fromm demonstrated “a mixture of social democracy and anarchism . . . [and] a severe lack of . . . dialectics . . . [in] the concept of authority, without which, after all, neither Lenin’s [vanguard] nor dictatorship can be conceived of. I would strongly advise him to read Lenin.” Adorno thought that Fromm thus threatened to deploy something of what he called the “trick used by bourgeois individualists against Marx,” and wrote to Horkheimer that he considered this to be a “real threat to the line . . . which [our] journal takes.”[16]

But the political role of an intellectual, theoretically informed “vanguard” is liable to the common criticism of Leninism’s tendency towards an oppressive domination over rather than critical facilitation of social emancipation. A more complicated apprehension of the role of consciousness in the historical transformation of society can be found in Adorno’s correspondence on Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936. There, Adorno commended Benjamin’s work for providing an account of the relationship of intellectuals to workers along the lines of Lenin. As Adorno put it in his letter to Benjamin,

The proletariat . . . is itself a product of bourgeois society. . . . [T]he actual consciousness of actual workers . . . [has] absolutely no advantage over the bourgeois except . . . interest in the revolution, but otherwise bear[s] all the marks of mutilation of the typical bourgeois character. . . . We maintain our solidarity with the proletariat instead of making of our own necessity a virtue of the proletariat, as we are always tempted to do—the proletariat which itself experiences the same necessity and needs us for knowledge as much as we need the proletariat to make the revolution. I am convinced that the further development of the . . . debate you have so magnificently inaugurated . . . depends essentially on a true accounting of the relationship of the intellectuals to the working class. . . . [Your essay is] among the profoundest and most powerful statements of political theory that I have encountered since I read [Lenin’s] The State and Revolution.[17]

Adorno likely had in mind as well Lenin’s What is to be Done? or “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. In the former, Lenin (in)famously distinguished between “trade union” and “socialist consciousness.” But in the latter work, Lenin described the persistent “bourgeois” social conditions of intellectual work per se that would long survive the proletarian socialist revolution, indeed (reiterating from What is to be Done?) that workers became thoroughly “bourgeois” by virtue of the very activity of intellectual work (such as in journalism or art production), including and perhaps especially in their activity as Communist Party political cadre. For Lenin, workers’ political revolution meant governing what would remain an essentially bourgeois society. The revolution would make the workers for the first time, so to speak, entirely bourgeois, which was the precondition of their leading society beyond bourgeois conditions.[18] It was a moment, the next necessary step, in the workers’ self-overcoming, in the emancipatory transformation of society in, through and beyond capital. Marxism was not extrinsic but intrinsic to this process, as the workers’ movement itself was. As Adorno put it to Horkheimer, “It could be said that Marx and Hegel taught that there are no ideals in the abstract, but that the ideal always lies in the next step, that the entire thing cannot be grasped directly but only indirectly by means of the next step” (54). Lukács had mentioned this about Lenin, in a footnote to his 1923 essay in History and Class Consciousness, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” that,

Lenin’s achievement is that he rediscovered this side of Marxism that points the way to an understanding of its practical core. His constantly reiterated warning to seize the “next link” in the chain with all one’s might, that link on which the fate of the totality depends in that one moment, his dismissal of all utopian demands, i.e. his “relativism” and his “Realpolitik:” all these things are nothing less than the practical realisation of the young Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.[19]

This was not fully achieved in the revolution that began to unfold from 1917 to 1919 in Russia, Germany, Hungary, and Italy, but was cut short of attaining the politics of the socialist transformation of society. Thirty years later, in the context of the dawning Cold War following the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, Marcuse’s “33 Theses” tried to take stock of the legacy of the crisis of Marxism and the failure of the revolution:

[Thesis 3:] [T]o uphold without compromise orthodox Marxist theory . . . [i]n the face of political reality . . . would be powerless, abstract and unpolitical, but when the political reality as a whole is false, the unpolitical position may be the only political truth. . . .

[Thesis 32:] [T]he political workers’ party remains the necessary subject of revolution. In the original Marxist conception, the party does not play a decisive role. Marx assumed that the proletariat is driven to revolutionary action on its own, based on the knowledge of its own interests, as soon as revolutionary conditions are present. . . . [But subsequent] development has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution. It is true that the communist parties today are not this subject, but it is just as true that only they can become it. Only in the theories of the communist parties is the memory of the revolutionary tradition alive, which can become the memory of the revolutionary goal again. . . .

[Thesis 33:] The political task then would consist in reconstructing revolutionary theory.[20]

As Marcuse put it in 1958, in Soviet Marxism,

During the Revolution, it became clear to what degree Lenin had succeeded in basing his strategy on the actual class interests and aspirations of the workers and peasants. . . . Then, from 1923 on, the decisions of the leadership increasingly dissociated from the class interests of the proletariat. The former no longer presuppose the proletariat as a revolutionary agent but rather are imposed upon the proletariat and the rest of the underlying population.[21]

Adorno’s commentary in conversation with Horkheimer in 1956, in a passage not included in the New Left Review translation, titled “Individualism,” addressed what he called the problem of subjectivity as socially constituted, which he thought Lenin had addressed more rigorously than Marx. Adorno said that,

Marx was too harmless; he probably imagined quite naïvely that human beings are basically the same in all essentials and will remain so. It would be a good idea, therefore, to deprive them of their second nature. He was not concerned with their subjectivity; he probably didn’t look into that too closely. The idea that human beings are the products of society down to their innermost core is an idea that he would have rejected as milieu theory. Lenin was the first person to assert this.[22]

What this meant for Adorno was that the struggle to overcome the domination of society by capital was something more and other than the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists. It was not merely a matter of their exploitation. For it was not the case that social subjects were products of their class position so much as bourgeois society under capital determined all of its subjects in a historical nexus of unfreedom. Rather, class position was an expression of the structure of this universal unfreedom. As Horkheimer wrote, in “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom,”

In socialism, freedom is to become a reality. But because the present system is called “free” and considered liberal, it is not terribly clear what this may mean. . . .

The businessman is subject to laws that neither he nor anyone else nor any power with such a mandate created with purpose and deliberation. They are laws which the big capitalists and perhaps he himself skillfully make use of but whose existence must be accepted as a fact. Boom, bust, inflation, wars and even the qualities of things and human beings the present society demands are a function of such laws, of the anonymous social reality. . . .

Bourgeois thought views this reality as superhuman. It fetishizes the social process. . . .

[T]he error is not that people do not recognize the subject but that the subject does not exist. Everything therefore depends on creating the free subject that consciously shapes social life. And this subject is nothing other than the rationally organized socialist society which regulates its own existence. . . . But for the little man who is turned down when he asks for a job because objective conditions make it impossible, it is most important that their origin be brought to the light of day so that they do not continue being unfavorable to him. Not only his own lack of freedom but that of others as well spells his doom. His interest lies in the Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom.[23]

Such a clarification of what would constitute a progressive-emancipatory approach to the problem of capital was cut short by the course of Marxism in the 20th century. It thus also became increasingly difficult to “bring to the light of day” the “origins” of persistent social conditions of unfreedom. In many respects, the crisis of Marxism had been exacerbated but not overcome as a function of the post-World War I revolutionary aftermath. This involved a deepening of the crisis of humanity: the Frankfurt Institute Critical Theorists were well aware that fascism as a historical phenomenon was due to the failure of Marxism. Fascism was the ill-begotten offspring of the history of Marxism itself.

A decade after 1917, Horkheimer wrote, in a passage titled “Indications,” that,

The moral character of a person can be infallibly inferred from his response to certain questions. . . . In 1930 the attitude toward Russia casts light on people’s thinking. It is extremely difficult to say what conditions are like there. I do not claim to know where the country is going; there is undoubtedly much misery. . . . The senseless injustice of the imperialist world can certainly not be explained by technological inadequacy. Anyone who has the eyes to see will view events in Russia as the continuing painful attempt to overcome this terrible social injustice. At the very least, he will ask with a throbbing heart whether it is still under way. If appearances were to be against it, he will cling to this hope like the cancer patient to the questionable report that a cure for his illness may have been found.

When Kant received the first news of the French Revolution, he is said to have changed the direction of his customary stroll from then on.[24]

Despite what occurred in the unfolding of developments in 20th century history, Horkheimer and Adorno never reversed course. Are we yet ready to receive their messages in a bottle?


Nicholas Brown: It does seem to me that these three papers are essentially raising the same question—though not explicitly. So that is the one I am going to ask. I confess I never finished the Adorno-Horkheimer dialogue, precisely because of the Beckettian flavor. They are obviously dealing with an impossibility there, which is how are you going to maintain fidelity to Lenin without a party, without a viable party to affiliate with or without a concept of party that is operative. Of course the question then becomes: What is to be done when there’s nothing to be done?

There is a tragic version of this in Negative Dialectics, where Adorno knowingly throws in his lot with the Stoics and frames his own position as essentially a stoic position, knowing better than, or as well as, anyone that the entire ethical force of the Phenomenology of Spirit, which Marx inherits, is the impossibility or the complicity of the stoic position.

The self-effacement of their language is similar to what in the Phenomenology of Spirit is the unhappy consciousness—which oscillates precisely for the same reason as Adorno. Because their unhappy consciousness is incapable, in the words of Chris quoting Lukács, of seizing the next link; because there is no next link—which is again the problem of the party.

So that brings us to the question of the “party” in Lukács. My question for Andrew is, What do we do—what is to be done—without a party? You seem to suggest that Marcuse offers an answer.

Richard shows that, for Lukács, “the party” is not so much a thing, necessarily, as it is a concept. The party is that thing that mediates between the subject in history. The moment we deny epistemology, the moment we deny ontology, the moment we deny Kant, the moment we deny representation, both as a philosophical and a political concept, we are in this Hegelian universe and there becomes an obligation to find “the party,” “the next link,” or “a mediation.” It is that obligation that Adorno finds himself unable to fulfill. That is both the comedy and the tragedy of Adorno. So my question for you is the same: What does the philosophical concept of the party look like today? Your answer is a sort of autonomist, Negrian answer, which seems to be me to be an unsatisfactory solution, since Hegel is waiting for Hardt and Negri as well. That the subject is a fiction but nonetheless a fiction that is necessary—rather like a party is necessary.

And so, Chris, it seems that in Marx, in Lukács, and certainly in Adorno and Marcuse, there is an unresolved tension between the notion of universal unfreedom and the notion of exploitation. The latter, within our present moment has to do with fragility and who is and who is not protected from the winds of history, which is not quite the same question as universal unfreedom and disalienation. The notion of disalienation, the romantic side of eruptions in Marx, in Lukács, and in the Frankfurt school, seem to be what needs to be abandoned in favor of the more hard-headed emphasis on exploitation. If, for the Frankfurt School, the ideal was the next step or link in the chain, what does the Hegelian idea mean in the present?

AF: What I like about Marcuse is that he was able to separate two things, which for Marx, Lukács, and Lenin were essentially connected. One of those things was the subject of revolution and the other was the force able to dereify at least some portion of the social reality. In the classical Marxist conception, it’s the workers who dereify, by their refusal to submit passively to the forms in which their lives are cast, and it’s also the workers who are going to create the new society. What Marcuse realized was that you could have one without the other. You could have dereifying gestures, express solidarity with them, and articulate them theoretically without any confidence at all that those making such gestures were capable of overthrowing the society and creating a new society. After the events of May 1968 in France, it was clear that that a historically new type of opposition had arisen, so I think he was right to try and join Marx’s theory to that opposition. I think that is still a significant alternative to the despair of Adorno and Horkheimer or, on the other side, to the attempts to revive a traditional Marxist proletarian party.

RW: My answer to “what is to be done” is that it’s not really our place to say. I think that would be Lukács’s response. I think the party, or any form of organization, rather than being viewed as the instrument, is more to be seen as the way in which the multiplicity of wills become, not necessarily one, but at least learn to think of themselves as united. Not so much for the specific decisions by which they come to practical action, but more about the self-organization, the institutional forms they give themselves.
I think Lukács’s critique of Hegel and, indeed, bourgeois philosophy in general, stems from the idea of a subject; the idea that we should conceive of action as a subject acting on a world and recognizing himself. What he sees in the party is the entity, if I can use such an ontologically reifying term, the entity that is a subject in so far as it manifests itself objectively through its organizational forms. That is slightly different from conceiving the party as the agent.

CC: What we are discussing is political form. In other words, the party is a form. What we are talking about is the party as mediation: the mediation of theory and practice, a mediation of subject and object positions.

On the notion of the Hegelian ideal as the next step for Horkheimer and Adorno, I would offer something speculatively, not literally: Andrew noted the fundamental ambiguity of the late Marx with respect to the way he conceived philosophy as a young man. But I would argue that the question of mediation recurs. The critique of political economy is not merely an analysis of “bourgeois” forms, but rather an analysis and critique of the incipient consciousness of the workers’ movement. The workers’ movement inherited political economy, bourgeois critical consciousness, but only when the thought of the bourgeoisie itself had grown vulgar. Marx commends Adam Smith for being willing to present society as self-contradictory. So I would situate the question of what is the next step with respect to the question of the critique of capital. How then would one rearticulate Marx’s own political praxis with his theoretical critique of capital, which is the Hegelian attempt to raise social form to the level of self-consciousness, for working class militants, who were coming up against certain very determinate obstacles in their political practice in the wake of the revolutions of 1848. There was a “meeting,” if you will, to put it back in Adorno’s more traditional terms, of the intellectuals and the workers, around the question of what is the purchase of the critique of capital.

Post-60s, there was a return to Marx: there was a return to the Hegelian Marxism with respect to the critique of capital. If we describe ourselves as intellectuals, then the very point would be to ask, “How can these ideas find traction?” Korsch says that the crisis of Marxism threatens to break the umbilical cord between theory and practice; this means that these are two separate things. I would stress mediation in the concept of form, over the liquidation of theory and practice in the concept of form or party.

Q & A

If we as Marxists, communists, or would be radicals/revolutionaries, are not in a position to speak, then we should ask: What would be required to transform ourselves into those that could speak? How can we write like Lenin and Mao? I was struck by the Adorno-Horkheimer dialogue; Horkheimer was certainly not alone in attributing the deaths in the Great Leap Forward to Mao and Stalin. What if instead of putting their messages in a bottle, Horkheimer and Adorno had sent their messages to China, and hadn’t prematurely written off that actual revolution?

RW: There isn’t a prohibition on “speaking” as such. But it depends on whether we’re speaking ex cathedra or from within something else. I agree with Habermas in his insistence that when we’re talking about these things we have to participate on an equal level with everyone else. A danger that Lenin himself noted, in those final furious letters demanding that the party should stay as far away as possible from the soviets, was that in all likelihood honest workers and peasants would be either intimidated or look in awe at the wise men from Moscow. What we should do to be able to speak, then, is deny who we are, if anything. I think that is always the danger for anyone speaking with any badge of authority. It leads to this kind of intellectual leadership problem where precisely the freedom that people like Marx envisage is sidelined.

AF: I disagree! There are no ignorant peasants any more. Those who are the most vociferous in opposing any intellectual authority are themselves intellectuals. So, that’s just another theory! I don’t know that there is a problem, really; it’s more a question of, “Is there anyone who is willing to listen?” rather than, “Are we oppressive in putting forward our views?” That’s my conclusion, from having participated in the good old days, in many struggles over this question of authority.

CC: In terms of the self-transformation of intellectuals, it isn’t a problem of who’s speaking, but rather of what’s being said. I would introduce another kind of Leninist category, namely, “tailism.” There is a problem of articulating historical consciousness and empirical realities. I want to return to an issue that was raised by both Andrew and Richard that I thought was very helpful with respect to reification. What Lukács meant by reification was the Second International, the socialist workers’ movement, as it had been constituted in that historical juncture. And this is why he was sympathetic to Luxemburg, because Luxemburg critiques that party form in the Mass Strike pamphlet, in which she argues that social democracy had become an impediment or obstacle to the workers’ movement in, I would say, a subject-object dialectic: the workers’ movement generated itself historically into an object of self-critique.

Now, why Horkheimer’s afraid of China is the apparent “revolutionary” success of what he and Adorno considered to be counter-revolution, namely, Stalinism. Having lived through the 30s and the transformation of Marxism in Stalinism, to see Stalinism flourish as the Marxism of the post-World War II period, they could only regard as a sign of the regression of Marxism itself. Now, why didn’t they send their “messages in a bottle” to intellectuals in China? Because it would have been a sure-fire way of getting those Chinese intellectuals executed on the spot. We could read their statements as evincing an anti-Chinese bias prime facie. But there is a dialectic there. As Horkheimer says, well, what about the fact that 20 million Chinese are going to die, but after that there won’t be any more starving Chinese? He asks what do we make of that? What Horkheimer and Adorno had in mind is that, had the success of the revolution that had opened in 1917 spread to Germany, had it spread beyond, a revolution in China as took place in 1949, with all the sacrifices and the calamities that it entailed, would have been unnecessary. This was their image of emancipation; their concern was that the conditions of barbarism were being confused for the struggle for emancipation.

NB: On the space of intellectuals, when there is a mass movement, the situation of the intellectual is both much easier and much more difficult. It is easy because you know what to do but the project of transformation that you’re talking about is hard. The problem we’re facing is a different one, which is that there is no mass movement. And to the extent that there is one, it’s a totally corrupt, right-wing one.

Adorno very clearly throws in his lot with the West, so it’s not a matter of getting Adorno to actual Chinese dissidents, it’s a matter of the question: Did Adorno have to, that clearly, throw his lot in with the West and so clearly server links with actual existing socialism? That question is a little less clear-cut than whether it would have been beneficial to have Chinese dissidents parroting the Adornian line.

Kant demanded that we think politically, in that we are forced to comment on society as members of that same society; we are obligated to contribute to the development of society. Lukács saw that only through the party can society continue developing, therefore the question of individual responsibility in history seems somewhat misplaced. It is only the party that, having the ability to shape history, is obligated to think about history. Can it be that this is what motivates Lenin and Luxemburg when talking about the party? That is, when Luxemburg worries about the vote in the Reichstag about the war credits, the concern is about the decline of the party and the need to reconfigure the party to affect history?

RW: I disagree. Lukács doesn’t think that the party can change history, it is the class that can change history. The party brings the class about. The party might be the starting point but it’s emphatically not the end-point. To say the party changes history directly would give it the kind of heroic role that, I think, Lukács is trying to avoid.

CC: I would say that the political party, or the agency of political mediation, can’t, itself, emancipate society. However, it can certainly block that emancipation, and so be thought of negatively. The importance of the party hinges on the issue of historical consciousness. So where I’m more in sympathy with Luxemburg’s critique of the SPD in its political collapse is her charge that the party is responsible for history, negatively. She is saying that the party has been part of bringing history to this point of crisis, and it is the party that is tasked with self-overcoming in its form of mediating political agency.

First: I find the Lenin described—mediated through Adorno and Lukács—completely unrecognizable from the Lenin of the collected works. But what I recognize as being described as Lenin in Adorno and Lukács is the resolution of the Second and Third Congresses of the Comintern on the role of the political party in the proletarian revolution. Does this not encapsulate a false history of the Bolshevik party? A history of the Bolshevik party that projects back the character which the Bolshevik party assumed between 1918 and 1921, under the civil war conditions, onto the pre-history of the Bolshevik party before 1917?

Second: For Marx and Engels, consistently, from the 1840s through to Engels’s death, with a brief interlude in the period in the First International when they were in alliance with the Proudhonists, the issue as stated in the 1871 Hague Congress Resolution what that, “the working class cannot act except by forming itself into a political party.” How do the attempts to make Marx more Hegelian satisfactorily account for this political aspect of Marx and Engels’s interventions?

CC: Maybe the difference that you see between the Lenin that you would recognize and the Lenin of official Comintern Leninism is the difference that you then raise between Marx himself, in his own political practice, or Marx and Engels, and the sort of Hegelianized Marx that you find in Lukács and Adorno.

Lenin has a specific contribution in the history of Marxism that can’t be ignored, namely that he’s the great schismatic of Marxism, he divided Marxism.[25] That is precisely what esteems him in Adorno’s eyes. His is not a minority vanguard view; it is about politics in the working class. What Lenin introduces in the Second International is the idea of competing working class parties that all claim to be anti-capitalist, revolutionary, and Marxist. The crisis of Marxism refers to the political controversies within Marxism. To deny that is to say that politics is only “the workers vs. the capitalists” and not an intra-working class phenomenon. The Kautskyan party, the “one class, one party” idea, that vis-à-vis the capitalists the workers are of one interest, and the attempt to be the “party of the whole class,” denies that the content of political emancipation can be disputed among the workers and among Marxists of different parties.

AF: It seems to me that the position Lenin took could not be easily explained or justified in terms of Marxist theory, and that what someone like Lukács was engaged in doing in 1923, or Gramsci in the Prison Notebooks, was an attempt to ground that practice in Marxist theory by finding the missing link. There are many different statements in Lenin, in his early work, that don’t add up to a theory of what he was doing. But he knew what he was doing, and it had a significance historically, as Chris has just explained. So the question could be asked separately from the historical facts of whether Lenin was doing the right things in terms of Marx’s theory. Lukács recognized that Lenin had done something historically important and tried to figure out how to revise or interpret the theory in such a way that it could encompass what he had done. Lukács did make an important advance theoretically in terms of understanding how there could be a connection between the working class, Marxist theory, and the political parties that represent workers; how there could be a connection grounded in an ontological relation, a relation to reality that would be shared at different levels, in different ways, between these different instances of the movement. That is a very important theoretical idea, which I don’t think you can find in Marx or Engels or in Lenin, but is necessary to make sense of what happened, historically.

RW: Lukács is very clear that he wants the party, ultimately, to grow into a mass-based movement. But in the interim, he explicitly states in the essay on party organization, every different school, every different take on the very question of what the party should do needs to give itself organizational forms. He’s all for a broad, pluralist sprouting of different practices, which, I think, undermines the idea of a single, concentrated, vanguardist party. This might risk radical sectarianism, but at least it avoids reification, from Lukács’s perspective.

NB: Whether Lukács and Adorno got Lenin right, is not the same question and is usefully distinct from the question of whether Lenin was politically useful, and what is to be done today. On the Hegelianization of Marx, you can’t “Hegelianize” Marx, because Marx is more Hegelian than Hegel!

I take it that the primary thrust of the argument that Adorno is a Leninist is to enlist the Leninist Adorno in the project of reconstituting the Left. What is the utility of Adorno as Leninist?

CC: Adorno enlisted himself to the Leninist project. He says so: “I want to be faithful to Lenin.” What is the content of that? He said this when 99.99% of Leninists in the world would not have accepted that Adorno was being faithful to Lenin in any way. So I would turn the issue around and say that I am interested in the Lenin that becomes visible through Adorno. When Adorno says “a strictly Leninist manifesto,” it’s not that this is against Luxemburg. It’s the Lukácsian attempt to grasp what the Second International radicals had in common. Why did Luxemburg call herself a Bolshevik? She wrote an essay in the last months of her life titled “What is German Bolshevism?” In other words, “This is what we want. Why are we with the Bolsheviks?” Hers was comradely criticism—that’s the point. So I am interested in how this history of Marxism looks, specifically through Adorno’s eyes, through Lukács’s eyes, through Korsch’s eyes; we would be remiss to ignore the insights that they had into that history.

AF: At this moment in history, we know so little about the forces of opposition, their potential, and where they’re going to come from next, that we won’t have the theoretical basis and the basis in practical experience that the socialist movement had at the time when these parties were formed and developed. Under present conditions, we need to try and find sources of opposition and tensions around the reifying power of the institutions wherever they appear, even if they don’t look or appear to be political. We would prematurely close things down trying to have a theory and a party that was trying to direct struggles.

CC: What is meant by the party? On the one hand, the formation of a party of a recognizable type from history, at the present moment, would foreclose possibilities. On the other hand, I have my own reservations about the Hardt-Negri moment that we’re in with respect to movementism, which sees the party as the road to Stalinism. If we say that the earlier socialist movement had an accumulated historical experience, then we have to say that, for a generation, we’ve been denied that. So we’re left saying, “OK, something like a party?” to expand the notion of “form.” What Richard is pointing to, in terms of the concept of form, is very important. The danger is in applying it too broadly, in what I raised earlier as tailism, as a justification for what we’re already doing. That’s a danger that I would resist at one end. At the other end, I agree that it would be precipitous and still-born to try to implement a party in a historical-model kind of way.

RW: The institutional memory of a party is crucial; I think that its absence has led to a disastrous collapse in progressive thought. I stressed the Luxemburgian elements in Lukács, earlier. This is where Lukács critiques Luxemburg, rightly, because a party can form this institutional memory.

To address Andrew: we don’t really know what forces there are there. The act of forming or supporting the formation of parties is one of the ways we can find out. I refer back to what I said earlier about Lukács and his insistence that every position should try and develop its own organizational forms. That’s how we get to know. If we treat it as a purely sociological question, I think we risk falling back into the same reified standpoint of just collecting facts, rather than engaging in practice. Encouraging the development of parties, of institutional forms in various ways, is a way in which those oppositional forces can really come to be. Without that, the forces wind up less coherent and less aware of their opposition.

Without a push for the formation of a party, without a strong stance on a need for leadership, how can we apply these various theories practically to the working class? The conditions that existed in the 50s, 30s, or 20s are not what we have today. Without a party, without leadership, what hope do we have?

RW: I’d hesitate with that phrasing; it is dangerous to talk about applying theories to the working class. The leadership issue strikes at that. It was alluded to before, but I think the Tea Party is quite successful, for all of its obvious incoherencies and absurdities, precisely because of its lack of a leader and the dispensability of their totemic figures. There are voices, but there is no one leader, so there are a number of different Tea Parties. One of the reasons it’s so successful is that it is widespread, diffuse, and decentralized.

AF: Of course if we had a party that had authority and that was listened to, we’d be in much better shape. But how do you get there?

CC: What works for the Right cannot work for the Left. There’s a fundamental difference between the Right and the Left—that the Right thrives on incoherence in a way that the Left cannot. I would also say rather polemically, or in a jaundiced fashion, that the Tea Parties are the true children of the New Left.

The idea of theoretical leadership, in the sense of theory that is applied, is precisely something that the Marxist tradition wanted to overcome. That is what they understood as a “bourgeois” notion of theory or epistemology. Going all the way back to Kant, however, there was already the idea of a self-conscious practice: it’s not about the abstract application of theory to practice. Already with Kant—and there’s a continuity, I think, between Kant and Hegel and Marx—the point is to try to raise existing practices to self-consciousness. This is quite different from crafting a theory and applying it to reality.

Concluding remarks

AF: I think that the Left still lives under the horizon of demands and dissatisfactions that emerged in the 1960s and 70s. Movements like environmentalist movements, feminist movements, many other kinds of protest that have emerged in remote areas of society, such as medicine, come under the kinds of categories elaborated in the New Left to articulate these new kinds of dissatisfactions. That is the contribution that Marcuse made; Adorno and Horkheimer did not contribute to that because they viewed the New Left as a rather minor blip on the horizon. And I’m actually extremely puzzled by the eclipse of Marcuse’s thought on the Left and the rise of this new vision of the Frankfurt School as Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer. To me, it signifies a certain lack of political seriousness that people pass over the only one who actually engaged with the kind of leftism that we are capable of today.

RW: I’d also like to conclude by responding to the “lack of political seriousness.” The reason for people like Adorno and Benjamin coming back is that much of the academic reception has been done in literature departments or it’s been done through cultural studies. I think the reason is precisely that there is a lack of direct engagement and direct activity. The importance of engagement and some form of practice, with some degree of leadership that one attributes to it—a theoretical form of praxis—is the crucial thing, I think.

CC: I would end with a bid to take Adorno seriously as a political thinker and not just as a literary figure. Certainly, he does say, “Music and art are what I know and so they are what I write about.” But he was being a bit falsely modest. His work made a very strong intervention in German sociology, introducing both American empirical sociological technique and the Durkheimian approach, as opposed to a Weberian approach, to the question of modernity and capital. In his correspondence with Marcuse in 1969, in which there was bitterness around the controversy stirred up by the New Left, Adorno says to Marcuse: “Look, it’s the Institute. It’s the same Institute. It’s our old Institute.” And Marcuse responds: “How could you possibly claim that the Institute in the 60s in the Federal Republic of Germany is what it was in the 30s?” To this Adorno could only say, “What about my books?” In other words, “What about the books that the Institute’s existence has allowed me to write?” That is, Adorno was a lone champion of Hegelian Marxism within German sociology and philosophy, as such his works are powerful statements about, and try to keep alive, the kind of insights that had been gained by the earlier Marxist tradition of Lukács and Korsch in the aftermath of the crisis of Marxism and the revolutions of the early twentieth century.

So I would defend Adorno against his devotees. The Adorno that flies in the humanities is a sanitized Adorno, a depoliticized Adorno, an Adorno with the Marxism screened out, or the Marxism turned into an ethical critique of society. Whereas I think Adorno has a lot more to say about the problem of theory and practice that is politically important. |P

Transcribed by Gabriel Gaster

Andrew Feenberg

[1] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?” trans. Rodney Livingstone, New Left Review 65 (September–October 2010). Hereafter cited within the text.

[2] Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954), 51.

[3] Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 160.

[4] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. Saul K. Padover. Originally published in 1852. Available online at <>.


Richard Westerman

[5] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), xli.

[6] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, ii.505: “Auch theoretisch handelt die kommunistische Partei nicht stellvertretend für das Proletariat.”

[7] Ibid., ii.496: “die voluntaristische Überschätzung der aktiven Bedeutung des Individuums (des Führers) und die fatalistische Unterschätzung der Bedeutung der Klasse (der Masse).”

[8] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 297-8.

[9] Ibid., 275.

[10] See, for example, Andrew Arato and Paul Breines, The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism (New York: Seabury, 1979).

[11] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, ii.504: “die organisatorische Selbständigkeit der kommunistischen Partei ist notwendig, damit das Proletariat sein eigenes Klassenbewußtsein, als geschichtliche Gestalt, unmittelbar erblicken könne; . . . damit für die ganze Klasse das eigene Dasein als Klasse ins Bewußtsein gehoben werde.”

[12] Ibid., ii.517: “das Entstehen der kommunistischen Partei nur das bewußt getane Werk der klassenbewußten Arbeiter sein kann.”

[13] Ibid., ii.515: “indem die kommunistische Partei zu einer Welt der Tätigkeit für jades ihrer Mitglieder wird, kann sie die Zuschauerrolle des bürgerlichen Menschen . . . wirklich überwinden.”

[14] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 299.


Chris Cutrone

[15] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, New Left Review 65 (September–October 2010): 46. Hereafter cited within the text.

[16] Adorno to Horkheimer, March 21, 1936, quoted in Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, trans. Michael Robertson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994 [1986]), 266. Moreover, Adorno wrote that, “If one is concerned to achieve what might be possible with human beings, it is extremely difficult to remain friendly towards real people…a pretext for approving of precisely that element in people by which they prove themselves to be not merely their own victims but virtually their own hangmen.” See Adorno to Horkheimer, June 2, 1941, quoted in Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 268.

[17] Theodor W. Adorno, “Correspondence with Benjamin,” New Left Review I/81 (September-October 1973): 66-68.

[18] As Lenin wrote in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder: “The most shameless careerism . . . and vulgar petty-bourgeois conservatism are all unquestionably common and prevalent features engendered everywhere by capitalism, not only outside but also within the working-class movement. . . . [T]he overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the conquest of political power by the proletariat — [creates] these very same difficulties on a still larger, an infinitely larger scale.” Available online at <>.

[19] Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 221n60.

[20] Herbert Marcuse, “33 Theses,” in Technology, War, and Fascism, ed. Douglas Kellner (New York: Routledge, 1998), 217, 226–227.

[21] Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 149.

[22] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “Diskussion über Theorie und Praxis” (1956), in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 19, Nachträge, Verzeichnisse und Register (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1996), 71, quoted in Detlev Claussen, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 233.

[23] Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline, Notes 1926-31 and 1950-69, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 50–52.

[24] Ibid., 72-73.

[25] See Chris Cutrone, “Lenin’s liberalism,” Platypus Review 36 (June 2011).

Timothy Hall

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University in NYC between March 18-21, Platypus hosted a conversation on “Lukács’s Marxism.” Panelists Timothy Bewes (Brown University), Jeremy Cohan (Platypus), Timothy Hall (University of East London, U.K.), and Marco Torres (Platypus) were asked to address, “Who was Lukács? Critic of reification, founder of Hegelian Marxism, Critical Theory, Western Marxism? Or: philosopher of Bolshevism, apologist for Leninism, romantic socialist, voluntarist idealist, terrorist revolutionary? Lukács is usually read as an interpreter rather than a dedicated follower of Marxism, leaving Lukács's particular contribution obscure. Lukács was most original -- and influential -- when he accepted the presuppositions of Marxism, the political practice and theory of revolution, in earnest, from 1919-25, in History and Class Consciousness and associated works -- however Lukács himself may have disavowed them subsequently. What can we make of Lukács's legacy today, his investigation and elaboration of the problematic of Marxism, and what are the essential issues potentially raised for our time?” An audio recording is available at the above link. The article that follows is a modified version of Timothy Hall’s opening remarks.

1. Is there a revolutionary subject today? Is there, in other words, a subject capable of challenging the status quo; of challenging society as a whole characterised by universal commodity relations? If so who is this subject and how does it stand towards the class subject of classical Marxist theory?

For a variety of reasons, both intellectual and political, such questions have begun to be asked with increasing regularity today. Not the least of these is the seismic events in the Arab states beginning with the revolution in Tunisia last January and followed by the revolution in Egypt. These events have reignited debates about the possibility of revolutionary action and called into question the assumption that we are not living through revolutionary times. Prior to this, however, the resurgence of interest, since the mid-nineties, in modernity and modernism in the humanities and social sciences (and a corresponding waning of interest in post-modernist discourses) has created a more conducive intellectual environment for posing these questions.

There is a growing consensus on the Left that it is not enough to theorize “subjection/subjectivization” in ever greater detail while neglecting to theorize political practice or action. The notion that an individual politics of style could substitute for a substantive discussion of political practice, as was once advanced, is no longer compelling. My focus will be on the tradition I am most familiar with: the tradition deriving from Hegelian Marxism and the critical social theory developed by the Frankfurt School. What emerges from a consideration of this tradition are a range of debates on the character of the political subject; on the relations between idealism and materialism; and on the role of class in politics with a broader significance.

A number of responses to the question of the existence and identity of the subject can be discerned in this tradition. Each could be considered to be a response to the theory of proletarian praxis developed by Lukács in History and Class Consciousness (1923). In this work Lukács affirms the existence of such a subject and identifies it as the proletariat. The particular status of the proletariat in the capitalist productive process enables it to solve the riddle of the commodity and recreate the social world in its own (free) image. Defences of this view can be found in Horkheimer’s work from the 1930’s, Castoriadis at various points in his career, and in the Hegel-fortified Marx outlined by Gillian Rose in Hegel Contra Sociology (1982).

The first response originating in the middle and late period of the Frankfurt School is that there is no such subject today; that historically there was such a subject – the proletariat – but that, for a variety of reasons, it has vanished from the political scene. According to this view all that remains is the possibility of radical insights into the social whole but without the corresponding possibility of radical social transformation. This roughly approximates Adorno’s position, specifically the critical status he accords artworks in modernity. It also includes those attempts to recover an ethics from Adorno’s aesthetic theory such as that developed by Jay Bernstein in Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (2001).

Another view is that the whole problem of the subject was misconstrued by the Marxist tradition. For this tradition the idea that capitalist society is antagonistic because of class conflict is fundamentally wrong-headed. This gives rise to the erroneous idea that the subject of modernity is the proletariat. This view has been defended by Moishe Postone in Time, Labor, and Social Domination (1993) but is also taken up by Marxists that follow Postone’s lead in according centrality to the value-form in critical social theory.

While both the first and the second position concur in holding that there is no political subject today, they do so for contrasting reasons. For the second the very notion of a subject of history is mistaken. Insofar as we can speak of a subject in this sense it is capital itself. Such a “subject,” however, is anything but revolutionary and hardly qualifies as a subject at all on account of the fact that it is destined to remain unconscious and “blind.” [1] For the first, by contrast, the disappearance of the macrological subject is historical. It marks the transition between liberal and late capitalism. This is to say: at a certain point such a subject was the bearer or revolutionary overcoming but is no longer.

Which view is correct? Has the political subject become historically obsolete or was it a fateful misconception on the part of the Marxian tradition? In my view the former is closer to the truth. I will try to show this by way of a critique of the latter view specifically as this is articulated in Postone’s seminal work from 1993. What I’m going to suggest is that:

i. The charge of ‘productivism’ levelled at the Hegelian Marxist tradition – that the category of labor is treated as a transhistorical category and that as a consequence such theories cannot account for their own self-possibility – is not borne out.

ii. While Postone shares the desire for an immanent theory with Hegelian Marxism, he is prevented from realising this because he dispenses with the categories of subjectivity, class and totality.

2. Postone’s critique of Hegelian Marxism is largely carried out in Part I. of Time, Labor, and Social Domination(1993). The basic thrust of his reading of Marx’s theory of capitalism is to see it “less as a theory of forms of exploitation and domination within modern society, and more as a critical social theory of the nature of modernity itself.” [2] However, before Marxism can aspire to becoming a critical theory, able to account for its own theoretical self-possibility, it has first to expunge its dogmatic assumptions. Principal amongst these is the idea that labor represents a transhistorical constitutive power lying at the base of all social formations. While, for Postone, the early Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts and the German Ideology subscribed to this view the late Marx of Capital (1867) comes to reject it. For the late Marx: “the notion that labor constitutes the social world and is the source of all wealth does not refer to society in general but to capitalist, or modern society alone.” [3] Whereas for the early Marx emancipation from capitalism involves the realisation of the essential, laboring subject (species being) for the late Marx it takes the form of an emancipation from the self-generating and self-valorizing system that is capitalism.

Hegelian Marxism is closer to the young Marx’s view. In History and Class Consciousness (1923) Lukács attempts a materialist appropriation of Hegel’s concept of Geist. According to Postone, Lukács rejected Hegel’s concept of Geist as mystified, but held onto to its identical form: the self-moving substance that is subject becomes the proletariat as identical subject-object of history. For Postone the problem with this approach is that it repeats the error of the young Marx in essentializing the productive subject. Rather than view this as a historically mediated reality particular to capitalist society it becomes instead the constitutive source of all history. In this, Lukács doesn’t simply repeat the error of the young Marx but compounds it by giving credence to the idea that history has a subject.

For this reason Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness throws a long shadow over the development of Marxist thought in the 20th Century in Postone’s view. Not only is it responsible for the fiction of a meta-historical subject but also for the notion that totality represents a normative value for critical theory. In this regard the self-totalizing character of proletarian practice fatefully mimics the self-totalizing, auto-generating logic of capital itself. Consequently instead of casting resistance to social domination in terms antithetical to this—i.e. as interrupting forestalling or arresting the logic of totality—it unwittingly exacerbates it. As Postone writes: “an institutionally totalizing form of politics should be interpreted as an expression of the political coordination of capital as the totality, subject to its constraints and imperatives rather than the overcoming of capital. The abolition of totality would, then, allow for the possible constitution of very different, non-totalizing, forms of the political coordination and regulation of society.” [4]

What form would such a politics take and what would its relation be to class? Postone begins to develop this in Part III of Time, Labor, and Social Domination. In Postone’s view, the schema that has dominated Marxism (including Hegelian Marxism) is the forces of production/relations of production schema. Yet the development of the former does not lead in the direction that Marxists have traditionally thought:

As industrial production becomes fully developed [the] productive powers of the social whole become greater than the combined skills, labor and experience of the collective worker. They are socially general, the accumulated knowledge and power of humanity constituting itself as such in alienated form; they cannot adequately be apprehended as the objectified powers of the proletariat. “Dead labor,” to use Marx’s term, is no longer the objectification of “living labor” alone; it has become the objectification of historical time. [5]

The suggestion here is that productive forces develop to a point beyond where it is possible to view the instituted world as the objectified power of the proletariat. Yet there is no missed moment here, for Postone, where a class politics was potentially adequate to the world but is no longer. Rather this development was intrinsic to the logic of capital. This implies that both the proletariat and capitalist class are bound to capital and that emancipation takes the form of the abolition of the proletariat and the labor it performs. [6] There is then no re-configuration of class politics in Postone’s view. There is no sense in which a set of class- related oppositional strategies might be thought as challenging the status quo. Rather the overcoming of capital should be conceived as the “peoples’s re-appropriation of socially general capacities that are not ultimately grounded in the working class.” [7]

3. To summarise Postone’s critique of Hegelian Marxism: the latter is “productivist” in holding that labor constitutes the social world and is the origin of all wealth. This is only the case in capitalist societies, however, not societies in general. From this rises the notion of the subject of history in Hegelian Marxism, that is, of a subject capable of recovering its agency from its alienated form and re-instituting society in its own image. But, for Postone, such an assessment plays into the hands of the totalizing logic of capital instead of opposing it. In contrast to the class subject of classical Marxism he proposes the anti-totalising practice of the people.

Leaving to one side for the moment the alternative vision of political subjectivity that Postone proposes I will focus on the charge of productivism and dogmatism in Hegelian Marxism. The charge of “productivism” fails, in my view, to take account of the difference between the “total social process” and the reproduction of capitalist relations of production in the Hegelian Marxist tradition. In the former social practices serve to reproduce existing social relations. Yet there is nothing inherently reductive about this position. Cultural, political, and legal practices no less than economic practices, serve to reproduce the status quo and do so primarily, not in a secondary and derivative way. For this reason the approach could be characterised as “productivist” but social practices in general do the producing not simply human labor.

Moreover one could draw a line around these practices and describe them as bourgeois or class-related. This would be fine as long as class is not defined in a reductive way in relation to ownership of the means of production. Class for Lukács, for example, relates to an array of practices serving to produce and reproduce existing social relations, only some of which are economic. Thus for Lukács cultural practices like journalism or science serve to reproduce social relations irrespective of the specific intentions of any particular practitioner. They do this through their form not by conferring a specious universality on capitalist relations of production. What is reified writes Lukács in relation to journalism is subjectivity itself:

[it is] knowledge, temperament and powers of expression that are reduced to an abstract mechanism functioning autonomously and divorced both from the personality of their owner and from the material and concrete nature of the subject matter in hand. [8]

Journalism as a practice is restricted in respect of its critical insight by the fact that as a reification of subjectivity it reproduces existing relations of production. Public opinion forms an objective system – “an abstract mechanism functioning autonomously.” This system allows for a range of ‘different’ opinions—a Melanie Philips, a Toby Young, a Laurie Penny, and a Polly Toynbee. But since the very practice is predicated on a far reaching reification, it is powerless to interrupt reified social reality.

Should we decide that there is no ‘honor’ to be had in journalism and turn our hand instead to the professions of law, public administration or even an academic career we would soon discover that there is no honor to be had here either. For Lukács if we look at the practice of science we discover that

the more intricate a modern science becomes and the better it understands itself methodologically, the more resolutely it will turn its back on the ontological problems of its own sphere of influence and eliminate them from the realm where it has achieved some insight. [9]

The fact that science is implicated in specialization and social fragmentation means that it is unable to interrupt this reality. Science as cultural activity (and philosophy as second order reflection on this) produces and reproduces the status quo by exploring and deepening the nomological structure of the social world.

To summarise: for Lukács and the Frankfurt School it is not labor that produces and reproduces existing relations but social practices in general, that is, our economic, legal, political and cultural practices broadly understood. Whilst these do serve to produce and reproduce the status quo, notwithstanding the conscious intentions of those participating in them, to suggest as Postone does, that this ontologizes labor as the essential human activity is simply not correct. Neither is the Hegelian Marxist approach debarred from accounting for its self-possibility. Working practices like a host of other social practices are historically specific and have no application outside the social world they serve to reproduce.

4. However, Postone isn’t simply wrong about the Hegelian Marxist tradition. His own conception of critical social theory is seriously skewed as a consequence. For in his rush to dispense with what he regards as discredited categories of subjectivity, class, and totality he ends up undermining any basis for interrupting the cycle of social relations.

Everything turns for Postone on a fateful misreading of Hegel that Marx himself would only address in his later writings. This is on the interpretation and demystification of the Hegelian subject. For Hegel, the subject is transpersonal. In the Phenomenology of Spirit he demonstrates how even the most subjective awareness of the world presupposes a “shape of spirit” or concrete socio-historical world. Central to this demonstration was the concept of intersubjective recognition that makes its appearance in Chapter IV, the famous master/slave dialectic. Hegel’s strategy is to show how conceptions of the subject (e.g. the individual as the bearer of abstract rights or the moral subject acting in accordance with the dictates of conscience) are not immediate subjective positions but the results or outcomes of historical struggles for recognition. According to Postone, Marx initially appropriated this model of subjectivity but gave it a materialist twist by replacing spirit with labor. For the early Marx it was the productivity of labor – not Spirit – that one needed to turn to make sense of forms and institutions of the bourgeois world that appeared immediate and natural.

For Postone, Marx changes his mind about Hegel as he comes to prepare for the writing of Capital (1867). Instead of looking to Hegel to provide a theory of subjectivity, albeit it in inverted form, he sees his work particularly the Science of Logic as a prescient attempt to work through the logic of capital. Famously, Hegel claims to have transcended the subjective standpoint in the Science of Logic and there is no reference to subjective experience in the work. However, this sea change in Marx’s relation to Hegel went unnoticed for the most part by the Marxian tradition particularly by Lukács who sought to supplement the critique of capital with a theory of revolutionary subjectivity the resources for which were to be found in Marx’s early writings.

The ramifications of this were profound. To begin with the entire project of supplementing Marx’s critique of capital with a theory of subjectivity was misguided. It set Marxism on the pathway of identifying a meta-historical subject; it misconstrued the nature of social domination in capitalist societies (not the domination of one class over another but fundamentally impersonal); it wrongly defined the task of critical social theory as the attempt to distinguish itself from idealism. What Hegel anticipated - and Marx saw - was the distinctive ontology of capitalism - its existence as a “real abstraction.” The obsession evidenced in Hegelian Marxism, in distinguishing between an idealist and an authentically materialist approach missed the point: the real world had become an abstraction. For Postone, Hegel’s insight lay in grasping this. The unstinting attempt to expunge the idealism from Hegel’s dialectic inevitably lost sight of this. For by insisting that capitalist domination was at bottom class domination, the fundamental character of the former was misrecognised.

5. These are complicated claims that require a book length study to disentangle. The following remarks should suffice to show that Postone’s reading of the Hegelian legacy in Marx is at the very least problematic.

To begin with if, as I have suggested, Postone’s interpretation of Hegelian Marxism is inadequate what are the implications of this for the position that he seeks to defend? Lukács in fact shares Postone’s aim of developing a critical – i.e. wholly immanent – social theory. He also shares Postone’s concern to develop a non-reductive Marxism. The seeming advantage of Lukács’s approach, however, is that he does not have to throw the concepts of mediation, class, and totality overboard to do this.

To take the example of class: Lukács and the subsequent theorists of the Frankfurt School would surely have agreed with Postone’s insistence on the impersonal form of modern social domination. It is doubtful, however, that they would have agreed that experience of class domination rests on a productivist fallacy. Surely the point of the approach Lukács innovated was that class-based forms of domination were always mediated by the illusion of the commodity form. It isn’t that class domination does not exist. Nor is it the case that class politics does not exist. The point is that a class-based politics comes up short: that in failing to interrupt the total social process it fails also to throw off the yoke of class domination. In fairness to Postone, he would not deny the existence of class domination/politics. However, he is always struggling to account for this having asserted that the proletariat are as much a part of the logic of capital as the capitalist class is.

There is another possibility here however: we might agree that the Hegelian Marxist approach is not reductive and yet still insist on its adherence to productivist models. We could, for example, accept that social practices (not human labor) reproduce the status quo and still insist that Lukács and others set too much store in the capacity of the subject to overcome its alienated objective form. Adorno’s insistence, against Lukács, in Negative Dialectics (1966) that there was a part of the object that wasn’t reducible to subject seems representative of this view. [10] Adorno’s strategy, here and elsewhere, appears not to involve the wholesale junking of Hegelian Marxist categories. On the contrary, he appears rather to insist on a change of emphasis away from the subject and the category of mediation and towards the object and the “category” of immediacy. Thus concepts like mediation and totality are still deployed in negative dialectics but in the service of the immediate – of what will not allow (without falsification) of discursive elaboration. [11]

However, the same approach is not adopted by Postone in Time, Labor, and Social Domination. His own conception of the subject (the people) is abstractly opposed to the self-generating and self-valorizing totality in an undialectical fashion. At best this looks like a re-inscription of the Lukács’s problematic of the subject as Neil Larsen has recently argued. [12] At worst “the people” appears to respond to ethical imperatives every bit as unmediated as the postmodern counterparts that Postone is looking to distance himself from.

Finally we should surely be wary of any attempt to relate Marxist inspired critical theory to a work as odd as Hegel’s Science of Logic. If we hesitate with many “left-Hegelians” in moving to the realm of “science” in which the “merely” subjective standpoint is overcome, what are the implications of this for the concept of capital that Postone is attempting to defend? Postone would insist here that we need to radically review our understanding of Hegel’s project. Rather than attempting to re-write Kant’s transcendental deduction we should instead think of Hegel as engaging, in an approximate way, with the impersonal form of modern social domination. For me, however, it is unclear how Postone’s position in Time, Labour, and Social Domination is significantly different from a range of neo-structuralist positions in which subjectivity is seen as dispersed across power structures in society. Rather than read the Hegelian legacy in this way I would favour a return to Gillian Rose’s proposal to question the fundamental difference between the productivity of spirit and the productivity of labor, or more precisely, to question the fundamental importance that Marxists have traditionally given to this distinction. [13] For if social institutions are viewed as the result of socio-historical work, rather than human labor, the charge of “productivism” begins to look less urgent.

6. To return briefly to the question with which I started: what are the possibilities for a class politics today? In my view there certainly is class politics today but without revolutionary potential. Whilst this cannot be discounted, it is important not to underestimate the extent to which any such movement is already deformed, from the inside and the outside, by the universality of the commodity. |P

[1] Moishe Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 77.

[2] Ibid.,4.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Ibid., 79-80.

[5] Ibid.,356.

[6] Ibid.,357.

[7] Ibid.,357.

[8] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. R. Livingstone,(London: Merlin, 1971[1923]), 100.

[9] Ibid., 104

[10] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, (London: Routledge, 1973), 192.

[11] See Timothy Hall, “Reification, Materialism & Praxis: Adorno’s critique of Lukács,” Telos Vol. 145, Summer 2011.

[12] Neil Larsen, “Lukács sans Proletariat, or Can History and Class Consciousness be Re-historicised,” in Georg Lukács: The Fundamental Dissonance of Existence, eds. T. Bewes and T.Hall (New York: Continuum Press, 2011).

[13] See chapter 6 of Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (London: Athlone, 1981).

June 20–24, 2011
Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago

Marxism and the bourgeois revolution

Spencer Leonard, "Marx’s critique of political economy: Proletarian socialism continuing the bourgeois revolution?"
Pamela Nogales, "Marx on the U.S. Civil War as the 2nd American Revolution"
Jeremy Cohan, "Lukács on Marx’s Hegelianism and the dialectic of Marxism"
Moderator: Chris Cutrone

The "bourgeois revolutions" from the 16th through the 19th centuries -- extending into the 20th -- conformed humanity to modern city life, ending traditional, pastoral, religious custom in favor of social relations of the exchange of labor. Abbé Sieyès wrote in 1789 that, in contradistinction to the clerical 1st Estate who "prayed" and the aristocratic 2nd Estate who "fought," the commoner 3rd Estate "worked:" "What has the 3rd Estate been? Nothing." "What is it? Everything." Kant warned that universal bourgeois society would be the mere midpoint in humanity's achievement of freedom. After the last bourgeois revolutions in Europe of 1848 failed, Marx wrote of the "constitution of capital," the ambivalent, indeed self-contradictory character of "free wage labor." In the late 20th century, the majority of humanity abandoned agriculture in favor of urban life -- however in "slum cities." How does the bourgeois revolution appear from a Marxian point of view? How did what Marx called the “proletarianization” of society circa 1848 signal not only the crisis and supersession, but the need to fulfill and “complete” the bourgeois revolution, whose task now fell to the politics of “proletarian” socialism, expressed by the workers’ call for “social democracy?” How did this express the attempt, as Lenin put it, to overcome bourgeois society “on the basis of capitalism” itself? How did subsequent Marxism lose sight of Marx on this, and how might Marx’s perspective on the crisis of the bourgeois revolution in the 19th century still resonate today?

audio recording

The Marxism of Second International radicalism: Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky

Chris Cutrone, Lenin
Greg Gabrellas, Luxemburg
Ian Morrison, Trotsky
Moderator: Spencer Leonard

The legacy of revolution 1917-19 in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy is concentrated above all in the historical figures Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, leaders of the Left in the Second International (1889-1914) -- what they called “revolutionary social democracy” -- in the period preceding the crisis of war, revolution, counterrevolution and civil war in World War I and its aftermath. In 1920, Georg Lukács summed up this experience as follows: “[T]he crisis [of capital] remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle until after infinite sufferings and terrible detours the school of history completes the education of the proletariat and confers upon it the leadership of mankind. . . . Of course this uncertainty and lack of clarity are themselves the symptoms of the crisis in bourgeois society. As the product of capitalism the proletariat must necessarily be subject to the modes of existence of its creator. . . . inhumanity and reification.” Nonetheless, these Marxists understood their politics as being “on the basis of capitalism” itself (Lenin). How were the 2nd Intl. radicals, importantly, critics, and not merely advocates, of their own political movement? What is the legacy of these figures today, after the 20th century -- as Walter Benjamin said in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “against the grain” of their time, reaching beyond it? How did Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky contribute to the potential advancement and transformation of Marxism, in and through the crisis of Marxism in the early 20th century? How can we return to these figures productively, today, to learn the lessons of their history?

audio recording

A panel discussion organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society, held on March 19, 2011, at Left Forum, Pace University.

Panel Abstract: It may seem untimely to reconsider Georg Lukacs, after the demise of the "Bolshevik experiment" with which he was associated. Who was Lukacs? Critic of reification, founder of Hegelian Marxism, Critical Theory, Western Marxism? Or: philosopher of Bolshevism, apologist for Leninism, romantic socialist, voluntarist idealist, terrorist revolutionary? Lukacs is usually read as an interpreter rather than a dedicated follower of Marxism, leaving Lukacs's particular contribution obscure. Lukacs was most original--and influential--when he accepted the presuppositions of Marxism, the political practice and theory of revolution, in earnest, from 1919-25, in History and Class Consciousness and associated works--however Lukacs himself may have disavowed them subsequently. What can we make of Lukacs's legacy today, his investigation and elaboration of the problematic of Marxism, and what are the essential issues potentially raised for our time?

Chris Cutrone - School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Jeremy Cohan - New York University
Marco Torres - University of Chicago
Neil Larsen - University of California at Davis
Timothy Bewes - Brown University
Timothy Hall - University of East London, U.K.

A version of Jeremy Cohan's remarks are transcripted in the Platypus Review #38 (Click below):

Transcript of Timothy Hall's remarks in Platypus Review #37 (Click below):

Platypus presents: Lessons from the history of Marxism

@ Left Forum
March 18-20, 2011

Pace University
next to City Hall, New York City
online registration page:

Please join us for the following panel discussions:

The Bourgeois Revolution: from Marx’s point of view

//Saturday, March 19 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:50 a.m. | room W603A
Sponsored by the Platypus Review

James Vaughn - University of Texas at Austin, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Richard Rubin - The Platypus Affiliated Society
Spencer Leonard - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Jeremy Cohan (chair) - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Lenin’s Marxism

//Saturday, March 19 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:50 p.m. | room W607

Chris Cutrone - School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Paul Le Blanc - LaRoche College
Lars T. Lih - Independent researcher
Ian Morrison (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg

//Saturday, March 19 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:50 p.m. | room W606

Greg Gabrellas - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Stephen Eric Bronner - Rutgers University
Ben Shepard (chair) - The Platypus Affiliated Society

Lukács’s Marxism

//Saturday, March 19 | 3:00 p.m. – 4:50 p.m. | room W607

Jeremy Cohan - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Marco Torres - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Timothy Bewes - Brown University
Timothy Hall - University of East London, U.K.
Chris Cutrone (chair) - School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Aesthetics in Protests

//Saturday, March 19 | 3:00 p.m. – 4:50 p.m. | room E330

Chris Mansour - Parsons School of Design, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Laurel Whitney - Yes Men
Marc Herbst - Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Reclaim the Streets
Stephen Duncombe - New York University
Jamie Keesling (chair) - 491, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Debating Alain Badiou’s “Politics of Emancipation”

//Saturday, March 19 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:50 p.m | room W615
Sponsored by the Demarcations

Bruno Bosteels - Cornell University
Chris Cutrone - The Platypus Affiliated Society, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Nayi Duniya - Demarcations journal
Saul Thomas (chair) - University of Chicago

Trotsky’s Marxism

//Saturday, March 19 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:50 p.m | room W607

Ian Morrison - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Jason Wright - International Bolshevik Tendency
Susan Williams - Freedom Socialist Party
Spencer Leonard (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Marx and Engels’s Marxism

//Sunday, March 20 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:50 a.m. | room W603A
Sponsored by the Platypus Review

Benjamin Blumberg - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Nathan Smith - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Pam Nogales - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Richard Rubin - The Platypus Affiliated Society
Tana Forrester (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Book review: Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology. London: Verso, 2009.

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 21 | March 2010


GILLIAN ROSE’S MAGNUM OPUS was her second book, Hegel Contra Sociology (1981).[1] Preceding this was The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno (1978), a work which charted Rose’s approach to the relation of Marxism to Hegel in Hegel Contra Sociology.[2] Alongside her monograph on Adorno, Rose published two incisively critical reviews of the reception of Adorno’s work.[3] Rose thus established herself early on as an important interrogator of Adorno’s thought and Frankfurt School Critical Theory more generally, and of their problematic reception.

Gillian-Rose-233x300 (1)

Gillian Rose (1947–1995), professor and philosopher.

In her review of Negative Dialectics, Rose noted, “Anyone who is involved in the possibility of Marxism as a mode of cognition sui generis . . . must read Adorno’s book.”[4] As she wrote in her review of contemporaneous studies on the Frankfurt School,

Both the books reviewed here indict the Frankfurt School for betraying a Marxist canon; yet they neither make any case for the importance of the School nor do they acknowledge the question central to that body of work: the possibility and desirability of defining such a canon.  As a result both books overlook the relation of the Frankfurt School to Marx for which they are searching. . . .  They have taken the writings [of Horkheimer, Benjamin and Adorno] literally but not seriously enough.  The more general consequences of this approach are also considerable: it obscures instead of illuminating the large and significant differences within Marxism.[5]

Rose’s critique can be said of virtually all the reception of Frankfurt School Critical Theory.

Rose followed her work on Adorno with Hegel Contra Sociology.  The book’s original dust jacket featured a blurb by Anthony Giddens, Rose’s mentor and the doyen of sociology, who called it “a very unusual piece of work . . . whose significance will take some time to sink in.”  As Rose put it in The Melancholy Science, Adorno and other thinkers in Frankfurt School Critical Theory sought to answer for their generation the question Marx posed (in the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts), “How do we now stand as regards the Hegelian dialectic?”[6] For Rose, this question remained a standing one.  Hence, Rose’s work on the problem of “Hegelian Marxism” comprised an important critique of the Left of her time that has only increased in resonance since then.

Rose sought to recover Hegel from readings informed by 20th century neo-Kantian influences, and from what she saw as the failure to fully grasp Hegel’s critique of Kant.  Where Kant could be seen as the bourgeois philosopher par excellence, Rose took Hegel to be his most important and unsurpassed critic.  Hegel provided Rose with the standard for critical thinking on social modernity, whose threshold she found nearly all others to fall below, including thinkers she otherwise respected such as Adorno and Marx.

Rose read Marx as an important disciple of Hegel who, to her mind, nevertheless, misapprehended key aspects of Hegel’s thought.  According to Rose, this left Marxism at the mercy of prevailing Kantian preoccupations.  As she put it, “When Marx is not self-conscious about his relation to Hegel’s philosophy . . . [he] captures what Hegel means by actuality or spirit.  But when Marx desires to dissociate himself from Hegel’s actuality . . . he relies on and affirms abstract dichotomies between being and consciousness, theory and practice, etc.” (230–231).  In offering this Hegelian critique of Marx and Marxism, however, Rose actually fulfilled an important desideratum of Adorno’s Marxist critical theory, which was to attend to what was “not yet subsumed,” or, how a regression of Marxism could be met by a critique from the standpoint of what “remained” from Hegel.

In his deliberate recovery of what Rose characterized as Marx’s “capturing” of Hegel’s “actuality or spirit,” Adorno was preceded by the “Hegelian Marxists” Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch.  The “regressive” reading proposed by Adorno[7] that could answer Rose would involve reading Adorno as presupposing Lukács and Korsch, who presupposed the revolutionary Marxism of Lenin and Luxemburg, who presupposed Marx, who presupposed Hegel.  Similarly, Adorno characterized Hegel as “Kant come into his own.”[8] From Adorno’s perspective, the Marxists did not need to rewrite Marx, nor did Marx need to rewrite Hegel.  For Adorno the recovery of Marx by the Marxists — and of Hegel by Marx — was a matter of further specification and not simple “progress.”  This involved problematization, perhaps, but not overcoming in the sense of leaving behind.[9] Marx did not seek to overcome Hegel, but rather was tasked to advance and fulfill his concerns.  This comports well with Rose’s approach to Hegel, which she in fact took over, however unconsciously, from her prior study of Adorno, failing to follow what Adorno assumed about Marxism in this regard.

Two parts of Hegel Contra Sociology frame its overall discussion of the challenge Hegel’s thought presents to the critical theory of society: a section in the introductory chapter on what Rose calls the “Neo-Kantian Marxism” of Lukács and Adorno and the concluding section on “The Culture and Fate of Marxism.”  The arguments condensed in these two sections of Rose’s book comprise one of the most interesting and challenging critiques of Marxism.  However, Rose’s misunderstanding of Marxism limits the direction and reach of the rousing call with which she concluded her book: “This critique of Marxism itself yields the project of a critical Marxism. . . .  [P]resentation of the contradictory relations between Capital and culture is the only way to link the analysis of the economy to comprehension of the conditions for revolutionary practice” (235).  Yet Rose’s critique of Marxism, especially of Lukács and Adorno, and of Marx himself, misses its mark.

One problem regarding Rose’s critique of Marxism is precisely her focus on Marxism as a specifically “philosophical” problem, as a problem more of thought than of action.  As Lukács’s contemporary Karl Korsch pointed out in “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), by the late 19th century historians such as Dilthey had observed that “ideas contained in a philosophy can live on not only in philosophies, but equally well in positive sciences and social practice, and that this process precisely began on a large scale with Hegel’s philosophy.”[10] For Korsch, this meant that “philosophical” problems in the Hegelian sense were not matters of theory but practice.  From a Marxian perspective, however, it is precisely the problem of capitalist society that is posed at the level of practice.  Korsch went on to argue that “what appears as the purely ‘ideal’ development of philosophy in the 19th century can in fact only be fully and essentially grasped by relating it to the concrete historical development of bourgeois society as a whole.”[11] Korsch’s great insight, shared by Lukács, took this perspective from Luxemburg and Lenin, who grasped how the history of Marxism was a key part, indeed the crucial aspect, of this development, at the time of their writing in the first years of the 20th century.[12]

The most commented-upon essay of Lukács’s collection History and Class Consciousness (1923) is “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” written specifically as the centerpiece of the book, but drawing upon arguments made in the book’s other essays.  Like many readers of Lukács, Rose focused her critique in particular on Lukács’s argument in the second part of his “Reification” essay, “The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought,” neglecting that its “epistemological” investigation of philosophy is only one moment in a greater argument, which culminates in the most lengthy and difficult third part of Lukács’s essay, “The Standpoint of the Proletariat.”  But it is in this part of the essay that Lukács addressed how the Marxist social-democratic workers’ movement was an intrinsic part of what Korsch had called the “concrete historical development of bourgeois society as a whole,” in which its “philosophical” problem lived.  The “philosophical” problem Korsch and Lukács sought to address was the “dialectic” of the political practice of the working class, how it actually produced and did not merely respond to the contradictions and potentially revolutionary crisis of capitalist society.  It is because of Rose’s failure to grasp this point that her criticism of Marx, Lukács, and Adorno amounts to nothing more than an unwitting recapitulation of Lukács’s own critique of what he called “vulgar Marxism,” and what Adorno called “positivism” or “identity thinking.”  Lukács and Adorno, following Lenin and Luxemburg, attempted to effect a return to what Korsch called “Marx’s Marxism.”

In examining Rose’s critique of Lukács, Adorno, and Marx, and in responding to Rose’s Hegelian interrogation of their supposed deficits, it becomes possible to recover what is important about and unifies their thought.  Rose’s questions about Marxism are those that any Marxian approach must answer to demonstrate its necessity — its “improved version,” as Lukács put it, of the “Hegelian original” dialectic.[13]

The problem of Marxism as Hegelian “science”

In the final section of Hegel Contra Sociology, in the conclusion of the chapter “With What Must the Science End?” titled “The Culture and Fate of Marxism,” Rose addresses Marx directly.  Here, Rose states that,

Marx did not appreciate the politics of Hegel’s presentation, the politics of a phenomenology [logic of appearance] which aims to re-form consciousness . . . [and] acknowledges the actuality which determines the formation of consciousness. . . .  Marx’s notion of political education was less systematic than [Hegel’s]. (232–233)

One issue of great import for Rose’s critique of Marxism is the status of Hegel’s philosophy as “speculative.”  As Rose wrote,

Marx’s reading of Hegel overlooks the discourse or logic of the speculative proposition.  He refuses to see the lack of identity in Hegel’s thought, and therefore tries to establish his own discourse of lack of identity using the ordinary proposition.  But instead of producing a logic or discourse of lack of identity he produced an ambiguous dichotomy of activity/nature which relies on a natural beginning and an utopian end. (231)

Rose explicated this “lack of identity in Hegel’s thought” as follows:

Hegel knew that his thought would be misunderstood if it were read as [a] series of ordinary propositions which affirm an identity between a fixed subject and contingent accidents, but he also knew that, like any thinker, he had to present his thought in propositional form.  He thus proposed . . . a “speculative proposition.” . . .  To read a proposition “speculatively” means that the identity which is affirmed between subject and predicate is seen equally to affirm a lack of identity between subject and predicate. . . .  From this perspective the “subject” is not fixed: . . .  Only when the lack of identity between subject and predicate has been experienced, can their identity be grasped. . . .  Thus it cannot be said, as Marx, for example, said [in his Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right” (1843)], that the speculative proposition turns the predicate into the subject and therefore hypostatizes predicates, just like the ordinary proposition hypostatizes the subject. . . . [Hegel’s] speculative proposition is fundamentally opposed to [this] kind of formal identity. (51–53)

Rose may be correct about Marx’s 1843 critique of Hegel.  She severely critiqued Marx’s 1845 “Theses on Feuerbach” on the same score (230).  What this overlooks is Marx’s understanding of the historical difference between his time and Hegel’s.  Consequently, it neglects Marx’s differing conception of “alienation” as a function of the Industrial Revolution, in which the meaning of the categories of bourgeois society, of the commodity form of labor, had become reversed.

Rose’s failure to register the change in meaning of “alienation” for Marx compromised her reading of Lukács:

[M]aking a distinction between underlying process and resultant objectifications[,] Lukács was able to avoid the conventional Marxist treatment of capitalist social forms as mere “superstructure” or “epiphenomena;” legal, bureaucratic and cultural forms have the same status as the commodity form.  Lukács made it clear that “reification” is the specific capitalist form of objectification.  It determines the structure of all the capitalist social forms. . . .  [T]he process-like essence (the mode of production) attains a validity from the standpoint of the totality. . . .  [Lukács’s approach] turned . . . away from a logic of identity in the direction of a theory of historical mediation.  The advantage of this approach was that Lukács opened new areas of social life to Marxist analysis and critique. . . .  The disadvantage was that Lukács omitted many details of Marx’s theory of value. . . .  As a result “reification” and “mediation” become a kind of shorthand instead of a sustained theory.  A further disadvantage is that the sociology of reification can only be completed by a speculative sociology of the proletariat as the subject-object of history. (30–31)

However, for Lukács the proletariat is not a Hegelian subject-object of history but a Marxian one.[14] Lukács did not affirm history as the given situation of the possibility of freedom in the way Hegel did.  Rather, following Marx, Lukács treated historical structure as a problem to be overcome.  History was not to be grasped as necessary, as Hegel affirmed against his contemporaries’ Romantic despair at modernity.  Rose mistakenly took Lukács’s critique of capital to be Romantic, subject to the aporiae Hegel had characterized in the “unhappy consciousness.”  Rose therefore misinterpreted Lukács’s revolutionism as a matter of “will”:[15]

Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness is an attempt to give [Marx’s] Capital a phenomenological form: to read Marx’s analysis of capital as the potential consciousness of a universal class.  But Lukács’s emphasis on change in consciousness as per se revolutionary, separate from the analysis of change in capitalism, gives his appeal to the proletariat or the party the status of an appeal to a . . . will. (233)

Nonetheless, Rose found aspects of Lukács’s understanding of Marx compelling, in a “Hegelian” sense:

The question of the relation between Capital and politics is thus not an abstract question about the relation between theory and practice, but a phenomenological question about the relationship between acknowledgement of actuality and the possibility of change.  This is why the theory of commodity fetishism, the presentation of a contradiction between substance and subject, remains more impressive than any abstract statements about the relation between theory and practice or between capitalist crisis and the formation of revolutionary consciousness.  It acknowledges actuality and its misrepresentation as consciousness. (233)

What is missing from Rose’s critique of Lukács, however, is how he offered a dialectical argument, precisely through forms of misrecognition (“misrepresentation”).[16]

This is why the theory of commodity fetishism has become central to the neo-Marxist theory of domination, aesthetics, and ideology.  The theory of commodity fetishism is the most speculative moment in Marx’s exposition of capital.  It comes nearest to demonstrating in the historically specific case of commodity producing society how substance is ((mis-)represented as) subject, how necessary illusion arises out of productive activity. (232)

However, the contradiction of capital is not merely between “substance and subject,” but rather a self-contradictory social substance, value, which gives rise to a self-contradictory subject.[17]

Rose’s critique of the “sociological” Marxism of Lukács and Adorno

Rose’s misconstrual of the status of proletarian social revolution in the self-understanding of Marxism led her to regard Lukács and Adorno’s work as “theoretical” in the restricted sense of mere analysis.  Rose denied the dialectical status of Lukács and Adorno’s thought by neglecting the question of how a Marxian approach, from Lukács and Adorno’s perspective, considered the workers’ movement for emancipation as itself symptomatic of capital.  Following Marx, Lukács and Adorno regarded Marxism as the organized historical self-consciousness of the social politics of the working class that potentially points beyond capital.[18] Rose limited Lukács and Adorno’s concerns regarding “misrecognition,” characterizing their work as “sociological”:

The thought of Lukács and Adorno represent two of the most original and important attempts . . . [at] an Hegelian Marxism, but it constitutes a neo-Kantian Marxism. . . .  They turned the neo-Kantian paradigm into a Marxist sociology of cultural forms . . . with a selective generalization of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. (29)

But, according to Rose, this “sociological” analysis of the commodity form remained outside its object:

In the essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in History and Class Consciousness, Lukács generalizes Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism by making a distinction between the total process of production, “real life-processes,” and the resultant objectifications of social forms.  This notion of “objectification” has more in common with the neo-Kantian notion of the objectification of specific object-domains than with an “Hegelian” conflating of objectification, human praxis in general, with alienation, its form in capitalist society. (30)

Rose thought that Lukács thus undermined his own account of potential transformation: “Lukács’s very success in demonstrating the prevalence of reification . . . meant that he could only appeal to the proletariat to overcome reification by apostrophes to the unity of theory and practice, or by introducing the party as deus ex machina” (31).  In this respect, Rose failed to note how Lukács, and Adorno following him, had deeply internalized the Hegelian problematic of Marxism, how Marxism was not the (mis)application but the reconstruction of the Hegelian dialectic under the changed social-historical conditions of capital.  For Rose, Lukács’s concept of “reification” was too negative regarding the “totality” of capital, which she thought threatened to render capital non-dialectical, and its emancipatory transformation inconceivable.  But Rose’s perspective remains that of Hegel — pre-industrial capital.

Hegel contra sociology — the “culture” and “fate” of Marxism

Just before she died in 1995, Rose wrote a new Preface for a reprint of Hegel Contra Sociology, which states that,

The speculative exposition of Hegel in this book still provides the basis for a unique engagement with post-Hegelian thought, especially postmodernity, with its roots in Heideggerianism. . . .  [T]he experience of negativity, the existential drama, is discovered at the heart of Hegelian rationalism. . . .  Instead of working with the general question of the dominance of Western metaphysics, the dilemma of addressing modern ethics and politics without arrogating the authority under question is seen as the ineluctable difficulty in Hegel. . . .  This book, therefore, remains the core of the project to demonstrate a nonfoundational and radical Hegel, which overcomes the opposition between nihilism and rationalism.  It provides the possibility for renewal of critical thought in the intellectual difficulty of our time. (viii)

Since the time of Rose’s book, with the passage of Marxist politics into history, the “intellectual difficulty” in renewing critical thought has only gotten worse.  “Postmodernity” has not meant the eclipse or end, but rather the unproblematic triumph, of “Western metaphysics” — in the exhaustion of “postmodernism.”[19] Consideration of the problem Rose addressed in terms of the Hegelian roots of Marxism, the immanent critique of capitalist modernity, remains the “possibility” if not the “actuality” of our time.  Only by facing it squarely can we avoid sharing in Marxism’s “fate” as a “culture.”  For this “fate,” the devolution into “culture,” or what Rose called “pre-bourgeois society” (234), threatens not merely a form of politics on the Left, but humanity: it represents the failure to attain let alone transcend the threshold of Hegelian modernity, whose concern Rose recovered. |P

[1]. Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (London: Verso, 2009).  Originally published by Athlone Press, London in 1981.

[2]. Rose, The Melancholy Science (London: Macmillan, 1978).

[3]. See Rose’s review of the English translation of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1973) in The American Political Science Review 70.2 (June, 1976), 598–599; and of Susan Buck-Morss’s The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (1977) and Zoltán Tar’s The Frankfurt School: The Critical Theories of Horkheimer and Adorno (1977) in History and Theory 18.1 (February, 1979), 126–135.

[4]. Rose, Review of Negative Dialectics, 599.

[5]. Rose, Review of The Origin of Negative Dialectics and The Frankfurt School, 126, 135.

[6]. Rose, The Melancholy Science, 2.

[7]. See, for instance, Adorno, “Progress” (1962), and “Critique” (1969), in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 143–160 and 281–288.

[8]. Adorno, “Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy,” in Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 6.

[9]. See Georg Lukács, Preface (1922), History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1923), trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971):

The author of these pages . . . believes that today it is of practical importance to return in this respect to the traditions of Marx-interpretation founded by Engels (who regarded the “German workers’ movement” as the “heir to classical German philosophy”), and by Plekhanov.  He believes that all good Marxists should form, in Lenin’s words “a kind of society of the materialist friends of the Hegelian dialectic.” But Hegel’s position today is the reverse of Marx’s own.  The problem with Marx is precisely to take his method and his system as we find them and to demonstrate that they form a coherent unity that must be preserved.  The opposite is true of Hegel.  The task he imposes is to separate out from the complex web of ideas with its sometimes glaring contradictions all the seminal elements of his thought and rescue them as a vital intellectual force for the present. (xlv)

[10]. Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), in Marxism and Philosophy trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970 and 2008), 39.

[11]. Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” 40.

[12]. See, for instance: Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution? (1900), in which Luxemburg pointed out that all reforms aimed at ameliorating the crisis of capital actually exacerbated it; Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done? (1902), in which Lenin supposed that overcoming reformist “revisionism” in international (Marxist) social democracy would amount to and be the express means for overcoming capitalism; and Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects (1906), in which Trotsky pointed out that the various “prerequisites of socialism” not only developed historically independently but also, significantly, antagonistically.  In The State and Revolution (1917), Lenin, following Marx, critiqued anarchism for calling for the “abolition” of the state and not recognizing that the necessity of the state could only “wither away” as a function of the gradual overcoming of “bourgeois right” whose prevalence would persist in the revolutionary socialist “workers’ state” long after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie: the state would continue as a symptom of capitalist social relations without capitalists per se.  In Literature and Revolution (1924), Trotsky pointed out that, as symptomatic products of present society, the cultural and even political expressions of the revolution could not themselves embody the principles of an emancipated society but could, at best, only open the way to them.  For Lukács and Korsch (and Benjamin and Adorno following them — see Benjamin’s 1934 essay on “The Author as Producer,” in Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott [New York: Schocken, 1986], 220–238), such arguments demonstrated a dialectical approach to Marxism itself on the part of its most thoughtful actors.

[13]. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, xlvi.  Citing Lukács in her review of Buck-Morss and Tar on the Frankfurt School, Rose posed the problem of Marxism this way:

The reception of the Frankfurt School in the English-speaking world to date displays a paradox.  Frequently, the Frankfurt School inspires dogmatic historiography although it represents a tradition which is attractive and important precisely because of its rejection of dogmatic or “orthodox” Marxism.  This tradition in German Marxism has its origin in Lukács’s most un-Hegelian injunction to take Marxism as a “method” — a method which would remain valid even if “every one of Marx’s individual theses” were proved wrong.  One can indeed speculate whether philosophers like Bloch, Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Adorno would have become Marxists if Lukács had not pronounced thus.  For other Marxists this position spells scientific “suicide.” (Rose, Review of The Origin of Negative Dialectics and The Frankfurt School, 126.)

Nevertheless, Rose used a passage from Lukács’s 1924 book in eulogy, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought as the epigraph for her essay: “[T]he dialectic is not a finished theory to be applied mechanically to all the phenomena of life but only exists as theory in and through this application” (126).  Critically, Rose asked only that Lukács’s own work — and that of other “Hegelian” Marxists — remain true to this observation.

[14]. See Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” 171–175:

The class meaning of [the thoroughgoing capitalist rationalization of society] lies precisely in the fact that the bourgeoisie regularly transforms each new qualitative gain back onto the quantitative level of yet another rational calculation.  Whereas for the proletariat, the “same” development has a different class meaning: it means the abolition of the isolated individual, it means that the workers can become conscious of the social character of labor, it means that the abstract, universal form of the societal principle as it is manifested can be increasingly concretized and overcome. . . .  For the proletariat however, this ability to go beyond the immediate in search for the “remoter” factors means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action.

The “objective nature of the objects of action” includes that of the working class itself.

[15]. Such misapprehension of revolutionary Marxism as voluntarism has been commonplace.  Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer, the political scientist J. P. Nettl, in the essay “The German Social Democratic Party 1890–1914 as Political Model” (in Past and Present 30 [April 1965], 65–95), addressed this issue as follows:

Rosa Luxemburg was emphatically not an anarchist and went out of her way to distinguish between “revolutionary gymnastic,” which was “conjured out of the air at will,” and her own policy (see her 1906 pamphlet on The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions). . . .  [Later Communist historians have burdened her] with the concept of spontaneity. . . .  [But her’s] was a dynamic, dialectic doctrine; organization and action revived each other and made each other grow. . . .  It may well be that there were underlying similarities to anarchism, insofar as any doctrine of action resembles any other.  A wind of action and movement was blowing strongly around the edges of European culture at the time, both in art and literature as well as in the more political context of Sorel and the Italian Futurists. . . .  [But] most important of all, Rosa Luxemburg specifically drew on a Russian experience [of the 1905 Revolution] which differed sharply from the intellectual individualism of Bakunin, [Domela-]Nieuwenhuis and contemporary anarchism.  She always emphasized self-discipline as an adjunct to action — the opposite of the doctrine of self-liberation which the Anarchists shared with other European action philosophies. (88–89)
The German Left evolved a special theory of action. . . .  Where the German Left emphasized action against organization, Lenin preached organization as a means to action.  But action was common to both — and it was this emphasis on action which finally brought the German Left and the Russian Bolsheviks into the same camp in spite of so many serious disagreements.  In her review of the Bolshevik revolution, written in September 1918, Rosa Luxemburg singled out this commitment to action for particular praise.  Here she saw a strong sympathetic echo to her own ideas, and analyzed it precisely in her own terms:

“With . . . the seizure of power and the carrying forward of the revolution the Bolsheviks have solved the famous question of a ‘popular majority’ which has so long oppressed the German Social Democrats . . . not through a majority to a revolutionary tactic, but through a revolutionary tactic to a majority” (The Russian Revolution)

With action as the cause and not the consequence of mass support, she saw the Bolsheviks applying her ideas in practice — and incidentally provides us with clear evidence as to what she meant when she spoke of majority and masses.  In spite of other severe criticisms of Bolshevik policy, it was this solution of the problem by the Bolsheviks which definitely ensured them the support of the German Left. (91–92)
The possibilities adumbrated by modern sociology have not yet been adequately exploited in the study of political organizations, dynamics, relationships.  Especially the dynamics; most pictures of change are “moving pictures,” which means that they are no more than “a composition of immobilities . . . a position, then a new position, etc., ad infinitum” (Henri Bergson).  The problem troubled Talcott Parsons among others, just as it long ago troubled Rosa Luxemburg. (95)

This was what Lukács, following Lenin and Luxemburg, meant by the problem of “reification.”

[16]. As Lukács put it in the Preface (1922) to History and Class Consciousness,

I should perhaps point out to the reader unfamiliar with dialectics one difficulty inherent in the nature of dialectical method relating to the definition of concepts and terminology.  It is of the essence of dialectical method that concepts which are false in their abstract one-sidedness are later transcended (zur Aufhebung gelangen).  The process of transcendence makes it inevitable that we should operate with these one-sided, abstract and false concepts.  These concepts acquire their true meaning less by definition than by their function as aspects that are then transcended in the totality.  Moreover, it is even more difficult to establish fixed meanings for concepts in Marx’s improved version of the dialectic than in the Hegelian original.  For if concepts are only the intellectual forms of historical realities then these forms, one-sided, abstract and false as they are, belong to the true unity as genuine aspects of it.  Hegel’s statements about this problem of terminology in the preface to the Phenomenology are thus even more true than Hegel himself realized when he said: “Just as the expressions ‘unity of subject and object’, of ‘finite and infinite’, of ‘being and thought’, etc., have the drawback that ‘object’ and ‘subject’ bear the same meaning as when they exist outside that unity, so that within the unity they mean something other than is implied by their expression: so, too, falsehood is not, qua false, any longer a moment of truth.”  In the pure historicization of the dialectic this statement receives yet another twist: in so far as the “false” is an aspect of the “true” it is both “false” and “non-false.”  When the professional demolishers of Marx criticize his “lack of conceptual rigor” and his use of “image” rather than “definitions,” etc., they cut as sorry a figure as did Schopenhauer when he tried to expose Hegel’s “logical howlers” in his Hegel critique.  All that is proved is their total inability to grasp even the ABC of the dialectical method.  The logical conclusion for the dialectician to draw from this failure is not that he is faced with a conflict between different scientific methods, but that he is in the presence of a social phenomenon and that by conceiving it as a socio-historical phenomenon he can at once refute it and transcend it dialectically. (xlvi–xlvii)

For Lukács, the self-contradictory nature of the workers’ movement was itself a “socio-historical phenomenon” that had brought forth a revolutionary crisis at the time of Lukács’s writing: from a Marxian perspective, the working class and its politics were the most important phenomena and objects of critique to be overcome in capitalist society.

[17]. See Moishe Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[18]. See Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory” (1942), in Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 93–110:

According to [Marxian] theory, history is the history of class struggles.  But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat. . . .  By extending the concept of class to prehistory, theory denounces not just the bourgeois . . . [but] turns against prehistory itself. . . .  By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, [the critique of] political economy became the critique of history as a whole. . . .  All history is the history of class struggles because it was always the same thing, namely, prehistory. (93–94)

This means, however, that the dehumanization is also its opposite. . . .  Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable of wresting them from the dominant power. (110)

This follows from Lukács’s conception of proletarian socialism as the “completion” of reification (“Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness):

The danger to which the proletariat has been exposed since its appearance on the historical stage was that it might remain imprisoned in its immediacy together with the bourgeoisie.  With the growth of social democracy this threat acquired a real political organisation which artificially cancels out the mediations so laboriously won and forces the proletariat back into its immediate existence where it is merely a component of capitalist society and not at the same time the motor that drives it to its doom and destruction. (196)

[E]ven the objects in the very centre of the dialectical process [i.e., the political forms of the workers’ movement itself] can only slough off their reified form after a laborious process.  A process in which the seizure of power by the proletariat and even the organisation of the state and the economy on socialist lines are only stages.  They are, of course, extremely important stages, but they do not mean that the ultimate objective has been achieved.  And it even appears as if the decisive crisis-period of capitalism may be characterized by the tendency to intensify reification, to bring it to a head. (208)

[19]. Rose’s term for the post-1960s “New Left” historical situation is “Heideggerian postmodernity.”  Robert Pippin, as a fellow “Hegelian,” in his brief response to the Critical Inquiry journal’s symposium on “The Future of Criticism,” titled “Critical Inquiry and Critical Theory: A Short History of Nonbeing” (Critical Inquiry 30.2 [Winter 2004], 424–428), has characterized this similarly, as follows:

[T]he level of discussion and awareness of this issue, in its historical dimensions (with respect both to the history of critical theory and the history of modernization) has regressed. . . .  [T]he problem with contemporary critical theory is that it has become insufficiently critical. . . .  [T]here is also a historical cost for the neglect or underattention or lack of resolution of this core critical problem: repetition. . . .  It may seem extreme to claim — well, to claim at all that such repetition exists (that postmodernism, say, is an instance of such repetition) — and also to claim that it is tied somehow to the dim understanding we have of the post-Kantian situation. . . .  [T]hat is what I wanted to suggest.  I’m not sure it will get us anywhere.  Philosophy rarely does.  Perhaps it exists to remind us that we haven’t gotten anywhere. (427–428)

Heidegger himself anticipated this result in his “Overcoming Metaphysics” (1936–46), in The End of Philosophy, ed. and trans. Joan Stambaugh (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003): “The still hidden truth of Being is withheld from metaphysical humanity.  The laboring animal is left to the giddy whirl of its products so that it may tear itself to pieces and annihilate itself in empty nothingness” (87).  Elsewhere, in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” (1964), in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), Heidegger acknowledged Marx’s place in this process: “With the reversal of metaphysics which was already accomplished by Karl Marx, the most extreme possibility of philosophy is attained” (433).

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


DAVID BLACK’S VALUABLE COMMENTS and further historical exposition (in Platypus Review 18, December 2009) of my review of Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy (Platypus Review 15, September 2009) have at their core an issue with Korsch’s account of the different historical phases of the question of “philosophy” for Marx and Marxism. Black questions Korsch’s differentiation of Marx’s relationship to philosophy into three distinct periods: pre-1848, circa 1848, and post-1848. But attempting to defeat Korsch’s historical account of such changes in Marx’s approaches to relating theory and practice means avoiding Korsch’s principal point. It also means defending Marx on mistaken ground. Black considers that Korsch’s periodization—his recognition of changes—opens the door to criticizing Marx for inconsistency in his relation of theory to practice. But that is not so.


Police photo of Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, taken after his arrest in 1895 for participation in the St. Petersberg Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class.

What makes Korsch’s essay “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) important, to Benjamin and Adorno’s work for instance, and what relates it intrinsically to Lukács’s contemporaneous treatment of the question of the “Hegelian” dimension of Marxism in History and Class Consciousness, is Korsch’s discovery of the historically changing relation of theory and practice, and the self-consciousness of this problem, in the history of Marxism. This meant that the matter was, from a Marxian perspective, as Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics, “not settled once and for all, but fluctuates historically.”[1] Indeed, as Adorno put it in a late essay,

If, to make an exception for once, one risks what is called a grand perspective, beyond the historical differences in which the concepts of theory and praxis have their life, one discovers the infinitely progressive aspect of the separation of theory and praxis, which was deplored by the Romantics and denounced by the Socialists in their wake—except for the mature Marx.[2]

However one may wish to question the nuances of Korsch’s specific historiographic periodization of the problem of Marxism as that of the relation of theory and practice, both during Marx’s lifetime and after, this should not be with an eye to either disputing or defending Marx or a Marxian approach’s consistency on the matter. One may perhaps attempt a more fine-grained approach to the historical “fluctuations” of what Adorno called the “constitutive” and indeed “progressive” aspect of the “separation of theory and praxis.” Korsch’s point in the 1923 “Marxism and Philosophy,” followed by Benjamin and Adorno, was that we must attend to this “separation,” or, as Adorno put it, “non-identity,” if we are to have a properly Marxian self-consciousness of the problem of “Marxism” in theory and practice. For this problem of the separation of theory and practice is not to be deplored, but calls for critical awareness. Marx was consistent in his own awareness of the relation of theory and practice. This meant that at different times Marx found them related in different ways.

By contrast, what has waylaid the sectarian “Marxist Left” has been the freezing of the theory-practice problem, which then continued to elude a progressive-emancipatory solution at any given moment. Particular historical moments in the theory-practice problem have become dogmatized by various sects, thus dooming them to irrelevance. So generations of ostensibly revolutionary “Marxists” have failed to heed the nature of Rosa Luxemburg’s praise of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks in the October Revolution:

All of us are subject to the laws of history....The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of historical possibilities....What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescencies in the politics of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!” This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world....And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism.”[3]

The Bolshevik Revolution was not itself the achievement of socialism and the overcoming of capitalism, but it did nevertheless squarely address itself to the problem of grasping history so as to make possible revolutionary practice. The Bolsheviks recognized, in other words, that we are tasked, by the very nature of capital, in Marx’s sense, to struggle within and through the separation of theory and practice. The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was the occasion and context for Korsch’s rumination on the theory and practice of Marxism in his seminal 1923 essay on “Marxism and Philosophy.”

In the extended aftermath of the failed revolution of 1917–19, the crisis of the Stalinization of Third International Communism and the looming political victory of fascism, Horkheimer, in an aphorism titled “A Discussion About Revolution,” addressed himself to the same subject Luxemburg and Korsch had discussed, from the other side of historical experience:

[A] proletarian party cannot be made the object of contemplative criticism....Bourgeois criticism of the proletarian struggle is a logical impossibility....At times such as the present, revolutionary belief may not really be compatible with great clear-sightedness about the realities.[4]

This is because, for Horkheimer, from a Marxian “proletarian” perspective, as opposed to a (historically) “bourgeois” one (including that of pre- or non-Marxian “socialism”), the problem is not a matter of formulating a correct theory and then implementing it in practice. It is rather a question of what Lukács called “historical consciousness.” We should note well how Horkheimer posed the theory-practice problem here, as the contradiction between “revolutionary belief” and “clear-sightedness about the realities.”

Horkheimer elaborated further that proletarian revolutionary politics cannot be conceived on the model of capitalist enterprise, and not only for socioeconomic class-hierarchical reasons, but rather because of the differing relation of theory and practice in the two instances; it is the absence of any “historical consciousness” of the theory and practice problem that makes “bourgeois criticism of the proletarian struggle” a logical “impossibility.” As Lukács put it, in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (1923), “a radical change in outlook is not feasible on the soil of bourgeois society.” Rather, one must radically deepen—render “dialectical”—the outlook of the present historical moment. The point is that a Marxian perspective can find—and indeed has often found—itself far removed from the practical politics and (entirely “bourgeois”) ideological consciousness of the working class. This has not invalidated Marxism, but rather called for a further Marxian critical reflection on its own condition.

In a letter of February 22, 1881 to the Dutch anarchist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, Marx wrote,

It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new International Working Men’s Association has not yet arrived and for that reason I regard all workers’ congresses or socialist congresses, in so far as they are not directly related to the conditions existing in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but actually harmful. They will always ineffectually end in endlessly repeated general banalities.[5]

How much more is this criticism applicable to the “Left” today! But, more directly, what it points to is that Marx recognized no fixed relation of theory and practice that he pursued throughout his life. Instead, he very self-consciously exercised judgment respecting the changing relation of theory and practice, and considered this consciousness the hallmark of his politics. Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) excoriated “bourgeois” democratic politics, including that of contemporary socialists, for its inability to simultaneously learn from history and face the challenge of the new.[6] How else could one judge that a moment has “not yet arrived” while calling for something other than “endlessly repeated banalities?”

Marx had a critical theory of the relation of theory and practice—recognizing it as a historically specific and not merely “philosophical” problem, or, a problem that called for the critical theory of the philosophy of history—and a political practice of the relation of theory and practice. There is not simply a theoretical or practical problem, but also and more profoundly a problem of relating theory and practice.

We are neither going to think our way out ahead of time, nor somehow work our way through, in the process of acting. We do not need to dissolve the theory-practice distinction that seems to paralyze us, but rather achieve both good theory and good practice in the struggle to relate them properly. It is not a matter of finding either a correct theory or correct practice, but of trying to judge and affect their changing relation and recognizing this as a problem of history.

Marx overcame the political pitfalls and historical blindness of his “revolutionary” contemporaries, such as the pre-Marxian socialism of Proudhon et al. leading to 1848, anarchism in the First International, and the Lassallean trend of the German Social-Democratic Party. It is significant that Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) critiqued the residual Lassallean politics of the Social Democrats for being to the Right of the liberals on international free trade, etc., thus exposing the problem of this first “Marxist” party from the outset.[7]

Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, following Marx, recovered and struggled through the problem of theory and practice for their time, precipitating a crisis in Marxism, and thus advancing it. They overcame the “vulgar Marxist” ossification of theory and practice in the Second International, as Korsch and Lukács explained. It meant the Marxist critique of Marxism, or, an emancipatory critique of emancipatory politics—a Left critique of the Left. This is not a finished task. We need to attain this ability again, for our time. |P

[1]. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1983), 143.

[2]. Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 266. This essay, a “dialectical epilegomenon” to his book Negative Dialectics that Adorno said intended to bring together “philosophical speculation and drastic experience” (Critical Models, 126), was one of the last writings he finished for publication before he died in 1969. It reflected his dispute with fellow Frankfurt School critical theorist Hebert Marcuse over the student protests of the Vietnam War (see Adorno and Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” trans. Esther Leslie, New Left Review I/233, Jan.–Feb. 1999, 123–136). As Adorno put it in his May 5, 1969 letter to Marcuse, "[T]here are moments in which theory is pushed on further by practice. But such a situation neither exists objectively today, nor does the barren and brutal practicism that confronts us here have the slightest thing to do with theory anyhow" (“Correspondence,” 127).

[3]. Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 80.

[4]. Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 40–41.

[5]. Karl Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, trans. Dona Torr (New York: International Publishers, 1942), 387, <>.

[6]. As Luxemburg put it in 1915 in The Crisis of German Social Democracy (aka The Junius Pamphlet, available online at <>),

Marx says [in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)]: “[T]he democrat (that is, the petty bourgeois revolutionary) [comes] out of the most shameful defeats as unmarked as he naively went into them; he comes away with the newly gained conviction that he must be victorious, not that he or his party ought to give up the old principles, but that conditions ought to accommodate him.” The modern proletariat comes out of historical tests differently. Its tasks and its errors are both gigantic: no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show it the path to follow. Historical experience is its only school mistress. Its thorny way to self-emancipation is paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors. The aim of its journey—its emancipation depends on this—is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors. Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement. The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war [WWI] is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it.

[7]. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 533–534, <>. Marx wrote, "In fact, the internationalism of the program stands even infinitely below that of the Free Trade party. The latter also asserts that the result of its efforts will be 'the international brotherhood of peoples.' But it also does something to make trade international...The international activity of the working classes does not in any way depend on the existence of the International Working Men’s Association."

Joshua Howard

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


GEORG LUKÁCS INTRODUCED the notion of totality as a major theme for Western Marxism in his work History and Class Consciousness, where he wrote,

It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts, is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science...Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science.[1]

I wish to take issue not only with the idea Lukács expresses here of totality as a standpoint or point of view from which both to critique the partiality of other viewpoints and to theoretically grasp capitalist society, but also with later Frankfurt School intellectuals, Western Marxists more generally, as well as leading trends in Continental Philosophy that question the very possibility of such a standpoint. For while these anti-totality positions lament the impossibility of such a total understanding while others celebrate it—extending their skepticism also to the practical questions concerning the revolutionary subjects that are supposed to embody or make possible the critique—neither offers any real break from the problems in the Western Marxist notion of totality. Indeed, their perspectives often assume the very concept of totality they critique and thus fall back into the orbit of these problems. Therefore, rather than taking sides in this debate, I wish instead to critique the assumptions common to both sides.

The debate, which has proven to be a circular and unproductive one, has actually served to hinder the development of Marxist theory. This is partly because holistic modes of thinking stand opposed to theoretical reason, in general, and to Marx’s theories, in particular. As a result, Marx’s ideas usually come burdened with philosophical assumptions that distort them, as well as the nature of theory itself and its role in social change. Instead of theories, Western Marxists have sought a method. This search for method coupled with holistic thinking has turned Marxism into a worldview that seems to require that its adherents undergo a religious conversion to arrive at faith, rather than a rational process of assessing a set of theories against reality and other theories. There is no method that will unlock the secrets of capitalist society or guarantee revolutionary results. Despite all the searches for method, there is nothing special about Marx’s theorizing process that separates it from other modes of theoretical reasoning.

In what follows I try to show in a preliminary way how the category of totality and the attendant sense of method have both served to hinder the understanding of Marx’s critique of capital and have had an enervating effect on the ability of Western Marxists to imagine alternatives to capitalism. But this applies well beyond Western Marxism, and a lot of what I say applies to the radical Left in general. This is because the main issue, I believe, concerns a certain way of thinking about capitalist society as a total system.

From Marx’s analysis of capital, as an integrated process of production, distribution, and exchange of value, Western Marxists tend to move, largely through unsubstantiated, analogical thinking, to a theory of capitalist society as a whole, as a completely integrated system that affects everything we think and do. This generates in turn the need for an external position from which to critique this society and a frustrated desire to live outside the system. From here it is but a short step to despairing of ever achieving such a position. But, as soon as one poses the problem in terms of being “inside” or “outside” capitalism, the game is over. This is not least because of the theoretical and practical consequences that flow from Lukács’s claim about the “all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts.”

By regarding capitalism as a total system, encompassing all of society, holistic views such as Lukács’s have also included as part of capitalist totality our very consciousness, so that our inner thoughts themselves are supposed to embody or enact this all-consuming total ideology, which appears to us perfectly commonplace, or “reified” as Lukács says. Radical critics trace all problems of modern society back to capitalism. Their radicalism itself is measured by how much they refuse this total ideology and reject the entire culture. Just as capitalism is seen to mediate everything we do and think, so revolution comes to be imagined as something that entails changing all of society, down to our consciousness.

One practical consequence of this view is that revolution comes to seem impossible, because, well, a scenario in which everything changes is impossible. Social change has never and will never happen this way. And so it is hard to convince rational people of the viability of a revolution against a Lukácsian totality. If a movement to change society requires people first to adopt an entire new worldview, then perhaps we should wonder whether such a vision of social change is not solely a construct of the intelligentsia built into a vision of the world with which they flatter themselves, rather than as a genuinely emancipatory vision opening a viable path towards real social change to benefit everyone.

A second theoretical consequence is that once the ontological priority of the whole over the parts is posited, including the dependence of thought on society, then one must also posit the impossibility of conceiving any alternative to this totality or a theory of how any change is possible. As products of the whole, everything that is thought reflects that whole and is bound by it.

Except, of course, when it comes to the intellectual equipped with the right method, who seems somehow not only able to conceive the whole predicament, but, having scaled the heights of Enlightenment, can direct the benighted masses towards the Promised Land. No matter how much it is denied, such intellectual vanguardism seems built into the very diagnosis of the problem as one of being inside or outside of a total social system. This logic is, of course, characteristic of the Kautskyian/Leninist theory of the vanguardist road to socialism and the Trotskyist/Maoist problem of leadership, but it is also very typical of other flawed critiques of modern society on the radical Left that pit a knowledgeable elite against the rest of society. This “solution” turns from simple top-down elitism to incoherence when capitalism is conceived as an all-pervasive totality. What then gives intellectuals access to this privileged viewpoint? I lack the space to unfold from their inner epistemological contradictions all the vicissitudes of this view over the past century. Rather than concluding that no one can have such access, no one can occupy such a perspective, the upshot seems to be that this is a bad (and unnecessary) way of posing the problem. Western Marxists, and leftists generally, erect this obstacle for themselves. Thinking everyone else is absorbed by the system, it is, in fact, a system of their very own creation that ultimately stems from their disappointment with the working class’s failure to act according to their expectations. In true dialectical form, the diagnosis of one-dimensionality is a symptom expressing its own one-dimensionality. And much of this has to do with the holistic thinking I wish to critique.

The Trap of Holism

I want to point to two essential aspects of this prevalent notion of totality, (1) holism about society, or “sociological holism,” and (2) holism about beliefs, or “ideological holism.”

Sociological holism holds that everything in society is part of an integrated whole, with the implication that everything within it is co-opted or absorbed by this whole. On such a view, each component part and every event become an instance of the total system. This process of incorporation is commonly expressed as a logic of colonization whereby contact with a vague, general cultural process—in this case, commodification—irrevocably homogenizes. Becoming commodified is the sign of being integrated into and trapped by the system; as everything has a price, so everything serves capital. Now that all is supposedly commodified, even that which was previously thought to be outside or untouched by capital, such as nature, is no longer. The list extends to include human nature, the unconscious, and ultimately subjectivity itself.

Where Marx specifically analyzed the reification of labor as value, as an objective aspect of the commodity, Lukács turned reification as such into a general organizing principle of capitalist society and its institutions. It is no accident that this widely used concept of commodification can be seamlessly substituted with sociological notions such as Max Weber’s rationalization or Georg Simmel’s objective culture, without losing its meaning. That is because of the divide that stretches between Marx and Lukács. Rather than any Marxist, Weber and Simmel had the largest influence on Lukács’s attempt to link Marx’s analysis of the commodity form to these sociological notions to give them a certain political, anti-capitalist twist, but failed to actually clarify or advance Marx’s theoretical project. Thus, rather than being based on Marx’s analysis of commodity production, reification has the character of a general malaise of modernity, similar to that diagnosed by Weber as an iron cage of capitalist rationalization or by Simmel as the tragedy of culture. Nowadays it is even fashionable to lament reification and commodification, so that it is possible to sound “Marxist” without understanding the specifics of Marx’s analysis of commodity production in Capital.

This holism with respect to society has also been referred to as the real subsumption of society by capital. But this concept is not Marx’s. Many people, most recently Hardt and Negri, with their marriage of Marx and Foucault, mistake Marx’s concept of the real subsumption of labor under capital to mean the real subsumption of the laborer or of society as a whole under capital, so that capitalist society becomes equivalent to capital. How do we escape from this totalizing predicament? Either Marxism (as a method, of course) is the totalizing perspective we need to counter a totalizing social process, or else we can have no such total perspective; there is no outside, so we can only occupy the cracks in the system. Just because Marx did not have such a theory does not mean such a theory is wrong. But Western Marxists have to confront the problems that arise from the logic of the argument.

Ideological holism, meanwhile, holds that the dominant ideology colors everything we believe or, rather, that what we believe stems from the social system itself. A corollary of ideological holism is that the meaning of every belief depends on the believer’s social location; it requires analysis in light of the totality to establish its meaning and significance in the light of history. On this view, every belief is connected to every other belief in a web of ideology, a symbolic system or worldview that perfectly locks into this form of life. Our beliefs are further determined by where we stand in this totality. Hence, you can have a “proletarian science” as opposed to a “bourgeois science.” A new society would naturally bring with it a new belief system for its individual parts, one that we cannot begin to imagine. In a post-capitalist society we would think differently, just as now we think differently from other cultures or historical periods. This would be akin to a conversion process from one worldview or paradigm to another. This holism of belief today has many names, but the logic is the same: Lukács’s reification of consciousness is a species of standpoint epistemology, as is Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge; misunderstandings of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, the appropriation in the humanities and social sciences of Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigm, and Michel Foucault’s epistemes or disciplinary matrices, among others, are all perspectivist viewpoints.

Of course it is true that people do think different things based on the changing conditions of the reality that surrounds them. And, certainly, capitalism does significantly affect certain of these conditions, causing our beliefs and attitudes themselves to change. But these are empirical questions, not foregone conclusions. What I am challenging is the internal holism of this notion of a belief system and its necessary grounding in a form of society as a whole. People’s ideas are not as homogenous nor as limited a priori by the type of society they belong to, contrary to what critical theorists have tended to believe. People basically make rational decisions about their choices in life. Changing conditions would naturally bring about changes in certain beliefs or attitudes, and a socialist society would change social conditions for the better in certain ways. But these would not depend upon, nor produce, some new type of person who thinks in a wholly new and different way.

Totality versus Theory

Holistic thinking seeks a theory of society as a whole or of history as a whole. The reason that Marx provided no such comprehensive theory of society or a theory of capitalist society is because he did not think it was necessary for his purposes and probably thought it impossible. Such a “theory” would attempt to leave nothing out and thus strive to be a theory of everything, but this would no longer be a theory in any real sense. A theory must range over a definite domain of phenomena. It must look for causal regularities and discover the causal mechanisms that underlie those regularities. That is true of theories in general, and of Marx’s theories of capital as a mode of production (conceived narrowly) and of historical materialism, in particular. Marx did not have a theory of everything, nor did he mean for his theories to explain everything.

Holistic accounts of capitalist society, on the other hand, individuate modes of production, social formations, forms of life, worldviews, paradigms, and so on, as wholes, meaning their “parts” depend on their place in the whole, rather than the whole depending on the individual parts. Thus there can be no fundamental change that is not a total change, one in which all the parts, being so dependent, are fundamentally altered. This makes no sense because, if there were no independent parts, if the whole were the only thing with any real independent existence, then there could be no change, certainly not from within the totality. We need not invoke Popper’s critique of utopian social engineering in favor of piecemeal change in order to see that there is a theoretical inadequacy in such holistic thinking. It conceives capitalist society as an abstract, undifferentiated totality and the intellectual as somehow outside it. This can lead only to an abstract negation of society because it lacks any specificity with respect to capital as a totalizing process in anything more than its strict use by Marx in reference to capital’s subsumption of labor processes. Its ineffectiveness is due to its synthetic mode of cognition linking everything to everything else, largely eschewing the theorization of the actual causal mechanisms that run through this society. As a consequence, it is also a bad method from which to think of social change. Not only is there an effacement of how the different parts of this whole relate, no guidance can be derived as to how to get from this whole to the next. If every part is subsumed under the whole, if the parts are not seen as prior to the whole, then the whole must be changed from without. Some mysterious transitionary period is usually delegated to the task of doing the actual work of moving us from capitalism to socialism, but this seems to be a placeholder for ignorance.

Pace Lukács, we do not need a method, but a theory to help bring about a new society. Contra Lukács, we do not need the category of totality. Quite the opposite, we cannot make any progress by declaring the ontological priority of the whole over the parts. Theory entails breaking down the whole and specifying the parts that constitute it. Totality stands opposed to theory because invoking totality absolves the theoretician from having to say anything definite about capitalism, socialism, or a social-economic revolution.

Economics and Social Change

Holistic thinking lays yet another trap for liberatory thought, for it inevitably leads to a view that sees capitalism, socialism, and the move from one to the other as a matter of the primacy of politics. And this is where the totalistic conception of capitalism is most at odds with Marx’s theorization of capital and of its relation to the rest of society. It explains why Leninists and Western Marxists alike are so eager to ditch the historical materialist understanding of how the economic structure of society determines the contours of the legal and political superstructure, a view typically denigrated as “economism.” It also explains why there has been a consistent lack of concern with the need to theorize socialism and its possibility.

Rather than economism, “politicism” has been the more severe theoretical problem in the history of Marxism. The problem is one that Marx identified in Jacobinism, whether in its original form or in that of a Blanquist or Bakuninist conspiratorial elite. On this view, revolution comes to be conceived as a matter of consciousness, politics, and will. Failure is due to false consciousness, a lack of leadership, and a weakness of will. Marx’s analysis of Jacobinism as a political movement fundamentally divorced from the society that it seeks to change is apt here. The Jacobins treated economics as a side issue, believing that change comes externally, from a politics outside or above society. Marx critiqued such attempts to subsume economics under politics for ignoring the objective compulsions of the economy. Jacobinism is not only undesirable because it leads to authoritarianism, but it is impotent to change society. Since societies do not change in this manner, political decisions at odds with the underlying economic realities must ultimately be sustained by force—usually, by terror (terror being the political repression of unintended consequences). While such techniques may achieve their purposes in the short term they remain, ultimately, unsustainable.

I suggest we drop all use of the word “Revolution.” It sounds good, but without specification it lacks any definite content. It also has the almost invariant effect of giving people the impression that the change is political and can be sustained politically. We should ask instead what a revolution must accomplish so that it need not be sustained politically, by a political authority that controls or attempts to control economic and social life. Politics cannot fundamentally change the structure of the society without that new society being dependent upon the whims of some political authority.

For Marx, ultimately the change that is needed is not political, at least not primarily so. Nor can the exercise of political will, however democratic, sustain socioeconomic change. Socioeconomic change will sustain any future political changes. This economic structure would be a complex, dynamic system that would have to be self-regulating in some way. The place to begin to look for what Marx conceived of as a self-sustaining socialist society is his Critique of the Gotha Program. Here Marx, the theorist of socialism, emerges from Marx, the theorist of capitalism, in Capital. If he is correct about the inner workings of the capitalist economy, his theory of capital is a good start to figure out in what ways a socialist economy would have to differ. In his >Critique, socialism is conceived of as a new economic structure that would give rise to different patterns of daily life, new opportunities, and new patterns of making policy, such that individuals can better take control of their own lives—in other words, as Marx put it, the full and free development of each is the condition for the full and free development of all. And this free development depends not on political decisions but on new economic relations. |P

[1]. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consiousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972), 27.