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notes on Lukacs

I am writing with some brief, partial notes from our discussion at UChicago at yesterday's (Sun. 3/8/09) reading group, on several essays from Georg Lukacs's 1923 book History and Class Consciousness.

I want to emphasize and discuss in particular a couple of passages, from the (original, 1922) Preface, and the essay "What is Orthodox Marxism?" (1919).

Specifically, I wish to discuss Lukacs's use of categories, "materialist dialectics," and his meaning of Marxism as a "method," which might otherwise prove confusing or tricky.

First, however, I wish to quote a passage from the other essay we read for yesterday's meeting, "Class Consciousness" (1920), which is concerned with the Marxist conception of proletarian class consciousness as *historical* consciousness of capital and the historical tasks of the working class, what it will take to get beyond capital, which is fundamentally related to Lenin's conception of proletarian class consciousness coming from "outside" the immediate struggles of the working class under capital. For Lukacs, following Lenin and Luxemburg and Marx, "class consciousness" is *historical* consciousness (hence the title of Lukacs's book History and Class Consciousness).

"To say that class consciousness has no psychological reality does not imply that it is a mere fiction. Its reality is vouched for by its ability to explain the infinitely painful path of the proletarian revolution, with its many reverses, its constant return to its starting-point and the incessant self-criticism of which Marx speaks in the celebrated passage in The Eighteenth Brumaire. Only the consciousness of the proletariat can point to the way that leads out of the impasse of capitalism. As long as this consciousness is lacking, the crisis 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. But the proletariat is not given any choice. As Marx says, it must become a class not only 'as against capital' but also 'for itself'; that is to say, the class struggle must be raised from the level of economic necessity to the level of conscious aim and effective class consciousness. The pacifists and humanitarians of the class struggle whose efforts tend whether they will or no to retard this lengthy, painful and crisis-ridden process would be horrified if they could but see what sufferings they inflict on the proletariat by extending this course of education. But the proletariat cannot abdicate its mission. The only question at issue is how much it has to suffer before it achieves ideological maturity, before it acquires a true understanding of its class situation and a true class consciousness. Of course this uncertainty and lack of clarity are themselves the symptoms of the crisis in bourgeois society."

Please note the recursive, non-linear conception of history involved in Lukacs's discussion of the historical tasks of proletarian "class consciousness," and the notion of regression inherent in it. It is such a conception by Lukacs that led to Benjamin and Adorno's further ruminations on history, in addition to the following point made by Karl Korsch in his contemporaneous study "Marxism and Philosophy" (1923) that we read a few weeks ago:

"It is wholly understandable from the viewpoint of the materialist dialectic that this original form of Marxist theory could not subsist unaltered throughout the long years of the second half of the nineteenth century (which was in practice quite unrevolutionary). Marx's remark in the Preface to the Critique of political Economy on mankind as a whole is necessarily also true for the working class, which was then slowly and antagonistically maturing towards its own liberation: 'It always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence'. This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch."

Hence, the permanent relevance of the Marxian insight into the problem of capital and the special role of the working class in its (on-going re-)constitution and thus potential overcoming, which is not left behind by some linear development of history, but rather remains in a constellation (to use Benjamin's word) in the present, more or less clearly, as a matter of the relation of theory and practice.

As Lukacs put it in "What is Orthodox Marxism?," in a passage that came up more than once in our discussion,

"Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx's investigations. It is not the 'belief' in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a 'sacred' book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders. It is the conviction, moreover, that all attempts to surpass or 'improve' it have led and must lead to over-simplification, triviality and eclecticism."

But since the relation between theory and practice does not exist in a stable but rather a variable context -- as Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics (1966), the relation of (Marxian) theory and practice "is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically" -- the "development, expansion and deepening" Lukacs calls for cannot be in a linear-progressive manner, despite his use of the phrase "along the lines [already] laid down" to describe Marxist "orthodoxy." Of the three terms in Lukacs's description, "deepened" is the most important, for it speaks to the relation Platypus, following Lukacs and Korsch, finds between Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky and Marx: our hypothesis that the development and transformation of Marxism in their hands (in thought and action) was a "deepening" of the Marxian point of departure and not a digression, that 1917 remains strongly constellated with 1848. As Korsch pointed out (in "Marxism and Philosophy") what is peculiar is that the transformation of Marxism by LLT was done under the (somewhat illusory) auspices of a "return to Marx" and "orthodoxy."

The task Platypus finds in the revolutionary Marxist tradition remains one of discerning what it would take to *deepen* the Marxian point of departure.

Another quotation that kept coming up in our discussion was Spartacist founder James Robertson's phrase (in his 1973 speech "In Defense of Democratic Centralism" included in the 1978 pamphlet Lenin and the Vanguard Party we read for our previous reading group meeting), that "one cannot separate the ability to know the world from the ability to change it:"

"The truth is historically conditioned; that is, the outlook of the Communist movement of the first four congresses of the Communist International rested upon a historic and successful upheaval of the revolutionary proletariat [in 1917]. A comparable theoretical breakthrough and generalization accompanied this massive revolutionary achievement. It is as though the theoretical outlook of the proletarian vanguard in the period 1919-23 in the International stood atop a mountain. But since that time, from the period of the Trotskyist Left Opposition until his death and afterward, the proletariat has mainly witnessed defeats and the revolutionary vanguard has either been shrunken or its continuity in many countries broken. One cannot separate the ability to know the world from the ability to change it, and our capacity to change the world is on a very small scale compared to the heroic days of the Communist International."

So, the relation of theory and practice not only changes historically, but is subject to a process of regression, whereby failures in practice and theory mutually condition each other in a regressive dynamic. The reason that the theoretical digestion of 1917 in the early Lukacs and Korsch (and not these authors' later Stalinist and ultra-Left "Council Communist" degenerations, respectively) remains unsurpassed and not improved upon (but only elaborated further by Benjamin and Adorno) since then is that Marxist politics did not achieve practical success beyond that of the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The practical failures in turn gave rise to theoretical degeneration, which then conditioned further confusion about practical politics, etc.

To say, as Robertson does in the quotation above, that the "truth is historically conditioned" (an eminently Hegelian phrase!), is to point out the problem of what Lukacs called "materialist dialectics."

In his original (1922) Preface to History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs wrote about the relation of Marx to Hegel that,

"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 realised 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 thy 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.'"

Platypus takes a great deal of emphasis from this idea in Lukacs that an anticapitalist politics in a Marxian sense would necessarily, inevitably work through "forms of misrecognition." But such "misrecognition" needs to be understood first and foremost, if not entirely exclusively, through the subjectivity of the *commodity form* as understood by Marx and Lukacs, Benjamin and Adorno. It is in this sense that categories are both "true and not true," or "false and not false," or false in and of themselves but not false in a "dialectical" sense.

The "unity" of which Lukacs speaks is in terms of the "totality" of capital (or, more accurately, in its totalizing logic). This goes a long way towards what Marxists mean when they say "materialist." They do not mean "material" in the sense of some ontological "matter," in an empiricist or materialist metaphysics that posits the primacy of matter.

Rather, "materialist" means "concrete."

Marx, in the Grundrisse, discussing his adoption of a Hegelian mode of "presentation" through categories, describes this as "rising from the abstract to the concrete." What this means is that concrete reality needs to understood as the concretion of "abstractions."

This is the opposite of an empiricist deductive use of categories as abstracting generalizations that are either useful or not. It is not a matter of Marxism's categories' "accuracy" in terms of their being effectively "useful" for our analysis in a practical sense. It is not a matter of our use of categories that can be subject to empirical validation or correction.

It is rather, in terms of what Marx called "alienation" and "fetishism" and what Lukacs called "reification," a matter of how categories which are socially *real* abstractions (in a process of really effective social abstraction) make use of *us*! The categories refer to problems we must overcome, which we nonetheless can only overcome on the basis of such problems themselves.

Labor in the commodity form is the most primary of the categories in a Marxian approach. In this sense, labor is both true and not true, false and not false: it is true/false only the degree to which it is to be overcome, which can only be accomplished from the ground of our being subjects of/to it.

Hence, the "dialectical" sense in which "materialist" concretion presents itself as a task of understanding and action (or theory and practice).

As Lukacs goes on to say in his 1922 Preface to History and Class Consciousness,

"In the pure historicisation 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 criticise his 'lack of conceptual rigour' 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."

This goes a long way towards elucidating what Lukacs means by "method" in his essay on "What is Orthodox Marxism?" (1919):

"Materialist dialectic is a revolutionary dialectic. This definition is so important and altogether so crucial for an understanding of its nature that if the problem is to be approached in the right way this must be fully grasped before we venture upon a discussion of the dialectical method itself. The issue turns on the question of theory and practice. And this not merely in the sense given it by Marx when he says in his first critique of Hegel that 'theory becomes a material force when it grips the masses.' Even more to the point is the need to discover those features and definitions both of the theory and the ways of gripping the masses which convert the theory, the dialectical method, into a vehicle of revolution. We must extract the practical essence of the theory from the method and its relation to its object. If this is not done that 'gripping the masses' could well turn out to be a will o' the wisp. It might turn out that the masses were in the grip of quite different forces, that they were in pursuit of quite different ends. In that event, there would be no necessary connection between the theory and their activity, it would be a form that enables the masses to become conscious of their socially necessary or fortuitous actions, without ensuring a genuine and necessary bond between consciousness and action."

So, it is not a matter of Marxism as one "method" among others to which it can be favorably compared. As the Adorno scholar Gillian Rose put it, Marxism is a "mode of cognition sui generis," because of the relation to theory and practice to which it refers, namely the problem of capital as a block to either effective thought or action.

As Lukacs put it, the difference between Marx and Hegel is that we are tasked to grasp the "inner coherence" and "self-understanding" of Marx, whereas with Hegel's thought we must instead, by comparison, grasp only its seminal moments. This is because of the historical difference separating Marx from Hegel, the emergence of (modern, industrial) capital. This is because it is only by grasping the coherence of Marx's critical theory of capital, which was also a critically reflexive theory of the modern socialist workers' movement, that we can hope to grasp capital itself as a problem to be practically overcome. Without Marx, capital remains an incoherent problem to which we will remain subject.

So, it is not a matter of analytical validity of a Marxian approach, but rather of *making" the Marxian point of departure into an effective practical reality.

If we remain haunted by Marx's insight into the problem of capital, which was itself borne by the emergence of the modern socialist workers movement that he sought to critically understand and whose potential he sought to reflexively historically push further, then this is because we will remain tasked to "prove" Marxism, by *making* the revolution against capital.

Marxism will either be proven through our political action or it will turn out to not have any effective reality. Platypus exists in order to try to pursue the realization of Marxism. This will not take place through the eclectic qualification or supplementation of Marxism but only through its radical deepening. To parallel the phrase at the end of Korsch's "Marxism and Philosophy" (1923), Marxism cannot be "abolished" (or, rather, surpassed as a form of *politics*, as theory and practice) without being *realized*. As Korsch put it, "This struggle will only end when the whole of existing society and its economic basis have been totally overthrown in practice, and this consciousness has been totally surpassed and abolished in theory."