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You are here: Platypus /Politics as a Form of Knowledge: A Brief Introduction to Georg Lukács

Politics as a Form of Knowledge: A Brief Introduction to Georg Lukács

M. A. Torres

Platypus Review 1 | November 2007


Hungarian literary critic and political theorist Georg Lukács is generally recognized, along with thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg, as one of the most influential intellectual figures of twentieth century Marxism. And while Lukács’ reading of Marx is possibly the most sophisticated and intellectually rigorous to be found in the century and a half long trajectory of historical materialism, his legacy suffers from the “misfortune” that, unlike Gramsci and Luxemburg, he survived what is known as the heroic period of Third International Marxism: the late teens and early twenties. Not sharing the embattled demise and much deserved martyrdom of these figures, it has become easy for many subsequent Leftists to malign a thinker who unfortunately followed his convictions to the historical train wreck that they came to—namely, the left after Stalin—a train wreck that in the present threatens to obscure our vision of his contribution. Those of us that are today interested in the political possibilities of a serious re-engagement with Marxian critical theory have much to lose if the image of ‘Lukács the cranky Stalinist party-intellectual’ of the fifties and sixties succeeds in eclipsing the memory of ‘Lukács the radical dialectician’ of the early twenties—we have much to lose if the carnage and decay that followed the brilliance of his insights scares us into seeing them merely as complex rationalizations for the use of political terror.

Marxism at a Crossroads

In 1918, upon the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Georg Lukács joined the Hungarian communist party, a decision that was regarded, by close personal acquaintances, as sudden and unexpected. Yet in a work like Theory of the Novel, Lukács’ greatest accomplishment preceding his turn to politics, one can already observe a synthesis of elements—a Hegelian approach to history, a Weberian critique of instrumental reason, and an anarchist-utopian undercurrent—that, in retrospect, make the thinker’s turn to Leftist politics seem more than predictable. In addition, this was indeed the moment for the introduction of a dose of realism into the Hungarian intellectual’s long-held utopianism: The weakness of the liberal Karolyi government that replaced Austrian rule in Hungary, the wave of revolutionary consciousness and organization that swept Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war, and the success of the Bolshevik revolution made it seem that the moment for the radical transformation of all human society was at hand.

Lukács immediately began to publish brilliant polemical works attacking ideas of intellectual opponents of Marxism. Examples of these works are “The Question of Intellectual Leadership”, a retort to the criticisms raised by his old friend Karl Polanyi against the Communist International, and “What is Orthodox Marxism?”, a critique of the revisionist Marxism of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. The latter theoretical current consisted of an attempt to remove what Eduard Bernstein, its most notorious proponent, called the “philosophical trappings” of Marx’s theory, namely its Hegelian and revolutionary dimensions. For the revisionists, to do this would allow Marxism to become a kind of neutral, “objective” economics, an analytical tool that could calculate the destructive aspects of capitalism in a way that previous political economies had not been able to. With this tool in hand, it would then be possible to make small reforms so that, in time, the economic system could be controlled in a way that would smoothly, gradually bring the transition from capitalism to socialism. Because of this vision of social progress, for Bernstein and company social revolution would doubtlessly have been counterproductive.

Despite all their honest liberalism, Europe’s social democratic parties stood as a major conservative force in a postwar situation that left Europe’s future hanging on the balance between revolution and all-out right-wing reaction. It is in this context that we must regard the political substance of Lukács’ early Marxist essays. And while Lukács was an adamant supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, to take the common view that his writings are limited to a mere philosophical defense of the tactics of the Bolsheviks undermines his relevance to the present. Starting with “What is Orthodox Marxism?” Lukács dedicated himself to attacking a tendency that would become all too familiar throughout the twentieth century: the attempt to reduce Marxism to the framework of an affirmative ideology or a positive science. Commonplace instances of this tendency were to be found not only in Social Democratic revisionism but also, later, in the thought of Stalinist intellectuals (including the later Lukács himself). Examples of this kind of thinking include the understanding of Marx’s thought as a political economy in favor of the working class; the attempt to use historical materialism as an anthropological tool exempt from politics and capable of explaining human relations throughout all historical periods; and, finally, the holding up of Marxism as a description of the mechanism by which human progress will inevitably come about. What these misapprehensions have in common with each other is the idea that the insights to the problems of history and society that Marxian theory offers provide direct, unmediated knowledge of the way social reality works— that, like the positive sciences, Marxism can stand outside of the movement of history and, as an objective observer, make its formulations and predictions objectively.

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat

In this context, we must regard Lukács’ most important work, the essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, as an account of the social origin of this kind of positivism and as an attempt to work through it and go beyond it using Marx’s own categories. For this purpose, Lukács puts the Hegelian dimension of Marx’s thought front and center, pointing at its political significance. He does this by introducing two concepts: the phenomenon of reification and the idea of the proletariat as ‘the identical subject-object of history’. The purpose of these concepts is the dialectical parsing out of Marx’s use of the categories of ideology and alienation. In a Hegelian way, Lukács does not see ideology and alienation merely as bad things, but as the elements that condition thought in modern society, which tends to a conservative justification of things as they are while simultaneously opening the way to a potential transformation of all human relations.

The concept of reification, which literally means ‘to make thing-like’, is elaborated by Lukács into the phenomenon that characterizes the fate of all human relations in modern capitalist society. It is the way in which social processes become atomized and objectified in a society that universally mediates all of its productive activity by means of units of time –something most evident in, but not limited to, wage labor. As he puts it at the beginning of the essay: “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires…an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” It is this thing-like character of time, thought, and social processes that produces the fundamental antinomy that conditions and limits all modern thought: the division between the abstract and the concrete, theory and practice, subject and object. Lukács argues that this antinomy is deeply enmeshed in modern subjectivity, and that, while it has made possible the great advances modern society has made in knowledge and productivity, it is also responsible for the kind of thinking in which problems of knowledge become dissociated from society and the aim of science, philosophy and politics becomes limited to calculating the processes that shape the world instead of judging them qualitatively with the aim of fundamentally transforming them. As Lukács puts it: “The more highly developed [knowledge] becomes and the more scientific, the more it will become a formally closed system of partial laws. It will then find that the world lying beyond its confines…its own concrete underlying reality lies, methodologically and in principle, beyond its grasp.

This separation of thought and its object—of the faculties of understanding and the reality that underlies them—makes the laws of social mechanisms seem to be out of the reach of knowledge. They appear, not as historical products of our own activity, but as the fixed, eternal laws of nature. A very clear example of this is the way that economists of the 18th century understood certain basic economic laws as being natural laws of human interaction extending to the dawn of history. Such a condition of thought, in which the social world appears to present its conditions as necessary, is Marx’s definition of ideology. It is a product of what Lukács calls the reified or thing-like character of social life. But again, highlighting the dialectical, Hegelian character of Marx’s thought, Lukács describes this not only as a one-sided process of alienation that is to be simply avoided or eliminated, but as a way in which society acquires knowledge of itself, a knowledge that presents the opportunity of self-overcoming; it is the way in which society is able to make itself into an object of critique. This, Lukács argues, is the purpose of working-class politics—it is the reason for which the Hegelian term “identical subject-object of history” can be applied to the working class and its political consciousness. While remaining a product and a necessary part of modern capitalist society, the working class, its demands, and the theoretical elaboration of these demands into a system of political thought are placed at the same time in immanent opposition to it. For this reason, the working class stands, in Lukács’ account, both within and against society. Leftist politics—understood as the politics of the working class—is thus this society’s self-knowledge and self-criticism, both the subject and the object of historical change. Politics is seen in this way as a form of knowledge that understands the world not as static, but as historically bound and in a constant state of becoming.

A Problematic Legacy

Unfortunately, by the time Lukács published Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat in 1922, the Hungarian Soviet Republic, in which he participated as minister of culture and military official, had already been defeated by right-wing forces—likewise, other socialist revolutions of the period were defeated or simply self-destructed. The late twenties and early thirties witnessed the Stalinization of the Soviet Union and the general dismantlement of the project of world socialism, which only a few years earlier seemed to be within reach. Through these and subsequent changes, Lukács continued to participate in politics, even serving as a member of parliament in the Stalinist regime of post-World War 2 Hungary. Throughout this period he remained, for the most part, uncritical towards the further developments that devastated the Left on a world scale. In the writings of the 1960s meant to repudiate his work of the 20s, Lukács summoned up all his rhetorical brilliance to engage in precisely the kind of thinking that, decades before, he had criticized. These writings are an affirmation of things as they stood—for the Lukács of this period, the “actually existing socialism” of the eastern bloc was human freedom in the process of working itself out. His earlier critique of the very foundation of modern subjectivity had become, to him, mere “ultra-leftist” idealism—as he puts it, “an attempt to out-Hegel Hegel”. These writings demonstrate less some kind of degeneration of thought than a bitter capitulation to the failure of the project he dedicated his life to. They are the sad testament of the tragic history of the decay of Leftist politics throughout the twentieth century, a century that has now begun to recede into the past, becoming historical. Today it is up to us which version of Lukács—the radical dialectician or the bitter party official—we are willing to remember, keeping in mind that regardless of our own need for an “objective” assessment of this thinker’s life, this memory—this knowledge of the past—will necessarily be of a political nature. |P

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